NBA Playoffs Preview

Going back to last fall on October 11th, the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Miami Heat 106-93 to take the NBA Finals 4-2 winning the 2020 championship. LeBron James had won Finals MVP and fans everywhere were sad that the season had ended but grateful that Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, had allowed the season to continue in Walt Disney World. 

At the time, many had started to wonder when the 2020-2021 season would start. Some speculated that it would start on Christmas, or MLK jr day, or even in February. To a surprise to most, on November 17th Adam Silver announced that the 2021 season would start on December 22nd featuring a shortened schedule of 72 games. With this new schedule, the league also brought a new playoff format.

The NBA Play-in tournament would be held at the end of the regular season, starting on May 18th 2021. This is how it works. For both conferences the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th seeds in the regular season will be involved to compete for the 7th and 8th seeds in the playoffs for their respective conferences. The 7th and 8th seeds will play against each other to determine who becomes the 7th seed to go on and play the 2nd seed in the playoffs. The loser of the 7th vs 8th seed game will play against the winner of the 9th and 10th seed game to find out who will be the 8th seed to go against the 1st seed in the playoffs. The loser of the 9th and 10th seed game are officially eliminated from playoff contention. The loser of that final game who becomes the 8th seed is also officially eliminated from the playoffs. With that being said, there are tons of things to talk about for each of the first round matchups and the results of the Play-In tournament.

Out East, the Boston Celtics beat the Washington Wizards 118-100 to secure the 7th seed on the back of Jayson Tatum who had another dazzling 50 point performance and forced Washington to play the Indiana Pacers for the 8th seed to decide who will go against the 1st seed Philadelphia 76ers in the playoffs. The Pacers had beaten the Charlotte Hornets in a blowout of 144-117 to get a chance at the 8th seed. Pacers All-Star Domantas Sabonis (Doe-mahn-tuss Suh-boe-ness) had almost notched his 10th triple double this season with 14 points, 21 rebounds and 9 assists. In the deciding game for the 8th seed, the Washington Wizards walloped the Indiana Pacers 142-115 with another stellar game from Russell Westbrook having 18 points, 8 rebounds and 15 assists.

For the first time in 20 years, the Philadelphia 76ers claimed the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Being led by MVP finalist Joel Embiid (Joe-ell Em-beed) and Defensive Player of the Year finalist Ben Simmons, the 76ers look to finally make a finals run after having very good seasons in previous years but being unable to reach the Eastern Conference Finals. Back in 2013, former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie had a plan to rebuild the struggling team with a method that is now referred to as tanking. Tanking is essentially being bad on purpose to get high number draft picks to get young talent in the draft. After five years of what 76ers fans called “Trusting the Process”, the fruits of Hinkie’s labor blossomed with Simmons and Embiid bursting on the scene as a great young duo. The team that hopes to beat them in an unlikely upset are the Washington Wizards.

For most of the 2010s, the Wizards were highlighted by former Kentucky Star John Wall. After two gruesome injuries which were an ACL tear and a ruptured achilles tendon, both in the same leg, the Wizards traded Wall for former MVP and triple double machine Russell Westbrook. Now with Westbrook and Superstar guard Bradley Beal, the Wizards made the playoffs for the first time since 2018 after a they shot up the standings and hope to be the first 8th seed since the 2012 76ers to beat a #1 seed. 

The Brooklyn Nets are heavy favorites to win the championship this season going into the playoffs with their stars of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving along with Superstar James Harden who they acquired in a blockbuster midseason trade that shook the NBA. Over the last decade that Brooklyn Nets have been mediocre at best after trading for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnet and Jason Terry from the Boston Celtics in 2013 for 4 future first round picks that have become Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and another player who the Celtics gave away to trade for Kyrie Irving in 2018. They will be going against the Boston Celtics who have stumbled into the 7th seed. 

The Celtics have been able to reach 3 of the last 4 Eastern Conference Finals, but were unable to make the Finals in each of those seasons. The team has been relying on the play of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown this season which hasn’t been complemented by All-Star Kemba Walker. High expectations were set on the Celtics this season after reaching the Eastern Conference Finals last season, but through struggles from Walker and injuries to key players such as Jaylen Brown and Robin Williams III, the Cs don’t look so good going against a contender such as the Nets.

After another MVP type season from their Superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo (Yaa-nuhs Aan-te-to-koom-pow), the Milwaukee Bucks look to finally become Eastern Conference champions and make a Finals appearance. In the two previous seasons, Milwaukee only managed to make a single Eastern Conference Finals despite Antetokounmpo winning MVP in those both seasons. With the addition of defensive specialist and playmaker Jrue Holiday and the consistent play of shooting specialist Khris Middleton, Milwaukee looks to start their finals run against the team that upset them in the playoffs last season, the reigning Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat. 

Miami is led by All-Star guard/forward Jimmy Butler and looks to upset the Bucks again. In the 2019 offseason, Miami was looking to make a big move in free agency and when Jimmy Butler wasn’t going to resign with the 76ers, President of Basketball Operations Pat Riley once again attracted a top free agent with the Heat’s team culture. After coming out of the east last year in the Orlando bubble Miami couldn’t beat the Lakers despite Jimmy Butler giving it his all. However this season, the Heat had a difficult start to the year after Butler had gone down with Covid-19. When he did return they started to keep themselves afloat, but due to a tough Eastern Conference and a disappointing season from second year guard Tyler Herro, they fell to the 6th seed.

Probably one of the most surprising stories this season was the sudden revival of the New York Knicks. After being in basketball purgatory and the laughing stock of the NBA for nearly 2 decades, it seems the Knicks have found their footing again. Being led by Most Improved Player of the Year finalist Julius Randle, former MVP and current Sixth Man of the Year finalist Derrick Rose and Coach Of The Year finalist Tom Thibodeau, the Knicks have brought New York basketball to life again with one of the best defenses in the NBA. New York just kept falling short in free agency by missing out on top players and the draft by drafting the wrong players. When the Knicks hired Thibodeau, it was seen as a good hire since he is a great defensive coach but the play of Julius Randle came out of nowhere. The team that stands in the Knicks way to get their first playoff series win in over 8 years is the Atlanta Hawks. 

Being led by All-Star Trae Young, the Hawks are a little bit ahead in their rebuild. After acquiring Young through a draft day trade involving Luka Dončić (Lue-ka Don-chich), the Hawks looked to build around him as the new face of the franchise with other young talent such as John Collins, Clint Capela, Bogdan Bogdanović (Baag-duhn Bowg-daa-nuh-vuhch), and veteran Danilo Gallinari (Da-nee-low Ga-li-neh-ree). Their season didn’t start all too well, but after firing Lloyd Pierce and hiring former Pacers head coach Nate McMillan, they shot up to 5th in the east to grab their first playoff appearance since 2017. 

Out West, in one of the best games of the season which was worth all of the hype, the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Golden State Warriors 103-100. Despite getting poked in the eye by Defensive Player Of the Year finalist Draymond Green, LeBron James had hit a clutch 3 pointer in the face of MVP finalist Stephen Curry to close the game and snag the 7th seed for the Lakers. The Warriors had to face the Memphis Grizzlies after they had beat the San Antonio Spurs 100-96 with a great performance from Jonas Valančiūnas (Joh-nas Val-an-chew-nas) with 23 points along with 23 rebounds. In that game for the 8th seed, the Memphis Grizzlies pulled off the upset in an overtime thriller with a final score of 117-112. Grizzlies star Ja Morant had an outstanding performance of 35 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists.

In their rich basketball history filled with many legends including John Stockton, Pete Maravich and Karl Malone the Utah Jazz have never been able to capture the #1 seed in the NBA until now. With a league best record of 52 wins and 20 losses, this Jazz team hopes to finally capture a championship to make it the franchises first ever. Led by a strong group of stars including All-stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert who is also a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and Sixth Man of the Year finalists Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles. This group is also being coached by Coach of the Year finalist Quin Snyder who hopes to prove to the league that Utah is ready for their first finals appearance since 1998 when they lost to Michael Jordan.

 The 8th seed that hopes to keep their season alive is the “Grit and Grind” Memphis Grizzlies. This young Grizzlies team is captained by last season’s Rookie of the Year winner Ja Morant along with strong roleplayers Dillon Brooks and Jonas Valančiūnas. Last year the team made the trip down to Orlando for the NBA Bubble, but failed to make the postseason. This year however, they were able to win both of their Play-In games to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2017.

The Phoenix Suns are the perfect example of this basketball phenomenon people like to call the “Chris Paul effect”. Essentially ever since Paul joined the league in 2005 when he was drafted by the New Orleans Hornets, every team he has joined which includes the Los Angeles Clippers, the Houston Rockets, the Oklahoma City Thunder and now the Phoenix Suns have gotten a better record. Last season the Suns finished 10th in the west despite winning every game they played in the Bubble, but hope was at an all time high for a Suns team who hadn’t reached the playoffs since 2010. This season they finished as the #2 seed and had the second best record in the NBA at 51 wins and 21 losses. Being led by All-star guards Devin Booker and Chris Paul along with star young center Deandre Ayton and Coach of the Year finalist Monty Williams, they hope to beat a team that many think that they have a strong chance at beating Phoenix, the reigning world champion Los Angeles Lakers. 

Going into this season the Lakers were the favorites to win the championship again, but after injuries to Anthony Davis and LeBron James and poor play from Davis, Dennis Schröder (Deh-nuhs Shrow-dr) and mid-season addition Andre Drummond, the Lakers kept falling in the standings until they got down to the 7th seed.

Every team plays basketball the way they are coached to. If you are talking about the Denver Nuggets, then that means having coach Mike Malone use the tallest player on the floor to play like a point guard and run the offense. Nikola Jokić (Ni-kuh-luh Yow-kuhch) has been playing like the MVP this season with great numbers and the advance stats love him. Denver’s season is highlighted by Jokić and his unique style of play, but another player that has proven his worth is second year forward and Most Improved Player finalist Michael Porter Jr. After back surgery that ended his freshman year at Missouri, there was concern about drafting Porter Jr but Denver took the chance and selected him with their first round pick that year. He sat out the 2019 season for rehab but in his official rookie season being 2020, he looked very promising and this season he proved it wasn’t a fluke. The Nuggets without their star guard Jamal Murray will have to go against arguably the second best point guard in the NBA in Damian Lillard and the Portland Trailblazers. 

Portland has been a very consistent team over the past decade in part due to Damian Lillard. After Selecting him 6th overall in 2012, he won the 2013 Rookie of the Year award and grew into a three point threat and regular all-star. Lillard is accompanied by guard C.J McCollum and other veterans including former All-NBA player and scoring champion Carmelo Anthony, defensive specialist Robbert Covington and big man Enes Kanter. The Trailblazers hope to yet again beat Denver in a playoff series as they did in 2019, but Denver hopes to make another deep playoff run and potentially reach the finals for the first time in franchise history.

The last playoff matchup could easily be an upset that some may not see coming, the Los Angeles Clippers versus the Dallas Mavericks. During the 2010s, the Clippers were one of the most exciting regular season teams to watch featuring All-Stars Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Although the winning atmosphere was there for the Clippers, all of their playoff series ended in frustration by the fans and players as they could never make the Western Conference Finals. After their three stars had left hope seemed lost until the free agency 2019. In a shocking turn of events the Clippers not only signed the best available free agent being 2019 finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, but they traded for MVP finalist Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder in a shocking trade. Last season for the new look Clippers season ended sour after choking a 3-1 series lead over the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Semifinals. This season the Clippers hope to not have another early playoff exit but first they must try to get past the team that almost beat them last year in the first round, the Dallas Mavericks. 

After winning the 2011 NBA finals over LeBron James and his newly formed superteam in the Miami Heat, the Mavs didn’t do much and fell into irrelevance. As former MVP Dirk Nowitzki (Durk Nuh-vit-skee) kept ageing, the team could no longer rely on him. However in the 2018 draft they found their next Dirk, Luka Dončić (Lue-ka Don-chich). Dončić looked like the next great NBA player the second he started playing. After winning the 2019 Rookie of the Year award, he has become an All-NBA team member, All-Star and MVP candidate. Last year in the 2020 playoffs, the Luka led Mavericks pushed the Clippers to their limit and almost pulled off the upset but due to an injury to Kristaps Porziņģis (Kris-tops Por-zing-giss), the Mavs lost. This time around with Porziņģis healthy, the Mavericks have a very good chance to beat the Clippers.

Now that it is finally time for the playoffs, all of the fans and analysts are giving out their picks to win each matchup and eventually the finals. I see it going like this. In the east, the 76ers sweep the Wizards 4-0, the Nets demolish the Celtics, but Boston wins one game making the series 4-1. The Bucks get past the Heat in a series which most people think Miami can upset Milwaukee but I have it 4-1 in a Milwaukee victory. New York basketball doesn’t keep their season alive with the Hawks beating the Knicks 4-2. For the second round, the 76ers beat the Hawks 4-1 with Embiid dominating and I think without anyone to guard Giannis and if everyone plays well, the Bucks have a chance to beat the Nets 4-3. For the Eastern Conference Finals I have the Milwaukee Bucks making their first Finals appearance since the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar era in the 1970s with them beating the 76ers 4-3.

For the west, the Jazz beat the Grizzlies 4-1 especially with the return of Donovan Mitchell after being out since April. The Suns beat the Lakers 4-2 which some people think the Lakers will easily pull off the upset. The Nuggets beat the Trailblazers 4-3 in a great series that is probably the best first round matchup this year and the Dallas Mavericks come in and shock everyone by beating the Clippers 4-2. In the second round, the red hot Dallas Mavericks beat the Jazz with Luka Dončić dominating once more 4-3. The Denver Nuggets make the Conference Finals again with them beating the Suns 4-3 in another great seven games series. For the conference finals, Nikola Jokić puts his team on his back and gets Denver to its first NBA finals beating the Mavericks 4-2. In this season's NBA Finals, the Denver Nuggets finally capture their long awaited championship with Nikola Jokić winning Finals MVP.

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