From both an entertainment and health perspective, the NBA’s bubble experiment—in terms of the league’s hopes—has succeeded so far. Several games have been wildly compelling (in large part because eight bad teams were left out) and there hasn’t been a single positive coronavirus test among players. The campus is holding, even with some guys heading in and out. With basketball practically taking place at all hours of the day, there’s a lot to parse from what’s happened in Orlando, particularly with the playoffs starting next week. Now’s a good time as any to hop around the league and take stock of some bubble storylines, starting with the Blazers sweaty palm-inducing win against the Nets on Thursday.
The Pressure is Still Palpable
If seeding games still count as the regular season, then Thursday’s thriller between Portland and Brooklyn—a 134-133 win for PDX—was one of the most gripping regular season contests in years. The Blazers entered the night in a win-or-go-home situation with a smoking hot Damian Lillard, facing a Nets team with nothing to play for. A Portland blowout seemed almost all but assured. But Brooklyn and Caris LeVert gave the Blazers everything they could handle and more, and Lillard and co. just barely survived to make the play-in as the eight seed.
My biggest takeaway from Thursday’s showdown was how tense the final minutes were. One fear probably held by everyone in the NBA was how the bubble atmosphere could dull the intensity of the postseason. Thursday was essentially a Game 7 for Portland, and at no point during the frantic finish did the lack of crowd make the ending feel any less suspenseful. Will the playoffs be the same without homecourt? Definitely not. Will there be some kind of affect on players? Almost certainly, and it could cut in either direction. But as a television product, Adam Silver has to be deeply satisfied with how electrifying Thursday’s game felt. The best compliment I can give is that it felt normal. As LeVert put up the potential game winner, the stakes felt the same as they would have in an arena with 20,000 fans. I’m sure at some point during the postseason the lack of noise will become apparent. But in the first game with some really immense pressure on one of the teams, the surroundings did not take away from the excitement.
Joel Embiid Can’t Post Up Enough Against the Celtics
Ben Simmons is highly likely to miss at least the first round (if not all) of the playoffs after undergoing surgery to remove a loose body from his left knee. The Sixers have had a wild three seasons, bursting into the playoffs in 2018, remaking the roster and losing on a walkoff in 2019, then remaking the roster again before an up-and-down 2020 campaign. I’m genuinely starting to wonder if this team is simply cursed, and while people will certainly go down this road, I don’t know how the postseason can serve as a referendum on the Simmons-Joel Embiid partnership if one of them isn’t playing.
With Simmons out, the spotlight will obviously be on Embiid, and he’s in a weirdly unique position to have a big series against Boston. I wouldn’t pick the Sixers to win, but this matchup could be close. The Celtics are great, and maybe even underrated in the championship contender convo. But if they have one weakness, it’s at center, and in this series, Embiid will have no excuse to be hanging around the perimeter. He should be operating only out of the block against Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter, and the opportunity is there for him to post (er, no pun intended) giant numbers.
If Embiid says part of the reason he floats to the three-point line is to give Simmons space, that reason is gone. Embiid averaged 3.4 threes per game this season—that number should honestly go to zero against Boston. All those shots should be going toward post-ups instead. Unsurprisingly, Embiid was one of the most efficient post players in the NBA, averaging 9.8 post-ups per game and shooting 53.1% out of those plays—fourth among players attempting at least two field goals a night from the post. I see no reason why he shouldn’t be on the block at least 15 times a game if not more against Boston.
Al Horford will probably slide back into the starting lineup, by the way, and that’s not necessarily an issue for Embiid. In 174 minutes this season the Embiid-Horford duo played without Simmons, they posted a respectable 3.1 net rating, with slippage more so coming on the defensive as opposed to the offensive end. Philly’s shooters will have to be prepared when the doubles come on Embiid, but if he’s living on the block, the Sixers should be able to generate good shots one way or another.
Can James Harden Survive Without Russell Westbrook?
The Rockets are still a really, really good team when James Harden plays without Russell Westbrook. In fact, some stats say they’re even better. In 1022 minutes played without Russ this season, Harden-led lineups posted an 8.4 net rating, an improvement over the 5.6 mark the duo posted together. Houston’s offense actually improved in Harden’s solo time. And it makes sense superficially if you think about replacing Russ with a shooter and giving Harden even more space to operate.
Houston can certainly survive for stretches without Russ, and getting Eric Gordon back should help. But the Thunder are an incredibly solid team playing with a highly motivated Chris Paul. They won’t be an easy out. The series could very well come down to Harden’s durability. Mike D’Antoni plays comically tight rotations in the playoffs—like trying on your jeans one month into the pandemic tight. Can Harden bear that burden? Will the bubble structure of no travel but games every other day help or hurt him? Will the months off give him an extra boost? It’s a narrative that’s followed Harden for years—that his style of play wears him down in the postseason. It’s almost certainly going to pop back up in the first round.
How Tyler Herro Can Change the Heat
Duncan Robinson gets a lot of the attention because of his meteoric rise, but the one of the Heat’s other surprise players this season has been rookie Tyler Herro, who has especially shined during the seeding games. The 13th overall pick in last year’s draft is averaging a 17-5-4 in the bubble while shooting nearly 38% from three.
It will be interesting to see if Herro’s emergence causes Erik Spoelstra to further tinker with his rotations. Jae Crowder has already taken Meyers Leonard’s spot in the starting lineup, and more changes could make sense. Goran Dragic has played well in the restart, while Kendrick Nunn has struggled. Moving Dragic into the starting five would give that group a true point guard, but it would leave the second unit without a ball handler. That’s where Herro could have potential. He’s flashed some playmaking skills in Orlando, and theoretically he could anchor groups with Nunn as his backcourt mate.
That duo has a 0 net rating together however, which means it’s far from a perfect fit. While Spo is always looking to fiddle in the margins, it usually takes a playoff loss before he messes with rotations. Herro probably won’t be a point guard any time soon (or ever.) But his improvement as a ball handler could have a significant impact on Miami’s lineup decisions in the long term. The more reps Herro gets on the rock, the more flexible the Heat’s lineups become.
How Will the Nuggets Handle Health?
Gary Harris and WIll Barton have not played in a regular season game in over five months, and Nuggets coach Mike Malone will now have to figure out how to re-integrate them into the lineup during the playoffs. Harris and Barton have missed all of the seeding games due to injury, though Barton at least saw some action during a July scrimmage. Malone is going to be in a tough spot when the two veterans are healthy, because while they’ve been instrumental to Denver’s success the last couple seasons, the Nuggets have almost too many lineup combinations they can trot out against the Jazz in Round 1.
Michael Porter Jr. has started in place of Barton, a change that will probably stick even when Denver is at full strength. MPJ still has his rookie moments, but Malone’s been slightly more forgiving of his mistakes with all the injuries, and now Porter’s scoring has become too valuable to keep on the bench. Would Malone at some point be willing to try a lineup of Harris, Barton, Porter, Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic? That group could definitely score, but it sidelines valuable defenders in Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant. It may not be an issue in the first round, but if the Nugs advance, figuring out the right combo on the wing is going to be a delicate balance for Malone.
Harris is well-rounded though his shot has faltered at times. Meanwhile Grant, Porter, Millsap, and Barton all have wildly different skill sets, and all will need minutes between the two forward spots. Somewhere in there the right grouping exists. But I’m worried the Nuggets won’t have enough time to figure out who that group is.