Matthew Theodros | Staff Writer
April 13, 2023
The 2022-2023 NBA regular season is in the books, and playoff basketball is upon us. This season was as dramatic as it gets, with different storylines and historic performances topping each other daily.
This week, the play-in tournament will set the seven and eight seeds in each conference. The traditional 16-team field will get underway on Saturday.
Headlining the Eastern Conference is the three-headed monster of the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Bucks sit first in the conference, looking to make it to the NBA Finals for the second time in three seasons. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s development into one of the best players in the game makes them a favorite to win it all. The eight seed will face the Bucks in the opening round, but Milwaukee’s veteran core and elite defense overpower just about any possibility of an upset.
The second-seeded Celtics will play the Atlanta Hawks, who defeated the Miami Heat on Tuesday to earn the seventh seed. The duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s ascension to two-way superstar talents makes them a formidable foe after a disappointing showing in last year’s NBA Finals.
The three-seeded 76ers certainly have the most pressure among the remaining teams. The duo of Joel Embiid and James Harden carry the weight of their world on their shoulders after outstanding offensive seasons. They became the first duo since the 1976 NBA/ABA merger to lead the league in scoring and assists, respectively.
Luckily for Philadelphia, they have a relatively calm matchup against the newly constructed Brooklyn Nets. Since trading superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the Nets have struggled to find a reliable rotation and should not be much of a threat.
Potentially the most interesting Eastern Conference first-round series is between the fourth-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers and the fifth-seeded New York Knicks.
Both teams were in the race this past offseason to obtain a disgruntled Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz. The Cavaliers gave a hefty package to acquire Mitchell, but it has been worth it and more. Mitchell and Darius Garland have created an extremely consistent backcourt this season. The twin-towers duo of Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen erased all concerns, leading the Cavs to post the best defense in the league.
New York basketball is in a renaissance led by star free-agent acquisition Jalen Brunson. He’s changed life for the Knicks, bringing back the excitement and aura of Madison Square Garden with his electric shot-making. However, the injury of all-star Julius Randle two weeks before the end of the regular season poses many questions.
A wild Western Conference has much more parity and opportunity for teams to make a run.
The offensive-heavy Denver Nuggets are led by back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic, and the return of stars Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. after a year of absence. Not often is the top-seeded team questioned, but Denver has struggled in recent years to do anything come playoff time. This could be their chance to negate the skepticism.
The two-seven matchup between the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Lakers will be appointment television. In his 20th season, LeBron James is playing his first playoff series in a full-capacity crowd since before the pandemic, and expectations are high. Massive overhauls and reconstruction turned a discombobulated roster into a sneaky competitor.
However, the Lakers are still inconsistent and were in the play-in tournament for a reason. James and Anthony Davis have to play at the level they played at during their championship in 2020 for there to even be a shot at them making it to this year’s NBA Finals.
Memphis has all the talent in the world to win a championship with stars Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. The only thing in its way is a lack of maturity and reckless decision making.
The blossoming Sacramento Kings, the three seed, secured their first playoff appearance since 2006, ending what was the longest drought in North American professional sports. Unfortunately for them, they face the reigning champion Golden State Warriors, who are getting healthy at the right time.
Both teams are high-powered offenses predicated on the 3-ball. Despite the marvelous season of the Kings, the Warriors’ core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are still formidable. Since 2015, Golden State has represented the Western Conference in every NBA Finals where those three were all healthy.
Absent with family matters for a long period of time, the return of Andrew Wiggins puts the Warriors in a great position to run it back for what would be their fifth championship in nine seasons.
The Phoenix Suns have been undefeated when Durant plays for them. As the four seed, they appear to be the most-sound team in the West with the least weaknesses, as key players return from injuries. In addition, they’ve got a perennial all-star in Devin Booker who’s ready to take that next step in his career, looking to avenge a loss in the 2021 NBA Finals.
The fifth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers are rounding into shape with Kawhi Leonard getting into superstar form following his 2021 ACL surgery. Former MVP Russell Westbrook adds an interesting dynamic to the team, particularly when it comes to his matchup against Durant, a former teammate of his. The availability for Paul George is still up in the air for the Clippers, but if healthy, we are witnessing a conference-finals-caliber matchup in the opening round.
What transpires these next two months will be legacy-defining moments for players and organizations.