When the bubble started, the Phoenix Suns seemed to be a token invite, only included because they met the criteria that also earned the Washington Wizards a trip. For them, the seeding games were seen as an opportunity at development, growth and possibly some momentum for the next season. The roster is young and has upside, but the Suns' culture has been one dragged down by losing, frustration and frequent turnover.
The eight games could be a refresh, an offseason that wasn't an actual offseason, but something to reset. Because the Suns' season actually started with promise, opening up 7-4, but the 25-game suspension to Deandre Ayton eventually caught up with them.
Their opening win in Florida wasn't all that eye-catching, as it was against the Wizards. But beating the Dallas Mavericks two nights later was a signal. Two nights after that, Devin Booker splashed a falling jumper over Paul George to beat the LA Clippers. The Suns were 3-0, and it wasn't just about development anymore. There was suddenly a goal.
Sometimes there are touchstone, fulcrum moments that turn around a franchise. A big play, a significant win, a galvanizing speech, a tweeted promise -- there's often something to look back on that played a role in sparking an upward climb. And Booker's shot might be that for Phoenix.
"You want your guys to have a bar," coach Monty Williams said. "And once we started to play a certain way, I was able to hold them to something. And that's what we want to be.
"But we've raised the bar."
They didn't get into the play-in. They watched together in a lounge at the Yacht Club, hoping Caris LeVert's step-back shot would find a way to fall for the Nets to beat the Blazers. The playoffs would've been icing on the cake for a surprising, captivating run, but the 8-0 Bubble Suns might have a long-standing impact on the franchise.
"I think we've gained the respect of the league, and that's huge," Williams said. "It's huge for us as an organization. It's huge for us as a team. There was some sentiment before this that we didn't belong, and I think we've changed that sentiment."
Booker -- who is still only 23 -- was an All-Star this season, but he was initially snubbed before replacing Damian Lillard at the last minute. Booker's numbers were undeniable, but as the best player on a perennial loser, he was building a reputation as an empty-calorie scorer. These eight games went a long way in changing that perspective.
"We had one objective -- to get better -- and we did that," Booker said. "I think we approached this with the right mindset from the beginning, from practices, from training camp in Phoenix, from the first two weeks we got down here, everybody was locked in on all cylinders."
And there is one thing the Suns can say that no one else in the NBA can -- they haven't lost since March. -- Royce Young
Logo Lillard returns, Blazers advance to series with Grizzlies
The Portland Trail Blazers' star finished his run in the bubble with a 37.6 scoring average, topping it off with a 42-point effort to push his team into a play-in series against the Memphis Grizzlies. The highlight of the night? Another 3-pointer from the likeness of Jerry West near midcourt.
Portland came into the day in eighth place but would have fallen out of playoff position with a loss, thanks to victories earlier Thursday by Memphis and Phoenix. Had the Blazers lost, the Suns would have inched ahead of them into ninth.
Brantley's breakout moment
Jarrell Brantley had been waiting for his chance.
The Utah Jazz forward logged just 15 minutes before entering the bubble, and as Utah began preparing for the playoffs, rest for the regular rotation players was in order. For Brantley, that meant finally getting some playing time.
Late in the fourth quarter, with the Jazz looking to put the game away, Brantley broke out on the fast break and finished big at the rim over Luka Samanic.
The Utah bench erupted in kind, celebrating the big play and showing the rookie some love. Brantley finished with 16 points and six rebounds, and his first NBA highlight.
Booker leaves MKG in the dust
The Suns stayed perfect in the bubble as they fought for a spot in the West play-in. Buckets like this sure helped.
Not off the jabstep @DevinBook— Tyson Chandler (@tysonchandler) August 13, 2020
The Grindfather and Z-Bo are in the building
"Grit 'n' Grind" legends Tony Allen and Zach Randolph were spotted in the virtual crowd during the Grizzlies' final seeding game. A win clinched Memphis a spot in the West play-in.
What were LeBron and AD laughing at?
The world might never know.
LeBron & AD can't stop laughing on the bench 😂 pic.twitter.com/8tGaTGUBMr— ESPN (@espn) August 13, 2020
LeBron's historic streak will continue into 2020-21
LeBron James scored 17 points in 15 minutes in Thursday's seeding-round finale for the Los Angeles Lakers. Head coach Frank Vogel said he wanted to play James in the first half to "get him some work, some rhythm" against the Sacramento Kings since it was the last chance for a tuneup before L.A.'s playoff opener, which probably will be Tuesday.
While it wasn't the smoothest performance for the 17-year veteran -- he missed a couple of point-blank attempts at the rim in the second quarter he'd surely like to have back -- he did secure some statistical achievements worth noting. His streak of scoring 10 points or more extended to 995 games -- he'll officially take the streak, which began on Jan. 6, 2007, into next season with a chance to push it to 1,000 in the first weeks of 2020-21.
And while his four assists dipped his season average to 10.2, he still leads the league, earning him the first assists title of his career.
-- Dave McMenamin
The Kings are headed back to reality
After weeks of being in the NBA's protective bubble, the Kings are headed back to the outside world.
After the Kings finished the restart with a 136-122 win over the Lakers, coach Luke Walton talked to his team about the most important thing this offseason: focusing on staying safe and healthy.
"It's very strange," Walton said of the Kings going from being in a bubble to leaving after a game. "And this has been life every day for over a month now. We're excited to get home and see our families, but it is different. It's one extreme and then we are going right back out there to the real world now. And part of the messaging to the players was, guys, we have to be very smart about how we act when we get out of here. ...
"We have a lot of responsibility as far as continuing to wear a face mask, continuing to social distance, washing our hands. Normally that is not part of your last postgame meeting with the team. But for right now, that is probably the most important messaging to give the guys.
"We don't know when we are playing again. We got to make sure that we take care of ourselves and stay safe."
-- Ohm Youngmisuk
The Wizards leave the bubble with a W
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The Washington Wizards became the first team to leave the NBA campus Thursday -- and they did so on a high note.
After losing each of their first seven seeding games inside the league's bubble at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, the Wizards beat the Celtics 96-90 before flying back to Washington. By the end of the day Thursday, at least two other teams -- the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans -- will have joined them, and two others from among the four fighting for a spot in the play-in round -- the Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs -- will see their seasons end, too.
For the Wizards, a win is a win -- regardless of whether it came against a Celtics team that was resting its top six players in preparation for facing the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the playoffs next week.
"Well, I think we had a great experience here," Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. "We had a lot of good growth, a lot of good bonding experience, a lot of positives came out of it. ... We grew up a little bit these past two months together.
"I'm happy with it, and we're all excited about the next phase of our development, and right now we are going to go home and connect with our families and go from there."
-- Tim Bontemps
What Westbrook's injury means for Houston's playoff run
An MRI Wednesday revealed a strained quad muscle for the Houston Rockets' All-Star guard, who's now expected to miss at least the start of the team's playoff series next week. How will the Rockets replace Westbrook and how much will they miss his presence?
Updated West play-in standings
8. Portland Trail Blazers* | 35-39 (.466) | --
T-9. Memphis Grizzlies* | 34-39 (.466) | --
T-9. Phoenix Suns | 34-39 (.466) | eliminated
* Clinched spot in West play-in
Friday's must-see games
For both of these teams, the goal will be to get into the playoffs healthy. Denver, which has dealt with injuries throughout its time in the bubble, probably will be exceedingly cautious in this game as it waits on the return of wings Gary Harris and Will Barton.
The same should go for the defending champions, who sat rotation players OG Anunoby and Serge Ibaka on Wednesday and have been judicious with minutes over the past few days. Head coach Nick Nurse probably will give most of the Raptors' regulars the day off. -- Tim Bontemps
These two teams met Monday, and the Heat cruised to a comfortable win. With this now set as a first-round playoff series, expect both teams to rest their key players in preparation for their showdown starting early next week. -- Bontemps
While Chris Paul will be going up against his old team, it's hard to see him playing much. Same goes for Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. What all of that will mean is Reggie Jackson will get a revenge game against his old team -- which probably means big numbers from him (if anyone is actually playing DFS on the final day of seeding games). -- Bontemps
The focus for these two teams won't be what happens on the court, but instead what the health of two of their biggest stars is off of it. Joel Embiid left Wednesday's game against Toronto because of a wrist injury, and Russell Westbrook sat out Houston's loss to Indiana because of a strained quad. -- Bontemps
Analysis and intel
Other awards include Comeback Player of the Bubble, Sixth Man of the Bubble and Best Coach
The playoff picture is beginning to take shape as the final week of seeding games continues.