We've passed the one-week mark of the NBA restart and, knock on wood, the bubble plan has gone off without any major disruptions. The fake crowd noise sometimes gets too loud and the virtual fans are kind of creepy, but overall it's hard to complain about the presentation, so far, or the product on the court.
The players look mostly in shape, which has led to some intense, well-played games (along with the occasional dud), and the race for the No. 8 seed in the West is as exciting as we hoped it would be. It's hard to believe, but the seeding games will come to an end next Friday, so the playoffs are just around the corner. Let's take stock of the first week of resurrected NBA competition and figure out eight things we've learned.
1. Lakers have some work to do
The No. 1 seed is locked up, but nobody associated with the Lakers is satisfied with the team's first few bubble games. LeBron James hasn't been able to find the scoring touch thus far, averaging a substandard 19.3 points per game on 27 percent 3-point shooting in four games, as the Lakers have sputtered to a league-worst (by far) 95.7 offensive rating and a 2-3 record. Anthony Davis was spectacular in the team's two wins putting up 34 points on 16-17 free throws against the Clippers and going for 42 points and 12 rebounds against the Jazz. But he's struggled in the team's losses, particularly with his aggressiveness. He took 19 shots against the Clippers and 28 against the Jazz, but has taken only 26 total shots in the three losses.
With LeBron sitting against the Rockets on Thursday, Davis had a chance to dominate offensively against an undersized defense, but only had one more shot attempt (eight) than turnovers (seven) in 30 minutes. This supports the numbers indicating that the Lakers simply can't score without LeBron on the court -- they score over four fewer points per 100 possessions with Davis on the court without LeBron.
The Lakers are acclimating new pieces in Dion Waiters and JR Smith, plus dealing with the absence of Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo, but as our James Herbert recently pointed out, . They've struggled to create offense in the halfcourt all season long, and it makes you wonder whether their sparkling defense and star power can overcome those deficiencies when it matters most. The good news for the Lakers is there is still a week left to get things headed in the right direction.
2. For the 1,000th time: Yes, the Raptors are for real
Embarking on the final chapter of the longest title defense (or should I say defence?) in NBA history, the Toronto Raptors have once again proved that they are a legitimate threat to repeat, racing out to a 3-0 bubble start with wins over the Lakers, Heat and Magic. We wondered what a fully healthy Toronto attack would look like, and so far the answer is ... terrifying. Their plethora of long, strong, smart defenders has led to a bubble-best 96.1 defensive rating thus far, and notably stymied both LeBron James (20 points, five assists, four turnovers) and Anthony Davis (14 points on 2-for-7 shooting) in a signature win to open up their bubble schedule.
There will still be doubters about Toronto's championship chances due to their lack of a true superstar, but Kyle Lowry certainly proved in the win over the Lakers that he's capable of being the best player on the floor on any given night. While we're seeing good teams struggle to find their footing in Orlando, the Raptors look refreshed, confident and dangerous.
3. Rockets' small-ball defense works ... but it's exhausting
The Houston Rockets are 3-1 in the bubble, with impressive wins over the Mavericks, Bucks and Lakers -- but the way in which they've won has been most interesting. Everyone understands that Houston's shoot-until-your-arms-fall-off offensive raison d'etre will allow them to get hot on any given night, as they did in a ridiculous 153-point overtime outburst against the Mavericks on reopening night. However, in their other two wins, the Rockets have gotten defensive, showing that their lineups that lack a true center or anyone over 6-8 can still be tenaciously stingy.
Take a look at this sequence from crunch time in the middle of a late comeback against the Bucks. First, PJ Tucker is essentially immovable in the post despite giving up seven inches and about 40 pounds to Brook Lopez. After an offensive rebound, Russell Westbrook double-teams Giannis Antetokounmpo from the blindside while the pass is still in the air, deflecting the ball while nearly picking up a steal as the shot clock winds down. After another offensive rebound, three players swarm Marvin Williams into almost another turnover, before Lopez collects the ball and is stripped clean by Tucker. The play ends with a Khris Middleton 3-pointer, but these kinds of multiple, engaged defensive efforts will yield positive results more often than not.
They also forced Anthony Davis into seven turnovers in Thursday's win over the Lakers by swarming the ball and taking away passing lanes.
Discounting the overtime shootout with the Mavericks, the Rockets have a 102.9 defensive rating in the bubble so far, on par with the Bucks' league-leading defensive rating of 102.1. Since trading away Clint Capela on Feb. 6 (remember that?) and embracing small-ball, the Rockets have the league's third-best fourth-quarter defensive rating at 102.2.
So it's not really a question of whether the Rockets can play defense, it's more of how long they can keep it up. With the amount of energy they'll need to expend on that end, particularly given the number of offensive rebounds they'll inevitably give up, it will be fascinating to see how they hold up over the course of a playoff series. So far, it looks like the four-plus months of rest have served them well.
"We have a strange team, where James [Harden] is really good at guarding posts. So is Eric Gordon. Everybody we have can guard the post," D'Antoni said in late February. "We rebound just as well with the little guys, so it's weird -- it's a weird team. It helps Russell [Westbrook] on offense, it helps James. So offensively we're better and should be -- theoretically -- we should be better defensively."
4. Bubble surprises
There have been a few not-so-well-known players who really seem to have put in the work over the long break, wowing the league with their impressive performances thus far.
A born bucket-getter, Warren scored 20 points in a half four times in his first three games, including a bubble-high 53-point outburst in a win over the 76ers. He's helped the Pacers to a 3-1 start with Domantas Sabonis and Jeremy Lamb out and with Victor Oladipo missing one game.
Porter Jr. was Nuggets extremely short-handed, Porter Jr. has become the team's go-to scorer while also providing energy and rebounding. He struggled to find a consistent role as a rookie, so it will be interesting to see how Mike Malone deploys him in the playoffs after his torrid beginning to the restart.before an injury sidelined him in early February, and he's taken things to a different level in the bubble. With the
The Blazers were thin on the wing all season, only exacerbated when Trevor Ariza opted out of the bubble, but Trent has seized the opportunity. Not only is he shooting the lights out by making 22-of-35 3-pointers (63 percent!) so far in the bubble, but he's also taken the assignment of guarding some of the opponents' best perimeter players while he's on the court. In 74 bubble minutes with Trent alongside Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, the Blazers have outscored opponents by 19.3 points per 100 possessions, with a laughable 131.7 offensive rating.
The Wizards may not be winning, but Bryant has definitely been worth watching. The 23-year-old center always brings energy, but he's turned that into production with more offensive responsibility without Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans. The stretch-five has made 8-of-18 3-pointers in the Wizards' four bubble games.
If your uncle Derek is complaining about the refs calling more fouls in the bubble, he's actually not crazy. NBA teams averaged 20.6 fouls per game this season before the hiatus, and in the bubble that's up to 24.3 -- a huge increase of nearly four fouls per team, or eight extra whistles per game. The Hawks led the pre-bubble world with 23.1 fouls per game, and now all but three teams have averaged more than that in the bubble, with the Grizzlies leading the way with 28.3 per game.
One theory is that players aren't yet in game shape so they're failing to get in proper defensive position or getting lazy with their technique, leading to more fouls. Another more interesting theory is that the absence of crowd noise allows the officials to hear contact more clearly -- whether it's a slap of the arm or one body slamming into another away from the ball. They can also hear complaints from players and coaches, which may or may not have led to some technical fouls for outbursts that may or may not have gone unnoticed in a packed house.
6. Blazers look playoff-bound
Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins have injected life (and size) into the Blazers lineup, and Damian Lillard is as frightening as ever for opposing defenses -- yep, the Blazers look really good. I wrote during the hiatus how , and that's exactly what's happening (give me compliments!). They've started off 3-1 in the bubble and now trail the flailing Grizzlies by just half of a game for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.
Lillard is averaging an absurd 31.3 points and 11.3 assists per game on 44 percent 3-point shooting, while CJ McCollum is steady at 20.8 points, six rebounds and 5.3 assists on 46 percent 3-point shooting. Carmelo Anthony has also going 8-for-16 from 3 in the Blazers' first four games in the bubble. Nurkic's return has been nothing short of spectacular, with averages of 22 points, 11 rebounds, 4.3 assists and three blocks in 32.3 minutes per game after not playing in an NBA game for nearly 18 months -- and that's not to mention the emotional lift he's given the team with his energy and vocal leadership.
Portland has looked like the most dangerous non-playoff team in the bubble thus far, and they will definitely make the Lakers work in the first round should they make it.
7. The Suns are fun again!
The date was Nov. 4, 2019. The NBA season had just gotten underway and the Phoenix Suns were the talk of the basketball universe after racing out to a 5-2 record with the league's third-best net rating and Monty Williams garnering Coach of the Year buzz. Suffice it to say things went downhill from there, but a funny thing happened when the Suns arrived in the bubble.
Maybe they just like the start of things, but Phoenix is once again off to the third-best net rating in the NBA after becoming the only 4-0 team in the bubble with a win over the Pacers on Thursday. The catalyst for the Suns' hot start to the season and their hot start in the bubble is the same: defense. Phoenix's defensive rating is fourth in the league since the restart, allowing 106 points per 100 possessions.
Devin Booker has been brilliant in the bubble, averaging 28 points and 6.5 assists on 40 percent 3-point shooting, and hit one of the most cold-blooded game-winners we've seen in a long time over perhaps the two best wing defenders in the NBA -- Paul George and Kawhi Leonard -- to beat the Clippers.
Deandre Ayton has been great as well, averaging 18.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks, while making the first three 3-pointers of his career in Orlando. They've also received big contributions from the Cam Connection -- Cameron Johnson and Cameron Payne -- who have combined for 24.8 points per game.
Some questioned why the Suns were even invited to the restart, and now they find themselves in the 10th spot in the Western Conference, just two games back of the No. 8 Grizzlies.
8. Grizzlies and Pelicans have a long road ahead
Coinciding with the ascent of the Suns and Blazers is the descent of the Grizzlies and Pelicans, who have combined to go 1-7 in the bubble thus far. Many thought the play-in series would eventually involve these two teams, but it doesn't look like things will shake out that way, particularly with Zion Williamson's conditioning-related minute restrictions and a season-ending injury to Jaren Jackson Jr. New Orleans has the more favorable schedule of the two, but will have to move past at least three of the Spurs, Suns, Blazers and Grizzlies to get into the play-in game. Memphis, on the other hand, will have to hang onto its two-game lead over the No. 10 Suns in order to stay in at least the No. 9 spot.
It's not impossible for either team, but their work is cut out for them.