Well folks, it is looking like this thing might just work after all. In the most recent batch of tests, no player in the NBA bubble tested positive and the first few scrimmages occurred without a hitch. Turns out aggressive testing and strict quarantine/mask rules work, who knew? Live top-level basketball is on our televisions once again, but the true games are still about a week away, so that leaves just enough time to breakdown the last third of teams before we jump into the real action. After talking about the lowest level playoff teams previously, we now jump up into the middle of the pack teams with the 5 seeds, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers, and the 4 seeds, the Utah Jazz and Miami Heat. Let’s see what they’re looking like in the restart.
Oklahoma City Thunder: For an organization that has gone through some significant personnel changes in the last five seasons, Sam Presti and the rest of the Oklahoma City front office have done an incredible job of keeping the team competitive. After their hopes of a dark horse title run were dashed in the first round last season by the Blazers (shoutout Dame Time), the future was very uncertain for the Thunder. That loss made three straight first round exits since Kevin Durant fled the city, and fans were becoming restless. In the offseason Paul George demanded a trade, Russell Westbrook wanted out despite his gigantic contract, and head coach Billy Donovan’s job security looked shaky. Predictions for the Thunder often fell towards the back half of the West, but Chris Paul and company would not let that be their fate. Paul has had one of the most impressive seasons of his illustrious career even though his numbers are slightly down, with guys like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Galinari, and Dennis Schroder carrying the rest of the scoring load (Paul, SGA, Galo, and Schroder all average between 17-20 ppg, nobody else on the team averages over 11 ppg). Paired with a strong defense, the Thunder became an incredibly annoying team to play, and they sit with a 40-24 record.
No stats about the Thunder overwhelmingly stick out, they just find ways to win games. Outstanding guard play on both sides of the ball and the 10th best DefRat in the league help, but what Oklahoma City does best is win close contests. Since December 27th, the Thunder are 15-3 in games decided by seven points or less. In the restart where most games should be relatively close, OKC has a major advantage. Along with their clutch play, the Thunder didn’t lose to a team that didn’t make the restart the entire season which is absolutely insane. On the flip side, top-level competition is where the Thunder struggle. Their last two losses of the season before the restart were getting blown out by the Bucks and losing handily to the Clippers. Oklahoma City is a scary team, but they simply don’t have the firepower to match-up with the best teams in the league for a seven-games series.
Key to the Restart: Keep games close. 15-3 is not a fluke. This team knows how to steal victories and not let teams back into games, and when they aren’t getting creamed they’re a serious threat. Few guards in the league are more trustworthy in the clutch than Chris Paul, and this roster has a good amount of playoff experience, so to beat those upper-tier teams the Thunder can’t let themselves go down big early. Heading into the fourth quarter down with the score within single digits is exactly where OKC wants to be.
Indiana Pacers: Only ahead of the 76ers with the tiebreaker, the Pacers at 39-26 have a tough task once the games begin. Holding off Philly and keeping at minimum the fifth seed would be enormous for Indiana, giving them the chance to sneak out of the first round without facing a top-three team. Despite missing most of the season due to injury Victor Oladipo might play in the restart depending on how he feels during the scrimmages (in the few games he played after his injury this season he looked very mediocre), but big man Domantas Sabonis has been the leader of this team all year regardless. The 6’11” stud out of Gonzaga was hardly a household name before this season, but after putting up a 18.5ppg/12.4rpg/5.0apg slashline and being named an all-star that has changed dramatically. T.J. Warren has also made great strides this season putting in 18.7ppg and Myles Turner took a slight step back but is still an outstanding defensive big man, helping lead the Pacers to the 7th best DefRat in the league. They have performed well enough all season, but the road is very tough in front of them.
Making the playoffs eight of the last nine seasons, Indy is incredibly consistent year-to-year, but that’s part of the problem. Four playoff appearances in a row have resulted in first-round bounces (they were a game away from beating the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Cavaliers in the 2017-2018 Playoffs), and Nate McMillan would love to buck that trend sooner rather than later. Woulda-coulda-shoulda has been the theme for most Pacers seasons in their history, but this year expectations are still relatively low despite their success. After a torn hip and testing positive, Malcolm Brogdon should still be able to play in the restart which is great news, but the Pacers are top-heavy. The second group has guys like Aaron and Justin Holiday, Doug McDermott, and TJ McConnell, who are all solid players but need a lot of help to be their best selves. Going against more complete teams in the playoffs will be difficult for Indiana, but a deep playoff run is not impossible.
Key to the Restart: How much can Victor Oladipo do? When he’s totally healthy, Oladipo is the best player on the Pacers even with Sabonis’s growth. Matching the two at full-strength is one of the best duos in the restart, but that can only happen if Vic is 100%. At one point saying he would sit-out the restart entirely, if Indy can get him back at all it would be a victory, but a game-ready Victor Oladipo changes the outlook of the restart for the team. The line-up is good without him, but great with him.
UPDATE: After this was written Domantas Sabonis left the bubble due to a foot injury. If this is serious and keeps him out long-term, the Pacers are in trouble. Let’s hope he’s healthy and can come back stronger.
Utah Jazz: The news that Rudy Gobert was the first NBA player to test positive (and then star Donovan Mitchell quickly after that) was the most attention on the Jazz all season, which is sad because Utah is building something impressive out West. Going 41-23, Utah was riding an efficient offense and a solid defense to another playoff lock and a chance to make some noise in the postseason. Mike Conley’s acquisition was somewhat underwhelming, but Bojan Bogdonovic, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neal, and Jordan Clarkson were all putting in quality seasons before the suspension. Along with the rest of the roster performing, Gobert and Mitchell were named all-stars and had become one of the most efficient duos in the league very quickly. With everything that went down during the first few weeks of chaos amongst the Jazz, it would be understandable that there could be grudges held on either side, but these are still professional athletes that know their job is to work together and win games. Reports about Mitchell and Gobert’s relationship being totally broken seemed premature at the time and will look even more ridiculous in the coming weeks as games begin again.
Putting aside all personal beef that could exist, this team is built to steal victories and possibly a series from more talented squads. Anchored by possible DPOY Gobert on the defensive end, the Jazz are a tough team to score against, especially in the paint. They’re not incredible (11th in DefRat and 9th in opp/ppg), but they’re consistent enough that they don’t have to put up 120 points a night to win games. On the offensive end the biggest strength Utah has is efficiency. Despite playing a slow game, they make the most of their possessions and get good looks most trips down the floor. The ability to consistently defend and score easy baskets are (obviously) helpful in the postseason, and Mitchell is enough of a flamethrower to have opposing teams nervous during the end of games, so despite their flaws the Jazz are a force to be reckoned with in the restart.
Key to the Restart: Jump to the 3 seed or fall to the 6 seed. The worst team the Jazz can play in the second round would be the Lakers. They are by far the worst match-up for them, and in the two meetings between the teams this season the Lakers won pretty handily both times. If the playoff picture stays the same as it is right now, the Jazz and the Lakers would meet in the Conference Semis with first-round victories. Quin Snyder and the rest of the group knows their best chance is to move to the other half of the bracket and try their luck against the Clippers instead and wait to meet the Lakers in the Conference Finals.
Miami Heat: Erik Spoelstra is a genius. The longtime coach of the Heat consistently puts out strong line-ups and has one of his most talented groups since the Heatles days. Led by Jimmy Butler, this is a gritty squad made of a really interesting group of players. For example, Bam Adebayo vaulted himself to MIP status this season, attacking and protecting the rim as good as anyone in the East. Match him with veteran guard Goran Dragic or surprise rookie of the season Kendrick Nunn, and it becomes very difficult to guard this group on the perimeter. Stick shooters Duncan Robinson or Tyler Herro on the wings and have athletic freak Derrick Jones Jr. running the floor, all of a sudden this offense becomes almost impossible to keep contained. And they do it all with only the 27th highest pace in the league! The Heat slowly and methodically pick teams to death, and at 41-24 this season they proved they can hang with the top guns in the league.
Now, are the Heat a real contender for a title? Solid offensive and defensive numbers, a true leader and clutch scorer, and a coach with a lot of playoff experience seems like a recipe for success, but it’s going to be tough. If nothing changes, the road for the Heat would be Pacers in round one, a team they absolutely can and should beat in a seven game series, and then the Bucks before the Eastern Conference Finals. Miami actually matches up pretty well with Milwaukee (they’re 2-0 against them this season), but the Heat have a tendency to lose games they should win. After the all-star break they lost to the Hawks, Cavs, Timberwolves, and Hornets, which is inexcusable for a team that has championship expectations. However, a lot of time has passed since then and the Heat are one of the healthiest and most complete teams in the restart. Crazier things have happened.
Key to the Restart: Don’t run out of gas. The weird stretch of losses for Miami after the all-star break can be attributed to a lot of things, but a good portion can be blamed on fatigue. Nearly all key players on the team had played over fifty games by that point, some of them well into the sixties. Any team as young as the Heat are going to experience that in the dog days of a regular season, but the restart is going to be a sprint. If the entire roster can be prepared and at the best of their abilities, the Heat are a major team to watch in the East.