NBA predictions unplugged: Anonymous scout, coach and executive pick Heat-76ers, Celtics-Bucks, Suns-Mavs winners

The second round of the 2022 NBA playoffs has the potential to be special.

Will Joel Embiid’s Philadelphia 76ers prevent Jimmy Butler’s Miami Heat from reaching the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in three years? Will Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks hold off Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and the Boston Celtics? And can Devin Booker, Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns overcome Luka Dončić’s Dallas Mavericks?

To answer those questions, The Athletic turned to NBA experts: a scout, a coach and a team executive. We granted each of them anonymity to allow them to be completely candid as they predicted the outcomes of each series. (Their assessments have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)

The Golden State Warriors’ second-round opponent has not been determined yet.

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Miami Heat vs. No. 4 Philadelphia 76ers

Scout’s outlook: “I’m picking the Heat. Kyle Lowry’s got to be healthy. When you get to the round of eight, injuries to key players start to matter more. But Miami’s got guys who can guard (James) Harden. Nobody can guard Embiid. … But (the Heat) do have guys who can match up with Harden, I think. … Lowry, to me, is like an on-and-off defender; he’d put his mind to (defending well in this series).

“Philadelphia’s kind of thin off the bench. Their starting five is excellent. But when they start going to the bench, is Georges Niang going to produce? Is Shake Milton (going to produce)? They’re going to have to play a lot of minutes. I like Miami’s depth better, with (Tyler) Herro, Caleb Martin and Duncan Robinson coming off the bench, even Dewayne Dedmon coming off the bench.

“I guess the negative for Miami is: Is Jimmy Butler going to carry them? Can Butler and Herro outlast Embiid, Harden and Tyrese Maxey? Because what these games come down to is that, eventually: your best players at crunch time producing on a regular basis. That’s why Lowry’s got to be there: so you have the trio of Butler, Herro and Lowry versus Embiid, Harden and Maxey. That may be a wash. So I think it’ll be a very close series.

“With Embiid, you’ve just got to take the ball out of his hands, in my opinion. You know who’s a key factor? Danny Green. … I still think (if you’re Heat coach Erik Spoelstra) you have to let Tobias Harris try to beat you and Green try to beat you (instead of Embiid having that opportunity). … I think Bam Adebayo, with help, can slow Embiid down, and then you let the other guys try to beat you. … That’s going to be a very interesting dynamic. I’m sure (Miami will) mix it up, and also Miami plays a lot of zone. So I think you’ll probably see quite a bit of zone.”

Coach’s outlook: “I see Miami getting that one done. I think they have the best matchups for certain guys (on the Sixers). Now, they may not have the matchup for Embiid, but they do have the matchup for Harden, and they understand how to guard him. With the Heat’s physicality and their switching and their ability to trap situations, I give them the advantage in this one.

“I think Bam can be effective (defending Embiid), but the hard part with Embiid is he gets people in foul trouble. That’s the one thing that’s going to save the Sixers in some games — if there’s going to be a game where Bam’s going to end up in foul trouble or P.J. Tucker’s going to end up in foul trouble or Dedmon will end up in foul trouble.”

Executive’s outlook: “It’s going to be a really physical series. You have two physical teams that stack up with a lot of size and a lot of versatility. Who has the best game plan? It’s going to be a really, really good series. Harden having that game to close out the first round (against Toronto) is a good sign for Philly. But Embiid is somewhat hobbled because of his injury, as is Jimmy Butler, who missed the last game of Miami’s first-round series. So it’s the combination of health and game-planning.

“In theory, Miami has a lot of bodies they can throw both at Embiid and at Harden — real good defenders. So I’m going to go with Miami in seven games. I know the seven-game prediction is a little bit of a hedge, but I think the physicality that the series is going to be played with will be really, really fun to watch.”

Scout’s pick: Heat in seven
Coach’s pick: Heat in six
Executive’s pick: Heat in seven
Consensus advancing team: Heat

Will the Miami Heat prioritize keeping the ball out of Joel Embiid’s hands? (Sam Navarro / USA Today)

No. 2 Boston Celtics vs. No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks

Scout’s outlook:Khris Middleton’s absence is key. Grayson Allen is a nice player at times. But I’m not sure (the Bucks) have enough if Middleton’s out. That’s a big advantage for Boston.

“I’m picking Boston to get to the finals. They have the two stars who are playing at a very high level. The whole team’s been great for the last three months on both ends. They seem to be very connected, chemistry-wise. They’ve got the Defensive Player of the Year (Marcus Smart). Everybody said when Robert Williams went out that that was going to be a major blow; they didn’t miss a beat because Al Horford, Grant Williams and Daniel Theis more than held their own. (The Celtics) have very few weaknesses.

“The Bucks are very good. They’ve got a championship pedigree. But I’d be concerned about who’s going to score. Giannis (and) Jrue Holiday, for sure. But then it drops off. They’ve got a lot of complementary guys. …

“I know Giannis is considered the best player in the league, but the Celtics have guys who can guard Giannis. … I mean, nobody can really guard him, but they do have some matchup possibilities. …

“I just don’t see the Bucks as an overpowering team by any means, even though they’re the defending champs. I think when you get to this level against a very sticky defense, like Boston, losing your second-best scorer could be decisive.”

Coach’s outlook: “That’s the interesting one. I actually see Milwaukee winning the series because of what Giannis is capable of doing. …

“I think the Bucks can overcome Middleton’s injury. I really do. The way that Bobby Portis has played has given them a big lift in that spot. Jrue Holiday, now with Middleton being out, I think he steps it up another level. And I think they have enough (to beat the Celtics).

“Defensively — that’s where the Bucks are probably going to struggle the most against Boston, but I think they have enough (offense) to go back at Boston.”

Executive’s outlook: “This is another fascinating one. While the other semifinal in the East is going to be really physical, this one’s going to be a combination of physicality and skill. … Milwaukee’s experience and having the point-of-attack defense with Jrue Holiday and their size and their versatility will be important.

“Boston had a really exceptional run over the course of the last half of the season and has extended that into the playoffs where they’re really playing with confidence. They seem to have their defense in lockstep, so Milwaukee’s up for a big challenge here. I think (the fact) that Milwaukee’s been in this situation gives them a slight edge.”

Scout’s pick: Celtics in seven
Coach’s pick: Bucks in seven
Executive’s pick: Bucks in seven
Consensus advancing team: Bucks

Jrue Holiday’s defense will be key to the Bucks’ hopes of winning their second-round series against Jaylen Brown and the Boston Celtics. (Jeff Hanisch / USA Today)

Western Conference

No. 1 Phoenix Suns vs. No. 4 Dallas Mavericks

Scout’s outlook: “I’m going with Phoenix. Devin Booker played Thursday night, and they’ve got a couple of days of rest. Dallas doesn’t have enough. Their two guys, Dončić and Jalen Brunson, are great. But after that, I’m not counting on (the rest of their) guys. Mikal Bridges can guard Dončić. Torrey Craig can guard Dončić. Chris Paul can match up with Brunson. Deandre Ayton was very good in the New Orleans series; with Dwight Powell, that’s not a good matchup for Dallas.

“Is Maxi Kleber going to make shots? Is Reggie Bullock going to make shots? … I just don’t think Dallas has enough, and Phoenix does have good matchups against their key guys. Plus, the Suns are so determined. Chris Paul had a game for the ages Thursday night, obviously. … I mean, 14 (shots from the field made without a miss) in a row? Are you kidding me? Talk about coming through in the clutch. That’s one of the greatest performances of all time.”

Coach’s outlook: “I look at matchups. Mikal Bridges will match up, and Jae Crowder will match up at times, with Dončić. And both teams play small, so it helps. I think where Dallas gets the advantage is when their small ball comes into a game, their scoring becomes a lot better with the 3-point line, and the Mavericks can match up. Jalen Brunson is playing so well right now, as well as Dončić. They’re all playing at a great clip, and I think Chris Paul is going to be able to get worn down like you saw a little bit in that New Orleans series with (Jose) Alvarado guarding him. I think Dallas has bigger defenders that can get into him, and the Mavericks can switch between Devin Booker and Paul and create that matchup problem for Phoenix.”

Executive’s outlook: “Dallas was in a real challenging first-round series, and all of this, in the end, boils down to the combination of talent and health. What team is going to be effectively healthy enough to get all its talent utilized? We’ve seen some players emerge on Dallas, and Jalen Brunson having such an effective first-round series is a good sign for them. Maybe some of their injuries helped spur them going forward a little bit. So Dallas is going to put up a fight.

“I think Phoenix has the defensive versatility to really challenge Dallas, especially in the frontcourt and dealing with those pick-and-rolls. Phoenix probably got a good wake-up call in the first round, and I would imagine that this series will be won by the Suns because of the home-court advantage. But it’s not going to be easy. I’ll even say it’s going to be Phoenix in seven, and the series will be that long because Dallas comes into the series with a lot of confidence, too. It’ll be a really good one.”

Scout’s pick: Suns in five
Coach’s pick: Mavericks in six
Executive’s pick: Suns in seven

To repeat as Western Conference champions, Chris Paul (left) and the Phoenix Suns will have to slow Luka Dončić. (Kevin Jairaj / USA Today)

(Top photo of Jayson Tatum and Giannis Antetokounmpo: Paul Rutherford / USA Today)


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