LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla – As one of a dozen reporters with access to the NBA’s sprawling campus, I’m here to work, to cover the NBA restart, to chronicle a historic experience. I’ve got boots on the ground in the bubble, with plenty of stories to tell.
But I have to say: Monday was a lot of fun.
I’ve been in the bubble for a little over a month. I’ve settled into a routine. I wake up early. I think about working out. Some days I do. More often I don’t. I wear sweatpants most days. Some days sweat … shorts. I hit breakfast around 9 am, fingers crossed that bacon and eggs are on the menu. If not, I walk out with an ice cream bar.
I checked out a few seeding games, but practices have been more my thing. I camp out in the Coronado Springs lobby, where courts have been set up in empty ballrooms. I’d listen in on LeBron, lob a few questions at Brad Stevens and watch Kawhi Leonard and Paul George work. I talk wrestling with Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly. I talk boxing with Pelicans boss David Griffin. I know Marcus Morris, have zero relationship with Markieff and spend at least part of each day worried I’ll misidentify them.
I usually checked out one game a day, but really—what’s to see? The race for the No. 8 seed was terrific—note to NBA: make a play-in series permanent—but everything else was … blah. The Bucks were going through the motions, the Lakers, too and I’m not here for the Zombie Wizards. The NBA had three unofficial scrimmages. For some teams, it was 11.
The playoffs, though, promised to be terrific. How many teams can realistically win a championship? Four? Six? The Lakers miss Avery Bradley, and the perimeter shooting has cratered. The Bucks vaunted defense was a shell of itself in the seeding games, and who knows how Giannis and Co. respond to being a title favorite. The field is wide open.
Each series, each game has meaning. And I didn’t have to travel for any of them. My Delta miles aren’t accumulating and the campaign for the Marriott to buy Disney isn’t going anywhere. But you can’t beat the convenience of a ten-minute bus ride. So on Monday, with the playoffs opening with four games in two venues a football field apart, I went to all of them.
I began in Digital Denver, where the Nuggets opened up against the Jazz. There is no home-court advantage here, obviously. But the NBA does a decent job simulating crowd noise. There’s the drumbeat and the de-fense chant. There’s the bellowing of the P.A. announcer with every made shot. There’s the virtual fans waving at opposing shooters at the free throw line.
You still hear things. In the second quarter, Jordan Clarkson, upset over not getting a whistle, was called for a technical foul. Jazz coach Quin Snyder stormed up the sidelines, shouting at the official on the other end of the floor. “He got fouled twice on the three,” Snyder said. “He got fouled -- I haven't heard him say sh-- to a ref all year!” From the other end, another referee T’d up Snyder. Snyder whirled, looking incredulous. Snyder: “What’d I say?”
The game, though, was terrific. With Mike Conley away from the team for the birth of his child, the scoring burden fell to Donovan Mitchell. And he shouldered it, big time. Mitchell poured in 57, becoming the youngest player since—wait for it—Michael Jordan to score 50-plus in a playoff game.
It’s rare to get a battle between two true big men. Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert offered one. Jokic and Gobert have been rivals since 2014, and have played each other largely to a statistical standstill. That was the case most of Monday, with Jokic (29-points, ten rebounds) and Gobert (17 and 7, with four blocks) having moments. Gobert is arguably the NBA’s best defender, but Jokic is a tough matchup. Gobert isn’t comfortable defending on the perimeter, and Jokic lives there. He rained jumpers on Gobert in the opener, including four three’s.
Denver pulled it out in overtime, backstopped by Jamal Murray’s 36-points. The whole ‘The Nuggets needs a go-to scorer’ narrative gets a little weaker every time Murray plays. Murray, who just oozes confidence, went head-to-head with Mitchell, finishing a team-high plus-16. He connected on six of his nine three’s; Denver, as a team, drilled 53.7% of them.
Toronto-Brooklyn was next, and a two Bubly’s (I’m hooked on that stuff) and a granola bar later, I was in The North. Phoenix pulled on the public heart strings last week when friends and family introduced the starting lineup. On Monday, Toronto did the same, with Kyle Lowry’s kids, Karter and Kameron, capping some entertaining intros.
The Raptors have been among the sharpest teams in the bubble, and they stayed that way in the opener, hammering the Nets by 24. Fred VanVleet, who every game adds another digit to the whopper of a payday coming his way this offseason, dropped 30. Serge Ibaka added 22. Seven Raps players cracked double figures. Kyle Lowry wasn’t efficient—3-14 from the floor—but he pulled down seven rebounds, handed out six assists and controlled the game in the first half, which was about as much of it that mattered.
Pascal Siakam’s bubble struggles continued in this one. Siakam shot was erratic in the seeding games, and was again against Brooklyn. He made just four of his 13 attempts, finishing 1-4 from beyond the arc. Lowry, keenly aware of the need to get Siakam untracked, looked to get Siakam going early, to no avail. He did have the highlight of the game, catching a length of the floor lob from Lowry for an easy two.
“It was me, Tom Brady, (Michael) Vick, all those great quarterbacks out there,” Lowry said. “That was me. That’s what we do. That’s what we do, us great quarterbacks.”
Boston-Philadelphia was next, and two weeks ago the Celtics might have dreaded this matchup. Joel Embiid is a nightmare for Boston’s smallish front line, and Ben Simmons is a defensive weapon Philly could deploy on any hot hand. With Simmons gone, Jayson Tatum went off. His 32-points led Boston. His 13 rebounds did, too. Tatum was an All-Star for the first time this season. He could become a superstar in these playoffs.
I’m old enough to remember when Boston took heat for handing Jaylen Brown a four-year, $115 million extension. That was last summer. Brown was coming off a disappointing third season. He played a role in the Celtics dysfunctional locker room. His numbers ticked down across the board. Brown was good, skeptics said—but $115 million good?
Short answer: Yes.
Brown had 29 points in Game 1. He exited briefly in the third quarter, after catching a Joel Embiid knee to the thigh. He shook it off and scored 15 in the fourth quarter, including a transition three with 4:30 to play that stretched a five-point Boston lead to eight, putting the game all but out of reach.
“It feels a lot better after a win,” Brown said afterward. “But I’m in a lot of pain.”
No more than Gordon Hayward, and here’s your first-day headline: In the fourth quarter, Hayward rolled his right ankle fighting for a rebound. He limped off the floor. He left the arena on crutches. X-rays were negative, and Hayward will have an MRI on Monday to determine the extent of the damage. Hayward had come on in Boston’s last two seeding games; losing him for an extended period would be a big blow.
Finally, a cross country trip to Los Angeles and … hey, look, the Clippers! L.A. has had a hard time reuniting its team post-pandemic. They got bit by the COVID-19 bug, had a few players deal with family issues and lost Lou Williams for two weeks for either strippers or chicken wings, depending on who you ask. When Montrezl Harrell stepped on the floor, it was the first time the Clippers had been whole.
The Clippers won, Kawhi Leonard (29-points) and Paul George (27) were brilliant, spoiling a 42-point playoff debut for Luka Doncic. Leonard is so impressive. In the fourth quarter, after a missed three, Leonard allowed Maxi Kleber to get a step on him in transition. When the cross-court pass came, Leonard, like an NFL cornerback, stepped on the gas and picked it off.
The real MVP? How about Marcus Morris. In the third quarter, Morris got tangled up with Doncic. It was no surprise; Morris loves to get under an opponent's skin and Doncic took the bait. During the tussle, Porzingis, who had already picked up a technical foul protesting a call earlier in the game, came into separate them. A little light shoving and boom—Porzingis was gone.
Dallas led by five at the time of the ejection. They lost by eight.
The Mavs will have to show some mettle to even the series, but that’s for another day. A few minutes after the final buzzer I was back on the bus, back to the Coronado Springs, back to the cafeteria, where four mini Krackel bars, a frozen fruit pop and a Bubly were waiting. It’s not the healthiest experience. But who knows? Maybe I’ll work out tomorrow.