An ode to the best guards of the NBA bubble

When the NBA abruptly suspended the 2019-20 season in the moments leading up to a scheduled regular-season game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Utah Jazz on March 11, it was easy to feel the last rays of hope begin to dissipate by the wayside. 

The world followed suit by isolating its residents and grinding its economies to a halt. Government’s scrambled as the devastating impact of the Covid-19 virus became clear for everybody to see. 

Remarkably though, just a couple of months into what felt like a long basketball-less summer and just as the world and many of its institutions around us began to crumble, the league magically found its way back into our lives.

The experience was to be fan-less but unbeknownst to me at the time, the proposition would completely surpass expectations.

But no tribute to the bubble would be complete without mention of at least some of its most impressive performances.

DAMIAN LILLARD, PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

When the idea of restarting play to finish the regular season was first mooted, Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard couldn’t have been more clear about his motivation heading into the bubble. 

Per Yahoo Sports, he said: “If we come back and they’re just like, ‘We’re adding a few games to finish the regular season,’ and they’re throwing us out there for meaningless games and we don’t have a true opportunity to get into the playoffs, I’m going to be with my team because I’m a part of the team. But I’m not going to be participating. I’m telling you that right now.”

When the season was suspended, the Western Conference playoff battle was just beginning to heat up. Tied in the ninth spot just 3.5 games behind the Memphis Grizzlies, were the Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings. 

So, heading into the bubble, the Blazers knew they had their work cut out for them to even give themselves a chance to stay relevant in the playoff race. Under bubble rules, a team had to stay within four games of the eighth seed to force a play-in tournament.

With a replenished roster (featuring the return of big men Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins) the Blazers won six of their eight seeding games, but not without challenge, and some sensational play to close out the regular season. 

The Blazers earned their first opportunity for a play-in spot against the Los Angeles Clippers on August 8. 

But on a chance to take the lead with 18.6 seconds to go, Lillard suffered what was possibly his lowest point in the bubble, missing a pair of free throws and letting the Clippers walk away with a 122-117 victory. 

What followed, however, left no-doubt in anybody’s mind of Lillard’s status as an elite guard in the league. 

In their August 9 game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Lillard virtually carried the team on his shoulders and ensured a 124-121 victory with a 51 point, 7 assist outburst. And on the postgame presser, he made his intentions clear, and said:

“It wasn’t really so much my performance yesterday and I wanted to perform a certain way today. It was like, we let one slip that we should have had yesterday, and I’m a big part of why it got away from us. So tonight, I was like ‘That’s not going to happen’.”

Two nights later, against a well balanced Dallas Mavericks squad featuring the feisty all-European pairing of Kristaps Porzingis, and Luka Doncic, Lillard seemed to transcend another level. He poured in a mammoth 61 points and 8 assists to carry the Blazers to a 134-131 victory.  

Against the Brooklyn Nets, the Blazers knew they needed one more superhuman effort to get themselves safely across the line. Lillard didn’t disappoint. With 10:31 left on the clock till the end of regulation, and the Blazers down seven, Lillard rose up to bury a characteristic centre court heave. It was just one of his eight three pointers of the evening en-route to a 42 point, 12 assist showing and the 134-133 victory that would force a play in tournament with the Memphis Grizzlies. 

When the dust finally settled, Lillard had tallied 154 points on 56 percent shooting (21-43 from deep; 41-43 from the charity stripe) – one of the best performances over a three game stretch in recent memory. 

The Blazers would go on to beat the Memphis Grizzlies in the play in tournament, and secure the eighth seed in the west, eventually losing to the number one seeded Los Angeles Lakers in five games. 

DEVIN BOOKER, PHOENIX SUNS

While Lillard was filling up the stat sheet and willing his team across the finish line, he wasn’t the only guard attracting eyeballs with his nightly play. 

When the sun eventually set on their 2019-20 campaign, the Phoenix Suns had a rush of mixed feelings to deal with. 

On the one hand, they had completed a full sweep, becoming the only team to go 8-0 since coming to Orlando. But they had nothing to show for it as even a perfect score wouldn’t qualify them for a play-in tournament. 

Final result apart, the Suns were fuelled by the sensational play of their own super guard Devin Booker. Through eight games, Booker averaged 30.5 points on 50.3 percent shooting from the field, scoring 30 or more points in five of the eight games. During the same stretch, Booker also averaged 6 assists and a 94 percent clip from the charity stripe. 

But perhaps the most impressive aspect of his performance in the bubble was his ability to produce consistently in the clutch; none more impressive than the last second buzzer beater to put away the Los Angeles Clippers and score a 117-115 victory during their August 4 match-up. 

LUKA DONCIC, DALLAS MAVERICKS

Easily one of the more intriguing pairings this season, Latvian big man Kristaps Porzingis and Slovenian sensation Luka Doncic were expected to carry the Dallas Mavericks deep into the playoffs. 

The two struggled early on in the season, but found their stride in the bubble. Despite their tardy 3-5 performance as a team, the strong play of Porzingis (averaging 30.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks on 47.6 percent shooting from the field in six games between July and August) and Doncic (averaging 30 points, 9.7 assists, 10.7 rebounds on 47.9 percent shooting in seven games) kept the Mavs competitive and exciting to watch. 

So when Doncic rolled his ankle in the third quarter of game three in their first round series against the Los Angeles Clippers, you could almost see the tide slowly shifting in the Clippers favour. 

And sure enough, the Clippers fended off a mighty 34 point, 13 rebound effort by Porzingis to claim a 130-122 victory. 

For the Mavs, things took a turn for the worse in the lead up to Game 4, however, as Porzingis was a late scratch from the line-up due to right knee soreness – an injury that would effectively end his 2019-20 campaign.  

Fans who watched Doncic roll his ankle in the previous game were skeptical about his ability to play in the next one. 

What followed however, was a stroke of pure brilliance that brought back visions of a legendary performance more than three decades earlier by one of the game’s most resilient players to date: Detroit Pistons guard Isiah Thomas’s 43-point game 6 performance in the 1988 finals against the Los Angeles Lakers.   

Not only would a hobbled Doncic play through his injury, but he limped, and grinded his way to a monstrous showing, tallying 43 points, 17 rebounds, 13 assists and 2 steals and willing his team to a 135-133 victory in overtime to tie the series at two a piece. 

The highlight of the game however came at the buzzer. 

With 3.7 seconds to go and the Mavs down by one, the ball found its way to Doncic off the inbounds pass, as he leapt past a screen set by teammate Maxi Kleber to force Kawhi Leonard to switch off him on defense. 

With razor-sharp focus, Doncic then dribbled right then left, followed by a step back to create space against his defender (Reggie Jackson) and a 30 foot jumper that found the back of the net – putting a shine on what was easily one of the best single game performances in the playoffs this season. 

The magic would eventually wear off as the Mavericks struggled without Porzingis and went on to lose their next two games and the series to the Clippers. 

JAMAL MURRAY, DENVER NUGGETS 

When the Denver Nuggets finally secured an 80-78 game seven victory on the back of a missed shot by Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley, it was not the ending most expected. 

The first-round series that featured high octane offense over its first six games, finally slowed to a pace more akin to a game in the 1990s, characterised by a grind it out defensive character. 

For the Nuggets, it was a rather sudden end to an incredible series. They had become just the 12th team in NBA history to win a series after falling behind 1-3.  

But the series was memorable for a lot more than that. 

Punctuated by their twin 50-point performances in game four of the series (a 129-127 Jazz victory), the matchup between Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell and Nuggets guard Jamal Murray throughout the series will be remembered for generations to come. 

All said and done, it was Murray who joined elite company with his performance in the series. 

His 221 total points scored in the series broke a franchise record for most points scored by a Nuggets player. The two 50-point outings put him in the company of Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson and Wilt Chamberlain – the only other players to have scored 50+ points twice in a series. 

Through the series, Murray showcased his evolution into a true three way threat with his ability to beat his man off the dribble and score at the rim, nail the mid range jumper and drain the deep shot on a consistent basis. 

But Murray was far from done with imprinting his stamp on the league. 

In a performance of the ages on September 16, Murray put up 40 points and 5 assists to ensure that history repeated itself as the Nuggets emerged with a 104-89 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers to clinch the following semifinals series and become just the third team across all US pro sports to rally from a pair of 3-1 deficits in the same playoffs. 

The Nuggets would go on to lose to eventual champions, the Lakers in the Western Conference finals but this much was clear: along with Serbian big man Nikola Jokic, Murray will ensure that the Nuggets remain contenders for years to come.