2022 NBA Playoffs

What we've learned about all 16 playoff teams during the 2022 postseason

Depth, defense and experience come up big after a full week of postseason action.

Jordan Poole (left) has meshed nicely so far in the playoffs with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

The NBA playoffs are a week old. Nobody’s been eliminated. Reputations are being formed and enhanced and damaged. And the drama has, for the most part, been engaging.

So: What have we learned? Here’s a team-by-team report:

The playoff MVP (yeah, it’s only been a week, but still … ) plays in Boston. Has anyone played better than Jayson Tatum? At both ends? Maybe you can make a case for Giannis. That’s about it. Not only is Tatum averaging 29.7 points per game, but his defense on Kevin Durant has been A-level. Which means, Tatum is spending plenty of precious energy — 43.7 minutes worth per game — at a high degree and doing so impressively. This represents just another step in the rise of a superstar, someone who is putting himself in select company. Tatum has accepted that challenge and clearly isn’t awed by the task of outplaying Durant or anyone else who’ll come his way in the next round. If Tatum’s aspiration matches his performance so far, the Celtics could be the favorite to emerge from the East.

The Celtics take a commanding 3-0 lead over the Nets, fueled by 39 points from Jayson Tatum

Milwaukee has a few Bucks. When Khris Middleton went down with a knee injury, there was a reasonable sense of concern for the defending champs. Obviously, Giannis Antetokounmpo can compensate for any loss, but who would be the next man up? Well, Grayson Allen apparently. Against the Bulls, he scored 22 points in Game 2 and 27 in Game 3 mainly by doing his one job: Make open 3-pointers. He’s 11 of 14 from deep in those two games and his importance in the rotation only increased as a result. Allen is getting those clean looks because of Antetokounmpo, and that helps. But Allen has been a plus for the Bucks all season since GM Jon Horst acquired him from Memphis for little-used reserve Sam Merrill. His offense — plus a Bucks defense that is drastically improved from the early season — is why Milwaukee is poised to advance.

The Grizzlies are on pace, but not at the doorstep. There’s no urgency or flashing red lights in Memphis, where a contender is being grown organically and nourished properly. So let’s be clear about that. Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane and company are the right mix for a team on the rise … but a team that, most likely, will rise only so far this postseason. If you subscribe to the theory that Minnesota blew Game 3, then the Grizzlies should be trailing 3-1 in this first-round series. Playoff growing pains are not unusual for young teams, and the Grizzlies haven’t displayed the same dominance against the Wolves as they did while compiling the second-best record in the West. A first-round ouster would classify as a disappointment, but not damaging. It’s all part of the process for a franchise that’s doing things the right way, but not ready to sip champagne right away.

Ja Morant has been somewhat limited in the Grizzlies' series vs. Minnesota.

Nothing Bullish in Chicago. It’s been a steady and somewhat sad decline for the Bulls, who were tied for the lead in the East at the All-Star break, then tumbled to sixth place in a matter of weeks. Now, they’re a loss away from being eliminated in the first round. Weird, but it seemed like yesterday when DeMar DeRozan was collecting roses for his fourth-quarter heroics while being complemented nicely by Zach LaVine and Lonzo Ball’s move to Chicago was paying off, too. But Ball is hurt, DeRozan has slipped and LaVine hasn’t distinguished himself in his first taste of the postseason. What we’ve learned is a phenomenon that repeats itself almost every year — regular season success does not guarantee a deep playoff run.

Nikola Jokic can only do so much in Denver. It was mighty impressive how Jokic followed a Kia MVP season in 2020-21 with one that, on several levels, was even better. His court awareness, footwork, shooting, rebounding and passing have been at a high level since opening night. He also dragged the Nuggets to 48 wins without Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray, both essentially lost for the season. By the time the playoffs appeared, Jokic still had energy but the Nuggets offered few answers against the recharged and retooled Warriors. And that’s understandable, even with Jokic having a fine series. But what we’ve learned, or at least suspect, is Denver will be a top-5 team next season once their second and third options return to the lineup. In this sense, they’re much like the LA Clippers, who had to make do without Kawhi Leonard and with partial production from Paul George.

Trae Young needs a co-star in Atlanta. Young is a tremendous offensive player who is capable of winning games with his shooting range and crafty passes. He improved in both areas this season, too, leading the NBA in total points and total assists. Atlanta is blessed to have him, but the Hawks need someone else on his level in order to be taken seriously as an East title contender. Twice in the Miami series, Young was shut down (he has 24 turnovers and 20 field goals), and the Hawks had no one else capable of making a similar impact. Meanwhile, the Heat brought Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro to the first-round fight. Come the offseason, the Hawks must use their assets to find a co-star (preferably someone who’s a great defender) to solve their No. 1 problem.

Despite boasting a youthful roster and star guard in Trae Young, Atlanta has struggled all season to score fast-break points.

Rudy Gobert lacks trust among his Jazz teammates. Isn’t that evident on offense in the playoffs? Perhaps the most shocking moment of the postseason was when Donovan Mitchell passed the ball to Gobert for the winning dunk in the closing seconds of Game 4 against Dallas. This happened a week after Gobert had one shot attempt in Game 1 — even though he was guarded at times by Spencer Dinwiddie in the post. In doing so, Dallas showed it is clearly aware that Jazz players are reluctant to exploit that size advantage. Gobert certainly has his issues offensively, as he has poor hands and clumsy footwork. Still, he’s a rare 7-footer who’s being ignored constantly, even under the rim. The infrequency of Mitchell’s passes to Gobert (2.7 per game this season, according to Second Spectrum data) became a talking point when the Jazz began to struggle late in the season. Will this change after that game-winning dunk?

Rudy Gobert discusses the Jazz win over the Mavericks in Game 4.

James Harden in Philly is not the Houston James Harden. Remember that guy? He won an MVP, three straight scoring titles, broke ankles nightly, was the toughest check in basketball and — for about a three-season stretch — was a top-3 player. We’re not sure what the Sixers thought they were getting when they swung the mid-season trade for Harden, but there are strong hints, especially in the playoffs so far, that he’s fallen a level. The new rules have stripped him of frequent trips to the free-throw line and his playoff scoring average (19.3 ppg) is his lowest since his OKC days. Harden is far from being washed — he’s dangerous with the ball, his postseason 3-point percentage so far (39.1%) is one of his best ever, and a threat to score from almost anywhere on the floor. We just haven’t seen the Houston Harden since … Houston, actually. And now, the question becomes: is the Philly Harden good enough to push the Sixers into June?

Zion Williamson has reasons to like New Orleans. As he sat out all season while mending from knee surgery, Williamson has had time to reflect and project. There’s been mysterious buzz from his camp about his commitment to the club, which intensified when he spent most of his rehab in Portland and away from the Pelicans. New Orleans has much to like, given what we’ve seen from the Pelicans over the last few months and in their series with Phoenix, now tied 2-2. Willie Green was the right choice to coach. Brandon Ingram is a supreme scorer and CJ McCollum was a wise mid-season pickup who brings scoring punch and leadership. Jonas Valanciunas is a double-double low-post big man. Two intriguing young players, Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado, aren’t afraid of the bright lights. Plus, there’s the Draft capital that the Pelicans are sitting on, to use for themselves or package in a trade. Essentially, New Orleans is positioned to give Williamson what he needs, and also what he wants: A bucket of cash via a contract extension.

The Warriors have “The Splash Triplets.” Jordan Poole has earned, at least for now, a level of respect given the season he finished and his start to the postseason. Yes, he’s coming off a poor shooting Game 4 against the Nuggets. But until then, he averaged 28.7 ppg in the first three games and clearly gave the Warriors a third scoring option. Coach Steve Kerr has carved out minutes and a place for Poole in the rotation — his starting job will likely be returned to Steph Curry, but still — and the Warriors are seemingly ready to declare themselves a serious threat to Phoenix in the West. The challenge for Poole is consistency once he does become a sixth man, and for Curry and Klay Thompson to give him the respect, and the ball, to keep his confidence high. Strange, but the Warriors probably can’t return to The Finals, or win a championship, without his production.

This ain’t the year for Kevin Durant and the Nets. The end will come soon, maybe after the next game, and the Nets will be engulfed in questions. How much blame should Durant accept after struggling against the Celtics? Did Kyrie Irving put his team on the spot by refusing to get vaccinated and therefore causing Brooklyn to get an unfavorable seed? Should the Nets feel annoyed that Harden bailed at the trade deadline? How much was known about Ben Simmons’ back injury when such a trade was made? And here’s the whopper: Did Durant make a mistake when he essentially traded Steph Curry for Kyrie? Durant has said all the right things and is preaching patience. But remember, Brooklyn was built to win now, or at least by next season. And he’s the one responsible for creating these expectations, merely by leaving Golden State and helping to form a superteam in Brooklyn.

Brooklyn's season-long struggle to find consistent success has come to a head in its 1st-round series against Boston.

‘The Point God’ has the Suns rejoicing. Chris Paul is who we thought he was — even on the verge of turning 37. His stamina and will have never been more apparent than late in games — when players his age usually start to tire — as evident by his 19-point fourth quarters in Games 1 and 3 against the Pelicans. And his production became doubly important with Devin Booker on the mend. Remember when Paul, according to the conventional thinking around the league, lost a step? Actually, that was three seasons ago when he was in Houston. For sure, it’s a small sample size here in the first round, but his play, given the stakes, gives the impression he has turned back the clock. Yes, the Suns are unexpectedly in a first-round fight with New Orleans. Yet Paul is obviously laser-focused on securing the championship that has proven elusive in his career.

Toronto once again is a missing piece away. Back in 2019, the Raptors swung a deal for Kawhi Leonard at the trade deadline and the rest was sweet history. Once again, as they’ve shown all season and in their first-round series against the Sixers, the Raptors just need a superstar in order to repeat that history … or at least give themselves that chance. Everything else seems to be in place. Toronto brings All-Stars Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, versatile wings OG Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. and the Rookie of the Year, Scottie Barnes. That’s a solid rotation, with athleticism, scoring punch, length and playmaking, all good enough to win 48 games … not good enough to frighten the NBA. We’re not sure how they’ll swing it this time, but if there’s a disgruntled star looking for a new home — much like Leonard was three years ago — Toronto has plenty to offer.

Karl-Anthony Towns demands respect in Minnesota. Something’s amiss with the Timberwolves regarding Towns and his teammates. After three playoff games, he appeared unhappy with the amount of touches he received. Towns took a share of criticism, mainly from social media (players pay too much attention to this) because of his struggles initially against the Grizzlies when he had 10 fouls and seven buckets. Then he produced a 33-point effort to even the series. Towns put himself on the spot months earlier when he declared himself as the best shooting big man of all time, which he clearly is. But saying it, and then proving it nightly, can sometimes be tricky. Especially in the playoffs when one team can game plan against you for a best-of-seven. Any hard feelings, if there are any, can be erased if the Wolves eliminate the Grizzlies and in the process, distance themselves from their poor playoff history.

Karl-Anthony Towns came through with a monster showing in Game 4 vs. Memphis.

Jason Kidd is the right man in Dallas. It took a while, but Kidd managed to restore his coaching credibility. If you recall, he orchestrated a strange exit from Brooklyn, then burned out quickly in Milwaukee with a young Antetokounmpo. After that, teams were reluctant to give Kidd another chance. He had to go the assistant coaching route, using that springboard from the Lakers to Dallas, and even then had to endure questions about his past personal life before he landed the gig. Since then, it’s been a smooth ride for Kidd, who has the blessing of Luka Doncic and the Mavs with a chance to move to the second round. The Mavs looked impressive in winning two games against Utah without Doncic, with Kidd pushing all the right buttons in his offensive and defensive schemes. And now, with Doncic recovered from injury, the Mavs are the betting favorite to beat Utah — partly because of Doncic and partly because Kidd has been impressive so far.

Pat Riley has the Heat in position to win big, once again. He had a low-key tremendous season as Miami’s top executive, adding the necessary pieces for Miami to finish with the best record in the East. Where does Riley find these unknown players? Just a few years after discovering Duncan Robinson, Riley reeled in Max Strus and also had the cap room for veterans Kyle Lowry, PJ Tucker and Victor Oladipo. Add those players to the core of Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo, and Miami is bringing a good mix to the mix. The Heat flexed early and often against the Hawks in the first round and appear poised to advance and see the Sixers next. Two years after reaching The Finals, Riley can reasonably expect the Heat to make an honest approach to return.

The style and substance in Jimmy Butler's game draws some praise from Rick Mahorn and Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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