Home court advantage doesn’t exist. The schedule is more demanding than ever even without travel, forcing teams to play every other day until they advance or get eliminated. Those summer vacations with family and friends players cherish so much have been replaced by the most intense work environment of their career.
Welcome to an NBA postseason unlike any in league history.
It’s too much to suggest we throw out the previous 72 games (or in the Portland Trail Blazers’ case, 73), but it does feel like the unprecedented circumstances of the 2020 NBA playoffs will create more variance. If you’re the sort of person who likes to complain about the NBA’s postseason too often going chalk, the bubble playoffs could be for you.
The playoffs feel more unpredictable than ever, but we’re going to try to make predictions anyway. Here’s our best guess at what will happen in the NBA playoffs.
2020 Western Conference playoff predictions: first round
No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 8 Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard has caught fire inside the bubble. Jusuf Nurkic is healthy and playing like a top-five center. The Blazers have gone 7-2 since arriving in Disney and just won the first play-in series in league history. Portland is becoming a trendy pick to pull a monumental upset against the Lakers, but that feels too optimistic for one big reason: the Blazers’ defense is a disaster even before they meet LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Portland’s breakneck offensive attack will make this series entertaining, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be competitive. Prediction: Lakers in five.
No. 2 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 7 Dallas Mavericks: The Mavericks had the best offense in NBA history this season. Luka Doncic has been historically productive for a player who recently turned 21 years old. Kristaps Porzingis has averaged 30.5 points per game inside the bubble. It still won’t be enough to truly test the Clippers, whose deep bench and pair of superstar wings gives them the highest ceiling of any team in the league. Prediction: Clippers in six.
No. 3 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 6 Utah Jazz: The Nuggets have stumbled into the postseason at 3-5 since arriving in the bubble, but Denver seems to have found another star in Michael Porter Jr. Porter is averaging 22 points per game since arriving in Disney and gives the Nuggets a dynamic 6’10 shot-maker on the wing. Not having Bojan Bogdanovic at all and Mike Conley at the start of the series is a killer for Utah. Prediction: Nuggets in six.
No. 4 Houston Rockets vs. No. 5 Oklahoma City Thunder: How healthy is Russell Westbrook? That’s the question that hangs over this series after reports he will miss at least the start of this series with a strained quad. The Thunder have been the biggest surprise of the season, and you know Chris Paul would love nothing more than getting revenge on his former team. It’s tempting to pick OKC, but I’m rolling with The Beard. Prediction: Rockets in six.
2020 Eastern Conference playoff predictions: first round
No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 8 Orlando Magic: It’s a damn shame the Suns missed the playoffs but the Magic and Nets made it. We’re at 20 straight years of Western Conference supremacy and it doesn’t feel like it’s going to stop any time soon. Prediction: Bucks in four.
No. 2 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 7 Brooklyn Nets: Brooklyn has been a pretty incredible story inside the bubble, going 5-3 at Disney despite a roster decimated by opt-outs and injuries. It would be great to see Caris LeVert keep going off like he did vs. the Blazers in the regular season finale, but the Toronto defense is simply too good to allow it. Prediction: Raptors in four.
No. 3 Boston Celtics vs. No. 6 Philadelphia 76ers: Philadelphia was my preseason pick in the East, but this year has been a disaster for them in every way. It just sucks that Ben Simmons is out with a knee injury. A competitive series would be so much fun if only for the smack talk between two of the league’s most passionate fanbases, but it seems unlikely to happen without Simmons. Prediction: Celtics in five.
No. 5 Miami Heat vs. No. 4 Indiana Pacers: It feels like a pretty monumental accomplishment for this Pacers team to get the No. 4 seed while playing without Victor Oladipo for so much of the year. It’s too bad Domantas Sabonis is now out with a foot injury — it would have been wonderful to see him battle Bam Adebayo in the middle. Miami feels dangerous right now. Prediction: Heat in five.
2020 Western Conference playoff predictions: second round
No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 4 Houston Rockets: If Westbrook is fully healthy, Houston’s small ball attack feels like it could give the Lakers trouble. The Rockets do an impressive job of defending the rim without a traditional center. James Harden is playing at an MVP level. Houston has to be due for some good shooting luck in the playoffs at some point, right? I’m tempted to pick the Rockets, but just can’t there. Here’s a bonus prediction: this is the series where everyone starts wondering if Anthony Davis is really the best player on the Lakers. Prediction: Lakers six.
No. 2 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 3 Denver Nuggets: It will be interesting to see how the Clippers chose to matchup with Nikola Jokic. Can they really get away with Montrezl Harrell at five in crunch-time against one of the league’s great centers? Ultimately, it probably doesn’t matter much either way. The Clippers’ talent advantage is too stark for this series to actually get close. Prediction: Clippers in five.
2020 Eastern Conference playoff predictions: second round
No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 5 Miami Heat: There’s a convincing case to be made that the Heat matchup with the Bucks better than any other team. Miami can throw Bam Adebayo at Giannis and dot the perimeter with knockdown shooters like Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. This will have to be the series where Khris Middleton proves his amazing regular season numbers can carry over to the playoffs. Here’s guessing this is one of the best series we get in the bubble. Prediction: Bucks in seven.
No. 2 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 3 Boston Celtics: Another great matchup — with two top-five defenses, expect these games to be brutal knockdown, drag out fights. Tatum and Jalen Brown have been so great all year, but I don’t know if they’re ready for the biggest stages quite yet. Kemba Walker’s health also feels like a legit concern. Prediction: Raptors in six.
2020 Western Conference playoff predictions: finals
No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 2 Los Angeles Clippers: The series everyone wants to see. It feels like seven games won’t be enough. Can we make this a best-of-13 instead? The Lakers are the only team in the league with a better 1-2 punch than the Clippers, but it’s the rest of their roster that gives me pause. The Lakers just seem to have a few more holes that can be exploited regardless of how amazing LeBron and AD are. Prediction: Clippers in seven.
2020 Eastern Conference playoff predictions: finals
No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 2 Toronto Raptors: Toronto’s defense feels like the single most dependable unit in the league right now. The Raptors finished with the No. 1 defense in the bubble and it wasn’t particularly close. Stopping Giannis without the help of Kawhi Leonard will be the biggest challenge of Nick Nurse’s career, but to this point the Toronto coach has shown incredible creativity in solving any problem his team faces. I think the Bucks will finally miss Malcolm Brogdon in this series. If Milwaukee falls short, it feels likeit will be more of an indictment on Bucks’ supporting cast — which has been incredible all season — than Giannis. Prediction: Raptors in seven.
2020 NBA Finals prediction
Los Angeles Clippers vs. Toronto Raptors: It defies logic that the Raptors have a better winning percentage and a superior point differential this season without Kawhi Leonard than they had with him last season. This is the round where they will really miss him. The Clippers have had the best combination of top-end talent and depth all season. They were my championship prediction back in October. I’m sticking with them. Prediction: Clippers in six.