After the Celtics’ Game 6 clincher over the Hawks on Thursday, three of the four matchups in the second round of the 2023 NBA playoffs are set. Bad news in the East: Joel Embiid may not be ready to play in the No. 3 76ers’ series opener vs. the No. 2 Celtics due to a sprained knee, and Julius Randle is uncertain to be ready for the No. 5 Knicks’ series opener against the No. 4 Heat in the renewal of a longtime rivalry.
In the West, we know it’ll be the No. 1 Nuggets vs. the No. 4 Suns, while the No. 2 Grizzlies and No. 7 Lakers and No. 3 Kings and No. 6 Warriors meet in their respective Game 6s on Friday night as they work to decide who will meet up in the second round.
Below are our staff’s picks for each series.as
Reiter’s pick: Knicks in 6: The Heat’s sudden rediscovery of its ability to score points does not hold, and Jimmy Butler, extraordinary though he is in the postseason, cannot carry Miami to four more wins. This is in part the case because the Knicks’ sudden rediscovery of its defense does remain – this is, even after a mediocre regular season on the defensive side of things, a Tom Thibodeau team. Jalen Brunson, to many of our embarrassment, is indeed a star, Mitchell Robinson’s presence on the boards is legit, RJ Barrett can be a game changer and Josh Hart is a secret ingredient.
Botkin’s pick: Knicks in 6: I’m not betting on Miami’s 3-point shooting to hold up, and I think New York has more ways of generating offense. Mitchell Robinson’s offensive rebounding could be a huge swing factor in a tight matchup.
Herbert’s pick: Heat in 6. The Heat can’t count on shooting as well as they did in the first round, but their approach should be the same and I’m not in the business of doubting Jimmy Butler (or Erik Spoelstra, for that matter) right now. While the Knicks might find some success matchup-hunting, it’s difficult to imagine them owning the boards the way they did against Cleveland.
Ward-Henninger’s pick: Heat in 7: Jimmy Butler, Jimmy Butler, Jimmy Butler. The Knicks are a great story and have the toughness to match Miami, but as excellent as Jalen Brunson has been, the Heat still have the best player in the series. Not to mention Miami’s advantage in deep playoff experience and the confidence they’re riding after demoralizing the top-seeded Bucks.
Kaskey-Blomain’s pick: Heat in 6: This series will be a battle between two teams that can get after it on the defensive end and muck the game up. The Heat have more postseason experience, though, and they have the best player in the series in Jimmy Butler, who took his game to another level in the first round. As a result, they have the advantage.
Maloney’s pick: Knicks in 6: What Jimmy Butler did in the first round was remarkable, but the Heat needed a Giannis injury, some unsustainable shooting, and two massive fourth-quarter collapses to win that series. I’m not sure they can keep this up, especially against a stubborn Knicks defense masterminded by Butler’s former coach, Tom Thibodeau.
Quinn’s pick: Knicks in 7: Jimmy Butler is averaging 38.5 points per game in his past seven playoff games. I’m almost positive that it isn’t sustainable. Milwaukee played conservative drop-coverage against him. Tom Thibodeau will get far more aggressive. The Heat shot 34.4% from deep during the regular season, but are up to 45% in the playoffs. This series screams regression even if Julius Randle is hobbled.
Wimbish’s pick: Heat in 6: So playoff Jimmy Butler is back! Missing Tyler Herro will hurt Miami more in this series, but there’s a chance Julius Randle could be hobbled to start the series for the Knicks, and that feels like a bigger loss. I’m trusting Miami in what is sure to be a low-scoring affair.
Reiter’s pick: Celtics in 5: Embiid is banged up. The Sixers are soft. And the Celtics, despite a surprisingly tough series versus Atlanta, are by far the East’s best team. Boston boasts a top-three offensive and defensive rating, historically a hallmark of would-be champions. And their experience in last year’s Finals, and their depth and star power, overwhelm Philly.
Botkin’s pick: Celtics in 5: When the Celtics are committed to attacking and moving offensively, they are just a better team on both sides of the ball than the Sixers. They are more versatile, deeper, and they have far more options for creating consistent half-court offense. This is even before I factor in Joel Embiid’s knee situation.
Herbert’s pick: Celtics in 6. Boston is deeper, more balanced and more athletic than the Sixers. It has more lineup flexibility, more scheme versatility and more playmaking options. The big, game-changing advantage that Philadelphia has is Joel Embiid … but he’s dealing with a sprained LCL. If he’s not himself, uh-oh.
Ward-Henninger’s pick: Celtics in 5: Joel Embiid went for 52 points in the Sixers’ only win over Boston during the regular season, and I’m betting that he won’t be able to do that in four games this series on a bum leg. I don’t trust James Harden to pick up the slack, and the Celtics have done a good job of limiting Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris while their own role players have thrived. Unless Embiid is healthier than I expect, this is going to be a short series.
Kaskey-Blomain’s pick: 76ers in 7: I could come to regret this pick, but I’m going with Philly in this series thanks mainly to the presence of Joel Embiid. He’s going to command a ton of attention from Boston, and Philadelphia upgraded the roster around him, so there are now other guys who can capitalize on that. If Embiid isn’t at full strength, things will slant in Boston’s favor, but if he can play at the level he did throughout the season, he’ll be the difference-maker.
Maloney’s pick: Celtics in 6: The Celtics are deeper, more athletic, shoot more 3s and have homecourt advantage. This matchup already favored the Celtics, and now Joel Embiid is going to be operating at less than 100 percent, which lessens the one advantage the Sixers had. Give me the Celtics here.
Quinn’s pick: Celtics in 7: I feel a bit queasy having watched Boston’s defense collapse against Trae Young, but James Harden, in his current state, is no Trae Young. If Joel Embiid were healthy this might be a different story, but without their typically dominant pick-and-roll at their disposal, I just can’t trust Philadelphia to score enough to keep up with a Boston team that shoots this well.
Wimbish’s pick: Celtics in 6: Joel Embiid’s injury is concerning, and simply put, if he’s anything less than 100% then the Sixers are in trouble. Based on that alone I’m picking Boston.
Reiter’s pick: Suns in 7: This is a series of question marks. Can Denver’s inconsistent defense buckle down enough to at times confound the Suns? Is Denver ready to break through – can Nikola Jokic dominate, can Jamal Murray be a star, can Michael Porter Jr deliver an overwhelmingly offensive barrage for one or two games? Will Kevin Durant’s short duration in Phoenix, and the work-in-progress that is the team’s chemistry, short circuit all that team’s talent? Is Devin Booker going to continue his playoff excellence? Best guess is the Suns talent just bests Denver’s time together.
Botkin’s pick: Nuggets in 7: When the Kevin Durant trade was made, I tabbed the Suns as the title favorite. I’m going back on that. I think they lose the math game against Denver, which is loaded with 3-point shooters and a fully-back Jamal Murray. The Suns, great as their midrange triumvirate is, won’t make enough 2s to keep up.
Herbert’s pick: Suns in 7. There’s nothing meaningful to take from the regular-season series, and the only thing I feel comfortable predicting here is that tons of points will be scored. I like Denver’s offensive system much more than Phoenix’s at the moment, but I am ever so slightly leaning toward the Suns finding a more reliable two-way formula as the series goes on.
Ward-Henninger’s pick: Suns in 6: Nobody can stop Nikola Jokic, but Deandre Ayton has done a decent job of containing him in the past. But mostly, this prediction is a bet that Denver’s defense won’t be able to stop Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Chris Paul in 4 out of 6 games. The Suns will have their own struggles with defense and depth, but I have to ride the top-end scoring talent.
Kaskey-Blomain’s pick: Suns in 7: This should be an entertaining, high-scoring series, but ultimately I’m rolling with Phoenix thanks largely to the presence of Kevin Durant, who is the most proven playoff performer on both sides in the series. Plus, Devin Booker has been playing some excellent basketball so far this postseason, and while Denver is talented, they will struggle to keep up with the output of those two superstars.
Maloney’s pick: Nuggets in 7: When the Suns’ offense starts clicking it’s a sight to see, and Kevin Durant and Devin Booker will win them multiple games in this series. But their lack of options outside their top-four players is a real concern, and their inability to slow down the Clippers in the first round despite the Kawhi Leonard and Paul George injuries doesn’t bode well for this series. Ultimately I think the Nuggets’ depth and willingness to shoot more 3s will be the difference in what figures to be a shootout.
Quinn’s pick: Nuggets in 7: A more experienced group together might have better answers for its obvious defensive flaws, but if Torrey Craig hadn’t shot 55.6% from 3 in the first round, Phoenix might still be battling with the Clippers right now. The Suns just offer too many safe spots defensively between Craig, Josh Okogie, and even Chris Paul, who teams have been begging to shoot lately. In a year this series might be more interesting. For now, bet on experience.
Wimbish’s pick: Suns in 7: This has the makings of a really entertaining series, but I’m favoring the Suns. Even if the Nuggets manage to contain Devin Booker, who has been playing out of his mind in the postseason, there’s still Kevin Durant to worry about.