Aside from the Mavericks-Clippers series that has been pushed to a Game 7 on the back of 45 points from Kawhi Leonard, the first round of the NBA Playoffs has just about come to a close.
We saw big series victories by the Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks on the backs of Devin Booker and Trae Young. There was pure domination by teams like the Utah Jazz over the Memphis Grizzlies and the Milwaukee Bucks got their revenge in a four-game sweep over the Miami Heat.
We even got to see some historical performances like a 50-piece from Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum and the Brooklyn Nets Big 3 combining for 101 points in a closeout Game 5 over the aforementioned Celtics.
This first round gave us a lot to dissect and plenty of takeaways that will have implications on the offseason or even in the rounds ahead. With all this being said, here are my three biggest takeaways from the opening round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs.
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1. The 2020 NBA Bubble’s Presence Was Felt
There has been a significant statistic that has been thrown out there as of late that really puts the first round of this postseason into perspective. The statistic is that three of the four teams that made the Conference Finals last season have been eliminated in the first round.
Only the Denver Nuggets remain. With no Jamal Murray, they are down to only one superstar which is not typically ideal in today’s NBA to make an NBA Finals run. So, with that, they are currently relying on the efforts of the presumed league MVP Nikola Jokic, second year forward Michael Porter Jr. and a handful of rotational guards like Monta Morris and Austin Rivers. Not sure how much longer they will survive in these Playoffs, but they obviously have a chance with Jokic leading the way.
For those who do not remember, the 2020 season in the Bubble ended in mid-October and the 2021 season started in late-December just before Christmas. That is only a one and a half to two-month turnaround which is one of the quickest season turnarounds in NBA history. It feels safe to say that for the teams that had the least time to recover felt the aftereffects of the quick restart more than any other team in the NBA.
The Los Angeles Lakers were favored coming into this simply because they were the reigning champions with LeBron James at the helm. They also came in with a roster that most believe got better with some of the offseason moves made by general manager Rob Palinka.
The Lakers went on to watch both of their superstar forwards in LeBron James and Anthony Davis miss a month or so apiece throughout the regular season. They entered the postseason lacking team continuity and point guard Dennis Schroder just getting off of the health and safety protocols list as a 7th seed that just barely defeated the Golden State Warriors.
Now they are going home after losing to a budding superstar in Devin Booker and the rising Phoenix Suns in six games.
The Miami Heat were the team that most people had the most questions about following last season’s Finals run considering all the things that broke right for them.
Tyler Herro was a breakout rookie last season who came up big in the Playoffs. He followed last season by significantly regressing as an offensive threat despite averaging more points, rebounds and assists this season.
The Heat’s star guard Jimmy Butler missed a good portion of the start to the regular season and was virtually a no-show against the Milwaukee Bucks. Not to mention that Goran Dragic simply looked old all season. Bam Adebayo did not measure up to the superstar level two-way talent that he seemed like he was going to become coming off of last season’s postseason run.
The Miami Heat just did not look like themselves all season and it showed most in how Giannis Antetokounmpo dismantled them and made them the only team to get swept in the 2021 NBA Playoffs.
Then there is the Boston Celtics who literally imploded after being eliminated in five games against the Brooklyn Nets.
Danny Ainge steps down from being President of Basketball Operations. Brad Stevens failed up and will be taking over for Ainge while also choosing to step away from coaching. Now they are in need of a new head coach while also not having much flexibility trade wise to really improve unless they finally decide to part with assets like future draft picks or players like Marcus Smart.
All three of these teams now go from the ultimate high of either having a chance at the title or winning it to now all entering the 2021 offseason filled with uncertainty. It will be interesting to see how all three of these teams in particular bounce back next season with a full if not extensive offseason to both rest and re-tool for another potential run at a championship in 2022.
2. The Next Generation of NBA Basketball is in Good Hands
Dallas Mavericks point guard Luka Doncic is averaging 35 points, 8.0 rebounds and 9.4 assists in the first round series with a chance to eliminate the LA Clippers in a grudge match from last postseason.
Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker dropped 47 points in a closeout Game 6 to send the Los Angeles Lakers home and give LeBron James his first first-round exit of his NBA career.
Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young became the next New York sports villain after averaging 29.2 points and 9.8 assists to take down the Knicks in his Playoff debut.
Even if you look at some of the other young players who will not be moving onto the next round, you have guys like Jayson Tatum and Ja Morant who played really well against the Brooklyn Nets and Utah Jazz who both arguably could meet in the NBA Finals.
The crop of young talent that is on the rise in the NBA right now should put both franchises and fans in good spirits when looking ahead at the future of NBA basketball.
LeBron James and Chris Paul are 36 years old. Stephen Curry is 33, Kevin Durant is 32 and James Harden is 31. Not to mention other guys that we grew up watching like Carmelo Anthony, Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook who all are also on the other side of 30 with limited time to make a play at the NBA Finals.
We should all truly appreciate the time that these guys have left because we will miss them when they are gone. But we as fans also have a lot to look forward to in regard to the next crop of NBA superstars because these guys are already making their presence felt and they are only scratching the surface.
3. A New NBA Champion is Inevitable
Although this point might be the most obvious, it may also be the most important. To most, including myself, this was a pretty wide-open year in terms of potential champions with the Lakers as frontrunners simply because of the tandem of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Now those guys are gone and the choice for a potential champion is sort of down to a pick-em.
Right now, according to Vegas Insider, the Brooklyn Nets led by the trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving are the slight favorites to win the title at +175. Behind them is Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz at +350, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks at +350 and then the Phoenix Suns (+750) and Philadelphia 76ers (+1000) to round out the Top-5.
If you asked me right now who my favorites are to come out of each conference, I would lean towards a Finals matchup of Brooklyn vs. Utah.
Despite the Boston Celtics being undermanned without their second star in Jaylen Brown, their trio just looks too dominant offensively to the point of looking unstoppable. The Milwaukee Bucks match up relatively well with a trio of their own in Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. But they do not have anybody to guard Kevin Durant, and I do not believe that the Bucks have the firepower to compete with Brooklyn.
Milwaukee does have the advantage inside considering that in retrospect, the Nets do not really have anyone who can guard Giannis Antetokounmpo one-on-one either. This series will come down to whose third star can outplay the other. The matchup between Kyrie Irving and Jrue Holiday will be crucial in this matchup, and most would give Irving the advantage, but Holiday is no slouch defensively and should not be slept on.
Nonetheless, I believe that the winner of this series wins the Eastern Conference. Whether it is the Nets or the Bucks, both teams are well equipped to take down either a Philadelphia team with a hobbled Joel Embiid or a Hawks that is dangerous but relies too heavily on the play of Trae Young.
Then looking in the West, it feels like the Utah Jazz and the Phoenix Suns are on a collision course for a No. 1 vs. No. 2 seed Conference Finals.
The Jazz are still waiting for the winner of the LA Clippers vs. Dallas Mavericks. They are going to be well-rested with a rejuvenated Donovan Mitchell who is coming off of who just averaged 28.5 points and shot 45% from the field and 40% from three in route to eliminating the Memphis Grizzlies in five games.
On the other end, the Phoenix Suns are now battle tested after being doubted because of their lack of postseason experience and they are feeling good heading into a matchup against the Nikola Jokic led Denver Nuggets. This is a matchup where the guard play will be pivotal on both sides in this matchup and if Chris Paul is healthy, the Suns are far and away the better team in that department.
Jokic is more than likely going to see a handful of matchups from Deandre Ayton to Dario Saric or Frank Kaminsky. Even Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges may get time on him. This is simply because they are the team’s best perimeter defenders and Jokic is best in the high post where he can make decisions using his vision and/or his ability to shoot it from distance.
The Suns on paper just look like the better team and they had the more impressive first round victory of the two teams which leans my faith in their favor.
In a matchup between Utah and Phoenix, a battle between Donovan Mitchell and Devin Booker would be a faceoff of the ages. In the end I think Mitchell will prevail unlike last season where he fell just short in his head-to-head with Jamal Murray.
The Jazz just have a bit more talent top to bottom. Also, they get significant productivity from guys like Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles when their main stars are not on the floor. Phoenix does not have the same kind of depth and I do not think they will be able to get away with less than 100% Chris Paul against a complete team like the Jazz.
With all this being said, the floor is open for anyone to take the crown and it seems hard to say that any of these series moving forward will go less than at least six games. Anything can happen and every team remaining has an argument as to why they have a shot at hoisting up the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Hi there! My name is Jalon Dixon, but most people just call me Jay. As an aspiring, young sports writer and podcaster, I enjoy discussing sports (mainly basketball and football) and sharing my knowledge with others. Growing up right in the middle of Towson University, Morgan State, Goucher College and others, I have gotten the chance to learn so much about a handful of the different athletic teams that thrive here in Baltimore. I want to be the voice of local fans and teams that may not get the same spotlight as others, but still play a big part in our everyday lives. My motto is “Always Embrace Conversation,” so if you ever want to give me feedback on a piece or even just have a friendly sports debate, feel free to email me! Hope you enjoy my work and maybe even learn something along the way.