Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
In the third quarter of the first game of the Eastern Conference finals, with the Hawks’ nursing a delicate two-point lead, Trae Young received a pass a few feet above the top of the key from John Collins. Immediately, Young darted down the right side of the floor. Collins approached his point guard seemingly with the intent of setting a screen, before slipping away instead of making contact with Jrue Holiday, quickly darting into the paint. Young attacked Collins’s original defender, a backpedaling Bobby Portis, and with the big man focused on him entirely, Young launched an aggressive floater off the right side of the backboard. Except it wasn’t a shot. Collins began his gather as soon as Young did, and Brook Lopez was too late to realize what was going on. The floater was a pass, and Collins collected the ball off the backboard and slammed it home for two points. It was an NBA Street move in the middle of the conference finals. Atlanta would end up winning Game 1, its third straight Game 1 road win this postseason.
The Hawks have been emblematic, both on the court and in the larger sense, of what’s come to define the 2021 NBA playoffs. Atlanta’s spontaneity, youth, and inexperience combined with its high level of execution, breathtaking displays of greatness, and overall success are a microcosm of what’s made basketball so entertaining since the play-in tournament began on May 18. For the first time in many years, the NBA is in chaos, and what’s going to happen next has never felt less predictable.
Now, obviously the NBA has never been perfectly predictable. (Not many people had the Cavaliers coming back from a 3–1 deficit in the 2016 Finals, for example.) But there is typically a sense of inevitability to every season. Stars almost always impose their will. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Kawhi Leonard essentially controlled the ’10s. If they were healthy, more often than not, one of their teams would be at least one of the last two standing. In ’21, Curry went out before the playoffs, LeBron in Round 1, Durant in Round 2 and Leonard is injured with no return in sight. In their place are four teams who are improbably alive.
The Clippers backed into the playoffs ignominiously after purposefully avoiding the Lakers’ side of the bracket. The franchise had never made a conference finals until this year, and all season long fought to shake off the stench of their blown 3–1 lead in the Orlando bubble. Somehow, all of this led to the Clips’ becoming the most resilient team of the playoffs. They fought off a 2–0 deficit against an unstoppable Luka Dončić. They overcame another 2–0 deficit against the top-seeded Jazz, winning the last two games of that series without Leonard, including a massive comeback in Game 6. And in the West finals, down two games to none again, Los Angeles responded with a stirring Game 3 victory, thanks in large part to Reggie Jackson (waived by the Pistons last year) and Terance Mann (out of the rotation at the start of the Utah series.) Oh, and people are calling Paul George “Playoff P” without a hint of irony now.
Not to be outdone, the Hawks were 14–20, 34 games into this season. Their head coach, Nate McMillan, is currently serving in an interim capacity. Two of their big offseason acquisitions, Rajon Rondo and Kris Dunn, are playing for another team (Rondo) or not playing at all (Dunn). Meanwhile, between two other key rotation members, one is hurt (De’Andre Hunter), and the other hasn’t played in so long he isn’t being used (Cam Reddish). And yet, Atlanta spoiled the Knicks’ storybook season, knocked out the conference’s No.1 seed in the Sixers and sent them into a spiral, and is now only three wins away from the Finals.
The Suns’ reward for their first playoff berth in 11 years was a first-round matchup with the defending champion Lakers, except they took advantage of a hobbled LeBron and Anthony Davis to hand James the first first-round exit of his career, literally mocking him on his way out. Then they swept the team led by the MVP Nikola Jokić. And then with Chris Paul’s entering the COVID-19 protocol before the conference finals, Phoenix held home court without its MVP candidate and currently leads its series against the Clippers, 2–1. In the process, Devin Booker has become a playoff killer while Deandre Ayton, a maligned former No. 1 pick, is blossoming into one of the best bigs in the league.
And then there are the Bucks, perhaps the team most expected to be in this position at the start of the season. Except after a drubbing of the Heat, Milwaukee only barely survived in the second round, sneaking into the conference finals thanks to the half-size-too-big shoes worn by Durant on what was nearly a series-winning three-pointer in a Game 7. The Bucks were lucky to make it to the third round, and now face a 1–0 hole thanks to curious, strategic decisions they made against Young.
This has been one of the most twisty, turny postseasons in recent memory. At various points the remaining teams have either looked cooked or like the title favorite. While injuries to great players have certainly played a factor, it’s been maybe almost 15 years since the title has felt so up for grabs? What this postseason has lacked in internationally recognizable star power, it has made up for tenfold in entertainment. If the league office really does crave parity, then it should be applauding to a degree how this season has unfolded, because each of the remaining four teams has a great argument for why it should be the favorite to win the title.
There‘s been some conjecture online (aka, people have tweeted) about whether this season is a fluke. If the strange nature of this postseason is a reflection of the NBA’s decision to cram in so many games in a short period of time after the conclusion of the bubble. Common sense would suggest there’s almost certainly some lingering effect from the quick turnaround. To which I say, who cares?
Ultimately, while the league and players’ union maybe never prioritized the product this year, the basketball itself has been as intriguing as ever during the playoffs. The chaos is keeping everyone involved on their toes. No team feels like a safe bet, which basically goes against decades of NBA intuition. Chaos has made the finish to this season, even without so many big names, deeply fascinating. If there’s something good that can be taken away from what was a trying year for the league, it’s that adding such a profound sense of unknown to any possession, any game or any series creates for a wildly compelling finish.
More NBA Playoffs Coverage:
• Pina: The NBA Playoffs All-Money Team
• How It Feels to Watch the Team You Built Thrive Without You
• Bromberg: The Hawks Found an Unlikely Hero in Kevin Huerter
• Trae Young Silences Another Away Crowd With Career Performance in Game 1