1 Playoff Matchup Every NBA Contender Doesn't Want to Face
Every year, even a generous application of the contender label leads to only a handful of NBA teams.
For all the changes in this...um, unique season, that part of the conversation stays the same.
According to FiveThirtyEight's playoff projections, only six teams have even a 10 percent chance of reaching the Finals. They each have a specific opponent they'd like to avoid in the playoffs.
To eliminate repetition—the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers are brutal matchups for anyone—we won't use the same opponent more than once.
Boston Celtics: Philadelphia 76ers
The injury bug might have just removed the biggest obstacle in the Boston Celtics' path.
The Philadelphia 76ers are decidedly less threatening without Ben Simmons, who underwent knee surgery Monday that is likely to sideline him for the rest of the season, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. And while Joel Embiid's ankle ailment doesn't appear to be serious, it's the latest in a long line of reminders that he's no stranger to the injury report.
However, the Sixers sans Simmons still remain best positioned to punish the Celtics on the interior.
Last summer, Boston let Al Horford walk straight to Philadelphia and never really replaced him. Daniel Theis has been a serviceable starter, but as a 6'8", 215-pounder, there's only so much he can do against bigger, more physical players.
"At a certain point, you have to protect the rim and end possessions with defensive rebounds," The Athletic's Zach Harper wrote. "That's going to be hard to do if Joel Embiid fouls out your already thin frontcourt."
The Sixers, who will likely snag the sixth seed, won three of their four regular-season matchups against the Celtics. Embiid keyed one with 38 points, 13 rebounds and six assists. Horford helped secure another with 17 points, eight boards and six dimes. In the bubble, Boston has had trouble containing the likes of Jusuf Nurkic (30 points, nine rebounds, five assists), Bam Adebayo (21 points, 12 rebounds) and Nikola Vucevic (26 points, 11 rebounds).
Boston's interior defense is a major question mark, and Embiid is good enough to make it a fatal flaw.
Houston Rockets: Los Angeles Clippers
It seems strange selecting anyone other than the Los Angeles Lakers here, since they have the size and strength to outmuscle the NBA's most fervent small-ball enthusiasts. But the Lakers have looked a little wobbly in Orlando, and their sputtering offense may not have what it takes to keep pace with the Rockets when James Harden and Russell Westbrook are grooving.
The Clippers are a different kind of problem.
The advantages in scoring and versatility that the Rockets intend to create by going small go out the window against the Clippers. L.A. arguably has a better small-ball setup, and it can super-size itself whenever needed. The Clips can pound teams into submission with Ivica Zubac at the 5, run them out of the gym with Marcus Morris Sr. manning the middle or shape-shift into any style in between.
No one needs to explain this to the Rockets. They saw the peak of the Clippers' powers the last time these teams met, with Houston stumbling to an-even-worse-than-it-sounds 15-point defeat. (The Rockets outscored the Clippers 40-30 in the final frame.)
"It was just a whole barrel of bad stuff," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said afterward, per ESPN's Tim MacMahon. "We just got our butts whipped."
No team is better equipped to contain the Westbrook-Harden tandem, as Patrick Beverley can pester the former and Morris, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can all be deployed on either one. And if Houston's stars still manage to match L.A.'s, the Clippers can use their superior depth to swing the series.
Los Angeles Clippers: Los Angeles Lakers
Assuming the Clippers-Lakers' collision course to the Western Conference Finals is as inevitable as it's felt all season, the series has instant-classic potential.
The Clippers have two of the best defensive options to throw at LeBron James—so much as there are any decent ones—in Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. Marcus Morris Sr. can help spare the stars' legs by serving stretches on the King, too. But there's only so much any defense can do with James, and the Clippers don't have an answer for Anthony Davis, who dropped 34 points on them in the Lakers' 103-101 win in their first bubble battle.
"For all the team's depth, they don't have anyone who can stop him from getting to the rim," The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks wrote afterward. "That's why he attempted 17 free throws on [July 30] and 14 against them on opening night. The only hole on their roster is the lack of an uber-athletic big man to guard Davis."
That's an enormous hole in this matchup.
Davis can determine the outcome of a series by himself; he just didn't get the chance to showcase that ability on some mediocre (or worse) New Orleans Pelicans teams. James is one year removed from orchestrating eight consecutive Finals trips. The Clippers probably defended him as well as anyone this season, and he still averaged 21.3 points, 9.5 rebounds and 8.5 assists across four matchups.
The Lakers' size must matter in this matchup, and their perimeter players need to make the open shots James and Davis create. But if those two boxes are checked, that could seal the Clippers' fate.
Los Angeles Lakers: Portland Trail Blazers
The Lakers might be their own biggest enemy, and the Clippers would make for a reasonable answer here had we not already used them. The Portland Trail Blazers might not even get into the playoffs, and if they do, they'll surely be the underdogs in this series.
But they have more than a puncher's chance of sneaking past the sleepwalking Lakers if L.A. isn't ready to roll.
Most machines aren't as precise in their execution as Portland's offense has been in Orlando. The Blazers are averaging a bubble-best 120.9 points per 100 possessions, and the production is coming in waves. Carmelo Anthony is providing 16.2 points per game, and he's only the team's fifth-leading scorer, nearly two points per game behind No. 4.
CJ McCollum is acing his co-star role, as per usual. Jusuf Nurkic has returned looking every bit the part of Portland's missing piece. Gary Trent Jr. is unofficially shooting 1,000 percent from three. Oh, and Damian Lillard is reminding everyone why he deserved some MVP votes this year even with his club struggling to crack the playoff field.
"Portland has been such a special bubble team," The Ringer's Bill Simmons said on his podcast (h/t KGW's Jared Cowley). "Lillard has gone five other levels beyond, and the guy was already great anyway. I'm starting to wonder, could he beat the Lakers in Round 1? Could that team really give them a conversation?"
It's possible the answer is no, since Portland has no one to defend LeBron James. Saying that, L.A. doesn't have its preferred Lillard defender (Avery Bradley, who opted out of the restart) and does have the bubble's second-least efficient attack (103.0 points per 100 possessions). In addition, James has hinted at some off-court concerns with his club.
The Lakers would have the two best players in this series, and maybe that's all they need to advance. But if they can't right the ship sooner than later, the Blazers—a team with the talent of a third or fourth seed—could sprint right past them and into the second round.
Milwaukee Bucks: Miami Heat
The Milwaukee Bucks fear no one. Nor should they. They have the best record in basketball for the second straight season, and their leader, Giannis Antetokounmpo, might be looking at back-to-back MVPs.
But the Miami Heat don't fear the deer. Nor should they, either. They're the only Eastern Conference team to win their season series with the Bucks, and Miami's only loss in three meetings featured the Heat amassing a 23-point lead in a game both Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic missed.
"I'm not saying they can't beat us, but we like our chances," Bam Adebayo told Forbes' Chris Sheridan in May.
Adebayo is responsible for much of Miami's confidence. In addition to his All-Star rise and emergence as a Most Improved Player award finalist, he might be the NBA's top defensive option to throw at Antetokounmpo. Granted, the only hope against a superstar of his caliber is containment, but Adebayo's combination of size, strength and athleticism can help him meet the physical challenges of battling the Greek Freak.
Miami's list of preferred defensive options against Antetokounmpo might also include Jimmy Butler and Andre Iguodala. Those players and Jae Crowder can also rotate on Milwaukee's other star, Khris Middleton.
There are legitimate questions about whether the Heat can find enough offense to outscore the Bucks four times in a seven-game series. Miami's two best players are non-shooters (Butler and Adebayo), and Milwaukee's paint-packing defense (no team allows fewer baskets or attempts inside of five feet) is tough to take down without fiery three-point shooting. The Heat have snipers, but they can only play so many without compromising their defense.
The Heat's upset chances might be for debate, but they could at least make the Bucks seriously sweat to escape the series.
Toronto Raptors: Milwaukee Bucks
You could make a compelling case for the Celtics, especially after watching them thrash the Raptors for a 22-point win inside the bubble. But with the biggest concern around Toronto arguably being the lack of a Tier-1 elite talent, it's tough to argue for any team other than the one rostering the East's (if not the NBA's) best player.
Antetokounmpo locked horns with the Raptors twice this season (he missed Monday's loss after undergoing oral surgery). Both were double-digit wins by the Bucks. His worst outing was a 19-point, 19-rebound, eight-assist, three-block performance. His best featured 36 points on 20 field-goal attempts, 15 rebounds, eight assists, four blocks and a steal.
There's a reason Toronto has tied all of its long-term plans to an all-out Giannis pursuit in 2021.
The Raptors are a good team, maybe a great one. They have the Association's second-best defense and an offense featuring five different players averaging more than 15 points. Head coach Nick Nurse might be the most creative mind in basketball, and he helped give Toronto the upper hand when the teams met in last year's conference finals.
But the Raptors had Kawhi Leonard back then, and he left no questions about his status as a marquee star. In addition to providing per-game contributions of 29.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.2 steals in the series, he also blanketed Antetokounmpo at the other end.
Who reaches that level for Toronto this time around? Pascal Siakam? Kyle Lowry? OG Anunoby? The fact there isn't a no-brainer answer is a concern when Antetokounmpo is on the other side of this matchup.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.