SO the two best teams in the basketball universe, Los Angeles Lakers Lakers and the Boston Celtics, were knocked out in the first round of the 2021 NBA playoffs.
The Lakers, who have won 17 championships, were eliminated by the Phoenix Suns, while the Celtics, who have also raised 17 banners, were sent packing by the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Golden State Warriors, who captured three of their six titles in the last six years, also missed the playoffs.
No LeBron James, no Jayson Tatum and no Stephen Curry to watch
The second round will now feature eight teams which have combined to win only five championships since the league started in 1947.
That’s one less than the six that the Lakers alone have won this century.
Only the Philadelphia 76ers, who have won three titles in 1955, 1967 and 1983; the Milwaukee Bucks, who did it in 1971; and the Atlanta Hawks, who made in 1958, have championship pedigree to show.
The Brooklyn Nets, and all the four teams which made it in the wild West — Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers — have never even won a title.
So now we’ll be closely watching eight new challengers to the title vacated by James and the injury-hit Lakers.
No. 1 Philadelphia 76ers vs. No.5 Atlanta Hawks
If the result of the series opener won by Atlanta will be the gauge, expect a scoring battle between MVP candidate Joel Embiid and Trae Young.
If he’s back at full strength, Embiid will be really, really be very hard to defend. The 7-0 Cameroonian star can still dominate even as he works his way back from a knee injury.
The 76ers’ other weapons — Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris — should also be able to deliver against the upstart Hawks.
Young is doing it for the Hawks, who earned a lot of respect after knocking out Julius Randle and the New York Knicks.
Young also continues to make NBA history as he became only the second player after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to score 30 points in each of his first four career playoff road games.
But Young will need consistent solid games from John Collins, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and the supporting cast as he drew multiple defenders during crucial stretch of the games.
Pick: 76ers in 6.
No. 2 Brooklyn Nets vs. No.3 Milwaukee Bucks.
Easily the most-anticipated battle in the second round will pit the Nets, who are looking for their first-ever title with the superstar trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, against the Bucks, who are gunnung for their first title since 1971 with two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the way.
It will be a fun and exciting series, with the Nets’ offensive firepower going up against the Bucks’ top-rated defense.
Even with Harden leaving the game early with a right hamstring injury, Durant and Irving provided enough firepower to frustrate the Bucks in their series opener.
Antetokounmpo and the Bucks have shown they have learned their lessons from past defeats and looked prepared to make another run at the elusive title.
This was evident when the Bucks exacted sweet revenge on the Miami Heat with Kris Middleton,, Brook Lopez and Jruw Holiday stepping up to support Antetokounmpo.
If push cones to shove, the Nets should take this one.
Pick: Nets in 6.
No. 1 Utah Jazz vs.No. 4 LA Clippers.
Utah has been been at the top of the Western Conference all season, thanks mainly to the MVP-like performances of Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, Rudy Gobert and the pair of “Sixth Man” award finalists Jordan Clarkson (who won it) and Joe Ingles.
Mitchell was his usual deadly self in his return from an ankle injury, leading the Jazz against the Memphis Grizzlies and its own young superstar, Ja Morant.
And while Utah is fully-rested, the other LA team went through the fire in an interesting seven-game series against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks.
Can Kawhi Leonard and Paul George do it again?
Leonard posted an effective 67.5 field goal percentage against the Mavs, including a 45-point effort in the Game 6 road victory in Dallas.
But Leonard only had an effective field goal percentage of just 45.8 in four games against Utah. That’s his lowest mark against any opponent in two seasons with the Clippers.
Gobert, of course, was the main reason.
Pick: Jazz in 6
No. 2 Phoenix Suns vs. No. 3 Denver Nuggets
Beating James and the defending champions Lakers in the first-round is special, but it is not enough for young superstar Devin Booker, veteran Chris Paul and the over-achieving Suns.
There is not enough time for celebration.
Now they have to go through a never-say-die Denver team which made it to the semifinals without its second-best player in Jamal Murray.
Nikola Jokic will almost surely have his way against Suns center Deandre Ayton and his two-man game with Monte Morris in the first-round battle against Portland can pose a major challenge to the Suns.
Booker’s scoring and Paul’s leadership could greatly help Phoenix in making the series a lot more interesting.
Pick: Nuggets in 6.
NOTES — Advance happy birthday to my lovely wife Liza, who celebrates another beautiful year on June 11.
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