NBA play-offs: All you need to know about the first-round match-ups

The 2018 NBA playoffs start on Saturday after a thrilling end to the regular season in which all eight first-round ties were decided on the final day.

The post-season begins with intriguing uncertainty after three straight finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The defending champion Warriors are no longer top seeds in the West, but can the Houston Rockets continue their surge? And with the Cavs falling to fourth, can the Toronto Raptors finally break LeBron James’ domination of the East?

Here is BBC Sport’s guide to the best-of-seven first-round match-ups taking place between 14-29 April.

Western Conference

Houston Rockets (1) v Minnesota Timberwolves (8)

A battle of the shooting guards as James Harden faces off against Jimmy Butler

Head-to-head record 2017-18: Rockets 4-0 Timberwolves

Season so far: Houston claimed the West’s top seed for the first time in franchise history and secured the league’s best record, with 65 wins and 17 losses. Their ominous offence is based on three-point field goals – they made 1,256 this season, beating their own NBA record – but the Rockets have also improved defensively, from 18th to sixth in a year.

Minnesota are making their first playoff appearance since 2004, having clinched the final spot at the expense of the Denver Nuggets in a thrilling overtime win on Wednesday. They had looked on course for a top-four spot before star shooting guard Jimmy Butler’s knee injury but his recent return saw them over the line.

Ones to watch: Rockets guard James Harden is the favourite to be named Most Valuable Player after a stunning season in which he averaged a league-high 30.4 points per game. ‘The Beard’ has also formed a sublime partnership with star point guard Chris Paul, who joined from the Los Angeles Clippers last summer.

The performance of Butler, a prodigious player on both offence and defence, is key to Minnesota’s chances of an upset. But they will also rely on young stars like centre Karl-Anthony Towns and small forward Andrew Wiggins.

Golden State Warriors (2) v San Antonio Spurs (7)

Kevin Durant will lead the Warriors without Steph Curry, while the Spurs pin their hopes on LaMarcus Aldridge

Head-to-head record 2017-18: Warriors 3-1 Spurs

Season so far: The Warriors failed to claim the league’s best record for the first time since 2014, dealing with injuries to key players and uncharacteristic slumps in form. Yet the reigning champions still won 58 games with the best offensive rating.

The Spurs have had to deal with the absence of best player Kawhi Leonard, limited to nine games due to a quad injury that was not supposed to keep him out this long and rumours persist he has fallen out with the team. Shrugging that off, legendary head coach Gregg Popovich guided his wily squad to their 21st consecutive playoff appearance during his tenure.More sport information please click here

Ones to watch: Warriors superstar Stephen Curry will miss the first round due to an MCL strain. Fortunately they still have a ‘big three’ without him – Kevin Durant is another of the world’s best players, Klay Thompson can scorch teams with his rapid scoring and Draymond Green is among the NBA’s best defenders.

Barring Leonard making a shock return, the Spurs will look to forward LaMarcus Aldridge to maintain the scoring form that saw him carry his side during the run-in.

Portland Trail Blazers (3) v New Orleans Pelicans (6)

‘Dame Time’ versus ‘The Brow’ as Damian Lillard’s Portland try to hold off Anthony Davis and the Pelicans

Head-to-head record 2017-18: Trail Blazers 2-2 Pelicans

Season so far: Portland head into their fifth straight post-season at their highest seeding in that run. They pulled clear of the fight for the final few playoff spots with a 13-game winning streak in February and March, have one of the league’s best guard duos in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and improved their defensive rating from 21st to sixth in a year.

The Pelicans’ chances of a first play-off appearance since 2015 took a blow when All-Star centre DeMarcus Cousins tore his Achilles in January. But franchise player Anthony Davis elevated his already impressive performances, averaging 29.8 points since the All-Star break in mid-February.

Ones to watch: Trail Blazers point guard Lillard averaged 26.9 points per game this season, leading several memorable fourth-quarter comebacks. A menace driving in for lay-ups and shooting from deep, Lillard points to his wrist to signify it’s ‘Dame Time’ when he feels he is taking over a game.

Davis is a 6ft 10in power-forward/centre who combines excellent ball-handling and passing skills with strength down low and defensive nous. Nicknamed ‘The Brow’ due to his recognisable unibrow, he led the league in blocks this year, with 193.

Oklahoma City Thunder (4) v Utah Jazz (5)

Can Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell keep pace with Thunder superstar Russell Westbrook?

Head-to-head record 2017-18: Thunder 3-1 Jazz

Season so far: Oklahoma City have had an erratic season – capable of beating the league’s best sides but prone to collapsing at the end of close games. With all the variance, both their offence and defence average out as the 10th best in the league, although the latter has been weakened by a season-ending injury to their best defender, Andre Roberson.

In January, the Jazz were 19-28 and had little hope of making the play-offs. But a remarkable 29-6 run, sparked by rookie Donovan Mitchell’s scoring feats, coach Quin Snyder’s shrewd changes to rotations and French centre Rudy Gobert’s defensive prowess, saw Utah claim the fifth seed.

Ones to watch: Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook is one of the NBA’s most relentless competitors and this year he became the first player to average a triple-double across a season twice, having become just the second ever to do it last year. Paul George is a superb two-way player, while OKC need fellow forward Carmelo Anthony to find his scoring form after a poor season.

Utah’s Mitchell won the 2018 Slam Dunk contest and became only the fifth rookie in NBA history to lead a team that won 45 or more games in scoring after all-time greats Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird and David Robinson.

Eastern Conference

Toronto Raptors (1) v Washington Wizards (8)

DeMar DeRozan and John Wall headline a battle of the backcourts between the Raptors and Wizards

Head-to-head record 2017-18: Raptors 2-2 Wizards

Season so far: After being swept by Cleveland in last year’s second round, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey revamped his offence – focusing more on ball movement and three-point shooting, while previously unheralded bench players came to the fore as Toronto topped the East.

Another erratic campaign from the Wizards was epitomised by them losing their final game to the struggling Orlando Magic to fall to the eighth seed. All-Star point guard John Wall missed half the season with a knee injury, although Washington occasionally played better without him, amid rumours of dressing room unrest.

Ones to watch: This could be a battle between two brilliant backcourts. Raptors shooting guard Demar DeRozan has added a three-point shot to his game and point guard Kyle Lowry is a canny defensive foil. The Wizards’ Wall and shooting guard Bradley Beal are athletic, quick and can score by getting to the rim or hitting three-pointers.

Boston Celtics (2) v Milwaukee Bucks (7)

Al Horford will try to lead Boston’s defence in stopping Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo

Head-to-head record 2017-18: Celtics 2-2 Bucks

Season so far: After new signing Gordon Hayward suffered a horrific leg break in the season-opener, Boston lost the next match but then went on a 16-game winning streak. Despite being hit by more injuries, coach of the year candidate Brad Stevens has led the Celtics to become the best-ranked defence and take the East’s second seed.

The talented but inconsistent Bucks were languishing at 23-22 in January when they fired head coach Jason Kidd. After a brief resurgence under interim coach Joe Prunty, Milwaukee somewhat drifted once a play-off spot was all-but-assured.More sport information please click here

Ones to watch: Boston’s All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, acquired in a trade with Cleveland last summer, will miss the entire play-offs after knee surgery. Instead the Celtics will rally behind the defensive organisation of centre Al Horford and hope small forward Jayson Tatum can build on a fine rookie season.

Milwaukee will have the best player on the court in small forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. ‘The Greek Freak’ is a supreme athlete, capable of spectacular dunks and guarding all five positions, with the passing and handling skills to play as a guard.

Philadelphia 76ers (3) v Miami Heat (6)

Ben Simmons will lead a fearless young 76ers side against the Heat’s veteran point guard Goran Dragic

Head-to-head record 2017-18: 76ers 2-2 Heat

Season so far: Ahead of schedule, the 76ers are seeing the benefits of an extensive rebuild. Under the mantra ‘trust the process’, they won just 75 of 328 games in the four previous seasons, content to ‘tank’ to accrue top prospects in the draft like Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. In their first full season together, Simmons and Embiid have been revelatory, with Philadelphia entering the play-offs on a 16-game winning streak.

The Heat narrowly missed out last year and are back in the play-offs thanks to an impressive collective effort by a team lacking any major star.

Ones to watch: After missing what should have been his first year with a broken foot, Simmons has established himself as one of the league’s most unique and exciting players. The 6ft 10in Australian is nominally a forward but actually plays as a point guard and is a sublime passer. He is a poor shooter but blows by defenders to get to the rim for dunks and lay-ups.

Dominant centre Embiid has been ruled out of the first game of the play-offs but may return during the first round after surgery on a fractured eye socket.

Miami’s true star may be two-time champion head coach Erik Spoelstra, who has kept the Heat competitive after the departure of LeBron James back to Cleveland in 2014. Guard Goran Dragic and centre Hassan Whiteside can cause problems, while Miami has an array of versatile wings. Shooting guard Dwyane Wade is also back after ill-fated spells with the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland.

Cleveland Cavaliers (4) v Indiana Pacers (5)

LeBron James remains a force in his 15th season as he leads the Cavs against Victor Oladipo’s Pacers

Head-to-head record 2017-18: Cavaliers 1-3 Pacers

Season so far: The Cavaliers have been terrible defensively, ranked below every team except the lowly Sacramento Kings, but remain one of the best offences, thanks to LeBron James having a stellar season aged 33. Point guard Isaiah Thomas, acquired in the trade that sent Irving to Boston, failed to impress after missing the first half of the season with a hip injury and was traded away in a three-team deal as the 2016 champions tore up the roster following a series of dressing room disputes.

The Pacers were not projected to make the play-offs after trading star player Paul George to Oklahoma City last summer. But shooting guard Victor Oladipo, who moved the other way, has flourished in a leading role, improving in almost every statistical category.

Ones to watch: Cleveland’s hopes of a fourth consecutive Eastern Conference title rest largely on James, who is targeting his eighth straight finals appearance. ‘The King’ averaged 27.5 points, 9.1 assists and 8.6 rebounds per game and broke several notable records to put himself in MVP contention in his 15th NBA season.

Oladipo is the focal point of Indiana’s offence and a fine defender but the Pacers will need young centre Myles Turner to step up if they are stop James and the Cavs.

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