Playoff basketball is the NBA’s reason for being. It’s where players build their legends, various stakeholders cash in on revenue potential and fans record memories. It’s why the NBA went to extremes to deliver the postseason, investing more than $150 million in a bubble.
The road there wasn’t without its trials. Between the NBA suspending the 2019-20 season on March 11 and the resumption of play on July 30, several dozen players tested positive for COVID-19. Finding a site for the bubble wasn’t easy, requiring an inordinate amount of logistical and medical considerations. Not everyone who wanted in was invited, and not everyone invited showed up.
But after an interminable hiatus, the NBA’s postseason returned at a most unusual moment — a Monday morning in August for those tuning in from Denver and Utah on Day 1. Despite the odd timing in the oddest of years, the Nuggets and Jazz delivered on the anticipation built up over a hoops-less spring and early summer. The seeding games were an appealing prelude, but the Rocky Mountains ruckus was a reminder that best-of-seven is best.
Donovan Mitchell‘s explosion for 57 points. A master class in the two-man game by Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. An overtime thriller. Denver’s 135-125 win served up that classic NBA cocktail: one part individual swagger, one part dramatic tension. It went down easy, as did the Boston Celtics‘ win over the short-handed but feisty Philadelphia 76ers. Ditto for Luka Doncic‘s record-setting maiden playoff voyage in a tight Dallas Mavericks loss to the LA Clippers.
Sometimes first-round basketball can seem like a formality, and there was some of that on Monday. The Toronto Raptors made quick work of the Brooklyn Nets, but an elite team is fun to observe in its dominance.
For those at home, the production value of the product made it almost indistinguishable from the original formula. Even an obvious cosmetic difference such as the animated digital fans viewing from home make for a good bit, with cameos from franchise icons, mascots and the occasional house pet. Piped into the gym were the recognizable voices of the public-address announcers and in-game musical riffs used in the home arena. As a bonus, the broadcast caught intimate snippets of players jawing, something you can’t get when the game is being played in front of a sold-out crowd.
At a certain point on Monday, the novelty of the bubble and the circumstances surrounding it receded. For almost 11 hours, the NBA was its familiar, best self: superstars young and old; spectacular displays of athleticism and guile; an event. It can still thrill those tuning in. On the first day of its delayed postseason, it did that. — Kevin Arnovitz
The Jazz still have a chance …
In Game 1, the Jazz compensated for the absence of starting point guard Mike Conley, who left the NBA campus over the weekend to return home for the birth of his son, by putting the ball in the hands of Donovan Mitchell. All Mitchell did was score 57 points, the third-highest total ever in a playoff game.
Mitchell did find the going a bit more difficult in overtime. Down the stretch, Utah was able to hunt Denver rookie Michael Porter Jr. in pick-and-rolls, before Nuggets coach Michael Malone pulled Porter for good with 1:32 left in regulation. Even when stopper Torrey Craig fouled out, Malone went deep into his bench for PJ Dozier, a better defensive option.
Though Denver was able to pull away in the extra session, Malone’s rotation revealed how much the Nuggets miss starting wings Will Barton and Gary Harris, whose return to the lineup remains uncertain — and exposes an opportunity for Utah. Without Barton and Harris, Denver is counting on Porter, who was unable to maintain his dominant play from the seeding games. Porter scored 13 points on 5-of-13 shooting in 31 minutes, not the kind of offensive contributions he needs to offset his mistake-prone defense.
If Malone goes back to Dozier, I suspect the Jazz will be better prepared to help off the 33% career 3-point shooter, allowing them to possibly send a second defender at Jamal Murray — who scored or assisted on all six Nuggets’ field goals in overtime. Meanwhile, Utah may also do more to create favorable matchups against backup point guard Monte Morris when Denver plays the 6-foot-2 Morris alongside the 6-foot-4 Murray in an undersized backcourt.
On the other side, Malone talked about giving Mitchell…