How matchups and injuries are shaping first round of NBA Playoffs: Cole Huff’s notebook

The opening round of the 2022 NBA Playoffs has become quite an interesting one. A few of the top seeds are in dogfights, while injuries continue to take a toll on different rosters. I discuss it all and more in this week’s column.

Injuries, injuries and more injuries

Here’s me stating the obvious — injuries stink. They have an impact on teams throughout the regular season and become significantly more devastating in the playoffs. Though that’s always been the case and always will be. And such realities have led me to recognize now more than ever before that simply getting to the playoffs gives a team a chance to win it — another obvious statement. But I mean it to illustrate how we should no longer assume that an underachieving team should be counted out or should count its days because it would presumably get steamrolled by a top team regardless.

Look at what’s happening currently. Injuries to Devin Booker and Khris Middleton left many questioning whether Milwaukee or Phoenix, 2021’s two championship finalists, would make it past the No. 6 seed Chicago Bulls or the Play-In product New Orleans Pelicans. The Bucks have seemingly put to bed said questions, while Phoenix — not so much.

Then there’s Utah, a team that stumbled down the stretch of the regular season thanks to multiple blown leads (more on that subject later) and was considered by many to be a first-round exit in waiting. The Jazz could very well still find themselves out of the playoffs shortly. Still, that doomed team from two weeks ago briefly was thought of as a favorite to win its opening-round matchup with the Mavericks following a Game 82 injury to Luka Doncic.

So, I echo the sentiment that simply being in the playoffs opens the door for any range of outcomes. Crazy things can happen.

Suns-Pelicans series odds

Series result odds

Suns 4-2


Suns 4-3


Pelicans 4-3


Pelicans 4-2


Blown leads and bad losses

Speaking of crazy things happening, teams are building up huge leads and painfully watching them dwindle to the point of defeat. And whether it’s Jeff Van Gundy speaking on the ESPN broadcast about the NBA being a 48-minute game or his brother Stan downplaying the tremendous collapses via Twitter, the discourse around the matter has been loud. Loud enough for me to feel some type of way about it.

I feel strongly that these gigantic blown leads are standard in today’s game while at the same time embarrassing. Yes, these are 48-minute games, the 3-point shot adds up quickly and momentum is real. And let me tell you from first-hand experience, your basketball brain stops working as well, and you begin to press a little bit as the home crowd grows anxious amidst an extended run from the visitor. Or, conversely, there’s that same panicky and nightmarish feeling that a road team gets when their huge lead begins to evaporate and the home crowd goes berserk. Neither are necessarily excuses but are realities, and there’s a level of credit that should be given to the high-level players on the other side of these runs.

Yet, there’s always a line to be drawn — not all blown leads are created equal. Some instances are just chokes, and that’s okay to admit. Like Minnesota, in Game 3, losing a 25-point lead from the 3:10 mark of the third quarter to the 7:09 of the fourth quarter is embarrassing and incomparable to Brooklyn being up 17 in the second quarter of Game 2 and losing, or Toronto being up that same amount in the second quarter of Game 3 and losing in overtime on a Joel Embiid buzzer-beater. The end results were the same (losses), but the processes differed drastically. Again, it’s okay to acknowledge the differences.

Eastern Conference odds

Team odds








Matchups make series

Matchups are everything in the playoffs, and the wrong one could make for a highly frustrating experience for any team. Not even the Tracy McGrady-labeled “most skilled duo of all time” had anything for Ime Udoka’s Celtics and their post-2021 league-best defense. Marcus Smart at the point of attack, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown one-on-one with KD, Al Horford switching, timely double teams — the Celtics were so locked-in on the defensive side and executed better than any team I’ve seen in recent memory. And as the C’s swept the Nets, it’s safe to declare that this matchup was the worst possible for Brooklyn.

Likewise, we are witnessing in the Golden State-Denver series how matchups dictate series. The Nuggets aren’t as good as the Warriors; you don’t have to do much more than look at a list of each roster to understand that. But Denver has mostly looked outclassed thanks to the Warriors’ style of play. Stephen Curry, Jordan Poole and even Klay Thompson have had a hand in attacking Nikola Jokic in the pick-and-roll, which has left the Nuggets’ defense with many more problems than solutions. Jokic is so genius on the offensive end that he somehow snuck Denver a win over the weekend, but them even winning another game in this series would be a longshot.

Warriors-Nuggets series odds

Series result odds

Warriors 4-1


Warriors 4-2


Warriors 4-3


Nuggets 4-3


And how much different would Memphis look in this first round if they had drawn the Clippers, Nuggets, Pelicans or anyone else not named the Minnesota Timberwolves? Instead, their speed, athleticism, youth, toughness and energy have been matched through four games by a hungry T-Wolves team cut from a similar cloth.

What I’m looking forward to this week: Sixers-Raptors

There’s no way that the Sixers are going to do the unthinkable. Right? In a separate article I wrote before the playoffs began, I voiced how greatly I trusted Nick Nurse to work some magic and figure out a way to get by the Sixers with basically only wings and no bigs. I also mentioned how it was hard for me to trust James Harden and Doc Rivers, given their recent playoff history. So, when a Joel Embiid dagger three put Philly up 3-0, I questioned myself for concluding that a bunch of 6-foot-8 wings could match up with and even slow down someone as physically dominant and skilled as the 7-foot, 280-pound Joel Embiid.

Now? Well, I’m feeling better. Everything that I figured would happen is beginning to. And things would look even worse for Philadelphia if that Embiid game-winner didn’t drop. But I digress. As much as I want to be right about my prediction, I find it unimaginable that a team could win four in a row to avoid elimination. But there’s a first time for everything, they say.

76ers-Raptors series odds

Series result odds

76ers 4-2


76ers 4-3


Raptors 4-3


(Photo of Jordan Poole: Garrett Ellwood / Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images; The Athletic may receive an affiliate commission if you open an account with BetMGM through links contained in this article.)