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2023 NBA Playoff predictions: Sportsnaut experts give their picks

Our NBA Playoff predictions are now live, with Sportsnaut experts providing their picks as the postseason gets going.

This could be among the most wide-open NBA Playoffs since Michael Jordan retired for the second time, especially in the Western Conference. Six teams out west have legitimate chances to come out of that conference.

While the Eastern Conference is a bit more top-heavy, the New York Knicks’ presence adds a lot to the mix. Below are our NBA Playoff predictions from Sportsnaut’s cast of experts.

Related: Ranking the 10 best players in the NBA Playoffs

Mark Medina

Eastern Conference finals

Safe pick: Milwaukee Bucks over Boston Celtics

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Washington Wizards
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Both teams seem evenly matched with star talent, continuity and depth. But the Bucks have more defenders that can slow down Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown than the Celtics do to limit Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton.

Bold pick: New York Knicks over Philadelphia Sixers

Jalen Brunson proves he is both a max player and capable of guiding the Knicks to their first NBA Finals since 1999. The Sixers’ Joel Embiid and James Harden have grown as a duo, but the Knicks have stars (Brunson, Julius Randle), young talent (Immanuel Quickley, RJ Barrett) and depth (Josh Hart, Obi Toppin) to wear the Sixers out offensively and defensively.

Western Conference finals

Safe pick: Phoenix Suns over Golden State Warriors

Chris Paul finally beats his old nemesis after facing the Warriors in heated playoff battles with the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets. Kevin Durant finally wins at his former team’s expense. The Suns show their health and star power are enough to overcome the Warriors’ championship experience, talent and depth.

Bold pick: Sacramento Kings over Denver Nuggets

The Kings will light the beam on the franchise’s first NBA Finals since the former Rochester Royals did so in 1951. De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis show they can be annual All-Stars. Keegan Murray plays as the best rookie in his class. Mike Brown demonstrates he is an elite head coach. And the Kings are just getting started.

NBA Finals

Safe pick: Bucks over Suns

The Finals rematch will be just as enticing as the first one two years ago. The Suns fall short once again, though, even with Kevin Durant. The Bucks still have one of the NBA’s best trios (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday) and a whole lot of depth. The Suns have plenty of stars, but have little margin for error with their health and supporting cast.

Bold pick: Kings over Bucks

To think, the Kings faced skepticism on if they would end their playoff drought since 2006. But how about ending the franchise’s 72-year championship drought since being in Rochester?! Sacramento has proven itself as the real deal with one of the league’s best offenses. But the Kings still face questions about their subpar defense. No matter. Kings coach Mike Brown, who mastered coaching defense during his other stops, will elevate his team’s play when it counts.

Lee Escobedo

Eastern Conference finals

Safe pick: Milwaukee Bucks over Philadelphia 76ers

The Bucks are one of only two cores that know how to win a championship. If Kris Middleton plays up to his scoring average and Brook Lopez can continue his DPOY campaign into the playoffs, they have no equal in the East. 

Bold pick: New York Knicks over Boston Celtics

Cue the Prince jams because the vibes around Madison Square Garden feel like 1999. Jalen Brunson has filled the Knicks’ two-decade hole at point guard, and behind Julius Randle’s MVP-candidate season, the Knicks are on track for a Cinderella ECF run thanks to their top-five offense and best bench in the league. 

Western Conference finals

Safe pick: Phoenix Suns over Memphis Grizzlies

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Phoenix Suns
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Adding Kevin Durant next to Devin Booker feels like a cheat code and gives the Suns the second-best second option in the league. So much depends on Chris Paul staying healthy for the playoffs, but having Durant to carry the scoring load will keep CP3 on ice until the Finals, where they will need his three-point shot thawed and ready to go. On paper, the Grizzlies are the most talented team capable of meeting the Suns in the conference finals. This would require the Grizzlies to overcome their off-the-court issues and mentally get Ja Morant back on track.

Bold pick: Golden State Warriors over Los Angeles Lakers

If there’s any team in the West better than their current standing, the Los Angeles Lakers have the league’s all-time leading scorer and GOAT candidate in LeBron James and rejuvenated Anthony Davis leading a retooled roster towards defensive dominance. There’s a real shot they upset the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round but would lack the firepower to match up with the Suns.

NBA Finals

Safe pick: Suns over Bucks

The two most dependable players in the NBA will face off in a remix of the 2021 blockbuster Finals. This time, the Suns will have Durant leading the way, giving them the rare advantage over a Giannis Antetokounmpo-led team. The Suns’ three-point shooting and offensive juggernaut starting five will prove too much for even the Greek Freak.

Bold pick: Warriors over Knicks

Yes, the return of the Warriors is considered a bold pick just a season later. That’s because of how slow the defending champs start out of the gate and how horrid their road record has been. But with crucial cog Andrew Wiggins returning, the Warriors look poised to take out the darling Kings in the first round and make a serious run in an open West. Picking the Knicks as a darkhorse Finals pick is certainly shocking. But with an unprecedented level of parity, anything is possible. The Knicks have the second-best head coach in the playoffs with Tom Thibadeau, a homegrown young core, and two All-Star-caliber players in Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle. 

Related: Why the Golden State Warriors could be primed for a repeat

Vincent Frank

Eastern Conference finals

Safe pick: Milwaukee Bucks over Boston Celtics

nba playoff predictions: milwaukee bucks over boston celtics
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The starts would be out in this hypothetical conference final matchup. Obviously, two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo matching up against Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum would be a major backstory here. Boston did take two of three from Milwaukee in the regular season. However, the Greek Freak’s ability to dominate on both ends of the court makes the Bucks a favorite here. I don’t see a scenario in which he averages less than 30 points and 12 boards. Boston doesn’t have the bigs to matchup against Antetokounmpo.

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Bold pick: New York Knicks over Philadelphia 76ers

nba playoff predictions: knicks over 76ers
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Wouldn’t this be a fun one? After starting 28-26, New York finished the regular season winning 19 of its final 28 games. The question for these Knicks is Julius Randle’s availability after he suffered an ankle injury back on March 29. If he’s close to 100%, I expect a deep playoff run for the Knicks. The emergence of Jalen Brunson as a true star adds another layer to this. In a hypothetical conference finals matchup against Philadelphia, I like the Knicks’ depth to be the difference.

Western Conference finals

Safe pick: Phoenix Suns over Memphis Grizzlies

nba playoff predictions: phoenix suns over denver nuggets
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Suns have yet to lose a game in which Kevin Durant has suited up after they acquired him from the Brooklyn Nets back in February. The team is 8-0 and winning by an average of 11 points in those games. Sure the Grizzlies can counter with Ja Morant and likely NBA Defensive Player of the Year Jaren Jackson Jr. But we like Phoenix in this hypothetical matchup.

Bold pick: Golden State Warriors over Los Angeles Clippers

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Clippers
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time ever, all four California NBA teams are in the playoffs. This could set up an intriguing conference finals matchup between Los Angeles and Golden State. It’s all about whether Paul George can return early in the playoffs. We’re banking on that here. Even then, the Warriors offer more depth with Jonathan Kuminga coming into his own and Andrew Wiggins’ return from a long absence. Add Stephen Curry and the Warriors’ playoff pedigree, and we like them to come out on top.

NBA Finals

Safe pick: Phoenix Suns over Milwaukee Bucks

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Phoenix Suns
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

I mentioned above that it’s hard for any team to match up against Giannis. Of course, that’s talking about the Eastern Conference. Going up against Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, and Devin Booker, Antetokounmpo will need more help than we’ve seen this season. I just don’t see a scenario in which Milwaukee can take out this iteration of the Suns.

Bold pick: New York Knicks over Golden State Warriors

NBA: Golden State Warriors at New York Knicks
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Depth is key here. One of Golden State’s largest concerns heading into the playoffs is its bench. The same thing can’t be said for a Knicks squad that can go 10 deep. Sure Golden State has the firepower and experience, but the Knicks just aren’t a good matchup for Golden State.

Jason Burgos

Eastern Conference finals

nba playoff predictions
Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Safe pick: Boston Celtics over Cleveland Cavaliers

Despite a major change in head coach, the Boston Celtics have remained a dominant force in the Eastern Conference all season long. If the Celtics faced the Bucks in the conference finals it would be a pick ’em. However, it just feels like Milwaukee’s health questions will lead to them faltering at some point on the road to the finals. In that case, a Boston versus Cleveland matchup would be likely and you have to bet on Green going all the way again in 2023.

Bold pick: Philadelphia 76ers over Milwaukee Bucks

The East is top-heavy and most assume the Celtics and Bucks will decide who represents the conference in the finals. But you can’t sleep on the 76ers and a pair of seriously motivated superstars in Joel Embiid and James Harden. Along with Doc Rivers, all three men have a lot to prove. That matched with a pretty good defense and Philly has a real chance to surprise and punch a ticket to the NBA Finals by beating the Bucks.

Western Conference finals

nba playoff predictions
Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Safe pick: Memphis Grizzlies over Denver Nuggets

The Denver Nuggets have the best player in the West and, arguably, the best on the planet. Yet it hasn’t mattered over the last few years in the playoffs. The team is very good, but they lack that “it” factor needed to overcome the challenges of the NBA Playoffs. The Memphis Grizzlies have that and it’s why they are a safe bet to go all the way to the NBA Finals by beating the Nuggets in the conference finals.

Bold pick: Phoenix Suns over Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers are a legit dark horse in the West because of a defense that has been the best in the league over the last few months. The Suns will be a force because they have two of the best scorers on Earth. Elite defensive and offensive teams reaching the conference finals makes sense, but in the NBA today, offense wins championships. Phoenix has what it takes to reach the NBA Finals by beating LA in a surprise matchup this spring.

NBA Finals

nba playoff predictions
Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Safe pick: Celtics over Grizzlies

Defense and grit can often take teams very far in the NBA Playoffs, and the Celtics and Grizzlies have boatloads of both. While it may not be a championship series that appeals to casual fans, it would be a physical clash that diehards would eat up. However, in the end, Boston has the better overall team and will finish the story they started last year and get their 17th NBA title this spring.

Bold pick: Suns over Celtics

For all the heat Kevin Durant has taken over the years, now seems like the perfect time and team for him to quiet the doubters. He has a wingman with equal scoring talent as him, a legendary point guard leading the offense, and a talented big man in the middle. If they can make it all the way through the west to the NBA Finals, the Celtics won’t be able to stop them from bringing home Phoenix’s first NBA title.

Matt Johnson

Eastern Conference finals

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Washington Wizards
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Safe pick: Milwaukee Bucks over Boston Celtics

The Milwaukee Bucks were the best NBA team after the All-Star Break, losing just five games before they shut everyone down with the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference locked up. During that stretch, Giannis Antetokounmpo shot 60.3 percent from the field, while Jrue Holiday (52.5 percent from the field, 8 assists per game) thrived and Brook Lopez played like the Defensive Player of the Year. We should see a playoff rematch with the Boston Celtics, only this time Khris Middleton will be healthy.

Bold pick: Cleveland Cavaliers over Philadelphia 76ers

The Cleveland Cavaliers led the NBA in defensive rating (109.9) during the regular season, but it’s only a contributing factor to why they could make a deep playoff run. Donovan Mitchell ranks seventh in all-time playoff scoring average (28.33) and he looks even better now surrounded by a great supporting cast. Getting past Milwaukee would be challenging, but the Cavaliers won the last two games in their four-game series, with Mitchell combining for 65 points.

Western Conference finals

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Los Angeles Lakers
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Safe pick: Phoenix Suns over Golden State Warriors

Many will downplay the Phoenix Suns’ 8-0 record with Kevin Durant entering the NBA playoffs. It’s fair to downplay it, considering the wins came against a Nuggets lineup without Nikola Jokic and the rest of the opponents weren’t legitimate contenders. However, the Suns still have the best lineup in the NBA. In a rematch against the Golden State Warriors that everyone should want, Durant should get his revenge on Golden State and Draymond Green.

Bold pick: Los Angeles Lakers over Denver Nuggets

The Los Angeles Lakers became just the fourth team since 1981 to start 2-10 and finish above the .500 mark. Following the NBA trade deadline, the Lakers had one of the best records in the Western Conference with a top-five defense in the NBA. Los Angeles needs LeBron James and Anthony Davis to stay healthy and if they do, the Lakers can win the wide-open west.

NBA Finals

NBA: White House Visit-Milwaukee Bucks NBA Champions
Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

Safe pick: Bucks over Suns

There’s a strong argument to be made that the Bucks would be back-to-back NBA champions right now if not for Middleton’s injury during the NBA playoffs last year. With the roster more well-rounded now and everyone healthy, Antetokounmpo is in a fantastic position to win his second title. In a 2021 NBA Finals rematch with Phoenix, I’ll take Milwaukee’s defense and Antetokounmpo’s penchant for taking over games – 35.2 PPG, 13.2 RPG, 61.8% FG in 2021 NBA Finals – over the star-studded Suns’ lineup.

Bold pick: Lakers over Cavaliers

Realistically, this will likely be the last opportunity for the Lakers and LeBron to win an NBA title. It’s not unrealistic to think they can make it through the Western Conference, there is enough parity in the conference to make it happen. If that’s the case, the Lakers simply just need to be one team from the Eastern Conference. This would the perfect NBA Finals for storylines, with LeBron winning his fifth and final NBA championship all against his former team.

Austin Konenski

Eastern Conference finals

NBA: New York Knicks at Cleveland Cavaliers
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Safe pick: Milwaukee Bucks over Boston Celtics

The Bucks made a major push after the All-Star break by winning 17 out of 24 games and putting themselves into position to have homecourt against the Celtics. It feels like this matchup is inevitable and Milwaukee will have a chip on its shoulder after the 41-point beatdown it suffered in Fiserv Forum just two weeks before the playoffs. The Bucks’ push for homecourt advantage is what will put them over the top in this heavyweight fight.

Bold pick: Cleveland Cavaliers over Brooklyn Nets

Don’t look now, but the Cavaliers are a good basketball team again and won over 50 games. Meanwhile, the Nets are a fun team led by Mikal Bridges which could surprise some people in the playoffs. Ultimately, Cleveland has the best defensive rating in the NBA while Donovan Mitchell had the best season of his career. The Cavaliers’ path to the NBA Finals will be tough; however, Mitchell and company will be up for the task.

Western Conference finals

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Phoenix Suns
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Safe pick: Phoenix Suns over Golden State Warriors

When the Suns traded for Kevin Durant, there was no question that the team had the most talent in the Western Conference. The only issue was Durant’s availability. However, the former MVP award winner is back and Phoenix is a perfect 8-0 when he plays. The Warriors will be a tough matchup for any team but it is undeniable that the Suns have the most talent. If things go as planned, this should be how it goes for Phoenix.

Bold pick: Los Angeles Clippers over Memphis Grizzlies

The Clippers barely kept themselves out of the Play-In Tournament and Paul George’s status for the First Round against Phoenix is in doubt; however, the team has looked better down the stretch. Kawhi Leonard will need to lead the team while Russell Westbrook continues to be a better version of himself. Arguably, the Suns-Clippers series will be a major one in determining the Western Conference finals because it feels like both teams have the most potential.

NBA Finals

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Lakers
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Safe pick: Suns over Bucks

If the Suns are healthy, there is no better team. Durant, Devin Booker, Chris Paul, and DeAndre Ayton are too much for another team to handle. The Bucks had a great season and would be a worthy champion but Phoenix is so good with Durant that it beat the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed twice in its perfect eight games. It feels like this rematch is coming and this time, Paul will finally grab that elusive NBA Finals he desperately desires.

Bold pick: Cavaliers over Clippers

The Cavaliers represent a team that could make a surprise run to the NBA Finals. Cleveland is 5-3 against the Bucks and Celtics during the 2022-23 season and while most of those were close games, it shows the team can hang with the best in the league. The Clippers would be a tough test with Leonard, George, and company but the Cavaliers claiming their second NBA Finals trophy as an underdog would be a cool story.

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Andrew Buller-Russ

Eastern Conference finals

NBA: Boston Celtics at Houston Rockets
Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Safe pick: Boston Celtics over Milwaukee Bucks

The Eastern Conference playoff race figures to be as good as we’ve seen in recent times. Yet, two teams, the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, appear to have the deepest rosters. While we rarely see the top two seeds actually reach the Conference Finals, both teams feel like safe picks to at least handle their first matchups with ease. As far as head-to-head, the Celtics took down the Bucks in two of their three matchups this season. If they go toe-to-toe again, we like Boston’s fourth-ranked offense to give Milwaukee’s 19th-ranked defense more trouble.

Bold pick: Philadelphia 76ers over Cleveland Cavaliers

Perhaps picking Joel Embiid, a top NBA MVP candidate, to reach the ECF isn’t too bold. We get that, but the 76ers have yet to advance past the Semifinals despite reaching the playoffs each of the past five years. Philadelphia’s potential path to the Eastern Conference Finals doesn’t look too rough. Brooklyn’s record is inflated by having Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but Boston will be a strong test. Meanwhile, Cleveland is a sleeper who not only had the NBA’s best defense but also took smart shots, boasting the league’s fifth-best FG%.

Western Conference finals

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Minnesota Timberwolves
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Safe pick: Phoenix Suns over Golden State Warriors

Perhaps both my safe and bold picks are quite daring. In this case, it’s hard to look past the Golden State Warriors. They may be entering as a six seed, but we can ignore that number, knowing this team has struggled with fatigue, off-court personal issues, and various injuries. The Phoenix Suns could also get hot this summer with Kevin Durant still learning his place in the offense. We see both teams as the biggest threats in the West.

Bold pick: Minnesota Timberwolves over Phoenix Suns

Yes, this one is out there. The Minnesota Timberwolves snuck into the playoffs via the Play-In Tourney, but they’ve also shown the ability to hang with every team in the NBA. Boasting a three-headed Wolf with Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Rudy Gobert, plus one of the best offensive minds in coach Chris Finch, the Wolves could be more ferocious than we think. We have to go back to 2012 for the last time an eighth-seed advanced, but even the Nuggets coach thinks his team has been soft as of late.

NBA Finals

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Phoenix Suns
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Safe pick: Suns over Celtics

Kevin Durant is one of the best players in basketball. The same goes for Jayson Tatum. We see superstars hit their peaks in the playoffs, carrying their team to victory over the course of a series. Expect the same in Phoenix and Boston, with both teams looking to not only return to the NBA Finals but finally win. Under this scenario, Chris Paul would finally get his first Championship ring after 18 NBA seasons.

Bold pick: 76ers over Warriors

Joel Embiid is a very driven individual. He finds motivation in the smallest things. Coming in as the third seed, we anticipate Embiid to be a madman in the playoffs, looking to prove he’s not only the NBA’s best player but also good enough to carry his team to a Finals win. We can’t forget James Harden, who led the Association in assists. This duo is as dangerous as they come. Golden State has the skill and the experience to last until the end, but they’re somehow also extremely turnover and foul-prone, ranking last and third-worst in the NBA. With the Sixers being the NBA’s best team from the charity stripe, a seven-game series looks favorable for Philly.

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