The 2023 NBA playoffs are in full swing, as eight teams have already been eliminated, and only eight championship contenders remain — two of them survivors of the play-in tournament that preceded this season’s playoffs. The team with the best record in the regular season has already fallen, and injuries are once again playing an outsized role in the battle for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Additionally, four teams without home-court advantage won their first-round series, and two more have already taken a 1-0 lead in the second round. With that in mind, let’s look at the remaining field and break it down into tiers based on what we’ve learned in this unpredictable postseason and what still lies ahead.
Tier 1: The favorites
Boston did not look great in its first-round series win over the Atlanta Hawks — or in the Game 1 loss to the 76ers, particularly on the defensive end, where they now own the worst defensive rating among the eight remaining playoff teams.
Still, the Celtics have emerged as favorites by default. The Milwaukee Bucks were the betting favorites to win it all before the postseason began, but after Giannis Antetokounmpo got hurt, and Jimmy Butler got hot, the Bucks are out, making Boston the new favorite to win an unprecedented 18th NBA title. Even after falling behind 1-0 in the conference semis, the Celtics are the betting favorites at Caesars Sportsbook at +200; no other team has better than +550 odds.
Boston finished the regular season second in both offensive and defensive efficiency, becoming the third team over the past 25 seasons to rank in the top two of both those categories. The others? The 2014-15 and 2016-17 Golden State Warriors, both of whom won it all. Boston’s offensive efficiency was on display in their Game 1 loss Monday night, when the Celtics shot 85% in the first quarter and became the first team to post an effective field goal percentage higher than 65% in a playoff loss.
While Boston’s defensive efficiency hasn’t been as elite this postseason (just ask James Harden), the Celtics are clearly the most complete team left in the playoffs. The rest of the field is uneven. The Celtics are steady, and their two-way domination owes to a roster that includes a pair of superstar wings in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but also features impressive depth around them. The frontcourt has Al Horford and Robert Williams III, while the backcourt has Marcus Smart, Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon. It’s an embarrassment of riches — and of tactical options — that gives first-year coach Joe Mazzulla more lineup versatility than any other coach left in the playoffs. If there’s a question in Boston, it’s Mazzulla himself. The remaining coaches in the East all have a lot more experience than he does, and he put a lot of the blame for the loss to the 76ers on his shoulders.
With all due respect to the defending champions, the Nuggets have looked like the best team in the West in large part because of their depth. The other three teams left standing in the West have Curry, James and Kevin Durant, but the Nuggets have their own megastar — two-time defending MVP Nikola Jokic. More importantly, they surround him with a deeper rotation than those other teams have.
Jokic and Jamal Murray are firing on all cylinders, but Denver has four other players — Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — averaging in double figures. Gordon and Porter are both shooting better than 40% from 3-point range.
Additionally, the Nuggets are taking care of the ball, averaging 11 turnovers per game (down from 14.5 per game in the regular season).
The big questions with this team have always been about the defense, which has been good so far. Yes, some of that is skewed by facing the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round, but the Nuggets also held the Phoenix Suns to just 107 points in Game 1 and 87 in Game 2.
Still, they’ll need to continue to contain Durant and Devin Booker, then would face either James or Curry in the next round.
Golden State Warriors
When Stephen Curry became the first player in league history to score 50 points in a Game 7, he reminded everyone the Warriors can still flip a switch that no other team in the league has access to. Just ask any team in the West — where Curry and the Warriors have now won 19 consecutive series. Their last loss in a non-Finals playoff series came back in the first round in 2014 (which, coincidentally, was also their last series before Steve Kerr took over as coach).
That is the longest series win streak against intraconference opponents in NBA history, and the only thing that stands between Golden State and a 20th consecutive series win is LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Unfortunately for Warriors fans, this isn’t last year’s Dubs team. They have a pair of significant weaknesses that have hobbled them all year long: defense and depth. Last year, Golden State ranked second in the NBA in defensive efficiency. This year’s team ranked 14th in the regular season and fifth in the first round (though it held the Sacramento Kings, the league’s No. 1 offense in the regular season, to 113.7 points per game, seven points below their regular-season average). In addition, the Warriors have looked downright awful without their MVP on the floor this postseason.
Kerr had to get creative with Curry’s rest intervals in Game 7, but he found ways to minimize Curry’s bench stints. Curry averaged 39.1 minutes per game in the first round. The last time he played that heavy a load in the postseason was 2014-15. For the Warriors to repeat as champions, they’ll need to step up and help out their 35-year-old superstar.
Eighteen days after Miami backed into this playoff bracket as an 8-seed, Jimmy Butler & Co. have flipped the script. Suddenly, the Heat feel more like the 1-seed that won 53 games last season and nearly made the Finals than the team that got embarrassed by Atlanta in a play-in game.
The Heat became the first team in the past 30 postseasons to win four straight playoff games all as an underdog (the last three games of the first round, plus Game 1 against the New York Knicks).
There are two big reasons for the dramatic resurrection of Heat Culture.
The first is Butler, who looked like the single best player in the Eastern Conference playoffs before rolling an ankle late in Sunday’s Game 1 win. He’s averaging 35.5 points per game, by far the most of his playoff career, and assuming he’s able to play the rest of the series, he gives Miami a good chance to win every single game he plays. Still, we’ve come to expect playoff greatness from Jimmy Buckets.
The other reason Miami is surging right now is much more surprising. During the regular season, Miami ranked 27th in the league in 3-point shooting, hitting a measly 34.8% of its triples. This postseason, despite the loss of Tyler Herro to a broken hand, the Heat lead the NBA, shooting a scorching 42.9% from beyond the arc. Miami is racking up 45 points per game on 3-pointers alone (up from 36 per game in the regular season). Gabe Vincent, Duncan Robinson, Max Strus and a rejuvenated Kevin Love are all knocking down the catch-and-shoot looks at high rates.
Speaking of Love, he’s thriving in Miami, hitting 43% of his triples and grabbing seven rebounds per game, while averaging only 21 minutes. His vintage long-distance dimes in Game 1 against the Knicks on Sunday helped turn the game in favor of Miami.
Tier 2: Very scary underdogs
Durant and James have combined to win six Finals MVP awards, yet both players are listed as underdogs in the Western Conference semifinals, with Durant’s Suns having fallen behind 2-0 before James and the Lakers have even played a second-round game.
The good news is that the new-look Suns had the most efficient offense in the first round of the postseason. Despite a midrange-obsessed shot diet that would make DeMar DeRozan proud, Phoenix produced more points per 100 possessions than any team left in the playoffs. The bad news is Chris Paul couldn’t finish Game 2 because of an injury, and this team has real concerns on the less glamorous end of the floor.
Despite playing a banged-up Clippers team in the first round, Phoenix now owns the worst defensive rating of any remaining Western Conference team. It allowed 116.3 points per 100 possessions in its first-round win, which ranked 12th among first-round teams. Now the Suns are facing an offensive juggernaut and have been torched by a pair of outstanding individual performances (34 points by Murray in Game 1, 39 by Jokic in Game 2).
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers are not your typical 7-seed. They’ve gone 21-9 since the trade deadline, when they added D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley. They had the second-best net rating in the West from the deadline to the end of the regular season. The only team better? That would be their second-round opponent: the Warriors.
One of these high-profile teams will become the first team seeded sixth or lower to reach the conference finals since the 8-seeded Knicks in 1999.
The Lakers enter the series as slight underdogs in part because these Warriors have home-court advantage, and in part because they have given James fits for almost a decade now. Check this out:
Including playoffs, James has faced 138 players at least 30 times. Three of his five lowest win percentages are against the Warriors’ Big Three.
That Warriors core demands respect, but the surrounding players are weaker than ever. The Lakers are playing great defense and have physical advantages in the frontcourt, though they’ll need the Anthony Davis who scored 31 points in Games 3 and 5 against the Memphis Grizzlies, not the AD who was held to 13 points in Game 2 and 12 points in Game 4, going a combined 8-for-27 from the field in those two games.
Tier 3: Banged up but still alive
With Joel Embiid listed as doubtful, so are the 76ers’ chances to escape the second round — something they haven’t done since Allen Iverson led Philadelphia to the Finals in 2001.
It’s a painful truth, but without Embiid, Philadelphia is not a Finals candidate, even if it was able to win Game 1 against the Celtics without him. With their MVP on the floor this season, the 76ers had an impressive net rating of plus-8.8, a figure so high it would have ranked first in the NBA. However, when he was on the bench, the 76ers were outscored by 1.5 points per 100 possessions over a total of 1,692 minutes.
Those on/off splits might help Embiid claim his first regular-season MVP award Tuesday night, but they also suggest Philadelphia needs its big man back in the fold. The Celtics won the regular-season series 3-1, and that was with Embiid playing every game. The 76ers’ lone win came when Embiid scored 52 of their 103 points, and they still managed to edge the Celtics by only two. It took a 45-point performance from Harden to pull off the upset in the series opener. Despite the loss, the Celtics scored 66 of their 115 points in Game 1 inside the paint, taking advantage of Embiid’s absence.
If Embiid can return and play well in Game 2 or even Game 3 back in Philadelphia, the 76ers have a chance. But even with a healthy Embiid, Boston would be favored here.
New York Knicks
Unlike the 76ers, the Knicks lost their Game 1 and have significant injury concerns of their own. Julius Randle is New York’s leading scorer, its leading rebounder and No. 2 on the team in assists. Without him in the fold, the Knicks are easier to beat. They are by no means out of their series against Miami, and in a world where Randle returns to form and Butler is limited for the Heat, they could still reach the conference finals.