Thank the God of Hoops, for NBA basketball is back!
(The God of Hoops, pictures earlier)
We're a week into the resumption of the league, and it's fair to say that The Bubble has thrown up a few on court surprises, so lets take a quick look around the grounds....well, around the courts of Disney World, anyway.
49-19 record; 3-1 in the bubble
One of the constant refrains about the benefits of the 4 month layoff was that teams with injuries would be able to get their rosters healthy – the Raps are the best example of that. Coach Nick Nurse – finally with a full roster at his disposal – has a team that is missing a genuine superstar, but is still well equipped to hang with the true contenders thanks to a phalanx of defensively outstanding wings and enough shooting to overcome their lack of overall ability to finish at the rim.
That dominant defense, currently 2nd in the league, runs deeper that just the wings. Marc Gasol has moved past 'ageing', but his reading of the game remains as sharp as ever. Kyle Lowry lives to take charges, and Fred Vanvleet somehow leads the NBA in deflections – a remarkable feat for such a diminutive player.
For all their defensive ability, playoff offense is a concern. Toronto get more points in transition that any other team. Their transition passing to open up corner 3's is a thing of beauty. But will the traditionally slower playoff basketball stymie them?
New Orleans Pelicans
30-39 record; 2-3 in the bubble
The presumed favourite for the 9th seed, and indeed the play-in fixtures in the West have not started bubble life all that well.
Defensively, the Pelicans have been poor as a whole, and appalling with Zion Williamson on the floor. With their young star, New Orleans are 30 (!) points worse in defensive rating since the restart. That being said, Zion has been – a Clippers related blip aside - uber efficient at the other end of the floor: 13 points in 15 minutes vs Utah; 23 in 25 against Memphis.
If the Pellies don't make the post season – or at least the play in – there is a danger of this season being seen as a wasted opportunity. Considering the injures to Zion, Favors, Redick etc, this season was never one where the team was going to make serious noise. If they can keep this core together, another year of experience for the young players and some health fortune for the veterans could see New Orleans push into a mid playoff seed in 2021.
33-37 record; 1-4 in the bubble
Practically all pre-bubble modelling had Memphis holding onto the 8th seed, and the huge play in advantages that come with that position. Now, with the full strength Blazers a solitary game behind, the Spurs 1.5 behind, the Pelicans and streaking Suns only 2 in arrears, there is a very real chance that the Grizz could fall out of the playoff picture altogether.
Four losses to open their bubble record has Mempis in a precarious position. However, much like the Pelicans, a postseason berth at this point in their development would have been gravy. This is a team with a potentially very bright future. These games are, win or lose, just more match experience for the young core.
The Bubble has taken it's toll though, with Jaren Jackson Jnr tearing his meniscus. We've also seen it laid bare how much this team needs Justice Winslow. For all of his strengths, Kyle Anderson's lack of shooting has gummed up the offense.
That said, the team still look OK. Ja hasn't hit top gear, but even in poor form he's been quite good. Valanciunas has continued his excellent campaign. Dillon Brooks continues to believe – for better or worse – that he's the best player on the court at any given point in time. Brooks was lambasted for his end game foul against the Spurs – that's not fair. He's not the first and certainly won't be the last to fall for a DeRozan up fake.
33-36 record; 3-2 in the bubble
Much of the praise for the quality of games in Orlando can be attributed to the withdrawal of the bottom 8 sides (as the great John Hollinger delightfully terms them, the 'Delete Eight') from The Bubble. But the Nets, or at least this Nets, is just as woeful as any of those squads. They're cannon fodder for the rest of the league.
Yes, they made us take notice with their surprise victory over the Bucks, but take a quick look at that box score; specifically the minutes played for Milwaukee – they clearly were not taking that game seriously. Yet here they are at 3-2 in bubble play. It's important to look at who they've beaten outside of the Bucks: Sacramento and Washington – neither teams are exactly at the top of their respective games.
The one positive that Brookyn can take out of these games is the clear air afforded to Jarrett Allen, who should really have been their starting centre all season long.
45-24 record; 2-2 in the bubble
Denver keep on keeping on.
Despite not having Jamal Murray, Will Barton or Gary Harris available due to injury, Denver has continued to thrive though the delightful play of Skinny Jokic and by releasing Torrey Craig Michael Porter Jr.
Porter was solid in Denver's loss to Miami before exploding for 37 points and 12 boards against the Thunder followed by a 30 and 15 line against San Antonio. He's always been seen as the missing link for a deep and talented side that was missing a true wing scorer – the future star to compliment the Joker. Denver's future might be here sooner than we thought.
24-45 record; 0-5 in the bubble
Poor Washington. The Wizards Bubble squad would be the worst in the NBA, even with all 30 teams present. Brad Beal was so important to this team. His loss, alongside sharpshooter Davis Bertans, and well as the ongoing absence of John Wall (remember him?) make this an expansion squad at best. If the Nets are cannon fodder, then the Wizards are...what's worse than cannon fodder?
Coach Scott Brooks can take some positives out of this experience, though. His youngsters are gaining valuable experience leading a team. Thomas Bryant, Jerome Robinson and Troy Brown have stepped up. Rookie Rui Hachimura less so, though he'll be better for the time spent in Orlando.
Oklahoma City Thunder
42-26 record; 2-2 in the bubble
OKC, with a couple of impressive wins over the Jazz and Lakers, are setting themselves up for a top 4 finish in the West and the 'home court' (well, the right to wear home jerseys in round 1) advantage that come with that.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has taken another step since returning to play, putting up 18.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2 steals a game whilst shooting 40% from deep. Steven Adams looks energised.
With Dennis Schroder to return, the Thunder's vaunted 3-lead guard lineup will be put under playoff pressure. They'll surely do well offensively, but can they hold up at the other end?
An underrated factor in the Thunder making noise in the playoffs is the return of Andre Roberson after a full 2 years away from the court. He still can't shoot a lick, but his ability to guard 1 through 4 will be a key to Billy Donovan's game plan.
43-26 record; 2-3 in the bubble
The loss of Bojan Bogdanovic to season ending wrist surgery was supposed to be the death knell of Utah's fringe contender status. Early in their first game back against New Orleans, that indeed looked the case, but the Jazz executed late to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat. They've held steady and looked great against Memphis.
Mike Conley looks like his old self again, an he finally seems to have found a synergy with Rudy Gobert, who is playing wonderful basketball inside The Bubble. Joe Ingles broke aout against the Grizz, and Royce O'Neale has settled into the starting 5 neatly.
The issue for Utah is depth – scoring depth in particular. Donovan Mitchell can only do so much. Without Bogdanovic's 20 points every night, much falls on Ingles (who isn't a natural scorer) and Jordan Clarkson. Would you trust your future to Jordan Clarkson?
46-23 record; 3-2 in the bubble
Boston's cadre of two way wings give them a punchers chance against the true contenders in Milwaukee and the Los Angeles teams. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward are a tough match up for any team, and they themselves have enough versatility to contain their title rivals at the other end.
There are two serious concerns for the C's, though: interior defense, and a playable (sorry Enes Kanter) dreadnought to challenge the rim.
Daniel Theis is a good player, who most vastly underestimate, but he's simply not big enough to face off with Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis or the Bucks frontline. Kemba Walker is the joker in the pack, but who knows what his knee will feel like from day to day? If Kemba is the man we remember from Charlotte, he can swing a series on his own. If he's a hobbled defensive liability that can't create space, he's almost a detriment to the team.
The swing player might be the aforementioned Hayward. He looks as sprightly as he has ever been since that catastrophic injury. If he has confidence in his body, that ol' Utah era swagger may return. That version of Gordon Hayward was a Western Conference All Star, and a quiet assassin.
43-25 record; 3-1 in the bubble
The defensive concerns about Houston's revolutionary lineup have thus far proven unfounded. Sure, they give up points, but as James Harden of all people showed against Milwaukee, they can turn it up when it counts:
James Harden with some clutch late-game defense on Giannis 🔒 pic.twitter.com/DRI5TxYjcr— ESPN (@espn) August 3, 2020
Whilst late game defense got the job done on Milwaukee, Houston rained fire upon the Mavericks, hanging 153 on them. Harden went off for 49 points on a mere 20 field goal attempts (he also shot 18 of 21 from the stripe).
Robert Covington and PJ Tucker are vital to this team for their defense, but their ability to knock own open triples is almost as important and neither have really found their groove. Fortunately Danuel House has stepped up, giving his team 16.8 points on 42% shooting from three point land since the restart.
43-26 record; 2-2 in the bubble
The change to Miami's starting 5 (Jae Crowder in for Myers Leonard) is an interesting wrinkle from master coach Erik Spoelstra. Crowder is undoubtedly a solid defender and willing – if not always able – shooter, but the Heat definatley lose size in this swap, and arguably lose some of the outside shooting (Leonard is shooting 42.9% from deep on the season) so valuable to a team lead by non shooters in Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Spoelstra's a wise and inventive coach, so you trust that the change to increase his starting unit's defensive versatility is the right move.
Still, the downgrade is shooting is something to watch. Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn are all excellent shooters, but are all untested in the playoffs. Goran Dragic has adapted to his second unit role seamlessly, but can he step up if one of the youngsters falter? What – if anything – does Andre Iguodala have left?
Los Angeles Clippers
46-22 record; 2-2 in the bubble
If there was a dictionary definition of a moral victory, it came in the Clippers 'opening night' loss to the cross town Lakers. The Clips were missing Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams, as well as playing a clearly hobbled Patrick Beverley; it still took LeBron owning the moment to defeat them. Imagine those 3 playing their regular rotation minutes in place of Reggie Jackson, Patrick Patterson or Joakim Noah.
LA's little cousin remains the team best equipped to shape-shift in adaptation to any opposition, as well as align themselves in a way to take advantage of an opposition weakness. They have the most depth, and the arguably have the best 1-2 punch in the NBA. Paul George looks wonderful since the restart, by the way. Coach Doc Rivers has aces wherever he looks and he's a coach you would trust to pull the right lever at the right time.
The only real concern for the Clippers is their lack on continuity. Just as they were getting into gear, the shutdown happened. The break was supposed to allow injury struck teams to get their full compliment on the floor together, yet that still hasn't happened in this instance.
55-14 record; 2-2 in the bubble
The Bucks have the #1 seed in the East all sewn up, so you could excuse them for coasting through the restart games. That said, the loss to the undermanned (to say the least) Nets was eye opening. Sure, the Bucks only played their starters for about 15 minutes each, but the lack of urgency was concerning.
More concerning was their loss to Houston. Coach Budenholzer's defense aims to take away the most efficient shot in basketball: the layup/dunk. They give up 3's, but take the position that the length and athleticism of Giannis, Middleton, Hill and Bledsoe can make those kickout passes a risky play. If those passes are crisp, and opposition shooters get hot, the Bucks are vulnerable. Perhaps the most troubling part of that game was the Rockets – and in particular James Harden – ability to shut down Giannis down the stretch. For Milwaukee to win their first title in a half century, Giannis simply can't be slowed by the like of James Harden.
The return of Eric Bledsoe could be huge for the Bucks as a defensive force at the point of attack, but also for Giannis personally as someone that can take some of the ball handling and creative duty away from him, keeping the superstar fresher for late game situations.
30-39 record; 4-0 in the bubble
The Suns are – shockingly – the only remaining undefeated side in The Bubble. For a team missing one of it's best players in Kelly Oubre, and supposedly only here to make up the numbers, they're playing great basketball. This whole Orlando experience was supposed to get the young Suns more reps, and get them some experience in a relatively high stakes setting. Encouragingly, they've thrived.
Deandre Ayton hasn't quite found his groove, though he's been solid. Maligned rookie Cam Johnson has been excellent: 13.3 points and 8.5 rebounds in The Bubble. But as always, the Suns start and finish with the dynamic Devin Booker, who has put up 28 points and 6.5 assists per contest, as well as doing this:
Devin Booker's game-winner vs the Clippers!— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) August 4, 2020
35 PTS | 8 AST | 6 3PT pic.twitter.com/eW73AM3oP6
The Suns are still at the bottom of that chasing pack for the 9th seed, but they're only 1.5 games out. Against the odds, they're a legitimate chance.
32-37 record; 2-2 in the bubble
As always, it's difficult to find may interesting things to say about the Magic. As favourite, they won their opening pair of restart games, but lost the next two as underdogs. The Magic are just kind of...existing.
A couple of points to look at with the Magic, though. Firstly, thoughts with Jonathan Isaac. His torn ACL is devastating for a young man starting to find his way in the league. He's already an outstanding defensive big, and his versatile offense was coming along well. This is a medium term body blow to Orlando. Secondly, if Mo Bamba can't get significant burn in this environment, then it's fair to wonder if it will ever happen for the former #5 pick.
Los Angeles Lakers
51-17 record; 2-3 in the bubble
Given they effectively had the #1 seed in the West wrapped up prior to the restart, it's somewhat excusable to see the Lakers start to sleepwalk their way through games.
Aside from the Clippers game and a spanking of Utah, the Lakers on the whole haven't really looked all that interested. LeBron is – at best – pacing himself. It's LeBron James, so you trust him and his methodology, but there will come a point where LeBron's ageing body will simply not respond to the flipping of a switch.
Anthony Davis, in the other hand, look incredible. He's giving the Lakers 20.5 points, 9.5 boards, 3.8 assists, 1.3 blocks and a steal per game, with his usual all world defense. He enveloped Kawhi defensively in the first game back. His evisceration of Rudy Gobert and the Jazz was something to behold:
Guard depth is still an issue for the Lakers. With Avery Bradley out, they simply don't have anybody that can slow the best scoring guards. A hot Lou Williams; Dame and CJ (likely 1st round match-up, remember), Harden and Westbrook, OKC's 3 guard line up...there are a lot of teams that will salivate at the thought of being guarded by the Alex Caruso's and Dion Waiters of the world.
San Antonio Spurs
29-38 record; 2-2 in the bubble
Like Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill, the Spurs simply refuse to die.
The Spurs best player this season was LaMarcus Aldridge, but he's not in Orlando due to injury. The Spurs have split their Bubble games so far, and sit a single game behind Portland for the coveted 9th seed. With the Grizzlies free falling, the Spurs couldn't sneak into the playoffs could they? Not again?
No matter the final result, the Spurs have at last finally started to lean on their youth. In moving DeMar DeRozan to a play making power forward role (he's thrived: 21.6 points and 7.4 assists), they've been able to play their 3 young guards in Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker together. White in particular, with 19.8 points, 5 boards, 5.2 assists and 45.2% from deep, has been red hot. Those 3, along with underrated big Jakob Poeltl, give the Spurs a solid foundation to build upon. A big free agent signing, or some draft hits (the Spurs tend to do this draft caper better than most) could see San Antonio reclaim their place in the hierarchy pretty quickly. This stretch in Orlando is a good start.
42-27 record; 3-1 in the bubble
Another team that simply doesn't go away are the Pacers.
Despite injuries to Victor Oladipo, Malcolm Brogdon, Miles Turner, Jeremy Lamb, and now Domantas Sabonis, the Pacers keep on keeping one. Currently, they sit in 5th place in the East, tied with but owning the tie breaker over the Sixers.
Coach Nate McMillan has done a wonderful job with this team. Even at full strength, they're not as talented top to bottom as the Sixers, Bucks, Celtics or even the Raptors. McMillan has set his team up with one of the highest floors in the NBA – at their worst, the Pacers will compete and execute. At their best, they can sneak an upset or two.
Whilst getting Oladipo back to his pre-injuries form is vital, TJ Warren has stepped up as the man who might lead this team. The form NC State product has been solid all year, but has been electric in The Bubble with 33.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2 steals and preposterous 53.8% shooting from deep. His 53 point performance against the apparently lockdown Sixers defense was incredible:
32-38 record; 3-1 in the bubble
The team that nobody wants to face in the first round are starting to heat up.
Dame Lillard and CJ McCollum with a real functioning NBA level frontcourt is a dangerous thing. Let's be straight about this: the Lakers want no part of this version of the Blazers in round 1.
CJ is humming along nicely, Zach Collins is finding his rhythm and Carmelo Anthony is hitting clutch shot after clutch shot. But let's turn the spotlight on three players in particular.
Lillard is the bellwether for this team – they'll go as far as he can take them. His 45 points (with 11 made 3's) and 12 assist masterpiece against Denver leaves him with Bubble averages of 31.3 points, 11.3 assists, 5.3 made three pointers at 43.8%. He's in playoff form right now.
Second year guard Gary Trent has erupted in Orlando, giving the Blazers 21.3 points 5.5 makes from deep at an insane 62.9%. That shooting is obviously unsustainable, but it does give coach Terry Stotts some much needed guard depth.
Despite spending more than a year away from the court, Jusuf Nurkic is perhaps looking fitter than he ever has in his NBA career. The giant Bosnian is crushing it: 22 points, 11 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.5 steals and 3 blocks per game. They're All NBA numbers! He and Hassan Whiteside give Portland the best centre rotation in the NBA.
42-27 record; 3-1 in the bubble
The NBA's ultimate Jekyll and Hyde team, the Sixers are just as capable of taking down the Bucks as they are of losing to the Wizards.
Joel Embiid is a dominant player when the mood strikes. In Orlando, Embiid looks in the mood, giving his team an even 30 points and 16 boards per game. He and Al Horford have looked great together since the restart. When their two high profile bigs share the floor in Orlando, the Sixers have been +5.7 points per 100 possessions, against a mere +0.1 prior to the restart.
Ben Simmons knee injury is extremely damaging to Philadelphia's chances of making the final four. Despite his fit issues, the Austlralian is an elite talent whose defense and facilitation make the Sixers tick. For all of Shake Milton's ability to hit an outside shot, there's a reason he was a lightly touted prospect.
A question to ponder: if the Sixers don't make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, is this Brett Brown's last stand?
41-30 record; 1-3 in the bubble
Dallas' record setting offense hasn't missed at beat in The Bubble, , scoring at over 122 points per game. Wunderkids Luka Doncic (32.8 points, 11 rebounds, 9.8 assists) and Kristaps Porzingis (30.3 points, 10 boards, 1.5 blocks) have picked up where they left off pre-shutdown. Nobody else has really put themselves forward as a consistent 3rd option, but when you have two blokes going for 30 every night, you can live with that.
As excellent as the offense has been, the defense has been equally as poor, conceding 127.5 points a contest since the restart. There is no attack this side of the Globetrotters that can compensate for that defense. So far, they've conceded 49 points to James Harden on 20 shots (although The Beard had his usual diet of free throws), 20 on 20 shots to Devin Booker and 20 points on perfect 10 for 10 shooting to (checks notes) Ivica Zubac? Wow!
In addition to their defesive woes (they really let Zubac shoot 10 for 10? For reals?) the Mavs are still poor in clutch situations. There is a legitimate argument that too much rests on Doncic's shoulders through the course of the game, leaving him gassed late on. There really isn't another competent ball handler on this roster, though. Hang on.....is that....Trey Burke's music?
29-40 record; 1-4 in the bubble
Given their pre shutdown form, the Kings came into The Bubble with an outside chance of making the 9th seed. With a 1-4 record in Orlando, those hopes have been thoroughly dashed. Their defense is awful and the secondary weapons in Bogdan Bogdanovic, Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield have been inconsistent at best. Frankly, Hield looks like he's been on the Shawn Kemp lockdown diet. The only thing standing between the Kings and Nets/Wizards levels of futility is De'Aaron Fox. The 4rd year guard is averaging 20.5 points, 7.5 assists and 1.8 steals. If he had competency around him, he'd surely be posting even better numbers.
Harry Giles had a great opening game with 23 and 8 in under 20 minutes. He's played less than 20 minutes total in the subsequent 3 games. Surely the lustre has worn of Luke Walton as the Next Big Thing in coaching by now?