The 2022 NBA playoffs are upon us, and the race to the Finals is wide open. Which teams and players are facing the most pressure? Which first-round series has the most upset potential? Our writers weigh in.
Which team is facing the most pressure in the playoffs?
Howard Beck: Can I say the Lakers? No? OK, that’s it. Then it’s the Jazz. This is Year 5 of the Donovan Mitchell – Rudy Gobert era, and they have yet to break through as a serious contender. We live in impatient times. Five years is an eternity for an NBA franchise. Utah has a new owner (Ryan Smith) and a new head of basketball ops (Danny Ainge, who has a rep for audacious dealmaking). Add in the rumors of a potential Quin Snyder departure, and you have the recipe for a fireworks show if the Jazz falter again.
Robin Lundberg: Nets. They are probably facing the most pressure given their star power, the drama that has surrounded them and the expectations they once had. Though the team has a window beyond this season when looking at things rationally, everyone knows the jokes will fly if they are eliminated in the first round, context be damned.
Chris Mannix: Sixers. Wrote about this today. The Sixers need to win at least one series, maybe more, to justify the quarter of a billion-dollar contract James Harden is going to be looking for this offseason. The prime years of Joel Embiid’s future are at stake.
Rohan Nadkarni: Jazz. The Donovan Mitchell – Rudy Gobert partnership has been teetering for a while now. At this point, it’s almost as if nobody even expects the Jazz to make any sort of a run. Still, if there’s any chance to salvage this iteration of the Jazz, it has to happen this postseason. With Luka Dončić hurt, Utah may be in position to steal its first-round series against the Mavs. If the Jazz instead have another short stay in the playoffs, big changes are likely on the horizon.
Michael Pina: Suns. Championship windows close fast, and the next couple of months may very well be Phoenix’s best chance to win it all. Chris Paul turns 37 in three weeks and, as a restricted free agent this summer, Deandre Ayton’s future is unsettled (his max contract would put Phoenix well into the tax, with Cam Johnson due for a huge raise the following summer. Related: Robert Sarver is still, for now, the team’s owner). It’s championship or bust, with the Nuggets and Clippers both poised to become juggernauts next year. Come up short for the second postseason in a row, and there probably won’t be a third swing.
Which player is facing the most pressure in the playoffs?
Nadkarni: James Harden. Harden muscled his way out of his second team in as many seasons and is now in his umpteenth superstar pairing. He has to find a way to make it work in a way he never did with Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant or Dwight Howard. Harden’s postseason history is checkered at best, and this was going to be a prove-it playoffs for him either way. Now he has the added task of making sure the Sixers didn’t waste their biggest chip to cash in building around Joel Embiid, who has been a top-three player in the league this season.
Pina: It has to be James Harden, who’s playing with a need to course-correct his questionable postseason legacy and reassert himself as one of the league’s most potent offensive threats. Not only that, the man has serious money on the line. Maybe the Sixers give him a max contract extension no matter what happens, but doing so might qualify as malpractice if he / they flame out in the first round.
Beck: James Harden, by far. No other NBA star has forced two trades in the last 15 months, or forced his way off a superteam in that time. Harden chose Joel Embiid over Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. It’s his job of him to make it work. Sixers president Daryl Morey chose Harden (again), believing Harden could get Embiid a championship. Anything short of the Finals is a massive disappointment. Oh, and have we mentioned Harden’s long history of playoff flameouts?
Mannix: James Harden. Sensing a theme here? Harden has been a mixed bag in Philadelphia, excelling as a playmaker but struggling to regain his scoring touch. Embiid is going to put up numbers against the Raptors. It’s going to be on Harden to carry the team when Embiid is off the floor.
Lundberg: James Harden. He forced his way to Philly and does not look like the same player he once was. If Harden comes up small, not only will it further his reputation of not coming through in the clutch, but it will make his last two exits from teams look even worse.
Which first-round series are you most excited to watch?
Mannix: Celtics-Nets. Easily the most compelling series of the first round. Kevin Durant against Jayson Tatum. Kyrie Irving against the Celtics’ defensive-minded backcourt of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Derrick White. The potential returns of Ben Simmons and Robert Williams III. This series has a little bit of everything.
Beck: Sixers-Raptors should be a blast, and a study in contrasts: The Sixers are powered by an MVP candidate (Embiid) and a former MVP (Harden) and have the highest of expectations. The Raptors counter with a weird and wonderful array of long, versatile dudes who can all handle, pass, score and defend. Between Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes and Pascal Siakam, Harden will have a lot of limbs to navigate. For an added twist, the Sixers’ best perimeter defender, Matisse Thybulle, is ineligible to play Games 3, 4 and 6 in Toronto, because he’s unvaccinated. The drama in this series will be intense.
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Lundberg: Celtics-Nets is the pick here. It feels much more like an Eastern Conference finals than it does a first-round series. It should be a great matchup basketball-wise, and there is the Kyrie vs. Celtics subplot and the possibility of Ben Simmons returning. I’m also intrigued by the Steph Curry – Nikola Jokić showdown (not head to head per se, of course) out West.
Pina: Memphis and Minnesota are two young, ascending, confident (and arrogant) small-market darlings with superstar talent and swarming, nasty defensive identities. Both are excellently coached, with shrewd front offices and extremely bright futures. The Grizzlies will be favored, but this feels like the first of what may be many entertaining staredowns.
Nadkarni: Boston is by most measures the best team in the East. And yet they won’t have the best player in this series. Meanwhile, whichever team loses will have its whole season rendered a massive disappointment. The combination of stakes and talent in this matchup is rare for a first-round series.
Which first-round series has the most upset potential?
Pina: The answer here has to be Nets-Celtics, and it would indeed be an upset if Brooklyn won, despite its having Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on their roster, probable to contribute at least 80 combined minutes in every game. Boston should be favored and will likely win, but after looking around at the bracket, it’s hard to see any other clear favorites (there aren’t too many of them) falling.
Nadkarni: Nets-Celtics. As great as Boston has been, are you really comfortable picking against Durant in the first round? And with Rob Williams out, the Celtics’ defense is missing a key component. It’s a little unfair to call this one a true upset considering Brooklyn’s pedigree. At the same time, with the way Boston was running roughshod through the league for most of this calendar year, a first-round exit seems nonsensical. As you can tell, I’m really excited for this one.
Mannix: Easy answer is Nets-Celtics, but I’m going Mavs-Jazz. The Luka Dončić injury is a potential disaster for Dallas. He’s already out for Game 1, and it could be longer. The Jazz have been a mess this season, but the Luka-less Mavs could be just what this team needs to get on track.
Beck: The tempting choice is Raptors over Sixers — but if you pick a 4–5 matchup, you’re cheating. That’s barely an upset. I’m not sure Nets over Celtics would be a massive upset, either, since the Nets should never have been a seventh seed in the first place. But that’s the one to keep an eye on. The Celtics are far superior defensively and more balanced offensively, and their core has been together longer. They should take the series. But a couple of hot nights from KD and Kyrie could tip the balance.
Lundberg: Raptors-Sixers. The Raptors’ length, effort and coaching are enough to give the Sixers trouble. Philly’s depth and late-game shotmaking could be a concern, and if the series is tight, the pressure will tighten.
Make one bold prediction for the first round.
Mannix: Ben Simmons will return and, in 15-minute spurts, give Jayson Tatum fits late in the Nets-Celtics series. It’s too much to expect Simmons to make any meaningful contributions to Brooklyn offensively. But deployed as a defensive weapon on Tatum, Simmons could make an impact.
Lundberg: Doc Rivers will not be the coach of the Sixers next year based on how these playoffs will go for Philadelphia.
Pina: If the Hawks and Clippers both advance to the playoffs, one of them will upset their top-seeded first-round opponent, be it the Suns or Heat. Neither team is a typical eight seed and shouldn’t be viewed as such. The Hawks have the No. 1 (as in, they are literally the best) half-court offense in the league, while the Clippers are a deeper, more functional team than the one that pushed Phoenix in last year’s Western Conference finals.
Nadkarni: Jimmy Butler will shoot more than 33% from three. Ever since that tweet about Jimmy’s three-point shooting went viral, he’s been a little frisky from long range. I think he’s about to get hot at the right time for the, uh, Heat. Even though Butler was largely, let’s say, ineffective from deep this season, he shot more than 40% from three his last five games. Is that a small sample size? Yes. Is that what a playoff series is? Yes. Do I like making bold predictions? No.
Beck: The Lakers will generate more headlines in the first round than the Bulls-Bucks series.
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