Every team has played at least four games, and somehow only one team has been eliminated (see ya, Nets; we won’t miss you).
But a lot has changed since the start of the playoffs. Some teams have emerged as bigger threats than expected, while others have disappointed due to poor play or injuries. These power rankings are my ordering of teams from most likely to least likely to win a championship, split by tiers. Groups within the same tier are roughly equal. Our number-one team, though, has never skipped a beat.
Tier 1: The New Favorites
Boston Celtics (advanced 4-0 over Brooklyn)
The Celtics have emphatically declared themselves the favorites to win the East. After a stunning Game 1 buzzer-beater, Boston manhandled a Nets team that many (although not me) had pegged as a championship favorite in the only sweep of the first round.
Their regular-season defense was the best in the league, and it carried over to the playoffs. Nets’ superstar Kevin Durant shot just 39% from the floor and was constantly harried and harassed by the Celtics’ battalion of long, strong, smart (Smart?) defenders, and Kyrie was shut down after an impressive first game.
As expected, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown performed well, but the role players all stepped up. Al Horford and Grant Williams, in particular, were aggressive in taking and making open shots.
The Internet widely mocked website 538.com when they unveiled computer simulations before the ‘yoffs suggesting that the Celtics were an overwhelming favorite to win the championship. Nobody’s laughing now.
Golden State Warriors (up 3-1 over Denver)
The Warriors haven’t won their series yet. Everything came together for a Denver Nuggets team that kept their season alive with a Game 4 victory. But that win simply put off the inevitable, and a Game 5 domination by a motivated Golden State team seems likely.
Curry hasn’t started a game yet as he works to return to game shape after a late-season injury. Coach Steve Kerr has ridden the hot hands of fellow guards Jordan Poole and Klay Thompson to three easy victories. Both are somehow shooting at least 50% from three this series. That’s a bad sign if you’re the rest of the league.
An injury-riddled Nuggets team has had no answers for Golden State’s lineups with Poole, Thompson, Curry, and Green, but there aren’t many teams outside of Boston that have enough elite defenders to clamp down on everyone.
Golden State is primed to destroy whoever wins the Memphis-Minnesota bloodbath en route to an easy Western Conference Finals berth.
Tier 2: Contenders With Injury Questions
Miami Heat (up 3-1 over Atlanta)
The Heat have looked great against Atlanta, and their only loss came by one point. Jimmy Butler has been incandescent, the defense has wholly stifled Trae Young, and Miami has gotten plenty of support from its rotating cast of contributing characters.
A matchup against Philadelphia (if they advance!) doesn’t seem as threatening as it once did, but Miami does have one major concern. Kyle Lowry left Game 3 with a hamstring injury of unknown severity. He will be crucial against Philly or Toronto and needs to be at 100% for the Heat to have a shot against Milwaukee or Boston in a potential Eastern Conference Finals.
Milwaukee Bucks (up 3-1 over Chicago)
A shaky start in Game 1 and All-Star Khris Middleton’s injury in Game 2 had the Bucks looking vulnerable, but two consecutive blowouts have mostly allayed those fears.
The problem is that Boston already won their series and has looked sharp. The Bucks will likely be missing Middleton for several games of that series, and it’s hard to imagine how they can score enough to win games without their best perimeter offensive player.
However, Milwaukee is no stranger to rock fights and thrived last year in a series of brutally ugly defensive battles. It would be silly to count them out. Things are looking grim for Milwaukee’s title defense, but they still have the best player in the world, Giannis Antetokounmpo. He will need to solve Boston’s impenetrable wall for the Bucks to have a shot.
Phoenix Suns (tied 2-2 with New Orleans)
I’m not willing to throw away a season’s worth of proof that Phoenix is an elite team just because they’ve had a slow start without their best player, Devin Booker, for most of the series.
But Phoenix really, really needs to win tonight. Booker will miss game 5, and the Pelicans (riding high on a bizarre wave of self-belief and Jose Alvarado smack-talking) may force this to a Game 7, where anything can happen.
Chris Paul hasn’t looked particularly healthy himself and only scored four points in a bizarre Game 4. He has to look for his own shot more. Not turning it over twice in the backcourt to Alvarado would be helpful, too:
I’m giving Phoenix the benefit of the doubt, as they were a good team without Devin Booker in the regular season. A fully-loaded Phoenix squad is still a top-three team in the NBA, but I’m starting to feel a little queasy.
Dallas seems likely to advance past Utah and play the winner of this series, so I’m sure they’ll go home tonight and put on their Pelicans jerseys.
Tier 3: A Tier Of Their Own
Dallas Mavericks (up 3-2 over Utah)
Speak of the devil. The Mavericks have looked dominant at times but have actually been more successful in games where Luka Doncic was injured (Games 2 and 3 were both Dallas wins without their stud). That’s not necessarily an indictment of Luka, who has largely looked excellent, so much as an acknowledgment of how strange this series has been.
I’m mostly confused because of the way the role players have played. Jalen Brunson has been superb, and he has earned himself oodles of money in the offseason. But Spencer Dinwiddie has been terrible, while stretch big Maxi Kleber, who couldn’t hit the ocean from a boat in the regular season, has suddenly transformed into prime Steph Curry (he’s shooting 58% from three in these playoffs).
With his theoretical combination of defensive versatility and long-ball shooting, Kleber’s always been an X-factor for Dallas. If he has rediscovered the three-point stroke that abandoned him this season, their ceiling suddenly looks much higher.
Tier 4: What The Heck Are These Teams
Philadelphia 76ers (up 3-2 against Toronto)
No team up 3-2 in a series has ever looked so defeated.
After leading the series 3-0, thanks to a game-winning overtime three from All-World center Joel Embiid, reports came out that Embiid had torn a ligament in his shooting thumb. He has played, but the 76ers lost the next two games in depressing fashion, as Toronto won a close-ish Game 4 and then dominated Game 5.
James Harden has been okay but not the superstar Philly needs. His passing this series has been superb, but he’s struggled once the Raptors realized he couldn’t beat their defenders one-on-one. Tyrese Maxey has cooled off. The bench has generally looked bad.
Philadelphia still has two chances to put this one away, and I think they’ll do it, especially with Toronto point guard Fred VanVleet injured. However, their ceiling is lower with Embiid’s injury, and coach Doc Rivers famously has lost the most 3-1 playoff leads in NBA history. We’ll see if he becomes the first coach ever to lose a 3-0 advantage.
Memphis Grizzlies/Minnesota Timberwolves (tied 2-2)
I’m just going to lump these guys together since neither of these woodland critters has a prayer against a healthy Golden State in the next round.
Various hot takes that have appeared at different points in this series: Steven Adams’ offensive rebounding is the key to the series; Steven Adams is unplayable. Karl Anthony-Towns is soft; Karl Anthony-Towns is unstoppable. Ja Morant is the best player in the series; Ja Morant is the worst defender in the NBA. Minny coach Chris Finch is Coach of the Year; Finch is the worst coach in basketball. The Wolves are driven by passion; the Wolves need to control their emotions.
This series has been a lot.
The seesaw nature has led to analytical whiplash that’s left me exhausted, and it sure feels like this one is going seven games. It’s been a valuable learning experience for all parties involved.
Both teams are led by young stars with bright futures. Memphis, in particular, should be a postseason mainstay in the future. They’ve looked a little discombobulated by the bright lights of the playoffs, like all young teams do. Minnesota’s future is heavily dependent on second-year wing Anthony Edwards making the next leap into superstardom, something he is well on his way to accomplishing.
Tier 5: Underdogs With A Chance
Toronto Raptors (down 2-3 to Philadelphia)
The desperate Raptors keep scratching and clawing from the brink of the abyss. Without Embiid’s ridiculous buzzer-beating three to win Game 3, they might well be up in this series, but the fact remains they’ll need to win two more (including a Game 7 in Philadelphia) to advance.
That said, Toronto has survived injury and illness to various key players to steal all momentum in the series, and Embiid’s own injury issue has given them new hope.
I wrote extensively about the Raptors a few months back, and all the things I hoped for then are happening now. They are getting juuuust enough shooting to keep the offense moving against a bad 76ers defense, and Toronto’s defense has started looking like the menace we all thought they’d be.
This team is deep, athletic, and deflection-y. They have forced a lot of live-ball turnovers. They don’t have much spacing but haven’t turned the ball over much themselves.
It’s not hard to imagine Toronto making history to become the first squad to come back from down 0-3 in the playoffs… but then they have to play Miami, which could be a rude awakening.
New Orleans Pelicans (tied 2-2 with Phoenix)
It might be unfair to the Pelicans to have them below a team down 0-3 a week ago, but New Orleans has thrived on a lack of respect.
Nobody gave the Pellies a shot against Phoenix, but Devin Booker’s injury gave the Birds a sliver of a chance, and they seized it with two hands. The series is now tied, and the Pelicans genuinely believe they can pull off one of the greatest upsets in NBA history.
It starts with Brandon Ingram, who has exploded these playoffs. He’s averaging 30 points on 52/50/88 percent shooting splits, and he’s dominated every defense the Suns have thrown at him. Trade acquisition CJ McCollum has been superb from outside, and center Jonas Valanciunas has feasted on the offensive glass. Rookies Jose Alvarado and especially Herb Jones have made Chris Paul’s life a living hell. Coach Willie Green has pushed all the right buttons and made some excellent tactical adjustments, like giving more minutes to flexible big man Larry Nance Jr and matching Valanciunas against the Suns’ backup center JaVale McGee.
These guys are the most likable upstarts in the playoffs this season, and they have 49 states rooting for them. I still wouldn’t bet on their chances, but we could be seeing an inflection point for a young, exciting team that’s expected to add Zion Williamson back into the mix next season.
Utah Jazz (down 2-3 to Dallas)
The Jazz have been giving off bad vibes all season, and losing two games to a Doncic-less Mavericks team seemed to sound the death knell. They showed some fight in taking Game 4 with a game-winning alley-oop between teammates/mortal enemies Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert in the closing seconds, then followed it up by getting erased from existence in a laughable Game 5.
Rudy Gobert has dominated the glass, but that’s about the only bright spot for Utah. Donovan Mitchell had consistently raised his performance in playoffs past, but he’s shooting a ghastly 38% from the field and 20% from three. He’s angering teammates (besides Gobert) with his poor shot selection and decision-making and lackadaisical defense. Point guard Mike Conley has been even worse, somehow.
I still think this Jazz team has a high ceiling, but it’s tough to imagine them winning two straight against a Dallas team that’s locked and loaded. The Jazz’s future is uncertain, and a loss in this round seems certain to spell massive changes for Utah next season.
Tier 6: “1, 2, 3, Cancun!”
Atlanta Hawks/Denver Nuggets/Chicago Bulls (each down 1-3)
These three teams are all scouring Kayak for the best travel deals right now.
Atlanta has had no luck springing Trae Young free from Miami’s vice-grip defense. Jokic has been individually excellent, but Denver has zero chance of stopping Golden State’s perimeter-heavy offense. Chicago looked feisty for a minute but has been blown out convincingly for two straight games — Giannis has barely had to break a sweat.
Is it crazy to think that any of these teams wins a Game 5? Of course not, but it does seem impossible that any wins three in a row for the comeback series win.
The Nuggets and Bulls hope better health will unlock greater success next season. However, this Hawks team might well look very different in the offseason after reports of poor chemistry and an underwhelming showing. A new roster and/or coach isn’t out of the question.
Tier 7: Eliminated, Thankfully.
Brooklyn Nets (lost 0-4 to Boston)
The circus around the Nets will never truly end, not with Kyrie saying things like, “When I say I’m here with Kev [Durant], I think that really entails us managing this franchise together” with the Nets’ front office. Who in their right minds would trust this guy to make personnel decisions? If I’m a Nets fan, I’m very concerned with this attitude.
But at least we don’t have to talk about the Nets from an on-the-court perspective anymore, where they ranged from mediocre to bitterly disappointing for the last two-thirds of the season.
Getting swept in the first round is a wake-up call. Irving was contained after his explosive Game 1, and Durant’s struggles exacerbated the weakness of a supporting cast that mostly didn’t show up for the playoffs.
This team will always look good when its two stars are playing well, but the idea that they’ll be world-beaters is well and truly dead.
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