LAKE BUENA VISTA, Florida – As one of a dozen journalists with access to the vast NBA campus, I’m here to work, to cover the NBA reboot, to chronicle a historic experience. My boots are on the floor in the bubble, with many stories to tell.
But I have to say: Monday was a lot of fun.
I’ve been in the bubble for just over a month. I settled into a routine. I wake up early. I think about training. Some days I do. More often than not, I don’t. I wear sweatpants most days. Some days they sweat … shorts. I have breakfast around 9am, we cross our fingers that bacon and eggs are on the menu. If not, I go out with an ice cream shop.
I checked a few seeding games, but workouts were more my thing. I camp in the Coronado Springs lobby, where fields have been set up in empty ballrooms. I’d listen to LeBron, throw some questions at Brad Stevens and watch Kawhi Leonard and Paul George work. I talk about wrestling with Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly. I talk about boxing with Pelicans boss David Griffin. I know Marcus Morris, I have no relationship with Markieff and I spend at least part of the day worrying about misidentifying them.
I used to watch one game a day, but really, what to see? The race for seed number 8 was fantastic – NBA known: it creates a permanent play-in series – but everything else was … blah. The Bucks were doing things, even the Lakers and I am not here for the Zombie Wizards. The NBA has had three unofficial scrums. For some teams it was 11.
The playoffs, however, promised to be fantastic. How many teams can realistically win a championship? Four? Six? The Lakers miss Avery Bradley and the perimeter shooting is cratered. The vaunted defense of the Bucks was a shell of itself in the seeding games, and who knows how Giannis and his mates react to being a title favorite. The field is wide open.
Each series, each game has a meaning. And I didn’t have to travel for any of them. My Delta miles don’t accumulate, and the Marriott campaign to buy Disney isn’t going anywhere. But you can’t beat the convenience of a ten-minute bus ride. So on Monday, with the playoffs opening with four games in two venues aside from a football field, I went to all of them.
I started in Digital Denver, where the Nuggets opened up against Jazz. There is obviously no home advantage here. But the NBA does a decent job of simulating crowd noise. There is the drum and the defence I sing. There is the bellow of the Palestinian Authority announcer with every shot taken. There are virtual fans who greet opposing shooters on the free throw line.
You still hear things. In the second quarter Jordan Clarkson, upset at not having whistled, was whistled for a technical foul. Jazz coach Quin Snyder broke into the sidelines, yelling at the officer across the floor. “He suffered two of the three fouls,” Snyder said. “He was fouled – I haven’t heard him say sh– to a referee all year!” On the other hand, another referee T raised Snyder. Snyder turned, incredulous. Snyder: “What did I say?”
The game, however, was great. With Mike Conley away from the squad for the birth of his son, the burden of scoring fell on Donovan Mitchell. And if he took it, great. Mitchell shed 57, becoming the youngest player since – wait – Michael Jordan scored more than 50 goals in a playoff game.
It is rare to have a battle between two truly great men. Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert offered one. Jokic and Gobert have been rivals since 2014 and have played each other largely to a statistical dead end. This was the case for most of Monday, with Jokic (29 points, ten rebounds) and Gobert (17 and 7, with four blocks) having moments. Gobert is arguably the best defender in the NBA, but Jokic is a tough match. Gobert is not comfortable defending on the perimeter and Jokic lives there. It rained jumpers on Gobert in the opening, including four threes.
Denver pulled out in extra time, stopped by Jamal Murray’s 36 points. The entire narrative of “The Nuggets Needs a Marker” gets a little weaker each time Murray plays. Murray, who only exudes confidence, went head to head with Mitchell, finishing a squad plus-16. He connected on six of his nine three; Denver, as a team, punched 53.7% of them.
Toronto-Brooklyn was next, and two Bubly’s (I’m fond of that stuff) and a muesli bar later, I was in the north. Phoenix pulled the strings of the crowd last week when friends and family unveiled the starting lineup. On Monday, Toronto did the same, with Kyle Lowry’s sons Karter and Kameron, wrapping up some fun introductions.
The Raptors were among the brightest teams in the bubble, and they stayed that way in the opening, pounding the Nets by 24. Fred VanVleet, who each game adds another figure to the big payday win coming this offseason, has lost 30 Serge Ibaka added 22. Seven Raps players beat double digits. Kyle Lowry wasn’t efficient – 3-14 from the field – but he dropped seven rebounds, handed out six assists and controlled the game in the first half, which was more or less important.
Pascal Siakam’s bubble fights continued in this one. Siakam’s shot was erratic in the seeding games and it was again against Brooklyn. He only made four of his 13 attempts, finishing 1-4 from over the arc. Lowry, deeply aware of the need not to track Siakam, tried to get him to leave early, to no avail. He had the highlight of the game, catching a length of Lowry’s lob for an easy two.
“It was me, Tom Brady, (Michael) Vick, all those great quarterbacks out there,” Lowry said. “That was me. That’s what we do. It’s what we do, we great quarterbacks.”
Boston-Philadelphia was next, and two weeks ago the Celtics might have feared this match. Joel Embiid is a nightmare for Boston’s little frontline, and Ben Simmons is a defensive weapon Philly could field on any hot hand. With Simmons gone, Jayson Tatum is gone Street. His 32 points took Boston. His 13 rebounds did too. Tatum was an All-Star for the first time this season. He could become a superstar in these playoffs.
I’m old enough to remember when Boston took over for giving Jaylen Brown a $ 115 million four-year extension. It was last summer. Brown was coming out of a disappointing third season. He played a role in the Celtics’ dysfunctional locker room. His numbers went down across the board. Brown was good, skeptics said, but was $ 115 million good?
Short answer: yes.
Brown had 29 points in Game 1. He went out briefly in the third quarter, after taking Joel Embiid’s knee to the thigh. He shrugged off and scored 15 in the fourth quarter, including a three-way transition with 4:30 to play that stretched Boston’s five-point lead to eight, putting the game almost out of reach.
“It feels a lot better after a win,” Brown said later. “But I’m suffering a lot.”
No more than Gordon Hayward, and here’s the title on day one: in the fourth quarter, Hayward rolled his right ankle fighting for a rebound. He limped off the floor. He left the arena on crutches. The x-rays were negative and Hayward will have an MRI on Monday to determine the extent of the damage. Hayward had entered the last two Boston seeding games; losing him for a long time would have been a severe blow.
Finally, a cross-country trip to Los Angeles and … hey, look, the Clippers! LA struggled to reunite its team after the pandemic. They were bitten by the COVID-19 bug, had some gamers dealing with family issues, and lost Lou Williams for two weeks to strippers or chicken wings, depending on who you ask. When Montrezl Harrell stepped on the floor, it was the first time the Clippers had been whole.
The Clippers won, Kawhi Leonard (29 points) and Paul George (27) were brilliant, ruining the playoff debut by 42 points for Luka Doncic. Leonard is so impressive. In the fourth quarter, after three misses, Leonard allowed Maxi Kleber to get on him in transition. When the cross-court pass came, Leonard, like an NFL cornerback, hit the gas and took it.
The real MVP? How about Marcus Morris. In the third quarter, Morris clashed with Doncic. It wasn’t a surprise; Morris loves to get under the skin of an opponent and Doncic took the bait. During the brawl, Porzingis, who had already taken a technical foul in protest against a call at the start of the match, entered to separate them. A little light that pushes e boom-Porzingis was gone.
Dallas was leading by five at the time of the expulsion. They lost by eight.
The Mavs will have to show some courage for the series as well, but that’s for another day. A few minutes after the final buzzer I was back on the bus, back to Coronado Springs, back to the coffee shop, where four mini Krackel bars, a fruit popsicle and a Bubly were waiting. It is not the healthiest experience. But who knows? Maybe I’ll train tomorrow.