Popping the Bubble: A Recap of the 2020 NBA Playoffs
The 2020–2021 NBA season is only a few weeks away and I wanted to share some of my thoughts as this short offseason comes to a close. The first few days of free agency were wild to say the least. A free agency class that was deemed by most experts to be mediocre or predictable at best surprised us, made us scratch our heads, and made some teams look a little more exciting than we ever imagined. I’m going to comment on some broader narratives that might be relevant for this season and talk more specifics for certain players or teams. If you have any comments or feedback, please let me know! Here goes nothing.
Last season was a season in the wackiest way possible. An exciting year of games abruptly ended in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rudy Gobert, Utah’s defensive anchor at center, tested positive for the coronavirus on March 11th prior to Utah’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder and what followed was a swift shutdown of the league by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Most teams in the league had some connection to Gobert (either by having played the Jazz or by having played someone who played the Jazz) and this meant that many more players had been exposed to the virus. Other major sports leagues followed the NBA’s example but what had been a promising season of basketball was left hanging in the balance. Not to mention that key games had been played shortly before the shutdown: LeBron James’ Lakers had recently defeated the Clippers and the Bucks, the two teams that most people pegged as the Lakers’ main competition for the title. All of this coming in the same season when Lakers’ legend Kobe Bryant tragically passed away made us realize just how fragile and chaotic life can be. From March to May, most people had their doubts about whether the season would continue and many thought it would be a bad idea for games to resume. If it did start up again, how would things work? And if it didn’t, was this season just a waste?
As protests raged on worldwide in late May in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery amongst many other cases of police brutality, the NBA announced on June 4th that there would be a restart to the season. 22 teams were invited to participate (9 from the Eastern Conference, 13 from the West) in what was deemed the “NBA Bubble”, a closed-off environment constructed by the league in Florida’s Disney World to ensure player safety. Some players on invited teams opted out of the bubble and chose to prioritize their families and their health. These decisions made a lot of sense: the season usually ends by June anyways and with racial issues at the forefront of everyone’s minds, many players considered using their time to help push for change. Players like Jaylen Brown and Damian Lilliard participated in protests around our nation prior to the restart and to players’ credit, the league made space for social justice messaging on their courts and on player apparel (like warm-up shirts and masks). At the end of the day, it seemed like most players on returning teams were eager to play and actively use the restart as a platform to push for systemic change and promote the Black Lives Matter movement.
Before we move on, it’s important to note that the NBA had enough funds to invest in a large volume of effective testing whereas this has not been the case for the rest of the country or world. Although the league deserves a lot of credit for the fact that there were no cases of coronavirus throughout the entire bubble (yes, 0 cases!), they certainly had the resources and backing of many well-resourced owners as well.
Team staff and players slowly trickled into Disney World come early July. A limited number of writers and reporters were also let in and everyone was forced to quarantine in their hotel rooms prior to engaging in further activities. While some players arrived later than others, training camp, scrimmaging, and seeding games (essentially a mishmash schedule of regular season games) all happened without any positive tests and brought us to the middle of August which is when the league’s new play-in tournament happened. New Orleans with its cadre of young talent failed to make the playoffs while Lilliard and Devin Booker showed out for their respective teams in the seeding games with only Lilliard’s Trail Blazers making the playoff tournament after beating Memphis to claim the 8th seed in the Western Conference. Six teams left Disney soon after while the remaining squads hunkered down for what they hoped would be a few more months of bubble basketball.
First round matchups went as expected with a few bumps here and there. Portland came into their fight against the top-seeded Lakers with high hopes and the hot hand. Taking Game 1 in the best-of-seven series had many fans speculating about whether the Blazers could actually send LeBron home early but it was not to be. The Lakers would go on to win the next four games and complete the gentleman’s sweep. An exciting Dallas team fueled by young superstar Luka Doncic pushed the Clippers to six games but eventually bowed out, leaving basketball fans everywhere wondering about what the Mavericks could do with a fully healthy Kristaps Porzingis and possibly…a Giannis signing in the near future? A crappy OKC squad led by a resurgent Chris Paul lost in a seven-game battle with Houston’s “small ball” lineups while the Nuggets came back from a 3–1 deficit to overcome the Jazz who got a series of ridiculous scoring nights from star guard Donovan Mitchell.
In the East, three matchups ended in sweeps while Milwaukee beat the Orlando Magic in five games. Boston handled Philly and Joel Embiid, who could not catch a break after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury. Miami showed its depth and silenced seeding games star T.J. Warren in a sweep. The reigning champion Toronto Raptors took on a star-less Brooklyn team that fought hard but ultimately came up short. And thus, eight more teams packed up their bags to finally head home after two months of being away from friends and family.
Second round matchups were touted as more competitive contests and that ended up being true in some cases. Many thought the Lakers would have trouble with the Rockets while most picked the Clippers to handle the Nuggets. Milwaukee, the team with the best defense and best regular season record, was expected to go through Miami. And the Celtics and Raptors both prepared for what most people thought would be the tightest out of all these matchups. The Lakers would go on to beat the Rockets just like they beat Portland in 5 games. Miami shocked Milwaukee in 5 games which revived murmurs about Giannis’ playoff weaknesses. The Celtics and Raptors lived up to the hype and went the distance. The on-court struggle that played out was a reflection of the mind games that Brad Stevens and Nick Nurse, two of the best coaches in the league, engaged in throughout the series. The Celtics ultimately triumphed in seven games to ensure that a new champion would be crowned at the end of the playoffs. Last of all, the Nuggets shocked the world by pulling off another comeback, this time coming back from a 3–1 series deficit to top the Clippers in 7 games. The Clips, who brought cyborg Kawhi Leonard along with 2018–2019 MVP candidate Paul George on board the previous offseason were labeled as chokers and became the laughingstock of the league overnight. The emergence of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic in this series was exciting to watch but ultimately spoiled an all-LA matchup that many had been looking forward to since even before the season began.
The Nuggets would meet their match in the next round against the Lakers. Led by the ageless LeBron and matchup nightmare Anthony Davis, LA emerged victorious in a highly competitive five-game series. Denver would leave the bubble with heads held high after having proved to the world that they truly deserved to be in the conference finals. In the East, Miami flexed its depth and defensive prowess by dispatching Boston in six games, thus spoiling what could have been a classic Lakers-Celtics battle in the Finals (a matchup that happened a decade ago between Kobe’s Lakers and the Big-3 era Celtics).
An Epic Finals Battle
In the Finals, we saw LeBron James going up against his former team and coach in a battle of the star power vs. depth. The series would also provide fuel for debates about whether this year’s title would really “count” given the unique circumstances surrounding this season. The Lakers were expected to win and the Heat found themselves in familiar territory as clear underdogs after having been just that in their previous two series against the Bucks and Celtics. Expectations remained the same after the Lakers went up 2–0 to start the series while Miami faced a number of devastating injuries to key cogs Goran Dragic and Bam Adebayo, who had been huge contributors throughout their playoff run. Miami came right back in Game 3 despite this rash of injuries, led by a 40-point triple-double from Jimmy Butler. The Heat got AD in foul trouble early and he was only able to contribute 15 points in 33 minutes but it was Butler’s toughness, shot-making ability, and all-around awesomeness that really shined in this pivotal game (Butler’s 40 points equalled the 25 and 15 that LeBron and AD put up).
The Lakers made adjustments in Game 4 by putting AD on Butler (it’s ridiculous that you can do that with a big man) and beat the Heat 102–96 behind LeBron’s 28 points and stellar team defense. Even though the Heat had key contributions from a number of players (Tyler Herro was plugged into the starting lineup, Bam Adebayo came back from injury, and Butler filled the box score with nearly another triple-double), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and the Lakers bench supported AD and LeBron enough to pull out the victory to give LA a commanding 3–1 lead.
Game 5 was simply…I don’t even know. With the Heat on the brink of elimination, Butler played 47 (yes, 47!) minutes and only sat for 48 seconds. Despite being hobbled by what seemed like a bad ankle since the game before, Butler poured in another efficient 35-point triple-double and hit clutch free throws in the minute to force a Game 6. A huge game by Duncan Robinson, who was 7 for 13 from downtown, supported Butler in his endeavors and probably saved him from passing out from exhaustion. This game featured a classic duel between Butler and LeBron down the stretch, with each matching the other with bucket after bucket (just look at this play-by-play per Basketball Reference). Down 109–108 with 16 seconds left, Danny Green missed a wide-open three-pointer and the Lakers turned the ball over despite getting the offensive rebound. The Heat would put away the game shortly thereafter with two free throws from Herro.
An exhausted and beaten up Heat squad entered Game 6 hoping to push the series to a winner-take-all Game 7. They welcomed Goran Dragic back after he had missed all the action from Games 2–5 but he didn’t play starter minutes and was clearly not 100%. Miami’s wear and tear started to show and Butler only went for 12 points in what would be his quietest outing of the series. The Lakers would end up facing little resistance on their way to a 106–93 blowout victory that saw the Heat down 28 at halftime. LeBron’s ability to just pump out ridiculous games night in and night out was on full display as he finished with a triple-double (although some of the points were in garbage time) and brought the championship back to LA. He also took home his 4th NBA Finals MVP Award and had some choice words to say in his on-court postgame speech. GOAT debates resumed the next morning on most major sports networks and after nearly four months of bubble life, the last two teams left standing flew home to see fans and family. The 2019–2020 NBA season, the longest in basketball’s history, was officially over. What a ride it was.
Basketball was really exciting in the bubble. With no fans around and no home court advantage, we got to see young players blossom while established stars reminded us of their greatness. We saw players running into one another in the hotel after games, Zoom press conferences, and a handful of instances where players violated bubble regulations in the weirdest ways possible. The level of play seemed higher and everything was bigger than basketball. Here are a few intriguing storylines from the bubble that I wanted to highlight.
The Miami Heat entered the playoffs as the 5th seed in the Eastern Conference and surprised everyone but themselves with their run to the Finals. It’s been clear for a while that Miami runs a tight ship with Coach Erik Spoelstra and team president Pat Riley running the show and that’s clearly paid off with their signing of Butler and development of young talent in Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. A team that clearly believed in themselves, worked harder than others, and had unmatched depth proved to the world that they had arrived despite being relatively young and inexperienced. Their destruction of the Bucks and league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo was just that, a complete decimation. Dispatching the Celtics in six hurt for me (I’m from the Boston area) but you’d be crazy to not appreciate how they did it (Exhibit A: this block from Bam Adebayo). Heck, if they hadn’t gotten so injured in the Finals, maybe we’d be talking about a completely different series. All in all, Miami put the league on notice and will be looking to challenge for the title against this year.
A Perfect Ending
Of course the Lakers had to win the title this year. The franchise and fanbase that was hit the hardest by the horrific death of Kobe Bryant returned to the top of the basketball world and some might say the legend’s spirit was right there with them until the end. Nevermind the fact that AD followed up his game-winning buzzer beater in Game 2 of the West Finals against the Nuggets by mouthing “Kobe” as he jumped into and kneed Talen Horton-Tucker in the chest. I’m not even a Lakers fan and I held my breath a little as AD’s teammates mobbed him after this dagger.
This was also the perfect ending to the year for LeBron, who was sidelined by a groin injury for 17 games last year and subsequently missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2004–2005 season. He proved to Lakers fans that he could do what Kobe did five times all while continuing to develop and evolve his game. He started at point guard and shooting guard 57% and 37% respectively this season, rates that are comparable to how much time he started at the 3 and 4 respectively last year. He led the league in assists per game and averaged above 10 for the first time in his career. His passing has been this good for a while but this year’s Lakers squad only unlocked those abilities more (some credit must go to their coaching staff, AD as what Thinking Basketball’s Ben Taylor calls the “GOAT lob finisher”, and to the rest of the Lakers squad that consisted of many smart players who grew to meld well with LeBron’s court vision). In my head, I view the LeBron-AD duo as (this is gonna be obscure) Ferra & Torr from the video game Mortal Kombat X. In other words, LeBron is able to channel his passing prowess optimally through AD and AD’s shooting ability and size is maximized when he plays alongside a floor general like LeBron.
The Bucks and Clippers were by far the biggest disappointments from this past year. Many experts predicted that they would meet one another in the Finals before the year even started but neither team really got that close to raising the Larry O’Brien trophy. Both teams have retooled this offseason but they still have to prove it on the court. The Bucks in particular desperately need Giannis to stay if they want to have a chance at competing at the highest levels for years but they’re still waiting on his plan of action heading into this season (will he sign the supermax this year? next year? or leave Milwaukee?). I’m hesitant to say that Milwaukee’s done enough this offseason to definitively turn themselves into a 4-series team but it’s possible that an improved Giannis jumper is all they need to make the leap.
The Clippers were humbled this postseason after going up 3–1 against the Nuggets. An extremely poor performance from both Kawhi and PG-13 in Game 7 of that series and peculiar (to say the least) lineups put out by Doc Rivers throughout their battle with the Nuggets fueled robbed us of an all-LA West Finals. And whether or not you think they deserved it, the Clippers were mocked to no end for weeks as they watched the Lakers cruise through the Nuggets in five games. Out of all the teams that bowed out before the Finals, they might have the largest chance of winning it all next year mostly because they still have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. I’m personally a part of the skeptical crowd that is still waiting to see if this team can live up to expectations, especially after all the headlines that emerged about a lack of team chemistry that could be directly attributed to the team’s approach to load management. Kawhi becoming a more vocal leader could change that team fundamentally but then again, it took an all-time level choke job for them to miss the conference finals and I don’t think anyone expects that to happen again.
Bigger Than Basketball
This year’s been a lot. As I mentioned above, NBA players experienced the events of this year in a unique way as the bubble was announced shortly after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police. The Black Lives Matter movement stood front and center as Americans continued to struggle through the COVID-19 pandemic which has since gotten even worse. Players were allowed to wear jerseys with social justice messaging (think phrases like “Black Lives Matter”, “I Can’t Breathe”, and “Say Her Name”) and many of them spoke about these recent tragedies in post-game interviews.
On August 23rd, an African-American man named Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin (there are more details to this incident, please read up on it yourself!). NBA players responded promptly by refusing to play more games and the country as a whole erupted once again. Although Blake didn’t die from his wounds (somehow), movements for defunding and abolishing the police were reinvigorated. The remaining teams at Disney questioned why they were playing once again. It started with the Bucks choosing as a team to go on strike for Game 5 of their series against the Orlando Magic which was scheduled for August 26th. The other teams followed suit and teams in other sports did the same.
For several days, the season hung in the balance once again a month into this entire experiment. Reports from the bubble claimed that players had convened to discuss the situation and a vote on whether they wanted to stop or continue the season saw both the Lakers and Clippers vote to leave the bubble. LeBron James and National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) president Chris Paul even phoned Barack Obama to see what could be done with the power the players had. Games only resumed on the 29th after several days of these meetings which ultimately led to the league announcing several social justice initiatives. I think the players utilized their voices and platform well in pushing the league (and most importantly team officials and governors) towards these commitments, which included forming a social justice coalition that will spearhead the league’s efforts to push for meaningful criminal justice reform. You can find more details about the league’s official commitments after this brief hiatus during the playoffs in this article by The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears and in this report on NBA.com.
Apart from league-wide efforts, individual players have been actively pushing back against systemic injustices with their voices and with their resources. More Than a Vote, a voting rights group that LeBron James helped found, was focused on transforming sports facilities into polling locations to combat black voter suppression. Other well-known figures became a part of the group’s team, including all-time great American sprinter Allyson Felix, comedian Kevin Hart, and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. This fight against systemic racism and police brutality has been going on for many years at this point and while the league and the players have take rather historic steps towards joining in that fight, I hope they also support activists and organizers who have been out of the spotlight but still doing the work this whole time.
Basketball is in Good Hands
The emergence of several young stars during the playoffs bodes well for the future of NBA basketball. We saw Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray throw haymakers at one another in a seven-game series; in fact, they scored 51 and 50 respectively in Game 4 and they both had one other 50+ point outing in the series (Mitchell had 57 in Game 1, Murray poured in 50 in Game 6). Murray continued his solid play in the 2nd and 3rd rounds against both of the LA teams and I’m excited to see what kind of campaign he can put together this coming season as both he and Nikola Jokic develop further (Murray is only 23, Jokic is 25). Jokic himself has proven himself to be a big-time playoff performer and he showed out this postseason especially against the Clippers. They just had no answer for the Joker’s playmaking ability and size.
Even though the Mavericks didn’t make it past the first round, Luka Doncic continued his MVP-caliber play against the Clippers and this step-back (shown below) to even the series at 2 games a piece. Could we see Doncic take yet another step in his 3rd year? Considering how well he played last year, I’m not sure but the potential is definitely there.
In the Eastern Conference, the game ball doesn’t exactly belong to any player in their early 20s. Yes, Jayson Tatum of the Celtics played like a clear #1 option and Bam Adebayo of the Heat did enough to earn himself a max extension this offseason. With the Bucks disappointing and the Raptors playing without a clear-cut alpha (Pascal Siakam played poorly by his standards), the player who shined the most has got to be Jimmy Butler. Butler is already 31 but after spending time on a number of teams and not exactly fitting in with any of them, he found his way to the Heat his offseason. Remember, he and the 76ers were eliminated by a Kawhi Leonard baseline jumper that bounced…forever before going in (see below).
Butler’s superstardom is real and we should all be glad he’s finally found a team in the Heat that matches his intensity and will to win. Few can go toe to toe with Playoff LeBron but Butler really did it all while averaging 43 minutes per game on a bum ankle in a Final series where the Heat were forced to give starter minutes to Kelly Olynyk and Kendrick Nunn. He landed at #10 in Ben Taylor’s annual Top 10 Player Rankings due to his play in the postseason and we’ll have to see whether he can do the same next season with the East becoming increasingly competitive.
Given everything that has happened this year, it’s remarkable that the 2019–2020 NBA season was seen through to the end. Sure, you can attach an asterisk to the championship all you want but with no home court advantage and virtual fans in place of loud human beings, there is no doubt that we were treated to some really good basketball this year. Till next year…or next week.