It’s here! After more than a four-month postponement, the NBA has returned. While the world went on pause to identify the new path forward in this COVID environment, we yearned for some professional basketball. The bubble seems to be working, and the players mostly seem in-shape. After three scrimmages and a couple of regular-season match-ups, teams are starting to fire on all cylinders! Your trusted committee of two, Felix John-Baptiste and Justin Kirkland, are ecstatic to be back deciphering the real from the fake. Let’s dive right in!
1. The NBA should have included the final eight regular-season games in consideration for season awards.
Kirkland: Fake News. All of the races were over with. Zion Williamson was not going to catch Ja Morant, Giannis Antetokounmpo is the rightful MVP (and maybe DPOY), and that’s the tale of the tape. Playing eight games with those decisions pretty much made already would bring a fake-deep drama to what has already been a genuinely fun and competitive return without all that.
John-Baptiste: Fake News. When the NBA decided to shut down back in March, each team had already played more than 75 percent of their regular-season games. Most awards had already been decided at that time, and a measly eight additional regular-season games likely would not have much impact on swaying the vote. Not to mention those final games are being played after a four-month layoff. Talking heads just wanted to see the MVP “debate” go down to the wire, but we all know Giannis Antetokounmpo led that by a large margin.
2. The field has a better chance of winning the title than Bucks, Lakers, and Clippers in this restart format.
Kirkland: Fake News. I wouldn’t be surprised if a non-favorite won it all but I have one simple rule for the playoffs. Who has the best player? When you are the Bucks, Clippers, or Lakers the answer to that question is nearly always in-house. We have seen each team look very human at times during this return but this is all just pomp and circumstance before the real deal once this “seeding round is over.”
Once the playoffs start the job then becomes to beat the same team four times in a week and a half. That is an entirely different accomplishment than starting off hot after a four-month layoff. No other team has the ceiling on a night to night basis that the Los Angeleses and Milwaukee have.
John-Baptiste: Big Facts. In a normal, hostile, home-road series, I’d beg to differ. However, this bubble concept has the makings for some wonky things to happen. We’ve already seen Seth Curry go 8-for-8 from three in scrimmage play, while TJ Warren is averaging 39.7 points per game, and Michael Porter Jr. is averaging 26 points per game.
We’ve heard mythical stories over the years of basketball players having some of craziest games, moves, or moments in gyms without fans. Now it’s on display for millions to watch, even while not in attendance. The bubble has an AAU tournament type feel, which can give some overlooked players a boost of confidence. There aren’t hecklers screaming after every miss, no boos after turnovers, and many players believe the time is now. When so much has gone unplanned in 2020, and underdog winning the NBA title will seem “normal”.
3. TJ Warren’s early prolific scoring can help the Pacers advance past the first round of the playoffs.
Kirkland: Fake News. This is not to say that the Pacers, who would play against the Miami Heat if the playoffs began today, are not capable of getting out of the first round. Oh, but there with only a half-game between Indiana and the sixth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers. After losing the battle of “who saw this coming?” against the strangely undefeated Pheonix Suns, the Pacers will have today off before playing against the Los Angeles Lakers tomorrow night. Two straight losses would leave Indiana teetering between a Miami matchup and a Celtics matchup. TJ Warren is a good player, but you can give me Boston in that series.
John-Baptiste: Big Facts. In the playoffs, it sometimes comes down to who on your team can you a bucket, or at least a good look, at will. TJ has shown extreme confidence in his game, and that will be crucial to Indiana’s success. Granted, his two 30-point efforts came against the Wizards and Magic, but his 53-point outburst did come against the Sixers, who many peg as a darkhorse to make The Finals.
For Indiana to make the second-round, it all depends on the matchup. The Pacers can fall anywhere between third and sixth on the seeding chart meaning they will be playing either the Celtics, Heat, or Sixers. While those three opponents all have a case for making the Conference Finals, they could easily fall prey at the hand of the Pacers. With Domantas Sabonis out for the rest of the season, the Pacers definitely need any additional scoring and playmaking they can get. Enter TJ Warren, and now they have a shot at advancing.
4. The Miami Heat are the most dangerous non-favorite team in the Eastern Conference.
Kirkland: Fake News. I’ve been talking about Pascal Siakam and the Toronto Raptors all season and I am not going to stop now. They haven’t lost a single game in the bubble and have all the makings of a championship team. Pascal is a stud and OG Annunoby is the X-factor player a lot of people forgot about coming into this bubble. Injuries have prevented us from seeing OG on the big stage in full health but he has shown all the promise of another high-impact player.
The Raptors also have played the best defense in the bubble. Anthony Davis took only seven shots in 35 minutes against Nick Nurse’s expertly crafted blitzing defense that frustrates superstars and puts the pressure on role players to hit threes. They truly play on a string and have a great mix of long, athletic bodies and rim protectors that play behind two strong, stout point guards in Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet.
Kawhi Leonard’s absence is certainly felt in moments where the Raptors can’t get to a clean look, but Pascal Siakam has performed at a high level in his own right and is now a legitimate threat from all over the floor. If OG Annunoby continues to ascend and provides offensive relief I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Raptors in the finals again.
John-Baptiste: Big Facts. Before I continue, I do want to show love with an honorable mention to the Toronto Raptors. The reigning champs have done nothing but handle business this entire season, and have the championship DNA to make some big noise once the post-season begins.
Now onto the Heat. The biggest luxury they possess is having Bam Adebayo guard Giannis Antetokounmpo without doubling. If Bam can stay in front of Giannis, while help defenders hedge, they have a legitimate shot of eliminating the Bucks. Couple that with Goran Dragic’s craftiness, Jimmy Butler’s toughness and Duncan Robinson’s shooting and you’ve got a formula for success. It’s not common to say, but the Heat don’t have a huge flaw. Everyone knows their role and does what they do best. It will be interesting to see how the matchups play out and what their path to the Conference Finals will look like. Don’t count them out.
5. The Oklahoma City Thunder are the most dangerous non-favorite team in the Western Conference.
Kirkland: Fake News. OKC is a real threat and will be a tough out. They have 5 guys on the team that can score 20 a night and are high-IQ as most Chris Paul led teams are. The playoffs are about superstars though. As it currently stands the Houston Rockets still have the best shot against the favorites because of their star power, but if the Trail Blazers are able to make it into the playoffs I think they will be the team no one wants to see. This same Blazers roster made the Western Conference Finals last year and had a down season without the services of Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic. Both are back and Melo is looking so far in Orlando. Watch out!
John-Baptiste: Fake News. Yes, the Thunder are a very dangerous team, but the MOST dangerous team is the Houston Rockets. They have the superstardom, the shooting and the playoff experience to make a good run. Their ability to switch everything should bode well for them outside of the Lakers and Nuggets who have big men that can dominate the series. Houston went all-in on micro-ball and we’ll get to see if they make any adjustments for each series. If they can continue to push the pace, they’ll run some teams right out of the bubble. Stay tuned.