The NBA postseason will look much different this year, as it will take place in its entirety in Orlando without fans in attendance, about four months later than usual. Nonetheless, with so much at stake, playoff basketball is inherently compelling, and this year will be no different. However, not all matchups are created equal. Some are simply better — and more exciting — than others. With that in mind, here’s a look at the six best potential playoff matchups that we could see in Orlando. While these series are obviously far from guaranteed to happen, they would certainly make for some extremely interesting basketball if they do. With playoff seeding still up in the air, it’s worth noting that these potential matchups could occur at any point during the playoffs, from the first round through the Finals.
6. Toronto Raptors vs. Milwaukee Bucks
These are the top two teams in the East, record-wise, heading into Orlando. The Bucks were downright dominant before the season was suspended, but the Raptors are still the reigning Eastern Conference (and NBA) champions. For Milwaukee to follow up its masterful regular season with an NBA title, it will ultimately have to dethrone Toronto to make it out of the East and into the Finals. A series between these two teams would represent a rematch of last season’s conference finals, and considering the way that series ended (the Raptors won four straight after Milwaukee had won the first two games) it’s safe to say that reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the rest of his squad, will be looking for revenge.
Kawhi Leonard is out of the equation, but the Raptors still have tons of talent — including Pascal Siakam, who has morphed into an elite All-Star. Toronto also has experience and it certainly won’t give up the title of being the top team in the East without a fight. These two teams have established themselves as the class of the conference over the past couple of seasons, and we can expect nothing short of a hard-fought, well-played series on both ends of the floor.
There would be no shortage of storylines in this one. For starters, a trio of young Pelicans players — Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart — would be looking to stick it to their former franchise after they were openly shopped and ultimately traded to New Orleans for Anthony Davis last offseason. Speaking of Davis, he basically forced his way out of New Orleans, and the fans there have not forgotten. There’s still bad blood, and as a result, Davis would be motivated to show them exactly what they lost (albeit from a distance given that there won’t be fans in the actual arena).
Then there’s the battle between LeBron James and Zion Williamson; a matchup representative of the league’s present versus its future. A playoff matchup between these two generational stars at this point in their respective careers would be one of those memorable moments etched in the history books. Williamson has been the most hyped prospect to enter the league since James himself, and so far he’s lived up to the billing. And while James clearly respects Williamson, he doesn’t appear ready to pass the torch quite yet, even if Williamson will be doing his best to take it. Those two would almost certainly put on a show that the basketball world would love to see.
4. Miami Heat vs. Philadelphia 76ers
The Heat exceeded expectations this season. On the flip side, the Sixers didn’t quite live up to the lofty expectations facing them prior to the season’s start. As a result, the two teams could meet each other in the postseason — potentially as early as the first round, just as they did in 2018.
In a way, both teams’ seasons have been shaped by Jimmy Butler. The Sixers have struggled without his perimeter playmaking and production after losing him to Miami in free agency last offseason, while the Heat have benefited from Butler’s leadership and his knack for making clutch plays. Butler’s departure from Philadelphia wasn’t without drama, as he questioned his Sixers teammates’ motives for playing the game, while also implying that something went down behind the scenes with the organization that contributed his decision to walk away.
“Stuff just don’t work out,” Butler said of his stint with the Sixers. “Nobody knows what really went on in Philly and we’re going to leave it that way. But it was a great opportunity for me … All of that will come out whenever it’s time. Right now is not the time. I’m locked in with this. I’m happy, man. I’m smiling and my guys want me to be here, my organization wants me to be here, I want to be here and we’re going to ride this thing until the wheels fall off.”
Given this background, a potential playoff series between Miami and Philly would be spicy. The Sixers would be extremely eager — and motivated — to show that they can not only win without Butler but actually beat him in the process. Josh Richardson, who the Heat gave up in order to add Butler, would be looking to send a message to his former franchise. Bam Adebayo versus Joel Embiid has the makings of an epic battle down low. As for Butler, he would be aiming to prove that he’s better off in his new NBA home and that his decision to sign with the Heat was justified. Considering how competitive Butler and Embiid can be, this one would have the potential to get chippy.
Last summer, the Rockets and Thunder engaged in the biggest trade of the offseason when they swapped star point guards. Chris Paul was sent from Houston to Oklahoma City after two seasons with the Rockets, while Russell Westbrook was reunited with former Thunder teammate James Harden in Houston after spending the first 11 seasons of his career in Oklahoma City.
The move made major waves in the Western Conference, but it didn’t sit particularly well with Paul, mainly because he felt like Rockets general manager Daryl Morey wasn’t upfront with him about the situation. Paul admitted to feeling “stabbed in the back” by the Rockets organization.
“Every situation is different,” Paul said. “But the team is going to do whatever they want to do. They’ll tell you one thing and do a smooth ‘nother thing … The GM there in Houston, he don’t owe me nothing. You know what I mean? He may tell me one thing but do another thing. But you just understand that that’s what it is.”
Paul may not have been happy with the move initially, but he has made the best of the situation, and as a result, the Thunder have played better ball than most expected them to this season. A motivated Paul with a chip on his shoulder looking to send a message to his former franchise that he feels slighted by would be a sight to see. Plus, it seems safe to say that the notoriously competitive Westbrook wouldn’t want to lose to his old team either, even if their split was amicable.
2. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Los Angeles Clippers
Both L.A. franchises made major moves last offseason as the Lakers added Anthony Davis via trade while the Clippers landed Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The result? Both Los Angeles franchises are legitimate title contenders at the same time for the first time since, well, ever. The Lakers and Clippers have never met in the postseason before, but there’s already a natural in-city rivalry between the two teams — even as one-sided as it has been historically. Plus, who wouldn’t want to see another postseason series battle between Kawhi and LeBron?
An argument could be made that these are the league’s top two teams, talent-wise, and thus this would be a potential Finals matchup if conferences didn’t exist. Thanks to the buzz following the moves made by both sides last summer, combined with the novelty of two teams from the same city battling it out for a chance to represent L.A. in the hunt for a championship, this may be the most anticipated series of all, outside of the actual Finals.
1. Milwaukee Bucks vs. Los Angeles Lakers
It’s hard to top the excitement of the final series of the NBA postseason, and when it comes to the Finals this year, a potential matchup between the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers would be especially intriguing. The Bucks and Lakers have been the best in their respective conferences for the entirety of 2019-20, and that’s what we want to see when it comes to the Finals — the top two teams going head-to-head for the hardware. The Bucks were winning games at a historic rate before the season was suspended, and anything short of a Finals berth would be considered a disappointment for the franchise. The same could also be said for the Lakers after they went all-in to acquire Anthony Davis to pair with LeBron James last offseason.
There would be no shortage of star power in this series with each team boasting legitimate MVP candidates: Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee and James in L.A. Needless to say, both players would be extremely motivated to walk away with a win. James would be looking to win his fourth NBA championship, and a title with his third different franchise, which would only help his case as the game’s greatest player ever. Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo would be fighting to capture his first title after a couple of postseason flameouts. Watching arguably the two best players in the game today go at it on the league’s biggest stage would be an awesome sight to see and could have the potential to turn into one of the best Finals showdowns in recent memory. The looming free agency decisions for Antetokounmpo (who will be a free agent in 2021) and Davis (2020) would also add an extra layer of intrigue, as how their respective teams perform in the postseason could directly impact their decision-making process.