With the play-in tournament complete and the playoff field set, the NBA’s postseason will begin in earnest on Saturday. Since three of Saturday’s four games are Eastern Conference matchups, we’re zeroing in on those first round series this morning before shifting our focus to the West later today.
Here are the four first round series in the East:
Milwaukee Bucks (1) vs. Miami Heat (8)
This series holds a little more intrigue than the typical No. 1 vs. No. 8 matchup. The Heat won the most games in the Eastern Conference in 2021/22 and nearly made it to the NBA Finals last spring. This year’s team isn’t much different from that one, even if its in-season results were a lot less impressive. A group led by Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo certainly won’t roll over in the playoffs.
Still, the Bucks were one of the NBA’s most dominant teams in the regular season, winning a league-high 58 games. And despite some injury question marks, they’re the deeper, more talented team in this matchup. This series may not be a repeat of Milwaukee’s four-game sweep of Miami in round one of the 2021 playoffs en route to a Bucks championship, but there’s a reason why Giannis Antetokounmpo are massive betting favorites (-1200, per BetOnline.ag).
Boston Celtics (2) vs. Atlanta Hawks (7)
The Celtics will enter their first round series as even bigger betting favorites (-1300) than the Bucks. Boston’s +6.7 net rating on the season was the NBA’s best mark by a comfortable margin, whereas Atlanta has spent much of the season looking like a league-average team, finishing the year at 41-41 (with a +0.1 net rating) before winning a play-in game over Miami.
The Celtics’ No. 2 overall defense should be capable of slowing down the Hawks‘ star backcourt of Trae Young and Dejounte Murray; it remains to be seen whether Atlanta will have any answer at the other end of the court for Boston’s star wings, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. A Hawks upset isn’t impossible, but it looks like a real long shot, barring injuries.
Philadelphia 76ers (3) vs. Brooklyn Nets (6)
While the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are often significant favorites in NBA playoff series, it’s unusual for a No. 3 team to be as heavily favored as the Sixers are over the Nets (-1200). The odds make sense though — Philadelphia had the NBA’s third-best record, trailing only two Eastern powerhouses. And Brooklyn likely wouldn’t have finished as high as sixth in the East if not for the first-half contributions of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, who are no longer on the roster.
The new-look Nets, led by Mikal Bridges, were competitive down the stretch, but they went just 13-15 after the trade deadline. The 76ers, meanwhile, followed up a 12-12 start to the season by winning 42 of their last 58 games, and they’ll be at full strength in the playoffs — stars Joel Embiid, James Harden, and Tyrese Maxey are all healthy after missing between 16 and 24 games apiece during the regular season.
Cleveland Cavaliers (4) vs. New York Knicks (5)
Now we’re talking. The rest of the Eastern Conference series are viewed as pretty one-sided, but the Cavaliers and Knicks is something a little closer to a toss-up. Cleveland is a -190 betting favorite, per BetOnline.ag, while New York is at +165 to win the series.
On paper, there are plenty of reasons to back the Cavaliers. Their +5.6 net rating ranked No. 2 in the NBA, buoyed by a league-best 109.9 defensive rating. And Donovan Mitchell is the sort of battle-tested scorer a team wants on its roster in the postseason.
On the other hand, besides Mitchell, Cleveland’s top players lack postseason experience. Darius Garland and Evan Mobley will be appearing in their first playoff game on Saturday, and Jarrett Allen didn’t advance beyond the first round in two brief postseason appearances in Brooklyn. These Knicks are well coached and have the East’s best offense (120.4 rating) since the calendar flipped to 2023.
The status of Julius Randle‘s left ankle could be significant — it sounds like he’s aiming to return for Game 1 on Saturday, but he hasn’t played since spraining the ankle on March 29 and likely isn’t back to 100% yet.