The most wonderful time of the year is here! Well, almost. Whether you love or hate the play-in tournament, it is sure going to be interesting this year, given that players like LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Jimmy Butler, and Trae Young are playing in do-or-die games. So, with this being said, here are my predictions for how each game will work out.
East: 7 Heat vs. 8 Hawks
The Heat and the Hawks are kind of opposite in strengths and weaknesses. The Hawks have a top 10 offense but a bottom ten defense. The Heat have a top-10 defense but a bottom-10 offense. Put together, the Hawks are 19th in Net Rating, and the Heat are 21st. Net rating measures a team’s point differential per 100 possessions.
These teams have both seen far bigger moments recently. The Heat played in the Finals in 2020 and a Conference Finals Game 7 last season. The Hawks played in the Conference Finals in 2021. Obviously, the current teams are not as strong as those teams, but they still have a ton of potential. For the Hawks, even though Trae Young is not having his best season, there are still not many guys you would rather have in a big game; the same thing goes for Jimmy Butler and the Heat.
It should be a close game, but I think Trae might struggle in this game. Over the past two seasons, he has shot 40% from the field and 27% from 3. This is in addition to the fact that he also has 5.5 turnovers. Sure, the Heat do not have a strong overall offense, but if they play solid defense on Trae and Jimmy Butler rises to playoff mode, the Heat should have no problem winning this.
West: 7 Lakers vs. 8 Timberwolves
For the last game, I gave the big-picture stats before diving into the game. If I did that for this matchup, it would be doing a disservice because both teams have had completely different teams throughout the year than the ones that will be playing tonight.
For the Wolves, they are an absolute dumpster fire now. Their two best defensive players, Rudy Gobert and Jaden McDaniels, will not be playing today because of Gobert’s suspension and McDaniel’s breaking his hand by punching a wall. So if they want to win, they’ll need big games from both their stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards.
For the Lakers, their team is not as reliant on LeBron James and Anthony Davis as it used to be, but ideally, if they both have great games, they should have no problem winning the game. Even if one of them does not play so well, D’Angelo Russell, Austin Reaves, and Jarred Vanderbilt are players who can step up if needed.
As for the prediction, I do not think this will be a close game. Even if the final score does not look like a blowout, it will take far more than Edwards and Towns having big games for a banged-up Timberwolves to beat a red-hot Lakers team. Give me the Lakers with their points.
East: 9 Raptors vs. 10 Bulls
Similar to the last game, the Raptors and the Bulls are different teams from the ones they had at the beginning of the year. The Bulls’ main addition at the deadline was Patrick Beverley, and the Raptors was Jakob Poeltl.
For the Bulls, their main strength is going to be perimeter defense. It is also going to be harder to shoot from the perimeter and get to the hole when you are being guarded by Alex Caruso and Patrick Beverley. They were fifth in defense for the entire season. In addition to this, they also have a handful of good scoring options including DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, and Nikola Vucevic.
For the Raptors, they do not have any areas that they either excel or are awful at. They were 11th in defense and 13th in offense. They will need two of their four main guys, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, or Scottie Barnes to have big games. Both Siakam and Vanvleet have seen bigger games so it will likely be the two of them.
For the prediction, I will be taking the upset and taking the Bulls. I think we will see big games out of both DeRozan and LaVine, maybe even Vucevic, and we’ll definitely have a similar video to the one we did of Patrick Beverley last year if they win. I think the Bulls defense will be a little too much for the Raptors team as a whole.
West: 9 Pelicans vs. 10 Thunder
Neither of these teams are very strong offensively, both are in the bottom half, and both are pretty solid defensively; the Pelicans are sixth, and the Thunder are 13th. So I think this game will be relatively low scoring.
The Thunder have undoubtedly already exceeded expectations. Many thought, after Chet Holmgren injured his foot, that they would be the worst team in the league. Shai Gilgeous Alexander and company had other plans. If the Thunder win this game, they will need a huge game from SGA and help from Josh Giddey and rookie Jalen Williams.
The Pelicans’ best player, Zion Williamson, has not played since January 2nd. It is impressive they were able to hold on and even make the play-in tournament. Most of it is because of Brandon Ingram. From October-January, he did not have a month where he averaged more than 22 Points Per Game, but from February-April, he did not have a month where he averaged less than 27. Herb Jones and CJ McCollum have also been solid.
For the prediction, I will take the Pelicans pretty easily. They have been red hot lately and have not had an easy path. The Thunder are playing with house money and do not likely have high expectations themselves. Even though in a one-game elimination game anything can happen, give me the better team with more experience.
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