Inside an Unpredictable NBA Championship Race

Five months after the coronavirus pandemic shut down the NBA season, the playoffs have finally arrived. On paper, it may seem that little has changed, but look closer: Everything is different, and the NBA's most prized award is up for grabs.
Author:
Publish date:

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – On the far side of the Lakers’ practice floor, opposite team personnel hurriedly stuffing gear into duffel bags and a handful of reporters zooming in to capture grainy images on iPhones, LeBron James dressed dutifully. Beside him was Anthony Davis, L.A.’s offseason acquisition who has been everything advertised. Davis’s numbers this season were exceptional: 26.1 points and 9.3 rebounds, with the 6' 10" big man making 33% of his threes. His fit with James, flawless, with the two stars developing chemistry quickly on the court and a close friendship off. In James and Davis, the Lakers will begin the playoffs with the league’s top duo.

Zoom out, though, and you get a fuller picture. To James’s right, J.R. Smith, an ex-Cavaliers teammate signed last month to replace Avery Bradley. Out of the NBA since being banished by Cleveland early in the ’18-19 season, Smith has struggled, shooting just 9.1% from three-point range in the bubble. A few socially distanced seats down, Dion Waiters. In his seven games with L.A., he’s connected on just 23.3% of his threes.

Across the court, arguably the most important Laker wraps a pair of ice bags around his knees. Kyle Kuzma was the lone holdover in the talent dump the team needed to make to bring Davis to Los Angeles. A gunner on losing Lakers teams, Kuzma struggled early in his new role. His minutes went down. His shots, too. His three-point shooting, already a weakness, dipped below 30% before the pandemic hit. The bubble, though, has witnessed a Kuzma revival. He’s averaging 15.4 points. He’s connecting on 44.4% of his threes. In the closing seconds of L.A.’s win over Denver, Lakers coach Frank Vogel drew up the final play for Kuzma, who responded by knocking down a game-winning three.

"In order for us to win a championship,” James says, “he has to be our third-best player.”

dCOVnbaplayoffs_V (1)

Five months after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the NBA season, the playoffs are set to begin. The seeding games played out near perfectly. The NBA has registered zero positive coronavirus tests among players since July 13 and (knock on wood) there is little fear that they will. Daily testing is working. Mask wearing has become second nature. The bubble, such as it is, is holding. Inside hotels, as players shuffle between meal rooms and practice floors, fishing boats and golf courses, many marvel at what the NBA has been able to pull off. “I tip my hat to Adam [Silver],” Celtics forward Jaylen Brown says. “He did a good job.”

The focus has returned to the floor, where the real chaos has ensued, and is welcome. The post-pandemic standings look a lot like they did back in March. The Bucks and Lakers sit atop their respective conferences. The Raptors and Clippers are locked in right behind them. There has been some shuffling in the middle, a war for the No. 8 seed at the bottom, but on paper, little has changed.

Except everything is different. The Lakers, rolling when the league shut down, have scuffled in the restart. The Bucks, the talk of central Florida after three scrimmages, looked disconnected in the seeding games, with reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo’s frustrations boiling over last Tuesday, when Antetokounmpo hit Wizards forward Moritz Wagner with a headbutt. The Clippers have struggled to keep their rotation intact while Philadelphia had the joy of regaining Ben Simmons for the restart wiped out when he suffered a knee injury that required season-ending surgery. The Blazers, the last team to make the playoffs, are being heralded as the ’99 Knicks.

And they could be. There is no home court advantage, for anyone. The roar of 20,000 fans will be replaced by the digitally enhanced murmur of virtual ones. Travel between cities is gone. Mental toughness, the ability to adapt to the rigors of bubble life as the weeks drag on, is a bigger variable than ever before. Rarely, if ever, has a championship race felt this wide open.

“It’s a lot of unknowns here,” says Clippers forward Paul George. “It’s an even playing field.”

Last week, Doc Rivers scanned the Clippers practice floor and saw almost everybody. For L.A., players have been trickling in—and out—of the bubble. Ivica Zubac and Marcus Morris were late arrivals. Patrick Beverly, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell arrived, then left. Williams was stuffed in a 10-day quarantine for popping into a strip club. Harrell, a leading candidate for the NBA’s Sixth Man award has returned, but his first action with the Clippers won’t come until the playoffs. “It is what it is,” shrugged Rivers. “We got to get our rhythm during the playoffs as quickly as possible.”

The Clippers will be latest team to test out the Switch Theory. Can they flip it, like James’s Cavaliers teams did for several years, with Cleveland often sleepwalking through the regular season before ratcheting it up for a deep playoff run? Or will the end look more like Boston’s, in ’19, when the Celtics’ talent couldn’t overcome in-house issues? The Clippers, by all accounts, don’t have chemistry problems, but when L.A.’s first-round series opens against Dallas, it will be the first time the entire team has been together since mid-March. In all, Rivers says, L.A. has had three healthy practices all season.

What they do have is Kawhi Leonard, the well-traveled superstar who is aiming for a piece of history of his own: To become the third player to win a championship with three different teams. The other two (John Salley, Robert Horry) were role players. If Leonard wins a title with the Clippers, following starring roles with the Raptors and Spurs, he will be the first player to power a team to one. “His work ethic, the way he approaches the game and how business like he is, gives your team a calm, almost,” Rivers says. “I think that’s been very effective.”

Leonard has something to gain. George, perhaps, has something to prove. George reinforced his star status in the bubble, averaging 25.5 points. But his playoff performances have been checkered. He shined in Indiana, powering the Pacers to back-to-back Eastern Conference finals. But two seasons in Oklahoma City ended in early exits. The NBA’s four-month hiatus has been good for George. His shoulders—surgically repaired last summer—bothered him before the break. The time off allowed George to finish his rehab. Teammates say they can see the difference. "He's feeling good with that shoulder," Leonard says. "Being able to bump guys, do crossovers, be able to get his shot off."

The chemistry between Leonard and George has been strong. It was good before the shutdown, when the Clippers rattled off wins in seven of its last eight games. It’s been better inside the bubble. George credits the time the two spent together during the pandemic, when the two swapped visits.

George, 30, and Leonard, 29, both have multiyear contracts. But with both healthy, this might be the Clippers’ best chance to take a title. “We know what’s at stake,” George says. “We know what we’re here for.”

***

james-harden-rockets-drive-lakers

Last Thursday, Russell Westbrook ducked out of Houston’s practice, a long sleeve covering his right leg. Hours earlier, the Rockets announced that an MRI revealed that Westbrook had a strained right quadriceps. His availability for the start of the playoffs is unknown. “I don’t think they have a specific time on it yet,” says Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni. “Hopefully, it’s sooner than later. Obviously, we’ll have to hold serve until he gets back.”

In these unpredictable playoffs, there’s no bigger wild card than Houston. The Rockets downsized—literally—at midseason, flipping Clint Capela to Atlanta and embracing small ball. In the bubble, the results have been mixed. Against Milwaukee, Houston was outrebounded by 29—and won, on the strength of 21 three-pointers. Two nights later, against Portland, the Rockets were outrebounded by 25—and lost, after surrendering 44 points in the paint. “It’s great, but that’s the only plan we have," Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni says. “We kind of have to stick with it. It’s what we do. But we’re going to keep doing it. We feel good with where we are right now.”

In some ways, they should. Harden has been, well, Harden, an absurdly effective scorer whose bubble numbers (35.3 points) are a point above his season totals. Harden arrived late to the bubble. His first workout, in mid-July, was the first five-on-five action he had in over a month. Harden’s quarantine workouts, high intensity in the sweltering Phoenix heat, sometimes two to three per day, kept the weight off, and it didn’t take him long to get into a rhythm.

In Houston, though, there is uncertainty everywhere. Can P.J. Tucker, Robert Covington and the rest of the Rockets’ undersized frontcourt hold up against traditional big men, a test that will begin in the first round against Steven Adams and the Thunder? Can Houston make enough threes? Can Russell Westbrook play efficiently? Can Westbrook even play?

What they can count on is Harden, who may ultimately benefit from the extended break. Routinely one of the NBA leaders in minutes, Harden has looked winded in the playoffs in recent seasons. The four months off could result in a needed recharge. “We’ll see,” Harden says. “For everybody, it’s who can be in shape, who can mentally turn that switch on as a team.”

carmelo-anthony-blazers-grizzlies-shot

The last team to make the playoffs, Portland, can credit one of the last players to sign there—or anywhere. For more than a year, Carmelo Anthony wandered the basketball wilderness. Houston sent him home in November, 2018, dumping him to Chicago—which quickly waived him—a few months later. The market for an inefficient scorer with defensive limitations was minimal. The end appeared near … until Zach Collins joined Jusuf Nurkic on Portland’s injury list, and the Blazers came calling.

Portland’s pursuit of Anthony dates back years. In 2017, when Anthony was on the trade block, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum recruited him. “We might have been in the Finals last year if we had him,” Lillard told SI. With Collins down, Lillard pushed for Anthony. “In Houston, I felt like he didn’t get a chance to even show what he was still capable of,” Lillard said. “We knew.”

Anthony has delivered. He averaged 15.4 points this season. His three-point percentage (38.5%) was the second highest of his career. At 36, Anthony still thrives in big moments. Against Houston, Anthony knocked down a three in the final minute that put the game out of reach. And, on Saturday, in a win-or-go home game for the Blazers, it was Anthony drilling a corner three in the closing seconds to seal the win.

“He’s certainly met our expectations,” Terry Stotts told SI. “In many ways, he’s exceeded them.”

Portland is led by Lillard, reinforced by McCollum and backstopped by Nurkic and Collins. But to beat the Lakers, Anthony will need to deliver—and do it against a familiar foe. It’s been 17 years since Anthony and James went first and third, respectively, in the ’03 draft. James has enjoyed enormous team success, winning four titles. Anthony has never made a Finals. In what could be his last chance to win a championship, it’s James who stands in Anthony’s way.

***

pascal-siakam-raptors-drives

“836,” Kyle Lowry says, and from a courtside seat you wondered what Lowry was talking about. It was midway through the Raptors’ game against Orlando, and Lowry, Toronto’s bulldog of a point guard, had tangled a few times with Aaron Gordon, the Magic’s 6' 9", 220-pound power forward. During a timeout, Gordon and Lowry traded words. Lowry paused on his way back to the huddle. “836,” Lowry says again. “836 is my room number.”

Few, if any, teams have looked more locked in than the Raptors in this restart. The defending champs, down Leonard, rattled off a 7-1 record in the bubble. Toronto’s young stars, a lengthy list that includes Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Norman Powell, have made a leap from last season. Ask Raptors officials what they like most about this team, and they will cite its basketball IQ. With Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, Toronto has the bulk to match up with Milwaukee. And while Leonard is gone, his imprint remains.

"The way he handled the ups and downs, he didn’t show much emotion," Nick Nurse says. “I think there’s a lot there to learn from, and hopefully [it] sticks with some of our younger guys.”

If there’s pressure, it’s on Siakam, the reigning Most Improved Player who played his way into the MVP discussion this season. In the bubble, Siakam’s numbers dipped. His three-point shooting has been erratic. Teammates have dismissed the idea of Siakam facing any pressure. “He faced double teams in the playoffs last year,” says VanVleet. “Worked out.” And the Raptors’ depth—five players averaged at least 15 points this season, six in double-figures—will be an advantage. Still, there will come a time when Siakam will need to rise to the moment.

“It’s an interesting kind of project we have here,” Nick Nurse says. “I love the different options, so many different people can rise up and have big nights. I also know in tough playoff games, you need somebody who can get you a bucket. Somebody who can just get the ball and put their head down and score you one. Or step back and score you one … that’s [Siakam’s] job. He’s done a tremendous job of that in the regular season. He’s ready for that.”

In Boston, the Celtics’ fate could hinge on the health of Kemba Walker. He has been on a minutes restriction throughout the restart. A nagging injury to his left knee suffered pre-pandemic lingered, forcing Boston to ease him in. On Saturday, Brad Stevens declared Walker’s minutes restriction lifted, saying he had no concerns about Walker’s knee.

“The knee’s fine,” Stevens says. “He’s ready to roll.”

With Walker, Boston has the firepower to compete with anyone. Jayson Tatum was an All-Star this season. Jaylen Brown made a strong case to be one. Marcus Smart is arguably the NBA’s top perimeter defender, while Gordon Hayward has settled into a scorer-playmaker role. The frontcourt will get tested immediately by Joel Embiid, but the trio of Daniel Theis, Enes Kanter and Robert Williams have kept Boston in the top-five in defensive efficiency this season.

Both teams are chasing Milwaukee—but what’s going on there? The Bucks’ defense, historically good in March, has scuffled. Milwaukee’s defensive rating was nearly 10 points higher in the seeding games. Offensively, the ball movement stagnated. Injuries and illness has prevented the starting unit from playing more than sparingly together. Eric Bledsoe, still working his way back into shape after a bout of COVID-19, has been inconsistent, and with Malcolm Brogdon gone, a steady Bledsoe is more important than ever before.

“We haven’t been as good as we’d like to be,” Mike Budenholzer says. “I don’t want to pin it one thing, effort or energy, we just haven’t been as good. I think we’re excited about playing playoff games and being better.”

Milwaukee still trusts its system, playing five-out, forcing teams to chase shooters all over the floor. “The way we play, the randomness, the spacing, the pace, we believe in it,” Budenholzer says. Antetokounmpo, the front-runner to win his second straight MVP, says the Bucks’ 3-5 bubble record doesn’t bother him—it’s how they lost. “Losing is part of the game,” Antetokounmpo says. “At times we weren’t ourselves. We’re not moving the ball as much as I wanted to move it, as much as [Budenholzer] wants us to move the ball. We weren’t defending as hard … but this is over. This is in the past. It’s playoff time. I don’t believe in the turn-on, turn-off switch but I do believe if everyone is on the same page, if everyone focuses, we know we can play way better.

***

Chris Paul passes against the Lakers

Chris Paul knew what he was getting into. As union president, Paul was deeply involved with the restart talks. He knew quarantine would be hard. He knew being away from his family would be difficult. On Saturday, Paul felt how difficult. Paul’s daughter, Camryn, turned eight. He bought her roller skates, but would have to see her open them up on FaceTime. “It’s the first time I’ve not been with one of my kids on their birthday,” Paul said. “I’m sure I’m not the only person in the bubble who has endured this … but it is different.”

The lifestyle is different. The games will be different. Tension between teams living in close proximity—the Rockets and Thunder share a hotel—can boil over. The energy provided by a playoff crowd is gone. “We’re in a situation that none of us have been privy to,” Paul said. “I’ve played in 102 playoff games, but I’ve never played in one playoff game in a bubble, where your home court is predicated on virtual fans … I don’t have any experience to draw from in here.”

For many teams, a title window has opened—one that could quickly snap shut. As notable as who is in the bubble is who is not. Stephen Curry is on TV, just playing golf. Klay Thompson is on Instagram curling a dog. Draymond Green is in the TNT studio badmouthing the Suns. This was a gap year for Golden State, with injuries ravaging a roster that, even without Kevin Durant, was expected to be among the NBA’s best. Armed with a healthy roster and a top draft pick—or whatever the Warriors can trade for that pick—Golden State figures to be formidable next season. So, too, does Brooklyn, which will add Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to a strong supporting cast.

For so many teams, this chance could be the chance to win a championship. For the Lakers, with James a year older and limited flexibility to upgrade the team around him. For the Nuggets, arguably the deepest team in these playoffs, out to prove that traditional star power isn’t needed to win a title. For the Bucks, who don’t want 2021 free-agent-to-be Antetokounmpo looking around wondering how he can win titles in Milwaukee if they can’t grab one this season.

Throughout these makeshift NBA arenas, the hashtag #WholeNewGame is everywhere. Most years, there is a predictability to the NBA playoffs. This year, there is anything but.

Read more of SI's Daily Covers stories here