Whether legitimate championship contenders exist beyond them or not, there is a clear line of demarcation between the NBA’s top three teams and the rest of the field. The league’s three best pre-Disney regular season teams, by far, were the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks. The trio combined to post a 146-46 record before the coronavirus shut down the season, and while injuries hampered the Clippers for much of the early going, the Lakers and Bucks lead their respective conferences by a combined 12 games.
Under normal circumstances, the assumption would be that these teams would wind up knocking each other out. Upsets at their level are a rarity in the NBA playoffs, but the unique circumstances of the Disney bubble open the door for unforeseeable circumstances. Without home-court advantage and after four months off, every team is vulnerable. That includes the three juggernauts.
So who is positioned to exploit them? While predicting the changes in Orlando would be premature, based on what we saw before the season shut down, we can at least use stylistic and statistical indicators to suggest who might have the best shot. Aside from one another, these are the worst possible matchups for the three best teams in basketball in the postseason.
Milwaukee Bucks: Boston Celtics
Milwaukee’s defensive weaknesses, in as much as they even exist, are largely self-imposed. They sell out to stop specific kinds of shots to great effect. The Bucks give up the fewest shots at the rim in the NBA by a mile, and while they’ve allowed the most 3-point attempts in basketball, the 11th-fewest percentage of those 3’s come from the corners. Take all of the mid-range jumpers and above-the-break 3’s you want, just don’t expect to get analytically-endorsed shots against Milwaukee.
But Boston makes those shots. The Celtics shoot 44.5 percent between 10-16 feet of the basket, sixth-best mark in the league. The Bucks allow the most such shots in the NBA. They hover around league-average in terms of total 3-pointers, but almost none of them come from the corner. If fourth quarters of a possible Bucks-Celtics series come down to isolation jumpers on both sides, Jayson Tatum is equipped to deliver daggers that Milwaukee’s offense, as of yet, has proven unable to reciprocate. Though Milwaukee’s clutch defense is significantly better, it should be noted that Boston scores 6.1 more points per 100 possessions in clutch settings.
The key for a potential Boston upset bid is getting to those clutch settings intact, because for the first 40 or so minutes of most games, Giannis Antetokounmpo is practically unstoppable to any team that doesn’t employ Kawhi Leonard. The Celtics have no such ready-made solution to the Giannis problem, but they aren’t as helpless as the majority of the league, either. If nothing else, they can throw bodies at Giannis. Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Daniel Theis and Gordon Hayward fall in the general size-range necessary to bother him. Marcus Smart is going to try, physical limitations be damned. Brad Stevens will throw out a gimmick or two. Walls will be formed.
Milwaukee was the NBA’s best team during the regular season, but their playing style creates the simplest path to a potential upset against the right opponent. Their weaknesses, if not exactly exploitable, are at least visible. There is a road map for beating them. Few teams can follow it. If everything goes right, the Celtics might be one of them.
Los Angeles Lakers: Houston Rockets
The irony here is that the Lakers may well be Houston’s worst matchup as well. That’s how innovative their “no centers” gambit is. At least Golden State could go big when they needed to. The Rockets jumped out of a plane with no parachute and we have no idea if they’re going to land on a mountain or a marshmallow. The Lakers might be too big for the Rockets. The Rockets might be too small for the Lakers. Should they meet in the playoffs, one of those two things will be true.
If it’s the former? No harm, no foul. The Rockets were supposed to lose anyway. If it’s the latter? The entire postseason is upended. Variance is one of the most important elements of an upside. If everything goes right for Houston, there is a version of the Rockets that turns into the best team in the NBA at Disney. That’s particularly terrifying for the Lakers because they’ve seen it firsthand.
It wasn’t just that the Rockets beat them when the two teams met on the night of the trade deadline. It was that the Lakers tried to acquiesce to Houston’s playing style and still lost. They spent around 28 minutes of that game without one of their two traditional centers—Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee. They were outscored by 10 points playing their version of small-ball. Anthony Davis scored 32 points on 14-of-21 shooting, a performance befitting an All-NBA big man playing against a team with no size, yet the Lakers were outscored during his minutes.
Houston’s theory is that no matter what any center does against them, the sort of offense that big men generate is so inherently inefficient that it drags down team performance to a level their barrage of 3-pointers can manage. Everything they give up inside, they try to make up in spades abusing big men on the perimeter defensively. If it worked on Davis, it could work on anyone, and for a few brief stretches, the Lakers played into their hands even further by taking him out of the equation and putting LeBron James at center.
The LeBron-plus-shooters model is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt and likely could work against Houston over a meaningful sample, but that isn’t the point. Davis is arguably the NBA’s best big man. The Lakers poured most of their offseason resources into acquiring him. Even if LeBron-at-center lineups work, they are inherently compromised by the fact that they can’t include the Lakers’ five best players. It would be LeBron plus the role players the Lakers could bring in with the meager resources left over after adding Davis. Their roster is based on having two top-five players, and the Rockets might be able to drive one of them off of the floor. Houston can’t be compromised. They don’t have centers on their roster to use even if they wanted to.
One-game samples are laughably unpredictable. Nothing is definitive yet, and the Lakers needed to be driven into smaller-ball anyway. If the Rockets can stop seven games worth of LeBron-Davis pick-and-rolls with no center cramping the spacing, more power to them. But unlike most of the other teams in the field, they have an answer. It’s either going to be a very good one or a very bad one, but it’s thoughtful and backed by numbers. If nothing else, that one game in February was proof of concept. The Rockets have a viable strategy. Whether it can be successfully executed over seven games is another matter entirely.
Los Angeles Clippers: Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat
Two teams aren’t listed here because the Clippers are especially vulnerable. Two teams are listed because they aren’t. In lieu of one good answer, here are two decent ones.
Even the best typical contenders tend to have a kryptonite. The Clippers, at least in playoff terms, don’t seem to. The stock answer to “who are the Clippers afraid of” all season long has been the Lakers due to their superior size, but there just hasn’t been any evidence painting that as a true vulnerability. The Clippers won the rebounding battle in all three of their games this season. They allow the seventh-fewest shots within three feet of the rim in the NBA, and opponents make those shots at the eighth-lowest percentage. They allow only 0.861 points per post up, the fifth-best mark in basketball. These numbers aren’t strictly the result of an underrated frontcourt. The Clippers are so good at the point of attack that almost any look an opponent is able to get at the basket has been altered somewhere along the way. But that isn’t going away, and nothing that has happened on the court this season suggests that the Clippers are going to get bullied inside.
Their lack of passing is troubling, but late-stage playoff basketball is almost universally pick-and-roll and isolation-driven anyway. They never score in transition, but nobody does in the playoffs. Doc Rivers won’t leave Lou Williams on the floor long enough to get switch-hunted to death. They give up too many 3’s, but so do the Bucks. It’s a consequence of rim-protection by committee, and they’re stingy in the corners where it counts. Opposing coaches will find scabs to pick at, but there aren’t any obvious ones. If the Clippers are beaten in the bubble, it will likely have to be at their own game. The two teams remotely equipped to do so just happen to be on the other side of the bracket.
The Western Conference’s top contenders lack man-defenders capable of deterring Kawhi Leonard alone. Miami (Jimmy Butler, Derrick Jones Jr., Jae Crowder, potentially Andre Iguodala) and Philadelphia (Ben Simmons, Matisse Thybulle) both have multiple wings potentially up to the task in spurts. The Butler-Bam Adebayo pick-and-roll isn’t as dangerous as the many variants the Clippers throw out, but they’re good enough defensively to hold serve. Shake Milton tortured them to the tune of 39 points on 70 percent shooting the last time he rolled into town. The Heat feast on the deeper 3’s the Clippers don’t care to defend.
These are both imperfect solutions. Miami’s path to switch-proofing its defense involves stripping away almost everything that works on offense. The Sixers are unfamiliar with the concept of things working on offense to begin with, and the Clippers would have no trouble packing the paint against them. Neither has a late-game shot-creator in Leonard’s class (spoiler alert: almost nobody does). These are merely teams equipped to match up with the Clippers’ personnel in a grind-it-out seven-game series. Actually beating the Clippers would require extremely favorable shooting variance. It’s likelier that one or both of these teams is out after the first round.
It’s one of the many advantages the Clippers are bringing to Disney. The teams they are likely to encounter aren’t the ones best equipped to beat them. Their recent scuffles with the best players and teams in the field have almost universally gone their way. That doesn’t make them unbeatable. Rivers, Leonard and Paul George have all seen LeBron go supernova enough times not to feel safe. Giannis will get there sooner or later. Surprises are to be expected in Orlando. But if there’s an upset brewing against the Clippers, there isn’t an obvious path to predicting it.