For the first time in NBA history, a No. 7 (Lakers) and 8 (Heat) seed are in the conference finals. You might be tempted to call these developments a fluke. They're not. They are an illustration of what has become an extremely equitable NBA landscape. In sports, we love to say "anybody can win" but that's rarely actually true. At this moment in the NBA, it is true.
The 2023 title race was wide open at the start of the playoffs. and it remains wide open now that we're down to the final four.
If you're looking for the betting favorite, it's the Celtics at +105, followed by the Nuggets (+240), Lakers (+300) and the Heat, who come in at +1600, via Caesars Sportsbook. If you ask me, that's some pretty great value on Miami, which could reasonably win the whole thing. I don't think they will. In fact, I'm picking them to lose to Boston in the ECF. But it could happen. Anything could happen.
With that in mind, let's get to our staff picks for the two conference-final matchups, which begin Tuesday with the Lakers at Denver. (All predictions were made before the series started.)
Nuggets vs. Lakers picks
Reiter's pick: Nuggets in 5. There's no time like the present to go all-in correcting a mistake. And the Nuggets have showcased to me and those around the NBA just how great they are. Nikola Jokic, of course, is an all-world talent, but this is a complete basketball team that compliments Joker's immense talents. They made easy work of the Phoenix Suns, and there's no reason to think they can't do the same against the Lakers. LA's run has been remarkable, of course — but LeBron's age and minutes, AD's fragility and unreliability and the reliance on so many overachieving role players catches up to them against a legit No. 1 seed.
Quinn's pick: Nuggets in 6. Denver has been by far the best team of the postseason. The Lakers have been rockier, hitting enormous highs and troubling lows that often boil down to their inconsistent 3-point shooting and how much energy LeBron James is capable of expending at any given time. They are incredibly vulnerable to foul trouble in this matchup. As well as Anthony Davis played the last time the Lakers and Nuggets met in the playoffs, Dwight Howard spent major chunks of that series guarding Nikola Jokic. The Lakers have no such secondary option. If Davis ever has to sit, Jokic gets to destroy Wenyen Gabriel. It's been a remarkable effort for the Lakers, but the Nuggets have been the class of the West all season, and they should enter this series as the favorite.
Ward-Henninger's pick: Nuggets in 7. I vastly underestimated the Lakers before seeing them methodically eviscerate the Warriors, but the Nuggets are a much better team with an unstoppable MVP playing the best basketball of his career. Denver should have success drawing Anthony Davis out of the paint defensively, opening up back-door cuts and drives to the lane. Offensively the Lakers should have much more success than they did last round, but the question of LeBron James' durability given his foot injury and age is pretty much the only thing making me lean toward the Nuggets with home court advantage.
Botkin's pick: Nuggets in 6. Nikola Jokic is the best player in the league. He will guarantee Denver good shots all series long, and the only way that kind of consistent, high-quality offense doesn't result in a win is if the defense can't hold up at all. Have you been watching the Nuggets play defense? They're more than holding up. I think L.A.'s run ends here.
Herbert's pick: Nuggets in 6. Los Angeles might be able to find a lineup that can muck up the Nuggets' beautiful offense, but it would likely struggle to score. And if the Lakers prioritize spacing, then it's hard to imagine them getting enough stops. Unless Anthony Davis makes a zillion jumpers, I don't see a realistic path to an upset.
Kaskey-Blomain's pick: Lakers in 7. I've learned not to bet against LeBron James and I'm not going to start now. The fact that the Lakers are even in this position after completely retooling the roster at the trade deadline is impressive, and the team appears to be growing increasingly comfortable as a unit with each passing game. Anthony Davis has been inconsistent this postseason, but when he's been good, he's been really good, and if he can channel that level of play for the bulk of the games, the Lakers should have the edge.
Wimbish's pick: Nuggets in 5. The Nuggets have been the most consistent team in the postseason, and they've proven time and time again that they can adjust and respond in after a loss. The Lakers had an impressive series against the defending champions, but Denver has better depth to make things difficult for L.A.'s defense.
Maloney's pick: Nuggets in 6. Nikola Jokic is playing at an unbelievable level and has the Nuggets humming along with the best offense in the playoffs so far. Things won't be quite so easy for them against a Lakers defense that has been the best in the postseason on that side of the ball, but Jokic is so dominant that he essentially guarantees a good look every time he touches the ball. Add in the Nuggets' serious home-court advantage and a defense that's better than you might realize and they have what it takes to win the West.
Celtics vs. Heat picks
Reiter's pick: Celtics in 7. It's deja vu all over again, and again this will be a grinding, physical, defensive-minded battle. Several factors will narrow the talent gap here: Boston's tendency toward lackadaisical play and Miami's razor-sharp focus. Erik Spoelstra's coaching superiority, and experience, over the impressive-but-still-learning-on-the-job Joe Mazulla. Jimmy Butler's basketball super-hero-turn as Jimmy Buckets in the playoffs. But in the end, Jayson Tatum is the series' best player, the Celtics are too deep and too talented, and they beat a worthy but lesser foe.
Quinn's pick: Celtics in 7. We saw this series a year ago, and I'm not just talking about the names and uniforms involved. Boston entered the third round having felt as though it slayed the dragon in the second. As the Celtics proved against Atlanta, they have a greater capacity for nonsense than any other team left in the playoff field. There will be a game or two littered by sloppy turnovers. There will be a game or two dominated by Jimmy Butler. Boston should be heavy favorites here, but if the Celtics couldn't make life easy for themselves against the Hawks, they're not going to be able to shrug off the Heat either.
Ward-Henninger's pick: Celtics in 7. Miami is going to make life a living hell for Boston, but the Celtics have proven that when they're locked in, they're arguably the best team in the NBA. Joe Mazzulla should stick with the double-big lineup that will wreak havoc on the offensive glass against a small Heat team, with a roving Robert Williams there to muck things up for Miami's offense. Boston also has plenty of quality defenders to throw at Jimmy Butler and the ability to switch all the dribble hand-offs and off-ball action that generates Heat 3-pointers. It's hard to trust Boston, but it's possible that Games 6 and 7 against Philadelphia woke them up.
Botkin's pick: Celtics in 6. From a matchup standpoint, Boston's double bigs intrigues me the most in this series. With Robert Williams roaming around, Jimmy Butler may find life more difficult in the paint, and I think Miami's 3-point shooting looks more like it did in the regular season against all of Boston's length and versatility on the perimeter. I don't know who the best player in this series is, Butler or Tatum, but after that it's the Cetlics who are clearly more talented. Maybe I'm just a talent snob and am too easily dismissing Heat Culture and Eric Spoelstra's coaching, but I think Boston wins this series relatively convincingly.
Herbert's pick: Celtics in 6. Boston knows who to attack offensively in this matchup, and its spacing is waaaaay better than what the Heat just saw in the second round. The question is whether or not the Celtics can stay as disciplined as they need to be against a Miami defense that is going to do anything it can to get them off-kilter. I am pretty optimistic about that, and I'm worried that the Heat's offense won't look the same without an obvious weak link to hunt.
Kaskey-Blomain's pick: Celtics in 6. The Heat have had an impressive run this postseason, but it ends here against a more talented Celtics team. The Celtics bested the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals last season, and the outcome will be the same this time around. Boston has a deeper roster, and they match up well with Miami. Jimmy Butler will likely lead the Heat to a victory, or two in the series, but they don't have enough firepower to make it to the Finals.
Wimbish's pick: Celtics in 6. The Celtics finally started to look like a championship-contending team in Game 7, and Jayson Tatum showed why he was an early-season MVP contender with his 51-point performance. It's difficult to pick against Jimmy Butler and the Heat, but they don't really match up well against the Celtics and not having Tyler Herro is really going to cause issues for Miami in this series.
Maloney's pick: Celtics in 5. The Heat have proven time and again that they are more than the sum of their parts, but toughness, determination and self-belief can only get you so far. They are at a real talent and depth disadvantage in this series, especially on the offensive side of the ball. It's hard to see how they keep up with a Celtics team that boasts one of the best offenses in the league and showed last series that they can be devastating defensively as well. The Celtics should also take extra confidence from the fact that they beat a better version of this Heat team last season.