NBA playoff races to watch, predictions and first round matchups we want to see

By | March 29, 2024

It’s March Madness in the NBA! With only two weeks left in the regular season, many teams are still vying for play-off placement. Which East prospect can avoid the Celtics side of the bracket? Will the Rockets bounce the Warriors out of the play-in tournament? Our NBA writers break down the playoff races to take a look at the long run and make predictions.

1. What’s the most intriguing playoff race in the East?

Vincent Goodwill: 2-3-4, because it will determine two things. One, which will avoid the Celtics in the second round, because no one would want to line up against them until absolutely necessary. And second, who could have home court against the other top seed in the semifinals. Cleveland needs to get healthy. Milwaukee needs to be proven right. And the Knicks are right there, hoping their health will allow them to make this playoff competitive.

Dan Devine: The 3-4-5 cluster. Can the Knicks, winners of seven of eight, continue to rise in the standings? Will the Magic, who have been neck-and-neck with New York since mid-January, keep pace? And if the Cavaliers can’t stop their slide once Donovan Mitchell returns, how powerful will they be? déjà vu when they realize they’re once again locked in a 4-on-5 match with a tough newcomer with a meat-grinder defense?

Jake Fischer: The Sixers’ playoff seeding. The reigning MVP, who has never advanced beyond the second round and struggled through the play-in tournament as an 8-seed, would be phenomenal theater. With Joel Embiid nearing his return from injury, Philadelphia between the 6th and 8th spots will be fascinating for the overall landscape of the conference. The Sixers might have to avoid elimination just to draw Boston or Milwaukee in Round 1.

Then Titus: The battle for the No. 3 seed. The Knicks and Cavaliers have weathered a slew of injuries this season and are getting healthy at the right time. They are currently half a game out of the third seed, which, if the current standings hold, would mean playing the Pacers – a much more attractive first-round opponent than the slow, defensively driven Orlando Magic.

March 21, 2024;  Houston, Texas, USA;  Houston Rockets guard Jalen Green (4) handles the ball against the Chicago Bulls during the fourth quarter at Toyota Center.  Mandatory credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports
Jalen Green and the Rockets make a late push in the West. (Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports)

2. What’s the most intriguing playoff race in the West?

Fisherman: Man, oh man, the play-in race is so juicy. You have the Warriors dynasty clinging to the 10-seed and the last threads of a contender, while Jalen Green and the upstart Rockets evolve as Pokemon before our eyes. The fact that they face each other on Thursday only adds to the intrigue. Mark your League Pass calendar!

Titus: The Rockets’ unexpected late-season rise puts them just one game behind the Warriors. While Golden State has a scheduling lead over the Rockets, Houston is on the rise, winning 10 straight games and 11 of their last 12 games. So expect an exciting battle the rest of the way. Keep silencing the haters, Jalen.

Divine: The race for No. 1. Everyone’s dealing with something: Minnesota, Karl-Anthony Towns’ absence; Denver, the sudden uncertainty about Jamal Murray’s condition lower limbs; Oklahoma City, the skepticism that comes with having the second-youngest roster in a league that rarely serves youth. Holding the top spot guarantees nothing in a conference this charged; however, knowing that you endured everything else to grab it is worth something. (Home advantage can be that too.)

Good will: It’s a double-edged sword at the bottom. It would be a ratings monster to potentially have LeBron, Steph, KD and Luka in the play-in, but it also means half of those guys are going home early – if Golden State can even stop the Rockets. It’s watching the old guard battle Father Time while he’s still so close to his peak that we can imagine these squads making life miserable for an inexperienced OKC or Minnesota.

3. What is the first round match you would most like to see?

Divine: Bucks-Sixers in the 2-on-7. Give me the Doc Rivers Bowl with a healthy(ish) Joel Embiid! (And – if it’s not too much to ask, Basketball Gods – with the rest of Philly’s decimated roster also returns. It’s been too long since these eyes have beheld the majesty of De’Anthony Melton.) I believe Milwaukee has made real improvements since Doc took over. I’d like to see the big guy – my MVP pick before the injuries – put them through a stress test, and Giannis Antetokounmpo should respond in kind.

Good will: Thunder-Suns. Let’s jump into the take-back machine to the moment Kevin Durant was called a cupcake by the franchise he rejected. Durant’s departure from OKC was the first salvo of Sam Presti turning himself into the mad design genius. Things would come full circle somewhat if Durant had to march into his old territory with the Suns as old and grizzled underdogs, and if Durant could summon that greatness and beat the young bucks.

Titus: Thunder Mavericks. It’s an easy choice because of the star power involved in the matchup. A pair of MVP candidates in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Luka Dončić, plus Kyrie Irving and a pair of future All-Stars in Jalen Williams and Chet Holmgren, are must-see TV. Both teams also boast top-10 offensive ratings, although Dallas will need to step up defense if it wants to make a legitimate postseason run.

Fisherman: Nuggets Warriors. If Golden State holds off Houston’s late charge, the Warriors’ highest possible finish in the actual playoffs would be 8th, setting up a possible opening-round matchup with Denver. The old champions versus the new champions would be big enough on their own. But there’s a lot of additional flavor going back to the Warriors’ upset over the Nuggets many playoffs ago, Michael Malone’s history with the franchise, and so on. Give it to us.

4. Make one bold prediction for the long run of the season.

Titus: The Clippers are a play-in team. Whether it’s fatigue or just pre-playoff moves, the Clippers are 4-6 in their last ten games. During that span, they have the second-worst defensive rating and rank bottom 10 in fastbreak and second-chance points. They are currently fourth in the Western Conference, but the aging Big Three are quickly fading.

Fisherman: Orlando makes Jackie Moon proud and secures fourth place, meaning home advantage, in the first round of the play-offs. The Magic have the 12th easiest schedule left, a staunch defense and a connected team looking to put its best foot forward to push Jamahl Mosley for Coach of the Year, in addition to Paolo Banchero’s exciting bid for an All-NBA spot.

Good will: I don’t remember seeing the Miami Heat above the seven line all year. But for the sake of the health of the Eastern Conference, and of some of our traveling comrades who enjoy fair weather and warm breezes, the Heat will climb out of the abyss and into sixth place – perhaps a grudge match against the Milwaukee Bucks in the eastern semifinals.

Divine: The Suns finish sixth. On the one hand, it doesn’t feel that way That daring, considering they are only half a game away from Thursday’s games. However, when you look at the work they have ahead of them: the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA, with a miles – and as inconsistent they’ve been for most of this season, relying on them to get the drill done is starting to look a little braver.

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