THE 2020 NBA PLAYOFFS ARE HERE!! Holy cow — we made it. If we are being honest, most of us never truly expected to get here. Not back in March when Rudy Gobert happened, and not in the long, agonizing months between. But credit the NBA for an outstanding Orlando bubble plan. The players and teams are ready, and we’re actually getting a 2020 NBA playoffs!
With the games all spaced out for maximum TV coverage, we’ve got NBA playoff basketball from lunchtime to bedtime for the next two weeks of first round action. Let’s preview all eight series and rank them in order of intrigue, then make some playoff picks and watch the games…
TIER IV — YEAHHHH… NO.
8. Milwaukee Bucks (1) vs (8) Orlando Magic
Listen, I don’t want to waste your time.
There’s nothing here for us. The Magic stink. They had no chance in this series and that was before Jonathan Isaac went out for the season, and now Aaron Gordon is nursing a sore hamstring too. There’s no Orlando angle here. I will be surprised if any game is within single digits.
We’re about to have 11 hours of NBA playoffs for nine straight days, so thank the NBA for giving us a break. And it’s nine days because the tenth day would be Game 5 of this series, and we ain’t getting a Game 5.
The pick: Bucks in 4
7. Toronto Raptors (2) vs (7) Brooklyn Nets
This series should be much more entertaining than Bucks-Magic in that it may actually be worth watching, but that doesn’t mean it will be much closer.
Think of a Brooklyn player you know. Got it? Great, he’s out for the playoffs. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan, Spencer Dinwiddie, Taurean Prince, Wilson Chandler, all out.
With all those names, you’d think Brooklyn would be left for dead, but Jacque Vaughn has this team playing great ball. Caris LeVert had a bubble breakout and the Nets are a fun team of no-names. In many ways, they’re Toronto Lite.
But “lite” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in this case. Toronto is a decadent Portillo’s chocolate cake complete with all the fixins and a side of ice cream. Brooklyn is a saltine cracker.
The Nets will fight hard, and the Raptors love to lose a playoff Game 1 as the favorite. But that was old Toronto, and this team has the heart of a champion. Their defense is so tough, and I think they set the tone early.
The pick: Raptors in 4
TIER III — CLOSE GAMES, NOT CLOSE SERIES
6. Indiana Pacers (4) vs (5) Miami Heat
Don’t be thrown by the seedings here. Miami and Indiana split a pair of games last week, and the Pacers win on Friday clinched a meaningless 4-seed, but Miami is the much better team right now.
The Pacers are not whole. Domantas Sabonis is a huge miss, and Victor Oladipo has never looked healthy this season. T.J. Warren had an awesome bubble week but is struggling through plantar fasciitis. The Pacers are a classic try-hard-and-get-the-most-out-of-your-roster team, and those teams typically don’t have an extra playoff gear.
I’m not sure Miami has an extra gear either, it’s just that they’re already in a higher gear than Indiana. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo will be the two best players in the series, and Butler takes away any possibility of another red hot shooting display by Warren while Bam is going to give Myles Turner all sorts of problems.
Miami won this season series 3–1 and didn’t try in the one, and this is just a bad matchup for Indiana. They’re going to lose the 3>2 equation big time with all of Miami’s shooters, and I just don’t see the Pacers finding enough scoring to keep up. This feels like a gritty series with lots of “close” games without ever being particularly threatening.
The pick: Heat in 5
5. Denver Nuggets (3) vs (6) Utah Jazz
I want to get excited about this series. It’s maybe the least predictable of the first round, and it could be our best bet for a seven-game series. But I’m just not that into it. Like Miami-Indiana, I don’t see the winner actually mattering here. Either winner will get steamrolled in the next round (yes, even if Dallas upsets the Clippers), so who really cares?
The big problem here is the health for both teams. Denver is still missing Gary Harris and Will Barton. Both are out to start the series, and neither has played since March. Utah is already missing Bojan Bogdanovic for the season, and now Mike Conley has left the bubble for the birth of his son (to be clear: the only choice) so I don’t expect him here for the first three games.
Utah traded defense for offense this season, swapping Derrick Favors and Ricky Rubio for Bojan and Conley. Now they don’t have that offense anyway, and the defense has fallen too. Utah is absolutely the worst team in the West playoffs. Honestly, Denver might be next.
The Nuggets might not be. Offensively, the Nuggets could have the best three players on the court some games this series. Utah will rely way too much on Donovan Mitchell, and he hasn’t developed as much as I’d have hoped. Mitchell has to be better than Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. every game for Utah to have a real chance.
I don’t believe in Denver. I don’t want to watch Utah. I’m not excited for this series. But it’s 2020, so watch this be the only competitive first-round series.
The pick: Nuggets in 6
4. Boston Celtics (3) vs (6) Philadelphia 76ers
This was supposed to be a super awesome second-round matchup, but Philly just never got there. This is my shocked face.
This Philadelphia roster never made sense. Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, and Al Horford are all best utilized at the same two big man positions. Simmons is out injured now, so I guess that’s one way to lighten the logjam. Josh Richardson has been really disappointing in Philly, and this team is so light on depth and shooting.
I’m very worried about Kemba Walker, and not just in this series. I’m not sure he’ll score well against Philly’s size, and I’m a little worried about that nagging injury. When tiny point guards on the wrong side of 30 hit that first key injury, they almost never come back.
Still, I think Boston is really good, even better than people are giving them credit for. They’ve been over reliant on their top six men, but if those guys stay healthy in the playoffs with shorter rotations, that suddenly means more playing time for those six. Boston has more scoring options and feisty wing defense than any team in the East, even including Milwaukee. They can handle any matchup and score any number of ways.
So what’s the intrigue here? The one matchup Boston may not have an answer for is the one staring them in the face: the monstrous Joel Embiid in the post. We all know what Embiid can be. He can put up 35/15/5 and look like an MVP… for like 10 games a season. He’s going to need four of them for Philly to win this series. Embiid is the most talented player in the series, and this team runs through him with Simmons out. Boston is small, and though Daniel Theis has been good this season, he has no chance here.
If Embiid is the player he and everyone on the internet claims him to be, Philly should stay in this series. But I believe in Brad Stevens finding an Embiid solution, and I’m not sure Philly has a backup plan. Honestly, I think I’d just let Embiid do his best in the post and see if he can do it all on his own, because I don’t believe he can.
But any time you might have the best player in a series, you have a chance.
The pick: Celtics in 6
TIER II — WILL EITHER L.A. TEAM STRUGGLE?
3. Los Angeles Lakers (1) vs (8) Portland Trail Blazers
On paper, this shouldn’t be a particularly interesting series. LeBron almost always sweeps first-round opponents, and the best version of the Lakers should have their way with this horrible Blazers defense.
But are we getting the best version of the Lakers? That’s the intrigue here.
We already know what Portland is. Damian Lillard is molten lava, and the Lakers don’t really have a perimeter defender that can stick with him. Jusuf Nurkic is really good. C.J. McCollum, Carmelo Anthony, and Gary Trent can get hot and hit open jumpers. Portland’s defense is bad, so they’re hoping to just outscore you. And even as hot as they same, they’re barely squeaking by pretty average teams.
The regular season Lakers — the ones from six months ago — would thrash these Blazers. Nurkic has no chance against Anthony Davis, and Brow should be a serious problem for Dame switching on the pick-and-roll too.
But the bubble Lakers were… not great? Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo were not particularly good but their absence means playing time for even worse players. Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee have been awful. Danny Green has looked washed all season. And, most importantly, LeBron James has looked old, out of shape, and disinterested.
Was LeBron just playing possum, and now he flips the switch? Is there a nagging injury, or just mortality finally catching up? How quickly will the Lakers move Davis to center? That’s the finishing move here and the best version of these Lakers, but Brow thinks he’s a four.
The Blazers aren’t going to win this series. But I’m interested anyway because we are going to learn a lot about the Lakers’ chances the rest of the way. If they come out and take care of business, all signs go. But if the Blazers manage to steal a game or two, I am seriously worried about the Lakers going forward.
The pick: Lakers in 6
2. Los Angeles Clippers (2) vs (7) Dallas Mavericks
As we waited months and months for playoff basketball, the Mavericks were the sleeper team I locked onto. Luka Doncic is already one of the five best players in basketball — yeah, I said it — and he’s still getting better. I wondered if he would hit another level after the “offseason” and in the playoffs, and I still think that’s possible. He has Best Player in the Series potential, even in this series. Kristaps Porzingis also leapt to stardom in the final weeks before the break and has continued his leap in the bubble. This team is the future.
But in the present, they have a nightmare matchup. And not just because the Clippers are very good, but because the Clippers are the exact wrong team for Dallas to face. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are going to torment Doncic in his playoff debut, and Porzingis can’t do enough on his own, like any big man. Dallas is missing much of its depth, and it’s all role players outside of those two guys too. The Clippers know they own this series once they neutralize Luka, and I’m just not sure he has a counter punch to all that length and D.
I’m going to watch closely anyway for similar reasons as the Lakers. The Clippers are shorthanded right now with Patrick Beverley and Landry Shamet out, and Montrezl Harrell is expected to play but hasn’t played NBA ball since March. The on-paper Clippers are still a matchup nightmare against every other great team — but we’ve have yet to see them at full strength. We got like seven such games in the regular season but even then it wasn’t full strength because Paul George never looked like 2019 PG until the bubble. He’s fully back now, but this team still hasn’t really found itself yet.
If this series goes long, it could just be that L.A. is still load managing a bit and that they’re missing their depth and rounding into shape. Or it could mean Doncic takes another step and flashes that Future MVP ability — he will run these playoffs someday. It could also mean the Clippers still haven’t quite pulled everything together.
Dallas is genuinely really good. I think they’re third best in the West after the Los Angeles teams, and I would consider them in a series against any team outside the big three. If the Clippers comes out and take care of business in four or five, even with the matchup in their favor, they become a heavy title favorite for me.
The pick: Clippers in 5
TIER I — LITERALLY NO IDEA WHAT TO EXPECT
1. Oklahoma City Thunder (4) vs (5) Houston Rockets
This series stands alone as the most interesting to me and the one I genuinely can’t make up my mind about. I’m annoyed the Thunder and Rockets are playing each other, only because it left us that annoying Nuggets-Jazz series I’m not interested and sets up a boring second-round matchup.
I don’t believe in Denver or Utah — but I do believe in both of these teams. I would’ve liked either one of them to put a real scare into either L.A. team, and I’ll always back James Harden or Chris Paul with everything on the line.
Harden and CP3 will make this series enjoyable while at times unwatchable. There’s no disputing that. We’re going to get a lot of Harden, too. Russell Westbrook is typically a quick healer, but he relies on explosive athleticism for 90% of what he does, and we’ll see how fast he returns from that strained quad.
I’m not positive Houston is much worse without him in this series. Less Westbrook means more Harden, and bubble Harden looks rested and fit. He was my runner-up Bubble MVP behind Dame, and he is much more engaged on defense too. Every possession will be a Harden drive or step-back, or a dish to an open shooter.
Steven Adams is the pivot player in this series for me. On the one hand, Houston’s biggest player is 6'8 in shoes, so Adams could dominate the paint and the glass. On the other hand, there’s a very real chance Harden plays Steven Adams right off the floor. He’s going to attack Adams viciously in the pick-and-roll, and I think it could get ugly. If Harden can put Rudy Gobert out of the playoffs, what will he do to Adams?
Part of why I believe in OKC is because their best five is so strong. Chris Paul almost always has that extra gear in the playoffs (while he stays healthy, knock on wood), and the lineup with him, SGA, Schroder, Gallinari, and Adams is a strong, balanced team that’s been Mario-star invincible in crunch time. But as strong as those five are, the rest of the Thunder roster is unreliable. If Oklahoma City can’t use Adams or Nerlens Noel, then what? And who is going to guard Harden? No one in that five, I’ll tell you that much. Luguentz Dort? Please.
Houston has the best player in this series, but how many Thunder players would you take next before another Rocket, until Westbrook proves he’s healthy? And is one star really enough to beat five really good players?
When that star is a rested and healthy James Harden, he just might be.
I could see almost any outcome in this series, depending on how the matchups play out. Houston or OKC in five? I buy it. A deep series that goes seven? I hope so.
In the end, I can’t find an answer for Harden. Houston is going to be really tough to beat in seven games, as always. Two huge Harden games, one 3>2 victory, and they only need one more. They’re a danger to any team.
The pick: Rockets in 6
2020 PLAYOFF PICKS
The East has two series that matter. Boston-Toronto is the key. I like Toronto better against Milwaukee because of their defense, but I like Boston better against Toronto because of their scoring options and their transition defense. I believe the Raps could beat the Bucks again. I’m not sure the Celtics can.
I’m not sure the Clippers are actually the most likely champion. But put this team as is right now in any seven-game series against any team and I just can’t pick against them. All those elite wings are the winner in any matchup. I love the Clips against the Mavs or Rockets. They’re the perfect antidote to Harden or Doncic. They have a ton of options to throw at Giannis and Middleton too.
In the end, I think Milwaukee loses to Los Angeles… one of them. And the key to the entire playoffs might not be LeBron. I think it’s Anthony Davis.
Davis is supposed to be a superstar, as good as any player in the league on both ends of the court. Davis at center should ravage teams like the Blazers and Rockets. Davis is the one matchup the Clippers don’t have an answer to. And Davis is as equipped as anyone to guard Giannis. If the Lakers do win the title this year, it’s going to be because of Anthony Davis, not LeBron.
Your move, Brow… ■
Bucks over Magic in 4
Heat over Pacers in 5
Celtics over Sixers in 6
Raptors over Nets in 6
Lakers over Blazers in 6
Rockets over Thunder in 6
Nuggets over Jazz in 6
Clippers over Mavericks in 5
Bucks over Heat in 6
Celtics over Raptors in 6
Lakers over Rockets in 6
Clippers over Nuggets in 5
Bucks over Celtics in 6
Clippers over Lakers in 6
Clippers over Bucks in 6