Another day in the bubble is officially in the books and the playoff picture is beginning to crystalize. The Los Angeles Lakers clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, the Raptors took another step towards locking up No. 2 in the East and the bottom of the Western Conference… well that’s still a mess. Fortunately, we’re here to help you sort through that mess. Here is everything you need to know about Monday’s dose of bubble ball.
Toronto Raptors 107, Miami Heat 103
Los Angeles Lakers 116, Utah Jazz 108
Has Anthony Davis surpassed LeBron?
The Lakers have won two games in Orlando. Anthony Davis is averaging 38 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in those games. In their lone loss, he scored only 14 points on seven shot attempts, but that came with Toronto double and triple-teaming him relentlessly. He has been arguably the best defensive player in the entire bubble, while LeBron James has averaged a relatively pedestrian (by his standards) 19.3 points and seven assists at Disney. The eye-test has been clear: the Lakers are running their offense through Davis.
Does that mean he has surpassed King James atop the Laker hierarchy? Not necessarily. There are a number of possible explanations for LeBron’s slower start. James said that he was “turning the corner” physically before the shutdown, and that makes sense. Arguably, his two best games of the year came in the final weekend before the season went on hiatus, and James is notoriously meticulous when it comes to his body. A four-month curveball doesn’t exactly fit his routine. The Lakers haven’t exactly done him favors stylistically either. LeBron’s drive-and-kick game relies on strong shooting from his role players. The Lakers have made only 29.4 percent of their 3-pointers at Disney. Defenses have felt totally comfortable leaving players like Alex Caruso and Markieff Morris open. If role players aren’t shooting, LeBron has to drive into crowded lanes. At his age, that’s a problem. The stakes to these games are relatively low. LeBron hasn’t exactly given Finals-caliber effort on offense. He might be intentionally ramping up.
Top dog status will likely depend on matchups. The Clippers, with their endless supply of wing defenders, will likely force Davis to beat them. As we saw in their potential Finals preview with the Bucks, on the other hand, James can not only score comfortably against the NBA‘s best defense but is more than capable of defending Giannis Antetokounmpo. This isn’t necessarily a Batman and Robin situation. James and Davis are more like peanut butter and jelly. They compliment one another, but in certain settings, one might be more appropriate than the other.
The Grizzlies lost… but still caught a major break in the race for No. 8
The Grizzlies still haven’t won in Orlando, but the teams behind them have. Their 3.5-game lead for the No. 8 seed has shrunken down to only two, but fortunately for Memphis, San Antonio couldn’t seal the deal against Philadelphia on Monday. That would have knocked Memphis’ lead down to only a single game. They could still be caught for No. 8, but a two-game lead with five games remaining means that a couple of wins should be enough. They get the struggling Jazz next, followed by the Oklahoma City Thunder without Dennis Schroder.
The New Orleans Pelicans kept themselves in the hunt by virtue of their win over Memphis, but in trailing by 2.5 games, they are still behind Portland and San Antonio. The Kings and Suns have both satisfied the “be within four games of the No. 8 seed” criterion but would need to jump all three of those other opponents if they hope to force a play-in. That’s not exactly impossible. With either five or six games left for these teams, seeds No. 9-13 are all within 1.5 games of each other. If any team gets hot and wins out, that could be enough to get to the play-in no matter what anyone else does.
The Pelicans remain the best bet to do so. Their schedule from this point is cake: two matchups with the Kings, one with the Spurs, one with the Wizards, and one with the Jonathan Isaac-less Magic.
The 76ers will never make sense.
Apologies if you shredded your ticket to the Philadelphia bandwagon, but you’re not alone. Shake Milton’s scoreless outing in his first run as a non-injury-dependent starter netted zero points and an ugly loss to the Indiana Pacers, and any faith the 76ers managed to engender by their bold lineup decision seemed to disappear overnight. But on Monday, Milton came out and did exactly what the world needed him to. He spaced the floor for the 76ers by making two 3-pointers to finish with 16 points, including the three biggest of the night at the buzzer.
At this point, we might just have to accept that we have no idea how the 76ers are going to look on a given night. They might be world-beaters. They might embarrass themselves. That has pretty much been the story all year, as the 76ers have posted a 30-2 home record alongside a 10-25 road mark. You never know if you’re getting Dr. Jekyl or Mr. Milton, and neither do they. At least Philly’s new point guard has likely bought himself a few days of immunity from Joel Embiid’s wrath.
Toronto’s alternate route to a championship
The Raptors took the traditional path to a championship last season. One all-timer (Kawhi Leonard), two low-level All-Star types (Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam), and a deep group of smart veterans. Leonard’s departure took that option off of the table, but internal development has offered Toronto a different route to the title.
They don’t have a player of Kawhi’s caliber, but essentially everybody else on the roster has grown. Siakam is going to make an All-NBA Team. OG Anunoby locked down LeBron on Saturday while missing only a single shot. His ball-handling has grown by leaps and bounds in the months since the season was suspended alone. Monday belonged to Fred VanVleet, who scored 36 points en route to a win over the Miami Heat, an outcome that should surprise nobody based on the season he’s had. Lowry gave them 33 points and 14 rebounds on Saturday. Everyone on the roster defends.
The Raptors don’t have that one, single superstar that can carry them on a nightly basis, but they’re making a compelling case for not needing one. The growth of Siakam, VanVleet, Anunoby and Norman Powell along with the sustenance of older veterans like Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka has essentially assured that, on any given night, someone will provide Leonard-caliber production. Who cares if it’s someone different every night? The Lakers and Heat certainly didn’t.
The Nuggets are making lemonade
The Nuggets would obviously prefer to have their whole roster available in Orlando. No team ever wants to be without its starting point guard, shooting guard and small forward at the same time, but the Nuggets are making the most of this rare opportunity to give the rest of their roster more chances to handle the ball. Specifically, that meant allowing Michael Porter Jr. to shoot to his heart’s content against the Oklahoma City Thunder. He scored a career-high 37 in the win.
Porter is arguably the second-most important player on Denver’s roster. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray are both making max money, but neither are traditional clutch-scorers. Porter gives them the sort of bigger ball-handler that could one day grow into that role, but his defensive deficiencies and inexperience have largely kept him off of the court. Mike Malone gave him only around 14 minutes per game before the shutdown. But he’s had no choice but to play Porter in Orlando, and that has paid off in the form of critical developmental reps.