NBA Playoffs: Four guys who could make the West wild

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russell westbrook.jpgWith ABC and TNT covering the playoffs you can count on a couple things. One is more Closer/V promos than you can stomach. Second is more star hype — Kobe, LeBron, Howard, Wade — than you can stomach. Basically, you might want to keep the Pepcid AC on hand.

You and I both know that it’s usually the unheralded guy who wins the series. It’s Robert Horry with the big shots. We’re taking a look at a few guys in the West who can change the course of their first round series (and maybe beyond).

Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City Thunder): If you are going to knock off the defending NBA champions you are going to have to attack where they are most vulnerable, and that means at point guard. The Lakers Derek Fisher cannot defend quick point guards any better than an orange traffic cone, and his help off the bench in Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown are not really that much help. Westbrook can be that point guard. Look at it this way: In the three Laker wins this season over the Thunder Westbrook shot 38.8 percent (9-21, 5-16, 5-12) but in the Thunder’s blowout win he was   10-13. That’s not a coincidence.

For the Thunder to win this series Westbrook is going to not only have to get into the paint but also finish at the rim. Andrew Bynum is going to be there, protecting the rim with his albatross wing span, Plus Pau Gasol (and even Lamar Odom) will be there and probably making better rotations defensively than they did at the end of the regular season. Westbrook has the reputation of being able to get by anybody but taking terrible shots in the lane if he can’t get all the way to the rim — he needs to be smarter about that, hit open spot up shooters with a pass and not miss the opportunities he creates.

Kevin Durant is going to get his because he is Kevin Durant. But Westbrook is the one who could change this series.

Marcus Camby (Portland Trail Blazers): At some point during this series, Marcus Camby is going to end up in an Amare Stoudemire poster. If you try to defend the rim against Phoenix that is going to happen now and again. Hazard of the job.

But Camby is going to be the guy matched up on STAT, and if the Blazers (without Brandon Roy) are to have any chance Camby is going to have to win that battle. He is going to have to be the man on the pick and roll that slows Nash and Amare. Camby is one of the few players in the Association with the skills to pull this off — he can show out on Nash and still recover well, he is long and plays smart. Nobody stops the Suns, but Camby could make them less efficient. That’s a start, then all the Blazers need to do is find some scoring.

J.R. Smith (Denver Nuggets): When J.R. Smith comes in off the bench, he will change the game. Sometimes it’s with electrifying dunks and plays that ignite the crowd and his team. Sometimes it is with a series of missed threes that suck the life out of the Nuggets offense. But he does change the game.

When he is on, he is as unstoppable as anyone in the league. He can hit the three (or from a few feet back of the arc) with a hand in his face, but if you run out on him he will put it on the floor and drive well past you. When he is playing like this, he makes no bad decisions because there are no bad options. The problem is, even on his off days, he plays with that same mindset.

Utah and Denver are going to have a tight series. Smith can swing games with his play and may well decide this series. But which way he swings it remains to be seen.

Rodrigue Beaubois (Dallas Mavericks): Some guys are just fun to watch play. They are smooth and make the impossible seem effortless. They wow the crowd and have even opposing fans buzzing. That is Beaubois, and that is what he did the other night in a start against the Los Angeles Clippers. For a while, he stole the show (really saved the show, there wasn’t much of one without him).

The question is, will he get the minutes to do that in the playoffs? With a veteran team heading into the playoffs, will Rick Carlisle give Beaubois the burn?

As our own Rob Mahoney pointed out to me, last year the Mavericks knocked the Spurs out of the playoffs in part because JJ Barea was seemingly unstoppable. Beaubois is a better version of Barea — faster, better shooter, more athletic. Beaubois can score. He will be very hard for the Spurs to stop and can be a real spark for Dallas.

If he gets on the court.

Video Breakdown: How Kyle Lowry dismantles NBA defenses from 3-point range

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Toronto Raptors star Kyle Lowry is arguably the team’s best player thanks in large part to his increase in 3-point shooting ability this season. He’s just above 43 percent from deep this year, much better than his career average of 36 percent. Lowry has increased his 3-point percentage six points over last season, and he’s a big part of why the Raptors are so good on offense, and why they’re a contender in the Eastern Conference.

So how does he do it?

Watch the full video breakdown on Lowry’s 3-point shooting above, or read the text version of the article below.

Early Offense

I looked at a lot of tape of Lowry over the last 3 years and he hasn’t changed much on his shot mechanics. There’s no big change in his sweep or sway toward the basket when he shoots, and he still brings the ball up from his left side.

Part of his leap is be how quickly he’s getting his shots off and how many of his early offense field goal attempts come in the form of 3-pointers.

Lowry has bumped up how many 3-pointers he’s taken in the early offense, recorded here as between 24 and 15 seconds on the shot clock. Year-over-year he’s taken nearly eight percent more of his field goals as three pointers in this range.

This takes form on the court in a couple of ways, both in transition on the fast break and on quick 1 or 2 dribble pull ups off the pick-and-roll.

Transition

With the ball in secondary transition here, Lowry gets a quick screen from DeMarre Carroll to open him up for a 3-point bucket against the Hornets. And that’s still with 18 seconds left on the shot clock!

Pull-up and off-the-bounce jumpers

The other way Lowry scores quickly is off the dribble, with quick pick and rolls. Toronto is great at screen assists — picks leading to an immediate field goal — and have three players in the Top 50 and two in the Top 10 in setting them.

Here, the Celtics defender cuts off Lowry’s attack to the middle of the floor. The screener sets up to Lowry’s right, but then quickly flips it to his left. One dribble, and it’s an easy 3-pointer.

Here against Portland, the Raptors run a two screen setup with one wing and one post. The Blazers make the switch and try to blitz Lowry, but he stays resilient and sinks the bucket with what little space they allow him anyway.

Working with DeMar DeRozan

The other thing that’s been talked about a lot is the gravity of DeMar DeRozan, who himself is having a career year for the Raptors. While Lowry is making a ton of unassisted 3-pointers this year, the Raptors point guard does benefit from DeMar.

Part of that is how good they are in transition together.

Here you can see DeMar bringing the ball up the court with Lowry in front of him. He sets the screen, then fades to the arc. Three Utah Jazz are trying to stop DeRozan, and Lowry is left all alone.

When he’s not the primary ball handler on the break, Lowry will immediately get out to the wing. DeRozan has a way of finding him to get up quick Js.

Of course, in good old set plays the Raptors see this gravity effect as well.

Here Toronto is running another double screen with a guard and a post, but Lowry is one of the screeners. At this point, all three Heat players are guarding against DeRozan’s midrange jumper, leaving just enough daylight for Lowry.

Toronto is also third in the NBA in “hockey” or secondary assists, which means two or more passes leading to a made field goal.

On this baseline out of bounds play, again it’s DeRozan’s gravity that frees up Lowry. As the ball is inbounded, DeRozan sucks three warriors defenders with him, including Lowry’s. Meanwhile, Kyle is running down the baseline to get a bucket off a pass on the opposite side of the floor. All the raps have to do is rotate the ball.

So that’s a little bit on why Kyle Lowry has been so good. It’s been about shot selection, decisiveness, and some practice in addition to the effectiveness of his teammates.

It’s official: Steve Kerr will coach West in All-Star Game

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 16:  Head coach Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors stands on the side of the court during their game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at ORACLE Arena on January 16, 2017 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Steve Kerr likes a good meal, and while he might like some time off more he can at least find good food in New Orleans.

Kerr will be heading there mid-February to coach the West in the All-Star Game (Feb. 19 on TNT). That because official Monday night when the Rockets lost — the Warriors will have the best record in the West of Feb. 5 (the cutoff date). Kerr coached the All-Star Game two years ago, but not last season because of an NBA rule saying the same coach can’t do it in consecutive years (it fell to Gregg Popovich).

This is the same Steve Kerr that over the weekend called the way the players’ treated their All-Star votes was a “mockery.” He was right. Enough players took it seriously that the final selections were very good (the players had Russell Westbrook and James Harden ahead of Stephen Curry, for example), but players cast votes for 283 different players. To be All-Star starters. The 10 best players in the game. There were a lot of joke votes in there, such as the ones for Ben Simmons (who has yet to step on a court this season). There was a vote for Mo Williams. You get the idea.

Kerr likely will be matching wits — if you can call rolling the ball out there for the All-Star game that — with Dwane Casey of the Raptors. Tyronn Lue of the Cavaliers coached last year, so he gets a weekend off. Toronto is currently second in the East and have been there most of the season, although Boston is just 1.5 games back and Atlanta 2.5 back. It’s possible by Super Bowl Sunday that order changes and another coach gets to go have gumbo in New Orleans.

After another loss, LeBron James reiterates call to bring in more roster help

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James pauses during overtime in the team's NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, in Cleveland. The Spurs won 118-115. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
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Monday morning at shootaround in New Orleans, LeBron James played down the Cavaliers having lost four-of-six talking about the “process” and the “marathon” NBA season. He was keeping his eyes on the big picture, where the Cavaliers remain clear and away the team to beat in the East.

A few hours later his Cavaliers lost to the Pelicans. Without Anthony Davis. And the Cavs game up 124 points in the process.

After that, LeBron was once again saying the Cavaliers need some roster help. Via Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal.

“We’re not better than last year, from a personnel standpoint … we’re a top-heavy team,” James said, adding a few minutes later, “I just hope that we’re not satisfied as an organization. I just hope we not satisfied. How hard it was to do that s—. I just hope we’re not satisfied….

“I don’t got no time to waste,” he said. “I’ll be 33 in the winter and I ain’t got time to waste. That’s what I’m talking about. … When I feel like physically and mentally, me personally, can’t compete for a championship no more or I feel like I can’t do it, then I won’t have this problem. But until that happens, and it don’t seem like no time soon…”

LeBron has been clear before he wants the team to add a playmaking backup point guard, where right now Kay Felder and DeAndre Liggins are being asked to play (which is why Kyrie Irving played 42 minutes against the Pelicans). Remember the Cavaliers decided not to pay Matthew Dellavedova last summer because Mo Williams was going to be their more affordable veteran reserve, then the day before training camp started Williams decided to retire (although the Cavaliers kept him on the roster and his salary has become quite the pawn).

It’s easy for LeBron to say “get another playmaker,” it’s another thing entirely for GM David Griffin to do it. The Cavaliers already have the highest payroll in the NBA and Dan Gilbert’s check with taxes this season will be north of $130 million.

The bigger issue is Cleveland has nothing of value to trade. After the Kyle Korver deal, Cleveland doesn’t have a first-round pick to move until 2021. The roster is also barren of guys the Cavaliers can move who will net anything of value — for example, Felder and  Liggins aren’t going to get a playmaker. The Cavs could offer up Iman Shumpert, but he’s starting right now (until J.R. Smith‘s return) and playing fairly well. And Shumpert may not be enough.

More likely, I expect the Cavaliers are hoping to find someone on the waiver wire after the trade deadline (or maybe before) that can help them. But help them how much remains to be seen.

LeBron may not like it, but he probably is going to have to make due with the guys he’s got in the locker room now. The Korver trade was probably the Cavs one big play.

Three things we learned Monday: Can Warriors, Cavaliers, Rockets all lose on one night? Yes.

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) reacts during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, in New Orleans. The Pelicans won 124-122.(AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)
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Monday morning, a new edition of the PBT NBA Power Rankings come out. Monday night, four of the top five teams in the rankings lose. So, we’re feeling very smart. The only exception was the Spurs, who won despite Kawhi Leonard sitting out with a sore hand. Here’s what happened with the other upsets on a strange Monday in the NBA.

1) Anthony Davis sits, Pelicans still beat slumping Cavaliers, and LeBron James is ticked.
At shootaround on Monday, LeBron James said he wasn’t too concerned about the Cavaliers having lost four-of-six because he was about the process and his team improving over the course of the marathon season. He thought they were on the right track overall.

A few hours later his Cavaliers lost to the Pelicans. Without Anthony Davis. And after the game, LeBron was back to calling for some roster help. Via Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal.

“We’re not better than last year, from a personnel standpoint … we’re a top-heavy team,” James said, adding a few minutes later, “I just hope that we’re not satisfied as an organization. I just hope we not satisfied. How hard it was to do that s—. I just hope we’re not satisfied….

“I don’t got no time to waste,” he said. “I’ll be 33 in the winter and I ain’t got time to waste. That’s what I’m talking about. … When I feel like physically and mentally, me personally, can’t compete for a championship no more or I feel like I can’t do it, then I won’t have this problem. But until that happens, and it don’t seem like no time soon…”

The issue with the Cavaliers Monday was defense — New Orleans hung 124 on them, shot 41 percent from three, Terrence Jones had 36 points on 18 shots, Jrue Holiday finished with 33 points and 10 assists. Jones was getting it done on both ends.

The Cavaliers may need another playmaker thinking ahead to the playoffs and Finals, but Monday night they just needed to defend better, and they let a New Orleans team without its best player get too many shots at the rim. As for that playmaker, it’s not going to be that easy to get one — Cleveland’s trade cupboard is bare. After landing Kyle Korver, the Cavs don’t have a first-round pick to move until 2021, and most of the players they have they would willingly trade — Kay Felder or DeAndre Liggins, for example — aren’t going to get Cleveland a playmaker. The Cavs could dangle Iman Shumpert, but he’s starting right now (until J.R. Smith‘s return) and playing fairly well. And Shumpert may not be enough. I expect the Cavaliers are hoping to find someone on the waiver wire after the trade deadline (or maybe before) that can help them.

LeBron may not like it, but he may need to make it work with the guys in the locker room now.

2) Warriors take a vacation, end up on Waiters Island and pay the price in loss to Heat. The Warriors had won seven in a row — beating Cleveland, OKC, and Houston along the way — and they came into Miami looking for a little relaxation, some good Cuban food, and an easy win. Golden State took Miami (winners of three in a row themselves) a little lightly, let the Heat hang around and then…

Dion Waiters happened.

If you haven’t been watching a lot of Miami this year, Dion Waiters is still the guy you remember — he can put up points, but don’t expect him to do it efficiently. Especially if he has to create his own shot. Waiters is shooting 40.3 percent for the season with a 47.8 true shooting percentage (the league average is around 52).

But there are a couple of games a year when his poor choice midrange jumpers fall, and Monday night was one. Waiters shot 13-of-20 overall, many on difficult shots, which included 4-of-6 from the midrange and 6-of-8 from three. He finished with 33 points, but it was the pull-up three with the game on the line that was the big one and the game winner.

This was a night the Warriors just could not get the three ball to fall, shooting 8-of-30 (26.7 percent) from deep. Combine that with a suddenly confident Heat team playing better and you get a Warriors loss.

3) Rockets defense has no answers for Giannis Antetokounmpo, so Bucks get win. Houston’s defense has been decent this season — they are ranked 15th in the NBA overall, and in the month of December it was sixth best in the league (when the Rockets went 15-2). Yes, Mike D’Antoni’s team is playing some defense.

Except not Monday night. The Bucks shot 58.8 percent as a team, and 11-of-23 from beyond the arc, dropping 127 on the Rockets and getting the win. Antetokounmpo had 31 points on 18 shots (nine of his points came in the final five minutes), while Jabari Parker added 24 points.

Turnovers also were an issue for the Rockets, with one-in-five trips down the court ending in one — including some bad live-ball turnovers that helped the Bucks at key points in the game.

Houston is not 3-5 in its last eight. Fortunately for them the Clippers are banged up and stumbling worse, so the Rockets will likely be able to hold on to the three seed. Just don’t dream of catching the Spurs (now three games up on Houston), especially if the Rockets don’t get this slump turned around soon.

• Bonus thing that made us laugh: Joakim Noah with worst free throw you may ever see. The best part of this video is how he knows it’s bad the second it leaves his hand.