ORLANDO, Fla. -- The evidence is compelling if not overwhelming. There are floor burns, primal screams, busy scoreboards, tense fourth quarters and photo finishes. And if fans were allowed inside the arenas here on the Disney campus, there’d be plenty of authentic noise and standing ovations, too.
Thursday marks one full week since the NBA reopened for business, and given the high quality of play and intensity and performances, it’s hard to believe the players were off for 4 1/2 months.
This was a realistic concern heading into the restart. During the season hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic, players couldn’t maintain NBA shape, lacked access to sufficient training centers and because of social distancing were unable to scrimmage when those centers opened. Everything shut down so abruptly. All things considered, it was the longest halftime in NBA history.
So the fears were legit. Yet, who can tell? Plenty of games at Disney have been suspenseful and some dramatic, all peppered by big moments and some individual shine. And the league is still in the seeded portion of the revamped schedule, the equivalent of playing out the dog days of a typical early April.
This sneak peek only bodes well for the playoffs when they begin Aug. 17 and the psyche of teams who wondered if there was enough time to prepare for that intensity, and also fans who questioned whether the layoff might cause the entertainment level to dip. One week into this bold experiment, the NBA has looked better than all reasonable expectations, not only off the court -- no positive tests for COVID-19 among 343 players for a third week -- but especially on it.
“I definitely expected guys on every team to be competitive,” said Rockets forward PJ Tucker. “All the games have been close for the most part, very few blowouts, guys are coming out to compete every night. I think once the game gets taken from you like that, everybody’s just so thankful and excited to get back here. So the transition’s been good. It’s a good quality product right now for regular-season games, for the players and the fans.”
On re-opening night, the only two games on the schedule were both decided by two points. Of the 37 games played the over next six nights, only seven were what you’d classify as lemons.
Devin Booker dropped the Clippers on a buzzer-beater. The Rockets outlasted the Mavericks 153-149 in overtime. Multiple games were decided in the final minute and several others in the final seconds. What’s unique is that, with the exception of the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, there isn’t anything up for grabs. The Lakers have already clinched best record in the West and the Bucks are on the verge of doing so in the East. Aside from some minor shuffling in the playoff order, there’s little at stake ... and yet the intensity seems playoff-ready.
As Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said after his team, which is virtually assured of staying as the No. 7 seed in the West, took a 114-110 overtime win over the Kings:
“Our collective will to win the game was the strongest I’ve seen all year.”
This wasn’t an exception -- the rule in Orlando is quality basketball and players who aren’t rusty, but restless, and it shows.
TJ Warren, who was virtually given away by the Suns last summer, is carrying a Pacers team that’s without Domantas Sabonis and getting mixed results from a still-healing Victor Oladipo. Including a 53-point game, he’s had three straight games of 30 or more points.
Doncic owns the most robust triple-double of the restart with 34 points, 20 rebounds and 12 assists in a victory over Sacramento.
Fred VanVleet managed a career-high 36 points against Miami and his steal sealed the victory. VanVleet is an unrestricted free agent this fall and his asking price is soaring.
Michael Porter Jr., who two years ago dropped to the Nuggets at No. 14 on Draft day because of worries about his surgically-repaired back, had 37 points and 12 rebounds against Oklahoma City. Then he followed up with 30 against the Spurs.
I definitely expected guys on every team to be competitive ...It’s a good quality product right now for regular-season games, for the players and the fans.”
Gary Trent Jr. averaged 7.7 ppg before the season was suspended, but is now a fixture in the Blazers’ three-guard rotation. He's had impressive showings in Orlando, averaging 18 ppg and 31.8 minutes per game through three seeding games.
Speaking of the Blazers, Carmelo Anthony has answered the last-minute call in a pair of games. Not only did he make big shots, but the Blazers were respectful enough to give him the ball in those situations.
Houston's Danuel House Jr. is averaging 17.7 ppg in Orlando and shooting 46.7% on 3-pointers as his role has expanded for the small-ball Rockets.
Defense is perhaps the only vivid flaw as only five games saw teams held under 100 points. The consensus among coaches is players simply aren’t sharp on that end of the floor yet. That said, there’s a strong hunch that defense will make a return once the playoffs start (and rotations tighten and the floor shrinks).
“I thought there’d be a chance that it would be sloppier than it has been,” said Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni. “But I guess it shows the urgency. You don’t have eight continuous months to get yourself in playoff shape. You’re kinda pushed to the limit and guys have responded great.
“I do think we’re in a bit of a trough where you’ll start to see some tired legs but it’ll ramp back up pretty soon. I think when you take into account the time they missed, this shows that we have the best athletes in the world, period, and that what they do is amazing. There’s no one else like them.”
The upcoming week is likely to see a shift in strategy as coaches begin resting their important players. The Bucks have already done this with Giannis Antetokounmpo, holding him out of the fourth quarter of their three-point loss to the Nets. The Lakers will eventually do the same with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and after preventing him from playing back-to-back games all season, the Clippers could put Kawhi Leonard on ice for the last few seeding games.
The only restart setbacks are knee injuries that sacked the season for Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jonathan Isaac. Since one week is hardly a large enough sample size, the jury is still out on the injury front and if the extended time off will claim a share of victims.
This first week is merely a single step in a basketball journey that’ll stretch to The Finals in October. But the solid results so far could qualify as a hint, and if so, the NBA is clearly winning.
The careful and meticulous planning over the past few months by the NBA office set a high bar that the players are now reaching. The product and the execution, therefore, are combining to craft the best-case scenario at Disney.
This isn’t basketball business as usual or even normal -- far from it. The NBA and its players are just trying to make it seem that way.
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