For Literally The First Time Ever, A “Preview” Of The NBA Playoffs

Wow! Incredible! The NBA playoffs are here! “Where outstanding or whatever happens,” am I right? Up high! You know it.

Yes, that’s right, it’s that time again: Time for … 16? Wow. Sixteen. Time for 16 select NBA teams to enter the glorious crucible of winnowing that is … all their different home arenas, and then to eject each other in so many crimson tides of thickly chunked gore (metaphor) until at last one mighty blood-drenched Champion stands alone to receive its ring (non-metaphor). Whomst shall it be? Shall it be the Wizards? Yes.

To prepare you for this mighty spectacle, the basketball sickos at Defector who were not already busy working on “actual” “valuable” “work” and also could not nimbly invent a false pretext for opting out have assembled rich dossiers on each of the upcoming first-round playoff series over the preceding 20 or so minutes. Who are the teams, and their respective guys? Why must I hate them? Was that bit about the Wizards serious? The answers to these and all other questions can be found below. For those with the courage to read on.

Orlando Magic (5) at Cleveland Cavaliers (4), by Tom Ley
Evan Mobley #4 of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives to the basket during the game against the Orlando Magic on February 22, 2024.
David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

When does this series start?
It doesn’t matter. This is the series that 12 total people are going to watch.

Explain to me the deals of these basketball squadrons.
The Cavs are so weird, dude. They finished 48-34, which is good, but they never once looked like a team that really had its shit together, which is bad. This team is three years into the “Can Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen play together?” experiment, and the answer is still, “Who knows!”

The Cavs started the season 18-15 and looked genuinely awful. Then they went on an unbelievable run heading into the all-star break, in which they went 17-1 and briefly looked to be evolving into a team worth caring about. They’ve been pretty grody since then, finishing the year on a 17-9 run while playing some less-than-inspirational basketball. Perhaps not coincidentally, a chunk of that fruitful run of games in the winter came while Mobley was hurt, giving the Cavs a built-in excuse to stop trying to figure out how make him and Allen work as a pair.

The Magic are a much less confusing squadron. Their deal is pretty simple: They are huge, they play a ferocious, annoying brand of defense, and they score juuuust enough to win the games they need to. That might not sound like much, but it’s a genuinely exciting place for this franchise to find itself. This team won 47 games, which is the franchise’s highest total since the 2010-11 season. This team was total puke as recently as last season, when they went 34-48, but this year they finally cohered into a functional NBA team with talented players whose skills properly compliment each other. I wasn’t joking about the defense thing, either: These guys had the third-best defensive rating in the entire league, and it is only the fact that they rank 22nd in offensive rating that prevents them from being talked about as a genuine contender. Then again, the Timberwolves have their league-best defense weighed down by an offensive rating that ranks 17th, and people have been talking about their title ambitions all damn season. This is Midwest Bias at work, and I won’t stand for it any longer! You heard it here it first, folks: The Orlando Magic are going to the NBA Finals.

These alleged basketball teams known as the “Orlando Magic” and “Cleveland Cavaliers” cannot possibly employ any basketball men of competence. Let us skip this category so as not to waste any more of my precious time.
You are wrong, sir! You are dead wrong!

Franz Wagner is a polished, 6-foot-10 scorer who would be a lock to make multiple all-star teams if he had a reliable three-point shot. Jalen Suggs is one of those guards who plays like a center and makes it his mission to terrorize whoever he is matched up with on defense. If the Magic stay good for a while, he is absolutely going to be well known for annoying the hell out of every other fanbase in the league and starting multiple scuffles each postseason.

Now is also the time for you to become aware of Paolo Banchero. The former first-overall pick is in his second season, and these playoffs feel like the perfect opportunity for him to become nationally known as a legitimate star. His numbers this season—22-6-5 with a 49 precent effective field goal percentage—give every indication that he’s a serious guy, but you really need to see what this guy can do. He’s listed at 6-foot-10 and 250 lbs., and his physical power pops right off the TV. He can get to any spot he wants to, bully any defender in front of him, handle the ball like a guard, and shoot a respectable percentage from deep. He’s like a young Carmelo Anthony, only three inches taller and 30 pounds heavier.

Also, and I can’t believe I’m saying this: Jonathan Isaac might be the best defensive player in the league? The Magic don’t even start him, but he comes in for 15 minutes every game and spends those 15 minutes looking like Bill Russell. It’s so disorienting.

Hmmm, I’m realizing now that I have yet to talk about any cool guys on the Cavs. Well hey, how about this: Did you know that Donovan Mitchell is still on this team? Don’t worry about it if you forgot, because I don’t even think Donovan Mitchell always remembers this fact. He’s still a cool player and had a fine season, but nobody has ever been as obvious as he is about wanting to get the hell out of town at the first opportunity. He might put up a 40-point game or two in this series, and then he is gonna be outta there.

Is this series good or bad?
Again, it doesn’t really matter because nobody is going to watch it. I am sure that guys who love to post clips of games on Twitter with captions like, “Love this split action from the Magic. When they get Paolo going downhill, it puts two on the ball and unlocks so much good offense out of the 4-on-3,” will have a blast watching this one, but the rest of us will be playing video games or whatever.

Which team’s gonna win?
I already told you that the Orlando Magic are going to the NBA Finals!

Phoenix Suns (6) at Minnesota Timberwolves (3), by Patrick Redford
Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards (5) reacts after a non-call on Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant (35) in the first quarter. The Minnesota Timberwolves faced the Phoenix Suns in an NBA basketball game Sunday afternoon, April 14, 2024.
Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune via Getty Images

When does this series start?
Game 1 tips off at 3:30 p.m. Eastern, on Saturday, April 20. You can watch it on ESPN.

Please, sir, please: What are their frickin’ deals?
We’ll start with the Suns, whose deal is that they play what I will kindly call a regressive style of basketball. They don’t really have a point guard—they have Devin Booker handling the ball and sometimes throwing a cool pass but not exactly initiating a democratic offense. His whole thing is that he’s at the vanguard of embarrassing young-prime guys who think Kobe Bryant is the greatest basketball player and the greatest tribute to him is to party like it’s 2005. The whole team is built in his image. The Suns are talented enough that they often make this work and stubborn enough that they don’t have many other buttons to press when it doesn’t work, though my issue with them is that both of those outcomes look exactly the same on the court. It’s simply a matter of whether or not those midrange jumpers go in. Also, why does Kevin Durant spend like one-third of his team’s possessions standing in the corner like an NPC? He’s better now than Devin Booker will ever be.

As pure or tarnished as my haterdom of Phoenix is, they’re not a bullshit team, and they are favored to win this series. Grayson Allen led the league in three-point percentage this season, Jusuf Nurkic still can’t make layups but he is capable of pounding people, and when Bradley Beal has played, the team has played well. Those three together have a 124 offensive rating (that’s good) in 775 minutes together (that’s long enough to matter that it’s good), and Beal’s effectiveness is utilized to the max in the playoffs when the rotation will be trimmed of its hangers-on (Drew Eubanks, learn to whip a towel) and Frank Vogel can always play at least two of his stars. They will play one big and zero real point guards, and it might not matter because they won their three games against Minnesota this season by a combined 57 points. They play really ugly basketball, unless you’re a revanchist or are personally related to Eric Gordon, but it works, and I for one hope the Wolves punt them into what will be a truly anxious summer.

They don’t have any picks, everyone is old, and Mat Ishbia has overleveraged the team’s future for one playoff series win and one narrow play-in escape job. The stakes are enormously high. If this group doesn’t win this series or show itself capable of making a big run next year, I don’t know what they do. Surely Durant’s prime isn’t nearly over yet, though he’ll turn 36 right before next season starts, and all three guys have been some degree of injury prone for half a decade. Their margin for error is slim, and their only win condition is to shoot like 60 percent instead of 40 percent on a bunch of ugly long twos.

They will have to do so into the teeth of the league’s best defense. Minnesota seemed to be cruising to the one seed until a Karl-Anthony Towns injury and a late swoon cost them two spots and earned them a date with the one team to really give them problems this season. Where Devin Booker is aping a copy, Anthony Edwards kinda looks like the real thing, by which I mean there’s more than a little Michael Jordan to his game. You watch him float and prod and keep perfect balance while executing at warp speed and it’s hard not to be reminded of ’90s MJ, then you watch him clank jumpers and make only routine passes and it’s hard not to be reminded of ’00s MJ. The Wolves’ offense is bad. They turn it over too much, they don’t run, and they spend way too many possessions gummily waiting for Edwards to do something. He is incredible, but there isn’t much spacing thanks to Rudy Gobert, and Towns is maybe the team’s second-best passer. When he’s off the court, the team relies on Kyle Anderson mismatch-hunting for buckets.

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And yet I think they’re cool! Towns and Gobert have developed some very slick inter-big chemistry, with all sorts of crafty interior passing. They actually use Gobert as an offensive weapon, and Naz Reid is such a weird, cool big off the bench who scores a ton with a flat-footed jump-shot and by pump-faking said shot into some rude dunks. They are huge and physical and nasty to play against, they swarm the ball, and they have a real identity. The problem for them in this matchup is that the way they are a good defense is neutralized by how Phoenix plays. Jaden McDaniels will get in Durant’s face, though he’ll simply rise up, and Mike Conley will have to guard Beal. In the middle, Rudy Gobert’s rim protection won’t matter all that much since Phoenix doesn’t score at the rim anyway. Minnesota is built to beat Denver, not Phoenix.

Hm. You have already covered all the key individuals.

There are two key dynamics here: Can Anthony Edwards really stick with Devin Booker, and can the Wolves hit threes? To the former, I’d feel at least faintly optimistic, as Edwards has shown stretches of a pretty terrifying level on defense. He leads with his chest and beats guys to spots, and Booker, who for all the shit-talking I have done has a really sophisticated back to the basket game, won’t be able to bully Ant like he does, say, reedier elite defenders like Keon Ellis. To the latter, Ant and Conley and Reid will let the sucker fly, but the operative factor will be how fit Karl-Anthony Towns is. He’s played two games since returning from a knee thing, and if he’s fully good to go (and actually shows up, which he hasn’t always done in the playoffs) he opens everything up for Minnesota.

Is this a good series or a bad series?
This series will be fun—

Which team’s gonna win?
—and I say, fuck it, Wolves in 7.

Philadelphia 76ers (7) at New York Knicks (2), by Albert Burneko
Jalen Brunson #11 of the New York Knicks passes the ball during the game against the Philadelphia 76ers on March 12, 2024.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

When does this series start?
This series tips off at 6:00 p.m. Eastern on Saturday, April 20. ESPN has the broadcast.

The “76ers” and “Knicks,” you say.
I do say!

I don’t really know what to make of the 76ers. Joel Embiid missed a zillion straight games in the second half of the season, after Golden State’s Jonathan Kuminga blew up his meniscus, interrupting what until then looked like it might be a limp-free stroll to a third straight scoring title and repeat as league MVP. He’s been back since the beginning of this month, but that’s really no time at all, and (apart from the shameless foul-harvesting) he hasn’t been quite himself. That kind of feels like all that’s worth saying about the Sixers: They go as Embiid goes. For that matter, even in his healthiest playoff runs, “as Embiid goes” has been the second round and no farther.

The Knicks are a bit more fun to talk about. This is the first season the Knicks won 50 or more games since 2012-13, which was also the most recent time the Knicks entered the playoffs seeded second or higher in the East (they were the 2-seed that year too). They’ve got the league’s ninth-ranked defense, seventh-ranked offense, and fifth-best net rating. They’ve got a (fringe, but still!) MVP candidate, arguably the best free-agent signing the Knicks have made in this century. They’re deep and versatile and easy to like. They have, in head coach Tom Thibodeau, one of the league’s most animated and anguished Total War gremlins, a beet-red magna cum laude graduate of the Van Gundy School of Dyspepsia who at his very most joyous looks precisely as though someone just set off a chain of Black Cat firecrackers inside his ethmoid sinus.

And! Also! Their second-leading scorer just had shoulder surgery and won’t be available to play before the start of next season at the earliest. OK that last bit sucks.

Who are their guys?
Philadelphia’s guy, with all due respect to Tyrese Maxey (and, ah, Nicolas Batum) is Embiid. As we have established. At full health Embiid is alarmingly close to a full team unto himself at both ends of the floor, so that in those moments the Sixers have like 1.8 teams out there against the other team’s one team. Sometimes he is also an officiating crew on top of all that.

Unfortunately Embiid is pretty much never at full health, particularly in the playoffs: He is a truly gigantic man who falls over a lot, and even when that doesn’t crystallize into specific injuries it still tends to mean that, by the postseason, he is sore and creaky and worn out, even more so than more normally proportioned NBA players, and that is no small part of why the 76ers have been able to count on starting their vacations shy of the conference finals every year of his career so far.

Which in a perverse sort of way could maybe give a Sixers fan … hope? Right now? Specifically because Embiid missed [counting on fingers] I dunno, something like 29 straight games, across almost exactly two months of the miserable back stretch of the regular season? Maybe that means he is fresher than usual!

Here is what I propose. Keep an eye out for exactly how deep into each game of this series Embiid starts to spend every inactive moment bent over with his hands on his knees in obvious misery and suffering, dragging at the air like he’s having an asthma attack. When that point creeps into the first half, it will mean the Sixers are in deep shit.

Back to the Knicks! The key Knick is Jalen Brunson, the aforementioned fringe MVP candidate. Brunson is good at all the stuff, and I would not want to reduce him to any narrow thing, but when I watch the Knicks Brunson makes me think about the eternal basketball value of a guy who can, through quickness and ballhandling skill and having a powerful basketball ass, get to virtually any spot on the floor whenever he wants to. Brunson is an exemplar of this type, and then some, because his craft and decision-making are unerringly good when he gets to those spots. If he wants to get to the middle of the paint, by God that is where the damn hell he is going, leaving to you, the opposition, a decision about what you will accept when he gets there: whether he will score, or kick the ball to an open shooter, or take a trip to the free-throw line. The most succinct path to understanding what the Knicks do when they have the ball, and why they won 50 games and are the second seed in the East, is that they leverage this ability of Brunson’s, and it makes everybody else’s job easier.

Julius Randle is the second-leading scorer who just had shoulder surgery and won’t be available again before next season. Which is to say, why the hell am I talking about him.

Is this a good series or a bad series?
It’s a good series, unless Embiid baits New York’s bigs into committing 25 fouls per game and he shoots 500 free-throws over the next two weeks, in which case the whole thing will be bad and very depressing and hateful.

Who will be The Victor?
I don’t feel good making a call on this. It depends too much on what version of Embiid shows up. What I’d like is for the Knicks to win. They’re fresher and more fun.

Los Angeles Lakers (7) at Denver Nuggets (2), by Tom Ley
Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver Nuggets speaks to a referee as LeBron James (23) of the Los Angeles Lakers looms during the first quarter on Tuesday, October 24, 2023.
Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post

When does this series start?
Game 1 of this series begins at 8:30 p.m. Eastern, on Saturday, April 21. It’ll be televised on ESPN.

What is the deal with these two outfits?
The deal with these two outfits is … rivalry? Am I smelling a rivalry?? It’s feeling a little rivalry-ish in here!!

The Nuggets and Lakers have met in the conference finals twice in the previous four seasons. In 2020, the Lakers rudely chucked the Nuggets right out of the bubble by dominating them in a five-game series. The Lakers would go on to win the title that year, and the Nuggets would go on to spend the next few seasons in cryosleep while waiting for Jamal Murray’s torn ACL to heal. When the Nuggets finally got back to full strength in the 2022-23 season, they returned to the conference finals to once again face the Lakers, and this time it was the fellas from Denver doing the chucking. The Nuggets got the Lakers’ asses outta there in four games, and went on to win their first-ever NBA title.

This matchup doesn’t have quite enough history or bad blood in it for announcers to start barking things like, “And there’s no love lost between these two teams!” during a game, but there is a bit of spice sprinkled on it. Bruce Brown, who won the title with the Nuggets last season before leaving in free agency, spent a good chunk of his summer going on podcasts and implying that Nikola Jokic was particularly motivated to kick the ass of the Lakers heading into last year’s matchup. And then before this season kicked off, Anthony Davis went on TV and said that he and LeBron James “had some conversations” about the amount of trash talk that was coming their way from the Nuggets, and that they couldn’t wait to play Denver again. The punchline here is that the Lakers went 0-3 against the Nuggets during the regular season.

Tell me of the important basketball men who will be facing off in this series.
With all due respect to Nikola Jokic, who is about to win his third MVP award, the first guy we have to talk about here is LeBron James.

I cannot believe this fucking guy. “Can you believe that LeBron is still playing like this at this age?” is a sentiment that has been expressed so often, for so many years, that it has begun to lose its meaning. At this point, I fully expect to roll out of bed on my 66th birthday, open my phone to be greeted by a video clip of LeBron James tomahawk dunking over Victor Wembanyama’s son in an NBA playoff game, and mutter to myself, “I can’t believe LeBron is still doing this at this age.”

This guy is 39 years old, and he just completed one of his best professional seasons. He played more than 70 games for the first time since the 2017-18 season, and finished with the fifth-highest field goal percentage of his career. He averaged 25-7-8, and also had the best three-point shooting season of his life. He shot 41 percent from behind the arc, on five attempts per game. He’s only shot over 40 percent from three one other time in his career, and that was when he was 28 years old. That was 11 damn years ago! This guy is sick! He’s a sicko!!

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Since this year’s all-star break, James has been playing basketball at as high a level as he ever has, and that’s why the Lakers are in the playoffs.

The Nuggets are in the playoffs because they are just as good as they were last season. There are a million different ways to explain the shape and texture of that goodness, but for our purposes we will just focus on one: Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic do one thing better than any other duo in the league, and that’s manufacture good shots at the end of games. That is, more or less, what every playoff game comes down to. In the last five minutes, when the pace has slowed to a crawl and the other team is as locked in as humanly possible on defense, can you still get a good shot? The teams who can tend to advance through the rounds and win championships, and the teams who can’t get exposed. When Murray and Jokic get into their two-man action at the end of games, they become the operators of a machine that was designed to do nothing but create good offensive possessions, and nobody has really figured out a good way to stop that machine. While fans of other playoff teams rub their temples and grind their teeth when watching their team navigate the final five minutes of a close playoff game, Nuggets fans see Jokic waving his teammates to one side of the floor while Murray brings the ball up behind him, and feel nothing but serenity.

Is this series good or bad?
It’s funny, in our NBA season preview I wrote that the Lakers would be a good team this season and definitely make the playoffs, and then I spent the next few months believing myself to be a buffoon. That’s because the Lakers kind of sucked all season. They looked old, and slow, and always seemed to be losing important games in humiliating fashion. They finished the regular season 15th in offensive rating and 17th in defensive rating. And all of this happened despite the fact that James and Anthony Davis each managed to play more than 70 games, which felt like an impossibility. Every time I watched a Lakers game or scanned one of their box scores, I couldn’t believe that they had duped me into thinking they would be good.

And yet … they are good? The Lakers won 47 games this season, which is four more than they did last year, and the only reason they had to go through the play-in tournament is because the Western Conference is stacked. They’ve been particularly good of late, and have won 11 of their last 14 games, including this week’s play-in victory over the Pelicans. Surprisingly, it’s been their offense that has carried them through this stretch—they have the fourth-best offensive rating in the league since the all-star break, thanks to LeBron spending the last few weeks playing like he’s 28 again.

All of that is to say, this doesn’t feel like your typical, perfunctory 2–7 matchup. Yes, the Nuggets swept the Lakers last postseason and beat them all three times they met this season, but the Lakers are in one of those rare stretches of the LeBron era in which they look like a dynamic, dangerous basketball team. These games will be close, and the series will likely come down to a matchup between LeBron’s genius and Jokic and Murray’s dance routine. Whichever way the series breaks, it should be fun to watch.

Which team’s gonna win?
The Nuggets are going to smash these fucking losers and then LeBrick Lames will go home to cry over his Mickey Mouse bubble ring!!

Miami Heat* (8) at Boston Celtics (1), by Luis Paez-Pumar
Jrue Holiday #4 of the Boston Celtics plays defense against Tyler Herro #14 of the Miami Heat on February 11, 2024.
Eric Espada/NBAE via Getty Images

When does this series start?
The Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat* will start their Eastern Conference Finals rematch on Sunday at 1 p.m. Eastern, on ESPN.

Tell to me the deal of these teams.
The Boston Celtics are furious vengeance on the Eastern Conference personified. After coming one embarrassing blowout away from becoming the first NBA team to come back from a 3-0 series deficit, the Celtics revamped their roster, put a whole bunch of shooters around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and then ran over pretty much everyone en route to a 64-18 record and the number one seed in the East. Even that undersells how much better the Celtics were than their conference: Boston finished 14 games ahead of the two-seeded New York Knicks, which is the same gap that the Knicks had to the tenth-seeded Atlanta Hawks. There was no let up in Boston’s charge to the best record in basketball, and they should be considered overwhelming favorites to not just make the Finals, but win them with relative ease.

On the other hand, the Miami Heat* are not heading into this series in sterling condition. After losing to the Nicolas Batum Game on Wednesday night in Philadelphia, the Heat received news that Jimmy Butler has an MCL injury that will likely keep him out “multiple weeks.” Butler is a maniac, but that type of timetable makes me think he will not suit up against Boston, and certainly not at 100 percent.

Who are they. On the inside.
You already know about Celtics leading men Tatum and Brown, don’t lie to me. Derrick White was also here last year; you might remember a shot he had, but I don’t, let’s move on. Instead, let’s talk about what’s new here.

Jrue Holiday went from Milwaukee to Portland as part of the Damian Lillard trade, but his time there was short indeed, as the Trail Blazers shipped him to Boston four days later to be the Celtics’ replacement for the departed Marcus Smart. Holiday had his least remarkable offensive season, surrounded as he was by so much offensive talent, but he took on Smart’s role as the primary perimeter defender at the tip of the Celtics’ vanguard. The swap has been a home run for the Celtics, and since Holiday won’t need to do too much on offense in the playoffs, his past postseason failures shouldn’t come back to haunt the team.

Also new: Kristaps Porzingis. Once a Knicks phenom, then less so on the Mavericks and Wizards, Porzingis seems to have found his best home to date in Boston. As a large man who can both protect the paint on defense and spread the floor on offense, the Latvian slenderman has slotted in quite perfectly in a five-shooter lineup alongside Tatum, Brown, Holiday, and White.

In the 623 minutes played by those five together, Boston has outscored opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions, an elite mark among high-usage lineups. Porzingis allows the Celtics to play five-out, allowing Tatum and Brown space to operate in the mid-range and either attack a clearer paint or kick out to one of the other shooters. And what shooters those have been: Boston had the second-highest three-point percentage in the league this season at 38.8 percent (the Thunder were at 38.9), and all five of the aforementioned Death Lineup members shot over 35 percent for the season.

As for the Heat*, well, they have mostly the same guys they have had for years now. Aside from Butler, who will likely miss this whole mess, the Heat* have Bam Adebayo, a scheme-destroying defense unto himself who also refuses to be aggressive on offense. Tyler Herro is healthy, for now, and still chucking to his heart’s content. Last year’s ECF hero Caleb Martin has reverted into, well, Caleb Martin, and Duncan Robinson has a back injury. I guess some new guys are rookie Jaime Jaquez Jr., who cooled down from his torrid start after a groin injury, and Terry Rozier, who has been a sparkplug on offense, but who is also currently dealing with a neck injury and missed the first play-in game. Whatever. I don’t want to talk about this team anymore.

Is this series good or bad?
If Butler were around, this might still be a bad series. The Celtics are just really good, and one of the best ways to beat Miami* is to attack their zone defense head-on before splashing down threes in the gaps. Boston has so many shooters now, maybe specifically to conquer the Heat* in a series like this after losing two of the last three playoff meetings between the two teams. Without Butler’s playoff heroics to somehow will Miami*, and this series, to six games or beyond, this could get out of hand fast.

Who’s gonna win?
Anything short of a Celtics sweep would be a historic achievement for the Mighty Miami Heat*, and a cataclysmic failure for the vile Bostonians.

*The Chicago Bulls could also beat Miami on Friday night. That’s none of my business.

Dallas Mavericks (5) at Los Angeles Clippers (4), by Ray Ratto
James Harden #1 of the LA Clippers guards Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks in the second half on December 20, 2023 in Dallas, Texas.
Tim Heitman/Getty Images

When does this series start?
Sunday, 7 p.m. Eastern/4 p.m. on the proper coast. It will be televised on TNT if you’re stuck at your parents’ house, and Sirius XM if your parents cut the cord but don’t know how to stream.

[Flapping hands vaguely at television.] What’s with all this?
The Mavs are on a heater, having won 16 of their last 20, with two of those losses coming against DNP and Coach’s Decision in Games 81 to Denver (by 18) and 82 to Oklahoma City (by 49). Luka Doncic needs no introduction (he’ll be the one making angry dog faces at the officials even when he gets the call he wants), and Kyrie Irving missed two large chunks of time but was otherwise exactly the right adjutant to Doncic. Small forward Derrick Jones is the only other player who started more than 42 games, so coach Jason Kidd’s demands for a high tempo requires a busy bench.

On the other hand, there are the Clippers, who want the game to make grinding noises because six of their top eight players are 30 and above, and James Harden has a history of actually making time move backwards. It is hard to know at this point if they can play quick because they never show that (they are 26th in shots attempted, as one casual metric), and there is always the mind’s-eye spectre of Kawhi Leonard limping off the floor because his inflamed right knee may not be good to go after missing the last eight games of the regular season. Even though this is the greatest number of games he’s played in seven years and the most minutes per game in his career, the odometer gives one pause, and in the last 21 games he did play, the Clips only won 11 of them. There are coming into the postseason without momentum, juice or even a measurably amount of dynamism, the way Clippers teams typically do.

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More. Give me more!
The Mavs are the team that likes to claim that it’s on the come up, while the Clippers are trying to test the “we can turn it on when we need to” canard. Neither one has a long history of playoff excellence (the Mavs have been to five conference finals in 43 years, the Clippers one in 55), and there seems to be more abiding respect for the survivor of Nuggets-Lakers than any other series here. Having 10 teams with 46 wins or more is a rarity, but none with more than 57 makes one wonder if this is a lot of good and no great. That said, the last three champions won either 53 games (Denver and Golden State) or the equivalent thereof (Milwaukee). Before that, the champion won an average of 61, so maybe COVID and load management has changed philosophies about how much regular season excellence matters. Maybe this is only an issue for the Celtics, since they’re the only ones whose regular season championship-worthy, but the closest to that was the last 20 games of the Mavs season. I guess we’ll see how much, if at all, that matters.

Is this series good or bad?
Can we answer (C) weird? Unless this is just your standard referendum on the evils of age, there’s no easy read here. With the Clippers, you never know what you’re getting or why, but it always ends with a poke in the eye and deep regrets. On the one hand, there’s Doncic, whom the league is plumping up (no pun intended) as one of their signature players once LeBron and Steph move on. On the other, there’s Leonard, Paul George, Harden and Russell Westbrook, who at times resemble the Rolling Stones on tour.

One of these years the Clippers will live up to all the contrarian “this is the year for sure, I can just feel it” hype that happens every year, but we will all be dead before that happens.

Which team will win?
Dallas, because the Clippers are the only team who could win four games and still lose a series. When you’re a Clip, you’re a Clip all the way.

Indiana Pacers (6) at Milwaukee Bucks (3), by Ray Ratto
Damian Lillard #0 of the Milwaukee Bucks shoots the ball against the Indiana Pacers on January 03, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

When does this series start?
Sunday, 3:30 p.m. Eastern/12:30 p.m. in America. It will be on ABC, and Sirius XM if you’re trapped in your car and you’re stranded where there’s no Internet.

Is there any type of deal I need to know about here? And if so, what is it?
Giannis Antetokounmpo, that’s the deal. Damian Lillard has a sore adductor that has limited him in practice, that’s the deal. Doc Rivers is being blamed for being persistently and relentlessly Doc Rivers, that’s the deal too. The Bucks ended up with this series because they couldn’t hold second place, losing eight of their last 11 and their finale at Orlando by two dozen and one. Giannis has missed the last three games and six of the last 15, which has taken him away from his most powerful tool, wondering what the hell the Bucks are all about. They are about not defending well, that much is true. Only the Lakers allow more points per game of the 18 teams still playing, and that won’t change now.

But we just lied to you. The Pacers are significantly worse because they don’t bother to try. Of the 23 teams that have allowed more points per game in league history, only one had a better record than Indiana, and that was 1962 Warriors in the year that Wilt averaged 50 a game and the entire league allowed 119 a game. Tyrese Haliburton would have been an MVP candidate if not for missing January, but mostly the team is devoted to the notion that you can score 125 as long as you watch us score 130. It’s not terribly complicated, even if it sometimes makes Adam Silver look like an outdoor thermometer.

Who are the persons of substance in this series?
I think we covered that already. The Bucks are rickety and don’t defend, and the Pacers are healthy and won’t defend. If you don’t defend, it’s probably better to be young than old and healthy than not, and as the chief exports of the way the league played before the All-Star Game, these are the two most anachronistic teams in the East. If you’re nostalgic for January, these are your guys.

Is this series good or bad?
Without Giannis, deeply and profoundly bad. Two teams that eschew defense with such aggressiveness could well give you more NBA All-Star Games than you can possibly eat, and that’s with him. Without him . . . well, let’s just say TNT has Game 1 but Game 2 is on NBA TV. Don’t be surprised if they hustle up a side broadcast with Caitlin Clark to see if they can scare up any kind of audience.

Who’s gonna win?
The Pacers, because being physically and psychologically damaged is a poor and brief way to go through the postseason. The first two games will probably determine the severity of Giannis’ injury, and thus his availability.

TBD (8) at Oklahoma Thunder (1), by Patrick Redford
Jaylin Williams #6 of the Oklahoma City Thunder shoots the ball during the game against the Sacramento Kings on April 9, 2024 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

When does this series start?
Game 1 tips off at 9:30 p.m. Eastern, on Sunday, April 21. The TV broadcast is on TNT.

What is the deal with these, uh, two (?) teams?
Do not listen, now or ever but especially now, to the ESPN Lakers agitprop machine: The Oklahoma City Thunder are awesome. The dumbest people alive just spent a week theorizing that the Lakers should tank the 7-8 game to get either the corpse of the Warriors dynasty or the shredded remnants of a feisty Kings squad in order to engineer a 1-8 matchup with the Thunder, on the hypothesis that OKC is functionally untested and would therefore be red meat for whoever is lucky enough to get them. Sure, yes, only three players in the Thunder rotation have meaningful playoff experience, they start a rookie, and the effectiveness of depth tends to be sanded off in the playoffs. They also have the league’s third-best offense, its fourth-best defense, its second-place MVP candidate, and a versatile group of freakishly talented zoomers who don’t know what fear is. If ever there was a team that should win every neutral’s heart, it’s the Thunder.

Who are the guys? Who are the guys.
It all starts with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who just had one of the cleanest pure-hooper-coded seasons of the decade. The Thunder love to drive more than any other team, and that starts with Shai. He’s so herky-jerky, throwing weird spin moves and ersatz head fakes at his defender, and he can rise up from anywhere within 15 feet. It leaves me cold at times—this guy loves to shoot free throws more than anyone else in the league—but it works. Surrounding him are Jalen Williams, basically the perfect prototype for a third star, and Chet Holmgren, one of the best defensive players in the NBA as a rookie and a huge pick-and-pop threat. The roster-building strategy at work here is so cool: The Thunder drafted two of their cornerstones at two and twelve, traded Paul George for the other one, and drafted for passing skills and intelligence first and foremost. Hilariously enough, everyone got good at the same time, so rather than slog their way through a dozen young guys until discarding two-thirds of them, signing some veterans, and Getting Serious, they are simply great with a 12- or 13-man rotation of real NBA players, all of whom are very young except for Gordon Hayward.

When the going gets tough, they may swap Josh Giddey out for Isaiah Joe in the starting lineup, which gives them four shooters alongside Shai. The shine came off Giddey—who was booed all season after the Newport Beach PD began investigating whether he had a relationship with a minor—this year, since his utility as a non-shooting wing has started to clearly hold back the Thunder from their highest level. The Thunder have so many looks—Hayward at the five? Jaylin Williams–Kenrich Williams Little Guy Collective Charge-Taking Duo At Center? Aaron Wiggins iso-clinic in the deep bench minutes?—and they’ll modulate their five in closing situations depending on what the matchup is. For my money, it’s rookie Cason Wallace in the Giddey/Joe spot. Wallace is a stout defender at the point of attack—he has some of that Jrue Holiday nastiness—and he nails his open looks on the other end. Wallace and Lu Dort together, with Holmgren lurking at the rim, is a really great defensive setup. It also relieves the pressure from Shai, who is already a very good defender in his own right, with two steals a game.

The Thunder do have one suuuuuuuper glaring weakness: rebounding. They’re 28th in the league in offensive rebounding, and 29th in defensive rebounding. Holmgren is often dragged into space, and even when he’s at the rim, he gets bullied way off his spot by bigger guys and out-jumped by springier guys. Giddey is probably their best rebounder for his position, though, again, coach Mark Daigneault has been more willing to sacrifice that for offensive coherence. If you look at some of their more important losses this season, like a March loss to the Lakers, an early season blowout by the Nuggets, or a November loss to the Wolves, they’ve surrendered frankly hideous rebounding deficits, of 17, 19, and 14, respectively. That will cost them at some point in these playoffs, and if they make the conference finals against the Nuggets, I don’t think they have a chance at all of beating them. Making it will be a great accomplishment though, and they’ll start off against either the Kings or Pelicans. Either will be food.

Isn’t it sort of weird to preview this series without knowing which of those two teams will be Oklahoma City’s opp—
My friend texted this to me in a Kings chat.

Patrick’s friend



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