If 2020 taught us anything at all within the first six months, it would be:
- Nothing is surprising and…
- Not much is certain.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic suspended play, the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks were on a collision course to the Finals. Teams such as the Clippers and Raptors were solid contenders, while the Rockets and Celtics had a ‘puncher’s chance’. Now, a Lakers/Bucks match up isn’t necessarily a given and those other contenders aren’t a sure thing either.
As the NBA season resumes in Orlando, the conditions are right for an upset. A three-month layoff with no access to gyms and courts and re-energized bodies are idea conditions for a dark horse team to come out of nowhere and out of Disney holding the Larry in October (that sounds weird, right?)
There are four teams that have the potential to catch fire, build good habits and tendencies, and build a ton of momentum en-route to the title.
Luka Doncic’s emergence this season was not only fun to watch, it spearheaded the Mavs to a 40-27 record after missing the playoffs the year before. Currently they are within striking distance of the fifth seed-trailing Houston and Oklahoma City by 1 ½ games. They are also third in the NBA in scoring (116.4 points per game) and lead the league in offensive rating (115.8). Most of it is due to Doncic. However, Kristaps Porzingis becoming more acclimated in the Mavs’ system plays a part as well. When Dwight Powell ruptured his Achilles in January, it was Porzingis that stepped his game up-stringing together a 17 game stretch where he scored 20 points or more with 10 plus rebounds.
What to watch
Having a prolific offense is great but when it comes to the playoffs, you have to be able to defend consistently. At season’s intermission, Dallas had a 106 defensive rating. Their biggest issue of concern? Defending the paint. Powell was ineffective in the lineup at protecting the paint. Since Powell is injured, it would be interesting to see if Mavs’ coach Rick Carlisle will move Porzingis to center for the playoffs. Before his injury, Porzingis’ defensive rating was 106.7 this year, it’s 109.4. Powell does the right things defensively as it pertains to form, but he just can’t defend the paint as well. There are good defenders on the team, and maybe the source of their problems on that end of the floor has everything to do with how these players are used.
Also, watch how they manage their depth. Two years ago, Dallas had a solid lineup off the bench, and what made it work was recognizing which combination of players played the best and capitalizing off of it. For example, Seth Curry played well off of JJ Barea. Maxi Kleber and Barea were solid defensively-and it worked. In fact, the Mavs’ ‘MOB’ squad, with the role players off the bench was their best line. They will have to find a way to maximize these players. Curry is back. Barea and Kleber are still there. So it will be worth noticing what kind of combinations Carlisle will put on the floor.
It’s crazy how the Heat has been slept on this season. At 41-24, Miami owns the fourth best record in the East. Currently, they trail the third place Celtics by 2.5 games and two games ahead of Indiana. After playing the eight regular season games, the Heat is likely to finish no higher than the third seed since the Raptors are 5.5 games ahead in second.
When play stopped, the Heat featured a near immaculate 27-5 home record, the third best mark in the league. They were also forth in the East in terms of point differential (112.2 points per game on offence, 108.9 defense). The duo of Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo has paid off nicely. Not to mention the emergence of Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson also made the Heat an intriguing wild card team.
What to watch
The Heat has the mettle to pull off an upset. That was very evident when the Heat beat Milwaukee at home a month before league suspension. In that game, the Heat was hell defensively. They held the Bucks to 40.7 percent from the field and 20.6 percent from three. Not only did they trapped Giannis Antetokounmpo on the blocks, they put Adebayo on him as well. That’s significant because Adebayo is one of the few guys in the NBA that could effectively match up with Antetokounmpo in terms of speed and size. He also has the length to contest.
When a big and difficult defender like Adebayo is out of the paint, it is tempting to shoot threes and long jumpers because you can’t attack the paint. Remember, Antetokounmpo’s most glaring weakness is his outside shot.
If the Heat and Bucks meet up in the playoffs, notice how Erick Spoeletra will throw different schemes featuring Adebayo at Antetokoumpo. Miami also has an X-Factor for the run in Andre Iguodala. Added at the trade deadline, Iguodala brings playoff-savvy and experience to a relatively young team. He’s also another solid defender and a playmaker that will help stabilize a second unit.
Portland has had an interesting year to say the least. Coming off of a Western Conference finals appearance a season ago, it seemed as if the Blazers were projected to remain a contender this season. However, injuries to key players happened and the Blazers spent this season languishing and hustling to make the playoffs.
At 29-37, the Blazers are ninth in the West and are among the teams invited to Orlando in hopes of a play-in for the eighth seed. Damian Lilliard has done all he could do to keep the Blazers’ playoff hopes alive in the midst of injuries. Don’t bet against him and CJ McCollum carrying the team in to the playoffs and even beyond.
What to watch
Before the season was suspended, the Blazers were on the verge of getting Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back from injury. A year ago, Nurkic injured his left leg, and was out for most of the season. In Nurkic, the Blazers lost a third scoring option and a solid interior defender. He was very close to a return before the shutdown-going to Santa Cruz to rehab. Now, with an additional three months of rest and rehab on his own, watch how the Blazers bring him back. Since he hasn’t played all season, it is possible that Nurkic will be on minutes restriction for the final eight games. If he makes strides, look for coach Terry Stotts to gradually increase minutes.
In addition to how they will use Nurkic post injury, look for how the younger players such as Nassir Little, Anfernee Simons respond to games where the stakes are considerably higher. Those guys were thrust into playing more minutes in the season due to injuries to not only Nurkic and Collins but also Rodney Hood. They will need to contribute to take the pressure off of Lillard and McCollum, in order to make a run.
Remember, this is the team that pushed the Raptors to the brink of elimination in last year’s playoffs. So, it’s not surprising that the Sixers have 8-1 odds of winning the East and a 25-1 overall odds to win the championship.
Philadelphia, at 39-26 is sixth in the East, and was 13 games above .500 before suspension. They posted a league’s best 29-2 at home, but on the road, they were 10-24. In Orlando, there are no home court advantages and road records don’t matter. What matters is whether or not the Sixers have enough of talent to not to dwell on the laurels of home success and the agony of failures on the road.
Luckily for the Sixers, Ben Simmons is expected to be healthy after a back injury he sustained in February. Judging from his latest pictures floating around social media, it appears that he added some bulk as well. They also have a playoff battle tested vet in Al Hortford, to compliment the team. They have the potential to put it together for a deep run.
What to watch
Last month, Sixers coach Brett Brown said that he wants Joel Embiid to play about 38 minutes per game in the playoffs. His usage rate, post ups per game and three attempts have been similar to last season. Embiid’s production will need to increase during those minutes.
Simmons is already a tough defending point guard. In the playoffs, the question is if he can be effective offensively against a set half court defense. Is facilitating from the elbow, setting picks and rolling to the basket enough? That depends of whether Simmons is comfortable and confident in his shot. If he isn’t he should be able to drive, create contact and hit free throws down the stretch.
Jannelle Moore (@Jannelle12) is a new contributor to Five Reasons Sports Network. She has written for USA Today and SB Nation, among other outlets.