With the playoffs starting, we have reached a point in the NBA season that was never a guarantee due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The bubble in Orlando has been a huge success for Adam Silver and the NBA, as they have been able to display the strength of the league by being able to quickly organize and execute a plan to safely resume their season. It has also been an opportunity to showcase some of the league's brightest stars, including Damian Lillard, Devin Booker, and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The NBA is a league built on star power and storylines, and there was no shortage of either during the regular season play. Devin booker led his Suns team to an undefeated 8-0 record in the restart, just missing the playoffs. Jusuf Nurkic helped the Portland Trailblazers past the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday to secure the team's spot in the playoffs after the passing of his grandmother earlier that day. One of the favorites to win the championship this year, the Los Angeles Lakers, have been struggling heading into the playoffs and questions loom over their series with Portland, as they've been one of the hottest teams going into postseason play. Let's take a look at each first round series and we'll give you some of our predictions of what to expect in the upcoming weeks.
Bucks (1) +250 v Magic (8) +24,000
Series X-Factor Khris Middleton
Predicted Series Winner - Bucks
For fans of basketball there's a lot to like about the Orlando Magic. Aaron Gordon, the twice robbed dunk champion, is an athletic big man that can cut to the hoop and finish in the blink of an eye. Nikola Vucevic has transformed his game adding an outside shot that allowed the Magic to stretch the floor and open up lanes for Aaron Gordon to get to the basket. Markelle Fultz went from top pick to nearly out of the league with Philadelphia, but seems to have turned a corner in Orlando and is starting to look like the prospect that scouts once believed him to be. They also have a pair of young players in Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba that they are hoping develop into important players for the organization. Bamba has already been immortalized in Sheck Wes' song of titles after the player, but Mo will be out during the playoffs due to the coronavirus. The magic will also be without a fully healthy Aaron Gordon as he's been dealing with a hamstring injury and his status for the series against Milwaukee is uncertain.
Even with a healthy Aaron Gordon the Magic's chances of upsetting the Bucks in this series would be unlikely. But due to the fact that one of their main stars is coming into the series less than 100%, I do not see how Orlando could manage to win the series. Milwaukee will likely want to limit Antetokounmpo's minutes and keep him fresh for the rest of the playoffs. If the Bucks are able to get out in front of the Magic early in games they should be able to limit Giannis' playing time which will allow Khris Middleton to step into the primary scoring role to close out games in their series and defeat Orlando in this match up.
Raptors (2) +1,000 v Nets (7) +24,000
Series X Factor - Fred VanVleet
Predicted Series Winner - Raptors
The Nets have seen Caris Levert pick up his level of play during the restart in Orlando if they had a full complement of their starters including Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant the likely outcome of the series may be different. But under the current circumstances the defending NBA champions enter the postseason playing very well and will be a tough opponent for the injury ravaged Brooklyn squad to deal with. I anticipate Toronto's coach Nick Nurse will want to close out the series quickly to give his players the opportunity to head into the second round at full strength.
Toronto's highest profile fan, Drake, having a friendly conversation. JOSE CARLOS FAJARDO
Point guard Kyle Lowry has already been playing with a playoff level intensity in the bubble and looks determined to prove that the Raptors' championship was not just a result of Kawhi Leonard's one-year rental. Since Leonard left for Los Angeles, the Raptors have seen Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet step into larger roles taking on added responsibilities after the finals MVP's departure. We may see a repeat of this matchup in the playoffs next year under considerably different circumstances but considering this year the only shots that KD will be taking will be on Twitter I'm comfortable saying Toronto will win this series with relative ease.
Celtics (3) +1,700 v 76ers (6) +6,500
Series X Factor - Kemba Walker
Predicted Series Winner - Celtics
One unfortunate event of bubble play was the injury to Ben Simmons which will certainly affect Philadelphia's attempt to make a championship run. With Simmons healthy I would be more inclined to select the 76ers to advance past the Celtics, however the loss of Simmons' defense will have a big impact on the outcome of the series. Simmons would have likely marked either Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum,attempting to take one of them out of Boston's offensive gameplay. Coach Brett Brown is considering rookie Matisse Thybulle to replace Simmons in the starting lineup and while he is already an elite defender, Thybulle has struggled to make any significant impact offensively. Simmons' loss places more pressure on Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris to produce points in this series.
What I do hope to see from this series is the introduction of Kemba Walker on a national stage. For the entirety of his career up until this season, Walker has played in obscurity for Charlotte. Now the leader of a contending team it's time for Walker to show he is a bona fide superstar in this league and he has the supporting cast around him for the first time in his career to make a deep run into the playoffs. The series should still be competitive especially if Al Horford is able to elevate his play for Philadelphia, but I think that Boston has too much fire power on offense and the loss of Simmons is too much for Philadelphia to overcome. I'm taking Boston to move on here.
Pacers (4) +10,000 v Heat (5) +3,000
Series X Factor - Bam Adebayo
Predicted Series Winner - Miami
Coach Erik Spoelstra and star player Jimmy Butler of the HeatYahoo Sports
Over the past two seasons the Indiana Pacers have had unfortunate and untimely injuries to a superstar leading into the postseason. Last year it was Victor Oladipo who dealt with a serious knee injury which kept him out into the 2020 season. This year, newly minted all-star Domantas Sabonis went out just under a month ago and will likely miss the entirety of the playoffs. One of the best big men in the league this season, Sabonis, has proven to be a legitimate two way player and would have been a catalyst for the Pacers in the post season. Unfortunately for the Pacers without him matching up with Miami's Bam Adebayo will be a challenge.
The combination of Jimmy Butler and Adebayo along with young stars like Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro provide Coach Eric Spoelstra the kind of squad that can make a surprise run. They can shoot for the perimeter and play hard defense for 48 minutes. Butler may not be the most popular or well liked player in the league but the fact that he's a leader and has a burning desire to win is clear. The Heat can gain some momentum by winning this matchup and could be a dangerous opponent for eastern conference teams.
Lakers (1) +350 v Blazers (8) +6,000
Series X Factor - Damian Lillard
Predicted Series Winner - Lakers
It's rare that a 1 versus 8 matchup is so anticipated, but Bubble MVP Damian Lillard, has the Blazers roaring into the first round to take on the stumbling Lakers. Prior to the pause, LeBron and the Lakers were rolling and a championship seemed to be a foregone conclusion, but since play resumed, we have seen them struggle to play with any kind of consistency. Playing without Avery Bradley (opt out due to coronavirus) and Ramon Rondo (injury) to conclude the regular season surely has affected their defensive effectiveness on the perimeter, but Anthony Davis has twice posted single digit scoring outputs in 8 games.
Damian Lillard has our clocks stuck on Dame TimeAshley Landis Getty Images
Don't be surprised to see this series go 6 or even 7 games, but also don't be surprised to see LeBron and AD put it together and begin to regain their dominate form we saw for most of the regular season. If Portland is going to complete this upset it will be on the coat tails of Lillard, who is enjoying one of the best stretches of his career right now. Rondo is expected back soon which will take some pressure off of Alex Caruso playing so many minutes. The Lakers still enter this series the favorites to win, but the luck of the draw did not do them any favors with their first round matchup with the Trailblazers.
Clippers (2) +300 v Mavs (7) +4,900
Series X Factor - Kawhi Leonard
Predicted Series Winner - Clippers
The Clippers are one of the three favorites to win the NBA title this year along with the Lakers and the Bucks. They're one of the most complete and deep teams with a shot to win the Larry O'Brien trophy and they have the reigning finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard leading the way. They take on an exciting Dallas Mavericks team led by their European duo of Kristaps Porzingis and Luka Doncic who helped their team lead the league in offensive efficiency this season.
The promise that the Mavericks have shown this season must have fans salivating at the possibilities in front of them. But a lack of depth will leave them at a disadvantage in this series. The Clippers have a deep stable of veterans with plenty of playoff experience and should be able to game plan a defensive strategy that will slow down the production of the fast paced Dallas offense. Once Dallas has a chance to put a few more pieces in place around Luka and Porzingis, they should contend for many years to come. This year however, expect the Clippers to make short work of Dallas.
Nuggets (3) +2,400 v Jazz (6) +4,900
Series X Factor - Rudy Gobert
Predicted Series Winner - Jazz
The news broke Sunday that Jazz guard Mike Conley will be leaving the bubble for the birth of his son in Ohio. He is expected back at some point in the playoffs, but will obviously need to clear protocol before being allowed to rejoin the team. Whether Conley will be able to play for the Jazz in the first round is yet unknown. Bojan Bogdanovic, the team's second leading scorer this season opted to have surgery to repair a ligament in his wrist during the pause in order to be ready for the 2020-2021 season. While all of this would appear to be leading up to the Nuggets rolling over the Jazz, instead I think it opens up the opportunity for Donovan Mitchell to rise to the occasion and spearhead an upset in the western conference.
Mitchell can provide instant offense from anywhere on the court and has never been one to shy away from getting his shots up. More importantly for Utah however is what Rudy Gobert can do for his team by taking the Nuggets' best weapon away in Nikola Jokic. The perennial defensive player of the year candidate, Gobert, has the ability to completely close down the paint to opposing offenses the way Persian arrows blocked out the sun over the Spartan army, but possesses the agility to defend further out on a player like Jokic. Utah has quietly been one of the best teams in a competitive western conference for a few seasons now, and they have a chance to put the league on notice with a first round upset. Everything goes through Jokic offensively for the Nuggets, and if Gobert can limit Jokic's effectiveness, the Jazz will be celebrating a victory in this series.
Rockets (4) +1,300 v Thunder (5) +6,500
Series X Factor - Steven Adams
Predicted Series Winner - Thunder
Steven Adams defending Utah's Donovan MitchellAP
One of the biggest surprises of this season has been the success that Oklahoma City has had after seeing both Paul George and OKC fan favorite, Russell Westbrook, part ways with the team this offseason. General manager Sam Presti made deals sending George to the Clippers for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari and acquired Chris Paul for Westbrook. Presti also accumulated a bevy of draft picks from both deals and are now set up to revamp their team with the additional picks through the 2026 off season.
The Rockets have been explosive with Westbrook and 2018 MVP James Harden in their backcourt. A lack of viable options in the front court leaves them with an untraditional roster structure, but second guessing the decisions of Daryl Morey often results in you being the one that looks bad. Even though the Rockets enter this series the favorites, the Thunder will have a secret weapon in Steven Adams to exploit the weakness of Houston at the center position. Adams is a handful and can dominate post play against formidable opponents. One of the aforementioned games that Anthony Davis posted single digit scoring was against Oklahoma City and Steven Adams. Without a clear defender to play on Adams, Houston will be forced to shift and double team him which will allow for open space for Gilgeous-Alexander and Chris Paul to work in. Westbrook and Harden are decent defenders, but are not defensive stalwarts by any stretch of the imagination. A matchup against a team like the Mavericks may have suited the Rockets better in their first round draw allowing them to just focus on out scoring the opposition, but the Thunder play with a chip on their shoulder and have size and length to disrupt the Rockets' offense. Expect to see a mini upset here sending the Rockets home early and Daryl Morey back to the lab to think up his next major move.
*odds from VegasInsider.com 8/16/2020
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In a must win game for the Los Angeles Clippers, Paul George was finally able to look like the best player on the floor in a playoff game.
After a slow start, George poured it on in the second half on his way to a game high 41 points in Game 5. The performance elevated the Clippers over strong outings from the likes of Devin Booker and Chris Paul as L.A. outlasted Phoenix 116-102.
The Clippers don't have much time to bask in their win however as they have to turn around and play two more elimination games just to make it out of the West. The Suns jumped out to a 3-1 series lead as Los Angeles struggled to find their identity without Kawhi Leonard. If the Clippers are to stave off elimination any longer, George has to continue this level of play.
It should also be stated that Reggie Jackson has been really good for Los Angeles throughout the playoffs and is someone that the team leans on to take and make tough shots in crunch time. His fearlessness attacking the rim provides a lot of space for his teammates.
Reggie Jackson after getting his free agency bag this summer https://t.co/kgR7AUeQZ5— Josiah Johnson (@Josiah Johnson)1624936925.0
The Suns have dropped two of the last three games, and their win came in Game 4 which saw a final tally of 84-80 so it's tough to gauge how much stock to take in that victory. What I'm trying to say is the Clippers have definitely looked the part of a Western Conference Champion the past three games, and the Suns are at risk of flaming out.
Los Angeles Clippers center Ivica Zubac (MCL sprain) will not play tonight in Game 5 of the WCF against the Phoenix Suns.— Chris Haynes (@Chris Haynes)1624923130.0
The Clippers' starting big man, Ivica Zubac, was out with a knee injury while Los Angeles out scored the Suns by 26 in the paint. So far in every game but one (Game 3 when L.A. beat Phoenix 106-92) the team that has scored the most points in the paint has ended up winning. Both teams are good from the free throw line and it gets the opposition into foul trouble so it is a sound strategy for either side. But Deandre Ayton wasn't able to get much going offensively in Game 5 finishing with only 10 points in 37 minutes.
For the Suns, they were quick to point out their own shortcomings following the loss. Coach Monty Williams noted, "It's just unacceptable the way we started the game," he continued on to compare the Suns and Clippers in Game 5, "We showed up in the first quarter, and they played with desperation."
Monty Williams: “Leadership is tricky - if you can’t get people to follow you, you’re just walking by yourself”— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel Nichols)1624922492.0
Chris Paul who had 22 points and eight assists talked about Phoenix's inability to hold onto advantages, "We've got to close quarters better," Paul goes on to say, "that's been a problem for us all series long."
Paul has been a leader both on and off the court helping this young team to play far above the level anyone expected them to this season, but he's also been a part of many teams that fell short in the playoffs.
A championship run is the one knock on his hall of fame resume, and it seemed destined to happen this year especially after the Suns jumped out to a 3-1 series lead. But he isn't the only player who has had their reputation affected by playoff performances.
The nickname Playoff P isn't an endearing one. It has become synonymous with Paul George and his failures in the postseason up to this point. Any success that the Clippers were going to have this year was always likely to be attributed to Kawhi Leonard, but now that he is sidelined it's all on PG to carry the load.
George entered rarified air Monday night joining the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Durant as players who scored 20 or more points in each of the first 18 games in a postseason. All of their teams reached the Finals. George is hoping to follow suit as the Clippers are headed back home to host Game 6.
Following a Game 7 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the Philadelphia 76ers and coach, Doc Rivers, are questioning if Ben Simmons is the right guy to be running their offense through moving forward.
Offense being the key word here.
Simmons is an all-world defender possessing the ability to guard virtually any opponent on the court from the perimeter to the rim. But it was his lack of offensive help throughout this playoff season that stood out beyond any accomplishments this year. Simmons joined Rudy Gobert as unanimous selections for the NBA's All-Defensive First Team this year and also finished fifth in the NBA in assists per game with 8.8 per contest.
For a player that relies so heavily on driving to the basket to get shots off close to the hoop, it's expected for that player to draw plenty of contact resulting in a lot of free throw opportunities. That was certainly indicative of what we saw from Simmons in the first two rounds of the 20-21 playoffs.
He got to the line 45 times against the Hawks in their second round matchup, but only converted 15 freebies which equates to a 33% free throw percentage in the series. Simmons shot just 34.2% from the stripe if you include their first round games against the Wizards, which accounts for the worst free throw percentage by a player with at least 70 attempts in a postseason in NBA playoff history.
With a minimum of 70 attempts, Ben Simmons' 34.2% free throw percentage this postseason is the worst in a postseaso… https://t.co/EvEcQxEe8m— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPN Stats & Info)1624244835.0
In the four games that Atlanta beat Philly in this series, they lost by a combined 17 points. If Ben Simmons shoots just 70% from the line and makes 31-45 during this series, that adds 16 to Philadelphia's series point total. Obviously, the attempts might not directly impact the losses, but from a very broad overview, it would draw the series significantly closer — especially taking into account that three of the four losses the 76ers took in the series were lost by four points or fewer.
Also let's not allow people to say that the free throw stat is overblown and out of context. It's not. Shaquille O'Neal, who is notoriously one of the worst free throw shooters in league history, still managed a career playoff free throw percentage of 50%. That's why we saw the conception of "Hack-a-Shaq" where teams would intentionally foul O'Neal to put him on the line rather than allowing him to hurt them in other ways.
We've begun to see teams adopt this practice now with Simmons, which is just flat out embarrassing for a player of Simmons' pedigree. We have seen what he's able to do with the ball. He flies down the court on fast breaks, is a brilliant creator for teammates, and is one of the better finishers at the rim that we have in the league today.
We've already touched on his defensive prowess that has elevated him to becoming NBA All-Defense multiple times and a three time All-Star. But what do the Sixers do with Simmons before next season?
The 24-year-old point-forward still has plenty of time to work on his game. We've seen other players add a jumper later in their careers to great success; just ask Vince Carter how that works. But, usually, in order to develop a perimeter shot, there is at least a solid foundation to build on — that being the ability to consistently hit free throws.
Simmons is a career 60% free throw shooter, and he shot right around the mean during the regular season. The decline in made shots from the charity stripe in this postseason is cause for concern that this isn't the beginning of a trend.
Add to that Simmons' reluctance to take shots further away from the basket, and defenses have the luxury of ignoring Simmons in the half court set. We have seen teams (like the Jazz and 76ers) that rely heavily on the pick and roll get shut down in these playoffs, and it's teams like Atlanta and Phoenix that are able to spread defenses thin by putting multiple shooters on the court at one time succeed.
In 34 career playoff games, Ben Simmons has made 5 shots outside of 10 feet (from the basket).— Paul Hembekides (@Paul Hembekides)1624277710.0
Joel Embiid was phenomenal in the postseason, so let's not ignore that fact. Also, he was playing on one knee and still almost willed the Sixers to a win. But again, Embiid was not 100% in the playoffs, which limited his abilities.
Doc Rivers answers a question whether Ben Simmons can be the point guard of a championship team https://t.co/8xL35u98RC— Rob Perez (@Rob Perez)1624244460.0
Following their loss, Doc Rivers was asked if he thought Ben Simmons could be the point guard of a championship team, to which he responded, "I don't know that answer to that question right now," which doesn't provide a whole lot of confidence in Simmons' status with the team next year. Trade rumors have already begun to circulate, and it would make sense for this Philly team to hit the reset button now.
If Simmons continues to be exploitable in big moments, as we've seen him be so far in his career, his value is only going to go down. Adding further complications into the situation is the team just agreed to a new contract extension with Simmons and is due to make between $33 and $40 million per season over the next four years.
As the two cornerstone pieces of The Process appear to be two Scotties without a Mike, the early departure for the East's top seed will likely mean a big shakeup in the near future. If Embiid is healthy, he is elite without question. Maybe Philadelphia will go out and add around their two stars, but unless the organization is confident that Simmons can avoid another atrocious offensive performance in future playoff series, all they have is a really good regular season team.
The Phoenix Suns are just a win away from sending LeBron James home in the first round of the playoffs for the first time in the King's illustrious career.
After stating that "These shoulders were built for a reason," James referring to facing the challenge of taking on added responsibilities after Anthony Davis was ruled out for Game 5, the Lakers and LeBron disappointed in a big way Tuesday night. L.A. started off hot jumping out to a 10-5 lead behind a couple shots from James and a three from Davis' replacement Markieff Morris. But it didn't take long for the wheels to completely fall off for the defending champion Lakers as they spent most of the first half trying to remember how basketball works.
LeBron looking on during Game 5Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Two numbers stick out in the Game 5 loss for the Lakers and those are 34.5 and 12. Los Angeles shot 34.5% from the field on Tuesday night and were minus 12 in turnover ratio. No matter who's on your team, if you can't shoot and you can't protect the ball, the outcome is already determined.
The Suns weren't simply beneficiaries of a poor performance however as the Suns put it on the Lakers early and often and they never let their foot off the pedal for 48 minutes. Phoenix ended with 15 more assists, had seven more combined steals and blocks, and outscored L.A. in the paint by 12 points. Devin Booker and Cameron Payne were spectacular and they seemed to hit big shots every time the Lakers appeared to threaten a comeback. Mikal Bridges was effective on both sides of the ball adding three steals and two blocks to help electrify his team with the defensive effort.
🗣 DEVIN BOOKER— Phoenix Suns (@Phoenix Suns)1622601795.0
The idea of effort is something that was lacking on the purple and gold side last night though. It didn't take long after Booker started hitting everything that the Lakers team started playing sloppy and launching up bad threes in a failed attempt to not let the game get out of hand. Well it did.
The two teams were among the best defensive teams in league this season, the Suns finished seventh in overall team defensive rating and the Lakers first. The Lakers typically like to use their defensive prowess to control pace and work in the half court with their combination of speed on the wings and their combination of big men down low that includes Andre Drummond, Marc Gasol, Anthony Davis (when healthy), and former Sixth-Man of the Year winner Montrezl Harrell. Incase you forgot Harrell does in fact still play for the Lakers, but before last night if you blinked for too long you would've missed him on the court.
WHY ISN’T MONTREZL HARRELL GETTING PLAYING TIME?????@MONSTATREZZ #FreeMontrezl https://t.co/j55u9zg9kN— NBALakersReport (@NBALakersReport)1622603465.0
For some unknown reason Trez has been an afterthought in Frank Vogel's rotations, not only in this series, but throughout parts of the regular season. With AD being ruled out for Game 5, it would've been logical to think that we'd see an uptick in minutes for the high energy reserve, and we did. But not until the game was far out of hand in the second half. While the Suns were building a 30 point lead we saw Phoenix's guards cooking the slower big men of the Lakers off pick and rolls.
30 points is the largest lead at half in Suns playoff history. 🔥🔥🔥 https://t.co/UoozhMf6Io— Phoenix Suns (@Phoenix Suns)1622604230.0
It's understandable to want some size to limit Deandre Ayton, but when it's Booker, Payne, and Bridges hurting you offensively why not see how a quicker and more agile defender like Harrell might fare slowing down the pick and rolls? We saw Jae Crowder having success doing that on the other side for the Suns all night!
It's not fair to just talk about how bad the Lakers were, in fairness it looked like they were getting open looks and were just collectively having an unlucky shooting night. Maybe they all got it out of their system now? But the Suns would have beat anyone on that home court last night. Let's give all credit to them by playing one of the best games ever seen against a LeBron James-led playoff team. Devin Booker is an absolute star and this team plays with a very focused chip on their shoulder which has been manicured by Chris Paul. His leadership has made ALL the difference for this Phoenix team and it can be seen most on the defensive side of the ball. The Suns players have adopted Paul's attitude and intensity on that end and it all paid off last night.
We've seen LeBron actively frustrated during playoff games on the court, and last night is one of the most cringe-worthy to have seen. James spent way too much time talking to officials about calls, and not just between whistles. It would be interesting to know how many possessions the Lakers played four on five because James never made it back on defense before the Suns put more points on them. LeBron was seen leaving the court with about five minutes left in the fourth quarter, and sure it could be to start receiving treatment on the injured ankle. But we know the real reason he left. We can only hope he didn't punch anything on the way to the locker room.
While the teams will travel back to L.A. for Game 6, the Lakers know they are in a must-win situation. We saw the rest of the team around LeBron scrambling because they felt the pressure. James was the only Laker in the second half that kept the team functioning. When we've seen a visibly dejected James like we did last night, it's been because he knew his team didn't have it. I don't think that's the case with this Lakers team.
There's plenty of talent on the roster even without Anthony Davis. Maybe Game 6 is when we get to see Harrell getting some meaningful minutes. Maybe Vogel can devise a way to get Andre Drummond more involved offensively. Maybe AD plays and isn't slowed by the groin injury. Or maybe you should've listened to us back in January when we told you the Suns were a pretty good basketball team.