Opinion: The upsets in the NBA playoffs have less to do with the bubble than you think


Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat dribbles the ball during the first quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Second Round on Sept. 4 at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Tribune News Service

This NBA season has been weird. Every sports season has been since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. No fans, different arenas, and when it comes to the NBA this year, different results as well.

Before the playoffs started, everyone seemed to pencil in a Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. Rightfully so, the two teams are littered with star power. 

Everyone also thought the winner of the LA showdown would be facing the Milwaukee Bucks in the Finals. After all, the Bucks finished the regular season with the best record in the league at 56-17.

Yet here we stand at the start of October, with just about everything going the way we didn’t expect it to. 

The Clippers blew a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Semifinals before getting bounced to the Denver Nuggets. The Bucks were an even bigger disappointment, losing easily to the fifth-seeded Miami Heat in five games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

While the Lakers have looked the part, the other top teams were gone just like that, leaving us with one of the more bizarre Finals matchups we’ve seen in quite some time. 

So what happened?

There’s an easy answer to this, but I’m not quite sure it’s the right one. People want to point to the unprecedented circumstances and the bubble. They say some players and teams just aren’t built for it, that this season should come with an asterisk. 

I believe otherwise. Think back to more than a year ago — yes, that feels like 10 years ago— and remember what life was like in the NBA after last season. The Toronto Raptors had beaten the Golden State Warriors, and people were ready for all hell to break loose in free agency. 

That’s exactly what happened.

Kawhi Leonard headed west to the Clippers with Paul George. Anthony Davis joined the Lakers and LeBron. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving coupled up in Brooklyn. The Warriors’ super team had ended, and the league was pretty wide open.

But not only was it wide open, it was brand new. The Clippers roster hadn’t proven anything in the playoffs yet — at least not as a unit. Neither had the Lakers. The Bucks — who weren’t as new and brought back the same core of players — had found trouble in their previous trips to the playoffs.

The point is, there’s reasons outside COVID-19 and the bubble that explain the upsets we have seen this year. Nothing was guaranteed in a season like this with so many moving pieces. 

The Clippers and Bucks had holes in their teams that were exploited. The Clippers had a lack of continuity all year long from all of their injuries. In the playoffs, the team didn’t even know its true identity.

The Bucks were predictable with the ball always in Giannis Antetokounmpo’s hands and the lack of a second star. The Heat figured that out quickly.

It’s fair to say the Nuggets were just better than the Clippers and that the Heat were better than the Bucks. Those teams won a seven game series. Sure, it was without true home court advantage, but each team played under the same circumstances. If anything, it was the ultimate test of who is better.

Yes, playoff basketball in the NBA bubble has been completely different from what we’re used to experiencing. I’m sure it affected some teams more than others, but to say its oddness is the reason results haven’t gone the way we expected would be a massive discredit to teams like the Heat and Nuggets.

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