76ers in 5
The 76ers really found themselves after struggling in the Bubble last year. Led by MVP finalist Joel Embiid and Defensive Player of the Year finalist Ben Simmons, the Sixers don’t have too many weaknesses. They will match up fairly well against a somewhat hot Wizards team that had an incredible final stretch of the season that just barely got them into the playoffs. Led by Westbrook and Beal, the Wizards have the potential to create some chaos in the first round. Westbrook is one of the most polarizing players in the NBA, but if the Wizards can challenge the Sixers in the first round, that will certainly help convince people that Westbrook is more than a stat-padder. In their first play-in game, the Wizards shot just 3-21 from three, which is not anywhere close to being good enough. For the Wizards to challenge the Sixers, Beal and Westbrook must be efficient. If the Sixers can stop the Wizards backcourt, especially in their transition offense, the Wizards won’t put up any challenge. Watch out for Matisse Thybulle, an elite perimeter defender who will be vital to the Sixers when it comes to stopping Westbrook and Beal.
Jazz in 4
It seemed inevitable that Steph Curry would carry the Warriors to the eighth seed, but the Grizzlies were able to earn the 8 seed and a matchup against the Jazz. If Curry and the Warriors had won then, the Jazz would have been scared, but I don’t think the Grizzlies pose the same threats as the Warriors. Ja Morant had an incredible finish to the final play-in game, and that would need to continue if the Grizzlies want to challenge the top-seeded Jazz. I couldn’t tell you the last time a team had two sixth man of the year finalists, but the Jazz had two this year with Ingles and Clarkson. With that kind of depth, along with the superstar talent in Mitchell and Gobert, the Jazz are built for a deep playoff run. Watch out for Ingles, who has shot 45% from three this year, and Ingles is just one of the five players that shoot above 40% from deep for the Jazz this year. The Grizzlies only have three shooters above 40% and nobody close to Ingles meaning the Grizzlies would struggle to shoot their way to the second round. The Jazz and their depth should lead them through an easy first-round matchup.
Nets in 5
The Nets and Celtics will face off with more storylines than any other first-round matchup. The famous Nets-Celtics trade happened eight years ago, and neither team has won a championship since. While it appeared the Celtics had easily won the trade a few years ago, the Nets are now poised for the championship run. The Celtics underperformed all year long, and with the loss of Jaylen Brown, it doesn’t seem likely that the Tatum lead Celtics will finally be able to turn their season around. The long time in between games, multiple stretches with two days off, will certainly help the older Celtics stay fresh, and give Kemba an opportunity to have a good series which the Celtics need if they want to stay competitive. When it comes down to it, Kyrie has had one of the most efficient shooting seasons of all time as he shot 50/40/90. When James Harden is your third scoring option against a struggling Celtics defense, you should be able to dominate the series. Unless Tatum and Kemba can put together some ridiculous numbers, this series should be over rather quickly.
Lakers in 7
The Suns really did deserve better after Monty Williams, Devin Booker, and Chris Paul led them to a 51 win season. Unfortunately for the Suns, they get the reigning NBA champions, who are now favored as a seventh seed. Rather big favorites, in fact, as the Lakers are -300 to advance to the second round. Even though the Lakers were unbeatable last year, Lebron is not the same player. After spending an extended period of time injured, Lebron has admitted he isn’t the same player. With this in mind, one has to question what Lebron will look like in the 2021 playoffs. Personally, I don’t expect a noticeable difference in the first round. If anything, Lebron could wear down throughout the playoffs, but I would expect Lebron to be ready for the first round. While everyone knows that AD and Lebron are a dangerous combo, Booker and CP3 will put up a fight. In Booker’s first playoff series, he will look to be the face of the franchise for the Suns. With a healthy Lebron and AD, the Lakers should be able to come out on top.
Bucks in 7
In a rematch of the conference semifinals where the Heat took down the Bucks in Orlando. I doubt this series will have the same results as the one from last year, but I would be surprised if either team went down easily. Bucks GM Jon Horst made some major offseason moves, most notably acquiring Jrue Holiday from the Pelicans for multiple first-round picks. Holiday had a great season with over 17 points per game while shooting 39.5% from three. A revamped Bucks team that, despite the lower seeding, has certainly shown signs of improvement. Shooting 38% from three is a major improvement from last year making them more well-rounded and potentially setting them up for a deeper playoff run. Jimmy Butler and the Heat have had a good year, but have failed to put together consistent runs throughout the regular season. If the Heat find themselves hot like they did last year in the bubble, this series should go the distance.
Trail Blazers in 7
The Nuggets enter this series with a lot of questions. With an injured backcourt, Murray and Barton both are out, they will really have to rely on their defense and Jokic. Jokic is an MVP candidate because he is a walking mismatch that is great at everything, and he certainly has enough skill to turn this series around by himself. Per NBA.com, Jokic allowed just 0.63 points per possession on isolations which are the second-best in the NBA. The banged-up Nuggets backcourt is a concern, but the severity of the concern is mitigated by the fact that the Trail Blazers have one of the worst defenses in the NBA. The Blazers lead the league in allowing second-chance opportunities and points per nba.com. Not only is this a recipe for bad defense, but allowing second-chance points can be incredibly deflating. The Trail Blazers are going to have to rely on Lillard and McCollum offensively who helped the Blazers become the best clutch offense in the NBA this year, scoring 126.7 points per 100 possessions with the score within five points in the last five minutes per nba.com
Knicks in 7
The Knicks came out of nowhere this year mostly due to Julies Randle who is a finalist for Most Improved Player this year while the Hawks continued to improve thanks to great seasons from Trae Young and John Collins. This series is filled with young talent and should be one of the most exciting series in the playoff with the Knicks only being -120 favorites coming into the series. Trae Young certainly hasn’t gotten enough respect for the success that he has had in a very competitive eastern conference. With both teams having average ages below 26(NBA average is 26.5), coaching will play a very important role. Per 538, Nate McMillan helped lead the Hawks to be the only team with nine players averaging 10 or more points per game. On the other hand, Tom Thibodeau is now a coach of the year candidate. This series will certainly test the coaches and their young teams. A more experienced Thibodeau should be an advantage for the Knicks, but with so many factors, this series is very hard to predict. Ultimately, the play of each team’s star players will determine who comes out on top.
Clippers in 7
This matchup has plenty of star power from Playoff MVP Kawhi Leonard to Luke Doncic. The season series doesn’t really say much either, as the Mavericks won two games by 51 and 16 while the Clippers won their game by 10. Last year the Mavericks took the second-seeded Clippers to six games, and it seems as if the Mavericks have certainly improved their game this year, but they still have their weaknesses on defense. The offensive-powered Mavericks are certainly going to be challenged with an elite Clippers defense. If Luka and Porzingis can’t figure out the Clippers and Kawhi then they will be in for a very long series. Despite the Clippers’ defensive prowess, they still have one of the most efficient offenses in the NBA while also having the second-best NET rating in the NBA. In terms of differences from last year’s series, watch out for JJ Reddick who has struggled from three compared to previous years as he is now shooting under 38%. Finally, Paul George needs to take this opportunity to prove that he can be a star in the playoffs because if he has another poor showing his reputation might not be able to recover.