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One Thing to Watch in Every NBA First-Round Playoff Series

The story lines, matchups, and players to watch ahead of opening weekend for the 2022 postseason

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After 175 days of regular-season NBA basketball and several more play-in games, the 2021-22 postseason is upon us. Our staff has identified one thing to watch in each series:

Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat drives to the basket against the Boston Celtics on November 4, 2021 at FTX Arena in Miami, Florida.  Photo by Joseph Guzy/NBAE via Getty Images

Eastern Conference

(1) Heat vs. (8) Hawks

Odds Machine: Heat in 5

Rob Mahoney: The Heat’s sheer number of stout, formidable defenders puts only a bigger, more luminescent target on the backs of Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson. Both ranked among the worst isolation defenders in the NBA this season, according to Synergy Sports, and worst yet: The entire league knows it. Opponents have hunted for Herro and Robinson with a new and committed focus this season, forcing Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to balance risk and reward more overtly than usual. Miami badly needs Herro, in particular, to help smooth out some of the rougher edges of the team’s half-court offense. But do you know what else Miami needs? To not give up an 18-point third quarter to Kevin Huerter when the Hawks run Herro through the same staggered screen gauntlet over and over.

In a way, Atlanta can be exactly the lower-stakes stress test that Miami needs. If the Heat can work enough smoke and mirrors in the matchup game to keep Herro and Robinson out of trouble, it bodes well not just for this series, but for a deep postseason run. If not, there could be some tough calls (and shorter stints) ahead as the project becomes more untenable with every passing round.

(2) Celtics vs. (7) Nets

Odds Machine: Celtics in 5

J. Kyle Mann: After a slog of a start, the Celtics managed to stabilize their season by parlaying roster continuity into defensive success. Since January 1, they’ve also allowed the lowest overall field goal percentage and fewest points per chance in switched picks, among other impressive defensive touch points. They’ve won the past three meetings against the Nets with a 21.3 average margin of victory (although Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving didn’t play in two of those games).

Boston’s switchability is a big problem for players who rely on scheme-driven creation, and Brooklyn has two of the best self-creators ever to play the sport and a swath of players who capitalize on all the attention that KD and Kyrie garner. Who can they trust to dependably attack?

Seth Curry is dealing with an ankle injury and did not score in 33 minutes in the play-in game against the Cavs. Could this be an opening for Goran Dragic or even Cam Thomas to act as chaos variables? If not, will KD and Kyrie be able to shoulder that big of an offensive load and also, ya know, stop Boston on the other end?

(3) Bucks vs. (6) Bulls

Odds Machine: Bucks in 5

Zach Kram: There’s a reason Milwaukee tanked the final game of the regular season to settle into this matchup, rather than stay in the no. 2 seed to face Brooklyn. Since Mike Budenholzer became the Bucks’ coach and the team ascended to the NBA’s top tier of contenders, Milwaukee is 14-1 against Chicago; the only loss came on the final day of the 2020-21 season, when the Bucks, resting all their top players, started this lineup:

Mamadi Diakite
Jeff Teague
Sam Merrill
Pat Connaughton
Thanasis Antetokounmpo

Given Chicago’s injuries and recent form, that trend doesn’t seem destined to change at any point in this series. Look, I attended the last Bucks-Bulls game this season. Giannis Antetokounmpo seemed like he was treating it like a scrimmage; he didn’t attempt a shot in the first quarter and played just 24 minutes—and the Bucks still coasted to a 21-point win. They’re far more likely to sweep this series than to lose it.

(4) 76ers vs. (5) Raptors

Odds Machine: 76ers in 7

Chris Ryan: Has James Harden been pacing himself? Why are you laughing? Is it because he’s spent most of his time in Philly foul-hunting, grifting, over-dribbling, taking fadeaway 3s, and generally fading away from his 2018 MVP form (or even his pre–hamstring injury form in Brooklyn)? Huh. I hadn’t noticed!

It’s entirely possible that the Ben Simmons–for–James Harden swap winds up becoming a write-down for both Philly and Brooklyn, but there is only one thing we say to death: not today. Harden was brought in to provide a skeleton key to unlock the mythical door we call playoff defense—something the Sixers have been stymied by for most of Joel Embiid’s career. And despite all evidence to the contrary, I think most Sixers fans are holding out hope that he’s not so much a shadow of his former self but a savvy veteran keeping some premium petrol in the tank for when it matters most. You’re laughing again!

So much is on the line here: Embiid’s happiness, Doc Rivers’s future, Daryl Morey’s judgment, Sixers fans’ stability, and most of all, Harden’s upcoming blockbuster contract with … someone. If Harden comes out and plays flat like he has throughout his postseason career, the questions get louder and louder. (If he destroys Pascal Siakam, I will obviously grow a giant beard in tribute and have this entry erased from the internet.)

Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies plays defense during the game against Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns on February 20, 2021 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee.  Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Western Conference

(1) Phoenix Suns vs. (8) Pelicans

Odds Machine: Suns in 5

Justin Verrier: It may be hard to remember now, but last year’s flameout against the Bucks seemed like Chris Paul’s last best chance to win a title. Critical injuries to the Lakers and Clippers, as well as many COVID-related disruptions throughout the 2020-21 season, laid out a yellow-and-orange-brick road to the Finals—a route that an upstart spearheaded by a 30-something with a damn-near hex on his head in big moments would struggle to replicate.

Instead, the Suns decimated the field in the regular season, finishing more games (eight) ahead of the NBA’s second-best team than anyone since the 1999-00 Lakers. Oops.

This time around, the question isn’t if Phoenix can make it back to the Finals—it is, far and away, the favorite in the West—but if it can make it past a supremely confident Bucks team or an East replacement with the chutzpah to fell the reigning champs. Paul’s mysterious wrist injury last year took the zest out of the Suns’ offense, and while a broken thumb midseason hasn’t exactly put Phoenix fans’ minds at ease, it did showcase the growth of the young core: The CP-less Suns went 12-3 coming out of the All-Star break, with Devin Booker putting up the kind of numbers (28 points on 52/40/90 shooting) that may vault him to first team All-NBA.

Much has been made of Giannis’s post-title leap, but the Suns, collectively, have also become a juggernaut: a deep, talented, versatile, and—most importantly—motivated team. Until they get a shot at a rematch, the goal is simply to keep playing like the favorites.

(2) Grizzlies vs. (7) Timberwolves

Odds Machine: Grizzlies in 5

Seerat Sohi: The Grizzlies are 21-11 in crunch-time situations this season, with Ja Morant leading the NBA in clutch scoring. But his efficiency (42 percent from the field, 28.6 percent from 3) leaves something to be desired, and the Wolves have the personnel to exploit him on both ends.

Last time the two squads met, in late February, Morant finished 7-for-25, turned the ball over three times, and missed all four of his 3-pointers, including an airball over an Anthony Edwards contest in a crucial late possession. Patrick Beverley and Edwards denied him the ball, making Morant battle for every touch. D’Angelo Russell sussed out Morant’s preferred passing angles and took him to the rim on the other end. Memphis will hide him this series on Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt. The Wolves, like the Jazz did last postseason, will try to force switches.

Morant did have nine assists in another game against Minnesota in January. He hung back on a drive and hit Brandon Clarke, cutting behind a defense zoned in on Ja, for a lob. The more Morant hangs in that area and surveys instead of getting stuck under the rim, the more low-risk, high-yield passing opportunities he’ll find. The key will be integrating his scintillating creative powers into the egalitarian, movement-heavy style that the Grizzlies played when he was hurt.

(3) Warriors vs. (6) Nuggets

Odds Machine: Warriors in 5

Logan Murdock: Draymond Green has appeared in more podcasts than games this season after a disc injury kept him out of much of the homestretch. As a result, Green, Klay Thompson, and Steph Curry—the backbone of Golden State’s dynastic run—have yet to start alongside each other outside of seven seconds in Thompson’s return game.

Curry’s status is up in the air after missing a month with a foot sprain, but Green’s health is a key to a deep playoff run. Green has always been at the center of Golden State’s orbit. In Round 1, he’ll be tasked with guarding Nikola Jokic, who averaged 28.0 points, 15.8 rebounds, and 8.8 assists in four games against the Warriors this season, three of which were Nuggets wins. And with Golden State’s front line consisting of just 6-foot-9 Kevon Looney and fellow journeyman Nemanja Bjelica, Green will be needed more than ever defensively.

If all goes right, Green shuts down the MVP center, further elevates his defensive legacy, and gets the Warriors one step closer to another title. If he doesn’t, a once-promising season could go up in flames.

(4) Mavericks vs. (5) Jazz

Odds Machine: Jazz in 6

Dan Devine: Having just been promoted to the rank of Captain Obvious, I’ll go with how big a deal this winds up being come Saturday:

Luka Doncic is the sun that the Mavericks’ orbit, as central to his team’s success as any player in the league. There’s no such thing as a good time for a player like that to suffer a calf strain. “Immediately before the start of the playoffs,” though, is an exceptionally bad one.

Dallas has been cagey about both the strain’s severity and Doncic’s status, while Shams Charania reports that Luka is expected to miss Game 1. If Doncic is indeed unable to suit up, the Mavs wouldn’t necessarily be drawing dead without him: Since the franchise-reorganizing trade that exported Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas has outscored opponents by 34 points in the 213 minutes that Jalen Brunson and new arrival Spencer Dinwiddie have played without Doncic, scoring and defending at top-10 levels. That includes a plus-18 in 21 minutes through two games against the Jazz.

If Dinwiddie and Brunson (looking for a measure of redemption after struggling mightily last postseason) can approximate Luka’s gift for dismantling drop coverage until he’s healthy enough to do it himself, the Mavs might still have enough to survive Round 1 for the first time in 11 years. If they can’t, though, and if Utah can get Game 1, then Luka’s hard luck could be just the opening that Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, and Co. need to right their listing ship.