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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Before these N.B.A. playoffs began, Luka Doncic stopped for a brief chat to look ahead to the Dallas Mavericks’ first-round series with the Los Angeles Clippers. He struggled with one question in particular.
When was the last time you remember feeling nervous before a game?
“I don’t know,” Doncic said. “Probably my first N.B.A. game — I was a little nervous then, obviously. But I just enjoy playing games.”
The nonchalance, even in his second N.B.A. season and first postseason, is no facade. Tuesday night’s Game 5 against the Clippers was disastrous for the Mavericks, but Doncic responded to a 154-111 rout with as much poise as he could reasonably muster — especially after a play early in the third quarter that raised many questions about whether the Clippers’ Marcus Morris intentionally stepped on Doncic’s injured left ankle. Morris said he did not.
“Bounce back!” Doncic said on Twitter after the game, betraying little concern even after the Clippers, in emphatically seizing a 3-2 series lead, appeared to finally play to their considerable potential.
A rebound from the Mavericks seems unlikely, given how overmatched the cast around Doncic looked in Game 5, and with Kristaps Porzingis sidelined by knee soreness for the second straight game. Yet it’s likewise true that the level Doncic found in the first four games of the series won’t soon be forgotten.
By Sunday, when Dallas overcame Porzingis’s absence and a 21-point deficit to even the series at 2-2, Doncic, 21, already had as many 40-point games in his playoff career (two) as luminaries like Moses Malone, Elvin Hayes and Patrick Ewing, as well as the current Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard.
Doncic’s performance Sunday on an injured left ankle was so special — 43 points, 17 rebounds, 13 assists and capped by a 3-pointer at the overtime buzzer — that he quickly made his old national team coach look like a sage.
Igor Kokoskov, the former Phoenix Suns head coach, coached Doncic and Goran Dragic to a wholly unexpected EuroBasket title with Slovenia in 2017. He assured me last week that Doncic “will play even better in the playoffs” than he did in the regular season because he “likes the big stage.”
More bad days like Tuesday night and full-blown playoff failures are surely in Doncic’s future — no N.B.A. star can avoid them. It nonetheless remains completely appropriate to swoon over what he has done for an opening act, even though Dallas was always far more likely to lose this series than win it.
Downgrade the damage Doncic has done if you wish, since it’s undeniably true that there are no fans inside the game venues to transmit tension onto the players, nor are any teams dealing with a travel grind since the league is operating at a single site amid the pandemic.
Just don’t forget that Doncic wasn’t even cleared to play in Game 4 until shortly before tipoff because of the left ankle he badly twisted in Game 3. Don’t forget, furthermore, that Doncic didn’t seem to lose any of his uncanny ability to bounce off or outright dodge the Clippers’ array of vaunted physical defenders (Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Morris) despite playing hurt.
As the Nets’ Spencer Dinwiddie said on Twitter, Doncic’s ability to so deftly mix acceleration with deceleration, combined with beyond-his-years court awareness, makes him hard for even the Clippers to corral.
“Change of pace has always been more effective than pace in general,” Dinwiddie said. “If I see something every time, eventually I can stop it. If the rhythm/cadence is constantly changing, what are you supposed to dance to?”
More bubble buzz from the N.B.A. restart:
Jamal Crawford hopes to be back.
Jamal Crawford scored 51 points in his final game with the Phoenix Suns in April 2019, waited more than a year for his next N.B.A. opportunity, then, after turning 40 in March, appeared in only one game in the N.B.A. bubble with the Nets because of a hamstring injury.
“I have no regrets at all,” Crawford said Monday night after returning to his home in the Seattle area.
Five points in six minutes of playing time in a surprising Aug. 4 victory over Milwaukee is all Crawford has to show, statistically, for his stint with the extremely short-handed Nets. Yet he expressed gratitude for being able to “experience a historic moment in real time.”
“We were able to bring much attention to the social injustices going on,” Crawford said, “and give people some sort of comfort from being able to turn on the TV and watch games.”
Crawford made it clear he “would love to play again next season.” Kevin Durant strongly suggested in a recent interview that he would relish seeing Crawford return to the Nets in 2020-21.
“With a whole, healthy roster,” Crawford said, “anyone would love that opportunity.”
One of the buzzier tales at the N.B.A. bubble involves a team no longer here: New Orleans.
David Griffin, the executive vice president of basketball operations for the New Orleans Pelicans, was spotted before the Pelicans’ exit visiting with the Clippers’ in-demand assistant coach Tyronn Lue.
Griffin and Lue have a history, as the former general manager and coach of the title-winning Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016, so the sight of former work colleagues spending time together on a campus that housed 22 N.B.A. teams is not notable in itself.
But Lue is poised to become the hottest name on the N.B.A. coaching carousel when the Clippers’ season ends — and the Pelicans do now have an opening. New Orleans fired Alvin Gentry with one year and nearly $6 million remaining on his contract on Aug. 15, with Lue and the Los Angeles Lakers’ assistant coach Jason Kidd almost immediately surfacing as two prime candidates for the post.
Lue, of course, has also been mentioned for months as a top candidate in the Nets’ looming coaching search. The latest rumbles in N.B.A. coaching circles suggest that the Nets or the Philadelphia 76ers are more likely landing spots for Lue than New Orleans despite his Griffin ties.
A failed roster makeover contributed to Brett Brown’s undoing.
The Sixers, as expected, fired Brett Brown on Monday after seven seasons, unmoved by the fact that Ben Simmons, one of Brown’s two best players, sustained what turned out to be a season-ending knee injury Aug. 5.
Brown’s demise stemmed not only from Philadelphia’s four-game sweep in its first-round series with Boston without Simmons, but also his strong behind-the-scenes support last summer for a roster makeover that hasn’t worked at all.
With Jimmy Butler filling a major role, Philadelphia came within one rim-assisted Kawhi Leonard shot of a spot in last season’s Eastern Conference finals. The Sixers then moved off their initial intent to re-sign Butler — fueled at least in part by Brown’s concerns about coaching the headstrong Butler — to spend big instead on signing Al Horford away from Boston and re-signing Tobias Harris.
The franchise has faced considerable criticism about the lack of shooting and playmaking on the roster ever since. Butler wound up joining the Miami Heat in a sign-and-trade deal and just led the Heat to a first-round sweep of Indiana.
Luka Doncic is not the only pressing issue for Doc Rivers.
Stopping his son-in-law has also been a problem for Los Angeles Clippers Coach Doc Rivers.
Dallas’s Seth Curry averaged 16.5 points on 65 percent shooting from the field and 56.3 percent shooting from 3-point range through the first four games of the series — until Curry, like virtually every Maverick, struggled mightily in Game 5 against the most sustained intensity at both ends that the Clippers have delivered all season.
Curry, who married Rivers’s daughter, Callie, in September 2019, entered Tuesday’s play averaging more than four points above his 12.4 points per game for the Mavericks during the regular season. Curry had insisted going into the series that the family ties would make a Mavericks-Clippers matchup “no weirder.”
“It can’t get any tougher than playing against Steph last year,” Curry said of his Western Conference finals showdown with Portland last season against his older brother, Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors.
“I want to experience it again so I can beat him once,” Seth Curry said.
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Inside the Bubble
A fresh round of highlights and reflections from my sixth full week inside the N.B.A. bubble.
A Time Capsule
The best part about collaborating with The Daily on Friday’s episode detailing life inside the bubble was that it gave me a lasting time capsule from this trip.
We taped a lot of material for the episode over a week, including a first for me: Some press-row narration using my iPhone before Game 1 of the Clippers-Mavericks series.
Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated and Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe, two longtime colleagues and fellow Los Angeles Daily News alumni, looked at me with a combination of bemusement and annoyance as I was loudly dictating details about the scene around me just as the game was getting started.
The Daily’s production team is amazing, so they mercifully made it all sound much better than it felt in the moment. Quite the Disney souvenir for yours truly.
Sorry, Mrs. Stein
My wife gave me only one bubble assignment, but I failed her. I did not manage to arrange a meeting with Philadelphia’s Shake Milton to discuss Owasso High School in Owasso, Okla., which both Milton and Mrs. Stein attended.
In my defense: I covered the Sixers only once during their eight seeding games, resulting in the Joel Embiid interview that led my article on Friday about the rash of injuries that has plagued so many first-round series.
The fallback plan, to catch up with Milton in the playoffs, didn’t work out so well when Philadelphia, without the injured Ben Simmons, was broomed out of the bubble by Boston in four games.
The ice cream sundae station in the media meal room on Sunday is officially a thing. It was in operation over the weekend for the second Sunday in a row and, to uphold transparency standards, I did have a single scoop of unadorned chocolate ice cream again.
I have a flight back to Dallas locked in now.
My New York Times colleague Scott Cacciola arrives on Sunday to begin his seven-day quarantine. So my departure from the bubble, after nearly 55 days, will take place late next week, enabling Cacciola to take over as our bubble representative.
So he will soon inherit my microwave and my kettle, and I will get to learn what it’s like to cover the rest of the N.B.A. postseason from afar — for the first time since my first season in 1993-94 when both the Clippers (my beat for The Los Angeles Daily News) and the Lakers missed the playoffs.
You ask; I answer. Every week, I’ll field three questions sent in to [email protected]. Please include your first and last name, as well as your city, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.
(Responses may be condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)
Q: I think you forgot Bill Russell when you said last week that Wilt Chamberlain’s “shot-blocking numbers presumably would have been the most prolific in league history” had the statistic been tracked during their playing days. I think we can all agree that Russell was the better defender and better shot blocker. — Ben Krinsky (Teaneck, N.J.).
Stein: I most certainly did not forget Bill Russell. He’s on the short list to be recognized as the greatest defender that this game has ever seen, while simultaneously residing at the front of the line to be declared the biggest winner in league history.
He’s also left-handed. You should know by now what that means around here: Russell will forever figure in this newsletter’s consciousness.
But Chamberlain was the unquestioned king of gaudy statistics, and various media accounts from that era support the idea that Chamberlain would have averaged more blocks per game had the statistic been tracked when both he and Russell were playing.
That was well before my time, but Chamberlain had a reputation for trying to emphatically block any shot he could get near. Russell was more calculated.
Consider this famous Russell quotation on the subject: “The idea is not to block every shot. The idea is to make your opponent believe that you might block every shot.”
“Most prolific,” remember, is not synonymous with “best.”
Q: Given that there is basically no home-court advantage, is this postseason the best chance to see an N.B.A. team coming from 3-0 down in a series? — @roadrunnerz45 from Twitter
Stein: After Philadelphia, the Nets and Indiana were swept in the first round, N.B.A. teams were 0-139 after falling behind, 3-0, in best-of-seven series. I am supremely confident that the historic comeback from 3-0 down that has to happen someday will not take place in the N.B.A. bubble.
As much as the absence of travel and hostile crowds should theoretically help teams that fall behind, 2-0, 3-1, or (yikes) 3-0, in a series here, I believe that it will be harder than usual to muster the motivation to fight back in those circumstances because of bubble fatigue.
Teams were here for more than 40 days before the playoffs began. As nice as the conditions are for the players on a lot of levels, this is an undeniable grind mentally. It’s immeasurably longer than any road trip they’ve faced.
So I’ve been deeply curious — and frankly skeptical — about how teams will react to a big series deficit. I hope there’s a squad out there eager to make me regret my cynicism, but the lure to head home and return to something closer to an unrestricted life is bound to be strong for any team that falls way behind — at least until the finals.
Bubble life certainly didn’t get a ringing endorsement last week from the Lakers’ LeBron James, who was asked how he filled his downtime between the end of the seeding games and the start of the playoffs.
“What I did is absolutely nothing,” James said. “There’s nothing to do here besides play basketball.”
The N.B.A. finals, remember, are scheduled to begin Sept. 30 — which is still 36 days away.
Q: The bubble diary section of the newsletter has been great. I don’t feel as bad about my texting and walking after reading that you punch out articles on your BlackBerry while you walk. But what is a French Dip? How does a dip cost $21? — Tom Sheldrick (Adelaide, Australia)
Stein: Australia is a country that I thought I knew a fair bit about, as a longtime tennis fan who has been following the Australian Open since the early 1980s — and having followed the Australian basketball scene since the mid-1990s. I even covered the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
But you’re throwing me off here, Tom. Your question would suggest that the French Dip sandwich — also known as the world’s greatest sandwich — does not exist Down Under.
Is that what you’re trying to tell me? Or was this just a joke that duped me?
Some forgotten Kobe Bryant trivia to commemorate what would have been his 42nd birthday Sunday: A crowd of 15,407 at the old Forum fell more than 2,000 short of capacity (17,505) when Bryant made his N.B.A. debut for the Los Angeles Lakers on Nov. 3, 1996, in a victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves. That’s right: The Lakers weren’t an automatic sellout at the start of the Shaquille O’Neal-and-Kobe era.
The Lakers acquired Bryant’s draft rights and signed O’Neal away from Orlando as a free agent in a span of 22 days in the summer of 1996. From December 2006 through November 2013, after O’Neal and Bryant had won three titles in a row together, Bryant’s presence led to a run of 320 consecutive sellouts (regular season and playoffs) over seven years at Staples Center.
Philadelphia Coach Brett Brown became the league’s third prominent figure to lose his job after his team’s poor showing at the N.B.A. restart. The 76ers fired Brown on Monday after getting swept in a first-round series by Boston. The move was preceded by New Orleans dismissing Alvin Gentry as coach and Vlade Divac stepping down as general manager of the Sacramento Kings.
A coaching change can fix only so much in Philadelphia because the Sixers have four players on a flawed roster who are owed at least $27.5 million next season. They are Al Horford ($27.5 million), Ben Simmons ($28.8 million), Joel Embiid ($29.5 million) and Tobias Harris ($34.4 million). After Horford and Harris signed huge contracts last summer and then made a minimal impact in the Boston series, they are increasingly regarded as two of the hardest-to-trade players in the league.
Interesting trend spotted yet again by Justin Kubatko (@jkubatko on Twitter): Coming into this postseason, the N.B.A.’s single-day playoff record for 3-pointers made was 94 in four games on April 21, 2019. Teams combined to make more than 100 3-pointers in each of the first eight days of the 2020 playoffs.