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An NBA champion will be crowned for the 2019-20 season.
With 22 teams returning to play in late July, the 2020 postseason will run from mid-August to mid-October, finally providing a conclusion to a season that began nearly a full year earlier.
With eight regular-season games left to be played for each squad, there won’t be much time for teams to move up and down the standings or for franchises just outside the playoff picture to fight their way in. Home-court advantage will no longer play a factor, with all teams playing inside empty arenas as Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
Given the new changes and altered playing atmosphere, here’s how the playoff bracket could look and postseason predictions for all 15 series.
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1. Milwaukee Bucks
2. Toronto Raptors
3. Boston Celtics
4. Miami Heat
5. Philadelphia 76ers
6. Indiana Pacers
7. Orlando Magic
8. Brooklyn Nets
1. Los Angeles Lakers
2. Los Angeles Clippers
3. Denver Nuggets
4. Houston Rockets
6. Oklahoma City Thunder
7. Dallas Mavericks
8. Portland Trail Blazers
With most teams unlikely to move much from their current playoff spots, all eyes will be on the No. 8 seed in the West.
Now with a healthy Jusuf Nurkic (who was set to return from a leg injury on March 15) and Zach Collins, the Portland Trail Blazers will stay within four games of the Memphis Grizzlies to enter a play-in tournament—all while holding off the New Orleans Pelicans, San Antonio Spurs, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns for the ninth-best record in the conference.
Portland wins two games against the Grizzlies and the right to play the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round.
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1 Bucks vs. 8 Nets
With Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving officially not coming back this season, the Bucks should feast on the Nets in this opening-round matchup.
Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen are good enough to make for some competitive games, but the Bucks and their NBA-best record are ultimately too powerful on both ends of the ball.
Like the Bucks’ first-round series against the Detroit Pistons last season, expect a sweep. But also expect a much better Brooklyn team to challenge Milwaukee for the best team in the East next season.
Result: Bucks in 4
2 Raptors vs. 7 Magic
A repeat of last year’s opening round, the Raptors and Magic once again do battle while maintaining the same seeds.
Josh Robbins of The Athletic suspects that the Magic will be “ultra-cautious” and not play Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu when the season resumes. Isaac would be the Magic’s best chance at slowing down Pascal Siakam.
While the Magic stole the opening game from the Raptors last year, this Toronto squad is even better defensively from the team that won the title. If Orlando is without Isaac, expect a sweep.
Result: Raptors in 4
3 Celtics vs. 6 Pacers
Victor Oladipo was just starting to look like himself when the NBA went on hiatus, and the Pacers have more help around him than ever.
Indiana will look to dominate the paint with Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, meaning Jayson Tatum will be forced to defend one of the Pacers’ premier bigs if Boston goes with its traditional starting lineup.
While Indiana has the advantage inside, the Celtics have too much talent in the backcourt and on the wing. One of just three NBA teams to rank in the top five in both offensive and defensive rating, Boston should ultimately move on in what should be a competitive series.
Results: Celtics in 6
4 Heat vs. 5 Sixers
Two of the slower, more physical teams in the NBA, the Heat and Sixers will play the most entertaining first-round series of all.
Both teams were terrific at home this season and well below .500 on the road, so playing at a neutral site will ensure the best team will win.
The Sixers have the better overall roster, and Ben Simmons looks to have put on significant muscle the past few months. Joel Embiid could be a tough cover for the 6’9″ Bam Adebayo, and Al Horford brings the experience of 11 prior playoff trips despite his disappointing season.
Jimmy Butler should do his best to get into the heads of Simmons and Embiid, reminding them who carried the Sixers in the playoffs last year. While Miami could be considered the favorites, Philly is built for the postseason with its big, physical, slow-it-down style of play.
Result: Sixers in 7
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1 Lakers vs. 8 Blazers
Portland’s reward for storming back and grabbing the final seed in the West? LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Despite Damian Lillard believing his team can knock off L.A., James has never dropped a first-round matchup in 13 playoff trips, a streak that’s not ending this season, either.
With Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back, Lillard and CJ McCollum are good enough to make this a far more competitive series than we typically see between first and eighth seeds. Despite Portland’s newly healthy roster, James and the Lakers move on.
Result: Lakers in 6
2 Clippers vs. 7 Mavericks
The Clippers already possessed one of the best rosters in the league even before adding Marcus Morris Sr., Reggie Jackson and Joakim Noah, now making them perhaps the deepest as well.
While Dallas has the NBA’s best offense rating this season (115.8), this will be the first playoff trip for both Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Compare that to Paul George (76 games in eight years) and Kawhi Leonard (two-time NBA Finals MVP), and the experience between the two teams is pretty mismatched.
The Mavericks had a successful season even making the playoffs with their young stars, but the Clippers are just too good on both ends.
Results: Clippers in 4
3 Nuggets vs. 6 Thunder
The Thunder weren’t supposed to be this good after trading Paul George and Russell Westbrook, but Chris Paul’s first (and only?) fairy tale year in Oklahoma City has to end sometime.
Denver isn’t as good as its 43-22 record would indicate, ranking sixth in net rating in the Western Conference despite being No. 3 in the standings.
The reason the Nuggets move on? A now-skinny Nikola Jokic, who looks to be in the best shape of his five-year career.
Result: Nuggets in 7
4 Rockets vs. 5 Jazz
This would be a nightmare matchup for Utah given Houston’s new small-ball identity.
With no traditional center in their lineup, the Rockets may force Rudy Gobert off the court for stretches, taking away one of Utah’s greatest strengths.
The Jazz will also be without Bojan Bogdanovic, the team’s second-leading scorer who recently underwent surgery to repair a ruptured scapholunate ligament in his right wrist.
Houston knocks out Utah in five games for the third year in a row.
Result: Rockets in 5
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1 Bucks vs. 5 Sixers
Unlike most teams, the 76ers may have the individual defenders to slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Joel Embiid, Al Horford and even Ben Simmons can take turns guarding the reigning MVP, and Antetokounmpo shot just 47.8 percent overall and 15.8 percent on three-pointers in three games against Philly this year.
The Sixers need to turn this into a slugfest, forcing the Bucks to create offense in the half court while bullying them with Embiid on the offensive end. Milwaukee had the fastest pace of any NBA team this season (105.36), while Philly ranked 19th (99.36).
The Bucks can smother the Sixers on the three-point line with Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, George Hill and Eric Bledsoe, making points difficult for an already offensively challenged team.
The Sixers represent a far more difficult challenge than the Nets, but the Bucks are too good to bow out yet.
Result: Bucks in 6
2 Raptors vs. 3 Celtics
Battling for second place all season in the East behind the Bucks, the Celtics and Raptors represent the past and future of the conference.
Toronto has the advantage in the frontcourt, where Pascal Siakam should feast if Jayson Tatum or Enes Kanter is tasked with guarding him. Marc Gasol looks to be in great shape, and Serge Ibaka has played well all season with his free agency looming.
If Boston can weather the storm in the paint, it has a huge advantage in the backcourt.
Kyle Lowry turned 34 while the NBA went on hiatus and will have to defend one of the quickest guards in the league in Kemba Walker. Trying to guard 6’7″ Jaylen Brown won’t be easy for 6’1″ Fred VanVleet, and the Celtics have a stopper in Marcus Smart who can shut down either Lowry or VanVleet for stretches.
With Tatum taking the next step toward stardom, this series could cement him as one of the best forwards in the league. The C’s went 2-1 against the Raptors in the regular season and will take them down to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Result: Celtics in 7
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1 Lakers vs. 4 Rockets
Having three months off should do wonders for both LeBron James and James Harden, two of only six players in the NBA to have played at least 2,000 minutes with a usage rate of 30 percent or higher.
With Robert Covington, P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr., the Rockets have different options for trying to slow down James, while Harden and Russell Westbrook will be incredibly difficult covers for the Lakers guards.
While small ball may work in the first round against Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis is athletic enough on both ends to stay on the court. He’s agile enough to defend the perimeter, and using 6’6″ or 6’7″ forwards to try to guard him in the paint could turn into a disaster for Houston.
With Davis, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee, the Lakers have enough rim protectors to make life difficult for Harden and Westbrook at the basket, forcing them into more outside shots.
The Rockets have gotten incredibly cold from the three-point line in the past, and Davis is good enough to handle Houston’s small-ball style.
While the Jazz are a dream matchup for the Rockets, these Lakers are not.
Result: Lakers in 6
2 Clippers vs. 3 Nuggets
In this prediction, the Nuggets got by the Thunder in a close first-round series.
As good as OKC is, these Clippers are far better.
Nikola Jokic should have a monster series given his success against the Clippers during the regular season (20.5 points, 12.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 55.6 percent shooting in 28.3 minutes). Life won’t be quite as easy for Jamal Murray, as he should see a healthy dose of Patrick Beverley every night.
With Murray somewhat neutralized, Denver will need Paul Millsap, Michael Porter Jr. and Gary Harris to pick up the slack. Against two of the NBA’s best defensive forwards in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, that won’t be easy.
The Clippers had four players average at least 20 points per game against the Nuggets during the regular season (Leonard, George, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell), putting up 118 a night as a team.
As good as the Nuggets are, this series won’t be close.
Result: Clippers in 4
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1 Bucks vs. 3 Celtics
While the Bucks lead the Celtics by nearly 10 games in the East standings, this series won’t reflect that kind of disparity. Nor will it look like a repeat of the gentleman’s sweep Milwaukee handed Boston in the playoffs a year ago.
Milwaukee has maintained its hierarchy in the East, dominating opponents on both ends behind MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and a supporting cast that fits around him perfectly.
Boston is a completely different team from the last time it met Milwaukee in the playoffs, swapping Kyrie Irving for Kemba Walker while seeing massive improvements from Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward.
Whereas the Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors may struggle defending the Celtics’ plethora of wings, the Bucks are far better equipped.
In the end, the series will come down to the C’s limiting the effectiveness of Antetokounmpo, who torched them for 27.0 points, 15.5 rebounds and 6.0 assists on 54.3 percent shooting in a pair of meetings this season. Even Middleton went for 24.5 points on 64.3 percent shooting in the two games.
Tatum doesn’t have the size to defend Antetokounmpo, and using Daniel Theis raises the question of who guards Brook Lopez if the Celtics use their traditional starting five.
Boston is a team on the rise in the East, but it doesn’t have the necessary size to match Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.
Result: Bucks in 7
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1 Lakers vs. 2 Clippers
The battle of Los Angeles seems inevitable, as the Lakers and Clippers combine both star power and depth into two of the NBA’s best rosters.
The Clippers won the regular-season series 2-1, with Kawhi Leonard leading all scorers with 30.7 points per game.
Leonard is also considered the best in the league at defending LeBron James, using his combination of size and strength dating back to their Finals matchups in 2013 and 2014. James struggled during the regular season, averaging just 23.0 points on 38.3 percent shooting overall and 21.7 percent from three.
James doesn’t have to lead the Lakers in scoring with Anthony Davis around, but his efficiency and playmaking remain crucial to L.A.’s success.
Whoever James defends will likely struggle as well, given the 35-year-old has had three months to rest and typically saves his best defensive performances for the postseason.
Role players will also make a big difference in this series, be it Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell for the Clippers or Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma and Rajon Rondo for the Lakers.
This has all the makings of a seven-game series. Betting against James in such scenarios rarely works out, and Davis put up 26.3 points facing little resistance against the Clippers in the regular season.
The Lakers advance to the NBA Finals by the slightest of margins.
Results: Lakers in 7
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1 Bucks vs. 1 Lakers
The best regular-season teams meet each other in the NBA Finals, with the front-runners for MVP squaring off.
Besides this being a battle for league supremacy, it’s also a test to see who the NBA’s best player is. While Giannis Antetokounmpo looked like he had taken the title from James last season, the four-time MVP’s performance this year while leading the league in assists means he hasn’t surrendered his crown quite yet.
The teams split their two regular-season meetings, with Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis each averaging 33.0 points.
This may actually be an easier series for James on a personal level if Antetokounmpo is tasked with defending Davis. While Khris Middleton is an excellent defender, he’s not on the level of Kawhi Leonard. Middleton averaged just 13.5 points on 34.5 percent shooting against the Lakers this year, and the Bucks need his offense to complement Antetokounmpo’s given Eric Bledsoe’s previous playoff struggles.
The key for L.A. in the series will be the defensive play of Davis (and sometimes James) on Antetokounmpo. Davis is one of the few players with the size and athleticism to reasonably match up with the 6’11”, 242-pound power forward, and James has the strength to help limit his drives to the paint.
If together they can hold Antetokounmpo to a reasonable scoring total and force him into outside shots, the Lakers will become the 2020 NBA champions.
Result: Lakers in 6