The 2023 NBA playoffs semifinals are winding down with teams set to advance to the Eastern and Western Conference finals throughout the week.
First-time MVP Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers are up 3-2 in the series against the Boston Celtics, and the Miami Heat are one win from advancing past the New York Knicks, in hopes of becoming the first No. 8 seed to make it to the NBA Finals since the 1998-99 Knicks.
In the West, LeBron James has shown flashes of his younger self as the Los Angeles Lakers hold a 3-2 series lead against Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors. Meanwhile, the Phoenix Suns won’t have Chris Paul (groin injury) in Game 6 of the semifinals, and Kevin Durant and Devin Booker have their work cut out for them against two-time MVP Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets.
Our experts answer the hottest takes from the conference semifinals. From Heat star Jimmy Butler‘s hot playoff streak to the 76ers’ title chances, we’re sorting out what’s real and what’s not.
Real or not: Suns need more than Devin Booker and Kevin Durant
Real. The 1988 hit song by Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock definitely does not apply to the NBA playoffs. It takes more than two to make the thing go right, especially after the first round.
So, while Booker and Durant would be the clear favorites in NBA Jam, they can’t carry the Suns to the franchise’s first title without help. That’s true even when they both put on their superhero capes, as they did while combining for 158 points, 32 rebounds and 35 assists in Phoenix’s two home wins against the Nuggets. But the Suns don’t win those games without major contributions from role players Jock Landale and Landry Shamet.
It’s fair to wonder whether those performances are sustainable, although Booker and Durant both insist fatigue didn’t factor into their off nights in the Game 5 loss.
“Everybody’s playing 40-plus minutes in the playoffs, so we’ve just got to dig deep,” Durant said.
Actually, they’re the only two players whose teams are still alive in these playoffs who are each averaging more than 40 minutes per game. It’s possible help could be on the way. Point guard Chris Paul, who has missed the past three games because of a strained left groin, went through an extensive Game 5 pregame workout that included off-dribble work and defensive slides, but he was ruled out for Game 6.
— Tim MacMahon
Real or not: The Knicks can’t score
Real. Among teams that reached the second round, the Knicks are the only one that hasn’t cracked 100 points on average, putting them 14th overall in playoff scoring ahead of two teams that won one combined game during the first round (the Brooklyn Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers). Despite a slow pace, the Knicks averaged 116 points per game in the regular season, making their drought a surprise.
To some extent, the Knicks have been unlucky. According to Second Spectrum’s quantified shotmaking metric, no team has underperformed the expected value of its 3-pointers based on location, type, distance to nearby defenders and the shooter’s ability more than New York. The Knicks are hitting 28% from 3, which allows opposing defenses to pack the paint.
Still, New York’s expected value on those 3s would rank 15th of 16 playoff teams based on Second Spectrum’s quantified shot probability metric, so adding shooting — and developing it among young players — is a must. Better spacing will help Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle find the success working one-on-one they enjoyed all throughout the regular season.
It might not be bad for the Knicks to be exposed offensively when they still have the draft picks and young players to trade for a star. New York now must upgrade the offense, preferably with shooting.
— Kevin Pelton
Real or not: With a healthy Butler, the Heat are the East favorites
Not real. Butler brings a belief to the Heat that they can accomplish anything. His ability to hit a different level in the postseason permeates throughout the Miami locker room — but to call this group the favorite in the East is a stretch. The Heat are playing sound basketball, but they still don’t have consistent threats from the outside to stretch the floor as Tyler Herro recovers from a broken hand.
But if Bam Adebayo continues to play at a high level, he gives the Heat the defensive anchor they need in any series.
Coach Erik Spoelstra continues to remind the rest of the league just how talented he is at making adjustments while instilling a belief within his team that it can win each night. The Heat aren’t going to back down from anybody — and always have a chance with Butler — but they still don’t have the depth to be favorites.
The Heat were not able to close out the series against the Knicks in Game 5, and will have two more chances to do so.
— Nick Friedell
Real or not: LeBron James’ age is catching up to him
Real. But inconsequential. There’s no denying that his body betraying him has cost him 80 games since the 2020 title in the Orlando, Florida, bubble, essentially one full season missed out of the past three. However, the 38-year-old James still has never missed a playoff game because of injury in his career.
And the Lakers are one win away from the Western Conference finals.
Is he the same player physically that he was five, 10, 15 years ago? No. Of course not. His 22.6 points and 5.2 assists per game in these playoffs are the lowest averages of his career. But with the way the Lakers’ roster is constructed, with Anthony Davis as the lead option and a handful of role players who can score 20-plus points on any given night, James can be selective about when he has the ball in his hands and has everything funnel through him.
“He’s seen that he doesn’t have to do it all,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “He’s still able to do it all at a very high level. But his teammates that he has around him right now, they’re able to carry a huge load.”
Twenty seasons into his NBA career, James knows the commitment it takes to compete at the highest level and sounds determined to continue to defy Father Time.
“Obviously I got to continue to keep my body and my mind fresh,” James said after Game 3 against the Warriors when asked about what it would take to stay in the NBA long enough to play with his son, Bronny. “I think my mind, most importantly. If my mind goes then my body will just be like, ‘OK, what are we doing?'”
Right now, his body and mind are locked in to winning games.
— Dave McMenamin
Real or not: The 76ers should be favorites to win the title
Real. Entering the playoffs, the NBA’s three best teams — by record — were the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and the 76ers. Milwaukee was stunned in the first round, opening a clear path for the winner of the Celtics-Sixers series to be the heavy favorite in the East finals.
Now, with one more victory, Philadelphia will not only have home-court advantage in that series, but also in the Finals against whichever team emerges from the West.
Part of the reason this is real is that no matter who comes out of the West, the Western Conference finals matchup is going to be considered much more even than Philadelphia facing either New York or Miami.
But some of it, too, is because this year’s 76ers team feels different than past versions. Some of that is the arrival of P.J. Tucker in free agency and De’Anthony Melton via trade, giving this team much needed toughness and grit. Then there’s the maturation of Joel Embiid, who had his best season this year and just put together a clinical, methodically dominant performance to move the Sixers within one game of the conference finals for the first time in a generation.
There’s a reason the 76ers admitted it will be difficult to close Boston out. But presuming Philadelphia can do that — and because it has two chances to do so — the Sixers should be the top pick to lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy next month.
— Tim Bontemps