After a tumultuous campaign that saw the NBA resume a suspended regular season in a Disney World bubble, the league's postseason marathon is finally set to tip off this week.
theScore's NBA feature writers Joseph Casciaro and Joe Wolfond will preview and predict every first-round series. First up, the East:
No. 1 Bucks (56-17) vs. No. 8 Magic (33-40)
Wolfond: Bucks in four
The Magic are simply drawing dead here. Were it not for Jonathan Isaac's deflating ACL tear, I might've given them a puncher's chance of stealing a game based on their defensive upside, and the possibility of a healthy Isaac making life somewhat difficult for Giannis Antetokounmpo. But no more than one game, because I don't remotely trust Orlando's post-All-Star scoring surge (which we've already seen regress in the bubble) to continue in a series against the Bucks' ironclad defense.
The Magic went 5-30 against teams with winning records this season. Their off-the-dribble shot creation is limited, and they rely heavily on Nikola Vucevic's interior scoring, which isn't something they can rely on against the Bucks. Vooch averaged 5.7 paint shots in the season series, compared to 9.5 against all other teams.
With Isaac out, Orlando doesn't have the horses to score on or defend Milwaukee. And that's without even mentioning the hamstring injury that may limit or sideline Aaron Gordon. Add it all up, and you have the recipe for a sweep.
Casciaro: Bucks in four
There's not much more to expand on here. With Isaac sidelined and Gordon limited - if not out completely - there's no one on the Magic to even bother Antetokounmpo.
Offensively, Orlando will struggle to generate clean looks against Milwaukee's rim-protecting defense with the little firepower the Magic do possess, and they don't have the shooting or pull-up creation to score in other ways.
This can, and likely will, get ugly.
Wolfond: Terrence Ross
I'll use this as an opportunity to give Ross some love for his finish to the season. He averaged 19.1 points while shooting 43% on 8.6 3-pointers per game over Orlando's final 15 contests, playing a huge role in the team's offensive turnaround. With his quick trigger and lack of conscience from beyond the arc, he'll be a necessary antidote to the Bucks' paint-packing defense, and he can get hot enough to swing a game. Just try to ignore his career 47.7% true-shooting mark in the playoffs.
Casciaro: Aaron Gordon's health
Playoff series are about matchups, but they're also about forcing opponents to prepare and game plan for the multiple problems your team can cause. Already without Isaac, there aren't nearly enough Magic players with the offensive talent to make Milwaukee sweat. Gordon, if healthy, will force opposing teams to account for him.
Then again, perhaps I'm grasping at straws here. In four games against Milwaukee this season, Gordon averaged 8.3 points on less than 25% shooting.
No. 4 Pacers (45-28) vs. No. 5 Heat (44-29)
Wolfond: Heat in six
On paper, there isn't a significant talent disparity here, but this matchup has given Indiana fits. Excluding the teams' meaningless final meeting in which both squads rested starters, Miami swept the season series, winning by an average margin of 12.3 points. One reason for that is the Heat present the Pacers with a major math problem. Indiana ranks dead last in the NBA in both 3-point and free-throw attempt rate, while Miami ranks first in free-throw rate and seventh in 3-point rate.
There also aren't many offensive advantages for the Pacers to leverage. Victor Oladipo is a theoretical ace up their sleeve, but his downhill explosiveness hasn't completely returned, so the Heat should survive switching against him. T.J. Warren has become Indiana's go-to scorer, but Miami's cadre of long, physical wing defenders has held him in check all year.
Warren is also dealing with plantar fasciitis, though he's seemingly been able to play through it. The same injury forced Domantas Sabonis to leave the bubble. On top of everything Sabonis has meant to the Pacers' offense (especially their second unit), his absence takes away the team's most effective mid-post counter to Miami's zone defense.
I respect the ever-scrappy Pacers and what they've accomplished this season, but the Heat have Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, the two best players in the series. The Pacers are too banged up for their depth and scoring balance to make up for that.
Casciaro: Heat in five
That math problem you referenced is the big sticking point for me.
The Heat are simply the more talented team, with all due respect to Warren for his bubble breakout. So if Miami is also winning the offensive math battle, there isn't a path for Indiana to mitigate the sizeable difference in overall top-end quality.
A No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup between two gritty teams with a recent history of bad blood might trick some into thinking this should be a very competitive series. Each game could feature its fiery moments, but the Pacers will struggle to compile enough of those to win four contests.
Wolfond: Myles Turner
If the Pacers are going to swing the upset, they'll need something pretty special from Turner. He's Indiana's only high-end paint protector, and with Butler's scoring now entirely predicated on layups and free throws, Turner will need to meet him at the rim and try to deter his bulldozing drives without sending him to the stripe.
Turner has performed better this season with Sabonis off the court, with his usage rate jumping from 14.1% to 22.4%, and his true shooting from 55.3% to 58.2%. But the Pacers have been worse in that setup, partly due to a disastrous 46.5% rebound rate. The Heat, meanwhile, are one of the league's best rebounding teams.
Without Sabonis, Indiana can theoretically space the floor better for Warren, Oladipo, and Malcolm Brogdon. But for that to matter, Turner needs to commit to a few key things: boxing out, setting solid screens, pick-and-popping to 3-point range rather than long-2-point territory, and being at least a marginal threat posting up smaller players when Miami switches.
He's done those things sporadically this season. If he can do them consistently, the Pacers have a shot.
Casciaro: Victor Oladipo
Warren has been an underrated scorer for a few years now, and he deserves full credit for his performance in Orlando. But some of his recent success can be traced to unsustainable shooting on pretty tough shots. He could be in for a world of hurt in his first action against a postseason defense, especially if that postseason defense treats him like Indiana's biggest threat.
I'd like the Pacers' chances in this series more if Oladipo could recapture even a fraction of the explosiveness and star impact he exhibited before his nasty quad injury a year and a half ago. That would relegate Warren to a secondary or tertiary role.
Oladipo appeared to be rounding into form before the March shutdown. But after a nearly five-month layoff, and then questions about whether he would play that lingered right up to the Pacers' restart opener, it looks like the veteran has lost a step again in Orlando. Oladipo averaged 16 points on 40% shooting during the seeding games while recording more turnovers than assists.
No. 2 Raptors (53-19) vs. No. 7 Nets (35-37)
Casciaro: Raptors in four
We're all aware of Toronto's Game 1 demons, and maybe if the Raptors' opening-round opponent more closely resembled an NBA playoff team, we could get some jokes off here about Brooklyn winning a game in this series. But with all due respect to the Nets following their bubble success - a 5-3 record, including wins against Milwaukee and the Clippers - they don't have an NBA playoff roster.
With head coach Nick Nurse spending all his time and energy preparing to deploy Toronto's ruthless defense against an opponent led by Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, and Joe Harris, I struggle to imagine Brooklyn finding any advantages in this matchup.
If the Nets even keep this series competitive for a game or two, the organization should seriously consider removing the interim tag from coach Jacque Vaughn's title.
Wolfond: Raptors in five
I feel like I owe the Nets the dignity of a gentleman's sweep in this series after suggesting every non-Wizards team they faced in the bubble would pancake them.
It's very possible, of course, that the Raptors won't be as charitable. But given their overwhelming talent edge, I'm betting they'll succumb to the temptation to coast at some point, which could cost them a game against a team that's played as hard as any in Orlando.
There are factors besides effort that can swing one of these contests Brooklyn's way. The Nets move the ball well enough to beat some of Toronto's frenzied rotations, and they won't be shy about taking every last one of the open and semi-contested 3-point looks the Raptors' defensive scheme allows.
They won't give the Raptors a real scare, but the Nets are capable of being a mild annoyance.
Casciaro: Brooklyn's shooting
The Nets finished in the top five in 3-point attempt rate this season, but they ranked 25th in the percentage of 3-pointers made. Against a Raptors team that gives up a ton of 3-point looks - especially from the corners - Brooklyn knocking down the deep jumpers they're sure to let loose would go a long way toward keeping these games competitive.
Perhaps there's some faint hope to be found for the Nets in the surprisingly effective bubble lineup of LeVert, Harris, Allen, Garrett Temple, and Rodions Kurucs. When the Nets rolled with that five-man combination during seeding games, the team shot a ridiculous 54.2% from deep, helping to propel that quintet to a net rating of plus-18.2 per 100 possessions in 27 minutes together.
Numbers like that are unsustainable though, and a team at such a talent disadvantage will need the benefit of massive outliers and extreme variance.
Wolfond: Chris Chiozza
An odd quirk of the Raptors' undersized backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet is that, while those two excel at guarding bigger players, they often struggle to contain guys their own size. Because Lowry and VanVleet thrive more with strength and smarts than speed and length, quick waterbug point guards like J.J. Barea and Ish Smith can present problems for them at the point of attack.
So let's add the 5-foot-11 Chiozza to the pantheon of random, diminutive Raptors killers. He's definitely going off for 22 and 10 in a Game 1 Nets win.
Even though he hasn't shot the ball well and struggles to finish around the rim, Chiozza has impressed in the bubble with his speed, shifty ball-handling, and stylish passing. Brooklyn outscored opponents by eight points per 100 possessions with him on the floor during the seeding stage.
No. 3 Celtics (48-24) vs. No. 6 76ers (43-30)
Casciaro: Celtics in seven
Boston was six games better in the standings and enters the playoffs as a healthy, cohesive unit. Philadelphia is without one of its two All-Stars and has been a mess all season. And yet, I've got the Sixers pushing the Celtics to the limit. So what gives?
Two words: Joel Embiid.
The Celtics' one glaring weakness is a lack of interior size, and Embiid's presence leads to the biggest mismatch, which matters in the playoffs.
The Sixers also posted a net rating of plus-11.3 per 100 possessions in the 643 minutes Embiid logged without Ben Simmons this season, and the combination of Embiid, Al Horford, Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson, and Shake Milton was plus-17.8 per 100 possessions in 33 seeding-game minutes together. No East lineup combination was better.
Wolfond: Celtics in five
I agree that Embiid presents the biggest individual matchup advantage, but Boston is going to make this a pretty short series by overwhelming Philly with its collective advantages, the most significant being half-court shot creation.
Between Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward, the Celtics have the four best off-the-dribble creators in the series. I don't know how the Sixers will overcome that disparity, especially with Simmons' absence kneecapping their transition attack.
Their best bet will be to surround Embiid with four shooters and run everything through him in the post. Then to hope the combination of his scoring, the open looks he'll create for those shooters with passes out of double teams, the extra possessions he'll provide on the offensive glass, and his ability to put Daniel Theis in foul trouble can carry Philadelphia to an upset. The challenge for Philly will be surrounding Embiid with shooters without badly compromising its defense. I'm not sure that's possible.
The Sixers' half-court offense has looked more fluid without Simmons. But they'll really struggle to guard Boston without him. He would've been their best option to guard any of those Celtics playmakers, especially Tatum.
Unlike Philly, Boston can play lineups with no weak spots at either end of the court.
Casciaro: Philly's depth
Despite everything I waxed poetic about above, I still can't bring myself to pick Philly in this matchup, and it largely boils down to a lack of depth. We've seen the Sixers lose playoff series due to their horrendous performances in the few minutes Embiid rests, and I'd expect that to mostly continue here.
Matisse Thybulle's defense should come in handy against Tatum, Brown, Walker, or Hayward. But beyond the 3-and-D rookie, who else can you count on to bring consistent production off the Sixers' bench?
If two or more of Furkan Korkmaz, Mike Scott, Alec Burks, and Kyle O'Quinn can string together a solid two weeks, then Embiid's physical domination and Philly's defensive length could be enough to send the Celtics packing. But if they're only rolling five or six deep against a Celtics team that's incredibly sound overall, the Sixers will falter.
Wolfond: Matisse Thybulle
Among those Sixers depth pieces, Thybulle is by far the most important. I'm really curious to see whether the Sixers slide him into the starting lineup and bump Horford back to the bench. Without Simmons, Thybulle is easily Philly's best, and maybe only, viable option to defend Tatum.
Once upon a time, Horford might've handled the assignment for stretches, but he's not quick enough anymore to hang with an elite wing on the perimeter. Horford has looked more comfortable playing alongside Embiid in the bubble than he did pre-shutdown, and that partnership works better without Simmons on the floor. But I still prefer Horford as a backup center than as a starting power forward. Swapping him out for Thybulle would mean bumping Harris up to the four-spot (where he offers the most value), and matching Boston's smaller, wing-heavy lineups.
But that only works if Thybulle is ready to ball out in his playoff debut. He's defensively advanced for a first-year player, but still not impervious to rookie mistakes. He often relies on his physical tools to bail him out, and I'm not sure Tatum will let him get away with that.
And at the other end, you can bet the Celtics will treat Thybulle like a complete non-shooter and regularly leave him wide open in order to plug driving lanes, take away the roll man, and double-team Embiid in the post. Thybulle will need to prove his 3-point shooting can be a credible threat.
That's all asking a lot from him. He may rise to the challenge, or wind up looking out of his depth. I can't wait to watch it all unfold on his vlog.