1. Meet the All-Bubble Team. After one week of basketball, several players who were merely considered decent or intriguing have reached a new level of NBA relevancy. These aren’t the five best players in the bubble, but they are five who matter much more than we expected.
T.J. Warren: Phoenix’s decision to attach a second-round pick and $1.1 million to T.J. Warren and then ship him to Indiana (for cash considerations!) was, in real time, a preposterous move. Today, it is somehow even worse. In the last week, Warren has made collecting buckets in an NBA game look more effortless than a stroll through a buffet. In four games, Warren has a 53-point game, 135 points and 3 turnovers total, is shooting 53.6 percent from deep and trails only Kawhi Leonard and Marcus Morris in plus/minus. Is that good?
Gary Trent Jr.: Eight months ago Trent Jr. was on the outside looking into Portland’s rotation. Today he is Ray Allen, with more 3-pointers than anybody else in the entire bubble. Last night in a critical win against Denver, he went 7-for-10 from the 3-point line and finished with 27 points. During this week’s Blazers-Rockets game, Stan Van Gundy called him “an emerging star.” I can’t wait to see how much money the Knicks offer him strictly off this hot streak in two years.
Shake Milton: Anyone named “Shake Milton” was destined to become a cult hero who held an emotionally damaged Sixers fanbase in the palm of his hand. Milton went from fighting Joel Embiid and going scoreless in Philly’s humbling loss against the Indiana Pacers to downing the Spurs with a game-winner two days later. Milton won’t sustain his 50 percent shooting beyond the arc, but in the shadow of Ben Simmons’ unfortunate knee injury, he has become a wildly important lynchpin for a team that’s hanging on by the thinnest thread.
Alex Caruso: I wanted to write about Spurs guard Derrick White, who is a charge-taking maniac on one of the bubble’s most unusual teams, but then a couple days ago this photo of Caruso appeared on my timeline and I started to think about how weird it is that the West top seed’s chances are partially dependent upon him balling way above his head for a couple straight months in the first postseason of his career. Caruso’s defense is legit. How much more can he do?
Michael Porter Jr.: Please meet one of the NBA’s most important swing players. Labeled a superstar-in-waiting before he got to college and a serious back injury sent him plummeting to Denver at 14 on draft night, the 22-year-old has enough pure talent to someday elevate the Nuggets to perennial title contention. He has 94 points and 37 rebounds in his last three games. He hits threes. He gets to the free-throw line. The less said about his coronavirus conspiracies the better, but he’s the most athletic player on his team and usually the bounciest player on the court.
When healthy, Denver may be able to play Porter Jr. Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap, and Jerami Grant at the same time. With that type of flexibility, the Nuggets might be the championship contender nobody sees coming.
2. Is this the best t-shirt ever made?
Dear Anthony Tolliver: You’re making everybody else look bad. How did you find this shirt?
“I literally saw it a couple months ago on the internet. It was a random company that obviously came out with a really dope design and I was like ‘yeah I need that,’” he told me. “I never do that either, but I was like ‘that shirt is...it’s perfect, right?’”
3. Devin Booker, Meme King. It is physically impossible to make a more difficult game-winner than the one Booker hit over Paul George’s outstretched fingertips a few days ago. Please watch:
The fact that Booker didn’t lose concentration against PG’s contest/foul is superhuman by itself, but to drive towards Kawhi Leonard—after the Clippers funnelled him in that direction with a double team—actually pump fake Kawhi into the air and then have the presence of mind to spin, elevate, and tilt ever-so-slightly back and out of George’s reach, is all just melt-your-face excellence.
The Suns are undefeated, and this was the biggest moment of Booker’s career, which is wild to say about someone who once dropped 70 in a game. But that 70-point performance didn’t generate memes this pure.
4. Why does no one believe in the Toronto Raptors? Nick Nurse (the NBA’s best coach?), Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry (the bubble’s best point guard?), and about 27 other players who are competent on their worst day were left for dead after Kawhi Leonard skipped Toronto for Southern California. But even when Leonard was there, the Raptors were nationally disrespected right up until the moment they won the title.
The betting markets are one way to drive that point home. During last year’s postseason the Raptors led the league in spread differential, which measures a team’s average point differential relative to their Las Vegas spread. This season, they’re...also first! Gambling odds aren’t the be-all, end-all when it comes to capturing how millions of observers feel about a basketball team, but in this case it’s clear the general public underrates the Raptors.
Excuses concocted to dismiss Toronto as a legitimate title contender are almost all stupid. The team has the best defense in the bubble -- their mouth-foaming, controlled aggression on the perimeter made the Los Angeles Lakers look like an AAU team last week. The way Pascal Siakam turns open driving lanes into a mine shaft and then still recovers to suffocate his own man after a kick-out pass is terrifying.
5. Maybe the NBA needs a relegation system. Right now there are no Knicks, Pistons, Hornets, Cavaliers, Bulls, or even Draymond Green’s Santa Cruz Warriors to watch. Thanks to the absence of the league’s worst teams, the daily TV slate is a rolling wave of star power, competitive basketball, and compelling stakes. (The play-in tournament needs to stay.)
Aside from the Wizards and Nets (who almost resemble a March Madness Cinderella team if you squint), every team inside the bubble has something to play for and a chance to get it. Just about every matchup belongs on national television; if the league wants to enhance its entertainment value, having good teams battle other good teams pseudo-exclusively is a solution.
6. Candy yams hit different in the bubble. Someone give Suns guard Jevon Carter’s mom the max contract she deserves:
7. The Pelicans are the saddest team in the bubble. So much for that easy schedule. New Orleans has one of the worst offenses in the bubble, their franchise centerpiece is not in game shape (with constant speculation swirling about his health), and their sleek pre-shutdown vibe has turned to sludge. Nothing has gone quite how the NBA hoped it would when they first expanded the field to 22 teams, mostly in order to get Zion Williamson on TV.
If you’re a Kings, Spurs, Suns, or Blazers fan, you don’t mind watching New Orleans struggle. If you’re just about anybody else and were hopeful about a Zion vs. LeBron Round 1 showdown, you are JJ Redick:
8. Atlanta Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce talks about his involvement in social justice activism. Last week, I conducted a lengthy interview with Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce for this story about the NBA’s social justice dilemma. Pierce is one of the league’s most outspoken and engaged figures in the fight for equality, and this outtake from our conversation illustrates why he is committed to such draining yet essential work.
GQ: Basketball has taken you everywhere from Europe and Australia to Billings, Montana. Do you notice anything different when you’re outside the United States, either yourself acting differently or people acting differently towards you?
LP: When I played in Germany, a lot of the Black people that you see are normally Africans that have migrated, or moved. And so just as a Black person, living in a different country is a different experience because it’s a different culture. If I’m walking down the street in any state in the US, and I see a black dude, we know our head nod is kind of a common connection. It’s an unwritten, unspoken rule in the African-American community. Whereas in Germany or China, if I see a Black person, I don’t know where that person is from. They could be from Ghana, they could be from Washington DC. The head nod normally helps, but you also realize you're in a different culture..
Do you remember the first time you realized your skin color was putting you at a disadvantage in society?
No, because as a kid you think about disadvantage and advantage as two things. On the playground I get to control my advantage. As a kid, I’m either the fastest or the first picked, you know what I mean? You don’t have real life issues as a kid. And then when you think of the economic status, you just say ‘their parents vs. my parents’ as your measure. ‘Man they have a big house.’ So you don’t know why. ‘What does your dad do?’ It’s just a career. But you’re thinking ‘wow your dad is a lawyer? I want to be a lawyer when I grow up so I can have a big house.’
I guess the first time I really paid attention to it was when I got to Santa Clara, I realized everybody there came from a different education background than I did. I went to a very diverse public school. We had ESL in my high-school. Some people didn’t know what ESL was.
To understand the kind of resources these other kids had: We’d sit around and talk, and they were used to having tutors on campus, smaller class rooms, things of that nature. Just having those conversations, I realized my education wasn’t really like that.
So, my high school was only 10 minutes away from Santa Clara University. And we did this community project called the East Side project. And I had a sociology class, and some of the students came back and talked about their East Side project. It had them located at a high school that was really poor and really impoverished, and had a lot of social issues. And so they’re going on and on and talking about how unfortunate the high school was and then someone says ‘where was your high school?’ And they say ‘Yerba Buena.’ And I said ‘That’s my high school!’
At that point they almost shifted, like ‘no it wasn’t that bad, maybe it was just the portion that I saw.’ And I was like ‘no it’s all good. I went to the high school. I know it’s bad.’ But I felt honored to go to my high school and I took honors classes the whole time I was there, so I was able to get accomplished what I needed to get accomplished. So I don't know if that’s a disadvantage, but you definitely feel like there’s more out there that not only my daughter can have, but I’ll look into when you talk about education and what a school should look like and what a school should be teaching and what a school should be doing. That’s probably my first glimpse of the fact that there are different schools in different areas and you’ve gotta pay to go to private school to get that.
Do any other experiences come to mind when you think about how your skin color has shaped the degree to which you’ve involved yourself in anti-racist causes?
It isn’t about my experience that made me realize what being Black means. I try to explain this, when people say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ I’m not talking about a movement. And LeBron said it: This isn’t a movement. This is how I grew up. When I see someone come and arrest my buddy in front of me because they thought he stole something and he fit the description, that’s what being Black is. ‘Like whatchu’ mean I got a white tee on and I fit the description? We all got white tees on and none of us look alike.’
The experience is every day when you see something happen or you hear something happen or you know something has happened to Black people because of their skin. You feel it. It’s hard to explain if you’re not Black, what it feels like to see another Black man beat or be discriminated against or profiled. You feel everything.
We got pulled over and you get all the guys sitting on the curb, and they’re wanting to search your car. And we’re sitting there 16, 17 years old talking about ‘Why did we get pulled over? No you can’t search our car. Why did we get pulled over?’ And we’re all smart asses at that point. But you feel every story, every time you see another movie, another video, another anything that illustrates that. That’s why if you go back and look at the movies from back in the day, Boyz N’ The Hood, Menace II Society, they were depicting what Black men felt growing up.
Originally Appeared on GQ