The NBA season officially resumed in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Playoff seeding and the race for the No. 8 seed in the West have already been shaken up. The Los Angeles Lakers evened the score in the battle of L.A. with a close win, and the Giannis Antetokounmpo–James Harden beef was renewed with a Houston Rockets win Sunday night.
The San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers are closing the gap on the Grizzlies for the No. 8 seed in the West, and Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans continue to lose ground. Our experts break down what they saw in the NBA bubble after the first four days of seeding games.
Notes: These rankings are based on which teams the voters — a group of more than 40 reporters, insiders and editors — think belong higher heading into the second week of the NBA restart. Title odds were provided by Caesars Sportsbook.
Even after being off for 144 days, Giannis Antetokounmpo showed why he’s the front-runner to win back-to-back MVPs with a dominant restart opener against Boston. Even without Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton, who continue to work themselves back into game shape after testing positive for the coronavirus, it’s the Bucks’ defense that hasn’t missed a beat. Milwaukee might be improvising the lineup with key guys out, but defensively the Bucks are in sync. They suffered a 120-116 loss to Houston on Sunday but held the Rockets to 39.6% shooting while James Harden went 5-of-14 from the floor for 24 points. — Eric Woodyard
Remaining schedule: BKN, MIA, DAL, TOR, WSH, MEM
The Lakers split their first two seeding games, edging the Clippers on opening night and then falling apart late against the Raptors two days later. Their defense (104 points allowed on 42.4% shooting) in two games has been better than their season average (106.9 on 44.4%), which gives Anthony Davis confidence despite L.A.’s uneven appearance so far.
“I think our defense is there,” Davis said after the Toronto loss. “Offense kind of struggled tonight, but I’m not too worried about offense. We’ll find a way to make shots. As long as our defense is there, we’ll be fine.”
Still, seeing LeBron James (18 points on 38.2% shooting in the bubble) return to form against Utah on Monday would surely be a welcome sight in the Lakers’ locker room. — Dave McMenamin
Remaining schedule: UTAH, OKC, HOU, IND, DEN, SAC
The Clippers lost by two to the Lakers and annihilated the Pelicans. The scary thing is that they didn’t have Lou Williams or Montrezl Harrell, and Patrick Beverley was on a minutes limit. Chemistry is still a work in progress, but the Clippers are on track to be the No. 2 seed barring any more unforeseen family emergencies. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are gaining valuable time playing together and look healthy. They just need Harrell back before the postseason. — Ohm Youngmisuk
Remaining schedule: PHX, DAL, POR, BKN, DEN, OKC
LeBron James discusses the “championship DNA” that the Raptors possess and explains why they are more of a threat than they get credit for.
The Raptors have told anyone who would listen — usually no one — that they believe they can defend their title. It seems safe to assume people will be listening after the Raptors’ emphatic victory over the Lakers in their first seeding game. Kyle Lowry was brilliant, the defense was suffocating and Toronto acted as if it were no big deal. That’s because to the Raptors, it wasn’t. This team isn’t afraid of anyone and believes it is as good as any team here. Toronto will be a very difficult team to beat four times in seven games. — Tim Bontemps
Remaining schedule: MIA, ORL, BOS, MEM, MIL, PHI, DEN
The Rockets pulled off a pair of rare comebacks to begin their bubble experience, rallying from seven points down with 45 seconds left to force overtime in their win over the Mavs and erasing an eight-point deficit in the final three minutes to beat the Bucks. Houston’s dominant clutch defense — highlighted by James Harden harassing reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo — shouldn’t be a surprise. The Rockets rank third in the league in clutch defensive rating (97.8). That’s a major reason the Rockets have the league’s second-best clutch plus-minus (plus-64). — Tim MacMahon
Remaining schedule: POR, LAL, SAC, SA, IND, PHI
Miami dominated an undermanned Nuggets team in its first game of the restart, playing with the kind of intensity and depth the Heat hoped would define their time in the bubble — Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo led the way offensively with contributions from the rest of their talented roster. The Heat have a chance to climb the standings this week with games against the Raptors, Celtics and Bucks — the three teams that stand ahead of them in the Eastern Conference — but Butler’s status is uncertain. He was excused from Sunday’s practice, and it is unclear whether he will be able to play Monday. — Nick Friedell
Remaining schedule: TOR, BOS, MIL, PHX, IND, OKC, IND
Continuity is the Nuggets’ strength, yet coach Michael Malone hasn’t had his full squad. Almost half of his team arrived late, and then starters Jamal Murray (hamstring), Gary Harris (hip) and Will Barton (knee) suffered injuries before the restart opener. Denver’s hold on the third spot could slip. Falling to fourth or fifth means a possible second-round date with the Lakers. But first, the Nuggets need to get healthy so they can develop much-needed consistency in these seeding games. — Youngmisuk
Remaining schedule: OKC, SA, POR, UTAH, LAL, LAC, TOR
The only thing that matters for Boston in the eight seeding games is how Kemba Walker looks on his left knee. So far, the Celtics have to be thrilled with what they have seen. Walker had 16 points in 19 minutes Friday against Milwaukee and followed that up with 14 points in 22 minutes Sunday against Portland. In both games he moved well and played with the kind of pop and verve that turned him into a perennial All-Star. If that keeps up moving forward, the Celtics will be very, very pleased. — Bontemps
Remaining schedule: MIA, BKN, TOR, ORL, MEM, WSH
The Thunder were set to play the Jazz on March 11, but the game and eventually the season were suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic. They finally got to play the Jazz and quickly put away any concerns about being able to recoup some of their momentum and chemistry. There has been a lot of buzz inside the organization about the development of the young players and the team as a whole during the hiatus. And if the 48 minutes against Utah was the first real look at it, the hype holds some merit. — Royce Young
Remaining schedule: DEN, LAL, MEM, WSH, PHX, MIA, LAC
The Sixers’ first game inside the bubble was a microcosm of everything that happened before the season was suspended. There were great highs — a brilliant start to the game and a sensational performance from Joel Embiid (41 points, 21 rebounds). There were terrible lows — Embiid and Shake Milton getting into it on the bench, Josh Richardson, Al Horford and Milton playing poorly, allowing T.J. Warren to score 53 points and giving up 46 points in the fourth quarter to an Indiana team without Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon. In the end, a confounding loss leaves the NBA’s most perplexing team with more questions than answers. — Bontemps
Remaining schedule: SA, WSH, ORL, POR, PHX, TOR, HOU
It comes as no surprise that scoring is a struggle without sharpshooting power forward Bojan Bogdanovic (wrist). The Jazz have an offensive rating of 99.5 points per 100 possessions through their first two games in the bubble. The 3-point shooting (24.6% on 32.5 attempts per game) has been especially problematic. Bogdanovic’s absence is also a major blow to the Jazz’s depth, and Utah’s second unit has struggled so far during the NBA’s restart. — MacMahon
Remaining schedule: LAL, MEM, SA, DEN, DAL, SA
The Mavs probably locked themselves into the West’s seventh seed — and a first-round meeting with the Clippers — by stumbling out of the gates with an 0-2 bubble start. Dallas blew double-digit leads to the Rockets and Suns, giving the Mavs 13 losses in games they led by 10 or more points, tied for the most in the league. The Mavs are 2-10 in games decided by three points or fewer, in large part because their overall top-ranked offense is terrible in the clutch (93.7 offensive rating, 29th in the league). — MacMahon
Remaining schedule: SAC, LAC, MIL, UTAH, POR, PHX
No Domantas Sabonis? No Malcolm Brogdon? No problem. Pacers coach Nate McMillan continues to do a terrific job, coaching a team that seems to maximize the talents of every player and finding ways to win games even when players are missing. T.J. Warren‘s 53 points in Saturday’s win over the Sixers is just the latest example of how his career has taken a significant step forward since arriving in Indiana last summer. If Indiana can get healthy, it can cause some problems in the East. — Bontemps
Remaining schedule: WAS, ORL, PHX, LAL, MIA, HOU, MIA
A 1-1 start probably isn’t what the Blazers hoped for, but it is at least satisfactory — especially because the win was over Memphis. The loss against Boston was competitive to the finish and Portland can review some defensive lapses and iffy clock management, but the Blazers have clearly come to the bubble a better team. At the same time, their primary issue hasn’t gotten much better: They have a 124.6 defensive rating through two games, second worst in the bubble. — Young
Remaining schedule: HOU, DEN, LAC, PHI, DAL, BKN
The Magic have been one of the most impressive teams in the first week of the bubble. The offense is rolling and Markelle Fultz has found his rhythm after missing the first part of bubble training camp. The Magic are the third team over the past 20 seasons to score 110 points through three quarters in consecutive games, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. They joined the 2018-19 Warriors and this season’s Lakers. The Magic appear well on their way to locking up the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference — but they’ll have to finish without Jonathan Isaac, who tore his ACL Sunday against the Kings. After initially injuring his left knee on Jan. 1, Isaac played well in his first game in almost seven months in Friday’s win over the Nets. Now his team must face life again without him for the rest of the season. — Friedell
Remaining schedule: IND, TOR, PHI, BOS, BKN, NO
Some things just never change, and in the bubble, the Spurs aren’t going away. Of the six teams chasing the eighth seed in the Western Conference, San Antonio is the only one to win both of its first two games, and the Spurs are now just two games behind Memphis for No. 8. The Spurs are doing it by going small while overcoming the loss of LaMarcus Aldridge and Trey Lyles in the frontcourt. The new starting five of Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl have a plus-30.5 net rating in their first two games together. — Andrew Lopez
Remaining schedule: PHI, DEN, UTAH, NO, HOU, UTAH
The Clippers keep Zion Williamson bottled up as he musters only seven points in 14 minutes.
The Pelicans would like to forget their first two games. After a tough loss to Utah on reopening night in which Brandon Ingram‘s 3-point attempt rimmed out at the buzzer, the Pelicans were trounced by the Clippers in their second game. Zion Williamson‘s minutes have been a major topic of discussion — and should start to stabilize soon. Aside from giving up 25 3-pointers to the Clippers, the Pelicans have also given up 54 points off turnovers in two games — the most in the bubble. — Lopez
Remaining schedule: MEM, SAC, WSH, SA, SAC, ORL
The Grizzlies’ grip on the No. 8 seed in the West slipped a bit with tight losses to the Trail Blazers and Spurs, the two teams best positioned to steal the conference’s final playoff spot. Jaren Jackson Jr. has been balling in the bubble, averaging 27 points on 51.4% shooting from the field, including 40% from 3-point range. Dillon Brooks (36.1% shooting on 18 field goal attempts per game) has struggled. The Grizzlies (18-4 when Brooks scores 20 or more) tend to go as he goes. — MacMahon
Remaining schedule: NO, UTAH, OKC, TOR, BOS, MIL
The Suns’ unlikely 117-115 win over the Mavs gives them a 2-0 start. They were down throughout the game and made a quality comeback in the fourth quarter to steal it. The Suns would obviously love to get in the mix and play some meaningful games over the next month, but they are already setting the table for what might be a strong, fairly deep roster next season. — Young
Remaining schedule: LAC, IND, MIA, OKC, PHI, DAL
It has been an awful start for the Kings. Richaun Holmes was in quarantine for 10 days for picking up food delivery. Then a Kings player had an inconclusive coronavirus test, sending him into quarantine for two days. Now San Antonio has passed them in the race for eighth after just two games. The Kings wasted a 39-point effort from De’Aaron Fox and lost a vital game to the Spurs. And the Magic obliterated them on Sunday. Sacramento’s playoff hopes take a hit with two must-win games against New Orleans on the schedule. — Youngmisuk
Remaining schedule: DAL, NO, BKN, HOU, NO, LAL
The Nets needed to at least split their first two games in the bubble against the Magic and Wizards, and they did. Sunday’s win over the Wizards put them seven games ahead of Washington in the loss column with six to play. The Nets are relying on young core veterans Caris LeVert, Joe Harris and Jarrett Allen to carry the load each game, and all three delivered against Washington. Allen delivered his fifth career 20-point, 15-rebound game, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The Nets are now 4-0 in such games this season.
Aside from locking up a playoff berth and staying out of a potential play-in game with the Wizards, the only big question left for the Nets is when exactly 40-year-old guard Jamal Crawford will make his first appearance in the bubble. — Friedell
Remaining schedule: MIL, BOS, SAC, LAC, ORL, POR
After losing back-to-back games to Phoenix and Brooklyn, finding potential building blocks is the only thing the Wizards stand to gain in Florida. Against Phoenix, it was rookie forward Rui Hachimura who went off for a team-high 21 points and eight rebounds. Big man Thomas Bryant had 30 points and 13 boards against the Nets. Without leading scorer Bradley Beal, Washington will need all the offense it can get. — Woodyard
Remaining schedule: IND, PHI, NO, OKC, MIL, BOS