A Hypothetical Series-by-Series Breakdown of the NBA Playoffs
If not for the onslaught of coronavirus, the first round would have started today
The NBA season was barreling toward its home stretch before all play was suspended on March 11 due to the coronavirus pandemic. In turn, the NBA Playoffs have been delayed, or possibly even canceled; the league has not yet decided on whether it will finish the season. Unfortunately for basketball fans, that means a handful of riveting storylines have been put on indefinite pause.
From LeBron James and Anthony Davis turning the Lakers into a powerhouse out West to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George doing the same with the neighboring Clippers, or to Giannis and the Bucks cementing themselves as the best team in the league, there was plenty of intrigue at the top of the league. There were also some scrappy teams further down the standings whose main role would be to make things as difficult as possible for the elites; think of the Miami Heat, or the Denver Nuggets, or the Chris Paul-led Oklahoma City Thunder.
Even though it’s only been a bit over a month since the league shut down, it still feels properly bizarre that the first round of the NBA Playoffs were supposed to start today. Given the timing, we decided to do a breakdown of the eight hypothetical first round match-ups, based on the standings as they were on March 11.
#1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. #8 Orlando Magic
Season series: Milwaukee 4-0
Orlando’s reward for being the least bad of the East’s bad teams would be to get steamrolled in the first round by one of the best teams in recent memory. The Bucks demolished the Magic in all four games they played this season, and there’s little reason to believe that the same wouldn’t repeat in the playoffs. Giannis Antetokounmpo and co. would have been tested in the playoffs, but not here.
Prediction: Milwaukee 4-0
#2 Toronto Raptors vs. #7 Brooklyn Nets
Season series: Toronto 3-1
The Nets were the most likely team in this entire exercise to eventually drop out of the playoff hunt, following Kyrie Irving’s season-ending surgery on March 3rd. That being said, they did end the season before the shutdown on a three-game win streak, so who can say?
Either way, the Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard over the summer and somehow still remain one of the best teams in the league. That’s mostly due to Pascal Siakam’s ascent into stardom, and he should have feasted against the undermanned Nets. Shame about that Kevin Durant fellow being injured, because Siakam against KD would have been stellar.
Prediction: Toronto 4-1
#3 Boston Celtics vs. #6 Philadelphia 76ers
Season series: Philadelphia 3-1
This is the only match-up where the lower-seeded team either won or was leading the season series. Welcome to the Sixers’ bizarre 2019-2020 season, which was disappointing and exhilarating in turn. Injuries and bad streaks shot Philly down to sixth, but as they showed in the first three match-ups against Boston, they can beat anyone at any time.
Boston was pretty good prior to the shutdown in their own right, though clearly a level below the Milwaukee-Toronto tier in the East. This would have likely been the best Eastern Conference showdown of the first round, but Philly’s inconsistency and lack of spacing would have cost them.
Prediction: Boston 4-3
#4 Miami Heat vs. #5 Indiana Pacers
Season series: Miami 2-0
The Pacers performed valiantly to stay afloat while Victor Oladipo was coming back from a ruptured quad tendon, only to find that they didn’t really need him. Oladipo wasn’t great after returning — he shot under 40 percent from the field — but Indiana still clung to the fifth seed before the shutdown, with a big chunk of credit going to first-time All-Star Domantas Sabonis.
In the first round, they would have faced the Miami Heat, who had bounced around the top half of the East throughout the year but settled comfortably into fourth by March 11th. The Heat are led by Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, two hard-working All-Stars who likely would have been a nightmare for Indiana with their ball-hawking defense. This series wouldn’t have been pretty, and that suits Miami more than Indiana.
Prediction: Miami 4-2
#1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. #8 Memphis Grizzlies
Season series: Lakers 3-1
It turns out that giving LeBron James one of the best players in the league as his sidekick works. Who knew, besides everyone who watched him win titles in Miami and Cleveland with similar setups? That being said, James has never played with a star that complements his skill-set as well as Anthony Davis does, and it showed. The Lakers were a wrecking ball, and it felt like they had another gear for the playoffs that they hadn’t even tested yet.
Speaking of, their first-round opponents are the Grizzlies, who were very young and very fun, and who would have been very doomed in this matchup. Memphis should be good in coming years, but not just yet.
Prediction: Lakers 4-0
#2 Los Angeles Clippers vs. #7 Dallas Mavericks
Season series: Clippers 2-0
It feels weird to say this, but the Clippers were a bit of a disappointment this season before it all got shut down. Sure, they were the number two seed in the West, but it felt like Leonard and George hadn’t meshed properly yet, with the latter especially putting up some shockingly average numbers. No matter though, because they should have coasted in their hypothetical first-round series against Dallas.
The Mavs have a lot of reasons to be excited for the future, starting and ending with Luka Doncic, but the wonderfully talented Slovenian isn’t ready to pull off an upset of this caliber. He will be, and soon, so it’s a shame we got robbed of watching him singlehandedly steal a game or two from the Clips.
Prediction: Clippers 4-1
#3 Denver Nuggets vs. #6 Houston Rockets
Season series: 2-2
What even were the 2019-2020 Houston Rockets? After swapping Chris Paul out for Russell Westbrook, the Rockets were all over the place this season, showing their talent in some big wins while also cratering against much worse opposition. They still have James Harden, who was leading the league in scoring by almost four full points, so you can’t count them out …
… except that this Denver team is set up perfectly to stop Houston. Led by Nikola Jokic’s bizarre and brutally effective arsenal of wily big-man skills, the Nuggets put up just enough offense to complement their stellar defense all the way to the three-seed, the clear best team in a crowded West after the Los Angeles duopoly. It wouldn’t be easy to dispatch the Rockets, who can run Harden and Westbrook out there for longer stretches in the playoffs, but Denver has the tools to shut them down just enough to win four games.
Prediction: Denver 4-3
#4 Utah Jazz vs. #5 Oklahoma City Thunder
Season series: 1-1
This is the hardest matchup to predict for reasons that don’t really have anything to do with basketball. The Jazz were the patient zero of teams for coronavirus, with center and defensive lynchpin Rudy Gobert notoriously grabbing the spotlight when he tested positive for the virus just minutes after sardonically rubbing his hands all over every microphone in the Jazz’s press room on March 11. (The Jazz’s opponent that night? Yeah, you guessed it — the Thunder.) In recent days, reports have come out that Donovan Mitchell, Utah’s other star who also tested positive for COVID-19, is irreparably angry at Gobert.
Would that chemistry issue sink the Jazz in this first round? Hard to say, but any slack would give the Thunder the opening they need. No one expected Oklahoma City to be this good after trading away Westbrook for Paul, but they were. CP3 has been his usual stellar self, leading a very young Thunder team to the fifth seed, one above his old team in Houston. Add in scorers like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Galinari and Dennis Schroder, and OKC would have had enough firepower to take advantage of the Jazz’s turmoil.
Prediction: Oklahoma City 4-2
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