By Arnie Leshin
Who knows who would be in the National Basketball Association playoffs if it began on the original date of April 18. If that occurred, there would be no coronavirus pandemic and they’d still be playing.
But when the season was suspended on March 11 because of the worldwide threat of the novel virus, it was turned into a shortened campaign in July and now the playoff are here for the restart, with the San Antonio Spurs missing for the first time in 21-straight postseasons. Ahead of them was the rejuvenated Portland Trailblazers, who were also trailed by the Memphis Grizzles and Phoenix Suns.
The Blazers clinched the final No. 8 spot by downing Memphis Saturday in a play-in. Now they find themselves against the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers led by LeBron James and play game one in the Tuesday finale at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Lake Buena Vista in the area of Disney World.
This location agreed upon comes with a bubble to keep the players safe from the virus. Other restrictions include no fans in the stands, only players, coaches, trainers, referees, limited media, and NBA officials. No home court here, so it matters little that the Eastern Conference top seed and regular-season winning Milwaukee Bucks were 37-7 at home or that the Western Conference second place Los Angeles Clippers were 27-9 at home, the No. 1 Lakers were 25-10, and the 3rd-seeded Denver Nuggets were 26-10 on their home court.
The closest a playoff team can refer to it as a home court club would be the Orlando Magic, the 6th seed in the East and it will face the Bucks in Tuesday’s first round. But with no fans allowed, it wouldn’t be much of a home court. The other team from the Sunshine State is the 5th-seeded Miami Heat in the East, and it will taking on the 4th-seeded Indiana Pacers on Tuesday afternoon.
Other than that, it becomes a question of who is on the rosters of the 16 playoff teams. Some have opted out with fear of COPID-19, others have tested positive, and injuries have also brought a different look to the lineups. But at this point, the other thing that matters are the present rosters, nothing else.
Monday leads off with the West contest featuring the Denver Nuggets meeting the 6th-seeded Utah Jazz at 11:30 a.m., followed by the surprising 7th-seeded Brooklyn Nets taking on defending champion, 2nd seeded Toronto at 2 p.m. The Sixers-Celtics game takes the court next at around 4:30 p.m., and the 7 o’clock West match-up sending the Clippers against the 7th-seeded Dallas Mavericks.
The opening round will be completed Tuesday. In the 11:30 a.m. first game, it’s the Magic versus the Bucks. Next comes the Heat against the Pacers at 2 p.m. The two West games follow, with the 4th-seeded Houston Rockets meeting the 5th-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder at around 4:30 p.m., and in the closer it’s the Lakers facing the challenge of the Blazers.
In the Western Conference, the Lakers arrive with an overall 52-19 record, with the Clippers 3.5 behind at 49-23. Denver follows at 46-27, Utah, Houston and Oklahoma City all at 44-28, Dallas at 43-32, and Portland at 33-39. The Trailblazers finished 19.5 games out of first place.
In the Eastern Conference, the Bucks went 56-17 and the Raptors were 2.5 behind at 53-19, followed by the 48-24 Celtics, the 45-28 Pacers, the 44-29 Heat, the 43-30 76ers, the 35-37 Nets, and the 33-40 Magic.
But all that matters now is who is can put all the pieces together.
Milwaukee still has its Most Valuable Player in 6-foot-10 Gianni Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe and Wesley Matthews in the back court, and the Lopez brothers, Brook and Robin. Toronto has a quality back court with Kyle Lowry and Fred Van Fleet to go with 6-10 post Marc Gasol, and 6-8 power forward Pascal Siakam.
Also from the East are the Celtics’ 6-7 Gordon Hayward and 6-foot Kemba Walker, with the Heat featuring 6-5 James Butler and sharpshooter Goran Dracic, the Pacers’ top player is 6-10 Domantas Sabonis, and the Nets have the versatile Caris LeVert to go with 6-11 Jarrett Allen.
The Lakers have the 6-9 James, 6-10 Anthony Davis, along with 6-6 Danny Green, while the city-rival Clippers can boast of 6-7 star Kawhi Leonard, 6-8 Paul George and 6-8 Marcus Morris. The West also has the Rockets’ one-two punch of James Harden and Russell Westbrook, plus the Nuggets’ 6-11 Nikola Jokie and guard Paul Millsap.
In the West, the Thunder relies on 6-4 Chris Paul in the back court and 6-11 Steven Adams in the post. Utah has a 7-1 talent in Ruby Gobert to add to 6-1 guards Dennis Mitchell and Mike Cowley, and can’t forget Portland’s 6-2 high-scoring Damian Lilard, who runs the back court with hot-shooting 6-5 C.J. McCulluh, and 6-8 veteran Carmelo Anthony.