The countdown to conclusion of the NBA’s restart scrimmage games continues to tick down, with six games Tuesday closing out the exhibition schedule.
The real action tips off just two days later with the seeding games, starting with a TNT doubleheader featuring Utah against New Orleans at 6:30 p.m. ET, followed by a battle between the Clippers and Lakers at 9 p.m. ET.
Let’s take a look back at six teams who were playing well before the season was suspended.
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1. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers were on a tear before the NBA put the 2019-20 season on hiatus on Mar. 11. Going back to February 10, the Lakers rolled to a 10-2 record over their last 12 outings before the league’s hiatus.
The Lakers will begin seeding games ranked in the top five in offensive rating (113.0) and defensive rating (105.6). Given all the postseason experience on the roster, you can expect Los Angeles to kick up its game a few notches. Over his career, Anthony Davis averages 24 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. But in 13 playoff outings, Davis averaged 30.5 ppg and 12.7 rpg. Veteran Rajon Rondo has averaged 10.2 ppg, 8.3 apg and 1.7 steals per game in his career, but those numbers go up to 10.3 rpg and 12.2 apg. A right thumb fracture will keep him out of the team’s eight seeding games, but Lakers coach Frank Vogel expects the veteran to be back at some point during the playoffs. Rondo has averaged 10 assists or more in the postseason with three different teams (Boston, Chicago and New Orleans). And we haven’t even discussed the potential impact of players such as Howard, Danny Green and Kyle Kuzma.
2. Toronto Raptors
Don’t sleep on the defending champions. When the NBA suspended the season, Toronto was riding the league’s longest winning streak (four games). Raptors coach Nick Nurse has said he’s been surprised that his team operates as if it feels none of the pressure that he expected it to shoulder after winning a title last season. That means Toronto is focused.
The No. 2 team in the East, Toronto lost two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard to the LA Clippers in free agency. But the Raptors didn’t fall off defensively, and enter Orlando No. 2 in defensive rating (105.2). After losing Leonard’s production on offense, Toronto stepped it up across the board. That charge has been led by Pascal Siakam, who increased his scoring and rebounding averages to 23.6 ppg and 7.5 rpg, respectively, after posting 16.9 ppg and 6.9 rpg in 2018-19. Kyle Lowry raised his scoring average to 19.7 ppg (from 14.2 ppg last season), while Fred VanVleet went from 11.0 ppg and 4.8 apg last season to 17.7 and 6.6 this season. Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka also lifted up their scoring averages.
3. LA Clippers
Fourteen postseason appearances, and no championships, the Clippers are hungry to stake a claim for supremacy in Los Angeles. The neutral environment the Orlando campus provides would wipe away any potential Lakers advantage in a head-to-head series. It’s unlikely the Clippers were worried about that anyway.
After dropping three in a row from Feb. 11-22, the Clippers rolled to victories in seven of their next eight before the season went on hiatus. Led by Leonard, who has already captured championships with two different teams, the Clippers come into Orlando ranked fourth in scoring (116.2), third in offensive rating (113.6) and fourth in defensive rating (107.2). Chemistry was once an issue, mostly because the entire team rarely practiced together due to injuries and load management, but every team could be dealing with that during the restart.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
Sitting back at fifth in the West, the eight seeding games provide a perfect opportunity for Oklahoma City to move up in the standings. The Thunder are a game behind the Utah Jazz for the No. 4 seed, and a 1 1/2 games behind the Denver Nuggets for the third seed. Oklahoma City restarts the season with some momentum, too, having captured wins in eight of its last 10 games before the hiatus. The Thunder suffered back-to-back blowout losses to Milwaukee and the LA Clippers during that stretch, which is somewhat concerning. But the strong veteran leadership of point guard Chris Paul, combined with the youthful athleticism of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kia Sixth Man of the Year candidate Dennis Schroder makes OKC dangerous.
As NBA.com colleague John Schuhmann points out, only Milwaukee (38-9) and the Lakers (33-12) own better records than Oklahoma City since Thanksgiving. Paul leads the league in clutch scoring, and the Thunder have demonstrated a knack for coming out on top in close games, which could prove beneficial at a neutral site.
5. Miami Heat
Arguably the most surprising team of the Eastern Conference playoff field, Miami suffered a rough stretch over 21 days in February that made you wonder whether the Heat were the real deal. Miami dropped seven of nine games from Feb. 5-26, before bouncing back to win five of the next seven going into the hiatus. During that stretch, the Heat stunned a dominant Bucks squad at home, holding reigning Kia MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to just 13 points.
Miami heads into the seeding games with an undefeated record (4-0) against Toronto and Milwaukee, the top two seeds in the East. However, the Heat are winless (0-2) against third-seeded Boston. The trade deadline brought in a strong veteran presence in Andre Iguodala to an already loaded roster featuring All-Star (and leader) Jimmy Butler, All-Star forward Bam Adebayo and fellow youngsters Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson.
6. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers won six of their last eight going into the hiatus, and along the way saw T.J. Warren and Domantas Sabonis put together breakout seasons. A first-time All-Star this season, Sabonis left the NBA campus to receive treatment for plantar fasciitis in his left foot, leaving uncertainty about his availability.
Warren and Sabonis led the Pacers in scoring, and while Victor Oladipo has participated in Indiana’s scrimmage games and workouts in Orlando, he hasn’t yet decided whether he’ll play once the seeding games commence. In his last outing before the hiatus, Oladipo poured in a season-high 27 points in a loss to Boston. So we definitely saw signs that Oladipo could be returning to the form that made him a two-time All-Star.
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