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Extra Pass: Kyle Lowry-Greivis Vasquez backcourt sparking Raptors

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BOSTON – The Memphis Grizzlies chose Kyle Lowry in the first-round of the 2006 draft, and then they traded him just two-and-a-half years later. Memphis picked another point guard in the first round of the 2010 draft: Greivis Vasquez, who made it only one season with the Grizzlies before they traded him.

Now, Lowry and Vasquez are united with the Toronto Raptors, bonded by the shared experience being drafted then quickly traded by Memphis.

“It’s kind of like we knew we knew each other from that,” Vasquez said.

On the court, they certainly play like they’ve known each other for years. Since the Raptors traded for traded for Vasquez in the Rudy Gay deal, the two point guards have played 414 minutes together with stellar results:

  • Offensive rating: 108.3 (3.1 better than Toronto’s season mark)
  • Defensive rating: 94.7 (6.8 better than Toronto’s season mark)
  • Net rating: +13.6 (10.0 better than Toronto’s season mark)

No Eastern Conference duo has played together that much and produced such a high net rating this season.

“It’s just natural,” Vasquez said. “It’s spontaneous. There’s nothing forced. We just have good chemistry together, and we play great basketball together.”

Offensively, their impact is felt most by Toronto’s bigs, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas. Both score better, by volume and efficiency, in Lowry-Vasquez lineups compared to other units, according to nbawowy.

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How do Lowry and Vasquez collectively lift the bigs?

“Pick-and-rolls,” Johnson says enthusiastically.

That simple?

“That’s the threat,” Johnson said. “Pick-and-rolls, man.”

Johnson and Valanciunas are both two of the NBA’s better pick-and-roll screeners, and they’re taking advantage of playing with Lowry and Vasquez. Johnson, a ninth-year pro, said he’s never played so much with two point guards simultaneously.

“Not quite like this, when you have two guards on the floor that are threats,” Johnson said. “It’s just so dangerous. When you swing the ball, I can go set a pick-and-roll with Vasquez. If you swing it, I can go set a pick-and-roll with Kyle and attack. And then you’ve got shooters. It’s kind of a good weapon.”

Having two point guards who can throw entry passes also helps Valanciunas’ post-up game. Lowry and Vasquez can throw the ball around the perimeter, quickly changing entry-pass angles that become difficult to defend.

“They see the floor,” Valanciunas said. “It’s easy for me to be under the basket, represent myself.”

And that’s just in the halfcourt.

Lowry and Vasquez significantly push the pace, generating many more fastbreak points than the Raptors usually get. (Johnson said he’s always looking to screen for the point guards when they play together, even in transition or after a play breaks down.)

With two guards capable of breaking down defenses and forcing opponents to rotate, the Raptors also offensively rebound better. And defensively rebound better, too – which is where this gets tricky.

The Lowry-Vasquez combination impacts Toronto more defensively than offensively, but Raptors coach Dwane Casey and his players say the scheme doesn’t change when the point guards play together.

Vasquez, who’s 6-foot-6 but slow for his position, defends shooting guards better than he does point guards. So, that helps.

And Lowry can pester to opposing shooting guards, who might not be used to such a ballhawk guarding them. The Raptors do force more turnovers with Lowry-Vasquez lineups.

But the more significant difference* is how much better Toronto defends the mid-range and corner 3s when Lowry and Vasquez play together.

*The Raptors also get to the free-throw line and send their opponent to the free-throw line much more often when Lowry and Vasquez share the court. But 42 percent of their minutes together come in the fourth quarter and overtime, when foul rates increase anyway. Lowry and DeRozan have nothing to do with teams intentionally fouling because they’re trailing late. And if you’re wondering, intentional fouls don’t tell the whole story of the Lowry-Vasquez offensive boost, because lineups with that backcourt score better in the first half than the second.

Here’s the effect Lowry-Vasquez lineups have on opponents’ shooting. The slide with more shot attempts is overall, and the slide with fewer shot attempts is when Lowry and Vasquez share the court:

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What changes? Touch to discern a tactile difference, but maybe the Raptors just better contest jumpers when they’re getting on the fastbreak more and scoring more efficiently on the other end. Energy can be contagious.

As can quality play. Lowry shrugs off the notion that he and Vasquez have solved any major issues the Raptors face in other lineups.

“It’s easy to play with another point guard,” Lowry said. “G is an unbelievable playmaker. He knows the game, knows how to play.”

Lowry could be speaking for himself there, which is exactly why this pairing works so well.

Kobe Bryant basks in All-Star spotlight one final time

Kobe Bryant All-Star
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TORONTO — Kobe Bryant is the center of attention one last time.

To get to his final All-Star Game in his final season in the NBA, Kobe received more fan votes than Stephen Curry or LeBron James or any other player. Now that he’s at the 2016 All-Star Game, more people want a piece of his time. More media were crowded around him on Friday than any other player at the NBA’s equivalent of media day. Even the other All-Stars could count on getting peppered with Kobe questions (to their annoyance at times).

Kobe is at peace with his decision to walk away from the game. This weekend he wants to savor being in the All-Star spotlight one final time.

“I’m happy,” Kobe said. “This is pretty cool. I’m looking around the room and seeing guys that I’m playing with that are tearing the league up that were like four during my first All-Star Game. It’s true. I mean, how many players can say they’ve played 20 years and actually have seen the game go through three, four generations, you know what I mean? It’s not sad at all. I mean, I’m really happy and honored to be here and see this.”

Does that mean Kobe has plans to chase the All-Star MVP one last time?

“Zero…” Kobe said. “But, no, I’m really just enjoying this whole thing, being around these players and talking to them one more time, going out and practicing and enjoying that moment in the game and enjoying that moment. So competitiveness in terms of me trying to establish something or prove something, that’s gone.”

What is Kobe’s best All-Star memory?

“My first one in Cleveland was pretty special because you had all the top 50 players,” Bryant said. “I think in ’98 (it was), it was pretty special too, being in my first All-Star Game and being in the locker room with greats, like [John] Stockton and [Clyde] Drexler and all those guys, that was pretty cool too.”

Kobe has a hectic schedule for his final weekend, but much as he has since he announced his retirement he is trying to soak in and fully enjoy this last go around in the NBA. He understands that the life he has known for two decades is about to change. He hasn’t given much thought to his first day of retirement.

“I’ll probably wake up and have some coffee and go back to sleep,” Bryant said.

I don’t think he understands why you drink coffee, but he’s got all of his retirement to figure that out. For now, he just wants to bask in the spotlight one last time.

Zach LaVine wins MVP, Kristaps Porzingis puts on show in Rising Stars Challenge

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TORONTO — Canada’s own Andrew Wiggins was the rock star of the night. “An-drew-Wi-gins” chants broke out in the Air Canada Center as Canada’s native son put on a show with 29 points (and a few dunks) leading a World Team comeback against the USA in the Rising Stars Challenge.

“An-drew-Wi-gins” chants broke out in the Air Canada Center as Canada’s native son put on a show with 29 points (and a few huge dunks), sparking a World Team comeback against the USA in the Rising Stars Challenge.

His Minnesota teammate Karl-Anthony Towns was going to have none of that.

“I gotta see Andrew Wiggins for a long time and I want to rub this in,” Towns said.

He got his wish, the USA beat the World Team 157-154.

It was a glorified pickup game for three quarters, and the level of defensive intensity will make Sunday’s All-Star game look like Tom Thibodeau teams are playing. That led to a lot of high scorers.

Zach LaVine — the other teammate of Wiggins and Towns — led the USA with 30 points and was named the game’s MVP, and said he wanted to steal Wiggins’ thunder at home.

“That’s what I was going for,” LaVine said.

Also from the USA, Jordan Clarkson (Lakers) had 25, Devon Booker (Suns) had 23 and was 5-of-8 from three, D'Angelo Russell (Lakers) had 22, and Towns chipped in 18 points and 7 boards.

Knicks sensation Kristaps Porzingis was the second most popular player in the building, and he had 30 for the World team.

“Not great defense, but it’s about having fun, I guess,” Porzingis said. “And I think we had fun out there. In the second half we got more competitive, as both teams wanted to get the win, and we fell a little short.”

Also for the World Emmanuel Mudiay (Nuggets) had 30 points, Wiggins had 29, and Mario Hezonja (Magic) had 19.

The intensity and defense did pick up in the end, although one wouldn’t call it a thing of beauty. What matters is the crowd in the Air Canada Centre enjoyed it, even if their team didn’t win. It’s an exhibition, and they got a show.

Report: Celtics, Cavaliers talking Kevin Love trade; could include Knicks, ‘Melo

Cleveland Cavaliers' Kevin Love holds the ball away from Boston Celtics' Amir Johnson during the second quarter of a NBA basketball game in Boston Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
Associated Press
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The Celtics are looking for an elite player to improve their deep cast of role players. The Cavaliers are looking for depth. And Carmelo Anthony may just be looking to win.

All of that has talks between the Cavaliers and Celtics on a potential Love deal progressing, with the possibility of the Knicks as a third team also in the mix, according to Frank Isola of the New York Daily News.

The Daily News has learned that the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers have discussed a blockbuster trade centered around Kevin Love. There were very preliminary discussions about expanding the deal to include the Knicks and Anthony, who would have to waive his no-trade clause in order to facilitate a deal to the Cavs.

The Knicks would receive draft picks and players in return. One of those players is believed to be Timofey Mozgov, who five years ago was traded by the Knicks to Denver in the Anthony deal.

This is a longshot, but the report has some legs.

It’s not clear how far along these talks are. The trade deadline is Feb. 18 (next Thursday) and conversations tend to move past the theoretical/value judging phase and get real come All-Star Weekend, when many GMs and decision makers are in one place (and nobody can go outside because it is too cold in Toronto). This trade works for the Cavaliers if they get a quality stretch four in return — Kelly Olynyk? — plus some depth and a quality pick. The question for the Cavs is simply how much can they get back — this is a win-now team and Love helps that, so how does a trade make them better?

Would Danny Ainge move the unprotected Brooklyn Nets pick to get Love? Jae Crowder? How much would Boston surrender to get an elite star, especially one under a reasonable, long contract?

Carmelo Anthony wants a ring, if he could end up playing with LeBron and be much closer to it than he is now, he would waive his no-trade clause.

That said, this trade sounds like a longshot. At least at the deadline. Next Summer… who knows?

Watch Kevin Hart be Kevin Hart at the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game

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Kevin Hart has a movie to promote decided to come out of retirement to play in the NBA All-Star Friday Night Celebrity Game.

And, he did what Kevin Hart does.

Well, except win MVP of the game, that went to Win Butler (the Canadian lead singer of Arcade Fire). Butler led Canada to a 74-63 win over Hart and the USA.