The 2021 NBA playoffs have finally arrived after a long season of COVID issues and injuries. 16 NBA teams have set themselves to win the NBA championship this year. The question is, who will emerge victorious?
Let’s take a look at the first-round matchups. These series are decided through a seven-game series. The team that wins four games first wins their respective series.
NOTE: These predictions were made on the first few days of the NBA playoffs and were made to fit with the current series leads.
1st Seed: Philadelphia 76ers vs 8th Seed: Washington Wizards
Prediction: 76ers defeat the Wizards in 5 games.
Despite having two all-star scorers in Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal, the Wizards will have a difficult time scoring against the Philadelphia 76ers, who have one of the best defences in the league, with two elite defenders, big man Joel Embiid and forward Ben Simmons.
In addition, Embiid is one of the best centres in the NBA and is a top 3 Most Valuable Player Award candidate. Embiid is sure to play extraordinarily well against the Washington Wizards centres Alex Len and Daniel Gafford, who have minimal amounts of playoff experience. There is, however, an expectation that Russell Westbrook and/or Bradley Beal will dominate on the offensive end for a game or two.
However, the 76ers will most likely cruise past the Wizards due to their experience and better overall talent.
4th Seed: New York Knicks vs 5th Seed: Atlanta Hawks
Prediction: Knicks defeat the Hawks in 7 games.
Two young, hungry teams match up in this series. Both teams’ rosters are made up of many players that have never been in the playoffs. However, their styles of play will make this series fun to watch.
Atlanta currently has a top 10 offence in the league, with all-star calibre guard Trae Young leading their scoring, averaging 25.3 points and 9.4 assists per game. They also have forward John Collins, who is quietly averaging an efficient 17.6 points per game while shooting above 55% from the field. (This means John Collins is an efficient scorer). Their main weakness is their defence, since players such as Young and Collins, despite being elite scorers, are not good defenders.
New York, on the contrary, has an elite defensive team and they are currently in the top 5 in almost every advanced defensive statistic. This is thanks to their newly acquired head coach Tom Thibodeau, a defensive-minded coach who has transformed the Knicks into a well-coached machine, leading them into the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Their main issue is their lack of offensive firepower. Despite having a strong bright spot in Julius Randle, who has significantly improved into the Knicks’ primary scorer, the rest of the roster does not have many players who can either create their own shot at a high level or have a lot of experience in the playoffs.
The two teams juxtapose with each other quite nicely. Randle, Young, and Collins all are questionable on whether they can prove to be trusted players in the playoffs, as they will all make their playoff debuts this year.
Ultimately, New York is a team that can fall back on their defence if their offence is not running smoothly during games. Atlanta, however, does not have this luxury and may have games where they are cold shooting the basketball. As a result, the Knicks will most likely win the series, and Knicks fans will never shut up about it.
3rd Seed: Milwaukee Bucks vs 6th Seed: Miami Heat
Prediction: Heat beats the Bucks in 7 games.
Milwaukee Bucks fans should be having nightmares from last year’s series against the Miami Heat.
The Bucks have made additions that make them a better team coming into the playoffs. They acquired guard Jrue Holiday who is proven to be a good 3 point shooter and amazing defender who can lock down a majority of top guards in the league. They also have P.J. Tucker, a small forward who despite being 36, is a quality defender and 3-point shooter to space the floor while their star player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, drives to the basket.
The Miami Heat have the advantage since they have beaten the Milwaukee Bucks before, last year in the 2020 NBA playoffs, to the shock of many. They also have Bam Adebayo, one of the league’s most versatile defenders who can guard multiple positions from small guards to bigger centres. He should defend Giannis very well in this series. However, their roster has slightly downgraded from last year, which could play a difference in these games.
The main story with the Bucks is whether Giannis can create his own shot outside of the paint (the area closest to the basket) or not. Last year, the Heat were able to cover the area close to the basket, forcing Antetokounmpo to shoot the basketball further outside the paint. Antetokounmpo is a freak of nature, such that he can drive to the basket at will. Shooting, however, is not Giannis’ strong suit and can be the deciding factor on who wins the series.
The Heat, despite having a weaker roster compared to last year, have the same key rotation players that helped them reach the NBA Finals in 2020, such as Adebayo and all-star forward Jimmy Butler, who is a player who turns up their intensity once the playoffs roll around. This will be a fun series to watch as both teams will be pulling out exciting outcomes, but Miami could most likely win in the end due to their experience in containing Antetokounmpo.
2nd Seed: Brooklyn Nets vs 7th Seed: Boston Celtics
Prediction: Nets beat the Celtics in 5 games
The star trio of Brooklyn will make their playoff debut against the Boston Celtics, a team that is dealing with the injury of one of their dynamic scorers, Jaylen Brown. Brooklyn and Boston have a unique history.
The Celtics, in 2013, were able to pull off an amazing trade, swapping their two prominent franchise players (Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett) for a majority of the Nets’ future draft picks. Pierce and Garnett were getting older, which caused the Nets to lose more games than expected. Soon, the Nets realized that all of their draft picks were sent to Boston, allowing the Celtics to build a young, talented roster.
However, in 2021, the Nets, despite not having any draft picks at the time of the trade, were able to rebuild their roster quite nicely and acquire three elite all-star players through free agency or by trade: Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden.
Meanwhile, the Celtics, despite having young talent such as Brown and star Jayson Tatum, have been treading water throughout the entire season.
The Nets’ offensive firepower will sure be a problem for Boston. However, the Nets’ defence has been an issue for them, as they had a bottom 10 defence in the regular season, which could cause players like Tatum to score a lot against the defence.
However, players like Durant, Harden, and Irving are extremely experienced, and will most likely use this series to gel with one another and get prepared for future series in this year’s playoffs.
1st Seed: Utah Jazz vs 8th Seed: Memphis Grizzlies
Prediction: Jazz beat the Grizzlies in 6 games
The Memphis Grizzlies were able to shock the world by defeating Most Valuable Player candidate Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors in the play-in tournament which snagged them the 8th seed in this year’s playoffs.
The Jazz are the number 1 seed in the Western Conference and have proven to be a deadly 3-point shooting team, making about 17 three pointers per game. On top of that, the Jazz were undefeated against the Grizzlies during the regular season (3-0). However, Utah’s star player, Donovan Mitchell, is coming into the playoffs after spraining his ankle and missing the final 16 games of the regular season. This could be a setback for Utah as he is their primary scorer in close games, and it is unsure if he is 100% healthy.
The Grizzlies will also be a young, hungry team led by sophomore Ja Morant, who scored 35 points in the play-in tournament game to put Memphis in the 8th seed. He is sure to put in work during his first playoff series. Memphis also contrasts in style to Utah, as they are one of the best teams in the league in scoring in the paint. (about 55.8 points per game) Basically, both teams will attempt to use their strengths against each other.
In the end though, Utah has been in the playoffs for more years compared to Memphis, and Mitchell, despite his ankle sprain, has a proven ability to step his game up in the postseason. In addition, the Jazz have former Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, who is an elite rim protector and is sure to give Memphis troubles in the paint. As a result, Utah will most likely come out on top.
4th Seed: Los Angeles Clippers vs 5th Seed: Dallas Mavericks
Prediction: Clippers beat the Mavericks in 6 games
The Los Angeles Clippers have a lot to prove this year after underachieving last year in the playoffs despite having what many considered to be the best-assembled team in the NBA and championship favourites. This year, they should have all the things that kept them from reaching the NBA Finals: fewer egos on the team, more players who can play make, and more team chemistry.
Dallas, however, is led by a young superstar named Luka Doncic, who is sure to give the Clippers problems when they try to guard him. Last year, the Clippers beat the Mavericks in six games in the first round and many argued that the Mavericks could have won if their second-best player, Kristaps Porzingis, was not hurt.
With a healthy Porzingis and Doncic, the Mavericks are sure to provide instant offence against the Clippers. In addition, it is unclear whether Paul George, the Clippers’ second-best player, can be consistent throughout a playoff run. Last year, George was clowned on social media for his lacklustre performance against the Mavericks. This year, he has improved his scoring output and efficiency, averaging about 23 points per game and shooting above 40% from the three-point line. There is hope that George can play better in the playoffs.
The Clippers will most likely grind out a six to seven-game series against the Mavericks, as both teams are strong on offence. Also, Doncic and Kawhi Leonard (the best player on the Clippers) are sure to exchange great playoff performances with each other. However, the Clippers will most likely win the series as they have more to prove and Kawhi Leonard led by a strong supporting crew of playoff veterans should be the deciding factor on who wins the series.
3rd Seed: Denver Nuggets vs 6th Seed: Portland Trail Blazers
Prediction: Nuggets beat the Blazers in 6 games
This should be an exciting series to watch.
Both of these teams are top 10 in points scored per game (Denver scored 115.1 points per game and Portland scored 116.1). They also both have electrifying scorers on both teams in guard Damian Lillard and Serbian centre Nikola Jokic. Lillard led the Blazers in scoring and assists, as he averaged 28.8 points per game and 7.5 assists per game. In addition, the Blazers had won 8 out of their last 10 games in the regular season, including a victory over the Nuggets.
Nikola Jokic, who is expected to win the Most Valuable Player award, averaged a near triple-double with 26.4 points per game, 10.8 rebounds per game, and 8.3 assists per game. He also did this while Jamal Murray, his co-star on the Nuggets, suffered a season-ending ACL injury halfway through the season.
Both the Nuggets and Blazers do not have the strongest personnel to guard their respective best players. However, the Nuggets’ defence will most likely be the reason they win the series overall. Despite Jokic not being a great defender, the Nuggets rank 12th in defensive rating, which is above-average. The Blazers, however, have the second-lowest defensive rating in the league, which could come back to bite them in a series where defence is needed.
Even though Lillard and his teammate C.J. McCollum will play his mind out in this series, Jokic and players such as Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon will be helpful with scoring the ball.
2nd Seed: Phoenix Suns and 7th Seed: Los Angeles Lakers
Prediction: Lakers beat the Suns in 7 games
The defending champion Los Angeles Lakers will try to win a second consecutive championship. However, it has been a very long season of major injuries and missing games for this team. If there was a team that they wanted to face in the first round, nevertheless, it would have to be the Phoenix Suns.
The Suns, despite having a quality guard duo in veteran Chris Paul and sharpshooter Devin Booker, have a roster of many players with little playoff experience. Booker has averaged about 26 points per game with Paul averaging a team-high 8.9 assists per game.
Despite the Lakers being favoured to win, there is one thing that could impact how long the series will be: the health of the team. LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the two superstars of the Lakers, have only played 45 and 36 (respectively) of the 72 regular-season games. In addition, James and Davis were both sidelined for a long duration due to lower-body injuries. This could be an advantage for the Suns, as they are still well poised to prove that they can battle with any team in the Western Conference, especially the Lakers.
However, the Lakers have two of arguably the five best NBA players when healthy and they alone are the reason why the Lakers will ultimately come out on top during the series.
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