While teams continue fighting for their lives and the eighth seed in the NBA play-in tournament, their future opponents have been watching comfortably from home.
The play-in tournament concludes on Friday to determine the final spots in the NBA playoffs, ending what has been a near-week off for the teams that already punched their postseason tickets.
Rested and secure as those teams may be with the “x-” symbol already beside their name, there is at least some uncertainty surrounding each as they prepare to begin their postseason quest for an NBA championship. Here’s one question for each team before the first round tips off on Saturday.
1. Miami Heat: Can the Heat prove the doubters wrong?
The Heat’s season appeared to be going off the rails in late March as they suffered four straight ugly losses and their best player and head coach got into a screaming match. But Miami rebounded with a six-game winning streak to lock down the top seed in the East.
Despite being the No. 1 seed, the Heat still have their doubters. They have the fourth-best odds to represent the East in the NBA Finals, trailing the Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics, while they’re just ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers. Miami wouldn’t have the best player in a series against any of those teams, so it’s not hard to see why they aren’t being taken as seriously as a Finals contender.
What the Heat lack in superstar power they make up for in other areas, though. They boast a top-five defense, are the league’s best 3-point shooting team percentage-wise, have strong depth and are led by an elite coach. Will the combination of all of that, along with home-court advantage, be enough for them to defeat Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant or Jayson Tatum in a potential conference finals matchup? Or Joel Embiid in Round 2?
2. Boston Celtics: Will the Celtics regret not trying to avoid the No. 2 seed?
Unlike the defending champion Bucks, the Celtics didn’t shy away from the prospect of playing the Nets in Round 1. They weren’t rewarded by the Basketball Gods for their courage, though, as the Nets beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in the play-in on Tuesday.
The Celtics’ turnaround this season has been nothing short of remarkable. After their 18-21 start, Boston went 33-10 with the NBA’s best defensive rating (105.0, four points ahead of the next-best team), second-best offensive rating (118.5) and best net rating (13.5, 5.3 points ahead of the next-best team). Led by a budding superstar in Tatum and a league-best defense, the C’s are good enough to make the Finals. However, they’ll need to go through the two biggest favorites in the Eat, Brooklyn and Milwaukee, to get there.
Tatum outdueled Durant with a 55-point effort in Boston’s 126-120 March win over Brooklyn. Can he do that a few more times in Round 1? And how much will a Robert Williams-less Celtics defense be able to contain Durant and Kyrie Irving?
3. Milwaukee Bucks: Can the Bucks pull off a repeat?
The bracket broke nicely for the reigning champs. By tanking out of the No. 2 seed on the final day of the regular season, the Bucks have a relatively easy first-round matchup (more on that in a bit) and should be favored to beat whomever they would face in the conference finals. Their biggest obstacles will come in the second round, when they would meet either the Celtics or Nets, and in the Finals, where they could run into the 64-win Suns for a second straight year.
The last two teams to pull off back-to-back championship seasons had multiple superstars in the Warriors with Durant and Curry (2017-18) and the Heat with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade (2012-13). The Bucks only have one, but he’s more than equipped to will them to a second consecutive title. Antetokounmpo put together yet another MVP-caliber season, with averages of 29.9 points, 11.6 rebounds and 5.8 rebounds. If he can lead the Bucks past their second-round opponent, the Bucks could end up in another matchup against the Suns for a chance to hang another championship banner next fall.
4. Philadelphia 76ers: Which James Harden are the Sixers getting?
The James Harden honeymoon period ended rather quickly in the City of Brotherly Love. Since the Sixers’ 5-0 start with Harden in the lineup, the Beard's play has fallen off dramatically. He shot 36.5 percent from the floor and 29.5 percent from deep as Philadelphia went 9-7 over his final 16 games played. He hasn’t been passing the eye test, either, lacking a burst to beat defenders off the dribble.
Harden, who’s had some infamous playoff clunkers throughout his career, shot a combined 8-for-24 from the field in two games against the Raptors during his rough stretch. Embiid, a scoring champion and MVP candidate, may just be enough to push the Sixers past Toronto, but they will need a much better Harden to make it any further than that.
5. Toronto Raptors: Can the Raptors continue their recent success vs. Philly?
The Raptors have defeated the Sixers twice in the past month, and both victories came without Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby. Toronto dominated Philly on the offensive glass, totaling 32 offensive rebounds and 36 more field goal attempts than the Sixers over the two games. The Raptors were No. 2 in offensive rebounding and No. 3 in fast break points, while the Sixers were in the bottom 12 in allowing offensive rebounds and tied for second-worst in transition defense.
Harden, as previously mentioned, was ineffective as a scorer in both contests, while Embiid shot 6-for-20 in the first game before making 10 of 22 shots for 30 points and five turnovers in the other. The Sixers were a combined plus-15 with Embiid on the floor and minus-25 with him off it.
All of this to say, it’s not hard to see a path to a Raptors upset. While Toronto isn’t big in the middle, they have a plethora of long, athletic wings to throw on Harden and double-team Embiid with. And on the other end of the court, the Sixers will be without their best wing defender, Matisse Thybulle, for the games in Toronto due to his COVID-19 vaccination status. Pascal Siakam, who could be Thybulle’s assignment for games in Philly, put up 31.5 points, 10 rebounds and 8.5 assists in the two recent wins over the Sixers.
6. Chicago Bulls: Can the Bulls be competitive vs. Milwaukee?
The Bulls were one of the best stories in the league at one point earlier this season, sitting first in the Eastern Conference with DeMar DeRozan playing like a top MVP candidate. But that early-season magic has been missing for some time now.
After starting 26-10, Chicago finished 20-26 with the fourth-worst defense (117.1 rating) and the 10th-worst net rating (-4.1). The Bulls dropped 15 of their final 22 games, with 10 of those defeats being by double digits. Injuries have certainly been a factor in the Bulls’ swoon, as Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and Patrick Williams each missed at least half the season, while Zach LaVine sat for 15 games.
Chicago struggled mightily against the league’s best teams all season though, going a combined 2-21 versus the top four seeds in each conference. That 2-21 mark included four losses to the Bucks. Chicago played Milwaukee tough in the first two matchups before being blown out in the last two as the Bucks won by 28 in late March and 21 in early April. With how the Bulls have been playing, it begs the question whether they can win a single game in this series.
7. Brooklyn Nets: Will Ben Simmons return and be a factor?
The Nets have done themselves no favors in what’s been a drama-filled season. Brooklyn needed a win on the final day of the regular season just to finish seventh and then had to beat the Cavs in the play-in to officially clinch a playoff berth. Now, their road to the Finals projects to be Celtics-Bucks-Heat/Sixers/Raptors.
As long as Durant is healthy, the Nets will still have a good chance of making it out of the East despite the tough road ahead. But their odds could be boosted if they get Ben Simmons back on the floor and he can actually contribute. Due to a holdout in Philly and a back injury in Brooklyn, Simmons hasn’t been on an NBA court since his meltdown with the Sixers in last year’s playoffs. However, there’s reportedly optimism within the Nets that the three-time All-Star could return from his back injury in the first round.
It’s impossible to know how Simmons would handle being immediately thrust into a high-pressure situation, but there’s no question that the Nets could use his skill set. Beyond Durant, Brooklyn doesn’t have any great options to throw on players like Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Khris Middleton and Antetokounmpo. Imagine if they had an all-league defender at their disposal?
1. Phoenix Suns - Can the Suns make a return trip to the NBA Finals?
What's more challenging than getting to the NBA Finals? Getting back there.
Only 13 teams in NBA history have won a championship the season after losing in the NBA Finals. The Suns have put themselves in position to become the 14th after comfortably finishing with the best record in the league at 64-18, setting a franchise record for wins in a single season. The other teams to do so, you ask?
The 2017 Warriors, 2016 Cavs, 2014 Spurs, 2012 Heat, 2009 Lakers, 1989 Pistons, 1986 Celtics, 1985 Lakers, 1983 76ers, 1979 SuperSonics, 1973 Knicks, 1959 Celtics and the 1955 Nationals.
After falling to the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2021 Finals, the Suns have performed like a team on a quest for redemption. They are the only team in the NBA this season to finish top five in offensive rating (fifth at 114.2) and defensive rating (third at 106.8), combining for a league-best net rating (7.5), per NBA.com. That balance has helped put the Suns in optimal position to capture their first NBA championship. But they have to get back to the Finals first.
2. Memphis Grizzlies - Is Ja the next Giannis?
From the No. 2 pick to No. 2 seed.
It was just three short years ago that the Grizzlies were hoping to land the top pick in the Zion Williamson sweepstakes. Instead, they got the second pick, drafted Ja Morant and became the true lottery winners.
The Grizzlies matched a franchise record with 58 wins this season and finished with the league's second-best record, making for one of the quickest top-of-the-lottery to top-of-the-standings turnarounds in league history. Morant is looking to follow in the footsteps of Giannis Antetokounmpo by ending a title drought for the small-market team that drafted him. He averaged 27.4 points, 6.7 assists and 5.7 rebounds during his first All-Star season, scoring in ways that few guards have:
The team’s overall success has come with its preferred starting lineup of Morant, Dillon Brooks, Desmond Bane, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Steven Adams having played just 11 games together this season, producing an impressive net rating of 24.9. All are expected to start in Game 1 of their first-round matchup, which could lead to the team peaking at the perfect time.
If so, Morant will receive the acclaim. But know that the Grizzlies’ winning percentage is actually higher in a not-so-small sample size of games Morant didn’t play in this season, going 20-5. Morant is the star, but it’s hardly a one-man show.
3. Golden States Warriors - Can Steph Curry and the Dubs return to dynasty form?
Steph Curry hasn’t played in a playoff game since June 2019. That could change Saturday … possibly.
Curry has been out since March 16 when he suffered a foot sprain that caused him to miss the final 12 games of the regular season. His status for the start of the playoffs remains uncertain, possibly delaying his postseason return.
When he last stepped off the court in the postseason, it was as the Toronto Raptors celebrated their 2019 championship that denied the Warriors a three-peat. It marked the end of a Golden State dynasty that included five straight trips to the NBA Finals. It was also the last game Klay Thompson would play in for 941 days after suffering the first of two major injuries. The Warriors missed the playoffs during an injury-ravaged season in 2019-20 and were eliminated during the play-in tournament in 2021-22. Now, after starting the season 18-2 and getting Thompson back in January, they’ve returned to the playoffs.
How close the Warriors come to resembling dynasty-form will be determined by how quickly Curry can shake off the rust following his lengthy absence. He enters as the NBA’s all-time leader in playoff 3-pointers with 470. Thompson, fourth with 374 made postseason 3s, could pass Ray Allen (385) and become just the third player in league history to reach the 400 milestone, joining Curry and LeBron James (432).
But the current Warriors don’t have the familiarity of playing alongside the championship trio of Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green, who have played just 11 minutes together this season before hopefully throwing a dynasty reunion in the playoffs.
4. Dallas Mavericks – Will the Mavericks end their second-round drought?
Your star player wearing a walking boot while entering a hospital is not what a team wants to see days before the playoffs begin.
But that was the case for the Mavs and Luka Doncic, who exited Sunday’s regular-season finale with a calf strain. An MRI on Monday confirmed the strain, but a timetable for Doncic’s return has not been set.
It’s unfortunate news for a Mavs team that last advanced beyond the first round when their current head coach Jason Kidd was still playing on the team. That was back in 2011 when Dallas won the NBA championship, the last time the Mavs won a postseason series, having fallen in the first round during their last six playoff appearances.
Kidd, in his first season as Mavs coach, helped put the team in position to host a first-round matchup for the first time since that title season after Dallas won 20 of their last 27 games. But their ability to end their second-round drought is dependent entirely on the health of their MVP candidate. The Mavs went 8-9 this season in games without Doncic, who led the team in scoring (28.5 points per game), rebounding (9.1) and assists (8.7).
5. Utah Jazz – Was the front office’s decision to run it back a wise one?
Last season, the top-seeded Jazz held a 25-point lead in Game 6 of the conference semifinals against a Clippers team without Kawhi Leonard. They seemed well on their way to hosting a Game 7 with a chance of advancing to their first Western Conference Finals since 2007. Didn’t happen.
The Clippers made an epic comeback, and the Jazz fell in the conference semifinals for the third time in six years. Despite the collapse, and reports of animosity between Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, the front office in Utah opted to run it back. And now the Jazz are back in a familiar position, coming off a 49-win season with little outside expectation of the team doing much postseason damage.
But they’re capable of doing that damage if their 3-pointers are falling. The Jazz make and take the second-most 3s per game, connecting on 14.5 of their 40.3 attempts this season, second to only the Timberwolves (14.8 makes on 41.3 attempts). That’s led by Mitchell, who launches 9.8 3s per game, and Jordan Clarkson, who attempts 7.6 per game.
If the shots are falling, the Jazz can outshoot any team in the league. If they’re not, they might suffer another early playoff exit. Would they still run it back another year?
6. Denver Nuggets - How far can Nikola Jokic lead the shorthanded Nuggets?
Even the Joker can only do so much.
Nikola Jokic is the only player in the NBA this season who is among the top-10 leaders in scoring (27.1 points per game), rebounding (13.8) and assists (7.9). But asking the reigning MVP to take on the Warriors’ star trio in a seven-game series without both members of his own Big 3 is a tall order. Without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. – who have long been sidelined with injuries and reportedly are not expected to return for the playoffs – Jokic’s supporting cast includes Aaron Gordon, Will Barton and Monte Morris.
Jokic has the size and skill to exploit the 6-6 Draymond Green and 6-9 Kevon Looney and navigate the double teams that will head his way each possession. But he’ll need consistent help from unexpected sources in order to lead the Nuggets to an upset over a Warriors team that is reuniting for the playoffs.
7. Minnesota Timberwolves - Do the Wolves have another celebration in them?
The Timberwolves are unlikely to win the championship this season, but they sure celebrated as if they did on Tuesday.
Jumping onto the scorer’s table, hugging loved ones and shedding tears of joy are typically reserved for title celebrations rather than winning a play-in game to secure the seventh seed. But the Wolves didn’t hold back following their victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday night, which set up a matchup against a fellow up-and-coming team, the Memphis Grizzlies, who they split the four-game regular season series with.
Karl-Anthony Towns struggled in the play-in, and the Grizzlies certainly have the frontcourt size with Jackson and Adams to make it a challenging series for the All-Star center. If so, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell will have to step up as they did against the Clippers. The 20-year-old Edwards, set to receive some national exposure while making his postseason debut, has the potential to steal some of the young-star spotlight that Ja Morant has been stealing. Russell, in four games against the Grizzlies this season, averaged 31 points per game, his highest against any opponent this season. Patrick Beverley gives the young team some playoff experience, having already provided a lesson in postseason celebrations. Another could be in store for a team that has the talent to pull off a first-round upset.