NBA bubble storylines: Lillard dazzles, Suns shine but Lakers slip ahead of playoffs

By Sports Desk August 16, 2020

The NBA bubble has already produced plenty of storylines and the playoffs have not even started yet.  

The coronavirus pandemic forced the league to think outside the box, leading to games being played within a bio-secure one. Through careful planning and at great expense, a plan was drawn up to take the show on the road to Orlando, Florida. 

Walt Disney World is used to delivering entertainment; the resumption of the basketball season has not disappointed on that front, aided by a revised structure that offered several teams renewed hope. 

Amid great uncertainty during a global health crisis, the players and teams bought into the proposal to deliver sporting drama to an eager audience watching on from afar. 

Scoring climbed upon the resumption – the average rose by 4.3 points per game per team – while the absence of the bottom feeders, those teams too far back to contend and already focused on the next campaign and beyond, led to a slight rise in the number of close contests.  

"It's better than what we had envisioned," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in an interview with Sports Illustrated. "Players have taken to it in a more spirited way than we thought they would.   

"We knew that this would require enormous sacrifice on everyone's part, but I think that what is hard to calibrate - and this maybe goes to my experience when I first came into the arena - is the human emotion that comes with being around other people. And I think everyone realised they missed it more than they even understood." 

Now the initial 22-team field is down to 16, the Portland Trail Blazers confirmed in the final playoff spot after coming through a play-in tournament, one of several changes put in place due to a shortened regular season.  

The top seeds will be the focus moving forward now, but others have claimed the spotlight during the action seen so far.

RED-HOT SUNS CATCH FIRE 

The Phoenix Suns are done for the campaign despite winning all eight seeding games, another new concept from the NBA that condensed the race to qualify in both conferences.  

They were always a long shot to make it, but that did not stop Monty Williams' roster from giving it their all to make up the gap. They ended up making unwanted history, becoming the first team to finish the season on a winning streak of eight or more games and still not make the playoffs. 

Phoenix's eight straight wins all came while scoring 110 or more points in every game, matching the longest such streak in franchise history (having also done so between November 23 and December 9 way back in 1971).  

Their average points per game increased from 112.6 to 122.3, while they were successful with 40.2 per cent of their attempts from deep. The Suns were also outstanding from the free throw line, shooting 90 per cent, not to mention on social media.

Devin Booker was a major reason for the sudden hot streak. The guard averaged 30.5 points in Florida and provided one of the more memorable moments during the seeding games, hitting a buzzer-beating game-winner to down the Los Angeles Clippers.  

Booker had 20 or more points in every outing and while they missed out on the playoffs for a 10th straight season, Phoenix's form in the sunshine state provides renewed hope for the future. 

"I just think that we have a group that wanted to come here and wanted to prove to the world that they were worthy of being here," Williams said. They certainly did that.

LILLARD BLAZES A TRAIL 

The Suns only narrowly missed out on a play-in place to the Memphis Grizzlies, who owned the tie-breaker between the pair after both finished with identical 34-39 records in a competitive Western Conference.  

Memphis had arrived in Orlando sitting in eighth but dropped down a spot due to the form of the Trail Blazers, who piggybacked Damian Lillard's hot hand to go 6-2 following the restart.  

Lillard was unsurprisingly named bubble MVP, as he finished top for points, averaging an outstanding 37.6 a game, and three-pointers, hitting 44 to finish 10 ahead of team-mate Gary Trent Jr.   

The point guard had 154 points in a three-game run at one stage, just shy of the 158 he managed during a similar span back in January. His tally of 71 successful free throws, meanwhile, put him behind only James Harden (73).  

But it was not just about the scoring for Lillard, who also averaged 9.6 assists per outing for a Blazers roster who will hope to continue their fine form when they face the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs.  

To put Lillard's performances into context, the five-time NBA All-Star is the only player since the league merger to have 150-plus points, as well as 25 or more assists, in a three-game spell – and he has done it twice this season.  

If his feats on the court were not enough, the 30-year-old has also found the time to drop three tracks on a new EP titled "Live From The Bubble". Both on and off the court, Lillard has capitalised on the opportunities presented to him during this unique campaign, one that is far from over for him and his team just yet. 

The playoffs will be different, of course. They always are. The Lakers will focus on stopping Portland's top scoring option, but without Lillard's recent efforts the Trail Blazers would surely have missed out on even getting a shot at causing an upset in the opening round.

SEEDS OF CONCERN FOR LAKERS?

And what of the Lakers, the top seeds in the West who are preparing for a first playoff appearance since 2013?  

They always had a long-term goal in mind, knowing the seeding games allowed key personnel to get enough minutes to be primed for bigger challenges ahead while still having plenty left in the tank.  

Coach Frank Vogel has also experimented with rotations with one eye on the not-too-distant future, so it is understandable that the overall numbers have dropped of late.  

Still, the Lakers ranked first in field goal percentage and fourth for effective field goal percentage when the season was halted in March -they were 19th and 21st in those respective categories in Florida.  

Indeed, the statistics where they saw numbers increase while going 3-5 was in turnovers and opposition scoring, which jumped to 113.4 points per game (instead of 106.9 earlier in the campaign).  

LeBron James and Anthony Davis also dipped in terms of production, the latter averaging 21.6 points, way down from his previous number of 26.7, in seven outings. 

The drop in output should not raise too many alarms, particularly with both stars in the conversation to be crowned overall MVP.  

Yet the Lakers will understand the unprecedented circumstances have altered the outlook for all teams still standing, particularly as home advantage no longer exists within the bubble. 

The seedings run was fun - now it is time to get serious. Those still alive will fight it out to discover who will be crowned champions at the end of a season that will never be forgotten.

Related items

  • Kevin De Bruyne injured: Liverpool, Man Utd and other games Man City star could miss Kevin De Bruyne injured: Liverpool, Man Utd and other games Man City star could miss

    Next month's trip to Liverpool is a no-go for Kevin De Bruyne, while March's crunch derby with Manchester United could be a return date for Manchester City's star midfielder.

    That is the predicament facing Pep Guardiola after he confirmed the Belgium international will be out for four to six weeks due to a hamstring injury sustained during the 2-0 midweek win over Aston Villa.

    De Bruyne, the reigning PFA Players' Player of the Year, has been in typically sparkling form for City this term, scoring three times and providing 10 assists in the Premier League.

    Guardiola's men are two points shy of league leaders United with a game in hand and into the last-16 of the Champions League.

    Here, we look at the key games within a battle on all fronts where the EFL Cup finalists will be missing their talisman.

    Cheltenham Town (A) - January 23

    De Bruyne would probably have been rested for the weekend clash with League Two Cheltenham Town in any case, although the fifth round on February 10 also looks to be out of the question if City progress. In 16 appearances in the FA Cup, he has five goals and as many assists - claiming one of each in the 6-0 demolition of Watford in the 2019 final

    West Brom (A) - January 26

    City are back in Premier League action against Sam Allardyce's relegation-threatened Baggies next week. De Bruyne has two goals and three assists against the Baggies in the competition but could not manage a goal involvement as Ilkay Gundogan and Raheem Sterling failed to convert his late crosses during December's 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium. City have won nine games in a row across all competitions since that setback.

    Sheff Utd (H) - January 30

    Another relegation candidate follows, with bottom club Sheffield United facing a daunting trip to Manchester. De Bruyne created Sergio Aguero's opener before completing the scoring for a 2-0 win in this fixture last season.

    Burnley (A) - February 3

    Perhaps surprisingly, giving City's succession of recent 5-0 wins over Burnley, De Bruyne has never scored against Sean Dyche's men in the Premier League. He does have three assists, including the decisive passes for Riyad Mahrez and Benjamin Mendy to net during the most recent mauling last November.

    Liverpool (A) - February 7

    De Bruyne scored from the penalty spot as City beat the recently crowned champions 4-0 last July, although he missed uncharacteristically from 12 yards in this season's 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium. Even though none of his five Premier League assists against Liverpool have come at Anfield, he will be a huge miss when City chase a first win on the red side of Stanley Park since 2003.

    Tottenham (H) - February 13

    De Bruyne scored in each of his first three Premier League appearances against Spurs and set up both City goals as the sides shared a thrilling 2-2 draw at the Etihad last season. Jose Mourinho's men were the last team to inflict a defeat upon City, 17 games ago.

    Arsenal (A) - February 21

    No Premier League team has conceded more goals to De Bruyne than Arsenal's five. City's number 17 scored twice and dazzled throughout in a 3-0 win at Emirates Stadium last term.

    Borussia Monchengladbach (A) - February 24

    UEFA named De Bruyne their Midfielder of the Season following his performances on City's run to the quarter-finals in 2019-20. Despite his club's patchy record in Europe's top competition, the 29-year-old has seven goals and 15 assists in 37 Champions League appearances for the English side.

    West Ham (H) - February 27

    Rodri converted De Bruyne's corner before the man himself rounded off a 2-0 win over West Ham when the teams met on February 19 last year. It was the last time fans were allowed into the Etihad Stadium.

    Manchester United (H) - March 6

    This could be the biggest Manchester derby for almost a decade given the state of play at the top of the table and must surely be the comeback target for De Bruyne. He opened the scoring in a 2-1 Premier League win at Old Trafford in 2016, a strike that remains his only goal involvement in seven league games against United.

  • NFC Championship Game: Rodgers and Brady to battle for Super Bowl spot NFC Championship Game: Rodgers and Brady to battle for Super Bowl spot

    The Green Bay Packers stand between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a Super Bowl appearance in their own stadium.

    In Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, two of the NFL's most revered quarterbacks will go head to head in the NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field on Sunday.

    Both QBs are in the MVP conversation, and Rodgers will be hoping to guide the Packers to the Super Bowl for a second time, having fallen at the penultimate hurdle three times since lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the 2010 season.

    But he is up against a veteran opponent with unparalleled experience deep in the playoffs in Brady, setting the stage for a battle for the ages.
     

    Looking back

    Green Bay had season worsts in points scored (10), points allowed (38) and total yards (201) in a 38-10 loss at Tampa Bay in Week 6. It was the Packers' only defeat by more than seven points this season and Rodgers' 35.4 passer rating was his third-lowest in a start in his career. The only previous postseason matchup between the teams – who were NFC Central rivals from 1977 to 2001 – came in the 1997 Divisional Round, and that was a 21-7 Packers home win.

    Championship form

    While the Packers have suffered defeat in three straight NFC Championship Games, all of those were played on the road. Not only are they at home on this occasion, they enter the game amid a prolific run that has seen them score at least 20 points in 21 straight postseason outings – the longest streak in NFL history. For the Bucs, this is just their fourth NFC Championship Game of all time, though their last appearance provided a road win over the Philadelphia Eagles in 2002. Tampa Bay could become the first team in the Super Bowl era to reach the Super Bowl, which this year will take place at their Raymond James Stadium, in the season they ended a playoff drought of at least 12 years.

    The QB battle

    In Green Bay's 32-18 win over the Los Angeles Rams last weekend, Rodgers had his eighth postseason game with multiple touchdown passes and no interceptions. The only quarterback with more? That's right, Brady (13). Rodgers is up to 50 TD passes for the season, making him the sixth different QB to reach that mark in a single campaign, but no one knows conference championship games better than Brady, who is set to make his 14th start in such games – twice as many as Joe Montana, who has the next most at seven. The 43-year-old is proving that age is just a number. After throwing his only two road game interceptions in Week 1, Brady has gone 368 consecutive pass attempts on the road without being picked off – an NFL record.

  • Dustin Poirier v Conor McGregor: The Notorious' previous 'comeback' fights ahead of UFC 257 Dustin Poirier v Conor McGregor: The Notorious' previous 'comeback' fights ahead of UFC 257

    'Mystic Mac' is back!... and not for the first time.

    Conor McGregor steps back into the Octagon having not fought since knocking out Donald Cerrone after just 40 seconds at UFC 246 over 12 months ago.

    That was supposed to be the first of three fights in 2020 for a rejuvenated McGregor, who had spent 14 months away following the ugly melee that followed his loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov in October 2018.

    Then, of course, a global pandemic caused chaos to the world of sport and, in June, McGregor announced he was retiring from fighting, citing he was just not excited about the MMA game.

    Fans of McGregor and the UFC had been here twice before and the scepticism that met his announcement was justified when it was confirmed the big-talking Irishman would face off against Dustin Poirier for the second time in his career.

    Ahead of that bout on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi this weekend for UFC 257, we take a look back at McGregor's past 'comeback' scraps.


    August 20, 2016 – McGregor beats Diaz by majority decision

    In March of the same year, McGregor suffered his first loss fighting in the UFC after submitting to a rear-naked choke from Nate Diaz at UFC 196.

    McGregor was slated to have his rematch against Diaz at UFC 200 but in April posted on Twitter: "I have decided to retire young. Thanks for the cheese."

    Two days later, he clarified that he had not actually retired but had fallen out with UFC bosses over promotional work and the fight was pulled.

    But the bout was eventually staged at UFC 202 in an absolute classic that saw McGregor avenge the defeat via majority decision.

    McGregor floored his opponent in round one and Diaz was downed twice more in the second round, but the Irishman survived a series of brutal blows in the third.

    Diaz scored a takedown late in the fifth but McGregor saw out the time with the three judges scoring it 48-47, 47-47, 48-47, leading to a famous declaration: "The king is back!"


    January 18, 2020 – McGregor beats Cerrone by knockout

    Five months on from the ugly aftermath of the Khabib defeat, McGregor announced, "I've decided to retire from the sport formally known as 'Mixed Martial Art'."

    High-profile incidents away from the Octagon had plagued McGregor, while he also launched his 'Proper No. Twelve' whiskey brand.

    Still, the lure of the UFC proved too much for one of the all-time greats and a focused McGregor was back to fight Cerrone in Las Vegas in a bout pitting two of the sport's most popular stars against one another.

    McGregor put on an absolute clinic and a series of brutal blows led to the bout being waved off after just 40 seconds. It marked his first victory in the Octagon since November 2016 when he defeated Eddie Alvarez to win the UFC lightweight title and become the company's first ever dual champion.

    After the fight, McGregor said: "I made history tonight. I set a new record. I'm the first fighter in UFC history to secure knockout victories at featherweight, at lightweight and now at welterweight - across three weight divisions, so I'm very proud of that."


    January 23, 2021 – McGregor v Poirier?

    "Hey guys I've decided to retire from fighting. Thank you all for the amazing memories! What a ride it's been!"

    And with that McGregor was done... again.

    But really we knew he wasn't, and once more McGregor will step into the Octagon against an opponent he is familiar with.

    Almost seven years have passed since McGregor earned 'Performance of the Night' honours after the fight was stopped after one minute and 46 seconds of the first round when 'The Notorious' put Poirier on the back foot then caught his opponent with a huge left hook behind the ear.

    So the question remains: how will McGregor fare on his latest comeback from 'retirement'?

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.