One month in: 4 NBA playoff teams that need to get it together

Jan 23, 2021
PHOTO: AP

IT’S ONLY been a month into the 2021 NBA season, so there’s little need to hit the panic button just yet.

The fact that we’re still living in a pandemic means players have been contracting COVID, resulting in numerous game suspensions and ‘unavailable’ players as the league sticks to its contact tracing protocols.

This has disrupted plenty of teams’ rotations and frustrated their efforts in building a rhythm. Plus, injuries have kept some key players already.

There’s little a team can do against these factors.

Still, some playoff teams have just not performed up to the expectations in the limited action we have seen them play thus far. Here are four we’ve been keeping a skeptical eye on. These teams will figure it out eventually. They have to.


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Miami Heat

Coming off of a spectacular Finals run, the Eastern Conference champions had plenty to look forward to coming into this new season. However, through 14 games, they find themselves hovering just below a .500 record with a 6-8 win-loss card.

The team hasn’t been at full strength with Jimmy Butler only having played six games so far. All-Stars Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic got back recently after clearing the league’s contact tracing protocols. They also lost key cogs in Jae Crowder and Derrick Jones Jr. to start this season. But even so, in the games where most of their key pieces were in the rotation, one thing has been clear: this is not the team we saw in the NBA Bubble.

The problem lies in how out of sync the team has been lately. For a team that prides itself on defense, the D has been less than elite. According to NBA Stats, Miami has let opposing teams average 112.1 points per game, good for 20th in the league through 14 games.

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The action on the other end of the floor hasn’t made up for it, either. How can it, when the team is ranked dead last in turnovers per game with an average of 18.4 TPG? The team has been converting on 48.2% (5th) of their shots but is only taking an average of 81.1 attempts per game, which places them at the bottom in the league (30th). They haven’t helped themselves by having the league's worst rebounding average with 41.6 RPG.

Despite stringing a couple of wins as of late, the Heat got back in the loss column today after a disappointing beating from the Kyle Lowry-less Toronto Raptors. If the ECF Champions don’t get back on track, all the noise about how last year’s run was simply a ‘fluke’ will just get louder.


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Denver Nuggets

Showing their growth season after season, culminating in an unbelievable showcase of grit in last year’s playoffs, pundits had high expectations for the Denver Nuggets coming into this year. So far, they have just been average.

The offense comes naturally for the club from the Mile High City. They currently have a top 3 offense with a 115.8 Offensive Rating, led by none other than the walking triple double Nikola Jokic, who has been averaging 25.5 PPG, 11.3 RPG and 9.9 APG across 15 games.

However, the Nuggets seem to have regressed on the defensive end of the floor. They’ve never distinguished themselves in that department, but this season has been particularly dire. From finishing with the 16th best Defensive Rating (110.4) last season, they’ve started this season with the 25th ranked Defensive Rating (111.8).

Opponents are having a field day in the paint, converting an utterly efficient 70.4% in the restricted area, per NBA Stats.

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The departures of a serviceable center like Mason Plumlee (to hold down the middle) and Jerami Grant (who can switch on the perimeter) have proven to be a negative for the team on that end of the floor.

For a team looking to have another crack winning the tough Western Conference, something's got to give.


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Toronto Raptors

The Raptors still looked to be a competitive playoff team this season in the arguably “weaker” Eastern Conference despite the departures of defensive anchors Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka for the two L.A teams.

The 2019 NBA Champions are currently sitting in the 12th seed in the tight Eastern Conference with a brow-furrowing 6-9 record. It would be a different story if the ball had bounced in their favor against the Warriors and Blazers, with both games coming down the wire to the very last possession. But still, the Raptors really just haven't been the same.

The loss of their championship pedigree veterans has been evident in their performance as the team is currently 18th in Points Per Game (110.5) and 9th in Opponent’s Points Per Game (108.7). Their defense took the biggest hit as the re-run of their championship team (less Kawhi) last season finished with the second best Defensive Rating (104.7).

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The Raptors are holding down their opponents to 45.3% (13th) on their field goal attempts, but opponents have been making their living from the line against the former champs, with an average of 24.1 free throw attempts per game.

Despite the so-so start, the Raptors have luckily found another revelation in the form of Chris Boucher who is averaging 14.8 PPG, 6.5 RPG and 2.3 BPG in 15 games while shooting 49.1% from deep.

With Nick Nurse at the helm, it won’t be a surprise if the Toronto Raptors reclaim their identity sometime this season. However, with the losses piling up, they need to find it real soon.


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Portland Trailblazers

After an admirable showing in the NBA Bubble, Rip City was looking to start the season stronger this time around. Through 14 games, Portland is currently sitting 5th in the Western Conference.

The team looked to improve their 27th ranked Defense last season (114.3 Def Rtg) by trading for defensive specialist Robert Covingon and signing uber-athletic forward Derrick Jones Jr. The team was also getting back 3&D wing Rodney Hood, who was coming off of an ACL injury. But even with the bolstered front court, the Blazers seemed to have flubbed on defense, sitting on the 28th (113.7) spot after 14 games.

The team has been closing out well on the perimeter by allowing opposing team’s shooters to convert only 36.1% of their attempts (10th in the league). But it’s been a different story inside the arc as teams are converting an effective 54.7% on 2-point attempts (26th). The Blazers have also been fouling too much with teams averaging 24.6 free throw attempts per game (27th).

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With the tools that the team has on its roster, the Blazers should have enough to improve their defense as the season goes on. Relying on their dynamic backcourt to let it rain from 3 is a recipe that will result in another appearance in the play-in tournament.

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PHOTO: AP
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