Finally, the wait is over. The NBA Playoffs are back and soon to be in full swing. This season has been full of surprises, adversity, and unprecedented change. The Orlando Bubble has been beyond successful and Adam Silver, the league and its players are to thank for making this Bubble experiment work so effectively. As fans we have been highly anticipating this day to come and now that its here, you can find my first round predictions of the matchups below.
(#1) Milwaukee Bucks v. (#8) Orlando Magic
Prediction: BUCKS in 4.
The Raptors won the season series against the Nets this season 3-1. The Nets however have dealt with many injury issues to their two newly acquired superstars in Kevin Durant (who missed whole season) and Kyrie Irving. Neither are playing in the Orlando Restart as well as many other team members due to COVID-related concerns. If the Nets were at full strength, this series would have the potential to be phenomenal. Next year barring any further injury setbacks it will be must watch basketball to see KD and Kyrie playing alongside each other. But until then I expect the Raptors to take advantage of the severely depleted Nets and make quick work of them in the first round. The Raptors have seemed to not miss a beat even with the 4-month hiatus as they went 7-1 during their seeding games. Also with all the stars out for Brooklyn I expect Toronto’s #1 ranked defense to wreck havoc and have their way. Again Toronto in 4.
If the regular matchups between these teams holds true and consistent a sweep looks to be in the cards for the Bucks. During the ’19-20 regular season, the Bucks went 4-0 against the Magic with an average victory margin of 17 points. The Magic’s last win against the Bucks came during the ’18-19 season and Giannis did not play in that game. Orlando suffered a huge setback with one of their young upcoming stars, Jonathan Issac, who suffered a torn ACL during one of their seeding games during the restart. Issac has huge upside and his defensive presence will be missed during Orlando’s matchup with Milwaukee.
Although the Bucks have struggled late in the season before the shutdown and in their seeding games in Orlando (3-5 record), I expect the Bucks to make quick and easy work of the Magic in their first round matchup. Milwaukee ranks #1 in the NBA in ppg offensively and 8th defensively. With Giannis leading the way on that side of the ball too (top candidate for DPOY) and Brook Lopez protecting the rim and paint the Magic will have their work cut out for them. Orlando is young and has plenty of upside talent on their roster, but in my opinion they are still a piece away and a few years out of being legitimate contenders. Again, Bucks in 4.
(#2) Toronto Raptors v. (#7) Brooklyn Nets
Prediction: RAPTORS in 4.
The defending NBA Champion Toronto Raptors will begin their quest for a repeat as the #2 seed in the East with a first round matchup against the #7 seed Brooklyn Nets. The Toronto Raptors, one year removed from losing FMVP Kawhi Leonard in the offseason to the Los Angeles Clippers, have exceeded everyone’s expectations during the ’19-20 campaign. Finishing with a 53-19 record, the Raptors have shown that they are still a team that cannot be slept on even with the absence of Leonard leading the way. Head Coach Nick Nurse is a top candidate for COTY as he has displayed that he has a winning formula in place up north in Toronto.
The Raptors won the season series against the Nets this season 3-1. The Nets however have dealt with many injury issues to their two newly acquired superstars in Kevin Durant (who missed whole season) and Kyrie Irving. Neither are playing in the Orlando Restart as well as many other team members due to COVID-related concerns. If the Nets were at full strength, this series would have the potential to be phenomenal. Next year barring any further injury setbacks it will be must watch basketball to see KD and Kyrie playing alongside eachother. But until then I expect the Raptors to take advantage of the severely depleted Nets and make quick work of them in the first round. The Raptors have seemed to not miss a beat even with the 4-month hiatus as they went 7-1 during their seeding games. Also with all the stars out for Brooklyn I expect Toronto’s #1 ranked defense to wreck havoc and have their way. Again Toronto in 4.
(#3) Boston Celtics v. (#6) Philadelphia 76ers
Prediction: CELTICS in 5.
This series had the potential to be very competitive and fun to watch, but with the season-ending injury to the 76ers star PG Ben Simmons I expect this series to be over rather quickly. The 76ers actually won the season series 3-1 between the teams, but again without Simmons and with a banged up Joel Embiid I expect the 76ers to struggle with the Celtics star-studded starting lineup. The Celtics arguably have one of if not the best starting fives in basketball led by two upcoming stars in the league in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Head Coach Brad Stevens and the Celtics should be poised to make a deep playoff run this season after being eliminated last season by the Milwaukee Bucks.
76ers Head Coach Brett Brown may be on his way out of Philadelphia if he is unable to lead the 76ers to a playoff series win this year. Tempers and tensions have been high at times this season and the continual rumors of a rocky relationship between stars Simmons and Embiid continue to shadow the team. During the restart neither team looked extremely sharp (BOS 5-3, PHI 4-4) and have some work cut out for them getting back in the groove moving forward. Ultimately I see the Celtics starting five beating up the 76ers offensively and the Celtics #2 ranked defense will thrive without Ben Simmons facilitating the 76ers offense. Again, Boston in 5.
(#4) Miami Heat v. (#5) Indiana Pacers
Prediction: HEAT in 6.
I expect this series to be the most entertaining and competitive matchup of the first round in the Eastern Conference. One major storyline surrounding this series is the matchup between Indiana’s breakout bubble star F TJ Warren and Miami All-Star SG/SF Jimmy Butler. Warren and Butler were involved in a heated exchange during their teams regular season matchup back on January 8th and now will be able to settle it during their first round playoff matchup. If Indiana is going to want a chance at winning this series they are going to need TJ Warren to continue to tear apart opponents in the Bubble. During the Pacers eight seeding games, Warren averaged 31/6.3/2 on shooting splits of 58/52/89. SG Victor Oladipo will be with the Indiana Pacers for the playoffs as he was mulling his return to basketball in the Bubble. The Pacers did however suffer a big blow to their star big man Sabonis in Orlando as he injured his foot during a seeding game. Without Sabonis I do believe the Pacers have an uphill battle ahead of them.
The Miami Heat took the season series between the two 3-1. The Heat struggled a bit during the restart going 3-5 while the Pacers finished strong going 6-2 over their final eight games. The emergence of F Bam Adebayo who is a favorite for NBA’s Most Improved this season has been huge for the Miami Heat this season. Also the addition of the two young sharpshooters in Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro have paid dividends offensively. I expect Jimmy Butler to do his thing and TJ Warren will have his work cut out for him when Butler matches up with him. Butler statistically is the best individual defender when guarding Warren and the matchup should be great to watch. Ultimately I believe the Heat have two many options for the Pacers to shutdown, but do predict a competitive series. Again, Miami in 6.
(#1) Los Angeles Lakers v. (#8) Portland Trailblazers
Prediction: LAKERS in 5.
The matchup all NBA fans have been begging for since the restart and the re-emergence of “Dame-Time” by the Blazers star point guard who won Bubble MVP after his exceptional play in the seeding games. The Lakers secured the #1 seed in the West with a 52-19 record for the first time since the ’09-10 season and are making a return to the playoffs for the first time since the ’12-13 season. Star and MVP candidate LeBron James also makes his playoff return as his first season in LA last year was cut short due to injuries. Newly added Superstar F Anthony Davis has had tons of success in his first season playing alongside LeBron and other Laker teammates and have become arguably the most dominant duo in basketball.
The Lakers will have their work cut out for themselves when it comes to guarding Damian Lillard with the absence of their best defensive guard Avery Bradley, who chose to opt-out of the Orlando Return. Lillard, the unanimous Bubble MVP averaged 37.3/4.3/9.6 while leading the Blazers to a 7-2 record and a win in the first ever play-in game against the Memphis Grizzlies. The Blazers have also welcomed back a healthy Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic to their front-court. Veteran F Carmelo Anthony has shown he still has some basketball left in the tank and young G Gary Trent Jr. used the Bubble to breakout. Keep in mind this was a Blazers team who made the Western Conference Finals just a year ago.
The Lakers took the season series 2-1 against Portland and averaged a whopping 127.6 pts per game in those contests. This will inevitably be the Blazers downfall in my opinion when it comes to facing off with the Lakers. The Blazers rank 26th this year defensively while the Lakers on the other hand rank 4th. LeBron James has never lost a first round playoff matchup and I do not see him losing this series either. Analysts and the media are overreacting saying the Blazers are going to take this series as I see it barely going 5 games. The LeBron-AD duo will be too much to handle and I expect the Lakers to make a very deep playoff push. LeBron is hungry and even with Lillard playing out of his mind I see a gentleman’s sweep in the near future. Frank Vogel in his first season as the Lakers HC will win his first playoff series with the team. Again, Lakers in 5.
(#2) Los Angeles Clippers v. (#7) Dallas Mavericks
Prediction: CLIPPERS in 6.
The new look LA Clippers with star-duo Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will face-off with the young stars Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis of the Dallas Mavericks. The reigning FMVP Leonard left Toronto in the offseason to go home to LA and join forces with All-Star Paul George. The Clippers also have plenty of star power around the duo, as they have two Sixth Man of the Year Candidates coming off the bench in Montrezl Harrell and Veteran G Lou Williams, who both nearly average 20 points per contest. In just his second season in the NBA, star PG Luka Doncic is making a household name of himself and is even in the NBA MVP race. Also the acquisition of PF Porzingis has paid dividends for the Mavericks.
The Clippers did sweep the season series between these teams 3-0 and won by an average margin of 11 points. The Clippers went 5-3 during the restart even with the absence of many major players for them. The Mavs on the other hand finished the year 3-5 and struggled during crunch time. Both teams boast two of the best offenses in basketball and both teams are also pretty close statistically defensively. Ultimately I believe the star power and veteran presence on the LA roster will turn out to be the deciding factor in this series. I think the Mavericks are only a year or two out of making a deep playoff push and being considered title favorites, but the Clippers will win this series. The Mavs will make it interesting, taking the series to six games, but again LA in 6.
(#3) Denver Nuggets v. (#6) Utah Jazz
Prediction: NUGGETS in 5.
The #3 seed Denver Nuggets look to make a run in the playoffs again this season after making the playoffs for the second straight season. The Nuggets are led by All-Star C Nikola Jokic and boast one of the deepest lineups in the NBA alongside him. The Utah Jazz on the other hand are without two key players, both starters in F Bojan Bogdanovic and PG Mike Conley. Bojan is out for the season after undergoing surgery and Mike Conley left the Orlando Bubble to be there for the birth of his child. Bojan was the Jazz second leading scorer this season with 20.2 ppg and Conley in his first season with Jazz was averaging 14.4 ppg. Without these two offensively their star SG Donovan Mitchell will have his work cut out for him handling the offensive load moving forward. Bench G Jordan Clarkson will also be crucial if the Jazz plan to make this series competitive and beat the Nuggets.
All NBA fans are aware of the dicey relationship between the star-duo in Utah between Mitchell and C Rudy Gobert stemming from the COVID shutdown. Gobert was the first NBA player to be officially named in relation to contracting the COVID-19 disease and Mitchell later contracted it as well. The two players claim the air is clear between them and their sole focus moving forward is winning in the playoffs, but it will be interesting to see how they continue to play alongside each other moving forward.
The Nuggets on the other hand used this unique restart period as a chance to witness the skills of their two young upcoming big men in Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol. MPJ was rewarded for his play in the seeding games with a selection to the All-Bubble Second team whole Bol Bol saw his first NBA minutes and performed well during those stretches. Denver won the season series between the two teams 3-0 and I suspect this first round matchup will be a lot of the same. Denver has too many weapons, while the Jazz are missing too many key weapons. Again, Denver in 5.
(#4) Houston Rockets v. (#5) Oklahoma City Thunder
Prediction: ROCKETS in 7.
This series has the potential to be the best 1st Round series of all the NBA playoffs this season. I say that because of the offseason move of the star PGs for these respective teams. OKC’s franchise PG Russell Westbrook was dealt to the Houston Rockets during the offseason for Veteran All-Star PG Chris Paul along with a handful of draft picks. After last years disappointing season’s end for both teams they felt a roster move was necessary and they did just that with these PGs swapping places. After the trade the Thunder were pretty much written off having any chance of making the playoffs (0.2% chance), but with the veteran presence of Paul leading the team, they have exceeded all expectations immensely.
The Rockets enjoyed another successful regular season, but many wonder just how legitimate the pairing of All-Star guards James Harden and Russell Westbrook really is and how far they can go together. The Rockets will be without Westbrook however, for at least the first few games of this series, if not the whole series after he suffered a quad injury. Without Westbrook this series just got this much more interesting and will be interesting to see just how much 3-Time defending scoring champion James Harden has to do offensively. The Rockets have revolutionized small ball in the NBA and Head Coach Mike D’Antoni’s offensive system is catered directly to that style.
The Thunder won the season series against the Rockets 2-1 and both teams have very different systems in place. The Rockets rank 2nd offensively and 23rd defensively, while the Thunder rank 21st offensively and 7th defensively. I expect Chris Paul to play with a big chip on his shoulder and try to pad his Hall of Fame resume with an upset victory in round one against his former team/teammates. While I think this is possible, I do still have the Rockets winning the series, but in dramatic fashion in a full seven game series.