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NBA: Bubble success and what it means for the play-offs

As the bubble experiment proved a great success, the season is poised to enter the play-off rounds. The Bucks are title favourites as the Lakers struggle offensively, but what else can we learn from the bubble as we move forward in the competition?

Bubbleicious success

It's been frenetic, it's been hectic and it's been unrelenting. The first phase of the NBA's bubble experiment - 88 games packed into a little over two weeks - is drawing to a close, and the playoffs are about to begin.

There had been concerns over the quality of basketball after a four-month break, and especially in venues far from home comforts and friendly fans. Thankfully, the games so far in the NBA's audacious $150 million Disney World experiment have laid those fears to rest.

Yes, play is a little scrappy - 13 of the 22 teams are turning the ball over more in the bubble than they did earlier this season - but teams by and large seem to have settled in well to their Orlando resort surroundings.

Scoring is up, with the teams on average pouring in 116 points per match in the bubble - 3 points more than they did before the Covid-19 outbreak prompted play to be suspended in March. Ten teams have lifted their scoring average by more than 5 points, and there have been multiple individual 50-plus point games from the likes of Indiana’s T.J. Warren and Portland’s Damian Lillard.

Various theories abound: Nobody is tired from a long trip to a new city for a road game. Hostile fans aren't distracting players, and the conditions inside the three game arenas - from the lighting to the temperature - are close to identical. If anything, the fewer distractions have allowed teams to focus on what they do best: hoop.

"Even though we are playing on different courts, they all kind of feel like the same arena," Milwaukee center Brook Lopez told the Associated Press recently. "It's pretty consistent in that regard."

Even the idea that the worst road teams would struggle has been firmly kiboshed. The bubble's best-performing teams include the Suns, Spurs and Blazers, which all have pre-bubble road win records under 44%. Granted, they were the most motivated to win to secure the final play-off spot in the West, and the NBA provided them with a purer environment to strive toward that goal.

This all augurs well for the rest of the competition, which now returns to a more familiar format (venues notwithstanding) of 16 teams contesting four rounds of knock-out, best-of-seven-game series.

Once a team's season is over, it will depart Orlando - after all the necessary health and safety protocols. We are still in the middle of a pandemic, after all.

Covid or no Covid, as the "regular" season winds down, it's an appropriate time for us at Cloudbet to take stock of what markets are telling us about the most audacious sporting experiment ever undertaken.

Results and odds are current as of 06.00 GMT on Friday 14 August.

Key market moves in the bubble

Los Angeles Lakers

Title odds: 3.77 (+277) from 3.31 (+231) prior to the restart

The title favourites as the season resumed, the Western Conference champs have struggled to get into a groove, with few solid playmaking options outside of Lebron James. They've also faced a tough restart schedule with matches against other title contenders including cross-town rivals the LA Clippers, and Toronto.

Much has been made of the Lakers offense, or lack thereof: The team’s average score since the season resumed is 10 points lower than pre-bubble levels, and is the lowest per-game average out of any unit at Disney World. King James himself has failed to maintain his regular season scoring and assist averages, and Anthony Davis' point production has sputtered.

Those travails led to a 3-7 bubble record, with the probability of a Lakers title slumping by 3.7 percentage points since the restart - the most of any remaining team - to 26.5%.

James told reporters earlier this week that physically he was getting into play-off condition, "but as far as the mental side of it, I’m not there, and personally I don't think our team is there, but we will be."

It would be unwise to discount the ability of one of the greatest players of all time to lift his game when it matters: He was the highest scorer of the 2017-2018 playoffs (his last play-off outing) and is hungry for a fourth NBA title.

The Lakers' first play-off opponents will be the winner of a two-match play-in between the Portland Trailblazers and Memphis Grizzlies this weekend.

Milwaukee Bucks

Title odds: 3.52 (+252) from 3.45 (+245)

The Eastern Conference champs - like their West Coast counterparts - have also had a lacklustre record in Orlando with three wins from seven. Bucks odds for a title have slipped slightly, but they are now slim favourites, largely due to the Lakers’ declining fortunes.

Commentators have questioned the Bucks' ability to defend strong 3-point shooting teams and their ability to close out tight games.

They've suffered from sloppy ball handling, gifting them the fourth-highest turnover rate in the bubble. Milwaukee gave the rock up 22 times in a loss against Houston on 2 August.

To win their first title since 1974, the Bucks need to rediscover the form that's given them the best win-loss record in the NBA this season.

As with the Lakers, don't discount the star power: Giannis Antetokounmpo is a clear favourite to win his second-straight league MVP award and is on track to finish the season with the highest player efficiency rating in NBA history.

They also have a strong second-option scorer in the underrated Khris Middleton and two of the NBA's best 3-point snipers in Kyle Korver and George Hill.

The Bucks face the Orlando Magic in the first round of the play-offs.

Toronto Raptors

Title odds: 10.8 (+1591) from 16.9 (+1591)

The defending champs have been stand-outs in the bubble, posting the most wins out of all Eastern Conference teams, thanks to stellar defense and one of the best transition attacks in the game.

Anchored by center Marc Gasol, who dropped a ton of weight and rehabbed his dodgy hamstrings during the Covid break, the Raps have allowed the fewest points per 100 possessions out of all teams in Orlando.

The Raps had a 72% win rate before the hiatus, and have dropped just one game since the season resumed, showing they're still a force to be reckoned with even after losing Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers.

Their bubble efforts have boosted the probability of a repeat title to 9.3% - that's a whopping 3.3 percentage point gain, which is the biggest improvement of any team left in the competition.

Los Angeles Clippers

Title odds: 3.84 (+284) from 4.15 (+315)

The team is third-favourite to win the title, underpinned by top scorers and prize off-season acquisitions Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The odds indicate a 26% chance of a Clipper title, which is a 2 percentage point improvement from before the restart.

Among the top title contenders, this team was most impacted by the Covid bubble restrictions, with key players entering the bubble late after family-related absences.

One of those players, Patrick Beverley, is still dealing with a calf strain, while Montrezl Harrell is awaiting clearance from the NBA’s Covid testing protocol to resume play.

A third player, assists leader Lou Williams, was pilloried in social media for a much-publicised and ill-advised visit to an Atlanta strip club while on family leave. He returned in time for the first bubble match-ups and has delivered solid minutes for his team.

Still, the Clips have been at less than full strength for the seeding games and will have to use their play-offs to restore their chemistry.

The Clips finished with the second-best record in the Western Conference, and will meet the seventh-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the first play-off round.

Houston Rockets

Title odds: 14.1 (+1310) from 15.1 (+1415)

Houston had a strong start in the bubble on the back of strong performances from James Harden, the league's top scorer this season, and star guard Russell Westbrook. Some of the gloss has come off, however, with Westbrook temporarily sidelined with a thigh injury.

The Rockets will be buoyed by the return of Eric Gordon, their third-highest scorer, from an ankle injury. But when all else fails, there is always…

James Harden, who worked out like a fiend during the layoff, and came to Disney World noticeably slimmer. Not only does he lead his team in points, he is also tops in assists, steals and blocks. Expect him to keep shimmying his way to more step-back 3s than you can shake a stick at.

A key narrative to watch: Westbrook has a strained right quadricep and is expected to miss the start of the first-round play-offs against Oklahoma City Thunder - where he and Harden have both previously played.

Current odds indicate Houston has an 8% chance to win the title, up from 6.6% at the restart.

Philadelphia 76ers

Title odds: 45.3 (+4433) from 21 (+2017)

Philly's fortunes declined sharply after Ben Simmons (the team's top assists man, best rebounder and third-highest scorer) copped a season-ending knee injury on 5 August. The Sixers have lost three out of four matches since then.

The team was in the process of bedding down a new starting five in Orlando, which placed Simmons at power forward. Coach Brett Brown will have to start all over again with yet another rejigged squad, now that his Australian star is out for the rest of the season.

To cast an even greater pall on Philly’s predicament, center Joel Embiid injured his ankle in a 9 August loss against Portland. He returned a couple days later against Toronto, but left that game early with a wrist injury.

The Sixers will be hoping Embiid figures strongly in their first play-off round against the Boston Celtics - a team he gave fits to in the four times they've met this season

Still, without Simmons, it's difficult to see the Sixers progress too far in the play-offs. The probability of them now winning a championship has more than halved since the restart to 2.2%.

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