The Extra Pass: The league’s leading lineups; plus Tuesday’s recaps

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After watching two of the league’s best starting lineups duke it out in Indiana, let’s check in on the best and worst lineups around the league so far this season.

Best Net Efficiency Rating (minimum 150 minutes)

Houston: Patrick Beverley-James Harden-Chandler Parsons-Terrence Jones-Dwight Howard

Net efficiency is the difference between a team’s offensive rating and their defensive rating.

The Pacers or Heat are usually a safe bet to be in the pole position all year, but the league’s best net offensive/defensive efficiency mark actually belongs to a lineup no one saw coming.

After the experiment with Omer Asik failed and Jeremy Lin went down with an injury, this lineup has led way for Houston and put up a net rating of +23.3 this season, a differential that’s nearly double what the fourth best lineup (Portland’s starters) has posted this season.

Supplementing the core talent with athletic defenders in Beverley and Jones has paid dividends defensively, but it hasn’t sacrificed spacing on the other end. Houston may be tempted to turn Asik into a legitimate power forward or upgrade at point guard, but the production this group is providing is hard to walk away from.

Worst Net Efficiency Rating (minimum 150 minutes)

Oklahoma City: Russell Westbrook-Thabo Sefolosha-Kevin Durant-Serge Ibaka-Kendrick Perkins

Shocking, right? Oklahoma City’s starting lineup for the last three years has laid an egg out of the gates and simply can’t score. This group’s offensive rating of 93.1 would rank dead last in the NBA, and the net rating of -10.2 isn’t a whole lot better.

History would indicate two things will happen here, though.

The first is that this number should improve a great deal, as this very same lineup posted a net rating of +12.3 last season.

Secondly, you can bet that Scott Brooks will stay with it for extended minutes, even if he has preferred to close games with Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb as of late.

League’s Fastest Lineup (minimum 150 minutes)

Minnesota: Ricky Rubio-Kevin Martin-Corey Brewer-Kevin Love-Nikola Pekovic

Minnesota’s starting lineup is playing at a ridiculously fast pace of 102.8. How? Pairing the league’s best outlet passer with a player constantly leaking out on the break doesn’t hurt:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59NLCh70Oy0&w=560&h=315]

Best Shooting Lineup (minimum 150 minutes)

Golden State: Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson-Andre Iguodala-David Lee-Andrew Bogut

Anytime the phrase “best shooting” is uttered, you can be sure the splash brothers are involved. Curry and Thompson obviously carry this lineup, but Iguodala’s incredibly efficient start to the season took this group to another level.

This lineup’s true shooting percentage of 63.6 percent blows everyone else out of the water, as the second place team (Houston’s aforementioned lineup) is four percentage points worse.

Watch out for the Warriors once Iguodala recovers. With Harrison Barnes playing in place of Iguodala, Golden State has posted a net rating of -7.4 and has dropped in true shooting eight full percentage points. He’s critical on both ends for them.

D.J. Foster

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Take a second to look at how small the ball looks in the hands of Bucks’ rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo.

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Cavaliers 109, Knicks 94: New York followed up its horrific 41-point home loss to Boston by falling behind by 18 points in the first quarter in this one. At least they did battle back to close the gap before ultimately getting down big again, and for a team with so few positives to lean on this season, a competitive streak could be something to lean on. Staying positive, Carmelo Anthony finished with 29 points on 12-of-19 shooting, and Amar’e Stoudemire had 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting in just 27 minutes. But allowing Kyrie Irving to drop 37 points in 36 minutes, while seeing Jarrett Jack score 17 points on eight shots was too much on the road, so New York fell to a record of 5-15 on the season. —Brett Pollakoff

Pacers 90, Heat 84: Indiana trailed early, but Paul George and Roy Hibbert came alive in the second half to ensure a Pacers victory. Indiana treated this game like it mattered while Miami simply viewed it as one of many on the long road back to the playoffs, but this Pacers team causes real matchup problems for the Heat. Miami has more than four months before the postseason begins, however, to figure things out. —BP

Spurs 116, Raptors 103: Jeff Ayres started in place of the injured Tiago Splitter for the Spurs, but it was Aron Baynes who provided the big man performance that San Antonio needed to push through. Baynes finished with 14 points and six rebounds on 7-of-9 shooting in less than 21 minutes to help San Antonio overcome an early deficit of 14 points. The Spurs shot 54.9 percent from the field and 56.5 percent from three-point distance in compiling their 116 points, yet no single player managed to score more than 16 points — in other words, it was a perfectly balanced attack from one of the top teams in the game. —BP

Nets 104, Celtics 96: Paul Pierce faced his former team for the first time, but did so coming off the bench in his first game back after suffering a broken hand injury five games ago. He finished with an uncharacteristically effective line of four points, seven rebounds and three assists in 22 minutes as a reserve, while Deron Williams and his return was much more important to the game’s ultimate result. Williams finished with 25 points and seven assists as the Nets won their second straight to improve to 7-14 on the season. —BP

Thunder 101, Hawks 92: OKC held Atlanta to 35.6 percent shooting for the game, and used a 27-18 second quarter run to gain the separation needed to finish the game with a comfortable margin. Kevin Durant finished with 30 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, and Russell Westbrook ended up with 14 points, 11 assists and four steals in the victory that sent the Thunder to a record of 16-4 on the season. —BP

Timberwolves 121, Pistons 94: This was close until midway through the second quarter when Minnesota went on a 21-5 run sparked by Kevin Martin, who had 12 of his 18 in that period. Minnesota ran away from there and the starters basically got to rest the fourth quarter. Kevin Love put up a monster 26 point, 17 rebound line in just 30 minutes. However, the real key to Minnesota’s run was them getting to the free throw line 33 times, hitting 28. Brandon Jennings led the Pistons with 20 points, but basically none of the Detroit starters played well. —Kurt Helin

Bucks 78, Bulls 74: No Derrick Rose, no Luol Deng, no Joakim Noah, no Jimmy Butler — no offense and no win for the Bulls. Milwaukee’s John Henson was the best player on the floor scoring 25 points with a variety of shots (he’s got a nice lefty jump hook) and pulling down 14 boards. Chicago, with few options on offense, tried to go to Carlos Boozer late but on a key play late Henson stripped him. Mike Dunleavy outscored the Bucks 18-15 in the second quarter (he finished with 24). This was an ugly game, let us never speak of it again. —KH

Suns 114, Lakers 108: Kobe Bryant looked better — he had a team high 20 points and switched up his game to get the ball either in the post or at the elbow most of the time, which allowed him to work closer to the basket. The Laker offense worked better — but their defense was a mess. The Suns guard tandem of Goran Dragic (31 points) and Eric Bledsoe (18 points, 9 assists) did what they wanted, which included feeding Marcus Morris who added 22 points. The Suns know who they are right now, the Lakers are clearly figuring that out and now have to do it on a tough four-game road trip. —KH

Erik Spoelstra says it’s “a joke” Jimmy Butler is not an All-Star starter

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Jimmy Butler will be an All-Star when the game tips off in Chicago Feb. 16.

He just will be coming off the bench (to be voted on by the coaches), not starting, and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra says that’s “a joke.”

Spoelstra’s point is a good one: Is Butler a guard or a forward? Butler could only be voted on as a forward, but the Heat coach he sees Butler as the teams starting two guard, and in today’s positionless NBA should we define players this way at all? Here is what Spoelstra said, via Nick Friedell of ESPN:

“I just think it’s ridiculous that we’re still in these antiquated positions,” Spoelstra said… “So who’s to say what position Jimmy is? Does it matter? I put him No. 2 on my [lineup] card. So I go Kendrick Nunn, Jimmy Butler, Duncan Robinson, I go Bam [Adebayo] and then Meyers [Leonard]. But you could flip any one of those guys around. And in many ways he’s our point guard. So should he be in the All-Star Game as a point guard? I don’t know.

“These are such antiquated labels that I feel like we’ve moved on from that years ago when we started talking about positionless [players]. But either way, regardless of how you want to label it or discuss it, Jimmy Butler should be a starter in this All-Star Game. It’s a joke that he’s not. Hopefully this will change things in the future.”

Butler was listed on the All-Star ballot a forward and could not be voted on as a guard. According to Cleaning the Glass’ breakdown, Butler has spent 44 percent of his minutes this season as a shooting guard, 42 percent at small forward, and 14 percent as power forward.

We probably should define Butler as a “wing” player, but that doesn’t fit neatly into the NBA’s voting categories. Butler isn’t even the most obvious category-busting player out there: Is 6’8″ Luka Doncic a point guard? What about Ben Simmons? They are both categorized as guards by the league, however LeBron James — the league leader in assists and the Lakers’ point guard in terms of running the offense — is a forward.

Would Butler have been a starter if he could have been voted on as a guard? We will never know.

I want the league to do away with positions, both on the All-Star ballot and the All-NBA ballot (where voters must choose two guards, two forwards, and a center). It’s also unlikely the league breaks away from that tradition, at least any time soon.

Which leaves Butler on the bench. Coaches vote for the reserves, they will undoubtedly pick Butler, and those results will be announced next Thursday. Butler unquestionably is playing at an All-Star level. In his first season in Miami he is averaging 20.3 points, 7 rebounds, and 6.5 assists per game. He has been the best player and the offensive focal point of a 31-14 Miami team.

Butler is not a starter primarily because of his peers, his fellow players. The fans voted Butler fourth among East frontcourt players. The media voted him third. [For transparency, I am one of the media pannel voters and I had Butler as a starter ahead of Pascal Siakam.]

The players had Butler sixth among forwards, behind Jayson Tatum and Butler’s Miami teammate Bam Adebayo. This vote is still a popularity contest, and Butler has burned a few bridges behind him.

That doesn’t mean Spoelstra is wrong and it’s a joke Butler is not a starter.

 

Watch Russell Westbrook score season-high 45, help Rockets beat Timberwolves

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Russell Westbrook scored a season-high 45 points and had 10 assists, and the Houston Rockets overcame another tough night from James Harden to rally past the Minnesota Timberwolves 131-124 on Friday night.

Westbrook helped key a second-half comeback after Minnesota led by six points in the third quarter. He finished 16-of-27 shooting, was 13 of 13 from the free-throw line and added six rebounds. Eric Gordon scored a season-high 27 points off the bench for Houston, which won its second straight game following a season-long, four-game losing streak.

Harden, who went 1 for 17 from 3-point range in a home loss to Oklahoma City on Monday night, was 3 of 13 overall and 0 for 6 from beyond the arc against Minnesota. He finished with a season-low 12 points. Harden also left the game for part of the third quarter, limping badly to the bench before returning in the fourth.

Karl-Anthony Towns had 30 points and 12 rebounds for Minnesota, which has lost eight straight. Andrew Wiggins scored 28 points for the Timberwolves.

Minnesota’s streak prompted some frustration after Wednesday’s 117-110 loss at Chicago, when coach Ryan Saunders said the team is simply not playing well. Saunders also challenged Wiggins at halftime of that game to be more productive.

The Wolves started strong while Houston was missing shots. Minnesota led by six in the opening quarter. The Rockets hit just two of their first 11 shots and Harden was 1 of 5. The Rockets also trailed in Minnesota in November before recovering for a 125-105 win.

Led by Westbrook, Houston led by as many as 13 on Friday, but the Wolves didn’t fade.

Minnesota cut the Rockets’ lead to 110-108 with 6 minutes remaining.

Houston had the finisher in Westbrook. He scored 15 points in the fourth quarter, including 11 after the Wolves closed within two.

Kawhi Leonard racks up first career triple-double, lifts Clippers past Heat

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MIAMI (AP) — Kawhi Leonard got his first career triple-double and scored 33 points, Landry Shamet added 22 and the Los Angeles Clippers shrugged off an early 15-point deficit before hanging on to beat the Miami Heat 122-117 Friday night.

Leonard finished with 10 rebounds and 10 assists. He was first credited with the triple-double in the third quarter — briefly, because one of his rebounds was taken away after a stat review. He then officially got it on a rebound with 3:55 left.

Lou Williams scored 16 points, Montrezl Harrell had 15 and JaMychal Green added 14 for the Clippers.

Jimmy Butler led Miami with 20 points. Butler left midway through the fourth after appearing to turn his right ankle for the second time in the game, capping a night when he also got inadvertently popped in the eye during the first half.

Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Herro scored 19 points each, Bam Adebayo had 18 and Duncan Robinson added 16 for Miami. The Heat fell to 20-2 at home – 0-2 against teams from Los Angeles. Their only other home loss was to the Lakers.

Miami was down by 18 with 8:34 left, then went on a 24-9 run and got within three on a 3-pointer by Dion Waiters with 34 seconds remaining. But they got no closer, and Leonard sealed it by going 4 for 4 from the foul line in the final moments.

Leonard flirted with a triple-double on two other occasions this season, missing it by two rebounds on Oct. 26 at Phoenix and by one assist on Nov. 11 against Toronto.

The Clippers were without Paul George (left hamstring) for the eighth consecutive game and Patrick Beverley (right groin) for the second straight game, though Beverley tried lobbying his way into the lineup.

Miami was without two point guards – Kendrick Nunn missed the game with left Achilles soreness and Goran Dragic was out with a sore left calf, something that flared up after he got kicked in Wednesday night’s overtime win against Washington.

So, down to 10 available players, Miami had no choice: Dion Waiters played for the first time this season.

Waiters, who had been suspended three times for various issues since October and embarrassed himself and the organization when he ingested at least one cannabis-infused edible and needed medical attention when the team charter plane wrapped up a Phoenix-to-Los Angeles flight in November, played 18 minutes and scored 14 points on 5-for-12 shooting, 4 for 9 from 3-point range.

Miami ran out to a 24-9 lead after seven minutes. The Clippers were within eight by the time the first quarter was done, and 65-63 at halftime. Then they outscored Miami 38-20 in the third to take total control.

Zion Williamson has big dunk, block, scores 15 but Pelicans still fall to Nuggets

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Zion Williamson is still making plays — his first NBA dunk and a dramatic block shot came in his second NBA game — and he is still facing a minutes limit, much to the frustration of fans in the arena.

And the Pelicans are still looking for their first win with Zion in the lineup.

Williamson had 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting, plus six rebounds, in his second NBA game. One highlight was his first NBA dunk, finishing an alley-oop from Jrue Holiday just :40 seconds into the game.

However, the most eye-popping of his second game highlights was a fourth quarter blocked shot of Malik Beasley.

Williamson played just 21 minutes, about three more than his first game but still under a tight minutes limit. The crowd chanted “we want Zion” late in the fourth, but the Pelicans are wisely bringing their No. 1 pick along slowly as he recovers from surgery to repair his torn meniscus.

The Pelicans also lost the game 113-106 to a Denver team led by Nikola Jokic‘s 27 points and 12 rebounds.

New Orleans is now 0-2 with Williamson in the lineup. When the team won 11-of-16 just before his return, the Pelicans pulled back from trade talks for Holiday, Derrick Favors, and J.J. Redick to make a playoff push. New Orleans now sits 4.5 games out of the playoffs in the West and would need to leap four teams to get in — if the wins don’t start coming soon (and a lot of them), David Griffin and company will have to reconsider what they do at the trade deadline.