September 18, 2021

NBA enjoying best-case scenario after restart

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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 would be plenty of authentic noise and standing ovations, too.

Friday night’s NBA games live on Sky Sports

  • Jazz @ Spurs | Sky Sports Arena | Friday 6pm
  • Kings @ Nets | Sky Sports Arena | Friday 10pm
  • Wizards @ Pelicans | Sky Sports Action | Saturday 1am
  • Celtics @ Raptors | Sky Sports Arena | Saturday 2am

One full week since the NBA reopened for business, and given the high quality of play and intensity and performances, it is hard to believe the players were off for four-and-a-half months.

This was a realistic concern heading into the restart. During the season hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic, players could not maintain NBA shape, lacked access to sufficient training facilities and because of social distancing were unable to scrimmage when those facilities opened.

LeBron James questions a call during the Lakers' loss to the Thunder 0:36
LeBron James says living in the NBA bubble while trying to win a championship is a ‘learning experience’ for everyone involved

Everything shut down so abruptly. All things considered, it was the longest half-time 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. 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 August 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 coronavirus among 343 players for a third week – but especially on it.

More on this story

Russell Westbrook prepares to attack against the Milwaukee Bucks 1:03
Russell Westbrook scored 31 points as the Houston Rockets beat the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA

“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 is just so thankful and excited to get back here. The transition has 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 would classify as one-sided blowouts.

Relive Devin Booker's epic game-winning buzzer beater as the Phoenix Suns upset the Los Angeles Clippers. 0:25
Relive Devin Booker’s epic game-winning buzzer beater as the Phoenix Suns upset the Los Angeles Clippers

Devin Booker sunk 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 is unique is that, with the exception of the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, there is not anything up for grabs. The Lakers have already clinched best record in the West and the Bucks have done the same in the East. Aside from some minor shuffling in the playoff order, there is little at stake. And yet the intensity seems playoff-ready.

As Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said after his team, who are locked in 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.”

All year?

This was not an exception – the rule in Orlando is quality basketball and players who are not rusty, but restless, and it shows.

TJ Warren, who was virtually given away by the Suns last summer, is carrying a Pacers team that is without Domantas Sabonis and getting mixed results from a still-healing Victor Oladipo. Including a 53-point game, Warren had three straight performances of 30 or more points.

TJ Warren attacks the rim en route to a career-high 53 points against the 76ers 1:59
TJ Warren scores a career-high 53 points for the Indiana Pacers’ in their victory over the Philadelphia 76ers

Luka 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 autumn 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.

Gary Trent Jr averaged 7.7 points per game before the season was suspended, but is now a fixture in the Blazers’ three-guard rotation. He has had impressive showings in Orlando, averaging 20.25 points and 32.9 minutes per game through four seeding games.

Gary Trent Jr. #2 of the Portland Trail Blazers celebrates a three point basket against the Denver Nuggets during the second quarter at Visa Athletic Center at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 06, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. 1:34
Gary Trent Jr. scored seven three-pointers in the Portland Trail Blazer’s victory over the Denver Nuggets in Orlando

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 16.8 points per game in Orlando and shooting 41.0 per cent on three-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 is a strong hunch that defense will make a return once the playoffs start (and rotations tighten and the floor shrinks).

“I thought there would 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 are kinda pushed to the limit and guys have responded great.

Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks shoots the ball against the Houston Rockets 2:10
Highlights of the seeding game between the Houston Rockets and the Dallas Mavericks

“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 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.

Jonathan Isaac suffers a serious knee injury during the Orlando Magic's victory over the Sacramento Kings 2:11
The GameTime crew discuss the ramifications that Jonathan Isaac’s knee injury may have on the Orlando Magic

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 will stretch to the NBA 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 is not 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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