Rod Beard's NBA playoffs preview: Expect the unexpected in unpredictable season

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
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Last season’s NBA playoffs brought something new, with the play-in tournament making its debut — and with it, some more intrigue. Of course, there were more games for the lower seeds, but from the first round through the NBA Finals, there were some classic games and some real surprises, leading up to the Los Angeles Lakers hoisting the championship trophy — in October.

Things are getting a little closer to being normal during the pandemic, but the playoffs look very much different, with the Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz surprisingly ending up as the No. 1 seeds. The defending-champion Lakers are the seventh seed after redeeming themselves in the play-in tournament. The New York Knicks — yes, those Knicks — are in the playoff field and hosting a first-round series, no less.

The Brooklyn Nets, led by James Harden (13), Kyrie Irving (11), and Kevin Durant (7), are the favorites to win the NBA title.

It’s been a wacky season both on and off the court, but the NBA playoffs are one of the best spectacles in sports. Although there are a couple of favorites, this season could play out to be one of the most unpredictable in terms of which teams are left standing in the Finals when all the smoke clears.

Here’s a look at the first-round matchups, which begin Saturday:

Eastern Conference

(1) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (8) Washington Wizards

Rundown: The 76ers made a statement by playing well throughout the season and holding on to claim the top seed. Joel Embiid looked every bit like an MVP candidate until he hit a patch of injuries. Philadelphia got a facelift with a new front office and coach and bolstered the roster, but until the 76ers make a deep playoff run, it’s just window dressing. The Wizards had a remarkable second half of the season to magically lift themselves into the eighth seed. With Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal, they have the arsenal to take at least a game in this series.

► Prediction: 76ers in 5

(2) Brooklyn Nets vs. (7) Boston Celtics

Rundown: The Celtics, one of the teams thought to be a contender after last season, had to fight through the play-in to get the seventh seed. The Nets are the Las Vegas favorites to win the championship, so the pressure will be on them and their star-studded cast that includes Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden. Because of injuries, the star trio has played together for just a handful of games this season, so whether they can jump into the playoffs and just mesh is a big question mark. The Nets can’t get caught looking ahead to the second round, so they’ll have to figure things out quickly. The Celtics have lost Jaylen Brown — and Jayson Tatum can carry them a bit — but the Nets will prevail pretty easily. If the Celtics go away quietly, will it mean a breakup of this version of the roster? Possibly, and that’s all on Danny Ainge.

► Prediction: Nets in 5

(3) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (6) Miami Heat

Rundown: It’s a rematch of last season’s surprising second-round upset. After an early exit last season, the Bucks have flown under the radar this year, with more of the attention on the 76ers and Nets. Giannis Antetokounmpo has had another strong season and he has a long-term commitment to Milwaukee, but it’s time they make a playoff run. The Bucks fine-tuned their roster with the addition of Jrue Holiday because their whole offense can’t be run through Antetokounmpo. The Heat surprised almost everyone last season with their run to the NBA Finals, but the East is on alert and knows what they can do. The Heat are structured to win this again, but the Bucks have a different motivation. 

► Prediction: Bucks in 6

(4) New York Knicks vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks

Rundown: The Knicks were supposed to be enjoying their offseason, but new coach Tom Thibodeau helped change things around quickly and built a winner. The expectations are undoubtedly higher, but with a firm foundation of veterans such as Julius Randle and Derrick Rose, they’re positioned to make some noise this season. The Hawks also had a revelatory season and after several years in the lottery, they’re poised to get some needed playoff experience for their young roster. This Knicks team looks to be built for the playoffs and this is a nice first-round opponent to get them tuned up for what looks to be an interesting second-round matchup.

Prediction: Knicks in 6

Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz finished with the best record in the regular season at 52-20.

Western Conference

(1) Utah Jazz vs. (8) Memphis Grizzlies

Rundown: In a highly competitive Western Conference, did anybody have the Jazz as the No. 1 seed? They’ve been steady all season with their defense, anchored by Rudy Gobert, a candidate for defensive player of the year. After some good playoff runs, they’ll have an opportunity to make a big statement about whether they’re true contenders. It won’t be a sweep in the first round, but it’ll be a good tune-up for what’s going to be a rugged road through the playoffs, no matter which team they face. The Jazz are solid, but they haven’t been able to get that big series win to show that they’re for real.

Prediction: Jazz in 5

(2) Phoenix Suns vs. (7) Los Angeles Lakers

Rundown: The Suns have gone from the outhouse to the penthouse in just a season — and much of that credit goes to Chris Paul, their big offseason addition. He makes teams better simply by his presence, and he’s been the shot in the arm that the Suns needed. Their roster is largely devoid of playoff experience, so getting the defending-champion Lakers in the first round is simply a bad draw for them. It almost doesn’t matter, because every team in the West is tough. The Lakers have been struck by injuries and they haven’t looked like themselves for most of the regular season — but this team isn’t assembled for the regular season anyway. Vegas favors the Lakers and it’s not hard to see why. The only question is whether they can stay healthy and if they can keep building chemistry in the midst of some tough games.

► Prediction: Suns in 6

(3) Denver Nuggets vs. (6) Portland Trail Blazers

Rundown: This might be one of the most evenly matched first-round series of all. The season-ending injury to Jamal Murray may be the biggest loss and even though the Nuggets are deep, Murray showed in the playoffs last season what kind of difference-maker he can be. Of course, the Nuggets still have likely MVP Nikola Jokic, who can cover for a lot of other shortcomings, along with Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon and Will Barton, if he’s healthy. The Blazers have been knocking on the door for a few years, and they may not have the right pieces off the bench to make it happen this time. The easy choice seems to be the Nuggets, but Damian Lillard has proven the easy choice wrong so many times that it gives reason for pause.

Prediction: Nuggets in 6

(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Dallas Mavericks

Rundown: The Clippers have the roster depth to be among the favorites to win it all. Their problem has been that they don’t quite make it far enough to see if they can win it all. After last season’s collapse, they switched coaches and now seem to be more laid-back and relaxed, feeling no pressure. They cruised through the regular season and now the bullseye is on the other top teams in the West. It’ll be a tough test in the first round, with a rematch of last season’s matchup against the Mavs, which the Clippers won in six games. It may be just as close this season, because Dallas has a deep roster that can play hard in close games. The Clippers will have to stay focused and take each game — or each quarter — one at a time.

Prediction: Clippers in 6

rod.beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

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