The seeding games are completed. The play-in game is over. The NBA has their 16 seeds and the playoffs begin today.
Here are some of the key storylines, players and teams to watch as the NBA playoffs unfold in Orlando, Florida.
Can The Lakers Fix Their Offense?
Only the Washington Wizards sans Bradley Beal had a worse offensive rating than the Lakers’ 104.5 in Orlando. They seemed to fix their problems a bit in their last few games before the playoffs, scoring 111 and 124 points in back-to-back games before they rested LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the regular season finale.
Questions remain, however, as to who will be a consistent contributor after James and Davis. With Avery Bradley opting out and Rajon Rondo breaking his right thumb, the Lakers are down to playing guys like Dion Waiters and Talen Horton-Tucker real rotation minutes. Danny Green has not shot the ball well.
Kyle Kuzma could end up becoming the true X-factor for a Lakers team looking for a player that can provide consistent production after James and Davis. Given the Lakers refused to include him in the trade for Anthony Davis, Kuzma will now have the opportunity to repay that belief in him. It could determine whether LeBron James has a chance to win his third championship ring.
The Lakers will have to get past the explosive but defensively-deficient Blazers in the first round of the playoffs.
Can The Bucks Fix Their Defense?
The Milwaukee Bucks were the best defensive team in basketball when play was suspended back in March with a 101.6 defensive rating. Since play resumed, the Bucks’ defensive rating has jumped all the way to 110.2, which ranks ninth amongst bubble teams. In fairness to Milwaukee, defense in the bubble has been scarce, but their drop has been precipitous.
It all comes back to the three-point shot. The Bucks are still allowing teams to shoot 35 percent from behind the three-point line, but they are allowing seven more attempts per game. Their 38.6 three-point attempts allowed per game pre-bubble led the league, and their 45.3 three-point shots allowed per game leads the league inside the bubble.
The Bucks have always been happy to allow three-point shots from certain positions and players rather than give up points in the paint, but allowing 45 attempts per game is too many for any top defense to sustain. They should have no issues getting past the Magic in the opening round of the playoffs, but their series in the second round against the winner of the Pacers-Heat series could be challenging.
Who Can Take Advantage In The Eastern Conference?
If the Bucks can’t get their defense together, the Celtics and Raptors, who have both played well in Orlando, are poised to make Finals runs of their own. Both teams are healthy and haven’t been hurt by any opt-outs, and neither relies on an individual superstar, with Jayson Tatum the only player between the two teams averaging more than 20 points per game (22.4).
The Raptors have three players averaging between 16 and 18 points per game in Fred VanVleet (17.8), Kyle Lowry (16.7), and Pascal Siakam (16.9). They also have the top defense in the bubble (102.7), which is three points better than the team with the second-best defense (Indiana). They have a championship pedigree from last year and one of the best coaches in the NBA in Nick Nurse. They should have no problem advancing past the Brooklyn Nets.
The Celtics have their own top coach in Brad Stevens, who was recently signed to a contract extension. In addition to Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown is averaging 19.6 points per game, and Gordon Hayward is averaging 18.7 points per game. Boston has the seventh-best offense and defense in the bubble, and they are second in net rating (8.3).
The second round series between these two teams, assuming the Celtics get past the Ben Simmons-less Sixers, should be an extremely fun battle to watch.
The Clippers went 5-3 in the bubble, winning four of their last five games. Montrezl Harrell could be back and ready for the first round of the playoffs, and Lou Williams is back on the court after his very costly trip for takeout chicken wings. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are true superstars with one of the deepest and best supporting casts in the league. They will have to win a first round series against the formidable Dallas Mavericks, but they are one of the teams best situated to walk out of Orlando with a championship. If I had to pick a team to represent the Western Conference in the Finals today, it would be the Clippers.
First Round Series To Watch
The Rockets are a very dangerous team if Russell Westbrook can return from his injured quadriceps. Their three-point shooting and James Harden’s elite offensive game makes the Rockets a threat to any team in the playoffs. They need Russell Westbrook’s shot creation to supplement Harden’s iso-heavy style. If he can return healthy, the Rockets have finals potential.
The Rockets have to get past the feisty Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs, which will be difficult if Westbrook can’t contribute against his (and Harden’s) former team. Chris Paul, still one of the best players in the NBA, will surely be motivated to knock James Harden, who helped run him out of Houston, out of the playoffs. It should be a highly competitive well-played series.
Even though neither team is likely to make a finals run, the Nuggets and Jazz should be a fun series to watch as well Denver is a fun team with the unique skillset of Nikola Jokic, and the Jazz have a well-rounded team around impressive lead-guard Donovan Mitchell.