Everything to know for the opening round of the 2019 NBA playoffs

Playoff basketball is back!

It has been a long regular season (177 days, to be exact), but the postseason has arrived, and it looks a lot different than it did a year ago. For the first time since 2010, a team not led by LeBron James will emerge from the Eastern Conference, and for the first time since 2005, James will not be involved in the festivities.

As for the players, teams and matchups to know, well, we’ve got you covered.

2018-19 record: 57-25
BPI odds vs. LAC: 90 percent

There were a lot of emotional highs and lows, but through it all, this group continued to churn out wins and locked up the top spot in the West. The process of trying to get up for most games in the regular season was emotionally draining, but the Warriors held to the belief that they’d be ready when it counted most. The push for a three-peat has begun.

Season in a single game: Jan. 15
The Warriors came into a showdown against Denver hearing some chatter that the Nuggets were ready to give them a push in the Western Conference. OK. Klay Thompson & Co. proceeded to score a league-record 51 first-quarter points and demolish an overwhelmed Nuggets team. The game offered a reminder to the rest of the league that the Warriors are still better than anyone else when they want to focus and play at their peak.


Steph Curry ties Klay Thompson with a game-high 31 points, with eight 3-pointers, in the Warriors’ victory.

There’s trouble brewing:
The Warriors are confident that nobody can beat them if they stay healthy and play together. A potential Oklahoma City first-round series would have been interesting, given Kevin Durant’s history with his former team, but the only team that would give the Warriors much pause in the West is the Rockets, especially if Chris Paul can stay healthy. But with home-court advantage at Oracle and the motivation of chasing history, the only thing that truly concerns the Warriors is the possibility of a star injury.

Most 20-Point Losses By An NBA Champ

Season Team 20-pt losses
1974-75 Warriors 6
1960-61 Celtics 5
2016-17 Warriors 5
1977-78 Bullets 5
Source: Elias Sports Bureau

One big stat and why it matters:
Has the regular season become too boring, or does Golden State have some issues that might pop up late in the playoffs? The Warriors’ point differential of plus-6.6 at home this season was its worst under Steve Kerr (since 2014-15), and it’s a far cry from the plus-16.0 point differential two seasons ago. The Warriors also suffered eight 20-point losses this season, which becomes important when you realize that no NBA champion has suffered more than six — the 1975 Warriors — during a title run.

Get to know: Quinn Cook
Cook is the Warriors’ secret offensive weapon off the bench. The diminutive point guard has found his stride the past few weeks, going 48-for-78 in his past 10 games. He is shooting the ball with confidence while providing Kerr a solid option off the bench. Cook has the ability to be a difference-maker in short bursts.

What to watch in Round 1:
DeMarcus Cousins was signed for this moment: to give the Warriors an extra weapon in the postseason and provide a big body to support the group down on the blocks when needed. It’s going to be interesting to see how Cousins, who never participated in the playoffs in Sacramento or New Orleans, handles the emotions that come with postseason basketball, especially in the context of a Warriors team that has been gearing up for this point all season. If Boogie is on, look out.

— Nick Friedell

2018-19 record: 48-34
BPI odds vs. GS: 10 percent

No team in the league has existed in a greater state of flux the past two seasons than the Clippers, yet here they are — improbably — in the NBA playoffs. A far cry from the perennial Lob City squads, this Clippers team is a collection of lunch-pail journeymen and young prospects, many of whom didn’t arrive until the trade deadline, when the Clippers dealt away Tobias Harris. Rather than close up shop and ready themselves for a busy offseason after losing one of their most productive players, the Clippers caught fire and secured themselves a playoff berth as the ultimate energy team.

Season in a single game: Feb. 9
Three days after trading Harris and playing with two new starters who had yet to step foot in the team’s training facility in Los Angeles, the Clippers found themselves down 28 points in the second quarter in Boston and trailed by 21 at the half. After intermission, the Clippers held the Celtics to a 12-point third quarter before exploding for 42 points in the final frame. Rookie Landry Shamet, acquired from Philadelphia as part of the package for Harris, drained four 3-pointers in his Clippers debut. “We broke out the JJ Redick package with him,” said Doc Rivers, referencing his old shooting guard in praise of his new one.

Why they’re dangerous:
By nearly every projection, the Clippers shouldn’t be playing playoff basketball, which means they have nothing to lose. Lou Williams believes he can score against anybody. Montrezl Harrell plays with reckless abandon, big moment be damned. And there isn’t a shot from distance that Danilo Gallinari doesn’t think he can drain. The kids — Shamet, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Ivica Zubac? They’re too young to know any better and are propelled by the confidence earned during the Clippers’ sizzling post-All-Star-Break run.

Best plus/minus in clutch time (2018-19)

TEAM Clutch +/-
LA Clippers +65
Denver Nuggets +55
Philadelphia 76ers +43
Toronto Raptors +41

One big stat and why it matters:
The Clippers have been arguably the best team in the NBA at closing out tight games. They have a plus-65 plus/minus in clutch time this season, first in the league. Lou Williams’ play is a huge reason. His plus-92 plus/minus in clutch time ranks first in the NBA among individual players. The next-best individual plus/minus in clutch time this season belongs to Denver’s Nikola Jokic, at plus-89.

Get to know: Montrezl Harrell
A second-rounder made good, Harrell is more than a mere energy guy who buzzes around the floor. He might not start for the Clippers but is a good bet to play crucial minutes. The Clippers’ backup big man has serious skills as Lou Williams’ dance partner in one of the most effective pick-and-roll attacks in the league, and he is an efficiency machine with a nose for the rim. Among players who log more than 24 minutes per night, Harrell ranks second to Giannis Antetokounmpo in true shooting percentage.

What to watch in Round 1:
Gilgeous-Alexander has enjoyed a superb rookie campaign and has shown flashes of the lanky, defensive presence at the top of the floor that he projects to be. Now comes his graduate exam: Stephen Curry. Veteran Patrick Beverley will spend much of his time hounding Curry, but the Clippers’ 20-year-old point guard will get a prime opportunity to utilize his length and agility against the Warriors’ ballet in preparation for a day when the ask is more reasonable and the Clippers find themselves in a high-stakes series. Depending on how the Clippers fare this summer, that could be sooner than later.

— Kevin Arnovitz

2018-19 record: 54-28
BPI odds vs. SA: 71 percent

There are times when a team ends a season in disappointment but on an upward tilt that leads to expectation the following season, expectation that is difficult to meet. Well, the Nuggets didn’t just meet that expectation. They jumped in a jet and zoomed past. Nikola Jokic blossomed into an All-NBA star, and the mix of role players and emerging talent has led to an excellent team. The Nuggets play defense, they move the ball, and they have terrific chemistry. But as it goes for any young team, it’s unknown how it will look in the pressure cooker of the postseason.

Season in a single game: Jan. 13
It’s a sequence of games for the Nuggets that tells the story. In this mid-January game, they beat the Blazers 116-113 in a thriller, with Jokic going for 40-10-8 and playing a brilliant fourth quarter. He even heard a thundering chant of M-V-P while shooting free throws. The win elevated the Nuggets to the top of the West, a half-game up on the Warriors. Two nights after the win, the Nuggets took on the Warriors in Denver, a litmus test for the emerging squad. The Warriors dropped 51 in the first quarter and went on to completely smash the young Nuggets 142-111. It’s an example of where things stand for them: They are building, growing and developing into a true Western contender. But against the class of the NBA, they were shown that there’s still a ways to go.


Nikola Jokic records a near triple-double with 40 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists to lead the Nuggets to a 116-113 win over the Trail Blazers.

There’s trouble brewing:
The Nuggets’ primary weakness, if it’s fair to call it that, is their inexperience. They are young and have yet to feel playoff fire as a group. As a high seed in the West, they’ll be favored in their opening-round series and have the pressure of defending home court in their first two games. They’ve responded all season and handled themselves with impressive maturity, but if teams double Jokic, can Jamal Murray make the right read? Can Gary Harris create his own shot in a critical scenario? Can all their overachieving role players — Torrey Craig, Monte Morris — keep hitting shots?

Most Passes Per Game to Teammate (2018-19)

per game
Nuggets Jokic-to-Murray 30.0
Grizzlies Gasol-to-Conley 26.7
Pistons Jackson-to-Griffin 26.3
Hawks Collins-to-Young 25.5
Nuggets Murray-to-Jokic 24.8
Source: Second Spectrum

One big stat and why it matters:
When Jokic and Murray share the court — and the ball — good things happen for Denver. The duo ranks first and fifth, respectively, in the NBA in passes to each other per game. Jokic finds Murray more than 30 times per game, and Murray gets it to Jokic nearly 25 times per game.

Get to know: Malik Beasley and Torrey Craig
What has made the Nuggets so good this season is that there are three or four candidates who fit the mold of unknown player who could make a name for himself. The Nuggets’ depth has been a strength, but head coach Mike Malone is going to have to focus on the eight or nine guys he trusts most. Both Beasley and Craig have taken their turns as game-changing wing, and it’s hard to predict which one Malone might lean on more.

What to watch in Round 1:
Derrick White vs. Jamal Murray. White has emerged as one of the better defensive guards in the NBA, and Murray is going to have a considerable amount of pressure and responsibility on his shoulders. So many playoff games can be decided by a big shot or two in the closing minutes, and the Nuggets will rely on Murray to create some on his own. White is long, rangy and athletic; he could give Murray some trouble getting clean looks.

— Royce Young

2018-19 record: 48-34
BPI odds vs. DEN: 29 percent

San Antonio opened camp without a member of the franchise’s famed Big Three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker on the roster for the first time since the 1997-98 season, thus ushering in a new era of Spurs basketball. Despite a rash of early injuries and the hiccups of incorporating DeMar DeRozan and three other new starters, San Antonio scrapped its way to an NBA-record-tying 22nd straight postseason appearance.

Season in a single game: Dec. 15
Even battier than the winged mammals that swoop to the AT&T Center floor from time to time is San Antonio’s inability to close games. A Dec. 15 loss at home to the Bulls, in which the Spurs blew a 21-point lead in the second half, made it clear that this is no longer the San Antonio squad known for out-executing less experienced opponents down the stretch. Even internally, the Spurs admit that they can no longer rely on their “corporate knowledge” in the clutch situations that they once relished.


Kris Dunn scores 24 points on 11-of-19 shooting, including the dagger as the Bulls rally to defeat the Spurs 98-93.

Why they’re dangerous:
The Spurs have beaten all but one of the top teams in the West (Houston) on multiple occasions throughout the season, and their jelling process took much more time than usual because they had to strip down many of the complexities of the defensive system to accommodate all the new faces in the lineups. While many teams discuss the desire to play their best ball once the postseason rolls around, San Antonio might actually be trending that way. For several years, the Spurs enjoyed the luxury of resting players as the playoffs approached. But with a younger, less experienced roster, San Antonio had to scrap its way in, which in some ways could lead to a more battle-tested squad for the postseason.

One big stat and why it matters:
The Spurs might be better on defense with their two most recognizable stars on the sideline. When LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan are on the court together (2,242 minutes), the Spurs have a defensive rating of 109.7, which would rank 17th in the league this season. When Aldridge and DeRozan are both off the court (828 minutes), the Spurs have a defensive rating of 102.5, which would rank first in the league this season.

Get to know: Derrick White
White, who spent almost all of his rookie season in the G-League, was forced into the starting lineup by Dejounte Murray’s preseason knee injury. He has emerged as an essential part of the Spurs’ success. He’s an All-Defense candidate who ranked second on the team in net rating (plus-4.3 points per 100 possessions).

What to watch in Round 1:
LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Paul Millsap. The Nuggets can’t ask Jokic to guard the Spurs’ go-to guy, so that task falls primarily to Millsap, despite the 3-inch height disadvantage. Aldridge averaged 22.3 points on 55.7 percent shooting for the Spurs against the Nuggets this season. San Antonio was 37-10 when Aldridge scored at least 20 points, including 2-1 against the Nuggets. If the Spurs’ All-Star is in a rhythm, San Antonio has a real chance to pull off an upset over an inexperienced No. 2 seed.

— Michael C. Wright and Tim MacMahon

2018-19 record: 53-29
BPI odds vs. OKC: 59 percent

Shaking off a fluky sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round of last year’s playoffs, the Blazers started 10-3 and navigated a tricky February schedule to stay in the Western Conference’s second tier. Despite the crushing blow of losing starting center Jusuf Nurkic to a compound leg fracture on March 25, Portland took care of business against a weak schedule to earn home-court advantage in the first round.

Season in a single game: March 18
Besides the Pelicans’ getting hot at the right time, the Blazers were undone during last year’s playoffs by the inability of players besides All-Star Damian Lillard and backcourt-mate CJ McCollum to make a play when New Orleans trapped the duo. Playing without McCollum (left knee injury) in this game, Lillard showed his development as a playmaker, and his teammates showed their improved reliability in a comeback win against the feisty Pacers. In addition to scoring 30 points, Lillard handed out a season-high 15 assists, and six Portland players scored in double figures.


Damian Lillard records a double-double of 30 points and 15 assists as Portland beats Indiana 106-98.

There’s trouble brewing:
With 18 points, Nurkic was the Blazers’ second-leading scorer in that March 18 game, part of the best season of his career. A week later, he lay on the Moda Center floor in agony after breaking two bones in his left leg in a freak accident. While Portland stayed afloat against lesser competition without Nurkic, it will be difficult for the Blazers to replace his playmaking when opponents trap Lillard and his rim protection against playoff competition. Add McCollum’s coming back from injury, and Portland, healthy most of the year, is at far less than full strength for the postseason.

Most points per direct pick (2018-19)

Team Ball handler Screener Pts/Pick
POR Damian Lillard Zach Collins 1.22
MEM Mike Conley Joakim Noah 1.19
MIL Eric Bledsoe Brook Lopez 1.17
Source: Second Spectrum

One big stat and why it matters:
Lillard is one of the most lethal pick-and-roll ball handlers in the NBA. According to Second Spectrum, the Trail Blazers average 1.11 points per direct pick when Lillard is the ball handler, highest in the NBA among 173 players to receive at least 150 direct picks. Lillard has had success in the pick-and-roll with Zach Collins, one of the players who will attempt to fill the void left by Nurkic. The Blazers average 1.25 points per direct pick with Lillard as the ball handler and Collins as the screener, best in the NBA (min. 150 direct picks).

Get to know: Zach Collins
Collins, in and out of the rotation after the Kanter signing, was thrust into a larger role by Nurkic’s untimely injury. Now Portland’s best rim protector, as well as a floor-spacing option at the 5 spot (he’s a 33 percent 3-point shooter), Collins will likely finish games at center.

What to watch in Round 1:
Damian Lillard vs. Russell Westbrook. Oklahoma City rarely sent two defenders at Lillard in the pick-and-roll — just 7.5 percent of the time, per Second Spectrum tracking — allowing him to play scorer in the season series. Lillard’s 34.8 points per game were his most against any West opponent. Yet the Thunder swept the four matchups, in part because Westbrook was able to score efficiently against the Blazers. Thanks largely to 9.3 free throw attempts per game, Westbrook’s .530 true shooting percentage vs. Portland was far better than his overall .500 mark.

— Kevin Pelton

2018-19 record: 49-33
BPI odds vs. POR: 41 percent

For a minute there, the Thunder didn’t just look like a good team — they looked like an actual title contender. But as it seems to go with them, the inconsistencies caught up, and the roller coaster started. It’s hard to project anything when it comes to OKC because the team’s variance can be so extreme. The Thunder might be a real playoff threat in the West, and they have the DNA of a dangerous team. They also could be a first-round out. Neither result would surprise anyone.

Season in a single game: Feb. 14
At the time, it felt like a harmless loss. It was the night before the All-Star break, and the Thunder were riding a four-game winning streak and had won 12 of their past 13. They were establishing themselves as a top Western ‘dog, with impressive recent wins over Philly, Portland (twice), Milwaukee and Houston. They rolled into New Orleans, and despite Anthony Davis’ leaving the game — and the arena — with an injury in the first half, OKC gave up 65 points by halftime, never course-corrected and lost 131-122, despite 44 points from Russell Westbrook. It was foreshadowing of the rocky second half to come, with sloppy defense, bad shooting and inconsistent, lethargic performances mixed with inspired, solid wins.


Russell Westbrook stuffs the stat sheet with 44 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists, but the Thunder fall to the Pelicans 131-122.

Why they’re dangerous:
It’s a pretty straightforward thing with the Thunder: PG and Russ. That kind of combo can score 75 combined on their own, and completely take over a series. Against top teams, the Thunder had one of the best records in the NBA this season and so much of that was because George and Westbrook elevated in those big games. There are some concerns with George’s health after his missed the final game of the season with shoulder soreness, but at full tilt, the Thunder can be fast and furious, with Westbrook and George roaring at you relentlessly.

Most deflections this season

PLAYER Deflections
Paul George 292
James Harden 277
Thaddeus Young 263
Marcus Smart 227
Russell Westbrook 226
Source: NBA.com/stats

One big stat and why it matters:
If the Thunder are to make a deep run in the postseason, it will come down to Westbrook and George, two of the best hustle players in the NBA. According to NBA.com/stats, George leads the NBA in both deflections and loose ball recoveries, and Westbrook ranks in the top five in both categories.

Get to know: Jerami Grant
Paul George called him the Thunder’s X-factor, and it’s hard to disagree because Grant is integral to the Thunder’s success. His 3-point shooting has been a significant development (39.2 percent), but his electric athleticism and elastic versatility allow him to play in a ton of lineup combinations. If the Thunder advance, it’s probably going to be because Grant played well in the series.

What to watch in Round 1:
OKC vs. Enes Kanter. If anyone knows how to attack Kanter, it’s the Thunder. Coach Billy Donovan was caught saying “Can’t play Kanter” on the bench during the Thunder’s series against the Rockets in 2017. Without Jusuf Nurkic, the Thunder appear to have a sizable advantage on the interior and could put Terry Stotts and the Blazers in a bind with lineups. Plus, fellow former ‘Stache Brother Steven Adams seems to have Kanter’s number.

— Young

2018-19 record: 53-29
BPI odds vs. UTAH: 55 percent

It took almost two months for the Rockets to get over their hangover from coming this close in last year’s West finals. After digging a hole with an 11-14 start, Houston rode James Harden’s historic offensive dominance back into the upper crust of the Western Conference, despite Chris Paul’s and Clint Capela’s missing extended time due to injuries. Along the way, GM Daryl Morey dumped some offseason mistakes (Carmelo Anthony, Michael Carter-Williams) and added some quality role players (Austin Rivers, Kenneth Faried, Iman Shumpert) to improve the Rockets’ depth.

Season in a single game: Jan. 3
The signature moment of the Rockets’ season — and the Beard’s campaign to repeat as MVP — happened in the final seconds of Houston’s Jan. 3 overtime win over the Warriors at Oracle Arena. With Klay Thompson contesting from the left and Draymond Green closing out, Harden launched his 23rd 3-point attempt of the night, drilling a game-winning pullup from 28 feet. That was the exclamation point on a 44-point, 10-rebound, 15-assist performance, a ridiculous stat line that somehow didn’t seem too far beyond the norm for Harden during his historic run. Message sent: Harden gives Houston a chance to beat anyone anywhere.


James Harden turns up his game in the second half and overtime, finishing with a triple-double and game-winning 3.

There’s trouble brewing:
Can Paul stay healthy throughout a deep playoff run? Can Harden maintain his efficiency after a full season with a historically heavy workload? Paul, who will turn 34 during the conference semifinals, has had his postseasons ended prematurely due to injuries in two of the past three years. Rockets fans need no reminder of the hamstring strain he suffered in the last minute of Houston’s series-lead-taking Game 5 win in last year’s West finals. Harden’s reputation for fading in the playoffs is an exaggeration based on a couple awful elimination games. However, his 3-point shooting, such a vital element of his scoring, bears watching. He has shot sub-30 percent from deep the past two postseasons, perhaps a sign of tired legs.

Most unassisted 3s in a season (NBA history)

Season Player Unassisted 3s
2018-19 James Harden 317
2017-18 James Harden 196
2016-17 James Harden 179
2015-16 Stephen Curry 177
2018-19 Kemba Walker 146

One big stat and why it matters:
This season, Harden pushed the bounds of how much offense one player can create, blending volume and efficiency at a level only Wilt Chamberlain has ever attained. Harden made 317 unassisted 3-pointers, obliterating the NBA record and more than doubling the output of any other player this season. He had more unassisted 3s than any player besides Stephen Curry has made over an entire season. The Beard shares a spot on a star-studded list … with himself.

Get to know: Danuel House Jr.
There’s good reason Morey eventually blinked in the contract standoff with House, who was relegated to the G-League when he reached his allotment of NBA service days on his two-way deal and refused the Rockets’ offer of a three-year minimum contract. The 6-foot-7 forward gives Houston athleticism and has become a knockdown spot-up shooter (41.6 percent from 3), making him an excellent complementary piece. He has a net rating of plus-14.0 points per 100 possessions in 14 games since the Rockets signed him for the rest of the season.

What to watch in Round 1:
Clint Capela vs. Rudy Gobert. Gobert, who will likely be the Defensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season, has to be a dominant deterrent on Harden’s drives for the Jazz to contain Houston’s historically elite offense. Capela makes that task even more difficult as a lob threat who has an uncanny chemistry with Harden, who excels at the last-split-second dish for Capela to finish.

— MacMahon

2018-19 record: 50-32
BPI odds vs. HOU: 45 percent

Just as they did last season, the Jazz started slowly and finished strong. Utah sat second-to-last in the Western Conference standings a couple of months into the season, after stumbling to a 14-17 record through a road-heavy early stretch of the schedule. Since the Jazz got in a groove, however, Utah has played at an elite level. The NBA-best Bucks are the only team with a better win percentage than the Jazz since Jan. 1.

Season in a single game: Jan. 9
How fitting is it that you can point to a massive comeback as the turning point in the Jazz’s season? Utah overcame a 21-point deficit to roll to a 106-93 win over the Magic on Jan. 9. The victory pulled the Jazz’s record to 21-21 and jump-started a six-game winning streak. The Jazz rallied with two essential elements to playing to their peak potential: spectacular scoring by Mitchell (22 of 33 points in the second half, including 16 in the fourth quarter) and dominant defense (held the Magic to 30 points after halftime).


Donovan Mitchell has a big second half, with 33 points in a 106-93 comeback win vs. the Magic.

Why they’re a dangerous draw:
Good news: Utah went 18-6 after the All-Star break, which was the NBA’s third-best record in that span. Bad news: The Rockets (20-5) had the league’s best record after the break. But the Jazz are an elite defensive team with a star in Donovan Mitchell who has proven that he’s capable of winning a playoff series.

Lowest FG% allowed at the rim (2018-19)

Derrick Favors UTAH 50.1
Hassan Whiteside MIA 50.7
Ivica Zubac LAL/LAC 51.5
JaVale McGee LAL 52.2
Brook Lopez MIL 52.6
Rudy Gobert UTAH 52.9
Serge Ibaka TOR 52.9
Source: Second Spectrum

One big stat and why it matters:
Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors play significant roles in Utah’s interior defense. According to Second Spectrum, Favors leads the NBA in field goal percentage allowed at the rim, and Gobert ranks tied for sixth (min. 250 attempts). Gobert has also defended the most shots at the rim this season.

Get to know: Royce O’Neale
The reserve swingman’s path to the NBA included stints in Germany, Spain and Lithuania before he made the Jazz’s roster at the start of last season. O’Neale has established himself as an essential role player: He’s the epitome of a 3-and-D, shoots 38.6 percent from long distance and, at 6-foot-6, 226 pounds, has the strength and versatility to guard multiple positions.

What to watch in Round 1:
Joe Ingles’ jumper. The Jazz need Ingles to be a scoring threat to have a shot to beat the Rockets. It’s not a coincidence that Ingles had a career night — 27 points, 7-of-9 from 3-point range — in Utah’s lone win over the Rockets in last year’s West semifinals series. He averaged 14.5 points and shot 58.3 percent on 3s in the Jazz’s two wins over the Rockets this season, compared to 8.0 points on 33 percent long-range shooting in Utah’s two losses to Houston.

— MacMahon

2018-19 record: 60-22
BPI odds vs. DET: 95 percent

Armed with a new head coach, a two-way superstar and an edict to shoot 3-pointers at will, the Bucks are no longer the cute story or the ones that got away. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s metamorphosis from doe-eyed, gangly rookie to MVP front-runner has led the Bucks to a league-best record of 60-22. Still, Milwaukee has not escaped the first round of the playoffs since 2001.

Season in a single game: March 17
Milwaukee has won a league-best 45 games by double figures — by the way, every other team to pull that off won the title — but it is a close loss against an East rival that best sums up their immediate future. Even though Antetokoumpo scored a career-high 52 points, the Bucks fell to the 76ers 130-125. Joel Embiid’s 40 points were supported by 66 from his fellow starters. The Bucks’ non-Greek starters, on the other hand, combined for just 47 points. Antetokounmpo will continue to put up big numbers in the postseason as he did last year against the Celtics, but the Bucks’ success hinges on the play of Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez and Milwaukee’s deep bench.


Joel Embiid drops a team-high 40 points to lead the 76ers past the No. 1 team in the East 130-125.

There’s trouble brewing:
The Bucks glided through the first few months of the season with only minor scrapes and bruises. Then Antetokounmpo’s knee soreness began to irritate him, and a sprained ankle caused him to miss two games in March. Sterling Brown hurt his wrist. Malcolm Brogdon has been out since March 15 with a minor plantar fascia tear that is expected to sideline him until at least the second round. Nikola Mirotic fractured his thumb. Tony Snell sprained his ankle. The good news for Milwaukee is that every player except Donte DiVincenzo (out for the season with bilateral heel bursitis) will likely be healthy for the postseason. After aggravating a week-old ankle sprain on March 28, Antetokounmpo limped into the middle of a scrum of reporters and said, “As long as we stay healthy, we are going to be fine.”

Most unassisted dunks in a season (past 20 years)

2018-19 G. Antetokounmpo 116
2006-07 Dwight Howard 95
2004-05 Shaquille O’Neal 93

One big stat and why it matters:
Giannis has been a dominant force all season, recording 116 unassisted dunks in 2018-19, the most in a season the past 20 years. In fact, Giannis is the only player with at least 100 unassisted dunks in that span. This is one of the reasons Giannis is averaging 17.5 points in the paint per game this season, most by any player since Shaquille O’Neal in the early 2000s.

Get to know: Brook Lopez
The Bucks seemingly stumbled into a deal with the perfect center for their MVP contender. Lopez joined the Bucks on a one-year deal at below-market price. Since then, Lopez’s lights out 3-point shooting has caught the attention of the league. He routinely pulls up from near the logo and is shooting 36 percent from deep, which helps stretch the floor for Antetokounmpo. But in the playoffs, it will be Lopez’s defense the Bucks will be calling on. As the Bucks face off against the likes of Al Horford, Marc Gasol and Joel Embiid, Lopez will play a crucial role manning the inside. Although he’s a bit slow and clunky, Lopez is big and disciplined, and his paint presence often discourages ball handlers from driving. He doesn’t need to win his matchup every night, thanks to Giannis, but he does need to continue delivering quality contributions on both sides of the ball, like he has all season. If he does, Lopez should be in line for a hefty raise in free agency.

What to watch in Round 1:
Positionless bigs. Blake Griffin hobbled to the end of the regular season, sitting out the final game with a sore knee. Antetokounmpo has battled some knee soreness of his own but heads into the playoffs healthy and rested, sitting two of the Bucks’ past three games. The Pistons’ upset hopes hang on Griffin, who has struggled with injuries in recent postseasons and hasn’t won a playoff series since 2015. In the teams’ four meetings so far this season, Griffin averaged 24.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7 assists. The Bucks still won by an average of 15 points.

— Malika Andrews

2018-19 record: 41-41
BPI odds vs. MIL: 5 percent

The 2018-19 Pistons are one of the streakiest teams in recent memory, putting together four winning streaks of at least four games and four losing streaks of at least four games. They alternated between just over and just under the .500 mark the entire season, unable to move far in either direction. Their team foundation is their two strong big men — Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin — but the team’s streakiness is tied almost entirely to its hot-and-cold perimeter shooting. The Pistons are unlikely to beat the top-seeded Bucks in a series but have the ability to steal a game or two if the shooters are on.

Season in a single game: March 3
The Pistons are built around Drummond and Griffin, one to control the paint and the other to provide dynamic offense, and they can be tough to handle when their perimeter players are on. This was epitomized in their March 3 overtime win over the Raptors, in which they clicked at every phase. Drummond notched as many rebounds and combined blocks/steals as Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam combined, Griffin turned in 27 points on 21 shots, point guards Reggie Jackson and Ish Smith combined for 28 points and 12 assists, and shooters Wayne Ellington and Luke Kennard knocked down seven 3s on their way to 30 points. That was the Pistons firing on all cylinders.


Kyle Lowry puts up 35 points and Blake Griffin adds 27 as the Pistons win a big overtime game at home 112-107.

Why they’re dangerous:
It all comes down to the bigs. Drummond is huge, athletic and a vacuum on the glass, while Griffin — if his sore left knee doesn’t give him too much trouble — is still springy enough and has a versatile face-up game that is difficult for many traditional fours to handle. The Pistons rely on their bigs to create mismatches that put their perimeter players in advantageous situations.

Most points per direct handoff this season

Houston Rockets 1.06
Detroit Pistons 1.05
Philadelphia 76ers 1.05
Source: Second Spectrum

One big stat and why it matters:
The bread and butter of the Pistons’ offense is the dribble handoff. According to Second Spectrum, Detroit averages 1.05 points per direct handoff, tied with the 76ers for second-best in the NBA. Only the Rockets have a higher handoff efficiency than the Pistons.

Get to know: Wayne Ellington
The Pistons can win only if their shooters are knocking down shots, and the most consistent shooter on the team is Ellington. He was traded to the Pistons midseason, and he ended the season by knocking down 39 percent from behind the arc to average 15.6 PPG and 3.5 3PG in his last 11 games. Drummond and Griffin should draw the defense and get Ellington some open looks, and if he knocks them down, the Pistons can steal a game or two.

What to watch in Round 1:
Blake vs. Giannis. The Pistons can compete only if Griffin stays healthy enough to win his fair share of 1-on-1 matchups. He has been aggressive in his four matchups with Antetokounmpo this season, taking 71 field goal attempts and dishing 28 assists in those games. Unfortunately, Antetokounmpo has forced him into horrible inefficiency, as he made only 42.3 percent of those shots and matched his assist numbers with 28 turnovers in those four games. Griffin has to be able to create scoring opportunities in an efficient manner for the Pistons to have a chance, so he has to win his 1-on-1 on offense on a regular basis.

— Andre Snellings

2018-19 record: 58-24
BPI odds vs. ORL: 89 percent

The combination of trading for Kawhi Leonard and archnemesis LeBron James leaving for the Western Conference had fans north of the border dreaming of a trip to the NBA Finals. Nothing that has happened since has led them to think otherwise, as Toronto has the league’s second-best record, despite having both Leonard and Kyle Lowry miss large chunks of the season.

Season in a single game: Dec. 12
Yes, Leonard didn’t play, but that’s kind of the point. The Raptors have been almost as good when Leonard and Lowry don’t play as when they do this season, and this night showed what they can look like at top gear, as they dismantled the Warriors — who had their four All-Stars all playing. This win, combined with a victory over the Warriors in Toronto that completed the season sweep, will give the Raptors confidence that if they can make it to the Finals, they can make it a series.


Kyle Lowry drops 23 points and Serge Ibaka adds 20 as the Raptors get their first win at Golden State in 14 years.

There’s trouble brewing:
All season, the Raptors have looked like two teams: one when Leonard has the ball and one when he doesn’t. Some of that is because Leonard prefers to play a more deliberate, isolation style, while the Raptors when he isn’t on the court ping the ball around more frequently. There have been only a handful of games all season in which the Raptors have had their full allotment of players available. If there is one weakness to point to heading into the playoffs, it is that lack of time to sort everything out.

One big stat and why it matters:
Don’t let the Raptors get out and run, as they are the NBA’s best team in transition. According to Second Spectrum, Toronto’s 1.22 points per chance in transition leads all teams by a relatively wide margin. They take advantage of that often, as their 1,639 valid chances in transition rank fifth in the league. Toronto is led by Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry in transition, ranking tied for first in points per chance in transition (min. 200 chances).

Get to know: Pascal Siakam
Siakam, who should be the clear winner of the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, has not only improved across the board but also helped keep the Raptors humming while having Lowry and Leonard missing time this season. He should be an All-Star next season and could be the player who puts Toronto over the top and gets the Raptors to their first NBA Finals.

What to watch in Round 1:
Aaron Gordon vs. Siakam. Frankly, there isn’t a lot about this series that is exciting, but seeing two of the more athletic young forwards in the league go back-and-forth over the course of a best-of-seven series will provide at least one thing for neutrals to lock on to.

— Tim Bontemps

2018-19 record: 42-40
BPI odds vs. TOR: 11 percent

After six seasons in the lottery, the Magic returned to the playoffs under new head coach Steve Clifford, thanks to a second-half surge. Eleven games below .500 on Jan. 29, Orlando went 22-9 the next 31 games to clinch the Southeast Division championship and a playoff spot.

Season in a single game: March 26
In a crucial matchup of two in-state rivals vying for the Southeast crown, the Magic went south down Florida’s Turnpike and helped spoil Dwyane Wade’s night by holding the Heat to 42 percent shooting. First-time All-Star Nikola Vucevic had 24 points, 16 rebounds and five assists as all five Orlando starters and sixth man Terrence Ross scored in double figures. But the Magic, per custom, won with defense, holding Miami scoreless for nearly three minutes down the stretch to win a tight game.


Nikola Vucevic powers Orlando to a 104-99 win over Miami with 24 points and 16 rebounds to extend the Magic’s win streak to six games.

Why they’re dangerous:
You won’t get anything easily against Orlando. Like all of Clifford’s teams, the Magic prioritize taking away high-value looks at the rim and beyond the 3-point line. Orlando is one of four teams that rank in the top 10 in keeping opponents from shooting in both of those locations, per Cleaning the Glass, and forces the fifth-highest rate of midrange attempts in between. The Magic also excel on the defensive glass, ranking third, and boast the league’s second-best transition defense, according to Cleaning the Glass. Any score against Orlando will be hard-earned.

One big stat and why it matters:
The Magic are hitting the postseason on a defensive tear. Orlando sports a 105.0 defensive efficiency since the start of February — best in the NBA — and went 21-9 in that stretch to charge into the playoffs. The Magic ranked 16th in defensive efficiency before this stretch, at 109.0 points per 100 possessions.

Get to know: Jonathan Isaac
Isaac is the quintessential Orlando draft pick of recent vintage: long, young and more athletic than skilled offensively. At 21, he has become the Magic’s starting power forward in his second season. Expect Isaac to offer a taste of what’s to come at some point during the postseason.

What to watch in Round 1:
The benches. The second unit has been a big factor in Orlando’s second-half surge. With new backup guard Michael Carter-Williams on the court, Orlando has outscored opponents by an incredible 13.0 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA Advanced Stats. Meanwhile, the Toronto second unit has gone from a strength last season to something of a liability in 2018-19. If the Magic are to pull the upset, their bench will have to dominate this matchup. That probably means a strong series for former Raptor Terrence Ross, whose 15.1 PPG ranked fifth among qualified reserve scorers.

— Kevin Pelton

2018-19 record: 51-31
BPI odds vs. BKN: 80 percent

Philadelphia has gone through three iterations this season: the one that left training camp with the same starting lineup as last year intact; the one that dramatically changed when two of those starters, Dario Saric and Robert Covington, were traded for Jimmy Butler in November; and the final one that turned into after trading a large chunk of the roster at February’s deadline, adding Tobias Harris and remaking virtually all of Philadelphia’s bench.

Season in a single game: March 20
Not only did the Sixers finally get a win over the Celtics for the first time this season, but this game also showed the pros and cons of their recreated roster for the world to see. The Phantastic 5 — Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, J.J. Redick, Butler and Harris — combined to score 110 of Philadelphia’s 118 points on the night, proving just how overpowering they can be to opposing defenses. At the same time, this win highlighted how limited the rest of Philadelphia’s roster is in the wake of those moves.


Joel Embiid goes off for 37 points and 22 rebounds as the 76ers top the Celtics 118-115. Kyrie Irving scores 36 points in the loss.

There’s trouble brewing:
There are two glaring issues with Philadelphia’s roster: a lack of shooting and a lack of a credible bench. Redick and Harris are terrific shooters, but the rest of the starting lineup is either inconsistent (Butler and Embiid) or nonexistent (Simmons) from deep. The bench, meanwhile, has only one player — Mike Scott — that opposing teams are legitimately concerned about come playoff time. The other options — James Ennis, T.J. McConnell, Jonathon Simmons and Boban Marjanovic — come with serious limitations that could be exploited by the elite competition Philadelphia will need to surpass in the postseason.

One big stat and why it matters:
Since the acquisition of Harris near the deadline, the 76ers have the fourth-best net rating when it comes to five-man lineups this season. The lineup consisting of Harris, Redick, Butler, Embiid and Simmons is behind only two Golden State lineups and a Pacers lineup (min. 150 minutes played together).

Get to know: Mike Scott
Given how thin Philadelphia’s bench is, Scott is going to have a significant role for Philadelphia as the lone reserve opposing teams are truly worried about. Scott has his flaws — he can space out defensively and is prone to making mistakes — but he’s a lights-out shooter who is knocking down 39 percent of his 3s this season. On a team starved for outside shooting, that alone makes Scott a vital piece.

What to watch in Round 1:
D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie vs. Philly’s defense. If this series is going to be interesting, it’s going to be because Russell and Dinwiddie, Brooklyn’s two-headed monster at point guard, have success attacking the 76ers’ defense. Philadelphia has struggled to stop scoring point guards all season, and the Nets have two of them. If Brooklyn can exploit that weakness, this is a series. If Philadelphia can shore it up? Well, things get bleak quickly for the Nets.

— Bontemps

2018-19 record: 42-40
BPI odds vs. PHI: 20 percent

Back in August, you couldn’t find many people outside of downtown Brooklyn who would predict a playoff berth for the Nets. The franchise averaged just 23 wins the past three seasons. But thanks to a breakout year from first-time All-Star D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn became one of the biggest surprises of this NBA season. Russell and the Nets followed the blueprint established by head coach Kenny Atkinson (play with pace; take shots from behind the arc and in the paint; defend the 3-point line and the rim) and weathered major injuries (Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert) to make the playoffs for the first time since 2015.

Season in a single game: Dec. 7
Riding an eight-game losing streak with the season seemingly slipping away, the Nets got a clutch performance from Russell to secure an overtime win in Toronto. The game encapsulated the Nets’ season, with Russell hitting clutch shots and Dinwiddie scoring off the bench to compensate for the absence of a key player (LeVert). Russell scored 29 points — including six in overtime — with five assists, and Dinwiddie added 17 points and eight assists off the bench help Brooklyn snap a 12-game losing streak against Toronto. The win seemed to spark the Nets; they won 19 of their next 24 to salvage the season and set up an unexpected run to the playoffs.


Kawhi Leonard has 32 points, four assists and four steals, but the Raptors lose to the Nets 106-105 in overtime.

Why they’re dangerous:
If the Nets can put Russell in position to attack the paint and create open looks for his teammates, they have a chance to make things uncomfortable for the 76ers. Brooklyn went 11-7 when Russell had at least nine assists this season, per Basketball Reference. To make things interesting against Philly, the Nets probably need LeVert to play with the kind of efficiency he showed before his injury. The wing is shooting 37 percent from the field and 27 percent from beyond the arc since his return. If Brooklyn can get those two — and Dinwiddie — going and playing with pace, the Nets can challenge the 76ers’ star-studded roster.

One big stat and why it matters:
While Philly’s bench is among its weaknesses, Brooklyn’s thrives. The Nets have received 47.7 bench points per game this season, and their ability to go 11 players deep makes this bench special. Brooklyn is one of two teams — the Nuggets are the other — that have had 11 players surpass the 1,000-minute threshold this season.

Get to know: Jarrett Allen
If the Nets are going to make things interesting against Philly, Allen will probably play a key role. The Nets’ shot-blocking 21-year-old center will likely have the unenviable task of guarding Joel Embiid (Embiid had 39 points and 13 rebounds in Philadelphia’s most recent game against the Nets). Allen will also be vital for Brooklyn on the other end of the floor: According to Second Spectrum, the pick-and-roll combination of Russell and Allen is the most run play in the NBA (1,532 plays), just ahead of James Harden in isolation (1,519).

What to watch in Round 1:
Brooklyn’s “other” guards, Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie. Dinwiddie averaged 23.8 points per game while shooting 58 percent from the floor in four games against the Sixers. LeVert has found his shot late in the regular season after missing nearly three months with a foot injury. He averaged 16 points per game on 49 percent shooting in the final eight games of the season. If this duo, along with All-Star Russell, gets hot, things might get interesting.

— Ian Begley

2018-19 record: 49-33
BPI odds vs. IND: 66 percent

The only consistent thing about the Celtics this season has been their inconsistency. Boston entered the season as the team favored to replace LeBron atop the Eastern Conference, but it has been haunted by uneven play and back-and-forths between players on the team in the media. Still, the Celtics enter the playoffs as a team few are willing to count out because of their depth and playoff experience — though that depth took a huge blow with Marcus Smart being knocked out for the first two rounds with a torn oblique muscle.

Season in a single game (or two!): Nov. 16-17
We’re going to cheat a little and do two games here because it perfectly illustrates the bizarre nature of Boston’s season. Beating Toronto in overtime might have been Boston’s best win of the season and was a terrific performance. Then the Celtics lost the next night to the Jazz — a reasonable loss, especially on a back-to-back — and after the game, coach Brad Stevens went in on his team (a rarity for him), and Kyrie Irving (in what became a theme of the season) had pointed words for the team’s young players. That Jekyll-and-Hyde act over those two days sums up the Celtics’ 2018-19 campaign.


Kyrie Irving drops 43 points and 11 assists, leading the Celtics to a 123-116 overtime victory against the Raptors.

There’s trouble brewing:
Wait, you mean trouble is brewing in Boston? We kid. Anyone who has watched even a minute of Celtics basketball this season is well aware of the tumult and turmoil that have surrounded this team all season. And, as the postseason arrives, the heart of the Celtics — Smart — will all but certainly miss at least the first two rounds. Smart has been a legitimate first-team All-Defense caliber player this season, and has taken large steps forward both in his overall field goal percentage (42.2 percent) and 3-point percentage (36.6 percent). More importantly, he is the obvious emotional leader of the Celtics. Losing him could be a death knell to this team’s title chances.

Kyrie Irving in clutch time (2018-19)

NBA Rank
Points 150 Third
Assists 30 Fourth
Field goals 54 First
FG% 48.6 Fourth*
*Minimum 50 clutch-time field goals

One big stat and why it matters:
The Celtics have one of the NBA’s best closers in Irving, who ranks among the top of the league in several clutch-time stats. Irving has scored or assisted on 57 percent of the Celtics’ points in clutch time this season (defined as the final five minutes of the fourth quarter/overtime and the score with five points).

Get to know: a bigger role for Jaylen Brown
If the Celtics are going to survive Smart’s absence, it will be because Brown can step into the role Smart has vacated. Brown has been excellent off the bench the past few months and has arguably been Boston’s third-best player since the start of 2019. He’ll need to remain at that level if the Celtics have any hope of persevering without Smart.

What to watch in Round 1:
Gordon Hayward/Brown vs. Domantas Sabonis/Tyreke Evans. Indiana is going to have difficulty keeping up with Boston in this series from a scoring standpoint. One way the Pacers can is if Sabonis and Evans can give them some scoring pop off the bench. Well, Hayward and Brown have been among Boston’s best and most consistent players for weeks now, and if they can continue to play that way, an already difficult road for Indiana to make this series competitive will get that much more difficult.

— Bontemps

2018-19 record: 48-34
BPI odds vs. BOS: 34 percent

This was essentially a tale of two seasons for the Pacers, who in one critical moment went from vying for a top-three seed in the top-heavy East to treading water as the season came to a close. Their defense is one of the league’s best and kept them in most games down the stretch. But the jury is still out on whether the Pacers — without injured All-Star and franchise player Victor Oladipo — have enough late-game scoring to close out contests come playoff time.

Season in a single game: Jan. 23
Indiana’s game on Jan. 23 summed up its season about as well as any other could. The Pacers were leading first-place Toronto in front of their home crowd when Oladipo blew out his right quad, a devastating injury that not only ended the All-Star’s season but also likely ended Indiana’s chances of making a significant playoff run. Yet for how deflating that image of Oladipo being hauled off on a stretcher was, the hard-nosed Pacers battled and held on to win in his absence — something they weren’t built to do a season ago, when they went a dismal 0-7 in contests without him.

Why they’re dangerous:
Even without Oladipo, no one should be shocked if the Pacers find a way to beat Boston in the first round. After all, they took LeBron and the Cavs to a Game 7 last year (albeit with Oladipo), and the Celtics have looked shaky for much of the season. Losing the battle for home-court advantage stings, but it might help that the Pacers’ best perimeter shooter, Doug McDermott, has shot the ball much better on the road than at home. Plus, Indiana — 14-4 when hitting 12 3s or more — is hard to beat when it connects from distance.

Fewest points allowed (2018-19)

TEAM PPG allowed
Indiana Pacers 104.3
Miami Heat 105.9
Utah Jazz 106.0
Memphis Grizzlies 106.1
Orlando Magic 106.5

One big stat and why it matters:
If the score stays under 100 points, there’s a good chance that Indy is coming out on top. The Pacers are 21-1 this season when limiting opponents to 97 points or fewer. The Pacers also held their opponents to 104.3 points per game during the regular season, the fewest in the NBA.

Get to know: Bojan Bogdanovic
Bogdanovic was vitally important for Indiana last season as the team’s top defensive option on LeBron. But since Oladipo’s injury, he has been the Pacers’ No. 1 option on offense, initiating sets as a pick-and-roll ball handler and averaging about 21 points per game — up from 16 per game before Oladipo was sidelined. The Pacers need Bogdanovic to play well to win the series, but the forward averaged just 13.5 points against Boston this season, his lowest scoring average against any Eastern Conference team.

What to watch in Round 1:
The Pacers’ traps vs. Kyrie Irving. If the All-Star guard gets it going, the Pacers might have to throw different looks at him to break his scoring rhythm. But if they opt to trap, will that effectively slow him down? Indiana misplayed an Irving screen-and-roll with Al Horford in the closing seconds of a March 29 game, allowing Irving to slither all the way to the rim for a game-winning bucket. But generally, the Pacers have struggled when trying to trap, surrendering 1.21 points per possession when trapping this season, the second-worst rate in the NBA, according to Second Spectrum.

— Chris Herring

Statistics provided by ESPN Stats & Information

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