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Mike D’Antoni’s innovation will lead Rockets to Western Conference Finals

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Let’s rewind the clock for a minute. The year is 2004. Every song on the radio is either an Usher single or a track featuring — you guessed it — Usher. It’s the first season for Mike D’Antoni as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns. And while countless oral histories and even a book would eventually be written about the Seven Seconds or Less era in Phoenix, much of the talk gets caught up in the speed of those Suns teams.

Really, they were all about the 3-point line.

In a league which hadn’t yet caught on to the devastating analytical shift when it came to the 3-point shot, D’Antoni and his staff built a team around scoring from beyond the arc, and quickly. Remember, this is 2004. Stephen Curry just got his driver’s license. “Borat” won’t come out for another two years. Kevin Federline is on the front of magazines. It’s a completely different era.

While their flash of scoring took us by storm, but the Suns scoring from deep is what left a lasting impression on the NBA. During each of his four seasons in Phoenix, D’Antoni’s teams were first in 3-point percentage. They were no lower than fifth in attempts each of those years. What D’Antoni did was set off a chain reaction that is still being felt today, 14 years later. Just look at the NBA in 2018. How many teams do you see today running the break — complete with a thousand drag screens and secondary screens — as their primary offense?

How many do you see shooting 3-pointers at a pace that would make even George Mikan faint?

Right.

D’Antoni was and always has been an innovator. Those Suns teams left an indelible mark on the NBA. But when it came to D’Antoni, the narrative was that Phoenix was an incomplete idea. For all the rosy talk of the SSOL era, at the time it was lambasted as being too gimmicky — all offense and no defense, and because of Robert Horry, an untenable way to win a championship. The tongue-clicking followed D’Antoni after stints with both the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers. Maybe some felt as though the NBA had taken his idea and ran with it, advancing it far past the capabilities of the West Virginia native.

Boy, was that wrong.

D’Antoni is now at the helm of the Houston Rockets, the team sitting atop the Western Conference playoffs and ready to take on the Minnesota Timberwolves. On the precipice of innovation yet again, D’Antoni is a Coach of the Year candidate after mashing two future hall of famers in Chris Paul and James Harden together to form a potent offensive and defensive squad.

Starting the season, many felt both would need the ball too much for the experiment to work. Last year in Houston, the Rockets were the subject of some revelation when Harden made the switch to point guard full-time. Without Blake Griffin or a similar-passing big man to run his “get” action with, Paul’s off-ball movement would be restricted. It just didn’t seem to fit.

Now, of course, we all have egg on our faces. D’Antoni’s adjustments have gone beyond intermingling Harden and Paul at the two guard positions. The team staggers their minutes in a way that’s a nightmare for opposing teams, and D’Antoni doesn’t force either of them to play in each other’s style. Meanwhile, the pick-and-roll action with Clint Capela is devastating, and in both secondary transition and the halfcourt, D’Antoni’s sets to get shooters open like Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, and Trevor Ariza.

It’s that dynamism that has given Houston the edge over their opponents, even if there are some naysayers about their vaunted top-6 defensive rating. The Rockets’ biggest hurdle at this point, especially as they look ahead to the second round and beyond, is the status of Luc Mbah a Moute and Ryan Anderson. Houston’s quick-switching defense is going to miss the versatile wing in Mbah a Moute, who guards four of five positions consistently. Anderson’s shooting will be missed, especially against a squad that defends the 3-point line well in the Timberwolves.

Yes, losing Mbah a Moute is a huge blow to Houston’s chances to get to the NBA Finals. In fact, it’s one of the worst things that could happen to them when viewed in the context of the Golden State Warriors slowly gaining their health. But if we’re going to take the last decade-and-a-half seriously, and consider just how much adaptation and shaping of modern NBA strategy D’Antoni has done, it’s still going to be hard to bet against him.

The Timberwolves just barely scraped their way into the playoffs, and if Houstan can get past Jimmy Butler & Co. it has a real shot at playing either the Utah Jazz, who they swept this year, or the Oklahoma City Thunder, who Harden harbors an unshakable grudge against.

In fact, if Mbah a Moute really is out for up to four weeks, and if Anderson’s ankle continues to nag him, how D’Antoni guides the Rockets toward the Western Conference Finals might be one of the best storylines of his career. There’s serendipity in the father of the modern NBA offense bursting past the competition, swapping rotations and adding wrinkles you didn’t see coming, all with a fully-realized version of what he started some 14 years ago.

Hopefully this time nobody body checks one of D’Antoni’s star point guards into the scorer’s table. At least this time, he’s got two of them.

76ers look dangerous when adjusting for playoff rotations

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Kyrie Irving significantly affected the Celtics’ record this season. Isaiah Thomas held a defining role on the Cavaliers for a while. Tristan Thompson played plenty for Cleveland, too.

But Irving (injured) and Thomas (traded) will have nothing to do with Boston’s and Cleveland’s playoff fortunes. If Thompson falls from the Cavs’ postseason rotation, neither will he.

Yet, any season-long metrics – including win-loss record – commonly used to predict the playoffs factor in those players. So, I’ve found how many points per 100 possessions teams score and allow when five players projected to be in the postseason rotation are on the floor together.

This is hardly a perfect measure. Teams rarely announce their playoff rotations, so we’re left with my predictions of which players will receive regular playing time in the first round. The minutes distribution among players in the adjusted rating can vary from what it’ll be during the playoffs. This doesn’t take into account opponent quality. Some teams have larger samples than others. Home-court advantage is not considered.

But I find it useful, another data point among the many necessary to evaluate the upcoming playoffs. It shows how the players we project to see on the court the next couple weeks have played together, without someone else affecting the chemistry.

Here’s each team’s offensive, defensive and net ratings adjusted from the regular season to counting only lineups that include five players projected to be in the first-round playoff rotation (using nbawowy! to calculate):

Eastern Conference

3. Philadelphia 76ers

  • Offensive rating: 110.6 to 110.1
  • Defensive rating: 106.1 to 99.4
  • Net rating: +4.5 to +10.7

1. Toronto Raptors

  • Offensive rating: 116.1 to 118.5
  • Defensive rating: 107.8 to 108.2
  • Net rating: +8.3 to +10.3

7. Milwaukee Bucks

  • Offensive rating: 111.1 to 116.7
  • Defensive rating: 111.4 to 109.1
  • Net rating: -0.3 to +7.6

4. Cleveland Cavaliers

  • Offensive rating: 115.0 to 116.4
  • Defensive rating: 113.9 to 109.1
  • Net rating: +1.1 to +7.3

8. Washington Wizards

  • Offensive rating: 111.2 to 113.4
  • Defensive rating: 110.6 to 108.1
  • Net rating: +0.6 to +5.3

6. Miami Heat

  • Offensive rating: 108.2 to 112.1
  • Defensive rating: 107.8 to 107.4
  • Net rating: +0.4 to +4.7

5. Indiana Pacers

  • Offensive rating: 111.2 to 111.7
  • Defensive rating: 109.7 to 108.0
  • Net rating: +1.5 to +3.7

2. Boston Celtics

  • Offensive rating: 109.7 to 106.6
  • Defensive rating: 105.9 to 104.1
  • Net rating: +3.8 to +2.5

Western Conference

1. Houston Rockets

  • Offensive rating: 118.0 to 124.3
  • Defensive rating: 109.1 to 112.1
  • Net rating: +8.9 to +12.2

5. Utah Jazz

  • Offensive rating: 109.5 to 111.9
  • Defensive rating: 105.3 to 100.7
  • Net rating: +4.2 to +11.2

6. New Orleans Pelicans

  • Offensive rating: 111.2 to 115.2
  • Defensive rating: 109.7 to 105.3
  • Net rating: +1.5 to +9.9

3. Portland Trail Blazers

  • Offensive rating: 111.2 to 113.6
  • Defensive rating: 108.5 to 108.1
  • Net rating: +2.7 to +5.5

8. Minnesota Timberwolves

  • Offensive rating: 115.1 to 116.5
  • Defensive rating: 112.9 to 111.4
  • Net rating: +2.2 to +5.1

7. San Antonio Spurs

  • Offensive rating: 109.6 to 112.4
  • Defensive rating: 106.5 to 108.1
  • Net rating: +3.1 to +4.3

2. Golden State Warriors

  • Offensive rating: 115.1 to 109.0
  • Defensive rating: 108.6 to 106.7
  • Net rating: +6.5 to +2.3

4. Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Offensive rating: 112.9 to 114.2
  • Defensive rating: 109.3 to 111.9
  • Net rating: +3.6 to +2.3

Observations:

    • The 76ers’ projection doesn’t include Joel Embiid, who expects to miss Game 1 against the Heat. Replace Richaun Holmes with Embiid, and the 76ers’ offensive/defensive/net ratings jump to 116.9/98.6/+18.3. Wow!
    • These rankings could overrate the 76ers, though. Their schedule softened late, after Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli arrived post-buyout. Counting those two in the postseason rotation could skew the sample.
    • Nearly all teams annually see their net rating improve once adjusted for the playoff rotation. This year, three teams get worse with the adjustment. All three – Celtics (Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, Daniel Theis), Warriors (Stephen Curry) and Thunder (Andre Roberson) – are missing key players due to injury.
    • The adjustment pegs four lower seeds ahead of their first-round opponent – Bucks over Celtics, Jazz over Thunder, Pelicans over Trail Blazers, Spurs over Warriors.
    • Utah became a different team once Rudy Gobert got healthy.
    • The Pelicans projected postseason rotation is especially tight. They might need to rely more on lesser players than projected here, lest they risk getting worn down.
    • Whichever team drew depleted Boston was clearly in (relatively) good shape. The Bucks might be the best of the teams – also, Heat and Wizards – that were in the running.
    • I expected the Cavaliers to improve even more with the adjustment. Isaiah Thomas trying to play his way back into form was so destructive for them. Perhaps, LeBron James dialing it up will be enough for them to win the East again.
    • The Rockets’ offense will be awesome. They’ll miss Luc Mbah a Moute defensively.

Report: Rockets’ Luc Mbah a Moute likely out for first round with separated shoulder

Associated Press
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He did it on a dunk.

Midway through the second quarter Tuesday night, Houston’s Luc Mbah a Moute came out and set a high screen for James Harden, got the ball back as the roll man and took it straight down the lane where the Lakers’ help rotation was late. He went up strong past Thomas Bryant, threw it down…

And Mbah a Moute dislocated his shoulder.

Now it looks like he is out for the first round of the playoffs, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Mbah a Moute is a key defender off the bench for the Rockets — the team’s defense if 4.3 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court this season. He’s one of the guys that does the dirty work on the Rockets, letting Harden and Chris Paul shine.

Houston will be able to get through the first round, and frankly the second, without Mbah a Moute. However, against the Warriors in the conference finals (assuming that comes to pass), they will need him.

 

Chris Paul’s game-winning miss helps Rockets end Blazers’ 13-game streak

AP
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Tuesday night at Moda Center was electric. It was a game of switches, both between opposing big men on the pick-and-roll and as the lead batted between the Houston Rockets and the Portland Trail Blazers.

It was all we could have asked for between two of the best teams in the NBA.

The Blazers were aided by a hot start from Al-Farouq Aminu from beyond the arc. The defensive stalwart hit four threes in the first quarter alone for Portland as the Blazers took a four point lead into the second period. Houston, accustomed to playing in Rip City when their arena is at its loudest, wasn’t phased by the atmosphere.

James Harden went off — he finished with 42 points and seven assists — and looked unstoppable. At one point, after nailing a 3-pointer in the first half, Harden turned around and gave the Portland sideline a look. The leading MVP candidate was there to play, and the rain of boos that came down from the 300 level at the Moda only fueled his fire.

On the other side of the court, Portland’s star point guard seemed just off of center. Perhaps it was anticipating the soon-to-be birth of his child or just the stress that comes with upholding a 13-game winning streak, but Damian Lillard‘s aim was poor and he wasn’t as large a factor as he’s been all winter. In fact, both Lillard and C.J. McCollum were quiet on the night. McCollum, the other half of the second-highest scoring duo since the All-Star Break, had just eight points on a night where he shot 4-of-15 from the field.

But the story of these two teams, and why they remain top playoff contenders, is their defense. That showed all night, with the margin between the two staying razor thin until the final seconds. The Blazers’ strategy was to force switches, often getting Moe Harkless, Jusuf Nurkic, or Evan Turner on smaller Rockets players while hoping to either attack the basket or swing the ball after the Rockets’ excellent help defense reacted.

Houston countered brilliantly, often guarding Nurkic with either Luc Mbah a Moute or PJ Tucker as they forced the issue of small ball on Portland. Much of the game rode on the offensive decision-making from Blazers in the post or the ability of the Rockets guards to burn past the likes of Nurkic and Ed Davis off the switch.

Chris Paul was the other factor for Houston — no shock as he loves going against Lillard — especially from beyond the 3-point line. Five of Paul’s six made field goals were from beyond the arc, and he dismantled slower Portland defenders as he snaked, shaked, and flailed his way around pick-and-rolls.

Despite the close play, Houston appeared to have struck a defiant blow when Harden hit a step-back 3-pointer with 1:55 to go, giving the Rockets a nine-point lead. But Portland rallied, with Lillard quickly drawing a three-shot foul to push the Blazers closer. Portland scored twice more in quick succession, and they were once again within striking distance for the win.

The game came down to a final Houston possession with five seconds left as Paul missed long on a floater in the middle of the lane. Miraculously, the ball hit off the back of the iron, out of reach of any Blazers rebounder (although a crafty hold by Paul on Aminu certainly helped).

Houston recovered the rebound, and closed against a heated rival.

Meanwhile the story for both teams at the end of the game was clear: both are for real.

The Rockets, leaders of the West even before the Golden State Warriors were bitten by the injury bug, showed they could come into a hostile environment against a team that badly wanted to win in Portland. Houston’s resolve was clear; while the Blazers never looked unfocused, the Rockets felt like the senior team and the leadership from Harden and Paul was a preview for what we should expect come playoff time. That’s big, especially when you consider Paul’s playoff demons and the hovering expectation that the Warriors are somehow going to come charging back and blow everyone out come spring.

For the Blazers, the sadness of the 13-game streak will linger but for a moment. Portland, who was essentially a .500 team until Christmas, looked like they were ready for showtime. Many of the Blazers’ players, including Nurkic, Aminu, and Harkless, have struggled with inconsistency all season long. But as they took on the Rockets, all three were the ones keeping Portland in it when Lillard and McCollum struggled. I had my doubts about the Blazers perhaps longer than most, but even in defeat Portland’s showing against Houston makes them look like a solid favorite in any first round playoff series they draw, and not just because of seeding.

Houston beat the Blazers, 115-111.

Let’s do this again sometime soon. Say, in mid-May?

Three Things to Know: Anthony Davis is playing like an MVP of late

Associated Press
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Anthony Davis has historic night against Suns, Pelicans win sixth straight. Phoenix’s Devin Booker would have been the star of the game most nights — 40 points on 18 shots, plus 10 rebounds.

Monday night it wasn’t close to enough. Continuing a run of insane play, Anthony Davis went off for 53 points on 29 shots, grabs 18 rebounds, and had five blocked shots.

More importantly, Davis led the Pelicans to a 125-116 win that they needed (their sixth straight) in a tight playoff chase in the West. The Pelicans are up to the five seed as of Tuesday morning (just 1.5 games out of the three seed, but still just two games clear of the nine-seed Clippers and being out of the playoffs in the tight West).

Since Cousins went down Davis has been playing at an MVP level (and will get serious bottom half of the ballot consideration from voters). According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Davis has 196 points and 72 rebounds total in the past five games (39.2/14.4 per game average). The last guy to put up those kinds of numbers in a five-game stretch? Shaquille O’Neal in March 2000.

This run of play by Davis is going to make the All-NBA ballot interesting:

Not so fast with the forward thing, my friend. Davis has been brilliant both of late and all season, but is he having a better season than LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo? The All-NBA ballot is specific: Two guards, two forwards, one center. So far this season, Davis has played 60 percent of his minutes as a forward, 40 as a center, but the center numbers are climbing fast with Cousins out. If voters choose to classify Davis as a forward (and the NBA has some say in this, by whether he’s made available as a center on the voting list), then one of LeBron/Antetokounmpo/Davis gets screwed and pushed back to the second team. If Davis is the first team center (as he was last season), the Joel Embiid gets pushed back to the second team. It’s not going to be an easy call for voters.

2) Rockets recover from a sluggish start, surge to beat Jazz and extend win streak to 13. Houston had one of the tougher back-to-backs in the NBA: The high altitude combo of Denver Sunday night followed by the Utah Jazz the next night.

Didn’t matter, they kept on rolling. Utah had the lead early as the Rockets looked understandably sluggish (and the Jazz are playing well), but Houston found its groove later — Mike D’Antoni went extra small against Rudy Gobert and put Luc Mbah a Moute at center, where he went 7-of-7 and finished with 17 points — and the Rockets won. Their win streak is now at 13 and they remain on top of the Western Conference (one up in the loss column on those pesky Warriors).

James Harden had 26 points on 13 shots, plus pulled down 11 rebounds, and he combined with Chris Paul dominated the game.

Although the best play of the night? Chris Paul tries to dribble the game out in the final seconds, high fives Harden’s mom courtside, and gets called out of bounds because she’s out of bounds.

Utah has dropped two-of-three out of the All-Star break and remains 1.5 games out of the playoffs in the West (but still have the easiest schedule of anyone in the conference the rest of the way).

3) Kawhi Leonard is coming back to the Spurs lineup in March (we think), and that changes everything. After a week of “what is going on with Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs?” questions, and the inevitable “is this the start of a divorce?” speculation, we learn that Leonard is coming back — both to the Spurs now and the court this March (knocking on wood).

Leonard isn’t already all the way back, but after three weeks of meeting with doctors for second opinions in New York (it leaked the team said he was medically cleared, but I have no idea why the team would leak that and damage the relationship), Leonard is going to practice with the team starting soon. The goal is to get on the court in March, play his way into shape, and be ready to go for the playoffs.

If Leonard is back for the playoffs and back to being his MVP-level self, the Spurs just become a much more significant threat in the West. (They’re not a contender, but they will be dangerous and would no longer be the team everybody wants in the first round).

As for the overblown speculation about Leonard’s future and relationship with the Spurs, I can think of 50 million reasons that gets smoothed over. Leonard is eligible to be offered a “designated veteran” supermax extension this summer (the same deal that Stephen Curry and John Wall got). It would mean an extra guaranteed year and as much $50 million more than any other team can offer — no player offered this full deal yet has turned it down, and I doubt Leonard would be the first. Remember, LaMarcus Aldridge came to Gregg Popovich last summer when he demanded a trade, Pop smoothed it over and Aldridge is an All-Star. He will do the same with Leonard.