by Will Murphy and Joe Quirk on May 4, 2023
Will Murphy ’23
The Denver Nuggets have struggled to achieve sustained playoff success over the last several years, despite the emergence of Nikola Jokic as one of the game’s premier stars. Much of this can be attributed to less-than-ideal injury luck, particularly in the cases of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., who have each battled various injuries. Adding to the team’s struggles, the front office has been unable to surround their star players with talented role players capable of supporting a deep run into the playoffs. This year, however, things seem to be shifting in the Nuggets’ favor. Denver benefitted immensely from a productive off-season in which the front office prioritized surrounding their core with a solid supporting cast. The acquisition of Bruce Brown has been key to the Nuggets’ success this season, as he provides them with a versatile wing defender, with prior experience in the playoffs. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been another off-season addition who has flourished in his role. He has made both Jokic and Murray’s lives much easier by providing spacing to the offense with his ability to make shots from beyond the arc. Even rookie Christian Braun has made important contributions to Denver’s success, often providing a spark off the bench with his high-intensity defense. Most importantly, they entered the playoffs with their starting lineup intact, unimpaired by injury, for the first time in several seasons. It has allowed their core group of Jokic, Murray, Porter Jr., and Aaron Gordon to develop a stronger rapport on the court, and it has shown. Jokic has followed up back-to-back MVP seasons, with a third MVP-caliber season, and has continued to outsmart defenses with his immaculate footwork in the post and his dazzling no-look passes. Murray has had his best and most efficient season to date. Porter Jr. has continued to develop as a third offensive option behind Murray and Jokic, and his three-point shooting could be the X-factor throughout Denver’s playoff run. Gordon has gotten more comfortable alongside Jokic, and the pair have become one of the best alley-oop combos across the league. Ultimately, the Nuggets appear to be reaching their peak at the optimal time, when the Western Conference is as wide open as it has been since before the Golden State Warriors’ dynastic run through the 2010s. The Nuggets will have every opportunity to represent the West in the championship and finally bring home the franchise’s first title since joining the NBA in 1976.
Joseph Quirk ’23
The Boston Celtics are one of the most well-rounded teams left in this year’s NBA playoffs and, with the elimination of the Milwaukee Bucks, have one of the easiest paths to the finals. Just one year after Ime Udoka reached the NBA Finals in his first season as an NBA coach, coaching for the Celtics, Joe Mazzulla will have the exact same opportunity. Mazzulla took over the Celtics following the suspension of Udoka, who was removed from his position due to allegations of workplace misconduct. Mazzulla has since silenced any doubters, leading the team to a 57–25 record and the second-seed in the Eastern Conference. Despite the supposed depth in the Eastern Conference, only three teams were expected to have a chance to seriously contend for the conference title. They included the Celtics, Bucks, and the Philadelphia 76ers. With the Miami Heat’s shocking upset of the Bucks in round one, the Celtics only need to worry about a 76ers team with an injured Joel Embiid. If they can pass by Philly, they will meet either the Heat or the New York Knicks. The Celtics lost game one to Philadelphia on May 1, and the two squads will meet again in Boston on May 3. Both teams appear significantly less talented than the Celtics, who boast an All-NBA First Team caliber talent in Jayson Tatum, as well as an All-Star level talent alongside him in Jaylen Brown. Brown and Tatum have developed into elite offensive players for Boston and can provide great efforts on both sides of the court if necessary. Of course, these aren’t the only two impact players the Celtics have. Marcus Smart is the reigning Defensive Player of the year and can provide tenacity and leadership at the guard spot. His backup, Derrick White, is also a very talented defender. Veteran big man Al Horford has been to the playoffs many times and can provide excellent leadership, rebounding, and floor spacing. All the while, younger big man Robert Williams provides more rim protection and rim running on offense. One of the biggest weaknesses last season, which saw the Celtics lose to the Golden State Warriors in the finals, was a lack of a true point guard. That was resolved this past offseason, when the Celtics traded for former Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon. Brogdon has provided the Celtics a steady and reliable ball-handler who can shoot and distribute the ball well to all their weapons.
If the Celtics make it out of the East, they will face an opponent from a much weaker Western Conference. The West may be the weakest that it has been in some time, with the defending NBA champion Warriors only a sixth seed and both the second seeded Memphis Grizzlies and third seeded Sacramento Kings out of the tournament already. The Phoenix Suns, who have the potential to be scary after adding Kevin Durant at the trade deadline, are already down to the Denver Nuggets. And despite having two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets have never made the NBA Finals. Lebron James’ Los Angeles Lakers are a seven seed and there remains concerns about their health. Regardless, whomever the Celtics face, they should make light work of their opponent and win the NBA title.