And then there were four. All four of the franchises that remain alive in the NBA playoffs have not won an NBA title since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976. Two clubs have never won a championship altogether. One team will get the chance to host the Larry O’Brien Trophy this summer, but who will it be? There’s a lot of talent on all of these teams but only two can advance to the NBA Finals.
Bucks vs Hawks: This is not the matchup most people were expecting in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Brooklyn Nets were the heavy favourites to win the 2021 NBA title with all-stars on their roster like Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, and Blake Griffin. However, injuries to star players hurt the Nets’ offensive ability and gave the Bucks the option to double Durant at all times. Kyrie Irving was injured in game four, which took him out for the remainder of the series and James Harden, who suffered a hamstring injury in game one, came back in game five but wasn’t himself for the rest of the series. Kevin Durant gave it his all the entire series, averaging 35.4 points per game, 10.6 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game. He was especially excellent in game 5 where he had a 49 point triple-double while playing every minute and in game 7, where he set the NBA record for most points in a game 7 with 48, however, the injuries to Irving and Harden and the excellent play of both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton on offense and P.J Tucker and Jrue Holiday on defense were the difference. In the other matchup, the Philadelphia 76ers were the heavy favourites to beat the Hawks, but thanks to Clint Capela’s defense and an outstanding offensive output from Trae Young, the Hawks have completed the upset. The fact that Joel Embiid played injured and that Ben Simmons played so poorly for the 76ers, missing shots and even passing up open shots at times also helped the 76ers lose the series. It is clear that the Bucks are the obvious favourites in the ECF and they are the far more talented team – however, that does not mean you should take them lightly. Both the Hawks and the Bucks won exhilarating game sevens on the road against the 76ers and Nets – the top two teams in the Eastern Conference – to earn a spot in the ECF.
The Bucks won the season series two games to one. Antetokounmpo played well in both games the Bucks won; he fell just short of a triple-double in the first game where the Bucks dismantled the Hawks who played without Trae Young and Clint Capela and scored 15 points in 25 minutes in the second game. In the game the Hawks won, Lou Williams was clutch, scoring four three-pointers in the final seven minutes to propel the Hawks to victory. Bojan Bogdanovic also had 32 points in Young’s absence. Despite Young’s phenomenal performance in his first career playoff run – he has averaged 29.1 points, 10.4 assists and 1.3 steals on 41.3 percent shooting and 33.0 percent from the 3-point line against the Knicks and the 76ers – the Bucks were one of the best defensive teams in the league in the regular season and have been very sharp in the playoffs. They have a lot of options to use to guard Young. They can put Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, or P.J Tucker on Young and still have enough talent defensively to guard Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, and Bojan Bogdanovic. Also, P.J Tucker – who was extremely effective against Kevin Durant in round two – will be able to defend any big man, in this series it will be either Clint Capela and/or John Collins. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez will have to excel at ball switches, getting off screens, and will have to play good defense under the rim and around the perimeter. Young’s shot is a threat but his passing creates open shots for his teammates. So, Antetokounmpo and Lopez will have to be the help being sent to cover shooters. The more pressure the Bucks send to the perimeter and the more they can lock down Young, the more the Hawks’ supporting cast will have to knock down shots. The Bucks are okay with letting someone else try to beat them, just not Young and his very effective floater. Young is a great passer and 3 point shooter, but his floater is just as dangerous. He’s made 49.4 percent of his floaters this postseason. It’s beginning to look like his primary source of offense.
Not to mention, the Bucks have a lot of threats on the offensive side of the ball. They move the ball well, don’t turn the ball over a lot, and can drive the rim and shoot well from mid-range and from beyond the arc. Will Clint Capela be able to guard Antetokounmpo or will they have to double Antetokounmpo with Bogdanovich? If they do, that will cause someone else on the Bucks to find himself constantly open on offense. The Bucks have a lot of excellent shooters in Middleton, Tucker, and Holiday. Not to mention, they are a physical group and a threat driving to the rim with Antetokounmpo and Lopez. They draw a lot of fouls too, but making free throws has been a challenge, to say the least, especially for Antetokounmpo, who’s shooting only 53.8 percent from the free-throw line in the playoffs. Finally, both teams are well-coached with Nate McMillan in Atlanta and Mike Budenholzer in Milwaukee. Both coaches have made excellent adjustments to get their teams here but whichever team makes the most adjustments will win this series. This will be a close, entertaining series but the Bucks are the more talented team. I think they can shut Young down and be productive enough on offense to win in six games. The Bucks’ big three – Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Holiday will be too much for the Hawks to handle.
Clippers vs Suns: The Los Angeles Clippers have just made NBA history. They are the first team to come back from 2-0 deficits in two consecutive playoff series in the same postseason. They won both series against the Dallas Mavericks and the Utah Jazz – who had the best record in the Western Conference and the entire NBA – 4-2. They had to play the last two games of their series vs the Jazz without Kawhi Leonard, who suffered a knee injury in game four. Players like Paul George, Rajon Rondo, Terrence Mann, Marcus Morris, and Reggie Jackson were all crucial for the Clippers’ success without Leonard. In their franchise’s first-ever Western Conference Finals, the Clippers will face the Phoenix Suns who took out the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in round one and swept the 2021 NBA MVP Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets in round two, which is not something a lot of people saw coming. That series looked like it would go the distance before it started. Devin Booker and Chris Paul have been leading the way this postseason for a young, talented Suns roster with a lot of depth in guys like DeAndre Ayton and Mikhail Bridges among others, and a fantastic coach in Monty Williams who deserves a lot of credit for this team’s success and chemistry.
This series is guaranteed to be exciting and will likely go six or seven games. The biggest storyline in this series will be if the Clippers can keep up their high level of performance without Kawhi Leonard who is out for an undetermined amount of time with an ACL injury and if the Suns can continue to play well without Chris Paul who will be out for two weeks in the COVID-19 health and safety protocol. In Leonard’s absence, a lot of players have played well, particularly Paul George, who faced a lot of criticism for his subpar postseason in 2020. In games five and six, he averaged 32.5 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 6.0 assists and played 43 minutes per game. The Clippers are a team that can shoot the ball extremely well from anywhere on the floor. They are shooting 58.6 percent from the field in the playoffs, have the best mid-range field goal percentage in the postseason, and are shooting a very effective 40.5 percent from the three. The Clippers have the best offensive rating in the NBA playoffs scoring 124.3 points per 100 possessions and can make you pay with their shooting ability. They are not just an offensive powerhouse though, they play solid defense that can shut down talented offenses. A lot of their success also comes from head coach Tyronn Lue who is a very good coach. Once the Clippers fell behind 2-0, Lue adjusted and played a lot of small ball. He forced Rudy Gobert, the 2021 defensive player of the year, out of his comfort zone and forced him to defend the perimeter and move around to help guard shooters, which is tough for someone of his size, despite all his defensive talent. Having a coach that is able to adapt on the fly to be able to play against various offensive and defensive schemes will be crucial against a Suns team that can beat you in a lot of ways, especially when CP3 returns. Against DeAndre Ayton, it makes sense to match him up with Ivica Zubac, as Ayton is dangerous against a small lineup. But if Ayton capitalizes on the Clippers’ small-ball lineup, Zubac will have to play more minutes and as a result, the Clippers’ offense will lose some explosiveness on offense and their spacing will be different with a big man on the floor. However, Zubac is a good passer and can run the offense effectively from the high post.
With Chris Paul out for at least game one, Cameron Payne will be his replacement. Chris Paul is an experienced veteran point guard who facilitates the offense and his play helps improve the play of all of his teammates. He scores frequently, sets up teammates, and rarely turns the ball over. His presence on the floor has elevated Devin Booker’s play this season as Booker can focus on getting open without having to worry about being the primary ball-handler each play. However, Booker has proven capable of being the number one option and he has played amazing basketball for the entire postseason, his latest accomplishment was a 40 point triple-double in game one of the WCF, where he was everywhere on the floor, making an impact on offense and defense. With everyone healthy, this Suns team is one of the best offensive teams in the league but can also beat you with their top 10 defense. Obviously, the Suns are better with Paul on the floor, averaging 111.4 points per 100 possessions this postseason. However, they scored 13.1 more points per 100 possessions in the last six games when Paul’s lingering shoulder injury subsided. The Suns have held their own without Paul on the floor, posting positive point differentials, using their creativity and depth to get scoring on offense, and using their elite defense to quiet opposing offenses down, cause turnovers, and use their transition game to generate easy fast-break points.
Cameron Payne is a good backup option for Paul and should play pretty well alongside Booker. Monty Williams will have to find creative ways to get him involved in the offense and get him shots though. Defenders will likely focus on Booker now, with Paul out of the lineup, which means other guys – like Payne, Ayton, Bridges, and Jae Crowder will have to step up and hit crucial shots. It is worth noting that in games two and three of round one, Payne replaced Paul who was out with a minor injury and the Suns lost both of those games. They’ll need to adapt constantly to beat the Clippers, especially if they are without Paul for more than one game or two. This series will be the Suns’ toughest test in these playoffs. I love the Suns, and they’ve had a great run, but I think the Clippers’ magical championship run continues – they win the series in seven games thanks to Paul George, Marcus Morris, Reggie Jackson, and incredible coaching from Tyronn Lue. If Kawhi Leonard comes back, they may even win in six games.
These two matchups will make an interesting conference final that many NBA fans will enjoy watching. There will be a lot of fast-paced, high-scoring games that will be sure to get you out of your seat There is a lot of talent on all four of these teams. But which teams will emerge victorious and have a chance to compete for their franchises’ first-ever NBA title? Stay tuned to find out.