September 23, 2021

Early returns say so far, so good for NBA bubble

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So far, so good. The NBA’s bubble remains intact.

The extraordinary health protocols put into place to try and save this season seem to be working. The mission shared by coaches and players to use their platform and continue the conversation about racial injustice is off to a strong start.

Through four days, here are just some of what has happened at Walt Disney World: LeBron James had a gamewinner for the Los Angeles Lakers; TJ Warren put his name all over the Indiana record book with a 53-point outburst; Houston and Dallas combined for more than 300 points in a game; defending champions the Toronto Raptors came out flying and Joel Embiid had a 41-point, 21-rebound night – in a loss.

LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots the ball to take the lead against the LA Clippers on July 30, 2020 at The Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. 0:22
LeBron James scored the game-winner for the Los Angeles Lakers with this great follow up against the LA Clippers

And don’t forget the symmetry: Rudy Gobert was the first player to test positive for coronavirus, so naturally, it made sense that the Utah center was the first player to score when the pandemic shutdown was officially over.

If that wasn’t enough, the quality of play is so good that it is almost like the NBA hadn’t stopped playing for four-and-a-half months. Shooting percentages and scoring averages, through the first four days anyway, are basically right where they were when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11.

And there has been tons of down-to-the-wire drama, with eight of the 19 games played through Sunday decided by five points or less.

“In all honestly, it is better than I was expecting… talking about all the teams in general,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “Everybody is much crisper. They look more in rhythm than I ever expected teams would be. Whether it is the best team with the highest seed or other people like us who are just trying to get into the playoffs, everybody is a lot sharper than I would have expected.”

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Rudy Gay #22 of the San Antonio Spurs handles the ball during a game against the Memphis Grizzlies on August 2, 2020 at Visa Athletic Center at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. 2:14
Highlights of the San Antonio Spurs’ game against the Memphis Grizzlies at the Visa Athletic Center in Orlando

If the season had ended on Sunday night, Popovich and the Spurs – whose playoff chances were in serious trouble when the season was stopped – would be in a play-in series for a chance at the No 8 spot in the Western Conference. And in the Eastern Conference, there would be a first-round rematch from a year ago with the Raptors taking on the Orlando Magic; they are both on five-game winning streaks and the Magic are on the best scoring roll in the history of their franchise.

For as much as has been made about the difficulties of being in a bubble and away from families, friends and freedom of movement, it turns out there might be some advantages to this thing.

“Seriously, it is a great stage to play,” Houston coach Mike DAntoni said. “There are not a lot of distractions. It is the same court every night, so you get your shooting depth perception and all of that. It is pure basketball. So, you see some of the talents these guys have are coming out.”

The numbers inside the bubble are ridiculous.

Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks drives to the basket during the game against the Boston Celtics 1:16
Giannis Antetokounmpo dropped 36 points with 15 rebounds and seven assists in the Bucks’ win over the Celtics

Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP and probable winner of the award again this year, had 36 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists for Milwaukee in the Bucks’ first real game in the bubble. How did he follow that up? Try 36 points again, 18 rebounds and eight assists in the Bucks loss to Houston on Sunday night.

Portland’s Damian Lillard had 30 points and 16 assists in a loss to Boston on Sunday. Kyle Lowry had 33 points and 14 rebounds in Toronto’s win over the Lakers. Dallas’ Luka Doncic is averaging a triple-double in his two bubble games. The Rockets beat the Mavs 153-149 in overtime Friday and then tried 61 three-pointers to tie an NBA regulation-game record on Sunday night.

On top of all that, there is the messaging. Black Lives Matter on the court, Black Lives Matter on the shirts that most players and coaches have worn as teams kneel together for the national anthems pregame, the way coaches like Popovich turn ordinary pregame questions into opportunities to educate about racism.

The Spurs coach was asked on Sunday if Marco Belinelli was playing. Popovich spent the next three minutes and 21 seconds to speak about how black people in North Carolina were required to pass a literacy test to vote but white people were not. And then he answered the question: “Marco Belinelli is out tonight,” Popovich said.

Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks drives to the basket during the game against the Boston Celtics 1:16
Giannis Antetokounmpo dropped 36 points with 15 rebounds and seven assists in the Bucks’ win over the Celtics

So far, so good.

On every level, pretty much, other than the news that arrived early on Monday about Jonathan Isaac and how the Orlando forward tore the ACL in his left knee – an injury that would likely put all of next season, if it happens, into question for a player who is a big part of the Magic’s future.

The rust, whatever there was for most players, seems gone. Playoffs are just two weeks away and momentum already seems to be building.

“I think it is only going to get better,” D’Antoni said. “I think the playoffs are going to be terrific. And it is a great setting.”

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