Neutral court advantage could create surprises in NBA bubble

BY J.A. SCHWARTZ

A wise collection of gentlemen once upbraided me about my powers of prognostication, suggesting, “Your crystal ball ain’t so crystal clear.”

Be that as it may, and based on the most recent efforts made in that regard (my prediction of the Padres beating the Twins in the 2020 World Series), I have very little ammunition with which to fire back a witty retort. Instead, undaunted, I will press onward, and train my powers of discernment on a magical world that exists exclusively in a figurative bubble in Orlando, Florida. It is in such a place that the NBA playoffs will commence this week. Without further delay, I will present a possible version of the truth that will unfold therein.

All games will be contested in the bubble set up for COVID-19 safety in Orlando. Without fans in attendance, the home court advantage will be limited to the type of music played during the games and the style of uniform favored by the “home” teams. There will be no travel to play games as the road team, and everyone is staying in the same hotels, erasing the “comforts of home” for the team hosting the games. Those circumstances will certainly mitigate the edge the higher seeds will enjoy in the playoff matchups below, but the seeding also reflects the relative strength of the teams, which should not be overlooked.

Western Conference Matchups

Lakers (1) vs. Blazers (8)

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER LeBron James is in the Western Conference playoffs for the first time, trying to win a title with his third different team as the Lakers pursue their first championship since 2010. James led the league in assists for the first time as the Los Angeles rolled to the best record in the West.

Damian Lillard was the “Bubble MVP”, and his scorched earth performance over the course of eight games lifted his Blazers into the 8th slot in the playoffs. Lillard averaged 37.6 points per game to go with 9.6 assists as Portland went 6-2, and then beat Memphis to win the “play-in game” and thus the right to face the top seeded Lakers. Lillard scored 61, 51, and 42 points as his squad scrapped to survive, and he’ll need to put up similar levels of offense to overcome a Lakers team led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis, arguably the best two players in the series (and, by extension, in the entire league).

Los Angeles struggled in bubble play, going 3-5 and featuring an offense that ranked near the bottom of the pack among all active teams. Disregard those figures. The Lakers clinched the #1 seed early in bubble play, and have playoff tested veterans in James and Danny Green to go with JR Smith, JaVale McGee and Rajon Rondo (who should return from his thumb injury sometime in the first round). Anthony Davis will need to step up his game and prove he is capable of championship level play, but James has dragged far less talented rosters to the NBA Finals, and if they can stay healthy, the Lakers should advance.

The Prediction: Lakers in six.

Clippers (2) vs. Mavericks (7)

Dallas features a historically efficient offense, led by Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, which scored 115.9 points per 100 possessions, the best rate ever, besting the 115 put up by the 2018-2019 Golden State Warriors. Despite their ability to score at previously unthinkable rates, they are the seventh seed because their defense leaves plenty to be desired. They hung 149 points on the playoff bound Rockets, and lost by four.

The Clippers, led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, are considered by many to be the best team in the Western Conference, and they can have multiple lock-down defenders on the floor at any given time and not sacrifice offensive skill. Patrick Beverly and Montrezl Harrell are excellent two-way players, and both figure to be important pieces in the series. Paul George has never led his team to the NBA Finals despite eight prior attempts. In Kawhi Leonard, he has a running mate who has achieved Finals glory, winning titles with two different franchises. Those two will lead the Clippers to victory in this matchup.

Prediction: Clippers in five.

Nuggets (3) vs. Jazz (6)

Neither of these franchises has seen much recent playoff glory. The Jazz have been eliminated by the Rockets in each of the past two seasons, but they’d have to advance to the conference finals to have that matchup recur. Rudy Gobert, the Jazz center and defensive stalwart, was the first high profile athlete to contract COVID-19, and his relationship with star guard Donovan Mitchell was strained as a result of it. The two have apparently buried the hatchet, and they’ll need to bring their A games if they are to upend the talented Nuggets, led by Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.

Denver won’t be able to rely upon the altitude to capitalize on their home court advantage, but they might be able to unleash Michael Porter Jr. on the Jazz to help tilt the scales in their favor. Porter Jr. averaged 22 points with 8.6 rebounds in the bubble games, giving the Nuggets another reliable scorer to go with Jokic and Murray. If he’s healthy and playing at that level, Denver should advance.

Prediction: Nuggets in six.

Rockets (4) vs. Thunder (5)

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER Houston’s James Harden led the NBA in scoring for the third straight season with a 34.3 average, but he’s yet to help lead the Rockets into the NBA Finals during his eight years with them.

This series might be the most entertaining of all the first round NBA matchups. Houston, who decided that Chris Paul wasn’t capable of helping them reach the finals, traded him to the Thunder for Russell Westbrook. Daryl Morey, the Rockets GM, authorized that transaction, and has also pioneered the trend that sees his team shoot the highest number of three pointers in the league. Morey has also gone all-in on the small-ball concept, trading young center Clint Capela to acquire Robert Covington, a defensive specialist who can also shoot three’s, and, at 6’7”, is the tallest player on the roster. Houston regularly starts five players at that height or smaller, and has been able to win despite being regularly outrebounded.

Westbrook will miss the start of the series with a leg injury, and his absence might just allow the Thunder to steal the series. It will be incumbent upon role players like Danuel House, Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers to play well in Westbrook’s absence if the Rockets are to advance. Young guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroeder, both of whom averaged 19 points a game this year, revolve around the playmaking Paul. Steven Adams, the Thunder center, is a gifted offensive rebounder, and his ability to provide extra possessions may well prove decisive for Oklahoma City. In what will be a very close series, James Harden will be the difference, and the Beard leads Houston past the Thunder.

Prediction: Rockets in seven.

Western Conference Semifinals:
Rockets over Lakers
Clippers over Nuggets

Western Conference Finals:
Clippers over Rockets

_________________________________________________________________________________________________
Eastern Conference Matchups

Bucks (1) vs. Magic (8)

Unlike the 1/8 matchup in the West, Milwaukee and presumptive repeat MVP award winner Giannis Antetokounmpo should trounce the Magic. Orlando will receive no improvement in their odds to win this series despite playing as close to their home court as any team in the playoffs. They’ve lost key players to injury in Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba, and Aaron Gordon is nursing a hamstring injury, which may limit his effectiveness and explosiveness.

None of that news bodes well for a team that finished seven games below .500, facing the team with the best record in the NBA at 56-17. Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton should lead the scoring ranks, and the Lopez twins could run roughshod in the paint without Isaac and Bamba. This should be a walkover for Milwaukee.

Prediction: Bucks in five.

Raptors (2) vs. Nets (7)

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER Toronto’s Pascal Siakam was the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 2019 as he teamed with Kawhi Leonard to help lead the Raptors to their first title. He raised his scoring average by another six points a game this season as Toronto recorded the second best record in the league in the regular season.

It seems like it took place in another lifetime, but the Toronto Raptors won the NBA Championship in 2018-2019, beating the Warriors for their first title. Despite losing Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers, the Raptors played inspired basketball without him, going 53-19 in 2020, the second best in the league. Led by Pascal Siakam, who broke out last year and improved further in 2020, averaging 22.9 points and 7.3 rebounds, Toronto features a roster of capable scorers. Guards Kyle Lowry, Fred Van Vleet and Norman Powell each contribute 16 points per game or more, and coach Nick Nurse expertly directs his roster to succeed. Only Milwaukee posted better defensive metrics this season, and the Raptors figure to make life miserable for the Nets.

Brooklyn will be without their two best players, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, and will have to depend upon Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert to pace their offense, and have sharpshooter Joe Harris raining three pointers to lead the 35-37 Nets to an upset in this series. Don’t count on it.

Prediction: Raptors in five.

Celtics (3) vs. Sixers (6)

The Celtics and Sixers have a long playoff history, and the rivals will match up again in Orlando, hundreds of miles from their northeastern homes. The Celtics, at 48-24, are a team led by young emerging talent, none better than 22-year-old Jayson Tatum, who scored a career high 23.4 points per game to go with seven rebounds and three assists for Boston. His efforts will be complimented by 23-year-old Jaylon Brown, who chipped in 20.3 points per game, by far the best figures of his career to date.

The Celtics may well go as far as those two young stars will take them, but it will be veteran Kemba Walker who could be the difference in the series. At 30, he’s got a lot of mileage on his frame, and he’s struggled with knee issues that kept him on a minutes limit during the bubble games he did play. However, the latest updates have him fully healthy and ready to participate at a high level during the series, only his third playoff appearance in nine career seasons. He’ll be counted on to make big shots against the Sixers defensive rotation, a unit that will be without perhaps its most dominant piece: Ben Simmons.

Simmons will miss the postseason following knee surgery, a crushing blow to a team that has yet to realize the potential suggested by its talented roster. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia’s leading scorer at 23 points per game, also snags 11.6 rebounds a contest, and will be the lynchpin around which the Sixers offense pivots. Embiid has struggled with injuries his entire career, and he comes into the series nursing knee and wrist concerns. If he has to miss significant time, the Sixers will struggle to compete. Even without Simmons, however, the team relies upon Tobias Harris (19.6 ppg) and Josh Richardson to make shots, and has veteran Al Horford available to contribute as a sixth man off the bench. The series figures to be an intriguing one, but Boston has the healthier, younger collection of talent, and those young legs will ultimately carry the team to the next round.

Prediction: Celtics in six.

Pacers (4) vs. Heat (5)

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER Jimmy Butler’s first season in Miami resulted in a nearly ten game improvement for the Heat and their first division title since 2014.

The Pacers are the higher seeded team in this matchup, but they enter the series without Damontas Sabonis, their best rebounder during the regular season. They will depend upon Victor Oladipo, who originally opted out of the resumed season in the bubble, but had a change of heart and is now playing regularly for the Pacers. He had been rehabbing from a torn quadriceps tendon, and may not be at his physical peak, but he’ll need to play at pre-injury levels to carry his Pacers past the Heat. Indiana also leans on TJ Warren (19.8 ppg) and Malcolm Brogdon (16.5 ppg) for scoring, but those two join Oladipo in forming one of the best on-ball defensive units in the game (ranking 6th overall in defensive efficiency this season}. They will need to be on their toes to slow down Miami’s leader, Jimmy Butler, who has bounced around the NBA over the past four seasons-from Chicago to Minnesota to Philadelphia before landing in Miami-despite a well rounded game that saw him post 19.9 ppg to go with 6.7 rebounds a game and 6.0 assists per contest this season.

Butler leads a deep Heat team that has eight different players who averaged 10 points or better, including breakout star Bam Adebayo (15.9 ppg, 10.2 rpg) and sharpshooter Duncan Robinson, who connected on 44.6% of his three-point efforts this season, fourth best in the NBA. If Goran Dragic, who looked refreshed during bubble play, can contribute meaningful minutes off the bench, the Heat should vanquish the Pacers on the strength of their deeper rotation.

Prediction: Heat in five.

Eastern Conference Semifinals:
Bucks over Heat
Raptors over Celtics

Eastern Conference Finals:
Bucks over Raptors

NBA Finals:
Clippers over Bucks

About J.A. Schwartz

J.A. Schwartz is a reporter and columnist for the Martinez Tribune. He's also a licensed professional in the health care field when he's not opining on the world of sports and culture for the benefit of our readers.

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