NBA Playoff Picture: Current matchups pit Celtics, 76ers in first round; Lakers, Clippers on collision course

Though nothing has been made official, it’s looking increasingly likely that the NBA will indeed resume its season at some point this summer. Reports have indicated late-July as a realistic target to begin games, with Disney World in Orlando, FL reportedly the favorite to serve as the single-site host

There are still a lot of details to iron out, not the least of which is the testing centers and procedures the league must have in place, whether the regular season will continue (at least for limited games to meet the local television contract requirements), and what the playoff format will look like. 

To the latter, there are numerous options, including perhaps going to a straight 1-16 seeding regardless of conference affiliation, which ESPN’s Brian Windhorst believes is a possibility. A World Cup-style format is under consideration. But so far, nothing concrete has been reported to indicate the league will in fact venture outside its traditional 1-8 format in each conference with seven-game series for all rounds. 

If that is indeed the case, below is what the playoff picture looks like as of right now, including current seeds, first-round matchups, and what the race for the No. 8 seed in each conference looks like if the regular season is to resume in some capacity. 

Western Conference

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

The Lakers would surely prefer that the regular season be scrapped, for two reasons. First, it keeps the Grizzlies in the No. 8 seed, which the Lakers would likely choose over possibly having to match up against Damian Lillard — a proven playoff killer — and a fully healthy Blazers team with Jusuf Nurkic back in the lineup, or even the Pelicans and Zion Williamson

Second, skipping straight to the playoffs eliminates the possibility of the Nuggets catching the Clippers for the No. 2 seed, which keeps the Lakers and Clippers on opposite sides of the bracket, ensuring they can’t meet until the conference finals. 

Should the regular season resume, a lot of this seeding could change quite a bit. Just two games separate the Nos. 3-6 seeds in the loss column. Notably, the Thunder are just one game back of Utah, which will be playing without Bojan Bogdanovic, who underwent season-ending wrist surgery shortly after the hiatus began. 

Race for No. 8

9. Trail Blazers


4 (in loss column)

10. Pelicans


3 (in loss column)

11. Kings 


3 (in loss column)

12. Spurs


3 (in loss column)

As mentioned above, the Blazers — who went to the conference finals last season even without Nurkic — would be in line to get him back for these playoffs — should they get a chance to crack the bracket. 

Teams need to get to 70 games to fulfill local television contracts, which, if they went straight for that number, would leave only four games for the Blazers and Pelicans to make up ground. Don’t bet on that. 

However, a play-in tournament of some kind feels like a real possibility, and in that format Lillard would make the Blazers by far the most dangerous team currently on the outside of the playoffs. It would give us another meaningful look at Zion Williamson, too, and possibly give us the chance to see him match up against LeBron and the Lakers in the first round. 

Eastern Conference

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

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. 

For the Sixers, that could well mean 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 when the hiatus began, 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

9. Wizards


5 (in loss column)

10. Hornets


7 (in loss column)

11. Bulls


8 (in loss column)

John Wall reportedly isn’t likely to play even with the extra time to heal during the hiatus, and none of these teams is going to pose any kind of threat in a playoff series. If there’s a play-in tournament in the East, it’ll simply be to decide who gets to play first-round doormat. 

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