Almanac Basketball: 2020 NBA Playoffs – Series One Review

Each sport has its own term for it. In Australia, the AFL and NRL label it the hub. Over in Orlando, the NBA have donned the moniker of the bubble. Holed up in the surrounds of Disneyland, the teams still in playoff contention with only a handful of games left were relocated into the biosecurity bubble to finish the season. After a few weeks of last-ditch matches, the top eight for each conference was decided, and the playoffs kicked off.


I never thought I was going to finish this review. With multiple series still hanging in the balance, the NBA was temporarily postponed when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court against the Magic. The NBA is already one of the leading global sporting leagues when it comes to taking a stance with the Black Lives Matter movement, and it went to another level in the hub. Eventually (after some drama, which included superstar Lebron James walking out on a meeting), the remaining teams voted to continue on with the playoffs.


Eastern Conference


# 1 Milwaukee Bucks v # 8 Orlando Magic


The Bucks were expected to roll past the Magic. With reigning MVP and favourite for the 2020 award Giannis Antetokounmpo leading Milwaukee to the number one seed, the side were set to make a run at a title. But game one threw up a shock when the Magic worked past the Greek Freak’s 31-point, 17-rebound game to win by 12. Despite what later happened, it was Nikola Vucevic (35 points) who starred for Orlando during this series.


But the Bucks weren’t going to be swept away in a major upset, and consolidated with a solid 15-point triumph. Giannis (you know you’re good when you turn to first-name treatment) registered another double-double while Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez shot superbly from the field. The tide swung when Milwaukee also claimed game three, as only Vucevic provided consistent resistance against the Bucks. Giannis lodged 35 to go with his 11 rebounds, while star teammate Khris Middleton finally got going with 17 points. The fifth game was left hanging in the balance by the postponement, as Milwaukee boycotted a chance at claiming an easy series win by refusing to take the court. When the dust settled and the game resumed, Milwaukee strode away to a 15-point win that finished the tie. Vucevic (31 points, 11 rebounds) did everything he could from the centre, and Terrence Ross knocked down 19 defiant points, but Orlando proved no match for Milwaukee’s big guns (Giannis and Middleton both scored double-doubles). It may have been choppy waters for the Bucks, but they did enough to surge into the Eastern semi-finals.


# 2 Toronto Raptors v # 7 Brooklyn Nets


With the glitz and glamour of the West and the Greek Freak dominating talk out East, the NBA community forgot about their reigning champions. The Toronto Raptors have been one of the most underrated title defenders in recent history, and it all stems from the loss of Kawhi Leonard. The 2019 Finals MVP destroyed the highly fancied Golden State Warriors and then took off with a ring to the Clippers. Without their star, Toronto weren’t expected to salute again. But with a slick machine of players and a great game-style comes resilience, and the Raptors have proven it in 2020.


Coming up against the Nets, who were expected to be a powerhouse before losing star duo Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to injury, the Raptors flexed their muscles. Brooklyn needed KD’s dynamic shooting and Irving’s fight to match it with Toronto’s physicality. Kyle Lowry continued his consistent pre-playoff form, but game one went to Fred VanVleet, who notched a double-double with 11assists and 30 points. Serge Ibaka also established himself as one of the best number six players in the competition, lifting his team in spurts. The comfortable 24-point margin in game one led to a 15-point triumph in the second, as VanVleet recorded another double-double and both Lowry and Norman Powell passed the 20-point mark. Jarrett Allan and Caris LeVert also had double-doubles, but their valiant efforts were in vain.


It was with brutal efficiency that the Raptors swept the series, taking the third game 117-92 (the reliable Pascal Siakam scored 26) and the fourth 150-122. The heavy lifting was shared by the entire Raptors roster, making them an undeniable force in the East to go back-to-back. Without their stars, Brooklyn could only rely on LeVert consistently, and were sent home with their tails between their legs.



# 3 Boston Celtics v # 6 Philadelphia 76ers


If the Raptors were brutally efficient, the Celtics were equally impressive. Yes, Philadelphia were depleted after losing Ben Simmons to a dislocated kneecap on the eve of the playoffs. Without his presence, only Joel Embiid held star power for the 76ers, meaning they never stood a chance.


Game one’s eight point margin was the closest Philadelphia could get all series. The 76ers looked tired and exhausted, while the Celtics were only just starting to click into gear in the bubble. Jayson Tatum started off a dominant series well, lodging 32 points and 13 rebounds. The series followed a rhythm; Tatum was brilliant every game, while Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown all supported their star superbly. Embiid (16 rebounds, 26 points) held his side together for the first game, but soon was rendered helpless as the Celtics took game two 128-101 (Tatum 33 points, Embiid 34). The lanky Philadelphia centre just had no assistance, as only Josh Richardson provided spurts of support. Embiid gave one last shake at changing the momentum, tipping in 30 and 13 rebounds in an eight-point game 3 loss. The 76ers held sway for most of the contest, but couldn’t resist Walker (24 points) when it mattered.


The series was all but over. The 76ers held face with a tight game four effort, but lacked the class behind Embiid to seriously challenge the Celtics. Philadelphia departed with a bad taste in their mouth; coach Brett Brown was given the sack, and Simmons was distraught at watching their capitulation. On the other bench, Boston glided into the next round, looking destined to meet the Raptors in the conference finals.



# 4 Indiana Pacers v # 5 Miami Heat


Only one game separated these sides during the reduced 73-game season. But, in the latter stages of the bubble, Miami caught momentum. It meant that this series turned from an even contest to a one-sided display of power and scoring ability.


The Pacers are an unknown side, but they hold quality. Malcolm Brogdon, Aaron Holiday and T.J. Warren all had decent series and started off in fine form. But whatever Indiana tried, they couldn’t crack Jimmy Butler and his scorching Heat. Game one went the way of Miami by 12, while game two was a neck-and-neck encounter. Victor Oladipo turned up for the Pacers and threatened to snatch victory, but Duncan Robinson and Goran Dragic shot the lights out in the final quarter to grab the 109-100 win.


Brogdon came out in game three desperate to buck the trend and bring Indiana back into the series. His 34-point, 14 assist game was superb, and gave the Pacers a massive sniff. In the latter stages, Miami proved they held something special. Bam Adebayo welcomed himself into the series with 22 points and 11 rebounds, while consistent outputs from Butler, Dragic and bench player Tyler Herro dragged Miami over the line by nine points once again.


Oladipo, Myles Turner and Warren all recorded over 20 points in game four, but Indiana had learnt their lesson. Whatever they did, they couldn’t stop the Heat. Adebayo continued to run hot, and Andre Iguodala brought his championship experience onto the court to close out the series 4—0. If Miami can dispatch a classy side like the Pacers so easily, could they be the underdogs in the East?


Western Conference


# 1 LA Lakers v # 8 Portland Trailblazers


There was a fair bit of hype surrounding this one, especially when Portland continued their blitzing form to snatch game one 100-93. It was a battle of Damian Lillard’s breathtaking shooting ability for the Trailblazers and the consistent brilliance of Lakers’ duo Lebron James and Anthony Davis. Portland were scintillating in game one – Lillard had 34, and started making three-pointers from near half-court, while CJ McCollum (21 points) and Jusuf Nurkic (15 rebounds, 16 points) also held their own against the rusty Lakers. For the LA juggernaut, it was Lebron’s triple-double that kept them in it.


Game two required change from the Lakers, and change is what it got. Instead of running the floor, Lebron stepped back, only registering 10 points, while other players got to work. Davis shone with 31 points and 11 rebounds, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (great name) lodged 16 to provide a much even box score from the number one seed. Something also worked in defence – the red-hot Lillard was held to only 18 points. With the series in the balance, both sides came out firing in game three. For the Blazers, Carmelo Anthony (20 points) was everywhere, supporting the rejuvenated Lillard (34) and McCollum (28). But it just wasn’t enough to trump Lebron. The magical small-forward knocked down 38 points to go with his 12 rebounds and 8 assists – what a complete game. Davis (29 and 11 rebounds) stood tall with him to create a side finding form. A 20-point victory before the small intermission led the Lakers to a 3-1 lead, despite Nurkic’s (20 points, 13 rebounds) best efforts. Lebron backed up a double-double with a triple-double in game five to help close out the series in a tense 9-point victory. LA were challenged the whole time (McCollum filled left by an injured Lillard to conjure 36) but with Davis (43 points) firing they couldn’t be stopped. It was a bumpy road, but the Lakers came out of a tight series looking much better.


# 2 LA Clippers v # 7 Dallas Mavericks


If the Lakers had a struggle against Portland, the Clippers would’ve been feeling nervous during this epic tie.


The Clippers are a dark horse in the West, mainly thanks to new recruit Kawhi Leonard. He did the damage in an 8-point game one victory, knocking down 29 while antagonising point guard Paul George hit 27 points. In his first ever playoff series, European star Luka Doncic registered 42 points for the Mavericks. This was just the start – a 28-point game two effort led Dallas past Leonard (35 points, 10 rebounds) and the Clippers to even the ledger. Game on. The struggle was intensified when Dallas saw Kristaps Porzingis (34 points, 13 rebounds), Tim Hardaway Jr (22 points) and Seth Curry (not Golden State star Steph) step up to help Doncic face the Clippers. This time it wasn’t enough to beat Kawhi, who smacked down 36 points to lead LA to an eight-point triumph in a high-scoring encounter.


Game four was by far the best in the series. Needing to win to have a hope of an upset, Doncic’s triple-double sent the match into overtime. With Lou Williams slotting 36 points for the Clippers, it would take something magical to beat the Clippers. Luckily, Doncic is a wizard. He coolly slotted his 43rd point with a three-point shot after the buzzer to clinch the match 135-133. The internet blew up – jaws were sent crashing to the floor across the world. Dallas meant business.


Instead of crushing the will of the Clippers, this only fired them up. They stormed away with a 43-point game five win, while George and Leonard continued the dominance to take the sixth and last contest 111-97. Doncic finished off his maiden series with 38 points to cement his stardom in the NBA, but it was Leonard and LA who would continue on in the 2019/20 season.


# 3 Denver Nuggets v # 6 Utah Jazz


This was one of two game seven series, and it was full of drama.


From the get-go, Utah took it up to the highly-fancied Nuggets. Led by the young and brilliant Donovan Mitchell and the fiercely defensive Rudy Gobert, Utah played a brilliant series. If it wasn’t for the brilliance of Nicola Jokic and Jamal Murray, the Jazz would’ve clinched the tie. Instead, the pair’s dynamic approach saw Denver claim game one by 10 points in overtime. Utah weren’t going to be deterred – a strong 19-point game two win squared the tie thanks to 30 from Mitchell and 26 from Jordan Clarkson. From there, the series looked to be heading Utah’s way – the return of experienced shooter Mike Conley saw them win game three by 37, and a mind-blowing 51 points from Mitchell got the Jazz over the line by 2 two days later, despite the best efforts of Murray (50 points, 11 rebounds).


3-1 down, the Nuggets needed a star. The rest of the tie belonged to Murray and Mitchell, who went head-to-head down the stretch. In the last game before the postponement, Murray scored 42 while Mitchell recorded 30 in a 10-point Denver win. Upon returning, nothing changed. Mitchell shot 44, Murray 50 – Denver had tied the series 3-3 and sent the stie to a deciding game seven.


This match had everything – Denver strode away to a big lead courtesy of Jokic’s 30-point, 14-rebound game. But Utah came back, with Mitchell snatching 22 points. In a frenzied last few seconds, Denver missed an easy lay-up to ice the series, only for Conley to throw up a buzzer-beater three point shot that bounced around the rim and fell out. Denver had won by the narrowest of margins. After a draining series, Murray and the Nuggets get a golden chance to beat the Clippers.


# 4 Houston Rockets v # 5 Oklahoma City Thunder


NBA is like theatre – there’s always more drama around the corner. If the Jazz/ Nuggets series wasn’t enough, the Thunder and Houston played out a seven-game series full of momentum swings.


The Rockets got off to a flyer when James Harden dropped 37 points (including many long-range threes) and the rest of Houston contributed double figures in the opening two matches. They looked comfortable at 2-0. Game three went into overtime, and eventually the even spread of contributions from veteran Chris Paul (26 points), Gilgeous-Alexander (23), Danilo Gallinari (20) and bench player Dennis Schroder (29) got the better of Houston in a 119-107 spectacle. Harden tried his best with 38, and number six Jeff Green put up 22, but it wasn’t enough. Two days later it went down to the wire again – Harden was everywhere (scoring 32 and dishing off 15 assists) but Paul stood up when it mattered, scoring 26 while Schroder hit 30. Suddenly the series was alive and square.


Houston relied heavily on Harden, and it looked to be their undoing. Thunder guard Luguentz Dort is known as one of the best lockdown defenders in the league, and he was nullifying Harden when it mattered. But Oklahoma couldn’t stop Houston in game five – the Rockets sprang away to a big 34-point victory that sat them one win away from a date with the Lakers. In an exhausting series, Paul defied his body to play 40 minutes and hit 28 points, including a series of clutch shots at the end. Steven Adams continued to bully the smaller Rockets under the ring, while the return of Russell Westbrook for Houston yielded only 17 points and some crucial turnovers.


Game seven was big. Still basking in the finish to the Utah/ Denver game, fans looked on bleary-eyed as Oklahoma pushed Houston to the limit. Harden was well held by Dort, and Westbrook failed to find his range. Robert Covington and Eric Gordon did their best, while Paul’s triple-double and Dort’s 30 points brought the Thunder within striking distance in the last seconds. Harden came up clutch – well-held offensively, he made a massive shot block on Dort with a second on the clock to seal a two-point win for the Rockets. Sometimes, basketball isn’t always about long shots and slamming dunks.


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