Capsules for the NBA first-round series that begin this weekend:
No. 1 PHILADELPHIA 76ERS (49-23) vs. No. 8 WASHINGTON WIZARDS (34-38, 1-1)
Season series: 76ers, 3-0.
Story line: The Wizards’ reward for advancing out of the East play-in tournament is a matchup with a Philadelphia team that has a No. 1 seed for the first time in 20 years. Washington simply didn’t have an answer for Philly’s Joel Embiid in the three regular-season meetings; he averaged 30 points and 9.7 rebounds in those games on 60% shooting from the field, 96% from the line and if that wasn’t enough he was 5-for-6 from 3-point range. Bradley Beal averaged 36.7 points in those three games, but his balky hamstring certainly isn’t a great sign for Washington’s upset chances.
Key matchup: Washington’s front line vs. Embiid. The MVP finalist won’t be stopped, but the Wizards’ obvious best hope in this series is to make somebody else beat them. If Embiid gets to his favorite spots without difficulty, this series won’t last long.
Prediction: 76ers in 5.
No. 2 BROOKLYN NETS (48-24) vs. No. 7 BOSTON CELTICS (36-36, 1-0)
Season series: Nets, 3-0.
Story line: Brooklyn’s Big Three of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden makes its playoff debut together against a Celtics team that went to the East finals last year and never got rolling this season. Irving takes on his former team, and that means he’ll likely play in front of Boston fans for the first time since leaving the Celtics in 2019. Irving played one game at Boston this season; the Christmas game between the Nets and Celtics had no fans.
Key matchup: Durant vs. Jayson Tatum. For the Celtics to have any upset chance, it will fall on Tatum’s shoulders.
Prediction: Nets in 5.
No. 3 MILWAUKEE BUCKS (46-26) vs. No. 6 MIAMI HEAT (40-32)
Season series: Bucks, 2-1.
Story line: Milwaukee lost to the Heat on Miami’s way to the Eastern Conference title last season, and the Bucks clearly are looking forward to the playoff rematch. “We wanted it,” Bucks owner Marc Lasry said earlier this week on CNBC. It’s a clash of styles; the Bucks play at the fastest pace in the league, the Heat always put defense first.
Key matchup: Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. Jimmy Butler. It’s not a matchup in the sense that they’ll be guarding each other much, if at all. But an early exit would have Antetokounmpo facing questions that he wouldn’t like, and it bears noting that Butler missed all three Miami-Milwaukee games this season.
Prediction: Bucks in 7.
No. 4 NEW YORK KNICKS (41-31) vs No. 5 ATLANTA HAWKS (41-31)
Season series: Knicks, 3-0.
Story line: Welcome back to the playoffs, Knicks and Hawks. New York hasn’t been there since 2013, Atlanta not since 2017. But both teams took big steps forward this season and one of them is going to, at minimum, make the East semifinals. New York is defense-first, the Hawks are free shooters, and something will obviously have to give.
Key matchup: Julius Randle vs. Clint Capela. Forget the scoring exploits of Atlanta’s Trae Young for a second or the collection of perimeter shooting the Hawks have. The Knicks run through Randle, and Capela’s job is to defend, pester and rebound. If Randle gets in rhythm, advantage Knicks. If Capela controls the paint on the defensive end, advantage Hawks.
Prediction: Hawks in 7.
No. 2 PHOENIX SUNS (51-21) vs. No. 7 LOS ANGELES LAKERS (42-30, 1-0)
Season series: Suns, 2-1.
Story line: This might be the first time in NBA history that a No. 2 seed defeats a No. 7 seed and it would be considered an upset. According to FanDuel, the defending champion Lakers are the betting favorite in this series, even though the Suns won nine more games and — since the NBA went to a best-of-seven format for all rounds in 2003 — No. 2 seeds have won 35 of their 36 quarterfinal series against No. 7 seeds. Such is the power of LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Key matchup: Chris Paul vs. James. They’ve never gone head-to-head in the playoffs. James is dealing with the effects of a high ankle sprain, and Paul will have to deal with the pressure that comes with not yet making the NBA Finals.
Prediction: Lakers in 7.
No. 3 DENVER NUGGETS (47-25) vs. No. 6 PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (42-30)
Season series: Nuggets, 2-1.
Story line: Denver won 30 of its last 40 games, shocking many by not falling apart following Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury. Portland is in the playoffs for the eighth consecutive year — the longest current run in the NBA — but three of its last four appearances resulted in a first-round exit. It would seem like more pressure is on the Blazers.
Key matchup: Nikola Jokic vs. Jusuf Nurkic. It’ll be largely up to Nurkic to contain Denver’s MVP frontrunner, who controls just about everything that the Nuggets run. If Jokic isn’t slowed, even if only slightly, a tough task for the Blazers gets that much tougher.
Prediction: Nuggets in 7.
No. 4 LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (47-25) vs. No. 5 DALLAS MAVERICKS (42-30)
Season series: Mavericks, 2-1.
Story line: Both teams have some postseason demons to shake. The Clippers — a much different team last season — wasted a 3-1 lead in the second round against Denver and fell short of the West finals yet again. The last time the Mavericks won a playoff series, hard as this is to believe, was the 2011 NBA Finals. They were beaten in six games by the Clippers last season.
Key matchup: Kawhi Leonard vs. Luka Doncic. Leonard is a two-time NBA Finals MVP who had another excellent season, but there are questions about a foot injury; he says it’s no big deal now, but it’s been an issue for weeks. Doncic had two triple-doubles and three 38-point games against the Clippers in last season’s playoffs.
Prediction: Mavericks in 6.