NBA Playoffs predictions: Nuggets send Lakers home again, Pacers upset Bucks

The 2024 NBA Playoffs tip-off on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET with the No. 2 seed New York Knicks hosting the No. 7 seed Philadelphia 76ers at Madison Square Garden.

The teams in the top half of each conference are coming off strong regular seasons, but there’s a ton of star power in the lower-seeded playoff teams this year, with the likes of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Kevin Durant and Devin Booker hoping to play spoiler in the first round.

We asked FOX Sports’ staff of NBA reporters — Ric Bucher, Melissa Rohlin and Yaron Weitzman — to make their predictions for the first round of the postseason. Here’s which teams they have advancing to the conference semifinals:

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. New Orleans Pelicans

Weitzman: Thunder in 5

I know the Thunder are young. But they’ve been a dominant team all season with a legit playoff closer in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Rohlin: Thunder in 5

The Thunder have been consistent and cohesive. And even though Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is only 25 years old, he seems to have the necessary composure to lead the Thunder past a New Orleans Pelicans team that will be playing without Zion Williamson for at least two weeks.

Bucher: Thunder in 5

OKC is young and largely unproven. As are the Pelicans. The difference: OKC has an MVP candidate (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander), a ROY candidate (Chet Holmgren), an MIP candidate (Jalen Williams) and a significantly better offense and defense.

Denver Nuggets vs. Los Angeles Lakers

Weitzman: Nuggets in 5

The Lakers just don’t have an answer for Nikola Jokic (not that anyone does), and their starting backcourt gives up too many baskets to exchange jabs. Their one shot is to catch fire from deep and hope that the Nuggets’ bench units completely falter. Maybe that gives them a win, perhaps two. But no more.

Rohlin: Nuggets in 6

LeBron James isn’t going to let the Nuggets sweep him out of the playoffs two years in a row. That being said, the Nuggets were a matchup nightmare for the Lakers during the Western Conference Finals last year, and I don’t see the Lakers being any more well-positioned to slow down Nikola Jokić or Jamal Murray this time around. Expect this series to be more competitive than it was last year because James isn’t going to let it be that quick. But don’t expect the Lakers to have a chance against the Nuggets.

Bucher: Nuggets in 5

Lakers are much better offensively than last year and much worse defensively. The wrinkle they have is three-point shooting — it’s the least part of Denver’s offensive arsenal. if Lakers get hot from long range and Nuggets get sucked in to trying to match them, the Lakers could eke out a game or two. But it’s hard to imagine that happening four times.

LeBron or AD: Who’s more important to Lakers success? | Speak

LeBron or AD: Who's more important to Lakers success? | Speak

Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Phoenix Suns

Weitzman: Timberwolves in 7

This is a really tough matchup for the Wolves. No team is more equipped to take advantage of their drop defense and the way Rudy Gobert walls off the rim than Phoenix’s midrange snipers. That said, I think Minnesota has enough wing defenders (Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels specifically, but also Kyle Anderson) to make life for Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal difficult. And I think Minnesota head coach Chris Finch is creative enough to come up with schemes that prevent the Suns from killing them in the midrange. All that said, this series is going to be close.

Rohlin: Timberwolves in 6

With Karl-Anthony Towns back in the lineup, I think the Timberwolves will edge out the Suns. Towns, Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards have proven to be one of the toughest trios in the league this season. Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal seem like they’re still figuring each other out and I don’t know if they’re going to have the necessary togetherness to stop a team that’s clearly found their rhythm. 

Bucher: Timberwolves in 7

Truly torn on this one — I’d like to see the Suns advance because I see them as the team best equipped to test the Nuggets.

 But the TWolves’ D is legit and we’ve seen the Suns unravel mentally when they struggle scoring.

Dallas Mavericks vs. LA Clippers

Weitzman: Mavericks in 6

The Kawhi injury changes everything. Who knows if he plays this series, or what he looks like when he does. And without him I don’t think the Clippers have any way of containing, let alone slowing Luke Doncic. He’s going to be hunting James Harden and Ivica Zubac whenever he can, and Kyrie Irving has gotten so good at playing off of Doncic and attacking rotating defenses. It’s just too much for the Clippers to cover.  

Rohlin: Mavericks in 5

It’s hard to answer this question without having a better understanding of whether Kawhi Leonard will play. Without him, this will be a quick series, marking just another bad break for a franchise that seems to have had too many of those. If Leonard plays, my answer would change. But right now, he’s just too much of a question mark.

Bucher:  Mavericks in 5

I watched the Clippers melt under pressure way too many times this season to believe they’re going to handle the raised stakes of the playoffs, especially with Kawhi Leonard absent or short of full capacity, The Clippers have knocked Luka Doncic out of the playoffs in the first round twice, but that was during his first two years in the league. He’s a significantly different player and the Mavs are a significantly different team. Payback time.

Will Nuggets repeat as champs, Celtics as favorites, can Lakers, 76ers seek revenge? | Undisputed

Will Nuggets repeat as champs, Celtics as favorites, can Lakers, 76ers seek revenge? | Undisputed

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Boston Celtics vs. Miami Heat

Weitzman: Celtics in 4

The Celtics, by all statistical measures, just completed one of the best regular seasons in NBA history. They’re entering the playoffs healthy and hungry. 

Rohlin: Celtics in 5

It’s really too bad that Jimmy Butler is out, otherwise this would’ve been my dark horse series. Afterall, we saw the Heat go from the play-in tournament to reaching the Finals last year because of the Playoff Jimmy effect. But without Butler, the Celtics should swiftly win this series.  

Bucher: Celtics in 5

This is a chance for the Celtics to exorcise some demons – or create some new ones. I’m going with the former – the Celtics simply have too much firepower and the Heat will be without Jimmy Butler. But a combination of what they did last year and their dismantling of the Bulls to claim the last playoff spot in the East will certainly have Miami thinking they can pull a massive upset for a second year in the row. Having Terry Rozier would be a big boost, but he missed both play-in games and his neck issue has been changed from spasms to a sprain. I’m not convinced the Celtics will live up to their regular-season dominance, but the talent disparity is just too great, especially with Butler unavailable.

New York Knicks vs. Philadelphia 76ers

Weitzman: Knicks in 7

The way Joel Embiid has looked the past few games is worrisome. The Knicks also have two centers capable of holding up against him in Isaiah Hartenstein and Mitchell Robinson, plus OG Anunoby wreaking havoc on the backline. If Embiid was healthy, the Sixers would win this. With him at his current state, the Knicks might actually have the best player on the court in Jalen Brunson. 

Rohlin: 76ers in 6

I’m going to give the nod to the 76ers here. Sure, Embiid is still working his way back from an extended absence because of knee surgery, but I think he’ll take his game to another level in this series, not wanting yet another early playoff exit. 

Bucher: Knicks in 6

If Joel Embiid were healthy, I might understand oddsmakers favoring the 76ers — but he’s not. Squeaking by a Heat team with Jimmy Butler on one leg and Duncan Robinson and Terry Rozier on the bench did not impress me. The Knicks can go toe-to-toe with the Sixers in size at every position and OG Anunoby has transformed them defensively.

Is Jalen Brunson the best player in the Knicks vs. 76ers series? | The Carton Show

Is Jalen Brunson the best player in the Knicks vs. 76ers series? | The Carton Show

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Indiana Pacers

Weitzman: Pacers in 6

No Giannis, no shot for the Bucks. His absence kills them on both ends, and the Bucks were already low on depth. 

Rohlin: Pacers in 5

This will be yet another playoff series tilted by a superstar’s absence. Without Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks stand no chance. 

Bucher: Pacers in 5

I favored the Pacers even before Giannis got hurt; the second-fastest pace in the league is not what the oldest team in the league wants to face, which is why  it’s no accident Indy went 4-1 against Milwaukee in the regular season. I expect Tyrese Haliburton to put on a show.

Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Orlando Magic

Weitzman: Cavaliers in 6

I really want to pick the Magic, because I love everything about their season, am in awe of what Jonathan Isaac can do on defense, and because I’m not a believer in this Cavs group. HOWEVER, the Magic just don’t have enough offense to survive down the stretch of tight games. The Cavs, meanwhile, have Donovan Mitchell. His presence will be the difference in this series. 

Rohlin: Magic in 6

Donovan Mitchell hasn’t looked quite like himself since suffering a bone bruise in his left knee. If Jalen Suggs can help keep Mitchell from consistently catching fire, I could see Orlando advancing. 

Bucher: Cavaliers in 6

The Cavs limped to their regular-season finish, losing nine of their last 14 games. That said, the postseason is new territory for seven of the Magic’s nine-man rotation. Experience wins out and the Cavs move on.

Celtics & Suns on opposite ends of Nick’s NBA Title Pie | First Things First

Celtics & Suns on opposite ends of Nick’s NBA Title Pie | First Things First

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a weekly podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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