If we have learned anything from the first week of the NBA’s Orlando experiment, it is that there is no clear-cut championship favorite, at least not with less than two weeks remaining before the start of the playoffs.
The depleted Brooklyn Nets entered Tuesday’s game against the Eastern Conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks as 18.5-point underdogs and left with the league’s biggest upset in more than a quarter-century, evidence that anyone can beat anyone at Walt Disney World’s Wide World of Sports Complex. Underdogs finished 5-1 on Tuesday (6-0 against the spread), the lone exception a Dallas Mavericks overtime victory against the Sacramento Kings. It remains to be seen whether this could still be the trend in a seven-game playoff series, but parity has ruled the day, and all of the title favorites appear rusty, vulnerable or both.
Just under two-thirds of the games played in Disney have come down to crunch time, with both teams within five points of each other in the final five minutes. By comparison, almost exactly half of all games played before the season was suspended fell under those same parameters. Granted, Orlando has been a small sample size, but this entire exercise is a small, eight-game sample size before the playoffs open on Aug. 18.
Look no further than Indiana Pacers wing T.J. Warren’s performance for proof that anyone can get hot with a restart. The Phoenix Suns unloaded Warren on Indiana for cash considerations last summer. He enjoyed a productive season for Indiana before the break, not unlike his final year in Phoenix, but he has averaged 40 points on 65/61/92 shooting splits in three games since, including a 53-point effort against a Philadelphia 76ers team that entered the bubble with a top-six defensive outfit and ranks dead last defensively inside it.
Yet, the Suns, who arrived last among 13 Western Conference teams invited to Walt Disney World, are among the only three undefeated teams left standing, along with Warren’s ever-middling Pacers and the defending champion Toronto Raptors, as wide a variety as you can find among the 22 teams still standing.
Only a winless Washington Wizards roster missing its three best players has looked overmatched. The Kings and Memphis Grizzlies, also missing key players, are the only other teams still in search of a bubble victory, and six of their seven games have come down to the last two minutes, including a pair of overtimes.
Part of the parity can be credited to the NBA’s decision not to invite the league’s eight-worst teams (and Washington has made a case it should have been nine). The absence of a number of players who have either opted out completely, excused themselves from the bubble or suffered injuries also plays a factor. And home-court advantage has been eradicated entirely, unless you believe in the power of virtual fans.
But much of the competitive balance can be attributed to the fact that this is essentially a whole new season, one that comes with its own chemistry issues, conditioning questions and commitment level.
Los Angeles Lakers star Anthony Davis totaled just 14 points on 2-for-7 shooting and six rebounds over 35 minutes in a blowout loss to the Raptors on Saturday. Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet torched the Lakers to the combined tune of 46 points, 19 rebounds and 17 assists, and a Lakers team missing veteran guards Avery Bradley (opt-out) and Rajon Rondo (thumb) looked nothing like a title favorite. If anything, the Raptors looked the part, proof perhaps that coaching, chemistry and continuity are key factors in Orlando.
Then, Davis responded with 42 points (13-28 FG) and 12 rebounds in a decisive win against two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz two days later, clinching the West’s No. 1 seed for the Lakers. How much of what we have seen is tangible evidence of what could come in the playoffs? Will teams be able to simply turn up the volume after four months off and eight tune-up games?
LeBron James is the NBA’s ultimate flip-the-switch performer. He has been consistent through four games, albeit operating at less than full throttle, not unlike his final years in Cleveland, but he revved himself up in the final minute of a season-reopening 103-101 win over the rival Clippers — the team presumably best equipped to prevent James from reaching his ninth Finals in 10 seasons. It was easy to walk away from that game thinking the Lakers could pick up where they left off prior to the hiatus. It was also easy to think a Clippers team missing Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams would have disposed of the Lakers at full strength.
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Playoff teams are nowhere near as prepared as they were in March, when players were being conditioned to optimize their performance in April. And they may not be as vulnerable as they have looked, either. Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo played just 16 minutes in the loss to Brooklyn. He took eight shots and made seven of them. Just a hunch, but he will be carrying a heavier load in the playoffs, as he did in a dominating performance against the Boston Celtics on Friday.
Then again, his Bucks also just returned starting point guard Eric Bledsoe, an invaluable member of what Milwaukee hopes will be a championship core. He missed almost all of his team’s July training camp after a COVID-19 diagnosis, and he was listed as questionable due to conditioning issues until Tuesday. Can we expect him to be anywhere close to peak form by the end of August, when the Bucks will face their first real test in the second round of the playoffs? Not based on what we have seen in the first week of the restart.
There is little question the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks are not the favorites they were four months ago. That opens the championship door to as many as half the teams in Orlando. Turns out parity thrives in a bubble.
In a span of six days, we saw the Celtics beat the Blazers, the Blazers beat the Rockets, the Rockets beat the Bucks and the Bucks beat the Celtics, all in games that came down to the wire. Anybody can beat anybody in the bubble, but can anybody do it four times in a series? Will the cream rise to the top before the playoffs begin, and what will that crop look like? What will be in September may not be what would have been in May. Different seasons yield different results, and as the NBA says, it is “A Whole New Game.”
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