When the NBA announced its decision to bring a halt to the 2019-20 campaign, many wondered if the season would be wiped from the records. The announcement was made after Denver’s road game at Dallas had got underway. The Mavericks went on to win that game, 113-97, to improve Dallas’ record to 43-22 at the top of the Northwest Division, but the team’s hopes of playing in the playoffs for the second successive season looked to be over because of the suspension of sports from COVID-19. However, the NBA has managed to put together a plan to finish the 2019-20 season with plenty of caveats.
It was decided “Project Restart” would be a condensed schedule involving only the teams who had either secured a playoff spot or were battling for a spot when the campaign was halted. To ensure the safety of the players involved, all remaining games would be contested at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla., without fans. Players who do not feel comfortable playing in the current environment, for fear of being exposed to COVID-19, had the option to opt-out. The restart will feature 22 teams who will each play eight games to determine the postseason seedings. No team will have home-court advantage, although the Orlando Magic will technically be playing in their home city but not their home arena. The playoffs will follow the same conventional formula. So who has a chance of being crowned NBA champions?
The aforementioned Nuggets (+2500) will resume the season third in the Western Conference seedings behind the two Los Angeles teams. The Clippers (+333) are 5.5 games behind the Lakers (+240), who went into the lockdown period with the best record (49-14) of any team in the league. LeBron James has helped transform the Lakers from a team that lost 55 percent of their games last season to winning 78 percent of their games this campaign. The Jazz (+3300) round out the conference’s top four seeds.
The playoff picture in this conference is very complicated with 13 teams still involved. The Thunder and Rockets have already secured their playoff berths, which leaves seven teams battling it out for the remaining two spots. Right now, the Mavericks (+4000) only need a couple of wins to extend their campaign while current eighth seed Grizzlies (+25000) could drop out of the equation and be replaced by any of the chasing pack made up of the Trail Blazers (+15000), Pelicans (+12500), Kings (+50000), Spurs (+50000) and Suns (+50000), who are within six games of the eighth seed. That means there is no place in the tournament for the Golden State Warriors, who appeared in the past five NBA Finals, winning three of them. That successful team was dismantled with Kevin Durant (Brooklyn) and Andre Iguodala (Miami) moving on to new pastures while injuries to Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry meant the franchise got off to its worst start (4-16) to a season since 2000.
In the Eastern Conference, the playoff picture is much clearer. The defending champion Raptors (+2200), who won their last four games before lockdown, are very well placed to make another run to the finals despite losing their influential star Khawi Leonard during the offseason. Leonard, who joined the Clippers in a trade, could face his former team if destiny has a part to play in how the remainder of the season pans out. However, the Raptors were seeded second before the break, six-and-a-half games behind Bucks (+250) – the team they beat in last season’s conference finals. The Bucks are led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, who leads the team in points per game (29.6), assists (5.8) and rebounds (13.7) and are favorites to go one step further than they did last season. The Bucks often rewarded those who backed them to score 100-plus points per game, doing so in their opening 59 games, including their eight defeats. However, in their last six games before lockdown, they fell short of the century mark in three of them, which included four losses over their last five. Needless to say, the enforced suspension of the league may have come at a good time for the Bucks.
The Celtics (+2000) and Heat (+3000) will hope they can improve their seedings (third and fourth seeds respectively) when the action gets underway. The Pacers (+10000) and 76ers (+2800) have also secured their playoff places. The Wizards (+30000), currently ranked ninth, have their work cut out to make up the five-and-a-half games they are behind the No. 8 seed Magic (+30000). The Nets (+30000) can’t finish higher than seventh, but with a six-game advantage over the Wizards, they should have done enough to extend their season in Orlando. Should the Wizards finish the eight-game mini-season within four games of the team seeded eighth, then there will be a two-game playoff to determine the final team. The team ranked ninth will have to win both games to progress while their opponents will only have to win one of the two games.
Potential Finals Matchup
Right now, the smart money is on a showdown between LeBron James’ Lakers and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks. And what a showdown that would be. The “Greek Freak,” as Giannis is affectionately known worldwide, wants to be the face of the NBA, but to do that he has to dethrone three-time champion King James who is 10 years older than Milwaukee’s main man who is chasing his first championship ring. The three-month break has given James plenty of time to recharge his batteries and get ready for another assault on the NBA Finals. Both these two teams went into the lockdown with losses. The Bucks were on a three-game slide while the Lakers lost to Brooklyn in their last game on March 11. The Lakers and Bucks have met twice this season and the series is split with home-court advantage playing a big part. The Bucks won by seven points in Milwaukee before the Lakers won by 10 points in Los Angeles. With just eight games scheduled before the playoffs begin, all 22 teams need to hit the ground running. Teams that don’t, could find themselves watching the postseason at home and after spending three months in lockdown, that is the last thing they will want.
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