NBA Playoff Preview: Round 1 breakdown and predictions

Here’s the thing about the NBA playoffs: A lot of guys who played a fair number of minutes this season are about to become irrelevant. Nobody takes a DNP-rest in the postseason and nobody misses games with minor injuries. Coaches shorten rotations, backup bigs become extinct and starters play a far bigger chunk of the games.

Because of that, a team’s “playoff strength” can differ from its “regular-season strength” in important ways.

The 701 minutes MarJon Beauchamp played for Milwaukee don’t matter; he’s sitting in the playoffs unless there’s a blowout. A.J. Griffin and Aaron Holiday combined for 2,246 minutes in Atlanta this season; I can pencil them in for roughly zero against Boston.

Conversely, Kevin Durant might play more playoff games as a Phoenix Sun than he did regular-season games for them (eight). Players such as Robert Williams, Jae Crowder and Gary Payton II, who were bit players in the regular season, are likely to become much more important factors now that they are seemingly at full strength.

Between trades and injury absences, a number of teams in the Western Conference in particular profile as stronger than if you just look at regular-season data. Alas, injuries also cut the other way — Memphis losing its two best centers and the Clippers likely not having Paul George for a few games cut against those teams’ odds.

When you gaze across the NBA play-off landscape in a normal year, there are typically 4 teams who can legitimately win a championship, while the rest are simply pretenders.

The 2023 playoffs will be far from normal.

I can argue 7 teams have a legit case to end the season as NBA champions. It sounds insane but let me make the case for you with this Round 1 NBA Playoff preview.

Side storyline to follow: will old heads prevail or is this the year the Warriors, and LeBron officially pass the torch to the next generation?

(1) Milwaukee vs. (8) Miami

Remember how I said this season isn’t typical? Well 8th seeds down typically feature Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Tyler Herro, led by Erik Spoelstra. This core have played in the NBA Finals and have multiple deep playoff appearances on their resume. The Bucks are a much better team, but to assume this will be the usual cake walk of a 1-8 matchup, you’d be selling the Heat short.

Nobody in their right mind is picking the upset, but Miami has always matched up well with Giannis. Adebayo and Butler will take shifts on defending Giannis, making him earn every basket he will inevitably score. The series will be a dog fight for sure, but how long can Miami overcome their flaws?

The depth, 3 point shooting and high end talent of the Bucks is what makes this series a gentleman’s sweep. The Bucks rotation features potentially the league MVP, and 2 DPOY candidates. Not sure any team is matching those accolades within their starting 5 this season.

Ultimately Bucks in 5, but expect a chippy, highly emotional series between these two teams.

(2) Boston vs. (7) Atlanta

The Celtics are the overwhelming favorites, but does Atlanta has enough talent and depth to make this series interesting?

To answer that, first define interesting.

Can the Hawks make the Celtics sweat in a few games? Maybe make Tatum, have to exert himself to drop 40 twice? Sure. Can Trae explode for a 35-10. game? Absolutely.

But will the Celtics ever fear losing the series? No chance.

Outside of the Bucks, the Celtics are the most solidified roster in the league. Everyone knows their role. The core has been together for awhile. Now fresh off a finals appearance, this group wants to hold the trophy.

The lone weakness of the Celtics in this series will be their rebounding ability. We just watched Clint Capela single-handedly beat the Miami Heat on the offensive glass in the play in game.

With Robert Williams still working back from his injury plagued season, how will the Celtics counter Capela?

Joe Mazzulla, Celtics head coach, seemingly would want Williams out there whenever Capela is on the floor.

“I err on the side of doing what we do best first, and do it better first because that’s the identity we created, that’s the confidence we created and that’s kind of who we are as a team,” Mazzulla said when asked about adjusting starters by matchup. “So I think it’s important to try and do what we do and do it better. But the biggest thing, because of this season and not being healthy throughout the year, our guys have always stepped in but it’s all looked the same.”

Williams will ensure they don’t get hammered on the defensive glass like Miami did and can feast offensively on the baseline when the Celtics bring Capela up into pick-and-roll.

There have been two matchups between these teams this season. The Celtics won both times, but the last matchup, a 134-125 win against Atlanta coach Quin Snyder’s iteration of this team, showed how competitive these Hawks can be.

The Hawks under Snyder are drastically improved from their pre coaching change.

In the NBA, you can’t have one core identity if you want to be great. There has to be some versatility. The Celtics have a lot of it. That’s why they’ve been one of the best teams in the NBA all season. Atlanta has some of it. That’s why this series could be more than a gentleman’s sweep.

“Boston’s at the top because they went to the Finals last year, but last year is last year,” Dejounte Murray told reporters in Miami Tuesday. “Me personally, I want the best. Boston is one of the best and it’s going to be a great series and we’re going to go out there and try to win.”

For the Hawks to have any type of success Dejounte is going to have to play at an all-star level. Young is going to average 30 points and 10 assists. That’s fine. The Celtics will try to take away his passing outlets, keep him off the line and force him into 30-footers that he’ll hit anyway. What they can’t afford is for Murray to routinely get to his pull-up spots at the free-throw line or even snake his way through the backline of the defense. The more rhythm he feels attacking in the half court, the greater risk he is to start getting some steals and dominate on the break.

Every single postseason, Horford evolves like a Pokemon and is a different type of player. Can he do it again? For the first round, probably. For a whole playoff run, who knows? He just did it last year, but the games take a lot more out of you when you get to your late 30s. But if his shooting holds up and he can live at the rim against Atlanta’s athletes, he lets Boston dictate exactly how this series will be played. Forget Atlanta, barely anyone can keep up with that.

Ultimately I have the Celtics in 5 games. I wouldn’t be shocked if it went 6 but 5 games is the consensus here.

(3) Philadelphia vs (6) Brooklyn

Before the season, every NBA fan would have immediately signed up for a Sixers-Nets playoff series.

The formula was simple: Joel Embiid and Kevin Durant would have provided the high-wattage star power while James Harden and Ben Simmons offered the key storyline, facing off against former teams that they left on less-than-ideal terms. Kyrie Irving and Tyrese Maxey would put up points in a hurry. And perhaps juiciest of all, Simmons would have to face the postseason Philadelphia crowd. Every game would have received top billing from TNT and ABC/ESPN.

Now that the first-round series is a reality, none of the factors that made it a potentially high-profile matchup are in play. That is entirely Brooklyn’s doing, of course. Durant and Irving were traded to the Western Conference, while Simmons is out for the season.

To that point, Sixers coach Doc Rivers was asked if it might be more of a challenge to defend Brooklyn without Simmons’ limited offensive game on the floor.

“I’m not touching that. No thank you, I’ll pass,” Rivers said. “He’s not part of the playoffs, so we shouldn’t talk about it.”

Unlike the first two-thirds of the 2021-22 season, Rivers could legitimately brush aside the Simmons storyline this time. Simmons is not a Sixer anymore, nor is he going to return this season. Unlike last year, there is no reason to talk about him.

But this revamped Brooklyn team will provide the Sixers with challenges.

The Sixers held a 3-to-1 advantage in the regular-season series, a data point that means next to nothing.

The first two games, both in Philly, happened before the trade deadline … and thus the two blockbuster trades that reshaped Brooklyn’s roster.

The final game of the season series, which took place a few days ago, was played by role and end-of-bench players after the teams locked up their playoff positions.

So what might the Sixers make of this starless version of the Nets? It has been a small sample, but Brooklyn does not have the normal fundamentals of a playoff team. The wins that were banked when the Nets were a super-talented soap opera helped greatly in securing them a postseason berth.

Since Bridges and Johnson suited up, Brooklyn is 12-15 with a minus-2.0 net rating (22nd), per Cleaning The Glass. They rank 17th on defense (115.8) and 23rd on offense (113.8), which generally tracks with the eye test.

On both ends of the floor, they are generally a perimeter-based team. These Nets are good at taking care of the ball and forcing turnovers, while they struggle mightily on the glass on both ends of the floor. They take a healthy number of 3s while preventing opponent 3s. They hardly get to the rim, while opponents get there a bunch against them.

The unquestioned strength of Brooklyn’s roster is its length and perimeter defensive versatility. The Nets can and will comfortably switch anyone in their starting lineup outside of Dinwiddie, with Claxton looming as one of the most switchable centers in the league.

There will be on-ball switches, scram switches on the back side and all sorts of activity. So how do the Sixers handle that switching? It will be a key to how the games evolve game by game, quarter by quarter.

The singular control group for this series is MVP candidate Joel Embiid. Lock him in for 35-13-5-4 this series.

But where the 76ers can falter could be at the perimeter.

While Embiid is the Sixers’ best player, Harden is the one moving the chess pieces. If the Sixers slip and move intelligently with the ball in his hands, he should be able to rack up assists. On the other hand …

In the five games after Harden returned from Achilles soreness, his numbers (16.6 points and 8.6 assists) were not cause for concern on their own. But in watching Harden, he seemed perhaps a step slower from his All-NBA level play from December through February. His 2-point percentage and free-throw attempts were both down.

Harden’s health is the most important question of the Sixers’ postseason, but perhaps not for this specific series. The Sixers likely can advance past Brooklyn with the late-season version of Harden, although not much farther than that. In his brief Sixers tenure, Harden has sometimes performed well after long layoffs. Heading into Saturday’s game, Harden will not have played in eight days.

In theory, Brooklyn could replicate some of the same issues that Harden can find against Boston. The Nets are long and switchable on the perimeter.

Particularly in the non-Embiid minutes, can Harden find the right hunting spots? Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Day’ron Sharpe and old friend Seth Curry are all players the Sixers should be looking to target.

The problem that Brooklyn runs into in this series is that none of that versatility matters against Embiid. Certainly not in a one-on-one situation, anyway. The postseason should mirror the one pertinent regular-season matchup in this regard, with Brooklyn doubling Embiid on every single post and elbow touch.

If the Sixers are organized offensively, this could be a quick series. And in dealing with Brooklyn’s double teams, the other four players are probably more of a concern than Embiid.

Its simple, if the 4 others knock down 3 pointers at a 40% clip, the 76ers sweep Brooklyn. If they go cold, Brooklyn could snag a W. But nothing more than that.

76ers in 4.

(4) Cleveland vs. (5) New York 

This is a new Eastern Conference. These are two new look teams at the forefront of the evolution of the conference.

New York is more balanced. The young players are improved. It has a top-notch point guard and a renovated version of Julius Randle.

But it’s not just New York that has revamped. The East is starrier than it’s been in years.

The No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup used to be a slog. But the Knicks aren’t Gilbert Arenas’ Washington Wizards of yesteryear, and the Cleveland Cavaliers and far from Joe Johnson’s Hawks.

There’s an argument to be made that the Cavs are better than their No. 4 seed implies. They finished second in the NBA in point differential per possession and first in points allowed per possession. They are one of only three teams, along with the powerhouse Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, to own a top-10 offense and a top-10 defense. They have three players who have made All-Star teams within the past two seasons (Donovan Mitchell, Darius Garlandand Jarrett Allen) and another (Evan Mobley) who is bound for awards aplenty over the next 12 years.

The Cavs are good. The Knicks are good, too. The East has a marquee matchup at No. 4 vs. No. 5.

Like Charles Barkley said, its the only Eastern Conference round 1 series worth watching.

The key storyline of the series will be Jalen Brunson vs Donovan Mitchell.

All you have to do is turn the clock back two weeks when the Knicks downed the Cavaliers in Cleveland 130-116.

With both teams short-handed, Brunson went for 48 points; Mitchell went for 42. But these two aren’t the headline matchup of this series only because of their scoring numbers. It’s so much more than that.

The fourth quarter of the battle in Cleveland included Brunson maneuvering screen after screen, so he could get Mitchell switched onto him. Mitchell pulled the same move on the other side of the floor. Brunson’s man would set a pick for him, and Mitchell would try to take advantage of a more diminutive defender.

There’s something special about two great players going mano a mano to close a big game, especially when one team involved was trying to pair the duo together less than a year ago.

Now, imagine that type of ending in a playoff game.

This storyline been brewing since the offseason where the Knicks were all in on Mitchell, and “settled” for Brunson ad their key move.

While you’re turning back your clock, try winding it back to last spring when Brunson’s Dallas Mavericks faced Mitchell’s Utah Jazz in the first round. The series turned into Brunson’s coming out party. Mavs star Luka Dončić got hurt, which provided the future Knicks player with an opportunity. He went for 24, then 41 and then 31 points in the games without Doncic. He averaged 27.8 in the series because he wrecked Utah’s perimeter defense, which included Mitchell.

The series is a rare blemish on Mitchell’s postseason record. More often than not, he reaches a new level when games matter most.

He famously averaged 36.3 points during a seven-game series against the Denver Nuggets in 2020. Utah didn’t win it, but that wasn’t because of Mitchell. His 28.3 career points per game during the playoffs is seventh in NBA history. You may have heard of the six players ahead of him: Michael Jordan, Dončić, Allen Iverson, Kevin Durant, Jerry West and LeBron James.

There is no element of this series more important than Randle’s health. If he looks like the man who could be bound for his second All-NBA appearance in three years, the Knicks have a chance. If he misses too much time or returns and can barely run, life becomes more difficult.

Randle doesn’t just give the Knicks 25 and 10. They could use him defensively, too.

With Randle out Josh Hart, yes 6’5″ Josh Hart was running PF minutes in bulk.

But the Cavaliers employ one of the world’s greatest young power forwards, a do-it-all 7-footer in Evan Mobley. Thibodeau said he has no issue with Hart guarding Mobley, even if the Cavs big man is 7 inches taller.

“Josh has the strength to deal with size,” Thibodeau said.

Hart can get up under him and try to bully the second-year up-and-comer, but if Mobley can push his way down low without the ball, the Cavs are one pass away from an easy bucket. Mobley is an underrated facilitator, too, and could scan the floor easier with his chin above Hart’s forehead.

It’s not a perfect matchup. Neither is Toppin, who is taller but who Thibodeau has shown he doesn’t trust on defense.

If the Knicks don’t have Randle, they could try to play faster. Toppin is a force in transition, as is Hart. But speeding up the game requires getting stops, too. Especially when the Knicks are small, they will have to figure out ways to combat the giant Cavs.

No Randle can take this series from a 7 games series to a gentleman sweep.

I’m struggling with deciding a winner here, because if healthy I see it going 7 games. But the unknown of Randle’s health has me leaning Cavs in an entertaining 6 games.

Now onto the chaotic, stacked but mid Western Conference.

(1) Denver vs. (8) OKC/Minnesota 

At the time I am writing this, the final play in game is 24 hours away, but the outcome doesn’t sway this pick either way.

The Denver Nuggets are sweeping either team that makes it. This post is already long enough, I’m not breaking down a Josh Giddy- Jamal Murray matchup, or a Jokic vs Rudy Gobert.

Nuggets in 4 games.

(2) Memphis vs (7) Los Angeles Lakers

The last time the Lakers were in the playoffs, they were the No. 7 seed, facing a relatively inexperienced Phoenix Suns group in the 2021 first round.

Los Angeles led that series 2-1 and was hanging around in a competitive Game 4 when Anthony Davis went down with a left groin strain late in the first half. The Lakers lost Game 4 by eight points, were blown out in Game 5 by 30 and were beaten soundly again in Game 6, making a late comeback to lose by 13. Their top-heavy roster couldn’t withstand the loss of Davis.

The then-defending NBA champs entered that series against Phoenix as the favorites. They 2022-23 Lakers enter their series against Memphis as slight underdogs. In the aggregate, Memphis has been the Western Conference’s second-best team over the past two seasons. The Grizzlies have an All-NBA guard in Ja Morant, the Defensive Player of the Year favorite in Jaren Jackson Jr., one of the best coaches in the league in Taylor Jenkins and a deep, tough supporting cast led by Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks and Tyus Jones. But they’re also missing two key pieces in starting center Steven Adams and backup center Brandon Clarke.

The Lakers, meanwhile, enter healthy for basically the first time all season. LeBron James and Davis have yet to lose a playoff series in which they’re both healthy. The challenge, obviously, is keeping them healthy. This is arguably the best supporting cast the Lakers have had since their 2019-20 championship season. They’re on the easier side of the West bracket and are much better than the typical No. 7 seed. This group, if together for a full season, would’ve likely been battling Sacramento and Phoenix for home-court advantage — even with the same injuries. The door is open to make a deep postseason run.

Record-wise, the Lakers and the Grizzlies have been the two best teams in the West since the trade deadline. They’re both defensive-minded, led by one perimeter and one interior star, and love to live in the paint. As Davis said, this is going to be a “fun, interesting series.” Let’s dive into it.

The Lakers are going to try to force the ball out of Morant’s hands as much as possible. They saw what happens when they don’t during Morant’s 39-point explosion against them on Feb. 28. Morant’s 28-point third quarter was an offensive masterpiece. He eviscerated the Lakers’ drop coverages.

Similar to their defense on Anthony Edwards in the Minnesota Play-In game, the Lakers are going to have to play higher up on ball screens, potentially switching, depending on the matchup. They’ll also mix in some blitzing and trapping to challenge Morant’s teammates to try to beat them.

Los Angeles’ best approach is to go under pick-and-rolls against Morant, inviting him to shoot pull-up 3s. Morant is shooting 29.8 percent on those shots this season, including shooting 0 of 7 against the Lakers.

Morant’s floater game can exploit the Lakers’ normal drop coverages, as he did during the regular season. He is too quick and explosive to defend in that manner. The Lakers can’t give him a runway to the paint.

Even if the Lakers are able to somehow lock onto Morant in the half court, he remains one of the league’s most dangerous players in transition, where he’s able to use his top-end speed to blow by defenders and either score at the rim or find his running mates.

Morant cooked Dennis Schröder in the second matchup and is probably just too dynamic and athletic for him. The Lakers need to deploy size against Morant — Reaves, Jarred Vanderbilt and possibly Troy Brown Jr. That’s their best avenue to disrupting Morant’s rhythm aside from playing off him and dictating that he shoots pull-up jumpers.

If Morant is the best player in this series, the Lakers will lose. If he’s the second best, it’ll be a close series. If he’s the third-best — with the assumption that James and Davis are the two best in this scenario — the Lakers have solid odds of advancing.

The Grizzlies are likely to slot Brooks on James, Xavier Tillman Sr. on Davis, Jackson on Vanderbilt (so he can roam), Morant on D’Angelo Russell and Bane on Reaves.

Across the two matchups he played in, Davis averaged 29.0 points on 55.6 percent shooting, 20.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks. He also averaged 11.0 free throw attempts per game — a sign of his ability to impose his will in this matchup.

The Lakers need the engaged, aggressive version of Davis. There have been too many stretches this season in which the Lakers either ignore Davis offensively or allow a defense to take him out with double- and triple-teaming. That’s on multiple parties — Darvin Ham, Davis and the Lakers’ guards. But it’s an issue the Lakers need to address before Game 1.

Davis can’t settle for jumpers against the Grizzlies, which is sometimes his default tactic when facing a more physical defender. The 6-foot-7, 245-pound Tillman is a tree trunk, and his low center of gravity will at times dislodge Davis from post-up positioning.

Davis can counter Memphis’ aggression by relentlessly attacking the rim and putting the Grizzlies on their heels.

Davis will feast in the interior at any moment Tillman and Jackson are off the floor. Even when they’re on, they’re going to have a difficult time matching Davis’ size and physicality.

Grizzlies lineups without Adams and Clarke are struggling to offensive rebound.

Memphis’ doubling — and how the Lakers counter — will be an interesting subplot in the chess match between Ham and Jenkins.

The series ultimately comes down to which teams star has the better series Ja Morant or Anthony Davis?

With LeBron James being the air behind Davis’ flight, I like the Lakers in 6.

PS: Watch the Austin Reaves vs Desmond Bane matchup in the half court. That could decide the series too.

(3) Sacremento vs (6) Warriors 

My basketball mind is telling me the Sacramento Kings are by far the better basketball team in 2023. But my nostalgia combined with faith in experience over youth lends me to lean Warriors in this series.

Game 1s are series tone-setters. They’re always important. They’re not all-important, because plenty of teams have lost Game 1 to come back and win the series, sometimes very swiftly after Game 1. But if you’re the lower-seeded road team eager to swipe home-court advantage almost immediately and send a shockwave through the opponent (and opponent fan base), Game 1s are very, very inviting opportunities. They sure have been for the Warriors, including Game 1 in Memphis last postseason and Game 1 in Houston for the 2018 Western Conference finals. Those Game 1s were essential for the Warriors.

Which is why I think this chaotic but centered 6 seed might be targeting Saturday night for their 2023 “welcome back to the Warriors Invitational” moment. That’s no disrespect to the 3-seed Kings, who can put up 120-plus points on anybody at any time. That’s actually a tribute to the threat that the Kings offer and the urgency the Warriors probably will be feeling.

The inexperienced Kings might need a little bit of time to adjust to the fervor of the postseason, when the sight of watching Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson flinging in long 3s and Draymond Green and Gary Payton II blowing up the De’Aaron Fox/Domantas Sabonis pick-and-roll a few times in a row might depress the mood a bit at Golden 1 Center. And that’s when there may be loud noises coming from hundreds or thousands of Warriors fans who bought their way into the arena.

Obviously, this presumes that the Warriors are up to a massive performance right away in these playoffs. Nothing they showed us on the road this whole season would suggest they’re up to a 1-0 road start in the playoffs. But Andrew Wiggins is back, Payton is a defensive weapon they didn’t have until recently, and it’s foolish to count out Curry, Klay and Draymond Green in any playoff format.

The basketball part of my head is telling me the Warriors have been the definition of average for 82 games this season.

And on the road? An abysmal 10-31 record.

So where do you want to lay your money on, experience or vibes? The Kings are the new kid in town who is talented and exciting but do they have the confidence to look down a 4x championship core?

Let me give you an amazing Warriors playoff stat: They’ve never been down 0-2 in any of the 27 series of the Curry era. Not ever.

I doubt that happens this year even with their road struggles this year.

I think the Kings have the firepower to blow the Warriors out a time or two in this series. If you look at what the Kings have done and at their personnel, they probably should blow the Warriors out at least once. Maybe in Game 1 or Game 2. But the Warriors lost by 39 points to the Grizzlies in last year’s Game 5 (and trailed 119-64 late in the third quarter), never blinked, and ended the series with a 14-point victory in Game 6.

I think this series might go exactly like the Memphis series last year: Warriors win Game 1, lose Game 2, go home and sweep Games 3 and 4, maybe get routed in Game 5 back at Golden 1 and then finish this off with a big performance at Chase Center in Game 6.

Warriors in 6.

(4) Phoenix vs (5) Los Angeles

This series features the most star power of any other in round 1, even with Paul George sidelined for now.

If both teams were healthy we would be potentially looking at an all time round one war. Inject 7 games of KD vs Kawhi and Booker vs George into my veins. Ty Lue vs Monty Williams? Strategic battle warriors.

But with George out for now, the balance of power leans towards Phoenix in a huge way.

When KD played for the Suns they were undefeated. When Kawhi plays for the Clippers, they generally win at an efficient clip.

Either way the Twitter timeline will be active because one of the games best players is going home in round 1. On the other hand the winner has a real shot at an NBA championship so to call this series fascinating is selling it short.

Just strictly off health give me the Suns in 6. But I hold the right to adjust this prediction if George is back for game 2, or one of the Suns big 2 goes down.

Key matchup: Ayton vs Zubac.


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