(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports Illustration)

NBA playoffs: Who will meet in the Finals? Who has the most at stake this postseason? We break it all down

We're breaking down the biggest questions in the NBA playoffs. Who are the biggest threats to the Celtics and Nuggets meeting in the Finals? Who has the most at stake this postseason? Which player will capture our attention?

Our writers weigh in on what they'll be watching this postseason and make their picks for every first-round series (and the Finals). Enjoy!

MORE: Series previews, schedules and predictions

1. Who is the biggest threat to the Celtics in the East?

Vincent Goodwill: It’s still the Bucks, despite their combustible ways. The Knicks may not have anything left if they beat the Sixers, who can’t be trusted to make it past the second week of May anyways. The Bucks can’t be trusted, either. They could lose in the first round, or magically discover they have two premier playoff destroyers, if they are healthy and right.


Jake Fischer: The Knicks. They’re the No. 2 seed for a reason, and New York boasts the talent, depth and defensive stable to combat Boston’s vaunted top six. Any team upending the Celtics would mark a true upset. And yet the Knicks, if healthy, have the frontcourt optionality between Isaiah Hartenstein and Mitchell Robinson, plus the perimeter peskiness of Donte DiVincenzo, Josh Hart and OG Anunoby, for starters, for Jalen Brunson to lead as strong an upset bid as possible.

Dan Devine: It’s cheating to say “the Celtics,” right? (Crunch-time-offense-in-the-playoffs allegations are a “guilty until proven innocent” type of situation.) Then I’ll go with the winner of Knicks-76ers. If it’s New York, we’ll have seen Jalen Brunson and Co. topple a healthy MVP; if it’s Philly, that probably means Joel Embiid has just turned in the best performance of his playoff career. Either way: a tough out.

Dan Titus: The Sixers. Unless Joe Mazzulla continuously draws up Iso-Tatum plays in the clutch, the Sixers pose the biggest threat to Boston. It'll take a couple of rounds to come to fruition, but Philly has enough wing depth to disrupt Boston's 3-point barrage. Nick Nurse isn't Doc Rivers, and despite getting bounced three times over the last six years by Boston, the Sixers will be battle-tested and ready for war by the time they meet in the Eastern Conference finals.

Ben Rohrbach: The Bucks. As much turmoil that has swirled around the Bucks, they are still the biggest threat to the Celtics — when healthy. Without Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee could lose its first-round series, and the same can be said of every team but Boston in the East, including the 76ers, who have similar concerns about Joel Embiid. In fact, the Celtics, the version that malfunctions in the clutch, may be their own biggest threat.

2. Who is the biggest threat to the Nuggets in the West?

Devine: The Thunder, who went 3-1 against Denver this season. There’s some context to all of that: no Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in one loss, no Aaron Gordon in another and, most notably, no Nikola Jokić in the third. But the Shai Gilgeous-Alexander-Jalen Williams combo is tough to guard; OKC has Luguentz Dort to sic on Jamal Murray; the Thunder have counters if Michael Malone stashes Jokić on Josh Giddey (get ready to learn Isaiah Joe, buddy); and, thanks to SGA and Big Vic, OKC would have home-court advantage.


Rohrbach: The Thunder could fully realize their potential all at once. They are built to contend for some time, but who is to say their time is not now? History says no, but Oklahoma City has bucked history all season as the youngest No. 1 seed ever by a full two-year average. The Thunder are the West's only team to finish top five on offense and defense, and reaching those heights on both ends is the only way to beat Denver.

Goodwill: The Timberwolves. Minnesota was built by an executive who largely built the champion Nuggets. So it’s safe to say Tim Connelly would know better than anyone, in a way. Rudy Gobert can't guard Nikola Jokić. Nobody can. But staying home and using the long wings to make life a little tougher elsewhere could be the best strategy, and having a supernova in Anthony Edwards take his place in the NBA’s hierarchy could be fascinating.

Fischer: The Thunder. Their 3-1 series advantage against the reigning champs marks Denver’s worst season series among all opponents (the Nuggets were also 1-3 against Houston and Sacramento). If there’s any through line between those three teams, it’s dynamic guards and playmaking centers. The West’s top seed certainly is flush with ball-handlers to break down Denver’s lanky lineup. And Chet Holmgren clearly found his stride after the Finals MVP went to work welcoming the stringbean to the league in October.

Titus: The Timberwolves. Their size and star power could make the Nuggets sweat in a potential second-round matchup. The Nuggets are most effective when Jokić is creating for others, and in their four matchups this season, the Timberwolves, with their top defense, held Jokić to just 4.3 assists per game (the lowest mark of any team this year). Of course, that comes with the risk of Jokić going for an easy 30, maybe even 40 points. But if Minnesota's defense can nullify everyone else, that's the path to a thrilling upset against the defending champs.

3. Which first-round series are you most excited to watch?

Rohrbach: Knicks-Sixers. Are the Knicks for real? Does Julius Randle's absence make all that much difference in the playoffs? Can Joel Embiid get healthy? Do the Sixers have enough around him? This series will answer a lot of questions, and one of them might be: Could New York vanquish Philadelphia and convince Embiid the Knicks are in better position to build a contender around him? This series will call Madison Square Garden home, after all.


Devine: Wolves-Suns. Anthony Edwards under the brightest lights; the Suns’ Big Three actually healthy and with a little bit of momentum behind them after a strong close; Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert trying to rewrite the postseason stories we tell about them; a matchup that looks one way on paper, so I’m excited to find out how it differs in practice.

Fischer: Wolves-Suns. These are two very expensive payrolls clashing without very much wiggle room for a Plan B to their current build. Phoenix would seem to be holding fewer cards should their Kevin Durant-Devin Booker-Bradley Beal trio fall short of true contention. The Wolves would have far greater, albeit some painful, optionality on the trade front if that crossroads were to arrive for Minnesota. Plus, the amount of All-Star talent on both sides of the floor, and the fact Phoenix won all three matchups this season, presents an interesting opportunity for the Timberwolves to find some type of underdog mentality after leading the West for much of the season and claiming home-court advantage in the first round.

Titus: Clippers-Mavericks. It's a pivotal prove-it moment for both teams. Remember, the Mavericks didn't make it to the dance last season. And while I expect this to be a competitive series, I can't trust the Clippers' aging trio. We don't know how much we'll get from Kawhi Leonard, and James Harden's started his yearly late-season disappearing act, shooting 38% from the field since the All-Star break. Give me the Mavs with Luka Dončić, who is playing at an MVP level alongside Kyrie Irving and Dallas' retooled frontcourt.

Goodwill: Wolves-Suns. And Clippers-Mavs as a close second. Not just the star power and narratives but the basketball competition, the contrast of styles. Styles makes fights, folks. Who doesn’t want to see the Ant-Man guarding Devin Booker and vice-versa? And seeing if Kevin Durant can rev it up one more time for the graybeards. And oh yeah, Luka’s chess match against chess master Ty Lue.

4. Which player are you most excited to watch?

Fischer: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. For all the attention about OKC’s youth and inexperience, the second-youngest roster in the NBA is headlined by a stone-cold killer who recently led Team Canada to its first FIBA medal since 1936, through a gauntlet that included a win against Luka Dončić and Slovenia. SGA has absolutely thrived ahead of the NBA playoffs. It will be exciting to watch him and the rest of the Thunder stamp their legitimacy for all to see.


Rohrbach: Anthony Edwards. He is the smoothest player alive, following the lineage of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Not that he is as good as either of them, but he styles games the same way, taking over for stretches that make you think, This is what basketball should look like. And what if he does reach a pantheon level? What if this 22-year-old is on the precipice of true greatness? Then, the Timberwolves will be awfully tough to beat.

Titus: Paolo Banchero. He's not a household name yet, but a solid opening-round series against a veteran Cavaliers team could put him on the map. He was a first-time All-Star and invaluable to the Magic this season, helping them win 47 games and increase their win total by 13 games from last year. Let’s see how the second-year pro adjusts to a playoff atmosphere while being the primary scorer and playmaker for a gritty, yet inexperienced playoff team.

Goodwill: Anthony Edwards. He might be America’s last great hope. He floats. He flies. He talks — a lot. It’s the charisma these playoffs need, and he could be the next star to emerge from the ether of the LeBron-Steph-KD conglomerate that could be finally tumbling down. He plays the glamour position and opportunity is in front of him to snatch away the mantle.

Devine: Paolo Banchero. The playoffs reveal how the league sees you; when a team can lock into its plan on how to attack you — and when there’s only one game on, and everyone’s watching it — there’s no place to hide. The greats find ways to play through that pressure, escape the boxes opponents try to put them in and elevate their games. This is Banchero’s first step in that journey; I’m eager to see him take it, and where it takes him.

5. Who has the most at stake this postseason?

Titus: Doc Rivers. A first-round exit could put Rivers, who hasn't won a second-round series in over a decade, right back on the hot seat. He has a 32% win percentage when having three wins in a series (16-33) and boasts a 6-10 record in Game 7s with four losses on his home court. Yes, Giannis Antetokounmpo is injured, but there is enough talent on the Bucks that if they fall to the Pacers, it could prompt another coaching carousel in Milwaukee.


Goodwill: Phoenix, because of the Suns’ ambitious gambit. Milwaukee, because after Mike Budenholzer had one too many playoff failures and then Adrian Griffin wasn’t ready, Doc Rivers has two boulders on his shoulders — his own and the franchise’s. I’m gonna cheat here and say the entire Eastern Conference has a lot on the line, which hasn’t happened since 2007, when LeBron’s one-man road show prompted the Celtics to tilt franchise history with the Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen deals. Seismic change is coming, folks. Who’s gonna take the risk? The next two months will determine it.

Rohrbach: The Celtics, who won 64 games, seven more than any other team in the league, and posted a net rating (+11.7) matched only by Michael Jordan's 1990s Chicago Bulls. They are already considered choke artists, fair or unfair, so what might we say if they fall short in this, their best chance yet? And what might ownership decide? No NBA core stays together for too long, especially expensive ones that cannot finish the job.

Fischer: Phoenix. The Clippers are in another all-in, win-now build with aging veterans, but at least have Kawhi Leonard signed for a three-year extension to begin Los Angeles’ era at Intuit Dome. The Suns, in one respect, have less furniture rooted to the floorboards. And while new owner Mat Ishbia has proven a willingness to spend — draft capital for All-Star scorers, luxury tax dollars to re-sign Grayson Allen, one of the most expensive coaching staffs — there has been too much noise surrounding potential changes to the coaching staff and front office should Phoenix fall well short of its ultimate goal. All while Kevin Durant continues to creep toward the twilight of his career.

Devine: I just did a whole podcast segment about this with Tom Haberstroh; I encourage you to check that out in its entirety! My colleagues covered the big names, so I’ll take the Cavaliers. They dealt with overlapping injuries all season, but still had a chance at the No. 2 seed. Instead, staring down a first-round matchup with Philadelphia or Miami, they punted their season finale to drop to fourth, opting for what they deemed a friendlier matchup against Orlando — a clear indicator that they define progress as “getting out of the first round, whatever it takes.”

So … what if they don’t?


What message would that send about the core of Donovan Mitchell, Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley — in whose minutes Cleveland was an underwhelming plus-2.7 points per 100 possessions? What would it mean for Cleveland’s chances of getting Mitchell to re-up on a long-term extension? Could another early exit put coach J.B. Bickerstaff or president Koby Altman on the hot seat?

Winning would put those questions on the backburner. Falling short, though, might produce some uncomfortable answers.

Bonus question: What's your early Finals prediction?

Goodwill: Nuggets over whomever gets out of the East, probably Boston. I have trust issues with Boston, but no other team looks to have their stuff together to truly challenge if an opening should arise. Denver is the champion and no longer facing the boredom of the regular season. Usually having the best player at the peak of his powers means June. Who am I to go against history?


Fischer: Nuggets over Celtics. You won’t find me straying from the reigning champs so long as Jokić and Co. are fully healthy. Denver’s starting lineup remains as close to perfect of a five-man unit as they come. On the flip side, it’s hard to find a top-six that comes close to what Boston’s front office has put together over the last few years, capping a strong rotation with Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday this past offseason.

Rohrbach: Celtics over Nuggets. It is the NBA Finals we deserve. And while Jayson Tatum may not be the best player in every series, especially one against Nikola Jokić, the Celtics might boast five of the best seven players in any series.

Titus: Nuggets over Celtics. Both teams are too dominant. Boston is another tier above the competition in the East, holding a 24-10 record in the regular season versus the remaining playoff and play-in teams. They're in the top two in offensive and defensive rating, so it's no surprise they were the best team all season. The Nuggets are the reigning champs and have a deep roster with very few flaws. Their path to the Western Conference finals is more complex than the Celtics, but I have Denver winning it all.

Devine: Nuggets over Celtics. I don’t like chalk, but it’s really easy to write with.

MORE: Series previews, schedules and predictions


(1) Celtics vs. (8) Heat

Dan Devine: Celtics in 5
Jake Fischer: Celtics in 5
Vincent Goodwill: Celtics in 6
Tom Haberstroh: Celtics in 6
Ben Rohrbach: Celtics in 5
Dan Titus: Celtics in 4

(2) Knicks vs. (7) 76ers

Dan Devine: Knicks in 7
Jake Fischer: Knicks in 7
Vincent Goodwill: Knicks in 6
Tom Haberstroh: Knicks in 6
Ben Rohrbach: Knicks in 7
Dan Titus: Sixers in 6

(3) Bucks vs. (6) Pacers

Devine: Bucks in 7
Fischer: Pacers in 6
Goodwill: Bucks in 7
Haberstroh: Bucks in 7
Rohrbach: Pacers in 6
Titus: Bucks in 7

(4) Cavaliers vs. (5) Magic

Devine: Magic in 6
Fischer: Magic in 6
Goodwill: Magic in 6
Haberstroh Magic in 6
Rohrbach: Cavs in 7
Titus: Cavs in 6

(1) Thunder vs. (8) Pelicans

Devine: Thunder in 5
Fischer: Thunder in 7
Goodwill: Thunder in 5
Haberstroh: Thunder in 6
Rohrbach: Thunder in 6
Titus: Thunder in 5

(2) Nuggets vs. (7) Lakers

Devine: Nuggets in 5
Fischer: Nuggets in 5
Goodwill: Nuggets in 5
Haberstroh: Nuggets in 6
Rohrbach: Nuggets in 5
Titus: Nuggets in 5

(3) Timberwolves vs. (6) Suns

Devine: Suns in 6
Fischer: Wolves in 7
Goodwill: Wolves in 7
Haberstroh: Wolves in 6
Rohrbach: Suns in 7
Titus: Wolves in 7

(4) Clippers vs. (5) Mavericks

Devine: Mavs in 6
Fischer: Mavs in 6
Goodwill: Mavs in 7
Haberstroh: Mavs in 7
Rohrbach: Mavs in 7
Titus: Mavs in 6