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                ***** NBA Previews from The Sports Network *****
                               Saturday, April 18
                              (All times Eastern)
 ( - The NBA playoffs begin Saturday afternoon when the
 Atlantic Division champions, the Toronto Raptors, host the Washington Wizards
 at Air Canada Centre.
 The Raptors, fourth in the Eastern Conference, will host a first-round matchup
 for the second consecutive year. Washington, ranked fifth, is also in the
 postseason a second year in a row.
 The dynamic of this series took an interesting tone early when Paul Pierce,
 who signed with the Wizards in the offseason, said the Raptors lacked the "it"
 "Paul Pierce has always got to say something," said Raptors guard DeMar
 DeRozan, who was named Eastern Conference Player of the Month for April. "He
 said something last year, he's always got to say something. Just let him talk.
 I could care less what he says."
 Toronto set the franchise-record for wins in a season with 49 (49-33) and lost
 in seven games to the Brooklyn Nets in last season's Eastern Conference
 quarterfinals. The Raptors haven't made it out of the first round of the
 playoffs since 2000-01.
 The Raptors ended the regular season with seven wins in the final 10 games,
 and put a lid on the schedule with Wednesday's 92-87 victory over the
 Charlotte Hornets. Kyle Lowry scored 26 points and the All-Star is feeling
 good after missing some time with an injury.
 "This is what we play for," Lowry said. "Now it's the time where it gets a
 little bit more serious."
 Toronto is 1-6 in the opening game of a playoff series and the only time it
 won Game One was in the semifinals versus Philadelphia in 2001. The Raptors
 start a playoff series at home for the third time in franchise history.
 Meanwhile, the Wizards have reached the postseason for a second straight year
 after missing the playoffs the previous five. They recorded 46 wins - the most
 since posting 54 in 1978-79 - and struggled down the stretch, losing two
 straight, three of four and eight of the last 14 contests.
 The Wizards knocked off the Chicago Bulls in five games in 2014 before falling
 to the Indiana Pacers, 4-2, in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
 Washington was led this season by All-Star starter John Wall. He averaged 17.6
 ppg and 10.0 apg, but backcourt mate Bradley Beal wasn't far behind at 15.3
 The Wizards were the ninth-best defensive team in the NBA in terms of
 opponents' scoring. They'll need to be great considering the Raptors were the
 fourth-best offense at 104.0 ppg.
 The Wizards struggled with the Raptors this season, losing all three matchups,
 and are 1-7 in the past eight encounters. The Wizards and Raptors have never
 met in the postseason.
 ( - The Golden State Warriors begin their quest for an NBA
 title Saturday afternoon when they welcome the New Orleans Pelicans to Oracle
 The Warriors had one of the best regular seasons in NBA history. In fact,
 their 67-15 mark is tied for the sixth-best on the all-time list. Golden State
 is the 10th team in NBA history to finish with a 67-15 record or better. Seven
 of the previous nine teams went on to win the title.
 The Warriors led the NBA in field-goal percentage and opponents' field-goal
 percentage. Golden State finished atop the NBA in scoring average at 110.0 ppg
 and was led by MVP front-runner, Steph Curry.
 Curry averaged 23.8 ppg, 7.7 apg, 2.0 spg. He shot 91 percent from the foul
 line, which led the league, and 44 percent from long range. He made 286 3-
 pointers this season, which, in addition to be ludicrous, is an NBA record,
 topping his own mark from two seasons ago, by 14. And, Curry didn't even play
 in 17 fourth quarters this season because the Warriors were dominating so
 thoroughly and because first-year head coach Steve Kerr has a heart.
 "We have a goal to beat the Pelicans four times and then figure out who we
 play next," said Curry. "That's the expectation we've had and we have right
 Curry may win the MVP, but he won't be the only Warriors player honored this
 offseason. Klay Thompson, Curry's "Splash Brother," is a Most Improved Player
 candidate, as is Draymond Green, who is also a favorite for Defensive Player
 of the Year.
 And Kerr is the odds-on choice for Coach of the Year. He inserted Green and
 Harrison Barnes into the starting lineup in training camp at the expense of
 highly-paid veterans, Andre Iguodala and David Lee.
 In New Orleans, it's a return to the postseason for the first time since the
 2010-11 season, head coach Monty Williams' first at the helm. Since, the
 organization changed its name to the Pelicans, but the most important factor
 in New Orleans' success doesn't have anything to do with bird names.
 Anthony Davis, had he been healthy all season, might have battled Curry for
 the MVP award. Davis, like Curry, is a fixture in the top 10 of several
 statistical categories and impacts the game more from a defensive side than
 Davis finished fourth in scoring, eighth in rebounding, first in blocks, first
 in player efficiency, ninth in offensive rating, 12th in defensive rating and
 fourth in win shares. Analytically, statistically, or with the good-old eye-
 ball test, Davis is one of the best in the league.
 If you believe in momentum, the Pelicans secured the final playoff berth on
 the final day of the regular season. All they did was knock off the defending
 champion San Antonio Spurs, who came into the contest with an 11-game winning
 streak and the Southwest Division and No. 2 seed at stake.
 "When you think about it, the Western Conference is so tough," New Orleans
 forward Ryan Anderson said. "There are so many great teams. To play against
 San Antonio, the defending champs, in one game that really, really matters, it
 makes this so much sweeter."
 The Pelicans took a game from the Warriors at the end of the season in New
 Orleans. Prior to that win, the Pels dropped 10 in a row to Golden State.
 (6) MILWAUKEE BUCKS (0-0) AT (3) CHICAGO BULLS (0-0), 7 P.M.
 ( - The Chicago Bulls hope to make their stay in the
 playoffs last a little longer this season and will take on the Central
 Division-rival Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals
 Saturday at the United Center.
 The Bulls were bounced in five games of the first round last season by the
 Washington Wizards. That, of course, was without former MVP Derrick Rose, and
 free-agent acquisition Pau Gasol.
 Chicago fell short in its quest for a Central crown and beat out the Toronto
 Raptors for the third seed in the East. The Bulls went through more injury
 drama with Rose, who's back healthy and ready to roll in the postseason.
 The Bulls have reached the playoffs in each of the past seven years and 10 in
 the previous 11. They went 50-32 in the regular season and lived up to their
 defensive reputation thanks to the offseason addition of Gasol, who led the
 NBA with 54 double-doubles.
 "We have to want it more than anybody else," Gasol said. "The resiliency that
 we have, we've got to turn it into a determination and understand that every
 game in the playoffs is critical."
 The Bulls ended the regular season with 10 wins in 14 tries and got Rose back
 healthy. He played in 51 games this season, averaging 18.0 points and 5.0
 assists, and is at full strength. Rose hasn't been able to contribute much in
 the postseason in recent years because of his health. Rose will appear in a
 playoff game for the first time since tearing his left ACL in the Bulls' 2012
 postseason opener against Philadelphia.
 The Bulls went 16-5 this season with Rose, Jimmy Butler, Gasol, Joakim Noah
 and Mike Dunleavy as the starting five and are expected to have every rotation
 player available on Saturday, except guard Kirk Hinrich.
 The Bucks completed an amazing turnaround under first-year head coach Jason
 Kidd. The team had the worst record in the NBA last season and went 41-41
 under Kidd, who left the Brooklyn Nets after one season, but did advance the
 Nets to the second round of the playoffs in 2014.
 No. 2 overall pick Jabari Parker tore his ACL and was lost for the season
 The Bucks needed to bolster their backcourt and traded for Michael Carter-
 Williams at the deadline. Carter-Williams was the Rookie of the Year for the
 76ers last season and is a stat stuffer. With the Sixers and Bucks, MCW
 averaged 14.8 points, 6.7 assists and 5.4 rebounds.
 Milwaukee's frontcourt doesn't have as much talent as Chicago's, but it's
 still learning with young forwards Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ersan Ilyasova.
 Kidd stressed defense in his first season and finished eighth in opponents'
 scoring at 97.4 ppg. The Bulls tied for ninth with the Washington Wizards at
 97.8 ppg.
 Milwaukee was seventh in bench points (37.3 ppg) this season and is long in
 the tooth with reserves Jared Dudley and O.J. Mayo.
 The turnaround for the Bucks this season was remarkable, but that doesn't
 matter starting Saturday.
 "We haven't accomplished anything yet," center Zaza Pachulia said. "We've kept
 building. We've kept working hard and getting better. We've had good days and
 bad days. Compared to last year, obviously there's been a huge difference.
 We've made a lot of improvement, but we can't be satisfied with that."
 Milwaukee went just 1-3 against Chicago in the regular season and hasn't faced
 the Bulls in the postseason since the 1989-90 campaign. The Bucks are 8-4 all-
 time against the Bulls in the playoffs.
 (7) DALLAS MAVERICKS (0-0) AT (2) HOUSTON ROCKETS (0-0), 9:30 P.M.
 ( - The Southwest Division champs, the Houston Rockets, open
 their first-round playoff series with the Dallas Mavericks Saturday night at
 the Toyota Center.
 The Rockets won the Southwest Division for the first time since this
 realignment took place 10 years ago. They did it on the last day of the season
 and they boast an MVP candidate in James Harden.
 Harden averaged 27.4 ppg, 7.0 apg, 5.7 rpg, 1.9 steals per game all while
 shooting 87 percent from the foul line, 37.5 percent from the 3-point line and
 44 percent from the field. He attempted 10.2 free throws per game and, his
 once-laughable defense, improved.
 Harden carried the Rockets. There's no other way to say it. When Dwight Howard
 was down, Harden carried them to wins. When point guard Patrick Beverley went
 down, he played facilitator. Heck, even when Beverley was there, Harden ran
 the offense.
 Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas, who really emerged with full-time minutes,
 are both out for the playoffs. Beverley has a wrist injury, while Motiejunas
 is plagued by a bad back.
 The Rockets won three straight to win the division and vault into the No. 2
 The Mavericks collected another 50-win season, but only finished seventh, a
 slot they were pegged in for much of the final weeks of the regular season.
 The Rockets were the sixth-best scoring offense in the league. Defensively,
 they were average. They'll need to be better against the Mavs, the NBA's
 fifth-most efficient offense.
 Dallas was first early in the season in that category, but made a major
 acquisition in the form of All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo. Things didn't go
 smoothly as the offense sputtered and Rondo butted heads with coach Rick
 Carlisle, which is nothing new in Rondo's career.
 The Mavs were under .500 since late February and the glow on the Mavericks has
 dimmed some.
 "I've got great confidence in our team. And the fact that the period since the
 All-Star break has been difficult is something that helps us," Carlisle said.
 "Even though we haven't played our best all the time, we've played rugged
 opponents for 27 games now since the break, and we've had to earn every win."
 Dirk Nowitzki is still an All-Star, Monta Ellis continues to be an underrated
 combo guard and Tyson Chandler remains a premiere defensive center who
 averaged a double-double for the Mavs.
 Devin Harris is questionable for Saturday with a toe injury, but he practiced
 on Friday.
 These teams haven't met in the postseason in 10 years. Dallas won that first-
 round matchup in seven games, but things are certainly different this time
 "Dallas will be tough. Rick is a helluva coach and they've got a good team.
 We're going to have to play how we play and attack them. I'm sure it will be a
 good series," Houston coach Kevin McHale said.
 The Rockets won three of four meetings this season and are 4-1 in their last
 five versus Dallas as the host.
 04/18 09:35:29 ET