NBA

NBA playoffs: Eastern and Western Conference first-round series preview

By Sports Desk August 16, 2020

With the regular season over, it's time for business in the Orlando bubble.

The Portland Trail Blazers completed the NBA's playoff bracket with their play-in win against the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday.

Now, Giannis Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee Bucks, the LeBron-James led Los Angeles Lakers and Kawhi Leonard's Los Angeles Clippers are among the teams vying for supremacy at Walt Disney World Resort.

With the postseason scheduled to start on Monday, we use STATS data to preview the first-round series.

Eastern Conference

Milwaukee Bucks (1) v Orlando Magic (8)

Eyeing their first NBA championship since 1971, the Bucks head into the opening-round series struggling for form.

The Bucks, who went 52-8 from their first 60 games, recorded a 4-9 win-loss ratio from their last 13 fixtures – becoming the first team in NBA history to have more losses in their final 13 regular-season games than they did in the entire season prior to that.

Inside the bubble but in familiar surroundings, the Magic have the chance to snap a playoff drought, despite the odds being stacked against them.

Not since 2010 have the Magic won a playoff series. Orlando swept the Charlotte Bobcats and Atlanta Hawks en route to the Conference finals, before losing to the Boston Celtics. The Magic have since suffered first-round exits at the hands of the Hawks (2011), Indiana Pacers (2012) and Toronto Raptors (2019).

Toronto Raptors (2) v Brooklyn Nets (7)

Defending champions the Raptors have form on their side in pursuit of back-to-back championships.

Toronto went 27-5 over their last 32 games, easily the best record in the NBA during that period – ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder (21-10), Los Angeles Clippers (20-10), Bucks (20-11) and Celtics (21-13).

Nets star Spencer Dinwiddie has been one of the most clutch players this season, making an NBA-high seven go-ahead baskets in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime.

Dinwiddie's seven for 13 is better than the Denver Nuggets' Nikola Jokic (five), Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray of the Nuggets (both four).

Boston Celtics (3) v Philadelphia 76ers (6)

The Celtics renew hostilities with rivals the 76ers, having won the past four series between the two teams – Philadelphia have not claimed a series against Boston in the playoffs since 1982.

Philadelphia's hopes will rest on Joel Embiid in the absence of injured fellow All-Star Ben Simmons, who is the only player in NBA history to average 8.0-plus rebounds and 8.0-plus assists per game for his career.

The 76ers are 35-22 (.614 per cent) with Simmons in the team, while they are just 7-8 (.467 per cent) without the Australian star on the court. Philadelphia also allow more opposition points per game in his absence – 113.6 compared to 107.2.

Indiana Pacers (4) v Miami Heat (5)

All eyes will be on Indiana's T.J. Warren, who averaged 31.0 points per game with a .664 effective field-goal percentage this month following the restart.

Since 1985-86, the players with 30.0-plus points and a .650-plus effective field-goal percentage in a month (minimum five game played) are Charles Barkley (1990), Stephen Curry (2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019), Antetokounmpo (2017 and 2019) and Karl Anthony-Towns (2019).

With Heat pair Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, Miami are the first NBA team to have two undrafted players averaging 13.0-plus points per game in the same season – minimum 70 per cent of team games played – since the Philadelphia Warriors in 1956-57 (Joe Graboski and Neil Johnston).

 

Western Conference

Los Angeles Lakers (1) v Portland Trail Blazers (8)

Making their first postseason appearance since 2013, the Lakers – who have a 74.6 per cent chance of winning this series using Stats Perform's advanced simulation tool – are one of the favourites to go all the way thanks to James and Anthony Davis.

James and Davis have combined well in LA, where the former has supplied 184 assists for the All-Star recruit this season – the most to one player in 2019-20, ahead of Damian Lillard to Hassan Whiteside (132). Three-time champion and four-time MVP James is also the second-oldest player to average 10 assists or more in a season in NBA history, with Steve Nash averaging 10.0-plus assists in each of his final three campaigns.

This will be the second playoff meeting between James and Carmelo Anthony. James and the Heat eliminated Anthony and the New York Knicks in the first round in 2012. Both averaged 27.8 points in the series. James was the first overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, while Anthony was the third pick. Their matchups date back to high school, when LeBron was at St. Vincent St. Mary's and Carmelo at Oak Hill Academy.

Portland's go-to man Lillard leads the NBA in scoring inside the bubble at 37.6 per game, including the play-in clash. The Trail Blazers star is averaging 46.3 points in his past four games following a career-high 61 against the Dallas Mavericks earlier this month. He has contributed to Portland averaging a league-high 126.0 points per game at Walt Disney World Resort, while the Lakers have only managed 106.4 points per game – the second worst behind the Washington Wizards.

How about most points per game by team-mate duos? Lillard and CJ McCollum (52.2) are second to James Harden and Russell Westbrook (61.5) but ahead of third-placed James and Davis (51.4).

Los Angeles Clippers (2) v Dallas Mavericks (7)

Can Leonard claim consecutive NBA titles after leading the Raptors to their first champion last season? Well it all begins against the Mavericks.

Leonard – the 2019 Finals MVP – averaged a career-high 27.1 points per game this season, while he averaged 30.5 during last year's playoffs. The four-time All-Star has also averaged 31.0 points per game in three games against the Mavericks this term, with the Clippers sweeping the season series.

Led by Luka Doncic, the Mavericks boast the second-highest offensive rating ever – 113.7 – behind last year's Golden State Warriors (113.9). The Clippers have a 111.1 rating, tied with the Trail Blazers for second this season.

Doncic is averaging 30.0 points, 10.1 assists and 9.7 rebounds in the bubble. The reigning Rookie of the Year also has three triple-doubles, including a 20-rebound triple-double.

Denver Nuggets (3) v Utah Jazz (6)

A Jazz team boasting the likes of Joe Ingles and Mitchell are the best three-point shooting team at 38.0 per cent, though Utah went 2-5 in their last seven regular-season games – allowing 110-plus points per game.

Rudy Gobert is also one shy of 250 career double-doubles as the Jazz look to avenge their season sweep at the hands of the Nuggets, though each game was decided by six or fewer points.

The Nuggets made the Conference semi-finals last season, snapping a five-year playoff drought. Jovic will be key for Denver, having averaged 7.0 assists per game for a second successive season – the most by any center in the NBA.

Houston Rockets (4) v Oklahoma City Thunder (5)

It will be a reunion as Harden, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul face their former teams.

The Rockets have advanced to at least the second round of the playoffs in three straight seasons and their hopes will depend on the team's starting five – their starters are averaging 89.1 points per game, the most in the league.

Former Thunder star Harden is also coming off his third consecutive season averaging 30 or more points per game (34.3 in 2019-20). He is the franchise's all-time leader in postseason assists (510) and second in points (2,061) behind Hakeem Olajuwon (3,727).

Westbrook, who arrived from the Thunder in a blockbuster trade at the start of the season, is second all-time for Oklahoma City in playoff points (2,489), behind Kevin Durant's 2,620, third in rebounds (686), first in assists (778) and first in steals (184).

The Thunder, boasting ex-Rockets guard Paul, have not progressed beyond the first round of the postseason since 2016 after blowing a 3-1 lead against the Warriors in the Conference Finals.

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  • Hamilton's winning record in numbers - and the Schumacher benchmarks still to be beaten Hamilton's winning record in numbers - and the Schumacher benchmarks still to be beaten

    Lewis Hamilton's 92nd race win at Sunday's Portuguese Grand Prix saw him surpass Michael Schumacher for the most in Formula One history. 

    The Mercedes man, who equalled Schumacher's haul of 91 a fortnight earlier in Germany, started from pole but had to recover from a tough start to beat team-mate Valtteri Bottas. 

    Hamilton is now top of the pile, yet both he and Schumacher stand well clear of the rest in F1. 

    Sebastian Vettel is third in the standings with 53 wins, just ahead of Alain Prost's 51. Ayrton Senna had 41. 

    With the help of Opta, we take a look at more numbers behind Hamilton's success and his pursuit of Schumacher...


    HOW HISTORIC ACHIEVEMENTS BREAK DOWN

    The 35-year-old's record haul of victories have come from 262 grands prix at a win rate of 35.1 per cent. 

    Of his 92 successes, 80 have come from the front row of the grid (87 per cent) and 57 from pole (62 per cent). 

    With seven wins after qualifying in third, two from fourth and one each from fifth and sixth, only one Hamilton victory has come with the Briton starting from outside the top six – the 2018 German Grand Prix, he claimed a remarkable triumph after beginning the race way down in 14th. 

    Meanwhile, this latest win marked a 28th different circuit at which he has come out on top - another record - and arrives amid a dominant hybrid era. 

    Hamilton had at least nine wins in every season between 2014 and 2019 and, with eight so far, is on course to reach that mark again this year. No other driver has achieved this feat in six different seasons. 


    WHAT IS LEFT FOR LEWIS TO LOOK FOR?

    The most notable Schumacher record still on the table is his tally of seven drivers' championships, an achievement Hamilton will surely match this year. 

    But the German great also still leads the way in terms of various other statistics. 

    Hamilton spoke this week of a desire to remain at Mercedes next year and that should allow him to bring other benchmarks into view. 

    A victory in a 15th consecutive season in 2021 would tie Schumacher's historic run from 1992 to 2006. Hamilton's first (at Canada in 2007) came 255 races ago, with a longer stretch between successes enjoyed only by Kimi Raikkonen (294 between his first win in Malaysia in 2003 and his most recent in the United States in 2018). 

    Regardless of any extension to his stay with the Silver Arrows, Hamilton will likely add to his tally of 71 triumphs for the German outfit – only Schumacher has more successes with any one team (72 with Ferrari). 

    Another trip to Hungary could bring Hamilton's ninth victory there. No driver has ever reached nine wins at a single grand prix, with Schumacher having also registered eight in France.  

  • Hamilton sets F1 wins record: The six-time champion's greatest victories Hamilton sets F1 wins record: The six-time champion's greatest victories

    The records continue to tumble for Lewis Hamilton after his triumph at the Portuguese Grand Prix on Sunday.

    Hamilton registered the 92nd win of his Formula One career at Portimao, surpassing the record previously held by the legendary Michael Schumacher.

    It was the 27th different grand prix the Merdeces driver has won and the 28th track at which he has tasted success, extending records he already held in both categories.

    Hamilton sits top of the drivers' standings and looks destined to match Schumacher's all-time haul of seven championships.

    Following his record-breaking win in Portugal, we look back at some of the Briton's greatest drives.


    2007 Canadian Grand Prix 

    Hamilton provided an early display of his championship mentality in a dramatic race in Montreal. He may have led throughout, but he had to navigate the safety car being deployed four times in order to clinch his maiden victory in F1. The triumph sent Hamilton eight points clear of team-mate Fernando Alonso in the standings but he was pipped to the title by Kimi Raikkonen.

    STAT: Hamilton had the most consecutive podium finishes from debut in F1 history (nine) and equalled Jacques Villeneuve's record for wins in a rookie campaign (four) in a stunning first year in the series.

    2008 British Grand Prix

    After failing to score points at the two previous races and slipping to fourth in the standings, Hamilton bounced back emphatically with a dominant win at a wet Silverstone. Mistakes in qualifying meant he could only start from fourth, but McLaren's strategy amid changeable conditions was spot on. Hamilton won by over a minute and lapped everyone up to fourth place.

    STAT: Hamilton won four straight British GPs between 2014 and 2017. Jim Clark (1962-65) is the only other F1 driver to have achieved that feat.

    2013 Hungarian Grand Prix

    Hamilton came in for criticism for leaving McLaren and replacing Schumacher at Mercedes from the 2013 season. He got off the mark with the Silver Arrows in Hungary at a circuit that was not expected to favour his car, holding onto pole position despite not being given much of a chance of converting it into a victory. The tyres on the Mercedes held up better, with Hamilton pulling off quick passes on Jenson Button and Mark Webber following pit stops that his nearest rivals could not replicate as he stormed to glory.

    STAT: Hamilton won at the Hungaroring for the eighth time in 2020, matching Schumacher's record for the most victories at a single circuit (Magny-Cours).

    2018 German Grand Prix

    Hamilton started 14th following a hydraulic failure in qualifying but he secured an astounding victory at Hockenheim. Sebastian Vettel looked set to extend his lead in the race for the championship until rainfall on part of the track resulted in him crashing out from first place with 25 laps to go. Hamilton pulled away after the resulting safety car period and was catapulted to the top of the standings, a position he did not relinquish en route to his fifth title.

    STAT: By going from P14 to victory, Hamilton completed his win from the furthest back on the starting grid.

    2019 Monaco Grand Prix

    A stunning display of tyre management saw Hamilton keep the dangerous Max Verstappen at bay and seal Mercedes' sixth straight win from the start of the season. An early safety car after Charles Leclerc's crash saw Hamilton placed on the medium compound, while his rivals received hards. Despite fading grip and incessant pressure from Verstappen leading Hamilton to say over team radio he would need "a miracle" to win, he held on for a phenomenal triumph at the iconic circuit. He said afterwards: "I think it was the hardest race I've had. I've had a lot of races but globally, in the car and with the tyres, the strategy, with Max behind, it was the biggest challenge I think I've had and I'm really grateful I was able to pull it off."

    STAT: Hamilton's pole in Monaco was his 59th with Mercedes and saw him surpass Schumacher's record of 58 poles with the same constructor (Ferrari).

  • From calamity to clean sheet - Mendy comes through Old Trafford test From calamity to clean sheet - Mendy comes through Old Trafford test

    As he squinted through the relentless Old Trafford downpour for signs of encouragement, entertainment or life in general, Frank Lampard must have recoiled at a familiar sight.

    Chelsea's goalkeeper had done something comical.

    Edouard Mendy moved to Stamford Bridge from Rennes due to Kepa Arrizabalaga becoming hazardously accident prone.

    Back in the side after a thigh-injury absence gave Kepa the change to add to his expanding portfolio of gaffes during the raucous 3-3 draw against Southampton, the 28-year-old Mendy kept a clean sheet in the midweek Champions League draw against Sevilla.

    Half an hour had been played on Saturday when Mendy compromised his chances of another, turning and inexplicably passing the ball just wide of his right post. Manchester United only having a corner was something of a relief.

    Perhaps Mendy wanted to give himself something to do. Goalmouth incidents had been few and far between in a game where each side decided dressing up as the Michelin Man was the best way to protect their glass jaws. Caution reigned in the rain.

    But five minutes after his dalliance with slapstick, the Chelsea keeper stood firm to impressively deny Marcus Rashford with his right boot after Juan Mata released the England forward.

    Roles were reversed before the break, with Rashford darting in from the left and Mata striking sweetly from the edge of the box. Mendy tipped assuredly around the post.

    Lampard's preference for his goalkeeper to build play from the back presents Mendy with a learning process. In Ligue 1 last season. 56.7 per cent of his passes were classified as long balls, with 21 per cent of his goal kicks finding a team-mate.

    At Old Trafford, he completed 17 of 23 passes (73.9 per cent), with only three passes into the opposition half - a definite step in the right direction despite trying conditions.

    Mendy also looked to have his angles right when Edinson Cavani stole in at the near post to flick into the side netting from his first touch in a United shirt. The veteran Uruguay striker coming close to a dream start in England briefly raised the temperature of a dour contest.

    In the Sky Sports studio, Patrice Evra might have compared Harry Maguire's headlock on Cesar Azpilicueta at a 40th-minute corner (the lack of a penalty in this VAR age was stupefying) to Hulk Hogan, but the general torpor of the occasion was more suited to The Undertaker.

    It was a match that felt like a thick hangover from the goal-laden excess of the Premier League's opening weeks. Perhaps a realisation that, after all those ding-dong affairs, we enter the bleak British winter this weekend and a long, hard slog awaits.

    What, exactly, do the division's big hitters have to show for indulging in this early-season free-for-all? Exhausted from demands across multiple competitions and a compressed close season, all the usual front-runners are floundering to some extent.

    United have no wins from three home games and sit 15th, three places below neighbours Manchester City, who have had their worst start for six years and are level with Tottenham on eight points from five matches.

    Liverpool had the chance to pull level with leaders Everton by the end of Saturday, but they have had a historic 7-2 defeat to Aston Villa and a probable season-ending injury to Virgil van Dijk for their troubles.

    Chelsea are sixth, having won two out of six. It might be time for all to take a breath and fall back on fundamentals, such as a reliable goalkeeper.

    Mendy might have flirted with disaster but the best of his four saves - springing to push Rashford's stoppage-time drive out of the top left corner - meant he emerged with a second shutout this week. Lampard will hope he has found his Mr Dependable.

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