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A look ahead at the NBA playoffs

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The NBA playoffs start next week, with the play-in tournament to decide which teams get the last slots starting in just a few days. Now, basketball fans have a lot to look forward to this year, but sadly, not fans of the Los Angeles Lakers. This traditional powerhouse team had a pretty dismal year, so the Lakers will be watching the tournament from their living rooms. Sorry, guys.

For more on the playoffs, let's bring in Maitreyi Anantharaman. She covers pro basketball for the website Defector. Welcome.

MAITREYI ANANTHARAMAN: Hey. Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Thanks for being with us again. All right. So let's first talk about the play-in tournament. What team do you think will come out of that with a slot in the playoffs?

ANANTHARAMAN: Yeah. So it used to be that the top eight teams from each conference were guaranteed to play a playoff series. And last year, the NBA shook things up with that play-in tournament, so the seven, eight, nine and 10 seeds in each conference are actually competing for those final two spots.

CHANG: Right.

ANANTHARAMAN: And this year, there are a couple, I would say, sleeper candidates - teams that are probably better than their seeds. I'd say the Brooklyn Nets look like a pretty good team in the Eastern Conference. They had to deal with a lot of injuries, but they've got, you know, two absolute superstars in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. And I think they'll probably find a way into the playoffs. And then in the west, I think the Clippers seem like an interesting bet.

CHANG: Wait, so an LA team does have a shot.

ANANTHARAMAN: Yeah. The Clippers, for most of the season, were missing Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, who have been out with injuries. But Paul George is back now - looks pretty good. It's always fun when you have guys coming back for the postseason because they can go on these little runs and surprise people...

CHANG: Yeah.

ANANTHARAMAN: ...And be these dark horses.

CHANG: Nice. OK. Well, looking ahead to the actual playoffs, which teams should we be keeping an eye on? Because I hear the Phoenix Suns have been pretty dominant in the regular season. Is that right?

ANANTHARAMAN: Absolutely. I think some people, myself included, wondered whether last year's final series we had between the Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks was some kind of fluke. But both of those teams have followed up those playoff runs with just phenomenal regular seasons. The Suns and Bucks have looked better to me this year than they did last year, and so I can absolutely see a world where we get that rematch in the finals.

CHANG: And, I mean, I don't want to put you on the spot. But which team do you think is going to have an early exit from the playoffs? OK. I am going to put you on the spot. Give me a guess.

(LAUGHTER)

ANANTHARAMAN: I think if you asked any basketball fan that question, they would immediately say the Utah Jazz, who have developed the dreaded pro sports reputation of the team that does OK in the regular season but can't hack it come playoff time. It seems like there's some strife in the locker room. The head coach of the Jazz recently had to come out and deny some rumors that the two stars of the team don't like each other. He said - I'm not even making this up - he said - to prove his point that they do like each other, he said, sometimes they sit at the same table when they eat.

CHANG: (Laughter) Just like grown-ups.

ANANTHARAMAN: Yes.

CHANG: That's great. All right, Maitreyi. I have to go back to LA because it is my town. What is up with my Lakers not making the playoffs? Like, is it weird that they're not in the playoffs this year?

ANANTHARAMAN: It is weird. I think they won a championship in 2020. They had a disappointing year last year, and I think this year, they were coming into it hoping they can prove that last year was just a fluke, but it was, from beginning to end, miserable. Just a couple months ago, it looked like the big indignity for the Lakers would be that they'd have to play in the play-in round again. But things just kept getting worse, and they fell out of even play-in contention altogether.

CHANG: I guess LA will just have to place its hopes and dreams in the Clippers for now.

ANANTHARAMAN: Absolutely.

CHANG: That is my Maitreyi Anantharaman. She covers pro basketball for Defector. Thank you so much.

ANANTHARAMAN: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Gus Contreras
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