It's time for playoff basketball.
Following a wild regular season and the Play-In Tournament, 16 teams have now secured a spot in the 2021 NBA Playoffs.
There's never a shortage of storylines in the playoffs, but it feels like there's more than ever this season. For one, the defending champions find themselves near the bottom of the playoff bracket. Two, there are a number of teams built to win it all, from the likes of the Brooklyn Nets and LA Clippers to the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns. Three, several teams have snapped extended postseason droughts, including the Suns and New York Knicks.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the six most interesting storylines heading into the playoffs.
The road back to the Finals begins
Here. We. Go.
Due to injuries to LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers finished the regular season with a 42-30 record, placing them seventh in the Western Conference. That earned them a date with Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the Play-In Tournament, which more than lived up to the hype.
The Lakers had no answer for Curry, who exploded for a game-high 37 points, but LeBron and Davis led a second-half comeback to punch their ticket to the playoffs.
Davis scored 20 of his team-high 25 points in the second half while LeBron added 16 points, six assists and four rebounds in the final two quarters. LeBron also hit the biggest shot of the game - a deep 3-pointer with 58.2 seconds remaining to give the Lakers a 103-100 lead.
LEBRON FROM WAY DOWNTOWN TO PUT THE @LAKERS AHEAD FOR GOOD! pic.twitter.com/DbMStzlAVg- NBA (@NBA) May 20, 2021
Their battle with the Warriors is only the start of what will be a tough road to repeat for the Lakers. They will now face the Suns in the first round of the playoffs, a team they went 1-2 against in the regular season. They would then face either the Denver Nuggets or Portland Trail Blazers in the second round should they advance, followed by the Jazz, Warriors, Clippers or Dallas Mavericks in the Conference Finals.
The kicker? The Lakers will be the lower seed in each of those meetings.
We've learned at this point to never doubt LeBron, but he, Davis and the rest of the Lakers have their work cut out for them.
The experience of Brooklyn's Big Three
The Nets enter the playoffs as perhaps the scariest team in the league.
Not only did they finish the season with a 48-24 record, earning them the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, they're led by three perennial All-Stars in Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Kevin Durant.
Irving had a fantastic regular season, averaging 26.9 points per game on .506/.402/.922 shooting splits, making him the ninth member of the exclusive 50-40-90 club. Injuries limited Harden to 44 games, but his play as a member of the Nets helped him land in the No. 2 spot in one of our MVP ladders. Injuries limited Durant to even fewer games (35) than Harden, but he also performed at an MVP level with averages of 26.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game.
To no surprise, the Nets were nearly impossible to slow down when the three of them were on the court together - Brooklyn scored at a rate of 119.6 points per 100 possessions with them on the court, which would be the best offensive rating in the league by a mile - but they appeared in only eight games together, logging a total of 202 minutes.
Is that enough for them to build up the chemistry the Nets need to make a run at the Finals? They might not get tested much in the first round, but they are set to play either the Milwaukee Bucks or Miami Heat in the second round, two battled-tested teams with championship aspirations themselves.
Luka magic is back
If you need to be reminded of what Doncic did in the playoffs last season:
- Scored 42 points in Game 1, setting the record for highest scoring postseason debut in NBA history
- Recorded a 13-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist triple-double in Game 3, making him the third-youngest player to have a playoff triple-double
- Posted 43 points, 17 rebounds and 13 assists in Game 4, only the third 40-15-10 game in postseason history
- Drained a game-winning 3-pointer in Game 4, becoming the youngest player in NBA history with a walk-off game-winner in the playoffs
- Averaged 31.0 points per game in the series, the sixth-most by a player in their first playoff run
Yeah ... Doncic is something else.
Luka Doncic's CAREER-NIGHT (43 PTS, 17 REB, 13 AST) propelled the @dallasmavs to an OT-win in Game 4!- NBA Canada (@NBACanada) August 24, 2020
Performance of the Night is presented by Kumho Tire.#WholeNewGame pic.twitter.com/eim9MLwMN1
On the back of another All-NBA calibre season, Doncic is returning to the playoffs. His opponent this time around? The Clippers once again.
The Mavericks were able to push the Clippers to six games last postseason despite Kristaps Porzingis being limited to three games. With the Mavericks at full strength, can Doncic work his magic again?
The Bucks trying to get over the hump
Is this the year for the Bucks?
After coming up short in each of the last two postseasons, the Bucks made a couple of big moves with the playoffs in mind.
The first, trading for Jrue Holiday, an All-Defensive First Team candidate who gives them another 3-point shooter, as well as another playmaker. The second, trading for P.J. Tucker, a defensive-minded forward who allows the Bucks to downsize and switch more defensively.
The combination should make it harder for teams to load up on Giannis Antetokounmpo and give the Bucks the defensive versatility they need to make it out of the Eastern Conference. Their size on that end of the court would come in handy in a potential matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers, who are led by a bruising centre in Joel Embiid, while their length would be needed to slow down Brooklyn's All-Star trio of Irving, Harden and Durant.
Unlike the 76ers and Nets, the Bucks will be tested right out of the gates with a first-round matchup with the Heat.
The Heat stumbled their way through the regular season but are peaking at the right time, having won 12 of their last 16 games. They also proved to be a tough matchup for the Bucks last postseason, stunning them in five games to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Of all the first-round matchups, Bucks-Heat might have the most gravity.
The Nuggets proving everyone wrong - again
What a rollercoaster of a season it has been for the Nuggets.
They got off to a slow start but found their stride around the All-Star break, winning 17 of 20 at one point to move up from eighth in the Western Conference to fourth. The Nuggets then lost Jamal Murray to a season-ending knee injury on April 12, which many thought would be the beginning of the end of their season.
Only it wasn't.
Led by Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets went 13-5 to close the season to finish with the third-best record in the Western Conference. Jokic strengthened his MVP case during that stretch while Porter Jr. put his star potential on full display, scoring 30 or more points in four of those games.
That includes a 39-point outing in a win over the Houston Rockets, in which Porter Jr. shot a scorching 8-for-12 from 3-point range.
A CAREER-HIGH 39 PTS for Michael Porter Jr!!! #MileHighBasketball- NBA Fantasy (@NBAFantasy) April 25, 2021
57.2 FPTS pic.twitter.com/gj6BtQkJEm
The Nuggets will now face a familiar foe in the Trail Blazers in the first round of the playoffs.
It's a rematch of the 2019 Western Conference Semifinals, which saw the Blazers defeat the Nuggets in seven hard-fought games. CJ McCollum played the hero for Portland in Game 7, scoring a game-high 37 points and hitting a big-time shot with 11.4 seconds remaining to give the Blazers the lead.
CJ McCollum exploded for a game-high 37 PTS and grabbed 9 REB in the @trailblazers Game 7 victory!#RipCity | #NBAPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/MhEjuIicy1- NBA Canada (@NBACanada) May 13, 2019
There's no doubt that the Nuggets will miss Murray - you saw what he did in the playoffs last season, right? - but they still have the firepower to make some noise. Question them at your own risk.
Can anyone stop Joel Embiid?
He may have lost ground on Jokic in the MVP race, but that shouldn't take away from the terrific season Embiid had.
In addition to averaging a career-best 28.5 points per game, Embiid shot career-highs from the field (51.3 percent), 3-point range (37.7 percent) and free throw line (85.9 percent). He also pulled down 10.6 rebounds per game to go along with 2.8 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.0 steals.
Embiid will almost certainly make either the All-NBA First Team or Second Team, and his role in anchoring the second-best defence in the league makes him a strong candidate to make one of the two All-Defensive teams.
As dominant of a season as it's been for Embiid, the most important development has been his improvement from midrange, going from shooting 40.2 percent from that distance last season to 49.1 percent on even greater volume this season. Embiid was already one of the most dominant post scorers in the league without a consistent midrange jumper, but it makes him a more dynamic post threat, giving him the ability to face-up to the basket.
It's a part of his game Embiid is hoping will pay off in the postseason.
"I've been adding a lot to my game and it's been working well," Embiid said earlier in the season. "But I'm excited because that's what you need in the playoffs, especially when you're going to play a team four-to-seven times and they're going to game plan.
"Sometimes I'm going to have to shoot over double teams; sometimes I've got to pass it; sometimes I've got to figure out how to play through double teams and triple teams. Those types of shots, you can't guard. You can't guard a step-back. You can't guard a catch-and-shoot shot. So, I think it's going to go a long way."
The 76ers are more than just Embiid - Ben Simmons is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Matisse Thybulle is an All-Defensive candidate and Tobias Harris was a borderline All-Star all season long - but it all begins with the big man.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.