NBA Playoffs: Top storyline for each first-round series

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Most playoff teams had already locked up spots as the NBA’s regular-season closed Wednesday evening. But by virtue of some amazing comebacks and tantalizing plays, things changed big time as the evening drew to an end.

The Houston Rockets now find themselves as the fourth seed out west and must take on what promises to be a game Utah Jazz squad. Back east, the Brooklyn Nets inched into the sixth spot for an interesting matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers.

With the playoff schedule now set, we check in on the top storyline for each first-round series. There’s a whole heck of a lot to look at here. Let’s dig in.

(1) Milwaukee Bucks vs (8) Detroit Pistons

Can Giannis Antetokounmpo truly make a name for himself in the playoffs? Milwaukee has now made the postseason four times in the Greek Freak’s six NBA seasons. The team has not yet made it out of the first round. Fresh off a league-best 60-win campaign, that must change against an inferior Pistons team.

We’re not really talking about Milwaukee winning this series. That already seems to be a foregone conclusion. But if the squad were to be taken to six or seven games, it would present an issue moving forward. Giannis has more than proven himself to be among the game’s top players. He now must prove this against Blake Griffin — leading Milwaukee to a resounding Round 1 win.

(4) Boston Celtics vs (5) Indiana Pacers

Boston is certainly hoping that its struggles during the latter part of the regular season don’t extend into the playoffs. After starting the campaign with a 35-19 record, these Celtics were .500 in their final 28 games. Internal turmoil surrounding Kyrie Irving’s future in Boston acted as a major backdrop here.

Having finished the regular year with a disappointing 49 wins, Boston must turn it up a notch to avoid a let down against what has been a surprising Victor Oladipo-less Pacers squad. Remember, the Celtics were one win away from and NBA Finals appearance last season. A first-round exit this year would pretty much cement Irving’s departure in free agency.

(2) Toronto Raptors vs (7) Orlando Magic

We’re now openly wondering whether Toronto can put its past playoff struggles to bed. Here’s a squad that won 50-plus games each of the past three seasons — only to fail to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals each year. Though, this year’s version includes a new head coach in Nick Nurse and a new star, Kawhi Leonard. That could dramatically change the landscape up north.

Toronto’s first crack at proving naysayers wrong will come against a surprising playoff team in that of the Orlando Magic. On paper, this would seem to be a mismatch. After all, the Raptors won 16 more games than their first-round opponent. Then again, Orlando came out on top on its final two meetings against Toronto by a combined 44 points. Will that count for something here?

(3) Philadelphia 76ers vs (6) Brooklyn Nets

Will the real Sixers please step up? Led by youngsters Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, Philadelphia looked like a legit championship contender at times this season. That included wins over Western Conference powerhouses such as Denver, Houston, Golden State and Oklahoma City. At issue here is a lack of consistency that comes with being such a young team.

It’s now time for veterans Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris to step up against what promises to be a hungry young Nets squad in Round 1. Philadelphia split with Brooklyn during the regular season. It’s a clear indication that this series won’t be as easy as the team’s two records might suggest.

(1) Golden State Warriors vs (8) Los Angeles Clippers

Taking care of business. That’s going to be the primary goal for the two-time defending champs as major favorites against a surprising young Clippers team. Steve Kerr doesn’t want to see this series extend beyond five games. That’s especially true given how difficult the remainder of the Western Conference Playoffs promise to be.

We’ve seen the Warriors let down at times this season. Such is the nature of the beast for a team attempting to earn its fifth consecutive NBA Finals appearance. Said let down can’t take place in Round 1. The good news? Golden State won its final two regular-season matchups against the Clippers by an average of 22 points.

(4) Houston Rockets vs (5) Utah Jazz

Houston entered the final day of the regular season with an opportunity to earn the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. After amazing comebacks by Denver and Portland Wednesday evening, James Harden and the Rockets were pushed to the fourth seed and a difficult matchup with the Jazz.

The story here is a potential conference semifinal matchup against Golden State. Simply put, the Rockets can’t overlook Utah in Round 1. This is the same Jazz team that shocked onlookers by taking out Oklahoma City in the first round of last year’s playoffs before falling to Houston. Quin Snyder is going to have his team ready. The Rockets must be prepared for this one without looking forward to what might come in Round 2.

(2) Denver Nuggets vs (7) San Antonio Spurs

Who is really the favorite here? This is a legit question after San Antonio posted a 28-17 record over its final 45 regular-season games. Meanwhile, the Nuggets needed a comeback home win over Minnesota in the final night of the season to avoid losing a top-three seed. All said, Denver finished the regular year having lost six of its final 11 games.

Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has the obvious advantage over Nuggets head man Mike Malone from an experience standpoint. The good news for Denver is that it has home-court advantage in the series and won 34-of-41 games at the Pepsi Center during the regular year. These two teams split their season series, 2-2.

(3) Portland Trail Blazers vs (6) Oklahoma City Thunder

Just how good are the Blazers? Including a comeback win over Sacramento Wednesday night without any of their star power on the court, these Blazers came out on top in 33 of their final 46 regular-season games. That equates to about 60 wins over the course of an 82-game schedule. Even with Jusuf Nurkic sidelined to injury, this is one dangerous team.

On the other side of the ledger is a struggling Thunder squad that just hasn’t performed up to its talent in recent months. Russell Westbrook and Co. lost 14 of their final 25 regular-season games. Given the talent these Thunder boast, this isn’t a typical three versus six matchup. But based on what we’ve seen over the past several weeks, Portland seems to have the big upper hand.