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#pounditSaturday, September 18, 2021

10 players to watch in the first round of the NBA playoffs

Joel Embiid 76ers

The first round of the NBA playoffs gets under way this weekend. While the heavy favorites are expected to have little trouble, that doesn’t mean there’s no intrigue. There are plenty of things worth watching in the opening round of the playoffs. That includes a lot of star players, some favored and some not, who will have a lot of say in whether their teams advance.

Here is a look at ten key players worth watching as the first round gets underway.

Joel Embiid, C, 76ers

The lingering question is whether Embiid is healthy. He has left knee pain, and the updates he’s given haven’t exactly been encouraging. The fact is, for the Sixers to make a deep playoff run, they need Embiid to be healthy, or at least capable of playing like he’s healthy. A first-round matchup against Brooklyn will allow everyone to see exactly where Embiid is and what he’s capable of, which could inform a lot of Philadelphia’s expectations moving forward.

Blake Griffin, F, Pistons

Griffin is another star big man who simply isn’t healthy. Troubled by a bad knee, he actually sat out the Pistons’ final regular season game, which was essentially a must-win to get in the playoffs. That shows just how severe Griffin’s situation is. The Pistons would be heavy underdogs against the Milwaukee Bucks even with a healthy Griffin, and they don’t really have a chance without him at full strength. How much his knee limits him, if it allows him to play at all, is worth watching.

DeMarcus Cousins, C, Warriors

The Warriors are unlikely to face a real challenge from the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round, meaning Cousins will have the opportunity to get himself comfortable in the playoff format. Cousins has a lot to prove in this postseason, as he’ll be looking to avoid too many over-the-top outbursts and the pitfalls of potential suspension while simultaneously adding a new dynamic to the playoff Warriors. He’s looked good in the regular season and seems to be improving on defense, so it will be interesting to see how he responds now that the playoffs are getting underway.

James Harden, G, Rockets

Can Harden win the big one? The giant Warrior-shaped road block is still in place, but Harden’s Rockets came so close to breaking it down last season, only for their three-point shooting and health to abandon them when they needed it most. All eyes will be on Harden to see whether or not he can continue to play at his high level. A competitive series against the Utah Jazz would be the perfect opportunity to show everyone that he can be relied upon to make the difference in a tight playoff matchup.

Kyrie Irving, G, Celtics

Irving has battled through a tumultuous season, some of it of his own making. Now he can put the noise behind him, at least for the moment, and try to drag the Celtics through the playoffs. Without Marcus Smart’s defense in the first round, Irving and the Celtics are going to have to step up against the Indiana Pacers, and Irving is going to have to be the one leading the charge on both sides of the ball. How he responds amid all the noise will be key to Boston’s hopes.

Donovan Mitchell, G, Jazz

Mitchell’s playoff debut was a mixed bag last year in the form of a dominant first round and a truly underwhelming second round. What will we get from him this year? It could be the difference between whether the Jazz advance or go home. It’s especially pertinent considering it was the Rockets who knocked Mitchell and the Jazz out of last year’s playoffs. They’ll clash again here, giving the young guard the opportunity for revenge — and to show what he can really do.

Jamal Murray, G, Nuggets

It feels like the Nuggets haven’t really gained a lot of respect despite pushing the Warriors all the way for the top seed in the Western Conference. That’s especially true of Murray, who put up the numbers of an elite guard — 18 points per game and a three-point percentage approaching 37 percent — without the recognition. Against San Antonio, he’ll have the chance to shine on a big stage and set the stage for a huge postseason.

D’Angelo Russell, G, Nets

Russell has come a long way since he was written off as an unfocused problem child with the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s led the Brooklyn Nets back to the playoffs and will be looked upon to carry them as far as he can take them. They may be poised to spring a surprise on the Philadelphia 76ers, especially if Joel Embiid is not himself or a total non-factor. Russell is quickly elevating himself to star status, and a dynamic first round will only help him in that regard.

Myles Turner, C, Pacers

They lost Paul George two years ago and star guard Victor Oladipo’s season ended prematurely this year, and yet the Pacers have pushed their way into the playoffs as a five seed anyway. A lot of this is down to their defense, and that has a lot to do with Turner, who has developed into an interior force. While a solid interior scorer, his defensive numbers — specifically the league-leading 2.7 blocks per game — really stand out. It’s not out of the question that he could take advantage of a shorthanded Boston team and really wreak some havoc.

Russell Westbrook, G, Thunder

Westbrook has won three playoff games since Kevin Durant left for the Warriors and has yet to win a series. The Portland Trail Blazers won’t be an easy foe, but there’s no doubt that stat will nag at Westbrook. With Paul George also playing as well as he has, the Thunder will see an opportunity. Westbrook is a ball-dominant player who puts up eye-popping numbers, so all attention will be on him. Fairly or not, the Thunder’s fate is really tied to him more than anyone else.


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