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2024 NBA playoffs: Ranking every first-round series with Knicks vs. 76ers instant classic at No. 1

The first round of the NBA playoffs is in the books, and while many of the series fell victim to the injury bug, we still got some compelling games around the league. From the Knicks and 76ers duking it out in each of their six games, Jamal Murray game-winners, Kyrie Irving’s circus shots, Anthony Edwards having his “I’ve arrived” moment against his favorite player ever, it’s safe to say we’ve been spoiled so far in the postseason. 

And even though the second round is well underway, before we firmly put the first round in our rearview mirror it makes sense to rank all eight series we saw. From the snoozefests to the instant classics, here’s how all eight first round series rank.

8. Thunder vs. Pelicans

There’s not much exciting about a sweep, so there’s no surprise that this series finds itself at the bottom of this list. It’s a shame too because this had the makings of being an entertaining matchup, but with Zion Williamson sidelined because of a hamstring injury, it zapped a lot of the interest here. Game 1’s 94-92 score suggested that maybe this would be a competitive series, but the Thunder then went on to win the next three games by an average of 20.3 points, leaving no doubt that they were the superior team.  

7. Timberwolves vs. Suns

Here’s another matchup that had the promise of being one of the better ones of the first round. But when you throw millions and millions of dollars to your top three players and fail to fill out the rest of the roster with adequate role players, you’re setting yourself up to get swept, which is exactly what happened to the Suns. It’s not everyday that a series featuring Kevin Durant and Devin Booker fails to deliver from a competitive and entertainment standpoint, but this was just as much about how dominant the Timberwolves are as it was about how poorly built the Suns were this season. Anthony Edwards was the best player on the court every game…and it wasn’t close. That was the bright spot of this series, but beyond that it felt like one big shrug. 

6. Celtics vs. Heat

Without Jimmy Butler the Heat never really had a chance to beat the top-seeded Celtics, and as much as Bam Adebayo tried to shoulder the offensive workload, this series showed Miami’s glaring need to improve the roster around him and Butler for next season. Like my colleague Sam Quinn wrote earlier, it’s hard not to wonder how Damian Lillard would’ve changed the Heat’s season had they traded for him last summer. Lillard alone wouldn’t have led the Heat to topple the Celtics, but they certainly could’ve used his services during the regular season to avoid a lopsided matchup like that. Instead, we got a bland rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, where Boston showed in four out of five games why they finished at the top of the East with incredible ease.

5. Nuggets vs. Lakers

The Lakers talked so much about how they were waiting for a rematch with the Nuggets after losing to them in the Western Conference finals a season ago. That talking wasn’t backed up by much action, even if they did manage to avoid a sweep. There was some excitement as the Lakers led at halftime in all five games, suggesting they could really test the Nuggets. But once the third quarter started in four out of the five games, it was evident L.A. was just outmatched. The star power is what really drove this series up the rankings, because we may only have a couple more years of LeBron James, who turned in a supremely efficient performance in all five games. But this matchup showed just how much work the Lakers have to do in the offseason to remain competitive in LeBron’s twilight years.

4. Pacers vs. Bucks

Another matchup impacted by injuries, but even with no Giannis Antetokounmpo and only four games with Lillard, Milwaukee really did its best even in the massive talent disadvantage. Game 5 was a truly electrifying performance from the Bucks, playing without two stars and extending their season by one more game as Khris Middleton and Bobby Portis turned in All-Star-like performances to blow out Indiana. There was also the opening game of this series, where Lillard’s 35 points lifted Milwaukee to a win, showing exactly why the Bucks traded for him. But Indiana’s depth, and standout performances from Pascal Siakam and Myles Turner over the course of the series were just too much for a shorthanded Milwaukee team.

3. Cavaliers vs. Magic

Before the playoffs started this was probably at the bottom of everyone’s list, and understandably so. If you’re a casual basketball fan there isn’t a ton appealing about this matchup, it’s two defensive-minded teams with middling or bottom-tiered offenses. And while Donovan Mitchell is the marquee star in this matchup, compared to the other stars in the postseason he takes a back seat. But this was the only first-round series that went seven games, and even if you feel like it wasn’t entertaining, what Paolo Banchero and the Magic did in the first round showed that this young team is ready to be a playoff contender for the long haul. And the fact that the Cavaliers went up 2-0 in the series, only for the Magic to answer back in the next two games to even it up and then the back-and-forth nature to force a Game 7 was everything you want out of a playoff series.

2. Mavericks vs. Clippers

Third time ended up being the charm for Luka Doncic and the Mavericks after twice falling to the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs in 2020 and 2021. All it took was Kawhi Leonard being out for four of the six games, and Kyrie Irving playing like the best player on the Mavericks. Injuries aside though, the shotmaking in this series alone was reason enough to watch. Irving turned in a 40-point performance, James Harden turned back the clock in Game 4, and in the same game the Mavericks almost overcame a massive 31-point deficit to win. It would’ve been a far better matchup if both sides were fully healthy, but even with the injuries it still managed to be the second-most entertaining matchup in the first round.

1. Knicks vs. 76ers

This was the best series and it wasn’t even close. I only wish it went seven games for it to be an all-time classic, but I’ll settle for the six games in which every game was a knock-down, drag-out fight. It was like watching two prize fighters in their prime, and if you need any more convincing of how close this matchup was throughout, the fact that the Knicks outscored the Sixers 650-649 in the series is all you need to look at. 

Jalen Brunson became a bonafide star over the last four games of this series, averaging a ridiculous 41.8 points on 49.2% shooting from the floor. He practically beat the Sixers by himself in at least two of those games, and while Philadelphia didn’t win the series both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey had their shining moments. Maxey’s 46-point barn burner in Game 5 to avoid elimination will forever be in his career highlight reel, as he rattled off nine points in the final 50 seconds of regulation to force overtime. And Embiid’s 50-piece stunner in Game 3 to avoid going down 0-3 on a bad knee highlighted how dominant he can be even if he’s not fully healthy. This matchup ignited a rivalry between these two teams even further, especially as Knicks fans infiltrated the Wells Fargo Center to flex just how far Knicks fandom can reach. It was the best first-round series by a wide margin, and we can only hope the next couple rounds deliver more classics like this one.

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