As we go deeper into the next phase of the 2021 NBA playoffs, I think it’s time we did a power ranking. I’m going to throw a twist in for my rankings though. This will be my first official 2021 NBA Playoffs Power Rankings: “The Mixtape”. That means that for this exercise, I’ll be assigning one song and one lyric to each playoff team in an effort to encapsulate what each team’s performance has looked like this postseason. My only rule is this: 90’s rap only. Meaning the song I choose has to have come out between the years of 1990 and 1999. Why? Because it’s my post and that’s what I want to do. Let’s get into it starting with the Eastern Conference on Side A…
Side A: Eastern Conference
4. Atlanta Hawks
“ATLiens” by Outkast (1996)
“Throw your hands in the air, and wave em like you just don’t care”
Is there a better team to encapsulate the joy the city of Atlanta must be feeling more than Trae Young’s Hawks? Like Outkast in ‘96, these young Hawks are breaking down barriers and showing East Coast rap (aka The Knicks and Sixers) that they are here to stay. Trae dribbles and moves through the key like Andre 3k slithering through a verse (ICE COLD) and Capela punctuates defensive possessions with blocks and rebounds like the Big Boi he is. They are young and full of bravado and they’re looking to break down more than just a couple doors this postseason.
This choice of song was based on a feeling. “ATLiens” represents the joy of a group of individuals coming together for the greater good. I’m not sure if the Hawks can beat a fully loaded Sixers squad in a series despite Atl’s resounding game 1 win. However, the Hawks have shown the world that this Playoff appearance is no fluke and that they’re no longer NBA outcasts. They’re here to stay for a long, long time and this playoff run is just the beginning. So throw your damn hands up ATL (and Jman!) and enjoy the ride.
3. Milwaukee Bucks
“The Crossroads” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony (1995)
“Tell me whatcha gonna do…. When judgement comes for you”
Milwaukee is truly at a crossroads in this round and they’re staring the slim reaper in the face. In the off-season, Milwaukee went all in. They salvaged their future for Jrue Holiday and gave up a ton of picks. For the most part, it’s paid off. They look dangerous and deadly and Jrue has brought them something Bledsoe could never with his leadership and steady hand on both sides of the ball.
However, the expectations that have made Milwaukee crumble in the past are still there. The pressure mounts as the Bucks seek to make their first conference finals appearance and *hopefully* their first Finals appearance. If they flame out in the second round again though, heads may roll starting with head coach Mike Budenholzer. Even though the Bucks are staring down a juggernaut in the Brooklyn Nets, the expectations are still the same and judgement is coming whether they are ready or not.
2. Philadelphia 76ers
“The Next Movement” by The Roots (1999)
“Hey, you listeners, stop what you’re doin’ and Set it in motion, it’s the next movement”
For years, the rallying cry in Philly has been Trust the Process. While the results have been mixed, it appears the process is ready to become a full fledged movement. Armed with MVP candidate Joel Embiid, NBA champion Doc Rivers and DPOY candidate Ben Simmons; the Sixers are poised to make the best run they’ve had as a group since Kawhi ripped their hearts out in 2019. As always is the case with Philly though, the health of their big man looms large over these 2021 NBA playoffs.
What would the Sixers be without Joel Embiid? Who would the Roots be without Black Thought? Sure, ?uestlove keeps the rhythm moving a la Ben Simmons running point. And a DJ Jazzy Jeff feature on “The Next Movement” harkens to the hiring of Doc Rivers this offseason. However without their braggadocios frontmen, The Roots and Sixers are fun but ultimately not as dangerous. Luckily for The Roots, Black Thought is one of the most consistent contributors in Hip Hop history. It’s time to see if Joel Embiid can match that energy and lead to Philly to the promised land.
1. Brooklyn Nets
“Dead Wrong” by The Notorious BIG (1998)
“Relax and take notes”
If you’ve never heard Biggie’s first verse on “Dead Wrong”, go ahead and press play below. (I’ll wait…) I’m not sure there is or ever will be a more violent evisceration of a verse in Hip Hop history. (And that’s exactly what it felt like when the Nets beat my Celtics). The Nets dismantled, embarrassed and left my C’s screaming bloody murder by the end of the first round. They have an insane amount of talent but they’re also burdened with an insane amount of pressure. Anything less than a championship will be deemed a failure. How James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant handle those expectations could determine how far they go.
Bottom line: this Brooklyn team is scary. Like Biggie in ‘96 scary. Sure, the Harden hamstring injury is troubling but they seemed to handle it just fine in games 1 & 2 against Milwaukee. The fact of the matter is this team has so much talent that it’s overwhelming with what they can do and accomplish. Where’s Brooklyn at? They’re right here and you’d “Dead Wrong” to assume they’ll accept anything less than an NBA Championship.
Alright folks, we’ve reached the intermission. Go ahead and flip that tape and let’s look at the Western Conference on Side B.
4. Denver Nuggets
“Shimmy Shimmy Ya” by ODB (1994)
“For you to even touch my skill//You gotta have the one killer Bee and he ain’t gonna kill now//Chop that down, pass it all around”
Look, I love the Nuggets. They’re fun to watch, they have the likely MVP (Nikola Jokić) and they’re a fun underdog story. However, they are outmatched in these 2021 NBA playoffs. Without Jamal Murray, this team loses a lot of firepower at the guard position. In this round, they’ll be trotting out Monte Morris, Austin Rivers and Facundo Campazzo against Chris Paul and Devin Booker (yikes!). Despite this lack of guard talent, Denver boasts the best big man in the game and also the most unique.
ODB, otherwise known as Ason Unique is the most unconventional rapper in the Wu-Tang Clan (and possibly of all time). In this way, Joker and ODB are kindred spirits. They are two beings put on this Earth to excel at their crafts in ways only they can. Jokić’s skill cannot be touched this year. His passing is exceptional and his overall feel for the game is unmatched. Watching Joker work from the high post is equivalent to the cadence and general ambience of ODB when his voice comes through on his seminal track “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”.
3. Utah Jazz
“Protect Ya Neck” by Wu-Tang Clan (1993)
“Swingin’ through your town like your neighborhood Spider-Man”
For as good as Utah has been this season, something about them feels off. They beat the Grizzlies in 5 games but that series felt closer. They’ve beaten the crap out of pretty much everybody this season, but it doesn’t feel like they are a legit 1 seed. That being said, they’re a dangerous ensemble of talent and perhaps that’s what it will take to win a championship this year. The whole always comes before the individual in Utah.
This music choice is pretty obvious but let’s dig in. Spida Mitchell is Inspectah Deck. Both player (and emcee) are technically brilliant with the ball (mic) in their hands.Method Man (aka Rudy Gobert) has the accolades (the Mary J Blige features and DPOY awards) and they also get the most attention. RZA the architect concocted a plan to turn 9 solo emcees into the greatest rap group of all time. To have 9 work as one. Similarly, Quin Snyder’s three happy, defensive minded game plan has finally matured to its full potential this season and has Utah humming on all cylinders. Joe “GZA” Jingles is doing his thing, Jordan “Ghostface Killah” Clarkson continues to get buckets and Mike Conley is the steady hand of “Shallah Raekwon” on the court (track). However, Wu-Tang is forever and we’re gonna see if the Jazz can live up to that.
2. Phoenix Suns
“Respiration” by Black Star f/ Common (1998)
“Blastin’ holes in the night ’til she bled sunshine”
For fans of the Phoenix Suns, this year’s team has been a breath of fresh air. The combination of Chris Paul and Devin Booker has worked brilliantly and the improvement of Deandre Ayton has given this team a legit “Big 3.” They dusted the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers but this team still feels unproven to me. That’s because they are. Aside from Chris Paul, the rest of these young punks are experiencing their first ever NBA Playoffs.
Despite the lack of experience though, these Sun have firepower. Devin Booker steps on the track like Talib Kweli with his opening bars on “Respiration” shooting straight fire from the jump. Chris Paul is the steady hand that guides us through track a la Mos Def’s soothing voice on the hook. And finally, Deandre Ayton steals the show with his size and athleticism like Common’s final verse when the beat drops away and all you hear is “On the Amen”. So breathe in Suns fans, you’re into the second round and you have as good a chance as any to get through to the Conference Finals and possibly the NBA Finals.
1. Los Angeles Clippers
2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted by 2Pac & Snoop Dogg (1995)
“Motherfuck the rest, two of the best from the Westside”
The Clippers may be the most snakebitten franchise I’ve seen in my 20 years of watching basketball. Every year I think they will finally get over the hump and every year I’m left disappointed. However, this year feels different. In my opinion, they excised a lot of demons when they finally dispatched Luka and the Mavs in 7 games during that first round. They showed grit and determination and their two stars also finally stepped up.
Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are both elite talents born and raised in Southern California beneath the bright lights of LA , palm trees and Death Row Records. They know what it takes or rather what it means to be considered the best in the west. Snoop and Pac knew that too and then they went out and proved it (see video below). Like 2 of America’s most wanted, Kawhi and PG13 have to prove to us that they’re the best duo in the league. Kawhi has to play like a top 5 player. Paul George needs to act like he’s top 10 and the others have to be ready. When these two are leading the team and willing the Clippers to victories, they’re hard to beat. Is this the year they finally get over the hump and make a Finals run? I say yes.
If it wasn’t clear above, I’m thinking we are going to get a Nets/Clippers NBA Finals to finish out the 2021 NBA Playoffs. Durant/Kyrie/Harden vs. Kawhi and PG is a match made in basketball heaven. However, there’s a ton of basketball left to be played. I hope you enjoyed this ride with me as I attempted to blend my love of Hip Hop with the NBA. Check out my other work here and make sure to follow us at No Limit Jumper. Also, if you liked my music choices, check out the full playlist right here.