Top seeds fall as NBA postseason provides unexpected resultsFriday, June 25, 2021
BY MARK ARCHER
The top seeds in both the Eastern and Western Conferences of the National Basketball Association (NBA) were eliminated from the postseason last weekend in their respective semi-finals series and now the door is wide open for a champion to emerge from any of the four remaining teams.
In the East, the fifth seeded Atlanta Hawks pressed the top seeded Philadelphia 76ers to the limit and overcame significant odds to advance to the Conference Finals after a 103-96, Game 7 win last Sunday (June 20). In a series where the home team only won twice (Games 2 and 4), Game 7 in Philadelphia came down to nerves and desire — apparently, Atlanta had more of both.
While rising star Trey Young struggled to get going from the field (scoring only 21 points after averaging 29.1 in the series), and with starting guard Bogdan Bogdanovic hampered by a knee injury, Kevin Huerter took on the scoring burden and finished with a play-off career-high 27 points.
The Hawks had a 16-20 record at the All-Star break but finished the season at 41-31 – they are just the third team under the current play-off format (since 1984) to make the conference finals despite having a losing record at the All-Star break. The other two teams to do so — the 1984 Suns (19-24) and the 2012 Celtics (15-17) — did not make the NBA Finals.
The Hawks last made the conference finals in 2015, where they were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Prior to that, they lost the then-division finals to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1970 (at that time, only one series victory was needed to advance that far). The last time the Hawks reached the NBA Finals was in 1961, when the St Louis Hawks lost to the Boston Celtics so they will be looking to break a 60-year drought.
Also in the East, the highly favoured Brooklyn Nets were pushed to seven games by the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been knocking on the door for the past three seasons but just couldn't muster enough to get them over the bump — until now. Despite superhuman efforts by Kevin Durant in Game 7, the Nets fell short at home in only the second overtime game in these playoffs.
The home team won every other game in the series, but two-time NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP) Giannis Antetokounmpo wouldn't be denied — even in Brooklyn. Durant played every minute of the game and was noticeably gassed (physically and emotionally) following his heroic 53-minute, 48-point performance in the 111-115 loss. The encounter was a action-packed a thriller as it was expected to be. With the series on the line, both teams playing a do-or-die game, all players put in all their efforts.
Giannis put in 50 (very necessary) minutes and finished with 40 points and 13 rebounds while Khris Middleton clocked 52 minutes for 23 points and 10 rebounds to return the Bucks to the Conference Finals for the second time in three seasons — they faced the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 Conference Finals and the Canadian team beat Milwaukee 4-2 then went on to win the 2019 NBA Championship after beating the Golden State Warriors in 6 games.
The Bucks will now take on the Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals, but the playoff run of Durant over the 12 games (34.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists) was very impressive especially with him having to shoulder the load after losing one of Brooklyn's key playmakers (Kyrie Irving) early in the series and another (James Harden) forcing a comeback after suffering a hamstring injury. His 48-point explosion to close the series is now the most points scored in any Game 7 in play-offs history, and it is scary to think what will happen next season with the 'Big 3' healthy and ready to go.
In the West, the fourth seeded Los Angeles Clippers overcame a 0-2 series deficit against the top seeded Utah Jazz to win 4-2 and pull off their second-such performance in these play-offs – they were also down 0-2 in the previous series against the Dallas Mavericks and produced a 4-3 series win.
The Clippers had been without all-start shooting guard/small forward Kawhi Leonard (due to injury) since Game 4 of the series and have overachieved in his absence but, nothing like what they produced in Game 6, last week Friday (June 18). While the expected contribution of Paul George and Reggie Jackson (28 and 27 points, respectively) were well appreciated by the Los Angeles fans, it was the career performance of Terance Mann (39 points) that had the frantic crowd on their feet.
It was a story of two halves as Utah led 75-50 at half-time with Donovan Mitchell leading the way, but Mann caught fire in the third quarter (scoring 20 points) and ignited a couple of Clipper runs (11-0 and 17-0) to overcome a 25-point deficit and cut Utah's lead to 94-91 before the start of the fourth. The Clippers went on to score 81 points in the second half (to Utah's 47) en route to the 131-119 victory and book their spot in the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history.
The Clippers had very little time to savour their achievement as their historic series against the Phoenix Suns (who have been waiting a while for their opponents) began last Sunday (June 20). Both teams were without a key starter – Leonard for the Clippers (knee injury) and Chris Paul for the Suns (Covid protocols) – but the Suns, led by Devin Booker's first career triple-double (40 points, 13 rebounds, 11 assists), were able to hold on for a 120-114 win. A Game 2 nail-biter was played on Tuesday (June 22) where the game came down to just one play drawn up by Suns' Coach Monty Williams, with just one second left on the clock and a one point Phoenix win.
The Conference Finals are a prelude to the NBA Finals, but the play-off intensity is elevated in every second of every game – Enjoy the ride.
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Milwaukee Bucks 2.09
Phoenix Suns 2.10
Los Angeles Clippers 14.00
Atlanta Hawks 14.00
*Odds are subject to change