The Extra Pass: Three takeaways and Wednesday’s recaps

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Three takeaways from a busy Wednesday night around the league:

It was Paul George, in the Garden, with the dagger

It’s a crazy thing to watch an entire arena lose all hope, all at once. The Knicks were well on their way to a statement win over the Indiana Pacers. Maybe it could have been a rallying point for the rest of the season, a moment to build up some confidence without Tyson Chandler, however irrational that may have been.

But that didn’t happen. Even before Paul George calmly sank three straight free throws to tie the game in regulation, and even before Carmelo Anthony missed his chance to win the game at the buzzer, you just knew. You knew when that whistle blew, and so did the crowd at Madison Square Garden.

Each jumper George stuck in overtime felt like a punishment for believing anything else to be true. In another world, a close loss to one of the best teams in the league after a questionable whistle could be construed as a moral victory, but in New York? It’s just more proof that the sky is indeed falling.

When the gavel swings too quickly

Monta Ellis has always been a target for criticism, whether it be because of mopeds, “having it all” or just his general lack of self-awareness.

Over the years, Ellis has become a popular pinata for both the stats crowd (look at his efficiency, not his raw totals!) and the people who watched him gamble defensively and take ill-advised shots again and again. There was no better way to make any hardcore NBA fan roll his eyes than to say, “I think Monta Ellis is a good player.”

So let me say it now: I think Monta Ellis is a good player. Is he a complete player? Far from it. But anyone feeling like Ellis has turned a new leaf and been a total revelation for the Dallas Mavericks probably never gave Ellis a fair chance in the first place. Yes, he’s scoring more efficiently this year, but Ellis has always been a pretty good passer and playmaker in the pick-and-roll, which are skills a lot of folks think Ellis never had or neglected to use.

It doesn’t match the narrative, but Ellis’ usage rate is up and his assist rate is down this year compared to last year. But with better players around him, a real point guard, a real coach and a scoring threat in Dirk Nowitzki in the pick-and-pop, Ellis looks drastically improved, even though he hasn’t changed much of what he does at all.

Does Ellis have weaknesses in his game? Absolutely, but one of the nicest things about his role in Dallas is that it’s becoming okay to talk and appreciate him for his strengths (shot creation, transition play, penetration) once again. People generally love imperfect things, so long as they aren’t being taken too seriously. I enjoy Ellis like I enjoy pro wrestling, and I’m not ashamed to admit that. Okay, I’m a little ashamed. Let’s just move on.

Oh no, Oladipo?

Eight turnovers is a lot of turnovers, even against a swarming defense like Miami’s. The fact that Oladipo is averaging four turnovers a games this year might make a lot of folks uneasy, but here’s why that isn’t the worst thing.

Check out this list. Here are the names players in their first, second or third years in the league who averaged more than 20 minutes and four turnovers per game with a usage percentage over 25%:

Dwyane Wade, Isiah Thomas, Ron Harper, Allen Iverson, Gilbert Arenas, Jim Jackson, Victor Oladipo.

Young players willing to take risks at an early stage are usually more likely to become potent scorers and playmakers down the line. Oladipo’s aggression bodes well for his future, even if his stat lines instinctively make you scrunch your face up like you just accidentally ate something with peas. Thanks for nothing, peas.

It’s Oldaipo’s ballhandling that needs improvement more than anything else, and his decision-making shouldn’t be obsessed over. He’s getting to spots on the floor where good things usually happen, even though they aren’t right now. It will come in due time.

– D.J. Foster

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Mavs coach Rick Carlisle channels his inner Gregg Popovich:

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Bobcats 95, Nets 91: Brooklyn came out with Deron Williams back in the first half and their offense was a little improved — but their defense still wasn’t. This was a close game through the first half but the Bobcats went on a 13-0 run early in the third quarter behind Kemba Walker (13 points in the third and 31 on the night) and that proved the separation the Nets could not make up. Nice night for Andray Blatche — 25 points on 11-of-14 shooting. Also, Deron Williams tweaked his ankle in the second quarter and did not return, which is not good for a 3-8 team. The Bobcats actually got off to a faster start last season (6-6 this season, 7-5 last season) but this start feels more sustainable, in part because of their defense)

Wizards 98, Cavaliers 91: The Wizards went on a 25-8 first quarter run, in part thanks to Bradley Beal scoring 9 points in the first — which was how many points all the Cavaliers starters had in the first half. The Wizards looked like they would run away with this and led comfortably into the fourth. Then Kyrie Irving happened — he had 18 points in the fourth quarter and made it a game. It just wasn’t enough. Beal finished with 26 but played some sloppy ball down the stretch; Nene added 20 for the Wizards.

Pacers 103, Knicks 96 (OT): New York opened the game on a 13-0 run and held Indiana to 25 percent shooting in the first quarter. But as the game moved on the Pacers defense wore the Knicks down (New York shot 40.9 percent in the paint, thanks to Roy Hibbert) and Paul George pushed back — he finished with 35 points on 26 shots and he took over at the end, going 7-of-11 in the fourth quarter and overtime. The game went to overtime because with New York up three and 5.2 seconds left Iman Shumpert fouled George on a three point attempt — a borderline call, but he touched his elbow — and George sank the free throws. Carmelo Anthony had 30 points on 28 shots and worked his way to 18 rebounds (9 offensive). But while George was hot late Anthony was 3-of-14 in the second half and overtime.

Heat 120, Magic 92: Miami opened the game on 16-0 run — Miami started out shooting 6-of-6 which included a couple of threes and a LeBron James spinning layup, while Magic went 0-of-6. This game was never close. LeBron had 21 points on 11 shots, Chris Bosh was a +27, James Jomes had 17 points on 8 shots. Orlando go a great game from Arron Afflalo, who had 30 points as Miami kept inexplicably leaving him open so he hit 7-of-9 from three.

Raptors 108, Sixers 98: Toronto had 24 assists on 36 made baskets — for them that is a minor miracle. Toronto can just be a team of guys trying to beat you in isolation but they shared the ball on Wednesday and they looked much better for it, winning comfortably. DeMar DeRozan had 33 points on 19 shots. Michael Carter-Williams was back for Philly but looked rusty (2-of-10 shooting) while Spencer Hawes continues to look good (28 points).

Hawks 93, Pistons 85: Everything that has been wrong with Detroit this season seemed to be on display in this one: Josh Smith tried to do too much in his return to Atlanta and was 5-of-15 shooting, the Hawks shot 70 percent in the restricted area (despite the Pistons’ big front line) and better than 50 percent overall, and Paul Millsap had 19 points despite having the bigger Greg Monroe on him most of the night. Brandon Jennings had 21 points but needed 21 points to get there for Detroit.

Trail Blazers 91, Bucks 82: This one makes eight wins in a row for the Blazers. It wasn’t pretty — the winning team shot 40.7 percent from the field — but Portland will take it on the road. Let’s sum this game up this way: LaMarcus Aldridge led the Trail Blazers with 21 points but needed 22 shots to do that; Luke Ridnour led the Bucks with 13 points but needed 14 shots to do that.

Clippers 102, Timberwolves 98: Chris Paul got Los Angeles this win — he had 4 points in the first 42 minutes, then took over the last half of the fourth quarter scoring 16 points in six minutes, holding off a late run from Minnesota. CP3 finished with 20 points and 11 assists, making it 12 point-assist double-doubles to start the season, breaking Magic Johnson’s record of 11. The other key to this game was it was not Kevin Love’s night — he shot 2-of-14 and while he had a double-double of his own (10 points, 12 boards) he didn’t dominate.

Pelicans 105, Jazz 98: This was a pretty tight game most of the way until a 14-2 New Orleans run in the fourth quarter gave them some breathing room. Anthony Davis had another impressive line — 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting, 9 rebounds and 8 blocks. Ryan Anderson had 11 of his 19 in the fourth quarter (tell me again why they are gong to trade him?). Enes Kanter had 19 points on 13 shots, while Gordon Hayward had a VERY rough night shooting 1-of-17.

Spurs 104, Celtics 93: How did you expect this one to turn out? Exactly, pretty much like this. Six Spurs in double figures, none with gaudy numbers (Tony Parker led the way with 19). Just another Spurs win. Nothing to see here, move along.

Kings 113, Suns 106: Sacramento swept a home-and-home with Phoenix, and they did it with just a better all-around effort on the second night of the back-to-back. Isaiah Thomas was in his usual attack mode and led the way with 23 points and 4 assists. It was a fairly close first half (tied after one quarter, 5 point Kings lead at half) but Sacramento started to pull away in the third with an 11-0 run, fueled in part by an efficient night from forwards Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Jason Thompson, who combined had 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting. But in the fourth Goran Dragic (18 points in the quarter, 31 for the game) and P.J. Tucker (12 in the quarter) made it entertaining — the Suns put up 44 in the final frame. But the Kings put up 39 behind 11 from Thomas and held on for the win.

Mavericks 123, Rockets 120: Houston seemed in control — up 18 midway through the third quarter, 14 at the start of the fourth, with Dwight Howard having his best game as a Rocket (he started 11-of-11 from the field and already had first 27 of his eventual 33 points). Then the fourth quarter happened. Dallas shot 73.7 percent in the fourth, with Dirk Nowitzki putting up 14 points in the frame, Monta Ellis 8 and Jose Calderon 7. Meanwhile the Rockets shot just 26 percent. James Harden and Howard were a combined 2-of-10 in the frame. Dallas did everything right, seemed to hit every shot, won the quarter 36-19 and the game. That’s a comeback Dallas can build a little momentum on.

Grizzlies 88, Warriors 81 (OT): Memphis won this with their defense. They held a Golden State team that on the season shoots 44.9 percent from three to 27.8 percent, a team that averages 19.7 free throw attempts a game to 8, a team that averages 104.3 points per 100 possessions to 86.6. The Warriors had 37 points in the second half and overtime. And this was in Golden State. The Warriors were in control of the first half but Memphis had a 17-2 run early in the third to make it a game but could not pull away. Then they got five big points from Mike Conley in OT (he had 19 on the night) and pulled away. Zach Randolph had 21 points, Marc Gasol 21 points and 12 boards. Klay Thompson had 21 points but Golden State missed Stephen Curry’s shooting and shot creation in this one.

Chris Paul out for Rockets-Warriors Game 6

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The Rockets bought themselves margin for error by earning home-court advantage and taking a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference finals.

They’ll need it.

Chris Paul will miss Game 6 against the Warriors tomorrow with a strained hamstring.

Rockets release:

The Houston Rockets announced today that guard Chris Paul will miss Saturday’s game at Golden State with a right hamstring strain that occurred during the fourth quarter of last night’s game against the Warriors. He will be re-evaluated after the team returns to Houston.

Golden State was already heavily favored at home. This will tilt the odds even further in its favor.

But the Rockets aren’t completely incapable without Paul. They went 15-9 without him this season. James Harden and Eric Gordon can assume extra playmaking duty.

Still, this is a massive loss. When Harden is overburdened offensively, his defense suffers. Gordon is already playing a lot of minutes, so greater responsibility will come in role, not playing time. To fill Paul’s minutes, Mike D’Antoni will have to expand a rotation he had masterfully tightened. Gerald Green could play more. Luc Mbah a Moute could return to the rotation.

A Game 7 looks increasingly likely. Will Paul return for that? The 2018 NBA title might hinge on that question.

Given how quickly the Rockets announced Paul would miss Game 6, there isn’t much reason for optimism about Paul’s availability three days from now, either.

Report: Chris Paul’s hamstring injury ‘not good’

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The question looming over the Western Conference finals: How is Chris Paul?

The Rockets revealed little last night about Paul’s hamstring injury. Time to see how his body responded would provide clarity.

Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

That stinks. It’s also a fairly expected development. Paul appeared to be in rough shape before leaving the court.

The Rockets have bought themselves margin for error, but a sidelined or even hobbled Paul would sap a lot of it.

If Paul can’t play in Game 6 tomorrow, expect Eric Gordon and James Harden to receive a larger offensive roles (though not necessarily more minutes). Gerald Green could play more, and maybe Luc Mbah a Moute gets back into the rotation.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr: ‘I feel great about where we are right now. That may sound crazy’

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The Rockets beat the Warriors in a pivotal Game 5 last night, taking a clear upper hand in the Western Conference finals.

Unless you ask Golden State coach Steve Kerr.

Kerr:

I feel great about where we are right now. That may sound crazy, but I feel it. I know exactly what I’m seeing out there, and we defended them beautifully tonight. We got everything we needed. Just too many turnovers, too many reaches, and if we settle down a little bit, we’re going to be in really good shape.

It could be argued Golden State is outplaying the Houston overall. The Warriors have outscored the Rockets by 25 in the series. A couple different breaks in Houston’s three-point Game 4 win and four-point Game 5 win, and Golden State might be up 3-2 or even have won the series already.

Plus, Chris Paul is injured. Whether Paul misses games or is just slowed, that favors the Warriors.

But it’s not an indisputable fact Golden State is outplaying Houston. The Rockets missed a lot of open 3-pointers last night, and I wouldn’t credit the Warriors defense for that. Houston is controlling the style of play. And I don’t think the Warriors can divorce their good shots from the turnovers Kerr believes can be eliminated by just settling down. To generate good shots against the Rockets’ switching defense, Golden State must run a high-degree-of-difficulty set of actions – mixing in slipped and set screens, cuts in different directions and risky passes. Reducing exposure to turnovers would just lead to the isolation game Kerr wants to avoid.

More importantly, the Warriors are down 3-2. Even if they’re playing slightly better than Houston, winning two straight games is very difficult in this situation. The series won’t be decided by which team outplays the other over the next two games. Golden State advances only if it wins both.

This is the 182nd time a team has trailed a best-of-seven series 3-2 with a Game 6 at home and a theoretical Game 7 on the road. The trailing team has won the series just 8% of the time. In fact, the trailing team has usually lost in Game 6.

The history of the Warriors’ situation:

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The list of teams to come back is so short, we can present the entirety of it:

  • Cleveland Cavaliers over Golden State Warriors in 2016 Finals
  • Brooklyn Nets over Toronto Raptors in 2014 first round
  • Orlando Magic over Boston Celtics in 2009 second round
  • San Antonio Spurs over New Orleans Hornets in 2008 second round
  • Utah Jazz over Houston Rockets in 2007 first round
  • Detroit Pistons over Miami Heat in 2005 conference finals
  • Los Angeles Lakers over Sacramento Kings in 2002 conference finals
  • New York Knicks over Miami Heat in 2000 second round
  • Houston Rockets over Phoenix Suns in 1995 second round
  • Washington Bullets over Seattle SuperSonics in 1978 NBA Finals
  • Phoenix Suns over Golden State Warriors in 1976 conference finals
  • Baltimore Bullets over New York Knicks in 1971 conference finals
  • Boston Celtics over Los Angeles Lakers in 1969 NBA Finals
  • Boston Celtics over Philadelphia 76ers in 1968 division finals
  • Philadelphia Warriors over St. Louis Bombers in 1948 BAA semifinals

This isn’t so much about holding home-court advantage. It’s that the team with home-court advantage got it by being superior throughout the regular season.* Even if we all know Golden State coasted during the regular season and is much better than its 58-24 record, the Rockets proved themselves to be darn good, too.

*Though the Cavaliers and Celtics also fit this scenario, I don’t find the history of similar series nearly as telling for the Eastern Conference finals. Without Kyrie Irving, Boston isn’t the same team that secured home-court advantage with its strong regular-season play.

Maybe the Warriors will win the series. They’re arguably the most talented team of all-time.

But even if we grant Kerr’s implication that they’re outplaying Houston, that’s not nearly enough to consider it likely they’ll win two straight games before the Rockets win one.

2018 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Just how concerned should we be about Deandre Ayton’s defensive issues?

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
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I still remember the first time that I realized just how good of a prospect DeAndre Ayton is.

It was at Peach Jam, the finals of Nike’s EYBL circuit, back in 2016, and all of high school basketball’s best big men were at the event. Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Mitchell Robinson, Mo Bamba. And Ayton, going head-to-head with just about all of them, came out the winner, in the box score if not on the scoreboard.

But there was one play that stood out to me. Ayton, running with a full head of steam in transition, caught a pass and, as a defender stepped in front of him to take a charge, he euro-stepped around him, avoiding the charge and finishing at the rim.

Humans that are his size are not supposed to be able to move like that, and if they are, they shouldn’t be allowed to have his shooting touch as well.

And therein lies what makes Ayton such an intriguing player.

He has the size. He has the length. He has the athleticism, explosiveness, fluidity and mobility. He can space the floor and, in theory, both protect the rim and handle his own if forced to guard on the perimeter.

In theory, Ayton is the total package and an ideal five for the modern NBA.

Whether or not he will live up to his considerable potential is a different story.

HEIGHT: 7-foot-0.5
WEIGHT: 261
WINGSPAN: 7-foot-5
2017-18 STATS: 20.1 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 1.9 bpg, 61.2/34.3/73.3
DRAFT RANGE: Top 3

STRENGTHS

Any discussion about what Ayton does well must start with his physical gifts. He’s a shade over 7-feet tall with a wingspan that has been measured at 7-foot-5. He’s 261 pounds and has an NBA-ready body and a frame that can handle the muscle he’s amassed. He’s a ridiculous athlete given his size — his explosiveness his fluidity, his mobility, the way he can move his feet.

Given his tools, he is everything that you would look for if designing a small-ball five for the modern NBA.

And the skill-set is there, too.

Let’s start with the offensive end of the floor, where Ayton can just about do anything. He was one of college basketball’s best post scorers — 1.052 PPP, according to Synergy, a company that logs per-possession statistics. While that isn’t always the best way to measure a big man’s transition to the NBA, the simple fact is that Ayton is going to be bigger and stronger than many of the fives that he’ll see at the NBA level. That adjustment will be easier for him, and the fact that he has a fairly advanced set of moves and impressive footwork on the block certainly helps as well.

His length and athleticism will also make him an effective lob target in the halfcourt, and while his numbers as a roll-man at Arizona weren’t all that impressive, that likely had as much to do with Arizona’s massive spacing issues as anything else. There’s virtually no chance that a player with his tools will be ineffective as a roller, but what makes Ayton so intriguing is that he can shoot it, too. He shot 34.3 percent from three on the season (just 35 attempts) and was somewhere around average as a jump-shooter as a whole, but his 73.3 percent clip from the foul line and a stroke that looks like it isn’t a fluke make it easy to see him being a capable NBA perimeter shooter.

Throw in that he’s a monster on the glass, and the total package is there.

He’s a franchise center in every sense of the word, but the concern with Ayton is that he may not actually want to be a “center”.

WEAKNESSES

Given his physical tools, Ayton has always been a disappointment on the defensive end of the floor, and the question that the organization that drafts him is going to have to answer is ‘why’. Is he a lazy defender? Does he lack defensive instincts because he’s never been coached? Will he only defend when motivated? Does he even want to be a center?

We’ll start with the latter, because that might be the most intriguing part of all of this. Ayton considers himself a power forward. On Arizona’s team roster, Ayton — the tallest member of the team — is listed as a forward while Dusan Ristic is listed as a center and 6-foot-10 Chase Jeter is classified as a forward/center. It’s been this way for Ayton for years, and it’s probably not a coincidence that Ayton spent the entire season playing alongside Ristic (and out of position) despite the fact that it torpedoed Sean Miller’s typically-vaunted defense.

Put another way, while Ayton is so perfect as a positionless five offensively he seems to have no desire to play that role on defense, even if it is his ticket to NBA superstardom.

That may belie the bigger point: Is Ayton just a bad defender?

In theory, he should be an elite rim protector, right? Take a look at the block rates of some recent top ten picks:

That’s concerning, particularly because Ayton’s physical profile is far closer to that of the top three on that list than Kaminsky and Okafor.

The other issue is that, while Ayton can move laterally and is willing to sit in a stance and guard on the perimeter, he simply is not someone that you can ask to spend 36 minutes a night guarding big wings. You want him as your five, guarding on the perimeter when switches make it necessary. We saw that in Arizona’s first round loss to Buffalo in the 2018 NCAA tournament, when the Bulls used a four-guard look and let their “power forward” — a 6-foot-7 scoring guard named Jeremy Harris — give Ayton that work:

Arizona was a flawed basketball team last season. They didn’t have the floor spacing to let Ayton dominate the paint against smaller teams, and they refused to play Ayton at the five, which is what led to dreadful performances against Buffalo in the tournament and against the likes of N.C. State, SMU and Purdue in the Bahamas.

Then there were the team issues that the Wildcats had defensively. Playing Ristic and Ayton together was never going to lead to defensive success on a team that has below-average perimeter defenders, and those issues manifested themselves early and often, as I documented here.

Ayton was hardly blameless in that, but he improved throughout the year, particularly in his ball-screens coverages. That leads me to believe that there is a chance that some of his issues on that end can be solved as he continues to be coached up.

That said, his issues as a rim protector and the fact that he went for long stretches where he seemed to have no interest in actually playing the five played as big of a role in those problems as anything.

NBA COMPARISON

It’s tough to find a direct comparison for Ayton. Physically, he profiles more or less the same as Steven Adams, Joel Embiid and Greg Oden. Ayton is much more skilled offensively than Adams. He’s not quite at the level of Embiid offensively, and both players are, defensively, what Ayton should be if it all comes together for him.

OUTLOOK

The truth is that, for Ayton, it all comes down to whether or not he decides he wants to be great.

If he does, I don’t think it’s out of the question to say that he could end up being a Hall of Famer, maybe one of the 15 or 20 greatest to play the game. Imagine Embiid without limits on his minutes or the number of games that he is allowed to play.

But that assumes that Ayton will put in the work to become something that borders on unstoppable offensively. That also assumes that he will, like Embiid, become one of the NBA’s dominant defensive forces, and that is far from a guarantee. Defense for someone with the physical tools that Ayton has is about want-to, and I think it’s pretty clear he didn’t “want-to” be great on that end of the floor as a freshman or as a high schooler.

In the end, that’s been the knock on Ayton his entire career. When he has been challenged — at that 2016 Peach Jam, when he arrived at Arizona — he absolutely dominated. When he did not feel like playing — like the first round blowout loss at the hands of Buffalo — he looked like a shell of himself, and it’s not hard to think about the grind of an 82-game season playing on a team that was bad enough to end up at the top of the lottery and wonder where the motivation to be great on a nightly basis is going to come from.

The good news for whoever ends up taking Ayton is that his floor is high. It will be quite impressive if Ayton somehow doesn’t turn into a guy that spends a decade or more in the NBA, posting something similar to Adams’ 13.9 points, 9.0 boards and 1.0 blocks. The bad news is that, in my mind, there’s a higher-than-you’d-like chance that Ayton ends up being closer to his floor than his ceiling.