Jimmy Butler erased the Eastern Conference favorites in a Game 1 stunner. Chris Paul turned back the clock to rescue the Oklahoma City Thunder. And two best-of-seven series’ in the first-round of the Western Conference playoffs will be decided by winner-take-all Game 7s.
Bubble basketball, it turns out, does not disappoint.
The NBA playoffs continue Tuesday night in the Disney World bubble in Orlando, where the Boston Celtics will look to take a 2-0 lead on the Toronto Raptors and the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz will finish their captivating series with a must-watch Game 7.
Here’s what’s happening around the league:
• Two All-Stars owned the playoff spotlight on Monday: Butler and Paul, who delivered victories for the Miami Heat and Thunder, respectively, with incredible individual performances. For Butler, who scored 40 points in a surprising Game 1 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, the moment only reinforced that he’s found a perfect fit in South Beach, according to ESPN:
“It’s hard to explain how much (Pat) Riley and head coach Erik Spoelstra love Butler. They’ve had a few players like this over the past 25 years.
“Alonzo Mourning. Tim Hardaway. (Dwyane) Wade. Udonis Haslem.
“But never have they fallen faster and harder than they have for Butler, the type of hard-nosed, team-focused, no-nonsense leader they would create in a laboratory if they could. Even Wade, who has taken on a sort of captain emeritus role, is smitten.”
• Meanwhile, Paul dazzled during a 28-point, zero-assist outing in which he scored 15 points in the fourth quarter. The Thunder have Chris Paul to thank … and not just for forcing Game 7, according to The Athletic:
“The Thunder can thank Paul for pulling Luguentz Dort to the side for encouragement during a Game 5 shooting slump that put the team in an offensive hole. They can thank him for taking pride in Darius Bazley on and off the court. In the day between the Thunder’s Game 5 blowout loss and their season-saving Game 6 win, Paul gushed about how the 20-year-old rookie was one of two players from the Thunder involved in meetings when the NBA’s players walked out last week.
“Investment. Paul didn’t have to have any in the Thunder after being traded last summer, but he showed early in his tenure that he wasn’t going to sulk in Oklahoma City. His large contract and the shadow of his ugly playoff exit from Houston made it difficult for trades to materialize. Instead of forcing his way out and making the Thunder accept a deal for pennies on the dollar, Paul upped his value by injecting spirit into a franchise looking for its next chapter.”
“It is hard to overstate how badly Utah embarrassed Denver through four games. The Nuggets at that point were allowing 131 points per 100 possessions — 16 points worse than the league’s leakiest regular-season defense. Michael Malone, Denver’s coach, was playing schematic and matchup whack-a-mole. Nothing worked.
“Skeptics within the league wondered if some team down big in the first round — without home-court advantage to buoy them — might pack it in. The Nuggets were never going to do that. This core proved its grit before it even made the postseason.
“Murray imbues the Nuggets with a relentless confidence. He just keeps coming. His chest is always puffed out. He was taking superstar shots before he even sniffed stardom, as if he were entitled to them. You might have chuckled when he missed: Who does this dude think he is? Murray, meanwhile, was astonished they didn’t go in. The fearlessness has rubbed off on Jokic, who is more willing to take postseason games by the throat instead of waiting for them to come to him. Utah’s Donovan Mitchell has matched Murray shot for shot, giving us one of the great one-on-one duals in playoff history (even if they rarely guard each other).”
• The arrival of the NBA playoffs, of course, means it’s almost silly season in the league … and fans will soon be tantalized with trade rumors and free agent dreams. On that note, Bleacher Report has fixed the worst trade for every team in the last decade, which, for the Blazers, means erasing the ill-fated move to acquire Aaron Afflalo at the trade deadline in 2015:
“Afflalo wasn’t supposed to be the center of attention in Portland, but rather the second-team spark to complement one of basketball’s best starting fives. But that plan went awry after Wesley Matthews suffered a torn Achilles less than one month later. Suddenly, Afflalo was tasked with being a primary piece for Portland, and it just never came together for him or the Blazers. They were 36-17 at the time of the trade, went just 15-14 the rest of the way and were bounced out of the opening round in five games.”
• The Athletic’s Joe Vardon is one of the few reporters covering games inside the bubble, and he offered some behind-the-bubble sights and sounds from the dramatic and entertaining Game 6 matchup between the Rockets and Thunder:
“The way Chris Paul and James Harden were staring through each other was the kind of shared looked usually reserved for divorce court, moments before custody is awarded.
“What drama. The hard glare from Paul and the long stare from Harden, the former Rockets teammates who no longer get along, a few seconds from Paul’s new team forcing a Game 7 against his old one. The Internet soaked it up.
Except, the look you thought you saw … didn’t really happen. From my seat inside the arena Monday, for the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 104-100 win over Houston in Game 6, I could see Paul looking down toward Thunder coach Billy Donovan with 3.8 seconds left. What the TNT camera showed was Paul and Harden standing next to each other at the foul line, while Danilo Gallinari was about to make the game-clinching free throw, staring daggers through each other. But their eyes never met.”
“I sat courtside, as usual, inside the bubble and took copious notes, being sure to document what you couldn’t see or hear on TV. Paul, a famous talker, is reason enough for the exercise. But Harden and Westbrook, as high-wattage superstars, provide reams of good material. The Rockets are world-class complainers to the refs. Dennis Schroder’s trash-talk has nuance. Let’s hope Game 7 on Wednesday lives up to this.”
• The Ringer takes a look at the NBA’s great awakening:
“The NBA prides itself as a leader on issues related to dismantling racism. When the league resumed its season this summer, sequestering its players in Walt Disney World amid nationwide protests against police killings of Black citizens, it echoed the messaging from the Movement for Black Lives. Players wear slogans like “Say Their Names” on the backs of their jerseys, and “Black Lives Matter” is emblazoned on the courts for the television-viewing audience to see. While many players felt uneasy about playing games in a bubble while the dual crises of a pandemic and racism impacted their families and communities back home, they felt their platform would allow them to amplify messages of racial equity. But conflating exposure and visibility with action, particularly radical action during moments that demand it, has long been a source of concern and criticism among organizers in the Movement for Black Lives.”
• CBS Sports reveals what it’s like to be a virtual fan in the bubble, declaring that technology is nothing without humanity behind it:
“Once the game starts, you watch the broadcast on your laptop or device, but one cool part is that you’re about a minute ahead of other fans watching on their TVs — appropriate given the whole “living in the future” theme. I’m not ashamed to say that more than once I texted friends making impossibly accurate prognostications about what they were about to watch on their screens: ’I don’t know why, but I just get the feeling Jayson Tatum is gonna miss a 28-foot jump shot on the next possession. Call it a hunch.’
Sadly, my Nostradamian exploits curried me no favor with my disinterested text chain.
You’re encouraged to cheer and interact with the other fans in your section, and another fascinating aspect of being a virtual fan is that the players on the court can actually hear you — sort of. Fear not if you reflexively and impulsively shout out that Joel Embiid is a bum, the players can’t hear specific comments like that. Instead the sound from all of the virtual fans is mixed together to create ambient crowd noise in the Disney arenas. So despite being potentially thousands of miles away, you can still quite literally be a part of the game.”
• Brandon Ingram has been named the NBA’s Most Improved Player, the first time a New Orleans Pelican has earned the honor.