The Whiteboard is The Step Back’s daily basketball newsletter, covering the NBA, WNBA and more. Subscribe here to get it delivered to you via email each morning.
The 2021 NBA Playoffs are just a few weeks away, and while the playoff fields are hardly set in stone for either conference, most teams only have 10 or so games remaining. That means there isn’t a ton of room for jostling up or down the standings, and at the very least, it means we’re already thinking ahead to potential first-round matchups.
In the interest of first-round entertainment, while still leaving room for even juicier matchups down the line, here’s a look at the eight postseason showdowns we want to see to begin the NBA Playoffs.
Brooklyn Nets vs. Washington Wizards
Barring injury problems, it’s hard to see the Nets not making the Finals. But in terms of first-round opponents they’ll most likely throttle, the Wizards are interesting by virtue of their recent 9-1 tear, Bradley Beal competing for the league scoring title and all the Russell Westbrook vs. Kevin Durant/James Harden narratives we’d get out of this series.
As it currently stands, the Wizards would have to win two play-in games to snag the 8-seed in the East, but they’re hotter than the two teams in front of them right now (Indiana Pacers and Charlotte Hornets) and would have the two best players in a series against either of those teams. Brooklyn probably wins this matchup handily, but the superstar pedigree on display would be elite.
Philadelphia 76ers vs. Boston Celtics
Aside from the obvious, longstanding playoff history between these two teams, there’s also very recent history to consider. The Celtics have knocked the Sixers out of the playoffs in two of the last three years — one in a sweep, and one in five games. Now Philly would have the chance to exorcise some demons in its first year with Doc Rivers at the helm.
However, as bad as things seem for Brad Stevens and Boston right now, this team did just make a run to the conference finals last season, and between Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker, they’ve got enough talent to make things interesting against a Sixers squad that still needs to prove itself with an actual conference finals run. The Celtics have no one who can stop Embiid, but they have more playoff experience, making this seemingly lopsided matchup far more intriguing than it initially appears.
Milwaukee Bucks vs. Miami Heat
Like the 76ers, the Bucks would be hoping to exact some revenge on a weaker version of the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year. And like the Celtics, the Heat are a wounded but still dangerous adversary thanks to the amount of playoff experience and sheer talent on their roster.
Miami has not looked like a real threat for most of the season, but it feels foolish to count out any team with Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Victor Oladipo, Goran Dragic and Erik Spoelstra in a seven-game series, especially after watching how Spo outcoached Mike Budenholzer and thwarted Giannis Antetokounmpo in the postseason just a few months ago. Milwaukee probably just has too much offense against this glitchy Heat squad, but it might be more competitive than one would expect. Plus, Bucks-Sixers in the second round would be fantastic.
New York Knicks vs. Atlanta Hawks
Rounding out the East: the two pleasant surprise teams that are just happy to be here! Okay, so maybe the Hawks expected to be here before the season started, but it took a midseason coaching change to Nate McMillan for that to actually materialize.
As long as Trae Young’s ankle is fine for the first round, this would be a fun series between two young teams. With Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, John Collins, Clint Capela and De’Andre Hunter on one side and Julius Randle, RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley on the other, seeing McMillan and Tom Thibodeau back in the postseason in this kind of pick ’em series would be a true delight. Even better, if the Knicks won, we’d likely get the battle for NYC in the second round.
Utah Jazz vs. Golden State Warriors
The Jazz haven’t been as dominant as they were to start the season, and it’s not just because of the recent injuries to Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley. Utah’s 3-point attack is historically great, but they’re only 7-6 over their last 13 games, and we’ve seen this team falter in the playoffs too many times before. Want to send a shiver up their spine? Give them a singular talent like Stephen Curry to try and contain.
Okay, so maybe the Dubs are still thoroughly outmatched here; Curry, this version of Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins, Kelly Oubre Jr. and a bunch of G Leaguers won’t instill much fear in one of the most complete teams in basketball. But we’d rather see the Warriors — the ideal play-in team — earn the honor of getting diced up by Utah than more feckless playoff threats like the Spurs, Grizzlies or Pelicans.
Phoenix Suns vs. Dallas Mavericks
If you thought the Deandre Ayton vs. Luka Doncic takes were heated before, just wait until they square off in the playoffs for the first time! In all honesty, the Suns have owned the Mavs since these two stars entered the league in 2018, with Phoenix boasting an 8-3 record in that span, including 6-1 over the last two seasons.
But even if Phoenix wouldn’t have much to fear from Doncic’s supporting cast of a banged-up Kristaps Porzingis and spare parts, this could be a fun series. Doncic was the real deal in his first playoff series last year, and aside from Chris Paul and Jae Crowder, most of Phoenix’s core rotation has yet to suit up for a single playoff game. Considering the storied history between these two, the Ayton-Luka angle and how fun both teams are to watch, this would be an entertaining first-round series, even if it wound up being fairly one-sided.
LA Clippers vs. Portland Trail Blazers
Paul George has turned into “Pandemic P” far too often in the postseason. If he wants to exorcise those demons, who better for him to conquer than Damian Lillard, the man who sent him home in 2019 and singlehandedly ended his tenure with the Oklahoma City Thunder? Even on a new team, those scars still cut deep.
The Blazers and their 29th-ranked defense don’t pose much of a threat, but the Clippers are also dealing with a few injury problems, most notably to Patrick Beverley and Serge Ibaka. If they’re not at full strength, Pandemic P re-emerges and Dame and CJ McCollum start hitting shots? Maybe things get more interesting than the likely five-game series we’ll see otherwise. And who’d be waiting for LA in the next round? Probably the Suns, a great matchup and an adversary the Clips have developed bad blood with after a few intense meetings over these last two years.
Denver Nuggets vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Even without taking last year’s conference finals into account, there’s still recent playoff history between these two teams. The Nuggets not having Jamal Murray really takes away some of their bite, but even as pundits doubt their ability to put a Finals run together, they’ve still won 15 of their last 18 games since the Aaron Gordon trade and are even making a push for the 3-seed.
Throw in the MVP frontrunner in Nikola Jokic and the fact that a banged-up Anthony Davis and LeBron James won’t have much time to shake the rust off and get back into playoff shape, and suddenly this series could be a bit spicier than anticipated. The defending champs will likely prevail, setting up a showdown with the No. 1 team in basketball in either Utah or Phoenix, but this would be a much more interesting road to the Larry O’Brien trophy than the cakewalk the Lakers enjoyed in the bubble. And then when you include the rivalry matchup against either the Suns or Clippers awaiting them in the Western Conference Finals, and this is a potentially thrilling path through the West.
Now that we’ve laid out the first-round playoff matchups we want to see the most, you might as well check out the odds of where each team is most likely to actually wind up.
In case you’re wondering where Chris Paul’s head is at for this stage in his career with the Suns, ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan wrote a terrific feature on it (subscription required).