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The NBA Bubble Blog Seeding Games Archive

A lot has happened on the Orlando campus—so much, in fact, that we had to create a second page for all of our pre-playoff coverage

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When the NBA began its experiment in self-contained professional basketball in Orlando, The Ringer started a running blog to cover every single update. Obviously, a lot has happened since 3:08 p.m. PT on July 30. This post contains all of our archived coverage of the seeding games.

For our playoff coverage, go to our main blog here.

Click here for an archive of our coverage during the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Trez Will be Back for the Playoffs, but Without Any Lead Time

Friday, August 14, 4:24 p.m. PT

Dan Devine: The Clippers should have some reinforcements when they open their first-round series against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks on Monday night. Ace reserve Montrezl Harrell is expected to clear quarantine that day, and “will be eligible to be activated for Game 1 against Dallas,” according to ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk.

Harrell was granted an excused absence on July 17 to tend to his sick grandmother; he announced on July 31 that she had died. The 26-year-old big man returned to the Orlando campus on August 10, at which point he began a quarantine.

“He’s back, ready to work,” Clippers guard and fellow Sixth Man of the Year award finalist Lou Williams told reporters this week. “With some things on his mind, I feel sorry for the other guys on the other team.”

Harrell was in the midst of a career season when the coronavirus shut down the NBA in March, averaging 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds in 27.8 minutes per game, all career highs. After emerging last season as one of the league’s top reserves, finishing third in Sixth Man voting, Harrell cemented himself as a top choice for this season’s award—on my ballot, at least. He remained super efficient and effective in a larger offensive role, improved as a rim protector, and continued to serve as a charge-taking, loose-ball-corralling hustle merchant who gives L.A.’s non-glamour team its snarl. His return provides balance to the second unit and fills out the frontcourt rotation, and gives Doc Rivers his full complement of options to mix and match lineups, whether to set the terms of engagement or to short-circuit what’s working best for the opposition. Once Harrell’s all the way back up to full speed, anyway.

Remember, Monday will make a full month since Trez left the bubble; he didn’t suit up for any of the Clips’ eight seeding games, or even the scrimmages they played before that. By the time he’s eligible to return to the court, it will have been more than five months since the last time Harrell saw in-game action, and he’ll attempt to hit the ground running against what was a historically potent offense without the benefit of even a single practice. Before the Clippers’ Friday game against the Thunder, Rivers termed Harrell’s potential return timeline “not ideal.”

“You know, I am going to just throw him in there. As you know, he’s earned that right,” Rivers told reporters. “The challenge will be just how ready he is. I don’t know if I have ever had a guy that hasn’t played in eight games or whatever and hasn’t had any practice and we’re just going to throw him out on the floor in a playoff game.”

However the Clips manage Harrell’s return—restricted minutes, short bursts of playing time à la Zion Williamson, attempts to accelerate his time frame with extra work on off days between games, etc.—they’ll need to get him back up to speed and in full form fast. Ivica Zubac starts in the middle for L.A., but when Doc needs a big he can trust late in games, Harrell’s his first choice, and the likeliest counterpart for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the crunch-time lineups that will need to stand toe-to-toe with the best of the best before all’s said and done.

Three Key Questions That Could Decide Blazers-Grizzlies

Friday, August 14, 7:55 a.m. PT

Jonathan Tjarks: Yet another burst of late-game heroics from Damian Lillard on Thursday helped the Blazers secure the no. 8 seed in the Western Conference and a spot in Saturday’s play-in game against the Grizzlies. Portland would advance to a first-round series against the Lakers with a win; Memphis would need to win both Saturday and in a winner-take-all game on Sunday. Here’s a look at three key questions that could decide the outcome.

1. How will Memphis guard Lillard in the pick-and-roll?

No one has found an answer to this question in the bubble. Keeping your center in the paint and letting Lillard walk into pull-up 3s is a recipe for failure. But few big men have the speed to contain Lillard on the perimeter, and trapping him with two defenders 30-plus feet from the basket creates huge openings for his teammates. This is where the loss of Jaren Jackson Jr., out with a torn meniscus, looms large for Memphis. He has the size to battle with Jusuf Nurkic and the speed to run with Lillard. Now, the Grizzlies have to choose between using a more traditional center (Jonas Valanciunas) who can do only the former and a small-ball big (Brandon Clarke) who can do only the latter.

2. Who will win the matchup of the big men?

Losing Jackson, who scored 33 points in an overtime loss to Portland on July 31, has also made Memphis light on offensive firepower. The Grizzlies will need more from Valanciunas, who struggled with foul trouble and played only 14 minutes in that game. His lack of mobility could be an issue on defense, so he’ll need to make up the difference by outplaying Nurkic on the other end. The Blazers center had 18 points, nine rebounds, and five assists in these teams’ first matchup in the bubble.

3. Who will win the minutes when Lillard and Ja Morant are not on the floor?

Neither team has been able to play without their star point guard for long in the bubble. Lillard has sat for only 55 minutes over eight games, while Morant is right behind him at 86 minutes. The team that wins the battle of the second units will have a major edge. Portland can run its offense through CJ McCollum, but he’s playing through a serious back injury. Memphis has really missed backup point guard Tyus Jones, who has not played in Orlando due to a knee injury. If he’s out Saturday, the Grizzlies will need Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen to cobble together some offense when Morant rests.

Dame Does It All

Thursday, August 13, 9:49 p.m. PT

Kaelen Jones: Damian Lillard called Thursday’s game “the most important game of our lives.” He played like it. There are few people on the planet who, with 10 minutes left in a win-or-go-home scenario, would cross half court, pull up from the logo, bury it, and then later explain they took such an outrageous shot because “I wouldn’t sleep well tonight knowing I was passive and made ‘the right play.’” But that’s what Damian Lillard told Yahoo’s Chris Haynes during an on-court postgame interview after he dropped 42 points on Thursday to keep the Blazers’ playoff hopes alive. They’ll face the Grizzlies on Saturday in a play-in game to determine who will face the West’s top-seeded Lakers. If the 8-seed Blazers win, they’ll advance to the playoffs. If the 9-seed Grizzlies win, the two teams will face off in a winner-take-all matchup on Sunday.

Portland’s 134-133 victory over the Nets came down to the wire. (At this point, it wouldn’t be an important Blazers game without some drama—six of their eight seeding games were decided by five points or fewer.) Nevermind that Brooklyn had already clinched its playoff spot and was without Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Spencer Dinwiddie. It seemed Thursday night belonged to Caris LeVert, who torched Portland with 37 points. He had his way with the Blazers’ defense, to the delight of Grizzlies and Suns fans. (The latter team needed a Nets win to keep Phoenix’s hopes of clinching its first playoff berth since 2010 alive.)

LeVert had a chance to knock the Blazers out on the final possession, but he missed a step-back jumper. Entering the fourth quarter, the Blazers trailed by seven. But Lillard’s 12 fourth-quarter points propelled Portland into the lead late, and his steal off LeVert with just over a minute left set up CJ McCollum for a huge jumper with 53 seconds remaining. Now, the Blazers are one win away from clinching their seventh straight playoff appearance. It’s a shame the Suns—the only team to go 8-0 at the bubble—won’t get a shot at breaching the playoffs. But it feels like it’s Dame Time since he arrived in Orlando. It doesn’t appear to be over just yet.

RIP, Spurs Playoff Streak, 1998-2019

Thursday, August 13, 4:37 p.m. PT

Devine: This is how the longest active postseason streak in North American pro sports ends: not with a bang, but with a Jonas Valanciunas triple-double and a quiver full of Cameron Payne jumpers.

Gregg Popovich’s Spurs entered Thursday a half-game behind the Trail Blazers for eighth place in the Western Conference—and one one-thousandth of a percentage point behind the Grizzlies and Suns in the race for ninth—and, with it, a spot in the play-in for the West’s final playoff berth. To end the night with their postseason hopes still alive, they needed to beat the Jazz and two of the three teams ahead of them needed to lose. As it turned out, though, their fate—and the fate of a 22-year-old run—was sealed before their game even tipped off.

Led by the first triple-double of Valanciunas’s eight-year career (26 points, 19 rebounds, 12 assists), the second of Ja Morant’s one-year career (12-13-10), and 31 points from boom-bust guard Dillon Brooks, Memphis scored a 119-106 win over a Bucks team that played without MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, Wesley Matthews, and George Hill. At the same time, the Suns torched a Mavericks team that pulled Luka Doncic at halftime and scratched Kristaps Porzingis entirely, earning a 128-102 blowout behind another brilliant performance from Devin Booker (27 points, seven rebounds, five assists, zero turnovers) to finish a perfect 8-0 in the bubble.

The Grizzlies booked their passage for the play-in and the Suns stayed afloat in their bid for a berth, pending the result of Blazers-Nets later Thursday, but the early results sank the Spurs. The best San Antonio can finish is 33-38—a .465 winning percentage. Memphis and Phoenix both finished at 34-39—.466. Despite holding a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Suns, by virtue of playing two fewer games, the Spurs will miss the playoffs for the first time since 1997—the season when San Antonio sunk to the bottom of the standings after David Robinson broke his left foot, rose to the top of the lottery to draft Tim Duncan, and never looked back.

San Antonio did its damnedest to earn its way in, bouncing back from the loss of stalwart big man LaMarcus Aldridge to revamping its style of play around the scoring and playmaking of DeMar DeRozan, Derrick White, Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, and rookie Keldon Johnson; the Spurs entered their final game 5-2 in the restart, with top-10 marks on offense and defense in the bubble. But that pesky one one-thousandth of a percentage point means the end of a playoff streak that spanned four presidents, that began when Titanic was still in theaters, and that is the same age as or older than 142 current NBA players, including several who suited up for San Antonio to finish things up on Thursday:

After they exit the bubble, the Spurs will face some massive questions: which of its young core pieces to build around (including center Jakob Poeltl, who now hits restricted free agency); how to navigate the contract statuses of veterans DeRozan and Aldridge (both of whom are slated to hit free agency after the 2020-21 season); and, most important of all, how long the 71-year-old Popovich wants to remain on the bench and keep adding to one of the greatest coaching résumés in NBA history. Before we get to the future, though, let’s pour one out for some history. With the Spurs headed to the lottery, the NBA’s new longest playoff streak belongs to the Rockets. All they have to do to match what Pop and Co. have built? Make the playoffs for 14 more years, and win five rings along the way. Piece of cake, right?

Cam Payne and Trey Burke Have Been the Bubble’s Secret MVPs

Thursday, August 13, 8:51 a.m. PT

Tjarks: No players have proved more in the NBA bubble than Cam Payne and Trey Burke. They have been two of the most effective players in Orlando despite not even having jobs when the league shut down in March.

Payne has been the unsung hero of the Suns’ 7-0 run. He’s averaging 10.3 points on 46.7 percent shooting and 3.1 assists in only 22.0 minutes per game, running the offense for the second unit, which has demolished opponents. Phoenix has an absurd net rating of plus-21.6 in 154 minutes with Payne on the floor.

Meanwhile, in Dallas, Burke has filled the void created in March by Jalen Brunson’s season-ending shoulder surgery. He’s averaging 12.7 points on 43.2 percent shooting and 3.9 assists in 24.7 minutes per game, and has earned so much trust from Mavs coach Rick Carlisle that he has been closing games in the backcourt next to Luka Doncic.

First, a disclaimer: We’re dealing with seven-game samples here—it’s hard to know how indicative this will be of future success for Payne or Burke. But, still, it’s heartening to see both players do what they were expected to when they were originally drafted in the lottery. It has been an incredibly long road to get to this point. Payne, who was drafted by the Thunder in 2015, is on his fourth team in five seasons, and spent last year in China and the G League. Burke, who started his pro career with the Jazz in 2013, is on his sixth team in seven seasons, if you count his two separate stints with the Mavs.

But, yes, this may not last. Part of their success is based on potentially unsustainable shooting from 3. Payne is shooting 50.0 percent from 3 on 3.4 attempts per game in the bubble, while Burke is shooting 44.1 percent on 4.9 attempts per game.

But they wouldn’t be the first point guards to become effective players in their late 20s after being a lottery bust. D.J. Augustin is the patron saint of those players. He never lived up to expectations in four seasons in Charlotte after being taken in the lottery, and then played for six teams in five seasons before finding a home in Orlando, where he’s been a starter for a playoff team. Augustin was 29 when he signed with the Magic. Burke is 27. Payne is 26.

What Burke and Payne have done in the bubble should be a lesson for teams around the league. You can never give up hope on point guards taken in the lottery, even if they wash out for multiple teams.

The East Seeds Are Set. Here’s an Early Look at the Matchups.

Wednesday, August 12, 7:15 p.m. PT

Zach Kram: The Eastern playoff bracket is set, after Indiana defeated Houston and Philadelphia’s backups lost to Toronto’s backups Wednesday. With the Western field still arranging and rearranging itself for the rest of the week, we can take an early overview of the East’s first round.

(1) Bucks vs. (8) Magic

This matchup would be much more compelling if Jonathan Isaac were healthy, or if Giannis Antetokounmpo’s head-butt suspension carried over to the postseason. Alas, the Bucks should coast to the second round after winning the 1-versus-8 matchup by a historically large margin last season. In four meetings this season—all before the shutdown—Milwaukee went 4-0 with an average margin of victory of 17 points. Orlando never mustered more than 101 points in a game against the Bucks’ league-best defense.

(2) Raptors vs. (7) Nets

The next matchup on the list shouldn’t be much closer, as the defending champion takes on the injury-depleted Nets. Even accounting for Brooklyn’s feisty play within the bubble, Toronto has been better both recently and all season long. The Raptors are 6-1 in Orlando—the best mark for any Eastern team. They beat the Nets 3-1 in the season series, though all of those matchups came a long time (and many different Nets lineup combinations) ago.

(3) Celtics vs. (6) 76ers

Welcome to the first-round clash that should command the most headlines. Boston against Philadelphia. Jayson Tatum against the team that traded up to pick Markelle Fultz. Al Horford against his old team. Joel Embiid against a team without a proven playoff big. The no. 6 76ers beat the no. 3 Celtics in three of four meetings this season—but the most recent of those victories came on January 9, and the now-injured Ben Simmons played in all three. Without Simmons, it’s difficult to imagine the 76ers keeping pace with the Celtics, flying high with the best net rating for any team inside the bubble. Matters could be even worse for the 76ers, who avoided true disaster this week with Embiid: First, he missed just one full game with an ankle injury, and though he left Wednesday’s contest early with a hand injury, X-rays came back negative.

Heat vs. Pacers

The order of the teams is still uncertain, though without home-court advantage this postseason, the sorting of no. 4 or no. 5 doesn’t particularly matter. Miami just crushed Indiana by 22 points on Monday, as Jimmy Butler returned to the lineup and T.J. “Bubble MJ” Warren cooled off. That victory pushed the Heat to 3-0 against the Pacers this season, with a meaningless game left in each team’s regular-season finale. That history, combined with Domantas Sabonis’s absence, means Miami enters the ostensibly closest first-round series as a heavy favorite.

Russell Westbrook’s Strained Quad Makes Houston’s Rotation Even Shallower

Tuesday, August 11, 2:28 p.m. PT

Paolo Uggetti: Uh-oh. The Rockets announced Wednesday that Russell Westbrook will sit out Houston’s final seeding game against the Sixers, on Friday, after an MRI revealed a strained right quadriceps. Westbrook, if you remember, was late in arriving to the bubble due to a positive coronavirus test and has played in only four of Houston’s eight seeding games.

Friday’s game isn’t inconsequential for the Rockets. They could still end up as high as the West’s 3-seed and as low as the 5-seed depending on the results of their final two games, as well as what happens with the Jazz, Nuggets, and Thunder. If you actually care enough to go through all the possible scenarios and can avoid getting a headache from just looking at them, here you go:

Ultimately, it might not matter where the Rockets land, since their opponents will be one of the aforementioned three teams anyway, and they are the most talented of that foursome. But it’s unclear how much time Westbrook will miss; if he is out for a substantial part of the first round, Houston’s already shaky depth may become even shakier.

Nate McMillan Will Be Back Next Year, and Brad Stevens Will Be Around for Even Longer

Wednesday, August 12, 1:52 p.m. PT

Uggetti: With only four games in Orlando on Wednesday and nothing but seeding changes on the line, a slow news day in the bubble was livened up a little by contract extensions for two Eastern coaches.

The Celtics announced Wednesday afternoon that they had come to terms on a contract extension with Brad Stevens. Stevens, who has won 56.5 percent of his games as an NBA coach and has made it to two conference finals, signed a six-year deal worth $22 million back in 2013 when Boston first hired him away from Butler. He was extended for three more years in 2016. The terms of this current extension were not disclosed, but it’s safe to assume that Stevens will be the Celtics’ coach for a very long time.

In more unexpected news, the Indiana Pacers also extended Nate McMillan’s contract Wednesday, but for just one year. McMillan’s contract would have been up next offseason, and there had been some reported uncertainty about whether the Pacers wanted to move on from him even though he’s won 57 percent of his games in Indiana. McMillan called the extension Wednesday “appropriate for both sides” given the unusual nature of this season.

The NBA Let Dame in the Bubble, and Now He’s Doing Everything Humanly Possible to Stay

Tuesday, August 11, 8:05 p.m. PT

Justin Verrier: As the final buzzer sounded, giving the Trail Blazers a victory that may very well decide their fate in the West’s play-in race, Damian Lillard delivered a snarly message:

For those who can’t read between the spittle, that’s “Put some respect on my fucking name,” or something thereabouts. I’m not sure who doesn’t respect Dame at this point. Maybe Paul George, who was mean in a very self-unaware way to Lillard the other day? Or maybe, like LeBron last week, we’re just making stuff up now? Which, if we are, I’m OK with that; the world is a hellscape and my joints hurt from inactivity, so I’m down for pretty much anything. But virtually anyone who has tuned in to watch Lillard in the NBA’s Orlando experiment doesn’t need convincing.

Tuesday may have been Lillard’s bubble masterpiece ( ... at least until he tops it a couple of days from now): 61 points (tying a career high), nine made 3-pointers, and eight assists in a 134-131 victory against a fully stocked Mavericks team. It was Lillard’s second game in a row with more than 50, and it moved him to tied for eighth all time in 50-point games. It also moved the Blazers to eighth place in the West standings with one more game to play. The performance had all of the hallmarks of a Dame Time game, including this miracle bomb, which merged the exaltation of a Steph Curry–range 3 with the oh-shit-hold-your-breath anticipation of Kawhi Leonard’s triple-bouncer with the stakes of a must-win playoff game:

But the ball wasn’t even in Lillard’s hands for his game-winning play:

This was the perfect ending: The scrapiest motherfucker in the league, in the middle of willing his team back from the dead, won the biggest game of the bubble thus far not with a 3, as he so often does, but by throwing his body in the way of the Mavericks’ last shot.

As the bubble was being built and the NBA was deciding on which teams to send, Lillard told Chris Haynes that he wouldn’t go to Orlando if the Blazers didn’t have a chance to make the playoffs. Lillard has played 39 minutes or more seven times in the past two weeks, Portland has cut its rotation down to the bone in order to grind out a 5-2 record, CJ McCollum apparently has a fractured back (???), and you need a graphing calculator to understand the West play-in scenarios with three days left in the seeding games, but with only the Nets left on the standings, it looks like the Blazers may make good on that chance. After the win, Haynes asked Lillard how bad he wanted Tuesday’s win.

“Ain’t nothing I want more,” he said. “Ain’t nothing I want more.”

Trying to Make Sense of the West Play-in Scenarios for the 37th Time

Tuesday, August 11, 5:25 p.m. PT

Haley O’Shaughnessy: Following the Western Conference play-in possibilities feels like watching Season 3 of Netflix’s Dark, a show about time travel and belonging and not belonging in certain places and times. Mapping out the characters in Winden is difficult. It’s the same mapping out these West teams. After the Suns win over the Sixers (130-117), the Spurs win against the Harden-less Rockets (123-105), and the Celtics win over the Grizzlies (122-107), here’s what we know:

1. Because Memphis did not win and because San Antonio won, the Grizzlies still have not clinched a spot in the play-in. I am worried for Ja Morant, the light of my life.

2. Because Phoenix and San Antonio won, Portland won’t yet clinch a spot in the play-in on Tuesday, even if it beats Dallas. (The Blazers’ chances stay alive with a win, though.)

3. Phoenix has one game left, against Dallas on Thursday. It needs Memphis to lose its final game against the Bucks, and for Portland to either lose Tuesday’s matchup against Dallas or lose its final game against Brooklyn. I don’t see the Nets putting up much of a fight; essentially, Phoenix absolutely needs Dallas to beat Portland. It’s really unfortunate that an unbeaten bubble team might not make it through, especially when you’re trying to count against Damian Lillard. It is not always sunny in Phoenix.

So’, So’ Close

Tuesday, August 11, 5:25 p.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: On Tuesday, Philadelphia played Phoenix. A dream nearly came true. I’m not talking about the outcome of the game. (The Suns won handily, 130-117.) That doesn’t matter at all, unless you’re into playoff seeding or the NBA or basketball or whatever. Let me explain.

Every year in a small town in Nevada, people whose surnames begin with an O and an apostrophe gather into the Marriott International’s conference room for our annual meeting. I, an O’Shaughnessy, obviously attend, along with Kevin O’Connor (he will deny this), the O’Briens, O’Connells, O’Donnells (the latter two often get mixed up; arguments have broken out; we hired security last year), O’Neills, etc. You get it. Each year we choose a couple of meaningful community goals. Last year’s was unanimous: Get Kyle O’Quinn of the National Basketball Association a triple-double.

We poured all of our resources into this, draining funds from the niche keychains we make with O-apostrophe surnames (it’s a flawed business model; we typically buy them back). It was likely our last chance. Kyle’s averaged under 10 minutes this season after signing with the Sixers for the veteran’s minimum last July. Tuesday’s game presented a unique opportunity: Kyle started in place of the injured Joel Embiid and Al Horford, and Suns star-in-the-making Deandre Ayton is infamously sluggish on defense (though he’s been better in the bubble). Still, Kyle executed our plan perfectly, finding the open man and scoring the easy bucket—he was even doing shit we’d never talked about, like swatting Devin Booker’s shot attempt.

With 45 seconds left in the game, Kyle gets his 10th board, giving him nine points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists. A lone point shy of his first career triple-double and the O’K club’s annual goal (we’re still workshopping the name). On the next possession, teammate Furkan Korkmaz dribbles into a 3 whilst Kyle is under the basket and clearly open. Korkmaz missed that meaningless, self-serving 27-footer. Kyle wound up shooting again with 13 seconds left. He missed. We’re not sure when the next player with an O’ will grace the NBA. We’re not sure of much right now, except that Brett Brown should’ve played him more in the final minutes, and Korkmaz is anti-O’. We were close. So clo’se.

Kyle Kuzma Saved the Lakers, but the Cracks Are Showing

Monday, August 10, 9:28 p.m. PT

Uggetti: I know that the Lakers have already clinched the 1-seed, that they have LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and that come playoff time, they’ll likely find some switch hidden in LeBron’s bag of playoff tricks that they can flip. And yes, I know that Kyle Kuzma just buried a game-winning 3-pointer to beat the Nuggets. It was the Lakers’ highlight of the night, a smoothly executed out-of-bounds play:

But as I watch LeBron put his hands on his knees after another blown defensive possession late in the fourth leads to an easy layup by the Nuggets’ bench (which scored 61 points Monday night), I also know that, as of right now, they look nothing like the top seed in the West, let alone a Finals winner in the making. Sure, there’s some merited sleepwalking; the Lakers’ regular-season work earned them the ability to waltz through the final few games. But even though they have nothing to play for except appearances, these games have not rendered pleasing results—especially given that they had their full squad healthy and active (besides Rajon Rondo).

The Lakers are 3-4 in the Orlando bubble, have had one of the worst offenses in this stretch, and have consistently looked lackadaisical on defense. Monday was another night where that was the case, as the Nuggets played their bench for heavy minutes (PJ Dozier led with 27) and kept beating the Lakers on back cuts and slip screens for easy buckets. Meanwhile, the Lakers played LeBron and Davis 38 minutes apiece, as if this game would earn them something besides confidence and rhythm. And maybe that’s just it—maybe Frank Vogel and Co. felt gaining back some sort of cohesion on the court was more important than prioritizing freshness and health. I don’t think I’m wrong in assuming that, if the Lakers had looked better in these seeding games, Davis and LeBron might be watching in sweats from the bench instead.

The Lakers will likely sit their starters for their final bubble game, but with LeBron cryptically referencing off-the-court issues last week and their subpar stats, it’s difficult to look at this team, despite the win, and not wonder if this is just who they are. The top-end talent is undeniable and enough to carry them, but it’s unclear what will happen if that isn’t enough.

The Suns Can Still Make the Playoffs. Here’s How.

Monday, August 10, 2:55 p.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: Do you believe in the Suns yet? Their 128-101 blowout win against the Thunder on Monday wasn’t all that surprising (OKC was without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Steven Adams, Danilo Gallinari, Nerlens Noel, and Dennis Schroder), but the win extended Phoenix’s flawless restart record to 6-0, best in the bubble. But the Suns’ postseason fate might be out of their control. Here’s a quick FAQ:

Can the Suns make the playoffs? Yes!

How? A number of things need to happen for Phoenix to make the playoffs. First, they need to clinch a spot in the play-in tournament.

What will that take? The misfortune of two other teams. To make the play-in tournament, the Suns need to win their remaining two games, and have the Grizzlies to lose twice, or have the Blazers to lose once.

How likely is that? Phoenix will face Philadelphia and Dallas in its last two games. At first glance, that looks like a tough pair of games, but the Sixers are without Ben Simmons and just ruled out Joel Embiid for Tuesday’s game. And though Dallas has positioning to play for and, you know, Luka Doncic, those Mavericks sure know how to throw away a lead late in the game! (To be fair, as I’m writing this, they maintained a comeback against the Jazz for a 122-114 win. Go Mavs.)

Alas, the Grizzlies have the Celtics and the Bucks, and Milwaukee will likely be resting its best players. Phoenix will still need more than its fair share of luck to keep its season alive, though going undefeated in the bubble is a feat on its own, and the kind of flex the Suns aren’t used to.

Devin Booker.

Monday, August 10, 2:55 p.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: That’s it, that’s the entry.

Deandre Ayton Was Out for Monday’s Game, Until He Wasn’t

Monday, August 10, 1:35 p.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: If a few months ago, I’d told you the following: an NBA player for the Phoenix Suns wouldn’t be able to start a game in August; and the game he would miss was a must-win for his team to have a chance at a playoff play-in tournament; and he would miss the game because he had missed a mandatory test for a virus (it’s possible, by the way, that he missed the test because he was busy being on Adrian Wojnarowski’s podcast); and he had to wait for the test results before he was cleared to play and could enter the game—you’d call bullshit. Because there was obviously no way the Suns were going to make the playoffs.

But believe it or not, all of this really happened. Suns center Deandre Ayton missed the window for testing on Sunday. He took another test Monday morning before the game against the Thunder, but the results weren’t expected to come in time for Ayton to join the starting lineup. Except they ended up coming back a few minutes before the game began. Ayton was reportedly “en route” to the arena as the national anthem was playing. The Disney campus isn’t that big, and Ayton, who called himself a student of the game on Woj’s pod, was likely warming up beforehand as students of the game do. Did he run? Golf cart? Whatever it was, Ayton didn’t make the tipoff. He checked in at the start of the second quarter.

The Nets Are the Surprise Darlings of the NBA Restart

Sunday, August 9, 9:48 p.m. PT

Rodger Sherman: I had the Brooklyn Nets pegged for one win in the NBA bubble. They were missing Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie, Taurean Prince, DeAndre Jordan, Wilson Chandler, and more. I figured they might beat the Wizards, an equally depleted team, but didn’t think they’d do anything more.

Instead, they’re 4-2 in the bubble, with wins over two of the top three teams in the NBA. Tuesday, they beat the top-seeded Bucks, despite the fact that they were missing seven of their top eight scorers. It was the biggest upset according to Vegas odds in over 20 years. Sunday, they beat the Clippers 129-120, shooting 20-for-43 from behind the arc. And this wasn’t some flukey bubble win against a team with a bunch of stars sitting. Kawhi Leonard played all four quarters against the Nets, scoring 39 points. The Nets won anyway, thanks to 25 points from Joe Harris.

With the win, Brooklyn clinched the 7-seed in the East, which is a pretty big deal. The Nets entered the bubble just a half-game up on the 8-seeded Magic, but with their depleted roster, it seemed likely that Orlando would surpass them. And whichever team was seeded eighth would be in a lot of trouble. Eight-seeds have won a first-round best-of-seven series only three times in NBA history, and one of those only happened because Derrick Rose’s knee gave out in Game 1. And the 55-15 Bucks are a pretty strong 1-seed.

Instead, the Nets will play the Raptors, a great team that feels significantly more beatable than the Bucks. Then again, the Nets have already beaten the Bucks. The backup Nets are the surprise darlings of the bubble—it doesn’t matter who they play!

Riv Is Goin’ Off

Sunday, August 9, 8:48 p.m. PT

Sherman: Nine years ago, Austin Rivers was the second-best high school basketball player in the country, a five-star recruit playing at Florida’s Winter Park High. He was a born scorer with a shifty handle, a streaky jumper that trended toward hot, and he had whatever positive mental attributes go with being a revered NBA coach’s son. In one of his most viewed highlight videos, the certain future NBA superstar turns to the camera during a game and says “I’ma go off.” When, Austin? “I’ma go off right now.”

But things didn’t go as planned for Rivers. His lone season at Duke ended with a first-round loss to Lehigh; and upon reaching the league, it quickly became clear that he probably shouldn’t have been a lottery pick. He’s only started more than half of his team’s games once, and has averaged just 9.1 points per game for his career. In 2018, he was traded straight-up for 34-year-old Marcin Gortat … by his dad.

But Sunday, back in Orlando, Rivers found the spark that once made him such a sought-after prospect. He scored a career-high 41 points in a 129-112 Rockets win over the Kings. It was all working: the handles, the J, and most importantly, the one thing Rivers has never lacked, the confidence.

“I’ma go off,” you can hear him thinking as he sizes up his opposition. “I’ma go off right now.”

Was Rivers’s performance important? Not really, to be honest. Sacramento was eliminated from the playoffs when the Blazers won earlier Sunday, so they emptied their bench. And 18 of Rivers’ 41 came in the fourth quarter. His teammates were guys like Chris Clemons and Bruno Caboclo, as well as Luc Mbah A Moute, who made his first NBA appearance in almost two years; his opponents were guys like Justin James and DaQuan Jeffries.

It’s easy to laugh at Rivers’s career. He was born with a silver spoon and came into college with a lot of hype, only to quickly show why it may not have been deserved. But he’s been in the NBA for eight years, and you can’t do that on the power of hype or a famous last name. Sunday, he showed what happens when he looks up and sees players who aren’t on his level. He goes off.

As Dame Goes, So Go the Blazers

Sunday, August 9, 7:10 p.m. PT

Sherman: They must have a watch repair shop in the NBA bubble. On Saturday, it was distinctly not Dame Time, as Damian Lillard missed back-to-back free throws in crunch time and the Blazers let a critical game against the Los Angeles Clippers slip away. But Sunday, it was definitely Dame Time. Lillard scored 51 points, including 18 in a six-minute stretch of the fourth quarter that saw Portland surge ahead of the 76ers.

Which video of a clutch fourth-quarter Lillard 3 do you like best? You have some options:

Outside of that brief blip on Saturday, Lillard getting buckets has never been a problem. Sunday was his fifth 50-point game of the season and the 10th 50-point game of his career, tying him with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—you know, the guy with the all-time NBA scoring record.

The win was critical for Portland’s playoff hopes, as the race for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot is boiling hot right now. On the one hand, Portland is now just a half game back of the Grizzlies in the fight for the 8-seed. And since the Grizzlies are just 1-4 in the bubble, it seems like Portland could pass them easily. On the other hand, the Spurs and Suns both won this weekend, and are both within a game of Portland for the 9-seed. Every Blazers win puts them closer to being in the drivers’ seat; every loss runs the risk of them falling out of the postseason entirely.

But this weekend makes one wonder how much it even matters whether the Blazers get that 8-spot. Saturday’s loss wasn’t to the full-strength Clippers—since the Clips’ playoff seeding is sealed, they sat Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the fourth quarter. The Blazers blew a lead against a unit featuring players like Terance Mann and Rodney McGruder, who hit the game-winning 3. Same goes for the Sixers Sunday: Ben Simmons was out with a knee injury, and Joel Embiid left after the first quarter with an ankle injury. Josh Richardson led Philly, finishing with 34 points. And yet, the Blazers blew a lead to the semi-Sixers and needed Lillard’s heroics to come back.

It feels like the Blazers are incapable of winning without Lillard’s heroics. They can win if he hits back-to-back ridiculous 3s; they’re going to lose if he misses a pair of free throws. He’s playing 40 minutes a night, every night, and they need every one of those minutes.

Portland is fighting for the chance to play LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the top-seeded Lakers. But if Saturday and Sunday are any indication, the Lakers can probably sit James and Davis and we’ll still end up watching Lillard try to hit game-winners against the Lakers’ backups. It actually might be more fun that way.

The Bubble Sixers Need Bubble Wrap

Sunday, August 9, 6:20 p.m. PT

Sherman: Bad things keep happening to the Philadelphia 76ers. Sure, they’ve had Joel Embiid since 2014 and Ben Simmons since 2016, but the two stars have combined to miss hundreds of games due to injury. They’ll miss more: Simmons is likely out for the year after a knee injury suffered Wednesday that will require surgery, and Embiid hurt his ankle in the first quarter of Sunday’s game against the Trail Blazers.

Embiid’s injury doesn’t appear linked to the litany of back, foot, and knee injuries that sidelined him for large swaths of his early career—he just stepped on the basket stanchion weirdly:

We don’t really know how serious the injury is—it’s possible the Sixers just didn’t want to put Embiid back in the game out of precaution. You probably don’t want to risk aggravating an injury in a seeding game.

The same caution may apply to the rest of the restart. It’s been a disappointing season for the Sixers—last year, they were the no. 3 seed and were eliminated on a preposterous Game 7 buzzer-beater to the eventual NBA champs. This year, they are probably going to be a 5- or 6-seed. They weren’t likely to go on a deep playoff run, but at least they could watch their two young stars play in the postseason for a third time. With Simmons out, that prospect was already off the board. With or without Embiid, there’s so much less for Philadelphia to play for now.

The injury-caused delays to the starts of Embiid’s and Simmons’s careers were somewhat tolerable because the team wasn’t in a position to win. (In fact, the guy in charge until 2016 thought they could perhaps get better by losing a lot.) There’s a different feeling when they’re both injured for a year right in the primes of their careers. The Sixers lost a lot in past years, but it feels like they’ve lost something more valuable in the bubble.

The Pelicans Are Almost Out of Runway

Sunday, August 9, 3:40 p.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: The end of Spurs-Pelicans had to feel eerily familiar to Alvin Gentry, whose team’s fate—and, let’s be real, the fate of his job—rested on a young, already oft-injured superstar on a minutes restriction. Zion Williamson couldn’t will the Pels to win, even with a massive 31-point boost off the bench from JJ Redick. Instead, Primetime DeMar DeRozan (missed him!) descended from the rafters, screamed “I still exist,” dropped 15 points in the fourth, and reminded the world that you used to think that he, the Spurs, and Gregg Popovich are quite good, and that you’re a fool for ever forgetting. Such has been San Antonio’s time in the bubble. Stop skipping those games.

If the Blazers beat the Sixers on Sunday, the Pelicans are done. They’ll be sent home from the bubble sad, left plucking Brandon Ingram highlights from the 2019-20 records to make peace with the season’s missed potential. New Orleans has so many young players; there’s one who has put together a strong case for Most Improved Player, another who could be the Rookie of the Year. Still, it has to be exhausting buying into a new identity each season, and it would’ve been a temporary relief to see this iteration of the team overperform and make the postseason. Instead, fans will have to use the same catchphrase that’s applied to the Pelicans for years*: There’s always next season.

(*The Blazers could lose! We’ll be here to let you know if that happens.)

The Grizzlies Are Running Out of Time

Sunday, August 9, 2:32 p.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: Try as Ja Morant may have, the Grizzlies did not beat the Raptors on Sunday. (They lost 108-99, despite trailing by just four with under three minutes to play.) If they had won, Memphis would’ve clinched a spot in the Western Conference’s play-in tournament. True to the West we know and sometimes love (I can’t be the only one getting physically nauseous watching Utah’s bubble offense), the race for the chance to get into the playoffs by getting into the play-in is tight. If I type slowly enough, I’ll have to scrap this entire paragraph; the outcome of the Sunday Spurs-Pelicans matchup affects every team vying for the eighth and ninth spots.

I’m worried about Memphis, which has become slightly one-dimensional since losing Jaren Jackson Jr. to a torn meniscus earlier this week. Watching Morant dribble-drive then fly (even horizontally) will never not be fun, but his feats of athleticism weren’t enough to come back against Toronto late in the fourth, and his skills possibly won’t be enough to beat the two remaining teams on the Grizzlies’ schedule, the Celtics and the Bucks, though the latter is, at the moment, more focused on resting their stars than seeding.

Ben Simmons Is Leaving the Bubble for Knee Surgery, and May Miss the Remainder of the Season

Saturday, August 8, 1:13 p.m. PT

Chris Ryan: Honestly who needs a light roast with extra oat milk? It’s Saturday midmorning out here on the left coast and nothing gets the blood pumping like reading the words “Ben Simmons,” “removal of loose body,” and “left knee.” As reported by the usual ministers of information, Philly’s point forward is leaving the NBA bubble to have a procedure on the knee that he injured during the Sixers’ Wednesday clash with the Wizards (Sixers won that, BTW) (it wasn’t easy, FWIW). The loose body is the result of a left patella subluxation, which is a fancy, if less gross, way of saying Simmons dislocated his knee cap. The Sixers have not ruled Simmons out for the remainder of the bubble-wrapped 2019-20 season, but, according to Woj, “sources say it would take a deep run into the playoffs to keep the door open on the possibility of a return—and that’s still an iffy proposition.”

Let’s get the usual business out of the way: Get well soon, Ben, you glorious, telepathic-passing, lockdown-defending, 3-point-shooting-phobic. How to sum up Simmons’s time in Orlando? The fishing was going better than the basketball.

Simmons had a nice individual line in the reopener against Indiana, but the Sixers lost, and all the same talking points that have nipped at this team’s ankles for the last two years immediately started up again: Why won’t Ben shoot from distance? Will he and Joel Embiid ever make sense on the floor together? Seriously, just try shooting from beyond that line? Please?

Simmons’s game against the Spurs (a.k.a. the Shake Game) was among the worst this reporter has ever seen him play (he fouled out with eight points in 25 minutes), and then the Wiz game happened. He never looked right in Orlando, to be honest. In the first game without Simmons, the Sixers drove the struggle bus over the Magic, powered by a 16-point second half by Embiid, who essentially took the contest over by himself. Get used to that.

And get used to this: Were the Sixers to actually make a deep run into the postseason—the scenario that Woj’s sources describe as the earliest Simmons could return—Philly fans and those who enjoy watching them squirm will witness another piece of theater from the same playwright who brought us Are We Sure the Eagles Aren’t Better With Nick Foles Instead of Carson Wentz? Were the season to end today, the Sixers would likely face the Celtics and Raptors in the first two rounds. Were they somehow able to get to the Eastern Conference finals, deeper than any run they had made with Simmons and Embiid together, would that not answer the question everyone has been asking about whether Simmons and Embiid fit together?

Even if that admittedly unlikely scenario were to occur, this will be a hugely consequential postseason for the franchise. An early exit from Orlando could spell the end of Brett Brown’s tenure in Philly; a deep playoff run could tell us a lot about the ceiling of a team built entirely around Embiid.

The Grizzlies Will Not Go Winless in the Bubble

Friday, August 7, 5:24 p.m. PT

Devine: After losing four straight games and cornerstone big man Jaren Jackson Jr., the Grizzlies needed to play well Friday to stay ahead of the pack in the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Instead, they came out sluggishly, giving up 37 first-quarter points to the Thunder and spotting them an early 17-point lead. But then, in the second quarter, something clicked; a team desperate for a win actually started playing desperately, hustling and scratching and clawing to keep itself in the playoff picture. And, as it turns out, while the principal players might have changed, grit and grind still looks good on the Grizz.

Memphis woke up from its first-quarter hibernation and roared, dominating the rest of the way on both sides of the ball and blitzing Oklahoma City in a 121-92 beatdown—the Grizzlies’ first win in the bubble and third most lopsided rout of the season. With top scorer and leading sharpshooter Jackson unavailable, Taylor Jenkins’s club leaned on its other strengths. The Grizzlies fed Jonas Valanciunas down low and let him go to work against the reedy Nerlens Noel, filling in for the injured Steven Adams. The Lithuanian masher battled early foul trouble but repeatedly produced, bulling his way to 19 points on 8-for-11 shooting with 11 rebounds in just 24 minutes of work.

With Valanciunas leading the way, the Grizzlies—first in the league in points in the paint this season, fourth in fast-break points, seventh in second-chance points—rediscovered the rim-pressuring style that’s been their calling card all year long. Dillon Brooks rumbled through traffic into the lane on his way to a game-high 22 points on 10-for-18 shooting with six rebounds and four assists. Ja Morant, who has struggled with his shooting stroke throughout the restart, got himself to the free throw line seven times, finishing with 19 points and nine assists.

Ace rookie forward Brandon Clarke cashed all six of his field goal attempts in for 12 points and eight rebounds. Veterans Anthony Tolliver (eight points, five rebounds, a pair of 3-pointers) and Gorgui Dieng (12 points, seven boards, an alley-oop dunk, a Euro-stepping lay-in, an air of impossibility) joined him in picking up the slack for the injured Jackson up front. Grayson Allen (11 points, 3-for-8 from 3) continued his strong work as a floor spacer and spot-up option, while bellwether reserve De’Anthony Melton resumed his havoc-wreaking ways, filling up the stat sheet—four points, seven rebounds, four assists, two steals, a team-high plus-29 in 23 minutes—by perpetually getting into Oklahoma City’s shit:

The Grizzlies held the Thunder to just 35.1 percent shooting as a team, with youngsters Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo, and rookie Darius Bazley all having particularly rough shooting nights. The two-way effort pushed the Grizzlies’ lead over the ninth-place Trail Blazers back to one game, and ensured that the Spurs, Suns, Kings, and Pelicans now all have to win out just to have a shot at leapfrogging them in the standings. Memphis can render all that moot, though, and secure a spot in the 8 vs. 9 play-in series with one more victory in its final three seeding games. This is where we remind you, as my Ringer colleague Jonathan Tjarks noted on this week’s Group Chat podcast, that Memphis’s finale comes against the Bucks, who have nothing to play for after sewing up the no. 1 seed in the East, and for whom Jenkins worked as a longtime assistant of Mike Budenholzer. I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.

Dame Lillard Keeps Portland in the Hunt in the West

Thursday, August 6, 8:41 p.m. PT

Kaelen Jones: The fight for the West’s final playoff spot is tightening. Sitting a game out of the 8-seed entering Thursday night, the Blazers couldn’t afford a slipup against the shorthanded Nuggets. Portland damn near had its bubble burst and trailed Denver late in the fourth. But Damian Lillard dropped 45 points and matched his career high with 11 3s, lifting the Blazers to a 125-115 win.

With four play-in games left for the Blazers (against the Clippers, 76ers, Mavericks, and Nets), it was a must-have result. Portland is on track to make a serious run at the West’s final spot. With the current no. 8-seeded Grizzlies hammered by injury, the door’s seemingly been opened for the Blazers, who, aside from the Suns, have looked the sharpest of the six teams vying for position. Much of that has to do with Lillard.

The 30-year-old point guard has averaged 31.3 points and 11.3 assists per game since arriving in the bubble, and he put up his best performance yet on Thursday. With 4:47 left and Portland ahead by only one, Lillard stepped back into his 11th 3-pointer of the night. That jump-started a furious sprint to the finish line for the Blazers, although it arguably shouldn’t have been necessary. The Nuggets rested Paul Millsap, while Jamal Murray (left hamstring), Gary Harris (right hip), and Will Barton III (right knee) each missed Thursday’s game. Michael Porter Jr. continued his hot start in Orlando, tallying 27 points and 12 rebounds. But with Nikola Jokic (eight points, 13 assists, and five rebounds) kept in check, there wasn’t enough help to get the win.

Lillard’s performance was coupled with a team-record 23 triples, another strong outing from Gary Trent Jr. (27 points, 7-for-10 from 3), and a solid performance from Jusuf Nurkic (22 points). Even on a night where CJ McCollum wasn’t at his best, the Blazers found a way. In order to reach the postseason for the seventh season in a row, they’ll have to continue to do so.

Here’s Hoping That Mavs-Clippers Was a First-Round Preview

Thursday, August 6 7:18 p.m. PT

Jones: Perhaps Thursday night provided a glimpse into the future. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George’s Clippers matched up against Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis’s Mavericks, and if this contest was any indication, we should all be rooting for these teams—which currently occupy the no. 2 and no. 7 spots in the West—to meet again in the first round.

Dallas was favored to win Thursday’s game by 2.5 points, according to The Ringer’s Restart Odds. And with just under seven minutes to go, and the game tied at 101-101, it seemed reasonable to think that perhaps the Mavs could pull off the win. But by the time the game finished, the Clippers had surged to a comfortable 15-point victory behind Leonard’s 29 points and George’s 24. L.A.’s star duo—bested by Devin Booker and the upstart Suns on Tuesday—closed out Thursday’s win, and played with their most swagger since entering the bubble. Los Angeles is still not at full strength and is awaiting the returns of Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell. But Doc Rivers’s squad still has the makings of a complete team with capable contributors across the floor. Even Ivica Zubac got in the mix Thursday, pouring in 21 points (10-for-10 shooting) and 15 rebounds in 24 minutes.

The Mavericks didn’t get much outside of Porzingis (30 points, nine rebounds, and five assists) and Doncic (29 points, six assists). Dallas relies on 3-point shooting, but the team struggled mightily from deep on Thursday (17-for-48, 35.4 percent) and flamed out as it leaned on perimeter shooting down the stretch. The Clippers, on the other hand, shot 45.2 percent from beyond the arc (14-for-31).

Three-and-half strong quarters weren’t enough for the Mavericks this time, but their fight could certainly produce an exciting first-round series.

The Suns Are Hot. Like a Sun.

Thursday, August 6, 6:39 p.m. PT

Devine: It’s a rare thing, and a pretty cool one, to watch a team come together in real time—to see the pieces fitting into place, the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts one play at a time. It took a decade of wandering the desert and a pandemic-prompted trip to The Most Magical Place on Earth, but the Suns are building something in the bubble. The blueprint, it appears, includes no L’s.

The Suns won Thursday’s battle between the NBA restart’s two most pleasant surprises, downing the Pacers 114-99 to hand Indiana its first loss in the bubble. Only two teams remain undefeated in Orlando: the defending NBA champion Raptors and the Suns, who went into the hiatus six games out of eighth place in the West, entered Walt Disney World with a 0.2 percent chance of qualifying for the playoffs, and have decided to deposit all that math in the nearest trash can as calmly as Devin Booker knocks in jumpers over defenders. Phoenix now has its first four-game winning streak in 19 months.

Monty Williams had the Suns ready to cool down the scorching T.J. Warren, pairing excellent point-of-attack defense from the long-armed Mikal Bridges with a downright Hardenian level of help …

… to limit the erstwhile Sun and newfound Bubble God to just 16 points on 7-for-20 shooting.

Malcolm Brogdon (25 points, six rebounds, and six assists) and Myles Turner (17 points, eight boards, and three blocks) did their best to pick up the scoring slack. But Phoenix brought both more star power, with Booker (20 points on 50 percent shooting and a game-high 10 assists) and Ayton (23 and 10, four blocks, two steals, and a host of shots altered at the rim) continuing to shine, and more second-unit punch, with Cameron Payne and Dario Saric combining for 31 points on 18 field goal attempts.

Booker’s been one of the best players in the bubble, averaging 28 points per game on 47/40/90 shooting with a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, and seeming to grow more and more as an on-court leader with every game. Ayton has continued his development as a defensive terror while remaining a high-efficiency secondary scorer. The starting lineup of Booker, Ayton, Bridges, Johnson, and Ricky Rubio has been fantastic, posting a plus-18.1 net rating that’s third best among five-man units to play at least 25 minutes in the bubble. Dario’s dealing, Payne’s contributing; hell, if you’re looking for signs that this is a Team of Destiny, Jevon Carter banked in a buzzer-beating 3 today.

Indiana’s not a bona fide title contender—not without All-Star big man Domantas Sabonis (who left the bubble with a foot injury), and not with this version of Victor Oladipo. But Nate McMillan’s team is still a tough out, and the Suns were just flat-out better than them. That might not sound like much, but it hasn’t been true for Phoenix in a while. It’s worth savoring—and worth starting to wonder just how far the Suns can take this.

Memphis was reeling even before losing Jaren Jackson Jr. The Pelicans are a mess; so were the Kings, before they had the good fortune of running into New Orleans on Thursday. The Spurs have found something by going small, but they’re no juggernaut; the Trail Blazers have looked great, but can be had. Phoenix is only two games behind the eighth-place Grizz, and only one back of Portland for ninth. The odds might be slim, but there’s an opportunity here.

Even if Phoenix’s run does come up shy of the play-in tournament for a shot at the Lakers, this experience has already been a roaring success for the Suns. They’re playing against good competition and proving they belong. This is how you build something in the NBA. Credit to the Suns for turning this into a constructive summer, and laying the groundwork for what could be something special in the years to come.

Ben Simmons’s Injury Casts Yet Another Cloud Over the Sixers

Thursday August 6, 12:18 p.m. PT

Devine: The 76ers announced Thursday that Ben Simmons suffered a “subluxation of the left patella” when he landed awkwardly after grabbing a rebound midway through the third quarter of Philadelphia’s win against the Wizards on Wednesday. On the off chance that you, like me, are not an orthopedist, the patella is your kneecap; “subluxation” means it temporarily came out of place, but only partially. Having a kneecap not be where it’s supposed to be—and again: not a doctor—seems bad, given that basketball players have to run and jump a lot.

Just how bad remains to be seen; the severity of these injuries can vary greatly, and the Sixers say they’re considering treatment options. What we do know for now: Simmons is out of Philly’s lineup for the time being—they’re off until Friday’s matchup with the Magic—with “no timetable ... provided for his availability moving forward,” according to Kyle Neubeck of PhillyVoice, though one could be forthcoming over the next 24 hours.

Simmons missed all but five minutes of the Sixers’ final 10 games before the hiatus due to a nerve impingement in his lower back. The four-month layoff afforded him the time to get well, to the point that he says he feels even better than he did at the start of the season. His return, and shift to a new position within Philadelphia’s starting lineup, loomed as one of the more intriguing story lines to monitor in Orlando. The 24-year-old All-Star got off to a slow restart, though, getting torched for 53 points by T.J. Warren in a bubble-opening loss to the Pacers, and scoring just 16 points on 16 shots in wins over the Spurs and Wizards.

Neither Simmons nor the Sixers have yet found their footing at Disney, with Philly’s revamped starting five—Simmons shifting to power forward, Shake Milton moving to the point—getting outscored by 12 points in 23 minutes of shared floor time. As was the case when Simmons went down right after the All-Star break, Brett Brown’s preferred grouping will once again get shelved, sending Philly back to the drawing board in search of a configuration that can work on both ends of the court.

When Simmons hurt his back in February, Brown reinserted veteran big man Al Horford into the starting lineup alongside Joel Embiid; after beating the Hawks, that jumbo combo’s offensive limitations once again became evident, as Philly scored just 94 points against a bad Cavaliers team in a 14-point road loss. Brown could pull the same lever here in hopes of bolstering a Sixers defense that has lagged in the bubble, ranking 15th out of 22 teams in points allowed per possession; he told reporters Thursday that if he “had to tilt one way or another, [he] will pair” Embiid and Horford again. If that pairing continues to struggle, though, he could switch things up and go smaller, bumping Tobias Harris up to power forward and adding another wing (combo guard Alec Burks, backup table-setter Raul Neto, swingman Furkan Korkmaz) to the lineup to mitigate the loss of Simmons’s ballhandling and playmaking.

Whichever path Brown takes, the Sixers now find themselves needing to reinvent themselves once again, this time with the added pressure of having just five seeding games remaining before the start of the postseason. Philly sits in sixth place in the East, a game behind Indiana and two back of Miami, staring down the possibility of a first-round matchup with the Celtics without its best perimeter defender.

To have any chance of making a deep playoff run, the Sixers must now hope that the “superhuman” Simmons can quick-heal like Wolverine, and that Embiid—on an absolute tear in Orlando, averaging a shade under 34-14-4 with two blocks and two steals per game on 58 percent shooting—can shoulder an even heavier burden down the stretch. Come up short on either score, and it could be an awfully interesting offseason in Philadelphia. As if there’s any other kind.

The Lakers’ Lackluster Offense Isn’t a Problem … Yet

Wednesday, August 5, 7:09 p.m. PT

Kram: The final five games before the playoffs begin don’t mean anything to the Lakers after they clinched the West’s no. 1 seed with a win against the Jazz on Monday. But the team has to harbor at least a smidge of concern given its offensive play in the Orlando bubble. The latest listless performance came Wednesday night, as the Lakers never led in a 105-86 loss to the Thunder.

Between this loss and a 107-92 defeat to Toronto over the weekend, the Lakers now have the two lowest scores for any team since the restart. And among all 22 teams in the bubble, the Lakers rank last in offensive rating at 96.6 points per 100 possessions—eight points worse than the Warriors’ league-worst mark pre-bubble. Even LeBron James is struggling, averaging 19.3 points per game on 42 percent shooting in Orlando, as compared to 25.7 points on 50 percent shooting before the lengthy delay. On Wednesday, he missed a number of shots near the rim as OKC wing Luguentz Dort kept the four-time MVP in check.

This four-game slump shouldn’t change any opinions about the Lakers’ playoff chances. End-of-season momentum is a myth, and if anyone knows how to pace himself in advance of the playoffs, it’s LeBron. Warnings of small samples abound as well; the Lakers won’t shoot 5-for-37 on 3-pointers every game, as they did against Oklahoma City. (For the whole bubble, they’re at 25 percent from 3, last place by 5 percentage points.) But if you already held some hesitations about L.A.’s offense—and particularly its scoring options beyond the two superstars—these four games certainly confirm that concern.

The issues are twofold: a lack of strong secondary scorers and difficulty in half-court sets. For the former, one stat says it all: Dion Waiters, who hadn’t played with the Lakers before July, is third on the team in shots attempts in the bubble.

(Two quick quotes about Waiters, courtesy of ESPN’s announcing team: At one point during Wednesday’s game, Doris Burke said with surprise, “Dion Waiters is being allowed to handle the ball while LeBron is on the floor. That’s unusual.” At another, as Waiters rushed forward on a fast break, Mark Jones commented, “Waiters has LeBron on the wing; he does it himself”—only for Waiters to immediately brick a layup.)

The second issue has quietly persisted all season long. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Lakers are tied with the Raptors for the league lead in points added through transition plays. But entering Wednesday’s game, L.A. ranked just 18th in half-court offensive efficiency, closer to teams like the Wizards, Timberwolves, and Pistons than the Bucks (second in the league), Rockets (fifth), and Clippers (eighth). When the Lakers can’t run for easy buckets, they occasionally veer toward stagnation.

Again, this isn’t a major problem. The Lakers coasted to the conference’s best record despite both of those issues. LeBron and Anthony Davis can shoulder heavier burdens in the playoffs, and they have the best defense in the West. But they can’t feel comfortable with their offensive output in Orlando thus far, either. Their next game comes Thursday against the Rockets—against whom they’ll need to score some real points to keep up.

The Sixers Make Beating the Wizards Seem Hard. Oh, and Ben Simmons Got Hurt.

Wednesday, August 5, 4:38 p.m. PT

Uggetti: Every Sixers game should come with a warning label. It doesn’t matter that this is basically a new season, that Shake Milton has gone from G League player to NBA starting point guard, that Ben Simmons shifted to power forward, or even that they were playing arguably the worst team in Orlando. No matter how much things change, nothing is ever normal for the Sixers. So really, it was no surprise that they were playing down to Washington Wizards’ level on Wednesday, or that in the third quarter, Simmons landed awkwardly after grabbing a rebound. He passed the ball and immediately walked toward the bench, taking himself out of the game. He left for the locker room with a left knee injury and didn’t return.

Without Simmons, Joel Embiid helped Philly grind out a second straight close win, finishing with 30 points and 11 rebounds in the 107-98 victory. But as the game was wrapping up, cameras caught Simmons walking away from the arena as if he were on eggshells:

Immediate reports indicated there was no swelling or pain in his knee. Postgame, Brett Brown seemed to know as much as the rest of us. “We don’t know,” Brown said. “I’m obviously very curious to hear what that news is.” I would hope so, Brett!

Three games in, the Sixers have two wins they can credit to their sheer talent, because it’s obvious that they have nothing going in the way of rhythm or chemistry on the court. Watching them is painful: It often looks like the five players they have on the court share a uniform but aren’t playing the same game, while a coach who hasn’t been able to sync them up stalks the sidelines in an untucked polo. Maybe the Sixers will put themselves out of their misery in the first round and get to reshaping their roster again. Maybe whatever time Simmons spends away only serves to restart the debate of whether or not he can play with Embiid. Or maybe they figure something out in the next five games and turn into world-beaters in the postseason. They certainly have the talent to do so. At this point, I’m prepared for any outcome but the expected one.

Melo and the Blazers Are Both Still Very Much Alive

Tuesday, August 4, 10:51 p.m. PT

Devine: On November 15, 2018, the Rockets announced that they were “parting ways” with Carmelo Anthony. After 10 lackluster games, Houston decided that the forward—a 10-time All-Star, but one who’d struggled with his shot and defensive responsibilities—just wasn’t going to fit in quite the way they’d hoped he would. It took Anthony more than a year to make it back into the league, and nearly 21 months to find the perfect gift to express his gratitude to the Rockets for all they’d done for him.

It’s a dagger. He hopes you like it, Rockets.

In his third matchup against the Rockets since joining the Trail Blazers back in November, Anthony delivered the coup de grâce. With the shot clock winding down in a two-point game, Anthony confidently stepped into a top-of-the-key triple, lofting it over the outstretched arm of Robert Covington and splashing it through to give Portland a five-point lead with 54.7 seconds left. Attempts at a long-distance answer by James Harden and Robert Covington went awry, and the Blazers iced it at the foul line, finishing off a 110-102 victory to improve to 2-1 in Orlando.

Anthony finished with 15 points, 11 rebounds, two steals, an assist, and a block in 36 minutes, helping bring the Blazers within 1.5 games of the reeling Grizzlies, who just lost star second-year big man Jaren Jackson Jr. for the season, in the race for the West’s no. 8 seed. That race is getting awfully chaotic: According to our Ringer Restart Odds, there are now a dozen different potential play-in scenarios with at least a 1 percent chance of coming through before the end of the seeding games.

Five of them feature the Blazers, who were an injury-ravaged wreck languishing in 13th place back when they signed Melo. Now, though, Portland’s got a puncher’s chance at making it all the way up to eighth, thanks in part to a 36-year-old whom some thought, after his struggles to contribute in Oklahoma City and Houston, that the game had passed by.

Lillard was not one of them.

“It’s more disappointing that people are surprised by [Anthony making clutch shots], you know what I mean?” Lillard, who scored 21 points in the win, told TNT’s Jared Greenberg after the game. “He’s a Hall of Famer. He’s a great teammate. That’s what we expect from him. We put him in those positions because we expect him to make those shots. We believe he’s going to make those shots, and we brought him here because we knew he would make a difference for our team, and he’s been doing that for us. So, no surprises here.”

That might not be entirely true; give Dame some sodium pentathol, and he’d probably tell you he wasn’t necessarily banking on Melo hitting the floor to snare a steal away from Harden, or racing out to block a would-be game-tying 3 by P.J. Tucker in the closing minutes of a game. (For what it’s worth, the Blazers have still been outscored in Melo’s minutes, and blitzed opponents when he’s sat.) But for all the slings and arrows sent his way about his unwillingness to adapt, Melo’s making the most of his second life as a fourth option on a ninth seed, one with designs on outperforming that station in the playoffs.

It’s a pretty sweet gig—and Tuesday night’s shot made it even sweeter.

Devin Booker Buzzes the Clippers and Gives the Suns New Life

Tuesday, August 4, 4:22 p.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: Let’s talk about defenders you don’t want to face. Kawhi Leonard is at the top of my list. Paul George isn’t far behind. But going through both at once to sink a buzzer-beater and topple the second-best team in the West? For Devin Booker, that’s just a Tuesday.

With four seconds left, Booker surges inside. He beats George by a step then plants to face Leonard; he spins to avoid both and shoots over—almost through—both defenders. It’s a full-body fadeaway; Booker hit the floor the moment the ball hit the net. Phoenix wins, 117-115. I wonder whether Paul George thought it was a bad shot.

The buzzer-beater wasn’t Booker’s first clutch moment in the NBA. Far from it. “Sicko Mode” dropped nearly two years ago in August 2018, and within it, Drake’s “wet like I’m Book” metaphor. No one disputed it at the time. Booker is a big-moment player on a team that doesn’t have many. This season might turn the tides for the Suns. They’re only one game behind Portland, who’s currently in position for the play-in series against the eighth-place Grizzlies. Hopefully Booker, who finished with 35 points on six 3s, eight assists, and four rebounds against the Clippers—stays the same.

Mister Bogdan Bogdanovic Just Misses Missing Everything

Tuesday, August 4, 3:30 p.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: Rarely do we see a perfect game. The moon must be in a specific phase (varies by sport), mercury must be out of retrograde, the player in question must have thousands of tiny occurrences align (such as arena temperature, defender matchup, whether he called his mom the night before, etc.). Less rare—but as spectacular, in its own peculiar way—is the perfectly imperfect game. Not one miss, all misses. (I’m not sure what the baseball equivalent is for pitchers.) On Tuesday against the Mavericks, Kings wing Bogdan Bogdanovic nearly pulled it off.

The first shot of the game was a 23-foot attempt by Bogdanovic. A miss. He’d miss once again that quarter before being pulled. In the second quarter, four misses. Then four more in the third. And another four in the fourth. A little left, a little too soft, you name it; he missed it. It was the perfectly imperfect game, except neither the Mavs nor the Kings would die. The game went to overtime. At this point he was 0-for-14—not a record, but, as my good pal Rodger Sherman pointed out, no one’s gone 0-for-anything-higher since 1993.

Bogdanovic didn’t play the entire extra period. Until, that is, when Luke Walton put the much-humbled Serbian in the game with 8.6 seconds remaining. Bogdanovic, waiting in the corner, got the ball and released his 15th shot attempt with 6.3 seconds left. He connected. It wasn’t enough to win the game, but it ruined his perfectly imperfect game. One-for-15 overall, 1-for-8 from deep. An utter disappointment. See you next full moon.

The No-Name Nets Just Pulled Off the Upset of the Season

Tuesday, August 4, 3:10 p.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: The Brooklyn Nets have no business beating Giannis Antetokounmpo. If Brooklyn faced Giannis and four toddlers crying and tripping on their oversized Bucks jerseys on the court, Brooklyn should still lose. But somehow, on Monday—without Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince, Jarrett Allen, Joe Harris, Caris LeVert, or (technically) Kevin Durant—the Nets beat the top-seeded Bucks, 119-116. The Nets were the biggest underdogs all season entering the game at a spread of plus-19; their win was the largest NBA point-spread upset since 1993. But Milwaukee did not suit up one unicorn and four toddlers; Giannis and Khris Middleton only played 16 minutes apiece, and Eric Bledsoe, Robin Lopez, and George Hill played 20 or less. No Buck played more than 24. As it turns out, a team with nothing to play for doesn’t have a ton to prove to the world when it comes to facing the Nets, who have lost 14 of the last 17 meetings.

Still, I know what you’re thinking: How did Brooklyn, depleted as the brains in those “this is your brain on drugs” commercials, beat bits and pieces of Milwaukee? How did the Nets drop 119 on the league’s best defense (which, again, wasn’t in the entire time)? How did it lead by 11? Lance Thomas, Rodions Kurucs, Garrett Temple, Tyler Johnson, Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot, and six minutes of Jamal Crawford (see below)? Part of the blame lies with the Bucks offense. Milwaukee was sloppy with the ball, turning it over 18 times to Brooklyn’s seven. Luwawu-Cabarrot poured in a career-high 26 points on 8-for-12 shooting (including five 3s), adding the punch no one else in the game seemed willing to provide. He sank two back-to-back 3s with less than three minutes left in regulation, putting the Nets ahead, remarkably, for good.

Jamal Crawford Dazzles for Five Minutes Before His Body Opts Out

Tuesday, August 4, 12:38 p.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: Common advice while searching for a job is to say yes to an opportunity even if you’re not sure you’re ready. Jamal Crawford, a 40-year-old journeyman drafted in 2000, was apparently not quite ready when the Brooklyn Nets signed him in July as additional backcourt backup after it became clear Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie wouldn’t join the team in Orlando. He was too out of shape to play in either of Brooklyn’s first two seeding games (the team listed him out due to “conditioning”). Tuesday against the Bucks, Crawford finally hit the floor for his 20th NBA season with less than five minutes to play in the first quarter. It was the first time the journeyman had played since April 9, 2019.

Crawford was back like he never left (or before he fell off before he left), dropping a dime right away and swishing a 3 like … well, Jamal Crawford.

Then Crawford suffered a left hamstring injury in the second quarter. He’d been in the game for five minutes, notching five points and three assists. (That’s a pretty exceptional stat line for five minutes.) Shortly after, the Nets announced that Crawford would miss the rest of the game. As I’m writing this, the Nets are up on the top-seeded Bucks. His minutes mattered. And like other Greats, he’d rather play a short game of glory than a long one of obscurity. If this is the end for Crawford, he at least made his 20th season, and will always be the oldest player to have participated in the Disney bubble. Though considering his productivity, Brooklyn should want him back for more than milestones.

The Lakers Are Anthony Davis’s Team Right Now

Monday, August 3, 9:48 p.m. PT

Uggetti: On a night when the Lakers clinched the West’s top seed and more or less made their next five games in the bubble irrelevant, LeBron James played sidekick to Anthony Davis. AD scored 42 points and pirouetted around the court against the Jazz, who had no answer for a 7-footer with guard skills. All night, they looked every bit as helpless against him as Rudy Gobert did after he fouled Davis on a dagger, stepback four-point play in the fourth quarter:

LeBron’s work to get the Lakers to this point has been MVP-worthy. And even if Giannis will likely stand in the way of him claiming the award, LeBron’s ultimate goal has been the Finals trophy. The first checkpoint on that journey has now been cleared in large part thanks to Davis, who is averaging 30 points a contest so far in Orlando.

Home-court advantage may not matter in the bubble, but clinching the top seed underscores the mission LeBron has been on since the season tipped off in October. The offseason addition of Davis has reinvigorated LeBron; it has also allowed him to take a back seat on any given night, ceding the stage to the Lakers’ other superstar. Despite a loss to the Raptors on Saturday, this is the formula that has worked for L.A. in its two Orlando wins: pace LeBron, let Davis cook. James hasn’t played more than 35 minutes in any of the team’s three games, and even though he’s shooting 44 percent from the field, it hasn’t really mattered. Now, with the 1-seed in their back pockets and a five-game runway until the postseason, the Lakers can afford to be even more conservative with LeBron’s load and begin to imagine what a fully rested LeBron and this version of Davis could do in the playoffs. This may still be LeBron’s league—with Kawhi and Giannis also staking their own claims—but to finish his career off with at least one more title run, he needs Davis to claim a share of it, too.

Shake Got the Sixers a Win, but This Team Still Looks Shaky

Monday, August 3, 8:38 p.m. PT

Uggetti: At what point does confidence turn into delusion? At what point does blind belief become willful ignorance? These are the questions I asked myself as I watched the Sixers nearly blow a double-digit lead against the Spurs only to be saved by [checks notes] Shake Milton. With less than 10 seconds left in the game and the Sixers down two, Milton inbounded the ball and got it right back; for a half a second, he looked like he didn’t know he was allowed to touch the ball, and then he buried a decisive go-ahead 3:

Insert your milkshake or shake-up puns here. Unlike the Spurs, the Sixers aren’t fighting for a playoff spot, and it seems like their first-round opponent might not be something they can control. But after they dropped their first game to the Pacers following a lot of talk about their improved chemistry and promising lineup changes (Ben Simmons at power forward), it felt like they couldn’t start 0-2 if they wanted us to take them as legitimate contenders.

All season, the talk around Philly was about how their talent was so abundant at first glance that even regular-season mediocrity and a historically bad away record couldn’t remove the luster of potential. It’s been four months since their uneven season was paused, and yet in the lead-up to the Orlando bubble, they still tantalized us. In this weird environment, a weird team like them could put together a run and finally turn their potential into wins.

Two games in, that notion looks shaky. T.J. Warren dropped 53 points on their defense in their first game, and in their second, Simmons fouled out in the fourth and they looked discombobulated down the stretch. The Milton experiment has given us bad (arguing with Joel Embiid) and good (Monday’s shot). And it seems like the only takeaway so far is that—despite any lineup changes, despite the time off—the Sixers remain undecipherable: talented enough to keep us on the hook, but dysfunctional enough to never let anyone truly believe in them.

Zion Is Alive—and So Are the Pelicans’ Playoff Hopes

Monday, August 3, 7:22 p.m. PT

Uggetti: In case of emergency, there is Zion Williamson. He may not be 100 percent healthy and he may be limited to the famous, buzzwordy “bursts” of three to four minutes, but at any given moment, he’s still prone to make defenses collapse, turn defenders into traffic cones, and set up a face-to-face meeting with the rim off a single leap.

The Pelicans would have told you they weren’t quite in panic mode going into their third bubble game despite losing their first two. But they had fallen behind in the race for the 8-seed (3.5 games behind Memphis, and trailing both Portland and San Antonio going into Monday), and were facing a Grizzlies team that was also winless. This was a must-win for both teams, so it was no surprise that, like most games in Orlando between evenly matched squads, the contest was close late.

With less than four minutes left in a four-point game, Zion steamrolled toward the rim on three straight possessions. The results were enough to put away the game: drawn foul for two free throws, layup, layup. The Memphis defenders standing on the other end of each attempt may as well have been invisible. Brandon Ingram added 10 clutch points in the quarter, but unlike in the Pelicans’ opener, he wasn’t asked to take a potentially game-winning 3; instead he had the load lessened by Zion’s presence in crunch time.

When the rookie didn’t play down the stretch of the Pelicans’ first game against the Jazz, the Zion-minutes discourse swiftly went from 0 to 100, prompting questions about whether he should be playing at all. As I wrote on opening night, Zion is the pendulum that swings games, and New Orleans needs games to go its way if the team wants a shot at the playoffs. Monday was just further proof that playing Zion in the fourth gives the Pelicans the best shot at doing that. He played 15 minutes before the fourth quarter and was able to sprint toward the finish line as he ended up totaling 23 points, seven rebounds, and five assists in 25 minutes. It was more than enough to put the Pelicans just two and a half games back of Memphis, which has now lost three games, all against sub-.500 opponents.

The Zion conundrum on the court is not rocket science: Play him and New Orleans will have the best shot to win. But the Pels’ medical staff appears to hold the final word on his availability, so it seems more complicated than just whether he can play or not. But Zion clearly wants to play. “I feel alive again,” he said in the postgame interview. Thanks to him, the Pelicans are alive again too.

Not Even Michael Porter Jr. Could Deny His Breakout Performance

Monday, August 3, 5:34 p.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: Before Monday’s game against the Thunder, the theme of Michael Porter Jr.’s career was patience. After injuries derailed his long college season and draft workouts in 2018, the former projected top pick had to wait until the tail end of the lottery to hear his name called. Then, herniated disks forced Porter to redshirt his rookie year. Porter, now a pseudo-rookie, has dealt with additional injuries this season, but even when healthy, his playing time has been as mercurial as Joey Crawford’s whistle. In the bubble at Disney World, with Will Barton out (for now), Nuggets coach Michael Malone is finally giving Porter his due.

Against OKC, Porter finished with 37 points, 12 rebounds, an assist, a steal, and a block. He’s the first Nuggets rookie to reach 35 points and 10 boards in a game since Carmelo Anthony in 2004. (In today’s “Feel Old Yet?,” Porter will be facing Melo and the Blazers on Thursday.) Porter was also perfect from the free throw line (9-for-9) and hit four of six shots from deep. With that soft touch and shooting accuracy, the 6-foot-10 stretch forward is the new-wave threat the Nuggets need. Denver’s ability to go big (see: Nikola Jokic at point, Bol Bol, and the rest of the Really Tall Ball lineup) while still adding outside shooting (which they’ve lacked all season, in part because Jamal Murray and Gary Harris are still on the sideline) makes them versatile enough to beat rugged, spunky teams like the Thunder, and gives them a chance against polished, smaller teams like the Rockets. But that success is possible only if—and this is a big, Bol-sized if—their coach keeps Porter in the rotation when the team is at full health.

Fred VanVleet Makes the Case for the Raptors—and the Best No. 23 Ever

Monday, August 3, 2:31 p.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: When the 2019 NBA Finals ended and Adam Silver handed the Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy to Kawhi Leonard—a golden ball resting atop a golden net and disappointingly, not a statue of the titular Russell—I nodded along. Leonard deserved it. But the brave pick, the nonconformist pick, the pick only the boldest of galaxy-brained iconoclasts would’ve dared make, was backup point guard Fred VanVleet.

That decision came flashing back Monday, when the Raptors beat the Heat 107-103, their first win in three meetings against Miami this season. It was (statistically) the best game of VanVleet’s career: 36 points, five rebounds, four assists, and one steal in 42 minutes. He was perfect from the line, 13 for 13, and perfect enough from deep with seven 3s on 12 attempts. VanVleet didn’t just catch fire from deep, he bodied his way into contact all game, flapping his 6-foot-1 frame off defenders like a freshly caught, very distraught bass on a wooden deck. A true Kyle Lowry understudy. And like Lowry, FVV is dependable on both ends. Late in the fourth, after the Heat managed to erase a 17-point deficit, VanVleet disrupted a Jimmy Butler pass to help put the game away with 7.4 seconds left.

FVV today tho

— ️ William (@afcwilo) August 3, 2020

He has an eye for anticipating passes on defense, and pounces on the slightest lag in dribbling. It shouldn’t surprise anyone who watched Monday’s game that FVV leads the league in deflections, with an absurd 4.2 per game. He’s physical, a scorer, an underrated defender for the Raptors, and well on his way to be the best player to ever wear no. 23.

VanVleet will be a free agent this offseason. Many teams could use his services, and the bubble presents an opportunity to show his worth. His awaiting Finals MVP should help.

The Rockets Beat the Bucks by Forcing Their Own Agenda

Sunday, August 2, 10:02 p.m. PT

Sherman: The Rockets have played two games in the bubble and had historic outputs in both. Their first game, Friday’s overtime win against the Mavericks, saw the teams combine for 160 first-half points, the most since 1990. In Sunday’s game against the Bucks, Houston shot 61 3-pointers, which tied the record for the most taken by one team in regulation. But the Rockets aren’t gunning for off-the-wall records to show how zany they are. They just moved to 2-0 in the bubble by making the team with the best record in the NBA look oddly out of sync.

In Sunday’s game, Milwaukee outrebounded Houston 65-36. The Bucks missed 47 shots and got 17 offensive rebounds, while the Rockets missed 55 shots and got six offensive rebounds. Giannis Antetokounmpo alone had 18 boards, which was more than Houston’s top two rebounders combined.

In a vacuum, those stats make it look like Houston lost, screwed by their own strategy of playing nobody taller than 6-foot-8 against a team led by a dynamic 6-foot-11 superstar. But the Rockets’s freaky playing style made the Bucks do things they usually don’t. Milwaukee tied their season-high with 23 turnovers, including 15 steals for a Houston team that is perennially snooping in passing lanes. The Bucks led by eight with three minutes to go, but the Rockets outscored them 16-4 the rest of the way. The Bucks play the fastest pace in the NBA, but they looked gassed at the end as their smaller, speedier opponents sprinted by them. James Harden—the guy who famously doesn’t play defense—had six steals and put the damn clamps on Giannis down the stretch.

A lot of neutral fans around the league like to hate on the Rockets, and I get it. Their purely analytical view of how to play the game gets rid of a lot of creativity; Harden draws a lot of fouls in irritating ways; and there has always been a strong anti–Russell Westbrook contingent. But I’ll always tune in if they’re on, because you’ll never get a normal game. They make their opponents—even the great ones—struggle to come to terms with the strange thing they’re facing. Houston has six games to go until the playoffs. Let’s see if the team can set a few more records.

Is Luka No Longer Clutch? An Investigation.

Sunday, August 2, 10:03 p.m. PT

Sherman: Sunday was a great night for 2018 NBA draft revisionism. Luka Doncic, the internationally beloved superstar picked third that year by the Mavericks, had 40 points, 11 assists, and eight rebounds. Meanwhile, Deandre Ayton, the forgotten big man picked first in 2018 by the Suns, had seven points on eight shots and committed five fouls. To be fair, it was an uncharacteristically bad night for Ayton, who is averaging 19 points and 12 rebounds per game and had scored fewer than 10 points only once this season. But it looked ugly: Point guards and centers don’t go head to head often, but Doncic lit up when Ayton switched onto him in the pick-and-roll; Doncic routinely drove past the big man and drew three shooting fouls.

Despite the fact that almost every stat was in Luka’s favor, though, Phoenix won, 117-115. Doncic had the chance to tie the game in the final seconds, but instead of laying it in as he approached the rim, he threw the ball back to Kristaps Porzingis, who was more than happy to brick a stepback 3:

That miss went out of bounds off Phoenix, giving Dallas another chance to take the lead or win the game. Did they give the ball to Luka? No—they had him inbound the ball, making him the only Mav on the floor who couldn’t hit the game-winner. Instead, Dallas ran a play for Tim Hardaway Jr., who was 1-for-11 from the floor and 0-for-7 from 3 at the time. He finished 1-for-12 and 0-for-8:

Doncic is 0-for-10 on shots to tie or take the lead in the final minute of games this season, and Sunday he just straight-up opted not to try to make it 1-for-11. Is he scared? Is it possible he’s NOT CLUTCH?!?

I mean, probably not. In the first two months of his NBA career, Doncic seemed like he could be a statistically legendary clutch scorer. He had an absolutely preposterous OT-forcer against the Blazers and followed it up with a game-winning 3 against the Timberwolves. The fact that Doncic’s late-game narrative has shifted recently probably tells us more about the dangers of extrapolating clutch sample sizes into larger statements about players’ tendencies. That said, he probably should retire to avoid embarrassing his family. I’m sure Ayton would appreciate that, too.

Jonathan Isaac Goes Down With Yet Another Left Knee Injury

Sunday, August 2, 6:35 p.m. PT

Sherman: Jonathan Isaac was set to be one of the players who benefited most from the NBA’s four-month postponement. In January, the Magic’s long-and-strong big man suffered a left knee injury that was expected to end his season. The layoff from March to July, though, gave Isaac time to recover, and he returned to the Magic on a limited-minutes basis as they made their playoff push.

But on Sunday, with the Magic up 28 points in the fourth quarter against the Kings, Isaac went down with a noncontact injury. He was taken off the court in a wheelchair, and the Magic reportedly fear he has a torn ACL. Isaac has now potentially suffered two “season-ending” knee injuries to the same knee in the same season.

Isaac, who had made headlines early in Orlando by not joining his teammates in kneeling during the national anthem or wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt, is a promising prospect for Orlando. The Magic drafted him no. 6 overall in 2017, and this year, he seemed to be turning into the defensive stud they’d hoped he’d be. He was also averaging a career-high 12.1 points and 2.4 blocks per game. In the Magic’s first bubble game, a 128-118 win against the Nets, he shot 6-for-7 from the field with two 3s and finished with 16 points.

But Isaac’s early career has been cursed by injuries. (He once got hurt at a uniform unveiling.) He played only 27 games as a rookie due to a nagging ankle sprain. In January, he was stretchered off the court; Sunday, he needed a wheelchair. If this injury carries over into a 2020-21 season, he will miss significant time in three of his first four NBA seasons.

Isaac was on a minutes restriction holding him to only 16 minutes per game, so I’m not sure how much his absence will affect the Magic this year—they’ve been getting surprisingly great contributions at the 4 from journeyman James Ennis III, and they’ve now won their first two games in the bubble. But Isaac’s long-term development was probably more important than anything Orlando could accomplish during the restart. Now, he’s suffered yet another setback because of yet another injury. As cautious as Orlando was with Isaac, the Magic probably wish they’d just let him keep sitting.

The Celtics’ Stars Have Shaken off the Rust

Sunday, August 2, 4:34 p.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: Pre-bubble, pre-quarantine, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were both having career years. On Friday, though, they played the Bucks with the rustiness of a months-old mall-kiosk gold necklace. (Tatum had five points and went 0-for-4 from 3; Brown finished with a much better 22 points, but was 3-for-10 from deep.) The win over the Blazers on Sunday was a return to form. Brown hit four 3s in the fourth quarter—the first of which tied the game again after Portland’s 24-point comeback—all assisted by Tatum, scoring 16 points in the fourth alone. Tatum, who cut his hair prior to the game (I don’t think this should be overlooked when wondering what made things go differently; the situation was very bad before), dropped 34 points and had eight assists, four rebounds, two steals, and a block. The Jays are back, just in time to keep Boston two games ahead of Miami in the standings. Do the standings really matter without home-court advantage? Maybe not! (If anything, wouldn’t the Celtics want to drop a spot to play the Pacers and not the Sixers, if everything stands?) Regardless, look at this clip with 32 seconds left:

We Aren’t Blaming Jusuf Nurkic for His Bad Late-Game Pass

Sunday, August 2, 4:34 p.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: You can’t help but smile seeing Jusuf Nurkic back on the court, especially against Boston. On Sunday, he thundered through the Celtics’ watery frontcourt for 30 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals, and one block. Boston, too, was happy to see Nurk on the court, if only because of his final pass of the fourth quarter, an inbound to nobody with the game on the line:

Not a Blazer in sight. Just three Celtics defenders living in the moment.

Whom do we blame here? It’s too easy to simply blame Nurkic, whose spatial recognition may be disoriented after a year spent recovering from injury. Terry Stotts, for giving him that responsibility? The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, for popularizing this kind of errant late-game effort? Patrick Mahomes, for making cross-field/court launches look too easy? Damian Lillard and Gary Trent Jr., whose 12 total 3s made the Blazers near-comeback possible, setting Nurkic up to fail?

What we won’t do is blame Nurkic, that beautiful and glorious and healthy Bosnian big man, who did not heal just to be chastised. Over what? A win on which Portland’s playoff hopes relied? There are more important things.

The Wizards Are Definitely Not Making the Playoffs … Right?

Sunday, August 2, 2:20 p.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote, “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.” And there is not much in the Disney World bubble that seems more obvious than this: The Washington Wizards won’t make the playoffs. While it’s not technically impossible—after losing to Brooklyn on Sunday, 118-110, Washington is six games behind the Nets with six games to play, and must get within four games to force a play-in series for the final playoff spot—the chances that Scott Brooks and his collection of Division II ballers pull it off are so slim, it’s basically fact. The Wizards won’t make the playoffs.

… Could they, though? Washington’s two top scorers, Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans, stayed home, but second-year center Thomas Bryant finished with a career high in points (30) and rebounds (13) against the Nets, hitting four 3s like a budding catch-and-shoot legend. Ish Smith, in his 32nd season, is still surprisingly durable. Troy Brown Jr. and Rui Hachimura are exciting. Shabazz Napier exists. OK, so maybe they can’t make the playoffs.

But while the Western Conference has five teams behind the eighth seed fighting for a playoff spot, the Eastern Conference has only Washington and Brooklyn. Washington will need at least three wins (and the Nets going winless) to make it. (Because Brooklyn and Washington are eighth and ninth, respectively, a win today would have brought the Wizards within one game of the play-in.) Next up is Indiana on Monday. Overall, the Wizards entered the bubble with the 10th-strongest schedule; they’ve yet to win a game.

Jimmy Butler Didn’t Practice Sunday for Reasons Unexplained

Sunday, August 2, 11:45 a.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: Jimmy Butler didn’t practice on Sunday. Rest assured: He’s not injured. According to teammate Jae Crowder, who may have overshared during a media scrum after Sunday’s practice, Butler is quarantining. The team has deemed it an “excused absence.” He was hugely important in Saturday’s game against the Nuggets, tying Bam Adebayo to lead all scorers with 22 points. Yet less than 24 hours after Miami’s blowout win, Butler is—if we are to believe Crowder—now in quarantine. Here are Crowder’s exact words, told to Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel:

“We want to talk to him as soon as he gets out of quarantine and whatever he’s in. … It’s definitely a curve ball to us to hear stuff like what’s going on with him.”

It is possible that Butler missed a test or received inconclusive test results. Dallas Mavericks big man Kristaps Porzingis missed a scrimmage last week after forgetting to take a test. Similarly, last Wednesday, an unnamed Kings player had to quarantine for two days after an inconclusive test. The chances are very low that Butler left the bubble without explanation after Saturday’s game since the isolation period for returning from an excused absence is four days, not one. Winderman tweeted that “Word remains just a day off for Butler,” so he should be back for Monday’s game against Toronto.

Stop Sleeping on the Reigning Champions

Sunday, August 2, 6:45 a.m. PT

Matt Dollinger: You would think that being the reigning champions would be enough to earn a little respect, but the Toronto Raptors once again find themselves in Dangerfield territory. Only one of The Ringer’s nine NBA experts (some would say the best looking) picked the Raptors to make it back to this year’s NBA Finals, and only three of ESPN’s 13 experts predicted the same. FiveThirtyEight gives the Raptors a 9% chance of reaching the Finals, while our own Zach Kram puts Toronto’s odds at 16%, while giving them just a 9% chance of winning the whole thing.

But if you watched the Raptors’ 107-92 romp of the Lakers on Saturday night, you would expect those numbers to be way higher. Kyle Lowry had 33 points and 14 rebounds and Toronto held Los Angeles to just 35.4 percent shooting, clamping down on LeBron James (20 points) and Anthony Davis (14) and outsourcing the Lakers 35-22 in the fourth. It was the type of dismantling that will serve as a reality check for the Lakers—and maybe for the rest of the league.

“I mean, they won a championship for a reason,” James told reporters after the game. “And it wasn’t just all solely because of Kawhi and obviously you see that.”

As The King notes, the Raptors are built to win in the postseason. Lowry and Fred VanVleet form an electric, albeit undersized, backcourt that always keeps the offense humming. Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby are two devastating defensive forces on the wing—the most valuable currency in the playoffs—with developing offensive games (the former ranks 15th in the league in scoring, the latter had 23 points against the Lakers). And a slimmed-down Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka give Nick Nurse plenty of lineup configurations upfront while anchoring the defense and providing just enough on offense.

Nurse didn’t have the luxury of such depth during this season, fighting a never-ending string of injuries and ailments, but perfectly plugged in “continuity guys” (as LeBron called them) to keep the Raptors more than afloat. It’s been pointed out, but the 2019-20 Raptors have a better winning percentage (.723) than Kawhi’s 2018-19 Raptors (.707) that won the championship. But they also have a better net rating (6.5 vs. 5.8) and lower defensive rating (104.7 vs. 106.8) than last year’s team. This is a juggernaut—not a hobbled former champion.

Maybe you believe in the Ewing Theory. Maybe the Raptors have 2004 Pistons-level chemistry. Whatever it is, there’s been enough evidence for us to stop sleeping on the Raptors. While Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks were historically good during the regular season, they were outdueled by these Raptors last postseason and they’ve yet to get over a playoff hump that not every superstar clears (even MVPs). It’s silly to assume the Bucks will stroll to the Finals and face whichever L.A. team survives the West. The Raptors are dangerous. These Raptors are dangerous. They have the NBA’s best record since January 15. And while they aren’t getting the respect they deserve, they also aren’t receiving any of the pressure.

Giannis feels the weight of trying to make his first Finals. LeBron knows he only has so many years left. Kawhi is trying to make a superteam marriage work. But the Raptors? They’re playing with house money. Count them out at your own peril.

T.J. Warren, Whom the Suns Traded for Cash, Put Up 53 Points on Philly

Saturday, August 1, 7:30 p.m. PT

Verrier: There was a time not too long ago when T.J. Warren’s reluctance to take 3-pointers was his defining trait. He wasn’t as aggro about it as Ben Simmons, and it happened in Phoenix, where all intrigue goes to die, but as the 3-point revolution took hold of the NBA, Warren was still doing his scoring damage from the midrange. In 2017-18, he averaged 20 points but took just 90 3-point attempts. But Warren extended his range the next season, and on Saturday, with an improbable 50-piece already under his belt and the Pacers up on the 76ers by just three with under 15 seconds left, the 26-year-old had the chutzpah to take this shot:

Victor Oladipo opted to play in the Pacers’ first bubble game, after wrestling with the decision for a few weeks, but the night was Warren’s. The player whom the Suns traded for cash last offseason finished the night with 53 points on 20-for-29 shooting, including 9-for-12, in Indiana’s 127-121 victory. It was, naturally, a career high, and the third-highest scoring game in the Pacers’ 52-year history.

Joel Embiid had a monster night in his own right: 41 points, 21 rebounds, and a shimmy-inducing dunk after blowing by Myles Turner. With Simmons now playing forward, Embiid also directed his ire toward his new point guard:

But in what is now second nature for Philly, everyone waved off the confrontation as nothing more than a heat-of-the-moment mishap.

Turner, on the other hand, punctuated Warren’s night with one last jab at the Suns: “I wonder how cash considerations feels about this performance.”

Zion Played, but the Pelicans Still Got Absolutely Whupped

Saturday, August 1, 5:30 p.m. PT

Justin Verrier: Zion Williamson was again subjugated to “burst” management, totaling 14 minutes in his second bubble game, but it probably wouldn’t have mattered if the Pelicans had five Zions flying around the court at full speed and left-arm flexing in sync. The Clippers, still without Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, made a franchise-record 25 3-pointers—including 16 in the first half, one shy of the NBA record—completely deflating the Pelicans before they got to halftime. Williamson didn’t even get to play it the fourth; there was no need.

Following the 126-103 loss, New Orleans, once brimming with bubble optimism, drops to 0-2 in the NBA restart. The silver lining for the Pelicans is that their schedule becomes significantly easier from here, as none of their final six opponents have a winning record. But the Pels were 18-27 without Zion this season; it’s hard to really pencil them in for wins over the likes of the Kings and Spurs until they take the training wheels off their super rookie, or muster a little more enthusiasm on defense.

The Rockets and Mavericks Are Fun—but Maybe Fatally Flawed

Friday, July 31, 10 p.m. PT

Kram: Houston and Dallas finished the second night of bubble play by mimicking the rhythm of an All-Star Game: no defense in a high-scoring first half but a tense contest down the stretch. The Rockets emerged with a 153-149 overtime win, delivering a crushing blow to the Mavericks’ hopes of climbing the Western Conference standings. (According to our Restart Odds, Dallas’s chances of moving up from no. 7 fell from 51 percent to 29 percent with the loss.) But the game was equally fascinating for what it illuminated about both teams’ strengths and potentially prohibitive weaknesses as the playoffs approach.

For the victorious Rockets, the chief advantage—on Friday and forever—is the presence of James Harden in the backcourt. The league’s leading scorer tallied 49 points on 14-of-20 shooting, making 18 free throws and dishing eight assists. Harden helms an offense that can compete with any team on any given night, thanks to star power and sabermetric savvy. As a team, the Rockets canned 19 3-pointers and made 30 free throws against Dallas; only one other team this season (the Bucks, against the lowly Wizards in January) reached both those numbers in the same game.

But the Rockets trailed for most of Friday’s game—until Robert Covington tipped in a missed free throw with three seconds left to tie the score and send the game to overtime.

Houston suffered from two key problems that likely won’t relent anytime soon: The Rockets’ rotation is super small in both player size and depth. With a 6-foot-5 starting center, Houston couldn’t possibly slow the 7-foot-2 Kristaps Porzingis on Friday, and Luka Doncic found his way to the rim whenever he wanted without much backline resistance. Imagine the havoc that Anthony Davis and LeBron James could wreak if the Rockets end up facing the Lakers at some point in the playoffs. And of the eight Rockets who played, Ben McLemore fouled out and Harden, Russell Westbrook, P.J. Tucker, and Jeff Green all collected five fouls. Houston can’t afford to field such a thin rotation all summer long.

On Dallas’s side, the Mavericks’ core strength is a high-octane offense—the most efficient in recorded league history, per Basketball-Reference. That unit was in prime form Friday, with stellar statistical showings from:

  • Porzingis: 39 points, 16 rebounds
  • Doncic: 28 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists (but also eight turnovers and six fouls)
  • Tim Hardaway Jr.: 24 points, 5-of-8 from 3-point range
  • Trey Burke: 31 points, 8-of-10 from 3-point range

But for all their offensive output, the Mavericks have struggled all season in close contests; they hold a 2-9 record in games decided by three points or fewer, giving them the most such losses in the league. And that league-best offense ranks just 29th in efficiency in clutch situations—possessions in the last five minutes of a game, with the margin at five points or closer—according to NBA Advanced Stats.

Friday’s game was no exception to the trend. Dallas exceeded 40 points in each of the first two quarters and scored 34 in the third—only to tally just 20 in the fourth quarter, missing four of its last five field goals in regulation as well as two late free throws that could have helped ice the game. The Mavericks have the point differential of a true contender, but, thanks to all those close losses, the record of a seventh-place team on track to play the Clippers in the first round.

A playoff matchup against the Clippers would expose the Mavericks’ other main weakness, which was also on display Friday: a lack of stout perimeter defenders. Just as Doncic penetrated the paint whenever he wanted, so too did Harden, who scored 23 points on perfect shooting in the first quarter before Dallas resorted to frequent double-teams. The Mavericks struggle to defend one dynamic offensive option, let alone two; in other words, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George might prepare a feast if this matchup transpires.

Giannis Antetokounmpo Adds to the Star Showings in Orlando

Friday, July 31, 7:15 p.m. PT

Kram: If the first night of the NBA restart belonged to LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, and Paul George, and the first set of day games went to Damian Lillard, the second night saw Giannis Antetokounmpo remind viewers that, oh yeah, he’s a superstar too.

The reigning and presumptive MVP started strong and finished stronger in his first game in the Orlando bubble, a 119-112 Bucks win over the Celtics. In just 32 minutes, Giannis tallied 36 points, 15 rebounds, and seven assists. The Bucks were plus-18 with him on the court—the best mark for any player in the game. And he iced the win with a pair of crucial three-point plays in the final 90 seconds.

Other Eastern Conference foes at least have a conceivable player, or players, to match up with the modern game’s version of Shaquille O’Neal. The Heat boast Bam Adebayo, the Raptors a host of different big bodies from Pascal Siakam to OG Anunoby to Marc Gasol, the 76ers a list that includes Joel Embiid, Al Horford, and even Ben Simmons.

But the Celtics lack a single player with the combination of size and athleticism necessary to try slowing the Bucks’ focal point. On Friday, Jaylen Brown couldn’t contain Giannis, picking up his fifth foul early in the third quarter. Giannis swallowed up Gordon Hayward in the post and tormented Jayson Tatum, one of the best defenders in the league, whenever that matchup arose. And while Marcus Smart is as sturdy a defender as anyone, he gives up 8 inches to Giannis.

Giannis made 14 of his 20 shot attempts, including a calm pull-up 3 from the top of the key and several thunderous dunks, but it was his passing that impressed most on Friday. Unable to defend him one on one, the Celtics sent waves of double-teams and traps, only for Giannis to frequently find the open man spotting up on the perimeter. Six of his seven assists went for 3-pointers—a subtle skill that has made Giannis more valuable all season long than his surface stats show.

In a game in which several of the Bucks’ complementary players didn’t show up like usual—Eric Bledsoe literally, because he’s still working his way back into game shape after testing positive for COVID-19; Khris Middleton metaphorically, because he shot 6-for-20 from the field—Giannis demonstrated his ability to both stake his team to an early lead and help it close a win. He even benefited from a pair of friendly late-game replay reviews that prevented him from fouling out. That might be the most representative superstar move of all.

Magic Forward Jonathan Isaac Becomes First Player Not to Kneel for Anthem

Friday, July 31, 6:33 p.m. PT

Kram: In the first NBA game on Friday, Jonathan Isaac played in his first official game since injuring his knee on January 1. But before the game began, he became the first player during the league’s restart not to wear a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt and kneel during the playing of the national anthem.

In the league’s first two games inside the Orlando bubble—Jazz vs. Pelicans and Lakers vs. Clippers—all players and coaches knelt together as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played. After Friday’s first game, which the Magic won behind 16 points from Isaac, the third-year forward, who is Black, said, “Absolutely I believe that Black lives matter. A lot went into my decision and part of it is my thought that kneeling while wearing a ‘Black Lives Matter’ T-shirt don’t go hand in hand with supporting Black lives.”

Isaac became an ordained minister earlier this year, and he told reporters his faith informed his choice. “For me Black lives are supported through the Gospel,” he said. “All lives are supported through the Gospel. That we all have things that we do wrong and sometimes it gets into a place of pointing fingers about which wrong is worse.”

Fellow members of the Magic said they supported Isaac’s decision, as did one of Isaac’s opponents, Nets veteran Garrett Temple. “People protest in their own way,” Temple said. “If somebody believes that isn’t the way they want to protest, then they don’t do it. At the end of the day, I don’t have a problem with what Jonathan did. I only have a problem with it if he says, ‘Black lives don’t matter,’ or he disagrees with what we’re fighting for.”

Temple continued, “There’s a lot of different ways to skin a cat. If that’s his reason, good for him.”

Blazers Outlast the Grizzlies for a Crucial Win in the West’s Wild Race

Friday, July 31, 5:50 p.m. PT

Devine: Every game is a must-win when you’re trying to climb out of a 3.5-game hole with eight games to play, but the Trail Blazers’ first contest in Orlando was really a must-win. Lose to the eighth-seeded Grizzlies, and suddenly the team would be 4.5 back and staring down a brutal season-closing slate. A win, though, would keep the Blazers’ prospects of forcing a play-in afloat.

Hope still springs in Portland after a heart-pounding 140-135 overtime win on Friday night. A foul-filled but energetic affair required an extra five minutes to settle things, but the Blazers blitzed Memphis to open the extra period and held off a late surge.

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum combined for 62 points on 43 shots and 15 assists, routinely draining filthy stepback jumpers or getting downhill in the pick-and-roll for snaking finishes or drive-and-kick dimes. In his first game action since last March’s season-ending leg injury, Jusuf Nurkic offered an immediate reminder of just how impactful he can be, authoring a monster return with 18 points, nine rebounds, six blocks, five assists, and two steals in 33 minutes.

Terry Stotts got excellent two-way play from reserve wing Gary Trent Jr., who drilled four 3-pointers off the bench, and some massive shotmaking from Carmelo Anthony, who hit consecutive corner 3s late in the fourth quarter to nearly win it in regulation. A broken-play mini-miracle tip-in by Grizzlies rookie Brandon Clarke—21 points on eight shots and seven assists for the high-efficiency reserve—forced OT. But the Blazers opened the extra frame with 11 straight points to put the Grizz on the mat en route to sealing a crucial win.

The Grizzlies battled through some early defensive issues behind their electric core combo of Jaren Jackson Jr. (33 points, 6-for-15 shooting from 3) and Rookie of the Year-in-waiting Ja Morant, who struggled in the first half before coming to life in the third quarter and finishing with 22 points, 11 assists, and five rebounds in 41 minutes:

But Memphis’s season-long issues from distance once again reared their ugly head; non-JJJ Grizzlies shot just 7-for-26, 26.9 percent from 3-point range. And the Grizzlies’ bench, a strength all season long thanks to the contributions of Clarke and De’Anthony Melton, struggled in the absence of steady backup point guard Tyus Jones. Pressed into bigger roles, Josh Jackson and new arrival Anthony Tolliver sputtered, with the Grizzlies coughing up leads or watching deficits mount in their minutes. With Morant out of gas and Jackson’s shot suddenly awry, the lack of another shot creator doomed the Grizzlies in overtime, as they went just 3-for-12 from the floor while McCollum and Lillard sealed the deal.

Despite the loss, the Grizzlies remain in good shape to hold on to the no. 8 seed and the preferential status it would afford in a play-in scenario; they would have to win only one game, while the no. 9 challenger would need to beat them twice. Other postseason hopefuls will have a say in how this shakes out, too, with the Kings, Pelicans, Spurs, and Suns (who also won on Friday) all in pursuit. If we do wind up with the revamped Blazers and Grizzlies in a play-in, though, Portland will enter with a little bit more confidence—and we’ll enter knowing the next game (or two!) could be fun as all hell.

Zion Will Be Limited to Bursts for at Least Another Game or Two

Friday, July 31, 1:45 p.m. PT

Devine: After the Pelicans blew a 16-point lead to the Jazz in the first game of the NBA’s restart on Thursday, all everybody wanted to know was why in the world Zion Williamson—the rookie sensation who’d breathed life into the team’s playoff chase after his January debut, and who had returned from an excused absence from the bubble for a family emergency in time for the opener—spent the final seven minutes and 19 seconds of the game on the bench. At the Pelicans’ Friday practice, executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin emphasized that nothing had gone wrong with either his rookie star or the team’s intended plan of getting him ready for live action—but also made it clear that Williamson’s minutes will remain limited for the time being.

“He will not play significant minutes in the next game, and he might not in the following game, quite frankly,” he said.

Griffin said the Pelicans’ performance team entered the Disney campus environment with “a very clear plan laid out for every member” of the roster, aiming to carefully build each player up to full fitness by New Orleans’s first game. “Zion didn’t get that opportunity,” Griffin said. “Unfortunately, he’s 13 days removed from the group in terms of following that plan, after not playing basketball for what amounts to four months.”

The Pelicans went lighter in practice in the final days before the restart, and won’t have the opportunity to do additional five-on-five work between games. Which means Williamson is still working his way through the limited-minutes portion of that plan.

“I appreciate the fact that everybody wants 40 minutes tomorrow night. I can promise you he’s not going to,” said Griffin, who stressed that the same precautions would be taken for any player on the Pelicans roster had they missed such a significant stretch of time in the ramp-up phase. “No mistakes were made relative to how this was handled, other than by me in not coming forward and expressing this in the clearest way possible.”

If Williamson can’t play significant minutes, then the timing of the minutes he does play becomes even more critical. Griffin told reporters that New Orleans’s medical staff “has determined Zion should play his ‘bursts’ at the beginning of quarters, because that’s when he’s warm,” and potentially at lesser risk of injury or poor performance than if he’d sat down for a long stretch and then reentered the game cold. That’s how head coach Alvin Gentry deployed Zion on Thursday—three minutes to open the game, a 3.5-minute stretch at the start of the second quarter, four minutes after halftime, and a roughly five-minute “burst” to begin the fourth. The problem with that: It left no “bursts” in reserve for the late stages of the game, when a Pelicans team desperately in need of the sort of offensive pop Williamson can provide mustered just 11 points in the final 7:19, going a dismal 3-for-15 from the field as Utah wrested the game away.

In theory, shifting a couple of those “bursts” to the ends of the second and fourth quarters could make a major difference in the firepower New Orleans can bring to bear to close halves and games as it pursues a playoff berth. In practice, though, it sounds like the Pelicans remain intent on taking the long view on what it can build around Zion not only this year, but for the foreseeable future.

“I realize that that’s really detrimental to actually doing what we’re attempting to do, which is make the playoffs,” Griffin said. “But if we’re going to have him at full strength coming through these games, he’s got to go through this process. There is no alternative, and there wouldn’t be for any other player.”

“The big picture is we’re trying to win an NBA championship,” Gentry told reporters. “And to get to that particular situation, we’ve got to listen to experts.” Even when it really, really hurts to do it.

The Magic Are Hoping Two Key Returning Players Will Help Them Disappear From the Play-in Race

Friday, July 31, 11:52 a.m. PT

Devine: It doesn’t have the megawatt sizzle of Zion’s return or a Lakers-Clippers heavyweight fight, but Friday’s matinee game between the Nets and Magic does have noteworthy playoff implications. Orlando enters the restart a half-game behind Brooklyn for seventh place in the East—a spot Magic head coach Steve Clifford said he badly wants, since it would allow his team to avoid a potential play-in scenario (and, y’know, a first-round matchup with the Finals-favorite Bucks).

Clifford will get a couple of key pieces back in the fold on Friday to aid in that effort. Point guard Markelle Fultz, who was late to join his teammates on the Disney World campus due to a “personal issue unrelated to COVID-19,” is expected to play against Brooklyn. So, too, is Jonathan Isaac, who hasn’t seen live game action since suffering a severe left-knee injury on New Year’s Day that was expected to be season ending; that, however, was before an unanticipated four-month shutdown, which afforded him a chance to get back into form.

Neither player will log “significant” minutes, according to Clifford, as prescribed by the Magic’s athletic performance staff. But they’re both expected to get a bit more run than they did during Orlando’s final scrimmage against Denver. Isaac looked great in limited burn, popping for 13 points on 5-for-6 shooting with seven rebounds, two steals, and an assist in seven minutes of work in a 114-110 win. Fultz added five points and a pair of assists in nine minutes.

Fultz took a big step toward reclaiming his career in Orlando this season, earning a spot in Clifford’s starting lineup, posting career-best shooting numbers from 2-point range and the free throw line, and cementing himself as a vital creator and backcourt defender for the playoff-hopeful Magic. Getting Isaac back, though, is the real prize for the Magic. A fluid and versatile 6-foot-11 stopper, the third-year forward was garnering All-Defensive Team hype in the midst of a breakout season before his injury, guarding players all across the positional spectrum and routinely and rudely stuffing them into lockers:

Before his injury, Isaac was registering a blocked shot on 7.4 percent of Magic opponents’ 2-point shot attempts this season, and was snagging a steal on an additional 2.6 percent of their possessions. Only two other players to play 500 minutes this season were within hailing distance of that kind of havoc-wreaking: Defensive Player of the Year candidate Anthony Davis and key Oklahoma City reserve Nerlens Noel. Orlando gave up 4.8 fewer points per 100 possessions with Isaac on the court, according to Cleaning the Glass, posting a defensive rating just south of what the no. 3-ranked Lakers mustered over the course of the full season.

How big a difference the 22-year-old will be able to make after a nearly seven-month layoff remains to be seen. But Isaac can make one, and a Magic team with a chance to move up a spot in the playoff chase is getting him back at precisely the right time.

LeBron Closes Out Reopening Night

Thursday, July 30, 10:22 p.m. PT

Uggetti: On a night like this, in which LeBron James missed 13 of his 19 shots and didn’t reach 10 points until the second half, it seems fitting that he needed two tries at the game-winning shot. With less than 13 seconds left in the game, LeBron took and missed a running floater. Then, as if he knew exactly how it would bounce off the front of the rim, he chased the shot and put it back in one motion. A tense tied game became a two-point lead for the Lakers, and LeBron wasn’t done. On the ensuing possession, James shut down both of the Clippers’ stars: He took away the space Kawhi Leonard needed to manufacture his usual shot from the midrange, then switched onto Paul George and forced him to shoot a leaning, off-balance 3 that missed. While George pleaded for a foul after the buzzer, LeBron walked off the court like a worker who had just punched out, his job done.

For most of the night, LeBron played second fiddle to Anthony Davis, who left the Clippers’ bigs bewildered and scored 34 points. LeBron hummed along to Davis’s beat, facilitating and rebounding, and perhaps conserving energy. But when it came down to the wire, and Kawhi deferred to George, LeBron took control of the defensive assignment and the game to maneuver the Lakers toward a win.

The Lakers and Clippers can’t seem to play a boring game. Even after a monthslong layoff, the two best teams in the West engaged in another 48-minute bout in which each team took hits and delivered them. Sure, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Rajon Rondo, and Avery Bradley were all missing. A slew of fouls also made the game a slog for about three quarters, and the rust was evident (a combined 38 turnovers). But it was also obvious that despite this seeding game being largely meaningless for both teams, both wanted to win badly.

The competitiveness made you forget, at least for a second, that this game was being played inside a bubble, in an arena with no real fans. And it also made you wonder what kind of energy they would create in a playoff series. Deciding that matchup in the postseason and figuring out which team advances to the Finals is what this bubble was built for. And so I guess it was fitting, too, that LeBron—one of the loudest voices in support of the Orlando experiment—gave the bubble its opening fireworks.

The Clippers’ Big Man Carousel Keeps Turning and Turning

Thursday, July 30, 9:14 p.m. PT

Rob Mahoney: Part of the appeal of the Clippers’ rotation is how much it leaves to the imagination. Every player on the active roster could log vital minutes before the playoffs are said and done; they’re organized in the moment to support the most dangerous wing tandem in the league. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are pillars of the Clippers lineup. Everything else is up for discussion, beginning with a conveyor belt of bigs that gives Doc Rivers a variety of options in lieu of the perfect one.

Never is that more pertinent than in games against the Lakers, who make size a priority. Frank Vogel will play Anthony Davis at center at times, but more often has paired him in the frontcourt with a fellow giant. While old fashioned, that kind of lineup could force the Clippers to reconsider their priorities in real time. Take Thursday’s game. Due to foul trouble—the kind manifested by Davis flexing on mismatches—every active Clipper big saw the court in the first half alone. That total didn’t even include Montrezl Harrell, the most productive of the lot; in the (excused) absence of Harrell’s tireless hustle, the Clips toggled through their alternatives in the hopes of striking a balance between force and subtlety. There was the starter, Ivica Zubac, whose size mirrors Lakers center JaVale McGee; the people’s champion Joakim Noah, longer on savvy than applicable skill; a serviceable stretch big in JaMychal Green, who played many successful regular-season minutes alongside Harrell; and Patrick Patterson, whose court sense helped unlock the Clippers’ half-court offense in this particular game.

There is no one correct allotment of minutes for that group, which puts Rivers on the spot with every new matchup if not every new day. It’s like watching a game show contestant think out loud: ruling out possibilities, showing what they believe to be true, and confronting their own doubt. The very fact that Noah was added to the roster midseason suggests that the situation is malleable. Rivers reserves the right to mix and match, and to change his mind.

Weird Fan Cam Thing Not So Bad After All

Thursday, July 30, 7:40 p.m. PT

The Pelicans Prioritize the Long View, and Zion’s Health, Even If It Might Cost Them a Playoff Bid

Thursday, July 30, 6:58 p.m. PT

Uggetti: Zion sat brooding on the bench, towels over his shoulders. He had played 15 total minutes in short bursts and scored 13 easy points, but all he could do now was watch. More than four months after Rudy Gobert’s positive test for the coronavirus brought the league and the country to a halt, the Jazz center sunk a pair of game-clinching free throws on the other end of the court.

The Pelicans had one last chance to win it, but a Brandon Ingram 3-pointer rattled out at the buzzer, giving Utah a 106-104 win over the Pelicans in the first game of the NBA’s Orlando restart. And though it was somewhat poetic that Gobert scored the first points of the first game since the stoppage and the game-winning free throws, it was easy to imagine a different outcome had Zion played just a few minutes longer. The Pelicans did lead by as many as 16 at one point, after all. Instead, they’re now 0-1 in the seeding games and looking up in the standings at Sacramento, which now has a half-game lead on New Orleans.

Alvin Gentry said afterward that 15 minutes was all Zion was allowed to play Thursday night, which then begs a closer look at just how and when those 15 minutes were used. The Jazz had no one to defend Zion and it was obvious from the start. He bowled defenders over and was able to get to the rim repeatedly with such ease that it was like he was walking through his own front door. He took eight shots, made six of them, and even had this dazzling dime to Lonzo Ball:

It’s clear that despite being only 20 years old, Zion is the pendulum that could swing the Pelicans into the playoffs. Whatever is ailing him—be it an actual injury or just conditioning after leaving the bubble for family reasons last week—might be enough to keep the Pelicans’ stint in Orlando short. With just eight games to play in Orlando, New Orleans’s margin for error is slim, which is why Ingram’s miss at the buzzer and Zion’s absence in the closing minutes felt so important. These small moments could come back to bite them.

Then again, as exciting as a playoff berth would be, New Orleans is probably better off prioritizing the long view. A likely first-round loss to the Lakers isn’t worth jeopardizing their rookie superstar’s health. The Zion Project is a long-term endeavor that could determine not just the future of basketball in New Orleans, but also the league. You can’t spoil that for an eight-game sprint.

The NBA’s “New Game” Definitely Looks Different

Thursday, July 30, 5:46 p.m. PT

Uggetti: Have you ever wanted to hear an NBA player or coach yell “High low!” or “Ice!” from the comfort of your own couch? Well, the bubble viewing experience is here to provide just that.

With smaller arenas and no fans for the NBA’s Orlando restart, the league had to get creative when it came to broadcasting games. But even though they branded this restart as a “whole new game,” the league is trying to make it seem as close to the “old game” as possible.

To mitigate the lack of fans, the league put up black drapings, large screens, and scoreboards around the court to avoid showing empty seats, and there’s a PA announcer, some piped-in crowd noise, and home-team-specific game sounds and court logos. The one thing they can’t replicate is the ambient noise of thousands of people, whether they’re cheering, booing, or just being. That void has led to a concert of squeaking sneakers that makes it feel like we’re peering in on a basketball camp or AAU tournament. We also get to hear what players are saying on the court. Well, most of it.

In just one half of basketball, there were a handful of examples: Jordan Clarkson’s “Oh my God!” was heard loud and clear when his and-1 attempt rimmed out. A few minutes later, Clarkson got his and-1 and yelled out “And-1!” When Lonzo Ball attempted a layup and was blocked by Georges Niang before being called for a goaltend, Niang’s “No!” boomed in the arena. The broadcast feed is muting anything it deems offensive, and through one half of basketball, there were already plenty of awkward mutes.

Meanwhile, behind players grimacing, talking trash, and pumping fists are screens full of “virtual fans” for each team. Visually, it looks terrible, as if the NBA was taking place in an alternate reality from a Wii game. I can’t hate on it too much though, since it did bless us with this hilarious development: Even virtually, the Pelicans could not get enough fans to fill their seats:

All Four Teams Kneel During Reopening Night National Anthems

Thursday, July 30, 3:47 p.m. PT

Zion Is Back … in “Short Bursts”

Thursday, July 30, 3:08 p.m. PT

Justin Verrier: Zion hath mostly returned. The wunderkind will appear in the NBA’s reopening matchup between the Pelicans and Jazz, but will play only in “short bursts,” according to ESPN’s Malika Andrews. The approach will be similar to Williamson’s debut in January, per ESPN’s Andrew Lopez. In that game, Zion played the first few minutes of every quarter and only 18 minutes in total. He was slow to start but came alive in the fourth, surging for 17 points in just three minutes and all but confirming his superstar bona fides.

Williamson was away from the Pelicans, and out of the NBA’s bubble/campus/whatever in Orlando, for eight days to tend to a family emergency. He quarantined in Orlando for four days, and participated in two practices this week. Williamson told reporters this week that he did “some body workouts” while away from the bubble, “just to keep my muscles going.” But he understood the need to be cautious: “I think me and my team are gonna look at what’s best for me, my future, and being safe,” Williamson said. “If you know me, I wanna hoop. That’s just how I am; I’m never gonna change. I’m gonna want to hoop, simple as that.”

Zion has played in only 19 games this season because of injuries, but has already proved to be one of the NBA’s most electrifying players when he does play: He’s averaging 23.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.2 assists in 29.7 minutes a game. The Pelicans open bubbleball 3.5 games back of the Grizzlies for eighth in the West, with the Trail Blazers between them. But even though the Pels, and the NBA, hope Zion and Co. force their way into the playoffs, or at least the play-in portion, the franchise is still keeping the bigger picture in mind.