We’re finally here, officially. Whilst some may consider the play-in tournament to be the beginning of the playoffs, or the end of the regular season, one thing isn’t in doubt: there’s nothing quite like an NBA playoff series. After two thrashings by the newly 7th-seeded Celtics and subsequently the 8th-seeded Wizards, we can delve into the first ‘real’ round of the postseason. As always, everything is on the line once more, and we can get into what makes these teams great. Here, legends are made. Let’s get into it.
(1) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (8) Washington Wizards
What an end to the season these two teams had. The Wizards went on an absolute tear, going 17-6 in their last 23 games prior to the play-in tournament whilst the 76ers stepped up to steal the top seed in a close race against the Nets. These two teams may have been different kinds of entertaining down the stretch, but as a whole this season Philly has Washington clearly outmatched. They dominated the Wizards in 2020, comfortably sweeping them on their way to securing home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.
A lot of high seeds will be favoured to win in the 1st round, but maybe none more so than Philadelphia, and for good reason. The 76ers are a force to be reckoned with, but most notably because of their defensive dominance. Leading the league in steals (9.1) and being runner-ups in blocks (6.2) meant that this team was 2nd in turnovers against (15.6), which suits them very well for a deep playoff run. Outside of their standard play, in order to knock the Wizards off quickly and get the valuable rest time, Embiid and Simmons will need to control the paint and give up as few fouls as they can to Beal and Westbrook. Let them shoot at will from outside, secure the rebounds, and tuck this series away early.
The Wizards might be lucky to secure even a single win in this year’s playoffs, with an unfortunate first-round matchup looking to dominate them, but it ain’t over til it’s over. The Wizards got hot at exactly the right time, and if they can reel in Westbrook they could take this series to 7 games. Beal will need to be careful and avoid aggravating his hamstring injury, but he’ll need to bring it all in at least 4 times if they plan to have a shot. Westbrook needs to cap his 3-point attempts, and understand that his triple-double capabilities are best utilized if he isn’t scoring 25+. As a team, getting into their mid-range and forcing defensive errors could extend this series, but they’ll be hard-pressed to do so against Philly.
The pure scoring capability of this Wizards team is their only real hope, so this series prediction may not come as much of a shock. The 76ers are ready for far more than just a first-round exit, and we can expect them to put this away handily and get to work preparing for their next opponents. 76ers in 5.
(2) Brooklyn Nets vs. (7) Boston Celtics
There is a lot of history here, and it’s sure to come up in the broadcast booth on gameday. The similarities between the 2013-14 Nets team, when the Celtics sent newly-minted HOFers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn in exchange for 3 1st-round picks and a pick swap that became the #1 pick in the draft, and the current unit cannot be understated. For the second time in under a decade, the Nets have mortgaged their future to bet on themselves now, but can this star-studded squad pull off what their predecessors couldn’t? Will history repeat itself as they lose their talent and are unable to replace it with young players again? Maybe we shouldn’t get into that one just yet, but this series has plenty of implications under the microscope. The final true piece of the Celtics initial trade leads them now, and Tatum has plenty of gas in the tank for this series. The Nets are coming off a season sweep of their opponents, so how does this shake out?
Let’s get one thing clear, Boston may have gone to 3 Conference Finals in 4 years recently, but this team and those ones are a far cry apart. The loss of player 1b in the lineup is huge, and Jaylen Brown’s timing couldn’t be worse, yet perhaps there is a glimmer of hope. Jayson Tatum has morphed into a dominant and downright killer scorer at the season’s close, putting up 50+ points three times in a month. Most recently, he shattered the Wizards in the first play-in game of the year, and his team has rallied around him. If Boston wants to win this series then they’ll need effective scoring and mediocre defense from a largely underwhelming bench, because the starters cannot do it by themselves. Rookies Nesmith and Pritchard will have to step up, and they’ll likely be relying on the health of Rob Williams as he tries to play through turf toe which has had him sidelined. A solid scoring offense with a knack for getting the ball back despite being undersized, Boston has to force errors and go after every single loose ball if they play to stop the most efficient offense in the NBA.
Brooklyn will be highly favoured in this matchup, and there are a great deal of good reasons why. As previously stated, their shooting percentage is the best in the league, and they take great advantage of their opponents misses. Scoring in transition is a breeze and they can essentially count on someone to put up 30+ any night of the week. Their core of Harden, Kyrie, and Durant is unmatchable by any roster in the league and if they just play their average basketball they’re unstoppable to a vast majority of NBA rosters. Their biggest weakness is their ego, and interior offense. They don’t rush after their rebounds and they let opponents shoot uncontested if it means they have to meet them at the line. By playing reasonable and unhurried defense they can maintain a good pace on the court and knock down shots ‘willy-nilly’ (That felt disgusting to say, my dear reader).
This is “the series that could have been” in my books. It would have been 6/7 games guaranteed if not for the injury to Jaylen Brown. Instead, we’re going to see a lot of load management as the Nets prioritize their stars’ health over any potential sweep. Nets in 5.
(3) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (6) Miami Heat
This might be the best series of the 1st round, as we watch the Milwaukee Bucks host the reigning Eastern Conference Champs: the Miami Heat. The Heat were in a position like this last season; An underdog seed going into what was expected to be a relatively swift exit. Instead, they turned on the magic and became the team everyone wanted to root for, all the way up until the Finals, as their Cinderella run finally fell just short of the big time. One of the teams they beat handily on their way to the top were the Bucks, the #1 Seed in the NBA and a popular finals pick. The Bucks won the season series comfortably at 2-1, with a 47-point blowout to their name, but is vengeance done? Or are Giannis and company ready to mete out a thrashing?
Milwaukee aren’t nearly as scary as they were a year ago, but they’re still no pushover. The top scoring team in the NBA followed the exact same scheme they used to earn that title last season, by dominating the paint on both ends of the court and forcing the opposition to take shots from midrange more times than advisable. That shouldn’t change against Miami, but they’ll still have to play against the Heat’s strengths to win this series. Miami is an effective shooting team so mopping up the boards to limit their second chance shots, whilst bullying the paint whenever Bam Adebayo sits, will be critical to Milwaukee’s success moving forwards.
The Heat are in for the uphill struggle of a lifetime in this series, having been far from the team that rocked the world last summer so far. That was before they lost Victor Oladipo for the season, and things are bleak. Miami has a single true hope in order to actually eke out a series win, and that’s by avoiding playing like an old school NBA team. IT pains me to say it, but for Miami to win this series they need to draw contact and go down in the paint; Get the Bucks’ dominant interior into foul trouble early. Huck up 3’s like a middle school team Steph Curry just visited and hope that Milwaukee’s 29th-ranked defensive 3-point percentage allows you to outscore this powerhouse. By sticking to the exact opposite of the fundamentals the league was founded on, they could still win this.
Milwaukee is still hurting from that bubble-run, and sharks are circling the boat in this match-up. This has a lot of potential to be a blowout, but Miami is still desperate and hungry enough to at least hold on for a few wins. They are anything but that team which we all loved in 2020, but they’ve got everything they need to pull it off. Unfortunately, they’ll be pulling up just short. Milwaukee in 7.
(4) New York Knicks vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks
Welcome to the B-team series: Where the guys who definitely deserve to be in the playoffs, but absolutely don’t stand a chance of seeing the NBA finals, reside. The Hawks may have been better than expected in 2021, but “The People’s Team” for the league this season is definitely the New York Knicks. Everyone is a fan of winning Knicks basketball and it’s hard not to root for Derrick Rose. Behind probable MIP Julius Randle, the Knicks swept their 1st round opponents in the regular season, but even so these teams enter this series separated only by a tiebreaker. Atlanta enters this game looking for their first series win since 2016, led by Trae Young and an assortment of scorers.
The Knicks are favourites here, and for good reason. Their defense is arguably one of the best in the NBA right now, as they’ve allowed a league-low 3-point percentage (.337), total shooting percentage (.440), and overall points scored (104.7). Opponents even miss their free throws against NYK, which is probably not their fault but it’s fun to speculate. New York may have a hard time containing the Hawks, who have 9 players averaging 10+ PPG, but by moving fluidly on defense and maintaining the standard they’ve set all year they can expect to force Atlanta to use the whole clock. By slowing it down on offense they keep their sub-par scoring a non-factor, and limit the total possessions. By force-feeding their most efficient shooters in Randle and R.J. Barrett, they can control each game early and advance.
Trae Young is going to be the focal point in this series, for better or worse. His playmaking will be infinitely more important than his scoring, but he’ll need to stop turning the ball over so much. By tightening up his passing he can provide the lift this team needs and stop the Hawks losing the posession battle. Atlanta does a good job of containing 3-point shooters, but their efforts in that regard may be futile, as despite the Knicks shooting 3rd-best from distance (.392), they attempt the 5th-least 3’s in the league. Instead, they should focus their defensive efforts on double-teaming either R.J. Barrett or Julius Randle, as New York doesn’t have much in the way of options after that.
These teams are well-matched, and total opposites. The Knicks ride steady and consistent team defense to tight wins through forcing extra possessions and never letting a lead get to their heads, nor a loss to their egos. Atlanta relies on significant offensive output from a large number of contributors as they try their best to outscore their opponents on any night; Sometimes they blow them out, sometimes the losses are ugly. In my mind, only one of these styles of basketball can work in the long term, and a series that could go to 7 games gives them the edge. Knicks in 6.