2018 NBA Playoffs
If the playoffs are anything like the wild finish to the regular season, hold on. It took an overtime play-in win just to determine the Western Conference playoff teams, and little was settled outside of the top two seeds in the East heading into Wednesday’s season finale. But now that we have the sixteen teams, it’s on. The NBA’s second season officially begins on Saturday afternoon.
Toronto Raptors vs. Washington Wizards
The Raptors have all sorts of pressure on them this postseason, but they couldn’t have done much better than facing the fledgling Wizards at the start. Washington, which has lost 14 of its last 21 games, welcomed five-time All-Star John Wall back on March 31 after he missed more than two months with a knee injury. Still, Toronto — which was third in offensive rating and fifth in defensive rating this season — should be able to survive.
Boston Celtics vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Boston, which is without five-time All-Star Kyrie Irving for the playoffs and guard Marcus Smart until at least late April, has its hands full against these Bucks. Milwaukee’s 106-102 win over Boston on April 3 serves as the best evidence of how they match up at the moment. The Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo will be looking to advance past the first round for the first time (he’s 0-for-2 thus far).
Philadelphia 76ers vs. Miami Heat
Philadelphia comes in as the league’s hottest team, having won 16 games in a row. Never mind that All-Star big man Joel Embiid went down with an orbital fracture in his left eye eight games into the stretch, the Sixers just kept rolling. When Embiid was asked if he might be able to play for Game 1, he told reporters it’s “unlikely but still a chance.”
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Indiana Pacers
LeBron James is no stranger to memorable playoff matchups against the Pacers, but this is a different version of the familiar story. With coach Nate McMillan and All-Star guard Victor Oladipo leading the way, the Pacers were a wonderful surprise this season.
Houston Rockets vs. Minnesota Timberwolves
The Rockets dominated the season series against the Timberwolves, but only one of those games (a 126-108 win on Feb. 13) included Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler from beginning to end. The four-time All-Star tore his meniscus in their second matchup on Feb. 23, then missed the final two meetings before returning on Friday. The Rockets, meanwhile, lost key defender Luc Mbah a Moute to a dislocated shoulder on Tuesday, and he’s expected to miss the first round — if not longer.
Golden State Warriors vs. San Antonio Spurs
This is a rematch of last year’s Western Conference finals in name alone, as Golden State is without two-time MVP Stephen Curry this time around and the Spurs’ franchise centerpiece, Kawhi Leonard, remains out after playing just nine games this season. But if anyone is capable of creating a gameplan to upset the ailing defending champions, it’s San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich. His Spurs had the fourth-best defensive rating this season. The Warriors, meanwhile, have lost 10 of their last 17 games.
Portland Trail Blazers vs. New Orleans Pelicans
The Trail Blazers lost seven of their last 12 games, but the regular season finale win over Utah was enough to earn them the No. 3 seed. Portland, which had the league’s ninth-best defensive rating this season, will have all it can handle with the way Pelicans star Anthony Davis has been playing (a league-leading 30.2 points, 11.9 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game since DeMarcus Cousins’ season-ending Achilles injury Jan. 26).
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Utah Jazz
The Jazz boasted the NBA’s best defense for the final few months of the regular season, and now they’ll try to stop a star-studded Thunder squad that finished 10th in offensive rating. But the Jazz have to score too, and therein lies the most pressing question of their postseason: Can rookie guard Donovan Mitchell be the same star-caliber player on this stage? Utah certainly needs him to be.