Round-by-Round NBA Playoff Predictions with Seeding Decided

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistAugust 14, 2020

Round-by-Round NBA Playoff Predictions with Seeding Decided

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    Kim Klement/Associated Press

    With the seeding games at Disney's Wide World of Sports in the rearview, we're now heading to the postseason.

    The standings for the unprecedented, bubble-secured affair read as follows:


    1. Milwaukee Bucks
    2. Toronto Raptors
    3. Boston Celtics
    4. Indiana Pacers
    5. Miami Heat
    6. Philadelphia 76ers
    7. Brooklyn Nets
    8. Orlando Magic



    1. Los Angeles Lakers
    2. Los Angeles Clippers
    3. Denver Nuggets
    4. Houston Rockets
    4. Oklahoma City Thunder
    6. Utah Jazz
    7. Dallas Mavericks
    8. Portland Trail Blazers

    No home-court advantage, no fans and no travel make predicting these playoffs more difficult than usual. With seeding in place, though, we at least know which first-round matchups to evaluate.

    After those are broken down, we'll dive headfirst into an analysis of each subsequent round, up until we have a prediction for the 2020 NBA champion.

Eastern Conference 1st Round

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    Kim Klement/Associated Press

    Milwaukee Bucks (1) over Orlando Magic (8)

    The Bucks have the 11th-best single-season simple rating system (point differential combined with strength of schedule) in NBA history. The Magic are 930th (out of 1,543).

    For the second season in a row, Nikola Vucevic is much better than people realize, but he's far from enough to make up the overall talent gap between these two rosters.


    Toronto Raptors (2) over Brooklyn Nets (7)

    This series isn't likely to be much more competitive than the 1-8 matchup. The Nets are without Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan and Spencer Dinwiddie, who make up just over 70 percent of the team's 2019-20 salaries.

    What remains has been scrappy in the bubble, but they'll be overwhelmed by the defending champion Raptors.


    Boston Celtics (3) over Philadelphia 76ers (6)

    Ben Simmons is likely done for the rest of the season. And in Philly's last two games, Joel Embiid has suffered an ankle and hand injury. Those don't appear to be serious, however, and if Embiid is at full strength, this series should be competitive.

    The Sixers are plus-11.5 points per 100 possessions when Embiid plays without Simmons (compared to plus-1.8 when they're together). And though Daniel Theis provides versatility at the 5 for Boston, he's thoroughly undersized (6'8") for a matchup with Embiid (7'0").

    The Celtics' significant playmaking advantage should be able to overcome that mismatch, though. Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward can all take on lead ball-handler duties and get hot while doing so. Without Simmons' perimeter defense, Philadelphia has to go further down the bench to try to find stoppers.


    Miami Heat (5) over Indiana Pacers (4)

    TJ Warren, averaging 31.0 points in Orlando, has been one of the biggest stories of the bubble, but he met his match against the Heat.

    Miami has a bevy of perimeter defenders to send his way, and the team held him to 12 points on 5-of-14 shooting (his lowest total for a single game in Orlando).

    Without Domantas Sabonis, and Victor Oladipo still seemingly finding his basketball legs, the Heat can focus on Warren in a seven-game series.

    With two All-Stars in Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, as well as one of the league's best shooters in Duncan Robinson, they should have more than enough firepower on the other end.

Western Conference 1st Round

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Los Angeles Lakers (1) over Trail Blazers (8)

    Even with the Blazers barely sneaking into eighth place, this series has some potential.

    Damian Lillard is on an absolute tear in the bubble. If he's anywhere near this level in the playoffs—and the Lakers won't have Avery Bradley to bother him—Portland may steal some games.

    Gary Trent Jr. and Carmelo Anthony are feeling it too. CJ McCollum has experience taking over big games. And Jusuf Nurkic is back. Everything is coming together at the exact right time for the Blazers.

    But LeBron James is still LeBron James. And Portland doesn't have anyone to check him. The Lakers would likely win this series, but we've reached a point where a Blazers upset wouldn't be shocking.


    Los Angeles Clippers (2) over Dallas Mavericks (7)

    This series has the potential to be a blast. Like Lillard, Luka Doncic has been unreal in Orlando. In fact, he's the only player with at least 100 minutes and a better box plus/minus in August. And the way he engineers an offense when surrounded by shooting is electrifying.

    But this Clippers roster is just too loaded. They can throw Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Morris or even Patrick Beverley at Doncic. They may not be able to stop him, but that's a group that will most certainly make things difficult.

    On the other end, Kawhi, PG and Lou Williams will pick apart a defense that ranks 18th this season (and 19th in the bubble).


    Denver Nuggets (3) over Utah Jazz (6)

    When these two teams played Aug. 8, it took two overtimes for the Nuggets to come out on top. Even without their second-leading scorer, Bojan Bogdanovic, the Jazz aren't going down without a fight.

    Rudy Gobert remains one of the game's most impactful players, and he's held Nikola Jokic well below his typical production in head-to-head matchups. Donovan Mitchell may be prone to wild swings in efficiency (he's shooting 38.2 percent in Orlando), but he can go off at a moment's notice.

    The Nuggets should have plenty of answers, though. With Jokic orchestrating from the middle of the floor or low post and Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. (averaging 22.0 points in the bubble) flying around him, Utah's defense (15th in the bubble) will be overwhelmed.


    Oklahoma City Thunder (5) over Houston Rockets (4)

    The tachometers on take machines around the internet will redline if Chris Paul knocks the Rockets out of the playoffs.

    Last summer, Houston traded him and a load of picks to the Thunder for Russell Westbrook, who may miss a decent chunk of this series.

    And while Houston is banged up, the Thunder are at full strength. On the season, OKC is plus-7.4 when CP3 shares the floor with Danilo Gallinari. Both should play more in the playoffs.

    Steven Adams may be the biggest problem for the Rockets, though. Against the micro-ball philosophy, he should feast on the boards and get plenty of open looks from Paul, Dennis Schroder and rising star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Eastern Conference Semifinals

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Milwaukee Bucks over Miami Heat

    Miami has more potential Giannis "slowers" (since there are no stoppers) than most teams in the league. Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler and Jae Crowder will all get their shots. Even if they don't completely shut him down, they'll make him work for his production.

    Erik Spoelstra will have the rest of the team prepared too. You can expect defensive rotations to be crisp and every individual player to magnify his role.

    That's especially true of Duncan Robinson. This season, Miami is plus-13.4 points per 100 possessions (98th percentile) when he shares the floor with All-Stars Adebayo and Butler. The team is minus-8.9 (12th percentile) when Adebayo and Butler play without Robinson.

    Having one of the game's best shooters does wonders for the spacing around a star duo that does most of its damage inside the arc.

    With a tightened playoff rotation, those three should spend even more time together, but it likely won't be enough to overcome the historically good (and deep) Bucks.

    It takes a lot more than slowing down Giannis to beat Milwaukee.

    Khris Middleton was a star in 2019-20. He's 13th in the league in box plus/minus, and he's one-tenth of a percentage point from joining an exclusive club. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki and Larry Bird (twice) are the only players in league history to average 20-plus points while posting 50-40-90 shooting splits.

    Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe are both in the top 50 in box plus/minus as well, and the rest of the roster is loaded with above-average players.


    Boston Celtics over Toronto Raptors

    This one feels impossible to predict.

    Despite the loss of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, the defending champion Raptors have a better SRS in 2019-20 than they had in 2018-19.

    Continued development from Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell and OG Anunoby, as well as a surprise rookie season from Terence Davis, made up for the loss of one of the game's best wing combinations.

    But Boston's ceiling somehow feels just a bit higher. Toronto's top player in box plus/minus is Kyle Lowry, who currently ranks 22nd. Walker and Tatum are both ahead of him. Gordon Hayward and Daniel Theis are both in the top 40 as well.

    This is shaping up to be a depth vs. star power kind of matchup. While the Celtics and Raptors each have a bit of both, Boston has the edge in star power. That means even more in the playoffs.

Western Conference Semifinals

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    Kim Klement/Associated Press

    Los Angeles Lakers over Oklahoma City Thunder

    CP3 should be able to have his way with L.A.'s perimeter defenders in much the same way Damian Lillard might. Ditto for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder.

    Unlike Houston, however, the Lakers will be able to control the paint against Steven Adams. They often play a traditional center alongside Anthony Davis, which will leave Danilo Gallinari to cover AD. That's a recipe for big games for Davis.

    If L.A. sizes down and puts Davis at the 5, LeBron is suddenly even more of a matchup nightmare at the 4.

    The Thunder gave us one of the best stories of the season, but it'll almost certainly end if the Lakers grace the pages.


    Los Angeles Clippers over Denver Nuggets

    The Clippers will have their hands full inside with Nikola Jokic, who is coming off a historic individual playoff run in 2019. But they have a couple of options for making life difficult for the big man.

    Ivica Zubac isn't near Jokic's talent level, but he's big. Just the incessant nature of battles for position could take a toll on the All-Star. The more effective counter, though, is Montrezl Harrell. Jokic will have a hard time staying with him on L.A.'s pick-and-roll sets, which means the Clippers will likely give him a steady diet of those.

    Denver's other problem will be perimeter defense. The Clippers have two of the game's best wings in Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. Lou Williams can cause plenty of problems too. And the Nuggets just don't have enough lockdown guys to throw at them. Torrey Craig will have his moments, but Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. will likely be exposed on numerous occasions.

    Gary Harris and Will Barton will help, but it's hard to know what kind of legs they'll have coming off injuries.

    Denver is a team on the rise, but the Nuggets are not quite as ready to compete for a title as the Clippers.

Conference Finals

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Milwaukee Bucks over Boston Celtics

    In some ways, Boston appears designed to upset the Bucks. Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward and even Marcus Smart should all be able to at least bother Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. Daniel Theis is plenty comfortable following Brook Lopez out to the perimeter, and Kemba Walker should be able to handle Eric Bledsoe's point-of-attack defense better than most.

    But Milwaukee's combination of star power and depth should still be enough to get the Bucks into the Finals.

    Giannis is having one of the greatest seasons of all time (more on that later), and he has plenty of options to kick to if Boston effectively forms a wall in front of him. The Bucks have nine players with at least 500 minutes and an above-average box plus/minus (the Raptors are the only team with more).

    Donte DiVincenzo, George Hill, Pat Connaughton and Marvin Williams aren't likely to dominate for long stretches, but they'll all have moments throughout the playoffs.

    Backing up a starting five as loaded as Milwaukee's with the kind of depth the team has makes it difficult to predict anyone pulling off an upset.


    Los Angeles Clippers over Los Angeles Lakers

    This is the matchup everyone has been waiting for since last summer, when Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Anthony Davis all made their way to Los Angeles' dueling NBA teams.

    While the analysis of a couple of previous series picked star power over depth, this one goes the other way.

    The justification is pretty easy, though. LeBron and AD are the better duo, but the gap between them and the Clippers' top two isn't enough to overcome the latter's advantage in depth.

    According to box plus/minus, JaVale McGee, Danny Green, Dwight Howard and Alex Caruso are the only above-average rotation players on the Lakers roster beyond James and Davis. None of those four is above a 2.0 box plus/minus (roughly equivalent to a "good starter").

    The Clippers, meanwhile, have Montrezl Harrell, Ivica Zubac and Patrick Beverley all above 2.0. Lou-Will, Patrick Patterson and Reggie Jackson are all above-average.

    Most importantly, they have Kawhi.

    LeBron is arguably the most prolific postseason performer in NBA history, but this series might serve as an official changing of the guard. LeBron is 35, and Kawhi looked like the second coming of Michael Jordan at times during the 2019 playoffs.


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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Milwaukee Bucks over Los Angeles Clippers

    Kawhi Leonard took Round 1 over Giannis Antetokounmpo in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals.

    In that series, Leonard averaged 29.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.0 blocks with a 57.4 true shooting percentage.

    Giannis was well below the standard he set for himself that season with 22.7 points, 13.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists and a 51.8 true shooting percentage. Against Kawhi, specifically, he was 7-of-20 from the field.

    The Bucks scored 99 points in the roughly 100 possessions Leonard was on Giannis, well below their typical level of efficiency.

    You'd think this might all be evidence to support a Clippers pick here. Maybe it is. But this slide is a vote of confidence in the reigning MVP.

    The story of the first title for plenty of legends starts with growing pains. MJ and LeBron both suffered multiple heartbreaking losses before finally breaking through.

    Giannis has now been eliminated from the playoffs four times, with last season being the biggest disappointment.

    That may have fueled him to the literally unprecedented 33.2 points, 15.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals per 75 possessions he averaged this season.

    But that's not enough. NBA players often don't fully get their due until they win it all. Giannis is at the outset of his prime and has the supporting cast to do it this year.