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Winners and losers from the NBA's restarted bubble season before the playoffs

Damian Lillard (0) celebrates with his Trail Blazers teammates after beating the Grizzlies to secure the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference on Saturday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. [Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports]
Damian Lillard (0) celebrates with his Trail Blazers teammates after beating the Grizzlies to secure the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference on Saturday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. [Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports]

The NBA's restart in the Orlando bubble saw some of the 22 qualifying teams come into their own and others go in the opposite direction while trying to rekindle their rhythm after a four-month hiatus amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Although eight final regular-season games served as more of a tune-up than a grand statement as to which teams are contenders or pretenders, it did provide some insight into where teams and players are at – with a handful of surprises.

USA TODAY Sports examines the biggest winners and losers from the first several weeks of action that set up next week's playoff picture.


Phoenix Suns. The clear-cut winner of the bubble was a team that fell just short of the playoffs. The youth-laden Suns went a perfect 8-0 behind All-Star Devin Booker, who averaged 30.5 points in eight games. Phoenix didn't exactly have the most cutthroat schedule but no other team went undefeated or looked as promising. While eight other teams sat at home with their futures set on the NBA draft, the Suns at the very least instilled confidence within the organization for 2020-21.

Toronto Raptors. Kawhi Leonard left the Raptors for another title contender in the Los Angeles Clippers. But the Raptors have shown all season, and particularly in the Orlando bubble, that they're still a title threat without the reigning Finals MVP. Toronto went 7-1 and had a convincing win over the Los Angeles Lakers and a statement victory over the heavily-favored Milwaukee Bucks. Those are the league's two No. 1 seeds and expected Finals contenders. The backcourt tandem of Fred VanVleet (36 points in Aug. 3 win over Miami Heat) and Kyle Lowry (33 points vs. the Lakers on Aug. 1), now healthy, make this team dynamic on both ends.

Michael Porter Jr., Nuggets. A four-month break allowed the versatile 6-8 forward to get healthy and Michael Porter Jr. showed flashes of his All-Star potential with an average of 22 points in seven games, including a 37-point outburst Aug. 6 vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder. Now, Denver finds itself where it began bubble play – as the West's No. 3 seed – but with a viable weapon to alter a playoff series thanks to Porter's emergence in Orlando.

T.J. Warren, Pacers. Warren exploded during the restart to help put an undermanned Indiana squad on his back to vault ahead to the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs. His 53-point outburst Aug. 1 vs. the Philadelphia 76ers was followed by three more 30-plus point explosions, including a 39-point outing in an Aug. 8 win over the Lakers in which Warren looked like the best player on the floor. Warren's first five NBA seasons were spent with the then-basement Suns, so now he'll finally get a taste of the playoffs to further flex his star power.

Damian Lillard's Trail Blazers. To say Lillard put the team on his back in key stretches to catapult Portland into the playoffs would be an understatement. It'd also be wrong to say he did it alone. CJ McCollum's clutch jumper helped the Blazers sink the Grizzlies in a hard-fought play-in game to secure the West's No. 8 seed. And Gary Trent Jr. arose as an X-Factor role player for this squad, while Carmelo Anthony kept silencing critics. Lillard was undoubtedly the MVP of the bubble, averaging 36.8 points, including a 61-point outpouring in an Aug. 11 win over the Dallas Mavericks.


The No. 1 seeds. TheLakers pulled out a big win over the rival Clippers in the restart opener and secured the West's No. 1 seed, but overall struggled in the bubble, going 3-5. LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kyle Kuzma have shown they can be the league's next Big Three, but the role players are not up to par here. James needs help in the backcourt with another primary ballhandler. The Lakers need Rajon Rondo (injured thumb) back as soon as possible. The Bucks likewise went 3-5 in the final eight games and hardly looked the part of title contender, with Giannis Antetokounmpo's suspension for a headbutt drawing the team's biggest pre-playoff headline. There will be more time for Milwaukee to find its groove vs. the Orlando Magic, whereas LA might have its work cut out right away in the West's first round.

Philadelphia 76ers. Ben Simmons suffering a season-ending knee injury all but removes the Sixers from the title-contending equation as much of the load will now fall on Joel Embiid's shoulders. Entering the bubble Philadelphia was in the mix to make some noise in the East but a 4-4 record in the bubble was likely indicative of the fact that this team isn't ready for the next step, especially without its All-Star in Simmons.

Houston Rockets. Similar to the Sixers, the Rockets will be affected by injuries with star Russell Westbrook being sidelined to start the playoffs due to a strained right quadriceps. That puts significant pressure on James Harden, which is nothing the superstar can't handle, and Westbrook will be back to try to make this team the contender it's shown to be in flashes. But Houston seems to lack the consistency it was brewing early on in the restart. After starting 4-1 in the bubble, the Rockets lost their final three and the small-ball mastery seemed to have come down to earth.

New Orleans Pelicans. They fired coach Alvin Gentry after five seasons Saturday and it comes as a result of an underachieving season despite star Zion Williamson playing just 24 games. Williamson was not his best self in the Orlando bubble, and the rest of the team didn't show much hunger to inch into playoff contention despite entering the restart right on the cusp. New Orleans' 2-6 mark in the bubble was evidence of this franchise needing to regroup with its promising core of young stars. Brandon Ingram, Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball and JJ Redick offer ideal complementary pieces to form a contender, but that recipe proved to be far from ready.

Memphis Grizzlies. Ja Morant did his best to will this depleted team into the playoffs but the bubble didn't treat Memphis kindly. The Grizzlies held a strong edge over the Western Conference's playoff contenders for the No. 8 seed heading into Orlando, but a season-ending injury to Jaren Jackson Jr. and an inability to rekindle the late-season form from March led this team to bottom out at 2-7. Morant was the best rookie in 2019-20 and will be the face of the franchise, but the playoffs aren't in the cards yet.