IN the 2019-20 NBA season disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, the much-awaited playoffs are now finally just around the corner.
We already know 15 of the 16 teams which will continue to play in the quarantine bubble in Orlando.
And like before the season was rudely interrupted by the lockdown, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers remain as the teams to beat in the playoffs beginning on Monday.
Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James are still the leading men in the East and the West during the NBA restart at the Disney World.
The East is no longer boring, while the West is still wild as usual.
So who will be the teams to watch during these playoffs.?
1. Milwaukee Bucks (56-17) vs. 8. Orlando Magic (33-40).
After clinching the top seed with the best overall record of 56-17, the Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo are now widely expected to finish off the Magic in a hurry.
The Bucks have beaten the Magic in all their four regular season games, including one when Antetokounmpo did not even play at all.
In three games he was on the floor, the "Greek Freek" proved nearly unstoppable with double-double performances against the Magic's best defense.
Overall, Antetokounmpo is having another MVP-like season with team-high averages of 29.5 points, 13.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists in 63 games.
Orlando's best hope to steal game depend largely on how Nikola Vucevic, Terrence Ross, Markelle Fultz and Evan Fournier will play.
Vucevic, a 7-0 center from Serbia, is averaging 19.6 points and 10. 9 rebounds in 62 games for the Magic.
2. Toronto Raptors (53-19) vs. 7 Brooklyn Nets (35-37).
Despite the departure of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, the “We the North’ chants continued for Toronto and coach Nick Nurse this year.
The Raptors' 53-win record in the coronavirus-shortened season may only be second behind the Bucks, but the Raptors are clearly primed for another championship run.
Pascal Siakam (22.9ppg, 7.3rpg), Kyle Lowry (19.4ppg, 7.5apg), Fred Vanvleet (17.6ppg, 6.6apg) and Marc Gasol (7.7ppg, 6.3 rpg) have clearly raised the level of their games for the Raptors, who won three of four games against the Nets this season.
Despite without injured stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, the Nets clearly over-achieved to reach the playoffs at No. 7 with 35-37 record.
But can they keep up with the Raptors.in a seven-game series?
Caris Levert, now Brooklyn's go-to-guy, hopes the Nets' collection of G-League standouts taken in to replace key players who opted out of the restart, can keep up their respectable 5-3 record at the bubble and pull a surprise or two.
3. Boston Celtics (48-24) vs. Philadelphia 76ers (42-30)
The Celtics-76ers first-round showdown should be fun to watch except that talented point guard Ben Simmons will not be around due to injury.
Although the Celtics have a better win-loss record at 48-24, the 76rs own a 3-1 lead in their head-to-head matchups this season.
Philadelphia defeated Boston, 107-93, 115-101 and 109-98, in their first three games. Boston's lone victory -- 116-95 -- came without injured star Kemba Walker.
Walker (20.4 ppg, 4.8 apg) should be back in full force for the Celtics, along with Jayson Tatum (23.4ppg, 7.0 rpg), Jaylen Brown (20.3ppg, 6.4 rpg) and Gordon Hayward (17.5ppg, 6.7 rpg).
For the 76ers, Joel Embiid ( 23 2 ppg, 11.7rpg), Tobias Harris (19.6 ppg, 6.9rpg) and Al Horford (11.9ppg, 6.9rpg) should be good enough.
The coaching battle between Brad Stevens and Brett Brown should also be interesting.
This will mark the second time in three years that the Celtics and Sixers will face off in the playoffs.
4. Indiana Pacers (45-28) vs. Miami Heat (44-29).
The Pacers-Heat showdown could easily be the most competitive matchup in the first round.
The Pacers remain dangerous with TJ Warren, Victor Oladipo, Myles Turner, Malcolm Brogdon and if he's healthy, Domantas Sabonis.
The Heat can counter with All-Star Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic, Bam Adebayo, Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala.
The two teams entered the final day of competition tied for fourth in the East at 44-28 records.
The Pacers' victory over the Heat would have decided which team got home-court advantage in their first-round series that begins Tuesday.
But there is no homecourt advantage in this time of the pandemic.
The Eastern Conference is no longer boring with the Raptors, Celtics and even the Pacers ready to challenge.
But Antetokounmpo and the Bucks remain the heavy favorites to win it all. in the East.
Next: The wild, wild West.
NOTES-- Congratulations to the Philippine Pole and Aerial Sports Asociation (PPASA), headed by actress-singer Ciara Sotto and Ayjell Acejas, for being recognized by the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) as the country’s newest national sports association for pole and aerial sports.
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