Here it is at long last, the NBA postseason, four months behind schedule, without the once-mighty Warriors and, therefore, crackling with intensity and possibilities.
The action begins Monday, featuring 16 teams, most of which have no realistic chance at being the last standing.
There will be enough drama over the next six weeks to hold our attention. With the absence of live fans, TV screens around the world will sizzle.
Here is a look at the teams, beginning with those going home soon and concluding with those most likely to play in October:
16. Orlando Magic
They’re outgunned by the other 15 teams, particularly with Aaron Gordon – normally assigned to defend Giannis Antetokounmpo – nursing a tight hamstring, Jonathan Isaac, who can defend three positions, out (torn ACL) and Evan Fournier playing on a tender ankle. They’re scrappy, a euphemism for not having the goods.
Player to watch: Gordon. If his hammy holds up, he’ll make Giannis work for everything. And maybe that will be good enough to steal a game before being bounced.
15. Philadelphia 76ers
Ben Simmons (knee surgery) is out. Joel Embiid has a cornucopia of bumps and aches (wrist/hand, ankle, who knows what else). Even when they’re both healthy, this team is prone to high highs and low lows. They go into the playoffs leaning hard on Tobias Harris, Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz and our old friend Alec Burks. Bleak is the word.
Player to watch: Embiid. If he can grit his teeth through the discomfort and approach his level, Philly might find a way to be competitive.
14. Brooklyn Nets
We love Caris LeVert’s offense. He’s fearless, has fabulous footwork and can smell buckets. He has been legit for a while, but now it’s public. But the absences of quality players (Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie to name three) kill any chance of this team going anywhere. That 5-3 restart record might help interim coach Jacque Vaughn, but it’s of no help now.
Player to watch: Jamal Crawford. Signed last month to provide depth in the restart, the 40-year-old has a cranky hamstring. He might not be available. We’d hate to see him go out like this.
13. Oklahoma City Thunder
Though Billy Donovan and (unofficial) assistant coach Chris Paul did a fabulous job guiding this team beyond modest expectations, inconsistency was OKC’s problem in the restart. Part of it can be blamed on injuries (Steven Adams, Dennis Schroder, both expected back), but some of it was unreliable offense. The Thunder’s defense keeps them in games, but they’ll need a surprise contributor to make noise in a first-round series against Houston.
Player to watch: CP3. If he’s healthy, they’ll be a tough out against his former teammates. If not, they’re done.
12. Portland Trail Blazers
They’re mentally tough and high on confidence and possess star quality. If playoff teams were being rated on big-screen appeal, Portland would be top-five because Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Carmelo Anthony are Jusuf Nurkic worth watching at every turn. On offense. Defensively, the Blazers are a rumor. That will be their undoing.
Player to watch Plenty of choices here, but we know what Dame and CJ will do. With LeBron on the opponent, it’s Melo. He’s the X-factor. How much does he have left?
11. Indiana Pacers
They had some uneven moments lately, but the return of Victor Oladipo means they must be taken seriously. The injury list is an issue, though. Domantas Sabonis is out with plantar fasciitis. Red-hot TJ Warren (moderate plantar fasciitis) and Myles Turner (wrist) are day-to-day. They’re being careful with VO, too. As much as we like the squad, they have too much to overcome.
Player to watch: Warren. He lifted them to another level during the restart – until he saw Jimmy Butler. Even if he’s cleared, TJ will see a lot of Jimmy in the first round.
10. Utah Jazz
It’s impossible to know what this crew is going to deliver. Rudy Gobert is great, and then ordinary. Donovan Mitchell is good aggressive, and then bad aggressive. Joe Ingles is hot, and then invisible. The loss of shooting ace Bojan Bogdanovic is painful and now scoring is their biggest problem. Then, too, they are a worse team without Mike Conley, who is expected to miss some early games while on paternity leave.
Player to watch: Ingles. He’s their top healthy shooter and they need buckets. One factor in their 2-6 record in the bubble is that he averaged 7.4 shots per game.
9. Dallas Mavericks
Every postseason brings a couple teams nobody wants to play, These Mavs fit that profile. Luka Doncic is fantastic, Kristaps Porzingis looks really comfortable and their court chemistry is solid. The biggest barrier is youth. No matter how great Luka was in postseasons overseas, this is his NBA playoff baptism. There will be bumps for a team that already struggles in tight games.
Player to watch: Porzingis. If he can be effective against the Clippers’ terrific wings, it will create room for such teammates as Tim Hardaway Jr. and ace shooter Seth Curry.
8. Denver Nuggets
They’re deep, with a good blend of youth and experience. We love The Joker. We’re falling for Michael Porter Jr. We really like Jamal Murray. But Gary Harris (hip) and Will Barton (knee), keys to the regular rotation, have not played since March. If they can’t go, and be effective, Michael Malone will be asking a lot of his fill-ins.
Player to watch: Murray. If he at least offsets Donovan Mitchell, the first-round series tilts to Denver. If not, there’s an opening for Utah.
7. Miami Heat
We’d like to describe them as “sneaky good,” but they have all the things a team needs to make a run. They play punishing defense. Jimmy Butler, when engaged, is a legitimate alpha. Bam Adebayo is that versatile big every team wishes it had. Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson scare the wits out of opponents. Andre Iguodala and Goran Dragic are savvy vets. They won’t come out of the East, but they could go deep into September.
Player to watch: Butler. He craves high stakes and big moments. If he balls, his teammates will follow. If not, they’ll peek at each other while glancing sideways at him.
6. Houston Rockets
All those years knocking and getting the door slammed in their faces by the Warriors. Well, that’s not an issue this time. This fact, along with the success they’ve had with small lineups, has Houston’s confidence cup spilling over. They will, however, need a healthy Russell Westbrook (quad) to make a deep run, and he’s going to miss some early games.
Player to watch: James Harden. So much is on his plate, every year, and he usually delivers in the regular season. Will he ever have a triumphant postseason?
5. Los Angeles Lakers
Avery Bradley is out, and that hurts against Portland’s guards. It’s up to Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to defend the perimeter, and they’ll need to be on top of their games. LeBron James and Anthony Davis make this team is a title contender, and nobody has a real answer for either of them. Yet LA is not infallible, because the offense is prone to stalls.
Player to watch: LeBron. Playing possum, or playing hurt? He hasn’t been his typically supercharged self lately, and these Lakers are vulnerable if he is any less.
4. Boston Celtics
We trust coach Brad Stevens to devise first-round defensive schemes with one priority, which is to focus on Embiid at the cost of other Sixers. Boston lacks quality size, but it has no fewer than three terrific defenders, led by Marcus Smart. The formula for cruising to the next round is to harass Embiid into frustration, move the ball and drain threes.
Player to watch: Kemba Walker. He’s built for high-pressure situations, but this is his introduction to an NBA postseason with expectations. He doesn’t need to carry them, but he needs to shine in tight games.
3. Milwaukee Bucks
They’re going to need that first-round sweep to fine-tune the areas that faltered – mostly on defense, specifically beyond the arc – in the seeding games because it’s appreciably tougher in the next round. Coach Mike Budenholzer has a pattern of getting the best from his teams in the regular season but not so much in the postseason. He needs to bring his strongest clipboard.
Player to watch: Eric Bledsoe. Giannis will be marvelous. Their best shot at The Finals is if Bledsoe can defend without fouling, move the ball wisely and stick a few 3-balls.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
Don’t be fooled by the ragged quarantine showings because there were various reasons for the lack of cohesion. Most of those reasons are gone. If Kawhi Leonard and Paul George each find their playoff gear, the Clips can survive the early going without the best of Patrick Beverley (calf) and Landry Shamet (foot). They’ll need them to reach October.
Player to watch: Leonard. Perhaps the league’s best one-on-one defender during his peak years in San Antonio, he has not been as sharp the past two seasons. Is it gone, or is he saving it for Luka?
1. Toronto Raptors
The defending champs can be effective playing big or small, fast or slow. They’re the most consistently disciplined defensive team in the league, because they’re smart, skilled and scrappy. Their depth is reliable. So, no, there are no serious weaknesses. It’s money time, so the 1-2 (regular season) record vs. Milwaukee doesn’t scare us off.
Player to watch: Pascal Siakam. He’s a star now, and he’ll have to deal with Giannis in the EC Finals. He doesn’t have to contain him (not happening), but he can’t get destroyed.