(1) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (8) Orlando Magic
The Milwaukee Bucks cruised to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, but they did not have a great performance in the seeding games in the NBA bubble at Walt Disney World—not that they needed to, however. The Bucks lost four of their final five games prior to the season being paused in March, and they went 3-5 in the restart (many of those games came as they rested key starters Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Brook Lopez. But there's no denying that the Bucks dominated much of the regular season, which earned them the top playoff spot. Now the goal for the Bucks is to improve upon last year's playoff performance, which ended in the Eastern Conference Finals with a loss to Toronto. Before Milwaukee can get there, they need to take care of business in the first round against the Orlando Magic.
The Magic were on a roll prior to the pause in the season, winning six of nine in March and then winning the first two games of the restart. But after losing Jonathan Isaac with a torn ACL, Aaron Gordon (hamstring), and Terrence Ross (quarantine after leaving the bubble), the Magic lost five in a row before finishing the seeding games with a win over New Orleans. Gordon practiced on Sunday and is expected to return for Game 1 on Tuesday. The Magic also were one of the league's best defensive teams during the regular season, but they allowed more than their average of 108.3 points per game in six of the eight seeding games (they allowed 108 in each of the other two).
Milwaukee swept the season series between the two teams, 4-0 (covering the spread in three of those), with the average margin of victory being 17 points. Gordon has done a decent job of defending Antetokounmpo in the past, but the Magic need to be playing at their absolute best to have a chance in this series, and they haven't done so over the past two weeks. The Bucks are also averaging 11 more points and seven more rebounds per game than Orlando. Interestingly, while each team went over the over-under total more frequently than they went under in the seeding games, the total went under in all four matchups this season and in seven of the last 10 head-to-head contests.
Prediction: A series like this generally sees the underdog with a chance to win a home game, but with all games on a neutral court, it gives the talent a better chance to shine. The Magic have some weapons in Gordon, Evan Fournier, and Nikola Vucevic, but the Bucks are clearly the better team. Bucks in 4.
(4) Indiana Pacers vs. (5) Miami Heat
The Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat both overachieved this season, earning the fourth and fifth spots in the Eastern Conference, respectively. The Pacers lost Victor Oladipo, Jeremy Lamb, and Malcom Brogdon all to serious injuries. The three are ready for the playoffs, but Indiana will be without big man Domantas Sabonis. T.J. Warren, who was third in the league in scoring (31.0 points per game) in the eight games in the bubble in Orlando, FL, is dealing with plantar fasciitis and is planning to battle through it in this series, but his effectiveness is in question. The Pacers also went 6-2 in the seeding games during the restart.
Miami was unstoppable at home this season, going 27-5 at the American Airlines Arena until the shutdown in March. They went 3-5 in the bubble but did defeat playoff teams Denver, Boston, and first-round opponent Indiana. Jimmy Butler led the team with 19.9 points per game, but the Heat have good balance—seven players averaged in double-figures. Miami is also good at shooting the 3-pointer and led the league in free-throw rate.
The Heat did take three of four head-to-head matchups this season, and the Pacers' lone win game in the final game of the seeding games where each team's playoff positioning was locked in and many starters didn't play. The teams split the matchups against the spread and as far as the over-under is concerned.
Prediction: Both teams are deep and well-equipped for playoff success. The regular season success by Miami and the fact that the Heat are the healthier team should give them enough of an advantage to advance. Heat in 7.
(3) Boston Celtics vs. (6) Philadelphia 76ers
Two of the Eastern Conference's legendary franchises meet in the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs inside the league's bubble at Walt Disney World. In fact, this will be the 21st postseason meeting between the clubs, which is the most in NBA history. The Celtics were consistent all season and earned the No. 3 seed in the playoffs. Philadelphia, as so often has happened in this era, suffered several injuries and will be without All-Star Ben Simmons for the entirety of the playoffs due to a knee injury.
The Sixers showed their potential last season when they took eventual NBA champ Toronto to the limit in the second round—if you recall, Kawhi Leonard hit one of the most dramatic buzzer-beaters in playoff history, as his jumper clanged around the iron and backboard several times before dropping in to give the Raptors the series win in the seventh game. The 76ers had the biggest disparity between home wins and road losses this season, but that doesn't matter now since all games will be played on a neutral court with no fans present. Even without Simmons, Joel Embiid will still be a force in this series, and the Sixers have had Tobias Harris step up when they've been shorthanded this season, including in the bubble where he averaged 21.7 points over the eight seeding games.
The Celtics underachieved in a second-round loss in five games to Milwaukee last season. Kyrie Irving was sent packing, but the emergence of Jaysom Tatum this season has more than made up for the loss of Irving. Tatum averaged 22.4 points per game during the restart and 23.4 for the whole season, which was an eight-point improvement over 2018-19. Head coach Brad Stevens took his time getting Kemba Walker back up to speed in coming back from an injury around the All-Star break, and he's listed at full health now.
The teams met four times in the regular season—all before the hiatus—and Philly won and covered in three of those four games. The total went under the over-under number three out of four times as well. Despite the success earlier the season, the Sixers are only 5-12 against the spread in their last 17 games with the Celtics.
In concerning news for the Sixers, Simmons was the one who guarded Tatum the most in regular season matchups, so they will have to come up with a new defensive plan to hold Boston's leading scorer.
Prediction: Philly will be competitive, but one star won't be able to beat a complete team on both ends of the floor like Boston. Celtics in 6.
(2) Toronto Raptors vs. (7) Brooklyn Nets
The defending NBA champion Toronto Raptors were without Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, but it didn't seem to bother them much in the regular season, locking up the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference just like they did a year ago. Given the injuries that Brooklyn dealt with, it's quite surprising to see them in this position.
The Nets have been without Kevin Durant all year, which was expected from when he signed with the Nets given that he tore his Achilles tendon while with Golden State during last year's NBA Finals. Kyrie Irving, the other big acquisition by Brooklyn last offseason, was injured prior to the pause in play in March and didn't accompany the Nets to the bubble in Orlando, FL. DeAndre Jordan and Spencer Dinwiddie also were key contributors who opted out of the NBA restart. On top of all that, the Nets fired head coach Kenny Atkinson just days before the stoppage in play. He was replaced by Jacque Vaughn, who—after a forgettable stint as head coach of the Orlando Magic almost a decade ago—fared admirably in the role, going 7-3 between games in March and in the bubble this summer. Caris LeVert has turned into the go-to option for the Nets; he averaged 18.7 points per game this season but contributed 25.0 points per game in the eight seeding games.
Toronto had an uneventful regular season—they just kept up their winning ways. Toronto has several ways they can beat you with their solid core that includes Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and Serge Ibaka. The Raptors, who had a franchise best 15-game winning streak earlier this season, went 7-1 in the restart and come into the playoffs fully healthy.
Coincidentally, Toronto's 15-game winning streak was snapped by Brooklyn. That was the Nets' only win in four head-to-head matchups this season, but they did cover the spread in two of those. The over-under also went each way twice. The Raptors have won eight of the last 10 head-to-head meetings. Both teams have played well against the spread recently, each going 7-3 ATS in their last 10 overall.
Despite losing that game to the Nets, Toronto was 37-4 against teams with losing records this season (Brooklyn was 35-37). Toronto also led the league in scoring defense, allowing only 106.5 points per game. The league's scoring average was 110 points this season, so if the Raptors play up to their potential on defense, they will only need to be average offensively to win, and their offense is generally well above average.
Prediction: Raptors in 4.