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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

NBA bubble begins playoffs

After long delay, the NBA playoffs begin with no true favorite

With no meaningful basketball games played for 141 days, the NBA made its successful return on July 30. After months of uncertainty and doubt, the comeback plan included 22 teams staying at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. Among the precautions taken due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the NBA created “The Bubble,” where these teams will stay until they are eliminated and their season comes to an end. There, the players are tested regularly, provided meals, entertainment and much more as they try to finish their season that came to a sudden stop back in March.

Each team played eight initial games in the bubble to complete the regular season. These eight games were valuable for teams fighting for a playoff spot and that especially rang true for the Portland Trail Blazers. Entering the bubble three and a half games back from the No. 8 seed, the Blazers finished the restart with a 6-2 record, secured the No. 8 seed and beat the Memphis Grizzlies in a play-in game to make the playoffs. Led by superstar Damian Lillard, the Blazers are entering the Western Conference playoffs scorching hot and will prove to be a difficult challenge for the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers. 

After a nail-biting win in their first game against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Lakers were lackluster to finish off the regular season. They went 3-5 in their eight games after the restart, but having locked in the No. 1 seed early, the Lakers seemed to take the regular season on cruise control and finished with a 52-19 record. Their rival and potential Western Conference opponent, the Clippers, finished with a 5-3 record. Despite beginning the restart with a depleted roster, they showed promise towards the end as they prepared to face the No. 7 seed Dallas Mavericks and their rising star in Luka Doncic. 

Aside from the Trailblazers taking the No. 8 seed in the West, there were no major shifts in seeding. It was nearly impossible to cover ground in only eight games. Nonetheless, the games have proven to be exciting, and with no home-court advantage, each series has the possibility of upsets. 

An intriguing matchup between the No. 3 seed Denver Nuggets and No. 6 seed Utah Jazz has many struggling to pick a winner. Although the Nuggets are the superior team on paper, both teams match up nicely, which could lead to an exciting series that goes the distance. 

The final Western Conference matchup includes two teams with familiar faces. The No. 4 seed Houston Rockets square off against the surprise of the year, the No. 5 seed Oklahoma City Thunder. The Rockets came into the season as a serious contender after acquiring former MVP Russell Westbrook to pair with their MVP, James Harden. The tandem reunited after beginning their careers together in none other than Oklahoma City. After cleaning house by trading Westbrook and co-star Paul George, the Thunder were seen as a rebuilding team who would most likely be competing for the number one pick in the NBA draft. They overcame all doubts and made the playoffs, led by Chris Paul in his bounceback season. The series will almost surely be interesting as there is a lot of background and storylines between these two teams.

On the flip side, the Eastern Conference seeding stayed exactly the same as it was when it began. There was no movement between any of the eight teams and although the Milwuakee Bucks finished with the No. 1 seed at 56-17, the East is as open as ever. Looking to make their first NBA Finals in 46 years, the Bucks will begin their journey against the No. 8 seed Orlando Magic. Led by reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks are favored to win the East. Although they have had their fair share of postseason struggles in recent years, Giannis and the Bucks hope to change that this year, as they try to take the Eastern Conference crown from the reigning champions, the Toronto Raptors. 

After losing superstar Kawhi Leonard in free agency, many doubted whether the Raptors could even be half as good without him. They proved everyone wrong as they finished as the No. 2 seed, showing their talent and depth was enough to lead the way. Their opponent, the Brooklyn Nets, came limping into the playoffs, having entered the bubble missing six of their key players. To the surprise of many, however, they finished the regular season with a solid record of 5-3. While the Nets may not win the championship this year, their fans are not worried, as they still have superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, two of the best players in the NBA, waiting to come back from injuries next season.

The Boston Celtics face off against the Philadelphia 76ers, rekindling their rivalry from years past. Both teams come in looking different, but the Celtics are confident about their young wing duo: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Many fans are excited to see Tatum and Brown grow into legitimate NBA stars this season. The young Celtics team will look to get back to the NBA Finals after a 10 year absence. Upon entering this season, the Sixers were viewed as one of the favorites. A lack of shooting and depth, however, coupled with controversy has derailed a once promising season. On top of that, they lost All-Star Ben Simmons to a partially dislocated kneecap—another crushing blow. While all hope is not lost, they will have to rely on Joel Embiid, the All-Star center, to lead them to an upset.

The final matchup in the East includes two similar teams, the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers. Both squads are built on elite depth, great shooters and strong defense. The one factor that prevents them from being legitimate contenders is the fact that neither has a superstar to depend on. It has been long believed that in the NBA, one must have at least one superstar in order to win a championship. Although both the Heat and Pacers have very good stars in Jimmy Butler and Victor Oladipo respectively, neither are seen as superstars, which is why this matchup is intriguing for many hardcore NBA fans. Despite it not being a flashy matchup, it is sure to deliver as one of the best and closest series in the first round. 

For the first time in years, the NBA championship feels as wide open as ever. Compared to years past, this season has great teams, but there is also a sense that anyone can be knocked out on any given night. There are two betting favorites heading into the playoffs with both the Bucks and Lakers at +225 according to Sports Insider. Not too far behind are the Clippers at +300. After them however, there is a sizable gap. The next favorite falls all the way at +1200 with the Celtics occupying the fourth spot. Although the gap between the third best and the rest of the pack looks large, that is not the reality of things. Each team in the playoffs has a weakness and if faced with the wrong matchup it could be exposed and lead to an elimination. 

The absence of fans is an equalizer, since the home-court advantage element of the game is thrown out the window. There will not be runs off the crowd’s energy or extra adrenaline due to the environment. It is simply basketball in an empty gym. Whom that benefits and whom it hurts has yet to be seen, but after a long delay, the NBA Playoffs in the Orlando Bubble seem to be one that we will be talking about for seasons to come. 

Written by: Omar Navarro — sports@theaggie.org


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