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Warriors-Clippers series to open Saturday night at Oracle – NBCSports.com

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After another grueling 82-game season, the NBA playoffs finally have arrived.

With LeBron James in the West (and not in the playoffs with the Lakers), a new crop of Eastern Conference contenders are champing at the bit to be the new kings of the conference. Meanwhile, the NBA’s bully continues to reign in the West. But has the gap closed on the Warriors?

The Dubs will enter the postseason as the heavy favorites to win a third consecutive title, but they’ll have to outlast a talented group of Western Conference contenders in order to have the chance to defend their back-to-back championships.

All good things come to an end, so is this the year the summer parades in the Bay Area stop? Here’s how I see everything unfolding.

First-round predictions

Western Conference
Warriors over Clippers in four
Nuggets over Spurs in seven
Thunder over Trail Blazers in seven
Rockets over Jazz in five

Eastern Conference
Bucks over Pistons in four
Raptors over Magic in five
76ers over Nets in seven
Celtics over Pacers in six

I expect the first round to be pretty straightforward. The Warriors will throttle the Clippers’ collection of role players, giving the two-time defending champs time to rest before the second round.

James Harden and the  Rockets should make it past the Jazz, who caught a tough break when Houston fell to the No. 4 seed. The other two series seem irrelevant, but I’ll take the Thunder and the Nuggets. With Jusuf Nurkic out, the Blazers will struggle to defend Steven Adams. And as well-coached as the Spurs are, the upstart Nuggets should make it through with the help of their home-court advantage.

Out East, the Sixers, Raptors and Bucks assert themselves as the conference’s best teams. Kyrie Irving and his leadership (?) are just enough to get the Celtics past the Pacers and keep Boston hoping the C’s eventually will live up to the preseason hype.

Second-round predictions

Western Conference
Warriors over Rockets in seven
Thunder over Nuggets in seven

Eastern Conference
Bucks over Celtics in seven
Raptors over 76ers in seven

Rockets-Warriors in the second round? Oh, boy. The Rockets give the Warriors all they can handle but again go cold in Game 7 — missing 28 consecutive 3-pointers or something like that — and the Warriors escape to advance to the Western Conference finals.

On the other side of the West bracket, the Nuggets’ inexperience finally catches up with them as Russell Westbrook and Paul George lead the Thunder to an emotional showdown with the Warriors.

The East will be a bloodbath as well. Boston has been brutal on the road all season, and it’s finally going to catch up with the Celtics in Milwaukee, sending them toward an offseason full of uncertainty. Speaking of uncertain offseasons, Kawhi Leonard will end the 76ers’ “Big Five” experiment much earlier than they’d hoped, forcing them to contemplate if Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris can co-exist. We left out J.J. Redick because, well, he’s clearly not the issue.

Conference finals predictions

Western Conference
Warriors over Thunder in six

Eastern Conference
Raptors over Bucks in six

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s impressive season comes to a halt at the giant hands of The Claw. With LeBron finally out of their way, the Raptors assume their position atop the East.

The Warriors, fresh off a grueling seven-game slugfest with Houston, are able to outlast the Thunder and advance to their fifth consecutive Finals.

NBA Finals prediction

Warriors over Raptors in seven

This won’t be the cakewalk the last two NBA Finals have been for the Dubs. Instead of facing Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Tristan Thompson, the Warriors will contend with the Raptors’ dangerous collection of role players around Leonard and Kyle Lowry.

As evidenced this season, the Raptors have the talent and versatility to give the Warriors fits. Leonard presents a big issue for the champs, and budding star Pascal Siakam and veterans Danny Green and Marc Gasol anchor a talented starting five.

After splitting the first four games of the series, Leonard will push the Warriors to the brink of elimination by putting on an all-time great performance in Game 5. But, much like the Night King and the army of the dead in “Game of Thrones,” the Warriors are damn near impossible to kill. Buoyed by a heroic second half from Klay Thompson, the Warriors say goodbye to Oracle Arena with a narrow Game 6 win, setting up a winner-take-title Game 7 north of the border.

In what could be his final game in a Raptors uniform, Leonard puts up 37 points, and Toronto leads heading into the fourth quarter. But, as previously noted, if you want to kill the Warriors, you better go for the head.

Curry pours in 16 fourth-quarter points, including a go-ahead 3-pointer with 12 seconds remaining, to seal the three-peat and Finals MVP honors.

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