2018 NBA Playoffs: The Biggest Questions For Each First-Round Series

It took until the final game of the final night of the regular season, but the 2018 NBA playoff match-ups are finally set.

In the East, No. 1 Toronto will face No. 8 Washington, No. 2 Boston will face No. 7 Milwaukee, No. 3 Philadelphia will face No. 6 Miami, and No. 4 Cleveland will face No. 5 Indiana.

Out West, No. 1 Houston will play No. 8 Minnesota, No. 2 Golden State will play No. 7 San Antonio, No. 3 Portland will play No. 6 New Orleans, and No. 4 Oklahoma City will play No. 5 Utah.

Without further ado, let’s dig into eight burning questions—one for each series—that will shape the upcoming postseason.

1. Will the Raptors live up to their billing as the first round’s biggest favorites?

The first round’s most lopsided series doesn’t involve the Rockets, who led the league in wins and point differential, or the defending champion Warriors. No, it’s the Raptors who enjoy the largest regular-season point differential advantage over their first-round opponent, the Wizards.

2017-18 Net Point Differential Between First-Round Opponents

  • Raptors +7.2 over Wizards
  • Rockets +6.3 over Timberwolves
  • Sixers +4 over Heat
  • Celtics +3.9 over Bucks
  • Warriors +3.1 over Spurs
  • Blazers +1.3 over Pelicans
  • Jazz +0.9 over Thunder
  • Pacers +0.5 over Cavaliers

Strictly based on their respective regular-season profiles, the Raptors should be gunning for a tidy five-game series win, if not a sweep. After all, Toronto is the only playoff team that ranks in the top-five on both offense and defense; Washington, by contrast, is in the middle of the pack on both sides. The Raptors are deep and very good at just about everything. The Wizards are not deep and often settle into a mediocre malaise.

But there are obvious extenuating circumstances, starting with the fact that the two teams split their season series, 2-2. Most importantly, Washington’s John Wall is back after an extended absence due to a knee injury. The Wizards’ preferred starting lineup, which includes Wall, performed extremely well together in last year’s postseason. Meanwhile, the Raptors jogged into the playoffs with a somewhat troublesome 7-5 closing stretch. And their star guards, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, have struggled to carry over their All-Star caliber play into the playoffs in years past.

Given that a date with LeBron James will likely be waiting for them in the second round, it would certainly behoove the Raptors to make quick work of the Wizards.

2. Can Giannis Antetokounmpo capitalize on Boston’s health woes?

The Bucks have been maddening and uninspiring lately, but they managed to back their way into a decent upset possibility. They don’t have to face LeBron James or the red-hot Sixers, and they will avoid a rematch with the Raptors, who eliminated them in last year’s first round. Instead, they draw the limping Celtics, who are currently without Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis due to injuries.

Boston/Milwaukee sets up as a fascinating test for the old axiom, “The team with the best player in a series usually advances.” Giannis Antetokounmpo easily holds that title in this match-up thanks to a 2017-18 campaign in which he will likely finish in the top five or six in MVP voting. In four meetings with Boston this season (a 2-2 split), Antetokounmpo averaged 33.5 PPG, 10.8 RPG and 5 APG, marking his second-highest scoring average against any opponent (34.5 PPG against Cleveland was first).

One year ago, Antetokounmpo clearly outplayed DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, but the Bucks still fell to the Raptors in six games. He’s a much more effective and lethal player this year, and he’ll pose problems for Boston’s talented young wing defenders. At the same time, the Celtics boast the East’s best defense, and they’ve maintained a high level of play despite their recent injury issues. Will Playoff Giannis find a way to bust through this brick wall and win the first series of his career?

3. When will Joel Embiid return to the floor?

Sixers/Heat will be fully consumed by the simplest question: When will Joel Embiid enter the postseason ring against his longtime nemesis Hassan Whiteside? Philadelphia’s All-Star center suffered an orbital fracture on March 28, missing the final eight games of the season. Remarkably, Ben Simmons guided the Sixers to an 8-0 record during that span, finishing the year on a stunning 16-game winning streak. On Wednesday, Embiid donned a mask and shot jumpers, but told reporters that it’s “unlikely” he will play in Game 1.

Assuming a quick return for Embiid, the Sixers should be viewed as a strong favorite to prevail in this series, despite their youth. The Heat’s offense, ranked 20th, is the worst among the league’s 16 playoff teams and liable to struggle against the Sixers’ top-three defense. However, Embiid’s defensive impact is among the league’s best, and his absence, if it lingers, would crack open the door for Miami.

Once he returns, Embiid’s battles with Whiteside will stand as perhaps the most entertaining one-on-one showdown of the entire first round. The two have exchanged plenty of jabs on social media, and their teams split the season series at two games apiece. This one is for all of the Instagram bragging rights.

4. How much will Cleveland’s defense improve?

Pacers fans have had no reason to pine for Paul George this season, not with both Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis smashing expectations during a surprising thrill ride. Now that their playoff match-up is set, though, it sure would be nice to have a defensive wing of George’s caliber to deploy against LeBron James.

Even so, the Cavaliers/Pacers series is likely to be decided by Cleveland’s ability (or inability) to improve its own atrocious defense. The Cavaliers enter the postseason ranked 29th in defensive efficiency, easily the worst mark among the 16 playoff teams. That ranking is influenced by numerous factors: James worked to conserve his energy, multiple trades shook up Cleveland’s chemistry, and numerous key players were lost to injury for extended stretches. Coach Tyronn Lue promised a “totally different” defensive showing in the playoffs, and he better hope he’s right. Indiana won the season series 3-1 while averaging 109 PPG in the match-ups.

It’s extraordinarily difficult to bet against James—who hasn’t lost a first-round game since 2012—when he’s facing a young upstart like Indiana. Nevertheless, the Cavaliers’ ability to crank up their defensive intensity will determine whether they make quick work of the Pacers for the second straight postseason or if James will be forced to break a sweat for once.

5. Is it all downhill from here for the Timberwolves?

With all eight postseason match-ups left undecided entering Wednesday’s action, the final night of the regular season was set up to be beautifully chaotic. That was especially true for the Timberwolves and Nuggets, who engaged in a grueling play-in game for the West’s eighth seed. Minnesota needed overtime to emerge victorious, thereby snapping a 13-year postseason drought in front of an uncharacteristically raucous home crowd. Karl Towns poured in 24 points and 16 rebounds. Taj Gibson came up with huge defensive stops. Andrew Wiggins drained two clutch free throws. And Jimmy Butler did a little bit of everything while logging 40+ minutes less than a week after returning from knee surgery.

The Timberwolves wasted no time celebrating the accomplishment, sending out a press release on Wednesday night that heralded the franchise’s “new era” and 15% year-over-year attendance increase. Their reward for their season-saving, mood-boosting and chest-thumping night? A first-round date with the Rockets, who are the NBA’s best team by record and point differential.

This could get ugly. Potentially really ugly, given that the Rockets have the league’s top offense and the Timberwolves have the second-worst defense among the 16 playoffs teams. To make matters worse, Houston swept the season series 4-0, averaging 122.8 PPG and winning by an average of 15.8 PPG.

To be clear, there would be no shame in an early exit for the Timberwolves, not after so many demoralizing seasons and not after such a triumphant finale on Wednesday.

6. How badly does LaMarcus Aldridge want revenge?

Warriors/Spurs is starting to feel like the greatest rivalry that never was. In 2013, the Warriors were still figuring things out, and only managed to throw a mild scare at Tim Duncan’s Spurs. The next year, San Antonio won the title while avoiding Golden State. In 2015 and 2016, Stephen Curry’s Warriors conquered the conference but didn’t have to face the Spurs en route to the Finals. Last year, the two teams finally met again in the playoffs, only to have the series end prematurely when Zaza Pachulia slid under Kawhi Leonard. This year? Both West powers will be noticeably handicapped, as Curry is sidelined with a knee sprain and Leonard is missing in action due to a mysterious quadriceps injury.    

The resulting series is likely to be choppy: Both teams have strong defenses, and both have struggled to score efficiently without Curry and Leonard. If San Antonio is going to overcome Golden State’s clear talent advantage, it will need a big series from LaMarcus Aldridge. Duh.

The six-time All-Star forward struggled to assert himself after Leonard departed from the 2017 West finals, mustering just 34 points on 39 shots combined in the final three losses of a disheartening sweep. This year, Aldridge bounced back in a big way, averaging a team-high 23.3 PPG and improving San Antonio’s offensive efficiency by six points when he was on the court. He raised his game further in four games against Golden State, averaging 26.8 PPG (on 53 FG%) and 11 rebounds. Draymond Green and the Warriors’ defense will surely throw the kitchen sink at Aldridge in hopes of short-circuiting the Spurs’ attack.

7. Will Anthony Davis finally break through?

There are some striking parallels between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis as the two young superstars enter the postseason. Like Antetokounmpo, Davis is searching for his first playoff series win. Like Antetokounmpo, Davis played at an MVP level during a turbulent season. (The former lost coach Jason Kidd and the latter lost DeMarcus Cousins.) And like Antetokounmpo, Davis must be happy with his playoff draw.

Just as Antetokounmpo will avoid LeBron James, the top-seeded Raptors and the surging Sixers in the first round, Davis had to like what he saw once the dust settled on Wednesday night. His Pelicans won’t have to face the league-leading Rockets, the Warriors (who swept them out of the 2015 playoffs), or the red-hot Jazz. No need to keep up with Houston’s insane offense. No need to deal with Draymond Green. And no Rudy Gobert lurking around the hoop to break up lob passes and challenge dunks.

Instead, Davis draws the Blazers, who lost five of their final six games and will struggle to counter his length, agility and overall offensive polish. New Orleans split its season series with Portland 2-2, after going 1-3 against Houston, 1-3 against Golden State and 1-3 against Utah. What’s more, the Pelicans have an All-Defensive level point guard in Jrue Holiday to deploy against Blazers star Damian Lillard.

Portland deserves to be favored due to its superior depth of talent and its quality offense/defense balance. But Davis has been waiting six years to make real noise in the playoffs, and this is easily his best shot to date.

8. Can the 2018 Thunder succeed where the 2017 Clippers failed?

History has a funny way of repeating itself. In 2017, the Jazz entered a tight first-round series as the West’s No. 5 seed against an opponent known for its star power, chemistry questions, and free-agency uncertainty. One year later, the Jazz enter a tight first-round series as the West’s No. 5 seed against an opponent known for its star power, chemistry questions, and free-agency uncertainty.

The Jazz outlasted the Clippers in seven games last year thanks to a terrific team defensive effort that capitalized on a season-ending injury to Blake Griffin. By the end of the series, Chris Paul was valiantly running on fumes. Unable to carry LA out of the first round, he forced his way to Houston a few months later.

Utah’s formula this season against Oklahoma City will be similar: limit its mistakes, turn every OKC possession into a nightmare through diligent defense, make Russell Westbrook work as hard as Paul had to work, pursue a team-based approach on offense to scrounge up enough points to get by, and hope that Oklahoma City’s potential fissures turn into full-fledged cracks.

Like the Clippers last year, the Thunder enter this series with all the pressure. Westbrook must prove he can be more effective and egalitarian than he was in the 2017 playoffs. Paul George must shake off a post-All-Star shooting slump and the constant scrutiny around his upcoming free agency. Carmelo Anthony must withstand Utah’s efforts to pick on his subpar defense. And collectively, OKC’s stars must perform far better in close games than they did during the regular season.

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