Are you prepared for some NBA postseason? We bought just a little taster on the season’s closing weekend, with a number of groups enjoying high-stakes video games that resembled playoff environments. That was significantly true within the jumbled Western Convention standings, the place the New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings have been locked in a series of giant video games that decided spots six by 10 within the West hierarchy.

And now, we exhale. There are not any video games Monday, however we get two large play-in video games on Tuesday and Wednesday earlier than the ultimate play-in for every convention on Friday; that units the bracket for the principle occasion to begin this weekend with 4 video games on each Saturday and Sunday. The primary spherical runs two weeks, with potential seventh video games on the weekend of April 27 and 28, and the bracket shrinks from there till Sport 1 of the NBA Finals on June 6.

I’ll have a extra filled-out playoff preview later within the week, the place we will get into predictions for the later rounds and extra element based mostly on the play-in outcomes. For now, nonetheless, let’s take the ten,000-foot view on what the play-ins and first spherical appear like.

Right here is the least you have to know. (All TV occasions 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 sport performed in the identical area on Sunday afternoon, the Pelicans might come into this one with higher motivation than their flat effort in Sport 82. That mentioned, this seems like a foul matchup for them – they misplaced three of the 4 conferences with L.A. within the common season and have been trounced in all three defeats, together with an embarrassing 133-89 loss in Las Vegas within the in-season match semifinals.

The Pels have Brandon Ingram again after he missed 12 video games with a left knee contusion; Sunday was his first sport since March 21. The Lakers, then again, should cross their fingers for Anthony Davis after the massive man left Sunday’s sport with hip and again spasms.

Enjoyable truth: The Lakers outscore opponents by 3.2 factors per 100 possessions with Davis and LeBron James on the courtroom this 12 months … the very same margin by which the Pels prevailed with Ingram and Zion Williamson on the ground collectively. Regardless of the scores of the primary 4 conferences, I think this one will probably be shut. I additionally assume that by some means, a way, the Pelicans’ superior depth involves bear and, with the assistance of the house crowd, they find yourself squeaking this one out.

Choose: 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 noticed the Warriors prevail behind Steph Curry’s 50-point eruption in Sport 7, this time the Higher Suisun Bay derby is a single-elimination affair. The Kings’ depth is threadbare after accidents to Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk, whereas after a tough begin, the Warriors closed the 12 months on a 26-12 heater and have been strong when Curry and Draymond Inexperienced take the ground collectively all season (+4.8 factors per 100 possessions).

GO DEEPER

That is the place the Warriors at the moment are — tenth place and in March Insanity mode

It will be cathartic for the Kings to knock out the Warriors after what occurred final 12 months and light-weight that wonderful beam, and Inexperienced’s antics are a wild card in a one-game scenario. That mentioned, solely a idiot bets in opposition to Curry in a scenario like this, particularly with the Kings’ accidents. The Warriors aren’t what they have been, however they’ve not less than yet another battle in them.

Choose: Warriors

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

Final 12 months, the Warmth went from being the 7 seed getting into the play-in to creating the NBA Finals. Can the Sixers be the staff to tug off that feat this 12 months? Philly slumped within the standings resulting from Joel Embiid’s prolonged absence, however the reigning MVP (for a number of extra days, anyway) is again within the lineup and the Sixers went 29-7 in video games he and Tyrese Maxey performed in.

The groups break up the season series 2-2, however Embiid solely performed within the final one, a 109-105 Sixers win on April 4 when Maxey scored 37 and Embiid added 29. Don’t overlook these groups additionally performed a second-round series in 2022 with a lot of the identical key gamers; the Warmth principally neutralized Embiid behind Bam Adebayo’s protection and ended up successful in six video games.

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Miami Warmth assume they’re able to make one other unlikely run: ‘It will be a present’

Nonetheless, I believe having Embiid and a home-court edge, and with Nick Nurse on the sideline this time, Philly has the benefit on a Miami staff that hasn’t appeared like itself all 12 months and will probably be lacking Duncan Robinson and Josh Richardson.

Choose: Sixers

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

Two injury-riddled groups limp into this one for the proper to a one-game shot on the Sixers-Warmth loser on Friday. Atlanta gained’t have Jalen Johnson, Saddiq Bey or Onyeka Okongwu and simply returned Trae Younger from finger surgical procedure on his left hand, whereas the Bulls are with out Zach LaVine and Patrick Williams.

Atlanta additionally thinned its rotation additional with the weird transfer to not convert two-way wing Vít Krejčí to a roster contract, one thing the Hawks might have carried out unilaterally. He performed not less than quarter-hour in 19 of the ultimate 20 common season video games and began 11 of them, however will probably be ineligible for the postseason.

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Load administration would not exist for DeMar DeRozan as he finishes as NBA’s minutes chief

The Bulls gained the season series 2-1, with Atlanta oddly successful the one sport Younger missed. Chicago additionally has all-defense lock Alex Caruso to sic on one among Younger or Dejounte Murray. The Bulls simply don’t have an entire lot else, particularly if DeMar DeRozan can’t get cooking in opposition to the Hawks’ lone remaining dependable wing defender (De’Andre Hunter), so I’m betting on Atlanta’s top-level offensive expertise successful the day.

Choose: Hawks

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

Satirically, Chicago and Atlanta have been the groups Miami confronted within the play-in a 12 months in the past; there’s a good probability the Warmth will once more play one among them on Friday for the East’s closing playoff spot. Keep in mind, earlier than the Warmth’s magical run to the Finals, they misplaced a play-in to Atlanta when the Hawks smashed them on the offensive glass, then barely held off Chicago after trailing properly into the fourth quarter.

Nevertheless, the Hawks are a lesser model of the staff that took out Miami a 12 months in the past, not to mention the one which went to the 2021 convention finals; Miami gained three of 4 in opposition to them this 12 months. I picked Miami to host this sport, however no matter whether or not it’s Miami or Philadelphia internet hosting, and whether or not it’s Atlanta or Chicago visiting, the Warmth ought to have an enormous benefit and advance because the eight seed.

Choose: Warmth

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

I’ve the Warriors enjoying the Lakers right here based mostly on the picks above, and in that case I’d lean towards selecting Los Angeles even if the Warriors beat the Lakers thrice. The video games have been shut and the Lakers have been lacking Davis within the final one. The Lakers enjoying at dwelling in a sport of this magnitude ought to give them a slight edge. Additionally, I don’t really feel nice about projecting the Warriors to win twice on the street to knock the Lakers out of a playoff spot; it feels nearer to a 50-50 proposition if we get Lakers-Warriors, however Los Angeles’ total pathway to the postseason is extra favorable because it will get two photographs at it.

If it’s New Orleans, I just like the Pels in both matchup. They gained two of the three common season matchups in opposition to Golden State, together with a late-season contest in San Francisco that nearly felt like a playoff sport, and there’s motive to assume they’d win once more. The Pels have a number of lively, harassing wing defenders to throw at Curry, and the Warriors are an outdated staff that may be flying throughout the nation on a brief turnaround to play at New Orleans.

The Pels could be slight favorites in opposition to the Warriors, however they’d be large ones in opposition to the Kings. Sacramento was smacked 5 occasions by the Pelicans, together with defeats by 36 and 33 factors, and seemingly don’t have any matchup in any respect for Williamson. It was the primary time a staff misplaced a season series 5-0 since 1995-96 (we bought a fifth matchup fairly than the standard 4 because of the in-season match).

On the flip facet, the Kings’ rooting pursuits within the first sport on Tuesday couldn’t be extra apparent: The Pels personal them, however Sacramento beat Los Angeles in all 4 conferences. Domantas Sabonis has by no means misplaced to Davis as a professional in 10 profession conferences, though a few of these video games have been with him as a bit participant for the Thunder and Davis in New Orleans.

Control this if the Lakers can’t win in New Orleans on Tuesday; these are troubling matchups for them, particularly Sacramento. However I believe in a one-game scenario at dwelling, James can dial up sufficient power for them to outlive.

Choose: Lakers

Jap Convention First Spherical

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

The Celtics aren’t getting sufficient respect as a title favourite after a 64-win season that included one of many highest scoring margins in NBA historical past at +11.4 per sport. Current playoff wobbles are seemingly the explanation it’s been so arduous to search out Boston believers, so this spring presents an opportunity for the Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown period Celtics to place these demons to relaxation.

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Kristaps Porziņģis’ profession was at a crossroads. Then he discovered to belief the numbers

Boston could be a heavy favourite right here whatever the opponent, however clearly the Celtics would favor the Atlanta-Chicago winner advance fairly than the Miami postseason torture for a fourth time in 5 seasons, or alternatively having Embiid pound their bigs for 2 weeks and put on down their frontcourt for future rounds. The skinny and traditionally frail Kristaps Porziņģis and the 37-year-old Al Horford may not take pleasure in this task.

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

No matter opponent, this seems like probably the most compelling first-round series. The Knicks and Warmth have had many bloody wars by the years, most just lately final season’s second-round series that Miami gained in six video games. In the meantime, a Knicks-Sixers Acela series (sooner than the Turnpike!) would match Embiid in opposition to a rising power within the Knicks.

New York gained’t have Julius Randle, however the Knicks have a brand new go-to man in star guard Jalen Brunson, a fringe defensive ace in OG Anunoby and plentiful capturing on the perimeter. New York would most likely fairly face Miami and use Anunoby on Jimmy Butler, however the Knicks gained three of 4 in opposition to Philadelphia and two of three in opposition to the Warmth. Both means, they need to be good with Brunson attacking.

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The place Knicks followers may not be as comfy is with coach Tom Thibodeau’s playoff historical past, particularly if he’s drawn into one other matchup in opposition to Miami’s Erik Spoelstra. However this seems like a distinct Knicks staff, an satisfying bunch that defends and shares the ball and has completely obliterated opponents within the 23 video games Anunoby has performed since being acquired from Toronto.

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

Might we’ve got an upset bracket right here? The Bucks misplaced their closing regular-season sport and in consequence bought the one matchup they most likely didn’t need, dealing with an Indiana staff that beat them 4 of 5 occasions within the common season, together with on the in-season match semifinals in Las Vegas.

All 5 conferences have been earlier than Jan. 3, however the Bucks solely went 17-19 of their closing 36 video games and can enter this series with well being questions after Giannis Antetokounmpo missed their closing three video games with a calf pressure. Khris Middleton is seemingly completely questionable, and several other Bucks veterans have tailed off dramatically over the previous two to a few seasons. The comparative current playoff histories of coaches Rick Carlisle and Doc Rivers additionally wouldn’t appear to favor the Bucks.

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

If Indiana goes to tug this off, it wants the early-season model of Tyrese Haliburton and never the one who labored by a lot of February and March with the after-effects of a hamstring harm. Commerce deadline pickup Pascal Siakam didn’t play in any of the 5 video games in opposition to Milwaukee, however he raises Indiana’s ceiling and offers it one other potential Giannis defender.

Now, can the Pacers’ Twenty fourth-ranked protection get any stops? Dealing with a Damian Lillard pick-and-roll with Antetokounmpo screening isn’t for the faint of coronary heart.

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

Cleveland’s odd journey on Sunday noticed the Cavs appear to deliberately punt away a really winnable sport at dwelling in opposition to lowly Charlotte, all to keep away from the potential for drawing Embiid within the first spherical (Cleveland would have been the second seed if New York’s additional time sport in opposition to Chicago had gone to the Bulls.)

The Cavs might have been seeded third, drawn Indiana within the first spherical and landed on the other facet of the bracket from mighty Boston. As an alternative, they’ll face the Magic and, ought to they advance, Boston.

Cleveland break up the season series with the Magic (because it did with the Sixers and Pacers), so it’s not as if the Cavs had some particular benefit over Orlando aside from playoff expertise. Whereas it’s true the younger Magic squad hasn’t been right here earlier than (solely 4 gamers have ever performed within the postseason, and solely two – Joe Ingles and Gary Harris – have gained a series), Orlando was superior with defensive hydra Jonathan Isaac on the ground, outscoring opponents by 10.8 factors per 100 possessions and permitting simply 102.1 factors per 100 possessions. He gained’t begin, however he’ll be an enormous issue in opposition to the Cavs’ enormous frontcourt.

Cleveland additionally has to reply its personal well being questions after late-season knee troubles slowed down Donovan Mitchell. The Cavs performed their greatest basketball throughout Evan Mobley’s harm absence, spacing the ground with extra 3-point shooters and bombing away, however guys similar to Sam Merrill and Dean Wade who made these models go may not see a lot run in these playoffs. Don’t sleep on this one: Factors will seemingly be scarce, and it might turn into a ’90s-style rock combat.

Western Convention First Spherical

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

Does playoff expertise matter? We’re about to search out 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 highest seed within the West. Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort performed one postseason spherical as wingmen for Chris Paul within the 2020 bubble, however in any other case Gordon Hayward is the one key Thunder participant who has tasted the playoffs in any means.

That might distinction fairly sharply in the event that they draw, say, James or Curry as a first-round opponent. Pretty much as good because the Thunder have been this 12 months, this bracket presents some doubtlessly problematic opponents. The Lakers beat them thrice, Sacramento beat them twice, and two of their wins over Golden State went to additional time.

Thunder followers will root for the Lakers to both win on Tuesday or lose on Friday, based mostly on the season series and the presence of James and Davis as a first-round foe. Regardless, this 1-8 series appears prone to check them.

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

Might we get a rematch of the Western Convention finals? Denver swept the Lakers en path to the 2022 championship and gained all three conferences in opposition to them this 12 months. Los Angeles has misplaced eight in a row to the Nuggets, who seemingly enjoyment of tormenting the Lakers with Jamal Murray–Nikola Jokić pick-and-rolls, and have the dimensions and defensive solutions to deal with the James-Davis combo defensively.

So whether it is scores you search, then Denver-L.A. it’s, not less than for 5 video games or so. But when as an alternative of “who’s your daddy?” chants you like a protracted, compelling series, may I guide you towards a potential Nuggets-Pelicans pairing? The 2 groups break up their regular-season series, and the Pelicans’ superior depth has the potential to smash Denver’s iffy second unit throughout stretches when subs are on the ground. No one feels good about making an attempt to knock off Jokić, who will seemingly win his third MVP award in 4 seasons, however the Pels may really feel higher about their probabilities than most.

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

This can be a rematch of Sunday’s sport the place the Suns moved as much as sixth, and moved Minnesota down to 3rd, by thrashing the Wolves in Minnesota behind a 44-point first-quarter eruption. It was one of many few occasions this 12 months it felt simple to imagine within the Suns’ imaginative and prescient of three high-scoring shooters – Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal – with function gamers and defenders surrounding them.

Simply as in each different sport, Minnesota’s basketball playoff historical past is plagued by disappointment … to the extent that the Wolves have participated in any respect. They haven’t gained a playoff series since 2004 and have solely made the postseason thrice since.

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GO DEEPER

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

This 12 months that each one appeared set to alter, with Rudy Gobert a possible Defensive Participant of the 12 months winner and Anthony Edwards an electrifying star. Nevertheless, a dream season has been marred of late by an possession squabble and a knee harm to Karl-Anthony Cities. Cities got here again on Friday after an 18-game absence resulting from a torn meniscus however was nonetheless shaking off the rust in opposition to Phoenix, ending with 10 factors and 5 turnovers in 29 wobbly minutes.

That is additionally a horrible matchup for the Wolves, who went 56-23 in opposition to the remainder of the league however misplaced all three conferences in opposition to the Suns by double figures. Can they determine the way to disguise Cities on protection in opposition to the likes of Durant, and mash the smaller, lighter Suns on offense?

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

If you happen to watch one first-round series, make it this one. This pairing is a rematch of the very best series of the 2021 playoffs, a seven-gamer that noticed a number of momentum shifts and tactical improvements, and among the many better of the 2020 bubble.

The famous person pairing of Luka Dončić and Kawhi Leonard is on the spot must-see TV, and the secondary stars (Kyrie Irving, Paul George, James Harden) are equally compelling. Leonard is a two-time champion, however in any other case the important thing gamers on each groups are nonetheless battling playoff demons of various sizes. Lastly, the winner has strong odds as a sleeper to come back out of the West bracket.

The Clippers gained two of the three conferences, however all of them have been performed earlier than Christmas. Since then Dallas acquired P.J. Washington and, extra notably, Daniel Gafford, who has been a monstrous pick-and-roll accomplice feasting off lobs from Doncic. Dallas went 24-7 from mid-February till resting its key gamers the ultimate weekend.

The Clips, in the meantime, built-in Harden after a uneven begin, morphed Russell Westbrook right into a sixth man supreme and have been adequate to go 32-9 over a full half-season stretch this 12 months.

As ever, the state of the Clippers relies upon closely on whether or not Kawhi Leonard will really play within the video games. He had loved one among his healthiest seasons, enjoying 68 video games, till lacking the ultimate seven with knee soreness.

This, in fact, harkens again to final season when Leonard amazed in Sport 1, scoring 38 in a Clippers’ street win, earlier than lacking the final three video games with a knee problem because the Clips meekly exited in 5. Even when Leonard comes again, can he make it by a whole series this time?

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