2020-21 NBA Playoffs Preview

Andrew Buckle,

The 2020-21 NBA season – reduced to just 72-games following a late-December commencement – has reached it’s most exciting stretch. 20 teams with dreams of an NBA Championship will battle it out through May and June (and some into July) for the glory. It has been an injury-riddled season, with COVID-related postponements, an unprecedented crunch of the schedule, and reduced crowd capacities slowly unveiled state by state.

In the newly introduced play-in tournament, which commences on May 19 here in Australia, the 7-8 seeds in both the Eastern and Western conference will be determined by a two round playoff between the teams ranked 7-10. The first round, featuring the remaining 16 teams, will then commence on May 23. You can get all of your NBA action on ESPN & ESPN2 through your Fetch box. Subscribe to the Vibe Pack for $6 per month to access ESPN.

Here is the live ESPN coverage throughout the Playoffs:

  • Every game of the Play-In Tournament
  • The best of the first round NBA Playoffs
  • The best of the NBA Conference Semi-Finals
  • Every game from both the Eastern & Western Conference Finals
  • Every game of the NBA Finals

If you haven’t been following throughout the season and want to tune in for some games here is a preview of every team in contention for the Playoffs, with commentary around their seasons and their chances at making it to the Finals.

Eastern Conference

1 Philadelphia 76ers (49-23)

The 76ers, following a disappointing first round sweep by the Boston Celtics in last season’s playoffs, made some major off-season retools across the organisation. They replaced Head Coach Brett Brown with Doc Rivers just days after he was let go by the Los Angeles Clippers. Respected GM Daryl Morey joined the team as President of Basketball Operations, immediately orchestrating trades to bring in Seth Curry and Danny Green for much-needed long-range shooting.

Centre Joel Embiid is having an MVP-calibre season, averaging nearly 30 points-per-game. He has been flat-out dominant when he has been on the court. Guard Ben Simmons has grown into one of the more suffocating perimeter defenders in the league and forward Tobias Harris has become the Sixers’ most efficient late-game scorer. The additions of 3-and-D specialist Green and the bruising Dwight Howard, champions with the Los Angeles Lakers last season, have added the defensive toughness and veteran leadership missing from past 76ers teams.

The 76ers have held the #1 seed in the East for most of the season, spearheaded by an elite defense (#2) and a terrific home-court advantage, and are hungry for success. This is the first time they have finished with the East’s best record since the 2000-2001 season when they went all the way to the NBA Finals on the shoulders of Mr. Allen Iverson.

2 Brooklyn Nets (48-24)

The Nets made the biggest trade in the first half of the season by bringing in former-MVP James Harden, idly disgruntled on a rebuilding Houston Rockets team and looking for a fresh start. He joined former NBA champions in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to form a dynamic offensive super-team. If only they could all share the same court. Durant has missed extended time again this season and the usually-durable Harden has returned to action just before the playoffs after repeated setbacks to a hamstring injury.

The trio has only played a total of 8 games together – a 6-2 record – posing serious questions about the team’s chemistry and continuity, and whether they can find consistency from their role players. On paper this team should be considered the favourites to win the East, and to many analysts they still are. Offensively they have been as advertised, holding the #1 ranked offense through the regular season, but they are going to have to shore up their below-average defense (#22) if they are going to be able to offset any cold shooting stretches.

3 Milwaukee Bucks (46-26)

It was a slow start to the year for the Bucks. Fresh off two straight first place finishes in the East followed by earlier-than-expected playoff exits, the Bucks organisation breathed a sigh of relief when two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo re-signed with the team. To construct a more balanced roster around their one-of-kind star and fellow All-Star Khris Middleton, the Bucks brought in defensive-stalwart guard Jrue Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans and some hot-shooting role players.

The results have been mixed, with the Bucks struggling to find consistency from their trimmed rotation and didn’t have the same impact on the defensive end as the previous juggernauts. But the Bucks seem to have figured it out, embracing losses in the early season to help them experiment and become a more unsuspecting team, carrying season-best form into the Playoffs. They’ll have a tough first round match-up against the Miami Heat, who eliminated them in last year’s Playoffs on their march to the Finals. Without the same weight of expectation perhaps the Bucks can reverse their fortunes.

4 New York Knicks (41-31)

The Knicks are back. What a story this season has been, after spending nearly a decade in the Draft lottery. Few people would admit to having predicted them to make the Playoffs after a curiously quiet off-season, let alone clinching home court advantage in the first round on the final night of the regular season. They’ve done it by building an identity – a stout, physical defense (#4 ranked) and a dedication to the hustle fundamentals of the game – and improving on their philosophies as the season progresses.

Tom Thibodeau, who has achieved success in the past with some excellent Chicago Bulls sides, has done a remarkable job in his first year with the team. Forward Julius Randle is having a break-out season, earning his first All-Star appearance. Second-year guard RJ Barrett has made a huge leap, while midseason acquisitions Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson (veterans from the Thibodeau Bulls days) and others have made substantial contributions to moulding this identity.

There is also something exciting about Playoff basketball returning to Madison Square Garden, even with the reduced crowd capacity. While inexperience and a mediocre offense (#22) could lead to an end to their season earlier than now-impatient fans would want, whichever team manages to gets past them will have to work very hard (and be a little worse for wear) for their wins.

5 Atlanta Hawks (41-31)

A mid-season coaching change has drastically changed this season for the Atlanta Hawks. Since Nate McMillan has taken over as interim Head Coach from Lloyd Pierce, the Hawks are 26-12 and have been in the thick of home court contention for a while. Entering the season full of confidence (and expectation) after a significant re-tool of their young team, the Hawks appeared to have the mix of youthful future-superstars (Trae Young, John Collins, De’Andre Hunter) and savvy veterans (Danilo Gallinari and Rajon Rondo – later flipped for Lou Williams) needed to compete for a Playoff spot.

But, assembling the ideal rotation proved to be a challenging one. With a lack of continuity they looked as lost as previous seasons. But, the Hawks have a lot of firepower in their back-court duo of Young and Bogdan Bogdanovic (who have fueled a top-10 offense), along with a formidable lob-threat and rebounding machine in Clint Capela in the paint. They can certainly cause their Playoff opponents some headaches, even if their time to shine might still be in the future.

6 Miami Heat (40-32)

Like many teams dealing with the strict protocols and nightly personnel loss as a result of COVID, some more so than others, last season’s NBA Finalists (from the East’s 5th seed) have had an inconsistent and no doubt frustrating season. Just when they looked like they were making a run and gaining on the Bucks, Nets and Sixers they’d have a wild losing streak that would send them back into the scramble for the play-in. Of late we have seen more of the grind-it-out brand of basketball that the Heat thrived on in last year’s Florida bubble (including a top-10 defense), while their offense has also been heating up.

Most of their core players have returned for another run, but the flashy mid-season acquisition of Victor Oladipo unfortunately hasn’t paid off. The success of the Heat does hinge on the health and commitment of Jimmy Butler, a notorious high-level Playoff performer, but one can never write off this proud franchise, who have excellent coaching and management. They will certainly be an interesting (and dangerous) opponent with the strongest pedigree to challenge the top three sides.

7 Boston Celtics (36-36)

It has been a mess of a year for the Celtics, a season removed from their second Eastern Conference Finals appearance in three years. Their talented forward Jayson Tatum has made his health struggles public after contracting COVID early in the season, the effects continuing to impact him months later. The growth of Guard Jaylen Brown has been a major positive for the Celtics this season but he has just been ruled out the for remainder of the season with a wrist injury.

Their lack of size is a glaring weakness in a side that has also had rumoured chemistry issues. With Tatum and Brown at full-strength – something that has just simply been elusive for the Celtics this season – they are very dangerous. But despite some supporting offensive firepower in combo guard Kemba Walker, they have been far too inconsistent (especially defensively) to put too much trust in at this late stage.

8 Washington Wizards (34-38)

Bradley Beal has been in a battle with Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors for a second-straight scoring title, eclipsing 30 points-per-game for the second time in his career. Explosive guard Russell Westbrook, who leads the league in assists, has been on a tear in the last month of the season. He has been putting up incredible scoring, assist and rebound numbers, recently passing Oscar Robertson for the most triple doubles in NBA history (now 183).

The first half of the season for the Wizards was a flat-out disaster – they missed six straight games in January as a result of not having the requisite 8 players available – but they are coming into the play-in as an unlikely #8 seed and one of the NBA’s hottest teams. They are winners of 17 of their last 23 games, with 3 of those losses coming by a single point. They rely heavily on Beal and Westbrook, but this dynamic combo could be enough to steal a game or few.

9 Indiana Pacers (34-38)

Not a particularly memorable season for the Indiana Pacers, who are in a spot of bother. Reports have broken about the abrasive personality of first year Head Coach Nate Bjorkgren, leading to some turmoil amongst players and staff. The Pacers are also hobbled to end the season, dealing with the extended absence of NBA Blocks leader Myles Turner.

The Pacers have had consistent contributions from Forward Domantas Sabonis and mid-season acquisition, Guard Caris LeVert (who had a rather serious health scare following his trade from the Brooklyn Nets), has been scoring at a high level since he returned. But, the Pacers have been wallowing in mediocrity (#14 Offense | #14 Defense) and if the players aren’t responding to their Head Coach it seems like further changes are in their future. The Pacers have fallen in the first round of the Playoffs for three years in a row. This year they will have to battle through the play-in for a chance to go a step further.

10 Charlotte Hornets (33-39)

Like the Knicks, the Hornets are another team that has pleasantly surprised fans of the game. Pre-season this team still seemed too young and inexperienced, and the signing of former All-Star Gordon Hayward felt like an over-pay from a franchise struggling to attract free agents. But the Hornets have had a strong year, despite injury hardships (notably to Hayward, whose availability for the Playoffs remains unclear) and a swift plummet to the 10th seed, having lost 5 straight to end the regular season.

The development of high-flying forwards P.J. Washington and Miles Bridges have filled the void left by Hayward’s injury, while guard Terry Rozier has scored over 40 points three times this season. But it is rookie sensation (the #3 pick in the 2020 Draft) LaMelo Ball who has made the Hornets very entertaining. His flashy passing and speedy end-to-end creativity has been a welcome addition to a franchise in need of some re-invention. If they can survive the play-in tournament the Hornets might find themselves out of their depth, but we know one thing for sure – they are going to be a lot of fun to watch.

Western Conference

1 Utah Jazz (52-20)

It is safe to say that the Utah Jazz have been the best team in the NBA through the regular season. They have been holding down the top seed in the West for months, driven by an epic win streak (20 out of 21 games) across January and February. The Jazz have maintained extraordinary three point shooting despite star guard Donovan Mitchell falling to an injury in the last quarter of the season.

Australia’s Joe Ingles is one of top 3-point shooters by percentage, while Jordan Clarkson leads the league in points off the bench per game. They are one of only a few teams to sit in the top 10 in both offense and defense. The latter is anchored by centre Rudy Gobert, in the running for another Defensive Player of the Year award.

But, despite a brilliant season the Jazz might end up facing the Los Angeles Lakers or Golden State Warriors in the first round. Not exactly how you want to start your strongest Championship campaign since the Michael Jordan-era. But, this confident team has been eye-popping on the offensive end and are coached by one of the great basketball minds in Quin Snyder.

2 Phoenix Suns (51-21)

While the off-season arrival of Chris Paul, as has been the case multiple times (the Oklahoma City Thunder last year, most recently), has helped transform this team into a contender we have been getting excited about the Suns ever since the Florida Bubble. That team achieved an 8-0 record in the preparation games but just fell short of the Playoffs. What we saw from Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and others was real promise. The ability to play hard together, and win games.

It has been a decade since the Suns made the playoffs but under Head Coach Monty Williams they have done it this year. They were one win shy of the NBA’s best record. The growth from their young core, along with the addition of Paul – a level-headed point guard who has become one of the great clutch performers in the game, along with being one of the most-respected leaders of players – have meant that this side is firing at their peak. They have depth at each position and their young players have bought into their roles.

3 Denver Nuggets (47-25)

The Denver Nuggets may boast this season’s Most Valuable Player in Nikola Jockic. “The Joker” has played in every game this season and has been putting up historic numbers for a player at his position. In addition to averaging over 26 points and 10 rebounds he is averaging 8.4 assists per game, an extraordinary number for a center.

But, the injury bug has hit the Nuggets hard, with high scoring guard Jamal Murray ruled out for the remainder of the season. His absence has resulted in the accelerated growth of talented forward Michael Porter Jr, who has become an all-level threat on the offensive end. Depth is a concern, but the Nuggets are a team of fortitude with players always ready to step up and contribute. With Jokic’s brilliance on the offensive end, and their improving defense, the Nuggets have been steadily rising through the West.

4 Los Angeles Clippers (47-25)

The 2019-20 season did not end well for the Clippers, blowing a 3-1 series lead to lose to the Denver Nuggets in the second round of the playoffs. The first year of the coveted Kawhi Leonard-Paul George partnership did not meet expectations, marred by a lack of team unity, and Head Coach Doc Rivers was relieved of his duties. Under new coach Ty Lue the Clippers have seemed to be a more disciplined team, and have been blistering hot from 3-point range (over 41% as a team). They have #2 ranked Net Rating (behind the Jazz).

The addition of veterans Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum and at the deadline, Rajon Rondo, should have the Clippers equipped for whatever turbulence the Playoffs offer. But, their success rides on the play of All-Stars Leonard and George, who are each having individually strong seasons but will need to be elite at both ends to lead the Clippers to the Finals for the first time.

5 Dallas Mavericks (42-30)

Like the Hawks it has also been a tale of two seasons for the Dallas Mavericks. Few teams have improved more since the All-Star break (if one can forget three separate losses to the Sacramento Kings) and they have a legitimate game-changer on their roster in Luca Doncic. The young Slovenian’s first playoff appearance in the Bubble was a treat to watch. While he has struggled to manage his emotions this year – he was just one technical foul away from suspension – Luca’s production is reminiscent of last season and he has been responsible for a number of huge clutch baskets.

The Mavericks haven’t matched the dynamic offense of last season – which ranked as one of the most efficient in history – but they still sit in the top 10 in efficiency. It is hard to believe they eclipsed 40 wins again this season after sitting at 9-14 in early February, and struggling to get the same line-up on the floor for consecutive games. Credit to their host of role players – including Dorian Finney-Smith, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jalen Brunson – for their perseverance.

6 Portland Trailblazers (42-30)

The Trailblazers are a team that have been repeatedly written off. Two years ago they made the Western Conference Finals, and have never missed the Playoffs while Damien Lillard and CJ McCollum have shared the back-court. A dream run through the Bubble last year, punctuated by jaw-dropping play from Lillard, was ended by the Lakers in the first round. This season has been a battle with both McCollum and starting center Jusuf Nurkic missing considerable time.

Lillard is an incredible fourth quarter player and one of the most prolific scorers in the game, capable of shooting from anywhere within half court. Carmelo Anthony, whose career received a resurgence last year after joining the Blazers, recently entered the all time top 10 for points scored. It is the Blazers defense (#29 out of 30 teams) that is a concern. While they are capable of putting up a ton of points, they do lack the personnel to reliably protect their own basket.

7 Los Angeles Lakers (42-30)

The biggest story of the latter half of the season has been the status of the defending champion, Los Angeles Lakers. Whether they are winning or losing they are usually near the top of the headlines, but the franchise has understandably been feeling some pressure down the stretch as they have been battling to avoid the play-in games. The Lakers did close the season with 5 straight wins, so they are remembering how to win games, but it wasn’t enough to avoid a play-in showdown against Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors. Make sure you record this one.

Through the first two months of the season the Lakers were cruising, looking likely to pace the West after a retool left them younger and arguably more talented than their Championship roster. After star forward Anthony Davis became sidelined with a calf strain and achilles injury the Lakers surrendered the West’s top seed, but continued to play well under the leadership of LeBron James. But when LeBron, now in his 18th season (he’s not a young man anymore), suffered a high ankle sprain their season dramatically derailed. They picked up Andre Drummond, released by the Cleveland Cavaliers, to shore up their inconsistent front-line and provide some insurance for Davis’s delayed return.

Davis has been back for a few weeks now, and starting to find his form, but can LeBron get back to his best? The Lakers defense has been excellent all season (they have held the #1 rating in efficiency) but their offense has often sputtered without LeBron, ranking near the tail end of all teams. At full strength – with Davis and James – the Lakers have to still be considered one of the favourites, but they don’t have a lot of time to get it together and have a steep hill to climb.

8 Golden State Warriors (39-33)

After making the NBA Finals for five straight years (winning three Championships) the Golden State Warriors had a losing season. It was lost early on, and the franchise acknowledged it. Klay Thompson was sitting out the season recovering from a Finals injury and the Warriors elected to not rush Steph Curry back from an early-season injury, falling into the draft lottery and re-building their roster.

With lots of hype around the return of Thompson, news of a new season-ending injury was devastating for the league. Thankfully for the Warriors Curry was back, and he’s been at perhaps his most superhuman to date. In addition to leading the league in scoring, Curry put together an unprecedented scoring streak in April (at one point he made 29 3-pointers over a three game span) and his heroics have helped the Warriors return to the play-in with a very respectable 39-33 record. To get there they won their final 6 games of the season, so they are certainly coming in hot.

Veteran Warrior Draymond Green has excelled on defense, whipping the team’s youngsters into line and holding a top-5 rating. The Warriors have gone through some excruciatingly ugly stretches this season but they are an extremely dangerous 8th seed, capable of beating any team on any night simply because they have Steph Curry.

9 Memphis Grizzlies (38-34)

It has been another exciting season for the young Memphis Grizzlies, if not featuring the growth anticipated. In the first half of the season, the squad was debilitated by COVID-related protocol, and didn’t play for over a week at one point, but they have been hovering around the .500 mark since the All-Star break. Forward Jaren Jackson Jr. has missed most of the season, and the Grizzlies have been utlising multiple promising rookies in their rotation.

Center Jonas Valanciunus, one of their few vets, has had an impactful season in the paint. Second-year guard Ja Morant has continued to add to his highlight reel on a nightly basis, despite some sophomore season struggles. Morant can be the difference-maker for a team that has maintained some of the defensive toughness of the Grit and Grid-era Grizzlies. They lost the play-in tournament to the Trailblazers in the Bubble and have another win-or-die date this year.

10 San Antonio Spurs (33-39)

Under the tutelage of legendary coach Gregg Popovich, the Spurs youngsters have been blossoming this season, which suggests that their semi-rebuild – their first following 20-straight playoff appearances – will be swift one. After moving on from LaMarcus Aldridge mid season (Alridge would ultimately retire), the Spurs have been dedicated to the growth of their next generation of stars. And they have a lot – Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV and Keldon Johnson to name a few.

Australia’s Patty Mills is a veteran sharpshooter who provides a wealth of knowledge off the bench, while DeMar DeRozen, who was traded from the Toronto Raptors a few years ago, continues to refine his game. Falling below .500 late in the season into the 10th spot means they are going to have a tough time making it through the play-in but one can never underestimate a Popovich-coached team.

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