The Spectator’s Introduction to the NBA Playoffs

Here is The Spectator’s introduction to the NBA playoffs.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

The NBA’s regular season comprises half of a year. Over six months, each of the 30 NBA teams play 82 games. The season is filled with breakout seasons, a thrilling  play-in tournament, and awards. This makes for entertaining content on ESPN’s First Take; fans of marginal NBA teams become engaged every other night watching their teams fight for one of the desirable top-six seeds in their conference, and casual fans can always tune in late nights on TNT to watch some of the greatest athletes in the world compete in a sport that has endured throughout three centuries.

However, players such as Kawhi Leonard manage to opt out of 30 games without consequence during the regular season. Dynasties such as the Golden State Warriors are able to slumber their way to the six-seed while allowing extended absences for stars like Andrew Wiggins and even the legendary Steph Curry. Whatever the issue may be, the NBA’s regular season lacks urgency. Yes, borderline playoff and play-in teams such as the New York Knicks, Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, and Oklahoma City Thunder will play their healthy players almost every night and compete in all 82 games. Yet, real contenders such as the Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Boston Celtics, and even the Los Angeles Lakers simply do not seem to fully care during the regular season. They sit their star players for a significant part of the season and slip into the standings with no sense of concern.

So, if the regular season is lackadaisical, how does the NBA compensate their fans for spending eight months focusing on the league? Well, the simple answer is one hell of a postseason. The NBA playoffs is a special tournament that manages to answer all of basketball’s questions leading into the season and creates more for decades to come. It is where teams and players leave a lasting legacy on the league and even popular culture. And this year’s playoffs could very well be two of the greatest months of professional basketball the sport has ever seen.

The excitement and buzz surrounding the NBA playoffs normally waits until round two to build up. However, round one of this year’s playoffs is already raising some significant questions and leaving fans clamoring for basketball every hour of the day.

Normally, the one- vs. eight-seed matchup in the first round of the playoffs is boring. And maybe in the West, it will be. However, in the East, an injury in Game 1 suffered by arguably the best player in the league, Giannis Antetokounmpo, has already set up a dramatic series. The Heat and star Jimmy Butler always seem to step up in the playoffs. And after winning Game 1, the Heat have flipped home court advantage, leading to early drama and leaving the previous favorites for the title, the Bucks, on upset watch.

In the West, the Lakers vs. Memphis Grizzlies is shaping up to be as good as a first round series can be. After star point guard Ja Morant suffered some off-court problems during the regular season and was suspended by the team toward the end of the year, the Grizzlies have attempted to recondition themselves in time for a long playoff run. The Lakers have turned themselves around after some massive trade deadline acquisitions in time for the playoffs. However, the story revolves around a healthy Anthony Davis and LeBron James. This All-Star duo is 17-5 when playing together in the NBA playoffs. Individually, they are two of the best players in the game, and combined, they are as dominant a duo as exists in the league. After a dramatic end to the regular season, all of a sudden James has found himself with a legitimate shot at a fifth NBA Championship, even as a seven-seed.

The Sacramento Kings vs. Warriors is a similarly exciting series. After a magical season, the Kings and their incredibly high-powered and clutch offense look to challenge the reigning NBA champions. While on face value, the Warriors would appear to have superior talent, they appear to be disorganized and sloppy, as a Game 2 ejection and suspension from Draymond Green represents. On the other hand, while the Warriors may appear to be the favorites regardless of their lower seed, the year is 2023, and as far as the Kings are concerned, previous decades of misery in Sacramento and bliss in the Bay area do not matter.

In the East, the four-seed Cleveland Cavaliers take on the New York Knicks. The series is electric, as the high-power Cleveland starting lineup enters the raucous Madison Square Garden. This will be a classic battle of star power versus depth, as there is no doubt that the Cavs have an edge on talent, but the Knicks are nine deep with four impactful players off of the bench. While this series does not appear to boast a finals contender, depending on Antetokounmpo’s injury, one of these teams could find themselves making a run deep in the playoffs.

Picking the Western Conference champion feels impossible. The Denver Nuggets have seemed to fall well short of expectations in the playoffs in recent years, and it is a problem that their MVP center plays lackluster defense. The Grizzlies are talented, but Morant’s late season suspension and health have slowed down their momentum heading into the playoffs. The Kings are strong offensively and have incredible chemistry, but it is hard to envision a team with such little playoff experience making a real run into the NBA finals. 

After these top three teams separated themselves in the regular season, the lower-seeded teams were all relatively close in record. The Phoenix Suns probably have the best starting lineup in the NBA. However, the Kevin Durant-led team has minimal depth. Though Durant is one of the best players at fitting into a new team, it doesn’t help the Suns’ case that he only played eight games with the team during the regular season. The Clippers might have what it takes to win a championship. However, as in the previous two years, injuries to Paul George, and now Kawhi Leonard, have plagued the team and made a finals run appear out of reach. The eight-seed Minnesota Timberwolves may have some individual talent, but their poor spacing and chemistry make getting out of the first round a tough task.

The most fascinating team in the West is the Los Angeles Lakers. After it looked like they might not even make the play-in tournament for the first half of the season, an incredible trade deadline with the acquisition of Rui Hachimura, Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, and D’Angelo Russell––and maybe most importantly, losing Russell Westbrook––has given James and Davis the necessary talent to turn their season around. Now, they enter the playoffs as one of the most threatening seven seeds ever. If Davis and James remain healthy, there is no telling how far they can go.

After looking at the West from top to bottom––with the exception of the Lakers––I’ll do the opposite for the East. The eight-seed Heat should have no business winning anything. However, Butler and Co. are known for stepping it up in the playoffs, and if they can make it past the first round thanks to Antetokounmpo’s injury, they may have a shot to make a real run at the Eastern Conference Championship. The Atlanta Hawks may be fun to watch on some nights, but this team is not built to make a deep playoff run or even win a first round series. The Brooklyn Nets are a nice story, staying afloat after losing two all-time great talents, but they just do not have enough to go anywhere in these playoffs. 

Either the Knicks or the Cavs will have to advance, and if they are lucky, they may face the Heat, a series that they have a real chance of winning. However, it is incredibly unlikely that either of these teams will be able to beat the Philadelphia 76ers or the Celtics.

Speaking of the 76ers, Joel Embiid has never made it past the second round of the NBA playoffs, and there is significant urgency for him to do it this year. Rumors surrounding James Harden say that he may depart for his former team the Rockets after this season. Regardless of if these are true or not, Harden himself is not getting any better with age, and this year may be his last season to be an impact player on a championship team.

The Celtics are the reigning Eastern Conference champions and have minimal questions to answer except maybe about their coaching. Likewise, the Bucks won the Eastern Conference two years ago and seem like they could easily win it again. However, Antetokounmpo’s first round injury could ruin their entire postseason before it even started.

My pick for this year’s NBA champions are the Boston Celtics. They have all of the talent they had last year and then some with the addition of Malcolm Brogdon. They are also the team with the least amount of question marks. They are healthy and have playoff experience, thanks to last year’s run to the finals. The only big question is coaching, as Joe Mazzulla needs to prove that he can replicate what Ime Udoka did last year and lead a team to the finals in his first season. However, Mazzulla has been effective in the regular season and seems poised enough to fill Udoka’s shoes. And when the margins are so thin, whichever team has the least amount of flaws could easily be the last team standing.

Regardless of what happens, as a fan of the NBA, I cannot wait to watch NBA playoff basketball over the next two months. The ever-changing narrative of sports is what makes sports leagues and teams so entertaining to follow, and the NBA may be the best example of that. Every year, the league rewrites history and provides heroes, villains, and legends that linger in our minds until the next season starts, and the NBA playoffs is the peak of most of the great American sports stories.