By: Adamo Marinelli
June 6, 2021
With an exciting first round of the NBA playoffs coming to an end, only eight teams remain alive in the battle for the Larry O’Brien trophy. Who will make it to the conference finals? In this article, I will analyze each matchup and make my predictions on who will advance to the conference finals.
Bucks vs Nets: This is arguably going to be the best series in the entire NBA playoffs as two star-studded rosters collide in what is sure to be an entertaining, back and forth semifinal series. The Milwaukee Bucks cruised past and swept the Miami Heat in their first-round matchup and the Brooklyn Nets defeated the Celtics in five games in their first-round series. Both teams will be well-rested going into this playoff series. The Bucks did win the season series against the Nets 2-1, however, the Nets did not have their big three together for any of those games, so it won’t play much of a role in this series. The Bucks have never faced the Nets’ big three, so one of the biggest storylines is how the Bucks will defend the Nets’ big three, who had multiple big games in the first round. In game five, the Nets’ big three combined for a whopping 83 points in their 123-109 series-clinching win. The data suggests Jrue Holiday will be the primary ball and wing defender, defending either Kyrie Irving or James Harden. Holiday defended Irving well in the two games he’s been the primary defender, allowing only 21 points and seven assists on 8-11 field goals made and 4-6 three-point field goals made. In Holiday’s one game against Harden, he allowed Harden to score only three points and record two assists, on 1-5 field goals made, all of those shots came from beyond the arc. That says a lot about his defensive capabilities considering Harden finished that game with 34 points and 12 assists. So if Holiday defends Harden, which would be the Bucks’ best bet: that means forward Khris Middleton should guard Kyrie. The only problem is Middleton served as the primary defender against Durant more than any other player over the three regular-season matchups, even more than Giannis Antetokounmpo. However, Antetokounmpo has also defended KD well in the regular season, allowing only four points and one assist on 1-6 field goals through three games. If I am Mike Budenholzer, I am putting Holiday on Harden, Middleton on Irving, and Antetokounmpo on Durant. The Nets are very good both shooting from three and when driving the rim and scoring from close range. To prevent the Nets from scoring willingly from close range, I expect the Bucks zone coverage with Lopez and Antetokounmpo in the paint and Middleton, Holiday, and P.J Tucker playing outside. However, they will have to play a lot of man coverage as well, to avoid giving up many threes. The Bucks are strong offensively too, their biggest threat is Antetokounmpo who can drive the rim and score from mid-range, rebound, and pass the ball very well. Durant and Blake Griffin will have to defend him tirelessly. The Bucks lost Donte DiVincenzo to an injury but still have guys who can spread the floor with ball movement and shoot the three, like Middleton, Tucker, and Holiday. Irving, Harden, and Joe Harris will need to be active on pick and rolls and be prepared to come off screens to send help to shooters as the Bucks move the ball well. The Nets are the best offensive team in the league but are the 21st best defensive team. The Bucks are the sixth-best offensive team in the league but are the 22nd best defensive team. Both defenses aren’t the best which will lead to a lot of high-scoring games, but the Nets’ superior offense gives them a huge edge despite the skill of Antetokounmpo. Finally, both teams are well-coached. Steve Nash was an excellent NBA player but has less experience behind the bench for the Nets than Mike Budenholzer does behind the bench for the Bucks. Budenholzer does have the advantage as he is the more experienced coach, but Steve Nash, despite having a lot of talent on his roster, has shown time and time again he can change his offensive and defensive schemes, adapt his strategy and lineup depending on the lineup or defensive scheme of their opponents and use his depth to make up for time his stars missed with injury. However, this series will come down to who’s coach makes more adjustments and which team’s bench produces more to help out their starters. Both these teams are very talented and well-rounded, but I have the Nets winning in 7 games.
Hawks vs 76ers: The 76ers and the Hawks each won their first-round series in 5 games, beating the Wizards and Knicks respectively. The Hawks, after missing the playoffs for the last three years, are in the second round of the playoffs. Trae Young will have to continue his electrifying playoff performance he put on in round one, and the Hawks will have to play solid defensively, especially in the paint if they want a chance to upset the number one seed in the East. This series will be a matchup between one of the best offenses in the league and one of the best defenses in the league. The 76ers beat the Hawks 2-1 in the season series, but their one loss came in a game where they were missing eight players due to health and safety protocols. In the two games the 76ers won, they beat the Hawks by a combined 66 points. The biggest storyline is Joel Embiid’s injury status. Embiid suffered a partially torn meniscus in his right knee. Luckily for the 76ers, it is not a complete tear – his injury is ruled as day-to-day. He will likely be back before the end of the series. With Embiid out, at least for the next few days, the difference between playing the Hawks or playing the Nets or Bucks is a big one. Embiid is an MVP candidate who’s had a phenomenal season, he is arguably the best player on the 76ers and is crucial for a deep 76ers playoff run. If Embiid does return, whether or not he is at full health, he is a difference-maker both on offense and on defense and will be crucial for the 76ers in this series. While most teams struggle with guarding Embiid, the Hawks have several talented bigs like Clint Capela and even Bogdan Bogdanovich to guard Embiid. Capela has the size and length to defend Embiid well and make life hard on him in the paint. In eight games against Capela in his career, Embiid has been okay, but not his stellar self, averaging 20.9 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 2.4 assists, according to NBA.com. Those are good defensive numbers, so the 76ers will have to be creative to get Capela off Embiid. The 76ers have a lot of small, quick, and athletic guards. Also, Doc Rivers is a brilliant coach and will likely use his small-ball lineup and a lot of ball screens and pick and rolls to bring Capela to the perimeter to create and exploit mismatches. If Embiid misses some time, the 76ers will have to rely on their excellent ball movement and incredible three-point shooting and play fast-paced offense while playing physical defense which causes turnovers, blocks shots (they are 2nd in the league in both of those categories), and allow the fourth-lowest field goal percentage to opponents. The 76ers also have the second-best defensive rating in the league and allow the sixth-fewest points in the league. The Hawks are a middle-of-the-pack team defensively, but allow the ninth fewest three-pointers to opponents and the 14th fewest field goals to opponents. Against a 76ers team that can move the ball well, hit three-pointers, and drive the rim, especially with Embiid healthy, the Hawks’ defense will have a lot to handle to shut down this incredible 76ers offense. However, the Hawks are really good on the defensive glass and do not give up a lot of offensive rebounds. They also have allowed the third-fewest three-point percentage to all opponents this season. Lastly, the Hawks showed in the first round that they have an explosive offense, especially with Trae Young at the helm. Young averaged 29.2 points per game against the Knicks in the five games in the first round. Not only can Young score, but he can distribute the ball around with his great passing, has excellent court vision, and causes defenders to move towards him, which causes open shots for his teammates. The Hawks are top 10 in offensive rating and can shoot well, rebound well and move the ball well thanks to skilled guys on their roster like Young, Danilo Gallinari, Clint Capela, Lou Williams, and John Collins, etc. The Hawks have a lot of skill and are well-coached, but I think the 76ers are too much to handle. The 76ers will win in 6 games thanks to a strong return from Embiid and their strong shooting and playmaking ability.
Nuggets vs Suns: The defending champion Los Angeles Lakers have been defeated in six games at the hands of Devin Booker, Chris Paul, and the Phoenix Suns. This is the first time in LeBron James’ career that his team has lost in the first round of the playoffs – he is still an impressive 14-1 in first-round series. The Denver Nuggets, even without Jamal Murray who is out for the rest of the playoffs with an ACL tear defeated the Portland Trail Blazers in six games thanks to huge performances from Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, and Austin Rivers. These two teams both have a lot of talent, have very young cores and both have the potential to win the western conference. The Suns have made their first western semi-finals since the Steve Nash days in 2010, and the Nuggets are in the western semifinals for the three consecutive years. The Nuggets did win the season series 2-1 against the Suns, however, all 3 games were decided by a combined total of 15 points – that is an extremely competitive series. The big story will be how the Suns have a huge advantage in their backcourt, with Chris Paul and Devin Booker and how the Nuggets have a huge advantage in their front court with Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Junior, Aaron Gordon, and Bol Bol off the bench. With the help of role players and their bench moving the ball around and creating shots, Jokic was able to dominate the Nuggets despite missing key rotation players like Jamal Murray. He averaged 33 points per game, 10.5 rebounds per game, 4.5 assists per game, and shot 53 percent from the field, 43 percent from three, and 92 percent from the line. Deandre Ayton played well against the Lakers in the first round, but he will not be enough to stop Jokic from tearing up the floor. Jokic does everything for the Nuggets – he makes threes, drives the basket, rebounds well, is an incredible playmaker and he gets to the free-throw line. His dominance in the paint causes extra defenders to move towards him which creates open shots for his teammates. And the Nuggets are very good shooting the ball, finishing fourth-best in field goal percentage and eighth-best in three-point percentage. They also finished with the eighth-most points in the regular season, they are a very good rebounding team and can move the ball well, finishing with the eighth-most rebounds and sixth-most assists in the NBA. However, the Suns have the 6th best defense in the NBA which is far better than the Trail Blazers’ 29th best defense in the NBA. The Suns allowed the seventh-fewest points, the ninth fewest rebounds, the sixth-fewest offensive rebounds, and they defend the perimeter and pick-and-roll offenses well allowing the fourth-fewest assists in the regular season and locked down the Lakers, caused turnovers, and held them in check. The Lakers never shot over 45 percent from the field. So, the Nuggets will have a harder time scoring against the Suns than they did against the Trail Blazers. So, this series will come down to the Nuggets’ high-powered offense led by Nikola Jokic, an MVP candidate and the Suns’ incredible defense. The Suns will have to play both zone and man and run multiple schemes to avoid letting Jokic get whatever he wants on the floor. Not to mention, the Nuggets are a top 10 defensive team in the NBA, allowing the fewest rebounds, second-fewest defensive rebounds, 4th fewest offensive rebounds, and the seventh-fewest opponents’ field goals, however, they give up a lot of threes, which Monty Williams’ team can do very well. The Suns have the second-best offense in the league, ranking seventh in total points scored, third in assists, second in field goals made and field goal percentage, and seventh in three-point field goal percentage. Both teams are well-coached, with Michael Malone for the Nuggets and Monty Williams for the Suns and both teams are good on both sides of the ball with a lot of talent. This will be a close series, especially with the offensive firepower on both teams, but I have the Suns winning in 7 games, after an incredible 50 point game by Devin Booker. Chris Paul gets one step closer to that elusive first ring.
Clippers vs Jazz: When the Mavericks took a 2-0 series lead, behind two incredible performances from Luka Doncic, the sports world thought the Clippers would suffer another early playoff exit when they should be competing for championships. Instead, the Clippers would go on to win four of the next five games to close out the Mavericks despite excellent performances from Luka Doncic. The reason why this happened is depth and secondary production. The Clippers had guys like Rajon Rondo, Marcus Morris Senior, Reggie Jackson, Nicolas Batum, and Ivica Zubac who all had big games to help out their superstars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Mavericks’ bench did not provide enough help to Luka Doncic. Tim Hardaway Junior and Dorian Finney Smith had a good game one and two but were underwhelming for the rest of the series. Kristaps Porzingis also had a very lackluster series. As a result, the Clippers outlast their inner-city rival in the playoffs and will play the first seed Jazz in the western conference semifinals. The Clippers and Jazz are pretty evenly matched teams that have a lot of talent all over their roster and that focus a lot on defense. The Jazz had the third-best defense in the regular season and dominated the Grizzlies defensively in round one. They allowed the third-fewest points and had the fourth-best defensive rating, They allowed the fewest assists, the fewest three-point field goals and they had the second lowest opponents’ field goal percentage and second-lowest three point field goal percentage. The Clippers allowed the fourth-fewest points, the seventh-best defensive rating, allowed the fewest defensive rebounds, the second-fewest rebounds, and allowed the fifth-fewest offensive rebounds in the NBA. They have allowed the third-fewest assists, and are top 10 in field goals allowed, three-point field goals allowed and opposing three-point field goal percentage. Both teams play a physical style of defense that limits opponents’ shots and causes turnovers. The Clippers are a very good rebounding team and control the pace of the game; the Jazz are an athletic team defensively that does not allow opponents to move the ball around and are very quick on rotations and sending help to shooters to defend pick and rolls. Both teams are also top five in the league on offense. The Jazz scored the fourth-most points, led the league in offensive rebounds, were top five in offensive rebounds, attempted and made the most three-point field goals in the NBA, are fifth-best in three-point field goal percentage, and are 17th best in field goal percentage. They are a team that controls the pace by moving the ball around and getting high percentage looks, especially from three. They are efficient from the field and from three and can build leads quickly with the three. They also are able to continue possessions with their excellent offensive rebounding. They do turn the ball over a lot though. The Clippers scored the 10th most points, recorded the 17th most total rebounds and assists, and had the seventh-fewest turnovers in the league. They have the fifth-best field goal percentage and the best three-point field goal percentage in the NBA. They get to the free-throw line a lot and are the best free-throw shooting team. They are a team that moves the ball around, gets very good shots, frequently makes those shots, and does not turn the ball over. These two teams are also both well-coached and they match up well. Donovan Mitchell and Rajon Rondo will likely guard each other, Ivica Zubac and Rudy Gobert will likely guard each other, Bojan Bogdanovich and Paul George will likely guard each other and Mike Conley and Kawhi Leonard will likely guard each other. This will be a close series. It will come down to who’s bench helps their team’s stars the most. The Jazz are a good team, but I believe playoff Kawhi Leonard will be the difference, the Clippers win in 7 games and upset the first seed Jazz. Also, as of right now George and Kawhi are better than Bogdanovich and Conley, which will also make a difference.
The second round of the NBA playoffs has four very interesting matchups that could go either way. After all, anything can happen in the playoffs, this is just how I see it playing out. I can’t wait to watch all the action.