The 2020-21 NBA season began with the shortest offseason in league history. Following the championship run by LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers during the 2019-20 season restart in Orlando, teams had a 72-day offseason to hold the 2020 NBA Draft, free agency and training camp. All while the COVID-19 pandemic continued to impact daily life across the globe.
The defending-champion Lakers remade their roster, adding Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell and Marc Gasol to support James and Anthony Davis. Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Bucks — centered around reigning back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo — traded a haul of Draft picks and guard Eric Bledsoe to the Pelicans for Jrue Holiday. The team finished the last two regular seasons with the East’s best record, but failed to reach The Finals in either playoff run. They hoped Holiday — an elite defender and playmaker — would be the spark needed to reach the next level around Antetokounmpo, who alleviated front-office anxieties when he agreed to a multi-year contract extension with the team before the season started.
The Bucks weren’t the only team to make a major offseason trade for a point guard. In the West, the Phoenix Suns acquired future Hall of Famer Chris Paul in a deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The 35-year-old guard played at an All-Star level during the 2019-20 season, helping guide a young Thunder squad to the fifth seed in the West. In Phoenix he joined another young squad with a key difference maker on the roster — Devin Booker. The dynamic pairing alongside coach Monty Williams gave the veteran Paul another shot at winning his first title.
Due to the 2019-20 season restart, the season began in late-December with Kevin Durant facing Stephen Curry and the Warriors for the first time since he left to join Brooklyn in 2019. The former MVP showed flashes of brilliance during his first game back from injury, which further confirmed Brooklyn’s status as favorites to win the East behind Durant, Kyrie Irving and newly hired coach Steve Nash.
The Nets became even more formidable less than a month into the season when they acquired former MVP James Harden in a trade with the Houston Rockets. While the star trio of Durant, Irving and Harden saw limited floor-time together during the regular season due to injuries, the team remained confident it would all come together in the playoffs.
In the West, the defending champion Lakers dealt with injuries for significant stretches, most notably to James who played only 45 games. With the Golden State Warriors still recovering from an offseason injury to Klay Thompson, the field to win the West was wide open. The Utah Jazz (led by Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert), the Suns (led by Paul and Booker) and the Denver Nuggets (led by MVP Nikola Jokic) finished as the top three seeds.
The Play-In Tournament returned for a second-straight season and it featured a marquee West matchup for the seventh seed between the Lakers and Warriors. James and Los Angeles prevailed, while the Memphis Grizzlies won two straight games to earn the eighth seed. In the East, the Boston Celtics collected the seventh seed and the Washington Wizards, powered by Russell Westbrook, defeated the Indiana Pacers to claim the eighth seed.
After a regular season with limited crowd capacities and a reduced All-Star weekend, fans returned en masse during the playoffs as COVID-19 restrictions eased across the country. The renewed energy in arenas was clear during the first round of the playoffs, especially in Milwaukee where the Bucks swept the defending East champion Miami Heat to secure a matchup against the Nets in the East semifinals. They were joined in the conference semifinals by the Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks, LA Clippers, Jazz, Nuggets and Suns (who eliminated the hobbled Lakers in the first round).
The Nets-Bucks East semifinals series exceeded expectations as Antetokounmpo and Durant battled it out during a grueling seven-game series. Injuries to Irving and Harden limited Brooklyn, who turned to Blake Griffin for key offense alongside Durant’s sizzling play. Milwaukee prevailed in overtime of Game 7 after a potential game-winning 3-pointer by Durant at the end of regulation was ruled a 2-pointer because his foot was on the 3-point line.
Meanwhile, the Suns continued to shine in the West, sweeping past the injured Nuggets to secure a spot in the West finals. They faced off against the Clippers, who eliminated the Jazz in six games despite star Kawhi Leonard sustaining an injury during the series. The Suns endured a challenge from Paul George and LA during the six-game West finals, but the Clippers couldn’t keep up without Leonard. Phoenix advanced to its first Finals appearance since 1993, moving Paul one step closer to his first title.
Trae Young and the Hawks stunned the No. 1 seed Sixers in Game 7 to reach the East finals, where they started strong with a Game 1 win in Milwaukee. The Bucks won the next two games before Antetokounmpo suffered what appeared to be a season-ending knee injury in Game 4. With the series tied 2-2 and Antetokounmpo injured, the Bucks were at risk of another playoff disappointment when Brook Lopez, Khris Middleton and Holiday stepped up in Games 5 and 6 to win the series and power Milwaukee to its first Finals appearance since 1974.
Despite the injury suffered in the East finals, Antetokounmpo started Game 1 of The Finals against the Suns. However, the Bucks lost the first two games in Phoenix as the injury limited Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo responded with a 42-point Game 3 to power Milwaukee to the win. Then in Game 4, Antetokounmpo sealed the victory with a game-saving block at the rim against Deandre Ayton.
A back-and-forth Game 5 in Phoenix came down to the final seconds as well, when Holiday stripped the ball from Booker and then found Antetokounmpo for a thunderous alley-oop that secured the win for the Bucks. The series returned to Milwaukee, where the Bucks had the chance to win their first championship since 1971.
Antetokounmpo delivered in Game 6 with 50 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks as Milwaukee held off Phoenix to win its first NBA championship in 50 years. The 26-year-old Antetokounmpo was named Finals MVP with averages of 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.8 blocks. He joined Michael Jordan as the only players in NBA history to win Finals MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and multiple NBA MVPs.
The legendary Finals performance solidified Antetokounmpo’s place among the NBA’s best current players and showed the world he has the chance to become one of the NBA’s all-time greats.
Eastern Conference Play-In
Boston defeated Washington (for 7th seed)
Indiana defeated Charlotte (in 9-10 game)
Washington defeated Indiana (for 8th seed)
Western Conference Play-In
L.A. Lakers defeated Golden State (for 7th seed)
Memphis defeated San Antonio (in 9-10 game)
Memphis defeated Golden State (for 8th seed)
Eastern Conference first round
Philadelphia defeated Washington (4-1)
Brooklyn defeated Boston (4-1)
Milwaukee defeated Miami (4-0)
Atlanta defeated New York (4-1)
Western Conference first round
Utah defeated Memphis (4-1)
Phoenix defeated L.A. Lakers (4-2)
Denver defeated Portland (4-2)
LA Clippers defeated Dallas (4-3)
Eastern Conference semifinals
Atlanta defeated Philadelphia (4-3)
Milwaukee defeated Brooklyn (4-3)
Western Conference semifinals
LA Clippers defeated Utah (4-2)
Phoenix defeated Denver (4-0
Eastern Conference finals
Milwaukee defeated Atlanta (4-2)
Western Conference finals
Phoenix defeated LA Clippers (4-2)
Milwaukee defeated Phoenix (4-2)
Points — Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (32.0)
Assists — Russell Westbrook, Washington Wizards (11.7)
Rebounds — Clint Capela, Atlanta Hawks (14.3)
Steals — Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat (2.1)
Blocks — Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers (3.4)
FG% — Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz (67.5)
FT% — Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns (93.4)
3PT% — Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets (47.5)
Kia Most Valuable Player — Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Kia Rookie of the Year — LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets
Kia Defensive Player of the Year — Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Kia Most Improved Player — Julius Randle, New York Knicks
Kia Sixth Man of the Year — Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz
Coach of the Year — Tom Thibodeau, New York Knicks
All-Star Game MVP — Giannis, Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Finals MVP — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks