Preview: NBA Finals promise landslide wins, tough match-ups

Alexander Plant | @aplant63, Sports Editor

Before the NBA’s bubble can burst, there are several playoff games to be played. Some may ends in sweeps, but others will have us on the edges of our seats.

Eastern Conference

Milwaukee Bucks (Seed 1) vs Orlando Magic (Seed 8)

Bucks win (4-0)

The Eastern Conference lacks true talent near the bottom of its playoff contenders, and the Orlando Magic is one of those teams. The Magic have taken a step back this season on both ends of the floor mainly due to injuries. To start this series the Magic will be without two key forwards, Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon. This will be overwhelmingly detrimental to the team as they go up against one of the best forwards and the most likely MVP of the league, Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

Antetokounmpo has dominated the Eastern Conference this season, scoring 28.3 points and securing 13.7 rebounds a game. The decisive factor for Milwaukee is their ability to get stops on defense, which allows them to control the pace of the game. The Milwaukee Bucks rank No. 1 in defensive rating and score the most points per game in the league. 

To put it simply, the Magic do not have the talent or offensive firepower to make this series remotely competitive. The Bucks will be able to control both ends of the floor for all four quarters of each game.

Interesting stats to look at:

(1) Bucks lead the league in point differential at +10.1 points per game

(2) Orlando ranks No. 27 in field goal%

(3) Orlando is 1-3 without Aaron Gordon in the bubble.


Toronto Raptors (Seed 2) vs Brooklyn Nets (Seed 7)

Raptors win (4-0)

The Toronto Raptors have not missed a beat after winning the NBA Finals last season, despite missing Finals MVP and best two-way player in the NBA, Kawhi Leonard. Coach of the year candidate Nick Nurse established over 10 defensive schemes over the course of the season, making the Raptors almost impossible to gameplan for on the offensive end. Although the Raptors lack the star power that they had last year, they make up for it in teamwork. 

What will make this series so difficult for the Brooklyn Nets is their sheer lack of talent compared to other NBA playoff rosters. Possibly one of the most interesting teams in the bubble this year, the Nets are playing without most of their original 2019-2020 roster. Guard Caris LaVert has carried a talent lacking Nets roster for most of the NBA bubble. LaVert is the only player currently on the Nets roster averaging over 20 points per game in the bubble. 

When looking at lineup comparisons, Toronto has an advantage over every position except against LaVert, they should make quick work of an injury-ridden Nets team.

Interesting stats to look at:

(1) Raptors are top 2 in opponents field goal%, 3 point%, steals and forced turnovers

(2) Nets rank No. 24 in field goal% and No. 9 in most turnovers per game

(3) Raptors are 2-1 against the Nets this season and held them to 103.3 points per game


Boston Celtics (Seed 3) vs Philadelphia 76ers (Seed 6)

Celtics win (4-1)

This was going to be possibly the most closely contested playoff matchup of the first round. Instead, it will be a lopsided affair due to Ben Simmons missing at least the first two rounds of the playoffs with a knee injury. Since he and center Joel Embiid were drafted, the Philadelphia 76ers have had major trouble keeping them on the floor together, not to mention that their playstyles are very point centric. 

Without Simmons, the 76ers are heavily outmatched against a rising star in Jayson Tatum along with solid 20 point per game scorers Gordon Hayward, Kemba Walker and Jaylon Brown. That offensive firepower combined with the fact that their only defensive problem will be Embiid in the paint means that the Boston Celtics can quickly overwhelm the rest of the 76ers early in the game. Embiid and the rest of their team do not play well from behind.

Important stats to look at: 

(1) 76ers are 12-26 when they are not in Philadelphia

(2) 76ers are 13-20 against .500 and above teams

(3) Celtics have the second most 10 plus point victories with 29


Indiana Pacers (Seed 4) vs Miami Heat (Seed 5)

Heat win (4-2)

This series became one of the most heated rivalries during the regular season. The battle between Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler and Indiana Pacers forward T.J. Warren should make for a very aggressive first few games. Regardless of their feud, the Heat have gotten the better of the Pacers this season, winning three out of four matchups.

One big problem for the Pacers is the lack of consistency from guard Victor Oladipo. Since returning from rupturing his quad in 2019, Oladipo only averages 14.5 points per game which is down from his career-high year in 2017-18 where he averaged 23.1. 

Warren has shown up in a big way throughout the bubble, but it seems to be more of a streak rather than a major improvement in play. Expect the Heat defense to key in on him if he gets hot rather than letting him shoot his way into a lead.

Interesting stats to look at:

(1) Heat are 8-1 in overtime this season

(2) Pacers are 5-7 in games decided by 3 points or less

(3) Warren only averages 10.3 points per game on 35.5% shooting versus the Heat this season


Western Conference

Los Angeles Lakers (Seed 1) vs Portland Trailblazers (Seed 8)

Lakers win (4-1)

The most important thing to consider when predicting this series is to watch the Lakers’ overall season, not just the NBA bubble. During the regular season, the Lakers were top 10 in assists, rebounds, steals and blocks per game, as well as No. 1 in field goal%. Lebron James and the role players around him almost always play better when it comes to the playoffs, so expect no different this season.

The important thing to take away from the Trailblazers’ bubble season is that they cannot play defense against physical guards or large forwards, and Damian Lillard can’t win every game for the team. After the win against the Brooklyn Nets, to clinch the play in game, Lillard looked exhausted. Don’t get swept into the “Dame-Time” hype and focus on the fact that Lebron James is 52-10 in the first round of the playoffs.

Important Stats to look at:

(1) Damian Lillard and CJ Mccollum No. 1 and 2 in minutes played per game in the bubble.

(2) Damian Lillard and CJ Mccollum No. 393 and 408 in defensive rating

(3) Lakers rank No. 5 in overall plus/minus

(4) Trailblazers are 1-2 against the Lakers this season, and Lillard scored 48 in the one win


Los Angeles Clippers (Seed 2) vs Dallas Mavericks (Seed 7)

Clippers win (4-0)

Although the Mavericks offense is the highest rated offense in modern NBA history, the Clippers are stacked with defensive talent that has been resting constantly for most of the regular season. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Patrick Beverley have all made the NBA All-Defense First Team at least once in the last three years. 

The Mavericks were 0-3 against the Clippers this year and star forward Luka Doncic averaged 5 turnovers during those games. With the lack of playoff experience between Dallas’ two best players Doncic and forward Kristaps Porzingis, expect the veteran heavy Clippers led by NBA Champion coach Doc Rivers to make quick work of the team. 

Important stats to look at: 

(1) Mavericks average 118.2 points per game against western conference opponents but only average 105.7 against the Clippers

(2) Kawhi Leonard and Paul George average 56 points per game against the Mavericks this season

(3) The Mavericks are 12-18 against .500 and above teams

(4) The Clippers are 8-3 in games decided by 3 points or less


Denver Nuggets (Seed 3) vs Utah Jazz (Seed 6)

Nuggets win (4-2)

This could have been one of the more interesting series in the playoffs this year, but with Jazz starting point guard Mike Conley on paternity leave, there will not be much hope for this to be interesting. Although the Jazz are 18-7 without Conley on the floor, his playoff experience will surely be missed against a deep Nuggets roster. The absence of Conley and starting forward Bojan Bogdanovic will leave the Jazz roster short on key role players, which are crucial in the playoff series. 

The Jazz and Nuggets faced off three times this season and were decided by an average of 3.66 points, this possibly was one of the most evenly matched series in the playoffs this year with Conley in the rotation. Without Conley, the Nuggets backcourt with guards Jamal Murray and Gary Harris will outmatch the duo of Jordan Clarkson and Donovan Mitchell. 

The playmaking ability of center Nikola Jokic for the Nuggets is another asset the team holds over the Jazz. Although Utah center Rudy Gobert is significantly better than Jokic on defense, he lacks the offensive playmaking and shotmaking ability that is crucial for an all around center.

Important stats to look at:

(1) Nikola Jokic averages 29.3 points per game a 9 assists per game against the Jazz this year

(2) Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. is averaging 22 points per game in the bubble which is 13 points higher than his overall average

(3) Donavan Mitchell only averages 19 points per game against the Jazz this year


Houston Rockets (Seed 4) vs Oklahoma City Thunder (Seed 5)

Thunder win (4-3)

This will be the most interesting first round playoff series this year. With Rocket’s guard Russell Westbrook missing the first few games this series will become a battle of former teammates, James Harden and Chris Paul. 

Harden has become one of the greatest regular-season players of the 21st century. However, what stops Harden from being one of the best players in the history of basketball is his lackluster performances in the playoffs. This is mostly due to the fact that he absolutely carries the Houston Rockets for an 82 game regular season and opposing defenses aren’t in playoff mode. When Harden enters a seven-game series, the entire opposing team focuses on how to get the ball out of his hands and force the Rocket’s role players to carry a heavier load on the offensive end. This forces Harden to put in more effort on the offensive end which ends up costing him on the other end of the floor.

Without Westbrook, the Thunder team is overall better than the Rockets, but the factor that is not commonly taken into consideration is the COVID-19 break. Harden usually has to move right into the playoffs right after an exhausting regular season, but with this five month break, he will be able to play with that same regular season energy throughout the playoffs.

Harden’s energetic play will not be enough without Westbrook on the floor. The Rockets formed a smaller team this year to match the play style of a Harden-Westbrook duo, and that style does not fit a James Harden solo act. The Rockets will have to depend on the shooting of role players in an atmosphere that is not welcoming to them. The Thunder with Paul under coach of the year candidate Billy Donavan will be too much for the Rockets to handle.

Important stats to look at:

(1) Harden only shoots 32.8% from the field against the Thunder this year

(2) The Rockets are 4-5 in games decided by 3 points or less

(3) The Rockets ranked No. 27 in points in the paint per game which is crucial in playoff series