Eight teams remain in the 2021 NBA title race. Here’s how they rock at the start of the second round of the playoffs:
Not to disrespect the Nuggets, who have the best remaining playoff player in MVP favorite Nikola Jokić and sent a dynamic Portland Trail Blazers team in the first round while playing without Jamal Murray, Will Barton ( aka their starting backcourt) and PJ Dozier. In a widely open Western Conference, they should not be sidelined.
But one of the remaining eight elite teams must finish last, and Denver’s thinned guard rotation puts them as an underdog against the second-seeded Phoenix Suns in the second round. That is, unless Joki33 (33 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists 52.8 / 42.9 / 91.7 separate shots in the first round has more magic up his sleeve.
The Knicks were the popular choice in their first-round fight, but the Hawks came through New York in a five-game rout. Then they broke into Philadelphia and stole Game 1 of the 76ers in a close contest, but the visitors led by 26.
Trae Young’s first playoffs were an exit party; the third-year goaltender is averaging 30.2 points and 9.8 assists in six games. And beyond Young’s brilliance, the Hawks are incredibly well-rounded, with combat-proven snipers (Bogdan Bogdanović, Danilo Gallinari), promising contributors (Kevin Huerter, John Collins) and a center of caliber. All-Defense (Clint Capela) anchoring all.
After back-to-back home losses dropped them 2-0 to the Dallas Mavericks, then a third pushed them to 3-2 and on the brink of elimination, many expected the Clippers to fall back. But Kawhi Leonard’s all-time performance and the timely shot of auxiliary players from Games 6 and 7 keeps Los Angeles moving on.
It’s still hard to believe this team has exorcised all of their demons, especially with a clash against top-seeded Jazz looming. But with two leading wings in the lead in Leonard and Paul George, a versatile staff and a championship-level coach in Ty Lue, the Clippers’ ceiling is as high as any remaining team.
Joel Embiid may still be hampered by the partially torn meniscus that kept him out of the 76ers’ first-round win over the Wizards, but he still scored 39 points, nine rebounds, four assists. and three blocks in Game 1 against the Falcons.
Philadelphia lost that game and didn’t look impressive at first. But their defensive staff and high-level talents are reason to believe that with the necessary adjustments, they will soon be seeded in the East again.
Yes, Anthony Davis hasn’t played the last two and a half games of the series. But the Suns knocked out the defending champions in the first round, and did it relatively easily when all said and done, even though Chris Paul struggled throughout with shoulder disease.
Another big task awaits in the second round in the form of Jokić and the Nuggets, especially for Deandre Ayton, who looked superb in his first playoff action. The same goes for Devin Booker, who lost 47 points in a final victory at Staples Center on Thursday.
Even losing an underrated cog to Donte DiVincenzo, Bucks fans had to take inspiration from the team’s total dismantling of the Miami Heat in the first round, especially given the demons that lingered after the 2020 playoffs.
Dropping Game 1 of the second round against the Nets after the Nets lost James Harden to injury early in the first quarter was less. From poor outside shooting to an unusual night off for Khris Middleton, a lot has gone wrong, so expect a rebound in the most impactful game of these playoffs to date.
Not only are the Nets the most star-studded list in recent memory, but they’ve done well to surround Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Harden with the perfect role players. Their Celtics’ first round beating was the aperitif.
Now it will be interesting to see how long Harden’s absence (he has already been ruled out for Game 2). The Nets have been top for most of the season even playing with just two of their “Big Three,” but the playoffs are a different beast. This courageous home win over Milwaukee to kick off their series, however, gives cause for optimism.
The Jazz did nothing to justify being ousted after finishing the regular season with the best NBA record. After Donovan Mitchell missed Game 1, they completed a gentleman’s sweep against the Memphis Grizzlies early, giving them time to reload before a heavyweight fight with the Clippers in the second round.
There is an important test here. The Switch-heavy Clippers will do their utmost to slow down the ball movement on which the Jazz thrive, and Leonard, in particular, will be a constraint to defend. But led by three All-Star quality players in Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley, Utah is and should be the favorite to come out of the West for now.