Through the early goings of the 2021 NBA playoffs, three contenders are slowing emerging out of the pack as the favorites to win the East. The Philadelphia 76ers are proving to be worthy contenders after they finished the regular season with the best record in the conference and with Joel Embiid playing MVP-level basketball. Of course, everybody would probably pencil in the Brooklyn Nets as the team to beat on paper, with their star-studded trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden leading the way. Finally, the Milwaukee Bucks looked very impressive in the opening round as they swept the reigning Eastern Conference champions Miami Heat, exacting revenge on their tormentors from a year ago.
This could very well look like a three-way fight to the finish. Barring any major upsets, Philadelphia seems like it will make the conference finals, as they should take care of whoever comes out of the Knicks-Hawks series. Meanwhile, the ensuing Bucks-Nets series should be a major bloodbath between two absolute heavy hitters. With that said, here are the biggest reasons why you should believe and doubt each of the three favorites from the Eastern Conference.
Sixers BELIEVE: Trust the Process
All those years of tanking through the 2010’s could finally reap its rewards this season if the Sixers manage to get to the Finals. Sure, Embiid has been the man for Philadelphia throughout the season, but they have been playing well overall as a team, especially through the first round of the playoffs. Their dominance was on full display in Game 3 against the Washington Wizards, where all five starters scored in double-figures with Embiid leading the way with 36 points.
They have been clicking on all cylinders through this series and this could give the Doc Rivers-led squad much more confidence heading into a likely Eastern Conference Finals appearance.
Sixers DOUBT: Relatively easy path may come to haunt them
No matter how dominant they have looked, there’s still a possibility for the Sixers to crumble when the bright lights finally open. Philly is already essentially a lock to advance. There’s no reason to believe they will get past either the Hawks or the Knicks, two relatively inexperienced squads, in round two.
With a relatively easy path to the conference finals, the real test for the Sixers will come in the East Finals and it’s not going to be easy with either the Nets or Bucks in their way. Perhaps not getting stiff competition through the first two rounds could be more detrimental for the Sixers, as they would not be battle tested enough when they final big boss in the East.
Nets BELIEVE: Big Three too much
Kevin Durant. James Harden. Kyrie Irving. Need we say more?
When you have three All-NBA caliber players who can drop 40 on any given night, you have to be the odds on favorite to win the title, more so win your conference. Brooklyn’s recipe for success will be to just outscore their opponents every night. And while this usually isn’t the formula for a championship (defense wins them, right?), the Nets offense may just be too overwhelming for whoever stands in their way.
Nets DOUBT: Who’s going to stop Giannis? Embiid?
The Nets don’t really care about defense right? Well, even if they do, who’s going to stop Giannis Antetokounmpo in the next round? Brook Lopez is also proving to be a force down low for Milwaukee. And if they get past the Bucks, who’s going to contain Joel Embiid inside?
Brooklyn does not have anyone to defend these two paint monsters. No, Blake Griffin isn’t the answer on that end and has never been so even in his prime days. The Greek Freak and The Process will likely have their way against the Brooklyn front line. The Nets will need to be creative in how they will deal with Antetokounmpo and Embiid and will likely need to send extra bodies to pack the paint whenever they get inside.
Head coach Steve Nash could tap into veteran big man Deandre Jordan just to bang bodies with Embiid, Antetokounmpo, or Lopez. However, he just isn’t the same enforcer anymore down low. Sophomore big man Nicolas Claxton has been Nash’s center of choice so far in the postseason and his inexperience could be something that Philadelphia and Milwaukee exploits when they do face off down the road.
Bucks BELIEVE: Bucks look like a different team
If their first round trouncing of the Miami Heat is any indication, these Milwaukee Bucks look way different from the 2019 and 2020 versions that finished with the best record in the regular season. Their off-season and mid-season additions have been key to their postseason success so far.
Jrue Holiday, one of the most underrated two-way stars in the NBA, is proving his worth as their steady hand on the perimeter. Everyone knows what he brings as one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA. On top of his elite defense, Holiday’s ability to make an impact on the offensive end with both his playmaking and shot creation has added a different dynamic to their offense.
Furthermore, P.J. Tucker, whom they acquired at the trade deadline, has become a solid veteran enforcer for them with his hustle and defense. Bryn Forbes, who had tons of playoff experience with the San Antonio Spurs, is becoming a solid piece as their top sniper from beyond the arc. Finally, Bobby Portis has proven to be a reliable and consistent contributor off the bench.
Bucks DOUBT: We’ve seen the Bucks fall before
It’s still hard to look at the Bucks and not think about the failures of the past two years. Everybody saw their massive downfall against the Heat in last year’s playoffs and the way they lost to the Toronto Raptors in four straight games to bow out of the 2019 East Finals.
Head coach Mike Budenholzer has had a reputation of not being able to adjust. Perhaps this could come back to haunt them when either the Nets or Sixers find a weakness and begin exploiting them over and over again.