NBA playoffs: Our insiders answer the biggest first-round questions
The NBA playoffs are underway with four games on Saturday and Sunday.
In East, all eyes will be on Boston Celtics series as Kevin Durant _ and Kyrie Irvine are looking to upset the No. The 2 seed Celtics are without their injured center Robert WilliamsIII in a series that should be competitive.
Out West injuries could determine which teams advance. Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic will miss Saturday’s Game 1 against the Utah Jazz because of a strained left calf, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Tim MacMahon. And Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry is listed as probable for Game 1 against the Denver Nuggets after missing the last 12 games of the regular season with a left foot injury. Which returning players could have the greatest impact? Which higher seed cannot afford to lose Game 1? Our NBA experts break down the top storylines for the first round.
1. Which series is the most competitive in the first round?
Kevin Pelton: Boston and Brooklyn. As I laid out in my series preview, the Nets have been much better than their overall record with Kevin Durant healthy and Kyrie Irving available alongside him, while the Celtics aren’t the same juggernaut without injured center Robert Williams III. These teams are surprising even for the No. These teams look amazing even for the No. 7 seeds.
Tim Bontemps: Many will probably say Nets-Celtics, given the star power involved, but I’m going to go with another Eastern Conference series: Philadelphia-Toronto. The 76ers have the best player in the series by a significant amount in Joel Embiid. But Toronto should have a coaching advantage, Philadelphia won’t have Matisse Thybulle for all three games in Toronto, and the Raptors have the perfect assortment of long, athletic players to both take advantage of Philadelphia’s lack of athleticism and make James Harden‘s life extremely difficult. Embiid should be enough to power Philadelphia through and win this series. This should be a difficult test, and Philly could easily win seven games.
Kevin Arnovitz: Dallas-Utah. Both matchups in 4-5 have strong potential for seven games, but the Mavericks or Jazz should be very competitive. Although it’s been quite some time since Utah had a sustained run of dominant basketball, the Jazz are still the league’s top-ranked offense. Meanwhile, Dallas has been one of the best stories of 2022. When Luka is healthy, Luka is Luka. Spencer Dinwiddie has added some juice the team desperately needed from the perimeter, and the defense — traditionally a weakness — has been strong all season. Both teams have been disappointing in postseasons, and one will be again after this series.
Ramona Shelburne: Even without Luka Doncic missing Game 1, I thought the Mavericks-Jazz series was going to be a tight one. Although I know that many people are negative about the Jazz due to their past playoff failures I believe they can pull it off one of these years, if they get a few breaks.
Jamal Collier: Boston-Brooklyn. I don’t believe a team with Durant or Irving will go out quietly. This feels like a seven game series with the possibility of several games going down to the wire. These are two dangerous players to try and outdo in clutch performances. Ultimately, it’s hard for me to see the Nets playing or defending at a high enough level for four out of seven games to pull this series off, but it’s going to be fun to watch.
2. Which injured player’s return could make the biggest difference in the first round?
Pelton: Doncic coming back from a calf strain. Curry’s timetable is more clear than Stephen Curry’s, although Curry is still a valuable player for his team. After Adrian Wojnarowski, an ESPN colleague reported Doncic will miss at least the first game of the Mavericks series against the Jazz, we don’t know if Doncic will be able to return to the court for Game 2. The outcome of the series will depend on how quickly Doncic recovers.
Bontemps: I thought Dallas was the biggest threat to Phoenix in the Western Conference before Doncic hurt his calf in the Mavericks’ regular-season finale. Utah is now the favourite to advance. We don’t know how Doncic will be able or how effective. The young star could be out of the running for a deep postseason run.
Arnovitz: Doncic is the engine, fuel and torque of the Mavericks’ offense, and his condition is more important to his team than any single player in the West. Dinwiddie and Jalen Brunson can run a quality pick-and-roll attack, but neither has the creativity to turn every guy on the floor into a threat. Dallas’ defense has been very efficient, which is good news considering Doncic’s shortcomings on that side of the floor.
Collier: Doncic. I don’t believe there is a team in the NBA where Doncic’s success is tied as strongly to any other player than the Mavericks. If he doesn’t play or isn’t 100 percent I don’t think Dallas can advance in this series.
Shelburne: The Warriors can win a few games without Curry, but they really aren’t the Warriors without Curry, are they? It’ll take him a few games to get it rolling, but once he does, he completely changes the dynamics of that team.
3. Which player do you think will be the breakout star of the playoffs?
Pelton: Bruce Brown, who has been playing at a high level for the past two months. Brown averaged 14.7 PPG, 5.9 RPG and 3.7 APG after the All-Star break, finding an ideal role supporting Durant and Irving on offense while serving as the Nets’ top perimeter defender. Brown has had triple-doubles in Brooklyn’s past two games. The Nets need him to play at that level in order to make it deep into the playoffs.
Bontemps: Jaren Jackson Jr. Obviously when everyone thinks of the Memphis Grizzlies, the first person they think of is Ja Morant — and deservedly so. Jackson has made a huge leap defensively this season, landing himself in All-Defense as well as Defensive Player Of The Year discussions. Jackson will get the chance to show the world why he (Morant) and the Memphis Grizzlies are such a thrilling two-two punch in Memphis.
Arnovitz: For two seasons, Memphis Grizzlies guard Desmond Bane has established himself as a steal at No. 30 in the 2020 draft with his 43.5% career 3-point percentage. Bane has a floor game that is improving and can impact the game on both sides. Minnesota has surrendered a lot of 3-point attempts. Bane will be paying a lot of attention to Morant. This gives Bane the chance to be a deadly second-side threat to the Grizzlies.
Shelburne: Does Morant count? Because I believe he will exceed everyone’s expectations for him and his team, the Grizzlies. A few months back, a trusted executive told me that Memphis could be one of the best teams in the league. I find myself agreeing with him more and more as I think about it.
Collier: Anthony Edwards. His first national exposure will be a huge benefit to him, both on and off court. Even if his team can’t pull off the upset, Edwards will be the player everyone is talking about after this series.
4. Which higher seed can afford to lose Game 1 the most?
Pelton: Philadelphia. The Sixers find themselves in an unusual position because Thybulle’s immunization status means that they will be shorthanded for road games in Toronto. Philly would have to lose Game 1 in order to win at least one game on the road, which would put more pressure on its other defensive options on their wing.
Bontemps: Philadelphia, both because Thybulle won’t be available in road games and to set a good tone for this series by getting off to a good start. This could also be true for Dallas, where Doncic’s health is uncertain and the Golden State Warriors’ injury situation.
Arnovitz: The Philadelphia 76ers. Anyone who has spent any time at Scotiabank Arena in springtime knows that the Raptors, and their home crowd, offer no hospitality to visitors. Without Thybulle, the Sixers will face more challenges in road games in Toronto. On top of that, the Sixers lost some of their depth at the deadline, while the Raptors’ OG Anunoby, one of their best two-way threats, just returned.
Shelburne: Philadelphia was always gonna have a tough matchup with Toronto due to the Raptors’ length and depth. The Sixers will now have to play in Toronto without Thybulle, making it more important to keep serve at home.
Collier: Philly. Overreactions in Game 1 are a great part of the playoffs. I don’t think anyone will be able to take it in stride if they lay an egg at their home to begin the series. Especially considering they’ll be playing short-handed in Toronto.
5. What is your bold prediction for Round 1?
Pelton: Having scored 50 points in Game 3 of last year’s first-round matchup against Brooklyn, Jayson Tatum will break the Celtics’ playoff single-game franchise record held by John Havlicek by scoring at least 55 against the Nets.
Bontemps: I’ll say it’s that the Atlanta Hawks get two games off the Miami Heat in the first round, and that series is more competitive than the usual 1-8 bloodbath (which is what the Western Conference version will be). Atlanta has had a strange season, but it’s a very talented team with playoff experience from last year’s run and a player in Trae Young who has proved he can win a playoff game by himself.
Arnovitz: Denver takes Golden State to seven games. Curry is the king of the Warriors’ fortunes. They’re much easier to defend if Curry is limited in mobility or minutes. The Nuggets have the best offensive player in the series and can create high-percentage looks on the half court. This means that the Warriors’ renowned D will need to play to its full potential. It’s going to be a nip-and-tuck affair.
Shelburne: How bold is it to suggest the second-seeded team in the East wins its first-round playoff matchup? Because I believe Boston will beat the star-crossed Nets. I know Irving and Durant are great, but they are being asked to do a lot and that can wear you down. This is especially true against a strong defensive team like Boston.
Collier: Ben Simmons will make his season debut. I feel like there will eventually be fire because there is still smoke about a possible return. It would be a bizarre, but fitting chapter in this never-ending story: Simmons returns to court during the playoffs for Brooklyn’s home game. Simmons played in his last game one year ago.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.