After a thrilling opening round of the NBA playoffs that saw the NBA-best Phoenix Suns getting tested by the New Orleans Pelicans and their trio of unheralded rookies, Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks sending the Utah Jazz into an uncertain offseason and the Boston Celtics breaking out the brooms against the league’s preseason title favorites, here we are in the conference semifinals.
And although the higher seeds advanced in every series in Round 1, something tells us that won’t happen again along the road to the NBA Finals.
The Memphis Grizzlies, who needed three double-digit fourth-quarter comebacks to oust the Minnesota Timberwolves in six games, could be vulnerable against Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Jordan Poole and a revitalized Golden State Warriors squad that just eliminated the reigning MVP.
The Celtics have been the hottest team in the league since the start of the season’s second half. Their reward? Giannis Antetokounmpo and the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks.
What drama awaits in the second round? Our NBA experts break down each series.
Series odds and stats
Basketball Power Index (BPI): Miami 75%
Caesars Sportsbook: Miami -420 | Philadelphia +320
Offensive ratings: MIA (113.0, 12th) | PHI (113.0, 11th)
Defensive ratings: MIA (108.4, 4th) | PHI (110.2, 12th)
MIAMI HEAT (1)
How the Heat got here
The regular season was a war of attrition for a Miami team that trotted out 23 different starting lineups because of various injuries but still managed to capture the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
That plug-and-play attitude came in handy in the first round, with Kyle Lowry (hamstring) missing Games 4 and 5 and Jimmy Butler (knee) out for Game 5, and the Heat found a way to defeat the Atlanta Hawks without them.
“I just think that we have each other’s back,” Heat forward Caleb Martin said after eliminating Atlanta.
Sneaky first-round MVP: P.J. Tucker
Tucker’s numbers might not overwhelm — he ranked sixth on the team in points per game (9.6), third in rebounding (6.2) and seventh in assists (2.4) — but his overall impact should not be underestimated.
“He’s the lifeline of our defense. He doesn’t get as much credit as he should, in my opinion,” Heat center Bam Adebayo said after the club’s closeout win over the Hawks, a series in which Miami’s defense completely flummoxed Atlanta All-Star guard Trae Young.
“Certain nights, he only gets two shots and doesn’t say anything. So just to have a teammate like that, I think he’s the real reason our defense is the way it is.”
Tucker will be called upon to infuse that same intensity into Miami’s second-round matchup against Philadelphia and former teammate James Harden.
— Dave McMenamin
PHILADELPHIA 76ERS (4)
How the 76ers got here
After escaping the Ben Simmons saga and acquiring Harden to pair with MVP finalist Joel Embiid, Philadelphia finished fourth in the East. That set them up with a tricky first-round matchup with the Toronto Raptors, who managed to push the 76ers to six games even after falling behind 3-0 in the series. The good news: A dominant Game 6 performance in Toronto got Philly back on track heading into a matchup with Miami. The bad news: Embiid is out indefinitely with a facial injury and concussion.
Sneaky first-round MVP: Danny Green
Green has been through more than a few playoff battles over his lengthy NBA career. But the veteran showed his worth even at this late stage with his play against Toronto. With Matisse Thybulle sidelined for games in Canada due to not being fully vaccinated, Green’s minutes skyrocketed from just under 22 per game to over 31.
Meanwhile, as Philadelphia’s only true 3-and-D player, Green made the most triples (16) of anyone on the 76ers across the six games against the Raptors. His combination of experience and strong shooting should keep him in a sizable role against Miami.
— Tim Bontemps
Stephen A. Smith discusses Joel Embiid’s injury and how it affects the 76ers’ series vs. the Heat.
What to watch: Embiid’s injury status
How long it takes Embiid to recover from an orbital bone fracture and concussion — he suffered both late in the fourth quarter of Game 6 against Toronto — will determine whether this series becomes a battle or a blowout.
Embiid, who caught an elbow from Raptors forward Pascal Siakam with 3:58 remaining in the game, is now out indefinitely, robbing Philadelphia of its franchise centerpiece at both ends of the court.
It’s a devastating stroke of bad luck for Embiid, who said on many occasions this season how much pride he took in missing just four games this season due to injury and shedding his injury-prone label. In the span of one week, he’s suffered both a torn thumb ligament on his shooting hand and this injury.
The 76ers will try to figure out where to go from here, but none of the options — playing DeAndre Jordan, playing Paul Reed more, or going ultra small — are appealing. This team is built to be powered by Embiid.
Series odds and stats
Basketball Power Index (BPI): Boston 62%
Caesars Sportsbook: Boston -200 | Milwaukee +170
Offensive ratings: BOS (113.6, 9th) | MIL (114.3, 3rd)
Defensive ratings: BOS (106.2, 1st) | MIL (111.1, 14th)
BOSTON CELTICS (2)
How the Celtics got here
After a rocky start to the season, the Celtics found their rhythm after Christmas — and just kept rolling. They pulled off an impressive first-round sweep over Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets — doing a tremendous defensive job on the former MVP. Boston comes into this series brimming with confidence after dominating the preseason NBA title favorite.
Sneaky first-round MVP: Marcus Smart
Jayson Tatum took his game to a different level during the Nets series, providing the type of consistent superstar performances that defined his team’s wins (but in the shadow of Tatum’s greatness was the steady play), especially on the defensive side of the ball — from the 2022 Defensive Player of the Year.
Smart averaged 16.5 points, seven assists and four rebounds during the series, but his ability to be a difference-maker defensively was a big reason why the Celtics had so much success against Durant and Co. The 6-foot-4 Smart isn’t afraid to mix it up with much bigger players — which will serve him well against MVP finalist Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.
— Nick Friedell
MILWAUKEE BUCKS (3)
How the Bucks got here
The Bucks have been building to this moment, the first true test of their title defense. Milwaukee finished with an identical record as Boston during the regular season, but the Bucks rested their starters on the season’s final day, setting up a first-round matchup with the Bulls (a series they won in five games), but ceding homecourt advantage in this second-round showdown.
Sneaky first-round MVP: Jrue Holiday
Holiday put up modest scoring totals during the first round against the Bulls, even with Khris Middleton sidelined for most of the series, but Holiday turned up the intensity on Chicago’s All-Star duo for the entire series. Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan combined to shoot 30% from the field in the series when guarded by Holiday, who shadowed the two alongside Wesley Matthews. Overall, the Bulls shot 29% in the series when Holiday was the closest defender, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Holiday shot a career-high 41% from 3 during the regular season, which could be important considering the Bucks are almost certain to require more offense from Holiday in this series.
— Jamal Collier
Monica McNutt discusses what to expect in the upcoming Eastern Conference semifinals matchup between the Bucks and Celtics.
What to watch: Giannis vs. Boston’s interior defense
The winner of this series will likely be determined in the paint in a clash between an irresistible force and an immovable object.
Bucks star Antetokounmpo, one of the league’s best rim attackers, is up against Boston’s interior defense, one of the stingiest in the league.
Antetokounmpo punished the Bulls inside during their first-round series, averaging 18 points per game in the paint. During the season, Antetokounmpo led the NBA in made layups and dunks, averaged the most points per game in the restricted area and scored the most points in the league on direct drives, according to Second Spectrum tracking.
Now the real test begins, especially with Milwaukee missing one of its best perimeter scorers in Middleton.
Boston allowed the fewest points in the NBA on direct drives and allowed the lowest paint field goal percentage in the league. They ranked second in the league in field goal percentage allowed at the rim and have been the best in the league since Jan. 1.
The Celtics have multiple defenders capable of matching up with Antetokounmpo, including Robert Williams III, Grant Williams (who held Antetokounmpo to 1-for-7 shooting on matchups in the half court during the season) and Al Horford, who has guarded Antetokounmpo on shot attempts more frequently than any defender in the league, per Second Spectrum.
Series odds and stats
Basketball Power Index (BPI): Dallas 54%
Caesars Sportsbook: Phoenix -300 | Dallas +240
Offensive ratings: PHX (114.2, 5th) | DAL (112.5, 14th)
Defensive ratings: PHX (106.8, 3rd) | DAL (109.1, 7th)
PHOENIX SUNS (1)
How the Suns got here
The Suns cruised through the regular season with a franchise-record 64 wins but had some adversity thrown at them in the first round, when Devin Booker went down with a hamstring injury in Game 2 against the New Orleans Pelicans. They bounced back with wins in Game 5 and 6 to close out the pesky Pels.
Sneaky first-round MVP: Mikal Bridges
Bridges’ Game 5 was an all-time performance. Bridges played all but 66 seconds and had 31 points and went 4-for-4 from deep with four steals. He became just the seventh player in playoffs history to have 30 points, four 3s and four steals in a game, joining LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kobe Bryant and Vince Carter.
Bridges was also his usual defensive force throughout the series. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Bridges held the Pelicans to 37% shooting (32-of-86) as the primary defender. He also forced 14 turnovers (tied for second most this postseason) and held New Orleans to 0.82 points per play as the primary defender.
— Andrew Lopez
DALLAS MAVERICKS (4)
How the Mavericks got here
Dallas won its first playoff series since its 2011 title run — coach Jason Kidd was there … at point guard — despite Luka Doncic missing the first three games against the Jazz due to a strained left calf. Guard Jalen Brunson, who averaged 27.8 points and committed only four total turnovers, had a breakout series.
Sneaky first-round MVP: Dorian Finney-Smith
Brunson was far too spectacular to qualify as sneaky, so let’s go with Finney-Smith. The small forward was the primary defender on Jazz star Donovan Mitchell, who credited Finney-Smith throughout the series as the biggest factor in his inefficiency (39.8% from the floor, 20.8% from 3-point range).
Finney-Smith was also a significant offensive contributor, averaging 13.2 points and 2.8 assists while going 17-of-43 on 3s. His rebounding (6.3 per game) was key to the success of the Mavs’ small lineups, sometimes with the 6-foot-7 Finney-Smith at center. And he played 260 of 288 minutes in the series. The four-year, $55.5 million extension Finney-Smith signed in February already looks like a bargain.
— Tim MacMahon
Chris Paul goes a perfect 14-for-14 from the field as the Suns defeat the Pelicans 115-109 to advance to the Western Conference semifinals.
What to watch: Luka vs. Phoenix’s perimeter defense
It figures that Suns coach Monty Williams will want his Defensive Player of the Year candidate on the superstar on the other side. But just how much Bridges will guard Doncic when the shots are going up will depend on how the Mavericks hunt their matchups.
Dallas and Phoenix met three times this season, but Doncic did not play in two of those games. In the one game Doncic did play, Bridges had 31 half-court matchups against him, double any other Suns player, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
However, NBA.com/stats shows that Doncic was just 1-for-2 against Bridges. Dallas’ goal was to get Bridges off of Doncic when they could. Bridges switched nine times when guarding Doncic, with either Booker or Chris Paul becoming the primary defender on six of those switches.
Whatever the Suns did worked. Doncic was 9-of-23 overall and 2-of-9 from distance in 38 minutes. How Phoenix tries to defend Doncic this time around could determine the outcome of the series.
Series odds and stats
Basketball Power Index (BPI): Memphis 67%
Caesars Sportsbook: Memphis +200 | Golden State -240
Offensive ratings: MEM (114.3, 4th) | GS (112.1, 16th)
Defensive ratings: MEM (108.9, 6th) | GS (106.6, 2nd)
MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (2)
How the Grizzlies got here
Memphis posted the second-best record in the NBA despite not having Ja Morant for 25 games. The Grizzlies are in the second round, though, because they played their best in the clutch. They trailed an incredible 68.5% of the time against the Timberwolves but outscored Minnesota by 62 points in the fourth quarter in the series. It’ll be a lot harder doing that against a team with championship experience like the Warriors.
Sneaky first-round MVP: Desmond Bane
Bane continues to emerge as a big-time player for the Grizzlies. He led Memphis in the first round with 23.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.2 blocks per game while shooting 48.2% from 3. He will be needed to not only help Memphis keep pace from long range with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole, but Bane will have to bring the energy and explosiveness on both ends of the floor. The Warriors can’t let Bane get off in the second round like he did when he buried a total of 15 3s in Games 3 and 4 against the Timberwolves.
— Ohm Youngmisuk
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (3)
How the Warriors got here
The Warriors’ regular season was riddled with injuries to star players, preventing any true glimpse of their full potential. Then, in the playoffs, the Warriors showed just how good they can be. Their new-look small-ball lineup led them to two blowout wins over the Nuggets, while Golden State’s other two wins proved this team can close out tight games.
Sneaky first-round MVP: Gary Payton II
It’s easy to give this honor to Poole, who during the first round enjoyed his official coming out party as a rising star in the NBA. But Golden State’s true sneaky MVP of the series was Payton. It’s no coincidence that every time Payton checked into a game against the Nuggets, the Warriors went on a little run. Throughout the entire series, Payton gave the Warriors his grade-A defense, going up against rookie spark plug Bones Hyland for most of the series, while also spending time on Monte Morris, Will Barton and even reigning MVP Nikola Jokic. Payton also gave the Warriors an offensive boost, knocking down wide-open shots the Nuggets dared him to shoot. His most memorable — and most important — bucket was the dagger over Jeff Green that clinched the series.
— Kendra Andrews
Steph Curry describes the similarities between this year’s Grizzlies and the Warriors teams he was on early in his career.
What to watch: Morant vs. Payton II
Payton has often taken the assignment in guarding the opponents’ best guard, and this showdown with Morant will be the matchup to watch.
Per Second Spectrum tracking, Payton defended Morant in 88 half-court matchups during the regular season, the third most of any player, behind the New York Knicks’ RJ Barrett (109) and the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Patrick Beverley (108). And according to NBA Advanced Stats, Payton held Morant to 2-for-12 shooting (16.7%), the second-lowest field goal percentage allowed against Morant this season with a minimum of 10 shots defended.
Payton has to be careful about racking up fouls against Morant, but if he can make things difficult on the Grizzlies superstar, it could provide a massive boost for the Warriors in the second round.