The Best and Worst of the 2021 NBA Playoffs
The 2021 NBA playoffs feel like they've been going on forever at this point, in large part because so much has happened, both good and bad.
On the positive side, we've seen some iconic games, legendary performances and plays that have already been immortalized. However, there have also been cringeworthy disappointments, as well as underwhelming outcomes that may lead to major changes for the franchises involved.
The Finals are coming to a close sometime this week, with Game 6 scheduled for Tuesday, so we're reviewing the best and worst of the past two months today, having chosen five thrilling events and five lowlights.
Best: New Playoff Blood
We're often watching LeBron James trying to add to his GOAT case, or Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant attempting to establish themselves as inner-circle Hall of Famers, so the 2021 playoffs' comparatively smaller stakes have been undeniably refreshing.
Prior to the postseason, questions about the efficacy of players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Devin Booker, Trae Young and Deandre Ayton against more experienced rosters seemed valid. With Milwaukee's revenge-series win against the Miami Heat and Phoenix's defeat of the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the opening round, Antetokounmpo's Bucks and Booker's Suns quickly silenced doubters.
Young and the Atlanta Hawks dominated the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in the following round.
All three of these teams made the conference finals, and the Bucks now lead the Suns in the Finals 3-2. This would be Milwaukee's first championship in 50 years and Phoenix's (and point guard Chris Paul's) first. The Hawks have never made the NBA Finals in their Peach State home, while the fourth conference finalist—the Los Angeles Clippers—had never even been that far before.
The older guard will be heard from again. But this year's squads appear to be here to stay, which would make the next few seasons even more thrilling.
Worst: The Collapse of the Philadelphia 76ers
After the 76ers failed to reach the Eastern Conference Finals in three straight postseasons, it seemed like 2021 might be different.
Under new head coach Doc Rivers and president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, the team finally grabbed the East's top seed. Joel Embiid mostly stayed healthy and played at an MVP-caliber level. Ben Simmons was a Defensive Player of the Year finalist. Role players did their part.
In the first round of the postseason, the team dispatched the Washington Wizards in five games and won the final matchup with Embiid sidelined with a knee injury (a somewhat surprising result, given how the Sixers normally played without him).
However, things seemed amiss in the conference semifinals against the upstart Hawks, who took a 26-point lead in the first half of Game 1 and stiff-armed a frantic 76ers comeback in the final moments. Philly then blew a 26-point lead in Game 5. Despite a 5-of-23 showing from Trae Young in Game 7, Atlanta gutted the Sixers in front of the Wells Fargo Center crowd, winning 103-96.
No moment better symbolized the 76ers' downfall than Simmons bypassing a wide-open dunk, and both Embiid and Rivers expressed their frustration with the Aussie after the game. Philadelphia is already looking into trade partners for Simmons, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium.
A fresh start for both Simmons and Philly seems necessary at this point, and this postseason failure should mark the end of the Process Era.
Best: Kevin Durant
The past two years have been a journey for Kevin Durant.
After rupturing his Achilles in the 2019 Finals, he had to wait 552 days before debuting for the Brooklyn Nets. And while he looked unstoppable, the Slim Reaper only played in 35 regular-season games. Thankfully, though, Durant has reminded us all why he's arguably, finally, the greatest player in the world.
Defeating a Jaylen Brown-less, squabbling Boston Celtics team in the first round proved easy. The challenge would soon come against the Bucks, a challenge that became more difficult when James Harden injured his right hamstring just 43 seconds into the series. Add in a Kyrie Irving sprained ankle in the second quarter of Game 4, and all of a sudden Durant was his team's lone superstar. How would he respond?
The 7-footer proved the critics wrong in a legendary Game 5 performance, tallying 49 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists to help give Brooklyn a 3-2 series lead. Durant was nearly as good in Game 7, scoring 48 points, grabbing nine rebounds, recording six assists and nearly winning the series with the buzzer-beater. The Nets ultimately lost in overtime.
Though the Nets underwhelmed relative to expectations this year, Durant put the NBA world on notice. He's back, better than ever, and Brooklyn should be even more dangerous with a healthy Harden and Irving in 2021-22.
Worst: Problematic Fan Behavior
Most arenas welcomed fans back during the 2020-21 regular season, and many opened at 100 percent capacity during the playoffs. With that came troubling behavior.
A fan was ejected after pouring popcorn on Russell Westbrook's head while the point guard was leaving Game 2 of Washington's first-round matchup with Philly because of an injury. A fan spat on Trae Young at Madison Square Garden. Ja Morant's family was subject to racist slurs in Salt Lake City. A fan wearing a Celtics jersey was charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon after throwing a water bottle at Kyrie Irving's head. One Wizards supporter found his way onto the court during game action.
Fan unruliness has increasingly been a subject of conversation. Westbrook has notably been subject to racist heckling, and Kyle Lowry was infamously shoved during the 2019 NBA Finals. Thankfully, due in large part to outcry from players, Commissioner Adam Silver and his staff have made moves to protect the players, banning these bad actors, often motivated by racism, from arenas for life and refusing to release their names in case the fans were trying to get publicity.
It's impossible to predict when a fan will act in a problematic manner, but the NBA and teams can respond as firmly as possible to discourage such behavior.
Best: Clippers Make 1st Western Conference Finals Without Kawhi
With the Western Conference Semifinals tied at two games apiece, the Clippers got a devastating injury update. Kawhi Leonard had suffered what we now know is a partially torn ACL and would be out indefinitely.
After years of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin succumbing to ailments at the worst possible moments, it seemed like Leonard's knee trouble would be yet another obstacle in the way of Los Angeles making its first conference finals appearance.
Then, the unexpected happened. Paul George and Reggie Jackson seamlessly stepped up, Terance Mann uncorked the performance of a lifetime in Game 6, and the Clippers coolly dispatched the Jazz 131-119 in Game 6.
Playing with house money (and still without Leonard), they put a scare into the favored Suns in the conference finals, winning Games 3 and 5 behind big performances from George and Jackson. The Clippers played tough in their first three losses, but their undermanned, exhausted squad eventually burned out against a white-hot Suns attack in Game 6.
L.A.'s future from here is uncertain. Leonard could miss most of the 2021-22 season amid his recovery, making it a lost campaign, but some might argue that his absence enabled the team to move the ball more freely and efficiently. It's unlikely the Clippers would willingly part with the two-time Finals MVP, and despite his partial ACL tear, Leonard is still expected to opt out of his player option for next season before re-signing with the team.
Regardless, this group got further than any other roster in franchise history, and for that, the 2021 playoff run will be fondly remembered.
Worst: The Knicks Underwhelming MSG
Nobody expected much from the New York Knicks this season. After the team infamously botched its 2019 offseason and drafted Obi Toppin at No. 8 overall last year, it seemed like yet another lottery trip was in the offing.
Of course, none of us knew that Julius Randle was about to turn in a Most Improved Player-winning campaign, make an All-Star team, rank third in the NBA in Defensive Real Plus-Minus and become the engine of a competent offense.
With RJ Barrett making important strides, rookie Immanuel Quickley turning into a New York folk hero and role players like Derrick Rose, Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel contributing consistently, the Knicks suddenly had home-court advantage and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference after missing the playoffs in seven consecutive seasons.
New York was facing an inexperienced Hawks team in the first round, so a series victory seemed possible. And at every sign of triumph, the crowd at MSG—relatively full for the first time in over a year—erupted. Unfortunately, those highs were few and far between. Trae Young averaged 29.2 points and 9.8 assists per game en route to becoming the Orange and Blue's latest archenemy.
New York shouldn't feel too bad about coming up short. Young subsequently ran roughshod over other top-10 defenses in Philadelphia and Milwaukee until he was slowed down by a foot injury.
But MSG has the best crowd in the league when the team is good, and the Knicks' success would have added some welcome color to the postseason.
Best: Jokic, Nuggets Outlast Lillard Without Murray
For a minute, it looked like the Denver Nuggets might be the title favorites. After acquiring Aaron Gordon on March 26, they went on a tear, winning eight of their next 10 contests and beating four playoff-bound teams in the process.
An injury to Jamal Murray changed all that, though. The star guard tore his ACL at the end of a loss to the Golden State Warriors on April 12. Though the team earned home-court advantage in Round 1 against the Portland Trail Blazers, successfully slowing down Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and the rest of their second-ranked offense seemed like too tall a task to overcome.
Nikola Jokic, who was later named the 2020-21 NBA MVP, averaged 33.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game on 52.8/42.9/91.7 shooting. Michael Porter Jr. put up 18.8 points per game on similarly eye-popping efficiency. And seven other players, including late-season free-agent signing Austin Rivers, scored at least five points per game in the six-game series.
Jokic is obviously terrific at getting his teammates involved, but in true "next player up" mentality, Denver won a series without its second star and proved it was a mentally tough team in the process.
Worst: Kristaps Porzingis
Though the Dallas Mavericks were underdogs against the Clippers, no team with Luka Doncic can be counted out. Early on, he proved that line of thinking correct. Over the first two games at Staples Center, the Slovenian wunderkind averaged 35.0 points, 9.0 assists and 8.5 rebounds, and the Mavericks headed home with an opportunity to build a commanding 3-0 lead.
In Dallas, however, Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue made a crucial adjustment. He began to rely on a smaller lineup. This, above all else, was a challenge to the Mavericks' ostensible second star, Kristaps Porzingis, whose recent knee surgery seems to have drained much of his trademark athleticism.
Make us pay for playing five shooters, Lue's counter seemed to say.
Unfortunately, Porzingis' confidence seemed shaken by the moment. He averaged just 11.6 points per game over the final five matchups while shooting just 22.2 percent from three, and he recorded the worst defensive rating among rotation Mavericks.
To get as much size on the court as possible, head coach Rick Carlisle started Boban Marjanovic (7'4") alongside Porzingis for the final three games of the series, even though Boban is even less mobile than his All-Star teammate and has a worse shooting touch.
After Dallas wilted in Game 7, rumors began percolating that Doncic and Porzingis have a testy relationship, and the organization ultimately brought in a new head coach (Jason Kidd) and general manager (Nico Harrison). Hopefully, the Mavericks figure out a way to maximize Luka's prime because the clock is ticking.
Best: Grizzlies Beat Warriors, Compete with Jazz
Even after the Memphis Grizzlies defeated the San Antonio Spurs in their first Western Conference play-in game, pretty much nobody outside of Tennessee was picking the Memphis Grizzlies. To officially make the playoffs, they'd have to beat the Warriors. You know, the team with Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. Could they topple two future Hall of Famers in a win-or-go-home matchup?
As it turns out, they could. Thanks to Ja Morant's team-high 35 points along with six assists, six rebounds and four steals, Dillon Brooks' aggressive, uncanny shadowing of Curry and 40 points off the bench, Memphis outlasted the three-time champs with a 117-112 overtime victory.
However, head coach Taylor Jenkins' club wasn't merely satisfied with a return to postseason play. The Grizzlies proceeded to steal Game 1 on the road against the Utah Jazz and played their top-seeded opponents with heart, making late comeback attempts in each of the next four defeats.
With LeBron James, Curry and Kawhi Leonard all on the wrong side of 30 and Devin Booker (age 24) and Deandre Ayton (22) playing major roles in the Phoenix Suns' run to the Finals, a changing of the guard has never seemed closer.
The Suns may headline that next generation of contenders, and star-laden teams like the Nuggets, Jazz, Mavericks and Pelicans have to be considered too. But the Grizzlies reminded us to take them just as seriously over the next decade.
Injuries are a part of every postseason.
Neither the Suns nor the Bucks should have an asterisk affixed to the title. However, it's undeniable that injuries have loomed large over the past two months of play.
Eleven All-Stars have missed playoff games this season. In order to make the Finals, Phoenix notoriously defeated an injury-riddled Lakers team, a Nuggets lineup without Jamal Murray and a Clippers club sans Kawhi Leonard. Meanwhile, the Bucks beat a Brooklyn Nets team dealing with James Harden and Kyrie Irving injuries, as well as the Hawks after Trae Young badly rolled his ankle.
Of course, it must be noted that neither Phoenix nor Milwaukee has been immune to ailments, but seeing each squad get tested against the all of the league's best would have made this postseason that much more exciting.
Some, including LeBron, have suggested the injuries are a symptom of the fast turnaround to begin the 2020-21 campaign. The upcoming offseason still won't be its typical length, as the Finals traditionally wrap in June, but the league is planning to begin training camps for the 2021-22 season in September as usual, with the game action beginning in mid-October.
Here's to the NBA's greatest getting healthy and rested this summer.