8 Early Takeaways from the 2021 NBA Playoffs

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    Now a week into the 2021 NBA postseason, it’s fair to start drawing some conclusions from each of the first round’s eight series (especially the one that’s already concluded).

    Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks have already exorcised some of their 2019-20 demons by sweeping the Miami Heat. Joel Embiid looks primed to dominate the Eastern side of the bracket. Trae Young has seized control of the Atlanta Hawks series with the New York Knicks. And the Brooklyn Nets are scoring at will on the Boston Celtics.

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    Meanwhile, in the West, the top-seeded Utah Jazz have seemingly regained control of their series. The Denver Nuggets miss Jamal Murray (surprise, surprise). Rumors of the Phoenix Suns’ demise were greatly exaggerated. Ditto for the Los Angeles Clippers.

    For a deeper look at what we’ve learned from each matchup, scroll below.

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    When the Jazz dropped the series opener to the No. 8 Grizzlies, much was made of the absence of Utah’s leading scorer, Donovan Mitchell.

    Mitchell said he was shocked when informed Sunday afternoon that he wouldn’t play in the series opener,” Tim MacMahon and Brian Windhorst wrote for ESPN. “He had expressed excitement about playing in the game when he spoke to the media after the morning shootaround, saying he felt some soreness but no pain.”

    Mitchell’s medical team said one thing. Utah’s said another. And the organization obviously went with their own experts. Windhorst mentioned that Mitchell’s relationship with the organization had been damaged by the decision on his podcast.

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    Two successive wins, including one in Memphis, have steadied things, though. And it feels right that the steadying hand is Mike Conley’s. After a decade and change as one of the game’s most reliable floor generals, Conley is playing some of the best basketball of his career against his former team.

    Through three games, he’s averaging 23.0 points, 11.3 assists, 5.3 boards and 4.3 threes. His 8.2 box plus/minus (BPM “…is a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player’s contribution to the team when that player is on the court,” according to Basketball Reference) nearly doubles his career playoff mark.

    Even with that level of production, though, it’s hard to imagine the Grizzlies are kicking themselves for trading Conley to the Jazz. The 33-year old’s departure cleared the way for 21-year-old Ja Morant, who’s averaging 33.7 points and 6.0 assists in the series. And despite his failure to connect on one yet, his attempts to dunk on Rudy Gobert are about as exciting as misses get.

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    For years, Conley was the basketball conscience of the Grit-n-Grind Grizzlies. But that group likely maxed out its potential. It was time for the point guard and the organization to split. What this first-round series is showing us is that it was the right move for both sides.

    Conley’s new team looks poised to compete for a title. His old one is in good hands without him.

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    Whether it was the novelty of the bubble or Milwaukee’s unreadiness to step into legitimate contention, it seems that Miami’s 2020 run to the Finals may go down as an aberration.

    One season later—with many of the same key players—the Heat were absolutely annihilated by the Bucks they eliminated from the playoffs in 2020.

    Except, these aren’t the same Bucks.

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    Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez are still there. Pat Connaughton and Donte DiVincenzo are still contributing in their roles (though the latter is now out of the rest of the postseason with a left ankle injury). But much of the rest of the roster has been made over.

    Kyle Korver and Marvin Williams aren’t just gone from Milwaukee. They’re out of the league. Wesley Matthews and George Hill are on new teams and appear to be in the home stretch of their careers. With Bobby Portis and Bryn Forbes, younger, and perhaps more explosive, options are in their place.

    But the biggest and most obvious change from 2019-20 to now is the switch from Eric Bledsoe to Jrue Holiday.

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    As evidenced by their records, the teams featuring Bledsoe were plenty good for the regular season. But his lack of size made it difficult for Milwaukee to institute a modern switch-heavy defensive scheme. And perhaps even worse, opposing defenses’ lack of respect for his jumper allowed them to overload Giannis’ drives.

    Holiday solves both those problems. He’s only two inches taller (6’3″ compared to 6’1″), but Holiday has plenty of experience guarding wings. And that was enough to sell Mike Budenholzer on more aggressive switching. Plus, Holiday’s 39.2 three-point percentage this season forced defenders out to the three-point line, widening slashing lanes for Antetokounmpo and Middleton.

    With Holiday in the lineup, it’s not hard to imagine the Bucks representing the East in the Finals.

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    When Jamal Murray tore his left ACL in April, it seemed like the Nuggets’ title hopes were irreparably dashed. But then, Denver just kept winning. In fact, from that point of the season to the end, the Nuggets were tied for the third best winning percentage in the league. And Michael Porter Jr. was a big reason why.

    Without the second-leading scorer, Porter had to do more. And his 23.5 points, 3.9 threes and 48.9 three-point percentage in those 17 games suggested he was up for it.

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    Porter has been off in the postseason, though. He’s taking 12 shots per game, down from the 15.6 he took during that post-Murray run. And he’s shooting 33.3 percent from deep.

    Without that dynamic No. 2, it’s been difficult for the Nuggets to keep up with the Blazers, who blew Denver out Saturday to even the series at two.

    Jokic has done what he can, averaging 31.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.5 threes, but he needs some help. That’s especially true when you consider Portland’s defensive strategy against the presumptive MVP.

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    The Blazers are refusing to double Jokic, perhaps assuming that his passing game may hurt them more than his scoring. That means Porter may get fewer wide-open catch-and-shoot opportunities. Whether it’s through pull-ups over the top of Norman Powell or dominating his minutes against second units, he has to find a way to be dangerous.

    Otherwise, Jokic is essentially forced into going shot for shot with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Prevailing there isn’t impossible, but it sure ain’t easy.

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    Ned Dishman/Getty Images

    You have to squint pretty hard to see any legitimate title contenders in the East outside the top three. And the Philadelphia 76ers have something the other two simply don’t: a dominant, more traditional 5.

    Who on the Brooklyn Nets is going to stop Embiid? Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez can at least get in his way, but that’s not a great matchup either.

    In the first-round series Philly is dominating against the Washington Wizards, Embiid is averaging 29.3 points in just 28.0 minutes. He’s shooting 67.4 percent from the field, 54.5 percent from three and 87.0 percent from the line.

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    Those shooting numbers will likely decline over the course of the playoffs, but that might just mean going from otherworldly to dominant.

    And sending constant double-teams might not be the answer to dropping him any lower than that. Philadelphia was 10th in the league in three-point percentage, and Tobias Harris, Seth Curry and Danny Green can all get on heaters.

    With Ben Simmons’ perimeter defense and playmaking tying everything together, the 76ers have plenty of reasons to be confident.

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    With all due respect to the Wizards, it’s probably fair for this team and its fans to be thinking about potential future matchups.

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    The easiest take to drop about the 2018 draft class was (and probably still is): How could they possibly pass on Luka!?

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    And that question may apply to the Hawks more than anyone. They, of course, traded Luka to the Dallas Mavericks for draft picks that would turn into Trae Young and Cam Reddish.

    And while Doncic has certainly shown a bit more upside than either in the early portion of these careers, Young is establishing himself as a special talent in his own right.

    Atlanta is firmly in control of its first-round series against the Knicks, and Young is by far the biggest reason why. He’s averaged 27.5 points, 10.0 assists and 2.8 threes on the way to a 3-1 lead.

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    And though the Knicks’ resurgence has been one of this season’s feel-good stories, they just don’t appear to have enough firepower to keep up with the Young-led offense (the Hawks have six players averaging between 15.8 and 9.0 points).

    Young isn’t the only player adding to the reputation of the 2018 draft class, though.

    With Chris Paul hampered by a shoulder injury, the 2018 No. 1 pick, Deandre Ayton has been absolutely crucial to the Suns’ two postseason wins against LeBron James and the Lakers.

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    In his first four postseason games, Ayton is averaging 19.8 points on 11.8 shots, 13.5 boards and 1.0 blocks for good measure.

    With Ayton, Young and Doncic alone, the 2018 class has a shot at legendary status. Throw in Jaren Jackson Jr., Collin Sexton, Mikal Bridges, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Denver’s Porter and New York’s Mitchell Robinson (who’s missing this series due to injury), and this class starts to take on some 2003 or 1996 vibes.

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    Adam Pantozzi/Getty Images

    Ayton is far from the only reason the Suns are tied with the defending champions in their first-round matchup. And though his series-long numbers numbers may not place him high on that list, Chris Paul’s Game 4 performance should put the Lakers on notice.

    With a still-fresh shoulder injury, CP3 went for 18 points, nine assists, three steals and no turnovers. He was plus-nine in the Suns’ eight-point win.

    “I met with coach before the game, and he told me he was gonna sit me,” Paul said after Phoenix’s 100-92 win. “I told him, ‘Hell nah, just give me a couple minutes. See what I can do.’ God is good. I come from a praying family. My mommy and daddy, all day long, prayed for me.”

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    Whether the Paul family made any believers out of Suns fans, it’s tough to imagine the team deadlocked with L.A. without CP3 in Sunday’s lineup. And if the shoulder continues to improve throughout the series, Phoenix has a very real shot at knocking off the champs.

    Beyond Ayton and Paul, the Suns have a deep roster that includes Devin Booker (who hasn’t really found his shot yet), Cameron Payne, Jae Crowder (who could have a hot-shooting game left in him), Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson.

    And with Anthony Davis and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope dealing with injuries of their own, the Lakers’ depth is wearing thin.

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    The banged-up Boston Celtics may not be the stiffest competition, but the Brooklyn Nets’ offense has looked every bit as scary as anticipated in the first round. And anticipate is really all we could do with it till now.

    In the regular season, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant only played 202 minutes together. Their games seemed to mesh just fine, but it was hard to draw sweeping conclusions from such a small sample.

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    With close to half that many minutes under their belts in the postseason, it’s getting easier to see this team as one with all-time great potential.

    These are three of the best one-one-scorers the league has ever seen. KD, Harden and Irving are fourth, fifth and 12th, respectively, in career offensive BPM. Among the 20 players since 1973-74 with career scoring averages of at least 25 points per 75 possessions, they’re second, third and 10th in true shooting percentage.

    Having all three on the floor might be as close to unstoppable as we’ve ever seen, especially with Harden playing a more deferential game than he has in years, and Durant fresh off a dynasty in which he had to share the ball with another superstar.

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    Adding Joe Harris, who’s quickly rising the all-time leaderboard of great floor spacers, just isn’t fair.

    Boston likely would’ve been outgunned—regardless of who was healthy—in this series. And the more we see this fully healthy Nets squad, the more difficult it is to picture many (if any) teams being able to keep pace.

    Through four games, the numbers are ridiculous:

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  • Durant: 34.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, 55.6 field-goal percentage, 45.5 three-point percentage
  • Harden:26.3 points, 10.8 assists, 6.5 rebounds, 54.5 field-goal percentage, 45.5 three-point percentage
  • Irving: 24.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, 46.6 field-goal percentage, 37.9 three-point percentage
  • Harris: 14.3 points, 3.8 threes, 53.6 three-point percentage

As was said with Embiid, the shooting could certainly cool off. And Milwaukee has interesting defenders in Giannis, Middleton and Holiday to throw at Brooklyn’s big three. But we may be getting a glimpse of Brooklyn’s ceiling for the first time right now. And it’s mighty high.

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    Jeff Haynes/Getty Images

    When the Clippers went down 0-2 after two losses in Los Angeles, things were looking pretty bleak. Fake Paul George trades were popping up all over the internet. ESPN’s Dave Jacoby forecast a possible Kawhi Leonard signing for the Heat. And, as if that wasn’t enough, coach Ty Lue’s post-Game 2 comments just about broke the panic meter.

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    “They got to win four games, and you come in on the opposing team’s floor and you play,” Lue said. “There’s no pressure. You can make shots because you just try to come in and steal a game or steal two games. But now they got to go home and try to keep up the same shooting.”

    The comment was beyond unconventional. The word “advantage” is in home-court advantage for a reason. And no coach of a favorite has interpreted a situation like L.A.’s quite like Lue did.

    When you think about it, though, you can kind of see where he was coming from. The Mavs weren’t supposed to win two games on the road. They played loose, and perhaps as a result, shot 54.4 percent from the field.

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    Suddenly, the tables were turned. Dallas was the favorite, and the Mavs haven’t responded well to the pressure of being the favorite.

    Following a 106-81 drubbing by the Clippers in Game 4, this series is now tied. Dallas shot 39.4 percent from the field in Games 3 and 4. And L.A. now has home-court advantage (at least by the traditional definition) for two of the next three games.

    With Luka Doncic dealing with a neck strain and seemingly in a mental funk at the free-throw line, it looks like the Mavericks are in trouble. And it seems that Leonard smells blood (or sees red).

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    Through four games, Leonard is averaging 33.0 points and shooting 62.7 percent from the field. With all the panic after the first two games, his performance somehow flew a little under the radar. If he keeps this up and L.A. advances, it’ll be harder to overlook the two-time Finals MVP.

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