National Basketball Association

The NBA's Biggest Bubble Surprises

August 7

By Charlotte Wilder

When the Clippers-Lakers game tipped off last Thursday in the bubble, I wouldn’t have been fazed if a pig flew through my window. Over the past few months, it often felt like we’d never get basketball back: the plan of sequestering 22 teams, support staff, and reporters in a sealed-off environment in Florida (Florida!!!) seemed so ambitious that I worried it was too good to be true. 

And yet, there I was, watching LeBron and Kawhi do their thing in front of 17-foot-tall video boards filled with virtual fans. To encourage social distancing, the bench situation resembled the bucket seats of minivans. Reporters conducted post-game interviews with microphones on booms. Nothing was the same except for the sport itself. 

But I was surprised by how quickly it all started to feel normal. In fact, I was surprised by a lot of things. And I’d like to tell you about them, so let’s get into it: 

It’s working 

Not only is the bubble working, it’s, like, working working. Every time the league announces there are no positive tests out of the 340+ they conduct, I’m amazed. This virus is insidious, and the fact that the league has been able to come up with protocols that clearly work is the most hopeful I’ve felt about the possibility of containing it in a while. 

The Nets *checks notes* beat the Bucks? 

Look, if you told me that an ideal, healthy Brooklyn Nets team — one that included Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — beat the Milwaukee Bucks, I’d be a little surprised. 

But when I watched the team the Nets are currently fielding — which does not include those two superstars, nor many of its other stars — beat the Bucks Tuesday, I was downright flabbergasted. 

So was the rest of America, considering this was the biggest NBA upset in 25 years. You know what the top song was on the charts 25 years ago? Exactly, you don’t, and neither do I, because it doesn’t matter.

The point here is that the unconventional bubble can still provide us with the conventional shock (is conventional shock an oxymoron? Whatever) that makes basketball so fun. 

Gordon Hayward’s mustache 

That’s it, that’s the thing. 

LeBron???

What’s the deal with this dude? The greatest player of a generation is currently averaging fewer than 20 points a game, shooting 42% from the field and 27% from three.

We’re still in early bubble stages, and everyone knows that Playoff LeBron can kick into another gear entirely. But I was kind of expecting Bubble LeBron to start off a little stronger.

Sure, he hadn’t played a game in four months. I just thought that maybe getting some time to kick back, smoke cigars, and drink some wine might lead him to be fresh as a daisy for the restart. I personally perform much better after some vino and a few months off.

Then again, my job doesn’t require running, so.  

Virtual fans are growing on me  

This might be a controversial opinion, but I dig the virtual fans. Does the 17-foot-high video board filled with pixelated people of all different sizes resemble a giant’s Zoom meeting, if the giant had a poor internet connection? Yes. 

But, as I’ve watched games, I’ve found myself forgetting that there aren’t actually fans present. I swear! If you listen to the fake crowd noise, blur your eyes a little bit, and focus only on the players, it almost seems like they’re playing in front of real people. 

I’m also trying to get a virtual seat at a Celtics game, so if anyone can hook me up with virtual tickets, I promise to chug a non-virtual beer courtside (couchside). 

No one’s pranked each other at breakfast yet 

I’m surprised there haven’t been more pranks in the bubble. You’ve got all these highly competitive guys living in the same hotels while they play each other, so you’d think someone would slip a plastic snake into the scrambled eggs or plant a whoopie cushion on the bench or something. 

HOWEVER: ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowskij recently reported that tensions are rising, with GMs wondering if they’re going to have to delineate special elevators so, say, the Thunder and the Rockets don’t end up riding in the same car and giving each other wedgies.

Okay, GMs aren’t worried about wedgies. But I am. 

A few players are shining without fans

TJ Warren was really good in Phoenix, but he’s been next level with the Pacers in the bubble. This guy doesn't seem to care for big crowds — he just wants to play basketball.

Enter: the bubble.

When I wondered how the absence of fans would affect the game, I mostly focused on how it could negatively impact things. I didn’t take into account the players who might actually benefit from a more intimate environment. Warren is the best example: he put up a career-high 53 points in his first game back, and has been racking up insane stats since then.  

He also makes pretty great playlists on Spotify. 

Speaking of TJ Warren... the Suns shut him down and are shining bright

Fitting that after Warren puts up unbelievable performance after unbelievable performance, the Phoenix Suns — yes, the Suns! — shut him down. Talk about a Cinderella story outta nowhere. Phoenix was the worst of the 13 Western Conference teams heading into the bubble, but they’ve been a real ray of light in Orlando. 

Look, these guys are on fire. They’re 4-0 since the restart, and Devin Booker has been on a hot streak (good sun puns, huh?). He’s scored 30 points, 35 points, 20 points, and 23 points in each game. Are they flying too close to the sun? Will the wings melt off? Or will they keep shocking us with stellar performances?  

Everyone needs to put respect back on Melo’s name

Carmelo Anthony became a punchline over the past few years. He had a bad playoff series with the Thunder, he was very publicly a terrible fit on the Rockets, and he’s, well, very memeable. 

Pre-bubble, Melo’s averged 15.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game with the Blazers. He was shooting 42.6 percent on field goals and 37.1 percent from three. 

In the bubble? His numbers have risen — he’s up to 16.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 44.7 percent shooting, and 50 percent from the three-point line.

But not only is Melo making threes, he’s making game-on-the-line threes — the Blazers wouldn’t have beat the Rockets (who’ve been on fire down in Orlando) without his clutch play. Melo seems to have embraced being a role player for the Blazers, and he’s reminding everyone who counted him out that he’s one of the most decorated players of all time.  

The space behind the basket — bear with me

This is a niche one, but I’m surprised by how play is affected by the lack of photographers and fans directly behind the basket. Guys can dive for loose balls or save a pass from going out of bounds and then get right back into the game — they don’t have to untangle themselves from fans’ legs and wipe four spilled beers off their shorts. It opens things up and makes play faster on either end of the court. I’m here for it. 

In fact, I’m here for all of it, and I’m praying to the basketball gods that the bubble keeps working and there are many more fun surprises to come. 


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