Daily NBA bubble primer: The red-hot Suns and a test of Michael Porter Jr.'s ascent

Ben Rohrbach
·7 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 12 of the restart to the 2019-20 season.

NBA standings

Eastern Conference

  1. Milwaukee Bucks (55-15)

  2. Toronto Raptors (50-19)

  3. Boston Celtics (47-23)

  4. Miami Heat (43-27)

  5. Indiana Pacers (43-27)

  6. Philadelphia 76ers (42-28)

  7. Brooklyn Nets (34-36)

  8. Orlando Magic (32-39)

    Washington Wizards (24-46)

Western Conference

  1. Los Angeles Lakers (51-18)

  2. L.A. Clippers (47-23)

  3. Denver Nuggets (46-24)

  4. Houston Rockets (44-25)

  5. Oklahoma City Thunder (43-26)

  6. Utah Jazz (43-27)

  7. Dallas Mavericks (42-30)

  8. Memphis Grizzlies (33-38)

  9. Portland Trail Blazers (33-39)

    San Antonio Spurs (31-38)

    Phoenix Suns (31-39)

    New Orleans Pelicans (30-40)

    Sacramento Kings (29-41)

Monday’s schedule

(All times Eastern)

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Phoenix Suns, 2:30 p.m.

Dallas Mavericks vs. Utah Jazz, 3 p.m. (NBATV)

Toronto Raptors vs. Milwaukee Bucks, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Indiana Pacers vs. Miami Heat, 8 p.m.

Denver Nuggets vs. Los Angeles Lakers, 9 p.m. (TNT)

BetMGM odds

Oklahoma City Thunder +5.5 (-110)
Phoenix Suns -5.5 (-110)

Over/Under 224.5

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Dallas Mavericks +6.5 (-110)
Utah Jazz -6.5 (-110)

Over/Under 221.5

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Toronto Raptors +5.5 (-110)
Milwaukee Bucks -5.5 (-110)

Over/Under 228.5

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Indiana Pacers +2.5 (-110)
Miami Heat -2.5 (-110)

Over/Under 221.5

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Denver Nuggets +5.5 (-110)
Los Angeles Lakers -5.5 (-110)

Over/Under 220.5

Playoff implications

Oklahoma City Thunder (43-26) vs. Phoenix Suns (31-39)

The Thunder can lock themselves into the 4-5 matchup in the West with a win and a Jazz loss. Conversely, Oklahoma City would fall to sixth place with a loss and a Jazz win entering the regular season’s final days.

The Suns can move ahead of the Spurs into 10th place in the West with a win — just a half-game back of the ninth-place Blazers and a game behind the eighth-place Grizzlies. A loss would leave Phoenix no wriggle room in catching Portland. Another loss or a Blazers win in their final two games would eliminate the Suns.

Dallas Mavericks (42-30) vs. Utah Jazz (43-27)

The Mavericks would be locked into the seventh seed with a loss. A win would draw Dallas within a game of the sixth-place Jazz. Utah can move up to fifth with a win and an Oklahoma City loss.

Toronto Raptors (50-19) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (55-15)

The Bucks and Raptors have clinched the No. 1 and 2 seeds in the East, respectively.

Indiana Pacers (43-27) vs. Miami Heat (43-27)

The winner leaves in fourth place in the East. The loser drops within a half-game of the sixth-place 76ers.

Denver Nuggets (46-24) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (51-18)

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

The Nuggets can draw within a half-game of the second-place Clippers with a win. A loss would cut their cushion on third place to just a single game over the Rockets.

Who and what to watch

The red-hot Suns

One fun thing about an eight-game sprint to a play-in series between the eighth- and ninth-place teams in the West is that any team can catch fire, and the Suns — yet to lose in Orlando — are ablaze. Ricky Rubio, DeAndre Ayton, Dario Saric, Jevon Carter and Cameron Payne are shooting a combined 47.4 percent on 15.2 three-point attempts per game. Rubio has been a below-average shooter for his entire career, Ayton has made as many threes in the bubble as he previously attempted, and Payne was a G Leaguer all season.

Their best player, Devin Booker — arguably the smoothest shooter still standing — is shooting only 31 percent from distance ... and still scoring 29.4 points a night. Few Suns had a worse net rating than rookie sharpshooter Cameron Johnson prior to the hiatus. Phoenix coach Monty Williams inserted him alongside the starters, and they have outscored opponents by a team-high 52 points in his 166 minutes in Orlando.

The starting lineup of Rubio, Booker, Johnson, Ayton and Mikal Bridges has outscored opponents by 15.5 points per 100 possessions in 75 minutes together over their last five games. They had played only 34 minutes as a group prior to the hiatus. What’s more: The Celtics and Suns had two of the least productive benches in the league before the suspension of the season. Their reserve units are now first and second in plus/minus in the bubble. There is hope in Phoenix that Williams has unlocked a rotation that features the franchise’s four best young players, together with Rubio, and it is excelling under enormous pressure.

It may also be that things get weird in small sample sizes, especially when one team is in desperation mode against others with less urgency. The Suns beat a Heat team without Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic on Saturday, and the Thunder are resting multiple players in the second game of a back-to-back on Monday. Phoenix’s defensive rating (19th pre-hiatus, fourth post-hiatus) is likely evidence of an effort discrepancy.

Young teams often fail in the clutch, and the Suns had been poor in close-game situations all season. Yet, Phoenix has been extraordinary in the clutch inside the bubble, winning all three of their games that came down to the final five minutes. Two Phoenix games went down to the last second. Booker made a buzzer beater to win one, and the Mavericks missed two game-winning tries in the final 4.5 seconds of another.

This is how fragile the Suns’ survival has been, and a loss to Oklahoma City would leave them teetering on the edge of elimination, but it sure is fun watching a young team find an identity in the face of adversity.

The injection of Michael Porter Jr. in Denver

The Lakers have been floundering in Orlando. They have by far the worst offensive rating of any team inside the bubble, and LeBron James has made veiled references to chemistry issues both on and off the court. (And who could have possibly seen that coming with Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith added to the rotation?) The Lakers will be desperate to make a pre-playoff statement and reestablish themselves as title favorites.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets — long considered less of a playoff threat than their regular-season record suggests — will get a chance to test themselves against the West elite, now with rookie Michael Porter Jr. emerging as a potential difference-maker. Freed from Denver coach Mike Malone’s doghouse in the absence of injured starters Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton, Porter has averaged 25.6 points (on 54/42/96 shooting splits) and 10.2 rebounds in 36.8 minutes a night in the bubble, his scoring ability as a 6-foot-10 wing with range serving as a perfect complement to generational playmaking big man Nikola Jokic.

Porter has the potential to be the biggest wild card in the bubble — a star emerging before our eyes.

Murray returned in Denver’s win over the Jazz on Saturday, and Porter still shined as a third option. Barton (knee) and Harris (hip) will both sit again on Monday, with the expectation of rejoining the team prior to the playoffs, but Porter’s performance could push one of them to the bench when the Nuggets are at full strength. Denver’s ceiling with Porter in heavier rotation may be elevated from upstart challenger to serious contender, and Monday’s game against a reeling Lakers team is a prime opportunity to reach new heights.

Is Michael Porter Jr. the biggest wild card in the bubble? (Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images)
Is Michael Porter Jr. the biggest wild card in the bubble? (Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images)

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