Blame AAU basketball, blame the one-and-done generation, blame whatever you want, but what cannot be argued is that there is an international wave taking over the NBA. Increasingly it seems like the best and most influential players in the NBA are from countries and regions outside of the U.S.
Five Storylines to Watch For in the 2021 NBA Playoffs
By: Khaqan Khan
1. Do the Bucks and Clippers get their revenge ?
After last year's disappointing playoffs in the bubble, the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers became the butt of many jokes. People questioned Giannis's MVP and DPOY trophies. Paul George's entire existence became this shot. However, in 2020/2021, both teams took the right approach to shedding their past to establish themselves as contenders.
After being criticized for lack of adjustments, the Bucks compromised the #1 seed in order to experiment throughout the season. That meant using Giannis as a screener in the pick and roll, letting Khris Middleton take charge of late-game situations, and Budenholzer tightening up his rotations. Whether or not these adjustments will take them over the top remains to be seen, but regardless, being less predictable and empowering other players besides Giannis late in games will raise the ceiling of this team.
It's also important to remember how good the trio of Giannis Antenkoumpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday actually is. The Bucks should be fired up for their rematch against the Heat. This the perfect opportunity to show everyone what they've been working on all year.
As far as the Clippers, they beat the Mavericks last year, but that should not let up at all. The Mavericks feel they could have and should have won that series last year. No one doubts the talent on the Clippers, but no one trusts that this team has the mental fortitude to make it to the finals. Paul George has the case for the most disrespected player, but then again, he does say a lot of dumb shit. To his credit, he has done a better job of staying quiet during the season despite having a great year.
The Clippers are at their best when Paul George plays within himself and plays downhill. A lot of times, he settles for tough jump shots when he could easily have driven to the basket, which is crucial for the Clippers in late-game situations where they struggled for most of the season.
However, they have shown improvements in that regard with the acquisition of Rajon Rondo. Serge Ibaka and Terrence Mann have been quality new wrinkles to this team that offer them more versatility. The Clippers' success depends on the Clippers' mentality. They don't have the bubble as an excuse. Look for the Clippers to make a deep run in the playoffs and win back fans they lost last year.
2. Are the 2021 Miami Heat going to pull a 2020 Miami Heat?
The Miami Heat should not surprise anyone this year like they did last year. After a rigorous season dealing with numerous covid cases and injuries, the Miami Heat finally seem like they're picking up speed. Getting Goran Dragic and Jimmy Butler back healthy has solved a lot of the issues they had with their offense for most of the season. Bam Adebayo is one of the best defensive anchors in the league and might be the most versatile big man defender with his ability to stay with smaller guards.
Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson may not have taken the leap heat fans hoped for, but the retooled rotation has helped alleviate the pressure and allow them to settle into their roles. In underrated fashion, the Heat added Trevor Ariza, Nemanja Bjelica, and Victor Oladipo (Out for Season) midseason for almost nothing. Even signing someone like Dwayne Dedmon has provided some valuable depth. The Heat can go as far as Jimmy Butler can take them. Though his shooting has fallen off a bit, his playmaking is becoming elite, and he's doing a good job of making his teammates better.
If I'm the Nets, I would worry about facing the Heat in the second round if they manage to dismantle the Bucks like they did last year.
3. Michael Porter Jr the Ultimate X Factor?
This past month I wrote a Far Fetched Friday that Michael Porter Jr will be the next star to emerge. His all-around improvement paired with Jamal Murray's injury has allowed him to show everyone what he can do offensively. The two-man game between him and Jokic has started to click and has opened up the offense. On defense, the addition of Aaron Gordon has taken some pressure off him, even though he was showing real signs of improvement before Gordon got there. The Nuggets are my dark horse team to make it to the finals, but that all depends if Porter Jr. can become the go-to scorer like he believes he can. I think it might be one season too early, but the reps will accelerate his trajectory to greatness. It's also worth mentioning the Nuggets have Will Barton back this year as a dynamic swingman who desperately needed last year.
4. Moment of truth for Utah and Portland
First-round exits for both the Utah Jazz and the Portland Trail Blazers could mean the end of their respective eras. It would mean a lot of soul searching throughout the off-season. The Jazz would have to reevaluate if they can win with Rudy Gobert. The Trail Blazers will have to consider trading CJ McCollum to improve, especially after they compromised the future by trading for Robert Covington and Norman Powell. It might mean the end of Jusuf Nurkic and Damian Lillard's relationship as teammates. It is hard to imagine Terry Stotts returning. Even Lillard, who turns 31 in July and is as loyal as they come, will have to reevaluate his future with the team if they go in pseudo rebuild mode. There's a lot at stake for both teams. Failure to meet expectations will shift the narratives in a way that might be too difficult to overcome.
5. Does Defense still win Championships?
Perhaps the undertone I am paying most attention to this year centers around the old adage that "Defense wins championships." In the age where most casual fans barely watch games, defensive stats are without consensus, and highlight culture is dominant, it's hard to talk about the value of defense. I often find myself asking, 'Does defense even matter?'
I might be in the minority, but I love watching great defense. My youtube history is filled with compilations of defensive highlights from Ben Simmons, Bam Adebayo, and Matisse Thybulle. I get excited watching the historically bad Oklahoma City Thunder, just so I can Louguentz put someone in the Dort Chamber.
However, with the arrival of the three-headed monster that is the Brooklyn Nets, I started questioning whether or not defense matters when you have THREE OF THE BEST SCORERS EVER in the history of the league ON ONE TEAM.
Earlier this year, I wrote a Far Fetched Friday that the Philadelphia 76ers defense and the Nets' lack of one gives the advantage to the 76ers if they meet in the conference finals. Looking back on it, it seems more and more like wishful thinking.
If the Nets win the championship, I fear NBA fans will disregard the importance of defense and will justify the me-first culture of AAU. I hope young kids will watch teams like the New York Knicks and fall in love with a dying genre of basketball. But damn man, even if you can lock up Kyrie Irving and James Harden, you still have to deal with Kevin Durant. The Knicks could play world-beating defense against the Nets and still not have enough to keep up with them.
Does defense even matter? Does defense still win championships? I mean, the Lakers and Heat last year were both led by their defending. Whoever makes it out of the west will probably be a team that hangs their hats on defense. But the east?
If the Nets make it out with amazing offense and sub-par defense . . . I worry that might shift how we value that side of the ball going forward.
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