A fundamental problem for any sports fan: There are more leagues than you could ever have time to watch. You may adore 14 different sports—my own number is closer to eight or nine—but unless you’re the right mix of un-busy and deranged, it’s impossible to keep up with more than a few of them at once. One approach to alleviating the backlog is to accept that not every sport is going to be your sport, and sometimes it’s OK to skip the regular season and tune in at playoff time. I dabble with this approach for both hockey and baseball, but my white whale in this arena is the NBA. It’s the greatest basketball league in the world, and it also doesn’t put a big emphasis on the regular season. Now that the NBA playoffs 2022 have begun, it’s time to pay attention.
In the NBA, star players frequently sit out regular season games to rest. But with hundreds of NBA games stretching from October to June, pacing is important for fans, too. Since the NBA playoffs began in April, my attention to the league went from glancing to somewhat more serious. Should you be contemplating a similar step in your basketball journey, this guide will get you up to speed. Here are three key storylines to know as the playoffs move through the second round, which just got underway.
NBA Playoffs 2022: A Casual Fan’s Guide to the Postseason
1. The “assemble a bunch of superstars” approach cratered spectacularly this year.
The Lakers and Nets had the best preseason odds to win the 2022 NBA Finals. As a passive NBA watcher, I figured these teams would at some point stop being mediocre (or worse) and figure it out.
The Lakers had LeBron James, who does not, as a general practice, miss the playoffs when healthy, plus Anthony Davis and some supposedly decent role players. It seemed obvious that Los Angeles would be in the discussion at the end of the year. But LeBron only played in 56 games, Davis only played in 40, and an aging Russell Westbrook was hilariously inefficient. The entire enterprise collapsed, and the team fired coach Frank Vogel at the end of the season. Tough!
The Nets lined up a trio that was more superteam-ish than anything since Kevin Durant played with the Warriors in the late 2000s. They had Durant in Brooklyn, and they benefited from all-time elite scorer James Harden and the odd-but-incredible Kyrie Irving joining him in the backcourt. It looked great on paper.
But Harden, who’d forced a trade to the Nets in January 2021, forced a trade off the Nets, and the guy Brooklyn got in return, Ben Simmons, played as many games for the Nets as he had all season for the 76ers: none. Irving refused to get the COVID-19 vaccine, so he couldn’t play in home games until late March and the Nets’ chemistry suffered as a result (even Irving himself admitted it). So much for a superteam trio.
2. While the superteams burned, the top of the league found other ways to be fun.
Everyone watched the Bucks win the NBA championship in 2021. Everyone, tangential viewer or not, is aware of the supernatural gifts and drive of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Nearly his entire supporting cast was back this year, too. But the Bucks weren’t even the Eastern Conference betting favorites entering the season (that was the Nets) and were a quiet enough elite team that you and I (because we were not watching the NBA) barely noticed their continued shine.
The best basketball player on the planet is taking off again.
Yet here the Bucks are, doing their thing again in the NBA playoffs. Shockingly little has changed. Giannis scores 30 points per game. Khris Middleton scores 20, while Jrue Holiday, Bobby Portis, and Brook Lopez all average double-digit figures. The only notable change is that Grayson Allen is here. He’s productive, but his on-court antics are annoying and make the Bucks less likable defending champions. In a way, that’s for the best: Things are more fun when the champ is a heel.
The Suns, who lost to the Bucks in six games in last year’s NBA playoffs, are still grinding away as the best team in the West. Chris Paul is now 36 years old (more like 100 in NBA years) but somehow remains dependable. Devin Booker continues to make baskets at high rates (26.8 points per game this year, a career best).
The other frontline contenders are fun to watch as well. The Warriors have reconstituted an excellent team around the still-brilliant Steph Curry, and the way they’ve done it is delightful. After missing more than two years due to injuries, Klay Thompson is back and scoring a lot. Andrew Wiggins, the one-time No. 1 overall pick who was lackluster for years with the Timberwolves, has finally hit his stride. Wiggins apparently learned to shoot when he got to the Bay Area and is now genuinely effective rather than just a bouncy disappointment.
The Celtics might beat the Bucks in the East. (Their second-round series is currently tied, 1–1.) Even after losing Irving to the Nets a few years ago, Boston improved: They hung onto their young players, developed them, and won a ton of games. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown do the offensive heavy lifting, and Marcus Smart won Defensive Player of the Year this season. And after years of throwing up bricks, Smart has even upped his shooting game—which may be jarring if you’re just tuning in.
The Heat are the East’s No. 1 seed. This one is a minor mystery to me, but I deduce that Erik Spoelstra may be the best coach in the NBA at this point. Between old-but-still-solid players Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry and athletic young fellas Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo, there’s enough going on here to take the Heat seriously despite their lack of starpower.
3. Some young players have morphed into bona-fide superstars.
This realization mainly set in for me when Ja Morant, the Grizzlies point guard in his third year in the league, committed this heinous crime against the Timberwolves’ Malik Beasley:
Morant proceeded to finish that game with 30 points, 13 rebounds, and nine assists, and then he celebrated courtside with his dad and Usher. I knew he was very good but didn’t realize he was that good and had the cultural cachet to make Usher so excited. Morant is a mega-star, and he upped his game considerably this year to set career highs in points (27.4 per game), rebounds (5.7), and effective shooting percentage (49.3).
“A youngish guy going from promising to a full-on star” also sums up Jayson Tatum’s rise with the Celtics. Tatum has made that leap over the last few years, but this season he set career highs in points (26.9), rebounds (8), and assists (4.4). Most importantly, he did all that while taking up more and more of the Celtics’ responsibilities. When I’ve watched them the last few weeks, it frequently seemed like Tatum was taking every other shot. That’s not quite true, but his 32.1 percent possession usage rate is a career high and illustrates a trend of him absorbing more of the Celtics’ possessions every year since he arrived in the league in 2017.