After just three games of Round Two of the 2021 NBA Playoffs, it appears that the East has decided that it wants a share of the limelight. Two major stories from the East have emerged just a couple of days into Round 2, namely can the Hawks continue their surprising run and do Giannis and the Bucks have an answer for Brooklyn?
Utah Jazz (1 Seed) vs LA Clippers (4 Seed)
These two teams enter Round 2 in very different places. The Jazz proved themselves against a scrappy Grizzlies team, showing the league why they are the number one seed in the West. The Clippers had to fight tooth and nail to get past a Mavericks team in seven games, requiring Playoff Kawhi to lock down the final two games. How big of an error did the Clippers make by throwing the final game of the season to intentionally get Dallas first and expect to the the Jazz 2nd? The move seemed to motivate Luka to stun them with two early Maverick wins.. Will the rested, balanced and high basketball-IQ Jazz come out with the same fire, or will Kawhi, PG and company continue rolling after winning two straight to clinch the series?
Prediction: Jazz in 6.
Despite having Kawhi and Paul George playing incredible basketball, the Clippers seem destined to come up short against the ensemble Jazz. With Gobert on the court and clogging the driving lanes, the Clippers will be forced to shot and will need better than the 37% from 3 that they shot against the Mavericks. I just don't see them beating the Jazz four times. Jazz in 6.
Phoenix Suns (2 Seed) vs Denver Nuggets (3 Seed)
Both the Suns and Nuggets were generally expected to lose, due to poor seeding against a finally healthy Lakers and injuries to the backcourt against a loaded Trailblazers backcourt. However, both the Suns and Nuggets proved why they were the higher seeded team and pushed into the 2nd Round behind their young Superstars. Unfortunately for Denver, they face a similar challenge against the Suns who have Devin Booker and Chris Paul running their backcourt. Can Jokic prove why he will likely be voted MVP and carry the Nuggets on his back? Or, will the loaded Suns continue to show the poise that got them past LeBron already?
Prediction: Suns in 6.
Against the Blazers, the Nuggets were able to get a ton of support on any given night from their role, with Austin Rivers, Monte Morris and Michael Porter Jr all having huge games. While the Suns do have similar fire power in the front court to push the Nuggets, unlike the Blazers the Suns play team defense and can succeed where the Blazers failed and lock down everyone while limiting Jokic.
Philadelphia 76ers (1 Seed) vs Atlanta Hawks (5 Seed)
Before Atlanta's surprising Game 1 victory in Philly, there would have been a real consensus that the 76ers would be able to outsmart and outplay the Hawks by letting Ben Simmons lock up Trae and having Embiid anchor both the offense and defense. However, all the sure answers now look like they are on suddenly cracking and the questions now shift to if they 76ers. Will Embiid be able to play all the games in the series, and if he does, how effective will he actually be? Can Simmons shift to the focal player and do enough on both sides of the ball to win.
Prediction: Hawks in 7.
This feels very hot take which I'm not a fan of... However, I just cannot see the 76ers winning 4 of 6 with a physically limited Emiid and an offensively limited Simmons. Trae Young has embraced the bad guy role and with Embiid at 100% in the paint, John Collins will earn that next paycheck.
Brooklyn Nets (2 Seed) vs Milwaukee Bucks (3 Seed)
This one hurts to write... Heading into this series, it looked like the Bucks had finally put together some playoff momentum and their moves in the offseason would pay dividends. And, while nobody expected that to equal a cakewalk for Giannis, I want to believe that actually expected the Nets to dominate this much. Heading back to Milwaukee for Game 3, the Bucks will need to completely re-work their strategy to have a chance... something that is not Coach Bud's strength historically. But, with the Nets shooting 44% from 3 for the playoffs something has to change or the Bucks face another embarrassing playoff exit and will need to go back to the drawing board or purchase some dynamite.
Prediction: Nets in 5.
Personally, I just cannot imagine a sweep here and believe that Giannis takes over at least one game at home. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Steve Nash sees Giannis start running away with the game and pulls the Nets stars in the 3rd quarter for rest. Against the odds, Brooklyn is finding chemistry together as they play in these playoffs and are proving why they're the favorite to not only represent the East, but win it all.
*All images in post from NBA.com and Clutchpoints, respectively.