The bubble debut for the NBA has been fantastic. Players are in shape, the games have an outstanding atmosphere, the intensity level is high, and no one has tested positive for COVID-19. The protocols and guidelines the league took months to set up are paying off, and we should commend the players for bringing their A game. A March Madness feel has overtaken the league, with high stakes games being played at all hours of the day. This has a chance, and with the uncertainty surrounding baseball and football, NBA playoffs in September and October may own the landscape. Here’s what was interesting during the first week back:
1.Houston’s size problem may have a Robert Covington solution. The 6’7” forward, always a defensive menace, has flexed his muscle around the rim. Five blocks in their first 2 games have given the Rockets a presence in the paint. He’s rejected 7’3” Kristaps Porzingis and 6’11” Giannis Antetokounmpo. Add in 6 steals, and the weak Houston defense at least has an active member causing havoc on the back end. Is it enough to change their trajectory? Time will tell if Covington’s body can withstand the pounding he’ll take, guarding bigger guys every night. Most bigs shy away from it. But for now, consider Covington the smallest rim protector in the league.
2. Once the trade from Houston to Oklahoma City occurred last summer, speculation began on who Chris Paul would suit up for this season. The Thunder wouldn’t keep the 35-year-old point guard due $123 million over the next three years in a rebuilding situation. OKC didn’t dump him, however, and now the Thunder may be the third best team in the West. Paul is a conductor, orchestrating the moves of teammates and opponents while dominating games without posting monster stats. His understanding of the game, bettered only by LeBron, is PhD worthy, and he’s been overlooked in the MVP conversation. What he’s done in OKC, after they traded away both Russell Westbrook and Paul George last off season, deserved MVP votes. Paul’s name will hit the rumor mill again, yet Oklahoma City may be wise to keep him. Young guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is an All Star in the making. Learning from an all-time great point guard will only speed up his development.
3. Though he’s turned it around, Jayson Tatum’s start in the bubble was clunky. A 5 point, 2-18 shooting opener against Milwaukee, following a poor exhibition slate is troubling. 34 against Portland on Sunday may allow Celtic brass to sleep better, but is this the guy Boston is resting future title hopes on? We’ve seen flashes from him before, only to see Tatum revert to a passive entity, flowing in and out of games. He switches between attacking and hanging out behind the three point line. While Tatum has more talent, Jaylen Brown has more fire. Brown doesn’t take plays off. His shot selection is sometimes questionable, but his ability to guard 1-5 on defense gives Brad Stevens tons of flexibility. The push and pull between these two young players, and Boston’s hierarchy over the next few years, will remain engrossing.
4. Most counted Toronto out as defending champs as soon as Kawhi Leonard packed for L.A., yet the strong fit of the pieces collected by GM Masai Ujiri and the heart of Kyle Lowry is keeping them on the periphery of the title chase. A defensive masterpiece on Saturday night against the Lakers is forcing everyone to consider them a contender. Lowry, recovered from the PTSD of so many subpar performances against LeBron’s Cavs in the playoffs, has become a clutch, go to player in crunch time. Anyone Nick Nurse puts on the floor plays defense, and Pascal Siakam is edging toward superstardom. Ask NBA experts who the best coach in the league is, and a majority will answer Nurse. So why the lingering doubt over the Raptors? The defense is trustworthy, but can they count on Lowry and Siakam to get crunch time buckets with defenses designed to stop them? Kawhi garnered the attention last year. But if those two take another step, the Raptors may make the Finals for a second year in a row.
5. New Orleans wants to be careful with their lottery ticket, but is playing Zion Williamson only 18 minutes per game, and sitting him during crunch time, the best strategy? The fear of injury is overtaking sports. Pitchers can’t throw over 100 pitches per outing and prized NBA draft picks get babied mercilessly. How many players handled with kid gloves reach stardom? How many others flame out, or get hurt anyway? And if he’s on a minute restriction, why not save some of those minutes for the end of games? In a near must win in their opener against Utah, Zion sat for the last 7 minutes as his teammates coughed up a double digit lead. On a team NBA execs want in the playoffs, New Orleans’ bosses seem to have other ideas. Question is, when will they unleash the beast? At some point, Zion has to play NBA basketball, or his development will suffer. If he’s injury prone, we’ll find out soon enough.
6. Anthony Davis dominated the Jazz Monday night with a performance the Lakers will need replicated for the next two-and-a-half months. 42 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals, plus multiple wow plays on defense carried L.A. while LeBron ramps up in the bubble. Watching Laker games, the lack of talent behind their top two is glaring, however. Could Dion Waiters be their best bench play? Can they count on Kyle Kuzma as the 3rd option? Davis cannot have games like Saturday night against the Raptors, when he took 2 shots in the first half, and only 7 total in the game. The Lakers may be the favorite, but their margins are razor thin. Davis cannot afford to be passive, especially against smaller teams like the Rockets and Clippers. When he has a mismatch, he must dominate. With no other reliable ball handlers, Frank Vogel will tax LeBron with that duty throughout. AD has to carry the scoring load on offense to allow LeBron to set up their less reliable teammates.
7. Jrue Holiday’s defense gets overlooked. Strong enough to battle bigs in the paint and quick enough to stick on guards, Holiday schooled Rookie of the Year in waiting Ja Morant on Monday in a game the Pelicans had to have. Drawing the rookie on most possessions in the first half, Holiday used his size to push Morant around, forcing him into 3-11 shooting, 0-6 from 3. Morant ended drives off balance, unable to finish at the rim because of Holiday’s presence, while Jrue’s quickness didn’t allow Ja any separation on his jumper. Though New Orleans’ defense has been abominable all season, and may keep him off All Defense teams, Holiday, at minimum, provides an example for the young Pelicans on that end if they are to become a contender in the West. His 1.7 steals per game ranked 7th in the league. His ability to switch gives their defense flexibility. When the Pelicans become a problem, Zion will be their star, but Jrue Holiday will be their backbone.
8. Put Doris Burke on the main broadcast team with Mike Breen, ESPN. Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy complain too much; do they even like NBA basketball? Burke’s understanding of the game is unmatched. She sees all and explains it with an intelligence and charisma that is a joy to listen to. She’s funny, and her love of the game shines. Add that to Breen’s exceptional play-by-play skills and knowledge, and you’ve created the perfect tandem. Van Gundy and Jackson are stale. If they aren’t complaining about referees or players, they’re over-hyping mediocre coaches. Putting Breen and Burke together makes too much sense.
9. Dame Time has arrived in Orlando, and teams out west have a fresh fear. At the controls of Portland’s offense, Damian Lillard has made the Blazers the early favorites for the 8 seed on averages of nearly 27 points and 11 assists per. A lock for an All-NBA spot, Lillard has made his case as the best point guard in the league. With Jusuf Nurkic’s return from a horrible leg injury and Zach Collins back from an early season dislocated shoulder, the Lakers should fear Dame and C. J. McCollum driving the bus. While New Orleans may have been the fans’ pick for the 8 seed, they would pose little resistance to L.A. Not so with the Blazers. A team that reached the West Finals last year, they’re healthy, have added a decent Carmelo Anthony, and possess the best backcourt in the league. LeBron’s path to title four gets tougher if Portland squeezes in.
10. Michael Porter Jr. posted back-to-back 30 point games this week and is the punch Denver’s offense needs in the playoffs. With three starters injured, the Nuggets have relied on Porter during the restart, something coach Mike Malone has hesitated to do. While he makes gobs of rookie mistakes, Denver needs to lean on the talented first-year player more if they hope to advance in the West. Everyone assumes the L.A. teams will meet in the West Finals. If Porter grew up over the layoff, and Malone will trust him, the Nuggets may force their way into the conversation. At worst, the rookie will gain valuable experience for future playoff runs in Denver.
All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com