Four teams in each conference are competing for the final two spots in the 2023 NBA Playoffs.
Out East, the Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls – in that order – finished from seventh to 10th place to square off in the play-in tournament. The winner of Miami-Atlanta claims the No. 7 seed, while the loser would play the winner of Toronto-Chicago for the No. 8 seed.
Stay in the game with the latest updates on your beloved Boston sports teams! Sign up here for our All Access Daily newsletter.
The same applies out West, which will feature, in order, the Los Angeles Lakers, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder.
As the action commences in just two days time, let’s rank the four matchups from worst to best factoring in-game matchups and quality of the teams.
4. Chicago Bulls at Toronto Raptors
A team headlined by DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic shouldn’t be the No. 10 seed, but the Bulls’ failure to strengthen the roster after being bounced in the first round by Milwaukee last year foreshadowed their fall. Not having Lonzo Ball up to this point or moving forward isn’t ideal, but it’s hard to envision them being a top-six team in the conference as currently constructed, even with Ball.
The Raptors are in a similar boat to Chicago in that they didn’t build over the summer after losing to Philadelphia in the first round, but have better quality across the board. Landing Jakob Poeltl from San Antonio mid-season can help their odds should they take the No. 8 seed, but it would set up a tough matchup against Milwaukee. This should be an intriguing matchup with the Bulls, but it ranks last because these teams hit their peaks last year, which wasn’t that high, so it’s not exactly stimulating to see them face off.
3. Atlanta Hawks at Miami Heat
The Hawks added Dejounte Murray to fly around the backcourt with Trae Young, but that move hasn’t lifted them up the Eastern Conference ladder like they would’ve hoped. The same applies for the mid-season acquisition of Saddiq Bey from Detroit. Atlanta has hovered around the middle of the pack in several statistical categories, so it makes sense that it finished the regular season with a 41-41 record.
Miami is similar to the aforementioned Raptors and Bulls in that it didn’t seek to upgrade the roster after finishing the regular season as the No. 1 seed. But Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro all averaged over 20 points per game this year – Herro as a starter – with Max Strus, Victor Oladipo, Caleb Martin and Gabe Vincent all chipping in over or near 10 points per game off the bench. If the Heat advance, they won’t be a walkover for the No. 2-seeded Boston Celtics as the season series ended 2-2. On the other hand, Boston swept Atlanta 3-0.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder at New Orleans Pelicans
The youngest team in the NBA has qualified for the play-in tournament, largely due to the Dallas Mavericks’ pairing of Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving failing quite drastically. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the star of the team, but youngsters like Josh Giddey and sophomore Jalen Williams are also rising. They have intriguing depth in Isaiah Joe and Kenrich Williams that could help the Thunder’s upset chances.
New Orleans is led by CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram, but missing Zion Williamson for most of the season – and possibly first-round action should they advance – limits its ceiling. Trey Murphy III and Herbert Jones are also two dangerous wings who can do a bit of everything, and the Pelicans were in this scenario last year to reach the No. 8 seed. If the Pelicans can snag that final seed and maybe get Williamson back healthy for the first round against Denver, look out.
1. Minnesota Timberwolves at Los Angeles Lakers
This is quite easily the best matchup of the bunch. Minnesota is entering the game in a bad state, however, as it is dealing with the drama involving Rudy Gobert punching teammate Kyle Anderson and Jaden McDaniels breaking his hand after punching a stadium wall out of frustration. All of this happened in their regular-season finale against New Orleans, which lifted them to the No. 8 seed to set this matchup in stone. Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns will need to be at their best.
Meanwhile, the Lakers have the best record in the conference after the All-Star break. LeBron James missed some time with injury, but Anthony Davis has stepped up and mid-season additions Jarred Vanderbilt, D’Angelo Russell and Rui Hachimura have been vital. Austin Reaves is also rising as a two-way initiator after going undrafted two seasons ago. If Los Angeles maintains the No. 7 seed, it would play a Memphis Grizzlies team that won’t have Steven Adams, who is likely to miss the postseason due to injury. Could LeBron and AD lead another deep run, this time on the opposite side of the standings? We'll find out soon enough.