After 82 games for 30 teams in the NBA, 16 of them can start allowing themselves to dream of a championship ring as the postseason arrives.
If the playoffs turn out to half as enthralling as the race to get there, which went down to the very last game on the very last day of the regular season, then basketball fans will be in for a heck of journey over the coming weeks.
Before the best eight teams in the Western and Eastern conferences begin their battles, 888Sport.com breaks down each series in preview form:
(1) Golden State Warriors v (8) New Orleans Pelicans
Having clung on to the number eight seed at Oklahoma City Thunder’s expense on the last day of the season under the toughest circumstances – the Pelicans beat the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, who were on an 11-game win streak – New Orleans will feel suitably prepared for the Warriors.
Not only did Steve Kerr’s side collect the best record in the NBA this season, but they turned in one of the most dominant campaigns in the game history as one of just 10 teams to record a 67-win season.
They won the regular season series 3-1 against the Pelicans and lost just twice at home all year.
Prediction: Warriors in five
(2) Houston Rockets v (7) Dallas Mavericks
Not only are these two Texas franchises local rivals, but the Rockets’ General Manager, Daryl Morey, and Dallas’ owner, Mark Cuban, hate each other and have been embroiled in a war of words for some time.
While Dallas’ collection of stars is enough to keep the Mavericks in the mix until late on in the series, James Harden is a destructive offensive force and, with Rockets centre Dwight Howard healthy to head up the defensive effort, it should be Houston that advances.
Prediction: Rockets in seven
(3) Los Angeles Clippers v (6) San Antonio Spurs
Every year the Spurs are written off as too old to compete in the young man’s game that is the NBA playoffs and every year they throw egg on their detractors’ faces.
At the same time, every year since Chris Paul joined forces with Blake Griffin and the Clippers has supposed to have been their time to seal a championship, yet they are still waiting to get beyond the second round.
Prediction: Spurs in six
(4) Portland Trailblazers v (5) Memphis Grizzlies
The Trailblazers can’t catch a break and come into this series wounded and limping. They are without Wesley Matthews, Aaron Afflalo and Dorrell Wright and have LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, C.J McCollum and Chris Kaman all playing while hurt.
Equally, the Grizzlies have injury troubles of their own, but are far healthier than their opponent which, combined with the 4-0 sweep they claimed during the regular season, gives them the edge.
Prediction: Grizzlies in five
(1) Atlanta Hawks v (8) Brooklyn Nets
In following the Spurs’ fabled team-first style of play blueprint, the Hawks, who have no superstar on their roster, have surprised everyone with their results this season.
On the other hand, the Nets’ strategy of parachuting in a host of storied veterans to make a championship run has barely held water.
The appearance of Joe Johnson, traded to the Nets by the Hawks in 2012, adds intrigue to what looks and open-and-shut series – the Hawks won the regular season matchups 4-0 and by an average of 17.2 points.
Prediction: Hawks in four
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers v (7) Boston Celtics
After an early season spent figuring out how to get LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving to play together, the Cavs worked things out and motored to the regular season finish line.
The Celtics’ rebuild has caught everyone, including themselves, off guard with its early, unexpected results and a playoff spot.
That’s largely down to the arrival of point guard Isaiah Thomas, who arrived mid-season from the Phoenix Suns.
Unfortunately the Celtics’ over-reliance on Thomas won’t help them against a stacked Cavs roster, hell-bent on a Finals appearance.
Prediction: Cavaliers in five
(3) Chicago Bulls v (6) Milwaukee Bucks
Once again the Bulls come into the postseason as sneaky dark-horses, but face the same problems that have troubled them in previous campaigns.
Coach Tom Thibodeau’s addiction to riding his starting five into the ground and the injuries they cause, notably to Derrick Rose, have affected the Bulls, but they should have more than enough to topple a defensively-sound Bucks outfit that often can’t locate the rim on offense.
Prediction: Bulls in four
(4) Toronto Raptors v (5) Washington Wizards
The Raptors came out swinging to open the season but looked punched off their feet by the time they fell to the number four seed at campaign’s end. Form is not on their side heading into the playoffs.
Likewise the Wizards, who didn’t start as quick, but have still regressed as the postseason approached to set up a first round on the road when home advantage was within their grasp.
It all boils down to a hard-to-call series that likely comes down to small factors like experience in order to win it. On that basis, the Wizards’ Paul Pierce – an NBA champion with the Celtics – gives them the edge.
Prediction: Wizards in seven