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Written 4/18/18

Now that the 2018 NBA postseason is underway, we’ve been met with a few surprises, some predictable outcomes, and some stellar performances by several players around the league.

The reigning champion Golden State Warriors have already proven their dominance once again, taking a 2-game lead ahead of the San Antonio Spurs. The Cleveland Cavaliers on the other hand, fell to the Indiana Pacers in the first game of their series; a surprise to most fans around the league. Then there’s the Houston Rockets. James Harden and his team have been nothing short of extraordinary throughout the regular season, capping off the first game of their playoff series against the Minnesota Timberwolves with a win.

With all of that said, it’s difficult to predict which team will come out on top as 2018 NBA champions given how dramatic the postseason has been thus far. Let’s take a look at a few of this year’s most intriguing matchups, and those teams’ possibilities of taking home the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy.

1 Rockets vs. 8 Timberwolves482px-James_Harden_Rockets_cropped

A no. 8 seed going up against a no. 1 seed is a mismatch on paper 9 times out of 10, and there is no exception with the Timberwolves going up against the Rockets. While the first game of this series ended in a Rockets win, it wasn’t as easy for Houston as many would come to expect. Thanks to Jimmy Butler and, surprisingly, Derrick Rose, the Timberwolves kept a close game. If they are to complete the upset and advance past Houston, Minnesota absolutely must stop James Harden, which will fall largely on the shoulders of Butler, who is coming back from a 17-game absence following a knee injury.

The Rockets shouldn’t have too much difficulty winning, and potentially sweeping this series so long as they play as well as they have all season long. While the Timberwolves have a number of star players in Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns, Houston has the bodies to match up with each of them.

3 Blazers vs. 6 Pelicans

The Portland Trail Blazers finished the regular season on a fairly high note to clinch the no. 3 seed. Going up against the no. 6 seeded New Orleans Pelicans didn’t seem like much of a challenge.

Enter Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis.

The Pelicans stole the first two games of this series in Portland; two wins that put them at a great advantage. Holiday scored a playoff career-high 33 points behind just as impressive performances from Davis and Rajon Rondo. To complete the sweep, all New Orleans has to do is support Davis, and limit Damian Lillard (a tall order) and CJ McCollum.

For the Blazers to regain control of this series now 2 games behind, they’ll need to stop Davis as much as they can and limit the inside ball. The Pelicans have a physically large team. Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic will be a pivotal role because of that. If Lillard is able to put up numbers like he has throughout the regular season, his offensive prowess alone should be enough to support their defensive play.

4 Cavaliers vs. 5 Pacers

Victor-OladipoThese two familiar foes faced off in the first round of last year’s Eastern Conference playoffs, where the Cavs dominated there way to a 4-game sweep. This year seems to be an entirely different story.

The Pacers easily handled Cleveland on their home court, winning game 1 by 18 points. This loss feels oddly reminiscent of the Cavs entire regular season, as they’ve shown inconsistency throughout. This is the first time in LeBron James’ career that a team of his lost the first game of an opening series. That being said, Victor Oladipo and the Pacers have shown that their offense is much better than how they look on paper. To win out the series, all Indiana must do is continue to exploit the Cavaliers’ poor defense, which ranks 29th in defensive efficiency.

Cleveland is still very much alive in this series. Aside from tightening up their defense, if they can channel the team that they’ve shown they can be (with prominent performances from Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson), James and the rest of the Cavaliers’ starting lineup should be able to take advantage of that added confidence. Winning game 2 has all of a sudden become a crucial task for Cleveland.