The regular season and postseason are two different animals, but the NBA’s final seeding games have shown that no team is unbeatable.
The Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks have locked up the top conference spots for the playoffs, and with that benchmark comes the expectation to reserve energy for the postseason. But with a combined eight losses in the bubble between the teams as of Wednesday, specific weaknesses have been accentuated—and opponents have successfully exploited them.
Beyond inconsistencies shown from top teams, other competitors have risen to the occasion. The Toronto Raptors are one example, as their pace and efficiency have reaffirmed their standing as a Finals threat.
A handful of losses is no reason to currently worry, but the way they have come about has shown specific avenues for opponents to take advantage of in the bubble. If the Lakers and Bucks do not amend certain traits and reach another gear, then a postseason upset may be in the cards.
All teams have shown room for improvement in the bubble, and the Lakers and Bucks—even at partial effort—have shown there is vulnerability to address. Here is a look at what the teams have experienced and exposed in the season’s restart and where those weaknesses may come to hurt them most.
Milwaukee Bucks and Threat of the Toronto Raptors
After the Milwaukee Bucks’ blistering winning pace up until March, a 3-4 start in the bubble—and seven losses in their last 10 games—was not expected by most. The losses represent a quarter of the Bucks’ total for the season, and the stretch is an extension of their three-game losing streak prior to the season’s halt.
While all but two of the teams the Bucks have faced in the season’s restart are in playoff contention, Milwaukee has suffered tight losses during which the team has failed to close out. MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo has—expectedly—seen reduced minutes in preparation for the playoffs, but other teams are figuring out ways to take advantage of Milwaukee’s gameplan in the meantime.
For example, after the Houston Rockets held on down the stretch to defeat the Bucks on Aug. 2, the team was approached by Brooklyn Nets players the next day. In a poolside chat, the Rockets told Brooklyn to try to hurt Milwaukee from deep.
“They’re gonna give up a lot of threes,” Nets guard Chris Chiozza said of Houston’s advice, per The Athletic. “You’ve just got to be ready to take them and knock them down. We missed some, but you can’t stop shooting.”
The Rockets and Nets made 21 three-pointers each in their victories over the Bucks, while Brooklyn did so with a largely inexperienced lineup. Milwaukee holds the top defensive rating in the league (102.7) but has allowed a league-high 14.0 made three-pointers per game on 39.3% shooting entering Tuesday. The team’s focus on protecting the rim has played to its favor, but the bubble has highlighted how strong three-point shooting—including Milwaukee’s ability to make its own—can be make-or-break in a series.
Furthermore, the Bucks have shown difficulty in the restart in closing out games. While the team ranks sixth in the NBA in assists (25.9), sloppy ball-handling has given teams chances to either make a late comeback or strengthen their lead. Milwaukee committed 22 turnovers in its loss against Houston, a tie for second-most in games played by the team this season. A game with increased turnovers has not always led to a loss for Milwaukee, but the team has shown room for improvement in being more efficient in late-game scenarios.
The Bucks may still be feeling the effects of two players testing positive for COVID-19 prior to the season restart. Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton have slowly had their minutes increased as they have worked through conditioning, and Bledsoe’s statistics in particular have taken a dip in the process. Consistent production from Bledsoe and Connaughton should give Milwaukee more stability heading into the postseason.
Four bubble losses are not a reason for panic for Milwaukee given the team is managing minutes for the postseason, but its play in the restart has shown that the team can be challenged, particularly by the Toronto Raptors—who defeated the Bucks on Monday. Assuming those teams will be the ones competing for the Eastern Conference title, the Raptors cannot be underestimated as Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Co. have impressed in the bubble while going 5-1 and recording a victory against the Lakers.
Though the Raptors lack Kawhi Leonard, they sport a quick pace and thrive on the fastbreak (18.9 PPG). If they continue to play at a high level and find ways to exploit Milwaukee’s exposed weaknesses in defending the three and in the clutch, they may be in prime position to reach their second NBA Finals.
Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers and Rise of Portland Trail Blazers
The Lakers have had one of the more challenging restart schedules, playing against the Clippers, Raptors and other playoff contenders. The team has struggled to find consistency, though, losing four of its bubble games and five of its last 10 overall.
Particularly, Los Angeles’ offense has not been on display in the season’s restart. Heading into Monday, the team was last in field-goal percentage (41.1%) and three-point shooting (25.4%) over six games before bouncing back against the Nuggets in a close 124-121 victory.
"I don’t think we’re a 10. And we shouldn’t be a 10,” James said on Monday about how ready the team is for the postseason. “Because it’s a different type of preparation that goes into a playoff game."
Coach Frank Vogel has reflected the same sentiments, saying that James and Anthony Davis are yet to have big games on the same night. James has dealt with a groin injury, while Davis has recovered from an eye injury.
"I’m very confident that we’re very close to where we were when the hiatus came,” Vogel said on Monday. “I know we’ve lost a couple in a row, but I’m really not concerned about that.”
In addition to the Lakers’ roster troubles, the team’s lack of depth offensively has been on display in the bubble. Kyle Kuzma, who made the game-winning shot on Monday, is the team’s third-leading scorer with 12.8 points per game. Though he has broken that plateau often in the bubble, the Lakers have failed to reach 100 points three times in the restart. If Los Angeles can counter their strong defense with a deep offense, then players such as Kuzma and Dion Waiters will play a larger role.
While James says he is confident the team will figure out its offense, he added that the team needs to be mentally ready for the playoffs—a step he is waiting to take.
"We are ready for the playoffs," James said on Monday. "If the playoffs started tomorrow, we’d be ready for it. But as far as the mental side, you can’t really lock in on your opponent until you know your opponent. So there’s another level to playoff basketball. But we’ve worked [on] our habits throughout the whole season and we’ve prepared ourselves for the playoffs. And we’ll be ready for it when it comes."
The Lakers will have to be prepared for a potentially challenging series with the No. 8 seed in the West, as Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers have been making their mark in the bubble. Portland has gone 5-2 in the season restart, beating teams such as the Rockets and Nuggets, and Lillard has shown no signs of slowing down after back-to-back games with over 50 points.
Many NBA teams still have loose ends to tie, including the Clippers, who have suffered losses to the Nets and undefeated Phoenix Suns. Once Paul George and Leonard can contribute on a daily basis, and Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell get back into game shape, the team should be able to consistently compete and challenge for the Western Conference title.
"I know there's another level there,” Williams said. “I know there's another place that guys can tap into."
The NBA’s top teams may well be saving energy and resources for the postseason, but their relaxed play during the seeding games has exposed areas for improvement. No matter the size of the weaknesses, teams such as the Lakers and Bucks must quickly amend existing issues before postseason challenges await. The Lakers may find their first-round matchup to be more challenging than expected, while the Bucks have yet to prove their dominance through an entire postseason.
Still, these teams are the top seeds for a reason, and they will likely be in full form come the postseason; the Bucks will look to have more success in protecting the perimeter and closing out games, while the Lakers will find consistent offensive contributions. These weaknesses have been made clear in the bubble, no matter the roster on the floor.
With the level of talent in the playoffs, and the number of upsets already in the season’s restart, it may prove difficult for both No. 1 seeds to make the NBA Finals. How the teams address any vulnerability may be the deciding factor in who goes all the way.