A few thoughts from the NBA Bubble experience.
- It absolutely worked – there were no positive tests over the last two plus weeks in Orlando and the battle for the 8th seed in the Western Conference was amazing to watch bolstered by the Suns surprising everyone and going undefeated and by Damian Lilliard just going to a whole new level in taking the Blazers to the playoffs.
- The West will be a bloodbath next year – the Grizzlies and Suns prove they belong in the conversation and the Golden State Warriors will have a healthy Steph Curry and Klay Thompson back. Don’t forget about the New Orleans Pelicans who have loads of young talent and possibly a full season with a healthy Zion. The Spurs, Kings and Timberwolves will likely be at the bottom of the conference but none of those are going to be easy nights. Health will be the biggest factor in determining the eight playoff teams in the Western Conference next season.
- The Play-In game should be here to stay – Turns out Portland would have made it even without the play-in game but with the injuries they had earlier in the year, there’s no doubt they would have had a much better record had they been healthy all year. A team in a similar situation deserves the chance to come on late and get a chance to get into the playoffs. There are worse teams in the Eastern Conference but a play-in game scenario there could materialize and that type of high stakes game would be entertaining even between two lesser talented teams.
All that being said, there’s little excitement about the majority of first-round playoff series.
In the East, Milwaukee, Toronto and Boston should roll through their series and a healthy Heat team should have enough to beat the Pacers.
In the West, the Clippers should beat a really fun Mavericks team and key departures for the Jazz (Mike Conley Jr will likely miss the entire first round, going home to be there for the birth of his son) should make the Nuggets a heavy favorite in that series.
Two Series to Watch
Can the Portland Trail Blazers really knock off the Los Angeles Lakers? Rajon Rondo could be back for the Lakers which would be significant in defending the backcourt of Lilliard and CJ McCollum. But the Lakers have a huge talent advantage in the front court with LeBron and Anthony Davis. This is where the NBA evolution and lean in to the three-pointer is really going to make a difference because Portland should have a big advantage just trading three’s for two’s. The key player becomes CJ McCollum. You saw down the stretch in the play-in game versus Memphis, he stepped up and helped Portland pull away. His back is hurt but if it holds up, he’s another perimeter scoring threat that will have the Lakers defense scrambling and take pressure off Dame. If LeBron can flip the switch, the Lakers can win this series but it’s going six or seven. And that’s a damning statement for a top seed. The Lakers may be betting favorites but on the court, I just don’t see how they get to the Finals.
Meanwhile, the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder, who executed one of the two big trades last offseason swapping Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul, now meet in the playoffs. Westbrook has been banged up and the pressure is entirely on Houston because after that trade, most thought the Thunder were in rebuilding mode versus jumping up to the fifth seed. Chris Paul has to stay healthy and Steven Adams has to be effective on both ends but I love the Thunder here to outscore the Rockets four times and send Houston home to a long off-season.