NBA playoff series to watch

Matthew Theodros | Staff Writer

The 2023-24 NBA regular season is in the books. Playoff basketball is upon us and the wide-open tournament begins on Saturday. While the first round of the playoffs is normally just a formality, this year features tight matchups that will play out over the coming weeks.

No team in the association is under pressure to make a deeper postseason run than the Boston Celtics. Entering the playoffs with the league-best record at 64-18, the city of Boston is expecting banner number 18 in June. The superstar duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have all the tools necessary to get over the hump and win their first title.

The acquisitions of Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis were seamless and opened the court for their stars to get easier shots. While questions from previous seasons regarding their execution in the grinded-out playoff environment are still in the air, the overwhelming talent on this team makes them favorites to win it all.

The New York Knicks enter the playoffs as the two-seed despite an immense amount of injuries including season-ending surgery to Julius Randle. The rise of Jalen Brunson to superstardom has turned this franchise into a legitimate competitor. Their opponents, the Philadelphia 76ers, are the biggest X-factor out of any remaining teams. Before his meniscus injury in January, Joel Embiid was on pace for his second consecutive MVP award. His absence proved detrimental for standing purposes but allowed growth for Tyrese Maxey to develop into an All-Star. It is an enormous ask, but if Embiid can stay healthy during this run, Philly can make noise in a questionable Eastern Conference. The three-six matchup between the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers holds a lot of stakes, especially for the higher seed. The Bucks have had a disastrous season considering their early expectations. The underwhelming performance of Damian Lillard, the firing of Head Coach Adrian Griffin and the hiring of Doc Rivers have resulted in a measly 19-20 record to end the year. To cap it off, the Bucks are expected to miss Giannis Antetokounmpo to begin this series which could not have come at a worse time.

The most balanced series in the entire first round is between the fourth-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers and the fifth-seeded Orlando Magic. Both squads finished the year with top-10 defensive ratings, however both finished in the bottom-10 in offensive ratings, so expect a gritty, physical style all series.

The household names in this series are lacking, but what it provides is a first look at many of the young-promising stars of the league. In just his second year, All-Star Paolo Banchero has propelled a youthful team to the playoffs, dramatically exceeding expectations.

The Cavaliers’ Donovan Mitchell/Darius Garland experiment has provided back-to-back years of hosting a playoff series, however, it feels like the tandem has reached its ceiling. The twin-towers duo of Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen’s defensive efforts are greatly appreciated, however stagnancy on offense makes the pair exposable in a seven-game series.

This year’s Western Conference has a pedigree of winning that the NBA has not seen in years. 11 teams finished with a winning record and the top three seeds all won at least 55 games.

The Oklahoma City Thunder enter the playoffs as the one seed, and are the youngest team to do so in NBA history. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s ascension to a top-three MVP candidate has reinforced that this young core’s success is no fluke.

A first-round rematch of last year’s Western Conference Finals awaits as the Denver Nuggets take on the Los Angeles Lakers. The defending champions have won seven straight against the Lakers, including that 4-0 sweep last postseason. The two-time MVP and finals MVP Nikola Jokic and the rest of the team are comfortable and have the pieces to neutralize LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Los Angeles lacks depth and the firepower in the starting group to keep up with Denver’s experienced core.

The first batch of series begin on Saturday afternoon, when the Cavs host the Magic on ESPN.