The 2021 NBA postseason has arrived, and this year has the potential to be the wildest in recent memory. With a compressed schedule, coronavirus-related absences and seemingly an uptick in injuries to superstar players, most teams have had little time to find a rhythm with each other. Many of the championship favorites, such as the Lakers and Nets, will need to develop championship-level chemistry while in the fire of the playoffs.
While the lack of playing and practice time may lessen the quality of play, it will lead to some thrilling basketball, especially in the first-round. This year’s Play-in tournament gave fans a nibble of what is to come, but nothing will compare to the excitement and feel of the upcoming postseason series.
Sports Illustrated ranks the most entertaining first-round matchups of the 2021 NBA playoffs.
8. Utah Jazz vs Memphis Grizzlies
Tip-off: Sunday, May 23 9:30 p.m. ET
Though the Grizzlies have impressed many by eliminating the Warriors in the Play-in tournament, the Jazz will be a completely different beast in the first-round. Utah, in contrast to Golden State’s one-man wrecking crew, has a more egalitarian style of play and will be much harder to anticipate on defense.
The Grizzlies have pulled off the very rare one-seed upset in 2011, but virtually all remnants of that Grit-and-Grind team have since disembarked or retired. That team’s starting point guard, Mike Conley, will ironically be lining up on the other side for this series, and his playoff return will be the most intriguing storyline in a series that the Jazz should otherwise win handily.
7. Boston Celtics vs Brooklyn Nets
Tip-off: Saturday, May 22 8 p.m. ET
The Celtics and Nets have some great storylines between them. The two are meeting in the playoffs for the first time since the infamous Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trade, where Boston dealt its aging franchise icons for a massive haul of draft picks. Nets star Kyrie Irving also parted with the Celtics on icy terms in the 2019 offseason, which has not been lost on their fans.
However, this series should not be particularly close between the two division rivals. Boston has been very underwhelming this season as is, and with Jaylen Brown out for the playoffs due to a wrist injury, it does not have nearly enough firepower to hang with a healthy Brooklyn team.
6. New York Knicks vs Atlanta Hawks
Tip-off: Sunday, May 23 8 p.m. ET
This series could be as close as any in the first-round. Both teams lack playoff experience from its main players, and their organizations have not made the playoffs in some time. Hawks coach Nate McMillan has also been very vocal recently about what he sees as bias toward the Knicks.
Seeing New York and Atlanta back in the playoffs will no doubt be entertaining. However, the stakes in this series are fairly minimal. The winner, regardless of who it actually is, will not make any significant noise in later rounds. In all likelihood, the two teams are competing for optics and the chance to be steamrolled by one of the conference’s top tier in the second- or third-round.
5. Los Angeles Clippers vs Dallas Mavericks
Tip-off: Saturday, May 22 4:30 p.m. ET
The Clippers seemed very content losing their last two games of the season, which notably avoided a potential second-round series against the Lakers. However, in the process, the Clips also ensured a first-round matchup with the five-seed Mavericks, who are entering the playoffs as one of the hottest teams and hold the best record in the league since April 19.
Though Los Angeles is still the favorite and holds home-court advantage, Dallas should have a puncher’s chance of knocking it off. The Mavericks pushed LA to six games last year on the back of a herculean performance from Luka Dončić. With a healthy Kristaps Porziņģis and retooled roster from both teams, fans could be in line for a very fun and close series.
4. Washington Wizards vs Philadelphia 76ers
Tip-off: Sunday, May 23 1 p.m. ET
The record disparity between these two teams is greater than any in the playoffs. The one-seed 76ers also have an MVP finalist in Joel Embiid, who could look like the best and most impactful player in the NBA on any given night. Even coaching-wise, Philadelphia head coach Doc Rivers has almost double the amount of playoff wins as his counterpart on the other side, Scott Brooks.
However, the Wizard’s starpower is too great of a wild card to be overlooked in this first-round series. Even in the Play-in tournament, Washington went from getting blown off the floor by Boston in its first game to annihilating Indiana in its second. Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal certainly have enough talent to make a seven-game series against the 76ers interesting.
3. Denver Nuggets vs Portland Trail Blazers
Tip-off: Saturday, May 22 10:30 p.m. ET
Neither of these teams are going to be lauded for their defense, and the Trail Blazers in particular are known for being particularly awful on that end of the floor. However, these two explosive offenses battling in a seven-game series is going to make for a lot of exciting basketball.
Jamal Murray’s ACL injury likely torpedoed Denver’s title chances, but it leveled the playing field in this series against lower-seeded Portland. The last time these two teams met in the playoffs, in the 2019 Western Conference Semifinals, the series went down to the wire in Game 7, and fans would not be wrong to expect the same this time around.
2. Los Angeles Lakers vs Phoenix Suns
Tip-off: Sunday, May 23 3:30 p.m. ET
Phoenix has had an incredible season up to this point en route to securing the two-seed in the West and breaking an 11-year playoff drought. But the Suns got the short end of the stick by drawing the defending champions in the first-round.
LA will be favored as the lower seed, but victory won’t come easy. The Suns have been a well-run, gritty team the entire season whereas the Lakers have struggled with player absences and developing team chemistry. When healthy, which has not been a given this season, Los Angeles should have the two best players in the series, by far, in LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
1. Milwaukee Bucks vs Miami Heat
Tip-off: Saturday, May 22 2 p.m. ET
Bucks owner Marc Lasry went on the record this week, saying his team wanted to face the Heat in the first-round when they could have easily tanked to ensure a different opponent. Be careful what you wish for. This is a very similar Miami roster to the one that became hot in last year’s playoffs and embarrassed Milwaukee in the bubble.
Regardless of what Lasry says, the Heat matchup well with the Bucks. Not only do they have Bam Adebayo, who is seemingly the perfect foible for reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, but their head coach Erik Spoelstra is very experienced in exploiting Milwaukee’s weaknesses. The Bucks better hope acquisitions Jrue Holiday and P.J. Tucker lead to a different result because a first-round exit would spell disaster for them.