West gets a play-in game; Some series set in the East
We finally have some clarity on how the NBA playoffs might look. Yesterday, the Portland Trail Blazers’ victory over the 76ers eliminated the Pelicans and the Kings from the 2020 playoffs, effectively ending their seasons. The Spurs, Suns, Trail Blazers, and Grizzlies will be the four teams competing for the final spot in the Western Conference playoffs. As a result, a play-in series is guaranteed to take place in the West. It has still not been determined which teams will participate in that game. Today’s matchups will go a long way in deciding who gets to battle for that eighth seed in the West.
Two key games are being played today that will directly impact the playoffs. The first matchup is between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Phoenix Suns, who have not yet lost a game in the NBA bubble. After that, the Pacers and Heat will go head-to-head in a battle for the fourth spot in the East. These closely contested playoff races almost certainly make up for basketball’s near five-month absence.
Phoenix Suns (-5.0) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (+5.0) at 2:30 PM EST
These squads are both making a mad dash towards the end of bubble play with near opposite goals in mind. The Suns are looking to take their five-game win streak into the play-in series so they can qualify for the Western Conference playoffs as the eighth seed. As for the Thunder, they are looking to snag another win as they hope to challenge the Houston Rockets for one of the top seeds in the West. Either way, both teams will be entering today’s game hungry.
The Phoenix Suns have been the most surprising team in the NBA Bubble. It is no secret that the Suns have been basement-dwellers for the better part of a decade. The franchise has been at or towards the bottom of the NBA standings basically every year since they last made the playoffs in 2010. Despite this newfound tradition of losing, the Suns have managed to make the most of their bubble invitation, winning five straight games to put them in the conversation as one of the final teams to potentially make the NBA playoffs. If they hope to keep their postseason alive, then they will have to likely win all of their remaining games while also getting help from some other teams. As weird as this is to say, I actually have confidence in the Suns to win their games. I just don’t know if they are going to be able to get the losses they need from the Grizzlies and the Trail Blazers. Still, crazier things have happened.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have been a middle-of-the-road team since entering the bubble. They’re not bad, but I am not going to say they are great either. They’re 3-2 record has featured impressive wins over the Lakers, Jazz, and Wizards. However, they have also suffered untimely losses to the Grizzlies and Nuggets. As a result, they find themselves just one game behind the Rockets for the fourth spot in the West. I find this to be an impressive accomplishment since the Thunder got rid of former MVP Russell Westbrook for an aging superstar in Chris Paul. Still, the Thunder are hungry and determined to go out and get the job done today as they look to overtake the Rockets. With Billy Donovan at the helm, the Thunder will be able to make this an interesting game.
Besides TJ Warren, Suns’ Guard Devin Booker has been the best player since play began in the NBA Bubble. In five starts, Booker has averaged 29.4 points, 6.4 assists, and 3.6 rebounds per game. I think the most impressive part about this run is that Booker has not been all that good from beyond the arc. This means that he has had to rely on efficient two-point field goals to get the job done. If Booker can find some rhythm from three-point land, then this team could be a lot of trouble for whoever they go up against in the coming days.
Meanwhile, the Oklahoma City Thunder are a little banged up, but that did not stop them from finding a win last time they played. Even though the Thunder were missing Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel, they still managed to top the Washington Wizards by a final score of 121-103. You have to give credit to OKC head coach Billy Donovan for the win. The Thunder were down two of their best big men, so they changed their approach and started shooting the ball from three. The team ended up going over 46% from beyond the arc on their way to 18 three-pointers in the game. Normally, I would have reservations about picking a team with injuries to key big men, but OKC’s excellent coaching makes it hard to go against them.
With all this in mind, I still have to pick the Phoenix Suns to win this game. I would be silly if I went against a team that has yet to lose since NBA action started back up. I am very impressed with the Oklahoma City Thunder. However, I think the Suns are on a mission to get to the playoffs and make themselves relevant again. I don’t know if they will get the outside losses they need to reach the postseason, but I am certain the Suns will be able to take care of business today on their way to a sixth straight victory. Thunder cover the spread, but the Suns still win
Suns 115 – Thunder 111
Miami Heat (-3.5) vs. Indiana Pacers (+3.5) at 8:00 PM EST
Our second game of the day features one of the most-highly anticipated head-to-head matchups of the NBA Bubble. The Miami Heat come into this game tied with the Indiana Pacers for the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The game will feature TJ Warren, the most exciting player in the NBA Bubble, taking on Jimmy Butler, the NBA’s most vicious trash talker. This showdown will surely be epic.
These teams have faced off twice so far this season. The Heat emerged victorious both times. The first game, Miami was able to edge out the Pacers by one point for a 113-112 win thanks to a go-ahead layup from Goran Dragic. The next time these teams played, the matchup was not as close, but the storylines coming out of the game were incredible. Jimmy Butler and TJ Warren exchanged words and elbows on the court as the Heat routed the Pacers 122-108. However, the jawing did not stop there. Butler used some harsh language to explain how he felt he was far better than TJ Warren after the game. Now, almost seven months later to the day, Butler will have a chance to back up his talk when he faces off against TJ Warren and the red-hot Pacers tonight.
“He’s soft… He’s not even in my f—ing league. Nowhere near me. If I was their coach, I would never put him on me. Ever again… He’s trash.”Jimmy Butler On Indiana’s TJ Warren following a game in January
Jimmy Butler may have much more difficulty containing TJ Warren this time around. The 26-year-old Small Forward has been the best player in the NBA Bubble so far. The former first-round pick has averaged 34.8 points in five games in the Orlando Bubble. As a result, the Pacers have gone 4-1, which ties them with Toronto for the best record amongst Eastern Conference teams in the Bubble. Warren will have to have another 30+ point outing if the Pacers want to come out of this one on top.
The matchup between Jimmy Butler and TJ Warren will obviously be the most important matchup in the game. However, I believe the winner will be determined by role players because you can almost guarantee that both these stars will put up gaudy numbers today. Nobody has been able to stop either one of them yet, and I don’t see that changing tonight.
The numbers coming into this one slightly favor the Heat. Miami scores more points per game than Indiana while also average more assists and rebounds. However, the Pacers come into this one with a better overall shooting percentage and a better scoring defense. We have to go further down the lineup to determine who will end up winning this game.
I am favoring the Heat right now. Indiana has been able to survive without Domantas Sabonis because TJ Warren has been able to make up for that lack of scoring. However, Miami has one of the best big men in the NBA in Bam Adebayo, who has averaged a double-double in every game this season. I think this is going to be one of those games where Butler and Bam combine for somewhere between 50 and 60 points. I think the Heat just cover the 3.5 point spread on their way to yet another victory.