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The student news site of the University of Northern Iowa

Northern Iowan

The student news site of the University of Northern Iowa

Northern Iowan

NBA Playoff Preview 2024

Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics look to be the team to beat in this year’s NBA Playoffs.

With the NBA regular season coming to a close, the focus shifts to the postseason. The NBA playoffs are widely regarded as one of the most exciting sporting events in the world, and this year is shaping to be no different. I’ll be looking at every team that made the playoffs and giving a general overview of their team and some of the players you can expect to come up big in the big games. 

Eastern Conference 

Starting with the best team in all of basketball, the Boston Celtics come into the playoffs with the best record at 64-18 and are the top seed in the East. The Celtics have arguably the best starting five in the NBA, led by forward Jayson Tatum, who averages 26.9 points per game. Not far behind is Jaylen Brown, who scores 23 per game, and Kristaps Porziņģis, who averages 20 points per contest. Rounding out the starting five is Derrick White and Jrue Holiday, who are both two-way guards that can score and play defense. The bench is held down by Oregon product Payton Pritchard, veteran Al Horford, and 3-point sniper Sam Hauser. They are just one of two teams to be top five in both offensive and defensive rating. The Celts are the betting favorite to win the title at +165. They’ll take on the winner of the No. 8 seed in the play-in tournament, which will consist of the Heat-76ers game loser vs. Hawks-Bulls game winner. 

The New York Knicks are the No. 2 seed in the East for the first time since the 2012-13 season. 2012-13 was also the last time the Knicks won 50 games. The Knicks are led by Jalen Brunson, who averages 28.6 points per game. Six other players average double-digit points per game. They include Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, Donte DiVincenzo, Immanuel Quickley, OG Anunoby and Bojan Bogdanović. The Knicks excel in their defensive versatility and rebounding. At times they depend on Brunson to get it done on the offensive side, but nonetheless, they are a dangerous playoff team. They’ll open up playoff play with the winner of the 76ers-Heat play-in game. 

The Milwaukee Bucks limped to the finish line, going 3-8 in their last 11 games and barely hanging on to the No. 3 seed. It’s been a wild season for the Bucks, starting the season 30-13. Then, they fired their first-year coach Adrian Griffin and hired Doc Rivers. Since Rivers joined the scene, they are just 17-19. To make matters worse, their star player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, got injured in a game in early April, forcing him to sit out the remainder of the regular season. They’re optimistic that he will be back for their first game of the playoffs, but until then, they’ll rely on strong play from Damian Lillard. Lillard ranks 10th among the league’s top assist leaders. Khris Middleton, Bobby Portis and Brook Lopez are all role players that will make a big impact. The Bucks will take on the Indiana Pacers in the first round after two early exits the last two years. 

The Cleveland Cavaliers secured the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference after a 48-win season. The Cavs are led by guard Donovan Mitchell, who contributes 26.6 points per game. Center Jarrett Allen hauls in a whopping 10.6 rebounds per game and Darius Garland dishes out 6.5 assists per game. Evan Mobley provides the Cavs with strong interior defense. The Garland-Mitchell duo has proven to be successful in Cleveland, and they’ll rely on their strong guard play to make a deep run this spring. Mitchell has been battling injuries all season long, and will be needed if the Cavaliers want any chance of winning games. Their playoff meltdown last year wasn’t pretty, but they can put that to rest with a win over the Magic in round one. 

The Orlando Magic have finally arrived after a long period of rebuilding. They’ve assembled a young core that includes Franz Wagner, Jalen Suggs, Cole Anthony, Wendell Carter Jr. and Paolo Banchero, who was the #1 overall pick in the 2022 draft. Banchero averages 22.5 points per game and is considered one of the league’s best young talents. Wagner contributes 19.7 per game of his own. The Magic have one of the top defenses in the league, and turnover their opponents at the highest rate in the NBA. If the Magic are going to “Play the Song’” in the playoffs, they’ll need their young guys to play like a group of veterans. They’ll travel to Cleveland for the opening round. 

The Indiana Pacers are back in the postseason for the first time since 2020. The Pacers are led by their dynamic trio of Pascal Siakam, Tyrese Haliburton and Myles Turner. Siakam is the leading scorer of the bunch, averaging 21.1 points per game. Haliburton is one of the best dishers of the rock in the league, averaging 10.9 assists per contest. Turner provides the defense, averaging almost two blocks a game. The Pacers have a high-flying offense, averaging a league-best 122.7 points per game. Their defense, however, is the opposite, but has improved gradually over the course of the year. The Pacers have had success against their first round opponent in the Bucks, winning four out of the five regular season games. The matchup of Lillard and Haliburton should be one to watch all series long. 

Thanks to an eight-game win streak to close out the regular season, the 76ers will host the play-in tournament game. The Sixers never could’ve expected to be in the play-in tournament, but they also didn’t expect to lose the reigning MVP for two months of the season. When he’s played, Joel Embiid has been one of the best players in the association, averaging 34.7 points per game. The problem is that he’s only played in 39 games. The good news for Sixers fans is that he’s back just in time for the playoffs and looks to be healthy. In the 43 games Embid has missed, the 76ers have turned to Tyrese Maxey, who has had a great season, averaging 25.9 points per game. They’ll host the Miami Heat for the No. 7 seed and a matchup with the New York Knicks. 

The Miami Heat are back in the play-in tournament, a year after becoming the first team to go from the play-in tournament to the NBA finals. Tyler Herro, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo all average around 20 points per game. Veterans Kevin Love, Terry Rozier and Kyle Lowry provide bench support. The question for the Heat is if they can score enough points. They ranked just 21st in offensive rating. If the Heat want to go on a run similar to last season, they’ll need to beat multiple teams better than them. A date in Philly is on the table for Erik Spoelstra’s crew. 

The Chicago Bulls find themselves in the play-in tournament for the second straight year. A 5-14 start to the season suggested the Bulls would be in the running for a lottery pick. The Bulls have one of the deepest teams in the league, with eight players averaging 10 or more points per game. DeMar DeRozan leads the attack offensively with 24 points per contest. Zach LaVine and Coby White provide solid guard play. All-NBA defender Alex Caruso provides the Bulls with great defense, night in and night out. Chicago comes into the play-in tournament with a losing record of 39-43. The Bulls will host the Hawks for the right to play for the No. 8 seed. 

The Atlanta Hawks are the final team to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. The Hawks run through Trae Young, who averages 26 points and 10.8 assists per game. Clint Capela is a beast on the boards, averaging 10.6 per game. Their defense is flat out bad. Unfortunately, they picked the worst time of year to have their worst stretch of the season. The Hawks have lost their last six games. The Hawks have been an extremely streaky team this season, which could give their fans some hope for an improbable run. They’ll play the Bulls in the 9/10 game. 

Western Conference

For the second straight season, the Oklahoma City Thunder had a 10-win improvement, landing them as the No. 1 seed in the West. In just a two-year span, they’ve gone from first pick in the draft to first seed in the conference. A lot of the credit can be given to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. SGA, who is just 25 years old, has emerged as an MVP candidate, averaging 30.1 points per game. He is also the oldest member of their young core. Rookie Chet Holmgren has been stellar in his first season of play, averaging 16.5 points and eight rebounds per game. He also provides a defensive presence around the rim. Jalen Williams, Josh Giddey and Luguentz Dort round out the starting lineup. The Thunder are extremely well-rounded, ranking third in offensive rating and fourth in defensive rating. A concern for OKC in the postseason is their youth and inexperience, but when they’re clicking, this team is as good as anyone. They’ll take on the winner of the No. 8 seed, which will either be the winner of the Warriors-Kings game or the loser of the Lakers-Pelicans game. 

The reigning NBA Champion, the Denver Nuggets, come in as the No. 2 seed. They won more games than a season ago, priming them for another championship run. Nikola Jokić is the MVP favorite, averaging 26.4 points, 12.4 rebounds and nine assists per game. The team has battled injuries throughout the season, most notably Jamal Murray. Murray has averaged 21.2 points per game but has missed time due to hamstring, knee and ankle injuries. Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon will need to step up when it matters, as the Nuggets run a thin bench. If they can stay healthy, the Nuggets are as good as it gets in the NBA. The Nuggets will open up postseason play with the winner of the Lakers-Pelicans play-in game. 

The best regular season for the Timberwolves in the last two decades resulted in a 56-win season and the No. 3 seed in a loaded Western Conference. The T-Wolves are led by rising star Anthony Edwards. Edwards averages 26 points per game and is one of the most explosive players in the league. Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert have been great together in year two. KAT offers more of a scoring role whereas Gobert is a dominant defender and a beast on the boards. Towns had knee surgery just over a month ago, so he is not at 100%. Naz Reid comes off the bench and is in contention for the sixth Man of the Year award. Minnesota fell just one game short of being the No. 1 seed, and will have to pay for it. They’ll face the Phoenix Suns in the first round. 

The Los Angeles Clippers clinched the No. 4 seed this year, months after landing star James Harden. For the first half of the year, the Clips looked to be one of the scariest teams in the NBA. After a two-month stretch of .500 play, they have finally picked it up again. Kawhi Leonard leads the team in scoring with 23.7 points per game. Paul George and Harden follow close behind with 22.6 and 16.6 points per game, respectively. Ivica Zubac cleans up the glass with 9.2 rebounds per game. Russell Westbrook has been seeing more minutes after fracturing his hand. Like most years with LA, health is the main concern. If they’re healthy, they can go as far as anyone. If the injury bug hits, they could be in for another disappointing finish. They’ll face the Dallas Mavericks in round one. 

The duo of MVP candidate Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving has the Dallas Mavericks in the 5th spot in the West. Doncic has been masterful this season, nearly averaging a triple-double every time he steps on the hardwood. He scores 33.9 points, dishes 9.8 assists and hauls in 9.2 rebounds per game. Irving has found his stride once again, averaging 25.6 points per game. With these two on the floor, the offense will always be rolling, but the Mavs have been exceptional on the defensive side of the ball. They rank #1 in defensive rating since March 7th, when head coach Jason Kidd introduced Derrick Jones Jr. to the starting lineup. PJ Washington and Daniel Gafford pull this lineup together. Their series against the Clippers should be one of the best of the opening round. 

Coming into the season, the Suns and their fans probably never would’ve guessed they would be the No. 6 seed in the West, but here they are. The big three of Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal had big expectations coming into this season, and they haven’t quite met them yet. Between the three of them, they’ve missed a combined 50 games. Durant and Booker lead the team in scoring with 27.1 points per game apiece. Beal, Grayson Allen, Eric Gordon and Jusuf Nurkić round out the notable names. Beyond that, there’s not much depth to this Suns team. They gave up a lot of assets to make this roster top-heavy, and only time will tell if it will be worth it. They head to Minnesota for a first round thriller. 

The New Orleans Pelicans have had a bump path to this point, but wind up being the No. 7 seed and will host a play-in game. Zion Williamson has found a groove in his fourth season as a Pelican. Williamson is averaging 22.9 points per game to go along with nearly 6 boards a contest. Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum both average 20 points per game. The Pelicans rank 11th in offensive efficiency and sixth in defensive efficiency. The main question will be how they respond in the clutch and the big moment. They’ll match up with Lebron James and the Lakers. 

After winning 11 of their final 14 games, the Los Angeles Lakers find themselves in the No. 8 spot. The Lakers season got off to a hot start, winning the inaugural In-Season Tournament. Soon after, they lost 10 games in a 13-game span. Lebron James continues his greatness at the ripe age of 39, scoring 25.7 points, 8.3 assists and 7.3 rebounds per game. Anthony Davis remained injury-free this season, averaging 24.7 points and 12.6 rebounds per game. It’s not common that a team with this kind of firepower has to play their way into the bracket, but that just speaks for how strong the Western Conference is this season. The “Lake Show” travels to The Big Easy for a chance to meet up against the Nuggets in round one. 

The Sacramento Kings are the No. 9 seed in the West after taking a tumble the past couple weeks. De’Aaron Fox carries the load offensively, averaging 26.6 points and 5.6 assists per game. Domantas Sabonis is Sacramento’s do-it-all guy, averaging 19.7 points, 13.7 rebounds and 8.2 assists per outing. Malik Monk and Iowa alum Keegan Murray average 15 and are two way players. A big question with the Kings is the depth of their lineup, as Monk and Kevin Huerter could both be out for the postseason. Their matchup with the Golden State Warriors should be a nail-biter, as each of the last three contests have been decided by one score. 

Last, but certainly not least, is the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors have been through a crazy journey this season, whether it was Draymond Green’s early season suspensions, Klay Thompson getting benched or the sudden death of an assistant coach. Nonetheless, they won nine of their last 11 games and have a chance to make a run. Steph Curry has put the team on his back, averaging 26.4 points per game. Thompson and Jonathan Kuminga score 18 and 16 per night, respectively. Other than that, the production has depended on the night. Chris Paul, Andrew Wiggins, Trayce Jackson-Davis, Brandin Podziemski and Moses Moody will all have to contribute if the Warriors want a chance at winning any games. Luckily for them, they have the experience to do so. They’ll travel up the state to take on the Kings.

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