NBA conference semifinal preview capsules

Preview capsules for the NBA’s conference semifinals:


No. 1 BOSTON CELTICS (64-18, 4-1) vs. No. 4 CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (48-34, 4-3)

Season series: Celtics, 2-1.

Schedule: Tuesday at Boston, Thursday at Boston, Saturday at Cleveland, May 13 at Cleveland, May 15 at Boston (if necessary), May 17 at Cleveland (if necessary), May 19 at Boston (if necessary).

Story line: After a loss in Game 2 against Miami, the Celtics rolled through the rest of the series, looking every bit like the team that was seven wins better than anyone else in the regular season. That's even with starting center Kristaps Porzingis missing Game 5 with a strained calf muscle that could sideline him for this series as well. Boston finally got its next opponent Sunday when Cleveland finished off Orlando in the only first-round series that went the distance.

Key matchup: Derrick White and Jrue Holiday vs. Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell scored 50 points in a Game 6 loss and then 39 more to rally the Cavaliers to the Game 7 victory against the Magic. He'll have to work for his points now against one of the NBA's best defensive backcourts — and one that's been getting great offensive production from White as well. He scored 38 and 25 in the final two games against the Heat and averaged 22.4 in the series.

Numbers of note: The teams are meeting for the ninth time in the playoffs, having split the first eight. The Cavaliers have won the last three, including a 2018 Eastern Conference finals triumph that had been their most recent playoff victory before beating Orlando. ... Boston is 6-16 in Cleveland in the postseason. ... The Celtics allowed fewer than 90 points in the last three games against the Heat, the first team to allow 90 or fewer in three straight postseason games since 2016. ... The Cavs played without Mitchell in their lone victory over the Celtics in the regular season, coming from 22 down to win 105-104 on March 5.

Prediction: The Celtics may have trouble at some point in the playoffs. It won't be now. Boston in 5.

No. 2 NEW YORK KNICKS (50-32, 4-2) vs. No. 6 INDIANA PACERS (47-35, 4-2)

Season series: Pacers, 2-1.

Schedule: Monday at New York, Wednesday at New York, Friday at Indiana, May 12 at Indiana, May 14 at New York (if necessary), May 17 at Indiana (if necessary), May 19 at New York (if necessary).

Story line: The Knicks have reached the Eastern Conference semifinals in consecutive seasons for the first time since making nine straight trips from 1992 to 2000. Those postseasons almost always included a matchup with the Pacers, with the teams meeting in three straight years from 1993-95, then again from 1998-00. They last met in 2013, when the Knicks were also a No. 2 seed but Indiana won in six games. The Pacers went to the conference finals that year and again in 2014, but didn't win another series until ousting Milwaukee in the first round.

Key matchup: OG Anunoby vs. Pascal Siakam. They were teammates in Toronto's starting lineup to begin this season before Anunoby was traded in December and Siakam, who opened the playoffs with consecutive games of at least 36 points and 11 rebounds, in January. While All-Star point guards Jalen Brunson and Tyrese Haliburton are the ones who make the offenses flow in this series, the two forwards are needed to make big impacts on both ends of the floor.

Numbers of note: Brunson scored 40 or more points in three straight games in the first round, the seventh player in NBA history to do that. He averaged 35.7 points in three games against the Pacers in the regular season. ... The Pacers averaged 123.3 points, right at their NBA-leading average, on nearly 55% shooting against the Knicks in the regular season. ... The Knicks outscored the 76ers 650-649 in their first-round victory, the fifth series in the last 20 years to have a point differential of one or fewer points. The Knicks-Pacers series in 2013 had a point differential of zero, though none of the games was decided by fewer than seven points.

Prediction: Indiana's depth wears down a Knicks team basically playing seven guys. Pacers in 6.


No. 1 OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (57-25, 4-0) vs. No. 5 DALLAS MAVERICKS (50-32, 4-2)

Season series: Thunder, 3-1.

Schedule: Tuesday at Oklahoma City, Thursday at Oklahoma City, Saturday at Dallas, May 13 at Dallas, May 15 at Oklahoma City (if necessary), May 18 at Dallas (if necessary), May 20 at Oklahoma City (if necessary).

Story line: After an impressive first playoff series together for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Chet Holmgren and the rest of their young core ended in a sweep of New Orleans, the top-seeded Thunder should get a tougher test against the Mavericks. Dallas won 16 of its final 20 games in the regular season, then knocked out the Los Angeles Clippers in six games.

Key matchup: Gilgeous-Alexander vs. Luka Doncic. The NBA’s No. 1 and No. 3 scorers were perhaps the top two guards in the league during the regular season. Doncic averaged 33.9 points, with Gilgeous-Alexander at 30.1. Both do far more than just score. Alexander was second in the league with 2.0 steals per game, and Doncic was second with 9.8 assists while also grabbing 9.2 rebounds per game.

Numbers of note: Dallas had a 30-0 run against Oklahoma City in the first matchup this season — and lost the game. The Thunder recovered to win 126-120 on Dec. 2. Oklahoma City also scored 126 in another matchup and 135 on the final day of the regular season, while Dallas rang up 146 points in its lone victory. ... Oklahoma City allowed a league-low 89.5 points in the first round. ... Irving shot 23 for 37 (62.2%) in two games against Oklahoma City. He averaged 30.5 points and Doncic scored 34 per game in two appearances against the Thunder. ... Gilgeous-Alexander scored 22 per game vs. Dallas.

Prediction: Doncic and Irving are rolling and the Mavericks gave them quality help up front during the season with the acquisitions of P.J. Washington and Daniel Gafford. It pays off now with an upset. Mavericks in 6.

No. 2 DENVER NUGGETS (57-25, 4-1) vs. No. 3 MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (56-26, 4-0)

Season series: Tied, 2-2.

Schedule: Saturday at Denver, Monday at Denver, Friday at Minnesota, May 12 at Minnesota, May 14 at Denver (if necessary), May 16 at Minnesota (if necessary), May 19 at Denver (if necessary).

Story line: The teams went down to the wire in the regular season battling with Northwest Division rival Oklahoma City for the No. 1 seed in the West, which the Thunder earned by a tiebreaker over the Nuggets and the Timberwolves finishing a game behind. The Wolves then knocked out Phoenix for the first sweep of a seven-game series in franchise history, while Denver opened its title defense by eliminating the Lakers on Jamal Murray's second winning shot of the series in the final seconds.

Key matchup: Nikola Jokic vs. Rudy Gobert. Nobody really stops Jokic, who has scored 20 or more points in 24 consecutive playoff games, tying Alex English for the Nuggets' franchise record. Gobert won't even defend him individually all the time, but it's the way the Defensive Player of the Year finalist centers a defense that allowed an NBA-low 106.5 points per game in the regular season that makes him so important against a team that executes like Denver.

Numbers of note: Jokic has 30 postseason games with at least 30 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, fifth-most in NBA history. He averaged 33.3 points on 58.4% shooting against Minnesota in the regular season. ... The Timberwolves averaged 118.3 points in the first round, their most ever in a playoff series. ... Anthony Edwards, who averaged 31 points in the first round, was limited to just 20.8 per game by Denver during the season. ... Minnesota held Denver below 100 points in both of its regular-season victories.

Prediction: The Timberwolves proved in their dominant first round that they're better than many fans realized. Just not quite good enough to topple the champs. Denver in 7.