Are the Jazz serious title contenders? Are Kevin Durant & Kyrie Irving finally willing to play basketball? The Circuit dives into each first-round series and asks the questions that will define the 2020-21 NBA playoffs.
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1 Philadelphia 76ers vs. 8 Washington Wizards
Russell Westbrook is a monster. The Wizards started this season 3-15, but thanks to a mirage of triple-doubles from Westbrook down the stretch they were able to squeak into the play-in tournament and knock off Indiana to claim the 8 seed. Their prize? The 76ers.
The process finally seems complete. They have a championship coach in Doc Rivers. They have the MVP candidate in Joel Embiid. They have an elite defense thanks to Ben Simmons, Matisse Thybulle and Embiid. They have shooting in Seth (not Steph) Curry. This is what Sam Hinkie had in mind when he tanked, and it is finally time for the 76ers to make a deep run.
Philadelphia has a plethora of wings to throw at the Washington guards, and Joel Embiid should be feasting on the Washington bigs for the next week. Give me Philadelphia 76ers 4, Washington Wizards 1.
2 Brooklyn Nets vs. 7 Boston Celtics
This could get ugly. The Celtics don’t have one of their best defenders in Jaylen Brown, which should prove disastrous. With Brown, the Celtics would have had a miniscule shot at slowing down Brooklyn’s big three. Now they have Tatum to guard Durant, Smart to guard Harden and… who to guard Kyrie? Evan Fournier? Aaron Nesmith? Kemba Walker? Brad Stevens? The Nets should thrash the mismatches in this series, scoring at will.
The only way this series isn’t a clean sweep is if the Nets players decide they still don’t want to play. Kyrie seems to want 7-8 vacations each year, and Durant can’t seem to play three consecutive games without accumulating yet another injury. If they continue these desires to not play basketball, the Celtics will have a chance. But I’m hopeful they will actually want to play for once, so give me Brooklyn Nets 4, Boston Celtics 0.
3 Milwaukee Bucks vs. 6 Miami Heat
Oh boy. Talk about skeletons in the closet? Giannis and the Bucks have failed each of the last two postseasons, flaming out last year in the second round to… Miami. It didn’t feel dissimilar to the end of LeBron’s original Cleveland run, losing to Orlando in the conference finals in 2009 before flaming out against Boston in 2010. Can Giannis lead Milwaukee to the Finals now that he has a point guard whose face isn’t on a milk carton each postseason? Can coach Bud actually win in the playoffs? Can they beat the Heat???
Miami is good. They have an incredibly flexible defense that can switch on nearly everything, elite sharpshooters, and they’re flat-out tough. There’s a reason they went to the Finals in the bubble, and Milwaukee is going to have a tough time in this series, but give me Milwaukee Bucks 4, Miami Heat 2.
4 New York Knicks vs. 5 Atlanta Hawks
Wow this is going to be fun! Two new teams in the playoffs, a superstar in Trae Young and a resurgent city in New York.
The Knicks are Thibodeau tough, led by Julius Randle and Derrick Rose. They beat the Hawks down in the regular season, and Julius Randle averaged something like 87 ppg against them. The Hawks don’t have much defense at all, so look for Randle & Rose to expose that.
While the Hawks don’t really play defense, they sure do play offense. They have a decisive backcourt advantage with Young and Bogdanovic, and I expect them to score a ton of points in this series. In an exhilarating back-and-forth showdown, give me Atlanta Hawks 4, New York Knicks 2.
1 Utah Jazz vs. 8 Memphis Grizzlies
I had a funny feeling Memphis would be here instead of Golden State. I expected Ja Morant to announce his arrival in the play-in, and he did just that. The Grizzlies have a lot of spunk, and will be a bitch to play game to game.
The good thing for the Jazz is that have the presumptive Defensive Player of the Year in Rudy Gobert, a young superstar in their own right in Donovan Mitchell, home court advantage (for whatever that’s worth this season), and experience. Put all that together, and give me Utah Jazz 4, Memphis Grizzlies 0.
2 Phoenix Suns vs. 7 Los Angeles Lakers
I feel so bad for the Suns. They make the playoffs for the first time since the Brooklyn coach was in his prime playing for them. Led by MVP candidate Chris Paul and superstar Devin Booker, they had the second-best record in the league this year, winning over 50 games and… their reward is the defending champion Lakers with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Now the Lakers aren’t healthy. That much was quite clear in the play-in against the Warriors. Despite a 22 point triple-double, James didn’t not look great (didn’t see great, either), which is cause for concern in Los Angeles. If he and Davis aren’t firing on all cylinders, Phoenix should win this series. But unfortunately for them, I expect LeBron to be good to go, so give me Los Angeles Lakers 4, Phoenix Suns 2.
3 Denver Nuggets vs. 6 Portland Blazers
Denver is another team that I feel bad for. With Murray, they might have been the favorites to win the title. Without him, they might not make it out of the first round.
The Nuggets need Jokic to keep Jokic-ing, Michael Porter Jr. to keep Porter Jr.-ing, and pray that Lillard doesn’t keep Lillard-ing. If all those happen, Denver will win.
But those won’t happen. I expect Jokic to continue to be great. He’s averaged 24.7pts/11.2reb/6.9ast for his career in the playoffs, and against the thin front line of Portland those numbers should only rise. The problem will be what Lillard and McCollum do to them on the other end. With Murray and Dozier both out, the Nuggets are counting on borderline G-League guys to stop one of the most lethal backcourts in the NBA. Lillard should have a field day in this series, so give me Portland Blazers 4, Denver Nuggets 3.
4 Los Angeles Clippers vs. 5 Dallas Mavericks
Congratulations Clippers, you ducked the Lakers. I can’t remember the last time a team was this afraid of another team, where they intentionally tanked the end of the season not to avoid the Lakers in the first round, but the second round. If I were them I wouldn’t worry so much about maybe playing the Lakers in the second round and more on who they are playing in the first round.
The Blazers would have been a better match-up for the Clippers than the Mavericks. The two Clipper wings would have obliterated Portland on the wings, and could have cruised in that series. Now they get Dallas. Dallas also doesn’t have a great way of defending Los Angeles, but they do have Luka Doncic who single-handedly beat the Clippers twice in the playoffs a year ago. If Porzingis can stay healthy and Tim Hardaway Jr. can hit shots, give me the upset with Dallas Mavericks 4, Los Angeles Clippers 2.
Here’s a recap of my first round picks:
76ers def Wizards 4-1
Nets def Celtics 4-0
Bucks def Heat 4-2
Hawks def Knicks 4-2
Jazz def Grizzlies 4-0
Lakers def Suns 4-2
Blazers def Nuggets 4-3
Mavericks def Clippers 4-2