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SI:AM | One Reason to Watch Every NBA First-Round Series

Are you ready for two months of playoff basketball?

Good morning, I’m Dan Gartland. I’m more than ready to spend all weekend watching playoff basketball and hockey. 

In today’s SI:AM: 

🏈 Analyzing this year’s QBs
MLB’s best relievers
🏀 Kansas lands a top transfer

Playoff basketball is here

I’ll be honest, I was initially intending to write something about the most interesting series in the first round of the NBA playoffs (which begin tomorrow). But then I looked at the matchups again and realized that they’ve all got something to offer, so let’s take a brief look at what makes each series worthwhile.

No. 4 Cavaliers vs. No. 5 Magic (Game 1 Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN)

If you haven’t been paying close attention to the NBA this season, you might be surprised to see that the Orlando Magic are the fifth seed in the East. They had been terrible for a while (they haven’t won a playoff series since 2010), but they posted a very respectable 47–35 record this season.

The biggest reason for their success has been the emergence of Paolo Banchero as a top-tier NBA player. After winning the Rookie of the Year last season, Banchero was named to his first All-Star team this year. These playoffs could be a coming out party for him, as a wider audience comes to realize how fun his combination of size and skill is.

No. 3 Timberwolves vs. No. 6 Suns (Game 1 Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN)

The reason to tune in here is obvious: Anthony Edwards is going to do something that will make your jaw drop. He might be the most athletic player in the entire NBA (just watch his game-saving block from March 7 again if you need a reminder), but he’s also developing into the kind of all-around player who can lead a team to a championship. He had four 40-point games this season, including 51 in a game on April 9.

The T-Wolves are legitimate title contenders. They would have had a shot at the top seed in the West if they hadn’t lost two of their last three games. They boast the best defense in the league, thanks to Edwards on the perimeter and Rudy Gobert down low, and have a great one-two scoring punch with Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns.

No. 2 Knicks vs. No. 7 76ers (Game 1 Saturday at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN)

Knicks fans are awfully excited about their team getting the No. 2 seed in the East, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Yes, New York’s 50–32 record is impressive (its best season since 2012–13), but the East standings were a logjam this season, with only four games separating second place and eighth place. The Knicks are good, but it would be foolish to state confidently that they’re the second best team in the conference.

The Sixers present a good early test to see just how good this Knicks team is. Philadelphia has flaws (as it showed in an ugly first half of Wednesday’s play-in game against the Heat) but Joel Embiid can take over any game. This won’t be your typical 2 vs. 7 matchup.

No. 2 Nuggets vs. No. 7 Lakers (Game 1 Saturday at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC)

LeBron. Do I need to say anything else? You don’t know how many more opportunities you’ll get to see LeBron James in the playoffs.

Apr 3, 2024; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum drives to the basket vs. Oklahoma City Thunder.

Tatum (left) and the Celtics have looked unstoppable for much of this season.

No. 1 Celtics vs. No. 8 Bulls or Heat (Game 1 Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on ABC)

This will be a sweep. All due respect to the two teams vying for the last spot in the field in Friday night’s play-in game, but the Celtics are a machine. This first-round matchup will be a great opportunity to see what they’re capable of against an inferior opponent.

No. 4 Clippers vs. No. 5 Mavericks (Game 1 Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC)

This series hinges on the availability of Kawhi Leonard, who missed the final seven games of the regular season with knee inflammation and is considered questionable for Game 1. If he’s not able to go, stopping Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving will be a whole lot tougher. Speaking of Dončić, he’s the real reason to watch this one. If not for the continued excellence of Nikola Jokić, Dončić would be a runaway MVP choice. He led the league in scoring this season with 33.9 points per game while also averaging 9.8 assists and 9.2 rebounds. His return to the playoffs is a welcome development after the Mavs crashed and burned to miss the postseason last year.

No. 3 Bucks vs. No. 6 Pacers (Game 1 Sunday at 7 p.m. ET on TNT)

What the hell happened to the Bucks? They made the surprising decision to fire first-year coach Adrian Griffin after just 43 games. Whatever the team hoped new coach Doc Rivers would fix, it didn’t work. Milwaukee is 17–19 since he took over. And now the Bucks are expected to be without Giannis Antetokounmpo for the start of this first-round series.

That opens the door for the Pacers. Indiana has been a pleasant surprise this season, reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2020. The play of Tyrese Haliburton is a major reason why. He led the league with 10.9 assists per game this season. But the real reason the Pacers are where they are now is because of the tremendous strides they’ve made on defense. They ranked 24th this season in defensive efficiency, which doesn’t sound all that impressive at first. But it’s a marked improvement over the beginning of the season, when they had one of the worst defenses in league history. The addition of Pascal Siakam, who was acquired in a trade on Jan. 17, was a boon for the defense. After allowing 122.3 points per game before the All-Star break, the Pacers allowed 115.8 after the break.

No. 1 Thunder vs. No. 8 Kings or Pelicans (Game 1 Sunday at 9:30 p.m. ET on TNT)

This is your opportunity to get a look at the future of the NBA. The Western Conference landscape is changing as LeBron ages and the Warriors wilt. The Thunder could be the next great team to dominate the conference. They finished in first place with a 57–25 record, and they did it with a roster of guys who are barely old enough to drink. OKC’s top seven players in minutes per game are all 25 or younger. Four of the seven are 22 or younger. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the best scorers in the league and Chet Holmgren exceeded all expectations in his rookie season after sitting out all of last year with a foot injury. Wiping the floor with their first-round opponent should be the start of a deep playoff run for the Thunder.

Nov 18, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; USC Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams (13) scrambles.

Williams is expected to be drafted No. 1 next week.

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2. Masters runner-up Ludvig Åberg’s 271-yard 2-iron to set up an eagle.
1. Yankees prospect Roc Riggio’s improbable double play.