Somehow, someway the 2020 NBA playoffs are FINALLY upon us. As the Orlando bubble narrows to just sixteen teams, the Canis staff got together (virtually) to deliver their spiciest takes and boldest predictions for the next couple months of basketball.
Without further ado...
What first round matchup are you MOST excited about?
Kyle Theige: As Mike points out below, the Ben Simmons injury really zaps a lot of the fun out of the Boston/Philadelphia series (which prior to the injury had to be the runaway favorite for best first round matchup).
With that said, the West obviously has some fun matchups, but give me all of Indiana/Miami. Since General Soreness stormed the (south) beaches of Miami, the Heat have been kicked around as sneaky contenders to come out of the East. Mix in the All-Star play of Bam Adebayo, the emergence of Tyler Herro, and the elite coaching chops of Erik Spoelstra, and you appear to have all the ingredients for a deep playoff run.
And yet...I just don’t see it. If Victor Oladipo can remain healthy, and if T.J. Warren can continue to outplay the bag of cash he was traded for, I really think the Pacers can give Miami serious fits on defense and pull-out the first round “upset” (even though they are technically the higher seed). Pacers in 6.
Mike O’Hagan: Given that Ben Simmons is hurt, this is a pretty easy one for me. The storylines in the Houston/Oklahoma City series are endless, and the basketball should be incredibly competitive as well. I’m sure some folks will see Russell Westbrook’s absence as a cop-out for why James Harden should he fail, but I think he’s probably feeling more pressure than ever.
I’m a little skeptical that Houston’s style of play will totally transfer to the postseason, where opposing coaches can better plan for it and adjust, but I do think that ultimately Harden will play well enough for them to advance. Also, it’ll be interesting to see what happens to Steven Adams in that series, cause he’ll likely either pulverize Houston’s tiny front court, or get played off the court entirely. It’s hard to see there being an in-between result there.
It’s probably going to kill me one of these days, but I still believe there’s a shining moment for James Harden in the playoffs sometime soon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it all came together this year.
Josh Clement: The first round does not seem to have that many interesting matchups, as injuries among the Pacers, Jazz, and Sixers have robbed us of a lot of the exciting mid-seed competition. The top seeds are also fairly dominant, which does not give much hope to the 7-8 seeds to upset the contenders.
Given all that, the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder series is certainly the highlight. But again, an injury to Russell Westbrook damages the potential storylines. However, we still have the amazing irony of the Rockets playing against the Chris Paul-led Thunder, with the steadiest team in the Western Conference playing against the most volatile team.
Otherwise, the 3-6 series on both sides could be promising, simply to watch how the Sixers implode or the Nuggets figure out what to do with their Tall Boyz lineups.
Jack Borman: Call me crazy, but I’m most interested to see how the Lakers deal with Damian Lillard and the Blazers. I am addicted to the Portland Trail Blazers. I love watching Dame, fellow Minnesotan (and HS Class of 2017 grad) Gary Trent Jr., CJ McCollum, and now with Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back in the lineup, the chance for Portland to make this very interesting is there. Frank Vogel will likely throw Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at Dame, but is that going to be sustainable? Will AD switch out onto him in the PnR for extended stretches? Could LeBron see time on Dame to be physical with him and slow him down on the drive? These are all fun questions that I look forward to seeing play out.
LA has shot the ball poorly since arriving in the Orlando Bubble, and Portland is capable of beating any team in the league on any given night if they don’t show up. Portland would be a 3-5 seed if they had a healthy team all year long, so this isn’t a true, traditional 1/8 bloodbath matchup we’ve gotten become accustomed to in the West. This is also a unique matchup, as LA and Portland have very different strengths; LA is an elite defensive team that can struggle to score, while Portland is a turnstile on defense that can fill it up in a hurry. Additionally, Portland doesn’t have anyone that can guard either LeBron or AD, but I don’t think LA has anyone to guard Dame or CJ, either. I bet this series is much closer than most think. I’ve got the Lakers in 6, but don’t be surprised to see this go 7, or if Portland can steal a series from the best team in the West.
What first round matchup are you LEAST excited about?
Kyle Theige: I haven’t checked the master schedule yet, but I’d assume the Bucks/Magic series will be on truTV, right? I expect nothing short of a 4-game sweep in this one, and wouldn’t be shocked if we see more of Thanasis Antetokounmpo than Giannis Antetokounmpo in the fourth quarters.
Orlando is already shorthanded due to the season-ending injury to Jonathan Isaac, and if Aaron Gordon isn’t 100%, there’s a good chance these games become fairly unwatchable by the third quarter. By the time Game 4 tips off, I’d imagine most of the Magic players will finally understand what Eric Bledsoe meant a few years back when he tweeted “I don’t wanna be here.”
Mike O’Hagan: It has to be Bucks/Magic, right? Milwaukee made a mockery of the Pistons in last year’s 1-8 matchup, and they figure to do the same this year to Orlando. I believe the Bucks are something like -1500 favorites for the series. That’ll be a snoozer with Milwaukee sleep walking into the second round.
Josh Clement: The 1-8 and 2-7 series in the Eastern Conference will be terrible, per usual. I think we can all agree the sooner those are over the better. There is a pretty good chance the Lakers also demolish the Blazers, as other than the recent Dame Heroics, this Blazers team is running on gas and C.J.’s back is only going to get worse.
Jack Borman: I’m with Mike on this one. Milwaukee is a wagon on both ends and Orlando will be short-handed without Jonathan Isaac and potentially Aaron Gordon, who injured his hamstring last week against the Raptors. This will be a sweep and would be surprised if any game will be within single digits when the final buzzer sounds.
Which “underdog” (seeded 5 or lower) has the best chance to make a deep postseason run?
Kyle Theige: This is a tough question because most of the “underdogs” in the first round are missing star players due to injury or personal issues — Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Mike Conley, Jr., Ben Simmons, Jonathan Isaac, etc.
The only real “favorite” with a key injury entering the 2020 postseason is the Rockets (who will be without Russell Westbrook for an undetermined amount of time). While James Harden has clearly demonstrated the ability to carry a franchise, my addiction to this Oklahoma City Thunder team is borderline unhealthy. If Russ really can’t go until maybe Game 3 or Game 4, I think the Thunder can create a ton of issues for the Rockets on defense, and have enough pieces themselves to slow down the Beard and his collection of 6’8” centers.
The Chris Paul revenge narrative will be in full-force, but don’t be surprised if late August becomes the official Shai Gilgeous-Alexander coming out party, and the Thunder surprisingly send Morey’s latest experiment back to the kitchen like a batch of bad Bubba Gump shrimp.
Mike O’Hagan: I was tempted to take the Sixers solely because of Joel Embiid, but I think it’s the Dallas Mavericks. There’s no doubt that Luka Doncic has his work cut out for him against the Clippers’ never-ending depth of great wing/guard defenders, but he’s also proved to be pretty transcendent this year. They’re in a doozy of a first-round series, but if they get an incredible series from Luka, anything is on the table. If I had to pick an underdog to end up in the conference finals, I’d take Dallas.
Josh Clement: Miami is probably the correct answer, but the Thunder have a sneaky chance too. Both teams can play to the weaknesses of the respective top seeds and the Thunder could really cause problems for the Lakers. Of course, betting on a bunch of guys vs LeBron is generally a terrible idea, but the depth on this Lakers team is just terrible and the Thunder guards could run rampant against the Dion Waiters - Alex Caruso tag-team.
Jack Borman: As tempted as I am to take the Blazers here, I am going with the Heat here. I genuinely believe the Heat can make it to the NBA Finals this year. They have a go-to scorer in Jimmy Butler, two excellent and incredibly versatile defenders in Butler and first-time All-Star Bam Adebayo, and terrific tertiary scoring/shooting threats in Goran Dragic, Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn, and Kelly Olynyk.
If there are two things a team should want to be great at in today’s NBA, 3-point shooting and defense are at the top of that list. Miami led the league in 3-point shooting percentage (38.1%) and is in the top half of the league in defensive rating, points allowed, opponent points in the paint, opponent second chance points, and defensive rebounding. The Butler/Bam tag team could feasibly shut down Philadelphia, Boston, Toronto, and yes, even Milwaukee, because of how versatile those two are defending both on the perimeter and in the paint. If Miami shoots it well from deep, they will beat the Bucks in the second round and find themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals, and maybe even the Finals, come October.
Who has the most pressure on them entering the playoffs (player, coach, team, etc.)?
Kyle Theige: Depending on when next season officially tips off, has anyone brought up the fact that we may be less than 12-months away from both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard both becoming free agents (again)?
Yes, the Clippers’ gamble to trade essentially the next decade of draft picks for two of the league’s top players was worth the risk, but it’s fairly alarming at how quickly the clock has moved on this latest “super team.” With both Leonard and George having opt-out clauses after the 2020-2021 season, the Clippers need to win and win now, otherwise they may be staring down the barrel of a serious rebuild with next to nothing in the cupboard.
Mike O’Hagan: You can go so many ways with this. There’s the storylines concerning Giannis and his upcoming free agency, but I truly don’t think he’s that likely to leave Milwaukee so long as they don’t lose in embarrassing fashion. This is another shot for James Harden to make a run to the finals, but is anyone really expecting Houston to be make a deep run? It feels unlikely they’d beat either of the LA teams.
With that in mind, I think it has to be LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Lakers expect to win the title this year, and this is probably the best chance James has at winning his 4th ring. That would obviously quiet his doubters, and only ramp up the GOAT debate. If they don’t win, it’ll get tougher to make that same argument. There isn’t some overwhelming dynasty like the Warriors this year, so he really has no excuses. He’s on a great team, with a superstar teammate who complements him well. A lot is going to be asked of LeBron in the coming weeks. Whichever way it turns out, Skip Bayless will have a lot to talk about.
Josh Clement: I think there is more pressure on several Eastern Conference teams than in the Western Conference. Both the Lakers and the Clippers are in year one of their new superteams and have next year to make another run.
For the Sixers and Bucks, the window is much smaller. The Sixers have an incredibly expensive roster and could see significant personnel and coaching changes following a quick first-round exit. The Bucks have Giannis’ looming free agency and their team is aging quickly. They need a Finals run to feel confident going into next year.
Jack Borman: Mike Budenholzer of the Milwaukee Bucks. Coach Bud arguably lost the Bucks the Eastern Conference Finals with his inability to scheme up a solution to effectively get Giannis the ball against a stout and creative Toronto defense. Despite the MVP’s public comments supporting the Bucks and Milwaukee, I don’t think Bucks fans should feel confident about Giannis signing his supermax this fall until either A) the Bucks win the title or B) the pen hits the paper. Budenholzer will have to prove to Giannis and the league that this iteration of the Bucks can truly compete for a title and isn’t the pretender we saw them to be last season.
Crushing the regular season is great, but Bud has a scary track record of his teams underperforming in the playoffs dating back to his time at the helm of the Atlanta Hawks in the mid 2010s. If he follows up last season’s playoff dud with another, the Co-Coach of the Year could find himself losing a generational talent a year from now.
And finally... your official NBA Finals picks (teams, games, and MVP)
Kyle Theige: If conferences weren’t a thing, I’d put money on a Toronto/Milwaukee NBA Finals. I absolutely adore both of these teams, and love how many different lineups they can throw at an opponent all while grinding teams to dust on the defensive end.
But because life has rules, I’ll take the Toronto Raptors to edge out Giannis in the Eastern Conference Finals. As stated previously, the league MVP will be on a mission this postseason, but I continuously worry that his supporting cast will miss curtain call when the lights shine brightest. If a coaching guru like Nick Nurse or Spo can gameplan well enough to make everyone “else” on the Bucks beat them, it could lead to an earlier than expected exit for the Greek Freak.
As for the West — I would legitimately be shocked if the Clippers don’t moonwalk to the Western Conference Finals on the back of a couple of gentlemen’s sweeps. Who will they face? I’d love to pencil in the Thunder, but I think Anthony Davis will show out enough in the early rounds to secure a truly historic “Battle of LA,” with the Clippers ultimately coming out victorious.
So yes — when it’s all said and done, I’ve got Clippers vs. Raptors for the
Mickey Mouse Larry O’Brien trophy. A Doc vs. a Nurse. The storylines in this one should be enough to keep us warm in October, and I’ll put my money on the fearless residents of the T-Dot to shock the Clippers in 6 games.
“Pascal Siakam, please come up to the socially distanced stage to accept your Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy.”
Mike O’Hagan: It pains me to do so, but I’m taking the Clippers to come out of the West. Granted, we haven’t seen them look as good as their roster on paper would suggest, but I’m counting on Kawhi elevating the play of his teammates the same way he did last year. As much as I love LeBron James, I’m really worried about the way he’s looked so far. That might (probably will) prove to be a silly overreaction to a few meaningless games, but the Clippers really have an incredible array of bodies to throw at him. I think the Battle for LA comes down to whether or not Anthony Davis can shoulder a massive load and play like the Lakers best player, and I’m just not sure I trust him to do that yet under the brightest of lights.
The Bucks will be the sexy pick out of the East, but I’m going to switch it up a bit and go with the Toronto Raptors. Would I bet on this being the outcome? Probably not, but I do think Toronto has a legitimate shot to beat Milwaukee. They are terrifying defensively, and even without Kawhi, I think are uniquely equipped to defend Giannis because of the combination of their overwhelming length and Nick Nurse’s defensive genius. My only concern is whether they’ll be able to score enough in the half-court.
In this scenario, I’ll take the Clippers in 7 hard fought games. I really think Toronto is a legitimate championship contender, but I can’t see Kawhi losing this series unless Paul George goes full “Playoff P,” and I don’t mean that in a positive way. Ultimately I think I’d take the Clippers in 7 against Milwaukee as well, with Kawhi Leonard winning Finals MVP and adding to one of the strangest resumes in NBA history.
Josh Clement: The Clippers taking on the Bucks seems like the most likely outcome. The Bucks will face a tough road to the Eastern Conference, but they are the clear favorite in the conference. I cannot wait for the eventual Lakers-Clippers showdown, but the Clippers simply are too deep and have too much talent for me to pick against them. The Clippers are loaded 1-8, the Lakers, not so much.
I think the Clippers can cause similar problems for the Bucks. Clippers in 6 with Kawhi receiving another Finals MVP on a new team.
Jack Borman: The Los Angeles Clippers are built for World War III on the basketball floor. They have two of the five or six best two-way players in the NBA, a defensive pit bull at point guard, a rock solid starting center, and not one, but two Sixth Man of the Year finalists in Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell. Throw in secondary scorers that can carry the offense without Kawhi and PG on the floor in Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson, and you are looking at quite possibly the deepest team in the modern history of the NBA. Matchups are everything in the playoffs and they can play any way you want: fast, slow, five out, 3 out 2 in, 4 around 1, you name it. They have the defensive capacity to effectively defend any team in the league, while also outscoring them with ease. While I anticipate the Lakers will give them a run for their money in the West, I think the Clippers will advance to the Finals after beating the Lakers in five games.
In the East, I have been extremely high on the Raptors all year long. Despite losing Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard in free agency, Nick Nurse led Toronto to a franchise record winning percentage and the second seed in the Eastern Conference. He’s the best coach in the NBA at getting the most out of his role players on a consistent basis and that ability shines bright during the playoffs - five Raptors average north of 15 PPG. The Raptors boast the association’s best defense, fourth-best point differential, and are top-10 in key areas such as free-throw shooting, rebounding, and 3-point shooting. They already proved they can stop Giannis in the playoffs last season and I would be genuinely surprised if the Bucks made it past the Heat in the second round. Toronto defends the 3 better than any team in the NBA and I think that gets them over the hump against a flame-throwing Heat squad in the Eastern Conference Finals.
In the Finals, I am taking the more talented team. The Clippers just have way too much talent and playoff experience to not win the title this year. Kawhi is the perfect Siakam stopper and Pat Bev and Lou Will could very easily irritate Kyle Lowry and force the foul-prone PG into foul trouble early on in games. It will come down to who can stop the other team’s best players, and I trust Kawhi and PG to do their parts defensively more than I do Siakam and Lowry. This will be a rock fight of a series and I think the Clippers take this in 6 games, with Kawhi Leonard taking home his second Finals MVP in as many seasons.