LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — After successfully getting 22 teams inside the bubble here at the Walt Disney World Resort and then hosting a high-quality round of seeding games plus a play-in, the NBA now moves onto its third — and most important — phase of the 2020 restart: the playoffs. Six teams have been sent home over the past few days, leaving the remaining 16 franchises to compete in a seemingly standard four-round, best-of-seven postseason to crown the 2019-20 NBA champion.
Throughout it all, we’ve been here on the ground, studying what’s happening on the court and listening to people inside and outside the bubble dish on how it’s gone and what’s next.
As the second set of Game 1s tip, here’s what we’ve seen and heard heading into the eight series starting this week, as well as what looms for the teams participating in Thursday’s NBA draft lottery (8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN).
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Round 1 scouting reports
To get a feel for each of the six competitive series (lukewarm apologies to fans of the Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic, but those should not be long ones), we spoke to assistant coaches and scouts for an inside look. Here are their thoughts:
Miami Heat vs. Indiana Pacers
The case for Miami: “I think Bam [Adebayo], from a versatility standpoint, is debatably the most versatile big man in the league,” a Western Conference assistant coach said. “Myles Turner bothers the guys who will sit back in the paint. But Turner won’t be posting up, he won’t pick and pop; and on the other end, Bam will run through him.”
More: “If [Domantas Sabonis were] playing, that would intrigue me, and I would maybe lean Indiana … but I think Miami’s shooting and defense is going to be too much. [The Pacers] don’t score enough to win.”
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Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
The matchups: “From a game plan standpoint, [the Thunder will] have good s— for Houston, and they have guys who can keep Houston out of the paint,” one assistant coach said. “But I don’t think Steven Adams will make them pay enough to negate the switching Houston does. James Harden will have a couple clunkers, and that will be a problem. He won’t have four good games and three bad ones, but he will have more good than bad, and that’s good enough for Houston to win.”
More: “My other OKC concern is you’d think their offensive lineup with Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schroder and Danilo Gallinari would work for them because of the matchup, but the Rockets are going to target Gallo, get him into pick-and-rolls and rotations, and OKC is going to have to make a decision on if it is an offensive or defensive series.”
Los Angeles Lakers vs. Portland Trail Blazers
The matchups: “I didn’t like how either [LeBron James or Anthony Davis] played in the seeding games,” an Eastern Conference assistant coach said. “But I think they’re not gonna let Damian Lillard come off and just jack 3s like he has been. I’d assume Portland will double-team Davis a ton, so how the Lakers handle that will be important. Can Danny Green, who made shots in one seeding game, make shots?”
The Lakers’ poor shooting efficiency: “The one thing to me is with LeBron, the plane was still on the runway … I think he’s as good as anybody at knowing what needs to be done and when it needs to be done, and he wasn’t really trying to kill himself in those games. Other than the Clippers game, it didn’t look like he was going yet. You can talk about the shooting, but realistically, if he played well in a number of those games, you’d say they are where they need to be.”
Denver Nuggets vs. Utah Jazz
Utah without Mike Conley: “I would have said Nuggets in six, but now that Conley is out, that really hurts [Utah],” one coach said. “I think Denver, matchup-wise, can really guard them, and Utah just can’t score enough. They haven’t looked good, and I don’t think they can get enough easy looks. They don’t play fast enough. It’s too predictable, in my opinion.”
Rudy Gobert’s impact: “I don’t think Gobert is instilling the same amount of fear as he has the past couple years … I think guys are going at him harder, and it’s not always resulting in them scoring, but it’s almost like he’s not committing because he’s scared to get in foul trouble, so he’s bluffing more. He used to block everything. Now, you’re getting layups you weren’t getting the last couple years.”
Game 1 reaction: “That was a hell of a basketball game overall,” the coach said. “I think that’s a little telling that Donovan Mitchell got 57 points and couldn’t get it done. They’re in trouble for the series. I love Joe Ingles, but not having Conley at the end of the game to try to guard Jamal [Murray] killed them. I think [Denver is] a tier below the Lakers, Clippers and even the Rockets and Mavs. They needed a highlight-level performance to win that game.”
Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Joel Embiid’s impact: “Well, is Embiid healthy?” an East assistant coach said. “I believe he’s going to give [Boston] problems. He always does. But aside from that, I think Boston is going to be a whole lot more enthusiastic about playing … Philly just looks like it wants to be done.”
The case for the Sixers: “For Philly, the question marks are can they handle Kemba Walker in pick-and-rolls, and I think it will actually be pretty competitive … [but] I’d lean toward Boston because of the way they’re going to play on both ends, and they have guys who they can get the ball to and score it. I think Philly’s lack of shooting is going to come into play a little bit … but if they can offensive rebound, that can give Boston problems.”
Game 1 reaction: “I think this idea the Celtics are going to run away from them should probably settle down after this game,” one scout said. “They are going to have a difficult time dealing with an engaged Embiid. The main reason [Boston] should win is the young guys are really good. Gordon Hayward being hurt is bad, but it doesn’t take them away from being the favorites to win the series. I thought this would be a six-game series before this game, and that hasn’t changed now.”
LA Clippers vs. Dallas Mavericks
The matchups: “Dallas’ offense has been unreal,” one coach said. “[Luka] Doncic is a problem, to say the least. But at the end of the day, the Clippers will be able to switch … I think it will be an interesting series, but I would say the Clippers are better. They have multiple guys to put on Doncic, multiple guys with versatility, and they have depth.”
More: “[The Mavericks are] not a good defensive team to begin with, but they match up terribly with the Clippers … And there is a reason they are so bad in clutch games: They can’t defend, and if you can switch on Luka, it slows him down late.”
Game 1 reaction: “I know Dallas is small and [Kristaps] Porzingis [was ejected], but I was surprised to not see a big out there for the Clippers,” another coach said. “They played [Marcus] Morris at the five. Didn’t know I would see that. I thought Lou [Williams] was a liability defensively and he was missing layups. I think they didn’t play well at all and were really, really lucky to steal that one.”
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Intel on playoff teams
Front-office executives, coaches and scouts are already looking ahead to the later rounds and the offseason. Here’s what we’re hearing about a few of the playoff contenders:
Lakers’ free-agency options
After landing Anthony Davis in 2019, some expected that the Lakers would be able to add another impact player this offseason. But given the paucity of quality free agents and the salary cap almost certainly falling lower than anticipated, the Lakers likely will enter free agency with only their midlevel exception (worth around $9.3 million in the first year) available to add a real piece.
Given the Lakers’ lack of depth on the wings, that seems like the right area to upgrade. But the best options out there — names such as Milwaukee Bucks guard Pat Connaughton, Pacers guard Justin Holiday or Heat forward Jae Crowder — are helpful players who won’t necessarily move the needle.
Milwaukee’s time to prove itself
While plenty of attention has been paid to the way the Lakers struggled in the seeding games, the Bucks have had a relatively free pass from criticism after starting 3-5. Some around the league think they could face trouble after Round 1.
“I think they will regain rhythm early,” one assistant coach said. “But I do see some warts, and I do see some things that are alarming. I would be worried if I were them.
“I think the predictability of their offense and defense is really easy to prepare for. You just need to make shots. You need to be really good at understanding where your shots are coming from. But [guarding them] defensively, if they are going to be playing in a close game, I still don’t think they have a dynamic go-getter-type guy.”
While Giannis Antetokounmpo has earned positive comparisons to Shaquille O’Neal’s effectiveness inside, some have pointed out the downside there: It can be difficult to play through Antetokounmpo at the end of tight games, leaving a heavy burden on Khris Middleton.
“When push comes to shove, Shaq would put up 35 and 17, but they didn’t run plays for him late in games,” the coach said. “But then they had Kobe [Bryant] and [Dwyane] Wade next to him to close games out. Those guys next to Shaq are much different than Middleton next to Giannis — and I think Middleton is really, really good.”
As the Raptors have gone through their title defense this season, they’ve done so with less fanfare thanks to the departure of Kawhi Leonard. But even without Leonard and Danny Green, the players who remain have one thing in common, according to an Eastern Conference scout: a remarkable amount of toughness.
“Great coach, great competitors,” the scout said. “As I’ve always said about them, they have the toughest guys in the league. They have the toughest guards in the league, and then five or six really tough guys, and a great coach. A lot of their success is mental.”
Carlisle and Rivers comparing Doncic to all-time greats
On Monday night, Luka Doncic began his first of what will be many career NBA playoff series. In the days leading up to the debut, both his coach, Rick Carlisle, and the one facing him, Clippers coach Doc Rivers, gave Doncic extraordinarily high praise for a 20-year-old.
“He knows where everybody is, not only on offense, but defense, and that’s the sign of a savant-type guy,” Carlisle said after Doncic’s remarkable performance against the Bucks last week. “I’ve played with Larry Bird. He could see everything like that. I had the privilege of coaching Jason Kidd. He could see everything like that. Luka is in that same mold.”
Rivers followed that up by saying Doncic mixes Kidd’s passing ability with Bird’s scoring prowess, and that’s what makes him so difficult to cover.
Ja Morant and the Grizzlies miss the NBA playoffs after falling short to the Trail Blazers 126-122.
The lottery teams
The Grizzlies entered Orlando as the favorites to make the playoffs, but after going 2-6 and losing Jaren Jackson Jr. during the seeding games, they bowed out in the first play-in game. Despite that disappointment, the consensus around the league is that this franchise is headed in the right direction.
“I think they’ve got a really bright future with Ja [Morant] and [Jackson],” a Western Conference scout said. “I like those two pieces. I don’t like a lot of the rest of the roster, but they have those two guys, so I think they’ll be good down the line.”
New Orleans Pelicans
Ball is extension eligible this offseason, but he was one of the many contributors to the Pelicans’ poor showing in the restart. He ranked 299th of 321 players in field goal percentage (30.5%) and continued his refusal to get to the foul line. That will make for complicated negotiations surrounding a long-term deal.
The NBA playoffs have arrived! With the seeding games and Western Conference play-in complete, 16 teams are set to compete for the NBA Championship at ESPN Wide World of Sports.
“He can’t make shots,” an Eastern Conference scout said. “Not only can he not make shots, but he can’t finish, and it’s gotten to him. … [I’d pay him] $12 to 14 million [per year] for three years, maybe?”
However, scouts are still somewhat bullish on the improved shooting stroke Ball showed over the course of the season (37.5% on more than six attempts per game).
“I think he’s turned the corner,” one East scout said. “His game is on the upswing. … Am I concerned? A little bit, but I still think it’s an upward trend.”
The Suns were the story of the seeding games, going 8-0 and nearly playing themselves into the play-in series. Scouts credit much of that success to the maturation of Booker, who has embraced doing the little things necessary to drive winning.
“I’m sure they are thrilled,” one scout said. “I have heard all year that they have been impressed with his maturity and leadership, so I think people are just seeing it now because they are actually [watching] him now.”
“Booker’s game has matured,” another scout said. “He used to be a guy who got a lot of assists but wasn’t really a playmaker. Now, he initiates.”
One of the first decisions interim general manager Joe Dumars will have to make in Sacramento is what to do with free agent Bogdan Bogdanovic. Because of his restricted status and the undetermined salary cap, trying to figure out Bogdanovic’s market has been difficult.
“Everything is a bit of a challenge at this point,” an Eastern Conference executive said, “because I am curious what the cap and tax are going to be. But teams are so short on cash that even if the cap doesn’t drop a lot, will teams spend?”
The general consensus has been that Bogdanovic is worth somewhere in the range of $15 million per year in a normal market, with him fitting in as a good sixth man on a contender.
San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio came to the bubble as a team without a clear direction. Are the Spurs trying to compete or trying to rebuild — or a little bit of both? But after the way the team’s young guards performed, the consensus was clear: They should lean into the prospects and start fresh.
“I think that they should pivot and rebuild,” one scout said, adding that the Spurs should look to trade LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan.
“I’m not high on Dejounte [Murray], but the hope is he continues to get healthy, and he’s still very young. I’m higher on Lonnie Walker, and I love Keldon Johnson.”
The Wizards won a meaningless game against the Celtics in their final showing in Orlando to avoid going winless, but little was expected of a team missing its three best players. So how good can this team be with a healthy John Wall and Bradley Beal while retaining Davis Bertans in free agency?
That combo should be enough to get back to the postseason.
“With their three best players, they probably are a playoff team,” one scout said. “[Troy] Brown and [Thomas] Bryant have come on some. It’s a playoff-level nucleus. You’re not going to win a championship, but that’s a decent mix.”
Now the Wizards need to spend the offseason deciding if merely making it back into the postseason mix is good enough.
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