By the Associated Press
No. 1 TORONTO RAPTORS (59-23) vs. No. 8 WASHINGTON WIZARDS (43-39)
Season series: Split, 2-2
Story line: It was the best regular season in Toronto history and its first time going into the playoffs as a No. 1 seed, but the Raptors know it’s the playoff result that will determine if 2017-18 was a success. The Raptors got out of the first round once in their first 20 seasons; they’re now trying to do so for a third straight season. Washington was inconsistent all season, but now has All-Star John Wall back from injury, and he’ll be needed.
Key Matchup: Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan vs. the Wizards’ Wall and Bradley Beal. The teams mirror each other in that their backcourt stars lead the way. Lowry and DeRozan have risen to challenges all season, and their playoff run starts with a very stiff matchup.
Prediction: Raptors in 5.
No. 2 BOSTON CELTICS (55-27) vs. No. 7 MILWAUKEE BUCKS (44-38)
Season series: Split, 2-2
Story line: The Celtics won’t have Kyrie Irving, probably won’t have Marcus Smart for much of the first round, and haven’t had Gordon Hayward since the sixth minute of the season. But they earned the No. 2 seed anyway, and hear the whispers of naysayers suggesting they’re vulnerable. The Bucks will try to win their first playoff series since 2001 – when star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo was 6.
Key Matchup: Celtics coach Brad Stevens vs. Bucks coach Joe Prunty. The chess match will be fun; Stevens is easily one of the NBA’s best at scheming, especially on the fly, and Prunty has done a strong job since taking over for Jason Kidd around the midseason mark.
Prediction: Celtics in 6.
No. 3 PHILADELPHIA 76ERS (52-30) vs. No. 6 MIAMI HEAT (44-38)
Season series: Split, 2-2
Story line: The 76ers finished on a 16-game winning streak, although 13 of those wins came against non-playoff teams. In their last 24 games, Philadelphia was 20-2 against everyone other than Miami – and 0-2 against the Heat, including one game where Dwyane Wade hit a game-winning shot. The 76ers are young, brash and backing it up, while the Heat have the confidence of knowing that they can knock off Philly.
Key Matchup: Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid vs. Miami’s Hassan Whiteside. Embiid says he doesn’t think he’ll play in Game 1 while continuing to recover from an orbital fracture. But the lure of facing Whiteside – they simply don’t like each other – should get him back out there as soon as possible. Miami’s best chance is for Whiteside to be great.
Prediction: Heat in 7.
No. 4 CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (50-32) vs. No. 5 INDIANA PACERS (48-34)
Season series: Pacers, 3-1
Story line: LeBron James is bidding for his eighth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, and the Cavs are trying to get there for a fourth straight year. They will be tested from the outset by an Indiana team that many thought would be rebuilding this season. And the Pacers indeed did rebuild, but managed to do so on the fly behind Victor Oladipo, probably the NBA’s Most Improved Player.
Key Matchup: James vs. Oladipo. The best players on each team, and while they may not go head to head all that much, Oladipo surely knows he has to be fantastic in this series. James is coming off perhaps his most complete regular season, and everyone knows that his motivation level, always high, gets cranked up several notches at playoff time.
Prediction: Cavaliers in 6.
No. 1 HOUSTON ROCKETS (65-17) vs. No. 8 MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (47-35)
Season series: Rockets, 4-0.
Story line: After rolling to the best record in the league, the Rockets get started toward what they hope could be the first championship for Mike D’Antoni, James Harden and Chris Paul. They open against the Timberwolves, back in the postseason for the first time since 2004 after ending what was the NBA’s longest active playoff drought.
Key Matchup: Harden vs. Jimmy Butler. Nobody really slows down the Rockets – the Wolves sure didn’t, yielding 122.8 points per game in the four games – but the best hope of doing it comes if Butler, their top defensive player, can slow down the league’s leading scorer and MVP candidate.
Prediction: Rockets in 5.
No. 2 GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (58-24) vs. No. 7 SAN ANTONIO SPURS (47-35)
Season series: Warriors, 3-1.
Story line: The Western Conference finals matchup last season comes in the first round now after Golden State struggled down the stretch without Stephen Curry, and the Spurs had a difficult time playing almost all season without Kawhi Leonard. Curry is not expected to play in this series, while the Spurs haven’t ever ruled out Leonard, but also given no indication he could play.
Key matchup: Draymond Green vs. LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge had his best season in San Antonio in carrying the Spurs as best as possible without Leonard, and the Warriors’ task in trying to limit him probably begins with Green, the Defensive Player of the Year last season and one of the league’s best defensive forwards.
Prediction: Warriors in 5.
No. 3 PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (49-33) vs. No. 6 NEW ORLEANS PELICANS (48-34)
Season series: Split, 2-2.
Story line: Two of the NBA’s top scorers lead their teams into what could be a high-scoring shootout in the first round. Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers won on the final night of the season to grab the Northwest Division title and finish a game ahead of Anthony Davis and the Pelicans, who surged into the postseason on a five-game winning streak.
Key matchup: Lillard and CJ McCollum vs. Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday. Portland has one of the most potent backcourts in the league but New Orleans, with a pair of good defensive guards, at least has some hope of slowing them down. And Holiday will score quite a bit himself.
Prediction: Trail Blazers in 7.
No. 4 OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (48-34) vs. No. 5 UTAH JAZZ (48-34)
Season series: Thunder, 3-1.
Story line: Despite some tough times after acquiring Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to play with Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City won its final three games to get home-court advantage in the first round, with a new chance to prove it can be the team it hoped when it made the high-profile acquisitions.
Key matchup: Westbrook vs. Donovan Mitchell. The reigning NBA MVP and the potential Rookie of the Year have shown they can do whatever is necessary to carry their teams offensively. Westbrook probably has more help, which could make the difference in this series.
Prediction: Thunder in 6.