The quarterfinals of the NBA In-Season Tournament begin tonight with the Pacers hosting the Celtics and the Kings hosting the Pelicans. That's followed tomorrow by the Knicks vs. the Bucks and the Lakers vs. the Suns.
The NBA may be trying to summon a playoff atmosphere with these games but they're still single elimination and thus much more prone to random variance than a playoff series. But just because the window for upsets is open doesn't mean we will actually see them. Here's who I predict will win each of the quarterfinal games.
1. Celtics vs. Pacers — Dec. 4
The first matchup of the quarterfinals has one of the league's best offenses (the Pacers), matching up with one of the league's best defenses (the Celtics). The first time they met this season the Celtics not only stymied the Pacers offense, but they absolutely destroyed them at the other end in a 155-104 win.
The Celtics will be without Kristaps Porzingis who is out with a calf strain but Al Horford has filled in admirably and the foundation of their elite defense is still there. Tyrese Haliburton is also questionable with a knee injury.
The Pacers have the pieces to pull off the upset in a high-scoring game but it seems far more likely that the Celtics exert their star power and depth and hand the Pacers their first loss in the In-Season Tournament.
Prediction: Celtics def. Pacers
2. Pelicans vs. Kings — Dec. 4
Both the Pelicans and Kings have been muddling lately — 3-3 in their last six games. However, Zion Williamson has been on fire averaging 26.0 points, 5.6 assists and 5.4 rebounds over that stretch, shooting 61.0 percent from the field and 79.5 percent from the line. At the end of last week, we talked about the importance of Zion making free throws and it's helped fuel this current hot streak.
Because of his injuries, Zion hasn't played the Kings since the second-to-last game of his rookie season. But Sacramento doesn't have a good defensive matchup for him on their roster and this could be an opportunity for him to power his way through an undersized defense.
Prediction: Pelicans def. Kings
3. Knicks vs. Bucks — Dec. 5
The Knicks host the Bucks in the first game of the second night of quarterfinals action. The Bucks have already beaten the Knicks once this season — a battle of the guards in which Jalen Brunson went off for 45 points and Damian Lillard scored 30.
Giannis was relatively quiet in that first matchup but he absolutely pounded the Knicks last season, averaging 29.7 points, 12.3 rebounds and 7.0 assists across three games. Giannis has also been rolling lately, scoring 30 or more in four of the Bucks last five games, averaging 31.0 points, 12.0 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 2.2 steals and 2.2 blocks, shooting 62.4 percent from the floor.
The Bucks still have a lot of holes the Knicks can exploit, but I think this is an opportunity for Giannis to exert his will and overpower New York's frontline, making a statement along the way.
Prediction: Bucks def. Knicks
4. Suns vs. Lakers — Dec. 5
The Suns saw their seven-game winning streak end with two consecutive losses but they're still 8-2 over their last 10, outscoring opponents by an average of 6.6 points per 100 possessions. The Lakers are 6-4 over the same span with an even point differential.
This is the kind of game and the kind of opponent that brings out the best in LeBron James but, right now, the Suns have more star power and more depth. Kevin Durant is hitting everything, Devin Booker has been reborn as an elite point guard, and both Eric Gordon and Grayson Allen are red-hot from beyond the arc.
D'Angelo Russell has been hot for the Lakers but he's still a defensive weak link and the rest of the supporting cast has been struggling from beyond the arc — Austin Reaves is shooting just 22.9 percent from beyond the arc over the last 10 games, Cam Reddish is at 26.7 percent, Taurean Prince is at 35.6 percent.
I would expect a big night for LeBron but the Suns have the pieces to target Russell on defense and the firepower to overwhelm the Lakers defense.
Prediction: Suns def. Lakers
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Are Luka Doncic's stats misleading?
Last week a lengthy and thoroughly researched Twitter thread made the argument that Luka Doncic is extremely overrated because of his crazy box score stats. The argument is far from settled but the Mavs' Saturday night loss only added fuel to the fire.
Doncic put up 36 points, 15 rebounds and 18 assists, and recorded 7 points and 7 assists during a historic 30-0 fourth-quarter run. And the Mavs lost, 126-120.
By the box score, he's having the best season of his career and doing with, on paper, more supporting talent than he's ever had. And still, the Mavs are just 11-8, struggling to separate themselves from the pack in the Western Conference.
Is he still being dragged down by a so-so supporting cast? Or are we misunderstanding the impact of his historic numbers?
- Take That for Data: Parsing Fact From Fiction in Luka Doncic’s On/Off Statistics
by Zach Kram, for The Ringer
- Quote board: Kidd, Luka, and Lively talk after the Mavericks fall to Thunder
by Kirk Henderson, for Mavs Moneyball
1. Heat try something new with Butler and Bam: "The Heat are a post-up team. Most of their actions are triggered from the block, whether it’s split cuts, shooters coming around screens or passes to the opposite corner. Butler and Adebayo are the hubs. As well as they play together, Butler and Adebayo are not floor-spacers. When they share the court, the paint can get crowded when either one sets up shop in the post." Why the Heat are playing through Bam Adebayo in the post more than ever
2. Rookie of the Year race is getting interesting: "Well, the 3-point shot is very much real. That has been the most important sign of growth from Jaquez. But, perhaps more importantly, he's another shining example of why we should value feel above other indicators. Jaquez always knew how to play the game and he has adjusted his approach to fit the NBA and his complementary role, all while the Heat are embracing his individual tricks of the trade. Jaquez is playing rock-solid team defense and doing everything the Heat ask of him. He's a potential draft night steal." NBA Rookie of the Year ladder: Big rise from Jaime Jaquez Jr. in Week 6
3. Progression the mean is a hell of a drug: "So forgive me, a romantic about dynastic teams and young cores that grow old together, if I’m looking for any positive signs about Thompson’s play. And if you look over Golden State’s last five games, those signs may actually exist!" Is Klay Thompson Finally Turning the Corner?