Ness Notes: The NBA's "Second Season" (Extended Cut)

by Larry Ness

This the first of a two-part article on the 2021 NBA playoffs. Part 2 will be available "first thing" Saturday morning May 22.

The 2020-21 NBA regular season came to a close on Sunday and the playoffs will begin on May 22 (it will end with the 2021 NBA Finals in July). The top-six teams in each conference are already in this year's postseason but for the first time a play-in tournament will precede the playoffs. The format (not universally loved) is really rather simple. Let's look closer. The 7th-through 10th-ranked teams compete for the final playoff spots, the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds in each conference. The seventh-place teams in each conference will host the eighth-place teams, with the winners claiming the seventh seed in the playoffs. The losers of those games will host the winners of the two games contested between the 9th-and 10th-place teams (9th-place teams play at home vs the 10th-place teams). The two winners from those contests claim the eighth seed in each conference. Bottom line is that the No. 7 and No. 8 teams can clinch a playoff berth with just one win, while the No. 9 and No. 10 teams will need to win TWO games to earn a playoff spot.

Twelve teams have secured playoff berths. The two No. 1 seeds are the 52-20 Utah Jazz in the West and the 49-23 Philadelphia 76ers in the East. The Jazz are back in the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, a year after blowing a 3-1 lead to the Nuggets in the first round of last year's Orlando's 'bubble.' The Jazz edged the Suns by ONE game and it's the first time in franchise history that the Jazz have finished with sole possession of the best record in the NBA. Utah had twice previously tied for the best record in 1998 and in the lockout-shortened season in 1999. Philadelphia also earned its top seed by just ONE game over the Nets. The 76ers last earned the East's top seed back in 2001 when Allen" We're Talkin' About Practice" Iverson won the MVP and Larry Brown won coach of the year. That team reached the NBA finals before losing to the Shaq and Kobe Lakers in five games. The 76ers won Game 1 (the 'step-over') but then lost FOUR straight. Philadelphia had made the playoffs 10 times since that 2001 Finals appearance (current run of four straight postseason appearances) without coming close to the Finals in any attempt. This 2021 appearance makes it 11 times since 2001. Will it be a "lucky 11?" 

Here's a list of seeds two through six in each conference. The Phoenix Suns went 8-0 SU & ATS in last year's Orlando 'bubble' but failed to make last year's postseason field. Phoenix ended its 10-season playoff drought with a bang in 2021 by going 51-21 to grab the West's No. 2 seed (the Suns' 42-28-2 ATS record is the "Best in the West" and the second-best in the entire NBA. The Nuggets and Clippers each finished 47-25, with Denver earning the No. 3 seed by having won two of three vs LA in the regular season. The Mavericks, Blazers and Lakers each finished 42-30, with Dallas breaking its three-way tie with Portland and Los Angeles by virtue of its Southwest Division title. Portland got the No. 6 seed (Blazers now own the NBA's longest-active playoff streak at EIGHT in row) because it won TWO of three over the Lakers in the regular season. The defending champs have been relegated to the "Play-In" tournament (see below). 

The 48-24 Brooklyn Nets fell ONE game shy of the East's top-seeded 76ers but finished two games better than the 46-26 Milwaukee Bucks, earning the No. 2 seed. The Bucks settled for the No. 3 seed, after owning the East's (and the NBA's) No. 1 seed each of the last two seasons. Milwaukee's current .639 winning percentage is far off its .748 percentage of the previous two seasons (116-39). The NY Knicks and Atlanta Hawks both finished 41-31, with the Knicks winning the tiebreaker to earn the No. 4 seed. New York ended a SEVEN-year playoff drought in 2021 (last playoff appearance was in the 2012-13 season) by winning 16 of its final 20 games. FYI, the Kicks were the NBA's best ATS team during the regular season, going 45-26-1. Many have likely forgotten that the Hawks had a run of 10 consecutive playoff appearances from the 2007-08 season through the 2016-17 season, mostly because Atlanta entered the current season with a three-season run of just 73-158 (.316). The No. 6 seed in the East belongs to the 40-32 Miami Heat, who last year made a memorable postseason run in the Orlando 'bubble' that saw them make it all the way to the NBA Finals (lost in six games to the Lakers).

Eight others have qualified for the "Play-In" tournament and I'll get to the 7-10 seeds in a moment. However, let me first mention THREE teams among the 10 whose seasons are already over. Toronto won the 2019 NBA title and lost a seven-game series to Boston in the Eastern semifinals last year. The Raptors' 111-43 (.721) regular season record the last two years was second to only the Milwaukee Bucks. However, the Raptors finished the current season 27-45, ending seven consecutive playoff appearances. The Raptors were in the mix for a postseason berth in 2021 until they lost 10 of their last 11. Being forced to play their home games in Tampa didn't help, as the Raptors finished 11-25 at 'home.'

Unlike Toronto, Houston's season was all but 'over' as soon as James Harden 'held his breath' until the Rockets traded him to the Brooklyn Nets on January 14. Houston was 11-10 on the morning of Feb 6 but went on to lose 45 of its last 51 games. At 17-55, Houston owns the NBA's worst record this season, ending the NBA's longest-active playoff run at EIGHT in a row. It's no surprise that the Sacramento Kings extended the NBA's longest playoff drought this season by finishing 31-41. In doing so, the Kings have tied the Clippers (1977-1991) for the longest postseason drought in NBA history (15). The team's last playoff game was back on May 5, 2006. Let me add this, right out of the "You Can't Make This Stuff Up" department. Sacramento hired Rick Adelman prior to the 1998-99 season (strike year) and the Kings were one of the most successful teams in the Western Conference over the next EIGHT seasons, qualifying for the playoffs every year of his Sacramento career. Despite his overall record of 395-229 (.633) in that span, His contract was not renewed after the 2005-06 season. Good decision Sacramento. Since ridding themselves of Adelman, the Kings have gone through 10 head coaches, compiling a 437-757 (.366) record

On to 2021's "Play-In" Tournament. 36-36 Boston finished 7th in the East, followed by 34-38 Washington (8th), 34-38 Indiana (9th) and 33-39 Charlotte (10th). Over in the West, the defending champions Lakers (42-30) are 7th, the 39-33 Warriors are 8th, the 38-34 Grizzlies are 9th and the 33-39 Spurs are 10th. San Antonio is the lone Western Conference team 'alive' with a losing record, while THREE of the four East "Play-In" teams own losing records. The 'fun' begins Tuesday on TNT, which will cover the Eastern Conference games. No. 10 Charlotte will play at No. 9 Indiana with tip-off listed at 6:40 ET. The Hornets are hoping to end a four-year playoff drought, while the Pacers have been to the playoffs in NINE of the last 10 seasons (including FIVE in a row). The Hornets 'limp' into Tuesday night's game having lost 15 of their last 21, including FIVE in a row. The Pacers are playing  a little bit better (13-12 over their last 25 games) but also own the worst home record (13-23) of any team not yet eliminated. Indiana took two of three from Charlotte in the regular season and is favored by three points (over/under is 228). The HUGELY disappointing Celtics have been to the postseason in 12 of the last 13 years (including SIX straight) but draw the surging Wizards in this 7/8 matchup. Washington had gone a combined 57-97 (.370) the previous two seasons but behind Beal and Westbrook, turned around what looked like another 'lost' season. Washington was just 17-32 through April 5 but won 17 of its final 23 games. The Celtics took two of three regular season meetings with the tip-off set for 9:10 ET. Boston is favored by just 1 1/2-points (over/under is 233).

Action in the West begins Wednesday, as the No. 10 Spurs are in Memphis to take on the No. 9 Grizzlies. San Antonio (and Pop) saw their run of 22 consecutive postseason appearances end last year and the Spurs don't look like a team capable of winning two straight on the road to grab the No. 8 seed this season. The Spurs sat 31-29 through April 26 but ended the regular season by losing 10 of their last 12 games. Memphis made SEVEN straight playoff appearances from the 2010-11 season through the 2016-17 season but opened the current season off three straight losing years (combined 89-146, .376 record). Memphis hovered around .500 for most of the season before ripping off FIVE straight wins from May 8-14, to set up a Sunday showdown in San Francisco vs the Warriors (winner got the No. 8 spot). Golden St won that game 113-101, so Memphis MUST beat San Antonio (Grizzlies took two three in the regular season) plus win on the road Friday at the loser of the 7/8 matchup. ESPN is covering the Western Conference games and tip-off is set for 7:40 ET with Memphis favored by 3 1/2-points (over/under is 222). Last but surely not least, it's the defending champion Lakers hosting the Warriors at 10:10 ET. The Lakers won the franchise's 17th NBA title last season (tied with Boston for the most of any team), while the Warriors, coming off FIVE consecutive appearances in the Finals (won three), owned the NBA's worst record at 15-50. LA's current season has been marred by injuries to both A.D. (missed 36 games) and LBJ (missed 27) but was just a tiebreaker (or two) away from coming away with the West's No. 5 seed. As noted above, the Warriors were able to secure the No. 8 spot by beating the Grizzlies this past Sunday, as Steph Curry (the NBA's leading scorer) can lay a legitimate claim to MVP honors (not saying he should win it!). However, he almost single-handedly led Golden St to EIGHT wins in its last nine games, including SIX in a row to end the regular season. The Lakers, who took two of three in the regular season, are favored by 4 1/2-points (over/under is 219 1/2).

The loser of the 7/8 matchup will host the winner of the 9/10 matchup on Thursday (TNT) in the East and on Friday (ESPN) in the West. Those two winners will claim the No. 8 seeds in their respective conferences. The typical 16-team NBA playoff format begins on Saturday. Check back "first thing" Saturday morning for Part 2 of my look at the NBA's "Second Season."

Good luck...Larry

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