Updated 2022 NBA Play-in PredictionsApril 14, 2022
The 2022 NBA playoffs are nearly set, as just a pair of games will determine who gets the final postseason spots and who starts planning their first trip of the offseason.
With the Brooklyn Nets and Minnesota Timberwolves already advancing via wins in their 7-8 play-in matchups, we now get to see who lands as the No. 8 seeds in both conferences.
The remaining games go as follows:
- East: (8) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (9) Atlanta Hawks
- West: (8) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (9) New Orleans Pelicans
Based on location, key matchups, X-factors and more, here's what to expect from the final two play-in games.
(8) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (9) Atlanta Hawks
When: Friday, April 15, at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
Where: Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland
The Winner: Gets the eighth 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
Two of the NBA's best young point guards serve as the offensive engines of their respective clubs, and any chance of winning starts and ends with limiting the damage that Young and Garland can leave in their wake.
Young led the NBA in total points and assists this season and was responsible for 52.5 points per game either from his own scoring or by setting up teammates. Garland wasn't far behind at 43.7, actually creating more points off his passes (22.0, sixth-most in the NBA) than when shooting the ball himself (21.7 points per game).
This game could come down to who can contain the opponent's starting point guard the best, as neither the Cavs nor Hawks have strong secondary ball-handlers.
Young is averaging 31.2 points per game on 49.8 percent shooting (43.0 percent from three) in wins this season, numbers that fall to 25.2 points on 41.9 percent overall (32.0 percent from three) during losses.
Expect to see a lot of Isaac Okoro, Cleveland's best wing defender, on Young in this game. Young has previously done well against him (58 points and 14 assists on 52.8 percent shooting in 23 minutes and 33 seconds of matchup time across four games, per NBA.com tracking data), but Okoro has the size, strength and quickness to make him work all night after having just one day off between play-in games.
Atlanta doesn't have any lockdown perimeter defenders who can stick on Garland, however, and the 22-year-old has averaged 24.0 points and eight assists in his two games against the Hawks this season. Young is one of the worst defensive players in the NBA, so expect Garland to attack that matchup whenever he gets it.
X-Factor: Jarrett Allen's and John Collins' availability
Both teams will potentially be missing star big men, with both Allen and Collins having been sidelined since early-to-mid March.
Allen is the more likely of the two to play, as he's recovering from a broken middle finger on his left (non-shooting) hand. As Cleveland.com's Chris Fedor writes, "He continues to progress, able to use his left hand—the one with the fractured middle finger—during intense workouts. But a source still views Friday as a 50-50 proposition."
In three games vs. Atlanta this season, Allen is averaging 15.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks while shooting 71.4 percent and would present some serious matchup issues in a frontcourt along with Evan Mobley and Lauri Markkanen, especially if Collins is out. With Young shooting a career-high 62.8 percent from within three feet this season, Allen's presence is greatly needed.
Collins, who's out with a right ring finger sprain and a sprained right foot, is competing in four-on-four activities but hasn't been cleared for game action.
As Chris Kirschner of The Athletic wrote:
"I asked Collins once he got off the court if he could return this coming week for the Play-In Tournament. Collins told The Athletic that he’s 'still not sure yet.' Looking at it optimistically, at least it wasn’t a flat-out no. Realistically, even if his foot is 100 percent, it’s still hard to imagine him being effective if his finger is still covered."
Collins was only active for one game against Cleveland this season, shooting just 3-of-8 from the floor for six points and collecting 12 rebounds, one assist, one steal and one block in 27 minutes.
While the Hawks have played well down the stretch even without Collins, the Cavs will likely need Allen in order to win.
Cavs win, 110-106. This is assuming Allen, who's had a few extra days of rest between play-in games, can return. Cleveland's size will give the Hawks problems and expect Garland to have a monster game when lining up against Young.
(8) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (9) New Orleans Pelicans
When: Friday, April 15, at 10 p.m. ET on TNT
Where: Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles
The Winner: Gets the eighth seed in the West, will face the Phoenix Suns
The Loser: Is eliminated
Regular-Season Results: Pelicans won, 3-1
Key Matchup: Paul George vs. CJ McCollum
While there's plenty of talent to go around in this final play-in game, expect the ball to be in the hands of George and McCollum when either team is desperate for a bucket.
George has looked good in his brief return from a torn UCL, an injury that sidelined him for over three months. He averaged 22.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 2.8 steals and shot 52.5 percent from three in his five games to finish the regular season before dropping a game-high 34 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three steals in a 109-104 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 7-8 play-in game.
He has the defensive advantage over McCollum in this matchup and will likely see time both on McCollum and Brandon Ingram.
McCollum also came up big in his first play-in action, racking up 32 points, six rebounds and seven assists while finishing a team-high plus-16 in a 113-103 win over the San Antonio Spurs. After serving as second fiddle to Damian Lillard over the past eight years of playoff runs, McCollum now finally gets to play the alpha role.
These two teams only met once after the trade deadline when McCollum was acquired from Portland, a 119-100 Clippers win on April 3. Both George (15 points on 33.3 percent shooting) and McCollum (19 points on 38.9 percent) struggled in the meeting, one in which Marcus Morris Sr. was the only player to crack the 20-point mark.
If both players struggle to make shots once again, it will come down to whose supporting cast can carry their star. In their most recent meeting, the Clippers proved they could.
X-Factor: Herb Jones' defense
While Zion Williamson continues to work his way back to the court following foot surgery (and is looking better every day), more attention should be paid to another young Pelicans forward.
Rookie Herb Jones could be a huge difference-maker in this game, even if he doesn't score a single point.
His defense has been exceptional this season, using a 6'8" frame with a 7'0" wingspan to stick to players on the perimeter and challenge others at the rim. Head coach Willie Green could start him on George, or any other Clippers starter for that matter.
In his time guarding George this season, Jones has held him to 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting (30.8 percent) in nine minutes and six seconds of matchup time across three games, per NBA.com tracking data. Reggie Jackson, the Clippers' starting point guard, has fared even worse against Jones. Jackson is shooting just 3-of-16 (18.8 percent) for seven points in 17 minutes and 17 seconds across four games with Jones as the primary defender.
Having a defensive specialist who can focus all his energy on one end and let players like McCollum, Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas run the offense is invaluable, and could ultimately get New Orleans into the postseason. This is a lot to ask of a rookie, of course, and others will need to step up defensively as well.
Clippers win, 109-108. This one will be close, but the experience of the Clippers and head coach Tyronn Lue will lift them to a narrow victory over a Pelicans team that suddenly looks quite formidable after a disastrous start to the season. Home teams are 4-0 thus far in the play-in, a streak that will only continue Friday.