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Prepare for high-stakes and high-level Eastern Conference second round

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Two of these sets of players will enter free agency coming off a second-round loss:

If Milwaukee loses that early, will ownership pay the luxury tax to keep this team intact? Will Giannis Antetokounmpo remain happy with the organization’s direction?

If Toronto loses that early, will Leonard stay and make Masai Ujiri’s huge bet pay off? If Leonard leaves, will the Raptors – the oldest Eastern Conference team this postseason, weighted by playing time – rebuild?

If Philadelphia loses that early, will the front office and in-season acquisitions Butler and Harris find common ground? If either forward leaves, how much more pressure will that add to the already-somewhat strained Joel EmbiidBen Simmons pairing?

If Boston loses that early, will Irving bolt for the Knicks or some other team? If the Celtics view Irving as even an increased flight risk, will they still aggressively try to trade for Anthony Davis?

The second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs could shape the entire NBA landscape for years to come.

And the games should be pretty good, too.

Beyond all the long-term considerations at play, there’s an immediate incentive – a spot in the Eastern Conference finals. The Bucks and 76ers both last got that far in 2001. The Raptors have made it only once in franchise history, 2016, when they suffered the most-lopsided six-game loss in NBA history. The Celtics have appeared in the last two Eastern Conference finals, but after all their turbulence this season, returning would be a nice achievement.

Advancing won’t be easy. Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia and Boston are each capable of, not only winning its upcoming series, but winning a title this year with the right breaks. The Bucks have been the NBA’s best team throughout the season. The Raptors’ postseason rotation, which includes includes in-season addition Marc Gasol, looks elite. The 76ers and Celtics have the requisite talent. Even if it’s getting late for it to jell, there’s still time.

Milwaukee (60-22), Toronto (58-24), Philadelphia (51-31) and Boston (49-33) give the East such a strong second round, it’d pass for a Western Conference second round.

Not only were all four teams good in the regular season, they kicked it up a notch in the first round. The Bucks (vs. Pistons) and Celtics (vs. Pacers) swept. The Raptors (vs. Magic) and 76ers (vs. Nets) won in five. And most of those games weren’t even close. The four series winners outscored their opponents by 14 points per game – the largest disparity ever in a conference’s first round.

Combing Milwaukee’s, Toronto’s, Philadelphia’s and Boston’s regular-season and first-round games, the four teams have outscored opponents by 6.0 points per game. That’s the best mark by an East’s final four in a decade and one of the best ever for either conference.

Here is the combined scoring margin of second-round teams by year/conference since the NBA implemented a 16-team postseason in 1984. Teams are listed with their seed:

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Not just good teams, the East’s second round features good matchups.

The Milwaukee-Boston is a rematch of last year’s first-round series, which the Celtics won in seven games. Boston wants to prove Antetokounmpo was wrong when he called the Bucks the better team after the series. This is a shot at redemption for Milwaukee point guard Eric Bledsoe, who got shown up last year.

The Bucks excel at defending the paint, but the Celtics are content shooting jumpers, anyway. In clutch situations, Irving is far better at creating his own shot than anyone else in this series. As good as Milwaukee is, Boston presents a particularly tough matchup.

In the other series, Embiid has dominated these playoffs. But Gasol is a formidable foe, an on-ball interior defender Brooklyn lacked.

Yet, as much as their roster has changed, it’s still tough to completely trust the Raptors in the postseason – especially considering they dropped Game 1 to Orlando. Not that the 76ers have earned benefit of the doubt at this level, either. Both teams are trying to establish themselves.

It should be great.

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: First round dates, times, matchups

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We’ve all had our fill of the seeding games appetizer, it’s time to dig into the main course: The playoffs. On Thursday, the NBA released the first-round playoffs schedule for 2020.

Those seeding games saw unexpected stars — Indiana’s T.J. Warren looking like an elite scorer — and teams we didn’t expect exploding on the scene, such as the 8-0 Suns. The playoffs promise even more of that — and a few upsets.

Here are a few more notes on the NBA’s first-round playoff schedule 2020:

• The NBA is continuing with the Summer League/AAU style format with four games a day spread out over the course of the day.
• Games are played every other day in all eight series.
• It will not be known who which team the West’s top seed (the Lakers) will face in the first round until the play-in games on Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday.
• The first Western Conference Play-In game is Saturday, Aug. 15 at 2:30 ET (ABC). If the eighth-seeded team wins the series is over and that team moves on to the Lakers; if the eighth seed team loses a second game will be played on Sunday at 4:30 ET (ESPN).
• The Heat and Pacers played last Monday, meet again on Friday, then next Tuesday start a best-of-7 series. Miami won that first game in impressive fashion.
Chris Paul, now wearing a Thunder uniform, will take on his former team, the Houston Rockets.
• The NBA has released an NBA Finals schedule to teams.

NBA playoffs schedule 2020, first round, by date (all times are Eastern):

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. Play-in winner

Game 1: Aug. 18, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 8:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

No. 2 L.A. Clippers vs. Dallas

Game 1: Aug. 17, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD

No. 3 Denver vs. No. 6 Utah

Game 1: Aug. 17, 1:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD

Oklahoma City vs. Houston (4/5 finish order yet to be decided)

Game 1: Aug. 18, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Milwaukee vs. No. 8 Orlando

Game 1: Aug. 18, 1:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 1:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 1:30 p.m. (NBATV)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

No. 2 Toronto vs. No. 7 Brooklyn

Game 1: Aug. 17, 4 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 1:30 p.m. (NBATV)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 1:30 p.m. (NBA TV)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD (ESPN)
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD (TNT)

No. 3 Boston vs. No. 6 Philadelphia

Game 1: Aug. 17, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 1 p.m. (ABC)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD (ESPN)
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD (TNT)

Miami vs. Indiana (4/5 finish order yet to be decided)

Game 1: Aug. 18, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 1 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 3:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 6:30 (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

Memphis advances to play-in; Phoenix goes perfect 8-0 but needs help to join them

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Memphis entered the bubble with a 3.5 game cushion as the eighth seed in the West. All Ja Morant and company had to do was hold on to that and they would be in the league’s new play-in series.

They didn’t.

Phoenix entered the bubble as a playoff afterthought, so far back of Memphis — and with so many teams between them — that Devin Booker would have to explode and the Suns would need to be perfect in the bubble.

They were. With a win over Dallas Thursday, Phoenix went 8-0 in the seeding games.

That still may not be enough.

Memphis beat Milwaukee 119-106 Thursday, with that the Grizzlies are assured of a spot in the play-in as at least the nine seed.

That means Phoenix needs Brooklyn to beat Portland later Thursday night. If the Nets pull the upset, the Grizzlies become the eight seed and the Suns would jump to the nine seed. If Portland wins, it is in the play-in against Memphis (with the Trail Blazers as the eighth seed), and Phoenix takes off for Cancun and the offseason.

The Grizzlies and Suns winning means the San Antonio Spurs historic playoff streak ends at 22 seasons, they are now mathematically eliminated.

Thursday’s games came with the promise of playoff-chase drama but ended up the kind of duds we see at the end of a typical regular season when one team has something to play for and the other is coasting and disinterested.

The Grizzlies didn’t win because Rookie of the Year to be Morant put up a triple-double (12 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists).

Rather it was a testament to the Memphis front office building out a solid, balanced roster around their young stars. Memphis got 31 from third-year player Dillon Brooks (a second-round pick they developed), plus 26 points and 19 rebounds from Jonas Valanciunas (acquired in a trade).

The Bucks were without Giannis Antetokounmpo who was suspended one game for headbutting Moe Wagner of the Wizards. That certainly helped the Grizzlies, although it’s unlikely the Greek Freak would have played significant minutes.

Phoenix got 27 points from Devin Booker, plus balanced scoring behind him. Dario Saric added 16 points off the bench.

A lot of fans had hoped to see Booker and the electric Suns in the play-in game, but in the NBA winning games matters — and not just the last eight in the bubble. All of them. The Suns didn’t do enough of that before the coronavirus shut down the NBA for four months.

The Grizzlies did, so they advance.

Adam Silver: Players not in bubble have heard such positive reports, they’ve asked to join

NBA commission Adam Silver and Warriors star Stephen Curry
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NBA commission Adam Silver warned that everyone involved must be comfortable with some positive coronavirus tests in the bubble.

So far, there have been none.

Silver, in a Q&A with Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated:

SI: The bubble—sorry, the campus—is operational. Is it what you hoped it would be?

AS: It’s better than what we had envisioned. Players have taken to it in a more spirited way than we thought they would. We knew that this would require enormous sacrifice on everyone’s part, but I think that what is hard to calibrate—and this maybe goes to my experience when I first came into the arena—is the human emotion that comes with being around other people. And I think everyone realized they missed it more than they even understood. There are players either whose teams are not participating, who were unable to engage this summer because of injuries or other issues, who, once they spoke to fellow NBA players, have asked to join the experience down in Orlando.

People generally enjoy being around other people. Basketball players like to play basketball.

The NBA bubble has made those activities – otherwise dangerous due to coronavirus – sufficiently safe.

That surely must be fulfilling for participating players (even if the reason for the whole operation is money, not fulfillment).

Warriors star Stephen Curry admitted his FOMO, and the Trail Blazers – presumably with Trevor Ariza on board – reportedly tried to get Ariza late admission into the bubble.

But I wonder whether there’s a level of “grass is greener on the other side” from the players who asked to join. The bubble participants are away from their families and friends for at least a month, longer if their team advances. That’s easier to accept in theory without actually experiencing it.

2020 NBA Finals schedule sent to teams (but it’s tentative)

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In a typical NBA season, the start date of the NBA Finals is set before training camps ever open.

Nothing about 2020 is typical, including the NBA’s bubble restart in Orlando. While we had known the league had a Finals start date of Sept. 30, and we knew games would be roughly every other day, there were not a lot of details.

At least not until the league sent a memo to teams on Thursday detailing the 2020 NBA Finals schedule, a memo obtained by Shams Charania of The Athletic.

 

While times have not been announced, expect tip-off at 8 or 9 Eastern.

The 2020 NBA Finals schedule has games every other day, except for the two-day gap between Game 4 (Tuesday, Oct. 6) and Game 5 (Friday, Oct. 9).

There is a theory some subscribe to around the league that playoff series will be shorter this year because the weaker team will not have the home crowd to pump them up to steal games. When a team gets down, they will be more likely to stay down. If that proves true — and good luck to you predicting how these Finals will actually go — then the league might move up the Finals date. But don’t be on it, moving the Finals would take coordination with television partner ABC and more, and more than likely the games stay where they are.

The road to the finals, the NBA playoffs, start next Monday  Seven of the eight series are set, with the final spot in the West still up for grabs and headed to a play-in series (the teams in that series will be determined Thursday, with the games Saturday (Aug. 15) and, if necessary, Sunday.