At a time when the NBA Finals should be front and center of the basketball world, players are now expected to begin re-calibrating their stiff and likely unfit bodies to resume the season following a months-long hiatus.
Twenty-two teams will convene at Disney World in Orlando, Florida come July 31. Eight regular-season games will play out before a full postseason bracket commences.
If the 2020 NBA Playoffs weren’t already set to possess a level of unpredictability fans have been clamoring for over the last several years, the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic have certainly ratcheted up more potential for randomness.
In the Eas, the Milwaukee Bucks have been the Cream City of the conference crop and the entire league, but after them, there’s some uncertainty with who could challenge them for a trip to The Finals. The Celtics are in the mix. However, there are other candidates who could make the trip to Orlando victorious after the long lay off. Who benefits the most after nearly four and a half months in quarantine?
The Milwaukee Bucks were on a season-long pursuit of 70 wins before losing four of their final five games. Baked into the latter two outings was the absence of Giannis Antetokounmpo with a right knee injury. Whether it’s the league’s best record, the #1 defense or the top net rating, every bit of Milwaukee’s success revolves around its Greek Freak.
His influence as a likely back-to-back MVP was what worried everyone with a rooting interest in the Bucks, including Giannis. Even when his injury was deemed minor, lengthy playoff runs tend to exacerbate the bumps and bruises that develop against heightened competition.
New ESPN story: The basketball world breathed a sigh of relief when the MRI on Giannis Antetokounmpo's knee revealed no major damage. So did he. https://t.co/SNKkUHhPD5— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) March 11, 2020
The Bucks would’ve likely rested Antetokounmpo down the stretch of unnecessary games anyway with 70 wins unlikely following their recent slide. For what it’s worth, he did sit four of their last 12 to close out the 2018-19 regular season when the Bucks were the top seed in the East.
A bit of rust might have to be shaken off, but Giannis should return to the court even healthier compared to a few DNP’s sprinkled into the home stretch, exactly what the rest of the league needs in the hopes of taking down a historically great Bucks team come playoff time.
With nearly three months off, the Toronto Raptors will likely see the return of starting center Marc Gasol, who has played just one game — 15 minutes — since January 29th.
At what cost, however, does the presence of Toronto’s starting center do to the team’s momentum after bouncing back from a three-game skid to win four straight in March?
Before leaving not two minutes into Toronto’s final game against the Utah Jazz, Norman Powell was in a career-best stretch with 28.7 points per game on 52.0 percent shooting over his previous six outings. That’s a level of progress he’ll now have to pick up from scratch.
The Raptors have felt the injury bug all season long. Rather than sink, they’ve thrived among the constant reshuffling on their way to the second-best record in the East, taking advantage of opponents who couldn’t do the same.
Now that every team is granted a near-fresh slate of health, Toronto’s plug-and-play abilities won’t find as much value during these playoffs. Depending on their post-season match up, that could prove the difference in advancing past any round.
Kemba Walker had missed six of seven games, only to struggle mightily upon returning. Jaylen Brown was sidelined for four games with a hamstring injury and was likely to sit out several more.
That back court for the Boston Celtics contributed 41.6 points per game and hardly would’ve been at a comparative level with injuries restricting their contributions. Both needed an appropriate amount of time to properly heal. They now have it at an ideal time for a Celtics team that had lost four of its last six games.
Of course, the layoff does more harm than good for a player at the level Jayson Tatum was at. Overall, a reset button was much-needed given Boston’s struggles and will help the Cs return to the form that propelled them to the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.
After more than a year rehabbing a ruptured quad tendon, Victor Oladipo was just starting to get his groove back.
He scored 16 points in consecutive outings, capped off by a season-high 27 points — on 9-of-16 shooting including 5-of-7 from three no less — just before the NBA season was halted.
The Indiana Pacers were also finding a groove, winners of six of their previous eight games. Nevertheless, any shot at their first second-round appearance since 2014 lied in the hands of the two-time All-Star.
Perhaps Oladipo can pick up where he left off. Coming off such a serious injury, that was easier said than done upon first return. The second time around might be near impossible amid playoff intensity, and the Pacers chances of advancing may suffer because of it.
We were slowly witnessing the Philadelphia 76ers’ big lineup experiment crumble with each passing game.
Ben Simmons hadn’t seen the court since February 22nd against the Milwaukee Bucks, where he re-aggravated a back injury not five minutes into the game. It was later revealed he had a nerve impingement and would be out indefinitely.
Joel Embiid had missed five straight before making a one-game return to drop 30 points ahead of the NBA’s stoppage. Given his medical history, it’s hard to believe he’s ever 100 percent, especially this late into the season.
Philly had lost three of its previous five games to drop all the way to sixth in the Eastern Conference. Even at full strength, a clunky offense hardly inspired confidence in a potential run to the conference finals and beyond.
The time off won’t magically solve the Sixers’ offensive woes, most notably an absence of spacing that puts them 18th in offensive rating.
It does, however, get their two best players fully healthy. Given their reliance on star power with the desire to overwhelm opponents with size at every position, that’s as good a place to start as there is.
The culture of the Miami Heat is predicated on the utmost adherence to physical fitness. By ensuring their players remain in peak physical condition, Miami can unleash the physical brand of two-way basketball that’s led to past success and has them fourth in the East at 41-21.
Miami’s fitness team can send out all the equipment they can get their hands on. Opening their practice facility will certainly allow a better workout experience compared to makeshift at-home exercises.
This is to say nothing of the likely diminished shape Miami’s players might be in. They’re doing their best as many around the NBA make do with what they can. Jimmy Butler made sure of that by sending hoops to all his teammates.
At a certain point, nothing will measure up to the day-in-day-out conditioning that puts the Heat above most of the league, the type of physical fitness the players simply can’t get amid these pandemic-driven restrictions.
Given their reliance on out-hustling opponents, the absence of that edge could close that gap between a playoff match up capable of eliminating them.