Good afternoon, folks. The most unforgettable playoffs of our lives will tip off later today. Let’s talk NBA Bubble.
Well, somehow, someway, we’ve made it to the NBA postseason. I’ll be honest, I never expected the league to reach this moment and I couldn’t be happier that they proved me wrong. The NBA did everything possible to establish a protective Bubble that wasn’t about optics, but rather treated the coronavirus as the confusing, dangerous, and unpredictable disease that it actually is. As a result, all pins and needles have been strapped down. The Orlando Bubble is working to perfection and has provided the framework for playing sports during a pandemic; it’s not perfect, but it’s about as close as we can get considering the circumstances.
Additionally, the league and the National Basketball Players Association have encouraged the fight against social and racial injustices that have continued to poison this country for centuries. Players, coaches, and referees continue to kneel during the national anthem prior to games, impactful messages are spread across the backs of jerseys, and players of all skill levels are speaking out in the media and doing it often.
Los Angeles Lakers forward and one of the NBA’s top global ambassadors, LeBron James, reiterated the overall mission of the Bubble earlier on Monday morning: the entire league is all there to play basketball, but they have never stopped advocating for a call to action. I would implore you to read this piece from The Undefeated, explaining how the Move Than a Vote coalition is focusing on fighting the systemic voting issues that have a particularly negative impact on the Black community and other minorities.
To every NBA fan ready to watch playoffs, please take a minute to read this letter and consider our call to action. Black, brown, white, this fight is real and you can’t sit on the sidelines. @morethanavote #BlackLivesMatter https://t.co/MoXgTWlcGS
— LeBron James (@KingJames) August 17, 2020
Now let’s dive into some playoff basketball. Not only is this going to be the most unique playoff setting in the history of basketball (or sports in general?), but the potential for epic matchups and new-founded rivalries in every round is mouth-watering. So let’s quickly break them down, BBN style, shall we?
Here’s an overall look at the playoff bracket:
*Zack’s series predictions are attached to each matchup*
(1) Milwaukee Bucks (Bledsoe) vs. (8) Orlando Magic [4-0: Bucks]
(2) Toronto Raptors vs. (7) Brooklyn Nets [4-1: Raptors]
(3) Boston Celtics (Kanter) vs. (6) Philadelphia 76ers [4-1: Celtics]
(4) Miami Heat (Adebayo, Herro) vs. (5) Indiana Pacers [4-3: Heat]
I’ll be direct, the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs is not going to be nearly as exciting as the West. While all four matchups in the West have storylines within storylines, only two of the four matchups out East have enticing features. Go ahead and throw the Bucks-Magic series out the window. Credit to Orlando for sneaking into the playoffs for the second consecutive year as the basis for mediocrity in the NBA, but Milwaukee will have no issue sweeping this series and its the only one of the eight total I feel confident saying that.
As long as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton are healthy, there isn’t a person, place, or thing on the Magic sideline that can slow them down. The BBN subplot will be the play of Bucks point guard Eric Bledsoe, who has infamously been nowhere to be found during his last two playoff appearances. The former Wildcat point guard shot just 41 percent from the floor during the 2018-19 postseason and a paltry 23.6 percent from 3-point range. He was rightfully criticized for it during the offseason and even admitted to his shortcomings when the moment was brightest. Going up against Orlando in the first round will be a solid tune-up for Bledsoe before things heat up in the second round.
And speaking of heat, the Miami-Indiana series is my must-watch matchup out East. Obviously, the Kentucky duo of Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro for the Heat make them an immediate fan-favorite (not to mention Pat Riley manning the front office). Herro had himself an impressive showing during the eight seeding games and is clearly an important piece for the Miami playoff rotation; he’ll be a player to watch against an extremely long Pacers backcourt led by Victor Oladipo. As for Adebayo, the candidate for Most Improved Player should feast against opposing center Myles Turner, but the matchup to watch will be Adebayo and Indiana’s other center, Domantas Sabonis. The two mirror each other in similar ways, with excellent vision for big men and superior rebounding, and are fulcrums for their respective team’s offense.
The final BBN piece out East is Boston Celtics backup center Enes Kanter, who was quite productive in limited minutes for the Boston during the seeding games. He only played roughly 13 minutes per game, but still managed 7.6 points and 5.3 rebounds. Unfortunately, due to Kanter’s restrictions on the defensive end, he might not see many minutes against Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid. Kanter is going to be deployed only when he won’t get exploited on defense. That might not happen all that often against the Sixers.
I’ll quickly mention the Nets-Raptors series because even though I don’t think it’ll be particularly close, it should still be somewhat entertaining. The Nets have been impressive down in the Bubble, led by interim head coach Jacque Vaughn and budding wing Caris LeVert, and they play harder than most teams to make up for a lack of overall talent. However, the Raptors should be viewed as a serious threat to repeat as NBA Champions, even without Kawhi Leonard. Don’t be shocked to see Toronto make a deep run again.
(1) Los Angeles Lakers (Davis, Rondo) vs. (8) Portland Trail Blazers (Gabriel) [4-1: Lakers]
(2) Los Angeles Clippers (Patterson) vs. Dallas Mavericks (Kidd-Gilchrist) [4-2: Clippers]
(3) Denver Nuggets (Murray) vs. (6) Utah Jazz [4-3: Nuggets]
(4) Oklahoma City Thunder (Diallo, Gilgeous-Alexander, Noel) vs. (5) Houston Rockets [4-3: Rockets]
This is where it gets spicy. Look at all four of these delicious matchups. Now, where to begin…?
Major shoutout to the Portland Trail Blazers for ruining my dreams of Devin Booker’s first-ever playoff appearance. Their reward? A beatdown at the hands of Anthony Davis and the Lakers! Woo hoo!! I sound like a broken record at this point, but playoff Davis is going to look nothing like the version we saw over the last two weeks. The entire Lakers team treated those eight seeding games as an additional preseason tune-up. Portland is the feel-good story of the league right now, and Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are sure to rain fire for however long the series lasts, but they simply aren’t going to be able to handle Davis on defense, let alone LeBron James and the bevy of shooters that surround them. The healthy returns of Portland bigs Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins have paid major dividends thus far, particularly with Nurkic, but he’s not nearly quick enough to guard Davis. The Blazers can double him all they want, but they aren’t going to beat the Lakers by letting LeBron do whatever he wants with the ball in his hands. I’m this close to predicting a Lakers’ sweep, but Dame Time will snag at least one win for his Blazers.
L.A. is also expected to welcome the return of point guard Rajon Rondo back into the lineup. According to ESPN, he will clear quarantine on Monday but his timetable to return is unclear at the moment. Rondo left the Bubble with a fractured thumb weeks ago and has finally recovered to the point that he’s back with the team. Also, for all you Wenyen Gabriel fans (which I understand is a group consisting of myself and, like, six others), don’t expect many meaningful minutes for the one-time ‘Cat. He played a total of just 35 minutes across eight seeding games and none of them down the stretch. Portland’s playoff rotation is established, so, barring any injuries, Gabriel will be strictly a garbage time player.
The matchup between the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks might end up eclipsing 300 combined points on a nightly basis. The potency of these two offenses makes them prone to catch fire for an entire 48-minute game–and they surely will on multiple occasions throughout the series. While the BBNBA connection is lacking compared to others (Mavericks forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will play the same kind of minutes that Gabriel will), Patrick Patterson will be a key contributor off the bench for the Clips. He’s been the perfect stretch-four for L.A., snagging nearly four rebounds in just 21 minutes during the Bubble while knocking down 40 percent of his 3-pointers (12-30). He is the exact kind of veteran piece that contending teams must have to win it all.
The development of playoff Jamal Murray will be something to keep an eye on once his Denver Nuggets team gets rolling. He was decent in his first-ever playoff outing a year ago, but the pressure continues to mount. Alongside All-Star Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets are now expected to produce results and it starts with taking down the Utah Jazz in round one. But if Murray showed us anything during the seeding games, it’s that he’s ready for the moment. After overcoming a minor ankle sprain at the beginning of the Bubble, he made his return against the same Jazz team he’s about to go up against later today, dropping 23 points and nailing several critical shots down the stretch. These playoffs be a coming-out party for Murray as one of the league’s premier point guards.
The series I am personally most excited for is OKC-HOU, solely for the fact that Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook will get to play the teams that swapped them via trade last summer. But, of course, the Kentucky connection runs deep with the Thunder organization. Three key players, starting with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and continuing down the bench to Hamidou Diallo and Nerlens Noel, will suit up for OKC representing the Big Blue Nation. In case you missed it, I wrote a few weeks back why the Thunder should be your team of choice to root for in the playoffs; that has not since changed. Also, who doesn’t watch to watch James Harden go for 40-plus every night?
Now, who’s ready for some meaningful basketball? I sure as hell am. Let’s go.
TODAY IN THE BUBBLE
1:30 (ESPN): Jazz @ Nuggets (Murray)
4:00 (ESPN): Nets @ Raptors
6:30 (ESPN: 76ers @ Celtics (Kanter)
9:00 (ESPN): Mavericks (Kidd-Gilchrist) @ Clippers (Patterson)