After 82 regular season games each, and a play-in game for the Atlanta Hawks, it all comes down to this.
The NBA playoffs begin this weekend, with 16 teams vying for the title, and four mouthwatering first-round matchups will tip-off on Saturday.
Brooklyn Nets (6) v Philadelphia 76ers (3)
These two teams played each other just last week when the Nets succumbed to a 134-105 defeat against the 76ers, although Brooklyn’s Mikal Bridges was the only starter to play for either team on that occasion so it will be a whole different line-up on Saturday.
But Philadelphia will still begin its first-round series as the overwhelming favorites after finishing the regular season 54-28, its best record for more than 20 years.
It will also welcome back stars James Harden and Joel Embiid, on this season’s MVP shortlist, after they were rested for the end of the regular season.
Embiid’s form has been electric towards the end of the season, averaging an NBA-best 33.3 points per game over the last 18 games, a rate only matched by Shaquille O’Neal in 1999-2000.
The Nets, meanwhile, have a 14-18 record since February, a month in which they also traded Kyrie Irving to the Mavericks and Kevin Durant to the Suns in February.
Despite completely redesigning their roster, they rallied at the last moment, winning six of their last eight games to clinch the No.6 spot and make the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season.
The Nets will be determined to banish the ghosts of last season’s first round sweep in the playoffs but will face an uphill battle.
Tip-off is at 1p ET.
Atlanta Hawks (7) v Boston Celtics (2)
Fresh from a surprise victory against the Miami Heat in the play-in tournament, the Atlanta Hawks will face the defending Eastern Conference champions, the formidable Boston Celtics.
The Celtics are a complete team, ranking second in both offensive and defensive efficiency in the regular season, just the third team in 27 seasons to reach the top three on both ends of the floor. The 2014-2015 and 2016-17 Warriors are the only other teams to achieve this, and both won the NBA championship.
With Jaylen Brown returning to the Celtics after a finger laceration alongside star forward Jayson Tatum, the Celtics will be favored to win the series but there are cracks in the team – they rank 9th in offense since December – and the young Hawks provide a difficult obstacle.
“They’re a tough team,” Brown said, according to NBA.com. “I think they have a lot of athleticism that can bother us. We have to come out and handle our business and be really detailed. They got a lot of energy. They’re hungry. They’re young. I’ve been in that position, being an underdog, being a young team in this league, and looking to make a name for yourself. So we have to be ready to go.”
Atlanta’s offense has been particularly potent towards the back end of the season – since Quin Snyder became head coach on February 6, his team have had the fourth most effective offense in the NBA, marshalled by Trae Young who leads the league in total assists.
The game begins at 3:30p ET.
New York Knicks (5) v Cleveland Cavaliers (4)
The Knicks will head to Cleveland on Saturday for Game 1 of one of the first round’s most fascinating matchups.
At its center is Donovan Mitchell who Cleveland acquired in a blockbuster trade this summer after he had previously been linked to the Knicks, his hometown team, until “they temporarily walked away” from trade talks, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
But the Knicks have been dealt a blow to their hopes of proving that was the right decision as they might be without star forward and leading scorer Julius Randle who suffered a sprained ankle against Miami Heat on March 29.
Already this season, Randle has become the first player to average 25 points per game for the Knicks since Carmelo Anthony in 2013- 2014 but his team said on Friday that the two-time All Star is “questionable” for Game 1 at Cleveland.
Randle’s fitness will be central to New York’s chances against the Cavs, who are one of only three teams, alongside the Celtics and 76ers, to have a top-10 offense and defense this season.
Led by Mitchell, whose postseason 28.3 career points per game rivals the NBA’s biggest names ever, the Cavs have an otherwise inexperienced team with Darius Garland and Evan Mobley making their postseason debuts, while Jarret Allen and Caris LeVert have both only reached the first-round of the playoffs.
Tip-off is at 6p ET.
Golden State Warriors (6) v Sacramento Kings (3)
Sacramento will play its first ever postseason game for 17 years on Saturday, snapping the league’s longest ever playoff drought.
With Mike Brown – the former associate head coach of the Golden State Warriors – at the helm this season, the Kings have redefined themselves as one of the NBA’s most exciting offenses, averaging an astonishing 120.7 points per game, currently the best record in the league.
Domantas Sabonis’ playmaking and De’Aaron Fox’s speed has proved to be a particularly lethal combination for the Kings, and will be central to any hopes of defeating Golden State.
But Brown and his side will face a tough test against his former team, the defending champions who boast the league’s second-highest scoring offense.
On the Warriors’ last outing, they were on sparkling form, setting a new NBA record with 55 points in the opening quarter as they dismantled the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Splash Bros – Klay Thompson and Steph Curry – led that effort, with Thompson sinking five three-pointers in the first five minutes of the game, and their playoff nous is unparalleled following four title wins.
“I don’t see a team who can beat us in a seven-game series when we’re healthy,” Thompson said last week according to ESPN, despite the team’s mixed fortunes this season.
Tip-off is at 8:30p ET.