(1) Milwaukee Bucks vs (8) Orlando Magic
Giannis is a supernova. The Bucks are fun to watch defend. They were on a 70-win pace at the midpoint of the season — back in February. It’s not automatic, but the Bucks expect to find that level in this series. Having sewn up the top seed, the bubble was anti-climactic for the Bucks.
Orlando at full strength is a very good defensive team. No Jonathan Issac (tore ACL a week ago) was a huge loss. Aaron Gordon (hamstring) is questionable. So are the Magic.
Prediction: Bucks in 5
(4) Indiana Pacers vs (5) Miami Heat
T.J. Warren’s 5-game meteor shower (53 to start bubble play) ended with the Heat silencing him. Domantas Sabonis’ absence hurts the Pacers on the glass and in terms of offensive variety. Malcolm Brogdon, Aaron Holiday and Victor Oladipo (not at full health) will have to dominate Miami’s guards in order for the Pacers to have a shot. It’d be fun to see Warren go off a couple of times. They’ll need that for this series to go 7.
Jimmy Butler can do everything but shoot. He even makes a mean cup of coffee, which he sells at exorbitant prices. The rest of the Heat can shoot, especially Duncan Robinson, who is doing his best to take the title of most-lethal-off-ball-shooter from Kyle Korver (apologies to Klay Thompson, may he return to full health next year). Bam Adebayo can defend anyone and facilitate from the free-throw line. Many are anticipating Adebayo guarding Giannis in the second round. Kendrick Nunn is surprisingly crafty and unfailingly confident. It’s a shame the Pacers don’t have Sabonis, or this would closer to a toss-up.
Prediction: Heat in 6
(3) Boston Celtics vs (6) Philadelphia 76ers
The Celtics are playing some of their best ball of 2020. That discounts their 2019, in which they started the year 10–1, and were 22–7 thru December 27th…but that was nearly nine months ago, so why would you remember that? The middle of the Celtics season was topsy-turvy. They were tiring in late February and early March, dropping 4 of 6 before the pandemic hit. Kemba Walker’s knee was ailing and he missed time. But now here we are, six months later, and the rest has done Kemba good. Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown stepped up during Kemba’s absence and the four-headed-scoring quartet of newly-minted All-Star Jayson Tatum-Kemba-Gordon-Jaylen are a force to be reckoned with.
Boston enters the playoffs with a chance to compete for a title, and facing a depleted Sixers team will help them as they likely enter what will be a brutal 2nd round match-up with Toronto.
Meanwhile in March, Philly was worried about Ben Simmons’ back. Now, he’s out with a knee injury. Coach Brett Brown is on the proverbial hot seat. Simmons’ absence should prompt a huge sigh of relief for Celtics fans, as his swarming defense and up-tempo play-making can lift the Sixers ceiling considerably. As it stands, center Joel Embiid will have to dominate 4 of 7 games and get support from what appears to be a crusty Al Horford (we love you in Boston, Al, but the fit next to Embiid ain’t so good), an up-and-down Jason Richardon, and Tobias Harris. Harris is the most capable replacement for Simmons high-usage, but Jaylen Brown will make life complicated for him.
Prediction: Celtics in 5
(2) Toronto Raptors vs (7) Brooklyn Nets
Toronto’s defense is swarming, suffocating and will swallow teams whole. Can Siakam carry their offense in the half-court? This question might determine their fate in the second round — likely against the Celtics. The only question for this first round match-up is..how much rest will their best players get.
I bet you don’t know who coaches the Nets. Hint: Kenny Atkinson was fired before the hiatus. Jacque Vaughn is the answer. He’s done a nice job in the bubble. Unleashing Caris LeVert by default. Injuries to Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie snuffed out any real dreams Nets fans had of making noise. Still, the Nets have played with abandon and that might help them sneak a game.
Prediction: Raptors in 5