NBA Playoff Bracket 2021: Round-by-Round Predictions

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 22, 2021

NBA Playoff Bracket 2021: Round-by-Round Predictions

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The 16 participants in the 2021 NBA playoffs are all 16 wins away from a title. But each faces a daunting path to the championship podium.

    For now, it seems like a half-dozen or more title hopefuls could realistically get this done. Once the postseason spotlight shines on these clubs, though, it could reveal fatal flaws.

    Only a crystal ball knows which teams are built for playoff basketball. Luckily, we have one at our disposal.

    OK, so it's really just a series of educated guesses forged from a season's worth of statistics and film, but that's enough to break down everything with a round-by-round prediction of the championship race.    

East Round 1

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    Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

    No. 1 Philadelphia 76ers vs. No. 8 Washington Wizards

    In three regular-season meetings—all Philly wins—Joel Embiid averaged 30 points on 60.4 percent shooting. He'll again be the difference here, as Washington has no hope for even containing him. The Wizards will get a game when Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal go off, but otherwise the Sixers won't really sweat.

    Prediction: 76ers in five


    No. 4 New York Knicks vs. No. 5 Atlanta Hawks

    The Hawks seem like the sensible pick. They have more depth and a higher-powered offense, which matters a lot in the modern NBA. But there's something about these Knicks that make you want to believe.

    Julius Randle could shine like in the regular season, when he averaged 37.3 points and 12.3 rebounds per game against Atlanta. Head coach Tom Thibodeau can scheme the ball out of Trae Young's hands, and Madison Square Garden will be absolutely rocking when New York squeaks out a Game 7 win.

    Prediction: Knicks in seven


    No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 6 Miami Heat

    The Heat remain a thorn-in-the-side matchup for the Bucks, but Jrue Holiday will become the difference-maker in this series like they hoped he would. The Heat will go all out to stop Giannis Antetokounmpo, but that will leave them vulnerable to big games from Holiday and Khris Middleton. When Miami then shows more attention to Milwaukee's support players, Giannis will go off as the Bucks exorcise their playoff demons.

    Prediction: Bucks in six


    No. 2 Brooklyn Nets vs. No. 7 Boston Celtics

    The Nets' 22nd-ranked defense will be repeatedly run over. Jayson Tatum will average 30-plus points for the series, and Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier will combine for another 40 per night. But none of it will matter, as Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Brooklyn's top-ranked offense will make quick work of this Jaylen Brown-less Boston team.

    Prediction: Nets in five

West Round 1

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    No. 1 Utah Jazz vs. No. 8 Grizzlies

    The Grizzlies lived to fight another day by knocking off Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors in overtime 117-112 on Friday at Chase Center and now get to face a Jazz team that won 14 more regular-season games, including all three of their head-to-head matchups. Bake in one huge game for Ja Morant, but otherwise, Utah will come out of this series relatively comfortably.

    Prediction: Jazz in five


    No. 4 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 5 Dallas Mavericks

    Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis and the ignitable Mavericks will make a good first-round test for a Clippers club yet to answer many questions from last year's colossal collapse. Dallas could get a game or two, but ultimately, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will take charge of one of the NBA's most talented rosters.

    Prediction: Clippers in five


    No. 3 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 6 Portland Trail Blazers

    The Nuggets will hide Jamal Murray's absence (torn ACL) as well as they can, but that's a lot to ask against a Portland team with the second-best offense and a middle-of-the-pack defense in May. Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. will put up huge numbers, but the Blazers will squeeze even more out of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell and a resurgent Jusuf Nurkic.

    Prediction: Blazers in seven


    No. 2 Phoenix Suns vs. No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers

    The Suns must have infuriated the basketball gods at some point because a first-round date with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the defending champion Lakers is downright cruel. Tack on Phoenix's lack of big-game experience—this will be the playoff debut for the young nucleus—and there are too much factors working against it.

    The Suns have no answer for James or Davis. They might pick up a victory or two if Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton time their hot nights just right, and they could win the whole thing if James and Davis aren't physically right. But you can't pick against L.A.'s stars this early.

    Prediction: Lakers in six    

East Round 2

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    76ers vs. Knicks

    A fun matchup for the second round will be Thibodeau's defensive mind against Philly's combination of size and skill. Look for the Knicks to throw everything available in Embiid's direction while sparing just enough to make Ben Simmons' life miserable in the half court.

    But how on earth can New York's 22nd-ranked offense deal with Philly's second-ranked defense? The Sixers can give Randle all kinds of defensive looks, including Embiid, Tobias Harris and Simmons. The faster the Knicks are forced to counterpunch, the sooner it will be obvious RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley aren't quite ready to solve postseason puzzles against an elite defense.

    The Knicks will fight—Thibs' teams always do—but Philly went 35-7 with an plus-15.5 net rating when Embiid and Simmons played together. New York doesn't have an answer for this level of star power.

    Prediction: 76ers in five


    Nets vs. Bucks

    This is an early (and easy) favorite for the most compelling matchup of the second round. The Bucks were the NBA's best regular-season team in each of the past two years, but they have failed to translate that to major postseason success.

    Reversing that trend would mean stopping the skid against what Celtics head coach Brad Stevens called "probably the most talented team that's been assembled since I've been in the NBA," per NESN's Sean T. McGuire. Antetokounmpo admitted history might repeat itself.

    "I don't know if this year is gonna be different. I'm not gonna lie to you," Antetokounmpo told reporters. "It might be the same. Who knows."

    The Bucks match up reasonably well with the Nets on paper. Holiday can check Irving, Middleton can guard Harden and Antetokounmpo can deal with Durant.

    But solo stoppers can only do so much against isolation artists like these. Plus the Nets can always screen their way to more favorable matchups. They'll also pick up offensive contributions from sharpshooter Joe Harris, six-time All-Star Blake Griffin and versatile big man Jeff Green, who just had a career shooting year from the field (49.2 percent) and from distance (41.2).

    Prediction: Nets in six   

West Round 2

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    Jazz vs. Clippers

    Utah has the NBA's premier paint protector in Rudy Gobert, but L.A. is built to pull opposing bigs away from the basket.

    The Clippers can make a reasonable argument as the Association's best shooting team. They finished second in true shooting percentage (59.9) and fifth in field-goal percentage (48.2) despite attempting the third-fewest shots in the restricted area (22.7). They instead buttered their bread with league-leading shooting rates from three (41.1) and the foul line (83.9).

    Leonard, George and Marcus Morris Sr. are all lethal from long range and comfortable pulling up from mid-range, so Gobert can't hang back to meet them at the rim. He also won't want to leave Serge Ibaka, a career 35.9 percent three-point shooter, unattended away from the basket. Get Gobert out of the paint, and you've gone a long way toward minimizing Utah's greatest strength.

    The Jazz can score, but Donovan Mitchell and insert-second-scorer-here won't match the firepower of Leonard and George. It's also easier to match L.A.'s stoppers with Utah's top scorers than the other way around. The Jazz will keep it close, but the Clippers advance.

    Prediction: Clippers in six


    Trail Blazers vs. Lakers

    When these teams tangled in last year's playoffs, the eighth-seeded Blazers had people liking their upset chances against the top-seeded Lakers. A lot of the hype was bubble-based, as Portland had sprinted through the seeding games and won the play-in game, while L.A. sleepwalked through the seeding round.

    The Blazers then made those prognosticators seem prescient by winning Game 1 despite a masterful 23-point, 17-rebound, 16-assist triple-double by James. But that was apparently enough to awaken L.A., which went on to win the next four games by at least eight points (and two by 20-plus).

    Back then, the Blazers had no answers for James and Davis, who both averaged more than 27 points on 57-plus percent shooting in the series. One year later, Portland remains without viable solutions.

    The Lakers, who had this season's No. 1 defense, have the size and strength to wear out Lillard and McCollum, and between Davis, Andre Drummond, Montrezl Harrell and Marc Gasol, they can come at Nurkic in waves.

    Prediction: Lakers in five   

Eastern Conference Finals: 76ers vs. Nets

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Unstoppable force, meet immovable object.

    It's the oldest proverbial clash in sports, and one that almost always makes great theater. Despite what the cliche might lead you to believe, though, defense doesn't win biggest in the modern game. Offense rules this league.

    While Brooklyn's Big Three barely broke a sweat together (202 minutes across eight games), those glimpses were telling. The Nets scored at an astronomic rate of 119.6 points per 100 possessions.

    Some might worry Brooklyn didn't have time to create much chemistry, but those concerns aren't shared within the locker room.

    "I think our experiences with Team USA definitely helped," Durant told ESPN's Rachel Nichols. "When you're in that environment ... you really have to check your ego and figure out when you need to use it. You might have to take a step back in order for the team to be good. And I think we all understand that."

    Even if the Nets stars simply take turns running offense, that might be impossible to stop, as Durant, Irving and Harden all ranked in the 87th percentile or higher on isolation plays.

    Embiid will admittedly run wild. He did during the regular season, averaging 31.4 points and 11.3 rebounds across three contests. If Simmons can get downhill, he might find free paths to the basket. Harris could go on a bucket binge at any moment.

    But Brooklyn formed its roster around the idea that no opposing attack will outscore its collection of point-producers four times in seven games. If any offense is up to that task, it probably isn't the Sixers' 13th-ranked group.

    Prediction: Nets in six       

Western Conference Finals: Lakers vs. Clippers

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Want to turn the Western Conference playoffs into an absolute cash cow? Start with Chef Curry and King James locking horns in the play-in tournament and finish with the Battle of L.A. crowning a (conference) champion.

    The ratings would be through the roof, and the basketball would be even better.

    Nearly five years have passed since James named Leonard as the player who defends him best. If James expanded to a five-player list, George would probably make the cut too.

    While there's more to stopping the Lakers than slowing down James, that's where a series victory starts for the Clips. Even better, they can squeeze some of those high-intensity defensive minutes out of Morris and Nicolas Batum, keeping their stars fresh to wreak havoc on offense.

    The Lakers don't have that luxury. They'll probably need James to check Leonard or George, and then they'll hope a combination of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Wesley Matthews and Kyle Kuzma can handle the other. That's a tough ask, tougher than the Clippers utilizing Morris, Ibaka and Ivica Zubac to help contain Davis.

    That could give an advantage to the Clippers' stars, but if they just break even with their counterparts, their supporting cast could be the difference. The Clippers have far more shooters, making them less likely to encounter the half-court turbulence that often awaits the Lakers when they can't attack in transition.

    This looks like a coin flip, but the Clippers' superior shooting will be what settles this series.

    Prediction: Clippers in seven     

NBA Finals: Nets vs. Clippers

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Nets vs. Clippers

    The Clippers had two cracks at the Nets during the regular season. Both times they fell short, and in each contest, their stars were outscored by their counterparts.

    That final point might seem obvious, since Brooklyn has three stars to L.A.'s two, but the Nets were only full-strength for one matchup.

    In that outing, Durant, Harden and Irving combined for 90 points on 64.7 percent shooting, while Leonard and George totaled 59 on 47.9 percent. In the other, Harden and Irving edged Leonard and George 65-63, while Brooklyn's scoring depth (three other double-digit scorers to L.A.'s one) made the difference.

    That's the thing with the three-star model. When it works, it's a seemingly insurmountable advantage. As The Oklahoman's Berry Tramel put it: "Brooklyn has become Golden State East. The team everyone loves to hate, but mostly unbeatable."

    That third star also offers protection against injury. The Nets are obviously best at full-strength, but they wouldn't be doomed by losing one-third of their three-headed monster. The Clippers, along with every other two-starred squad, couldn't survive with one.

    The Clippers do present matchup issues for the Nets, having the ability to throw size, length and strength at each one of their stars. But no matter the opposing defense, Brooklyn can basically bank on getting 75-plus points from its talented trio.

    Even if George and Leonard get to 60-plus, the supporting cast can't cover the distance. Not when Harris, Green, Griffin and Landry Shamet are helping spin the scoreboard too.

    This could be a great series, but our crystal ball has the Nets wrapping it up without needing to go the distance.

    Prediction: Nets in six


    All stats courtesy of and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.


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