A Timely And Incredibly Expert Preview Of The 2021 NBA Playoffs
4:10 PM EDT on May 21, 2021
Ahoy there, basketball friends! And a hearty skål as well to non-basketball friends! Once again the NBA playoffs descend upon the earth like a fiery cloud, to burn away the frauds and chumps and leave standing, alone and presumably extensively blistered and with all their clothes and hair burnt off, a mighty Champion. A Lord of Hoops. This mighty cull, this righteous season of winnowing, may already be underway right now, in fact, depending on when you are reading this blog I finished with several hours to spare.
Who are the contestants? Are they basketball teams? Which ones? What is the whole deal with all of this shit? It is to prepare you for answering these and other relevant questions, in the pandemic-proof virtual spaces dismally substituting for the sports bars of yore, that this blog exists, and also so that I can account for all the time this week that I told everyone I was spending working on it, so that they will not know that actually I was playing MLB The Show 21 instead. Will it fool them? That is none of your business frankly.
Below you'll find an honestly incredibly informative and thorough preview of each of the eight first-round series beginning this weekend. To hedge against the possibility that I will not have this blog done in time and therefore have to break off a second part and publish it on like Sunday morning, I am addressing the Saturday series first.
(3) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (6) Miami Heat
Tell me when the game is, goddammit!
The game is at 2:00 p.m. ET on Saturday, and you can watch it on ESPN.
What is the deal with these people?
This matchup might have been an uncontroversial Eastern Conference Finals pick back in December: The Bucks were the East's top seed each of the past two postseasons, and the Heat rampaged through to the Finals in the bubble last fall. Both kinda backslid this season, even if in the Heat's case it meant that they finished only one spot lower in the bracket than in 2020. This may have been more like a correction for both. For all their regular-season greatness in '19 and '20, the Bucks crapped out in unimpressive fashion at the hands of lower-seeded opponents in both of those postseasons (for added juice, these same Heat sent them to hell in last year's second round); the Heat got huge and shocking production last season from some gawky youths who returned to earth somewhat this time around.
Anyway, it's generally a recipe for a tense, fun series when two teams meet in the first round who both would be horribly and perhaps ruinously disappointed by a first-round exit. For the Bucks, a defeat here under anything but freak circumstances, i.e. some kind of definitively series-warping injury to Giannis Antetokounmpo, seems like it would almost have to mean the end of the line for head coach Mike Budenholzer, as well as a serious realignment of Antetokounmpo's reputation. The Heat may have less than that at stake, but a first-round exit the season after a six-game loss in the Finals would be a bitter result for an extremely prideful and tough group. What I am saying here is that this has a very good chance to be a rough, hard-fought, edgy series.
Who are the guys in this series?
The guys are two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, and inveterate hard-ass Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat. OK yes and there are also Jrue Holiday (Bucks) and Bam Adebayo (Heat). Look, each team has like 15 guys on it; you are going to have to settle for something less than all of them, here.
Is this a good series or a dogshit series?
This is a good series, for all the reasons explicated in that paragraph up there that probably should have gone in this section instead of that one.
Whomst shall prevail?
The Bucks have had an unmistakable air of fraudulence about them for the past few seasons, and (as discussed above) this same Miami team jump-kicked their butts off in the very last playoff series these two teams played against each other. Budenholzer's teams have a longstanding history of deflating pathetically in the early rounds of the playoffs. If it happens again this year, that will be, honestly, pretty hilarious. I am not picking anybody here, but as a sour and spiteful crank I will be rooting for the Heat.
(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Dallas Mavericks
The game, damn you, the game! When is the game???
The game is at 4:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, and will be on ESPN.
Now what's this about there being some "teams" or something, tell me more about that.
Indeed there are teams! The teams are the Clippers and the Mavericks, of Los Angeles and Dallas, respectively.
That's not what I was asking and you fucking know it.
The juice of this series comes pretty much entirely from this:
That's Luka Doncic, star of the Mavericks, draining a step-back three to win Game 4 of the second-round series between these two teams in last season's playoffs. The shot capped an eye-popping 43-point, 17-rebound, 13-assist game for Doncic, and the win tied the series at two games apiece; for just a minute there, it seemed plausible that the Clippers, a dismal and hard-to-like frontrunner, would be knocked out of the first round by a (likewise honestly pretty dismal and hard-to-like) seventh seed being lugged around by a 21-year-old still padded amply with baby fat. The Clippers then won the next two games by a combined 57 points, and that was that.
They meet again on theoretically more level ground this time, as the fourth and fifth seeds, but I advise not letting yourself be fooled by that. The Clippers are just a whole lot better than the Mavericks. They're oodles better.
Name the guys.
Dallas's guy is Doncic, the 22-year-old superstar; he may have been a frontrunner for the MVP award if the Mavericks hadn't just kind of been disappointing and miserable to watch this season. Doncic is kind of a weird case. It's clear that he's a phenomenal player, and a few more years of production at the levels he's already established in his first three seasons will cause even more people to use words like "historic" and "all-time" in their descriptions of him. And the top-line description of the stuff he's great at—creativity off the dribble, flashy passing, ballsy shot-making—seems like it ought to indicate tons of fun. And yet ... he sucks to watch! I'm sorry but he sucks to watch, like a large pink version of at-his-most-annoying Chris Paul, but one who took half of all defensive possessions off because he was too busy sulking and whining at the officials to run back. The ball does not move quickly and fluidly around the Mavericks; it sticks to Luka, and he uses it to wage a propaganda campaign on the referees that sometimes incidentally involves cool no-look passes.
This somehow still makes the Mavericks the "fun" team in this series. The Clippers are misery. Their guys are Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the dullest dullards ever to melt my brain with the completeness of their basketball skills.
Is this series good or bad?
This series is good if it's closely contested and features end-of-game drama. Otherwise it is barf. The Clippers will regard anything shy of a Finals berth as a brutal disappointment, and they will be particularly focused on putting a definitive smushing on the Mavericks, who gave them a surprisingly hard time in last season's first round. They unmade Doncic in Games 5 and 6 of that series by roughing him up and turning his attention to his grievances with the officiating, and you can bet they'll break that playbook out the very minute he gives them any trouble this time around.
Who's gonna win this sucker?
Probably the Clippers. It's not nearly as even a matchup as the seedings suggest, and any other result would be a huge shock.
(2) Brooklyn Nets vs. (7) Boston Celtics
When does this shit start?
This shit starts at 8:00 p.m. ET, Saturday, and will be broadcast on ABC.
Who are these groups of men?
The Nets, just being realistic here, are probably the best team in the NBA. "Probably" is a safeguard, because they're not a totally known quantity: They added James Harden via blockbuster trade early in the season, Kevin Durant is still gradually expanding his workload as he makes the long recovery from the catastrophic Achilles injury that ended his 2019 postseason and robbed him of the entire 2019-20 season, and Kyrie Irving has dealt with a smattering of generally minor injuries this (and every other) season, so the three of them have spent very little time on the court together. Still. Under absolutely any sane reckoning that's three of the, what ... four most dangerous scorers in the NBA? Three of the three? In any case they are all absolute superweapons; no amount of harrumphing about the number of balls to be shared on the court at any given time can unmake the profound, cartoonish warping effect of having any two of these dudes on the floor in the same uniform at the same time, to say nothing of all three of them. Likewise any harrumphing about defense; they need play only a token amount of it to wipe all but maybe two or three other teams completely off the floor.
There are all kinds of metric numbers, both the fine, granular kind as well as the big holistic kind, that support these statements! But this is not that type of blog. You will just have to take my word for it. The Nets are insanely good.
The Celtics are not. They claimed the seventh seed by beating the very deeply shit Washington Wizards in the first of the East's play-in games. Unless something goes hilariously awry in this series, they are dogmeat. And there are not even any particular feelings between these teams; blinkered Celtics fans out there might want to imagine lingering tensions between Irving and his former Boston teammates, but that's all baloney. They love that guy.
Let's discuss the individual persons.
Within reason, sure. We already covered the Nets' persons. Here's Kevin Durant scoring a season-high 42 points against the Indiana Pacers a few weeks ago; if you can spot any meaningful differences between this version of him and the terrifying unstoppable nightmare scoring machine he was two seasons ago, you have got a bunch of shit in your eye or something and your vision is all jacked up.
You know Harden and Irving. Or anyway I hope so, since we're moving on!
Boston's person is Jayson Tatum. Enjoy the last week or so of his 2020–21 season, fans.
Evaluate the goodness of this series, if you please.
There's a decent amount of fascination in A) seeing what these Nets will be like in their first playoff run together, and also B) watching an insanely good basketball team come together to pound the ever-loving bone marrow out of a much lesser opponent, as seems distinctly likely here. I can't imagine any plausible scenario in which this series could feature both a fulfilling exhibition of these two teams and an uncertain outcome, since any scenario that gives the Celtics a good chance of advancing involves the Nets either suffering some very depressing injuries or, like, committing adultery with each others' partners and disbanding on the court. But if you're the kind of person who can have a good time watching a video of, like, a flash flood destroying a bridge, then this might be the series for you.
I feel like you sort of gave away the game there, in terms of who's gonna win this thing.
Oh, what are you, my frickin' editor? Mind your own business!
(3) Denver Nuggets vs. (6) Portland Trail Blazers
It's impossible for me to find the start-time and broadcast network of this game for myself.
I think you should expect more from yourself! However in the interest of blogger-reader harmony, I will tell you that this game will start at 10:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, and will be televised on ESPN.
What's the deal with these teams?
The Nuggets had at least a decent opportunity to claim the West's top seed and enter the playoffs as the favorites to represent that conference in the Finals, before postseason superhero Jamal Murray suffered a season-ending ACL tear back in April. That's a bummer. On the other hand, after he tore his ACL, they had a very good opportunity to implode and drop to like sixth or seventh in the conference, and didn't, due to MVP-quality play from their best player (we'll get to him in a second!) and the flourishing of a heretofore erratic young turk (we'll get to him too) as well as their more general cohesion and coolness, and so they enter these playoffs still one of the teams that seems like it plausibly could make a run to the Finals. That is not a bummer at all. In fact it is admirable and kicks ass.
As for the Blazers, the sixth seed represents a modest but genuine improvement over last season, when they won the West's eighth seed with a sub-.500 record (and subsequently got smushed out of the first round in five games by the eventual champion Lakers). They avoided the humiliating play-in games, which is nice. I dunno, rending garments over the sad fate of the poor, doomed Blazers is something of an annual basketblogger pastime, these days—Boo hoo, all they ever do is give their fans playoff basketball to watch eight years in a row, while featuring one of the NBA's most dynamic stars, a guy who has truly embraced the local community and is probably the greatest player in franchise history, truly a fate worse than death—but, like, close to a decade of perennial dignity and competitiveness (and a future hall-of-famer in the starring role) seems like a pretty swell state for a basketball team.
Guys! Bring me guys! I need guys, immediately!
Denver's one of those annoying teams where pretty much all their players are important and valuable in one way or another, in this case because Nikola Jokic makes it so. By many measures the big Serb was the NBA's best player this season, and by rights he'll be its MVP whenever the league gets around to issuing that award, for his play in and of itself and for the level he and the Nuggets sustained after the loss of Murray. Oh hey right I also said I would address the heretofore erratic young turk. That's Michael Porter Jr., who was honestly pretty bananas this season: He nearly doubled his output from last season across the board, shot a fucking bonkers 44.5-percent from three on more than six attempts per game, and seems destined for some sort of stardom now.
For Portland, and for by my quick estimate the 47th season in a row, the guy is Damian Lillard. If the Blazers are to have any chance of winning this series (look, try not to laugh openly, OK?) it'll be because he shoots flames out of his eyes and levitates around the arena terrifyingly and they have to call for an exorcist but then he points an imperious finger at the exorcist and the exorcist disintegrates and Lillard is all like Hoo hoo ha ha ha, kneel before me, puny mortals, and averages 45 a night on like .720 True Shooting.
Is this a good series or a doodoo series?
It's fine. The Blazers are pretty reliably spunky, and if they win either of the first two games it will freak the shit out of the Nuggets.
Reveal the winner!
The Nuggets are the winner.
(1) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (8) Washington Wizards
When does this series tip off?
This series tips off at 1:00 p.m. ET on Sunday, on TNT.
OK, so what is the deal with the—
The Wizards are dead meat.
Well, who are the important pla—
Sixers in three.
But isn't it a best-of-seven ser—
In two. Dead fucking meat.
Look can you just slow down for one seco—
Sixers in zero. Sixers in negative three.
(2) Phoenix Suns vs. (7) Los Angeles Lakers
When's the game?
This sucker starts at 3:30 p.m. ET, on Sunday, on ABC.
Surely you have misplaced the seeding numbers on these teams.
I haven't! The Phoenix Suns went 8-0 in the abbreviated bubble play-in games at the end of last summer, decided that after a decade wandering the landfill it was time to be good now, traded for Chris Paul, and became good. They're good. They spent all season being good. They're a good team. The question now is whether they can avoid the grim fate of basically every other good team Chris Paul has ever been on, which is a perfunctory fart-out somewhere shy of the Finals. They'll only have to beat the defending champs to do it.
As for the Lakers, I mean, who the hell knows. They won the 2020 championship and then spent pretty much this entire regular season some combination of wracked by injuries and/or brazenly withholding their star players for the sake of rest. Anthony Davis, who by the end of the Finals seemed ready to assume the mantle of Game's Best Player, played all of 36 sleepy-eyed games this season; LeBron James largely coasted through 45. Does that mean they won't be ready for the rigors of postseason action, or does it mean they'll be extra ready for the rigors of postseason action? Does anything mean anything? I don't know!
Huh. I guess that answers the question of who the important guys are.
And neatly! Wait, there is also Devin Booker. The way it goes, and the way it probably should go, is that when your dogshit bottom-feeder-ass loser team trades for a future hall-of-famer with a pretty much career-long track record of bringing immediate, profound improvement to previously miserable franchises, and your previously miserable franchise immediately and profoundly improves, the future hall-of-famer gets the credit for it over the guys who were steering that sucker into the bog prior to the future hall-of-famer's arrival. That's fine, and mostly just. And even to whatever extent you'd want to credit the Suns' improved fortunes to any (empirically suspect) individual improvement on Booker's part, you'd have a hell of a time disentangling Booker's performance from Paul's effect on it. After all, Booker was the guy playing losing basketball throughout his entire pro career up to this point, not Chris Paul. Wait. Shit. I feel like I started this series of sentences aiming for a "But" statement. But now it turns out that I haven't. I still kind of think Devin Booker sucks, in fact.
Is this a good series?
It is, at least at the jump, if only for the uncertainty of it. The Suns are good, and (Chris Paul aside) youthful, and brimming with confidence, and might represent Paul's last shot at leading a team to a Finals appearance; the Lakers are old, busted, and would be crushed by a first-round exit in what might then look like the first unmistakably eroded season of LeBron's career. That could make for enjoyably desperate basketball, depending on how the first two games go.
Who's gonna win it?
Seedings notwithstanding, history is on the Lakers' side, here. If they're healthy and can remain so, they're the favorites.
(4) New York Knicks vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks
When? When, goddammit, when?????
7:00 p.m. ET, Sunday, TNT.
Typing this feels deeply cursed, as though I should look over my shoulder to make sure neither Candyman nor Bloody Mary are standing there ready to chop my head off, but ... the New York Knicks, the freaking Knicker freaking Bockers of New York, are the most likable and easiest-to-root-for team in these dang 2021 National Basketball Association playoffs. What kind of freaking chaos dimension have we slipped into, here? After seven years flopping around drunkenly amid the dregs of the East, the Knicks—the freaking Knicks!!!—have a tough, fun, authentically good playoff team. They didn't back into these playoffs on just-enough-to-not-get-benched play by a bunch of rapidly fattening sleepy-eyed 32-year-old mercenaries, either. They freaking blitzed the East with a bunch of hungry young dudes and what certainly seems to be a flourishing damn star playing the best basketball of his life. Crazy times.
Ah, yes, and the Hawks are there. I don't give a damn about the Hawks, and they can go to hell.
Here's a fun video of Julius Randle doing some cool shit for the Knicks, against the sucky Hornets.
The whole damn season has been like this! My friends, grip the sides of your seat so that you do not fly away from it. A sorta wayward young big man got a big contract from the Knicks, went to New York, and improved. He added dimensions to his game and has become one of the better and more complete players in the sport! The deal may even turn out to have been a bargain for the Knicks. That seems fucking impossible to me. I lived through Jerome James and Eddy Curry, and those are only the ones I can think of off the top of my head while hurrying to finish this blog before Barry murders me. Randle is great. He's like if young LeBron and young Boogie Cousins went through the Brundlefly contraption together. I love him, and I'm not even a damn Knicks fan.
Something something Hawks something. Trae Young. Whatever. Screw the Hawks.
Thinking about this series, and about the ideas of goodness and badness, talk about, just, how those ideas relate to this series for you, in the National Basketball Association.
This series is good, to me. Both teams are new to this shit, both are young and optimistic, and both feature young players who could reveal never-before-seen levels of postseason ferocity and/or visibly wilt under the intensity of playoff competition and become living punchlines. Neither has much of any kind of chance of getting past the Sixers or Nets or Bucks, but we're living in the now, man. In the now.
Care to predict who'll win?
I think the Knicks will win. They have a sort of Junior Miami Heat thing going: Tough on defense, methodical and brutal on offense, ready to lean on their key guys for 45 minutes a night if necessary. Plus that's just a more fun outcome.
(1) Utah Jazz vs. (8) To Be Determined
This game tips off at 9:30 p.m. ET on Sunday night, and will be broadcast by TNT.
Right but ... don't they know who the Jazz will be facing?
No, they do not!
How can that be? Surely it's the winner of Friday night's Grizzlies-Warriors game, right?
Who can say? Does anybody ever actually win or lose a basketball game, if everyone has a good time? If you write a blog on Friday afternoon, do that night's games ever actually happen? A person could spend a lifetime pondering such fundamental questions about the nature of reality. That is what they call "philosophy."
It seems weird to have written this blog before all the playoff participants have even been determined. I mean this is stretching the concept of "preview" pretty thin, don't you think?
In fact I do not think that.
I mean how would you predict the winner of a series without even knowing the identities of both parti—
Jazz in 6! This playoff preview is over!