By Bill Reiter CBS Sports
The most unpredictable NBA playoff scenario in history has a single adversary most capable of derailing the championship hopes of favorites like the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks.
The bubble itself.
That fact thrust to the fore — via Giannis Antetokounmpo’s forehead — Tuesday night. In one moment of anger, the Greek Freak revealed another challenge of the Orlando bubble, one that has nothing to do with keeping out COVID-19, one that sent the reigning MVP spiraling wildly out of character. Giannis’ UFC turn was a marked shift for an NBA star who had until that moment handled his rise to greatness with dignity, calm and humor.
The Wizards’ Moe Wagner found himself on the receiving end of the headbutt. Giannis called the moment a “terrible action.” His head coach, Mike Budenholzer, said after the game several mounting in-game issues had led to that loss of control. Unfortunately for Milwaukee, it also led to Giannis being suspended for its final tune-up game before the start of the NBA playoffs.
Yet there was more at play here than missed calls and swallowed whistles.
Giannis losing his cool marked the third time one of the three NBA teams most likely to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy in October found itself ceding calm and poise to drama and disdain. Several league sources told CBS Sports that the grind of being cooped up in Orlando away from family, wives, children, girlfriends, friends — one’s life — has played a part in some of these outbursts.
We saw this with LeBron James’ cryptic, and for Lakers fans problematic, comments last week: “It’s just some things that you can’t control that’s here, that I really don’t want to talk about, that’s off the floor.”
We saw the Clippers’ Paul George and Patrick Beverley, who should be focused on the practiced no-drama, keep-it-to-yourself mantra of the contender nearing the postseason, instead decide it was a good idea to mock Damian Lillard for missing two crucial free throws.
First, Dame explained to the limited media there that he’d sent those guys home before in previous playoff series, and that must have been the reason they got a little chatty.
Then this beautiful, angry Instagram exchange broke out:
George: “And you getting sent home this year.”
“Beverley: “Cancun on 3….”
Lillard: “keep switching teams … running from the grind. You boys is chumps”
Chumps or not, we’ve certainly seen tensions boil above and beyond what is normally the private musing of players who may not always like each other but tend not to air their grievances so publicly.
Then, most shocking of all came Giannis — Giannis! — headbutting a player.
“I don’t think I was frustrated with Wagner,” he explained afterward. “I think it was just the whole, like, build-up of dirty plays in my mind. Guys tripping me, guys falling in front of my feet, holding me, hitting me. It wasn’t just — I don’t have nothing against Wagner, it wasn’t just him.”
It’s more than just the build-up of the game. It’s the build-up of life away from normal life, stuck together, nerves stretching, annoyances growing, issues outside the bubble often building, and players finding themselves less and less able or willing to control their mounting tempters and frustrations.
LeBron hit on it, too, after his own private issues became vaguely public.
“This is a totally different situation than any other situation that I’ve been in in my career, so I have zero experience with having the No. 1 seed inside of a bubble during seeding games playing in August,” he said. “This is all a learning experience for all of us and we’re going to take it day by day and continue to work on our habits, either on the floor, during the film session, when we’re able to get on the floor as well. But this is a totally different season, a totally different drastic situation for all of us, including myself.”
LeBron sniping at his teammates in nebulous fashion as the playoffs grow closer. P.G. showing his claws — and pointing out his own past shortcomings, since, yes, he has in fact been sent home and did in fact avoid “the grind” of staying — in an unnecessary beef with Lillard. Lillard calling two guys on one of the NBA’s best teams “chumps.” Giannis headbutting a random player on a winless bubble team.
Focusing on just one of these misses the forest for the trees. Think about taking your office mates — those you like and might grab a coffee with in normal times, and those you can’t stand — and quarantining together in a bubble you can’t leave. Away from your life, your friends, your habits, your privacy, your distractions, your joys, the things you turn to to wind down or avoid stress or forget how much you can’t stand someone you work with everyday. Then throw in a Disney-hellscape for good measure.
The bubble is the highest hurdle on the way to this year’s NBA championship. Giannis said it for his team, yes, but also for all the contenders a few weeks ago: Each team is its own biggest threat.
And here’s a Catch-22: The more you win, the more you’re trapped in Orlando.
Because how you react to the bubble — off the court, and on — will have a weighted impact on who’s left standing two months from now.
The interesting thing, and the unanswered one, is who will thrive and who will crumble under this unique stress. Dame seems at his best in the turmoil, at least so far, following up that bad-blood Clippers showdown with 51- and 61-point performances.
For LeBron James’ teams, at least in the past, there has been a correlation between his unhappiness and its struggles. And so far, at least, the Lakers have looked off balance, out of rhythm and strangely vulnerable. And he has clearly been less than overjoyed so far in his Disney bubble.
Then there was Tuesday night.
Giannis headbutting an opponent is just the kind of insane thing you might expect from 2020. It’s also the most gripping sign yet that life in the bubble is far from carefree, and managing its unique stress will be a key factor in this year’s NBA playoffs.