Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press
The NBA playoffs are set to begin in four days, and 15 of the field’s 16 teams have been decided.
The final spot will go to either the Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns, who will take part in a play-in tournament to decide the eighth and final Western Conference seed. Memphis will play Portland if the Trail Blazers defeat the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday or Phoenix if the Trail Blazers lose.
The victor of the play-in tournament will face off against four-time NBA MVP LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, who own the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed.
Reigning NBA MVP (and likely back-to-back MVP) Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks lead the East. They are one spot ahead of the defending NBA champion Toronto Raptors, who finished with the second seed despite losing leading scorer and reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard to the Los Angeles Clippers in free agency.
Speaking of Leonard’s Clips, they sit second in the West and could set up a Los Angeles battle for the right to move onto the NBA Finals.
At this point, that’s far off, however. A play-in tournament and a couple of postseason rounds must take place beforehand.
Here’s a look at what we know about the NBA playoff schedule thus far, alongside quick previews and picks for the league’s top team by win-loss record in the Bucks and the defending champs in the Raps.
NBA Playoff Schedule Dates
Aug. 15: Memphis Grizzlies vs. Phoenix Suns or Portland Trail Blazers, 2:30 p.m. ET on ABC
Aug. 16: Memphis Grizzlies vs. Phoenix Suns or Portland Trail Blazers, 4:30 p.m. ET on ESPN (if necessary)
Aug. 17: First round start
Aug. 31: Conference semifinals targeted start date
Sept. 15: Conference finals targeted start date
Sept. 30: NBA Finals targeted start date
Oct. 13: Game 7 of the NBA Finals (if necessary)
Eastern Conference Matchups
1. Milwaukee Bucks vs. 8. Orlando Magic
2. Toronto Raptors vs. 7. Brooklyn Nets
3. Boston Celtics vs. 6. Philadelphia 76ers
4 or 5. Miami Heat vs. 4 or 5. Indiana Pacers
Western Conference Matchups
1. Los Angeles Lakers vs. 8. Portland Trail Blazers/Phoenix Suns/Memphis Grizzlies
2. Los Angeles Clippers vs. 7. Dallas Mavericks
3. Denver Nuggets vs. 6. Utah Jazz
4 or 5. Houston Rockets vs. 4 or 5. Oklahoma City Thunder
First Round Schedule
Quadrupleheaders will be held Monday and Tuesday, with games taking place at 1:30 p.m., 4 p.m., 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m ET.
ESPN will televise the Monday games, and TNT will do the same Tuesday.
ESPN, TNT, ABC and NBATV will televise the postseason. ESPN will handle the Eastern Conference Finals, and TNT will do the same for the Western Conference Finals. ABC will broadcast the NBA Finals.
Picks for Top Contenders in East
1. Milwaukee Bucks vs. 8. Orlando Magic
The Milwaukee Bucks were once 52-8 but will come into the playoffs limping with a 56-17 record.
Is it cause for concern down the line? It might be as other Eastern Conference teams have played far better leading into the postseason.
But it should not be an issue against the Orlando Magic, who made the playoffs despite being eight games below .500.
All-Star big man Nikola Vucevic should win the battle down low with Bucks big man Brook Lopez, and guards Evan Fournier and Terence Ross can get hot from three-point range and help the Magic offense keep pace.
But no one on the Magic (or the league) has an answer for arguably the game’s greatest talent in Antetokounmpo, who is a nightmare matchup. The same goes for Lopez, who may not be as skilled as Vucevic but can hit deep three-pointers and block shots in droves.
Add in All-Star wing Khris Middleton and a group of tough guards who excel on defense, including Eric Bledsoe and Donte DiVincenzo, and you have a team that shouldn’t have much of an issue in Round 1.
Orlando’s X-factor to change that narrative is Aaron Gordon, who needs to step up as the team’s secondary scorer behind Vucevic. At his best, Gordon can pour in points, grab a ton of boards and fly up and down the court for opponent-deflating dunks. If that Gordon appears in the playoffs, then the Magic might have the chance to steal a game or two, especially given that there’s no true home-court advantage in Disney World.
The guess here is that Orlando will be good enough to win one game against a lethargic Bucks team, much like the Magic won one contest versus the eventual champion Raps in their first-round series last year. But Giannis and the Bucks are simply too strong and should win the series by no more than five games.
Pick: Bucks in 5
2. Toronto Raptors vs. Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets are 5-2 at the NBA campus despite missing a host of talent including leading scorer Kyrie Irving, second-leading scorer Spencer Dinwiddie, big man DeAndre Jordan and others. The Nets remade their roster for the bubble, and led by interim coach Jacque Vaughn, everything came together as Brooklyn beat some top teams, including the Bucks and Clippers.
The guess here is that it’s not a fluke.
The Nets beat the Lakers on the road in their last game before the league was suspended for over four months because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sure, that team had Dinwiddie, Jordan and others who didn’t make it to Florida, but this team clearly plays hard for Vaughn, who is getting everything out of his roster as it excels in the face of insurmountable odds.
The issue the Nets have is that they might be facing the league’s best team in the Raptors, who are well-rounded, deep, battle-tested and skilled.
They simply have no weakness, and they are strong on both ends. They do run a tight rotation, but players on the back end of the bench have starred at times, like when Chris Boucher dropped a casual 25-point, 11-rebound stat line versus the Bucks in the bubble.
Toronto should take the series, but it won’t be easy. Look for the Nets to take a pair of games and make this one interesting. In the end, it will be impossible for the Nets to do anything but make Vaughn their full-time coach.
Pick: Raptors in 6