NBA play-offs: 'It's like a movie' as Brooklyn Nets enter post-season as favourites

By Nesta McGregorBBC Sport
Giannis Antetokounmpo (left), Kyrie Irving (centre left), Kawhi Leonard (centre right) and Donovan Mitchell (right)
The top 16 teams in the NBA will compete in the play-offs, which run from 22 May until 22 July

Among its many nicknames, New York is known as 'The City That Never Sleeps'. Yet for its basketball-loving residents, it's hard to believe what they're experiencing isn't a dream.

Going into the 2021 NBA play-offs, the Brooklyn Nets are clear favourites - a situation even the most loyal Nets fans are finding hard to believe.

"It's like a movie, you have to pinch yourself to see if it's real," Keith McPherson, host of the Talkin' Nets podcast, told BBC Sport.

"You could believe it if it was one of the big marquee teams, like the Lakers or Celtics, but it's my team - the little engine that could.

"Here in Brooklyn we expect to win it, but if for some reason we don't, it's not the end of the world. I look at this as the beginning of a small dynasty of us being a competitive team for the next three to four years."

It's not only New Yorkers or Nets fans who are excited about what the rest of the season has in store, with basketball lovers around the world eager to see what the franchise and their 'Big Three' will achieve.

2021 NBA play-offs (number denotes seed)
Western ConferenceEastern Conference
1. Utah Jazz1. Philadelphia 76ers
2. Phoenix Suns2. Brooklyn Nets
3. Denver Nuggets3. Milwaukee Bucks
4. Los Angeles Clippers4. New York Knicks
5. Dallas Mavericks5. Atlanta Hawks
6. Portland Trailblazers6. Miami Heat
7. Los Angeles Lakers7. Boston Celtics
8. Memphis Grizzlies8. Washington Wizards

A second homecoming

Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets
The Barclays Centre has been home of the Nets since 2012

This is the fourth iteration of the franchise - which started in New Jersey before moving to New York, then back to New Jersey - we know today as the Brooklyn Nets.

Having bounced between cities, the team have been the 'nearly guys' before - losing the 2002 and 2003 NBA Finals.

"Even if the Knicks are the more established team here in New York - their fanbase goes back generations - what the Nets have been able to do is re-excite the basketball audience in the city," said radio presenter Chris Carrino.

"We can't compete with the Knicks' traditions, but what we are doing right now is so exciting."

'The Big Three'

Kyrie Irving (left), James Harden (centre) and Kevin Durant (right)
The Nets' 'Big Three' of Irving (left), Harden (centre) and Durant (right) have helped put them as title favourites

There are three reasons why basketball experts and betting companies are tipping Brooklyn to go all the way: Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Kevin Durant.

The trio are spending their first year together - but bring enough individual accolades and talent that entry into the NBA Hall of Fame is a formality.

Durant is a two-time NBA champion and Finals Most Valuable Player with the Golden State Warriors.

Irving won the NBA title with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016, is a seven-time All-Star, and was part of Team USA's success at the 2016 Olympics.

Harden - who was acquired in a blockbuster trade from the Houston Rockets in January - was the league's MVP in 2018 and is also a three-time scoring champion.

Injuries to all three mean they have only played eight of the 72 regular-season games together, but such is their individual talent many believe they're unbeatable if fit.

"If the Nets were a restaurant dish, it's got to be a high quality surf and turf," said Carrino.

"Harden is the fillet mignon. Durant is the lobster. Irving is the seasoning, and you know if you don't season it right you're not going to have a tasty dish. The other guys are the vegetables - they don't get the love they deserve, but you need them."

NBA teams usually consist of one star name (two at a push) and a supporting cast, and rival fans - despite the presence of the salary cap - have accused the Nets of trying to buy the championship.

"We've seen 'super teams' fall flat on their faces," said McPherson. "And look at last year - Miami Heat made the Finals, no-one expected that. They didn't have the best players but showed they were the best team.

"Kevin Durant said it best: 'You still have to put in the work.'"

As well as their main men, the Nets have acquired All-Stars Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, and their roster also includes the shooting talents of Joe Harris, and the defensive toughness of Jeff Green.

The team is also coached by two-time MVP Steve Nash, who has 18 years' playing experience in the NBA.

Is the Joker MVP-elect?

Joel Embiid (left), Stephen Curry (centre) and Nikola Jokic (right)
Embiid (left), Curry (centre) and Jokic (right) were shortlisted as the MVP finalists

Winning an NBA championship is a feat only achieved by a very small percentage of players, and being named the regular season's Most Valuable Player is an honour reserved for an even more exclusive club.

The Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo is the two-time reigning MVP, but will not be retaining his title.

On Friday, the NBA announced a three-man shortlist: Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia 76ers centre Joel Embiid, and Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry.

The great LeBron James - already a four-time winner of the award - was on course to be a contender until an ankle injury forced him to miss more than 25 games.

Injury also dented Harden's chances, and ESPN commentator Dave Pasch said this year's decision was an easy one.

"Jokic played every game, and he had a great year, so I don't look at it as by default but he had the best year out of all the healthy players," he said.

"I thought long and hard about Embiid and about Steph Curry. If the Warriors had won five more games, I think more people would have voted for Steph."

The best of the rest

The Nets may be favourites to lift the title, but it's anything but a formality with a lack of fans in arenas potentially distorting results.

The Utah Jazz, for example, finished the season with the best record in the NBA - and last year's champions the Los Angeles Lakers had to take part in a play-off game to secure their place.

The target is the championship game, in which the winner of the Eastern Conference and winner of the Western Conference go head-to-head in a best-of-seven-games series.

"There's so many teams that I think could get there in the East - Brooklyn, Philadelphia 76ers and the Milwaukee Bucks," said Pasch.

"In the West I think there are a handful of teams too. You have to mention the Lakers - if LeBron James is healthy they've got a very good shot.

"The Los Angeles Clippers too, and I think the Phoenix Suns are legitimate. Chris Paul has been great and has the experience to lead his young team."

The NBA play-offs begin on Saturday, 22 May with the Bucks taking on the Heat in the East (19:00 BST), while the Clippers face the Dallas Mavericks in the West (21:30 BST).

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