The NBA returned inside the Orlando bubble at the end of July and things couldn’t have gone much smoother. Gameplay’s been intense, presentation for the fans feels like real games, and most importantly, ZERO players have tested positive for COVID-19 since August 5th.
The regular-season games have given us plenty of storylines, as the Blazers have been carried by Damian Lillard’s heroics playing as a man possessed, the undefeated Suns became basketball’s darlings, Russell Westbrook’s thigh injury has thrown a wrench into the Rockets championship dreams, and title favorites Lakers, Clippers, and Bucks don’t seem to be as much of Finals locks as we once thought back in March.
With the Blazers clinching the right to take their shot at the one-seeded Lakers on Saturday to fill out the playoff picture, check out our predictions for the entire first round below. Tip-off is slated for Monday at 1:30 pm ET with game 1 of the Nuggets-Jazz series.
(1) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (8) Orlando Magic
The bubble hasn’t been too kind to the hometeam Magic. Orlando, who went 3-5 in the restart, lost the promising Jonathan Isaac to a torn ACL, which should sideline him through next season. Milwaukee hasn’t exactly been firing on all cylinders since the restart, but cruised to the one-seed and now the real pressure is on for the favorite Bucks to roll through the Eastern Conference. Giannis has been on a mission this season (he’s the favorite for MVP and DPOY) and the Magic should be a light tune-up for him as Milwaukee sweeps.
Bucks in 4
(2) Toronto Raptors vs. (7) Brooklyn Nets
The 2019 champs are a bonafide threat to defend their throne and possibly repeat. I, for one, didn’t believe the Raptors would be this good (finished with the best winning percentage in franchise history) with Leonard heading to the West Coast, which should be a credit to my COTY Nick Nurse and the supporting cast taking their games to the next level.
As for the Nets, nobody could’ve seen a 5-3 bubble trip with a makeshift roster possible. Fans have to be thrilled with the team’s effort, but we know this is all about next year for them. Toronto’s size and depth should give the Nets fits all series, who shouldn’t leave Orlando with their heads hanging low.
Raptors in 4
(3) Boston Celtics vs. (6) Philadelphia 76ers
I want to throw up every time I think back to my pre-season prediction of having the 76ers coming out of the East, as Philly couldn’t be further from contenders right now. A logjam in the frontcourt and a coach that doesn’t know how to deploy his talent, and now minus Ben Simmons combined with a banged-up Embiid, this is the recipe for disaster in Philly. Tatum and Brown have evolved into a dynamic duo on the wing to lead the C’s. As long as Kemba and Hayward stay healthy, this team has a shot to make some noise in the East.
Celtics in 5
(4) Indiana Pacers vs. (5) Miami Heat
This will be the most competitive series in the East. A pair of teams that overperformed this year. Most people will be drawn to the theatrics of Jimmy Butler vs. Bubble MVP T.J. Warren, but my focus is on MIP candidate Bam Adebayo’s ability to control both ends and sharpshooters Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson pushing the Heat over the top to take a hard-fought 7-game series. Miami also has the coaching advantage with Spo > Nate McMillan.
Heat in 7
(1) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (8) Portland Trail Blazers
This isn’t your typical 1-8 matchup. Every Blazer game has felt like a playoff game, as they roll into the post-season on a four-game winning streak. At times, their defense has been dreadful against lesser competition, so I fully expect LeBron to dominate this series and get whatever he pleases when exploiting Portland’s forwards. On the flip side, the Lakers don’t have anyone to answer for Dame, who should be able to steal a game or two by himself with his Bubble MVP heroics. Let’s just hope his tank doesn’t run out of gas (Blazers were a -13 on Saturday against the Grizzlies during his THREE MINUTES on the bench).
Lakers in 6
(2) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks
A lot has been made of this juicy series with the dazzling future MVP Luka Doncic writing the first chapter in his playoff journal. In his way stands the title favorite Clippers, who have yet to be at full strength inside the bubble, as Sixth Man of the Year candidate Montrezl Harrell is expected to make his debut.
Even with a historically good offense (highest offensive efficiency rating ever), Dallas has been atrocious in late-game execution, as they rank in the bottom of the league in games decided by five points or less. This should be a great learning experience for Luka, Porzingis, and co. but the Clips dispose of Dallas in five.
Clippers in 5
(3) Denver Nuggets vs. (6) Utah Jazz
If this series is anything like their earlier double-OT thriller in the bubble, it should be a classic. Two-man chess matches between Donovan Mitchell and Gobert clashing with the Joker and Jamal Murray are going to be the focus for both coaches, but look for the emergence of Michael Porter Jr. to lift the Nuggets. Injuries to both teams make for a bit of uncertainty, as the returns of Gary Harris Jr. and Will Barton are still up in the air, while Mike Conley just left the bubble to see the birth of his child and will miss at least the first three games most likely.
Nuggets in 6
(4) Houston Rockets vs. (5) Oklahoma City Thunder
It’s pretty simple; how long is Russell Westbrook out with his thigh injury? If he’s back by early next week, Houston is in good shape. If he’s out for the entire series, the Rockets are in deep trouble. We all know how much Chris Paul wants to stick it to Houston for trading him and how ironic would it be for the Thunder to finally get out of the first round now instead of the Russell Westbrook-PG era.
James Harden is going to put up astronomical numbers, but will he get enough help? Mike D’Antoni is fully committed to the small-ball experiment, so my x-factor for the Thunder will be Steven Adams. Does he get exposed and need to spend a lot of the series on the bench, or does he wreak havoc as a bully on the offensive glass?
Rockets in 7