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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Top 10 Storylines of the 2022 NBA Playoffs

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Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBATwitter LogoNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 16, 2022

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    For all of the compelling storylines during the 2021-22 NBA season, history may remember them as the introduction to the real legacy-defining plot points: what happens during the postseason.

    From championship dreams realized to teams torn apart by playoff failures, the second season could be rich with critical, landscape-shifting developments.

    We may not know yet how these things will transpire, but we can share—and rank based on leaguewide significance—the top 10 stories we’re tracking during the 2022 postseason.

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    Adam Pantozzi/Getty Images

    Normally, a club that just posted a .598 winning percentage and the Association’s third-highest net rating wouldn’t need a fuel check, but there are reasons to wonder if the Utah Jazz are running on fumes.

    This core has been together for a while now and has yet to get over the second-round hump. Tack on the constant speculation about the people involved—be it the constant dissections of the Donovan Mitchell-Rudy Gobert relationship, the threat of the Knicks luring Mitchell back home to New York or coach Quin Snyder being mentioned for other gigs—and it’s possible this postseason is a make-or-break one.

    If this team underperforms and the front office pulls the plug, a full-scale demolition could be felt across the basketball landscape.

    Mitchell and Gobert are All-Star regulars on the right side of 30. The amount of interest in them—and the impact of their addition elsewhere—would be immense. Snyder is among the NBA’s top skippers. Any team with an opening would give him a long look. The supporting cast is loaded with plug-and-play vets who could instantly strengthen this summer’s win-now shoppers.

    If you like watching this team play together, carve out some couch time and soak it in while you still can. If it can’t solve the toughest postseason puzzles this time around, it may not get another crack at them.   

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    Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

    With all due respect to the league-leading Phoenix Suns (more on them later), this championship race feels wide-open.

    Know how that could change, though? If you cobbled together all of the players on the injury report, that group would become basketball’s next Goliath.

    The headliners are two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry (left foot sprain), two-time Defensive Player of the Year and two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard (ACL) and three-time All-Star Luka Doncic (left calf strain).

    Leading the supporting cast is three-time All-Star Ben Simmons, who could make his season debut in the playoffs after sitting for more than a year with back soreness and because of mental health concerns. Boston Celtics center Robert Williams III, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, is fighting his way back from a torn left meniscus. The Denver Nuggets, of course, remain without the potent offensive tandem of Jamal Murray (knee) and Michael Porter Jr. (back).

    When, or in some cases if, these players return and get themselves up to speed could go a long way toward crowning the next champion.   

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    Sarah Stier/Getty Images

    The Brooklyn Nets’ campaign felt less like a seamless story than it did a series of disjointed plot points that ultimately painted an incomplete picture of what this club is—and what it can be.

    Just four players cleared the 60-game mark, and that group included sporadically used rookie Cam Thomas and the since-waived James Johnson. It did not feature Kevin Durant, who lost more than a month with a knee injury, or Kyrie Irving, who couldn’t play home games until late March because of New York City’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement for public indoor spaces and private businesses.

    And obviously, there were zero appearances by Simmons, the primary piece returned in the James Harden megadeal at the February deadline.

    Through it all, Brooklyn emerged as…fine. The Nets, who snagged the East’s No. 7 seed during the play-in tournament Tuesday, tied for 14th in winning percentage (.537) and landed 15th in net rating (plus-0.9). Issues on defense and the interior also held those numbers in check.

    The Nets can be much, much better. The presence of Durant and Irving alone promises that. The pair is plus-13.1 across 523 minutes together. The possible addition of Simmons only ups the intrigue. ESPN NBA insider Brian Windhorst said Thursday on Get Up that the three-time All-Star could make his Brooklyn debut midway through the first-round series against the Boston Celtics.

    But is all of that enough to overcome the lack of home-court advantage, the treacherous path through the Eastern Conference, the team’s defensive limitations and the sometimes spotty support scoring? We’ve seen Durant and Irving work magic on this stage before, but this is a test unlike any they’ve previously encountered.

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    It says something about the Miami Heat—and probably more about the public perception of them—that the loudest anyone discussed them this season was when Jimmy Butler bickered with head coach Erik Spoelstra and big man Udonis Haslem on the sideline.

    Has Spo taken this squad to a place where its success is taken for granted? Is the lack of a tier-one megastar to blame? Or do these dangerous loomers have issues that justify the back-burner treatment?

    The answer might be all of the above.

    Look, the Heat are good. Really, really good. Like, best-record-in-the-East, second-best-net-rating-in-the-conference good. You don’t have to bend your imagination too far to picture this bunch parading down Biscayne Boulevard in June.

    Still, there are enough questions about this offense—particularly in the half court—to wonder whether the Heat have enough shot-creation and scoring juice to get this done. Miami had this season’s seventh-worst clutch offense. The team’s fourth-ranked defense should always keep things close, but the Heat will need someone to level up at the other end, like Butler did inside the bubble at the 2020 playoffs, to seal those victories.

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    Justin Ford/Getty Images

    Objectively speaking, there are no reasons to doubt the Memphis Grizzlies based on what they’ve done this season.

    Other than wobbling to a 9-10 start, Memphis was essentially all-caps AWESOME from that point forward, with or without All-Star guard Ja Morant.

    The Grizzlies ultimately powered their way to the West’s No. 2 seed with a .683 winning percentage (tied for the best in franchise history) and a plus-5.3 net rating that clocked in fifth overall. Memphis was one of two teams (along with Phoenix) to rank sixth or better on offense (fourth) and defense (sixth).

    Subjectively, though, it’s hard not to worry about this team’s lack of track record. The Grizzlies were play-in participants just last season, and even that was seen as ahead-of-schedule for the young core.

    They don’t have much playoff experience to draw from. Not to mention there are questions about whether Memphis’ pedal-to-the-floor style—fourth in pace, first in fast-break points—can handle the inevitable downshifting of playoff basketball. If the Grizzlies have to grind out games in the half court, their lack of shooting could be an issue.

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    Justin Ford/Getty Images

    No team in the Eastern Conference bettered Boston’s plus-7.4 net rating this season. No one played better basketball from February to April, when the C’s steamrolled to a 24-6 record. Few clubs have a player cruising at a higher altitude than Jayson Tatum, who averaged 28.4 points on 49.2/39.2/87.0 shooting while posting a colossal plus-414 over that same stretch.

    Are we sure championship road doesn’t run through Beantown?

    The computers clearly think so. ESPN’s BPI gives Boston a mind-numbing 39.6 percent chance to win the title. FiveThirtyEight gives the Celtics a 32.0 percent chance of winning it all. Basketball Reference has them at 27.1 percent. All of those numbers are the best in the league, and only one is even remotely close. Basketball Reference gives Phoenix a 22.9 percent chance of being crowned, with no one else at even 10 percent.

    The injury to Robert Williams III (knee) is a concern, but ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Wednesday that there’s a “real possibility” he’ll be ready to return in the first round. With Al Horford, Daniel Theis and Grant Williams on the roster, the Celtics could have enough to cover his absence for the time being.

    If the Celtics are granted a healthy Williams III, is there any good reason to doubt them? If the last few months were any indication, there is not.

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    Jim Poorten/Getty Images

    There was a time in the not-so-distant past when only injuries—and, once, LeBron James—were capable of dethroning the Golden State Warriors. From 2014-15 to 2018-19, they booked five consecutive Finals trips, won three championships and set the all-time record for single-season victories with 73.

    Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green were front and center for that run. Once Curry returns to action—he’s “probable” for Saturday’s Game 1 against the Denver Nuggets—they’ll be at the heart of this one too.

    However, they’re all in their 30s now. Thompson is playing for the first time in three seasons after suffering more than one significant injury. Curry just posted his worst shooting rates from the field (43.7) and from three (38.0) barring his five-game sample in 2019-20. And Green had some rough showings after missing two months with a lower-back injury.

    Can this trio summon their magic again? Even the Warriors, who have yet to play a game with their entire active roster, aren’t sure what to expect.

    “I think four years ago … I am expecting to win a championship. But we are a different team now,” head coach Steve Kerr said, per ESPN’s Kendra Andrews. “I don’t have any expectations. … In a lot of ways, it makes it really fun. Maybe not as fun as having one of the greatest rosters ever assembled, but it’s a completely different challenge and unique.”

    The questions for this club might hinge on the supporting cast. When healthy, Curry remains one of the NBA’s most powerful offensive forces, and Green is arguably its best defender. Thompson just closed the campaign on a tear, averaging 30.8 points on 48.0 percent shooting from the field along with 45.0 percent shooting from three and 87.5 percent shooting from the free-throw line.

    But are their younger, less experienced teammates ready for the spotlight? We’ll find out soon.

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    Mark Blinch/Getty Images

    A quick note to James Harden and the Philadelphia 76ers: No pressure or anything, but your legacy might be defined by what happens over the next two months.

    A quick note to everyone else: Just don’t expect the Sixers or Harden to acknowledge that elephant in the room.

    “Pressure, no. I feel good,” Harden told ESPN’s Tim Bontemps. “I’m ready to hoop. There’s nothing to it.”

    If Harden plays up to his potential, the Sixers could be fine. He is the offensive co-star Joel Embiid has never had, a player who can create shots, bury shots or find shots for the big fella. The pairing appears to make sense. Maybe championship sense, even.

    Upping the ante for Harden is the fact that his contract has just a $47.4 million player option remaining, meaning he is possibly playing for what will almost certainly be the last significant deal of his career. It would be a hard sell for any front office—even for Sixers president Daryl Morey, who brought Harden to Houston in 2012—to give the 32-year-old guard max money if he buckles under the pressure again.

    His track record is full of missteps in major moments, including in his team’s final elimination game in 2021 (5-of-17, 2-of-12 from three); 2020 (five assists against six turnovers, minus-29 in 42 minutes); 2019 (five assists against six turnovers, minus-10 in 39 minutes); and 2018 (2-of-13 from three, minus-13 in 43).

    If he can’t change the narrative—on a team he handpicked—it may hang over his head forever.

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    The Milwaukee Bucks are entering the playoffs as the defending champions. They have seven series victories to show for their last three postseason trips. Two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is 27 years old and can present a compelling argument as the league’s top talent on both ends of the floor.

    Should the hoops world be worried about a deer dynasty?

    Milwaukee’s supporting cast isn’t young, but it’s not ancient either. Jrue Holiday turns 32 in June. Khris Middleton turns 31 a few months later. Neither is particularly dependent on athleticism to make an impact. They’re positioned to age gracefully with razor-sharp skills.

    The Bucks can and will tinker around that core moving forward, but all three are under contract for next season and maybe the next two (Middleton holds a $40.4 million player option for 2023-24). And when that trio shared the floor this season, they went 37-10 with a dominant plus-11.1 net rating.

    This team has somewhat flown under the radar this season—being based in Milwaukee probably helps—but it remains the champion until proven otherwise. If it takes that title into this offseason too, then it will be time to start talking about just how long Milwaukee might live on the mountaintop.

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    Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

    Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns both enter the 2022 playoffs amid decade-plus searches for their first NBA championships.

    Throughout the 2021-22 campaign, they loudly dropped hints that they’re ready to finally secure that elusive hardware.

    Phoenix posted a franchise-record .780 winning percentage; no other club cleared .700. Before Paul lost a month to a broken right thumb, he played his way into MVP race with his trademark point-god play and two-way leadership, ultimately averaging 10.8 assists against 2.4 turnovers per game.

    Once Paul went down, Devin Booker took his spot in the MVP chase, finishing with per-game contributions of 26.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.7 triples.

    The Suns’ starting five—Paul, Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Deandre Ayton—went 31-7 and outscored opponents by 7.4 points per 100 possessions. Their reserves ranked third among all bench units in raw plus/minus (plus-1.6). Their coach, Monty Williams, was selected by his peers as the league’s top skipper. Their offense (fifth) and defense (third) both ranked among the league’s top five.

    By virtually every measure, this is the best team in basketball. But history will only remember their dominance if it’s punctuated by that long-awaited feeling of championship bliss.

    “It would be nice to put a championship with all that,” Paul told reporters. “That’s the goal. That’s what we’re working toward.”

    Statistics courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Salary information via Spotrac.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.

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