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NBA Playoff Picture: LeBron James, Lakers staring down a first-round threat no matter how it shakes out – CBS Sports

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Despite a contingent of players still wavering on whether to participate amid the health and social unrest enveloping the country, the 2019-20 NBA season remains on track to continue at Disney World in Orlando. The league recently issued a 113-page health and safety document that outlines six phases leading up to July 30, when games will reportedly restart. 

At least, that’s the plan for now. With Florida reporting record-breaking daily coronavirus cases as the state continues to re-open, the situation feels fluid at best. We’ll continue to monitor all the news coming out of the league, but for now, we’ll assume the plan is a go and we’ll preview impending action accordingly. 

As has been well chronicled, each of the 22 teams invited to Orlando will play eight “seeding” games constituting the conclusion of the regular season, at which point the Nos. 1-7 seeds in each conference will be locked in. If the No. 9 seed in either conference is within four games of the No. 8 seed, there will be a playoff for the final spot(s) with the lower seed having to beat the higher seed twice. From there, a traditional playoff format will commence.  

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the respective conference standings, and current playoff matchups, as they’ve sat since play was suspended on March 11. 

Western Conference

Team/Seed Record Current Matchup

1. Lakers

49-14 (–)

vs. Grizzlies

2. Clippers

44-20 (5.5 GB)

vs. Mavericks

3. Nuggets

43-22 (7 GB)

vs. Rockets

4. Jazz

41-23 (8.5 GB)

vs. Thunder

5. Thunder

40-24 (9.5 GB)

at Jazz

6. Rockets

40-24 (9.5 GB)

at Nuggets

7. Mavericks

40-27 (11 GB)

at Clippers

8. Grizzlies

32-33 (18 GB)

at Lakers

As you can see, the Lakers are currently matched up against the Grizzlies in the first round, but that’s far from solidified. As you’ll see below, Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento and San Antonio are all within four games in the loss column of the Grizzlies. The Blazers, a conference finals team from a year ago, could be at full strength when play resumes with Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back in the lineup, and the Pelicans, with Zion Williamson immediately producing at an All-Star level, played the Lakers down to the wire in two matchups prior to the suspension. 

Which is to say, however the No. 8 seed shakes out, the Lakers are in for a legitimately tough first-round matchup. 

Another thing that jumps out here is the Clippers’ three-game lead over the No. 4 Jazz, who will be playing without Bojan Bogdanovic. In other words, the chances of the Clippers falling past the No. 3 seed are slim, which keeps them on the opposite side of the bracket from the Lakers, which puts the two L.A. teams on a conference finals collision course. 

As far as the 3-6 seeds, obviously a lot can change in eight games with just two games separating Denver and Houston at each end of that spectrum, and one game separating 4-6. 

Of course, normally this would be a race for home-court advantage in the first round, but this year that’s irrelevant. So this becomes about matchups. You have to wonder what kind of manipulating we might see as teams chase preferred first-round matchups and sides of the bracket. 

Race for No. 8

Team Record Games Behind No. 8 Seed

9. Trail Blazers

29-37

4 (in loss column)

10. Pelicans

28-36

3 (in loss column)

11. Kings 

28-36

3 (in loss column)

12. Spurs

27-36

3 (in loss column)

13. Suns

26-39

6 (in loss column)

The win-percentage tiebreaker rule instituted during this unique format could greatly benefit the Blazers, who have more losses than the Pelicans, and are actually 0-3 in head-to-head matchups vs. New Orleans this season, but by virtue of playing two more games have a slightly better win percentage. We’ll see if that factors in. 

Eastern Conference

Team/Seed Record Current Matchup

1. Bucks

53-12 (–)

vs. Magic

2. Raptors

46-18 (6.5 GB)

vs. Nets

3. Celtics

43-21 (9.5 GB)

vs. 76ers

4. Heat

41-24 (12 GB)

vs. Pacers

5. Pacers

39-26 (14 GB)

at Heat

6. 76ers

39-26 (14 GB)

at Celtics

7. Nets

30-34 (22.5 GB)

at Raptors

8. Magic

30-35 (23 GB)

at Bucks

Unlike the Lakers, the Bucks are going to have a cakewalk in the first round no matter who they face. 

Also, Boston vs. Philadelphia in the first round? Yes, please. Both teams believe they can win the conference, and one of them is going to be done early if these are indeed the playoff matchups. 

If the Sixers and Pacers flip-flop, that could mean a Philly-Miami first-round series. Either way, the Sixers are likely getting tested right out of the gate. 

A first-round loss could very well mean Sixers coach Brett Brown is out of a job come next season. The good news is this hiatus is giving Ben Simmons, who had missed significant time with a nerve impingement in his back before the hiatus, time to get healthy. Philadelphia is super talented, and in a weird format under crazy conditions, anything can happen. 

I’m also looking at a potential Bucks-Heat second-round matchup. Nobody can shut down Giannis Antetokounmpo, but Miami’s Bam Adebayo is about as difficult a matchup as The Freak will find. 

Race for No. 8

Team Record Games Behind No. 8 Seed

9. Wizards

24-40

5 (in loss column)

The Wizards are the only current non-playoff team from the Eastern Conference to be invited to Orlando, and you have to wonder just how hard they’ll actually be trying to get into the playoffs. As long as they miss the playoffs, their lottery odds will be calculated based on where they stood in the standings when play was suspended, which would have them slotted for a top-10 pick. 

But if they do crack the postseason, they will fall completely out of the lottery all for the right to get smashed in the first round against the Bucks without even the benefit of at least two home games worth of revenue. In this situation, they just go play in an empty arena, get eliminated, and then lose maybe five or more slots on their draft pick. 

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