For the first time in three years the NBA Playoffs are back to something that almost feels like normal. Spring is here, and there are meaningful games about to be played in front of actual crowds: no more bubbles, no more socially-distanced arenas, no more Finals games in mid-July. Over the next few months (yes, they’re really that long) I’ll be writing regularly about the playoffs for Slate, taking hot takes, constructing and deconstructing narratives and meta-narratives, and maybe even talking about the actual games once in a while. Things officially get underway this Saturday, and at the time of this writing the identity of the two eighth seeds in each conference is still unknown, as we await the result of the final play-in games this evening (the Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference, the Los Angeles Clippers vs. New Orleans Pelicans in the Western). But for now let’s get our bearings, before heading in to what promises to be a delirious opening weekend:
The two most intriguing first-round series might be each conference’s 2–7 tilt, which pit the second-seeded Boston Celtics against the Brooklyn Nets in the East and the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies against the Minnesota Timberwolves out West. (“Out West” probably belongs in quotation marks there, unless you’re joining us from the 1820s.) Since the calendar turned to 2022, the slow-starting Celtics have been a juggernaut, going 31–10 in the season’s back half and snagging a second-place finish in a brutally competitive Eastern Conference. As a reward they get the Nets, preseason title favorites featuring two of the league’s biggest stars in Kyrie Irving and the splendiferous Kevin Durant. The Nets slouched into the play-in bracket for reasons you’ve probably heard about, but they’re still capable of looking like the most dangerous basketball team on the face of the Earth in glimpses. The question is if they can maintain that for a full series, let alone the whole playoffs.
Memphis vs. Minnesota has the inside track as the most purely entertaining series of the opening round, two brash and exuberant upstarts with no shortage of championship-caliber shit-talkers between them. The Wolves are in the playoffs for only the second time in the past 18 years, led by center Karl-Anthony Towns and absurdly talented and charismatic second-year shooting guard Anthony Edwards. The Grizz, whom I wrote about in Slate back in January, are the league’s second-youngest team that was also its second-best one during the regular season. Memphis boasts ridiculous depth and are led by the electrifying third-year point guard Ja Morant, who has a strong chance to be the breakout star of the whole playoffs. Minnesota is a young and thrilling team who are legitimately really good; unfortunately for them, they’re going up against a team that’s even younger, even more thrilling, and even better.
The juiciest “storyline” series of the first round (i.e., the one we might all be the most sick of reading about a few weeks from now) is probably the Philadelphia 76ers vs. Toronto Raptors 4–5 matchup in the East. Toronto is basically playing with house money, just one season removed from a lost campaign spent in Tampa due to COVID border restrictions. After gently tanking in 2020-2021, the Raptors took Florida State wing Scottie Barnes with the fourth overall pick in last year’s draft, a choice derided as a reach at the time that now looks like a franchise-altering stroke of genius. Barnes may win Rookie of the Year and is a key reason that Toronto’s “rebuild” appears to have taken all of one year. The Raptors are a talented and energetic team who play hard and smart for a coaching staff with recent championship experience. No team in their right mind should want a piece of them in this playoffs.
Which brings us to their opponent, the Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers made one of the splashiest in-season trades in NBA history back in February, acquiring former MVP James Harden from Brooklyn in exchange for Bartlebyesque star Ben Simmons and other pieces. The Harden trade was touted as the final piece in the Process puzzle around longtime Philly center Joel Embiid, a magnificent basketball player who turned in an MVP-level season this year. Thus far the Harden-Embiid pairing has produced mixed results, and between them the two stars are trying to shake years of collective playoff disappointment. Embiid has never made it past the second round, and another early exit will likely mean the end of Sixers’ coach Doc Rivers’ tenure in Philadelphia. Harden is arguably the most gifted offensive player of his generation but has not played in a Finals since his stint with Oklahoma City a decade ago, and he has now poutingly forced a trade in consecutive seasons.* If the Sixers lose to the Raptors the schadenfreude directed at him will be at levels usually reserved only for people in Lakers jerseys.
Speaking of, any discussion of this year’s playoffs should include an acknowledgement of who’s rather glaringly not there: LeBron James, the greatest player of the 21st century who nearly just won a scoring title at age 37. LeBron missed the playoffs for only the fourth time in his 19-year career, while his chosen team continued to conduct itself as one of the most dysfunctional and backbiting franchises in sports. You can be sure the Lakers will still find ways to take up oxygen between now and June; it just won’t be on the basketball court, where in 2022 they were an even worse show than Winning Time.
No one really expects either of the 1–8 series to have much drama, although who knows; if the Hawks win tonight and face the roiling Heat in the first round, last year’s surprise Eastern Conference Finalists could make Miami sweat a bit. In the West, the 3–6 series that pits the Golden State Warriors against the Denver Nuggets could get feisty, as the graying but still potent Warrior dynasty tries to neutralize Denver’s transcendent center, Nikola Jokic, the reigning MVP who was great enough this season to have a good chance at repeating. The West’s 4–5 pairing features two teams headed in opposite directions, as the surging Dallas Mavericks take on the slow-imploding Utah Jazz. Dallas’ Slovenian wunderkind Luka Doncic has already put up a handful of legendary playoff performances in his first four years in the league but has yet to make it out of the first round; unless the Jazz experience some sort of spiritual rebirth in the next couple weeks, that seems likely to change this year.
All this leaves us with last year’s finalists, the Phoenix Suns and the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks. Prevailing NBA wisdom holds that this postseason is one of the most wide-open in years, but to believe that requires ignoring some compelling evidence that the Suns are one of the most dominant teams in recent history. The Suns racked up 64 wins and finished a whopping 8 games ahead of the second-place Grizzlies, the largest such gap since the 2014-2015 Warriors, who went 16-5 in the postseason and won the title handily. It’s possible that the Suns will simply maraud through this year’s playoffs, finally winning a title for point god Chris Paul.
The defending champion Bucks, meanwhile, play the Chicago Bulls in the first round, a scrappy overachiever in the regular season who have about as much chance against Milwaukee as a vintage 1998 NBA Champions t-shirt does against a Wisconsin winter. (The Bucks have an astonishing 14-1 record against the Bulls over the past four seasons.) The Bucks’ regular season was somewhat ho-hum by the standards of a defending champ, but no one should expect them to be any easier of an out than they were last year. A repeat title for the Bucks would move their superstar forward, Giannis Antetokounmpo, into truly rarefied historical air. Giannis may well win his third MVP award this season and is likely the best basketball player currently walking the earth. He is also only 27 years old. A second straight title, with the potential of more to follow, would likely put an abrupt end to discussions about the best player of the post-LeBron generation.
All in all, everything is lined up for this to be the most entertaining playoffs we’ve seen in years. Maybe the Suns lay waste to the field; maybe Giannis ascends to immortality; maybe the Nets finally do put it all together; maybe an insurgent like the Grizzlies or Celtics gets hot and shocks the world. I’ll be back next week, and in the meantime, let’s rock.
Correction, April 15, 2022: This article originally misstated that James Harden had yet to play in an NBA Finals.