Some of the greatest joys from the NBA’s return to action have been the storylines that emerged to captivate the attention of the bubble. In a league that delivers drama and intensity on a nightly basis, here are three of the most memorable storylines from the NBA’s seeding games.
Damian Lillard’s dazzling run in Disney
Michael Jordan made it abundantly clear during “The Last Dance” that great players are continually searching for a reason to get angry and subsequently raise their game. Damian Lillard is a great player who is officially ticked off. You don’t need to be an accomplished lip reader to see that Lillard has no qualms about letting that passion and anger show.
Dame wants his respect pic.twitter.com/FJqkd4QFhX
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) August 12, 2020
Lillard capped off what has been one of the most impressive stretches of basketball in recent history with a 42-point performance in Portland’s victory over the Brooklyn Nets. In a game in which a win meant securing a spot in the play-in game and a loss meant packing their bags and leaving the NBA’s bubble, Lillard delivered when the stakes were at their highest. The Nets desperately tried to force the ball out of Lillard’s hands through double-teams and matchup zone defenses, but Lillard was prepared. It’s impossible to double someone when they pull up from the center-court logo.
DAMIAN LILLARD DIDN’T COME HERE TO WASTE HIS TIME
— Overtime (@overtime) August 14, 2020
Lillard is arguably the best shooter off the dribble on long-range attempts in the NBA, as the further from the hoop he is, the more comfortable he appears. His 32 made pull-up threes in the bubble were almost double James Harden’s second-place total of 18. Lillard made a barrage of buckets throughout the resumption, leading the NBA in minutes played, points, three-pointers made and free throws made. His Harden-esque ability to create contact on threes leaves defenders in the equally hopeless positions of either closing out too aggressively and fouling him, or leaving him any sliver of space and watching him sink a deep-range three over a half-hearted close-out attempt.
Behind Lillard, the Trail Blazers are a team that can strike fear into any opponent, and the NBA’s elite are starting to take notice. An angry and motivated Lillard makes for must-see-TV whenever he steps foot on the hardwood. Lillard’s play should garner him “Bubble MVP” honors, as his performance in the seeding games will be one of the lasting memories from the NBA’s time in Disney.
Devin Booker’s performance during the Phoenix Suns’ undefeated run in Orlando was the peak of the first-time All-Star’s career. But as good as he was, it came as no surprise from the only active NBA player with membership in the ultra-exclusive 70-point game club. What was surprising for the Suns was the drastically improved play of Booker’s teammates. The Suns quickly became the Cinderella story of the bubble, and while Booker was the team’s leading man, head coach Monty Williams was the mastermind behind the scenes.
The Suns’ head coaching position has been a revolving door in recent years, with none of Williams’ three predecessors lasting two full seasons. Williams has begun building the franchise’s culture again, which has been lacking a clear definition since Steve Nash’s departure in 2012. After a four-month layoff during the middle of the regular season, establishing chemistry was a new and daunting task for all of the NBA’s coaches, but it did not faze Williams.
Phoenix had the highest net rating of any team in the seeding games at plus-12.9, a staggering increase from their minus-1.0 net rating from before the hiatus. Booker was not the only member of the Suns whom Williams instilled confidence in, as the Suns’ role players thrived as well. Ricky Rubio played more confidently than ever before, knocking down shots that his previous coaches would have discouraged him from taking. The young players Phoenix has invested in, like Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson, not only received crucial minutes for their development, but they also produced in those minutes.
While the ending of the Suns’ season is undoubtedly disappointing, Williams is the ideal leader for an up-and-coming team that plays with passion and energy. During their time in Orlando, the Suns made a mockery of anyone who questioned their inclusion in the restart. Phoenix has solidified its coach and superstar of the future in Williams and Booker. And given the success of the entire team, there will be a reason for optimism in the desert next season for the first time in a long time.
T.J. Warren’s shooting prowess
T.J. Warren has always been a great scorer, but his transformation into a lethal shooter is a testament to the work he has put into improving his long-range shot. Warren was a dreadful three-point shooter during his first four years in the NBA, connecting on just 28.3 percent of his triples, and attempting only 1.3 a game. With the increased emphasis on floor spacing, Warren adjusted his game to the modern NBA and turned himself into a reliable, low-volume option from distance before the NBA’s hiatus.
During the seeding games, Warren has more than doubled his three-point attempts from 3.0 a game before the break to 7.0. He is also shooting 52.4 percent on threes while not compromising efficiency for increased volume. Warren has always had an excellent in-between game with this season being no exception, as his 47 percent shooting on mid-range jumpers ranks in the 91st percentile for the season. Coming into the NBA, Warren’s high release on his jump shot was perfect for lofting mid-range jumpers over contested arms. Still, as Demar Derozan has proved countless times over, success from mid-range is not an accurate predictor of three-point ability. During his time in the NBA, Warren has tailored his shot to effortlessly launch threes regardless of the distance and his defender’s position. The shot below is not as effortless as Warren makes it look.
— Overtime (@overtime) August 4, 2020
Warren receives the pass back from Myles Turner right next to the Magic’s sideline, a few feet behind the three-point line. Even with James Ennis closing out, Warren drills the shot. Semi-contested long-range bombs are usually shots reserved exclusively for superstars like Lillard and Stephen Curry. Warren’s willingness to even attempt them speaks to how much his confidence has grown. That confidence was on full display when he knocked down the game-sealing shot against the Lakers.
On the most crucial possession of the game, Warren calmly sinks a contested three over the outstretched arms of Anthony Davis.
Pre-bubble Warren would likely have never attempted a pull-up three in the clutch. And when you consider the attempt came over one of the best defensive players in the NBA, you begin to understand the drastic improvements Warren has made as a shooter. Outside of Warren’s struggles in the Pacers’ loss to the Miami Heat, he was not only one of the best shooters in the bubble, but also one of the best players.