NBA action finally returned this week after a “brief” 130 day hiatus, and the quality of play has been surprisingly good. Although most teams didn’t risk playing their stars in the second half, and not all players were at their coach’s disposal, the scrimmages still gave us a glimpse of competitive basketball. Some teams picked up where they left off, while others showed some rust. These are how teams looked after their first game in months, so if something changes over time, it could be because they haven’t yet returned to full form.
THE WEST’S WORST
On the surface, it looks as if the Jazz didn’t play bad. They had 3 players score double digits and the sluggish play early on was expected from all teams. The Jazz just didn’t play well as a team, and they looked scared to shoot the ball. From my understanding, the Jazz chemistry may have taken a toll, and although they deny it, the way the played indicates otherwise. As a team, they produced only 17 TOTAL assists while conceding 15 turnovers. Despite the individual connection Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell showed, they need to step up their play next game because they did not look like the 4th seed in the West by any means.
The Grizzlies may be the biggest surprise out of the West this season. The production from Ja Morant has been unbelievable and it is one of the reasons the Grizz are in the playoff picture. Their game against Philly didn’t look bad on paper, but they struggled to generate momentum in the second half. Morant shot 3-12 from the field, although his 8 dimes and 5 boards helped a little. Having 5 players with double digit points didn’t help the Grizzlies down the stretch versus the Sixers bench. The reason why the Grizzlies should be worried is because their own bench was not reliable, and it isn’t going to get deeper anytime soon. They lost Justice Winslow to injury and their rotation on the bench will be their downfall if they don’t have a viable option on both sides of the ball.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Aside from Jakob Poeltl, no one else on the Spurs shot over 50% from the field. They took a lot of bad shots, and as a unit made only 45% of their FGs and just under 35% from beyond the arc. Yikes. They had 23 assists, but also turned the ball over 22 times. Their bench accounted for 38 points, but as a team they seemed lost on the court. The only highlight we got from the Spurs was Drew Eubanks dunking over an Antetokounmpo, and it wasn’t even Giannis. As a 12 seed, I don’t see the Spurs dealing much damage in 8 regular season games, and the streak of 22 consecutive playoff appearances might be thwarted.
JUST MISSED OUT
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
The following teams have been left out, as they were neither bad nor the best performing teams in the West: Denver, Houston, Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento. That is not to say they aren’t good teams, but an underhanded Nuggets team barely beat a weak Wizards squad despite Bol Bol’s performance. The Rockets showed that Harden and Westbrook are going to be a lethal duo come playoff time, but as a unit they shot 37% from the field, including 29% from 3. Danuel House was the only bench player that played well, with the rest of the bench scoring 5 total points.
The Blazers can definitely get back to their red hot form, but Dame played a bad game and their best player was Mario Hezonja. I don’t expect this form to continue for the Blazers, but it was a rough start in the bubble. The Pelicans had a great game with Ingram showing why he deserve Most Improved Player, snatching 12 points in 10 minutes. However, New Orleans doesn’t belong on the good or bad list since they played a Nets team that is arguably the weakest in Orlando. Sacramento played well despite missing key players, but they didn’t stand out like the better Western teams did after the first wave of games.
THE BEST OF THE WEST
THE LAKERS SEND A MESSAGE
Although the Lakers lost to the Mavericks, they looked like the #1 seed for 3 quarters and played well despite their stars sitting in the second half. LeBron put up 12 points and 5 assist and did not miss a free throw. Anthony Davis and Javale McGee dropped 12 and 13 respectively while both shooting over 70% from the field. The absence of Rajon Rondo left many Laker fans uneasy, but Quinn Cook seemed to make the most of his minutes, scoring 13 points.
Cook gained head coach Frank Vogel’s attention, as Vogel looks to find a backup point guard to lead the team off the bench. All in all, the Lakers biggest issue was still the three ball, shooting under 30%, but their bench definitely showed up and made it a close game in the final two minutes. The Lakers definitely have potential to be the scariest team in the bubble, especially as JR Smith and Dion Waiters settle in.
THE SUNS ARE TURNING HEADS
The Phoenix Suns have missed the playoffs for the past 9 seasons and are currently the lowest seeded team in the Orlando bubble, but they showed up against Utah. The only starter to not reach double digit points was their back up point guard, who is currently filling in for Ricky Rubio. Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton both got 13 points, and Ayton was playing like Windex the way he cleaned the glass on his way to 8 boards.
Their bench had some solid contributors with Cameron Payne and Jevon Carter dropping double digits, and Frank Kaminsky and Cameron Johnson almost hit double digits as well. The Suns did not shoot relatively well; under 50% from the field and 27% from three, but they were without Rubio, Kelly Oubre, and Aron Baynes. Once those players return, and if Phoenix can get quality looks from the field, the Suns can definitely compete with the best in the NBA.
THE MAVS BOOST THEIR CONFIDENCE
The Mavericks were able to put an imaginary mark in the insignificant wins column after their scrimmage with the Lakers, due to some stellar shooting from Seth Curry and solid bench play. The only downside for the Mavericks was their free throw shooting, as they were well below 65% from the line. Luka Doncic played a great game, dishing out 6 assists and hauling in 5 rebounds to go with his 14 points in 16 minutes. Seth Curry played lights-out with his 23 point performance, making every shot he took.
The best part about the scrimmage, was that the Mavs saw their top bench players make a splash. Boban Marjanovic, Justin Jackson, and Maxi Kleber all hit double digits in scoring and provided a spark when the Maverick stars had to rest. Dallas can easily improve their record when the season restarts, as they currently sit in 7th, but they have the same amount of wins as the 5th and 6th place teams.
THE CLIPPERS GIVE A GLIMPSE ON WHAT’S TO COME
Lou Williams continues to prove why he deserves another 6th Man of the Year award, as he scored just one less point than the entire rest of the bench combined. Paul George looked like his old self as the Clippers enjoyed a slight win over the Magic despite missing Montrezl Harrell and Pat Beverley. Reggie Jackson was a decent replacement for Beverley, but the defensive ball hawk mentality of Pat Bev should come in clutch when the regular season returns. As of now, the Clippers are losing players from the bubble as Beverley and Harrell leave for family emergencies, along with Williams, who thinks that “family emergency” means Atlanta strip clubs.
ROBERSON RETURNS, AND OKC IS A TEAM ON THE RISE
The biggest surprise from the West this season has been the quality of play the Thunder have been able to maintain on any given night. Losing their franchise star in Westbrook made many experts write off the Thunder, but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chris Paul have helped keep OKC on track. Along with the best offensive rebounder in Steven Adams, the Thunder were a really competitive team before the hiatus. They currently sit at 5th in the West and their first scrimmage was an eye opener. They beat a much more talented Celtics team, but it’s the way in which they played that stood out.
The Thunder finally have a solid defensive wing with the return of Andre Roberson, and all but one player on the bench got minutes. On all aspects of the game, OKC handled Boston well, whether it be with their starters or bench on the court. The Celtics looked a little winded and although it was a scrimmage, a team’s star should not shoot 16% from the field the way Tatum did. OKC can certainly gain a higher seed if they continue to build on wins like this as a team, as they have done the whole season.