It took us a few more months than expected, but the NBA Playoffs are finally here. 16 teams are once again duking it out for two whole months in high intensity basketball. Only this time, there’s a whole new dynamic. How will a lack of fans affect the matchups? How will it affect team intensity? We may see more upsets than we have ever seen in a postseason. We also may see players step up that we never would have expected to in a high pressure situation. Unlikely heroes may emerge to help crown an NBA Champion.
So, here are my predictions for which non-stars will immortalize themselves in NBA history, and be the x-factor their team needs to get over the top, starting with the Eastern Conference.
Milwaukee Bucks: Eric Bledsoe
For the second year in a row, on the back of an MVP caliber season from Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks find themselves as the number one seed entering the playoffs. All season, despite teams best efforts to clog the paint defensively, the “Greek Freak” has averaged a career high 29.5 points per game, shooting an incredibly efficient 55% from the field, and finished the regular season with the highest Player Efficiency Rating in NBA history. There has been no clear way to completely shut down the reigning MVP in the last two seasons.
However, when teams are given the opportunity to game plan for an entire series against Giannis, they have had some success in limiting his high percentage opportunities. Last year in the Conference Finals against the Toronto Raptors, a series which Toronto bested Milwaukee in six games, Antetokounmpo averaged 22.7 points on 45% shooting, with over four turnovers a game.
For most players these are great numbers, but given the immense offensive burden Antetokounmpo carries for the Bucks, this was enough for Toronto to disrupt the Milwaukee offense, keeping them under 100 points in the final two games of the series.
When teams in the playoffs key in on Antetokounmpo, the supporting cast has to take advantage of the openings this creates for them on the offensive end. Khris Middleton has proven himself to be a reliable number two weapon for the Bucks by averaging 21 points per game and shooting 50% from the field and 41% from three. But, on nights when Antetokounmpo is limited, Middleton can’t be the only one to answer the call.
For the Bucks to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy this October, Eric Bledsoe must be a reliable offensive weapon in every series. At his best, Bledsoe is a dynamic scorer who is able to create open shots for himself with the threat of his elite speed and solid playmaking ability. This year he averaged just over 15 points and 5 assists. However, he only played in one seeding game due to a knee injury, which did not give him much time to shake off the rust from the layoff.
There is not any one player on this team that can fill his shoes though. Outside of the team’s two All-Stars, he is really the only guy that can create his own offense. Brook Lopez, Pat Connaughton, and Ersan Ilyasova have excelled in their roles this season, but aren’t much more than spot up shooters, whose scoring comes from the defense over-helping.
If Bledsoe can provide that third consistent scorer throughout the playoffs, Antetokoumpo’s job becomes immensely easier, and makes it almost impossible to shut down the Bucks already high-scoring offense.
Toronto Raptors: O.G. Anunoby
Certainly the surprise team of the Eastern Conference this year, the Raptors find themselves in the second seed, which is exactly where they were a season ago, but this time, they did it without superstar Kawhi Leonard. They will match up with the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs, a team ravaged by injuries and opt-outs. Barring something catastrophic, they should have no problem in that series. But once Toronto reaches the second round, nothing is going to be easy.
The top of the Eastern Conference is filled with talented teams. And when you look at what these teams share, one thing jumps out. Elite wing players form the core of each of the four teams that present the biggest threat to Toronto’s hopes of repeating as champions.
In Milwaukee, the All-Star duo of Antetokounmpo and Middleton provide much of their offensive firepower. In Boston, the Celtics have three wing players averaging over 17 points per game in Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward. The Pacers are led by Victor Oladipo, and are riding the hot streak of T.J. Warren. And even the Miami Heat, a team that many discount, run their offense through two-way star Jimmy Butler.
So one thing is clear this year in the East, if you want to win, you need versatile, long defenders. Nobody fits that build more than O.G. Anunoby. He barely averages 10 points per game, but the third year forward has been a huge part of Toronto’s defense this year, a defense that allowed the least number of points per game.
Anunoby averaged 1.4 steals per game and led the team in defensive win shares. He has guarded the best perimeter player on the other team all year, and that won’t stop in the playoffs, whether that means guarding Jayson Tatum, Jimmy Butler, or Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Raptors aren’t a team that is going to win with offensive firepower, as they want to rough the game up, and the success of that style of play in the playoffs rests on the defensive abilities of Anunoby.
Boston Celtics: Gordon Hayward
The Celtics have one of the most unique rosters in the NBA. Their starting lineup is filled with guys who can score in bunches. Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Kemba Walker achieved the rare feat of three teammates all scoring about 20 points per game. Additionally Gordon Hayward put up 17.5 points on 50% shooting.
This sounds like one of the best offenses in history, right? Not exactly.
They averaged 114 points per game, the ninth best average in the league. The reason this offense has been good, but not great, falls on the supporting cast. The Celtics were 29th in bench scoring this season, led by Marcus Smart, who averaged 12.9 points on an atrocious 37% from from the field. He was the only other Celtic to average double digit scoring this year.
This brings us to the importance of Gordon Hayward. The bench, especially in the playoffs, cannot be relied upon for much production. For most teams, the role of the fourth best offensive weapon is not a vital one, but for the Celtics, it is.
Hayward played plenty of minutes with the bench in the regular season, and that should continue into the postseason. He must be aggressive looking for his shot in these situations. Walker, Brown, and Tatum aren’t all going to have big games every single night, and if Hayward isn’t ready to take that offensive responsibility, it is unlikely that Smart, Brad Wannamaker, or Daniel Theis are ready to do so.
The good news for Boston is that Hayward has looked much more like his old self this season, and has been especially aggressive on the offensive end since the restart. When he plays well, the team usually follows suit. In the 21 games that Hayward scored 20 or more, the team is 15-6. And considering that in the playoffs, most teams will formulate their gameplan around stopping Tatum and Walker, which means Hayward should have plenty of opportunities to be the deciding factor in important moments.
Miami Heat: The Second Unit
When the playoffs roll around, almost every team shortens their rotation to eight, or sometimes seven players to maximize the production of their best players. But this seemingly consensus strategy is not always in the best interest of deeper teams. And if a team has nine or ten playoff ready players, they may actually have an advantage. If there is any team that can benefit from going 10 deep this postseason it is the Miami Heat.
In terms of their top end talent, the Heat don’t impress in any major way. They have Jimmy Butler, who is an All-Star, but not somebody you need to create an entire defensive gameplan around. Bam Adebayo was an All-Star replacement this year, and one of the best young big men in the league, but definitely not a go to guy.
Compared to teams like Boston, Milwaukee, and Toronto, their core is relatively weak. If they are going to make noise in the playoffs, it is going to be because of their bench play, which has been the best of any Eastern Conference playoff team this year.
Miami’s bench brings a perfect balance of young talent and experienced role players. Goran Dragic has been one of the best sixth men in the league this season, averaging 16.2 points and 5.1 assists per game this season. He is the longest tenured Heat player not named Udonis Haslem and has plenty of playoff experience.
Another solid veteran that was acquired mid-season from Memphis is Andre Iguodala. He has brought experience, toughness, and an emphasis on the defensive end of the ball. Miami’s main backup big man is Kelly Olynyk, who is a perfect compliment to starter Bam Adebayo with his ability to stretch the floor.
The youth of this bench unit comes from Derrick Jones Jr. and Tyler Herro. Jones Jr. is a pure athlete who can really energize the entire team every time he steps on the floor. Herro is a rookie first rounder who has proven himself as a solid shooter and off the dribble scorer.
With all these weapons who do a variety of different things, Miami has been able to limit their starters minutes to barely over 30 in each game. Those numbers will probably go up in the playoffs, but the burden that this second unit can lift off of the starters really makes Miami a dangerous team.
Going 10 deep will make sure that whoever is on the floor can be as fresh as possible, while starters on other teams could be playing 40+ minutes. Coupling that with the fact that Eric Spoelstra seems to always have his team ready for any situation, this Heat team could really surprise a lot of people.
Indiana Pacers: Victor Oladipo
There may be no question mark bigger for any team this postseason than Victor Oladipo for the Pacers. A legitimate star in 2019, but a horrific leg injury midway through the season deprived him of a playoff run full of potential last year. He only returned just before league play was stopped in March. There was even serious doubt if he would play at all in the restart, which has led to speculation about possible turmoil between Oladipo and the organization.
Nonetheless he has suited up for a playoff run. In the six seeding games he played in, he averaged 17.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game on 48% shooting, which is much better than his numbers pre-shutdown, although certainly a small sample size. So the question that will make or break the Pacers chances against the Heat in the first round is: which Victor Oladipo are we going to see come playoff time?
If Oladipo continues his exponential progress and can return to at least 80% of his pre-injury self, the Pacers are a very good team. He needs to be at up around 22 points per contest on a decent percentage if they want to have a chance. T.J. Warren is riding a hot streak in the bubble, but who knows if that will carry over.
Malcolm Brogdon and Myles Turner are very good pieces, but neither of them have what it takes to lead a team in a playoff environment. With Domontas Sabonis likely gone for the year, the Pacers don’t have the luxury to let Oladipo ease back in. This is certainly asking a lot of a guy who has played less than 20 games this season, but we are talking about one of the toughest guards in the NBA.
Philadelphia 76ers: Tobias Harris
The 76ers are not where they would like to be going into the playoffs this year. With hopes to challenge for the top seed in the conference this year, it has been a bumpy ride from the start. The new look lineup with the additions of Josh Richardson and Al Horford did not gel as they expected, and the team was atrocious on the road.
The restart gave them new hope, but things once again began to unravel. Not only has the team continued to play inconsistently, but they have lost Ben Simmons for the season, and Joel Embiid is banged up with multiple minor injuries. Falling into the six seed in a matchup with the Boston Celtics is not exactly a dream scenario for them.
If this team wants to make a run at Boston, it can’t all be on the shoulders of Embiid. Yes he has a favorable matchup against any of the Celtics bigs, but he is clearly not 100%. The Sixers need nothing short of an offensive explosion from somebody else to compete in this series. The clear candidate for that kind of role is Tobias Harris.
He averaged 19.6 points per game in the regular season, but he is going to need to do a lot more than that to keep this offense afloat. He will also have to carry some of the ball handling duties with Simmons out. It is certainly not going to be easy, but if he can be an effective go-to scorer, this could be a very close series.
When Philadelphia is locked in, they have the personnel to be an elite defensive team, even without Simmons. Horford and Embiid make a formidable interior defending tandem, while the quickness and length of Harris, Richardson, and Matisse Thybulle can really pester the perimeter scorers of the Celtics.
Things may not look incredibly hopeful for a long playoff run for Philadelphia, but they are a Tobias Harris hot streak away from being dangerous.
Brooklyn Nets: Joe Harris
A franchise that saw their top two scorers opt out of the NBA restart, the last team the Brooklyn Nets would like to see is the Toronto Raptors, who are the best defensive team in the NBA. This team is not a good matchup for them across the board.
Caris Lavert has done his best to carry the offensive load for Brooklyn, but he will now be shadowed most likely by O.G. Anunoby, and the main focus of the Raptors game plan. The team is also very thin in the backcourt, so stopping the scoring of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, not to mention the lack of defensive wing players to guard Pascal Siakam.
There is only one way a team can overcome this much of a discrepancy in talent, and that is three point shooting. And for the Nets, there is no team hot streak from behind the arc without Joe Harris. He has shot over 40% from deep for three straight seasons, and makes 2.5 threes a game for Brooklyn this year. When he gets hot, it doesn’t matter who he is playing against.
The Nets overall were ninth in threes made this year, but that was with Spencer Dinwiddie and Kyrie Irving, who both opted out. But if Harris can find his stroke in this series, the defense will have to respect his shot. This will make it a lot easier for Levert, Tyler Johnson, and Jarrett Allen to get lanes to the rim.
This may well be the biggest mismatch in the playoffs this year, but as they say, the three pointer is the great equalizer.
Orlando Magic: Terrence Ross
For the Magic, the Jonathon Isaac torn ACL could not have come at a worse time. A key piece of their defense, the Magic now have to face the most high scoring offense in the league without one of the few players in the league, and only player on their team, with the frame and athleticism to match up with Antetokounmpo.
To make matters worse, Orlando’s number one offensive weapon is Nikola Vucevic, a player who does most of his damage in the paint. That wouldn’t be a problem if the Bucks didn’t happen to have the best paint defense in the league. If you are going to beat the Bucks, it is going to be with the outside shot.
Terrence Ross plays a similar role to Joe Harris on the Nets, only much more aggressive. There is no shot that Ross considers to be a bad one. He is a tough shot taker, and maker, and one of the few players on the Magic that can really light it up from deep. Evan Fournier can also help out in that department, but Ross is the true microwave for this team. If they are going to have any chance to make this a series, it is going to be because of his shot making ability.