Major Strides in the NBA Playoffs

Media provided by Managing Editor, Naaz Valvani ’22.

Saturday, Apr. 16 marked the official start of the 2021-2022 playoffs. Although it is only the first round, some teams stand out as stronger title contenders than others. 

The second seeded Boston Celtics, led by All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, are looking to win the title and add to their already impressive 17 franchise championships. Tatum, age 24, is finishing his fifth season with the team and is appearing in his fifth consecutive playoff with the Celtics. This season, Tatum and Brown have averaged an impressive 26.9 and 23.6 points per game (PPG), respectively. The Celtics are facing the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs, a formidable opponent for so early in the tournament. Haunted by memories of their matchup last year, the Celtics are looking to challenge their bad fortune and make it past the first round. The Celtics are one of the best-rated defensive teams in the whole league: rated number one in points allowed, number four in rebounds per game, and number two in blocks per game. Marcus Smart, a guard for the Boston Celtics, recently won the Defensive Player of the Year award, only contributing to their already strong team. Playing against the Nets is no easy match, so if the Celtics can make it out of the first round they have a great shot at the title. 

The Memphis Grizzlies, led by twenty-two-year-old All-Star Ja Morant and a cast of other strong role players, finished the season with the second best record in the NBA. The team concluded last season at fifteenth in the NBA and already have demonstrated vast improvement by having the second best record this year. Morant, averaging 27.4 PPG, is a finalist for the Most Improved Player award–his PPG jumped by more than eight since last season. Morant is a living highlight reel, putting up, at the minimum, a poster dunk or genius play per game. Jaren Jackson Jr., or “JJJ” as fans call him, leads the NBA in blocks per game, anchoring the defense and helping Memphis lead the league in blocks. The Grizzlies are also a very strong offensive team, averaging 115.6 PPG, the second most in the entire NBA. However, the most promising aspect of the Grizzlies is their strength even without their star player. The Grizzlies roster is so skilled that, even when Morant isn’t playing, they’ve still managed to win 20/22 games. In the first round, the Grizzlies play the Minnesota Timberwolves (led by Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards, two former first overall picks). The Grizzlies are expected to win this series easily and advance to the second round where they will likely go head to head with the Golden State Warriors. 

The Golden State Warriors, a team that has relished in success after success in the last ten years, are also a strong contender for the NBA title this year. Led by all-time great Stephen Curry, three-time champions Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, all-star Andrew Wiggins, and a cast of strong role players, the Warriors are hungry for their fourth championship in the last decade. Last season, Curry won the scoring title, averaging 32 PPG, but, this season, his points have dipped to 25.5. In spite of this, Curry broke the record for most 3 pointers of all time, totalling at 3,117, showing us that he’s still got it. Klay Thompson returned this year after missing two entire NBA seasons with a left ACL tear and right Achilles injury. Despite missing two and a half years, Thompson is still averaging 20.4 PPG. Draymond Green, another player part of the Warriors dynasty, had a strong season himself. Despite averaging just 7.5 PPG, he is a premier rebounder, passer, and defender, earning an All-Star selection this year. Andrew Wiggins, in his third season with the Warriors, also earned himself an All-Star selection. All of these players and many young role players have contributed to the Warrior’s surprising success this year. They play against the Denver Nuggets, led by reigning MVP Nikola Jokic, in the first round, but expect to beat them and play the Grizzlies in the next round. 

The Phoenix Suns, the team with the best record in the NBA currently, are also vying for a spot in the finals again this year–with the hope of winning it this time. Devin Booker and Chris Paul, the leaders of Suns, are playing incredibly. Booker averages an impressive 26.9 PPG, and Paul leads the NBA averaging 10.8 assists per game. The Suns also have Deandre Ayton, the fourth-year Center from The Bahamas, who’s averaging 17.2 PPG and 10.2 rebounds per game. Mikal Bridges, another player for the Suns, has proven a useful asset as well; he’s a finalist for the Defensive Player of the Year award. According to many sports books, the Suns have the best chance of winning the title this year. They play against and are predicted to beat the New Orleans Pelicans, who are missing their star player, Zion Williamson. Devin Booker is out for the third and fourth games of the series due to an injury, but they are still expected to win. They will likely play against the Utah Jazz or Dallas Mavericks in the second round, and advance further to play the Grizzlies or Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. 

The defending champions are the Milwaukee Bucks–led by two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, all-star Khris Middleton, and defensive point guard Jrue Holiday–are looking to win the title again this year. The Bucks shocked the world last year by winning the title after losing the first two games of the finals. This led Antetokounmpo, already a fan favorite, to become even more loved. Antetokounmpo is a finalist for the MVP award this year, averaging 29.9 PPG and 11.6 rebounds per game. Antetokounmpo is also an extremely strong defender and a strong passer (considering the fact that he isn’t a guard). Khris Middleton, who was showing flashes of stardom during the playoffs last year, is hoping to replicate his playoff success and help Antetokounmpo lead the Bucks to another ring. Although Holiday, in his second season with the Bucks, didn’t make the all-star team, he still played excellently this year. His strong synergy with Antetokounmpo was a catalyst for their success in the playoffs last year, and they hope to reach similar heights this postseason. The Bucks are slated to play against the Chicago Bulls, a team that has played surprisingly well this year after the acquisition of All-Star DeMar DeRozan. They are expected to beat the Bulls relatively easily and advance to play the formidable Celtics or Nets in the second round. 

Finally, Grace’s own Brooklyn Nets. The Nets are in a tricky position this season, and no one can predict what they might achieve. After being the number one team in the East for more than half of the season, the Nets suffered an 11 game losing streak and struggled to compensate for Kevin Durant’s injury, Kyrie Irving not playing, and James Harden being traded out. After much turmoil, they’ve secured the seventh seed in the East, and face the second seeded Celtics in the first round. When Durant and Irving play together, they are an extremely skilled duo. However, the start of the playoffs hasn’t been kind to them as the Celtics’s defense has proven to be tough for the two stars. The Nets also have strong role players, including Bruce Brown Jr. (who has stepped up as the third best Net), Andre Drummond (the strong center they acquired when trading James Harden), and Seth Curry (sharpshooter and brother of the Warriors’s Stephen Curry). The centerpiece of the Harden trade was the acquisition of former all-star Ben Simmons. Unfortunately, Simmons has yet to play for the Nets due to injury, and that might be the nail in the coffin for the Nets. Simmons is a strong defensive player and offensive facilitator and would prove useful in defending Tatum. Fans and analysts expect to see Simmons return in the fourth game of the series, but, by then, they might be too far gone to salvage a win. It’s unlikely that the Nets will make it out of the first round, but, as a Nets fan, I can only hope. 

All in all, there are many contenders for the NBA Playoffs this year. All teams have their strengths and obstacles they must face, but we have yet to figure out which team can use those strengths to overcome those obstacles best. Personally, I think that the Golden State Warriors will win the title this year, but the title is still very up in the air.