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NBA playoffs: First-round series-by-series guide

Watch Brooklyn Nets @ Toronto Raptors (Game 1) live on Sky Sports Arena on Monday at 9pm

Damian Lillard and LeBron James exchange words following a Blazers-Lakers game at Staples Center
Image: Damian Lillard and LeBron James exchange words following a Blazers-Lakers game at Staples Center

The NBA playoffs begin on August 17 with eight best-of-seven first round series, many of which seem certain to continue the drama and excitement that has characterised play in the NBA bubble so far.

Read our series-by-series guide then make your own predictions with the NBA's Playoff Bracket Challenge.

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Make your picks for every round of the players and share your selections with friends

NBA first-round playoff games live on Sky Sports

  • Gm 1: Nets @ Raptors | Monday 9pm | Sky Sports Arena
  • Gm 1: Thunder @ Rockets | Tuesday 11:30pm | Sky Sports Arena
  • Gm 2: Jazz @ Nuggets | Wednesday 9pm | Sky Sports Mix
  • Gm 2: Trail Blazers @ Lakers | Friday 2am | Sky Sports Arena
  • Gm 3: Clippers @ Mavericks | Saturday 2am | Sky Sports Arena
  • Gm 3: Heat @ Pacers | Saturday 8:30pm | Sky Sports Arena
  • Gm 4: Celtics @ 76ers | Sunday 6pm | Sky Sports Arena
  • Gm 4: Lakers @ Trail Blazers | Tuesday 2am | Sky Sports Arena

Eastern Conference

Milwaukee Bucks (1) vs Orlando Magic (8)

Giannis Antetokounmpo slams home a dunk en route to 36 points against Boston
Image: Giannis Antetokounmpo slams home a dunk en route to 36 points against Boston

Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks (56-17) have the best record in the NBA for the second consecutive season and enter the first round against an opponent that they dominated in four regular-season meetings.
Out of the 192 minutes of basketball between the clubs this season, the Magic led for 11 of them. The Magic know they have nothing to lose.

preview image 1:05
Giannis Antetokounmpo was ejected during the Milwaukee Bucks' win over the Washington Wizards after head-butting Moritz Wagner

Key matchup: Giannis Antetokounmpo vs Nikola Vucevic

The MVP will not be guarded one-on-one by Vucevic often if at all, but Orlando's best rim protector is going to have to do quite a job against the NBA's leader in points in the paint if the Magic are going to make this interesting.

Toronto Raptors (2) vs Brooklyn Nets (7)

Kyle Lowry celebrates a basket during the Raptors' win over the Lakers
Image: Kyle Lowry celebrates a basket during the Raptors' win over the Lakers

Defending NBA champions the Raptors lost their Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green yet still put together the best regular season record (53-19) in franchise history.

The Nets (35-37) are missing Kevin Durant (who got hurt against the Raptors in last year's finals as a Golden State Warriors player), Kyrie Irving and plenty of others, yet have played extremely hard for interim coach Jacque Vaughn.

Also See:

Pascal Siakam #43 of the Toronto Raptors shoots the ball against the Philadelphia 76ers on August 12, 2020 at The Field House at ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Florida. 0:10
Kyle Lowry's clever assist sets up an easy lay-up for Pascal Siakam during the Toronto Raptors' win over the Philadelphia 76ers in Orlando

Key match-up: Kyle Lowry vs Caris LeVert

Lowry is as good a defensive player as there is in the NBA and will be one of the Raptors tasked with not letting LeVert get on a big scoring roll. The Nets will be playing a loose brand of basketball, knowing that almost nobody would expect them to win the series.

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Boston Celtics (3) vs Philadelphia 76ers (6)

Joel Embiid hounds Jayson Tatum during a 76ers-Celtics game
Image: Joel Embiid hounds Jayson Tatum during a 76ers-Celtics game

Pay no attention to the fact the Sixers won their season series with the Celtics 3-1. Those wins came with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid playing. Now Simmons is out with a knee injury and Embiid has not looked right for much of his time at Disney, so these are not the same 76ers that the Celtics (48-24) saw in the regular season.

But it is a rivalry match-up, and the 76ers (43-30) would love nothing more than putting a couple dents in Boston's postseason plans.

Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics reacts during a game against the Portland Trail Blazers on August 2, 2020 at The Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. 1:59
Jayson Tatum scored 34 points as the Boston Celtics beat the Portland Trail Blazers in the NBA

Key match-up: Jayson Tatum vs Tobias Harris

Tatum is becoming an absolute star in this league, standing out on a Boston roster that already has plenty of talent. But Harris is strong, smart on the defensive end is going to have to take on more of a leadership role with Simmons out and Embiid clearly labouring.

Indiana Pacers (4) vs Miami Heat (5)

Jimmy Butler drives at the Washington Wizards' defense 2:48
Charles Barkley feels Jimmy Butler can't just focus on TJ Warren whilst Shaq thinks Miami's defense will be enough for them to advance

These teams met in three consecutive postseasons during Miami's 'Big Three' era, with the Heat winning them all in 2012, 2013 and 2014 to thwart an Indiana squad that was one of the best in the league at that time but never broke through.

Not having Domantas Sabonis will be a tough break for Indiana (45-28) on offense and defense. Miami (44-29) have as good a group of three-point shooters as anyone in the league. Without Sabonis, the chore of guarding All-Star Heat center Bam Adebayo falls almost solely to Myles Turner.

Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat defends TJ Warren of the Indiana Pacers 6:36
Mo and BJ believe Jimmy Butler and TJ Warren's rivalry could be a great battle if they meet in the playoffs

Key match-up: Jimmy Butler vs TJ Warren

It is not solely because of their little war of words back in January, either. Butler's first postseason series with the Heat is a chance for him to put his stamp on things. Warren has a big opportunity at Disney - more shots, mainly - and largely has taken full advantage of it so far.

Western Conference

Los Angeles Lakers (1) vs Portland Trail Blazers (8)

LeBron James controls possession against the Magic
Image: LeBron James controls possession against the Magic

With LeBron James leading the league in assists in his second season in Los Angeles and Anthony Davis the beneficiary of many of them in his first, the Lakers (52-19) rolled to the best record in the West and their first playoff appearance since 2013.

They finally learned their opponent Saturday when Portland (36-39) beat Memphis to win the NBA's first Play-In.

Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers 0:14
Damian Lillard hits a three-pointer from just inside half court during the Portland Trail Blazers' victory over the Brooklyn Nets

Key matchup: James or Davis vs Carmelo Anthony

Anthony hit some clutch shots during the restart and has a chance to win a playoff series for the first time since 2013. But he will have to show he can defend a likely first team All-NBA selections in Davis or James to stay on the floor - a lot to ask at 36.

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LA Clippers (2) vs Dallas Mavericks (7)

Kawhi Leonard handles the ball in the Clippers' opening scrimmage game against the Magic
Image: Kawhi Leonard handles the ball in the Clippers' opening scrimmage game against the Magic

Kawhi Leonard carried Toronto to their first NBA title last year and will look to bring Los Angeles their first now, backed by fellow superstar Paul George and perhaps the league's deepest roster.

The Clippers (49-23) will be tested defensively by Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis and a dangerous Dallas (43-32) offense, that ranks as the most efficient in league history (115.8 points per 100 possessions).

Luka Doncic finished with 36 points and his 17th triple-double of the NBA season as the Dallas Mavericks beat the Milwaukee Bucks. 1:59
Luka Doncic finished with 36 points and his 17th triple-double of the NBA season as the Dallas Mavericks beat the Milwaukee Bucks

Key match-up: Leonard, George and Patrick Beverley vs Doncic

Doncic led the NBA in triple-doubles this season and can hurt opponents in a number of ways. But the Clippers can rotate multiple defenders in hopes of slowing down Dallas' young superstar.

Denver Nuggets (3) vs Utah Jazz (6)

Nikola Jokic initiates the Nuggets offense against the Oklahoma City Thunder
Image: Nikola Jokic initiates the Nuggets offense against the Oklahoma City Thunder

The Northwest Division rivals seem evenly matched, as seen when they played a double-overtime thriller during the seeding games that the Nuggets (46-27) won 134-132. Denver's three regular season victories over Utah (44-28) were by a total of 11 points.

Highlights of the seeding match between the Utah Jazz and the Denver Nuggets from Orlando. 1:11
The NBA TV analysts say coach Mike Malone will be disappointed with Denver's defense but back the Nuggets to beat Jazz in the first round of the playoffs

Key match-up: Nikola Jokic vs Rudy Gobert

Jokic is perhaps the best all-around center in the NBA and Gobert, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, remains a stopper in the middle. But with Jokic able to handle the ball so well and shoot from outside, he is a tough cover for traditional big men who are used to manning the paint.

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Houston Rockets (4) vs Oklahoma City Thunder (5)

Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul match up during a Rockets-Thunder clash
Image: Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul match up during a Rockets-Thunder clash

The trade of Russell Westbrook to Houston last summer for Chris Paul and multiple first-round picks was thought to signal a rebuild in Oklahoma City.

Instead, Paul had a terrific season in leading the Thunder to the same record as the Rockets (44-28), who do not know when Westbrook will be available because of a right quadriceps injury.

Chris Paul celebrates a play during the Thunder's overtime win over the Nets 2:01
Chris Paul talks about adapting to life in Oklahoma City and the impact he has made on his Thunder team-mates and the franchise as a whole

Key match-up: Westbrook vs Paul

It was Paul's injury in the 2018 Western Conference Finals against Golden State that denied the Rockets a chance to reach the NBA Finals. Houston have to hope Westbrook not only returns soon, but also does with the explosiveness that makes him a perennial All-Star.

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