Rivalry Matchups We Want to See in 2022 NBA Playoffs

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 6, 2022

Rivalry Matchups We Want to See in 2022 NBA Playoffs

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    Old-school basketball fans can be quick to lament the lack of true rivalries in today's NBA. They might have a point. The Association is no longer primarily packaged around antagonistic conflicts, and the drastic uptick in player moment has made it difficult for any matchups to retain the emotional heft necessary to meet traditional-rivalry baselines.


    Ingrained and longstanding hostility needn't be a prerequisite of a good rivalry. Established controversy can, and still does, foment compelling conflicts. But playoff matchups can also enrapture and enthrall for any number of other reasons.

    This open-mindedness will be our guiding force as we churn out the head-to-heads we're most interested to see ahead of the 2022 playoffs. Preexisting ties and developments will be important ingredients but not the only ones, and our focus will be (mostly) limited to non-Finals hypotheticals, since they are inherently more likely.

    Let's hop to it.

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Imagine not wanting to see Giannis Antetokounmpo versus Joel Embiid in the playoffs.

    Technically speaking, this would still be the Battle of Two MVP Favorites. Awards votes will have already been cast, but we won't know the results yet.

    Granted, being in the know would only juice this matchup. Either Giannis or Embiid wins MVP and finds himself pitted against the scorned one, or they'll each be looking to make statements on the heels of losing to Nikola Jokic. We win in both scenarios.

    Perhaps not knowing adds intrigue, too. The MVP is a regular-season honor but so often gets distilled down to a "Who would you want in any given playoff series?" debate when there's no clear answer. And this year, there is, in fact, no clear answer.

    Anyway, the Standings Gods will need to help us out if we're going to see this head-to-head before the conference finals. The most efficient path to getting Milwaukee Bucks-Philadelphia 76ers in the conference semifinals is them occupying the second- and third-place spots and winning their respective first-round series.

Miami Heat vs. Philadelphia 76ers

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    This playoff hypothetical almost didn't make the cut. Should we really care that Jimmy Butler used to play for the Sixers, and that he probably should still play for the Sixers, and that Joel Embiid loves him, when Ben Simmons is gone and James Harden is in town?

    I lean yes.

    To be sure: My reasoning isn't exactly rational. Embiid versus Bam Adebayo and Butler versus Harden would be fun. It might be entertaining to watch Erik Spoelstra coach circles around Doc Rivers' rotation, too.

    Mostly, though, I'm pulled to the potential extracurriculars. 

    Will Embiid tweet shade or adjust his Instagram locations accordingly if Butler thoroughly outplays Harden? Will he troll Butler on the court and on social media if Harden turns in an uncharacteristically complete postseason-series performance?

    How many double-flops will Harden and Kyle Lowry have?

    Now that's a playoff series.

Dallas Mavericks vs. LA Clippers

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    Luka Doncic has led the Dallas Mavericks into losing battles against the L.A. Clippers during each of his first two postseason jaunts. Let's go for a third consecutive meeting.

    Kawhi Leonard's continued absence while recovering from a partially torn right ACL dilutes the appeal here ever so slightly but far from obliterates it. The Clippers still have the personnel to rain defensive hellfire and diversify their coverage of Doncic. Nicolas Batum, Paul George and Marcus Morris Sr. all spent ample time on Dallas' megastar last year.

    Most will probably predict a different ending if the Clippers and Mavericks meet again. Dallas' work-hard defense is among this season's biggest surprises, and the offense has gone from a super-stationary Kristaps Porzingis as its second option to the jet-fuel attacking power of Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie. Doncic shouldn't have to worry about petering out by series end.

    Still, the Clippers have defied the odds by navigating extended absences from both Leonard and Paul George. This series retains plenty of shine without the former, who could technically return, though probably won't.

    Let's also not forget what a third straight playoff matchup between the Mavs and Clippers would mean: that L.A. pulled off an improbable upset over the Memphis Grizzlies or Phoenix Suns in Round 1.

Miami Heat vs. Toronto Raptors

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    A potential Miami Heat-Toronto Raptors postseason meetup is less of a rivalry and more of a nostalgic love affair. How uncomfortably poetic would it be to see Kyle Lowry, the greatest Raptor of all time (GROAT), go up against his former squad less than one year after leaving them?

    This is real-tears stuff. I mean, I'm getting misty eyed just repeatedly looking at the above picture of Lowry and Fred VanVleet. I will be a puddle of emotions if these two sides mix it up under the spectre of higher stakes—and I'm neither a Raptors nor Heat fan.

    Miami versus Toronto would also no doubt feature A-plus-plus-plus chess from head coaches Erik Spoelstra and Nick Nurse. Sign me all the way up for that, and for Pascal Siakam versus Bam Adebayo, and for a hopefully healthy OG Anunoby-Jimmy Butler matchup, and for rookie-year Scottie Barnes running crunch-time sets against the Heat's defense in the friggin' playoffs.

    Assuming Miami holds onto the East's No. 1 spot, the logistical burden behind this matchup falls on the Raptors. They need to beat out the Chicago Bulls for fifth place so that first-round victories from both themselves and the Heat set up a semifinals clash.

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Brooklyn Nets

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    Did the Bucks take down the Brooklyn Nets in the 2021 Eastern Conference semifinals because they were the better team? Or was it because James Harden and Kyrie Irving missed three games apiece?

    Or was it actually because of Kevin Durant's big-ass left foot?

    Whichever form of logic you choose, there's no denying the ripple effects last year's series had on the future of both franchises.

    Milwaukee went on to win the title. Who knows what would've happened if it instead got bounced in the second round. Does head coach Mike Budenholzer still have a job? Would the Bucks have made an impulsive trade? Is the discourse surrounding Giannis Antetokounmpo's legacy and future so peachy-keen?

    Brooklyn's side of the equation is even more polarizing. Does it go on to win the title after edging out Milwaukee? And if so, what would that have meant this season's Harden debacle? Would he have still forced a trade amid Kyrie's absence? Or would he be more content to ride out Irving's part-time-player wave having already made the conference finals, if not having already won a ring?

    Another dose of Milwaukee-Brooklyn won't be able to answer most of these questions. There's no rewriting history. But we would presumably get at least a two-star Nets squad and could perhaps see Ben Simmons integrated into the fold, making it a "fairer" fight.

    The Nets, of course, must survive the play-in tournament before we contemplate a rematch. And even then, the path to a showdown with the Bucks is murky. It all depends on where Milwaukee finishes, and how likely Brooklyn is to complete a best-of-seven upset or two.

Utah Jazz. vs. Denver Nuggets or LA Clippers

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    A relatively rivalry-free Western Conference playoff bracket (thanks a lot, Los Angeles Lakers) demands we go here.

    The Utah Jazz have a lot at stake entering the postseason—as in, their entire future. Seemingly anything appears to be on the table if they bow out before the conference finals.

    Does head coach Quin Snyder leave? Do they gauge the market for Rudy Gobert over the offseason? Donovan Mitchell? Both?

    Relentless ambiguity renders any playoff matchup involving the Jazz ultra-compelling. But ending up on a collision course with the Clippers or Denver Nuggets would be especially riveting.

    Utah blew a 3-1 series lead against the Nuggets inside the Disney World bubble during the 2020 playoffs. A rematch forfeits some of its luster knowing we won't be treated to Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray, who remains out while recovering from a torn left ACL, exchanging crunch-time detonations. But Denver has still played a role in exacerbating the Jazz's slew of missed opportunities, and there remain plenty of Nikola Jokic vs. Rudy Gobert arguments to be had.

    The Clippers may loom as the more tantalizing opponent. They erased a 2-0 series deficit while losing Kawhi Leonard after Game 4 to upend the Jazz in last year's semifinals. Though Utah was without Mike Conley for almost the entire best-of-seven set and playing a half-hobbled Mitchell, surrendering a two-game lead for the second consecutive year while allowing Terance Mann and Reggie Jackson to go kaboom isn't the greatest look.

    Whether Clippers-Jazz or Nuggets-Jazz is a feasible ask will be a matter of course. L.A. needs to get out of the play-in and then, at the very least, pull off a major first-round upset. A Denver-Utah matchup feels more reasonable, though it also rests on how the bottom half of the playoff picture pans out.

Miami Heat vs. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Can we still consider Bucks-Heat a playoff rivalry when Milwaukee slapped Miami silly in the first round last year?

    Sure, why not.

    Both Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo should play better this time around, and last season's loss doesn't negate the Heat's five-game romping of the Bucks in the Disney Bubble during the 2020 playoffs.

    Kyle Lowry's arrival adds yet another layer to the intrigue. The same goes for P.J. Tucker. He won a title as an integral part of the Bucks rotation last year only for them to let him walk in free agency. Will he play with a chip on his shoulder? How bad would Milwaukee look if it lost to his new team? How good would the Bucks look if they won at his and the Heat's expense?

Philadelphia 76ers vs. Brooklyn Nets

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press


    Think of all the quote-unquote storylines that envelop a playoff series between Brooklyn and Philadelphia. It's an exercise that boggles the mind.

    James Harden vs. The Team He Forced His Way Onto Then Promptly Quit On and Abandoned. Kevin Durant vs. Joel Embiid. KD vs. Harden. Kyrie vs. Harden. Seth Curry (if healthy) and Andre Drummond vs. The Sixers Team They Helped Keep Afloat for More Than Half of the Season.

    Doc Rivers vs. The Inexplicable Urge to Play DeAndre Jordan Too Much Against DeAndre Jordan's Former Team and B.F.F.s KD and Kyrie.

    Oh, and then there's that whole "Ben Simmons vs. The Sixers" thing.

    Nets head coach Steve Nash no longer sounds like someone who expects Simmons to play at all this year. That's a bummer. But there will scores of inflammatory takes, viral memes and contentious in-game moments if he's even on the sidelines for Brooklyn.

    Especially in Philadelphia.

    Please, oh please, give us this matchup, Basketball Gods. We deserve it, regardless of what it takes. And it will definitely take Brooklyn surviving the play-in tournament and then upsetting the No. 1 or No. 2 seed—just for starters.

Golden State Warriors vs. Phoenix Suns

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    Because we're all the very best of friends, I'll be frank: The Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns aren't rivals. But they should be.

    Injury bugs have scuttled every opportunity for these two heavyweights to develop a deep-seated loathing for one another. Not one of their four regular-season meetings have taken place at full strength. Klay Thompson missed the first three matchups. Devin Booker missed the second. Stephen Curry sat out the fourth.

    All of us basketball nerds deserve to see Full Strength Dubs vs. Full Strength Suns. Truly. If we're being honest, no other team in the West come close to touching these two at full capacity. They are the only squads with championship-powerhouse vibes. The Nuggets or Clippers could get there if their injured stars projected to return this season. They don't.

    That makes this the Western Conference series we need to see. Is Golden State's defense uniquely built to slow Phoenix's offensive machine? How will the Deandre Ayton vs. Draymond Green matchup play out? Can Mikal Bridges make life difficult on a (hopefully healthy) Steph?

    Does Klay have the chops to soak up substantial reps vs. Booker and Chris Paul? And if he can't, will Golden State's offense get by while presumably leaning heavily upon Gary Payton II minutes? How much run does Jonathan Kuminga get in the Warriors' playoff rotation? Is the Suns' crunch-time lineup set in stone? Or will Cam Johnson play his way into the fold?

    You'll probably need to cross your fingers for both teams to make the Western Conference Finals to see them go at it. Well that, or you'll need to hope Dallas usurps Golden State for the No. 3 seed to set up a potential second-round showdown between the Suns and Warriors.

Most Compelling Finals Matchups

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    Bucks vs. Suns

    Yes, you should absolutely welcome a rematch of last year's Finals. Neither team is dramatically different, but the Suns are just flat-out better, and after adding JaVale McGee, also more versatile. The Bucks are shallower without P.J. Tucker yet feature a version of Giannis Antetokounmpo with a more devastating offensive portfolio.

    Running this matchup back would be perfectly awesome.


    Warriors vs. Nets

    If you don't want to see Kevin Durant face Draymond Green and the Warriors, under championship stakes, after navigating the Eastern Conference postseason bracket on a play-in team, I'm honestly not sure what to say.


    Heat vs. Warriors

    Jimmy Butler's Outwardly Stated Will to Win vs. Draymond Green's Outwardly Stated Will to Win? Freewheeling Stephen Curry vs. Physical-at-All-Costs Kyle Lowry? Extension Eligible Jordan Poole vs. Extension-Eligible Tyler Herro?

    Bring it on.


    Suns vs. Celtics

    I'm not sure the human race is responsible enough to properly handle the "Devin Booker or Jayson Tatum?!?" discourse, but I'm game to consume it anyway. Also: Phoenix and Boston are currently the league's two best defenses and both built and coached to go punch-for-punch on the less glamorous end.


    Grizzlies vs. Raptors

    This honestly just feels like the most unexpected matchup I can cobble together using teams above play-in territory. I am also drawn to the image of these two defenses and transition offenses going toe-to-toe. And as an added bonus, so many people will rack up retweets making jokes about how much the league office is panicking over a Finals headlined by the Memphis and Toronto markets.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering Tuesday's games. Salary information via Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math's Adam Fromal.