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For the first time since 2005, LeBron James will not be participating in the NBA playoffs. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of other intriguing storylines throughout the eight first-round matchups.
The Golden State Warriors are once again heavy favorites, but with the Kevin Durant era possibly coming to an end this summer, there’s been more uncertainty around the two-time defending champions than ever and no shortage of teams looking to challenge them.
Out East, the James-less playoff landscape is fascinating. The Milwaukee Bucks were the league’s best team, but will their lack of playoff experience hurt them? Can the Philadelphia 76ers overcome their lack of depth? Will the Boston Celtics put it together after a wildly inconsistent and disappointing regular season?
Until the games tip off Saturday, every team has the same record.
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Since Kevin Durant joined the Warriors in the summer of 2016, they haven’t lost a postseason series. They have only been taken beyond five games once, in last year’s seven-game victory over the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals.
This season’s Warriors have had more drama and dysfunction than in previous years, from the contentious relationship between Durant and Draymond Green to the endless rumors that Durant could be headed elsewhere in free agency to the at-times bumpy midseason integration of DeMarcus Cousins into the rotation.
The Warriors look more vulnerable and human than they have at any point in this five-year dynasty, barring the 2016 Finals.
With that said, as long as they’re healthy, no team comes close in talent. Whatever happens beyond this season, the Warriors are still the clear favorites to win their third straight title and fourth in five years.
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The Nuggets were the Western Conference’s biggest surprise, winning 54 games en route to their first postseason appearance since 2013 and earning the second seed.
Nikola Jokic is a likely All-NBA selection and fringe down-ballot MVP candidate, and young guard Jamal Murray made strides in his third year to make up for injuries to Gary Harris and Will Barton.
Denver’s performance has tailed off heading into the postseason—the Nuggets went just 12-9 in March and April. And if there’s one drawback to their chances of making a deep run, it’s their inexperience.
Only Paul Millsap and Isaiah Thomas have significant postseason experience. It’s not often that a team goes from out of the playoffs to seriously contending for a championship overnight without adding a superstar.
The Nuggets’ success this season was due to the development and improvement of their young core and smart coaching by Michael Malone. On paper, they’re talented enough to hang with anyone in the playoffs, but do they have enough experience?
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The Blazers’ chances of making a deep postseason run took a major hit in late March when starting center Jusuf Nurkic suffered a devastating leg injury that will sideline him well into next season. They went 7-2 down the stretch without him, but they’ll be at a disadvantage in their first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Portland’s hope of overcoming Nurkic’s injury rests with one man: Damian Lillard. The four-time All-Star had a disappointing playoffs last year, shooting just 36.1 percent from the field and 28 percent from three-point range in a four-game sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round.
Lillard has a chance to redeem himself this year and lift the Blazers out of also-ran status. This team is deep and well-coached, with role players who know their jobs. If the clock strikes Lillard Time, that could be enough to make a surprise run.
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Thanks to James Harden‘s superhuman offensive performance, the Rockets overcame a disastrous start to finish with 53 wins.
This is the same team, minus role players Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, that took Golden State to seven games in the Western Conference Finals last season and likely would have knocked off the eventual champions if Chris Paul hadn’t suffered a hamstring injury during the series.
Paul’s health is the Rockets’ biggest X-factor. He’s looked more like himself in recent months after a slow, injury-plagued start, but at 33, there’s no guarantee his body won’t break down again as the playoffs wear on. Harden has also dealt with burnout in past years from the load he’s had to carry.
However, if they’re healthy, Houston is probably the best bet in the West to seriously challenge the Warriors and maybe even prevent them from reaching their fifth straight Finals. They almost did it last year.
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A year ago, the Jazz faced the Rockets in the second round and lost in five games. But things are different now.
For one, point guard Ricky Rubio is healthy heading into this postseason. Second-year guard Donovan Mitchell put together a terrific finish to the season after a slow start. The Jazz also added sharpshooter Kyle Korver early in the season, giving them some added punch off the bench.
Led by likely Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, the Jazz have the tools to slow down Houston this year. Unfortunately, as the fifth seed, they would be set up to face the Warriors in the second round.
Although the Jazz have played the Warriors tough over the past few years, the idea of facing them in a postseason series is likely too big an ask. But they could make the series interesting, and there’s just enough history between these two teams that Utah could get under Golden State’s skin.
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Both of the Thunder’s superstars will be facing pressure in the playoffs. Paul George‘s production tailed off toward the end of the regular season as he battled a sore shoulder, which has him listed as day-to-day heading into the first-round series against the Blazers.
Russell Westbrook has not led the Thunder out of the first round since Kevin Durant’s departure for Golden State in 2016. This year, his poor shooting has been under more scrutiny than ever, even as he averaged a triple-double for the third straight year and made himself into an effective defender. After a disappointing first-round exit against Utah last year, they’ll be highly motivated to prove doubters wrong.
Oklahoma City’s matchup against Portland will be contentious, but the absence of Jusuf Nurkic should give the Thunder an advantage inside. Steven Adams, who’s also been banged up toward the end of the season, will be hugely important.
The Thunder have the talent to go deep and maybe even challenge Golden State. It’s the consistency that’s been a problem for them.
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David Zalubowski/Associated Press
The Spurs just won’t die.
After they traded Kawhi Leonard over the summer and lost promising young point guard Dejounte Murray to a season-ending knee injury, it looked like this might be the end of a playoff streak that started in 1998. Not only did San Antonio find a way to make the postseason once again, but the Spurs have a reasonable shot to upset Denver in the first round, and maybe even do more than that.
A career year from LaMarcus Aldridge has powered San Antonio this season, and DeMar DeRozan has fit in nicely in a new role as a playmaker. Their primary concern has been their defense, which can be dominant or dreadful depending on the night.
They’ll have their hands full at that end with Denver’s high-powered offense. DeRozan also has a history of struggling in the playoffs, dating back to his time in Toronto. Can he perform in his first postseason appearance with the Spurs?
The Spurs don’t have the top-end talent to compete with the likes of Golden State and Houston, but they have the NBA’s most respected coach and a system that’s allowed them to overachieve year after year.
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Seth Wenig/Associated Press
Just getting to the playoffs is a huge accomplishment for this Clippers team, which traded its best player, Tobias Harris, to Philadelphia at the deadline. Their title hopes are essentially nonexistent, having to face Golden State in the first round.
Dating back to the beginning of their run of titles in 2014-15, the Warriors have seemed especially motivated to humiliate the Clippers at every turn. They have to be salivating at the chance to play this overachieving group, and they should be able to make short work of the Clippers and have plenty of time to rest before facing the Rockets or Jazz in the second round.
But what if the Clippers pull a “We Believe” on the Warriors and stun the title favorites? What if Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari can’t miss from three? What if Kevin Durant or Draymond Green pick up a few technicals and earn a suspension? What if Patrick Beverley gets under Stephen Curry‘s skin?
The Clippers were written off at the beginning of the season, but here they are. They’ll be playing with nothing to lose and have some talent.
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The Bucks were the best team in the NBA all season, blowing teams off the floor in much the same fashion as the Warriors did at the beginning of their run.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has been the best player in the league, fully developing into a terror at both ends of the floor, and the coaching upgrade from Jason Kidd to Mike Budenholzer has been transformative. Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe had career years as well.
Milwaukee is elite offensively and defensively, and the offseason addition of Brook Lopez provided the perfect big man to put next to Antetokounmpo thanks to his shooting ability.
Milwaukee could be shorthanded in the first round of the playoffs, with Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic questionable. They shouldn’t have much trouble with Detroit even without them, and they’ll likely have several days to rest and get everybody healthy before the second round against either Boston or Indiana.
The lack of experience is the main red flag here, as this Bucks core has never made it out of the first round. But they’ve also never had a coach as good as Budenholzer, and few players in recent years have been as dominant as Antetokounmpo was this season. If he wants to cement himself as the face of the NBA, this would be a golden opportunity to do it.
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Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
After years of disappointing exits, buying into the Raptors in the playoffs has become a risky proposition. However, there are two key differences this year.
LeBron James, who has terrorized Toronto for years, is no longer in the Eastern Conference. In fact, he isn’t in the playoffs at all.
Previous Raptors teams also didn’t have Kawhi Leonard, who has looked every bit as dominant in his first season in Toronto as he did for years in San Antonio. And since their deadline-day trade for Marc Gasol, Toronto has been dominant offensively, thanks to strong play from Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry and Most Improved Player front-runner Pascal Siakam.
Backup wing OG Anunoby has been ruled out for two weeks after undergoing an emergency appendectomy, which hurts their depth, but the Raptors have plenty of capable role players alongside their stars. They’re as deep as anybody in the playoffs and look poised to make a run.
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When healthy, Joel Embiid is one of the most dominant players in the NBA, changing the game at both ends of the floor. Unfortunately, “when healthy” is a major caveat in this case. The superstar big man is listed as doubtful ahead of Game 1 against the Brooklyn Nets as he continues to battle knee soreness. If he’s limited, Philly’s case for championship contention falls apart quickly.
The Sixers’ starting five of Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick is as good as any in the NBA. They don’t have much depth beyond that, having traded several key rotation players in the deals to bring in Butler from Minnesota and Harris from Los Angeles.
Rotations tend to shorten in the postseason, so that thin bench may not be as much of a problem as it was at times in the regular season. But that’s only the case if all their stars are healthy, and Embiid is a huge question mark in that department.
Out of the top East teams, Philadelphia has the highest level of variance. The Sixers could lose to the Nets in the first round, or they could reach the Finals, and neither outcome would be all that surprising.
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Winslow Townson/Associated Press
Going into the season, the Celtics were widely seen as the favorites to come out of the LeBron-less Eastern Conference.
The logic went like this: Boston made it to the conference finals last season and took Cleveland to seven games without Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward, both of whom were now healthy. Jayson Tatum had a phenomenal rookie season and only figured to get better in his second year. And with a widely respected coach in Brad Stevens and another promising young wing in Jaylen Brown, there was little not to like.
Of course, the season didn’t play out that way.
Tatum and Brown arguably regressed, Hayward struggled to regain form after missing last season with a leg injury, and Irving’s mood and level of engagement could vary wildly depending on the day. Speculation about Irving’s future didn’t help things, either.
And now, going into the playoffs, they will be without defensive ace Marcus Smart for at least the first round and possibly longer.
The case for the Celtics to put all of that aside and represent the East in the Finals is the top-end talent. Irving is a proven big-game performer with championship experience, Al Horford has been as solid as ever, and Hayward has settled nicely into a sixth-man role heading into the postseason.
That could be enough for Boston to make a run.
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Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
Nate McMillan deserves serious Coach of the Year consideration for keeping the Pacers firmly in the playoff mix after losing All-Star guard Victor Oladipo for the season with a quad injury in January.
Young bigs Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis have played well, along with veteran forwards Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic.
The Pacers play hard and together, have a dominant defense and a solid selection of shooters with Turner, Sabonis, Darren Collison, Bogdanovic, Doug McDermott and midseason pickup Wesley Matthews.
Oladipo’s absence will be felt in the postseason, when teams need a true go-to scorer, but the loss of Celtics guard Marcus Smart makes the talent gap a little smaller between these teams. Don’t count the Pacers out.
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Darron Cummings/Associated Press
Much like the Clippers in the Western Conference, this Brooklyn team is young and scrappy, playing with nothing to lose after coming into the season with no expectations of contending.
Thanks to a breakout year from D’Angelo Russell, the Nets were able to withstand injuries to Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie to become one of the league’s feel-good stories. Head coach Kenny Atkinson and his staff recently agreed to multiyear contract extensions as a result.
Out of all the low seeds in the East, Brooklyn arguably has the best chance at pulling off a first-round upset. Joel Embiid’s uncertain status for Game 1 helps their case, but even aside from that, the Nets are deeper than the top-heavy Sixers, with defenders to throw at Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler.
This series could get interesting quickly if Philly can’t get healthy, and if the Nets get past the Sixers, a run to the Eastern Conference Finals isn’t out of the question.
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Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
The Magic are in the playoffs for the first time since trading Dwight Howard in 2012, and they might be more than an also-ran. Since the end of January, they’ve been as impressive as anyone in the East, with a 22-9 record in that span. Over that time period, they had the NBA’s best defense and eighth-best offense.
This team doesn’t have the star power of other playoff teams, and they’ll have their work cut out for them with the Raptors. But Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic had solid years in their first season under head coach Steve Clifford, and second-year forward Jonathan Isaac made significant strides on the defensive end.
Even if their odds at a championship are long, Orlando has a chance to make things interesting.
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In his first season at the helm in Detroit, Dwane Casey coached the Pistons to their first playoff appearance in three years and only their second since 2009.
After three disappointing, injury-plagued seasons split between the Clippers and Pistons, Blake Griffin has reasserted himself as one of the NBA’s best big men, reinventing his game and shooting a career-high seven three-pointers per outing.
Griffin’s brilliance has been the primary force behind the Pistons’ run to the playoffs, but Andre Drummond put together a solid year, and midseason pickup Wayne Ellington has added another outside shooting threat.
Unfortunately, Detroit enters the playoffs with Griffin battling a knee injury that could force him to miss Game 1. The Pistons are unlikely to upset the top-seeded Bucks even if Griffin is fully healthy, but if he’s limited, this series could be over quickly.