It’s taken some time to get there but we are finally here. The NBA finals. So many sub-plots, so many storylines, so much to enjoy.
It’s going to be interesting viewing over in the East with, I think, two clear stand-outs and a trio of danger sides, with 4 teams largely making up the numbers. For me, it’s a battle between the Bucks and the Toronto to take out the East, with the Celts, Heat and Pacers being on the next bracket. I have the Heat in this group, but only just as they seem to have lost all form of late having gone 3-5 in the bubble, including 3 of their last 4. The Pacers went 6-2, won 3 of their last 4, though their loss in that run was against the Heat. The Celtics have the tools, but a lot will come down to the fitness of Kemba Walker and his ability to run this team. Their deficiency at centre looks a concern for mine, especially later in the tournament post-round 1. The 76ers, Nets and Magic are largely making up the numbers in my opinion, with only the 76ers a likely chance to scare their opponent. Embiid’s inconsistency and the loss of Simmons hurts their chances greatly.
Milwaukee Bucks V Orlando Magic
Tipping this one to be a fairly comfortable 4-1 result for the Bucks here. I think the Magic will pinch one, probably in the 4th game where they get complacent. Giannis has looked superb, and managed to get himself a bit of a pre-play off rest by head butting someone. He had some small rests during the bubble game, but in 4 games he played more than 30mins, he averaged around 34pts, and 14 rebounds showing why he should be the seasons MVP. Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe have all found form, and they have some good depth across
For the Magic, they have had their struggles in the bubble, losing key players and close games, but still managed to hold on to their 8th spot, though considering they were just up against the Wizards for that spot, it was always going to happen. Markel Fultz has been good, and the Magic should be happy with the resilience that they’ve shown to make it back to back post-season games. However, it will end early and they can focus on next season shortly.
Toronto Raptors V Brooklyn Nets
This should be the match of the first round, the reigning champs against one of the genuine contenders. Sadly, for the Nets they are missing Durant and Irving, which would have made this match-up a really juicy feast. Whilst the Nets have been really good in the bubble, despite everything going against them, I just can’t see them beating the impressive Raptors, who have put up a title defence to be proud of to date. They lost Kawhi in the offseason, and people thought they might blow up the list and start again. However, what they have done is nothing short of amazing. Siakam stepped up, VanVleet stepped up, Gasol and Ibaka have held up the defence whilst Kyle Lowry has again put in a superb season.
Speaking of impressive, the Nets have gone 5-3 since the resumption, this without Durant, Irving, DeAndre Jordan and Spencer Dinwiddie, all guys they would have back in to push them for the title, not to mention having sacked their coach prior to the shut-down. Instead they have relied on Caris LeVert, who has been in strong form, and play at a fast pace and have been putting up good scores, scoring more than 115pts in 6 of the 8 games in the bubble.
In the end though, I can’t see them knocking off the Raptors 4 times so I’m comfortable in predicting a 4-1 win for the Raptors. I reckon the Nets will be peppy enough to take 1 off them, but the Raptors are good things to take the East, so the Nets shouldn’t be too big of a hassle.
Boston Celtics V Philadelphia 76ers
This pits a well-balanced, well-organized and well-coached side against, well, the Philly 76ers.
The 76ers go in to this clash without one of their best players in Ben Simmons, who’s missing with a knee injury, and there are still queries of how they set up and whether it’ll work. They went 4-4 since the restart, but again look disjointed. In Joel Embiid they have one of the best players in the game, but also one of the most inconsistent. Fitness is always a worry and you never know which Embiid you’ll get. Every chance though he’ll be there best player, and it won’t matter. Al Horford has come over from the Celtics on big coin, and never settled, nor to the 76ers seem to actually know what to do with him. Shake Milton will be driving their offence from the Point, whilst They’ll be hoping to get strong shooting from Josh Richardson.
The Celtics though went 5-3 and have been one of the most consistent teams in the NBA. Finished 3rd in the East, and have a strong starting 5, and are well coached. In Kemba Walker they have a game manager, they have Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown who offer quality shooting, along with Gordon Hayward, and in Marcus Smart they have one of the games best defensive players. Their main concern is size, and whether they can match the really big men in the game. Embiid loses large for them, and they will be hoping Thiess, Williams and Kanter can hold their own, or at least limit, the damage. Tipping a 4-2 win by the Celtics in what looms as an entertaining series.
Indian Pacers V Miami Heat
This looks to be the best match-up of the series, I guess so it should be 4 v 5, but it looms as a quality contest. The Pacers have been solid in the bubble, going 6-2, have got Oladipo fit and playing well and TJ Warren has been one of the form players of the Bubble. He’ll need to do it night in night now, as the Heat around going to strong defensively. Add to that Butler and Warren don’t necessarily get along, and will be defending each other so it looms as quality entertainment.
The Heat look strong now they are back fit, and despite going 3-5 in the bubble look to be fit to start the play-offs. Butler is clearly the main man, and is made for play-offs, but it’s the improvement from Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro and Jae Crowder that has seen this team become genuine threats in the East. Add to that a fit Goran Dragic and they are a side most won’t want to up again. They have young guards which could be a concern, but if they can shoot well and help spread the floor, then it’ll create space for Butler to do his work.
In the toughest of the match-ups to pick, I’m going the Heat 4-3, but either way I feel this series goes to game 7.
This is where the real battles are in this year’s play-offs, with so many superb storylines. Can the Clippers win their first NBA title after chasing Kahwi and Paul George in the off-season and become LA’s team? Can LeBron win it, in what is surely one of his last chances to do it, and take the Lakers back to the top? Can James Harden finally step up in a play-off series and lead the Rockets to the title? Can Portland knock off the Lakers and cement Damian Lillard as one of the games best players? Can Chris Paul, who many people doubted would even suit up for the Thunder, end up leading them through to the finals in the West?
The West looms as an incredible watch over the next few weeks. Strap yourself in I reckon.
LA Lakers V Portland Trailblazers
This was arguably the worst match up the Lakers could have got. It looked originally like the Grizzlies, a young side lead by the likely rookie of the year Ja Morant, many talked up the Pelicans, with Zion, Branden Ingram and Lonzo Ball, but instead they get Portland, a side that has hit form, as arguably the form player of the bubble in Lillard, CJ McCollum’s back looks ok again, Zach Collins has returned from injury, as has Nurkic and Carmelo Anthony has wound back the clock. They are 6-2 in the bubble, Lillard is averaging around 40 a game at the moment and they have what the Lakers lack, a dominant back court. If they can contain Davis, limit LeBron, they are right in this series.
For the Lakers, they went 3-5 in the bubble, but got what they wanted, minutes into their legs, but not too many, and got the No.1 seed in the West. Would have been dirty that they have copped the Blazers, but will still be confidant of getting the job done. LeBron has never been knocked out of playoffs in round 1, and for a bloke that is in for the MVP, we also know that Playoff LeBron is even better than regular season LeBron, and if he fires, he’ll pretty much drag them across the line. Add to that Anthony Davis, who’s been good in the limited playoffs he’s played and you have a genuine gun duo that will take some stopping. The Lakers issue won’t be these two, it’s whether they can get the support they need and can slow Lillard. Do that, they win this series
Going Lakers in 6, but seriously wouldn’t be surprised if the Blazers knock them out.
LA Clippers V Dallas Mavericks
The Clippers went 5-3 in the bubble and did what they needed too. Incredibly, tried to tank a game and their bench still knocked off the Blazers, in what was one of the more bizarre results you’ll see. Kahwi and George are the keys obviously, but this team has scoring galore, in Beverley and Lou Williams off the bench, also able to keep the scoreboard ticking over. Size is their issue, and will need Zubac to continue with his Bubble form (11pts, 11 rebounds) to push the better teams this season (see the Lakers). They have looked like they have been waiting for the playoffs all year, so now is the time to prove it.
The Mavs have been good this season, lead by the superb Doncic, whilst Porzingis has also found some strong form as the season continued. They Won’t be push-overs, but have gone 3-5 in the bubble and you can’t see them troubling the Clippers too much here. Tipping they’ll pinch a game, with Doncic going nuts on one night, but can’t see them doing it four times which they’ll need. Porzingis will be the key though. We know Doncic will average close to a triple double, with the Clippers lack of size, it’s Porzingis that will need a big series for the Mavs to get close.
Clippers in 5 for mine though.
Denver Nuggets V Utah Jazz
This one should be a really close series, one that could legitimately go either way, but I’m thinking that this could be a relatively comfortable win for the Nuggets. The Nuggets went 4-4 in the bubble, and were well led by Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray and they look to have found an important 3rd scoring threat in Michael Porter Jnr, who’s been superb since the restart. Add to that Bol Bol has been surprisingly good and the Nuggets are looking strong across the court. A lot will fall on Murray, both in terms of offence and his ability to beat Donovan Mitchell, and if he can do that, then the Nuggets will take this series.
For the Jazz, Mitchell is hugely important for them, especially with no Bogdanovic and now no Mike Connelly who left for the birth of his child over the weekend, but it might be Gobert who is the key to them being competitive. He averaged 15pts and 11 rebounds, but it’s work at the defensive end that is so important for the Jazz. He needs to have a big series and stop Jokic from dominating. If he can do that, and Mitchell can have some big games, and Ingles can hit fire from 3, then they can take this to 6, but I can’t see this going further than 5 games.
Houston Rockets V Oklahoma City Thunder.
I’m calling it now; this is going to be the upset of the first round. I seriously like the Thunder and reckon that, with no Westbrook, they are massively susceptible here. They have gone small ball, which when they have Westbrook who’s an athletic freak, you can manage it, but if Adams can dominate the glass for the Thunder, then they’ll start well behind. They do, of course, have James Harden, one of the greatest scorers in the history of the game, and a lot will again fall his shoulders. They guy is a freak, and there are few blokes who could literally carry his team across the line, but he is certainly one of them. They do have two other guys that have scored 40 in a game, in Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers, but I just wonder if they can deliver in the big moments.
And this is where the Thunder might have the edge, and that’s the ability to share the workload. Chris Paul is the conductor of this orchestra, and you can imagine he’ll have a little bit of fire in the belly having been discarded by the Rockets in the offseason. The Thunder have a superb back court with Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander, Gallinari looks primed and Adams could well be the key if he can dominate the glass as expected.
I reckon it’ll be a ridiculously close series; it’ll go to 7 with the Thunder taking the series, but not before some heart-stoppers along the way.