8 Things We Learned During NBA's Home Stretch
The NBA’s return to action has delivered some great basketball. Damian Lillard’s overall performance, Luka Doncic’s triple-double against the Milwaukee Bucks and Devin Booker’s game-winner over Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have stood out.
But memorable as those exploits and moments may have been, we already knew Lillard, Doncic and Booker were stars capable of greatness. We must turn elsewhere for the biggest takeaways from the bubble experience.
Each team entered the bubble with different mindsets. Some had to hit the ground running while others could afford to prioritize rest for some of their players.
Players have taken advantage of more opportunities, teams have made leaps, and much more.
Here are a few takeaways from the bubble.
Red Hot T.J. Warren
T.J. Warren announced his presence in the NBA restart in the first Indiana Pacers game. He dropped 53 points against the Philadelphia 76ers. He instantly became a big story in the bubble. He followed up that performance with 34 points the next game and then 32 the game after that, and he also dropped 39 against the Lakers.
Warren’s regular-season stats split pre-bubble and in the bubble are telling. In particular, his three-point shooting has gone through the roof, going from 37.5 percent to 52.4 percent. Most impressively, his scoring average has gone from 18.7 points to 31.0.
With Indiana losing Domantas Sabonis—its second-leading scorer—and still trying to work Victor Oladipo back into the flow, Warren's offensive explosion has been even more important, and it has led to victories. The Pacers have won all four games he’s scored 30-plus to help stabilize their place in the Eastern Conference standings.
Warren’s offensive run has been one of the biggest shocks in the bubble. It would make the Phoenix Suns cringe for trading him if it weren’t for their own surprise.
The Suns Are Rising
No team was as hot as the 8-0 Phoenix Suns. Many thought they did not even belong in the bubble. Very few figured they would play a role in the play-in picture, and they fell just short.
It is impossible to point to one thing to explain their winning streak. Mikal Bridges has appeared to take a leap in his offensive development going from averaging 8.7 points pre-bubble to 12.8 in the bubble. Pairing this jump in scoring with his defensive skills helped coach Monty Williams keep him on the court.
Then there is the continuing growth on the defensive end for Deandre Ayton this season. In his rookie season, Phoenix had a defensive rating of 113.3 with him on the court. This year, that number dropped to 108.5. The Suns have a top-five defense in these bubble games with a rating of 107.4, and they have a bubble-leading 12.9 net rating—a far cry from their -1.0 pre-bubble net rating.
Dario Saric played great as a backup center. This is something coach Williams only stumbled upon with the absence of Aron Baynes. Cameron Payne experienced a career revival after being on the brink of falling out of the league. And of course, Devin Booker raised his game yet again, adding more points a night to his scoring average to up it to 30.5 in the bubble.
They shocked everyone by going undefeated and almost ended up in the play-in series. Even though they did not make it, this opportunity has shown that they can make a serious run at the playoffs next season.
Unleash Michael Porter Jr.
The Denver Nuggets entered the bubble with not enough players to run a full practice. Neither Gary Harris nor Will Barton has logged a minute of basketball since the NBA returned. The lack of bodies left the door to playing time ajar for Michael Porter Jr.
He has busted that door down with his performance in Florida.
Porter was on track to be one of the top draft picks in the 2018 draft before he suffered a back injury. He slipped all the way to 14th where the Nuggets nabbed him. Porter also sat out the entire 2018-19 season to rehab his back.
During this season, Porter had shown flashes of brilliance on the offensive end but had struggled to break through the Nuggets rotation. His biggest problem was defense, which led to coach Michael Malone not playing him major minutes. In the pre-bubble NBA, Porter was averaging 14.0 minutes and 7.5 points per game.
In the bubble, he’s leading the Nuggets in scoring with 22.0 points and rebounding with 8.6 boards. He has also found great chemistry playing off Nikola Jokic. Porter has become the dynamic third option the Nuggets desperately needed.
Duncan Robinson Heats Up
The Miami Heat have experience dealing with great shooters like Duncan Robinson—just look at their time with Ray Allen. The second-year wing has been on fire all season from deep, shooting 44.8 percent.
Robinson’s shot-making ability has been just a part of the equation to his success. It has also been how he has been doing it. It has not solely been off catch-and-shoot opportunities but also operating in coach Erik Spoelstra’s dribble handoff game.
Paired with another breakout Heat star in Bam Adebayo, it has proved difficult to stop. For the season, he’s averaging 1.36 points per possessions off DHOs with the highest frequency of anyone playing in the bubble.
This action has resulted in him getting to the free-throw line at a much higher rate than before the bubble. The four-month break has not slowed him down one bit. Robinson has essentially shot the same percentage from three and improved his free-throw rate, which has led to an increase in his scoring averaging from 13.3 to 17.1 in the bubble.
Robinson’s star and reputation are rising. Teams will begin to lock on him during the playoffs and see if he can handle the increased pressure.
Gary Trent Jr. Stepping Up
The Portland Trail Blazers are on a mission to get into the playoffs. Even if they fail, they’ll come away from their games in the bubble knowing that Gary Trent Jr. is a heavy rotation player. Neil Olshey found a gem with the 37th pick in the 2018 draft and coach Terry Stotts’ staff has done a great job developing him—though most of the credit should go to Trent himself, of course.
Before the hiatus, Trent was getting 20 minutes a night and was just a marginal player for the Blazers. In the bubble, he has been a key figure. His minutes have gone up to 34.1 and so has his scoring. Trent has gone from scoring 7.7 points to averaging 16.9 since the restart.
The big improvement has come from Trent’s three-point shooting. It has shot up 8.9 percentage points to 50.7 percent. His catch-and-shoot game has become a valuable weapon for the Blazers and Damian Lillard. Anytime defenses try to overload one side of the court or pack the paint on any Lillard pick-and-roll drive, he’s available to drop in a three on the weak side.
It is more than just his offense that has improved. Trent has been locked in defensively. Even though he is a bit undersized, the Blazers defense has been much better with him on the court versus off. Their team defensive rating goes from 115.3 when he is on the court to 127.4 when he’s off.
With Rodney Hood’s season-ending injury earlier in the season to Trevor Ariza opting out of the bubble, the Blazers needed some role players to step up, and Gary Trent Jr. answered the call.
Toronto Raptors Defense Has Some Bite
Since the NBA restart, the Toronto Raptors have had the scariest defense. It has further established coach Nick Nurse as a mad scientist who is not afraid to throw out any type of defense to ruin a team’s offensive flow.
The Raptors defense is a true case of five players with very high basketball IQs working as one unit. Any combination of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, OG Anunoby and Serge Ibaka on the court has been excellent. Except for when Gasol goes to the bench, there is very little defensive drop-off when one of these players are off the floor.
Defense on the court
Defense off the court
Stats from NBA.com/stast
Going into the bubble, the Raptors were second in defensive rating at 104.9 and just behind the vaunted Milwaukee Bucks, who were first with a rating of 101.6. Since the restart, they have the best defensive rating, and it is not close. They are at 101.8, and the next-closest team’s defensive rating (Rockets) is 106.4.
The Raptors defense has length, size, craftiness and, best of all, the continuity to keep them in any game come playoff time.
Lonzo Ball's Struggles
It was a very disappointing trip for the New Orleans Pelicans to the bubble. The table was set nicely for them to make a run at the play-in game. Their playoff dreams took a hit when Zion Williamson’s minutes were limited. And Williamson’s lack of court time affected Lonzo Ball’s play.
Ball was balling in his first season with the Pelicans, averaging 12.4 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.2 assists before the hiatus. A large part of his improved play had been his improvement as a three-point shooter. Last season, he shot 32.9 percent from three. He improved that to 37.3 percent before the hiatus. On catch-and-shoot threes, he was at 40.0 percent.
However, once the games began in the bubble, Ball struggled. His shot stopped falling. In his seven bubble games, he averaged 7.1 points and shot 28.1 percent from three and 27.3 percent on catch-and-shoot threes. His poor shooting definitely contributed to the Pelicans’ poor showing. He even acknowledged it on Monday when he told reporters: “Usually, when I play well, we win. Obviously, I didn’t play well this trip.”
The Pelicans will have some questions they’ll need to answer before next season, and where Ball fits in their future is one of them.
In mid-March, it appeared the Los Angeles Lakers were rounding into form, coming off big wins against the Bucks and Clippers. Then the games came to a screeching halt, and since the restart, the Lakers have not looked right.
The big question following the Lakers all season was whether they had enough around Anthony Davis and LeBron James. It’s become a bigger question since their offense has taken a nosedive. They entered the bubble with a top offensive rating, but they have the league’s second-worst rating since the restart.
The biggest culprit has been their three-point shooting. It was not great to begin with at 35.5 percent before the hiatus, but they have shot just 30.3 percent in the bubble. Their best shooters have gone cold. Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are shooting below 30 percent from deep. Plus, they are without Avery Bradley’s 36.4 percent, which is another blow to their offense.
There is some good news for the Lakers. This is the best Kyle Kuzma has looked on both ends of the court. He is their best shooter in the bubble, knocking down 44.4 percent of his threes on 5.1 attempts. Defensively, his effort has been outstanding. He accepted the challenge guarding Paul George at times against the Clippers and Luka Doncic when they played Dallas.
The Lakers clinched the top seed very early in the bubble and have not had much to play for since then. They better hope they find their offensive flow again once the ball tips off for the playoffs.
Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men's national team. Follow him on Twitter, @MoDakhil_NBA.