Predictions for Every Round 1 NBA Playoff Matchup

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistApril 14, 2022

Predictions for Every Round 1 NBA Playoff Matchup

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    After a regular season packed with parity and one of the best MVP races of all time, the NBA postseason is here. It's time to run through all the first-round series that are set.

    We know who the seventh seeds are following the first night of play-in action, so we can break down the 2-7, 3-6 and 4-5 matchups in each conference.

    In the East, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are set to take on the Boston Celtics' juggernaut defense. The Chicago Bulls will face Giannis Antetokounmpo and the defending champions. And the Joel Embiid-James Harden pairing will get its first real test against the Toronto Raptors.

    On the other side of the bracket, two of the league's most brash and talented teams—the Memphis Grizzlies and Minnesota Timberwolves—will square off. Nikola Jokic and Stephen Curry will give us one of the first round's best superstar matchups. And Luka Doncic will try to bury the reeling Utah Jazz.

    Predictions and analyses of all of the above can be found below.

East: No. 1 Miami Heat vs. No. 8 Atlanta Hawks

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    The Atlanta Hawks are not your typical eighth seed. The roster they took to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2021 is mostly intact. They were fourth in the conference in post-All-Star net rating. And if you count their back-to-back play-in victories, they’ve won nine of their last 11 contests.

    Most importantly, they have one of the game’s most dynamic offensive engines in Trae Young. And he’s more than proved himself in big moments. After averaging 28.8 points and 9.5 assists per game in his first postseason, Young put up 62 points in this year’s play-in tournament (including 32 in the second half against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday).

    Whether he’s at home or on the road, Young is going to have extended takeovers throughout this series. And when he’s playing with Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari, even the Miami Heat’s stingy defense will struggle to slow Atlanta down. During the season, the Hawks scored 123.5 points per 100 possessions with those three on the floor.

    Both of Atlanta’s starting big men—John Collins and Clint Capela—being banged up is concerning, though. When the latter wasn’t in the game during the regular season, the Hawks surrendered 114.8 points per 100 possessions. Even if Capela is in but hampered, the Heat should be able to exploit a defense that finished the season ranked in the bottom five of the league.

    Miami was 24-10 (a 58-win pace over an 82-game season) when Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Kyle Lowry all played. And if Adebayo escapes health and safety protocols (Miami’s hopeful he will), they’ll all be available.

    Those three and Tyler Herro will provide more than enough offense. The stars, depth and coaching of Erik Spoelstra should ensure the top-five defense makes an appearance too.

    Again, the Hawks are good enough to make this a competitive series, but a fully operational Heat squad could make it all the way to the Finals.

    Prediction: Heat in six

East: No. 2 Boston Celtics vs. No. 7 Brooklyn Nets

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were phenomenal in the Brooklyn Nets' 115-108 play-in victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. They combined for 59 points (on 21-of-31 shooting) and 23 assists.

    However, that equated to a single-digit victory over a Cavs squad without Jarrett Allen, which points to Brooklyn's issue as long as Ben Simmons remains out.

    Is there enough firepower on the rest of the roster to overwhelm a truly dominant Celtics defense?

    Durant is undoubtedly one of the scariest playoff performers in the league. Kyrie has had some legendary postseason moments. Robert Williams III is out with a knee injury (though he's progressing toward a return).

    But with Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Celtics still have more options against those stars than most teams. And while Al Horford may not have the mobility and athleticism of Time Lord, he's a heady and experienced anchor.

    With that and the level of offense provided by Tatum (29.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 3.7 threes with a 40.2 three-point percentage over his last 33 games) and Brown (27.1 points over his last 12), Boston should have enough to squeak by.

    That word is chosen carefully, though. It's hard to imagine Durant going down without a fight. And in at least two or three games, he and Kyrie should get enough help from the likes of Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and Bruce Brown to secure some wins. Getting to four wouldn't be surprising.

    But the Celtics are ascending at a rate no one else can match. Since January 1, Boston's plus-12.3 points per 100 possessions is first (and almost three points ahead of the second-place Phoenix Sun).

    Prediction: Celtics in seven

East: No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 6 Chicago Bulls

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    There's very little wind in the sails of the Chicago Bulls ahead of their first-round series with the Bucks.

    A hot start to the season pretty much secured their playoff spot, but they're 20-26 with a minus-4.1 net rating since January 9. It's even worse (7-15 with a minus-7.6 net rating) since February 26.

    And with Lonzo Ball already ruled out for the entirety of the playoffs, it's hard to imagine those trends changing against the defending champions.

    There is plenty of offensive firepower with DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic, but Lonzo is exactly the kind of connector that a team like this needs. Plus, his willingness to take a tough perimeter defensive assignment like Jrue Holiday or Khris Middleton will be missed.

    The Bucks, meanwhile, more or less cruised to a 51-win season. When Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton were in the lineup, they were 37-10 (a 65-win pace over an entire season). And all three have a clean bill of health and plenty of rest heading into the first round.

    We got an extended look at peak Bucks during last year's postseason, and they're about to show up again.

    Prediction: Bucks in five

East: No. 4 Philadelphia 76ers vs. No. 5 Toronto Raptors

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    On paper, the Harden-Embiid pairing seems to be doing just fine. The two played over 600 minutes together, and Philadelphia is plus-15.9 points per 100 possessions in those minutes.

    However, the Sixers suffered several high-profile losses in recent weeks, including two to the team they'll face in the first round.

    In those contests against the Raptors, Embiid shot 38.1 percent from the field while Harden averaged 15.0 points on 33.3 percent shooting. And against the creative defensive schemes of Toronto's Nick Nurse, the supporting cast looked discombobulated.

    Of course, there's some peril in drawing broad takeaways from two games. In terms of top-of-the-roster talent, Philadelphia has the edge (over more than just the Raptors). However, Toronto has the advantage in depth, connectivity and a team-oriented approach.

    And throughout the season, they've had two stars of their own (just not necessarily at the same time).

    From the start of the season to January 9 (34 games), when Pascal Siakam was either out or struggling to return to All-Star form, Fred VanVleet averaged 22.0 points, 6.7 assists and 3.8 threes while shooting 40.9 percent from three.

    He started to tail off at that point, but Siakam took off with 24.0 points, 5.7 assists and 1.1 threes.

    In addition to predicting Toronto will win this series, consider this a forecast that both will start to click at the same time this postseason.

    Prediction: Raptors in seven

West: No. 1 Phoenix Suns vs. No. 8 New Orleans Pelicans

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    After starting the season 1-12, the New Orleans Pelicans are on their way to the playoffs after beating the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers in the play-in tournament. And despite the drama that has surrounded them and Zion Williamson all season, they’ve provided reason for optimism since acquiring CJ McCollum at the February trade deadline.

    New Orleans is plus-5.2 points per 100 possessions when he and Brandon Ingram are on the floor. And that one-two punch, backed by the bruising interior game of Jonas Valanciunas, has made the Pelicans far more dynamic than they were before the deal. Defenses can’t throw as much at Ingram as they used to. And with McCollum essentially playing point guard, he and JV are getting easier looks.

    The good vibes may not last long, though. The Pelicans are on their way to play the Phoenix Suns, who are a bona fide juggernaut.

    Beyond securing a season-best 64 wins and finishing eight games ahead of the second-best record in the league, the Suns thrived on high-pressure moments this season. They were 33-9 in games that entered clutch time (defined by the league as the final five minutes of games within five points). And their plus-33.4 net rating in those situations more than doubled second-place Milwaukee's plus-15.9.

    In the postseason, each and every possession can feel high-leverage. And Phoenix, led by Chris Paul, navigates those better than anyone.

    He isn’t alone, of course. Devin Booker was eighth in the league in scoring. Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Cameron Johnson make up one of the league’s best three-and-D corps. And Deandre Ayton gives the Suns the ability to bring a little old-school offense inside without sacrificing defensive versatility on the other end.

    This is arguably the deepest, most well-balanced team in the league. And it should cruise against the eighth seed.

    Prediction: Suns in five

West: No. 2 Memphis Grizzlies vs. No. 7 Minnesota Timberwolves

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    The entertainment potential for this series is as high as any in the first round.

    Both squads are loaded with young, confident talents who aren't afraid to express that confidence, and there are multiple individual matchups that will demand attention.

    How will Ja Morant handle the antics of Patrick Beverley? Can Desmond Bane or Dillon Brooks slow down Anthony Edwards, who looked more than up to the challenge of postseason intensity in the play-in game? Will D'Angelo Russell have ice in his veins against the wing who doesn't take Edwards? And can Karl-Anthony Towns bounce back from a terrible night in the play-in against Steven Adams?

    At various times throughout the series, you can expect some form of fireworks as the answers to all of those questions.

    What figures to separate these teams is Memphis' depth. The Grizzlies went 20-5 without Ja Morant in the lineup and were plus-7.8 points per 100 possessions when he was off the floor.

    With a second unit that includes Brandon Clarke, Tyus Jones, De'Anthony Melton and Kyle Anderson, Memphis should dominate the minutes when Minnesota's strong starting lineup is off the floor. And that'll be enough to win the series.

    Prediction: Grizzlies in six

West: No. 3 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 6 Denver Nuggets

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    Nikola Jokic getting a Denver Nuggets team that got nine total appearances out of Michael Porter Jr. and zero from Jamal Murray to 48 wins is truly remarkable.

    The Nuggets had a point differential around that of a 62-win team when Jokic was on the floor, but they played like an 18-win team without him. For context's sake, the league-worst Houston Rockets went 20-62.

    And as dependable as Kevon Looney has been for the Golden State Warriors this season, he stands little chance of being able to slow the eventual two-time MVP down.

    But even if Jokic maintains his current career postseason averages of 25.9 points, 11.3 rebounds and 6.4 assists, it may not be enough (assuming Murray and MPJ remain out).

    Golden State is dealing with its own injury issues. It feels like the Warriors are playing Stephen Curry's status close to the vest, but they said he's making progress. And if he plays the bulk of the series, the hobbled Nuggets will have a whale of a time keeping up.

    When Curry and Draymond Green were on the floor this season, the Warriors were plus-14.7 points per 100 possessions. And that sample barely includes any time with Klay Thompson.

    Those three obviously have years of high-level experience together, but now there's a fourth weapon to worry about. Since Curry went down with his foot injury, Jordan Poole has averaged 25.8 points, 6.2 assists and 4.1 threes.

    Meanwhile, the second-leading scorer on the Nuggets, Aaron Gordon, averaged 15.0 points (the lowest mark of any second-leading scorer in the NBA). Night to night, the question wasn't: Who'll join Jokic? It was more like: Will anyone join him?

    Denver just won't be able to trade haymakers with the Warriors.

    Prediction: Warriors in six

West: No. 4 Dallas Mavericks vs. No. 5 Utah Jazz

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    It's hard to overstate just how disastrous the Utah Jazz's late-season collapse felt from the outside.

    The win probability from ESPN's box scores in each of Utah's last five losses is shocking.

    • Hornets: 74.6%
    • Mavericks: 80.2%
    • Clippers: 99.3%
    • Warriors: 99.8%
    • Suns: 98.3%

    Again, they lost all five of those games, and the dramatic nature of the losses has led to scores of rumors about the future of the team, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell.

    If the trend continues and Utah flames out of another postseason, can the front office (which added Danny Ainge midseason) run it back again?

    It took 11 years for the John Stockton-Karl Malone Jazz to break through and make it to the NBA Finals. Gobert and Mitchell have only been together for five. This is the player empowerment and social media era, though, and if a team doesn't get results yesterday, it's in danger of a shakeup.

    And with all that looming over the Jazz, it's hard to imagine them being able to play loose against a Dallas Mavericks squad coming together at the right time.

    Dallas was a league-best 19-6 since Spencer Dinwiddie entered the rotation, and in those 25 games, Luka Doncic averaged 30.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, 8.1 assists and 3.8 threes. Jalen Brunson and Dinwiddie combined for another 32.5 points. All three combined to shoot 39.7 percent from three.

    That's all backed by a defense that has been completely transformed under Jason Kidd.

    Of course, much of that could go out the window with Luka reportedly out for Game 1 (and who knows after that), but that might also just delay the inevitable. Dallas was plus-10.3 points per 100 possessions when Dinwiddie was on the floor without Doncic.

    The Mavs are peaking at the right time. And though the Jazz are still loaded with talent and finished the season with the league's third-best simple rating system (which combines point differential and strength of schedule), they're heading in the opposite direction.

    Prediction: Mavericks in seven