Heat vs. Hawks
Between the Hawks and Cavaliers, I expect the Hawks to come out on top and earn the eight seed due to some impressive weapons on offense. But in round one, I think they’ll struggle against one of the league’s top defenses in Miami, which allowed just 105.6 points per game this season. Featuring an offense of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Kyle Lowry, the Heat should take this series pretty comfortably, but I can see Young and the Hawks getting loose for a game at home and pushing the series to five.
Pick: Heat in five
Celtics vs. Nets
I already know Celtics fans are gonna get mad about this one, so I’m certainly bracing myself for what could be a disaster pick. But I have Brooklyn winning this one in a tight series. Look, I know the Celtics have been tremendous during the second half of the season, but Kevin Durant in the playoffs is a different breed. Plus, now Kyrie Irving can play games at home, I can’t see them losing four out of seven games to Boston. All the respect in the world to Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and company for sporting a top defense all year, but I can’t bet against Durant.
Pick: Nets in seven
Bucks vs. Bulls
How the mighty have fallen. The Chicago Bulls stormed out of the gates to start the season, with DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine leading a new-look team that was strong on both sides of the court and could win close games. But since the All-Star break, Chicago has gone 8-15, losing to several top teams during that stretch. On the flip side, the Bucks sport Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is my pick for 2022 MVP and should flat-out dominate a weak Chicago defense. On top of that, I don’t trust the Bulls offense in the playoffs, as we have yet to see LaVine or DeRozan truly excel on the big stage in their careers.
Pick: Bucks in four
76ers vs. Raptors
Yeah yeah yeah, I’m ready for the heat on this biased take, but I have the Raptors in this one. Now before you go on spewing that this is a homer pick, let me give you my reasoning. Toronto has been red-hot over the last two months of the season and I love their defense in a playoff environment. While Philadelphia definitely has the two best players in the series with Joel Embiid and James Harden, the latter has yet to perform up to standards in the playoffs and the former has had his fair share of struggles against the Raptors in the past. I expect Pascal Siakam to shake off his playoff woes from 2020 and lead the way for Toronto into the second round.
Pick: Raptors in six
Suns vs. Clippers
Man, the Suns are good. Led by Devin Booker and Chris Paul along with a top-10 defense, the Suns have simply dominated from start to finish this season. They fell just short last season, but the Suns are back and better and should have no problem dealing with the Clippers, who I expect to snag the eight seed. Assuming Kawhi Leonard doesn’t make a surprise return from injury in time for this series, the Clippers will be relying a lot on Paul George, who will be guarded by Mikal Bridges and will certainly have his work cut out for him. I simply don’t see a way the Suns lose in this series.
Pick: Suns in four
Grizzlies vs. Timberwolves
A lot of this rides on if Ja Morant is back at 100% health for Memphis, as he had been out since March 20th and only played 26 minutes in his return on April 9. If the Murray State product is at full strength, the Grizzlies should have no problem against a Timberwolves team that simply lacks the playoff experience to take on an elite team in a seven-game series. The Grizzlies did go 20-5 without Morant this past season, but if he does miss or is even limited during the series, the door opens for an extended series or even a potential upset with how dangerous the Timberwolves can be.
Pick: Grizzlies in five
Warriors vs. Nuggets
Much like Memphis, Golden State could also be missing their star point guard in the first round. Stephen Curry hasn’t played since March 16, and the fact he hasn’t even returned to practice should be a greater cause for concern than most people realize. The Nuggets aren’t just some pushover team either. Led by MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, Denver flourishes in transition offense. The Warriors’ strength remains with their defense, which allowed a third-best 105.6 points per game, but if Curry isn’t able to play to start the series it may be too much to overcome.
Pick: Nuggets in seven
Mavericks vs. Jazz
This could have been one of the more interesting opening round matchups in the West, but with Luka Doncic out without a timetable for a return, the Jazz could sneak into the second round. Utah, led by Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, are stout defensively while relying on Mitchell to create a majority of their offense. Dallas runs their offense similarly, with Doncic doing much of the creation, hence why his ability to play will impact this series so much. I don’t expect Doncic to play initially, but after losing the first two at home I could see him returning on a limited basis later in the series. Still, a less-than-100% Luka may not be enough for the Mavs.
Pick: Jazz in six