The NBA is here.
For nearly five months, the league has been on hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, but, with the zero positive tests in the NBA bubble, the season is back on track to finish and crown an NBA champion.
Now that the hurdle of getting to the restart of the season has been cleared, we can finally get excited about some of the matchups that we are going to see when the season tips off.
These 10 matchups, in particular, have our attention, as they will be the most exciting confrontations of the NBA return.
10. Rudy Gobert vs. Everyone
While it feels like it happened about a century ago, it was about four months ago that Rudy Gobert became the NBA's first known case of coronavirus. To make matters worse, Gobert had been joking about the virus by touching the microphones of reporters during a press conference just before it was revealed he had the virus.
There were rumors that Jazz teammate Donovan Mitchell was not getting along with Gobert after Mitchell came down with the virus shortly after the All-Star did. Will team chemistry be an issue for the Jazz heading into the postseason? And will players on opposing teams have animosity toward Gobert for pushing everyone into a bubble that severely cramps the lifestyle of most NBA players? Only time will tell on both fronts.
9. Lakers vs. Ja Morant
The Memphis Grizzlies are currently holding onto the eighth seed in the Western Conference and will have to survive the seeding games in order to make the playoffs. If they do get into the playoffs as the eighth seed, they will be a part of one of the most tantalizing matchups of the first round against the Los Angeles Lakers, who look like a lock to secure the top seed in the West.
Ja Morant battling the best team in the league will be the source of this matchup’s appeal, as Morant is likely to take home NBA Rookie of the Year honors.
While the first round is usually filled with mismatches between the top seeds and lower seeds, this mismatch would be a rare one worth watching.
8. Clippers vs. Luka Doncic
As it stands, the Dallas Mavericks are holding onto the seventh spot in the Western Conference, and would likely play the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round if they remained there after the seeding games. If the Clippers ended up being the Mavericks’ opponent in the first round, that would be one of the more compelling series in the first round as well, as the Clippers would have to figure out how to deal with Luka Doncic, the best basketball player under 25.
Doncic is so difficult to guard thanks to his size as a point guard, which would require Patrick Beverley to either grow a foot or guard someone else for the bulk of the series. Would the Clippers send Kawhi Leonard at Doncic instead, or would they use Paul George on him? That would be something Doc Rivers would need to figure out, as one of the most gifted young players in recent league history would look to pull an upset against a Clippers team thought to be a favorite to win the title.
7. Raptors vs. Bucks
Last season’s Eastern Conference Finals featured the Milwaukee Bucks falling to the Toronto Raptors, with Kawhi Leonard leading Toronto to the Eastern Conference title before helping them win the NBA Finals. This year, Kawhi Leonard is in Los Angeles with the Clippers, but a potential Eastern Conference Finals rematch between these two teams in the playoffs would feature a new matchup of stars.
This time around, it would be Pascal Siakam leading the Raptors into battle against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, which would be an incredible battle of two of the fastest rising stars in the game.
Siakam’s improvement over the last two seasons has been incredible, and a seven-game series against the player who is likely to win his second straight MVP would rival any series in terms of entertainment value.
6. Patrick Beverley vs. Houston Rockets
Beverly’s role as one of the great irritants in the NBA has been felt by many players, perhaps none more than Russell Westbrook. While Beverly was with the Houston Rockets and Westbrook was with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Beverly hurt Westbrook's knee in the postseason on what was described as a dirty play. Now, Beverly’s Clippers and Westbrook’s Rockets could meet in the second round of the playoffs if the current seeding holds up.
Since their initial confrontation, Westbrook has been openly critical of Beverly’s reputation as a defensive stopper, going as far as to say that Beverly has the media fooled about his abilities on that end of the floor. Against a team with Westbrook and James Harden on it, Beverly would have a huge opportunity to prove Westbrook wrong depending on how he performs on defense.
5. Zion Williamson vs. LeBron James
And, if the New Orleans Pelicans can climb into the eighth spot in the Western Conference, Williamson could end up facing James in the first round of the playoffs.
The thought of James and Williamson guarding one another in a postseason game is extremely exciting. A player who many consider the GOAT going up against the future of the league would give fans a look at an intergenerational matchup that they never got to enjoy between Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
It will be difficult for the Pelicans to get to the playoffs — especially with the Blazers looking rather dangerous — but fans might be pulling for New Orleans over any other eighth-seed contender just to see this potential matchup.
4. 76ers vs. Celtics
One of the best rivalries in the NBA playoffs in recent years has been between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Celtics. They faced each other in the 2018 first round, with the Celtics winning that series in five games. This year, though, the Sixers have a chance to reverse their fortunes against the Celtics as both teams have new pieces that they would like to use to defeat one another.
For the Sixers, they have Al Horford, who was a member of the Celtics when they defeated Philadelphia in 2018. His veteran presence could be a huge boost for the Sixers this postseason, as their young core has sometimes struggled to deliver under the bright lights. Boston, meanwhile, brings Kemba Walker into the fold, as he looks to make his first significant impact in the playoffs in his career — if his knee is healthy.
If these two teams face one another again in the postseason, it would be electric to watch.
3. Clippers vs. Bucks
Any time you have two of the three best players in the world on one basketball court, you are guaranteed to get a good show out of it. That is exactly what would happen if the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers squared off in the NBA Finals. With Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo on the same floor and a championship on the line, there would be no shortage of storylines to look forward to.
For the Clippers, would Leonard be able to get past the Bucks for a second straight postseason, and earn back-to-back titles? Would Paul George be able to get his first ring? This postseason is pivotal for the Bucks, too. Can Milwaukee cash in after being the top seed in the Eastern Conference for two consecutive campaigns? If they don't, could the Greek Freak leave town in 2021?
2. Lakers vs. Bucks
Even better than a potential championship series between the Clippers and Bucks would be an NBA Finals between the Lakers and Bucks.
Additionally, the matchups in this series from an individual perspective would be incredible. Davis would likely take on the role of defending Giannis for the bulk of the series, but there would be plenty of room for LeBron to guard him as well.
With those three titans all working to stop one another interchangeably throughout an NBA Finals, this series could be the best possible way to finally break from having the Warriors in the championship round every season.
1. Lakers vs. Clippers
It isn’t often that a conference finals series is more anticipated than the NBA Finals, but that is certainly the case this year, assuming the Lakers and Clippers can both get to the Western Conference Finals. This series would feature four of the league's best players — including a much-anticipated clash between James and Leonard that we missed out on last season.
Here’s hoping that all these matchups transpire in the NBA bubble.
Photo: Getty Images / Lines Illustration