*All of the predictions were made prior to each series’ Game 1 tip-off*
Raptors (3) vs Celtics (4):
· Proved everyone right: Fair and square, they were knocked out by the better team. The Raptors even caught a break when OG Anunoby hit a game-winning miracle shot to knock off the Celtics in Game 3. 6'0" Kyle Lowry had to inbound the ball over 7'5" Tacko Fall, while Anunoby had 0.5 seconds to catch and shoot. Without that shot, the Celtics would’ve been 3-0 up and the Raptors would’ve been going back to their hotel rooms and packing their bags. Many, including me, thought that was the wake up call for the Raptors and from there they would turn into the team we saw last year, despite missing their most valuable player. They took Game 4, but lost the 2 of the last 3 to get eliminated by a solid Celtics roster. It’s respectable to have went 7 games with the Celtics, but considering the Anunoby shot could have easily rimmed out and made the series an embarrassment, the Raptors should consider themselves lucky to have gone the distance. Overall, they made a solid playoff run but proved everyone right considering they couldn’t even make the conference finals without Kawhi.
· The Future is Now: Even though Jayson Tatum is only 22 and Jaylen Brown is only 23, the Celtics may never have a better opportunity at a ring than right now. The top 2 seeds in the conference are eliminated and although the #5 seeded Heat are a very good team, defeating them en route to a Finals appearance is a gift. Giannis is going to come back next season hungrier than ever and it seems like the Eastern Conference will run through Milwaukee for the foreseeable future. Boston must put their heads down and make sure to not overlook Miami. The conference is up for grabs and the Celtics are well-positioned to snatch it.
Bucks (1) vs Heat (4):
· Disappointing but Deserved: Game 1 was relatively close with the Bucks coming out the gates fast with a 40-point first quarter. Then they slowly let the Heat come back, getting outscored by 15 points in the second half in a playoff game that the #1 seed has got to learn how to finish. In Game 2, the Bucks only had a lead for 2 minutes, and it was in the first quarter. They dug themselves in a hole and spent the rest of the game trying to claw back but coming up short in another attainable playoff game. Game 3 Milwaukee was up by 12 points going into the 4th quarter just to get outscored 40-13 in the final 12 minutes. Although it’s disappointing that Giannis got injured the next game and had to miss the rest of the series, the Bucks already dug themselves into a deep hole.
Even if Giannis played in Games 4 and 5, there’s no guarantee the result would have been different. They were outplayed the first three games and fairly knocked out of the playoffs. Mike Budenholzer needs to go into the offseason and address the weak 3-point shooting defense, while also looking at free agency to bring in talent to propel the Bucks to the Finals.
· Being Different Works: In an age where super-teams are heavily sought out for and superstars are looking to join forces to win a ring, the Heat have gone a different route this season. They have a leader in Jimmy Butler who can take the pressure shots and provide valuable minutes every time he steps on the court. They have an extremely strong starting lineup and deep bench. 5 (five!) players had double-figure points per game in the series against the Bucks, including Jimmy Butler. Duncan Robinson is their 3-point specialist, Goran Dragic is their witty and speedy point guard, Bam Adebayo is their All-Star center, Jae Crowder provides valuable 3-point shooting, Tyler Herro has evolved into a fearless complete player. The way the Heat go about their business might be flashy, but they can hurt you in so many different aspects of the game. Spoelstra goes 9 deep and finds a way to exploit his opponent’s weaknesses using the players at his disposal.
This is such a difficult decision to make due to the fact that both teams have looked really impressive so far. Marcus Smart has contributed heavily on offense in addition to his usual stellar defense, while the Heat have been playing with so much energy and heart on both ends. Just like in my Raptors-Celtics prediction, I believe the series will go to Game 7 since there’s so little to separate the two sides. The difference is going to be which team will make the big plays in the big moments. Jimmy Butler was built for this moment and has been waiting his whole career for an opportunity just like this one. He won’t let it go.
Heat in 7
Lakers (4) vs Rockets (1):
· Title or Bust 2.0: If I knew that the Clippers would get knocked out by the Nuggets, I would’ve saved the title for now. The Lakers are now the HEAVY favorites to be crowned the best team in the league, with the #2 seeded Clippers, #2 seeded defending champions Raptors, and #1 seeded Bucks getting eliminated in the same round. They have the most talent out of the four teams left, and the most experience BY FAR. After losing the first game of each series so far, Los Angeles has coolly won every other game for a total playoff record of 8-2. The players conduct themselves with loads of confidence despite the extreme pressure put on playing for a LeBron-led team, a trait they’ll need to retain in order to fend off a carefree Nuggets team.
· Wrong Piece to the Puzzle: Chris Paul? Nope… Russell Westbrook… Not quite. The Rockets can’t seem to find the perfect complimentary piece to James Harden that will allow them to reach the Finals for the first time in over two decades.
Their big name signings have failed to perform at a superstar caliber level in the playoffs that can propel a team to win the coveted NBA championship (Paul with 16 ppg, 5 apg in 2019 and Westbrook with 19 ppg, 5 apg in 2020). I still believe Harden and Westbrook can be the two best players on a title-winning team, but it’d have to be with a different supporting cast. Back to the drawing board for D’Antoni.
Clippers (3) vs Nuggets (4):
· Complacency: The Clippers had three straight elimination games that would’ve punched their ticket to the Western Conference finals for the first team in franchise history. Not only did they fail to put out Denver, but they had a double-digit lead in all three of the games! It’s not like they were getting blown out by the talent Denver had, because if they were, the games would’ve been much more one-sided. The only differences between the two teams were the Nuggets’ passion versus the Clippers’ ignorance. When the Nuggets looked down and out, it was up to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to keep their foot on the gas and extend the lead by another ten points. Los Angeles assumed the Nuggets would throw in the towel, which is a careless assumption considering the determination they showed last series versus the Jazz. They deserve to be eliminated by overlooking the task at hand and looking forward to a future series that would never even come to fruition. In his post-game interview after Game 6, Nikola Jokic expressed the mindset of the Nuggets perfectly, saying
“We don’t have pressure. I think the whole pressure is on them. We just go out there and have fun. I will say the effort needs to be on a high level. Have fun and give your best.”
In Game 7, there was too much pressure on the Clippers to prevent blowing a 3-1 lead and falling short of the conference finals.
· Must-Watch TV: As if the playoffs weren’t already exciting enough, the Nuggets are making the five month hiatus seem like a thing of the past. After coming back from 3-1 down and stunning the Jazz, they come back around next series and accomplish the exact same feat. The achievement was remarkable against a solid Jazz squad, but to do it against the Clippers, with legitimate title aspirations, is a statement. There were times in the series where it looked inevitable the miracle run would come to an end. Jamal Murray’s face after Scott van Pelt revealed he only has one day off before Game 1 against the Clippers sums up the doubt.
A 23 point blowout in Game 1, an 85 point performance in Game 4, double-digit deficits in each of the elimination games. But somehow the Nuggets are still alive, and no matter how bad they may play against the Lakers, one can’t help but think that the improbable could happen again. If there’s ever a season that the Nuggets would knock off a LeBron-led team en route to a finals appearance, it would be in 2020.
As I alluded to earlier, it won’t be possible to take your eyes off the series until the final whistle is blown to send one team home. We all learned our lesson on counting out the Nuggets. With that being said, the Lakers might prove to be the one test Denver can’t pass. The Lakers will have seen what the Nuggets are doing and most certainly make sure they don’t make the same mistake as the Jazz and Clippers. One could only assume Anthony Davis would draw the assignment of Jokic and try to limit his impact on the game.
Jamal Murray will have to once again be the lead dog and make several clutch shots in order to fend off a hungry Lakers team. They will need to continue to receive solid minutes from Gary Harris, Michael Porter Jr., Paul Millsap, Jerami Grant, and Monte Morris in order to alleviate the pressure of the two stars and draw some attention away from them. Denver only has two full days of rest compared to the Lakers’ five, but I’ve learned my lesson on picking against the Joker and Jamal.
Nuggets in 7