Thoughts on the Second Round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs: Kevin Durant’s Historic 49-Point Performance, Soaring Hawks, Slumping 76ers, and the Comeback Clippers

June 17th, 2021

by Alan Lu

Welcome back, readers! It’s been a roller coaster of a ride in watching these NBA playoff games. Some of the games are turning out to be as expected, and others have turned out differently. Some of the NBA teams have really shined, while others have floundered in the playoffs this year.

So far, this has not been a very good week for centers, or for anyone in the playoffs that has won an NBA award this year.  There seems to be something of a winner’s curse, as the teams of players who have won NBA awards are getting knocked out. Head coach Tom Thibodeau’s team, the New York Knicks had no answers for the Hawks in 4 of their 5 playoff games, as the Knicks got knocked out of the first round, and he ended up winning the Coach of the Year award.  Julius Randle went with him, and he was the Most Improved Player.  Denver Nuggets’ center Nikola Jokic won the MVP award, but his team was swept by the Phoenix Suns, and it’s also looking like Philadelphia 76ers’ center Joel Embiid and runner-up to the MVP award will follow suit.

The Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert has not looked good defensively right now in the playoffs, as Utah is now down 3-2 to the Los Angeles Clippers in their second round series, and Sixth Man of the Year award winner Jordan Clarkson hasn’t been on the floor consistently in crunch time.  The Jazz also could get eliminated, as the Clippers were able to steal a game, even with Kawhi Leonard hurt.   Rookie of the Year award winner, LaMelo Ball had a chance to play for the playoffs, unlike the other two runner-ups, but he played poorly in a play-in game in his team’s loss to the Indiana Pacers.

Brooklyn Nets’ legendary forward, Kevin Durant had a historic performance as he scored 49 points, and had 17 rebounds, 10 assists, 3 steals, and 2 blocks to lead the Nets to a Game 5 comeback win over the Milwaukee Bucks. The Brooklyn Nets lead 3-2 in their second round series against Milwaukee.
Brad Penner/USA Today Sports)

Thoughts on the Brooklyn Nets-Milwaukee Bucks Series:

Brooklyn Nets’ superstar point guard, Kyrie Irving was declared unable to play in Game 5 due to injury, and immediately some of the fans seemed to panic about if their team would be able to win this game. James Harden was declared healthy enough to play, but he didn’t do much in the first half, and early on, it seemed as though if he may have rushed back to soon.

In game 5, the Milwaukee Bucks got off to a very strong start, especially with James Harden struggling to come off of a hamstring injury.  They led by 16 at the half, and suddenly at halftime, viewers were treated to strange analysis from the TNT crew, as well as the greatness of Kevin Durant.

Kevin Durant took the team on his shoulders, as he dominated the rest of the way, and he scored 49 points, and notched a triple-double to lead his team to a comeback win over the Bucks.  They also received a strong performance from Jeff Green, who scored 26 points, and James Harden also made some contributions, as he was able to pass the ball well and he played better than how he fared in the first half. Somewhere out there, current Oklahoma City Thunder’s general manager and former Seattle SuperSonics’ executive, Sam Presti has to be pleased that the players he used to draft and have on his team are thriving in the 2021 NBA Playoffs.

Meanwhile, the Bucks’ offense got bogged down, as they started to try to run more and more post plays and isos, which were largely ineffective.  There was very little motion in their offense in the second half, and both Giannis and Brook Lopez struggled to get going in that time frame.  Even when they went small, they had no answers for Kevin Durant.

Durant did a tremendous job of knocking down threes, scoring off the dribble, in transition, and he was able to shoot and score at will.  The Bucks don’t have enough depth, and Durant was able to have his way, regardless of whether or not if P.J. Tucker, Giannis, Pat Connaughton, or Khris Middleton would be assigned to guard him.  I’m sure NBA fans would like Giannis to guard Durant, but I don’t think Giannis would fare well if he were tasked to guard KD, either. On-ball defense has also never really been Giannis’ role, as he’s more of a roamer.  Also, Kevin Durant is an all-time great, and he should be respected as such. If the Bucks were to give Gianis that assignment though, they can feel free to do so, though I don’t think that would change anything. If the Nets can stay healthy, they will in all probability win this in 6 games and then play against the Atlanta Hawks in the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals.

Los Angeles Clippers’ superstar forward, Paul George took his game to another level, as he scored 37 points in his team’s game 5 win over the Utah Jazz. The Clippers lead 3-2 in their second round series against Utah.
Alex Goodlett/Getty Images, via Yahoo News)

Thoughts on the Los Angeles Clippers-Utah Jazz’s Series:

The Utah Jazz was up 2-0, as they were able to iron out wins to convince people that they were apparently still the favorites to win this series, as they had the best record in the regular season this year.  However, the Clippers came back to win two straight games to even the series due to the strong, all-around performances of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

However, Kawhi Leonard ended up getting hurt, as he had to miss Game 5 due to an unfortunate knee strain, and it looked as though Utah would be in position to steal a game away from the Clippers.  But for the Clippers, they made it their mission to win this game, and they received a historic 37-point performance from Paul George to lead the Clippers to a Game 5 win on the road.

Paul George played really well, and their role players also stepped up.  Reggie Jackson had a strong showing, as he excelled as a scorer and playmaker.  They also received very good performances from Terance Mann and Nicolas Batum, who provided shooting, scoring, and defense to help their team.

As for the Jazz, their Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert looked largely to be ineffective in this game.  Defensively, he would sag into the paint too often, and he would leave shooters open to knock down three-point shots.  The Jazz had trouble generating offense, as Donovan Mitchell struggled to score consistently, and because of that, they weren’t able to get good looks or much offense from their role players.

The impressive thing was that the Los Angeles Clippers largely committed to playing small-ball, especially in the frontcourt, and it worked.  Gobert had trouble guarding Nicolas Batum, as he would let him score on open threes, and Batum would use his smarts and agility to pass the ball to get assists to his teammates.  In a game where the Utah Jazz were expected to win, the Los Angeles Clippers ended up winning instead to go up 3-2, and now it looks as though the Clippers have a very good chance to win this series, especially if the Jazz don’t make any adjustments in the future.

Atlanta’s superstar point guard, Trae Young has lifted his team to a 3-2 series lead, as he’s helped them reel off two consecutive, comeback wins over the Philadelphia 76ers.
Matt Slocum/Associated Press, via KIRO-TV)

Thoughts on the Atlanta Hawks-Philadelphia 76ers’ Series:

The Atlanta Hawks have been steamrolling opponents in the Eastern Conference playoffs right now, or so it seems like.  They have surpassed expectations beyond most people’s wildest imaginations, and Atlanta Hawks’ All-Star point guard, Trae Young is looking to be a bonafide superstar.  Inevitably, he and Luka Doncic will draw comparisons and will be compared to each other due to their draft-day trade, but Young has a very realistic chance to be on a title contending team.

Young has been dominant in the NBA playoffs.  He has shown great range to knock down threes, he’s continually scored on floaters, and he also can quickly get to the rim to score.  He’s been virtually unstoppable in crunch time, and he’s shown terrific playmaking skills, as he will get his teammates open jump shots, especially if opponents mess up their coverages.

For a long time, the 76ers have struggled to get Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons to co-exist and to play well together, especially in the playoffs. This season, it seemed as if they were headed on the right path as they had the best record in the East this year, but the 76ers have blown two 18-point leads and lost both of them, and they are down 3-2 to the Atlanta Hawks in their second round series.
Yong Kim/The Philadelphia Inquirer)

The Philadelphia 76ers has blown an 18-point lead in back-to-back playoff games, which is definitely a worrisome trend, especially since they have the dubious honor of being the only team to do so in the last 25 seasons.

Sure, a big part of their struggles is a consistent lack of offense in the second half in their past two games.  Joel Embiid turned in a strong first half, but he’s played poorly in the second halves of Games 4 and 5.  When he’s struggling, it seems to really negatively impact on his team in a way that makes it very difficult for them to snap out of their slump.

Embiid dominated in the low post in the first half of Game 5, but then he really had trouble shooting or scoring in the second half, much like in Game 4.  He also went a woeful, 0 for 12 in the 2nd half in Game 4.  Because he is a classic, back-to-the-basket, low post center, his team often has to wait for him to get position, and they have to spend so much time getting him the ball on the block. 

Since he doesn’t really have an outside shot or much of a dribble game, the 76ers basically have to hope he’s scoring in the post.  However, his continual presence in the lane ends up clogging his own team’s paint, as the usual off-ball motion that would help in other offenses would only draw more attention to his path and make it more difficult for him to score.  This really often leads the other role players to have to stand around and simply wait for the basketball, while wondering when they will be able to get the ball, rather than be able to get it seamlessly in the flow of the offense.  This may also explain why when Embiid struggles on offense, his team goes down with him.

He also consistently struggled on the defensive end in the second half.  Philly would implement drop coverages, but Embiid would never bother to go out to guard Trae Young to contest those floaters, and he also would always hang back to let him get open threes.  It was maddening that Embiid would keep giving Trae Young open floaters and threes when defending on pick and rolls in an attempt to stay in rebounding position, and Young kept scoring and pouring on those points late in the fourth quarter.

It also didn’t help that his teammates didn’t defend much better without him, as their gambling tendencies came back to haunt them.  On one such play, Matisse Thybulle was too aggressive in going for a block rather than to stay in position to contest the shot, and he wildly fouled Trae Young on a three-point shot.

Obviously though, former All-Star point forward, Ben Simmons is getting railed on and has taken a beating in social media.  He didn’t take many shots, and that he went 4 for 14 at the free throw line isn’t going to win him any fans.  The frustration NBA fans feel about him is that he doesn’t shoot, won’t shoot, and can’t shoot.  For those who feel this way, I understand your concerns and frustration, because I myself had felt the same way when observing him play in his first NBA summer league in Las Vegas.

Simmons won’t shoot threes, because he’s not good at making three-point shots, and he’s also a very bad free throw shooter.  This puts obvious limitations because neither he nor Embiid can shoot from the outside, and it really begs the question if they can ever win together, because they both need the paint to score the basketball. 

What NBA fans seem to want Ben Simmons to be is for him to be the next LeBron James, but that is an unattainable goal for him.  Simmons is not at that level, and is nowhere near that level, nor will he ever be, and he doesn’t carry the alpha mentality that is required out of a shooter or scorer.  Instead, Ben Simmons may be more meant to be a taller, more improved version of Draymond Green.  Now, if this may indeed be the case, then NBA teams will need to be more creative in how they deploy Ben Simmons and how they construct their NBA team in order for him to play well and for them to optimize their chances to win an NBA championship.

The irony is, Ben Simmons may be their team’s best chance to defend Trae Young, him and Matisse Thybulle both actually, but the Simmons’ slander train seems to be going at full bore on Twitter, as it’s been going at full steam with no breaks.  Every time the 76ers lose, Simmons will inevitably get the blame, because of his stubbornness and refusal to improve his jump shot, free throw shooting, or to add a reliable three-point shot to his arsenal.  This has led people to wonder if he is actually coachable.

Meanwhile, head coach Doc Rivers has failed to make tactical adjustments, as he will keep playing his centers, and he also keeps playing Dwight Howard, even when he has really struggled defensively, has continually botched open shots around the basket, and he’s consistently been bad in NBA playoff games against the Atlanta Hawks. That he’s never even bothered to stagger the minutes of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons is baffling, because it often will lead them to play a weakened second-unit only squad that will get overpowered by the Hawks.

The Atlanta Hawks are playing well, they’re a good team, and they are much better than expected.  It seems that the 76ers will inevitably lose in 6 games, and there will plenty of finger pointing across the board if or when that happens.

Head coach Doc Rivers is not only known for having led the 2008 Boston Celtics to win the NBA championship, but also dubiously for being the only NBA head coach ever to blow three 3-1 series leads and lose those series in the playoffs. He also helped get another dubious distinction, for leading the 2021 76ers to be the only team to blow an 18-point lead in consecutive playoff games in the past 25 seasons.
(Source: Twitter/@ESPNStatsInfo)

With all of the struggles that traditional centers are having in the NBA playoffs, this is leading me to wonder how it may pertain to center prospects in the 2021 NBA Draft.  Right now, I’m skeptical of the idea of a center being able to be the best player on an NBA championship team, especially with so many center-led teams having lost far more games than expected in the playoffs or being eliminated this early altogether. Undoubtedly, centers can put up numbers in the regular season.  Having them on the floor can help limit the wear and tear on the prime rotation players, and centers tend to rate well in advanced statistical metrics. 

However, more times than not, centers tend to be the least mobile players on the court, which really hinders their ability to defend out on the perimeter.  They seem to have a limited utility, as they are the most effective in the paint, but may tend to struggle when they are outside of their comfort zone.  It seems that their inability to defend pick and rolls or shooters gets magnified in the playoffs, and with the more successful teams such as the Brooklyn Nets and the Los Angeles Clippers downshifting, with former small forwards like Jeff Green and Nic Batum being able to successfully play center to help their teams win playoff games, this might not bode well for traditional center prospects, especially with Ivica Zubac losing playing time, and with DeAndre Jordan having not played at all in the NBA playoffs.   

Brooklyn Nets’ center, DeAndre Jordan is averaging roughly $10 million a year, and he hasn’t played a single minute in the 2021 NBA playoffs.  We are still talking about a guy who posted a 17 PER, which is above average, and posted a 74% True Shooting Percentage, which is really good.  By all accounts, any analytics person would probably recommend him to be in uniform.  However, he is not playing, and Brooklyn has still won games without him.  The incredibly unconventional approach of head coach Steve Nash and his decision to not play traditional centers very much has paid off, although that still coincides with the Nets having three of the best players in the game in Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving.  Still, it can be argued that with the paint open, it makes their jobs so much easier, because the paint is open for their superstars to freely attack.

Smart head coaches have been rewarded for their creativity, and others have been punished for their lack thereof, and it seems that traditional centers might only help NBA teams in the regular season, but they will have to adapt their game to be able to adjust to playoff basketball in the future.

With everything that has happened in the 2021 NBA Playoffs right now, it’s really forced me to re-examine my draft board. This has really gotten me to re-think the NBA draft board as we know it, and the next time we update the 2021 top 100 rankings, you’ll see a revamped board that will be more in tune with the way the modern NBA game is going right now.

Here are some of my mid-round predictions to close out the 2nd Round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs:

The Atlanta Hawks will defeat the Philadelphia 76ers at home and win in 6 games, marking both a high for the upstart, soaring Hawks, and an infuriating end to the 76ers’ season.  And when this happens, ultimately, the 76ers will need to make changes to both their personnel and coaching staff to account for their eventual second-round collapse and demise to the Hawks.

The Brooklyn Nets will defeat the Milwaukee Bucks in 6 games and then go on to play the Atlanta Hawks in the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals.

The Los Angeles Clippers will defeat the Utah Jazz and close them out in 6 games to play against the Phoenix Suns in the 2021 Western Conference Finals.

These predictions are pretty straightforward, and when it’s about time for the Conference Finals to start, I’ll make some more round-by-round predictions just before then.  It’s been a very interesting and entertaining NBA playoffs, and there will be more NBA playoff basketball games to watch.  Thanks for reading.

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