How will the 2022 NBA Playoffs shake out?
By Jed Mabazza, Staff Writer
With less than 30 games left in the regular season, it’s that time of the year when early NBA playoff predictions start pouring in. Let’s take a look at how the current top six seeded teams from each conference might fare in the playoffs this year.
The first batch of Eastern Conference teams we’ll examine is the first round exits.
The sixth-seeded Celtics are no longer the mediocre team that we saw at the beginning of the season. This team looks hungry with Jayson Tatum returning to his former self. They also boast the fourth-best defensive rating in the league according to basketballreference.com. Boston doesn’t look like they’re slowing down anytime soon, but their current roster isn’t designed for playoff contention just yet. I think they may fall short in the first round.
The fifth-seeded Cavs are no longer in the shadow of Lebron James. They are on track to make their first playoff birth since Lebron left them in 2018. The Cavs are bursting with talent in Darius Garland, Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert. What’s crazier is their core has yet to hit their prime. Cleveland has been a pleasant surprise this season, but without previous playoff experience to lean on, the Cavs may only be as good as a first round exit.
This next group will likely survive the first round but fall just short of the conference finals.
Billy Donavan’s Bulls deserve a lot of credit. They currently stand right at the top of the Eastern Conference standings, an impressive feat for a team that hasn’t had key players Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso as of late January.
There’s no doubt that the Bulls are going to make their first playoff berth for the first time in four years. While they are led by perennial All-Star talent in DeMar DeRozan and Zach Lavine, none of their core players have proven themselves in the playoffs. I don’t see the Bulls making it past the second round but that doesn’t mean they won’t make it a competitive series.
Don’t underestimate the heart of a champion. The fourth-seeded defending champs still have what it takes to come out of the Eastern Conference. The only concerns for Milwaukee are health and bench depth. If their big three can stay healthy, they will continue doing what they do — play winning basketball. But if not, can their bench offer some relief? I’d say it will be tough for the Bucks to last through the second round if they only rely on their big three.
Finally, we’ll take a look at what will probably be the Eastern Conference Finals matchup this year.
Like the Bulls, Miami has been dominating the league despite struggles with the injury bug. Their big three in Kyle Lowry, Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler have shared the court for only 415 minutes this season according to NBA.com. This places them as one of the lowest-played trios in the league.
All that is to say, the Heat are going to be a destructive force once healthy. They have a competitive advantage in any playoff series because their whole trio has been to the finals since 2019. Lowry even won a championship. These guys know how to outlast the competition and I am sure they can make it through the first two rounds, especially with Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson coming off the bench.
The third-seeded Sixers are in a better position to contend now than they were before February’s trade deadline. The acquisition of James Harden definitely raises the ceiling of Philly’s offense. The team has overachieved, riding on the shoulders of Joel Embiid, who is playing the best basketball of his career. If the Sixers can figure out how to play with the league’s most ball-dominant player in Harden, I am sure they can make noise deep in the playoffs but ultimately fall short in the conference finals.
The following teams, Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets are good enough to make the playoffs, but not to win a series this year.
The Grizzlies have been a huge surprise this season. They are a young and hungry team fuelled by the likes of Ja Morant who shows flashes of MVP Derrick Rose, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane. This team is serious about winning. The Grizzlies rank top five in offensive rating according to basketballreference.com, which is a testament to the talent they have. But this young team hasn’t made a deep playoff run yet and the pressure might just prove too much for them in the first round.
The sixth-seeded Nuggets are imposing their will on teams when reigning MVP Nikola Jokic does what he does best — dominating. The biggest problem for the Nuggets is having players who can help relieve the scoring load off the “Joker.”
The good news is that their two key players, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. will be medically cleared to play before the end of the season. But if the Nuggets end up without Murray’s and MPJ’s services in the postseason, I don’t see them being more than a first round exit.
The next two teams will survive the first round but not the second.
The Kristaps Porzingis trade certainly left a hole at the center position, but it made room for more minutes for Jalen Brunson, Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans. Couple that with Luka Doncic, who has been quietly dominating in his own right by posting 27.5 points, nine rebounds and nine assists per game according to basketballreference.com and you have a competitive scoring team. But the lack of a true center may cost the Mavs a place in the conference finals.
The fourth-seeded Jazz boast the best offensive rating in the league according to basketballreference.com, but they have a lot to prove in this year’s playoffs after two straight early playoff exits. The clock is ticking for the Jazz. If the team is unable to stay healthy, then maybe history repeats itself and they will fall short in the second round three straight times.
These next squads will be the last two standing in the Wild West.
The number one seeded Suns are flat-out dominant. They have proven time and again that they deserve to be in the conversation as title contenders. They boast top five rankings in both offensive and defensive ratings this year according to basketballreference.com. But the Suns have something the Golden State Warriors lack — a true leader. It is no secret that Chris Paul’s veteran leadership helped his team reach the finals last year and I am sure he can do it again.
Golden State Warriors
The splash brothers are back! Oh how sweet it is. This team has chemistry and a good bench in Jonathan Kuminga, Jordan Poole, Damion Lee, Juan Toscano-Anderson and Otto Porter Jr. They are only two years removed from a finals appearance and are fringe favorites to be in this year’s finals. I expect nothing less than a conference finals from this squad.
However, without a true leader the Warriors might fall short of making a finals appearance. Part of the reason they lost the 2019 Finals was because Steph Curry was unable to properly lead his team despite losing Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson.