NBA First-Round Play-In Predictions

The NBA regular season has officially concluded, with Denver and Milwaukee clinching the 1st seed in their respective conferences and the Celtics and Grizzlies clinching second. The Play-In Tournament begins on April 11th.  Here are my picks for the first round of the Play-In Tournament:

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Atlanta Hawks v. Miami Heat

In a matchup of teams that have greatly underperformed this season, the Hawks and Heat have a great amount of potential that remains untapped. The Heat have a strong starting lineup, as well as a decent bench. The team has three main players: Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Tyler Herro. Butler has been the backbone of the Heat over the past few seasons, carrying them to not only the playoffs but the finals as well, losing to Lebron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in 2020. The main issue with this year’s version of the Heat is the offense. Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro are carrying the Heat offensively while everyone else on the team can barely reach double-digit points. Though the bench is decent, they don’t have that additional player that can pour in the points when needed. The Atlanta Hawks are similar to the Heat. The team has two All-Star players, Trae Young, and Dejounte Murray, and arguably no one else to score buckets. Clint Capela has had a mediocre year, John Collins has played horribly and almost was traded, and Saddiq Bey has done virtually nothing since being traded to Atlanta. The game should be tight, but I’ve got the Heat narrowly defeating the Hawks due to Jimmy Butler’s experience and the Heat’s slightly better bench.

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Minnesota Timberwolves v. Los Angeles Lakers

One team (the Timberwolves) has had an underwhelming year, and the other (the Lakers) played well near the end of the year to make the Play-In tournament. The Timberwolves have had one of if not the worst seasons they’ve had since drafting Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins (both first-overall picks). During the offseason, the Timberwolves acquired Rudy Gobert from the Jazz for a number of draft picks, one of them becoming potential NBA Rookie of the Year, Walker Kessler. The team has underperformed like no other team in the NBA, having three All-Star players and barely making the Play-In tournament. The team is also not in a good state of mind, and will be shorthanded, as Gobert and teammate Kyle Anderson recently got into a fight during a game resulting in the NBA suspending Gobert for their game against the Lakers! The Timberwolves have also lost Jaden McDaniels, a young player who has had a breakout year, and Naz Reid, a long-range shooter who has often come up clutch for the Timberwolves. With all of these downsides, I can’t see how the Timberwolves are going to beat the Lakers, or any team for that matter. The Los Angeles Lakers were having a difficult year, with a number of injuries to players. After the trade deadline, however, the Lakers were back in business. The Lakers acquired All-Star caliber player and former Laker D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, and Jarred Vanderbilt, all of whom have greatly impacted this struggling team. I see the Lakers easily defeating the Timberwolves to earn a ticket to the NBA Playoffs. 

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Chicago Bulls v. Toronto Raptors

The Bulls have had a mediocre season – playing bad one game and good the next. The Bulls have a large amount of talent, with the likes of DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, Zach Lavine, and Nikola Vucevic on the roster, but yet continually play inconsistently. The starting lineup has kept the Bulls alive in games this year. The Raptors have underperformed as well. They were expected to make the Playoffs without having to play in the Play-In tournament. The Raptors have stars like Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, and Fred VanVleet who have led this Raptors team to a Play-In appearance. The main issue with this team is the coaching. Though Nick Nurse had led the Raptors to an NBA Championship back in 2019 and won the NBA Coach of the Year award in 2019 in doing so, Nurse is now struggling, having to change plays and schemes due to the roster being filled with larger players and forwards rather than smaller, more versatile players and guards. The Raptors will continue to be unable to adjust their rotation of players and offensive scheme and will be eliminated by the Bulls in a bit of an upset.

Oklahoma City Thunder v. New Orleans Pelicans 

The Thunder are a team with vast potential. Led by All-Star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder were able to sneak into the Play-In tournament but face many challenges on their path to the NBA Playoffs. The Pelicans were the best team in the Western Conference for a good portion of the season: Zion Williamson was back, Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum were unstoppable, the bench was playing great, the Lakers were in last place at the time and the Pelicans were set to have the Lakers’ lottery pick (as part of the Anthony Davis trade) – nothing could stop them. Then Zion got injured, McCollum couldn’t pick up the points left behind by Zion, the bench was overused and became tied, and the Lakers started to play well. The Pelicans went from the 1st seed to the 11th seed in the Western Conference in less than two months! The Pelicans were at least ultimately able to hold on and clinch a spot in the Play-In tournament as the 10th seed. Zion is set to come back soon, but not for this game, which is why the Thunder will beat the Pelicans and move on to face the Timberwolves.