The 2022 NBA play-in tournament tips off tonight as eight teams vie for the final four seeds in the playoff bracket and the right to take on the powers atop each conference in the first round of the playoffs. As we get set for the action, here’s one big question for each of the play-in matchups, beginning in Brooklyn:
Can Cleveland score enough to hang with KD and Kyrie?
The Cavaliers rose to the top half of the East before the All-Star break on the strength of an elite defense captained by the interior duo of Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. The Rookie of the Year hopeful will be in the lineup against Brooklyn, returning from an ankle injury in time for the final two games of the regular season; ex-Net Allen, will not, though, as he continues to work his way back from a fractured finger.
Cleveland’s defense has buckled since Allen went down on March 6. Before his injury, the Cavs allowed just 107.5 points per 100 possessions, but they have conceded 118.7 points per 100 since. That doesn’t bode well for their chances of withstanding a Brooklyn offense that has ranked just outside the NBA’s top 10 since Kyrie Irving returned to full-time play and has torched opponents to the tune of 124.5 points per 100—a mark as far above Utah’s league-leading offensive rating as the Jazz are above the 23rd-ranked Lakers—with both Irving and Kevin Durant on the court.
If Cleveland can’t clamp down on the Nets, it will have to fight fire with fire. That’s not the Cavs’ strong suit (just 19th in points scored per possession), but it’s not outside the realm of possibility, either. The Cavs have scored at above-average efficiency in each of their last two meetings against Brooklyn and do have several shooters capable of getting hot and putting up crooked numbers if the Nets defense isn’t on point.
All eyes will be on point guard Darius Garland, a first-time All-Star in his first postseason contest who has averaged 25.3 points and eight assists per game against Brooklyn this season. You’d expect the Nets to tailor their coverage toward forcing the ball out of his hands, though, which would demand other Cavs step up and make shots; Lauri Markkanen, who shot 38.5 percent from 3-point land in Cleveland wins this season, and just 32.6 percent from distance in losses, could be a bellwether. So could Kevin Love, who is fresh off putting up 32 and 10 in just 15 minutes in Cleveland’s season finale and has the goods to punish Brooklyn by both spacing the floor and pounding the glass; the Nets have been one of the league’s worst defensive rebounding teams all season, even after adding Andre Drummond at the trade deadline. (I’d also keep an eye on Cedi Osman. The swingman’s minutes have waxed and waned late in the season, but he had nine games of 20 or more points off the bench this season and a dozen with four or more 3s.)
Without Allen, who averaged a career-high 16.1 points and 10.8 rebounds per game on 67.7 percent shooting as one of the NBA’s premier pick-and-roll finishers, Cleveland’s best bet might be to damn the torpedoes and up the variance. Look for Garland, Love, Markkanen, and everybody else in wine and gold to just let it fly.
Can KAT be the best player on the floor against the Clips?
Hey: Want to see somebody not having a good time?
Karl-Anthony Towns has had a phenomenal campaign to lead the Timberwolves back over .500 and to the brink of the playoffs, but the Clippers gave him absolute fits in three meetings earlier this season. Ty Lue mixed up his coverages on the All-Star center, showing him a little bit of everything: straight one-on-one with Ivica Zubac or Isaiah Hartenstein, cross-match coverages with a quicker, rangier defender (often Nicolas Batum or Terance Mann) pressed up on him at the perimeter, some zone coverage, plenty of fronts in the post, and a steady diet of double-teams coming from all angles.
It worked: L.A. held Towns to just 15.3 points per game in those outings on 16-for-38 shooting, including a 6-for-18 mark from long range, with more turnovers (nine) than assists (seven). The Clips won all three games by double digits, including two by 20-plus; they outscored Minnesota by 51 points in 100 minutes with Towns on the floor.
There is some good news, though: All three of those games came in the first month of the season, before Minnesota found its stride. The Wolves boasted the West’s fourth-best record and the NBA’s fifth-best net rating after January 1, fueled by the league’s no. 1 offense—a unit led by Towns, who averaged 24.6 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game on pristine shooting splits in that span. He’s been brilliant as the linchpin of Minnesota’s attack. Short-circuiting his game by throwing the kitchen sink at him might not be as easy as it was back in early November, when he and the Wolves were still trying to figure out who they were; now, his confidence is at an all-time high.
Play him straight on the perimeter now and risk getting dusted by a player who leads all centers in points scored per game off drives. Zoning up might not be as sound an option against a Minnesota team that takes and makes the most 3s in the NBA and has a rotation full of role players—Patrick Beverley, Malik Beasley, Taurean Prince, Jaylen Nowell, Jordan McLaughlin, et al.—who’ve been hitting their long balls for months now. Force the ball out of KAT’s hands to make someone else beat you, and D’Angelo Russell (a top-12 scorer in crunch time this season) and Anthony Edwards (whose balky knee looked pretty friggin’ OK in his last full game) might be only too happy to oblige.
The Clips enter the play-in on a hot streak, winning four of five since Paul George’s return to the lineup; he’s shooting a scorching 52.5 percent from deep since coming back (though, perhaps worryingly, only 32.5 percent inside the arc) and Los Angeles is outscoring opponents by 21.8 points per 100 with the two-way star swingman on the floor. Lue is banking on the combination of a stout, versatile defense and George’s ability to boss the game—drawing defensive attention to make plays for others, and taking the ball to the tin and making tough, contested shots when necessary—to carry the Clips. Minnesota can rely on a similar formula; it just needs Towns to be who he’s been for most of this year, and not who he was against L.A. in the early going.
Who controls the pace of the game: Hawks or Hornets?
The ninth and 10th seeds in the East—owners of two of the NBA’s five best offenses since the All-Star break—go as their point guards go. The matchup between them likely will, too.
Trae Young is a watchmaker, a careful craftsman who likes to survey his options and go about the business of meticulously dismantling set defenses. As such, his Hawks rank just below middle-of-the-pack in the average length of their offensive possessions, according to Inpredictable; close to league average in the share of their plays that come in the half court, according to Cleaning the Glass; and no. 1 with a bullet in points scored per play in the half court, which is a function of Young’s peerless ability to find the pressure point in a set defense and push until it calls uncle.
LaMelo Ball, on the other hand, is a neon yellow Lamborghini built to move fluidly at maximum speed and to draw maximum attention while doing so. As such, his Hornets boast the NBA’s fourth-fastest average offensive possession and its third-largest share of plays that come in transition, and rank no. 1 with a bullet in points per possession added through transition play—a function of Ball’s unparalleled gift for going 0-to-100 and hunting early offense and highlights at every possible opportunity.
Small-ball Charlotte is a below-average half-court defensive team that lacks top-flight point-of-attack defenders to throw at Young. Atlanta is the NBA’s second-worst transition defensive team and lacks the athleticism to get into a track meet. Only four teams force turnovers more often than the Hornets; nobody commits turnovers less often than the Hawks.
It’s a real “styles make fights” kind of matchup featuring two of the league’s most telegenic young haymaker-throwers—one player who’s already proved his bona fides in a run to the Eastern Conference finals, and one player who’s eager to follow suit after earning his first All-Star nod this season. Whoever can set the tempo and the rules of engagement will set his team up to survive and advance.
How much can Brandon Ingram give New Orleans?
Ingram’s done yeoman’s work in lifting New Orleans out of the doldrums of its disastrous 3-16 start amid the despair of what turned into a lost season for injured superstar Zion Williamson. His 3-point shooting tailed off from his 2020 All-Star levels as defenses zeroed in on him, but Ingram played the best all-around ball of his career this season, averaging just under 23 points, six rebounds, and six assists per game while blossoming as a primary playmaker on a team that needed him to set the table:
He’s been the Pelicans’ pacemaker all season: They’re 29-26 (a 43-win pace for a full season) when he plays and 7-20 (a 21-win clip) when he doesn’t, and they go from outscoring opponents by 3.3 points-per-100 when he’s on the court (equivalent to the 76ers’ full-season net rating) to getting outscored by 7.4 points-per-100 when he isn’t (which would slot in just above the Pistons). Which is why it’s a big deal that a strained right hamstring has limited him to just five games over the past five weeks … and why it’s a big deal that Pelicans coach Willie Green told reporters that the plan is for Ingram to be available on Wednesday.
If Ingram’s close to 100 percent, the Spurs will have to deal with two premier scorers and shot creators. The Pelicans have scored a blistering 119.5 points-per-100 with Ingram and midseason acquisition CJ McCollum on the floor together, a rate of offensive efficiency that would’ve led the league this season. They’ve also put up points at elite rates since the trade deadline when Ingram plays without McCollum, and vice versa. They’ve struggled mightily, though, when neither are on the court—stretches that Green can’t avoid when Ingram’s in street clothes, but that he can minimize when he’s got both of his top playmakers at his disposal.
San Antonio does have options to throw at both Ingram and McCollum that combine size, length, and athleticism: All-Star point guard/steal-and-deflection magnet Dejounte Murray, 3-and-D ace Devin Vassell, switchable combo platters Keldon Johnson, Josh Richardson, and Lonnie Walker IV, and rookie Josh Primo. But both Ingram (who averaged 24.5 points and 5.5 assists in two meetings with the Spurs this season) and McCollum (29.3 points and 4.3 assists on 52/36/91 shooting in three games against San Antonio) have seemed comfortable getting into their offense against those options individually. If Ingram’s good to go and able to quickly fall back into the rhythm he and McCollum found after the trade deadline, New Orleans might have too much firepower for the Spurs—17th in offense since the All-Star break, and downright dire when Murray’s off the floor—to match.