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The ‘Shop: Porzingod, the Beard & Diminutive Dynamos

SBNation’s Kofie Yeboah stops by The ‘Shop to talk about the Knicks, the Western Conference playoff race and building a franchise around Isaiah Thomas.

Jabari Davis

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Welcome back to The ‘Shop for another week of NBA talk with Jabari Davis and Lang Greene. They’ll be joined today by SBNation’s Kofie Yeboah to discuss Houston’s chances out West and potential playoff showdowns, the exploits of the Diminutive Dynamo (Isaiah Thomas) and whether a franchise can be built around him, how the Knicks should build around Kristaps Porzingis and more.

Jabari: Allow me to welcome you to the mix this week, Kofie. We certainly appreciate you taking the time to join us. In order to add a bit of perspective and context, how about starting us off by letting us know which player(s), team(s) and eras of ball made you fall in love with the game?

Kofie: Hey guys, thank you for having me on. I grew up watching the NBA on NBC. I didn’t have cable for a long time so I used to VCR the games and then play them over and over again. I would try to imitate the moves in my playroom. I watched the Shaq and Kobe Lakers, the Sacramento Kings and of course Allen Iverson. I also remember the Jason Kidd Nets and the Paul Pierce-Antoine Walker Celtics….. I need to find my VCR player, man.

Lang: Good to have you Kofie. Thanks for linking up with us. One thing I want to get your insight on is the Houston Rockets. Is this team for real? Entering the season, I believed the Los Angeles Clippers would be the sleeper team out West but they’ve been ravaged by injuries to their top guys. Houston is winning at a high level and their squad is buying into Mike D’Antoni’s system. But here’s the deal … relying on Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson to stay healthy is a risky belief system. Plus their style of play, outscoring people, would work versus 95 percent of the teams in the league – but as I’ve said in the past – no one is beating Golden State in a track meet to 130 points in a seven-game series. What do you think?

Kofie:  To be honest, over these last few years I had been hoping the Clippers would get over the playoff hump just so people could stop slandering Chris Paul for never making a Conference Finals. But here we are. Now, as much as I love the Rockets and James Harden, I don’t think that they are the team in the West to dethrone the Warriors. You can see how hard it is to beat the Warriors in one game; it’s even harder for a team to have to beat them four times out of seven.

I’m going to divide it like this. If these two teams do play each other, of course it’s going to be a three-point shootout.

In the first game where the Rockets won these two teams combined for 88 3PA. Eighty. Eight. Thompson, Durant and Curry combined for 10-37 from the three-point line and the Rockets won in double overtime.

In the Warriors’ 125-108 win over the Rockets, they shot 15-38 as a team from distance (39.5 percent) and the Rockets shot 20 percent from deep. As good as the Rockets have been, they’re going to have to hope that Golden State goes cold for four of those seven games but I just can’t see that happening. Curry, Thompson and Durant are such explosive shooters that it’s hard to believe that all three will go that cold. When all three of them go cold it feels like there is something wrong with the balance of the universe and that just goes to show just how good they are at shooting the rock.

I also think that against the Warriors and, in general, that too much of the offensive burden will fall on James Harden and I think that the number of explosive options that the Warriors have at their disposal will just be too much for the Rockets to deal with in a seven-game series. I am praying that everybody on both teams stays healthy and I’ll be happy for a Rockets-Warriors, Rockets-Spurs or Spurs-Warriors series. Any combination of those three will be lit.

Jabari: We dance around this subject each week, but I think we can all agree that if Golden State is healthy, you probably aren’t beating them in a series. Point blank, period. Trouble is, I kind of had that same feeling last season. Especially when they were up 3-1, but I’ll let that go at this stage. I think the Dubs win a hypothetical series against the Rockets in six games, but each one will be some of the most exciting basketball you can ask for.

Let’s kick it out to the Eastern Conference for a bit. Last week, we got into whether the Knicks would ultimately wind up parting ways with Carmelo Anthony and each determined he would likely end up outlasting Phil Jackson in New York. This story doesn’t seem to be going anywhere (admittedly, in part, due to folks just like us), so I’d like to get your thoughts on the idea of finally moving Anthony in the upcoming offseason. In particular, what type of player(s) would you like to see them put around Kristaps Porzingis?

Kofie: Man I’m a huge fan of Kristaps Porzingis taking over the reigns as the Knicks go-to player. I’m also scared that the Knicks are going to aim too high and then end up not giving Kristaps Porzingis the right amount of help that he needs.

This looks like it is going to be a lit Free Agency period. 

I’m not an insider, but I do have some people that I would love to see play with Porzingis. If the Knicks want to move on from Derrick Rose at point guard, then this is the free agency class to do so. This is a strong point class that features the likes of Steph Curry, Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry. Now being realistic, the names I just mentioned are most likely just going to be photoshopped into Knicks jerseys as they sign elsewhere (CAN I DREAM THO?). Looking past the 1st tier, Jeff Teague, Jrue Holiday and George Hill are also up for grabs and I wouldn’t mind seeing any of them playing with Porzingod. What do y’all think?

Jabari: Keeping it in the EC, has John Wall played himself into the MVP discussion? He’s averaging 23.1 PPG, 10.1 APG and 4.6 RPG while his team is in the midst of a 19-8 stretch. They are just three games behind the 2nd-seeded Toronto Raptors in the loss column. If they can maintain this and work themselves into a three or four seed, what about Wall finally getting some love?

Kofie: I honestly think that the MVP race is already too clogged up with LeBron James, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, but that doesn’t mean that we need to overlook the fact that John Wall is BALLIN right now. However, John Wall is always going to get love from me because we’re from the same place (Raleigh be the city where we like to do the dance.) And yes, he dunked all over my high school.

Lang: Slow down. Slow down. Slow down. John Wall is balling, make no mistake, but he is on a different tier compared to Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Those two guys are putting up historical seasons. What Wall is doing is great, but I can’t put him in the MVP discussion. Right now, the three guys in my MVP race are James Harden, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James. Yeah, I’ll go with the King to close out the top three slots. Funny how a guy averaging 26-8-8 is considered to be “saving” himself for the stretch run. Still the best player in the league, but I would give the MVP nod to … The Beard.

How do you guys feel about Isaiah Thomas and the Boston Celtics? Obviously, we’ve never seen another guy under 5’10 put up these type of scoring numbers in league history but are you guys sold he’s a legitimate franchise player for the Celtics to build around. Meaning, he’s going to be tasked with taking out the King over the next few seasons. Is he that type of player? Or do you need more game footage?

Kofie: It’s amazing how Isaiah Thomas is so cold with it. His speed, quickness and bag of tricks around the rim are really fun to watch. The way he uses his body and the rim to get his shot off is so inspirational to 5’9/5’10 guys like me everywhere. As for building the team around him? Eh, why not?

Either way, he currently has a cast and crew with Al Horford, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder among others so it’s not like everything falls on his shoulders. Oh, I almost forgot, they get the Nets pick next year, which looks like it’s going to be pretty high up there again. LeBron is getting older … the Celtics add another potential piece in the draft. Three years down the road … who knows? I’m excited about it.

Jabari: Understanding the fact that crowded MVP discussions can be a bit unrealistic, I just feel like if we are going to praise Kyle Lowry to the point where he’s at least mentioned as a secondary thought (deserving as well), then we can still give Wall the same acknowledgement for what he’s been able to do with bringing Washington back from an early grave.

The Isaiah Thomas story is fantastic. From being the final pick in the 2011 Draft to being a likely selection for the All-Star game for the second consecutive year. On the question about being a franchise guy, isn’t there a legit argument about him being the best player on a Boston roster that features several lottery picks and another two or three guys that were first-rounders? At any size, if you’re the best player on a team that is just a half game out of the second-seed and you’re throwing up 29.1 PPG while dishing out 6.2 APG and killing it in the fourth quarter and overtime on a nightly basis, then I don’t see how we can call him anything less?

Last topic of the day, and we’ll keep it in the EC as we wrap another great week of b-ball talk. I understand what LeBron James is doing in trying to motivate his teammates while “encouraging” management to make a move to bring in an additional playmaker, but part of me has to chuckle a bit when he complains about the team being a bit top-heavy. Factual, yes, but that’s going to be the case when four of your players are making $85 million.

For the record, I actually agree he’s playing too many minutes and carrying too much of the burden. At 32, you don’t want a guy in his 14th season necessarily racking up the type of taxing minutes he’s playing. His 37.6 MPG is the most he’s played since 2013-14. While this is a burden that comes along with prolonged greatness (‘heavy is the head that wears the crown’ and such), you’re going to want ‘Bron as rested as possible when heading into that playoff push. Is there a guy out there that can pick up some of the playmaking slack for these Cavs? Let me get your best options and a quick idea of how they can actually go out and get a guy if a trade is needed.

Kofie: If LeBron says he needs a playmaker, I’m going to do everything in my power to get him a playmaker. I’m not sure who the Cavs should get, but one thing I do know is that Nate Robinson wants a phone call.

Lang: I like the position LeBron is putting management in. Let’s not get comfortable. That’s the message and the appropriate approach to have when evaluating whether a team has what it takes to win a title. We can debate if the media was the correct platform to voice his opinion, but the Cavaliers only have two guys averaging over two assists per game. Golden State has six, with Klay Thompson (1.9) and Shaun Livingston (1.8) knocking at the door. The Cavaliers’ offense absolutely stops if Kyrie or LeBron isn’t creating.

But on the flip side, I also want LeBron to understand that this is the consequence of advising management to pay everyone their money come free agency time. Pay Kyrie Irving. Pay Kevin Love. Pay himself. Pay Tristan Thompson. Heck, let’s throw J.R. Smith some big bread too this past summer. Now a few months later, hitting the media with we’re “top heavy” seems a bit weak. If you pay everyone at or near max, guess what, you’re going to be top-heavy.

A guy Cleveland should have on their radar is Ish Smith in Detroit. He filled in admirably when Reggie Jackson was hurt earlier in the year. He is a well-traveled veteran that has averaged 7.3 dimes per 30 minutes for his career.  He doesn’t have a great jump shot, but analyzing how he’s bounced around the league and adapted to every situation without drama speaks volumes about how the guy might respond if acquired midseason. Just saying.

Hoop Freaks – thanks for joining Kofie, Jabari and myself this week at The ‘Shop. Make sure you hit us up on Twitter and throw some suggestions for next week’s show our way. LG. out.

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NBA Daily: Breaking Down The Bubble’s Race For 8th

Ben Nadeau analyzes the race for the No. 8 and 9 spots in the Western Conference – who will make the cut?

Ben Nadeau

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As the NBA inched toward its inevitable rebirth, the instant drama surrounding the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed became a conversation wildfire.

Was the league rolling out the red carpet in hopes of a Zion Williamson-LeBron James showdown in the first round? Could the healthier Portland Trail Blazers make another historic run toward history? De’Aaron Fox, the Sacramento franchise cornerstone, took umbrage over a lack of Kings-related faith, while the Memphis Grizzlies had more than enough ground to protect their standing in the current hierarchy.

Three or so games in to our bubbled adventure, everything has changed – and fast.

The Pelicans, still worrisome over Williamson’s health and conditioning, played him about 15 minutes in each of their first two contests – coincidently, New Orleans went 0-2. With their backs against the wall and slowly losing traction in a muddied race, the Pelicans played the future superstar for 25 minutes, where he racked up 23 points, seven rebounds and used a personal 6-0 run to clinch a much-needed win. Not only did the victory signify an important swing in momentum for the veteran-laden squad, but it was another crushing defeat for Grizzlies, who fell to 0-3 and further loosened their once-gridlocked hold on the final playoff seed.

Long perceived to be a five-team fight for the right to face Memphis in the play-in game(s), the Grizzlies’ early struggles have now nearly opened both spots up. All the more interesting, the San Antonio Spurs have begun 2-1, alongside the Phoenix Suns’ 2-0 effort. Although invited without much media afterthought, both the Spurs and Suns – who boast two of the most reliable constants of the bunch, Gregg Popovich and Devin Booker, respectively – are within the four-game window needed to force a play-in too.

So then: Thanks to the Grizzlies’ scuffles, who’ll be the two franchises to reach that play-in showdown?

Let’s start with the Pelicans, a team that’ll be better the more Williamson is allowed on the floor, obviously. While that variable remains up in the air, New Orleans’ remaining schedule is not. They’ll finish with the Kings twice, plus winnable matchups against the Spurs, Wizards and Magic. Although that opening day loss versus Utah stings, there’s no shame in falling to the Clippers, so the opportunity is certainly still there for the Pelicans to reach Nos. 8 or 9 in the coming days.

The Spurs, following a hard-fought effort against Philadelphia on Monday, unfortunately, have a much harder path forward: Denver, Utah, New Orleans, Houston and Utah. No Magic, no Nets, no Kings, even. Just New Orleans and three teams currently fighting for ‘home court’ advantage in the first round. Of course, betting against Gregg Popovich is beyond stupid and that is a lesson some select few must re-learn every spring – but they still seem like the least likely of six to leapfrog into a spot.

Likewise, it isn’t much better for Phoenix. They’ll conclude with the Clippers, Indiana Pacers and T.J. Warren’s supernova act, Miami HEAT, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks. Thankfully, Mikal Bridges’ efforts in Orlando and Ricky Rubio’s trusty playmaking have served as great foils for Deandre Ayton and the aforementioned Booker. Overall, their offensive rating just cracks the top half (15th, 110.4) and their defense remains in the lower half – but stars win games and Booker fits the bill.

Even the Kings, losers to the Spurs and Magic to open their bubble campaign, get the Pelicans twice but also a downright bad Brooklyn Nets squad and a potentially-resting Los Angeles Lakers team in four of their final five games – so don’t count them out either. With their destiny firmly in hand, expect the Kings to make a run of their own. Fox put up 39 points against San Antonio before tallying just 13 versus Orlando – and, in the latter, Sacramento’s only scorer above 15 went to Harry Giles’ 23. Given the context and a very winnable schedule, the next week or so bodes well for the Kings’ hopes.

As for Portland, the squad with the most bankable 1-2 punch of the collection, have an impossibly-tough Rockets-Nuggets-Clippers-76ers run-in before ending with the Mavericks and Nets. Worse, that stretch of difficult opposition will come fast and furious – a classic three games in four days slog. But above all, their defense leaves too much to be desired, even with the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Before the shutdown, Portland’s defense was only better than the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards at 113.6 in the ratings department.

In the two games back, well, it’s actually been even worse and their putrid 132.0 defensive rating is a whopping 7 points behind the Kings’ 29th-rated unit. It’s early and the sample size is certainly small – but with only six games left, they’ll need to figure it out in the against some of the league’s best. Still, Damian Lillard is a big-moment killer – he did, after all, break up the Thunder core on his own last April – and he’s capable of hot streaks that few others are.

Lillard and Nurkic put up 30 points apiece against Boston – plus 17 from CJ McCollum and 21 notched by Gary Trent Jr. – and totaled 124 as a team… yet it still wasn’t enough. The heroics of Portland’s stars will be relentless, but if they can’t stop the opposition – they’ll come up short.

In the end, even guessing at Nos. 8 and 9 is a fool’s errand. The Bubble has provided shock after shock already – and the added hurdle of rested players for locked-in seeds are soon to come – but six teams will be whittled down to two before long. Despite the slow start, Memphis remains in the driver’s seat – if they can pick up a win on Wednesday versus a seriously-slumping Jazz side, it’ll go a long way toward clinching their place.

And they’d better hope so: If they don’t, they’ll need to hope for some load management with the Thunder, Raptors, Celtics and Bucks to end the mini-campaign. It’s one of the tougher schedules left in the Western Conference, but their cushion, no matter how rapidly it is shrinking, is still reason to believe they’ll limp into the do-or-die scenario.

As for the second spot, it still feels like the Pelicans’ to lose. Between Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Brandon Ingram and, duh, Williamson, there’s too much firepower here to completely struggle through an easier-than-most schedule.

But, sure, bet against Gregg Popovich, Damian Lillard, De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker at your own risk – conventional wisdom suggests that at least one of them will crash the party, no matter how unlikely it seems today.

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NBA Daily: The Bubble’s Biggest Dark Horses

With the NBA’s restart underway and the postseason around the corner, Shane Rhodes looks at a few teams that could make some noise and prove the league’s biggest dark horse title contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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It’s official: basketball is back.

It may have taken 142 days, but the NBA has returned and seeding games are underway in Orlando. Better yet, and while the heightened intensity of these first few games may make it seem like we’re already there, the postseason is just around the corner.

But what are the playoffs going to look like, exactly? Aside from the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, the field is wide open — even teams that struggled during the regular season have a real chance to make some noise.

In fact, the lead up to the postseason has afforded those teams a clean slate, a fresh start and the opportunity to tweak with the formula that failed them in the regular season.

Of course, some rosters are simply too depleted to make any noise. But others, if they can pivot and put their best foot forward, have the chance to emerge as dark horse title threats.

So, which teams have the best chance to come out of nowhere, surprise everyone and, just maybe, punch their ticket to the NBA Finals?

Philadelphia 76ers

The regular season wasn’t exactly kind to the 76ers. And, staring down a 10-24 road record pre-restart, the move to Orlando may only prove worse for them.

But their talent is undeniable, and there’s too much of it on the roster to just cast the team aside.

Despite that abysmal record, the 76ers proved they could dominate with their collective head in the game — their 29-2 record at home was the best in the NBA. They sport a stingy defense and two of the NBA’s best on that end with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Meanwhile, their size — Raul Neto and Zhaire Smith are the only two on the roster shorter than 6-foot-5 — should give them an advantage in almost any situation.

It may even make them the best potential matchup for the top-dog in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks.

Yes, they are a bit of a clunky fit on offense. But Embiid and Simmons represent two of the brightest young stars — they can make it work, adjusting as needed on a series-to-series basis. Paired with Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson, among others, they shouldn’t lack for help, either.

An early-season favorite to at least make the Eastern Conference Finals, Philadelphia no doubt disappointed this season — for some reason, it just didn’t click for them. It may never.

But on paper, the 76ers have enough talent to compete with anyone. If they can fit the pieces together and hit their stride in the first round, don’t be surprised if they go on a lengthy postseason run.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Currently the sixth seed out West, can the Thunder even be considered a dark horse?

But since they never should have been there in the first place – most definitely.

With Paul George gone to Los Angeles and Russell Westbrook to Houston last summer, nobody expected Oklahoma City to be relevant in 2020. With an aging star in Chris Paul — who, at the time, looked like he wanted nothing to do with the team — and a bunch of players that looked more like trade bait than contributors, they looked dead in the water and stocked up on draft picks.

And yet, here they are, giant slayers in position to snag a top-four seed.

Paul, in a bounce-back year, has elevated the entire roster. Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari, quality veterans in their own right, have been strong, uber-efficient contributors. Dennis Schroder has emerged as one of the league’s best sixth-men, while Sam Presti’s diamond-in-the-rough, Luguentz Dort, has grown from a raw defensive specialist into a surprise starter and arguably their best defender.

And, most importantly, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seems to have leaped toward stardom. The Canadian guard was a stud as a sophomore, averaging 19.3 points, six rebounds and 3.3 assists on strong shooting splits.

They don’t have a legit star to carry them — Paul, despite the resurgence, isn’t the player he once was and Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t quite there yet. But come the postseason, it may not matter. The Thunder are one of the most balanced teams in the NBA; they spread it out on offense — Gallinari, Gilgeous-Alexander, Paul and Schroder averaged at least 17 points for the season — and are a top 10 defensive unit returning one of the league’s best on that end in Andre Roberson.

It’ll be ugly, for sure, but the Thunder don’t care. They’ll scratch and claw their way to wins as they have the whole season. They may not make the Finals, but they are a lock to make life difficult for some other team(s) looking to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Portland Trail Blazers

Portland has yet to punch their ticket to the big dance, and they have a long road ahead of them before they can. But should they sneak in, they may prove the most dangerous team in the postseason.

Just a season ago, the Trail Blazers were a top-four seed and, despite the loss of Jusuf Nurkic, a Western Conference Finals participant. Unfortunately, it all seemed to come crashing down in the regular season. Already at a disadvantage without Nurkic at the center spot, the team lost Zach Collins to a major shoulder injury just three games into the season and, later, Rodney Hood to a torn left Achilles.

Had the season gone on as scheduled, no one would have blamed the Trail Blazers for throwing in the towel. An ugly 29-37 before the shutdown, there just wasn’t much the team could do to bolster their postseason odds.

But now they’ve been gifted a second chance. The stoppage in play allowed every team to rest and recuperate, yes, but arguably no team benefited more from that time than Portland — and teams are starting to take notice.

The threat presented by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum is obvious. But with the roster back near 100 percent health, the team may pose a legitimate threat to the Western Conference crown. Collins’ presence on defense was sorely missed, to say the least. Nurkic, meanwhile, has played as if he hadn’t missed the last year and change. In two bubble games, the Bosnian Beast has averaged 24 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and 3.5 blocks.

Both players should significantly alleviate the burden placed on Lillard’s shoulders as well, further enabling him to crush opposing defenses.

At the moment, the Trail Blazers are the Western Conference’s ninth seed, just two games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth spot. If they remain within four games, Portland could earn themselves a play-in and potentially jump the Grizzlies (or whomever the eighth seed might be) and steal the last spot in the postseason.

And if they force their way in? The NBA better watch out.

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NBA Daily: Scattered Bubble Thoughts

Four days into The Bubble, Matt John relays some of the observations he’s made since the 2019-20 NBA season has resumed play.

Matt John

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It didn’t sound possible back in March, but the 2019-20 NBA season has finally resumed! We should enjoy the rest of the regular season while we can because, before you know it, we’ll be entering the playoffs. Though Major League Baseball definitely has some more kinks to work out, the NBA has had no issues to speak of since continuing the season in Disney World and its Bubble.

We’ve only had four days of NBA games so far, and we’re going to learn a lot more in the coming weeks, but in the short time we’ve had basketball back, there’s plenty that may have an impact on the final result of the 2019-20 season.

“Defense? What’s that?”

Let’s face it: The NBA is more fun to watch when there are more points on the board. Thanks to the three-point revolution, we’re more likely to get high-scoring games than in the past because of every team’s emphasis on spreading the floor. Thus far, we’ve seen a lot of high scoring games. A lot. More so than we would expect during a typical season.

It’s still early, but in the 19 games we’ve had so far, only two boasted a team being held to less than 100 points – both were on Aug. 1 when the Utah Jazz put up 94 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers put up 92 against the Toronto Raptors. Besides those rare instances, every team has scored 100+. In fact, on Jul. 31, the lowest scoring output for a victorious team was when the Milwaukee Bucks hung 119 on the Boston Celtics.

Honestly, none of this should have come as any surprise. Many suspected that while players have been working earnestly on their games, both individually and with their team, getting their defensive timing back was going to take some time. This should clear up when everyone gets their legs back, especially when the pool of teams shrinks from 22 to 16 and beyond that. Over time, anticipate lower scores, or at least scores to not be nearly as consistently high

Kemba’s Knee – So Far, So Good

There was a lot of justified concern surrounding whether Kemba Walker’s ailing knee would be ready for when the season started. The fact of the matter was that the injury coincided with him tallying some putrid numbers before the season was put on pause. And given his need to still rehab it four months after that is a flag so red you may as well call it scarlet.

In spite of his insistence to play more, Boston has been conservative with their All-Star point guard since the league resumed play. In the 41 minutes total that he’s played in Boston’s first two games, Walker looked more like his old self than he did in February and March.

In Boston’s first game against Milwaukee, he put up 16 points on 5-for-9 shooting which included hitting three of the six three-pointers he attempted in all of 19 minutes. The next game against Portland, he put up 14 points on 5-for-6 shooting from deep in only 22 minutes.

Even when Walker was slumping, he still had a couple of 20+ scoring performances – so why are these so encouraging? Because, besides the fact that his burst looks back to normal, the last time Walker shot better than 40 percent was on Jan. 26. Efficiency was never really Walker’s strong suit to begin with, but barely shooting over 30 percent is definitely not something you expect to see from him. So this, even in spurts, is worth celebrating.

What is yet to be seen is if Walker can do this when his workload increases or, better yet, when the stakes get higher – but Boston has to be excited to smoothish sailing so far. If these numbers aren’t a fluke and the Celtics get Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker at their individual peaks this season, then they become just as dangerous as they were potentially feared to be. If not more so.

Two Playoff Teams Trending In Different Directions

Utah and Oklahoma City squared off on Aug 1, and even though the Thunder won by 16 in the end, the game was pretty much never in doubt. OKC controlled the pace from the very start and led by as many as 29 at one point. Despite Utah remaining in the thick of the playoff race, this was another in what seems like a long line of frustrating losses during an overall underwhelming season. At least now, Bojan Bogdanovic’s season-ending wrist injury gives them an excuse they didn’t have before.

Jazz fans have probably heard all about what’s gone wrong for the boys in Salt Lake so there’s no need to harp over the issues they’ve had both on and off the court. What’s really stood out about their game against the Thunder was the opposing team’s roster design. That bunch is currently led by the likes of:

  • An aging but very experienced/skilled All-Star point guard (Chris Paul)
  • One of the league’s promising young guards (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander)
  • A monster defensive presence on the interior (Steven Adams)
  • A secondary scorer capable of shooting from anywhere (Danilo Gallinari)

Hold on, wasn’t this who the Jazz were supposed to be this season? A playoff contender that may not have boasted the most star power, but the lack of holes in its roster should have made them incredibly hard to topple? We did get to see that team after all. It just wasn’t in Utah. The Thunder have become one of the league’s most entertaining underdogs, while the Jazz have mired in disarray and uncertainty.

Despite that the two’s records are neck-and-neck – Utah (42-24) has a half-game lead over Oklahoma City (41-24) – the former seems stuck in the same rut they were before the season halted. While the latter has been deceptively better than we’re giving them credit for even though they were already exceeding expectations in the first place.

About That Last Spot In The West

Remember the whole conspiracy everyone had that the NBA constructed these temporary playoff rules in The Bubble as just an excuse to get Zion Williamson into the playoffs? Well, whether it’s true or not, New Orleans doesn’t seem to be taking advantage of it. They’ve restricted Williamson’s minutes pretty strangely thus far. With him being off the court for the majority of the game, the Pelicans flat out don’t look ready for the big time just yet. They lost a very winnable game against Utah in the first game back, then got flat-out embarrassed by the Los Angeles Clippers. A lot of rookies don’t usually single-handedly alter a team’s fortunes, but we all know Williamson is a rare breed.

Lucky for them, their schedule eases up a lot following those two games. They then face Memphis, Sacramento (twice), Washington, Orlando and San Antonio. Those are among the lower squads in the 22-team bubble, but they still have to get through a fair amount of competitors for that last spot. San Antonio and Phoenix have won its first two games, and, of course, they’re dealing with Portland now too.

The Trail Blazers, as we are all being reminded, are a much different animal with Jusuf Nurkic back and healthy. Nurkic’s smarts and girth make him such an intimidating presence on the floor that it opens up much more of the floor for the two backcourt stars. He’s primarily the reason why they beat Memphis and were one basket or two away from defeating Boston. Zach Collins’ return also makes a difference, but Nurkic alone makes Portland so much better than their current record is.

It really is such a shame that Portland never had its full squad healthy this season. Imagine what this team could have been with Trevor Ariza and Rodney Hood, too.

After losing its first two games, Memphis is going to have its hands full trying to stave off rivals for that last spot. Many thought the Pelicans were going to be the team to overthrow them, but the Trail Blazers won’t be going down without a fight.

Of course, there have been more noteworthy instances that have come up but we can only talk about so much. There’s plenty of basketball left to be played, so many of this scenarios could be turned on their head in the next week. Still, the early signs are of overall success for the NBA – but there’s rust to kick off around the league.

What has stood out to you since the NBA resumed in The Bubble?

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