The 2020-2021 NBA regular season ended Sunday.
COVID-19 effects were felt throughout the entire year, with teams missing players due to contact tracing and injuries consistently.
It was a NBA weird season by all accounts, but every team played 72 games.
Next up is the new play-in tournament that will take place this week.
The No. 7 and No. 8 seeds and No. 9 and No. 10 seeds in each conference will face off.
The winner of the 7/8 matchup will become the No. 7 seed, while the loser will face the winner of the 9/10 matchup.
Finally, the winner of the 7/8 loser vs. 9/10 winner matchup will become the No. 8 seed.
The field is set 👀
— NBA TV (@NBATV) May 17, 2021
While the debate over whether the play-in tournament is good for the league, it achieved its intended goal.
There was competition during the final week of the regular season as multiple teams felt they still had a shot at a playoff appearance.
With the expanded field of NBA playoff teams, there are more opportunities for a team to make a surprise run.
Especially with the lack of a runaway favorite that has been prevalent in the past few years.
The playoffs seem as wide open as ever this year, so here are three teams that could make a surprise run.
Portland Trail Blazers
First up is a team that just narrowly avoided the NBA play-in tournament: the Portland Trail Blazers.
They were able to hold off the Los Angeles Lakers to maintain their position as the No. 6 seed and will square off against the Denver Nuggets in the first round.
Similar to recent Blazer teams, their defense was porous.
They allowed 114.3 points per game (23rd in the league) and had a defensive rating of 116 – second-worst in the Association.
But they had one of the best offenses in the league to counterbalance.
And midseason acquisition Norman Powell only added to that firepower.
Those three combined to average nearly 70 points per game.
They are only two years removed from reaching the Western Conference Finals.
And the core of that team is still around.
Also, they are finally getting their starting center back in Jusuf Nurkic.
After a rough 5-11 start in his first 16 games back, they closed out the season going 10-2.
During those 12 games, they only surrendered 112 points per game – a number that would be around league-average for the season.
— NBC Sports Northwest (@NBCSNorthwest) May 1, 2021
It seems Portland is starting to heat up, and they may have gotten lucky by drawing the Nuggets.
Murray was an absolute dynamo last postseason who could be sorely missed in a series featuring Lillard and McCollum.
If the Lakers secure that No. 7 seed, Portland would have a tough second-round matchup against the defending champs or the Phoenix Suns.
But the Lakers seem beatable this season and the Suns are a young, inexperienced team.
Portland could wind up back in the WCF.
Golden State Warriors
Next, we have the Golden State Warriors.
This was somewhat of a toss-up between the Warriors and Lakers, but it felt like cheating to say a LeBron James-led team could make a surprise playoff run.
Considering the last nine times LeBron has made the playoffs his team has ended up in the Finals.
So we will go with his Finals opponent during a four-year stretch.
The possibility of the Warriors making a playoff run is solely based around Steph Curry.
He just won the scoring title for the 2020-21 season despite the fact he regularly faced double and triple-teams on a nightly basis.
STEPHEN CURRY WINS THE 2020-21 NBA SCORING TITLE 🔥
Chef has been cooking all season pic.twitter.com/Zs5rsQdqqV
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 16, 2021
Golden State has won eight of their last nine games heading into the postseason and Steph has been on an absolute tear since the beginning of April.
Since April 1, Steph has averaged 37.1 points per game on 49 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent from deep on nearly 15 3-point attempts per game.
They have the fifth-stingiest defensive rating in the league.
Pair that defense with a supernova stretch from Curry and the Warriors can hang with just about anybody.
This was seen in their back-to-back victories against the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns late in the season.
Warriors will move to 4-0 on this season-ending homestand. Wins over Thunder, Thunder, Jazz and now Suns. This latest one most impressive. Phoenix had all its main guys + motivation. Warriors won anyway, despite a quiet Curry night. Andrew Wiggins had 38. Defense rock solid.
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) May 12, 2021
But again, this all depends on Curry going off.
A cooled-off Curry means a quick exit for the Warriors.
Finally, we have the Miami Heat.
Which, like the Lakers, feels like a cheap pick given they were in the NBA Finals last year.
But the East is different from the West.
The top three teams in the East are head-and-shoulders better than the rest of the playoff teams in the conference.
And all four of the play-in teams have major issues or are inexperienced in the playoffs.
This is why we will run with the Heat.
They will have a tough going but have proven capable of beating the cream of the crop.
They were able to shut down Giannis and the Bucks last postseason, so they should have a game plan to turn to now.
Erik Spoelstra on Heat facing the Bucks in the first round: "The year is different. Both teams are different. There's plenty of time to discuss that series. It's just a totally new challenge."
— Anthony Chiang (@Anthony_Chiang) May 17, 2021
Miami has started to get healthy towards the end of the season after suffering through injuries and COVID absences early on.
That was on top of the unusually short offseason they had to prepare.
The Heat have started to heat up as of late, winning nine of their last 12 heading down the stretch.
Getting past the Bucks in the first round could boost their confidence enough heading into a likely second-round matchup with the Brooklyn Nets.