The 2022 NBA playoffs have gotten off to a thrilling start and, going into the Conference Semifinals, it is not a crazy statement to say that every team could realistically be seen hoisting up the Larry O’Brien trophy in June. All of the top four seeds have advanced to the second round and, with the lowest-seeded teams in Dallas and Philadelphia having two of the best players in the league, each of these squads are armed, dangerous, and will be very disappointed should they not make it to the Finals.
This is where the real playoffs start and teams will either rise to the occasion or leave a lot earlier than expected. With loads of even matchups in the next round, I was going to start this article off with a very bold prediction, that every series going forward would go at least six games. However, with the recent news about Joel Embiid, I had to call a last-minute audible. Still, one team will stand above the rest in June and here’s who it will be.
(1) Miami Heat vs (4) Philadelphia 76ers
This originally was one of the trickier series to predict considering the current state of the Miami Heat’s complicated health situations. When healthy, however, this is the deepest team in the Eastern Conference with personnel that matches up fairly well to Philadelphia defensively from the guard position. In particular, with the addition of Victor Oladipo, a former First Team All-Defensive player, the Heat now have players that can realistically contain both Tyrese Maxey and James Harden.
In the end, however, Joel Embiid’s orbital fracture, which keeps him out indefinitely, is devastating for the 76ers as the main advantage that they had over the Heat was their size in the paint. That along with the Heat being more effective in clutch-time situations, even when Embiid was healthy throughout the regular season, will be the two differences in this series. James Harden had a great Game 6 but he’s definitely past his prime and Embiid’s injury makes this series a lot less competitive than it should’ve been. Heat in 5.
(2) Boston Celtics vs (3) Milwaukee Bucks
Since their last Finals appearance, the Boston Celtics have made the Eastern Conference Finals four times and were a win away from the NBA Finals in 2018 against the Lebron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers. Aside from the 2012 team that almost eliminated the 2012 NBA champion Miami Heat, right now, this is the best team the Celtics have had in this decade. This team is realistically set to compete for a title right now and, if they win this series, they should at least be favored to come out of the East.
There are a lot of concerns for Milwaukee heading into this series, and the recent news on Khris Middleton could be devastating, as he is one of the go-to options for the Bucks in late-game situations. While the Celtics were 13-22 in clutch-time situations during the regular season, they flipped that trend on its head in their sweep against the talented Brooklyn Nets. Still, despite Middleton’s absence and how that affects the Bucks from both an offensive and defensive standpoint, somehow, someway, the best player in the world should be able to carry the Bucks past the hottest team in the NBA. Bucks in 7.
(1) Miami Heat vs (3) Milwaukee Bucks
This is one of the more underrated playoff rivalries in recent memory, as it will be the third straight meeting between the Heat and the Bucks in the postseason. The previous two series have been lopsided with the Heat advancing in a 4-1 series victory over the Bucks in 2020 and the defending champs getting revenge the next year in a sweep. Still, Miami has historically been one of the more effective teams containing Giannis Antetokounmpo in the postseason, despite their lack of size compared to the Milwaukee Bucks.
The supporting cast for the Bucks, especially the likes of Brook Lopez, who can make Bam Adebayo guard him instead of Giannis, will be essential in this series. Should they step up like they did last year, the Bucks should be able to use their superior high-end talent to have the edge over one of the most underrated one-seeds in recent memory. While the Jimmy Butler-led Heat will certainly go out on their shields this year, a presumably fully healthy Bucks team is just a little too big and talented in this matchup. Bucks in 7.
(1) Phoenix Suns vs (4) Dallas Mavericks
While this was certainly an expected matchup going into the playoffs with both these teams, there were moments of doubt. The injuries to the Suns and Mavericks’ best players and MVP candidates, showed why the two franchises could realistically be holding the Larry O’Brien trophy in June, especially with the emergence of Jalen Brunson for the Dallas Mavericks this postseason alongside their franchise centerpiece Luka Doncic.
While adjustments are always expected to be made in a new series, this is a very difficult matchup for the Mavericks, especially considering what they were able to take advantage of against Utah. Dallas’ perimeter length, which significantly affected diminutive guards like Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley Jr., will be less of an issue for the likes of Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges. In addition, even if that length affects 6’0 tall Chris Paul, the Suns have a distinct advantage inside with Deandre Ayton whose mobility will be less of an issue on the perimeter compared to Rudy Gobert. Suns in 6.
(2) Memphis Grizzlies (3) Golden State Warriors
While they have looked shaky on this run so far, the Memphis Grizzlies have shown a lot of heart this postseason and their personnel poses a tricky matchup for a team that looks like the favorite for the title so far. The Grizzlies are one of the best rebounding teams in the NBA and continued that trend Friday night, outrebounding the Timberwolves by 19 along with 11 more offensive rebounds overall. This occurred despite coach Taylor Jenkins going small for most of the series, keeping starter center Steven Adams on the bench.
This matchup with the Warriors shouldn’t be much different as the Grizzlies will look to give the bulk of the starting center minutes to both Jaren Jackson and the ever-improving Brandon Clarke. While Clarke and Desmond Bane were terrific in the last series, Ja Morant was very underwhelming from a scoring efficiency standpoint, despite doing a great job getting his teammates involved. He will have to be much better to give the Grizzlies a chance in this series and, even if he is spectacular, it probably won’t be enough against a franchise that’s starting to look like the dynasty it once was. Warriors in 6.
(1) Phoenix Suns vs (3) Golden State Warriors
It’s great to see the Suns getting the respect they deserve this year. While the team faced a lot of depleted Western Conference rosters last year in their run to the Finals, they have been the best team in the NBA from about start to finish this regular season. The first round against the Pelicans was an unexpected struggle, but, assuming they stay healthy, this is the last team that anyone will want to see in the last five minutes of a close game.
The Warriors will look to go small with their new death lineup for most of the series even though Deandre Ayton is a reasonably mobile center. Ayton will have to dominate the boards and be a constant threat in the post to somewhat offset the defensive liability he most likely will be in this series. This will not be his fault, this new Warriors lineup is ridiculous and is a problem for every center in the league, especially with the defensive form Draymond Green has been in recently alongside the rise of Jordan Poole. In the end, Steph should get the best of Chris Paul once again in the postseason. Warriors in 6.
(3) Golden State Warriors vs (3) Milwaukee Bucks
I think it’s fair to say that in this potential matchup, the Warriors are the more talented team with the higher upside overall. In addition, if we’re going through the best players of this series, while Milwaukee has the reigning Finals MVP, after him, the next three best players could go to Golden State, even with both teams completely healthy. Those next three players do not even include one of the greatest defenders of this generation alongside a player who was a starter in the 2022 All-Star Game.
Still, while the best team usually wins the NBA championship, and I’m not sure if the Milwaukee Bucks are the definitive best team this year, matchups do matter. In this case, the Milwaukee Bucks are exactly the kind of team to give the Warriors trouble with their physical style of play alongside their long underrated quickness on the defensive side. Even against the new death lineup, at worst, the Bucks can put the 6’11 Giannis Antetokounmpo at center and still be quick enough to bother the Warriors with their size and length as they did Phoenix in last year’s Finals.
The 2022 Playoffs therefore will not only mark the emergence of the Warriors onto a stage that their core is very familiar with but also will be the coronation of a player who will inevitably go down as an all-time great. Bucks in 6.