The NBA playoffs finally are here, and we won't have to wait for a marquee matchup. The first round is giving us several scintillating showdowns, none better than the battle of MVP favorites in the Thunder-Rockets series.
Here are our top five individual matchups to watch when the playoffs tip off Saturday.
Russell Westbrook vs. James Harden
Aka the MVP and the runner-up. We picked Harden to win the award by a narrow margin, and part of his edge over Westbrook is the Rockets' three wins in four games against the Thunder this season. But he shot just 34.3 percent against them, including 22.6 percent on threes, while Westbrook boasted far better numbers (36/9/9) vs. Harden (20/12/7).
However, Harden has been historically great against everyone else and helped Houston secure the best numbers belonging to either one of them: 55 wins and the No. 3 playoff seed. The Rockets have set a record for three-pointers in a season, and their offense is second only to the Warriors'.
Fear the Beard, right? OK but don't underestimate Russ. The man has been on a mission all season, and you gotta believe he burns to be the one to oust Kevin Durant and the Warriors from the playoffs. He's toppled one challenge after another; who wants to bet against this guy?
They may not guard each other much in the series -- Andre Roberson's only function on the Thunder is to take the top perimeter player -- but Westbrook vs. Harden is everything we could ask for in a first-round matchup. Expect a triple-double by both players every night.
Damian Lillard vs. Stephen Curry
Lillard is one of the (apparently many) players who are not cool with Curry being considered the top point guard in the NBA — especially in HIS hometown of Oakland. So Lillard tries to destroy the Warriors every time they play. That's led to some pretty gaudy stats — Lillard averaged 36.5 points against the Warriors last season (just 23.3 this season).
The bad news? The Blazers are 0-4 against the Warriors this season, losing by an average of 19.5 points. And Golden State has lost just one game to an 8-seed in the past two postseasons.
Oh, and Curry's averaging 27 points in 30 minutes against Portland this season.
Kyle TeradaKyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
DeAndre Jordan vs. Rudy Gobert
This may not be Wilt vs. Russell, but it's about as good a matchup of centers as you get these days. The Jazz allow the NBA's fewest points, and Gobert, our pick for Defensive Player of the Year, is at the center of that. He led the NBA in blocks per game (2.7) and defensive win shares (6.0). Players shoot just 55.8 percent against him in the restricted area, which leads all centers.
Jordan tied for seventh in blocks per game (1.7) and second in rebounds per game (13.8); Gobert was fourth (12.8). Jordan led the league in field-goal percentage (.714) for the fifth straight year and officially graduated from Lob City dunker to NBA All-Star. Now the fate of this Clippers team as we know it might hinge on this first-round series, and the battle in the middle is the most important one.
Jimmy Butler vs. Isaiah Thomas
Thomas is our pick for most improved player, and while he can't play a lick of defense, his shooting will make the Bulls guard him with Butler, their best perimeter defender, at times in this series. Thomas led Boston in scoring for 42 straight games, so stopping him is the key to beating the top-seeded Celtics.
Despite his season-long heroics, Thomas should have plenty in the tank for the postseason: His team-high 34 minutes per game are three fewer than Butler and not even among the top 30 in the NBA.
But then again, the Celts could've had Thomas AND Butler if they'd pulled the trigger on a trade this season. They didn't, though, and while they probably won't regret it in this series, they might before the playoffs are over.
Lance Stephenson vs. LeBron James
You remember this. Peak Lance, trying to get in LeBron's head during the 2014 playoffs. Didn't work.
Stephenson bounced around after that but has been welcomed back by Indiana with open arms. Paul George may be the real Pacers star going up against James — he had 43 points, nine rebounds and nine assists vs. James' 41 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists in the Cavs' 135-130 2OT win this month — but he says Stephenson's return gave Indy new energy that sparked a run to the playoffs. Stephenson even enraged the Raptors with some classic Lance-ness. Now he gets another chance to dethrone the King. "I was born ready," he says.