The first round of the NBA playoffs are a hit-or-miss affair. Sometimes six or seven of the eight series on the slate are competitive and there is genuine dramatic tension from the moment the playoffs tip off. More often, the majority of the matchups are pretty short. The best teams advance. There might be an upset, and if there is, it's usually based on an injury.
Fortunately, the first round of the 2023 postseason has been closer to the former than the latter. In a season filled with parity, only three out of the eight series we've seen in the first round have been truly mismatched. The other five have ranged from "close and ugly" to "one of the most fun first-round series we've ever seen."
So how do the eight matchups stack up against one another? We've reached the halfway point of the first round, so let's rank all eight series we've seen so far.
8. Boston Celtics vs. Atlanta Hawks
This is gearing up to be the classic gentleman's sweep. The higher seed takes care of business comfortably at home. The lower seed fights for a tough Game 3 win to make things respectable. The championship contender proves its mettle with a Game 4 road win and sets up the series clincher at home in Game 5. Boston has looked exactly as strong as we expected. Trae Young redeemed himself after a terrible series against Miami last season with back-to-back 30-point outings at home. This is what we expect out of a first-round series: predictable, rarely exciting, and ultimately brief.
This series was similarly lopsided, but at least gave us a few important glimpses at what might come later on in the postseason. Anthony Edwards largely got whatever shots he wanted in this matchup, which isn't a great sign for a Denver defense that has struggled against speedy guards in pick-and-roll. More encouraging for the Nuggets has been the success of their new bench lineups. Instead of using a traditional backup center, they've gone to Aaron Gordon as a small-ball option behind Nikola Jokic. They've won those minutes comfortably thus far in this series after getting killed whenever Jokic rested during the regular season. That's going to be an important story to watch as the Nuggets inevitably move forward in the playoffs.
6. Philadelphia 76ers vs. Brooklyn Nets
This may have been a sweep, but it was at least a competitive, dramatic and strategically relevant sweep. The two Brooklyn games were decided by single digits. While groin-shot drama isn't the most desirable kind, it at least gave viewers something to talk about. But most importantly, the Nets drew up an interesting blueprint for other teams to consider when they face Joel Embiid in future rounds. The Nets had a lot of success doubling him and forcing the rest of the team to beat them. Brooklyn didn't have the personnel to actually win the series, but it will be interesting to see what lessons future Philadelphia opponents take when they face the presumptive MVP.
5. Milwaukee Bucks vs. Miami Heat
If Giannis Antetokounmpo hadn't gotten hurt, this series probably would've been a walkover. The Bucks swept the Heat in a similar situation in 2021. But of course, Antetokounmpo did get hurt, and that's put Mike Budenholzer's system to the test. Milwaukee is 32-33 without Antetokounmpo since Budenholzer took over. They won the last two games of the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals without him. But they've never lost their best player in Game 1 without knowing when they'd get him back. For all we know, the championship favorite will need to win four games without Antetokounmpo just to advance beyond the first round. That's far more drama than we expected out of this series. So sure, we'd have preferred to have watched the best player in the world... but Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez fighting to keep the team afloat in his absence is compelling in its own right.
Calling this a rock fight feels a bit insulting to rocks. The average NBA team scored 114.7 points per game this season. Neither the Knicks nor the Cavaliers have scored more than 107 points in any of the four games in this series. The Knicks have a 3-1 lead despite shooting 27.5% on 3's. Cleveland is so desperate for any bench production that it dusted off the 35-year-old Danny Green coming off of a torn ACL after he played just 138 minutes during the regular season. If you longed for a return to the 72-67 finishes the Pistons and Pacers gave us 20 years ago, this series is for you. Few basketball fans would actively seek that out in the 2020's... but it's a nice change of pace compared to some of the offensive explosions the other matchups have given us.
3. Phoenix Suns vs. Los Angeles Clippers
There's a messiness about this series that has only added to its charm. The Clippers are keeping this series close despite injuries to their two best players. The Suns are learning how to play together on the fly. There's an underlying acceptance that this series would be far better if the bracket had allowed it to play out four weeks from now, but as it stands, it's given us plenty to enjoy. Russell Westbrook is having his best postseason since 2016. His old teammate, Kevin Durant, has been even better, and Devin Booker is outplaying both of them. Throw in Ty Lue's mad scientist proclivities (five-guard lineups!) and you've got a series that may have underwhelmed relative to its potential, but has still been appointment television for the past week and a half.
The off-court fireworks have gotten the headlines here, and LeBron James deserves quite a bit of credit for finally shutting Dillon Brooks up. The real fun is taking place near the basket. Jaren Jackson Jr. just won Defensive Player of the Year, and while he hasn't said anything about it, Anthony Davis doesn't seem to be thrilled about that. Davis is going at Jackson every chance he gets, and defensively, he has been the best player in the series with 15 blocks in three games. Davis made it clear that he felt he deserved to win Defensive Player of the Year in 2020. He may never get another chance with the NBA's new 65-game minimum. But he's looked every bit like the best defensive player in the world in this series, and it's been remarkable to watch.
Imagine I'm doing Stefon's voice: the hottest series in the 2023 first round is Kings vs. Warriors. This series has everything: Suspensions, cowbells, Chris Webber flashbacks, last dances, and the Jerry West Clutch Player of the Year matching the Splash Brothers shot for shot. Two of the four games have come down to the final possession, and a third, Game 2, was a one-point game with three minutes remaining.
Whatever you want out of a playoff series, you've gotten here. Rivalry? Check. There is genuine Northern California bitterness between the glitzy Warriors and the smaller-market Kings. Narratives? Check. One team hasn't made the playoffs in almost two decades and the other might be at the end of a nine-year dynasty. Fun basketball? One team has the two best shooters in NBA history and the other just had the most efficient offense in NBA history. It's the perfect first-round series. It seems unlikely that either of these teams wins th championship... but you wouldn't know it watching them go toe-to-toe in April.