Ranking the Best Possible 2021 NBA Playoff Matchups

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 5, 2021

Ranking the Best Possible 2021 NBA Playoff Matchups

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The upcoming NBA playoffs hold more intrigue than any in recent memory.

    A regular season rendered so uninformative by all of the oddities we've mentioned time and again—short offseason, condensed schedule, health-and-safety protocols, injuries, load management—sets a perfect table for surprise and excitement.

    Full-strength previews of marquee matchups have been few and far between, and virtually every contender has spent the last several months fielding lineups it won't put on the floor in the moments that matter. Add to that a largely unsettled playoff picture that makes it impossible to predict which round we might see (non-Finals) most meetings occur, and we've got one giant mystery box to crack open in just a couple of weeks.

    We know almost nothing, which means we can expect anything.

    The lack of large statistical samples and reliable data puts narrative at the core of our dream matchups, which is great news. The NBA is fun because of its stories. The arcs of its characters, the triumphs and failures of its key players and teams. Sure, we like our numbers. But they're less trustworthy than ever.

    That's why our most anticipated playoff matchups are the ones with the best narrative potential.   

Honorable Mentions

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Philadelphia 76ers vs. Milwaukee Bucks

    We know cool stuff tends to happen when Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo clash, and nobody would be upset about seeing seven games' worth of back-and-forth animosity between those two.

    Joel Embiid would get a real test against the length and size of the Milwaukee Bucks frontcourt, and it would be fascinating to see the Bucks attack a rangy Philadelphia 76ers defense that has sat atop the East in points allowed per possession for most of the season.

    Best of all, these teams haven't played one another in the postseason in the Giannis-Embiid era yet. They're due for a clash.


    Golden State Warriors vs. Any High West Seed

    If the Golden State Warriors manage to survive the play-in and secure a postseason spot, you just know they're going to give a contending West team a scare in the first round.

    Maybe that means Stephen Curry erupts for a couple of 60-point nights against a box-and-one defense while Draymond Green plays center full time. Who wouldn't want to see such championship-verified experience and grit brought to bear by a massive underdog?

    Plus, a Warriors game with real stakes would be a welcome return to normalcy for a fanbase that had to watch last year's 15-50 debacle and this season's brutal effort to play break-even ball after five straight trips to the Finals.

    The four Finals' worth of history between the Warriors and LeBron James would make that first-round meeting most compelling of all. But Golden State has beaten up on the West's elite for so long that there's almost a blanket assurance of bad blood and a desire for revenge—regardless of whom it plays.

    Curry and Green scrapping to prove they're not done, and the contender of your choice itching to knock out former champs? That's a combo worth hoping for.


    Denver Nuggets vs. Dallas Mavericks

    Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic engineering feats of basketball genius on alternating possessions for a full series would only be the start. Besides those two vying for the first 30-20-20 line in a playoff game, we'd get Jokic going up against Kristaps Porzingis, putting the Dallas Mavericks' theoretical second star's defense to the ultimate test.

    Jokic wouldn't have it easy on the other end, as Porzingis' pick-and-pop game could force Denver's superstar into space on D. Various crossmatching and switch options could also make the series swing on Porzingis posting up smaller defenders. His work near the basket has been a point of discussion for years, and wouldn't it be intriguing to see that hot-button issue weigh heavily on Dallas' survival?

    Neither of these teams is a top-line contender, but a series between the two would be thrilling. It's hard to do better than two offensive savants leading high-scoring attacks against little resistance.


    Philadelphia 76ers vs. Denver Nuggets

    Jokic is almost certainly going to be this season's MVP. Anybody else want to see how hard Joel Embiid would work to prove the award should have gone to him?

5. Utah Jazz vs. Phoenix Suns

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    It'd be a surprise if the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns didn't secure the West's top two seeds, which would confine this potential matchup to the conference finals. That would be exciting on its own because...conference finals! But it would also mean both Los Angeles teams had been dispatched earlier in the postseason.

    Nobody here is necessarily rooting against the Lakers or Clippers. As you'll see later on, we very much want those two teams to play some high-leverage games. But the Jazz and Suns tangling for the right to reach the Finals would feel fresh.   

    Phoenix hasn't reached the Finals since 1993, and it has never won a title. Utah's last visit to the championship round was in 1998. The Jazz, like the Suns, are ringless. One way or another, this series would vault a franchise to a level it has rarely reached and never conquered.

    Additional bonuses include Chris Paul and Mike Conley squaring off in a duel of veteran craft and savvy; Rudy Gobert trying to prove conventional centers can be part of  deep playoff runs in the modern era; and Donovan Mitchell trying to escape the long arms of Mikal Bridges while Devin Booker does battle with burly stopper Royce O'Neale on the other end.

    Player-based matchups will be exciting at this stage of the playoffs regardless; any team advancing this far has star power (and probably a star-stopper or two). But the overriding appeal of Jazz-Suns is in its novelty. In a season in which so much has been unusual, it'd be fitting to have such an unfamiliar West finals meeting.    

4. Brooklyn Nets vs. Washington Wizards

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Russell Westbrook is 90 percent of the reason this series would be a dream.

    Just imagine his mindset leading the (probably) eighth-seeded Washington Wizards against the (also probably) No. 1 Brooklyn Nets. If former teammates Kevin Durant and James Harden weren't on the other, heavily favored team, Russ would still summon enough defiant "Why not?" energy to set the series on fire.

    But they are!  

    That means Russ has roughly even odds of literally exploding with competitive rage by Game 3.

    Washington has quietly been better than the injury-plagued Nets for several weeks. Its 13-6 record since April 1 is well clear of Brooklyn's 10-7 mark, so this series might present a bizarre situation where the underdog enters the fight with fewer unknowns than the favorite.

    The Nets would face the challenge of trying to find their top form against a highly motivated and recently much more successful Wizards team, all with Westbrook driven to play spoiler against his old pals.

    This wouldn't be your ordinary 1 vs. 8 walkover.

    Imagine if the Wizards pulled off the upset. Would all of the Bradley Beal trade chatter finally go quiet? Would frustration threaten to end the pressure-packed Brooklyn experiment before it ever got a chance to really get started?

    This series could provide intensity and high stakes we almost never get from the first round.    

3. Milwaukee Bucks vs. Brooklyn Nets

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    If the May 2 meeting between KD and Giannis is any indication of what we'd be in for over the course of a series, let's go ahead and sign up for it now.

    The Bucks took that hotly contested game by a final score of 117-114, and Antetokounmpo's 49 points were just enough to best Durant's 42. KD narrowly missed a potential game-tying three on Brooklyn's final possession.

    What more could you want?

    The Bucks are better equipped than most to defend Brooklyn's star trio. Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton match up about as well as anyone can against Kyrie Irving and James Harden. Antetokounmpo isn't in his element chasing top-end scorers around the perimeter, but he's one of the few humans alive with the combination of length and mobility to at least bother Durant's unblockable array of pull-up jumpers.

    Well, usually unblockable.  

    The Nets would have their hands full on defense, but their liberal switching would at least force the Bucks into a one-on-one attacking style they generally don't like to play. Brooklyn doesn't have the personnel to stop Milwaukee, but it might have the scheme to cause some discomfort.

    That's assuming all hands (and hamstrings, in Harden's case) are on deck. We can fold in all the previously mentioned concerns about Brooklyn having time to get healthy and jell here.

    Milwaukee has bumped up against its playoff ceiling in each of the last two years. It has made key adjustments and experimented with different looks in hopes of being better prepared for the series-to-series challenges it failed to meet in 2019 and 2020.

    What hasn't changed, other than the addition of Holiday, is the core pieces of the team. These Bucks have been through success and failure together. They've grown as a unit. Juxtaposed against a thrown-together superteam trying to win on sheer talent, this series will divide viewers into two distinct camps: traditionalists who want togetherness and shared experience to matter vs. a very different star-focused set who just want to see the big names dominate.

    Stark contrasts like those always make for great series.   

2. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    This is, more than anything, a fight between a big brother and a little brother. It just also happens to have the potential for league-altering fallout.

    The Los Angeles Clippers have yet to escape the shadow of their more famous and decorated L.A. counterparts. One series win over the Lakers won't change that; the Clips will need several decades of championship-level play before they truly measure up. But try to imagine the feeling of the Clippers taking the Lakers down, possibly with a trip to the Finals on the line.

    It would seem like the upending of natural order. A Clips win might also signal the end of James' run as the league's singular alpha, brought about by an organization that badly wants to take control of its market and the national basketball dialogue.

    Flip the hypothetical to feature a Clippers loss, and the stakes might be even higher. While this series could come in almost any round of the West bracket, there's a real chance we'll get it right off the bat. If the Lakers eliminate the Clippers in the first round, sending them home even earlier than last year, who knows what might happen?

    Kawhi Leonard came to town of his own volition and seems like a good bet to stay. But he can opt out this offseason, and it's impossible to argue a second straight playoff disappointment would make it more likely he'll stick around. Consider too all the sniping and questions about leadership that emerged after L.A.'s 2020 collapse. We'd see twice as much of it if the Clips were to fall so far short of expectations a second time.   

    The challenge for LeBron would be massive with Leonard and George on the other side. He and Leonard have squared off twice in the league's championship round, splitting with one ring apiece. This would only be their third postseason series against each other.

    And don't forget James' past playoff battles with George and the Indiana Pacers. At the time, it felt like James was verifying PG's worthiness as an adversary. Almost 10 years later, George could come full circle and prove the teacher was right about the student.

    The list of intriguing subplots, matchups and repercussions could go on forever. If this pairing could happen in the Finals, it'd give our No. 1 pick a real run for its money. Still, second place is pretty solid for what might only be a first-round series.

1. Brooklyn Nets vs. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    This has to be the most widely preferred Finals matchup: the two teams with the best championship odds representing two massive media markets, led by multiple household names toting MVP awards (regular season and Finals), with plenty of history against one another.

    There are LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, former teammates who reached the mountaintop in 2016, only for the latter to request a trade the following year.

    There's James and Durant, who've tangled in the Finals several times before. This rivalry goes back a decade, starting when James' Miami Heat downed Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 Finals. Harden was there for that too, though he was still in his sixth man role. James and Durant met again when the Warriors earned two rings against the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017 and 2018. KD appeared to be James' equal in those matchups, winning Finals MVP both times.

    These guys can't escape each other, no matter how many times they change teams.

    A Nets championship would be a landmark event no matter what, but to get one by besting James would mean so much more. It would give Durant three rings in four tries against the King. It would provide untold satisfaction for Irving. Harden, who's fallen short as the alpha so many times in the postseason, would finally break through with superstar support.

    And if the Lakers were to pull off a repeat against a team as talented as the Nets?

    It's hard to fathom James' legacy getting any more mythical, but this might do it. If he and Anthony Davis—who we should have already mentioned is the big man most capable of exposing Brooklyn's limp interior defense—overcome all of the travails of an injury-riddled and exhausting season by going back-to-back, it would be their most impressive achievement yet.

    At the risk of closing with a sobering note, this might be the last chance we get to see James and Durant, the biggest stars of the 2010s, meeting in peak form. James is 36 and just endured the longest injury layoff of his career. Durant is 32 and has battled nicks and bruises after missing a full season with a torn Achilles.

    Nothing lasts forever. So if we get this matchup, it'll be worth savoring.


    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through games played Tuesday, May 4. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.