The NBA playoffs are finally here. Months of no basketball had many of us fans starved for any thing we could get but the NBA has provided what might be one of the most exciting season of basketball ever. The whole dynamic changed in the bubble. All of the teams were playing like playoffs had already begun and there were surprises in every game.

Despite a perfect record in the bubble, the Phoenix Suns did not make it to playoffs. The Portland Trailblazers and Memphis Grizzlies battled it out for 8th seed, with Portland ultimately advancing. The number one seeded teams, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks, were less impressive than expected, both having more losses than wins. Players, such as TJ Warren and Michael Porter Jr. who weren’t referred to as “stars” before the bubble, thrived in the environment. The “Greek Freak” head-butted Moe Wagner and was suspended for a game. To say the bubble has been exciting is an understatement.

Now the regular season has ended and we have our playoff matches set! The Eastern Conference games seem a little more predictable than the Western Conference, where team’s seeding was incredibly close all season. Here is a look into the first round match ups.

Eastern Conference

Despite the Bucks losing record in the bubble, the Magic can expect to meet a frustrated, Playoff Giannis. The Bucks defense was lacking during seeding games and would be the only cause for concern for Milwaukee. Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier are Orlandos main scorers and will be need to be guarded well. The Magic will be playing without Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon is questionable.

The Reigning NBA Champions have had a great season, despite losing star Kawhi Leonard in the off-season. Even with that, the team actually improved in his absence. Perhaps the most balanced team in the league, the Raptors have improved both their offense and defense. Although Brooklyn will be completely short handed due to injuries and Covid, they have played well in the bubble, mostly relying on Caris Levert, Jarret Allen and Joe Harris. Their biggest downfall was on the defensive end. If Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, Fred VanFleet and Pascal Siakam’s shots are falling, the Raptors can take the win.

The 76ers unfortunately will be playing without Ben Simmons. Without relying on his scoring, Tobias Harris and Al Horford will have to step up with their shots. The team hasn’t had enough time to perfect their line up without Simmons but as long as Joel Embiid’s injured hand will allow him to play, there is a chance. Boston has a solid line up with Kemba Walkers minutes restriction being lifted.

This match up should be fun to watch. Jimmy Butler has fit in perfectly in Miami. Derrick Jones Jr. will be re-evaluated this weekend after suffering a neck strain days ago. The Pacers have had bubble breakout star TJ Warren sitting out due to plantar fasciitis but is expected to play game 1. Domantas Sabonis is out with the same injury but a more severe case. Although most fans are excited to see Butler and Warren battle it out, because of their recent beef, both players seem to be focused on just playing the best ball they can.

Western Conference

This match up was the most anticipated because up until Saturday, the 8th seed could have been a number of teams. Portland won the first ever play in game against the Memphis Grizzlies, securing their spot in the playoffs. The Trail Blazers have been on fire in the bubble, specifically Damian Lillard, who was named the Bubble MVP. Multiple 50+ point games in quick succession earned him this title, while the Lakers were held to under 100 points in multiple seeding games. Perhaps there was no real urgency to win, due to the Lakers clinching the 1st seed. LeBron and Davis will need to shut down Lillard’s explosive scoring. This match up is going to be fun to watch.

This is simply defense vs. offense. The Clippers have one of the best defensive teams in the league and the Mavericks, going into the bubble, were the best offensive team. Kawhi, Paul George and Lou Williams are proficient shooters on top of their defensive skills as a team. Luka Doncic seems to get a new triple double so often, it’s just expected now. The Mavericks also have size on their side with Kristaps Porzingis and Boban.

The Nuggets star Nikola Jokic has dominated the Jazz this regular season. If Rudy Gobert is able to defend Jokic and the Nuggets are unable to slow down Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz have a chance. What was unexpected going into the bubble was the rise of Michael Porter Jr. Porter averaged 22 points in the bubble and will likely be starting for Denver. Torrey Craig will be given the task of defending Mitchell, as it’s unknown if Gary Harris or Will Barton III will be back in time for the series. Craig has had success against Mitchell in the regular season.

In what might be the most ironic turn of events, there are two stars playing their former teams in this first round. Although he is expected to miss a few games with a strained right quad, Russell Westbrook will be playing his former teammates. Chris Paul was traded for Westbrook and mostly written off by the media in the off season. CP3 went on to turn a young team into a playoff contender. The Rockets will be sticking to their small ball formula, that mostly works when Westbrook is available to drive to the rim. With Brody out initially, Houston will need to rely on its sharp shooters, James Harden, Ben Mclemore, Eric Gordon to score. Rebounds will be essential, an area where the Rockets often lack.

The games in the bubble have been unpredictable and exciting. With no home court advantage and no fans in attendance, anything could happen. These games will be just about basketball and who is truly the best team.

Photo Credit: GCSN

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