Zoom impressions can certainly be misleading (how much can a coach actually read into the image of a player’s face during a video conference?) and to that end social media can actually tell a better story.
For Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse, then, recent images of Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry posted to Twitter told an encouraging tale. An A-framed Lowry, arms crossed and wearing a protective mask, looked like he’s been doing curls non-stop since mid-March.
Gasol looked downright slender in his black T-shirt and jeans.
“I thought he was probably trimming down a little bit,” Nurse said of Gasol during a recent conference call with Raptors media. “But I think both him and Kyle look good, and I mean most of the guys (have). We’ve been asking for weekly weigh-ins and things like that and there hasn’t been any red flags or any issues at all, really.”
Of course, everyone is looking for the smallest signs of an edge during the strangest shutdown in NBA history. The Celtics released footage from the Auerbach Center this week of Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum doing drills. Hayward looked absolutely deft catching a tennis ball with one hand and dribbling a basketball with the other. Tatum looked flawless shooting spot-up 3-pointers, as rookie Romeo Langford limbered up nearby.
Training camps begin in July, with all 22 invited teams then scheduled to play eight games that will affect seeding and, for those at the bottom of the ladder, survival to the post-season. Only then will these solitary workouts give way to something more cohesive.
The Eastern Conference may be the younger and more up-and-coming of the NBA’s two halves, though the order is far less jumbled. Washington, the only non-seeded team still with a chance to make the postseason, trails eighth place Orlando by 5.5 games. Playoff seeding will be the biggest concern here.
MILWAUKEE (53-12) — There isn’t a deeper team in basketball, or one with more veteran talent. Though there are more glamorous choices, the Bucks pretty much carried the league’s best record from wire to wire. Giannis Antetokounmpo (29.6 ppg, 13.7 rpg, 5.8 apg) is not only the reigning MVP, he somehow leads this healthy veteran group in all three major statistical categories. Brook Lopez, a historically brittle talent, has played 61 out of 64 possible games this season. Khris Middleton is scoring at a career-high 21.1 ppg clip and shooting 41.8 percent from downtown. Beyond this offense — fifth in the league — the Bucks also lead the NBA in defensive rating. There is not a more complete team in the field.
TORONTO (46-18) — A trimmed-down Gasol is also a healthier Gasol, which makes all the difference for the defending champs, though they managed to hold onto the second spot in the East despite their center playing in only 36 of 63 games, and missing 16 of their last 17 games with a hamstring injury. That also didn’t stop the Raptors from continuing to defend at a championship level — sans Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green — and they are second only to the Bucks in defensive rating. Nurse continues his emergence as one of the most inventive, inspiring coaches in the game, and this team could easily thrive in Orlando’s unpredictable environment, where many surprises should be in store — among them, perhaps, a team that many quickly forgot when Leonard departed.
CELTICS (43-21) — Kemba Walker’s balky knee has received plenty of rest, and if he can heat up from the start, Jayson Tatum will breathe an enormous sigh of relief. With Walker in microwave mode, perhaps Tatum can escape some of the trapping and blitzing that became so prevalent over the last two months of the truncated season. That could give Tatum the chance to assume the same post-season starring role that highlighted his play during the 2018 playoffs. There will be plenty of room for Jaylen Brown, rested after some late hamstring trouble, to attack the seams, and overall for the Celtics to reassert themselves as one of the best defensive units in the NBA — fourth in defensive rating at the time play was suspended. Gordon Hayward may be the key, though, as this team’s main facilitator and, with the space that is sure to open while sharing the floor with Tatum and Walker, a major 3-point threat. But as always with Hayward, confidence will dictate what happens next.
The Celtics, only three games behind the Raptors, have an outside chance of moving up into the second seed. They will play both the Bucks and Raptors during that eight-seeding-game stretch. But they are also in the sights of fourth-place Miami, a mere 2.5 games back. If the projected schedule pans out, the Celtics will play Miami in the eighth and final game.
MIAMI (41-24) — Jimmy Butler hasn’t always been a seamless fit, but the ego clashes that marked his time in Philadelphia and Minnesota have given way to a more accepting group of teammates in Miami. Bam Adebayo is a young All-Star and one of the most active young bigs in the game, and Duncan Robinson (.448, 8.6 attempts per game), Kenrick Nunn and Tyler Herro are deadly young 3-point threats. Andre Iguodala and old friend Jae Crowder were added late for invaluable veteran depth. Look out above.
INDIANA (39-26) — The Celtics beat an essentially faceless Pacers team in the first round last season, but it would appear that the face has returned. Victor Oladipo, after an eternity of rehab on his leg, played 13 of Indiana’s last 18 games, and broke through for the first time during a loss to the Celtics on March 10 with a 27-point, five-trey performance. The Pacers have a fine young cast, including Milwaukee transplant Malcolm Brogdon. But if Oladipo is rested and healthy, Indiana could upset someone.
PHILADELPHIA (39-26) — They had chemistry issues before the lockdown, and there’s little to indicate that the star axis of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are any closer to playing to their potential. But Embiid is indeed the best young big man this side of Anthony Davis, and Simmons, despite the apparent belief that a jumper isn’t important to his game, is a marvel in the open court. At the moment positioned to play the Celtics in the first round, the Sixers are a flawed but dangerous mix of size and athleticism. Al Horford hasn’t been able to solve the riddle. And beyond Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton, there’s not a consistent 3-point shooter in the bunch.
BROOKLYN (30-34) — This was everyone’s favorite wild card until Kevin Durant told ESPN’s Marc Spears that he had no intention of playing this season. How that factors into the intentions of Kyrie Irving, who missed Brooklyn’s last 16 games, is a good question. The firing of Kenny Atkinson left this team in the hands of interim coach Jacque Vaughn. Seems like a lot of disruption to overcome in Orlando’s strange COVID-crazed environment.
ORLANDO (30-35) — A talented young team that has scared, among others, the Celtics. But if the Magic hold onto this spot, they’ll be Bucks fodder.
WASHINGTON (24-40) — The Wizards are 5.5 games behind the eighth-place Magic and proof that the East, at best, is eight teams deep.