Embiid, Lillard may need bubble wrap

Ryan Knaus
·18 min read



The 'Orlando bubble edition' of the NBA’s exhibition season continued on Sunday with a five-game slate. We saw a pair of near-miss triple-doubles, a few (hopefully) minor injuries, and some high-profile players on both sides of the active/inactive ledger. Joel Embiid (calf) and Kristaps Porzingis (missed COVID-19 test) were unavailable on Sunday for very different reasons, while the Celtics welcomed back Kemba Walker (knee) and the Blazers got Hassan Whiteside (calf/Achilles) back as a starter. Plus, we received some important injury updates regarding Damian Lillard and Jonathan Isaac. Let’s dive in.

Sixers at Thunder

Joel Embiid was ruled out a day in advance of this scrimmage due to "right calf discomfort." Philly coach Brett Brown has raved about Embiid's work ethic during the shutdown, which reportedly included six-day-a-week workouts for long stretches, so hopefully it's not a matter of overuse. Beyond team chemistry, the 'will he, won't he' dynamics of Ben Simmons' jumpshot, and Embiid's fit (or lack thereof) alongside Al Horford, it's probably Embiid's health that will determine Philly's fate in the postseason. They're only 2.0 games out of the No. 4 seed going into the seeding games, but 'homecourt advantage' is basically a non-factor and they're in no danger of being overtaken for the No. 6 seed. Expect Philly to be super-cautious with Embiid prior to the playoffs. When coach Brown was asked if Embiid might sit out any of the Sixers’ seeding games, he replied, “I believe we're just getting out in front of stuff, and being smart with it.”

With the Sixers' star big man unavailable, it was the Ben Simmons show. He fell one assist shy of a triple-double in just 26 minutes during this exhibition, and clearly the lower back nerve impingement that bothered him in March is no longer a concern. He had 21 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists and one steal, and the triple-double categories are basically a lock every single night. Unfortunately, his usual fantasy deficiencies were still obvious, as he went 4-of-7 at the line with five turnovers and zero 3-point attempts. That matters far more for season-long value, though, so DFS owners can shrug it off.

There was also clear chemistry between Simmons and Al Horford, who filled in at center for Embiid. Horford chipped in 13 points, nine rebounds, three assists and two steals in 23 minutes, and he and Simmons had a little love-fest going after the game. Asked about Simmons' near-triple-double, Horford replied, "Ben is just being Ben. He sets the tone for us." And when Simmons was asked to comment on Horford, he said, "He’s a great player, team-first guy. His IQ is amazing. Defensively, he can move his feet, so having him has been great." There's been much consternation about the chemistry when Horford and Embiid inevitably share the court, and that remains unresolved, but the Simmons/Horford connection is at least a positive angle for the Sixers to build on.

Matisse Thybulle’s defense (five steals in two exhibitions) earned him a rave review from Brown, who said, “I think his activity, he’s come into this thing excellent. I think there’s a focus on deflections and trying to get hands on balls.” Alec Burks was the only reserve in double-digits with 13 points in 20 minutes, and the only other real takeaways were injury-related. Raul Neto was ruled out prior to the game due to back tightness, and Glenn Robinson III exited after suffering a hip pointer in the second quarter. Neither absence should have a fantasy impact.

The Thunder provide a much briefer recap. Nerlens Noel made his Orlando debut with four points, six boards and one steal in 16 minutes, and looks ready to slot into his typical backup-C role. He’s a sneaky asset in most season-long leagues, but low minutes make him an afterthought in DFS while Steven Adams (11 points, nine boards) is healthy. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander notched 16 points, seven rebounds, five assists, two steals and one 3-pointer in 24 minutes, a line that would have looked much nicer if he shot better than 5-of-15. The Thunder as a team shot just 38.0% from the field and 28.9% from deep, yet they pulled out another exhibition win and much of the credit goes to Chris Paul. Opposing players and coaches have all pointed out that CP3’s vocal leadership is impossible to ignore in the Orlando setting, where a lack of crowd noise and reduced arena music amplifies the importance of guys willing to call out plays and coverages. It’s easy to forget that OKC is within 2.5 games of the No. 3 seed in the West.

Suns at Celtics

Deandre Ayton is 2-of-2 from downtown during exhibition play, after hitting another one as part of an 11-point, seven-rebound effort in limited minutes on Sunday. That's not an impressive feat without proper context – Ayton is a combined 0-of-7 from deep in 101 regular-season NBA games. He focused on 3-pointers during the NBA's break and said he has a "green light" to take them, with coach Monty Williams even remarking on Ayton's improved shooting arc. Will it carry over into real games? That remains to be seen. As a DFS owner, I'd rather see him living in the paint where his eFG% skyrockets and rebounds are plentiful. But as a season-long owner, it would be terrific if he could establish himself as even a mild perimeter threat – in addition to helping another category, it could eventually force defenses to counter him with more mobile big men, thus playing into his hands when he is backing them down on the block. Either way, he just turned 22 years old and has all the hallmarks of an early-round fantasy monster for years to come.

Dario Saric rolled his ankle while stepping on Frank Kaminsky's foot in the first half, and did not return. There are no details but he left the court under his own power, so presumably it's just a day-to-day situation. Cameron Johnson started the second half at power forward, finishing with 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting in 29 minutes. It sounds like coach Monty Williams prefers him with the second unit, though, because he likes the group featuring Johnson, Cameron Payne, Jevon Carter, Ty Jerome and Frank Kaminsky. Albeit, that unit was pretty bad defensively in this game. The Suns don't have a realistic shot at making the playoffs anyway, so their games in the bubble are basically experimentation with an eye toward 2020-21.

For the Celtics, the most impactful guy only played nine minutes. That's Kemba Walker, who returned from ongoing knee soreness to score six points with one rebound and zero assists. Overuse appears to be the culprit for his ailment, so the Celts likely had him on a strict 10-minute limit, easing him into things as cautiously as possible. He looked as quick as ever, which is critical, but DFS players should be wary of him during the 'seeding' portion of the Orlando bubble. "I would love to just be like, 'You know what? I don't care about no minutes restriction or anything of that nature.' But obviously I can't," Walker said after the game. "I want to be there for my teammates when we're in the playoffs. Hopefully, by then, the restrictions and things of that nature are completely off." Boston has sufficient depth and playmaking to limit Walker without conceding games, which all but ensures they'll keep his minutes in check until the postseason. Plan accordingly.

Gordon Hayward played well for Boston with 17 points, six boards and three assists, Jayson Tatum couldn't make a shot early but warmed up to finish with 16 points and nine boards, and Jaylen Brown led the team with 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting, including three 3-pointers. The Tatum/Brown/Hayward trio is a handful, Marcus Smart (10 points on 5-of-5 shooting) continues to show improved offense to go along with his menacing defense, and if Kemba regains his typical swagger the Celtics will be a tough out in the playoffs. The biggest question mark is at center, where Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter (and possibly Robert Williams) form a somewhat awkward platoon. For fantasy purposes, Tatum is easily the safest bet in Boston.

Pacers at Mavericks

Victor Oladipo looked really good during Sunday's scrimmage, showing the speed and physicality that made him such a tough matchup prior to his ruptured quad. The old 'Dipo was back for stretches in this game, and although he somehow didn't get to the free-throw line, he wasn't shying away from contact at all. He shot 6-of-12 from the field and 4-of-8 from the deep, setting up his perimeter shots with drives that kept defenders on their heels. He finished with 16 points, seven rebounds, three assists, one block and zero turnovers. Despite the excellent performance, though, he said afterward that he'll wait to see how his knee responds to playing 28 minutes before deciding if he'll play Tuesday vs. the Spurs. At the very least, this should improve the odds that he suits up when the games start to count (he's still undecided and "assessing [his status] every day”).

Aaron Holiday started in place of Domantas Sabonis (foot) and it sounds like he'll stick there, with Nate McMillan saying he's "been the guy that has pretty much filled in when we've lost a starter." He was pretty quiet with eight points, two rebounds, two assists, one steal and one block, and I won't be eager to play him in DFS as long as Oladipo, Malcolm Brogdon (17 points, seven boards, six dimes), T.J. Warren (20 points) and Myles Turner (15 points, eight boards) are totally dominating the offense. Although Holiday's minutes will go up as a starter, there's clear downside since playing with the first unit should cut into his usage rate. In the footnote department, it looks like JaKarr Sampson will emerge as the default backup center for Indy ahead of T.J. Leaf. Neither guy has fantasy appeal.

Taking his cue from Ben Simmons, Luka Doncic also came one assist short of a triple-double on Sunday with 20 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists in 24 minutes. He was limping after getting hit in the leg in the third quarter and didn't play after that, but the Mavs were likely going to pull him for the fourth quarter anyway. It didn't look serious enough to put him on the Rotoworld injury report, but if there's the slightest doubt about his health the Mavs will likely rest him for their exhibition finale on Tuesday. Thus far, Doncic has looked fantastic in scrimmage play and he's poised to pick up where he left off in March with averages of 28.7 points, 9.3 boards, 8.7 assists, 2.9 triples and 1.1 steals. Lest anyone forget, the kid is still 21 years old. His fantasy potential is unknowable.

As mentioned in the intro, Kristaps Porzingis wasn't available for this game because he missed his COVID-19 test on Saturday. He apologized to the team and should be cleared to rejoin all team activities on Monday, but it's a reminder that players don't need to have coronavirus (or leave the Orlando bubble without permission) to face DNPs. Paul Millsap also recently missed a test, and although neither of these missed tests have a real impact right now, it'd be devastating during the playoffs. In KP's absence, Maxi Kleber stepped in admirably with 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting, including a 4-of-6 mark from deep. The only lasting takeaway here is that Kleber is the guy to target if KP does miss any real games. It's basically a running joke for RW's hoops writers at this point, but Boban Marjanovic (11 points, six boards in 15 minutes) is also a fun option in the right matchup.

Seth Curry looks like he spent the hiatus in suspended animation, as he's been just as hot as he was in early March. After shooting 2-of-3 from deep on Sunday, he's a combined 8-of-9 through two exhibition games. The Mavs come into the re-start averaging 41.5 three-point attempts per game, second only to the Rockets' 44.2. They've been using lineups with Kristaps Porzingis in the middle surrounded by shooters, forcing teams to pick their poison, to great effect – despite the high-volume attempts, they rank eighth in the NBA in 3-point percentage at 36.9%. Houston is 23rd in that category at 34.8%. That plays to the strengths of guys like Curry, Kleber and Tim Hardaway Jr., giving them a bit of daylight for DFS purposes.

Blazers at Raptors

There were two main stories for the Blazers on Sunday. The most important was Damian Lillard being ruled out due to left foot inflammation. He had X-rays, which were negative, and coach Terry Stotts is reportedly "hopeful" to have his star play in Portland's exhibition finale on Tuesday. Lillard has soreness on the bottom of his foot and I don't understand why they'd take even the slightest risk in a scrimmage, but presumably that just indicates the Blazers' lack of concern. It sounds like he'll be fine when real games begin, but if not it'll be the C.J. McCollum show – McCollum was in mid-season form on Sunday, posting 21 points (7-of-12 FGs, 4-of-5 FTs) with an array of seemingly effortless moves to get buckets. As I wrote in his blurb, “Without Lillard on the court this season, [McCollum] is averaging 44.1 DFS points with 34.5% usage, compared to 32.0 DFS points and 23.3% usage with Dame on the court.”

Gary Trent Jr. had nine points, two boards and one assist in 32 minutes as a fill-in starter for Dame on Sunday, while Anfernee Simons stepped up with 13 points and four assists in 31 minutes. Simons has failed to capitalize on his preseason momentum, but Portland would love for him to emerge as a reliable third guard to take some pressure off Lillard and McCollum. These eight seeding games would be an ideal time for him to step up.

The second main story was Hassan Whiteside returning from a calf/Achilles injury and starting alongside Jusuf Nurkic. Whiteside was on a minute-limit but still chipped in six points, five boards and two blocks in 18 minutes. Not to be overshadowed, Nurk was awesome with 17 points (4-of-13 FGs, 8-of-10 FTs), 13 rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocks. He also took five 3-pointers, making one of them, which is three more attempts than he's ever taken in a regular-season game. His impact at both ends of the court can't be overstated. As I wrote in a blurb after Sunday's game, "If Portland is able to earn the No. 8 seed, or at least fend off New Orleans, Sacramento and San Antonio to force a play-in, Nurk will be a massive reason for their success." Head coach Terry Stotts obviously isn't messing around with his desire to pair these two in an oversized frontcourt, though you have to think it will be matchup-dependent. Against a team like the Mavs or Lakers, for instance, how can Whiteside/Nurkic defend mobile guys who step outside with ease? I'm not sure they can, but it'll be fascinating to watch the attempt.

The headline for Toronto is that Fred VanVleet exited early after banging his left knee in the first quarter. He did return to the bench, which is a good sign, and the Raptors simply had no incentive to risk playing him in an exhibition. Nick Nurse said as much after the game. Assuming the knee injury is minor, the Raptors may have found a silver lining in the play of Terence Davis and Matt Thomas, who combined to shoot 8-of-13 from downtown. It seems like Davis has solidified his spot in the rotation regardless, whereas Thomas will simply be emergency depth if FVV, Kyle Lowry or Norman Powell get hurt. Nurse's rotations have been among the most reliable in the league this season, so ultimately there's no reason to think players’ stats will veer far from where they were prior to the Mar. 11 shutdown.

Toronto opted for a big starting lineup of Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry on Sunday. That may have been a reaction to the Blazers' oversized frontcourt, allowing Nick Nurse to play around with combinations that had OG Anunoby as a focal point of the second unit. Gasol only played nine minutes, so it's hard to glean much, but the lineup can be considered a success. Ibaka was great with a team-high 19 points on 5-of-9 FGs and 6-of-6 FTs, plus three 3-pointers and six boards in just 24 minutes. Anunoby had seven points, six boards, four assists and a pair of blocks, and Gasol's outing was a success because he didn't get hurt.

Rockets at Grizzlies

James Harden played 35 minutes in an exhibition game vs. the Grizzlies. That's the big takeaway for me, not the fact that he predictably scored a game-high 31 points along the way (7-of-15 FGs, 12-of-16 FTs, five 3-pointers). Harden also had eight rebounds, nine assists, seven turnovers, two steals and one block, but I can't get past the playing time. Every team in the bubble is playing their main guys 20-30 minutes out of an excess of caution, but Mike D'Antoni allowed Harden to play 35. He explained afterward, "I tried to take James out with about four minutes to go, but he wouldn't have it. He wanted to play and win." At least we know who calls the shots. Harden elaborated, "I just don't want to play 20 minutes, in reality when the eight [seeding] games come, I'll be playing 35-36 minutes, it's gonna be a huge shock. I wanna prepare myself." My assumption is that he'll sit out Tuesday's game vs. the Celtics, but based on that quote, maybe not.

In addition to their first exhibition victory, Houston got some good news with Austin Rivers scheduled to complete his quarantine on Tuesday. He left Orlando for personal reasons and was only subject to a four-day self-isolation because the league sanctioned his absence. Rivers isn't expected to play on Tuesday but this ensures he'll be ready for the Rockets' first seeding game on Friday. His return will cut into the playing time of Ben McLemore, who caught fire in this game with 26 points in 24 minutes, hitting 8-of-10 shots with a 6-of-7 mark from deep. He's prone to random outbursts, but I don't trust him as a DFS play even in the best of circumstances.

Elsewhere for the Rockets, Russell Westbrook still looked rusty with 3-of-14 shooting and five turnovers (not that those are highly unusual numbers), but nothing about his movement or energy level on the court suggests a problem. He'll be fine. DeMarre Carroll returned from a hamstring injury and grabbed nine rebounds in 11 minutes. Houston was likely to be safe with him regardless, but it didn't help that he was thoroughly outplayed by fellow reserve forward Jeff Green (18 points on 6-of-7 shooting in 28 minutes). Harden played 35 minutes, P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington both fouled out, and coach D'Antoni was using coaches' challenges. In a scrimmage.

After the Rockets' first exhibition game, Harden said his team's defensive success will boil down to "transition defense and rebounds ... If we can do those two things, we give ourselves a chance." The Grizzlies led 18-0 in transition points in the first quarter alone tonight, and they won the battle of the boards 51-48. It wasn't enough for a victory, but it speaks to the style at which Memphis wants to play with Ja Morant running the show – he looked great with 17 points, nine assists, three steals, one block, one board and one 3-pointer in 31 minutes.

The Grizzlies trailed by 11 points at halftime but they owned the third quarter, going +19 in the frame before falling apart defensively in the fourth. What success they found came from balanced team play, and seven guys ended up with double-digit points – Morant, Brandon Clarke, Kyle Anderson, Jonas Valanciunas, Dillon Brooks, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Anthony Tolliver. As if to remind us of his freaky fantasy potential, JJJ casually added six boards, two steals, two blocks and two 3-pointers in just 21 minutes of action, and it wasn’t nearly his best effort. Kyle Anderson also looks to have benefited from the extended break, playing aggressively to finish with 15 points (9-of-10 at the line), four boards and three blocks. He was having a down year but if he can get back to how he played for the Spurs, it will go a long way toward mitigating the loss of Justise Winslow (hip). If you need something to make you smile today, just remember – we’re mere days away from real, meaningful NBA games.