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NBA playoffs 2021: Full bracket, schedule, stars to watch & more

16 teams. Eight best-of-seven series. One trophy. Here's what you need to know about the 2021 NBA playoffs, which tip-off on 22 May. 
By Will Imbo

After an unprecedented 72-game regular season and historic play-in tournament, we now know the eight basketball teams that will be battling it out to claim the Larry O'Brien trophy in July.

So who will make a deep playoff run? Which stars will have the biggest impact in the postseason? And what are the key schedule dates to be aware of?

Here are the things you need to know about the 2021 NBA playoffs.

NBA 2021 playoff bracket and schedule

For the first time in league history, the 2021 NBA playoff field was finalised following a play-in tournament to determine the seventh and eighth seeds in the Eastern and Western conferences.

At the end of the regular season, the top six teams in each conference clinched a playoff berth. The teams that finished seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth qualified for the play-in tournament, with teams positioned seventh and eighth playing one game, with the winner securing the seventh seed in the playoffs. The loser of this game then faced the winner of the match-up between the ninth and tenth teams - the winner of that game then clinched the eighth and final spot in the playoffs - thus finalising the 2021 NBA playoff bracket.

The playoffs officially start on Saturday 22 May, beginning with game one of the Nets-Celtics, Bucks-Heat, Mavericks-Clippers, and Trail Blazers-Nuggets series.

The 76ers-Wizards series, Jazz-Grizzlies series, Suns-Lakers series, and Knicks-Hawks series all start on Sunday.

The full dates and match-ups of the second round, as well as conference semi-finals and Finals will be announced as the playoffs progress.

The NBA Finals begin on 8 July, with the latest possible end date of 22 July, just prior to the start of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in 2021 which will also feature many of the top players from the NBA and WNBA.

Teams to watch at the 2021 NBA playoffs

There are plenty of great matchups to keep an eye on in round one of the playoffs.

Defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers - who beat the Golden State Warriors to secure the 7th seed in the West - will face a tough challenge against the No.2 seed Phoenix Suns, who won the regular season battle by two games to one.

But with four-time champion LeBron James leading the charge, Lakers fans will rightly feel they have every chance to beat the Suns and progress to the next round.

The Utah Jazz suffered a disappointing first-round exit in the recent 2020 playoffs, losing to the Denver Nuggets after squandering a 3-1 series lead. They enter these playoffs with the best record in the entire NBA (52-20), with French star Rudy Gobert telling us he's confident the team have banished their demons of yesteryear and will make a deeper postseason run in 2021. They'll first have to get past the Memphis Grizzlies (who took out the Warriors in the final play-in game to claim the 8th seed), but let's just say it will be a pretty big shock if the Jazz fail to take care of business in seven games (or less).

The Denver Nuggets were the surprise package of the 2020 playoffs, making it all the way to the Western Conference Finals (where they would lose in five games to the eventual champion Lakers). Seeded third this year and led by MVP-favourite Nikola Jokic, they face an interesting battle with the Portland Trail Blazers, led by Damian Lillard.

The Los Angeles Clippers meet the Dallas Mavericks meet in a repeat of the first-round series of the 2020 playoffs to round out the Western Conference bracket.

In the East, it's hard to look past the Brooklyn Nets as the team to make the conference finals - and potentially win the championship itself. They come into the playoffs as the second-highest scoring team in the league, and with a superstar Olympic champion trio of Kyrie Irving, James Harden, and Kevin Durant, it will be tough for any squad to stop them (they face the Boston Celtics in round one, and let's just say it's not expected that the series will go seven games).

The two teams that arguably have the best chance of knocking the Nets out are the No.1 seed Philadelphia 76ers and No.3 seed Milwaukee Bucks.

Both teams finished in the top 10 in defensive efficiency in the regular season, with the Sixers allowing 108.51 points per 100 possessions and the Bucks 112.03. Their respective defences will be put to the test against the high-scoring Nets, though it's worth noting that both the Sixers and Bucks won their respective regular season series against the Nets 2-1.

While the 76ers should make easy work of the Washington Wizards in round 1, the Bucks face a tougher challenge in the Miami Heat, who knocked them out in five games in the conference semifinals last year.

The New York Knicks face the Atlanta Hawks in the battle between four and five seeds to round out the Eastern Conference playoff bracket.

Players to watch in the 2021 NBA Playoffs

Top NBA stars seem to always find another gear when the playoffs roll around, and 2021 should be no different.

Nikola Jokic (SRB) and Joel Embid (CMR) - two of the favourites to win the MVP award this season - headline a talented pool of international players that includes two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo (GRE) and 2019 Rookie of the Year Luka Dončić (SLO).

We already mentioned the three-headed monster of Harden, Irving, and Durant over in Brooklyn, while Jason Taytum and Julius Randle will have to shoulder the load for the Celtics and Knicks.

The Western Conference, as has been the case for several years, is absolutely stacked with elite players. The No.1 Jazz boast the defensive prowess of Rudy Gobert (FRA) and scoring dexterity of Donovan Mitchell, the Suns have two All-Stars in Chris Paul and Devin Booker, the Clippers have their own super duo in two-time NBA champion Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, while the electric Ja Morant leads the underdog Grizzlies.

Learn more about Gobert's goals for the NBA playoffs and Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games here.

Oh, and in case you may have forgotten - LeBron James, at age 36, is just as talented as ever.

Olympic basketball in 2021

With the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games starting on 23 July 2021, and the last possible NBA Finals game tipping-off on 22 July, there's a chance that we won't have a gap between NBA basketball and the start of the Olympics!

The basketball competition at the Games will be held from 24 July to 8 August.

You can read more about basketball at Tokyo 2020 here.