NBA Playoffs: 2nd Round Preview

The second round of the NBA playoffs tips off Saturday night in Denver. By the conclusion of next Thursday, all series will have their first two games in. You can check out each team’s season-long numbers at our pre-playoff notebook, The Tale of the Tape. The statistical results, both team and individual, are posted in the 1st Round Wraps. Here are some thoughts, context, and the betting odds on each of the conference semifinals.


(1)Boston (-1600) – (4)Cleveland
Even with Kristaps Porzingis out for this series, the Celtics are a prohibitive favorite and that makes sense. For the Cavs, this has been a nice year, marked by the first time they’ve advanced in the playoffs without LeBron since the Mark Price era back in the early 1990s. But Cleveland also showed their weaknesses in their seven-game survival of Orlando. They didn’t win a game on the road. They didn’t get consistent support for Donovan Mitchell, including in the Game 7 clincher.  Their own center, Jarrett Allen, missed the last three games with a rib injury, and his status remains uncertain.

Moreover, Boston didn’t get even one spectacular shooting game from Jayson Tatum in their five-game dispatching of Miami. This series is more about measuring whether this Celtics edition is really ready to finish the job in June, rather than about who wins or loses in the second round. If Boston again puts the hammer down in five games or less, they’re on a championship pace. If they have to stretch this beyond that, it’s a sign of concern for what lies ahead.

(2)New York (-300) – (6)Indiana
The echoes of postseason lore get awakened when the Knicks and Pacers play. There’s Reggie Miller trash talking Spike Lee in those great battles of 1994 and 1995. They played in the conference finals in both 1999 and 2000, each team winning once. Back in 2013, Indiana took out Carmelo Anthony’s best New York team in this round.

The Knicks just look like the much better team this go-around. Jalen Brunson is a tough-as-nails leader, they’re well-coached and have several role players who can stand up. The Pacers are here because they drew a Bucks team that was wounded in the playoffs and doesn’t play a lot of defense even when healthy.

I’m more curious as to whether New York has it in them to really put the hammer down—come out with a couple of wins in their home floor, and close it out in five or less. It’s hard for me to imagine the Knicks actually losing this series.

(1)Oklahoma City – (5)Dallas
As of Saturday morning, I haven’t seen series betting prices. It will be interesting to see what the market thinks. (Editor’s Note: By Monday morning, OKC was a (-122) favorite.) At the start of the playoffs, Dallas actually had the third-best price to win the championship (11-1), trailing only Boston and Denver. Whatever the odds for this series show up as, the Mavs clearly have some respect disproportionate to what a 5-seed normally gets.

The issues that will decide this are basic—is it better to have more good players, or to have two of the three best players? The Thunder is deeper. But Dallas has Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving, while OKC can only answer with Shaq Gilgeous-Alexander. In a league where star power at the end of big games matters a lot, that’s a big deal.

It’s also a big deal that Oklahoma City doesn’t rebound well. Dallas does hit the boards. If the Mavericks are going to pull the upset (at least based on seeding), they’ll need some offensive boards followed by a kickout to Luka or Kyrie for a money three-ball.

The NBA playoffs are a time for veterans. The Thunder are the future, but three of their four wins against a Zion-less New Orleans team were close. The Mavericks have been playing well down the stretch and will keep it going here. Dallas in six.

(2)Denver (-215) – (3)Minnesota
This looks like the most compelling series of the second round. Minnesota doesn’t get betting market respect—they were a modest underdog to a Phoenix team they ran out of the gym in four straight. But the Timberwolves have all the pieces you need to win a championship. Anthony Edwards had breakout playoff moments in that first-round sweep and is a legit go-to star. Karl Anthony-Towns and Rudy Gobert can cause tremendous problems on the blocks, with both post scoring and rebounding. And defense? The T-Wolves were merely the best in the league.

But they’re going against the defending champs. Denver has no weaknesses, and they have more than a good go-to star. They have the star, Nikola Jokic. Jamal Murray would be the star on about 25 other teams. Even more important, the Nuggets battle-readiness showed in their first-round win over the Lakers. Those games were close—riveting, in fact. But Denver consistently made the key plays. Championship teams in the NBA have a way of playing better than their statistical profile when it matters most. The Nuggets do that.

I think Minnesota is the third-best team in the NBA. They may even be second-best, as we watch how Boston carries themselves in the playoffs. But the unfortunate fate of the draw has them playing the toughest out of them all in the second round. The Timberwolves have a glimmer of hope in that Murray may not play tonight’s opener, offering a chance to steal one on the road. Minnesota will be competitive in all of these games. But Denver has close-out ability. I’m expecting this to go like the Los Angeles series—a “five that feels like seven.” It wouldn’t surprise me if it literally goes seven. But unless Murray’s injury is more lasting than reports make it sound, Denver will ultimately move on.