The chaotic final day of the NBA regular season has officially concluded.
While all 30 teams suited up for at least more time Sunday, the Miami Heat were one of only three Eastern Conference playoff teams — as well as the Chicago Bulls and Toronto Raptors — who didn’t have to worry about seeding. The Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks, to name a few, were left to intentionally “tank” or “not tank” their respective games to potentially avoid certain teams (*cough* Brooklyn *cough*) come April 16.
Losing Sunday in an all-but-meaningless contest in Orlando, Miami concluded the regular season at 53-29. The 2021-22 regular season marked the 10th time in franchise history where they finished with at least 50 wins — the first since 2013-14, the final year of the Big 3 — and the fourth time they clinched the No. 1 seed, which occurred earlier in the week.
By virtue of the play-in game, they will have the chance to play any one of the Brooklyn Nets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Charlotte Hornets or the Atlanta Hawks. Nets-Cavs will play in Brooklyn on Tuesday for the No. 7 seed; the loser plays the winner between Hornets-Hawks, who play in Atlanta on Wednesday, for the No. 8 seed and a chance to play the Heat on Friday.
Game 1 against Miami will be on Sunday, though the time has yet to be determined.
For each of the four play-in teams, I listed at least one reason why the Heat should want to play them in a seven-game series, and at least one against against. Without further ado, let’s dive into it below!
No. 7 seed - Brooklyn Nets:
Reason(s) against...: For this exercise, let’s dive into the negatives first. Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way now! For starters, I’ll pick the lowest of low-hanging fruit off this imaginery tree; five words, two names: Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. They are two of the most dynamic scorers in the game today (and that we’ve ever seen) and the dynamic, yet ignitable duo gives Brooklyn a puncher’s chance in any seven-game series. Irving can now play in all seven games as opposed to just road games before New York’s amended mandate, which absolutely changes things. Either Irving or Durant could score 40-50 points and nobody would bat an eye. Brooklyn boasts a top-10 offensive despite the duo playing just 16 games together. Yes, you read that correctly. 16 games! When both are on the court, Brooklyn’s scoring an ungodly 125.3 points (!!!) per 100 possessions, per PBP stats. When just one’s on the floor, it tallied a more-than-respectible 115.6 points per 100. Durant and Irving together are absurd, regardless of the other three players surrounding them, so that’s the most daunting factor.
Reason(s) for...: Say what you want about Brooklyn’s offense — they have trouble getting stops; the Nets in the bottom-third in non-garbage time defensive efficiency, including the sixth-worst transition defense, per Cleaning the Glass. To be fair, they rank No. 14 in half court defensive efficiency, though that ranking has plummeted to No. 23 since the New Year. Can their offense be their best defense? Sure, in some instances. But that’s not always sustainable in a seven-game series. Teams with top-flight defenses paired with quality, efficient half court offense inherently have higher ceilings in these settings. Brooklyn has one leg of that. Brooklyn also hasn’t been the healthiest of late; Joe Harris is out for the year and Ben Simmons might (?) suit up for the playoffs; Seth Curry is dealing with a bad hamstring and (Heat legend) Goran Dragic has been in the health and safety protocols for the last five games. Patty Mills, while trending in the right direction, has significantly struggled since the All-Star break, too. Of course, Brooklyn could still best Miami in a seven-game series if it strings out stops. It could also beat them with Durant-Irving going off, which I noted above. But Brooklyn doesn’t have enough bodies to match up with Butler, Lowry, Adebayo or Herro. They just don’t.
No. 8 seed - Cleveland Cavaliers:
Reason(s) against...: It’s difficult to extract scattered single-game samples across an 82-game regular season as opposed to seven potential games — consecutively — against each other. But Miami struggled against Cleveland in their three matchups — particularly with Cleveland’s length. Though I’d be remiss to mention that the Cavs could be without one of its three-big triumvariate, budding soon-to-be 24-year-old All-Star Jarrett Allen, who’s been out with a fractured finger since March 6. J.B. Bickerstaff hasn’t decided whether Allen, one of Cleveland’s defensive pillars, would play Tuesday, so that’s a situation to monitor in it of itself. Evan Mobley has been one of the most versatile defensive rookies this league has seen in sometime and can legitimately switch 1-5, play drop, hedge or blitz. Though Allen’s absence — assuming he’s out — will be felt, Bickerstaff still could put together a doable defensive plan to slow down Miami’s O....for maybe a game or two?
Reason(s) for...: In contrast to Brooklyn, Cleveland lacks the requisite half-court offense to propose serious trouble in a seven-game series. Outside of All-Star guard Darius Garland — who was magnificant this season — Cleveland, in my view, lacks quality shot creators. Caris LeVert has been okay since arriving from Indiana; Rajon Rondo has turned it up a notch or two in the playoffs before, but I don’t expect a resounding effort this time around. Against a top-10 defense, shot creation is paramount. Collin Sexton’s season-ending injury nor Allen and Mobley’s injuries helped matters, either. Outside of their blowout win Sunday against the
Wisconsin Herd Milwaukee Bucks, the Cavs dropped eight of their previous 10 games and I don’t think they have enough consistent offensive juice to hang with Miami in a seven-game series. Outside of Rondo and Kevin Love, they don’t have much playoff experience, either. Maybe they could steal a couple of games?
No. 9 seed - Atlanta Hawks:
Reason(s) against...: With high preseason expectations after their Eastern Conference Finals berth a year ago, the Hawks have yet to reach their true potential this season. That could be looked at as both and good and bad at Miami’s expense; that season-long trend could carry over, rendering it good. But the Hawks, if they’re able to click, become dangerous — spearheaded by Trae Young. Young provides an ever-imposing, unfazed, “I want you to hate me” confidence, as evidenced by last season’s playoff run. Let’s just say nobody in New York will be buying him drinks anytime soon. Young became the second player ever to lead the league in total points and assists, with the other being Nate Archibald in 1972-73. He boasts remarkable 46.0/38.2/90.4 shooting splits and can make a shot from nearly anywhere past halfcourt. The Hawks — who boast the league’s second-best offense with the sixth-highest true-shooting percentage — will go as far as Young takes them. Watch out for Bogdan Bogdanovic, DeAndre Hunter and Kevin Huerter, too.
Reason(s) for...: Well, John Collins, arguably Atlanta’s second-best player, is out and has been injured since March 11. That’s a big loss. Atlanta’s been one of the league’s worst road teams all season, sporting a dismal 16-25 road record with a minus-1.7 NET Rating in such games. The Hawks have the Association’s fifth-worst defenses while also surrendering a 57.5 opponent true-shooting percentage (23rd) and 36.4 3-point percentage (25th). Against the Heat, who rank in the top-five in both categories, that’s not going to fly. Miami’s never going to completely stop Trae Young, but Spoelstra could scheme up enough havoc with enough bodies and collective IQ to potentially mitigate his success. If Miami can just get stops, they should win this series handedly.
No. 10 seed - Charlotte Hornets:
Reason(s) against...: LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges spearhead arguably the fiercest transition attack in the sport. Charlotte ranks third in points per 100 transition plays (132.8) while adding north of four points per 100 possessions in transition, most in the league per Cleaning the Glass. Oh, and guess what? They get out in transition — a lot! The Hornets are third in transition frequency (16.8 percent) and leads in transition opportunites off steals (71.6 percent) — nearly two percentage points higher than the next-best team (Minnesota - 70.2 percent). Kicking into 5th gear before Miami can set their half court defense might be the most optimal formula for success. Charlotte has also been a top-3 offensive team since the All-Star break — ranking No. 9 on the year — and place within the top-6 in 3-point percentage and 3-point makes per game, where Miami’s susceptible. A couple demonstrative outside shooting performances could put Miami in a hole — not just by Charlotte, but by any team.
Reason(s) for...: Similarly to Brooklyn and Atlanta, while the Hornets boast a top-10 offense, they possess a bottom-10 defense. Charlotte’s been a below average defense throughout 2021-22 and don’t have many feasible options against the Heat’s top four. The Hornets give up plenty of 3s (38.6 3PA per 100; 9th-most) at a high clip (36.2 percent; 9th-worst). On the interior, they have no front court depth. If Miles Plumlee gets in foul trouble, they’re going to be in a world of trouble attempting to defend Adebayo with Montrezl Harrell and P.J. Washington. Miami held their ground against Charlotte in their four meetings and I don’t see that swaying much in a playoff setting.
In case you missed it, here’s the play-in schedule:
The matchups are set.— NBA Communications (@NBAPR) April 10, 2022
Update for next week's Meta Quest NBA Play-In Tournament schedule ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/eWMV1ESPTf
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