The 2021 NBA playoffs have unveiled the dawning of a new era in professional basketball, as young studs like Trae Young, Devin Booker and Giannis Antetokounmpo have taken center stage.
Granted, a shortened regular season and injuries to numerous established veterans have been a cause for some of this, For example, the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers had LeBron James and Anthony Davis both miss chunks of time during the 2020-21 campaign, and AD went down in the postseason.
Nevertheless, we also can’t dismiss what’s happening right now.
Trae Young puts on vintage performance of 2021 NBA playoffs
Young went off on Giannis’ Bucks for 48 points and 11 assists to lead the Atlanta Hawks to a Game 1 win in the Eastern Conference Finals. This is the same Hawks team that had a coaching change during the season amid rumors of friction, and had to go on an excellent run just to get the No. 5 seed.
Thanks to Young, John Collins and Kevin Huerter all stepping up in a big way, Atlanta is three wins away from the NBA Finals. Those players are all of 22, 23 and 22 years old respectively.
It’s so commonplace for younger, inexperienced players to buckle under the heightened atmosphere of playoff pressure. During these NBA playoffs, we’re seeing the exact opposite around the league, but it’s no more evident than with Young and the Hawks, especially considering where they were after starting the season with a 14-20 record.
Unheralded reserve Terance Mann delivers Clippers’ first Conference Finals berth
Soon-to-be-30-year-old Kawhi Leonard is currently out with a knee injury for the Los Angeles Clippers — another instance of a star going down. Paul George is having to carry the load, and is doing an admirable job thus far.
Even as PG13 has played well in Kawhi’s absence, though, in order for the shorthanded Clippers to get past the Utah Jazz, they needed sophomore wing Terance Mann’s 39-point eruption in Game 6’s close-out victory.
Otherwise, the Jazz’s fresh face of the franchise Donovan Mitchell would’ve taken center stage against Booker and the young Phoenix Suns in the Conference Finals.
Could you ever imagine Terance Mann outdueling Mitchell in an elimination game, and being the catalyst for digging the Clippers out of a 25-point deficit? It’s incredible, and Mann (24 years old) is seeing his role diminish in against Phoenix thus far as head coach Tyronn Lue reshuffles his rotation to stop the hot Suns.
Young gun Phoenix Suns look like legitimate juggernaut
The one time 36-year-old Chris Paul isn’t struck by horrible injury luck in the playoffs, he’s stuck in the COVID-19 health and safety protocols, and was out of action for the Suns’ first two games versus LA.
But while Paul’s leadership on this upstart Phoenix squad can’t be discounted, Phoenix’s huge step forward came because of its youthful core of Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and even CP3’s backup, Cameron Payne. That’s why the Suns have a 2-0 lead over the Clippers.
Paul appears to be on course to return for Game 3, yet Phoenix has proven it can win without him. Credit the long-tenured floor general for weathering numerous team changes. He deserves a lot of credit for continuing to change the Suns’ culture for the better.
That said, Paul doesn’t have much time left in his career, and the young trio of Booker, Ayton and Bridges form a solid foundation for Phoenix to build on.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: Prototype for a new superstar?
Look, every elite NBA player has a hole, or multiple weak points, in his game. The Greek Freak still can’t shoot from 3-point land consistently enough to be a threat, and has struggled at times from the free throw line throughout the postseason.
What’s great about Giannis is that he made a promise to turn the Bucks into a perpetual contender when he agreed to his max contract extension this past offseason. He could’ve bailed for a bigger market, or a better team, or a superior chance to win a championship like many before him have.
Nope. Didn’t do it. Antetokounmpo is an extremely humble, hard-working superstar who acknowledges his faults, and it’s quite obvious he works hard to correct them. He made six of his eight free throws in Game 1 versus the Hawks, attempted only two 3-pointers and impacted the outcome in all areas he was best suited to.
Antetokounmpo grinds to improve every offseason. It’s a notably different vibe to what Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers has shown. Over four seasons of playing in the NBA, Simmons seems to have gotten worse as a shooter.
Among the entire group of young players mentioned thus far, Antetokounmpo is the old man of the group at age 26. Even if the Bucks fall short this postseason, you know that Antetokounmpo will work tirelessly to deliver a Larry O’Brien Trophy to Milwaukee.
Many teams eliminated from 2021 NBA playoffs have bright futures thanks to young stars
It’s pretty clear that Utah just needs to give Mitchell a little more help to get over the hump. However, the Jazz aren’t the only ones playing happy music about what their future holds among this year’s postseason participants.
Ja Morant has a ton of young talent around him on the Memphis Grizzlies. They’ll continue to grow together and improve. Morant averaged 30.2 points and 8.2 assists against Utah in the first round. He’s 20.
Another team with some phenomenal youthful acquisitions of late is the Miami Heat. Finding diamonds in the rough like Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn, not to mention Bam Adebayo (23 years old) and Tyler Herro (21) on the fringes of the draft lottery? Not easy to do.
Robinson and Nunn are restricted free agents who could actually yield something significant in a sign-and-trade scenario — with the cooperation of offer sheets not getting too outlandish, of course.
Whatever else happens amid the Boston Celtics’ tumultuous offseason to date, they’ll be building around 23-year-old Jayson Tatum and 24-year-old Jaylen Brown. Before bowing out to the Brooklyn Nets in Round 1 this year, the Celtics had made the Conference Finals in three of the prior four postseasons.
We also can’t forget about the Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans, and Denver Nuggets.
Starting with Dallas, you can basically put anyone around Luka Doncic and things should work out pretty well. Doncic is arguably the brightest young superstar in the sport, and as long as the Mavs keep him happy and he continues on his current trajectory, they’ll have a legitimate title shot in the next two years.
Zion Williamson alone gives the Pelicans hope, as do 23-year-old former Lakers Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball. The trick is for New Orleans to get the right coach. Stan Van Gundy wasn’t that guy. If that’s taken care of, and Ball is either re-signed or signed and traded for something strong, the Pels are in serious business.
Last and certainly not least, we might be talking about the Nuggets as NBA Finals favorites if Jamal Murray hadn’t gone down with a torn ACL down the stretch of the regular season. As long as Murray is back healthy alongside MVP Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr., you might want to throw down a bet for Denver to win the 2022 NBA Finals.
Yep, maybe Kevin Durant and the Nets have a run in them next year if Kyrie Irving doesn’t go AWOL, or doesn’t get traded, and if James Harden steps up in the playoffs and isn’t hurt. Perhaps LeBron can will the Lakers to one more championship in his 19th season.
The odds are stacked against those above scenarios, though, and even if the Lakers and Brooklyn are the 2022 favorites, they’ll soon be eclipsed by a new, fascinating era of young star power that’s currently lighting up the NBA playoffs.