While the beginning of April means the end of March Madness, it also means the beginning of the NBA postseason! Following a regular season full of surprises and an exciting play-in tournament, the 2023 playoffs are sizing up to be a fun watch! Let’s take a look at who will be vying for the Larry O’Brien trophy.
The Milwaukee Bucks — arguably the best team in the NBA — sit atop the East with a league-best 58 wins. They are followed by the Celtics, who finished the season with 57 wins, and the 76ers who finished with 54 wins. Cleveland, New York and Brooklyn occupy the four through six spots, avoiding the play-in tournament. Atlanta occupies the seventh seed after their win over Miami. The Heat will get a chance at redemption and the eighth spot if they win against the Bulls on Friday. I predict that Miami will claim the eighth spot with a win over Chicago. Jimmy Butler did not play well against Atlanta, and I just don’t see a player of his caliber playing that poorly in back-to-back games of this magnitude.
The Denver Nuggets hold the one-seed for the first time in the franchise’s history with a 53-29 record. Memphis is the two-seed with 51 wins, and Sacramento is the three-seed with 48 wins. The Suns, Clippers and Warriors round out spots four through six, with just one win and a tiebreaker separating the three teams. In an improbable turnaround this season, the Lakers locked themselves into the seventh spot with an overtime win over the Timberwolves in the first round of the play-in tournament. Though Minnesota still has a chance to make the playoffs, I predict that the Thunder will defeat them in the second round of the play-in and secure the eighth spot in the West.
Looking at each series individually, there will of course be stars that make a difference in who moves on to the second round. However, there are a few role players that will need to step up in order for their teams to advance. Here are my predictions for each series and a key player that will play a factor in the winning team’s success.
Denver vs. Oklahoma City
I’m taking Denver in four games in this one. Oklahoma City has a superstar in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but they just don’t have enough experience and bench depth to compete with the Nuggets. A player to watch for is Michael Porter Jr. Finally healthy coming into the postseason, Porter Jr. will need to be a scoring threat and respectable defender in order for the Nuggets to win not only this round but also to make a deep playoff run.
Memphis vs. Los Angeles (L)
I am taking the Lakers in seven games. Los Angeles might not be as talented as Memphis, but when LeBron and AD play at the level they are capable of playing, I just don’t see the Grizzlies having enough to stop them. Being without Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke means more minutes for Jaren Jackson Jr. and Dillon Brooks too, and a long series could wear them down. A player to watch for in this series is Austin Reaves. He’s had spurts of great offense throughout the regular season. With LeBron dishing out the ball, he’s going to have the opportunity to make some big shots.
Sacramento vs. Golden State
I am picking the Kings to win their first playoff series since 2004 by defeating the defending champions in seven games. The Warriors have shown all season that they are not a good team on the road, and I think that it will show against the Kings and their historic offense. The only reason I didn’t pick the Kings in six is because of what I saw from Steph Curry in last season’s Finals; he has the ability to win playoff games virtually by himself. However, I think Sacramento will have just enough to edge Golden State in the end. A player to keep an eye on is Malik Monk. Though he is the team’s fifth-leading scorer, Monk has the ability to get as hot as anyone on the team and even in the league. When you’re going against two of the greatest shooters who ever lived, the Kings will be happy to have a sharpshooter of their own in Monk.
Phoenix vs. Los Angeles (C)
I’m taking the Suns in six games. Phoenix is the favorite to come out of the West for a reason, and they have the pieces to do it. Kawhi Leonard and the depth of LA will make it a competitive series, but the loss of Paul George really hurts them. A key player to watch on Phoenix is who else but Kevin Durant. Though he has only played eight games this season with his new team, his efficiency, coupled with a guy named Devin Booker, will ultimately be too much to handle for Kawhi and the Clippers.
Milwaukee vs. Miami
Switching lanes to the East now, I predict that the Bucks will have to battle in order to take down the Heat, but they will eventually take the series in six games. Something about playing Milwaukee fuels Jimmy Butler to play like a madman. He will have an incredible series, but the inconsistencies on offense will show their ugly head against a very good Bucks defense. A key player will be Khris Middleton, whose health — or lack thereof — has forced him to miss over half the season. If he is back all the way, that will take pressure off Giannis and ultimately make the entire squad better.
Boston vs. Atlanta
The two versus seven seed matchup of Boston and Atlanta won’t be much of a contest, as I predict the Celtics to win in five games. The Hawks have been able to shock the world once before, and they are capable of winning a game at home. I just don’t see them being able to string together enough stops to win more than one game. A key player to watch for Boston is Derrick White. A huge part of the Celtics rotation, White will be able to make contributions on both offense and defense.
Philadelphia vs. Brooklyn
Philly will cruise to a first-round win in four games. The Nets definitely have talent, but once KD and Kyrie departed, so did their chances of making it past the first round. No one on the Nets is going to slow down Joel Embiid enough to beat him and the Sixers four times. A key player to watch besides Embiid is James Harden. We all know the troubled playoff history that he has, so it will be important for him to get going early.
Cleveland vs. New York
In what may be the most exciting first-round series, the winner between the Cavs and Knicks could very well come down to the last possession of the last game. Barely, just barely, I am picking Cleveland to win in seven games. Both teams are fairly young, but I think the playoff experience that Donovan Mitchell has, along with the Cavs’ elite defense, will be the difference-maker. A key player to watch will be Evan Mobley. The second-year player has continually gotten better on both sides of the court and can end up being the one to make a block or grab an offensive rebound that could win the series.
The playoffs, like always, will have even more drama to unpack in the second round, so stay tuned for what’s to come!