As the first round of the NBA playoffs is nearing completion, basketball fans have had ample time to see what teams hit the ground running in Orlando and which lagged behind. There is no doubt that the Orlando bubble has been a success, not only by keeping COVID-19 numbers at zero but as well from an entertainment perspective. Scoring has absolutely skyrocketed in the bubble, with games going well over the 120s, and a handful of players have taken their play to the next level while in Orlando.
While stats and wins are always a contributing factor, the eye test and the wow-factor have become phenomenal for several of the NBA’s superstars and rising heroes. While many players have taken their game to new levels, the following players have caught fire since the restart and seem to have no intention of cooling off.
5. Devin Booker, G
While Phoenix eventually missed the play-in game to snag the final spot in the West, Booker and the Suns scorched (pun intended) their competition throughout the seeding games. The Suns finished with a perfect 8-0 in the bubble, led by Booker, who averaged 30 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists, and 50% FG. Phoenix was a team on a mission. Their run in the bubble showed they are a team to be reckoned with, especially when their star guard is on form. Eyes will be on Phoenix next year to see if they can rekindle their Orlando magic.
4. James Harden, G
It’s time to fear the Beard. While Harden has been the leading scorer for consecutive seasons in the league, he famously has struggled to perform in the post-season. Doubt was cast on Houston’s chances against OKC when Harden’s partner-in-crime, Russell Westbrook, suffered a quad injury that benched him for the series. Fans and spectators alike feared Harden would fail to produce. However, the Beard has kept it rolling. As of August 14, Harden was averaging 35 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists, 54% FG, and 37% 3-point FG. Although the Rockets are currently tied with OKC at two games a piece, Harden has shed his post-season slump and has continued to score spectacularly, with a noticeable improvement in his defensive game as well.
3. Luka Dončić
The 21-year-old Slovenian national has become an instant star in the league. From his handles to his defensive prowess and, of course, his shooting, Dončić can do it all. The Mavericks have been somewhat of a dark horse in the playoff picture in the West, with many placing the Mavericks’ success or failure on Dončić. The star rose to the occasion, averaging 35.4 points, 12.2 rebounds, and 11.6 assists. Dončić has also been able to keep Dallas in the playoff picture, currently forcing a game six against the second seed Clippers. Without his partner in crime Kristaps Porziņģis, Luka will have to push his game to even greater heights. While Dallas’ future in the playoffs is unsure, there is no question about Luka’s superb gameplay.
2. Donovan Mitchell
“Spida”- Mitchell has been spinning a web of historic stat lines during his stay in Orlando. The third-year out of Louisville has been making a name from himself while springing into the history books. While Mitchell averaged 24 ppg during the regular season, the Jazz guard has reached new heights in the playoffs. Mitchell made a splash in game one against the Denver Nuggets, racking up 57 points and becoming the Jazz’s highest scorer ever in a playoff game. But that wasn’t enough for the budding star. Game three saw Mitchell join Allen Iverson, Wilt Chamberlain, and Michael Jordan as the fourth player in history to record a pair of 50 or more point games in the post-season. The Jazz currently leads the Nuggets 3-2 in the series, with much thanks owed to “Spida.” Who knows how far the Jazz could go with Mitchell dialed in!
1. Damian Lillard
“Dame D.O.L.L.A.” has been turning Orlando into his personal shooting clinic. The Portland point guard has averaged 37 points, 4 rebounds, 10 assists, 50% FG, 43% 3-point FG since the season resumed. Not only has Dame been recording great numbers, but the superstar has also made prime-time dame time. From shooting three-pointers with his heels on the NBA logo at center court to single-handily keeping his team in games and completing comeback victories, teams have failed to find an answer for Lillard. Off of his incredible effort and skill, the Trailblazers were able to fight their way back into the playoff picture and steal the eighth seed from Memphis. Portland was even able to snag a game one victory over the first seed Los Angeles Lakers. While Portland has not been able to perform as well in the playoffs as some may have hoped, that does not take away from the spectacular showing Lillard has had in Orlando. If the bubble was considered its own season, Dame would be the frontrunner for MVP.