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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.

John Stockton working with Bucks point guards at training camp

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 30:  John Stockton #12 of the Utah Jazz dribbles in Game five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Sacramento Kings during the 2003 NBA Playoffs at Arco Arena on April 30, 2003 in Sacramento, California.  The Kings won 111-91.  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: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
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The Bucks are coached by one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, Jason Kidd. But Kidd invited another legend of the position to camp to work with his point guards. John Stockton, the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals, was at Bucks practice on Thursday working with Michael Carter-Williams, Matthew Dellavedova and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Not a bad person to learn from, especially since the Bucks have one of the weakest point-guard positions in the league.

Blake Griffin says he’s working on improving his three-point shot

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 21:  Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers shoots a jumper over Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a 100-99 loss to the Thunder at Staples Center on December 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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2016-17 is going to be a big year for Blake Griffin. He missed much of last season with a quad injury and a broken hand stemming from a punching incident, and he has the ability to opt out of his contract next summer. When Griffin was healthy, he was his usual All-Star self for the Clippers, but he played just 35 games. He’s healthy now, at the start of training camp, and he says he wants to improve his three-point shot.

From Dan Woike of the Orange County Register:

“I want to be someone who shoots from there confidently, for sure,” Griffin said after Thursday’s practice at UC Irvine’s Bren Events Center. “A lot of us power forwards, our strength is inside or our versatility. You look at the best power forwards, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus (Aldridge), Draymond (Green) … they can all shoot but they can all put the ball on the floor and they can all score inside. I don’t necessarily think falling in love with the 3-point shot is a good idea, but shooting it confidently from there is great.”

Not only has Griffin not hit his threes in his career (his overall mark from beyond the arc is an awful 27.1 percent) but he doesn’t take very many of them. The most threes he’s ever shot in a season is 44 in 2013-14, and he hit 12 of them. Griffin is only 27, so he’s theoretically not done improving as a player, but it’s hard to imagine a dramatic jump this far along when that hasn’t been a part of his game at all to this point.

 

Steve Kerr endorses shorter preseason to limit back-to-backs

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors speaks to members of the media after being defeated by the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 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 Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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There are too many preseason games. The NBA has its reasons for playing them — namely, to allow for games in non-NBA markets — and sometimes they can be valuable for teams to experiment with rotations. But most teams play seven or eight preseason games, which is unnecessary. Warriors coach Steve Kerr agrees, according to the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Connor Letourneau:

“I kind of like the idea that’s been tossed around the last couple summers to start the regular season a little earlier, maybe a week early,” Kerr said Thursday afternoon after Warriors practice. “Play five exhibition games instead of eight. I kind of like that, just so you have fewer back-to-backs in the regular season.”

The NBA has floated the idea in the past of cutting the number of preseason games in order to stretch out the regular season, thereby lessening the burden of travel and back-to-backs. The NBA has made an effort this season to cut down on back-to-backs, and this would be a logical way to do that.

Hornets’ Batum won’t let big contract affect how he plays

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 20: Nicolas Batum #5 of the Charlotte Hornets drives on Joe Johnson #2 of the Miami Heat  during game two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena on April 20, 2016 in Miami, Florida. 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 Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Nicolas Batum said he isn’t planning to alter how he plays the game after signing a five-year, $120 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets.

And that’s just fine with coach Steve Clifford.

Clifford said Batum doesn’t need to put additional pressure on himself to score just because he’s now the highest-paid player in Hornets history. He told him to play how he plays.

“You don’t change the nature of how you play. I think guys get messed up with that,” Clifford said. “… I don’t think you try to reinvent yourself because the money changed. We gave him the money because he played so well. In my opinion he was an All-Star-caliber player last season when healthy.”

Batum was acquired in a trade with Portland before last season and turned out to be a gem for Charlotte, which won 48 games and tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Batum averaged a career-high 14.9 points and 5.6 assists while becoming one of the team’s top three go-to options.

Batum said he’s learned from experience that it’s not worth putting pressure on himself just because he signed a big contract.

He did in that 2012 after inking a four-year, $46 million deal to remain with the Portland Trail Blazers. While he still played well, he said it was pointless.

“I was a young guy at the time and I didn’t know what to expect,” Batum said. “Now I know. I know what I have to go through right now. I know what the views of the media and the public will be. I know that, and I’m good with it.”

For Batum, pressure no longer enters the equation because the Hornets trust him and believe in him.

“It’s more relief than pressure,” Batum said.

The Hornets made re-signing him their No. 1 priority, offering the Frenchman a huge deal about an hour into the free-agency signing period. Batum also received several offers from other teams shortly after the deadline, which he called flattering.

The 6-foot-8, 200-pound Batum enters the season as Charlotte’s best all-around player and a favorite among teammates.

“Guys are so much more comfortable when he’s out there on the floor because he makes it so much easier at both ends,” forward Marvin Williams said.

Williams said there’s a naturalness to Batum’s game, and he’s incredibly unselfish – he’s always looking for the better shot option.

“He likes to make the assist, and he likes to get everyone involved,” Williams said. “I think that is why so many people like playing with him. It’s why I love playing with him.”

And why Clifford views him as irreplaceable.

When Batum went down in the second half of last season with an ankle injury, the Hornets struggled to find their rhythm.

“He’s not a numbers guy to me,” Clifford said. “People can say, `Well, he’s making this or he’s making that (much money),’ but if he plays at the level he played at last year when he was healthy, we have a chance to be a really good team.”

The Hornets continue to work on 5-on-5 scrimmages extensively during practice as Clifford gets a feel for his team.

But there were several key players missing on Thursday.

Point guard Kemba Walker (knee) and center Cody Zeller (knee) remained out of practice while rehabbing from injuries. Guard Jeremy Lamb did not practice after stepping on a basketball and twisting his ankle, while Brian Roberts was held out after injuring his hamstring when he slipped on some water on the court. Clifford said he hopes to have Lamb and Roberts back in a few days.