Breaking down the best, worst from NBA’s regular-season restart

Damian Lillard takes just one dribble over half court before pulling up for a deep three that hits for the Portland Trail Blazers against the Brooklyn Nets.

The NBA playoffs begin Monday meaning league’s eight-game seeding game schedule is officially in the books, and it was quite the experiment with concepts both good and bad.

Here’s a quick look back at some things from the bubble’s so-called regular season that we liked and others that probably could’ve been left alone.

Bubble awards

The NBA will be announcing an All-Seeding Games Team and Player of the Seeding Games. And while it sounds like a good concept on paper, acknowledging the accomplishments of the best players in what has felt almost like a brand new season, it still doesn’t make very much sense as eight games simply isn’t large enough a sample size.

Look at it this way: most teams play more than eight games in a normal regular-season month and that’s used to determine what feels like a less prestigious player-of-the-month award than these seeding game awards.

The whole idea of rewarding someone for such a small body of work just feels odd.

Regardless, these awards are being handed out. As such, here’s our picks for the bubble MVP and all-bubble team:

All-Seeding Games Team:
Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
James Harden, Houston Rockets
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
T.J. Warren, Indiana Pacers

Player of the Seeding Games: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

You may notice that all of the players on this team are perimeter-oriented with the only real forward you can point to being Warren, but these, simply put, were the five best players of the bubble.

Starting with Booker, who helped lead the Suns to a perfect 8-0 record that only saw them fall short of making the play-in game because of how far back they were at the start of the reset. Averaging 30.5 points per game on 50.3-per cent shooting in the bubble, Booker firmly established himself as a bona fide star and one that may even be able to help Phoenix return to prominence again next season.

Though the Mavericks didn’t have the best showing in the bubble, Doncic undoubtedly was one of the best players in the restart, nearly averaging a triple double in the seven games he played in the seeding games with numbers of 30 points, 10.1 rebounds and 9.7 assists per game. At only 21 years old, Doncic is already a legitimate superstar, leading the Mavericks to a historically great offensive rating this season.

Of the three finalists for MVP this season, Harden has performed the best and has looked the most like his pre-bubble self with averages of 34.1 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.9 assists on 53.9-per cent shooting while getting to the free-throw line nearly 12 times per game. Harden’s game, whether you think it’s aesthetically pleasing or not, is damn effective no matter what environment he’s playing in.

Warren was the early story of the bubble when he exploded for 53 points in the Pacers’ restart opener and stayed hot throughout, averaging 31 points per game on astounding 57.8-per cent shooting and a 52.4-per cent clip from three-point (taking seven three-pointers per contest, too). Known primarily as a mid-range savant, the revelation that Warren has serious game from deep has basically saved the Pacers’ playoff hopes after all-star Domantas Sabonis got hurt and was forced to leave the bubble.

Lastly, we have Lillard, the no-doubt bubble MVP as a player whose heroics led the Blazers into the play-in game and saw him lead the seeding games in scoring with a 37.6-points-per-game average — including a final three-game period that Portland had to win, where he averaged 51.3 points per game and put up an all-time 61-point performance against the Mavericks. Dame Time became destination viewing in the bubble and we can only hope it’ll keep going.

Competitive games

Related to that final three-game stretch we saw out of Lillard in these seeding games, what made those contests so thrilling, even more so than the Blazers superstar’s individual performances, was just how tightly-contested the contests were, a common theme in the bubble right from the get-go.

The first two games of the restart were decided by two points, kicking off a series of games that proved to be highly competitive, with many going into overtime. This made for excellent entertainment throughout, and with the amount of games on at all times of the day, it almost had an NCAA Tournament March Madness feel to things.

With the league cutting down the number of teams in the bubble to just 22, it felt like nearly every matchup we saw during this seeding game period was meaningful, and that made for fantastic basketball all-around.

Possibly too many games

On the flip side to that previous point, however, was the fact that after the first full week of play, it felt like a lot got decided already and many teams, particularly in the Eastern Conference, were left playing out games that were utterly meaningless in the standings.

It makes you wonder if eight games were too many.

On one hand, the eight games allowed a team like the Blazers to make their comeback and get into the play-in game, but on the other it turned what on paper were marquee matchups — between the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks and the Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers from earlier this week — into contests where only the deepest parts of each team’s respective benches got the majority of burn.

That’s not a good look for games that were being put on national television.

There was excitement — for sure for the final spots in the Western Conference down the stretch of the seeding games — but who’s to say that if you were to reduce the number of games you wouldn’t get similar levels of excitement?

Playoff format held concept back

Finally, the problem pointed out above could have been solved if the NBA had opted to go with a more creative playoff format.

The traditional conference-based format of the playoffs all-but-guaranteed that the Eastern Conference was going to be a bit of a snooze-fest in the seeding games.

However, had the playoff format been a Nos. 1-16 deal, or there had been a World Cup-style group stage before the elimination bracket, it would’ve made things much more interesting and even more competitive. That would’ve suddenly put the likes of the Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic in the crosshairs of other Western Conference teams threatening to take their post-season spot.

Given the extraordinary circumstances of this NBA restart, there was real potential to experiment with playoff-format reformation, but it didn’t come and we’re likely, again, left with an imbalanced-looking playoff schedule.

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