2018 NBA playoffs: LeBron's Zero Dark Thirty-23, the Sixers' process, Dame time among 18 reasons to be excited

It took until the last night of the regular season, but the playoff matchups are finally set, the schedule has been released and we are ready to roll on Saturday afternoon. The Warriors and Spurs will get things started at 3 p.m. ET, tipping off a massive quadruple header. For a full playoff bracket and links to previews of every series, please go here. But first, in case you needed any help getting amped up, here are 17 reasons to be excited about the NBA playoffs. 

1. The return of Zero Dark Thirty-23 mode

Every time the playoffs roll around, LeBron James activates "Zero Dark Thirty-23" mode, which means he stops looking at any sort of social media or news. And that in and of itself isn't all interesting -- no one is missing LeBron's Instagram posts. But LeBron in Zero Dark Thirty-23 mode is basically a different player than regular season LeBron -- and usually a better one. Watching LeBron elevate his game in the postseason is a joy, and we should appreciate every game we get to watch him do it.

2. Can the Raptors actually do this?

The Raptors have been a really good regular season team for five seasons now. Really good. But then every time the playoffs roll around, everything falls apart. They've lost twice in the first round, and twice they've been embarrassed by LeBron James and Co. Now they have maybe the best team in franchise history, the No. 1 seed in the East and a legitimate shot to go to the Finals. Can they get it done?

3. The Warriors' 'vulnerability'

This really isn't a reason for Warriors fans to be excited, but it is for everyone else. With their injuries and the way they've finished the season, this is as vulnerable as the Warriors have been since their run started. Sure, they still probably have to be considered the favorite to win it all, but it at least seems possible that someone can beat them this time around, and even that slight hope should make things more interesting -- especially in the Western Conference.

4. What will Stevens do without his stars?

Stevens is one of the leading candidates for Coach of the Year because of the way he's managed this Celtics roster through all of their injuries. Now, as they enter the playoffs without their two best players -- Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving -- as well as their best defender in Marcus Smart, Stevens will have his work cut out for him in scheming up a way to take down the Bucks in the first round. Maybe it will be breaking out the zone he's showcased in the past few weeks, or maybe it will be something completely new, but just be prepared for the Celtics to do some funky things.

5. Postseason Dame time

Lillard is just a machine in the playoffs. He's averaging 26.8 points per game over his last two trips to the postseason, and as we saw back in 2014, he's not afraid of the big moment. When Lillard time rolls around -- and it's going to, with all four regular season matchups between the Blazers and Pels being decided by 10 points or less -- everyone should tune in because there are few players more fun to watch with the game on the line.

6. Will Kawhi come back?

Just close your eyes and picture this with me for a minute. Game 3 against the Warriors, the Dubs are up 2-0 with the series moving back to San Antonio. The Spurs know they need a win in Game 3 in order to stay in the series. Unfortunately for them, the Warriors come out hot and lead by seven after the first quarter. Strangely, Gregg Popovich only sends out four players to start the second. What is he -- OH MY GOD! IT'S KAWHI! IT'S KAWHI! HE'S COMING DOWN FROM THE RAFTERS!

Boom, Kawhi Leonard appears out of nowhere like Sting in his WCW days. The place goes absolutely bonkers, the Spurs come back to win Game 3 and make it a series. Now the questions begin … can they take down the Curry-less Warriors?

OK, so that probably won't happen, but if Leonard is going to return for the playoffs, that's how he should do it.

7. Playoff basketball is back in Minnesota

The Wolves nearly gave their fans a collective heart attack as they collapsed in the fourth quarter of  winner-take-all regular season finale against the Nuggets on Wednesday, but they got it together in overtime. Thanks to that win, the Wolves will be playing postseason basketball for the first time since 2004. It's a shame the Nuggets had to miss out, but it's great for the league to have Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns in the playoffs. And judging by how rowdy the Target Center was for Game 82, it's going to be absolutely bonkers in there for their first game, which is always super fun.

8. Can Harden and CP3 shake their postseason demons?

Chris Paul has never made a conference finals and James Harden fell apart last postseason when leading the Rockets. Now, with the No. 1 seed in the West, and a terrific supporting cast, can this duo step up when it matters most? All signs point to yes, but we still have to see them actually take care of business. Anything less than a trip to the Western Conference finals would be a disappointment for this squad.

9. The Process goes to the playoffs

First of all, please read that subhead like it's a title card at the beginning of an episode of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. 

sunny-in-phila.jpg

There we go. 

Anyway, what a season for the young Sixers. Markelle Fultz is back in action after one of the most bizarre sagas ever in NBA history, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons looked dynamite, they've got plenty of role players now and finished the season on a 16-game winning streak. That building is going to be absolutely electric for Game 1 vs. Miami.

10. The rookies taking the big stage

This season's rookie class has been tremendous. And one of the best things about it has been that unlike most seasons when the top rookies are on bad teams, there are rookies playing a big role on playoff teams this season. Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell are the names you know, but there's also been guys like OG Anunoby and Bam Adebayo playing important minutes for their teams. It's pretty sweet we'll get to see all of them get to experience the playoffs in their first season.

11. Playoff Giannis Antetokounmpo

Really don't think this section needs an explanation. Four to seven -- and perhaps more -- extra games of the Greek Freak is cool and good.

12. The magic of Manu

In a must-win game the other night against the Kings, Manu Ginobili -- 40-year-old Manu Ginobili -- put up 17 points, six rebounds and five assists to help the Spurs clinch a playoff spot. How he continues to show up when the Spurs need him is anyone's guess, but he just does. He's going to have a big moment in these playoffs, and when he does, it's going to be awesome.

13. Embiid vs. Whiteside

These two guys do not like each other. Their feud dates all the way to All-Star voting last season, when Hassan Whiteside got annoyed with Joel Embiid's social media antics. The two picked things back up in preseason, and most recently got into it with some physical play on the court in Miami. With the extra emotions of the playoffs, there's sure to be some fireworks between these two.

14. Davis putting the Pels on his back

Anthony Davis has been absolutely unreal since DeMarcus Cousins went down for the season with a torn Achilles. Since that day in late January, Davis has lead the league in scoring at 30.4 points per game, while also averaging 11.8 rebounds, 3.1 blocks -- also best in the league -- and two steals. He also helped the Pelicans to a 20-13 record in that span, helping them clinch a playoff spot for the first time since 2014. Whether or not he can continue the dominance in the playoffs is one of the main storylines to watch.

15. Jazz vs. Thunder bloodbath

When the dust settled in the Western Conference playoff picture, the Thunder emerged in fourth place, somehow snatching home-court advantage in the first round despite being on the verge of dropping to ninth place just a few days ago. Their reward for finishing fourth? The surging Jazz, who are winners of 29 of 35 games. With Rudy Gobert back in the lineup, the Jazz have been smothering teams defensively, and the Thunder finished in the top 10 in defensive rating themselves. With both teams in the bottom half of the league in pace, this has all the makings of a series that looks more like the 1990s than 2018. It's going to be an absolute battle every single game.

16. Oladipo leading a playoff team

This whole season has been a redemption tour for Victor Oladipo after he was written off by just about everyone after being traded to the Pacers. And a large part of that was his abysmal shooting performance in last season's playoffs, when he went 21 of 61 from the field over five games as the Thunder lost to the Rockets. Now, after a stellar regular season, Oladipo will get another chance to prove himself, as he leads his Pacers against LeBron James and Co.

17. DeRozan and Lowry vs. Wall and Beal

These are two of the best backcourts in the league, and thankfully all parties are healthy going into the playoffs. Not only will it be fun to watch these two backcourts go at it, but this matchup will go a long way towards determining who wins the series. If John Wall and Bradley Beal can outplay DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, the Wizards will have a chance to pull the upset.

18. Who becomes the unsung hero?

Someone we don't expect is going to step up and make a huge play or have a big game to help their team win a playoff game. Last season we saw Kelly Olynyk drop 26 points in Game 7 to help the Celtics eliminate the Wizards in their second round matchup. Who will it be this time around? Perhaps Tony Snell on the Bucks, or a member of the Raptors bench mob? What about Alex Abrines for the Thunder or the Pelicans' E'Twaun Moore? When or where it happens is too hard to predict, but there will be a big moment from someone we don't expect, and it's going to be fantastic when it happens.

NBA Writer

Jack Maloney lives and writes in Milwaukee, where, like the Bucks, he is trying to own the future. Full Bio

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