The stars are shining bright in the Magic Kingdom. With the playoff seeding games coming to a close Friday night and a play-in game for the Western Conference’s 8-seed on the horizon, the NBA has announced there will be an All-Bubble Team and MVP. (Performances in Orlando don’t count toward the regular-season awards.)
Instead of trying to convince you that Luka Doncic is a forward because he plays with a bunch of short kings like J.J. Barea, we’ll just ditch positional designations here and hope the NBA vote follows suit.
These are the five best performers (and coach!) for your 2020 inaugural All-Bubble Team:
T.J. Warren, Indiana Pacers
31 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2 assists, 1.3 steals, 36.4 minutes
No, your eventual return to basketball won’t look like this.
Warren’s 53-point onslaught for the shorthanded Pacers included only four made free throws and as many made 3s (nine) as field goal misses. That’s absurd. We’ve seen a lot of random dudes put up 50-burgers (you are forever seen, Corey Brewer), but Warren dotting up one of the league’s best defenders in Ben Simmons to get there was quite the sight. By the time Philly tried to lock him down, it was too late.
Warren kept it rolling the next two games before he finally crashed down to Earth. A 16-point performance against his former mates in Phoenix and a 12-point outing against apparent blood rival Jimmy Butler and the Heat took some wind out of Warren’s sails, but we’ll always have that three-game stretch where you absolutely couldn’t tell T.J. nothing: 39.7 points a game on 65/61/92 and incredibly just one turnover.
One Shining Moment:
Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
30 points, 9.7 assists, 10.1 rebounds, 0.6 blocks, 35.5 minutes
Luka has been like Magneto the past few weeks: unstoppable even in a bubble filled with plastic shields and the perfect foil for all the other mutants in the league. The Mavs head into Friday’s proceedings with a 3-5 record in Orlando, but they’ve played their part in some of the most memorable battles: the overtime opener against James Harden and the Rockets, the actualization of the Bright Future Suns™, and Damian Lillard’s 61-point “respect” game.
Next up in the playoffs: a date with reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers. It’s a whale of a matchup for Luka, as Leonard and Paul George are somewhere near picks one and two among players with the best shot at slowing Doncic down in a series.
But, uh, good luck with that. In contrast to the feats of fury we’ve seen from Lillard, Luka’s just casually out there bending bullets, cruising to a 32-11-11 bubble average at 21 years old. It feels silly to imply that a team with the greatest offense in NBA history merely has a puncher’s chance in the postseason. As a reminder, Rick Carlisle pushed the Beautiful Game Spurs to seven games in 2013-14 with a weird-ass Mavs team. If Luka and Kristaps Porzingis keep the form they’ve shown in Orlando, things could get interesting, fast.
One Shining Moment:
James Harden, Houston Rockets
35.3 points, 8.7 assists, 9.2 rebounds, three steals, 35.8 minutes
“When it’s all said and done, they’ll appreciate it more.”
Harden is underappreciated, but it’s no one’s fault. This is what happens when superstars reach the cusp but never get over the top for a title—you kind of grow numb to their greatness while you wait for their next chance at championship validation. Harden can score any number below 81 in a game, and it just kind of washes away. Triple-doubles, 40 a night for weeks at a time, leading the league in steals—none of it moves the needle. Harden dropped a 45-17-9 line on the Pacers that would barely register as one of the bubble’s most memorable showings. What a bizarre, purgatorial existence it must be.
On a brighter note: Houston’s relatively new-look lineup looked good in this setting, even while missing Eric Gordon, and Harden took over a few games down the stretch and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Jeff Green even looked … no, we will stop right there.
Naturally, this was not the main course for Harden. Devin Booker and Damian Lillard’s performances felt like they meant something for their legacies as they fought to get into the postseason; Harden’s were just another day at the office. But the playoffs await, and it doesn’t get much juicier than a first-round showdown with former teammate Chris Paul and the league’s clutchest team this year in Oklahoma City, especially with Russell Westbrook’s strained quad injury putting even more on Harden’s plate. Turn the court mics up, and let’s see some demons get exorcised.
One Shining Moment:
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
37.6 points, 9.6 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 41.7 minutes
The legend of Damian Lillard grows. After missing two free throws in a crucial loss against the Clippers, something that had just a 1.2 percent chance of happening based on his career free throw percentage, and having to endure the taunts of Patrick Beverley and Paul George, Lillard decided to burn the world down during a casual game of pool with Bogdan Bogdanovic the next day. As one does.
@Dame_Lillard DAMN!!! You called that 60 piece at pool today!!!— Bogdan Bogdanovic (@LeaderOfHorde) August 12, 2020
The Blazers needed every one of Lillard’s combined 112 points over the next two games to keep their postseason hopes alive, and he delivered. There have been a lot of “Mamba Mentality” co-opters over the years, but no one has fully embodied the Eff You spirit of Kobe since Kobe. This was as close as it gets. Lillard screaming to put some respect on his name, a not so subtle comment fired back at Beverley and George, was the kind of “it became personal for me” moment Michael Jordan delivered time and time again with a drink in hand earlier this summer.
But unlike Jordan or Kobe, Dame’s competitive fire doesn’t burn anyone it isn’t supposed to. CJ McCollum has a fractured lower back and hasn’t looked like his usual self. Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins hadn’t played in a game in 2020 until the bubble began. Lillard threw them all on his back, helped turn Gary Trent Jr. into a legitimate threat by spoon-feeding him open looks, took on tough defensive assignments, and played 40 minutes in the second game of a back-to-back in a must-win game against Philadelphia.
One Shining Moment:
If he’s your Bubble MVP, I have no real qualms. But here’s the argument for why it should be someone else ...
MVP: Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
30.5 points, 6 assists, 4.9 rebounds, 0.5 steals, 33.8 minutes
It’s not much of a consolation, but Booker did everything he possibly could to get Phoenix to the play-in game. The Suns were not supposed to be here, on the cusp of the playoffs, and yet they rattled off a perfect 8-0 record despite a brutal schedule. Booker’s performances weren’t quite as explosive as Lillard’s, but he was more consistent. Lillard had the huge outbursts, but Booker actually scored more points per minute in the bubble.
Booker had never played any games of real consequence as a pro; ditto for his trio of young teammates (Cameron Johnson, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges). While the Blazers were fortunate to welcome back key players, Booker did all this without Aron Baynes and Kelly Oubre Jr. and made lemonade with off-the-street free agent Cam Payne as the team’s best reserve. Booker seemed in control every step of the way, torturing defenses with a slowed-down approach to pick-and-rolls that led to a steady diet of easy midrange looks.
The victories alone swing a tight Bubble MVP race Booker’s way, but the margin of victory should as well. The Blazers went 6-2 in Orlando but beat only one opponent (Denver) by a double-digit margin; the Suns did that five times. Booker’s raw numbers may have looked a little more imposing if he’d been needed late in fourth quarters like Lillard was, but Booker was still nails when crunch-time duty called.
The unexpectedness of Phoenix’s rise with Booker, especially in the face of long odds and important absences, was more surprising than Lillard turning himself up to 100 and carrying an older, more experienced squad that has been there before.
Both were phenomenal, and if I were more of a coward, a co-MVP vote would be justifiable. But Booker gets the nod here, while Dame likely gets the Lakers.
One Shining Moment:
D.J. Foster is a writer and high school basketball coach in Oceanside, California.