By: Robert Bishop
Back again, and Portland completed its playoff push over the weekend, winning Saturday’s play-in game over the Memphis Grizzlies. It took a massive offensive showing from the Blazers, with Jusuf Nurkic (22 points, 21 boards), C.J. McCollum (29 points), and Damian Lillard (31 with ten dimes) all shining. Now, Portland moves on to face the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. Given Portland’s struggles defensively, slowing LeBron James and company seems highly unlikely. It will take another otherworldly stretch of play from Lillard—the NBA bubble MVP—for the Blazers to make this a competitive series.
Opening up playoff action this afternoon is Game 1 between the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets. This is a series the Nuggets have to win, as the Jazz are too short-handed due to injury (Bojan Bogdanovic) and bubble restrictions (Mike Conley, who has left the bubble for the birth of his son). Utah lacks offensive play-makers around Donovan Mitchell, and few teams in the NBA are capable of putting up points as the Denver Nuggets. Denver’s youngsters will also be worth a watch, as both Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol could be due to substantial run following impressive showings during seeding games.
Also out West today is Game 1 between the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Clippers. This will be a brutally tough opening series for the championship-hopeful Clippers. On the plus side, few teams have the defensive pieces capable of slowing down Dallas superstar Luka Doncic, something the Clippers boast in not only Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, but also veteran Patrick Beverly. However, L.A. lacks someone suited for doing the same against Kristaps Porzingis. Should the Dallas big man continue to thrive—he averaged over 30 points-per-game during bubble play—the Mavericks could flirt with an upset bid in the series.
There are a pair of series that look to be likely sweeps in the East or in a best-case scenario for the Nets and Magic, gentleman’s sweeps. The defending champion Raptors will take on the Brooklyn Nets, while the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks square off against the Magic. Injuries and COVID-19 have ravaged the rosters of both Orlando and Brooklyn, making already impossibilities that much more unlikely. Orlando has to merely be hoping none of its core pieces suffer a serious injury, while Brooklyn will likely continue to showcase Caris LeVert and a motley supporting cast.
Game 1 between the Celtics and 76ers is this evening, and what could have been a dynamite match-up is looking to be skewed heavily in Boston’s favor due to Philadelphia being without All-Star Ben Simmons. The Celtics should cruise in this match-up given Simmons’s absence and Philadelphia’s general lack of clarity without its primary play-maker. However, 76ers big man Joel Embiid is the best player in the series, and Boston lacks anyone capable of slowing him down on offense. Should Embiid be at the top of his game, the 76ers can push Boston and make this a series.
Rounding out the East is by far the conference’s best match-up, the Indiana Pacers versus the Miami Heat. The Pacers have all the pieces in place for a deep playoff run, with T.J. Warren emerging as an offensive star in the bubble and Victor Oladipo healthy. Warren is likely going to go head-to-head with Heat All-Star Jimmy Butler, and the showdown will play a huge role in determining the outcome of the series. This is probably going to be a brawl of a series, even if it doesn’t go seven games, and the winner will have a legitimate shot at taking down the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round.
Finishing off the West is a revenge series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets. The two teams made a blockbuster deal expected to send them on differing paths this past summer, with Houston acquiring Russell Westbrook in exchange for Chris Paul. Instead of embracing a rebuild, Paul looks rejuvenated in OKC, leading the Thunder to the No. 5 seed in the West. Unfortunately for Houston, Russell Westbrook’s status is up in the air for the series due to a quad injury. Fortunately for Houston, James Harden is healthy and more than willing to shoulder Westbrook’s offensive duties. Perhaps the deciding factor in the series will be Thunder center Steven Adams, who represents a potential X-factor for OKC given Houston’s desire to play small and fast. Game 1 of this epic match-up is Tuesday evening.