Eight teams remain in the 2021 NBA title race. Here’s how they shake up as Round 2 of the playoffs tips off:
8. Denver Nuggets
This is not to disrespect the Nuggets, who have the best player remaining in the postseason in MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokić and dispatched a dynamic Portland Trail Blazers team in the first round while playing without Jamal Murray, Will Barton (a.k.a. their starting backcourt) and PJ Dozier. In a wide-open Western Conference, they are not to be discounted.
But someone among the eight elite teams remaining must finish last, and Denver’s thinned guard rotation has them pegged as underdogs against the second-seeded Phoenix Suns in Round 2. That is, unless Jokić (33 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists per game on 52.8/42.9/91.7 shooting splits in Round 1) has more magic up his sleeve.
7. Atlanta Hawks
The Knicks were the popular pick in their first-round bout, but the Hawks plowed through New York in a five-game rout. Then, they stormed into Philadelphia and stole Game 1 from the 76ers in a contest that finished tight, but the visitors led by as many as 26.
Trae Young’s first postseason has been a coming out party; the third-year guard is averaging 30.2 points and 9.8 assists through six games. And beyond Young’s brilliance, the Hawks are incredibly well-balanced, with battle-tested sharp-shooters (Bogdan Bogdanović, Danilo Gallinari), up-and-coming contributors (Kevin Huerter, John Collins) and an All-Defense-caliber center (Clint Capela) anchoring all.
6. Los Angeles Clippers
After back-to-back home losses dropped them behind 2-0 to the Dallas Mavericks, then a third pushed them down 3-2 and to the brink of elimination, many expected the Clippers to fold. But all-time performances from Kawhi Leonard and timely shotmaking from auxiliary players in Games 6 and 7 have Los Angeles moving on.
It’s still hard to trust that this team has exorcised all its demons, especially with a matchup against the top-seeded Jazz looming. But with two premiere wings leading the charge in Leonard and Paul George, versatile personnel and a championship-level coach in Ty Lue, the Clippers’ ceiling is as high as any team remaining.
5. Philadelphia 76ers
Joel Embiid may still be hampered by the partially torn meniscus that kept him out of the close of the 76ers’ first-round win over the Wizards, but he still notched 39 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three blocks in Game 1 against the Hawks.
Philadelphia lost that game and looked unimpressive early on in doing so. But their defensive personnel and top-end talent are reason to believe that, with necessary adjustments, they’ll get back to looking like the East’s top seed soon.
4. Phoenix Suns
Yes, Anthony Davis didn’t play the final two-and-a-half games of the series. But the Suns took out the defending champs in Round 1, and did so relatively handily when all was said and done, even as Chris Paul battled a shoulder ailment throughout.
Another tall task awaits in the second round in the form of Jokić and the Nuggets, especially for Deandre Ayton, who has been superb in his first postseason action. So, too, has Devin Booker, who dropped 47 in a closeout victory at Staples Center on Thursday.
3. Milwaukee Bucks
Even losing an underrated cog in Donte DiVincenzo, Bucks backers had to be inspired by the team’s utter dismantling of the Miami Heat in Round 1, especially given the demons that lingered from the 2020 postseason.
Dropping Game 1 of the second round to the Nets after the latter lost James Harden to injury early in the first quarter was less so. From poor outside shooting to an uncharacteristic off night from Khris Middleton, a lot went wrong, so expect a bounceback in the most hard-hitting matchup of these playoffs so far.
2. Brooklyn Nets
Not only are the Nets the most star-studded roster in recent memory, they’ve done well to surround Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Harden with pitch-perfect role players. Their first-round drubbing of the Celtics was the appetizer.
Now, it will be interesting to see how long Harden’s absence endures (he’s already been ruled out for Game 2). The Nets were elite for most of the season even while playing with just two of their “Big Three” but the playoffs are a different beast. That gutsy home win over Milwaukee to kick off their series gives reason for optimism, though.
1. Utah Jazz
The Jazz have done nothing to warrant being unseated after finishing the regular season with the NBA’s best record. After Donovan Mitchell missed Game 1, they completed a gentleman’s sweep of the upstart Memphis Grizzlies early, giving them time to recharge before a heavyweight bout with the Clippers in Round 2.
There lies a significant test. The switch-heavy Clippers will do all they can to bog down the ball movement off which the Jazz’ offense thrives, and Leonard, especially, will be a strain to defend. But led by three All-Star-quality players in Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley, Utah is and should be the favorite to make it out of the West for the time being.