NBA playoffs 2021: Matchups, intel and predictions

The 2020-21 NBA playoffs — and play-in! — are finally here. And this thing is as wide open as ever.

But before we lock in the full 16-team field, here’s a look at the first round of the play-in tournament, during which two teams from each conference will secure the Nos. 7 and 8 seeds:

Eastern Conference (Tuesday, May 18)

Western Conference (Wednesday, May 19)

And, yes, that is not a typo: The defending champion Lakers are in fact fighting for their postseason lives in the play-in tournament. If they can make it into the field, a healthy LeBron James and Anthony Davis could make the Lakers one of the most dangerous No. 7 or No. 8 seeds in NBA history.

The Lakers are among 20 teams still vying for an NBA championship. Here’s everything you need to know about each of them, including the most concerning challenges, stats to watch and the biggest matchups in each first-round series and play-in showdown.

Note: Las Vegas odds provided by Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill. Statistics provided by ESPN Stats & Information research.

East 1-6 seeds | East play-in
West 1-6 seeds | West play-in

Eastern Conference

1. Philadelphia 76ers
2020-21 record: 49-23
Vegas title odds: +700

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    After an offseason full of changes, including a new president of basketball operations (Daryl Morey), coach (Doc Rivers) and two new starters (Danny Green and Seth Curry), the Sixers sat atop the Eastern Conference for most of the season, and finished with the top seed. A big reason for that was the play of Joel Embiid, who, when he was available, might have been the NBA’s most dominant player in easily the best campaign of his career.

    Biggest concern along their playoff path
    Can this team score enough? Setting aside the obvious potential for injury, no one questions Philadelphia’s ability to play suffocating defense when it is whole. But the 76ers’ second-ranked defense is superior to the team’s 13th-ranked offense, which can tend to get bogged down, especially when its streaky 3-point shooters start missing. Then there’s the issue of scoring late in games — that has been a problem in Philly for years — and it remains to be seen if this season’s team will solve it.

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    0:55

    Monica McNutt believes the Nets will make it out of the East despite the 76ers clinching the No. 1 seed.

    Their playoff ceiling is …
    NBA champion. The Sixers are one of the handful of teams that should enter the postseason feeling like they have a legitimate chance to win. And with Brooklyn and Milwaukee being forced to duke it out in the Eastern Conference semifinals, it will be unacceptable for Philadelphia to fail to at least reach the Eastern Conference finals, a feat the 76ers haven’t done in 20 years.

    Fan attendance
    The 76ers are permitted to allow 15% capacity at Wells Fargo Arena.

    Tim Bontemps

    One stat to watch
    The 76ers rank second in defensive efficiency (107.0) behind the Lakers (106.8) this season, and the defense at each position has been stellar. According to ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus, the 76ers are the only team with a player in the top 10 at every position: Danny Green (third among SFs), Tobias Harris (fourth among PFs), Joel Embiid (sixth among Cs), Ben Simmons (fifth among PGs) and Seth Curry (eighth among SGs). — Jose De Leon


    2. Brooklyn Nets
    2020-21 record: 48-24
    Vegas title odds: +220

    The Nets are a team brimming with talent, but they have simply been unable to stay healthy this season. Since completing a blockbuster trade in January that landed James Harden — and also saw the departures of longtime Nets players Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert — the Nets’ Big Three have played in just eight games together: Kyrie Irving has missed a handful of games for personal reasons and various small injuries, Kevin Durant missed over a month with a hamstring strain and had two coronavirus contact-tracing-related absences and Harden missed over a month with a hamstring strain before returning to the lineup with two games remaining in the regular season.

    Biggest concern along their playoff path
    The Nets’ biggest concern is getting through the postseason injury free. The fewest games a championship team’s top three scorers have played together in a regular season is 10, when the 2001 Lakers played just 10 games with Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Derek Fisher. Yes, the Nets have had a limited number of games to build chemistry and yes, they’d be challenging that benchmark set by the Lakers. Still, as long as the Nets can stay healthy, there’s no better trio contending for a championship right now.

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    0:47

    Max Kellerman says James Harden will win NBA Finals MVP as the Nets stomp through the playoffs.

    Their playoff ceiling is …
    NBA champions. The Nets are one of the most offensively potent teams in NBA history and despite playing just a handful of regular season games at full strength, they still have the highest offensive rating in the league and score the second-most points per game, making them a formidable opponent against anyone.

    Fan attendance
    The Nets are permitted to allow 10% capacity at Barclays Center.

    Malika Andrews

    One stat to watch
    No doubt the Nets want to have Harden available with the game on the line. In games he has played clutch-time minutes with the Nets, the team is 18-2 with an effective field goal percentage of 59% and an offensive efficiency of 128.9. Those numbers are down significantly without him: Brooklyn is 9-11 with an effective field goal percentage of 48% and an offensive efficiency of 112.9 when The Beard sits. — Jose De Leon


    3. Milwaukee Bucks
    2020-21 record: 46-26
    BPI odds vs. MIA: 54%
    Vegas title odds: +750

    After two dominant regular seasons failed to translate into postseason success, Milwaukee changed its approach. It was made clear to coach Mike Budenholzer that he needed to be more flexible with his schemes at both ends to better prepare for the playoffs, and he has been. The Bucks pushed all their chips in to trade for the Pelicans’ Jrue Holiday, and he has been every bit of the upgrade over Eric Bledsoe at point guard they hoped. They also later added P.J. Tucker at the trade deadline to give them even more versatility. And while the Bucks are worse from a record standpoint entering the playoffs, they believe they are more prepared than ever behind reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

    Biggest concern along their playoff path
    Will all of the changes work? The past two playoffs have not been kind to Budenholzer, in particular, who struggled to keep up with adjustments by Toronto’s Nick Nurse and Miami’s Erik Spoelstra during last season’s playoffs. Budenholzer has made a concerted effort to experiment more in the regular season this season, and it has paid off. But until those adjustments are put into the pressure cooker that is facing teams like the Nets and 76ers in the playoffs, it’s hard to know if they’ll stick. Beyond that, can Antetokounmpo be the best player on the floor in every series? He wasn’t against Toronto last season, and then wasn’t before getting hurt against Miami. He will need to be for the Bucks to reach their ceiling.

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    2:05

    Stephen A. Smith explores the Bucks’ playoff chances and if they can beat the best teams in the East when it matters most.

    Matchup to watch in Round 1: Giannis vs. Miami’s defense
    During the second round last season, when Miami made quick work of Milwaukee in the bubble, the Heat were able to frustrate Antetokounmpo, sending him into one wall of defenders after another before the MVP ultimately sprained his ankle and missed the end of the series. There will not be a better test of the changes that the Bucks have made this season in preparation for the playoffs than going back up against that same Heat defense.

    Their playoff ceiling is …
    NBA champion. Having to beat both Brooklyn and Philadelphia will make for a challenging road to the Finals, but these Bucks are more than capable of pulling it off than ever before.

    Fan attendance
    The Bucks are permitted to allow 50% capacity at Fiserv Forum.

    Tim Bontemps

    One stat to watch
    The Bucks (120.1 PPG) are the first team to average at least 120 points per game for a season since the 1984-85 Nuggets. Entering this season, 22 teams averaged 120 points per game in a season; four of those went on to win the title (1972 Lakers, 1967 76ers, 1960 and 1962 Celtics). — Jose De Leon


    4. New York Knicks
    2020-21 record: 41-31
    BPI odds vs. ATL: 41%
    Vegas title odds: +8000

    After years of a swirling cycle of coaching changes, public drama and bottom-dwelling results, the Knicks have cracked the playoffs for the first time since the Carmelo Anthony era. They hired Leon Rose as the team’s new president and made Tom Thibodeau their new head coach. The Knicks have stormed into the postseason behind the play of Julius Randle, who has ascended into a bona fide star this season, earning him his first All-Star appearance. The 26-year-old leads New York in scoring, assists and usage. And he is flanked by key rotational players, including R.J. Barrett, Derrick Rose and sharpshooter Reggie Bullock.

    Biggest concern along their playoff path
    Their lack of postseason experience. The Knicks’ starters have played a combined 16 total playoff games: Nerlens Noel has competed in 12 postseason contests, and Reggie Bullock has appeared in four. Randle, who has led them through the regular season, will be playing in his first postseason. The Knicks have been exceptional in close games to end the regular season — going 9-2 in clutch-time games since April 9, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. That is good for the second-best such record in the NBA in that time. Still, the deeper that teams go in the playoffs, superstar talent and experience tend to win out.

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    2:06

    Knicks fan Stephen A. Smith breaks down how the Knicks have finally reclaimed their spot as the kings of NYC.

    Matchups to watch in Round 1: Randle vs. the bigs, and Thibs’ plan for Trae
    There are two matchups to keep an eye on: Randle vs. Clint Capela and John Collins; and Thibodeau vs. Trae Young. Randle has been a force against the Hawks this season, scoring 40 points, 44 points and 28 points in each of their three matchups. (The Knicks won all three.) Capela and Collins could be tasked with containing him. On the other side, Thibodeau has seemed to draw up schemes to force the Hawks to try to beat them without Young’s sharpshooting. Young shot 36.2% against the Knicks in the regular season, his second lowest against any team that he played at least three times.

    Their playoff ceiling is …
    A second-round exit. The Knicks are 3-0 against Atlanta this season heading into their opening-round matchup, but a second-round series against a seasoned 76ers team could prove to be an insurmountable hurdle.

    Fan attendance
    The Knicks are permitted to allow 10% capacity at Madison Square Garden.

    Malika Andrews

    One stat to watch
    The Knicks are back in the postseason by returning to their defensive ways under Thibodeau. New York has held opponents under 100 points in 24 games this season and leads the NBA in points allowed per game at 104.7. The last time the Knicks led the NBA in fewest points allowed was the 2000-01 season, when the team won 48 games — and when Thibodeau was an assistant coach on that campaign’s staff. — Jason Joseph


    5. Atlanta Hawks
    2020-21 record: 41-31
    BPI odds vs. NY: 59%
    Vegas title odds: +5000

    There have been two seasons for the Hawks, who were out of the East playoff picture at 14-20 when coach Lloyd Pierce was fired but have gone 27-11 under interim coach Nate McMillan to climb to fifth. A healthy Bogdan Bogdanovic has been a key part of the turnaround. He has averaged 18.0 points per game since the coaching change, turning Atlanta’s second-unit lineups without starting point guard Trae Young from the team’s biggest liability into a surprising strength as the Hawks return to the playoffs for the first time since 2017.

    Biggest concern along their playoff path
    Playoff inexperience. Of Atlanta’s top five scorers, only center Clint Capela has ever appeared in the playoffs. ESPN’s Zach Lowe has told the story of running into Hawks guard Kevin Huerter in his hotel in Philadelphia during the 2019 playoffs when Pierce brought Huerter to watch his former team and get a sense of postseason basketball. Watching from the stands is no substitute for the real thing, and playoff experience does have predictive power for team success. Atlanta’s stars could struggle to adapt to defenses scheming for them in a different way than during the regular season.

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    1:25

    Trae Young talks about the Hawks’ comeback win over the Wizards plus his feeling getting Atlanta back in the playoffs for the first time since 2017.

    Matchup to watch in Round 1: Battle of the second units
    With Bogdanovic playing the majority of the minutes that Young doesn’t, Atlanta has been surprisingly good without its star lately. The Hawks have outscored opponents by 3.9 points per 100 possessions with Bogdanovic on and Young off since the All-Star break. They’ll be challenged to keep it up against a New York bench that ranks second in reserve scoring on a per-minute basis since the break, powered by Derrick Rose’s 14.8 PPG coming off the bench.

    Their playoff ceiling is …
    A second-round exit. There’s no reason to think the Hawks can’t win a first-round matchup against the similarly inexperienced Knicks, but knocking off one of the East’s top three is a tougher task.

    Fan attendance
    The Hawks are permitted to allow 45% capacity at State Farm Arena.

    Kevin Pelton

    One stat to watch
    Young is the first player in NBA history to average 25 points and nine assists per game in multiple seasons before his age-23 season. Oscar Robertson (1960-61) is the only other player to have one such season before an age-23 campaign. John Collins and Clint Capela have benefitted the most from Young’s assists this season. Young has assisted on 267 Collins and Capela field goals this season; the only player with a higher assist total to a pair of teammates is Golden State’s Draymond Green (290 to Stephen Curry and Andrew Wiggins combined). — Jose De Leon


    6. Miami Heat
    2020-21 record: 40-32
    BPI odds vs. MIL: 46%
    Vegas title odds: +4000

    The bubble hangover was real. After a short layoff following their run to the Finals, the Heat struggled with a mixture of injuries, inconsistencies and COVID-19 protocols throughout various points in the season. Miami still found their way by the end of the season and started to round into form just before the playoffs. As was the case in the bubble last year, it was Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo who set the tone. Miami is banking on the duo once again.

    Biggest concern along their playoff path
    Miami found magic during its bubble run last fall thanks to the push it got from veteran guard Goran Dragic and young sharpshooters Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson. This season, Herro missed several weeks with a foot injury before getting healthy for the playoffs and has struggled at times to find his shot — as evidenced by a cold April in which he shot just 35.5% from the field over 14 games.

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    1:25

    Kendrick Perkins says the Heat will prove to be strong contenders in the East as they did last season.

    Matchup to watch in Round 1: A new PG to deal with
    Bucks guard Jrue Holiday presents Miami a major challenge the Heat didn’t see during last season’s playoffs. It will be interesting to see how much Holiday squares off against Heat All-Star Jimmy Butler and how much offense Holiday can provide alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. Holiday, who averaged 19 points, 7.3 assists and 4 rebounds in three regular-season games against the Heat, was brought to Milwaukee to be a difference-maker in the postseason. Now is his chance.

    Their playoff ceiling is …
    A second-round exit. The Heat rolled through the Eastern Conference bubble playoffs last season, but the Nets — Miami’s likely second-round foe — have elevated themselves into a different tier this season. Not to mention the Bucks would love nothing more than to knock out the Heat team that upended Milwaukee’s title run last season.

    Fan attendance
    The Heat are permitted to allow 15% capacity at AmericanAirlines Arena.

    Nick Friedell

    One stat to watch
    The Heat are a much better team with Jimmy Butler in the lineup. With him, they went 33-19 and held opponents to 106.1 points per game, which would rank second in the NBA this season. Without him, they are 7-13 and give up 113.0 points per game — that would rank 20th in the league. — Jose De Leon

    East play-in tournament

    7. Boston Celtics
    2020-21 record: 36-36
    BPI odds vs. WAS: 66%
    Vegas title odds: +9000

    Compete for $30,000 throughout the NBA postseason! Make Your Picks

    After making it to the Eastern Conference finals in three of the past four years, this season’s Celtics team fell far below that standard. The two positives: the play of All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. But Brown is now out for the season after undergoing season-ending wrist surgery last week. But even before Brown was out, the Celtics have done little to give anyone confidence they can return to that elite level. The loss of Gordon Hayward, who went to Charlotte in free agency, has been felt all season long, while the back half of the roster — largely comprising young players drafted in the past couple of years — failed to produce regularly. As a result, the Celtics floated around the middle of the East playoff picture all season and are deservingly participating in the play-in tournament.

    Biggest concern along their playoff path
    At this point, it has to be if the Celtics can even make it out of the play-in. They certainly have done nothing to inspire confidence of late, even in light of all of the disappointments they’ve dealt with this season. Boston now will have to adjust to life without Brown, one of their two top players alongside Tatum. This team should make it out of the play-in, given Boston would host both games, but no one in Beantown is heavily confident they will.

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    0:43

    Kendrick Perkins predicts a first-round exit for the Celtics without Jaylen Brown.

    Matchup to watch in the play-in: Jayson Tatum vs. Bradley Beal
    The longtime friends from St. Louis now find themselves going up against one another with a playoff spot on the line. That will be a fun game within the game Tuesday night — as will the likely battle of Russell Westbrook vs. Marcus Smart. The last time these two teams played was a one-point thriller in Boston on Feb. 28 that saw Beal miss a tough jumper at the buzzer.

    Their playoff ceiling is …
    First-round fodder. Any hopes the Celtics were going to make any attempt at a competitive series in the first round ended with Brown’s season-ending injury. Now, it’s just a matter of avoiding the embarrassment of losing in the play-in, or getting swept if they advance to the first round.

    Fan attendance
    The Celtics are permitted to allow 12% capacity at TD Garden.

    Tim Bontemps

    One stat to watch
    Boston has seen its fair share of injuries this season and will be without Jaylen Brown for the postseason run. The brunt of the scoring now falls on Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker. The duo has posted an offensive rating of (116.8), which is tied for the best two-man lineup combination on the team among players who have logged at least 500 minutes on the court together. — Jason Joseph


    8. Washington Wizards
    2020-21 record: 34-38
    BPI odds vs. BOS: 34%
    Vegas title odds: +30000

    After the bold move to add Russell Westbrook in the offseason, the Wizards’ season didn’t start as expected. Westbrook dealt with nagging injuries. Their 3-point shooters weren’t making anything. They had to take almost two weeks off because of COVID-19 issues within the roster. It reached a pretty dramatic “yikes” moment midway through the season, but behind Westbrook’s sudden run at triple-double history and Bradley Beal’s run at the scoring title, the Wizards found their identity just in time.

    Biggest concern along their playoff path
    There’s a general feeling that nobody wants to see the Westbrook-Beal tandem in a one-game winner takes all. But at the same time, when so much of your team hinges on excellent players producing excellent performances, a bad night for the Wizards’ stars leaves no backup plan. Washington has been an inconsistent defensive team all season and rides waves of hot and cold shooting. If the Wizards are on, they’re tough. But if not, it could go south quickly.

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    2:55

    Royce Young chronicles Russell Westbrook’s journey to passing Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles in NBA history.

    Matchup to watch in the play-in: Pick your poison
    Smart probably can’t guard two players at once, so the Celtics will need to determine where he is best applied — against Westbrook or Beal? It’s an area the Wizards can try to exploit. Plus, keep an eye on Westbrook taking Kemba Walker to the block when there’s an opportunity. Westbrook loves to exert his strength and size in matchups; he has both over Walker.

    Their playoff ceiling is …
    An early challenge for a contender. The Wizards play some wild games and seem to have a knack for raising their level of play against better teams. Westbrook never goes quietly, and any series with him involved will have something dramatic happen.

    Fan attendance
    The Wizards are permitted to allow 10% capacity at Capital One Arena.

    Royce Young

    One stat to watch
    The Wizards’ offense runs on isolation, spearheaded by their superstar backcourt of Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal. Washington has had the most isolations as a team this season — 1,731, according to Second Spectrum — with Westbrook and Beal having combined for 1,327 (78%) of them. The only teams to score more points in isolation this season are the Nets, Bucks and Knicks. — Jason Joseph


    9. Indiana Pacers
    2020-21 record: 34-38
    BPI odds vs. CHA: 54%
    Vegas title odds: +30000

    The Pacers entered 2020-21 as perhaps the NBA’s most consistent team, winning between 42 and 48 games in each of the previous five seasons, but injuries derailed them. Indiana lost T.J. Warren to a season-ending navicular stress fracture in the season’s opening week, played two months without newly acquired Caris LeVert when he was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma and more recently lost Myles Turner to a partial tear of the plantar plate in his right big toe. Without Turner, the Pacers slid in the play-in standings and now must win twice to reach the playoffs.

    Biggest concern along their playoff path
    Can they stop anybody without Turner, the NBA’s leading shot-blocker? His return from a plantar plate injury remains uncertain. Since April 7, Indiana has ranked 20th in defensive rating with Turner playing just one game in that span. Previously, the Pacers were just outside the NBA’s top 10, ranking 11th. And opponent points in the paint have gone from 51.1 per game (29th) 59.5 since April 7, nearly five more than any other team has allowed.

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    0:19

    Domantas Sabonis and Oshae Brissett put down dunks for the Pacers on back-to-back possessions vs. the Raptors.

    Matchup to watch in the play-in: Game of zones?
    The Pacers ranked third in the NBA in most possessions playing zone defense this season, according to Second Spectrum tracking, while the Hornets led the league in this category. Given the short turnaround of the play-in, the variety of defenses coach Nate Bjorkgren has used over the course of the season could present a game-planning challenge for Charlotte and a possible edge for Indiana.

    Their playoff ceiling is …
    First-round fodder. Given Turner’s injury and uncertainty about the future of their first-year head coach in Bjorkgren, merely escaping the play-in tournament would be a surprise.

    Fan attendance
    The Pacers are permitted to allow 25% capacity at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

    Kevin Pelton

    One stat to watch
    Indiana is led by All-Star big man Domantas Sabonis, who is set to become the first player in Pacers history to average 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists per game in a season. He is one of five players to achieve those totals this season. (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Julius Randle, Russell Westbrook and Nikola Jokic are the others.) The issues come with Sabonis’ defense: When he is on the court, the Pacers are outscored by 2.1 points per 100 possessions; when he is off the floor, their defensive rating improves from 111.5 to 109.9, so he is prime candidate for late-game offense-for-defense substitution patterns. — Jason Joseph


    10. Charlotte Hornets
    2020-21 record: 33-39
    BPI odds vs. IND: 46%
    Vegas title odds: +30000

    Rookie guard LaMelo Ball has provided the energy the Hornets needed to regain national relevance. Ball’s impressive debut season, combined with the addition of former All-Star Gordon Hayward and the strong play of Terry Rozier has given the Hornets a core worth building around. P.J. Washington, Devonte’ Graham and Miles Bridges have provided coach James Borrego solid options for a roster that has grown throughout the season.

    Biggest concern along their playoff path
    Playoff inexperience. Aside from Hayward, who missed over a month heading into the play-in because of a foot injury, and Rozier — this is a young group that doesn’t know what the playoffs are like. The group hasn’t played in big games together and is going to have to learn on the fly what it takes to win. Ball doesn’t appear to be the type of player who shies away from a challenge, so it will be interesting to see how he responds to playoff intensity.

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    0:17

    LaMelo Ball shakes off the defender with the speedy crossover before driving in for the bucket.

    Matchup to watch in the play-in: LaMelo vs. his postseason debut
    The key to whether or not Charlotte can get past the Pacers in the first play-in game centers around how Terry Rozier and LaMelo Ball match up against Malcolm Brogdon and Caris LeVert. Ball is the wild card getting his first taste of playoff-level intensity. Ball comes into the game having gone just 17-for-55 from the field over his past four games.

    Their playoff ceiling is …
    First-round fodder. If the Hornets can win their way out of the play-in tournament, the season should be considered a success. This was always going to be a developmental year — any playoff experience will do them good.

    Fan attendance
    The Hornets are permitted to allow 60% capacity at Spectrum Center.

    Nick Friedell

    One stat to watch
    The Hornets find themselves in the play-in tournament largely because of their unselfishness on the offensive end. Charlotte is tied for fifth in the NBA in assists per game (26.8). With the emergence of rookie LaMelo Ball, the Hornets have jumped from being 19th in that category last season. The ball moves with pace for the Hornets no matter who is on the court, as they average 314.9 passes per game as a team, according to Second Spectrum. Only the Warriors, 76ers and Pacers move the ball more than the Hornets. — Jason Joseph

    Western Conference

    1. Utah Jazz
    2020-21 record: 52-20
    Vegas title odds: +700

    Spurs at Grizzlies, 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
    • Warriors at Lakers, 10 p.m. ET on ESPN

    The Jazz had the NBA’s best record for the vast majority of the season as well as the league’s longest winning streak (11 games) and two nine-game winning streaks that tied for the second-longest runs of the campaign. The Jazz won 39 games by double digits, by far the most in the league. They led the league in net rating (+9.0) by three points per 100 possessions and were the only team to rank among the top five in offensive (116.5) and defensive (107.5) ratings. All-Star center Rudy Gobert led the league in overall plus-minus (+728) by almost 200 points, and Utah had the top four players in that statistic.

    Biggest concern along their playoff path
    Can the Jazz play their preferred offensive style during the postseason? Utah led the league in 3-pointers made (16.7 per game) and attempted (43.0) while taking the fewest midrange shots (6.2). The Jazz generate high-quality shots off of screening and crisp ball movement, but how well will that work against a good switching defense in the playoffs? When the Jazz get out of rhythm, they tend to rely too much on All-Star Donovan Mitchell, who sat the final three games of the regular season with an ankle issue, to create late in the shot clock. Utah went 1-6 when Mitchell attempted more than 25 field goals this season.

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    5:02

    Jordan Clarkson discusses the factors behind his form for the Jazz, as a contender for the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award.

    Their playoff ceiling is …
    NBA champion. There are doubters, due primarily to the fact that this era’s Jazz have yet to make a deep postseason run, but Utah has to be considered a legitimate championship contender in a wide-open playoff field.

    Fan attendance
    The Jazz are permitted to allow 71% capacity at Vivint Arena.

    Tim MacMahon

    One stat to watch
    The Jazz set the NBA record for the most 3s made per game at 16.7, but they also allowed a league-low 10.9 3s per game. They’re just the second team in NBA history to make the most 3s and allow the fewest in a season, joining the 1999-2000 Pacers. That Indiana team was coached by Larry Bird, finished No. 1 in the East and went to the NBA Finals, losing to the Lakers in six games. — Vincent Johnson


    2. Phoenix Suns
    2020-21 record: 51-21
    Vegas title odds: +1400

    Coming off of an inspired 8-0 run in the bubble last season despite missing the playoffs, the Suns were ready to make the jump. Insert Chris Paul. The trade for Paul, which sent out four players and a 2022 first-rounder to Oklahoma City, helped to elevate Suns from outside the playoff picture to the No. 2 seed in the West and the second-best record in the league. Paul has played at an All-NBA level. And the Suns have had relative good health all season: Paul, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges have combined to miss just six games.

    Biggest concern along their playoff path
    Will playoff inexperience become a factor? Paul and Jae Crowder have been here, but how will the Suns’ overall lack of playoff reps affect the rest of the roster? Down the stretch, as Phoenix chased the No. 1 seed, the Suns lost to Atlanta, the Lakers and Golden State (and almost to Portland). If they can right the ship and get back to the team they were from February to April — when they were 35-10 — they’ll be just fine.

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    0:24

    E’Twaun Moore calmly launches a 3-pointer to put the Suns up for good with seconds remaining.

    Their playoff ceiling is …
    A run to the NBA Finals. The West is truly the wild, wild West right now: Phoenix could get unlucky with its draw in the first round — that is, a matchup with the defending champion Lakers — and have an early exit; or the Suns could power through and turn the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2010 into its first Finals trip since 1993.

    Fan attendance
    The Suns are permitted to allow 17% capacity at Phoenix Suns Arena.

    Andrew Lopez

    One stat to watch
    The Suns have been historically efficient on one often forgotten area of the floor: the midrange. Led by Paul (first in the league in midrange makes) and Booker (fourth in the league), Phoenix shot 47.4% from that area during the regular season, the highest percentage by any team in the past 20 seasons. — Vincent Johnson


    3. Denver Nuggets
    2020-21 record: 47-25
    BPI odds vs. POR: 48%
    Vegas title odds: +3500

    After their unexpected run to the Western Conference finals, the Nuggets opened the season 6-7. But Nikola Jokic opened the season on fire, launching an MVP campaign with four triple-doubles in his first six games. The Nuggets followed their leader and were looking like title contenders after a deadline deal for the Orlando Magic’s Aaron Gordon. And even though point guard Jamal Murray tore his ACL and Monte Morris and Will Barton have missed extended time, the Nuggets enter the playoffs as a top-3 seed.

    Biggest concern along their playoff path
    Does Jokic have enough help? Remember, Murray averaged 31.6 points and scored 50 twice in a sensational first round against Utah last season. Michael Porter Jr. has to not only step up as a legitimate No. 2 scoring threat but rebound at an elite level and hold his own defensively in his second postseason. The Nuggets need Barton back to help with scoring.

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    0:22

    Nikola Jokic capitalizes on a turnover and makes the full-court pass to Aaron Gordon for the easy bucket.

    Matchup to watch in Round 1: Jokic vs. Portland, Part II
    The last time these two faced each other in the playoffs, it took seven games — including a historic 140-137 four-overtime Game 3 — for the Blazers to outlast the Nuggets in the second round in 2019. Jokic averaged 27.1 points, 13.9 rebounds and 7.7 assists in that series, which was just his second ever. Now he enters this matchup more experienced and as the MVP front-runner. Even though the Nuggets don’t have Jamal Murray, they do have Michael Porter Jr., who is primed for his playoff breakout. The Nuggets could use the injured Will Barton back, but they’ve overcome injuries all season long.

    Their playoff ceiling is …
    Conference finalist. The way Jokic has played this season, he can carry the Nuggets back to the conference finals depending on the matchups. But without Murray, who dazzled in last season’s playoff run, the Nuggets don’t seem to have enough to get to the Finals.

    Fan attendance
    The Nuggets are permitted to allow 40% capacity at Ball Arena.

    Ohm Youngmisuk

    One stat to watch
    Jokic has averaged 1.30 points per possession out of the post this season, the best by any player in a season since Second Spectrum began player tracking in 2013-14 (minimum 300 post-ups). Double The Joker if you dare, but he is always a step ahead, increasing that efficiency by nearly 20% when he sees a double-team (1.54). That’s the best by any player in a season — by far — since 2013-14 (minimum 100 double-teams). — Vincent Johnson


    4. LA Clippers
    2020-21 record: 47-25
    BPI odds vs. DAL: 64%
    Vegas title odds: +500

    The Clippers entered the season saying they were motivated by their second-round bubble collapse. Paul George came in determined to have a bounce-back season. Kawhi Leonard wanted to be more of a leader. New coach Tyronn Lue was focused on learning from the Clippers’ mistakes of a season ago. At their best, they’ve shot the 3 at a historic pace, they’ve passed exquisitely and Leonard and George have looked like a dominant duo. But once again, injuries have disrupted their chemistry and led to inconsistency and just as many questions as last postseason.

    Biggest concern along their playoff path
    Yet again, the Clippers find themselves wondering if they have built enough chemistry heading into the playoffs, as injuries have prevented them from playing at full strength for much of the season. Perhaps even worse, the Clippers don’t always bring the focus and look disinterested for stretches. (They lost to Dallas by 51 earlier this season.) Do they have enough leadership? Do they have a consistent third option to ease the burden on Leonard and George? Can their defense live up to enormous expectations? And can their high-powered offense not stall out in the heat of fourth quarters. The Clippers have much more than one concern at the moment.

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    0:19

    The Clippers run the pick-and-roll, with Rajon Rondo finding Kawhi Leonard with a slick pass for a layin plus the foul.

    Matchup to watch in Round 1: Clippers’ defense vs. Luka Doncic
    For the second straight postseason, the Clippers and Mavericks will square off, and there have been some tense moments between the two teams, in particular between Marcus Morris and Doncic. Despite losing the season series 2-1, the Clippers will enter this rematch confident after handling Dallas in six games in the first round last year. But the Clippers’ defense faces a more experienced Doncic, who averaged 31.0 points, 9.8 rebounds, 8.7 assists in that first round and delivered that amazing buzzer-beating step-back 3 to win Game 4 in overtime. Lue and associate head coach/defensive coordinator Dan Craig have a week to figure out their Doncic defensive game plan.

    Their playoff ceiling is …
    NBA champion. Despite their issues, the Clippers possess all the title ingredients: the star duo, the veteran depth, the coaching and championship experience. When they are locked in, no one shoots the 3 better as a team.

    Fan attendance
    The Clippers are permitted to allow 11% capacity at Staples Center.

    Ohm Youngmisuk

    One stat to watch
    Leonard and George are both healthy going into the playoffs, and that combination dominated in their 43 games played together during the regular season. The All-Star duo ranked first in offensive rating (122.5) and true shooting percentage (64%) and second in net rating (+17.6) among all two-man lineups with at least 1,000 minutes. — Vincent Johnson


    5. Dallas Mavericks
    2020-21 record: 42-30
    BPI odds vs. LAC: 36%
    Vegas title odds: +5000

    The Mavericks, who were hit hard by COVID-19 early in the season, were five games under .500 in early February. Dallas has the NBA’s fifth-best winning percentage (.673) since then, working its way to the middle of the West playoff picture. Luka Doncic has produced MVP-caliber numbers, joining Damian Lillard as the only players to rank among the league’s top 10 in scoring (27.7 points per game) and assists (8.6). Homegrown role players Jalen Brunson and Dorian Finney-Smith have developed into essential parts of the Mavs’ core. Dallas’ depth has helped the Mavs manage Kristaps Porzingis’ frequent unavailability due to injuries.

    Biggest concern along their playoff path
    Does Doncic have to carry too much of the burden? Porzingis has had flashes of potential, but injuries and inconsistency have prevented him from proving himself capable of being the secondary star on a legitimate contender. With knee soreness sidelining him recently, it’s hard for the Mavs to count on him performing in the playoffs. Dallas needs Tim Hardaway Jr. — considered a salary dump from the Knicks in the Porzingis deal — to continue his sizzling late-season shooting.

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    0:22

    Dorian Finney-Smith drains a big 3-pointer, and Luka Doncic follows him up with a one-handed slam, as the Mavs finish off the Raptors.

    Matchup to watch in Round 1: Kristaps Porzingis vs. Clippers centers
    The biggest question about the Mavericks — short and long term — is whether Porzingis can be the elite co-star necessary for Dallas to be a legitimate championship threat. He played well in his abbreviated first taste of the postseason last year, averaging 23.7 points on 52.5% shooting from the floor in three games against the Clippers before his meniscus injury sidelined him for the rest of the series. LA can force Porzingis to play on the perimeter defensively if it plays Serge Ibaka or a small lineup with Marcus Morris at center.

    Their playoff ceiling is …
    Second-round exit. Doncic makes the Mavs dangerous in any matchup, but any series win they pull off in the West would be considered an upset. Dallas could ride a red-hot Doncic to a first-round surprise. A second? Don’t count on it.

    Fan attendance
    The Mavericks are permitted to allow 47% capacity at American Airlines Center.

    Tim MacMahon

    One stat to watch
    Doncic has formed a strong partnership with Porzingis, especially on pick plays. According to Second Spectrum, the Mavericks have averaged 1.18 points per direct pick when Doncic is the ball handler and Porzingis is the screener. That is the most efficient combination in the league among duos to run 300 picks. — Matt Williams


    6. Portland Trail Blazers
    2020-21 record: 42-30
    BPI odds vs. DEN: 52%
    Vegas title odds: +5000

    It was a rocky season for the Blazers, rising and falling in the West and, as is tradition, dealing with myriad injuries. They went months without Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum, pinning the burden on Damian Lillard’s shoulders, and he carried it brilliantly. That is, until he hit a wall and the Blazers went into a slump. But Portland recorrected late and is back in position in the West.

    Biggest concern along their playoff path
    The bench. The Blazers adjusted their roster to focus on wing defense, but they still are in search of their best seven or eight players. Their bench has been spotty, with Enes Kanter and Carmelo Anthony’s minutes expectedly coinciding with dips on the defensive end. But they also need to complement non-Lillard minutes with offense. It’s been a challenge for Portland all season to find stable rotations, and as they head into playoff basketball, coach Terry Stotts will need to find his best lineups on the fly.

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    3:12

    Max Kellerman and Stephen A. Smith look at Carmelo Anthony’s career and evaluate how his game has evolved over time.

    Matchup to watch in Round 1: Damian Lillard vs. Aaron Gordon
    These teams know each other well, having played an epic seven-game series just two seasons ago. It’ll look a little different this time around with some new faces and one major injury, one which for Denver — Jamal Murray — could play a critical role. Gordon solidifies Denver’s defensive scheme, providing a more versatile and athletic defender to expand pickup points on Lillard. The Blazers’ postseason success is largely driven by the way Lillard can stretch and bend defenses with his range. The Nuggets have a new weapon to potentially counter that.

    Their playoff ceiling is …
    A second-round exit. The Blazers might not be betting favorites to make it out of the first round, but Lillard & Co. never go easily. Playoff time is 48 minutes of Dame Time, and as long as Lillard is healthy, the Blazers are dangerous. Scoring an opening-round upset in one of the most wide-open playoffs in years is certainly doable.

    Fan attendance
    The Trail Blazers are permitted to allow 10% capacity at Moda Center.

    Royce Young

    One stat to watch
    The much-maligned Trail Blazers defense finished the regular season 29th in defensive rating, becoming just the third team to make the playoffs after ranking in the bottom two over the past 25 seasons. (The 2017-18 Cavaliers and 2002-03 Bucks are the others.) But Portland locked in to finish the season, finishing 12th since April 27. In that span, the Blazers held opponents to a league-low 1.06 points per possession in transition, according to Second Spectrum. — Vincent Johnson

    West play-in tournament

    7. Los Angeles Lakers
    2020-21 record: 42-30
    BPI odds vs. GS: 59%
    Vegas title odds: +450

    Watch »

    The Lakers had just a 71-day offseason to enjoy their 2020 NBA championship before the league embarked on its shortened 72-game season. Despite the short respite, LeBron James was shot out of a cannon to begin his 18th season, as L.A. stayed near the top of the Western Conference standings through the first half of the schedule and James garnered MVP buzz. Then the season went off the rails. Anthony Davis suffered a calf strain and Achilles tendinosis in his right leg that sidelined him for nine weeks. James had Solomon Hill dive on his right leg, causing a high ankle sprain that kept him out for six weeks. Contract extension talks broke down between the team and Dennis Schroder, and L.A. tried to trade him for Kyle Lowry. After the trade fell through, Schroder entered the league’s health and safety protocols at the least opportune time with the Lakers fighting for playoff seeding down the stretch.

    Biggest concern along their playoff path
    Besides the obvious potential pitfall of James or Anthony aggravating their injuries, the Lakers’ 3-point shooting has been unreliable this season. Ranked just 25th in 3s made per game and 21st in team 3-point percentage, L.A. has been downright pedestrian when its shots aren’t falling, going 12-11 when the team makes fewer than 10 3-pointers. When the team has a rhythm from the outside, it performs far better — 30-19 when connecting on 10 3-pointers or more. In other words, guys like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Wesley Matthews and Ben McLemore could be the true difference-makers for the vulnerable defending champs.

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    3:03

    LeBron James explains why he believes Steph Curry should easily be the NBA’s MVP.

    Matchup to watch in Round 1: LeBron James vs. Stephen Curry
    This matchup features the two most impactful players to come through the league in the past 15 years. The last time James and Curry met in a winner-take-all scenario — Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals — a whopping 30.8 million viewers tuned in. Curry is coming off a stellar season in which he won the NBA scoring title (31.8 PPG) while James missed 22 of the Lakers’ final 26 games because of a high ankle sprain. Is L.A. ripe for an upset?

    Their playoff ceiling is …
    NBA champion, but this designation comes with a heavy caveat. You can never count out a LeBron James team — the past nine times he was in the postseason, his team made it to the NBA Finals. On the other hand, he has never missed as many games in a season as he has this campaign, and at 36, he won’t be able to put his team on his back forever.

    Fan attendance
    The Lakers are permitted to allow 11% capacity at Staples Center.

    Dave McMenamin

    One stat to watch
    The Lakers could be the most dangerous 7-seed since seeding began in 1984. Historically, 7- and 8-seeds have not fared well in the playoffs. Since 1984, only the 1998-99 Knicks and 1986-87 SuperSonics have reached the conference finals, with only New York reaching the Finals in a lockout-shortened season. If James and Davis are healthy, the Lakers could make a similar run; they are 19-8 when both stars are in the lineup. — Matt Williams


    8. Golden State Warriors
    2020-21 record: 39-33
    BPI odds vs. LAL: 41%
    Vegas title odds: +10000

    The one constant for the ever-inconsistent Warriors has been the brilliance of Stephen Curry. The two-time MVP carried the Warriors through numerous stretches offensively while reminding the rest of the league that he remains arguably the most dangerous offensive player in basketball. Draymond Green proved that he can still play at a high level, and Andrew Wiggins played some of the most consistent defense of his career during his first full season in the Bay Area. The major downside of the Warriors’ season was the lack of development from No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman, who showed flashes of promise but struggled with consistency before a knee injury ended his season in early April.

    Biggest concern along their playoff path
    The Warriors’ starting five of Kevon Looney, Kent Bazemore, Wiggins, Green and Curry has found a rhythm over the last month. The issue is the lack of depth behind them. With the injuries to Kelly Oubre Jr. (wrist), Eric Paschall (hip flexor) Damion Lee (COVID-19 protocols) and Wiseman, the Warriors can’t rely on the type of depth that every strong playoff team needs.

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    1:56

    Steph Curry knocks in 46 points, including 9 3-pointers, as Golden State earns the 8-seed over Memphis.

    Matchup to watch in the play-in: Wiggins vs. LeBron
    From the moment Wiggins was acquired last season from Minnesota, the Warriors were confident they could help the young swingman change the narrative surrounding his career. A year later, Wiggins has rewarded the organization’s faith in him by playing one of the most consistent seasons of his career. Wiggins has always been able to score, but the difference in his game is his reliability on the defensive end. He comes into Wednesday’s game against LeBron and the Lakers having scored 73 points in his past three games and will be counted on to keep up the defensive intensity during one of his best stretches of the season.

    Their playoff ceiling is …
    An early challenge for a contender. If Curry gets hot, anything really is possible for the Warriors even in their depleted state — but with the uncertainties surrounding the back end of the roster, it will be tough to string together four wins against one of the best teams in the West. As great as Curry is, he can’t carry a team out of the first round without a little more help.

    Fan attendance
    The Warriors are permitted to allow 35% capacity at Chase Center.

    Nick Friedell

    One stat to watch
    Curry has grabbed the headlines, but Green has played a vital role for the Warriors. According to Second Spectrum, Green leads the NBA in field goal percentage allowed at the rim this season (minimum 200 field goals defended). Plus, he has assisted to Curry 194 times, including on 110 3-pointers, the most of any passer-scorer combination. — Matt Williams


    9. Memphis Grizzlies
    2020-21 record: 38-34
    BPI odds vs. SA: 59%
    Vegas title odds: +30000

    The Grizzlies improved from last season despite franchise cornerstone Jaren Jackson Jr. sitting out until late April while recovering from meniscus surgery. The spotlight in Memphis always shines on second-year point guard Ja Morant, a rising star with a flair for the spectacular. However, an argument can be made that center Jonas Valanciunas was the Grizzlies’ MVP during the regular season. He averaged 17.1 points per game while ranking third in the league in rebounding (12.5) and double-doubles (49).

    Biggest concern along their playoff path
    Memphis, a franchise many expected would be in the early stages of a long rebuilding process at this point, just isn’t ready to compete against the league’s elite. The Grizzlies were 15-23 against .500 and above teams. They went 2-10 against the West’s top four seeds.

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    0:16

    Ja Morant takes off for a two-handed jam and hangs in the air for a very long time.

    Matchup to watch in the play-in: Ja Morant vs. Dejounte Murray
    Murray is on the short list of point guards who possess the physical skills and defensive credentials to potentially slow down the 2019-20 Rookie of the Year. But that wasn’t the way it played out during the regular season, when Morant averaged 25.3 points and 9.3 assists in three meetings with the Spurs, all in the first six weeks of the season. Since then, the Spurs have switched to Jakob Poeltl, putting an elite rim protector behind Murray.

    Their playoff ceiling is …
    First-round fodder. While anything can happen in the truncated play-in format, the Grizzlies’ season likely ends there for the second consecutive year.

    Fan attendance
    The Grizzlies are permitted to allow 20% capacity at FedExForum.

    Tim MacMahon

    One stat to watch
    The Grizzlies have dominated near the basket this season, leading the NBA in paint points per game and second-chance points per game. They are the fourth team over the past 25 seasons to lead the league in both during the same season. The last team to do it was the 2012-13 Nuggets, who entered the playoffs as the 3-seed that season. — Matt Williams


    10. San Antonio Spurs
    2020-21 record: 33-39
    BPI odds vs. MEM: 41%
    Vegas title odds: +30000

    The Spurs’ season featured hurdles at seemingly every turn. They had a battle with COVID-19 that wiped out a week and backloaded their second-half schedule. LaMarcus Aldridge was ultimately released. They’ve started 13 players and used 14 starting lineups in the shortened season. They lost 10 of 12 since Derrick White went down with an ankle injury but still managed to make the play-in game, as they look to begin a new streak of playoff appearances.

    Biggest concern along their playoff path
    The compacted schedule took its toll on the Spurs in the latter part of the season. It also didn’t help that White hasn’t been in the lineup since April 26 and is out for the season. But their biggest concern in the playoffs will be their 3-point shooting. San Antonio is 29th in made 3s per game and 23rd in 3-point percentage. They can have good shooting games — they hit 17 treys on May 10 against Milwaukee — but more often than not, the shots haven’t been falling.

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    0:19

    DeMar DeRozan is somehow able to drop in a rainbow and-1 bucket after he uses a fake to draw the contact and get his defender in the air.

    Matchup to watch in the play-in: Battle of the benches
    It’ll be a showdown between two of the better bench units in the league when Memphis and San Antonio square off. Memphis’ bench averages 39.5 points per game this season — fourth best in the league — while the Spurs’ second unit averages 38.7 points, which is tied for sixth best. And while the Spurs’ starters have averaged a league-worst 4.7 3-pointers a game, the bench averages 5.4 3s a night, which is fourth best in the league.

    Their playoff ceiling is …
    First-round fodder. If the Spurs can get out of the play-in tournament, they’ll run into the West’s top seed. It’s been a rough go for San Antonio this season, and it’s hard to see a scenario where the Spurs make it out of the first round.

    Fan attendance
    The Spurs are permitted to allow 17% capacity at AT&T Center.

    Andrew Lopez

    One stat to watch
    After missing the postseason for the first time since 1996-97, the Spurs will need to win twice in the play-in tournament to return. They are led by Gregg Popovich, who has made the playoffs 22 times, tied with George Karl for the most by a head coach in NBA history. Plus, the Spurs have never missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons. As for this season’s team, it is one of the best at holding on to the basketball. The Spurs rank second in both turnovers per game and assist-to-turnover ratio. — Matt Williams