2022 NBA Play-In Preview and Full Tournament Predictions

Greg Swartz@@GregSwartzBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterApril 11, 2022

2022 NBA Play-In Preview and Full Tournament Predictions

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    Sarah Stier/Getty Images

    The 2022 NBA play-in tournament is officially set, with plenty of star power to go around.

    The four games will go as follows:

    • East: (7) Brooklyn Nets vs. (8) Cleveland Cavaliers
    • East: (9) Atlanta Hawks vs. (10) Charlotte Hornets
    • West: (7) Minnesota Timberwolves vs. (8) Los Angeles Clippers
    • West: (9) New Orleans Pelicans vs. (10) San Antonio Spurs

    Starting on Tuesday, with the Cavs vs. Nets and Clippers vs. Timberwolves, this will be the final chance for these eight teams to grab the remaining four playoff spots.

    The winner of the 7-8 games will officially be in the playoffs as the No. 7 seed in their respective conferences, while the loser of the 9-10 games will be eliminated. From there, the loser of the 7-8 game will play the winner of the 9-10 games to see who gets the final playoff ticket as the No. 8 seed.

    Now in its second year, the play-in tournament has largely been a success, keeping playoff hopes alive even for teams like the Pelicans and Spurs, who finished a combined 22 games below .500.

    With stars like Kevin Durant, LaMelo Ball, Trae Young, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kyrie Irving, Paul George and Darius Garland all participating, there should be no shortage of quality basketball.

    Here's how every game in the play-in tournament should shake out, including the final Nos. 7 and 8 seeds in both conferences.

East: (7) Brooklyn Nets vs. (8) Cleveland Cavaliers

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    When: Tuesday, April 12, at 7:00 PM ET on TNT

    The Winner: Gets the 7th seed in the East, will face the Boston Celtics

    The Loser: Plays the winner of the Atlanta Hawks-Charlotte Hornets game for the 8th seed in the East

    Regular-Season Results: Nets won 3-1


    Key Matchup: Kyrie Irving vs. Darius Garland

    While the Cavs will focus most of their defensive attention on Kevin Durant, the battle of the point guards will be the one to watch here.

    Irving, a major part of three Finals runs from 2015-17 and the championship team in 2016 for Cleveland, is now clear to play in home games. Meanwhile, Garland, a first-time All-Star this season after averaging 21.7 points and 8.6 assists, has quickly made Cavs fans forget about Irving.

    These are two of the shiftiest point guards in the NBA. Both can break down the point of attack and send defenses scrambling to stop a drive or cover a now wide-open shooter following a kick-out pass.

    Irving will want to remind Cavs fans who the best point guard on the floor is, with Garland looking to establish himself as an elite NBA floor general in his first postseason experience.


    X-Factor: Jarrett Allen's finger

    Allen, also a first-time All-Star in 2022, has missed the last 18 games after breaking the middle finger on his left hand. He elected not to have surgery in hopes of returning for the playoffs but is still without a timetable for his return. Head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has remained non-committal, simply stating that Allen is progressing.

    Following a 37-27 start to the season, Cleveland is just 7-11 since Allen went down. A fourth-ranked defense (106.5 rating) before Allen's injury has now slipped to 22nd (117.3 rating) with him out.

    The Cavs probably need Allen to win this game, although he'll likely be plenty rusty, even if he can return.


    Prediction: Nets win, 115-106. Even with Ben Simmons out until at least the first round, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium, and the uncertainty of Allen's playing status, the Nets still feature the two best players on the floor in Durant and Irving. Brooklyn gets the 7th seed in the East, while the Cavs play the winner of the Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Hornets for the 8th seed.

East: (9) Atlanta Hawks vs. (10) Charlotte Hornets

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    When: Wednesday, April 13, at 7:00 PM ET on ESPN

    The Winner: Plays the loser of the Brooklyn Nets-Cleveland Cavaliers game for the No. 8 seed in the East

    The Loser: Is eliminated

    Regular-Season Results: Tied 2-2


    Key Matchup: Trae Young vs. LaMelo Ball

    In a battle of All-Star point guards, both Young and Ball surprisingly struggled in the season series.

    Young shot just 37.7 percent overall in four games vs. Charlotte compared to Ball's 35.3 percent mark in three games against Atlanta. As the offensive hubs of their respective teams, both will need to do better to pull out a win.

    Following a rough 17-25 start to the season, Young led the Hawks to the NBA's third-ranked offense (118.4) and fifth-best net rating (plus-4.7) while going 26-14. John Collins missed 23 of the last 27 games with finger and foot injuries and is unlikely to play, although the Hawks have proven they can win while only going eight deep in the rotation.

    Ball will be getting his first taste of the postseason, as will most of his teammates, given that Charlotte hasn't reached the playoffs since 2016. Gordon Hayward, one of the few veterans on the team with postseason experience, will miss the play-in tournament and be out indefinitely because of foot soreness.


    X-Factor: De'Andre Hunter

    With Young struggling to shoot the ball during the regular-season series, Hunter helped fill the void. 

    In two games vs. Charlotte, Hunter averaged 20.5 points on 54.2 percent shooting and 45.5 percent from three. Atlanta always needs his defense on the wing, especially against Miles Bridges and Kelly Oubre Jr. in this game, but any trapping of Young will require other players to hit shots.

    Especially with Collins likely out, Hunter will need to have a big game on both ends of the court, something he's proved capable of against Charlotte this season.


    Prediction: Hawks win, 123-114. Atlanta has been one of the hottest teams over the last few months and has the playoff experience edge here. They move on to face the Cavaliers while the Hornets go home.

West: (7) Minnesota Timberwolves vs. (8) Los Angeles Clippers

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    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    When: Tuesday, April 12, at 9:30 PM ET on TNT

    The Winner: Gets the 7th seed in the West, will face the Memphis Grizzlies

    The Loser: Plays the winner of the New Orleans Pelicans-San Antonio Spurs game for the 8th seed in the West

    Regular-Season Results: Clippers won 3-1


    Key Matchup: Paul George vs. Anthony Edwards

    When George made his first playoff appearance with the Indiana Pacers in 2011, Edwards was just nine years old. This kind of experience advantage could play a factor, as George has nearly as many postseason starts under his belt (108) as Edwards does regular-season starts (127).

    George returned to the Clippers lineup on March 29 and averaged 22.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 2.8 steals and shot a blistering 52.5 percent from three in five games. With Kawhi Leonard still recovering from a torn ACL, the Clippers will have to continue to rely on George to carry the offensive load.

    This doesn't mean Edwards can't outplay him, of course.

    The second-year guard averaged 23.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists on 46.3 percent shooting in his four games vs. the Clippers this season, taking over the primary scoring duties with Karl-Anthony Towns struggling mightily (15.3 points on 42.1 percent shooting) in the series.

    George will likely be tasked with guarding Edwards, although Norman Powell and Nicolas Batum should see some time on the second-year player as well.


    X-Factor: Ty Lue

    Lue should be applauded for the job he did keeping the Clippers near .500 all season despite missing Leonard all year and George for 50 games. His previous work in the postseason shouldn't be ignored, either.

    Lue has a lifetime record of 51-29 in the playoffs with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Clippers, guiding the Cavs to the 2016 title in his first year on the job. While he has a much smaller sample size, his win percentage of 63.8 percent is the sixth-highest mark of all-time, even greater than that of Gregg Popovich, Pat Riley and Red Auerbach.

    With Chris Finch making his playoff debut as a leading man, Lue has already proven to be an elite head coach when the lights shine the brightest. With this matchup having been set for a while, Lue has had plenty of time to prepare.


    Prediction: Clippers win, 108-99. Los Angeles faces the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, while the Timberwolves play the winner of the New Orleans Pelicans-San Antonio Spurs game.

West: (9) New Orleans Pelicans vs. (10) San Antonio Spurs

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    When: Wednesday, April 13, at 9:30 PM ET on ESPN

    The Winner: Plays the loser of the Minnesota Timberwolves-Los Angeles Clippers game for the No. 8 seed in the West

    The Loser: Is eliminated

    Regular-Season Results: Spurs won 3-1


    Key Matchup: CJ McCollum vs. Dejounte Murray

    While they may not match up against each other every possession, this game will likely come down to the play of the two star guards.

    McCollum helped save what was once a 1-12 start to the season for the Pelicans, guiding them to the seventh-best net rating (plus-4.4) since the trade deadline. He was highly successful against the Spurs as a Pelican, putting up 29.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.3 steals while shooting 51.5 percent overall in three games.

    Murray wasn't as sharp against New Orleans, even if his Spurs found ways to win anyways. Although he nearly averaged a triple-double during the regular-season series with 18.3 points, 9.8 rebounds and 10.0 assists in his four games, Murray shot just 40.3 percent overall and 26.3 percent from three. New Orleans has enough bigs to challenge him at the rim with Herbert Jones, Larry Nance Jr. and Jonas Valanciunas, making Murray rely more on his mid-range and outside shooting.

    Murray recently missed five games with an upper respiratory illness but should be a go against New Orleans. His conditioning could be an issue, however. 


    X-Factor: San Antonio's dribble penetration

    The Spurs ranked 26th in made threes per game, an area that has never been a part of Gregg Popovich's offensive DNA. San Antonio won three of its four games against the Pelicans despite shooting just 29.5 percent from the outside.

    Instead, New Orleans will need to cut down on San Antonio's dribble penetration, as the Spurs were third in drive per game this season (52.5). McCollum is a poor defender, meaning Devonte' Graham and Brandon Ingram will be tasked with stopping Murray, Keldon Johnson, Josh Primo and others from getting into the paint.


    Prediction: Pelicans win, 107-106. In a tight battle, look for McCollum to have a huge game with Murray still working to get his conditioning back. New Orleans plays the Timberwolves while the Spurs are eliminated.

East: (8) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (9) Atlanta Hawks

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    Hakim Wright Sr./Associated Press

    When: Friday, April 15, at TBD on ESPN

    The Winner: Gets the 8th seed in the East, will face the Miami Heat

    The Loser: Is eliminated

    Regular-Season Results: Hawks won 3-1


    Key Matchup: Darius Garland vs. Trae Young

    Oddly enough, the Cavs only win against the Hawks this season came when Darius Garland was injured, although a healthy Ricky Rubio was good enough to get Cleveland a W.

    There is no backup plan now, as Garland will have to carry the offensive load while trying to match Young's sky-high production level.

    Young ripped the Cavs apart in a recent 131-107 win on March 31, going for 30 points and nine assists, though both Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen were out for Cleveland. While Mobley has returned, Allen would still be questionable for this game with his finger injury. In three games vs. Atlanta this season, Allen averaged 15.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks while shooting 71.4 percent.


    X-Factors: Cleveland's homecourt advantage and size

    Only the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics have won more home games in the East this season than the Hawks, who went 27-14 at State Farm Arena. Atlanta wasn't nearly as formidable on the road, going just 16-25 overall.

    Cleveland was quite good at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse (25-16) and would be hosting this game as the higher seed of the two teams.

    Size also matters for these Cavs, who will hopefully have Allen back by Friday. Lineups with Garland and the three starting bigs (Allen, Mobley and Lauri Markkanen) have a net rating plus-12.2. For a Hawks team who will likely be without its best big man in John Collins, Cleveland's size could be an issue.


    Prediction: Cavs win, 110-106. This is assuming Allen can return, as his presence in the middle will help keep Young honest. If Allen remains out, expect Atlanta to advance instead.

West: (7) Minnesota Timberwolves vs. (9) New Orleans Pelicans

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    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    When: Friday, April 15, at TBD on TNT

    The Winner: Gets the 8th seed in the West, will face the Phoenix Suns

    The Loser: Is eliminated

    Regular-Season Results: Tied 2-2


    Key Matchup: Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Jonas Valanciunas

    While Towns struggled against the Clippers this season, the three-time All-Star feasted n four games against the Pelicans.

    Towns averaged 27.8 points, 9.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.8 blocks while shooting 48.1 percent overall. As good as Valanciunas is offensively, he's not a good space defender or rim protector, meaning Towns should put up big numbers from the outside or at the basket.

    That being said, Valanciunas put up 17.0 points, 14.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.0 blocks in four games against the Wolves, although he didn't attempt a three in the series and shot just 44.7 percent overall. Watching Towns and Valanciunas in the paint is like seeing The Rock bear-hug Jason Momoa, as there's a whole lot of muscle being thrown around.

    In a game that will also feature a good amount of perimeter talent with players like Brandon Ingram, Anthony Edwards, CJ McCollum and D'Angelo Russell, Towns vs. Valanciunas will be a battle to behold.


    X-Factor: Zion Williamson

    While Williamson hasn't played this season following foot surgery, he has progressed to full-court activities, including controlled scrimmages.

    New Orleans continues to state that the 21-year-old is out indefinitely, although a Pelicans' win over the San Antonio Spurs would give the star forward a few extra days to try to make his return.

    Maybe it's a fool's hope at this point that we may finally get to see Williamson this season, but until New Orleans officially shuts him down, there's a chance he returns, giving the Pelicans a major boost.


    Prediction: Timberwolves win, 118-112. The Pelicans shouldn't expect Williamson to ride in and save the season, and Minnesota has been the better team all season. Wolves get the 8th seed and face the Suns, while New Orleans looks forward to a bright 2022-23 season.