The 2021-22 NBA season starts October 19, and there’s no shortage of contenders for the 2022 NBA Finals.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks will look to defend the title after winning the 2021 NBA Finals, but will face stiff competition both in their own conference and from the West if they make it back to the Finals. That competition starts with the Brooklyn Nets, who nearly knocked off the Bucks in last year’s playoffs. After forcing overtime in Game 7 without Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn is still a threat to win it all even if Irving doesn’t play this season. The Philadelphia 76ers have point guard drama of their own, and unlike Brooklyn with Irving, probably will need Ben Simmons’ services to reach their first Finals of the Joel Embiid-era. The Miami Heat shouldn’t be counted out, just two seasons (but only 12 months) removed from their 2020 NBA Finals trip, and with an improved roster to boot.

The Western Conference conversation starts with the last two teams to make it to the Finals from the conference: the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers. Devin Booker is only getting better, and the Suns championship window is right now. While that window might be closing for LeBron James as he slowly approaches the twilight of his career, this season has the potential to be special for the Lakers with the acquisition of Russell Westbrook. The Utah Jazz topped the NBA’s regular season standings last year, and have the tools to do so again in 2021-22. And the Golden State Warriors will look to return to business, aka NBA Finals trips, with Klay Thompson back on the court.

I already broke down regular season predictions for both conferences, so if you’d like to see how I picked these teams and their seeds, be sure to check them out. With the field set based on my predictions, here’s how I see the 2022 NBA playoffs shaking out.

2021-22 NBA Season Preview

Play-In Tournament

For the second straight season, the NBA will implement a play-in tournament featuring the 7th through 10th-seeded teams in each conference. The top six finishers in each conference are locked in to the traditional playoff bracket, but the 9th and 10th-seeded teams have a chance to knock out the 7th or 8th-seeded teams to qualify for the 16-team regular playoff field.

First, the 7th-seeded team hosts the 8th-seeded team, with the winner of that game officially claiming the 7th seed. The 9th and 10th-best finishing teams in each conference duke it out for the right to play the loser of that game. In the third and final game of the play-in tournament, the loser of the #7-#8 matchup hosts the winner of the #9-#10 game, for the 8th and final seed in the playoff field.

Besides incentivizing teams to play harder down the stretch to lock up a higher playoff seed, the advent of the play-in tournament allows teams that get hot at the end of the regular season a fighting chance to make the playoffs. Perhaps a star player missed time due to injury, or a trade deadline move improved your teams fortunes. Even if that team finished 9th or 10th in their conference, they could still will their way into the playoffs if they have the talent.

According to my 2021-22 NBA Predictions, this year’s play-in game matchups would be (with my prediction for the winners in bold🙂

  • #7 Atlanta Hawks vs. #8 Chicago Bulls
  • #9 Indiana Pacers vs. #10 Charlotte Hornets
  • #8 Chicago Bulls vs. #10 Charlotte Hornets
  • #7 Dallas Mavericks vs. #8 Los Angeles Clippers
  • #9 Memphis Grizzlies vs. #10 Sacramento Kings
  • #8 Los Angeles Clippers vs. #9 Memphis Grizzlies

There’s no real surprises here, with the original 7th and 8th seeds maintaining their playoff spots. It’s hard to project a #9 or #10 seed getting in, but with the right timing and situation, it’s certainly possible.

Eastern Conference Playoffs

(Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

First Round

  • #1 Milwaukee Bucks over #8 Chicago Bulls in six games

The Chicago Bulls made a ton of improvements in the offseason, including the additions of DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball to play alongside budding star Zach LaVine. If they can finish higher than 7th or 8th in the East, they could potentially make a little bit of a playoff run, but if they’re playing Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round, their playoff berth may be a short one. Chicago at least gives the Bucks a tough time here in six games.

  • #2 Brooklyn Nets over #7 Atlanta Hawks

After making an Eastern Conference Finals run last season, Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks fall much shorter this season with a quick exit against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and the Brooklyn Nets. Like Chicago, the Hawks are a potentially feisty team that would benefit greatly from earning a higher seed and not having to face a juggernaut in the first round.

  • #5 New York Knicks over #3 Philadelphia 76ers in six games

My bracket can’t be all chalk right? The Philadelphia 76ers are an incredibly talented team when everyone is healthy and things are clicking on the court. But they just can’t seem to get it done in the playoffs to reach the NBA Finals. Whether it’s a Joel Embiid injury, or Ben Simmons forcing his way off the team somehow, this just doesn’t feel like the 76ers season. Julius Randle, Kemba Walker, and the New York Knicks take advantage of their Atlantic Division rival’s vulnerability.

  • #4 Miami Heat over #5 Boston Celtics in seven games

In the tightest matchup of the first round on the Eastern Conference side, the Miami Heat outduel the Boston Celtics in seven games. I like Boston’s roster a lot, with Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Smart being joined by Dennis Schroder and the returns of Al Horford and Enes Kanter. But Miami’s team is even more complete, with Jimmy Butler, Bam Abedayo, Duncan Robinson, and Tyler Herro and the offseason additions of Kyle Lowry, P.J. Tucker, and Markieff Morris.

(AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

Conference Semifinals

  • #1 Milwaukee Bucks over #4 Miami Heat in seven games

I almost wanted to pick the Heat here, but it would feel like a disservice to the defending champion Bucks. Miami has a deep lineup that would be able to do real damage against the Bucks and make this a long series. The Heat even scalped P.J. Tucker from the Bucks championship roster, so perhaps the elite defender knows a thing or two about slowing down Antetokounmpo. While the Heat would certainly make things interesting, Milwaukee pulls out this series in seven hard-fought games.

  • #2 Brooklyn Nets over #5 New York Knicks in five games

New York basketball is as relevant as ever with the Big Apple’s two teams squaring off in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Unfortunately for the Knicks, the Nets are just too loaded to overcome and the series doesn’t last too long. Even assuming the absence of Kyrie Irving, Durant and Harden would be more than enough to dispatch the Knicks.

Photo: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Conference Finals

  • #2 Brooklyn Nets over #1 Milwaukee Bucks

The Nets took the Bucks to seven games in the playoffs last season, and were an overextended Durant toe away from downing the eventual champions. Brooklyn may have some Kyrie Irving drama on their hands this season, but they didn’t have Irving’s services for most of that series either. Harden suited up for Game 7, but wasn’t at 100% either with a knee injury. We can’t project health, but assuming Durant and Harden are fully available and have already played an entire season without Irving, its realistic to think the duo could overcome the Bucks this postseason. If Irving is somehow on the court come playoff time, well that’s just icing on the cake.

Western Conference Playoffs

Photo: sportskeeda.com

First Round

  • #1 Utah Jazz over #8 Los Angeles Clippers in five games

The Utah Jazz are a well-oiled machine, finishing with the best record in the NBA last season. Especially without Kawhi Leonard, the Los Angeles Clippers will struggle to win games in this series. Utah did blow a 2-0 lead to the Clippers last postseason as they were bounced from the conference semifinals in six games, but the the Jazz have gotten better while Los Angeles is trending in the opposite direction.

  • #2 Phoenix Suns over #7 Dallas Mavericks in six games

Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks should give the defending Western Conference champions a good fight, and I wouldn’t want this series to get to Game 7 if I was the Phoenix Suns. But with last year’s NBA Finals run under their belts, Devin Booker, Chris Paul, and the Suns should have the tools to down Dallas in the first round.

  • #3 Los Angeles Lakers over #6 Portland Trailblazers in six games

Last year’s early playoff exit was disappointing for the Los Angeles Lakers, but can largely be blamed on their low seeding and availability of Anthony Davis, both a result of injuries that plagued their season. With a healthy squad two seasons ago, the Lakers were the team to beat not just in the West, but in the NBA. Damian Lillard is a phenomenal player and could almost single-handedly steal a game or two in this series, but the Trailblazers aren’t deep enough to knock off the Lakers.

  • #4 Golden State Warriors over #5 Denver Nuggets in six games

If the Denver Nuggets could secure homecourt advantage in this series, they would be much better off with the most unique road environment in the NBA. But without Jamal Murray, the Nuggets and defending regular season MVP slip to the fifth seed, which puts them in a tough matchup against a dangerous Golden State Warriors team. With Steph Curry and Klay Thompson back on the court in the playoffs for the first time since the 2019 NBA Finals, the Warriors advance in six games.

Conference Semifinals

Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
  • #4 Golden State Warriors over #1 Utah Jazz in seven games

The Jazz have the talent to earn the best record in the NBA in back-to-back seasons, but still might not be able to break through to the Western Conference playoffs. Whether Utah faces the Warriors, Lakers, or Suns, they’ll have a tough series on their hands. Donovan Mitchell is one of the best players in the NBA, but in the playoffs, two (or more) stars is often better than one. Golden State might not quite emulate their 73-9 season, but with Curry and Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins, and James Wiseman, the Warriors are ready to be Finals contenders once again. Golden State’s explosive offense overpowers Utah’s stifling defense in this series: maybe not every night, but ultimately, four out of seven times.

  • #3 Los Angeles Lakers over #2 Phoenix Suns in six games

After Phoenix downed the Lakers in the first round last season, Los Angeles will be looking for revenge here. Assuming both teams are fully healthy, the Lakers should be able to win the series, and they even have an added advantage with their new big three and depth options. Even if Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, or possibly even LeBron James, can’t take the court, the Lakers will still have two All-Stars in their starting lineup, as well as veteran bench options like Carmelo Anthony and Trveor Ariza that can still hold their own if called upon. Phoenix has the skill to get back to the NBA Finals, and if they get past the Lakers, they just might make it there again. But in my prediction, the Lakers get revenge for last year’s early exit and advance to the Western Conference Finals.

Conference Finals

Photo: ForumBlueAndGold.com
  • #3 Los Angeles Lakers over #4 Golden State Warriors in six games

I promise I didn’t draw the bracket up intentionally to ultimately get to this matchup, but here we are: LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and Anthony Davis taking on Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, and Andrew Wiggins. It’s the closest thing to a Cavaliers-Warriors Round 5 that we’ll get, and it’s an absolutely juicy matchup for NBA fans.

In reality, the Warriors might not be the second-best team in the West, hence why they’re the fourth seed in the playoffs, but they advance to the Conference Finals after overcoming the Nuggets and Jazz. Time will tell if this year’s version of the Warriors is nearly as well-oiled as the team that made five straight NBA Finals trips, but for now I’ll assume they don’t play at quite that level. To be fair, we don’t know exactly what to expect from the new-look Lakers either, but the LeBron-AD pairing alone will be a difficult one for the Warriors to defend, especially without a Kevin Durant or elite defender in the post. James, David, Westbrook and company outduel the Warriors in six games to reach the NBA Finals.

NBA Finals

Photo: TheSportsRush.com

#2 Brooklyn Nets vs. #3 Los Angeles Lakers

It may not be the boldest prediction, but I expect the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers to meet in the 2022 NBA Finals. No team in the league has as good an offensive one-two punch as the Nets have with Durant and Harden, so even assuming Kyrie Irving doesn’t play this season, Brooklyn is my favorite to come out of the East, even if they don’t earn the best regular season record in the conference. The Lakers also won’t top their regular season conference standings, taking it easy to preserve James, Davis, and Westbrook for the playoffs.

In terms of star power, there couldn’t be a better NBA Finals matchup. James and Durant would square off for the fourth time in the Finals, after meeting as members of the Heat and Thunder as well as Cavaliers and Warriors. Harden and Westbrook, former teammates with Durant in Oklahoma City, would both make their first Finals trip in ten years. Both teams also feature recognizable veterans, such as Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Paul Millsap for the Nets and Caremlo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, and DeAndre Jordan. This matchup would be a love letter to fans of basketball over the past decade.

On the court, anything could be possible. Durant could take over a game, put up 50 points, and lead the Nets to a win almost by himself. The Lakers could get some big nights from their Big Three, and other nights might need to be bailed out by the bench. James could extend his streak of excellent play in the Finals, most likely not leading the Lakers in scoring but impacting the game’s outcome in other ways.

If this series comes to fruition, the outcome may come down to which team is healthier and hotter. On paper, I probably like the Nets roster more, as the Lakers lack younger difference makers with a largely veteran core. Brooklyn would likely be a slight favorite in this series, but something tells me James could get the most out of his team in the big moment. I may be a little biased because I’d love to see it, but I would even go as far as to predict the Lakers beat the Nets in seven games. James won’t be the Lakers top scorer, but he’ll take home his fifth ring and fifth NBA Finals MVP award after averaging nearly a triple double once again over seven games.

Los Angeles Lakers defeat Brooklyn Nets in seven games, LeBron James win NBA Finals MVP

Conference Standings Predictions

Throwback: Previous NBA Predictions

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Header Photo: Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post; Getty Images

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