NBA Playoffs 2021: Fans Return as NBA Nears Normalization with Health & Safety Protocols

Utah Jazz fans watch during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

NBA Playoffs 2021: Old friends will become foes, if only for a week or two. There are rematches from last year, new teams with home-court advantage, more fan capacity than at any other point this season, and, perhaps best of all, no bubble.

It all officially starts Saturday, a 16-team tournament that was preceded by six pre-playoff games to whet the postseason appetite.

We recognize, like everyone else does, that the NBA playoffs are a unique, unique event, and obviously for the simple reason that that’s where the championship is won,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said. “That said, you don’t ignore the regular season. I don’t think it was a goal at the beginning of the year to win the regular season. The goal was to play as well as we can, get better, and in doing so prepare to play well and hopefully win in the playoffs.

The Jazz is entering the playoffs as the NBA’s No. 1 overall seed for the first time, and as the top seed in the Western Conference for the third time — joining 1997 and 1998, years where they made the NBA Finals only to be thwarted in six games by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls each time.

Listen, either you’re good enough, or you’re not,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. “And if you’re good enough, you’re going to have to beat somebody. You really are. You’re not going to be able to dodge your way. There are no accidental champions. I say that all the time. And so, if you’re going to win it, man, you’re going to have to go through it to win it.

The Lakers open against No. 2 Phoenix, a matchup that pits James against his longtime friend Chris Paul, whose first year with the Suns — a franchise back in the playoffs for the first time since 2010 — probably exceeded most realistic expectations.

It’s a beautiful thing,” said James, who is seeking a fifth NBA title. “Our journeys, we’ve been playing this game at such a high level for a long time. I’ve always rooted for him … it’s going to be pretty cool just to be on the same floor and competing with one of the most fierce competitors that this game has had over his career.

NBA Playoffs Live Streaming: NBA Playoffs to live stream More than 200 Countries, 48 Languages 

Other West matchups: Utah will play the Golden State-Memphis winner in Round 1, No. 3 Denver plays No. 6 Portland and the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers face No. 5 Dallas in a first-round rematch from last season.

The other East first-round matchup besides 76ers-Wizards, Nets-Celtics, and Knicks-Hawks is one of last season’s playoff rematches, with No. 3 Milwaukee facing No. 6 Miami. The Heat won the East last season, ousting the Bucks in the second round on the way to the NBA Finals.