The 202 NBA playoffs begin Monday Aug 17th in Orlando, Florida. First round matchups are as follows …
(1) Bucks vs. (8) Magic
(2) Raptors vs. (7) Nets
(3) Celtics vs. (6) 76ers
(4) Pacers vs. (5) Miami
(1) Lakers vs. (8) Blazers
(2) Clippers vs. (7) Mavericks
(3) Nuggets vs. (6) Jazz
(4) Rockets vs. (5) Thunder
Looking at this by series, maybe most appropriate to start with the reigning champion Raptors …
While the near-sighted view might put the Nuggets and Thunder into the category of “most pleasant surprise”, that prize goes to the Raptors who have been doing it all season long. And while the Thunder might be coming together team-wise at the right time, it’s the Raptors that have been there since the beginning of the season. The roles are well defined. Everyone plays defense on every play, and the switching and paint protection is as swift and accurate as any team in the playoffs. Their best player (Siakem) is an unselfish passing and rebounding scorer/defender who allows other players (all scorers) to touch the ball often enough to make the right decision quickly. A la Warriors and the Spurs before them, no coincidence there. It’s turned Van Vleet into one of the leagues most feared point-per-minute scorers, it’s brought Anunoby into the spotlight as a #1 or #2 option offensively and has resurrected Ibaka’s offensive abilities turning him into a threat and matchup problem for any team when he’s shooting it well. They don’t have Giannis but they do have the better team than the Bucks. They might be even better than last year’s team headed into the playoffs. There shouldn’t be any surprises when they sweep the Nets in the first round. The Nets might win one game, but it won’t be without a lot of raised eyebrows. They’ll need to shut down Toronto’s offense which seems near impossible.
Elsewhere, the Blazers face the Lakers in round 1 …
Portland may be the team that benefited the most with the long break in the season. With year-long injuries to Nurkic and Collins, their front court took a big hit for much of the season. On the season, Portland scored 115.1 ppg and gave up 116.2 ppg. In the bubble and with Nurkic and Collins healthy though, Portland’s offense took off, scoring more than 120 ppg in all but two games. Of course Dame was brilliant. Defensively, however, Portland is still giving up a lot of points. It appears it will take their defense longer to coalesce, but with a first round match-up against the Lakers, there may not be enough time for that to happen.
On the Lakers side, the long layoff may have been a blessing in disguise. LBJ and AD both averaged more than 34 mpg on the season. Now rested for the playoffs and any nagging injuries healed up, they should be ready to go. They have some question marks though. Avery Bradley opted out of the restart and Rajon Rondo is injured and out for the rest of the season. Both were key contributors to one of the best defenses in the league. The Lake Show went 3-5 in the bubble, but they had little to play for once they wrapped up the top seed early. Still, their defense in the bubble was not nearly as good. They should still get past Portland, but this could be a problem the deeper they go in the playoffs.
I expect to see Dame Dollar go off against the Lakers in this series, but it won’t be enough. Nurkic looked good in his return, but facing off against AD will be a bigger challenge. LBJ and AD will likely have to play a lot of minutes, because they are not deep. I see the Lakers winning the series 4-2.
Looking at #1 vs. #8 in the East, Bucks vs. Magic…
The Magic had one of the best defenses in the league, giving up just 108.3 ppg. The problem is that they scored just 107.3 ppg. Orlando lost SF Jonathan Isaac to an ACL tear during a bubble game. He was probably the best defender on the team and had a team-leading 1.6 spg and 2.3 bpg. That will put a crimp in their defense, which hurts big time when going up against the best offense in the league. Vucevic and Fournier lead the offense, but Aaron Gordon seemed to take a small step back with his shooting.
The Bucks went 3-5 in the bubble, but like the Lakers, they had nothing to play for with the #1 seed wrapped up early. They had the best scoring offense in the league and a top 10 defense, resulting in a league best 10 point scoring margin. There is pretty much no stopping the Freak in the paint, so as long as the distance shooting from Middleton, Bledsoe, Matthews, Korver, and Hill stays true to form, they’ll be hard to stop. The Bucks enter the playoffs at full strength.
If this was a normal season, I might give the Magic a chance to win one game at home. Even though all the games are in Orlando, they won’t have a home crowd cheering them on. I see the Bucks mopping the floor with the Magic and winning the series 4-0.
Moving on to the second match-up in the West, #2 Clippers vs. #7 Mavericks.
The Mavericks played poorly in the bubble (3-5 record), except for Luka of course. Luka averaged 30 ppg, 10 rpg, and 9.7 apg despite playing just 13 minutes in the final bubble game. However, outside of Luka and Porzingis, the Mavs don’t get consistent games from anyone else. Against a deep team like the Clippers, they probably don’t stand much chance.
The Clippers only went 4-4 in the bubble, but they didn’t have much to play for with their spot locked up early enough. They also had various players miss games because of quarantine, minor injuries, or rest. Kawhi & PG are one of the top duos in the league, perhaps better than LBJ/AD because of how well they play defense. Kawhi is also the very definition of clutch. Consider the bubble to just be a warm-up for the Clips with the real thing to begin in the playoffs.
The Mavs don’t have enough depth to compete with the Clippers. The Clips may be missing a few players for the first game or two, so I can see the Mavs winning a game or two, but that is as far as it gets. Figure the Clippers to win the series 4 games to 1.
While the Clippers might be the most talent-laden team, the Nuggets aren’t too far behind them. More importantly, the amount of fresh talent coming off the bench allows the Nuggets to maintain their frenetic offensive pace while giving both Jokic and Murray time to rest. And now with Michael Porter Jr. rising to the level of a superstar, both Jokic and Murray should have more room to operate in order to do what the Nuggets do as well as any team: get high percentage shots while forcing defenses away from their game plan(s). But this is the Jokic show regardless – he looks nimble and energetic after the 25 lb weight loss and conditioning. For the first time in his career Jokic appears driven to perform at the highest level, and that means faster footwork that was already the best in the league. Expect the Nuggets to create matchup nightmares for all teams they face – opponents will likely be getting in foul trouble early and often starting with their first round opponent in the Jazz. It’ll be interesting to see how the refs call the contact down low in this series, as Gobert is not only the best in the business protecting the paint he’s also been the beneficiary of many-an-unblown whistle in 2019-2020.
However, as odd as it may seem, if the Nuggets face the Clippers in the second round they’ll be outmanned. Even if Jokic abuses (or just neutralizes) Harrell for most of the series, it will likely come at the expense of fast break opportunities for Kawhi and company who, better than any other team, dictate ball movement and pace at both ends of the court. Regardless, that series if it happens won’t likely be about shot selection or even foul trouble but rather FG%. Maybe that seems obvious, but with both teams able to get their shots and defend extremely well on average, that series (if it happens) may simply come down to which team has more guys hitting their well-selected shots.
The Rockets open up against the Thunder. While Harden wouldn’t surprise anyone by getting straight back to his MVP form, that’s not going to be what decides the series. Before the recent injury to Westbrook (quad) the Thunder was already playing at a higher level at both ends, and with Chris Paul’s squad coming together in all ways at both ends this isn’t the matchup D’Antoni wants in the first round. The first game of the series will be revealing, as it shouldn’t be close with Houston having no way to replace the impact of a sitting Westbrook. Against almost any other team the Rockets could be expected to compete on scrap and energy alone, but that’s also where the Thunder lives. Unless Westbrook can return in the second and third games to play big minutes at his usual off-the-charts level, the Thunder will likely win the series because of the poise and teamwork they’ve displayed and improved upon all season long.
The 3-6 matchup in the East was supposed to be a good one. The Celtics and the 76ers were both conference semifinalists last year, both have fairly young squads that could be expected to improve this year and both brought in new studs–Al Horford in Philly and Kemba Walker in Boston. This series should have been a great rumble. Then it fell apart for the Sixers. Budding superstar Ben Simmons went down with a knee injury and is out for the season. Superstud Joel Embiid has been battling nagging ankle and hand injuries. They managed a 4-4 record in the bubble, but 3 of the wins were against non-playoff teams and the 4th was against a Westbrook-less Rockets team that also wasn’t letting any starter play more than 24 minutes in the final bubble game. Against teams fighting for the playoffs or playoff-bound, the Sixers couldn’t manage a win. The loss of Simmons will be virtually impossible to overcome.
On the Celtics side, they went 5-3 in the bubble and one of those losses was in the last game when they rested all their starters. Those starters form one of the best starting groups in the league. They’ve got 3 starters averaging better than 20 ppg, 3 averaging better than 4 apg, 3 averaging better than 6 rpg, and 3 averaging better than 1 spg. Jayson Tatum made a big jump toward superstar status this year and is still just 21 years old. Jaylen Brown did too and he’s just 23 years old. Gordon Hayward finally got healthy after two lost years and started to look like himself again. Kemba Walker replacing Kyrie Irving at PG looked like a much better team fit. When you get past the starters though, the Celtics don’t have a great bench. They also lack a solid inside presence. If Embiid is healthy enough, he should have big games against the Celtics. It won’t be enough though. No Simmons makes this an easy series for the Celts. We’ll give the Sixers one game. Boston likely to prevail 4 games to 1.
Finally, we come to the Pacers and Heat, the 4 and 5 seeds in the East. Coincidentally, they played each other in the final bubble game with the seeding up in the air and…neither team cared. Both teams rested their stars and the Pacers scrubs beat the Heat scrubs for the 4th seed. Unfortunately–for the Pacers–they played each other two games earlier at full strength and the Heat pasted the Pacers by 22 points. The Pacers are hamstrung with Sabonis’ injury and it is unclear if and when he might be back. He averaged almost twice as many rebounds as anybody else on the team. That will be hard to replace. And while the long layoff gave Oladipo additional time to heal, he still doesn’t look like he is completely back. The Pacers are deep though, going nine deep of players averaging 20+ minutes per game and 7 of them being double-digit scorers.
As deep as the Pacers are, the Heat are even deeper. 10 players average 20+ minutes per game with 8 of them going off for double digits in scoring. Then there’s the Jimmy “I don’t suffer fools” Butler factor. It appears that Butler found a team this year that were all on the same championship mentality page, unlike last year’s 76ers. Pat Riley/Eric Spoelstra and Jimmy Butler are a good fit of player to management. Butler appears to have brought out the best from Bam Adebayo, turning him from a bench player to an All-Star. There’s just no way that Butler doesn’t get out of the 1st round. The Heat are a dark horse in the East and won’t have a problem with a Sabonis-less Pacers. At best, the Pacers win 2 games in this series.