NBA

NBA playoffs: Curry, LeBron and Embiid aim to drive their teams to glory

By Sports Desk April 14, 2023

The 2023 NBA playoffs are here and promise to be as thrilling as ever.

There are narratives all over the place ready to be written, with the Golden State Warriors trying to retain their championship, the Los Angeles Lakers coming from 2-10 to potentially win it all, and the Boston Celtics looking to make up for last season's Finals heartbreak.

Between now and the start of the Finals in June, who knows how many shock results, big performances and memorable moments basketball fans will be treated to.

The final two places will be decided on Friday with the last two play-in games determining who will face top seeds the Milwaukee Bucks and the Denver Nuggets, while the first round gets underway straight away on Saturday.

Stats Perform takes a look at the six confirmed series so far, starting with arguably the most intriguing of them all.

Western Conference:

Phoenix Suns (4) v Los Angeles Clippers (5)

After an outstanding 2021-22 campaign in which they finished as the top seed in the West with a record of 64-18, the Suns began this season with a 6-1 run.

However, by the end of their first game of 2023, Phoenix had already lost as many as they did in the entirety of the previous regular season and only managed a record of 45-37 in the end to finish as a fourth seed.

Adding Kevin Durant in February gave them a much-needed boost, though, and his link-up with Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, DeAndre Ayton and Chris Paul feels like it could lead to something special in the postseason. Durant is 8-0 as a Net.

They will be up against a Clippers team who have had stumbles during the season but went 11-5 heading into the playoffs.

Kawhi Leonard's return from injury in November was huge for Ty Lue's team, with he and Paul George both averaging 23.8 points per game for the season.

The teams split their four meetings during the regular season, albeit including a Clippers victory in their final game when the Suns rested their starters.

Sacramento Kings (3) v Golden State Warriors (6)

It feels like the Kings quietly went about their business this season, amassing 48 wins, more than half of which (25) came on the road.

That could not really be further removed from the Warriors' experience, which saw only 11 of their 44 victories come as the away team.

However, after starting 7-29 on the road this season, Golden State won four of their final five. That included a 56-point victory at the Portland Trail Blazers on April 9, tied for the second-largest road win by any team in NBA history (Pacers at Thunder in May 2021 – 57).

De'Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis will lead the way for Sacramento, but a certain Stephen Curry will be expected to shine again in the postseason as he has done so often in the past.

Since 2013-14, Curry has gone 27-2 against the Kings, the second-best record by any player against a single opponent (min. 20 games) during that span (Norman Powell, 19-1 vs Nets). Curry has averaged 26.7 points, 7.3 assists and 5.3 rebounds over those games.

Golden State were 3-1 against the Kings this season, with Curry (25 points) and Klay Thompson (29) doing much of the damage in their victory in the penultimate game of the campaign against shorthanded opponents.

Memphis Grizzlies (2) v Los Angeles Lakers (7)

As LeBron James recently said, the Lakers were given just a 0.3 per cent chance of making the playoffs by analysts when they started the year 2-10.

As it turned out, they nearly reached the postseason without even needing the play-in tournament, but a fairly routine win against the Minnesota Timberwolves got them to the dance.

James has been outstanding again this season, averaging 28.9 points, and will be eager to produce fireworks now that he and the Lakers are back in the postseason.

On the other side, Ja Morant seems to have put recent problems behind him and looks ready to lead the Grizzlies.

His 26.2 points have been ably supported by Desmond Bane (21.5) and Jaren Jackson Jr. (18.6), though they will miss the presence of the injured Steven Adams, who averaged 11.5 rebounds this season.

The Lakers went 2-1 against the Grizzlies this season, although the home team won on each occasion.

Eastern Conference:

Cleveland Cavaliers (4) v New York Knicks (5)

It was a strong year for Cleveland, winning 51 games in the regular season, although they had a losing record on the road (20-21).

Donovan Mitchell (28.3 points) has been sensational for the Cavaliers, who could hold a significant advantage throughout the playoffs as they boasted a perfect 7-0 record for games that went into overtime during the season.

The Knicks are looking for their first playoff series win in 10 years in what is only their second postseason appearance in that time.

Coach Tom Thibodeau has Julius Randle (25.1) and Jalen Brunson (24.0) to thank for guiding his team to a comfortable playoff place, with Randle also averaging 10.0 rebounds.

New York's starters are averaging 86.5 points this season, the most by any starting unit (Cleveland rank fifth at 83.5). That accounts for 74.6 per cent of the team's scoring, which is the highest rate by a Knicks squad since 2010-11 (74.7).

The Knicks were 3-1 against the Cavs this season, including their last one at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse just two weeks ago.

Philadelphia 76ers (3) v Brooklyn Nets (6)

Ever since he went to Philadelphia, it has felt like James Harden has been the story heading into any clashes between these two.

It feels like there is so much more to it now, though, especially since the Nets also lost Durant and Kyrie Irving.

No longer a team of stars, the Nets are reinventing themselves as just a team, and it will be interesting to see how they manage the postseason. The Nets finished the season 10-4 in games decided by three or fewer points, tied with the Knicks for the best record in the league (min. 10 one-possession games).

Harden and Tyrese Maxey have provided capable support to Joel Embiid, who has been his usual impressive self, with an average of 33.1 points, the most in the entire league.

The Sixers certainly have the momentum going into this series, winning all four of their meetings this season, including in the final game. It was the first time one of the teams swept the season series since Philadelphia won all four matchups against the New Jersey Nets in 2010-11.

Boston Celtics (2) v Atlanta Hawks (7)

Few expected the Celtics to make the Finals last year, and even fewer thought they would take a 2-1 lead against the Warriors.

It all went south from there, though, ultimately losing 4-2, but their response this season has been impressive again.

Boston started 21-5, and although that levelled out towards the middle of the regular season, they put together some more impressive runs to finish 57-25.

Jayson Tatum's average of 30.1 made him briefly a contender for MVP, while Jaylen Brown (26.6) and Marcus Smart are expected to be fit again during the first round.

Trae Young led the Hawks through their play-in clash with the Miami Heat, and he and they will now need to step up again.

Young has scored 30 or more points in four straight road games against the Celtics. Since the NBA-ABA merger, just four players have scored 30-plus points in five straight games in Boston (including playoffs): Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan, Curry and James.

The Celtics won all three regular season meetings, including in their final games before the postseason, although both fielded weakened teams.

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