With ten games remaining in the 2021-2022 NBA season, we are experiencing one of the most competitive leagues in history. As it stands in the Eastern Conference, the Miami Heat hold a one and a half game lead over the Bucks, 76ers, and Celtics who are gridlocked in a three-way tie for second place. There is also the potential for teams such as the Bulls and Cavaliers, who at one point in the season held the coveted number one seed, to be a play-in team as the seven seed Raptors trail Cleveland and Chicago by one and two games respectively.
Out west, while the Suns have run away with the one seed, the third through seventh seeds are only separated by six and a half games. The Grizzlies who currently hold the second seed are playing exceptionally well, and I expect them to secure their seeding later this week. At the bottom of the standings, we are looking at the potential for the first Lebron-less playoffs since 2019-2020 in which James was injured and his team could not carry the torch. This also puts into danger his streak in which, of the 15 of 18 seasons James has made the playoffs, he has never been eliminated in the first round.
So, with all this madness ongoing, who is going to raise Larry O’Brien in June? The current overwhelming favorite is the Phoenix Suns who have a record of nine games better than the second-place team in the entire league. The Suns who lost the Finals last year to the Milwaukee Bucks have dealt with injury but have weathered the storm and true talents have emerged such as Cam Johnson and Deandre Ayton, who is finding his stride. The one flaw that this team shows is their lack of a top ten player. There has not been a champion crowned since the 2004 Detroit Pistons, who won without one. While Chris Paul may have been top ten in his career, he isn’t now, and Devin Booker can make a strong argument for top twenty but there is too much competition up top to consider him top ten.
Much like the Miami Heat, the other one seed, The Suns, has similar concerns as they are also a team that wins as a unit. They smother you defensively and the scoring changes every night. Most of the time it’s Jimmy Butler or Bam Adebayo carrying the load with Tyler Herro coming off the bench to add more buckets. The Heat however have something that the Suns don’t— wavering chemistry. The Heat Franchise since Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra took over has been notorious for forming teams in a gritty, play-hard work-hard fashion where if you’re not willing to put in the effort, they’ll ship you out. This environment was ideal when they brought in the aggressive personality of Butler who fit into this team perfectly from the start. But as of late we have seen some tempers flare as in their recent loss to a Curry-less, Klay-less, Draymond-less Warriors team. Butler was seen getting in a verbal and physical altercation with Coach Spoelstra and bench coach veteran Udonis Haslem in which Haslem was heard saying “I’ll beat your a**” to Butler repeatedly.
On the flip side, the Boston Celtics have been a team on the rise, currently sitting at the five spot in the ESPN power rankings. After an injury-riddled first half in which we saw Boston sink as low as the thirteenth seed in the conference, this team has revitalized itself. The Celtics are 22-4 since January 23 led by their two stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The addition of Derrick White at the deadline has helped immensely giving the team a consistent option on both sides of the ball.
The teams with MVP contenders have a shot with the Nuggets, 76ers, and Bucks all performing at a high level. With the possible return of Jamal Murray, the Nuggets could fight their way to the top. The 76ers deadline addition of James Harden makes them a difficult out. The Bucks being the defending champions could utilize their same successful formula and repeat.
Lower seeds that have higher odds due to the caliber of names on their teams are the Brooklyn Nets and LA Lakers as the playoffs are a whole different monster and with a healthy roster these teams could upset some of the higher seeds.
We are spoiled with a great league of basketball in which any of these teams mentioned or others could win it all. That brings us to my prediction: The Suns get their redemption as they triumph over the Bucks.