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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