Daily NBA bubble primer: New-look Blazers, a potential East finals preview and Harden vs. Doncic

Ben Rohrbach
·9-min read

Until the end of the NBA’s seeding-game schedule on Aug. 14, Yahoo Sports NBA will deliver a daily bubble primer, complete with up-to-date standings and a breakdown of the schedule, from gambling odds to playoff implications and the biggest storylines. Today marks Day 2 of the restart to the 2019-20 season.

NBA standings

Eastern Conference

  1. Milwaukee Bucks (53-12)

  2. Toronto Raptors (46-18)

  3. Boston Celtics (43-21)

  4. Miami Heat (41-24)

  5. Indiana Pacers (39-26)

  6. Philadelphia 76ers (39-26)

  7. Brooklyn Nets (30-34)

  8. Orlando Magic (30-35)

    Washington Wizards (24-40)

Western Conference

  1. Los Angeles Lakers (50-14)

  2. L.A. Clippers (44-21)

  3. Denver Nuggets (43-22)

  4. Utah Jazz (42-23)

  5. Oklahoma City Thunder (40-24)

  6. Houston Rockets (40-24)

  7. Dallas Mavericks (32-33)

  8. Memphis Grizzlies (32-33)

  9. Portland Trail Blazers (29-37)

    Sacramento Kings (28-36)

    New Orleans Pelicans (28-37)

    San Antonio Spurs (27-36)

    Phoenix Suns (26-39)

Friday’s schedule

(All times Eastern)

[Yahoo Sports NBA 2019-20 season restart team-by-team previews, collected]

Orlando Magic vs. Brooklyn Nets, 2:30 p.m.

Memphis Grizzlies vs. Portland Trail Blazers, 4 p.m. (NBATV)

Phoenix Suns vs. Washington Wizards, 4 p.m.

Boston Celtics vs. Milwaukee Bucks, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Sacramento Kings vs. San Antonio Spurs, 8 p.m.

Houston Rockets vs. Dallas Mavericks, 9 p.m. (ESPN)

BetMGM odds

Orlando Magic -7 (-110)
Brooklyn Nets +7 (-110)

Over/Under 212.5 (-110)

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Memphis Grizzlies +3 (-110)
Portland Trail Blazers -3 (-110)

Over/Under 223.5 (-110)

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Phoenix Suns -6.5 (-110)

Washington Wizards +6.5 (-110)

Over/Under 223.5 (-110)

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Boston Celtics +5 (-110)

Milwaukee Bucks -5 (-110)

Over/Under 218.5

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Sacramento Kings -4 (-110)

San Antonio Spurs +4 (-110)

Over/Under 220.5

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Houston Rockets +1 (-110)

Dallas Mavericks -1 (-110)

Over/Under 228.5

Damian Lillard has a chance to set the tone in the race for the final West playoff seed on Friday. (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
Damian Lillard has a chance to set the tone in the race for the final West playoff seed on Friday. (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

Playoff implications

Memphis Grizzlies (32-33) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (29-37)

Few games this early in the seeding schedule have greater playoff implications. The Grizzlies and Blazers are currently in eighth and ninth place in the Western Conference. A Portland win would draw them within 2 1/2 games of Memphis, far better position to ensure themselves of a play-in series and a not-insurmountable deficit for the eighth spot. (If the eighth- and ninth-place teams finish within four games of each other, the ninth-place team must win two straight head-to-head games to unseat the eighth seed.)

A Memphis win would push both the Blazers and Pelicans outside that four-game window for now, moving the Grizzlies one step closer to avoiding a play-in series altogether with only seven games to play.

Houston Rockets (40-24) vs. Dallas Mavericks (40-27)

Home-court advantage is essentially nonexistent at Disney, but there is a benefit to avoiding the second-place Clippers in the first round of the playoffs. The seventh-place Mavericks are currently in line to open the postseason opposite the Clips, 1 1/2 games behind the Rockets, who would draw a less-threatening Nuggets team as currently positioned. A Dallas win would draw it within a half-game of leapfrogging Houston. Meanwhile, a Rockets victory would move them into fifth place, a half-game up on the Thunder and within a game of a fourth-place Jazz team that looked vulnerable offensively on Thursday night.

Sacramento Kings (28-36) vs. San Antonio Spurs (27-36)

Should the Grizzlies beat the Blazers earlier in the afternoon, the winner of this game would move into ninth place in the Western Conference, within four games of Memphis. Obviously, a lot can and will change in this crowded race for the play-in series, but a victory would be a big deal for a Spurs team that entered the bubble in 12th place, needing to leapfrog three teams in the standings. To do so inside of 24 hours would be highly motivating. Should the Blazers win on Friday, a Kings victory would help them keep pace with a Portland team they currently trail by only .001 percent in an odd win-percentage tiebreaker.

Boston Celtics (43-21) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (53-12)

It would be almost impossible for the Bucks to lose their grip on the East’s No. 1 seed, but the Celtics do have some skin in the game. Boston trails the second-place Raptors by three games, a toggle that means little beyond avoiding a more difficult first-round matchup. It would be a bigger deal for the third-place Celtics to lose their 2 1/2-game advantage over Miami. Not only does the 4-5 first-round series project to be a more difficult matchup, but the winner of it will be forced to meet Milwaukee in the second round.

Orlando Magic (30-35) vs. Brooklyn Nets (30-34)

The loser of this game will emerge from Friday night as the eighth-place team in the East, fodder for Milwaukee in the first round. The winner leaves in seventh place, in line for a still-difficult but not-so-overwhelming first-round meeting with either the Raptors or Celtics. The depleted Nets are at a severe disadvantage in the bubble, and a loss to the Magic would draw them one step closer to potentially facing the equally depleted Wizards in what would be a fairly matched and absolutely awful play-in series.

Phoenix Suns (26-39) vs. Washington Wizards (24-40)

The Suns and Wizards are the last-place bubble teams in their respective conferences, both two games back from the four-game window necessary to force a play-in series. Neither can afford this loss. Phoenix is especially vulnerable, also needing to overcome four teams in the standings to finish in ninth place.

Who and what to watch

The new and improved Blazers

Not only is Blazers-Grizzlies a marquee seeding game, it is also our first opportunity to see Portland starters Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins together this season. Nurkic has not played at all, recovering from a fractured left leg, and Collins suffered a shoulder injury three games into his campaign, sidelining him ever since. Together in the frontcourt they helped the Blazers reach last year’s Western Conference finals.

Collins entered his third season prepped for a breakout, and Nurkic left last year in the midst of his. Portland lineups featuring Nurkic and the high-scoring backcourt tandem of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum last season outscored opponents by double digits per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. If they can pick up at Disney where they left off in 2019, the Blazers will not only be a threat to eliminate the Grizzlies from playoff contention, but be a frightening first-round matchup for the Lakers.

A potential Eastern Conference finals preview

The Bucks and Celtics are favorites to face each other in the East finals, per BetMGM. They have met in each of the last two postseasons, albeit with two very different Boston teams. The Celtics used Al Horford and Aron Baynes to wall off Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo from the paint in a seven-game 2018 first-round series win, and neither big man is still on the roster. A Boston team in utter disarray, led by an absentminded Kyrie Irving, lost four straight to Milwaukee in a five-game 2019 second-round meltdown.

This version of the Celtics may not have the frontcourt force to counter Antetokounmpo’s strength, but they do feature a pair of long, athletic wings in rising stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, both of whom started as neophytes on the 2018 team. The Bucks have been the NBA’s most dominant team all season, led by a player who will have won two MVPs since last losing to Boston in the playoffs, but the ceiling of the Celtics’ six-man rotation is as high as any in the East, capable of creating its own set of mismatches.

Luka Doncic vs. James Harden

It is unclear if Houston made James Harden into a perennial MVP candidate, surrounding the 2012 Sixth Man of the Year with complementary floor spacers perfectly suited to his ball-dominant style of play, or if Harden’s generational skillset transformed the Rockets into an offensive juggernaut. Either way, the Dallas version of Luka Doncic — already a fringe MVP candidate at age 21 — would not exist without Harden.

During his 2018 MVP campaign, Harden used 36.1 percent of Houston’s possessions, then the ninth-highest usage rate in NBA history. He has since surpassed that in each of his past two seasons. Harden has had the ball in his hands more than anyone over the last four years, ranking either first or second in time of possession each season. Harden adds moves to his arsenal each summer, and as his ability to break down defenders off the dribble improves along with his signature step-back 3-pointer, he has increasingly trended toward isolation possessions, relying less and less on pick-and-roll combinations.

Doncic, also synonymous with the step-back, is operating in a manner similar to Harden’s in 2016-17, when he still used almost half his possessions in the pick and roll, finished second in the MVP race and steered the Rockets to what was then the 10th-best offensive rating in history (114.7 points per 100 possessions), per Basketball Reference. Except, these Mavericks with Doncic currently own the highest offensive rating ever (116.7). What I am trying to say is that Harden and Doncic will be doing a lot on offense on Friday.

More from our NBA restart series:

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach