16. Atlanta Hawks (43-39)
First Round Matchup: vs. Charlotte Hornets (play-in)
Atlanta and Charlotte should be a very competitive affair. Of course, Atlanta starts and begins with Trae Young. If he’s on his game, the Hawks are a tough out. It’s a roster loaded with sharpshooters surrounding two athletic rim-running bigs (Clint Capela, Onyeka Okongwu). The key will be limiting LaMelo Ball’s impact on the game. You could see a host of defenders try to hound the gifted point guard.
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15. New Orleans Pelicans (36-46)
First Round Matchup: vs. San Antonio Spurs (play-in)
The game versus San Antonio — to eventually play the loser of Minnesota/Los Angeles — won’t be a easy one. The Spurs are young, but boast a lot of young, exciting talent. In a game of this magnitude, New Orleans will undoubtedly lean on midseason acquisition C.J. McCollum. He is the primary scoring threat next to Brandon Ingram, and is one of the few guys with extensive postseason experience. If Ingram can’t go (sore hamstring), the Pels will be in some major trouble.
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14. Minnesota Timberwolves (46-36)
First Round Matchup: vs. Los Angeles Clippers (play-in)
KAT and company face a tough play-in proposition in Game 1 versus the Clippers. While the Kawhi-less fighting Steve Ballmer’s are not unbeatable, they do possess the playoff pedigree and experience to give Minnesota trouble. However, those fans in the Twin Cities should not fret. The T’Wolves are favorites to get through. Even if they lose to the Clippers, they should have no problems in beating San Antonio or New Orleans.
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13. Toronto Raptors (48-34)
First Round Matchup: at Philadelphia 76ers
The Raptors should be taken seriously. After a slow start to the year which left the Raptors 10-13 entering December, Canada’s team finished the season 38-21. Pascal Siakam has been sensational down the stretch, and rookie Scottie Barnes has more than lived up to the hype. Toronto relies heavily on its starting five, so depth may be an issue against Philadelphia should the Raptors get into foul trouble.
All five members of the starting group averaged over 15.0 PPG — Siakam (22.8), Fred VanVleet (20.3), Gary Trent Jr. (18.3), OG Anunoby (17.1), Barnes (15.3). All four meetings with the Sixers were determined by six points or less — with the Raptors winning three contests.
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12. Denver Nuggets (48-34)
First Round Matchup: at Golden State Warriors
The Nuggets are without their second and third-best players. Yete, they still feature the reigning — and possibly back-to-back — MVP. With Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray on the sidelines, Nikola Jokic carried Denver to an impressive 48-34 record. The 2020-21 MVP had another sensational year and led the Nuggets in every major category with 27.1 PPG, 13.8 RPG, 7.9 APG, 1.5 SPG, and 0.9 BPG. To close the year, Denver went 31-15. Upending the Warriors will be tough, but Denver did win three-of-four in the regular season.
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11. Chicago Bulls (46-36)
First Round Matchup: at Milwaukee Bucks
At the beginning of the year, the Bulls were one of the best stories in the NBA. First-year Bull DeMar DeRozan was playing like an MVP, Zach LaVine was playing at an All-Star level, and fellow newcomers Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso looked like difference-makers for the franchise. Chicago lingered around the top of the Eastern Conference standings into January — even holding the conference’s best record for a while.
Unfortunately, the Bulls are wounded entering the playoffs. Ball is out. LaVine is dealing with a few nagging injuries. Even worse, Chicago opens the playoffs against the Milwaukee Bucks. Milwaukee destroyed the Bulls in the regular season — winning all four contests by a combined 59 points…with the last two wins coming by 49 total points.
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10. Utah Jazz (49-33)
First Round Matchup: at Dallas Mavericks
One year ago, Utah finished with a 52-30 record and entered the postseason as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. Now, Utah (49-33) will start the playoffs on the road as it takes on the 4-seed Mavericks. The Jazz started the year 28-10 — which means they have been a sub-.500 team since January 7. The seemingly iffy relationship between Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert continues to loom over the franchise.
However, despite the noise surrounding the team’s star duo, Utah may have the advantage in Round 1. Luka Doncic, Dallas’ superstar, strained his calf a few days ago and his status is unknown entering the series. If Doncic can’t play, Utah should advance.
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9. Brooklyn Nets (44-38)
First Round Matchup: at Miami Heat or Boston Celtics
The Lakers weren’t the only ‘super team’ to disappoint this season. Brooklyn entered the year as the clear favorite to win the NBA title. Now, Brooklyn finds itself in the play-in tournament. The Nets host Cleveland in the 7/8 matchup, and should be able to take care of business. If they do, Kevin Durant and Co. will take on the 2-seed Boston Celtics.
After defeating Boston in the first showdown of the season, Brooklyn lost the next three times the two teams met — most recently on March 6. Any team led by Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving has a chance to make a run in the postseason, but this version of the Nets appears to lack the defensive ability to win it all. Only time will tell.
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8. Dallas Mavericks (52-30)
First Round Matchup: vs. Utah Jazz
Following a sluggish start to Jason Kidd’s first-year as coach, the Mavericks powered up as the season wore on. Trading Kristaps Porzingis to Washington wound up being one of the turning points of the season. It allowed Dallas to play at a quicker pace on both ends of the floor. The trade also brought in distressed asset Spencer Dinwiddie who has been a revelation for his new club.
That being said, Dallas’ playoff hopes hinge entirely on the health of Luka Doncic. With playoff seeding still up for grabs, Doncic was on the floor for a Game 82 matchup with the San Antonio Spurs. Unfortunately, the 23-year-old superstar sustained an injury which the team is referring to as a “strained left calf”. There is currently no timetable for his return and it’s anyone’s guess at this point of Doncic will be ready for Dallas’ first round matchup against the Utah Jazz.
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7. Philadelphia 76ers (51-31)
First Round Matchup: vs. Toronto Raptors
The Philadelphia 76ers do not pass the “vibe” check. It’s a clunky roster which lacks depth. They lead the league in poor body language. Two of the team’s most prominent figures — James Harden and head coach Doc Rivers — are infamous for their historic playoff meltdowns. That being said, this is a team with James Harden and Joel Embiid we’re talking about. No team should be excited to play against these two All-NBA talents.
Slowing down Harden and Embiid is going to be a difficult task for even the league’s best defenses. Good luck keeping them off the free-throw line, as well. Both stars do have to prove they can manufacture quality offense late in games, but we aren’t too worried about either’s ability to put the ball in the basket. Second-year guard Tyrese Maxey might be the x-factor here. Maxey is a good defender, solid ball handler, and a vastly improved shooter. If he can give Philadelphia what Tyler Herro gave the Miami Heat in the 2020 bubble, the 76ers could march their way to an NBA Finals appearance.
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6. Memphis Grizzlies (56-26)
First Round Matchup: vs. Minnesota Timberwolves or Los Angeles Clippers
It feels a bit disrespectful to have the No. 2 seed out West ranked this low, but the Grizzlies are a young team that still has a lot to prove in the postseason. Memphis got a taste of playoff basketball last year. After defeating the Warriors in the Chase Center to earn a postseason berth, the Grizzlies wound up taking Game 1 from the top-seeded Utah Jazz in the first-round. Utah went on to win the next four games, but the experience allocated by Ja Morant and company cannot be understated.
This Grizzlies team is led by their electric point guard, though they did just fine when Morant was forced to sit out due to injury. In fact, Memphis went 20-5 in games without Morant this past season. It speaks volumes to the depth and talent Memphis’ front office has accumulated over the years. This might not be their year to win it all, but the Grizzlies will surely look to make a statement in their second playoff run.
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5. Miami Heat (53-29)
First Round Matchup: vs. Nets or Cavaliers or Hawks or Hornets
Despite the apparent turmoil between Miami’s star player Jimmy Butler and head coach Erik Spoelstra, the Heat ended the season with the Eastern Conference’s best record. Their reward? A potential first-round matchup with two of the most offensively gifted basketball players of all-time — Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. That being said, this Heat team has no backdown. Miami is built upon its relentlessness on both ends of the floor.
Bam Adebayo’s emergence over the second-half of the season will be key in a potential run to the NBA Finals for the Heat. Of course, we can expect veterans like Butler and Kyle Lowry to empty the tank in the postseason. If Miami is clicking on all cylinders, they will be a tough team with a raucous home court environment.
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4. Boston Celtics (51-31)
First Round Matchup: vs. Brooklyn Nets or Cleveland Cavaliers
There is a case to be made that the Boston Celtics were the best team in the league over the final two months of the season. After getting off to a rocky 25-25 start, Boston ended the season on a 26-5 run which included several lopsided victories. Over that span, Boston boasted the league’s best defense (by a mile) while crushing playoff-bound squads. Potential All-NBA First-Team forward Jayson Tatum enjoyed the best season of his career while showcasing a refined playmaking aspect to his game.
If Jaylen Brown’s shot is falling, it’s nearly impossible to slow down Boston’s pair of two-way wings. The loss of defensive wunderkind Robert Williams will surely be felt, but first-year coach Ime Udoka has done a terrific job managing his bench and riding the hot hand. Mid-season acquisition Derrick White — in addition to Defensive Player of the Year candidate Marcus Smart — will be key in slowing down opposing guards.
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3. Milwaukee Bucks (51-31)
First Round Matchup: vs. Chicago Bulls
Last year, the Bucks proved they could get the job done on the biggest stage. Can this group do it again? Milwaukee boasts the pedigree and experience to make another lengthy run in the postseason. We saw a more measured approach to the regular season from the Bucks this year.
Whether it was nagging injuries or scheduled rest, the Bucks sat their three stars periodically throughout the season (Giannis and Jrue Holiday both played 67 games, Khris Middleton played 66). The team was also without starting center Brook Lopez for much of the season. They’ll be heavily favored against a hobbled Bulls team.
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2. Golden State Warriors (53-29)
First Round Matchup: vs. Denver Nuggets
There is something that needs to be said about proven championship mettle. The Warriors have “been there, done that”, in every sense of the phrase as it pertains to the NBA postseason. Golden State’s core of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson have been in countless battles together — and have come out on top more often than not.
Curry, Thompson, and Most Improved Player candidate Jordan Poole can catch fire from the outside in an instant. Thanks to Green and first-time All-Star Andrew Wiggins, the Warriors boasted the league’s best defense through the first-half of the season. Injuries derailed the second-half of the year, but this team is getting healthier and will always pose a threat.
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1. Phoenix Suns (64-18)
First Round Matchup: vs. Timberwolves or Clippers or Pelicans or Spurs
The best team in basketball all season long has been the Phoenix Suns. Last year’s runner-up enter the postseason as prohibitive favorites following a historic regular season. This group set a franchise record for wins with 64 – eight more than any other team this season. Phoenix’s brilliance is built upon its outstanding backcourt of Chris Paul and Devin Booker and their ability to close out games. Both Paul and Booker are adept late in games with their ability to consistently create a good scoring opportunity for themselves or their teammates.
But, we cannot overlook the importance of the rest of the roster. Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Torrey Craig, and Jae Crowder are ideal wings who can defend multiple positions at a high level. DeAndre Ayton is a matchup nightmare for teams who insist on small-ball. Backup point guard Cameron Payne is capable of taking over offensively for segments of the game on his own. This team is balanced, hungry, and calm under pressure. It’s the Suns’ championship to lose.
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