NBA Playoffs

NBA Playoffs 2018: Predicting the East and West first-round series

The first round of the NBA Playoffs begins today with four Game 1s. Following along here for the latest analysis and commentary from The Post’s NBA reporter Tim Bontemps, and ask him questions in the comments section.

Predicting the East

Raptors in 7: I want to pick Washington to win this series. The Wizards match up well with Toronto and have shown no fear for them this season (splitting four games without John Wall playing in any of them). But it’s just impossible to put that much faith in this Wizards team after the way they’ve played this season. So while Toronto will once again have a hard time, they will find a way to advance.

Bucks in 6: Upset! I feel equally unsure about this series, as I can’t trust Milwaukee and Boston has a million injuries. But the Bucks do have Giannis Antetokounmpo — and I’m picking The Greek Freak to have his first playoff moment and lead the Bucks to the second round.

Sixers in 7: Another tough series to call. Philadelphia has a lot more talent than Miami — but a lot less experience. Teams generally have to take gradual steps in the playoffs — and rarely make it to the conference finals on their first try, as the Sixers are predicted to do. But with Joel Embiid likely to come back early in the series, we’ll tip the odds, ever so slightly, in Philadelphia’s direction.

Cavs in 5: LeBron James has made it to the NBA Finals for seven straight seasons. He isn’t losing in the first round. It’s been a tremendous season for the Indiana Pacers and former DeMatha star Victor Oladipo, but it ends here.

Predicting the West

Rockets in 4: Minnesota simply can’t guard Houston. This should be a high scoring — but short — series.

Warriors in 5: With Stephen Curry hurt, Golden State limping into the playoffs and San Antonio’s pedigree, the Spurs will get a game. But if this series is any more competitive than that, the questions about Golden State’s ability to repeat as champions will gain far more credibility in my eyes.

Pelicans in 6: This should be a really fun series, and Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard has a penchant for coming up big in big moments. But Anthony Davis has taken a step forward this season and established himself as a top five player in the NBA, and he has yet to win a playoff game. This is his time to make a statement, and I think he will by getting the Pelicans to the second round.

Thunder in 7: This is, without question, the best and most compelling series of the first round. But the Thunder have a couple things going for them. The first is home court — which, in a close series, is a huge edge. The second is that Paul George, one of the NBA’s best players and wing defenders, is going to be guarding Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell. It’s been an incredible debut from the Louisville product, but asking him to be the leading scorer on a playoff team against an all-world defender like George feels like too much for Utah to overcome. But this is easily the series I’m most looking forward to watching.

A Game 1 win would mean more in Toronto

Before every playoff series, teams speak about the importance of winning Game 1. But for the Toronto Raptors, Saturday’s opening game of the playoffs against the Washington Wizards has an added level of urgency.

The top-seeded Raptors, who just completed the best regular season in franchise history, enter the postseason with a staggering streak of 10 straight losses in Game 1s. Toronto’s last victory in the opening game of a playoff series was on May 6, 2001 — when Vince Carter (35 points) outdueled Allen Iverson (36) to give Toronto a 96-93 victory in the opening game of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

That also remains the only Game 1 victory the Raptors have across the 13 playoff series in which they have played.

So, yes, it is imperative for the Raptors to beat the eighth-seeded Wizards on Saturday night — not only to stop the legions of fans north of the border from simultaneously freaking out and bringing back all of the bad memories of prior playoff meltdowns, but also to keep the Wizards from getting any momentum in this series.

Washington is one of the league’s most confusing teams. One night, the Wizards look like they can play with anyone. The next, they look like they can lose to anyone. But assuming Otto Porter is recovered from a recent calf strain, the Wizards have the talent to go toe-to-toe with Toronto, and the confidence earned from a four-game sweep in 2015 to know they can beat the Raptors on this stage.

This has been a wonderful season so far in Toronto. But everything that’s happened — the record win total, the stylistic changes, the improvement of the bench — has all been geared toward finally carrying the franchise’s now-consistent regular season play over to the playoffs. Nothing would signify that has happened more than a victory Saturday night — and nothing would make observers more skeptical that it has than a loss.

Who could’ve guessed at the start of the season that a series between the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs would have no life to it at all? Yet here we are, with Warriors-Spurs easily being the most boring of the eight first-round matchups.

Some of that speaks to the depth and breadth of compelling series around the league. But with San Antonio limping into the playoffs without Kawhi Leonard and having won fewer than 50 games for the first time this millennium, it’s just hard to build a compelling case for the Spurs to make this an interesting series — even if Stephen Curry isn’t able to play.

Golden State still has Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, while San Antonio has LaMarcus Aldridge and a 40-year-old Manu Ginobili.

Advantage: Golden State.

That said, if the Warriors lose Saturday, it would be the surest sign yet all is not well in Oakland.

— The Philadelphia 76ers had to be thrilled when they saw their first playoff game would be held at 8 p.m. Saturday night. The crowd at Wells Fargo Center — which was already going to be fired up for the third-seeded Sixers to host the Miami Heat — is going to be feeling awfully good by the time tipoff rolls around and should be even more rowdy than the unbelievable atmosphere it had last week when Philadelphia beat the Cleveland Cavaliers to clinch earning that third seed.

The thing to watch here: Can the Sixers maintain their composure? Not only are the leaders of this young team — guys like Ben Simmons, Robert Covington and Dario Saric — playing in their first playoff game, but they are doing so as favorites. How they handle that — not to mention how early Joel Embiid can return to the lineup — could be the deciding factor in this series.

— Anthony Davis has never won a playoff series. In fact, he’s never won a playoff game.

So all eyes will be on Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday night, when they face the Trail Blazers in Portland. Despite being the lower-seeded team — and being without DeMarcus Cousins, who tore his Achilles’ tendon back in January — this is a series New Orleans is more than capable of winning. For as good as Portland’s backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum is, they aren’t on the level of Davis, who is good enough to swing a series by himself.

He has yet to have his playoff moment. This series could provide it — and breathe some hope into the long-term future of this franchise that could desperately use it.

Saturday’s game schedule (all times Eastern)

San Antonio Spurs at Golden State Warriors, 3 p.m. (ABC)
Washington Wizards at Toronto Raptors, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Miami Heat at Philadelphia 76ers, 8 p.m. (ESPN)
New Orleans Pelicans at Portland Trail Blazers, 10:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Odds

The Warriors and Cavaliers have met in three straight NBA Finals, but The Post’s Neil Greenberg writes that neither team should be considered a favorite entering the playoffs. That shouldn’t be too surprisingly, considering the Houston Rockets went wire-to-wire this season as the league’s best team; they have a 39 percent chance of winning the title, which would be their first since going back-to-back in the 1994 and ’95 Finals. But what might surprise you is which teams Greenberg has following the Rockets with the best odds to win it all. (Hint: It’s not Golden State or Cleveland.) In fact, Greenberg also writes that the Warriors should be on upset alert in the first round, having to host the always dangerous Spurs.

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