While it was a long road to the NBA playoffs due to the coronavirus pandemic, the day has finally arrived. The 2020 postseason comes with plenty of storylines: LeBron’s quest to win a title with the Lakers, reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo looks to cement one of the best seasons in league history, James Harden and the Rockets small-ball experiment looks to prove a lot of critics wrong, and Kawhi Leonard tries to win his third title with a third team.
There is no question that this is one of the most unpredictable championship races ever. In honor of the playoffs, The Crossover staff analyzes the first-round series they are looking forward to the most, players facing the most pressure and offer bold predictions.
What is the most exciting first-round matchup?
Lakers-Blazers! I can’t bring myself to pick Portland; the ‘Who guards LeBron’ question is a convincing one, and I can’t stand by any answer that includes Mario Hezonja. Still—this could be fun. The Lakers backcourt is a glaring weakness, even if Rajon Rondo is able to return. Lillard is reigning Bubble MVP and C.J. McCollum has shaken off a back injury to play brilliantly in Portland’s last two. Plus, the Blazers have enough frontcourt muscle (Zach Collins, Jusuf Nurkic) to make things uncomfortable for Anthony Davis. The Lakers need for LeBron James to be superhuman this postseason may begin in the first round.
The clash between the Sixers and Celtics is the most fascinating first round battle for me. Just how effective can Joel Embiid be with no Ben Simmons on the floor playing against a team with a center rotation lacking heft? Boston has been arguably underrated all season. The Celtics finished the regular season with a higher net rating than the darling Raptors! But Philly projects to be a really tough matchup for Boston. I’m fascinated to see how this one plays out, not because of the inevitable “Can Embiid and Simmons work?” conversation, but because I think the underdog could have a legitimate chance to pull off the upset. It’s a shame we won’t see Al Horford returning to the Boston Garden as a playoff rival. I’m curious how he’ll respond with a bigger role sans Simmons.
Well, three of the four series in the East are the kind of matchups you expect to be relegated to the NBA Network, and the other one features a pair of somewhat underachieving, disappointing squads. So we’ll go out West.
OKC-Houston is intriguing, what with the whole no-names having a chance to show up the guys who left plotline. But I’m most looking forward to the Clippers–Mavs series. As rare as a 1–8 upset is, since 2010 No. 2 seeds are perfect, while two top seeds have been bounced. Dallas has a legitimate chance to change that. The Mavericks finished just 7.5 games behind L.A.; in the East, the 2 (Toronto) finished 18 games ahead of the 7 (Brooklyn).
Dallas also enters as the unquestioned It Team. What will Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis do in their playoff debuts is a lot more interesting than the same old questions surrounding Houston’s ability to do its Houston thing in the postseason. Sign me up.
After watching a good amount of bubble ball, I’m very into the idea of Clippers-Mavericks turning into a memorable series. The fact the Clips haven’t had their full deck available yet and are just now getting Montrezl Harrell and Patrick Beverley active concerns me slightly. That’s amplified by an in-form Kristaps Porzingis presenting a matchup nightmare for L.A.’s personnel. I expect Luka Doncic will see a lot of ball pressure and a range of different defenders over the course of the series, but Doncic is just built differently (literally and figuratively) from most guards. As usual, it falls on Dallas’s supporting cast to make shots, but the Mavs are well-equipped with enough talent on the wing to at least try and keep Kawhi Leonard and Paul George off balance. I feel like this will go six or seven games, the Clippers will sweat, and win or lose, the Mavs are going to be a problematic playoff opponent for the next decade.
While the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers will be a series to watch, I am looking forward to watching the Brooklyn Nets face the Toronto Raptors. Brooklyn is coming off a 5-3 performance in the seeding games—including victories over the Bucks and Clippers—without much of its core roster and nearly prevented the Trail Blazers from reaching the Western Conference play-in tournament. Caris LeVert has especially been strong, averaging 25 points and 6.7 assists since the season’s restart and being named to the All-Seeding Games Second Team. The Raptors have looked like a potential Finals contender in the bubble, but the Nets have proven that they can put up a fight, which should make for a fun series.
While the Pacers versus Heat series offers an intriguing matchup considering the media-fueled feud between Jimmy Butler and T.J. Warren, it's hard not to get pumped up for the Blazers versus Lakers matchup. Before the NBA even restarted, many said the Lakers needed to watch out for a potential round one matchup against Portland, and here we are. Damian Lillard is a man on a mission, earning his right to be called the bubble's MVP. And while LeBron should never be counted out, the Lakers as a whole didn't look like one of the hottest teams in the West. Portland, however, did look like they were heating up heading into the postseason.
A week ago, I would have said a Thunder vs. Rockets series is the one that interests me the most because of both the on-court contrasts between the two teams and also because of the obvious storylines and history between the franchises. But, as a result of Russell Westbrook’s quad injury, it’s unclear how much the former beloved Thunder star will be on the court in this matchup. As a result, I’m most interested to see how the Sixers-Celtics series turns out. It might not be the best series in terms of on-court product or length, — without Ben Simmons the short-handed Sixers on paper don’t seem to have enough talent to advance past Boston— however, Philadelphia has a lot to play for and a lot could be riding on the series. It could be the last time Brett Brown is the team’s coach. Does this series quality and the length impact Philadelphia’s offseason strategy, whether that be making a major blockbuster trade or looking to reconfigure the role players on their roster? I expect Boston to advance past the 76ers, but there is a lot of fallout that could come from this matchup. That alone makes it worth keeping a close eye on.
Typically the first-seed matchup is uninteresting. Not this time. The Lakers, who clinched No. 1 in the Western Conference for the first time since 2010, are playing a dangerous eighth-seed in the Portland Trail Blazers. Damian Lillard was named MVP of the seeding games after averaging 37.6 points over eight games and scoring 51, 61 and 42 points over the team's final three contests before the play-in tournament. Then he had a 31-point performance against Memphis in the NBA's first play-in game. Lakers coach Frank Vogel called him the "hottest player in the league" on Sunday.
It's hard not to be intrigued by Rockets vs. Thunder, and Russell Westbrook's absence could actually add to the interest if he's able to return by the middle of the series. There's of course the narrative considerations as Chris Paul looks for revenge against his former team, but the on-court action should be just as fascinating. Oklahoma City's three-guard lineup has absolutely shredded teams this season, and Houston could be lacking depth as it battles a slate of injuries. This series could very well go six or seven games whether or not Westbrook returns. James Harden will need to play near MVP form regardless for the Rockets to advance.
Lakers-Blazers is obviously the popcorn series and is the one I'm looking forward to most, fresh off what Damian Lillard and Portland have done. But I think Rockets-Thunder might turn out to be the best, even without Russell Westbrook. What kind of numbers can James Harden put up in the Rockets small-ball attack? Meanwhile, can Chris Paul continue Oklahoma City's surprising season at the expense of Harden and the team that traded him? Should be a long, competitive series.
Which player is facing the most pressure?
Mannix: Eric Bledsoe
I don’t know what’s gone haywire with Milwaukee. But the defense has been a shell of its pre-pandemic self, the shooting has been off while Giannis has looked angered by all of it. Bledsoe has been uneven the last two postseasons, and there is no Malcolm Brogdon around this time to bail him out. The Bucks need Bledsoe to be sturdy defensively against the Goran Dragic/Kyle Lowry/Kemba Walker led backcourts they may face. They need him to shoot a high percentage from three. They need him to be a playmaker when the team gets into offensive ruts. There’s pressure on everyone in Milwaukee, favorites to at least come out of the Eastern Conference for the first time. Most of it, though, is on Bledsoe.
Nadkarni: James Harden
A year after a bitter second-round playoff exit, Harden finds himself in a first-round series going head to head with the former teammate who was reportedly a source for a lot of the bitterness—and he’ll have to do so without his MVP running mate. Russell Westbrook’s injury and the lack of homecourt takes some of the intrigue away from Thunder vs. Rockets, but it’s going to be a very fun series. Paul and OKC are playing with house money. Their success exceeded expectations, and the Thunder are one of the NBA’s feel-good stories. Meanwhile, the Rockets have completely remodeled their roster to amplify Harden’s game, mortgaging their future in the process. Harden has to win, not only because of what the franchise has given up, but to prove his front office made the right decisions last summer. And no matter what Harden or Paul will say publicly, this one is definitely going to be personal.
Bechtel: James Harden
O.K., I know I just downplayed the meatiness of the questions surrounding Houston, but I think this has to be James Harden. All of the talk about how the reset was potentially good for the Rockets because it gave Harden and Russell Westbrook more time to learn to play together is kind of rendered moot if Westbrook doesn’t play. That shifts everything back to Harden’s shoulders. Going out at the hands of the Thunder would have to sting pretty bad.
Woo: James Harden
I want to avoid unfairly projecting championship pressure onto James Harden, because that’s not really what this is about. But at the same time, he hasn’t been to the Finals since 2012, when he was the (very good) third wheel on the Thunder, and essentially a different player. He’s now 30 years old and has a case as the best player in the league, but at some point I think the discussion starts to mount if he can’t get the Rockets to the Finals in the next few years. Houston enters the playoffs in adverse circumstances, with Mike D’Antoni’s contract up after the season, Russell Westbrook banged up, a challenging first-round series against a physical Oklahoma City team (and Chris Paul) looming and no real home-court advantage in the bubble despite earning the fourth seed in the West. No superstar will have to do more heavy lifting early in the playoffs. Harden is more than capable, and at full strength, the Rockets are a fascinating dark horse. Still, warranted or not, an early exit would end up as a blemish on Harden’s ledger, and it will be on him to get Houston through the first round at minimum.
Swinton: James Harden
LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo will look to have strong displays in the bubble after timid starts, but James Harden may have the most difficult road of the three MVP candidates. The Houston Rockets will be without Russell Westbrook for at least Game 1 of their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder as he deals with a strained right quad. Harden acknowledged that the Rockets will have to adjust for the pace and opportunities that Westbrook brings when he is on the floor.
The 2020 playoffs may be Harden’s best chance to win an NBA championship. Without his right-hand contributor for the immediate future, Harden may be facing the most pressure for the Rockets to advance.
Grasso: Joel Embiid
With Ben Simmons out for the series against the Celtics, Sixers center Joel Embiid is expected to carry the weight of his team. Being a nearly unstoppable force on both sides of the court shouldn't be an issue for Embiid against Boston. Instead, the pressure is on for Embiid to stay healthy. Throughout the entire year, Embiid has dealt with a handful of notable injuries. Down in the bubble, it's been the same story, different injury. Sixers fans want their team to go further than they've been during the previous two postseasons. And Brett Brown's job is more than likely on the line this time around. A lot is going to ride on Embiid's health and consistency this week.
Pickman: Joel Embiid
Not to bang the same exact drum as I did for series I’m looking forward to the most, but a lot will be riding on the shoulders of 76ers center Joel Embiid in the franchise’s series against Boston. With Ben Simmons out, Embiid becomes even more of a focal point on both ends of the floor. While the 76ers might not have the same amount of expectations (and least from the public’s perspective) that they did as a team entering the 2019-20 season, how Embiid performs against the Celtics could go a long way in determining the future of the franchise. The roster may look different next year and the coach may look different too. If Embiid looks and plays like the NBA’s best player, however, conversations (and decisions) around the team could be different.
Rohlin: LeBron James
That would be 35-year-old LeBron James. He knows his window is closing. So do his opponents. He was having an MVP-caliber season before the suspension and everyone is waiting to see whether he can return to that level of play after a four-month hiatus. James, who is in his 17th season in the league, is trying to lead the Lakers to their first championship since 2010, when Kobe Bryant won his fifth and final title with the team.
Shapiro: Paul George
There's not an obvious candidate as we approach the 2020 postseason. There's more pressure on the Bucks organization than Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Joel Embiid doesn't have his dysfunctional partner-in-crime. LeBron James has nothing to prove (especially considering the Lakers' shaky roster) and neither does Kawhi Leonard. Perhaps the greatest pressure lies with Leonard's co-star. Paul George is considered by most to be a top-10 player, and he's among the best two-way talents in the league. But George's career has been littered with a slate of postseason disappointments. Playoff P has become a running joke in recent years. If the Clippers bow out before the Finals, the perception of George will continue to slide despite his clear talent.
Lundberg: Anthony Davis
Harden could've been the answer for player facing the most pressure but the Westbrook injury complicates things. Giannis Antetokounmpo has some pressure on him as well, especially when it comes to how he performs in crunchtime, considering he will likely be the MVP again and the expectations for Milwaukee. However, we know LeBron James will be discussed the most. But the player I'm interested to see deal with that pressure is Anthony Davis, as unlike James, he hasn't proven himself in those situations yet. And for the Lakers to meet championship expectations, the performance they get from AD will be key.
One bold prediction
The Raptors win the East. I’ve watched a lot of Toronto in Orlando. They are really locked in. They go about nine-deep with quality players, most with championship experience from last season. There will be questions about Pascal Siakam’s ability to make shots in key moments, and if OG Anunoby, Terence Davis and the other Raps players who were not part of last season’s run can step up. But this team is big (hello, Milwaukee), skilled and confident. Kawhi is gone but his swagger stuck with this group. They get rolling, they can beat anyone and they have been rolling in this restart. Toronto, down a top-five player from last season, will become one of the most improbable NBA finalists ever.
The Nets will push the Raptors to a Game 7. I believe this is a classic case of recency bias. But you wanted a bold prediction, not a tepid one.
This is actually a tough one if we’re just talking about the first round. Every series feels like it’s either a no-brainer or so tightly matched that the result won’t be a surprise. So I’m going to got the individual route and say that Damian Lillard will set a record for the most points in a series. Alas for Dame, it will be the most points in a four-game series. He’ll need to top 150 (37.5 per game) to outdo Hakeem Olajuwon’s 1988 performance against Dallas. Like Lillard’s impending outburst, Olajuwon’s came in a series loss.
At least one of the L.A. teams fails to make the Western Conference finals. I previously stated my concerns about the Clippers and the fact they still haven’t been able to set their full rotation. I'm also a little more concerned about the Lakers than I expected, given the fluid state of their supporting cast. Unless Danny Green gets right, the potpourri of shooting guards (hello KCP, J.R. and Dion) is going to be an ongoing problem, and it worries me that Kyle Kuzma is the only real scorer in the rotation apart from LeBron and Anthony Davis. I’m still not entirely sure what L.A.’s best closing lineup looks like. I don’t know if the Blazers will have enough in the tank to swing a massive upset, but if Jusuf Nurkic continues his bizarre moonlit transformation into Arvydas Sabonis, it’s going to be a fascinating series. If the Lakers and Clippers get past their tough first-round draws, Houston and Denver might lay in wait. They’re still the two best teams in the conference, but they both have a little more to prove than they should right now. I’m no longer so sure we get the Staples Center derby we’ve all been hoping for in the conference finals.
The Los Angeles Clippers are a top contender in the West, but the Dallas Mavericks may provide some surprises in the first round. Luka Doncic was unanimously named to the All-Seeding Games First Team and has averaged a triple-double of 30.0 points, 11.3 assists and 10.1 rebounds in the season’s restart. In addition, Kristaps Porzingis has hit his stride and averaged 30.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in the bubble while being named to the All-Seeding Games Second Team. The Mavericks lost to the Clippers by 15 points on Aug. 6 as Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Ivica Zubac combined for 74 points, but if Dallas can improve on rebounding and Doncic continues to shine, the Clippers may face an extended first round series.
Oklahoma City knocks Houston out in the first round. Chris Paul will seek revenge against his old team and take advantage of the Rockets' injury situation as Russell Westbrook's status for the entire series remains unknown. After unloading two of its most notable stars over the summer, many expected the Thunder to fall flat this season. However, Chris Paul is doing some of his best work in OKC and gets a favorable first-round matchup against a shorthanded Rockets team they've managed to defeat two out of three times this season. Many laughed at the Thunder last summer—but Paul and OKC may get the last laugh in Orlando.
Rockets guard James Harden sets a new playoff-record for made three-pointers in a game. The current record is 11, set by Warriors guard Klay Thompson in the famous Warriors-Thunder Game 6 in May 2016, back when Kevin Durant was still on the Thunder. This year, though, Harden will break Thompson’s record— again doing so against the Thunder. Houston will rely on Harden’s shooting to carry them to a desired finals appearance, so why not see a record-breaking performance to get a deep playoff run started.
The first-round matchup between the Lakers and Trail Blazers will go seven games. The Lakers have said playing a challenging team in the first round will be a good test. Now they'll get to see if that test strengthens them—or is their undoing.
The Raptors will win the East. Perhaps this has become a bit too much of the pick du jour in recent weeks, but there's a legitimate chance for Toronto to go back-to-back as the East's Finals representative. The Raptors have the best coach in the playoffs, a dynamic guard duo and perhaps the deepest rotation in basketball. There's no more cohesive unit in the league. Every player is put in a position to succeed. Milwaukee has been dominant all season, and Antetokounmpo deserves his second straight MVP. But this isn't a fool-proof roster, and there is a relative blueprint to slowing The Greek Freak. When the chips are down, my money is on the champs.
The bubble will produce perhaps the best NBA playoffs we've ever seen. I'm only counting that as bold because so many were talking asterisk before. But I think we've seen due to shared focus, a lack of travel, time to get healthy, and some other factors, that the level of play will be extremely high. And with no true home court or fans I think the games will be super tightly contested. That asterisk is going to turn into an exclamation point.