Good Evening
Good Evening
SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

A few bubbles have burst as some of NBA's best teams implode in playoffs

The Clippers players sit on the bench during

The Clippers players sit on the bench during the second half as they fall to the Nuggets in an NBA Western Conference Semifinal playoff game on Tuesday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.  Credit: AP/Mark J. Terrill

It is a strange contrast, to see the Knicks and the rest of the eight teams left out of the bubble begin their workouts for the first time since the COVID-19 shutdown six months earlier arrive with optimism and at the same time to see some of the NBA’s best teams imploding inside the bubble.

Break up the Clippers? How do the Bucks take the next step? Are the Celtics ready to fight each other with more force than they used against the Miami Heat in the first two games?

It may be a little time for perspective in the bubble. There is only one team that survives and that doesn’t mean it’s time for the other 29 teams to break up their squads just because they were knocked out of the bubble postseason. There is a long way down to where the Delete 8 are right now.

So let’s take a quick look at what’s happening with the disappointments of the bubble (prior to the Celtics' victory in Game 3 against Miami late Saturday night).

The Clippers: There were immediate questions about chemistry in the wake of the Clippers’ season-ending collapse, having blown a 3-1 lead over the Denver Nuggets to disappear from the postseason, and calls for the firing of head coach Doc Rivers.

But it might not be that urgent in L.A. Stability and time together do mean something in the NBA. In our preseason predictions, we opted for the Nuggets to post the best regular-season record in the West and then for the Clippers to win the title, believing that with a season together, those bumps would be ironed out.

Maybe it was the suspension of the season, maybe it was the odd bubble restart and maybe even the way that Rivers worked players back into form, but that chemistry never surfaced for the Clippers, who still looked like the best team on paper and lost in reality.

But Rivers has loyal supporters throughout the organization, so he isn’t going anywhere. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard both have a year before they can opt-out. So running it back with this crew seems like the best plan, although doing it more humbly might be a good path to take.

While many players took delight in the exit, LeBron James took the high road, at least publicly.

"Um, I really don’t have a comment about it," James said. "I was just sitting back and watching the game from a fan’s perspective, seeing big shots be made, big plays being made, missed shots, things of that nature."

The Bucks: Milwaukee may have exited for a second straight season in disappointing fashion and they still did it without the celebration from the rest of the NBA that the Clippers’ exit did, but they do have some issues. And that explains the three-hour meeting that ESPN reported took place with Bucks’ ownership hosting Giannis Antetokounmpo this week to let him know they will do whatever it takes to get him the pieces he needs around him.

It certainly seemed like they had already done that with Khris Middleton joining him on the All-Star team and a deep cast of role players around them. But in the playoffs Eric Bledsoe disappeared and the need for improvement at point guard seemed obvious. So do they break up their cast and make a run at Chris Paul? Do the Thunder have any interest in bringing back contracts when they can trade him to the Knicks into cap space?

Antetokounmpo’s ankle gave them some explanation for their failings, but it seemed like more than that. There are some teams that are built for the postseason and the Bucks right now don’t look like one of them. What they do have is a star who at least for now is saying all the right things, noting in his MVP conference call, "As long as everybody’s on the same page and as long as everybody’s fighting for the same thing, fighting for the same thing every single day, which is to be a champion, I don’t see why not to be in Milwaukee for the next 15 years."

The Celtics: This may be early to include them in here, but blowing double-digit leads is a problem (you can hear the Clippers nodding in agreement). And when the locker room blows up after the second straight loss to the Heat, it’s worth noting that things aren’t going as planned.

Maybe it takes the fire that Marcus Smart breathed after the Celtics lost Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals to Miami to get this far, to be the kind of team that contends for championships rather than post Instagram stories of how good the workouts are in Westchester this time of year.

The Celtics nearly blew a 16-point lead with 5 minutes to go in Game 3, but after Miami whittled it to five with 56 seconds left, Smart hit eight free throws in the final 46 seconds to hold on.

Reports from the bubble after Game 2 indicated that Smart and Jaylen Brown were going back and forth in the screaming that reporters could hear from outside the locker room with other players getting involved and coach Brad Stevens trying to de-escalate the situation.

"A lot of emotions flying around," Brown said. "I think that’s why we love Marcus. You know, he plays with passion, he’s full of fire, and that’s what I love about him most, to be honest. He has that desire and will, and we need him to continue to have that. It’s ups and downs with families all the time, but we embrace each other for who we are. And who Marcus is, I love him for it. So you’ve got to get ready to come back, take that same fire, (and) add it to Game 3."

According to ESPN, Stevens gathered the team leaders for a 1 a.m. meeting at the team hotel to talk through the issues. There was then no practice or media availability Friday, allowing the team to lower the temperature.

The oddity here is that the Celtics were supposed to be a model of chemistry this season, subtracting Kyrie Irving and adding Kemba Walker as the floor general. Pressure seems to be bringing that into question and maybe, just maybe providing a lesson for them — and for the Clippers.

MVP? The P stands for petty

When LeBron James was asked Friday night about the MVP vote, which had Giannis Antetokounmpo win his second straight with 85 of the 101 first-place votes, James acknowledged that it wasn’t the second-place finish that angered him, but that he received only 16 first-place votes.

"[Ticked] me off. That’s my true answer," James said. "It [ticked] me off, because out of 101 votes, I got 16 first-place votes. That’s what [ticked] me off more than anything. You know, not saying that the winner wasn’t deserving of the MVP. But that [ticked] me off. And I finished second a lot in my career, either from a championship and now four times as an MVP."

I didn’t have a vote this season, but I would have voted for Antetokounmpo, too. And here’s the thing, just like with the debate over baseball’s Hall of Fame and first-year or unanimous votes, if a guy is the MVP, he’s the MVP. Should 50 of the voters named James first to appease his feelings?

Speaking of Hall of Famers

A legend was lost Friday when Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away. The condolences and accolades poured in, including from the likes of Nancy Lieberman, Sue Bird, NBA players and teams. But an odd NBA connection existed for Ginsburg. When President Bill Clinton decided to offer the Supreme Cout nomination to her, he waited until Game 3 of the 1993 NBA Finals was over, the Phoenix Suns defeating Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, before making the call.

New York Sports