What’s on Tap? Predicting the First-Round of the NBA Playoffs Had They Happened
Sam Tapper – Sports Writer
The NBA Playoffs were supposed to begin on April 18, and this year’s postseason was as highly anticipated as any in recent memory, with multiple teams in each conference who could be justified as contenders.
Due to COVID-19, it is unknown when or if the NBA season will resume or if the playoffs will happen. In light of the circumstances, all we can do is speculate. So, below are my predictions for the first-round matchups if the postseason began today with the current standings.
Eastern Conference –
No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks (53-12) vs. No. 8 Orlando Magic (30-35):
The Magic’s progress, though very slow should not be overlooked. Their young core is enticing. Markelle Fultz proved he can be a serviceable NBA point guard at the very least and their frontcourt can be dominant. However, the loss of arguably their best defender in Jonathan Isaac makes it hard for anyone else to matchup with the Greek Freak, making this series a no-brainer to predict. The Bucks have proven time and again they are no joke. They likely have the league’s MVP for the second year in a row in Antetokounmpo, averaging 29.6 points and 13.7 rebounds per game, along with a strong supporting cast, led by All-Star swingman Khris Middleton. While the loss of former Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, who signed with Indiana last offseason, could hurt them in later rounds, the Bucks handily have this series, though Orlando will steal a game.
Prediction: MIL wins 4-1
No. 2 Toronto Raptors (46-18) vs. No. 7 Brooklyn Nets (30-34):
While Kawhi Leonard is no longer on Toronto’s roster, the defending champions are no joke. Pascal Siakam made the anticipated leap from sidekick to superhero and they have five players averaging at least 16 points per game. Their backcourt of Kyle Lowry (19.7 points per game) and Fred VanVleet (17.6 points per game) has proven legit, and the Raptors once again have what it takes to get to at least the Eastern Conference Finals. As for the Nets, if Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were healthy it would be a different story. But their supporting cast of role players led by sixth man Spencer Dinwiddie and the inconsistent wing Caris LeVert may not be enough to even win a game. Sorry Nets fans, but congratulations on making the playoffs two years in a row. Progress.
Prediction: TOR wins 4-0
No. 3 Boston Celtics (43-21) vs. No. 6 Philadelphia 76ers (39-26):
As a Celtics fan, this matchup scares me and is something all Celtics fans definitely did not want, with the Sixers taking three of four matchups in the regular season. Size will be a problem for Boston, as Philly starts four players at least 6’8, three of which are at least 6’10, while the Celtics’ tallest starters are 6’8 in Jayson Tatum and center Daniel Theis. Despite the mismatches, the Celtics are quicker, and the explosion of Tatum and Jaylen Brown this season, as well as the addition of Kemba Walker and the resurgence of Gordon Hayward will be a lot to handle for Philly on the offensive end, and the Sixers still have many kinks to work out as a team. Ultimately, the series will go the distance and the home team will win each game. Game seven in Boston, Celtics – Sixers, does a first-round get much better?
Prediction: BOS wins 4-3
No. 4 Miami Heat (41-24) vs. No. 5 Indiana Pacers (39-26):
Both teams in this series are solid, and an argument could be made for each side. However, the Pacers unfortunately will be a first-round exit once again. Last year it was because the Pacers were missing their All-Star in Victor Oladipo with a torn ACL, and this year it has not always been smooth integrating their otherwise best player back into a system that has been without him for about a year. The Jeremy Lamb knee injury doesn’t help the Pacers either. For the Heat, they are led by their All-Stars in Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, but have much more under-the-radar talent, like Kendrick Nunn, among others. Erik Spoelstra is a terrific head coach and has a real quality team capable of going deep into the postseason, while they won’t sweep, they’ll ultimately take the series.
Prediction: MIA wins 4-2
Western Conference –
No. 1 LA Lakers (49-14) vs. No. 8 Memphis Grizzlies (32-33):
Well, Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans won’t get to face off against LeBron in the first round, at least not in this scenario. But NBA fans will get the next best thing, as scoring machine and No. 2 overall pick I the 2019 draft JA Morant will lead an odd Grizzlies team against the Lakers. Memphis does a lot of things solidly, but nothing really all that well – yet. Morant will be a star in this league, and he will average over 20 points in the series, but the Lakers are just too good for them this time around.
Prediction: LAL wins 4-0
No. 2 LA Clippers (44-20) vs. No. 7 Dallas Mavericks (40-27):
Now this could be the most exciting first-round series yet. This series features All-NBA talents like Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, both MVP candidates, and their right-hand men in Paul George and Kristaps Porzingis. Is it possible for a series to feature both stellar offense and lockdown defense? In this case, yes. While Dallas is a seven-seed, remember that at one point they were as high as third, and are still winners of 40-games. This one goes the distance and that game seven in the Staples Center will be one for the ages.
Prediction: LAC wins 4-3
No. 3 Denver Nuggets (43-21) vs. No. 6 Houston Rockets (40-24):
As Princess Leia once said: “Now we find out if that code is worth the price we paid.” Now we find out if Houston’s small-ball experiment was worth giving up center Clint Capela for practically nothing. Having the 6’7 P.J. Tucker start at center has surprisingly worked, and the Rockets have been better off. For the Nuggets, their big man Nikola Jokic is incredibly impressive, but the Rockets will ultimately expose the state he is in athletically, as this year he as appeared much slower. While Mike D’Antoni’s teams have never played defense, Jokic is not the best defender either. Ultimately, the attack of Russell Westbrook and James Harden will be too much for Jokic, Jamaal Murray and company to counter, at least this year.
Prediction: HOU wins 4-2
No. 4 Utah Jazz (41-23) vs. No. 5 Oklahoma City Thunder (40-24):
It is fair to say that the Thunder have been the biggest surprise in the NBA this year. After trading away Paul George and franchise cornerstone Russell Westbrook, for Chris Paul who many speculated would never even see action for OKC, the Thunder have become an exciting young team with emerging star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to play in the backcourt alongside Paul. For the Jazz, let’s pretend all the coronavirus drama never happened, because in this scenario, it did not. Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley will have their hands full with Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander and Steven Adams, but experience will pay off, and the Jazz will once again find themselves superior to the most-hated team in Seattle.
Prediction: UTA wins 4-2