2015 NBA Playoffs Preview and Predictions: Saturday, April 18

Are you ready for the most important time of the basketball season? The opening day of the first round in the 2015 NBA playoffs begins on Saturday, April 18, showcasing a pair of matchups from both the Eastern and Western Conferences.

Starting at 12:30 p.m. ET is the series most likely to last seven games, when the Toronto Raptors host the Washington Wizards, which is followed up by the Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Pelicans.

Then in the evening, the Milwaukee Bucks and Dallas Mavericks start their hopeful upset bids against the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets, respectively.

Read on for TV information, what’s at stake, key individual matchups, potential difference-makers and predictions.

Eastern Conference

No. 5 Washington Wizards at No. 4 Toronto Raptors; Game 1

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John Wall and Kyle Lowry will battle for a place in the second round.

TV Info: 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Season Series: Toronto 3-0

Nov. 7: Toronto 103, Washington 84
Jan. 31: Toronto 120, Washington 116 (OT)
Feb. 11: Toronto 95, Washington 93

What’s at Stake?

Washington struggled on the road throughout the regular season, managing a 17-24 record overall and a 5-15 mark against teams .500 or better. The Raptors haven’t won a playoffs series since 2001, losing in the first round four times during that span.

Key Matchup: John Wall vs. Kyle Lowry

Potential Difference-Maker: Bradley Beal

Washington Will Win Because…

…the frontcourt can dominate the glass. Behind Marcin Gortat, Kris Humphries and Nene, the Wizards have a clear advantage in the post. Jonas Valunciunas is no slouch, so Washington’s big men will be tested. But if the Wizards limit second-chance opportunities, they’ll be in position to steal an elusive road win.

Toronto Will Win Because…

…Washington hasn’t been able to contain the Raptors’ three-point threats. In each season matchup, Toronto knocked down at least 40.9 percent beyond the arc. As long as that trend continues, the Raptors have no business losing at home—where they were 27-14 this year.

Prediction: Toronto 98, Washington 88

No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks at No. 3 Chicago Bulls; Game 1

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Michael Carter-Williams is a key to Milwaukee’s success against Chicago.

TV Info: 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

Season Series: Chicago 3-1

Nov. 5: Chicago 95, Milwaukee 86
Jan. 10: Chicago 95, Milwaukee 87
Feb. 23: Chicago 87, Milwaukee 71
April 1: Milwaukee 95, Chicago 91

What’s at Stake?

Milwaukee has the chance to establish itself as a team to watch in the future. Upsetting Chicago without Jabari Parker, who is sidelined due to an ACL injury, would make the NBA keep a closer eye on the Bucks next year. The Bulls have been considered a darkhorse to win the East, so a first-round exit would be devastating.

Key Matchup: Khris Middleton vs. Jimmy Butler

Potential Difference-Maker: Nikola Mirotic

Milwaukee Will Win Because…

…the Bucks have an absurd amount of defensive length. Although the team occasionally struggles to score, Milwaukee can atone for its shaky offense by keeping opponents off the board for long stretches of the game.

Chicago Will Win Because…

…Pau Gasol and Mirotic can negate some of the Bucks’ defensive prowess by stepping outside and knocking down jumpers. Milwaukee’s roster has appropriate assets to defend every position—except for a stretch-4. Plus, if the Bucks pay too much attention to either player, Butler can take over the offense.

Prediction: Chicago 91, Milwaukee 84


Western Conference

No. 8 New Orleans Pelicans at No. 1 Golden State Warriors; Game 1

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Anthony Davis can single-handedly change the outcome of this series.

TV Info: 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC

Season Series: Golden State 3-1

  • Dec. 4: Golden State 112, New Orleans 85
  • Dec. 14: Golden State 128, New Orleans 122
  • Mar. 20: Golden State 112, New Orleans 96
  • Apr. 7: New Orleans 103, Golden State 100

What’s at Stake?

The Pelicans are out to prove they’re for real. Earning a postseason berth is no easy feat, but that’s merely step one of the process. Golden State opens the playoffs as a favorite to win the NBA title. Getting off to fast start is critical for Stephen Curry and Co.

Key Matchup: Anthony Davis vs. Draymond Green/Andrew Bogut/David Lee

Potential Difference-Maker: Jrue Holiday

New Orleans Will Win Because…

…of what we’ll call the carry-over effect. The Pelicans assembled a stellar performance against the San Antonio Spurs in a must-win game, building a huge early lead on the defending champions and making key shots down the stretch to finish them off. New Orleans is motivated, and Golden State is simply the next one up.

Golden State Will Win Because…

…Oracle Arena is a screaming death-trap and basically sends visitors into a panic. The Warriors racked up a 39-2 record at home, which only trails the 1985-85 Boston Celtics (40-1) for the best record ever. Compound the legitimate home-court advantage with an MVP candidate in Curry, Defensive Player of the Year front-runner in Draymond Green and sharpshooter Klay Thompson, and it’s no wonder Golden State finished the campaign 67-15.

Prediction: Golden State 106, New Orleans 93

No. 7 Dallas Mavericks at No. 2 Houston Rockets; Game 1

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It will be interesting to see if Monta Ellis can match James Harden in this series.

TV Info: 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Season Series: Rockets 3-1

  • Nov. 22: Houston 95, Dallas 92
  • Jan. 28: Houston 99, Dallas 94
  • Feb. 20: Dallas 111, Houston 100
  • Apr. 2: Houston 108, Dallas 101

What’s at Stake?

Dallas is seeking its first opening-round victory since winning the 2011 NBA Finals, while Houston hopes to snap its six-year streak of being eliminated before the conference semifinals.

Key Matchup: Rajon Rondo vs. James Harden

Potential Difference-Maker: Chandler Parsons

Dallas Will Win Because…

…Rick Carlisle is a genius. The Mavs weren’t supposed to be competitive against the San Antonio Spurs last season, yet Carlisle’s game plans forced a seven-game series against the eventual champions, proving to be their toughest matchup. The 13th-year coach will have some tricks up his sleeve to swing the game in Dallas’ favor.

Houston Will Win Because…

…it’s not overly difficult to attack the Mavericks’ shoddy defense. Dallas boasts a post presence in Tyson Chandler, but the Rockets are content to launch 30 three-pointers in a given contest. The Mavs cannot keep up with Houston on the perimeter, potentially making the night a long one for Dallas.

Prediction: Houston 108, Dallas 97


Photo: USA Today Sports