Celtics

2020 NBA Playoffs: Why this year's champ will be one of the greatest champions ever

2020 NBA Playoffs: Why this year's champ will be one of the greatest champions ever

A return to the NBA season is shifting ever-so-slightly to becoming a reality, with Orlando’s Disney World appearing to be the venue of choice for the league to resume the 2019-2020 season. 

And while there are some who will surely slap an asterisk over whichever team emerges as an NBA champion this year, that’s far from how the next NBA champion should be viewed in the pantheon of previous title winners. 

When you look at the journey whichever team hoists the Larry O’Brien trophy (in August? September? October maybe?) will have had to go through, it will be the kind of postseason gauntlet that no team has ever had to endure. 

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And that makes the next NBA champion, able to have overcome the stop-and-start season due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, worthy of being in the conversation for having one of the greatest seasons ever. 

The whole notion of any NBA champion being less than worthy of the title is crazy. 

In 2015, Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors won their first of three NBA titles within a four-year window, and their opponent's starting point guard missed some or most games in each of their playoff series that year. 

But that team and subsequent Warriors squads are still regarded — as they should be — as elite champions. 

TEAM HEALTH NOT AS BIG AN ISSUE

The one thing that teams worry the most about going into the playoffs — health — won’t be anywhere close to being as big a factor as it has in past years. 

The global pandemic put the brakes on the NBA season and sports in general, providing a number of NBA players with various bumps and bruises plenty of time to heal up and be as close to being fit as possible for a lengthy postseason. 

Of course, there will be rust for all players to shake off, and some players won’t be in nearly as good a condition to start the reboot to the season as they would be if the season had gone on without interruption. 

But the injuries that teams are often trying to manage and navigate around at the end of the season won’t be there because of the extended time without games and practices. 

For the Celtics, the idea that you can essentially stay where you are in the standings, get Kemba Walker more than two months of rest with no games and practice while potentially playing a handful of games prior to the postseason, gives Boston a great shot at making a deep playoff run. 

And unfortunately for the Celtics, the same can be said for just about every other team in the postseason picture. 

So that means regardless of what your playoff seeding will be, regardless of how healthy your team as a whole will be, your opponent will also be close to being at their peak physically which means every series — more likely than not — will be harder to win than previous years. 

And for those who point to how teams can still be impacted by players getting hurt during the ramp-up to the playoffs, the risk of that happening in games prior to this postseason becomes much smaller when you’re talking about a handful of potential regular season games leading up to this year’s playoffs versus the slate of 60-plus games they’ve already played.

Given the option of having kept playing while navigating rest in between games and practices, or having an extended lay-off where conditioning and rust are bigger concerns than the actual wear and tear on the body, the former is the preferred option for any team with legit visions of winning a championship. 

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NO HOME-COURT “ADVANTAGE”

The top teams spent all season working towards positioning themselves to host a Game 7 in front of their fans if a series came down to that.

But with all 16 teams likely playing games at one neutral site, the home-court edge no longer exists. 

The playoffs become more like an expanded NCAA Tournament filled with “best-of” series instead of a one-game, winner-take-all format. 

Not only does this eventually result in the better team winning the series, but it takes out of the equation one of the biggest X-factors when it comes to playoff success — fans. 

Without them, it becomes a whole lot easier for a “road” team to pull off an upset or two in a series that they weren’t supposed to compete in, let alone win games. 

THE RISE OF THE ROLE PLAYER

And maybe one of the biggest factors in games played without fans will be a team’s role players.

Often we see backups, particularly on the road, succumb to the incessant chants and boos and verbal barrage they get from fans. 

Fans do it because they know as sure as the sun rises and LeBron James goes deep into the playoffs, those verbal taunts have a way of impacting role players in a negative way. 

But if they’re playing in front of no fans as expected, role players and reserves can simply enter the game and focus on the task at hand without the usual distractions. 

And the impact this will have on the playoffs is better play from the backups, which could mean the difference between advancing to the NBA Finals and becoming one of the greatest teams ever, or getting bounced in the first round. 

How Pacers star Victor Oladipo skipping NBA restart impacts Celtics

How Pacers star Victor Oladipo skipping NBA restart impacts Celtics

The Indiana Pacers' best player won't participate in the NBA's restart in Florida later this month.

The 2019-20 season is set to resume at Walt Disney World Resort, where 22 teams will play eight seeding games before a normal four-round playoffs with eight teams in each conference is played. 

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The Pacers are one of the nine Eastern Conference teams participating in the restart, and in an interview with Shams Charania of The Athletic, Oladipo explained his decision not to go to Orlando.

“I really want to play, and as a competitor and teammate this is tearing me apart,” Oladipo said, per Charania. “I feel like I’m at a great place in my rehab and getting closer and closer to 100 percent. With all the variables, from how I have to build my 5-on-5 workload back up, to the increased risk of a soft tissue injury which could delay my rehab, and the unknown exact set up of the bubble, I just can’t get my mind to being fully comfortable in playing. I have to be smart and this decision hasn’t been easy, but I truly believe continuing on the course I’m on and getting fully healthy for the 2020-21 season is the right decision for me.”

The Celtics and Pacers are not scheduled to play each other in the seeding games phase, which begins July 30. So, how could Oladipo's absence impact Boston? Let's break it down.

Playoff seeding
The Celtics will enter the restart as the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference with a 43-21 record. The Pacers are 39-26 and 4.5 games behind the C's. Indiana played well without Oladipo this season, but it's hard to envision a scenario where it doesn't fall to the No. 6 seed during the eight seeding games format. The Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers are tied for the No. 5 seed, and a healthy Sixers team bolstered by the return of All-Star point guard Ben Simmons should finish ahead of Indiana going into the playoffs. The Miami Heat are fourth in the East standings and have a two-game lead on the Pacers. Unless the Heat collapse, they should be able to hold the No. 4 seed. 

Therefore, it's very possible we could see a Celtics vs. Pacers first-round series in the No. 3 vs. No. 6 matchup. In fact, most projection models have the Celtics and Pacers squaring off in Round 1.

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Playoff matchup
The Celtics and Pacers played in the first round last season and Boston swept Indiana in four games. It wouldn't be surprising if the same scenario unfolded in 2020. The Celtics are a deeper and more talented team. They are actually the only club with three players averaging 20 or more points per game. The Pacers have zero players averaging 20-plus points. Boston also ranks higher than Indiana in points scored per, points allowed per game, rebounds per game, steals per game and blocks per game. The Pacers, when Oladipo is unavailable, don't have a go-to scorer who can create his own shot late in games. In the last game the Celtics played before COVID-19 halted the season, they beat the Pacers 114-111 in Indiana. The Pacers nearly pulled off the win late, and Oladipo scored 27 points on 9-for-16 shooting (5-for-7 from 3-point range).

In the overall playoff picture, it's so important for the Celtics to at least finish with the No. 3 seed. This could set up the easiest possible path to the NBA Finals. The Celtics wouldn't have to play the first-place Milwaukee Bucks until the conference finals if they finished as the No. 2 or No. 3 seed. A path to the conference finals that includes a Pacers team without Oladipo in the first round and a tough-but-winnable second-round matchup against the Toronto Raptors is a favorable one for Boston. It's a much better route than having to play the Philadelphia 76ers in Round 1 in the No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup and then see the Bucks in Round 2.

What's it like playing without fans? Celtics' Brad Wanamaker shares his experience

What's it like playing without fans? Celtics' Brad Wanamaker shares his experience

Playing without fans will be a brand new experience for many NBA players when 22 teams descend on Walt Disney World Resort in Florida later this month to resume the 2019-20 season.

Boston Celtics point guard Brad Wanamaker actually knows what it's like to not play with fans in the crowd.

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Wanamaker faced the situation in high school and while he was playing professionally overseas. 

"I played a few games overseas where we couldn't have fans because of some violent things fans did in previous games," Wanamaker said Friday in a video conference call. "So they banned fans because some fans got in fights before (the game). And also in high school I played a few games with no fans because the team that was our rival, the year before we played each other in the championship game and a big riot broke out after the game. So the next year we had to play with no fans. AAU basketball is very similar to this situation, too. I guess once the ball tips off it feels normal."

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What's it like playing with no fans? Wanamaker stressed the need to bring your own energy to the court because you won't get any boost from the crowd.

"It's self motivation, in a way, because you don't have the fans to get you going on a highlight play or something, so you really have to be strong within the team," Wanamaker explained. "I think we have a good team here, and I think we have a good bond. I think that would be to our advantage.

"But it was definitely different. You couldn't get hyped for certain plays as you usually get. The energy was different in the crowd. Your own energy you have to bring. We're human -- you're not always up to par to playing in the games sometimes and you need little things to get you going. Sometimes the fans help out with that. Here it's got to be your teammates that you lean on more."

Wanamaker is confident the Celtics have a strong enough team chemistry to help pull each other through any challenges that await them in Orlando.

"It's very unique. We all cheer for each other," Wanamaker said of the team's bond. "We all want each other to do well, whether we're playing the bulk of the minutes or somebody else. As you've seen throughout the season, we're constantly cheering each other on, and giving each other advice throughout the game. Obviously there are egos on a team, but ours don't stand out as much because everyone wants to see each other win and do well. That's another advantage for us."

Training camps for the 22 teams are expected to begin late next week, with the first seeding games taking place on July 30. The Celtics' first seeding game is set for July 31 against the first-place Milwaukee Bucks. Every seeding game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Boston.