Sports: NBA championship keys: How each playoff team can win the 2022 title

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The NBA playoffs begin Saturday without a clear-cut favorite, leaving the race for the 2022 championship wide open.

The Phoenix Suns have the best odds, but they are by no means an overwhelming favorite. Despite a dominant regular season, are the Suns being overlooked as the title favorite? Can the up-and-coming Memphis Grizzlies really break all the way through to a championship?

Just how do we gauge the Philadelphia 76ers? Or the Brooklyn Nets? And that is to say nothing of past champions like the Milwaukee Bucks and the Golden State Warriors who have the pedigree to get back to the NBA Finals.

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  After missing playoffs again, has Lakers' investment in LeBron James and Anthony Davis been a bust? After acquiring LeBron James and then Anthony Davis, the Lakers eyed multiple titles. Instead they missed the playoffs twice in the LeBron era.By once the games began, the Lakers were average, and by the final of week of the season, they weren’t very good at all — a $150 million roster with big names and nothing to show for it.

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With so many questions about the field, we broke down what each of the 16 playoff teams must do to win the 2022 NBA championship. While some teams are stronger contenders than others, everybody has a chance.

Phoenix Suns

The NBA-best Suns have everything going from them: A top-five offense and defense, veteran leader (Chris Paul), MVP candidate (Devin Booker), Defensive Player of the Year candidate (Mikal Bridges), Coach of the Year candidate (Monty Williams) and, most importantly, experience after coming up short last year. If the Suns continue to do exactly what they did during the regular season, they will pick up their first NBA title.

Devin Booker and Steph Curry © Matt York, AP Devin Booker and Steph Curry

Miami Heat

Lock-down defense led by Jimmy Butler, Bad Adebayo and Kyle Lowry and just enough offense from a deep roster make the Heat a real possibility to win the title. With a top-five defense, top-12 offense and top-six net rating, the Heat also have a coach (Erik Spoelstra) with two championships.

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PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS: Which teams are a safe bet to win the title?

Memphis Grizzlies

A superstar (Ja Morant), a deep roster (10 players play at least 20 minutes per game), a Defensive Player of the Year candidate (Jaren Jackson Jr.) and just one of two teams in the top six in offensive and defensive efficiency, the Grizzlies have all in the ingredients necessary to win the franchise’s first championship.

Boston Celtics

Only the Suns (37-10) have been better than the Celtics (34-12) since the calendar flipped to 2022. If Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown continue to play at All-Star levels, they could be tough to beat. And if Robert Williams III (torn left meniscus) returns in an expected second-round series against the Bucks to help anchor the defense, the Celtics have enough to win the title.

Golden State Warriors

With the band back together, the Warriors ooze championship pedigree. The core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have three titles. They know what it takes to win this time of year. The key will be the two-way play of Andrew Wiggins, the defense of Kevon Looney and the offense of Jordan Poole, who Green would have you believe is the Most Improved Player. The Warriors could be the only team in the West capable of toppling the Suns. And if they can get past the Suns, there’s no doubt they can win their fourth title in eight seasons.

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UNDER PRESSURE: Nine stars facing most pressure in 2022 playoffs

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks have the confidence from winning the title last year, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday remain the best two-way Big 3 in the NBA. And if Antetokounmpo duplicates last season’s playoff production, the Bucks are on their way to a second consecutive title.

Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks entered the playoffs with a lot of momentum, going 17-6 since All-Star break. But the Mavericks' championship aspirations will come down to the availability of star Luka Doncic, who is nursing a strained left calf. Spencer Dinwiddie and Jalen Brunson will have to pick up the offensive end in Doncic’s absence.

Philadelphia 76ers

As long as he’s healthy, Joel Embiid can be the best player in any series. Also upset at a perceived MVP slight, Embiid is set up for a dominant postseason. Philadelphia’s chances ultimately come down to James Harden. He says his sore hamstring is ready for the playoffs. If Harden can rediscover enough of his explosiveness, he and Embiid can be the dominant duo that leads the Sixers to the title.

Evgeni Malkin suspended four games for cross-check on Mark Borowiecki

  Evgeni Malkin suspended four games for cross-check on Mark Borowiecki It is also worth noting that Malkin was assessed a four minute double-minor on the play. In terms of salary-forfeited, the suspension will cost Malkin approximately $190K. Losing Malkin for four games now is a tough loss for Pittsburgh, who is in no threat of losing a playoff position but is fighting for seeding, which can have enormous ramifications in their own right. The Penguins currently sit in third place in the Metropolitan Division with 94 points, four ahead of the Washington Capitals who hold the second Wild Card in the Eastern Conference (the Boston Bruins have the first Wild Card with 95 points).

COMPLETE SCHEDULE: First-round matchups, dates, game times, TV info

Utah Jazz

Utah has the league’s top-rated offense and a veteran squad that knows how to run it at peak efficiency. Donovan Mitchell has shown he can raise his game in the playoffs and be a top-tier scorer. Rudy Gobert will be the interior defensive anchor he always is, but the Jazz could stand to shore things up around him. As long as Gobert doesn’t have to stray too far from his strengths, Utah remains dangerous.

Toronto Raptors

Sleep on the 2019 champions if you want to, but they have the experience, talent (All-Star Fred VanVleet and Rookie of the Year candidate Scottie Barnes), leadership (Nick Nurse) and versatility to go far in the playoffs. Canada’s vaccination requirement could also work in their favor on several matchups.

Denver Nuggets

Nikola Jokic elevated his game this season and might have won a second consecutive MVP award. Can he get to an even higher level? Perhaps we shouldn’t put it past Jokic after he posted historic numbers in the regular season. But that’s likely the only way the ragtag Nuggets will make any noise in the playoffs unless Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. return and quickly get back to top form.

Chicago Bulls

The resurgent Bulls have been a good storyline all season. But injuries have hurt, especially Lonzo Ball’s knee injury that will keep him out for the rest of the season. So DeMar DeRozan will need to play at a superstar level, Zach LaVine will also need to play like a superstar, Nikola Vucevic will need to be efficient on offense and the Bucks, Celtics, Heat and Suns will all need have their worst playoff performances in a long while.

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  Kings' Drew Doughty out for remainder of season after undergoing wrist surgery The news on Doughty is tough for the Kings, as they fight for a playoff spot in the Western Conference and hope to make a run in the playoffs. Doughty has struggled with injuries this season, playing in just 39 of the Kings 74 games so far, last playing on March 7 at the Boston Bruins. Still, the Kings had hoped to get Doughty back perhaps at some point either in advance of the playoffs, or during, but will now have to make their push for the Stanley Cup without one of their cornerstone players. In those 39 games this season, Doughty has seven goals and 24 assists for 31 points.

Minnesota Timberwolves

The saying is defense wins championships, but the Wolves should lean in the other direction. They had the top-scoring offense in the league this season and the highest pace. A young and athletic team led by Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell can push the pace even more. The defense improved but not enough for Minnesota to completely lock down opponents. Outscoring them is likely the Wolves’ best chance.

Brooklyn Nets

The adage is that in the playoffs, the superstars will play like superstars, but you need the role players to step up. Kevin Durant is a two-time NBA Finals MVP and could have been the league MVP this season if he stayed healthy. Kyrie Irving was instrumental in the Cavaliers’ comeback from 3-1 down to topple mighty Golden State in 2016. So those two are sure bets. It will be up to Seth Curry, former NBA champion Patty Mills and Andre Drummond to deliver. Obviously, if not for Durant's injury and Irving’s part-time status for most of the season, the Nets would be a top seed.

New Orleans Pelicans

What would make the Pelicans the only eighth seed in NBA history to win the Finals? CJ McCollum, Brandon Ingram, Jonas Valanciunas and Herbert Jones, the impressive rookie. It’s a tall order, but the Pelicans are playing with incredible confidence at the right time.

Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks made it to the Eastern Conference finals last year and find themselves back in the playoffs after winning the play-in tournament. Atlanta has a top-ranked offense led by superstar Trae Young, but will need to step up the defense significantly to make it far in the loaded East. The Hawks had the No. 26-ranked defense in the regular season.

Expert picks for 2022 NBA playoffs: Phoenix Suns over Milwaukee Bucks in Finals a safe bet?

  Expert picks for 2022 NBA playoffs: Phoenix Suns over Milwaukee Bucks in Finals a safe bet? The Bucks and Suns met in the 2021 NBA Finals. Our experts expect a rematch. But this time, most are predicting a different outcome.Once the Lakers were eliminated, the discussion turned to another preseason title favorite: the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets won their play-in game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday, claiming the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NBA championship keys: How each playoff team can win the 2022 title

Kyrie Irving, James Harden among nine stars facing most pressure in 2022 NBA playoffs .
Pressure is an inherent part of the postseason. However, several marquee players enter the 2022 NBA playoffs with added pressure on their shoulders.There are veteran stars carrying the weight of past playoff failures and embarrassing exits. There are young stars looking to make overdue playoff breakthroughs. There is an all-time great whose window to win an elusive championship could be nearing its end.

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