Updated Round-by-Round NBA Playoff Predictions
Round 1 of the 2020 NBA playoffs is officially over, and for the most part, it was as entertaining as a first round can be.
From the Orlando Magic and Portland Trail Blazers stealing Game 1s against the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, respectively, to Luka Doncic’s superstar-making turn against the L.A. Clippers and the series-long shootout between Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell...this first set of games got us right back in the groove of watching high-level basketball.
But if you thought the past two weeks were great fun, buckle up. The remaining eight teams are bound to produce some excellent basketball, with Hall of Fame-caliber legacy implications at stake and a few all-time great matchups potentially in the works.
Let’s go through the remainder of the playoff bracket and predict what’s yet to come.
Eastern Conference Semifinals, Part I
(1) Milwaukee Bucks over (5) Miami Heat
Milwaukee Bucks Championship Odds: +700
Miami Heat Championship Odds: +700
Somehow, picking the Bucks feels mildly controversial at this point. Miami was the only Eastern Conference team to claim a winning record against Milwaukee in the regular season, making the team a popular upset pick before this series began. That feeling is even more forceful after the Heat won both Games 1 and 2.
The Heat have lethal shooters up and down their lineup and claim the requisite defensive length and strength to bother Giannis Antetokounmpo. It also doesn't hurt that Erik Spoelstra is a championship-winning coach who's proved he's more amenable to in-game adjustments than the Bucks' Mike Budenholzer, who remains stumped by defenses crowding the paint against his shooting-challenged megastar.
This is mostly a pick based on faith in Giannis.
The first title is always the hardest one to win. Michael Jordan needed to conquer the Bad Boy Pistons, LeBron outlasted the Big Three-era Celtics, Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors had to edge out LeBron, and so on. Giannis seems primed to be that next era-defining superstar, but to earn that mantle, he'll have to conquer his postseason demons.
Thankfully, there's no more forceful way to do that than to beat a team with Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder.
It might be as difficult a series as Giannis has ever played, but he surely knows what's at stake. We're betting that he'll rise above and bring the Bucks to their second straight Eastern Conference Finals.
Milwaukee in Seven
Eastern Conference Semifinals, Part II
(3) Boston Celtics over (2) Toronto Raptors
Boston Celtics Championship Odds: +500
Toronto Raptors Championship Odds: +1900
With both teams sweeping their respective first-round opponents, this series felt like a coin flip beforehand. But with the Celtics winning the opening two games and there being no home-court advantage in either direction, this feels much more straightforward now.
Toronto will make this series competitive. With a championship pedigree and disruptive defense, the team can be unstoppable on its best days, even against other top-tier opponents. But Jayson Tatum has made it look so easy through the first two matchups, and when he's in a groove like this, you have to take notice.
As it turns out, the third-year forward's pre-hiatus hot streak was a sign of things to come. Tatum has dominated on both ends this postseason, averaging 27.2 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game on 48.7/46.5/82.5 shooting splits. He's been the best player in both series, and it hasn't been close.
Combine this with the fact that Pascal Siakam has struggled with efficiency all season and now has to rise to the occasion against a dominant group of Boston wing defenders, and this pick is fairly easy.
Will Marcus Smart continue shooting 55 percent from three? Almost certainly not. His shotmaking being so key to both Celtics wins is arguably a point in Toronto's favor moving forward. But Kemba Walker will probably be a bit better too, and the Celtics' top-tier talent is just more imposing at the moment.
Boston in Six
Western Conference Semifinals, Part I
(1) Los Angeles Lakers over (4) Houston Rockets
Los Angeles Lakers Championship Odds: +300
Houston Rockets Championship Odds: +1100
The unstoppable force meets the immovable object.
Each team holds one massive advantage over its opponent in this series. The Lakers' combination of size and athleticism should spell doom for the Rockets, while Houston's endless barrage of threes could put Los Angeles away quickly on the right day.
We'll ride with the Purple and Gold here because of the consistency factor.
Though based on ostensibly sound analytics, the Rockets' reliance on the three-ball toes a precarious line. If the shots are falling, they can blow their opponents out. If not—well, we've seen that show before, and it literally cost Houston a Finals berth.
Hopefully for the Rockets, a slump that extreme does not befall them in this series, but if the team struggles to make long-distance shots, the onus then falls on James Harden and Russell Westbrook. As recently as two nights ago, we've seen what can happen when they need to take charge of a close postseason game, and it remains a cringeworthy affair.
These are all bad signs against the Lakers. Los Angeles boasts LeBron James, one of the most metronomically consistent superstars in NBA history, and plenty of ways to exploit Houston's lack of size (the Lakers had the league's highest field-goal percentage in the regular season).
The fact that the Lakers have been so successful without relying on three-point shooting (34.9 percent in the regular season and 34.3 percent in the playoffs) gives them a higher game-to-game ceiling than the Rockets and will produce a Western Conference Finals berth.
Los Angeles in Six
Western Conference Semifinals, Part II
(2) Los Angeles Clippers over (3) Denver Nuggets
Los Angeles Clippers Championship Odds: +240
Denver Nuggets Championship Odds: +3600
Congratulations, Denver Nuggets! You're the 12th team in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 series deficit.
Your reward? Face a team that's owned you all year.
If the 2019-20 campaign is any indication, this will be the least telegenic series of the second round. These teams played three times in the regular season, with the Clippers winning the last two matchups by a combined 42 points (and Paul George didn't play in their first meeting).
Nothing appears to have changed in the many months since the season ended. In fact, these two clubs have arguably diverged even further.
Los Angeles is playing some of the most efficient basketball of its season, pasting the formidable Mavericks throughout the last four games of the first round, while the Nuggets defense has largely struggled in the bubble.
Donovan Mitchell burned Nikola Jokic repeatedly in pick-and-rolls in the first round, so just imagine what Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will do against him. And while an optimistic Nuggets fan might counter by saying that the team could just outscore the Clippers, don't forget that Patrick Beverley will be shadowing Jamal Murray.
It was undeniably impressive for Denver to win its first-round series given the 3-1 deficit. But Murray and Jokic would somehow need to play even better against a much more challenging opponent for the team to progress any further, and that's rather unlikely.
The Battle for Los Angeles will take place right on schedule.
Los Angeles in Four
Eastern Conference Finals
(3) Boston Celtics over (1) Milwaukee Bucks
Arguing for this upset comes down to simple momentum.
And while the very nature of momentum (if it's even real) suggests that you can't really predict it 10 days in advance, the fact that the Celtics have looked so comfortable against the defending champion Raptors and the Bucks have struggled against the Heat is indicative of each team's respective state right now.
Boston has been dominant from the jump in the bubble, recording the second-best net rating in the seeding games and the top net rating thus far in the playoffs. Milwaukee, on the other hand, hasn't looked right at all. The Bucks lost five of eight seeding games, including multiple one- and two-possession affairs, and though the numbers were better against an injury-riddled Magic team in the first round, they haven't quite looked like themselves, even beyond the Game 1 loss.
In addition, the Celtics have nearly a half-dozen competent defenders to send at Giannis Antetokounmpo, ranging from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to Daniel Theis and Semi Ojeleye to, yes, even Marcus Smart. If combating Miami's fleet is tough for the Greek Freak, then clashing with Boston's stoppers may prove Herculean in difficulty.
As he is a thrilling player to watch and a great person by all accounts, it's painful to pick against Giannis. But until he and the Bucks can combat what has become a rather obvious, widely disseminated scouting report, an NBA Finals berth will remain elusive.
Boston in Six
Western Conference Finals
(2) Los Angeles Clippers over (1) Los Angeles Lakers
Both these clubs struggled in the seeding games. The Clippers dealt with a lack of continuity, as Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams all left the bubble. The Lakers, on the other hand, briefly forgot how to score, recording fewer than 100 points in three of the eight seeding games.
However, right on schedule, each squad is starting to round into form. The Clippers scored 154 points in Game 5 and limited the Mavericks to just 97 points in their final matchup, while the Lakers just breezed through an exhausted Blazers club.
This should be one of the most entertaining and fascinating series in years.
LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard are arguably the two best postseason performers of this era, while Anthony Davis and Paul George are likely eager to prove themselves on this stage too (save your George jokes). Even down-roster storylines like Patrick Beverley's insistence on making this a rivalry or the Morris twins fighting (perhaps literally) for sibling supremacy will make this matchup endlessly watchable.
The Clippers' depth makes their path to victory slightly more reasonable. They have two elite LeBron stoppers in Leonard and George, can play at least one high-level scorer at all times and will likely outshoot the Lakers in most games.
Though LeBron and Davis may be a better duo than Leonard and George (they definitely are right now), the Clippers will make their first Finals appearance this year.
Clippers in Seven
(2) Los Angeles Clippers over (3) Boston Celtics
Remember that "Me in 2009 vs. Me in 2019" meme that made the rounds last year? Well, a Clippers-Celtics Finals has real "Me in 2020 vs. Me in 2022" energy.
These teams are constructed almost identically.
Both rely mostly on their wings (Kawhi Leonard and Paul George vs. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown) and both play guards that opponents love to hate (there's no better storyline in this potential series than a Patrick Beverley-Marcus Smart matchup). The similarities even extend beyond the court, as Doc Rivers coached the Celtics to a championship in 2008 and is now trying to do so again with the Clippers.
However, with respect to Boston, just because these teams are built similarly doesn't mean this will be a tight series. The Celtics will steal a game or two when Tatum goes supernova or if Smart has another out-of-nowhere shooting display, but when this Clippers team is locked in, it is devastating enough to give opponents an existential crisis.
Even if George disappears against Boston's high-level defenders, Leonard will likely adjust and seamlessly elevate his play like he so often does.
The Celtics will undoubtedly have their moment in the sun. They have the best Big Three in the NBA, two of whom are under 25 years old, and a genius coach in Brad Stevens. But right now, it's all about this Clippers team, which makes up for a lack of continuity with one of the best-constructed rosters you'll ever see.
Los Angeles in Six
*NBA championship odds courtesy of FanDuel.