2022 NBA Playoffs - The Pretenders and the Contenders
by Aaron Lynn
2022 Play-In Tournament
(7) Brooklyn Nets vs. (8) Cleveland Cavaliers
Tuesday, 7:00 PM ET (TNT)
Brooklyn has had one of the most chaotic seasons of any NBA team. The Nets started 23-9 but ran into a host of issues (most notably an extended injury to Kevin Durant) and finished just 44-38 on the season. The Nets shipped James Harden off to Philly in exchange for Ben Simmons during the season. Simmons has not played this season but might make his Brooklyn debut if the Nets can make a long run through the postseason.
Brooklyn has won 3 of 4 against Cleveland this year including a 118-107 win on Friday. That win came as part of a 4-game win streak that helped Brooklyn host this play-in game and avoid the danger of an immediate 9-10 elimination game.
The Cavaliers also finished 44-38 and are one of the best "feel good" stories of the NBA this year. The Cavs have turned a relatively odd collection of big men into a quality team led by emerging star Darius Garland. Cleveland has grinded out wins all season long but stumbled down the stretch after key injuries to players like Jarrett Allen and rookie Evan Mobley. Allen is out for this contest but Mobley is back and the Cavs will need to re-integrate their lineup to advance to the first round.
Aaron's Prediction: Brooklyn Wins, Cleveland to Elimination Game - It's just hard to imagine Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and company not advancing to the postseason. Home court should only help, although the Irving/Garland matchup should be fascinating. Expect Brooklyn to win but Cleveland to give maximum effort for 48 minutes and make life difficult for the Nets.
(7) Minnesota Timberwolves vs. (8) Los Angeles Clippers
Tuesday, 9:30 PM ET (TNT)
Minnesota has a chance to reach the postseason for the first time since 2018 thanks to their electric offense led by Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell. Anthony Edwards followed up his stellar rookie season by averaging over 21 points per game. It's about time this team loaded with fun, young players has an opportunity in the postseason.
They will face a Clippers team that has actually done well to reach the Play-In considering that Kawhi Leonard has not played this season following an ACL tear last year. Paul George has also missed significant time and just recently returned to the lineup. Reggie Jackson has led the way for the Clippers in the interim.
Aaron's Prediction: Minnesota Wins, Los Angeles to Elimination Game - I'm expecting a really good game but give the nod to Minnesota thanks in part to the home crowd. Look for KAT to remind everyone how good he really is. I expect the Clippers to win on Friday and earn the 8 seed.
(9) Atlanta Hawks vs. (10) Charlotte Hornets
Wednesday, 7:00 PM ET (ESPN)
Atlanta, led by Trae Young, made a run all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2021 before they ran into the eventual champs Milwaukee. Young is fantastic and is capable of catching fire offensively but may be without John Collins who is dealing with multiple injuries. The Hawks are the second-best team in the league from a 3-point percentage perspective, so expect a lot of triples against a below average Charlotte defense.
The Hornets are back in the Play-In where they ultimately fell short in 2021. LaMelo Ball has continued to improve for the Hornets and appears to be the face of the franchise for the next decade. He's a big reason why the Hornets are the top assist team in the entire NBA.
Aaron's Prediction: Atlanta Wins, Charlotte Eliminated - The battle of point guards between Young and Ball should be a lot of fun, but Atlanta has been really good at home this season, and I expect Trae to just be too much for Charlotte to overcome. I also expect Atlanta to win on Friday and earn the #8 seed in the East.
(9) New Orleans Pelicans vs. (10) San Antonio Spurs
Wednesday, 9:30 PM ET (ESPN)
New Orleans traded for C.J. McCollum during the season, and when he is paired with Brandon Ingram the Pelicans have actually been pretty good. New Orleans found a way to get into the Play-In despite no Zion Williamson this year whose future with the franchise is clouded, at best. McCollum's 3-point shooting was desperately needed from a team whose offense can sometimes be painful to watch.
The Spurs squeaked in as the last team from the West to make the Play-In. DeJounte Murray is the team's star and is a big reason why the Spurs rank behind only Charlotte for most assists per game.
Aaron's Prediction: New Orleans Wins, San Antonio Eliminated - I hate to say this, but I'm not sure it really matters who wins this game, since I see both the 7-seed Minnesota and 8-seed Los Angeles ultimately advancing into the postseason.
(1) Miami Heat vs. (8) TBD
Series Begins Sunday
After a disappointing first round sweep to Milwaukee in last year's playoffs (after their NBA Finals run the year before), the Heat are back on top of a wild Eastern Conference where the #1 Heat and #10 Hornets are separated by just 10 games.
The Heat have multiple options to turn to both offensively and defensively. Jimmy Butler is, of course, the biggest star, but players like (eventual) 6th Man of the Year winner Tyler Herro have been great. Between Herro, Max Strus, and Duncan Robinson, this team can be deadly from deep. The defense with Bam Adebayo in the middle is extremely solid as well.
There's a reason why the Heat emerged as the top seed in the East. It's a team with plenty of experience thanks to their Finals run in 2020, and coach Erik Spoelstra is one of the best in the biz. I feel that the Heat are destined with another clash with Milwaukee in the conference finals.
Aaron's Prediction: Miami TBD - It depends on who the Heat face. I think there's a chance a team like Atlanta could push Miami to 6 games, but I don't see a scenario where Miami doesn't advance out of this first round with fairly little trouble.
(2) Boston Celtics vs. (7) TBD
Series Begins Sunday
This season was a struggle for most of the year for Boston, who eventually got red hot and finished second in the East. That's the good news, along with the fact that both Jaylen Green and Jayson Tatum are both available for a playoff run. The bad news is that Robert Williams III, a huge piece of the Celtic's defense, went down with injury and won't be available, at least in the first round. That potentially means that Boston will lean on Al Horford more to fill that role, which... I don't love (with all due respect to Horford). Considering Boston likely has a date with Giannis and the Bucks in the second round, they desperately need Williams back in the lineup.
While the interior defense might be a point of concern, Marcus Smart is a lockdown defender and likely the Defensive Player of the Year. Jayson Tatum has had some sensational moments in the postseason and I expect more of that in 2022. Still, I think the Celtics are suspect, even in the first round. The Nets with Kyrie and Kevin Durant pose a threat and the big-heavy Cavaliers could pose a unique matchup challenge.
Aaron's Prediction: TBD - I wouldn't feel comfortable, regardless of who Boston plays. If they meet up with Brooklyn they could be in big trouble. If they get through that, then a second round date against Milwaukee spells disaster.
(3) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (6) Chicago Bulls
Series Begins Saturday
Another year, another season of Giannis Antetokounmpo of posting insane numbers and leading his team to the playoffs. There's plenty of reason to think the Bucks will make another deep run all the way to the Finals. While the defense hasn't been quite as good in 2021-22 as we've seen from Bucks teams in the past, I have no doubt that Milwaukee will ramp things up. It helps that Brook Lopez is back after playing just 11 games during the regular season following back surgery. His presence in the paint is a big piece of what Milwaukee does so well on defense.
Chicago has put together a solid year but there's reason to believe they may be a bit fraudulent, based on their 1-14 record against the top 4 seeds in the East. While Lonzo Ball isn't necessarily a star, he was a key piece to jumpstarting Chicago's offense, especially on the fastbreak, and he's out for the season. While I don't expect anything significant from the Bulls, I am happy to see DeRozan back in the postseason as he continues to be one of the NBA's most underrated players.
Aaron's Prediction: Bucks in 5 - I feel comfortable with Milwaukee in this series. I do think Chicago will get one (maybe two) games at home, but their struggles to shoot the 3 will eventually be their downfall (and Giannis is just too good).
Giannis looks for back-to-back titles
(4) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (5) Toronto Raptors
Series Begins Saturday
The duo of James Harden and potential MVP Joel Embiid has been a near-flawless fit for Philly. That was one advantage of getting rid of the headache that was Ben Simmons. The other was the emergence of Tyrese Maxey. With Simmons out, Maxey is the go-to point guard and has put together a solid season. The downside of the Simmons deal is who the Sixers had to give up to the Nets. I worry that the absence of players like Seth Curry and Andre Drummond will be felt more in the postseason than they were in the regular season. Still, Philly has decent depth and Embiid is having his best season ever. The big question: can Philly defend enough to make a run?
A healthy Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet means that Toronto is right back in the thick of the playoffs after their 2019 title. Scottie Barnes has emerged as a key piece as a rookie. Unlike fellow rookies Cade Cunningham, Jalen Suggs, and Jalen Green, Barnes will see key minutes on the big stage of the postseason. Nothing jumps off the page statistically about this team, but there's also no glaring issues, either.
Aaron's Prediction: 76ers in 7 - This series just has the feeling of seven games. Yes, James Harden and Joel Embiid should be the best two players on the court, but the Sixers have weaknesses, and if there's anyone that can exploit weaknesses, it's Raptors coach Nick Nurse and a team with plenty of playoff experience.
(1) Phoenix Suns vs. (8) TBD
Series Begins Sunday
The most impressive team in the regular season was by far the Phoenix Suns. They had the best record in the NBA by a wide margin with 64 wins, and that was even with Chris Paul missing time. Now 37, Paul is still in search of that elusive title, and this just might be the year he finally claims it. The Suns fell just short in the NBA Finals to the Milwaukee Bucks but brought back a core of young stars including Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, and DeAndre Ayton. The West has its fair share of quality teams, but the Suns have been a class above this year. The revenge tour is coming to a Western playoff team near you. I've got the Suns in the Finals.
Aaron's Prediction: Suns in 4 - Not sure it even matters who Phoenix faces. I'm expecting a focused Suns team to run through whoever they face. Maybe Paul George can steal a game if the Clippers matchup with the Suns, but otherwise look for a pretty quick series win for Phoenix.
(2) Memphis Grizzlies vs. (7) TBD
Series Begins Saturday
The Grizzlies young core has been consistently ahead of schedule and this year is no different. Ja Morant is probably the most exciting player the NBA has to offer and even when he missed significant time this year the Grizzlies didn't miss a beat (20-5 record in his absence). A healthy Jaren Jackson Jr. is a big reason why they claimed the 2nd seed in the West. Desmond Bane has emerged as yet another key threat for Memphis and is even capable of carrying the offense when necessary. This team is top 6 in both offense and defensive rating. Can Memphis navigate through a difficult West loaded with veteran teams? Time will tell, but the process should be thrilling.
Aaron's Prediction: Memphis TBD - It depends on the opponent, but I would expect Grizzlies to handle business in 5 or 6 games to move on to the second round.
(3) Golden State Warriors vs. (6) Denver Nuggets
Series Begins Sunday
This is, in my opinion, the most intriguing series of them all. Golden State (finally) has their "Big 3" back... sorta. Klay Thompson came back after back-to-back season-ending injuries, but as soon as Thompson returned Draymond Green was injured. The defense suffered in his absence and by the time he made it back to the lineup Stephen Curry had a regular-season-ending ankle sprain. While he's expected back at some point this series, whether he will be ready from the jump of Game 1 is still to be determined. Because of how inconsistent the Golden State lineup has been at times due to injury, it's hard to get a feel for what level of success Golden State will have this postseason. They are still potent from deep, with Jordan Poole emerging as a key contributor. The defensive numbers have also been excellent this season.
Nikola Jokic put the team on his back, bettering his MVP numbers from 2021 and guiding the Nuggets to the 6 seed. Jamal Murray missed all of the regular season after an ACL tear, but there's hope that he could return at some point in the postseason. There's also potential for Michael Porter Jr. to return after ongoing back issues. Jokic is an incredible talent and would be my vote for MVP (if I had one), but taking on the Warriors short-handed is a difficult task.
Aaron's Prediction: Warriors in 7 - I can't wait for this series. I think there's a chance Golden State could win this in six, but there's also a world where Murray and Porter Jr. return to the lineup and contribute immediately which would make me lean towards Denver. So, Warriors in 7 is the compromise. Sit back and enjoy this one, folks.
Could Jokic be named MVP for the second-straight season?
(4) Dallas Mavericks vs. (5) Utah Jazz
Series Begins Saturday
Look, Dallas is probably just thrilled not to matchup with the Clippers in the postseason. Luka Magic is real come Playoff time and expect nothing different this year. The Luka-Porzingis connection really never worked (mostly because Porzingis thought he should be the go-to guy???). That distraction is gone. And as good as Porzingis could at times blocking shots and defending the paint, the defense has been much better this season under first-year coach Jason Kidd. The biggest concern is the calf strain that Luka suffered in the final game of the season. It's also worth noting that any technical Luka receives moving forward earns him a one-game suspension. If Luka is healthy, this should be Dallas' best postseason performance since their title run with Dirk.
Somehow Donovan Mitchell has unlocked a new level of performance during the playoffs. If you are a basketball fan, then make sure you are watching what should be some incredible back-and-forth duels between Mitchell and Luka. Mitchell leads the best offense in the NBA at least from a rating standpoint. There's been some speculation that a first round exit would lead to Rudy Gobert's exit from the team (whether he wants to or not). Time will tell, but for now the Jazz will need to figure out a way to slow down Luka and company. (Oh, and also not blow a huge lead in an elimination game in the postseason. Too soon?)
Aaron's Prediction: Mavericks in 6 - With a caveat of Luka not missing any time. If he does, that could absolutely change the course of this entire series. Dallas' defense will need to have their best showing yet in recent memory to get through this series.
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