ANALYSIS: What teams to watch as NBA playoffs loom

Excitement for  the return of the National Basketball Association season, which has been suspended since the season stopped on March 11, was renewed when the NBA announced their “bubble” plan. 

The NBA is using the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, to host the 22 playoff eligible teams for an eight-game regular season. This bubble strategy means teams will stay in one place for the duration of the regular season and playoffs, according to CBS Sports.

The bubble has proven to be a working model, as no player has tested positive since the start of the bubble. Even players who leave for personal reasons are quarantined before they can take the floor. 

With the addition of the bubble, teams that might not have been able to make the playoffs under normal circumstances will have a chance in the form of an eighth seed play-in game. The play-in game will take place between the eighth and ninth seed of each conference, assuming the ninth seed is within four games of the eighth seed.

With its rules in place, the NBA bubble has successfully avoided any COVID-19 related issues while putting on a series of games for fans to watch. Because the bubble is taking place during what is almost a new season, team and player performances have been different and therefore demand awards for the eight games each team has played. 

Bubble Team Awards: East

Best Team: 

The Toronto Raptors have only lost one game in the NBA bubble and have shown the world that they deserve to be in the championship conversation. 

The Raps have held a commanding 4.5 game lead over the Celtics from their position in the second seed, despite the disrespect to their status as defending champions.

They have also shown themselves to be capable of taking down the Lakers, the Heat and the Bucks while in the Bubble, despite losing to the Celtics. 

Most Underachieving: 

The Milwaukee Bucks have more or less run away with the Eastern Conference this season, being five games ahead of the Toronto Raptors through the combined efforts of Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

Antetokounmpo has averaged about 27.5 points per page with 12.75 rebounds since the start of the bubble while Middleton has averaged 21.5 points per game on 42.9 percent from three point range, according to ESPN.

The Bucks, however, only won three of their eight bubble games, but they might not have given it their best since they’re locked up the first seed. They were missing Antetokounmpo for the final game of the bubble season due to his suspension. 

Most Overachieving: 

The Brooklyn Nets have five wins in the bubble despite missing Kevin Druant, Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Wilson Chandler, Taurean Prince and Kyrie Irving.

Caris LeVert and Joe Harris have more than carried the load with each averaging 20 points and Harris making 55% of his three-point shots. 

They could possibly have made some serious noise in the playoffs if they weren’t all but doomed to play the Raptors in the first round. 

Playoff Dark Horse: 

It seems wrong to call the defending champions the dark horse, but the Toronto Raptors have not been given the respect they command since the departure of Kawai Leanord. 

They have a chance to not only make the finals for the second year in a row, but actually win the gold. 

Bubble Team Awards: West

Best Team: 

No one in their right mind would have picked the Phoenix Suns to be the best team of the bubble, but the Suns have eight straight wins and have essentially come back from the dead inside the bubble. 

Devin Booker has silenced all who doubted him or his ability to lead a team, while averaging 31 points per game on 49.7% shooting with six assists to boot since the bubble began. 

Booker has had the ultimate sidekick in Deandre Ayton who has averaged 15.6 points per game with 9.6 rebounds, according to ESPN.

Unfortunately, despite the perfect record, wins from the Grizzlies and the Trail Blazers during Thursday’s seeding games have kept the Suns from making it to the play-in game.

Most Underachieving: 

The Memphis Grizzlies were the eighth seed at the start of the bubble and had one job: win half their games, and they would be guaranteed a spot in the eighth seed and the play-in game. 

Eight games later, and the Grizzlies have barely scraped together enough wins to keep them in the play-in game. With the two wins they do have, the Grizzlies have done enough to clinch a spot in the play-in despite their poor play.  

It’s worth noting that the losses of Jarren Jackson Jr. to a torn meniscus in his left knee and Justice Winslow to a hip injury have left the team scrambling to find help for Ja Morant and probably doing worse than they normally would have.

Despite missing two key pieces, Morant has averaged 20 points per game with 9.9 assists while doing his best to keep the Grizzlies afloat. 

Unfortunately, Morant’s play wasn’t enough to allow the Grizzlies to defeat the Trail Blazers in Saturday’s play-in game.

Most Overachieving: 

The Phoenix Suns get two awards here. Not only are they just the overall best team in the Western Conference based on the last eight games, but they had no business being close to the playoff conversation until the bubble started. 

Playoff Dark Horse: 

While whoever wins the eighth seed might be able to make some noise, there’s a scarier team lurking in the middle of the Western Conference playoff bracket. 

The Oklahoma City Thunder are the fourth seed and quietly have won four of seven games in the bubble. While that record might not be all that amazing, the Thunder are guaranteed a first round matchup with the Houston Rockets and a revenge game for their star point guard Chris Paul. 

The Thunder are a team that wins by committee, with seven players averaging 12 or more points and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander topping all Thunder scorers with 17 points per game, and they’ll look to lock down James Harden and the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs.