Uncertainty shrouded the NBA Playoffs in March, when the season was suspended due to COVID-19. Five months later, a two week end-of-season sprint at the bubble in Disney World will culminate with the NBA Playoffs, which begin on Aug. 17.
(1) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (8) Orlando Magic
A dominant Bucks team led by reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo will take on a shorthanded Orlando side. Milwaukee was dominant in the regular season, winning all four head-to-head matchups against the Magic by at least nine points.
Before the season halted due to COVID-19, the Bucks were on pace to win 70 games. This is a feat only accomplished so far by the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors and 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, which are regarded as two of the best teams all time.
The Orlando Magic field an All-Star calibre center in Nikola Vučević, who averaged 19.6 points and 10.9 rebounds per game, but his contributions will not be enough to overcome this lopsided matchup. The absence of forward Jonathan Isaac, who proved to be the team’s best defender, averaging 2.3 blocks and 1.6 steals per game, does not bode well for the Magic.
The Bucks pour in a league best 118.7 points per game and they should make quick work of the Magic, sweeping them in four games.
(2) Toronto Raptors vs. (7) Brooklyn Nets
The Raptors begin their title defence against a depleted Brooklyn Nets team, which is missing eight key players including superstars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. The Raptors convincingly won the season series 3-1.
During the regular season, the Raptors exceeded expectations after losing superstar forward Kawhi Leonard. Marked improvements from guard Fred Van Vleet, and forwards OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam have allowed the Raptors to continue their winning ways from last season. Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka’s veteran presence has been key and sophomore coach Nick Nurse continues to impress with his unorthodox defensive schemes.
The Raptors continued their momentum from March in the bubble, winning seven out of eight seeding games and finishing with the second best record in the league at 53-19. With a fully healthy squad and the second best defensive rating in the league, the Raptors are primed for another deep post-season run.
The Nets lone bright spot comes in guard Caris LeVert, who has been stellar during the restart, with two 30-point outings against the Wizards and Trailblazers. His scoring has kept the Nets afloat in the bubble, earning them a 5-3 record.
Despite outperforming expectations with an injured team, the Nets road will likely end in the first round. The Raptors outclass them both depth-wise and in star power, and are poised to sweep the Nets in four games.
(3) Boston Celtics vs. (6) Philadelphia 76ers
The Celtics are set to face the 76ers in a rematch from the 2018 Eastern Conference semifinals. The 2018 series was filled with tense matches and a premature Philadelphia celebration, so the rematch will certainly be entertaining. The 76ers won the season series 3-1, but will be missing their star point forward Ben Simmons, who is out for the season after a left knee surgery.
Boston had a resurgence after a disappointing 2018-19 campaign with Kyrie Irving, which ended with a 4-1 series loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. All-Star guard Kemba Walker has been a blessing both on court and in the locker room, averaging 20.4 points and 4.8 assists. The Celtics offence is formidable, with first-time All-Star Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward all making significant scoring contributions. They are no pushovers on the defensive end either, ranking fourth in defensive rating.
The 76ers this season have been the epitome of inconsistency. In home games, they posted a league best 31-4 record. However, in away games, they are closer to the bottom of the league, with a putrid 12-26 record. Such a discrepancy is inexplicable, but the neutral site at Orlando may aid the team’s troubles.
Joel Embiid leads the team in scoring with 23.0 points per game, and is the defensive anchor in the paint. Tobias Harris is a serviceable third option, providing 19.6 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. Still, All-Star guard Ben Simmons’ playmaking and 8.0 assists per game will be sorely missed.
Simmons’ absence makes this series far less interesting than it should be. The Celtics have four premier perimeter players in Walker, Brown, Tatum and Hayward and the 76ers are missing their best perimeter defender. A dominant performance by Joel Embiid coupled with hot three-point shooting may be enough to steal a game, but the Boston Celtics offensive firepower is sure to be enough to defeat the 76ers in five games.
(4) Indiana Pacers vs. (5) Miami Heat
The most evenly matched Eastern Conference series takes place between Jimmy Butler’s Miami Heat and TJ Warren’s Indiana Pacers. Miami handily won the season series 3-1, with drama galore in the second game where Butler’s frustrations on a foul by Warren led to harsh words and a fight almost breaking out. With Butler claiming Warren to be “soft” and “trash”, there is more at stake in this series than just advancement to the next round.
The Heat have been outstanding all season, with seven players averaging double digit points and All-Stars Butler and Adebayo leading the defense. Rookie Tyler Herro and sophomore Duncan Robinson are sharpshooters from three-point range, shooting 38.9 per cent and 44.6 per cent on over five attempts per game. Undrafted rookie Kendrick Nunn is also a pleasant surprise, averaging 15.3 points per game and earning a Rookie of the Year nomination.
Despite missing star guard Victor Oladipo for the majority of the season, the Pacers find themselves amidst the top of the East. All-Star centre Domantas Sabonis was critical to success, averaging a double-double with 18.5 points and 12.4 rebounds per game. He remains out indefinitely with a foot injury, although Indiana has not ruled out a return sometime in the playoffs.
In his absence, Warren has stepped up as the Pacers best player. He has been scorching during the bubble, averaging 31 points and shooting 52 per cent from three, including a 53-point outburst against the 76ers.
The outcome of this series will largely depend on whether Warren can continue his hot streak and how well Oladipo can play in his return from injury. The Heat did limit Warren to just 12 points on Aug. 10, and if they can repeat that in the playoffs, this may be a shorter series than anticipated. This is sure to be a hard fought and gritty series, but the Heat’s depth should allow them to prevail in six games.
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