The NBA restart at the bubble in Orlando, Florida has been very competitive. While a few minor players chose to opt out of the rest of the season, most of the players elected to play and the play has been surprisingly intense and the quality has been good.
The atmosphere is also surprisingly good in my opinion. The video screens around the arena are a fun touch to get some fans on TV. The pumped in crowd noise doesn’t feel fake to me either – if you aren’t paying close attention, you almost assume that there are fans at the games.
The playoffs started on Monday and have been stellar thus far. Both 8 seeds won game one of their series and an overtime game where Donovan Mitchell put up 57 points in the loss was phenomenal to watch. Let’s take a look at the top five storylines for the playoffs this season.
5. How will the Rockets small-ball strategy over the course of the playoffs?
James Harden (and the Rockets) have not had an abundance of playoff success. This is not entirely Harden’s fault, though, as they ran into the Warriors dynasty a few times. In 2018, the Rockets were up 3-2 on the Warriors when Chris Paul got injured and the Warriors won game six and seven.
This year, the Rockets fully committed to the small-ball strategy, trading their center Clint Capela for Robert Covington, a 3-and-D small forward who is starting as their “center”. Their starting lineup consists of two small forwards under 6’7, two shooting guards and Harden. More guards and small forwards fill out their bench. The Rockets rely on an onslaught of 3-pointers to score which is great when shots are going in but can be a disaster when shots aren’t falling. Harden is no doubt an amazing offensive player, but I’m very skeptical that this team can get past the Clippers in round two, which puts the Rockets’ future plans in limbo.
4. Will Kawhi Leonard be the first player to win three Finals MVPS with three different teams and titles with different teams in back to back seasons?
The Clippers are essentially tied with the Lakers and Bucks as the odds on favorites to win the title. Leonard, simply put, is a different animal when it comes to the playoffs, as he is the primary offensive threat and defensive stopper. I am intrigued to see if he can put the Clippers officially on the map and become the first player in NBA history to win three Finals MVPS with three different teams and win titles back to back seasons with different teams. They’re my pick to make it out of the Western Conference.
3. Can Damian Lillard carry the Blazers to a tremendous upset?
As the bubble was being discussed, Lillard made a point that it wouldn’t be genuine unless the Blazers were invited. Portland indeed was invited, went 6-2 in the bubble, won the play-in game and Dame scored 51, 61, 42, and 31 in the last four games, winning those games by a combined 11 points to claim the 8-seed. Lillard followed that up with 34 points in a game one upset of the LA Lakers on Tuesday. Simply put, his run has been spectacular. Charles Barkely predicted a 4-0 sweep by the Blazers, to which Lillard says “One down, three to go.” Lillard has become my favorite player in the NBA and I can’t stop watching.
2. Can the Bucks and Giannis finally break-through to make the NBA finals?
The Bucks have been the best team in the NBA the past two seasons. After losing to the Toronto Raptors 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals last year, the Bucks responded by dominating the regular season and claimed the number one seed again. However, the Bucks limped to a 3-5 bubble record and in a tremendous surprise, got upset by the 33-40 Magic 122-110 in game one. Similar to the Rockets, the Bucks rely almost entirely on star Giannis Antetokounmpo to create everything on offense. When defenses collapse down, he kicks it out to one of the four shooters spaced out on the floor. However, the Magic are putting five guys around the paint and daring Giannis to give it up and it has worked so far. I’m very intrigued to see how Giannis and the Bucks respond going forward because the offense that they ran in game one is not going to win them a title, not to mention the defense giving up 122 points to the awful Magic.
1. Can LeBron win his 4th NBA title?
As tiring as the LeBron NBA title narrative can be, it is inevitably the most intriguing aspect once again. After missing the playoffs last year, LeBron got his buddy Anthony Davis to join him and again has built the roster he wants to take to battle in the playoffs. However, losing Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley has proven to be challenging and despite a 23 point, 17 rebound and 16 assist night from the King, they lost by seven to the Blazers.
LeBron already doesn’t seem to trust his teammates and guys like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green and Alex Caruso are easily outmatched by the Blazers backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. In order to even sneak out of the first series, I think we are going to need to see some vintage LeBron performances which I am all here for. However, as a Michael Jordan truther and Lillard enthusiast, I can’t wait to watch the meltdown and blame-game fallout from a Blazers first round upset.