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.
- 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.