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Saturday, April 16, 2022

2021-2022 Playoff Predictions

The final composition of the playoff field was not determined until the NBA completed its Play-In Tournament early this morning, with the Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks claiming the final two playoff spots in the East, and the Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans Pelicans earning the final two playoff spots in the West; I correctly picked three of the four Play-In Tournament qualifiers, but I had Minnesota eighth behind the L.A. Clippers, who ended up losing to both Minnesota and New Orleans.

Before we look ahead to the playoffs, here is a brief look back at the 2021-2022 season.

The L.A. Lakers were stunningly bad, not only falling short of championship expectations but failing to qualify for the Play-In Tournament. The Brooklyn Nets navigated a challenging season during which Kevin Durant missed 27 games, Kyrie Irving missed most of the team's home games due his refusal to receive a COVID-19 vaccine--which placed him in violation of New York City's vaccine mandate, which has now been lifted for athletes and entertainers--and James Harden openly quit before being reunited with Daryl Morey, who insists that Harden is a better scorer than Michael Jordan. For the most part, the Milwaukee Bucks avoided a championship hangover, and they are well-positioned to defend their crown. The Phoenix Suns started slowly (2-3) in the wake of their Finals loss to the Bucks, but the Suns finished with a league-best 64-18 record.

It will be interesting to see who is crowned as the regular season MVP. Three candidates stand out above the rest (listed in alphabetical order):

Two-time regular season MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, coming off of his first championship and first Finals MVP, authored another spectacular season (career-high 29.9 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 5.8 apg, .553 FG%) while leading Milwaukee to the third seed in the Eastern Conference.

Reigning regular season MVP Nikola Jokic also had a fantastic season (career-high 27.1 ppg, career-high 13.8 rpg, 7.9 apg, career-high .583 FG%), becoming the first player in NBA history to have at least 2000 points (2004), at least 1000 rebounds (1019), and at least 500 assists (584) in the same season (to be fair, Wilt Chamberlain missed out on this distinction by just eight points in 1968 and by 44 points in 1967, two seasons during which he had over 1900 rebounds). Jokic joined pro basketball's "Five-Tool Club," the elite group of players (Julius Erving, Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen, Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett) who led their teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, and blocked shots in the same season.

Joel Embiid, who openly campaigned for the MVP award throughout the season, won his first scoring title with a career-high 30.6 ppg while also grabbing 11.7 rpg and dishing for 4.2 apg. 

The historical standard is that an NBA MVP must play in at least 85% of the scheduled games, which adds up to at least 70 games in the traditional 82 game season. Bill Walton is the only regular season MVP in NBA history who played less than 85% of his team's games. In fact, 19 MVPs played all 82 games, 11 MVPs played in 81 games, and five MVPs played in 80 games (also, Karl Malone played 49 of 50 games in the lockout-shortened 1999 season). I miss the days before "load management"! If the 70 games played threshold still matters to the MVP voters, then Jokic (74 games played) prevails over Embiid--who played in a career-high 68 games--and Antetokounmpo, who played in 67 games.

Then, there is the curious case of Devin Booker. Prior to this season, Booker never received a single MVP vote--not even for fifth place, let alone first place--and he never made the All-NBA First, Second, or Third Team; he played for losing teams in the first five seasons of his career, and then he has been overshadowed--at least in mainstream media narratives--by Chris Paul during the past two seasons when the Suns became a winning team. This is the fifth straight season that Booker has averaged at least 24 ppg and at least 4 apg, but only in the past month or so have a few media members suddenly begun mentioning him as a possible MVP candidate, noting that every player who averaged at least 25 ppg and at least 5 apg for a team that posted a winning percentage above .700 won the MVP (Booker narrowly missed that arbitrary statistical combo platter this season, averaging a career-high 26.8 ppg plus 4.8 apg). It is doubtful that a Booker for MVP campaign would ever gain widespread traction among media members/"stat gurus," because that would destroy the 15 year old narrative regarding Paul's value based on "advanced basketball statistics": media members who bought the preposterous notion that Paul was more valuable that Kobe Bryant in 2008 are not going to pick Devin Booker over Paul in 2021. For the record, this season Booker played in 68 games, and Paul played in 65 games.

My general take on MVP criteria has been consistent: the MVP should go to the best all-around player in the league, with the only exception being if there is a dominant big man who is having the most impact even though he is not the best all-around player (for example, Shaquille O'Neal deserved several MVP awards based on his dominance, even though he was not the best all-around player). The MVP should play at least 70 games in an 82 game season (or the proportional equivalent if the season is shortened), and ideally the MVP should be from a team with a winning record--but the most deserving candidate should not be punished because of the ineptitude of his teammates, nor should the most deserving candidate be overlooked if he is blessed with talented teammates.

Jokic is the only credible MVP candidate who played in at least 70 games this season, so if we stick strictly to 70 games played as a minimum for MVP consideration then that would not only mean that he wins but that Antetokounmpo, Embiid, and Booker are not eligible for the top five; the odious emergence of "load management" may require a less stringent application of the 70 games played standard to avoid selecting an MVP who did not have an MVP-caliber season: this season only 45 NBA players played at least 70 games.

Antetokounmpo is the best all-around player in the NBA, and has been for the past several years; his main advantage over Jokic is that he is a better and more versatile defensive player. That being said, Jokic has had such an exceptional season that I cannot disagree with anyone who votes for him. Embiid is less consistent and less versatile than both Antetokounmpo and Jokic, so Embiid would not be any higher than third on my MVP ballot.

There is a significant gap this season between the top three and the remaining candidates; there are several players who deserve serious consideration for fourth and fifth place, including (in alphabetical order) Booker, DeMar DeRozan (27.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 4.9 apg, 76 games played), Luka Doncic (28.4 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 8.7 apg, 65 games played), Rudy Gobert (15.6 ppg, 14.7 rpg, 2.1 bpg, 66 games played), and Jayson Tatum (26.9 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 4.4 apg, 76 games played). Doncic is the best all-around player in that group, and Tatum keyed Boston's second half of the season surge, so those would be my choices for fourth and fifth.

It will be interesting to watch the MVP candidates--and some other players who are often portrayed as MVP candidates--perform in the playoffs.

The following predictions are based on my analysis of what I expect to happen under ideal circumstances: in other words, if there are no further injuries and no COVID-19-related disruptions, which teams are most likely to win seven game playoff series? 

Here are my first round predictions:

Eastern Conference

#1 Miami (53-29) versus #8 Atlanta (43-39) 
The Heat made it to the NBA Finals just two years ago and they still have most of the same core players--including Jimmy Butler (21.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 5.5 apg), Tyler Herro (20.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 4.0 apg), and Bam Adebayo (19.1 ppg, 10.1 rpg)--yet they flew under the radar for most of the season as other teams (Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Golden State, L.A. Lakers) stole the headlines for various reasons. Other than Duncan Robinson and P.J. Tucker, none of the top players in the rotation played more than 68 games, yet when the dust cleared Miami had the best record in the East. The Heat are mediocre offensively--ranking 17th in scoring and 13th in field goal percentage--but they are elite defensively, ranking fourth in points allowed and fourth in defensive field goal percentage. They lack size and are vulnerable on the boards (ranking just 22nd in rebounds) but they play a smart, tough, and physical brand of basketball that should translate well in the playoffs. 

The Atlanta Hawks played Cinderella in last year's playoff ball and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals, but the clock struck midnight early for them this season. The Hawks had to scramble just to get to 43 wins and squeeze into the Play-In Tournament, but then they blew out the Charlotte Hornets and came from behind to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers to earn the right to face the Heat. The Hawks have a top notch offense led by Trae Young (28.4 ppg, 9.7 apg), who became the only player other than Nate Archibald to lead the league in total points and total assists in the same season; Archibald won the scoring title and the assist title in 1972-73, while Young racked up the top totals mainly by playing 76 games while most of his rivals missed significant playing time, so Young did not lead the league in either category, finishing fourth in scoring and third in assists.

Miami won the season series 3-1, and Miami will win in six games.

#2 Boston (51-31) versus #7 Brooklyn (44-38)

The Celtics were just 21-22 on January 14, and Charles Barkley declared around that time that they should trade either Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown. Instead, the Celtics stood pat and went 30-9 the rest of the way, finishing the season as the top ranked team in both points allowed and defensive field goal percentage while also ranking fifth in rebounding and 12th in scoring. The first impression cast by the Celtics' slow start may be lingering in some people's minds, but the Celtics are a legitimate championship contender, and they have too much overall firepower for the Brooklyn Nets, who rely heavily on Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to score 70 or 80 points combined to cover up for the team's lack of depth and poor defense.

The Celtics have a championship recipe: two All-Star caliber players leading a deep and versatile roster that plays hard at both ends of the court. In contrast, and as I noted in my recap of Brooklyn's 115-108 Play-In Tournament win over Cleveland, the Nets' interior defense is not good, and their transition defense is awful. That is not a recipe for championship success. Could Ben Simmons make a difference for the Nets? There is speculation that Simmons may play in this series after sitting out all season, but even if he plays it is doubtful that a player who has missed so much time can make enough of an impact to change the direction of this series.

Durant and Irving will put up impressive individual numbers, but Boston will win in six games.

#3 Milwaukee (51-31) versus #6 Chicago (46-36)

It is not easy to win back to back titles. In the past 25 years, the only teams to accomplish this are the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers in 2000-02, Bryant's 2009-10 Lakers, the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade 2012-13 Heat, and the Durant-led Warriors super-team that also had Stephen Curry (2017-18). Note that each of those squads had at least one member of the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team, and that Bryant is the only player in the past quarter century to win consecutive championships without playing alongside a Top 75 player. That puts into context both the significance of what the Bucks are trying to do and the historical level of greatness that Giannis Antetokounmpo will reach if he leads Milwaukee to the 2022 NBA championship.

The Bucks are not just a one man team, of course. Khris Middleton (20.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 5.4 apg) and Jrue Holiday (18.3 ppg, 4.5 apg, 6.8 apg) are two-way players who both made major contributions during last year's championship run and who both must play at a high level for Milwaukee to win the championship again. Bobby Portis provides physicality and three point shooting, while the healthy return of Brook Lopez late in the season should provide a significant boost at both ends of the court.

It is unusual for a defending champion that played well throughout the season to be so lightly regarded, but the Bucks have not been a popular pick for several years, and it is evident that even winning a championship did not convince some of the skeptics to change their views. I identified Antetokounmpo as a potential Pantheon level player at a time when many "experts" doubted that he could win a championship without leaving Milwaukee, and I expect him to win more than one NBA title.

I do not like the way that the Bucks rested their starters in the final game of the season to "clinch" the third seed instead of fighting for the second seed, but there is no denying that this looks like a great first round matchup for the Bucks (who may regret not having home court advantage in the second round if they face the Celtics). There was a lot of hype about the Chicago Bulls early in the season, but then the Bulls began to regress to the mean, a process hastened when injuries struck. Injuries impacted most teams this season--including Milwaukee--and the reality is that the Bulls are not good enough to contend for a championship as currently constructed, which takes nothing away from how well DeMar DeRozan performed.

I expect that the Bulls will play better in the playoffs than they have played recently and I think that the Bucks may relax after going up 2-0, but Milwaukee will win in six games.

#4 Philadelphia (51-31) versus #5 Toronto (48-34)

The 76ers supposedly tanked to the top, yet here they sit as the fourth seed with no championship rings since 1983. Joel Embiid's playoff resume is pretty thin and he tends to get hurt and/or fall off when the games really count, but unless he completely falls apart in the playoffs he will likely get a pass because he is playing alongside one of the all-time playoff chokers: James Harden. Get ready for those spectacular 5-17 games with eight turnovers and double digit negative plus/minus numbers, because Harden has been displaying playoff form even before the playoffs started: in his last 13 games he has shot better than .500 from the field one time while shooting .420 or worse from the field nine times, and in his most recent game versus Toronto he shot 3-12 from the field in a five point loss. The 76ers are 0-2 versus the Raptors since Harden joined the team, and he shot 5-12 from the field in the other loss. The 76ers are 1-3 versus the Raptors overall this season, so this is not a good matchup for Philadelphia, which will also be without the services of Matisse Thybulle in all of the games played in Toronto due to Thybulle's COVID-19 vaccination status. It is ironic that Harden sulked his way out of Brooklyn at least in part due to Kyrie Irving's vaccination status but now Irving is back in action and Harden's new team will be shorthanded in up to three games due to Thybulle's vaccination status.

The 76ers are very ordinary on both offense (ranking 16th in field goal percentage) and defense (ranking 15th in defensive field goal percentage). Embiid is an excellent rebounder, and Harden will do his part on the boards even when he is shooting bricks, but overall the 76ers rank 29th in rebounding.

This is not just about the 76ers' fascinating combination of arrogance and dysfunction; the Raptors are an excellent team that is very well-run by Masai Ujiri and very well-coached by Nick Nurse. The Raptors are not a flashy team and their statistical profile is not eye-catching, but they are very good at controlling the possession game, ranking eighth in rebounding, second in steals, and second in fewest turnovers committed. By placing such a high value on possession, they give themselves more of a margin for error on offense. The Raptors have a balanced offensive attack with four players averaging at least 17 ppg (Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby), plus rookie Scottie Barnes chipping in with 15.3 ppg.

Embiid will probably have at least one 40 point game in this series. Harden may have one or two 30 point games in this series. When it is all said and done, Embiid will be missing three pointers in crunch time, Harden will crumble into a brick laying turnover machine, and the 76ers will not be able to blame this on Ben Simmons, so Doc Rivers will probably be the scapegoat, paving the way for Daryl Morey and Harden to hire a new coach, and leaving Embiid to wonder what he did to deserve this fate. Toronto will win in six games.

Western Conference

#1 Phoenix (64-18) versus #8 New Orleans (36-46)

The Suns have been the best team in the league for most of the season. On paper, they have no weaknesses and they look like the team to beat, ranking fifth in scoring, first in field goal percentage, eighth in points allowed, third in defensive field goal percentage, and first in point differential. Devin Booker had an All-NBA First Team/fringe MVP caliber season (as discussed above), Chris Paul runs the show and makes timely midrange baskets, Deandre Ayton provides paint presence at both ends of the court, and the rest of the rotation players know their roles and execute at a very high level. Hall of Fame Coach Larry Brown always talks about "playing the right way," and this team takes that mantra to heart like few teams ever have. I did not expect the Suns to be quite this good, but I recognize greatness when I see it.

The Pelicans did well to sneak into the playoffs after a disastrous 3-14 start to the season, but they are completely outmatched in this series. The midseason acquisition of C.J. McCollum--who scored a team-high 24.3 ppg in 26 games with the Pelicans--gave the squad veteran presence and took a lot of pressure off of Brandon Ingram, who averaged 22.7 ppg in 55 games. The Pelicans are a sub-.500 team that ranked 23rd in field goal percentage and 24th in defensive field goal percentage, so let's not pretend that they can pose a serious threat to the Suns.

It is tempting to pick Phoenix to sweep, but even in the first round sweeps are not a given. Phoenix will win in five games.

#2 Memphis (56-26) versus #7 Minnesota (46-36)

The Memphis Grizzlies are the most surprising team of the 2022 season. I did not even pick them to make the playoffs, and most of my picks were correct even in the chaotic first season back to relative normalcy after two years of COVID-19-shortened seasons. I love not only Ja Morant's game but the way that he has elevated the entire franchise. The Grizzlies have a high-powered offense (ranking second in the league in scoring), and they display their athleticism not only at that end of the court but also on the boards (ranking eighth in rebounding) and on defense (ranking first in both steals and blocked shots, a rare combination). Morant is without question the team's best player, but Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks, Steven Adams, and Jaren Jackson Jr. all make major contributions, plus the bench players showed that they can produce with or without Morant around to lead the way.

The Timberwolves are loaded with talent, and their high-powered offense led the league in scoring while also ranking first in three pointers made--but they ranked 22nd in field goal percentage and 21st in turnovers. Their shot selection and overall decision making is just not very good, and teams like that tend to fare poorly in the playoffs when the value of each possession becomes even more critical that it is during the regular season. 

This could and possibly should be a sweep, but I'll pencil Minnesota in for one win with Karl Anthony-Towns and/or Anthony Edwards erupting for 35-40 points. The Grizzlies will win in five games.

#3 Golden State (53-29) versus #6 Denver (48-34)

For the purposes of this preview, I will assume that Stephen Curry is available for the whole series and that he will score at least 23-25 ppg with a reasonable field goal percentage, and I will assume that Jamal Murray either cannot play or will miss at least part of the series while playing the rest of the series on some form of minutes restriction.

Nikola Jokic's career path is remarkable. I remember watching him during his rookie season and during the 2016 Olympics, when his talent was obvious--but who could have imagined that Jokic would emerge as a perennial MVP candidate? I liked his game a lot from the start, but I did not foresee this. When Jokic is on the court, the Nuggets are an elite team almost regardless of who else plays alongside of him, but when he is off of the court the Nuggets look like a Draft Lottery team. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, Jokic cannot play 48 mpg like Wilt Chamberlain used to do, and those non-Jokic minutes are going to be tough sledding against a very good Warriors team. The Warriors' ability to be dominant ended as soon as Kevin Durant got injured and then went to Brooklyn, but if Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green are healthy this is obviously a very dangerous team.

Jokic will be very productive, but for the first time since 2018 the Nuggets will not win a playoff series. Golden State will win in six games.

#4 Dallas (52-30) versus #5 Utah (49-33)

The Luka Doncic injury is obviously series-changing. It has been reported that he will miss at least the first game, it is not clear if he will be able to play at all, and it is likely that if he plays his mobility will be significantly hindered. Doncic has been superb during his first two playoff appearances, but even that was not enough to get the Mavericks past the first round, so it is difficult to see how the Mavericks can defeat the Jazz with Doncic at less than 100%.

The Jazz are a difficult team to read. This is their sixth straight playoff appearance under Coach Quin Snyder, yet they have not made it past the second round during his tenure. The Jazz rank in the top 10 in scoring, points allowed, field goal percentage, and defensive field goal percentage. With that type of efficiency and balance, one would expect them to fight for the number one seed, not slip to the fifth seed. They are building a reputation as a team that scores efficiently and defends well until the pressure ramps up, and then they collapse. Part of the problem is how much the Jazz rely on the three point shot; the Jazz ranked second in the league in three point field goals attempted, but only 11th in the league in three point field goal percentage. This high variance approach looks great when the shots are going down, but when a team that shoots a lot of three pointers hits a cold spell and does not have a backup plan then the results can be disastrous. The Jazz blow a lot of leads, and if they let a wounded Mavericks team hang around they could set themselves up for yet another playoff disappointment, but I predict that Utah will win in six games.      


Thus, I expect the second round matchups to be Miami-Toronto, Boston-Milwaukee, Phoenix-Utah, and Memphis-Golden State.

The Heat and Raptors are two gritty, well-coached teams, but the Heat have more talent plus game seven at home (if necessary), so I expect the Heat to win a tough series in six games.

The Bucks' size and Antetokounmpo's greatness will be too much for the Celtics. Milwaukee will win in six games.

The Suns are a well-oiled machine, while the Jazz are a very good team that generally falls apart at some point during the playoffs. I expect the Suns to win in six games. 

The Grizzlies took out the Warriors at Golden State in last year's Play-In Tournament. The Warriors would no doubt like to avenge that loss, but even though the Warriors brought back Klay Thompson this season the Grizzlies have improved more than the Warriors since last season. The fiction that Stephen Curry is still the best point guard in the NBA will be exposed by Ja Morant in this series.

The Eastern Conference Finals matchup of Milwaukee versus Miami will mark the third straight year these teams met in the playoffs. Miami won in 2020 en route to reaching the NBA Finals, and Milwaukee beat Miami in 2021 en route to winning the NBA title. This time, the Bucks will prevail in six games.

Suns versus Grizzlies in the Western Conference Finals may be the best playoff series of 2022. I expect a seven game battle royale, with the Suns prevailing at home in game seven. I would not be surprised if the Grizzlies take an early lead in the series before the Suns bounce back; this will be a grueling series, and one injury or one key play could tip the balance. 

The concern for any team relying on Chris Paul is that he has a history of getting injured and/or wearing down as the playoffs progress--which happened last season, though the Suns overcame this to reach the NBA Finals--but the Suns have proven that they can win even without Paul. The Bucks demonstrated last year that they have what it takes to win a title--something that many critics openly doubted--and I predict that while LeBron James keeps talking about being the greatest of all-time Giannis Antetokounmpo will establish that he is, at the very least, the greatest of right now by leading Milwaukee to the 2022 NBA title. 


Here is a summary of the results of my previous predictions both for playoff qualifiers and for the outcomes of playoff series:

In my 2021-2022 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked seven of this season's eight playoff teams and I went five for eight in my 2021-2022 Western Conference Preview. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2021: East 6/8, West 6/8
2020: East 7/8, West 6/8
2019: East 6/8, West 7/8
2018: East 6/8, West 6/8
2017: East 5/8, West 7/8
2016: East 5/8, West 6/8
2015: East 5/8, West 7/8
2014: East 6/8, West 6/8
2013: East 7/8, West 6/8
2012: East 8/8, West 7/8
2011: East 5/8, West 5/8
2010: East 6/8, West 7/8
2009: East 6/8, West 7/8
2008: East 5/8, West 7/8
2007: East 7/8, West 6/8
2006: East 6/8, West 6/8

That adds up to 103/136 in the East and 107/136 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .772.

Here is my record in terms of picking the results of playoff series:

2021:  9/15
2020: 10/15
2019: 10/15
2018: 11/15
2017: 14/15
2016: 12/15
2015: 10/15
2014: 13/15
2013: 14/15
2012: 11/15
2011: 10/15
2010: 10/15
2009: 10/15
2008: 12/15
2007: 12/15
2006: 10/15
2005:  9/15

Total: 187/255 (.733)

At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past 17 years I have correctly picked 18 of the 34 NBA Finals participants. In five of those 17 years (including 2016 and 2017) I got both teams right and twice I got both teams right and predicted the correct result (2007, 2017). I correctly picked the NBA Champion before the playoffs began five times: 2007, 2013, 2017, 2018, 2021.

I track these results separately from the series by series predictions because a lot can change from the start of the playoffs to the NBA Finals, so my prediction right before the NBA Finals may differ from what I predicted when the playoffs began.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:44 AM



At Saturday, April 16, 2022 7:07:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...


I was like 500 last year

I picked Milwaukee to lose in second round

And Phoenix to lose in first round

Anyway David my prediction is


Miami in 5 over hawks

Miami too good

Nets over Celtics

In 6

Kd and kyrie too good

Tatum nice but celts don't have enough

This only going 6 cause celts got home court

Bucks over bulls

Bucks too good

Philly over raptors

Harden will be average

But embid will carry Philly


Suns over pelicans

Suns too good

Memphis over timberwolves

In 6

They loss today but will win series

Warriors over nuggets

Warriors are better

More experience better defensive team

Jazz over mavs

Luka missing this so jazz will win


Suns over Utah

Suns better

Warriors over grizzles

Warriors experience will win series

East semi

Philly over heat

Embid won't let them lose

Nets over bucks

Again kyrie and kd on a mission

West finals

Suns over warriors

This a pick em I go suns in 7

Cause home court

East finals

Nets over sixers

In 6

Kd and kyrie

Simmons as well getting revenge on old team

Nba finals

Nets over suns

Kd kyrie Simmons bring it home

At Sunday, April 17, 2022 10:31:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


We agree on several series, but you believe in the Nets and 76ers much more than I do; both teams have weaknesses that I expect will be exposed over the course of a seven game playoff series.


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