A full 14 months after the buzzer sounded to end the last game of the 2019 NBA Finals, the 2020 playoffs have finally begun.
The coronavirus pandemic and the unprecedented circumstances of the NBA’s insulated resumption at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, has meant the road back to the most exciting period of the professional basketball season has been long and fraught.
And this will be a postseason like no other, with home-court advantage non-existent and the usual gruelling travel demands reduced to short walks from hotel rooms to the on-site arenas.
Here, we’ve picked out six players to watch during this unique postseason.
Damian Lillard – Portland Trail Blazers
The MVP of the NBA’s Orlando “bubble”, Lillard has almost single-handedly willed the Blazers into the playoffs with his performances in the final eight seeding games.The Oakland-born point guard averaged a staggering 37 points and 10 assists – along with a 43 per cent success rate from three-point range – through the regular season’s conclusion in Florida. And his outrageous total of 154 points over the final three games ensured Portland clawed their way to eighth place in the Western Conference, booking a play-in date with the Memphis Grizzlies last weekend.
And with Ja Morant and the Grizzlies dispatched at the first time of asking, Lillard has LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the title-favourite Los Angeles Lakers in his crosshairs next.
Kristaps Porzingis – Dallas Mavericks
Electrifying Slovenian point guard Luka Doncic is the headline act of the Mavericks’ all-time-leading offense, but fellow eastern European co-star Porzingis has been devastatingly effective in the bubble and will be key to Dallas’ chances of upsetting the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round.
The 7’3” Latvian averaged 30.5 points per game in his six bubble appearances, an increase of 11.1 on his scoring rate prior to the restart. And, dominant beneath the rim at both ends of the court, he has averaged 9.5 rebounds per game and 1.5 blocks.
The most impressive aspect of Porzingis’ game in Orlando has been the way he has been shooting the ball from distance, connecting on 38.1 per cent of his three-point attempts, an increase on his 35.2 per cent season’s average. Harshly ejected for a second technical foul in the first game against the Clippers, expect Porzingis to return extra-motivated.
Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers
The question of whether the 76ers’ star duo of Embiid and Ben Simmons can thrive together has long dominated discussions of the club’s title prospects. Both are elite defenders also capable of game-dominating scoring, yet they are rarely at their best at the same time.
With Simmons ruled out indefinitely with a knee injury, the emphasis now is on Embiid to step up and show why, if it comes down to a choice between the two, he is the one Philadelphia need to build their future around.
The extraordinarily talented seven-footer from Cameroon is unplayable on his day, yet he has been criticised, fairly, for his inconsistency. Up against rivals the Boston Celtics in the first round of this year’s playoffs, Embiid must silence his doubters if the Sixers hope to progress.
Jayson Tatum – Boston Celtics
On the other side of the court against Philadelphia and Embiid stands Tatum, the Celtics’ 22-year-old forward whose recent developmental leap has seen him enter the echelon of the NBA’s most dominant and exciting players.
Named an All-Star for the first time back in January, the St. Louis-native has been on a tear ever since. And, aside from a shaky start in Boston’s first bubble game – a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in which he scored just five points on two-for-18 shooting – Tatum has maintained his fine form in Orlando.
The Celtics’ lack of a top-level big man means their talented young core will have to overcome mismatches through efficient defensive switching and reliable scoring at the other end of the court. Tatum’s 32 points and 13 rebounds in the first game of Boston’s playoff series against the 76ers suggests he’s up to the task.
Chris Paul – Oklahoma City Thunder
The resurgent form of Chris Paul in Oklahoma City has been one of the stories of the 2019-20 season. Offered up by the Houston Rockets as part of the trade which took former MVP Russell Westbrook to Texas last summer, Paul’s age and sizeable contract caused many to assess him to be a negative asset for the Thunder, and one they’d try to move on at the first opportunity.
But OKC kept faith in CP3, and the veteran point guard has responded by turning back the clock and producing a stellar season. Leading a triumvirate of exciting guards including Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder, he has averaged 17.6 points, five rebounds and 6.7 assists, as well as shooting with dead-eye accuracy during crunch time.
With the Thunder up against the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, Paul has the chance to show Houston what they’re missing.
T.J. Warren – Indiana Pacers
Pacers forward Warren has been the surprise package of the bubble. The 26-year-old forward has put up 31 points per game in Florida (up on a season’s average of 19.8) while shooting 58 per cent from the field and 52 per cent from beyond the arc (up from already impressive averages of 53.6 per cent and 40.3 respectively for 2019-20 overall).
Racking up 51 points in his first bubble outing, Warren’s superlative recent form came out of nowhere, and Indiana will need him to maintain his lofty levels against the Miami Heat in one of the first round’s more intriguing match-ups.