Inasmuch as it appeared awkward, uncomfortable, and staged, the NBA bubble restored the excitement of the game in a different manner. Players got used to the fanless atmosphere. The games have been compelling. The story lines are plentiful.
What has given the players and the league peace of mind is the continued zero positive COVID-19 tests, and while there were some issues with the limitations of the compound in the early weeks, players became accustomed to it and now are focused on the postseason.
The seeding games were entertaining and grew better and more polished once teams got familiar with the surroundings and used to the frenetic pace of the games, and once the players got into basketball shape.
The one thing to look for in the playoff games is a higher quality of play because there is no travel. Every team will have at least one day off between games, too, so fatigue won’t be an excuse.
The most compelling seeding game was the Trail Blazers’ 134-133 win over the Nets Thursday to advance to the Western Conference play-in game Saturday against Memphis. It came down to the final shot when Brooklyn’s Caris LeVert missed a 20-footer that would have sent the Suns to the play-in game.
Yet when Carmelo Anthony rebounded LeVert’s miss, there was no roar of the crowd, just cheers from teammates.
The lack of cheers — and boos — has changed how some players get motivated.
“I don’t think the intensity of the environment is comparable to what it would have been if we were playing in the Moda Center,” said Portland’s Damian Lillard. “But I think the tension that you felt on the court was there, which is the way I think it’s going to be for the rest of this season. The urgency, the energy, the pace just felt like there was something on the line.
“But as far as to what it would be if we were in an arena, it isn’t the same.”
And while the players have been practicing and playing for six weeks, they were coming off a long hiatus, so bodies are fresh.
“I think physically we’ll all be a little bit fatigued, but it won’t be what it usually is,” Lillard said. “Every year, you go to the playoffs fatigued, except you’re coming off 82 games. Right now, we basically had a four-month break and short training camp and just eight games.
“So even though we will be fatigued because of how fast the turnaround is, we won’t be anywhere near where it usually is when we get to the playoffs. I think, if anything, a lot of teams have been resting guys and sitting guys, so sometimes it works in your favor to be the more active team.”
While there have been a few injuries and ailments, most teams are entering the playoffs in good health, which should make for compelling series.
We rated the winners and losers through the seeding games; there were a handful of surprises and disappointments.
▪ The Suns. These past three weeks have resurrected the franchise, with an 8-0 bubble record and a serious playoff surge led by guard Devin Booker.
▪ The Pacers. Victor Oladipo is far from 100 percent after recovering from that devastating knee injury, and Domantas Sabonis left the bubble with plantar fasciitis, but Indiana still managed to lock down the 5-seed behind the play of T.J. Warren, Oladipo, and Aaron Holiday. Coach Nate McMillan signed a contract extension during the bubble period, and he wasn’t the only coach to re-up.
▪ Brad Stevens. The Celtics approached him about a contract extension before he arrived in Orlando, and they agreed to a deal this past week. Stevens has led the Celtics to the postseason the past six seasons and has made two Eastern Conference finals appearances. This offers relief to Celtics faithful who get a little antsy every time an elite college job opens.
▪ Warren. Known as a midrange specialist who could never stay healthy, he has blossomed into a budding star in the bubble, beginning with a 53-point debut against the 76ers. He averaged 31 points in his first six games and will be the focus of the Heat defense in an interesting first-round matchup.
▪ Virtual fans. Initially it seemed like a silly idea. But the league has turned them into a bubble-game must by getting legends such as Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Chris Bosh, and Deuce Tatum (kinda one, right?) to serve as fans.
▪ Lillard. Considered one of the best pure scorers in the NBA, he carried the Blazers on his back to the play-in game with a 37.6-point average, 43.6 percent from the 3-point line, and 9.6 assists. Lillard came to Orlando with the express purpose of getting his team into playoff contention. Mission accomplished. He’ll likely win the Bubble MVP award.
▪ The Pelicans. The NBA desperately wanted the Pelicans to make the playoffs for a Zion Williamson-LeBron James matchup, but New Orleans blew a fourth-quarter lead against the Jazz and then essentially gave up. Williamson had flashes of brilliance, but the Pelicans had the path to the playoffs laid out and stumbled badly, taking themselves out of contention after four games.
▪ The Kings. They were sort of lucky to be invited, but you envisioned their young core making some noise and at least scaring a few teams. Instead, the Kings lost five of their first six games — with a rather meaningless win over New Orleans — and finished 3-5. Things were supposed to turn around once Sacramento hired Luke Walton as coach, but it’s the same inconsistency and disappointment, a team good enough to compete for the playoffs but never good enough to qualify.
▪ Lou Williams. Like a few other players in the bubble, Williams left his team to attend the funeral of a family member. While in Atlanta, the Clippers guard decided to stop by Magic City, a renowned strip club, for what he said was their famous chicken wings. An Atlanta-based rapper took a photo of Williams in the nightspot and posted it on social media. He was forced to quarantine for eight days upon his return, and the Clippers were without their third-leading scorer for their first three seeding games.
▪ Ben Simmons. After using the pandemic hiatus to get his ailing back healthy, Simmons went down with a dislocated left kneecap suffered in a rather meaningless game against the Wizards. He underwent a surgical procedure and will miss the rest of the season. The chances of the 76ers making an NBA Finals run may have been extinguished, as well.
MUCH BRIGHTER PICTURE
Suns have risen out of the darkness
The Suns, the unquestioned team of the bubble, were the only undefeated squad in Orlando and have raised hopes in a city that has desperately been seeking significance since Steve Nash left town a decade ago.
Coach Monty Williams, one of the more liked and respected figures in the NBA, has shaped the Suns into a potential playoff contender, and the talented young core finally has a popular leader without the constant intervention of owner Robert Sarver.
The Suns had been steadily improving throughout the season (including a win at Boston) but faced criticism from pundits who believed they were too far out of the playoff race to be invited to Orlando. Phoenix turned that into motivation, and led by All-Star Devin Booker, they went on an improbable run, beating the Clippers, Mavericks, Thunder, Heat, and Pacers.
“I’m just really grateful for the effort and the growth of this team,” Williams said. “I just wanted them to know how much I love them and appreciate allowing me to be a part of a special period in our franchise.”
The once-proud organization competed for Western Conference championships with coach Mike D’Antoni, Nash, and forward Amar’e Stoudemire 10-15 years ago. But the team aged, Stoudemire signed with the Knicks, and the Suns haven’t reached the playoffs in 10 years, the longest drought in the franchise’s 52-year history.
Phoenix has had trouble attracting free agents. Former general manager Ryan McDonough thought he had LaMarcus Aldridge a few years ago before Aldridge decided to join the Spurs. Buried in the competitive Western Conference, the Suns had become a forgotten organization.
But a series of solid drafts (Booker, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton, Cameron Johnson) along with the acquisitions of Kelly Oubre and Dario Saric, and the signing of steady point guard Ricky Rubio have the Suns back in a respectable place.
They might be even further along if recent lottery picks Josh Jackson and Dragan Bender had panned out, but Williams has tried to turn the focus away from the past.
“I think we’ve gained the respect of the league, and that’s huge,” Williams said. “It’s huge for us as an organization. It’s huge for us as a team.
“There was some sentiment before this that we didn’t belong, and I think we’ve changed that sentiment. It’s huge for all of our guys who improved this year. But we have a ways to go, and that’s going to require a lot of work.”
Williams, 47, has been through heartbreaking tragedy. His wife — and the mother of his five children — was killed in a head-on collision in Oklahoma City four years ago. He left the team to attend to his family, and after a few years of recovery, he decided he wanted to coach again.
Williams has become a big brother/father figure to players such as Booker, who was seeking stability in the organization that drafted him.
“It’s been fun since Day 1, when we hired him,” Booker said. “We became much closer. We’ve learned a lot together. There’s been a lot of honest conversations with each other, and we know we’re trying to build the culture of this franchise. This was a product of that.
“It’s probably the greatest [stretch] of my career also. We’re trying to build on it. It’s honestly not surprising to me. From the day we stepped down here, everybody was locked in, and people have developed their games over the time off.”
What is admirable about the Suns is that they played so well despite having little chance of coming out of this month-long session with anything more than pride. The Pelicans, Grizzles, and Kings had better chances of reaching the playoffs and played poorly.
And the Suns were without two key components in Oubre and former Celtic Aron Baynes. This past week on national television, Warriors forward Draymond Green said Booker needed to get out of Phoenix or he would never play for a winner.
The Suns aren’t yet a winner, but they did regain respect and significance in the bubble. Booker, who dropped 70 on the Celtics two years ago, is a franchise cornerstone, but he’s been on an island for years.
“I’m proud of this group regardless,” Booker said. “We could have had a different approach to this bubble. But we didn’t. We stayed connected throughout.
“I think we took just tremendous strides in so many different ways other than just basketball, becoming closer as a unit and as a team. I think the biggest step for us coming into this thing is earning that respect.
“Just from the years past and what’s been going on in this organization since I’ve been here, and not getting in the win column like we would like to, takes a toll on you. You develop a reputation you don’t want.
“Here we changed the narrative. We changed how people think of us from the NBA, the refs, different teams, everybody.”
Said Williams: “It’s probably been the highlight of my coaching career, or one of them, how much fun I’ve had with our guys. It has been a blast.
“We got here, went into quarantine, and then went to work. We didn’t hear any complaining, no obstacles from the players. I’ve learned so much about our guys. It’s been a really fun, fun ride.”
With the Pelicans eliminated from playoff contention almost from the moment they arrived in the bubble, there was new speculation about the job security of coach Alvin Gentry, and on Saturday he was dismissed after five seasons. The Pelicans were a dark horse to make a run for the eighth spot behind a healthy Zion Williamson, but he left the bubble for several days because of a personal issue and arrived right before the resumption opener against Utah. Williamson is a brilliant and potentially dominant player, but he reported to camp not in the best shape, and the Pelicans monitored his minutes throughout the process. Williamson averaged 18.4 points in 20.7 minutes per game and looked effective in his minutes, but the Pelicans appeared to quit on their coach in some stretches (trailing by 30-plus in the first half of a loss to the Clippers and yielding 140 points in their first meeting with the downtrodden Kings). Gentry, who was coaching his fifth NBA team, was brought over after a successful assistant stint with the Warriors. But the Pelicans have never gotten better defensively and essentially wasted their chance to make a playoff run on a national stage with some early poor performances. General manager David Griffin and assistant GM Trajan Langdon quickly determined that Gentry wasn’t the long-term fit for this team. There will be plenty of younger, bright-minded coaches jumping at a chance to work with Williamson … The Nets coaching job remains open, and it could be down to two candidates: former Brooklyn coach Jason Kidd, a former college teammate of GM Sean Marks at Cal, and former Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue, who is a Clippers assistant and wants to return to head coaching. But interim coach Jacque Vaughn has done an admirable job with the shorthanded Nets. Brooklyn had bubble victories over the Bucks and Clippers and cemented the seventh playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, where they will face the Raptors in the first round … The NBA continues its clean COVID-19 record, as the league announced for the third consecutive time that no players tested positive out of the 342 in Orlando. The NBA mandates that players, team officials, media, and employees undergo daily testing, and also temperature and oxygen saturation monitoring. No team official or player can enter the arena without getting their temperature and oxygen checked and registered in an app on their cellphones.