Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 13, 2020

So Far, So Good, Inside The Bubble

In early June, when NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced the league’s plan to resume play at Disney World, he of course hoped that the idea of inviting just those teams within striking distance of a playoff spot when the regular season was halted in March and placing everyone involved in a closed environment, would work out for the best. Ten weeks later, with the long-delayed playoffs finally about to start, Silver is looking like a genius. Not only has the NBA, the first American professional sports league to suspend play because of the COVID-19 pandemic, managed to avoid the spread of the virus with incidents like those that have hobbled MLB’s schedule, but the brief conclusion to the regular season has produced a close and dramatic finish that is playing out as this is written.

While the decision to expand the teams that qualified for play in the NBA’s bubble beyond the top eight in each conference’s standings was arbitrary, inviting any team within six games of a postseason spot has resulted in half of the “extra” teams playing meaningful games right to the end of the regular season. When play was suspended the Memphis Grizzlies sat in eighth place in the Western Conference, one game below .500. But Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio, and Phoenix were all within the magic six games of Memphis, so those squads all made it into the bubble, albeit in less luxurious accommodations than franchises higher up in the standings.

With each team playing eight games to conclude the regular schedule, multiple losses eliminated New Orleans and Sacramento fairly quickly, with the same fate befalling the injury-riddled Washington Wizards, the one additional Eastern Conference team invited to the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex. But the Trail Blazers, Spurs and Suns all picked an excellent time to start winning basketball games, and when the Grizzlies ran off four straight losses once play began, the league’s final playoff spot became a four-way scramble.

As play began Thursday the only certainty was that there would be still more basketball before the postseason could get underway. The added twist in Silver’s plan, a nod to the reality that the 88 pre-playoff games contested in the bubble weren’t going to fully replace the 259 that had remained on the original regular season calendar, was a possible two-game play-in series for the final spot, if the eighth and ninth place teams in either conference finished within four games of one another. Thanks to the Grizzlies’ early stumbles that scenario has been locked in for several days. The rules for the play-in are that the eighth-place finisher must win one game to advance, while the ninth-place team must win two. Game One is now scheduled for Saturday afternoon, with the second contest, if needed, to be played on Sunday.

Silver’s original announcement left many pundits lamenting Memphis’s bad luck, since the Grizzlies went to Orlando so far behind the seventh-place Mavericks as to have virtually no chance of moving any higher than eighth, but with all the extra invitees close on their heels. But the idea wasn’t to punish the franchise that originated in Vancouver a quarter-century ago and has never won even a division title, much less topped its conference’s standings, or claimed the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Adding extra teams allowed the NBA to schedule additional regular season games in the bubble, which of course meant more revenue from the league’s television contracts, as well as giving the teams involved a chance to collect on their own local media deals.

For all the concern about poor Memphis, we now know the Grizzlies are still alive. Postseason, or at least play-in, scenarios existed for all four squads when Thursday dawned. Some were dependent on results beyond the control of a given franchise. But for Memphis the instruction was simple – beat the Milwaukee Bucks Thursday afternoon, and be assured of no worse than ninth place in the final standings. While defeating one of the favorites to win this year’s title might be a tall order come this time next week, Thursday’s game was little more than a pre-playoff walk-through for the Eastern Conference’s top seed. Plus, the Bucks were without superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was serving a one-game suspension for headbutting an opponent. Memphis led by one at the first break, by ten at the half, and blew the game open in the third quarter before coasting to a 119-106 victory.

Shortly after the Grizzlies notched their win, the Suns completed a perfect two weeks of games in the bubble, dispatching Dallas 128-102. Phoenix made it to Orlando on the number, having been six games behind eighth place Memphis when the NBA season stopped. But with the Grizzlies going just 2-6, the 8-0 run by the Suns moved them into a tie in the standings at 34-39. Whether that’s good enough to keep playing will be known by the end of the evening. If Portland beats Brooklyn, then the Trail Blazers finish eighth and nudge Memphis down to the ninth spot, ahead of the Suns by virtue of the league’s first tiebreaker, head-to-head games. But if the Nets prevail then Portland’s season ends, and it’s Memphis versus Phoenix Saturday afternoon.

The one other Thursday morning hopeful was San Antonio. But the early wins by Memphis and Phoenix eliminated the Spurs, ending that franchise’s incredible run of twenty-two straight playoff appearances. In addition to five titles, in that time San Antonio won 1,260 regular season games, far more than any other franchise. Second place on that list belongs to Dallas, but perhaps the clearest measure of the Spurs greatness year after year is that the gap from number one to number two – 211 wins – is larger than the gap between the 2nd place Mavericks and the 21st place 76ers.

But like so much else that is different about 2020, this year’s NBA playoffs will proceed without San Antonio. Fans won’t know the full list of teams that will take the place of the Spurs until after the play-in. We also can’t know if the league’s Disney World bubble will continue to keep the virus at bay. The decision to start allowing guests to visit the campus poses an obvious risk, though is understandable since there will be two more months of play in the isolated environment before a champion is crowned. Making it all the way to the trophy presentation will still require luck. But so far, at least, Adam Silver’s plan for salvaging the NBA’s season has gone better than he, or we, dared hope.

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