NBA Playoffs 2021

NBA Playoffs 2021: NBA playoffs first-round matchups are set and the quest to 16 wins can now officially begin. The defending champion Los Angeles Lakers find themselves in a unique position as the betting favorite in their series against the Phoenix Suns while being the No. 7 seed.

The Brooklyn Nets are the favorites to emerge from the East but face the challenge of their three stars — Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving — having played only eight games together in the regular season.

Meanwhile, should the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz be concerned about their first-round matchups against the Washington Wizards and Memphis Grizzlies who employ game-changing guards such as Bradley Beal and Ja Morant?

Our experts take a look at what to believe in for the opening round. From Michael Porter Jr. picking up the scoring load for a depleted Denver Nuggets roster to Jimmy Butler reawakening the offensive excellence that propelled the Miami Heat to the NBA Finals last season, we’re sorting out what’s real and what’s not in Round 1 of the NBA playoffs.

The Lakers were flat-out awful in the first half of their win over the Warriors for the No. 7 seed Wednesday. In the second half they found their way, forcing 15 turnovers with their top-rated defense, sending a variety of looks at Stephen Curry and putting the clamps on the Warriors’ supporting cast.

A noticeable difference, yes. Maybe even a flipped switch, if you will. But the biggest issue for the Lakers in their quest to repeat as champions might be health, not effort.

The Lakers showed a ton of character and mental toughness in maintaining their top-rated defense while Anthony Davis and LeBron James were out with injuries. Think about that. Their defense was better while one of the best defenders in the league was out. That’s not a knock on Davis. It’s a compliment to guys like Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma. Because without James and Davis, defense was the Lakers’ best way to win. It was the bedrock of last year’s championship team and will have to be again if the Lakers can play their way through the Western Conference from play-in game qualification.

That defense has been there all year. They didn’t need to flip any switches. But they still need to reincorporate James and Davis, and they absolutely need both to be healthy.

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