The teams that make up the opening series of the 2022 Play-In tournament are full of surprises, starting with the Eastern Conference matchup.
Both teams are in places no one envisioned at the start of the season, making for an exciting matchup in Game 1 of Tuesday’s doubleheader.
The Cleveland Cavaliers finished with just 22 wins last season and doubled that in 2021-22 with strong play from a promising young core that included Darius Garland, Caris LeVert, rookie Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, who hasn’t played since breaking a finger in March, but could be back in the mix for the post season. Led by NBA Coach of the Year nominee JB Bickerstaff, the Cavs used a total of 26 players this season, the second most ranked in franchise history.
The star-studded, veteran-laden Brooklyn Nets, meanwhile, came into the season as one of the favorites to win the East, before a variety of issues saw the club snuck to the finish for a berth in the Play-In tournament. .
Seven-time All-Star guard Kyrie Irving played in just 29 games due to his vaccination status affecting availability, while Durant was out 21 games after spraining his left medial collateral ligament in January. Former MVP guard James Harden made 44 appearances for Brooklyn before the club traded him to Philadelphia in February for Ben Simmons, who has not yet made his Nets debut. Simmons has been banned from playing in the Play-In tournament, but there is hope he could return to the playoffs at some point if the Nets continue.
In the West, the LA Clippers and Minnesota Timberwolves will meet in a series that could be a change from how things went between them in the regular season. Yes, the Clippers dominated the regular season series against the Timberwolves 3-1, beating them in two wins by 20 points or more, the latter eventually winning on January 3 in a matchup involving Paul George, Nicolas Batum, Ivica Zubac , D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony-Towns. The first three matchups took place over a 10-day period in November.
After stumbling to a 16-20 season start, the young brash Timberwolves ran a 30-16 record to finish the regular season with confidence. But this Clippers team is also different, having started the season without superstar Kawhi Leonard, losing George for the most part (43 games) to an elbow injury and adding Norman Powell and Robert Covington on the trade deadline.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs Brooklyn Nets
These teams matched four times in the regular season, with Brooklyn walking away victorious in three of those outings, including Friday’s 118-107 win at Barclay’s Center. The Nets’ five players, consisting of Irving, Durant, Seth Curry, Bruce Brown and Andre Drummond, scored 99 of the team’s points in that win, with all five starters finishing in double digits.
Brooklyn finished the season on a roll, winning each of its last four games, as the Cavaliers defeated Milwaukee on Sunday for their first win since April 2. Both teams finished the season 44-38, but Brooklyn’s series lead gave it the tiebreaker.
It’s almost automatic Cleveland will often double Durant, one of the league’s deadliest scorers, who has averaged 28.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game in his three games this season against the Cavaliers.
Mobley, meanwhile, missed the first two meetings between the teams in November due to a sprained right elbow, but competed in the last two, averaging 14.5 ppg on 50 percent of the field, as well as 6.5 rpg and 1.5 bpg . Mobley returned from a five-game absence due to a sprained left ankle before Cleveland’s loss to the Nets on Friday. Allen’s presence would help immensely, but Bickerstaff did not provide a definitive update on the status of the All-Star center for Tuesday, saying after Sunday’s win over Milwaukee: “When he’s ready to go, he’ll go.” “. If Allen can’t play, Mobley is expected to start in the middle.
The backcourt match-up between Garland and Irving should also be crucial. Garland will certainly be leaning on experienced teammate Rajon Rondo for tips on how to defend him. Irving sat out the first two games of the regular season between the teams, but he averaged 22.5 ppg on 42 percent of the floor with 6.5 rpg and 8.5 apg against the Cavs, and he played in Brooklyn’s only loss to Cleveland on January 17 without Durant. Garland started all four games against the Nets this season, averaging 25.3 points on 42.7 percent of the field with 8.0 assists. Cleveland led Brooklyn by five points to start the fourth quarter on Friday, before the Nets rallied to win 11.
“I like our odds when it comes to a dogfight,” Kevin Love said on Sunday. “That will be Tuesday evening.”
LA Clippers vs Minnesota Timberwolves
Veteran point guard Patrick Beverley provides plenty of juice for Minnesota and is familiar with the Clippers staff, having spent four seasons there before being shared with the Wolves in the off-season. Beverley’s toughness and leadership will play a major role in Minnesota setting a physical tone on the defense, and you can bet he’ll do his best to step into the shoes of George and Reggie Jackson.
Minnesota will certainly draw on Beverley’s previous postseason experience (59 playoff games, 31 with the Clippers), and he will serve as an emotional catalyst for Russell, Towns and Anthony Edwards, who loves high-stakes matchups.
“I’m not going through Pat,” George said. “We’re going through the T-Wolves. This isn’t a match between Paul George and Pat Beverley. This isn’t a match between Pat Bev and Clippers. I’m not even going to make the story out of that.”
LA can’t afford to fall into the emotional back and forth that Beverley is sure to cause against his former team. It’s unlikely, given the Clippers’ vast playoff experience and leadership veterans like George, Jackson, Batum and Marcus Morris Sr.
Even without Leonard in the mix, the Clippers made it to the West finals for the first time in franchise history last season. Still, the Clippers will have to find a way to slow down Towns, Russell and Edwards. The Minnesota frontcourt has more athleticism and scoring ability than its LA counterparts. But Morris, Batum, Zubac and Isaiah Hartenstein are sloppy in defense, which should make for a nice matchup.
Depth can also become a major factor in this one, and the Clippers are definitely filled in that department with Terance Mann, Powell, Covington and Luke Kennard all possessing double digit scoring averages. Malik Beasley is the only reserve in Minnesota with an average of more than 10 points.