Beginning amidst continual speculation of what a return to sports would be like, following the national state of emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the NBA emerged with their solution to keep players safe and continue their season. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver came forth with a proposed invitational tournament, assembled by the league’s governors and the players association, for the league’s seeded playoff teams and remaining teams just outside of the last playoff spots in each conference. A total of 22 teams, including all players and staff, traveled down to Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and committed to staying inside the assembled “bubble,” as it’s been dubbed by league officials.
All team members that have entered the bubble are tested regularly and are required to stay inside of the facilities until the completion of their respective playoff runs. The league has allowed players to leave in emergency situations, while also boasting their own auxiliary services to keep players healthy, well-fed and entertained amidst their prolonged stay away from friends and family. The duration of the bubble, following initial screenings for all teams, spans from June 22 to Oct. 13, which stands as quite the predicament for players around the league. Though the enjoyment of playing the sport they love is apparent, players are also committing to these extended stays away from family, with the option to return home coming only after they’ve been knocked out of the playoffs. This new factor, unlike anything that has been an exterior pressure during the league’s playoffs, will really stand to test the mental willpower of teams to stay locked in and drive for a title.
The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) have done a tremendous job of complying with the guidelines that were set, and throughout the entirety of the bubble, there has still not been a single positive COVID-19 test from inside. A major tip of the cap to the players, coaches, medical staff, producers, media and all others present in the bubble for sacrificing being with their families during these trying times in favor of providing hope for people in the form of seeing their favorite sport still being played.
It is surely an atmosphere none of the players are familiar with, playing in a stadium without the thousands of fans that normally attend the games. It has eliminated all home court and other intangible advantages that come along with a traditional postseason. Some teams adjusted very well, but others have, understandably, struggled to mentally “gear themselves up,”.
The bubble has provided insight on the up and coming star squads for next season; the Phoenix Suns were the best team in the regular season continuation, going 8-0 in the bubble in an effort to secure the No. 8 seed, but fell just short of the play-in game. The Portland Trailblazers also caught a spark and fought their way into the playoffs, after entering the bubble on the outside of the top eight. The Memphis Grizzlies, who entered the bubble with a strangle-hold for a playoff spot, were unable to get fully in tune and ended up having to participate in the play-in game with Portland, which they lost.
In the first round, there were few true competitions, as teams such as the Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, and Brooklyn Nets, were all swept by their opponents in four games. These immediate knockouts have led to speculation of whether or not certain squads will stay together in the coming season.
For Philadelphia, their star tandem of point guard Ben Simmons and center Joel Embiid has faced questions about their ability to contend in the playoffs considering the shuffling of a supporting cast that they’ve had over the past few seasons. Big names like center Al Horford and small forward Jimmy Butler have come and gone without any success, which has posed questions of whether or not the duo will actually benefit each other to their fullest potential.
For Indiana, their lone star in point guard Victor Oladipo is likely going to walk in the offseason for greener pastures, leaving them in another rebuild comparable to when the organization traded small forward Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Oladipo and power forward Domantas Sabonis during the offseason in 2017.
Brooklyn has a brighter future than the other two swept squads, as their star players, point guard Kyrie Irving and small forward Kevin Durant will finally be paired up to kick off the next season. Both are recovering from severe injuries sustained over the past year. Durant had to have his Achilles tendon operated on following a tear during the finals last season, while Irving had surgery on his right shoulder in March following an on-court collision.
Other squads, such as the Dallas Mavericks, Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder, pushed their opponents hard throughout their respective series but were unable to close the gap enough to secure the victory. Dallas’ young core of point guard Luka Doncic and center Kristaps Porzingis, along with their solid supporting cast, made life difficult for Los Angeles Clippers forwards Kawhi Leonard and George, showing the Dallas squad is on the rise within the league.
For Utah, point guard Donovan Mitchell continues to show why he’s an underrated star in this league, going toe-to-toe with Denver Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray as both had a historic playoff series, each putting up 40 points in multiple games to carry their teams. Unfortunately for Mitchell, Murray had the superior supporting cast, such as center Nikola Jokic, and bested the Jazz in seven games.
The Thunder, arguably the least likely squad to even make the playoffs, did the unexpected and pushed the Houston tandem of point guard Russell Westbrook and shooting guard James Harden to a seven-game series fueled by the relentless motor of 35-year-old point guard Chris Paul, traded by Houston to Oklahoma City for Westbrook in the offseason. Many saw this as the beginning of a rebuild for the Thunder, as the last of their core group of stars departed in the Westbrook trade. Paul rallied his underrated squad, playing efficiently at both ends of the floor and seemingly removing Harden from the game at certain points in the contest. Though it is unlikely that Paul will be able to make a championship run with the Thunder next season, the relentless effort from the future Hall of Famer will be duly noted on his resume when he’s selected to join the rest of the legends of the game following his retirement.
Pressing forward with the second round, the Boston Celtics, looking similar to Greg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs of the 2000s, continue on against the reigning league champion Toronto Raptors, who have quietly put together a strong season even without Leonard on their squad. The Milwaukee Bucks played a tough, injury-riddled series against an upstart Miami Heat crew led by small forward Jimmy Butler, eventually falling to them in five games.
On the Western Conference side, the two teams from Los Angeles continue to make their way towards a seemingly inevitable matchup in the conference finals. Lakers’ forward LeBron James has a motor that just won’t stop, continually carrying his roster in big moments and smashing through Harden’s Rockets on their way to the conference championship. As for Leonard’s Clippers, their series continues against the Denver Nuggets to determine who will attempt to take down King James’ squad in a bid to win the league championship in a historically abnormal season.