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AP photo by Kim Klement / Los Angeles Clippers guard Paul George, right, tries to get past Denver Nuggets forward Torrey Craig on Wednesday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

At 1:30 Monday afternoon, the NBA playoffs will finally begin with the Denver Nuggets facing the Utah Jazz in a figurative bubble at Walt Disney World. No fans in the stands. No home-court advantage for the once heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers. No Utah point guard Mike Conley, either, after he flew home to Columbus, Ohio, on Sunday for the birth of his son.

But at least the playoffs that were supposed to start in April before the coronavirus pandemic disrupted all our lives will finally begin, which gives a slender ray of hope to everyone else still determined to play sports in some form or fashion.

And if everybody else on the planet can quarantine as effectively as the NBA has the past month in Florida, if players and coaches and support personnel can put the health of others above themselves at all times, if you can stage every game and practice in a single secure location — such as ESPN's Wide World of Sport Complex near Orlando, where the NBA is playing — you can quite possibly dodge the wrath of COVID-19.

But that's a big IF, and much bigger when you're dealing with 90 or so football players instead of 15 or so basketball players. There's also the not-so-little aspect of money. The NBA is supposedly spending $150 million to stage these made-for-TV playoffs.

The NBA can do that. Everybody else save the National Football League, perhaps not so much.

But anyone who watched the eight-game restart for each of the 22 teams that were still somewhat in playoff contention when the last month of the NBA's regular season was halted on Wednesday, March 11, also knows how great it's been to have pro basketball back, even with its outsized video wall of virtual fans only.

Nor should anyone necessarily view the eventual champion from the 16-team playoff with an asterisk due to its uniqueness.

As Nuggets coach Mike Malone said in response to a Denver television reporter's question earlier in the summer about an asterisk being attached: "It shouldn't. All 16 teams are going to be playing on a level playing field. No fans. No home-court advantage. If you're going to go down in a constricted bubble and find a way to win a championship, I'll have a lot of respect for whoever that team is."

How constricted that bubble? Apparently finding coffee is so difficult for the players that Miami Heat star Jimmy Butler is charging $20 a cup for the java he makes in his own French press. And you thought Disney World was as perfect as life gets.

We should all press for the government to honor the NBA for the more than $500,000 the league contributed to researchers at Yale to help hasten the COVID-19 saliva test known as SalivaDirect, which was approved for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Saturday.

Far cheaper and almost as accurate as nasal swab tests, it can provide results in significantly less time, thanks to its ability to be processed by multiple labs. Said Stephen M. Hahn, the FDA's commissioner, in a release: "Providing this type of flexibility for processing saliva samples to test for COVID-19 infection is groundbreaking in terms of efficiency and avoiding shortages of crucial test components."

Added Andy Slavitt, a Medicare and Medicaid administrator during the Obama administration who lobbied former FDA commissioners to encourage swift approval of SalivaDirect: "My interest was to help get a low-cost scalable test that can be a game-changer across the country. We didn't get leadership from where we needed it, but it's great to see the NBA emerge."

So who will emerge as the 2020 NBA champ, assuming the league can continue to avoid a coronavirus outbreak?

Though the Portland Trail Blazers and their otherworldly backcourt of Damien Lillard (53, 61 and 42 points in his last three restart games) and CJ McCollum (14 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter of Saturday's play-in win over the Memphis Grizzlies) may throw a scare into the Lakers in round one, expect LeBron James and Co. to meet their fellow Staples Center tenants, the Clippers, in the Western Conference finals.

The one fly in that ointment could be Denver. With the ridiculously polished Nikola Jokic (per-game averages of 19.9 points, 9.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists) in the post and similarly creative Jamal Murray in the backcourt, the Nuggets are not only the most fun team to watch in the West, they could become a problem for the Lakers if Denver somehow gets past the Clips in the conference semis.

Having said that, expect the Clippers to win the West against a Lakers bunch that desperately misses guard Avery Bradley, who chose to opt out of the remainder of the season after the shutdown.

As for the East, who knows?

Assuming Boston, Miami, Milwaukee and 2019 world champion Toronto all win their first-round series over Philadelphia, Indiana, Orlando and Brooklyn, respectively, any of the four could reach the NBA Finals, though the Raptors look like the best bet to do so.

With apologies to all those folks who would love to see a Celtics-Lakers final, Clippers-Raptors might also be the most intriguing television matchup, because Clips star Kawhi Leonard led Toronto to the title last season.

And while it would make for great theater — and perhaps a wee bit of justice — for the Raptors to repeat, Leonard and fellow wing Paul George (along with sharpshooting sixth man Lou Williams) look to be too good to lose.

Yet whoever ultimately wins, these playoffs figure to be exciting enough that no one should need a $20 cup of Joe from Butler to stay awake while watching them.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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