Uncertainty teemed when the NBA announced plans to resume the season, only to be met with resounding success and gripping storylines, as we finally round the bend approaching the start to the postseason.
This list certainly isn’t all-encompassing. We’ve all gleefully gawked at plenty of great moments at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in the Walt Disney World resort.
Still, here’s an attempt to capture 10 of the biggest surprises we’ve seen so far from the bubble:
1. Damian Lillard. There are multiple surprises rolled up in this one. There’s Lillard’s reaction to comments and taunts from Paul George and Patrick Beverley, after falling short in an Aug. 8 loss to the L.A. Clippers. Lillard missed a pair of free throws with Portland trailing by only one point with 18 seconds left to play, and then fired an off-target potential game-tying 3-pointer.
From the bench, Beverley laughed and taunted Lillard, before taking to social media along with Paul George to rub it in deeper
Lillard responded the next day by dropping 51 points for the first time since Feb. 1 to go with seven assists in a win over Philadelphia, only to top that Tuesday by pouring in a career-high-tying 61 points and eight assists during a 134-131 win over the Dallas Mavericks that moved Portland into eighth in the Western Conference standings.
The performance marked Lillard’s third game this season in which he racked up 60 points or more, placing him in the elite company of Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history to put together three games or more with 60 points or more in one season.
To seal the deal and Portland’s play-in spot, the five-time All-Star poured in 42 points and 12 assists in the Blazers’ 134-133 win over Brooklyn. The performance included another 3-pointer from near halfcourt, part of Portland’s fourth-quarter rally to clinch a shot at the postseason.
“I told you, when I first came here, I said I didn’t come here to waste my time,” Lillard told TNT sideline reporter Chris Haynes after the game. “They gave us a chance to get in like we asked for. That’s what we’re here to do. The job still ain’t done. But I said, ‘you know what I’m here for.’”
Sneakerheads and Lillard fans everywhere received yet another surprise Wednesday when Adidas discounted all of the Portland star’s signature shoes to $61 to commemorate the 61-point performance. Those kicks normally retail in the $100 range.
2. The shining Phoenix Suns. Sometimes, it’s good to be wrong. Right before the NBA restart, Suns beat writer Duane Rankin from the Arizona Republic hit up a bunch of national reporters to get a feel for what we thought of Phoenix’s postseason prospects.
Here’s part of what I told him: “I’m not expecting much because they haven’t spent enough time together in the bubble to go into the actual restart with any real sense of cohesion.”
Wrong, but that’s certainly no surprise. The surprise is just how well they’ve played, demolishing a shorthanded Mavericks team on Thursday to finish 8-0 in the seeding games. The shocking stretch wasn’t enough to earn a Western Conference play-in spot, but it more than hints at better times to come.
We’ve always known Devin Booker to be a star, but he’s improved even more as a scorer, facilitator, playmaker and clutch performer, and he’s taken steps defensively as well. Add that to the strides we’re seeing from Deandre Ayton inside, and out on the wings with Cameron Johnson and Mikal Bridges, and it appears we’ll be talking about these Suns as a legitimate playoff contender for years to come. It’s clear Monty Williams, with his quick-decision system, and teaching approach is the right coach to lead the Suns into a ridiculously bright future.
3. Keeping it real goes right for the San Antonio Spurs: The organization painted a clear picture from the beginning, given its long odds of actually advancing to the postseason for what would have been an NBA-record 23rd consecutive year. Missing three starters in Bryn Forbes (quadriceps), Trey Lyles (appendectomy) and second-leading scorer LaMarcus Aldridge (shoulder), the Spurs entered the NBA bubble looking to develop its young players while advancing causes for social justice and racial equality.
Then, a weird thing happened. They won.
Asked how he would’ve reacted to being told last month that his young, developmental players would go into the final seeding game with a real chance to make the postseason, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich quipped: “I would’ve had them drug tested.”
That’s how well San Antonio’s youngsters have performed, led by 20-year-old rookie Keldon Johnson, as well as Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, and Dejounte Murray with veteran DeMar DeRozan holding everything together. In fact, Popovich even sat down Patty Mills, a veteran leader and the longest-tenured player on the team, because he wants to preserve the guard for next season.
“We had the three starters out, but we decided to sit Patty and part of that is you have to be realistic,” Popovich explained before Tuesday’s 123-105 over the Houston Rockets. “I don’t think our chances at winning a championship were great at the beginning of this, nor are they now. If that’s a fact, then you need to do everything you can to develop and be prepared for next season. With three starters out, sitting Patty made sense, and the development has been off the charts. We’re thrilled with it. It’s a win-win, no matter what. We’ve already accomplished what we thought we were capable of accomplishing, and that’s what’s important. If we got in now, it’d be icing on the cake.”
Unfortunately for the Spurs, it didn’t play out that way, as wins Thursday by Phoenix and Memphis extinguished those hopes before they even hit the court to face the Utah Jazz in what would turn out to be their final game of the year.
4. Jacque Vaughn and the Brooklyn Nets: At one point, you half-wondered whether Brooklyn would have enough healthy bodies to even play games in Orlando. Missing stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving as well as Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince, Wilson Chandler and rookie Nic Claxton due to either injuries or COVID-19, the Nets managed to lock up the seventh seed, knocking off Milwaukee and the L.A. Clippers along the way.
Shoot, the Nets even signed Michael Beasley as a replacement player, but he left the NBA bubble after testing positive for coronavirus.
So, the team Brooklyn took to Walt Disney World looked quite a bit different than the one Vaughn inherited back in March when he took over as interim head coach for Kenny Atkinson.
“As far as preparation going into the bubble, it’s two-pronged a little bit,” Vaughn explained. “I think the first part of it was, as a coaching staff, we wanted to give the guys something they could hold on to, something that looked a little different, something that you could press the refresh button on and something new would come on the page. So there was a beginning project that started that looks different than now just because as things developed we didn’t have the team that we assumed we were gonna have, and got to a position where we regrouped as a staff and said, ‘Well, how can we put these guys in the best position to succeed with the personnel?’ So, knowing some of the guys that we had whether that was Caris [LeVert], JA (Justin Anderson), Joe [Harris], TLC (Timothe Luwau-Cabarrot), Jarrett [Allen], some of those guys that we knew were going to be with us, to the guys that were integrated into the group later on, we really streamlined things, and really allowed players to play with confidence.”
Since taking over the Nets, Vaughn owns a record of 7-2 going into their final game in the bubble, and is reportedly under serious consideration for the job on a full-time basis, along with a host of other candidates.
From this vantage point, Vaughn has earned the job under extremely extenuating circumstances.
It’s time to lift that “interim” tag.
5. Beale Street blues. The Memphis Grizzlies entered the NBA bubble confident, with a 3 1/2 -game lead for the eighth spot in the West. Two weeks later, they’re out. We didn’t see that coming. Memphis dropped its first four seeding games, including the first three to teams chasing the Grizzlies for that last spot, on the way to a 2-6 restart record. The situation was only confounded on Aug. 4 when Memphis lost Jaren Jackson Jr. for the season due to a torn left meniscus.
Still, Memphis fought its way to a spot in the play-in game with Thursday’s win over the Milwaukee Bucks, which hit the court without reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, as he was suspended.
6. Pelicans struggle in the bubble. Like the Grizzlies, New Orleans entered the bubble as one of the favorites to seize the eighth seed given its young, talented roster and a healthy rookie star in Zion Williamson. New Orleans finished the first half of the seeding games at 1-3, and by Sunday, the Pels had been officially eliminated from the playoffs after a loss to the Spurs coupled with Portland’s win over the 76ers. The very next day, the team ruled out Williamson, Jrue Holiday and Williamson for Tuesday’s 112-106 loss to Sacramento for what coach Alvin Gentry called “precautionary” reasons.
Playing Williamson more during the restart probably could’ve helped. But the Pels made the right move to limit his minutes. No need to jeopardize Williamson’s bright NBA future for what likely would’ve been an early postseason exit anyway.
7. The defending champions are still the defending champions. So maybe it’s not really that much of a surprise that Toronto picked up right where it left off when the NBA season resumed. When COVID-19 shut down the league in March, the Raptors were on a four-game winning streak. They followed that up by winning their first three games of the NBA restart, including two quality wins over contenders in the Lakers and the Heat.
Going into Wednesday’s win over Philadelphia, the Raptors owned the top defensive rating of all the teams in the bubble, giving up 99.5 points per 100 possessions.
If there’s any surprise regarding the Raptors, it’s the fact they haven’t missed a beat since the departure of two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.
8. @NBABubbleLife. Shout out to Travonne Edwards, Nick DePaula, Drew Ruiz and Wells Phillips for creating the Twitter account that we’re all following. It’s already got more than 130,000 followers. These guys set out create a fun, yet positive experience by aggregating the social media feeds of the players inside the NBA bubble, and they pulled it off flawlessly. Every day you can catch somebody out there doing something different, whether it’s Carmelo Anthony receiving the game ball after moving into 15th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, Kristaps Porzingis taking a nap, or Kyle Kuzma taking a tee shot.
9. Were the Lakers playing possum? They own the top seed in the West, but the Lakers finished with a 3-5 record in the NBA bubble. They’ve definitely faced tough competition, with their first two games coming against the Clippers and the Raptors. But you have to wonder whether the Lakers are just taking it easy, having already locked up the top spot by Aug. 3 with a win over the Utah Jazz. Then, you wonder whether the Lakers can simply just turn it back on when the stakes are highest in the playoffs. Sure, they’re a veteran group with plenty of big-game experience. But going into their win Monday over the Denver Nuggets, the Lakers ranked last in field goal percentage (41.1). After the game, LeBron James was asked whether his team is ready for the postseason.
“I don’t think our team is there, but we will be,” James said. “There’s a different mindset that you have to be in, but you don’t want to jump into it until you actually get there because it takes a lot of energy, a lot of effort. Once we know who we’re playing, then you start to lock in on your opponent. But you build good habits along the way. We have the habits. If the playoffs started tomorrow, we would be ready for them. But as far as the mental side, you can’t really lock into your opponent until you know your opponent. There’s another level to playoff basketball. But we’ve worked our habits throughout the whole season, and we’re prepared ourselves for the playoffs. We’ll be ready for it when it comes.”
We’ll see. The Lakers surrendered the most points (136) since Jan. 20 in a loss to the Kings on Thursday to close out the regular season.
10. The bubble is working. Don’t get it twisted. Before teams departed to Orlando for the NBA’s restart, a couple of team executives and players quietly expressed skepticism about the potential effectiveness of the league’s bubble environment. So, it comes as a pleasant surprise for many to see the league pull off such an undertaking with so few hiccups.
The NBA announced on Wednesday that of the 342 players tested for COVID-19 on its campus since testing results were last announced on Aug. 5, zero came back positive. With the league gearing up to allow family members and close friends inside the bubble by the end of the month, the challenge of keeping everyone safe becomes more daunting.
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