1.The Eastern Conference champion seemed a lock entering the bubble, but Milwaukee has looked……… off, and Toronto and Boston have taken turns as media darlings throughout the seeding games. But what about the Heat? Like almost everyone else, their play has been inconsistent, and Jimmy Butler missed three games before returning against Indiana. While Butler will decide their ceiling, the energy boosts come from Bam Adebayo. He starts fast breaks off of rebounds by pushing the pace on his own. His 5.1 assist per game average is eye popping for a center; his dishes are bettered at the position by only the best passing big man in history, Nikola Jokic. Adebayo is a powerful roll man on offense, while also able to find Miami’s plethora of 3 point shooters lined around the arc. He’s long on defense, quick, and in the right spots. No one guards Giannis, but Bam flustered him into a 6-18 shooting night in early March. His size, length, quickness, and take no B.S. attitude is the perfect antidote for Antetokounmpo. Consider: Miami led the league in 3 point shooting percentage on the season at 38.1%. The Bucks give up the most 3’s in the league. Milwaukee doesn’t want the Heat in Round 2.
2. Dallas’ young core of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis have the Mavs in the playoffs, but for them to rise to title contender, they’ll need a reliable 3rd scorer. The Mavericks lead the league by 3 points per possession on offense, the best rating in league history. That number speaks to the brilliance of Doncic. Tim Hardaway Jr. has had a fantastic season after being thrown in by the Knicks in the Porzingis trade (15.3 points on 43% shooting, 39.8% from 3). The consistency just isn’t there, however. Look at his scoring numbers in the bubble. 2,22,8,8,27. Hard to count on that in the playoffs. Hardaway is an improved player, and valuable as a shooter flanking Luka. But his destiny is as a sixth man. Trey Burke’s 12.8 points and 43% 3 ball shooting in the bubble has been eye opening, but you want to count on that for a full season, or a big playoff series? Hardaway sliding down a notch, and finding a strong 3rd piece (Gordon Hayward, DeMar DeRozan types) would make the Mavs a 2021 contender.
3. Among the arguments for the Warriors’ trade of De’Angelo Russell to the Timberwolves at the trade deadline for Andrew Wiggins and a protected 2021 1st rounder was they wouldn’t get more out of him and his max contract. But there’s always an opportunity cost. What if Philly blows it up during whatever this off-season looks like? Ben Simmons may be the perfect complement to Golden State’s star trio and would make the Warriors the favorites again in 2021. His defense, transition work, and passing acumen fit, and his lack of shooting becomes negligible next to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Simmons for Russell and either the Warriors 1st this year, or that T-Wolves pick would have piqued interest from the Sixers. An adept pick and roll point guard in Russell, capable of knocking down 3’s next to Joel Embiid, along with a new head coach? Philly GM Elton Brand would have to think long. But Golden State’s trade for a blah Wiggins negated even the chance for a monster deal that would’ve improved both teams.
4. Bol Bol picked up minutes for the Denver Nuggets during the restart, and while it’s too early for judgment, there are glimpses of something. Being 7’2” makes him a rim protector, he can shoot 3’s like his dad, and this play shows at least some athleticism. He won’t give them anything in the playoffs, but Bol is an intriguing lottery ticket.
5. As for Philly and Joel Embiid, he needs a swift kick to get physically and mentally ready to guide a contender. The Sixers are nowhere bound now that Simmons’ injured left knee will require surgery and keep him out for the rest of the season. With a chance to rally the troops after his teammate’s injury, Embiid huffed through the first half on Saturday against Orlando, scoring 6 points, before deciding to join the game in the second half, dominating the 3rd quarter and exerting the Sixers to a tougher than needed victory. The Embiid experience is frustrating. He could be the best player in the league if he got in shape and gave a rip. Will he ever care enough? The franchise needs an overhaul, if only to provide the shakeup needed to see what their star is about.
6. Ya’ll know his name. 37 points, 9 assists, 41% from three in the bubble. Dame Dolla, Dame Time. Whatever you call him, call him one of the best in the league. Damian Lillard has gone supernova the last two weeks, carrying the Portland Trail Blazers to the brink of the play-in 8-9 game out West by being the best player in Orlando. Lillard created some stink during shutdown, asserting that if the Blazers weren’t playing for anything, he wouldn’t leave the bench during the restart. He’s showing all now why the NBA used smart judgment in giving all teams invited a shot at the playoffs. The league has overlooked Lillard for All-Star games and All NBA teams in the past, but no more. 45 last Thursday. 51 Sunday. 61 Tuesday. Dame is one of the most clutch, big game players in the league, and now will be a lock when analysts argue their top ten players for the nth time. Only Steph is a better point guard, and Lillard gives Portland a puncher’s chance against the Lakers in round 1, though LeBron and AD likely are too much.
7. However, another, perhaps more unlikely, guard has also looked MVPish to this point. Devin Booker has dragged Phoenix to the brink of the play-in game. The Suns are 7-0 in the bubble and Booker, another under appreciated Western Conference guard, has graduated from sideshow on a loser to legitimate superstar. Wins will do that. He’s become a playmaker (6.5 assists on the year) and his shooting percentage has skyrocketed from his first two seasons (from 42% to 48.8%). DeAndre Ayton’s development on both ends helps, and Phoenix’s future, murky after suspect drafts and bad trades (T. J. Warren for cash considerations, oof) is more interesting now that the young’ns have flexed. Hope for a Phoenix-Portland play-in. Memphis has bombed in the bubble, but these two have been fire. Lillard vs. Booker this weekend, please.
8. Doug McDermott has no shot anyway, but what do you do with this? Harden makes 45 look easy, but shots like this aren’t. The most dangerous weapon in the NBA will, at worst, make the Rockets compelling.
9. The Goran Dragic/Derrick Jones Jr. pick and roll in the second quarter against the Pacers this week illustrates the danger the Heat pose in the playoffs. Dragic is perhaps the most over-qualified bench point guard in the league, able to shoot from distance and carve defenses in the pick and roll. Jones Jr., while smallish, is bouncy and quick, an outstanding rim runner. The Pacers couldn’t crack it, and other teams’ bench units are on alert. Miami’s can flip a series.
10. Boston worked Toronto last week, a 122-100 thumping causing some to question their Toronto love. Boston’s long guards could give the Raptors smallish backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet fits. The Raps want to push the ball, and Brad Stevens’ aim in a playoff series will be to slow down Toronto’s deadly running game. The Toronto D will cause Boston fits though, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will find scoring opportunities much different in the playoffs than last Thursday, when they posted 18 and 20 on 50% shooting. Two more evenly matched teams don’t exist. Other than L.A.-L.A., no other match-up is more anticipated in league circles. While the playoffs start next week, the first round may be a slog. But Toronto-Boston, Milwaukee-Miami, Lakers-Rockets, and Clippers-Nuggets second round match-ups are a dream. Bring on the playoffs.
All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com