After 174 days of NBA basketball in the regular season and several more play-in games, the post-season 2021-22 is upon us. While we wait to find out which two teams will fill the remaining two places in parentheses, our staff has one thing to see in each series:
(1) Heat vs. (8) Cavaliers or Hawks
Odds machine: Heat in 5 (either opponent)
Rob Mahoney: Heat’s large number of strong, formidable defenders only put a bigger, more luminous goal on the backs of Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson. Both ranked among the worst isolation defenders in the NBA this season, according to Synergy Sports, and worst yet: The entire league knows it. Opponents have been chasing Herro and Robinson with a new and committed focus this season, forcing Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to balance risk and reward more openly than usual. Miami desperately needs Herro, in particular, to help smooth out some of the tougher edges of the team’s midfield offense. But do you know what else Miami needs? Not to mention an 18-point third quarter to Kevin Huerter as the Hawks drive Herro through the same staggered screen glove over and over again; or to Caris LeVert as he merrily drives his way out of a recession through the path of least resistance.
In a way, Atlanta or Cleveland – depending on who wins Friday’s play-in final – could be exactly the stress test with lower stakes that Miami needs. If the Heat can work enough smoke and mirrors in the matchup game to keep Herro and Robinson out of trouble, it bodes well, not just for this series, but for a deep run after the season. If not, there may be some difficult calls (and shorter stints) ahead as the project becomes more untenable with each round that goes by.
(2) Celtics vs. (7) Nets
Odds machine: Celtics and 5
J. Kyle Mann: After a stroke of a start, the Celtics managed to stabilize their season by parlaying the continuity of the order to defensive success. Since January 1, they have also allowed the lowest total field goal percentage and the fewest points per game. chance in shifting choices, among other impressive defensive touchpoints. They have won the last three meetings against the Nets with an average victory margin of 21.3 (although Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving did not play in two of those matches).
Boston’s variability is a major issue for gamers who rely on schedule-driven creation, and Brooklyn has two of the best self-creators ever to play the sport. and a series of players who take advantage of all the attention that KD and Kyrie are reaping. Who can they trust to reliably attack?
Seth Curry is dealing with an ankle injury and did not score in 33 minutes in the play-in game against the Cavs. Could this be an opening for Goran Dragic or even Cam Thomas to act as chaos variables? If not, KD and Kyrie will be able to bear the heavy offensive burden and also, you know, stop Boston on the other end?
(3) Bukke vs. (6) Tire
Odds machine: Buks i 5
Zach Kram: There’s a reason Milwaukee refueled the last game of the regular season to settle into this matchup, instead of staying in the No. 2 seed to face Brooklyn. Since Mike Budenholzer became the Bucks’ coach and the team rose to the NBA’s best lineup of candidates, Milwaukee has 14-1 against Chicago; the only loss came on the final day of the 2020-21 season when the Bucks, resting all their top players, started this lineup:
Given Chicago’s damage and newer form, that trend does not appear to be changing at any point in this series. Look, I participated in the last Bucks-Bulls game this season. Giannis Antetokounmpo appeared to have already taken this victory to the bank. he did not attempt a shot in the first quarter and played only 24 minutes – and the Bucks still walked to a 21-point victory. They are far more likely to sweep this series than to lose it.
(4) 76ers vs. (5) Raptors
Odds machine: 76ers i 7
Chris Ryan: Has James Harden started? Why are you laughing? Is it because he’s spent most of his time in Philly chasing, getting annoyed, dribbling, taking fadeaway 3s and generally disappearing from his 2018 MVP form (or even his form before hoarding injury in Brooklyn)? Huh. I had not noticed!
It is entirely possible that the Ben Simmons-to-James Harden swap will end up being a write-down for both Philly and Brooklyn, but there is only one thing we say to death: not today. The Harden was brought in to provide a skeleton key to unlock the mythical door we call the playoff defense – something the Sixers have been prevented from doing for most of Joel Embid’s career. And despite all the evidence to the contrary, I think most Sixers fans hold out hope that he’s not so much a shadow of his former self, but a savvy veteran who keeps some premium gasoline in mind, when it matters most. You laugh again!
There’s so much at stake here: Embiid’s happiness, Doc River’s future, Daryl Morey’s judgment, Sixers fans’ stability and most of all Harden’s upcoming blockbuster contract with… someone. If Harden comes out and plays flat, as he has done throughout his career after the season, the questions get louder and louder. (If he destroys Pascal Siakam, I’ll obviously grow a giant beard as a tribute and get this post deleted from the internet.)
(1) Phoenix Suns vs. (8) Clippers or Pelicans
Odds machine: Suns in 5 (either opponent)
Justin Verrier: It may be hard to remember now, but last year’s flameout against the Bucks seemed like Chris Paul’s last best chance to win a title. Critical damage to the Lakers and Clippers as well as many COVID-related disruptions throughout the 2020-21 season paved a yellow-and-orange brick road to the final – a route spearheaded by a 30-year-old with a damn hex on his head in big moments would struggle to copy.
Instead, the Suns decimated the field in the regular season and finished more games (eight) ahead of the NBA’s second-best team than any other since the Lakers’ 1999-00. Oops.
This time, the question is not whether Phoenix can get back to the finals – it is by far the favorite in the West – but whether it can get past a supremely confident Bucks team or an Eastern replacement with chutzpah to overthrow the reigning champions. Paul’s mysterious wrist injury last year took the spirit out of the Suns’ attack, and while a broken thumb mid-season has not exactly reassured Phoenix fans, it showed the growth of the young core: The CP-less Suns went 12-3 coming out of the All-Star break, where Devin Booker puts the kind of numbers (28 points on 52/40/90 shooting) that can vault him to the first team in the All-NBA.
Much has been made of Giannis’ leap for the title, but overall, the Suns have also become a tumor: a deep, talented, versatile and – most importantly – motivated team. Until they get a shot at a rematch, the goal is simply to keep playing as the favorites.
(2) Grizzlies vs. (7) Timberwolves
Odds machine: Grizzlies i 5
Seerat sohi: The Grizzlies are 21-11 in crisis situations this season, with Ja Morant leading the NBA in clutch scoring. But his efficiency (42 percent from the field, 28.6 percent from 3) leaves something to be desired, and the Wolves have the staff to take advantage of him at both ends.
The last time the two teams met, in late February, Morant finished 7-to-25, turned the ball over three times and missed all four of his 3-pointers, including an airball over an Anthony Edwards contest in a crucial late possession . Patrick Beverley and Edwards denied him the ball, causing Morant to fight for every touch. D’Angelo Russell whizzed out Morant’s favorite passing angles and took him to the edge at the other end. Memphis will hide him this series about Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt. The Wolves, just like the Jazz did last post-season, will try to force shifts.
Morant had nine assists in another game against Minnesota in January. He hung back on a drive and hit Brandon Clarke, cutting behind a defense zoned in at Yes, for a lob. The more Morant hangs in that area and investigates instead of getting stuck under the rim, the more low-risk, high-yield delivery options he will find. The key will be to integrate his exuberant creative forces into the egalitarian, movement-heavy style that the Grizzlies played when he was injured.
(3) Warriors vs. (6) Nuggets
Odds machine: Warriors in 5
Logan Murdock: Draymond Green has appeared in more podcasts than games this season, after a disc injury kept him out of most of the home field. As a result, Green, Klay Thompson and Steph Curry – the backbone of Golden State’s dynastic race – have yet to start side by side outside of seven seconds in Thompson’s return match.
Curry’s status is in the air after missing a month with a foot sprain, but Green’s health is the key to a deep endgame. Green has always been at the center of the Golden States circuit. In Round 1, he is tasked with guarding Nikola Jokic, who averaged 28.0 points, 15.8 rebounds and 8.8 assists in four games against the Warriors this season, three of which were Nuggets victories. And with Golden State’s front line consisting of only 6-foot-9 Kevon Looney and journeyman Nemanja Bjelica, Green will be needed more than ever defensively.
If all goes well, Green shuts down the MVP center, lifts his defensive legacy further and gets the Warriors one step closer to another title. If he does not, a once promising season could go up in flames.
(4) Mavericks vs. (5) Jazz
Odds machine: Jazz and 6
Dan Devine: Having just been promoted to the rank of Captain Obvious, I’ll agree on how big a deal it will end up being on Saturday:
Luka Doncic is the sun that the Mavericks revolve around, as central to his team’s success as any player in the league. There is no such thing as a good time for such a player to suffer under a calf strain. “Immediately before the start of the playoffs,” however, is an unusually bad one.
Dallas has been confused about both the severity of the strain and Doncic’s status, while Shams Charania reports that Luka is expected to miss match 1. If Doncic really is unable to keep up, the Mavs would not necessarily be dead without him: Since the franchise reorganization that exported Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas has surpassed opponents by 34 points in the 213 minutes that Jalen Brunson and the new Spencer Dinwiddie has played without Doncic, scoring and defending at the top-10 levels. It includes a plus-18 in 21 minutes through two matches against the Jazz.
If Dinwiddie and Brunson (who are looking for a degree of redemption after battling fiercely last post-season) can approximate Luke’s gift of dismantling the drop cover until he’s healthy enough to do it himself, Mavs may still have enough to survive round 1 for the first time in 11. several years. If they can not, however, and if Utah can get Game 1, then Luke’s hard luck can only be the opening, as Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell and Co. need to correct their listing vessel.