for the first time in NBA History, the No. 7 (Lakers) and 8 (Heat) seeds are in the conference finals. You might be tempted to call these developments a fluke. They are not. They are an example of what an extremely fair NBA landscape it is. In sports, we like to say, “Anyone can win,” but that’s not really true. At this point in the NBA, it’s true.
The race for the 2023 trophy was wide open at the start of the game. And it will now remain wide open until the final four months.
If you’re looking for the betting favorite, it’s the Celtics at +105, followed by the Nuggets (+240), Lakers (+300) and Heat, who come in at +1600, via Caesars Sportsbook. If you ask me, that’s pretty good value against Miami, which could reasonably win everything. I don’t think they do. In fact, I’m picking them to lose to Boston in the ECF. But it can happen. anything It can happen.
With that in mind, let’s move on to our staff picks for the two conference-final matchups that begin Tuesday in Denver against the Lakers. (All predictions were made before the start of the series.)
Nuggets vs. Lakers picks
Ritter’s Pick: Nuggets in 5. There’s no time like the present to right a wrong. And the Nuggets showed me and everyone around the NBA how great they are. Nikola Jokic is certainly an all-world talent, but it’s an entire basketball team that appreciates Jokic’s incredible talent. They made easy work of the Phoenix Suns, and there’s no reason to think they can’t do the same against the Lakers. LA’s run was impressive, sure – but LeBron’s age and minutes, A.D. The fragility and reliability and confidence in the role of many players will meet the legitimate No. 1 seed.
Quinn’s Pick: Nugget in 6. Denver is the best team in the postseason. The Lakers have been shaky, hitting highs and excruciating lows that often lead to inconsistent 3-point shooting and how much energy LeBron James can expend at any given moment. They are incredibly vulnerable to foul trouble in this matchup. As well as the last time Anthony Davis’ Lakers and Nuggets played in the Finals, Dwight Howard spent major parts of that series guarding Nikola Jokic. The Lakers have no such second option. If Davis ever has to sit, Jokic will replace Wenyon Gabriel. It was an impressive effort for the Lakers, but the Nuggets have been a fixture in the West all season, and should enter this series as the favorite.
Ward-Henninger pick: Nuggets by 7. I was underestimating the Lakers before I saw them take out the Warriors in style, but the Nuggets are a much better team with an unstoppable MVP playing the best basketball of his career. Denver should be successful defending Anthony Davis out of the paint, opening up backdoor cutters and driving into the lane. Offensively, the Lakers should have more success than last round, but with LeBron James’ leg injury and age, the question of durability makes me lean toward the Nuggets with home court advantage alone.
Botkin’s pick: Nuggets at 6. Nikola Jokic is the best player in the league. He’ll guarantee Denver good shots all series long, and the only way such a consistent, high-quality offense can’t win is if the defense can’t catch it at all. Have you seen the Nuggets play defense? They are beyond holding. I think LA’s run ends here.
Herbert’s pick: Nuggets in 6. Los Angeles may be able to find a lineup that disrupts the Nuggets’ pretty offense, but it may struggle to score. And if the exporters are ahead of the gap, it’s hard to imagine if they’re getting enough stops. Unless Anthony Davis makes a zillion jumpers, I don’t see a real path to an upset.
Kaskey-Blomain pick: Lakers at 7. I’ve learned not to bet against LeBron James and I won’t start now. It’s amazing that the Lakers are in this position after completely overhauling their roster at the trade deadline, and the team is getting more comfortable as a unit with each passing game. Anthony Davis has been inconsistent this postseason, but when he was good, he was. Really He’s good, and if he can spread that level of play over more games, the Lakers should have the edge.
Wimbish’s pick: Nuggets by 5. The Nuggets have been the most consistent team in the postseason, and have proven time and time again that they can adjust and respond after a loss. The Lakers had an impressive streak against the defending champs, but Denver has better depth to make things difficult for LA’s defense.
Maloney’s pick: Nuggets in 6. Nikola Jokic is playing at an incredible level, and the Nuggets are pulling together the best offense in the game so far. Things won’t be easy for them against the Lakers defense, which has been the best of the postseason, but Jokic’s dominance will guarantee him good looks every time he touches the ball. Add in the Nuggets’ heavy home-court advantage and a better-than-usual defense, and they have what it takes to win the West.
Celtics with the Heat picks
Ritter’s Pick: Celtics at 7. It’s deja vu again, and once again it’s going to be a grinding, physical, defensive-minded battle. A number of factors narrow the talent gap here: Boston’s propensity for lackluster play and Miami’s razor-thin edge. Erik Spoelstra’s coaching excellence and experience on the awesome-but-on-the-job-learning Joe Mazzula. Jimmy Butler’s basketball superhero-in-game as Jimmy Buckets. Ultimately, though, Jayson Tatum is the best player in the series: The Celtics are too deep and too talented to beat a worthy but lesser foe.
Quinn’s pick: Celtics at 7. We saw this series a year ago, and I’m not just talking about the name and the uniform. Boston entered the third round feeling like it had slain the dragon in the second round. As the Celtics proved against Atlanta, they are more capable of talking nonsense than any team left in the playoffs. There will be a game or two stocked with indirect change. There will be a game or two dominated by Jimmy Butler. Boston should be the favorite here, but if the Celtics can’t make life easy for themselves against the Hawks, neither can the Heat.
Ward-Henninger pick: Celtics at 7. Miami is going to make life hell for Boston, but the Celtics have proven they are the best team in the NBA when they are locked in. Joe Mazzula should stick with a double-big lineup that wreaks havoc on the offensive glass against a small Heat team, with a rotating Robert Williams there to fix things for Miami’s offense. Boston has plenty of quality defenders to throw at Jimmy Butler and the ability to convert all of his dribbling handoffs and off-ball moves into Heat 3-pointers. It’s hard to believe Boston, but games 6 and 7 could wake them up against Philadelphia.
Botkin’s pick: Celtics at 6. From a matchup perspective, Boston’s double majors really matter to me in this series. With Robert Williams moving around, Jimmy Butler may find life in the paint more difficult, and Miami’s 3-point shooting looks more like all of Boston’s length and versatility on the perimeter during the regular season. I don’t know who is the best player in this series, Butler or Tatum, but after that, it’s the Celtics who are more talented. Maybe I’m just a talent snob and I’m too easy to dismiss the Heat culture and coach Erik Spoelstra, but I think Boston will win this series relatively convincingly.
Herbert’s pick: Celtics at 6. Boston knows who to attack in this matchup, and that’s the gap. Wow Better than the Heat saw in the second round. The question is whether or not the Celtics will be able to stay as disciplined as they need to compete against a Miami defense that will do everything it can to push them out of the region. I have very high hopes for that, and worry that the Heat offense won’t look the same without the obvious weak link to Hunt.
Kaskey-Blomain pick: Celtics at 6. The Heat have had an impressive run this postseason, but it ends here against a more talented Celtics team. The Celtics won the Eastern Conference Finals last season, and the result will be the same this time around. Boston has a deep roster, and they match up well against Miami. Jimmy Butler leads the Heat to a win, or two in a row, but they don’t have enough firepower to make it to the playoffs.
Wimbish’s pick: Celtics at 6. The Celtics finally started to look like a championship contending team in Game 7, and Jayson Tatum’s 51-point performance showed he was a freshman MVP contender. It’s hard to pick against Jimmy Butler and the Heat, but they don’t really match up against the Celtics and the absence of Tyler Hero really hurts Miami in this series.
Maloney’s pick: Celtics at 5. The Heat have proven time and time again that they are more than the sum of their parts, but grit, determination and confidence can only take you so far. Real talent and depth are at their disadvantage in this series, especially on the offensive side of the ball. It’s hard to see how they can keep up with a Celtics team that has one of the league’s best offenses and has shown they can do a lot of damage defensively in their last series. The Celtics should take extra credit from beating this Heat’s best team last season.