Daily NBA bubble primer: Small ball vs. bully ball and a host of playoff matchup previews

Ben Rohrbach
·8-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 8 of the restart to the 2019-20 season.

NBA standings

Eastern Conference

  1. Milwaukee Bucks (54-14)

  2. Toronto Raptors (49-18)

  3. Boston Celtics (45-23)

  4. Miami Heat (43-25)

  5. Indiana Pacers (42-26)

  6. Philadelphia 76ers (41-27)

  7. Brooklyn Nets (32-36)

  8. Orlando Magic (32-37)

    Washington Wizards (24-44)

Western Conference

  1. Los Angeles Lakers (51-16)

  2. L.A. Clippers (45-22)

  3. Denver Nuggets (45-23)

  4. Utah Jazz (43-25)

  5. Oklahoma City Thunder (42-25)

  6. Houston Rockets (42-25)

  7. Dallas Mavericks (41-29)

  8. Memphis Grizzlies (32-37)

  9. Portland Trail Blazers (31-38)

    San Antonio Spurs (29-38)

    New Orleans Pelicans (29-38)

    Phoenix Suns (29-39)

    Sacramento Kings (28-39)

Thursday’s schedule

(All times Eastern)

New Orleans Pelicans vs. Sacramento Kings, 1:30 p.m. (NBATV)

Miami Heat vs. Milwaukee Bucks, 4 p.m. (TNT)

Indiana Pacers vs. Phoenix Suns, 4 p.m.

Los Angeles Clippers vs. Dallas Mavericks, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)

Portland Trail Blazers vs. Denver Nuggets, 8 p.m.

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Houston Rockets, 9 p.m. (TNT)

BetMGM odds

New Orleans Pelicans -4.5 (-110)
Sacramento Kings +4.5 (-110)

Over/Under 234.5

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Miami Heat +9 (-110)
Milwaukee Bucks -9 (-110)

Over/Under 222.5

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Indiana Pacers -2 (-110)
Phoenix Suns +2 (-110)

Over/Under 229.5

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Los Angeles Clippers -4.5 (-110)
Dallas Mavericks +4.5 (-110)

Over/Under 227.5

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Portland Trail Blazers -4 (-110)
Denver Nuggets +4 (-110)

Over/Under 231.5

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Los Angeles Lakers -1.5 (-110)
Houston Rockets +1.5 (-110)

Over/Under 227.5

Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis are nightmare matchups for each other's teams. (Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis are nightmare matchups for each other's teams. (Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Playoff implications

Portland Trail Blazers (31-38) vs. Denver Nuggets (45-23)
Los Angeles Clippers (45-22) vs. Dallas Mavericks (41-29)

The Nuggets can move into second place in the West with a win over the Blazers and a Clippers loss. Denver and L.A. are scheduled to play each other on Wednesday. Conversely, the Clips’ magic number for the No. 2 seed could drop to three over the final four games with a win over the Blazers and a Nuggets loss.

Portland can pull within a half-game of eighth-place Memphis with a win over Denver. The winless Grizzlies face a brutal schedule the rest of the way, and without Jaren Jackson Jr., they are in real danger of not only falling behind the Blazers — but falling out of a potential play-in series between the eighth- and ninth-place teams in the West. That was unthinkable when they entered the bubble with a 3 1/2-game lead on the field.

The Mavericks can fall no further than their current position of seventh place. A Dallas loss followed by a Houston win would leave the Mavs three games out of sixth with four to play, essentially locking them into their seed.

New Orleans Pelicans (29-38) vs. Sacramento Kings (28-39)
Indiana Pacers (42-26) vs. Phoenix Suns (29-39)

The race for ninth place in the West has suddenly become a race for eighth and ninth place. Six teams are still in the hunt for both sides of a play-in series for the final playoff seed, and they will be reshuffled often.

Every game is a must-win. The Pelicans can finish Thursday in 10th place with a win over the Kings, as close as humanly possible to ninth if the Blazers lose. (Having played two more games, Portland would own a win-percentage tiebreaker by two one-thousandths of a point.) A loss to Sacramento could drop New Orleans as low as 13th — last among teams still standing in the conference — if Phoenix defeats Indiana.

Likewise, the Kings can jump from 13th to within a half-game of the 10th-place Spurs with a win over the Pelicans and a Suns loss. A loss to New Orleans would all but eliminate Sacramento, especially if Portland beats Denver. In that worst-case scenario, the Kings would be three games out of ninth with four to play.

Remarkably, the Suns — who entered the bubble in 13th place, six games behind the Grizzlies — could move into 10th place, just a half-game out of ninth, with a win over the Pacers and losses by the Pelicans and Blazers. Phoenix could also fall right back to 13th with a loss to Indiana and a Sacramento victory.

Only three teams have yet to lose in Orlando. Either Indiana or Phoenix will lose that status on Thursday. Should the Pacers lose, their grip on the East’s fifth seed would loosen to just a half-game over the 76ers.

Miami Heat (43-25) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (54-14)

The Bucks can clinch the No. 1 seed in the East with a win over the Heat. A Milwaukee victory would also lower Boston’s magic number for the No. 3 seed to two, all but dashing Miami’s hopes of moving up.

Los Angeles Lakers (51-16) vs. Houston Rockets (42-25)

The Lakers have already clinched the No. 1 seed in the West.

The Rockets can jump from sixth to fourth place in the West with a win over the Lakers.

Who and what to watch

How does Miami match up with Milwaukee?

The Heat are the NBA’s best 3-point shooting team, converting 38.2 percent of their 35 attempts per game. Only James Harden has made more threes than Miami flamethrower Duncan Robinson this season, and the Heat are capable of spreading the floor at any position. Milwaukee, despite owning the league’s top-rated defense, allows more 3-point attempts and makes than any other team. That contrast makes for a real test of Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer’s protect-the-rim-at-all-costs defensive approach, one that could force Milwaukee to rethink its philosophy with Miami looming as a potential second-round opponent.

The addition of Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder also gives Miami two more capable defenders to throw at Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, in addition to stalwart defensive forwards Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. The Heat are 2-0 against Millwaukee this season, including a 105-89 victory at the beginning of March in which they held Antetokounmpo to a season-low 13 points on 6-for-18 shooting and three assists.

Granted, Butler has been ruled out of Thursday’s game, and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Goran Dragic is also listed as questionable for the Heat, but Miami will only be more intent on gunning 3-pointers.

Small ball vs. bully ball

Houston traded the only center in its rotation at the deadline, dealing Clint Capela for Robert Covington in a full embrace of small ball. With 6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker serving as their starting center, the Rockets can switch everything on defense, but more importantly they field 3-point shooters everywhere around James Harden and Russell Westbrook, opening the floor for arguably the game’s most skilled and explosive offensive players.

Their first game following the trade came against a massive Lakers frontline that includes two of the decade’s most dominant centers — Dwight Howard and Anthony Davis — neither of whom even starts at center. Throw in LeBron James at point guard, and the Lakers are a wall of muscle from floor to ceiling.

Well, Westbrook relentlessly attacked the rim for 41 points in the space provided by his team’s 19-for-42 3-point shooting, and the Rockets beat the Lakers handily. Davis scored 32 points on 14-for-21 shooting, and the Lakers scored 62 points in the paint — and it still did not matter. Now the Lakers are missing Avery Bradley, their best defensive option against either Harden or Westbrook. If Houston has any hope of reaching the Finals, it is likely through the Lakers, and Thursday marks another small-ball test.

A Clippers-Mavericks playoff preview

Dallas is all but locked into the seventh seed in the West. How the Clippers handle this meeting should tell us a lot about whether they prefer to play the Mavericks in the first round. If the Clips come out and strangle what has been the best offense in NBA history, hounding Dallas sensation Luka Doncic with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in a dominant victory, it is pretty safe to say they have no fear of an early upset.

However, the Clips could fall to third place with a loss and a Nuggets win, potentially setting up a first-round series with the Rockets, Thunder or Jazz. Nobody should want to face Houston to start the playoffs, if only because the randomness of their volume 3-point shooting creates an uncertainty for any opponent, and it may be too early to begin playing matchup games in a crowded field. But there are reasons Oklahoma City (a lack of wings) and Utah (down Bojan Bogdanovic) might be more favorable matchups for L.A.

If anybody rests on Thursday, it opens the door for questions about whether the Clippers would rather not face the Mavericks. And if the Clips perform poorly against Dallas, we can start to ask whether they should.

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