Indiana Pacers’ T.J. Warren is the early NBA bubble MVP

Just like everyone expected, Indiana Pacers wing T.J. Warren is the early NBA bubble MVP.

Two or three games is a tiny sample size. In other circumstances, in the wake of a normal, 82-game season, it’d almost be negligible.

But these are not normal times, and the NBA restart in Orlando is not your typical set of circumstances. This is the first NBA basketball we’ve been able to enjoy in four-and-a-half months, and it’s been surprisingly high-quality. All of our favorite basketball stars are back, but the early bubble MVP is not a name anyone would’ve expected.

No, it’s not Giannis Antetokounmpo, the likely two-time MVP who’s averaging 36.0 points, 16.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game in the bubble for the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks. It isn’t James Harden (36.5 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 7.5 APG, 4.5 SPG and 1.5 BPG), Luka Doncic (34.0 PPG, 10.5 APG, 10.5 RPG) or Joel Embiid (34.0 PPG, 15.0 RPG, 4.5 APG) either.

Nope, it’s T.J. Warren of the shorthanded Indiana Pacers.

As you can tell from the numbers above, a microscopic sample size mixed with these Heisenberg-ian levels of basketball purity has produced some truly eye-popping numbers thus far. But of all those star names listed, Harden is the only other player on an undefeated bubble team, and even his gaudy numbers haven’t captured the public’s attention like T.J. Warren‘s red-hot start has.

True enough, the Beard has played better opponents in the Dallas Mavericks and Milwaukee Bucks. The Indiana Pacers, by contrast, have beaten an On-The-Precipice Philadelphia 76ers team and the Why-Are-We-Even-Here Washington Wizards.

But the Pacers are doing more with less than perhaps anyone in the NBA bubble right now, storming out to a 2-0 start despite missing All-Star Domantas Sabonis for both games, Malcolm Brogdon for the first game and Victor Oladipo — who’s still working to get back to his former All-Star self — for Monday’s game.

Heading into the NBA restart, the best way to beat the Pacers and their slightly below-average offense seemed to be focusing on containing the backcourt. Warren may have been the team’s leading scorer during the regular season, but his 18.7 points per game didn’t figure to be the thing that would pummel opponents into submission.

Boy, was that assessment completely off.

Since the seeding games began over the weekend, Warren has become absolutely unstoppable and the most electric scorer in Orlando right now.

First, he made Embiid’s 41-point game look like light work with a career-high 53 points, carrying the Pacers offense to a win over Philly by going 20-for-29 from the field and 9-for-12 from 3-point range. The man only made took four free throws, and 29 shots in general, yet finished with 53 points.

He also chipped in four rebounds, three assists and two blocks for good measure.

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Okay, so Tony Buckets’ career night was one thing, but expecting him to go off again felt highly unlikely, right?

Wrong.

In Monday’s followup game, Warren torched the Wizards for 34 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, four blocks and three steals. Though his 3-ball wasn’t falling (1-for-6), he still shot a tidy 14-for-26 from the field and finished as a plus-25 in an 11-point win.

Through two seeding games, Warren is averaging a bubble-leading 43.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 3.0 blocks and 1.5 steals per game on 61.8 percent shooting from the field and 55.6 percent shooting from 3-point range … and he’s doing it on only 4.5 free-throw attempts per game.

Tony Buckets was given his nickname for a reason, but nobody expected this kind of scoring explosion in Orlando, even when he flourished all season on his first playoff-caliber team after being unceremoniously dumped by the Phoenix Suns. (Which, by the way, was a terrible trade in a vacuum, but wound up working out for the Suns, who used the resulting cap space to sign an actual point guard in Ricky Rubio, re-sign Kelly Oubre Jr. and absorb Aron Baynes via trade. Get your Suns jokes off if you must, but that heavily criticized move actually did work out for both sides).

In any case, everyone’s used to Giannis, Harden, Luka, LeBron James and Anthony Davis being in the MVP conversation. But that’s the beautiful thing about the highly unusual bubble MVP conversation: It’s entirely unpredictable, it’s prone to rapid change after a single performance, and it could all burst at any given moment.

How long will Warren’s absurd scoring detonation last? No one knows! But even if we haven’t even had one week’s worth of seeding games yet, every outcome matters to someone. The stakes have never been higher leading into the postseason, and expectations have never been more scattered to the wind, happenstance and 53-point eruptions.

To that end, T.J. Warren is the epitome of this beautiful chaos we call the NBA bubble. He is the purebred hooper we should’ve known would thrive in an environment where basketball is stripped down to its most essential components. He is the Indiana Pacers offense, the most magical surprise in Walt Disney World, the shining example of the incalculable beauty of the NBA’s return.

T.J. Warren is the early NBA bubble MVP.

Next: Best individual performance of the NBA bubble?