NBA Playoff Picture: Matchups, Predictions for Race to the 2020 Finals

As the 2019-20 NBA regular season comes to an end, it’s time to take a look at the impending postseason. The Eastern Conference playoff field is set, but there will likely be a play-in tournament to decide the No. 8 seed in the West. How will it all play out?

Eastern Conference Set

The top eight seeds in the Eastern Conference have been established now that the Washington Wizards played themselves right out of the postseason. The Wizards were 0-for-7 with one regular-season game remaining to play.

The Wizards awful play in the bubble cleared the way for both Brooklyn, currently No. 7, and Orlando, No. 8, to make the postseason. As it stands, it looks as if The Magic will face No. 1 Milwaukee and the Nets will get No. 2 Toronto.

The middle of the Eastern Conference standings is where some changes could occur. Most likely, Miami will end up fourth, Indiana fifth, and Philadelphia sixth. That sets up what will be the most intriguing of first-round playoff matchups as Boston takes on the 76ers. Miami will face off with Indiana in the remaining first-round series.

Out West

The picture is less clear in the Western Conference where there is likely to be a play-in tournament. Heading into the restart, Memphis had a hold of the No. 8 seed. That has changed with the Grizzlies winning just one of seven games in the bubble.

Portland is now in at No. 8 and there is a three-way tie for ninth. With each of the three teams within just half a game of the Trail Blazers, there will be a play-in tournament. The question is which team will it be?

Whoever it is, Portland will be difficult to overcome. The Trail Blazers are 5-2 since the restart and perennial All-Star Damian Lillard is tearing up the competition. Lillard is averaging 33 points and 9.5 assists per game in Orlando and Portland has both Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back in the lineup.

With Portland the likely No. 8, they will face the task of beating the Los Angeles Lakers in Round 1. The Clippers will be the second seed and will face No. 7 Dallas. Denver will be the No. 3 seed but, like the Eastern Conference, there could be some changes in the middle of the standings.

Currently, Houston (No. 4) is one game ahead of No. 5 Oklahoma City. The Thunder are a half-game ahead of sixth-place Utah.

The most likely scenario puts Denver playing Utah and Houston facing Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs.

No Surprises

In the East’s No. 1 vs. No. 8 series, Milwaukee is one of the favorites to win the NBA title. The Orlando Magic (32-40) are a sub-.500 basketball team that lost five straight before their final regular-season game with the Pelicans.

Then, there is Orlando’s performance against the Bucks this season. The Magic lost all four matchups with Milwaukee losing by 32, 9, 11, and 16. Milwaukee will waste no time in a series with the Magic advancing in four games.

It will be a similar fate for the Brooklyn Nets who will face No. 2 seed Toronto in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Raptors and Nets have met three times this season. All three victories have gone to Toronto, which is 5-1 so far in the restart. Without Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Spencer Dinwiddie; the Nets just cannot hang with the Raptors.

Most Intriguing First-Round Matchup

The Celtics-Sixers matchup in Round 1 lost a little of its luster when Philadelphia lost 6-foot-10-inch Ben Simmons. The Sixers’ star is likely done for the rest of the season with a knee injury. That will certainly affect the 76ers on the floor and from a mental standpoint as well.

Boston will have a difficult time dealing with Philadelphia C Joel Embiid. The 7-foot Embiid will be defended by 6-8 Celtics C Daniel Theis. Surely, Boston head coach Brad Stevens will come up with a plan to slow down Embiid, but the Sixers center may still hit his 23.5 points and 11.8 rebounds per game.

In the end, the experience of Boston will overcome and take advantage of the loss of Simmons on the other end. Boston advances.

The most intriguing matchup in the West will by the No. 1-No. 8 matchup of the Lakers and the Trail Blazers. Portland will win the play-in tournament in one game, but will then have to face the Lakers immediately in a seven-game series.

Lillard and backcourt mate C.J. McCollum will give the Lakers fits. Portland has the highest offensive efficiency rating of any team in the bubble. Prior to their final regular-season game, Lillard put up 61 and 51 points in consecutive games.

He’ll be hard to stop, but so will LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Lakers are just 3-4 since the restart, but come playoff time James will be on another level. Portland will give Los Angeles all it can handle, but the Lakers will move on to the conference semifinals.

The Mother of All Upsets

One of the favorites to win the NBA title, the Los Angeles Clippers will be the No. 2 seed in the West. They will face off against the game’s best young player in Dallas swingman Luka Doncic.

Yes, the Clippers beat the Mavericks three times this season. The most recent was on August 6 in the bubble in Orlando. L.A.’s Kawhi Leonard scored 29 points and Paul George added 24 as the Clippers won 126-111.

Kristaps Porzingis scored 30 points and Doncic added 29 for Dallas. Doncic’s performance this season has been eye-opening. His performance in the bubble is almost legendary. Doncic is averaging 32 points, 11 rebounds, and 10.3 assists per game and has three triple-doubles for the Mavericks since July 31.

His supporting cast might not be what it needs to be, but it will be enough to pull the biggest upset of the most unusual postseason in NBA history. Dallas will not go on to win an NBA title, but the win over the Clippers will point them closer to doing so at some point in Doncic’s career.

The No. 4-No. 5 Matchups

One could argue that the Miami-Indiana first-round playoff series will be more intriguing than Boston-Philadelphia in the East. The Heat is looking at adding Pacers guard Victor Oladipo in a free agency. That alone adds to the mystique surrounding this series.

The two teams met on August 10 with the Heat claiming a 114-92 win. They meet again on August 14 in the final game of the regular season. The Pacers also lost to Miami 113-112 and 122-108 earlier in the season before the break.

The ongoing feud between the Heat’s Jimmy Butler and Indiana’s T.J. Warren adds a level of intrigue to the series. Butler has gotten the better of the matchup. Plus, Miami is better defensively thanks to C Bam Adebayo.

Miami wins in Round 1.

In the West, No. 4 Houston faces nemesis No. 5 Oklahoma City. The Thunder were essentially written off for the 2019-20 season after Paul George and Russell Westbrook left in free agency last year. OKC has beaten Houston twice this season and is not intimidated by the Rockets.

The Thunder sometimes plays with four or even five guards at once. Their small-ball lineup has been effective, but nobody does small-ball like Houston. That’s why the Rockets win this first-round series.

Big on Big

No. 3 Denver will get No. 6 Utah in Round 1 of the NBA playoffs. One thing is certain. This will be the closest series in Round 1. Denver has beaten the Jazz in three games this season. The Nuggets won by six, three, and two points in overtime in the most recent meeting with Utah.

The series will feature two of the better big men in the NBA. Denver’s Nikola Jokic averages 20.2 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 7.0 assists per game. On the other end, Utah’s Rudy Gobert is one of the league’s best defenders. Gobert scores 15.1 points, grabs 13.5 rebounds, and averages 2.0 blocks per game for Utah.

Like most series, the Nuggets-Jazz series will come down to guard play. Denver’s Jamal Murray (18.8 ppg) and Utah’s Donovan Mitchell (24.2 ppg) and Jordan Clarkson will battle for the right to advance. Denver gets the edge and beats Utah likely in a full seven-game series.

Conference Semifinals

In the East, top-seeded Milwaukee will face No. 4 Miami. The Heat is actually the one team that defends the Bucks the best. That’s because Heat C Bam Adebayo can slow down league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. He’s done so this season.

Still, don’t expect Milwaukee to let this opportunity slip away. The Bucks were the best team in the NBA the entire season. Despite going just 3-4 with one game remaining in the bubble, Milwaukee still has the best record in the NBA.

Miami has had the Bucks’ number this season, but the playoffs are a different story. Milwaukee moves on for another shot at an NBA Finals against a very familiar opponent.

In the other Eastern semifinal, Toronto will take on Boston in a series that will likely come down to a deciding Game 7. The Celtics won two of three games against the Raptors this season, including a 122-100 win on August 7. Boston owned a 40-point lead in that game at one point.

Still, with a possible NBA championship repeat on the line, Pascal Siakam, who played just 28 minutes in that August 7 game, Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry are not going down easily. A Toronto-Milwaukee Eastern Conference Finals rematch is on the horizon.

Out West, it’s pretty simple. After pulling one of the biggest playoff upsets in NBA history, the Dallas Mavericks come back to earth and lose to Denver. Jokic is simply too much for the Mavs to handle.

The Nuggets will move on to face the top-seeded Lakers who will take care of the running and gunning Houston Rockets. James Harden and Westbrook will continue to pour in 60-plus points per night, but the lack of a frontcourt will watch the small-ball of Houston head home for the offseason. It’s Lakers and Nuggets for the Western Conference title.

NBA Finals

Last season, Toronto’s defense was more physical and shut down Milwaukee’s 3-point shooters to win the conference title. The Bucks will be better prepared this time around. After another MVP-worthy season, Antetonkounmpo will make it happen for Milwaukee propelling the Bucks to their first NBA Finals since 1974.

If James wants his best chance to win an NBA title before retiring, it’s 2020. The Lakers will dispatch the Nuggets in six games or less. James and company beat the Nuggets in three of four games this season. The most recent was a 124-121 victory on August 10.

James scored 29 points and dished out 12 assists as the Lakers shot 54.3 percent from the field. Kyle Kuzma hit the game-winning three-pointer with just 0.4 seconds to play.

With a Bucks-Lakers final, NBA fans get what was projected by many ways back at the beginning of the 2019-20 season. The Bucks would return to the postseason this time with one goal in mind – the NBA title. L.A. would ride the James-Anthony Davis train as far as it could in an attempt to win at least one more title with King James.

Milwaukee has been to the NBA Finals just twice, in 1971 and ’74. They won the NBA title in ’71 with a guy named Lew Alcindor, who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

The 2020 Bucks also have a big scorer in Antetokounmpo who averages 29.5 points per game. While Alcindor could lean on Hall of Fame guard Oscar Robertson and forward Bob Dandridge, Antetokounmpo has similar help from G Eric Bledsoe (15.1 ppg) and F Khris Middleton (21.0 ppg).

James is having a career year with the Lakers. He is averaging 25.5 points and a league-high 10.3 assists per game this season. Davis is the team’s leading scorer averaging 26.1 points a game. He also averages 9.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks.

The Lakers are also just 3-4 with one game remaining in the restart. L.A. played Milwaukee twice this season winning one. The Bucks won 111-104 at home back in December. The Lakers won by 10 at home in March.

Without a clear home-court advantage, it comes down to the better basketball team. The Bucks and Lakers are among the leaders in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The Bucks are the highest-scoring team in the league. The Lakers are No. 2 in points allowed per game.

What gives?

It will come down to the better players and at this point, Antetokounmpo is the best in the game. The Bucks will not squander this opportunity and capture their first NBA championship since 1974.

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