There’s a certain type of sports fan that believes the NBA Playoffs are a little boring because they usually go chalk. While upsets reign supreme in the NCAA tournament and concurrent NHL Playoffs, the best team, often led by the league’s best player, tends to end the year as champions in the NBA.
LeBron James has only missed the NBA Finals one time since the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers played a classic seven-game series in 2010. James’ run has been historically dominant, but it isn’t far outside the lines of how the NBA has always worked. Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics won 11 titles in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, the Lakers and Celtics combined for eight titles in the ‘80s, the Bulls won six championships in the ‘90s, Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers and Tim Duncan’s Spurs dominated until LeBron and Steph Curry’s Warriors started running the league. While there have been some notable exceptions — the 2019 Raptors, 2011 Mavericks, and 2004 Pistons immediately come to mind — the favorites usually play like it in the NBA playoffs.
Last year’s NBA Finals featured a surprise team in the Miami Heat, and it might happen again. The first round series in the 2021 NBA Playoffs have just begun, but it already feels like whatever happens this year won’t be preordained. This is why the NBA Playoffs feel more wide open than they usually do.
LeBron hasn’t looked like LeBron yet
LeBron James suffered one of the worst injuries of his 18-year professional career when he went down with a high ankle sprain on his right leg during a March 20 loss to the Atlanta Hawks. At the time, James had not missed a game all season and was firmly established as an MVP front-runner. He spent the next six weeks rehabbing only to tweak it again in the Lakers’ last game of the regular season.
While James has been in the lineup for LA’s play-in tournament win over the Warriors and the start of the first round series against the Phoenix Suns, he hasn’t exactly looked like himself. The signature mix of strength and explosiveness that has helped define James’ career simply hasn’t been there. Instead, James looks like he’s in game manager mode, looking to set up teammates and settle for jump shots rather than attack the paint.
James was on fire as a shooter in the Lakers’ Game 2 win against the Suns to the series. He’s still impossible to defend when these shots are falling:
James isn’t just one of the most physically talented players ever — he’s one of the smartest, too. He will find a way to be effective even if he’s not 100 percent. Just know that teams will be happy to play under every screen and dare James to beat them as a shooter.
Maybe James will get fully healthy at some point during the playoffs, and the Lakers will return to their preseason status as the favorites to win it all. Unfortunately, James’ health isn’t the Lakers’ only problem right now.
Anthony Davis isn’t shooting like he did in the bubble
Davis was absolutely incredible on the Lakers’ run to the championship inside the bubble last year. He was masterful defensively both on the perimeter and in the paint, blowing up every pick-and-roll, deterring drives, and challenging shots at the rim throughout the Lakers’ title run. His offense was every bit as good, helped by the hottest shooting stretch of his career.
Davis has flashed shooting ability throughout his career, but it’s rarely been consistent. That changed in last year’s playoffs, both on long twos and from three-point range. He was particularly on fire in the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, when he knocked down 48.3 percent of his threes on 3.2 attempts per game. Here are the full numbers on how Davis shot from long two and from three in last year’s playoffs compared to how he’s shot from those areas over the last several years:
AD’s jump shooting in last year’s playoffs remains one of the most amazing “out of nowhere” shooting runs we’ve seen. His recent regular season FG% on long 2s & 3s (per @bball_ref):
18-19: 34.1% / 33.1%
19-20: 32.2% / 33.0%
20-21: 32.1% / 26.2%
2020 Playoffs: 55.2% / 38.3%
— Mason Ginsberg (@MasonGinsberg) May 7, 2021
Davis found his stroke again in the Lakers’ Game 2 win over Phoenix, hitting 2-of-4 shots from three. Mostly, though, Davis found his groove by attacking inside and getting to the foul line, where he made 18-of-21 shots from the charity stripe.
Whether or not Davis can re-find his touch as a shooter isn’t the only question he’s facing right now. He also doesn’t look like he’s moving as well as he did last year after a calf strain that limited him to 36 games during the season. Of course, there’s also the issue of how capable or willing he is to play center — his best position for the Lakers’ playoff chances.
The Clippers are the Clippers until proven otherwise
The Clippers have been in existence for 51 seasons. They have never even reached the conference finals in franchise history. Things were supposed to be different after Kawhi Leonard signed in free agency and convinced Paul George to join him. The Clippers are built to win championships right now, but they still can’t seem to shake their old demons.
Los Angeles famously blew a 3-1 one in the second round of the playoffs to the Denver Nuggets last season inside the bubble. LA replaced Doc Rivers with Ty Lue as head coach, and made some changes around in the margins of the roster with the additions of Luke Kennard, Serge Ibaka, and Nic Batum. The Clippers even tanked the last two games of the regular season, losing to the league-worst Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder, to avoid a potential first round series with the Lakers or Trail Blazers. As the postseason began, the Clippers were considered the favorite to win it al, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Now the Clippers are down 0-2 at the start of their series against the Dallas Mavericks. They have no answer for Luka Doncic, who has 70 points on 50 percent shooting from the field across the first two games. A team that had the most efficient three-point shooting season in league history is shooting under 33 percent from deep. The Clippers’ centers are struggling to stay on the floor, and their guards are getting bullied. LA also has history going against them:
The Clippers remain talented enough to get to the Finals and win the championship, but it’s officially time to worry. LA needs to fix its problems ASAP unless they want to go on an extended summer vacation.
The Jazz and Suns don’t have history on their side
The last nine teams to make the NBA Finals from the Western Conference have been either a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed entering the postseason. If it happens this year, that means the Utah Jazz or Phoenix Suns would be playing for a championship. Despite terrific regular seasons from both organizations, that would still register has a big surprise.
The Jazz ripped through the regular season with the best record in the NBA. They finished the season No. 1 by a mile in net rating. For as good as the Jazz have been all year, fans are still going to remember the team blowing a 3-1 lead in the first round of the playoffs last year against the Denver Nuggets. Dropping Game 1 of their first round series against the Memphis Grizzlies — without Donovan Mitchell in the lineup — didn’t help matters.
The Suns are making their first playoff playoff appearance since Steve Nash helped lead the franchise to the conference finals in 2010. The addition of Chris Paul has helped fuel Phoenix’s rise to success, but the veteran point guard suffered a depressing shoulder injury in Game 1 vs. the Lakers and has essentially been playing with one arm so far. The Suns could still take out the Lakers in round one, but it’s going to be so much more difficult with CP3 limited.
Jamal Murray’s awful ACL injury handicaps the Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets were becoming a popular dark horse pick to make the NBA Finals after swinging a trade deadline deal for Aaron Gordon. Nikola Jokic is on his way to winning MVP, Jamal Murray leveled up in last year’s playoffs, and Michael Porter Jr. was developing into a dynamic third option.
Then Murray tore his ACL on April 12 in the final minute against the Golden State Warriors. Denver has kept winning without him, but it’s so hard to make a run to the Finals without your second best player.
Add in injuries to Will Barton and P.J. Dozier, and Denver’s backcourt depth has been compromised to a significant degree. It all comes back to Murray, though. Given the circumstances, this might be the most dispiriting NBA injury since Derrick Rose tore his ACL in the 2012 playoffs.
The Nets have a lack of defense and continuity
The Brooklyn Nets were considered the favorites to win it all in Las Vegas entering the playoffs. Brooklyn has three of the greatest players of this generation in Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. It set the record for the most efficient offense in league history during the regular season. The Nets also have quality depth, with Joe Harris running around the arc as one of league’s best shooters, young players like Bruce Brown and Nic Claxton developing into contributors, and Blake Griffin providing another option in the front court as a mid-season pickup.
The Nets have so much firepower that they should win the title. If they’re going to do it, they will have to overcome two things: their defense and their general lack of continuity.
The Nets finished No. 22 in defensive efficiency this season by giving up 113.1 points per 100 possessions. The last team to finish outside of the top 20 in defense and still win the title was the 2000-2001 Lakers. The 2018 Warriors are the only team since to win the title without a top-10 defense — and they finished No. 11.
The Nets also just haven’t played together very much at full strength. Durant, Harden, and Irving only played eight games together during the regular season because of injuries. Purported ‘super-teams’ like the 2011 Miami Heat and last year’s Clippers have come up short in their bid to win the title in their first year of existence with way more regular season reps than the Nets have under their belt.
The Nets may very well win the title, but there are a couple other challengers in the Eastern Conference who may have what it takes to prevent them from even reaching the Finals.
The Bucks and 76ers look for real
Don’t book Brooklyn’s trip to the NBA Finals just yet. The Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers also look like they could have a chance to get there out of the East.
The Bucks have looked terrific through the first two games of their series against the Miami Heat — the same team that shocked them in the bubble last season. Jrue Holiday — acquired in an offseason trade with New Orleans — is a gigantic upgrade in the backcourt, and the Bucks spent the regular season experimenting with defensive coverages that should help prepare them for a longer playoff run. The Bucks are on a collision course to face Brooklyn in the second round that should be one of the best series of the playoffs.
The 76ers are formidable as well. The Sixers finished with the league’s No. 2 defense, and have an MVP finalist in the middle in Joel Embiid. Embiid is simply too big and too skilled to be stopped by one defender, and he particularly looks like a matchup nightmare for Brooklyn. The Sixers are in a comfy spot as the No. 1 seed because they get to avoid the Bucks or Nets until the conference finals. If the winner of that series is tired or banged up, the Sixers will have a shot to take them out and reach the NBA Finals.
There’s still time for the playoffs to go chalk
The Lakers might be able to grind their way to the Finals even without LeBron at 100 percent. The Nets are capable of putting up 140 points on any given night, and no opponent has proven it can reliably stop their offense. Maybe the Clippers can still get it together and claw their way out of an 0-2 hole.
All of this is still on the table, but what makes the playoffs particularly fun this year is it feels like anything can happen.