It’s mid-August, which means it’s just time for the NBA playoffs to start…wait that doesn’t sound right. Usually, August is reserved for the start of football activities and we’d have a couple more months before it was basketball time. However, we live in a COVID-19 world, meaning that August is playoff time for the NBA. With the playoffs come playoff predictions.
Milwaukee Bucks (56-17) defeat the Orlando Magic (33-40) in four games. There isn’t much to say about this match-up. The Bucks were the best team in the regular season, boasting one of the best defenses along with MVP and DPOTY candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo. Besides Giannis, they have a very deep team that includes all-star caliber players like Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton to go along with a bench full of good role-players like the Lopez brothers, Wesley Matthews, among others. The Magic, on the other hand, lost their best defensive player in Jonathan Issac, who blew his knee out at the start of the restart. Along with losing Issac, the team is overall incompetent on the offensive side of the basketball and just isn’t on the same level as the Bucks. Giannis and company will get their playoff run to a quick start as they will sweep Orlando.
Toronto Raptors (53-19) defeat the Brooklyn Nets (35-37) in four games. I have all the respect in the world for the Brooklyn Nets. They have come to the NBA Bubble and have proven that they can put up a fight. However, this is a team that doesn’t have Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Deandre Jordan, Spencer Dinwiddie, or Taurean Prince. They have Caris Levert, Joe Harris, Jarrett Allen, and a load of journey-men. On the other hand, the Toronto Raptors are the defending champions and, despite losing Kawhi Leonard in free agency, have not skipped a beat. The Raptors have five players averaging at least 15 points per game, all of which have the capability of exploding on any given night. The lack of a go-to scorer could allow Brooklyn to grab ONE game in a best-case scenario, but the safe bet is a sweep. The Raptors allowed the fewest points per game and had the 2nd best defensive rating in the NBA. The defensive intensity and championship DNA will likely be too much for a depleted Brooklyn squad to handle.
Boston Celtics (48-24) defeat the Philadelphia 76ers (43-30) in five games. The 76ers struggled all season to build team chemistry. Despite having what appeared to be a stacked line-up with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, and Al Horford, they just seemingly could not get it together. While the defense was always there, spacing became a big issue as Ben Simmons was running point guard and couldn’t stretch the floor. Speaking of Ben Simmons, he is out for the rest of the season after having to get knee surgery a few games into the restart. While this has helped to space the floor, as the 76ers have filled the floor with shooters to surround Joel Embiid, the loss of a player on the level of Simmons will always be negative. Simmons was a match-up nightmare at the point guard spot and was incredibly gifted on the defensive end. With Richardson and Harris not playing on the all-star/fringe all-star level that they’re expected to be on, there’s not much consistency on the 76ers outside of Embiid, who is only one man. On the other hand, Boston is getting hot at the right time. Gordon Hayward is beginning to look like his former self, while Kemba Walker is getting his feet back under him after being sidelined with a knee injury. To go along with Hayward and Walker, Boston has two bright stars in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, who are both getting hot at the right time. Both are blossoming into high-level two-way players who can effectively play guard and wing, something that is a necessity to have success in the modern NBA. While Embiid has been playing great, it’s a team sport and this series will reinforce that. Joel’s heroics will likely be enough to steal one game, but Boston will get off to a hot start with a gentleman’s sweep of the 76ers.
Miami Heat (44-29) defeat the Indiana Pacers (45-28) in 6 games. This is easily the hardest series to predict in the East for the first round. Both teams are on even playing fields and on top of the playoff pressure, there’s already well-documented issues between these teams. The main storyline, of course, is T.J. Warren and Jimmy Butler’s “beef”, but the injury to Derrick Jones Jr. in the final seeding game also helped to pour gas on the fire. Miami is a very-well rounded squad that has a gritty starting line-up led by all-stars Jimmy Butler, who has seemingly taken this “issue” with Warren to motivate himself, and Bam Adebayo, who had his own motivation in the form of being underrated in the pre-season by former teammate Dwyane Wade. These two are joined by a roster full of crafty veterans like Goran Dragic and young sharpshooters like Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson. This is a team that thrives on their depth, which makes the potential loss of Derrick Jones Jr. in this series, not as impactful, and they happen to match up with a team that is lacking in depth. Under normal circumstances, Indiana would be fine in the depth department. However, Indiana has some issues. They’re without all-star center Domantas Sabonis and an above-average talent in Jeremy Lamb. Along with those two injuries, Victor Oladpio is still trying to get his feet back under him after he missed significant time with an injury. Perhaps the biggest blow to Indiana? All-Bubble first-team forward T.J. Warren has started to cool off after an explosive start to the restart. Warren, in his last contest against Miami, was held to 12 points on 35.7% shooting from the field. This doesn’t instill confidence in Indiana, who has largely leaned on Warren to carry the majority of the offensive load inside the Bubble. Considering how shallow Indiana is, along with the motivation of Miami, it makes the decision to side with Miami an easier one.
Los Angeles Lakers (52-19) defeat the Portland Trailblazers (35-49) in 4 games. Let’s make it very clear right now: The Lakers are not getting bounced by an eight seed. I understand that it has been very exciting to watch Damian Lillard and company crawl into the playoffs, but there is a reason that they had to claw there. Portland struggled with teams that are levels below the Lakers, including the depleted Nets, the Grizzlies, a Clippers squad that didn’t have Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverly, Kawhi Leonard, and a limited Paul George. While the Lakers have looked rough inside the bubble, there is the very real possibility that the Lakers were on cruise control as they had secured the 1-seed and could now take it easy until the playoffs. The Blazers have a putrid defense and even then, that might be generous. While they are very capable of lighting up a scoreboard, they don’t have an answer for Anthony Davis or LeBron James. One can argue that the Lakers don’t have an answer for Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum, which would be a fair statement as the Lakers are struggling at guard right now, those two cannot match up to Davis or James, especially in the playoffs. The only big man on the Blazers roster who could possibly “slow down” Davis is Zach Collins…who has a tendency to find himself in frequent foul trouble. Another factor to look into is that Damian Lillard is exhausted. He has to average around 50 points a game in his last four just to get Portland here and his exhaustion showed at the end of the play-in game against Memphis when Lillard was doubled over as half-court trying to catch his breath. It’s hard to imagine him having enough gas left in the tank to beat the Lakers four times in seven attempts. Despite all the questions around the Lakers and despite Portland having the hot-hand, there’s a reason why one team is the top seed and why one team had to play a play-in game for the playoffs. Lakers in four is not a difficult call here.
Los Angeles Clippers (49-23) defeat the Dallas Mavericks (43-32) in five games. Like most series in the first round, this isn’t a hard choice to make. The Clippers will be at full strength for what seems to be a rare time this season. Montrezl Harrell, the dynamic duo off the bench alongside Lou Williams, will be eligible for Game 1 as will Patrick Beverly. This is a team that, on paper, looks ridiculously good. While Dallas has been very impressive this season, taking that next step from rebuilding to playoffs and leading one of the highest-rated offenses of all time, they are still a young time. Dallas has shown that lack of maturity when it comes time to close a game out. Dallas has lost tightly-contested games to Houston, the Clippers, Phoenix, and Portland just in the restart alone. This lack of maturity going up against a defensive-oriented team that is led by Kawhi Leonard, who has shown he takes it to a different level in the playoffs, doesn’t bode well for Dallas.
Denver Nuggets (46-27) defeat the Utah Jazz (44-28) in five games. To say Utah has been missing Bojan Bogdanovic would be an understatement. Donovan Mitchell is a streaky volume scorer and outside of him, points have been a rarity in Utah inside the restart. Jordan Clarkson or Mike Conley will have an occasional “breakout” game, but it isn’t something that can be relied on in a seven-game series. Outside of Mitchell, at least on the offensive end, Utah doesn’t seem to have very many options. The exact opposite can be said for Denver due to the breakout of Michael Porter Jr., who was elected to an all-Bubble second time due to his performance inside the bubble. Denver has options galore in the form of Jokic, Porter and Murray in a “big three” alongside additional depth pieces like Paul Millsap, Bol Bol, Torrey Craig, Will Barton, and Gary Harris. The depth of this team, led by Coach Mike Malone, will create issues for Utah. Denver can excel on both sides of the ball and with the ability to focus on Mitchell, knowing that Utah doesn’t have another scorer to take over, will make this series a quick one. The occasional Clarkson or Conley performance could allow for Utah to steal one game, but it’s hard to picture a scenario where they get more than one over on Denver.
Oklahoma City Thunder (44-28) defeat the Houston Rockets (44-28) in seven games. THIS series will be the definition of what you want in playoff basketball. The story wrote itself as Houston traded Chris Paul to OKC in the offseason for Russell Westbrook. Every analyst wrote OKC off as a lottery team and yet here we are. Chris Paul, along with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schroder, and Steven Adams have willed this team to the same record as a Houston team that was touted as a championship contender all season. I will not act as if the Rockets haven’t impressed me during the bubble. However, with that said, there is reasonable belief to doubt Houston. Star point guard, Russell Westbrook, will miss at least SOME games in this series, with the possibility that he could be out the whole season. With Westbrook out, Harden will be the only ball-handler for Houston, which makes the defensive strategy a bit easier for OKC. Take that and add to the fact that James Harden and Houston overall under Mike D’Antoni don’t exactly have the greatest reputation in the playoffs and you can see where the ship could start to sink in Houston. Chris Paul and the Billy Donovan-led team has excelled in the clutch this season, with Chris Paul leading the league in clutch points. Along with Paul at first, Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari rank at 15 and 18, respectively. This makes OKC the only team to have three players in the top 20. What does this mean in simple terms? OKC is REALLY good at winning tightly-contested basketball games, which is the name of the game in the playoffs. While the Rockets have worked their small ball gameplan to perfection (or pretty close, at least), the health of Westbrook will be the biggest key here (with the return of Dennis Schroder, who left the bubble to attend to his child’s birth, being a close second). The longer Westbrook is out, the more likely that OKC can finish it before seven games. The initial report is that Westbrook will miss a “few” games of the first round, which can be assumed to be three or four. If Houston can win at least two without Westbrook, they’d be in a good spot. However, I just don’t see that happening. With the assumption that Westbrook returns for the fourth game of the series, OKC would be up 2-1 and I could see the series going seven. But if Westbrook misses the entire series? This leans more towards four or five games. Yet, we must go off what is being reported and that is that it’s likely that Westbrook will appear at some point in the series. It might just be too little too late as OKC will hang on to take the series in seven.