Cavaliers open with Pacers as NBA playoff pairings take shape

The path for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to a potential fourth consecutive NBA Finals will start against the Indiana Pacers in the first round.

After a roller-coaster season that saw plenty of drama and a massive roster makeover at the trade deadline, the Cavaliers enter the postseason as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference and could face the top-seeded Toronto Raptors?in the second round if both teams win their first-round series.

James has had to overcome plenty this season, including his head coach Tyronn Lue missing nine games due to health issues.

"Yeah, we've been through a lot," Lue said. "That's behind us, there's no excuse going into the playoffs."

Now that the Cavaliers are in the playoffs, they will have to do something that has been done only once in recent history if they want to win the franchise's second championship.

Since playoff seeding began in the 1983-84 season, only the 1995 Houston Rockets, led by Hakeem Olajuwon,?have won the NBA Finals as a fourth seed or lower.

In the Western Conference, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets needed overtime to settle the eighth spot, with Minnesota surviving with a 112-106 victory. Minnesota's reward is a first-round series against the NBA's best team this season -- the Rockets. Coach Tom Thibodeau and Jimmy Butler have Minnesota in the postseason for the first time since 2004.

The second-seeded Golden State Warriors?will begin their title defense against the? San Antonio Spurs?out West, but both teams will likely be without two of their biggest stars. Stephen Curry (knee) will be out for the first round, and Kawhi Leonard (quad) has been out since mid-January and has played in just nine games this season.

Last season's league MVP, Russell Westbrook, will try to lead the? Oklahoma City Thunder?past Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz in the first round. For Westbrook, who became the first player to average a? triple-double in multiple seasons, this is his first postseason alongside Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Utah, meanwhile, has surprised this season by reaching the postseason with a rookie leading the way after losing Gordon Hayward in free agency last summer.

"It's been a while. We haven't played them," Jazz center? Rudy Gobert?said of the matchup. "I was hurt last time, but probably December. I kind of miss them [laughs], so it's going to be a good matchup."

The? Portland Trail Blazers?will face the? New Orleans Pelicans?as Damian Lillard and? CJ McCollum?team up against Pelicans star Anthony Davis. Davis has carried New Orleans into the playoffs. He averaged an NBA-best 30.2 points per game after New Orleans lost fellow big man? DeMarcus Cousins?for the season to an Achilles injury on Jan. 26.

"They've done a great job. When Cousins went down, everybody kind of wrote them off and they've done a great job of really competing since then," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said of the Pelicans.?

Cleveland finished fourth in the East after the red-hot Philadelphia 76ers locked up the third seed with a rout of the Milwaukee Bucks. The Sixers' rebuilding "Process" takes a massive step forward into the postseason as the hottest team in the NBA. Philadelphia's 16-game winning streak is the longest by a team to finish the regular season in NBA history, according to Elias Sports Bureau research.

With Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons leading the Sixers' surge, Philadelphia returns to the playoffs for the first time since 2011-12 and will face the sixth-seeded Miami Heat. Miami clinched the sixth seed with an overtime victory in Toronto, setting up a first-round series between big-man rivals Joel Embiid and Hassan Whiteside, if Embiid is cleared after suffering a face injury late last month.

"We had some crazy games where both teams lost big leads and lost it," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, whose team went 2-2 against Philadelphia this season. "This is what you want. The 3-6 matchup is usually very competitive."

The East's top-seeded Raptors will look to finally break through and win the conference by opening the playoffs against the Washington Wizards. The Wizards have had a disappointing season but could be a tricky opponent for Toronto with John Wall getting healthy. The two teams went 2-2 against each other in the season series and it should be quite the backcourt battle between Toronto's DeMar DeRozan and? Kyle Lowry?against Washington's Wall and Bradley Beal.?

Among backcourt teammates to start at least 40 games each this season, Beal and Wall rank fourth in points per game and DeRozan and Lowry rank fifth.

DeRozan and Lowry will try to avenge a first-round loss to Washington in 2015 when the Wizards swept the Raptors.

"We didn't get 59 wins for no reason," DeRozan said of heading into the playoffs, adding that this season does feel different for the Raptors.

"The hunger, the push, the pain of the grind all season. The failures from the previous years, kind of carrying that over," DeRozan said. "Definitely feels different."

The second-seeded Boston Celtics and head coach Brad Stevens will try to figure out a way to contain Giannis Antetokounmpo in the first round as the Celtics face the seventh-seeded Bucks. The banged-up Celtics will be without the injured Kyrie Irving, who is out for the postseason, but Milwaukee enters the series having gone 3-3 in its last six games, including Wednesday's 130-95 loss to the Sixers.

"Doesn't mean a thing," Bucks guard Jason Terry said of the injury-ravaged Celtics. "If you think just because they don't have Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart that you're going to go in and walk through a Boston Celtics team, you're crazy. That's one of the loudest, rowdiest crowds ever [at] playoff time."

While James had one of his finest regular seasons statistically, posting career highs in rebounding and assists, it certainly was a trying season for him with the team. James, who will be the most sought-after free agent this summer, has seen the Cavs win 13 straight games but also go through a stretch in which they lost 11 of 15 this season. The Cavaliers made a flurry of trades before the deadline, parting with the likes of Dwyane Wade, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert and Channing Frye, while adding Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., George Hill and Rodney Hood.

"We have the ability to be very dynamic," James said. "We're still missing one of our key guys in Rodney Hood. We expect him to be ready for Game 1."

James played in all 82 games for the first time in his 15-year career and now starts another Finals run against the Pacers, who have been one of the biggest surprises this season. Despite trading George in the offseason, the Pacers finished fifth in the Eastern Conference and won 48 games thanks to a breakout season by Victor Oladipo.

Indiana is the only team to beat the Cavs three times this season. However, the past seven times a James-led team lost three games to an opponent it met again in the playoffs, James' team won the series.

"When they traded Paul George and brought in Oladipo and? [Domantas] Sabonis?and those guys in, they just said they would be fish in the bottom of the East, and they're fifth in the East and they've been playing well all season," Lue said.