NBA Weekend Preview: On to the next round (finally)

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Boston Celtics' Jayson Tatum, right, shoots over Toronto Raptors' Serge Ibaka (9) in the first half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game Thursday, Sept 3, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

It was an exciting week for NBA basketball, with back-to-back Game 7s on Tuesday and Wednesday night. But now that those games are over, it means that after two-and-a-half weeks (including a three-day players’ strike for social justice), we have finally fully advanced to the next round of the playoffs. 

I’m not sure we’ve ever seen the two conferences so out of step like this, with the two Eastern Conference semifinal series already playing their third games while the Western Conference semis have yet to begin at the time of writing. But I guess that just adds to the weirdness that is 2020. 

Starting with the East, as I said, both series have already played two games. At time of writing, the Boston Celtics hold a 2-0 series lead over the Toronto Raptors, while the Miami Heat are up 2-0 over the Milwaukee Bucks. The Celtics and Heat are in the driver’s seat right now, but that doesn’t mean the series is over. Toronto and Milwaukee are the top two seeds in the conference, so just because they’re down 2-0 doesn’t mean their opponents can just punch their tickets to the conference finals. There’s still work to be done. 

For the Celtics, the key is to keep getting production from the whole lineup. Jayson Tatum is a star, and Kemba Walker can take over a game as well as anyone, but the Celtics are at their best when everyone is contributing, especially with Gordon Hayward still injured. That means Marcus Smart putting up big offensive numbers like he has in the first two games of the series. That means Daniel Theis making an impact on both ends of the floor. That means Robert Williams continuing to come up big off the bench. The Celtics are a very dangerous team when everyone gets involved. 

For the Raptors, in addition to holding Boston in check, Pascal Siakam needs to figure himself out. After a solid first series against the Brooklyn Nets, he has gone cold, averaging just 15 points in the first two games and shooting under 35% from the floor. In addition, Fred VanVleet is not performing anywhere near like he did in the Nets series, where he averaged over 21 points on extremely efficient shooting (53% overall, 56% from three). Through the first two games of this series, he’s shooting an abysmal 22% from three and 29% overall. If the Raptors want any chance of digging themselves out of the 2-0 hole, those two guys will have to be better. 

The Bucks being down 2-0 is even more surprising than the Raptors because Milwaukee had the best record in the NBA in the regular season. The likely back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is still playing well, and Khris Middleton has had a heck of a series so far, but Miami has just been better. Jimmy Butler cooked the Bucks for 40 points in Game 1, and although the Bucks managed to hold him in check in Game 2, they weren’t able to limit anyone else. The whole starting lineup as well as two bench players all scored in double figures. The key for the Heat is to keep doing what they’ve been doing because clearly it’s working, while the Bucks need to tighten things up on the defensive end to get back in the series. 

In the Western Conference, the semifinal series are just getting started. We have two well-rested teams in the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers facing off against two teams coming off exhausting seven-game series, the Denver Nuggets and the Houston Rockets. One might think the teams that have been resting have the advantage, but history tells us that isn’t always the case.  

The Lakers-Rockets series will be very interesting, because I’m not sure Houston has anyone who can truly hold LeBron James or Anthony Davis in check. They usually employ a very small lineup, with Robert Covington sometimes the tallest player on the floor at 6-foot-7, so AD could have a field day in this series. But honestly, who knows, he sometimes goes missing for quarters at a time. Even if he does, LeBron should be able to carry the Lakers as long as someone else contributes. Overall, I think the Lakers hold the clear advantage in this series because of their size. 

As for the Clippers-Nuggets, I would once again have to give the advantage to the LA squad. The Clippers are lethal when Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Lou Williams are all playing their best at the same time. However, that hasn’t really happened yet this postseason, which led to a tougher-than-anticipated series with the Dallas Mavericks.  

The Nuggets are scary as well, especially with how well Jamaal Murray has been playing. He had a historic first-round series, scoring 50 points twice and leading Denver back from down 3-1. Nikola Jokic is the wild card for them. If he can provide consistent scoring alongside Murray, they could pose a threat to the Clippers. But in my opinion, the Clippers are still the most dangerous team in the league and won’t have too much trouble with the Nuggets. 

One thing is certain: There will be a lot of fun basketball this weekend. 

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