The NBA Playoffs have progressed to the second round in both the East and West conferences, with contenders being separated from pretenders.

As hostilities begin later today, e2gsports Lead NBA Writer preview each of the series, statistics to know and things to be on the look out for.

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Heat vs Sixers: How Will Heat-Sixers Series Pan Out in Embiid’s Absence?
Now that Joel Embiid is dealing with an uncertain status due to an orbital fracture and mild concussion, the chances for a Philly struggles becomes imminent. It’s a shame, really, because they enjoyed a breezy closeout of the Raptors following a brief scare the two games prior. And when the Sixers play up to their potential like that, they are a very real title contender.

So what would this new reality look like without Embiid, possibly the most physically dominant player in basketball? Hard to say, but Tyrese Maxey must continue to play carefree with full confidence, James Harden must make plays with shots and passing and Tobias Harris needs to stand out while the role players fall into place. And even then, it will be a chore.

The Heat secured the best record and home-court advantage throughout the East playoffs, then brushed aside the Hawks in five games in the first round, even with Kyle Lowry missing two games and Jimmy Butler (one game) due to injuries. Miami’s defense was especially cranky, shutting down Trae Young, one of the standouts of last year’s postseason. The Heat’s rotations, quickness and toughness are major reasons for defensive success. Meanwhile, Butler and Tyler Herro are capable of big scoring outbursts.

Miami’s depth could be crucial
Unlike the Sixers, Miami has enough depth to withstand someone going cold or a rotational player getting injured. That’s why the Heat haven’t suffered enormous setbacks when Duncan Robinson, for example, underachieved this season and struggled (just 2-10 on 3-point shooting the last four games) in the first round. They just call on Max Strus and Victor Oladipo. Next man up is a motto in Miami.

Celtics vs Bucks: Formidable Foes go Head to Head
The battle-tested Boston Celtics find themselves in the conference semifinals for the fifth time in the last six years, hosting a formidable foe in the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, which enter Game 1 likely missing one of their top players in three-time All-Star Khris Middleton, who is reportedly expected to miss the entire series.

The Bucks’ second-leading scorer, Middleton sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee in the fourth quarter of Milwaukee’s Game 2 loss to the Chicago Bulls on April 20. Since the 2017-18 season, Middleton has faced the Celtics in two playoff series, shooting 51.6% for an average of 22.4 points per game.

Boston, meanwhile, heads into this series well-rested with a relatively clean bill of health after quickly dispatching the Brooklyn Nets in four games to become the only team to sweep through the opening round.

They eliminated the Nets on the strength of physicality and suffocating defense on superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But they face a more arduous task in trying to slow down reigning Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is 7-5 in the postseason against Boston, averaging 26.8 points, 10.1 rebounds and 1.5 steals. Antetokounmpo thrives on physicality, but with co-star Middleton expected to miss time, the Bucks need other players to step up such as Jrue Holiday, Bobby Portis and Grayson Allen, who has been a lights-out 3-pointer shooter thus far in the postseason.

Defending Antetokounmpo
Boston opened up the playoffs against Durant by throwing the kitchen sink at him early, and that definitely affected his rhythm. In just the first half of Game 1, the Celtics defended Durant with Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Grant Williams, limiting one of the game’s all-time great scorers to just seven points on 2-for-10 shooting.

 

Expect a similar defensive plan against Antetokounmpo, who will likely be less affected by Boston’s physicality than Durant was. Tatum matched up against Durant as the primary defender for much of the opening round, but Antetokounmpo outweighs the Celtics’ wing by more than 30 pounds. Either way, you can expect plenty of double teams to be flying at Antetokounmpo, who will need to find open shooters.

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Suns vs Mavericks:  trade Tackles
After a run of six consecutive first-round playoff series losses, Dallas advances past the opening round for the first time since capturing the 2011 NBA title. Meanwhile, the defending Western Conference-champion Suns, knocked down their highest shooting percentage in a playoff game (60%) since 2006 on Thursday in a 115-109 Game 6 win against the New Orleans Pelicans.

Both teams found ways to bounce back from injuries to their superstars in the process, a la Luca Doncic and Devin Booker.

Both players enter Game 1 of the conference semifinals healthy, but while they were out in Round 1 other players stepped up to add more potential layers to an already compelling second-round matchup.

With Doncic out of action, Jalen Brunson averaged 32 points on 50.7% from the field in the first three games of the first round, while Deandre Ayton stepped up in Booker’s absence with a combined 51 points in Games 3 and 4, before Mikal Bridges racked up a team-high 31 points in Phoenix’s Game 5 triumph.

Future Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul closed the show for the Suns in Game 6 with 33 points on 14 of 14 shooting to set an NBA postseason record for the most field-goals made without a miss. Paul finished the opening round with 68 assists and just nine turnovers.

Phoenix swept the regular season series between these teams 3-0, but they haven’t played since Jan. 20.

Clutch Display
In this series, we have got two of the league’s very best in that department so far in the postseason. Phoenix is 2-1 in clutch time in the playoffs, good for third among postseason participants, while the Mavericks rank just below with a record of 3-2.

The Suns finished the regular season with the league’s best mark (33-9) in clutch games, while Dallas won 57.9% of its outings under those circumstances. Both teams can thank steady play at point guard from Doncic and Paul for their success in games that come down to the wire, and there’s a good chance we’ll see plenty of close finishes in this series.

Grizzlies vs Warriors: Curry and Morant Renew Rivalry
The Warriors and Grizzlies squared off in last year’s NBA Play-In Tournament. While Stephen Curry and Draymond Green carried the Warriors without Klay Thompson, the Grizzlies were eager to prove they should be taken seriously. A year later, the landscape has changed already between both teams as they prepare for a semifinals matchup.

The Grizzlies host the Warriors in Game 1 on Sunday as a viable championship contender. Though it took the Grizzlies six games to eliminate the seventh-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves, they have a strong blend of young talent that possess remarkable maturity including two dynamic scorers and playmakers in Ja Morant and Desmond Bane, as well as an elite defender in Jaren Jackson.

As for the Warriors, they have the familiar characters that helped them win three NBA titles in five Finals appearances. They have arguably the NBA’s best shooter – Curry, the league’s second-best shooter – Thompson, and the league’s best defender when healthy – Green.

But they also have returned to the playoffs because they have struck a good balance between blending their championship-tested players with an otherwise young roster. Third-year-guard Jordan Poole has become the biggest emergence a year after spending time in the G League.

Steph Curry vs. Ja Morant
Curry and Morant will become intent on showcasing their greatness. To be clear, Curry and Morant remain more motivated by winning. That is what makes both the NBA’s generational talent, Curry and the league’s rising star, Morant so great. But expect them to try to showcase their superiority against each other.

Granted, Curry may not have the primary defensive assignment on Morant. Expect the Warriors to give Morant varying dosages of Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Gary Payton II. But Curry will definitely want to take on that matchup. Expect Morant to do the same.