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2022 NBA second round preview: One big question plus predictions

NBA second-round
The Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks tip-off the NBA second-round matchups Sunday. (Jeff Hanisch-USA Today Sports)

NBA second round preview – One big question plus series predictions:

One series down, three to go! The second-round of the 2022 NBA Playoffs tip-off Sunday, beginning with the No. 3-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and the No. 2-seeded Boston Celtics at 1:00 p.m. EST on ABC.

For each of the four second-round matchups — also including the No. 1 Miami Heat-No. 4 Philadelphia 76ers in the East, plus the No. 3 Golden State Warriors-No. 2 Memphis Grizzlies and the top-seeded Phoenix Suns-No. 4 Dallas Mavericks in the West — I decided to craft one burning question I have plus my series predictions.

Let’s jump into it!

No. 2 Boston Celtics v. No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks:

  1. Boston’s defense can withstand Milwaukee’s offense, but can Milwaukee’s defense withstand Boston’s offense?

Boston’s been the NBA’s best team since the New Year; they concluded the regular season winners in 34 of their final 46 and swept the Brooklyn Nets, completely shutting down Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving for a majority of the series. Since the New Year, Boston’s sported the Association’s best defense, by far — surrendering 105.2 points per 100 possessions, north of three points better than the next-best team (Phoenix Suns – 108.7). There’s no question that Boston’s ultra-sturdy defense — led by two-way superstar Jayson Tatum and the NBA’s defensive player of the year Marcus Smart — boasts more than enough physicality and intelligence to potentially slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo. But I’m more intrigued by the inverse: Can Milwaukee’s defense, which overwhelmed Chicago after taking a step back in the regular season (ranking 14th in defense), contain Boston’s 9th-ranked offense? It will be more difficult for Boston to mismatch hunt compared to Brooklyn; the Nets played at least three of Goran Dragic, Patty Mills, Kyrie Irving, Seth Curry and “I play six inches taller than I actually am” Bruce Brown a total of 184 minutes. Khris Middleton will miss the entire series with a sprained MCL, so that’s one less (good) defender to throw at Tatum. Boston’s not the most efficient 3-point shooting team, but the Bucks give up an abundance of 3-pointers to prioritize protecting the cup with Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis in the drop. This will certainly be a much bigger test for Boston, but I see them prevailing, should they knock down shots. 

Prediction: Celtics in 7

No. 1 Miami Heat v. No. 4 Philadelphia 76ers:

(*Full Disclosure: I am a diehard Heat fan.*)

  1. With Embiid out (for an unknown amount of time), who will be Philadelphia’s X-factor outside of Harden?

With Joel Embiid’s abrupt absence, Sixers are going to need an excellent Harden series. That’s not much of a debate, should Embiid miss most — if not all — of the series. Historically, Harden hasn’t been the most trusted playoff performer, so if he’s having an “off night,” who’s going to be the second fiddle? The two obvious answers are Tyrese Maxey or Tobias Harris. Take your pick — while Harris had a very promising two-way series against Toronto, I’m still going with the former. While it’s not a great barometer to use to predict a seven-game series, Maxey played well against Miami in the regular season; in their final matchup in late March, he posted 28-5-4 on 9-of-15 shooting, including 3-of-7 from distance in a seven-point victory without James Harden or Joel Embiid. And outside of his 38-point barrage in Game 1 against Toronto, he averaged 18.0 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists on 46.5/34.5/93.3 shooting splits. He’s very good and has coalesced well with Harden. Maxey’s near the top in my “fastest players with the ball” power rankings; he’s able to get downhill, generate rim pressure that bend defenses and kick out to open shooters. If successful, that hurts Miami, who like Milwaukee, surrender a lot of 3-point attempts, though they also scramble and defend them well, too. All it takes is one — or two — good shooting nights to flip a couple of games, but I don’t see Philly knocking off Miami without a healthy Embiid.

Prediction: Heat in 7 in 5, as always

No. 2 Memphis Grizzlies v. No. 3 Golden State Warriors:

  1. Who wins the possession battle?

They’re all great, but this might be my non-Heat favorite NBA second-round playoff matchup. Remember how much fun last year’s Warriors-Grizzlies play-in game was? I do. Now we get a seven-game series between the two top-3 seeds. And for the most part, they’re both at full strength (knock on wood), unlike most of their meetings during the regular season. I’m interested to see the half-court chess match for the two foes. Though one glaring Golden State weakness that fits right into Memphis’ hands: Turnovers. Only the Houston Rockets sported a higher turnover rate than Golden State during the regular season. Conversely, the Grizzlies turned opponents over at the fourth-highest clip. Memphis struggled generating offense in the halfcourt in the regular season, registering 93.4 points per 100 halfcourt plays, ranking 22nd, per Cleaning the Glass. But they also operated in the halfcourt less often than every other team, boasting the NBA’s highest transition frequency (18.9%) with the 11th-most halfcourt points per 100 plays (126.9). Memphis also placed second in points per 100 possessions it added in their transition offense (4.1) and fourth in points-off-turnovers per 100 possessions (18.1). They salivate for transition opportunities. The Grizzlies were also the NBA’s best offensive rebounding team during the regular season, but that’s bolstered when Steven Adams — who’s currently in the health-and-safety protocols and played just 31 combined minutes in the first round — is on the floor. If there’s an overwhelming winner of the possession battle, that team likely wins the series. I think it’ll be close with Golden State ending on top; as a non-biased observer, I hope this goes seven. 

Prediction: Warriors in 6

No. 1 Phoenix Suns v. No. 4 Dallas Mavericks:

  1. Can Phoenix slow down Luka Doncic?

I know, this is low-hanging fruit. Each coach and player who ultimately face Luka Doncic in the playoffs — second-round or otherwise — will ask themselves the exact same question every time. But that’s also because Doncic has emerged into a spectacular playoff player, albeit a limited 16-game sample. In his playoff career, he’s averaged 32.7 points, 9.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.3 steals on 49.0 percent shooting, including 38.7 percent from 3-point range on 9.4 triple tries per game. Doncic returned from a strained calf for the final three games of the first round against the Utah Jazz, tallying 29.0 points, 10.7 rebounds and 5.7 assists per contest on 46.9/36.7/80.0 shooting splits. Not to mention, the Slovenian’s took the Los Angeles Clippers — with both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George — to six games in 2019-20 and seven games in 2020-21 head on. Doncic’s now shaken the second round for the first time, so I’m interested to see if he’s able to keep the foot on the gas pedal. Phoenix boasts an all-worldly defender in Mikal Bridges, as well as other capable wing defenders in Cameron Johnson, Torrey Craig, Jae Crowder and Devin Booker, a much-improved defensive player, to throw at Doncic. Monty Williams has built a very-respected defensive infrastructure, so I’m very intrigued by how he attacks Doncic with different coverages. 

Prediction: Suns in 6

(I can’t wait to be wrong on most, if not all of these NBA second round predictions, like I am with most predictions in general.)

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