A trying trip for Sacramento and Coach Luke Walton has been marred by injuries, late arrivals for players recovering from the coronavirus and Richaun Holmes’s being ordered back to quarantine for an extra 10 days after he strayed beyond a campus border outside the Yacht Club without authorization to meet a food delivery driver. Winning is naturally the best antidote: While the Kings started 1-4 and were eliminated before they finished their game Sunday against Houston, San Antonio opened at a surprising 4-2 despite playing without three injured starters, including the seven-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge. The Spurs’ win Sunday over New Orleans eliminated the Pelicans from the playoffs and essentially ended their prized rookie Zion Williamson’s first pro season.
“We can’t worry about our setup,” Rudy Gay of the Spurs said. “We’re here, we decided to come and we’re going to fight, no matter where we’re staying.”
A scrap is required because there’s a strong likelihood that just one of the “Yacht Club Six,” all of whom but Phoenix were scheduled to play Sunday, will advance to the N.B.A.’s new playoff play-in round. The format calls for up to four additional play-in games to be played, but only if the West or East’s No. 9 seed finishes the regular season on Friday within four games of the No. 8 seed.
Washington was the only nonplayoff team from the East invited to the N.B.A. restart, but the Wizards were quickly dumped from playoff consideration after an 0-5 start (before losing again to Oklahoma City on Sunday) without their top three players: Bradley Beal, John Wall and Davis Bertans. In the West, Memphis’s 0-4 start briefly filled the bubble air with hope that two Yacht Club teams could advance to the play-in round — but it now appears unlikely that the eighth-seeded Grizzlies, whose Sunday loss to Toronto guaranteed a play-in round in the West, will slip all the way to 10th.
Yet even if the worst has passed for the Grizzlies and they overcome the injuries sustained by Jaren Jackson Jr. (knee) and Justise Winslow (hip) to hang on to the eighth seed, this race to unseat Memphis has been widely billed as the most exciting aspect of Bubble Ball to date. That’s mostly because of the Suns’ unforeseen 5-0 start and the potential flashed by the 4-2 Trail Blazers, as well as the corresponding woes that have engulfed the disappointing (and soon-to-be-departing) Pelicans and Kings.
Damian Lillard’s 11 3-pointers in a victory over Denver on Thursday enhanced the Blazers’ rising reputation as a possible first-round opponent that could trouble the Lakers, who have clinched the West’s No. 1 seed and, like other top teams, have prioritized rest for their stars as much as rhythm as the playoffs approach. Lillard followed that outburst in problematic fashion, with two late missed free throws in a damaging loss to the Kawhi Leonard-less Clippers, then atoned with 51 points Sunday in a must-win game against short-handed Philadelphia.
Just having this first-of-its-kind opportunity, with the frontcourt duo of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back from injury, is why the Blazers’ CJ McCollum insisted he would not lament the Yacht Club’s supposed inferiority compared to the Gran Destino and Grand Floridian.