NBA play-offs: Teams & players to watch

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LeBron James in action for the LA Lakers
Will LeBron James add to his three NBA titles this season?

The 2020 NBA play-offs start on Monday in what is set to be one of the most unpredictable post-seasons in years, after a regular season like no other.

The play-offs usually begin in April but the coronavirus pandemic saw the season postponed on March 11.

It finally restarted without fans inside the NBA ‘bubble’ at Walt Disney World in Orlando at the end of last month, featuring 22 of the 30 franchises still in contention for a play-off place.

Those franchises have now been whittled down to 16. Here is what to look out for as they battle it out for a spot when the NBA Finals start on 30 September.

Lakers and Bucks ones to beat

Where else to start but LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers? The 35-year-old is in his 17th NBA season and is trying to win his fourth NBA title with his third franchise, having previously lifted it with the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Lakers clinched top seed in the Western Conference, despite winning just three out of eight games in the bubble, to reach the play-offs for the first time since 2013 and face the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round.

Victory for the Lakers would also be a fitting tribute to NBA and Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, who was killed in a helicopter crash in January.

While the Lakers’ attack is led by James and Anthony Davis, they will face a man in form in Damian Lillard.

Lillard top scored with 31 points as they beat the Memphis Grizzlies in the special play-in series to secure the final play-off berth on Saturday night. Afterwards he was named player of the bubble, having averaged 37.6 points as they won six of their eight games.

The 30-year-old has enjoyed a stellar year and his 61 points in Portland’s 134-131 win over Dallas Mavericks this month also saw him become only the second player in history to score 60-plus points in three matches in a single NBA season, after the legendary Wilt Chamberlain.

Western Conference
Los Angeles Lakers (1) v Portland Trail Blazers (8)
Los Angeles Clippers (2) v Dallas Mavericks (7)
Denver Nuggets (3) v Utah Jazz (6)
Houston Rockets (4) v Oklahoma City Thunder (5)
Eastern Conference
Milwaukee Bucks (1) v Orlando Magic (8)
Toronto Raptors (2) v Brooklyn Nets (7)
Boston Celtics (3) v Philadelphia 76ers (6)
Indiana Pacers (4) v Miami Heat (5)
Conference semi-finals start on 31 August, Conference finals on 15 September and NBA Finals on 30 September

The Toronto Raptors made history last year when they became the first non-American team to win the NBA title with a 4-2 series victory over Golden State Warriors.

Despite losing two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard to Los Angeles Clippers, the Raptors secured second place in the Eastern Conference this time round and a first-round meeting with the Brooklyn Nets.

Leonard meanwhile helped his new side the Clippers secure number two seed in the Western Conference for the first time in the franchise’s history. Like James, he is bidding to win an NBA title with his third franchise, having won with San Antonio Spurs in 2014 and the Raptors last year.

The Clippers take on Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks in the first round. Slovenian Doncic became just the second European player to be named NBA Rookie of the Year last season following his move from EuroLeague side Real Madrid.

Damian Lillard, James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo
Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard, Houston Rockets guard James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks have starred for their teams this season

This year he is averaging a near triple-double of 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists, which has seen him enter Most Valuable Player discussions at the age of just 21.

Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo helped Milwaukee Bucks become the team to secure a play-off spot earliest in NBA history in February.

They go into their first-round series against Orlando Magic with a 56-17 record – the best overall record in the league as they aim to secure their first title since 1971.

Battle of the MVPs

Greek Antetokounmpo is again among the contenders for 2020 MVP after another fine season.

James, who surpassed Bryant to become the NBA’s third-highest scorer of all time in January, is also nominated as he bids to become just the third player in NBA history to win the award five times, after Bill Russell and Michael Jordan.

James Harden of the Houston Rockets completes the nominees.

Harden, who won the award in 2018, has scored more points and made more three-pointers than anyone else in the NBA this season, averaging a league high 34.4 points-per-game.

He has been reunited with former Oklahoma City Thunder team-mate Russell Westbrook this season, and they face their former team in the play-offs.

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