From the Bleachers: Can LeBron’s Lakers Go From Play-In Game to Back-to-Back Champs?

Baily Deeter ’22 shares his thoughts on the 2021 NBA playoffs in his latest installment of “From the Bleachers.”

by Baily Deeter | 5/18/21 2:00am

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by Sophie Bailey / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

Seven months ago, the Los Angeles Lakers summited the NBA mountaintop, capturing LeBron James’ fourth championship in a triumph over the Miami Heat. Now, with the 2021 NBA playoffs about to begin, new contenders have emerged, and the Lakers find themselves in a far more precarious position.

The Lakers, marred by injuries to James and Anthony Davis throughout the season, are on the brink of elimination as part of the new play-in tournament. We’re used to seeing James and Stephen Curry square off in the NBA Finals, but we instead see them fighting for their playoff lives as the two teams face off in a one-game playoff Wednesday. The winner will lock in a spot as the No. 7 seed, and the loser will get one more chance against either the Spurs or the Grizzlies in hopes of capturing the No. 8 seed. 

If the Lakers (or Warriors) lose both do-or-die games, they probably didn’t deserve to be there in the first place. Regardless, it’s surprising to see two traditional powerhouses on the fringe of playoff contention while upstarts lead the way in the Western Conference. The Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns own the conference’s top two seeds, with the Denver Nuggets claiming the seed No. 3. Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers settle in as the fourth seed, while Luka Dončić and Damian Lillard lead the high-powered Mavericks and Blazers at No. 5 and No. 6, respectively. 

The Jazz and Suns certainly deserve to have top seeds after stellar regular seasons, but one has to feel that this postseason might be the most competitive in NBA history. Generally, the No. 1 seed coasts past the eighth seed, but if the Jazz have to face Lebron James and the Lakers, it might be a different story. It’s entirely possible that both the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds (as well as the fifth and sixth seeds) emerge victorious in the West. 

This postseason promises to be a true free-for-all. And it should be beautiful to watch. 

Personally, I expect the Lakers to get in a rhythm as James and Davis return after long absences. The injuries to both players may be blessings in disguise, as both got to rest after playing late into October and having a shortened offseason. It will be a grind all the way through, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see any team in the West make the Finals except the Warriors (and partially the Mavs and Blazers). 

The Eastern Conference is a bit more traditional, but three teams still have a legitimate shot at the Finals. The obvious favorite is the stacked Brooklyn Nets, who have Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Blake Griffin, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Charles Barkley (well, at least four of those guys). However, the Philadelphia 76ers, who captured the top seed this year, and Giannis Antetokounnmpo and the third-seeded Bucks present a huge threat. And don’t count out the New York Knicks, who miraculously captured the fourth seed. Watching the Knicks square off against Trae Young and the Hawks for the right to lose to the 76ers should be exciting. 

The Nets are the favorites to win it all with +220 odds, with the Lakers having the second-best odds at +375 despite having not even secured a playoff berth. After multiple years of benefiting from the weaker Eastern Conference, James will have a much more difficult go of it this year, with arguably seven of the league’s 10 best teams in the West. Kevin Durant and James Harden, meanwhile, will have a much less daunting challenge ahead of them. After spending their entire careers in the Western Conference, which has been strong for years, they will now have much less to contend with coming out of the comparatively weak Eastern Conference. James Harden has never had a better look at his first ring. 

But the Western Conference champion will emerge battle-tested, and it’s well-established that the Nets are a weak defensive team. Defense wins championships, or at least it did for the Lakers last season. I have my doubts about the Nets, although they may win the East off pure talent alone. Still, having to potentially beat the Bucks in the second round and the Sixers in the third won’t be easy.  

One thing is for sure: A championship for James this season may be his most legendary feat of all time. His 3-1 comeback against the Warriors in 2016 is the signature moment of his career, but his heroics were condensed into three games. A two-month run of greatness for championship number five, especially against Durant, Harden and his old teammate Irving, may be that second signature moment that vaults him past Air Jordan.