NEW YORK (AP) — Old friends will become foes, if only for a week or two. There are rematches from last year, new teams with home-court advantage, more fan capacity than at any other point this season and, perhaps best of all, no bubble.
The NBA playoffs are back.
Just about back to normal, too.
It all officially starts Saturday, a 16-team tournament that was preceded by six pre-playoff games to whet the postseason appetite. That play-in tournament — the NBA’s newest hit — is how LeBron James and the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers played their way into the chance to defend their title, how their fellow 17-time champion Boston got back into the playoffs and how it was determined which teams would face top overall seed Utah and Eastern Conference No. 1 seed Philadelphia in Round 1.
“We recognize, like everyone else does, that the NBA playoffs are a unique, unique event, and obviously for the simple reason that that’s where the championship is won,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said. “That said, you don’t ignore the regular season. I don’t think it was a goal at the beginning of the year to win the regular season. The goal was to play as well as we can, get better and in doing so prepare to play well and hopefully win in the playoffs.”
The Jazz are entering the playoffs as the NBA’s No. 1 overall seed for the first time, and as the top seed in the Western Conference for the third time — joining 1997 and 1998, years where they made the NBA Finals only to be thwarted in six games by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls each time.
Philadelphia enters as the East’s No. 1 seed for the first time since 2001. But perhaps in a harbinger of the chaos that might await over the next two months, neither the Jazz nor the 76ers are favored to reach the NBA Finals. Based on FanDuel’s latest numbers, the seventh-seeded Lakers are the top pick to emerge from the West and the second-seeded Brooklyn Nets — with their glitzy trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden set to hit the postseason together for the first time — as the consensus selection to win the East.
“Listen, either you’re good enough, or you’re not,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. “And if you’re good enough, you’re going to have to beat somebody. You really are. You’re not going to be able to dodge your way. There are no accidental champions. I say that all the time. And so, if you’re going to win it, man, you’re going to have to go through it to win it.”
The Lakers, bidding for back-to-back titles, have a brutally tough path ahead. Since the NBA went to the 16-team playoff format in 1984, no team seeded No. 7 or lower has won a championship; the lowest-seeded title team was the No. 6 Houston Rockets in 1995, when they won their second straight title and newly enshrined Hall of Fame coach Rudy Tomjanovich famously bellowed “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.”
The Lakers open against No. 2 Phoenix, a matchup that pits James against his longtime friend Chris Paul, whose first year with the Suns — a franchise back in the playoffs for the first time since 2010 — probably exceeded most realistic expectations.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” said James, who is seeking a fifth NBA title. “Our journeys, we’ve been playing this game at such a high level for a long time. I’ve always rooted for him … it’s going to be pretty cool just to be on the same floor and competing with one of the most fierce competitors that this game has had over his career.”
Other West matchups: Utah will play the Golden State-Memphis winner in Round 1, No. 3 Denver plays No. 6 Portland and the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers face No. 5 Dallas in a first-round rematch from last season.
The city of New York — whether it’s the borough of Manhattan or Brooklyn — hasn’t experienced one of its teams winning a playoff game at home since 2015. That might finally change, with the second-seeded Nets facing Boston and fourth-seeded New York returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2013 against fifth-seeded Atlanta.
The other East first-round matchup besides 76ers-Wizards, Nets-Celtics and Knicks-Hawks is one of last season’s playoff rematches, with No. 3 Milwaukee facing No. 6 Miami. The Heat won the East last season, ousting the Bucks in the second round on the way to the NBA Finals.
“Last year, probably because of the bubble, I wasn’t able to get away from basketball,” Milwaukee forward and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “Losing a game and going to the hotel and seeing the players that just beat you, you got so low about yourself.”
Thankfully, there’s no bubble needed this year to finish the season.
The games at Walt Disney World weren’t open to fans last summer. This year, fans are back; buildings aren’t totally full again yet, but that may happen later in the playoffs depending on how the fight against COVID-19 keeps trending.
The virus dominated every aspect of the NBA this season, from daily testing to a vaccination push to empty arenas for many games and more than 30 postponements, but the league eventually got through all 1,080 games on the compressed schedule.
And now, the fight for the trophy can finally begin.
“What you have is a great appreciation for this time of year, to be able to have this opportunity to be able to compete at the highest level of our profession,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Ultimately, you want your team to be able to play with the fan experience. You get tested when you’re on the road, and then you feel the energy and environment when you’re at home. We’ve adapted without it for over a year, but I think everybody’s looking forward to those kind of environments.”
No. 1 PHILADELPHIA 76ERS (49-23) vs. No. 8 WASHINGTON WIZARDS (34-38, 1-1)
Season series: 76ers, 3-0.
Story line: The Wizards’ reward for advancing out of the East play-in tournament is a matchup with a Philadelphia team that has a No. 1 seed for the first time in 20 years. Washington simply didn’t have an answer for Philly’s Joel Embiid in the three regular-season meetings; he averaged 30 points and 9.7 rebounds in those games on 60% shooting from the field, 96% from the line and if that wasn’t enough he was 5-for-6 from 3-point range. Bradley Beal averaged 36.7 points in those three games, but his balky hamstring certainly isn’t a great sign for Washington’s upset chances.
Key matchup: Washington’s front line vs. Embiid. The MVP finalist won’t be stopped, but the Wizards’ obvious best hope in this series is to make somebody else beat them. If Embiid gets to his favorite spots without difficulty, this series won’t last long.
Prediction: 76ers in 5.
No. 2 BROOKLYN NETS (48-24) vs. No. 7 BOSTON CELTICS (36-36, 1-0)
Season series: Nets, 3-0.
Story line: Brooklyn’s Big Three of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden makes its playoff debut together against a Celtics team that went to the East finals last year and never got rolling this season. Irving takes on his former team, and that means he’ll likely play in front of Boston fans for the first time since leaving the Celtics in 2019. Irving played one game at Boston this season; the Christmas game between the Nets and Celtics had no fans.
Key matchup: Durant vs. Jayson Tatum. For the Celtics to have any upset chance, it will fall on Tatum’s shoulders.
Prediction: Nets in 5.
No. 3 MILWAUKEE BUCKS (46-26) vs. No. 6 MIAMI HEAT (40-32)
Season series: Bucks, 2-1.
Story line: Milwaukee lost to the Heat on Miami’s way to the Eastern Conference title last season, and the Bucks clearly are looking forward to the playoff rematch. “We wanted it,” Bucks owner Marc Lasry said earlier this week on CNBC. It’s a clash of styles; the Bucks play at the fastest pace in the league, the Heat always put defense first.
Key matchup: Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. Jimmy Butler. It’s not a matchup in the sense that they’ll be guarding each other much, if at all. But an early exit would have Antetokounmpo facing questions that he wouldn’t like, and it bears noting that Butler missed all three Miami-Milwaukee games this season.
Prediction: Bucks in 7.
No. 4 NEW YORK KNICKS (41-31) vs No. 5 ATLANTA HAWKS (41-31)
Season series: Knicks, 3-0.
Story line: Welcome back to the playoffs, Knicks and Hawks. New York hasn’t been there since 2013, Atlanta not since 2017. But both teams took big steps forward this season and one of them is going to, at minimum, make the East semifinals. New York is defense-first, the Hawks are free shooters, and something will obviously have to give.
Key matchup: Julius Randle vs. Clint Capela. Forget the scoring exploits of Atlanta’s Trae Young for a second or the collection of perimeter shooting the Hawks have. The Knicks run through Randle, and Capela’s job is to defend, pester and rebound. If Randle gets in rhythm, advantage Knicks. If Capela controls the paint on the defensive end, advantage Hawks.
Prediction: Hawks in 7.
No. 2 PHOENIX SUNS (51-21) vs. No. 7 LOS ANGELES LAKERS (42-30, 1-0)
Season series: Suns, 2-1.
Story line: This might be the first time in NBA history that a No. 2 seed defeats a No. 7 seed and it would be considered an upset. According to FanDuel, the defending champion Lakers are the betting favorite in this series, even though the Suns won nine more games and — since the NBA went to a best-of-seven format for all rounds in 2003 — No. 2 seeds have won 35 of their 36 quarterfinal series against No. 7 seeds. Such is the power of LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Key matchup: Chris Paul vs. James. They’ve never gone head-to-head in the playoffs. James is dealing with the effects of a high ankle sprain, and Paul will have to deal with the pressure that comes with not yet making the NBA Finals.
Prediction: Lakers in 7.
No. 3 DENVER NUGGETS (47-25) vs. No. 6 PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (42-30)
Season series: Nuggets, 2-1.
Story line: Denver won 30 of its last 40 games, shocking many by not falling apart following Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury. Portland is in the playoffs for the eighth consecutive year — the longest current run in the NBA — but three of its last four appearances resulted in a first-round exit. It would seem like more pressure is on the Blazers.
Key matchup: Nikola Jokic vs. Jusuf Nurkic. It’ll be largely up to Nurkic to contain Denver’s MVP frontrunner, who controls just about everything that the Nuggets run. If Jokic isn’t slowed, even if only slightly, a tough task for the Blazers gets that much tougher.
Prediction: Nuggets in 7.
No. 4 LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (47-25) vs. No. 5 DALLAS MAVERICKS (42-30)
Season series: Mavericks, 2-1.
Story line: Both teams have some postseason demons to shake. The Clippers — a much different team last season — wasted a 3-1 lead in the second round against Denver and fell short of the West finals yet again. The last time the Mavericks won a playoff series, hard as this is to believe, was the 2011 NBA Finals. They were beaten in six games by the Clippers last season.
Key matchup: Kawhi Leonard vs. Luka Doncic. Leonard is a two-time NBA Finals MVP who had another excellent season, but there are questions about a foot injury; he says it’s no big deal now, but it’s been an issue for weeks. Doncic had two triple-doubles and three 38-point games against the Clippers in last season’s playoffs.
Prediction: Mavericks in 6.