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The conference semifinals had been touted as the moment the 2020 NBA Playoffs would get serious long before the Orlando bubble experiment started.
The bracket is filled with mouth-watering matchups in both conferences which have the potential to evoke the postseason emotions every basketball fan craves for every year.
The Los Angeles Lakers again needed to wait to learn the identity of their opponent, as the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder needed Game 7 to decide their first-round series.
Meanwhile, the L.A. Clippers are facing the Denver Nuggets, who are coming off a spectacular showdown with the Utah Jazz, which also required seven games to declare the winner.
In the East, the Milwaukee Bucks are facing their nemesis Miami Heat who were the only Eastern Conference team they did not manage to beat before the season was stopped in March.
And the Heat have already taken a 2-0 lead in the series.
Meanwhile, the Boston Celtics are squaring up with the defending champions Toronto Raptors, who have been vocal about their intentions to keep the Larry O’Brien trophy in Canada for at least one more season.
The Raptors, however, have already fallen 0-2 in the series — just like they did in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Bucks last year.
That is not to say the first playoff round was completely dull, particularly in the West.
The Chris Paul revenge mission on the Houston Rockets and the Avengers-like battle between two bubble superhumans — Denver’s Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell of the Jazz — were stellar and could truly keep one at the edge of the seat.
Not to mention the Dallas Mavericks, who put up a solid fight against the heavily-favored Clippers on the back of Luka Doncic’s heroics. The matchup offered a genuine hoops all-inclusive: overtimes, game-winning dagger 3s, dirty plays, and ejections.
But Kawhi Leonard’s talent and industry were too much to handle for the brave Mavs. After six games, in which the two-time NBA champion averaged 32.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per game, the Clippers overcame Dallas bringing a Battle for Los Angeles-themed Western Conference Finals one step closer.
Whether they will fight the Lakers for the NBA Finals spot is obviously contingent on how well they fare against the Nuggets.
Aside from the Game 7 slugfest, Denver’s offense lit up in the series with Utah shooting 42.1% from deep – a second-best percentage in the playoffs trailing the Jazz by only 0.09%.
Murray’s contribution was indispensable. He shot a stunning 58.5% from behind the arc before Game 7, recorded two 50-points games and a 42-point performance to inspire Denver’s comeback from 1-3 in the series.
The Nuggets could definitely hurt the Clippers who seemed unexpectedly vulnerable and overly Leonard-centric against Dallas.
Another variable is whether the Lakers can keep their momentum gained in the series with Portland to dispatch the Rockets.
L.A. never doubted they had what it took to send Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and their Blazers home despite a slow start in the bubble and Game 1 loss.
And they proved to be right, in big part thanks to Anthony Davis and LeBron James who showed a glimpse of what the superstar duo is capable of this postseason.
Davis averaged 29.8 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per game against Portland while James recorded 27.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, and as many assists per night. The numbers are eerily similar or, perhaps, even better than those of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal on their way to the 2002 NBA title.
However, the whole Lakers team significantly improved after falling to Portland in the series opener.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope finally seemed like the sharpshooting guard he is known to be — converting 40.6% of his 3-point attempts throughout the series — and, together with Alex Caruso, played a key role in stopping the dangerous Lillard-McCollum backcourt.
Meanwhile, Kyle Kuzma continues his form surge and has emerged in the bubble as one of the best defenders on the Lakers roster, allowing only 94.2 per 100 possessions when on the court – the team’s second-best rating, only behind Caruso.
A collective effort and consistency will be key in their second-round clash with Houston.
But Lakers head coach Frank Vogel is confident his team is ready for whatever the Rockets will throw at them.
The playoff extravaganza continues in the Orlando bubble with the conference semifinals promising to be extraordinary, both on and off the court.
Western Conference Semifinals (all times in PT)
(1) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (4) Houston
Game 1: Houston at Los Angeles, Friday, Sept. 4 at 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Houston at Los Angeles, Sunday, Sept. 6, at 5:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 3: Los Angeles at Houston, Tuesday, Sept. 8 at 6 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Los Angeles at Houston, Thursday, Sept. 10, TBA (TNT)
Game 5*: Houston at Los Angeles, Saturday, Sept. 12, TBA (ESPN)
Game 6*: Los Angeles at Houston, Monday, Sept. 14, TBA (TNT)
Game 7*: Houston at Los Angeles, Wednesday, Sept. 16, TBA (TNT)
(2) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (3) Denver Nuggets
Game 1: Denver at L.A., Thursday, Sept. 3 at 6 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Denver at L.A., Saturday, Sept. 5 at 6 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: L.A. at Denver, Monday, Sept. 7 at 6 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: L.A. at Denver, Wednesday, Sept. 9 at 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 5*: Denver at L.A., Friday, Sept. 11, TBA (TNT)
Game 6*: L.A. at Denver, Sunday, Sept. 13, TBA (ESPN)
Game 7*: Denver at L.A., Tuesday, Sept. 15, TBA (ESPN)
Eastern Conference Semifinals
(1) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (5) Miami Heat
Game 1: Heat 115, Bucks 104
Game 2: Heat 116, Bucks 114
Game 3: Milwaukee at Miami, Friday, Sept. 4 at 3:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Milwaukee at Miami, Sunday, Sept. 6 at 12:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 5*: Miami at Milwaukee, Tuesday, Sept. 8 at 3:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 6*: Milwaukee at Miami, Thursday, Sept 10, TBA (ESPN)
Game 7*: Miami at Milwaukee, Saturday, Sept. 12, TBA (TNT)
(2) Toronto Raptors vs. (3) Boston Celtics
Game 1: Celtics 112, Raptors 94
Game 2: Celtics 102, Raptors 99
Game 3: Toronto at Boston, Thursday, Sept. 3 at 3:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Toronto at Boston, Saturday, Sept. 5 at 3:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5*: Boston at Toronto, Monday, Sept. 7 at 3:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 6*: Toronto at Boston, Wednesday, Sept. 9, TBA(ESPN)
Game 7*: Boston at Toronto, Friday, Sept. 11, TBA (TNT)
* – If Necessary
Which teams will reach the 2020 NBA Finals? We will soon find out as the playoffs continue inside the league’s “bubble” at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla.
The betting favorites (Bucks, Lakers and Clippers) have reached the conference semifinals, but it’s clear the other remaining squads (Raptors, Celtics, Nuggets, Rockets and Heat) are coming into the second round with extreme confidence. These series should be highly competitive and provide plenty of entertainment