The 2021 NBA playoffs begin May 22nd. First round matchups are as follows …
(1) 76ers vs. (8) Wizards
(2) Nets vs. (7) Celtics
(3) Bucks vs. (6) Heat
(4) Knicks vs. (5) Hawks
(1) Jazz vs. (8) Grizzlies
(2) Suns vs. (7) Lakers
(3) Nuggets vs. (6) Trail Blazers
(4) Clippers vs. (5) Mavericks
The story ahead of the games might be more unexpected than that of any prior season. Absences and injuries determined much of the season for many teams. Trades, coaching changes and player improvements resulted in leaps forward by the Nets, Suns, Knicks, Bulls and Hornets. Significant injuries will alter playoff hopes for the Celtics, Warriors and Nuggets as for each of them one of their stars won’t be available for the games which follow.
Denver’s star put the league on notice, and three of the greatest teamed up on the Nets. The Bucks and Sixers shored up their defenses and look to battle whatever offense comes at them. The Clippers added Rondo giving them the solid experienced leader and crafty penetrator-disher they needed to be less predictable offensively. The Warriors without Klay were led by Curry who had arguably his best season. They will play the hobbled but apparently playoff ready Lakers in a play-in to determine the 7th seed in the West. In some odd sort of symmetric way, the Wizards with Westbrook playing perhaps is best ball ever will face the hobbled Celtics in a play-in to determine the 7th seed in the East.
The Nets are the favorites going in, partially because the Lakers haven’t proven healthy yet. Harden will be at the Nets helm. He hasn’t played much this season due to an apparent hamstring issue, but when he has played he was masterful and consistent and MVP worthy. Durant seems to magically be the same player he was prior to the Achilles rupture, and Kyrie has played with flashes of brilliance and efficiency. If all three are healthy, this season may be the first where a champion is decided by excellent offense and below-average defense winning simply because the offense is more efficient than any prior. It’s possible, but the defenses they’ll face in the Sixers and Bucks are outstanding and whatever team comes out of the West will get there largely because of their all around games including excellent defense.
In their final games the Lakers look ready, but the only way to know will be to watch them in the first round assuming they can win one of their next two play-in games. We wait and see. Meanwhile Denver looks to be a Western Conference Finals contender led by Jokic’s consistent production and presence at both ends, MPJ’s outstanding improvement, Aaron Gordon’s all around game and plenty of depth at the other positions even with Murray out.
Philly by virtue of outstanding defensive effort, talent, coaching and size will be a threat against any team, but always with the caveat that Embiid needs to show some consistency. Even so, the Sixers have shown huge improvements largely due to the surprising play of Thybulle and rookie surprise Tyrese Maxey. If healthy Sixers are deep and talented and complete, even if they aren’t the best shooting team in the league. If Embiid chooses to play big then Embiid will probably play big leaving opponents with no choice but to figure out the defense in at least 4 games per series.
The Bucks have added Jrue who has shown to be the missing piece in the starting lineup, but the Bucks look thin as DiVincenzo has apparently plateaued leaving them at a scoring and size disadvantage when he’s on the court. It may be a simple as stating that the Bucks are one shooter short of contending. That is, assuming their shooters aren’t good enough. Middleton certainly can be, and maybe that’s what it will take to get to the conference finals.
The Suns and Knicks are easily the biggest surprises this season and possibly for similar reasons: both teams have leaders in Paul and Randle that control the game offensively in several ways which involve teammates. both teams have been coached to enforce tight structure which leads to excellent team and perimeter defense. But the Suns have a different look than most teams, in that the idea every game is to out-execute and out-efficient the opponent at both ends while giving Booker enough rope to either quickly pull them ahead or to hang himself when trying. As Paul has had a consistent and MVP like season at both ends of the court, and the team makeup is built for consistency it will be up to Booker to decide how far they can go. The Knicks have a different look that isn’t quite as clear. No one knows what Randle’s ceiling is yet, nor how their younger players will show up. They look ready however, and there’s no reason to count them out versus anyone.
Utah may be the biggest question mark going in. Mitchell will play, but no one can know if he’s ready after a significant ankle injury. Regardless, Jazz have the best record in the league, the best defensive center, one of the best off the bench in Clarkson and outstanding shooting from everywhere in the half court. Mitchell at his best can get them to the conference finals. They’ll need him to be at his best, because the rest of the West will be too good in a 7 game series otherwise.