With the second round of the 2023 NBA playoffs underway, there are plenty of eye-popping matchups and intriguing storylines that have emerged.
There is the resurrection of a storied rivalry, as the Miami Heat and New York Knicks battle it out in the East. There’s LeBron James vs. Stephen Curry, but this time in the West, as the Los Angeles Lakers play the Golden State Warriors. Did we mention that Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns are looking to rally from a 2-0 hole to knock off Nikola Jokic and the top-seeded Denver Nuggets?
Perhaps the most underrated series is Philadelphia 76ers vs. Boston Celtics, as the top two remaining seeds in the Eastern Conference clash after the Milwaukee Bucks were stunned by the Heat.
But with great battles come great adversity, as several teams have been hit with the injury bug in the most crucial part of the season. Jimmy Butler tweaked his ankle in Game 1 against the Knicks, Joel Embiid has not played since Game 3 of the first round and Chris Paul strained his groin in Game 1 against the Nuggets.
Our experts break down the biggest matchups and storylines in the second round, and what they’re following the most at this point in the postseason.
1. Of the second-round teams, which player has been your MVP of these playoffs so far?
Dave McMenamin: Jimmy Butler’s 56-point performance for the Heat in Game 4 to put No. 1-seeded Milwaukee on the brink of elimination would have been enough to earn the distinction, but the fact that he followed it up with that wild, game-tying shot at the end of Game 5 makes it one of the greatest opening rounds in NBA history.
Ramona Shelburne: I just got done watching Golden State’s Stephen Curry turn in a sublime 50-burger in Game 7 against the Sacramento Kings, so it’s hard for me to say anyone else. But Butler is the answer. He had one of the all-time great series against the Bucks and completely changed the dynamics of these playoffs.
Tim Bontemps: There have been lots of great performances in these playoffs, but the only correct answer is Butler. To take down the championship favorite in the fashion he did is an iconic performance that no one else in this postseason can touch.
Jamal Collier: Butler. His first-round series against the Bucks is one of the best playoff performances of all time. Take a look at the rotation the Heat are piecing together and you’ll appreciate even more the way Butler has dragged this team to one of the biggest playoff upsets in NBA history, with a chance to win another series.
Andrew Lopez: Butler willed a team that suffered two injuries in the first round — Tyler Herro‘s fractured right hand and Victor Oladipo‘s torn left patellar tendon — and still managed to get by the top-seeded Bucks in just five games. Butler followed up his 56-point masterpiece with a 42-point effort to close out the Bucks in Game 5.
2. The injury to which player will have the biggest impact on the rest of the playoffs: Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, Chris Paul or Julius Randle?
Bontemps: Watching Paul walk off the court with yet another postseason injury felt like a death knell for Phoenix’s chances of winning the title. The Suns already had a dangerously top-heavy team. Without Paul, it’s hard to see how Phoenix has the firepower to defeat Denver, let alone win a championship.
McMenamin: We’re talking the duration of the playoffs, so it has to be Embiid. He had another MVP-level season — and this time actually won the award — while playing for the most complete Sixers team since he arrived in Philadelphia. With him, the 76ers have hope of ending the franchise’s 40-year championship drought. Without him — as brilliant as James Harden was in Game 1 against Boston — it’s hard to see happening.
Shelburne: If Butler isn’t right for more than a few games, the Heat are really going to have a hard time scoring against a good Knicks defense. Randle returned for Game 2 and I think Embiid will be back soon enough, so that should impact their respective series. Losing Paul for any length of time really hurts the Suns, who lack depth, but I do think they have a capable backup in Cameron Payne, who just recently got healthy himself.
Collier: Credit the Sixers and Harden for the way they opened the series in Game 1. But if Philadelphia has hopes of winning three more games and an even more wide-open Eastern Conference, it needs Embiid on the floor playing like the MVP.
Lopez: Whether Embiid can perform at the level we’ve become accustomed to him playing will be key. If he isn’t himself, more of the burden will fall on Harden to take out the Celtics. Harden had a terrific performance in Game 1, but getting back a healthy-as-possible Embiid will go a long way for Philadelphia.
3. Fill in the blank: The NBA’s second round has been ___
Lopez: Refreshing. All four series have their own backstories. Whether it’s the history of Heat-Knicks or Celtics-Sixers, the names in the Warriors-Lakers series or the sheer talent on the floor in Nuggets-Suns (not to take away from the talent in other series), all four bring something different to the table.
Shelburne: A box-office dream. We got another Curry-James matchup, a reprisal of the great Knicks-Heat rivalry and the Philadelphia-Boston series we’ve been waiting for all season. The NBA has to be thrilled. Let’s just hope the games live up to the hype.
Bontemps: Dominated by injuries. Miami is waiting on Butler, New York was without Randle in Game 1, Embiid’s status hangs over Boston-Philadelphia and now Phoenix waits to find out what is next for Paul’s injured groin. And none of that even accounts for James’ foot issue. That’s a lot of star power dealing with injuries that could have a massive impact on the players’ respective series.
Collier: Marquee. You could not have asked for better and more intriguing matchups in the second round than these.
McMenamin: Great on paper. Now we need everyone to stay as healthy as possible so the series’ outcomes reflect the best teams and not just the most fortunate ones — in order to get as strong of a conference finals field as imaginable.
4. The player still standing who most needs to win the title this year is ____
McMenamin: Giannis Antetokounmpo would have us believe that nobody needs to. There’s no failure in sports, right? But my real answer? Paul. It’s the only thing missing on his otherwise sparkling career. The other guys left in the tournament with no rings still have time on their side to some degree. Paul doesn’t.
Shelburne: I think it’s Jokic. He is the best passing big man of all time and a two-time MVP winner, but a lot like Antetokounmpo in 2021, Jokic needs that dominant playoff run for his career résumé. He has the team to do it too. And that team could get expensive soon, so there’s some urgency to win this year.
Collier: Jayson Tatum. With Milwaukee eliminated and Embiid slowed by a knee injury, Boston’s path to the championship looks clear. Not taking advantage of this opportunity would be a huge step back for the Celtics after reaching the NBA Finals last season.
Bontemps: I said going into the playoffs that Jokic has more pressure on him than any player in the NBA, and so far, he has delivered. If Denver can get 10 more wins, it would do an immense amount to raise Jokic’s all-time standing.
Lopez: Jokic. James and Curry have their rings. I don’t think Tatum is there yet in terms of “needing” to win at this stage of his career. But the two-time MVP has come under some scrutiny because of his team’s postseason success — even though Jamal Murray didn’t play in the previous two postseasons.
5. What are your dream matchups for the conference finals?
McMenamin: Give me Lakers-Suns and Knicks-Celtics. The Lakers have talked a lot of smack about that first-round series in 2021 when Phoenix beat them, claiming they would have won it if Anthony Davis had been healthy. OK, go prove it. And from Red Sox–Yankees, we know how intense Boston-New York crowds can get with such stakes on the line.
Lopez: You could legitimately make the argument that all four outcomes in both conferences are plausible and on the table. The Knicks in the conference finals would mean an even more intense crowd at Madison Square Garden. The history would be there with either Boston or Philadelphia. Miami making it with “Playoff Jimmy” is always fun. The West is open, but every possibility brings intrigue and makes for must-see viewing.
Collier: Suns-Warriors and Heat-Celtics. Durant having to go through the Warriors for a chance to go to the Finals. And a rematch of last year’s conference finals in the East, giving Butler another shot at the Celtics.
Shelburne: I’d love to see the Knicks in the conference finals, just for the atmosphere at MSG. New York has waited a long time to get back in contention, so if I’m keeping with this theme of rewarding long-suffering fleets, I will go with Philadelphia as the Knicks’ opponent because the Sixers haven’t been that deep since 1983! In the West, I think every potential matchup would be compelling.
Bontemps: This is a cop-out answer, but I genuinely am excited for any possible combination of matchups. There is drama and intrigue with all eight of the teams left as well as big-time star power across the board — not to mention legacy-changing implications for basically any of them reaching the Finals and winning the title. At this point, it’d just be nice to avoid further injuries.