Story line: Here they go again — reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks have the best record in the NBA for the second consecutive season and enter the first round against an opponent that they dominated in four meetings. Out of the 192 minutes of basketball between the clubs this season, the Magic led for 11 of them. The Magic know they have nothing to lose.
Key matchup: Antetokounmpo vs. Nikola Vucevic. The MVP won’t be guarded 1-on-1 by Vucevic often if at all, but Orlando’s best rim protector is going to have to do quite a job against the NBA’s leader in points in the paint if the Magic are going to make this interesting.
Prediction: Bucks in 5.
No. 2 TORONTO RAPTORS (53-19) vs. No. 7 BROOKLYN NETS (35-37)
Season series: Raptors, 3-1.
Story line: The defending NBA champion Raptors lost Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, lost starter Danny Green, and put together the best regular season record in franchise history anyway. The Nets are missing Kevin Durant (who got hurt against the Raptors in last year’s finals with Golden State), Kyrie Irving and plenty of others, yet have played extremely hard for Jacque Vaughn.
Key matchup: Kyle Lowry vs. Caris LeVert. Lowry is as good a defensive player as there is in the NBA and will be one of the Raptors tasked with not letting LeVert get on a big scoring roll. The Nets will be playing a loose brand of basketball, knowing that almost nobody would expect them to win the series.
No. 3 BOSTON CELTICS (48-24) vs. No. 6 PHILADELPHIA 76ERS (43-30)
Season series: 76ers, 3-1.
Story line: Pay no attention to that season series result. It came with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid playing. Simmons is out with a knee injury and Embiid hasn’t looked right for much of his time at Disney, so these are not the same 76ers that the Celtics saw in the regular season. But it is a rivalry matchup, and the 76ers would love nothing more than putting a couple dents in Boston’s postseason plans.
Key matchup: Jayson Tatum vs. Tobias Harris. Tatum is becoming an absolute star in this league, standing out on a Boston roster that already has plenty of talent. But Harris is strong, smart on the defensive end is going to have to take on more of a leadership role with Simmons out and Embiid clearly laboring.
Story line: These teams met in three consecutive postseasons during Miami’s Big 3 era, with the Heat winning them all in 2012, 2013 and 2014 to thwart an Indiana squad that was one of the best in the league at that time and never broke through. Not having Domantas Sabonis will be a tough break for Indiana at both ends, and Miami has as good a corps of 3-point shooters as anyone in the league. And without Sabonis, the chore of guarding All-Star Heat center Bam Adebayo falls almost solely to Myles Turner now.
Key matchup: Jimmy Butler vs. TJ Warren. It’s not solely because of their little war of words back in January, either. Butler’s first postseason series with the Heat is a chance for him to put his stamp on things. Warren has a big opportunity at Disney — more shots, mainly — and largely has taken advantage of it at this point.
Prediction: Heat in 6.
No. 1 LOS ANGELES LAKERS (52-19) vs No. 8 PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (36-39)
Season series: Lakers, 2-1.
Story line: With LeBron James leading the league in assists in his second season in Los Angeles and Anthony Davis the beneficiary of many of them in his first, the Lakers rolled to the best record in the West and their first playoff appearance since 2013. They finally learned their opponent Saturday when Portland beat Memphis to win the NBA’s first play-in spot.
Key matchup: James or Davis vs. Carmelo Anthony. Anthony hit some clutch shots during the restart and has a chance to win a playoff series for the first time since 2013. But he’ll have to show he can defend a likely first team All-NBA selection to stay on the floor, a lot to ask at 36.
Prediction: Lakers in 6.
No. 2 LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (49-23) vs. No. 7 DALLAS MAVERICKS (43-32)
Season series: Clippers, 3-0.
Story line: Kawhi Leonard carried Toronto to its first NBA title last year and will look to bring Los Angeles its first now, backed by fellow superstar Paul George and perhaps the league’s deepest roster. The Clippers will be tested defensively by Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis and a dangerous Dallas offense.
Key matchup: Leonard, George and Patrick Beverley vs. Doncic. Doncic led the NBA in triple-doubles this season so he can hurt teams in a number of ways. But the Clippers can rotate multiple defenders in hopes of slowing down the point guard.
Prediction: Clippers in 5.
No. 3 DENVER NUGGETS (46-27) vs. No. 6 UTAH JAZZ (44-28)
Season series: Nuggets, 3-0.
Story line: The Northwest Division rivals seem evenly matched, as seen when they played a double-overtime thriller during the seeding games that the Nuggets won 134-132. Denver’s three victories were by a total of 11 points.
Key matchup: Nikola Jokic vs. Rudy Gobert. Jokic is perhaps the best all-around center in the NBA and Gobert, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, remains a stopper in the middle. But with Jokic able to handle the ball so well and shoot from so far, he is a tough cover for traditional big men who are used to being in the paint.
Prediction: Nuggets in 7.
No. 4 HOUSTON ROCKETS (44-28) vs. No. 5 OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (44-28).
Season series: Thunder, 2-1.
Story line: The trade of Russell Westbrook to Houston last summer for Chris Paul and multiple first-round picks was thought to signal a rebuild in Oklahoma City. Instead, Paul had a terrific season in leading the Thunder to the same record as the Rockets, who don’t know when Westbrook will be available because of a right quadriceps injury.
Key matchup: Westbrook vs. Paul. It’s was Paul’s injury in the 2018 Western Conference finals against Golden State that helped cost the Rockets a chance to reach the NBA Finals. Now Houston has to hope Westbrook not only returns soon, but also does with the explosiveness that made him a perennial All-Star.
Prediction: Rockets in 7.
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