After 174 days of NBA regular season basketball and many more games, the 2021-22 postseason is upon us. While we wait to see which teams will fill the remaining two spots in the category, our staff has one thing to watch in each series:
(1) Heat vs. (8) Cavaliers or Hawks
odds machine: heat at 5 (none of the competitors)
Rob Mahoney: The sheer number of brave and brilliant defenders in the Heat puts a bigger and brighter target on the backs of Tyler Hero and Duncan Robinson. Both have been ranked among the worst defenders in the NBA this season, according to Synergy Sports, and the worst so far: the entire league knows it. Opponents have searched for Herro and Robinson with a fresh, committed focus this season, forcing Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to weigh risks and rewards more publicly than usual. Miami desperately needs Herro, in particular, to help smooth out some of the harsh aspects of the team’s attack on the half-court. But do you know what else Miami needs? For not giving up 18 points in the third quarter for Kevin Huerter when the Hawks ran Herro through the same gauntlet on the winding screen over and over; Or to Caris LeVert, joyfully leading his way out of the slump by the path of least resistance.
In a way, Atlanta or Cleveland – depending on who wins Friday’s final game – could be exactly the least-stakes stress test Miami needs. If The Heat can create enough smoke and mirrors in its matching game to keep Herro and Robinson out of trouble, that bodes well not just for the series, but for a deep post-season. If not, there may be some challenging invites (and shorter tasks) in the future as the project gets more and more difficult with each passing round.
(2) Celtics vs (7) nets
odds machine: Celtics at 5
J. Kyle Man: After a difficult start, the Celtics were able to stabilize their season by exploiting the continuity of the roster to achieve defensive success. Since January 1, they’ve also allowed the lowest field goal percentage and lowest points per chance in switch shots, among other great defensive touchpoints. They have won the past three encounters 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 portability is a huge issue for gamers who rely on blueprint-based builds, and Brooklyn has two of the best creators ever to play the sport. And Huge group of guys taking advantage of all the attention KD and Kyrie are getting. Who can they trust to attack reliably?
Seth Curry is dealing with an ankle injury and didn’t score in the 33rd minute in a game-play against the Cavs. Could this be an opportunity for Goran Dragic or even Cam Thomas to act as Chaos Variants? If not, will KD and Kyrie be able to take that much of an offensive burden and also, you know, Stop Boston on the other end?
(3) bucks vs (6) bulls
odds machine: dollars at 5
Zach Cram: There’s a reason Milwaukee lost the last game of the regular season to settle into this game, rather than stay in center. 2 seed to face Brooklyn. Since Mike Budenholzer became the Bucks coach and the team climbed to the top division of the NBA’s contender, Milwaukee is 14-1 against Chicago. The only loss came on the last day of the 2020-21 season, when all of their top players started this squad:
Given Chicago’s injuries and recent form, this trend doesn’t seem destined to change at any point in the series. Look, I attended the last Bucks Bulls game of the season. Giannis Antikonmo seemed to be treating the matter as a quarrel; He didn’t try a shot in the first quarter and only played 24 minutes – the Bucks went on to win by 21 points. They are more likely to sweep this streak than lose it.
(4) 76ers vs (5) Raptors
odds machine: 76ers at 7
Chris Ryan: Was James Harden on track? Why are you laughing? Is this because he spent most of his time on Philly angling, dribbling, excessively dribbling, taking fadeaway 3s, and generally fading out of his 2018 MVP form (or even form before his hamstring injury in Brooklyn)? Huh. I did not notice!
It’s entirely possible that swapping Ben Simmons for James Harden could end up being a write-off for both Philly and Brooklyn, but there’s only one thing we’d say to die for: Not today. Harden was brought in to provide a skeleton key to unlock the legendary door we call Match Defense – something that has held back Joel Embiid’s team for most of Joel Embiid’s career. And despite all the evidence to the contrary, I think most Sixers fans hope he’s not so much a shadow of his former self as a skilled veteran keeping some premium gasoline in the tank when it really matters. You are laughing again!
There’s a lot at stake here: Embiid’s happiness, Doc Rivers’ future, Daryl Morey’s judgment, the stability of the Sixers fans, and most of all, Harden’s highly anticipated contract with…someone. If Harden goes out and plays as flat as he has done throughout his post-season career, the questions are getting louder and louder. (If Pascal destroys Siakam, I will obviously shoot a giant beard in her honor and this entry will be erased from the internet.)
(1) Phoenix Suns vs (8) Clippers or Pelicans
odds machine: suns in 5 (any of the opponents)
Justin Ferrer: It might be hard to remember now, but igniting last year against the Bucks looked like Chris Paul’s best chance of winning the title. Critical injuries to the Lakers and Clippers, as well as several COVID-related turmoil throughout the 2020-21 season, laid out a yellow-and-orange brick road to the Finals — a path spurred on by 30 people. A hex close to his head at the big moments will struggle for repetition.
Instead, the Suns wrecked the field in the regular season, finishing more games (eight) ahead of the second-best NBA team since the 1999-00 Lakers. Oops.
This time around, the question isn’t whether Phoenix can return to the Finals – he is, by far, the favorite in the West – but if he can override the over-confident Bucks or the Eastern variant with the insolence of falling reigning champs. A mysterious wrist injury sustained by Paul last year took the enthusiasm off the Suns attack, and while a mid-season broken thumb didn’t put Phoenix fans’ minds at ease, it showed the growth of a young core: The CP-less Suns went 12-3 Coming out of the All-Star break, with Devin Booker putting together the kind of numbers (28 points in a 52/40/90 shot) that might lead him to the All-NBA first team.
Much of Giannis’ leap after the title has been made, but the Suns, collectively, have also become a juggernaut: a team that’s deep, talented, versatile, and most of all motivated. Until they get a chance in the rematch, the goal is simply to keep playing like the favorites.
(2) Grizzlies vs (7) Timberwolves
odds machine: Grizzlies at 5
Sirat welcome: The Grizzlies are 21-11 in tough situations this season, with Ja Morant leading the NBA in scoring. But his efficiency (42 percent of the field, 28.6 percent of 3) leaves something to be desired, and wolves have the individuals to exploit on both ends.
The last time the two teams met, in late February, Morant finished 7 to 25, turned the ball three times, and missed all four of his throws, including an air ball on Anthony Edwards’ game in a crucial late possession. Patrick Beverly and Edwards denied him the ball, causing Morant to vie for every touch. D’Angelo Russell took out Morant’s favorite passing angles and took him to the edge on the other end. This series will be hidden by Memphis from Beverly and Jared Vanderbilt. Wolves, like Jazz did another postseason, would try to force the switch.
Morant provided nine assists in another game against Minnesota in January. He got stuck again in a campaign and hit Brandon Clark, cutting behind a defense in GA, for a steal. The more Morant hangs in that area and polls instead of under the edge, the more chances of a low-risk, high-return pass he will find. The key will be incorporating his sparkling creative powers into the equalization, action-laden style the Grizzlies played when he was injured.
(3) Warriors vs (6) Nuggets
odds machine: Warriors at 5
Logan Murdock: Draymond Green has appeared on more podcasts than matches this season after a disc injury kept him out of the house. As a result, Green, Clay Thompson and Steph Curry—the backbone of the Golden State dynasty—did not start alongside each other outside seven seconds in Thompson’s comeback game.
Curry’s condition is up in the air after he lost a month to a sprained foot, but Greene’s health is key to a deep playoff. Green has always been at the center of the Golden State’s orbit. In the first round, he will be tasked with guarding Nikola Jokic, who has averaged 28.0 points, 15.8 rebounds and 8.8 assists in four games against the Warriors this season, three of which have been won by the Nuggets. And with the Golden State frontline consisting of only 6-foot-9 Kevon Looney and teammate Nemanja Bellica, the green will be needed more than ever.
If all goes well, Green locks down his MVP status, raises his defensive legacy, and brings the Warriors one step closer to another title. If he doesn’t, a season that has been promising could catch fire.
(4) Mavericks vs (5) Jazz
odds machine: jazz at 6
Dan Devine: Having just been promoted to clear captain, I’ll explain the scale of the deal that will expire on Saturday:
Luka Doncic is the sun that revolves around the Mavericks’ orbit, as central to his team’s success as any player in the league. There is never a good time for a player like this to suffer from a strained calf. “Right before the playoffs start,” though, is a pretty bad thing.
Dallas was keen on both the severity of the strain and Doncic’s condition, while Shams Charania reported that Luca Expected to miss match 1. If Doncic was already unable to get dressed, the Mavs wouldn’t necessarily be drawing dead without him: Since the franchise reboot trade released Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas outperformed opponents by 34 points in 213 minutes by Jalen Brunson and new Spencer playing Dinwiddie without Doncic , scored and defended in the top 10 levels. That includes 18+ in 21 minutes over two games against the Jazz.
If Dinwiddie and Brunson (who are looking for some measure of redemption after struggling post-season) can round up Luka’s gift to dismantle drop cover until he’s healthy enough to do it himself, the Mavs might still have enough to survive In the first round for the first time in 11 years. If they can’t, and if Utah can get Game 1, Luka’s hard luck might just be the opening Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell and Co.