NBA playoff predictions: One question for every first-round matchup

·8-min read

The play-in tournament is over, and the NBA playoffs are finally here. The field is set for 16 teams to compete for a chance to win the 2021 championship. As always, there are plenty of storylines to break down. Here’s a central question for every first-round matchup.

(1) Philadelphia vs. (8) Washington

Is this the year of The Process?

The Philadelphia 76ers will be heavy favorites against the Washington Wizards, who secured the final playoff spot in the East with a 142-115 victory over the Indiana Pacers in a single-elimination game on Thursday. No team has a clearer path to the conference finals than the Sixers, who will be looking to advance past the second round for the first time since 2001 when they were also the top seed in the East and lost in the NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers. This feels like the year for Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, franchise cornerstones and holdovers from The Process era, to finally break through on the big stage. Embiid is an MVP award finalist, and Ben Simmons is one of three players vying for Defensive Player of the Year. Anything less than a conference finals appearance will be considered a massive disappointment in Daryl Morey and Doc Rivers’ first year in Philly.

Prediction: Sixers in five.

(2) Brooklyn vs. (7) Boston

Will the Brooklyn Nets make the regular season feel meaningless again?

There has been so much chatter about how the play-in tournament made the regular season feel more meaningful again. In a way, it did. Teams were jockeying for seeding down to the final night of the regular season, and games involving play-in teams like Washington, Charlotte and Indiana became must-watch which wouldn't have been the case in any other year. The counter to this argument is a superteam looming as a threat to run through the entire Eastern Conference in these playoffs. The big three of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving have played a total of eight games together during the regular season. This feels like the most cobbled-together group of superstars in an era of superteams. It also feels like the most talented offensive trio ever assembled. If the Nets dominate the playoffs and coast to a championship, it shouldn’t surprise anyone given the talent on the roster. It would also be a reminder that the regular season is meaningful, but only to an extent.

Prediction: Nets in four.

(3) Milwaukee vs. (6) Miami

Are the Milwaukee Bucks finally ready for the postseason stage?

The Bucks are in a strange spot where they’re arguably under more pressure than the previous two years after blowing a 2-0 lead to the Toronto Raptors in 2019 and losing in five games in the second round against Miami as a No. 1 seed in the bubble last season, but also not under the same pressure because Giannis Antetokounmpo has already signed his long-term extension to remain with the team. Results are the only thing that matter in the playoffs, but this Bucks team might be evaluated on their process instead. They’ve become more adaptable on defense in preparation for the postseason and are banking on Jrue Holiday to give them an edge in this rematch against Miami. This looms as the most competitive first-round series on the board. The Bucks shouldn’t be disappointed if they advance and lose in the second round to the Nets. It would be the same result as last season, but all eyes are on whether Milwaukee is ready to take a step of playing like a contender in the postseason, regardless of how far they go.

Prediction: Bucks in six.

(4) New York vs. (5) Atlanta

Which team is ready to continue their Cinderella season?

If you haven’t heard, the New York Knicks are back. Led by new head coach Tom Thibodeau and an All-NBA season from Julius Randle, Madison Square Garden will host its first playoff game in eight years. The Knicks are a wonderful story, but so are the Atlanta Hawks, who made a huge splash in free agency last season only to get off to a disappointing start, which led to the firing of head coach Lloyd Pierce. Atlanta finished the season with a 23-11 record under Nate McMillan. Bogdan Bogdanovic is scorching hot coming into the playoffs. Clint Capela has been one of this season’s best stories. We’ll also get to see Trae Young under the postseason spotlight for the first time. Both teams have already exceeded expectations, and one of them will advance to another round. The Knicks will play a grit-and-grind game and bank on Randle to carry them on the offensive end. But the Hawks have more talent on their roster from top to bottom. It’s a tough series to call, but talent usually wins out in the playoffs. Expect a long series either way.

Prediction: Atlanta in seven.

Trae Young and Julius Randle will be in the spotlight in their NBA playoff debuts. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Trae Young and Julius Randle will be in the spotlight in their NBA playoff debuts. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

(1) Utah vs. (8) Memphis

Are the Utah Jazz a legitimate championship contender?

The Jazz join recent No. 1 seeds like the 2015 Atlanta Hawks, 2018 Toronto Raptors and 2020 Milwaukee Bucks as teams who need to prove themselves in the postseason. On paper, Utah is a legitimate contender. They have Rudy Gobert at center, a backcourt of Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell, and two Sixth Man of the Year candidates in Joe Ingles and Jordan Clarkson. Recent No. 1 seeds to disappoint lacked a dominant star, which became their downfall in the playoffs. The Jazz have the much better team and should win this first-round series. Whether they can do it dominantly might determine the confidence level in this team moving forward.

Prediction: Utah in five.

(2) Phoenix vs. (7) Los Angeles Lakers

Are the Lakers the most dangerous seventh seed in NBA history?

The Phoenix Suns won 51 games this season and finished with the second-best record in the entire league, clinching their first playoff berth since 2010. Their reward? A first-round matchup with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers. With all due respect to Phoenix, it will be the first two-seed to be heavy underdogs in a first-round series. Even as he recovers from an ankle injury, James put up a triple-double and hit the game-clinching three-pointer in the play-in tournament against the Golden State Warriors. In the last nine seasons James has reached the postseason, his team has gone to the Finals. Since winning his first championship in 2012, James has lost four playoff series, one to San Antonio and three to Golden State. Put it another way: it has taken some all-time great teams to beat James in a seven-game series. The Suns will have Chris Paul’s experience leading the way, but it’s hard to see them beating the Lakers four times even without a fully healthy James. If they do, it might be the greatest upset by a No. 2 seed in NBA history.

Prediction: Lakers in six.

(3) Denver vs. (6) Portland

Do the Blazers need to win a round (or two) to avoid an offseason overhaul?

The Blazers have been a model of consistency in the West, making the playoffs for the eighth consecutive season. But they’ve only made the conference finals once, and time is ticking on this core group. Damian Lillard has repeatedly declared his loyalty to Portland. The team made a win-now move at the deadline, doubling down on their elite guard rotation by trading Gary Trent Jr. to Toronto for Norman Powell. But if all of it results in a first-round exit, head coach Terry Stotts’ future might be in doubt, and whether this team needs to be broken up will be an offseason topic. The Nuggets have MVP favorite Nikola Jokic and went 16-8 after Jamal Murray’s season-ending injury. But there’s still skepticism as to whether they can overcome Murray’s absence in a seven-game series. This feels like a toss-up.

Prediction: Portland in seven.

(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Dallas

Should the Clippers be considered the West favorites?

The Clippers feel like the logical choice to come out of the Western Conference. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are healthy. Serge Ibaka will help them in the postseason. Tyronn Lue has led a team to the championship before. They can match up with any other team in the West. The Clippers also ensured they would avoid the Lakers until the conference finals with losses to Houston and Oklahoma City to end the regular season. The only thing holding everyone back is their disappointing playoffs in the bubble last season when the Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets in spectacular fashion in the second round. Set last season and the franchise’s history (the Clippers have never advanced past the second round) aside, and this feels like the best bet to come out of the West. But championships aren't won on paper and the Clippers will have to prove themselves worthy of the West favorite moniker, starting in the first round.

Prediction: Clippers in six.

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