Previewing Saturday’s NBA Playoff Series, Plus Knicks-Hawks

Below are previews for the NBA first-round playoff series that get underway on Saturday, plus a look at Knicks-Hawks, which gets underway on Sunday.

No. 6 Miami Heat vs. No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks

The memories of last year’s second-round series between these two teams are still fresh, and still relevant.

It was only October when the Heat unleashed a barrage of three-pointers, walled off Giannis Antetokounmpo in a way never seen done before and triggered an organizational shift within the Bucks’ franchise after knocking Milwaukee out in six games in last season’s playoffs.  

Much has changed.  As pleaded for after the stunning exit, Milwaukee has a real point guard in Jrue Holiday now, and has also embraced a modern and competitive defensive scheme that doesn’t involve the dropping of every player when the pick is ran against him.  

Milwaukee is also the definitively the better team this time around.  Despite its surreal feeling in the moment, the warning signs for a Miami upset in October were there – and almost all of them played out in real-time.

Miami has struggled in 2020-21 since its defeat of the Bucks and subsequent run to the NBA Finals.  The Heat were one of the teams hardest-hit when the COVID-19 virus made its way through the league early in the season, and other players have dealt with long withstanding injuries, including Jimmy Butler, who when healthy, has played at a level perhaps even higher than the one he reached in last year’s playoffs.

Butler’s performance this season might be Miami’s best case in this series.  With the notable struggles of Antetokounmpo when it comes to shot creation and playoff success, and Milwaukee’s still-present lack of a true ball-dominant superstar, Butler has the chance to be the best player on the floor.  The team with that guy tends to win in the postseason.

Miami might not be able to take advantage of Antetokounmpo like it used to though.  The presence of Holiday has been massive, as Antetokounmpo’s offensive numbers are up again thanks to a lesser, more efficient role in the scheme.  In addition, Khris Middleton has seen his productivity bump up in a larger role.  That type of change is rare, but Middleton has flourished as the Bucks’ No. 1 shot-creator in late-game situations this season.

The bottom line is that the Bucks don’t have to rely on Antetokounmpo like they did the last time these two teams met – or like how they did against Toronto in 2019.  

That gives Milwaukee a huge advantage not just in this series, but going forward throughout the playoffs.  While Middleton and Holiday may not be on the level of Brooklyn’s shot creators – or some of the top guys out West – the allure of both them with the spector of Antetokounmpo is a scary thought.

Miami can counter with Butler, but the Heat have felt like one of those Super Bowl hangover teams we see in the NFL each season.  Whether its their fault or not, the Bubble on top of wonky inconsistency this season seems to have the Heat looking more toward next year.  Assuming Milwaukee doesn’t have the same pettiness with its play against, this very well could be the Bucks’ series.

How can Miami really put up a fight?  In addition to Butler continuing his stellar regular season play, winning the shooting battle would help, but that will be harder this time around thanks to Milwaukee’s willingness to switch and the Heat’s overall lower percentages this year.  Tyler Herro has struggled in his second season, and while still plenty lethal, Duncan Robinson isn’t as surprising anymore to opposing defenses.  Jae Crowder was unprecedentedly hot back in October, and the Heat not only don’t have that going for them, but have struggled to fill the hole he left at that spot, and have resorted to playing Trevor Ariza heavy minutes on the wing.  He and Andre Igoudala probably aren’t the athletic duo you want heading deep into the postseason.

There’s also the Bam Adebayo factor, which is undeniable.  His two-way play is among the best in the league, and he’s incredibly underrated at blowing up any actions while incubating the middle of a defense.  The Heat having him as a card to play cannot be taken lightly.  

Much like the Clippers, the feeling that the Bucks are still fools gold is reasonable and still present.  Miami just might have their number, and that needs to be taken into consideration.  It’s unclear whether this is Milwaukee’s year, but it doesn’t seem like it is Miami’s.  That, in conjunction with the steps the Bucks have taken to ensure last year doesn’t happen again, has Milwaukee in the driver’s seat this time around.

Prediction: Milwaukee in 6

Quick hits on Mavericks-Clippers:

  • The Clippers have perhaps been the league’s most underappreciated team this season.  They’ve kicked butt all year long, thanks to Kawhi Leonard sneakily putting up an All-NBA First Team-caliber season and Paul George returning to his 2019 MVP candidate form.  Los Angeles has retooled their roster and offensive system – Ty Lue has installed strict roles for everyone but his two stars on the court, and it’s worked.  The defense is still ranked concerningly low, but the Clippers have flipped the switch more this season than they did in early 2019-20.
  • Dallas has been the opposite of impressive this year.  COVID-19 and injuries have hit them hard, but time and time again it seems as if the Mavericks just don’t show up for games.  They’ve had a similar vibe as the Celtics – who we’ll address next – where effort and defense just seems optional at times, and it leads to slow starts and extremely poor shooting numbers.  
  • That said, after a slow start, Luka Doncic has put together a top-7-or-so MVP season, and he’s still an absolute force to be reckon with.  The Clippers learned that lesson the hard way in last year’s playoffs, where neither Leonard or George could do much against him.  That was with the backdrop of Doc Rivers in place, and when defensive habits of the team plainly just didn’t exist, though.
  • This time around, the Clippers might be smart to let Doncic eat and focus their resources elsewhere on Dallas’ roster.  If an early postseason exit is in the cards for Dallas, it’ll likely trigger big questions this offseason about the makeup of the team around Doncic.  What’s currently there’s just isn’t good enough. 
  • Doncic has been let down too many times.  If Los Angeles focuses on taking away three-pointers for the likes of Tim Hardaway Jr., Josh Richardson and Kristaps Porzingis, then it’s solely a Doncic show.  With the way LA’s two stars have played this season, matching that production should be no problem.
  • Of course, it is still okay to have reasonable doubt about the Clippers after what happened last postseason.  Trusting them, even with the changes they made, is still hard, especially when the defense hasn’t made any real improvement statistically.  Trusting them against a player as good as Doncic is scary as well – he can impact winning in so many ways that it will catch up with you once it’s too late.
  • Still, Dallas has been so hard to trust this year that picking them against a team as talented as the Clippers is just insurmountable.  If LA is flimsy out of the gate, it wouldn’t be surprising, but its culture change should be enough to advance in this series.
  • Prediction: Clippers in 5

No. 7 Boston Celtics vs. No. 2 Brooklyn Nets

The storylines in this series are towering.

The Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett trade, and how Brooklyn is miraculously in a better spot all these years later.  The Kyrie Irving revenge series for both sides.  Boston’s seemingly lost season, and how much fun this would be if Jaylen Brown was healthy and the Celtics still gave a crap. Whether and however the hell the Nets’ big three will sort things out in the postseason, and whether sample size should be damned or not.

Whew.  That’s a lot. Bring it on.

When one team walks out James Harden, Kevin Durant and Irving onto the court, that’s obviously a problem for the opponent.  So how does Boston even go about containing the trio?  

It likely starts with Jayson Tatum – an underrated defender – on Durant.  That’s a huge ask, given that Tatum will have to be the offense’s focal point with Kemba Walker’s struggles.  But the other options are bleak.  When Tatum isn’t the on the floor, the Celtics are looking at Aaron Nesmith or Evan Fournier as their primary defender on Durant, neither of which inspires confidence.  

Who the Celtics put their guards on between Harden and Irving seems interchangeable.  Walker will seemingly be picked on do his smaller size and lesser defensive ability.  With Harden’s acceleration and deceleration ability, he could be fresh meat, but the same could be said for Walker against Irving, who’s finishing ability is perhaps best in the league.

The Celtics would probably like Smart to fluctuate between the two, and give his all equally to each, limiting their total impact.  But Brooklyn will hunt down wherever the mismatch is, and Walker is going to have to do his best to hold his own.

If the Celtics can’t stop Brooklyn, then they’re going to have to outscore them.  Down Brown, whose offensive game just seems to keep elevating every year for the past two seasons, that will be tough.  

Asking Tatum to do what we’ve hoped he’d do season after season in this series is unreasonable.  He’d have to perform like an MVP candidate or perhaps better to give Boston a realistic chance against the Nets without Brown in the fold.  He is Boston’s only source of consistent offense.

If Walker can play at even his 2019-level self – a season in which he played like he was in his prime and led the collective NBA-sphere to believe that with a jump from Tatum, Boston wouldn’t lose much with Walker replacing Irving – then Boston has better odds of matching Brooklyn’s output.  But Walker’s been a shell of himself due to injuries and a seemingly overall decline in play this year, and once he’s expectedly put through the ringer of numerous Nets screens and picks, being an overwhelmingly net positive will be tough.

Effort could play a huge part in this series, and that applies to both teams.  Boston has had spurts throughout the season where it could simply care less about defense, and it has resulted in early deficits that have been unrecoverable at times.  Against the Brooklyn Big Three, a lack of attention defensively is likely an automatic loss.  At the same time, focusing that energy on offense may also be necessary as well.

The Celtics could gain some luck in the series if Brooklyn decides not to kick it into gear early on.  With teams as good as the Nets, that can tend to be an early theme in games and the series overall.  A laziness from Brooklyn on either end of the floor gives Boston a serious boost. 

It’s likely impossible, but the Celtics can win the series if two things happen: 1) In each game, they take out or get less-than-expected performances from two of three Brooklyn stars and 2) Tatum matches or out-performs the one Nets star left standing.  It will take a stroke of luck, but Tatum’s shown he’s able to play at that level.  With Durant likely guarding him, it will take a real show.

While Brooklyn hasn’t proven anything, its talent is undeniable.  Boston’s ability throughout this season to seemingly lose to anyone on a given night in addition to the latest injuries they have suffered make this series a real long shot for them.  If the Celtics win or make it close one, we’ll be looking at Tatum as an early MVP candidate next season.

Prediction: Brooklyn in 5 

Quick hits on Trail Blazers-Nuggets

  • With or without Jamal Murray, this is a titanic matchup.
  • Murray in the fold would have made this is a classic, but it’s still a hotly contested battle without him.  Neither of these teams play much defense, though the Nuggets’ accquisition of Aaron Gordon seemed to have fixed their biggest problem – when Murray was healthy, the Nuggets looked like the second-best team in the West with Gordon in the middle of their defense.  
  • Portland wasn’t quite the worst defensive team in the league this year statistically, but the eye test made them seem like it, perhaps because of how talented they are on the other end.  Their swapping of Gary Trent Jr. for Norman Powell only expounded the problem.  
  • With all of that said, it’s fair to proclaim that defense may not matter at all this series, with Gordon and Robert Covington being the potential outliers.
  • Damian Lillard has once again been on a late season tear, though it hasn’t been as potent as the ones he’s had in years past.  A top-10 MVP candidate once again, Lillard has the chance to be the best player on the floor in this series from a shot-creation stand-point, depending on how much more Nikola Jokic can do.
  • Portland has zero answers for Jokic.  Jursurf Nurkic has topped out defensively, and his limited mobility hasn’t improved the Trail Blazers’ overall defensive numbers this season.  Jokic has evolved into the type of player who can get practically any shot he wants and do whatever he pleases on the court.  At his size, there’s no stopping that no matter what your personnel is.
  • Then there is Michael Porter Jr. to deal with, who has turned into the scoring wing we hoped he’d be in the absence of Murray.  His numbers have been obscene since stepping into a larger role, and will put a huge burden on Covington, whose defense has just slipped more and more over the years – he has not been worth the two first round picks Portland gave up for him in the offseason.
  • Denver has guys to throw at Lillard – the absence of Murray does not hurt them here.  PJ Dozier, Will Barton, Austin Rivers and even Aaron Gordon can all use their length and defensive prowess to slow him down.  In addition, all could be effective trapping against Lillard – though that comes with riskier sacrifices as Powell is much more of a threat than anyone else Portland has had in the past around its two guards.
  • CJ McCollum has a chance to make even more of a name for himself this postseason.  If Denver throws all it can at Lillard, McCollum and Powell still represent a potent punch.  Like Lillard, McCollum could be the best shot creator on the floor in this series.  If he can step into that, Denver is in trouble without its franchise guard on the floor.
  • This might be the hardest series to pick in the first round.  Both teams are equally unstoppable for each other – Jokic will pick Portland apart, where as Denver just may not have enough to account for all of the Trail Blazers’ scoring options.  That said, Portland might have no realistic shot at stopping the Jokic-MPJ duo, and the Nuggets can throw guys at Lillard while using Gordon as a switcher.  This series goes seven games, but any potential outcome is on the table here.
  • Prediction: Nuggets in 7

No. 5 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 4 New York Knicks

This is simply an awesome series because it seemed impossible before the season that this would ever occur.

You cannot go wrong with either Monty Williams or Tom Thibodeau for Coach of the Year.  The Hub had the Knicks projected as the worst team in basketball this season, and they’re now in the playoffs.

There’s not much credit to spread around for the Knicks’ success aside from Thibs.  He’s turned Julius Randle into a legitimate No. 1 option on a good team via drives and isolated pull-up jumpers – an astonishing accomplishment in player development given Randle’s former prowess as a traditional power forward and his inability to do the same just a year ago.  The Knicks are fourth in defense and have Nerlens Noel playing a leading role in that. They also have Derrick Rose upgrading their rotation and are getting a diamond in the rough with a late first-rounder in Immanuel Quickley.

Atlanta’s rise is less stunning but perhaps as dramatic.  Expected to take a step forward this year, a slow start due to a faltering coaching situation and numerous injuries to key contributors led to a late season rise from the Hawks and Nate McMillan, who also has a good case for COTY if not for his lack of games at the helm.  The Hawks have been a different team under him, as Bogdan Bogdanovic has been the microwave scorer they hoped while Trae Young has underwhelmed but not gotten worse this season.  In addition, Clint Capela has been purely dominant, and has a top-3 case for Defensive Player of the Year and a spot on Third Team All-NBA, and DeAndre Hunter – when healthy (which he should be for these playoffs)– has hit the ceiling pegged for him as an impact defender.

Despite all of that, this matchup is quite simple.  If the Knicks’ success this season still seems improbable and unexplainable, that’s because it is.  This is going to be and has been the Randle show, and if you can stop him, the Knicks are much easier to reign in.  

The Hawks have options.  Hunter’s health is key, but throwing a big, strong wing at Randle who outmatches his foot speed and will force him to settle for jumpers is a solid choice for McMillan.  Capela has earned the right of drivers to respect his menacing as a rim protector – guys don’t like going down there against him.  Randle could be in for the same experience, even though his size greatly outweighs those who typically press against Capela.  John Collins gives the Hawks a little bit of both Hunter and Capela, with size but quicker athleticism.  Tony Snell – whose offensive production has been amongst the top in the league statistically this season – is another long athlete Atlanta could deploy.

How much is Randle up for?  That’s the big question in this series.  He’ll likely need to elevate his game once again to give New York a chance.

The Hawks seem to have just too many weapons.  Even if the mix of Elfrid Payton and perhaps Frank Ntilikina can swallow Young, the Knicks are likely throwing Reggie Bullock at Bogdanovic, and still have other shooters and scorers like Kevin Huerter, Snell, Collins, Cam Reddish and Lou Williams to deal with.  While Quickley can get hot seemingly any night, and RJ Barrett can pour in points as well, Randle is going to have to put the team on his back in ways he hasn’t done before.  If New York wins this series, Randle comes out of it as a favorite to actually make All-NBA next year, if he doesn’t already sneak on this season. 

Prediction: Atlanta in 5