JR Smith

Already a question, Celtics’ depth issues tested by Hayward injury

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Tonight’s game story was probably always going to be about the Boston Celtics’ wing depth. It still is, I guess, but it reads a lot different now that Gordon Hayward is likely out for the season with a fractured tibia and dislocated left ankle.

Hayward, the biggest free agent prize this offseason, signed with the Celtics over the summer as the team moved in a new direction with Kylie Irving. In doing so, the Celtics leveraged a bit of their wing depth by sending Jae Crowder to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons.

Tuesday’s opening ceremony was supposed to give us a better idea of how the Celtics depth would fare against the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart are slated to be a big part of the Boston playoff hopes this year. So too is Marcus Morris once he returns from a knee injury. Of course, that was when we were sure that Hayward would be anchoring the small forward position.

Now, Hayward is out for an undetermined period of time after suffering a catastrophic injury on that fateful alley-oop attempt against LeBron James. With Hayward went Boston’s hopes of a win as the opening matchup of the series went to the Cavaliers, 102–90, albeit with a bit of late excitement as a Irving took the potential game-tying shot as time expired with James guarding him.

Via Twitter:

So here we are, where we originally anticipated to start but with one less star player accounted for. While the Celtics mounted an impressive third quarter comeback, we still don’t have answers to our questions on the Boston depth chart.

It’s true that we saw some impressive play on Tuesday from the guys that were expected to complement Hayward on the way. Brown led the team with 25 points on 11-of-23 shooting in 40 minutes. Likewise, Smart showed some flashes of defensive brilliance even as he went 0-of-4 from 3-point range. Tatum, always expected to contribute the least in his first season, scored 14 points while grabbing 10 rebounds, an impressive double-double in his opening NBA game.

But this still doesn’t account for the fact that the Celtics were outplayed on the wing. The combination of Crowder and JR Smith for Cleveland proved to be too much for Boston to handle when put on the same floor with James. That is to say nothing of Kevin Love‘s performance, which undoubtedly benefited from the defensive rotational differences for the Celtics with Hayward out.

The Cavaliers outflanked Boston on Tuesday despite starting guards Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade combining for 22 points on 24 shots. Crowder himself shot just 3-of-10 from the field, although his contributions elsewhere were obvious. The Cavaliers were able to punch out Boston even as they suffered from subpar performances from major players. No doubt with more time together both sides will solidify, but now without Hayward the young players on the Celtics will have to do much more.

It will be easier for the likes of Crowder, Wade, and Rose to mold around the best player in the NBA than it is for Boston to find a rotation that gets them into the playoffs. And while one game in October won’t tell the story of the season, we had to get a hint of what the Celtics’ young players would look like against top competition. We still got that, and if there is an upside here for Celtics fans it’s that the development of those young players appears to have sparked a flame that should grow all season.

Make no bones about it, the Celtics still have some good players that should be able to shield the younger ones — especially Tatum — from having to shoulder too much of the load. That’s the kind of thing that can stunt the growth of a player. But that doesn’t mean that Celtics fans can’t be disappointed. It was always going to be a stretch to topple the Cavaliers and LeBron in the East, and without Hayward it will be impossible.

2017 NBA Draft Prospect Profiles: Malik Monk thrived at Kentucky, but does he have NBA star potential?

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There wasn’t a player in college basketball last season that was required viewing in the way that Malik Monk was required viewing.

He had nights where he struggled, as any college freshman does. But when Monk got it going it was unlike anything that we’ve seem in college basketball in quite sometime.

It started with the seven threes that he hit against Michigan State in his first collegiate game against high-major competition. Then there was the 47 point outburst that he had in Kentucky’s win over North Carolina. He scored 31 points in a half in a come-from-behind win over Georgia. He had 30 second half points to lead Kentucky to a win over Florida that just about locked up an SEC title for the Wildcats. Two nights later he had 20 second half points in a win over Vanderbilt in which Kentucky erased a 19 point deficit. He scored at least 20 points in a half six times.

Without question, Monk is an elite shooter and scorer.

But given the lack of diversity in his game and the fact that he is just 6-foot-3 with a short wingspan and narrow frame, is he a good enough shooter that he can rely on carving out on NBA career based on shooting alone? Or will he have to rely on becoming a combo-guard — a scoring point guard — if he wants to pay off on being a potential top five pick?

Height: 6’3″
Weight: 197
Wingspan: 6’3.5″
2016-17 Stats: 19.8 points, 2.3 assists, 2.5 boards, 39.7% 3PT

STRENGTHS: There wasn’t a more explosive scorer in college basketball last season than Malik Monk. When he got into a rhythm, when his confidence was high and he saw a couple of shots go down, he was capable of putting up NBA Jam numbers: Twice he went for 30 points in the second half of a game Kentucky was losing. He had 47 points against National Champions North Carolina in a game in December.

And frankly, there isn’t really anything that he can’t do as a shooter. He’s dangerous in transition, whether he’s spotting up on a wing or leading the break with the ball in his hands. He’s terrific moving without the ball — he has an innate feel for where to slide to create an opening for himself to spot-up on a teammate’s penetration, and he knows how run off of screens. He can score on curls and he can read the defense, fading a screen if a defender tries to go over; 64 percent of his offense in half court settings came when he was spotting up or coming off of a screen.

Monk also understands how to attack close-outs, using pump-fakes and jab-steps and rip-throughs to get into his pull-up jumper, which is dangerous. He makes 43 percent of his off-the-dribble jumpers in the half court, many of which were three-pointers and deep twos. Everyone know about just how athletic he is, but Monk’s footwork is terrific, too — he has the first-step burst and the elevation to 1-2 step into one-dribble pull-ups going either direction. He’s the prototype of what you would call a tough shot maker.

Here’s the proof, and also the weirdest Malik Monk stat: He’s a much better shooter when he’s guarded than when he’s ‘unguarded’. According to Synergy, he shot 43.2 percent and averaged 1.271 points per possession on guarded jumpers, good for the 87th percentile nationally. He shot 36 percent and averaged 1.056 PPP on open jumpers, good for the 41st percentile.

Lastly, Monk just so happens to be a guy that, time and again, hit huge jumpers for the Wildcats. He’s got the clutch gene.

Put simply: I don’t know what there is when it comes to shooting that Monk doesn’t do well, except for, you know, making open shots.

Malik Monk (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

WEAKNESSES: This is where it gets complicated with Monk, because he doesn’t do all that much else to affect a game.

Let’s start with the offensive side of the ball, where roughly 75 percent of Monk’s offensive came in quick actions — transition, spot-ups or running off of screens. Just 10 percent of his offense came in pick-and-roll actions or isolation. Some of that is a result of being the one guy that is capable of shooting in a back court that also includes playmakers De'Aaron Fox and Isaiah Briscoe, but when Monk did have the chance to put the ball on the floor, he was not all that effective getting to the rim or playing through contact once he got there. Monk penetrated looking to pull-up.

He’s capable in pick-and-rolls, but what he does is predictable — he’s either looking to shoot a three if a defender goes under the screen or trying to find the screener for a lob if he rolls or a three if he pops. He’s not throwing pocket passes and he’s not getting all the way to the basket.

This is a concern because Monk is just 6-foot-3 with a 6-foot-4 wingspan and a slight, narrow frame that many not be able to add all that much weight. Put another way, he’s the size of a point guard but still has a long way to go to develop NBA-caliber point guard skills.

He has the quicks to be a good defender when he’s locked in, although he projects as a guy that is only going to be able to guard point guards at the next level. He also developed a bad habit of ball-watching and losing track of his man defensively this past season, and got beaten on straight line drives far too often by guys that have no business beating him to the rim. Monk doesn’t provide much help on the defensive glass, either, and can disappear on the floor when he’s not making shots.

Ironically enough, the knock on Monk coming into college was that he was a streaky shooter, a guy that could make six in a row just as easily as he could go 2-for-18. Some of that was still there at Kentucky — he often let the game come to him, taking over in the second half, and went through a couple of elongated cold stretches late in the year — but for the most part, Monk ran hot for long stretches of time without having too many terrible nights. It’s hard to quibble with a guy that shot basically 40 percent from three while shooting nearly seven per game.

Malik Monk (Kentucky Athletics)

NBA COMPARISON: It’s hard to think of a direct comparison for the player that Monk will be at the next level. Generally speaking, it’s hard for someone that is nothing but a shooter to to carve out a role for himself in the NBA, particularly when that player in the size of an average point guard. It’s a testament to how good Monk is at what he does that he’s being discussed as a potential top five pick.

We can, however, talk about the role that Monk will play, and I think it will end up being somewhere between JR Smith and Lou Williams. Williams is closer to Monk’s size and comes off the bench — I see Monk’s ideal role being as a scorer for a playoff team’s second unit — while Smith, who is 6-foot-6 and a physical specimen, plays more like Monk does, a three-point gunner that is streaky but that can rip off five threes in a half when he gets rolling.

OUTLOOK: I just don’t see Monk being a star at the next level. I don’t think he develops the ability to play the point full time, and given his size and inherent defensive limitations, as an off-guard he likely would need to be teamed in a back court with a point guard that’s big enough to guard NBA wings. There’s a reason that 6-foot-3 scoring guards aren’t all that common in the NBA.

That said, I do think that Monk is good enough at what he does to have a role in the NBA for a long time, and he may actually be the best fit for Philadelphia, who is picking third. With 6-foot-9 Ben Simmons expected to handle point guard duties, it would allow Monk to slide over and defend opposing point guards while providing some much needed floor-spacing. Think about the way that Cleveland uses Kyrie Irving, an unbelievable 1-on-1 scorer with limitations when it comes to defending or creating for others. They play him off the ball, allow the offense to run through LeBron and put Kyrie in a position where all he has to do is what comes naturally to him.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Monk will be Kyrie or that Simmons is the next LeBron, and it would be silly for Philly to use the No. 3 pick on Monk when they can get the likes or Josh Jackson, Lonzo Ball or Jayson Tatum anyway.

But finding a place like that to land, a place where he isn’t going to be asked to do much more than what he’s capable of doing, is where he will be at his best.

J.R. Smith the Cavaliers’ biggest liability

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J.R. Smith got caught behind a screen then lunged at Kevin Durant, fouling the Warriors star as he made a 3-pointer. Less than a minute later, Smith crashed into a screen, trying to guard Stephen Curry beyond the 3-point arc all while Curry actually cut toward the basket. Smith realized his error, closed out on Curry out of control and hacked him.

Now, it seems the only reach might be the Cavaliers playing Smith.

The Warriors attempted or tried to attempt seven shots with Smith as the primary defender in Game 2 (according to NBA.com). They shot 4-for-4 and drew four shooting fouls, including one on Durant’s made 3-pointer.

This wasn’t all Smith’s fault. On his final foul on Curry, Smith picked up the Warriors star only after Kyrie Irving didn’t get back quickly enough on defense.

But Smith took the brunt of the blame. Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue clearly lost faith in Smith, pulling the guard after he fouled Curry early in the third quarter.

Smith played only 14 minutes, including just over two minutes in the second half – among the smallest second-half playing time by a starter in an NBA Finals game since 1997 (as far back as NBA.com tracking goes):

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Several players on that list received reduced minutes due to injury. That’s not known to be the case for Smith.

In fact, a player battling injury – Iman Shumpert – could start over Smith in Game 3 Wednesday.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

Cleveland Cavaliers guard Iman Shumpert experienced cramping in the second half of the Cavs’ 132-113 Game 2 loss to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals on Sunday and required intravenous fluids after the game, a team source told ESPN.

Even with the cramping, Shumpert’s play, coupled with JR Smith‘s disappearing act in the series thus far, has the Cavs considering a lineup change at shooting guard for Game 3, the source said.

The Cavs are desperate for help around LeBron James, who has shouldered a huge load. Smith and Tristan Thompson were most noticeably dragging behind, but even Thompson made a couple decent contributions late in Game 2.

Smith shot 0-for-2 with a turnover, making him offensive nonentity.

As his teammates turned up their defense after a dreadful Game 1, Smith couldn’t keep up. His awful defense blended in during the opener. Last night, it proved to be the weak link in an improved chain.

At -18 in 14 minutes in Game 2, Smith joined a dreadful group: Players whose teams were outscored by at least one point per minute with them on the court in an NBA Finals game. Here’s the full club since 1997 (as far back as Basketball-Reference records go) displayed by plus-minus per 48 minutes:

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Celtics beat Cavaliers at the buzzer on bouncing Avery Bradley 3-pointer (VIDEO)

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There was no Isaiah Thomas on the floor for the Boston Celtics on Sunday, but all that mattered was a bouncing, game-winning 3-pointer by Avery Bradley that left 0.01 left on the clock as the visiting Celtics beat the Cleveland Cavaliers, 111-108.

Boston looked much better as a defensive matchup against Cleveland with Thomas out. LeBron James scored just 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting, adding six rebounds and six assists. Kyrie Irving led the way with 29 points for the Cavaliers, and Kevin Love dropped 28 points including 7-of-13 from 3-point range.

LeBron looked pedestrian all night, unable to affect the game the way he had in the first two contests, where the Cavaliers star seemingly was able to get any shot he wanted. James was stationary on offense in the final three minutes on offense, deferring to his teammates and hanging out by the 3-point line as they tried to operate among themselves.

The Celtics took the lead late, with both teams exchanging shots until the final seconds. Cleveland was able to grab the lead with 10 seconds to go thanks to a wild, slashing drive by Irving.

Then it was Boston’s turn to go to work, and they had an incredible ATO play drawn up to get Bradley a 3-pointer. Of course, it also took JR Smith completely blowing his assignment for this to happen.

Via Twitter:

What does this mean for the series? Not much. It took a herculean effort by the Celtics that will be hard to duplicate for three more wins. Marcus Smart scored 27 points, going 8-of-14 from the field including an eye-popping 7-of-10 from beyond the arc. Bradley added 20 points, and Jae Crowder scored 14 points to go with 11 rebounds.

LeBron had to look terrible and Smart had to have a career game for the Celtics to win it, and even then they only did so as time expired. Watching the game, it may have appeared that James wanted his teammates to help pull them through, and indeed they shot a solid percentage both from the field and from beyond the arc. But their effort wasn’t enough down the stretch to get the win, so I would put my money on the LeBron from Game 1 and 2 returning Tuesday for Game 4.

Video Breakdown: How James Harden leads the NBA in assists

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James Harden is stacking assists like they’re pancakes for the Houston Rockets this year, and perhaps the only player standing between him and the 2017 NBA MVP is Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook. While both have penchant for triple-doubles, it’s Harden’s passing that has taken an eye-popping leap this year and deserves closer examination.

Harden’s per-100 possession passing statistics have gone up about 60 percent over his last two years in Houston, and he’s now averaging nearly 12 dimes per-game as he distributes proportionally to Houston’s rim-rolling big men and myriad 3-point shooters. That’s incredible considering his usage rate has not notably increased.

So how has Harden done this, how has his passing affected the Rockets offense, and is there any possible way to stop him?

Find out by watching this week’s NBA Playbook in the video above or by reading the text version below.

Gravity

It’s no secret Harden is a monster on drives and on the pick-and-roll, and his ability to penetrate and draw defenders around him has been a big part of his success this season.

Houston runs this double screen pick-and-roll play that has a lot of options on it. You’ve got two screeners here at the top, with one set to pop to the arc and one ready to dive hard to the lane.

As Harden rounds the pick, you’ve got all three defenders sliding and looking at Harden. Clint Capela’s body angle shows he’s just going straight for the bucket, and because both Harden and Ryan Anderson are shooters, the Cavaliers decide to play up toward the arc and leave the paint unguarded.

Film study reveals Harden often likes to pass to the corner opposite the direction of his drive. As Harden dribbles on this play, not only does he draw multiple defenders as before, but as Nene takes a purposefully wide roll angle to the hoop, that draws down the defending guard to help out. Eric Gordon is then left with enough space to get himself a 3-pointer.

Transition

Mike D’Antoni’s system has encouraged Harden to get the ball early and make a decision, sometimes passing at the half court line or even earlier.

Here are a couple examples where Harden receives the ball, then makes a decision strikingly early to get the ball out to either Anderson or Trevor Ariza. Teams need to pressure Harden when he’s the main recipient of a defensive rebound, lest he hit his teammates filling the wings.

It’s difficult to guard, happens often, and it’s something to understand about this Rockets offense as it relates to Harden’s success passing.

Rim runners like Capela have a mandate to run as hard as they can and in transition and to the bucket. Likewise, Houston’s shooters have a mandate to get to the wings as fast as they can in transition and go up almost immediately with their shot.

Forward Shooting

Anderson and Ariza have been critical to Harden’s success this year, and some of the plays Houston runs for these two are super fun.

We saw this dive play get Capela a bucket earlier in the video, but the Rockets also use it to get 3-pointers. Here against the Cavaliers, Houston is running it on the sideline, with Capela and Anderson again as the screeners.

Capela dives to the lane and this time takes Tristan Thompson with him — remember last time Cleveland played it high — and LeBron and JR Smith have to stop Harden’s drive to his strong side.

Anderson has to do is fade to the arc.

This is another set the Rockets run with frequency, with a double screen to the corner by the two posts as Ariza comes to the arc. The secondary action comes when Capela then screens down for Anderson as he pops to the 3-point line.

How to Stop Harden

Like with Westbrook, there haven’t been many teams that have been able to stop Harden. However, the Rockets have had a couple of losses where Harden hasn’t notched too many assists, and teams have helped slow Harden’s passing by doing three things:

  • Played extremely soft ICE on the pick and roll with non-shooting Rockets big men, sealing off Harden’s passing lane to the roller.
  • Kept their forwards from digging off Houston’s 3-point shooting front court players.
  • Closed on shooters multiple feet beyond the 3-point line, higher than you’d expect.

For example, in the following two videos, watch the outside defenders stick to Houston’s 3-point shooters to force Harden to try to finish at the rim:

In both plays by the Spurs and the Jazz, none of the wing defenders help to dig down, instead staying on the 3-point shooters on the arc. Some of them don’t even step foot inside the paint, and in fact against Utah Gordon Hayward actually moves slightly toward his own player as Harden drives.

They’d rather give up a well-contested shot at the rim with the two primary defenders than help and leave Houston’s shooters open. They’re betting on themselves being able to stop him with multiple defenders down low than have 3-point attempts go up without pressure.

Put that together with guys like LaMarcus Aldridge closing out hard, playing way higher than he normally would, and you’ve got a way to cull some of Harden’s assists.

But, let’s be honest: not really.

Like with Russell Westbrook, not many teams have been able to stop James Harden. The man is a passing machine, and it will be difficult to chose between him and Russ for the MVP this year.