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For the first time, Texas is missing as the NBA Playoffs get underway

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The NBA playoffs get underway today with pro basketball's popularity surging. The league set attendance records this regular season both per game and overall. And now comes a postseason already filled with firsts. None of the three teams from Texas qualified. All four from California did. The NBA's Eastern Conference is top-heavy with power teams, while the West is as wide open as it has ever been. Joining me now to break it all down is NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Hey.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi there, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Tom, the regular season is over, and today the play-in tournament tips off. Tell us about it.

GOLDMAN: Well, yeah, that started during the pandemic. It was a way to give more teams a chance to make the postseason. Now, the play-in format is a little complicated, so let's try to simplify. Over the next few days, eight teams in the play-in will get whittled down to four, and they will be placed into the first round of the playoffs, which start Saturday. So those four that make it through the play-in - they're really just trying to get to the starting line.

SUMMERS: OK. And so do you think any of them actually have a chance to make a deep run in the playoffs?

GOLDMAN: Well, if you look at the very brief history, no. In three years of existence, no play-in team has won a first round series - but, as you mentioned, a lot of parity, especially in the West. And consider that one of the play-in teams - playing tonight, in fact - is the LA Lakers with LeBron James. They muddled through much of the regular season, dealt with injuries to James and Anthony Davis, their top two players. But those guys are healthy. The Lakers have been surging as of late. And I don't know about you, Juana, but I'm never going to rule out a team led by LeBron James, especially when he's been playing so well this season.

SUMMERS: Absolutely not. So all right. Let's fast-forward to Saturday, when playoffs begin in earnest. Who are...

GOLDMAN: Yeah.

SUMMERS: ...The favorites?

GOLDMAN: Well, you got three very strong teams in the east - Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Boston. The consensus is the Eastern Conference champion will be one of them. The West is wild and has been for the entire season. Denver's the top seed, but the Nuggets' record for the regular season - 53 wins, 29 losses - was the worst record for a No. 1 seed in the West since 1979. That's because this year in the West, everyone beat everyone. There was no consistent dominance. That makes these playoffs, especially in the West, so intriguing.

SUMMERS: All right. Tom, does any particular series stand out to you?

GOLDMAN: Well, just cherry-picking one first round series that ought to be fun, an all-Northern California matchup - defending champion Golden State against the Sacramento Kings. They finally broke their 16-year playoff drought this season - first time they played each other in the playoffs and first time both have been in the playoffs in the same season since 1985. The Kings have the NBA's top offense. The Warriors still have Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, the core of their recent dynasty. It should be a lot of offensive fireworks in that one.

SUMMERS: And, Tom, last thing. We did mention those three Texas teams that did not make the playoffs - Houston, San Antonio and Dallas. But for them and all those teams that did not qualify, I understand that they are taking a longing look at France as they try to rebuild.

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) A longing gaze directed at 19-year-old Victor Wembanyama. Get to know that name, Juana. None other than LeBron James called Wembanyama a generational talent. He's seven-feet-five in shoes.

SUMMERS: Wow.

GOLDMAN: He has an eight-foot wingspan, phenomenally skilled with his dribbling and shooting. He blocked shots like someone seven-foot-five should. Now, May 16 will be smack dab in the middle of the playoffs. But it's also the day of the NBA draft lottery, when it's decided what the order of the next draft will be for this season's worst teams and which of those teams will win the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes. You know, no team wants to finish near the bottom of the standings, but if you got to stink, this is the year to do it...

SUMMERS: (Laughter).

GOLDMAN: ...If it means you can draft the French phenom.

SUMMERS: All right. We are watching and waiting. We'll check back in with you. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Thank you.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF A TRIBE CALLED QUEST SONG, "CAN I KICK IT?") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.