The 2020 NBA playoffs are here, which is a strange thing to say in August, 10 months after opening night. It will all start at 1:30 p.m. ET on Monday, a reminder -- as if anyone needed one -- that everything except the basketball is different because we are living through a pandemic.
There will be no (non-virtual) fans in the stands, and, rather than heading to the podium and mingling in the arena after games, players will be rushed back to their respective hotels. And for the first time in a decade, there will definitely be games in Orlando in the second round and beyond.
To preview what's about to happen at Disney World, here are a dozen questions about these eight matchups:
1. Will the Harden-Westbrook-CP3 showdown live up to the hype?
Unfortunately, we will not get seven games of Westbrook vs. Paul, a matchup as interesting for its contrasting styles as it is for the context of last summer's blockbuster trade. Westbrook is out with a quad injury, at least initially, which changes the feel of the series and the way the Rockets play.
When Harden was on the court without Westbrook in the regular season, Houston played at a much slower pace, Harden's usage rate jumped to 42 percent and the team was 6.4 points per 100 possessions more efficient than when the two shared the court. Those numbers must be reassuring for the Rockets, but they'll need Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers to steer the ship when Harden is on the bench. They also have to hope Westbrook has his usual explosiveness when he returns.
It looked like Luguentz Dort would be in line to check Harden, but the Oklahoma City rookie sprained his knee last Wednesday and his status for Game 1 on Tuesday is uncertain. Andre Roberson used to defend Harden as well as anybody, but the last time the two matched up was on Christmas Day in 2017.
Despite all of that injury-related uncertainty, I'd argue the most fascinating thing to watch is how Paul deals with Houston's switching defense. He hasn't played against the Rockets since they went centerless, and he is at his most dangerous when he's using a screen to create an advantage and manipulating the defense. Houston won't let him play his normal game, but he will attack whoever he deems to be its weak link, either by forcing switches or deferring to Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who with Paul have formed a devastating trio, particularly in the clutch.
2. Can the Lakers slow down the Dame train?
Damian Lillard is the story of the bubble, and the official Player of the Seeding Games. (Does he get a trophy? He should get a trophy.) Portland has scored 123.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor in Orlando, and its best lineup -- with CJ McCollum, Gary Trent Jr., Carmelo Anthony and Jusuf Nurkic next to him -- has scored 133.1 per 100 in 73 minutes.
To get even nerdier: Only once in the Blazers' eight seeding games did they score fewer than 118 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage-time minutes, per Cleaning The Glass. Their defense has been a train wreck, but they've looked like a juggernaut with the ball in their -- OK, mostly Lillard's -- hands.
Lillard dropped 48 points on 17-for-30 shooting in a 127-119 victory the last time these teams met, and he did it without Anthony or Nurkic. That was one of the strangest games of the season, though, the first the Lakers played after the death of Kobe Bryant. Los Angeles was the third-best defensive team in the regular season, and, according to Cleaning The Glass, ranked first against the top-10 offenses in the league.
How much will the Lakers try to trap Lillard and force him to give the ball up? This is a dangerous game with Nurkic in the middle of the floor, McCollum on the wing and Anthony in the corner, but it becomes a more appealing option when Portland has reserves on the court. Los Angeles figures to miss the on-ball defense of Avery Bradley here; expect Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso to spend time as Lillard's primary defender.
3. The Lakers can score in this matchup … right?
Los Angeles' halfcourt offense has been uninspiring generally and concerning in the bubble, but that doesn't mean it will have any issues against the Blazers. Without Trevor Ariza, who is supposed to guard LeBron James? If the Lakers put Anthony Davis at 5 and spread the floor, what is the counter? Portland finished the regular season 27th in defense and was even worse in the seeding games.
I imagine Terry Stotts' coaching staff will do whatever it can to expose Los Angeles' limited playmaking options. The Blazers might even want to junk up the game by doubling LeBron all over the court the way teams sometimes do to the bearded man in Houston, or by playing zone. If Davis doesn't eat them alive and their shooters can't get going in this series, then they have no shot against the Rockets or Clippers.
4. Can Philly bully Boston with an Embiid-centric attack?
It's not just that Joel Embiid needs to dominate the Celtics' big men, though he obviously does. Embiid and the 76ers need everybody else to be ready to shoot when he's double-teamed, make a decent percentage of their 3s and prevent them from being annihilated when he's on the bench. This is a lot to ask against a top-tier defensive team.
One might argue that the Ben Simmons injury, as unpleasant as it may be, actually clarifies things. There is no fraught will-he-or-won't-he conversation about his relationship to the 3-point line, and there should be no confusion about how Philadelphia needs to play in the halfcourt. Without Simmons, though, the Sixers are far less imposing defensively and they're no longer much of a threat in transition. I get the idea that they're more fascinating now; I just don't buy it.
Last season, Brett Brown reorganized Philadelphia's offense in the playoffs, essentially shifting Jimmy Butler to point guard and planting Simmons in the dunker's spot. It wasn't pretty, but the defense was stifling and the Sixers came as close as you can get to the conference finals. This time, Brown once again has to make them into a different team, but without a star creator on the perimeter and without their most versatile defender. I don't envy him.
5. Will Walker and Tatum make a statement?
Kemba Walker has never played on a team like this. In eight seasons in Charlotte, he made the playoffs twice, and both times was eliminated by the Miami Heat in the first round. This will be different because the Celtics are aiming much higher and because Walker is no longer the focal point of every opponent's defensive game plan.
This is not to say that Walker will have it easy. Josh Richardson will likely start on him, and Matisse Thybulle will surely pester him off the bench. Boston's strength, though, is its abundance of playmaking options, and Walker should find his share of pull-up 3s out of pick-and-rolls with Embiid parked in the paint.
The same is true for Jayson Tatum, who has either become a superstar or is growing into one, depending on whom you ask. I'm not sure who will guard Tatum now that Simmons is out of the picture, but I know this is an opportunity for him to prove he has made the leap.
6. How will Doncic and Porzingis fare against Kawhi and PG?
A player's first playoff experience can be eye-opening. It is more physical than the regular season, and the possession-by-possession intensity is mentally exhausting. Typically, a star player will look back on it as a learning experience -- weaknesses that don't matter all that much or aren't even evident until then suddenly come to the fore.
Maybe Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis will be different. Doncic has played in plenty of pressure-packed games internationally, and he makes the offensive side of things simple for Porzingis. They won't have to deal with a typical playoff atmosphere, either, with no crowd to affect the energy of the game.
But the Clippers are anything but an ideal opening-round opponent. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are here to make the Mavericks' lives miserable, and they're on a championship-ready team. Doncic will have to deal with some of the best perimeter defense imaginable, and Porzingis will have to assert himself offensively and hold up on the other end when Leonard and George put him in pick-and-rolls.
7. Is MPJ ready for this?
The whole point of swinging for the fences in the draft is that you might hit on someone like Michael Porter Jr. The Denver Nuggets look like a different team with Porter playing off Nikola Jokic, scoring from everywhere with a combination of cuts, isolations and spot-up 3s. The 22-year-old forward averaged 22 points and 8.6 rebounds in 33.3 minutes in seven seeding games, with a true shooting percentage of 69.5 percent. His jumper and frame have invited Kevin Durant comparisons since high school, and he represents upside for a Nuggets team that is often dismissed as a non-contender.
Porter is clearly the future. Right now, however, Denver might be asking a bit much. He has played a total of 987 career minutes of professional basketball, including preseason/scrimmage games, and he will have to keep up his insane efficiency to make up for his defensive deficiencies. He is one of the many reasons that the Nuggets surrendered a league-worst 122.7 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage-time minutes in Orlando.
The main reason Denver hasn't looked right is that it hasn't had its full roster. Gary Harris and Will Barton have yet to play in the bubble, and if they are not available -- or are not effective when they are -- then there will be even more on Porter's shoulders.
8. Does Utah have enough firepower?
A more pointed question: Is Donovan Mitchell going to put the Jazz on his back? Mitchell has had some memorable playoff performances, but the image of him tearing up Carmelo in pick-and-rolls has papered over his two extremely inefficient series against Houston. His career postseason true shooting percentage is 48.3 percent.
In fairness, Mitchell wasn't working with pristine spacing, and when the Rockets' switching jammed up the Jazz's offense, he was the sole playmaker. That was the point of bringing in Mike Conley and replacing Derrick Favors with Bojan Bogdanovic, but Bogdanovic is now sidelined and Conley just left the bubble for the birth of his son.
Theoretically, Mitchell could still pick Denver's dreadful defense apart. Utah's system generates tons of corner 3s, and the Nuggets tend to give up a lot of them. In the bubble, the Jazz's starters -- Conley, Mitchell, Royce O'Neale, Joe Ingles and Rudy Gobert -- moved the ball beautifully, made 44.9 percent of their 3s and pushed the pace more than a typical Quin Snyder team.
But things fell apart when Utah didn't have all five on the court. Bogdanovic is desperately missed, and the Jazz now have to rely on Jordan Clarkson and Georges Niang making shots. Mitchell can be better than he's been in past playoff series, sure, but he can't do it all himself.
9. Are Butler and the Heat about to back everything up?
Mere days ago, Jimmy Butler boldly told ESPN's Rachel Nichols that the Heat can win the whole thing. "Speaking for myself, I don't give a damn what anybody says," Butler said. "And I think I can speak for my teammates when I say they don't give a damn, either."
This is an extremely Butler thing to say, and he has been consistent about his belief in Heat culture and this specific Heat roster since last summer. He has been phenomenal in his first year in Miami, and he deserves to make an All-NBA team. He has been reluctant to shoot 3s, though, and has shot a shockingly poor 24.4 percent on them.
The best version of Butler shoots spot-up 3s without hesitation, and Indiana will have a tough time if he's making them, getting to the line and creating easy looks for others. That, plus defending T.J. Warren, Malcolm Brogdon and Victor Oladipo at various times, will be his job.
Also important: Will Bam Adebayo and Duncan Robinson's two-man game stay smooth under playoff scrutiny? Will Jae Crowder, whose 3-point percentage has dipped in previous playoffs, continue to make seemingly every open look he gets? Does the 36-year-old Andre Iguodala still have a playoff gear?
10. Does Indiana have something here?
The Pacers don't have Domantas Sabonis or Jeremy Lamb, but their starting lineup now features three guards, the crafty Warren and floor-spacing big man Myles Turner. If you can get past their glaring lack of depth, there's a lot to like about the way they're organized, especially if Oladipo can recapture some of the magic he had when he led Indiana to the playoffs two years ago.
The Pacers' future will look a whole lot less compelling, though, if Miami shuts their offense down. The Heat are equipped to mess up their sets with switching -- or their 2-3 zone -- and Indiana had a rough showing in this matchup last Monday, a 114-92 loss.
11. Can LeVert do his thing against this Raptors defense?
Predictably, Caris LeVert has put up numbers -- 25 points, 6.7 assists, 5.0 rebounds -- as the Nets' undisputed No. 1 option in the bubble. On Thursday, he almost ended the Blazers' run; when his potential game-winner clanked off the rim, he had to settle for 37 points, nine assists and six boards.
LeVert is reading the game better than ever, and he's a handful when he gets in the lane. But this is going to be a challenge. Toronto boasts not only the second-best defense in the league, but one that shifts shapes more often than any other. The Raptors know how much Brooklyn depends on LeVert, and you can expect them to do everything in their power to make him uncomfortable: blitzes, help defense from every angle, a box-and-one, whatever coach Nick Nurse feels is necessary.
LeVert has helped his stock in Orlando, even if he remains a questionable fit next to Durant and Kyrie Irving next season. Now he needs to stay poised under difficult circumstances. If there is good news on this front, it is that he dropped 37 in Toronto in February, albeit with Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol sitting out.
12. Can either the Nets or Magic make their first-round series interesting?
If you can find any analyst who has picked the Raptors or the Bucks to lose more than a game in the first round, please let me know. If the underdogs are going to have a shot, there is one obvious pathway: raining fire from 3-point range. Toronto and Milwaukee's defenses are extremely different in form, but both gave up a ton of 3s in the regular season.
The issue here is that the Raptors held opponents to a lower percentage on those 3s than anybody else and the Bucks are matched up with a team that is almost completely devoid of shooting. "If we're hitting [our 3s], it's going to be scary," Magic forward James Ennis said, per The Athletic's Josh Robbins, an indication that iffy shooters like Gary Clark, Wes Iwundu, Aaron Gordon and Ennis himself will be empowered to let it fly.
There are some other semi-relevant questions about these series: Can Toronto's offense find a rhythm against Brooklyn's zone? Can Gordon and Orlando's team defense make Giannis Antetokounmpo sweat? But the doubts that exist about the Raptors and Bucks center largely on their ability to execute against elite competition in high-pressure situations. They are not facing elite competition yet, and they might not even see a real high-pressure situation until the second round.