The 2019 NBA play-offs start on Saturday in what is set to be the most wide-open post-season in years.
After a run of four straight finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers, a fifth meeting is already off the table after the Cavs were left in freefall following the departure of LeBron James last year,finishing with the third-worst record in the league.
By contrast, two-time defending champions the Warriors ended the season as top seeds in the West Conference. However, they were pushed all the way by a Denver Nuggets team who will also fancy their chances.
The Milwaukee Bucks – led by MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo – are also in the mix after topping the Eastern Conference with a league-best 60 wins, while fellow MVP hopeful James Harden will bid to cap a stellar campaign by taking the Houston Rockets all the way.
Here is BBC Sport’s guide to the best-of-seven first-round match-ups taking place from 13-28 April.
Golden State Warriors (1) v Los Angeles Clippers (8)
Head-to-head record 2018-19: Warriors 3-1 Clippers
Season so far: The Warriors claimed the West’s top seed and secured the third-best record in the league with 57 wins and 25 losses. Steve Kerr’s side are hoping to make the NBA Finals for the fifth straight year.
The Clippers’ final-day 143-137 overtime win over the Utah Jazz ended a three-game losing streak. With their opponents’ play-off spot already clinched, the Clippers were playing for either the seventh or eighth seed. Their seeding depended on results from the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs, but wins for those teams saw the Clippers take the eighth seeding.
Ones to watch: The Warriors’ roster already boasted superstars Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, and this season has been boosted by the inclusion of DeMarcus Cousins, who is sure to add an extra dimension to their play-off bid.
Denver Nuggets (2) v San Antonio Spurs (7)
Head-to-head record 2018-19: Nuggets 2-2 Spurs
Season so far: The Spurs finished the regular season with one more win than last year – 48 against 34 losses – clinching a 22nd consecutive play-off spot. Coach Gregg Popovich also tied Lenny Wilkens for the most total wins in both the regular season and play-offs by any coach in NBA history with 1,412.
The Nuggets earned a second-seeded play-off spot after beating the Minnesota Timberwolves 99-95 on Wednesday, but there is plenty of talk about how the young team will cope with post-season pressure given their lack of experience.
One to watch: Denver’s Nikola Jokic is coming off his first All-Star season, averaging 20.1 points, 7.3 assists and 10.8 rebounds. The 24-year-old’s assist record leaves him ninth in the NBA; he also became the first centre since Wilt Chamberlain to have more than 500 assists in a season.
Portland Trail Blazers (3) v Oklahoma City Thunder (6)
Head-to-head record 2018-19: Trail Blazers 0-4 Thunder
Season so far: After Wednesday’s 127-116 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, the Thunder sealed the sixth seeding. Oklahoma City won all four games against their first-round rivals in the regular season but have failed to win a play-off series since 2016.
Terry Stotts has coached the Trail Blazers to another play-off campaign despite them having a 10-game post-season losing streak. The team were dealt a blow a little over two weeks ago when they lost starting centre Jusuf Nurkic to a compound leg fracture but remain favourites to advance to the next round.
Ones to watch: Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook averaged triple-double figures for the third straight season but the Trail Blazers have their own star turn in Damian Lillard, who averages 25.8 points, 4.6 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game and sits eight places higher than Westbrook in the scoring charts this season.
Houston Rockets (4) v Utah Jazz (5)
Head-to-head record 2018-19: Rockets 2-2 Jazz
Season so far: The Rockets endured a sticky start to the season with 11 wins and 14 losses, but MVP hopeful James Harden helped them overcome initial nerves to end the season with 53 wins.
Utah also started the season slowly but have finished strongly – only top seeds Milwaukee have a better win percentage since the start of 2019. The Jazz have an excellent defence but will have to do something pretty special to dent the Rockets’ confidence.
One to watch: MVP contender James Harden has had a phenomenal season, and the stats prove it. He made history by scoring 30 or more points in 32 games – the most since Wilt Chamberlain. He also became only the second player in NBA history after Michael Jordan in 1989-90 to record 2,700 points, 500 assists, and 500 rebounds in one season.
Milwaukee Bucks (1) v Detroit Pistons (8)
Head-to-head record 2018-19: Bucks 4-0 Pistons
Season so far: All-Star small forward Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks to a league-best record of 60 wins and 22 losses. The Bucks lead the NBA with 45 wins by double figures – more than any other team. Their 115-107 victory over the Atlanta Hawks earlier this week was their 60th of the season – their best return since 1981.
Detroit coach Dwane Casey has led the Pistons to the play-offs in his first season in charge since being fired from the Toronto Raptors following a season with 59 wins. Detroit have a 41-41 record – the worst of any side in the play-offs, including four winning streaks of at least four games and four losing streaks of at least four games.
Ones to watch: ‘Greek Freak’ Antetokounmpo is a candidate for the MVP award, and has recorded 116 unassisted dunks this season, the most in a season in 20 years. He has battled knee soreness, but heads into the post-season having been rested for two of the last three games.
The Pistons’ hopes rest almost entirely on the fitness of Blake Griffin. The power forward, who has averaged a career-high 24.5 points this season, sat out the final game of the regular season with a knee injury, and has struggled with his fitness in the post-season. He also hasn’t won a play-off series since 2015.
Toronto Raptors (2) v Orlando Magic (7)
Head-to-head record 2018-19: Raptors 2-2 Magic
Season so far: Ten-time play-off contenders the Raptors are second only to the Bucks in the league for their win-to-loss ratio – although they have never won a championship in their 24-year history.
The Magic have the best current form of any team in the East, winning eight of their last 10 regular-season games, and are returning to the play-offs after a six-year hiatus. Head coach Steve Clifford has 19 NBA seasons to his name, including more than a dozen play-offs. His team also have the NBA’s largest win-improvement total from last season to this season with 16 more victories.
Ones to watch: Three-time All Star small forward Kawhi Leonard overcame initial doubts about his life in Toronto, averaging a career-best 26.6 points per game this season. Earlier this week, Leonard said: “I couldn’t say I would have this type of season in the beginning of the year, you know, the way things have started and how I felt. So I’m happy.”
In the Sunshine State, centre Nikola Vucevic is making waves after becoming the Magic’s first All-Star since Dwight Howard in 2012 and has been described by Lakers coach Luke Walton as a “nightmare to match up with” thanks to the versatility of his offensive game.
Philadelphia 76ers (3) v Brooklyn Nets (6)
Head-to-head record 2018-19: 76ers 2-2 Nets
Season so far: The 76ers have an advantage with their play-off experience, including a blockbuster trade in Jimmy Butler from the Minnesota Timberwolves, the talent of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and the experience of 12-time play-off veteran JJ Reddick. All Star centre Embiid has not yet been confirmed as available this weekend after battling knee soreness.
The Nets averaged 23 wins a year over the previous three seasons, but finished this season with 42 wins and 42 losses to secure sixth seed for their first post-season since 2014-15, after an impressive season for first-time All Star D’Angelo Russell.
Ones to watch: Russell was dumped from the Lakers in 2017, but made his debut All Star appearance in February in the best season of his four-year career, averaging 21.1 points, 3.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists. After his trade, Magic Johnson said “what I needed was a leader” but the 23-year-old is having the last laugh after leading the Nets to their first post-season since 2015.
Boston Celtics (4) v Indiana Pacers (5)
Head-to-head record 2018-19: Celtics 3-1 Pacers
Season so far: All-time championship leaders the Celtics have 17 titles, but their last Finals victory came 11 years ago. Despite a lack of recent success, their roster is experienced in the play-offs. Guard Marcus Smart – regarded as one of the NBA’s top defenders – is ruled out for the first two rounds with a torn oblique muscle, although they have reinforcements in Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford.
Indiana’s Victor Oladipo ruptured a quad tendon in his right leg and is ruled out for the season, and the side have won only four of their past 13 games, although they did manage to force LeBron James’s Cavs to a Game 7 last year.
Ones to watch: Kyrie Irving has featured in three Finals since 2015 with the Cavs, winning one championship. But Irving, no longer lurking in the shadows of former team-mate LeBron James, might struggle to lead a team and battle the post-season nerves.
Bojan Bogdanovic has taken centre stage after Oladipo’s injury, and will be heavily relied upon to lead the Pacers to victory.
Should the first-round match-ups be completed in six games or less, the semi-finals could switch to either a 28 or 29 April start.