The NBA Playoffs (Ch. 207) begin on Saturday with the Toronto Raptors hosting the Indiana Pacers to open the action. Before Saturday, and after the extended “Bon voyage, Kobe” of this past week, let’s take a look at the players you need to be watching in each first-round matchup.

Eastern Conference

#8 Detroit Pistons vs #1 Cleveland Cavaliers

 

DrummondPlayer To Watch, Pistons, Andre Drummond: Detroit is not being given much of a chance to take out the mighty Cavs, but if there’s an advantage for this team it’s in Andre Drummond facing Cleveland’s somewhat pedestrian front court. The still only 22-year-old Drummond greatly improved his offensive efficiency and scoring this season, increasing his scoring per 36 minutes by 1.5 points, while remaining one of the league’s premiere rebounders.

LeBron HeadPlayer To Watch, Cavs, LeBron James: You’re familiar with Bron’s CV by this point. He’s a generational talent with two championships under his belt and has been to the NBA Finals for five years in a row. Still, the “haters” won’t be silenced until LeBron delivers his Cavs to the promised land of an NBA title.

Bonus PTW, Kevin Love: The imminently tradeable and maligned Love hasn’t worked out in Cleveland like everyone Kevin Love Headhoped. That being said, if there’s a player that can make Cleveland’s offense even more fearsome it’s Love with his court vision and ability to spread defenses thin with his three-ball range.

 

#7 Indiana Pacers vs #2 Toronto Raptors

PG13Player To Watch, Pacers, Paul George: A 6’9 switchblade who has been scorching the league in his return from a broken leg? Yes, Paul George is back and taking names to say the least. Dude averaged 23, 7 and 4 this year along with two steals per game. He’s a singular force that can steal a game or two on his own if he’s clicking on all cylinders. Here’s Frank Vogel talking about George’s dominance this season.

LowryPlayer To Watch, Raptors, Kyle Lowry: The league is lousy with incredible point guards right now: Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, the list goes on and on. However, sleep on Kyle Lowry (and the Raptors) at your own peril. The not-on-TV-too-often Raptors have been led by Lowry’s dynamism all season long and #WeTheNorth will need him to continue leading if the Raps are to make some postseason noise.

Myles TurnerBonus PTW, Myles Turner: Indiana’s rookie big has quietly had a stellar first year and his shot-blocking ability should give slashers like Lowry and DeMar DeRozan pause before they step into the paint.

 

#6 Charlotte Hornets vs #3 Miami Heat

KembaPlayer To Watch, Hornets, Kemba Walker: Much like Lowry above, the sheer volume of incredible point guards in the NBA leaves many unaware of how great Kemba Walker is. A model of consistency over his first five seasons. He’s fully capable of “going supernova” offensively, too. Kemba scored 30+ on 13 occasions this season.

 

WhitesidePlayer To Watch, Heat, Hassan Whiteside: Tempestuous. Whiteside, for better or worse, can tilt this series for the Heat in a myriad of ways. While his game has been outstanding, his antics, temper and sometimes erratic behavior can cost the Heat just as much as his clear skills can help them.

BatumBonus PTW, Nic Batum: Everyone’s favorite on-court Swiss Army Knife, Batum does a little bit of everything and has served as duct tape for the Hornets this season, keeping the team together while others have struggled.

 

#5 Boston Celtics vs #4 Atlanta Hawks

Zeke2.0Player To Watch, Celtics, Isaiah Thomas: No, not *that* Isaiah Thomas. Blossoming in Boston via Phoenix via Sacramento, this Isaiah Thomas has drastically lowered his turnovers while taking on more on-ball responsibilities. In any case, he’s brilliant and works on a higher plane of consciousness with his coach Brad Stevens. The sensational Paul Flannery of SBNation wrote an actual must-read on Thomas a few weeks back.

TrillsapPlayer To Watch, Hawks, Paul Milsap: Possibly ATL’s legit spirit animal –yes, way more than a hawk– Milsap toils silently and simply delivers time and time and time again for one of the most consistently talented teams that you’ve probably not watched an entire game of this season. Watch this series. Watch Paul Milsap.

Bonus PTW, Brad Stevens vs Mike Budenholzer: Unquestionably two of the league’s brightest young head coaches, this series could bend on which coach makes the best adjustments and in-game calls.

Western Conference

#8 Houston Rockets vs #1 Golden State Warriors

CHARDENPlayer To Watch, Rockets, James Harden: With all due respect to the recently retired Black Mamba, there is no player more polarizing over the past few seasons than James Harden. “Threes and frees” may not work as a sustainable offensive system, but damn if he hasn’t given it the effort. The Rockets’ season has been a disaster and the spotlight of disappointment glares most brightly on Harden.

STEPHPlayer To Watch, Warriors, Steph Curry: The league’s reigning MVP has only gone out and rewritten NBA record books all over again. 400 threes, 73 wins and no pressure (because Steph ate it all for breakfast), the Warriors, and Steph, are now ready to chase more NBA records in the postseason … even if some NBA Radio callers are sick and tired of ’em:

BarnesyBonus PTW, Harrison Barnes: Some weird straw that stirs the Warriors’ strange drink whenever, for some inexplicable reason Steph, Klay or Dray aren’t clicking; Barnes is the perfect safety valve for Golden State.

 

#7 Memphis Grizzlies vs #2 San Antonio Spurs

ZBOPlayer To Watch, Grizzlies, Zach Randolph: The triage unit that is the Memphis Grizzlies earned a playoff berth and now face the buzzsaw that is San Antonio. I love Zach Randolph and just want him to have fun out there during what should be a very short series.
KAWHINOTPlayer To Watch, Spurs, Kawhi Leonard: One of the league’s best and most versatile defenders will be on full display against an overmatched Grizzlies side. Come for Kawhi’s steals, blocks and methodical nature, stay for all the threes he’s gonna hit.

LamarcusBonus PTW, LaMarcus Aldridge: The Spurs offense evolved before our very eyes this season and LaMarcus Aldridge has never looked more comfortable. With Z-Bo as the only line of defense, Aldridge and the Spurs should score at will.

 

#6 Dallas Mavericks vs #3 Oklahoma City Thunder

DIRKPlayer To Watch, Mavericks, Dirk Nowitzki: Dirk has turned the clock back this season. The tall baller has delivered a very efficient offensive season, while Rick Carlisle has managed his minutes masterfully once again. It will take a Herculean effort for this Mavs team to beat OKC and that effort may fall to Dirk’s responsibility.

RUSSELLMANIAPlayer To Watch, Thunder, Russell Westbrook: Possibly the most beloved force of nature, Dallas has nobody capable of slowing Russ down in this series.

 

JJ BareaBonus PTW, JJ Barea: An outstanding season and an underrated on-court leader, Barea is here due to his groin injury. If he’s not able to go, Dallas’ offense could stagnate quickly.

 

#5 Portland Trailblazers vs #4 Los Angeles Clippers

TrillardPlayer To Watch, Blazers, Damian Lillard: No player outside the Bay Area has brought more electricity to the league than Lillard this season. The man was unstoppable at points ending up in the top 10 for points and assists on the season. His postseason heroics against Houston two years ago haven’t been forgotten and Lillard can carve out another legendary chapter if he leads PDX over the Clippers. We know he’s ready.

CP3Player To Watch, Clippers, Chris Paul: One of the most intriguing positional clashes this postseason is Lillard versus Chris Paul. Paul’s court omniscience and defense should provide an ample foil for Lillard to try and overcome. Meanwhile, Lillard’s utter ability to torch opponents like no one besides named “Curry” should give Paul all he can handle.

BlakeBonus PTW, Blake Griffin: In what could be his last ride with the Clippers, Blake has much to lose if his Clippers bow out too soon once again. Doc Rivers and Steve Ballmer did not build this team for first or second-round losses.

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