Previewing the Potential First Round of the NBA Playoffs

Previewing the Potential First Round of the NBA Playoffs
Wed 1st April 2020

Most projections have the peak of the virus’ wrath hitting some time around May/June, which of course is far from ideal for a league like the NBA, whose playoffs were scheduled to begin in the middle of April.

The solution, according to most pundits, fans and players, is pretty simple; whenever the situation returns to at least some semblance of normality, the playoffs begin immediately. End of story.

Frankly, it’s hard to see many other options for the league; this just makes sense. What it means, though, is that how the playoff standings currently are is how they’ll finish.

Consequently, there are eight nearly-concrete first-round playoff matchups for us to project, dissect and analyze! We might not know when, where or how they’ll happen, but here are our best guesses for what might unfold when the 2019-20 NBA playoffs do eventually take place.

**While there has been some suggestion of five-game series, for the moment we’re operating under the assumption that all series will remain seven games**

Western Conference

1. Los Angeles Lakers vs. 8. Memphis Grizzlies

Mem +2500

LAL -15000

One of the most disappointing aspects of eliminating the remainder of the regular season is that we wouldn’t get to see a frantic battle for the eighth seed erupt between the Grizzlies, Pelicans, Trail Blazers and Spurs. However, it’s not all doom-and-gloom; the plus-side is the prospect of locking in this tantalizing matchup between the prohibitive Rookie of the Year – Ja Morant – and potentially the league’s MVP in LeBron James.

For obvious reasons, the team with the second-best record in the NBA (49-14) will go in to this series as an overwhelming favorite, but the Grizzlies have also shown more than enough over the course of this season to suggest they could at least be competitive despite the calibre of their opposition. Their 18-15 home record would suggest there’s a better-than-average chance that, led by Morant, a healthy Jaren Jackson Jr. and a competent supporting cast, they’d be able to steal at least one game in Memphis.

Morant in particular has shown an impressive propensity for performing on the biggest stages, and if the Lakers do have one glaring weakness it’s their lack of depth at the guard position; Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso probably won’t cut it against a guy who’s already knocking on the door of the NBA’s upper-echelon ball-handlers.

The Lakers will win this series – and win it fairly comfortably – but they’re not going to have it all their own way for 192 straight minutes. Put away your brooms, we think Memphis show a glimpse of things to come with an impressive home victory in Game 3 or 4.

Projected Series Score: Lakers win 4-1

2. Los Angeles Clippers vs. 7. Dallas Mavericks

Dallas +550

LA Clippers -800

Neutral fans would be salivating about the prospect of seeing Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis on the big stage against Kawhi Leonard and PG13, and rightly so; this has all the hallmarks of a classic round one series.

Led by Doncic’ stupendous sophomore season and buoyed by the continued improvement of Porzingis as he again finds his feet at the NBA level, the Mavericks were on track for one of the most outstanding offensive seasons of all time. In fact, their current offensive rating of 116.7 is officially the highest we’ve ever seen for a single season in NBA HISTORY.

That’s right; the 2019-20 Mavericks boast (comfortably) a more potent offense than the likes of the 2018-19 Warriors (115.9), the 2016-17 Warriors (115.6), the 1986-87 Showtime Lakers (115.6) and the 1991-92 Jordan-led Bulls (115.5). That’s wild.

However, it’s Dallas’ defense which lets them down, with their 110.6 defensive rating pulling their overall net rating back to the pack. That being said, they’re only half a point shy of the Clippers in that statistic, and with Doncic and Porzingis both healthy and in the starting lineup (which hasn’t happened overly often) the Mavericks look like one of the league’s premier teams.

We smell an upset. While the Clippers are nominally the second seed in the West, they’ve actually only won four more games than Dallas as Leonard and George struggle for fitness and chemistry. The Mavericks will win this in one of the all-time boilovers.

Projected Series Score: Mavericks win 4-2

3. Denver Nuggets vs. 6. Houston Rockets

Houston +105

Denver -125

Another mouthwatering matchup for the neutrals, with the small-ball Rockets hoping their center-less experiment pays off against Nikola Jokic’s Nuggets.

Even after demolishing the Jazz and Lakers immediately after trading Clint Capela and committing mind, body and soul to the wisdom of GM Daryl Morey’s three-heavy offense, questions remained about the efficacy – particularly in the playoffs – of the strategy. Those questions are only going to increase should Houston – devoid of any starter above 6 foot 7 – have to try to find a way to slow down Jokic.

While Houston did have some success against Anthony Davis and Rudy Gobert thanks to some swarming post defense, Jokic is a different prospect. His elite passing makes the idea of double – let alone triple – teaming him in the paint feel like a suicidal mistake. Jokic’s ability to find cutters and facilitate out of double-teams is to many eyes the highest in the NBA, and it’s hard to see the likes of Robert Covington and PJ Tucker bothering him enough under the rim to reduce open passing lanes.

However, the Rockets’ trump cards – plural – are its dual MVPs in James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Those two will be a nightmare for Jamal Murray on defense and, interestingly, it might be Murray who turns this series. If the young guard lives up to potential, hits the open shots he’s given by Jokic and at least gets by on the other end of the floor, the Nuggets win this series. If not, and Westbrook and Harden are allowed to get loose, this could be a Rockets whitewash.

We’re backing Denver, only because Game 7 will be played in the Mile-High city.

Projected Series Score: Nuggets win 4-3

4. Utah Jazz vs. 5. Oklahoma City Thunder

OKC +140

Utah -160

While this series might not carry the glitz and glamor of the West’s other offerings, fans of grit-and-grind, defensive-minded, highly-strategic basketball are going to love this matchup between two of the league’s best-coached, most intelligent teams.

We can mess around with some of the interior matchups – e.g. Rudy Gobert vs. Steven Adams is going to be a physical battle in the post – it’s the guard play where this series is going to be won or lost. The Jazz have had their issues this season, but it’s a fact that Mike Conley can still play at an All-Star level while Donovan Mitchell has barely begun tapping the surface of his basketball journey. On the other side, Chris Paul has this OKC guard unit playing phenomenal basketball, as both Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder have exploded on to the NBA scene.

Adding another level of intrigue to this series is the unknown effect Rudy Gobert’s locker-room behavior and subsequent positive test for coronavirus has had on team morale, with multiple reports over the last fortnight indicating that the Jazz players and organization aren’t particularly pleased with the French big man.

In a gritty matchup like this, between two of the league’s most battle-hardened teams, it’s the little things which can make all the difference. It’s hard to see the Jazz emerging from this break with the same cohesive energy they had prior to it, and consequently we think Paul and his Thunder are poised to spring the upset and move on to the second round.

Projected Series Score: Thunder win 4-2

Eastern Conference

1. Milwaukee Bucks vs. 8. Orlando Magic

Orlando +4000

Milwaukee -20000

Of all eight playoff series, this just might be the most boring of the lot.

Frankly, it’s nearly impossible to see Orlando matching it with Milwaukee in any of the four games that this series will surely consist of. The Bucks have comprehensively swept the season series (so far) 3-0, and currently sit 23 games to the good in the Eastern standings.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is almost unquestionably the best player in the world at the moment, and has led his team to a ridiculous statistical record, which includes being 6th in offensive rating, 1st in pace and 1st in defensive rating. Meanwhile, the Magic began the season with a competent defense but the loss of Jonathan Isaac to injury has cruelled them on the interior, leaving way too much work on both ends for Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Markelle Fultz.

Speaking of Fultz, given the dominance of Antetokounmpo and a resurgent Brook Lopez on the inside, he’s going to have to carry the bulk of the scoring load. That’s not a situation which should fill Magic fans with much hope.

Orlando are also a terrible three-point defending team, which doesn’t bode well for their prospects against the likes of George Hill (who’s been red hot all year), Kyle Korver and Khris Middleton.

Don’t bother watching this one; at least it’ll be over quickly.

Projected Series Score: Bucks win 4-0

2. Toronto Raptors vs. 7. Brooklyn Nets

Brooklyn +500

Toronto -700

On paper this looks like a walkover for the Raptors, right? After-all, they’re currently 16 games ahead of a Nets team which still remains below .500 and has struggled all season with injury and locker-room disunity.

But there are a couple of wildcards floating around in the deck… Depending on how long this coronavirus hiatus continues for, there remains a chance – albeit a slim one – that both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving could be available for a potential Brooklyn championship push this summer. We’re not saying it’s likely, but it’s a chance.

While the addition of the two All-Stars would make this series interesting, it’s also worth mentioning that the Raptors are due to welcome back some injured players of their own, with Marc Gasol, Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka all likely to be fit and ready to go.

All things considered, it’s probably not worth it for Brooklyn to rush back their two franchise centerpieces for a series which they’re pretty likely to lose regardless; the Raptors comfortably took the season series 3-1 and barely broke a sweat doing so.

The Nets might win a game at home but that’ll be it. The reigning champs will move on.

Projected Series Score: Raptors win 4-1

3. Boston Celtics vs. 6. Philadelphia 76ers

Philadelphia -110

Boston -110

Vegas can’t split these two teams, and we must say we’re having some difficulties of our own.

It doesn’t get much better than this first round series between two of the NBA’s fiercest historical rivals, and it’s fair to say neither the Sixers nor the Celtics would be happy to find themselves in this position so early in the playoffs. Interestingly – and contrary to recent history prior to this year – Philadelphia have dominated the season series so far, winning three of four games (although the most recent was a Boston shellacking).

Past form is out the window, though; the real key to this series is the health of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. If both 76ers stars are ready to go – and all indications are they will be – it’s hard to see Philadelphia losing four out of seven games. The size of those two, along with Josh Richardson, Al Horford and Tobias Harris, is too big for most teams to handle, but particularly for a Celtics team which often has Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown guarding centers.

Speaking of Tatum, he’s the wildcard in this scenario. If the young star can continue his ascension to greatness then anything is possible, but at the moment we’re finding the prospect of Embiid battling in the post with Daniel Theis, while Marcus Smart attempts to battle with Simmons and Harris, Richardson and Horford roam the perimeter too tantalising to ignore.

Sixers take this one in one of the all-time classic first round series.

Projected Series Score: 76ers win 4-3

4. Miami Heat vs. 5. Indiana Pacers

Indiana +180

Miami -220

Another mouthwatering prospect for the purists, as two of the NBA’s least-flashy, fundamentally-sound, grit-and-grind teams do battle, with the backdrop of an intense on-court feud between Jimmy Butler and TJ Warren only adding to the spectacle.

Butler and Warren got stuck in to each other back on January 8 during an impressive Heat win in Indiana, giving them the 2-0 season series lead. The Pacers have improved since then, though; Malcolm Brogdon and Victor Oladipo continues to rehabilitate their various injuries, while Domantas Sabonis has made the leap in to genuine stardom.

On the other side, Miami acquired Andre Iguodala, Solomon Hill and Jae Crowder at the trade deadline, and it appeared to shake their lineup initially for the worst. Arguably, no team will be more impacted by this break – and the consequent lack of opportunity to build chemistry – than the Heat.

While Miami are undoubtedly more talented and have the deeper roster, there’s something about the coaching job Nate McMillan is doing in Indiana which is extremely attractive to us. With a fully healthy Oladipo and Brogdon in the backcourt, Warren on the perimeter and Sabonis and Myles Turner on the inside it’s hard to find many holes in this Indiana lineup, and the way they play – hard and tough – is purpose built for the playoffs.

We’re going to back the Pacers in a slight upset.

Projected Series Score: Pacers win 4-2

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