It’s hard to know what to expect when the NBA’s seeding games begin on Thursday. The four-month hiatus has gone on longer than a normal offseason and the games will be played in an environment we have never seen before. Coaches in Orlando may go deep into their benches to ease star players back into action. There are two playoff spots up for grabs in each conference, while the absence of home-court advantage makes seeding less important.
But there’s still plenty to play for during the next two weeks. While the Bucks and Lakers are near locks for the no. 1 seeds, the order of the seven teams behind each of them is jumbled. There are no first-round matchups set in stone as the restart begins. Here are four that I am rooting to see:
76ers vs. Heat
The Heat appear destined for the no. 4 seed, sitting 2.5 games behind the Celtics and two games ahead of the 76ers and Pacers. No one knows what will happen with Indiana, which may not have either Victor Oladipo or Domantas Sabonis, after the latter left the bubble with a foot injury. If the Pacers fade down the stretch, it could set up a 4-5 bloodbath between two teams expecting to contend for the title.
A 76ers-Heat series could be the NBA’s version of a pink-slip match in wrestling. In one corner, the pairing of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. In the other, Jimmy Butler’s reputation. Only one might survive.
The 76ers are still searching for the right mix around two stars who can’t space the floor. A Big Four with Butler and Tobias Harris didn’t work last season, nor did swapping out Butler for Al Horford and Josh Richardson. Philadelphia’s latest plan is starting Shake Milton at point guard, moving Simmons to power forward, and Horford to the bench. This is the deepest roster in the Embiid and Simmons era. There are no excuses if they lose early in the postseason this time. Most people around the league expect the Embiid-Simmons duo to break up eventually. Losing to their old teammate might speed up that Process. (Sorry.)
The Heat, like the 76ers, have to find the right combination around two stars (Butler and Bam Adebayo) who can’t shoot 3s. Unlike Philly, they have prioritized shooting in their supporting cast to make up the difference, but that leaves them relying on players like Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson who can be attacked on defense. Miami has used more zone than any other team in the league to hide them.
The Heat have a 3-1 lead in the season series against the Sixers, including a December win when they came back with a zone. Even an elite defender like Adebayo can struggle to guard someone as massive as Embiid, but it won’t matter if the 76ers’ center can’t find open teammates through double-teams and they can’t knock down open shots.
The Heat could have just as many issues scoring. Embiid and Simmons can shut down the pick-and-roll between Butler and Adebayo, the foundation of the Heat’s offense. The former can sag off the two Miami stars and dare them to shoot, knowing that neither will be able to power through him at the rim, while the latter is the rare perimeter defender who can switch the screen between the two.
Butler has burned bridges everywhere he has gone under the premise that he’s a truth-teller who cares only about winning. But there’s not much proof that he actually knows how to do that. He has never been to a conference finals, and has won just two playoff series on three teams in the past six seasons. He’s still looking for a defining playoff moment. He had a chance in Game 7 against Toronto last season, but scored 16 points to Kawhi Leonard’s 41. Butler is a 30-year-old whose game is built on athleticism. He doesn’t have many chances left.
Rockets vs. Thunder
There’s a pileup in the middle of the West, with four games separating the Nuggets at no. 3 and the Mavs at no. 7. The result is a dizzying number of potential first-round series. But one dream scenario stands out above the rest.
James Harden and Russell Westbrook have some ugly losses on their playoff résumés, but none would come close to losing to Chris Paul after he was exiled to Oklahoma City. Houston coach Mike D’Antoni, who is on the last season of his contract, almost certainly wouldn’t survive the aftermath.
The Rockets’ ultra-small-ball lineups are one of the biggest wild cards in the Western Conference playoffs. We have never seen an elite team completely abandon the center position and play no one taller than 6-foot-7 in their rotation. But it has worked so far. Westbrook has taken advantage of the extra space in the paint to score like a mini Wilt Chamberlain (31.7 points on 54.6 percent shooting) in the 11 games since Houston swapped Clint Capela for Robert Covington.
How would Oklahoma City respond in a playoff series? The first option is bludgeoning those small lineups with Steven Adams. He’s not a post scorer, but he is an elite roll man and offensive rebounder who could punish converted wings like P.J. Tucker and Jeff Green. The question for Houston is whether it would run isolations for Harden and Westbrook and let Adams hide on defense, or involve him in pick-and-rolls that would force the ball out of the hands of the team’s stars.
The Thunder’s Plan B would be downsizing. Three point guard lineups with Paul, Dennis Schröder, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander have been some of the most dominant in the NBA this season. The lack of big men in Houston means Oklahoma City can get away with playing Danilo Gallinari, a 6-foot-10 offensive Swiss army knife, at center. Using Gallinari in that role was one of the keys to the Clippers’ surprisingly competitive showing against the Warriors last season.
The Rockets would be favored either way. But they better put games away early. Paul has been the NBA’s most clutch player this season. The series could come down to whether he can create better shots out of the pick-and-roll than Harden can in isolations. The two represent contrasting basketball philosophies about how the game should be played. And there is absolutely no love lost between them. Paul will likely never win a title with the Thunder. Sending Harden home would be a sweet consolation.
Lakers vs. Pelicans
This is the series the NBA desperately wants. But a lot has to go right for it to happen. The Pelicans have to hold off four other teams for the no. 9 seed, stay within four games of the eighth-seeded Grizzlies (they are currently 3.5 back), and then win two play-in games in a row to actually make the postseason. The good news is that Zion Williamson is back and has tested negative after an excused absence from the NBA bubble.
There is plenty of intrigue surrounding the relationship (or lack of one) between LeBron and Zion. It reminds me of the dynamic between King Saul and David in the Bible. David was Saul’s best general, and he was even married to his daughter, but Saul always kept him at a distance. He knew David was marked for greatness. He wasn’t going to make it any easier for him to get the throne.
LeBron sent a message to Zion in his two games against him before the NBA shut down, averaging 37 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists against the Pelicans. New Orleans tried Jrue Holiday on him in the first meeting and Brandon Ingram in the second. Neither had the combination of length, quickness, and strength to bother the four-time MVP.
Williamson was an elite defender at Duke, where he averaged 2.1 steals and 1.8 blocks per contest, but that aspect of his game hasn’t translated to the NBA. For as dominant as he was on offense after his debut in January, he looked out of shape and a step slow on defense. The hope is that all the weight he lost during the hiatus will help him on that end of the floor.
Zion guarding LeBron in the playoffs would break social media, but there would be plenty of other intriguing story lines even if that never happens. With Anthony Davis, Brandon Ingram, and Lonzo Ball all facing their former teams, this series could become the first chapter in a budding NBA rivalry.
Mavericks vs. Nuggets
This series could be the closest thing we get to EuroBasket 2020.
One of this season’s most entertaining games was a 107-106 Nuggets victory against the Mavs in January, in which Nikola Jokic (33 points, seven rebounds, and six assists) outdueled Luka Doncic (27 points, nine rebounds, and 10 assists). The two crafty stars both have the ability to light up opposing teams without ever leaving their feet. Jokic put up historically great numbers (25.1 points on 50.6 percent shooting, 13 rebounds, and 8.4 assists per game) in his playoff debut last season. Now it’s Luka’s turn.
It won’t feel like much pressure for a player who was the MVP of the EuroLeague Final Four at age 18. The one thing that Doncic still has to prove is how he will fare in a playoff series against the types of long and uber-athletic NBA wings who don’t normally play in Europe. But that wouldn’t matter against every playoff opponent—the Nuggets don’t start anyone taller than 6-foot-6 on the perimeter.
Kristaps Porzingis would have a much harder playoff debut in this scenario. He has come on strong after a slow start in Dallas, but there are still doubts about the team’s decision to use a 7-foot-3 player like a shooting guard. Porzingis would have his hands full guarding Jokic and being guarded by Paul Millsap, an elite frontcourt defender even at 35.
The player under the microscope for Denver is Jamal Murray. He had some big games in his playoff debut last season but wilted in Game 7 against Portland, shooting 4-for-18 in the loss. The Mavs don’t have the perimeter stoppers to shut down Murray. He needs to produce.
Even if neither up-and-coming team is quite ready to win the West, this series could help decide who has next, and provide plenty of highlights along the way.