Analysis: Bubble Rematches Headline an Unpredictable NBA Postseason Thus Far

Around 33 months ago, the 2020 NBA Playoffs began.

In August.

The usual spring tradition was pushed into the summer due to the COVID-19 outbreak. To add to the delayed return, teams had to agree to spend up to over three months of their lives playing in an isolated program in Florida, dubbed the league’s ‘bubble.’

The bizarre setup tested players for the COVID-19 daily and played in empty gyms at Disney World in Florida. The resulting postseason saw the Los Angeles Lakers take home the title and the league could say they completed a season, even during the pandemic.

But many fans and analysts viewed the bubble’s outcome with an asterisk, claiming the unusual circumstances meant the season was a throwaway.

If the final four remaining teams in this year’s field are any indication of the bubble’s legitimacy, those claims are on shaky ground.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets are facing off in the Western Conference Finals while the Miami Heat are playing the Boston Celtics for the east title—a carbon copy of the bubble’s conference finals.

A month ago, the Heat were not projected to be in this spot—they had to win a play-in game against Chicago to get into the playoffs. After a comeback they secured the bottom spot in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket.

Regardless, No. 8-seeded Miami needed only a chance to make a splash in a loaded playoff field. Led by forward Jimmy Butler, they dispatched the top team in the east in Milwaukee in just five games in the first round and handled a tough New York squad in six games.

Butler, who has a reputation for postseason theatrics, put together a herculean effort this postseason. Against the highly-favored Bucks, Butler averaged over 37 points per game (PPG)—a far cry from his 22.9 PPG in the regular season.

Miami center Bam Adebayo had troubles in the past piecing together consistent playoff games on offense. Not this year— he scored under 15 points in only one game this postseason.

The Heat will need all hands on deck as they face the No. 2 seed Boston Celtics in the conference finals for the third time in four seasons. The Celtics took the last matchup in a hotly-contested seven-game series and have arguably improved since these rivals met.

The Celtics finished with the second-best offensive rating and third-best defensive rating in basketball in 2023. To add to Miami’s worries, Boston forwards Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are playing some of their best basketball.

Tatum enters the series fresh off a 51-point Game 7 against Philadelphia, and Brown chipped in 25 of his own in the game as he has averaged over 24 PPG himself. 

Facing an improved C’s squad, the Heat need scoring from a variety of sources or Boston may be raising another conference championship trophy.

Out west, the Lakers and Nuggets are facing off in the playoffs for the first time since the bubble.

The teams had opposite paths to this point. Denver has held the Western Conference No. 1 seed for a majority of the season while the Lakers started the season 2-10. 

The Nuggets have won with a familiar nucleus of two-time MVP Nikola Jokić, guard Jamal Murray, Forward Kevin Porter Jr. and a variety of multifaceted role players.

For LA, they have complimented franchise forwards LeBron James and Anthony Davis with offensive pieces, like former Wizard forward Rui Hachimura and former Timberwolves guard Malik Beasley, at the trade deadline. Former Jazz forward Jarred Vanderbilt has proven another great addition, providing versatile defense.

One of the biggest contributors has been on the roster all along—guard Austin Reaves had a breakout year this season, averaging 16 PPG in the playoffs.

The Lakers ultimately defeated Memphis and defending champion Golden State, both in six games. 

Their formula? Aggression and free throw shooting. 

The Lakers have gotten almost half of their points in the painted area this postseason, which has translated to shooting 95 more free throws than their opponents.

The Nuggets benefited from a methodical half court offense. They ranked 23rd in the NBA in terms of pace, but the fifth-highest rated offense in the league—thanks to Jokić’s elite passing and the team’s exceptional off-ball movement.

But some praise for this dominant season must go to Denver’s front office. Through acquiring 3-point shooters like Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who each play solid defense. As the second-most efficient 3-point shooting team in the league, it can be difficult to know how to defend Denver.

That versatility has made the Nuggets an unstoppable offense—their 120.1 offensive rating is the highest of any team in the playoffs. That offense allowed them to take care of Minnesota in five games and a high-powered Phoenix offense in six.

The Lakers’ key to keeping pace with such a dynamic offense will be aggression. Denver’s offense has proven nearly impossible to match through half-court offense alone. Like their previous series, the Lakers’ ability to compete will depend on aggressively hunting free throws calls.

Both of these series are shaping up to be classics. Each team brings a unique dynamic and better yet, we have a baseline through which to judge their recent progress—the 2020 conference finals.