NBA restart preview: In the East, where do the Bucks stop?

Sopan Deb, The New York Times

Posted at Jul 30 2020 04:15 PM

The Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks against the Raptors on Nov. 2, 2019. The Bucks won 115-105. Milwaukee is the title favorite as the NBA season restarts, although defending champion Toronto is no slouch. Morry Gash, AP/file

Hello, basketball, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again.

If all goes well, the NBA season will tip off (again) Thursday from Walt Disney World near Orlando, Florida. For the most part, the so-called bubble has held, save for a player stepping over the line to pick up a delivery order or another heading to a strip club. (Tsk, tsk, Lou Williams!)

But it has been about four months since the NBA season was postponed because of the coronavirus. We’ve got you covered with a refresher course on each team that will be taking the floor.

As a reminder, 22 of the league’s 30 teams are at Disney World — the eight teams positioned for the playoffs in each conference, plus six teams that were within six games of the eighth seeds in their conferences. Everyone will play eight seeding games.

In the East, this means nine teams qualified. Let’s begin.

1. Milwaukee Bucks (53-12)

The Bucks were the most dominant team in the league before the season was suspended, leading the NBA by far in point differential at 11.2. (The Los Angeles Lakers were second at 7.4.) They had the league’s best defense and the third-best offense. Milwaukee also has Giannis Antetokounmpo, who will very likely repeat as the MVP, and supremely efficient Khris Middleton as his wingman.

They are title favorites, bolstered by likely first-round opponents (the Brooklyn Nets or the Washington Wizards) who are weakened without their best players.

Questions: Mostly just continuity issues, but many teams will have that problem. Middleton said he didn’t pick up a basketball for several months during quarantine. But can Antetokounmpo, who is not a strong 3-point shooter, overcome defenses that load up the paint on him in the playoffs?

2. Toronto Raptors (46-18)

This team is deep and has championship pedigree. Pascal Siakam broke out this year to average career highs in almost every category and establish himself as a star, which helped the team overcome the loss of Kawhi Leonard. But aside from Siakam, five other players averaged double digits in scoring for Toronto, as the Raptors gripped the second seed throughout the season. They excelled defensively, second best behind only Milwaukee.

Questions: The Raptors were not a top-10 offense during the regular season. Are Siakam and Kyle Lowry strong enough offensively to get baskets whenever the team needs them in the playoffs against better defenses? Can they hold off the Boston Celtics, who are three games behind, to retain their seed? You want the No. 2 seed over the No. 3. It’s the difference between facing a depleted Nets team and going up against Miami, Indiana or Philadelphia, who might land at No. 6.

3. Boston Celtics (43-21)

The Celtics recovered from last year’s underwhelming run on the backs of their big four: Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward, all of whom, except Hayward, are averaging at least 20 points a game. Tatum, in particular, has made the leap to star status. They’ve also received some heady contributions from rookie Grant Williams.

Questions: First: What’s the status of Walker’s knee? Walker missed several games during the regular season, and after the long layoff, coach Brad Stevens suggested that Walker needed more time to ease into play. (Recently, Walker told The New York Times that his knee felt fine.) Second, the Celtics’ bench was, at best, inconsistent. This team is top-heavy and will need more from Enes Kanter and Brad Wanamaker.

4. Miami Heat (41-24)

Miami’s big acquisition from last summer, Jimmy Butler, has been a strong fit, averaging 20.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and 6.1 assists. The biggest jump in his game has been in getting to the free-throw line 9.1 times a game. In February, the team traded for Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder, two tough, defensive-minded players. Kendrick Nunn, the rare 24-year-old rookie, put up 15.6 points a game. This is a team with a sum larger than its parts: It’s not top-heavy like the Celtics, but it has solid contributors all around, including Bam Adebayo (a first-time All-Star) and Goran Dragic.

Questions: The Heat were 27-5 at home and 14-19 on the road. So how will they fare at a neutral site? Butler’s 3-point shooting has been horrendous (25%) so who will coach Erik Spoelstra turn to when they need deep shots? Miami’s defense is 12th in the league — above average, but good enough for a deep run?

5. Indiana Pacers (39-26)

The Pacers were resilient this season without Victor Oladipo, who didn’t play until late January because of a ruptured quad. Domantas Sabonis made his first All-Star Game, averaging 18.5 points and 12.4 rebounds a game in his first year in Indiana as a full-time starter. T.J. Warren was a bright spot. He was essentially traded as a salary dump by the Phoenix Suns to the Pacers and averaged 18.7 points a game on a very efficient 60% true shooting percentage.

Questions: The team was stingy defensively but struggled offensively. Sabonis has left the bubble because of a foot injury. And while Oladipo has been practicing with the team, it’s unknown whether he’ll play once the regular season restarts. It’s hard to see the team going anywhere without both of them.

6. Philadelphia 76ers (39-26)

This is arguably the most interesting team in the league: a collection of mismatched but talented parts. Considered a contender for the title before the season, the Sixers instead struggled. Ben Simmons remained a force on the defensive end but still would not shoot from the outside, even at coach Brett Brown’s urging. Al Horford could not seem to find his footing next to fellow big man Joel Embiid and was relegated to the bench. The playoffs give the Sixers a chance to leave an underwhelming regular season behind and be seen as a title contender again. No one wants to see them in the first round.

Questions: Will Simmons shoot 3s? The Sixers were 29-2 at home but 10-24 on the road: What will a neutral site do for them? Is Embiid in shape to handle a deep playoff run? And will running Shake Milton at point guard actually work?

7. Brooklyn Nets (30-34)

It’s almost unfair: The Nets will restart without most of their key players, including Kyrie Irving (shoulder), Kevin Durant (Achilles tendon), Spencer Dinwiddie (coronavirus) and DeAndre Jordan (coronavirus). This was always likely to be a throwaway season for the Nets without Durant. But this is a skeleton crew they are throwing out there.

They signed veterans Jamal Crawford and Tyler Johnson to help fill the holes, but there’s not much firepower here. The season was difficult, with Irving and Caris LeVert dealing with injuries. But no one expected this. Florida will mostly be an opportunity to assess players for next year.

Questions: Do the Nets want to make the playoffs? Or will tanking be an option to get a lottery pick? They do not own their first rounder but would get it back if they fell out of the playoffs.

8. Orlando Magic (30-35)

It was undoubtedly a disappointing year for the Magic, who didn’t show growth from the previous year. Aaron Gordon averaged only 14.4 points a game, his lowest since 2016-17, his first full year as a starter. Markelle Fultz was a bright spot, playing through most of the season and averaging 12.1 points a game, but he is still performing far below his draft expectations as the No. 1 pick in 2017. Jonathan Isaac was solid on defense but had been out since New Year’s Day with a left knee injury until he returned for a scrimmage Monday. At least the Magic didn’t have to travel far to go to the bubble.

Questions: Can they put a scare into the Milwaukee B — ha, ha, ha, ha. Just kidding.

9. WASHINGTON WIZARDS (24-40)

Bradley Beal, the team’s best player, decided not to go to the bubble, as did Davis Bertans, the sharpshooter who was having a career year, almost averaging more points a game (15.4) than he did his previous three years combined. Bertans is an unrestricted free agent this summer and is set to sign a significant contract. John Wall, who did not play this season because of a torn Achilles tendon, also will not be available. Rui Hachimura was in the midst of a promising rookie season though, so it’ll be nice to see him get some run on campus.

Like the Nets, the restart is mostly cosmetic for the Wizards. But if the ninth seed finishes within four games of the eighth seed, this forces a play-in series. So the Wizards do have an outside shot of making the playoffs. They are 5.5 games back right now.

Questions: Is the Wall and Beal partnership in the best interests of the franchise after this season?