The First Round Series In The 2024 NBA Playoffs, Ranked

The 2024 NBA Playoffs will get underway on Saturday afternoon with a quadruple-header of Game 1s (followed by another on Sunday). After a regular season that saw very little separation in the standings (with the notable exception of the Boston Celtics in the East), this looks to be, on paper, one of the most entertaining opening rounds we’ve seen in some time.

We’ll see if that holds true once the ball is tipped, but there are some truly fascinating series in each conference and an awful lot at stake considering many of these teams will view the season as a failure if they don’t get out of the opening round. That’s not to say they’ll all be great (or competitive), but I do think we get five or six genuinely entertaining series, even if a couple of them only last four or five games.

Here, we rank all eight from least to most interesting, starting with a series that should’ve had more promise than it does.

8. Celtics vs. Bulls/Heat

If Jimmy Butler were not hurt, this would be a few spots higher. Instead, it’s just really hard to see how this goes more than five games with either the Heat or Bulls coming out of Friday night’s Play-In finale. The Celtics were a buzzsaw this year, posting the league’s best record and running away with the East’s top seed. That said, facing a full-strength Miami team in the opening round would’ve immediately asked some questions of this team to see if they really have made significant improvements from last year’s squad that fell behind 0-3 in the Conference Finals to the Heat before losing in seven. With Butler sidelined with a knee injury, there’s just not enough firepower from the Heat to put the same scare into Boston.

7. Thunder vs. Kings/Pelicans

Injuries to the lower seed again play a role in taking some intrigue out of this series. The Kings are without two of their top shooters in Malik Monk and Kevin Huerter, and while they impressed against the Warriors, sustaining that against a deep, talented Thunder team for a series seems like a tall order. The Pelicans, meanwhile, closed the season very strong and nearly took down the Lakers in the Play-In opener, but a Zion Williamson hamstring injury will likely keep him out of a series. He’s been playing as New Orleans’ best player of late and figured to be the biggest matchup problem for the Thunder (because he’s a matchup problem for everyone). Both of these teams stand a shooter’s chance because they do have the ability to get hot from three, but that will be a necessity to stick with this OKC team in a seven-game series.

6. Cavs vs. Magic

As soon as this series got set in stone, everyone knew it’d be this year’s NBA TV series. That’s just life in the middle of the pack without bonafide superstars (and in relatively smaller markets). I do think folks are a little bit too low on this series, because it has a chance to go long and feature some fun, tense endings, and has some intriguing players, headlined by Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland for the Cavs and Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner for the Magic.

This will also be a treat for those that miss the early 2000s when playoff games in the East finished in the double digits, because defense will shine in this one. The Cavs better get the cold tubs ready to deal with the physicality of the Magic, and this series will really come down to whether Cleveland’s guards can shake free of Orlando’s hellacious point of attack pressure (and deal with Jonathan Isaac and company’s rim protection on the back end). If they let this be a rock fight, that’s right up the Magic’s alley. The Cavs have more playoff experience, but it’s not exactly positive experience, so it’ll be interesting to see if Orlando’s youth works in their favor here as they don’t have the same mental hurdles as the Cavs after last year’s first round flameout.

5. Bucks vs. Pacers

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s health status looms over everything here, but in a way that makes this series even more intriguing. There is a ton on the line for Milwaukee, which responded to last year’s first round exit by firing their coach (and hiring someone who got fired midseason) and making the biggest trade of the summer to bring in Damian Lillard. Now they might have to navigate the start of the series without Giannis and face a team that went 4-1 against them this year, although all of those games came before mid-January when Adrian Griffin was still in charge. The Pacers look different than they did in those five contests, as Pascal Siakam is now on board alongside Tyrese Haliburton, and the Bucks look different by virtue of being coached by Doc Rivers. We’ll see how those changes impact this matchup, but if Indiana can get one of the first two games in Milwaukee, this will get interesting quickly.

4. Nuggets vs. Lakers

This could go the same way the Western Conference Finals did a year ago, with Denver getting a four-game sweep in four tightly contested games. The Lakers also might be able to swipe on or two of those and make this real interesting, but that will require them to do something few teams have been capable of: out-executing the Nuggets in the closing minutes of a game. Denver has the NBA’s best starting lineup and they consistently create good shots in late game situations, which is something few teams (even top contenders) seem capable of doing. That is their superpower and the thing that’s been a separator for them against just about every team over the last two years, and the only way for the Lakers to match that is for their “others” to be more reliable than they were a year ago. That will be fascinating to watch and while I expect Denver to win this series (perhaps in short order) I think the games will, again, be close.

3. Timberwolves vs. Suns

I am really excited about the last three series on this list and all have an argument for the top spot. The Suns have had the Wolves’ number all year and it is a matchup that really forces Minnesota to adapt their style to Phoenix. Bradley Beal has finally started to look like the guy Phoenix thought they were trading for, and Kevin Durant and Devin Booker are both having incredible individual seasons. The X-Factor here is Karl-Anthony Towns, because he creates the biggest matchup problem for the Suns. If they’re going to send a lot of attention at Anthony Edwards as expected to try and keep him from dictating the game, Towns has to be great to force an adjustment from Phoenix. Both of these teams fall into the category of “a first round loss is a failure,” and that only ratchets up the tension and the pressure both sides will feel. That’s when playoff basketball is at its best and I’m excited to see who steps up to that pressure and which team’s stars can assert their will.

2. Knicks vs. Sixers

It’s not often you get a 2-7 matchup where the 7-seed is the betting favorite, but that’s where we are at with Knicks-Sixers thanks to the return of Joel Embiid. He also is the biggest question mark, as he’s been good but not quite at his previous MVP level since returning from his knee injury. His ability to have an impact on the game and dictate the tempo consistently figures to be decisive in this series. The Knicks have two very good defensive centers in Isaiah Hartenstein and Mitchell Robinson, and their ability to make Embiid work hard and defend him without falling for his tricks and getting into foul trouble is vital.

Then you have a tantalizing backcourt matchup between Jalen Brunson, who has been one of the best players in the league this year, and Tyrese Maxey, who’s shown flashes of brilliance and is at his best when paired with Embiid. Maxey doesn’t have to match Brunson (whose role is serving as the Knicks engine) but will need to keep pace to an extent, especially because the Knicks should have the advantage in terms of “the others.” OG Anunoby, Josh Hart, and Donte DiVincenzo have all become incredibly trusted cogs in the wheel for the Knicks. Meanwhile, the Sixers have not gotten the contributions they’ve hoped from Tobias Harris, who is stuck in the mud right now, and just generally have fewer guys you feel comfortable relying on for a nightly impact. That’s not to say they can’t survive on one-offs (see: Nic Batum’s Play-In performance), but the pressure will certainly be on their two stars to lead the way.

1. Clippers vs. Mavericks

For the third time in five years, we’re getting a Mavs-Clippers first round series. The first two were classics, with the Clippers winning in six and seven games respectively, but the two teams look a bit different this time around. The main characters remain in the form of Luka Doncic, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George, but now Luka has Kyrie Irving as a running mate as opposed to Kristaps Porzingis. James Harden and Russell Westbrook are in the fold for the Clippers. If Leonard is a full-go (which, the Clippers have kept quiet on his status), this series should be spectacular.

The storylines are endless and both teams will be desperate for a series win. L.A. has Kawhi locked up long-term, but the rest of their core could test the free agency waters this summer. The Mavs, meanwhile, cannot afford another first round loss to the Clippers. Luka has been sensational in the first two, but this team has been built to be a more complete group that Doncic can trust in more. He lacked that in Porzingis and the supporting cast in the past, but Irving is supposed to be that release valve for some of that pressure and the rest of the roster is built to be better defensively.

That may end up being the real deciding factor in this series, because in the past the Clippers have gotten whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted it on offense. This year’s Mavs team has a season-long profile of a middling defense, but seemed to find something in the final month-plus when they had the league’s best defensive rating. How real that improvement is may determine this series, and at the very least, it will determine whether Luka has to be near-perfect for the Mavs to have a chance or if he will have a bit more margin for error this time around.