16 teams are left standing at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World with maybe half of those teams standing a true chance to win an NBA championship. There is more parity in these playoffs than there’s been in years, which should make for some exciting series coming down the stretch.
But before we can crown a champion, we obviously have to get through the first round, which begins today with an NCAA Tournament-like schedule with games airing essentially all day long on ESPN, which will be duplicated tomorrow on TNT. Here’s a look at the biggest storyline from every first-round series, beginning in the Eastern Conference.
(1)Milwaukee Bucks vs. (8)Orlando Magic
The only real storyline in the Milwaukee-Orlando series is how quickly the top-seeded Bucks will dispose of the Magic. Giannis & Co. certainly haven’t played their best basketball in the bubble, losing five of eight games, but they shouldn’t have any problem with Orlando. The Magic haven’t won a series in the NBA playoffs since 2010 and while they might sneak in a victory, that streak will continue.
(2)Toronto Raptors vs. (7)Brooklyn Nets
Tie big storyline in this matchup is clearly the Toronto Raptors defense of their NBA title. When Kawhi Leonard chose to sign with the LA Clippers, nobody gave Toronto much of a chance to be a real contender and here they are. The Raptors went 27-5 over their last 32 games, including 7-1 in the bubble, and shouldn’t have too much trouble with the Brooklyn Nets, who come into these NBA playoffs having won five of eight seeding games.
(3)Boston Celtics vs. (6)Philadelphia 76ers
The biggest storyline in this huge rivalry matchup between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers has to be the absence of Ben Simmons, who underwent season-ending knee surgery last week. The Celtics would have been the favorites in this series regardless but the Simmons injury almost guarantees a fifth consecutive NBA playoffs win for Boston over Philly. The Sixers haven’t won a playoff series over the Celtics since 1982 and will need Joel Embiid to step up in a very big way to have any chance here.
(4)Indiana Pacers vs. (5)Miami Heat
The Jimmy Butler vs. T.J. Warren feud will take center stage in the first-round series between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers, although Butler himself says that the rivalry is dead. Warren was one of the biggest stars of the bubble, averaging 31 points while shooting an incredible 57.8% from the floor, including 52.4% from beyond the arc. Warren missed the Pacers’ final two games with plantar fasciitis while Jimmy Butler has been dealing with foot issues of his own in the bubble and played in just four of Miami’s eight games. Both are expected to be ready to roll for the series.
Let’s move on to the Western Conference.
(1)LA Lakers. vs Portland Trail Blazers
It’s not very often that LeBron James takes a backseat to anyone but the biggest storyline coming into this highly-anticipated series between the Lakers and Blazers is bubble MVP Damian Lillard. Lillard put Portland on his back and played the best stretch of basketball in his career in the bubble, averaging 37.6 points in the eight seeding games and adding 31 in the play-in game against the Grizzlies. Lillard & Co. are arguably the most dangerous No. 8 seed in the history of the NBA playoffs and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them knock off the Lakers, especially with LA being shorthanded at the guard position.
(2)LA Clippers vs. (7)Dallas Mavericks
Yep, we’re gonna cop out here and go with two storylines for this series between the Clippers and Mavericks. First of all, Kawhi Leonard is attempting to win two NBA titles in a row with two different franchises and it starts with this series. But you can’t just forget about reigning NBA Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic and what he’s doing right now for the Mavs. The second-year star is averaging 30 points, 10.1 assists, and 9.7 rebounds in the bubble, which has helped Dallas achieve the second-highest offensive rating in NBA history. The Clippers are simply deeper, which should lead them to a series victory.
(3)Denver Nuggets vs. (6)Utah Jazz
The biggest storyline coming into this first-round matchup between the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz is just how close every single game has been between the two teams this year. Although all three games were won by Denver, they were decided by a total of 11 points and the margin of victory got smaller with each contest. The first was decided by six, 106-100, and then it was three, 98-95, and the game in the bubble was two, 134-132. Expect some very competitive basketball from these two squads.
(4)Houston Rockets vs. (5)Oklahoma City Thunder
The two men traded for one another ahead of the season, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook, are the big stories in the series between the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Westbrook has been ruled out for at least the first game of the series with a quadriceps injury and might not be available until the weekend, which means James Harden is going to be shooting a lot. As for Chris Paul, he’ll be looking to exact revenge on the team that traded him away. Excellent drama here.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference