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16 teams in hunt to climb NBA mountain

Bubble or no bubble, the NBA Playoffs are here and with it a heightened level of intensity and drama.

The pursuit of the Larry O’Brien Trophy got underway Monday and it didn’t take long for the excitement to kick in.

The Utah Jazz nearly delivered the first upset of the playoffs but couldn’t finish the job in overtime, squandering a late lead before succumbing to the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray’s brilliance when it mattered most.

Donovan Mitchell scored 57 points in attempting to give Utah a 1-0 lead but couldn’t even land the cover as Denver pulled away for a 135-125 victory. All four favorites won and covered in Monday’s Game 1 action. While that’s obviously a short sample size, the surprises many expect without home-court advantage being part of the equation in the bubble aren’t likely to come in this first round.

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Portland has momentum after coming through on its goal of catching Memphis for the No. 8 seed, ultimately eliminating the younger Grizzlies in the first-ever play-in series in league history. Taking care of business meant we didn’t actually see a series, but the Blazers emerged as the most viable threat to take down the Lakers.

Star guard Damian Lillard was unanimously named MVP of the seeding games, securing all 22 first-place votes after averaging 37.6 points and 9.6 assists while shooting 43.6 percent on 3-pointers. Unfortunately, his team’s defense is so suspect that they won five of their seven games by five points or fewer despite scoring 124 or more points in all but one of their victories.

Although center Jusuf Nurkic has been fantastic in his return, he’s not a good rim protector, which really limits the threat Portland can present to a Lakers team led by the elite pick-and-roll combination of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. L.A. is going to make a better living in the paint in that series than Sherwin-Williams.

Philadelphia flirted with an upset against Boston in its series opener but ultimately lost by eight points and won’t get Ben Simmons back unless they reach the conference finals given the realistic time table for injuries like the one he’s nursing.

Toronto proved Brooklyn’s terrific run in seeding games, which featured upsets over the Bucks and Clippers and nearly included an epic takedown of the Blazers that would’ve landed Phoenix in the play-in series, wouldn’t carry over into the playoffs. Caris LeVert could use Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving right about now considering the Raptors are just keying in on making sure he doesn’t get comfortable. He doesn’t even have Spencer Dinwiddie as a running mate.

Milwaukee is set to similarly terminate Orlando despite losing Game 1 Tuesday to the Magic, 122-110 and both L.A. teams should safely continue on their collision course. However,  the Jazz are definitely one of the few lower seeds that can win a series.

Miami and Indiana make up the 4-5 in the East but I don’t know anyone who believes the Pacers can win the series. Even though T.J. Warren deservedly cracked First Team All-Bubble, he was held scoreless by rival Jimmy Butler in the one seeding game between the teams that mattered and is dealing with a foot issue. All-star forward Domantas Sabonis is dealing with a brutal case of plantar fasciitis and left Orlando, so prevailing sentiment is that he’s unlikely to return unless the Pacers can take the Heat without him.

Spoiler: they can’t.

That leaves the West’s 4-5 as the lone spot where an upset even looks possible, and I’ve gone on record that I expect the Houston Rockets’ run to end prematurely against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The juiciest first-round series from a subplot standpoint features Houston’s Russell Westbrook facing the team that will one day unveil a statue outside Chesapeake Energy Arena, but he’s unlikely to play in the first few games due to a quad injury.

We’ll see Westbrook in the series because he’s the type to play through pain and knows his team needs him. But Chris Paul is absolutely bent on revenge after feeling like he was dumped by Houston. Count on him making sure that his Thunder takes advantage of a depleted unit by stealing Game 2, which is where we’re starting our picks portion of this column.

Thursday

Thunder vs. Rockets: Looking to extend a 7-2 run since the restart, we’re locked and loaded on Oklahoma City pulling off a victory in the second game of the series because they’ll know exactly how to take advantage of James Harden’s lack of consistent help.

Eric Gordon, Ben McLemore and Austin Rivers have all had their moments, but they can’t realistically be expected to fill the tag-team partner role to Harden’s Batman, even collectively. THUNDER

Friday

Raptors vs. Nets: We’ll go with a Game 3 rout from the Raptors against Brooklyn, which was outclassed in the series opener and figured to show off a few adjustments in Game 2. Having seen Jacque Vaughn’s hand, count on Nick Nurse putting together a strong plan over the weekend to put their series in a stranglehold. RAPTORS

Sunday

Nuggets vs. Jazz: Look for Utah to win Game 4 of its series against Denver. Mike Conley should be back from paternity leave, which means Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Joe Ingles will have more help to extend that series the distance. JAZZ

Last week: 2-1

Season: 36-26-1