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