Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 9:53 AM
NBA Weekly Essentials
NBA Bubble Has Yet to Burst as Season Approaches
With most teams getting set to conclude scrimmage play, the NBA is preparing to resume a regular season that was put on pause the evening of March 11 when Utah center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus. Although there have been a number of instances where players had to leave the league bubble at Disney's Wide World of Sports, no one tested positive in last week's round of testing.
Players who did contract COVID-19 like Russell Westbrook, Eric Bledsoe, Pat Connaughton and Harrison Barnes all stayed back to deal with their illnesses before reporting and quarantined upon return. Clippers sixth man Lou Williams got himself a 10-day quarantine since he couldn't resist stopping by Atlanta's Magic City for some chicken wings - not a euphemism - and got caught.
Pelicans rookie star Zion Williamson returned to the bubble in time to be ready for Thursday's season opener while Clippers Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell, unlike Williams, are also likely to be available for the opener against the Lakers.
Indiana's Domantas Sabonis had to leave to deal with a bad case of plantar fasciitis in his foot that may ultimately end his season. Cursed Sacramento forward Marvin Bagley III was set to serve as his team's go-to guy but got his ankle stepped on in practice and won't be able lead the Kings' playoff push. Memphis' Justise Winslow injured a hip in practice and was shut down.
That's it as far as the negative goes. NBA basketball returned via scrimmages inside three arenas that the league has really done a nice job dressing up to give it a terrific feel despite the absence of fans. There have been some blowouts and instances of sloppy play, but for the most part, the best players in the world have brought fresh legs and their A-game to the bubble. Only a few guys reported out of shape. Game on! Here's what to watch in this opening week.
Thursday's NBA Action
Games to Watch (2)
Jazz vs. Pelicans (-3, 220.5), 6:30 p.m. ET
Gobert and the Jazz are first up, which is definitely an interesting way to hit the unpause button. We were joined by the Athletic's Tony Jones on the "Bet and Collect" podcast to detail the relationship between Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, who also contracted the virus and was openly annoyed with his teammate. The pair has looked sharp in scrimmages, and this group really needs to get off to a strong start since five of their next six opponents are likely playoff-bound.
This spread opened as a pick'em but New Orleans quickly got money behind it as the betting favorite. With Williamson returning to the bubble in time to start and Derrick Favors around to try and neutralize Gobert and his former team, it's not surprising that the 10th-ranked team in the West would be favored over the team currently in fourth. Top shooter Bojan Bogdanovic wasn't able to join Utah after wrist surgery, so we'll see who steps up for this new-look Jazz squad.
If Mike Conley can't improve on what has been a disappointing first season, Utah could take a significant step backwards. Conley struggled against the Heat last week and will likely have his hands full with Jrue Holiday.
Clippers vs. Lakers (-4/216.5), 9 p.m. ET
Harrell and Beverley are expected to play for L.A. The same goes for center Ivica Zubac and shooter Landry Shamet, who both were late in arriving to the NBA campus. With limited practice time and Williams sidelined, there's no question that the Clippers likely won't be as sharp as they'll be in a few weeks when the playoffs begin.
Anthony Davis got poked in the eye over the weekend but will be in the mix. In case you've missed highlights, LeBron James arrived in Orlando in phenomenal shape. He's running the floor with great power and outside of the new patches of gray in his beard, doesn't look like someone with 17 years of pro mileage under his belt. The Lakers have also seen Kyle Kuzma shoot the ball exceptionally well. If he's able to be a more efficient force off the bench, L.A. may step it up a level.
Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley are out, but Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been an asset in a starting lineup in which James is essentially the point guard. Alex Caruso, J.R. Smith, Quinn Cook and Dion Waiters are competing for minutes off the bench.
Friday's NBA Action
Games to Watch (6)
Magic (-6.5, 212) vs. Nets, 2:30 p.m. ET
Brooklyn got squashed by 31 points in its first scrimmage but bounced back and beat the Spurs next time out. Jonathan Isaac is set to play for the first time in months and should be part of the equation for Orlando, increasing its chances of ultimately finishing as the No. 7 seed. There's no line on this one as of Monday but it could approach double-digits. A Magic win allows them to leapfrog the Nets in the Eastern Conference standings.
Grizzlies vs. Trail Blazers (-2, 222.5), 4 p.m. ET
Jaren Jackson, Jr. is back for Memphis to team with Ja Morant, while center Jonas Valanciunas reported in excellent shape. Portland will be looking to send a message that it is coming for that final West playoff spot and has seen center Jusuf Nurkic excel in his return from a broken leg. Damian Lillard has been dealing with foot inflammation but is expected to be ready when the lights come on, setting up a great matchup out of the gate against Morant.
Suns (-7, 225.5) vs. Wizards, 4 p.m. ET
Kelly Oubre Jr. hasn't suited up yet due to his knee injury but may ultimately play. In his absence, second-year forward Mikal Bridges has really stepped up as a glue guy alongside Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. Ricky Rubio has also recovered from a bout with COVID-19 and should start, which spells trouble for the lowest-rated team in the bubble. The Wizards have lost to the Nuggets and Clippers in scrimmages but haven't been embarrassed.
Celtics vs. Bucks (-4.5, 217.5), 6:30 p.m. ET
All eyes will be on this first meeting between the Eastern Conference's favorite and one of the teams most likely to dethrone them. Kemba Walker's knee soreness from February turned into a pain on the side so he will likely be on a minutes restriction. Bledsoe has returned to practice and will get one scrimmage under his belt following his bout with COVID-19. Be on the lookout for props on Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. Jayson Tatum.
Kings (-2.5, 216) vs. Spurs, 8 p.m. ET
Sacramento point guard De'Aaron Fox has returned from an ankle sprain but didn't look like himself. Sacramento had a COVID-19 outbreak throughout its group so the team is definitely behind where it hoped to be. Barnes just arrived at the campus and could see minutes immediately. Kent Bazemore has been the Kings' most effective player. DeMar DeRozan shot 2-for-8 in that bad loss to the Nets and needs to be San Antonio's leader on the floor to overcome LaMarcus Aldridge's absence.
Rockets (-1, 225.5) vs. Mavericks, 9 p.m. ET
Westbrook is back in action and James Harden looks like a more effectively version of himself now that he's in prime shape, so we're going to see if these Rockets can ride fresh legs to championship contention right out of the gate. Dallas has depth issues but Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis will be a handful for everyone and shooters Tim Hardaway Jr. and Seth Curry will get plenty of open looks. 7-foot-4 center Boban Marjanovic went for 17 points and 13 boards in a win over the Lakers in scrimmage play and could be the x-factor.
Saturday's NBA Action
Games to Watch (5)
Heat vs. Nuggets (-2, 222.5), 1 p.m. ET
Two teams who hope to stun the world with a run to the Finals square off in a game where I believe the wrong team is favored.
Jazz vs. Thunder, 3:30 p.m. ET
OKC has defeated the Celtics and 76ers despite Chris Paul shooting 3-for-11. They have defensive standout Andre Roberson back after years trying to get healthy again.
Pelicans vs. Clippers, 6:30 p.m. ET
New Orleans' playoff push will certainly benefit from Williams' absence and L.A. being behind schedule due to its roster being in flux. The Clips should still be favored but it won't be by much.
76ers (-4, 210) vs. Pacers, 7 p.m. ET
Expect this number to rise as tip-off approaches if Sabonis is indeed ruled out. It looks like Victor Oladipo will ultimately participate for Indiana, which makes it more formidable. Philadelphia has seen Ben Simmons arrive with a more aggressive frame of mind, which includes firing up shots from the perimeter to keep defenses honest. We'll see if that continues in games that count.
Lakers vs. Raptors, 8:30 p.m. ET
That Toronto will see its old nemesis LeBron as it begins its title defense seems fitting. A slimmer Marc Gasol looks formidable and emerging star Pascal Siakam will have his sights set on proving himself against James, but the Raptors' chances of winning this one may hinge on whether Fred VanVleet can return after limping off with a banged-up knee over the weekend.
Sunday's NBA Action
Games to Watch (6)
Wizards vs. Nets, 2 p.m. ET
The two most unwatchable teams in the bubble scrap.
Trail Blazers vs. Celtics, 3:30 p.m. ET
If Portland can pull off this upset, the Pelicans will have their hands full leaping into the No. 9 seed and play-in action for the West's final playoff spot.
Spurs vs. Grizzlies, 4 p.m. ET
Given its tough schedule, this is a must-win for Memphis if it is going to hang on to the No. 8 seed.
Kings vs. Magic, 6 p.m. ET
Orlando should have Markelle Fultz in place, which sets up an intriguing matchup against Sacramento's Fox.
Bucks vs. Rockets, 8:30 p.m. ET
Hopefully this Sunday night special lives up to its potential. Milwaukee won the first meeting in Houston 117-111 in its season opener a lifetime ago on Oct. 24.
Mavericks vs. Suns, 9 p.m. ET
Phoenix is interested in doing more than playing spoiler in Orlando and will need an early upset like this one after presumably handling the Wizards to inspire confidence within their young group.
Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA or e-mail him at [email protected]