Which player’s legacy is most on the line in these playoffs?
Ryan Chien: The Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid. After boasting a career high of 28 points per game, the superstar center has another chance to make some noise in the playoffs. But in the last few years, the 76ers have had little postseason success. To change the narrative, it’s about time Embiid assumes the mantle as the true leader of the No. 1 seeded team.
Justin Kim: While superstar trade requests have become commonplace, Harden’s trade request antics were unprecedented, earning himself a fair amount of backlash. Moreover, Harden’s current playoff resume, reputation as a perennial All-Star, and superstar teammates have fans and critics alike asking for nothing less than a championship.
Ethan Moutes: After his oft-mocked performance in last year’s playoffs, Paul George needs to come up big for the Los Angeles Clippers. An unfortunate shot off the side of the backboard was enough to make casual NBA fans forget about George’s postseason heroics with the Indiana Pacers. A championship run would, in turn, erase memories of “Pandemic P.”
Kabir Rao: The Brooklyn Nets’ James Harden. The frequently criticized guard went through a nasty breakup in Houston before being shipped to Brooklyn. Harden has sniffed the NBA Finals just once in his career – if he can’t do it again with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving as his running mates, Harden will give fans yet another reason to question his legitimacy.
What’s your boldest prediction for this postseason?
RC: The No. 3 Denver Nuggets will fall to the No. 6 Portland Trailblazers in the first round. With no Jamal Murray to counter the red-hot Damian Lillard, the series likely won’t last any longer than five or six games. The last time the teams matched up ended in a victory for the Trailblazers, 132-116 – I expect the playoffs to be a similar story.
JK: The Clippers make the finals, and Paul George redeems himself. The Clippers have gone under the radar due to their bubble flameout, but I’m confident that their playoff-tested core of Kawhi Leonard, Rondo, and a rejuvenated PG13 coupled with a solid supporting cast will turn heads this postseason.
EM: The real NBA Finals will be the second-round matchup between Milwaukee and Brooklyn. The Western Conference is a slaughterhouse this year, with competent teams from the first to eighth seed. But, arguing over which team will come out of the West is a moot point; whichever team comes out of the Bucks-Nets duel will steamroll all comers in the finals two rounds of the playoffs.
KR: The Golden State Warriors will squeak into the playoffs with a win in the second play-in game, and then they’ll dethrone the No. 1 Utah Jazz. Utah boasts the best record in the NBA but Golden State looked surprisingly strong against the Lakers. A championship pedigree and an MVP-caliber Stephen Curry has the Warriors poised for a deep run.
Which player are you most excited to see in action?
RC: The New York Knicks’ Julius Randle. After averaging 24 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists per game, he’s been nothing short of sensational this year. As the clear-cut face of the organization, I can’t wait to see what he has in store for his first-ever playoff appearance.
JK: Stephen Curry has proved that he is the ultimate force multiplier. Because of the heavy coverage on Steph, his presence alone has created open shots for his teammates. Regardless of the scheme, he still puts up mind-numbing numbers, and I’m excited to see what he does as an underdog.
EM: Expectations have been lofty for Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns ever since his absurd 70-point performance in 2017. He performed at an elite level in the bubble last year, willing his team to an 8-0 record and hitting a game-winner against the Clippers. The road ahead is difficult for the Suns, and they’ll need major production out of Booker in his first postseason.
KR: The Los Angeles Lakers’ Lebron James. James was having one of his most efficient seasons until he wasn’t – injuries forced the superstar to miss 27 games in an already abbreviated season. Although the King has always been scrutinized, it’s been a while since we’ve seen him as an underdog sneaking into the postseason as a lower seed. Sign me up to see an angry James return from injury to defend the Lakers’ crown and silence the doubters.
What matchup do you most want to see in any round of the playoffs, and why?
RC: The Los Angeles Lakers versus the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference Finals. Though this rivalry hasn’t been on many NBA fans’ radar this season – partly due to injuries and load management – the battle for the city of Angels is still very much alive.
JK: 76ers versus the Nets. I’m curious to see how Brooklyn schemes against Embiid, as there isn’t an optimal way to guard him, and I’m excited to see Simmons’ defensive prowess on full display against Brooklyn’s wealth of offensive weapons. Also, K.D. in big games is a sight to behold.
EM: I want nothing more than a Lakers-Nets matchup in the NBA Finals. If the Lakers win, LeBron James has another signature Finals win over a superteam and it becomes harder to argue that he isn’t the greatest to ever do it. If the Nets win, there will be literal riots. I call that a win-win.
KR: The Battle for Los Angeles. The Lakers and Clippers have never met in the postseason, but there’s too many storylines in play for the basketball gods to not make this dream matchup a reality. Fans have been clamoring for these titans to clash since both squads stockpiled talent in the 2019 offseason – it didn’t come to fruition in the NBA Bubble last year, but it will in 2021.
Which team wins the Finals, who do they beat and who earns Finals MVP?
RC: The Los Angeles Lakers narrowly edge out the Brooklyn Nets in seven games, and Lebron James earns his fifth Finals MVP award.
JK: The Nets dismantle the Clippers in five games, and K.D. wins the Finals MVP.
EM: The Nets clobber the Lakers in five games, and James Harden collects Finals MVP.
KR: The Lakers defeat the Nets in six games, and Lebron James earns Finals MVP.