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2021 Eastern Conference Playoff Review

Updated: Sep 7, 2021

It has been an amazing first two weeks of the NBA playoffs. It’s been breakout after breakout for the next generation of NBA stars like Ja Morant, Devin Booker, Trae Young, and Deandre Ayton, showing they’re all made for the big stage in their playoff debuts. Fans should be thrilled that the game, thus far, has proven feisty and competitive, with blowouts being few and far between.

The Milwaukee Bucks, led by superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, have swept the Miami Heat, led by Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo in a series that wasn’t exceedingly competitive outside of Game 1, where the Bucks defeated the Heat 107-105 in a classic overtime battle. The Bucks destroyed the Heat in the paint, on the glass, and just overpowered the same team that had their seed in last year's playoffs in the bubble.

To close the Heat out, Antetokounmpo finished with a triple-double, scoring 20 points, grabbing 12 rebounds, and dishing out 15 assists, looking like Magic Johnson on the court. His teammates Brook Lopez, Jrue Holiday, Bryn Forbes, and Khris Middleton all combined for 78 points to help carry the Bucks to victory. Butler had a 12-point triple-double for the Heat and Adebayo recorded 20 points and 14 rebounds, but they just didn’t retain enough offensive firepower and intensity to make this a competitive series.

The same players who assisted the Heat reach the finals in 2020 fell short. Duncan Robinson only finished with five points in the final game, while Tyler Herro shot a brutal 32% from the field in the series. Miami’s veterans haven’t competed well either, with 37-year-old Andre Iguodala displaying his age, and Goran Dragic lacking the effectiveness he once displayed last season. The Bucks will play the Brooklyn Nets and their big three led by superstars Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving in the second round.

Speaking of Brooklyn, the Nets closed out the Jayson Tatum-led Boston Celtics in Game 5, led by Harden’s 34-point triple-double. It comes as no surprise. The Celtics are without All-Star wing Jaylen Brown, out with a torn ligament in his left wrist, and also dealing with an injured Kemba Walker, who hasn’t been himself all season due to recurring knee issues. It took a historic 50-point Game 3 performance by Jayson Tatum in TD Garden to avoid the sweep on the Celtics. He would drop 40 points in Game 4, and finish with 32 points in Game 5. The Bucks massively exploited the Celtics’ lack of size and depth in this series, a season-long problem for Boston. The big three for the Nets combined for an NBA-record, 104 points — by just three players — and will play the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Semi-Finals round.

The Bucks possess a more athletic team than the Celtics, with more physical defenders in Giannis and Holiday, a scorer in Middleton, and a solid bench. It will make for a long, competitive series. Game one started with a surprising hamstring injury a minute into the game for Harden who missed a chunk of the season because of the same injury earlier in the season. It’s been reported he will miss Game two and the Nets will have to adjust. Durant finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds, and three assists. Irving had 25 points, five rebounds, and eight assists. But it was former all star Blake Griffin, who picked up his production for the Nets in Game one, with Harden’s absence creating opportunities for a double double with 18 points, 14 rebounds, and three assists in the Nets 115-107 win. His production will be crucial throughout the series if they want to beat the Bucks, especially if Harden isn’t healthy.

Antetokounmpo was productive all game with 34 points, 11 rebounds, and four assists. Holiday was impactful as well with 17-9-6 and Lopez had 19 points with five boards. The Bucks lost this game by shooting a horrid 20% from the three point range, and Middleton scoring just 13 points.The Bucks also had more turnovers than the Nets 14-8, unable to convert on free throws, shooting 57% from the line.They will seek to make performance adjustments and shoot better overall to tie the series in Game two.

As one New York team advances to the second round in the Nets, the New York Knicks were eliminated in Game 5 at the Garden, where the Atlanta Hawks won the series 5-1. The polarizing Trae Young carved and ate up the Knicks’ defensive schemes all series. The game winner in Game 1, step-back threes, beautiful touch floaters, and countless alley-oops to John Collins and Clint Capela, helping to energize the crowd and demoralize the Knicks. The Knicks have shot terribly all series from the field and beyond the arc, shooting just 39% from the field and #0% from beyond the arc. They shot an atrocious 31% in Game 4, where they lost 113-96. Julius Randle has not looked like the NBA’s Most Improved Player and other players, such as RJ Barrett, proved to be lacking in similar areas.

Derrick Rose has been the only consistent productive offensive player for the Knicks. Rose persevered through many injuries throughout his career since he won MVP in 2011, and is still regarded as a very renowned player. However, at the ripe age of 32 years old, he is not known as a playmaker who contributes to excelling his team’s performance, and he is certainly not regarded as the player he once was in his prime. The Knicks lack the talent and offensive firepower that the Hawks maintain, and it has been exploited all series long.

The Hawks closed out the Knicks 103-89 at Madison Square Garden (MSG). The Knicks had no answer for the magnetic and electric play of their star Trae Young, who finished with 36 points, nine assists, four rebounds, and two steals. In Game 5, Young became the first player since Michael Jordan with three consecutive 30-point games at MSG in the playoffs. Despite shooting four of 13 from the field in the first half and three of 11 from deep throughout the game, Young was aggressive all night against the Knicks defense. The 22-year-old guard shot 13 of 15 points from the line, constantly attacking and pressuring the Knicks. Finishing with a bow at the end of the game, embracing the role of the villain, perfectly capped off the series.

Clint Capela helped out with a double-double with 14 points and 15 rebounds. De’Andre Hunter contributed 15 points, and 13 came from the high-flying John Collins, who at one point in the game caught a beautiful pass from Young on a reverse-layup alley-oop that he kissed softly off the glass and in. It was a chippy and gritty game with Young and the Knicks’ Reggie Bullock getting into a scuffle going into the half, Julius Randle elbowing Young after a rebound, and Taj Gibson pushing Hunter on an alley-oop attempt that led to a scary fall for Hunter.

Despite 23 points and thirteen rebounds from Randle, and 17 points, five assists, and seven rebounds for Barrett, who were the Knicks leading scorers throughout the game, they had trouble shooting the ball from the field, shooting a barbaric 37% throughout the game. The Hawks won the points in the paint battle, finishing with a 44 to 30 advantage on the Knicks. Rose, who’s been the most consistent offensive player throughout the series for New York, appeared fatigued, finishing with just six points and five assists. The Hawks were just too much offensively for the Knicks to overcome. Atlanta will play the Philadelphia 76ers in the semifinal round, who have long, agile, and elastic defenders in Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle to throw at Young. However, without a healthy Joel Embiid, the Sixers will lack the advantage in the paint.

Lastly, there’s the series between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Washington Wizards. With the Sixers up 3-0, the Wizards won Game 4 to force a Game 5, despite a terrible shooting performance by Washington’s Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal, who shot 15% and 39% from the field, respectively. Embiid has dominated the Wizards all series long, but exited with just over seven minutes left in the game, reported with a right knee soreness that was later confirmed as a small meniscus tear.

After Embiid left the game, Simmons missed crucial free throws down the stretch that could have captured the game and the series. He missed all nine attempts from the stripe throughout the whole series and was one of three in the game before the Wizards did “Hack a Ben” throughout the fourth quarter. He went four of eight down the stretch, and it cost his team the game. It’s caused a lot of controversy about his inability to score outside five feet of the paint. Simmons’ lack of even attempting shots, let alone making them, has adversely punished his team over the years and could cost Philadelphia a championship this season.

Despite that, the Sixers closed out the Wizards without their star center Embiid in a 129-114 win in the Wells Fargo Center. The point forward of the Sixers, Ben Simmons finished with a 19 point triple-double, including ten rebounds, and eleven assists. Tobias Harris contributed 28 points, nine rebounds, and six assists, but the unsung hero of this game who showed out and stepped up was Seth Curry, the savvy 30-year old marksman who finished with 30 points, shooting an astounding 58% from the field and 50% from three.

The Wizards star backcourt in Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook combined for 59 points. Beal finished with 32 points, seven rebounds, and five assists, but struggled from three, shooting just two of seven behind the arc. Meanwhile, Westbrook flirted with a triple-double finishing with 24 points, eight rebounds, and 10 assists, but he shot a callous 35% from the field and had four turnovers. Rui Hachimura pitched in 21 points and six rebounds but nobody else scored in double figures. The Wizards had too many turnovers, with 15 compared to the Sixers’ eight.

The Embiid-less Sixers manhandled the Wizards in the paint, outscoring Washington 52 to 38 in the paint. The Sixers move onto the semi-final round where they will play the red-hot Hawks, where they must contain the sizzling Young and make it tougher for the others to score. The big question for this series is will Embiid be healthy enough to play this series and, if so, how healthy will he be? Without Embiid, the Sixers don’t have an advantage in the paint, nor someone to punish Capela and Collins consistently, making for an interesting series.

The Hawks held on to take Game 1 by the skin of their teeth 128-124. The Hawks were up 42-27 at the end of the first quarter and were up by as much as 26 points, led by Young’s 25 first half-points and 35 in the game overall, to go along with 10 assists. The Hawks led by 20 leading into the half, but the Sixers kept making little pushes here and there behind Embiid’s monstrous 39 points, nine boards, and four assists. Simmons had 17 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists, but his struggles from the charity stripe continued to haunt him, shooting just three of 10. Tobias Harris had 20 points with 10 rebounds, with Curry helping with 21 points as well. Philadelphia made a push in the fourth quarter, forcing some crucial turnovers on Young by pressuring him with Simmons and Thybulle, but Atlanta kept killing Philadelphia all night from beyond the arc.

The Hawks shot 42% from 3 led by Kevin Huerter’s 15 points and Bogdan Bodanovic’s 21. The barrage included a crucial 3-pointer in crunch time by Bogdanovic to quiet the crowd in Philadelphia, ruining their chances of an epic comeback victory. The Sixers will look to tie the series in Game 2.

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