The NBA playoffs kick off on Saturday in what has the potential to be one of the more entertaining and dramatic postseasons in years. Many questions exist leading into the playoffs, and they'll all be answered by mid-June.
In the East, can LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers overcome a tumultuous regular season to make a deep playoff run? Will the Toronto Raptors finally make the leap into the NBA Finals? Can the Philadelphia 76ers parlay their 16-game win streak into a successful postseason?
The West has storylines as well: When will Steph Curry be back for the Golden State Warriors and how will the Dubs fare without him? Can Anthony Davis continue his individual three-month tear and lead the New Orleans Pelicans far? And will the Houston Rockets rain three-pointers over the league en route to their first NBA Finals win since 1995?
It should be a fun few months. Until the playoffs start, here's a look at the first-round matchups, with analysis and picks for each. Then we'll go through the projections for the conference semifinals, conference finals and NBA Finals.
NBA Playoff Bracket
Eastern Conference: 1st Round
No. 1 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 8 Washington Wizards
It's not worth comparing this series to the time these teams met in the 2015 playoffs, when the Washington Wizards swept the Toronto Raptors and won Game 4 by 31 points.
This time around, Toronto is a much stronger team with the deepest bench in the league, while the Wizards have been up and down this year and sans star point guard John Wall for 41 games.
Wall returned on March 31 and will be back for this series, but the Raps are fantastic on both ends of the floor, ranking top five in offensive and defensive efficiency, per Basketball Reference. They'll advance to the second round.
Pick: Raptors 4, Wizards 1
No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 5 Indiana Pacers
LeBron James has made the playoffs each of the past 13 years, and he's never lost in the first round. In fact, he has lost in the second round only twice and made the NBA Finals each season since the 2010-2011 campaign.
Therefore, it's difficult to see the Cavs losing before the first round, even against a tough Indiana Pacers team that outperformed preseason expectations thanks in part to All-Star Victor Oladipo.
Indiana beat Cleveland three out of four times during the regular season, but James dominates the Eastern Conference playoffs year after year. The Cavs will move on.
Pick: Cavaliers 4, Pacers 1
No. 2 Boston Celtics vs. No. 7 Milwaukee Bucks
Without point guard Kyrie Irving, who is out for the rest of the year due a knee injury, the Boston Celtics have a tough task against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. The Greek Freak is a matchup nightmare for any team, and he might go off for a few incredible performances.
That being said, this could be a time for wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to shine. The former has been fantastic since March 11, averaging 17.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals, per Basketball Reference; the latter has been an efficient scorer, posting 16.7 points on 50.3 percent shooting since February 24.
This could be the best series of the first round, and it's conceivable to see this one going seven games. However, give the slight edge to the Celtics thanks to an excellent team defense (first in efficiency) and the extra home game.
Pick: Celtics 4, Bucks 3
No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers vs. No. 6 Miami Heat
The Philadelphia 76ers are going into the playoffs on a 16-game win streak, with seven of those victories occurring without an appearance from All-Star center Joel Embiid, who suffered a concussion and orbital fracture in an on-court collision on March 29.
Per Derek Bodner of The Athletic, Embiid said it's "unlikely, but there's still a chance" he plays in Game 1 of the first round. While that doesn't sound hopeful for the beginning of the playoffs, it's possible we see him suit up soon.
But even without Embiid, the 76ers should take care of business against the Miami Heat thanks to Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons and 2017 No. 1 draft pick Markelle Fultz, who just finished the regular season with a triple-double against the Bucks.
Pick: 76ers 4, Heat 0
Western Conference: 1st Round
No. 1 Houston Rockets vs. No. 8 Minnesota Timberwolves
The Minnesota Timberwolves lost three games by 18 points each to the Houston Rockets this season and that's in addition to another nine-point defeat.
Although center Karl-Anthony Towns makes it a habit to dominate the Rockets (23.8 points and 14.8 rebounds this year), the Hall of Fame Rockets backcourt of Chris Paul and James Harden is too tough for any team in the league.
Combine them with a host of players who shoot (and seemingly make) three-pointer after three-pointer, and this is looking like a sweep.
Pick: Rockets 4, Timberwolves 0
No. 2 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 7 San Antonio Spurs
Two superstars (Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry and San Antonio Spurs wing Kawhi Leonard) won't play in this series due to knee and shoulder injuries, respectively.
In part because of their absences, the Dubs and Spurs have sputtered down the stretch, with Golden State going 4-6 in its last 10 and San Antonio earning a 5-5 mark.
The main issue for the Spurs is they haven't gotten it going on the road this year, losing 14 of 41 games. Meanwhile, the Warriors are still excellent at Oracle Arena, finishing with a 29-12 mark.
Given the Warriors' home-court advantage, coupled with the fact that they have a trio of All-Stars (Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green) even without Curry, they should take care of business.
Pick: Warriors 4, Spurs 2
No. 3 Portland Trail Blazers vs. No. 6 New Orleans Pelicans
The Portland Trail Blazers have no answer for Anthony Davis, who posted an average of 36 points, 11.5 rebounds and 4.0 blocks in his two full games against them this year (he was injured early in a third and missed the fourth matchup entirely).
The question is how the Pelicans defend Blazers point guard Damian Lillard. If the three-time All-Star goes into one of those modes where he's pulling up and hitting three-pointer after three-pointer all series, then Portland should take this one. But if the Pels can at least slow him down a bit, then they have a shot.
Like the Bucks-Celtics series, this matchup has the potential to be the best of the first round. Look for this one to go long, with the Blazers winning a close Game 7 at home to move on.
Pick: Blazers 4, Pelicans 3
No. 4 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 5 Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz offense simply hasn't gotten it going against the Oklahoma City Thunder defense this year, averaging just 89.5 points per game in four contests. They lost three of four games to OKC, with their final two losses occurring by an average of 21 points.
Coupled with the fact that it's difficult to bet against Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook, who just finished his second straight season with a triple-double average, the pick here is Oklahoma City.
That being said, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Jazz pull off the series win by any means, especially considering Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell can take over a game at any time.
Pick: Thunder 4, Jazz 2
Eastern Conference: 2nd Round (Projections)
No. 1 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers
The Raptors finished the season with 59 wins and are one of the more balanced teams in the league.
However, the Cavs have LeBron James and a supporting cast that looked like it was finally jelling after being formed at the trade deadline. Cleveland went 11-2 in 13 games before resting much of its rotation in a regular-season closing loss to the Knicks. Two of those wins were against Toronto (both at home).
The healthy return of power forward Kevin Love has clearly sparked the Cavs, as they have gone 9-1 in the 10 full games he has played since returning from a broken left hand. He dominated the Raptors in Cleveland's two wins, posting an average of 20.5 points and 13.5 rebounds in 30.0 minutes per game.
Look for Love to be the key factor in this series and for the Cavs to pull off the upset.
Pick: Cavaliers 4, Raptors 2
No. 2 Boston Celtics vs. No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers
With Irving and Gordon Hayward, the edge goes to the Celtics. With just Irving, the edge still goes to Boston. But without both, the pendulum swings toward Philadelphia.
Provided Embiid is back for this series, he's going to present a serious matchup problem for a Boston team that ranked just middle of the pack in rebounding differential. The 76ers were first in that category by a large margin, and that could be the difference.
As it is, the Celtics may not have enough offensive firepower to hang with Philadelphia, who has seven players in double-digit scoring figures in addition to Fultz.
Boston should put up a good fight, but the pick is Philadelphia.
Pick: 76ers 4, Celtics 2
Western Conference: 2nd Round (Projections)
No. 1 Houston Rockets vs. No. 5 Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder only have three rotation players who shoot above the league average from behind the three-point line, and two of them (Patrick Patterson and Alex Abrines) are reserves who don't see more than 16 minutes per game.
That difference may be the storyline in this hypothetical series: The two starting lineups are close to evenly matched, but the Rockets have the significant edge off the bench thanks to a handful of shooters (e.g. Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Gerald Green) who can get hot at any time.
Oklahoma City may put up a good fight, and it's certainly possible Westbrook takes over a game or two, but Houston should advance.
Pick: Rockets 4, Thunder 1
No. 2 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 3 Portland Trail Blazers
This series hinges on Curry's return from a Grade 2 MCL sprain: On April 8, Monte Poole of NBC Sports quoted Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who noted there was no update and to inquire "next week." He already ruled his star man out for the first round.
If Curry returns and is anywhere near close to 100 percent, then the edge goes to the Warriors. If his minutes are limited or he doesn't play at all, then Portland has the advantage, especially considering Golden State's end to the season.
The Warriors are heading into the playoffs following a rough two months, going 7-10 in their final 17 regular-season contests. Granted, they've suffered injuries to all four of their All-Stars, but the Dubs only beat one playoff-bound team (Oklahoma City) during that stretch and dropped six losses by double digits as well.
The Blazers endured a tough run themselves, losing four straight games from April 3 through April 9, but they righted the ship with an emphatic 102-93 win over the Utah Jazz to close the regular season. If their tough defense in that game carries over to the playoffs, they should be in good shape.
This one is a close call, but with Curry's second-round status murky, the pick is the Blazers.
Pick: Blazers 4, Warriors 2
Eastern Conference Finals (Projection)
No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers vs. No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers
These two teams just played in a fantastic game near the end of the regular season, as the 76ers beat the Cavs 132-130 behind a 27-point triple-double from Simmons. James and Cavs forward Jeff Green combined for 77 points.
While that matchup isn't necessarily indicative of how a series may play out between these two, especially considering Joel Embiid and a few others (the Cavs' George Hill, for instance) did not dress, we could see these teams engage in a high-scoring series should they meet in the conference finals.
Neither team has any answer on defense for the stars in this one: James and Love should have no issue scoring and rebounding for Cleveland, while Simmons and Embiid likely won't meet much resistance either.
This would be a close series, but give the edge to experience over youth.
Pick: Cavaliers 4, 76ers 2
Western Conference Finals (Projection)
No. 1 Houston Rockets vs. No. 3 Portland Trail Blazers
It's hard envisioning a path for the Trail Blazers to win a hypothetical playoff with the Rockets. Houston swept the four-game season series thanks to some monster performances from Harden, who scored 42 in an 115-111 victory and 48 in a 124-117 win.
Furthermore, all three of Harden, Paul and Gordon (the team's top three scorers) are healthy at the same time, which hasn't been the case for the better part of the year. Combined, that trio averages 67.0 points per game.
Of course, the Blazers have some sharpshooters as well in Lillard and shooting guard C.J. McCollum, and they can go toe-to-toe with the Rockets' hot shooters for a few games.
But asking the Blazers to beat the Rockets four times is a tall task, especially with Houston having the extra home game.
Pick: Rockets 4, Blazers 2
NBA Finals (Projection)
No. 1 Houston Rockets vs. No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers
Full disclosure: I have no statistical, objective reason to believe the Cavaliers will upset the Rockets should the two teams meet in the NBA Finals.
Houston won 65 games and has the most efficient offense (led by likely NBA MVP Harden) in the Association. The Cavs closed the season on a high note, but this is still a team that is (a) getting to know each other and (b) still has issues on defense.
But the pick here is the Cavs, and that's largely due to James and a feeling he's going to dominate this postseason en route to cementing his legacy as one of the best two (if not the best) basketball players of all time.
James' legacy is already untouchable, but he'd somehow improve upon it if he wins the NBA Finals after a wild and dramatic regular season in Cleveland and takes down some tough competition along the way.
Of course, Houston could come out and hit close to half its three-pointers for the series and sweep Cleveland, but the guess is James puts the Cavs on his back and leads them to their second title in three years.
Pick: Cavaliers 4, Rockets 3