Nobody, from the players to the fans to analysts, really knew what playoff basketball would be like down in the NBA bubble. It was safe to assume the quality of basketball would be around the same level despite the four-month layoff, given the three-week lead-up to the first playoff games. But how would no fans and no home-court advantage play out? Would players really feel like they're shooting in an open gym? Would percentages rise accordingly? With the absence of pretty much all other mitigating factors, would sheer quantity of talent reign supreme?
Those questions haven't really been answered after all the Game 1s of the eight playoff series have been played. But, as has been the case in 2020, the one thing we can count on is that we actually can't count on anything at all.
The Orlando Magic, without their best defender in Jonathan Isaac, beat the Milwaukee Bucks to start their playoff series. The Bucks were almost comically dominant during the regular season, posting one of the best net ratings of all time and steamrolling nearly every team they came up against. Yet, despite 31 points and 17 rebounds from soon-to-be two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, they wilted in the face of... *checks notes*... Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross. The Portland Trail Blazers beat the Los Angeles Lakers despite not possessing a wing player capable of guarding LeBron James one-on-one and missing their second-best defensive big man in Zach Collins.
The Los Angeles Clippers went down 16 to the Dallas Mavericks and benefitted from a controversial Kristaps Porzingis ejection to pull out the win down the stretch. The Houston Rockets, sans Russell Westbrook, absolutely cooked the Oklahoma City Thunder. Donovan Mitchell scored 57 points to keep an undermanned Jazz squad in contention with the Denver Nuggets.
Really, the only games that went as planned were Celtics-Sixers, Raptors-Nets, and Pacers-Heat. Strange things happen in the playoffs, especially early on. Who can forget D.J. Augustine hitting a game-winning three to take down Kawhi Leonard and the eventual champion Raptors in Game 1 last year? As the Raptors did in that series, the course usually corrects itself, and the better teams usually win. But nothing is normal in this bubble. That's why Game 2 for all of these contests will prove just how great the variance will be in these unprecedented times.
Normally, we can confidently count on that to happen. We could count on Antetokounmpo and the Bucks to look like the historically dominant team they are in Game 2. We could count on LeBron getting angry about the narrative and look like the player who has no equal after a Game 1 loss. But nothing is certain under these circumstances. There's no home court to return to, nor even a home.
That's why these Game 2s will be so telling. There will be strategic adjustments, X's and O's corrections. More than anything, it will show just how wide the variance can range. It still feels unlikely that any big upset can actually be pulled off in the first round barring poor injury luck. Nobody would be shocked if the Magic lost by 30 or the Lakers look like the championship contender they were before the postponement.
But who knows? I don't. That's why it's going to be so fun.