2021 NBA Playoff Predictions: Opening Round

By Saransh Sharma, Anish Dhondi, & Nikhil Pradeep

In the first full NBA season played in the Coronavirus pandemic, the NBA yet again outdid themselves with how they handled it and how they kept everyone safe. Adam Silver continues to show that he is an innovator off-the-court, as well as on, adding in a Play-In Tournament for the Playoffs, which proved to bring some of the most entertaining basketball we have seen in years. With the Play-In Tournament now at a close and the Playoffs fully set, here are our predictions for the Opening Round of the NBA Playoffs:

Saransh’s Predictions:

Western Conference Opening Round:

  • #1 Utah Jazz vs. #8 Memphis Grizzlies: Jazz win series 4-0

What an epic Play-In Game we saw between the Grizzlies and Warriors, and what an incredible win it was for this young Grizzlies team. The issue is that this team is far too young and inexperienced (youngest team by average player age in the last 10 postseasons) to handle the Jazz, who have tons of experience and are as elite as they come defensively. 

  • #4 Los Angeles Clippers vs. #5 Dallas Mavericks: Mavericks win series 4-3

The Mavericks and Clippers series is the one series that should go to 7 games in the Opening Round of the Western Conference Playoffs. Both teams are very stout defensively and can put up points at rapid-fire paces, but what separates the two teams is the big man play, and Kristaps Porzingis, while he has had durability issues this season, has quietly averaged 20.1 PPG and 8.9 RPG. This production will be difficult for the Clippers to match, and coupled with Luka being unfazed by any sort of defensive pressure and the role players of the Mavericks always finding a way to contribute, they take it in 7.

  • #3 Denver Nuggets vs. #6 Portland Trail Blazers: Trail Blazers win series 4-2

If Denver had Jamal Murray, this would be much more of a ‘toss-up’ series but the inconsistencies of Nikola Jokic’s supporting cast this season, will ultimately be what sends Denver home, as matching Dame, CJ, and Melo will be too much for Denver. Jokic will show why he is the MVP (or at least why he is an MVP finalist), but the Blazers will show to be the better team this time around.

  • #2 Phoenix Suns vs. #7 Los Angeles Lakers: Lakers win series 4-1

The Suns have had a magical season, and this young team has been great, led by the ageless wonder, Chris Paul, but the Lakers, who have not been healthy most of this season, are beginning to get back to full strength, and that will be too much for this young Suns squad to handle. No one can guard LeBron James or Anthony Davis, and the inexperience of everyone on Phoenix outside of Chris Paul will be too much to overcome.

Eastern Conference Opening Round:

  • #1 Philadelphia 76ers vs. #8 Washington Wizards: Sixers win series 4-2

Embiid and Simmons vs. Westbrook and Beal, could we ask for a more appealing matchup? In what should be a very entertaining star player battle, we see a big gap in the talent and depth of both teams, and with no one to guard Joel Embiid, the Wizards will not have a chance at the upset. They can experiment with giving Daniel Gafford more minutes, but even his freakish ability to block shots will not be enough to stop Embiid. The stars of Washington should get a game or two and slow down Ben Simmons, but slowing Embiid down and match the role players’ contributions will be the downfall for Washington.

  • #4 New York Knicks vs. #5 Atlanta Hawks: Hawks win series 4-3

What a season for the Knicks it has been. A team built for a complete rebuild has suddenly turned into the best defensive team in the NBA and one of the best up-and-coming teams in the NBA thanks for Coach of the Year finalist Tom Thibodeau. Players like RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, and Derrick Rose have also come into their own and found their strides once again and have helped this Knicks team get to where they are today. The Hawks also had a magical season led by Head Coach Nate McMillan, who was hired midseason and has turned a team that had an awful season start into a strong playoff team, finishing the season with a 27-11 record. The concern with McMillan is his Playoff record as a coach, as he is 17-36 in his career, and 3-16 with the Pacers, his last head coaching job. But the youth of this team, the innate ability to score at ease, and the defensive anchor by Clint Capela has helped McMillan create a gameplan that works night after night to help this team succeed. This series will be more of a defensive battle than most expect, as I expect Capela to lockdown Julius Randle, and I expect the supporting cast around Trae Young to produce while he is slowed down by the elite Knicks defense. All in all, the Knicks do not have enough offense to keep up with Atlanta, but this series is as much of a toss-up as you can have.

  • #3 Milwaukee Bucks vs. #6 Miami Heat: Heat win series 4-3

Well, well, well, here we go again, yet another year where Miami underperforms and everyone sleeps on them. Jrue Holiday has been an incredible upgrade from Eric Bledsoe for Milwaukee, Khris Middleton has improved his game a ton, and Giannis had another MVP-caliber season, yet everyone seems to forget how great Miami is at stopping him. Giannis averaged just 16.7 PPG and 9.3 RPG against them this season and forced players like Middleton and Holiday to step up and take the scoring helm in the regular season, but the Playoffs are a different animal, and if Milwaukee wants any chance to win this series and avoid last year’s embarrassment, they need Giannis to be the MVP-caliber player he has played like for so many seasons. Not to mention, Milwaukee still has no answer for Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Miami has also seen their 3-point shooting catch fire late season, and that was what ultimately drove the Bucks to their downfall in last year’s series. Miami gets the upset again.

  • #2 Brooklyn Nets vs. #7 Boston Celtics: Nets win series 4-0

Boston, congratulations on making it to the Playoffs via the Play-In Tournament, but Jayson Tatum is not dropping 50 points every night, no matter how inconsistent the Nets’ defense may be. Not to mention, a healthy Nets’ Big 3 and Blake Griffin is a lot to ask a team to defend.

Nikhil’s Predictions:

Western Conference Opening Round:

  • #1 Utah Jazz vs. #8 Memphis Grizzlies: Jazz win series 4-0

The Utah Jazz have proven themselves as a quality basketball organization with high hopes for the present and future this season, and by that reasoning, they are fit to take on any team when fully healthy. This team has one of the deepest rosters in the league, and the likes of Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and Jordan Clarkson off the bench will prove tough to handle. On the flip side, the Grizzlies are too thin and inexperienced to contend with the red-hot Jazz. Unless they can put together multiple performances akin to that shown against the Golden State Warriors, I do not see them posing any challenge to the much more complete team in the Utah Jazz.

  • #4 Los Angeles Clippers vs. #5 Dallas Mavericks: Clippers win series 4-3

The Clippers and Mavericks matchup is intriguing because both teams have so much offensive firepower, that every game played in this series has the potential to be a shootout. The Clippers are the more established and deeper team, which is why I give them the nod. The likes of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will be tested heavily by Luka Doncic and company. An important note: Rajon Rondo has been the key to the Clippers’ recent success, and if he steps up and provides that veteran savvy and knowledge, it will be hard for the relatively younger Mavs roster to keep up. Again, however, Doncic manages to find the most spectacular ways to keep himself and his team in contention, so expect this series to be a close-fought battle.

  • #3 Denver Nuggets vs. #6 Portland Trail Blazers: Nuggets win series 4-2

The Nuggets and Trail Blazers present a similar matchup as the Clippers-Mavs one. However, I would say there is a bit more of a defensive element for both teams. The Nuggets are down on offensive power with the injury to Jamal Murray, but MVP candidate Nikola Jokic has rallied the team, and they seem to be carrying lots of momentum into the playoffs. The Blazers have had a rocky last couple of games but managed to get enough victories to avoid the Play-In tournament. Even without Jamal Murray, the Nuggets seem to have so much offensive proficiency solely from Jokic’s MVP caliber play, and I do not see the Blazers being able to match that, even with Damian Lillard in the team.

  • #2 Phoenix Suns vs. #7 Los Angeles Lakers: Lakers win series 4-2

Finally, the strangest matchup in this slate, the Suns and Lakers. Phoenix has been the surprise team this year by a large margin, and it can all be attributed to the leadership of Chris Paul. The team itself is surprisingly young outside of the point god, however they manage to play like a veteran squad that has been deep in the playoffs before. That being said, they are playing LeBron James, and if history has taught us well, it is that you almost never bet against LeBron James. The only reason why the Lakers will not sweep the Suns here is because of their recent game against the Warriors, where they showed that they are vulnerable to a game-breaking player. Devin Booker of the Suns is not at that level yet, but I do seeing him posing a problem enough to where they might steal two games from the Lakers.

Eastern Conference Opening Round:

  • #1 Philadelphia 76ers vs. #8 Washington Wizards: Sixers win series 4-2

The Washington Wizards have defied all odds from the beginning of their season to make it to the 8-seed in the playoffs, and the consensus around the league is that they are one of the most dangerous teams in this league. That being said, I find it hard for them to contend with the 76ers, who have been the epitome of excellence for most of this season. Doc Rivers in his first year with the team has taken them to the top of the Eastern Conference, and MVP caliber performances from Joel Embiid, defensive clinics from Ben Simmons, and a stellar supporting cast in the rest of the roster quite simply are too much for the Wizards to handle. Unless Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal drop insane performances for every game in the series (which is somewhat possible), I see them only taking two games of this series and losing to the 76ers.

  • #4 New York Knicks vs. #5 Atlanta Hawks: Knicks win series 4-3

The New York Knicks are back and better than ever, and the play of Julius Randle, Derrick Rose, and the old but gold coaching from Tom Thibodeau has paid off tremendously. On the other side of this matchup, the Atlanta Hawks have also come back from adversity, growing through a coaching change in the middle of the season and finding their form finely as well. Both teams are riding a lot of momentum into this series, and in my opinion, the winner will be decided by who plays better defense. Both teams are offensively proven, but the Knicks, under defensive guru Tom Thibodeau, seem to be better conditioned to come up with key stops down the stretch. It will be close, but the better all-around defensive structure of the New York Knicks team will be the deciding factor and send them through to the next round of the playoffs.

  • #3 Milwaukee Bucks vs. #6 Miami Heat: Bucks win series 4-2

The Miami Heat have more or less stayed the same from their Cinderella story run to the championship last year, and that sort of plays to their disadvantage. Jimmy Butler and co. are by no means a pushover, but if you look at the rest of the conference, nearly every team in contention has gotten better and more suited to take the crown this year. The Bucks are the prime example of this, having added Jrue Holiday and PJ Tucker to the already explosive talent that is Giannis Antetokounmpo. As defensively sound Bam Adebayo is, there simply is not enough within the Miami roster to hold the offense of the Bucks down for a 7-game series. Given their expanded roster, the floor becomes stretched, and they become that much tougher to defend. I have the Bucks progressing to the next round in 6 games.

  • #2 Brooklyn Nets vs. #7 Boston Celtics: Nets win series 4-0

Finally, the team that everyone has as their favorite, the Brooklyn Nets. Oddly enough, we have not seen this team run at full capacity very much this season, with KD, Kyrie, and Harden all missing time for large chunks of the season for a variety of different reasons. However, they all should be back for the playoffs and will be back during the series’ that matter most. If we are being honest, this one does not entail that. The Celtics have been on the downward trend since losing Jaylen Brown to a wrist injury, and while they handily beat the Wizards to claim the 7-seed, a team of this caliber should not be down in the Play-In tournament in the first place. Jayson Tatum simply cannot drop 50 points in every game in this series as he did against the Wizards, and when you have 3 of the biggest stars on the opposite side of the ball along with an established sub-star in Blake Griffin, it is almost certain that the Celtics make a quick exit.

Anish’s Predictions:

Western Conference Opening Round:

  • #1 Utah Jazz vs. #8 Memphis Grizzlies: Jazz win series 4-1

Now no one expected this Grizzlies team to even be in the playoffs. Everyone was talking about a Warriors Jazz series and a potential upset there. Not to be rude or discredit any of these team’s success, but this is the most irrelevant series in the playoffs. It probably has to do with both team’s lack of star power and being small market teams. The Jazz took first seed this year yet not a single person has them winning the championship. The Jazz will take this series and I say Jazz in 5 because I believe the Grizzlies can steal a game if Ja Morant goes off again or if Donovan Mitchell is not 100% healthy.

  • #4 Los Angeles Clippers vs. #5 Dallas Mavericks: Clippers win series 4-2

The Mavericks vs Clippers seems to be a repeat matchup of last year’s first round. That in which the Clippers won in 6 games. In my opinion, I see a repeat of that this year. I do not feel like the Mavericks have improved significantly in any way and Porzingis just is not using his talents like he should get them to the next level. Kawhi will take over this series, but it will come down to how Pual George plays to determine how many games it takes for the Clippers to win, so I say Clippers in 6.

  • #3 Denver Nuggets vs. #6 Portland Trail Blazers: Trail Blazers win series 4-2

Denver vs. Portland is a matchup that also occurred in 2019 in which Portland made their biggest playoff run in recent history to the WCF. The matchup was very close, in which the Blazers won in 7 games. That said, the Blazers feel like the favorites to win this series. Not only are the Nuggets missing their starting point guard in Jamal Murray, but the Blazers now have Jusuf Nurkic, who is known to be a much better defender than Enes Kanter. In 2019 the Blazers were able to defeat the Nuggets without Kanter so Nurkic will make it easier. Along with the Nuggets improving with Aaron Gordon and the emergence of Campazzo and MPJ, the Blazers also have new pieces in Robert Covington, Norman Powell, and Derrick Jones Jr., all of whom will be able to match with Denver. Portland’s backcourt is the strong suit of their team, and Denver missing Jamal Murray takes a huge hit which gives me the Blazers in 6.

  • #2 Phoenix Suns vs. #7 Los Angeles Lakers: Lakers win series 4-3

I feel bad for the Suns here. When looking at this, you would assume the Suns are favorites because of their high seed, but having LeBron James on the opposing roster changes the whole game. LeBron has proven to never count his team out, as he has made the NBA Finals countless times with different rosters, and with Anthony Davis alongside him, and being the defending champions, they will not go down easy. The veteran leadership of CP3 will push this series out to be very close but in the end, the Suns do not have anyone who can guard LeBron or Anthony Davis and will fall to the Lakers in 7.

Eastern Conference Opening Round:

  • #1 Philadelphia 76ers vs. #8 Washington Wizards: Sixers win series 4-1

The Sixers have the clear edge here, as Washington was barely able to make the playoffs. They had to go on an incredible 17-6 run to end the season after starting 17-32. The Wizards have no one who can contain Joel Embiid as they rotate through 2-3 centers depending on matchups. The Sixers will dominate the game with not only their offense but their good defense too, which the Wizards lack. I give the Wizards one game because I can easily see Beal and Westbrook going off with crazy stats, the scoring running up to near 130s, and the Wizards winning a close game. But that type of play is not sustainable. Give me the Sixers in 5 games.

  • #4 New York Knicks vs. #5 Atlanta Hawks: Knicks win series 4-3

The Knicks vs Hawks is not what you would expect to see in the NBA Playoffs, especially given these team’s recent history. The Hawks started the season not so great, and then Nate McMillan took over and coached them to a 27-11 record. On the other hand, Tom Thibodeau coached the Knicks to make the playoffs and have one of the best defenses in the league. Both these teams have their stars in Julius Randle and Trae Young so it will be an entertaining series. There is no clear favorite in this series and it will be close, but with the Knicks’ defense, I give them the slight edge and say Knicks in 7.

  • #3 Milwaukee Bucks vs. #6 Miami Heat: Bucks win series 4-3

The Bucks vs. Heat series will be interesting because the Heat is one of the few teams able to contain Giannis, especially in the playoffs. Last season when the Heat made its incredible trip to the NBA Finals, they defeated Giannis and the Bucks in 5 games. One key difference is the Bucks now have Jrue Holiday, an elite defender and scorer. Paired with Middleton and Giannis this team looks even scarier than last season. The Heat on the other hand have been battling injuries and did not make any big leaps this season. They acquired Victor Oladipo, only for him to be out for the season and not play in the playoffs. Although the Heat are good at containing Giannis, the Bucks firepower besides him still outmatch the Heat, and it will be too much for Jimmy Butler and the Heat this season. I got Bucks in 7. 

  • #2 Brooklyn Nets vs. #7 Boston Celtics: Nets win series 4-0

The Nets vs Celtics series is not going to be close. The Celtics have been dealing with bad injuries all year and Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have been carrying them to barely make the playoffs. Now, with Jaylen Brown out for the playoffs, it is all up to Tatum to carry this team. Kemba Walker is too inconsistent to rely on and when it comes to offensive firepower, Jayson Tatum is no match for Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden. For the Celtics to beat the Wizards in their Play-In Game, it took Jayson Tatum having to drop 50 points, that type of offense from Tatum is not consistent, and with the Big 3 of Brooklyn, this series feels over before it even started. If Jaylen Brown was healthy, I would give the Celtics a game or two, but he is not, leading me to pick the Nets in a sweep.

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