The NBA playoffs: Fans return, no bubble, many contenders

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·5 min read
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Old friends will become foes, if only for a week or two. There are rematches from last year, new teams with home-court advantage, more fan capacity than at any other point this season and, perhaps best of all, no bubble.

The NBA playoffs are back.

Just about back to normal, too.

It all officially starts Saturday, a 16-team tournament that was preceded by six pre-playoff games to whet the postseason appetite. That play-in tournament — the NBA’s newest hit — is how LeBron James and the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers played their way into the chance to defend their title, how their fellow 17-time champion Boston got back into the playoffs and how it was determined which teams would face top overall seed Utah and Eastern Conference No. 1 seed Philadelphia in Round 1.

“We recognize, like everyone else does, that the NBA playoffs are a unique, unique event, and obviously for the simple reason that that’s where the championship is won,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said. “That said, you don’t ignore the regular season. I don’t think it was a goal at the beginning of the year to win the regular season. The goal was to play as well as we can, get better and in doing so prepare to play well and hopefully win in the playoffs.”

The Jazz are entering the playoffs as the NBA’s No. 1 overall seed for the first time, and as the top seed in the Western Conference for the third time — joining 1997 and 1998, years where they made the NBA Finals only to be thwarted in six games by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls each time.

Philadelphia enters as the East’s No. 1 seed for the first time since 2001. But perhaps in a harbinger of the chaos that might await over the next two months, neither the Jazz nor the 76ers are favored to reach the NBA Finals. Based on FanDuel’s latest numbers, the seventh-seeded Lakers are the top pick to emerge from the West and the second-seeded Brooklyn Nets — with their glitzy trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden set to hit the postseason together for the first time — as the consensus selection to win the East.

“Listen, either you’re good enough, or you’re not,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. “And if you’re good enough, you’re going to have to beat somebody. You really are. You’re not going to be able to dodge your way. There are no accidental champions. I say that all the time. And so, if you’re going to win it, man, you’re going to have to go through it to win it.”

The Lakers, bidding for back-to-back titles, have a brutally tough path ahead. Since the NBA went to the 16-team playoff format in 1984, no team seeded No. 7 or lower has won a championship; the lowest-seeded title team was the No. 6 Houston Rockets in 1995, when they won their second straight title and newly enshrined Hall of Fame coach Rudy Tomjanovich famously bellowed “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.”

The Lakers open against No. 2 Phoenix, a matchup that pits James against his longtime friend Chris Paul, whose first year with the Suns — a franchise back in the playoffs for the first time since 2010 — probably exceeded most realistic expectations.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” said James, who is seeking a fifth NBA title. “Our journeys, we’ve been playing this game at such a high level for a long time. I’ve always rooted for him ... it’s going to be pretty cool just to be on the same floor and competing with one of the most fierce competitors that this game has had over his career."

Other West matchups: Utah will play the Golden State-Memphis winner in Round 1, No. 3 Denver plays No. 6 Portland and the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers face No. 5 Dallas in a first-round rematch from last season.

The city of New York — whether it’s the borough of Manhattan or Brooklyn — hasn’t experienced one of its teams winning a playoff game at home since 2015. That might finally change, with the second-seeded Nets facing Boston and fourth-seeded New York returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2013 against fifth-seeded Atlanta.

The other East first-round matchup besides 76ers-Wizards, Nets-Celtics and Knicks-Hawks is one of last season’s playoff rematches, with No. 3 Milwaukee facing No. 6 Miami. The Heat won the East last season, ousting the Bucks in the second round on the way to the NBA Finals.

“Last year, probably because of the bubble, I wasn’t able to get away from basketball,” Milwaukee forward and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “Losing a game and going to the hotel and seeing the players that just beat you, you got so low about yourself.”

Thankfully, there’s no bubble needed this year to finish the season.

The games at Walt Disney World weren't open to fans last summer. This year, fans are back; buildings aren’t totally full again yet, but that may happen later in the playoffs depending on how the fight against COVID-19 keeps trending.

The virus dominated every aspect of the NBA this season, from daily testing to a vaccination push to empty arenas for many games and more than 30 postponements, but the league eventually got through all 1,080 games on the compressed schedule.

And now, the fight for the trophy can finally begin.

“What you have is a great appreciation for this time of year, to be able to have this opportunity to be able to compete at the highest level of our profession,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Ultimately, you want your team to be able to play with the fan experience. You get tested when you’re on the road, and then you feel the energy and environment when you’re at home. We’ve adapted without it for over a year, but I think everybody’s looking forward to those kind of environments.”

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Tim Reynolds, The Associated Press