This season has been different to say the least. With the tragic loss of Kobe Bryant, GiGi and the other victims of the plane crash, the COVID-19 pandemic, and race relations being called into question the league found itself between a rock and a hard place.

The suspension of the season on March 11th was soon followed by other sports leagues around the world and all hope seemed lost for sports fans. Until June 4th, where the NBA approved of a 22-team bubble to continue the season in Orlando.

In came July 30th, and a much-needed sense of normalcy was brought to us as the NBA bubble season tipped-off and gave us an action packed double header with the Jazz outlasting the Pelicans 106-104 and the Lakers edging out the Clippers in a thriller 103-101.

Now we're here! The playoffs are officially starting and below are the match ups and my predictions.

1. Bucks Vs. 8. Magic

The Magic are back to the playoffs after snapping the longest playoff drought in franchise history last year. Although the Magic aren’t a household name, they’ve laid down the foundation of the future with a decent young core, and a strong leader in Coach Clifford. Unfortunately for them though, time is of the essence and the future is on down the road.

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The Bucks came into the season as the favorite to win the East and haven’t shown any reasons to doubt those projections. With a Giannis Antetokounmpo playing at a Hall of Fame level with numbers like 29.5 points, 13.5 rebounds, 5.6 assist , on 53% from the field, it might be time to fear the dear.

He’s leading the charge of a team that’s ranked No. 1 in defensive rating, effective field goal percentage, and defensive rebounding percentage. Their domination of all aspects of the game is just too much to overcome for the Magic. In addition to that, they have a top-10 bench that’s contributing 40 points a game. Do I really need to continue?

Not all hope is lost for the Magic though. Expect to see their young core get the bulk of the minutes and gain invaluable experience and chemistry as they continue to compete throughout the series. Hopefully Markell Fultz, Mo Bamba, and Aaron Gordon can use this and mold themselves into a competitive squad in a year or two but for now, they have to take the lesson with an L.

Josh’s Pick: Bucks in 4

  1. Pacers Vs. 5. Heat 

The Indiana Pacers have shown grit and determination throughout the season. With the loss of their All-Star Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, they found a way to compete. With a stingy defense mentality and high IQ basketball, the Pacers are practically built for playoff basketball.

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The Pacers are anchored defensively anchored by Myles Turner who serves as an elite rim protector and switch defender in the pick and roll situations. This allows for the Pacers to virtually contest every shot on the defensive end which is why they where the 3rd in opponents points per game and top 10 in blocks and defensive rating.

The Pacers on the offensive end have mostly been able to win by committee. With five players contributing double-digit points per game (Warren, Brogdon, Lamb, McDermott, and Turner) it’s clear they know the power of ball movement. They rank 7th in assist per game,10th in assist percentage, and 2nd in assist to turnover ratio. This brand of high IQ ensures that they get the most out of every possession with great looks and shots.

I’d be remissed if I didn’t mention the play of TJ Warren who’s busted the NBA’s bubble while averaging 31 points and 6 rebounds a game during his stint in Orlando, but it’s unclear if he can do this versus the Heat. His recent performance resulted in a mediocre 12 points on a 5-14 shooting night. This seems to be a pattern as he’s only averaging 10 points on 35 percent from the field against Miami.

Now the Heat are led by All-Stars Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Coach Spoelstra has refined the Heat to modern times by infusing modern ball movement and three-point shooting and they’ve become a dark horse choice to represent the East in the Finals.

The Heat's new emphasis in ball movement has led to them ranking 5th in the league in assist and 66% of their field goals being a product of assist. Their two All-Stars, Butler and Adebayo are averaging career-high and assist and the team feeds off that energy. With seven players are averaging double digits in points, it’s clear to see Miami runs a team-first offense.

Miami has also emerged as an elite 3-point threat while finishing 2nd in the league for 3-point percentage and with 36 percent of their offense being generated from deep. Miami’s inside-out attack has proven to be a success.

But don’t let the flashy offense fool you. This is still a Pat Riley organization that prides itself on toughness and tenacity on defense. Ranking 6th in defensive rebounds, 10th in points allowed, and 6th and 7th respectively in opponent field goal and opponent 3-point percentage.

All in all, the Pacers and the Heat are similar with their team play and stingy defense, but Miami not only has the best player in the series (Butler) but also has a 3-point attack that simply can’t be matched by the Pacers. Unless Oladipo can return to All-Star form I expect an early exit for the Pacers

Josh’s Pick: Heat in 6 

  1. Rockets vs. 5. Thunder  

This might be the most contrasting but interesting match up in the first round. The Rockets who traded Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook are now going to see if it was worth it. It’s small ball vs traditional, mid-range vs three-pointers, old school vs new school and can be the best series of the first round.

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We all know the Rockets are led by the James Harden who finished 34 points per game. Alongside Westbrook who’s averaged 27 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists throughout the season are built to run and gun like their head coach’s previous team in Phoenix (05 Suns). The Rockets rank 2nd in the league in both pace and points per game, and 6th in offensive rating.

These aren’t easy buckets either 47% of their offense comes from non-assisted baskets which is second in the league, but when you have one the greatest scorers of all time in Harden and former MVP in Westbrook it does make sense.

With 39.8% of their points coming from deep it allows Westbrook to get downhill and collapse defenses that give Tucker, Covington, and Rivers or Harden open looks to knockdown. Although small, Houston uses the three-ball to offset any disadvantages of rebounding, and points in the paint they give up to other teams.

Led by future Hall of Fame Point GOD (yes I spelled it right) Chris Paul the Thunder thrives in the half-court. While finishing 8th in team field goal percentage, they finished 6th in turnovers per game. This focus on not wasting opportunities is also seen at the free-throw line where the shoot close to 80% which is good enough for 7th in the league.

Guard play is what drives the Thunder. Paul, Gilgeous- Alexander, and Schroder can control the pace of the game, create for others, and create shots for themselves hence they all average 15+ points a game.

D’Antoni is a coach who will willingly give up the mid-range shot on the defensive end and that’s right in the Thunder’s wheel house. With Paul hitting 54% of his mid-range shots, and the Thunder as a whole generate 11.7% of their offense from the mid-range. Look for them to attack out of pick and roll and punish Houston for not stepping up to contest the shot.

Defensively the Thunder has the 7th best scoring defense in the league. They play smart and allowed the 3rd fewest of free throws per game. They also don’t allow the deep ball and forced opponents to shoot 34% from behind the arc. Those are exactly the shots Houston is looking for so it will be interesting to see that play out during the series.

This is probably the toughest series to predict in the whole playoffs. While Houston is one of the most talented teams in the league the Thunder are led by a basketball savant in Paul and have deeper rotation despite Schroder being in and out the lineup due to injuries. The Thunder won the series 2-1 in the regular season and showed they can keep up with their scoring. My mind is telling me Thunder, but my heart can’t bet against Harden and Westbrook.

Josh’s Pick Thunder in 7 

1 Lakers vs. 8. Trail Blazers

Damian Lillard has solidified himself as a superstar in the past eight games while averaging 37.3 points, 9.6 assists, and 4.3 rebounds on 49.7% from the field and 43.6% from deep. These stats are eerily similar to what he averaged against the Lakers in the regular season 36.9 points, 9 assists on 51% shooting from the field and 40% from behind the arc. But unfortunately, I think Dame time is up.

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With the Trailblazers being the hottest team in the bubble beside the Suns and CJ McCollum showing he’s back to his old self, I still see the Lakers dominating the match up. Due to Portland’s biggest weakness, defense.

Portland had the 114.3 defensive rating which put them 3rd from the last place in that category. While the Lakers ranked No. 3 with a 106.1 rating. The Lakers also lead the leagues and blocks and rank 5th in steals per game.

While being led by Lebron James the Lakers lead the league in field goal percentage and are 10th in assist which translates to a lot of easy baskets as opposed to Portland who has the lowest assist percentage in the league.

Anthony Davis is also a nightmare match up and can force Nurkic and Whiteside to defend outside of the paint and with him averaging 32 points 11.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists on 56% from the field, and 40% from deep I like his chances. Look for AD to be the No. 1 scoring option and Lebron to keep facilitating and working the two-man game.

I think this will be semi-tough out for the Lakers and that Dame is bound to steal a game similar to Allen Iverson in the 2001 Finals, but I still see the Lakers handling business as usual.

Josh’s Pick: Lakers in 5

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