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Phoenix Suns, a perfect 4-0 in the bubble, are growing and thinking playoffs

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The last time Devin Booker walked off the court as a winner in four consecutive games, these were the opponents: Hampton, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Notre Dame.

That is, until now.

Booker and the Phoenix Suns – the team that came to the NBA restart at Walt Disney World with the worst record in the Western Conference and the second-worst record of the 22 teams in the field – are perhaps the best story of the bubble.

They’re 4-0 at Disney, breathing real life into playoff hopes that basically were nonexistent when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. It’s the team’s first four-game winning streak since December 2018; Booker missed one of those games, so it’s his first run of four wins in a row since helping Kentucky make its Final Four run in 2015.

“It definitely feels like a tournament, a big AAU tournament, the March Madness tournament,” Phoenix’s Cameron Payne said Friday. “That’s something I never even got a chance to be in, but hey, I’ll take this.”

The Suns started their bubble run with a win over Washington and followed that with victories against three playoff-bound teams – first Dallas, then the Los Angeles Clippers (both of those games being 117-115 finals, the win over the Clippers sealed by a Booker buzzer-beater) and next a 114-99 victory Thursday over Indiana.

A team that had a stretch of four wins in 20 games during November and December, then a run of four wins in 15 games during January and February, got to the bubble and are now 4-for-4.

The Suns are riding a 10-year playoff drought, the second-longest current one in the NBA, but now they’re thinking big and for good reason.

“Well, you know, this is in the fledgling stages, for sure,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do. And there’s a process that we’ve kind of gotten ourselves involved in and we’re going to stick to that. So, fun? I don’t have time to have fun right now. It’s always good to win, but I’m working right now. And I want guys to understand, it’s fun when you win – but then you’ve got to turn the page and get right back to work.”

Williams understands the reality for the Suns right now. They entered Friday 1-1/2 games out of ninth place and the play-in series that will decide the last postseason berth in the West. And while the 4-0 start has been noteworthy, even an 8-0 mark in the seeding games wouldn’t guarantee the Suns a trip to that play-in round.

The Suns play Miami on Saturday, then finish the regular season against Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Dallas.

“I’ve been in five years now and haven’t had that much success,” Booker said. “But, you know, I’m working hard every day to turn that narrative and change that narrative. We have a good bunch in here to do it. A lot of young players mixed with some veteran presence and it’s a good look for us. So, we’re going to keep our head down, keep working.

“I don’t think anybody here is worried about 4-0. We still have plans and goals for this team to reach and 4-0 wasn’t it.”

Booker is averaging 28 points in the four games. Deandre Ayton, another big piece of the young Suns’ core, is averaging 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. There are six players averaging double figures in all, including Payne, who is shooting 53% from 3-point range in his first four games with the Suns.

“We definitely feel good,” Payne said. “We’re not here for no reason.”

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.

Three Things to Know: What’s next for 76ers without Ben Simmons?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) What’s next for 76ers without Ben Simmons?

“This one stings, for sure.”

That was 76ers coach Brett Brown, who has had to deal with a lot of injuries to players during his tenure in Philadelphia. But this one hurts a little more because of the timing. The Sixers will be without Ben Simmons for a while after he suffered a subluxation of the left patella — his kneecap essentially dislocated then popped back into place — against Washington.

The 76ers were adjusting to playing Simmons at power forward during the restart in Orlando. Now there are just questions.

How long will Simmons be out? That’s the big one and the answer is nobody knows for sure. The Sixers are evaluating treatment options. As Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes notes, Allen Crabbe had the same injury earlier this year and missed 11 days (three games), but he had no damage to the ligaments or rest of the knee. That’s the most common outcome for this injury and it would have Simmons back around the start of the playoffs. However, if there is any ligament damage, Simmons could be out much longer. (The early reports were the MRI came back clean, but that doesn’t tell us much about the real level of damage other than it wasn’t severe.) Philadelphia has always been cautious when it comes to bringing its stars back from injury.

Who starts for Philadelphia while Simmons is out? That’s one Brown has to decide by today (Friday) and the game against Orlando. He could plug Al Horford back into the starting lineup — the Sixers were +1.4 points per 100 possessions this season with Embiid and Horford on the court together without Simmons (it was -0.7 with all three and the floor spacing was a mess). Or, Brown could keep Horford on the bench and go with another wing such as Matisse Thybulle or Furkan Korkmaz.

Philadelphia seems locked into the six seed in the East (they are one game back of five seed Indiana with four to play, but the Pacers beat the Sixers last Friday and have the tiebreaker, so it is in practice a two-game lead).

Philadelphia is 6-5 this season without Simmons, and while they can plug other players into the four they will not have Simmons’ elite defense, nor his passing skills, and the new player will not be the same threat in transition. Philadelphia is just not the same threat in the East without Simmons.

2) Portland is in control of ninth seed in West after win, New Orleans loss

There is going to be a play-in series in the West — and Portland is going to be in it.

That much seems obvious after Thursday’s action, where Jusuf Nurkic was dunking on Bol Bol and Portland was picking up a 125-115 win over Denver.

That win has Portland half a game back of  Memphis for the eighth seed in the West — and the 0-4 Grizzlies face a tough game against the Thunder Friday. The West could be tied by Saturday morning.

Portland looks to be a lock for the play-in.

Can anyone else crash that party? Sacramento earned it’s first win in the bubble on Thursday, knocking off Zion Williamson and New Orleans, meaning now both the Kings and Pelicans sit 2.5 games back of the Grizzlies with four to play. Both need to win out and hope Memphis continues losing to have a chance to get into a play-in with Portland.

The undefeated-in-the-bubble Suns and the Spurs both sit two games back of the Grizzlies and with a chance to make a play-in. Just as with the Kings/Pels, the Suns and Spurs essentially need to win out and count on the Grizzlies continued stumbles to have a chance.

Memphis controls its own destiny. But without Jaren Jackson Jr., and with Ja Morant struggling from three, a sharp turnaround is needed.

3) Milwaukee wraps up No. 1 seed in East

This was expected, but the Bucks made it dramatic. Miami led this game by 23 points in the first half, but both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton turned it on — both finished with 33 points each — and Milwaukee came back to get 130-116 win. With that, the Bucks officially wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the East.

While this is good for the Bucks — who now get an easy first-round playoff matchup against Brooklyn or Orlando — they know they will be judged on the playoffs. This is a Finals-or-bust team. And Milwaukee fans don’t want to think about the options for bust.

Milwaukee has eased into games in the NBA restart, not worrying about wins now and rather being healthy and firing on all cylinders when the games matter. They have that luxury with the lead they built up in the East, but they need to flip the switch eventually. As they did coming back on the Heat.

Devin Booker says after latest Suns’ win ‘Kobe’s with me every day’

Devin Booker Kobe
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Devin Booker grew up a huge Kobe Bryant fan. When Booker made the league in 2016 he got to play against his idol and threw up 28 points on the night. Kobe was impressed. The two talked after the game and Kobe gave him an autographed pair of shoes with an inspirational message:

“Be Legendary.”

Booker took that to heart. He got the phrase as a tattoo. He’s been writing “Be Legendary” on his Nike’s before every game in the bubble. And after he scored 20 against the Pacers Thursday, helping the Suns remain undefeated for the restart, he said Kobe is still inspiring him every day.

“Kobe’s with me every day. You guys see what I put on my shoes with the ‘Be Legendary.’ It’s a reminder.”

Whatever he’s doing, it is working. Booker hit a Kobe-like turnaround game-winner to beat the Clippers. He’s averaging 28 points and 6.5 assists a game for the restart, and shooting 40% from three. Defenses are keying on him, but with a healthy Deandre Ayton and other players stepping up — Cameron Johnson has been a surprise standout in Orlando — the Suns look sharp and keep on winning.

Kobe would be proud.

NBA Power Rankings: Toronto looks like best team in bubble so far

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Things in the bubble are getting interesting — young teams are taking it seriously, while some playoff-bound teams see it more as an extended exhibition season. That is leading to upsets and movement in our power rankings.

EDITORS NOTE: We are not including the eight teams not invited to the restart in the rankings the rest of this season.

Lakers small icon 1. Lakers (51-15, 2-1 in bubble, Last week No. 2). Of course, LeBron James has been good in the bubble restart — 19.3 points and seven assists a game — but Anthony Davis has been the early bubble MVP. He was a beast and feasted against Utah Monday, scoring 42 points with 16 rebounds despite being matched up against reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert for much of the night. Davis led the Lakers to the win sealed them as the No. 1 seed in the West.

Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (48-18, 2-0, LW 4). The win over the Lakers was a reminder — Toronto is a contender (but I still have to rank the top-seeded Lakers higher, I’d take them in a series). The Raptors have been the best defensive team in the bubble with sharp rotations and smart schemes (just ask LeBron and AD). On the other end of the court they can get scoring from a variety of players: Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet (he dropped 36 on the Heat), among others. Do not sleep on the Raptors. Possible second-round preview against the Celtics on Friday.

Bucks small icon 3. Bucks (54-14, 1-3 in bubble, LW 1). The Bucks are treating the bubble games like the preseason, a slow warmup to when things matter. It hasn’t been all bad, Gianni Antetokounmpo has looked every bit the MVP when called upon, and the Bucks’ defense is locked in — they held James Harden to 5-of-14 shooting and 24 points, while the Rockets as a team shot 39.6%. But Mike Budenholzer sat Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton for the second half against the Nets (a loss), and they aren’t taking the won/loss record seriously. They are easing into the games that matter, something their record over the first 65 allows them to do.

Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (45-22, 1-2, LW 3). Both of the Clippers’ losses in the bubble have been close ones (Lakers opening night, the Suns on Devin Booker’s game-winner), and they have been shorthanded without Montrezl Harrell (they just got Lou Williams back on Tuesday). Paul George and Kawhi Leonard have played well, and the L.A. defense has been strong, but these Clippers feel like the ones we watched for most of the season, just waiting for them to get healthy and find some chemistry together. We’re still waiting for the switch to flip with this team.

Rockets small icon 5. Rockets (42-25, 2-1, LW 6). Milwaukee’s defensive strategy is “protect the paint at all costs, we’ll give up some threes” played into Houston’s hands and the Rockets launched 61 from beyond the arc. However, it was a stretch of good defense in crunch time of that game that turned heads — the Rockets have not been a great defensive team in the bubble (18th in net rating), but they’ve been good enough when it mattered. Danuel House and Ben McLemore have stepped up with Eric Gordon still out.

Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (41-25, 1-1, LW 7). OKC has played good defense in the bubble, and having Andre Roberson back in the rotation certainly helps with that (and is just a good story after he missed 900+ days due to injury). Despite the OT loss to Denver, the Thunder remain one of the best clutch teams in the league, which makes them a very dangerous first-round playoff opponent. Dennis Schroder is out of the bubble for the birth of his child but is expected to return.

Heat small icon 7. Heat (43-25, 2-1, LW 8). Knocking off Boston while Jimmy Butler had the day off was a message game — Miami is going to be a very tough out come the playoffs. The Heat have been a top-10 offense and defense so far in the bubble (small sample size, but a good sign). Bam Adebayo has more than just the best name in the league, he has become a real problem for opponents, dropping 22 on Denver and then having 21 points and 12 boards against Boston. He’s playing at an All-NBA level.

Celtics small icon 8. Celtics (44-23, 1-2, LW 5). Despite a very off night from Jayson Tatum against the Bucks (he bounced back with 34 against Portland) and a minutes limit on Kemba Walker, the Boston offense has been good inside the bubble. The Celtics are 2-1 because they can’t get stops — a 117.9 defensive rating through three games. If the Celtics want to make noise in the playoffs, that is the side of the ball Brad Stevens and crew need to turn around.

Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (42-26, 3-0 LW 15). T.J. Warren is your didn’t-see-that-coming MVP of the bubble so far, scoring 119 points through three games and lifting the Pacers to that undefeated record in Orlando. Pair him with Victor Oladipo (who is playing… and collecting those checks) and Malcolm Brogdon and the Pacers have a formidable offense. Indy seems locked into the five seed and a likely first-round matchup with Miami. How will the Heat slow down Warren?

Nuggets small icon 10. Nuggets (44-22, 1-1, LW 9). Denver has not been able to get everyone healthy, in the bubble and on the court together during the restart. Even as Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton and the rest come back, it will take time to get them into game shape. Fortunately Denver has Bol Bol, who is an impressive playmaker on top of everything else.

Blazers small icon 11. Trail Blazers (31-38, 2-1, LW 13). Jusuf Nurkic is back and his passing and screen setting has helped spark the Portland offense to be one of the best in the bubble — but he hasn’t helped the Blazer defense much. That’s a concern, but the Blazers are now within 1.5 games of Memphis and thinking about passing them for the eighth seed (and their fans are already jumping the gun, looking ahead to the Lakers). Portland is going to need a lot from Carmelo Anthony and Gary Trent Jr. to make a run to the postseason.

Sixers small icon 12. 76ers (40-27, 1-1, LW 11). Philadelphia’s defense has been terrible through the first two games in the bubble — including giving up 53 points to T.J. Warren — although that has been covered up somewhat by strong play from Joel Embiid and a Shake Milton game-winner against the Spurs. There’s a soft stretch of the schedule ahead where Philadelphia can find its rhythm. It needs to, right now the 76ers aren’t scaring anybody in the first round.

Mavericks small icon 13. Mavericks (41-29, 1-2, LW 10). Luka Doncic became the youngest player in NBA history to record a 30-20-10 triple-double (besting some guy named Oscar Robertson by a year and a half). Thanks to that the Mavericks finally pulled out a close-game win, having lost their first two bubble games to Houston and Phoenix in close ones. The Mavericks seem on track to get the Clippers in the first round, a tough matchup, but if Denver sneaks up to the two seed the Doncic will make the Mavs an upset favorite.

Jazz small icon 14. Jazz (42-25, 1-2, LW 12). Utah has struggled to score through the first three games of the restart, and that has been particularly true when their bench units are on the court (this is where not having Bojan Bogdanovic as a secondary playmaker hurts). Jordan Clarkson has put up points off the bench (although consistency is not his middle name), but after that the depth falls off. As it was during the season, Utah’s defense has been good but not great.

Spurs small icon 15. Spurs (29-37, 2-1, LW 19). The Spurs four-guard starting lineup — Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, and Lonnie Walker IV — have the Spurs playing fast and winning games (including beating Memphis is a critical game if San Antonio is going to keep its playoff streak alive). Rudy Gay and Patty Mills are playing well off the bench, and for the first time in a couple of years the Spurs are a very entertaining team to watch.

Magic small icon 16. Magic (32-36, 2-1, LW 16). The loss of Jonathan Isaac is just brutal, a cornerstone of this franchise’s rebuild and he is likely out for all of next season as well. Orlando’s offense has been one of the best in the league at the restart (although soft defenses on the schedule helped with that) and it has them up to the seven seed in the East, where they will be able to avoid the Bucks in the first round (not that facing Toronto is much easier).

Suns small icon 17. Suns (29-39, 3-0, LW 20). The bubble Suns are undefeated and Devin Booker has the shot of the restart so far with his game-winning turnaround over Paul George to beat the Clippers. The biggest surprise in the bubble: How well Cam Johnson has played. He has taken a leap forward in Orlando (even with the rough game against the Clippers) and it’s a big boost for Phoenix.

Pelicans small icon 18. Pelicans (29-38, 1-2, LW 14). After dropping their first two games — and knowing they probably needed to win out to make the postseason — the Pelicans took Zion Williamson out of bubble wrap and found a way to beat the Grizzlies and keep their playoff hopes alive. The Pelicans have been good defensively but struggled on offense in the bubble, Williamson helps the offense but is still a defensive liability, that’s the end of the court he needs to improve upon. New Orleans’ schedule softens up from here.

Grizzlies small icon 19. Grizzlies (32-36, 0-3, LW 17). Losing Jaren Jackson Jr. for the rest of this season makes the Grizzlies much more vulnerable — they are not going to be able to fill his minutes with play nearly as good. Memphis has had a rough 0-3 start in the bubble, but all three losses are by single digits. They need to find some wins to keep the eighth seed but it won’t be easy with Utah, Oklahoma City, and Toronto the next three on the schedule.

Nets small icon 20. Nets (32-35, 2-1, LW 21). Caris LeVert has looked good as the focal point of the offense in the bubble — he had 34 points against Washington — although this is not going to be his role next season when Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are on the court. With the win over Washington the Nets are all but a mathematical lock to make the playoffs (likely as the eighth seed).

Kings small icon 21. Kings (28-39, 0-3, LW 18). The playoff drought that goes back to 2006 is not ending in the bubble, not after the Kings coughed up all momentum losing their first two games at the restart. Buddy Hield has looked off — out of shape in the eyes of some scouts — and has shot 32.6% overall and 27.6% from three in Orlando. His contract extension kicks in next season.

Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (24-43, 0-3, LW 22). The 0-3 Wizards could be on their way to an 0-8 bubble record, but the goal here was to get run for guys like Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant. Both have played well but struggled once defenses started to focus more on them.