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Top five observations as we approach the end of the irregular season

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It’s been (mostly) fun.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Portland Trailblazers Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

“Oh yeah, so they’re playing in Disneyland. Or Disneyworld, I dunno. The one in Florida.”

That conversation that all of us have these days with our non-basketball fan friends.

I wasn’t really sure about the idea, or how it would go. But It’s been an impressive couple of weeks of basketball in the NBA, or even further back than that if you’ve been watching the scrimmages too.

It’s great to have basketball back - so long as it’s safe. And, as I’ll mention later, it seems to be. Here’s what’s stood out to me so far.

Western Conference Playoff race

There’s going to be a play-in game. THERE’S GOING TO BE A PLAY-IN GAME!!!

It was already bound to be fascinating.

Maybe you want to focus on the struggle of the hyped young teams, the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans. Memphis is 1-5, NO is 2-4.

I particularly find the Pelicans narrative interesting. Zion Williamson has come under fire for his lack of defense in the bubble, which, sure. For instance, there’s this one - “Will Zion Williamson win ‘the race’ against his own body?” Dr. Brian Sutterer says on The Athletic:

“If you go watch his Duke highlights compared to now, the difference is profound. In my opinion, his athleticism and conditioning have regressed substantially. He’s less explosive, less conditioned, slower on defense, has already had a portion of his meniscus removed from his knee after an injury, and he’s still under close monitoring from the medical staff.”

Also noteworthy: he’s averaging 18.4 points per game in 20.7 minutes per game during this time in Orlando. As a rookie. So...

To be sure, it can’t be all pointz for Zion, but he’s still an immensely young talent. I’d wonder if perhaps we’re becoming callus to such an incredible young talent, but it’s just too easy to go back to folks who doubted someone like Anthony Davis in the same way.

But even cooler is the teams who are doing well.

The Suns have been the talk of the restart, moving to 6-0 with a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder last night. I’m still dubious. The Grizzlies are hanging on by a thread, while the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers are swinging for it.

Each of the four teams has two games left, but Thursday will be the day to tune in closely. That’s the final game of the season for each, the day we’ll find out who gets the play-in game(s).

That’ll happen starting Saturday. In case you haven’t seen elsewhere, it’ll be between the 8 and 9 seed. The 8 seed will only need to win Saturday or the rematch (which would take place on Sunday), whereas the 9 seed would need to win both games.

Lack of positive cases

There was an element of risk that came with re-starting the league - as which comes with every element of reopening society.

We’re in uncharted territory. The NBA has handled it as well as could be possibly hoped.

There’s not been a single positive Coronavirus test in the bubble since the season restarted. You look at the MLB, where there have been at least 100 positive tests, and that’s just remarkable.

There have been many sacrifices to pull this off. Most notably, players and staff having to live in what probably feels like a minimum security prison, physically isolated from their family and friends. The logistics and creativity of the league also deserves praise.

It’s tempting to look ahead at the 2020-21 season and speculate what that could look like. But it’s so fuzzy and impossible to predict. I think the best route is just appreciating that what we’re witnessing in this season is remarkable - with the most important aspect being that the plan has been successful at keeping players and staff healthy.

Injuries

Well, healthy from COVID at least.

The Jonathan Isaac injury was devastating. The Orlando Magic are making the playoffs, and about the only thing that could make an 1/8 matchup in the Eastern Conference Playoff interesting against the Milwaukee Bucks would be seeing how Isaac matched up with Giannis Antetokounmpo. And it’d let the Magic see what they wanted their future to look like.

Isaac has shown legit Defensive Player of the Year potential. Now he’ll be recovering from a torn ACL and meniscus. He’s just 22, but coming off a knee injury that already kept him out for most of 2020, it feels like a Shaun Livingston situation. Isaac is one of my favorite young players, I’m rooting for a healthy return for him.

The bigger headline is Ben Simmons though. He’ll be out for the rest of the season with a knee injury, which will put a huge spotlight on Joel Embiid.

Jaren Jackson Jr. also tore his meniscus, which will put him out for the remainder of the year for the Grizzlies.

Injuries happen, but it’s super unfortunate seeing three such promising young players go down.

Schedule

Have y’all been watching this?

To be honest, I was really annoyed that I had to buy another subscription for NBA League Pass. I mean, come on. I bought the 2020-21 season pass, this is still the 2020-21 NBA season.

But. That was a good use of $50.

I haven’t had as many days in the office as many these days. But when I have, man, it’s so fun. I’ve got my two screens up, with one just dedicated to whatever game happens to be playing. You hear in a lot of NBA podcasts that it feels like March Madness, and yeah, it definitely does. Except a perk of the work from home days, you don’t need that Boss Button that the NCAA Tournament streams have.

Individual performances

Who’s been your favorite individual performer of the bubble?

Of course, with the Denver Nuggets being my team since the Pistons are eliminated, Michael Porter Jr. is my pick (with his unfortunate comments about COVID aside).

But the unbiased pick would seemingly need to be T.J. Warren. He’s led the league in scoring at 34.8 points per game, and opened the restart with a 54 point game. You always knew the dude could score, but for real...

The Giannis statline is always absurd, but come on. He’s averaging what you’d expect. 31 points per game, 12 rebounds, some assists, blocks, steals, ok. Ahem. But that’s on 28.8 minutes per game.

My pick? Cam Payne.

He showed up in Phoenix during the shutdown, and Phoenix has him locked down for next year as well for just $1.9 million. After struggling his entire NBA career as a lead guy, he makes so much sense next to Devin Booker.

Payne has scored an efficient 10.8 points per game, served as a secondary ball handler, and been competent defensively. He only just turned 26.

I don’t like the idea of building a team around Booker and Ayton. But I love their role players. Payne can do some things. Jevon Carter is awesome defensively. Cameron Johnson can shoot for sure, but also has contributed elsewhere more than expected. Mikal Bridges is the wing defender you want.

The Suns look totally different than how you expect to build a modern NBA team. But maybe that’s a good thing?