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playoffs Questions

2020 NBA playoffs: 10 key questions ahead of Celtics-Heat Eastern Conference finals showdown – CBS Sports

The Boston Celtics squeaked by the Toronto Raptors in seven games to make it to the Eastern Conference finals, while the Miami Heat needed only five to take out the Milwaukee Bucks. Both teams are stingy and switchable defensively, and both get offense from a variety of sources. The third-seeded Celtics are widely considered the favorites, but the Heat are anything but a typical No. 5 seed. Here are 10 questions to preview the series, which begins on Tuesday:

1. Can the Celtics handle Miami’s zone?

Boston didn’t get past the Raptors on the strength of its offense, which looked particularly out of sorts against zone coverage. The box-and-one made it difficult for Kemba Walker to find his rhythm running pick-and-rolls and for Boston to generate shots that the same ways they usually do. Miami knows this, and it played more zone than any other team in the NBA this season. 

Maybe the second round prepared the Celtics for what’s coming. They were in problem-solving mode the entire time, and their coaching staff will make sure they won’t be surprised if the Heat start Game 1 in a 2-3 zone. It is also possible, though, that zoning up is simply an effective way to combat the best thing Boston does when it has possession of the ball: giving it to Walker and setting screens for him. 

One thing that might make a zone less tenable is having another playmaker and shooter in the lineup, which brings us to…

2. What’s up with Hayward?

Gordon Hayward went through a small group workout after practice on Monday and “looked good when he was going through it,” coach Brad Stevens said, “but there’s a big difference between doing that and actually getting into a game.” He won’t play in the opener, but if he is available after that and can approximate his play in the regular season, he can change the feel of the Celtics’ offense. 

Hayward had a usage rate of only 20.6 percent this season, but that drastically undersells his skills and how important he can be in a series like this. What makes Boston unique is that, at full strength, it can create matchup problems with four perimeter players, making it difficult for defenses to zero in on any of them or hide a weak defender. Hayward is equally comfortable creating plays for others as he is for himself, which cannot be said about Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown, so his presence naturally gives the offense more pop. 

3. How will the Celtics match up defensively?

The luxury of starting four multipositional defenders is that Stevens has all sorts of options. I’m most interested in who’s on Goran Dragic and who’s on Bam Adebayo at the beginning of Game 1.

First Team All-Defense guard Marcus Smart is the obvious choice to slow down Dragic, who was one of the league’s best reserves in the regular season and has been a phenomenal starter in the playoffs, an enormous driver of Miami’s success on offense. Tatum is an intriguing alternative, though, and might be able to disrupt Dragic’s rhythm with his length — he and Brown both spent a lot of time guarding Raptors guards Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet in the second round (and will presumably both draw Jimmy Butler duty).

Daniel Theis seems like the default matchup for Adebayo, but I’ll bet Boston gets creative at some point in the series. If Stevens experiments with Brown or even Smart on him, you can expect Adebayo to try to bully his way to the rim and get to the free throw line. In that scenario, though, the big man is often the one who gets called for the foul. Which brings us to…

4. Can the Celtics deal with the Bam stuff?

The Heat get an amazing amount of mileage out of Adebayo doing stuff that opposing teams don’t see too often. On offense he is a total weirdo, sort of a hybrid of Draymond Green and Domantas Sabonis, unconventional All-Stars in their own right, but with much more foot speed and explosiveness than either of them. 

Adebayo will push the ball off of defensive rebounds and find the Heat easy buckets off of dribble-handoffs. When he has the ball at the elbow, Miami confuses defenses the same way the Golden State Warriors did, with screens and cuts that often end with Adebayo earning an assist — and if he senses you’re playing him for the pass, he will happily attack the basket himself. Boston knows all about his chemistry with Duncan Robinson, and if it decides to hide Theis elsewhere, it is probably for the purposes of switching when the two of them are involved in an action.

5. Is matchup-hunting the answer against the Heat? 

The Celtics’ offensive approach might be completely different than it was in the second round. “Isolation is not the answer,” Stevens said two weeks ago, but it might be now. While the Heat can be a devastating defensive team, they have a few weak individual defenders in their rotation. The Indiana Pacers were at their best in the first round when they attacked Dragic, Robinson and Tyler Herro one-on-one. Miami can counter this by giving more minutes to Andre Iguodala and Derrick Jones Jr., but that would mean sacrificing spacing on the other end. 

Boston seems uniquely suited to exploit the Heat here, particularly when they are switching ball screens. In these playoffs the Celtics have been much more of a pick-and-roll team and have had little success in isolation, but championship contenders need to be able to play different ways against different opponents. This matchup makes me think of their second-round series two years ago, in which they repeatedly targeted the Philadelphia 76ers‘ J.J. Redick, Dario Saric, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova

6. Will the Heat stay this hot from deep?

Miami changed in a fundamental way when it replaced Meyers Leonard with Jae Crowder and got Herro back from injury. Before Crowder’s debut on Feb. 9, Miami was ninth in 3-point frequency and second in accuracy, per Cleaning The Glass. In the seeding games, with Herro healthy, only the Houston Rockets shot 3s more often, but its percentage fell to 35 percent, which is around league average. In the playoffs, the Heat have had the best of both worlds: 41.9 percent of their shots have been 3s and they have made 38.5 percent of them. Both marks rank fourth. 

Miami will be tough to stop if Crowder, a former Celtic, continues shooting 40 percent on 8.3 attempts per game. Boston’s opponents typically take a lot of 3s but make a low percentage of them; in the second round, Toronto shot 30 percent or worse in all four of its losses. 

7. Can Herro keep this up?

Herro has made 40 percent of his 3s in the playoffs, but that doesn’t tell the story. He is making them in crunch time, he is making them off the dribble and, more importantly, he has earned coach Erik Spoesltra’s trust as a playmaker. In a seeding game against the Phoenix Suns, he had 25 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds; in the clincher against the Bucks, he had 14 points, six assists and eight rebounds.

The Celtics, with their army of wing defenders, are Herro’s biggest challenge yet. I could see them trying to take him out by putting Smart on him.

8. Can Boston defend without fouling?

Butler got to the line nine times a game in the regular season, and that number has climbed to 10.7 in the playoffs. Dragic and Adebayo can wreak havoc this way, too, and the Heat led the league in free throw rate in the regular season (and are second in the playoffs). This is something to watch, especially because the Celtics were 24th in free throw rate defensively and are physical both on the perimeter and in the paint.

When Boston is foul-prone, the culprit is often Theis. Grant Williams, who closed out Game 7 against Toronto at center, also tends to pick up fouls on the inside. Which brings us to…

9. What is the Celtics’ frontcourt rotation?   

When Adebayo has been off the court, Miami has either had Kelly Olynyk in his place or gone without a big man. In this respect, Boston is less predictable — if Stevens wants vertical spacing and shot-blocking, he can call on Robert Williams; if he wants switchability and sound rotations, he can go with Grant Williams; if he wants offensive rebounding and post-up scoring, he can try Enes Kanter. I wouldn’t even be shocked to see Semi Ojeleye get some minutes at the 5 against Adebayo. 

Theis typically plays 25-30 minutes per game, but he got 47 in double-overtime in Game 6. If Stevens is looking for some offensive punch, he could go with Robert Williams or Kanter when Theis goes to the bench. They both leave Boston vulnerable against Miami’s pick-and-rolls, though, so I suspect there will be an opportunity here for Grant Williams or Ojeleye, both of whom are officially listed at 6-foot-6, to play “center.” 

10. How will Miami match up defensively?

If the Heat elect not to use a ton of zone, there are several smaller questions here: 

  • If Hayward is starting, where do Dragic and Robinson hide?
  • How will they use Adebayo?
  • How much switching will they do?
  • Who guards Tatum?

Boston might bring Hayward off the bench, at least at first, but if he starts (and is effective) then Miami might have to consider taking Robinson or Dragic out of the starting lineup for Iguodala. It makes sense to put Adebayo on Theis because he can switch Walker’s ball screens and otherwise roam around as a help defender, but if Tatum gets going, Spoelstra could throw Adebayo on him. 

After guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo, Crowder could draw the Tatum assignment. Butler, however, might be more suited for it. These matchups might not matter all that much, though, should Spoelstra decide to switch everything. 

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Eastern playoffs

NBA playoffs: Eastern and Western Conference first-round series preview – Yahoo Sports

With the regular season over, it’s time for business in the Orlando bubble.

The Portland Trail Blazers completed the NBA’s playoff bracket with their play-in win against the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday.

Now, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks, the LeBron-James led Los Angeles Lakers and Kawhi Leonard’s Los Angeles Clippers are among the teams vying for supremacy at Walt Disney World Resort.

With the postseason scheduled to start on Monday, we use STATS data to preview the first-round series.

Milwaukee Bucks (1) v Orlando Magic (8)” data-reactid=”28″ type=”text”>Milwaukee Bucks (1) v Orlando Magic (8)

Eyeing their first NBA championship since 1971, the Bucks head into the opening-round series struggling for form.

The Bucks, who went 52-8 from their first 60 games, recorded a 4-9 win-loss ratio from their last 13 fixtures – becoming the first team in NBA history to have more losses in their final 13 regular-season games than they did in the entire season prior to that.

Inside the bubble but in familiar surroundings, the Magic have the chance to snap a playoff drought, despite the odds being stacked against them.

Not since 2010 have the Magic won a playoff series. Orlando swept the Charlotte Bobcats and Atlanta Hawks en route to the Conference finals, before losing to the Boston Celtics. The Magic have since suffered first-round exits at the hands of the Hawks (2011), Indiana Pacers (2012) and Toronto Raptors (2019).

Defending champions the Raptors have form on their side in pursuit of back-to-back championships.

Toronto went 27-5 over their last 32 games, easily the best record in the NBA during that period – ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder (21-10), Los Angeles Clippers (20-10), Bucks (20-11) and Celtics (21-13).

Nets star Spencer Dinwiddie has been one of the most clutch players this season, making an NBA-high seven go-ahead baskets in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime.

Dinwiddie’s seven for 13 is better than the Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic (five), Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray of the Nuggets (both four).

The Celtics renew hostilities with rivals the 76ers, having won the past four series between the two teams – Philadelphia have not claimed a series against Boston in the playoffs since 1982.

Philadelphia’s hopes will rest on Joel Embiid in the absence of injured fellow All-Star Ben Simmons, who is the only player in NBA history to average 8.0-plus rebounds and 8.0-plus assists per game for his career.

The 76ers are 35-22 (.614 per cent) with Simmons in the team, while they are just 7-8 (.467 per cent) without the Australian star on the court. Philadelphia also allow more opposition points per game in his absence – 113.6 compared to 107.2.

All eyes will be on Indiana’s T.J. Warren, who averaged 31.0 points per game with a .664 effective field-goal percentage this month following the restart.

Since 1985-86, the players with 30.0-plus points and a .650-plus effective field-goal percentage in a month (minimum five game played) are Charles Barkley (1990), Stephen Curry (2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019), Antetokounmpo (2017 and 2019) and Karl Anthony-Towns (2019).

With Heat pair Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, Miami are the first NBA team to have two undrafted players averaging 13.0-plus points per game in the same season – minimum 70 per cent of team games played – since the Philadelphia Warriors in 1956-57 (Joe Graboski and Neil Johnston).

Los Angeles Lakers (1) v Portland Trail Blazers (8)” data-reactid=”48″ type=”text”>Los Angeles Lakers (1) v Portland Trail Blazers (8)

Making their first postseason appearance since 2013, the Lakers – who have a 74.6 per cent chance of winning this series using Stats Perform’s advanced simulation tool – are one of the favourites to go all the way thanks to James and Anthony Davis.

James and Davis have combined well in LA, where the former has supplied 184 assists for the All-Star recruit this season – the most to one player in 2019-20, ahead of Damian Lillard to Hassan Whiteside (132). Three-time champion and four-time MVP James is also the second-oldest player to average 10 assists or more in a season in NBA history, with Steve Nash averaging 10.0-plus assists in each of his final three campaigns.

This will be the second playoff meeting between James and Carmelo Anthony. James and the Heat eliminated Anthony and the New York Knicks in the first round in 2012. Both averaged 27.8 points in the series. James was the first overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, while Anthony was the third pick. Their matchups date back to high school, when LeBron was at St. Vincent St. Mary’s and Carmelo at Oak Hill Academy.

Portland’s go-to man Lillard leads the NBA in scoring inside the bubble at 37.6 per game, including the play-in clash. The Trail Blazers star is averaging 46.3 points in his past four games following a career-high 61 against the Dallas Mavericks earlier this month. He has contributed to Portland averaging a league-high 126.0 points per game at Walt Disney World Resort, while the Lakers have only managed 106.4 points per game – the second worst behind the Washington Wizards.

How about most points per game by team-mate duos? Lillard and CJ McCollum (52.2) are second to James Harden and Russell Westbrook (61.5) but ahead of third-placed James and Davis (51.4).

Can Leonard claim consecutive NBA titles after leading the Raptors to their first champion last season? Well it all begins against the Mavericks.

Leonard – the 2019 Finals MVP – averaged a career-high 27.1 points per game this season, while he averaged 30.5 during last year’s playoffs. The four-time All-Star has also averaged 31.0 points per game in three games against the Mavericks this term, with the Clippers sweeping the season series.

Led by Luka Doncic, the Mavericks boast the second-highest offensive rating ever – 113.7 – behind last year’s Golden State Warriors (113.9). The Clippers have a 111.1 rating, tied with the Trail Blazers for second this season.

Doncic is averaging 30.0 points, 10.1 assists and 9.7 rebounds in the bubble. The reigning Rookie of the Year also has three triple-doubles, including a 20-rebound triple-double.

A Jazz team boasting the likes of Joe Ingles and Mitchell are the best three-point shooting team at 38.0 per cent, though Utah went 2-5 in their last seven regular-season games – allowing 110-plus points per game.

Rudy Gobert is also one shy of 250 career double-doubles as the Jazz look to avenge their season sweep at the hands of the Nuggets, though each game was decided by six or fewer points.

The Nuggets made the Conference semi-finals last season, snapping a five-year playoff drought. Jovic will be key for Denver, having averaged 7.0 assists per game for a second successive season – the most by any center in the NBA.

It will be a reunion as Harden, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul face their former teams.

The Rockets have advanced to at least the second round of the playoffs in three straight seasons and their hopes will depend on the team’s starting five – their starters are averaging 89.1 points per game, the most in the league.

Former Thunder star Harden is also coming off his third consecutive season averaging 3

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First playoffs

2020 NBA Playoffs: First Round Matchups, Schedule – Sports Illustrated

The matchups for the First Round of the 2020 NBA playoffs are set. 

The seeding in each conference was determined after teams completed their final eight games of the regular season of the restart in Orlando, Fla. The Portland Trail Blazers claimed the last spot of the upcoming postseason after defeating the Memphis Grizzlies in a play-in game for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. 

Each series will be played every other day in the bubble with the traditional best-of-seven playoff format. The NBA Finals are currently scheduled to end no later than Oct. 13, though later rounds could be moved up based on previous outcomes. 

Here are the full NBA playoff matchups for the First Round and the schedule for each series. The First Round will begin on Monday, Aug. 17. 

Western Conference First Round Matchups

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 8 Portland Trail Blazers

  • Game 1: Aug. 18, Portland at Los Angeles, 9 p.m. EST, TNT
  • Game 2: Aug. 20, Portland at Los Angeles, 9 p.m. EST, ESPN
  • Game 3: Aug. 22, Los Angeles at Portland, 8:30 p.m. EST, ABC
  • Game 4: Aug. 24, Los Angeles at Portland, 9 p.m. EST, TNT
  • Game 5*: Aug. 26, Portland at Los Angeles, TBD, TBD
  • Game 6*: Aug. 28, Los Angeles at Portland, TBD, TBD
  • Game 7*: Aug. 30, Portland at Los Angeles, TBD, TBD

No. 2 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 7 Dallas Mavericks

  • Game 1: Aug. 17, Dallas at L.A., 9 p.m. EST, ESPN
  • Game 2: Aug. 19, Dallas at L.A., 9 p.m. EST, TNT
  • Game 3: Aug. 21, L.A. at Dallas, 9 p.m. EST, TNT
  • Game 4: Aug. 23, L.A. at Dallas, 3:30 p.m. EST, ABC
  • Game 5*: Aug. 25, Dallas at L.A., TBD, TBD
  • Game 6*: Aug. 27, L.A. at Dallas, TBD, ESPN
  • Game 7*: Aug. 29, Dallas at L.A., TBD, TNT

No. 3 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 6 Utah Jazz

  • Game 1: Aug 17, Utah at Denver, 1:30 p.m. EST, ESPN
  • Game 2: Aug. 19, Utah at Denver, 4 p.m. EST, TNT
  • Game 3: Aug. 21, Denver at Utah, 4 p.m. EST, TNT
  • Game 4: Aug. 23, Denver at Utah, 9 p.m. EST, TNT
  • Game 5*: Aug. 25, Utah at Denver, TBD, TBD
  • Game 6*: Aug. 27, Denver at Utah, TBD, ESPN
  • Game 7*: Aug. 29, Utah at Denver, TBD, TNT

No. 4 Houston Rockets vs. No. 5 Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Game 1: Aug. 18, Oklahoma City at Houston, 6:30 p.m. EST, TNT
  • Game 2: Aug. 20, Oklahoma City at Houston, 3:30 p.m. EST, ESPN
  • Game 3: Aug. 22, Houston at Oklahoma City, 6 p.m. EST, ESPN
  • Game 4: Aug. 24, Houston at Oklahoma City, 4 p.m. EST, TNT
  • Game 5*: Aug. 26, Oklahoma City at Houston, TBD, TBD
  • Game 6*: Aug. 28, Houston at Oklahoma City, TBD, TBD
  • Game 7*: Aug. 30, Oklahoma City at Houston, TBD, TBD​​​​​​

Eastern Conference First Round Matchups

No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 8 Orlando Magic

  • Game 1: Aug. 18, Orlando at Milwaukee, 1:30 p.m. EST, TNT
  • Game 2: Aug. 20, Orlando at Milwaukee, 6 p.m. EST, ESPN
  • Game 3: Aug. 22, Milwaukee at Orlando, 1 p.m. EST, TNT
  • Game 4: Aug. 24, Milwaukee at Orlando, 1:30 p.m. EST, NBATV
  • Game 5*: Aug. 26, Orlando at Milwaukee, TBD, TBD
  • Game 6*: Aug. 28, Milwaukee at Orlando, TBD, TBD
  • Game 7*: Aug. 30, Orlando at Milwaukee, TBD, TBD

No. 2 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 7 Brooklyn Nets

  • Game 1: Aug. 17, Brooklyn at Toronto, 4 p.m. EST, ESPN
  • Game 2: Aug. 19, Brooklyn at Toronto, 1:30 p.m. EST, NBATV
  • Game 3: Aug. 21, Toronto at Brooklyn, 1:30 p.m. EST, NBATV
  • Game 4: Aug. 23, Toronto at Brooklyn, 6:30 p.m. EST, TNT
  • Game 5*: Aug. 25, Brooklyn at Toronto, TBD, TBD
  • Game 6*: Aug. 27, Toronto at Brooklyn, TBD, ESPN
  • Game 7*: Aug. 29, Brooklyn at Toronto, TBD, TNT

No. 3 Boston Celtics vs. No. 6 Philadelphia 76ers

  • Game 1: Aug. 17, Philadelphia at Boston, 6:30 p.m. EST, ESPN
  • Game 2: Aug. 19, Philadelphia at Boston, 6:30 p.m. EST, TNT
  • Game 3: Aug. 21, Boston at Philadelphia, 6:30 p.m. EST, TNT
  • Game 4: Aug. 23, Boston at Philadelphia, 1 p.m. EST, ABC
  • Game 5*: Aug. 25, Philadelphia at Boston, TBD, TBD
  • Game 6*: Aug. 27, Boston at Philadelphia, TBD, ESPN
  • Game 7*: Aug. 29, Philadelphia at Boston, TBD, TNT

No. 4 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 5 Miami Heat

  • Game 1: Aug. 18, Miami at Indiana, 4 p.m. EST, TNT
  • Game 2: Aug. 20, Miami at Indiana, 1 p.m. EST, ESPN
  • Game 3: Aug. 22, Indiana at Miami, 3:30 p.m. EST, TNT
  • Game 4: Aug. 24, Indiana at Miami, 6:30 p.m. EST, TNT
  • Game 5*: Aug. 26, Miami at Indiana, TBD, TBD
  • Game 6*: Aug. 28, Indiana at Miami, TBD, TBD
  • Game 7*: Aug. 30, Miami at Indiana, TBD, TBD

* – If Necessary

TBD – To Be Determined

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Final playoffs

2020 NBA Playoffs: Final Seeding and Round-by-Round Predictions – Bleacher Report

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    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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    Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

    Eastern Conference

    1. Milwaukee Bucks

    2. Toronto Raptors

    3. Boston Celtics

    4. Miami Heat

    5. Philadelphia 76ers

    6. Indiana Pacers

    7. Orlando Magic

    8. Brooklyn Nets

    Western Conference

    1. Los Angeles Lakers

    2. Los Angeles Clippers

    3. Denver Nuggets

    4. Houston Rockets

    5.Utah Jazz

    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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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    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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    Kim Raff/Associated Press

    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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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    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

5 of 8

    Harry How/Getty Images

    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

6 of 8

    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    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

7 of 8

    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    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

8 of 8

    Harry How/Getty Images

    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

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playoffs version

What the new version of the NBA playoffs should look like – ESPN

2:08 PM ET

  • Zach LoweESPN Senior Writer

The NBA’s cleanest method of resuming its season is to bring the 16 current playoff teams to its designated “campus,” seed them as they are now — eight East, eight West — and play the NBA’s normal postseason.

Sticking to 16 limits the number of bodies, which cuts the chance of COVID-19 spreading. Forgoing the remainder of the regular season addresses that some players on current lottery teams may with good reason have little interest in a half-dozen meaningless games after three-plus months away.

(And let’s be clear up front: Participating should be a deeply personal decision for players, coaches, and staff. This is scary. Mortality rates from COVID-19 have been very low for younger people in good condition, but we still have a lot to learn about this virus — including what long-term effects it might have. Players may face an elevated injury risk returning to high-intensity playoff games. If someone does not want to attend, he or she should not be compelled to.)

The league needs to give teams outside the top 16 something real for which to play — the chance at a postseason spot, or perhaps even to improve their lottery odds through winning games (what a concept!).

The complaint you hear in league circles about such concepts — play-in tournaments, World Cup-style pool play — is that they are gimmicky, and too far from what fans and the keepers of the game consider legitimate proceedings. This season’s champion, should the season get that far, will already face the dreaded asterisk. As silly as that seems, the 1999 champion San Antonio Spurs still hear about it 21 years later because one highly decorated rival coach uttered the A-word. Introduce new structural contrivances, the thinking goes, and the asterisk brightens.

A brief aside: There are definitely unpleasant scenarios in which the asterisk is unavoidable. If one star among the consensus three best teams — the Milwaukee Bucks, and both Los Angeles teams — contracts the virus early, leading to the premature elimination of his team, the whole postseason might feel hollow. (Obviously, the NBA postseason feeling hollow is of zero importance in the grander scheme of life and the health of everyone involved.)

Injuries mar every postseason. The 2012 playoffs felt a little hollow the moment Derrick Rose, star of the No. 1-seeded Chicago Bulls, crumpled to the floor at the end of the very first game of those playoffs. The Golden State Warriors‘ demise in 2019 included two traumatic injuries. One ill-timed sprained ankle can derail years of planning.

Injuries are built into sports. Viruses are not. Sprained ankles can’t spread. They don’t threat your vital organs. This is different.

But there is some chance — maybe a big chance, maybe not — that isn’t being talked about as much of the asterisk working the other way. Whatever happens in this postseason, we will remember it forever. It may end up being a badge of honor to win the title in the year a pandemic upended our lives. The asterisk could stand as a marker of toughness and perseverance. Fans starved for entertainment may feel even more than usual as if they lived the champion’s journey right alongside players and coaches. If things go right, winning this title could be a unique source of pride.

But who should compete for it? The financial downside of taking the 16 playoff teams and going postseason-only is limiting the number of games. Every national TV game matters to the bottom line. Some teams can still fulfill their local TV deals. It’s callous, but it’s true.

The competitive downside of playoffs-only is robbing the New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, and San Antonio Spurs of their chance to catch the Memphis Grizzlies for the final Western Conference playoff spot.

(The Phoenix Suns are next at 26-39, but they are three games in the loss column behind the Spurs, Kings, and Pelicans, and had five road games to make up. I have to draw a line somewhere. I am uncomfortable with proposals giving all 30 teams some chance at the playoffs. What do you do with Golden State in that scenario, as they have already been mathematically eliminated? Do they play for lottery odds while everyone else chases the playoffs?)

The Spurs, Pelicans, Blazers, and Kings were all within four games of the Grizzlies when the NBA suspended the season — a nontrivial deficit. Memphis had by far the toughest remaining schedule among them. New Orleans had the easiest. Buoyed by Zion Williamson‘s return, some projection systems — including FiveThirtyEight’s — favored New Orleans to snag the No. 8 seed. The Spurs are sitting on a 22-year playoff streak.

Only one East team — the Washington Wizards — was within five games in the loss column of the No. 8 Orlando Magic, and Washington faced the conference’s toughest remaining schedule.

If the NBA really wants games atop the usual 16-team postseason, the optimal number of teams to bring back is 20: the locked-in eight-team playoff field in the East, and the top 12 Western Conference teams.

The most obvious idea from there is to hold a five-team play-in tournament for the No. 8 seed in the West. The Grizzlies might rightfully fight that, and perhaps clamor for some advantage in the play-in format.

So let’s get more radical. There is a giant chasm between the top six in the East, and the Nets and Magic. In the West, the drop-off comes after the current No. 7 seed — the Dallas Mavericks. Our group of 20 thus features 13 strong playoff teams, and seven sub.-500 outfits that are roughly alike.

Let’s toss those seven — Brooklyn, Orlando, Memphis, San Antonio, Sacramento, New Orleans, and Portland — into some crazy tournament for playoff spots 14, 15, and 16. Seven-for-three is cumbersome, but there are ways to do it. You could have all seven start on equal footing, and proceed in various round-robin fashions.

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Spencer Dinwiddie understands the unique situation the NBA is in for restarting the season and would be open to multiple options.

If you think the current playoff teams — Memphis, Brooklyn, and Orlando — deserve some advantage, you could have the Grizzlies and Nets face each other in a one-game winner-take-all for the No. 14 seed. The loser would then face the Magic in a one-game winner-take-all for No. 15. The loser of that would then face whoever comes out of some four-team tournament between Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, and San Antonio.

I’m not sure which of those is best, or right. That’s not the point. The point is you can do seven-for-three: a bunch of extra national TV games that will draw huge ratings.

The question then is how to seed the remaining 16 teams, particularly if the Nets or Magic (or both) fall out — leaving at least nine West teams, and just six or seven from the East. The cleanest move is to shift to a 1-16 seeding by record, regardless of conference — an idea that has been discussed at the highest levels, according to our Brian Windhorst and other sources.

Several East teams would balk at any sudden move to 1-16. (My best guess is the Nets and Magic would balk at this entire proposal.) East teams love their charity playoff spots and the gate revenue they bring. Some would view even a one-time-only shift to 1-16 seeding as opening Pandora’s box.

The Bucks might not love the idea of suddenly having to get by both the Clippers (in the semifinals) and Lakers (Finals). Other good East teams would say they constructed teams with an eye on conference rivals. Assistant coaches and video room wizards have spent their time preparing for potential first-round matchups within their conferences. Any midseason sea change would raise cries of Asterisk, Asterisk!

So let’s get really nuts: Keep the East/West format, but designate that ninth West team as the 8-seed in the “East” this season.

For most of the last half-decade, I have been tepidly in favor of the NBA shifting to 1-16 seeding regardless of conference — despite the logistical issues that render it impractical toward the point of impossibility.

East owners would never go for it, which, come on — get a backbone. Dare to peek beyond your base self-interest. (Also: You get a lottery pick if you miss the playoffs! You just made the lottery slightly more favorable to the “best” non-playoff teams! Have a cookie!) The travel issues are real. Even when flying private and staying at five-star hotels, crisscrossing time zones and arriving at 3 a.m. takes a toll. This is a blood issue for some coastal teams.

The 82-game schedule is imbalanced; teams play 52 games inside their conferences.

Most of those problems are at least semi-reparable in theory, which makes this a fun thought exercise. But the one consequence I’ve come back to more in the last year or so is the impact going 1-16 (and conference-less) would have on historical rivalries, and rivalries not yet born. A 1-16 system reduces the chances of the same teams facing off over and over in the playoffs.

Some within the league argue those repeated postseason matchups don’t feel the same today given how often players switch teams — that rivalries don’t harden if the cast of characters changes. More stars have left good playoff teams in the last half-decade than ever before. A star leaving can kill a rivalry, though (as just one example) Bucks-Raptors would have some juice even with Kawhi Leonard in L.A.

But broader NBA history says stars mostly stay a long while with good playoff teams.

So: What if the league applied what I just did with that extra West team in this season’s playoffs — inserting them as a temporary “East” team — in normal seasons to (almost) guarantee the teams with the 16 best records make the playoffs?

Example: The 46-win Denver Nuggets that missed the playoffs two seasons ago — on the last stinking night of the season — replace the 43-win Wizards as the No. 8 seed in the East. We get the 16 best teams and maintain the general East-West structure — and the rivalries it generates. Did we just thread the needle?

Alas, probably not. You run into travel issues right away. What if an East Coast team earns the No. 1 seed, and Portland is shoehorned into No. 8 in the East? It’s not fair to force the No. 1 seed into a 2-2-1-1-1 format that includes as many as four coast-to-coast trips. Through no fault of its own, the top seed in one conference could face a superior No. 8 seed than its fellow No. 1 across the bracket.

There are potential remedies, none of them all that appealing. The league could allow the No. 1 seed to pick its first-round opponent from among the other playoff teams in its conference and perhaps the two worst playoff teams from the opposite conference. That could foist cross-country travel onto the No. 2 seed, which seems unjust. If one top seed gets to pick its opponent, the top seed in the other conference might demand the same right. Incidentally, I have not heard a ton of support among teams for the pick-your-opponent concept.

Reverting to the 2-3-2 format even for just this specific first-round series would halve the number of potential coast-to-coast trips. The NBA could always return to five-game first-round series, though no one seemed eager even before the pandemic to slice away postseason gate receipts. You could get really nutty and give any No. 1 seed in this situation — facing unique cross-country travel early — an extra home game, though that seems harsh toward the underdog.

In some seasons, this would not be an issue. Both conferences have plenty of teams in the middle of the country. But in a lot of seasons, it would be a problem with no elegant solution. Rewarding the most deserving 16th playoff team probably isn’t worth this inconvenience.

For this standalone season, the seven-for-three play-in tournament — combined with this wacky seeding adjustment — could work.

It is a cousin of the World Cup-style pool play proposal that has generated a lot of discussion (and some eye-rolling) among teams. In brief, per several sources who have seen the league’s proposal: The NBA could take 20 (or 24) teams and divide them into groups — perhaps four groups of five in scenarios including 20 teams. The NBA would try to make each group a rough composite of the league at large: one elite team; two strong playoff teams; one lower-rung playoff team; one current lottery team.

Teams would play every member of their group at least twice. The top two teams from each group advance into the final eight, which then unfolds like a normal postseason with best-of-seven series. Teams would essentially advance from group play into the second round of the playoffs.

This would mitigate one worry several executives have about play-in tournaments: that they might give teams at the bottom of the playoff picture a head start ramping up toward game speed — and perhaps an early advantage when they face superior teams who have been in exhibition game/practice mode. I’m not sure how legitimate that concern is, but it’s out there, and the World Cup conceit addresses it.

Several teams have objected to the World Cup concept on the grounds that it makes it too easy for current lottery teams to “steal” a second-round playoff spot with one strong week of play (and/or one slump from a playoff team, or basketball gods forbid, one positive test to the wrong player).

There are some grounds to that gripe. It seems to be more about not rewarding sub-.500 teams than the current top seven protecting some huge advantage. Does Boston, for instance, have a better chance of advancing into the final eight via this theoretical pool play or by beating the Philadelphia 76ers — its first-round opponent if you freeze the standings — in a neutral-site seven-game series? Is Indiana better off taking its shot in pool play, or against Miami in a best-of-seven tilt?

The NBA could also weight group standings to give the best regular-season teams an edge. If a win in group play counts for a certain number of points in the standings, then perhaps the team in each group with the best regular-season record — or the top two teams — might start group play with a small points advantage. The NBA could even factor in point differential to make it harder for current non-playoff teams to escape group play.

At that point, we’ve veered far outside “normal” NBA basketball. Nothing is normal right now, but once you pile weighted point systems atop unfamiliar competition structures, you trend toward gimmickry — and raise questions about asterisks and legitimacy. All these formats require collective bargaining.

If the NBA is determined to bring back more than 16 teams — and if there is a will to come back among the players, coaches, and staff comprising those extra teams — some play-in tournament seems the most logical method. There is no version that will satisfy everyone.

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