Basketball is back, and the only thing that could be more exciting is lemon pepper wings being added to the Casitas room service menu. Two and a half days into this mad sprint to the finish and some fun story lines have developed into themes to watch.
Guys are going full-throttle
LeBron set the pace in a first night that saw him turn back the clock defensively, and James Harden and Giannis went full God mode on Friday, both shooting 14-20 from the field in their respective wins, but with so much to play for and so little time, we’re seeing minutes restrictions disappear and rested superstars out to set a tone. All of that has culminated in the average team score at 114. Now surely, there will be a decline once the playoffs begin and teams settle into a more half-court oriented style of play and defenses get more focused and stout, but this will also be the first time teams will be going into the playoffs without the weight of a an 82-game season hitched to their back. So expect scoring to exceed prior playoffs by a significant margin.
Melo can still go
The demise of Carmelo Anthony appears to have been greatly exaggerated. With the dearth of players at the small forward position for Portland, Melo played 37 minutes, was plus 2, and hit two consecutive big three’s down the stretch for the Blazers as they made a strong first push to make the play-in game. If Melo can continue to rebound–he chipped in 7 boards—and play passable defense, a big if, he could be a difference maker for a Blazers team with a legitimate chance of making the Lakers a run for their money in the first round of the playoffs.
The Youth Movement Matters
While the teams that will inevitably be playing for it all in a month and a half will likely not be Memphis, Orlando, Sacramento, Phoenix, or the all of a sudden young Spurs, because of circumstances with lean rosters and players like Jonathon Isaac, De’Aaron Fox, Dejounte Murray and other young budding stars getting the rest they needed to deal with nagging injuries, there has been an exciting display of up-and-comers in the early goings. Again, because of the fast-pace of the games, this is a perfect scenario for the young guys to get up and go. Ja played ten more minutes than his season average, Isaac looked to be back to his defensively menacing self, and De’Aaron Fox was punishing the Spurs with drives to the basket. It’s great what some time to get healthy can do for these guys, and now we get to see a small glimpse of what’s to come for the leagues next round of superstars. Add-in a healthy Bol Bol, Michael Porter Junior continuing to get back to his pre-back injury level of athleticism, and a more lean Zion, and the bubble has a ton of exciting young talent playing their kind of pace.
There are almost no legitimate questions that you can ask about Luka Doncic’s role as a super-duper star in this league. What he has done as a 20 year-old player in averaging 29-9-9 is unprecedented, he accounts for nearly 70% of the Mavs offensive output between his scoring and assists, while posting 62% true shooting. But he has been outright bad down the stretch of games all season. With his miss late against the Rockets, Doncic’s is now 0-10 on game tying or winning shots this season, and has had some turnover issues to boot. Now those late-game peccadilloes don’t erase just how transcendent of an offensive star Luka is, but for the Mavs to become a real threat in the west, he will have to play with better consistency and shot choice when it matters most. Again he’s just a second-year player and some of this criticism feels unfair, but with the jump he made in performance, comes a jump in expectations.
To each their own
While the NBA’s decision to allow players to represent the Black Lives Matter movement was both important and exemplary, we need to accept that individual players have the right to engage, or not, in whatever way they see fit. LeBron chose not to wear a different name, Jonathan Isaac chose not to kneel, and Jimmy Butler chose to go blank. That is those players rights, and while ideally the league would probably like to be a unified front on the matter, that’s impossible with such a diverse collection of personalities. And that’s okay. The league’s decision to allow passive protest into the bubble helped further the conversation about the movement, but players are allowed to be themselves and we as a collective need to give them that space. That doesn’t mean the media shouldn’t ask tough questions, or just allow any wild theory to go unfettered, but it does mean that players need to be allowed the space to figure out how they want to comport themselves.