Wednesday, May 29, 2024

2024 NBA playoffs: Predictions, expert picks for every second-round series with Nuggets facing tough test

The first round of the 2024 NBA playoffs is in the books save for one series: Orlando is at Cleveland for Game 7 on Sunday, with the winner earning the distinct pleasure of facing the Celtics in the conference semis. So far, we have had two seeding upsets, with the No. 5 Mavericks eliminating the No. 4 Clippers and the No. 6 Pacers taking out the No. 3 Bucks. No. 5 Orlando could be the third to erase some chalk.

Moving forward, these second-round series, as the kids would say, look like fire. Minnesota vs. Denver kicks off second-round action Saturday night, and I’m here to tell you the Timberwolves are for real with the bodies to match up with Nikola Jokic and the pressure perimeter defense to make life difficult on Jamal Murray.

The second West semifinal is No. 5 Dallas vs. No. 1 Oklahoma City. That series speaks for itself. 

In the East, we have a throwback to the Reggie Miller/Patrick Ewing wars of the 90s with the No. 2 Knicks taking on the No. 6 Pacers. Below, our experts have weighed in with their predictions for each of the three series that we know of to this point. When we find out who is playing Boston, those picks will be along shortly after.

Nuggets vs. Timberwolves

Botkin: Nuggets in 6. This is tight. Minnesota can match up with Jokic without having to waste Gobert on him, leaving the likely DPOY as a roving rim protector, and the Wolves’ collective ball pressure is up to the task of reasonably challenging Jamal Murray and Denver’s two-man action. But in the end, the Nuggets know exactly where to go for high-leverage buckets. It won them close games against the Lakers, and it’ll win them close games against Minnesota.

Herbert: Nuggets in 7. Minnesota’s first-round series was more impressive, and it has already shown it has the personnel to make the defending champs uncomfortable. If this series is as tight as I imagine it’ll be, though, it makes sense to roll with the team that executes better in crunch time. (I’m assuming Jamal Murray is available and productive here; if not, uh-oh.)

Maloney: Nuggets in 7. I have to admit that these teams’ respective performances in the first round have made me slightly less confident in this prediction, but I don’t want to overreact to those series. I’ve expected the Nuggets to come out of the West all season long, and while the Wolves will give them a real challenge, one team has Nikola Jokic and the other does not.

Quinn: Nuggets in 7. I really struggled with this one, especially with Jamal Murray hobbled. No defense has more bodies to throw at Murray or Nikola Jokic. Anthony Edwards is peaking into superstardom at the perfect time. Minnesota’s bench is far better than Denver’s. The Timberwolves could very well win this series. I ultimately when Denver by the slimmest of margins. The Nuggets have home-court advantage. They have the best player in the world. Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope can give Edwards much more trouble than any Sun did, and Denver’s at-the-level defense on pick-on-rolls is going to force the ball out of his hands more. I just worry that Minnesota is a few points of offense short in this matchup, but man, it could go either way.

Ward-Henninger: Nuggets in 6. I get all the reasons why the Wolves will give the defending champions problems — familiarity, size/length and an absolute killer in Anthony Edwards. I just can’t get there, given that I’ve watched the Nuggets eviscerate opponent after opponent during crunch time over the past two years. Denver had a plus-41(!) net rating in the clutch in their opening-round series win over the Lakers, and it only backs up the eye test. When it comes down to close games, which this series likely will, it’s going to be Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray against Anthony Edwards. As great as Ant has been, I know who I’m taking 10 times out of 10 in that situation — or in this case, four out of six.

Wimbish: Timberwolves in 7. The Timberwolves gave the Nuggets some problems in the first round last year, and they split their regular=season matchups with each side winning two games. I know it’s wild to go against Denver and Nikola Jokic, but Minnesota looked far more dominant than I expected in the first round. Granted the Suns had zero depth, but the combination of length, athleticism, scoring and oh yeah, Anthony Edwards, legitimately makes me think this team can dethrone Denver.

Knicks vs. Pacers

Botkin: Knicks in 6. New York owns the offensive glass and Jalen Brunson has a huge series against a soft Indiana defense. With New York’s rim protection, Indiana can’t make enough 3s to keep up with what I think is going to be a huge series from the Knicks’ shooters.

Herbert: Knicks in 5. I think the Sixers series prepared New York well defensively, and I’m worried about the Pacers on the glass. It’s possible that Tyrese Haliburton goes into his early season supernova mode and makes this prediction look silly, but I am not convinced that Indiana is sturdy enough on defense to expose the Knicks’ over-reliance on Jalen Brunson.

Maloney: Knicks in 6. What a contrast of styles here. It’s going to be fascinating to see if the Knicks can grind down the Pacers and keep them in the half court. Ultimately I trust Jalen Brunson, the Knicks’ defense and the Madison Square Garden crowd more than any of the Pacers’ advantages.

Quinn: Knicks in 4. What an absolute nightmare matchup for the Pacers. They rank 26th in defensive rebounding. The Knicks rank 1st in offensive rebounding. No team allows more paint points than Indiana. Their best back-court defender is T.J. McConnell, and yes, he’ll bother Jalen Brunson with full-court pressure, but the Knicks aren’t the Bucks. This isn’t an old team you can wear down with pace and pressure. It’s the opposite. the Knicks demand more stamina out of their best players than any other team. In a pure battle of execution, the Knicks are far better than the Pacers.

Ward-Henninger: Knicks in 5. This matchup is basically “Opposite Day,” with the Pacers playing at breakneck speed and the Knicks finishing with the slowest pace in the league during the regular season. To me, the Knicks will have an easier time getting the Pacers to acquiesce to their style than vice versa, and that’s a recipe for disaster for Indiana. Jalen Brunson will relentlessly hunt Tyrese Haliburton and the Knicks will demolish the Pacers on the boards — New York was first in the league in offensive rebounding, while Indiana was 26th in defensive rebounding. The Pacers want to spread you out and get you scrambling, but the Knicks are so disciplined and willing to give multiple defensive efforts that a lot of those easy points Indiana needs will be erased. The Pacers are a nice story, but the Knicks know exactly who they are and have executed brilliantly all season, even if their rotation is paper-thin.

Wimbish: Knicks in 6. This is going to be an interesting matchup up differing styles. The Pacers had the second-best offense all season, playing at a breakneck pace and dizzying their opponents with how quickly and efficiently they could score the ball. The Knicks play at the lowest pace, but wear an opponent down over the course of the game, with the No. 9 defense. It’s literally water and oil combining here, but I’m going with Jalen Brunson and the Knicks to outlast Indiana. When the Pacers are on, they’re cooking, but when they’re not hitting their shots and struggling to defend, it’s a rough watch.

Thunder vs. Mavericks

Botkin: Thunder in 7. I am leaning toward OKC’s defense in this one and I think the Thunder have the coaching edge if an adjustment or two ends up being the difference. But we are talking about two pretty similar teams with shooting around two elite one-on-one players in Luka Doncic/Kyrie Irving and Shai-Gilgeous Alexander/Jalen Williams. This looks like a hell of a series on paper. Flip your proverbial coin.

Herbert: Thunder in 7. I’m shrugging my shoulders as I type this, and that’s a good thing: This series should be awesome. It’ll probably come down to whose role players shoot better, but I’ll take OKC because I like its 5-out configuration more than Dallas’ and I trust Mark Daigneault’s ability to solve problems.

Maloney: Thunder in 6. This has been the hardest pick for me to make, and I hope the series ends up reflecting that. Here’s why I’m siding with the Thunder: they have the personnel to at least make life difficult on Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving and the Mavericks don’t have the personnel to punish the Thunder’s lack of size.

Quinn: Thunder in 7. I’m expecting a series similar to the one the Mavericks and Clippers just played. A ton of help thrown at the best scorers on both sides, and a lot of questionable shooters left open. We’ve never seen these Dallas centers play in a true five-out matchup, and the Thunder are going to stretch them away from the rim all series. I lean Oklahoma City because I trust their worst shooters more than I trust Dallas’, and because I think Oklahoma City is slightly better-positioned to defend straight up.

Ward-Henninger: Thunder in 7. It may be because the Pelicans were hobbled, but I can’t get over how great OKC looked in the first round. The only knock on them — the only REAL knock — is that they’re young and inexperienced. Well, outside of Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic, so are the Mavericks. The Thunder were third in offense this season and fourth in defense. They can play fast or slow. They can play big or small. Chet Holmgren is the ultimate rim-protecting antidote for any penetration from the Mavericks’ dynamic backcourt. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a cheat code for instant offense. I just don’t see many weaknesses for OKC, so it will basically come down to the individual talents of Irving and Doncic ripping out their hearts. This is a guess that will only happen in three out of the seven games, but it’s a total toss-up.

Wimbish: Thunder in 7. This is going to be the most entertaining second-round matchup. The narratives, young stars and MVP debates alone will provide so many talking points. The actual basketball should be compelling too, and while the Thunder skated through the first round, the same won’t be true against Dallas. The combination of Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving can be lethal for opposing teams, with one guy dominating in the first half while the other guy picks up the slack in the last two quarters. But the Thunder have unreal depth, and it’s not just “sit out at the 3-point line and launch shots” type of depth that Dallas possesses. It’s going to be incredibly difficult for the Mavericks to contain Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams while also accounting for Chet Holmgren who is having a standout playoff debut averaging 15.3 points, over eight rebounds and nearly three blocks. I don’t trust Dallas’ role players to knock down enough shots this series for them to beat OKC.

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