Few things live up to the excitement of the NBA playoffs — and now, they’re finally here. More accurately, they’ve been here for a couple of weeks, which sort of invalidates the credence of a true playoff preview. Nevertheless, I will break down the playoff hopes of the 16 (now 15) teams competing for the 2022 NBA title.
New Orleans Pelicans
After edging out the so-called super-team Lakers for the 10th seed, the Pelicans barely scraped together a couple of wins against the young Spurs team and the Paul George-less Clippers in this year’s Play-In Tournament. Their first-round matchup against the No. 1-seeded Phoenix Suns was supposed to be the least exciting series of the playoffs. Forward Brandon Ingram — due to Suns’ superstar Devin Booker’s injury — is undoubtedly the best player in this series and has proven it, averaging an impressive 30 points per game average. He has single-handedly stolen two games from this year’s title favorites, tying the series at 2-2. The Pelicans need center Jonas Valančiūnas to step up on defense against Deandre Ayton’s dominating post game and more stellar defensive performances from rookie Herb Jones (three blocks and two steals in game four) if they hope to continue their playoff run.
Though the absence of top scorer Devin Booker hurts, the Suns were considered this year’s title favorites due to the excellent coaching and leadership of Monty Williams and Chris Paul, respectively, as well as their superb depth and versatility on both sides of the ball. The series’ 2-2 score against the Pelicans is worrying, but I don’t see a world in which CP3 doesn’t make the second round. The Suns' perimeter players should seek to close out harder on the Pelicans' elite outside shooting, and force them to attempt an attack on the interior presence of Deandre Ayton and Javale McGee, which New Orleans is no match for. The Warriors and Celtics have recently overtaken the Suns as championship favorites. However, I cannot doubt that Chris Paul can carry his team until his co-star’s inevitable return.
Following their surprising Eastern Conference Finals run last year, the Hawks have returned to their norm, with a losing season setting them as the eighth seed heading into this year’s playoffs. Atlanta is currently down 3-1 against the No. 1 seeded Miami Heat, and I honestly see no way Trae Young can bring his team back from such a deficit. His horrible defense is not compensated for by any of his teammates, and their only potential match for the Heat’s elite slashers, Clint Capela, is still injured without a promising timetable for his return. Expect the Hawks to be sent home in Game Five.
The Heat are fraudulent. Yes, they are coached by Eric Spoelstra. Yes, they have a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Bam Adebayo. Yes, they have first-rate shooters in P.J. Tucker, Tyler Herro – the 2022 Sixth Man of the Year — and the NESCAC’s very own Duncan Robinson. It doesn’t matter. To be a championship contender in my eyes, a team needs one thing — That Guy. The Heat simply do not have That Guy. Jimmy Butler might score a 40-piece once in a while, but his scoring can’t directly match up against that of the likes of the Sixers’ Joel Embiid or the Celtics’ Jason Tatum. I don’t doubt they will easily blow by the frail Hawks, but they will lose to the 76ers in the semis once faced with closer fourth quarters and clutch-time pressure.
After years of lottery picks and horrible management, the Timberwolves have finally made it. Led by the grit of Patrick Beverly, Minnesota expects to make a run in these playoffs. And honestly, I do too. While All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns has disappointed in a few games during this series, Anthony Edwards has become the face of this franchise, and I fully believe he can carry the offensive load. After a clutch win in Game Four, the series is tied at 2-2, with all the momentum on their side heading to Memphis. This team’s determination has them playing a little too excitedly: Beverly should never be running multiple isolations in a game — he’s good, but he is not iso good. But if Edwards can execute in the clutch and KAT can live up to his potential, this series can go to seven games. If this team can add some poise to their grit, on top of such performances, they will at least advance to the second round.
Like everyone else, I love the Grizzlies. It’s impossible not to love Ja Morant and his super young 25-year-old squad. Desmond Bane has arisen. Taylor Jenkins has built a perfectly oiled machine, but a team which, nevertheless, has no postseason experience. It’s still unclear whether the efficient Grizzlies or the no-experience Grizzlies will win out. One version of this team could easily bring them to the finals, while the other could send them home within the week. If Jaren Jackson Jr. can consistently limit KAT’s post game, while avoiding foul trouble, this series should be pretty easy for the Grizzlies. My gut feeling has me thinking it is not the Grizzlies’ year — the Timberwolves are too hot. Hopefully Ja can prove me wrong.
The 2021-22 title favorites in the preseason were the only team to be swept in the first round. After trading James Harden to the Sixers for an injured Ben Simmons in the middle of the season, KD and Kyrie were unable to get through one of the best defenses of the past decade, and failed to even match-up against Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s fourth-quarter scoring. 29 NBA fanbases and I are currently celebrating their demise.
Four months ago, the Celtics were 18-21 looking from the outside in of the Play-In Tournament and the Nets were title favorites. Fans were calling for the Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown duo to break up and even for rookie coach Ime Udoka to be fired. Since Brown’s “the energy is about to shift” tweet on Jan. 31, the Celtics have had the best defensive rating in the league, led by Marcus Smart — my Defensive Player of the Year. Tatum is poised to make the All-NBA First Team, and the Celtics have won 29 of their last 35 games. On Monday, after clamping down KD and Kyrie, my beautiful Celtics swept the Nets, and are making their case as title contenders. As long as Boston continues to buy into Udoka’s switch-heavy defense — relying on each player's ability to defend positions one through five – there is no reason that this team can’t stop Giannis, Embiid, and likely Curry or Doncic in the Finals. Tatum and Brown will continue to dominate down the stretch, and the grass has never been greener on both sides of the ball. In my totally unbiased opinion, the Celtics go on to win the 2022 NBA championship.
I really feel bad for the city of Denver. They have the (soon to be?) back-to-back MVP in Nikola Jokic putting up all-time player efficiency numbers at the center position, yet their next two best players have been injured for the entire season. With Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr, there is no doubt that the Nuggets would at least be a top three team in the league, and maybe even favorites to win it all. But, they don’t have those guys and now face a 3-1 deficit against the reawakened Warriors. The Joker could possibly pull off another win with a 40/10/10 game. However, I don’t see this going to seven games, and I definitely don’t think Jokic can carry his crew of sort-of promising youngsters and washed old players to the first 3-0 comeback of all time. Even The Joker can’t play one-versus-five.
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors are back. With Jordan Poole being the actual most improved player in the league — coming from All-NBA G League Third Team to 24.3 ppg scorer on the winningest team of the decade — the Warriors now have three elite scorers in Poole, Curry, and Thompson. They also have a great three-and-D player in Wiggins, who has even become an excellent rebounder, and they are anchored by defensive mastermind Draymond Green; the veteran power forward slides in at center due to his ability to defend exceptional centers like Jokic. On the offensive end, this small-ball system lets their three scorers shoot at will, essentially running circles around traditional centers through Draymond’s facilitation. This lineup matches up well against the Grizzlies or the Timberwolves, as long as Draymond can continue to limit bigs like Jaren Jackson Jr. or Karl Anthony Town. I’m certain this team gets to the Western Conference Finals but Doncic and the Mavericks might end their run there.
Since the Bulls have made the playoffs for the first time in five years, I’d say they had a pretty good season, regardless of the fact that the Bucks are going to do away with them in five games. Through his free agency signing, the NBA has rediscovered DeMar Derozan’s incredible midrange game, and his partnership with Zach Lavine has become the highest scoring duo in the league this year. On the other side of the ball, however, the Bulls are atrocious. Other than Lonzo Ball, who’s been out for the entire second half of the season with an MCL tear, Alex Coruso, and, at times, Ayo Dosunmu, the rest of the team are below average defenders at best. In fact, while Nikola Vucevic is an excellent floor-spacer and bucket-getter for a center, he is an absolute liability on the defensive end, allowing two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to dominate the paint as much as he wants. Except Lavine, every player I’ve mentioned has been drafted, signed, or traded for by the Bulls in the past year, allowing them to get to the sixth seed. Chicago should be proud of their front office. Nevertheless, fans should begin to say goodbye to their 2022 playoff hopes.
After a stellar championship run last year, most believe they have a good chance of repeating this year. I do not. Some may say I’m biased because they’ll be facing my Celtics in the next round, but I wouldn’t agree. Let’s begin with the glaring loss of their closer – Khris Middleton. While the Bucks have the 2020 Defensive Player of The Year in Giannis, and one of the best defensive guards in the league in Jrue Holiday, they are an extremely average defense. They have the 13th-best defensive rating in the season overall, but are 17th since March 1. They’re getting worse. Compare this to last year, when they were one of the top 10 defenses in the league consistently. The Bucks are a poorly coached team bailed out by one of the best players of our generation and some average three-and-D players. If Jrue’s usually sporadic shot-making can fall consistently at the right time, and Middleton comes back early enough, the Bucks could maybe make a run with their MVP, but I fully expect Robert Williams III and the Celtics to completely curtail Giannis and friends in the Semi Finals.
After the Celtics’ first round performance, I can no longer pick them as my dark horse for the title. Therefore, Luka Doncic and the Mavs have taken that spot. It’s obvious that a team led by Doncic, accompanied by the surging Jalen Brunson, and surrounded by superb shooters, will be excellent on the offensive end, but their new coach, Jason Kidd — usually thought of as an offensive maestro — has made them even better on the opposite end of the court. Luka used to be considered a defensive liability under Rick Carlisle, but Kidd has turned him into an average defender. Now, he actually looks like he cares on that end of the floor. More importantly, however, the beginning of their series against the Jazz — playing without Doncic — has proven how well coached this team is. Considered complete nobodies, the Luka-less Mavs took two wins against Utah. Norman Powell and Maxi Kleber have stepped up as solid interior defenders that can also spread the floor on the offensive end, after Dallas had traded their star big man, Kristaps Porzingis. Since Memphis is built and coached in the same way, why do I believe Dallas to be a stronger contender? It’s pretty simple. Luka is better than Ja. Luka has proven time and time again that he can put any team on his back in the playoffs. Now that he is finally partnered with a perfectly coached offense and defense, there is no reason to believe Dallas cannot win a championship. Except Jayson Tatum — he might be the only reason they can’t go all the way.
In an effort to not use any vulgar language, I will simply say I severely dislike the Utah Jazz. I rejoice at the downfall of Rudy Gobert. Since the Mavericks have won two games against them without one of the best players in the league, it’s fair to say that Utah’s playoff hopes should be essentially non-existent. The Jazz aren’t even sure if Donovan Mitchell will play in Game Six. To me, the problem essentially lies in the construction of their defense. Gobert is excellent, except he can’t make up for his extremely below average perimeter players. None of them even try on defense because they rely on their anchor. Will the team do right by Gobert — giving him elite exterior defenders, or will they simply trade his massive contract away? Maybe they’ll do literally nothing. Nevertheless, I impatiently await.
The 76ers suffer from the exact opposite problem that the Heat do. They have That Guy in Joel Embiid and arguably even in James Harden still. While they do have a great perimeter defender in Matisse Thybulle and a premier rim-protector in Joel Embiid, their coach has a history of allowing comebacks and they have limited perimeter shooting — since they traded it away in favor of Harden. The Embiid and Harden pick and roll is extremely efficient, however, defenses completely counter it by packing the paint since they don’t have to contest Philly’s lackluster shooters. While the Raptors have managed to win two games after being down 3-0 through the Doc Rivers special — the one coach who can never hold a lead, I believe the 76ers will close out the series in Game Six, led by a man who had one of the best seasons for a center ever. I also think they will edge out their antithesis in Miami, because at the end of the day, the NBA is a league ruled by superstars, and Philly has the two best players in the series. Ultimately, they will lose in four games to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.
After being down 3-0 the Raptors have finally woken up, and taken two games to make the series competitive. Even Game Three was pretty close, but Joel Embiid hit an insane three-pointer to steal the game. The loss of Fred Vanvleet to a hip flexor strain is a great one on both sides of the ball, however, Pascal Siakam’s 23/10/7 Game Five statline illustrates his carrying potential. The All-NBA candidate even went for zero turnovers in the second half, suggesting he can even control the ball-handling duties. Additionally, Young OG Anunoby continues to amaze while averaging 24 ppg in the last three games of the series. I think the Raptors are still the perfect defensive matchup against Embiid, since they are all long and athletic and could continue to give him trouble, but perhaps the mountain is too big to climb. Nevertheless I truly believe Siakam can be the best player on a championship team — this year is just not the one.