2020 NBA Playoffs: Rise of the Underdogs in the Bubble

NBA Playoffs — It separates the best from the rest. The finest basketball played by the best players on the biggest teams. The cheer from the home crowd and the hostility of the away crowd. The intensity and the energy of the playoffs make it challenging to claim the biggest prize. A fight to win 16 matches in a gruelling best of 7 series against 4 tough opponents to call yourself a champion. Yet there are players and teams who live and shine at these games, not just once. We saw LeBron vs the rest for 8 straight seasons before he got injured last year. Kawhi took a challenge to upset a depleted Warriors last year in 2019 Finals. Nothing has been the same since, except for the fact that playoffs still offer the best version of this game. 2020 Playoffs has been an anomaly not from the standard of basketball but the performers who outshone themselves. Before we understand why this post-season has been the most exciting and unpredictable in the recent memory, let’s revisit the pre-season trade moves.

NBA was witnessing another shift in the power dynamics. Splash Brothers were injured and Kevin Durant joined Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn. In your face, Knicks! Warriors were no more a threat. LeBron clearing the locker room to get Anthony Davis on the same team. LeBron wanted another Big 3 with Kawhi in the West but Klaw had a different plan. Kawhi and Paul George joined forces with the Clippers, creating an in-house rivalry. King vs Klaw. Brow vs PG13. LA was back on the map. Russell Westbrook reunited with James Harden in H-Town bringing Chris Paul to OKC. Jimmy Butler moving to the South Beach leaving Philly at the mercy of a disintegrated Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Kemba Walker signed for Celtics bringing back the locker room harmony.

Regular season gave us nothing we didn’t expect. LeBron ruling the west with AD by his side and Greek Freak ruling the east with his army. Harden’s step-back 3 with Westbrook’s explosion at the rim. Kawhi, PG and the clippers firing on offence and defence with his usual load management. There were a few elements of surprise. Luka had an MVP calibre season averaging almost a triple-double making a noise with the Mavericks. Chris Paul with a young OKC breathing life in the team. Melo rediscovering his form with Dame Dolla and CJ in Portland. East had different energy this season. Miami played with heart and grit under Jimmy Butler. Toronto didn’t let the guard down as defending champions even in the absence of their finals MVP. Boston showed great team chemistry with Kemba, Taytum, Hayward, Brown, Smart.

Then came the curse of the COVID disrupting the regular season. NBA players getting infected and the result was a big hiatus or a question mark on the possibility of the closure of this season. Kudos to the front office for reaching a solution within a few months of playing in an isolated bubble in Orlando. Only the teams with the possibility of making the playoffs were invited. Basketball was back amidst a difference in opinion around the restart of the league. We got a few games to decide the playoffs seeding.

The bubble was a way different experience than any home or road game. No more travelling and no fans in the arena. You had virtual fans cheering from the comfort of their home. Yeah, it might look like gym practice or a scrimmage or pickup basketball. Not for the players, they still had everything to fight for with championship on the stake.

What did the 1st round of playoffs look like:
Western Conference: Lakers vs Trail Blazers. Jazz vs Nuggets. Clippers vs Mavericks. Thunder vs Rockets.
Eastern Conference: Bucks vs Magic. Heat vs Pacers. Raptors vs Nets. Celtics vs 76ers.

Everyone had the usual suspects moving into the second round. However, the road was easy for some compared to others. Let’s break it series by series.

Toronto Raptors vs Brooklyn Nets: Raptors played more like a team this season under the Coach of the Year Nick Nurse without depending on any superstar. Not out of choice to be precise. Nets also lacked star power with KD and Kyrie out for the season. Championship experience of Kyle Lowry, VanVleet, Ibaka, Powell, Most Improved Player of the last season, Spicy P, Pascal Siakam helped them cruise to the second round with a clean sweep of the Brooklyn Nets. But keep an eye out for this Brooklyn team next season with the return of the superstar duo.

Boston Celtics vs Philadelphia 76ers: With Ben Simmons sitting out the series due to a knee injury, Joel Embiid had his hands full against a talented Celtics squad. It proved a load too heavy for Joel to carry them past the finish line for even a single game. Taytum, Kemba and Brown averaging over 20 points to sweep the 76ers. Head Coach Brett Brown was fired after an early exit to end another disappointing season. Philly has their work cut out for the next season, Ben needs to shoot the ball and Joel needs to post up instead of shooting jumpers.

Milwaukee Bucks vs Orlando Magic: Even though they played near Orlando, Magic didn’t feel at home against the Bucks in the series. Giannis continued tormenting the defence by averaging 30 points and 16 rebounds. Not bad for the MVP frontrunner for the second consecutive season. Nikola Vučević with his 28 points per game and 11 boards per game caused a hiccup for Bucks in the first game. But the favourites in the East came through with a gentleman’s sweep showing the “home” team the way out of the bubble.

Miami Heat vs Indiana Pacers: Remember the TJ Warren and Jimmy scuffle in the regular season. Butler yelling “You’re fucking trash” followed by Warren’s reply “I’ll beat your fucking ass” and Butler blowing kisses to Warren who got ejected. Jimmy also said in his post-game comments that Warren is too soft and no coach in his right mind should put Warren to guard him. Warren was posting insane numbers in the bubble before playoff — 34.8 points, 60.5 per cent shooting, 55.6 per cent from beyond the arc, and 88.9 per cent free-throw shooting. But come the playoff time, neither he nor Pacers could handle the heat. Get it, wordplay, nope, okay. Injured Sabonis out of the squad and unfit Oladipo in the starting five didn’t help Pacer’s cause either. Jimmy had the last laugh with by sweeping the Pacers.

Los Angeles Lakers vs Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard was shooting lights out to qualify the Blazers as 8th seed. His last 4 games: 51 against 76ers, 61 against Mavs, 42 against Nets and 31 against Grizzlies. But they needed more of this if to get past the Lakers. Lillard didn’t disappoint by making shots from the logo. He makes a 30+ foot jumper look easier than a free throw for god’s sake. Sir Charles Barkley brought out a broom guaranteeing a sweep after Portland’s 1st game win against Lakers. It was enough motivation for AD and LeBron to go bonkers. King was back with a bang averaging a triple-double in the series with 60% FG percentage and 46% behind the 3-point line. Anthony Davis was just warming up with 29 points and 9 boards. Yeah, Chuck, the sweep did happen but the other way round. A gentleman’s sweep.

Los Angeles Clippers vs Dallas Mavericks: Mavs were the dark horses against the Clippers. You had Luka Doncic, a badass white boy reminiscing a young Magic Johnson. He might not have the strength and agility but controls the game at his own pace on his day. Luka showed promise in his first playoff series with buzzer-beater and 40 point games but Clippers’ defence was a tough matchup for Mavs. Luka’s 31–9–8 to go with Porzingis’ 23–8 proved inconsequential against the reigning finals MVP Kawhi’s 32–10 to go with 2 steals. Playoff P was struggling but recovered towards the latter half of the series to assist his partner in crime. One step closer to all LA showdown.

Houston Rockets vs Oklahoma City Thunder: No one predicted this series to go the distance considering The Beard’s MVP calibre season averaging 34 points per game. OKC was a revelation this season under Chris Paul with Dennis Schröder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. A veteran general in command leading young soldiers on the battlefront. Harden’s critics were looking to scathe his reputation with OKC levelling the series 3–3. Westbrook returned for last 3 games but didn’t contribute much. It all came to the last second of Game 7. A clutch defensive play by Harden to go along with his 29 points and 6 rebounds throughout the series won it for the Rockets. Yeah, you heard it right, Harden blocked a shot.

Utah Jazz vs Denver Nuggets: This was the best series of the 1st round. There wasn’t a clear favourite considering a perfect matchup between the two best players on both the teams. Donovan Mitchell vs Jamal Murray. The Stifle Tower, Rudy Gobert vs The Joker, Nikola Jokic. Jazz took a 3–1 lead despite losing the first game on the heroics of Donovan’s 57 and 51 point performances to go with a 30. But it isn’t over till the fat lady sings. Jamal Murray took charge with a 42 and 50 point performances of his own to level series up at 3-all. This topsy-turvy series came down to a Game 7 final shot missed by Mike Conley to complete a remarkable comeback by Nuggets. Only the 12th instance of a come back from a 3–1 deficit in NBA postseason history. Nuggets’ two-man game with Jokic’s 26–8–5 and Murray’s 31–5–6 decided the series. A valiant effort by Jazz, with Donovan’s 36–5–4 and Gobert’s 16–11.

On to the Conference Semi-Finals
Western Conference: Lakers vs Rockets. Clippers vs Nuggets.
Eastern Conference: Heat vs Bucks. Raptors vs Celtics.

Los Angeles Lakers vs Houston Rockets: Everyone knew Rockets were doomed with their small-ball against the size of Lakers. Underwhelming performance against the OKC wasn’t a morale booster either. Yet Rockets could seize Game 1 with Harden and Westbrook’s exploits against all the odds. It was a wake-up call for LeBron and what followed was an offensive onslaught by Lakers. Harden and the company had no answer for LeBron’s pickup and roll, AD’s rim dominance on both the ends and Rondo’s cheeky passes. Lakers’ role players outplayed their counterpart. AD’s 25–12 with LBJ’s 25–10–7 with 2 steals sealed the deal with another gentleman’s sweep by the Lakers in the playoff. Westbrook left OKC but the horrors followed. He even got posterized by LeBron. D’Antoni announced that he would not return as the head coach for the Rockets next season after another shortcoming in the playoffs.

Toronto Raptors vs Boston Celtics: This was another evenly matched series. Boston were clear favourites with the talent of their roster. But as the defending champions with a combined team effort throughout the regular season, Raptors were not to be underestimated. Celtics took a 2–0 lead and were about to make it 3–0 if not for the buzzer-beater by OG Anunoby. Raptors could smell blood and took Game 4 to level the series with the heroics of Lowry, VanVleet, Ibaka and Spicy P. Celtics blew them out in Game 5 to take a 3–2 lead. Kyle Lowry wasn’t ready to pack his bag yet and scored a crucial 33 in Game 6. However, Boston played crucial defence in the dying moments of Game 7 to oust the defending champions. Regardless, Boston knew the uphill task they had in front of them in the conference finals.

Now before we talk about the remaining series, let’s address the narratives from the regular season. “Kawhi is the best player in the world”. “Giannis will come out of the east and win the championship”. “Kawhi is a better clutch player than Kobe”. “Kawhi is the closest to Jordan”. “Clippers are the best team in the league”. “Kawhi will win it against the LeBron in the conference finals to show everyone who is the best player”. Analysts, pundits, former legends couldn’t get enough of such predictions during the entire year. Oooh, how it was all about to change.

Miami Heat vs Milwaukee Bucks: Bucks were expected to steamroll the East and reach the finals after 36 years. Best NBA record in the regular season. Giannis crowned MVP for the second consecutive season and Defensive Player of the Year. The only player to do so since Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan. Not a bad company at all. 2019 playoff series against Raptors exposed a weakness in Giannis and the Bucks. You cannot just pass him the ball always and expect him to run over the defence like the regular season. As the best players do, they overcome their weakness to be a better version of themselves. Miami Heat put up a defensive masterclass exposing the same weakness again.

Heat could also match the Bucks in size. Bam Adebayo with his prowess at the basket, Dragic’s gameplay, Jimmy Buckets and the Splash Brothers in the East- Robinson and Herro. Before the Bucks could gather themselves up, Heat were 3–0 up in the series. Bucks were heading for an embarrassing exit with a probable whitewash in Game 4 when Giannis returned to the locker room midway succumbing to an injury. The rest of the team put up an inspiring last stand to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat. A mountain to climb in the absence of their leader Game 5. Heat slew the giants to complete a gentleman’s sweep and reach conference finals for the first time after 2014.

You thought this was an upset.

Los Angeles Clippers vs Denver Nuggets: Clippers’ team was full of dawgs. Two times final MVP, sixth man of the year in Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, Marcus Morris and Pat Bev’s defence, Playoff P, Doc Rivers as head coach. This team took a healthy Warriors to Game 6 last year without Kawhi and Paul George. Clippers took a commanding 3–1 lead. Nuggets surely had their bags packed for the airport. LA showdown finally. Wait, not so soon. What followed was the biggest collapse by a superstar and a team in NBA history. Rome wasn’t built in a day but it definitely burned in one

Jokic and Murray turned gears to upset the league favourites. Jokic looked like a giant in the post fiddling with the kids around him. He had his way with Clippers’ defence like a master of the puppets. Murray could slip past the defence like butter through the fingers to score at will with jumpers and layup. Millsap, Grant, Porter Jr. just piled up the misery. If Nuggets were that good, Clippers were nothing short of terrible.

Clippers blew a double-digit lead in Games 5, 6 and 7 allowing Nuggets to complete another comeback from a 3–1 deficit in the same postseason. But this isn’t the only Déjà vu. Clippers blow another 3–1 lead after 2015 against the Rockets and Doc Rivers blew a 3–1 lead as a head coach for the 3rd time. No wonder they have never reached the conference finals. Kawhi and PG scored 10/38 from the field in Game 7. The icing on the cake: 0 points in the 4th quarter. Jamal Murray outscored Kawhi, PG and Lou Williams combined. Nothing more than fraudulent frontrunners. The dawgs who could just bark and not bite.

Playoff P had the audacity to say it wasn’t a championship or bust season. Ask Steve Ballmer about that. He gave up first-round picks for years to come for you to utter such blasphemy. Kawhi, please shut down the New Balance commercials calling out LeBron. For the first time you were asked to lead a team you fell faster than a house of cards. What good is load management in the regular season just to make it past the first round? And Pat Bev: 1, 2, 3 Cancun. Dame Dolla is waiting for you. Doc Rivers became the scapegoat and lost his head coach job. His championship pedigree landed him in Philly as 76ers Head Coach for the next season.

Off to the Conference Finals. Miami vs Celtics. Lakers vs Nuggets.

Miami Heat vs Boston Celtics: Talent vs Grit. Future superstars facing each other. Butler vs Taytum. Dragic vs Hayward. Bam Adebayo vs Marcus Smart. Walker vs Herro. Kemba vs Robinson. Erik Spoelstra is a tactical genius. He implemented zone defence in a conference final against a loaded Celtics team. A strategy used generally by college basketball teams. Should be easy to overcome by the Celtics? Yet they were looking out for each and every player to leave a mark rather than finding the right player at the moment. Tatum scored a three, so now Hayward or Kemba should score. It might have worked so far but not against Miami defence. Find the right player, everyone will eventually get their opportunities.

That block by Bam on Tatum in Game 1 drew a comparison to LeBron’s block on Iguodala in 2016 Finals Game 7. Butler’s defensive plays in Game 2. Tyler “Hero” with a 37 point performance in Game 4. Bam’s monstrous 32 in Game 6. Heat were back in the Finals for the first time post-Lebron era. They would be relishing the possibility of facing him in the finals.

Denver Nuggets vs Los Angeles Lakers: Nuggets coach Mike Malone jokingly made a petition to start the series 3–1 down considering their track record. Nuggets had nothing left in the tank coming into this series. Jokic had Dwight and AD breathing down his neck. James made it his mission to guard Jamal Murray. AD with 37 in Game 1 and a buzzer-beater in Game 2 to add to his 31 gave Lakers 2–0 lead. AD yelled out Kobe after the Game 2 winner in Black Mamba jersey. No better way to pay your respect. They haven’t lost in that kit so far. He is looking out for this team from the heaven above and they are chasing the chip in his honour down below.

Lakers continued the same dominance on both sides of the court. What’s the main difference between the Lakers and any other team in the bubble? They have 3 head coaches at any time on the court. Confused? LeBron and Rondo with their playoff experience can dictate the play on the court like none. Playoff Rondo is like that kid who chills during the regular classes but somehow tops the examination. He is just that smart. A triple-double by LBJ in Game 3 and Game 5 with AD’s 34 in Game 4 took Lakers to the finals after 10 years. LeBron kept his promise of taking AD to the finals and AD is repaying with a performance worthy of finals MVP. Commiserations to the Nuggets for a well-fought season.

What more do you say about LeBron? 4th player with 10 Finals appearances. 9th Final appearance in 10 years. Most all-time playoff points and playoff wins. It’s his world and everyone is just living in it. You did not crown him the best player in the world on account of the regular season. He couldn’t care less because he has his eye on the bigger prize.

LA vs Miami. If only this would not have been happening in a bubble. Pat Riley would have been sipping cocktails on the south beach if not for LeBron deciding to come back home. It fueled a fire buried deep beneath to seek a championship. The moment is finally here but he faces a familiar foe as a three-headed monster of LeBron- AD-Rondo. Even with the third-best win record in the playoffs, Spoelstra will have to move mountains and rivers to tackle his former player.

Lakers won the first game of the finals on the back of AD’s 34. Heat had no answer for AD’s post-up moves. Bam and Dragic went out of the game injuring themselves and making it doubtful for Game 2. With a depleted squad, AD rained hellfire with a 32 on 75% field goal shooting. LeBron wasn’t behind in dominating the paint with his 33. These two are so selfless that they might give up the finals MVP for each other. Rondo being himself, chipped in with 16 points and 10 dimes. KCP, Danny Green, Caruso, Kuzma helped Lakers outscore Heat in 3 pointers made in both the games. Heat simply can’t match the physicality.

In the blink of an eye, Lakers find themselves 2–0 up with everyone calling this a sweep. People called it a red carpet walk to the championship for LeBron after Clippers’ failure. The result might seem inevitable but it’s not over ’til it’s over. We can hold on to the crowning of the king and him reclaiming the throne. The bubble is the toughest place to win a championship being away from the family and the fans. With social justice issues prevailing across, players have suffered a huge emotional turmoil. No matter the end result, you cannot put an asterisk against this season’s winner. For they are fighting the toughest battle they could to win it all regardless of the circumstances. We respect you for upholding the passion and spirit of the game to provide a championship-worthy spectacle.

2020 NBA Finals continue with Game 3 at Sunday 9 PM ET.

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Aditya Agrawal

A sports fanatic who would like to discuss anything and everything on sports. Trying to express my views through my blogs.