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Bubble Playoffs: Round 1!

NBA Playoffs: ROUND ONE!

Better rest, better passing, better scoring, better defense, and better basketball. That’s what NBA in the bubble has looked like with lots of new players surging to the top of trends, older players catching their second wind, and championship aspirations to go around for all. This, is, the NBA playoffs.

Eastern Conference

Milwaukee Bucks vs Orlando Magic

The juggernaut Bucks face off against the sliding Orlando Magic in the first round that should prove to be one of the shorter series in the NBA playoffs. The NBA-leaders in wins, points per game, and rebounds per game hope to get through this series quick to rest up and make sure Giannis is ready to go against whatever lowest seeded East team. Giannis has averaged 27-12-4 en route to what he hopes is a second MVP campaign, and a championship run. The Bucks have continued to lead in rebounds in the bubble and though their record has been slipping, many believe that they have taken their foot off the gas a little bit since they secured the no. 1 seed. The Bucks have also benefited from Brook Lopez’s uptick in production with 20 PPG in the bubble being a 9-point increase from the season that definitely has to do with his nearly 50% clip from downtown.

The Magic have run through their big men all season and hope that Vucevic averaging a double-double during the bubble gives Giannis and Brook Lopez all they can handle. The Magic themselves are an excellent rebounding team behind Johnson, Gordan, and Vucevic. Markelle Fultz has increased his production ever so slightly and he could use this series on the national platform to remind the NBA why he was a former no. 1 pick.

I am sure I made it clear from the get-go that I think the Magic are very outclassed and didn’t even mention their huge loss of Jonathan Isaac in the bubble. That only makes matters worse and widens the gap between them and the best in the NBA.

Winner: Bucks in 4

Toronto Raptors vs Brooklyn Nets

The defending champs are back through most of the same: Solid defense (NBA best 101.8, 9 steals, and 5.3 blocks per game), solid 3-point percentage (37.5), and smart shooting (least amount of attempted field goals in the bubble per game). Familiar faces from last year’s run have stepped up and stayed consistent such as Fred VanVleet shooting over 40% from 3 and being amongst the leaders in assists per game at 6.7. The only concern here is that Pascal Siakam looks a little rusty in the bubble with some bad shooting splits, but he can make up for that on the defensive side of the ball. The Raptors have proven that they are still deep without Kawhi and are looking to prove that it wasn’t just Kawhi being the secret to their success last year.

Caris LeVert has grown substantially here in the bubble with a 22-4-6 stat line with a TO ratio of almost 3:1 during the Nets’ winning record here in the bubble. Jarrett Allen will look to dominate the boards with his explosive jump and will try his best to continue his bubble tear against Gasol and Ibaka. Can Joe Harris continue averaging 20 a game on 61.5% shooting and over 50% from three? If the Nets’ core can continue to play efficient basketball, they can make this Raptors team work to move to the next round. The Nets have played efficient basketball with only 13 turnovers per game in the bubble: good for fifth in the NBA.

This will be an interesting matchup between two teams that have an image and playstyle of clean basketball that’s mistake free. I just think that the Raptors will overwhelm the Nets when it comes to their bench squads going against each other and Nurse’s defense has proven to slow down even the best in the NBA and I think they’ll know how to clamp down on the Nets.

Winner: Raptors in 5

Boston Celtics vs Philadelphia 76ers

The Celtics finished strong here in the bubble to secure the no. 3 seed and the matchup looks better and better for the Celtics as the injuries stack up on the Sixers. The Celtics have exploded here in the bubble averaging 123 points per game (good for 3rd best in the NBA), with Hayward, Brown, Tatum, and Walker leading the way. They have also played great team defense and are leading the NBA in blocks per game as a team in the bubble. The Celtics hope that their backcourt and forwards will overwhelm the 76ers stronger frontcourt. The Celtics have run with a team basketball identity, but will they have enough on the top end to keep up with the Sixers?

Despite an Embiid scare, and a serious Simmons injury, this 76ers team has continued to persevere and play great basketball. One such indicator is their 40% shooting from beyond the arc that’s good for 4th best in the bubble. They also lead all teams in the bubble with most offensive rebounds, and some role players have stepped up. Alec Burks has been shooting over 50% from both the field and the arc. Tobias Harris has a chance to finally prove himself a superstar with his 21-8-3 stat line and a solid performance in the playoffs against a high-seeded Celtics team. The Sixers will need everything they got and an insanely quick recovery from their stars to compete.

The Sixers are a resilient team who I believe have enough talent to make some noise in the playoffs but when it comes to smart coaching, Brad Stevens has my vote. Stevens has been around the block and arguably has the healthiest, most functional team he has ever had with the Celtics. He has received great production from his core and looks to push for an ECF appearance.

Winner: Celtics in 7

Miami Heat vs. Indiana Pacers

The Miami heat had one of the worse bubble performances of most teams and slid down the standings in the Eastern Conference. Finishing 3-5 in the bubble, the hope is that they got their losses out now to push for a championship. Miami did play some good defense in the Bubble with a top 10 team defensive rating, and top 6 in both blocks and steals. The Heat received great news when Derrick Jones Jr. was left only a “little sore” following the Pacers game. Also, don’t let the last game of the season set a tone for this series considering Bam Adebayo was inactive. The frontcourt of Miami has played well in the bubble and can stretch the court in ways that most frontcourts cannot. Butler made the move to Miami to become a true winner and I think we will see his numbers, and minutes skyrocket in this Pacers series.

The Pacers ride into the playoffs on a win against their postseason opponent and hope to carry that throughout the series. Indiana rides on the surprising breakout of T.J. Warren in the bubble who is the 3rd leading scorer with 31.0 points per game, and the consistent performance of Malcolm Brogdon (18 ppg on 43.5% shooting). Indiana plays one of the cleanest brands of basketball with the 6th least number of turnovers, and the least amount of personal fouls per game of any remaining team with 21.4. They also play tight defense with the 2nd most steals per game and the 3rd highest defensive rating of all teams in the bubble. Indiana will be a tough matchup for the sliding Heat and T.J. Warren thirsts for revenge.

The Pacers are one of the hottest teams in the NBA and I believe that their aggressive approach to the bubble will benefit them in a series against a super deep Miami team that has been sliding. Spoelstra knows how to get his guys his guys rolling come time for the postseason, but I believe in the Pacers as a whole team and their overachieving ways right now.

Winner: Pacers in 6

Western Conference

Los Angeles Lakers vs Portland Trailblazers

King James is back in the postseason after the only break he’s had from playoff basketball in years. The long rest before bubble basketball is welcomed by a Lakers team that has some players that present health or rest issues due to age, high minutes, or injury history. King James managed a 22-7.4-6.9 stat line in just over 31 minutes a game. Those minutes are sure to increase and so are the numbers. The Lakers also got deeper at guard when they brough Waiters to the bubble who has been producing 11.9 points per game off the bench and incredible burst. Kuzma has also taken a step forward as evidenced by his buzzer beater against the Nuggets that he’s not afraid to play and take shots.

The hottest team (that made the playoffs) is the team that needed one more game than anybody else to be where they are. If you haven’t heard, Damian Lillard was the strongest player here in the bubble thus far. Lillard averaged a league leading 37.6 points per game and averaged 6 (YES, 6) 3’s a game on 43.6%. Lillard also ranks 3rd in assists per game in the bubble. Lillard’s numbers combined with McCollum’s 20 a game, Melo’s 16.5, Trent Jr.’s 16.9, and Nurkic’s 17.5, the Trailblazers lead the NBA with 126 points per game. Portland will be one of the best 8 seeds we have seen.

While I acknowledge that the Trailblazers have really blazed a solid trail to the postseason and agree that they are going to be a handful for the Lakers (who’s going to guard Dame?), the Lakers don’t seem like the type to drop a series this early. The experience and diversity of skill between Davis and James has formed one of the best frontcourts we have seen in the NBA in the past 20 years. The Lakers also benefit from clean play with the 2nd least amount of personal fouls per game of teams left and will avoid sending the Blazers to the charity stripe.

Winner: Lakers in 7

Los Angeles Clippers vs. Dallas Mavericks

The Clippers make another push to be “LA’s” team and barring any injuries, can accomplish that. The Clips are a deep team and their defense has been phenomenal. Their transition D only allowed 13.6 points off of turnovers (3rd best in the bubble) and 8.4 points off the fast break (also 3rd). The Clips also have been shooting the ball from the 3-point line shooting 40.8% as a team that’s spearheaded by PG-13’s average of 4 three-pointers per game. Kawhi also came ready to play with 28.8 per game and is still the reigning Finals MVP until someone takes away his chance to do so again.

The Mavs’ mission at the beginning of this season was clear: run through Kristaps and Luka. They have clinched a playoff berth doing just that with Porzingis’ 30.5 and Doncic’s 30 per game landing a seven seed and two top 6 scorers in the bubble. Doncic also contributes 9.7 assists per game and 10.1 boards per game that almost has his as an average of triple-doubles in Orlando. The drop-off after those two stars is pretty steep and the biggest obstacle for this Mavs’ team if they want to press for a Finals bid.

The Mavericks are super-hot right now and matchup pretty well against the Clippers in the frontcourt. The Mavs also sport the 2nd worst defensive rating in the NBA bubble and that will not fly against a Clippers team that’s always able to make that extra pass for a free 3-pointer. The West runs through LA whether that’s the Clippers, or Lakers in the WCF.

Winner: Clippers in 5

Denver Nuggets vs. Utah Jazz

The Nuggets were seriously lacking on the defensive side of the ball here in the bubble with the worst defensive rating, and also giving opponents the most points off of turnovers. Time to panic? I don’t think so. As a Nuggets fan, I watched most of their games and something that is not talked about from these close games against the Heat, the Clippers, the Lakers and other powerhouses is that our starters did not finish those games. In the Lakers and Clippers’ games, the bench played the entire fourth quarter and kept incredible pace with the starting squads of all the other teams. With our bench almost beating the best in the west, I have little doubt that Jokic (4th in assists in the bubble), Jamal Murray, and the most improved player in the bubble: Michael Porter Jr will get going and propel the Nuggets towards a successful playoff run.

The team that ended it all: The Utah Jazz have struggled in the bubble but seemed to accept their slide in seedings without much worry. Mitchell can still score from anywhere on the court and was given some rest for a real push here in the playoffs. Jordan Clarkson has also been a serious contributor on the Jazz team with Gobert nearing a double-double. I would be concerned with the chemistry with Conley leaving the bubble for his child’s birth and the wait for Conley to come back.

The Jazz have not been the same since Gobert shut down the league and his DPOTY campaign looks to be slowing down severely considering the Jazz allowed the most points in the paint of all teams in the bubble. They cannot keep up with the Nuggets who lead the league in assists per game as a team and will use the ball movement for easy buckets in the paint against the Jazz.

Winner: Nuggets in 6

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Houston Rockets

The Thunder have blown away all talk of tanking for a draft pick with their deadly 3-guard lineup that will be restored with Schroder’s quarantine being wrapped up for the first round of the playoffs. The trio of CP3, Schroder, and SGA combines for 48.3 points per game and provide athletic, sound defense. Gallinari has also stepped up big time here in the bubble as a scorer and honestly has been a better contributor since he was almost traded. The only downside is Dort’s knee sprain that has one of OKC’s best defenders watching from the sideline, but hopefully Roberson could step up and try and help out on the biggest challenge yet.

The Rockets climbed quite a bit and played so many different types of games in the bubble from shootouts, to clampdowns and plenty of buzzer beaters. Harden has been a huge part of the solution down in Houston averaging the second most ppg (34.1), fourth most apg (8.9), and third most spg (2.7). He has also gotten help from Robert Covington who has had the task of defending the opposing team’s best player and has grown/done well at that task. Jeff Green has also been a pleasant surprise on the offensive end. All in all, this Rockets team needs Westbrook to push for a title.

The Thunder have been playing great basketball by playing smart. Billy Donovan is not usually the guy I want in the postseason, but his 3-guard lineup could be just what this Thunder team needs to get a quick jump on the Houston Rockets prior to Westbrook’s return. Chris Paul would love to remind the Rockets what they missed. If Westbrook gets ready to play by game 3, there may be hope for the Rockets to rally a comeback, but this Thunder should jump out fast and slow down Harden and bully the others.

Winner: Thunder in 6

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Written by Kodey Stauffer