Early predictions for the 2020 NBA Eastern Conference Playoffs

Originally posted on Sportsnaut | By Vincent Frank | Last updated 8/12/20

There are still a couple of days remaining before the 2019-20 NBA regular season comes to a conclusion at Walt Disney World in Florida.

While the Western Conference remains very much up in the air, everything seems to be settled back East. The first-round matchups in the Eastern Conference Playoffs are already set.

It’s going to be rather interesting given the injuries we have seen and some struggles from the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks. Without further ado, let’s look at some early predictions for the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

Milwaukee Bucks sweep the Orlando Magic

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks will take on Aaron Gordon’s Magic in Round 1.  Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Sitting at eight games under .500, Orlando is among the worst teams to make the playoffs in recent NBA history. Playing in their home city without fans in attendance is not going to change the end result as the Magic take on the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

Sure Milwaukee has lost seven of 10 dating back to when the season was suspended on March 11. But this team is just too good to even consider an upset. Reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo will be rested after receiving a one-game suspension. Khris Middleton has a plus-level matchup against Orlando wings. It will result in a lopsided four-game sweep for the Bucks.

Early exit for the Indiana Pacers

Victor Oladipo’s Pacers haven’t been at their best since the season resumed. Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Set to take on a surprising Miami Heat team in the first round, Indiana does not find itself in the best of positions. Star guard Victor Oladipo has not been himself since ultimately deciding to resume the season with his team. The veteran is averaging just 16.0 points on 46 percent shooting from the field in five games at Walt Disney World. One of the leading scorers in Orlando, T.J. Warren, is dealing with plantar fasciitis in his foot.

On the other side sits a Heat team that was among the most surprising in the NBA prior to the season being suspended. Riding rookies Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn, this squad is a hard out. The emergence of All-Star big man Bam Adebayo and presence of Jimmy Butler adds to that. Look for Miami to take out Indiana in six.

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Dame on! Lillard scores 61 in victory over Mavericks

Originally posted on Larry Brown Sports | By Larry Brown | Last updated 8/11/20

Damian Lillard was feeling himself after a big game for the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday night.

Lillard scored 61 points to lift Portland to a 124-121 win over the Dallas Mavericks. He was 17-of-32 from the field, including nine 3-pointers and a perfect 18-for-18 performance at the line.

After the game ended, Lillard’s competitive attitude was still on display. He could be seen demanding some respect on his name.

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NBA power rankings after first week at Walt Disney World

Originally posted on Sportsnaut | By Vincent Frank | Last updated 8/7/20

A lot has been decided around the NBA during the first week since its 2019-20 season resumed in Orlando. The Lakers and Bucks have already clinched No. 1 seeds. Meanwhile, the Washington Wizards’ existence seems to be pointless.

As the remainder of the regular season plays out at Walt Disney World, let’s check in on the power rankings of the 22 teams left in the bubble.

1- Milwaukee Bucks (55-14)

By virtue of their huge comeback win over the Miami Heat on Thursday, the Bucks have now clinched the top spot in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. This comes after the team dropped two of its first three in the Orlando bubble, including an humiliating upset loss to the Brooklyn Nets. Even then, there’s every reason to believe Milwaukee remains the best team in the NBA. The presence of reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo coupled with the deepest bench in the Association leads me to this conclusion.

2- Los Angeles Lakers (51-17)

Los Angeles lost both ends of their only back-to-back, dropping games to the Thunder and Rockets on consecutive nights. For most, this would seem like a major red flag. That’s until we realize the Lakers clinched the top seed out west following a win over Utah earlier in the week. LeBron James (minor groin injury) also didn’t suit up in Thursday’s 16-point defeat to the Rockets. There’s no reason for alarm here. Los Angeles will now spend the next few games getting its rotation in order. That’s all the remainder of the regular season is good for.

3- Toronto Raptors (49-18)

Toronto has won each of its first three games in the bubble by an average of nearly 10 points per outing. That included a blowout 107-92 win over the Los Angeles Lakers last weekend. The defending champs seem to be clicking on all cylinders right now. This includes star guard Fred VanVleet averaging 21.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 8.3 assists on 53% shooting during that three-game span.

4- Los Angeles Clippers (46-22)

Losses to the Lakers and Suns led some to believe that Los Angeles wasn’t quite right after a four-plus month hiatus. That was a bit concerning given that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George had ample rest to recover from nagging injuries. Still undermanned in the Orlando bubble, Los Angeles answered critics Thursday against a game Dallas Mavericks team. Leonard and George combined for 53 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists in the 15-point win. Could this be a harbinger of things to come for the Clippers? One star NBA player seems to think so.

5- Miami Heat (43-26)

Miami picked up where it left off once returning to the season after surprising the masses during the pre-suspended portion of the campaign. That included big-time wins over the Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics before Thursday’s outing against Milwaukee. Up 17 at the half, Miami blew the lead and ended up losing by 14 points. It was a disastrous performance that saw Miami’s starting front court shoot 33% from the field. The only saving grace was that this represented the second consecutive game Jimmy Butler (sore foot) has missed. He’ll be 100% and ready to go for the playoffs.

6- Boston Celtics (45-23)

Just 2-2 since they resumed their season, the Celtics are still looking to find the right balance. Is this Kemba Walker’s team or is Jayson Tatum prepared to step up even more? Tatum shot just 2-of-18 from the field in Boston’s first game in Orlando against the Bucks on July 31. Since then, he’s averaging 25.3 points on 55% shooting from the field. If Tatum can continue to exert his dominance, these Celtics will be legit title contenders moving forward.

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Here’s why the Milwaukee Bucks will not make 2020 NBA Finals

Originally posted on The Sports Fan Journal By Ron Hampston | Last updated 8/5/20

While it seems like they are an obvious choice to make their first NBA Finals since 1971, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks are not a shoo-in to make it out of the Eastern Conference. The Toronto Raptors seem primed and ready to defend their title, while teams like the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers have the talent and potential to challenge the East’s No. 1 seed.

Even if the Bucks were on a near 70-win pace before the hiatus, Milwaukee has potential speedbumps to address before they punch their ticket to the NBA Finals. Here are a few reasons why you should bet on the Milwaukee Bucks not winning the Eastern Conference Finals and could lose their marquee superstar in the process.

The Eastern Conference Is Not a Walk in the Park

It’s funny how the perception of the East has changed since the departure of LeBron James, but that’s a different story for another day. The East’s top teams have all had success against the Bucks this season, and that prior success along with Milwaukee losing an actual home-court advantage now in the bubble (More on this in a moment). Teams like Toronto and Boston are stacked with guards who can get their own shot and get shots for others, something Milwaukee sorely lacks (looking at you Eric Bledsoe).

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LeBron James on bubble: Being away from family is a ‘huge challenge’

By Blake Harper | Last updated 8/4/20

The NBA season has gone about as well as anyone could have hoped for so far, but while the bubble appears to be a success from an on-court perspective, LeBron James says that the off-the-court aspect has proven to be quite difficult due to separating players from their families and friends.

“I miss the hell out of my family,” James said. “My wife, my kids, my mother. And so on and so on. So, it’s a huge challenge.”

LeBron has three kids, Bronny, Bryce and Zhuri, with his wife Savannah. The three-time champion is a proud, dedicated father, posting photos and videos of the family spending time together. Since joining the bubble, LeBron has posted several photos on Instagram that show how much he’s missing his family during this time. 

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Zion Williamson says minutes restriction is ‘very tough’

Zion Williamson’s bubble experience has been more like a bubble-wrapping experience thus far, and he is having difficulty with the imposed limits.

The New Orleans star opened up to reporters on Sunday about the minutes restriction that the Pelicans have had him on for their seeding games.

“It’s very tough, to be honest, because as soon as I start to break that sweat, I look over, that horn is for me and I have to come out the game,” Williamson said, per Andrew Lopez of ESPN. “Also, when I do catch the flow of the game, like I said, that horn goes off and it’s for me.

“It’s still fun but I guess, like you said, it’s not to that full extent as y’all are used to seeing,” he went on. “I’m a competitor, I want to stay on the court. When I’m coming out of the game, my competitive side of me that I want to stay in. I guess that does affect the fun a little bit, but not too much.”

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Originally posted on Larry Brown Sports By Darryn Albert | Last updated 8/2/20

Four factors that will have a major impact on NBA championship race

Oftentimes in basketball, it’s the little things that make the biggest difference.

As the NBA restart date draws near, you know which players are sitting out of the bubble, you know which teams are poised for title runs, and you know that Jimmy Butler is a psycho and is already receiving noise complaints for working out in his hotel room in the middle of the night. But you probably didn’t know how the following four underrated factors could play a huge role in determining which contender emerges from the Orlando Bubble as the champion.

Note: The “Contending Class” includes the following 10 teams. If one of these 10 don’t win the title, I’ll retire from writing for leading my readers astray:

  • Bucks
  • Lakers
  • Clippers
  • Raptors
  • Celtics
  • Nuggets
  • Heat
  • Rockets
  • 76ers
  • Mavericks

1) The fallout of a mandatory two-week resting period for a positive test

Obviously, if a player, especially a star-level player, tests positive for the coronavirus during the playoffs, it’ll impact how we view the winner of that series. But what if, for example, two weeks before the playoffs begin, Joel Embiid catches COVID-19 from a bad Shirley Temple, and is forced into a mandatory two-week resting period? According to the NBA’s bubble rules, Embiid not only gets sent into Isolation Housing for two weeks and undergo additional cardiac screening, but he also isn’t allowed to exercise during those two weeks, even if he’s asymptomatic.

Two weeks with no exercise?  Think about how you feel when you take a two-week hiatus from running, lifting, or playing basketball — it takes you weeks to get back into the same shape you were in before the two-week break. And that’s for recreational exercise, not NBA basketball. No matter what kind of shape Embiid was in before those two weeks, he’ll be way out of basketball shape compared to the rest of the players when he returns. It might take him an entire seven-game series to feel like himself again. It might take even longer for a teammate like Ben Simmons, who tends to excel with Embiid out, to regain chemistry with Embiid. If the Sixers are facing a formidable opponent like the Celtics in the first round, their season may be over in the blink of an eye.

How do fans and basketball historians reconcile something like that? It’s not like Embiid is out with an injury. It’s not like he’s out of shape due to his own laziness. Do the Asterisk Avengers on Twitter come calling for the 2020 Larry O’Brien Trophy if this happens? Better yet, how does this impact the way the 76ers’ front office assesses its roster and coaching staff heading into the 2020 offseason? Do they run it back for another year with coach Brett Brown? Do they give up on the Embiid-Simmons partnership?

The point here is that a positive test, even if it’s during the eight regular season games, could have some long-term ramifications on teams for the 2020 playoffs and beyond.

2) Role players on a neutral court

You’ve probably heard the Inside the NBA guys — Chuck, Kenny, Shaq and Ernie — reference the old NBA playoff adage: Superstars always show up, but role players don’t travel. Superstars are going to put up consistent numbers regardless of the setting — that’s what makes them superstars. Role players, on the other hand, play more relaxed and confidently in front of their home crowd. In fact, even in the regular season, there’s a noticeable difference in role player production at home versus on the road. Since the Orlando Bubble will be unlike anything players have ever participated in during their professional careers, the million-dollar question will be: Will role players play more like they’re at home or on the road in Orlando?

The obvious conclusion to this unanswerable question is that role players will play more like they’re on the road given that they’re literally on the road and in an uncomfortable setting away from their families. If that’s the case, then you should expect the role players from the teams that were the most successful on the road in the regular season to perform well in the bubble. The four best teams on the road this season were the Lakers (26-6), Bucks (25-9), Raptors (23-9), and, surprisingly, the Mavericks (21-12). Of those teams, the Lakers (114.5 PPG at home; 114.2 on the road) and Mavericks (116.1; 116.7) were the teams whose performance was least affected by playing in unfamiliar settings.

If the role players play like they’re on the road in the bubble, then the 76ers (10-24), Heat (14-19) and Nuggets (18-14) are in big trouble. Of the Contending Class, the 76ers (minus-5.2), Heat (minus-2.7) and Nuggets (minus-0.2) are the only three teams to actually have a negative point differential on the road.

Conversely, if role players perform more like they’re playing at home while inside the Orlando Bubble, then those three teams — 76ers (29-2), Heat (27-5) and Nuggets (25-8) — along with the Bucks (28-3) and Clippers (25-7) will be in great shape. Of those teams, the Bucks (plus-14.7!!) and 76ers (plus-10.4) are the only two teams with a double-digit point differential at home.

3) The impact of refereeing in an empty gym  

The role players aren’t the only ones that will be impacted by the lack of fans in the arena. Referees, unsurprisingly, are swayed by home crowds and tend to call more fouls against visiting teams. Check this out: eight of the 10 teams in the Contending Class, were called for less fouls at home than their opponent during the regular season. The teams with the greatest home court refereeing advantage by this metric were the Mavericks (minus-2.7), Heat (minus-2.3), Bucks (minus-1.8) and Clippers (minus-1.6). While the foul differential is circumstantial evidence and isn’t necessarily indicative of home court influence on the refs given that certain teams play a more foul-prone style of defense than others, it’s certainly something to keep an eye on. So, if you notice that key members of the Heat like Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo keep finding themselves in foul trouble throughout the playoffs, you’ll have a better understanding of why.

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By Pat Heery | Last updated 7/17/20

Kevin Garnett would head basketball operations if his group buys Timberwolves?

We’re beginning to learn more about Kevin Garnett’s reported effort to buy the Minnesota Timberwolves.

As has been widely reported, Garnett is said to be part of a group exploring the purchase of both the Timberwolves and the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx from current owner Glen Taylor. The franchise icon is backed by multiple investors in his effort.

According to Charley Walters of the Pioneer Press, Garnett is being backed by two billionaires from California and another from Florida. Garnett himself is putting $200 million of his money into the bid, and if the group is successful, he would lead Minnesota’s basketball operations and have authority to name the general manager and head coach of the team.

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Originally posted on Larry Brown Sports | By Grey Papke | Last updated 7/26/20

Glen Taylor reportedly puts Timberwolves up for sale

The Minnesota Timberwolves are on the market.

According to Scott Soshnick of Sportico, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor has retained The Raine Group to open the process of selling the franchise. Offers have already been made, and a sale could take place within the next month.

The report states that Taylor is asking at least $1.2 billion for the team. He has sought to avoid a public bidding process and wants to quietly find a buyer without any sort of media or corporate frenzy.

Taylor has been the majority owner of the Timberwolves since 1994. Though once a contender, they have made the playoffs just once since the 2003-04 season.

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Originally posted on Larry Brown Sports | By Grey Papke | Last updated 7/21/20

Updated NBA championship odds for 2019-20 Orlando resumption

As long as NBA players continue to follow health and safety protocols while in the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex bubble site, the 2019-20 pandemic-shortened campaign will resume on July 30

Per BetOnline.ag, the club that held the Association’s best record when the league halted play on March 11 due to the coronavirus pandemic isn’t the favorite to win the title. 

League-leaders the Milwaukee Bucks, who entered the bubble at 53-12, are +300 to hoist the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. That has Milwaukee tied with the Los Angeles Clippers (+300). 

Ahead of both, however, are the Los Angeles Lakers led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Western Conference’s top side with a 49-14 mark sits at +240. 

The Houston Rockets are at +1200 as they wait for guard Russell Westbrook to receive clearance to fly to Orlando following a positive coronavirus test. As Mark Nilon of Hardwood Houdini wrote, the Boston Celtics (+1600) are the only team in the bubble with five players on the ESPN top-50 list.

A Philadelphia 76ers side featuring a disgruntled Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons’ much-documented shooting woes are tied with the Toronto Raptors at +2000. The defending champs don’t have Kawhi Leonard this time around, nor will the second seed in the Eastern Conference feed off home-court advantage in playoff games. 

Is Nikola Jokic’s return to the Denver Nuggets enough to get you to take a flier on Denver at +2500? Are the Dallas Mavericks or Miami Heat at +3000 the best value buys of the competition? Have the Utah Jazz forgiven Rudy Gobert enough to be a steal at +5000?

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By Zac Wassink | Last updated 7/17/20