Thoughts on the First Round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs So Far

June 2nd, 2021

By Alan Lu

The first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs have been very entertaining, and Portland Trail Blazers’ superstar guard, Damian Lillard scored 55 points and had 10 assists in his team’s double overtime loss to the Denver Nuggets in Game 5 of their first round series.
(Photo:
Matthew Stockman/NBA/Getty Images, via The Score)

I had gotten vaccinated recently, so I decided to go with a group of other vaccinated friends to go to a local bar to watch some basketball games with them.  Here were some of my takeaways.

The Brooklyn Nets are really, really good.  They have three of the biggest superstars in the game in Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving.  James Harden is a former MVP, and he is an MVP-caliber player that is their arguably their second best player, so you know they have tremendous offensive firepower.  They’ve been bringing former All-Star forward, Blake Griffin off the bench, and they were able to sign him off the scrap heap after Detroit waived him midseason.  Nicolas Claxton has played well off the bench.

The Boston Celtics could not keep up in Game 5, especially with Jayson Tatum getting banged up midway through the match, and the Nets defeated them to advance to the second round.  The Celtics didn’t shoot very well last night, and it was clear that the Nets weren’t going to allow another 50-piece to Tatum again to allow the Celtics to prolong the series. The Celtics also didn’t have a deep enough bench or enough firepower to combat the Nets down the stretch. Either way, Brooklyn’s win was impressive, and to me, the Brooklyn Nets look to be the heavy favorites to win the 2021 NBA championship this year.

The Los Angeles Lakers looked lost without Anthony Davis, and they were really bad in their Game 5 loss to the Phoenix Suns.  Yesterday, Davis was not moving well in warm-ups due to having a groin injury, and he didn’t look like he was going to be ready to go or to be able to get into game shape for a pivotal Game 5 against the Phoenix Suns.

Meanwhile, the Lakers’ offense looked terrible last night, and there was very little ball or player movement in their offense. it was basically just LeBron James dribbling at the top of the key, and he would get swarmed by a throng of defenders to miss shots around the basket, and the other players would miss open shots. Don’t get me wrong, LeBron is a fantastic player, and he is truly one of the game’s greats, but I wished the Lakers would try a more creative, inventive offense with him on the court, and I feel that they could have at least tried some different things with AD unable to play. Even great players need help sometimes, and the Lakers just didn’t seem to get any last night.

Los Angeles Lakers’ guard, Wes Matthews couldn’t seem to buy a basket last night, and he was really having trouble knocking down threes yesterday, which was odd, because three-point shooting is supposed to be his specialty on offense. Dennis Schröder was an awful 0 for 9 last night, and he was held scoreless, which was odd, because scoring is supposed to be his speciality. The Lakers brought in all these new players that are supposed to make them a better team, and it may have sounded great on paper, but if they continue to struggle as badly as they did yesterday, they will make Lakers’ fans wish that their team had tried harder to keep both Danny Green and Rajon Rondo around longer. In addition, no one on the Lakers’ team could guard Devin Booker, not even LeBron James. Devin Booker scored 30 points on 13 of 23 shooting, and he was virtually unstoppable in his team’s Game 5 win. In Game 6, I’m pretty sure he will be guarded a lot by Wes Matthews and LeBron James.

The Phoenix Suns really jumped on the Lakers early, and they looked really good in Game 5.  Devin Booker did a tremendous job of shooting and scoring the basketball, and he may be one of the best active players in the game right now.  They got a lot of mileage out of backup point guard, Cam Payne, who shot the ball very well last night.  The Suns have a lot of talent, depth, and offensively skilled players, and the Suns could be the sleeper team to make it out West, especially if neither of the Los Angeles teams get to the NBA Finals this year.

Watching Dame Time at a bar is a wild experience, and it is also an exhausting one.  It was such a roller coaster ride and a roller coaster of emotions to watch Game 5 of the Denver Nuggets-Portland Trail Blazers’ series. Every time I thought Portland would falter down the stretch, Lillard would make critical shots to bring them back. Each time he got the ball in crunch time, he delivered. The one time he chose to pass the ball in crunch time though, ended up dooming the Blazers to lose to the Nuggets in Game 5.

Portland’s superstar point guard, Damian Lillard hit a bunch of crazy shots, and he made threes at will, and he made two ridiculous, game-tying threes as he managed to send his team to double overtime.  He made one big shot after another.  He made step-back threes effortlessly and look almost too easy for him, which is a really difficult thing to do. Lillard ended up scoring 55 points, he set the playoff record by making 12 threes, and he had 10 assists in this game.  He had an all-time great performance that was an absolute treasure to watch, and it would’ve been truly amazing….if his team had been able to fetch him a win in the process. 

Unfortunately for him and the Blazers, they didn’t, and the super steady, efficient play of Denver’s superstar center, Nikola Jokić was able to get the Nuggets the double OT win instead.  Jokic didn’t provide nearly as much excitement to the bar goers. Instead, Jokić just played very good basketball to lead his team to get the win. He managed to continually score in the low post and on mid-range jumpers, and his terrific passing skills and court vision enabled him to rack up assists, especially when he would face double teams. For the Blazers, Robert Covington missed dunks in overtime play, and in the 2nd OT, when Damian Lillard passed the ball to C.J. McCollum, McCollum stepped out of bounds, which proved to be a costly turnover for the Blazers.

In watching in real time, I did not want Lillard to pass the ball late in the game, and I felt that the Blazers were going to be doomed because they were going to rely on someone else to try to make a play on offense.  Sure enough, McCollum stepped back and his foot stepped out of bounds, which gave Denver the ball back late in the game, and that pretty much sealed Portland’s fate to lose in double OT in this game.

Damian Lillard is a terrific basketball player, and he is definitely one of the best active players in the game right now.  It is tragic that such a tremendous game was squandered away in his team’s double OT loss to the Denver Nuggets.  I’m not sure if Portland will have enough in the tank to make a comeback in this series, given how hard both teams fought in this game, and it’s clear that Lillard’s teammates need to step up. So far though, Denver has had the slight edge, and their double overtime win gives them a 3-2 series lead, and the Nuggets are one win away from being able to advance to the second round.

Other Thoughts:

The Los Angeles Clippers-Dallas Mavericks series has been really interesting to follow in the first round of the 2021 NBA playoffs.  Dallas was able to get off to such a strong start in the first two games, and Luka Dončić put forth tremendous performances, as he scored at will to lead the Mavericks to a stunning 2-0 series lead.

His strong play gave me more confidence in the Mavericks, and I was started to doubt the Clippers, as I was wondering if the Clippers had enough heart and soul to truly make this a series.  Even more worrisome, Luka Dončić’s domination over Clippers’ defensive-minded point guard, Pat Beverley made me wonder if the Clippers were just going to roll over and end up being an easy out.  I did note though, that second-year guard, Terance Mann played in the second half of Game 2, and he seemed to bring a positive impact to the Clippers, as they were really able to keep it close with the Mavericks until the end. It did make me wonder, if Mann’s size, playmaking skills, and defensive abilities enabled the Clippers to play a taller and more versatile lineup on the court to better matchup to the Dallas Mavericks, and it seems that Mann has been effective in his role off the bench in this series.

In games 3 and 4, the Clippers have really found their stride.  Kawhi Leonard is playing great basketball, as he’s been tremendously effective at driving to the hoop to score in transition, and he’s also playing very good defense and team basketball.  The Clippers are playing faster, and they haven’t let any of Dallas’ other role players get going recently. Even worse for Dallas, Luka Dončić had a neck strain, and it really seemed to bother him in Game 4, as he couldn’t make threes or shoot well in that game, and he has strangely struggled to make free throws in this series.  For a superstar that can really score the basketball, it is imperative for him to shoot well and to make his free throws. 

Dallas really struggled when Dončić didn’t shoot well, and when he was not on the floor, and it is clear that they really depend on him to be effective on the court.  However, if his neck strain and shooting woes persist, the Clippers could end up winning the series in 6 or 7 games instead.

It was thought that the Atlanta Hawks-New York Knicks’ series would be close.  So far, it has been anything but close, and the Hawks have had the clear advantage in most of these games, as they hold a 3-1 series lead over New York.

Trae Young has played terrific basketball, and he has been scorching New York’s defense, with his tremendous ability to get to any spot on the court, combined with his sharpshooting and strong scoring skills.  The Knicks don’t seem to have any one player that can guard Trae Young, nor do they have a point guard that is on his level, so it makes their task of guarding him really difficult. The Knicks appeared to contain him late in Game 2, where they would swarm and blitz him hard, and they were able to get quality play out of rookie big man, Obi Toppin, who impressed with his shooting and rim running skills to help the Knicks get the win in Game 2.

However, the Knicks have just been terrible in this series.  Juliius Randle has not played very well, as he has really struggled to make shots.  The Knicks have had trouble mustering up much offense, and players such as Elfrid Payton, Reggie Bullock, and Taj Gibson haven’t really helped much at all against the Hawks in this series so far. 

The Knicks have relied too much on playing two big men at the same time, and they have given too many minutes to aging veteran Taj Gibson, which seems to play right into the Hawks’ hands.  The Hawks have two very solid big men in the starting lineup in all-around scorer John Collins, and defensive anchor Clint Capela, and the Hawks have played shut down defense on Randle. 

Collins and Capela seem to work well together, as Collins will provide the offense, and Capela will provide the defense. Capela has also shown that he is a solid rim runner, and he is a proven defensive anchor that helped the Rockets shut down Karl-Anthony Towns in the 2018 playoffs, and he is helping the Hawks shut down Randle in the 2021 playoff series right now.

The Hawks look to have a much more potent offense, and it’s clear that NBA teams need an elite initiator to get playoff wins, and the Hawks have that in Trae Young.  They were able to get an impressive road win in Game 1, they’ve won two in a row at home.  I would like this to be a tougher, harder fought series, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to go that way.  The Hawks are flying high and are trending upwards, and they look poised to win in 5 games over the Knicks (6 at the most) when it’s all said and done.

In the Utah-Memphis series, the Grizzlies were able to steal Game 1 due to Ja Morant’s strong play and tremendous scoring output that day, and for that game, they made two-time Defensive Player of the Year award winner, Rudy Gobert look like a mere mortal and a pedestrian on the court.

In Game 2 though, the Utah Jazz were able to get a healthy Donovan Mitchell back, and it has changed the complexion of this series.  The Jazz have been able to match Memphis’ talent at the point by bringing in a star point guard of their own, and Utah’s strong bench has really bolstered them in this series.  Gobert is also back to playing strong defense in the successive games.  The Jazz have won three straight, and it looks like they will likely win in 5 games, unless if Ja Morant can bring a Herculean effort in Game 5.

It was really a surprise that the Milwaukee Bucks swept the Miami Heat to me, and I felt that that outcome was what they were supposed to do last year, but didn’t.  The Bucks’ trade to acquire former All-Star guard, Jrue Holiday has really paid off, and Holiday is a clear upgrade over Eric Bledsoe. Holiday’s strong play and the Bucks’ solid team effort has allowed Giannis to play his game, and Giannis has been playing very well in the playoffs so far.

Holiday is a much better shooter and defender, and his presence allows the Bucks to both open up the floor, and it gives them a more dynamic defender that can guard multiple positions.  It seems that the East has the book on the Miami Heat this time around as well. Bam Adebayo seemed to sneak up on the East by showing very good playmaking and defensive skills in the playoffs last year, and Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro really went above and beyond back then to lead the 2020 Miami Heat far last season.

This season though, is different.  It’s clear that the Miami Heat missed the presence of Jae Crowder, who is now with the Phoenix Suns, and they don’t seem to have enough shooters or defenders on the court this season.  It doesn’t help that Butler and Adebayo aren’t really floor spacers, so Milwaukee was able to pack in the paint and be better prepared to stop the Heat.  Also, their previous rookies, Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn haven’t seemed to play nearly as well as last year, and both of them now appear to be streaky shooters who might have been a bit unprepared for extended roles that they got this season.

That the Milwaukee Bucks swept the Miami Heat and defeated them in 4 games means that the Bucks are turning a new corner, and head coach Mike Budenholzer is finally starting to evolve and adapt in the playoffs.  That may be a good thing, because if the Bucks can compete against the likes of teams such as the Brooklyn Nets, we as fans could be in for a treat, and for an amazing Eastern Conference Finals this year.

I haven’t really been watching much of the Philadelphia 76ers-Washington Wizards’ series. To me, it’s expected that the heavily favored 76ers will win this series, and they were able to win the first three games. I do like that the Wizards didn’t back down and they fought their way back to win Game 4.

People have been questioning if 76ers’ All-Star point forward, Ben Simmons should play down the stretch, and he’s really missed his free throws lately. His lack of shooting or free-throw making is a big concern. On the other hand, the 76ers do need his strong playmaking and defensive skills, and he is still a very good player. It seems that for the 76ers, the best bet to have him out there would be if they were to have the lead late in the game. They’ll face a tough test from the Wizards, as we could see strong performances from Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook, but Joel Embiid has had a tremendous season, and the 76ers are one win away from being able to advance to the next round.

So, with everything I’ve seen so far, here are my thoughts and predictions as to how the rest of the first round will unfold. (One matchup is already penciled in. The Milwaukee Bucks will play against the Brooklyn Nets in the second round, and they will be a fun series to watch.)

Updated First Round Playoff Predictions as of Today:

The Philadelphia 76ers and the Atlanta Hawks will wrap up their series soon, and they will play against each other in the second round.

Dallas will be unable to recover from Dončić’s injury and shooting woes, and Kawhi Leonard will continue to play well, and we’ll end up getting a Utah Jazz-Los Angeles Clippers’ second round matchup.

The Lakers will be unable to fully recover from Anthony Davis’ groin injury and won’t be able to hit their stride in time. If there is one series that has the best probability to go 7 games among the first round games, it may be the Denver-Portland series in the first round. I’m predicting that the Denver-Portland series will go 7, but that the Nuggets will edge out the Blazers in 7 games. I’m also predicting that Portland will be happy enough with Terry Stotts‘ performance to keep him around for at least one more year. If this happens, then we could end up getting a Phoenix Suns-Denver Nuggets’ second round matchup.

Essentially, this will mean that I am backtracking hard on my former Knicks in seven pick, and I’m also backtracking on the Lakers pick that I made prior to start the first round, as I think that the Hawks and the Suns have the edge right now. If there are two players that could lead lower-seeded teams to a stunning series win in this playoffs though, it would probably be LeBron James and Damian Lillard. If the Suns lose Game 6 and prolong the series though, they could give the edge and the momentum right back to the Lakers, who have one of the best closers in the game in LeBron James.

Second Round Predictions and Closing Thoughts:

In a previous post, I had picked the Brooklyn Nets over the Milwaukee Bucks in six games, and so I’ll stick with that. I think it will be a very entertaining series, and the Bucks are a much better team than last year, but the Nets appear to have too much offensive firepower for any other team to compete against them, especially if the Nets are healthy.

I’m also wondering what it would be like if the Nets and the Clippers end up making the 2021 NBA Finals. Would people in New York and Los Angeles root for teams that advance in their own state that is not their own team? There is still a lot of basketball ahead, though, and nothing is set in stone until teams play the games itself.

We’ll see what will happen, and this has been very fun to watch. There will be more exciting playoff basketball games to watch. Thanks for reading.

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