2021 NBA Playoffs

Fresh-faced superstars lead NBA into conference semifinals

A new group of superstars are starting to write their playoff stories as the conference semifinals get underway.

Devin Booker (left) and Donovan MItchell could potentially square off in the West finals.

Think of the last great party you attended and what it was that made it so great: the food, the drinks, the music, the other guests, the setting, the occasion.

Now ask yourself this: How much time did you spend fretting about the people who weren’t there?

That’s where the NBA is at, having reached the round of eight in the 2021 playoffs. The conference semifinals, for many, are the best of all rounds each year, giving us four series and eight real or near-contenders, games coming one or two each night. It’s a happy medium between the first round, which can feel like an overstuff buffet of basketball, games coming so fast and furiously it can be hard to keep up, and the later rounds where — gasp! — we actually have to cope with nights without games at all.

So before the conference semifinals “party” begins, let’s greet everyone at the door with a few facts about who isn’t coming. And then stick a beverage in their hand, crank up the tunes, point them toward the chips, the dip and the wings and see how it goes:

  • Eleven franchises have won the past 37 NBA championships. None of them is at this party. Not the Lakers, the Raptors, the Warriors, the Cavaliers, the Spurs, the Heat, the Mavericks, the Celtics, the Pistons, the Bulls or the Rockets.
  • Last year’s Finals teams, the Lakers and the Heat, both are at home. In the 46 years since the NBA went to four rounds for its postseason tournament, that has happened only two previous times. In 2015, neither Miami nor San Antonio from reached the semis, and it happened in 2007 with Miami and Dallas.
  • The eight franchises left on the board have won a total of five NBA titles. The 22 who aren’t participating account for 68 championships. The Sixers (three), Bucks (one) and Hawks (one) have won, which means the Nets, Jazz, Suns, Nuggets and Clippers all are ringless.

Now that we’re clear on who’s not at this party, let’s turn our attention to the teams that are. They’re excited to be here, too, and enthusiasm goes a long way to keep things festive.

The eight teams in the semifinals finished the regular season with the top four records in their respective conferences. What the first round lacked in upsets — the No. 4 Knicks and the No. 5 Hawks had identical 41-31 marks — it made up for in validation. The best of 2020-21 remain very much alive.

Out West, Utah went to two Finals in 1997 and ’98 with Karl Malone, John Stockton and coach Jerry Sloan leading the way. Phoenix went twice, in 1976 (for the famous Garfield Heard triple-overtime game vs. Boston) and in 1993 (a Charles Barkley-led team that lost to Chicago in six games). That’s it.

Devin Booker was on fire in the Game 6 series-clincher against the Lakers.

In the East, the four franchises have shown up more — eight Finals trips for Philadelphia, four for the Hawks, two each for the Bucks and Nets — but not lately. The Nets got there in 2002 and 2003 (after some ABA success in the 1970s), the Sixers went in 2001, the Hawks crammed in theirs from 1957-61 in their St. Louis days and the Bucks haven’t been to the Finals since Oscar Robertson’s last season. He’s 82 now.

What these 2021 conference semifinals really represent is fresh blood, a bevy of bright young stars who are just starting to write their playoff stories. Some of the NBA’s youngest, most accomplished and yet still promising performers are taking their games to a bigger stage.

Atlanta’s Trae Young, 22, already has quieted crowds in raucous New York and Philadelphia in the past couple weeks, with more possibly to come. With 35 points and 10 assists against the Sixers on Sunday, he joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players in league history to score 30 or more in each of their first four road playoff games.

Trae Young has developed into a shining star for the Hawks during their playoff run.

Phoenix’s Devin Booker, 24, went head-to-head with LeBron James and his team backed into a corner, on the road, and scored 47 points to get the job done. Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, 24, averaged nearly a point a minute in getting the Jazz past a feisty Memphis team led by its own bright young star, Ja Morant.

Then there was Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, 24, who hung a triple-double on Washington in the Sixers’ first-round clincher after missing his team’s 2020 bubble playoff appearance with a knee injury. Even with the Game 1 loss to Atlanta Sunday, the versatile 6-foot-10 guard with the polarizing two-way game has a net rating in these playoffs so far of 20.3 (130.0/109.7).

Now raise the age bar a year or two and we’ve got a trio of MVP-worthy, all-NBA types pushing hard in arguably their best shots yet at a championship: Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Denver’s Nikola Jokic and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid.

Nikola Jokic has Denver in the conference semifinals once again.

Brooklyn’s James Harden and the Clippers’ Paul George, both 31, are in pursuit of rings, too, though they’re just a bit older and with some prominent, former-champion teammates — Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard — sharing their respective loads.

It might have been nice if Dallas’ Luka Doncic, 22, had arrived fashionably late, though his Game 7 bid against the Clippers fell short Sunday. All Doncic did was average 35.7 points, 10.3 assists, 8.1 rebounds, 4.4 3-pointers and 1.3 steals in the series. The 77 points he created through scoring or passing are the most ever in a Game 7, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

At this point, for every NBA household name like James, Curry, Draymond Green, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook whose offseasons have begun, there are one or two Next Gen stars knocking at the door, wanting to crash this party. From Morant and New Orleans’ Zion Williamson to Boston’s Jayson Tatum, Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball, Miami’s Bam Adebayo, Chicago’s Zach LaVine, Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox and Denver’s Jamal Murray (out by injury this time).

New faces, new places and rings likely on a bunch of new fingers. That’s a pretty compelling case why this 2021 party will be more fun than passing a bowl of pretzels on the couch while waiting to see if the Lakers or Celtics win for the 18th time.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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