The favorites, the underdogs and the Lakers: All you need to know for the playoffs

NBA

The NBA playoffs are here. Let’s take a closer look at the 16 teams that still have a chance to win the 2024 title.

In the Eastern Conference bracket, the Boston Celtics ran away with the top overall seed, but that didn’t mean this race lacked drama down the stretch. The New York Knicks needed overtime on the final day of the regular season to secure the No. 2 seed, completing a final month of reshuffling below the Celtics in the standings.

The Western Conference postseason picture is stacked with superstars. It’s led at the top by the Oklahoma City Thunder, whose massive rebuild is far ahead of schedule. The No. 3-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves, meanwhile, finally figured out their center partnership and have a face-of-the-league-caliber player in guard Anthony Edwards. Both contenders will try to stop the defending champion Denver Nuggets, led by two-time MVP Nikola Jokic.

And the play-in races in both conferences came down to the wire, as the Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers, New Orleans Pelicans and Miami Heat made it out of the tournament with the final playoff spots.

Who will get to the conference semifinals? Which contenders should be worried? Our NBA insiders break down the mighty, the middling and every team in between ahead of the first round.

Note: NBA title and first-round odds for 2024 provided by ESPN BET.

Jump to a team:
BOS | CLE | DAL | DEN
IND | LAC | LAL | MIA
MIL | MIN | NO | NY
OKC | ORL | PHI | PHX


Boston’s road to the postseason
The Celtics have been atop the league standings virtually all season. They join the Thunder as the only teams in the top five in both offensive and defensive rating, and Boston’s offseason trades for Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday have worked out as well as the Celtics could have hoped. With the rest of the East slumping behind them, the Celtics have been in cruise control for two months, able to manage injuries while rolling to the NBA’s best record.

Biggest concern
Crunch-time issues in the playoffs have plagued Boston for years, and they are why the Celtics acquired Porzingis in the deal that sent guard Marcus Smart to the Memphis Grizzlies. Tatum has consistently struggled in late-game situations, including going 1-for-7 on tying or go-ahead shots inside the final 10 seconds of games this season, and the hope is that Porzingis’ ability to take advantage of mismatches will give the Celtics a different look in those moments in the playoffs. Boston has struggled in the past when teams have switched and forced it into isolation situations late in games.

One postseason prediction
The world will get to know Sam Hauser. Much has been made of Boston’s lack of depth this season, but that’s in part because Hauser, one of the league’s best 3-point shooters, has been completely overlooked. The 26-year-old shot 42.4% from 3-point range on 5.9 attempts per game this season as coach Joe Mazzulla’s preferred seventh man after the five starters and top reserve Al Horford. If the Celtics have the kind of playoff run they are expecting, Hauser will play a big part in it and likely will have several big shooting performances.

— Tim Bontemps


New York’s road to the postseason
The Knicks have returned to the postseason with three things: a physical, tough-as-nails defense, the best rebounding club in the NBA and stellar performances all season from Jalen Brunson, who’s played the part of superstar for this short-handed club. New York has shown glimpses of being the East’s top contender outside of Boston — particularly during a nine-game win streak in January after acquiring forward OG Anunoby.

Biggest concern
Julius Randle put up brutal efficiency numbers in his two playoff appearances, but missing the former All-NBA forward for the remainder of the season is brutal for a club that looked poised for a deep run. Now Brunson, despite carrying the Knicks offense all season, will take that burden into the postseason as defenses game-plan for the breakout star guard. It certainly helps that New York is accustomed to playing without Randle. (The Knicks also lacked Mitchell Robinson and Anunoby, each of whom are back after long injury absences.) But the other key question is whether the team, short-handed for months, can reach a higher level of play after grinding through the regular season to secure the No. 2 seed.

One postseason prediction
Wing Josh Hart, who fits coach Tom Thibodeau’s game plan perfectly and sees big minutes as a result, reels off multiple triple-doubles during the Knicks’ first-round series. After logging zero triple-doubles over the first 418 games of his regular-season career, Hart had six of them over a 24-game span in late January to late March. With Thibodeau likely to tighten the rotation, don’t be surprised if Hart benefits statistically.

— Chris Herring


Milwaukee’s road to the postseason
What a wild season for the Bucks. It began with a blockbuster trade for All-NBA guard Damian Lillard days before training camp and an extension for Giannis Antetokounmpo before the start of the season. First-year coach Adrian Griffin started 30-13 but was dismissed midseason because the team still believed it could reach a higher ceiling. Doc Rivers took over and the results have been inconsistent — the Bucks are 17-19 since Rivers’ debut Jan. 29.

Biggest concern
The health of Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee is hopeful Antetokounmpo will be able to recover in time for the first round after straining his left calf during the final week of the regular season. Antetokounmpo missed the final three games to receive treatment and rest with hopes he can be close to 100 percent by the start of the playoffs. Antetokounmpo got injured in the playoffs last season and the Bucks were upset in the first round by the Heat. Looking to avoid another letdown, the Bucks will rely even more on Lillard if their two-time MVP is sidelined or limited.

What to watch in the first round
The Bucks transition defense vs. the Pacers. Indiana won four of its five meetings with Milwaukee this season in part because the Pacers consistently used their speed as an advantage to score on the Bucks in transition. It was one of the first things Rivers tried to clean up upon his arrival to Milwaukee. While the Bucks have made improvements in that area, their focus on Tyrese Haliburton will be key. On the flip side, Antetokounmpo might be a factor when returning to this series: He averaged 42.2 points and 13.0 rebounds in five games vs. Indy this season.

One postseason prediction
The Bucks will prove to be the toughest challenge for the Celtics in the East bracket. Milwaukee has been as inconsistent as any of the challengers behind Boston, but the Bucks also possess the most star power. Antetokounmpo and Lillard have shown flashes of an unstoppable two-man game, and when Khris Middleton has shared the floor with the duo, the Bucks have one of the best net ratings in the NBA.

— Jamal Collier


Cleveland’s road to the postseason
The Cavaliers have two strong interior defenders in Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley and a dangerous offense built around an All-Star backcourt of Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland. But those four players have missed a combined 87 games this season, capping them as a solid defense (115.0 points allowed per 100 possessions, No. 7 in the NBA) and an average offense (117.5 points scored, No. 17).

Biggest concern
Health is Cleveland’s top question going into playoffs, particularly regarding Mitchell. Each of the other starters has played at least seven straight games and seems to be building toward playoff form. Mitchell, however, has missed 15 of his past 21 games because of injury and is managing a left knee issue. Even when he has played, he has averages of just 14.3 points on 33.3% shooting during those six games. If Mitchell can’t provide his full offensive impact, the Cavaliers will be hard-pressed to advance beyond the first round.

What to watch in the first round
Mitchell vs. the Magic defense, led on the perimeter by Jalen Suggs. These two teams have split their four-game series during the regular season, and Mitchell was the key to every outcome. In the Cavaliers’ two wins, Mitchell averaged 30.0 points on 48.8% shooting (44.4% from 3) with 9.5 assists and 5.0 rebounds. In the Magic’s two wins, Mitchell sat out one game entirely and was held to 22 points on 6-of-18 shooting with 3 assists in the other. In this series, the Cavaliers will likely go as far as Mitchell can take them.

One postseason prediction
The Cavs will take down the Magic in six games or fewer. The Magic had an excellent season behind tough defense and relying on Paolo Banchero to provide the offense. In the playoffs, though, the Cavaliers have more scoring from the perimeter in addition to their defensive big men. I think Mitchell will prove healthy enough to play at his All-Star level, and he and Garland will be too much for the Magic to overcome.

— André Snellings


Orlando’s road to the postseason
Orlando has a tenacious, top-three defense, led by Jalen Suggs and Jonathan Isaac, that turns over opponents at the highest rate in the league. Offensively, the Magic get to the line more frequently than any club and have won close contests at one of the highest clips in the NBA. In budding 21-year-old superstar Paolo Banchero and 22-year-old wing Franz Wagner, this should be just the beginning of a perennial playoff run for Orlando, which hasn’t made it past the first round since 2010.

Biggest concern
For how talented and skilled the Magic are defensively, the club’s offense ranked just 22nd in efficiency this season. The lack of spacing and 3-point shooting, in particular, have been concerning. Orlando is 22nd in 3-point percentage and 23rd in 3-point attempts rate. If there’s a bright side, the Magic are 13-12 this season when making fewer than 10 triples.

What to watch in the first round
Banchero’s offensive possessions against Evan Mobley will be fascinating to watch and could go a long way in deciding who wins the series. Banchero rapidly developed this season as a scorer and passer and proved he has the potential to become an offensive superstar. He’ll need to be great for Orlando to avoid scoring lulls. Mobley, meanwhile, appears to be on his way to Defensive Player of the Year contention in the coming seasons.

One postseason prediction
Win or lose in the first round, Banchero will be a household name by the end of the Magic’s postseason behind multiple 30-point efforts. And Orlando’s run should provide more national exposure — the Magic’s game against Oklahoma City in February marked the first time that Orlando had a regular-season home game on ESPN or TNT since 2013.

— Herring


Indiana’s road to the postseason
The Pacers have one of the highest-octane offenses in the league. Behind NBA assists champion Tyrese Haliburton (10.9 per game), they lead the league in scoring at 123.3 points per game, and are second to only the Celtics in offensive rating. Indiana’s defense, 24th in the league, lags behind but has improved during the season, particularly after trades that brought in All-Star Pascal Siakam and sent out Buddy Hield.

Biggest concern
Haliburton’s health. Before a hamstring injury kept him out for 10 games in January, Haliburton was one of the most explosive offensive producers in the NBA. In 32 games, he averaged 24.2 points (49.6 field goal percentage, 40.4 3-point percentage), 12.7 assists and 3.5 3s in 34.1 minutes. In the 34 games since returning from injury, Haliburton’s production has dropped to 16.3 points (44.6 field goal percentage, 32.4 3-point percentage), 9.3 assists and 2.3 3-pointers in 30.7 minutes. Haliburton, who has said the league’s new 65-game rule played a part in potentially returning too soon, needs to be at his best for Indy to make a playoff run.

What to watch in the first round
The point guard battle between Haliburton and Lillard. The health of Antetokounmpo is the elephant in the room, but if he is absent or limited, Lillard could be set up for a classic Dame Time series. Haliburton and Lillard both have All-NBA shooter-scorer-playmaker upside and the potential is there for a classic confrontation.

One postseason prediction
Indy takes Milwaukee to a seventh game. The Pacers beat the Bucks in four of five regular-season games, and those were with a healthy Antetokounmpo on the court. The Pacers’ speed and 3-point-heavy offense has been too much for the Bucks to handle this season, and with the question marks surrounding Giannis’ calf injury, I see the Pacers winning several games with a legitimate chance to advance.

— Snellings


Philadelphia’s road to the postseason
The 76ers never expected to be in the play-in tournament mix, but they also didn’t expect to be without the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player for more than two months. Joel Embiid missed eight weeks after undergoing a procedure on the lateral meniscus in his left knee in February, and as a result, the 76ers found themselves rushing to reintegrate Embiid into the lineup over the final two weeks. Philly is 31-8 with Embiid in the lineup and 15-27 when he is out this season.

Biggest concern
This has to be two separate, but related, issues: Embiid’s health and Philadelphia’s place in the standings. If Embiid is healthy and playing anywhere near the level he was over the first half of the season, when he was on pace to become the second player in NBA history, alongside Wilt Chamberlain, to average more points than minutes played, the 76ers have a chance to beat anyone. But his uncertain situation coming back from his knee procedure coupled with Philadelphia now having to go on the road in every series severely diminishes this team’s chances of making the playoff run it was hoping for when the season began.

What to watch in the first round
After surviving a battle with the Heat Wednesday for the seventh seed in the East playoffs, Philadelphia finds itself matched up with the Knicks in the first round and has avoided Boston until potentially the conference finals. New York will play with the same kind of rugged, physical style Miami brought to the play-in. The keys to the series will likely be how much Joel Embiid can establish things inside for the 76ers, and who will win the battle of All-Star point guards between the 76ers’ Tyrese Maxey and Knicks’ talisman Jalen Brunson. But after seeing their playoff lives flash before their eyes at times Wednesday, New York enters the series with a new lease on life.

One postseason prediction
Embiid shakes the prior criticisms of his postseason play. For a variety of reasons, including health, Embiid has never been able to replicate his regular-season success in the playoffs, and Philadelphia has yet to advance past the conference semifinals with him on the roster. But while Embiid’s meniscus injury kept him out of the lineup for two months this season, it also provided him some rest going into the postseason.

— Bontemps


Miami’s road to the postseason
Improbably, the Heat’s 46 wins were their second most in a season since 2015-16 — with the caveat that the 2019-20 Finals team had a better win percentage in a campaign shortened by COVID-19. As usual, Miami picked it up this season after the All-Star break, going 16-11 with a plus-133 point differential. Yet April losses to the 76ers and Pacers doomed the Heat to another play-in appearance, this time starting on the road against Philly. Miami won its second play-in game to reach a playoff rematch with Boston, but the team will likely be without star Jimmy Butler, who injured his knee Tuesday against the 76ers.

Biggest concern
Can the Heat score enough? Miami ranked 21st in offensive rating, ahead of only Orlando among postseason teams. Miami’s offense improved to 18th leaguewide after the All-Star break, but the Heat consistently struggled to score in losses. And unlike a year ago, when Miami went from 25th in offensive rating to the Finals, this play-in trip can’t be blamed on unexpectedly poor 3-point shooting: The Heat rank 13th in 3-point percentage after finishing 27th in 2022-23.

One postseason prediction
Despite coming off the bench for just one game in the past five years — his debut in Miami after being acquired from the Hornets in January — Rozier returns from injury to make an impact as a key reserve at some point this postseason as coach Erik Spoelstra tries to match up with bigger opponents and prioritize Tyler Herro as a backcourt starter.

— Kevin Pelton


WESTERN CONFERENCE

Oklahoma City’s road to the postseason
The Thunder made a double-digit leap in wins for the second straight season, going from hoping for the No. 1 draft pick to claiming the West’s No. 1 seed in two years. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 25, has emerged as an MVP candidate and is the eldest statesman in Oklahoma City’s starting lineup. Redshirt rookie center Chet Holmgren instantly addressed the Thunder’s needs for rim protection and perimeter shooting. Second-year forward Jalen Williams rounds out a star trio that should keep the Thunder in contention for years to come.

Biggest concern
Opposing defenses often dare Josh Giddey to beat them, putting a wing on Holmgren and guarding Giddey with a center who sags into the paint to clog the driving lanes for Gilgeous-Alexander and Williams. Giddey’s minutes have fluctuated, but the Thunder have stuck with the 21-year-old in the starting lineup. His 3-point shooting improved significantly in the past two months (36.0% after the All-Star break) and coach Mark Daigneault has found creative ways to use Giddey when he isn’t initiating the offense. Though Giddey’s fit has been a focal point in discussions about the Thunder’s present and future, Oklahoma City’s starting lineup scored 119.8 points per 100 possessions.

One postseason prediction
The Thunder’s playoff inexperience won’t be a problem. Oklahoma City’s entire roster has only a combined 108 games of playoff experience, the majority of which belongs to Bismack Biyombo and Mike Muscala, midseason additions who don’t play much. But the Thunder’s stars play with a composure that belies their youth. Among the top 50 clutch scorers this season, Williams had the best field goal percentage (68.3) and Gilgeous-Alexander ranked fifth (58.1).

— Tim MacMahon


Denver’s road to the postseason
The title defense got off to an 8-1 start for MVP favorite Nikola Jokic & Co. But eight games into the season, Jamal Murray injured a hamstring and missed 11 games, then came back just to injure an ankle. Murray has also dealt with a right knee injury that kept him out of seven games recently. Despite battling injuries throughout the season, the Nuggets have lost just six times since the All-Star break and surpassed their 53 wins from a season ago. They are primed for another championship run.

Biggest concern
Just like last year entering the postseason, the health of Murray and Denver’s starters remains key. The Nuggets are even thinner on the bench after losing Bruce Brown and Jeff Green last summer via free agency. Coach Michael Malone will depend heavily on the best starting five in the game to carry the load this postseason. Can Murray stay healthy and shine again in the postseason, where he averaged 26.1 points, 7.1 assists and 5.7 rebounds and shot 39.6% from 3 a year ago? And can Malone find someone on the bench to provide a boost, such as Reggie Jackson, Christian Braun or Peyton Watson?

One postseason prediction
Jokic picks up his game another notch in the postseason — his 2024 run will be no different. And once again, Jokic won’t be headed back home to Serbia until late June because Denver will become the first repeat champion since Golden State in 2018.

— Ohm Youngmisuk


Minnesota’s road to the postseason
The Wolves just had the best regular season in the Twin Cities in two decades. A year after scraping into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed via the play-in tournament, everything clicked for the Timberwolves in 2023-24. In their second season together, Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns complemented each other in the frontcourt, Anthony Edwards continued his development into a star and Minnesota overcame Towns undergoing knee surgery in March to claim the No. 3 seed in the West.

Biggest concern
Whether Towns is at 100 percent. A month after knee surgery, Towns returned over the final weekend of the regular season, playing a pair of games. Predictably, Towns was rusty, scoring 21 points on 7-of-19 shooting in 58 minutes. The good news is Towns got a taste of game action and now will have nearly a week of practice before the Timberwolves begin the postseason next weekend. The bad news is a matchup against Phoenix’s small-ball lineups, which will test Towns defensively right away. Of the Timberwolves’ 14 wins without Towns, just four came against the top six teams in either conference.

What to watch in the first round
Edwards vs. Devin Booker in a battle of two of the NBA’s best scoring guards. Edwards’ struggles to score against the Suns were a big reason Phoenix swept the season series 3-0. Edwards totaled just 43 points against the Suns on 13-of-42 shooting — his lowest average against any West foe. Edwards has been an outstanding playoff performer, averaging 31.6 points in last year’s first-round loss to the Nuggets, and Minnesota will need that kind of production from him to beat Phoenix.

One postseason prediction
After a hard-fought first round series last year without the injured Jaden McDaniels and a blowout win in the only head-to-head matchup with Towns healthy this season, the Timberwolves — who have won only two playoff series in franchise history, both in their 2004 run to the conference finals — knock the defending champion Nuggets out of the playoffs.

— Pelton


LA’s road to the postseason
After a summer of talks, the Clippers finally landed James Harden hours before Halloween. And for two months, they looked like the scariest team outside of Boston, going on a 26-5 run during the first half of the season to sit atop the West standings. Then, for the following two months, the Clippers looked disinterested and were a .500 team. But since the end of March, coach Ty Lue’s team has steadily been playing better, coinciding with Russell Westbrook‘s return from a fractured hand.

Biggest concern
As has regularly been the case during the Kawhi LeonardPaul George era, health will be the difference between a deep playoff run or another disappointing finish. Leonard was having his healthiest season since 2016-17 until this month, when he has missed the past eight games with inflammation in his surgically repaired right knee. As star-studded as their lineup is, the Clippers’ title hopes rest on the two-time Finals MVP. The Clippers are operating as if Leonard will play in the first round against Dallas, but there has been mystery surrounding LA’s best player. Leonard has a week of practice to ramp up.

What to watch in the first round
The Clippers will try to beat Doncic in the playoffs for the third time after eliminating him and the Mavs in the first round in the 2020 and 2021 postseasons. The last time they faced each other, the Clippers had to erase a 3-2 deficit and win a Game 7 at home despite Doncic’s 46 points, 14 assists and 7 rebounds. Doncic has averaged 33.5 points, 9.5 assists and 8.7 rebounds in the postseason against the Clippers, joining Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor as the only players to average that many points against a single playoff opponent (minimum 10 games).

One postseason prediction
Unless the Clippers can recapture the magic they had in December and January, all signs point to a second-round exit and a summer of uncertainty surrounding the futures of George, Harden and Westbrook. The Clippers’ Achilles’ heel has been young, long, athletic, defensive-minded teams. LA has also had problems defending, especially in transition, and can struggle on the glass when Lue goes to a smaller lineup. Even when they were at their best, the Clippers had trouble with the Thunder and Wolves, going a combined 2-5 against both squads.

— Youngmisuk


Dallas’ road to the postseason
MVP candidate Luka Doncic‘s Mavericks morphed into contenders in early February, when co-star Kyrie Irving got healthy and Mavs general manager Nico Harrison pulled off deadline deals to acquire power forward P.J. Washington and center Daniel Gafford. The Mavs have always been an elite offense with Doncic and Irving on the court — even last season, when they were 5-11 as a duo — and they’ve found the formula for defensive excellence. Dallas has the NBA’s best defensive rating (107.2 points allowed per 100 possessions) since March 7, when coach Jason Kidd changed the starting lineup to put Derrick Jones Jr. and Gafford alongside Doncic, Irving and Washington.

Biggest concern
If the Mavs’ revamped starting five has a flaw, it’s inconsistent 3-point shooting from the wings. Washington is shooting 32.0% from 3-point range this season. Jones is shooting 34.3%, which is a career best. Opponents will live with Washington and Jones getting long-range looks if they can force the ball out of the hands of playmakers Doncic and Irving. But that often means doubling one superstar, resulting in the other operating with an advantage. Jones and Washington are both explosive finishers who are capable of exploiting cracks in rotating defenses. Dante Exum, whom coaches consider Dallas’ second-best on-ball defender behind Jones, is a candidate to close games. He is shooting 49.1% on 3s, including 8-of-12 in clutch situations.

What to watch in the first round
Doncic vs. Ivica Zubac. The biggest adjustment that Clippers coach Ty Lue made in the 2021 series against the Mavs was benching Zubac after the big man was mercilessly hunted by Doncic on targeted switches. Zubac played sparingly in the final five games of the series, losing his starting spot for the last four. If the Clippers decide they can’t play their traditional center with Doncic on the floor, how will the Mavs counter? Dallas can play a switch-everything, small lineup with Maxi Kleber at center. But the Mavs’ lob-catching, rim-protecting centers have been a big part of their recent success. It’s worth noting that when the Suns made a run playing small on Feb. 22, Dallas coach Jason Kidd responded with a jumbo lineup featuring Kleber and Gafford that played a key role in the Mavs’ win.

One postseason prediction
Irving will have his best postseason since his Cleveland days. He didn’t perform up to his superstar standards in the playoffs with the Celtics and Nets, averaging 21.9 points on 43.0% shooting in 22 postseason games during his tenures with those teams. Irving doesn’t mind a reminder of that. After scoring 48 points in an April 7 win over Ime Udoka’s Rockets, he brought up that Udoka’s Celtics swept the Nets in Irving’s last playoff series. Irving is healthy, happy and has a lot to prove in these playoffs.

— MacMahon


Phoenix’s road to the postseason
All of the Suns’ final 10 regular-season games were against teams that made it to the postseason. Phoenix won seven of them, including going 2-0 against the Timberwolves, whom it will face in the 3-6 matchup in the first round. Despite Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal missing a combined 50 games, Phoenix still finished with the No. 10 offense and No. 13 defense in the league in Frank Vogel’s first year with the club.

Biggest postseason concern, and how to address it
Do the Suns have enough depth, or are they too top-heavy to advance? Phoenix finished last in the league in bench points with just 26.6 points per game. Adding Royce O’Neale at the trade deadline was an attempt to address the deficiency, but there aren’t many options beyond him spelling the Suns’ big three. Maybe Thaddeus Young, with 57 playoff games under his belt, can provide a veteran lift as the intensity rises.

What to watch in the first round
The Suns bigs vs. the Wolves bigs. Minnesota had the best defensive rating in the league, led by Defensive Player of the Year favorite Rudy Gobert. But the Wolves’ size doesn’t end there. Fellow 7-footer Karl Anthony-Towns returned from a knee injury that cost him five weeks to close out the last two games of the regular season and 6-9 backup center Naz Reid had a career year coming off the bench. Phoenix’s relatively feeble frontcourt group of Jusuf Nurkic, Drew Eubanks and Bol Bol will be at a disadvantage. The Suns have shown some fight on the boards, however, finishing with a better contested rebound rate (30%) than the Wolves (29.8%).

One postseason prediction
Devin Booker outscores Anthony Edwards in the first round. As special of a scorer as Booker has been in his career, averaging 24.3 points in nine seasons in the regular season, he has been even more impressive in the playoffs. He has put up 28 points per game in 43 career postseason outings, including a 33.7-point average last spring. Edwards might be ready for an even bigger star turn with a playoff outburst, but Booker shines his brightest this time of year.

— Dave McMenamin


New Orleans’ road to the postseason
It was an up-and-down season for the Pelicans. After a 4-6 start, the Pelicans bounced back and made it to the semifinals of the inaugural in-season tournament, where they were embarrassed by the Lakers. From there, things picked up. The Pelicans built themselves up to a possible No. 4 seed in the West before a late slide without Brandon Ingram. Zion Williamson (22.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 5.0 assists per game) came on strong late with career highs in total steals and blocks to carry the Pelicans down the stretch, but a hamstring injury suffered in the play-in could force him out of the entire first round.

Biggest concern
The Pelicans have struggled in clutch games this season. They are 13-15 in such games — defined as the score within five points in the last five minutes or overtime — No. 21 in the league. New Orleans’ net rating in clutch games (minus-12.8) ranks No. 25. The Pelicans also blew 14 double-digit leads this season, tied for the third most in the league.

— Lopez


Los Angeles’ road to the postseason
The Lakers won 11 of their final 14 games to secure the No. 8 slot in the play-in tournament. If L.A. hadn’t lost 10 of 13 games immediately after winning the first in-season tournament, perhaps the final push wouldn’t have been necessary. The franchise will have to figure out in the offseason if it didn’t live up to its potential because of coaching, injuries, roster construction or some combination of the three.

Biggest concern
Can they beat Denver? Dating to January 2023 and including the sweep in the Western Conference finals, the Nuggets have beaten the Lakers eight straight times. If the Lakers make it out of the 7/8 play-in game against New Orleans, the defending champs will be waiting in the first round as the No. 2 seed. The last two times they played, the Lakers had a three-point lead with 4:52 to go and lost by 10 and were tied with 3:44 remaining and lost by eight.

One postseason prediction
The Lakers will be in a 2-2 series against the Nuggets before the champs clamp down and win it in six games, which will make the offseason questions swirl at an even dizzier rate. Among the most important: Does this group have a chance next year if it stays together?

— McMenamin

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