By Justin "Smoove" Everett
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There have been some great first round matchups in the NBA Playoffs so far, and perhaps none better than the Los Angeles Clippers' and the Dallas Mavericks' series that's facing a Game 7 on Sunday night.
In the series that have already concluded, however, it was indeed surprising to see the Denver Nuggets win their series against the Portland Trail Blazers while missing some key guards out of their rotation. I was equally impressed with the young Atlanta Hawks and their ability to win their series against the New York Knicks in five games. Regardless of how either conference shakes out in the second round and beyond, there will be two new conference representatives in the NBA Finals considering last year's reps, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat, have both been eliminated in the first round this year.
But for the purpose of this article, focusing on round two and the conference semi-finals, I’m looking forward to breaking down a few second-round teams that have a legitimate chance to win it all in 2021.
Nets vs Bucks (Nets -200 to win series)
- Next Game: Saturday, 7:40 p.m. EST On TNT (@ Brooklyn)
- Game 1 Odds: BKN -4 (-195), MIL +4 (+160), O/U 239.5
The Nets won the regular season matchup taking 2 out of 3 games while averaging 121.3 PPG against Brooklyn. However, this will be the first time that the Nets will have all members of their big 3 available so it’s difficult to read much into those matchups. I dug a little deeper into the data to decide who is the better team and who will win this series. During the regular season the Bucks had the better defense (ranked 8th out of 30 teams in defensive efficiency) and net rating (ranked 4th out of 30 teams).
Throughout their 1st round matchups in the playoffs, the Bucks still have the better defense (ranked 1st out of 16 teams) and net rating (ranked 1st out of 16 teams). The Bucks also faced a much tougher opponent in the Heat who had knocked Milwaukee out of the playoffs last year and was confident that they could do it again. The Bucks responded by sending a huge message sweeping the series while having a scoring margin of +82 with 3 games being blowout wins. The Nets took care of the Celtics in 5 games but it wasn’t that impressive. The Celtics were dealing with injuries, missing their 2nd best player in Jaylen Brown, and PG Kemba Walker was not impactful dealing with his own injuries that held him out 2 games.
The Celtics were able to win a game led by their young superstar Jayson Tatum who went for 50 points in Game 4. The Nets still have some issues on the defensive end ranking 23rd out of 30 teams in defensive efficiency during the regular season and 10th out of 16 teams in playoffs. The Nets big 3 of Harden, Durant and Irving will get most of the attention but I believe the Bucks' big 3 of Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday is just as impactful. During their 1st round matchup against the Heat, the Bucks big 3 had a net rating of +34 compared to the Nets big 3 against the Celtics had a net rating of +23. I also think the Bucks hold the edge in role players surrounding their big 3 and coaching. The Bucks big 3 make up 55% of their teams PPG compared to the Nets big 3 that make up 69% of their teams PPG. This series comes down to who’s group of role players will perform consistently and I give the edge to Milwaukee.
Like: Bucks to win the series +160
Hawks vs 76ers (76ers -188 to win series)
- Next Game: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. EST On ABC (@ Philadelphia)
- Game 1 Odds: PHI -3 (-143), ATL +3 (+120), O/U 220.5
The Philadelphia 76ers are the more talented and experienced team, but the injury to Joel Embiid dealing with a partially torn meniscus can have a huge impact for this series. Embiid was a strong MVP candidate during the regular season and likely would’ve won it if he didn’t miss to many games due to injury. In their 1st round matchup with the Wizards, he definitely put that on display before the injury. The 76ers won the regular season matchup against the Atlanta Hawks taking 2 out of 3 games, but not all key players played in every game for the Hawks, while Harris and Simmons missed a game in which they lost to Atlanta. If Embiid is able to play Game 1, then all key these players will be on the court for the first time all season.
Once the Hawks made their head coaching change from Lloyd Pierce to Nate McMillan and got some key players healthy, they started to find their stride going 27-11 in their last 38 regular season games. Their defense was on the same level as the 76ers in the month of May as well, at least for 8 games to close the regular season (76ers ranking 6th, Hawks ranking 8th). For the playoffs both defenses have carried over as the Hawks rank 2nd and the 76ers rank 4 out of 16 teams, but it’s the 76ers offense that has improved from the regular season ranking 5th out of 16 teams with a 121 rating. However, that production could drop now that they’ll be up against a better defense compared to the Wizards and their best offensive weapon possibly missing time. The 76ers hold a huge experience edge of the young Hawks, but they are also loaded with a lot of great young talent led by Trae Young, who’s playing great in his playoff debut.
Like: 76ers to win the series -188