In an ideal world, the NBA would be playing the second round of the postseason right now.
We don't know how the standings might have changed if the regular season continued. We don't know if we'll ever get to see a conclusion to the 2019-20 campaign. But in the spirit of what would've been the conference semifinals, we're breaking down the second-round playoff matchups that our hypothetical first-round predictions determined.
First up, the West semifinals.
I've maintained all season that the surprisingly competitive Thunder should ride their success rather than tearing things down. I believed they could compete with - and perhaps even beat - any non-Los Angeles team in the West playoffs.
Well, after upsetting the Jazz in our hypothetical first round, all roads now go through Los Angeles, and that spells the end of the road for Oklahoma City.
The Thunder were successful this season using a three-guard lineup featuring a resurgent Chris Paul, breakout star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and an improved two-way player in Dennis Schroder. Combined with Steven Adams' interior presence, the disruption those three guards provide allowed OKC to not only survive, but thrive defensively despite size limitations and the presence of Danilo Gallinari, an elite offensive player who struggles at the other end.
However, that lineup excelling against the Lakers is a much tougher task.
None of the Thunder's tough-minded guards possess the size to slow LeBron James, who could target Gallinari or Adams in pick-and-rolls. LeBron's Lakers would likely force the Thunder to turn to the more defensively capable Terrance Ferguson or Luguentz Dort in place of Schroder or Gallinari, which would then render OKC's offense nearly useless against an elite Lakers defense.
The performance of the Lakers' third-ranked defense caught many by surprise this season, but the results really shouldn't have been shocking. The team's blend of defensive personnel is impressively balanced.
Avery Bradley and Danny Green form a tremendous defensive duo on the perimeter, and they can take the pressure off James as needed while guarding the opposition's best wing player (depending on the size of that player). Meanwhile, Anthony Davis was likely on his way to a top-two finish in Defensive Player of the Year voting, and his ability to defend both in space and at the rim makes L.A. matchup proof. The presence of either Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee also ensures the Lakers could match the size of any team in the league.
James would cause trouble for Gallinari all series, and he could also help negate Paul's influence on games. Meanwhile, Davis would feast on both ends.
Beyond each team's stars, the Lakers are deeper. They'd also own home-court advantage, and would surely enter this hypothetical series with a notable edge in rest.
The Thunder enjoyed a fun and inspiring season, but the playoffs are about matchups, and it's tough to find a single advantage Oklahoma City could exploit.
Prediction: Lakers in 4 - Joseph Casciaro
The Nuggets' hopes would rest with Nikola Jokic, who would be able to eat against the Clippers' front line. The Clippers favor playing small with Montrezl Harrell at the five-spot, but Jokic might force them to lean on Ivica Zubac a bit more.
I'm just not sure how much help Jokic would realistically get in this series. I don't have much faith in Denver's perimeter corps, especially not when those guys are going up against Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Patrick Beverley.
The Nuggets' offense is motion-heavy, rife with cuts, handoffs and off-ball screening actions, so it's not like they'd just be getting bogged down in isolation. Denver would surely find ways to drag Los Angeles' weaker defenders into compromising situations. But the Clippers are talented enough to switch across every position and help and recover on a string when their best defensive lineups are on the floor. And unlike the Nuggets, the Clippers' best defensive lineups also pack a ton of offensive firepower.
Jokic can obviously do a ton of damage as an inside-out playmaker, but I don't envision Jamal Murray, Will Barton, or Gary Harris routinely breaking the Clippers' defense down at the point of attack. This might be a good series for Michael Malone to unshackle Michael Porter Jr., as he can give Denver a jolt of scoring, offensive rebounding, and general unpredictability.
I don't hate the Nuggets' defensive options on the wing, as from Paul Millsap to Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig, they have a few guys who can theoretically handle the assignment to defend either Leonard or George. Harris is their best perimeter defender, but he's too small for either assignment, which is partly what makes this matchup tricky for Denver.
Ultimately, the Nuggets would struggle to keep up in the scoring column. Rim protection is as much of a soft spot for Denver as it is for L.A., and the Clippers' top scorers are better at getting to the basket and exploiting that weakness than the Nuggets. Los Angeles simply plays with more physicality and force.
Though the teams' shot profiles look similar and both are stocked with good jump shooters, the free-throw rates reflect the difference in the offensive mentalities of the two clubs. The Clippers got to the line at the league's second-highest rate this season, while the Nuggets did so at the league's third-lowest rate. Maybe some of the flailing-induced whistles Lou Williams gets during the regular season would dry up in the playoffs, but there would still be scant hope of Denver keeping Leonard, Harrell, and George off the stripe.
It's really difficult for a squad like the Nuggets, deep and balanced and cohesive as they are, to overcome the kind of top-end talent deficit they'd be facing in this series. At both ends of the floor, the Clippers' eight-man rotation is flat-out better.
Prediction: Clippers in 5 - Joe Wolfond