With scrimmages wrapping up from Orlando on Tuesday night, the league catches its collective breath before the real games begin Thursday night. By Saturday, all 22 teams in the bubble will have played their first of eight "regular season" contests.
For some teams, the next two weeks will be about clawing their way into the mix for the eighth seed. For others, it will be about jockeying for playoff positioning and rebuilding any on-court chemistry lost during the four-plus-month shutdown.
Here are some of the top storylines to monitor as seeding games begin.
Will Sabonis or Oladipo play?
Sabonis left the bubble earlier this week to see a specialist regarding the plantar fasciitis that's kept him from doing anything basketball-related as early as July 18. Leaving the bubble is a significant decision given the possibility of contracting COVID-19, but also dealing with the mandatory quarantine period once returning even if he tests negative. That process can be as short as two days and as long as two weeks.
Potentially losing Sabonis for the remainder of the season would be a huge blow to the Pacers. He's their lone All-Star, and he's averaging 18.5 points, 12.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists. Indiana is a team-high 6.4 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court. With him on the sidelines, they have a -2.1 net rating, comparable to the Suns (-1.7) or Kings (-2.4).
Whether or not Sabonis chooses to play could affect Victor Oladipo's decision. The guard still has not made up his mind about if he's playing in the restart, despite games starting tomorrow. Oladipo still probably isn't his old self – he suffered an injury that takes about two years to fully heal – but he led the Pacers in on/off-court point differential for two straight years. He's an important part of the team, even if he's a reduced version of himself. If neither player is available, it seems unlikely a team led by Malcolm Brogdon, Myles Turner and TJ Warren can make real noise in the playoffs.
Eric Gordon out 1-2 weeks with ankle injury
Gordon was helped off the court with an ankle injury during Tuesday's scrimmage against the Celtics. His X-rays returned negative, but he's still expected to be sidelined up to half a month. At the earliest, Gordon may be able to take the court Aug. 4 against the Trail Blazers, but the Rockets don't have too much of a reason to rush him back unless they find themselves in danger of falling to the seventh seed in the Western Conference and playing the Clippers in the first round.
While Gordon is sidelined, expect Austin Rivers and Ben McLemore to see increased responsibilities. Rivers sees 25.1 minutes per game with Gordon off the court, while McLemore sees 26.3 minutes. It's possible Jeff Green sees more action as well, as he's garnered 25.8 minutes per game in four appearances with Gordon out as opposed to 16.3 minutes per game with Gordon available.
Jonathan Isaac is back
Isaac played in Monday's scrimmage against the Nuggets – his first taste of competitive basketball since he went down with a knee injury New Year's Day. He needed just seven minutes of action to post 13 points on five shots, seven rebounds, two steals and one assist.
Having Isaac around legitimizes the Magic as a playoff team. It seems likely Orlando will jump into the seventh seed and end up playing the Raptors again in the first round. Isaac was awful offensively last season in the playoffs against Toronto, shooting just 27.5 percent from the field. However, he was still able to do enough to have the second-best point differential on the team (-6.1) despite being a rookie going up against what would become the NBA Champions.
Isaac is better this season. He's remained passably efficient on offense but is averaging an absurd 4.0 combined blocks-plus-steals in 29.7 minutes per game. Orlando has been 4.8 points better per 100 possessions better when he's on the court – a number that ranks in the 85th percentile. It's not clear how much Isaac will play right out of the gate, but the Magic will need him to be a full go for the postseason if they want any chance of avoiding a sweep against the Raptors.
Kelly Oubre still isn't taking contact in practice
Oubre is with the Suns in Orlando, as he joined with the desire to play if he feels ready. However, his rehab from a knee injury isn't progressing swiftly, as Oubre has yet to take contact in practice and coach Monty Williams does "not have an update on Kelly at all." While Oubre has been on the court and reportedly looks great, that doesn't mean much for a potential return if he's not able to take contact before the Suns' first seeding game Friday against the Wizards.
Assuming he's out for at least the early seeding games, we should continue to see Mikal Bridges in an expanded role. With Oubre out the final seven games before the hiatus, Bridges averaged 13.9 points on 9.4 shots, 4.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.0 combined steals-plus-blocks in 39.4 minutes. Dario Saric (ankle) and rookie Cameron Johnson should also have extra responsibilities. Over that same stretch of games, Saric averaged 14.6 points on 9.7 shots, 6.9 rebounds and 1.9 assists in 30.3 minutes, while Johnson averaged 11.8 points on 9.5 shots, 4.0 rebounds and 1.0 assists but only played in four of the seven games.
Will Zion play in the opener?
The short answer is somewhere between probably and almost certainly. But considering Williamson exited the bubble for more than a week to deal with a family issue, it's possible the No. 1 overall pick could be limited against the Jazz.
Williamson hasn't played in an NBA game since March, and his absence kept him out of all three of the Pelicans' scrimmages. While he was back with the team on Tuesday, the Pels went through only a light practice, and that will likely be the case again Wednesday with a game approaching Thursday night. The leg cramps Williamson battled prior to leaving the bubble aren't a major concern, but they're another mark in favor of New Orleans perhaps not throwing its prized asset back into the fire right away.
Portland is closer to full strength
Coming off of a run to the Western Conference Finals a year ago, the Blazers endured a disappointing and injury-plagued season before the shutdown. But the hiatus may be a blessing in disguise for Portland, which gets both Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic back from long-term injuries. Nurkic hasn't played in a real NBA game since March of 2019, but he looked fantastic in scrimmages. Collins isn't quite the same level of difference-maker, but he solves some depth issues up front and gives coach Terry Stotts a more versatile option to pair with Nurkic or Hassan Whiteside, who quietly had a strong individual season.
Portland is still paper-thin on the wing, however, and the loss of Trevor Ariza, who opted out of the Orlando restart, is a killer. The veteran isn't the same defender he was five years ago, but he was still easily the team's best option to throw at LeBron James, Paul George or Kawhi Leonard in a postseason series. Nonetheless, Portland enters the seeding games needing to maintain a four-game gap between itself and the eight seed (currently Memphis) to force play-in for the final playoff spot.
Kemba Walker remains limited
Still dealing with the knee soreness that's plagued him since January, Walker only participated in one of the Celtics' three scrimmages. However, it was hardly a confident showing, as he played nine minutes. All signs are that Walker will be available for the opener against the Bucks, but it's far from clear if he'll play in every game or be given designated rest days. Boston can technically make a run for the second seed, which would definitely be advantageous given the dropoff in competition from the sixth to the seventh seed in the East, but it might not be worth trying to over-extend Walker.
While Walker's talent is obvious and will be crucial for a deep playoff run, Boston has been perfectly fine without him during the regular season. Lineups with Walker off the court are still +5.9 points per 100 possessions. His presence gives a boost of 1.5 points, but that's below other players who have seen 1,000+ minutes like Daniel Theis (+1.8), Gordon Hayward (+5.1) and Jayson Tatum (+10.9). Coach Brad Stevens can lean on the defense of Marcus Smart even more with Walker out, and Smart can handle the ball himself, as can Tatum, Hayward and Jaylen Brown. Tatum, specifically, sees the biggest usage spike (+8.4%) and averages 27.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks with Walker off the court.
Clippers-Lakers is the headliner on Thursday night, but both teams will be without some key players. The Lakers will be down a pair of guards in Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley, while the Clippers will not have the services of Lou Williams or Montrezl Harrell.
Williams remains in extended quarantine after leaving the bubble for a funeral/strip club chicken wing acquisition, while Harrell's status is more clouded.
Initially, Harrell was set to arrive in Orlando on Tuesday, but it appears that never happened. Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported Tuesday night that it's "unclear" when Harrell will rejoin the Clippers as he continues to tend to a personal matter outside of the bubble. Without Harrell, the Clippers will likely rely more upon their true centers in Ivica Zubac and Joakim Noah, which might not be a bad thing against the oversized Lakers' frontcourt.