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The second round of the 2022 NBA playoffs are underway, and it’s time for another round of predictions.
Can the Philadelphia 76ers survive the absence of Joel Embiid against the East’s top-seeded Miami Heat? Can Giannis Antetokounmpo solves the Boston Celtics’ dominant defense without co-star Khris Middleton? Will Chris Paul be able to lead the Phoenix Suns past Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks and back to the conference finals? And will the Golden State Warriors be able to slow down the upstart Memphis Grizzlies?
Those questions and more will be answered on the court over the next couple weeks, but that won’t prevent us from trying to figure them out now.
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With ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reporting that Embiid will miss at least the first two games of the series, it’s hard to imagine Philadelphia coming out on top.
Even with Embiid, the Sixers struggled to close out a Toronto Raptors squad that was missing Scottie Barnes and Fred VanVleet at various times during the first round. And Miami is deeper, more experienced and better on both ends of the floor than Toronto.
With Kyle Lowry, Tyler Herro, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, the Heat have a potentially devastating combination of scoring, playmaking and defense. Add the three-and-D play of PJ Tucker and floor spacing of Duncan Robinson and Max Strus, and it’s easy to see how this team can solve a Philadelphia defense without Embiid.
The Sixers gave up 113.2 points per 100 possessions without the big man on the floor in the regular season, and his impact on the offense was even greater.
Without him cleaning up the back end of Miami’s drives, James Harden and Philadelphia’s role players probably won’t be able to score enough to keep pace.
Still, Harden has had some monster postseason performances (including a 34-point triple-double in a win over the Celtics last year), and Embiid’s return hasn’t been ruled out. Despite challenges that seem overwhelming, the Sixers should be able to sneak out a couple wins, but it won’t be enough.
Prediction: Heat in six
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Steven Senne/Associated Press
Even without Middleton, Giannis and the Bucks comfortably won Game 1 of this series in Boston. And while a Celtics defense that has been dominant for months made scoring difficult on the reigning Finals MVP, he trusted his teammates, and he paid off.
On several drives, Antetokounmpo was stifled by multiple Celtics, patiently waited for his outlets to give him passing lanes, and he hit them. His 12 assists were three shy of his playoff career high.
The supporting cast won’t always convert as well as it did in Sunday’s 101-89 win, but those shots figure to be there. And if Boston adjusts and stays home on the shooters, whoever’s guarding Giannis will find himself on an island. That might be a worse option.
Another potential advantage that showed up on Sunday was Milwaukee’s size. With Middleton out, the Bucks started Bobby Portis alongside Brook Lopez. Those two and Giannis each got to double figures on the glass. And Giannis and Lopez combined for five blocks.
Al Horford has plenty of skill, and Robert Williams III is one of the game’s most explosive interior presences, but that much sheer size is hard to compete with.
Still, you have to figure this is far from the best we’ll see from the Celtics in this series. Milwaukee’s defense deserves plenty of credit, but Boston also missed a lot of good looks on the way to a 33.3 field-goal percentage for the game. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined to go 10-of-31 from the field.
In at least two or three games, either or both of those star wings will get going. And combining that with a defense that you can count on in pretty much every game at this point (it held the Bucks to 41.1 percent shooting in Game 1) should lead to some wins.
There just aren’t many forces in sports as devastating as playoff Giannis, though. With the championship experience that he, Jrue Holiday and much of the rest of the team is bringing, Milwaukee should be able to win three more games.
Prediction: Bucks in seven
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Much of the reaction to Dallas’ first-round victory over the Utah Jazz revolved around the losing side’s collapse, but Jalen Brunson’s star turn could be the key to the Mavs going any further.
Through the first round, Brunson averaged 27.8 points, 4.2 assists and 2.0 threes. Among players with at least 100 minutes, he was 12th in box plus/minus (Luka was second). With he and Spencer Dinwiddie, Dallas might have enough secondary creation to collapse the Suns’ typically solid defensive schemes.
And of course there’s Luka, the second-leading scorer (behind Michael Jordan) in NBA postseason history who will break down Phoenix’s defense on his own on plenty of possessions. The Suns have more options against him than most, but Doncic’s timing, ability to manipulate pace and strength will get him to the paint. And from there, he’ll set up shooters like Reggie Bullock and Maxi Kleber for plenty of open looks.
Phoenix has counters on counters, though. And the largely positionless defensive lineups that feature Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder (or Cameron Johnson) will be able to scramble and stymie enough possessions to get to four wins.
On the other end, the most effective counterpunchers might be Chris Paul (who closed out the New Orleans Pelicans with a perfect 14-of-14 performance) and Deandre Ayton. Booker was the team’s leading scorer in the regular season, but he may be hampered by a hamstring injury, and Dallas doesn’t really have good answers for CP3 and Ayton.
Brunson, Dinwiddie and probably Josh Green will surely work to make things difficult for Paul, but none of them can speed him up or prevent him from getting to his spots.
As for Ayton, he’ll punish the Mavs’ small-ball lineups, particularly on the offensive glass. And if they don’t go to those looks often, he should still be able to find his shots against Dwight Powell and Kleber, neither of whom are bastions of defense around the rim (though Kleber is probably better on the perimeter than he’s given credit for).
Luka is a problem no one can solve, but the balance of the rest of this matchup favors Phoenix.
Prediction: Suns in seven
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Game 1 of this Western Conference semifinals between Golden State and Memphis had the potential to be tainted by a controversial ejection.
Late in the first half, Green wound up, made contact with Brandon Clarke’s face and got a handful of his jersey. Reaction to the decision to upgrade the foul to a flagrant-2 was, to say the least, spirited.
But even without their middle linebacker on defense and lead facilitator on offense, the Warriors came from behind to beat the Grizzlies in Memphis with a small-ball attack that could be even tougher to stop when Green is available for all four quarters.
In 38 minutes off the bench, Jordan Poole went for 31 points and nine assists. Stephen Curry added 24 points and five threes. Klay Thompson hits a pivotal three late. And Gary Payton II provided Swiss Army knife versatility on both ends of the floor with four offensive rebounds, three assists, a block and a steal.
Memphis has some impact defenders on the perimeter, including De’Anthony Melton and Dillon Brooks, but the amount of firepower and versatility the Warriors have outside looks ready to overwhelm them.
That doesn’t mean this series will be a cakewalk for Golden State, though.
Jaren Jackson Jr., who had 33 points in Game 1, looks like a matchup problem. If Draymond covers him out at the three-point line, driving lanes will be wider for Ja Morant. And though GPII probably has as good a shot as anyone on Morant, he showed he can still put up numbers against him (Ja had 34 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds Sunday).
Brooks and Desmond Bane, who combined to shoot 6-of-23 from the field, will surely have better games too.
But even with all those strengths, this series still feels like a big brother-little brother situation. Memphis isn’t quite ready to go shot for shot with a healthy Golden State, especially if Green is able to stay on the floor going forward.
Prediction: Warriors in six
Stats via Cleaning the Glass and Stathead unless otherwise noted.