c/o Michael C. Wright

c/o Michael C. Wright

The NBA playoffs are here! After a long regular season full of iconic moments, star ascensions, and (of course) drama, the beauty of spring hoops has finally arrived. This round of playoffs is shaping up to be one of the better ones in recent history, with strong upper seeds set to be challenged by talented lower ones. Since we already know the 3–6 and 4–5 seed matchups, we’ll break them down and give our predictions in this article. After the dust of the play-in tournament settles, we’ll do the 1–8 and 2–7 matchups on Monday.

Eastern Conference

No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 6 Indiana Pacers

The Bucks limped into the playoffs, losing four of their last six games. A win over the Boston Celtics was a bright spot, but it came at the expense of a calf injury for superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo missed the last three regular-season games, and the Bucks expect to be without him for the beginning of the series.

Milwaukee lost four of their five regular-season matchups against the Pacers, but these two teams have not met since Jan. 3. The Bucks have since hired Doc Rivers and acquired Patrick Beverley, whose hard-nosed defense should create problems for Tyrese Haliburton. The guard matchups will be key in this series, as both teams have talented offensive guards who have struggled on the defensive end. Look for the Bucks to hunt for switches to get Haliburton on Damian Lillard, and vice versa for the Pacers.

Unlike the Bucks, the Pacers head into this series on a positive note, having won six of their last eight games. Indiana has also made changes, adding star forward Pascal Siakam. The Pacers are led by Haliburton, who had an incredible first half of the season, averaging 22 points and 12 assists on 51/40/87 shooting splits. Post all-star break has been disappointing for the young guard, who has seen his points per game drop to 17 and his assists into single digits while having 45/30/86 splits. He may not need to return to his pre all-star-break-self, but if the Pacers want to pull off an upset they will need Haliburton to play better.

The core group of Haliburton, Myles Turner, and Siakam have proven they fit well together. The Pacers are a great home team, and their strength will only be amplified in the postseason, which along with their past success against Milwaukee should allow them to win a couple of games. That being said, they have never played a playoff game together and are going against a team where the majority of players won a championship together. Although Damian Lillard has struggled this year, he is still a premier scorer and has guided worse rosters to playoff victories. The Bucks will just need to weather the storm if Antetokounmpo doesn’t suit up for the first two games; as long as they don’t go down 0–2 they will be in a good position for him to come back and close out the series.

No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 5 Orlando Magic 

This one will be ugly. Cleveland and Orlando boast two of the best defenses in the league (the Magic are third in points allowed; the Cavs are seventh), but both teams land near the bottom half of the NBA when it comes to offense (24th and 20th in points per game, respectively). Orlando has had an incredible year, as few expected such a young squad to be a top-five seed in the East by the end of the season. A big, physical team, the Magic very much take on the identity of their top two players; second year star Paolo Banchero has built on a phenomenal Rookie of the Year campaign by boosting his scoring and assists numbers, while third-year forward Franz Wagner has provided consistent second-option production despite struggling with his outside shot (only 28% from 3).

Cleveland, on the other hand, has had a roller coaster of a year. After an underwhelming start and significant injuries to young studs Darius Garland and Evan Mobley, the Cavaliers turned into one of the hottest teams in the East, catapulting all the way to the second seed behind the efforts of star guard Donovan Mitchell. But then there was the less than stellar end-of-season stretch, as Cleveland dropped 9 of their last 14 games despite having their core of Garland, Mitchell, Mobley, and center Jarrett Allen at relatively full strength.

For the Cavs’ offense, it all comes down to Mitchell and Garland; they’re the initiators of the Cleveland attack, particularly through ball screens. But the Magic have the personnel to make things difficult—Jalen Suggs is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, and Gary Harris brings some tenacity as well. Also key to the success of the Cavs’ offense will be the play of Max Strus and Caris LeVert, role players who will need to both shoot and defend well to prevent the Magic from loading up their defense to swarm Mitchell and Garland, which was exactly what the Knicks did last year in their series win over Cleveland. If the Cavalier guards can effectively manage the pressure of Suggs and Harris, and if Strus and LeVert can bring strong performances, their offense will eke out enough points to take down Orlando. 

For the Magic on offense, it’ll unsurprisingly come down to the play of Banchero and Wagner. Banchero has generally had success in this matchup (he dropped 42 on Cleveland in December) but it’s Wagner that has struggled with the Cavaliers this season; he averaged just 16 points per game in their four matchups, down almost four points from his average on the year. An important factor to note: With forward Dean Wade out for the series, Cleveland doesn’t really have a big defender to throw at Wagner, which could actually help his production. Shooting will also be critical for Orlando, as they’re one of the worst teams in the league in that respect. Still, if role players like Suggs, Harris, and Cole Anthony can hit 3s and consistently space the floor, it’ll do wonders for the Magic offense and make them incredibly hard to stop. 

This is a tough one to pick; I love Orlando’s long term potential, but I have serious concerns about their offense, shooting, and  half-court creation. This is going to be a grueling rock fight of a series, with both offenses struggling mightily, but at the end of the day I think I trust Cleveland’s stars, especially Mitchell, to provide just enough production to carry the Cavaliers into the next round. 

Western Conference 

No. 3 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. No. 6 Phoenix Suns 

This has very much been a one-sided matchup this year; the Suns are 3–0 against Minnesota, including beating them in Sunday’s regular season finale by almost 20 points. I don’t subscribe excessively to regular-season results, but 3–0 definitely raises an eyebrow, especially with the game on Sunday. Both teams really wanted to win, as the Timberwolves were fighting for the No. 1 overall seed while Phoenix was trying to avoid the play-in tournament. Minnesota had a phenomenal year, vaulting to the top of the West behind one of the league’s best defenses and the ascension of star guard Anthony Edwards. The Suns, on other hand, had a bit of an up-and-down year—injuries to stars Bradley Beal and Devin Booker made lineup consistency somewhat hard to find early on, but uniting those two with superstar Kevin Durant down the stretch has brought impressive offensive firepower. 

For Phoenix’s attack, the success of Beal will be key. Durant and Booker are likely to draw the Wolves’ top two perimeter defenders—Jalen McDaniels and Edwards—leaving the Suns’ third star with an opportunity to capitalize on the more favorable Mike Conley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker matchups. This showed in Sunday’s game, as Beal dropped 36 points and went 6/6 from 3. Durant and Booker will obviously have to turn in solid performances, but the shooting of role players Grayson Allen and Royce O’Neale will be critical as well; if they can consistently stretch the floor (which both have been doing at a high level for most of the year), the Suns’ offense will be difficult to stop.

Minnesota’s offense revolves around Edwards, and their success depends on his ability not only to score but also to involve his teammates. Phoenix will assign Beal or O’Neale to Durant in their best attempt to match his athleticism, but so much of the Suns’ plan to handle Edwards will be team defense; they’ll constantly double him and pack the paint, forcing him to either take tough jump shots or find open teammates. Wolves point guard Mike Conley and star forward Karl-Anthony Towns will need to be aggressive in order to punish the Suns, whose defensive perimeter talent tails off after Beal and O’Neale. Towns and center Rudy Gobert will also need to find a way to punish Phoenix’s lack of size, as after center Jusuf Nurkic they lack real strength and physicality. If the Wolves can force this series into a grind-it-out rock fight without much scoring, I really like their chances. 

That being said, I think this is a great matchup for the Suns. I see Beal having a big series, Durant and Booker doing enough to help him, and the Phoenix defense exposing the Timberwolves’ lack of offensive firepower behind Edwards. 

No. 4 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 5 Dallas Mavericks

You couldn’t have asked for a better first-round matchup than this one. These two teams met for two cinematic series in 2020 and 2021, with the Clippers winning both. They meet again for the third time in five years and while both teams possess the same superstars, they are each better versions. 

For Dallas, Luka Doncic is still the engine, battery, and transmission. Now, Doncic has windshield wipers in Kyrie Irving. Kristaps Porzingis and Jalen Brunson are both supremely talented players but they did not gel with Doncic in the way Irving has, who has been a reliable second option and alleviated pressure from Doncic. Irving looks the most comfortable he’s been since his tenure with the Cavaliers, averaging close to 26 points per game (PPG) on 50/40/90 splits (actually shooting 49.7 from the field, but we round up here). 

The Clippers are still spearheaded by their dynamic wing duo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Since they last faced the Mavericks in the playoffs, the Clippers have added former MVPs Russell Westbrook and James Harden. On paper, it did not seem either player would fit, as they have been ball dominant throughout their careers. However, they have each settled into different roles, with Harden being the third option and focusing on distributing. Westbrook, meanwhile, has transformed into the energetic, scrappy sixth man who plays tough defense and adds a spark. 

It was a drastic in-season turnaround for the Mavericks, who found themselves in the play-in 50 games into the season but won 24 of their next 31 games and now enter the playoffs as the hottest team in the Western Conference. This improvement can largely be attributed to the improved Mavericks defense, which, once a liability, has been the No. 1 ranked defense over the last 20 games. Daniel Gafford and Dereck Lively II have been a huge reason for this, as the two provide great rim protection. 

The Clippers suceeded in the previous series when they went small in an attempt to play Dallas’ bigs off the floor. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue will likely employ this strategy again, forcing Gafford and Lively to guard the perimeter or force them off the floor. If that happens, though, Mavericks coach Jason Kidd can respond by plugging in P.J. Washington as a small-ball center.

As far as other matchups go, it will be interesting to see how the Clippers handle Doncic. Lue is an excellent tactician, and he has three elite perimeter defenders to throw at Doncic in Leonard, George, and Westbrook. Will Westbrook have the full-time responsibility of Doncic? Will Leonard spend significant time on Doncic, or will they try to preserve him for the offensive end? Where does George fit in? Will they switch everything? Both teams will certainly make significant game-by-game adjustments. This series is basically a coin flip in my eyes, and when this is the case I like to pick the team with the best player, so give me the Mavericks to exact their revenge on the Clippers and set up a deep postseason run. 

Here are some other specific predictions!

  1. Indiana backup point guard T.J. McConnell has a huge game in the Bucks-Pacers series, sending NBA Twitter into a frenzy.
  2. Same thing as above but with Patrick Beverley. 80% chance it’s a game-winning block.
  3. Ant (Anthony Edwards) drops a 50-piece.
  4. Mike Conley has 25+ points in Game 5 for Minnesota.


Sam Weitzman-Kurker can be reached at sweitzmankur@wesleyan.edu

Teddy Benchley can be reached at tbenchley@wesleyan.edu