Crunch time has arrived in NBA as the playoffs get underway this Saturday following a regular season that followed the expected script in the East but challenged the established order in the West. The 2022-23 season has already produced a few milestones to carry over to the playoffs in terms of presences - four teams from California have made the postseason for the first time in history - and absences: several of the league’s most prolific scorers, including Luka Doncic and Damian Lillard, who both averaged over 32 points per game, have missed out. There are also few precedents of that kind in the NBA postseason.
The league’s highest scorer, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, will be in the playoffs and will open the postseason festivities on Saturday when his team take on the Brooklyn Nets. The Cameroon-born player, who said a few years ago that he learned to shoot hoops from a Youtube tutorial, has averaged 33.1 points per game and is the regular season top-scorer for a second consecutive year, a feat that was last achieved by a center in 1974-75 when Bob McAdoo averaged a career-high 34.5 points per game with the Buffalo Braves.
Embiid’s teammate, James Harden, is the league’s assist leader with 10.7 per game. It has been more than 40 years since both the highest scorer and top assister in the regular season have played on the same team but not even the 76ers’ dynamic duo guarantees they will go deep in the playoffs. Doc Rivers’ team are clear favorites against the Nets, who have traded both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving during the season, but would meet the Boston Celtics in a hypothetical conference semifinal.
The Celtics finished second in the Eastern Conference. A bumpy change of head coach before the start of the season has barely affected last year’s NBA Championship runners-up, with Jayson Tatum (30.1 points per game) and Jaylen Brown (26.1) hungry for the spotlight. The Celtics haven’t had two players average 25 points per game in the same season since Larry Bird and Kevin McHale in 1986-87, and those are big names to live up to.
More astoundingly, the Tatum-Brown partnership have both surpassed the 25-point mark in 33 regular-season games, something that hasn’t been witnessed in the NBA since Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant did so for the Lakers in 2000-2001, according to ESPN. The Celtics, who were beaten in the finals last year by the Golden State Warriors, are second in the betting to emerge as NBA champions this time around. They play the Atlanta Hawks in the first round and would face either the 76ers or the Nets if they make the conference semifinals.
On the other side of the bracket are the title favorites: the Milwaukee Bucks, led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, who finished top of the Eastern Conference leaders and hold the best record in the entire league, 58-24. Worryingly for their rivals, the 2021 champions look in even better shape this year. Giannis has averaged 31.1 points and grabbed 11.8 rebounds per game, ranking fifth and third respectively in the NBA. He has also dished out 5.7 assists per game and his shooting percentage stands at 55.3%. That set of statistics (30-plus points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists per game with a higher than 50% shooting success rate) has only previously been achieved in NBA history by the great Wilt Chamberlain. The Greek is Embiid’s primary rival for the MVP award, having claimed the distinction in 2019 and 2020.
But the Bucks are not a one-man show, posting the highest winning percentage in franchise history thanks also to the contribution of Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez, who have all posted their best seasons to date. The Bucks should be untroubled in the first round and will be clear favorites to beat the winner of a balanced matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks. In Cleveland, Donovan Mitchell has been on fire and has taken a franchise record from LeBron James as the Cavaliers player to top 40 points in a game the most times (12) in a single season. For the Knicks, Julius Randle, Jalen Brunson and RJ Barrett will make sure the Cavs do not have it easy.
The Wild West
While everything seems to point to a Bucks-Celtics final in the East, with a nod to the 76ers, the West is wide open. Curiously, no one is taking any of the top three teams in the conference very seriously. The Denver Nuggets, the Memphis Grizzlies and the Sacramento Kings are all lagging behind the Eastern Conference teams in the betting, but also behind the fourth-placed Phoenix Suns and the sixth-placed Warriors, who posted a 44-38 record in the regular season along with the fifth-placed Clippers.
The Nuggets have an ace up their sleeve in the form of Nikola Jokic, the two-time reigning MVP and a candidate to make it a threepeat this year, something no player in the NBA has achieved since Larry Bird - including Michael Jordan. This year Jokic has posted 24.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and 9.8 assists per game, verging on a full-season triple-double, something only two players in NBA history have ever managed. Denver also has Jamal Murray, who spent last season on the sidelines, back on court.
They should get through the first round with no problem, but then they could meet the Phoenix Suns (if they knock off the Kawhi Leonard-led Clippers) in the conference semifinals. And while the Suns have been fourth in the regular season, they are the best they’ve been since Kevin Durant joined the team. They’ve played eight games with him and won all eight. It could be one of the most beautiful playoffs.
The Nuggets may find themselves up against the Suns in the conference semifinals (if Phoenix knock off the Kawhi Leonard-led Clippers). Since the arrival of Durant, the Suns have been in their best form of the season, posting an 8-0 record after picking him up from the Nets. It could turn out to be one of the most attractive match-ups of the playoffs.
The other side of the Western bracket is dominated by California and also wide open. The Memphis Grizzlies, dependent on the controversial Ja Morant, were second in the regular season but face a Lakers team that closed out the season with a streak of eight wins in 10 games. Los Angeles comes into the playoffs with LeBron James crowned as the all-time leading scorer in NBA history, Anthony Davis in top form and bolstered by the late-window signing of D’Angelo Russell. With all three on the court, their record is 9-1.
The other matchup is between defending champions the Warriors and their closest geographical neighbors in the NBA, Sacramento. The Kings haven’t qualified for the playoffs since 2006 and although they have a better record on the season, the Warriors, who qualified for the playoffs on the final day, are favorites in the first round. The question is how far they will go after that. Beyond injuries, they have had a strange season by recent franchise standards. A reigning NBA champion has never posted such a poor road record (11-30), which the Warriors managed to have mitigate with their strong form in San Francisco (33-8). Shorn of home field advantage in the playoffs after finishing sixth in the regular season, their road will not be easy but they can never be ruled out.
The Warriors have dominated the NBA over the last decade. Of the last eight finals, they have played in six and won four. The trio of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson is one of the most successful in playoff history. The question is whether they are in good enough shape for one last dance.
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