With the play-in tournaments coming to a close, the NBA playoffs are ready to kick off. While there was a clear, dominant 64-win team during the regular season in the Phoenix Suns, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll steamroll their way to a championship, one they’ve been aching for ever since they lost in the Finals last year. There are plenty of contenders who could conceivably make their way into June, with some pretenders in between.
In the West, the (No. 1 seed) Suns will take on the (No. 8) Los Angeles Clippers/New Orleans Pelicans (pending play-in result); the (No. 2) Memphis Grizzlies play the (No. 7) Minnesota Timberwolves; the (No. 3) Golden State Warriors go against the (No. 6) Denver Nuggets; and the (No. 4) Dallas Mavericks play the (No. 5) Utah Jazz.
The East features the (No. 1) Miami Heat against the (No. 8) Atlanta Hawks/Cleveland Cavaliers; the (No. 2) Boston Celtics playing the (No. 7) Brooklyn Nets; the (No. 3) Milwaukee Bucks versus the (No. 6) Chicago Bulls; and the (No. 4) Philadelphia 76ers against the (No. 5) Toronto Raptors.
According to analytics site FiveThirtyEight, the 51-31 Celtics have the highest odds to win the NBA Finals at 31%, followed by the Suns at 21%. The defending champion Bucks sit third with 13%, with the Warriors and Heat tied at 8%.
If you’re hoping for March Madness-style play in Heat v. Hawks/Cavaliers and Suns v. Clippers/Pelicans, don’t get your hopes up. There have only been five instances of an eight seed pulling off a victory against a one seed, and they were bolstered by injuries or favorable matchups. Unless Devin Booker or Jimmy Butler goes down, Miami and Phoenix should be moving on easily, no matter the opponent.
Likewise, experienced, playoff-built teams like the Bucks and Warriors should also look to win in five or six games. The Grizzlies, the second-youngest team in the NBA with an average age of 23.9, are favored by many to win their first playoff series since the 2010-2011 season.
Closer matchups could involve the Joel Embiid-led 76ers against the Raptors, where Philadelphia went just 1-3 against Toronto in the regular season. Additionally hurting them will be the partial loss of All-Defensive player Matisse Thybulle (3.4 STL%), who’s unable to play in Canada due to his vaccination status.
The Mavericks will need Luka Dončić, the seventh-highest scorer in the league, healthy in order to overcome the Nuggets and reigning MVP Nikola Jokić, though skepticism by NBA insiders show Dončić may not be ready for the series opener due to a mild calf strain. Analyzing Denver, The Dallas Morning News noted that while Dallas’ defensive style has been able to slow Jokić, he can still cause frustration on the boards.
The most fascinating series might end up being the Celtics versus the Brooklyn Nets, a team that — what once looked to be a potential dynasty — now finds itself as the seventh seed. Of course, the players don’t exactly match that seeding. Oft-injured Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, who put up 29.9 and 27.4 PPG respectively, will be available.
As ESPN senior writer Kevin Pelton notes, Brooklyn is 10-5 in games since the James Harden trade where Durant and Irving both play. Meanwhile, Boston could be without Robert Williams III, who put up a 22.1 player efficiency rating and 102.4 defensive rating (highest in the league) during the regular season.
Still, Boston possesses higher-power offense in Jason Tatum (26.9 PPG, 4.6 defensive win shares) and Jaylen Brown (23.6 PPG, 47.3 FG%). Pelton explained that because of Boston’s talent, Brooklyn will need to step up their performances – much more than what they’ve shown over the past few weeks against obvious lesser matchups.
“I think the outcome of the series will ultimately depend on Brooklyn’s ability to reach a higher level than we’ve seen in the last few weeks,” Pelton wrote. “The Nets didn’t exactly dominate a series of teams that were lottery-bound, short-handed or both.”
The playoffs begin on Saturday, April 16 with the Jazz and Mavericks kicking off at 1:00 p.m. ET.
Andrew Rhoades is a Contributing Reporter at The National Digest based in New York. A Saint Joseph’s University graduate, Rhoades’ reporting includes sports, U.S., and entertainment. You can reach him at email@example.com.