Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) handles the ball in...

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) handles the ball in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Sunday, April 14, 2024, in Memphis, Tenn. Credit: AP/Brandon Dill

Preview capsules for the first round of the NBA playoffs, which start Saturday.

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EASTERN CONFERENCE

No. 1 BOSTON CELTICS (64-18) vs. No. 8 MIAMI HEAT (46-36)

Season series: Celtics, 3-0.

Story line: Here they go again, sort of. The Celtics and Heat met in the East finals in 2020, 2022 and 2023 (Heat won in the bubble in 2020, Boston won a Game 7 in Miami in 2022, Miami won a Game 7 in Boston in 2023). But this series will be different, with the Heat set to play without injured star Jimmy Butler (knee) and probably without injured point guard Terry Rozier (neck). The Celtics had the best record in the NBA by seven games this season and one of their three wins over Miami was a 33-point romp in South Florida. On paper, especially without Butler, it's a mismatch.

Key matchup: Jayson Tatum vs. Bam Adebayo. The Heat did something surprising in the play-in finale against Chicago on Friday night, using Adebayo against Bulls guard DeMar DeRozan quite a bit. Expect more unpredictability from Miami in this series, and Adebayo might even get the assignment on Tatum at times.

New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson reacts after missing a...

New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson reacts after missing a 3-point basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets, Friday, April 12, 2024, at Madison Square Garden in New York. The Knicks won 111-107. Credit: AP/Mary Altaffer

Prediction: Celtics in 5.

No. 2 NEW YORK KNICKS (50-32) vs. No. 7 PHILADELPHIA 76ERS (47-35)

Season series: Knicks, 3-1.

Story line: The Knicks finished with their best record and highest seed since winning 54 games in 2012-13. They didn't get much of a reward for that, with the opponent being a 76ers team that surged after Joel Embiid returned from knee surgery, winning their final eight games of the regular season and then edging Miami in the play-in tournament to earn the No. 7 seed.

Milwaukee Bucks coach Doc Rivers instructs his team during the...

Milwaukee Bucks coach Doc Rivers instructs his team during the second half of his team's NBA basketball game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Friday, April 12, 2024, in Oklahoma City. Credit: AP/Nate Billings

Key matchup: Jalen Brunson vs. Tyrese Maxey. Both guards were first-time All-Stars and capable of putting up big scoring numbers. Maxey had three 50-point games during the regular season. Brunson had 11 40-point performances, tying Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing for second-most by a Knicks player in a single season, and was fourth in the league with 28.7 per game.

Prediction: Knicks in 7.

No. 3 MILWAUKEE BUCKS (49-33) vs. No. 6 INDIANA PACERS (47-35)

Season series: Pacers, 4-1.

Story line: With Giannis Antetokounmpo hurt late in the regular season, the Bucks fell from the No. 2 to the No. 3 seed and a matchup that could be difficult even if their superstar forward is able to return. Indiana beat Milwaukee four times in five matchups — an extra game coming with the Pacers' victory in the semifinals of the In-Season Tournament — and led the league with 123.3 points per game. The Pacers rang up 142 points in the final meeting and the Bucks needed a franchise-record 64 points from Antetokounmpo for their lone win on Dec. 13.

Key matchup: Damian Lillard vs. Tyrese Haliburton. Lillard was slowed late in the regular season by a sore left adductor, but the Bucks will need him on the floor and likely providing big numbers if Antetokounmpo remains out. His point guard counterpart was his fellow starter in the backcourt for the East in the All-Star Game. Haliburton led the NBA with 10.9 assists per game.

Prediction: Pacers in 6.

No. 4 CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (48-34) vs. No. 5 ORLANDO MAGIC (47-35)

Season series: Split, 2-2.

Story line: The Magic entered the season as one of the NBA's youngest teams and ended it as one of the most improved ones, winning 13 more games than a season ago and finishing with their best record since going 52-30 in 2010-11. Their return to the postseason comes against a Cavaliers team that wants to bounce back from a disappointing postseason in 2023, when they also were the No. 4 seed but were routed by the Knicks in five games.

Key matchup: Donovan Mitchell vs. Jalen Suggs. Mitchell says he is healthy after a knee injury slowed the All-Star guard in the second half of the season. If so, Suggs has a tough assignment ahead at the end of the best season of his three-year career.

Prediction: Cavaliers in 7.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

No. 1 OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (57-25) vs. No. 8 NEW ORLEANS PELICANS (49-33)

Season series: Thunder, 2-1.

Story line: Oklahoma City emerged as one of the best stories in the NBA this season, led by MVP candidate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The Thunder improved their win total by 16 last season — and then it improved it again by 17 more this season. But they don't exactly get a cakewalk here in Round 1, with a 49-win Pelicans team coming in as the opponent. Even though Zion Williamson will likely miss most, if not all, of the series with a bad hamstring, New Orleans is still going to be formidable.

Key matchup: Gilgeous-Alexander vs. CJ McCollum. No team would dare have one person take on the task of guarding OKC's best player, but McCollum will have to use all of his veteran savvy against the Thunder star. And here's a key nugget — McCollum has more career playoff points (1,273) than everyone currently on the Thunder roster combined (990).

Prediction: Thunder in 6.

No. 2 DENVER NUGGETS (57-25) vs. No. 7 LOS ANGELES LAKERS (47-35)

Season series: Nuggets, 3-0.

Story line: A matchup of the two most recent teams to be handed trophies by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver — the reigning champion Nuggets (from June) and the reigning NBA Cup champion Lakers (from December). Only one team has eliminated LeBron James in back-to-back seasons, that being Golden State, which beat his Cleveland teams in the 2017 and 2018 NBA Finals. And James has been ousted in Round 1 only once in his 16 previous playoff appearances. But the Nuggets are still heavy favorites for no shortage of reasons — among them, Nikola Jokic, a mile-high home-court advantage and an eight-game winning streak against the Lakers, including a 4-0 sweep in last season’s West finals. In fairness, the Lakers looked exhausted by that point of the playoffs. This is Round 1; they shouldn’t be tired yet.

Key matchup: It’s all about rebounding. Denver outscored the Lakers by 30 points in the season series, and most of that differential came from second-chance points (Nuggets 50, Lakers 25). The Lakers got to the line twice as often as the Nuggets (53-26) in the three games, but the second-chance points were too much to overcome.

Prediction: Nuggets in 6.

No. 3 MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (56-26) vs. No. 6 PHOENIX SUNS (49-33)

Season series: Suns, 3-0.

Story line: Phoenix is the only West team to sweep the Timberwolves this season (Chicago, 2-0, did as well) and the only team to beat Minnesota by at least 10 points three times (New Orleans did it twice, five other teams did it once). The difference in the three games was simply that the Suns couldn’t miss — they shot 53% from the field and 49% from 3-point range, compared with 45% from the field and 29% from 3 for the Timberwolves. But this is the best team Minnesota has had in 20 years, and that team from 20 years ago is the last Wolves team to win a playoff series. Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Grayson Allen and Bradley Beal — all Suns — were the four highest scorers in the season series. The Wolves’ Anthony Edwards, Mike Conley, Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns can’t let that happen here.

Key matchup: Edwards vs. Booker. The soon-to-be U.S. Olympic teammates in Paris will both be asked to put up big numbers, and this is a moment where Edwards might truly cement himself as among the league’s elite. The vets in this series — players like Conley, Durant and Gobert — will rise to the occasion. Edwards will have to as well.

Prediction: Timberwolves in 7.

No. 4 LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (51-31) vs. No. 5 DALLAS MAVERICKS (50-32)

Season series: Clippers, 2-1.

Story line: It’s Clippers-Mavericks in Round 1 for the third time in the last five seasons, the Clippers winning in six games inside the bubble in 2020 and then winning a Game 7 at home in 2021. Dallas’ duo of Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving are as formidable a 1-2 punch as any in the NBA, but the Mavericks need to find a way to keep the Clippers out of the paint. LA outscored Dallas 176-120 in the paint in the three regular season matchups. The Clippers were put together for this time of year — Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, James Harden and Russell Westbrook have tons of playoff experience, and Leonard, if healthy, will have ways to at least slow down Doncic. But the Mavericks were playing as well as anyone in the league over the last 20 games, especially on the defensive end. This has all the makings of a long series.

Key matchup: Irving vs. Harden. Irving can still dazzle like nobody else in the league, has championship experience and is clearly clicking with Doncic in Year 2 (really, Year 1 1/2) of their time together. Harden can’t get outscored by too much here; the Clippers made only 15 3-pointers in the three games, and Dallas thrives from beyond the arc.

Prediction: If Leonard’s knee is right, Clippers in 7. Otherwise, Mavericks in 6.

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