The 2022 NBA playoffs is an annual garden of forking paths. Teams don’t know who to expect awaiting them in the next round or when their season will end. One injury can swing momentum in the other direction. What we do know is that there are particular matchups that are more palatable than others. Certain matchups are so forgettable that the best action took place in the stands (see: Suns in 4 guy). Now that most of the playoff participants have been cemented, our hoop imaginations have a grip on the possibilities. Twenty teams remain, but we feel these are the potential playoff matchups that have the juiciest potential to be classics.
Brooklyn Nets vs. Golden State Warriors
This is the cinematic ending to the season that fans deserve. It’s a potential Finals matchup with Kevin Durant facing off against the dynasty he left behind. A subplot pitting Steph Curry against Kyrie Irving in the NBA Finals would be undermined by Irving’s inability to play road games in this series. Irving would be banned from playing in the Chase Center because of his vaccination status, meaning Durant and Ben Simmons would have to step in his absence. Brooklyn playing without Kyrie on the road would be even more profound if this series went seven games. Imagine the drama of Kyrie trying to petition his way into Game 7 alongside a group of quack doctors claiming his experimental holistic medicine has essentially designated him vaccine antibodies.
Philadelphia 76ers vs. Milwaukee Bucks
This would serve as a new chapter in two rivalries. Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo would get to antagonize one another on the Eastern Conference Finals stage. Another would play as the subplot to a battle of the trees between Embiid and Giannis. Miami may have earned the best regular-season record, but the winner of this semifinal matchup would be considered the frontrunner in the Eastern Conference Finals. Kevin Durant has found himself chasing Giannis and coming up short in the last year. Durant is 33 now and this may be one of his last chances to stake his claim as the best player in the league, or he may find himself in second — again.
Brooklyn Nets vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Philadelphia is the Sith of sports cities. They’re driven more by their passionate hostility than love for their teams. I’m not sure their fans are even capable of the emotion. The boos will spew from 76ers fans if Ben Simmons takes the floor against the team that drafted him. Their hatred toward Simmons could result in one of the most toxic playoff atmospheres seen in a long time. How would Simmons contribute under this type of pressure? Joel Embiid has embraced being a villain and this matchup is the ultimate motivation. He’ll face off against Andre Drummond, whom he bullied for years before putting their beef aside briefly to become teammates for a few months. The erroneous reports of Kyrie making Harden look washed in practice were too good to be true, but Irving damn sure humiliated Harden when he put the clamps on Harden in Brooklyn’s blowout win over the Sixers on March 11. Harden already gave the Sixers a clunker in their loss to Brooklyn last month.
Miami Heat vs. Boston Celtics
Both teams are top five in defensive efficiency, so expect some physical play. This series would feel like a cage match. The Heat just have to remind themselves not to fight each other. Bam Adebayo and Marcus Smart are Defensive Player of the Year candidates who can defend all five positions. Smart leads the NBA in loose balls recovered per game, fifth in steals per game, fifth in defensive win shares. Kyle Lowry leads the league in charges. Robert Williams’ meniscus injury takes away a critical component of Boston’s defense, but the Celtics have been the league’s best defense in the second half of the season, so they should be able to manage. Jimmy Butler is at that point in his career where he waits until the postseason to turn on the jets offensively. Defensively, he has been on five All-NBA Defensive teams and led the league in steals last season.
Phoenix Suns vs. Milwaukee Bucks
A sequel of the 2022 Finals can’t possibly be as riveting as the original, can it? Antetokounmpo is leaving his plucky underdog years and growing into his god-tier prime and embodying the “nobody can beat me, but myself” attitude that’s elevated Jordan, Kobe, and LeBron before him. However, there have been 15 teams in NBA history who have lost in the NBA Finals and then won it the next season. These Suns are more reminiscent of the 2014 Spurs, who ran it back with essentially the same roster, but with Kawhi Leonard in a more prominent role than the 2017 Warriors who added Kevin Durant.
Memphis Grizzlies vs. Golden State Warriors
Looking at Memphis is like staring into a Gen Z reflection of Golden State in 2015. Memphis’ Ja Morant arrived on the scene from a high mid-major, just like Steph. Bane has emerged as one of the best two-way shooting guards in the league, following in the footsteps of Klay Thompson and Jaren Jackson Jr. is their First-Team Defense skeleton key. They’ve even got their own center from the Land Down Under. The only piece missing is Andre Iguodala, who famously spurned the Young Grizz after getting traded to Memphis, prompting Dillon Brooks to vow they’d get their revenge.
Memphis Grizzlies vs. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks are risking elimination in the playoff game, but last year they were the NBA playoff’s version of an NCAA Tournament Cinderella. This year, the Grizzlies are the NBA’s March Madness contender. Trae Young and Ja Morant are the two point guards vying to be the supreme point guard of the next decade. The Hawks are locked into the play-in game where they’ll be playing for their season on Wednesday, but what better way to justify the play-in tournament than by having a play-in participant represent the east? The Hawks were beginning to heat up as the postseason neared. Trae and Ja is also a matchup of contrasting styles. It’s unlikely, but not impossible.
Philadelphia 76ers vs. Denver Nuggets
The Mathlete wars staggered back into the NBA this month through the MVP debate. Imagine how personal this would be for Joel Embiid, who has been campaigning for this MVP like it was a Pennsylvania Senate seat. Jokić’s 538 RAPTOR stat and other metrics make Jokić out to be a better defender than Embiid, which should rile him up even more. What better way to settle the Mathlete debate than by giving him and by proxy, those nerds an atomic wedgie in front of an international audience? Jokić has actually outplayed Embiid on occasion this season as fun as that sounds.
Golden State Warriors vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis vs. Steph in a battle of contrasting superstars is made for television. Jrue Holiday is going to give Curry bigger fits than Matthew Dellavedova. Meanwhile, Dray is the vaccine for Giannis. He’s not 100 percent, but he’s better than nothing. The Bucks would be the first repeat champions since the 2018 Warriors.
Worst Case Finals Scenario: Boston Celtics vs. Utah Jazz
This would be the darkest timeline for the NBA. The potential of a Finals between Boston and Utah going seven games and ending on Juneteenth would be one of the greatest microaggressions ever committed by a progressive corporation. The NBA’s largely black fanbase would watch, but with Lakeith Stanfield’s agonizing smile.
Basketball purists would love it. You’d have Marcus Smart switching between Donovan Mitchell and Gobert. Mitchell and Jayson Tatum will either be hitting shots from every corner of the floor. Unfortunately, we also might witness bizarre images of John Stockton vibing courtside with Jaylen Brown over their shared mistrust of the vaccine. It would be too lame of an ending to what Rob Parker calls a disappointing season.