c/o David Dow

c/o David Dow

Hope you all had a lovely weekend! We’re back with the 1–8 and 2–7 playoff matchups for the Eastern and Western Conferences, breaking down the players and dynamics to look for. Enjoy and keep watching basketball this week!

#2 New York Knicks vs. #7 Philadelphia 76ers 

This will be a wildly entertaining series with storied franchises and insane fanbases. New York has had an incredible year, battling extreme injuries and reaching 50 wins for the first time since 2012-2013, thanks to the spectacular play of point guard Jalen Brunson. Philadelphia started off strong with a phenomenal year from superstar Joel Embiid but fell down the standings after he got hurt. These teams have played four times this year, and the Knicks are 3-1 in those matchups. It’s worth noting that Embiid only played in one of the games, but it’s also worth noting that New York won that game by 36 in Philadelphia.  

The Knicks offense will obviously need Brunson to play well, but they’re not winning this series unless someone else behind him steps up as a reliable second option. The loss of All-Star forward Julius Randle for the season hasn’t hurt them thus far, but it might if the collection of Donte DiVincenzo, Josh Hart, OG Anunoby, Miles McBride, and Bojan Bogdanovic struggle to score. The Knicks have depth, but the concern is that no one will be able to consistently help Brunson as he’s swarmed by Philadelphia defenders like Kelly Oubre, Nicolas Batum, and even De’Anthony Melton, if he’s healthy. The physicality of big men Mitchell Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein will also be key—Embiid is still playing his way into form after coming back from injury, so testing his strength and endurance throughout the series could be huge for New York. 

Philadelphia’s offense is certainly talented, but this is a pretty solid defensive matchup for the Knicks. They have the big bodies to throw at Embiid (Robinson, Hartenstein) and the perimeter talent in Anunoby, DiVincenzo, and McBride to pester the Sixers’ second-best player, guard Tyrese Maxey. As always, it really comes down to Embiid; if he can regain the MVP form he showed at the beginning of the year and handle the double teams that New York throws at him, the Sixers will cruise. Maxey doesn’t even have to have a particularly good series—if Embiid plays well and Tobias Harris, Oubre, and Batum add collective secondary scoring, I think Philadelphia will have just enough offense to survive in this defense-oriented series. 

This matchup has me in shambles. On one hand, I’m a die-hard Knicks fan, the team was on fire to close the season, and Brunson is playing like a superstar right now. Plus, Embiid has a history of underperforming in the playoffs and he’s not fully healthy. At the same time, I really don’t like riding with teams that only have one significant option in the playoffs; I do think the loss of Randle hurts, and Brunson will get mobbed every possession by the Philly defense. I really believe this one is a coin flip and will go the distance—with that in mind, I’m embracing my bias and picking Jalen Brunson and the overall toughness of New York. Knicks in 7.

#1 Boston Celtics vs. #8 Miami Heat

There is not much question on the outcome of this series. It was going to be an uphill battle regardless for Miami, but losing their superstar Jimmy Butler makes the mountain insurmountable. With the acquisitions of Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis this off-season, the Celtics are the best version of themselves. They finished 64–18, winning the Eastern Conference by 14 games, and boasted a better net rating than the 2016 Warriors, who won 73 games. 

The Celtics roster is pretty flawless. They have the best starting five in the league, an experienced sixth man in Al Horford, and two role players in Payton Pritchard and Sam Hauser, who have really come into their own this season. Both players were on the Celtics for last postseason run but in much smaller roles. Although it won’t matter how Hauser and Pritchard play with regards to the series outcome, they will be important in future series, so it will be interesting to see how they begin the playoffs.

Miami has no shot to win this series. It’s not even worth laying out a hypothetical path. What I began to think, however, is: What injuries would need to occur for the Celtics to lose? Losing any one player wouldn’t be enough. What best combination of two players could they lose and still be fine? Losing Tatum and Brown, or Tatum and Porzingis, would likely be too much. But what about Brown and Porzingis? Could Tatum carry the Celtics then? Barring insanity, we won’t find out and the C’s will cruise. Celtics in 4.

#1 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. #8 New Orleans Pelicans 

This has the potential to be a more entertaining no. 1 seed no. 8 seed matchup than what we’re accustomed to, mainly because both these teams are young, fun, and pretty damn good. Oklahoma City had a massive regular season, as they went from a play-in tournament expectation to the first seed in a brutal Western Conference. Led by MVP candidate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (SGA), the Thunder are an aggressive and energetic team built on a drive-and-kick offense and a turnover-forcing defense. New Orleans, like most of the lower seeds in the playoffs, have been a bit up-and-down. They can compete with anyone, but bouts of inconsistent play and effort (particularly from star forward Zion Williamson) hurt them in the standings. The Pelicans will be without Williamson for at least the first half of this series, but their two-way talent and depth have the potential to give the young Thunder some trouble. 

For Oklahoma City on offense, the key will be the ability of SGA and rising star Jalen Williams to get dribble penetration. They are two of the best drivers in the league, and their aggressiveness getting to the paint results not only in layups and dunks for them, but also open perimeter shots for their teammates. In turn, those teammates—particularly guards Luguentz Dort and Josh Giddey—will need to hit their shots to prevent New Orleans from loading up the paint on moves from SGA and Williams. This actually isn’t the worst matchup for the Pelicans defensively; they can throw Herb Jones, one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, on SGA and put the length of Trey Murphy III on Williams. The Thunder stars will be relatively bothered, but I expect them (especially Williams) to adapt over the course of the series. 

The Pelicans offense will certainly miss Williamson—his downhill strength and speed are tailor-made to attack Oklahoma City’s lack of frontcourt depth and physicality—but there’s certainly a path here for them to succeed against the Thunder defense, at least until Zion gets back. First, top options Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum will need to handle the pressure of Oklahoma City’s best perimeter defenders, namely Dort and rookie guard Cason Wallace. Murphy III will also have to have a successful series, capitalizing on the Thunder’s weaker defenders to provide some much-needed scoring support. Lastly, center Jonas Valanciunas will need to win the battle against Oklahoma City center Chet Holmgren. Valanciunas is bigger and stronger than Holmgren, so with larger minutes he could seriously punish Holmgren on the inside and on the glass. That being said, Jonas is severely limited spacing-wise offensively and mobility-wise defensively, so if Chet is able to stretch him out, the New Orleans center might struggle to stay on the floor. 

Oklahoma City is definitely the better team in this series; they have the best player, and their depth probably edges out New Orleans’ slightly. The Pelicans match up well, but I trust SGA and company to handle their business and win. Things could get interesting if Zion comes back, but I don’t think that’s going to happen in time. Thunder in 5

#2 Denver Nuggets vs. #7 Los Angeles Lakers

On paper, a Nuggets vs. Lakers series looks like a box-office showdown pitting MVP front-runner Gru, more commonly known as Nikola Jokic, against LeBron James and Anthony Davis. But for all of its potential, this series should be one-sided and not too enjoyable for the LA faithful. 

For the reigning champion Nuggets, this year has been close to a dream, as they finished the regular season with a 57–25 record, four more wins than last year. Remarkable health of their core plus the development of second year players Christian Braun and Peyton Watson was all the Nuggets needed to one-up their title year.

The Lakers retooled this offseason, looking to emphasize some much-needed perimeter shooting, but in the process they sacrificed some of their stellar defense that led them to the conference finals.

Before matchups and statistics, the greatest predictor has to be results, and since December 2022, the Lakers have lost eight straight games to Denver, including a four-game sweep in last year’s Western Conference finals. While this sounds like sheer dominance, each game was close, and the Nuggets only had the advantage in the clutch moments. For two of their three meetings this year, the Lakers were tied or in the lead during the final five minutes, but Denver always pulled away at the end. If this trend continues, then the clutch moments will really be the key decider in this series. The Nuggets’ roster continuity will assist them in this department, as they have been battle-tested together, but more than anything, the Lakers’ defensive liabilities will come back to bite them down the stretch.

LA simply does not have the defensive depth to combat the attack from Denver. Whether the Lakers choose Davis or forward Rui Hachimura to guard Jokic (they chose the latter in last year’s conference finals), Jokic has found ways to create and score. He can rely on his midrange game and short floaters to keep the ball away from Davis’ blocking fingertips while still having the size to shoot over Hachimura. Past this, if Hachimura is on Jokic and Lakers defensive-minded forward Jarred Vanderbilt remains out with a right foot injury, Jamal Murray will have the opportunity to have a huge series with no real plus-defenders available to keep up with him. If a game is going to be decided by a few possessions, I trust the Nuggets to get it done every time. While I still feel that James has some magic left in him, it won’t be enough to overcome this juggernaut Denver team. Nuggets in 5.

Here are some other specific predictions!

  1. Anthony Davis posts a 30/20 game in a loss.
  2. D-Lo hits 8+ threes in a game.
  3. Celtics win every game by 10+.
  4. Spike Lee goes viral arguing a late-game call.

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

Ethan Lee can be reached at ejlee@wesleyan.edu

Teddy Benchley can be reached at tbenchley@wesleyan.edu