This is not at all how this was supposed to happen in Philadelphia this season. But after three games and three wins, it’s moved beyond a fluke occurrence and is now becoming a story.
The Sixers beat the Bulls 107-104 on Saturday to improve their undefeated record to 3-0 on the season. Chicago and Miami (along with the hapless Wizards) are the three teams to fall victim to the supposedly undermanned Philly squad, but the consistent level of production from four different players has the Sixers actually playing much better than the title contenders in Miami and Chicago at this very early point in the season.
For the third straight game, the Sixers came back from a sizable deficit to come away with the victory. In the opener against Miami, they gave back all of a 22-point lead before coming back from down eight in the final five minutes. Against the Wizards, they trailed by 14 points early in the second quarter. And Saturday against Chicago, the Sixers erased an 18-point third quarter lead before holding on late for the win.
Michael Carter-Williams has been a statistical monster in his rookie campaign thus far, and his team’s third straight win to start the season was no different. He finished with 26 points, 10 assists, and three steals, outplaying his counterpart in Derrick Rose completely.
Rose, to be fair, is still finding his game after missing all of last season, and was wearing black kinesio tape on his neck for the second straight game after experiencing some soreness. He finished with just 13 points, six assists and eight turnovers while struggling through a night of 4-of-14 shooting. A couple of Rose’s turnovers came on the game’s final possessions, while his Bulls still had a chance.
Spencer Hawes has been equally big for Philadelphia during this stretch, and has averaged over 19 points and 10 rebounds per game to begin the season. He also had three blocked shots in the win against Chicago, and shot 8-of-11 from the field in just over 30 minutes of action.
Evan Turner continued his strong play from the guard position, and is seemingly good for 20 points per game from there on a nightly basis. Thaddeus Young gives Philadelphia a solid inside presence defensively, while putting up numbers like the 13 points and seven rebounds he was able to tally in this one.
No one believes, of course, that Philadelphia will be able to sustain its level of success over the course of the 82 game season; the roster construction simply doesn’t hold up under close examination. But right now, we’re talking about a team that’s averaged 110 points per game through its first three of the season.
Until teams bring the level of intensity defensively that this Sixers team is bringing on both ends of the floor on a nightly basis, Philadelphia will continue to surprise the non-believers.
LeBron James on Cavaliers’ Game 3 loss to Celtics: ‘I’m glad it kind of happened the way it did’
After two dominant wins in Boston, the Cavaliers appeared on track to cruise into the NBA Finals.
Cleveland responded by getting upset by the Celtics at home in historic fashion.
LeBron James struggled in Game 3, and he even verbally sparred with a fan after the game. But he didn’t sound completely dismayed by the situation.
We’ve got to be a lot better. It’s the postseason. You win some, and you lose a couple maybe. But you want to – how can you be better from game to game? Like I said, they was better today than we were, and we have to figure out a way to be better than them in Game 4.
But we look forward to the challenge. I think it’s great. What happened, I mean, it hurts. It’s a loss in the postseason. But I’m glad it kind of happened the way it did. Let our foot off the gas a little, didn’t keep the pressure on them like we’ve been accustomed to.
But we have to play a lot better. We have to play a lot better in Game 4.
It’s odd to hear a player say he’s glad to lose, especially in the playoffs. But LeBron has a history of strangecomments following postseason losses. This wasn’t a season-ender, but but he was so out of sorts last night.
He’s also probably right. It’s better for the Cavaliers, now 9-1 in the playoffs, to experience overcoming a postseason loss now rather than in the NBA Finals. Still up 2-1 on Boston and the better team, the Cavs have the luxury of learning lessons without significant fear they’ll lose the series.
2017 NBA Draft Prospect Profiles: Is Markelle Fultz really worth the No. 1 pick?
Markelle Fultz is the best prospect in the 2017 NBA Draft, which is not exactly something that you would’ve seen coming had you known him as a sophomore in high school.
That was the year that Fultz failed to make the varsity team at DeMatha (Md.), one of the nation’s best high school basketball programs. From there, he developed not only into a point guard, but into one of the nation’s best high school players, eventually landing in the postseason all-star games and on the Team USA U-18 roster that competed in the FIBA Americas event.
Fultz committed to Lorenzo Romar early in the process and maintained that commitment, even as he watched a Washington team that failed to make the NCAA tournament lose Andrew Andrews to graduation and Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray to the NBA Draft. As a result, and in spite of the fact that Fultz was putting up insane numbers, the Huskies couldn’t even crack 10 wins with Fultz at the helm, and it eventually cost Lorenzo Romar his job despite the fact that the favorite for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, Michael Porter Jr., had already signed to play for him.
How will NBA teams weigh that?
Fultz put up ridiculous numbers, but he did it on a team that was the laughing stock of the Pac-12 come February. Is that guy worth the pick?
STRENGTHS: Fultz is an unbelievably well-rounded offensive player. I’m not sure what there is that he can’t do on that end of the floor. He shot 41.3 percent from beyond the arc last year and better than 50 percent inside the arc. At 6-foot-4, he’s big enough — and physical enough — to take smaller defenders into the post and score in the paint or simply shoot over the top of them off the dribble, and he does so effectively. His 6-foot-10 wingspan, huge hands and explosion on the move means that he can finish in traffic, whether it be with a dunk over a defender — his extension in the lane is reminiscent of Kawhi Leonard — or a finish around the shot-blocker; Fultz has terrific body control, and when combined with his length, allows him to finish contested layups at weird angles.
He’s more than just a scorer, however, as he averaged 5.9 assists last season with a higher assist rate (35.4 vs. 31.4) and lower turnover rate (15.4 vs. 18.9) than Lonzo Ball. That’s startling efficiency considering that he played such a major role on a team with so few options around him. Since 2012, only six guards have bettered his usage rate and offensive rating: Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Nate Wolters, Erick Green, Kay Felder and Jawun Evans.
Fultz is excellent leading the break in transition but may be even better operating in ball-screen actions — according to Synergy, more than 30 percent of his possessions came in the pick and roll last season, and he averaged 1.011 points-per-possession, which was in the 93rd percentile nationally. He is patient, he’s ruthless if you switch a bigger defender onto him and he has terrific vision, whether it’s driving and drawing a help defender, finding the screener rolling to the rim or popping for a jumper or spotting an open shooter on the weak side of the floor.
But Fultz is also big enough and long enough to share a back court with a smaller guard — Isaiah Thomas? — because he will be able to defend shooting guards. He’s also a good enough shooter that he would be able to play off the ball offensively in that same scenario, meaning that he not only has the ceiling to be a new-age franchise lead guard in the NBA, he has the potential to be a multi-positional defender.
In theory, he’s everything NBA teams are looking for.
WEAKNESSES: The biggest concern with Fultz is on the defensive end of the floor. While he has the tools to be a plus-defender and has shown the ability to be a playmaker on that end — he averaged 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks, many of which were of the chasedown variety — but it was his half court defense that was a concern.
In a word, he was far too lackadaisical on that end of the floor. Whether it was being late on a rotation, getting beat on a close out because his feet were wrong, getting hung up on a screen, switching when he shouldn’t because he didn’t want to chase a player around a screen, failing to sit down in a defensive stance, etc., it’s not difficult to watch tape and find examples of the mistakes that Fultz made. How much of that was playing on a bad team for a coach that didn’t hold him accountable defensively, and how much of that is who Fultz is as a player?
To be frank, my gut says it was more of the former than the latter, but there also is a concern that Fultz’ approach to the game is too casual. He’s the kind of player that needs to grow into a game as opposed to being a guy that takes games over from the jump, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a guy who projects as a lead guard and a distributor.
The bigger issue with Fultz is that he lacks initial burst off the dribble and there are questions about whether or not he can turn the corner against NBA defenders. His game is awkward when you watch him, but that’s because he has this uncanny ability to get defenders off balance. Hesitation moves, hang-dribble pull-ups, splitting the pick-and-roll, euro-steps in traffic. Some might call it crafty or slippery, but the bottom-line is this: Fultz is able to get by defenders because he has them leaning the wrong direction, and once he gets a step on you, his length — both his strides and his extension — make it impossible to catch up.
But he’s not a Russell Westbrook or a John Wall in the sense that he’ll be able to get by any defender simply due to his explosiveness, and that is where the questions about his jumper come into play. If Fultz is going to consistently be able to get to the rim, that jumper is going to have to be a threat, because Fultz’s arsenal won’t be as effective if defenders can play off of him.
On the season, his shooting numbers were impressive, but those percentages took a dip against better competition and on possessions where he was guarded (1.020 PPP, 57th percentile) vs. unguarded (1.636 PPP, 94th percentile), although that may be a result of being on a team that had no other option for offense.
Put another way, Fultz is a tough-shot maker, and there is reason to wonder if he’ll be able to make those tough shots against NBA defenders.
NBA COMPARISON: There really isn’t a perfect comparison for what Fultz could end up being as an NBA player. James Harden is probably the most apt considering that they are roughly the same size with the same physical dimensions, they both are ball-dominant scorers that can see the floor, they both likely needed a smaller guard in the back court with them because, despite their physical tools, they both lack that mean streak defensively.
But comparing any rookie to a guy that could end up being the NBA MVP after a season where he averaged 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 boards is probably unfair. Perhaps D'Angelo Russell is more fitting, at least in the sense that it limits some of the expectations.
Whatever the case may be, if Fultz reaches his ceiling, he’ll be a franchise lead guard that has an entire offensive built around him. If he decides that he wants to play on the defensive end of the floor as well, he could one day be a top five player in the league.
OUTLOOK: Fultz has the potential to be the face of a franchise at the lead guard spot. His skill-set — the scoring, the ability to operate in pick-and-rolls, the efficiency — and ability makes it easy to picture him one day ending up playing a role similar to that of Harden or Westbrook or Wall. At the same time, I find it hard to envision a world where Fultz doesn’t one day end up averaging 20 points and six assists. It’s hard not to love a prospect where their floor is a bigger, more athletic D’angelo Russell.
When a player has the least risk and the highest ceiling of anyone in a draft class, it’s no wonder they end up being the consensus pick to go No. 1.
Celtics, 17-point underdogs, record biggest upset in NBA playoff history
In a playoffs that has felt inevitable and lacked drama, the Boston Celtics gave us a great night. Down 21 on the road with Isaiah Thomas in street clothes, the Celtics did not roll over — they crashed the glass and pushed the pace when they could, their threes started to fall, and the Celtics just outworked the Cavaliers.
Boston now trails 2-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals, and they can even the series with a win Tuesday in Cleveland.
Don’t bet on it.
What Boston did Sunday was amazing, but it’s not really sustainable. Here’s why.
• LeBron James is not going to be that bad again. He had been the best player in the postseason to this point (eight straight 30-point games), then he was terrible on Sunday night: 4-of-13 from the field, 0-of-4 from three, one point in the game’s final 18 minutes. He only had three shot attempts in the fourth quarter and missed them all. This was a game where Kelly Olynyk looked like he could guard LeBron.
“I had a tough game period, not just in the second half. Me personally, I didn’t have it,” LeBron admitted postgame. “My teammates did a great job of keeping us in the game and building that lead, but me personally I didn’t have it. That’s all I’ve got to say about my performance.”
Boston did a better job bringing help against LeBron and doubling him at times, but even when isolated he just did not look like the guy who carved up Boston (and Indiana, and Toronto) this postseason. It was just one of those nights.
Don’t expect another one of those. Expect LeBron to come out like a man possessed in Game 4.
• Boston isn’t going to hit threes like that again. Kevin Pelton from ESPN summed this up well in one Tweet.
Marcus Smart is the first player in NBA history to make at least seven 3s in a playoff game after shooting <30% on 3s in the regular season.
Smart was 5-of-6 from three in the second half (on some tough shots), and as a team the Celtics were 11-of-22 from deep after halftime. Boston is a good three-point shooting team, they attempted the third most of any team in the league and hit 35.9 percent on the season (14th in the league), but for a half they got hot. That’s not sustainable.
Nor am I sold Smart can have another game like that period, he picked up what they were missing from Thomas being out.
• Boston isn’t going to own the offensive glass like that again. In the second half, the Celtics had eight offensive rebounds — they got a second attempt on one-third of their missed shots. Boston has to rebound by committee, and they did that in this game, but part of that was a seeming disinterest from Cleveland on doing the work. Which brings us to our next point…
• Cleveland looked like a team that thought they had it won. They took their foot off the gas and it showed — Boston was dominating the glass and still was out-hustling Cleveland down the court. Credit the Celtics there, they kept working hard and in the face adversity played with even more energy, while the Cavaliers coasted.
The Cavs relaxed on defense and didn’t communicate, which culminated in the miscommunication on the switch with J.R. Smith that left Avery Bradley wide open for the game-winner.
n’t going to play like that again in Game 4. They learned that lesson.
• The one thing Boston can sustain? They’re a better defensive team without Isaiah Thomas. During the regular season, the Celtics were 8.9 points per 100 possessions better defensively when Thomas was out of the game. Look at it this way: When Thomas was off the court this season the Celtics defense was slightly better than the Spurs, but when Thomas was on the court they were essentially the Knicks.
Thomas being out doesn’t make the Celtics better, they miss his offense — Marcus Smart was fantastic, but he is not going to be able to play the role of Thomas again — but it does make them a better defensive team. Cleveland, and specifically LeBron, need to be better prepared to deal with that.