We’re now exactly one month away from the NBA resuming play in Orlando, and barring any COVID-19 complications, we could be in store for one of the most exciting postseasons in recent memory. And the eight-game lead-in to the playoffs should add plenty of drama.
Both conferences have a deep collection of teams jockeying for playoff position as we approach the restart, and seeding could prove critical. Western Conference teams will scrap to avoid the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds, while the Celtics and Raptors could face a difficult round one matchup if they fall below the No. 2 spot. Add in a dose of play-in drama, and the league has a roadmap to capturing the public’s full attention for the next two months.
So which games should we circle on our calendar as we await the 2019-20 season’s resumption? The Crossover selected the six most important games before the beginning of the 2020 playoffs.
July 30 – Lakers vs. Clippers
This matchup won’t necessarily impact the Western Conference standings, but the opening-night matchup could set the tone for the entire bubble experiment in Orlando. There will likely be some semblance of rust for both teams, but if this looks more like summer league than a lead-up to the playoffs, the league could face some significant challenges ahead. Fortunately, it’s unlikely we see a truly diminished product in the Battle of Los Angeles. Both title contenders will want to stake their claim as the true team to beat in the Western Conference, and the late summer and early fall could provide a defining moment of LeBron James’ career.
We should be careful not to draw too many conclusions from the second game of the NBA’s restart, and the COVID-19 crisis could scuttle a potentially epic Western Conference finals. But if all goes smoothly, June 30 should be a preview for one of the most thrilling non-Finals series in recent memory.
July 31 – Rockets vs. Mavericks
This intrastate matchup could prove to be a feisty one over the next decade, and the remainder of the 2020 season may provide some early fireworks. Dallas currently sits 1.5 games back of Houston for the No. 6 seed, a spot that is coveted in the Western Conference. All due respect to the Nuggets, Jazz or Thunder, though they’re not on the same plane as the Clippers. Avoiding either Los Angeles team in the first round is of utmost importance. A win to close July would be huge for Dallas.
The Mavericks undoubtedly have an uphill climb out of the No. 7 spot, with matchups against the Clippers, Bucks and Rockets ahead before the postseason. But there’s certainly enough talent available to make a real run in the last eight games. Luka Doncic is a true superstar and Kristaps Porzingis was starting to find his groove as a strong No. 2 before the COVID-19 suspension. If the Mavericks can rise above No. 7, we could have a first-round upset on the horizon.
Aug. 3 – Grizzlies vs. Pelicans
The Pelicans are unlikely to catch the Grizzlies for the No. 8 seed, likely needing to knock off Ja Morant and Co. in back-to-back contests in order to advance to the postseason. But there’s a chance New Orleans never gets a chance to face Memphis with a postseason spot on the line. The Aug. 3 matchup could prove decisive.
The No. 9 seed in the West is currently occupied by three teams, with the Pelicans, Blazers and Kings all tied in the conference standings. Not only will the Pelicans have to fend off both Portland and Sacramento for the No. 9 spot, they will only reach the play-in(s) if they finish within four games of the Grizzlies. Zion Williamson’s squad has a favorable schedule ahead as they close the season with two Kings matchups and games against Washington, San Antonio and Orlando. A 4–1 stretch isn’t impossible, though even that may not be enough if the Grizzlies finish with a flurry. The battle of rookie phenoms could decide New Orleans’ playoff fate.
Aug. 7 – Celtics vs. Raptors
A traditional season would only add to the drama of this early August matchup as home court could have been on the line for a potential second-round matchup. Though even on the neutral floor in Orlando, this matchup of conference heavyweights holds no shortage of consequences.
Neither Boston nor Toronto will catch Milwaukee for the No. 1 seed, yet snagging the No. 2 spot could be critical given the current East standings. Facing the Nets or Magic in round one is unlikely to breed much concern. But considering the top six of the East, the No. 3 seed will certainly be on upset alert. The Sixers remain Finals contenders despite a rocky year, and Miami’s band of overachievers remains scary for both Boston and Toronto. The Raptors are likely to hold their three-game lead with eight to play, though the Celtics are certainly capable of catching fire. It wouldn’t be a total shock if Jayson Tatum continues his transcendent season.
Aug. 11 – Nets vs. Magic
Perhaps these two teams aren’t exactly ratings juggernaut, but this late season matchup could be decisive in determining who avoids a play-in game after the regular season. The Nets currently sit just 0.5 games ahead of the Magic for the No. 7 seed, with both teams hoping to avoid a battle with Bradley Beal and the Wizards with a playoff spot on the line. Brooklyn could face an uphill climb as it looks to fend off the Magic.
The Nets won’t have Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving available in Orlando, and they lost an additional two players in the last two days. Both Wilson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan have opted out of finishing the season due to COVID-19 concerns, and a third impact player could quickly follow suit. Nets guard–and second-leading scorer–Spencer Dinwiddie announced he has COVID-19 on Monday, placing his status for the season’s resumption in serious doubt. If Dinwiddie can’t play, the Nets could quickly fall to No. 8 before a difficult battle against Beal and the Wizards.