The Extra Pass: The Wild West, can Portland last, and Sunday’s Recaps

2 Comments

source:

Let’s jump around the Western Conference with a few observations:

Portland: 20 percent of the regular season is in the books, and the Trail Blazers hold the pole position in the Western Conference. It’s a great accomplishment and something absolutely no one expected, but the Blazers should come back down to earth soon enough.

Wesley Matthews is just one of the reasons why this run at the top should be short-lived. Matthews is posting a ridiculous true shooting percentage of 70.5 percent, a number that’s only been reached over a full season (at least 1000 minutes) by Artis Gilmore and Tyson Chandler, who never shot anything that wasn’t from point-blank range.

For context sake, the highest true shooting percentage posted by Ray Allen, unquestionably one of the greatest shooters ever, was 62.4 percent. One would assume that Matthews will become human again at some point this year.

When the offense inevitably slows down a bit, will the defense compensate?

Portland is 20th in defensive efficiency despite their hot start, and there are tough matchups on the horizon. Just in this month, Portland will be tested with games against Indiana, Houston, Miami, LAC and the Thunder twice. Add in three sets of road back-to-backs to that tough slate, and this is probably the last we’ll see of Portland at the top of the standings, even though it’s been one fun ride.

Oklahoma City: It’s pretty clear that Scott Brooks is attached to Kendrick Perkins and that Sam Presti won’t send him to Belize, so maybe it’s time for armchair coaches to take up a new campaign for the Thunder.
While you can understand the desire to have a bigger perimeter defender next to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant so that they can conserve energy for offense, should Thabo Sefolosha really be playing more than Reggie Jackson?

I realize I’m cherry-picking after Jackson’s 11-point fourth quarter explosion against the Timberwolves, but the ball really seems to move better and more spot-up chances seem to be created for Durant and Westbrook’s way with Jackson’s penetration and speed on the floor. Sefolosha is a nice role player, but the ball dies in hands far too often.

According to NBA.com, Oklahoma City has six lineups that have played over 15 minutes together and produced a positive net efficiency rating. Jackson has played in five of those lineups, and the only one he hasn’t played in has been a garbage time unit. Sefolosha, meanwhile, is only in two of those positive net rating lineups.

Jackson is getting around 22 or 23 minutes a night compared to Sefolosha’s 28 minutes, so it’s not a huge deal. The Thunder need Jackson to lead the second unit, and he’s done a nice job of that so far. All that said, keep an eye on what lineups OKC closes games with going forward. We know who Brooks is starting, but the finishing groups could get interesting.

Utah Jazz: They didn’t get as much hate/love for their tanking job, but the Jazz made one clinching move where other franchises messed up: keep a lame duck coach on the bench.

Jeff Hornacek (PHX), Brett Brown (PHI) and Brad Stevens (BOS) have all been able to squeeze varying degrees of production from their teams in their first seasons, but Ty Corbin is just sort of sticking around and really helping the Jazz pull off this Bad News Bears vibe they have going on. Utah can’t possibly see him as the coach of the future, but it doesn’t appear that Corbin is ready to resign. This is organized ugly.

New Orleans: Sad news on Anthony Davis fracturing his hand. He was having a monster season, and now the “injury prone” murmurs will only grow louder, fair or not.

While I like Jrue Holiday, this is precisely the reason you keep your dealt pick lottery protected instead of top-5 protected. Everyone knew what direction 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie wanted to go, so you’d like to think that Dell Demps could have held out for a slightly bigger safety net in the draft day deal that landed Holiday in exchange for a 2014 first round pick. Now Davis is out indefinitely, Tyreke Evans is struggling mightily and sapping up all the future cap space, and a pick that could be in the 8-10 range in slated to go elsewhere.

Losing Davis is unlucky, but everything else was about pushing the chips in far too early.

—D.J. Foster

source:

source:

Nuggets 112, Raptors 98: Nate Robinson was the story here, taking control like we saw him do more than once with the Bulls last season. He scored 18 fourth quarter points on seven shots to put this one in the win column for the Nuggets. Denver’s bigs got whatever they wanted for most of the game, especially Timofey Mozgov and Darrell Arthur who combined for 30 points and 18 rebounds off the bench.

Pacers 105, Clippers 100: The Clippers are not a team that’s particularly deep in terms of overall offensive talent, so losing J.J. Redick and his 15.8 points per game for a while with a fractured hand injury is going to sting. Willie Green got the start in redick’s place against the Pacers, but managed just two points in 15 minutes of action. L.A. battled back from a double digit fourth quarter deficit to tie it and make it a possession-by-possession contest down the stretch, and while the Pacers didn’t hit a field goal in the final 4:25, they did score their final nine points of the game from the free throw line to seal it. With the victory, Indiana improved to a league-best 16-1 on the season.

Pistons 115, Sixers 100: Andre Drummond was absolutely dominant, and made history by finishing with 31 points, 19 rebounds, six steals, and two blocked shots. It’s the first time since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1990 that a player has finished with a stat line like that, and it could have been worse — Drummond played less than 33 minutes because of how out of hand the game was.

Warriors 115, Kings 113: Remember that time Mark Jackson said that Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are the best shooting backcourt combination of all time? It’s games like this one that he was talking about. The pair combined to hit 13 of their team’s 15 three-pointers on the night, with Curry finishing with 36 points and 10 assists while Thompson ended up with 28 points of his own. Sacramento was up to the challenge on this night, however, and had DeMarcus Cousins performing at an unstoppable level in the game’s final minutes. Andrew Bogut blocked a shot from Isaiah Thomas at the rim in the closing seconds to seal the win for the Warriors, while the Kings fell to just 4-11 on the season.

Heat 99, Bobcats 98: Charlotte had a legitimate chance to get this victory in theory, taking a 12-point lead into the fourth quarter and leading by 11 with under 7:30 to play. In the least surprising news of the day, Miami rallied to make a game of it, and then Chris Bosh gave the Heat the lead by hitting three straight shots from three-point distance. Kemba Walker was huge for Charlotte and finished with a game-high 27 points, but Miami’s experience simply won out over the game’s final few possessions.

Thunder 113, Timberwolves 103: Not to be outdone by Andre Drummond, Kevin Durant finished this victory with an historic stat line of his own, and it was somehow even more ridiculous than the one put up by the big man of the Pistons. Durant’s triple double of 32 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists, four steals and four blocked shots hasn’t been done by anyone since 1985, via Royce Young. Durant awesomeness aside, OKC turned the pressure up defensively in the fourth, and held the Timberwolves to just 26.1 percent shooting in the final period while outscoring their opponent 35-20 to seal it.

Pelicans 103, Knicks 99: This seemed to be a prime opportunity for the Knicks to snap their eight-game losing streak, but even after Anthony Davis went out with a broken hand injury, the team couldn’t come up with enough key plays late to prevent it from reaching nine. New Orleans put together a 10-0 run that lasted almost four minutes to take a five-point lead with 2:30 to play, and while the Knicks had their chances, they couldn’t execute or get any ket shots to fall in the closing moments. New York got a bit of a bright spot with the performance of rookie Tim Hardaway Jr., who came off the bench to score 21 points on 10 shots in under 25 minutes of action. The Knicks have a few days to try to figure things out, and will try to avoid losing their 10th straight game when they head to Brooklyn on Thursday to face the Nets.

Trail Blazers 114, Lakers 108: This win makes the Blazers 14-3 and the No. 1 seed in the West right now. Didn’t see that coming. You have to give the Lakers this: They are resiliant. They fight back and do not give up. Portland raced out to a 21-4 lead but the Lakers clawed back to make it a three-point game at the half. Portland’s ball movement was great in the third quarter and they put up 41 points, then the Lakers stormed back behind Xavier Henry (11 in the fourth quarter, 27 for the game) to get within one in the fourth quarter but it just wasn’t enough. LaMarcus Aldridge had 27, Damian Lillard 26 for Portland.

Chris Paul out for Rockets-Warriors Game 6

Leave a comment

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’

3 Comments

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’

1 Comment

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:

image

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
5 Comments

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.