NBA playoffs

NBA Playoffs 2021 preview: East matchups filled with intrigue

Naveen Ganglani
NBA Playoffs 2021 preview: East matchups filled with intrigue

FAVORED. The Nets are tagged as heavy favorites against the Celtics in their first-round matchup in the playoffs.

Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

The final eight Eastern Conference teams have been set, making for enticing matchups to whet any hoop junkie's appetite

For years the East was regarded as the “Leastern Conference” in comparison to the mighty West of the NBA. 

But recent years have seen the rise of Eastern contenders, particularly in the very competitive 2020-2021 season.

The final eight teams from the East have been set, making for enticing matchups to whet any hoop junkie’s appetite. 

Atlanta and New York have a contrast in playing styles. That’s not to say each squad is a one-trick pony, but their specialties come from opposing ends of the floor. 

No other playoff team ranked lower in scoring than the Knicks (107 points per game), but no one else in the NBA came close to New York’s mark of 104.7 opponents’ points per contest. 

New York is the old school brawler that plays physically, limits shot attempts in the paint, and wears opponents down with on-your-jersey defense. Their head coach is Tom Thibodeau, so that shouldn’t be a shocker. His teams hit you with 48 minutes of body blows before finding an opening for the knockout.

The key to Atlanta’s triumph is compounding New York’s offensive limitations. That begins with limiting Julius Randle, likely the Most Improved Player of the Year, who averaged an absurd 37.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 6.7 assists while shooting 58.7% from the field in three regular season wins against the Hawks. 

Derrick Rose is another key target, as he’s put up 17.8 points on 54.2% shooting in his last 10 performances. Trae Young and Lou Williams have their work cut out for them.

The question is: if Rose is Robin, then who plays Joker to Randle’s Batman? 

Solomon Hill, who will not receive a Christmas present from LeBron James, is the best choice, but the drop-off on offense from the 4 position could handicap them. 

Playing John Collins or Danilo Gallinari there will keep the Hawks’ well-oiled offensive machine humming, but Randle can grill them like barbecue chicken – whether that’s by taking it to the paint or drawing help defense, leading to kick-out shooting opportunities for teammates. 

Can Alec Burks, RJ Barrett, and company step up?

Nate McMillan, who was inserted midseason to replace Lloyd Pierce in a move that saved Atlanta’s staggering campaign, needs Young – his All-Star point guard – to make as many games a high-scoring, high-octane affair as possible. This rhythm favors an explosive Hawks squad with nine players averaging double-figures in scoring. 

Bogdan Bogdanovic is the X-factor for Atlanta. He was arguably the Hawks’ best player recently as Young was injured. In his last 10 games, he averaged 22.3 points, 4.0 assists, and 3.1 rebounds while shooting 54.3% from the field and 51.5% from downtown. Young is the key that ignites the engine, but his backcourt mate is the gas that gets them running.

If Atlanta gets a hot-shooting series from Bogdanovic, the usual impact of Young, and consistent contributions from the bench, then they’ll have too much firepower and shot-creation for even Thibs’ defense to handle. 

In a seven-game series, it’s harder to win when you have less go-to options. The Knicks will need one or two guys in addition to Randle and Rose to be reliable on a nightly basis. So, who will it be? Barrett? Burks? Rookies Immanuel Quickley or Obi Toppin?

It’s still true that defense wins championships, but oftentimes, the best defense is a great offense.

Boston celebrated an inspiring win over Washington to make the playoffs, thanks to Jayson Tatum’s remarkable 50-point performance. But even if he miraculously scores that many points in each of the Celtics’ games against Brooklyn, it likely won’t be enough to outperform the rampaging Nets.

There are plenty of reasons to see Brooklyn as the title favorite. Here’s what’s most convincing: their big trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden played only eight games together in the regular season, yet the Nets finished No. 2 in the conference at 48-24. That means their floor is elite, but the ceiling is limitless.

When two of their superstars play, they’re as good as anyone else. When three of them are in action, they can reach a level no one else can. For the record: Steve Nash deserves Coach of the Year recognition, plus the supporting cast is better than given credit for.

That’s why Durant called the Nets “The Big 15.”

That’s not to say Boston doesn’t stand a chance, only that it would take climbing over mountains and something drastic happening (like an injury) for an upset to manifest – especially with Jaylen Brown (wrist), who’s averaging 24 points a game, out. 

Boston has the bad habit of playing from behind. Multiple times in the regular season did the Celtics find themselves trailing north of 20 points and in desperate need of Tatum’s individual brilliance to bail them out. Against Brooklyn’s historic offensive juggernaut, an early deficit is too big a hole to be in.

Here’s the winning formula for the Celtics: Tatum plays at an all-time level, Kemba Walker plays like the Kemba of old, Marcus Smart has the best defensive series of his career, Tristan Thompson rewinds the hands of time, Evan Fournier gets really hot for a week, and Aaron Nesmith makes Brown look tradeable. 

The Nets have three guys averaging at least 24 points a game. Any one of them can go off for 50 on any day.

Brooklyn’s got the easier path to winning.

(Writer’s note: The NBA has its NBA Pick ‘Em Bracket Challenge where fans can win prizes – like a Vivo X60 phone or a P5,000 voucher from NBA Store – for the best predictions of what will happen in the playoffs. The contest is free to play; friends can create groups and compete amongst one another. Brackets lock by May 28, Friday.)

A series between Washington and Philadelphia will entertain no matter how it goes. That’s the benefit of star power, and this promising 1-versus-8 matchup has it with Bradley Beal, Russell Westbrook, Joel Embiid, and Ben Simmons taking center stage. 

The smart bet is to expect an easy win for the 76ers. If not a sweep, then in five games. But bettors will tell you the smart bet isn’t always the winning bet, because random bounces of the ball occur, especially in the postseason. 

The supporting cast is hit or miss, although there are nights when Dan Gafford, Davis Bertans, Ish Smith, Raul Neto, and Robin Lopez play their roles perfectly. When that happens, the Wizards, as a whole, come at you like a running bulldozer.

Washington, when healthy, is oddly adequate for a disorganized team in close games. They perform as opportunists, which was highlighted in their 19-6 record to end the regular season.

The Wizards average 116.6 points per game and they’re at their best when attacking in transition. Philadelphia isn’t good defending on the break, as 76ers head coach Doc Rivers has harped on multiple times.

But this matchup is Philly’s to lose. The 76ers have homecourt advantage. Their +5.5-point differential is second in the East, which means they win, first and foremost, by stopping opponents from scoring. 

Frankly, no one in Washington can guard Embiid. In Simmons, Danny Green, Matisse Thybulle, and Tobias Harris, there are plenty of long-armed defensive menaces for the undersized Wizards guards to deal with.

And it’s a question of when, not if, the Wizards – most likely Westbrook – perform consecutive head-scratching mistakes to ignite a game-changing Philadelphia run. 

If the 76ers remain true to the principles which made them a title contender, the Wizards will lose their new-found magic. If Philly leaves the door open, the unrelenting group led by Westbrook and Beal won’t be shy to barge in.

Getting the Miami versus Milwaukee rematch in the first round is like getting salpicao with your complementary bread at a Spanish restaurant. You’ve got headstrong superstars, teams loaded with talent, exceptional coaching, ripped muscled-shirt photos, a trash-talking owner, low-key drama, the revenge factor, and intrigue. 

By the way, Game 1 hasn’t started yet.

The Heat and the Bucks aren’t the same teams they were in the NBA bubble last season.

The Bucks made major improvements by replacing Eric Bledsoe with Jrue Holiday and adding key veterans off the bench like Bobby Portis, PJ Tucker, and Bryn Forbes. 

After losing Jae Crowder to Phoenix, the Heat, following plenty of trial and error, replaced him with veteran defender Trevor Ariza. This time around, Kendrick Nunn is in the playoff rotation.

This isn’t your ordinary 3-vs-6 matchup. Both the Heat and Bucks are good enough to make the conference finals. Miami, the defending East champ, dipped in the standings because of multiple injuries and Butler’s bout with the coronavirus early in the Heat’s following the shortest offseason in NBA history. But after starting 7-14, the Heat have gone 33-18, the same record as their first-round opponent in that span.

The last three seasons have seen Milwaukee become arguably the NBA’s most dominant regular season team, but when the playoffs arrived in 2020, the slower, half-court style of play clearly worked to their disadvantage, while Miami thrived in that pace. With the versatile Holiday, a borderline All-Star, Milwaukee has a new wrinkle to throw at its rival, specifically at Butler, who torched the Bucks’ defense in the bubble.

Milwaukee plays a drop style of defense that’s ripe for Heat shooters Duncan Robinson, Goran Dragic, and Tyler Herro to take advantage of. But with the Bucks’ new roster, there’s enough switchability to present Miami with tougher looks in the fourth quarter. Spoelstra needs his snipers to convert from deep to keep pace offensively.

Arguably the most important matchup to watch is Bam Adebayo versus Giannis Antetokounmpo. Adebayo, at least physically, is tailor-made to defend Antetokounmpo, but it’s up to the two-time MVP to win this battle. 

When there’s a matchup between two sides fairly even in firepower, it usually comes down to which stars can play big time at the end of games.

In this case, that’s Butler against Antetokounmpo. –