1. Which first-round series in each conference will be the most fun to watch?
Alex Barutha: East: Boston vs. Milwaukee (a.k.a. Brad Stevens vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo). For the first time, we'll actually get to see the Bucks' best players all available for the playoffs. Plus, thereís the subplot of Brandon Jennings looking to bounce back after his last playoff series with Milwaukee five years ago.
West: Houston vs. Minnesota. Houston is fun in general, but it'll be interesting to see how James Harden responds to being guarded by Jimmy Butler and (a possibly...hopefully...maybe motivated) Andrew Wiggins night after night.
Nick Whalen: All of them except Bucks/Celtics. Blazers/Pelicans should be a lot of fun and Thunder/Jazz should be close, but Iím not sure ďfunĒ will be the right word to describe that series.
James Anderson: Pelicans/Blazers. I think it will go seven games, which obviously helps. I also think the brand of basketball will be visually appealing, given the offensive stars and coaches involved. The Thunder/Jazz and Celtics/Bucks series will also probably go seven, but those are gonna be some grinders that lead to horrific flashbacks to the late-90s.
Ben Miller: I'm going to be a homer and go with the Bucks/Celtics series. I'll say the Spurs/Warriors series in the West. I expect the Warriors to win this in five games, but considering they seem vulnerable with Steph Curry out, I'm still interested to see how everything plays out.
DJ Trainor: In the West, Warriors vs. Spurs. I'm eagerly hoping Kawhi will enter the arena WWE-style smack dab in the middle of the series. Intro music, fog machine, the whole nine yards. In the East, itís Cavaliers vs. Pacers. I can't imagine LeBron playing much better than he did in the regular season, but he'll have to find a way.
Shannon McKeown: East: Bucks/Celtics. It's always fun to see the higher seed lose. Plus, the Greek Freak is one of the 3-4 most entertaining players in all of the Association. West: Pelicans/Blazers. This will be one of the most competitive first-round matches AND it features two of the five best players over the past three months: Dame and The Brow.
Ken Crites: In the East, the Bucks versus Celtics could be an awesome seven-game duel. If Boston had Kyrie, I of course would pick the Cís to sweep. Out West, I think Thunder/Jazz also goes seven games, despite OKC having a 3-to-1 advantage during the season. Itís so interesting to me that Donovan Mitchell never hit the rookie wall and actually improved over the last 10 games, when the Jazz had to win.
Alex Rikleen: Celtics-Bucks. One of the best and most unique players in the league takes on one of the best coaches. The Celtics injuries makes the matchup more competitive. Either team could win.
Mike Barner: I donít think any of the series in the East will be particularly close, but Iíll go with the Sixers and Heat to see how the young Sixers play in their first playoff appearance. The Blazers and Pelicans should be the most fun out West, especially since the Pelicans play at a fast pace without much defense. Damian Lillard is going to be in for a huge series.
Jeff Edgerton: In the East, I think it's going to be interesting to see if Giannis and the Bucks have enough firepower to seal up what many people are predicting -- a first-round upset of the vulnerable Celtics. In the West, both the Blazers and Pelicans are stacked with big-time talent, and the winner of this series has a chance to make some major noise down the stretch.
2. Which teams will play in the Eastern and Western Conference Finals?
Barutha: In the East, Cleveland vs. Philadelphia. Imagine the passive-aggressive Instagram posts from LeBron if he doesn't make it to the Conference Finals. I just refuse to accept it as a possibility. I also think Philly could really be a top-two team in the East and don't see either Boston or Milwaukee in the second round being too much of a problem for them.
Out West, Houston vs. Golden State. They're the two best teams in the league. I just don't see it going any other way.
Whalen: I have very little doubt that we wonít get Warriors/Rockets out West. Even with as bad as the Warriors have looked without Curry, they still finished nine games better than the next-best team. Assuming Embiid doesnít miss more than a game or two, Philly should cruise into the Conference Finals, where theyíll meet the Raptors.
Anderson: Cavs/76ers and Rockets/Warriors. If you aren't picking the Warriors, Rockets or Cavs, you're just being a contrarian or you're crazy. But the 76ers remind me of the Shaq/Penny Magic team that was so talented the youth didn't really matter. I don't think they'll lose the games Embiid is 100 percent healthy for until they face the Cavs.
Miller: Golden State and Houston in the West, with the Warriors winning in seven games. Toronto and Cleveland in the East, with Toronto winning in six games.
Trainor: Rockets vs. Warriors and Cavaliers vs. Celtics. We're in store for a great Round 1, but when all is said and done, the real candidates will emerge. My pick of Boston is solely because of Brad Stevens and Brad Stevens alone.
McKeown: Cavs/Sixers and Rockets/Warriors. The Sixers are as hot as any team in the playoffs, and they'll get Joel Embiid back by the second round at the latest. Out West, Curry will return in time for the Conference Finals and we'll get the matchup we all deserve.
Crites: How bummed out is Toronto that theyíll face Cleveland in the East Semis instead of the Conference Finals? Am I a bad person for assuming that DeRozan and Lowry again disappoint on the big stage? Like everyone else (I assume), Iíll take Cleveland versus Philly for the Eastern Finals. In the West, Iím going to stick with my crazy confidence towards the Trail Blazers. Last summer, I picked them to finish third out West, which most folks thought was crazy. Portland took two of three from the Warriors this year. They will not be intimidated by Golden State. Iím taking the Rockets and the Trail Blazers for the West Finals.
Rikleen: Cavs-76ers and Rockets-Warriors. I didn't even hesitate to pick the LeBrons over the Raptors. The 76ers was the only team I thought twice about. But assuming their normal starting lineup is fully healthy, they should be able to beat either the shorthanded Celtics or the chronically underperforming Bucks. They beat the Heat in 5.
Barner: Cavaliers and the Sixers in the East. The Raptors wonít be able to beat LeBron in a seven-game series. Rockets and Warriors in the West. This will be an awesome series.
Edgerton: I think it will be a Sixers-Cavs final in the East, and the Warriors-Rockets in the West.
3. Which teams will meet in the Finals, and who wins?
Barutha: Philadelphia vs. Golden State. Warriors in 5. I can't get it out of my head that I think the 76ers are better than the Cavs. They split the season series 2-2 without Embiid playing in two of the games. I'm prepared to go down swinging on this one. Once they get there, I assume they'll get destroyed by the Warriors.
Whalen: Warriors/Raptors. Warriors in four in whatís perhaps the most lopsided Finals in NBA history.
Anderson: Warriors over Cavs in 5. I'm really tempted to take the Rockets just based on how bad the Warriors bench has gotten, but the next time Harden (as a leading man), CP3 or D'Antoni go to the Finals will be the first, so I'm using experience as a bit of a tie breaker.
Miller: I've got the Warriors and Raptors, with the Warriors taking the crown once again in six games. While I think Houston will put up a strong fight and take the Warriors to seven games in the Conference Finals, I have a hard time betting against Golden State and their four All-Stars. Toronto, on the other hand, will finally live up to expectations. I don't think LeBron's revamped Cavs can pull it off.
Trainor: Warriors vs. Cavaliers. Warriors in five. I'll be rooting for an alternate ending, but the Warriors are still the easy favorite.
McKeown: Cavs/Warriors. Warriors in 5.
Crites: The Rockets will beat the Cavs in six games.
Rikleen: Whoever wins Rockets-Warriors should easily dispatch whoever comes out of the East. The Cavaliers probably beat the 76ers, though I'm only about 65% confident of that. If you forced me to pick a winner of Rockets-Warriors, and Curry, Durant, and Green were all healthy, then I'd pick the Warriors. But, man, I am really looking forward to both the ECF and the WCF.
Barner: Rockets over the Cavaliers in six. Itís hard picking LeBron to lose a series against anyone in the East, especially with Kyrie Irving out for Boston.
Edgerton: I think it will be the Sixers taking on the Rcokets, with Houston winning in six games.
4. Which first-round series are you most confident about?
Barutha: Cleveland over Indiana. Who guards LeBron? Thad Young? Bojan Bogdanovic? Lance Stephenson? Plus the Pacers will already be playing from behind mentally when they see the "2018 Central Division Champs" banner hanging in the rafters of the Q.
Whalen: Warriors over Spurs. Both teams are down their most important player, but one side is still in infinitely better shape than the other. Iím pessimistic about this Cavs team, but history suggests thereís no way theyíll slip up in Round 1. LeBron James is 48-7 all-time in first-round playoff games. The last time he lost, it was to a team that played Josh Harrellson, Steve Novak and Mike Bibby a combined 48 minutes.
Anderson: Rockets over Timberwolves. The Rockets run like a well-oiled machine and utilize data and modern basketball strategy. The Timberwolves are a collection of two really good players (Towns and Butler) who are poorly managed, surrounded by a few competent role players (Jones, Gibson, Teague) and a bunch of scrubs. If I knew Towns would lead the Timberwolves in field-goal attempts and I knew the Timberwolves would run a modern defense, I think it could go 6 or 7. However, I know neither of those things will happen, so it will be a sweep.
Miller: Houston over Minnesota. The Timberwolvesí defense will be no match for James Harden and Chris Paul. It will be a short-lived celebration in Minnesota following Wednesday's play-in game victory.
Trainor: Warriors over the Spurs.
McKeown: Rockets/Timberwolves. While I expect the Rockets to eventually stumble against the Warriors, I think Houston's dominance continues for the first couple rounds of the playoffs.
Crites: Cleveland is going to destroy the Pacers. Indiana deserves praise for an unexpected successful season. But this Pacers roster has no playoff experience outside of Lance Stephenson. When Born Ready leads your team in anything, there are problems.
Rikleen: Rockets-Wolves. But that answer is so easy and obvious that I'll give my second place, too. Cavs over Pacers. LeBron is not losing to them.
Barner: The Rockets over the Timberwolves. The Timberwolves arenít an easy out with Jimmy Butler now healthy, but Houston has too much fire power for Minnesota to pull off an upset.
Edgerton: If the Celtics were playing anyone else, I'd bet on them to lose. But looking at the rest of the matchups, the Rockets should have no problem against the T-Wolves.
5. Will any first-round series end in a sweep?
Barutha: Cavs over Pacers.
Whalen: Iíll be surprised if Warriors/Spurs isnít a sweep.
Anderson: Rockets over Timberwolves.
Miller: Again, I'm pretty confident Minnesota will be swept by the Rockets. I could also see Toronto doing the same to the Wizards considering how bad Washington has been, but not nearly as confident there.
Trainor: No Round 1 sweeps this year, although I think the Timberwolves will barely come away with one win.
McKeown: Rockets/Timberwolves, Warriors/Spurs, and Cavs/Pacers could all be sweeps.
Crites: Cavs will sweep the Pacers. Myles Turner will have a constant look of confusion during all four games.
Rikleen: Rockets/Wolves. If Wall is healthy and the Wizards show up, they could beat the Raptors. But based on their recent play -- including an unforgivable season-ending loss to the Magic -- they could also get swept.
Barner: No sweeps
Edgerton: I think the Rockets/Wolves matchup certainly has that potential. If Victor Oladipo goes cold, then I think the Cavs could sweep the Pacers.
6. Which player(s) are you most looking forward to watching on this bigger stage?
Barutha: Ben Simmons. Teams will sag off him more and possibly hack him going to the basket considering his poor free-throw percentage. I want to see how he responds to that.
Whalen: I wouldnít say Iím necessarily ďlooking forwardĒ to watching the Raptorsí backcourt, but Iím certainly curious to see how this first-round series plays out. Thereís little evidence to suggest that Lowry and DeRozan can be counted on for elite production in the postseason (yes, I'm aware I picked them to go to the Finals -- I don't feel great about it). Out West, Chris Paul has more to gain than arguably any other player in these playoffs. A championship, or even a Finals berth, would go a long way toward reversing whatís been the dominant narrative of his career.
Anderson: Dejounte Murray. I'm sure this will be a popular answer, but don't look to me to mix things up. He may not be there yet, but in a year or two I think he'll be considered the best rebounding guard and the best defensive guard in the league.
Miller: The Sixersí trio of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Markelle Fultz intrigues me quite a bit. Fultz, specifically, appears to be getting comfortable and just logged his first career triple-double in the regular-season finale, so I'm definitely excited to see more of him.
Trainor: Jimmy Butler. Even if the Rockets are dominant, I imagine Butler having the best average stat line of all players in Round 1.
McKeown: Giannis and Anthony Davis will put up monster games in the early rounds. Meanwhile, I expect we see another transcendent performance from LeBron James, as he carries his team to an eighth straight Finals.
Crites: GIANNIS! I want to see how he reacts when the rest of the Bucks get nervous and start missing outside shots. Can he carry the offense when all five Celtics are focused on him?
Rikleen: 1. Giannis. 2. LeBron. 3. Embiid. 4. Ben Simmons. 5. Lillard. 6. Anthony Davis. 7. Westbrook (it's amazing that he fell to 7th). 8. Donovan Mitchell. 9. Josh Richardson. 9. tie between Terry Rozier and Dejounte Murray. I am really excited about the playoffs.
Barner: Damian Lillard. I wouldnít be surprised if Lillard averages 30 points a game in the first round.
Edgerton: Donovan Mitchell will be the player that everyone wakes up to. The Jazz haven't gotten a lot of network time this year so the rookie is largely an unknown commodity to many causal watchers. He'll also continue to make a case for his ROTY status, which I think should be all his. I don't buy the Ben Simmons rookie argument. If you have a full year to practice with the team, watch game video with the team and get coached by the team, then you've had a rookie experience. For Simmons, it would be knowing about a pop quiz one year beforehand. Mitchell didn't have that luxury.
7. Most likely to be upset in Round 1: Rockets, Warriors, Raptors, or Cavs?
Barutha: The Raptors. Their horrible first-round track record is well-documented and the Wizards are better than their record indicates. The Wizards' frontcourt is certainly a weakness, but I think it's possible they overcome that.
Whalen: I could see Cleveland coming out flat for a game or two in Indianapolis -- as was the case last year -- but, again, LeBron isnít losing to Victor Oladipo. Iíll go with Toronto by default, though I donít think any of these teams will have too much trouble getting out of the first-round.
Anderson: Warriors. With a healthy Steph, I don't think any team can beat them in a series. However, without Steph, they will really need to bring it against a well-coached Spurs team that will know how to exploit the weaknesses (of which there are several) on this Warriors team. Kyle Anderson guards KD really well, and the Spurs just have more competent players. I think the Warriors win in 6.
Miller: I've learned you're almost always going to lose betting against LeBron James, but of the four, the Cavaliers seem the most likely to be upset. I think the Raptors will be the hot pick here, but again, the Wizards just aren't good, so I'm going with Cleveland.
Trainor: Cavaliers. I think they'll be skating on thin ice all the way to the Finals.
McKeown: Raptors. With John Wall back and playing well, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Raptors lose to the Wizards in Round 1. Toronto is a carbon copy of the 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks. They will disappoint in the postseason.
Crites: I gotta say the Raptors, right? The Wizards with a healthy John Wall are NOT a number eight seed. Out West, it would be absolutely hysterical if Davis Bertans gets hot and destroys the Warriors. A man can dream.
Rikleen: Raptors. The odds of a Rockets, Warriors, or Cavs upset is less than -273.15 degrees Kelvin (that's science for "absolute zero"). The Wizards should be much better than they have been. They have the talent. It's unlikely to happen, but it's very much possible.
Barner: I donít think any of these teams will be upset, but if I have to choose one, Iíll pick the Raptors. The Rockets and Warriors have too much talent to not advance and LeBron is not going to let the Cavaliersí season end in the first round.
Edgerton: I don't think any of these teams will lose, but you can never, ever count Gregg Popovich and the Spurs out. They will try to figure out a way to exploit the absence of Steph Curry and make this the Warriors' toughest challenge until the Rockets eventually get the best of them.