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Monday, Feb. 26, 2024
The Observer

Adams: Do you believe in (bubble) miracles?

I kick myself for not making a bigger deal out of it. Going through quarantine I expected that the return of sports would be this triumphant moment for society, or at least the majority of sports fans. For some people that may have been true, but for me, the return of sports went largely by the wayside.

I think you can blame the MLB for a lot of it. After all, baseball is one of the big four sports (along with basketball, football, and hockey) that have avid fan bases. No disrespect to the UFC or cornhole, but it’s not the same when that’s the only thing on ESPN 8: “The Ocho” during quarantine.

The MLB had a golden opportunity, at least momentarily, to inject a shot of adrenaline into America’s slowly dying pastime. Instead, the owners made some blatantly stupid proposals that they should have known would anger players and delay the return of major sports (and money in their pockets).

So when baseball finally rolled around, it was a bit anti-climactic (at least until Joe Kelly became the folk hero America could rally around in their hatred of the Houston Astros). The same feeling, at least for me, occurred again with the NBA bubble. There was all this buildup talking about the rules of the bubble, how players were getting in trouble picking up Grubhub orders and visiting strip clubs and a barbershop built especially for them.

And then games started. It was nice to see the Clippers and Lakers go at it for Western Conference supremacy right off the bat, but it just wasn’t what I expected.

Maybe I’m being unreasonable, but I think a lot of it had to do with the problems inherent to professional sports.

It’s much easier to rally around collegiate and high school sports than (most) professional sports. You have a greater connection because you likely went to the school, and there are a lot more teams so a lot more people can have a rooting interest. With pro teams, it’s all about the city (and maybe state) that you live in, which leaves folks like me out to dry when you’re from a state that doesn’t have any pro teams (but Louisville is ripe for the taking @NBA).

The other things is schedules. Football at any level is pretty immune to this because there are a limited number of games and an even more limited number of postseason bids to go around, which makes every competition all the more intense. In the NBA, MLB and NHL, there are so many games that at some point it just doesn’t matter.

You become desensitized to baseball until the Playoffs start because there’s essentially no downtime; you play 162 games in 180 days. In both the NBA and NHL you have 82 games. As a result in the former, we see the best of the best players sitting out the last few games of the regular season because they just don’t matter for playoff position (and, in Kawhi Leonard’s case, sitting out every other game because he’s soft).

All this to say that, while I was very grateful to have sports back and highlights to watch, the fact that I was never really invested in pro sports (as a consequence of the way they are conducted) made for a less than triumphant return from my perspective.

And then a small-market basketball team from Phoenix, Arizona nearly shocked the world.

The Phoenix Suns were the very last-place team in the NBA bubble. They got to Orlando with no control over their destiny. They would need to go undefeated in the bubble and needed other teams to lose just so they could reach the 9-seed and get a shot at the play-in game.

Before the bubble started, they were listed at +5500 odds to make the playoffs by FanDuel and had a 0.1% chance to make the postseason. And then:

125-122 W @ Wizards

117-115 W vs. Mavericks

117-115 W @ Clippers

114-99 W vs. Pacers

119-112 W @ Heat

128-101 W vs. Thunder

130-117 W @ 76ers

Suns guard Devin Booker led them to a 7-0 bubble record with one game left in the regular season, and they were up to 25% odds to make the playoffs. It would come down to winning their final game and either the Trail Blazers or Grizzlies, or both, losing their final regular season game to clinch a spot in the play-in game. A 26-point Phoenix win over the Mavericks later and a Memphis win later, and suddenly it seemed like half of America was rooting for Portland to lose.

However, the rest of the country was rallying around Damien Lillard, who had scored 51 points in a three-point win over Philly and 61 in a three-point win over Dallas. It was tragic that only Lillard or Devin Booker would be making the playoffs, as both were playing like MVP candidates for their respective teams.

And then the Blazers and Nets went at it. You could really tell these bubble gyms help depth perception because nobody was missing. Caris Levert goes for 37 and Lillard for 42, with the former missing a potential game-winner in a one-point Nets loss, eliminating the Suns from contention.

I want to give a big shoutout to the Suns’ social media department for making the most of Twitter and turning me into a huge bandwagon fan. It helps when you’ve got a Kentucky product in Booker and a Notre Dame product in coach Monty Williams (side note: a man who has been through tragedy and seems like one of the best dudes out there, despite what he’s endured).

To see the way this Phoenix team almost pulled off the virtually impossible when everyone wrote them off; to have a rooting interest in a back-and-forth game I usually wouldn’t give a passing thought because it meant nothing other than who would be in a play-in game to get a date with the Lakers (which they’d probably lose), and then to see the way Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell went after it in literally the first game of the bubble playoffs… God bless having sports back in our lives.

I wish the Suns, Booker and Williams the best, and I hope Dame keeps torching teams as long as he can. Normally I’d have some loose loyalty to some team with a former Kentucky player on it, but now, even though he eliminated one, I’m hopping on the Lillard bandwagon.

I’m hopping on because right now, with COVID-19 still sucking the joy out of everyday life, I want to see the improbable. I want to see a man put a team on his back and take them to the promised land. I think what sports fans around the world right now need is a Cinderella story. A bubble miracle, if you will.

Regardless of whether or not I get to see that happen, I’m just glad I have the game I love to help me procrastinate. But to answer legendary broadcaster Al Michaels’ question: yes, I do believe in miracles, and here’s to several more of them, in a bubble or otherwise.