Daily NBA bubble primer: Zion vs. Ja, chemistry issues and a heated-up race for the West's third seed

Ben Rohrbach
·9 mins 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 5 of the restart to the 2019-20 season.

NBA standings

Eastern Conference

  1. Milwaukee Bucks (54-13)

  2. Toronto Raptors (47-18)

  3. Boston Celtics (44-22)

  4. Miami Heat (42-24)

  5. Indiana Pacers (40-26)

  6. Philadelphia 76ers (39-27)

  7. Orlando Magic (32-35)

  8. Brooklyn Nets (31-35)

    Washington Wizards (24-42)

Western Conference

  1. Los Angeles Lakers (50-15)

  2. L.A. Clippers (45-21)

  3. Denver Nuggets (43-23)

  4. Houston Rockets (42-24)

  5. Utah Jazz (42-24)

  6. Oklahoma City Thunder (41-24)

  7. Dallas Mavericks (40-29)

  8. Memphis Grizzlies (32-35)

  9. San Antonio Spurs (29-36)

    Portland Trail Blazers (30-38)

    Sacramento Kings (28-38)

    New Orleans Pelicans (28-38)

    Phoenix Suns (28-39)

Monday’s schedule

(All times Eastern)

Toronto Raptors vs. Miami Heat, 1:30 p.m. (NBATV)

Denver Nuggets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder, 4 p.m. (NBATV)

Indiana Pacers vs. Washington Wizards, 4 p.m.

Memphis Grizzlies vs. New Orleans Pelicans, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)

San Antonio Spurs vs. Philadelphia 76ers, 8 p.m.

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Utah Jazz, 9 p.m. (ESPN)

BetMGM odds

Toronto Raptors -3.5 (-110)
Miami Heat +3.5 (-110)

Over/Under 220.5

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Indiana Pacers -8 (-110)
Washington Wizards +8 (-110)

Over/Under 227.5

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Denver Nuggets +6 (-110)
Oklahoma City Thunder -6 (-110)

Over/Under 218.5

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Memphis Grizzlies +4.5 (-110)
New Orleans Pelicans -4.5 (-110)

Over/Under 235.5

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San Antonio Spurs +7 (-110)
Philadelphia 76ers -7 (-110)

Over/Under 227.5

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Los Angeles Lakers -6.5 (-110)

Utah Jazz +6.5 (-110)

Over/Under 216.5

Rookie sensations Zion Williamson and Ja Morant will meet in a game with massive playoff implications. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Rookie sensations Zion Williamson and Ja Morant will meet in a game with massive playoff implications. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Playoff implications

Toronto Raptors (47-18) vs. Miami Heat (42-24)

It is virtually impossible for the Raptors to eclipse the Bucks for the No. 1 seed in the East, and it would take a considerable collapse over their final seven games to fall behind the third-place Celtics. Padding their 3 1/2-game lead over Boston before a head-to-head matchup on Friday would take the pressure off.

A Toronto loss would help the fourth-place Heat move within 1 1/2 games of the Celtics, which might benefit the Raptors, depending on which team they prefer to see in the second round. A Heat loss would increase the likelihood they stay in a 4-5 first-round matchup. Falling within 1 1/2 games of the fifth-place Pacers is not as big deal as it might have been outside the bubble, where home-court advantage exists.

Denver Nuggets (43-23) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (41-24)

Nuggets starters Will Barton and Gary Harris are both out with injury on Monday, and Jamal Murray’s hamstring injury leaves his status in doubt, too. Denver is in serious danger of losing its grip on the third seed. A Thunder win would put them a half-game back of the Nuggets, along with the Rockets and Jazz. Trying to dictate matchups with seeding in the middle of the West is a futile exercise at this point, so Denver should prioritize getting everyone healthy for the playoffs, especially with home-court not a factor.

Indiana Pacers (40-26) vs. Washington Wizards (24-42)

The depleted Wizards are essentially toast. They trail the eighth-place Nets by seven games, three back from forcing a play-in series with six to play. A loss would only help put them out of their misery earlier.

The Pacers put a game between them and the sixth-place 76ers with a head-to-head win on Saturday. Assuming neither team would want to face the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, Indiana can put more pressure on Philadelphia to keep pace with a late-afternoon victory over the undermanned Wizards.

Memphis Grizzlies (32-35) vs. New Orleans Pelicans (28-38)
San Antonio Spurs (29-36) vs. Philadelphia 76ers (39-27)

With five challengers now within four games of Memphis — including San Antonio and New Orleans — there will be a play-in series in the Western Conference. It is now just a matter of whether the Grizzlies will be the ones needing to win just one of two head-to-head meetings between the eighth- and ninth-place teams. A Spurs win over the 76ers combined with a Grizzlies loss to the Pelicans would leave Memphis just one game up on San Antonio. That scenario would also give New Orleans a glimmer of hope at ninth.

A Pelicans loss, however, would drop them into a tie with the 13th-place Suns, as many as 2 1/2 games out of ninth place, with only five left on what was supposed to be among the easiest bubble schedules.

The Sixers cannot fall below their current sixth-place spot in the East. They are essentially two games behind the fifth-place Pacers after losing the head-to-head tiebreaker for good this season on Saturday.

Los Angeles Lakers (50-15) vs. Utah Jazz (42-24)

The Lakers have a second chance to clinch the No. 1 seed in the West with a win. They also have five more chances after Monday. The fifth-place Jazz are in far greater flux. A Utah win combined with a Denver loss would draw the two teams even in the standings, although the third-place Nuggets own the head-to-head tiebreaker. A Utah loss combined with a Thunder win would drop the Jazz to sixth place.

Who and what to watch

Who is the third-best team in the West?

The Lakers and Clippers are clearly the cream of the Western Conference crop, but is there any separation between the third and seventh seeds? The Rockets have made their case as the West’s third-best team with a pair of high-scoring wins over the Mavericks and Bucks in the early going in Orlando. The combination of James Harden and Russell Westbrook in a five-out scheme probably gives Houston the highest ceiling, but Denver (when healthy) and Oklahoma City can also make a pretty strong case.

The Thunder’s victory over the Bojan Bogdanovic-less Jazz on Saturday was a helpful reminder that OKC features an underrated talent group. They execute well together, and their best five-man lineup is capable of going toe-to-toe with any of their fellow West challengers. Another win over the Nuggets would not only draw the Thunder within a half-game of third place, but also keep them in the conversation as the best team in the West’s second tier — a remarkable accomplishment after losing Westbrook and Paul George.

Chris Paul deserves a large chunk of the credit for the Thunder’s success. Having previously clashed with All-NBA teammates Blake Griffin on the Clippers and Harden on the Rockets, Paul is at the helm of a roster that will fall in line behind him for the first time since he left New Orleans, and the results speak for themselves. It turns out it is a good idea to let Paul steer the ship in crunch time, and it helps to have Steven Adams, Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder as complementary pieces.

Zion Williamson vs. Ja Morant

The Rookie of the Year race is over. The only hope Zion Williamson had of surpassing Ja Morant was to lead the Pelicans past the Grizzlies in the race for the eight seed. The NBA removed that possibility when it decided the final eight seeding games for each team would not count toward regular-season awards.

That does not mean Williamson and Morant have to concede any ground on who is the more impactful player. Morant plays with a reckless abandon, akin to Westbrook, only more efficiently, and the fact that Memphis is anywhere near a playoff spot is a credit to the rookie point guard’s confident stewardship.

But Williamson showed flashes of what made him the most hyped prospect since LeBron James in the 19 games he played before the hiatus. He dominated his minutes like few others at his age. Restricted in Orlando after another training camp cut short, Williamson will have to show up opposite Morant on Monday if New Orleans still has any hope of forcing a play-in series for the West’s final postseason spot.

Chemistry experiments

The Sixers and Jazz came into the bubble with chemistry questions, and neither team has dispelled them.

Philadelphia has reshuffled its rotation in response to a wildly underperforming offensive outfit, shifting Ben Simmons to power forward and benching veteran Al Horford in favor of young point guard Shake Milton. On-court issues continued to spill off the court in the team’s season-reopening loss to the Pacers. Milton and Joel Embiid got into a heated exchange on the bench between the first and second quarters, after Milton carelessly turned the ball over following a failed defensive stop of a pick-and-roll.

Utah’s break was headlined by a feud between its two best players, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, rooted in offensive philosophy and brought to the forefront by their COVID-19 diagnoses in March. At the end of their season-reopening win over the Pelicans, a Mitchell pass to Gobert that led to the game-winning free throws suggested the absence of friendship between them may have little bearing on the actual outcome of games, but one night does not make a problem go away. Mitchell has struggled in a good chunk of his minutes back from the break, and tensions could mount again if losses start piling up.

The potential for chemistry issues to be laid bare in a bubble is great, and we have only just begun.

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