After a madcap ending to the regular season, where some stars rolled back the years, some rolled with the punches, and others rolled out the beach towels, the NBA post season is finally set. Let’s take a look at who’s definitely playing in the first round, where the shocks might occur, and who has put themselves in prime position for a deep run towards the NBA title.
The top two seeds in each Conference had to wait until the play-ins were done to find out who they were facing, with the 7, 8, 9 and 10 seeds battling it out to book a place in the postseason proper. Atlanta and the Lakers secured the 7 seeds by winning the first play-ins on Tuesday night, and they were joined by the teams they beat, Miami and Minnesota, on Friday. Their reward, of course, is the most difficult possible draws in the opening round.
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Sacramento Kings (3) v Golden State Warriors (6)
The Clippers, Lakers and Warriors all went into the final week not knowing their destiny, with one team heading to the play in, one to the 5th seed and the dreaded match up with Kevin Durant and the Phoenix Suns, and the other heading for the 6th seed and a series with this season’s surprise packages, the number 3 seeded Kings. The Warriors got the draw they all wanted.
Not only do the reigning champs hold a massive postseason experience advantage against the Kings, having appeared in the Finals in six of the past eight seasons, winning the title four times, while Sacramento have been on the outside looking in - they ended a 16-season drought by finally clinching a playoff spot this year - the winner of this series also avoids the top seeded Denver Nuggets and the bookies’ favourite in the West, the Phoenix Suns, in the next round too. Throw in that it’s a local series where the Warriors can get the bus to road games if they wish, and this is the perfect scenario for the Golden State dynasty to have one last dance.
It goes without saying that the Kings have been excellent in the regular season, and fully deserve their number 3 spot. But a choice between them, the Suns post Durant’s arrival, and the win or bust play in, and there’s little doubt the two LA teams are looking on at Golden State’s position enviously.
Having said that, the Kings shouldn’t be underestimated. Domantas Sabonis has been excellent, playmaking from the centre position and being in the middle of everything good the Kings do. De'Aaron Fox has been Mr Clutch, Kevin Huerter an inspired signing, and in Keegan Murray they have one of the best rookies around.
Sacramento has one of the best road records around, while Golden State have been head scratchingly terrible on the road, ending with a ridiculous regular season record of 33-8 at home and 11-30 away. One of those things has to give, and with the Warriors winning the season series 3-1, maybe there’s a pointer as to what.
While a three seed Sacramento win wouldn’t be a massive shock, Golden State have Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, with Steve Kerr drawing up the plays, and Andrew Wiggins set to rejoin the team too. I’ve loved watching the Kings this season, and this series will be an offensive explosion, but I can’t back against Golden State, and I fully expect them to come through a tough series and mount another deep run in the playoffs.
PREDICTION: Warriors win 4-2
UPDATE (Apr 29th): Warriors win 4-3 ✅
Phoenix Suns (4) v LA Clippers (5)
It was the match-up no-one wanted, and somehow the LA Clippers fell into a series with the Phoenix Suns by beating the Suns’ reserves on the final night of the regular season. They now have to try and tame the midrange triple threat of Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Chris Paul. Not only do the Clips have to face the favourites to win the West in the opening round, they do so without one half of their superstar duo, with Paul George still sidelined through injury.
Phoenix ripped up their roster to trade for KD at the deadline and were pretty much instantly installed as Western Conference favourites. The Suns have won every game in which KD has appeared, although a pretty hefty asterisk should be applied given how relatively easy the schedule has been.
No championship winning team has made such a huge mid-season trade in NBA history, bringing in a future Hall of Famer to build around, and it’s hard to see the Suns getting it together in time to win it all.
But the injuries have been a killer for the Clippers, with their best line-up just not on the court together very often in recent seasons, including the current one. Kahwi Leonard has looked great when he’s played, especially towards the back end of the season, but with PG out, coming up against a team where those two Clipper wings would be required to show all their defensive chops will just come too early and this could well be the beginning of the end for the Kahwi/PG era in LA.
PREDICTION: Suns win 4-2
UPDATE (Apr 26th): Suns win 4-1 ✅
Denver Nuggets (1) v Minnesota Timberwolves (8)
Denver fell over the line as number 1 seed, but having locked up top spot early, they eased off as the end of the season approached. The question now, of course, as they head into the most open Western Conference playoffs in memory, is can they get back to their imposing early season best and ride that top seeding all the way to the Finals.
Nikola Jokic has won the last two MVPs, and while it looks likely that Joel Embiid will just pip him this time round, he’s coming off another amazing season, almost averaging a triple double while leading his team to a Conference best record. Whether his supporting cast is good enough is the big question.
Jamal Murray has rebounded well from his serious knee injury, but is he quite the player he was? Aaron Gordon’s season tailed off somewhat, while Michael Porter Jnr always seems to be injured or making his way back. The second unit is just about non-existent, which is likely to mean the starters, especially Joker, will be asked to play 40+ minutes a night.
Having said that, this is an ideal series for Denver to get back up to speed, with the Wolves looking like sitting ducks. If Minnesota had beaten the Lakers in the opening play-in game, the Nuggets would be sweating taking on LeBron and AD, but it’s hard to imagine a world where this Minnesota team beats Denver.
Away from punching each other (and arena walls), KAT is still finding his feet after a long injury lay off, while Anthony Edwards looks like he’s trying to play on despite being hurt. There’s plenty of fight in Minnesota, too much some would say, but they are no more than sparring partners for Denver ahead of the tougher battles ahead.
PREDICTION: Nuggets win 4-1
UPDATE (Apr 26th): Nuggets win 4-1 ✅✅
Memphis Grizzlies (2) v LA Lakers (7)
Well they made it, by hook or by crook, though even in winning their play-in game with the Minnesota Timberwolves, the LA Lakers reminded us just what an inconsistent team they’ve been this season. Still, the Memphis Grizzlies will know that this Lakers team will be far more dangerous than your average 7 seed, and it should be a great series.
There’s no arguing that Lakers management improved the roster midseason by rolling the dice on Rui Hachimura, D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt, and just as importantly, closing the door on the Russell Westbrook experiment. Who knew that surrounding LeBron and AD with shooting was the answer? Well, everybody, but either way, since the All Star break, the Lakers moved up from 13th to 7th in the West and are as short as evens to upset the Grizz in the first round.
Memphis have not been without their problems themselves, with Ja Morant earning a suspension for waving his weapon around in a strip club (something we’ve all done on a night out) and more importantly, season ending injuries for bigs Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke.
Morant has been amazing when he’s concentrated on basketball, while Jaren Jackson Jnr has been a defensive menace and looks likely to be named Defensive Player of the Year. The Grizzlies will really miss the size of Adams and Clarke in this series, with JJJ susceptible to foul trouble when asked to guard a dynamic big as good as AD.
The Lakers didn’t exactly impress against the undermanned T-Wolves, without Rudy Gobert and Jaden McDaniels after a farcical final night of the regular season. Minnesota nearly pulled off the shock in LA, up 11 at half-time, up 15 early in the second half and only finally being beaten in overtime.
This looks a close series to call, and it might be decided by an X factor like an injury to one of the main protagonists, foul trouble or a suspension.
PREDICTION: Grizzlies win 4-3
UPDATE (Apr 29th): Lakers win 4-2 ✅
If the West looks a bit topsy turvy, with some of the top seeds less fancied than the more experienced teams who make up their opponents, the opposite is true in the East. Milwaukee and Boston have been head and shoulders the best teams all season, and take the first two seeds, while Philly are clearly the third best team in the Conference. The drop off from there is real, and while no-one will take a series with the New York Knicks or Cleveland Cavaliers lightly, it will be a surprise if we don’t see a Bucks v Celtics Eastern Conference Finals, and a real shock if the team that breaks up that little party isn’t the Philadelphia 76ers.
Philadelphia 76ers (3) v Brooklyn Nets (6)
A couple of years ago this series would have been box office, but the Nets roster has been ripped apart, trading away their big three, and Ben Simmons who was surplus to requirements in Philly and sent to Brooklyn, has barely been seen on a basketball court in the past couple of years and won’t be involved here. Even James Harden, who went in the opposite direction and started the break-up of what should have been an all-time team in Brooklyn, is carrying an injury.
This Nets team is now one in transition. That’s not to say they won’t have their moments, and they’ve done some sterling work in retooling the roster so far, given KD and Kyrie both wanted out at short notice midseason. The Nets have a number of rangy wings who don’t give an inch at the defensive end, and in Mikal Bridges a player who has shown plenty of offensive talent to match his defensive effort since his arrival from Phoenix.
But Joel Embiid has been a beast, and looks likely to be named MVP after two successive runner-up performances, while Harden has taken well to his role as a number 2 and a facilitator. With Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris capable of stepping up on any given night, and a reinforced wing line-up including playoff savvy veteran PJ Tucker, the Sixers will have too much for the Nets.
Philly swept the season series 4-0, and while some of the line-ups in those four games bear little resemblance to who will take the court in this series, the Nets will do well to avoid a repeat of that in this playoff series.
PREDICTION: 76ers win 4-1
UPDATE (Apr 26th): 76ers win 4-0 ✅
Cleveland Cavaliers (4) v New York Knicks (5)
While the storylines and drama may be bigger elsewhere, this could well be the best first round series in terms of actual basketball on an actual basketball court!
The Cavaliers haven’t advanced past the first round without LeBron James in their line-up since 1993, but the addition of Donovan Mitchell this season has fast tracked the Cavs into contention. Ironically, Spida was expected to head to the bright lights of New York, and now he gets the chance to show Knicks fans what they missed out on.
Darius Garland, an All Star last year, and Rookie of the Year runner-up Evan Mobley have never even appeared in the playoffs, and it might be too early for this young Cleveland team to go deep. Their big four of Mitchell, Garland, Mobley and Jarrett Allen are all 26 years of age and under and their journey may still be in progress, but their elite defense coupled with a proven postseason scorer in Mitchell means they should have too much for the battling Knicks, who will be desperate to get Julius Randle fit and firing as soon as possible.
PREDICTION: Cavs win 4-3
UPDATE (Apr 27th): Knicks win 4-1 ❌
Milwaukee Bucks (1) v Miami Heat (8)
Back in February I recommended getting with Milwaukee at 6/1 to win the NBA championship, and as the playoffs get underway the Bucks are 5/2 title favourites.
They have arguably the best player in the world in Giannis Antetokounmpo with All Star second and third options in Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. In Giannis, Jrue and Brook Lopez, they have the best defensive trio in the NBA, and with the additions this season of Joe Ingles and Jae Crowder to an already talented bench mob of Bobby Portis, Jevon Carter and Pat Connaughton, they are as deep as any team.
It’s two years since the Bucks won the NBA title and they’re hungry for more. It didn’t really matter who they got in the first round, they’re going to steamroller them, so the stuttering Miami Heat are on a hiding to nothing.
It’s only a year since Miami went into the postseason as the number 1 seed, but the gulf between them and the Bucks has grown to a chasm. Miami even struggled to make it this far, losing the first play-in at home to Atlanta before scraping through in the last chance saloon against the Chicago Bulls in a game that was in the balance until the Bulls lost the ability to score in the final five minutes.
Even if Jimmy Butler becomes playoff Jimmy Butler, and Bam Adebayo plays his best basketball, it’s impossible to see anything other than an easy Milwaukee win in this one.
PREDICTION: Bucks win 4-1
UPDATE (Apr 27th): Heat win 4-1 ❌
Boston Celtics (2) v Atlanta Hawks (7)
Atlanta were surprise winners of the first Eastern Conference play-in to claim the 7th seed, winning in Miami to get some revenge for their first round defeat against the Heat last season. A year ago Miami were the top seeds, but their fall from grace was confirmed when Atlanta completely outplayed them on Tuesday night.
Trae Young and Dejounte Murray are both All Stars and can score on anyone, even if the Hawks are still getting used to their recently arrived coach Quin Snyder, but the Boston Celtics are a different kettle of fish.
The Celtics have an elite defense, one of the strongest benches around, and in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, two of the top wings in the NBA. How Atlanta stops Jayson and Jaylen scoring at will is a question that will be keeping Snyder awake at night.
The Hawks showed glimpses of their potential in Miami, with Onyeka Okongwu and Jalen Johnson providing a spark off the bench, but they’ve been so inconsistent this season it’s hard to see anything other than a comprehensive Celtics win.
PREDICTION: Celtics win 4-0
UPDATE (Apr 28th): Celtics win 4-2 ✅