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NBA playoff matchups: Who's playing whom in the first round

The Washington Post

The bracket for the NBA playoffs is set. We're here to break down all eight first-round matchups for you. The action starts Saturday.

Eastern Conference matchups

1. Toronto Raptors vs. 8. Washington Wizards

How Toronto Got Here: After being swept in the second round last year, the Raptors found themselves at a crossroads. But instead of moving on from their core, or firing coach Dwane Casey, Toronto opted to keep everyone together, and Casey entered training camp intent on changing the way the team played. Not only was he successful — turning the isolation-heavy Raptors into a team that spreads the ball around and fires up 3s — but Toronto has had the best season in franchise history as a result. Now comes the final frontier: a deep playoff run that includes truly challenging LeBron James.

How Washington Got Here: Washington is the opposite of Miami. The Wizards have the kind of playoff-proven, top-end talent the Heat lack in John Wall and Bradley Beal, but none of the certainty in effort and execution Miami is known for. The Wizards have stumbled their way down the stretch while Wall rehabbed from knee surgery, only seeing him return in the last two weeks. Washington is good enough to reach the conference finals and give anyone — including the Cleveland Cavaliers - a series, and it is inconsistent enough to lose in five games in the first round.

Season series: 2-2

Opening thoughts: What was Toronto's reward for having the best season in franchise history? A playoff path that potentially takes them through the three most talented teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs — the Wizards, Cavaliers and Philadelphia 76ers — to reach the NBA Finals for the first time. First, though, the Raptors will try to break a nine-game losing streak in Game 1 of playoff series — a streak everyone in Toronto is now terrified will extend to 10 games.

The fact the Raptors are facing the Wizards - who swept them in the first round in 2015 — won't help matters. That said, it's anyone's guess which version of the Wizards will show up. Washington would be the seventh seed if it had managed to beat just one of three tanking teams — Atlanta, Chicago or Orlando) — it played in April alone. Instead, the Wizards lost to them all — though John Wall did sit out all three of those games.

But Washington does have an all-star backcourt to match Toronto's, and this should be a far more competitive series than a typical No. vs. No. 8 matchup.

2. Boston Celtics vs. 7 Milwaukee Bucks

How Boston Got Here: No team has had the ups-and-downs Boston has this campaign. Entering the season, the Celtics were thought to be a title favorite — only for Gordon Hayward to be lost for the season five minutes into the first game after suffering a gruesome ankle injury. Then Boston won 16 games in a row and held the top spot in the East for much of the season — only for Kyrie Irving to then undergo season-ending knee surgery. Now Boston enters the playoffs without four players — Hayward, Irving, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis — for the first round, leaving the Celtics, at best, a slight favorite to advance.

How Milwaukee Got Here: Milwaukee has one of the NBA's best players in Giannis Antetokounmpo but has had a strange season. Between a midseason trade for Eric Bledsoe, the return of Jabari Parker from his second torn anterior cruciate ligament and the firing of coach Jason Kidd, the Bucks have seen their season go in fits and starts. Still, the presence of Antetokounmpo alone could make them a dangerous first-round opponent — not to mention talented sidekicks like Bledsoe and Khris Middleton around him.

Season series: 2-2

Opening thoughts: The Celtics were the obvious opponent the teams at the bottom of the East hoped to draw in Round 1 thanks to the myriad injuries Boston has endured this season. The beneficiary wound up being Milwaukee - despite getting annihilated in their season finale in Philadelphia - thanks to the Wizards failing to beat a tanking Orlando Magic team in their final game.

Now Antetokounmpo will get his chance to have a superstar moment. With Toronto, Cleveland and Washington all on the other side of the bracket, there is at least the chance for The Greek Freak to take the Bucks to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2001. First, though, he'll have to take out Boston. The Celtics will be well-coached and prepared, but Milwaukee — thanks to Antetokounmpo alone — likely has the edge in talent. That should make this an intriguing series.

3. Philadelphia 76ers vs. 6. Miami Heat

How They Got Here: Philadelphia was expected to go as far as its young talent - specifically Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid — could take it. But few people — even inside the Sixers locker room — could've anticipated the season would go like this. Philadelphia roars into the postseason winners of 16 straight — and, with Boston's injury-riddled roster, the young Sixers are stunningly the favorites to reach the Eastern Conference finals. The latest step in "The Process" has arrived far faster than anyone could've anticipated.

How Miami Got Here: Miami has a bit of a Frankenstein's Monster roster - a team full of solid NBA players, but no superstar-level talent. That depth, though, allows Erik Spoelstra — one of the league's best coaches — to mix-and-match against any opponent. It won't make Miami a title contender, but it will make the Heat a difficult first-round opponent.

Season series: 2-2

Opening thoughts: Philadelphia is the story of the NBA right now, with the Sixers coming into the playoffs red-hot and expecting to get back a masked Joel Embiid sometime early in this series. That will only add to the crescendo of voices predicting that Philadelphia will be making it at least as far as the Eastern Conference finals this season.

That said, the Sixers are very young, and most of their players have never been in a playoff series before — and Coach Brett Brown has never been a head coach for one. The same can't be said of the Heat, who have plenty of playoff experience up and down the roster and a coach in Erik Spoelstra who has been through just about everything a coach can see.

Philadelphia has more talent, and should win. But Miami's experience and deep, versatile roster should make this a long series.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers vs. 5. Indiana Pacers

How Cleveland Got Here: Any team with LeBron James on its roster can be guaranteed to have an eventful path through the season, and this year's Cavaliers were no different. While James has once again been brilliant and will finish in the top two or three in the league's MVP race, Cleveland has endured one dramatic turn after another — beginning with the Irving trade during the summer and including nearly half the team changing over at February's trade deadline. Nonetheless, Cleveland still remains the favorite to represent the East in the NBA Finals.

How Indiana Got Here: The Pacers were the NBA's biggest surprise this season, and they've achieved the level of success they have because of the exploits of Victor Oladipo. After he was sent to Indiana in exchange for Paul George last summer, Oladipo blossomed into an All-Star and borderline all-NBA candidate. Whether Indiana can continue to surprise in the postseason will likely come down to whether Oladipo can take his game to yet another level against either the 76ers or Cavaliers - both of whom will be heavily favored to advance.

Season series: Pacers. 3-1

Opening thoughts: Cleveland finds itself right where it was at the start of the playoffs last year — facing Indiana with a likely series against the Raptors on deck. The difference? The Cavaliers don't have Kyrie Irving and have abstained from even remotely attempting to try on defense all season.

Indiana, on the other hand, has been locked into the fifth seed for what feels like a few weeks now, waiting to see whether it would get Philadelphia or Cleveland in the first round. It's been a terrific season for the Pacers, who were expected to fall out of the playoff picture after trading George. But it should end in relatively short order against Cleveland — which, despite its struggles, should be able to put away the Pacers with relative ease.

Western Conference matchups

1. Houston Rockets vs. 8. Minnesota Timberwolves

How Houston Got Here: Houston has been driving hard for the top spot in the Western Conference all season, and once the Golden State Warriors began suffering injuries after the All-Star break, there was little doubt the Rockets would get it. Now Houston enters the playoffs as the team expected to give the Warriors the stiffest test they've encountered since Kevin Durant arrived in the Bay Area — and potentially overtake them in a showdown in the Western Conference finals.

How Minnesota Got Here: Minnesota was cruising to a top four seed in the West when Jimmy Butler suffered a partial tear of his meniscus right after February's All-Star break. Since then, the Timberwolves have limped along - and fallen to the verge of missing the playoffs as a result. But now Butler is back healthy, and Minnesota survived an overtime game with Denver to make it to the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

Season series: Houston, 4-0

Opening thoughts: Congratulations to the Timberwolves on escaping a 13-year playoff drought by the skin of their collective teeth. Their reward? A first-round series against the Rockets, who beat them all four times they played this season.

Minnesota is good enough to give a lot of teams in the West trouble. But the Rockets are an awful matchup for the Timberwolves, as they simply lose the math problem of being a team that doesn't shoot many 3-pointers going up against a team that shoots tons of them.

2. Golden State Warriors vs. San Antonio Spurs

How Golden State Got Here: Despite admittedly playing at around 70 percent all season and enduring significant injury issues (including to Stephen Curry, who will miss the first round of the playoffs with a medial collateral ligament strain), Golden State finished the regular season with the third best record in the NBA — a testament to their talent level. The Warriors have said they'll be ready when the playoffs begin to turn it up and go on a run toward a third title in four years. They'll get their chance to prove it starting Saturday.

How San Antonio Got Here: The Spurs may have had their streak of consecutive seasons with 50 wins end at 18, but they managed to extend their consecutive playoff appearance streak to 21 despite only having Kawhi Leonard for nine games due to his chronic quad issues. If Leonard doesn't return during the playoffs — and it's unlikely he will — it's hard to see how San Antonio will advance.

Season series: Golden State, 3-1

Opening thoughts: With a 7-10 record in its final 17 games, Golden State enters the playoffs with — by far — the most questions facing it in any of Steve Kerr's four seasons on the sidelines - most notably about Curry's health status.

That's why the Warriors have to be privately thrilled they are getting the Spurs in Round 1 — presuming Leonard doesn't return. The Spurs are a perfect matchup for the Curry-less Warriors, who play a slower, more deliberate pace without him that relies on Kevin Durant getting lots of shots. The combination of the Spurs not really being able to speed them up — and, without Leonard, not having anyone to give Durant a lot of trouble — and this could be a quick series that leads to a long summer full of awkward questions about Leonard's future in San Antonio.

3. Portland Trail Blazers vs. 6. New Orleans Pelicans

How Portland Got Here: Behind the dynamic backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, Portland emerged from the morass of teams fighting for the final few playoff spots in the West over the past few weeks, and guaranteed themselves home-court advantage in the first round in the process. Now the Blazers hope to make it to the second round of the playoffs for a third time in five years.

How New Orleans Got Here: Like Utah, it looked like New Orleans was headed for the lottery when DeMarcus Cousins tore his Achilles' tendon in late January. But thanks to an unbelievable final two months from fellow superstar big man Anthony Davis, the Pelicans clinched a playoff spot with a victory Monday in Los Angeles over the Clippers, and they will be a difficult team to face in the first round simply because of the presence of Davis and Jrue Holiday.

Season series: 2-2

Opening thoughts: This has the potential to be a really fun series. The combination of Portland's dynamic backcourt going up against Davis and Holiday should lead to high scoring, wide-open games that will be very entertaining to watch.

The key to how it plays out could be how quickly Maurice Harkless is able to return from injury, with reports out of Portland on Wednesday night saying he could be back sometime during the first round. Harkless is a versatile forward who gives the Trail Blazers another wing defender to go with Al-Farouq Aminu, and it's not a coincidence they've struggled lately without him.

Then there's the fact that Davis has been playing out of his mind for a month and has never won a playoff series. This is basically a toss-up series; let's see if Davis, like Antetokounmpo in the East, can put his team on his back and make some magic happen.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 5. Utah Jazz

How Oklahoma City Got Here: It's been a long, strange trip through this season for the Thunder, which traded for Paul George last summer and Carmelo Anthony on the eve of training camp and has struggled to figure out how to best utilize them alongside Russell Westbrook this season (particularly Anthony, who has been among the league's most disappointing players). Still, Oklahoma City will have a winnable first-round series, and talents like Westbrook and George will make them a difficult out.

How Utah Got Here: When the Jazz were 17-26 after losing to Indiana on Jan. 15, they looked dead in the water. Instead, they became the NBA's hottest team, going 31-7 after thumping the Warriors on Tuesday night. It's a remarkable turnaround — made even more so by Rudy Gobert missing 26 games due to injury and rookie Donovan Mitchell leading the team in scoring.

Season series: Oklahoma City, 3-1

Opening thoughts: This should be the best series of the first round. It has star power on both sides — Westbrook, George and Anthony for the Thunder; Mitchell and Gobert for the Jazz. It has quality coaching, intense home crowds and compatible styles that should make for a long, thrilling series.

The Jazz are deeper, but will be asking an awful lot of Mitchell, as a rookie, to try to be the leading scorer on a playoff team going up against the NBA's reigning most valuable player. It will be a surprise if this goes less than seven games — and home court could easily wind up being the difference in a series that really feels too close to call.

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