NBA playoffs: First-round expert predictions, Nets, 76ers to advance in East; Lakers to upset Suns out West

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The 2021 NBA playoffs are set to get underway on Saturday, and the first round has the potential to be one of the more memorable in recent memory. There are a plethora of talented teams, and injury issues coupled with the play-in tournament have combined to provide us with several intriguing matchups. 

The Phoenix Suns qualified for postseason play for the first time in a decade and climbed all the way up to second in the West, only to be forced to face off against LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers in the first round after L.A. sunk in the standings thanks to injury issues. Joel Embiid and Russell Westbrook will get to continue their rivalry in the series between the Sixers and Wizards, and there are a couple of playoff rematches from last season, as the Mavericks will square off against the Clippers again, and the Bucks will get another crack at the Heat after being upset by them in the conference semifinals last season. 

In all, there should be no shortage of action, excitement, and intrigue in the first round this year. With that said, here’s a look at how our experts see all eight of the first round series shaking out. 

Ward-Henninger’s take: The Wizards will need monumental efforts from Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook, and Philly’s defense is just too good to allow that to happen consistently. Washington has absolutely no answer for Joel Embiid, so it’s hard to see anything but a sweep coming. Pick: 76ers in four

Herbert’s take: The Sixers are far more talented, but this pick is more about the matchup problem — Washington’s guards won’t be able to bully Philadelphia like they’ve bullied other teams. Pick: 76ers in four

Botkin’s take: Too much Joel Embiid. Too much defense. Bradley Beal isn’t fully healthy. Russell Westbrook is a wild card, good for a couple good games and a couple disastrous ones. Sixers march on. Pick: 76ers in five

Kaskey-Blomain’s take: The Sixers dominated the regular season series between the teams, as they won all three games that were played. The Wizards have been playing much better ball since the All-Star break though, and in Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook they have two stars capable of taking over any given game. So, the series won’t necessarily be a cakewalk for Philadelphia, despite the fact that they will be heavily favored. Ultimately though, if the Sixers take care of business and play the way that they have been all season, they should be able to advance. Pick: 76ers in six

Maloney’s take: The Wizards’ run down the stretch was a fun story, but the Sixers are a far superior team here. This series shouldn’t be close, especially with Beal less than 100 percent. Pick: 76ers in four

Quinn’s take: Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook are going to go nuclear at least once, but Joel Embiid is going to eat Alex Len, Robin Lopez and Daniel Gafford alive. Pick: 76ers in five

Wimbish’s take: Joel Embiid is going to have a field day against a bunch of dudes who can’t guard him. I also want to predict one Russell Westbrook ejection in Philly. Pick: 76ers in four

Ward-Henninger’s take: Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker will provide enough firepower to take a couple of games off of the Nets while they figure out their postseason rotation and chemistry, but this series will never be in doubt. Pick: Nets in six

Herbert’s take: Without Jaylen Brown, it’s hard to see how the Celtics get enough stops to win more than a game or two, even if Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker pose real problems for Brooklyn’s defense. Pick: Nets in five

Botkin’s take: Even without Jaylen Brown, the Celtics are still very talented and can play far above their regular-season profile. But in a series where Boston is going to need all the wing defenders it can find, Brown’s absence will loom incredibly large. Too much scoring for Brooklyn. Pick: Nets in seven

Kaskey-Blomain’s take: The duo of Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker have the potential to go off and take a game from Brooklyn, but over all their star trio of Durant, Harden and Irving will simply prove to be too potent on the offensive end for Boston to keep up with, especially without Jaylen Brown. Pick: Nets in five

Maloney’s take: Not sure if he was doing some sort of reverse psychology bit, or just being too honest with the media, but Brad Stevens basically conceded the series the other day. Pick: Nets in four

Quinn’s take: Brooklyn swept Boston in the regular season without ever having all three of their stars against them at once. Now they’re healthy and the Celtics aren’t. Pick: Nets in four

Wimbish’s take: Jayson Tatum gets loose for one game, but without Jaylen Brown I don’t see Boston getting far in this series. Pick: Nets in five

3. Milwaukee Bucks vs. 6. Miami Heat 

Ward-Henninger’s take: The addition of Jrue Holiday and the Bucks’ newfound willingness to switch defensively will be enough to avoid a repeat of last postseason’s disappointment against Miami. Pick: Bucks in seven

Herbert’s take: I’m nervous about this one for obvious reasons, but I’m counting on Jrue Holiday being the difference-maker. Pick: Bucks in six

Botkin’s take: I like the Bucks more as a slept-on 3-seed than saddled with the expectations of a No. 1, as they’ve been the past two years. Milwaukee has tried out different defensive schemes this season and we’ll see where they settle against the Heat, but however that dynamic plays out, the addition of Jrue Holiday as another half-court creator when Giannis hits his “wall” and point-of-attack defender against Miami’s pick and rolls and DHOs is big. Pick: Bucks in six

Kaskey-Blomain’s take: The Bucks will get some revenge after losing to the Heat in the playoffs last season. All the pressure is on the Bucks here, and after having a year to ruminate on their loss to the Heat, you’d have to think that they’ll come out focused and ready to send a message. When the two teams played in the bubble, Jrue Holiday wasn’t in Milwaukee, but now he is, and he could be a major x-factor in the series. Pick: Bucks in seven

Maloney’s take: The Bucks are much more prepared for the playoffs this season, and the Heat are not quite as good as they were last season. Pick: Bucks in six

Quinn’s take: The basketball world keeps expecting the Heat to flip a switch and turn back into the team we saw in the bubble, but it hasn’t happened all year, and at this point, it just isn’t going to. Milwaukee is going to get its revenge over Miami here. Pick: Bucks in five

Wimbish’s take: The Heat are peaking at the right time … again. That said, I’d like to think Milwaukee is better equipped to handle the Heat — who have been banged up — this time around. Pick: Bucks in five

Ward-Henninger’s take: This matchup is as even as it gets, so let’s go with the team that has home-court advantage and plays better defense. Pick: Knicks in seven

Herbert’s take: The numbers say this is a coin flip. I just don’t trust New York’s offense like I trust Atlanta’s. Pick: Hawks in six

Botkin’s take: New York wants to bully teams on both ends. The defense is one thing, and they’ll make it tough on the Hawks. But I don’t believe the Knicks can score enough to outpace Atlanta with the playmaking of Trae Young and Bogdan Bogdanovic giving the Hawks the edge in what could easily be a seven-game series. Pick: Hawks in seven

Kaskey-Blomain’s take: This will be a close series, but the Hawks have more weapons on the offensive end than the Knicks do, and if Atlanta can find a way to bottle up Julius Randle to an extent, it will be tough for New York to advance. Pick: Hawks in seven

Maloney’s take: When a series is this hard to call, I’m always going to ride with the team that has the best player. In this case, that’s the Knicks and Julius Randle. Pick: Knicks in seven

Quinn’s take: New York’s greatest regular-season advantage was effort. Everyone plays hard in the playoffs. Every star plays more minutes. The Hawks have been the better team since Nate McMillan took over. Pick: Hawks in six

Wimbish’s take: Sure Atlanta has been one of the better teams in the second half of the season, but call me crazy because I think the physicality and defense of the Knicks will make life hard for Trae Young and the Hawks. Pick: Knicks in six

Ward-Henninger’s take: Memphis has been a great story all season, but the Jazz are an experienced, well-oiled machine ready to pick the Grizzlies apart. Pick: Jazz in four

Herbert’s take: Love the Grizzlies, but hate this matchup for them. To make this interesting, they’d have to hit so many floaters. Pick: Jazz in five

Botkin’s take: Utah caught a break with Memphis eliminating the Warriors. Over a seven-game series, I question Ja Morant’s shooting, or lack thereof, too much and Jonas Valanciunas will meet his match in Rudy Gobert. Utah has scorers and shooters all over the court and will march on to the conference semis.. Pick: Jazz in six

Kaskey-Blomain’s take: The Jazz are an elite defensive team, and they have no shortage of firepower on the offensive end, either. After two consecutive first round losses, the Jazz will advance to the second round this season. Pick: Jazz in six

Maloney’s take: The Jazz have some things to prove in the playoffs, but those tests will come later. Just hard to see how the Grizzlies score enough to keep up. Pick: Jazz in four

Quinn’s take: Stephen Curry will make this interesting, and so will Donovan Mitchell’s health, but ironically, Utah’s 3-point shooting is just going to be too much for the Warriors. The Jazz have too much firepower to lose to a team that relies this much on Kent Bazemore. Pick: Jazz in six

Wimbish’s take: The Jazz have been dominant on both ends of the floor all season long. Donovan Mitchell’s health is a bit concerning, but Utah has the depth to make up for him not being 100% and get to the semifinals in the West. Pick: Jazz in six

2. Phoenix Suns vs. 7. Los Angeles Lakers 

Ward-Henninger’s take: The Suns are really good, but I just can’t pick against LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the defending champs — even if they’re slightly less than full strength. Pick: Lakers in seven

Herbert’s take: Toughest call of the bunch. Ultimately, I don’t think the Suns have an answer for Anthony Davis at the 5. Pick: Lakers in seven

Botkin’s take: I hate to do this. The Suns get a brutal draw for their terrific season and just can’t keep up with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. But I do think this has six or even seven games written all over it. Pick: Lakers in seven

Kaskey-Blomain’s take: It’s unfortunate for the Suns that after securing the No. 2 seed they have to meet the defending champs in the first round, as we all know that the Lakers would be seeded higher if not for injury issues. But, such is life, and it’s tough to bet against LeBron James and Anthony Davis when healthy. Pick: Lakers in six

Maloney’s take: What a brutal break for the Suns. Chris Paul shows up, turns the franchise around, and their reward for finishing second in the West is facing the Lakers in the first round. Pick: Lakers in six

Quinn’s take: Anthony Davis destroyed DeAndre Ayton a few weeks ago. This series won’t be any different. If the Lakers can beat the Suns without LeBron, they can beat them with him. Pick: Lakers in six

Wimbish’s take: I would normally not pick against a LeBron-led team … but these Suns are for real. Phoenix has more depth than the Lakers with guys like Mikal Bridges, Torrey Craig and Jae Crowder who can bring it on both ends of the floor. Even though the Suns haven’t been to the playoffs in a decade, I’m trusting them more right now (I’ll probably regret this later). Pick: Suns in seven

Ward-Henninger’s take: Portland is healthy and clicking while the banged-up Nuggets have limped into the postseason. Nikola Jokic will do everything he can, but ultimately it won’t be enough. Pick: Trail Blazers in six

Herbert’s take: Denver’s nowhere near full strength right now, but it does have a track record of beating good teams and getting stops, neither of which is true about Portland. Pick: Nuggets in six

Botkin’s take: Portland has quietly turned a defensive corner and I pretty much always bet on shot-creation and shot-making in the playoffs. Give me Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Norman Powell all day with Jamal Murray sidelined, and Carmelo Anthony will hit some huge shots. Pick: Trail Blazers in seven

Kaskey-Blomain’s take: If the Nuggets were at full strength it might be a different story, but without Jamal Murray, they’ll have trouble keeping up with Dame Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Co. Pick: Trail Blazers in seven

Maloney’s take: No Jamal Murray for the Nuggets, but I’m not picking against Nikola Jokic with how well he’s played this season. He’s still enough to get Denver past a Portland team that can’t guard anyone. Pick: Nuggets in seven

Quinn’s take: Denver has no healthy guards and Portland has Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Norman Powell. How on Earth do the Nuggets plan to defend them? Pick: Trail Blazers in seven

Wimbish’s take: Denver being without Jamal Murray is a gut punch, but the Nuggets managed to do fine without him toward the end of the season. Nikola Jokic will once again prove he’s the MVP this season, and Michael Porter Jr. is going to have a standout series. Pick: Nuggets in seven

4. Los Angeles Clippers vs. Dallas Mavericks 

Ward-Henninger’s take: Assuming Kristaps Porzingis is somewhere close to 100 percent, I think Luka Doncic and the Mavs give the Clippers all they can handle. Eventually, however, talent and home-court advantage win out. Pick: Clippers in 7

Herbert’s take: This is a bet on the Clippers being more connected than they were last year. Also, I’m not comfortable with the uncertainty surrounding Maxi Kleber’s health. Pick: Clippers in six

Botkin’s take: Clippers: They’re just better. Plain and simple. Pick: Clippers in six

Kaskey-Blomain’s take: The Clippers have two elite perimeter defenders to sic on Luka Doncic, and outside of Doncic, the Mavs don’t have a whole lot to hang their hat on. Doncic’s greatness and a decent supporting cast will be enough to pull out a win or two, but the series will belong to the Clippers. Pick: Clippers in six

Maloney’s take: Luka Doncic is so good that you have to assume the Mavericks win a few games, but the Clippers are just better. Pick: Clippers in six

Quinn’s take: This is going to be a statement series from the Clippers. Luka Doncic doesn’t have nearly as many defensive liabilities to pick on as he did last season. Pick: Clippers in four

Wimbish’s take: I get the Clippers want to prove themselves, but they tanked the last couple regular season games to avoid the Lakers and play the Mavericks. That shows me they’re already looking past the first round. These two teams are very familiar with each other and I don’t think L.A. is just going to steamroll over the Mavericks. Pick: Clippers in six

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