Top 10 storylines for the 2021 NBA playoffs
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The 2021 NBA Playoffs are about to get started here soon. They begin with eight teams taking part in the inaugural play-in tournament, including the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers going up against the Golden State Warriors.

Back east, we’re highly intrigued to see how the Philadelphia 76ers perform after earning that conference’s best regular-season record. Meanwhile, the Boston Celtics are limping into their play-in matchup against a red-hot Washington Wizards squad.

Below, we look at the top-10 storylines for the 2021 NBA Playoffs.

Upstart New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks to do battle

After winning a mere 21 games a season ago, these Knicks just locked up the fourth seed back east following a win over the Boston Celtics on Sunday . New York finished its first regular season under head coach Tom Thibodeau with a 41-31 record. Julius Randle has looked every bit the part of an MVP candidate. Meanwhile, youngsters such as Immanuel Quickley and R.J. Barrett showed out big time.

With that said, New York’s first-round matchup is not going to be a piece of cake. It comes against an ascending Atlanta Hawks squad that posted a 27-11 record under Nate McMillan following the firing of Lloyd Pierce . Flush with a ton of young talent, star guard Trae Young included, these Hawks could very well be looking at a deep run in the NBA Playoffs. It starts this week against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.

Boston Celtics on the hot seat with difficult play-in matchup

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After earning a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals last year, the Celtics regressed big time during the regular season. In fact, Brad Stevens’ squad finished with a .500 record and as the seventh seed back east. Their reward? A play-in matchup with the Washington Wizards for a spot in the NBA Playoffs.

With Jaylen Brown sidelined for the remainder of the season to injury , Boston is certainly facing an uphill battle. That’s especially true given the way Russell Westbrook and his Wizards closed out the regular season. After starting the season with a 17-32 record, Washington finished by winning 17 of its final 23 games. For his part, Westbrook averaged 23.5 points, 13.5 rebounds and 14.0 assists during that 23-game span. Watch out, Celtics!

Stephen Curry’s absolute brilliance heading into the NBA Playoffs

Since returning from a tailbone injury back on March 29, the NBA scoring champion has been otherworldly. Curry dropped 46 points in Golden State’s season finale win over the Memphis Grizzlies en route to helping the Warriors clinch the eighth seed in the play-in tournament. In 24 games since he returned, the all-time great point guard is averaging 36.9 points and has made an obscene 154 threes.

Curry and his Warriors will now take on the Los Angeles Lakers Wednesday evening for an opportunity to earn the seventh seed in the NBA Playoffs. Should the Dubs come out on top, they’ll face the Phoenix Suns in the first round. This is notable in that Golden State just recently knocked off Phoenix . Even with a loss to the Lakers, these Warriors would then have a shot at the eighth seed and a first-round matchup with a Utah Jazz team that they also just recently defeated.

Milwaukee Bucks against the Miami Heat is going to be great for the NBA Playoffs

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In a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference Semifinals series, the defending conference champion Miami Heat are riding a hot streak into this series. Miami won eight of its final 10 regular-season games to avoid the play-in tournament. Even with Victor Oladipo sidelined for the playoffs , the Heat are in a good position against Milwaukee. In fact, this team boasted a 33-19 record when Jimmy Butler suited up during the regular year.

As for the Bucks, they won two of three regular-season matchups against Miami. In need of a deep run in the NBA Playoffs, the pressure is squarely on Milwaukee head coach Mike Budenholzer to avoid a disastrous first-round loss to a lesser team. That’s where two-time reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo comes into play. He averaged a surprisingly low 21.8 points in last season’s defeat at the hands of Miami.

The defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers

It’s official. Even after defeating the New Orleans Pelicans in their regular-season finale, the defending champion Lakers will be forced to contest with Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors in Wednesday’s Western Conference play-in. The winner of said game will have the seventh seed and take on the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. The loser would go up against either the Memphis Grizzlies or San Antonio Spurs for the eighth spot and a first-round outing against the Utah Jazz.

This is not what the Lakers had envisioned when they started the season with repeat aspirations. Given the way Curry is playing and with the Lakers’ injury concerns, there’s no telling whether Los Angeles will come out on top in this game. The good news? Both LeBron James and Anthony Davis will be on the court at the Staples Center come Wednesday evening. The bad news? Los Angeles is looking at an uphill climb to repeat as champs and James just tweaked his ankle injury.

Brooklyn Nets looking to jell at the right time

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By virtue of their season-ending win over the hapless Cleveland Cavaliers Sunday evening, the Nets are the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. They’ll have to wait to see who they will play between the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards in the first round of the NBA Playoffs.

However, there’s a more-dramatic backdrop to all of this. James Harden sat out once again to rest a hamstring injury. He’s suited up with both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving less than two handful of times since being acquired from the Houston Rockets in a blockbuster trade early in the season. How will that impact the championship-or-bust Nets? Meanwhile, Irving is continuing to bring drama with him to the Big Apple despite a brilliant regular-season performance. This time, he’s indicated that basketball is nowhere near as important to him right now compared to what we’re seeing between Israel and Palestine. Will Irving’s head be in the game?

Ton of pressure on Los Angeles Clippers, Dallas Mavericks

The fourth and fifth seeds in the Western Conference will be going at it in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. For the Clippers, there’s a huge amount of pressure after a premature exit from the postseason in 2020 and a history of playoff failures. In fact, Los Angeles has never made it as far as the conference finals in its history. With Kawhi Leonard likely to opt out of his contract this summer, another early exit could have him questioning his future in Southern California.

As for the Mavericks, it’s time for others to step up behind Luka Doncic and help this team make a deep run in the postseason. That includes injury-plagued big man Kristaps Porzingis who missed another 29 games during the truncated regular season. With a perceived rift between Doncic and Porzingis acting as the backdrop, an early exit from the playoffs could lead to the latter being moved during the summer — breaking this team up in the process.

Best potential draw for the Philadelphia 76ers

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The Philadelphia 76ers could take on one of four teams in the first round of the NBA Playoffs — Celtics, Wizards, Pacers or Hornets. Given how much success Joel Embiid and Co. had during the regular season, we’re sure that the Sixers are not sweating this. But when it comes to potential first-round matchups, the regular year does tell us a story.

As you can see, Philadelphia is unlikely to have any real issues with whoever it is slated to go up against. Perhaps, a first-round matchup against the red-hot Wizards might provide these Sixers their biggest test. On the other hand, the Celtics might end up being an easy out.

Best potential matchup for the Utah Jazz

The Western Conference is a bit more convoluted in that both the Lakers and Warriors could provide the top-seeded Utah Jazz with a difficult matchup in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs. The Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs? Not so much. Here’s Utah’s head-to-head regular-season record against the four teams partaking in the play-in tournament.

  • Los Angeles Lakers: 2-1
  • Golden State Warriors: 1-2
  • Memphis Grizzlies: 3-0
  • San Antonio Spurs: 3-0

Golden State just recently took out Utah at home in the first end of a back-to-back that included Stephen Curry defeating the Phoenix Suns. It might very well be a difficult matchup for Utah. With LeBron James and Anthony Davis back, the Lakers obviously wouldn’t be an easy out.

Are the Phoenix Suns for real?

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Fresh off their best regular-season performance since all the way back in 2005-06 when Steve Nash was leading the charge, Phoenix gets to wait to see who its opponent will be in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. That will come via the winner of Wednesday’s game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors.

To be perfect clear, this is not going to be your typical No. 2 against No. 7 matchup. Los Angeles has LeBron James and Anthony Davis back. Stephen Curry is playing historic basketball for the Warriors. It will be interesting to see if Chris Paul and Devin Booker struggle in the initial round. That could lead to the Suns being seen as nothing more than a regular-season fluke. On the other hand, a big Round 1 performance could have Phoenix destined for the NBA Finals after posting a 51-21 mark during the regular year.

This article first appeared on Sportsnaut and was syndicated with permission.

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