The NBA Finals are here with four first-round games taking place Saturday and Sunday.
In the East, all eyes will be on the Boston Celtics vs. The Brooklyn Nets series as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving appear to be disrupting the No. 2 seed Celtics, who are without injured center Robert Williams III, in what should be a competitive series.
Out west, injuries can dictate the teams advancing. Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic misses Saturday’s game 1 against the Utah Jazz due to a strained left leg, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Tim MacMahon. And Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry is listed as likely for Game 1 against the Denver Nuggets after missing the last 12 games of the regular season with a left foot injury.
Which returning player could have the biggest impact? Which higher seed can least afford to lose Match 1 this weekend? Our NBA experts break down the best storylines in the first round.
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1. Which series in the first round is the most competitive?
Kevin Pelton: Boston and Brooklyn. As I laid out in my series preview, the Nets have been much better than their overall record with Kevin Durant healthy and Kyrie Irving available next to him, while the Celtics are not the same jugger without the injured center Robert Williams III. As a result, these teams surprisingly look right after No. 2 and No. 7 seeds.
Tim Bontemps: Many will probably say Nets-Celtics, given the star power involved, but I’m going to go with another Eastern Conference series: Philadelphia-Toronto. The 76ers have the best player in the series with a significant amount in Joel Embiid. But Toronto should have a coaching advantage, Philadelphia will not have Matisse Thybulle for all three games in Toronto, and the Raptors have the perfect selection of long, athletic players to both take advantage of Philadelphia’s lack of athletics and make James Harden’s life extremely difficult. . Embiid ought to be enough to drive Philadelphia through and win this series. But this should be a very difficult test – one that could easily handle seven games – and could send Philly home much earlier than expected.
Kevin Arnovitz: Dallas-Utah. Both 4-5 matchups have a strong potential for seven games, but the Mavericks and Jazz should be really competitive. It’s been a while since Utah played a sustained stretch of dominant basketball, but the Jazz are still the league’s top-ranked offensive. Meanwhile, Dallas has been one of the best stories of 2022. When he’s healthy, Luka is Luka. Spencer Dinwiddie has added some juice that the team desperately needed from the edge, and the defense – traditionally a weakness – has been strong all season. Both teams have been disappointed in recent off-seasons … and one will be so again when this series is over.
Ramona Shelburne: Even without Luka Doncic missing Game 1, I thought the Mavericks Jazz series would be a tight one. I know a lot of people are down on Jazz because of their past playoff failures, but I’ll always felt like they have the ability to put it together one of these years if they take a few breaks.
Jamal Collier: Boston-Brooklyn. I do not think a team with Durant and Irving is going to go quiet. This feels like a seven-game series with a chance that several games will fall on the field, and it’s two dangerous players trying to outperform in clutch performance. In the end, it’s hard for me to see the Nets play or defend at a high enough level that four out of seven games can handle this series, but it’s going to be fun to watch.
2. Which injured player’s return could have the biggest impact on the first round?
Pelton: Doncic is returning from a calf strain. Although Stephen Curry is at least as valuable to his team, Curry’s schedule is clearer. We have no idea right now if Doncic can get back on the field for Game 2, after our ESPN colleague Adrian Wojnarowski reported that he will at least miss the first game of the Mavericks series against the Jazz. The speed of his recovery will go a long way toward determining the outcome of that series.
Good time: I thought Dallas was the biggest threat to Phoenix in the Western Conference before Doncic hurt his calf in the Mavericks’ regular season finale. Now, Utah is probably the favorite to move on, as we have no idea how much Doncic will be able to play – or how effective he will be. What looked like a chance for the young superstar to make a deep post-season run could now be over before it starts.
Arnovitz: Doncic is the engine, fuel and torque of the Mavericks’ attack, and his condition is more important to his team than any single player in the West. Dinwiddie and Jalen Brunson can run a high-quality pick-and-roll attack, but they also do not have the creativity to make any guy on the floor a threat. The good news for Dallas is that its defense has been stingy, and given Doncic’s shortcomings at that end of the floor, that should not change.
Necklace: Doncic. I don’t think there is a single team in the NBA whose success is tied to one player as much as the Mavericks are to Doncic. If he does not play or is not 100 percent, I do not think Dallas can advance in this series.
Shelburne: Warriors can win a few games without Curry, but they really are not Warriors without Curry, right? It will take him a few fights to get it rolling, but once he does, he completely changes the dynamics of that team.
3. Who is your choice for the breakout player in the playoffs?
Pelton: Bruce Brown, who has been playing at a high level for the past two months. Brown averaged 14.7 PPG, 5.9 RPG and 3.7 APG after the All-Star break, and found an ideal role in supporting Durant and Irving in the offense while serving as the Nets’ top defender. He’s flirted with triple-doubles in two of Brooklyn’s last three games, and the Nets need him to play at that level to get deep into the playoffs.
Good time: Jaren Jackson Jr. When everyone thinks of the Memphis Grizzlies, the first person they think of is, of course, Yes Morant – and rightly so. But Jackson has taken a massive leap forward this season defensively, launching himself into talks with All-Defense and Defensive Player of the Year. As the Grizzlies for the first time have a chance to make it into a deep playoff game, Jackson gets the chance to show the world why he and Morant are such an electrifying one-two-stroke in Memphis.
Arnovitz: For two seasons, Memphis Grizzlies guard Desmond Bane has established himself as the No. 30 thief in the 2020 draft with his career at 43.5% in 3-point percentage. But Bane also has a floor game that is improving and the strength to influence the game at both ends. Minnesota surrenders a large amount of 3-point attempts and will devote a lot of attention to Morant, giving Bane an opportunity to be a deadly other-side threat for the Grizzlies.
Shelburne: Does Morant count? For I think he’s going to exceed everyone’s already high expectations of him and the Grizzlies. I had a manager I trust who told me a few months ago that Memphis could be the best team in the league. The more I think about it, the more I start to agree with him.
Necklace: Anthony Edwards. No player will benefit more from his first exposure on the national stage, both on and off the field. Although his team may not make it, Edwards will be the player everyone talks about after this series.
Which higher seed can least afford to lose game 1?
Pelton: Philadelphia. The Sixers are in an unusual place because they already know they will be deficient for road fights in Toronto because of Thybulle’s vaccination status. Losing Game 1 would force Philly to win at least one away game and put more pressure on the team’s other defensive options on the wing.
Good time: Philadelphia, both because Thybulle will not be available in road games and to set a good tone for this series by getting off to a good start. But that could also apply to Dallas, with Doncic’s precarious health, and the Golden State Warriors due to Curry’s injury situation.
Arnovitz: Philadelphia 76ers. Anyone who has spent a long time in the Scotiabank Arena this spring knows that the Raptors and their home crowd are not hospitable to visitors. These road fights in Toronto will be even more treacherous for the Sixers without Thybulle. On top of that, the Sixers lost some of their depth by the deadline, while the Raptors AND Anunoby, one of their best two-way threats, have just returned.
Shelburne: Philadelphia always had to have a tough match with Toronto because of the Raptors’ length and depth. Now the Sixers will play without Thybulle in Toronto, making it even more important to keep serve at home.
Necklace: Philly. Game 1 overreactions are an underrated big part of the playoffs, and I do not imagine that everyone will take it in stride if the Sixers lay an egg at home to start the series. Especially considering they have to play short-handed in Toronto.
5. What is your bold prediction for the first round?
Pelton: After scoring 50 points in Game 3 of last year’s first round against Brooklyn, Jayson Tatum will break the Celtics’ playoff single-game franchise record, which John Havlicek has by scoring at least 55 against the Nets.
Good time: I would say it is that the Atlanta Hawks get two games from the Miami Heat in the first round, and that series is more competitive than the usual 1-8 carnage (which is what the Western Conference version will be). Atlanta has had a strange season, but it is a very talented team with playoff experience from last year’s race and a player in Trae Young who has proven he can win a playoff game alone.
Arnovitz: Denver takes Golden State to seven games. Curry dictates the Warriors’ fortunes – period. If he is limited, whether it’s minutes or mobility, they’s far, far easier to defend. The Nuggets feature the best offensive player in the series and know how to create a high percentage half-court appearance, meaning the Warriors’ acclaimed D will have to play to his full potential. Either way, it’s getting tight.
Shelburne: How brave is it to suggest that the second-seeded team in the East wins its playoff match in the first round? For I think Boston is going to beat the star-crossed Nets. I know how good Durant and Irving are, but they’re really asked to do a lot, and at some point it wears you down. Especially against a great defensive team like Boston.
Necklace: Ben Simmons gets his season debut. The fact that there is still smoke about a possible return makes me feel that eventually there will be fire. That would be bizarre and an appropriate chapter in this endless saga: Simmons returns to the field during the playoffs for a home game in Brooklyn, a year after playing in his final game.