NBA Playoff Picture 2020: Predicting Final Bracket Entering Season's Final Week

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 11, 2020

Phoenix Suns' Devin Booker directs his teammates during an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Clippers' Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP)
Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press

The Phoenix Suns may never lose again.

OK, we're (half) joking about that, but the Suns have been as hot as...well, the actual Sun since arriving in Orlando, Florida.

Phoenix pushed the Association's only unblemished record to 6-0 with Monday's 27-point drubbing of the Oklahoma City Thunder—a victory that moved the Suns within just one game of the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies.

Can Phoenix finally snap its nearly decade-long playoff drought, or will all these wins be forgotten amid another missed postseason trip? We'll answer that question and more, as we update the latest standings, predict the final playoff bracket and examine three of the best first-round matchups on our projected schedule.

                   

Latest NBA Standings

Eastern Conference

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1. z-Milwaukee Bucks (55-16)

2. y-Toronto Raptors (51-19)

3. x-Boston Celtics (47-23)

4. y-Miami Heat (44-27)

5. x-Indiana Pacers (43-28)

6. x-Philadelphia 76ers (42-28)

7. x-Brooklyn Nets (34-36)

8. x-Orlando Magic (32-29)

9. e-Washington Wizards (24-26)

                  

Western Conference

1. z-Los Angeles Lakers (52-18)

2. x-Los Angeles Clippers (47-23)

3. y-Denver Nuggets (46-25)

4. y-Houston Rockets (44-25)

5. x-Oklahoma City Thunder (43-27)

6. x-Utah Jazz (43-28)

7. x-Dallas Mavericks (43-30)

8. Memphis Grizzlies (33-38)

9. Portland Trail Blazers (33-39)

10. Phoenix Suns (32-39)

11. San Antonio Spurs (31-38)

12. e-New Orleans Pelicans (30-40)

13. e-Sacramento Kings

*z-clinched conference

*y-clinched division

*x-clinched playoff berth

*e-eliminated from playoffs

                 

Predicted Playoff Bracket

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 8 Orlando Magic

No. 2 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 7 Brooklyn Nets

No. 3 Boston Celtics vs. No. 6 Philadelphia 76ers

No. 4 Miami Heat vs. No. 5 Indiana Pacers

                   

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 8 Portland Trail Blazers

No. 2 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 7 Dallas Mavericks

No. 3 Houston Rockets vs. No. 6 Utah Jazz

No. 4 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 5 Oklahoma City Thunder

                  

Most Intriguing Projected First-Round Matchups

Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers

Admittedly, the injury bug stripped this potential series of some of its luster. The Sixers lost 6'10" floor general and all-world defender Ben Simmons to knee surgery that will likely end his season, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.

Saying that, Philadelphia appears to have avoided disaster with All-Star center Joel Embiid's ankle injury. While he has already been ruled out of Tuesday's tilt with the scorching-hot Suns, Sixers head coach Brett Brown expects the 26-year-old will be back in action before the postseason.

"I do expect him to," Brown told reporters. "That's just one man's opinion. Nobody's doing cartwheels over, 'It's something severe,' one. Two, I do believe it would be good for him to play before the playoffs begin."

Simmons' absence probably pulls Philadelphia out of the championship race, but Embiid is (literally) the bigger worry for Boston. The Celtics never really replaced Al Horford (coincidentally, now a Sixer) last summer, and they'll be asking a ton of 6'8", 215-pound starting center Daniel Theis to lock horns with the 7'0", 250-pound Embiid.

It's possible Embiid feasts buffet-style on Boston and the Celtics still have enough firepower to survive and advance, but Brad Stevens' plan to contain the center (or focus on shutting down everyone else) will be one of the first major chess moves of the second season.

              

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Portland Trail Blazers

There's a chance (maybe a good one) we'll look foolish for mentioning this series. The Blazers haven't even sewn up a playoff spot yet, and even if they do, they don't have a LeBron James stopper on the roster.

However, something seems off with the Purple and Gold.

Even after Monday's win over the Nuggets, the Lakers are just 3-4 in Orlando and have a worse offensive efficiency rating than every bubble participant other than the Bradley Beal-less (and John Wall-less and Davis Bertans-less) Washington Wizards.

Portland, on the other hand, sports a tidy 4-2 record and has the best offensive rating of the seeding round. The Blazers are as healthy as they've been all season and have loads more talent than the typical team fighting for an eighth seed (remember, they were a conference finalist just last season). They're also getting MVP behavior from Damian Lillard, who has the bubble's third-best scoring average (33.0) and second-most assists (9.5).

"They are going to be the greatest eight seed in the history of the NBA," Colin Cowherd said on "The Herd" (h/t NBC Sports Northwest's Ashley Young). "Their backcourt could be a nightmare for the Lakers."

If L.A. can't awaken from this mini-funk, Portland could run right through it and into the second round.

                    

Miami Heat vs. Indiana Pacers

OK, so maybe Round 2 of Jimmy Butler vs. T.J. Warren didn't quite live up to the hype.

Butler returned from a three-game absence (foot) to propel the Heat to a 114-92 win over the Pacers, tallying 19 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and four steals in just 28 minutes. Warren, who had been the bubble's high scorer, managed just 12 points on 5-of-14 shooting and posted a minus-11 across 28 minutes.

"They came out as the aggressor and they made shots," Warren told reporters afterward. "They're a well-coached team. They play hard."

There was decidedly less drama than in their previous meeting. On Jan. 8, Butler and Warren scuffled with one another, drew double-technicals, Warren was later ejected and Butler taunted him on the way out. The rivalry didn't resurface during Monday's lopsided affair, though Butler savored in getting the last laugh (er...dance).

The fact that Miami already has eyes on Indiana's All-Star guard Victor Oladipo for 2021 free agency only adds to the intrigue here. And don't sleep on the matchup at center, either. Bam Adebayo and Myles Turner are on a short list of the league's top defensive centers, and each brings a contemporary offensive quality inside the lines, between Adebayo's playmaking and Turner's floor-spacing.