NBA playoffs preview: Play-in predictions, first-round series guide

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Are you ready for some NBA postseason? We got a little taster on the season’s final weekend, with a few teams playing high-stakes games that resembled playoff environments. That was particularly true in the jumbled Western Conference standings, where the New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings were locked in a series of huge games that determined spots six through 10 in the West hierarchy.

And now, we exhale. There are no games Monday, but we get two big play-in games on Tuesday and Wednesday before the final play-in for each conference on Friday; that sets the bracket for the main event to start this weekend with four games on both Saturday and Sunday. The first round runs two weeks, with potential seventh games on the weekend of April 27 and 28, and the bracket shrinks from there until Game 1 of the NBA Finals on June 6.

I will have a more filled-out playoff preview later in the week, where we can get into predictions for the later rounds and more detail based on the play-in results. For now, however, let’s take the 10,000-foot view on what the play-ins and first round look like.

Here is the least you need to know. (All TV times ET.)

Play-In Predictions

West: No. 7 New Orleans Pelicans vs. No. 8 Los Angeles Lakers, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m., TNT

In a rematch of a game played in the same arena on Sunday afternoon, the Pelicans may come into this one with greater motivation than their flat effort in Game 82. That said, this feels like a bad matchup for them – they lost three of the four meetings with L.A. in the regular season and were trounced in all three defeats, including an embarrassing 133-89 loss in Las Vegas in the in-season tournament semifinals.

The Pels have Brandon Ingram back after he missed 12 games with a left knee contusion; Sunday was his first game since March 21. The Lakers, on the other hand, have to cross their fingers for Anthony Davis after the big man left Sunday’s game with hip and back spasms.

Fun fact: The Lakers outscore opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions with Davis and LeBron James on the court this year … the exact same margin by which the Pels prevailed with Ingram and Zion Williamson on the floor together. Despite the scores of the first four meetings, I suspect this one will be close. I also think that somehow, some way, the Pelicans’ superior depth comes to bear and, with the help of the home crowd, they end up squeaking this one out.

Pick: Pelicans

West: No. 9 Sacramento Kings vs. No. 10 Golden State Warriors, Tuesday, 10 p.m., TNT

A repeat of the seven-game 2023 first-round series that saw the Warriors prevail behind Steph Curry’s 50-point eruption in Game 7, this time the Greater Suisun Bay derby is a single-elimination affair. The Kings’ depth is threadbare after injuries to Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk, while after a rough start, the Warriors closed the year on a 26-12 heater and have been solid when Curry and Draymond Green take the floor together all season (+4.8 points per 100 possessions).

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

This is where the Warriors are now — 10th place and in March Madness mode

It would be cathartic for the Kings to knock out the Warriors after what happened last year and light that glorious beam, and Green’s antics are a wild card in a one-game situation. That said, only a fool bets against Curry in a situation like this, especially with the Kings’ injuries. The Warriors aren’t what they were, but they have at least one more battle in them.

Pick: Warriors

East: No. 7 Philadelphia 76ers vs. No. 8 Miami Heat, Wednesday, 7 p.m., ESPN

Last year, the Heat went from being the 7 seed entering the play-in to making the NBA Finals. Can the Sixers be the team to pull off that feat this year? Philly slumped in the standings due to Joel Embiid’s extended absence, but the reigning MVP (for a few more days, anyway) is back in the lineup and the Sixers went 29-7 in games he and Tyrese Maxey played in.

The teams split the season series 2-2, but Embiid only played in the last one, a 109-105 Sixers win on April 4 when Maxey scored 37 and Embiid added 29. Don’t forget these teams also played a second-round series in 2022 with most of the same key players; the Heat mostly neutralized Embiid behind Bam Adebayo’s defense and ended up winning in six games.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Miami Heat think they are ready to make another unlikely run: ‘It’ll be a show’

Nonetheless, I think having Embiid and a home-court edge, and with Nick Nurse on the sideline this time, Philly has the advantage on a Miami team that hasn’t looked like itself all year and will be missing Duncan Robinson and Josh Richardson.

Pick: Sixers

East: No. 9 Chicago Bulls vs. No. 10 Atlanta Hawks, Wednesday, 9:30 p.m., ESPN

Two injury-riddled teams limp into this one for the right to a one-game shot at the Sixers-Heat loser on Friday. Atlanta won’t have Jalen Johnson, Saddiq Bey or Onyeka Okongwu and just returned Trae Young from finger surgery on his left hand, while the Bulls are without Zach LaVine and Patrick Williams.

Atlanta also thinned its rotation further with the bizarre move to not convert two-way wing Vít Krejčí to a roster contract, something the Hawks could have done unilaterally. He played at least 15 minutes in 19 of the final 20 regular season games and started 11 of them, but will be ineligible for the postseason.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Load management doesn’t exist for DeMar DeRozan as he finishes as NBA’s minutes leader

The Bulls won the season series 2-1, with Atlanta oddly winning the one game Young missed. Chicago also has all-defense lock Alex Caruso to sic on one of Young or Dejounte Murray. The Bulls just don’t have a whole lot else, especially if DeMar DeRozan can’t get cooking against the Hawks’ lone remaining reliable wing defender (De’Andre Hunter), so I’m betting on Atlanta’s top-level offensive talent winning the day.

Pick: Hawks

Friday: Chicago or Atlanta at Miami or Philadelphia, ESPN, Time TBD

Ironically, Chicago and Atlanta were the teams Miami faced in the play-in a year ago; there’s a decent chance the Heat will again play one of them on Friday for the East’s final playoff spot. Remember, before the Heat’s magical run to the Finals, they lost a play-in to Atlanta when the Hawks smashed them on the offensive glass, then barely held off Chicago after trailing well into the fourth quarter.

However, the Hawks are a lesser version of the team that took out Miami a year ago, let alone the one that went to the 2021 conference finals; Miami won three of four against them this year. I picked Miami to host this game, but regardless of whether it is Miami or Philadelphia hosting, and whether it is Atlanta or Chicago visiting, the Heat should have a huge advantage and advance as the eight seed.

Pick: Heat

Friday: Sacramento or Golden State at Lakers or New Orleans, TNT, Time TBD

I have the Warriors playing the Lakers here based on the picks above, and in that case I would lean toward picking Los Angeles despite the fact that the Warriors beat the Lakers three times. The games were close and the Lakers were missing Davis in the last one. The Lakers playing at home in a game of this magnitude should give them a slight edge. Also, I don’t feel great about projecting the Warriors to win twice on the road to knock the Lakers out of a playoff spot; it feels closer to a 50-50 proposition if we get Lakers-Warriors, but Los Angeles’ overall pathway to the postseason is more favorable since it gets two shots at it.

If it’s New Orleans, I like the Pels in either matchup. They won two of the three regular season matchups against Golden State, including a late-season contest in San Francisco that almost felt like a playoff game, and there’s a good reason to think they’d win again. The Pels have multiple active, harassing wing defenders to throw at Curry, and the Warriors are an old team that would be flying across the country on a short turnaround to play at New Orleans.

The Pels would be slight favorites against the Warriors, but they’d be massive ones against the Kings. Sacramento was smacked five times by the Pelicans, including defeats by 36 and 33 points, and seemingly have no matchup at all for Williamson. It was the first time a team lost a season series 5-0 since 1995-96 (we got a fifth matchup rather than the usual four due to the in-season tournament).

On the flip side, the Kings’ rooting interests in the first game on Tuesday could not be more obvious: The Pels own them, but Sacramento beat Los Angeles in all four meetings. Domantas Sabonis has never lost to Davis as a pro in 10 career meetings, although some of those games were with him as a bit player for the Thunder and Davis in New Orleans.

Keep an eye on this if the Lakers can’t win in New Orleans on Tuesday; these are troubling matchups for them, especially Sacramento. But I think in a one-game situation at home, James can dial up enough energy for them to survive.

Pick: Lakers

Eastern Conference First Round

No. 1 Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia/Miami/Atlanta/Chicago (starts Sunday)

The Celtics aren’t getting enough respect as a title favorite after a 64-win season that included one of the highest scoring margins in NBA history at +11.4 per game. Recent playoff wobbles are likely the reason it’s been so hard to find Boston believers, so this spring offers a chance for the Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown era Celtics to put those demons to rest.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Kristaps Porziņģis’ career was at a crossroads. Then he learned to trust the numbers

Boston would be a heavy favorite here regardless of the opponent, but obviously the Celtics would prefer the Atlanta-Chicago winner advance rather than the Miami postseason torture for a fourth time in five seasons, or alternatively having Embiid pound their bigs for two weeks and wear down their frontcourt for future rounds. The thin and historically frail Kristaps Porziņģis and the 37-year-old Al Horford might not enjoy this assignment.

No. 2 New York Knicks vs. Philadelphia or Miami (starts Saturday)

Regardless of opponent, this feels like the most compelling first-round series. The Knicks and Heat have had many bloody wars through the years, most recently last season’s second-round series that Miami won in six games. Meanwhile, a Knicks-Sixers Acela series (faster than the Turnpike!) would match Embiid against a rising force in the Knicks.

New York won’t have Julius Randle, but the Knicks have a new go-to guy in star guard Jalen Brunson, a perimeter defensive ace in OG Anunoby and plentiful shooting on the perimeter. New York would probably rather face Miami and use Anunoby on Jimmy Butler, but the Knicks won three of four against Philadelphia and two of three against the Heat. Either way, they should be good with Brunson attacking.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Knicks chose not to cheat the game and it could pay off: ‘Everything counts’

Where Knicks fans might not be as comfortable is with coach Tom Thibodeau’s playoff history, especially if he’s drawn into another matchup against Miami’s Erik Spoelstra. But this feels like a different Knicks team, an enjoyable bunch that defends and shares the ball and has absolutely obliterated opponents in the 23 games Anunoby has played since being acquired from Toronto.

No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 6 Indiana Pacers (starts Sunday)

Could we have an upset bracket here? The Bucks lost their final regular-season game and as a result got the one matchup they probably didn’t want, facing an Indiana team that beat them four of five times in the regular season, including at the in-season tournament semifinals in Las Vegas.

All five meetings were before Jan. 3, but the Bucks only went 17-19 in their final 36 games and will enter this series with health questions after Giannis Antetokounmpo missed their final three games with a calf strain. Khris Middleton is seemingly permanently questionable, and several Bucks veterans have tailed off dramatically over the past two to three seasons. The comparative recent playoff histories of coaches Rick Carlisle and Doc Rivers also wouldn’t seem to favor the Bucks.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Bucks’ familiar faults emerge in season finale, and now the Pacers await

If Indiana is going to pull this off, it needs the early-season version of Tyrese Haliburton and not the one who labored through much of February and March with the after-effects of a hamstring injury. Trade deadline pickup Pascal Siakam didn’t play in any of the five games against Milwaukee, but he raises Indiana’s ceiling and gives it another potential Giannis defender.

Now, can the Pacers’ 24th-ranked defense get any stops? Facing a Damian Lillard pick-and-roll with Antetokounmpo screening isn’t for the faint of heart.

No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 5 Orlando Magic (starts Saturday)

Cleveland’s odd adventure on Sunday saw the Cavs seem to intentionally punt away a very winnable game at home against lowly Charlotte, all to avoid the potential for drawing Embiid in the first round (Cleveland would have been the second seed if New York’s overtime game against Chicago had gone to the Bulls.)

The Cavs could have been seeded third, drawn Indiana in the first round and landed on the opposite side of the bracket from mighty Boston. Instead, they’ll face the Magic and, should they advance, Boston.

Cleveland split the season series with the Magic (as it did with the Sixers and Pacers), so it’s not as if the Cavs had some special advantage over Orlando other than playoff experience. While it’s true the young Magic squad hasn’t been here before (only four players have ever played in the postseason, and only two – Joe Ingles and Gary Harris – have won a series), Orlando was awesome with defensive hydra Jonathan Isaac on the floor, outscoring opponents by 10.8 points per 100 possessions and allowing just 102.1 points per 100 possessions. He won’t start, but he’ll be a huge factor against the Cavs’ huge frontcourt.

Cleveland also has to answer its own health questions after late-season knee troubles slowed down Donovan Mitchell. The Cavs played their best basketball during Evan Mobley’s injury absence, spacing the floor with more 3-point shooters and bombing away, but guys such as Sam Merrill and Dean Wade who made those units go might not see much run in these playoffs. Don’t sleep on this one: Points will likely be scarce, and it could become a ’90s-style rock fight.

Western Conference First Round

No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Lakers/New Orleans/Sacramento/Golden State (starts Sunday)

Does playoff experience matter? We’re about to find out for the top-seeded Thunder, who rode an MVP-caliber season from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and breakout campaigns from rookie Chet Holmgren and sophomore Jalen Williams to the top seed in the West. Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort played one postseason round as wingmen for Chris Paul in the 2020 bubble, but otherwise Gordon Hayward is the only key Thunder player who has tasted the playoffs in any way.

That would contrast rather sharply if they draw, say, James or Curry as a first-round opponent. As good as the Thunder were this year, this bracket presents some potentially problematic opponents. The Lakers beat them three times, Sacramento beat them twice, and two of their wins over Golden State went to overtime.

Thunder fans will root for the Lakers to either win on Tuesday or lose on Friday, based on the season series and the presence of James and Davis as a first-round foe. Regardless, this 1-8 series seems likely to test them.

No. 2 Denver Nuggets vs. Lakers/New Orleans (starts Saturday)

Could we get a rematch of the Western Conference finals? Denver swept the Lakers en route to the 2022 championship and won all three meetings against them this year. Los Angeles has lost eight in a row to the Nuggets, who seemingly delight in tormenting the Lakers with Jamal MurrayNikola Jokić pick-and-rolls, and have the size and defensive answers to handle the James-Davis combo defensively.

So if it is ratings you seek, then Denver-L.A. it is, at least for five games or so. But if instead of “who’s your daddy?” chants you prefer a long, compelling series, might I guide you toward a possible Nuggets-Pelicans pairing? The two teams split their regular-season series, and the Pelicans’ superior depth has the potential to smash Denver’s iffy second unit during stretches when subs are on the floor. Nobody feels good about trying to knock off Jokić, who will likely win his third MVP award in four seasons, but the Pels might feel better about their chances than most.

No. 3 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. No. 6 Phoenix Suns (starts Saturday)

This is a rematch of Sunday’s game where the Suns moved up to sixth, and moved Minnesota down to third, by thrashing the Wolves in Minnesota behind a 44-point first-quarter eruption. It was one of the few times this year it felt easy to believe in the Suns’ vision of three high-scoring shooters – Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal – with role players and defenders surrounding them.

Just as in every other sport, Minnesota’s basketball playoff history is littered with disappointment … to the extent that the Wolves have participated at all. They haven’t won a playoff series since 2004 and have only made the postseason three times since.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

‘It’s the Minnesota way’: After dream season, Timberwolves draw nightmare matchup vs. Suns

This year that all seemed set to change, with Rudy Gobert a likely Defensive Player of the Year winner and Anthony Edwards an electrifying star. However, a dream season has been marred of late by an ownership squabble and a knee injury to Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns came back on Friday after an 18-game absence due to a torn meniscus but was still shaking off the rust against Phoenix, finishing with 10 points and five turnovers in 29 wobbly minutes.

This is also a horrible matchup for the Wolves, who went 56-23 against the rest of the league but lost all three meetings against the Suns by double figures. Can they figure out how to hide Towns on defense against the likes of Durant, and mash the smaller, lighter Suns on offense?

No. 4 L.A. Clippers vs. No. 5 Dallas Mavericks (starts Sunday)

If you watch one first-round series, make it this one. This pairing is a rematch of the best series of the 2021 playoffs, a seven-gamer that saw several momentum shifts and tactical innovations, and among the best of the 2020 bubble.

The superstar pairing of Luka Dončić and Kawhi Leonard is instant must-see TV, and the secondary stars (Kyrie Irving, Paul George, James Harden) are equally compelling. Leonard is a two-time champion, but otherwise the key players on both teams are still battling playoff demons of varying sizes. Finally, the winner has solid odds as a sleeper to come out of the West bracket.

The Clippers won two of the three meetings, but all of them were played before Christmas. Since then Dallas acquired P.J. Washington and, more notably, Daniel Gafford, who has been a monstrous pick-and-roll partner feasting off lobs from Doncic. Dallas went 24-7 from mid-February until resting its key players the final weekend.

The Clips, meanwhile, integrated Harden after a choppy start, morphed Russell Westbrook into a sixth man supreme and were good enough to go 32-9 over a full half-season stretch this year.

As ever, the state of the Clippers depends heavily on whether Kawhi Leonard will actually play in the games. He had enjoyed one of his healthiest seasons, playing 68 games, until missing the final seven with knee soreness.

This, of course, harkens back to last season when Leonard amazed in Game 1, scoring 38 in a Clippers’ road win, before missing the last three games with a knee issue as the Clips meekly exited in five. Even if Leonard comes back, can he make it through an entire series this time?

You can buy tickets to every NBA game here.

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; photos: Getty; Danielle Parhizkaran/The Boston Globe, Logan Riely/NBAE, AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)



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