The 2022 NBA playoffs begin on Saturday April 16. We’re still waiting on solidifying the eight seeds in each conference, but we have storylines to pay attention to. The Phoenix Suns have been the best team all year. Will they roll to the NBA Finals?
The Miami Heat and Boston Celtics are the top two teams in the East, and the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers pulled off a blockbuster in-season trade. But are we sleeping on the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks?
#2 Boston Celtics vs. #7 Brooklyn Nets … Celtics on upset alert
A rematch of last year’s first round. Only this time the seeding is reversed. The Celtics were 20-21 at the halfway point of the season and closed on a 31-10 tear. They finished number one in aNET rating, 10th in aORTG, and first in aDRTG. FiveThirtyEight’s model has the Celtics as the title favorites at 31 percent and they are third in Vegas odds at +750.
The Nets were in first place in the East on Dec. 31, at 23-10. They limped to a 21-28 record the rest of the way. Kevin Durant missed six weeks with an MCL injury, they traded James Harden to the Philadelphia 76ers, Kyrie Irving became eligible for home games in March, and here we are.
Brooklyn finished the year ninth in aORTG and 20th in aDRTG. Yet they are the scariest seven seed in recent memory. That’s because of the brilliance of Durant and Irving.
The Celtics have their own dynamic duo in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but they’ll be missing defensive wunderkind Robert Williams, who is out after having surgery on the meniscus in his left knee.
Elite defense versus elite offense is what this series will come down to. Can the Nets’ stars penetrate the league’s best defense. On the other side, can the Nets come up with enough stops against a team with big wing scorers in Tatum and Brown.
The X-factor for the Celtics is Marcus Smart. We know what he will do defensively, can he consistently knock down open shots on offense?
For the Nets, it’s Bruce Brown. Can he continue to shoot at 40 percent on threes and be a scorer/playmaker in the short role when they send two at Durant and Irving?
Prediction: Celtics in 7…
#4 Philadelphia 76ers vs. Toronto Raptors…76ers on upset alert
This series and the Celtics vs. Nets series are the two most interesting. The 76ers boast an MVP candidate in Joel Embiid and a former MVP in the aforementioned James Harden.
Embiid is a one-man wrecking crew and the Raptors have no answer for him. But the rest of Philadelphia’s team is a big question. What version of Harden are they getting? The former MVP and multiple-time All-NBA or the hot-and-cold version we’ve seen of late?
The Raptors are ninth in aDRTG and seemingly have a plethora of 6-foot-7 and taller super athletic, long guys that can defend. Like Scottie Barnes, who might win Rookie of the Year, and Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, who are NBA champs.
If Harden is ineffective that puts a lot of pressure on Embiid. Who else is a reliable shot creator? Tyrese Maxey is good, but he’s still only in his second year. Asking him to be the team’s third-best player and on some nights second-best is a lot to ask.
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse is as good a tactician as there is in the league. His scheming will win them a game.
The X-factor in this series is the Toronto COVID-19 vaccine mandate. That means 76ers forward Matisse Thybulle is ineligible for road games. He is their best on-ball and wing defender. They have no problem switching him 1 through 4. He led the team in defensive EPM at +3.2.
Who is gonna guard Siakam, Barnes, Gary Trent Jr. or Fred VanVleet?
If you’re a 76ers fan and you’re reading this, the fact that we haven’t mentioned Tobias Harris is a problem.
Prediction: 76ers in 7, because they have Embiid…
#3 Milwaukee Bucks vs. #6 Chicago Bulls
Could the defending champs have an easier first round as they defend their title?
The Bucks have Jrue Holiday, Khris, Middleton, and the reigning Finals MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo. Plus championship equity.
The Bulls started the year strong and took over top spot in the East in January. But injuries have been their downfall.
Prediction: Bucks in 4. They have Giannis.
#1 Miami Heat vs. #8 Atlanta Hawks or Cleveland Cavaliers
The Heat finished the season sixth in aNET rating, 12th in aORTG, and fourth in aDRTG. They have the best coach in the conference in Erik Spoelstra, and they have the requisite toughness and competitiveness level for the playoffs.
Whether it’s the Cavaliers or the Hawks we expect the Heat to advance.
Prediction: Heat in 6, if it’s the Hawks. Trae Young is excellent. Heat in 5 if it’s the Cavaliers.
#2 Memphis Grizzlies vs. Minnesota Timberwolves … Most Trash-talkiest series
The young upstart Grizzlies have been the talk of the league and finished with the second=best record, well ahead of expectations.
The Wolves won an emotional play-in game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday to earn the No. 7 seed.
Both teams like to talk a ton. Especially the Wolves’ Patrick Beverley. Think the Grizz remember that tweet Pat sent in February?
Damn Memphis Grizz no dancing or talking crazzzy tonight huh 🤔 awwww ok Good Luck rest of the way
— Patrick Beverley (@patbev21) February 25, 2022
The Grizzlies’ Dillon Brooks probably does.
Prediction: Grizzlies in 6. They have Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.
#1 Phoenix Suns vs. #8 Los Angeles Clippers or New Orleans Pelicans
The Suns dominated the regular season from start to finish after losing in last year’s NBA Finals. The came back on a mission, much like the 2014 San Antonio Spurs did after losing to the Miami Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals.
The Clippers would present more of a challenge, especially with Paul George back.
Prediction: Suns in 4 over Pelicans. Suns in 5 over Clippers.
#4 Dallas Mavericks vs. #5 Utah Jazz…Luka Doncic injury
If Doncic is healthy the Mavericks will roll. There are a lot of problems in Utah right now. They struggle defensively, especially in the playoffs.
But if Doncic is unavailable — and head coach Jason Kidd has not been forthcoming about the severity of the calf strain — this series could tilt in Utah’s favor. Despite all the Jazz’s shortcomings, they finished No. 1 in aORTG.
Prediction: Mavericks in 6.
#3 Golden State Warriors vs. #6 Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic will likely win his second straight MVP, and deservedly so. Dragging Denver to the sixth seed without his two other max-contract teammates is impressive.
The Warriors have injury concerns with their leading man Stephen Curry. But even if he’s not 100 percent, the Nuggets just don’t have enough outside of Jokic.
Prediction: Warriors in 5.