Saturday should’ve been a big day in the NBA with the scheduled start of the league’s post-season.
Instead, like everything else COVID-19 has affected, the day is now a reminder of what could have been.
But rather than wallowing in the despair of a missing post-season, we’ve opted to turn it into a fun exercise in “What If?” More specifically, using the standings as they were when the league paused, here’s how we think the 2019 NBA playoffs would’ve played out.
If the NBA Playoffs had started today, here’s how teams would have matched up in the Eastern Conference.
Who do you like to take the East?
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 18, 2020
No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 8 Orlando Magic
Unlike in the biblical tale, the Orlando Magic’s David has absolutely no hope against the Goliath that are the Milwaukee Bucks.
There are a lot of reasons we can point to as to why Bucks will sweep the Magic in this series, but here’s one in the simplest of terms: the Bucks were the league’s best team in 2018-19, but are even better this season because defending MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is also better than ever.
On the flip side, the Magic have regressed from being just a slightly above-average team in 2018-19 to just another regular NBA also-ran this season. There’s no hope in this first-round matchup for Orlando.
No. 2 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 7 Brooklyn Nets
Another cake-walk first-round series, the Toronto Raptors will beat the Brooklyn Nets in either four or five games and yawn through it.
Why is this so easy? Well, outside of the talent difference between the two sides, the Nets let go of what was probably their best asset right before the NBA hit pause by firing head coach Kenny Atkinson, a man who was able to squeeze a lot more out of his players than many expected.
This, of course, was before Kyrie Irving arrived and – surprise! – seemed to derail some of the built-in chemistry the Nets had in 2018-19. As a result, the Nets have been up and down all season, and now without the stabilizing presence of Atkinson, the Raptors have no problem steam-rolling Brooklyn.
No. 3 Boston Celtics vs. No. 6 Philadelphia 76ers
Speaking of a team out of sorts.
That’s the best way to describe what the Philadelphia 76ers have been this season. Mired by mediocre play despite making splashy moves in the off-season to add to their star duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the Sixers have bordered on being an outright disaster in 2019-20.
As a result, they will be exposed by a Boston Celtics team that, thanks in part to the departure of Irving and the addition of Kemba Walker and the ascendance of Jayson Tatum, has quietly been one of the NBA’s scariest teams.
No. 4 Miami Heat vs. No. 5 Indiana Pacers
A slugfest, old-school Eastern Conference series, this one between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers probably won’t be very aesthetically pleasing, but it’s likely to be among the most competitive first-round series in the post-season.
Ultimately, we see the abilities of Jimmy Butler taking the Heat over the top in a gruelling seven-game series mainly because Victor Oladipo, though returned to the lineup in late January from a ruptured quad tendon a year ago, still isn’t all the way back to the star player he is – something that badly hurts a Pacers offence that already struggles at times to score.
No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 4 Miami Heat
The fatigue the Heat will feel coming off such a long, physical series with the Pacers will be felt in a big way against a well-rested and much better Bucks team in Round 2.
This will result in another easy series win for the Bucks as they take it in five games. Miami is completely ill-equipped to deal with Antetokounmpo on the inside and the army of three-point gunners at Miwaukee’s disposal.
No. 2 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 3 Boston Celtics
The Raptors have been a great team this season, but there’s been one caveat that people have pointed to as a means to rain on their parade: a less-than-stellar record against teams .500 or better.
The Celtics are obviously a team with a record better than .500 and are every bit as talented – probably more, actually – as the Raptors, with a coach in Brad Stevens who’s comparable to Nick Nurse.
This all combines to make for a great, highly competitive second-round affair that, ultimately, will see Boston emerge victorious in either six or seven games.
Eastern Conference Finals
No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 3 Boston Celtics
A great Eastern Conference Finals matchup here with two of the NBA’s truly elite teams squaring off.
Despite being a competitive series, the size advantage at the Bucks’ disposal will play too large a factor with no one on the Celtics truly capable of finding ways to even bother Antetokounmpo, let alone stop him.
This will be the biggest determining factor in a six-game Bucks series win that will see them reach the Finals for the first time since 1974 when some guy named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played for Milwaukee.
If the NBA Playoffs had started today, here’s how teams would have matched up in the Western Conference.
Who do you like to take the West?
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 18, 2020
No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 8 Memphis Grizzlies
Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies have been an awesome story and are a lot better than people probably know. This will be illustrated in this first-round matchup when the Grizzlies manage to steal a game from LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers in one of the Memphis home games.
That will be all Memphis can do, however, as the superstar talent of the Lakers will ensure this is a quick series.
No. 2 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 7 Dallas Mavericks
The Los Angeles Clippers have reportedly had their problems with the aloof attitude of Kawhi Leonard and the special treatment he has received.
But as the Raptors found out last season, the regular-season and post-season versions of Leonard are two entirely different animals and all that bad blood will disappear as Leonard carries the Clippers to what should be an easy four- or five-game series win over the banged up Dallas Mavericks who, even with the brilliant Luka Doncic, simply aren’t ready to make the step to a real contender yet.
No. 3 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 6 Houston Rockets
The NBA isn’t known for upsets – particularly in the first round – but based purely on seeding, a relatively big upset will go down with the Houston Rockets beating the Denver Nuggets in six games.
This isn’t a knock against the Nuggets, a very good team with very good players. Unfortunately for Denver, “very good” often isn’t good enough to get you through the NBA playoffs. What you usually need are great players like James Harden and Russell Westbrook, Houston’s new superstar duo, who, despite past post-season failures, will be enough to overcome the likes of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic.
No. 4 Utah Jazz vs. No. 5 Oklahoma City Thunder
The Utah Jazz have been one of the most confusing teams in the league this season, starting off very poorly before going on a streak hotter than the sun and then levelling off with alternating winning and losing streaks of four or five games.
It’s quite clear the Mike Conley experiment didn’t work out and Utah’s inconsistency has been tied largely to that.
On the flip side, the Oklahoma City Thunder have been one of the best surprises of the season and haven’t really missed a beat even with the departures of Westbrook and Paul George. This has been because of the additions of Canadian Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari, a trio that has turned a team everyone had left for dead to a No. 5-seeded team in the West.
The chemistry differences between the Jazz and Thunder are stark and will lead to an OKC upset of the Jazz in six games.
If there is a podcasting odd couple, this might be it. Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis don’t agree on much, but you’ll agree this is the best Toronto Raptors podcast going.
No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 5 Oklahoma City Thunder
The feel-good underdog story of the Thunder will end here, but not as emphatically as this matchup looks like it should on paper.
The Lakers will win this series in six games, showing cracks in their armour as a result, as Los Angeles’ thin bench depth will show a weakness that’s been easily hidden throughout the regular season but can’t be against a deep-but-unknown Thunder squad.
No. 2 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 6 Houston Rockets
A highly marketable second-round series because of all the star power involved, this series, unfortunately for the television networks, will be relatively short with the Clippers winning in five games.
As great as Harden and Westbrook are, they’ve never really saved their best for the big moments in the post-season. On the other hand, both Leonard and George have proven they know how to raise their games during the most important contests. So you add this with the fact the Clippers also happen to be a much deeper, more talented team overall, and you have recipe for yet another disappointing Rockets playoff run.
Western Conference Finals
No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 2 Los Angeles Clippers
The West final that everyone predicted at the beginning of the season, but the predictability of this still doesn’t make the series any less exciting.
Theoretically, the Lakers have the advantage here in terms of superstar talent with Lebron still being LeBron and the Clippers not really having much of an answer for Davis.
With that said, however, that Achilles heel of the Lakers, their lack of depth off the bench, will really come back to the bite them in this matchup with Clippers players like Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell able to carry the load offensively nearly as much as George and Leonard.
That will be the key difference in a fabulous seven-game Staples Center series that will see the Clippers head to their first-ever NBA Finals.
NBA Finals: No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 2 Los Angeles Clippers
This, from both a ratings and a competitive standpoint, would be the best possible Finals matchup.
An epic rematch between Antetokounmpo and Leonard from last year’s East final, both teams featuring great depth up and down the roster as well as defensive capability.
In all honesty, it feels like this series would be a toss-up as neither team has overwhelming advantages over the other, but we’re going with the Bucks based on the simple fact Antetokounmpo is the best player in the world right now.
Last season, Leonard rose to that level during the Raptors’ run, but can he do it again to overcome Milwaukee’s Greek god? We’re betting on him being unable to do so, clearing the way to the first Bucks championship since 1971, when Abdul-Jabbar was still named Lew Alcindor.
NBA Champion: Milwaukee Bucks in seven games.