Who will emerge as the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds in the East? And who will emerge as the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds in the West?
Steve Aschburner: Brooklyn and Cleveland in the East. My head demands that I pick the Nets, while my heart dictates that I go with the Cavaliers. Nobody ever wants to face Kevin Durant in any sort of playoff or Play-In situation, and Kyrie Irving is just ornery enough to stick it to his old team as he tries to salvage his largely lost season. But the difference between an 0-2 Play-In exit and a first-round opportunity would mean everything to the Cavs. Injuries waylaid what could have been a Top 4 finish in the East, and there were just too many bright spots to their season to have it end by Friday. Cleveland deserves to hit a reset button … as long as it can somehow contain Atlanta’s Trae Young.
The L.A. Clippers and Minnesota in the West. In that order, which means that the Clippers will win the No. 7 vs. No. 8 game and force the Timberwolves to beat the winner of 9-10, either the Pelicans or the Spurs, to reach the playoffs for only the second time since 2004 (2018 was the other). Coach Tyronn Lue’s squad was 3-1 against Minnesota in regular-season play and overachieved most of the season, including a 6-1 finishing kick. But the Wolves almost never take the easy way. Actually, as much as I like the Play-In tourney, it stinks that Minnesota was closer to fifth place in the West than ninth, yet still has to jump through these hoops to qualify. Its 46-36 record is the best in the Play-In’s short history and would be a no-brainer playoff team in the traditional format. Two shots at Target Center, revived this season from an insurance-office atmosphere to a legit boisterous arena, will be enough, though.
Mark Medina: The Brooklyn Nets (No. 7) and the Atlanta Hawks (No. 8) move on in the East. The Nets may not deserve the benefit of the doubt that they will march toward The Finals, but amid all of their roster disruption and inconsistency, they certainly have enough talent in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to secure a Play-In win. They can worry about Ben Simmons’ availability and the rest of their roster once the playoffs actually start. As for the Hawks, they have relatively more experience and success than Charlotte and Cleveland after advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals last season. The Hawks have shown this season that they don’t quite have enough to join the Eastern Conference elite but Trae Young’s brilliant scoring and playmaking should be enough to lock in a postseason appearance.
The LA Clippers (No. 7) and the Minnesota Timberwolves (No. 8) are my West picks. The Clippers have gotten healthy at just the right time. And, no, the Clippers have not given any indication that Kawhi Leonard will play after spending the last week completing individual workouts. But the Clippers at least have integrated Paul George and Norman Powell after missing them for a significant time this season. So even if it does not appear Leonard will return at least for the Play-In game, the Clippers are much more talented and cohesive than most Play-In teams.
The New Orleans Pelicans and the San Antonio Spurs certainly have their own case to lock in the No. 8 seed. But the Timberwolves have played the best out of the group. Minnesota has blossomed since the All-Star break with the NBA’s third-best center (Karl-Anthony Towns), a versatile forward (Anthony Edwards) and a dynamic playmaker (D’Angelo Russell). They also have developed some toughness with veteran irritant Patrick Beverley. Sure, the Spurs are well-coached. And sure, the Pelicans have leaned on a mix of young talent (Brandon Ingram) and veterans (C.J. McCollum) to overcome Zion Williamson’s absence. But the Timberwolves have the most talent and depth.
Shaun Powell: In the East, it’s the Nets (7) and Hawks (8). Have you noticed how the Cavs, after going 34-21, have slipped on a banana peel? They’ve chosen the wrong time to go chilly, and some of this has to do with the absence of the injured Jarrett Allen, who’s a much-needed asset at the rim on both ends. Allen remains iffy for a return, and anyway, Cleveland seems ill-equipped against Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the Nets for the seventh seed. Then it becomes whether the Cavs can hold off the Hawks for the final playoff spot. Atlanta hosts Charlotte and should win as the Hawks have won 11 of their past 12 at home. Then Trae Young, the league leader in total points and assists, should be enough to push Atlanta back into the postseason.
In the West, give me the Clippers (7) and Wolves (8). Paul George has been terrific since returning from injury, and if you recall last season, has shaken his reputation for coming up short in the playoffs. Plus, Norman Powell, likewise, is flourishing since his return. That should be enough for the more-experienced Clippers to beat the Wolves for the seven-spot. But fear not for Minnesota. The Pelicans — who should repel the Spurs — are a Zion Williamson short of bringing any deep suspense to the fight for No. 8. Karl-Anthony Towns will be too much, and besides, New Orleans (17-24) is unreliable on the road.
John Schuhmann: In the East, it’s Brooklyn (7) and Cleveland (8). None of these four teams should have a ton of confidence that they can win a single game when needed. Atlanta, Brooklyn and Charlotte have all struggled to get stops all season, while the Cavs have had issues on both ends of the floor since losing Jarrett Allen. But the Nets have Kevin Durant, which automatically makes them the favorite in the No. 7 vs. No. 8 game on Tuesday. And give Cleveland the edge for the No. 8 seed, because they need to win just one game, because Allen might be back by Friday and because the Hawks (the favorite in the 9-10 game) have struggled so much on the road (9-17 since Christmas).
In the West, I’ve got Minnesota (7) and the Clippers (8). Anything can happen in a one-game scenario but favor the home teams. The Clippers are obviously stronger with Paul George back in the lineup and they kept Karl-Anthony Towns in check in the regular season (his 15.3 points per game was his lowest scoring average vs. any West opponent). But all three of the games he played against LA were in November, the Wolves were 12-4 at home when they had their full starting lineup, and their bench was much improved after the All-Star break. These are two really good teams and, as much as the Pelicans have improved over the course of the season, there’s a big gap between 7-8 and 9-10 in the West.
Michael C. Wright: Brooklyn easily goes into the playoffs as the East’s No. 7 seed, while Atlanta defeats the Hornets and the Cavaliers to head into the postseason at No. 8. Durant struggled in the season-finale against Indiana on Sunday, hitting just 5 of 17 from the field, before notching his fourth triple-double with a career-high 16 assists and 10 rebounds. Cleveland shouldn’t expect such a cold shooting night from Durant on Tuesday. As we all know, Brooklyn came into the season as one of the Eastern Conference favorites, and you can bet the Nets will use their All-Star pedigree with Durant and Irving as well as timely contributions from sharpshooting vets such as Seth Curry and Patty Mills to live up to that promise. Cleveland’s youth and hunger won’t hold up against Brooklyn’s collective skillset and big-game experience, even if somehow the Cavs get back All-Star center Jarrett Allen (broken finger), a defensive anchor.
Atlanta’s toughest matchup in the Play-In Tournament is Wednesday’s clash with the young, athletic Charlotte Hornets, as Miles Bridges and LaMelo Ball have been on a tear lately. After making it to the East finals last season, the Hawks have underachieved in 2021-22. Do they regress or take the next step? Coach Nate McMillan and Trae Young have too much pride to let the former take place. But don’t count on Atlanta making it back to the conference finals, either. The Hawks closed out the season strong, winning seven of their last nine, while the Cavs struggled down the stretch, dropping eight of their last 11. Young and Clint Capela should prove to be a dangerous combo for Atlanta in the tournament.
In the West, it’s likely we’ll be watching both teams Tuesday in Game 2 of TNT’s doubleheader, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to hoping for an opening-round clash between two of the most fun, trash-talking teams in the league in Memphis and Minnesota. So, the Timberwolves take the No. 7 seed to set up a first-round series against the Grizzlies, and the LA Clippers finish at No. 8 and head to Phoenix. Don’t get too caught up in the regular-season series between LA and Minnesota. The Clippers won that 3-1, but three of those games were played over a span of 10 days back in November. Besides that, the Timberwolves are a much better team since then, going 30-16 after starting the season 16-20. Armed with 59 games of postseason experience, Patrick Beverley will pester his former Clippers teammates mercilessly with his antics, which in turn will charge up Anthony Edwards, D’Angelo Russell and, most importantly, leading scorer Karl-Anthony Towns, who should be able to have his way with Ivica Zubac.
The Clippers possess the big-game experience, having advanced all the way to the Western Conference finals last season for the first time in franchise history. But hunger, youth, athleticism, and momentum are on Minnesota’s side. Besides that, a repeat of last year’s conference finals might turn out to be the most favorable matchup LA could hope for in Round 1, especially when you consider coach Tyronn Lue’s ability to game plan for opponents.
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