2022 NBA Playoff First Round Winners & Losers
The First Round of the 2022 NBA Playoffs has come to a close and, despite being somewhat underwhelming, it has set us up with four blockbuster Second Round matchups. However, before we can move on, we have to name some “Winners” and “Losers” from Round One.
Loser: Utah Jazz
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” - Unknown (falsely attributed to Albert Einstein). Regardless of who came up with that definition, I know they would agree with me if I called the Utah Jazz the most insane team in NBA history.
Since 2017, the Jazz have a regular season record of 294-178 (3rd best in the league) and are one of three teams who have made the playoffs all six years. However, in that span they have an abysmal 21-30 playoff record and suffered three first round exits to go with zero Conference Finals appearances. On the surface, those numbers are bad enough. Those numbers don’t even mention that they blew a 3-1 lead against the Nuggets in the 2020 Bubble Playoffs. They also don’t mention that in 2021, as the Western Conference’s top seed, with the series tied at two, the Jazz lost Game 5 at home to a Kawhi Leonard-less Los Angeles Clippers team and then blew a 25-point second half lead to the Kawhi-less Clips as they were eliminated in Game 6. Of course, they also don’t mention the fact that the Jazz were just eliminated at home once again in a series where they lost two of the three games that the Mavericks did not have Luka Doncic.
Underwhelming postseasons after strong regular seasons are common. Losing to a team minus their best player or blowing a series lead can still be forgiven. The Jazz’s real issue here is that they lost in 2022 for the exact same reasons they lost in 2021. That is where our fake Einstein quote comes into play. Everybody on Earth knew that the Mavericks were going to go small, spread the floor, and force Rudy Gobert to guard the perimeter. Why wouldn’t they? It worked for the Clippers last year. Unsurprisingly, it worked again this year and the Jazz never adjusted. Not only was their defense exposed once again, their offense came nowhere close to the level they were at from October to early April. In the Regular Season, the Jazz averaged 113.6 points per game. In the playoffs, that number dropped nearly 14 points down to 99.0. In the regular season they relied on the three-pointer as much as any team in the league. They made and attempted the second most threes in the league (14.5 and 40.3) and hit on 36% of those shots. In the playoffs, those numbers dipped all the way to 8.2, 29.8 and 27.4%.
Of all the Jazz’s postseason failures, this one has to be considered the worst. Anything short of a first round victory was expected to signal the end of the Quin Snyder/Donovan Mitchell/Rudy Gobert era in Utah. Expect the team’s new ownership group and brain trust that features Dwyane Wade and Danny Ainge to respond accordingly and, most likely, “part ways” with Snyder, look to move Gobert, and pray that Mitchell does not demand a trade.
Future Lakers Coach Quin Snyder is a “loser” for his insane coaching strategy of not adjusting. Rudy Gobert is a “loser” for continuing to get exposed in the postseason. Donovan Mitchell is a “loser” for shooting 39.8% from the field and 20.8% from three in an uncharacteristically bad playoff series. Ditto for Mike Conley, who severely underachieved, and Bojan Bogdanović, who tragically missed a wide-open three to force Game 7. Somehow, even with the preseason title favorites getting swept, the Jazz have to be considered the First Round’s biggest “losers.”
Winner: Elite Defense
The NBA’s elite defenses absolutely shined throughout the First Round of the playoffs.
The Celtics, the consensus number one defense in the league, put on an absolute clinic in their sweep of the Nets. Their physical play and ability to switch everything kept them in games when their offense struggled, and did the impossible of making Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving (Game 1 aside) look human. With a rotation that boasts seven truly above-average defensive players (including 2022 Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart, Robert Williams, who may have won DPOY if he hadn’t gotten hurt and Jayson Tatum who took his defense to new heights in the sweep of Durant and the Nets), there is real reason to believe that this Ime Udoka led squad may be historically great on that side of the ball. With all this being said, defense alone will not be enough to win an NBA Championship. Interestingly, if the Celtics defeat the Bucks in Round Two, they would be the first team that led the NBA in scoring defense to even make the Conference Finals since 2013.
The Miami Heat were arguably the NBA’s second best defense after the Celtics this season. They made that abundantly clear in their First Round dismantling of the Atlanta Hawks. In the regular season, the Hawks averaged 113.9 points per game and an NBA-low 11.9 turnovers per game. The Heat defense which, like the Celtics, finds success through physical play and switchability, held the Hawks to just 97.4 points and forced 16.4 turnovers per game in the gentleman's sweep. The highlight of their defensive performance was their work against Trae Young, who I will get to later…
In my opinion, rounding out the NBA’s top five defensive teams this year were the Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors. Dallas, like Boston and Miami, used their defense as the catalyst for their impressive First Round performance. The Mavericks, whose defensive improvement under Jason Kidd has been completely under-appreciated this season, held the NBA’s number one rated offense (the Utah Jazz) to under 100 points per game and completely stifled their production from the three-point line. While Phoenix and Golden State’s defense were not as dominant as the previously mentioned three, they still came up with timely stops to help them win in crunch time. Phoenix’s team defense under Monty Williams has been consistent all season, while Golden State is back to elite status with Draymond Green, arguably the greatest defensive player ever, at 100% health and Klay Thompson getting there as well.
Loser: Trae Young
The breakout star of the 2021 Postseason fell completely flat in 2022. In the Hawks’ five-game loss to the Heat, Trae Young averaged just 15.4 points per game, a steep drop from the 28.8 points he averaged in 16 playoff games last year, while shooting 31.9% from the field and 18.4% from three. He also turned the ball over 31 times while only dishing out 30 assists. Miami was clearly a nightmare matchup for Young, who scored 11 points or less in three of the five games, but I expected much more from a guy who the media has hyped up as a clutch, big-moment superstar. The 23-year-old was incredible this season carrying an underwhelming supporting cast in Atlanta, but maybe we shouldn’t have crowned him as the NBA’s clutchest player after simply winning playoff series against an overachieving Knicks team and a Philly team that choked.
Winner: Chris Paul
Chris Paul has made a habit out of stepping up in closeout games (41-10-7 to finish off Utah in Round Two of the 2018 Playoffs, and 37 and 41 points in the closeout games of last year’s Second Round and Conference Finals, respectively), but his performance this past Thursday was his best yet. The 36-year-old “Point God” set an NBA Playoff Record making all 14 of his shots to wrap up the Suns’ First Round series victory over the pesky eight-seed Pelicans. The veteran was incredible throughout the series averaging 22.3 points and 11.3 assists per game. He consistently paced himself throughout the Suns wins and saved his best work for the fourth quarter (13.5 points per game in the fourth quarter of the four wins). As the future Hall of Famer seeks his first ring, expect him to continue to pick his spots and come through in the clutch.
Winner: Jayson Tatum
No player impacted their status within the NBA’s player-hierarchy in the First Round more than Jayson Tatum. The 24-year-old played the best playoff series of his young career in the Celtics’ sweep of the Nets. His series high 29.5 points per game were great, but his improved playmaking (7.3 assists per game) and tenacious defense was what made Tatum the best player on the floor in a series that included Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Getting back to his place in the league’s hierarchy, I think that Tatum’s performance moved him to the top spot of the second tier, and put him right on the edge of the true superstar tier (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Durant, LeBron James, Steph Curry, Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Kawhi Leonard). If he shows out with another elite performance in Round Two, it will be hard to keep him out of that top tier.
Loser: DeMar DeRozan
DeMar DeRozan’s resurgence (at least for the casual fans who missed some great moments that he had in San Antonio) was one of the best stories in the NBA this year. The 32-year-old had a career year in his first season in Chicago averaging 27.9 points per game and willing an injury-riddled Bulls team to the playoffs. However, his playoff demons reappeared once again in the Bulls’ five-game series loss to the Bucks. DeRozan did score a playoff career high 41 points in Chicago’s Game 2 win, but in the other four games (all losses) he averaged just 15.8 points per game on 35.9% shooting from the field. I didn’t expect the Bulls to keep the series competitive, but I would’ve liked to have seen DeRozan at least outplay Grayson Allen in Games 3, 4 and 5.
Loser: Aaron Gordon
I am not as down on Aaron Gordon as most people are, but he deserves a “loser” spot simply because he willingly went out of his way to antagonize Draymond Green in a playoff series. He was brought to Denver to fill the “Draymond role” that every contender covets, but, due to the injuries to Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., Gordon was expected to step up more offensively in this series. He improved as the series went on, but his struggles in the first two games helped dig a hole that Denver had no chance of escaping. Of course it’s fair to expect more from a guy making $20 million per year when it is time to step up, but next year as he reverts back to his highly-paid role player job, I expect a solid bounceback.
Winner: Inside the NBA
The greatest show in the history of sports television continues to churn out amazing content night after night. Ernie, Chuck, Kenny and Shaq did 12 shows in a 13 day span, and each was as good and as funny as their weekly regular season episodes. Also, for a show that is typically more known for its comedy than analysis, they’ve struck a great balance so far this postseason.
Loser: Prisoner of the Moment Overreactions
My lone critique of Inside the NBA in the First Round is the fact that Charles Barkley’s “bus driver” vs. “bus rider” comment helped fuel this ridiculous trend of turning every game, series, etc. into a referendum on players’ legacies. The greatest example of this came as NBA fans and media figures alike have tried to rewrite history regarding Kevin Durant’s legacy. All of a sudden, after one poor series, he’s apparently not a borderline top-10 player ever, he’s not a top-five player in the league right now, he wasn’t the reason that Golden State went back-to-back in 2017 and 2018, it’s absurd. I understand that the All-Time greats are going to be held to a different standard, and obviously this spawned from years and years of treating every LeBron game like it was Game 7 of the Finals, but I’m not a fan of rewriting the narrative when a proven champion/legend has one bad series.
Loser: Brooklyn Nets
With all that being said, Kevin Durant and the Nets are definitely among the biggest “losers” of Round One. Even if I don’t agree, the majority opinion seems to be that Durant’s legacy took a hit with the series loss. It was the first time in his career that he’s been swept, and his shooting struggles were shocking considering his playoff resume. Kyrie Irving takes a hit as well as he scored just 46 points in the final three games of the series (after scoring 39 in Game 1), especially after being well rested throughout the season. Add Steve Nash to the “loser” list, as he was completely outcoached by Ime Udoka. I’m honestly in the camp of the Celtics just being a better team, and believe that they deserve more credit than Brooklyn (who lost the four games by a combined 17 points) deserves blame, but it is obviously a loss for the preseason favorite to be swept. Also, winning just one playoff series in the first two healthy seasons of the Kevin Durant era is a massive underachievement.
Loser: The 2021 Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks were very deserving champions last year, don’t get me wrong, but after watching what Boston did to Brooklyn in Round One, how was Milwaukee a Kevin Durant toe away from losing in the Second Round? They played a worse version of this Nets team with no Patty Mills, Seth Curry or Andre Drummond, James Harden was on one leg, and Kyrie missed the last three games. Of course surviving-and-advancing is all that matters this time of year, but it definitely made me wonder 1) How did they nearly lose? And 2) Does this mean anything for Boston vs. Milwaukee in Round Two?
Winner: Giannis Antetokounmpo
While the 2021 NBA Champion Milwaukee Bucks are somehow a loser in my oxymoronic mind, Giannis Antetokounmpo is a clear winner of the 2022 First Round. He destroyed the Bulls in the five-game series averaging 28.6 points, 13.4 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game. He also kept his minutes low, playing only 33.6 per game, meaning he’ll be well rested as he takes on the Celtics without Khris Middleton in Round Two. He’s also a winner because, due to Kevin Durant’s elimination in Round One, the two-time MVP now has a clear path to establish himself as the clear-cut best player in the world.
Winner: Luka Doncic
Luka Doncic played in just three Round One games, but he is still a huge winner. In those three games, as his Mavericks finished off the Utah Jazz in six games, the 23-year-old averaged 29.0 points, 10.7 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game. He also flexed his muscles on defense a bit (1.3 steals and 1.0 block per game). In his first 16 career playoff games, Doncic has averaged 32.7 points per game (only Michael Jordan averaged more among players with 15+ games), 9.1 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game. In those 16 games, he’s scored 30 or more points 10 times. Luka is well on his way to a Hall of Fame career, but this was a big step for him to get the monkey off his back and win his first playoff series.
Winner: Jalen Brunson
Doncic’s backcourt mate, Jalen Brunson, joins him in the winner’s circle. The 25-year-old broke out in a big way as Doncic was sidelined for the first three games of the series. In those three games (the Mavericks went 2-1), Brunson averaged 32.0 points per game and flourished in the ball-dominant role that his injured teammate usually holds. His 41 points in Game 2 were a career high (regular season or playoffs), and he stayed strong when Doncic returned, scoring 23, 24 and 24 in the final three games of the series. After a disastrous postseason last year (8.0 points per game in just 16.3 minutes per game), Brunson has stepped up and shown that he can be the Robin to Luka’s Batman, and be the secondary ball handler that the Mavericks will need to truly contend for titles. Brunson’s biggest win will come this Summer as he is set to hit free agency. Those six first round games alone should push his projected contract close to the nine-figure range. His market will be extremely interesting as he’ll need to find a team that needs a point guard/another ball handler (almost everybody) and has a surplus of cap space (practically nobody).
Winner: New Orleans Pelicans
Despite being a “loser” on the scoreboard, the Pelicans won the hearts of NBA fans around the world as they pushed the 64-win Phoenix Suns to six games in Round One. Rookie Head Coach Willie Green’s emotions were on full display following the Pelicans’ Game 6 loss, and it was great to see how much this team and season meant to him. Green did a fantastic job taking this young team (without their best player in Zion Williamson) all the way to the playoffs, even after their 1-12 start to the year. The team also showed how bright their future can be, even without Zion Williamson. Executive David Griffin seems to have redeemed his early struggles in New Orleans as the Pelicans played three rookies (17th pick Trey Murphy III, 35th pick Herb Jones, and Undrafted Jose Alvarado) heavy minutes through the series. Brandon Ingram also performed very well, averaging 27.0 points, 6.2 assists, and 6.2 rebounds per game in his playoff debut. Between their great young core and the veterans they added such as CJ McCollum and Larry Nance Jr., the future looks bright for the Pelicans.
Winner: The Warriors’ Latest Dominant Lineup
The Warriors’ revolutionized basketball in the mid-2010s with their famous “Death Lineup” of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green. In 2017, when Kevin Durant replaced Barnes to form the “Hamptons 5” lineup, the Warriors became, in my opinion, the best team in NBA history. Now, in 2022, there is a new iteration, without an official nickname, of Golden State’s most dangerous lineup. Three-time NBA Champions Curry, Thompson and Green, joined by Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole formed this new lineup which, in just 11 combined minutes, helped the Warriors blow the Nuggets off the court in the first two games of Round One. The Warriors even went with it as their starting lineup in Game 5, an experiment that failed a bit due to the size of Nikola Jokic, and will likely deploy it even more in Round Two. The fact that the lineup already worked so well, despite not playing together at all during the regular season, is a scary sight for the rest of the league. Expect them to roll out this lineup, which does desperately need an official name, even more often against the Grizzlies.
Losers: The Minnesota Protesters
The most random storyline from the First Round of the NBA Playoffs came as Direct Action Everywhere, an animal rights organization, attempted to protest at Timberwolves games not once, not twice, but three times. I guess they “lost” because all of the attempts ended in delays to the game and some pretty physical removals (and I assume hefty punishments?). We need A-Rod to get in there and take full control from Glen Taylor, the outgoing Owner whom the activists are protesting, as soon as possible to make things right.
Winner: The Minnesota Protesters
On the other hand, they kind of won, right? There’s no way the protestors actually expected to do much more than they achieved, and they got a ton of media attention, so it feels like a win. Now we know about Direct Action Everywhere and, most importantly for them, they got two separate blurbs from me in this article. Ironically, I kind of want to make the Minnesota Timberwolves both winners and losers. They clearly made nice strides as a team this season and showed promise, especially Anthony Edwards, in their Round One loss to Memphis, but they also blew double-digit fourth quarter leads in three of their four losses and just played terrible basketball in crunch time. I’ll be nice (and save myself the time of making a whole new section) and let the Timberwolves slide without officially being named a “loser.” Unlike the Direct Action Everywhere protestors, who I am truly 50/50 on.