It’s now been a week since the NBA has returned with it’s “seeding” games to conclude the regular season. The oddities like no home court advantage, no in-stadium fans, and having meaningful games at this time of the year are slowly becoming normal. In all, it just feels good to have the NBA back. Even more, the third rendition of the league bubble-wide Covid-19 tests has come back with zero positive tests. So not only has play resumed, but obedience and concerted efforts to stay safe have all created an environment where the NBA can function without worry.
With that being said, let’s take a lap around the league and speak about some things that have stood out to me in this first into competitive play
1 The Race for the 8th in the West
After learning on Wednesday that Grizzlies F/C Jaren Jackson Jr. suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee, it became all but certain that the Memphis Grizzlies will fall out of the race for 8th in the Western Conference. The versatile big man was enjoying a productive sophomore season, and hit the ground running since play had resumed averaging 25.3 ppg (48.1-35.7-80.0 shooting slash), 1.7 bpg, and 1.3 stl.
The loss of Jackson has increased the chances for Portland, New Orleans, the Spurs, Phoenix, and Sacramento to make their move for at least a hand in the newly implemented “play-in” situation. Teams within 4 games of the remaining playoff spot will take part in a double-elimination tournament. The lower seed would have to win twice to take ownership of the position, while the higher seeded team would only need to win one game to advance.
As these teams continue to vie for positioning, I think that the veteran construct of the Portland Trailblazers, along with the big game showmanship of Damian Lillard will be enough to tilt the scale heavily in their favor. Whether it’s via the aforementioned play-in tournament or if they stake a full claim of the 8th seed, I feel as though they will be the Lakers first round match-up. They’re the best equipped team of those with a chance at the final seed in the West.
2 The Defending Champs
Aside from the dominance of star power I feel that, more than ever before, chemistry and cohesiveness can be what separates a team in these conditions. The seeding games do indeed serve as a warm up, but there is no way chemistry can be rekindled in a little over two weeks. Being tested and potentially failing while trying to find that feel will certainly stagnate any weak bonds as well. Teams like the Toronto Raptors, who, aside from Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, have newfound championship DNA up and down their roster, can put themselves in position to represent their conference in the Finals. Their chemistry and cohesiveness have been at the forefront of their torrid restart. Firmly locked in the 2nd seed, the only question about this team is ‘What exactly is their ceiling?’ It’s been well publicized just how much Kawhi Leonard did for this team in high stakes moments last playoffs, but he’s now a Clipper. The growth of Pascal Siakam has been very enjoyable.
Siakam enjoyed a front-row seat to the historic playoff run of Kawhi Leonard last season. Through eager and persistent pursuit of growth, Siakam has admitted he learned a thing or two from his championship run with Kawhi.
Said poise will be tested, as the Raptors expectations of competing for a championship even with the losses of Leonard and Green never wavered, and President Masai Ujiri was reminded us just how adamant about their repeat-efforts they are amidst their run before the seasons hiatus.
They won’t be as to do so if Siakam can’t operate to the level of a dependable number 1 option. Though the Raptors have indeed reverted to the textbook definition of a “by committee” team with a cast of players that can take over for a stretch or hit a big shot, it will be the efforts of Siakam that will need to steer the ship for them. He will be under a new spotlight moving forward, and we will find out soon if he is ready to apply all that he’s learned from 2-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. They do not have the star power of Milwaukee, but collectively they can compete with the Bucks, Milwaukee, Boston, or Philadelphia in a seven game series. I would not bet against “The North” in the bubble.
3 The Los Angeles Lakers
Clinching the number 1 seed in the Western Conference for the first time since 2010 after a 116-108 win over the Jazz on Monday, the Lakers now turn their sights to the bottom of the Conferences ranks. Though their eyes will be on the five-some of teams vying for a chance to play them in the first round, they have issues of their own that they should keep their eyes on. Aside from their two MVP candidates, they have an interesting cast of players. On paper, Kyle Kuzma seems like he would be the guy that would step up and be that third wheel needed to perform consistently outside of those two. However, the lights have never shined so bright on the third-year forward. He’s never been in the playoffs and we all know playing in purple and gold puts you under a microscope. Even more, playing alongside LeBron James has the exact same effect. Kuz is one entity that will be heavily relied upon for the Lakers, and his play has been passable since games began to count again, but their guard play will be just as important. Missing all-nba defender Avery Bradley due to personal reasons, and Rajon Rondo being out due to injury, they are depending on a few wildcards to hold it down. Newly acquired J.R. Smith, Dion Waiters, Alex Caruso, Quinn Cook, Danny Green, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will be their guard rotation and whether they can make their many open shots and defend viably. Whether they can do so collectively remains to be seen, but so far, none of them have been able to bring it consistently.
Though they have not lacked energy in camaraderie and support of each other, they have not been all that productive. They are 2-3 a the moment and they barely survived in the league’s marquee restart match-up a week ago versus a depleted LA Clippers team, and also lost in blow out fashion to both the Toronto Raptors and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Then lost to the Rockets Thursday night. A commonality in those losses, both opponents had guard play that proved to be too much for the Lakers to control. Even more, inconsistent play from their two best players in combination with the woes of their supporting cast made for head-scratching results in both losses. Their “others” should all be taking advantage of the uptick in both minutes and touches amidst their rather early clinching of the first seed. In their remaining games, at some point, LeBron and Anthony Davis will likely either sit or have a reduction in minutes. In that, the others should be looking to find their rhythm and touch. The worry regarding the Lakers isn’t quite there yet for me personally, however if they continue to show no signs of improvement, that can change in the next 7 days.
4 Philly, Philly, Philly
The team with the highest variance in potential results that would not surprise me regarding the conclusion of their season would indeed be the 76ers. They’re the team that could lose in the first round and I wouldn’t be surprised, and the team that could represent the East in the Finals and wouldn’t surprise me either. They are struggling big time to replicate the level of play they showed last season. This season, it is well publicized that they struggled to win outside of friendly confines of the Wells Fargo Center. That advantage, and the disadvantage of being on the road, have both been eliminated for the foreseeable future down in the Orlando bubble. This should be to their benefit, however, since the resumption of the season they’ve not shown a level of play that a contender would exude. Even considering there was a 4 month layoff, the other contenders have had a certain look and energy that the Sixers haven’t shown a semblance of. For a team that has the potential for extreme implications in response to another short postseason stint, there’s a different level of assertiveness that I expect. This could be hypercritical seeing that they indeed are still barely returning from a 4 month hiatus. There’s no chance they’ll miss the playoffs, so their playoff level of focus is slowly rounding into shape, but they are another team I will indeed be following closely. The injury to Ben Simmons (partial dislocation of knee cap) surely will hurt them during their full potential regarding sense of urgency, but as his time out looks in the grey, basketball will continue. They have Orlando, Portland, Phoenix, Toronto, and Houston remaining. Their defense has been disgusting, but there is still time to right things not unlike the Lakers. Embiidis putting up elite scoring numbers, but aside from that I’m curious as to how their team will adjust. Horford will likely return to the starting line-up and Tobias Harris will be depended upon for his scoring prowess.
There are many storylines developing in this past week of seeding games, and the competitiveness of these games has served as a great precursor to a potential “play-in” game as well as the actual playoffs.
In the next few days I’ll be taking a closer look at the Phoenix Suns as the play of Deandre Ayton along side Devin Bookers steady scoring hand have propelled them into the thick of the race for 8th.
The Suns are looking more and more formidable as we approach the finish line, and now is the perfect time to do so.
I’ll also be giving Portland a closer look too. Those two teams in the “play-in” would be a ton of fun to see.
Basketball is FINALLY back!!!