For the first time ever, NBA playoff basketball has been played outside of spring due to COVID-19, but the games have not disappointed. The playoffs have been as exciting, if not more so, than past years’ playoffs.
For any who doubted that basketball could be played with the same effort and intensity inside of the bubble rather than inside arenas packed with thousands of fans screaming and cheering on their teams, the last few weeks have put those doubts and worries to rest.
The bubble has seen records broken, games running to the wire and buzzer-beater game-winning shots, which has been a smashing success for anyone who is a fan of the game of basketball.
The Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns came into the Orlando bubble on fire and with something to prove.
The Suns, led by All-Star Guard Devin Booker, went an undefeated 8-0 in their seeding games, but they still missed the playoffs, even after Booker averaged 30.5 points per game in the bubble, while also setting the franchise record for most 30-point games with 91.
His standout moment came when he splashed in 35 points and hit a mid-range, fadeaway buzzer-beater over two of the best defensive players in basketball — Kawhi Leonard and Paul George — to beat the L.A. Clippers 117-115 and to keep the Suns undefeated.
The shot lived up to the late, great Kobe Bryant’s words to Booker of “Be Legendary.”
“Kobe’s with me everyday, you guys see what I put on my shoes, be legendary, that’s a reminder for me,” Booker commented after the game.
However, the biggest revelation coming out of the bubble’s seeding games was Weber State’s own Damian Lillard, who has stolen the show during the NBA restart, after a record-shattering two weeks of basketball.
Lillard averaged 37.6 points per game through the eight seeding games, while also showing why he has been given the nickname “Logo Lillard” as he has dumbfounded defenses with deep threes from near half-court.
Lillard also broke his personal record of most three pointers made in a game; against the Denver Nuggets, he buried 11 on his way to 45 total points and a Trail Blazers victory.
Then, two games later, he went for 51 points on the 76ers, joining Kobe Bryant and James Harden as the third player in the last 20 years to score at least 293 points in a stretch of six games.
During this stretch, Lillard was shooting an astounding 57 percent from three-point range, which included a 61-point outing against Dallas and a 16 assist game against the Celtics to give his team a shot at the playoffs in a play-in game against the Memphis Grizzlies.
After outstanding performances, Lillard and Booker headlined the All-Bubble First Team, with Lillard also earning the MVP of the two weeks of seeding games in the bubble.
The Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers met for the first play-in game for the NBA playoffs in playoff history, as the bubble format dictated.
While Portland led by as many as sixteen, their lead was cut down and Memphis held the lead late into the fourth quarter with the help of rookie sensation Ja Morant dropping 35 points and dishing out eight assists.
It still wasn’t enough for Memphis as Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic proved too much and Portland walked away with a 126-122 victory.
With Portland’s victory, the 2020 playoffs were set; first round matchups pitted the Lakers vs. Trail Blazers, Jazz vs. Nuggets and in the Eastern Conference, Celtics vs. 76ers and Heat vs. Pacers.
Playoff action tipped off August 17, with the first playoff game a blazing start between the Jazz and Nuggets.
Neither team let their foot off the gas, with Donovan Mitchell carrying the Jazz to a seven-point deficit going into the second half.
Mitchell continued carrying the team and finished the game on fire, as he scored 38 points in the fourth quarter and overtime.
However, it was still not enough for the Jazz, as the two-man game of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić proved lethal in overtime; Murray’s flurry of threes just couldn’t be stopped. The Nuggets pulled away, outscoring Utah in overtime 20-10 with Mitchell clearly gassed out after carrying the team for the entire game.
Mitchell’s team-carrying performance resulted in him scoring the third-most points in NBA playoff game, and the most since Michael Jordan dropped 63 points while flying through the air inside the Boston Garden in 1986.
Mitchell’s 57 points also broke the Utah Jazz playoff scoring record, previously held by Karl Malone, who scored 50 against the Seattle SuperSonics in 2000.
With the playoffs off to a scorching hot start, it only heated up from there with the first Blazers-Lakers game.
The Blazers jumped out with an early 16-point lead in the first quarter, behind the strong aggressive play of Nurkic and Lillard, but LeBron James and Anthony Davis weren’t going away, despite the slow start.
James and Davis led the Lakers right back into the game as the Lakers took a six-point-lead midway through the fourth quarter off of James’ three pointer.
However, Lillard continued to prove he may be the most clutch player in basketball as he buried a game-tying three, a go-ahead three and dished an assist to Carmelo Anthony for a game-sealing three in the closing minutes.
James knows what he’s up against; he said before the game to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, “Lillard is the most under appreciated and underrated player in our game.”
The Lakers were the second number-one seeded team to lose their first playoff game in the bubble, as the Bucks fell to the Magic 122-110 despite the reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo putting up 31 points and grabbing 17 rebounds.
The series is just getting started, as James’ 23 points, 17 rebounds, and 16 assists is the only time in NBA playoffs history a player has had over 20 points, 15 rebounds and 15 assists.
Now after the last few weeks of basketball, the entire NBA knows what James and the Lakers had already realized when Lillard dropped 48 points on them at Staples Center back in February, and after he took Game 1 from them in the bubble, and that fact is it’s not easy trying to tame a Wildcat.