NBA bubble opens with dream finals possibility, Zion Williamson drama
Adam Silver’s Orlando bubble has not burst.
Considering baseball’s COVID-19-riddled journey, that’s the most important element as the NBA’s 22-team restart with an eight-game regular season commences Thursday at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex. No players tested positive for the second week in a row.
As one head coach texted The Post, “The bubble is the safest place on Earth.”
Coronavirus permitting, the playoffs will begin Aug. 17 after six clubs go home. No home-court advantage. No fans. No leaving Disney World. Lots of daily testing, TV coverage and Mickey Mouse references.
If an asterisk is placed on October’s NBA champion, it’s an asterisk of honor. Mickey Mouse denied through his spokesman he will hand out the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy.
“They’re playing basketball, so it’s legit,” Charles Oakley told The Post. “I hope they can continue to keep guys out of the corona wave. It’s a long time in the bubble.”
When we left off
On March 11, the Lakers (49-14) and Bucks (53-12) were headed toward a collision in the NBA Finals — a matchup TV executives and Silver are salivating over. The top two MVP candidates, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo, would make for a compelling fall classic. However, a Lakers-Clippers Western Conference final has as much intrigue in The Battle for La-La Land staged in Fantasyland.
In truth, the Kawhi Leonard-led, second-place Clippers could be in for a monster first-round battle in a 2-vs.-7 series against the upstart Mavericks. Luka Doncic has emerged as a superstar with ESPN’s Mark Jackson calling him “a combination of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.’’ Paired with Kristaps Porzingis and a bounce-back season from another ex-Knick in Tim Hardaway Jr., don’t sleep on the Mavericks in the new world of no home-court edge.
Insiders warn the Miami Heat (41-24) could turn into Milwaukee’s toughest challenge. They are sneaky-good led by Jimmy Butler, solid defense, depth, selfless play and an underrated superstar coach in Erik Spoelstra.
The Pelicans leaped into playoff contention with the return from a season-long knee injury of Zion Williamson, who played 19 games and led New Orleans within 3 ½ games of eighth-seeded Memphis at 28-36. Williams averaged 23.4 points.
Finally there’s the Rockets of James Harden and Russell Westbrook in what could be Mike D’Antoni’s fitting swan song as coach. The pioneer of small-ball and speedball went full bore with no center after trading Clint Capela and using P.J. Tucker in the pivot and Robert Covington at power forward.
What’s happened since
The Lakers are without two members of their rotation from their last outing, a March 10 loss to the Nets. Starting guard Avery Bradley opted out. Rajon Rondo broke his thumb after dissing the bubble-hotel accommodations. And so James has added two of his former Cavaliers mates in ex-Knick J.R Smith and Dion Waiters. Smith’s contributions in Game 7 in 2016 were key to LeBron ending the Cleveland title curse.
The Pacers got belted with the bubble loss of Domantis Sabonis (plantar fasciitis) and Victor Oladipo’s status being up in the air after initially saying he’s afraid to risk further injury to his surgically repaired knee. But some insiders say don’t count out a Nate MacMillan-coached Pacers team to spring an early-round upset.
The Nets are the NBA’s Marlins. Soon after the shutdown, the Nets had four players test positive for COVID-19 — only Kevin Durant was identified. Since, three more positive tests in the week before the Nets traveled to Orlando (Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince). Desperate, they signed Michael Beasley, who then tested positive upon arrival. The Nets could have easily fallen out of the playoffs (and regained a lottery-protected first-round pick) had Washington been at full strength. Bradley Beal bailed with, ahem, a shoulder injury, and Davis Bertans passed, too, to protect his free agency. .
Donovan Mitchell reportedly was at odds with Rudy Gobert after both tested positive for COVID-19. They supposedly patched things up, but neither can heal sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic’s wrist injury that leaves the Jazz lacking.
What to look for starting Thursday night
Zion Williamson’s Pelicans face the Jazz, one of two games Thursday to kick off the restart. Of course they are. There are players from six non-playoff teams in Orlando but the only one who matters to Silver is Williamson.
Will he play the opener after returning to practice Tuesday? Williamson left the bubble July 16 to deal with a family emergency but returned eight days later. He wants to ignite a Pelicans playoff push to overtake Memphis and Rookie of the Year favorite Ja Morant. Getting a more sculpted Williamson up to speed after the COVID-19 suspension and bubble departure will be a fascinating “seeding games’” storyline. Zion versus Ja for the final Western playoff spot to play the top-seeded Lakers.
There isn’t as much buzz for the Nets/Magic/Wizards cluster for the final Eastern spot. The Nets are so decimated they needed to sign Lance Thomas. The Wizards, who trail No. 8 Orlando by 5 ½ games, need to get within four games of the eighth seed to force a play-in series. It would be best-of-three with the eighth-place team needing to win just one.
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