NBA Teams at the Bar: a Playoff Breakdown

Covid-19 shutdown nations around the world in late February and early March causing people to begin quarantining, self-isolating, social distancing, to wear masks. The business world and the sports world were shutdown along with the majority of society. Since then nations have slowly begun to reopen and sports have returned to varying degrees of success. The NBA has done a marvelous job in its return-to-play. The Orlando bubble has worked better than anyone could have hoped and the NBA playoffs are now set to begin. While the on-court product has been as good or better than we expected; one of the best parts of being a sports fan has not truly returned yet — watching games in a bar with a bunch of friends.

Whether you’ve been to the bar to watch sports or just to have a good time you can certainly recognize the many different types of people that come and go (i.e. “I’m only going for one drink guy”). Here’s who each of them would represent if they were teams in the 2019-2020 NBA Playoffs.

FORGOT MY WALLET AT HOMEMagic & Nets

Everyone has gone out to the bar with a group of friends and one friend — or possibly you — has realized they forgot their wallet when they have to present their ID at the door or at the bar counter and has to immediately turn in around and go home to get it. This person claims they’ll be back but once they realize the amount of time it will take to go home and back they inevitably just go home. The Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets are just these teams.

The Magic square off against the #1 seeded Milwaukee Bucks. They went 0-4 against them in the regular season and lost by double digits in each contest. The Magic have underwhelmed since the restart going 3-5 and failed to pass the Nets to get into the 7th seed despite the Nets missing nearly half their roster. Going into the restart Orlando was already not going to be a match for the Bucks but following injuries to Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba, Michael Carter-Williams, and Aaron Gordon they are severely hampered. Though Gordon is expected to play, the Isaac injury is particularly crushing as he is an elite defender and would’ve been able to cause Giannis some problems. Given Orlando’s struggles at the offensive end of the court and their injury issues, Milwaukee will have no problem sending Orlando home.

The Nets draw the Toronto Raptors — who just now people seem to realize they’re actually good — and though the Nets have been a nice story in the bubble and a frisky team; they’re in for a rough go of it. They went 5-3 in the bubble thanks to some standout performances from Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Jarrett Allen, and newly signed Tyler Johnson. LeVert is dynamic in isolation situations and is a capable distributor. Harris is elite three point shooter (42%) and has more off the dribble game than you’d think. Allen is legit rim protector who crashes the offensive glass hard; for the Nets to have any hope he will have to dominate the offensive glass to prevent the Raptors elite transition game. Johnson is a quality guard who is a nifty finisher in the paint and can get hot from three. Despite these bright spots the Nets don’t have much of chance, though Raptors might keep their yearly tradition of losing Game One’s. They went 1-3 in regular season against the Raptors but the roster looked a lot different then. The Nets have been fun in the bubble but they won’t be there for much longer.

STAY FOR ONE DRINK Sixers, Jazz, Pacers

After some coaxing, this guy has relented and agreed to come out to the bar to hangout. However, they are very clear that they will only be staying for one drink and will be heading home immediately thereafter. The Philadelphia 76ers, Utah Jazz, and Indiana Pacers are this guy.

No team has tantalized the NBA media like the Sixers have this season. A believed generational big man. A 6’11” point guard/power forward who is dynamic in transition and at the defensive end. A quality forward who can do a little bit of everything offensively. A rangy wing who is an above average defender and can shoot it and handle it well. A veteran big man who can stretch the floor offensively and guard multiple positions. And a guy named Shake Milton who was going to save their starting lineup. That point guard/power forward is now gone for the year and the generational big tweaked his ankle 2 games ago. They’ve underwhelmed all season. Squeaked out a 4-4 record in the seeding games. And despite going 3-1 against Boston in the regular season that couldn’t matter less. The Sixers are here for one series and then will face an off-season that might be shorter than usual but will be a long look in mirror for them.

No team in the bubble tried to finagle their first round matchup more than the Utah Jazz. They had no interest in facing the Rockets but it really didn’t matter who they were facing because the reason they will be one and done is all about them. They went into the bubble shorthanded due to Bojan Bogdanovic’s decision to have wrist surgery. Royce O’Neale has filled in admirably but he doesn’t have the same offensive arsenal that Bogdanovic brings. The one bright spot of the seeding games for them was that Mike Conley seemed to recapture some of his offensive bounce and pesky defense. However, today, Conley left the bubble for the birth of his child and will certainly miss Game One and possibly the next two depending upon what type of quarantine is required of him. Without Conley the Jazz will be hopelessly outgunned — even with Denver missing Gary Harris and Will Barton — and forced to rely far too much on Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, and Jordan Clarkson as perimeter initiators. The Jazz won’t be in the bubble much longer and will face an interesting off-season in which the friction between Gobert and Mitchell could force some changes.

The finally team to grab a drink and go is the Indiana Pacers. They were solid in the bubble going 6-2, largely thanks to the eruption of TJ Warren as an unstoppable scorer. Yet, as he was dominating the bubble headlines, the news that he was suffering from plantar fasciitis has dampened the positivity surrounding Indiana’s playoff hopes. Prior to that news Indiana had already lost Domantas Sabonis who had been the fulcrum of their offensive attack throughout the regular season. Though they do have Victor Oladipo back, he has seldom shown evidence of the breakout star he was two years ago. The Pacers went 0-2 against the Heat during the regular season and 1-1 during the seeding games — though the one victory was in a game featuring few Heat starters. Indiana will be out of the bubble before September hits as I don’t see this series lasting long.

RIPPING SHOTS RIGHT AWAYMavericks & Blazers

The majority of the time when you get to the bar you settle in, grab a drink, and ease into the evening. Every once in awhile a friend will throw a wrench into those plans when they immediately order a shot or six for themselves and/or the group. This friend will start the night HOT but just won’t be able to hang for the long haul and will be sent home or realize he’s overplayed himself and dip out. The Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trailblazers fit this mold.

Dallas’s duo of Kristaps Porzingis and Luka Doncic will be making their playoff debut this postseason. Both players have been superb since the restart despite only having a 3-5 record in the seeding games. The Mavs boast one of the premier offenses in the NBA and one of the least effective defenses. They also happen to be matched up against a team (LA Clippers) who have multiple elite defensive bodies to throw at Luka. It will likely be a trial by fire for the first time playoff duo but I expect them to come out — and ultimately — go down firing.

Nobody…NOBODY has been as hot as Damian Lillard has been in Orlando. Prior to the bubble he claimed he would only go if they had a chances to make the playoffs. Well 8 seeding games and a whole lotta deep threes later, Dame and the Blazers are in the playoffs. The Blazers with Dame, CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins, and Carmelo Anthony have been one of the best offenses in the bubble and one of the worst defenses. Despite not having to deal with flights and the typical travel, the Blazers have to be feeling some wear and tear. They basically just played 9 playoff games while their opponent — LA Lakers — barely even got it going enough to hit cruise control. I expect the Blazers — and Dame — to come out aggressive and win a game or two early in the series. Once the Lakers and Lebron get going as the series goes on the Blazers will likely run out of gas.

CAN DRINK ALL NIGHT BUT “WON’T DO LIQUOR”Nuggets & Thunder

Inevitably when you go to the bar to grab some drinks with friends there is typically one person who have his share of beers but anytime some suggests a shot or switching to some sort of mix drink they say “oh, I can’t do liquor”. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that but they don’t quite have the ability to get to that other level. The Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder are reminiscent of this type.

After making it to the second round of the playoffs last year, the Denver Nuggets logged a quality season in 2020. They finished 3rd in West and Nikola Jokic turned in an MVP worthy season. In the bubble they’ve even featured two tantalizing young talents in Bol Bol and Michael Porter Jr. The latter of which has flashed some elite scoring capabilities. Porter give them an above average three point shooter and at his size the ability to shoot over and out-rebound smaller wings. The emergence of MPJ is hindered somewhat by the continued absence of Gary Harris and Will Barten who are still working their way back from injuries. Though they should have no problem getting through the depleted Utah Jazz in the first round they don’t quite have the juice to deal with the likes of the LA teams.

One of the true pleasant surprises of this odd NBA season was the play of the OKC Thunder. Chris Paul looked as good as he has since his LA Clipper days. Even garnering some consideration as an MVP candidate. Including CP3, the Thunder feature a dynamic three guard attack with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder. Their three guard alignment will matchup very well against the super small lineups they will face in the first round against Houston. Behind their three-pronged guard attack Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams, and Luguentz Dort round out a top 6 that is talented yet doesn’t have that next gear. The Thunder a perfectly fine playoff team but just don’t quite have the guy or guys that can take it up a notch in a playoff atmosphere.

LOOKS LIKE A DRINKER BUT IS A LIGHTWEIGHTBucks & Raptors

In nearly every group of friends or at any bar you can find someone — typically a bigger guy — who at first glance looks someone who can handle themselves around an adult beverage. Yet, after a few rounds it becomes rather clear that they don’t have the tolerance that they appear to on the surface. The Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors check this box.

The Milwaukee Bucks are an historically great defense. Are led by an athletic freak who is poised to win back-to-back MVP awards and has a chance at the Defensive Player of Year award. Have an elite rim protecting center who can hit threes from well beyond the three point arc. A perennially underrated #2 scorer who quietly puts up 20 / 6 / 4 while shooting 42% from deep. Despite all of that the Bucks have some weaknesses that can be exploited. They employ a pick n’ roll coverage (drop scheme) that allows for pull-up artists to feast. They allow one of the highest amounts of three pointers in the league (nearly 40 a game). And their system is incredibly reliant on Giannis to create open looks for shooters in both the half-court and transition game. Perhaps most significant to a playoff series is that Mike Budenholzer has historically been unwilling to make adjustments to his offensive and defensive philosophies. His seeming rigidity makes his team more predictable in a playoff setting. The Bucks are a dangerous team for sure but there are cracks in the armor that the right team can exploit.

After the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Toronto Raptors probably had the most surprisingly positive season of any team in the league. After losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green most did not foresee a scenario where they would come in as the two seed in the East. Well they did just that. They’ve looked great all season — 7-1 since the restart — despite being hit with injuries to some of their main guys (Lowry missed 14, VanVleet missed 18, Gasol missed 28, Siakam missed 12, Powell missed 20, and Ibaka missed 17). The Raptors rock a team that features a balanced scoring attack, whirlwind ball movement, a stifling defense, and a coach that is the nearest thing to a basketball wizard as there is. The Raptors also boast one of the premier transition attacks in the league and rely on it for a significant portion of their offense. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Raptors rank 2nd in transition frequency (18.4% of possessions) and 1st in transition points per 100 possessions off live ball misses (1.9 points per 100). While this is a great asset to have it does underlie a problem for them come playoff time. As the game slows down and transition opportunities are less frequent half-court offense and individual shot creation becomes critical. The Raptors ranked 15th in points per 100 plays in half court, per Cleaning the Glass. This will likely prove to be the undoing of the Raptors — particularly if they face a Boston team in the 2nd round that ranks 1st in points per 100 transition possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.

KEEP THE TAB OPENCeltics & Heat

This guy knows exactly what he’s signing up for before he even gets to the bar. When he gets to the bar counter there’s no question that he’s in for a long night as he hands over a credit card and plans to keep the tab open. This is the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat.

The Boston Celtics are team that know exactly who they are…they feature top-tier NBA talent, an elite coach, are top 5 in points per 100 possessions on offense and top 5 in points allowed per 100 possession on defense (per Cleaning the Glass, and have the best collection of two-way players in the Eastern Conference. The glaring weaknesses of the Celtics are their lack of bench depth and uneven play at the center position. In the playoffs bench depth is significantly less important as their top 6 will get the large share of minutes and in the East the only team with a center that can punish teams in the post is the Sixers and their season has been on life-support since Simmons went down a few games ago. Boston has arguably the best collection of wing talent in the league with Tatum, Brown, and Hayward. Each of whom have looked sharp in the restart. But most importantly for the Celtics Kemba Walker has appeared to look as healthy as he has since early in the season. If Kemba’s knee remains healthy the Celtics are poised to make deep playoff run and potentially emerge from the Eastern Conference.

The Miami Heat used the 8 seeding games to retool their starting lineup and change their defensive scheme. They moved Meyers Leonard to the bench and inserted Jae Crowder into the starting lineup. This allowed Miami to switch from a drop scheme against pick n’ rolls to playing much more of a switching style. Statistically the Heat have an offense built for the playoffs. Per Cleaning the Glass, they rank 3rd in effective field goal percentage, 4th in field goal percentage at the rim, 1st in corner three percentage, 2nd in total three point percentage, 2nd in made free throws per 100 field goal attempts, and 3rd in points per 100 possessions in the half-court. It is their ability to get to the line — Jimmy Butler basically lives there — and their three point shooting that make them an ideal (potential) matchup against the Bucks in the second round. The biggest issue the Heat will have to overcome is their ability to defend quicker, shot creating guards. Luckily for them no teams on their side of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket feature such talents — Oladipo would but he’s still not back to what he was 2 years ago.

“LET’S PLAY A GAME”Lakers & Clippers

When you’re hanging out at the bar with a group of friends there typically is a member of the group that isn’t satisfied with just standing around talking and watching sports. This person wants to play some sort of bar game…whether it’s darts, pool, shuffle board, or some other game that’s there. They plan on being at the bar for quite awhile, want to make sure they get as much excitement and competition as they can, and wear down the people that they’re with. This person can be seen in both of the LA teams…the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Lakeshow has looked out of sorts since games began again on July 30th. They went 3-5 and showed few signs of the team that earned the one seed in the West. Yet, we all know Lebron’s move by now. More so than anyone Lebron used these 8 games to get his 35 year old body slowly ramped up for playoff basketball. The big question mark with the Lakers is will they get enough from their role guys. The loss of Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo have brought instability to their lineups and Danny Green has been feast or famine from three the majority of the season. The Lakers have more holes than a typical #1 seed but they have a duo in Lebron and Anthony Davis who can overcome whatever deficiencies they might have. This Lebron team is much more Miami “Big 3” than the Cleveland teams he lead to the finals. Like that first Lebron Heat season (2010-2011), the Laker roster is awkward and doesn’t maximize Lebron’s skill set. The lack of shooting is a major concern. Having to play Alex Caruso, Dion Waiters, or Quinn Cook major playoff minutes is less than ideal. Kyle Kuzma wants to shoot it over Jesus. It won’t be very pretty but this Laker team can grind out wins on the backs of Lebron and AD. They’ve been great all year and will have to continue to be.

The “other” LA team has wholly different question marks than their Laker counterparts. The Clippers are the deepest team in the West — perhaps the league. They have an assassin in Kawhi Leonard who is as healthy as he’s been in years. Paul George is an elite two-way wing who compliments Kawhi nicely. They’ve got two bucket getters coming off the bench in Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams. They can play small. They can play a defensive-minded lineup. They can play an offensive-minded lineup. The questions they must answer are…can they play as a cohesive unit and can they handle the size of elite Western Conference teams. One paper their talent is hard to argue with. Statistically, they check the most important boxes — per Cleaning the Glass their ranked in points per 100 possessions and 5th in points allowed per 100 possessions. Yet, despite all the boxes they check there has always been a tendency to not play to their full potential in games. It is this tendency that will allow teams to hang around in games and ultimately in series. Though I expect the Clippers talent to carry them through they will make it more difficult than their talent suggests it should be.

MIGHT HAVE DONE DRUGS BEFOREHAND OR IN THE BATHROOMRockets

Sometimes…in a group of people at a bar there is just one person who is a total wildcard. They might’ve taken something before leaving the house or even fired it up in the bar bathroom. When this happens it could lead to one of the most interesting nights or could spell disaster. Of all the teams in the playoffs this is without a doubt the Houston Rockets.

The Rockets have thrown the NBA blueprint for decades completely out the window. They don’t play anyone on their roster who’s taller than 6’8″. Per Cleaning the Glass, 46.2% of their shots are from three and only 18.1% of their shots are from the mid-range; yet they are also one of the worst three point shooting teams at 34.9%. Despite that fact, the Rockets ability to consistently have 4-5 quality three point shooters on the floor at all times is a challenge for defenses. Their three point percentage is also somewhat deceiving as Russell Westbrook brings the team average down as he shot it at 25% and so do Eric Gordon and Robert Covington who both shot it at 32%. That is Covington’s worst three point shooting season of his career and Gordon has been in the high 30’s and 40’s percentage-wise for the past 6 seasons. The Rockets can either overwhelm a team with a three point barrage or completely shoot themselves out of a series and be out of Orlando before they know it. Defensively they rely on a switch everything scheme that causes a lot of turnovers and is ranked 8th in points per 100 possessions in the half-court (per Cleaning the Glass). Where they struggle is transition defense as they are in the bottom 3rd of the league based on points allowed per 100 transition possessions (per Cleaning the Glass). This isn’t all that surprising as missed threes make it easier for teams to take long rebounds and ignite a fastbreak. If Houston is hitting from three then they can overwhelm the best of teams, but if they struggle it likely won’t be a long playoff run. The injury to Russell Westbrook’s quad is also a concern for their playoff hopes. They likely can get through the Thunder in round one but will need him healthy if they hope to go further.


by Frank Greco (@fgreco12)

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