2023 NBA Playoffs

Playoff Primer: Seeding, matchup and postseason history for all 16 teams

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler are familiar playoff foes, while the Nets are hoping to repeat a 1984 stunner.

This is the third time in four years Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler have matched up in the playoffs.

Several matchups in the 2023 playoffs inspire memories of past battles. Others are first chapters in brand-new postseason stories. Here’s a brief look at the history behind each team’s first-round seeding, matchup and overall playoff success.

Miami Heat (8) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (1)

NBA championships: Bucks (2) | Heat (3)

Most recent Finals: Bucks (2021) | Heat (2020)

Bucks as 1st seed: Milwaukee has made a recent habit of earning the top seed out East. This marks the third time in the last five years the Bucks are No. 1. Before Giannis, you have to go back to the young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar era to find similar top-seeded success. The 2021 championship is the most recent precedent, capped by a dominant comeback from 2-0 down to Phoenix and polished off by Antetokounmpo’s 50-point, 14-rebound Game 6 masterpiece.

Heat as 8th seed: Miami hasn’t limped into the playoffs as the eighth seed since the franchise’s relative infancy. They did so three times between 1992 and 1996, and only once did they not get swept. That was 1994, when a young Steve Smith and Miami took the Danny Manning-led Hawks to a fifth and deciding game before ultimately losing.

Jimmy Butler scored a playoff career-high 40 points as Miami tops Milwaukee in Game 1.

Bucks-Heat playoff history: Over its first 25 years in the league, Miami did not see Milwaukee in the playoffs. That streak ended in 2013, when the LeBron-led Heat swept a young Bucks squad in the first round. Milwaukee returned the favor in 2021 en route to the title. The year before that, however, saw Miami pull off a stunning 4-1 upset over the top-seeded Bucks in the second round. Jimmy Butler was fantastic in that series, including a tone-setting 40-point performance in Game 1.

Patrick Ewing and the Knicks defensively smothered the Cavs in the 1996 first round.

New York Knicks (5) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (4)

NBA championships: Cavaliers (1) | Knicks (2)

Most recent Finals: Cavaliers (2018) | Knicks (1999)

Cavaliers as 4th seed: The two LeBron James eras featured a trio of fourth-place finishes, with the most recent (2018) producing a Finals appearance. Current Cavs forward Cedi Osman was a rookie on that squad. Before LeBron, Cleveland was swept in the first round the other two times they entered the playoffs as the fourth seed (1978, 1996).

Knicks as 5th seed: Adult New York fans will have plenty of fifth-seed memories: the Knicks earned this playoff spot a whopping six times between 1975 and 1996. Five of those six featured first-round series victories, including a thrilling winner-take-all Game 5 triumph over Detroit in 1984. Bernard King dominated with 44 points and 12 rebounds, enough to counter Isiah Thomas’ 35 points and 12 assists.

Isiah Thomas and Bernard King engaged in a winner-take-all playoff duel in 1984.

Cavaliers-Knicks playoff history: This is the fourth time the Cavs and Knicks have met in the playoffs. New York swept a best-of-three series in 1978 behind Bob McAdoo’s 68 total points over two wins. They would not see each other again in the postseason until back-to-back first-round meetings in 1995 and 1996. New York swept the latter matchup, an identical 4-5 first-round pairing in which the Patrick Ewing-led Knicks held Cleveland to 83, 80 and 76 points in each game, respectively.

Albert King and the Nets staged an epic first-round upset of the defending champion Sixers in 1984.

Brooklyn Nets (6) vs. Philadelphia 76ers (3)

NBA championships: 76ers (3) | Nets (0)

Most recent Finals: 76ers (2001) | Nets (2003)

76ers as 3rd seed: This playoffs will mark the third time in the last six years Philadelphia has finished third in the East. Previous to that, the 76ers had not finished third since 1986. While two of their early 1980s third-place finishes produced Finals runs, their more recent forays from this position have been less successful. In both 2018 (4-1 to Boston) and 2019 (4-3 to Toronto), the Sixers bowed out in the second round.

Nets as 6th seed: Brooklyn’s fifth consecutive playoff appearance mirrors the start of this streak: as a sixth seed against the Sixers. Prior to that, the Nets franchise finished sixth in the East on six other occasions — and pulled off the first-round upset three times (4-3 over Toronto in 2014; 4-2 over Toronto in 2007; 3-2 over Philadelphia in 1984).

New Jersey completes one of the greatest first-round upsets in playoff history.

76ers-Nets playoff history: This is the fourth time the 76ers and Nets franchises have met in the playoffs, and all of them have been identical 3-6 first-round matchups. Their 1984 meeting morphed into the Nets’ first big postseason moment since joining the NBA in the 1976 merger: a monumental upset of the defending champion Sixers in the first round. Michael Ray Richardson, Buck Williams and Albert King torched Philadelphia’s Hall of Fame roster, ultimately coming away with the shocking Game 5 upset.

Bill Russell and Bob Pettit clashed in one of the greatest Finals games of all time in 1957.

Atlanta Hawks (7) vs. Boston Celtics (2)

NBA championships: Celtics (17) | Hawks (1)

Most recent Finals: Celtics (2022) | Hawks (1961)

Celtics as 2nd seed: Boston boasts ample history as the second-place team in the Eastern Conference. Not since the two-round 1950s have the Celtics lost the opening series as the second seed. Last year’s Finals run also began from the No. 2 spot. Boston hasn’t won a championship from this starting mark, however, since Bill Russell’s 10th championship in 1968. That title run featured 19 total games… with Russell grabbing at least 20 rebounds in all but three of those contests.

Hawks as 7th seed: Atlanta hasn’t placed seventh since Kevin Willis was the team’s mainstay in the middle. The Hawks didn’t score a single-game win, let alone a series victory, against the Pacers (1995) or Bulls (1993). You have to go back to 1984 for true seventh-seed drama from the Hawks. In that series, Dominique Wilkins helped Atlanta force a deciding Game 5 before falling to Marques Johnson and the Milwaukee Bucks.

Rookies Tommy Heinsohn and Bill Russell lead Boston to a 2OT Game 7 Finals victory over the Hawks.

Hawks-Celtics playoff history: Nearly every era has seen the Hawks and Celtics face off in the postseason, from 1957 (when the Hawks were in St. Louis) to 2016 (Atlanta 4-2 first-round win). That first meeting was easily the most thrilling: a seven-game NBA Finals peaking in a double-overtime Game 7. A rookie Bill Russell logged 54 minutes and amassed 19 points and 32 rebounds in the epic clincher, enough to triumph over Bob Pettit (39 points, 19 rebounds) and St. Louis.

2004 NBA MVP Kevin Garnett led Minnesota to his and the franchise’s first ever playoff series win over Denver.

Minnesota Timberwolves (8) vs. Denver Nuggets (1)

NBA championships: Nuggets (0) | Timberwolves (0)

Most recent Finals: Nuggets (N/A) | Timberwolves (N/A)

Nuggets as 1st seed: This is the first time Denver has finished the regular season with the top record in the Western Conference since joining the league in 1976. You’d have to go back to the franchise’s ABA days to find top-seeded precedent, as well as Finals appearances. Both occurred in the ABA’s farewell season, with Denver finishing 60-24 and advancing to the 1976 ABA Finals. David Thompson and Dan Issel combined to average more than 50 points in the championship series, which the Nuggets ultimately lost 4-2 to Julius Erving and the New York Nets.

Timberwolves as 8th seed: Minnesota’s first baby steps into the playoffs featured a pair of eighth-place entries in 1999 and 2001. Both were 3-1 losses to the top-seeded Spurs, though a young Kevin Garnett wowed observers by going toe-to-toe with Tim Duncan in each series. A 22-year-old Garnett averaged 21.8 points, 12.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.8 steals against the Spurs in 1999.

Kevin Garnett and the Timberwolves finally break their 1st-round curse in 2004.

Nuggets-Timberwolves playoff history: This is just the second time Denver and Minnesota have met in the playoffs. The prior meeting was also a 1-8 matchup, though it was the Timberwolves playing the role of highly favored No. 1 seed in 2004. Newly minted MVP Kevin Garnett was electric, averaging 25.8 points, 14.8 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.0 steals in his and the franchise’s first-ever playoff series win.

Deandre Ayton’s game-winning alley-oop in Game 2 of the 2021 West finals is a recent memory in Suns-Clippers history.

LA Clippers (5) vs. Phoenix Suns (4)

NBA championships: Suns (0) | Clippers (0)

Most recent Finals: Suns (2021) | Clippers (N/A)

Suns as 4th seed: Phoenix hasn’t been seeded fourth since 1998, and that 56-win team floundered in a first-round matchup against rookie Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs. That series was payback for a similar 4-5 matchup in 1992, in which Phoenix swept the Spurs behind a combined 47 points per game from guards Kevin Johnson and Jeff Hornacek. That Suns team lost to Finals-bound Portland in five games in the second round.

Clippers as 5th seed: The franchise’s 53-year history features just two other playoff appearances as the fifth seed. Both occasions saw the Clippers advance to the second round: once as the Buffalo Braves in 1976, the other at the beginning of Lob City Clippers era in 2012. The LA edition was headlined by a much younger version of Chris Paul, who led the Clippers to a 4-3 first-round win over Memphis — just the franchise’s second playoff series victory in 36 years.

All-Angles: Ayton's game-winning alley-oop

Suns-Clippers playoff history: Phoenix has owned the short playoff history between the two oldest NBA franchises without a championship, though both prior meetings were tightly contested. The Steve Nash-led Suns were taken to a seventh and deciding game in the 2006 second round before prevailing. More recently, Phoenix survived a six-game Western Conference finals over LA in 2021. The Suns registered perhaps the most thrilling single play in franchise history in Game 2, an inbounds alley-oop to Deandre Ayton with less than a second remaining to win the game.

A young Stephen Curry turned a sixth seed experience into a breakout party in 2013.

Golden State Warriors (6) vs. Sacramento Kings (3)

NBA championships: Kings (0) | Warriors (7)

Most recent Finals: Kings (1951) | Warriors (2022)

Kings as 3rd seed: Third place was familiar territory back when the Kings were known as the Royals. They entered the postseason in that spot five times between 1955 and 1967, though none produced a Finals run. Their 1963 showing was the most thrilling, led by prime Oscar Robertson and Wayne Embry. The Cincinnati Royals upset the Syracuse Nationals thanks to Robertson’s 32 points, 19 rebounds and 13 assists in the must-win Game 5. The Royals followed that up by taking the Celtics dynasty to a full seven games, with Robertson dropping 43-6-6 in the Game 7 loss.

Warriors as 6th seed: Sixth place was the foundation on which the Warriors as we know them were built. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green were all under 25 years old when Golden State upset the third-seeded Denver Nuggets 4-2 in the 2013 first round. Game 2 was that group’s first-ever playoff victory, punctuated by Curry’s 30 points and 13 assists that served notice to the league.

Kings-Warriors playoff history: There is none. The 2023 playoffs will mark the first time these teams will meet in their lengthy existence. Part of that has to do with relocation; both franchises changed cities and conferences in the 1960s and 1970s. The other factor is playoff droughts. Often one team’s prolonged postseason absence overlapped a relatively successful stretch by the other.

Ja Morant and the Grizzlies advanced as a No. 2 seed last year. They’re hoping to do it again.

Los Angeles Lakers (7) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (2)

NBA championships: Grizzlies (0) | Lakers (17)

Most recent Finals: Grizzlies (N/A) | Lakers (2020)

Grizzlies as 2nd seed: This is the second consecutive and total appearance by Memphis as the No. 2 seed in the West. Last year’s 56-win squad won a frenetic six-game series over Minnesota. They were actually led in scoring by the rapidly emerging Desmond Bane, who averaged 23.5 points on absurd 50-49-90 shooting splits. Ja Morant then averaged 38.3 points in the second round before the Grizzlies fell to eventual champion Golden State in six games.

Lakers as 7th seed: Seventh place has been a recent and unkind trend for the Lakers. Prior to 2006, L.A. had never entered the postseason in the No. 7 spot. This is their fifth occasion as the seventh seed since, and the prior four all ended in first-round defeats. Perhaps the most notable of those occasions was the 2006 first-round series against Phoenix, which saw a Kobe Bryant buzzer-beater in Game 4 give the Lakers a 3-1 lead before falling in seven games.

Grizzlies-Lakers playoff history: There is none. Memphis’ longest string of postseason appearances (2011-2017) overlapped the worst playoff drought in Lakers history (2014-2019).