The regular season is in the books, and the play-in tournament is over which means it’s time for the 2022 NBA playoffs. While the first round may have some heavy mismatches featuring some of the higher-seeded teams, there’s still plenty to get excited about with most of these matchups. That includes Kyrie Irving returning to Boston in a playoff atmosphere, Ja Morant vs. Anthony Edwards and James Harden’s playoff debut with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Several of these series have the potential to go the full seven games, while a couple others may be four-game sweeps. With so much action to focus on, we’ve ranked the first-round matchups from the least exciting to most.
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As cool as it was to watch the Pelicans grind it out against the Clippers to secure their spot in the playoffs, I don’t see them being able to put up much of a fight against a Suns team that could be playing into June. It will be exciting to watch Brandon Ingram in the postseason for the first time in his career, and CJ McCollum has a knack for putting up huge numbers in the playoffs, but Phoenix is simply too talented and too deep to make me think that this series is not going very far.
I’ll probably regret putting the Hawks and Heat this low, because watching Trae Young torch the Cavaliers for 38 points en route to a comeback win over Cleveland was filled with all the dramatics and entertainment you want in a playoff series. But Miami is not Cleveland, and the knee injury to Clint Capela puts Atlanta down another crucial starter if he’s unable to play any portion of this series. Young will probably put up wild stats over the course of this series, but he alone won’t be able to overpower a Miami team that has very few weaknesses when matched up against the Hawks. As special as Young can be, I would be surprised if this series went past five games.
This series really had the potential to be exciting, but the calf strain of Luka Doncic has really dampened that. Doncic isn’t expected to play in Game 1, and he may not be ready to go in the second game either, which means the Jazz should have the upper hand here. But don’t write Dallas off just yet. Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie have the potential to win some games for the Mavs, and if guys like Dorian Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock are knocking down their open looks, then Dallas has a slim chance to win without their star point guard.
But if Utah takes care of business, and plays like the top-ranked offense they’ve been throughout the regular season, then it could be another disappointing first-round exit for the Mavericks. There’s also the possibility that Doncic could return at some point in this series, and if he’s 100 percent healthy, then that will certainly change the narrative.
Although the Bucks have the significant advantage in this series, given the’ve beaten the Bulls all four times they’ve met this season, and they just so happen to employ Giannis Antetokounmpo, there’s still some fun stuff to watch for in this series. We’ll get to see the postseason debut of Zach LaVinewho has often played second fiddle to DeMar DeRozan this season. DeRozan deserves all the recognition after turning in a supremely efficient season and being the prime reason why the Bulls are even in the playoffs to begin with. But seeing how LaVine plays when the games start to matter a little bit more will be enticing. He also just so happens to be up for a max contract this summer, so you know he’ll want to ball out now to prove he’s worth every penny Chicago is going to throw at him.
This matchup also has the potential to get a bit chippy, after Bucks guard Grayson Allen played a part in the injury of Alex Caruso earlier in the season. Since that happened, Allen’s received a healthy amount of boos in the two times Milwaukee has played in Chicago. These two arenas also sit a cozy two hours from each other along Lake Michigan, so there’s also some rivalry ties between the two fanbases.
4. (4) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (5) Toronto Raptors
We’ll get to see James Harden and Joel Embiid together for the first time in the playoffs against an underrated Raptors team that features one of the most exciting rookies in his class in Scottie Barnes. Philadelphia has a mountain of expectations after trading for Harden with the expectation of competing for championship this season. Will Philly give Harden the Ben Simmons treatment if he does not live up to expectations? Will Doc Rivers be out of a job if the Raptors surprise the Sixers and send them home packing in the first round?
There’s several storylines to watch for in this series, like the fact that Philadelphia will be without its best defender in Matisse Thybulle for road games because he’s unvaccinated, which does not comply with Canada’s COVID vaccine mandate. On the Raptors side, they have an opportunity to show everyone that they were severely overlooked this season, as Pascal Siakam reasserted himself as an All-NBA-level player. Throw in newly minted All-Star Fred VanVleetthe two-way capabilities of OG Anunoby and this series could be a close one throughout.
Stephen Curry is a go for Game 1 after missing the last 12 games of the regular season with a foot injury. However, he is expected to be on a minutes restriction in the series opener. This could shape up to be a really entertaining matchup as the Warriors will have their big three of Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green back together in the playoffs for the first time since the 2019 Finals.
On the other side of the matchup is the reigning league MVP, who could very well win his second consecutive award this year. Although Nikola Jokic will be without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., he alone is enough to worry about for the Warriors. There is not another player in the league who is as impactful in every area of the game on offense as Jokic. The Nuggets may be outmatched as they’re not at full strength, but that just means we should be in for some really special performances from Jokic who will try to lead his team to an upset against a healthier-than-ever Warriors team.
Do you enjoy gritty young teams that have all the confidence in the world? Two high-flying guards in Morant and Edwards who are human highlight reels? What about loads and loads of trash talking? Well then this series is the one for you. This would be ranked No. 1 if the teams were more evenly matched, but the Grizzlies could take care of the Wolves rather easily. However, we saw just how disruptive Patrick Beverley can be in Minnesota’s win over the Clippers, and he’s surely try to do the same against a young Memphis squad. But the Grizzlies have their own defensive stalwarts in Dillon Brooks and Jaren Jackson Jr., who can change a game and get in the opposing team’s head just as easily. It does not matter if this series only goes four games or the whole seven, each one is going to be must-watch television.
Following a loss to the Celtics in early March, in which Irving heard boos every time he touched the ball from fans inside TD Garden, the All-Star guard compared Boston fans to a “scorned ex-girlfriend asking for an explanation why I left but still wanting a text back.” Safe to say the boos Irving’s going to hear as the Celtics play host to the Nets is going to be like nothing he’s heard before. But that aside, this series is without a doubt the most exciting one. Kevin Durant duking it out with Jayson Tatum and Jalen Brown. Marcus Smart trying to lock up Irving. Oh and then there’s the potential for Ben Simmons to make his long-awaited season debut. Simmons is targeting Game 4 at the earliest to return, which could add a whole new wrinkle to this series.
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