Here are 10 things I like and don't like from the NBA restart:
1. The champs' defense: The most exciting nerd thing in the NBA
Nick Nurse's funky zones get the attention, but Toronto's base defense is one of the best night-to-night shows in the NBA. The Raptors in full flight are beautiful.
They make stuff like this look routine:
The Raptors give up the most 3s in the league, and the most corner 3s in NBA history. Opponents have hit a league-low 33.4% from deep. Toronto has gotten a little lucky, but the Raptors are also dictating the terms of engagement.
They sell out to make sure your best players do not get their favorite looks. That leaves shooters open, but Toronto is better than anyone at closing space. Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby are long, fast, and hoppy enough to help and recover without requiring any rotations. When the Raps do toggle assignments on the fly, there are no hiccups. No one pauses to think. Each player knows what he should do, and has a deep, unspoken faith each teammate will shift accordingly. It is the rarest kind of team mind-meld -- the sort of shared knowledge and profound confidence players, coaches, and GMs spend careers chasing.
They discriminate in real time between so-so shooters and those who require constant attention. They are willing to live and die with role players shooting semi-contested 3s late in the shot clock.
And just when you think you have them figured out, Nurse injects matchup chaos. Against Miami this week, he had Marc Gasol defend Jae Crowder on the wing -- leaving Anunoby on Bam Adebayo, and Siakam on Jimmy Butler. Nurse picks defensive assignments by skill set as much as position. Gasol was fine chilling on the wing, waiting to pounce on drivers or jog at some Crowder non-corner 3.
That randomness can throw off opponents for two or three possessions -- enough to swing a quarter. It's wild to you, but not to them, and great power lies in the difference.
The matchup juggling confuses opponents in transition if the Raptors get a stop: Do we find our normal assignments, or stick with this bananas setup? Any hesitation opens a window of space somewhere, and those windows are oxygen for Toronto's transition attack -- the best in the league.
The Raptors are one of only two teams in Orlando -- Dallas is the other -- that entered the bubble in the same condition in which we last saw them: same health, same starting lineup, same rotation.
It shows. These guys are ready. They are real. They have emerged as the biggest threat to Milwaukee in the East, and they are a legit threat -- not a token, cutesy one. They do not fear the Bucks.
At some point, they will have to prove they can score enough in a slowed-down game -- they rank 15th in points per possession in the half court -- but they face that question knowing their opponents must pass the same test against their own defense.
2. The bubble TV atmosphere
The bubble games look and sound fantastic on television. Watching the run of play, I don't register anything new or unusual. The virtual fans are fun, including the celebrity pop-ins. During one Miami Heat game, the video board running along the sideline flashed a recorded image of Miami fans chanting, "Let's go Heat!" with the chant itself pumped in -- and it sounded like the real thing.
The NBA and its broadcast partners (hi!) have shown shocking restraint with gimmicky camera angles. Thank the basketball gods, there has been no SkyCam. The low corner angle they use in snippets allows for a clean-ish view of the floor, and a greater appreciation of how fast these guys jet around.
I've heard from players that the lack of a crowd feels awkward. The normal energy isn't there. That stinks. But the quiet has benefits for TV viewers: We hear every "Hell no!" from bench players mocking opponent shooters. Those shooters hear it, too; the bubble is producing record levels of mean-mugging and bad words directed at bench jokesters. A reminder for refs: Shooters who return taunts at yappy benches should be immune from technical fouls.
3. Jimmy Butler's 3-phobia
Butler's aversion to 3s is reaching DeRozan-y levels:
Butler's feet are straddling the arc before that pass arrives. He has zero interest in even looking at a wide-open bomb. Butler averages two 3-point attempts per game, his lowest figure since 2013, and has hit a hideous 25% of them -- worst since his rookie season.
This hasn't been an issue for Miami -- yet. The Heat rank seventh in points per possession and have drained a league-best 38% of their 3s. Butler is a bulldozing driver; he can pass up 3s and still find good stuff -- layups, free throws, canny passes. (Butler is shattering career highs in assists and foul shots.)
But there is not always a better shot around the corner. (Adebayo was called for traveling in the above clip.) There might not be time on the shot clock to generate one. Butler has hit just 32% on long 2s and 40% from floater range -- blah marks.
Miami's best lineups center on two players who do not shoot 3s -- Butler and Adebayo. All three players around them almost have to be both willing and decent 3-point shooters, a construct that limits the combinations Erik Spoelstra can use. Two of Miami's other starters -- Crowder and Kendrick Nunn -- barely qualify. Their remaining starter, Duncan Robinson, is one of the best shooters alive, but defenses have already started paying him more attention. They are going to face-guard him everywhere in the playoffs.
Butler was a league-average 3-point shooter over three straight seasons starting in 2016. He used to take, and make, a fair amount when defenders ducked under picks. The Heat would have a higher ceiling if Butler started doing that again.
4. Utah's ninth man problem
Another ripple effect of Bojan Bogdanovic's season-ending injury: The Jazz might not have any good options for their last rotation spot.
Emmanuel Mudiay got the first chance. Mudiay might grow into a solid scoring backup. He loves burrowing for floaters and long 2s, and has hit half his midrange shots this season, per Cleaning The Glass. He has the build to defend both guard positions.
But a dribble-happy type lacking a reliable 3-pointer is about the last thing Utah needs off its bench. Its top eight features four better ball handlers than Mudiay: Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, and Jordan Clarkson. At least two are usually on the floor. Mudiay provides zero spacing for them.
Quin Snyder pulled the plug in the second half Wednesday against Memphis and gave Rayjon Tucker a chance. I'd give Tucker a few games to earn that ninth spot. If he doesn't, the best and only option might be one Snyder appears not to like: an eight-man rotation. Utah should be able to craft one that doesn't stretch anyone's minutes too far.
5. Do not enter the Mikal Bridges vortex
Attacking Bridges one-on-one from a standstill is like exploring a black hole: It might be interesting for a few seconds, but nothing good is going to happen to you once you're in the vortex.
Bridges' arms are a menace to society. Devin Booker's buzzer-beater against the Clippers on Tuesday was possible only because one of Bridges' arms apparated into the path of Ivica Zubac's outlet pass after an initial Phoenix miss.
If Bridges keeps improving his 3-pointer -- he's up to 35% -- he will round into the perfect complement for Booker and Deandre Ayton: 3-and-D ace with just enough playmaking juice to keep the machine moving. He's one of the league's smartest off-ball cutters.
The Suns and Bridges are living proof that the process and results of team building don't always match. The Sixers won praise on draft night in 2018 for flipping Bridges (the No. 10 pick) for Zhaire Smith (No. 16) and an unprotected 2021 Miami first-rounder. In cold asset valuation terms, the Sixers won that deal.
Smith has played 143 minutes in 13 games. Bridges would be a snug fit next to Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Philly traded that Miami pick to the Clippers for Tobias Harris, and then re-signed Harris to a five-year, $180 million deal.
6. Devin Booker's passing
No, I will not sell you any of the Booker stock I purchased while corners of the NBA derided him as some empty-calories loser. (And, yes, Suns fans, I was one of the voices arguing Phoenix should not have been invited to the bubble. Even looking back today, I don't think I was wrong given what we knew then and what the NBA's priorities supposedly were -- i.e., limiting potential viral hosts. The Suns entered with less than 1% chance of finishing ninth, let alone making the playoffs, per our Kevin Pelton! They have proven everyone and everything wrong: humans, math, machines. It is a remarkable story.)
There has always been a weird disconnect between Booker's reputation and reality. He entered the league known as a 3-point virtuoso -- maybe the next Klay Thompson -- but proved more scorer than shooter. He can get buckets in any style, from any spot. As soon as Phoenix gave Booker the ball late in his rookie season, he showed way more passing chops than anyone -- including team higher-ups -- knew he had.
"We saw him as a traditional shooting guard," Ryan McDonough, the former Suns GM, told me in 2016. "To see him run the pick-and-roll, and make plays at this level -- that has surprised us."
Booker has dished almost seven dimes per game over the past two seasons. He navigates the pick-and-roll with a cadence that is somehow both smooth and unpredictable for defenses. Some ball handlers react. The best manipulate. Booker is a manipulator. He is a master at keeping options open, and disguising which one he prefers.
He has slung some passes in the bubble that make you think, "Wait, was that Luka Doncic? LeBron?"
Booker suckers him with a glance at Ayton. Finney-Smith lurches there. Booker whips the ball to Johnson while Finney-Smith is leaning toward Ayton. Finney-Smith has no shot to recover.
Booker zooms around Ayton's pick and decelerates into a languid right-handed dribble. It's unclear if Booker is going to dribble again or gather the ball. (Booker can gather and flick layups without using his left hand -- adding disguise.)
Booker also shifts to his right, hoping to drag Zubac a few inches that way -- providing Ayton space to zip to the rim after Booker's nifty pocket pass. That's mean.
Look how quickly he digests that the correct pass out of this post-up from Thursday's win was not to the cutter -- but to the shooter (Ricky Rubio) lurking behind that cutter:
By the way: Booker is 23.
Rubio is playing some of the best ball of his life. Phoenix also chased Malcolm Brogdon last summer, and he is a more obvious fit on offense next to Booker. "Phoenix was very serious," Brogdon told me in the fall. "That was definitely a possibility for me." But Rubio's good, and Phoenix needed someone good.
Booker might be Exhibit A in why the NBA should have included seeding games in awards balloting. He was a borderline All-NBA candidate, and he would have leapfrogged onto more ballots.
7. Caris LeVert, old-school triple threat
As the No. 1 option of a skeleton crew, LeVert has gotten to test his one-on-one game in new ways and from new places. He has gravitated to the left wing. He has a lethal first step going baseline, and he sets defenders up for it with twitchy jabs and fakes:
When defenders sit on that move, LeVert baits them with a head bob before bolting to his right:
LeVert has averaged about 15 isolations per 100 possessions in Orlando, up from 9.9 pre-bubble, per Second Spectrum. His efficiency has skyrocketed: almost 1.2 points per possession, a mark that would rank in the top five among players who have recorded at least 50 isos. LeVert has also drawn shooting fouls on 17.5% of those plays, which would just about top the league for the season, per Second Spectrum.
It's unclear how this translates to a world that includes Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving -- provided LeVert is part of that world next season. LeVert going Skinny Melo would be useful when one or both stars rest, but I doubt they'd be psyched about it becoming a huge part of Brooklyn's core offense. (Four efficient bubble games is not evidence it should be.)
LeVert has dished zero dimes out of his isolations in the bubble, and his assist rate on those plays overall is middling, per tracking data. LeVert has good vision and is smart using his arrhythmic off-the-bounce game to unlock passing lanes. But his playmaking comes and goes; he can be turnover prone.
More pressing for next season: LeVert has to prove he can hit catch-and-shoot 3s consistently. He's up to 36% from deep this season, but he has nailed about 40% of pull-up triples -- and an ugly 31% on catch-and-shoots, a really unusual split. LeVert was only 18-of-66 on catch-and-shoot 3s last season and has never hit better than 37% in any season.
LeVert has back-end All-Star potential. His one-on-one prowess in Orlando is a great sign. But he has to be the right kind of third star in Brooklyn.
8. T.J. Warren, gunning
Holy god. Even after coming back to earth against the Suns, Warren is leading the bubble in scoring, averaging 34 points on a preposterous 59/54/86 shooting line -- and, yes, there should absolutely be an official Bubble Scoring Champion, with a bubble-shaped trophy and everything.
He is jacking 3s off the dribble with zero hesitation when defenders skitter under picks:
Warren is 5-of-12 on pull-up 3s in bubble games. He had tried just 16 such shots in 61 games before the suspension of the season. He was 15-of-60 on pull-up triples combined over the first five seasons of his career. If Warren really has this shot in his bag, he will become a dangerous three-level scorer. He is shooting a career-best 74% at the rim, and walked into the league with one of its silkiest floater games. He never turns the ball over.
As I've noted before, Warren has bought in on defense in Indiana -- against both wings and power forwards -- after showing passing interest in Phoenix. Warren deserves a ton of credit, but so do the Pacers -- and especially Nate McMillan -- for building a culture that will not tolerate any less.
McMillan is a little Tom Thibodeau-ish in that his offenses have been stodgy and almost anti-modern, but surprisingly effective in some seasons. (He presided over two top-10 offenses in Portland.) Pending Victor Oladipo's presence, the Pacers are of the right collective age to take another mini-leap next season. It is fair to ask if reinventing the offense is a prerequisite to that, and if McMillan is the coach to do it.
What is indisputable: McMillan makes every player earn minutes on defense, and his teams make opponents earn every point.
9. The occasional Patrick Beverley record scratch
Everyone outside Oklahoma City loves Beverley's game -- snarling, in-your-jersey defense, trash talk unfurled in every direction. After arriving in the Chris Paul trade, he helped the Clippers form an identity that appealed to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
One small nit to pick:
Yeah, that's a nice closeout from Dion Waiters. But that has be a 3 or an instant catch-and-go drive. Instead, the Lakers reset their defense. Beverley gets the ball to Zubac with almost no advantage, and the possession peters out into a shot-clock violation.
A lot of the Clippers can be over-deliberate, though that doesn't matter with Leonard. He can do what he likes. But their offense could use more flow against elite defenses. Beverley acting with consistent decisiveness would help.
10. Washington's striped socks
There was no reason for the Wizards to be in Orlando, but they've wrung something from the experience. Troy Brown Jr. and even Jerome Robinson are getting ballhandling reps that might prove useful next season, when Bradley Beal and John Wall return. Washington really needs Brown to develop into a starter-level wing, and his performance in the bubble has been encouraging. He has always been a smart cutter and extra-pass type.
Most important: I was reminded of how snazzy the Wiz look in their stars-and stripes uniforms, down to matching striped socks most of the players bust out:
Washington has gradually excised Wizards-related images and wordmarks from its art -- basically everything but the Wizards name itself. That has been pleasing. These socks rule.