NBA
August 13, 2020
BY Jason Michael Sanin

10 Biggest NBA Bubble Surprises So Far

It was common knowledge that the NBA restart was going to be the strangest conclusion in league history. 

But even inside the NBA bubble, there have been some pretty shocking developments that nobody saw coming. From teams and players outperforming expectations to some utter disappointments, these 10 revelations from the seeding games have caught everyone off guard.

10. The Brooklyn Nets came to play

The Nets were expected to get absolutely destroyed in the bubble thanks to all of the players that they were missing heading into the restart. Brooklyn lost more than just their elite players in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the Nets also are without some solid contributors such as Spencer Dinwiddie. But the Nets have used what talent they do have at their disposal in Orlando to surprise some of the best teams in the NBA before the start of the postseason.

Most notably, the Nets defeated the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers in two of their eight seeding games. Though both opponents decided to rest some players in those games, the Nets were without nine of their top 10 players on their depth chart for each game. But with players like Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Chris Chiozza stepping up in their increased minutes alongside regulars like Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen, the Nets won more games than they lost in the seeding portion of the restart.

9. The Memphis Grizzlies did not

The Grizzlies entered the seeding games as the favorites to take the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, but Memphis Grizzlies lost their first four seeding games and looked like a team that didn’t belong anywhere near the postseason.

Losing Jaren Jackson Jr. to injury certainly didn’t help things. But the main takeaway from the Grizzlies was the fact that Rookie of the Year favorite Ja Morant wasn't able to help his team overcome the adversity they faced in the bubble. Without home-court advantage to lean on in some of their games, the Grizzlies came out flat on several occasions, while teams like the Trail Blazers and Suns were able to rely on their energy and dynamic guards to make the Grizzlies look like a team that belonged on the outside looking in.

8. Gary Trent Jr. is an automatic shooter

Damian Lillard, Jusuf Nurkic and C.J. McCollum have been huge reasons for the Portland Trail Blazers' success in the NBA’s seeding games. But it's been the breakout performance of a lesser-known player that's captured the attention of many NBA fans. That player is Gary Trent, Jr., whose sharpshooting was the key to Portland climbing up the standings and landing in the Western Conference play-in game.

Trent's nailed 60% of his threes or better in four of the Blazers’ first seven seeding games. Despite averaging under nine points per game for the season, Trent scored in double figures in six of Portland’s first seven games in Orlando. While Lillard dropped 61 in a big win over the Mavericks, Trent’s scoring added some much-needed stability beneath the Blazers’ stars that made a huge difference for one of the most dangerous teams in the bubble.

7. The Sixers have fallen apart

The Philadelphia 76ers have been one of the strangest teams over the past couple of seasons and that certainly didn't change during the NBA restart. The Sixers were seemingly unable to lose while at home but were abysmal on the road for the bulk of the season. And without home court to rely on in the bubble, the Sixers melted down in the seeding portion of the restart. Philadelphia went 3-3 in its first six seeding games, failing to move up the Eastern Conference standings. But the Sixers also lost one of their key pieces in Ben Simmons due to injury, which could be a deathblow to the Sixers' distant championship hopes. 

Simmons, for all of his flaws, is a great defender and requires over-rotations from opposing defenses when he is going to the basket. Without him, the Sixers might be a better perimeter shooting team, but they are not likely to make much noise in the Eastern Conference. With the Boston Celtics their likely opponent in the first round, expect Brett Brown’s team to struggle with Jayson Tatum who Simmons may have been able to guard.

6. The Raptors are Title Contenders

Going into the bubble, it was assumed that the Milwaukee Bucks would win the Eastern Conference this year on the back of Giannis Antetokounmpo. But the defending champion Toronto Raptors have made it clear that they are not to be overlooked. In Orlando, they have lost only once, showing off their depth and ability to adapt to challenging circumstances along the way.

Without the help of Kawhi Leonard this year, the Raptors have a better record through 70 games than they did in 2019. The Raptors earned two more wins through 70 games than they did last year, with Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry looking poised to lead the Raptors into playoff battles this time around.

The question for Toronto is whether Lowry and complementary pieces like Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby can make a huge difference in the Eastern Conference like they did last season.

5. The Lakers have looked lost on offense

Unlike the Raptors, the Lakers have struggled inside the NBA's bubble. The Lakers won their first bubble game over a depleted Clippers team, essentially clinching the top seed in the Western Conference. Since then, though, the Lakers have looked lost, disinterested and disorganized as they have tried to get ready for a playoff push that could define the legacies of LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

While Davis and James are virtually impossible to stop, the role players for the Lakers have been a real issue on offense. While the Clippers know that they will get production out of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell off the bench, the Lakers are simply hoping that they will get the same from the likes of Dion Waiters and JR Smith. And as LeBron can tell you from past experience, counting on JR Smith in big games can be a hit or miss experience.

The Lakers will need everything to go right if they want to win their first championship since 2010.

4. Zion Williamson wasn’t in game shape

Basketball fans were thrilled when the format for the restart was released, with the presence of Zion Williamson being a huge reason why. Williamson is such an exciting player when he is at his best that it made sense for the league to make sure that the Pelicans were not only involved in the restart but that they had a chance to make the playoffs. But Williamson was one of the biggest disappointments in this year’s seeding games, as he wasn’t able to take on a full workload due to being completely out of shape.

The Pelicans elected to restrict Williamson’s minutes in hopes that it would reduce his risk of injuring himself upon returning to the court. That strategy immediately backfired for the team, as he was on the bench as the team lost its first seeding game in dramatic fashion to the Jazz. Things did not get better for the Pelicans, as they became one of the first teams eliminated in the bubble, with Williamson failing to play enough to elevate them into the postseason.

The pressure will be on Williamson to come back in 2020 in much better shape, especially if he wants to avoid injuries.

3. Extreme Load Management 

Perhaps the saddest surprise of the bubble so far has been how many teams are not taking the seeding games as seriously as they could be. With playoff seeding decided for the most part at the top of each conference, teams like the Clippers and Bucks have been resting players to prepare for when the high-stakes games start. That has led to some subpar basketball at times, with players that many fans have never heard of getting a lot of minutes.

Of course, if the end result to this strategy is a lot of teams that are refreshed and healthy heading into their playoff series, then that is a great thing. But for fans who have waited four months to see the NBA return, having to watch the Clippers’ third unit on the floor in crunch time against Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers was something of a disappointment.

2. TJ Warren is a bubble legend

The Indiana Pacers are led by Victor Oladipo, who is one of the best young players in the NBA. But, in the bubble, a new man has taken charge. Warren became a folk hero right away in the Orlando bubble when he scored 53 points in the Pacers’ first seeding game against the Philadelphia 76ers. Since then, Warren has continued to deliver, helping the Pacers to hold off the 76ers for the fifth seed in the East.

Cases like Warren and Trent will be interesting when the playoffs come around. Will they be able to keep up their torrid scoring paces relative to their past performances? Or will they turn back into the proverbial pumpkin, similar to Disney’s Cinderella who is immortalized all throughout the town that the NBA currently resides in? Either way, this was a memorable two weeks for Warren, and the Pacers will hope it doesn’t stop there.

1. The Phoenix Suns are undefeated

If you had to pick one team to win all of its games in the bubble, you likely would have gone far down the list before arriving at the Phoenix Suns. Despite their exciting brand of offensive basketball, the Suns struggle on defense and lack depth behind their stars Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. But the Suns have managed to beat everyone in front of them so far, giving themselves a legitimate chance to make the playoffs.

Booker has been incredible for the Suns in the bubble, scoring 30 or more points in five of the team’s first seven seeding games. Booker has been efficient too, shooting 50% or better in five games in Orlando. Even if the Suns fail to make the playoffs this season, what they have accomplished in Orlando could carry them forward into next season with plenty of momentum as they have proven that there is a lot to like in Phoenix currently.

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