The Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz have each exceeded expectations to begin the 2020-21 season, currently holding the No. 1 seed in their respective conferences as we near the All-Star break.
The Jazz already defeated the 76ers once this season in mid-February as Sixth Man of the Year frontrunner Jordan Clarkson scored 40 points off the bench, but Philly was without MVP candidate Joel Embiid, making it hard to take much away from that contest.
These two powerhouses will face off for the second and final time this season on Wednesday, which has our NBA.com Staff wondering if this an NBA Finals preview.
Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): I'm going to say no, it's not an NBA Finals preview.
While both Utah and Philadelphia have looked great this season, the Jazz still have to go through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference, and I'm not sure the 76ers are unbeatable by other teams in the East, whether it be the Brooklyn Nets or Milwaukee Bucks. Even teams further behind like the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors or Miami Heat are a threat.
In the West, I still believe that despite their struggles at times without Anthony Davis, the Los Angeles Lakers are really on autopilot until the playoffs begin. It's a different game in the postseason and after Utah surrendered a 3-1 lead in last year's playoffs, I can't give it that benefit of the doubt after one great half-regular-season of basketball. I simply can't see the Jazz beating Davis, LeBron James and co., in a seven-game series. For that reason, I still have the Lakers coming out of the West.
The Sixers are certainly a different team than the one we've seen in year's past, but the parity in the East this season has me believing that any of those aforementioned teams could beat each other in a playoff series. The Nets have three unstoppable weapons, the Bucks matchup with Philly as well as anyone, the Celtics and Raptors always give the 76ers all they can handle and we already saw what the Heat are capable of when fully healthy.
I'm not 100 percent sure who will come out of the East just yet, but if I had to choose right now, I'd probably take Brooklyn over Philadelphia.
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): I'm on the same page as Kyle.
I don't think it's a no-brainer anymore that the Lakers will come out of the Western Conference like I did at the start of the season, but I still have a hard time seeing any team taking them out as long as LeBron and AD are healthy. To boot, the LA Clippers are no joke and neither are the Phoenix Suns. As dominant as the Jazz have been, there are simply too many good teams in the Western Conference for me to say they're the ones who will come out on top.
In the East, it's going to be hard for me to pick against the Nets. While I have concerns about their defence, I'm not sure there's any team that will be able to slow them down offensively. They've barely even had James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant together - the three of them have shared the court for a total of 186 minutes over seven games - and yet they still have the best offence in the league. They're already a problem and they're only going to get better.
That's not to discredit how good the Jazz and 76ers have been this season, because they've both been incredible. It wouldn't shock me if they did meet in the Finals, I just don't think it's the most likely outcome right now.
Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): Well, my answer won't be too far off from the ones above me.
I think we'll get one or the other, and I don't think it'll be Utah but I won't rule out the possibility of Philadelphia surprising us by making a run to the NBA Finals this season. However subtle or large, having Doc Rivers at the helm has made all the difference for this team so far. Say what you want about Rivers' playoff misfortune but you can't take away the fact that he's led a team to a title once already.
With Simmons playing at a level worthy of Defensive Player of the Year consideration and Embiid playing at an MVP level, I think Rivers can make the necessary tweaks to get this team to the next level in the postseason.
As for the Jazz, I'll echo everyone else's sentiment in that the Western Conference champion seems like it'll be coming out of Los Angeles. If you ask me next week my answer could change but it feels like the Clippers have more working in their favour at this specific time.
In many ways, I also think Utah is maxed out in what it can do; in other words, I think a deadline move would threaten what already exists and just isn't worth the risk. Conversely, I think the Clippers and Lakers might try to use some flexibility to make a splash in the coming weeks that changes things altogether.
It's gotta be one of those two.
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