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Predicting the 2023 NBA Playoffs

A series-by-series breakdown of how the action could unfold. Can the Celtics finish what they’ve started?

NBA: Finals-Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics
Jaylen Brown attempts to alter a Stephen Curry layup in Game 6 of the 2022 NBA Finals.
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The wait is over, folks. The NBA playoffs are finally here.

Don’t get me wrong...the regular season is entertaining, too, but this season in particular, it’s really felt like a long buildup to this point.

Now, the real fun begins, as the Celtics try to get back to the NBA Finals and finish what they’ve started. They absolutely can do it, but will they? Here’s one writer’s view of how the entire playoffs will unfold.

First round

1 Bucks vs. 8 Heat

It’s hard to know which Miami team will show up, but if the Heat make life difficult for Milwaukee, they could make this a longer series than expected. At the same time, it’s hard to envision it going the distance.

There’s a reason the Heat ended up as the 8-seed this year. They’re much less consistent than they have been in the past, and great teams find a way to punish inconsistent teams.

Prediction: Bucks in 6

2 Celtics vs. 7 Hawks

The Celtics had to be smirking while watching the Hawks-Heat game. I like Boston’s odds either way, but Atlanta is without question a more favorable matchup. The Heat may have lost some of their mojo from last year, but they still know how to play the Celtics better than most.

The Hawks are one of the more skilled offensive teams in the NBA, and they may steal a game, but I don’t think they’ll steal two. Atlanta is No. 22 in the league in defensive rating and simply won’t have enough juice on that end to slow the Celtics down.

Prediction: Celtics in 5

3 76ers vs. 6 Nets

Celtics fans are hoping the Nets can wear the 76ers down or pull off a stunning upset, but it’s not going to happen. Philly has too many offensive weapons and has been underrated defensively all season.

Mikal Bridges goes off one of the games in Brooklyn to add a little drama, but Joel Embiid dominates in Game 5 to seal it.

Prediction: 76ers in 5

4 Cavaliers vs. 5 Knicks

This is definitely the most intriguing first-round series in the East, and quite frankly, probably the only one that’s up for grabs. People are sleeping on the Cavs for some reason, but they won’t be after this series.

Jalen Brunson and Co. do everything they can for the Knicks, and the Garden faithful watch a win or two, but Donovan Mitchell takes over when it matters most.

Prediction: Cavaliers in 6

1 Nuggets vs. 8 Timberwolves

This 1-8 matchup also could be competitive, but the Nuggets will find a way. In tight matchups, Nikola Jokic will impose his will.

Karl-Anthony Towns will have his moments, but the Wolves will run out of steam. Minnesota may throw the first punch (sorry, had to), but Denver will answer.

Prediction: Nuggets in 5

2 Grizzlies vs. 7 Lakers

This might end up as the best first-round series, along with Suns-Clippers. The Lakers have been one of the hottest teams in recent weeks, but the Grizzlies have consistently done their thing all season.

It’s not wise to ever count LeBron James and Anthony Davis out of a series, so I won’t, but I think the Grizzlies end up finding a way in the end. People are going to talk about Ja Morant – and for good reason – but the key in this series may be Jaren Jackson Jr. He has the versatility to guard Davis on one end and bring him away from the basket on the other. That will ultimately be the difference.

Prediction: Grizzlies in 7

3 Kings vs. 6 Warriors

I respect the Kings, I enjoy watching the Kings and I’m not sleeping on the Kings. But, I don’t necessarily fear the Kings. I trust the Warriors to piece it together at the right time, and who knows...maybe they’ll get wild and win a road game or two.

Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox have been a dynamic duo all season, and Mike Brown is without question the Coach of the Year, but the run ends here, as Steph Curry goes nutty and the Warriors prevail.

Prediction: Warriors in 6

4 Suns vs. 5 Clippers

Holy moly. This is quite a matchup. Honestly, these teams could have easily met in the Conference Finals, but instead, they’ll meet here. The key is Paul George’s health. It seems like it’s possible he’ll return at some point, but as long as he’s out, Phoenix has the edge.

I mean, how do you guard Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Deandre Ayton? That’s an absurdly talented core. Kawhi Leonard and Co. make it interesting, but Durant takes over in the clutch and wills Phoenix to victory.

Prediction: Suns in 7

Conference Semifinals

1 Bucks vs. 4 Cavaliers

OK, now the top-heavy East gets a little more enticing. I’ve gone back and forth on this one, because I really love what the Cavs are doing, but I can’t pick against the Bucks.

I believe Cleveland will win a championship within the next five years, but it won’t be this year. Khris Middleton is a tough matchup, and he feasts on Cleveland’s guards with his size and its big men with his shiftiness. People start to finally respect the Cavs, but Milwaukee digs it out after a back-and-forth, highly captivating series.

Prediction: Bucks in 7

2 Celtics vs. 3 76ers

As I wrote here, the Celtics’ style is more sustainable than the 76ers’. Philadelphia is talented, but Boston is deeper and its parts fit better together. Embiid takes over in a game or two, but that’s it. The Celtics don’t let the damage escalate and force the other guys to beat them.

James Harden has his moments, but the Celtics limit his effectiveness better than most. Jayson Tatum has his best series of the playoffs here and wills the Celtics to victory. Don’t sleep on Al Horford, either. The Sixers never seem to want to guard him, and he always seems to make them pay.

Prediction: Celtics in 6

1 Nuggets vs. 4 Suns

This is a tough one, too. It kind of goes back to the Kings logic. Do I respect Jokic? Yes. Do I think he’s one of the most dominant players of this era? Of course. But do I fear him? Not really. Well, personally I do. He’s almost 7 feet tall and could score on me with his pinkie. But from a viewer’s perspective, I just don’t see the Nuggets winning this series.

Their primary focus will be stopping Durant, which I don’t see them doing. If they somehow do, they have to worry about Booker. Oh yeah, and there’s Ayton and Paul as well. This isn’t about Denver “choking” in the playoffs, so hopefully people don’t frame it that way if it happens. It’s about the Suns being really, really good.

Prediction: Suns in 6

2 Grizzlies vs. 6 Warriors

Oh, wow. Another doozy. You just know the Grizzlies have been itching for another crack at the Warriors. They made it interesting without Ja Morant at the end of that series last year, and if they had pulled it out, the Celtics would probably have a ring right now.

Instead, Curry and Kevon Looney helped Golden State find a way. This time, Morant works his magic and the Grizzlies get over the hump. The Grizzlies aren’t scared of anyone, including the Warriors, and they also have enough talent. They get some bounces late and deprive Golden State of a possible repeat.

Prediction: Grizzlies in 7

Conference Finals

1 Bucks vs. 2 Celtics

Well, here it is. The matchup we’ve been expecting since October arrives, and it doesn’t disappoint. I don’t know who will win this series, but my gut is telling me it’s the Celtics. The Bucks already have a championship, and the Celtics are desperately trying to get one.

I think this is where Jaylen Brown really makes his money and reminds everyone just how lethal he is. Expect Malcolm Brogdon to steadily contribute and take over if Brown and Tatum have an off night. No one can fully stop Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the Celtics are better-equipped than most. This should be a long, intense, well-played series, and it could end up as the best of the entire playoffs. No. 2 Boston wins on the road in the Conference Finals, just like it did last year in Miami.

Prediction: Celtics in 7

2 Grizzlies vs. 4 Suns

The Grizzlies have a tremendous run, with impressive showings against the Lakers and Warriors, and remind everyone that they’ll be in the mix for years to come. It ends here, though, as out-dueling James, then Curry, then Durant is a nearly impossible task.

Memphis can win this series, but I don’t think it will win. Not this year, anyway. Durant does his thing and helps Paul and Co. get back to the Finals.

Prediction: Suns in 6

NBA Finals

2 Celtics vs. 4 Suns

You won’t find a more compelling matchup than this one. Tatum vs. Durant. Brown vs. Booker. Paul vs. Smart. Ayton vs. Robert Williams. I’m getting excited just thinking about it. We’ll have to wait a while, but I truly believe these are the two teams that make it here.

In the end, the Celtics find a way to win their first NBA championship since 2008. This has been fifteen years in the making. They came tantalizingly close last season, and now they complete the task.

Prediction: Celtics in 6

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