Your 2021 NBA Playoff Guide
By Toyloy Brown and Joshua Eferighe
The NBA regular season is fun and all. But the playoffs? That’s where legends are made. The Lakers hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy last year, but COVID-19 illnesses and the bubble format put a damper on the proceedings, making theirs a championship with an asterisk for some. The low-key beauty of this season’s edition: We can focus on basketball once more. No, that doesn’t mean things are “normal” by any stretch. The inaugural play-in tournament is already shaking up the field, and a number of other X-factors could also change the trajectory of the league. Who will earn glory, and who will wilt under the pressure? Here’s our shot.
The Pivotal Play-In. NBA teams usually get a best-of-seven series to prove themselves. But NBA officials chose to add a twist this year: a play-in tournament for four teams in each conference. Put simply, the seventh and eighth seeds must win one of two games to secure their playoff ticket, while the ninth and 10th seeds — which normally wouldn’t make the playoffs at all — can steal a spot if they win two straight games. The Boston Celtics secured their place by beating the Washington Wizards, who will now face the Indiana Pacers for the final Eastern Conference spot. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Golden State Warriors, who will now face the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday to earn the last Western Conference spot.
What’s So Controversial? The play-in twist was included to add intrigue after the COVID-19 bubble tournament drew rave reviews for its exciting play. But it’s become more controversial after injuries put two of the league’s most popular players — former MVPs LeBron James and Stephen Curry, who leads the league in scoring — at risk of elimination while facing each other. “Whoever came up with that s— needs to be fired,” James quipped. It’s worth noting James himself was touting the idea back in March 2020, when it seemed unlikely it would affect him. James made the point moot by draining a 34-foot 3-pointer over Curry with a minute left to win on Wednesday night. But Curry could be out after just two playoff games if he can’t beat the Grizzlies in their Friday matchup.
What Can Brown Do for You? Drafted in 2018 from the University of Miami, 6-foot-4 guard Bruce Brown embodies Brooklyn grit for the Nets. You’re not always going to see his value on the stat sheet — he averages a mere 8.4 points per game. But he makes his presence felt with his intangibles. You might have seen highlights of him fighting among giants for rebounds and diving for loose balls. His game complements Brooklyn’s three-headed scoring machine of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden well. His ability to move without the ball counters the traps and doubles his star teammates attract. He also makes the most of the minutes he has on the court, shooting 62.5% from 2-point range. Efficient.
Hollywood’s Young Gun. When serious injuries derailed both Anthony Davis and LeBron James for a combined 63 games, it was clear the Lakers needed firepower. Cue Talen Horton-Tucker, the team’s youngest player at just 20. The former Iowa State Cyclone and Chicago standout is 6-foot-4 and has lanky arms that lead to an impressive 7-foot-1 wingspan, making him a steal and deflection threat on defense and helping him to score quickly off the bench. Is he the best player on the court? No. But next to James and Davis, his performance could turn a series for the Lakers.
New York’s Rim Protector. One word: shot-blocking. That’s what Knicks center Nerlens Noel will bring to the playoffs. With the absence of fellow shot-block artist Mitchell Robinson due to injury, Noel has fortified the Knicks’ defense seamlessly, finally living up to his potential as the sixth pick out of the University of Kentucky way back in 2013. He has the third-most blocks (141) and the second-highest block percentage (8.7%) in the league. He is also an underrated thief, nabbing 1.3 steals per game, making him the only player in the NBA to average two blocks and one steal per game. Noel’s role is not conducive to him being a major scorer, but his rim protection will help the Knicks maintain their hard-nosed defensive identity.
Trail Blazing Skills. This 2018 Portland Trail Blazers first-rounder is multifaceted. He’s a Slam Dunk Contest champion and tied the NBA record for consecutive 3-pointers without a miss with nine. While Portland has been consistent in making the playoffs and, in some cases, has overachieved, they still haven’t truly contended for a championship … and some wonder if blowing up the roster is the only way they’ll get there. Anfernee Simons may be the answer either way, though: If he can build some consistency and play with confidence, he might be that unexpected threat that will take Damian Lillard and crew to the promised land.
Comeback After a Flameout? Last year, Kendrick Nunn put up 15.3 points per game and 3.3 assists per game and finished second in Rookie of the Year voting. Hopes of contributing to a Miami Heat team that ended up making the NBA Finals were imminent until he contracted COVID-19 before the team departed for the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida. Although his play dropped, the 25-year-old could be primed to bounce back in the postseason for a Heat team that needs as many scorers as possible.
Great expectations. Since De’Andre Hunter was picked fourth overall in the 2020 NBA draft, Atlanta’s expectations for this 6-foot-8 former University of Virginia forward have been through the roof. And, for the first part of this season, he was proving he can make it happen — showing fantastic defensive and offensive consistency while draining 3s — before a pesky right knee injury limited him to just 21 games. Now that he’s back and healthy, the Hawks can’t be overlooked and stand at least a chance of victory when they take on the gritty New York Knicks in the first round.
the juiciest storylines
Escape GOAT. While resting players at the end of the season is common practice in the NBA, the Clippers are rumored to have thrown the last stretch of their season to avoid playing the Lakers and facing LeBron James (the GOAT besides, perhaps, Michael Jordan). The Clippers were a No. 3 seed and would have been slated to play the Lakers, but started losing games near the end of the season. In fact, of the six teams to secure a playoff berth in the NBA’s Western Conference, the Clips were the only team that finished below .500 in the final 10 games of the season. Besides resting starters and losing to basement dwellers like the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the backdrop is that Paul George and Kawhi Leonard underperformed last postseason, giving up a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference semifinals. The Clippers don’t want to get bounced early again, of course. Playing scared or playing smart, either way the team will avoid a Lakers matchup in the first round.
The Knicks Are Back — Or Are These the Bulls? The New York Knicks have been one of the biggest surprises of the season, after the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook projected before the season that the team would be tied for the worst win total, at 22.5 wins. Now, with the Knicks at a 41-31 record going into the playoffs, some are wondering: Why were betters mistaken? Look no further than Tom Thibodeau, the former Chicago Bulls coach who not only brought his coaching style to the Big Apple but also two of his former players: Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose. Thibodeau is known for overworking his top players — playing them for upward of 38 minutes per game — and demanding immense defensive effort. Rose, a former MVP whose star dimmed after a knee injury, has succeeded in turning back the clock as a dependable scorer and distributor.
Nets Super Slander. Remember the heat (pun intended) LeBron took after his Miami dream team lost to the Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals? Or the criticism Durant faced for joining Golden State after his OKC squad gave up a 3-1 lead to them in the Western Conference Finals? Well, those disappointments will pale in comparison should the Brooklyn Nets fail to at least reach the NBA Finals this year. Why? The Nets count three of the top 10 players in the NBA on their roster. Even though injuries meant that the Big Three played less than 10 games together in the regular season, the Nets still finished with the league’s second-best offensive rating. Irving, at point guard, notched a rare “50-40-90” season. Durant is shooting a record-clip from 3. And Harden was looking like an MVP front-runner as a scorer and passer before he went down. Now, they must deliver on that talent.
Reject the Doubters. The Utah Jazz finished the season with the best record in the NBA at 52-20. The team employs an offensive scheme that emphasizes ball movement and superior 3-point shooting — it leads the league with an average of nearly seventeen 3-pointers per game. The Jazz is also home to the likely Defensive Player of the Year in center Rudy Gobert, who is having one the best defensive seasons in modern NBA history. The lengthy Frenchman is the foremost reason for the Jazz’s top-flight defense in patrolling the basket. However, these are all regular season accomplishments. Will these feats translate in the postseason? The Jazz haven’t had a long playoff run in a while, and will be tested.
Hottest in the East? The Atlanta Hawks have the best record in the Eastern Conference, 27-11, since getting a major boost after Nate McMillan was designated the interim head coach on March 2. The team’s young star Trae Young is as reliable as ever, averaging over 25 points and nine assists per game, good for the second-most in the league. But the player with the biggest improvement has been Bogdan Bogdanović. As McMillan has introduced more off-ball action to spring his players open, the Serbian sharpshooter has averaged 22 points per game while shooting a scorching 49.5% from beyond the arc on 9.3 attempts per game in the last 25 games of the season. That level of slinging, and the efficiency, could propel the Hawks deep into the postseason.
Reffing Conundrum. Referee shortages caused by health issues — mostly COVID-19-related — have the potential to impact outcomes in the playoffs. It was reported on April 26 that the absences of 10 officials during the season had led to six lower-level referees from the G-League working NBA games. Anonymous general managers have already complained about the inconsistency of officiating in NBA games. And that concern will only grow when the stakes are raised among teams contending for a championship. In the playoffs, games get slower and feature a more physical brand of basketball, putting more pressure on the refs to police a game before it gets out of hand. Inexperienced referees are more likely to miss these nuances and could disrupt game flow if they can’t handle the limelight.
COVID Caution. The return of fans, and potentially uneven attendance, could come into play too. Unlike last year, where opposing players shot at record percentages due to empty gyms, many arenas are slowly reintegrating ticket buyers. But that could lead to uneven advantages, as some states allow in more fans than others. Do the Knicks, who are currently allowing just 10% of fans inside, have a smaller home-court advantage than the Hawks, who are allowing 45% capacity? Similarly, as cities open up and teams begin to travel, the chances of contracting the virus and missing out on games will be heightened.
Black Coaches Going Far. It left a bad taste in the mouths of some after the Brooklyn Nets hired two-time MVP Steve Nash, who is white and had never been a coach, for their head coaching gig last year. After all, there were many other experienced Black coaches to choose from. African Americans make up over 70% of NBA players, yet they only occupy 5 out of the 30 head coaching jobs. Still, this postseason could see a number of Black coaches prove they are up to snuff. Just look at McMillan’s surprising success with the Hawks, Doc Rivers’ resurgence in Philadelphia and Monty Williams, who was just announced Coach of the Year with the Phoenix Suns. A Black coach winning it all could force a deeper look into why NBA teams still have a double standard in the hiring process.
Down Goes Michael Jordan? Given his season-long injuries and the Lakers’ fall in the standings, LeBron is no longer seen as a front-runner to win his fifth championship this year. But if he does? A fifth championship inches him to just one less than Jordan, who he has already surpassed in a number of statistical milestones. And an upset victory over a stacked team, like, say, the Brooklyn Nets, would cement LeBron’s place in NBA lore as a serious GOAT contender. Of course, the passions are too high at this point for LeBron to ever truly defeat Jordan in the minds of many a ’90s child. Still, a shocker of a championship would go a long way in building LeBron’s closing argument in the twilight of his career.