2018 NBA Playoffs: First Round Preview

LeBron James looks to lead his Cavaliers back to the NBA Finals after a trying regular season.
Photo Courtesy: Michael Kolch
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By Joel Montgomery

After a regular season that seemingly went by in a blink, the 2018 NBA Playoffs are upon us. Much anticipation has been built up throughout the season as teams hit the ground running as soon as last year’s Finals concluded. With an assortment of stacked rosters and new, dynamic schemes, hungry NBA stars are eyeing the prize like never before during this blooming “super team” era. Here’s the breakdown of all the 1st round matchups getting started this weekend:

WESTERN CONFERENCE

(1) Houston Rockets vs (8) Minnesota Timberwolves
After finishing the most impressive season collectively of the year, the Rockets cruise into the playoffs with a commanding first seed. Behind the new most dangerous backcourt in the league in James Harden and Chris Paul, Houston’s high octane offense and pace of play have them on a historic pace as a team, and behind Harden’s MVP-cinching season they could power their way to the Finals on hunger and determination alone. But demons of the past still haunt both Paul and Harden, as doubts are starting to sound off on if this season could end on another bitter note for the two stars who have both become known for coming up short during the playoffs. As for Minnesota, after ending the longest current playoff drought in the NBA, the T-Wolves managed to oust Denver for the last seed in the West. Even though their happy Jimmy Butler’s back, they can’t be uppity for long as they’re already faced with potentially the toughest possible matchup of the first round. Even though their core including Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns is young, will Butler and his playoff experience be able to rally the team to more milestones?  Series winner: Rockets

(2) Golden State vs (7) San Antonio
The Warriors have finally stumbled their way to the postseason. After finishing with a 6-11 record in their final 17 games. They’ve really been missing Stephen Curry, whose been out since March 23 with a sprained MCL. Golden State will desperately need Curry if they hope to have any chance of once again representing the conference in the Finals. While Curry is the only one of Golden State’s big 4 that is currently out, they’re all feeling banged up; from Klay’s broken thumb (on shooting hand) to Kevin Durant’s rib troubles. But they’re not the only ones with injury issues, as San Antonio at this point is expecting to attempt a run this postseason without perennial star Kawhi Leonard, who has been out indefinitely and whose situation is currently thrown up in mystery for the Spurs’ long term plans. It will be interesting to watch the Spurs and how they can manage to tango with a top tier team without their star, something they’ve been accustomed to all season under some great play by LaMarcus Aldridge. And on the other side, if KD can manage to step up as leader for Golden State and calm the storm of worry that looms as long as they’re Curry-less. Series winner: Warriors

(3) Portland Trail Blazers vs (6) New Orleans Pelicans
Usually used to being an underdog coming into this point in the season, the Portland Trail Blazers ended up being one of the pleasant surprises in the league this season, landing the 3-seed even though the conference is stacked more than ever before. The explosive backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum look to make sparks fly this postseason once again, harkening back to Dame’s 2013 buzzer beating heartbreaker vs Houston. With talented big Jusuf Nurkic back and fully healthy this go-round, it won’t be hard for them to make a splash. Even though New Orleans has been missing DeMarcus Cousins after his discouraging achilles injury since January, that set in motion the unleashing of Anthony Davis, who has single-handedly carried the Pelicans in the tail end of this season to keep their playoffs spot. While at this point there are no expectations for the team, it’ll be intriguing to see if Davis can keep his momentum and possibly be the catalyst of a New Orleans miracle. Series winner: Trail Blazers

(4) Oklahoma City Thunder vs (5) Utah Jazz
In possibly the tightest of the Western conference matchups of the first round at a glance, the Thunder and Jazz, sitting right below the high echelon of elite super teams, look to both make some noise of their own in this postseason. Unfortunately for one of them though, the road stops here, which for OKC and team’s superstar Russell Westbrook, might not be an option. Westbrook, after averaging a triple-double for the second consecutive season, looks to silence his “stat-padding” critics and the like with some definitive results. Will Paul George and Carmelo Anthony be able to rise up when their leader needs them? As for Utah, they were another of the biggest surprises of the regular season. Led by the insatiable Donovan Mitchell, who has recently been publicly laying claim to the prize of Rookie of the Year, they seek to continue surprising on a tough potential path. After leading a young team with no expectations to a 5-seed in a stacked conference as an NBA freshman, Mitchell might just have the best case. Series winner: Thunder

EASTERN CONFERENCE

(1) Toronto Raptors vs (8) Washington Wizards
With the way the league has been arranged after last season and with what will come in the future, this season could be Toronto’s best shot at a race for the title. All-around, they have the most well-rounded roster in the East and have seen significant improvement in play from stars DeMar Derozan and Kyle Lowry, as well as coaching in probably the finest job done by Dwane Casey since his defensive schemes as an assistant helped the Dallas Mavericks win their first and only championship. Toronto knows, however, that The King (LeBron James, who we’ll discuss later) will be looming any and every postseason, and that’s one obstacle they have yet to best. Could this be the year? For the Wizards, the regular season actually ended up being quite the disappointment, as the team couldn’t live up to the expectations they set prior to the year. With a lack of team synergy (especially when John Wall is active, which is both puzzling and unfortunate), it’s hard to see them getting out of the first round unless Wall and Bradley Beal can cook up something special and finally realize their squad’s potential. Series winner: Raptors

(2) Boston Celtics vs (7) Milwaukee Bucks 
The Celtics, even with the 2-seed, couldn’t possibly be more discouraged going into this postseason. After losing Kyrie Irving for the rest of the season after knee surgery, and already having Gordon Hayward gone for the year, Boston has no perennial star to guide the young guns this playoffs. At this point, these playoffs serve as extention to the development of Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier, and the rest of the Celtics up-and-coming young core as they gain more experience for future endeavors, when their team is hopefully 100 percent and raring to go. While the Milwaukee Bucks were another of the teams to slightly under-perform during the course of the regular season. However, this could possibly be attributed to the reworking of a gameplan to include a finally-healthy Jabari Parker and a newer teammate in Eric Bledsoe. But after having plenty of time for that, it’s time for rising superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo and company to finally step up and take it to the next level. Series winner: Bucks

(3) Philadelphia 76ers vs (6) Miami Heat
It seems “The Process” has finally fruited some results it promised to obtain. After finishing the regular season on a 16-game winning streak and a 52-30 overall record, Philly nation is rumbling like it’s the AI days once again. Behind young, budding stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid (whose scheduled to come back for Game 2, donning a mask), the Sixers may already be ahead of schedule as a legitimate contender to go the distance. With the readdition of Fultz adding even more firepower to the blooming squad, could The Process already come full circle in year 1 of full operation? Not if Miami has anything to say about it, as the Heat look to be the conference’s dark horse during this postseason, refusing to heed to the Sixers so easily. This could be the tightest series of the East in round 1, and will definitely be a fun watch. Series winner: 76ers

(4) Cleveland Cavaliers vs (5) Indiana Pacers
LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers let themselves slip to the 4-seed, but heed James’ warning: Seeding doesn’t matter, give him a chance and he’ll take it before you know it. While LeBron and company are practically guaranteed to make a mess of things in the East in any given season, this year there seems to be some tough competition out of a conference that’s struggled to escape the West’s shadow in recent years. This includes the Pacers, who after completely rebooting from the Paul George saga, are already back on the up-trend as they ended up being another great surprise during this NBA season. Victor Oladipo has really stepped it up in his first year with the team, showing that he still has awesome potential as an all star for years to come this conference could surely use. LeBron has been known to have at least a little trouble with Indy in the past during the playoffs, will they be able to do the same now to James and his reworked team? Series winner: Cavaliers

With the start of the playoffs imminent and the excitement at this point being practically tangible, which teams will make it out of round 1? It’s win or go home, and we’ll be there every step of the way for updates on the ongoing events of the postseason.