The 2018-19 NBA regular season came to a close on Wednesday, when seven of the league’s first-round playoff series were finally solidified and some unfortunate injury news impacted the eighth matchup. The first postseason sans LeBron James since 2005 is somehow upon us.
Here’s the full schedule and a breakdown of every series, listed from least to most likely upset.
The Clippers were one of the NBA’s best stories all season, surviving the trade of their best player for a second straight year and somehow making the playoffs in the stacked Western Conference. Doc Rivers deserves Coach of the Year consideration for finding a way with a team that started rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at the point. Granted, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are both Sixth Man of the Year candidates, and Danilo Gallinari enjoyed a bounce-back season, but the Clippers are a collection of good players without a great one at the helm.
The Warriors, meanwhile, start five All-Stars, two of whom are former MVPs, and all but one of them has won multiple championships. Golden State may have seemed disinterested for much of this season and downright dysfunctional at times, but Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are still capable of blowing everyone’s doors off when they want. That quartet outscored opponents by 16.7 points per 100 possessions when they shared the court this season, and now they have DeMarcus Cousins to pit against opposing bigs.
The Clips surprised the Warriors with an overtime win in their first meeting, back when they had Tobias Harris, and they came within two points the second time around, but the Warriors stomped them in their final two meetings, including a 27-point reminder over the weekend. A first-round upset of the two-time defending champs would be one of the biggest in NBA history.
• Game 1 @GS: 8 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 13 (ABC)
• Game 2 @GS: 10:30 p.m. ET, Monday, April 15 (TNT)
• Game 3 @LAC: 10:30 p.m. ET, Thursday, April 18 (TNT)
• Game 4 @LAC: 3:30 p.m. ET, Sunday, April 21 (ABC)
Armed now with Kawhi Leonard and the confidence of not having to meet LeBron in any round, the Raptors are poised to make their deepest playoff run in franchise history. The rise of Pascal Siakam, the midseason addition of Marc Gasol and their cache of smothering defensive-minded wings add to the list of reasons to believe Toronto can finally get the playoff monkey off its back.
With Leonard and Siakam on the floor together, the Raptors outscored opponents by double digits per 100 possessions this season, and they own a positive net rating with either one on the floor without the other, which means the Magic will forever face 48 minutes of relentlessness.
Orlando made the playoffs for the first time since Dwight Howard left town, adopting new coach Steve Clifford’s mantra to the tune of a top-10 defense. Nikola Vucevic, the Montenegrin big man who the Magic acquired in trading Howard, made a contract year leap to All-Stardom this season, boosting an offense that is otherwise inefficient and starts D.J. Augustin at point guard. Outside of Augustin and old Raptors friend Terrence Ross, the Magic are wildly inexperienced in the playoffs, and it would not be surprising to see a just-happy-to-be-here effort out of Orlando.
• Game 1 @TOR: 5 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 13 (ESPN)
• Game 2 @TOR: 8 p.m. ET, Tuesday, April 16 (TNT)
• Game 3 @ORL: 7 p.m. ET, Friday, April 19 (ESPN)
• Game 4 @ORL: 7 p.m. ET, Sunday, April 21 (TNT)
No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks (60-22) vs. No. 8 Detroit Pistons (41-41)
The Bucks have been the surprise team of this season, as Coach of the Year favorite Mike Budenholzer installed a system that made Milwaukee into a force on both ends. They outscored opponents by 8.8 points per 100 possessions this season — the league’s best net rating by more than two full points and tops among all teams since the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors.
Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ascendancy to MVP frontrunner wasn’t so surprising. He is arguably the NBA’s most impactful player on both ends, scoring like prime Shaquille O’Neal and defending with freakish athleticism and length. His supporting cast is universally improved since last year’s first-round exit, with Khris Middleton making an All-Star leap, Eric Bledsoe rediscovering his two-way brilliance and Brook Lopez’s arrival making room for all to operate. The result was Milwaukee’s best regular season since the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar era.
Injuries to Malcolm Brogdon (right foot) and Nikola Mirotic (left thumb) could make this series a little more interesting. As could Blake Griffin, who is headed for his first All-NBA bid since 2014 in his first full season in Detroit, and Andre Drummond, who has been a beast in the middle since the All-Star break. Still, despite the contributions of their formidable frontcourt, the Pistons are average in every way, still searching for answers at the point and on the wings. They finished winless in four meetings with the Bucks this season, including three double-digit losses.
• Game 1 @MIL: 7 p.m. ET, Sunday, April 14 (TNT)
• Game 2 @MIL: 8 p.m. ET, Wednesday, April 17 (NBATV)
• Game 3 @DET: 8 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 20 (ESPN)
• Game 4 @DET: 8 p.m. ET, Monday, April 22 (TNT)
• Game 5 @MIL: TBD, Wednesday, April 24 (TBD)
• Game 6 @DET: TBD, Friday, April 26 (TBD)
• Game 7 @MIL: TBD, Sunday, April 28 (TBD)
No. 4 Boston Celtics (49-33) vs. No. 5 Indiana Pacers (47-35)
The Celtics entered this season as favorites to emerge from the Eastern Conference, but Kyrie Irving’s imperfect leadership style and Gordon Hayward’s longer-than-expected road back from his ankle injury stalled the steady progress the team has made under Brad Stevens. News broke Wednesday that Boston backbone Marcus Smart suffered a torn oblique in the team’s regular-season finale, setting up another speed bump on the road back to the conference finals.
Meanwhile, this year’s Pacers are following a similar path to last year’s snake-bitten Celtics. They play hard. They play smart. They play together. And they defend like hell, ranking third in defensive rating for the season. They remained in the hunt after All-Star guard Victor Oladipo suffered a season-ending knee injury, and while they have slipped since the All-Star break (9-14 record with a minus-1.2 net rating), their toughness should worry an opponent that has lacked it.
That said, the Celtics should handle the Oladipo-less Pacers, even without Smart, since Al Horford, Irving and a healthy Hayward present a talent gap that a star-less roster will have trouble matching. After losing their first meeting by one in early November, the Celtics have won their last three meetings with the Pacers, including a 20-point victory in Indiana last week.
• Game 1 @BOS: 3:30 p.m. ET, Sunday, April 14 (TNT)
• Game 2 @BOS: 10:30 p.m. ET, Wednesday, April 17 (TNT)
• Game 3 @IND: 9:30 p.m. ET, Friday, April 19 (ABC)
• Game 4 @IND: 9:30 p.m. ET, Sunday, April 21 (ABC)
• Game 5 @BOS: TBD, Wednesday, April 24 (TBD)
• Game 6 @IND: TBD, Friday, April 26 (TBD)
• Game 7 @BOS: TBD, Sunday, April 28 (TBD)
No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers (51-31) vs. No. 6 Brooklyn Nets (42-40)
The Sixers added stellar swingmen Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris to a starting lineup that already featured budding superstars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, along with veteran sharpshooter J.J. Redick. That five-man unit has outscored opponents by 17.6 minutes per 100 possessions in their limited time together, and there is good reason to believe they can wreak havoc in the East if they can keep them on the floor for more prolonged periods in the playoffs.
The trades for Butler and Harris cost Philadelphia most of its depth, and there is some concern that the Sixers will be fully reliant on their stud starters. That is all the more complicated by general manager Elton Brand’s recent revelation that Embiid — a bona fide MVP candidate — could miss time to start the playoffs due to his ailing left knee. The disappearance of the shooting-averse Simmons in last year’s playoffs might also give the Nets reason for optimism.
A laughingstock for most of this decade, Brooklyn is now an underrated challenger. The Nets have always played hard under coach Kenny Atkinson, and they have done well to amass talent in the absence of draft picks, but D’Angelo Russell’s breakout season is central to their success. The former No. 2 overall pick is now a legitimate No. 1 scoring option, and the second half of his season is replete with clutch late-game performances. The rest of the roster is full of capable players, namely rim-protecting and -running second-year center Jarrett Allen and third-year wing Caris LeVert — another breakout candidate before a scary ankle injury interrupted his season.
The Nets split their four meetings with the Sixers this season, and one of their two losses came down to the final possession. Philadelphia’s top-end talent should carry the day, but chemistry and injury concerns could prop the door open just enough for Russell to bust it open.
• Game 1 @PHI: 2:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 13 (ESPN)
• Game 2 @PHI: 8 p.m. ET, Monday, April 15 (TNT)
• Game 3 @BRK: 8 p.m. ET, Thursday, April 18 (TNT)
• Game 4 @BRK: 3 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 20 (TNT)
• Game 5 @PHI: TBD, Tuesday, April 23 (TBD)
• Game 6 @BRK: TBD, Thursday, April 25 (TBD)
• Game 7 @PHI: TBD, Saturday, April 27 (TNT)
No. 2 Denver Nuggets (54-28) vs. No. 7 San Antonio Spurs (48-34)
The Nuggets are another surprise success story. After narrowly missing the playoffs the last two years, they battled the Warriors for the West’s top seed for much of the year. Despite injuries to co-stars Gary Harris, Paul Millsap and Will Barton, Nikola Jokic made sure the train ran on time, lobbying for a First Team All-NBA spot with his brilliant playmaking from the center position.
That said, the Nuggets lack a true second star, unless you figure 22-year-old Jamal Murray is there already, and they lack playoff experience against a first-round opponent and coach with the best postseason track record of the century. Any Gregg Popovich team has a chance, and this one has two guys — LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan — with All-Star resumes.
The Spurs may be unconventional in their approach to the modern game, but they are still neck-and-neck with the Nuggets with a top-10 efficiency rating, and only two points per 100 possessions separate them defensively. Are you willing to bet against Popovich scheming his way to a tougher defense in this series? The Spurs split their season series with the Nuggets, and the home-court edge that is that mile-high air might be their safety valve in this series.
• Game 1 @DEN: 10:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 13 (ESPN)
• Game 2 @DEN: 9 p.m. ET, Tuesday, April 16 (NBATV)
• Game 3 @SA: 9 p.m. ET, Thursday, April 18 (NBATV)
• Game 4 @SA: 5:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 20 (TNT)
• Game 5 @DEN: TBD, Tuesday, April 23 (TBD)
• Game 6 @SA: TBD, Thursday, April 25 (TBD)
• Game 7 @DEN: TBD, Saturday, April 27 (TNT)
No. 4 Houston Rockets (53-29) vs. No. 5 Utah Jazz (50-32)
The Rockets stumbled out of the gate this season after pushing the Warriors to seven games in the 2018 Western Conference finals, but James Harden went supernova and made his case for a second straight MVP honor. Houston may have fallen to the fourth seed due to some strange jockeying for position at the top, but they should still be considered the West’s biggest threat to a Warriors three-peat, considering Chris Paul has two healthy hamstrings for the time being.
All that said, the Jazz are a heck of a tough draw in the first round. They too started slow, taking a sub-.500 record into Christmas, but they own the league’s second-best net rating (8.3) since then — just behind the Bucks. Donovan Mitchell shook off his own dismal start to emerge as the All-Star-caliber frontman we imaged him to be after a remarkable playoff debut in 2018, and Rudy Gobert is a serious threat to win Defensive Player of the Year honors again. They are deep (rookie Grayson Allen, who isn’t even in the rotation, scored 40 points against the Clippers in the regular-season finale on Wednesday), well-coached and dynamite defensively.
It will be a fascinating contrast in styles, as Utah split its four games opposite Houston’s high-powered offense. The Rockets won the last two meetings, with Harden exceeding 40 points in both games. In the end, Harden is the best player in the series — bar none — and a healthy Paul might even be able to lay claim to the title for the next best. Even still, Houston is fortunate Utah doesn’t have home-court advantage, because this series could go seven.
• Game 1 @HOU: 9:30 p.m. ET, Sunday, April 14 (TNT)
• Game 2 @HOU: 9:30 p.m. ET, Wednesday, April 17 (TNT)
• Game 3 @UTH: 10:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 20 (ESPN)
• Game 4 @UTH: 10:30 p.m. ET, Monday, April 22 (TNT)
• Game 5 @HOU: TBD, Wednesday, April 24 (TBD)
• Game 6 @UTH: TBD, Friday, April 26 (TBD)
• Game 7 @HOU: TBD, Sunday, April 28 (TBD)
No. 3 Portland Trail Blazers (53-29) vs. No. 6 Oklahoma City Thunder (49-33)
It sure seemed like the Blazers were trying to duck the Thunder, sitting their entire starting lineup — including prolific backcourt tandem Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum — and playing a six-man rotation starring Jake Layman with a chance to grab the third seed on Wednesday. Then, Portland’s reserves stormed back from a 28-point deficit and set up a date with OKC.
The Blazers had good reason to avoid the Thunder, since they dropped all four head-to-head meetings this season. At its best, Oklahoma City looks like a title contender. Paul George enjoyed a career year, and former MVP Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double for the third straight season, all while Steven Adams anchors a defense that can be the league’s most frightening. The Thunder stumbled after the All-Star break, and a shoulder injury derailed George’s own MVP candidacy, but there’s little doubt OKC matches up well with Portland.
The Blazers bounced back from last year’s first-round sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans to rank among the Western Conference elite again, but the loss of Jusuf Nurkic to a gruesome leg injury served as another setback. Lillard and McCollum are still capable of averaging better than 50 combined points per game, but McCollum is coming off a knee strain of his own. Portland seems to pile up wins regardless of who is on the court, which is a credit to coach Terry Stotts, but there is a legit chance they get steamrolled by a lesser seed again.
Let us not forget Westbrook reminded Lillard in January, “I’ve been busting that ass for years.” So, yeah, these playoffs should be fun. Let the games begin.
• Game 1 @POR: 3:30 p.m. ET, Sunday, April 14 (ABC)
• Game 2 @POR: 10:30 p.m. ET, Tuesday, April 16 (TNT)
• Game 3 @OKC: 9:30 p.m. ET, Friday, April 19 (ESPN)
• Game 4 @OKC: 9:30 p.m. ET, Sunday, April 21 (TNT)
• Game 5 @POR: TBD, Tuesday, April 23 (TBD)
• Game 6 @OKC: TBD, Thursday, April 25 (TBD)
• Game 7 @POR: TBD, Saturday, April 27 (TNT)
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