NBA

NBA debate: Huge day of games, best bubble moments and our play-in predictions

Thursday is the biggest day of the NBA restart, as we reach the conclusion of the red-hot Western Conference play-in battle.

The Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns will all be in action, and only two will advance to face off on Saturday.

We asked our experts to go 5-on-5 to debate the best moments of the NBA bubble, their biggest takeaways so far, and their predictions for the play-in winner — the team that will advance to face the Los Angeles Lakers.

MORE: West play-in scenarios for all four teams

1. Your favorite moment of the NBA restart so far?

Tim MacMahon: Damian Lillard launched Tuesday’s clutch 3 against the Mavericks from 33 feet, according to the official play-by-play — and it unofficially bounced that high off the back rim, or so it seemed, before splashing through the net. It was the signature moment of a high-stakes, 61-point performance from the Trail Blazers star who rightfully demanded that everyone put some bleepin’ respect on his name.

Tim Bontemps: Everything that Damian Lillard has done, including his scoring 51 and 61 the past two games — after missing a pair of crucial free throws late in a loss to the Clippers — to drag Portland to the verge of the playoffs. With feats like that, I’ve felt thankful to have the opportunity to see games in person after all that has taken place in the world over the past few months.

Dave McMenamin: I’ve likewise been fortunate to be in the building for the defining moments for the two bubble MVPs: Devin Booker’s one-handed fadeaway winner over the Clippers that rendered both Paul George’s and Kawhi Leonard’s defensive effort useless and Lillard’s back-rim bouncer that gave him 61 and helped secure a must-win game against Dallas.

Andre Snellings: The Rockets-Bucks game. David vs. Goliath. Small ball versus a team starting two 7-footers. The game was electric, featuring the past three NBA MVPs. The Rockets shot under 40%, gave up 110 points and got outrebounded by 29 — and won (the first team in NBA history to do that). Plus, Brook Lopez called out that he was guarding Russell Westbrook. Just fun all around.

Kevin Pelton: The stretch run of Dallas-Portland, which felt a lot like a playoff game in contrast to the other matchups this week where at least one team hasn’t had much motivation to win. Both teams had something on the line, their stars (particularly Lillard) shined and the outcome had dramatic play-in ramifications.

2. Your thoughts on the final four teams competing for the West play-in?

Pelton: Even if the Suns don’t make the play-in, this month has been hugely beneficial to their future. After years of flailing, they’ve found their star in Devin Booker, a number of quality role players around him and have built a culture of defense and accountability that was previously missing.

Bontemps: Phoenix and San Antonio more than justified their inclusion here. Both have seen young players step up and make big plays to win games, including Mikal Bridges for Phoenix and Derrick White for San Antonio. While both teams are unlikely to make the play-in game, they should be thrilled at what they’ve gotten out of their time in Florida regardless of how Thursday plays out.

McMenamin: Cameron Payne has been a legitimate contributor for Phoenix after being signed shortly before the restart. He’s averaged 10.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.1 steals per game for the undefeated Suns while shooting 50% from 3. One pet peeve is how internet culture can turn players into cartoon characters, and I’m glad to see Payne playing his way out of that.

MacMahon: Nothing in the bubble has gone the Grizzlies’ way, from injuries to key players (Jaren Jackson Jr., Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones) to their growing pains being visible to all. However, even if Memphis falls completely out of the play-in scenario on Thursday, Grizzlies fans should feel great about this season and the franchise’s future. They have one of the league’s most talented young cores, and those guys compete, even as the losses stacked up and the pressure mounted in the bubble.

Snellings: The Blazers are the team that doesn’t really belong in this group. With Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins healthy and Carmelo Anthony playing well, they are closer in caliber to the West finalists they were last season as opposed to a team that is still fighting to get in.

3. Fact or Fiction: The play-in should be here to stay.

Snellings: Fact. It would be more incentive for teams to keep battling for positioning for the entire season and more potential excitement at the end of the regular season. I’d like to see the criteria tweaked, though, to require both teams to be over .500 and within three games of each other.

McMenamin: Fiction. While I’m fully on board with the NBA introducing it for Orlando considering the regular season was compromised by COVID-19, isn’t an uninterrupted 82-game slate enough to ensure the eight best teams in each conference are getting in?

Bontemps: Fact. I think it’s a great wrinkle. We all saw how thrilling the Nuggets-Timberwolves game was a couple years ago. And these past two weeks have been dramatically enhanced by having it. I also think defining the maximum gap between the 8-seed and 9-seed — preventing the play-in from happening in the East — has worked well, too.

MacMahon: I’m lukewarm on the idea. It worked here because the schedule had to be shortened due to unprecedented circumstances. I would encourage the league to look at ways to get rid of late-season tanking by playoff teams hoping to avoid or dictate matchups. (Exhibit A: the Utah Jazz in the bubble.) How about letting the higher seed select its foe from the available pool?

Pelton: Fact. I don’t know what the best format is, but keeping this many teams engaged in the playoff race rather than looking ahead to next season is a net positive in my book.

4. Your biggest takeaway from the seeding games and the Orlando bubble so far?

MacMahon: Give the NBA a round of applause. The bubble concept has been executed to perfection, with zero positive COVID-19 tests on the Walt Disney World campus. The games, for the most part, have been entertaining and competitive. And the messaging from the players, coaches and league regarding racial injustice has been consistently on point.

Bontemps: I have been impressed by the crispness of the play and surprised by the level of intensity and competition across the board. Even the teams with little to gain from playing hard in these games have largely done so. It’s made for great competition and really fun, close and exciting games (excluding teams resting guys for the playoffs in recent days).

Pelton: For all the other factors at play — overzealous referees, the shooting background, rust — the offensive results we’ve seen so far indicate to me that there might not be any way to consistently shut down offenses who can create so much floor spacing with their shooting. (Though if one does exist, the Toronto Raptors seem closest to finding it.)

Snellings: It’s clear that teams care less about seeding than usual, which is intelligent due to the lack of home-court advantage in the postseason. Teams are resting their star players even in cases where seeding could still be on the line.

McMenamin: There was financial motivation to include a seeding round, but it also should benefit the basketball we see in the postseason. It has allowed coaches to see what they have to work with, and created opportunities for young guys such as Michael Porter Jr. and Talen Horton-Tucker who might be getting much shorter minutes had the NBA gone directly to the playoffs.

5. What are you watching most closely or looking forward to most as we approach the playoffs?

Snellings: Can the Blazers will earn that final playoff spot and a matchup with the Lakers? Lillard is playing at Megatron levels, his team is experienced and the Lakers can’t rely on home-court advantage. It shapes up as a scintillating scenario, a potentially classic first-round matchup.

Bontemps: My question is whether LeBron James and the Lakers have enough to get through the gauntlet in the West — potentially Portland, Houston and the Clippers. Will the supporting cast look better in the playoffs? How will Anthony Davis handle the greatest pressure of his NBA career? The Lakers’ shaky performance in Florida ensures they’ll continue to be fascinating.

Pelton: I wouldn’t say I’m worried about James’ play in the seeding games with little at stake, but how quickly he gets back to the level we saw during the regular season — particularly near the stoppage of play — is what I’m going to watch most closely moving forward.

MacMahon: Does LeBron look fully healthy? It might seem silly to nitpick his 29-point, 12-assist performance in the win over the Nuggets, but James grabbing only one rebound in a game raises eyebrows. Regardless of how the Lakers looked in the seeding games, I consider them the favorites if James is healthy. But if he’s not? Um, Lillard’s Trail Blazers would be a really dangerous first-round matchup.

McMenamin: How long will it take for the Lakers and Bucks to get it together? Or will they, even? Back in March, they seemed like heavy favorites to meet in the Finals. Would you say that now? The Clippers and Rockets both seem like formidable challenges for the Lakers to get past — man, even getting out of the first round doesn’t seem automatic for L.A. — and Toronto and Boston have both looked better than the Bucks so far.

Predictions: Which teams will make the play-in, and who wins?

MacMahon: Portland (8-seed) vs. Phoenix (9-seed). With all due respect to Phoenix’s phenomenal Cinderella story — and I agree with Suns star Devin Booker that this success can pay dividends for the franchise in the near future — there’s no way I’m betting against the Blazers to grab the West’s final playoff seed. Lillard is too locked in to believe the Blazers will lose, at least until they face the Lakers in the playoffs.

Snellings: Portland (8) vs. Memphis (9), with the Trail Blazers winning in one. The Suns have a difficult final game and need help to get in, while Memphis has only to defeat a Bucks team with nothing to play for that has already started resting its starters, and Giannis Antetokounmpo will be out due to suspension. Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers are just that good right now.

McMenamin: Portland (8) vs. Phoenix (9). The Suns run their win streak to nine before the Blazers beat them in the second game of the play-in.

Pelton: Portland (8) vs. Phoenix (9), with the Blazers ending the Suns’ winning streak.

Bontemps: Portland (8) vs. Memphis (9), with Portland winning by 15 on Saturday to advance to play the Lakers.

MORE: NBA schedule — four huge games on Thursday

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