After two thrilling first-round Game 7s, the NBA’s conference semifinals are finally set. The Houston Rockets edged the Oklahoma City Thunder to set up a meeting with the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers, while the Denver Nuggets outdueled the Utah Jazz to clinch a matchup with the LA Clippers.
Who will advance in the bubble? Our experts break down what you need to know about the conference semifinals.
Western Conference semifinals
The Lakers got past Portland with a gentleman’s sweep after dropping Game 1, eventually looking look like the team we saw in March, reclaiming their reputation as title favorites. After scoring 126 points per game on 48% from the field in the seeding round, all the Trail Blazers could muster was 106.6 points on 43% in the first round against the Lakers’ pressure. “I was very impressed how we committed to the defensive end,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said.
LeBron James, who was substandard in the seeding games, was locked in, averaging 27.4 points on 60% from the field (46% from 3) with 10.2 rebounds and 10.2 assists. And L.A.’s shooters found their stroke. After a disastrous 5-for-32 (15.6%) showing from 3 in the series opener, the Lakers got it together from the outside, hitting 55-for-143 (38.5%) from deep the rest of the way.
Biggest question after Round 1: Can Kyle Kuzma continue to be a defensive stopper?
Not too long ago, the following statement by Kuzma — shared with reporters this week as he looked ahead to the second round — would have sounded a little silly:
“I’ve just taken pride in defense, trying to help this team try to win games … I’m just going to keep coming and attacking and trying to get stops.”
But it wasn’t just talk. According to Second Spectrum data, Kuzma held opponents to 35.1% shooting in the first round, compared to 45.5% in the regular season. As of Monday, among the 73 players to defend at least 25 jump shots during these playoffs, Kuzma ranked 10th, limiting opponents to just 30.3%. “I just take it personal,” he said. “I get pissed when I get scored on. I don’t want to be scored on. That’s just my whole mindset.”
Matchup to watch: Size vs. small ball
Houston started its experiment against the Lakers, coincidentally enough, beating L.A. 121-111 at Staples Center on Feb. 6 in a game James Harden in which took the center circle for the opening tipoff. The Rockets went 19-for-42 (45.2%) from 3 and Russell Westbrook ran roughshod over L.A.’s defense, scoring 41 points — many of which came in transition. JaVale McGee — who has started every game he’s played for the Lakers this season — played just 16 minutes. And Dwight Howard, L.A.’s backup center, played only four, as Anthony Davis slid to the 5.
Stephen A. Smith doesn’t see Anthony Davis or LeBron James being stopped by any team, but the duo need support around them in order for the Lakers to win a championship.
What the stats say
LeBron James improved to 14-0 in first-round series in his career. Under the current playoff format (since 1984), only Robert Horry and Derek Fisher have more first-round series wins without a loss (16-0). James joined Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry as the only players over the past 30 years with a 30-point triple-double in a series-clinching win, and he averaged a triple-double for an entire series for the second time in his career (2017 NBA Finals).
— Dave McMenamin
Mike D’Antoni’s Rockets won the first round with defense. Yes, you read that right. The Rockets have the best defensive rating in the bubble playoffs, allowing 101.3 points per 100 possessions. That was the key in Houston surviving a series in which James Harden was just good by his standards (29.7 points, 8.0 assists) and Russell Westbrook sat the first four games and was limited upon his return. The Rockets’ switch-everything scheme presented problems to an OKC squad that relies heavily on guard penetration. Of course, the Lakers present different sorts of challenges, particularly with Anthony Davis‘ ability to score out of the post.
Biggest question after Round 1: Can Westbrook perform at a superstar level?
The Rockets will need both of their recent MVPs to be rolling if they want to knock off the West’s top seed. Westbrook understandably looked a little rusty after returning from the strained right quadriceps that sidelined him for eight of nine games, including the first four of the Rockets’ series against the Thunder. They need Westbrook to be able to push the tempo and put up explosive numbers, like his 41-point, 8-rebound, 5-assist performance in the Rockets’ road victory over the Lakers before the All-Star break.
Matchup to watch: Rockets vs. Lakers centers
First, we need to find out whether Lakers coach Frank Vogel will stick with his big lineups or blink again. He blinked on Feb. 6, the Rockets’ first game after committing to the 6-foot-7-and-less look by trading for Robert Covington. Centers JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard combined to play only 20 minutes in that game — including only 50 seconds in the fourth quarter as Houston closed out a road win. Should the Lakers stay big and try to overwhelm the Rockets on the boards? Can the Lakers’ big men be effective defending 3-point shooters?
James Harden and the Rockets edge the Thunder 104-102 to close out a tightly contested Game 7.
What the stats say
The Rockets let it fly in the first round. They shot 128-of-357 from 3-point range against the Thunder, the most makes and attempts in a playoff series in NBA history.
— Tim MacMahon
2. LA Clippers
Round 1: Def. Mavericks 4-2
BPI odds vs. Nuggets: 78%
Dallas Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic proved to be more of a challenge than expected, but Round 1 was a good opening test for a Clippers team that still hasn’t seen what it can do at full power since Patrick Beverley was sidelined. The team can get disengaged at times, Montrezl Harrell is rounding into shape, and Paul George weathered an epic slump, but the Clippers got closer off the court with all the players’ meetings during last week’s boycott. Kawhi Leonard is playing like a Finals MVP, Ivica Zubac is on the rise, and Landry Shamet emerged as a playoff contributor. This group’s best basketball is surely still ahead.
Biggest question after Round 1: Can Leonard get enough offensive support?
Specifically, can Paul George be the other star threat that the Clippers need? George shot a combined 10-for-47 in Games 2, 3 and 4, including going 4-for-25 from 3. Give him credit for sharing that he was in a “dark place” and experiencing some anxiety and depression in the isolating bubble. He rebounded with 35 points in Game 5 and 15 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists in Game 6. Dallas wasn’t good enough to take advantage of George’s struggles, but the Clippers might not be able to weather another PG slump.
Matchup to watch: Kawhi Leonard vs. Jamal Murray
After dealing with the versatile Doncic, Leonard and the Clippers will have to find a way to slow down the hottest guard in the playoffs. While Nikola Jokic does so much for the Nuggets’ offense, Murray has elevated his game to another level. Murray was hampered by a thigh bruise in Game 7, but he outdueled Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, averaging 31.6 points per game in the series. Leonard and George will likely have opportunities to guard Murray, as Beverley has been working his way back from a left calf injury. Clippers coach Doc Rivers will probably want to send a wave of defenders to try to wear down Murray, but the Clippers’ pick-and-roll defense will have to be sharp and disciplined.
Kawhi Leonard goes off for 33 points and 14 rebounds as he helps lead the Clippers to a 111-97 Game 6 win over the Mavericks to advance to the second round of the playoffs.
What the stats say
Kawhi Leonard closed out the first round in style, becoming the seventh player in NBA history to record 30 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 steals in a playoff game and the first to do so since Gary Payton 20 years ago. Leonard has scored 30 points in five consecutive games, marking the second-longest 30-point playoff streak in team history, behind Bob McAdoo’s nine straight.
— Ohm Youngmisuk
3. Denver Nuggets
Round 1: Def. Jazz 4-3
BPI odds vs. Clippers: 22%
What can be said about the Nuggets’ seven-game victory over the Jazz that hasn’t already been said? Down 3-1 and unable to stop Donovan Mitchell, Denver looked finished before it flipped the series behind Jamal Murray’s incandescent three-game streak: a combined 142 points on 81 shots in Game 4 through Game 6. Playing their third Game 7 in as many playoff series over the past two seasons, the Nuggets built a 14-point halftime lead, which helped them survive scoring just 30 points in the second half of an 80-78 fight.
Biggest question after Round 1: How does Denver match up with the Clippers’ star wings?
Nuggets coach Michael Malone juggled his starting lineup to get a foothold defensively against Utah, and Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Clippers’ pair of All-NBA wings with size, will create even greater challenges. Expect Malone to stick with Jerami Grant at small forward, which would allow him to defend Leonard, the most common matchup for Denver in the regular season, according to Second Spectrum data. The other wing spot could go to Torrey Craig or Gary Harris to defend George.
Matchup to watch: Jamal Murray vs. Kawhi Leonard
Assuming Patrick Beverley is able to return from the calf strain that sidelined him for much of the Clippers’ opening-round win over the Mavericks, I suspect he’ll get the first shot at defending Murray. As good as Beverley is defensively, however, the matchup we want to see is Murray against the former Defensive Player of the Year. Per Second Spectrum, Leonard was the Clippers’ most common matchup for Murray, in part because Beverley missed the seeding game between the teams. Murray averaged 25.0 points per 100 matchups against Beverley but just 19.2 against Leonard.
The Nuggets advance past the Jazz after edging out an 80-78 Game 7 win.
What the stats say
Jamal Murray scored 40 points in three straight playoff games, making him the sixth player to do so in NBA history and the first player since Allen Iverson in 2001. Murray averaged 31.6 points per game in the first round, the highest scoring average in a playoff series in team history.
— Kevin Pelton
Eastern Conference semifinals
1. Milwaukee Bucks
Round 1: Def. Magic 4-1
BPI odds vs. Heat (pre-Game 1): 85%
The Bucks were stunned in Game 1 against the Orlando Magic, which prompted them to lock in and handle business. Outside of the competition on the court, a lot happened for Milwaukee in the opening round: Giannis Antetokounmpo was named Defensive Player of the Year, and the team took a stand for social justice, boycotting Game 5 of the series and kick-starting a movement across the sports world.
Biggest question after Round 1: What will the supporting cast bring?
For the Bucks, we know what Antetokounmpo is going to do. He will play hard, lead by example and stuff the stat sheet like a holiday plate, but the narrative has shifted to the supporting cast. Defensively, Eric Bledsoe was locked in against Orlando, but he’s still trying to get going offensively. Khris Middleton was also up and down offensively against the Magic, scoring just two points in Game 2. This Bucks team will go as far as Antetokounmpo can take it, but he’ll need the supporting cast to step up in a major way against the Heat.
Matchup to watch: Milwaukee vs. the 3
Before the restart, Milwaukee dominated the Eastern Conference all season. But the Bucks’ kryptonite might be the 3-pointer. No team in the league gave up more makes (14.0) or allowed more attempts (39.3) per game than the Bucks during the regular season. Miami was second in the league in 3-point percentage (37.9%) and connected on the sixth most in the league (13.4 per game) in the regular season.
The Heat hit 45.7% from long range in the teams’ meeting in the bubble on Aug. 6 — a game that did not feature Jimmy Butler or Goran Dragic. Miami has one of the best 3-point shooters in the league in Duncan Robinson, who tied a franchise record with seven 3s in Game 2 of the team’s first-round series against the Indiana Pacers.
Stephen A. Smith is disappointed that Giannis Antetokounmpo didn’t switch to guard Jimmy Butler, who scored 40 points in the Heat’s win over the Bucks.
What the stats say
Although they give up the occasional long ball, the Bucks have a significant advantage inside. During the regular season, they held opponents to an NBA-low 38.7 paint points per game. The Heat scored 43.9 paint points per game, third fewest in the NBA.
On the other end of the floor, Antetokounmpo averaged 16.4 points per game in the restricted area in the Bucks’ first-round win over the Magic. Since 2000, the only players to average more in a series are LeBron James (2017 NBA Finals) and Shaquille O’Neal (2000 NBA Finals).
— Eric Woodyard
5. Miami Heat
Round 1: Def. Pacers 4-0
BPI odds vs. Bucks (pre-Game 1): 15%
Miami’s first round was a complete wipeout of a Pacers team that didn’t have enough offensive firepower. The Heat’s methodical defense held up well throughout most of the series, Jimmy Butler made big plays on both ends of the floor, Goran Dragic repeatedly rose to the occasion offensively, and Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro each had big moments for the group. The showdown with the Bucks is one the Heat have been preparing for all season — and they believe they are ready.
Biggest question after Round 1: Is Butler’s shoulder OK?
The Heat have some nagging injuries — but none bigger than Butler’s left shoulder strain that bothered him throughout the end of the Pacers series. Butler is confident that treatment and rest will make him feel better, but it’s the single biggest issue for this group heading into the series. For the Heat to be at their best, Butler needs to be able to perform at the All-Star level that defined his first season in South Beach.
Matchup to watch: Everybody vs. Giannis
The Heat have the type of length, athleticism and experience to frustrate a talented Bucks team, but the key will be how head coach Erik Spoelstra decides to handle Antetokounmpo. The Heat figure to throw plenty of bodies at the reigning MVP, with Adebayo, Butler, Jae Crowder and former Finals MVP Andre Iguodala all keeping a close eye. The Heat will need to watch Khris Middleton to make sure he doesn’t get hot, but this series will be defined by whether the Heat can keep the MVP favorite in check.
The Heat take Game 1 against the Bucks 115-104 thanks to a 40-point performance from Jimmy Butler.
What the stats say
Perhaps some good news — and bad news — for the Heat as they move to the second round: The previous two times Miami swept the first round, it finished the season with an NBA Finals appearance. However, the previous three lower-seeded teams to sweep a first-round series — the 2018 New Orleans Pelicans, 2015 Washington Wizards and 2007 Chicago Bulls — lost the next series.
— Nick Friedell
2. Toronto Raptors
Round 1: Def. Nets 4-0
BPI odds (pre-Game 1) vs. Celtics: 48%
Toronto did exactly what it needed to against a depleted, overmatched Brooklyn Nets team, controlling each game — besides a close shave in Game 2 — in a convincing sweep. It didn’t take long, however, for the Raptors to realize how different things will be against the Celtics. Boston led wire-to-wire in Game 1, as Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart had their way with Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet. Meanwhile, Pascal Siakam continued his substandard play throughout the seeding games and the Nets series with a rough showing in Game 1.
Biggest question after Game 1: Can Toronto score enough?
Toronto’s half-court offense has been a potential Achilles’ heel all season. That certainly proved to be the case in Game 1, as Toronto shot 36.9% from the field and was an abysmal 10-for-40 from 3-point range. When the Raptors start missing shots — like they did in Game 1 — they tend to let their heads drop, and they stop moving the ball and cutting like they do when things are humming. In a series against a long, versatile defensive team such as the Celtics, Toronto can ill afford to fall into those lapses. If Siakam and VanVleet, who were a combined 8-for-32 from the field and 2-for-14 from 3-point range, can’t get going, the Raptors have little chance of advancing.
Matchup to watch: Toronto’s wings vs. Boston’s wings
Boston won its first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers because Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum dominated their matchups against Tobias Harris and Al Horford, respectively. That will be far more difficult against Toronto, which boasts its own pair of dynamic young wings in OG Anunoby and Siakam. Brown and Tatum weren’t great in Game 1, but Siakam’s struggles made that irrelevant. The wing battle in each game will go a long way toward determining who comes out on top.
Fred VanVleet drops in a layup off the steal with his family in attendance on the sideline.
What the stats say
In Game 4 against the Nets, the Raptors became the eighth team in NBA history to score 150 points in a playoff game, receiving 100 of those from their bench. That’s the most in any regular-season or playoff game since lineups were first tracked in 1970-71. Toronto averaged 126.3 points per game in the series, the most in a four-game sweep in the NBA postseason and the fourth most in a best-of-seven series.
— Tim Bontemps
3. Boston Celtics
Round 1: Def. 76ers 4-0
BPI odds (pre-Game 1) vs. Raptors: 52%
The Celtics dispatched their forever rivals, the Philadelphia 76ers, in four (mostly) hard-fought games. Other than when the Sixers capitulated in the second half of Game 2, it was a tightly contested, difficult series.
Boston’s second-round matchup is all but certain to be more of the same — despite the ease with which the Celtics cruised to victory in Game 1. Toronto is a near mirror image of the Celtics: a versatile, battle-hardened team with excellent coaching and the ability to play in a variety of ways. Even so, given how the Celtics played against Toronto in the seeding games and in Game 1, they have to feel good about their chances of advancing.
Biggest question after Game 1: Will Gordon Hayward‘s absence matter?
The Celtics came into the postseason with a clear plan: Lean heavily on their five elite perimeter players — Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart — and mix and match the rest of the roster as necessary.
That plan looked great for the first 45 minutes of the playoffs … until Hayward was lost for likely the rest of the postseason because of a Grade 3 right ankle sprain suffered late in Game 1 against the Sixers. Since then, Boston has managed to survive without him, thanks to the four remaining perimeter players’ upping their games and some key contributions off the bench. On Sunday, that meant Walker and Smart thoroughly outplaying Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, Brad Wanamaker giving the team seven points and six rebounds off the bench, and Semi Ojeleye bringing solid defense — and a lack of glaring mistakes — in 23 minutes.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens has repeatedly said it will take a group effort to replace Hayward’s minutes and production at both ends. So far, that group effort is working.
Matchup to watch: The benches
Toronto has a clear edge here coming into the series, as Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka are among the best backup guards and bigs, respectively, in the NBA. Boston, on the other hand, is relying on the likes of Wanamaker, Ojeleye and rookie Grant Williams to play real minutes in this series.
That worked in Game 1. It will have to keep working throughout the series. It also appears that Stevens is going to stay away from Enes Kanter, who will be targeted by Toronto whenever he is on the court. Stevens went with second-year center Robert Williams III in Game 1 instead, with Williams’ athleticism and mobility a much better fit for this series. Williams gave Boston 19 solid minutes, finishing with 10 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and 2 blocks. If he can come close to replicating that production moving forward, Stevens and the Celtics will be thrilled.
The Celtics erase a 12-point deficit in the fourth quarter behind Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker in a 102-99 victory over the Raptors in Game 2.
What the stats say
Tatum, Brown and Walker each averaged 20 points per game in the sweep of the 76ers. According to Elias Sports Bureau research, they are the second Celtics trio to each average 20 PPG in a playoff sweep, joining Tom Heinsohn, Frank Ramsey and Bill Sharman in the 1959 Finals against the Lakers.