Theirs is a classic rock, paper, scissors dilemma. James is the savvy elder statesman, the most famous, accomplished and experienced, but he is tasked with the heaviest burden given the roster around him. Antetokounmpo is the youngest, biggest, strongest and most imposing, but also the most erratic and least proven. Leonard is the most calculating, refined and mysterious, shying away from media attention whenever possible and carefully pacing himself given an extensive injury history.
Despite the four-month hiatus, oddsmakers continue to view the Big Three’s teams — the Lakers, Bucks and Clippers — as the favorites to win the Larry O’Brien trophy in October, with a second tier composed of the Raptors, Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics trailing far behind. Yet two weeks of bubble play have revealed new vulnerabilities for the top three contenders as the playoffs open Monday.
For the 35-year-old James, whose Lakers claimed the Western Conference’s top seed, the bugaboo has been offense during an underwhelming 3-5 bubble stretch. Before the shutdown, the Lakers ranked seventh in scoring, 22nd in three-pointers per game and 17th in three-point percentage. Among the 22 teams invited to Florida, the Lakers have ranked 21st in scoring, 21st in three-pointers and 22nd in three-point percentage, averaging 7.9 fewer points per game than they did before the hiatus. Such results are inconceivable given James’s track record of leading elite offenses.
There have been strong moments, including the opening win over the Clippers, Anthony Davis’s 42-point effort against the Utah Jazz and Kyle Kuzma’s game-winning three-pointer against the Denver Nuggets. Even so, the Lakers have looked overly reliant upon James and Davis, struggling to find a consistent third scorer and becoming unsettled whenever James goes to the bench. The losses of veteran guards Avery Bradley (coronavirus concerns) and Rajon Rondo (broken thumb) haven’t helped.
Following a flat loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder last week, James cryptically alluded to “some things that you can’t control that’s here, that I really don’t want to talk about, that’s off the floor.” He also acknowledged the Lakers were still adjusting to life in the bubble, calling it a “learning experience for all of us.”
While the Lakers clearly prioritized health over winning meaningless games in the bubble, they will need to shoot significantly better from outside if they hope to make a deep playoff run. In the past five years, premier outside shooting teams such as the Golden State Warriors and Rockets have dominated the West playoffs. Complicating matters further: The Lakers’ path to the Finals could see them face the Portland Trail Blazers, Rockets and Clippers, three of the NBA’s most prolific three-point shooting teams.
If James needs to get the Lakers’ offense back on track, Antetokounmpo must help the Bucks more effectively close out wins. Before the shutdown, the Bucks were one of the most dominant teams in league history, posting the NBA’s best record, winning by an average of 11.3 points and compiling a league-leading 19 wins by 20 or more points. At Disney World, Milwaukee has gone 3-5 and blown late leads in close losses to the Rockets, Brooklyn Nets and Dallas Mavericks.
“It’s amazing to beat teams by 10, 20, 30,” Antetokounmpo said after the sloppy Bucks relinquished an eight-point lead in the final three minutes against the Rockets. “We learned from this. It’s good to play close games. We didn’t play a lot of close games in the other 65 games that we played. We’ve got to be consistent and do it every night. The most important thing is to get shots. We can’t turn the ball over. We’ve got to find the open man and get shots up.”
Ball control is one issue, as are body control and emotion control. Antetokounmpo nearly fouled out of a bubble-opening win against the Celtics before the referees intervened to overturn calls on his behalf. He then committed five fouls in 30 minutes against the Miami Heat, fouled out in 33 minutes against the Mavericks and was ejected from a win over the Washington Wizards for head-butting Moe Wagner.
“Terrible action,” Antetokounmpo said of his head-butt, which came after several hard fouls and drew a one-game suspension. “If I could turn back time and go back to that play, I wouldn’t do it. I think I’ve done a great job all year [and] in my career at keeping my composure and [focusing] on the game, but we’re all human and make mistakes.”
Antetokounmpo averaged 10 free throw attempts this season, and he can expect to receive physical treatment from opponents throughout the playoffs. His length, power and improved ballhandling make him a constant presence in the basket area, and his career-low 63.3 percent free throw shooting gives overpowered opponents incentive to hack him.
Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer has dismissed concerns about rough play and Antetokounmpo’s potential responses, noting that the 25-year-old forward “has been dealing with this for a long time.” Still, Milwaukee is so reliant upon Antetokounmpo to generate offense with his slashing drives and kick-out passes that it can’t afford any additional missteps. The Orlando Magic shouldn’t pose much of a problem in the first round, but the Bucks probably will need to get through the Miami Heat and the Raptors or Celtics to reach the Finals for the first time since 1974.
Like Antetokounmpo, Leonard has had a few late-game moments in the bubble that he would like to do over. On the final play against the Lakers, he drove indecisively against James, passing the ball at the last second rather than taking a potential game-winner. In a narrow loss to the Phoenix Suns, he opted against double-teaming on the final play, setting up Devin Booker for a cleaner look at a memorable buzzer-beater.
These were uncharacteristic lapses in judgment from the steely Leonard, whose clutch shots and defensive stops were central to the Raptors’ 2019 title push. Of greater concern to the Clippers is their lack of lineup continuity.
During the regular season, the Clippers had to work around Leonard’s conservative management of a long-term leg injury, all-star forward Paul George’s recovery from shoulder surgeries and guard Landry Shamet’s extended absence with a high ankle sprain. The Clippers also never had the chance to fully integrate numerous pieces — including Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris Sr. and Joakim Noah — acquired just before the shutdown.
The hiatus and gradual return to play gave Leonard and George an opportunity to rest and recover, but other challenges emerged. Center Ivica Zubac contracted the coronavirus and was late arriving to the bubble. Guard Lou Williams and center Montrezl Harrell both departed the bubble in recent weeks to attend funerals, with Williams landing in a 10-day quarantine upon his return because of an ill-fated side trip to an Atlanta strip club. Guard Patrick Beverley has appeared in just three bubble games because of a calf injury, and Harrell has yet to debut since he returned.
As a result, the Clippers’ best five-man lineups, which feature the energetic Harrell as a small ball center, have yet to log any minutes together in the bubble. The Clippers have taken a nice and easy approach in Florida — posting a 4-3 record to claim the West’s second seed — but they should face a stiff first-round test from Luka Doncic and the Mavericks.
“They’re terrific,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said, noting that Dallas boasted the most efficient offense in league history before the hiatus. “They have one of the young stars [in Doncic], and they’re a two-star team now [with Kristaps] Porzingis playing great. That’s a tough matchup in the first round.”
When NBA Commissioner Adam Silver suspended play in March, one of the Lakers, Bucks and Clippers seemed almost guaranteed to emerge as champions. Nothing feels especially certain now, even after a month of practice, scrimmages and games for teams to adjust to the bubble. With the top contenders looking less like juggernauts, the door could be opening for the Raptors to defend their title with their gritty defense, for the Celtics to ride rising star Jayson Tatum to a deep run or for the Rockets to play spoiler with their unorthodox small-ball approach.
The NBA restart’s motto is “Whole New Game” — a reference to the empty arenas, single-site location and isolated bubble life. James used similar phrasing to reinforce the vast distance between the pre-coronavirus NBA and what will play out over the next two months.
“This is a totally different season,” James said. “A totally different, drastic situation.”
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