Miami Heat (#1) v Atlanta Hawks (#8)
After appearing in the NBA Championship two seasons ago, the Miami Heat find themselves on top of the Eastern Conference with home court advantage throughout the playoffs. The Heat pride themselves for playoff basketball. They finished the season with the fourth-best defense, allowing 105.6 points per game. They have the third-slowest pace, playing to their strengths.
It is impressive the Heat made it to this position when Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo only played in 67.1% of their games this season. Tyler Herro came up clutch when he was called upon and is the front runner for the 6th Man of the Year award. They even got Victor Oladipo back from injury as he scored 40 points in their regular season finale. Their depth is a strength.
This is not a typical #8 Seed in the Atlanta Hawks. The Heat beat the Hawks three out of four times, but the Hawks are a talented team. They went to the Eastern Conference finals last season and return nearly everyone on that roster. John Collins has missed their last 18 games with an injury. He may return during this series and that would be a big boost for the Hawks.
Trae Young has taken on the villain role and is playing it perfectly. He had a disappointing game for his standards against the Hornets, but Young was exceptional against the Cavaliers to clinch the #8 Seed. Young had 38 points while shooting 52% from the field and playing 40 minutes. Young is at his best in the playoffs and he gets another opportunity in this series.
The Hawks have an incredible amount of talent and Young in the playoffs is a different animal. He is averaging 25.5 points and 7.3 assists per game against the Heat this season, but is only shooting 43.9% from the field. He is a fantastic weapon, but they may have lost Clint Capela for the remainder of the playoffs with a knee injury. The Hawks stretch it out, but the Heat prevail.
Boston Celtics (#2) v Brooklyn Nets (#7)
Winning 26 of their last 32 games, the Boston Celtics completely changed around their season by getting hot in the second half. The dynamic duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown has been incredible. Tatum is averaging a career-high 26.9 points and eight rebounds per game, while Brown is very consistent. He scored 25 or more points over 10-straight games in late March.
The Celtics are led by their great defense where they allow a league-best 104.5 points per game. Losing starting center Robert Williams to injury for most of this first round is a huge loss. Without Williams in the lineup the Celtics are just 11-10 this season. Their defensive rating drops significantly as they allow 108.3 points per game without him compared to 103.2 with him.
Not only are the Celtics coming into this series hot, but so are the Brooklyn Nets. They have won 13 of their last 18 games including the first round of the play-in tournament against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Nets have been in playoff mode since early March. They have a hard time holding on to leads, which may come back to bite them, but this Nets team is so talented.
It starts with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving who are two of the best players in the league. Over the last nine games both Durant and Irving are averaging over 41 minutes per game. Durant has two triple-doubles over the last five games, while Irving has shot 77.1% from the field in his last two games. They are peaking at the right time and have a supporting cast around them.
Not having Williams who leads the Celtics in rebounds and is second in the league in blocks per game is the deciding factor in this series. These two teams are going to put on a show every night they play as both offenses are filled with star power. There is also a legit chance that Ben Simmons will be returning at some point in this series. Regardless, take the Nets in six games.
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Milwaukee Bucks (#3) v Chicago Bulls (#6)
After resting nearly every starter to purposely lose their last regular season game, the Milwaukee Bucks got the matchup that they wanted in the first round of the playoffs. The Bucks swept the Chicago Bulls in four games this season, winning the last two games by an average of 24.5 points per game. The Bucks are healthy and poised to defend their NBA Championship.
The Bucks got off to a relatively slow 6-8 start to the season, but then Giannis Antetokounmpo started to take over. The reigning Finals MVP averaged a career-high 29.9 points per game while shooting over 55% from the field for the fourth-straight season. Giannis led the league with 8.5 transition points per game, which is over one point more than the next closest player.
Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton continue to be a fantastic supporting cast. Holiday is shooting over 50% for the second-straight season as he leads the team in assists. Middleton is averaging over 20 points per game for the third-straight season. They obviously have the Championship pedigree and landed in the perfect spot to get a warm-up round before tougher competition.
For the Bulls to be competitive they will need DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine to play very well. The veteran DeRozan is averaging a career-high 27.9 points per game in his first season with the Bulls. LaVine is the key to this series. The Bucks allow the most 3-point attempts and 3-pointers made per game this season. LaVine will need to get scorching hot from the perimeter.
The Bulls have their work cut out for them in this series. They have had a really impressive season, but they struggle against the really talented teams. The Bulls have a record of 1-14 against the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference this season. I think the Bulls find a way to squeak out either Game 3 or Game 4 at home, but the Bucks will move on without a problem.
Philadelphia 76ers (#4) v Toronto Raptors (#5)
The Philadelphia 76ers didn’t get the worst draw, but this matchup against the Toronto Raptors is going to be a grind. Both teams rank in the bottom five of pace and are outside the top 10 in offensive rating. The 76ers finished 20 games above .500 tied with the Celtics. They were led by Joel Embiid who finished as the scoring leader averaging a career-high 30.6 points per game.
Embiid has averaged 29 points and 11.3 rebounds per game against the Raptors this season. However, the last two games were paired with James Harden and he shot 38.1% from the field. In those two games, Harden shot 33.3% from the field. Even with the Harden arrival, Embiid ranks second in usage rate with 36.9%. However, Tobais Harris has seen the dip in production.
Another concern with the 76ers is they will be without their best perimeter defender Matisse Thybulle when they play in Toronto due to the vaccine mandate. That will cause problems playing against the Raptors who have incredible perimeter players. They got OG Anunoby back for the last game of the regular season, so they are fully healthy and ready to roll for this series.
The Raptors won 14 of their last 18 games. They beat the 76ers in three out of their four games this season, the last two victories being against the 76ers with Harden in the lineup. They have the coaching advantage and experienced playoff veterans in order to win this series outright. The Raptors are balanced offensively with all five starters averaging over 15 points per game.
Embiid and Harden were first and third in both free throws made and attempted per game this season. They shot over 80% from the line. However, they won’t be getting to the line nearly as much in the playoffs due to how games are called. If Harden starts failing early in this series, the 76ers fan base will be on him. This may be considered an upset, but I’m going with the Raptors.
Phoenix Suns (#1) v New Orleans Pelicans (#8)
The Suns do a great job at excelling in their role. Devin Booker is averaging a career-high 26.8 points per game. Despite Chris Paul averaging a career-low in points, he leads the league with 10.8 assists per game. He is also second in the league in steals. DeAndre Ayton is averaging a double-double for the fourth-straight season. This team is poised to make another deep run.
The rising young New Orleans Pelicans also went 2-0 in the play-in tournament to earn the #8 Seed. Their reward is playing the Suns who they lost to in three of their four games. This won’t be as easy of a series as some may think. The Suns will need to work as this Pelicans team is playing well lately. Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum are a great duo and have been so good.
Since joining the Pelicans, McCollum is averaging career-highs across the board in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and field goal percentage per game. He seems to be thriving as one of the key options. Ingram has been just as good. He scored 27 and 30 points in the play-in tournament while shooting 62.5% from the field, despite not making a 3-pointer in either game.
The biggest question mark is Zion Williamson. Will he return or will he continue to sit out? A great mystery. I don’t think it would make a major impact on the outcome on this series, but it would certainly make it interesting. Regardless, the Suns are on a mission and will find a way to advance. The Pelicans should be able to squeak out one game at home, but that will be all.
Memphis Grizzlies (#2) v Minnesota Timberwolves (#7)
The Memphis Grizzlies tied their franchise win total with 56 as they have had the #2 Seed in the Western Conference locked up for quite a while. They have arguably the deepest team in the league as they proved that by going 20-5 without Ja Morant this season. Backup point guard Tyus Jones recorded the best single season assist/turnover ratio (7.04) in NBA history.
Speaking of Morant, he is the first guard to lead the league in points scored in the paint. The leap he made from last season was unreal. He averaged 27.4 points per game while shooting 49.3% from the field. Morant gets the headlines, but Jaren Jackson Jr. is leading the league in blocks, while Dillon Brooks and Desmond Bane are both averaging over 18 points per game.
One would think the Minnesota Timberwolves won the NBA Title with the way they celebrated their play-in tournament victory over the LA Clippers to capture the #7 Seed. They did so on the backs of Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell who combined to score 59 points. This is the matchup the Timberwolves had to get. Two young teams who split during the regular season.
Karl-Anthony Towns was a major disappointment in their play-in game as he fouled out in 24 minutes and only had 11 points, shooting 3-for-11 from the field. However, Towns leads the team in points, rebounds, blocks, and usage rate. He has been a disappointment in the playoffs, but Towns is averaging 23.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game against the Grizzlies this season.
This is the only series that I think can go the distance, which may surprise some people. During the season they both won two games on their home floor. The talent and playoff experience on both teams is nearly identical. The Timberwolves have been more inconsistent, but they have
Golden State Warriors (#3) v Denver Nuggets (#6)
This series between the Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets would look a lot different if Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. were able to play. They both won’t be coming back, which will give the distinct edge to the Warriors who are likely getting Stephen Curry back. Curry has missed the last 12 games in the regular season after injuring his ankle against the Celtics.
Not only is Curry likely back, but so are Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. These three have only played ONE game together all season. In that one game, Curry had 47 points while shooting 64% from the field, Thompson had 25 points making five 3-pointers, and Green had six points, seven rebounds, and six assists. This trio is phenomenal when they all play together.
One major positive with these three being out is the emergence of Jordan Poole. He has taken a major leap in his third season with the Warriors averaging 18.5 points per game becoming the third Splash Brother. Despite Curry being back, Green is the most important player for this team. Not only does Green make the offense smoother, but he is needed defensively on Nikola Jokic.
With Murray and Porter Jr. out for most of the season, Jokic has done literally everything for the Nuggets. He was the first player in NBA history to record 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 500 assists in a season. Jokic also dominates the Warriors. Over the last three seasons in nine games, Jokic is averaging 24.4 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.2 assists with two triple-doubles.
Aaron Gordon and Will Barton have had their fair share of upside games, but this Nuggets team will go as far as Jokic takes them. Even though I like this matchup for Jokic personally, it is scary facing a healthy Warriors team from a big picture perspective. Jokic will find a way to win a few games in this series, but this Warriors team can make a deep playoff run if they remain healthy.
Dallas Mavericks (#4) v Utah Jazz (#5)
The Dallas Mavericks had a late rally to try and claim the #3 Seed, but fell just short. They unfortunately may have lost Luka Doncic in the process. The superstar guard hurt his calf in their last regular season game, so we will need to monitor his status going into this series. Doncic had nearly a week to get himself healthy, but has already been ruled out for Game One.
The Mavericks got some help at the trade deadline with Spencer Dinwiddie, but they still lack help for Doncic. He is leading the league in usage rate with 37.3% per game. The do-it-all point guard can lead the Mavericks to a series win single handedly. Doncic played against the Jazz three times this season and led the Mavericks in points, rebounds, and assists in every game.
Doncic’s health and the Mavericks interior size is the major concern in this matchup against Rudy Gobert who led the league in rebounding with 14.7 per game and came in second for most double-doubles with 57. Gobert is also shooting a career-high 71.3% from the field. He is averaging 12 points and 13.7 rebounds per game against the Mavericks, while shooting 76.5%.
The last two games against the Mavericks have been a struggle for Donovan Mitchell. He has shot 28.1% from the field while averaging 14.5 points per game. I’m not all that concerned as Mitchell brings it for the playoffs. In 17 games over the last two seasons in the playoffs, Mitchell is averaging 33.9 points per game. This may be the last ride for the Mitchell and Gobert duo.
This game is going to be a very slow-paced, defensive battle. Since the All-Star Break, both teams rank last and second-to-last in pace. Most playoff games get played in the half-court, but this whole game might be. The Mavericks rank last, while the Jazz rank third-to-last in transition points per game. The Jazz are simply too deep and have too many veterans to lose this series.
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