After a hard-fought NBA Finals that began with the Milwaukee Bucks down 2-0 to the Phoenix Suns on the road, they showed resilience by winning four straight games and claiming their first NBA championship in 50 years.
Giannis Antetokounmpo put the Bucks on his back, notching just the second 50-point game in an NBA Finals-clinching contest to earn MVP honors.
This NBA season was one filled with ups and downs filled with amazing performances, rising stars, heartbreaking losses, disappointing seasons and everything in between.
Let’s take a look at some of the highlights and lowlights of the 2021 NBA season.
Best: History was made
This NBA season saw the history book re-written in the regular season and postseason by the NBA’s elite. The most notable achievement came from Russell Westbrook who passed Oscar Robertson to become the NBA’s all-time leader in triple-doubles after almost 50 years.
In addition, he also averaged a triple-double in a season for the fourth time in his career. Nikola Jokic had an incredible season becoming the first player to ever average over 26 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists on his way to being named the first NBA MVP in Denver Nuggets franchise history.
During the playoffs, after years of disappointing losses, the Los Angeles Clippers put together an amazing performance making their first Conference Finals in franchise history. The team they lost to, the Phoenix Suns, made the NBA Finals for the first time in 28 years becoming the first team to do so after missing the playoffs for 10 straight seasons.
Finally, the aforementioned Milwaukee Bucks ending a 50-year drought without an NBA title win defeating the Phoenix Suns in six games.
Worst: Injuries and tight schedule due to COVID-19
While the NBA saw some amazing action and moments during the season, injuries and COVID-19 derailed the seasons of a lot of teams. LeBron James and Anthony Davis missed a combined 63 games for the Lakers in the regular season, while the latter missed two playoff games due to injury.
Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving each missed significant time in the regular season for the Brooklyn Nets, with Harden and Irving each dealing with injuries in the playoffs. Denver advanced to the second round of the postseason despite Jamal Murray going down with a torn ACL during the regular season.
Trae Young and Giannis Antetokounmpo missed two games apiece in the Eastern Conference Finals. Kawhi Leonard was forced to miss the Los Angeles Clippers’ first ever Western Conference Finals due to a partially torn ACL.
The Washington Wizards were put on the shelf for almost two weeks in the regular season due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Jayson Tatum tested positive for COVID-19 and reportedly needed to use an asthma pump when he returned to game action.
Meanwhile, his teammate Jaylen Brown was injured prior to the start of the playoffs forcing him to miss the Celtics postseason run. These were just a few examples of injuries and COVID-19 stories that diminished the NBA season.
It’s always great when a team can have great success in a season shattering expectations and this season had it in droves. The New York Knicks had not made the playoffs since 2013 losing over 50 games in five of the previous seven seasons including two 60-loss seasons.
New York was able to get over the hump, making it back to the playoffs by securing the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Knicks’ playoff opponent, the Atlanta Hawks, had fallen on hard times prior to this season, too, winning less than 30 games in each of the last three seasons. This year, they finished with the fifth-best record in the East and made it all the way to the Conference Finals.
Most notably, the Phoenix Suns came into the 2020-21 NBA season with the second-longest playoff drought, missing the last 10 postseasons. After adding Chris Paul in the offseason, they would soar to the NBA’s second-best record in the regular season and clinch an NBA Finals berth.
Worst: Disrespectful fans
Last season, the COVID-19 pandemic forced NBA games to be put on hold and the world in isolation. When play resumed, it would be done in the confines of a bubble located as Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. This season, while games would return to NBA arenas, they would be played without fans in the stands.
That all changed at the halfway point of the 2020-21 campaign, when fans slowly began to be allowed back in the arena going from a small percentage to full capacity. The fans coming brought an excitement to the games compared to those without them. This was felt most in Milwaukee Bucks road playoff games in which fans would count down whenever Giannis Antetokounmpo went to the free throw line trolling his routine at the stripe.
Unfortunately, there were incidents that saw fans get a little too excited to be back in the arenas exerting themselves into the game in a disrespectful manner.
One incident saw a Philadelphia 76ers fan throw popcorn on Russell Westbrook while he was walking to the locker room after exiting the game with an injury. Another featured a New York Knicks fan spitting on Trae Young while he was on the sideline waiting to inbound the ball. Then, there was a Boston Celtics fan that threw a water bottle at Kyrie Irving while he was exiting the court at the end of a game.
While fans returning to the arenas did bring an aura of excitement that NBA games missed without them, it showed that there is work to be done to protect the players.
Best: Unpredictable NBA playoffs
In year’s past, the NBA playoffs began to lose its excitement as a result of the postseason playing out in rather predictable fashion. This year was completely different, as many of fans’ expectations for how the playoffs would play out were shattered.
Despite the fact that the Los Angeles Lakers were the seventh seed, most thought they would take advantage of the Suns’ inexperience and win the series. Although it looked to be going in that direction with the Lakers taking a 2-1 lead, the Suns bounced back to win the next three games and knock out the defending champions.
Brooklyn was tagged as the favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals, led by their dynamic trio Durant, Harden and Irving. That was sure to be the case when they took a 2-0 lead and overcame a 17-point deficit to take a 3-2 lead in the second round against the Milwaukee Bucks. However, it was the Bucks winning the next two games to eliminate the Nets.
By far the most unpredictable aspect of the NBA playoffs was the Los Angeles Clippers’ run. They became the first team to win two playoff series despite trailing 2-0 in each series.
After dropping their first two games at home in the first round against the Dallas Mavericks, the Clippers started off game three on the road down 30-11 with four minutes remaining in the first quarter. However, they trimmed the deficit to three at the end of the quarter on their way to winning the game. The teams would trade road victories and ending with the Clippers winning game seven in the only home win of the series.
In the next round against the Utah Jazz, with the series tied two games apiece, the Clippers saw their playoff life flash before its eyes with Kawhi Leonard going down with an injury. However, they persevered winning the next two games to advance to their first Conference Finals in team history.
The playoffs are always better when the result is in unexpected, and this year embodied that perfectly.
Worst: Lackluster playoff performers
While the Knicks did overachieve in the regular season, they were unable to do the same in the postseason getting thoroughly outplayed by the Atlanta Hawks in the first round getting eliminated in five games.
The NBA’s Most Improved Player, Julius Randle, was unable to replicate his success from the regular season in the playoffs, shooting less than 30% in the Knicks playoff run. But let’s not only single out New York, who should be happy to have been in the postseason in the first place. The Knickerbockers weren’t the only ones to disappoint.
Kristaps Porzingis underperformed for the Dallas Mavericks, averaging 13.1 points and 5.4 rebounds as Dallas lost to the Clippers in Round 1. Porzingis may have worn out his welcome with the Mavs because of how badly he played.
However, there was no player so saw his stock plummet in the playoffs like Philadelphia 76ers All-Star guard Ben Simmons.
The young star played a solid series against the Washington Wizards in the first round, nearly averaging a triple-double with 14.8 points, 10.2 rebounds and 9.2 assists. Unfortunately, in the next round against Atlanta, Simmons became the subject of ridicule.
Simmons’ numbers were down across the board: 9.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 8.6 assists. The main source of criticism from Simmons was his lack of aggressiveness, particularly in the fourth quarter of games. In the series, Simmons scored just 15 fourth-quarter points, attempting only four shots from the field.
In the final three games of the series, Simmons scored 19 total points on 14 shot attempts. The Hawks took advantage of his poor free throw shooting, hacking him and sending him to the line often, which deepened Simmons’ crisis of confidence and led to a 33% conversion rate from the stripe.
Best: The future is now
If the 2020-2021 NBA season had a tagline it would be “Make a Statement” based on the league’s bright young stars who had amazing years. The most glaringly obvious was Devin Booker, who took Kobe’s advice of “Be Legendary” quite literally.
In his first run in the NBA Playoffs, Booker helped lead the Phoenix Suns to their first NBA Finals in 28 years, setting a new NBA record for points scored by a player in their first playoff run.
Even more encouraging than Booker’s exceptional individual effort was how the Suns’ supporting cast rose to the occasion. Deandre Ayton proved well worthy of the No. 1 overall pick, Cam Johnson was a key role player, and Cameron Payne spelled CP3 with stretches of dominance scoring off the bench.
Trae Young proved the Hawks’ draft night trade that cost them Luka Doncic wasn’t the awful move it had been made out to be. That narrative needs to go away. Young averaged 28.8 points and 9.5 assists, leading the Hawks to their second Eastern Conference Finals since the franchise moved to Atlanta in 1969.
Like Booker, Young got more help than many could’ve expected from his teammates, such as Kevin Huerter, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Clint Capela. Regardless of what happens with restricted free agent John Collins, Atlanta has a bright future and should be able to build on its surprising run to the NBA’s Final Four.
There were also players that were either eliminated in early rounds or missed the playoffs that left enough of an impression that they were a force to be reckoned with in the future. Doncic, Randle, Donovan Mitchell, Ja Morant, LaMelo Ball, Miles Bridges and Anthony Edwards just to name a few.
With all these new stars coming of age before our eyes, NBA fans have a lot to look forward to in the future.