However, this is the most unpredictable NBA playoffs in history. Not only is the field fairly deep (11 teams have at least 30-to-1 odds), but there is no home-court advantage. That removes a big edge for Milwaukee and the two L.A. teams. It’s anyone’s guess how playing every game on a neutral court will play out.
For that reason, we could see a long shot (22-to-1 odds or greater) pull off an unexpected championship run. Here are four underdogs you should keep an eye on.
The Heat hit the restart in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. They’re three games behind the Boston Celtics, which means it’s unlikely Miami will move up in the standings. They’re two games up on the Indiana Pacers (who will be without Victor Oladipo) and the Philadelphia 76ers. It seems likely the Heat will fall into the Nos. 4-5 matchup, which would mean a second-round meeting with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Playing the Bucks hasn’t been the obstacle for the Heat as it has been for some other teams. Miami staged a late rally to win in overtime in Milwaukee during the Bucks’ home opener. When the teams met a week before the season paused, the Heat blasted the Bucks in Miami 105-89.
What gives Miami confidence against Milwaukee? Defense is where it starts. Because the Heat open games big with a traditional center (usually Meyers Leonard) alongside Bam Adebayo, they can put their best defender (Adebayo) on Giannis Antetokounmpo right from the jump. In that March matchup, Adebayo helped hold Antetokounmpo to just 13 points on 6-of-18 shooting.
The Heat also have confidence in Jimmy Butler’s — and to a lesser extent Goran Dragic’s — probing style to make life difficult on the Bucks’ NBA-best defense. Milwaukee has built that defense by playing an extreme drop style of coverage, where Brook Lopez regularly falls back to protect the rim at all costs. Miami is content to play deep into the shot clock and take mid-range shots against that defense.
Lastly, the Bucks regularly overwhelm teams with their depth. Milwaukee goes 11 to 12 players deep. The Heat are one of the few teams that also can confidently plug any of their top 12 players in and trust them. Most important of all, Miami has seven different players they could throw at Antetokounmpo defensively beyond Adebayo. That’s a lot of depth, and a lot of fouls, to make life difficult for the likely MVP.
If the Heat can get past Milwaukee, they’ll have eliminated their biggest obstacle to the NBA Finals. Their success against the Bucks this season makes them a long shot worth considering.
Philadelphia 76ers: +2500
There is a lot of “believe when you see it” with the Sixers. During the 2019 offseason, as the rest of the NBA was becoming smaller and more switchable, Philadelphia doubled down on size. Almost every concern we had about the 76ers came to pass during the regular season. The fit of Joel Embiid and Al Horford up front was clunky. They didn’t have enough shooting. And Embiid and Ben Simmons never became the dominating partnership everyone hoped for.
Yet, GM Elton Brand and coach Brett Brown insisted that their team was built to win in the playoffs. And they did win at a 60% clip before the season paused. So, they weren’t a total disaster in the regular season.
What should give you confidence in Philly winning at Walt Disney World? They don’t have to play any true road games. No team in the NBA had a bigger difference in performance in home vs. away games. The Sixers were an NBA-best 29-2 at home. On the road? They looked like a lottery team at 10-24.
Rival coaches and scouts are split on what that means for the 76ers in the restart. Some believe the team struggled in road games because it is still heavily reliant on the fairly young Embiid and Simmons. Others think that the team’s stars, especially Embiid, are lifted by playing at home.
Embiid is a completely different player when he’s not playing in Philadelphia. At home, he’s nearly unstoppable, scoring 24.6 points per game on 50% shooting. On the road? Embiid becomes a pedestrian jump shooter who hits just 43.6% from the field.
Embiid’s an emotional guy who plays to the crowd as much as any player in the NBA. Maybe he does truly need the backing of the home fans to lift him. Or maybe he wilts under the unending catcalls of hostile fans on the road?
The biggest reason to have faith in Philadelphia winning during the restart is the same thing that seemed to hurt it during the regular season: its size. Many believe it will take a while for teams to get in rhythm with their shooting. Because of Simmons and Embiid, the Sixers are at their best when they play in and around the paint.
If Philadelphia can take advantage of its size to score, it can lean on its defense to win low-scoring playoff games. Maybe Brand and Brown were futurists after all. And, because of their size, the 76ers have the personnel to make things difficult for the Bucks as well.
Denver Nuggets: +2200
The Nuggets are better than most people realize. They’re only a couple games behind the Clippers in the Western Conference. They’ve got a likely All-NBA center in Nikola Jokic. And they’ve got good depth.
There are concerns about Jokic after he tested positive for the coronavirus, but he’s expected to play without any issues. If he’s unable to play, run away from the Nuggets. They’re as reliant on Jokic to create offense as any team is on a singular player.
It’s the presence of Jokic that makes the Nuggets an intriguing proposition for the 2020 title. Neither the Lakers nor Clippers have a good answer for defending him. Both L.A. teams’ big men like to hang around the basket. Jokic is happy to stay on the perimeter and pick apart their defenses with his shooting and passing.
In addition to Jokic, the Nuggets can get scoring from Jamal Murray and Will Barton. If the four-month break was enough to break Gary Harris out of his slump, he’s another scorer in Denver’s lineup. That’s four guys who work well together and can go for 20 points on any given night.
On the other hand, the Nuggets lose one of the best home-court advantages in the NBA. The altitude in Denver is no joke, but it hasn’t been the playoff weapon that it’s been during the regular season. The Nuggets regularly boast one of the best home records each regular season. But when teams get to spend multiple days in Denver during the playoffs, the altitude isn’t the same factor. That’s part of the reason why the Nuggets have never reached the NBA Finals, and only made two Western Conference finals, in franchise history.
If Jokic is healthy enough to play, the Nuggets are going to be a tough out. They’ve got the size and depth to challenge the Lakers’ inside players. They’ve got just enough versatility to test the Clippers’ perimeter defense. Denver’s a tier below both of the L.A. teams, but Jokic could be the difference-maker in a playoff series.
Dallas Mavericks: +3000
The Mavs are going to be down several key players as the season restarts. But they have Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. That’s enough to give them a look as a long-shot bet.
Doncic was playing at a near-MVP level in his age-20 season, averaging 28.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 8.7 assists. He’s upped his field-goal percentage to over 46%. Most of that has come by improving his finishing around the rim to 75.4% compared to 63.7% as a rookie.
What gives you faith in Doncic’s ability to make things happen in the playoffs, when the defense gets tighter, is that he gets to the free-throw line over nine times a game. At such a young age, he’s already mastered the art of creating something out of nothing.
Beyond Doncic, the bubble wrap is fully off Porzingis. Leading up to the pause, Porzingis was playing the best basketball of his career. He was scoring, rebounding and blocking shots at high rates. He had also become a terrific partner for Doncic in the screen game. Porzingis and Doncic were reading the defense and figuring out rolling vs. popping for jumpers at a high level. And they had even developed a fun give-and-go game, where Porzingis would get the ball right back to Doncic.
Beyond the two stars, the Mavs have good depth despite missing some rotation players. Maxi Kleber is Porzingis light, allowing Dallas to run almost all the same stuff it does when Porzingis is in the game. Dorian Finney-Smith became a 3-and-D weapon at the forward spot, knocking down 37.4% from behind the arc. The guard line is filled with good players like Seth Curry, Delon Wright, the ageless J.J. Barea and recently added Trey Burke.
The guy who will make or break Dallas in the playoffs is Tim Hardaway Jr. If he can shoot over 40% from deep, like he did in the regular season, the Mavs have a three-headed offensive monster. Hardaway is also Dallas’ second-best offensive creator behind Doncic.
The Mavericks are a tough matchup for even the best teams, as Doncic and Porzingis are a handful to defend. If Dallas hits shots, it could be the ultimate Finals dark horse.