Updated Round 1 Predictions for 2022 NBA Playoffs

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistApril 23, 2022

Updated Round 1 Predictions for 2022 NBA Playoffs

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Predicting outcomes in the NBA can be a fool's errand. There's almost no way to know for sure how a game or series will go, and it's easy to overthink certain matchups.

    Take the first-round bout between the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers, for example. The former was a trendy upset pick before the series started. The latter clearly had more top-of-the-roster talent and has dominated through three games.

    Every year, you can count on some results contradicting popular opinion.

    So now, with the benefit of hindsight, it's time to adjust some of the predictions made before the postseason tipped off.

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

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    Trae Young's game-winning floater with 4.4 seconds left in Game 3 should give the Atlanta Hawks some life. And the same can be said of increased minutes for combo guard Delon Wright.

    After going for 13 points on 6-of-6 shooting and posting a plus-23 in 30 minutes Friday, Wright is now plus-24 for the series. And coach Nate McMillan’s increased willingness to play him with Young has caused some problems for Miami.

    With multiple playmakers on the floor (Bogdan Bogdanovic closed with those two in Game 3), Atlanta’s been able to create some openings it may not have otherwise. Sell out on any of the above, and another will be able to attack a rotating defense.

    More minutes with Wright and Young sharing the floor doesn’t solve all of Atlanta’s problems, though. Even in the loss, four of Miami's starters (with Jimmy Butler being the lone exception) were at least plus-11. And a swarming defense, led by the on-ball work of P.J. Tucker, has held Young to 37.0 percent shooting in the series.

    Atlanta should relish the high it's on after Young's heroics, but that defense is going to make things difficult all series long. And a balanced attack from Butler (who had 45 in Game 2), Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro and Max Strus (yes, Max Strus) should provide enough points on the other end.

    Original Prediction: Heat in six

    Updated Prediction: Heat in six

East: No. 2 Celtics vs. No. 7 Nets (Celtics Leads 2-0)

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    It felt like the Boston Celtics' depth would be the deciding factor here. And they still seem to have the edge on that front, but Jayson Tatum winning his individual matchup against Kevin Durant was an unforeseen development that could shorten the series.

    We've only seen two games, both of which were in Boston, but Tatum is averaging 25.0 points, 9.0 assists and 2.5 threes, while shooting 41.7 percent from deep. Durant's at 25.0 points too, but his 4.0 assists is less than half Tatum's average, and he's shooting 31.7 percent from the field. When Tatum's defending him, he's 2-of-13.

    It's hard to imagine that trend holding throughout the series, though (at least not to that degree). Durant will surely break loose for a big game at some point. The Nets have yet to have both him and Kyrie Irving play to their individual standards in the same game. And Brooklyn has been in each loss down the stretch. It still feels like a couple wins are on the way, especially if Ben Simmons comes back (he's reportedly on track for Game 4).

    But Tatum's superstar leap (another one?!) and a Boston defense that has been utterly dominant for months should be enough to avoid losing four of the next five. With Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Al Horford, no defensive unit is as connected and switchable as this one.

    Original Prediction: Celtics in seven

    Updated Prediction: Celtics in six

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

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    The Chicago Bulls played the Milwaukee Bucks close in Game 1, then gave themselves some life by winning Game 2 on the road. But the Bucks offered a reminder of how high their peak is with a 30-point annihilation in Chicago on Friday.

    Jrue Holiday was the only starter who had to play 30 minutes in that one. And the only player who eclipsed 20 points was reserve Grayson Allen. Before the first half was over, it felt like a casual blowout that could completely change the outlook of the series.

    Even without Khris Middleton (who suffered a knee injury in Game 2), Milwaukee has been able to play swarming defense, particularly on DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine (both below 50 percent from the field in the series). And when those two are stymied, there isn't enough playmaking from the supporting cast to loosen things up.

    Without Lonzo Ball and at least one or two players who can make an impact off the bench, the Bulls don't have enough to stop Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning Finals MVP, and the defending champs.

    Original Prediction: Bucks in five

    Updated Prediction: Bucks in five

East: No. 4 76ers vs. No. 5 Raptors (76ers Lead 3-0)

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    The biggest whiff from the last round of predictions was the product of overthinking.

    The Philadelphia 76ers had some high-profile losses down the stretch of the regular season. And James Harden shot just 36.3 percent from the field and 29.1 percent from three over his last 17 games.

    Meanwhile, the Toronto Raptors had the sixth-best record in the league since Feb. 1. A balanced attack and defense led by Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet was clicking.

    But in the playoffs, when talent often trumps all other factors, games and series often boil down to who has the best individual players. And the 76ers may boast the top three.

    Through three games, Embiid is averaging 27.7 points and 13.0 rebounds. He hit a game-winning buzzer-beating three to put this series on the verge of a sweep. James Harden is averaging 18.3 points and 10.0 assists while shooting 46.7 percent from three. And both are short of Tyrese Maxey's average game score ("...a rough measure of a player's productivity for a single game," according to Basketball Reference). He's putting up 26.7 points while shooting 60.0 percent from the field.

    With Scottie Barnes out because of an injury he suffered in Game 1 and Siakam and VanVleet struggling for any efficiency, Toronto extending this series feels unlikely.

    Original Prediction: Raptors in seven

    Updated Prediction: 76ers in four

West: No. 1 Suns vs. No. 8 Pelicans (Suns Lead 2-1)

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    Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

    There is undoubtedly some concern over the injury to Devin Booker's hamstring. It cost him most of the second half of a Game 2 loss for the Phoenix Suns, but Chris Paul's leadership and ability to execute in the clutch should be more than enough to survive that absence against the sub-.500 New Orleans Pelicans.

    He showed that Friday, when CP3 had 28 points and 14 assists in a game that remained within the Pelicans' striking distance till the final minutes, but he didn't win that game alone.

    Deandre Ayton went a long way toward making up for Booker's missing 25-plus per game by chipping in 28 points and 17 rebounds.

    And the supporting cast that has come through over and over provided the connected defense it has had all season, as well as some timely contributions on offense.

    With the addition of CJ McCollum, the Pelicans are a much tougher out than they would've been. Brandon Ingram has been sensational in his first postseason. But Phoenix is a well-oiled machine, even without Booker. And the biggest storyline from this series may end up being whether it was long enough to get him healthy before the second round.

    Original Prediction: Suns in five

    Updated Prediction: Suns in six

West: No. 2 Grizzlies vs. No. 7 Timberwolves (Grizzlies Lead 2-1)

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    The Minnesota Timberwolves started this series with an upset victory in Memphis, but the Grizzlies have seized control in dramatic fashion.

    First, in Game 2, Memphis obliterated the Wolves, 124-96. That game was never in question and served as a reminder of how good the Grizzlies are. And then Game 3 might've been even more telling.

    Early in the second quarter, Minnesota had a 26-point lead. The Grizzlies shaved it down to seven by halftime, but the Wolves pushed it back to 23 with less than two minutes left in the third. Memphis won the final 14 minutes, 46-14.

    If there's a team confident and precocious enough to bounce back from two losses like that, it might be the Timberwolves, but there now appears to be an insurmountable talent gap typical of a 2-7 series.

    The one matchup Minnesota was clearly exploiting early on, may no longer be on the table.

    For the series, Steven Adams is minus-14 in 27 minutes. Brandon Clarke, who's jumped him in the rotation, is plus-13 in 78 minutes. He's averaging 15.3 points and shooting 70.8 percent from the field. And his ability to get up and down the floor in transition is causing problems for Karl-Anthony Towns and the Wolves.

    Again, KAT, Anthony Edwards and their supporting cast have enough talent and pride to sneak one more win, but the Grizzlies appear on their way to the second round.

    Original Prediction: Grizzlies in six

    Updated Prediction: Grizzlies in six

West: No. 3 Warriors vs. No. 6 Nuggets (Warriors Lead 3-0)

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    AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images/Getty Images

    Presumptive MVP Nikola Jokic is shooting over 50 percent from the field and averaging 29.3 points, 13.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.0 blocks. He leads this series in average game score.

    But five of the next six spots on that list belong to Golden State Warriors, and that reflects the story of the Denver Nuggets' entire season.

    Without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., Jokic has had to shoulder the biggest burden of any superstar in the league. And against a Warriors squad that looks poised to return to the Finals, that burden has just been too much.

    Golden State is making a playoff-high 17.0 threes per game and shooting 44.3 percent from deep. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are both averaging over 20 points and shooting over 40 percent from deep. And Draymond Green is handing out 8.3 assists while at least making things difficult for Jokic.

    But the biggest differentiator may be Jordan Poole, whose play this season and series has more than solidified his status as a full-fledged member of this title-contending core.

    Poole is averaging 28.7 points while shooting 66.7 percent from the field and 59.1 percent from three.

    Of the 15 players in NBA history who scored at least as many points in their first three career playoff games, none matched Poole's field-goal percentage. And some of the players behind him on that list include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and LeBron James.

    He'll face tougher defensive tests later in the playoffs, but adding Poole's offense to Green and the Splash Brothers has helped push the Warriors to the shortest title odds.

    Original Prediction: Warriors in six

    Updated Prediction: Warriors in four

West: No. 4 Mavericks vs. No. 5 Jazz (Mavericks Lead 2-1)

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The Utah Jazz's chemistry already seemed volatile before the playoffs started. Toward the end of the regular season, coach Quin Snyder gave the media a 19-minute explanation for the fact that Donovan Mitchell only passed to Rudy Gobert twice per game. And the relationship between those two has been the subject of plenty of anonymously sourced reporting over the years.

    The proverbial front-office vultures are already circling around Gobert and Mitchell, should the Jazz make either available for trade this summer. And after the first three games of this series, they're probably drifting lower.

    Without Luka Doncic playing a second, the Dallas Mavericks are scoring 120.1 points per 100 possessions (behind only Golden State and Philadelphia), and the Jazz simply don't have answers on the roster to slow them down.

    For the second postseason in a row, Utah's perimeter defenders have looked like little more than turnstiles against small lineups, and Mitchell might be the worst offender. Possession after possession, someone gets to the paint, forces Gobert to slide to the rim and creates an open shooter outside.

    Against a defense that features one great defender (Gobert) and one decent one (Royce O'Neale) the Luka-less Mavericks have feasted. Jalen Brunson is averaging 32.0 points, 5.0 assists and 2.3 threes. Dinwiddie is adding 19.7 points and 6.7 assists (and a Tom Chambers-esque dunk over Rudy). And the entire team is shooting 40.5 percent from three.

    Utah's talent and early-season dominance (as well as the lack of Luka) are reason enough to think this series will remain competitive, but Utah appears to have too many fissures on and off the floor to move on.

    Original Prediction: Mavericks in seven

    Updated Prediction: Mavericks in seven

          

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