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The 12 most interesting players in the first round of the 2022 NBA playoffs
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El Triunfo de Baco, Diego Velazquez, 1629
As you are well aware, the first round of the 2022 NBA playoffs begins Saturday. Two of the series remain unsettled owing to Friday’s play-in finales. But we’ve had time to consider the other eight series and in lieu of predictions, here’s a look at 12 of the most interesting players to watch in this round, in no particular order but grouped by series. Note: there are no entrants from Bulls-Bucks (I’m sorry, this doesn’t look like an interesting series at this point, prove me wrong!), Heat-Mystery East Team (Evan Mobley and De’Andre Hunter are candidates) or Suns-Mystery West Team (I’d rate Paul George a candidate; I don’t think the Pelicans would be all that interesting against Phoenix, sorry!).
And now … the 12 most interesting players to watch in the first round.
It’s always interesting to watch Morant. His game and personality are magnetic. What merits special attention here is that for the first time in Morant’s postseason history, his team is favored. There are legitimate expectations that the Grizzlies will win this series against the Timberwolves. Memphis was the second best team in the NBA this season, and while this team is much more than just Morant he is the undisputed team leader.
Morant will have Patrick Beverley in his face and trying to get into his head from the tip. The environment in Minneapolis will be fierce in a way the Grizzlies don’t often experience on the road. The other team as the next player on this list, who has equivalent levels of confidence and bombast. Morant doesn’t have a monopoly on that this series.
I think Morant’s going to thrive in this environment and carry the Grizzlies deep. But we have to acknowledge this is a much different experience than the bubble play-in or the series against Utah last season. Pressure is different when you’re the No. 2 seed. Let’s see how Morant responds.
Edwards came out completely fearless in the play-in, which is to be expected, because when has Anthony Edwards ever looked afraid? Now the stakes are lower (few expect Minnesota to win this series) and the assignment is tougher. Going back to assess ball-dominant guards’ first playoff series is always fun (Ja’s premiere last year will be forever ingrained in my memory) so Ant’s debut should be worth watching closely.
Minnesota doesn’t really have expectations. But KAT sure does! And those expectations are to play much, much, much, much, much better than he did in the play-in. Towns was completely bailed out by Ant, D’Angelo Russell and Beverley.
The Clippers tried to involve KAT repeatedly on defense, and that plus some silly offensive and loose ball fouls ended up with Towns out of the game for the critical moments. One assumes the Grizz will do the same, though Morant’s shooting and Steven Adams’ offense aren’t the most conducive pairing to getting Towns in trouble. The Grizz’ll probably also try to frustrate him with physicality and smaller bodies like L.A. did, and force him to fight through it. He’s going to need to prove his exceptional finesse game can survive the rough-and-tumble NBA playoffs. If he can’t, skepticism over KAT’s true value will rise higher than it already is and the criticism will be pitched.
It looks like Tatum will finish top-5 in MVP voting, and deserve it. He’s had some incredible playoff performances already in his young career, and Celtics vs. Nets will be the marquee game every day the series is active. This series — not this postseason, but specifically this series — is an enormous opportunity for Tatum to graduate from his current status in the NBA superstar hierarchy to another level. To perhaps start being included in the conversations around the best player in the world. And no small part of that is because he’ll be matched up against …
Don’t get it twisted: the reason some analysts are picking the Nets to beat the Celtics isn’t because the Nets are a sleeping giant. It’s because of Kevin Durant, 100%. No offense to Kyrie Irving, who is a very good point guard and who was the biggest factor in Brooklyn building a big lead on Cleveland in the play-in. But this team is here because of Kevin Durant, and if this team competes in this series it will be because of Kevin Durant, and if this team wins the series it will be because of Kevin Durant.
Durant is so good the defending NBA champions — who have the best player on the planet, who basically plays Durant’s position — gave up potential second-round home court to dodge him. I will not get over that anytime soon. And now we get to watch why they did that, against the best defense by far in the NBA. Let’s go.
This is going to be a difficult series for the Sixers. This is going to be a difficult series for Harden. The Raptors are going to throw buckets of trouble at him. How he responds, how he performs, how his hamstring looks, how well he facilitates for the non-Embiid Sixers (most of whom are offensively limited), how he defends Fred VanVleet or Gary Trent Jr. or Khem Birch for all I know — that’s going to impact how we view the Sixers as a title threat and as a going concern.
We know what we’re getting from Joel Embiid (though you’d expect Nick Nurse and Pascal Siakam to have lots to say about that). Harden is where the intrigue lies.
VanVleet is Pat Bev except quiet, not prone to dirty plays and with real offensive firepower. So, in other words: he’s not Pat Bev. What I’m trying to say is that like Pat Bev, FVV will absolutely disrupt what you’re trying to do even though you know that’s what he’s doing; there’s simply nothing you can do about it. Relentless, smart, tough. And he averaged 20 points per game this season. There is no doubt that he could outplay James Harden. Could.
Also, he’s nursing an injured knee, which is typically not a great sign heading into what should be a tough, long series. This is worth monitoring.
(I am so excited for this series.)
Jokic is going to win his second consecutive MVP. He performed quite well in the playoffs last season on an individual level, and Denver did win its first round series against Portland. (Remember Portland?) But we can’t forget that the Nuggets got punked out of the second round by the Suns. Just absolutely dropkicked right to Cancun. Obliterated. Beat so bad that Jokic got himself ejected out of the elimination game with a frustration foul on a player 10 inches and 100 pounds smaller.
These Warriors are not Those Suns, probably. But … These Nuggets are still Those Nuggets, right? I mean, Denver at least had Michael Porter Jr. on the floor for that series. So what is the presumptive two-time reigning MVP prepared to do about it? Will he be able to leverage his extraordinary talent, his producion, his genius to make the Nuggets matter? Or is that simply impossible without more help?
Draymond Green looks as good as he did on both sides of the ball early this season. Barring a new or aggravated injury, the Warriors are good there. Klay Thompson is still not fully Klay Thompson, but he’s been looking like a closer approximation of late. The biggest two questions the Warriors are facing: can they frustrate Jokic and can Steph be one of the best players in the NBA while dealing with this foot injury?
The Warriors could very well win this series without Steph playing at the MVP caliber level he was at early this season. But we should still learn a lot about the prospects of Golden State going deep into the title chase based on how Steph looks here.
Related to that, it’s imperative that Steve Kerr figure out how to manage the Warriors offense with all of his scorers and facilitators back, assuming Curry is back. Poole stayed healthy all season and he’s had different looks: starting at point guard with Curry out, starting at two-guard with Thompson out, playing with and without Green. Why is that important? Because Thompson, Curry and Green played a grand total of one full game together this season. Sure, they have years of experience as a unit. But they were all younger then. With the expection of March 14 vs. the Wizards, the Klay-Steph-Dray trio hasn’t played a full game together since the 2019 NBA Finals, nearly three years ago.
So what’s that mean for Poole? This is a really tricky scenario to navigate — letting the chemistry between a set of three-time champions breathe but asserting himself where necessary; being unafraid of the moment while acknowledging his role among the Hall of Famers; finding space for his own significant talents to bloom off-ball or on-ball, starting or off the bench. It’s a lot for a 22-year-old in his third season and first playoff series. I’ll be interested to see how he handles the balancing act in Round 1 against a backcourt that is at a significant disadvantage.
It sounds like Luka Doncic might miss Game 1 with the calf injury. That simultaneously eases the burden on Mitchell for the game itself and increases the pressure to perform well and win another notch. This whole series (and postseason, if the Jazz move on) will feature hyperfocus on every piece of body language Mitchell exhibits toward teammates, every word that comes out of his mouth, every decision to shoot instead of pass to the center. I’m a little anxious thinking about all of the attention on Mitchell right now.
And for every drop of attention on Mitchell, there are two on Gobert, who figures to be a sacrificial lamb should Utah flame out. Gobert should be able to absolutely dominate inside and force Luka Doncic (should he play) to shoot or pass instead of attacking the rim. If Dallas finds a way to beat Gobert consistently by going at rim or pulling him out of drop, and if Mitchell looks him off too many times on offense, and if Gobert says one sideways word to the media … oof, this could get dodgy.
Or the Jazz could win the series and the debate over whether Mitchell or Gobert is more important could continue interminably. Either way, this is going to be interesting.
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We’ll have a special edition for paid subscribers Saturday morning with play-in reactions.
Shams Charania reports that Ben Simmons is looking at making his Nets debut in Games 4-6 of the Nets’ series against the Celtics. Making your return back to the court after last year’s playoff flashpoint … in the playoffs? Bold move.
Hawks at Cavaliers, 7:30 ET, ESPN: Winner faces the Heat in Round 1, loser goes home, or maybe on a well-deserved vacation. Darius Garland vs. Trae Young is the main event here, though how well Evan Mobley can close off the paint and whether De’Andre Hunter can repeat his shooting performance from Wednesday will assuredly figure in as well.
Pelicans at Clippers, 10 ET, ESPN: Losing this would be a major disappointment for the Clips after losing the lead to Minnesota on Tuesday; that said, L.A. isn’t going to win anything this year, so disappointment would probably be short-lived. At least they aren’t the Lakers! The Pelicans are playing with house money at this point, but they have some good vibes going and making the playoffs without Zion Williamson would sure give them lots of lots to look forward to heading into next season. Even if Phoenix would figure to beat them by 30 a game.
Fascinating hypothetical from Draymond Green in an interview with Steph Curry. I know it’s said every time Draymond does another interview but lord is he good at this.
Hilarious retort from future Lakers coach Mark Jackson here.
Andrew Lopez on how C.J. McCollum has been preparing for this role his whole life.
Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru on Joe Tsai, the Brooklyn Nets’ franchisee who sits in the middle of the NBA’s uncomfortable relationship with China.
Be excellent to each other.