The NBA Playoffs have gotten off to a crazy start, with the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers bowing out in the first round and the super-team Brooklyn Nets in the second.
There have been incredible displays, like Damian Lillard’s 55-point 10-rebound game with 10 threes against the Denver Nuggets, there have been terrible disappointments, and there has been a youthful takeover from young stars around the league.
Taking every piece of action into consideration, there are the three highs and lows of the postseason thus far.
2021 NBA Playoffs | The Highs
Analytics have taught NBA fans and personnel that the most valuable shots in the NBA are three-pointers and free throws, and while that may be true at face value, the postseason is when the mid-range comes alive.
With time running short down the stretch, NBA players have opted to shoot most of their shots within the three-point line. Whether it be Luka Doncic, Devin Booker, Jayson Tatum, Kevin Durant, or Kawhi Leonard, all of these stars are capable of consistently knocking down shots from fifteen feet for a reason.
If anyone needs any proof that the mid-range is alive and well, check out a Phoenix Suns game. Chris Paul scored 37 points in a closeout game in Denver by attempting zero three-pointers and using the high pick and roll to free himself for easy buckets inside the arc. Kids at home, take note.
For the first time since 2006, the NBA Finals will be fought between squads that do not include LeBron James, Steph Curry or Kobe Bryant.
Among the teams still fighting in the playoffs, the most recent winner of the NBA Finals (Philadelphia 76ers) has not won since 1983. This means that regardless of who wins it all this year, they will be ending at least a 38-year drought.
From the NBA’s standpoint, the fight between different markets is great for business, even if they are still large areas. The league has been accused of favoring the same organizations, and players are usually drawn to a small selection of locations. The inclusion of different teams in these late stages of the playoffs could help change the direction of the league and the super-team mentality in large markets.
Excluding Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer, every head coach left in the playoffs is either in their first year or the first full year with their team, and they have performed incredibly well.
The Atlanta Hawks were 14-20 when Nate McMillan took over for Lloyd Pierce, and he transformed them into a winning team that went 27-11 to close the regular season. Tyronn Lue has led the Los Angeles Clippers to the first conference finals in the organization’s history, despite disparaging words from his former boss Doc Rivers.
“Ty Lue was sitting right next to me,” Rivers said of then-Assistant Coach Lue about choking a 3-1 lead in the playoffs, implying that Lue could do no better than he had.
Rivers himself moved to Philadelphia and led the 76ers to the top-seed in the Eastern Conference and is hunting for his second NBA Championship as a Head Coach.
Monty Williams led the Suns to 17 more wins than they had the year before he took over full-time despite playing 10 fewer regular-season games, eliminated the defending champion Lakers in the first round, and swept the Nuggets to make his first conference finals appearance. Enough cannot be said about the job of these coaches in new locations.
2021 NBA Playoffs | The Lows
Free Throw Shooting
There are two main targets to attack here: Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Simmons is shooting 33.8% from the charity stripe in the playoffs and single-handedly threw Game Five, making four of 14 free throw attempts and falling victim to “Hack-a-Ben” in the fourth quarter, leading to an Atlanta Hawks comeback.
Simmons was a 70.7% free throw shooter during his first playoff appearance in 2017-18, fell to 57.5% in 2018-19, and has continued to plummet towards historic lows. Simmons’ demons at the line have gotten so bad that Doc Rivers benched him for an extended stretch of the fourth quarter in Game Six and waited until the 2:00 mark to reinsert him.
Antetokounmpo is not shooting as poorly as Simmons but is still leaving much to be desired at 53.8%, 15.3% lower than his regular-season standard.
The worst part of the Greek Freak’s struggles is his routine at the line, which takes so long that he has received multiple 10-second violations and caused Brooklyn’s crowd to count in unison when preparing to take his foul shots.
The Milwaukee Bucks barely made it past the Brooklyn Nets, but with the prospect of the Eastern Conference Finals turning into a showdown between Giannis and Simmons at the free-throw line, there may only be two losers in the next round.
The 2021 playoffs set an unfortunate record for most All-Star absences with EIGHT as a reduced offseason and crammed playing schedule took its devastating toll on the league’s most elite talent.
Anthony Davis, James Harden, Joel Embiid, Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley and Kawhi Leonard all missed at least one game with injury while LeBron James operated at less than 100% while dealing with an ankle injury.
Key players like Jamal Murray, Kemba Walker and Spencer Dinwiddie also missed time, making these playoffs one of the most painful viewing experiences for fans at home.
Regardless of who wins it all this year, the hope is that everyone can rest up and come back strong and healthy by next season.
Health and Safety Protocols
The NBA was a pioneer in safely conducting day-to-day operations during the pandemic, most notably by creating and executing the bubble earlier this year. Commissioner Adam Silver has taken a strict approach in dealing with exposure to COVID and has placed many players on the league’s absent list due to health and safety protocols, which can run as long as 14 days.
LeBron James was reported to have broken the league’s protocols and potentially have been exposed to COVID the day before Game Two against the Phoenix Suns but was not suspended. This was the first case of the league showing real, potentially unjustified leniency to a player— and of course, it was to the biggest star in the game.
Compare this stance on James to that of the one taken against Chris Paul, who tested positive for COVID even though he had been vaccinated months before. Paul is not only the leader of the NBA Players Association, but he is also the Suns’ leader and played a huge part in them reaching the conference finals. Even still, Paul has been suspended indefinitely while he navigates health and safety and will miss Game One against the Los Angeles Clippers and could be out until as long as Game Six if he cannot produce two negative tests 24-hours apart from each other.
Only time will tell what is next for the peaks and valleys of the 2021 NBA Playoffs, but with the Finals approaching quickly, the answer will be revealed very soon.
Grant Mitchell is a sportswriter and multimedia contributor for the Sports 2.0 Network dealing with basketball, football, soccer, and other major sports: you can connect with him on Twitter @milemitchell to stay up to date with the latest sports news and to engage personally with him.