By Kushal Shah
The moment we’ve all been waiting for is finally here: the NBA season returns this week with 22 teams in a quarantine bubble at Disney World after being on hiatus since March 11 due to COVID-19. The bubble, an isolation zone near Orlando, Florida, is a $150 million effort to help protect the safety of players, coaches and workers affiliated with the teams — and it increasingly looks like that hefty price tag might’ve been necessary to avoid an outbreak like the Miami Marlins’ that stalled games only a week into the MLB’s return.
The NBA determined that each of the 22 teams in the bubble will play eight games prior to the playoffs, providing a fair opportunity for the six teams still vying for a seed. At the end of those eight seeded games, if the ninth seeded team is four or fewer games behind the eighth seeded team, the two teams will play a best-of-two series, with the victor securing the eighth seed. After the playoff bracket is set, the playoff format will be the same as past years, with the top eight teams in each conference battling it out for their shot at the Larry O’Brien Championship trophy.
Now, let’s dive right into what I think will be the four most interesting playoff series. (To keep it simple, I’m assuming that the finalized eight seeds will remain the same top eight teams from each conference.)
Matchups start growing exponentially more exciting in the second round when the Los Angeles Clippers play the Houston Rockets.
Dissecting a series between the Clippers and Rockets, I believe that this matchup is quite even — sure, the Rockets have former MVP James Harden and triple-double king Russell Westbrook, but the Clippers have their own set of All-Stars as well as former Defensive Players of the Year (DPOY) in Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. However, it’s hard to believe that the Rockets will succeed in taming the Clippers, because players like Montrezl Harris, Lou Williams and Marcus Morris all add more depth to the Clippers’ bench.
The next nail-biter series are the two conference final matchups: the Los Angeles Lakers against the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Milwaukee Bucks against the Toronto Raptors.
As I mentioned before, the Clippers are a dangerous team thanks to their George-Leonard combo and their deep bench. Nonetheless, the same can be said about the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers, after all, have the great Lebron James, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, and Anthony Davis, an All-Star and candidate for this year’s DPOY. The two Los Angeles teams seemed evenly matched throughout the regular season (before the pandemic disrupted the league), making this series one of the most interesting in this year’s playoffs.
Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Milwaukee Bucks face off against the reigning NBA champion Raptors. I’ve been surprised by the Raptors this season, considering they lost their biggest star, Leonard, during free agency last offseason. Nevertheless, the Raptors continue to play hard and dominate the Eastern Conference with their remaining players. The Bucks, however, are out for vengeance after losing the Conference Finals last year to the Raptors. As an added bonus, the “King of the North,” Leonard, departed to the Clippers during free agency last offseason, which is why I believe that last year’s MVP and current DPOY candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo will lead the Bucks to victory in the East.
And finally, my prediction for the highly anticipated Finals matchup –– King James’s Lakers will square off against the Greek Freak’s Bucks. I must confess, with this matchup, not only do I have the faintest idea of who will win, but also I’m torn between which team to root for.
On one hand, I’m a huge fan of Antetokounmpo and his transcendent journey to become one of the game’s all-time greats, so I’d love to see him win his first championship. On the other hand, I know that if Antetokounmpo fails to win the championship this year, the chance that he requests a trade to the Warriors will skyrocket. As a Warriors fan, I would love to see him continue to build his already-strong rapport with Warriors point guard Stephen Curry.
The Lakers probably have a stronger overall team than the Bucks. Taking into consideration the depth of the Lakers bench, as a result of their offseason and in-season additions, I don’t think the Bucks will be able to withstand all the weapons that the Lakers hold. But again, this is what’s so electrifying about the NBA playoffs: anybody can pull off an upset and win a series –– just look at what happened to the injury-ravaged Warriors in last year’s Finals. Regardless of the pandemic and the league’s bubble, I expect this year’s playoffs to be just as spectacular as any other, and I can’t wait to see who will hoist the Larry O’Brien Championship trophy in October.
Contact Kushal Shah at 21kushals ‘at’ students.harker.org.