Brandon Jennings takes aim for the 40-percent mark

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Yesterday, in a live chat on ESPN.com, Brandon Jennings lobbed an easy-as-pie piece of cake over the plate. He didn’t have to; Jennings had stopped by to pretty clearly shill for Court Grip — the new product which Dwyane Wade plugged so aggressively but a few weeks earlier — and those kinds of advertising tours tend to be very straightforward affairs. But Jennings got just a tad sidetracked in talking about his workout schedule and his goals for next season, and offered up this gem:

Steve (Orlando):

Go Bucks! How many hours a week do you, if at all, practice your 15 foot jump shot. Thanks.

Brandon Jennings  (3:05 PM):

Actually since the lockout, I’ve been in Baltimore working for 3 months straight. I’m going to shoot over 40% this year. This whole three months of the lockout, I’ve been working out 5 days a week in Baltimore.

40 percent. That’s it. Take a moment to get all of the wisecracks out of your system. Just wring out the snark. 40 percent is an incredibly unimpressive target, a number that most NBA players eclipse with even their worst shooting seasons. We know this. Jennings probably does, too, but that didn’t stop him from setting a depressed goal for his own individual performance.

Jennings is still just 21, and he’ll evolve plenty as a player before he even hits his basketball prime. Yet his underwhelming field goal percentage numbers — .371 and .390 in his first two seasons respectively — are a cause for legitimate concern. They’re far from a death sentence for Jennings’ career, but so long as his poor shot selection continues to get the best of him, his NBA potential will be curbed substantially.

To be fair, Jennings has averaged five three-pointers a game in each of his NBA seasons thus far, accounting for nearly a third of his total shot attempts. If we use effective field goal percentage instead of standard field goal percentage, his shooting efficiency looks a bit more respectable, and Jennings actually outshoots John Wall and Russell Westbrook.

Of course, the problem with comparing Jennings to players like Wall and Westbrook is that each has produced in a way that Jennings has not. Wall sees the world in angles, and harnesses them through his own brand of awesome playmaking; he posted an assist rate 10 points higher than Jennings last season, despite JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche attempting to sabotage that number at every turn. Westbrook, on the other hand, was not only a far superior playmaker statistically in his second season, but he got to the line at an elite rate. He curbed his initially low field goal percentage with rapid improvement and a commitment to drawing contact, and those free points — which exist outside of his total field goals attempted and thus his field goal percentage — are a big component of Westbrook’s incredible production.

If Jennings were a better passer, his poor shooting numbers would matter slightly less. If he were committed to getting into the lane (where Jennings has proven himself to be an decently effective finisher), his efficiency numbers would skyrocket. Yet Jennings remains committed to forcing shots he has little chance of making, and hasn’t shown enough growth in the other facets of his game to hedge the problematic influence of his shot selection.

The blame here might not solely be on Jennings (Scott Skiles seems content with players taking long two-pointers, and the Bucks haven’t exactly had a lot of high-level talent outside of Jennings and Andrew Bogut), and that notion makes it worth considering if this alignment of player, team, coach, and system might be damaging to the offensive potential of all parties involved. If Jennings was firing up more shots than normal because of Bogut’s lingering injuries and the offensive limitations of some his teammates, then that’s understandable. But if he’s growing accustomed to shooting once every other minute despite playing for one of the league’s slowest teams as if such a thing were his Basketball Gods-given right, then we could have a bit of a problem. A fair bit of restraint would behoove Jennings, but the Bucks’ system offers structure without the means to prevent him from taking ill-advised shots. Skiles has a reputation for being an oppressive coach, but in his offense Jennings is oddly enabled.

There’s something admirable about an NBAer playing within themselves, and whether due to personal motivations or circumstance, we have yet to see Jennings pull off such a feat. 40 percent would be a nice step in the right direction, but only the slightest step. If Jennings wants to keep pace with his impressively efficient contemporaries, he’ll need to show a fair bit of growth beyond that number.

H/T: Tom Haberstroh.

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

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It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.