Updated: Jan 14, 2022
Two of the NBA’s most historic franchises, the Lakers and the Celtics, survived the play-in, but eighteen teams still remain in contention for the 2021 NBA championship, with four of those teams still competing for the final playoff spot in each conference. Here’s a breakdown for each series and our picks to advance:
76ers (1) vs Wizards/Hornets (8)
Since expanding the playoffs to sixteen teams during the 1983-84 season, top seeds have advanced in 69 of 74 first round matchups. The biggest issue with the Sixers will be the availability of Joel Embiid. When healthy, Embiid is among the best players in the league and is coming off the most dominant season of his career. Even in games he may have to miss, the Sixers are the better team regardless of their opponent in this series. The Sixers swept both of these teams in the regular season. Not to mention, the Sixers finished the season with the second best home record at 29-7.
Our pick: 76ers (TBD)
Nets (2) vs Celtics (7)
The Nets also swept their first round matchup during the regular season, with a perfect 3-0 record. Other than their lack of effort on defense, Brooklyn’s biggest struggle this season was having their three best players in Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving, all healthy and available at the same time. All three are set to play this weekend, but now the Celtics are struggling with injuries of their own and must play without Jaylen Brown for the remainder of their run. This Boston team, which has not played consistent basketball all season, is far from being at whatever was their best. These Nets are heavy favorites here for a reason.
Our pick: Nets (-1430)
Bucks (3) vs Heat (6)
Things start to get interesting with this series between two teams who split their regular season meetings, after the Heat made quick work of the Bucks in the bubble last year. Under a new coach and scheme, the Bucks won two out of three meetings this season. In order to win an NBA championship, the Bucks need their two-time MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, to be the best player on the floor in every series. We will be excited and a bit skeptical while we watch if he can get by this first test, but we wouldn’t pick against him.
Our pick: Bucks (-305)
Knicks (4) vs Hawks (5)
Not only are the Knicks back in the playoffs for the first time since 2013, but they will play host as the higher seed in this series against the Hawks. During the regular season, the Knicks swept the Hawks in three meetings. After a handful of failed high-profile hires, the Knicks finally seem to have the head coach position right in Tom Thibodeau. New York also has a star player on the rise in Julius Randle, who is still only 26 years old. The momentum behind this Knicks team is real, we are buying into a first round win.
Our pick: Knicks (+100)
Jazz (1) vs Warriors/Spurs (8)
For the first time in franchise history, the Utah Jazz finished the season with the best record in basketball. They also finished the season with the best home record in the league at 31-5. The Spurs historic run seems to be over and, even if they do sneak into the playoffs, they will not be much of a threat. They are far less talented than the Spurs and lost all three meetings during the regular season. If the Warriors advance, which we believe will happen (bonus pick!), then the Jazz would face a tougher test. The Warriors won two of three games against the Jazz this season, both in their home arena. Along with the health of their star guard, Donovan Mitchell, Utah’s ability to win at home will be key to their success in these playoffs.
Our pick: Jazz (TBD)
Suns (2) vs Lakers (7)
For the first time in this post we are going to ignore the regular season numbers. No disrespect to the Suns, who had a tremendous season behind the MVP-caliber play of an ageless Chris Paul, and who beat the Lakers in two of three meetings, but this series is about the best player in all of basketball. Even with Anthony Davis missing time, and before the acquisition of Andre Drummond, LeBron James was having himself an MVP worthy season and had the Lakers at the top of the West until an ankle injury forced him to miss time. That’s when things went south for the Lakers, but do not be fooled, LeBron and AD are back. These defending NBA champs are not your usual seventh seed.
Our pick: Lakers (-159)
Nuggets (3) vs Trail Blazers (6)
Although they lack championship pedigree, the Blazers are another team that is difficult to gauge heading into this post-season. Damion Lillard is certainly among the best, and most clutch, players in this league and that definitely counts for something in an elimination format, but the team around him has been largely unhealthy and inconsistent at best. Dame’s running mate, C.J. McCollum, seems healthy now and Norman Powell was a nice acquisition, but they will have to play a Nuggets team who they do not match up well against. The Nuggets, who beat the Blazers in two of three regular season meetings, also brought in a talented player at the deadline, Aaron Gordon, who will make an even bigger impact than expected as he helps with ball-handling duties in the absence of guard Jamaal Murray, who will miss the playoffs with a torn ACL. If you can’t tell, we are struggling to pick a side here. Last time these teams met in the playoffs, it was decided in Game 7. We can safely expect some exciting basketball.
Our pick: Nuggets (-110)
Clippers (4) vs Mavericks (5)
The Clippers claim to be motivated by their collapse in the bubble last season. So motivated that they purposefully lost two games against two of the worst teams in the league just to avoid a first round series against the Lakers. A loss like that would force an instant rebuild, but anything short of a finals appearance here might cause the same. Time will tell if the Clippers’ “strategic” plan works and this first round series, against a Mavs team that beat them in two of three meetings this season, is not easy win. The Clippers battled their own set of injuries this season and whether this team has built enough chemistry remains an issue. Still, these are not issues we would expect this inexperienced Mavs team to expose over the course of a series.
Our pick: Clippers (-400)
*This preview does not represent our final picks for this event. For our full set of picks, check out our Game Picks section!
**Odds accurate at time of posting.