With the abbreviated Play-in completed, the Brooklyn Nets, the Atlanta Hawks, the Minnesota Timberwolves and the New Orleans Pelicans step forward to claim their slots in the coveted NBA playoffs. The Hawks and the Pelicans took the last bus to the playoffs via gutsy come-from-behind wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers and the LA Clippers yesterday, completing the line-up for the playoffs.
With a complete line-up for the playoffs, who do I see moving up to the second round?
I see the Phoenix Suns (64-18) making short work of the cinderella Pelicans in this first round. The Suns have acquired so much experience from last year’s playoff run, and they have the veteran smarts of Chris Paul, plus the collective talents of chief gunner Devin Booker, interior defense man-mountain Deandre Ayton and exterior defense specialist Mikal Bridges. The Suns, losing NBA Finalists last year to the Milwaukee Bucks, are a team on a mission. They are locked and loaded for the long campaign in the playoffs. The Phoenix Suns will win this series in 4 games.
The Dallas Mavs (52-30) clinched the 4th seed over the Utah Jazz (49-33). It will be youth against experience as the Luka Doncic-led Mavs go up against the wisened vets of the Jazz. However, with Doncic suffering from a left calf strain that could hamper his game, I see the Jazz upending the Mavs. The Jazz were last season’s top seed going into the playoffs, before being nipped by the Clippers when Donovan Mitchell limped off the floor injured. A healthy roster this year will move them deep into the playoffs. The Jazz in 6 games.
The Golden State Warriors (53-29) will dust off the injury-laden Denver Nuggets (48-34) to move on to the next round. The Nuggets may have the league’s probable repeat season MVP in Nikola Jokic, but the roster comparison simply has it stacked up in favor of the Warriors. The Nuggets will be going to war with a huge disadvantage, with top guns Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr sidelined due to injuries. For the Warriors, Steph Curry is expected to play lesser minutes due to a recent injury, but with fellow Bruise Bro Klay Thompson, defense guru Draymond Green, plus a steady support cast providing instant offense and defense in Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole, Jonathan Kuminga, Gary Payton II, Kevin Looney, Otto Porter Jr, et al, I’d say off-hand that this team will be the team to beat for the Western Conference crown. They have a nice blend of vets and young fresh legs, a great combination of offensive and defensive talents, and great chemistry owing to the supportive leadership nurtured by coach Steve Kerr and the trio of Curry, Thompson and Green. Warriors in 5.
The Ja Morant-led Memphis Grizzlies (56-26) are an enigma. With Ja in the line-up, they are 36-22; without Ja, they have a 20-4 record. The upstart Grizzlies may have the better record than the Minnesota Timberwolves (46-36) but this series could go the full route. The Griz may have youth and depth, but I see a strong triumvirate in Karl Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards giving the Griz a run for their money. The Griz will win this in 6 with speed.
Over in the east, the Miami Heat (53-29) should make short work of the inspiring underdog Hawks. Despite the recent run-in between coach Eric Spoelstra and team lead Jimmy Butler, this Heat team is primed to take a deep run in the playoffs. The Heat brought in 3 veteran NBA champs in Kyle Lowry (Raptors ‘19), Markieff Morris (Lakers ‘20), and PJ Tucker (Bucks ‘21) to bolster an already deep roster. If Victor Oladipo blends well with the team come the playoffs, the Heat will be the East’s team to watch. Heat in 5.
The Philadelphia 76ers (51-31) will make short work of the Toronto Raptors (48-34). With MVP hopeful Joel Embiid and fresh recruit James Harden providing immense firepower, the Sixers’ offense will simply overwhelm the Raptors. The Raptors may have overachieved with a line-up led by the scrappy Fred VanVleet and Paskal Siakam, but the talent-level between the 2 teams is simply stacked in favor of the Sixers. The 76ers in 5.
The defending champs Milwaukee Bucks (51-31) should be able to pull through against the on-again-off-again Chicago Bulls (46-36). Having gained their championship rings last year, the Giannis-led Bucks are now a steadier, more cohesive team. They may be shallower, but the back-up of Kris Middleton, Jrue Holiday remain strong. The Bulls, on the other hand, are a Jekyll-and-Hyde team that has outstanding All-stars in Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic, but could get easily derailed without a good point guard. Bucks win in 5.
The Boston Celtics (51-31) hit their stride midway in the season, with Jayson Tatum stamping his class as a topnotch all-star. They will be facing an unusually under-ranked Brooklyn Nets squad (44-38) that has Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on their roster. The Celtics have no doubt exceeded expectations but I’ll have to go with the Nets here. With former all-stars LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Goran Dragic and Andre Drummond providing stability, and Patty Mills, Seth Curry and Nic Claxton providing fire support, plus an added bonus in the possible return of Ben Simmons, this team is loaded with talent. If their defense holds out, something that Simmons can bring to the table, they will be my prime bet for the Eastern Conference title. Nets in 6.
There you have it. I see the Phoenix Suns and the Utah Jazz squaring up in the 2nd round. So with the Golden State Warriors and the Memphis Grizzlies. In the east, it will be the Miami Heat vs the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Brooklyn Nets go for a rematch against the defending champs, Milwaukee Bucks.
My last 4 will be the Suns, the Warriors, the Heat and the Nets. This year will mark the return to the playoffs for the Grizzlies, the Timberwolves (who will be matched against each other) and the Bulls. This will also mark the absence of Lebron James from the playoffs for the first time since 2019. First-time standouts in the playoffs include Ja Morant and Zach LaVine. Vets praying for a first-ever crown before they retire include Chris Paul, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Goran Dragic, Andre Drummond and more.
Can Chris and the Suns finally bring home the NBA crown? Will the Nets’ Kevin-Kyrie combo do the trick this time? Or will the Sixers’ Joel and James go jamming? Will we see the Warriors waking up from their 3-year slumber? Or will the Suns finally shine in Phoenix? Maybe Miami will generate enough Heat to reach hoop heaven? Or shall we see the Bucks extend their reign as kings of the cage kingdom?
Sportsfans, who you got?
For a closer look, just click on the pics. Cover photo courtesy of The Sports Rush. Other photos courtesy of Bright Side of the Sun, Media Referee, SLC Dunk, Golden State of Mind, Grizzly Bear Blues, Hot Hot Hoops, Liberty Ballers, CelticsBlog.com, Blog A Bull, Forbes, Business Upturn, and Bleacher Report.