Sam Smith give his first-round playoff predictions.
It's about to be a special time in American team sports. Monday starts what may be the best NBA basketball ever played…in August. OK, that joke is getting old fast. So here we are, as it were, bubbling with excitement as the NBA against some odds begins its 2020 playoffs.
They said it couldn't or wouldn't be done. But the NBA since it's apparent contraction of eight teams to a 22-team league aced the virus testing with zero cases. And while there was some initial complaints about the accommodations and cuisine, it's the first time in memory anyone went to Orlando and didn't complain about the heat, the lines and crying children. The NBA "bubble" became the happiest place on earth.
And now there are 16, as there probably should have been to start this adventure.
Not much really happened in the two and a half weeks the NBA went into direct competition with The Young and the Restless, not be be confused with the New Orleans Pelicans. They were the big disappointments in the so called seeding games as they were set up for at least the play-in tournament by an easy schedule. Portland squeaked in and took the last Western Conference playoff spot from Memphis. Zion Williamson wasn't in great shape, so the Pelicans fired Alvin Gentry.
That was the only sort of drama for the playoffs with the eight Eastern Conference teams basically set when all this started the end of July. The NBA decided to give the Wizards a shot, but Bradley Beal knew better and decided to stay home. The Wizards are now known as the Washington Basketball Team. Look away. They finally won a game at the end when everyone else apparently was fishing. But they were so bad they even ended the season behind the Bulls, who moved up to 11th from 12th without playing. Looks like Arturas may actually be a miracle worker.
There were some unfortunate injuries, Orlando's Jonathan Isaac, sadly, with an ACL and Ben Simmons with a somewhat less serious knee injury, but still requiring surgery to eliminate him. Embiid told him to shoot more. Then he went home. And so begins the All-Star trade speculation season. Time to break up Embiid and Simmons? The 76ers need shooters around Embiid. Who's interested?
T.J. Warren began to play well enough to earn a first name, the Raptors somehow kept winning and Giannis Antetokounmpo briefly lost his head when he apparently thought Moe Wagner's play was disrespectful to Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung, or Der Ring Des Nibelungen as Giannis knows it.
The Western Conference games were mostly a warmup for future preseasons and a tribute to James Naismith's original rules in which contact was not permitted. With most players having basically played only pop-a-shot since March, it continued into the games. Despite the NBA and TNT's welcome, the Pelicans didn't seem much interested in staying in Orlando and limited Zion's play. So they took enough early losses to begin a coaching search. The Suns were the surprise team going undefeated and very excited until the NBA said the previous 65 games counted. They're back at In 'n Out burger. Denver's Michael Porter Jr. basically began his NBA career and the Suns Devin Booker enhanced his. Since the NBA now gives more trophies than the average fifth place soccer team, they gave a Bubble MVP. Damian Lillard got it for his imitation of the Stephen Curry's no, no, no, good shot series of 40 footers. Lillard also made first team all-Bubble and supposedly was overwhelmed with emotion during the presentation. Kawhi Leonard relegated to second team stared. Which was similar to his previous first team reaction. James Harden cried foul.
And so almost 11 months after the start of 2019-20 NBA training camps, the NBA begins its 2020 playoffs. Here's a look at how the first round may go.
Milwaukee Bucks vs Orlando Magic
This is the year they are talking championship in Milwaukee. Making the Finals for the first time since 1974 would be a major step in that direction. Meanwhile, the context to all this is Giannis, who has one season left on his contract and then will have 20 teams explaining why he can live in nicer places than Milwaukee. Twenty-Two? Anyway, the pressure is on Giannis, about to be two-time MVP, to show he can be a "winner" after a conference finals collapse last year. And for the Bucks to show they have done enough to help him besides the lifetime supply of brats and chedder. The Bucks, like most locked in top teams, have basically been coasting, losing five of eight and distancing themselves from their usual rugged defense. They'll likely start to turn it up with the other top guys. Of course, Orlando was pushing all out and lost five of eight. The Magic, at least technically, are the only team with geographical home court advantage. It doesn't figure to help. Isaac's loss is devastating, at least personally. One big positive for the league is it will cost the least to send the Magic players home after four games.
Bucks in 4.
Toronto Raptors vs Brooklyn Nets
The Raptors continue to be the most quietly remarkable story in the NBA. You know, sort of like Canadians. C'mon, Pascal Siakam is their LeBron? Their Giannis? Their Harden? They were the rare team in Bubbleland that appeared to try to stop opponents. Mail these days being problematic and probably never getting the word to Canada, they may not know that we are pacing ourselves here in America. They actually came to Florida early knowing basically everybody in the US has Covid, so get it over with. The Nets without Durant and Kyrie, of course, and then Spencer Dinwiddle and DeAndre Jordan opting out were actually amazing. They were a shot away from sending home Portland, won five of eight and apparently told Caris LeVert those bodies in similar black jerseys were mirages and he shouldn't worry about passing the ball to them. Mission accomplished. The Nets basically have no chance and will be fortunate to win a game or two. Perhaps they can extend a bit so Jamal Crawford can come back after getting hamstrung five minutes into his first game.
Raptors in 5.
Boston Celtics vs Philadelphia 76ers
Ben Simmons going down and out for the playoffs probably ends the 76ers season in the first round. And who knows about Joel Embiid, out periodically in these games with ankle and hand injuries. If Embiid powers inside and decides he plays center, he could give the modestly sized Celtics some issues. But Joel likes the three and likely in and out of games the last few weeks hasn't found the conditioning he frustratingly rarely has. I always always pick him preseason for MVP and then have to explain, well, he could have if he felt like it. He rarely seems to and it seems like the 76ers are headed for lot of changes. Boston/Philadelphia really is the league's longest running rivalry from the Revolutionary days through Russell and Chamberlain, Bird and Doc and what should be a better series. The Celtics are looking somewhat Warriors like with Kemba Walker getting back healthier and that fancy Tatum, Hayward and Brown perimeter that was delayed a few years by Hayward's bad break. Without Simmons, the 76ers will need Al Horford to play like he was wearing green instead of feeling it.
Celtics in 5.
Indiana Pacers vs Miami Heat
These revenge face-offs in the NBA basically lack anything but media anticipation. Jimmy Butler taunted and challenged T.J. Warren late in the actual season and warned about next time. There actually was one last week and nothing much happened. But if you watched carefully—and I'm embarrassed to admit I did watch that one when I should have been marveling at how Zion is so highly regarded when he can't shoot, pass or dribble—Warren didn't much want to go at Jimmy. Jimmy defended him and wasn't very menacing, but he did hum the song he does in that beer commercial. It did seem to unnerve Warren. Jimmy now has called a truce so he can practice to become a Starbucks barista. The Pacers all of a sudden said something about Warren really having plantar fasciitis; no really. Jimmyitis? The Pacers won that final game with the Heat late last week to clinch home court and the extra video fans. Jimmy didn't play and has missed half the Heat's games with some foot injury, as if you'll ever get an actual injury update from the Heat. We assume he's good. Domantas Sabonis hasn't played at all due to plantar fasciitis, which may mean the Pacers need better shower shoes. Can you get it that way? Maybe they should wear masks. His absence as the Pacers All-Star with Victor Olidipo working back in is fatal. Though without Jimmy it's difficult to see how Miami finds 90 points. It just seems like they'll be a little bit tougher.
Heat in 7.
Los Angeles Lakers vs Portland Trailblazers
This messes up a lot of peoples' plans. LeBron no longer has a glide path to at least the conference finals, and TNT doesn't get LeBron vs Zion. Damned Dame! With the NBA now unsure who to blame, the Pelicans apparently are being asked to fire Alvin Gentry every week throughout the first round. It's also doubtful the Trailblazers will have the same motivation. The teams were housed in Disney properties by record with the six teams added to try for playoff spot in the lowest standard Disney properties. Portland players admitted they didn't know TV could be in black and white, though many said they enjoyed the safari musical mobiles that were hanging above their beds. Lillard, screaming he gets his own bathroom as he made his winning shots, was so good he drew the first seeding games box-and-one defense. The Trailblazers were enlivened with the returns of their injured centers, Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins, and Carmelo Anthony having time to learn the plays. Those four-month breaks are good for bad injuries. The Trailblazers had to push awfully hard to get there with almost all their games decided in the last minute. The Lakers have been cruising and relatively disinterested with first place clinched. If they win, we'll credit rest. If Portland wins, we'll credit activity. Second guessing never is wrong. The Lakers do seem to have an Achilles, though it was only a hand injury for Rondo. They were second lowest scoring "bubble" team with three games scoring fewer than 100 points, which could well pop LeBron's title bubble. He is serious about this seeing the chance for a short sprint title, but he can't score like the kids anymore and Anthony Davis has been erratic. The Lakers actually lead the bubble in erratic with J.R. Smith, Dwight Howard and Dion Waiters coming off the bench. How could that not be fun?Imagine that locker room. JaVale McGee is their rock. When the NBA shut down in March, the Lakers had a 20-game lead on ninth place Portland, then eight games below .500. So Portland's got the proverbial house money. Bet the house?
Lakers in 7.
Los Angeles Clippers vs Dallas Mavericks
If anyone's going to introduce defense to the games, it's going to be the Clippers with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Patrick Beverley when he can play after a calf issue and Montrezl Harrell, who missed the eight games and supposedly has been de-quarantined. Or playing in a Hazmat suit. Their best player the last few weeks was Ivica Zubac, and we didn't even know who he was. The Mavs don't stand much chance even if the league decides not to allow Zion to be traded to the Clippers just for the next three months. The Mavs were asked to announce they also may fire Alvin Gentry. Luka Doncic was big time all-bubble the last few weeks with all sorts of space to roam around. Not so much against the Clippers. Kristaps Porzingis towers over pretty much everyone, though he doesn't much care for the lane area. Plus the Mavs have this interesting habit of giving up a lot of late leads. But they are a team heading in the right direction. The Clippers appear to be heading to the Finals.
Clippers in 5.
Denver Nuggets vs Utah Jazz
It seems they always are playing one another. Or do we think so because they're both 1,000 miles from anyone else? It's tough to see the Jazz getting past this one. Their best shooter, Bogan Bogdanovic, was out injured. Mike Conley finally recovered, but went home for the birth of a child. He apparently forgot to get his hand stamped and may not be let back in Disney. We've heard enough about Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. But while all that was going on, the Nuggets found another guy, all-bubble Michael Porter Jr., who hasn't made them miss injured Will Barton and Gary Harris. Nikola Jokic probably will move around too much for Gobert. And as we know Mitchell never saw a shot he wouldn't take. It doesn't figure to be for too long.
Nuggets in 5.
Oklahoma City Thunder vs Houston Rockets.
This is everyone's first round upset, though both had the same record. So did the Jazz, who actually have mostly been losing in the playoffs to Houston. They avoided them. So what. This is being built up as Chris Paul's revenge, though no one thinks he's too mad at the Rockets for trading him since Houston gave him that $160 million contract, the most money per inch in NBA history. He'll make at least $40 million the next two seasons. And that's just from State Farm. The big one here is Russell Westbrook out at least for Game 1 with a quad injury. When they don't say much, it's not good. Eric Gordon's back, but he hasn't grown. The Rockets went all-small, dare-you-to-matchup when they sent Clint Capella to Atlanta. If it works, Pat Riley is calling his next book, Rebounds are for Losers. Losing Westbrook means James Harden is going to have to flop himself into 30 free throws to keep this going. It's not good news for Mike D'Antoni.
Thunder in 6.
And, as the Great One said, away we go.