2021-22 NBA Playoffs Preview

Andrew Buckle,

Get ready for all of the excitement of the NBA Playoffs, after the first 82-game regular season in three years.

Will the team that has held the NBA’s best record, the Phoenix Suns, return to the Finals and go one step further? Can the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks win one of the most competitive Eastern conferences in years? Many fascinating narratives are told, and legacies are built, in the NBA Playoffs.

The play-in tournament starts Wednesday 13th April, with the first round starting on the 17th.

Here is the live ESPN coverage throughout the Playoffs:

  • Every game of the Play-In Tournament
  • The best of the first round NBA Playoffs
  • The best of the NBA Conference Semi-Finals
  • Every game from both the Eastern & Western Conference Finals
  • Every game of the NBA Finals

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If you haven’t been following throughout the season and want to tune in for some games at the business end of one of the most exciting and competitive seasons in recent years, here is a preview of every team in contention for the Playoffs, with some commentary around their seasons and what may lay in store for them on the path to the NBA Finals.

Eastern Conference

1 Miami Heat

The Heat managed to cool off following a poor stretch that included uncharacteristic meltdowns against undermanned opponents, and a heated courtside confrontation between head coach Eric Spoelstra and All-Star Jimmy Butler. The incident was largely downplayed – the Heat are notorious for cultivating a very competitive culture and Butler isn’t exactly shy about expressing his opinions – and the squad bounced back to win six in a row and secure the 53-win season and the #1 seed.

This Heat side looks tough, with veterans Kyle Lowry (Toronto) and PJ Tucker (Milwaukee) coming on board to bolster an already defensive juggernaut that includes Butler and Bam Adebayo. The Heat, as expected, have been near the top of all the defensive metrics. They also have a wealth of experience. They made it to the NBA Finals in the Bubble in 2020, and one could argue that this team is even stronger.

Tyler Herro has been a major spark off the bench, averaging clear of 20 points per game, which should be good enough to secure him Sixth Man of the Year. The Heat’s depth has resulted in them not really missing a beat when key guys like Lowry and Butler miss games. Max Strus, Gabe Vincent and Caleb Martin are just some of the Heat’s role players to have big games for them this season. The Heat are a team that aren’t afraid to get into a rock fight – a grind-it-out sort of game – and that’s common in the Playoff environment.

Record: 53-29

Prediction: Eastern Conference Semi Finals

2 Boston Celtics

With the Celtics sitting at 25-25 at the end of January there must have been serious consideration amongst the organisation about whether their core pieces – notably All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown – could co-exist and whether new coach Ime Udoka was the man for the job.

But, the various debacles plaguing their ability to close out games and run a cohesive offense are now long in their rear view mirror, as they ended the season 26-6 to storm up the East standings. They have been damn near unbeatable during this stretch – their net rating sits just behind the Suns for tops in the NBA – and look like a legitimate threat to come out of the East.

A pair of deadline moves to bring in Derrick White from the Spurs, and bring back veteran big man Daniel Theis (from Houston) have streamlined their rotation and helped enhance a suffocating defense which ended the season #1 for efficiency. They have two Defensive Player of the Year candidates in Marcus Smart and Robert Williams III (the latter unfortunately sidelined at the moment), veteran Celtic Al Horford is looking more sprightly back in the Celtic green, and the supremely gifted Jayson Tatum has been on an absolute scoring tear. The Celtics deserve a lot of credit for their midseason makeover. Can they keep up their form?

Record: 51-31

Prediction: Eastern Conference Semi Finals

3 Milwaukee Bucks

The defending champs are looking mighty dangerous once again. Two time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is right in the conversation again, reminding everyone what he is capable of in a couple of big wins over the 76ers and Nets in the final weeks of the season. He is an unstoppable force, who has continued to improve his range shooting and free throw form, his only real weaknesses.

Largely bringing back the same team that won the Championship the Bucks have dealt with a not-ignorable slew of injuries throughout the season. The most debilitating was to their 7-foot defensive anchor Brook Lopez, who only returned to the line-up for the final 13 games. Despite that, there was a sense that the Bucks were coasting. Bobby Portis has had a fantastic year, filling in for Lopez, while the steady play of Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday ensures that even when Giannis takes a break the Bucks are still a very disciplined team.

While their defense hasn’t been as potent as recent years, this team has Championship DNA, and added some familiar faces – vets George Hill and Wesley Matthews returned after spending last season elsewhere. But, they have Giannis and if he is healthy they simply remain the team to beat in the East.

Record: 51-31

Prediction: NBA Finals

4 Philadelphia 76ers

In a season that can only be described as ‘drama-filled’ the 76ers are again one of the most in-conversation teams. There’s maybe even more pressure than in recent years, after they acquired James Harden – one of the game’s elite scorers, who looks to have lost a step or two after a hamstring injury – at the trade deadline to pair with MVP contender Joel Embiid. On paper it looks unstoppable.

The Sixers gave up Australia’s Ben Simmons, last year’s All Defensive Team representative, who had elected to sit out the season following a tumultuous offseason where he requested a trade and then refused to report to training camp. Simmons’ immense contract made it difficult for the side to accommodate his request, and the rest of the NBA took interest in how the 76ers would handle the situation.

The 76ers, propelled by the incredible play from Joel Embiid – he just became the first center to lead the league in scoring since Shaq did it in 1999-2000, at over 30 points per game – remained competitive despite Simmons’ absence. While Harden’s play (so far) has been disappointing – he must be more efficient with his scoring – second year guard Tyrese Maxey has been a revelation. He showed flashes of brilliance as a scorer in his rookie season, but he has become a dynamic threat from beyond the arc. The dramatic role increase should have him in the conversation for the NBA’s Most Improved Player.

But the hurdles keep coming as the Sixers will be without defensive wing Matisse Thybulle for the road games in their first round match-up, due to his unvaccinated status. The Sixers seem to have enough offense – though they are now very thin at key positions – but can they elevate their defense enough to make the deep Playoff run many expected when they made the trade?

Record: 51-31

Prediction: Eastern Conference Finals

5 Toronto Raptors

The Toronto Raptors, following one of the least-convincing tanking seasons I can recall, seemed prime to return to Playoffs in 2022. They are too well coached and managed. They lucked into the #4 pick of the rookie draft, selecting Scottie Barnes to add size and length to an already-imposing frontcourt, while retaining their All-Star level core of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby. Barnes has been terrific.

Last season, due to Canada’s COVID restrictions the Raptors were relocated to Tampa, where they were accommodated and hosted home games. It was soon clear the team wasn’t particularly motivated, electing to retool, trading longtime fan favourite Kyle Lowry to the Miami Heat in the process.

While the Raptors have played without fans in attendance for much of the season they have a 24-17 record back at Scotiabank Arena, a notoriously imposing venue. Their success at the defensive end can be match-up dependent, but they can be demoralizing on that end of the court. Both VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. were near the league leader’s in steals, and Pascal Siakam has been incredible in the finest season of his career. They’ll give the 76ers some nightmares in the first round.

Record: 48-34

Prediction: First Round

6 Chicago Bulls

The Bulls, when they brought in skilled center Nikola Vucevic last season from the Magic to pair up with prolific scorer Zach Lavine, established that they were done rebuilding and were looking to compete. The offseason additions of DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso further confirmed this intent.

The Bulls have been a good side this year, but they have been unfortunate on the injury front. Ball and Caruso – two of their best perimeter defensive players – have been out for significant stretches of the season and it now seems like Ball is unlikely to return for their first round series. Rookie Ayo Dosunmu has been impressive filling in.

What a season for DeRozan, who ended up averaging 27.9 point per game. He became Mr. Clutch this season, carrying the team down the stretch of games with his absurdly efficient mid-range shooting. At one point he hit back-to-back game-winning shots. The Bulls have struggled mightily against the NBA’s best sides this season (they were 0-4 versus the Bucks, who they will play in the first round) but with three All-Star level players they will not offer an easy out.

Record: 46-36

Prediction: First Round

7 Brooklyn Nets

Pegged as the favourites to win the NBA Championship at the start of the season, the Nets’ chances quickly went south when star guard Kyrie Irving vowed to remain unvaccinated, which meant he couldn’t participate in games at the Nets’ home arena, Barclays Centre. The Nets initially didn’t want Irving to be a part-time player, and he was absent from all team activities, before eventually being invited to return and play in their road games. New mandates introduced last month now allow him to participate in all games.

Sounds complicated? It is.

But the Nets still had Kevin Durant and James Harden – as well as a host of returning role players instrumental in their success last season – and they were sitting near the top of the East (23-9 at one point) until Durant suffered a sprained left MCL. Irving was back, but now Durant was out. Harden’s willingness to move on from the organisation was made clear prior to the trade deadline – but his desire to leave was evident in his uninspiring play. The 76ers had a package they were willing to move for Harden (headlined by Ben Simmons), and the deal was made.

Simmons is still sidelined with a back injury – though there have been reports that he could return during the first round – but sharpshooter Seth Curry and goliath rebounder Andre Drummond have made valuable contributions since their arrival from Philly. The Nets, with both Durant and Irving, have shown flashes of being a title contender. They can probably score enough, but there has been a lack of cohesion for this squad all season – a wearying shadow present at all times – and they have a notable absence of reliable defensive players. It’s a risk to write them off, and with Kevin Durant anything is possible, but they have a tough road ahead of them.

Record: 44-38

Prediction: First Round

8 Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavs opened the season with an unorthodox giant line-up including three 7-footers in Jarrett Allen, rookie (and potential Rookie of the Year) Evan Mobley and Lauri Markkannen, alongside defensive wiz Isaac Okoro and rising star Darius Garland – and it worked! The Cavs were a defensive menace, deterring shots at the rim with reckless abandon, as they made a very surprising start.

Veteran Kevin Love had a resurgent season off the bench, looking his most-engaged in years. He has been given the freedom to fire from beyond the arc at will, and been a terrific leader on a young side. Garland has become a very fine player at the point guard position (earning an All-Star spot, along with Allen), looking unstoppable at times. Evan Mobley, drafted at #3, has fit in perfectly, showing more on the offensive end than anticipated.

The Cavs have had great chemistry this season, far surpassing the expectation of most pundits. They have been resilient under pressure, fun to watch, and look to have a bright future. The injuries, notably to Allen, at the end of the season meant they fell into the play-in. They may not survive it, but this team can be proud of what they have accomplished this season.

Record: 44-38

Prediction: Eliminated in Play-In

9 Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks made an unexpected appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals last season, and after returning with a largely-unchanged roster, they looked like a sure bet to return as Playoff contenders.

The Hawks struggles this season – they fell to 17-25 in mid January, and things looked grim – can’t really be attributed to the play of Trae Young (top 5 in the NBA in both points and assists), but perhaps declaring that the regular season was “boring” after an early blowout loss wasn’t so smart. This lack of urgency, paired with injury woes – John Collins, DeAndre Hunter and Bogdan Bogdanovic have all missed time – have resulted in an unreliable nightly rotation of inconsistent contributors and the Hawks have been scrambling for a favourable play-In draw.

The Hawks score a ton of points (#2 offense behind the Jazz), but defensively they have been awful (#26). They do enter the postseason having won 5 straight games, so they look to be trending the right way, but they are going to have to win 2 games to secure a match-up with the Miami Heat.

Record: 43-39

Prediction: First Round

10 Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets find themselves in the same position as last season, but have had a much more productive year while trying to keep up with a vastly improved Eastern Conference.

Last season’s rookie of the year, guard LaMelo Ball, made his first All-Star appearance and continued to make dazzling plays for his team, while forward Miles Bridges made some impressive strides as a scorer this season. Like the Hawks, the Hornets struggled on the defensive end – notably lacking size in their frontcourt – and really missed the versatility of Gordon Hayward when he was out of the line-up.

But they play fast and are riding some strong form into the postseason in their attempts to climb into a better play-in position. With seven players averaging double figure scoring they can really light up the scoreboard, but they’ll have to get it done on the road if they want to keep their season alive.

Record: 43-39

Prediction: Eliminated in Play-In

Western Conference

1 Phoenix Suns

What else can be said about the Phoenix Suns? They have held the #1 seed in the West for much of the season, pulling off a franchise record 18 straight wins across November and December, and have coasted down the stretch to put together a rare 64+ win regular season.

The Suns have familiarity, and after last year’s NBA Finals appearance they now have a wealth of big-game experience. They allow a limited margin for error from their opponents, and are disciplined in execution on both ends of the court (#5 Offense, #3 Defense) under the guidance of master craftsman Chris Paul.

Mikal Bridges has grown into one of the NBA’s most versatile defensive players, as his offensive game continues to evolve, center DeAndre Ayton has refined his game to suit the play style, and the Suns have depth at every position. Devin Booker should receive a lot of 1st Team All NBA votes for his most efficient scoring season yet, taking on increased leadership responsibilities during the post All-Star absence of Paul.

Record: 64-18

Prediction: NBA Finals

2 Memphis Grizzlies

In 2020-21 the young Memphis Grizzlies arrived. After finishing the regular season in 9th place, they won two play-in games and gave the #1 seed Utah Jazz a run for their money. The front office’s confidence in their promising core resulted in very few personnel changes in the offseason, and the Grizzlies have well and truly exceeded all expectations.

This team is a joy to watch. What might have once seemed unattainable for such a young team – a Western Conference finals berth – is starting to feel like a reality. Ja Morant, their highlight reel guard, made his first NBA All-Star appearance this year and has established himself as one of the faces of the NBA. But, the most amazing thing about this team is their absurd record – 20-5, and they dominated during these stretches – with Ja sidelined.

With a bench of starter-quality players – Tyus Jones, DeAnthony Melton, Kyle Anderson and Brandon Clarke included – this is a very deep team. Jaren Jackson Jr. has always been a shot blocking savant but his improved discipline at protecting the rim has him in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. Desmond Bane, credited as a draft steal during his impressive rookie year, has exploded into a reliable second scoring option and hit on a high volume of three pointers at a blistering 43% conversion rate.

Record: 56-26

Prediction: Western Conference Semi-Finals

3 Golden State Warriors

The Warriors are back! At least it looked like they were at the mid point of the season. Steph Curry was drawing even more defensive attention than usual, and though “struggling” with his shot (compared to his insane standards), the Warriors were finding different contributors each night from their well-rounded roster and the democratic nature of their fluent offense. Anchored by Draymond Green the Warriors boasted the NBA stingiest defense (by far) for much of the season. They were ultimately pipped by the Celtics by season’s end.

Klay Thompson was welcomed back to the line-up after missing the previous two seasons with injuries, and he hasn’t really missed a beat – amassing several high scoring games, including 41points in the season finale. No stranger to high pressure basketball, if he is able to maintain this prowess then the Warriors look extremely dangerous. Unfortunately, Thompson’s return aligned with separate injuries to Green and Curry, resulting in some uncharacteristically inconsistent play in the back half of the season.

For the Warriors, some big ‘ifs’ remain. If Curry, Thompson and Green are all present and healthy – Curry remains questionable for game 1 – and can recapture the synchronicity of their devastatingly effective Championship teams there’s no reason to believe that they can’t do it again. They have the role players – Andre Igoudala, Kevon Looney and Andrew Wiggins – and some youngsters who look primed for the big moments – the fearless Jordan Poole and high-flying rookie Jonathan Kuminga – to put away any 7 game series.

Record: 53-29

Prediction: Western Conference Finals

4 Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks, under new coach Jason Kidd, had an uninspiring start to the season. The offense had no rhythm, star guard Luca Doncic had poor conditioning and was struggling with his shot, and there were embarrassing losses piling up. Their transformation into one of the NBA’s toughest nightly match-ups started at the defensive end, and while their ceiling is tied to Doncic, the consistency of their role players has been key.

The trade deadline move of Kristaps Porzingis – a talented but oft-injured 7 footer – to the Wizards for Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans has since allowed the Mavs to play a bit smaller and fill all of their line-ups with speed and versatility. This move has ensured they have ample ball-handling and shooting at all times, while maximizing a killer pick-and-roll playbook.

After exiting (to the Clippers) in the first round of the Playoffs the last two years, the Mavericks will this time be hosting their first round opponent. Doncic suffered a leg injury in the season finale, which is cause for the concern for the organisation, but at full strength they look likely to break a long-running hoodoo.

Record: 52-30

Prediction: Western Conference Semi-Finals

5 Utah Jazz

The Jazz have not had an enjoyable season, but all accounts. Most of the squad that finished #1 in the West last season returned again, but the absence of a few key locker room guys – Joe Ingles (injured for the season, and traded) and Georges Niang (signed with Philadelphia) – could be credited to the unraveling of chemistry. The fractured relationship between crafty guard Donovan Mitchell and defensive anchor Rudy Gobert has been a topic for concern for a while – since the lockdown from COVID – but the Jazz were winning (and big).

The Jazz had a red hot start to the season, maintaining the league’s most potent offense and overwhelming their opponents with their shooting, but have had to endure multiple rough stretches aligned with injuries to Mitchell, Gobert and sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanović. The Jazz, if they are rounding into full health for the postseason, are a very dangerous team. But there’s something about this year’s squad – a disconnect, an inability to hold onto leads, some defensive liabilities in certain matchups – that has created some speculation about whether we may be seeing the end of the Mitchell-Gobert era.

Record: 49-33

Prediction: First Round

6 Denver Nuggets

One could be forgiven for anticipating the the Nuggets missing the Playoffs this season, especially when talented young forward Michael Porter Jr. was ruled out for the season after just 9 games, joining elite scoring guard Jamal Murray on the sidelines.

But Nikola Jokic, the reigning MVP and now the betting favourite to win it again, and a rag-tag supporting cast – including Nuggets veterans Monte Morris and Will Barton, mid-season signing DeMarcus Cousins, and exciting flamethrower Bones Hyland – have remained in the Playoff hunt.

Jokic’s season is, in a word, historic. In the second-to-last game of the season Jokic became just the first player ever to register a season that includes 2000+ points, 1000+ rebounds and +500 assists. Jokic has put up enormous numbers this season, scoring and facilitating with high efficiency. His presence on the court immediately presents an offensive advantage, but the Nuggets have struggled on the defensive end entering the Playoffs (they rank #15 overall) and that’s where they may struggle against the Warriors.

Record: 48-34

Prediction: First Round

7 Minnesota Timberwolves

NBA fans should feel a sense of happiness for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who are trying to make a return to the Playoffs after a single lone appearance in the last 17 years. They’ll have to survive the play-in, where they will host their first match-up.

Centre Karl-Anthony Towns, a supremely gifted shooter and scorer whose family have been devastatingly affected by COVID over the last few years, returned after a pair of injury-riddled seasons to put together his finest season yet. The high-flying Anthony Edwards, who continues to hone his offensive skillset, and smooth facilitator DeAngelo Russell round out a potent offense, while young forwards Jared Vanderbilt and Jaden McDaniels have become two of the league’s hardest-working and most-disruptive defenders from the forward position.

The Timberwolves have an edge this season too, with pesky guard Patrick Beverley never far from some on-court mischief. Boasting the #7 offense, they have been consistent enough – especially after All-Star break – to ice their fantastic season with some postseason experience.

Record: 46-36

Prediction: First Round

8 Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers, with Paul George in the line-up, can’t really be evaluated like a regular #8 seed. Considering NBA Finals MVP (Raptors, 2019) Kawhi Leonard has missed the entire season and George was sidelined for 50 games it is a credit to the organisation to still be above .500.

The Clippers have held one of the most potent defenses all season (#8) and have savvy vets in Marcus Morris, Reggie Jackson, Norman Powell and Robert Covington (the latter pair acquired at the trade deadline), and some promising youngsters (including Terance Mann, who was a Playoff hero last season) that are ready to step into whatever role coach Ty Lue challenges them with.

Have they had enough court time together at full strength to keep these elite teams honest? George does bring them a superstar capable of taking over a game. The Clippers went to the Western Conference Finals last year, ultimately losing to the Phoenix Suns. They may meet again in the first round and that could be an interesting, and slightly sweat-inducing, match-up for the Suns.

Record: 42-40

Prediction: First Round

9 New Orleans Pelicans

Former #1 pick Zion Williamson has the potential to be a game-changer – he showed it last season – but repeated injury setbacks have resulted in him being sidelined for the entirety of this season. The Pelicans, dealing with his absence and a number of new faces, had a horrendous start but under new head coach Willie Green have made some significant strides in the latter half of the season.

Rookie Herb Jones has been a revelation on the defensive end, regularly guarding the opposition’s top scoring threat. Bringing in CJ McCollum from the rebuilding Blazers at the trade deadline gave the Pelicans another reliable scoring threat (he’s averaging over 25 points per game since his arrival) to pair with forward Brandon Ingram (limited to 55 games). The slow start cost the Pelicans – they were never really in the hunt for anything beyond the play-in – but their youngsters should feel accomplished for fighting back, being competitive each night and giving themselves a chance of an unlikely Playoff berth.

Record: 36-46

Prediction: Eliminated in Play-In

10 San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs haven’t been in rebuilding mode since before David Robinson was drafted (the 80s) and it feels like they have been spinning their wheels these last few years. They haven’t been bad, but a little bit stuck in the past. DeMar DeRozan left for Chicago in the offseason, where he has enjoyed a career year, as the Spurs doubled down on developing their younger guards. The characteristics of a Gregg Popovich-coached side remain – low turnover rates and high assist numbers – but without the support of an elite defense (#16).

They end this season in the exact same position as last year, and it’s hard to see them make it through the play-in. There’s more reason for optimism though, as they have found a future star in Dejounte Murray. Complementing his extraordinary play – he is ranked #1 in the league in steals per game, and #4 in assists – we have seen the continued growth of Keldon Johnson and the steady interior play of Jakob Poetl. Credit to the Spurs for not ‘tanking’ and their philosophy of continuing to be the best they can be.

Record: 34-48

Prediction: Eliminiated in Play-In

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