*All of the predictions were made prior to each series’ Game 1 tip-off*
Bucks (4) vs Magic (1):
· Decent, for Now: The Magic took Game 1 in surprising fashion behind a 35 point, 14 rebound performance by Nikola Vucevic. But that’s all Milwaukee gave them, as the Bucks won each of the next four games by double digits. The series showed some resiliency by the Bucks and will definitely boost their confidence. They didn’t hang their heads after a disappointing Game 1 performance, and instead took it upon themselves to simply execute better. Khris Middleton had a relatively average five games (15 ppg and 5 apg) and if the Bucks want to fulfill their championship aspirations, he needs to perform like the star sidekick to Giannis that he is.
· Low Expectations, Low Results: The Magic weren’t expected to do much during the playoffs. Maybe steal a game or two off the top ranked Bucks, but nothing more. The loss of their best player Aaron Gordon to a hamstring injury definitely didn’t help their chances of gaining anything more from this first round matchup. Hopefully Markelle Fultz can continue to develop and accompany Gordon in another playoff appearance next season.
Pacers (0) vs Heat (4):
Scary Sight: The Heat have a loaded roster with everything needed in a championship roster. An experienced coach (Erik Spoelstra), veteran leaders (Jimmy Butler and Andre Iguodala), a strong center (Bam Adebayo), a 3 point specialist (Duncan Robinson), a savvy point guard (Goran Dragic), and many other solid playmakers (Tyler Herro and Jae Crowder). They swept a solid Pacers team that could have easily made it to the next round if it weren’t for their tough luck matching up with the Heat. Miami seems to be clicking at the perfect time and could give the Bucks serious issues.
· Not Quite: The Pacers have the definition of an above-average team. Malcolm Brogdon, Victor Oladipo, and Domantas Sabonis are all well-respected in the basketball community. T.J. Warren played fantastic in the bubble and will look to build on his success next season. Jeremy Lamb and Myles Turner are solid role players. Similar to the Blazers who I discuss later in the post, they just need something to take them to that next level. At this point it is unclear what that could pertain.
The Heat pose an interesting challenge for the top seeded Milwaukee Bucks. Bam Adebayo is an awesome defender and can take care of the paint to *try* and help alleviate the threat of Giannis driving. The Bucks are a very tall team and tough to break down defensively, but one weakness is their inability to guard the 3 point line. It is their Achilles heel that the Heat have the perfect personnel to attack. Duncan Robinson is a sharpshooting specialist while Tyler Herro and Jimmy Butler both can shoot with high success. Ultimately, I see the Bucks winning the series because of an improved Middleton from the first round and the presence of a hungry Greek Freak in pursuit of NBA records.
Bucks in 6
Celtics (4) vs Sixers (0):
· Extension of “The Process”: In a deciding year for the franchise, the Sixers fell short of making the ECF once again. Ouch. Ben Simmons’ injury proved that the team does not have enough firepower behind their two stars to compete with the elite teams
of the league. The decisions to let Jimmy Butler walk and select Markelle Fultz over Jayson Tatum created a very top-heavy team. They must look for reinforcements in the offseason in the form of free agent signings, while also signing a knowledgeable coach, to avoid another embarrassment.
· Greening at the Right Time: Jayson Tatum. Jaylen Brown. Who else? Oh, yeah, I guess having Kemba Walker is alright. We all know the star power the Celtics possess, but it was just a matter of “will they all click when it matters?” A depleted Sixers team could be the ultimate confidence boost the Celtics needed to ride the momentum into the Finals.
Raptors (4) vs Nets (0):
· There’s always next year: Many could see this coming from a mile away. Some thought the Nets would be able to steal a game or two off the Raptors, but Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, and company were just simply overmatched. Unlike the Sixers, the Nets have no reason to feel disappointed. Coming into the bubble, the squad had no expectations other than to develop young talent, gain valuable experience, and assess the roster for next year. Adding Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to a solid supporting cast will result in a title contending franchise next year, so this sweep will be swept under the rug in Brooklyn.
· Encouraging: The sweep will definitely feel good for the Raptors, but they aren’t going to dwell too much on the victory. Just another day at the office. The defending champs have title aspirations, and escaping the first round isn’t enough. After being overlooked by many in the offseason due to the loss of Kawhi Leonard, the team proved in the regular season that they haven’t missed a beat. The dependable core of Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell will look to become one of the most unforeseen back-to-back champions in NBA history.
This ECF SF has all the makings of a classic, similar to last year’s Raptors-Sixers thriller. Multiple All-Star-caliber players on both teams, two elite defenses (2 of the top 4 teams in defensive rating for the regular season), and two elite coaches. I can already smell a 7 game series coming out of this matchup, with the only difference being the Raptors’ crunch-time experience and hunger to prove doubters wrong.
Raptors in 7
Lakers (4) vs Blazers (1):
· Title or Bust: Anthony Davis averaged (about) 30 points and 10 rebounds in the 5 game series. LeBron averaged 27 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists. The size, strength, and finesse that these two play with is going to be EXTREMELY hard for any time to match up against. Both can either punish you inside or stretch their game by taking high percentage 3 point shots. The Lakers seemed to find their stride offensive after struggling to hit shots early in the series, and it will be interesting to see if they have another slow start after having an extended period of rest after playing only 1 game in the past 10 days. As you’ll see in my prediction, it really shouldn’t matter…
· Time Keeps Ticking: More frustration for the Blazers in the playoffs. The team has failed to make it out of the first round 3 of the past 4 seasons (granted, they made the WCF last year *just to get swept*). The Blazers have all the makings of being a title contending team but never seem to reach their full potential. They scraped their way into the 8th seed, despite having two stars in the backcourt. Carmelo was a great acquisition to complement Lillard and McCollum, while the tandem of Whiteside and Nurkic provide great length for the team down low. The talent is there but, similar to the Raptors before the bold signing of Kawhi Leonard, it looks like the Blazers will only continue to be a playoff team and sadly nothing more.
Houston (4) vs OKC (3):
· First, can we just appreciate how exciting these games have been? Day after day there have been some crazy plays and endings to games. As I said last blog, don’t take them for granted! Anyway, the Game 7 win or go home matchup concluded with a block from James Harden and a frantic final few seconds for Luguentz Dort. Watching live, I could not imagine being a Thunder fan and seeing Dort attempt to throw the ball of Harden instead of putting up a shot.
· Something to Prove: Some people have criticized the Rockets for drawing out this series to 7 games. However, the Thunder are a very solid team who play with a sense of togetherness and led by a true leader in Chris Paul. The first 4 games without Westbrook, the squads split the games 2 apiece. They’d obviously have loved to have been in a better position before Westbrook was back healthy, but they ended the series 2-1 with him. The real issue I have with the series going seven games is the amount of rest for the Rockets, which I’ll cover in the prediction. The Rockets came into the playoffs trying to prove that “small ball” can succeed against any competition and compete at the highest level. Going seven with a strong Thunder team doesn’t denounce that proposition (but a series with the Lakers definitely will).
· 0.2%: The Thunder pulled off a miracle by simply making the playoffs this season. Prior to the first tipoff, ESPN gave them a 0.2% chance to qualify for the postseason! Oklahoma City not only made the playoffs, but they finished the regular season as the #5 seed in a stacked Western Conference. Now it’s not like they were satisfied with proving everyone wrong and just playing in the playoffs, as everyone knew they had a legitimate shot to knock off the Rockets and proceed to the WC semi-finals. The players gave it all they got, and the series literally came down to the last second. Although they will always think of the “what-ifs” involving that last play, the Thunder should be proud of the valiant effort they put forth.
Yeah ummm… This is going to be bad to watch for the neutral. Now don’t get it twisted, I’m not completely against going with a smaller lineup; I believe there are specific teams/systems who can pull it off (Rockets included). This is no diss to them. But the Lakers are THE WORST matchup for Houston. Simply put, Mike D’Antoni is going to have his hands full trying to guard the athletic 6′ 10″ Davis, shrewd 6′ 9″ James, 7’0” center JaVale McGee, and 6’11” substitute Dwight Howard. Los Angeles could literally just pound the paint all 4 games and make quick work of the Rockets.
Who is going to guard the height and strength the Lakers have, 35 year-old P.J. Tucker? D’Antoni will have to look to double-team on mismatches and force the ball outside to (try) and force Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to win the game for Los Angeles. Now the Rockets, on their day, can score at will. They are going to have to be clicking offensively every game to offset the scoring of the Lakers at the other end. If anyone is capable of pulling off such a feat, it’d be the team with two superstars and the team who take an absurd amount of 3 point attempts.
Lakers in 5
Denver (4) vs Utah (3):
· Amazing: Unlike most first round matchups, I will remember this series forever. Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray put on a show becoming the only pair of opposing players to score 50+ points in the same playoff game (Game 4). They each put up 50+ points in two (2!!) of the seven games. It felt like Murray and Mitchell were unguardable for the opposing team and the series (once again) came down to the final play. In a matter of seconds, the Nuggets went from looking poised to advance to the WC semis to being grateful they were not upset by the 6 seeded Jazz. Mitchell turned the ball over with 10s left on the clock, leading to Jerami Grant deciding to (try) and score an easy layup to ice the series once and for all at the other end. Grant missed a wide open look and gave the Jazz one last chance to save their season. Gobert characteristically protected the rebound and pushed the ball up to Mike Conley who rimmed out a 3 point attempt that would have booked the Jazz a matchup with the Clippers. Again, all in 10 seconds of play.
· Pay the Man: Reports came out that the Jazz are open to giving Mitchell a max contract extension in October when NBA free-agency begins. As they should. The Jazz haven’t made the finals since the 1997-1998 season with the legend John Stockton as their point guard. When a player like Mitchell comes around, it is imperative you keep him long term. The upper management can build around Mitchell and Gobert and possibly bring extended success to the state of Utah. Earlier this year Mitchell was “extremely frustrated” with his partner in crime for being irresponsible in his actions regarding the coronavirus. After an impressive showing against the Nuggets, Utah must give Mitchell the lucrative deal he deserves.
Here to Stay: The Nuggets have built a winning culture that will make them a powerhouse for years and an attractive landing spot for upcoming free agents. Coach Mike Malone has impressively increased his winning percentage with Denver each of his first four seasons. The team has finished as the 2nd and 3rd seed respectively the past two seasons in a LOADED Western Conference. But what separates the Nuggets from the rest of the teams is their ability to leverage their assets, select well in the draft, and invest in youth players. They absolutely stole Nikola Jokic with the 41st pick in the 2014 NBA draft and nailed the 7th selection of the 2016 draft by taking Jamal Murray out of Kentucky. Both Murray and Jokic have developed into a lethal guard-center duo that can be the cornerstone for a title winning team. Michael Porter Jr. was the #1 ranked high school player in the class of 2017 but fell to 14th overall in the 2018 draft due to injury concerns about his back. After sitting out his first season with the Nuggets, he bounced back and ended this season with a bang by making it on the “All Bubble” second team. All Porter Jr. has to be is a complementary piece to Murray and Jokic to propel this team even further, something the former #1 ranked player is more than capable enough of becoming. Bol Bol and Monte Morris also have the potential to contribute to the growth of the team. They have a good chance to upset the Clippers in the next round, but even if they come up short, the Nuggets will be back.
Clippers (4) vs Mavs (2):
· Wake Up Call: The Clippers got the result they wanted and at 4-2 it doesn’t seem too bad at face value. Paul George struggled at times and in the two games the Mavs won, the six-time All-Star had 14 and 9 points respectively. He is expected to heavily contribute to the Clippers success right now, which is a fair expectation considering he gets to play alongside Leonard and a strong supporting cast. This can easily be the Clippers’ year to finally get a championship, but it will require a better effort than showed against the Mavs. If they give away 2 games to the Nuggets like this, the series might end up with a different result.
21: Luka Doncic is the only NBA player to ever have over 20 triple-doubles at age 21. He is the next basketball superstar that will (scarily) only be getting better. His success shouldn’t really come as a surprise as he’s been playing in the very competitive EuroLeague since the age of 16 against grown men. Doncic was named the Most Valuable Player of the EuroLeague at only 19 years of age! Although he is not due for a contract like Mitchell, Mark Cuban must keep Doncic (and Porzingis) for the foreseeable future. If this happens, the Mavs will be in the playoffs every season with a chance at a championship.
Both of these teams are really solid, but the Clippers are just suited to win now. The Nuggets are only getting one day of rest before their Game 1 matchup while the Clippers have had three days to recover. I don’t see anybody on Denver being able to guard Leonard. We should see the highly anticipated Lakers vs Clippers Western Conference Finals, and it seems like it’s only a matter of time now.
Clippers in 6