Bucks-Heat Preview

It’s never smart to overreact to a single loss, especially when it comes in Game 1 of a series.  Last year taught us this well – the Toronto Raptors lost their first playoff game and went on to win the title.

But a loss – and more so a couple underwhelming wins – can teach us certain things.

It’s odd to be writing this about the Milwaukee Bucks, who, unlike their opponent in the Miami Heat, lost once against their first round opponent and didn’t look the absolutely dominant team they were during the regular season.

The Heat emerged from the first round against Indiana looking beastly.  They swept the Pacers in a series that was expected to go longer and at least be more competitive.  Miami dominated the Pacers while the Bucks fell a bit short of expectations.

Orlando beat Milwaukee in Game 1 – and gave them issues throughout the rest of the series – by taking advantage of their lax defense of the three point line.  The Magic essentially turned into the Rockets at their worst.  They shot threes without any regard for the shot quality or for rhythm.  They just chucked them.

At times, it actually worked!  They won Game 1 thanks to their shooting, most notably from Nikola Vucevic, who ate up Milwaukee’s typical drop coverage with its center Brook Lopez.  Even if Vucevic wasn’t shooting threes, he made the Bucks pay with his mid-ranger.  The Bucks were playing so far off him that it actually made the mid-ranger a good shot.

The concerning part is that continually leaving Vucevic open weren’t just mistakes from Milwaukee.  They intended to do so, and not because they didn’t respect him as a shooter, but because their scheme relies on protecting the paint.  Because it’s their scheme, and is one that worked so well during the regular season, there’s no indication that they’ll adjust.

That is cause for concern against the Heat, who were arguably the best three point shooting team in the league this year depending on how you quantify the Rockets.  The Bucks were lucky in a sense that Orlando took a lot of bad threes.  The Heat don’t do that, and since Milwaukee isn’t going to pressure them out of their ways, it could spell big trouble.

The Bucks, of course, have counters.  First, the Heat are going to play Bam Adebayo at the five when it matters.  He’s not a shooting threat (yet – he’ll be unstoppable if he can figure that side of his game out), so they aren’t going to burn Lopez and the Bucks’ bigs like Vuecevic did.

There are times when it could, though.  Kelly Olynyk is a sniper, and Erik Spolestra tends to have just one of Adebayo and him out there at a time (Although, the numbers of Olynyk and Adebayo together in the playoffs have been insane, granted it’s only a sample of 13 minutes).  The Olynyk-at-the-five lineup could be deadly for the Bucks if they don’t adjust their drop coverage – a couple threes could lead to an extended lead, or even be a dagger if Miami is already ahead.

Still, Adebayo is going to get most of the center minutes, which minimizes the threat against Lopez in drop coverage.

The second Bucks counter is obvious: Giannis Antetokounmpo.  Miami is not well-equipped to stop the soon-to-be MVP at all.  While Adebayo is a good defensive player, his rim protection isn’t at its ceiling yet (his game is built on switching).  Olynyk plays so few minutes because his defense makes him close to unplayable.  Miami just doesn’t have a lot of bigs in general, let alone the bigs that Toronto has which slowed Antetokounmpo last year.

Miami probably builds a wall with the likes of Jae Crowder, Andre Igoudala and their bevy of wings, but the size matchup still feels like a problem.

That’s the end-all with Antentokoumnpo.  You have to get lucky in order to stop him.  Minimizing the impact is all you can really hope for.  Miami’s in rough shape when it comes to even doing that.  He makes everything else not matter.

Which includes the three point shooting, unless Miami absolutely shoots the lights out four times.  Even then, they’re still not stopping Antentkoumpo, and the Bucks have enough firepower to keep up with everyone.

Milwaukee’s defensive tendencies are habits and schemes.  They aren’t going to change their ways.  Against shooters like Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson, that’s frightening.  Robinson is one of the scariest shooters the NBA has seen in awhile – he has the capability to hit 10 threes in any game.  Herro can get there as well, though his playmaking has really emerged over the course of bubble play, and lineups that feature him, Jimmy Butler and one of Miami’s point guards is a hassle to defend with all the shot creation present.

Antentokoumpo isn’t at the point yet where we should bet against him, but not making the Finals could guarantee it, and a Finals loss in certain fashions could as well.  But the Heat just don’t have any infrastructure that’s going to bring his weaknesses to light.  This series is going to be a battle, but Antentokoumpo should be able to win it.

Prediction: Bucks in 7

Celtics-Raptors Preview

For all the things that could have ended the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida, racial injustice in America is probably the most despicable, embarrassing and unfortunate one.

After the death of George Floyd in May, plans for the resumption of the NBA season felt small and unimportant.  The season’s balance hung in the hands of players – who are predominantly Black – that felt like basketball didn’t matter at a time like this.  Equality doesn’t exist outside the NBA, and this is a problem more important than basketball.

Recall all the things that threatened the NBA’s bubble, which went to great lengths to address racial injustice concerns from players by adding Black Lives Matter to the court and allowing messages on the back of jerseys.  COVID-19 could have penetrated its walls. Player fatigue from being cooped up in a perimeter for months on end could have set in. Opt outs due to an abundance of players’ families being affected by the virus. A god damn hurricane could have hit for that matter.

But more racial injustice – highlighted this time by another incident of police brutality – should have never been the cause for a halt in play.  It’s saddening to see that it’s taken 400 years, not just three months – for things to change. Because it has, what the Milwaukee Bucks did before Wednesday’s Game 5 against the Orlando Magic was not only historic, but a mechanism for much needed change everywhere.

Already, it has been.  Players, and subsequently the NBA and its owners, are attempting to do so. The NBA and NBA Players Association released a statement on Friday morning, signifying action players wanted to see taken before returning to the court.

With racial justice initiatives in place, a couple days of reckoning for some and recovering for others, basketball is back, and it will debut once again with a new series starting on Sunday between the Celtics and Raptors.  Here’s a look at what’s ahead.


No.2 Toronto Raptors vs. No.3 Boston Celtics 

Boston enters this series as arguably the best looking team remaining after their stunning sweep of the 76ers in the first round.  Miami certainly has a case as well – their 4-0 series win over Indiana was just as impressive, and the Heat emerged as a potentially serious challengers to the overwhelming favorites to make the Finals out East in Milwaukee.

But Boston overcame a challenge in Philadelphia.  While touting the Sixers that highly seems silly now, the threat of Joel Embiid certainly never was.  The Celtics survived big games from the dominating big man, and got lucky in ones where he didn’t produce (which was not entirely his fault).  That series – despite all of Philly’s problems – had serious landmines for Boston, and they dodged every single one of them.

Toronto comes in much cooler than Boston.  Despite being just one of three teams in the league to sweep their first round opponent, the Raptors’ play in the seeding games was underwhelming, and losing just once to a shelled Brooklyn Nets team would have been embarrassing.  

It’s hard to evaluate the Raptors start to bubble play, especially considering that pre-shutdown this was a team that looked primed to potentially make the Finals for a second straight year.  It’s a tough contradiction.  The Raptors look like a team that could of beaten Milwaukee.  Now, it’s tough to say whether they’ll even be able to get there.

The playoffs are – and have always been – about matchups, and Toronto essentially got screwed by them here.  They could very well lose to Boston and still beat Milwaukee if the system allowed for it – they just matchup better with the Bucks.

Boston presents a challenge to Toronto in a couple ways.  If matchups matter the most, then having legitimate star players matter second in the playoffs, and Boston has that in Jayson Tatum.  Sure, Toronto has wings to throw at him, but Tatum’s ascended to the level where even if a defense makes him work, it won’t really affect his overall impact.

Secondly, any firepower advantage the Raptors might’ve had against Boston is in doubt.  While Gordon Hayward will not play at all in the series, Kyle Lowry is a question mark for Game 1 and beyond with a sprained ankle.  Nothing certain has been reported with media availability understandably cancelled in wake of the week’s events, but Lowry’s absence is one Toronto can’t afford against a team as loaded as Boston when it comes to scoring and shooting.

The good news for Toronto?  Their size is their advantage.  No matter how long and switchy Boston is, guarding Pascal Siakam is an absolute hassle – he’s got the size advantage over practically anyone in the league, and his gracious movement doesn’t make him any easier to deal with.  Size troubles Boston, no matter how well it moves.  That’s where the Raptors’ second advantage appears.  More traditional bigs like Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol are devastating for the Celtics.  They follow the Embiid prototype, yet aren’t able to be played off the floor like most bigs are.  The effect those guys had was the biggest non-injury factor in last year’s Finals against Golden State.  If it helped take down the Warriors, then Boston is cake.

The Celtics got help against Embiid mostly from his Sixer teammates rather than Embiid himself.  With the Raptors, that’s not exactly the case.  This team meshes together perfectly – Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Siakam, Ibaka, Gasol is a menace of both scoring and defense.  Almost everyone can create their own shot, play without the ball, effectively shoot, and not get picked on defensively.

VanVleet is likely going to Boston’s target on offense, and that’s not because he’s a bad defender.  He’s just the least good out of all the Raptors.  His size against the wings of Boston will hurt – the Celtics will likely just try to engulf him on switches.

But Toronto’s size in the backcourt helps them on the other end.  Kemba Walker is an average defender, and the rest of the lineup features tall guys that the likes of VanVleet and Lowry can sneak around.  Marcus Smart will be getting heavier minutes with Hayward out, but he can only put a stop to one of the guards, and we’ve seen VanVleet win games before.

Toronto’s going to need fantastic play from its guards.  Since bubble play began, the Raptors have struggled mightily in the half-court.  Siakam has not been the No.1 offensive option he looked like in the regular season.  It’s unclear if it was just a hot stretch, a fluke, or the league figuring out how to minimize his additional impact.  He’s not the guy who should have won Most Improved Player for the second straight year anymore, and with the defense Toronto is going to need from him in this series, expecting that offensive output might be unrealistic.

Both of these teams are incredibly even despite the injuries they have to account for.  The Raptors might not have the guy, but they have others who can chip in and make up for it.  On the contrary, Boston does have that guy.  But their firepower is limited by Toronto’s size and craftiness with the ball.  Ultimately, this series is  advantage vs. advantage, and even though the Raptors have the opportunity to play for another championship, getting there just happens to be the problem this year.

Prediction: Boston in 7

Now for some quick hits on each of the first round series’ still in progress, where we look at what each team needs to do in order to win their respective round.


  • Unfortunately, Orlando’s Game 1 win which was captured in incredibly similar fashion to last year’s against Toronto won’t pay off, and will likely result in the series being ended the same way.
  • Orlando just ran out of options for Giannis Antetokounmpo.  Aaron Gordon’s absence ran longer than expected, and it left them incredibly weak in their fight against the soon-to-be MVP.
  • They need the three-point shooting they got in Game 1 to occur in every game the rest of this series, and hope Antetokounmpo falls off a cliff.
  • This series has said a lot more about Milwaukee than it has Orlando.  The Magic have exposed the Bucks’ other hole aside from Antentokoumpo’s lack of a jumper and the team’s half court offense: its loose defense of the three point line.
  • It didn’t bite them at all during the regular season, but when a team like Orlando can make it matter in a playoff series, and Miami is next in line, it’s a little frightening.


  • This was never going to be an easy series for Houston and it has certainly not turned out that way.
  • For a team that is obsessed with the concept of it, you would have thought the Rockets would have understood its own variance.  But that’s clearly not the case, as Game 4 indicated.  Houston finished the game shooting 5-21 from three after going 8-8 to start the half, which led to a lead of 15 points.  From there, it was yet another brutal playoff collapse, and possessions that featured some hint of ball movement weren’t enough late.
  • Houston has looked unstoppable at times this series, but that’s really just because they’ve been shooting well.  The age-old question with them has been: what happens when they’re shooting well?  Monday’s second half answered that in glaring fashion.
  • OKC has found sticking points in this series.  Lugentz Dort has done a phenomenal job against James Harden – he’s the league’s best defender on him and it’s not close.  But Dort’s brutal offensive performance (which was the sole reason he went undrafted, by the way) has made it tough on OKC to play him late in games.  While their classic three-guard set combined with Dort and Danilo Gallonari neutralizes Harden, it’s still tough to sacrifice the offense Steven Adams brings to the table with Houston’s wings swallowing the guards.  The Thunder are stuck with two non-enticing options: Let Harden cook, or struggle to score on the other end.
  • The cards are in Houston’s hands, and it’ll be up to their adjustments to see how well the hand is dealt.

Lakers-Trail Blazers

  • This series is giving off massive Bucks-Magic vibes, with the underdog taking Game 1 and slowly falling apart ever since.  With Damian Lillard out of the bubble due to a knee injury and his team down 3-1, the Trail Blazers are hanging on a limb.
  • Without Lillard, it’s probably not even worth considering how Portland can get back in it.  Instead, we can recall what this series taught us.
  • LeBron James finally decided to be LeBron and Anthony Davis finally decided to be AD.  The power duo turned out to be just more powerful than CJ McCollum and Lillard.  Portland doesn’t have anyone to stop those two, and it showed, making us look silly for ever doubting them in the first place.
  • Houston and the Clippers are struggling in their own series, having multiple embarrassing outings and look certainly beatable. With the West looking the way it is, it’s possible that the Lakers are in fact best suited to make the Finals.


  • This series was going to be all about what Luka Doncic could do.  It turns out he can do a lot.
  • Of course, the Clippers reminded him who they were in Game 5, with Paul George breaking out of a playoff slump and Kawhi Leonard looking like the player we saw last postseason.
  • Regardless, the degree to which Doncic has carried the Mavericks has been incredible.  No one is that surprised, but to see it actually occur is a different experience.
  • How much more does he have in him?  If the Clippers played like they did in Game 5, likely not much.  But LA’s losses in this series haven’t totally just been dependent on effort.  The Clippers at times really haven’t been able to stop Doncic, and it’s paid its dividends.


  • Perhaps the two most unfit teams for postseason play have brought it this series, and the guys we arguably blamed the most for prior struggles have shown up (Well, maybe just one of them).
  • Jamal Murray’s ascension this series has been massive.  He’s established himself as a legitimate go-to scorer, and someone who could probably turn out as the second-best player on a championship team.  He’s been that good – willing Denver back into games, hitting massively clutch shots, putting the team on his back.  He’s done it all.
  • Donovan Mitchell though – at times – has just been better.  The guy has dropped 50 twice in this series, including an unprecedented 57 points in Game 1.  Denver’s defense, which has been nonexistent throughout the entire series, hasn’t had an answer, which put them in a 3-1 hole before Monday’s win.
  • We knew Mitchell could be this type of guy.  He has been before.  But it feels like he’s gone up a level this time – the offensive boost from Rudy Gobert has been nice, but there’s been no threes generated from that ascension.  Mitchell is carrying a heavier load than Murray, even with the injuries faced by both sides.  He’s the only creator on the team.  Murray’s coach just needs to turn their third creator loose.

Previewing Tuesday’s Series Tip-Offs

Monday was an awesome day of basketball and Tuesday should be just as fun.  Here  are previews for the series that tip off today.

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

Writing about this series might seem a little bit pointless.  The Bucks are the runaway favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals, have the should-be MVP for the second straight year and established themselves as a historic team in certain statistical aspects this past season.  It would be slightly embarrassing if they even lost a game.

But Orlando is pesky.  That was especially proven last year, when they won Game 1 of their first round series against the eventual NBA champions Toronto Raptors thanks to a DJ Augustin three-pointer.  For a couple days, it felt like the Magic were going to send Toronto back to their normal choking ways.

A big problem exists this time.  Orlando doesn’t have the exact same squad as they did a year ago after Jonathan Isaac torn his ACL suffered against the Kings on August 3rd.  

Isaac could have played a massive part in giving Orlando any chance against Milwaukee.  They have personnel extremely similar to what Toronto possessed last season, which turned out to be the key to stop Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Toronto built a wall in front of the Greek Freak.  They placed their man-to-man best defensive option in the middle of it – which was Pascal Siakam – and flanked him with a combination of a wing (In its best form, that wing was Kawhi Leonard) and a sturdy big man (Either Serge Ibaka or Marc Gasol, typically) and made sure the big(s) wouldn’t get played off the floor.

Orlando could have done something similar.  Isaac is a menace on the defensive end – it’s the reason he’s hard to give up on after underwhelming throughout his career thus far.  His thin frame could have been troubling against Antetokounmpo, but his height and history of solid rim protection could’ve made him one of the more promising prospects against the MVP.  Couple that with the underrated switchability and overall defense of Aaron Gordon and the big body of Nikola Vuecevic and the Magic would have had a decent chance at minimizing Antetokounmpo’s overall impact.

But Isaac won’t play regardless of whether Orlando pulls perhaps the greatest upset in NBA Playoffs history.  That hurts.  His replacement is a massive downgrade on the defensive end, and that’s all Antetokounmpo needs even if the other defenders put up a good fight.

If Orlando were to slow him down a bit, they’d still be in a tough spot.  Khris Middleton was one of the best 15 players in basketball this year, and using Isaac on Antetokounmpo turns Middleton loose.  Orlando has wings they could throw at him, including Wes Iwundu, Terrence Ross and James Ennis.  

It seems unlikely that it matters.  Middleton’s an underrated pure scorer – he’s not the common off-ball wing.  Neither of Orlando’s options are defensive stalwarts, unless they decide to switch Gordon, who will be out for Game 1, onto him.  That would be a good fit, but then you’re letting Antetokounmpo work.

Orlando’s massive lack of firepower bites in this series.  Even if they were able to limit Milwaukee’s best, the shooters and firepower the Bucks have just makes them a tough beat for a team as limited offensively as Orlando is.  This isn’t the series for Vuecevic to get easy buckets down low with Brook Lopez capping off a Defensive Player of the Year worthy season.  Markelle Fultz would have to emerge as the James Harden version of his self we thought he could be in the draft.  It’s such a bad matchup that Orlando winning even a game in this would be shocking, though we know they’re capable of making things interesting for a bit.

Prediction: Bucks in 4

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

The Heat enter these playoffs as one of the more underrated teams in basketball.  They figured out their slipping defense during bubble play, rising to eighth in defensive rating.  Duncan Robinson looks like he isn’t going to miss a shot ever again.  Tyler Herro has taken on an expanded role that doesn’t just feature him as a shooter.  Jae Crowder has made a huge impact defensively throughout the eight seeding games, with the Heat posting a 105.8 defensive rating with him on the court and a 111.8 rating with him off it.    The Heat have such depth that typical shortening of playoff rotations will be a tough task for Erik Spoelstra and staff.

Indiana is the opposite.  They’re missing their second-best player in Domantas Sabonis, who still has no timetable for return.  Victor Oladipo still looks like a shell of his pre-injury self – it’s likely that next year is the year he returns to form, if he ever does.  TJ Warren has been their saving grace – the former Suns wing emerged as a go-to scoring option in the bubble, only to be stymied by this exact Miami team (and on a lesser degree, Mikal Bridges).

The Pacers chances in this series lie in the midst of a bunch of what-ifs and questions.  What if Oladipo can be the guy he was before his injury during the 2018-19 season?  What if Warren can play like he did against every other team except Miami in this series?  Does Indiana still have enough firepower to keep up with Miami, who’s in the top ten of the league in three-point attempts and makes them at the second-highest clip?

Miami’s downfall isn’t something that should affect them this series.  Jimmy Butler is a fantastic player, and was one of the 20 best in the league this season.  But to make the Finals, the Heat are going to have to stop guys better than Butler: Antentokounmpo and Jayson Tatum.

Butler should be the best player in this Indiana series.  Counting on Oladipo to play at a level where he could go toe-to-toe with Butler just isn’t realistic.

He might have the opportunity to do so though.  One would think Miami puts Butler on Warren to keep any embers from the wildfire he ignited during seeding play out.  Oladipo isn’t the greatest matchup for Miami if Butler isn’t the player on him – Oladipo doesn’t bow down to swallowing wings like Crowder or Andre Igoudala.  But, even with a favorable matchup, it’s fair to wonder whether Oladipo can make something of it given his health.

At full strength, Indiana can put a daunting group out there.  Malcolm Brogdon, Oladipo, Warren, Sabonis and Myles Turners is formidable.  Even without Sabonis, Warren’s ascent and a fully healthy Oladipo challenges any defense, especially paired with a guard who can shoot (Aaron Holiday, for example).  But with Oladipo still middling in his return and Warren set to go against his greatest foe, the Pacers are going to struggle to score, and that’s not something you can afford to have happen against Miami.

Prediction: Miami in 5

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

For all the hoo-rah stoked about the potential the Rockets had in the bubble, this is certainly the worst possible matchup Houston could have asked for to begin these playoffs.

Oklahoma City is just a pain in the butt to play.  They play incredibly hard, have players that makes opponents tick, and float out lineups that shouldn’t work but do.  They’re incredible late in games, and never tend to leave anyone disappointed.  They’re basically the opposite of the 76ers.

Houston is built on a simple predicate: threes going in.  If they do, they probably win.  If they don’t, then they probably don’t win.

This formula should work against Oklahoma City.  The Thunder took the fourth-fewest threes per game this year and made the fourth-fewest.  Steven Adams will likely get played off the floor by Houston’s small-ball lineups – the Thunder don’t have a stretch big who could viably protect the rim (Danillo Gallonari at the 5 is great offensively, but not exactly defensively).  Mike Muscala is the best option they have, but then you’re also playing Mike Muscala late in a playoff game – you’re not going far if he’s one of your best five players.

It’s possible the rim protection issue isn’t one OKC has to worry about immediately.  With Russell Westbrook out for at least Game 1, Houston’s drives will be limited.  Harden will still penetrate and attempt to get fouled, but the Thunder committed the fourth-fewest fouls in the league this year, and the least among playoff teams.

Westbrook has to stop shooting from the outside.  The Rockets take enough to afford one non-shooter on the court.  In addition, it just makes them better. His speed and athleticism is unmatched – he’s too quick for any wing defender, let alone a big.  Houston has to let him drive, or they can play him in the paint at center and get him quick entry passes like in this play below.

This is an extremely intriguing set from Houston.  It doesn’t allow Westbrook to shoot from the outside and matches him up with perhaps a slow center in the lane.  It’s like a post-up without taking the time a post-up does.  In addition, it doesn’t leave Westbrook as the lame duck in the offense.

Of course, they won’t be able to run this in Game 1 with Westbrook out.  But there hasn’t been any indication he’ll miss the series, which is good news for Houston.

OKC is dealing with injuries as well.  Lugentz Dort will miss Game 1 for the Thunder with a knee sprain – a massive blow considering he’s their best option for Harden.  That said, Dort’s probably being a bit overrated as a defender just because of his burst onto the scene this year, but he has done well in their previous matchups.  

Even if Dort can give Harden some trouble, the rest of the Rockets are a troubling proposition for the Thunder.  OKC’s incredibly thin on the wing, which is why we’ve seen heavy three-guard sets throughout most of the year.  The weak spots outside, an attacking Westbrook and the prototypical Harden should overwhelm.

Houston just has to defend, which should be doable.  PJ Tucker won’t be too taxed at the center position, so be it that Adams is expectedly played off the floor.  Robert Covington was brought to Houston for his defense, and Eric Gordon should be able to hang with whoever Houston puts him on.  Covington could matchup with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander late in games, since SGA’s height makes him a bit more versatile of a scorer.  

The Rockets are gonna have to put Harden somewhere.  He’s the matchup OKC is going to have to exploit on a nightly basis, and hope whoever he guards can take advantage and have a big game.  Harden’s defense is a rare scenario in where having no wings is a good thing – it will force Harden to actually move and try to not get cooked by one of the Thunder’s guards.

OKC’s ability to walk out 3-4 players in crunch-time who can all get their own shot is similar to the Toronto mold.  They lack a true superstar – someone who’s been there before and can go up against anyone.  SGA is still young, CP3’s playoff record is well known and this will automatically be the most important basketball Dennis Schroder has ever played.  That said, Houston’s playoff record isn’t impeccable either, and if the craftiness and scrappiness of the Thunder prevails, then the math may not be able to bail out the Rockets after all.

Houston cannot afford to lose their series from an organizational perspective.  Harden’s legacy would be toast.  Mike D’Antoni would be more gone than he already is.  Daryl Morey could find himself out the door as well.  This team is too good too fall this early, but it doesn’t mean they won’t have some bumps in their journey.

Prediction: Rockets in 6 

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

Like Houston, the Lakers drew the worst possible matchup in the first round.  This one could be even scarier.

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are a serious problem for Los Angeles.  Without Avery Bradley – the Lakers best defender against smaller guards – guarding one or both of these guys might be impossible.  That’s terrifying to consider against Lillard, who’s been on an ungodly run in the bubble and earned the seeding games MVP award because of it.  Lillard’s at the point right now where Portland’s performance as a team could be completely negated by a monster game from their point guard.

That’s where the potential hole left by McCollum – who’s been playing with a fracture in his lower back – is actually a good thing for the Lakers.  Lillard’s play recently have indicated nothing else matters.  If they can stop Lillard, it’s going to be up to the dude with the broken back.

McCollum’s been up and down since we learned about the fracture.  He is certainly not himself, but he has still made threes and shown some of what makes him special. McCollum and Lillard are not going to be the forceful duo we’ve seen in postseasons past because of McCollum’s limitations, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t give them a chance.  Lillard alone does that.

The Lakers desperately need Rajon Rondo back at some point in this series, which just seems like a ridiculous statement to make about a team that is the Vegas favorite to win the title (Maybe they shouldn’t be?  Isn’t this a pretty good case for them not to be?).  That said, Rondo could provide legitimate value to the Lakers.  It reduces meaningful minutes for Dion Waiters, who with a growing role probably becomes less effective.  It gives them a much better option for Lillard – Rondo is a good defender when he tries, he just doesn’t like to try often.  A re-emerged Playoff Rondo trying on defense is a good, important player in this series though.  He’s not going to stop Lillard, but he could reduce his impact.

Without Rondo, things are bleak for the Lakers.  It forces them to pivot to their normal two-big lineup, with Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and LeBron James on the wings or to play Anthony Davis at the five and slide in JR Smith or Kyle Kuzma.  These lineups aren’t necessarily about offensive fit (more on that later), it’s about the group best equipped to defend Portland’s guards.  The Lakers best unit with Rondo is probably features James, Davis, Green and Smith, just because of the size matchup between Rondo and Smith on Lillard and McCollum.  Smith isn’t a great defender, but the last thing the Lakers want is Portland’s guards sneaking around a bad defensive wing.  McCollum is especially good at that, and ruling him out 100 percent as a threat despite the injury is how you get yourself in trouble.  The Lakers can’t afford that; they’re already in enough of it.

It’s possible that none of this matters for the Lakers.  While Lillard and McCollum are a terrible matchup for them, the James-Davis duo, which should finish in the top five of MVP voting (Two and three on this ballot), is an even worse one for Portland.  And if you’re talking about overall impact, Davis and James likely swallow what Lillard can do.

The Lakers not having guards who can defend is the equivalent of Portland not having wings.  James is just a nightmare for them, let alone Davis.  Gary Trent Jr. has been unconscious in the bubble, and had a good reputation as a defender coming into the league, but expecting him to contain James and continue to produce the offensive output he has is unrealistic.  Thinking that Carmelo Anthony is going to play any defense at all – let alone on James – would make one wonder where your head is at.  The hole only gets deeper after Anthony – we’re now in the Mario Hezonja area of the land, and it’s probably a good idea to stop here.

Then there’s Davis to worry about.  Jursurf Nurkic has improved greatly as a defender, and has been a monster since his return to play in the bubble, but he’s not the most switchable defender – it’s been his rim protection that’s developed so much.  Zach Collins is going to be out for at least Game 1 with an ankle injury, which hurts against Davis’ post-ups, but Collins isn’t the best defender either and will be toast if Davis stretches him out to the perimeter and attacks.

Wenyen Gabriel, who will be getting the start over Collins in Game 1, might actually be the best bet.  He’s more athletic than Portland’s common frontcourt tandem, and has serious size.  His defense has been horrible during his playing time in the bubble – as has Portland’s as a whole – but in terms of the gift of chance, Gabriel might actually stick.  His offensive game is raw, even though he’s made threes at times in August.  That would make him a tough play late in games – this series likely comes down to offense vs. offense since no one can guard anybody on either side, and Gabriel is a minus on that end.

The defensive matchups for each team are both so poor that they just may not matter.  It’s going to be about whether Lillard and McCollum can score every time or whether Davis and James can.  Neither defense really stands a chance.

James and Davis have been unstoppable all year.  We know the ceiling that each of them can reach – James is arguably the most unstoppable force of all-time while Davis isn’t as far behind as you think in that category.  But Lillard has elevated to James-esque levels lately, and he’s perhaps the second scariest guy to bet against in the league aside from James.  Combine that with the Lakers’ complete lack of resources to make his life harder, and Lillard is going to take Portland down to the wire here.  It’s just going to be about who’s more unstoppable when the time comes.

Prediction: Lakers in 7

Previewing Nuggets-Jazz, Raptors-Nets and Clippers-Mavericks

With four series getting underway Monday and the other four Tuesday, previews will be released on those corresponding days.  Below are previews for the Nuggets-Jazz, Raptors-Nets and Mavericks-Clippers series, all of which tip off Monday.

10:30 AM PT playoff basketball is very nice.

Celtics-Sixers preview can be found here

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

For two teams that have questions about the viability of postseason success, Aug. 8th’s double overtime thriller between these two certainly quelled some fears.  Donovan Mitchell played like the best player on a championship team, hitting tough shot after tough shot to keep Utah in it after controlling most of the game.  Jamal Murray – in his bubble debut – matched Mitchell at times after Michael Porter Jr. brought Denver back in the third quarter.  Denver just pulled it out, and they’re in good shape to do it again in this series.

If Utah’s lack of firepower wasn’t pressing enough, Mike Conley’s absence for what looks to be at least two games of this series only adds to it.  The chemistry between him and Mitchell had obviously been shaky throughout the year – Utah moving Conley to the bench prior to the league’s suspension generated more success for the Jazz.  But Conley was shooting 37.5 percent from three on 5.4 attempts per game, and given that Emmanuel Muiday is the replacement for Conley, it’s a much bigger loss than January would have indicated.

Jordan Clarkson has produced the instant offense Utah hoped for when they traded for him prior to the deadline, but the point of that trade was to support the offense when Mitchell wasn’t on the court.  The Clarkson-Mitchell duo had a net rating of -0.7 this season, and a brutal -6.6 net rating in 83 minutes during bubble play.  

Utah’s best offensive lineup isn’t very good at offense.  It’s a group that will need Joe Ingles to be its second-best player, Royce O’Neal to emerge as a sharp-shooter and Rudy Gobert to, well, stay on the floor.

That should be doable against Nikola Jokic.  Denver won’t go small on Utah, play five out and force Gobert out to the perimeter much.  He’s not someone you’re going to feed, but pick-and-rolls with Mitchell or Clarkson could be an easy way to get buckets.  It forces Jokic to have to play defense, whether that be him hedging or dropping and going up straight up to contest.

The loss of Bojan Bogdanovic is crippling without Conley.  Things were going to be tough enough for Utah in this series without the Croatian sniper.  Conley at least provided a makeup for some of the shooting lost.

Denver is without key guys too, though.  Gary Harris and Will Barton aren’t expected to play for the Nuggets in Game 1 – Denver has been without them throughout the entire bubble thus far as the pair have been dealing with hip and knee injuries, respectively.  Counting Harris as a loss might be generous, his spot in the rotation might have been in question with the rise of Michael Porter Jr and PJ Dozier coupled with solid play from Monte Morris.  Harris’ shooting fell off a cliff during the regular season, making him a tough play for a team that has dealt with similar problems as Utah.

Porter Jr. might have solved those, though.  Now that Michael Malone is finally playing him, the 6’10 forward from Missouri is shining, and looks like the top five pick some projected him to be in the 2018 draft.  The skillset is the type that develops into a top ten player in this league someday.  He can get any shot he wants with his size, and make any shot with his scoring ability.

He’s the type of player that Murray probably never will be.  Denver’s playoff exits have been tied to their reliance on the offense Jokic creates, which can be figured out easily if a team seals the passing lanes and defends cuts.  That’s led Murray to have to create for himself and the team, and it hasn’t gone too well.

The problem is that Porter Jr. would thrive as the first option rather than the second or third.  Malone’s been resistant to fully turning him loose, which is odd considering Murray’s late arrival to bubble play.  In Murray’s first game back, Porter Jr.’s was 0-5 in the first half, and found themselves down 14 as a result. Porter Jr. then went on a tear in the third that got Denver back in the game, and he finished with 23 points.

Porter Jr. can’t get phased out like that, even if Denver gets back Harris and Barton and can use those guards off Jokic. He represents the highest ceiling the Nuggets can reach.  If Denver works through Murray or relies on Jokic too much, it allows Mitchell to become the best player on the floor, and as we saw last weekend, that can be trouble for Denver.  Even without substantial help, Mitchell can do what he wants.  He’s that good.

Malone’s unwillingness to give Porter Jr. a role elongates this series.  Denver doesn’t have to defend that well for Utah to struggle offensively.  They might actually not have to defend well at all.  The longer Porter Jr. doesn’t play, the more time Mitchell has to go off.

It will have to take a superhuman effort from Mitchell to win this series though.  He’ll have Torrey Craig on him, who’s done a good job in the past.  Combine that with the workload that he will have – which is a large one even with Conley on the court – and it’s tough to see Utah posing a real fight.  But they did last Saturday, and it was all because of Mitchell’s stardom.  If that’s what he can do alone, then his potential with an actual surrounding cast (which a player like Bogdanovic would be featured in) is scary to imagine.  For now, our viewing of that will be delayed.

Prediction: Nuggets in 6

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

Despite being the 2-seed vs. the 7-seed, this series feels like even more of a mismatch than Magic-Bucks, with Orlando having at least some hope in attempting to contain Giannis Antetokounmpo (more on that series tomorrow).

The Nets are just trying to get to next season with a large part of their rotation not even in the Orlando bubble due to various injuries and COVID-19.  With that, it’s probably best to just look at this series in terms of how Brooklyn could put up a fight.

They’re going to need massive games from Caris LeVert, who has shined in the absence of heavier ball-handlers like Spencer Dinwiddie and Kyrie Irving.  In their loss to Portland Thursday night, LeVert showed what he was capable of: taking on a No.1 scorer role and doing it in a way that was efficient and translated to winning.  LeVert went toe-to-toe with Damian Lillard, who was at the peak of his powers, and almost won.

Part of that could be pinned on LeVert literally not being guarded – Portland’s defense was pathetic in the do-or-die match.  Imagine what LeVert might’ve been able to do if they weren’t trying.

He will certainly face increased defensive pressure against Toronto.  No team is longer and has the plethora of wings the Raptors do.  Options range from OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Terence Davis or even someone like Norman Powell.  Those guys are all lockdown defenders.

If LeVert is neutralized, Brooklyn is toast.  Massive shooting performances from the likes of Joe Harris, Rodions Kurucs and company would have to be in store.  Perhaps there would have to be a Jamal Crawford game, which would be incredibly entertaining, hilarious and also be the most Toronto thing ever.

Toronto should dominate this series and it shouldn’t be close.  But, if LeVert continues to stay hot, it could be a really good sign of things to come for the Nets, whether he’s on their roster or not next year.

Prediction: Toronto in 4

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

It’s a testament to how good the Western Conference is, but for Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks to draw this matchup in the first round is just unfair.

Dallas felt like a way better team than one that will likely go home in the first round.  (Arguably) The best offense of all-time according to various metrics should not be facing the team that should win the title right off the bat.  A team that had a top five finisher in MVP voting should be making serious noise.  Dallas felt better than a one-and-done postseason showing.

The Clippers are a disastrous matchup for the Mavericks.  No one is going to stop Doncic – which is just an asinine thing to say about a 21-year-old – but Los Angeles has arguably the two best wing defenders in the league to put on him.  While Dallas didn’t post the highest offensive rating ever this year without others aside from Doncic producing, he’s the engine behind the car.  It’s a pretty fast one, too.

It seems unlikely that the others are going to make the Clippers really pay.  Despite having snipers like Kristaps Porzingis, Seth Curry, Maxi Kleber and others, it’s tough to get them the looks they’re used to if Doncic is getting clamped.  The Clippers don’t have to send so much help on the Slovenian star – Leonard and George can probably handle it.  That allows the other defensive menaces to stay closer to their guys – the shooters that Doncic so frequently kicks out to.  The shots that typically go down for Dallas may not in this series.

That’s the just offensive half.  Dallas finished the regular season 18th in defensive rating and had the second worst number – an ugly, ugly 120.6 – throughout the eight seeding games.  Their best defender is Dorian Finney-Smith, who had a good year but wasn’t allowed to reap the credit for it given his team’s performance – his effort just didn’t matter.  Doncic and Porzingis typically have their feet glued to the court.  Seth Curry will get picked on because of his size.  Kleber is surprisingly switchable and athletic on the defensive end – him against a Marcus Morris or JaMychal Green isn’t the disaster the other matchups are.

Doncic is going to have to pull some seriously special stuff in this series to keep Dallas around.  Him against Leonard or George pits a top four offensive player against a top one to three defensive player.  It’s a fascinating matchup, and the winner of it determines the series.  If Doncic can take on either of them, then no one ever would have been as good as he is at this age.  It would be historical.  It would probably break the league.  Doncic might get anointed the league’s best player right then and there.

The craziest part is that it’s not totally, 100 percent inconceivable either.  If Doncic single-handily won this series for Dallas, we’d just go “Oh, he’s just doing this a lot earlier than we expected to.”  It’d be stunning, but it also wouldn’t be that surprising either.  If anyone can do it, it’s him.

The problems on the defensive end for Dallas just seem insurmountable.  Not only do they not have anyone for Leonard, but they don’t have anyone for basically anyone else on the Clippers roster either.  That team is juggernaut offensively at their best, and they’re going to finally be that in these playoffs.  Remember how daunting their closing lineup was last year with the Lou Williams-Montrezl Harrell two-man game?  Take that and add Leonard and George as your wings, who can also emerge as 1A and 1B scorers if they want to do so.  This team has top-end talent and depth – it’s a rare combination in a league dominated by stars.  Because of that, this series should be a breeze for them.  

Prediction: Clippers in 5

Attempting To Project The NBA Play-In Game(s)

Predicting the outcome of a single, winner-take-all game without any prior precedent hasn’t been done by this website or any other website in basketball history.

It seems silly to pick who’s going to win a single game without watching one or two games between the two teams first.  But for Trail Blazers and Grizzlies, there isn’t that option.  They haven’t played six games in a series prior to this one, even though it has the same implications as a Game 7 for one team.  Any of the two matchups they had in the regular season are subject to some flaws – February’s meeting featured a Portland team that looks nothing like is does now, and even though the two played just 15 days ago in Orlando, it was the first game back for either after nearly five months off.  How much stock can we really put into it?

This serves as a buffer and warning for what’s below.  Take all the analysis and predictions with a grain of salt, because this is uncharted territory.  To think deeply about a single game in this sport is not how things are typically done, but it is what sells, and there’s no doubting that eyes will be on it.

Play-In Game: No.8 Portland Trail Blazers vs. No.9 Memphis Grizzlies

Ultimately, the deep analysis mentioned above may not totally be needed for this game(s).  The outcome might be based on a single simple factor.

Damian Lillard is about as hot as a basketball player can be right now.  He’s averaging 51.3 points per game over his last three, has sinked 21 threes, is forcing teams to blitz him over the half court line and is still sticking it in their face by pulling up from the logo and making those shots as well.

It feels like Lillard has reached an unprecedented level of individual play each of the last three years.  He had a six game stretch back in late January where he averaged 48.8 points a game and hit a sickening 57 percent of his threes while taking 14.3 a game.  In the bubble thus far, Lillard is averaging 37.6 points a game with 9.6 assists and is shooting 43.6 percent from deep.  During the 2018-19 season, he had back-to-back 40 point games early in the year and led Portland over Oklahoma City in the playoffs while just cooking the rest of the league.  Lillard’s now the guy where it’s just mind-boggling that he hasn’t made the Finals yet, because he’s performed like someone who’d be the best player on the court in them the past three years.

“Dame Time” has inflicted itself on multiple teams thus far in Orlando.  Memphis seems to be next up.  As long as Lillard doesn’t fall apart, the Grizzlies are likely screwed in this matchup.  The Trail Blazers point guard has taken it upon himself to make sure Portland doesn’t lose lately – he’s performed in such a way that makes losing virtually impossible, no matter how close they come to it.  When players ascend to this level, there’s just nothing an opponent can do.  It’s the Stephen Curry/LeBron James/Kevin Durant level, where nothing a team tries works.  Those guys’ impact just outweighs everything else.

Memphis doesn’t exactly have the feisty defensive guards that have given Lillard trouble in the past, a la the Elfrid Payton’s and Rajon Rondo’s of the 2017-2018 playoffs.  Ja Morant is incredible on one end, however he isn’t going to get up in Lillard’s grill and bother him.  De’Anthony Melton is a good player who’s had an underrated season, but we’re kidding ourselves if he’s going to stop Lillard.  Memphis has the ability to try and swallow Lillard with the likes of the longer Brandon Clarke, but the Bubble MVP has proved that the only strategy that semi-works against him is the heavy blitzing and trapping schemes, and doing that leaves the likes of Gary Trent Jr. (A revelation) and CJ McCollum open for threes.  

Regardless of what Lillard does, Memphis just doesn’t have the firepower to get a single win against Portland.  That was likely the case even if this game was played pre-bubble.  Now, after watching the Grizzlies offense completely sputter thanks to what seems to be the effect of high stakes games on young players, it feels like they don’t have a chance.  It would take a special effort from Morant, and some lights out shooting from Anthony Tolliver for them to keep up.  For now, “Dame Time” is still what the clock is showing, and who knows when its hands will come back around.

Prediction: Portland in 1

A Primer For The Celtics-76ers First Round Playoff Matchup

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

Between the bad blood these teams have for each other, the impossibly weird, up and down performance of Philadelphia, Boston’s reinvention and the Al Horford departure and signing last summer, the Celtics and 76ers was the playoff matchup that was highly anticipated and seemed inevitable throughout what has been a funky, broken season.  

The loss of Ben Simmons for likely the remainder of the season obviously hurts Philadelphia significantly on one end of the floor: defense.  On the other, possibly not so much.  But in the context of the series with Boston, it forces the 76ers to put a combination of Josh Richardson, Matisse Thybulle or even Shake Milton on Jayson Tatum, who despite some bubble struggles established himself as a top ten player in basketball this season.  Richardson is likely the best option.  He’s a good defender with his length, quickness and athleticism while providing enough shooting on the other end.  That’s the downfall with someone like Thybulle, who despite putting up better offensive numbers than expected in his rookie year – 35.1 percent from three on 2.4 attempts per game – will face increased defensive pressure and a higher share of minutes this postseason.  Milton will likely draw the Kemba Walker assignment, just to keep things easy and not allow Walker to get away, but is viable enough on Tatum in switching situations.

Thybulle needs to play a bigger role for Philadelphia with Simmons out, and he’s capable of it.  It’s more about 76ers head coach Brett Brown – who’s job could depend on this series – needing to let Thybulle have a bigger role.  He’s just an absolute force on the defensive end, which wasn’t surprising considering what he did at Washington last year.  Thybulle’s switchable 1-4 and has an impeccable sense of where the ball is going – his ability to blow up passing lanes and sniff for steals is unmatched by anyone in the league, which is a statement that just shouldn’t be made about a rookie.

To replace Simmons in the new starting lineup – which was rolled out at the start of bubble play, featured Milton and benched Horford – Philly should likely pivot to Milton-Richardson-Thybulle-Tobias Harris-Embiid in crunch-time.  Not once did Philly run this lineup this season, which isn’t surprising because their rotation was never as short-handed as it is now.  The lineup gives Philly two crunch-time options – Embiid, whose star power we’ll address shortly, and Milton, who was given the offense’s car keys coming into the bubble.  The group is also the best defensive matchup against a wing-heavy Boston team.  It would pit Milton on Walker, Richardson on Tatum, Thybulle on Jaylen Brown, Harris on Gordon Hayward and Embiid on whichever big Boston trots out: Daniel Theis or Enes Kanter, which either way is a matchup Embiid should win on both ends.

Horford is still a good player – he’s in a bad situation that provides a terrible fit for his game.  The cohesion offensively between him and Embiid predictably never appeared, and while he played an important role defensively, the offensive fit is just too detrimental.  Per NBA.com, the Embiid-Horford has a net rating of -0.6, with a solid defensive rating of 103.1.  Obviously, the offensive rating is lower than that, which is not what you want.  Horford could be a great offensive option for the Sixers when Embiid’s on the bench.  Like his superstar counterpart, he should be able to cash in on favorable matchups against Theis or Kanter.  Don’t rule out the revenge aspect either.

Horford’s the only close call.  If Philly prides itself on defense, the lineup above is the best one they can throw out there.  While Furkan Korkmaz would provide a nice boost offensively, his defense is poor and you’d have to catch him on a scorching hot night to rely on him late in games.

Is the Sixers best enough?  In one way, it could be.

Joel Embiid is arguably the best player in basketball when he plays his best.  The only other force that is comparable is Giannis Antetokounmpo, and we’ve seen certain teams be able to tame him with the right strategy.  With Embiid, there has been no stopping him.  The only thing that has is himself, due to injuries and effort.  

Out of the top six teams in the Eastern Conference, Boston is the best possible matchup for Embiid.  It’s why as Philly’s season slowly fell apart, Boston was the playoff matchup they’d have to hope they got – it was kind of their only chance.  That statement is even more true in the absence of Simmons.

This is the time for Embiid to validate himself as the type of force he has the capability of being.  If Embiid plays up to his potential, then Philadelphia has the best player in the series and should win it.  Thirty-plus points a night should be a given for Embiid in this series, and a couple monster games puts Philadelphia in the driver’s seat.

There’s two big IFs with that though.  One, IF Embiid can actually do it, to which the answer has routinely been “no” for a multitude of reasons throughout his career so far.  Two, if he can do it, what IF Tatum is even better?

Richardson is the Sixers best option for Tatum but that doesn’t mean he’s going to do the job.  The difference with Tatum this season has been his assertion as a dominant No.1 scorer and a true star.  The list of players he’ll go toe-to-toe with and lose to is now much smaller.

If you’re going to compare the impact of Embiid and Tatum, Tatum probably wins because of the threes he can hit.  That’s just the brutality of the math.  At the same time, Embiid scoring on 60-70 percent of his touches probably cancels that out, which would be the result of the monster games mentioned above.  But Embiid would have to put together one of the most dominant series of all time from a big man, and even though expectations should be set high for Embiid, that is unrealistic for anyone.

A massive Embiid series could still not be enough for the Sixers.  His greatness has to be supported.  Unfortunately, Boston just wins the firepower/math battle in this series.  Each of Walker, Brown, Tatum and Hayward are all better than any key Sixers player from deep (Korkmaz doesn’t get credit as being “key” here).  

It creates a real challenge for Philly.  What do you do?  Focus your efforts on stopping Tatum and let Walker (Who is really a bad matchup for the Sixers…  Milton has the length, but Walker’s small size and craftiness is a tough guard for Philly.  Swallowing someone with length doesn’t always work), Brown and Hayward make up the points and firepower?  Or do you focus on everyone else, let Tatum cook and hope Embiid can outplay or match him?

Embiid will have to be extraordinary for Philly to win this series.  The odds of him being special should be cautiously set – he has the chance to be so.  But we’ve just never seen him put everything together yet, and if it doesn’t happen soon, it’s fair to wonder if it ever will.

Prediction: Celtics in 6