Welcome back Violators as we get ready for the 2021 NBA Playoffs. It's about damn time. We've got a lot to go over in this deep preview of the upcoming road ahead of us. It's a thrilling time to have the Playoffs back in our lives. Tuesday will be where we get to see some early fireworks. This is going to be the debut of the play-in tournament, which is shaping up to have some incredible matchups that we will go over later on in this piece.
Here's how it's going to work. We're going to analyze each and every team that is going to be taking place in the entire playoff format for the 2021 race for the Larry O'Brien trophy. First, we will start with the Western Conference, taking a look at each team and who they are positioned to face in the first round. Then, of course, we will go through the Eastern Conference teams as well. Each breakdown will feature a summary of the team. Let's call this an "outlook", a quick focus on what to watch out for when it comes to that team's potential to make a run in the playoffs. I also want to point out an "X-Factor", maybe a player or storyline that could swing the momentum for a team throughout their potential title run. Lastly, I want to make sure to spotlight all of the teams that will be fighting in the Play-In Games for an opportunity to "reach" the playoffs. It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas ladies and gentlemen, and all I can say is...It's about damn time.
Position: 1st Seed, vs 8th Seed from Play-In Game(s)
Summary: A sensational year from the Utah Jazz all around and they look positioned to be a serious force in the Western Conference. After an impressive run during the bubble last year, the Utah Jazz came back to let the rest of the NBA know they were on a mission this year. So far so good, as the Jazz secured the number 1 seed in the Western Conference, meaning that they will possess homecourt throughout the playoffs. Utah finished with the best record in the league this year, and you can point to their impressive depth as one of the major reasons why. Veteran guard Mike Conley struggled to find his groove last year with Utah, but it's been a different story this year for Conley. Conley has seen his numbers jump across the board in terms of production, and has started to look like the floor general presence the Jazz thought they were getting when they traded for him last year. Potential Sixth Man of the Year Jordan Clarkson has also been magnificent for the Jazz this year, providing a microwave scoring option off of the bench. Clarkson went on to post a career-high 18.4 PPG off of the bench for the Jazz and will be one of the more important pieces to this team as Utah aims itself towards a serious title run. Important complementary pieces such as Rudy Gobert, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Joe Ingles, who has enjoyed a nice "bounce-back" season, have also been fantastic this year. This Jazz team averages 43.0 3PA per game (leading the league) so they are a team that can be terrifying for the opposition when they get hot from outside. As of now, Utah looks positioned to play the 8th seed from the Play-In Tournament.
X-Factor: Donovan Mitchell (health)
The star of the Utah Jazz has been out since April 17th while recovering from an injury. A team like Utah has so much depth on their roster that they've been able to keep the status quo for the second half of the season while Donovan Mitchell has been out. But now, it's time for Utah to get their superstar back. Odds are that the Jazz have been smart with allowing Mitchell to get fully healthy for their playoff run. Still, it's going to be interesting to see if Mitchell has the full green light early on in the opening-round series.
Position: 2nd Seed, vs Winner of 7 vs 8 Play-In Game (LAL/GSW)
Summary: The Phoenix Suns came into the 2020-21 season with a serious amount of hype and they didn't fail to deliver. If not for the incredible season by the Utah Jazz, Phoenix would have found themselves slotted as the 1st seed. Still, an incredible year from this Suns squad and they find themselves back where they belong...in the playoffs. This year feels different though, as the Suns have an impressive roster that is built for a deep playoff run. Hats off to Suns GM James Jones who did a sensational job putting together this roster, and they have the potential to shine brightest on the biggest stage. Depth is a crucial part of having some long-term success in the playoffs, and Phoneix has quietly had one of the deepest rosters in the entire league this year. Chris Paul has been brilliant for the Suns this year, averaging 16.4 PTS, 4.5 REB, and 8.9 AST while shooting 49.9% from the field and a career-high 93.4% from the charity stripe. All eyes will be on young star Devin Booker, as this will be Booker's first experience in the playoffs. Don't forget about a couple of crucial components to this team's playoff run as well including Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, and Cam Johnson. All three players have the potential to swing the momentum of a series with their play, and all could be "wildcards" for this Suns team to take the next step forward towards a title run. As of now, Phoenix is set to face the winner of the Play-In game between the Los Angeles Lakers (sorry Suns fans) and the Golden State Warriors.
X-Factor: Deandre Ayton
It's no secret that plenty of attention will be focused on how the Phoenix Suns third-year big man does in the NBA Playoffs. Deandre Ayton has been a popular name when it comes to Phoenix Suns fans, for better or worse, but the big man has continued to impress with his development. The 22-year-old big fella finished the year with 14.4 PTS, 10.5 REB, 1.2 BLK, and a career-high 62.6 FG%. Now, Ayton will have an opportunity to let his game do the talking on the biggest stage. This Phoenix Suns team will have plenty of offensive firepower that can carry them throughout a series, but Ayton can become a crucial part of a potentially deep playoff run with his play on the defensive side of the ball.
Position: 3rd Seed, vs Portland Trail-Blazers
Summary: Let's just get this out of the way so we can move on...The Jamal Murray injury was simply just a "thief-of-joy" moment for all NBA fans. This Denver Nuggets team was quickly turning into a team that looked like a terrifying force before Murray went down with a season-ending injury. It's unfortunate for the Nuggets and their fans, but there's still some hope that this team can be a force in the Western Conference. Nikola Jokic has been outstanding this year and he should eventually be named the MVP of the 2020-21 season. This year, Jokic posted 26.4 PTS (career-high), 10.8 REB, 8.3 AST (career-high), while shooting 56.6% from the field and 38.8% from 3. Jokic looks ready to carry this team in the playoffs, but he's going to have plenty of pieces around him to help out. Denver went all-in when they decided to acquire former Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon at this year's trade deadline. Gordon has been an impressive piece since arriving, averaging 10.2 PTS and 4.7 REB while shooting 50.0% from the field. It will be interesting to see what Gordon can do in the playoffs with his new team. Another name to keep an eye on throughout the playoffs for Denver is "rookie" Facundo Campazzo. The crafty guard put up some respectable numbers for the Nuggets during the last month of the season, averaging 9.3 PTS, 4.4 REB, 5.8 AST, and 2.3 STL. Denver is set to face the Portland Trail-Blazers in the first round, which should always be an entertaining series.
X-Factor: Michael Porter Jr
If there was any silver lining from the Jamal Murray injury, it's that a treasure chest of offensive firepower has been unlocked. I'm talking about Michael Porter Jr, who has been one of the more impressive players since the All-Star break. It seemed as if it was only a matter of time before MPJ was given the green light and this Nuggets team needed someone to carry the load offensively after Murray went down. Since the All-Star break, MPJ averaged 22.3 PTS and 7.5 REB while shooting 56.4% from the field and 46.4% from 3. Now, it's time to see what Porter Jr can do when it matters the most. If the "second-year" forward can continue on his hot streak, this Nuggets team could surprise some folks.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Position: 4th Seed, vs DAL
Summary: Call be a bit crazy, but this could be one of the most dangerous teams to keep an eye on in the west. This Clippers team looks to be better positioned for a serious title run in this year's playoffs, and first-year head coach Ty Lue has done a fantastic job. Plenty of attention and jokes will be made toward Paul George, but PG13 has definitely started to look like the old George throughout the regular season. Of course, the playoffs are an entirely new conversation, and it will be interesting to see how George hits the ground running in the first round. Still, PG13 quietly averaged 23.3 PTS, 6.6 REB, and 5.2 AST for the Clippers this year while shooting 46.7% from the field and 41.1% from 3. Kawhi Leonard continues to look like a robot, and it won't surprise me if "The Klaw" turns it up a notch as he gets himself ready for the long playoff grind. An impressive year for Leonard as well who went on to average 24.8 PTS, 6.5 REB, and a career-high 5.2 AST while shooting 51.2% from the field. Don't forget about a couple of key surrounding pieces for this team such as Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum, and even DeMarcus Cousins. The Clippers are set to face the Dallas Mavericks in a JUICY first-round matchup. This Los Angeles Clippers team leads the league in 3p% at 41.1%.
X-Factor: Rajon Rondo
Yes, I can see you shaking your head in disbelief while you're reading this sentence. Admit it, we cannot overstate the importance that a player like "Playoff Rondo" can bring to a team. If you need an example, take a look at Rajon Rondo during the Lakers title run last year. Rondo signed with the Atlanta Hawks this past offseason but the match just never seemed to fit. The Clippers slid in and acquired Rondo during the trade deadline, and it's been a great addition ever since. Since coming over from Atlanta, Rondo has averaged 7.6 PTS, 3.1 REB, and 5.8 AST in 20.4 MIN while shooting 48.6% from the field and 43.2% from 3. Make no mistake, Rondo is going to be a big factor for the Clippers in the playoffs. Not just as an offensive weapon, but more for his ability to be another coach on the floor for this veteran team.
Position: 5th Seed, vs LAC
Summary: Any time you have a talent like Luka Doncic on your roster, you're going to be a terrifying opponent. While Luka's relationship (or lack of) with the referees has been a storyline this year, he still put up some absurd numbers. Luka averaged 27.7 PTS, 8.0 REB, and 8.6 AST while shooting 47.9% from the field and 35.0% from 3. Both of those shooting percentages are career-highs by the way. It's unfortunate that Luka has gotten a lot of quick whistles this year, but it's also refreshing for Mavericks fans that the technical foul count resets once you reach the playoffs. Of course, if Luka has a deep playoff run in which he starts to get towards the magical "7 technical fouls" count...we're going to need to have another conversation. This Mavericks team always is dangerous in the playoffs, especially with a head coach like Rick Carlisle. A number of interesting pieces on this roster that could become great assets in a playoff series, including trade-deadline acquisition J.J. Redick. The veteran swingman has struggled to get going with his new team, but he's always one to keep an eye on especially during the playoffs. Keep an eye on Jalen Brunson, who has continued to be one of the more underrated guards in this league. Brunson had himself a fantastic May, averaging 13.0 PTS while shooting 55.9% from the field and 51.7% from 3.
X-Factor: Kristaps Porzingis
I know guys, trust me I know. But it's the truth. If this Dallas Mavericks team wants to potentially upset the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round, then the big fella is going to have to show up. Kristaps Porzingis has been in and out of the lineup throughout the year while dealing with a number of injuries, but he returned to action for the Mavericks during their final three games of the year. Luka is going to do his thing, as usual, but can Porizingis put together a solid series right out of the gate to give Dallas enough of a lift to get past the first round? Only time will tell.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Position: 6th Seed, vs DEN
Summary: No matter what seed the Portland Trail Blazers end up as you better make sure you pay special notice to them when it comes playoff time. Some might consider this year a bit of a disappointment for the Blazers, after some serious preseason hype. But the thing about this Portland squad is they can become a completely different squad come playoff time. All eyes will be on Damian Lillard, as the superstar floor general has quickly become one of the most dangerous playoff players in the entire NBA. His backcourt ally will be ready to roll too, as CJ McCollum looks to build off an impressive final month of the season that saw him average 24.0 PTS, and 5.0 AST while shooting 47.9% from the field and 44.3% from 3. It will be interesting to see what veteran forward Robert Covington can do for this Blazers team in the playoffs. Portland made a big move to acquire Covington in a pre-draft trade, and this is exactly what they acquired Covington for...the playoffs. Covington has seen a serious rise in his shooting percentages since the All-Star break, including 42.5% from the field and 42.2% from 3. Portland is set to face Denver in the first round in a series that should have everyone excited for its potential theatrics.
X-Factor: Norman Powell
It was a big surprise in the NBA world when the Trail Blazers announced that they would trade Gary Trent Jr during the deadline for former Toronto Raptors wing Norman Powell. Powell has continued to be a great asset, averaging 17.0 PTS for the Blazers since the trade. Now comes the most important time of the year in which Powell can continue to provide a great contribution on both sides of the ball for this Portland squad.
PLAY-IN TOURNAMENT TEAMS
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Position: 7th Seed, vs GSW in Play-In Game
Summary: Ah yes, the moment we've all waited for. What's going to happen with defending champs in the Play-In Game. We all should know the story by now. Superstars Lebron James and Anthony Davis have missed a substantial amount of the season while dealing with injuries. So while the Lakers are in a tough spot as the 7 seed, we still understand how good this team can be at full strength. Lebron and AD will be on the warpath, to prove that they are ready for any team that is going to try to stop them from the chance at repeating as NBA Champions. Key offseason additions Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schroder will be called upon to take another step forward as well. We can expect that the two-headed monster will be ready to roll, but it will be fascinating to see what other piece of the puzzle steps up their play in order for the Lakers to keep their title defense strong. The Lakers are positioned to face a dangerous Warriors team in the play-in game, featuring this guy named Steph Curry who has been an absolute psycho on the basketball court this year. Pretty simple for the Lakers. Win and you're in. Lose, and you've got one more shot to get a win and secure a spot as the 8th seed.
X-Factor: Besides Lebron's health...Talen Horton-Tucker
The easy thing to talk about here is Lebron because if he's going to deal with nagging ankle concerns, it's going to create some serious problems for the Lakers. Let's talk about a bit of a "wildcard" here. Talen Horton-Tucker has quietly developed into a sensational young weapon for this Lakers team moving forward. It will be interesting to see what the Lakers rotation will be early on potentially in a playoff series, but I still think that THT has too enticing of a skill set to not get some serious playoff minutes at some point. I'm sure that the Lakers will lean heavily on their veterans, especially in the play-in tournament, but Horton-Tucker has proved that he's got the ability to become a great rotational asset for this team.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Position: 8th Seed, vs LAL in Play-in Game
Summary: A lot of hope for this Golden State Warriors 2020-21 season went right out the window before the season even started with the injury to Klay Thompson. After that, this year seemed to focus on developing the Warriors' young talent while trying to get their franchise player back in his normal groove. But Steph Curry had other plans. The Warriors superstar has been a terrifying figure for opponents on a nightly basis this year. Since the All-Star break, Curry has averaged 34.9 PTS while shooting 48.7% from the field and 43.1% from 3. Curry has been a monster (again) this year, and he's provided some serious excitement for Warriors fans as they look to a potential play-in game against the defending champs. Anything can happen on a nightly basis in the NBA, and the Warriors find themselves one win away from a playoff berth. It will be disappointing that we won't get to see James Wiseman get some potential playoff experience, but trust the process Warriors fans, Wiseman is going to be just fine. If the Warriors want to force an upset and find themselves in the playoffs, they are going to need Andrew Wiggins to keep playing at a high level. Wiggins has been impressive for the Warriors since the All-Star break, averaging 20.3 PTS, 5.4 REB, and shooting 49.2% from the field as well as 41.0% from 3. Keep an eye on Jordan Poole for the dubs as well. The Warriors' second-year wing has seen the light turn on during the second half of the year and just averaged 17.8 PTS during the month of May.
X-Factor: Draymond Green
If there was ever a game in which the Warriors need Draymond Green to be his usual self, it's going to be in the Play-In Game against Anthony Davis. Green has been another Warriors player who has been outstanding since the All-Star break, averaging 8.3 PTS, 8.2 REB, and 9.1 AST while shooting 49.5% from the field. Draymond has started to look like the Draymond of old as of late, and that is something that is going to make this first game against the Lakers must-watch television.
Position: 9th Seed, vs SAS in Play-In Game
Summary: We're getting into some "sleeper" territory when it comes to some of these Play-In games and the Memphis Grizzlies could be a team that has the chance to surprise some folks. When you're looking at these 9 & 10 seeded teams, an important reminder...they need to win two games to get in. Bet your money that rising star Ja Morant will be ready to roll for this Memphis squad. But this team has some intriguing pieces all over the board that could provide some big contributions towards an upset. Big man Jonas Valanciunas has been one of the more "under-appreciated" stories throughout the league this year. Jonas went on to average career-highs in PTS (17.1), REB (12.5), and FG% (59.2%) this year for the Grizzlies. Key pieces such as Dillion Brooks, Desmond Bane, and Xavier Tillman Sr will all be names to keep an eye on throughout the Grizzlies run towards a potential playoff spot. Memphis will face a crafty San Antonio Spurs team in the 9 vs 10 play-in game.
X-Factor: Jaren Jackson Jr.
The Memphis Grizzlies second franchise cornerstone missed the majority of the season after recovering from a meniscus injury and he's been slowly brought back to action over the final month of the season. When Jaren Jackson Jr is at full go, this Grizzlies team is a completely different force. The question is...will JJJ be a full-go? Memphis has stressed caution with bringing back Jackson, but they could potentially feel he's ready to get the green light when they need him the most.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Position: 10th Seed, vs MEM in Play-In Game
Summary: Are we really that surprised to see that the San Antonio Spurs are still doing everything they possibly can do in order to climb into the playoffs? There's a rule in the NBA constitution that states you "never count out a Gregg Popovich coached team." As stated with the Grizzlies (above) the 9th and 10th seeded teams are going to have their work cut out for them as they will have to win two games in order to clinch a playoff spot. Still, this Spurs team has some exciting young talent that has continued to take steps forward in their development. Dejounte Murray took a big leap forward this year, averaging 15.7 PTS, 7.1 REB, ad 5.4 AST for San Antonio this year. DeMar DeRozan continues to be a bucket-getting asset on the offensive side of the ball and Lonnie Walker IV has seen a jump in his production across the board as well. This Spurs team will be a tough out for anyone and that first showdown against the Grizzlies should be an absolute bar fight.
X-Factor: Keldon Johnson
One of the most pleasant surprises from the San Antonio Spurs 2020-21 season has been the impressive play from second-year wing Keldon Johnson. After spending the majority of his rookie campaign in the G-League with the Austin Spurs, Johnson has become a bright spot for the Spurs this year. JOhnson has cooled off a bit since the All-Star break, but he's still putting up good numbers for a player early in his development, averaging 12.8 PTS and 6.0 REB while shooting 47.9% from the field and 33.1% from 3. Johnson has had some BIG games this year and if he gets in a rhythm early, he could swing the momentum of a game for the Spurs.
Position:1st Seed, vs 8th Seed from Play-In Game(s)
Summary: One of the more impressive storylines throughout the entire NBA season has been the impressive play of the Philadelphia 76ers. It was a huge move by the Sixers organization during the offseason to bring Doc Rivers and Daryl Morey on board, and the message was clear...we're moving forward. Although many wondered during the preseason if this was going to be the final year of the Ben Simmons/Joel Embiid experiment, the combination has been dominant this year under Rivers. Embiid put together an MVP-type of season, although he is expected to fall just short of winning the honors. Still, Embiid has looked dialed in throughout the year and it will be fascinating to see what he can do this time in the playoffs. Ben Simmons has also been on a roll this year and has especially turned it up on the defensive side of the ball. Don't forget about defensive weapon Matisse Thybulle who is looking like he's about to earn a spot on one of the All-Defensive teams this year. Thybulle has been so impressive on the defensive side of the ball that he's almost difficult to take out of the game despite his lack of offensive production. Philly is positioned to play the 8th seed in the first round of the playoffs.
X-Factor: Tobias Harris
It's been one of the best developments of the 2020-21 season. After struggling throughout the last year with the Sixers, Tobias Harris has been fantastic for Philadelphia this year. Although most will look at Joel Embiid when it comes to a player on this team that has benefited the most from the Doc Rivers hire, Harris is right up there in the conversation. On the year, Harris averaged 19.5 PTS and 6.8 REB while shooting 51.2% from the field and 39.4% from 3. This Sixers team has become one of the stronger defensive teams in the league, and Harris has done a great job providing a serious punch on the offensive side of the ball as well.
Position: 2nd Seed, vs Winner of 7 vs 8 Play-In Game (BOS/CHA)
Summary: This team has been absolutely terrifying when they are at full strength. If you've watched the Brooklyn Nets this year, you know just how much of a monster that offense can be when they are rolling. We all know the pieces to the puzzle, but now it's time to see the Nets team at full strength. Brooklyn has done a good job maintaining some of their stars when it comes to health throughout the season. Now, it looks as if this Brooklyn roster will be ready to go at full capacity. Kevin Durant has looked like Kevin Durant, which is just terrifying for opposing teams. James Harden has transitioned perfectly towards becoming a playmaking asset for this team and Kyrie Irving still has the ability to take over a game with his offensive firepower. It still will be fascinating to see what will happen with this Brooklyn defense once they get into a 7-game series, but that offense is so dangerous that no team wants to be trying to play catchup.
X-Factor: Joe Harris
You could argue that Joe Harris has quickly become one of the most dangerous complementary pieces in the entire NBA. Harris has the luxury of playing around some of the best talents in the entire league and he's thrived, as expected. With opposing defenses needing to pay so much attention to the 3-headed monster of Durant, Harden, and Irving, Harris has the ability to be one of the best floor-spacing assets in the league. It's no surprise that Harris is averaging a career-high in 3P% (47.5%) and he's going to continue to be a deadly weapon in the playoffs.
Position: 3rd Seed, vs MIA
Summary: Don't let the 3rd seed fool you, boys and girls. This could be the year in which the Milwaukee Bucks have one of the strongest rosters they've had in recent years. The question though is will it be enough? I for one think so. This Bucks team has enjoyed their recent years of success, but have had a number of "earlier than expected" playoff exits. Giannis Antetokounmpo rewarded Bucks fans by committing to the team for the long haul during the offseason, and he hasn't skipped a beat, finishing the regular season with averages of 28.1 PTS, 11.0 REB, and 5.9 AST. His running mate Khris Middleton also had himself another impressive season, finishing the year with 20.4 PTS, 5.0 REB, and 5.4 AST while shooting 47.6% from the field and 41.4% from 3. The production has been there from the Bucks dynamic duo, now can they take the next leap forward towards bringing the Bucks a championship? We're about to find out. Milwaukee will face a dangerous Miami Heat team in the first round who will be motivated to upset the Bucks.
X-Factor: Jrue Holiday
The Bucks went all-in during the offseason, sending multiple picks to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for Jrue Holiday. Time will tell if the long-term payoff will be worth the multiple draft selections, but Holiday has been sensational for the Bucks this year. This is why so many are convinced that this Bucks team is better built for a deep playoff run, and Jrue Holiday could be the weapon that allows Milwaukee to take the next leap forward. Holiday went on to average 17.7 PTS, 4.5 REB, 6.1 AST, and 1.6 STL for the Bucks this year while shooting 50.3% from the field and 39.2% from 3.
NEW YORK KNICKS
Position: 4th Seed, vs ATL
Summary: START SPREADING THE NEWS. The New York Knicks are back in the playoffs and the basketball world just is better when the Knicks are playing at a high level. What a year it's been for the Knicks and head coach Tom Thibodeau. It's been about as perfect a year as you could hope for if you're a Knicks fan. The new front office looks to have the Knicks back on track and Thibs has reminded everyone just how good of a coach he can be when he's the lead man in charge. Don't be shocked if this Knicks team goes a bit further in the playoffs than some might expect. Want to know why? Because of one word. Defense. In a league in which everyone has been obsessed with offense, Thibs and the Knicks said screw it and became a defensive monster. This Knicks team is young and will need to hit the ground running to make some noise in the playoffs, but they also have the swagger that can carry them in a series. Julius Randle has been one of the best stories throughout the regular season and looks to finally have found a home in New York. Randle put up career numbers across the board this year averaging 24.1 PTS, 10.2 REB, and 6.0 AST while shooting 45.6% from the field and 41.1% from 3. Second-year wing RJ Barrett has also taken steps forward in his development and has seen a jump in his production across the board. After drawing the "streaky shooter" tag as a prospect, Barrett has seen his outside jump take a big step forward and finished the year averaging 17.6 PTS and 5.8 REB while shooting 44.1% from the field and 40.1% from 3. The Knicks are set to face a young and hungry Atlanta Hawks team in the first round.
X-Factor: Derrick Rose
It's incredible that Derrick Rose found himself back with Thibs and is thriving as a basketball player again. It hasn't been a fluke folks, as Derrick Rose has been playing some fantastic basketball as of late. In the final month of the season, Rose averaged 19.3 PTS, 4.0 REB, and 4.3 AST while shooting 57.9% from the field and 56.0% from 3. This young Knicks team is going to need some veteran leadership in the playoffs and with how good Rose is playing as of late, he might just be what the Knicks need to swing the momentum of a series.
Position: 5th Seed, vs NYK
Summary: It's been a bit of a roller coaster of a year for the Atlanta Hawks after this team added so many pieces to the puzzle via free agency in the offseason. It seemed as if things were going south when the Hawks announced they would fire head coach Lloyd Pierce during the regular season but that's until Nate McMillian stepped in. Since McMillian took over, the Hawks posted a 26-12 record and now look to be a sleeper in the Eastern Conference. This Hawks team is a bit of a wildcard, due to the fact that they have been dealing with a bit of an injury bug throughout the entire regular season. All eyes will be on Trae Young and John Collins as the young duo looks to show what they can do in the national spotlight. Danilo Gallinari will be another name to pay attention to, as he started to get back into his groove towards the end of the year. Don't forget about Bogdan Bogdanovic who was on fire at the end of the year. Bogdan went on to average 22.3 PTS while shooting 54.3% from the field and 51.5% from 3 during the final month of the season. Clint Capela was one of the more impressive big men in the entire NBA this year as well, averaging a league-high 14.3 REB. Atlanta will face a determined New York Knicks squad in one of the more underrated opening-round playoff series.
X-Factor: De'Andre Hunter
It was a shame that the injury bug caught De'Andre Hunter this year because he was quickly turning into a serious weapon for this Atlanta Hawks team. The Hawks began to give Hunter some minutes towards the end of the year to get him back into game shape, but it will be interesting to see if he's at 100% early in the playoffs. If Hunter gets the green light, it's going to be a massive boost for this Hawks team on both sides of the ball. Before going down with an injury, Hunter averaged 18.7 PTS during the month of January.
Position: 6th Seed, vs MIL
Summary: The Miami Heat will find themselves as one of the more "dangerous" teams in the playoffs. Each year there's a team that nobody wants to play regardless of their seeding, and the Miami Heat are quickly becoming one of the favorites to earn that tag this year. After catching the league by "surprise" in the bubble last year, the Heat have dealt with injuries throughout the regular season. Still, the Heat look healthy and ready to roll in the playoffs now. Jimmy Butler has continued to impress with his play especially during the last month of the season which saw him post 19.7 PTS, 5.8 REB, 6.0 AST, and 1.8 STL. A number of key players have also started to "Heat up" (see what I did there) towards the end of the year including Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. As always, Bam Adebayo will be a big name to watch out for, especially as the Heat get ready to face the Milwaukee Bucks in the opening round.
X-Factor: Goran Dragic
It always seems that Goran Dragic seems to flip the switch once it gets playoff time and it looks as if that might just be happening again. The crafty left-handed veteran has had a respectable year but looked to start to find his groove during the month of May which saw Dragic average 15.9 PTS while shooting 43.8% from deep. When Dragic is on in the playoffs, this Miami Heat team is a whole new monster. Can Dragic pick up where he left off when he turned heads with his play in the bubble?
PLAY-IN TOURNAMENT TEAMS
Position: 7th Seed, vs WAS in Play-In Game
Summary: One of the craziest seasons that Boston Celtics fans can remember in recent memory. Boston has been a roller coaster throughout the entire 2020-21 season, and then the roller coaster derailed when it was announced Jaylen Brown would miss the rest of the season. The Celtics now find themselves as one of the play-in teams and will have their work cut out for them. Jayson Tatum will be called upon to do the heavy lifting and Tatum has put together an impressive 2020-21 campaign. Tatum finished the year with averages of 26.4 PTS, 7.4 REB, and 4.3 AST (all career-highs). If Boston wants to have a chance to get into the playoffs, it's going to need to be because of Tatum. Kemba Walker has impressed with his play as of late as well, and he will be called upon more than ever to produce at a high level. In his final 4 games of the season, Kemba averaged 29.8 PTS, 4.0 REB, and 4.3 AST while shooting 50.6% from the field and 45.9% from 3. Boston will face a red hot Washington Wizards team in the play-in game with the winner getting the grand prize of facing the Brooklyn Nets in the first round.
X-Factor: Robert Williams
It cannot be overstated how impressive of a year Robert Williams has had for the Boston Celtics. After trading Daniel Theis at the trade deadline to the Chicago Bulls, it became obvious that the Celtics realized they needed to unleash Williams and he has shown the potential to become a franchise starting big man moving forward. When Williams is on, he's a serious factor on both sides of the ball. Although Williams has had to deal with some injury issues this year (COVID), he's still had plenty of big performances. If Boston wants any chance of creating some noise in the play-in game and potentially playoffs, "Timelord" is going to need to be rolling at full speed.
Position: 8th Seed, vs BOS in Play-In Game
Summary: LOOK AT WHERE WE ARE NOW WIZARDS FANS. What a turn of events for the Washington franchise and their fan base. After it looked as if the Wizards were trending in the wrong way in a hurry, Washington has quickly become one of the hottest teams in the NBA. Russell Westbrook has been an absolute demon child throughout the year, and just recently broke Oscar Robertson's all-time record for career triple-doubles. The numbers are no joke folks, especially when you look at Westbrook's production after the All-Star Break. His Post-All-Star break numbers? 23.6 PTS, 12.8 REB, and 13.1 AST while shooting 44.7% from the field. Bradley Beal continues to be one of the more dangerous offensive weapons in the NBA and looks healthy and ready to get the Wizards into the playoffs. This team has bought into the underdog role throughout the second half of the season and they are one win away from securing a spot in the playoffs. The Wizards are set to face the Boston Celtics in the play-in game on Tuesday.
X-Factor: Rui Hachimura
Basketball fans were very excited to see what Rui Hachimura could do in his second season after showing some serious promise as a rookie. Unfortunately, Hachimura dealt with some time off due to injury this year, but he's back and is showing encouraging signs of his development as of late. Since the All-Star break, Rui is averaging 15.1 PTS, and 5.5 REB while shooting 49.3% from the field. Hachimura knows he's not going to be called upon to carry the load offensively with Westbrook and Beal running the show, but he could be a type of asset that can carry the Wizards to a win if he's rolling.
Position: 9th Seed, vs CHA in Play-In Game
Summary: Just a crazy year all over for the Indiana Pacers and it's going to be a bit of a buzzkill that big man Myles Turner won't be able to play after he was having such an impressive year. Still, there are some interesting pieces with this Indiana Pacers squad that could make them a bit of a wildcard to sneak into the playoffs. Domantas Sabonis is quietly having a sensational year and it angers me that not enough people are talking about it. Sabonis went on to average 20.3 PTS, 12.0 REB, and 6.7 AST for Indiana this year while shooting 53.5% from the field and 32.1% from 3. It's been a career year for the 24-year-old big man and he's going to need to continue his brilliant play if the Pacers want a chance in these play-in games. Gritty guard T.J. McConnell enjoyed himself a heck of a month of May, averaging 12.0 PTS, 4.7 REB, 6.8 AST, and 2.4 STL for the Pacers. This Pacers team has dealt with a number of injuries throughout the year and McConnell has done a great job of picking up the slack. Another veteran who has stepped up in a big way as of late is Doug McDermott who averaged 16.6 PTS for the last month of the season while shooting 46.0% from 3. Indiana will face a steep climb in order to get in the playoffs, and they are set to face the Charlotte Hornets in the first play-in game.
X-Factor: Caris LeVert
If there's been anything for Pacers fans to get especially excited about this year, it's been the play of newly acquired guard Caris LeVert. After being acquired in a multi-team deal, LeVert was forced to miss some time after a physical revealed a cancerous tumor. LeVert stated how blessed he was that the trade happen or else he might not have known about the tumor. After returning to the floor, it didn't take long for LeVert to showcase his ability on the basketball floor. During his 35 games of action with the Pacers this year, LeVert went on to post averages of 20.7 PTS, 4.6 REB, 4.9 AST, and 1.5 STL while shooting 44.3% from the field. If Indiana wants to spoil the other teams in the Play-In Tournament, LeVert and Sabonis are going to need to be the reasons why.
UPDATE: It's just been announced that LeVert will miss the play-in game(s) due to health and safety protocols. Obviously a huge loss for the Pacers.
Position: 10th Seed, vs IND in Play-In Game
Summary: While the Charlotte Hornets team seemed to cool off a bit as the year went on, it's impressive the leap forward they took this season. Remember, Charlotte was one of the worst teams in the league last year, and in just one year they find themselves two wins away from a spot in the playoffs. It's been announced that free-agent acquisition Gordon Hayward will miss the play-in game and it's unfortunate as Hayward was having himself an impressive season before going down with an injury. All eyes will be on impressive rookie LaMelo Ball as he's going to be in the national spotlight with these play-in games. Ball has had a spectacular rookie year for the Hornets and has injected some serious excitement into the Hornets organization moving forward. A potential rookie of the year candidate (more on that for another day), Ball has the potential to take over a game with his playmaking ability and he should have an enticing matchup in the first play-in game against the Pacers. Keep an eye on a couple of other important young pieces such as PJ Washington and Miles Bridges, who has had himself a great year for the Hornets.
X-Factor: Terry Rozier
Although most of the attention throughout the 2020-21 season has been on LaMelo Ball, as deservedly so, Terry Rozier has been sensational for the Hornets this year. Some had wondered if Rozier was going to take a step back after the Hornets selected Ball but it's been the opposite actually. Rozier has enjoyed himself a career year, averaging 20.4 PTS, 4.4 REB, and 4.2 AST while shooting 45.0% from the field and 38.9% from 3. Keep an eye on Rozier as he's put up some monster games this year and could swing the momentum of a game in the play-in tournament for the Hornets.