Extra Pass: Kyle Lowry-Greivis Vasquez backcourt sparking Raptors

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BOSTON – The Memphis Grizzlies chose Kyle Lowry in the first-round of the 2006 draft, and then they traded him just two-and-a-half years later. Memphis picked another point guard in the first round of the 2010 draft: Greivis Vasquez, who made it only one season with the Grizzlies before they traded him.

Now, Lowry and Vasquez are united with the Toronto Raptors, bonded by the shared experience being drafted then quickly traded by Memphis.

“It’s kind of like we knew we knew each other from that,” Vasquez said.

On the court, they certainly play like they’ve known each other for years. Since the Raptors traded for traded for Vasquez in the Rudy Gay deal, the two point guards have played 414 minutes together with stellar results:

  • Offensive rating: 108.3 (3.1 better than Toronto’s season mark)
  • Defensive rating: 94.7 (6.8 better than Toronto’s season mark)
  • Net rating: +13.6 (10.0 better than Toronto’s season mark)

No Eastern Conference duo has played together that much and produced such a high net rating this season.

“It’s just natural,” Vasquez said. “It’s spontaneous. There’s nothing forced. We just have good chemistry together, and we play great basketball together.”

Offensively, their impact is felt most by Toronto’s bigs, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas. Both score better, by volume and efficiency, in Lowry-Vasquez lineups compared to other units, according to nbawowy.

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How do Lowry and Vasquez collectively lift the bigs?

“Pick-and-rolls,” Johnson says enthusiastically.

That simple?

“That’s the threat,” Johnson said. “Pick-and-rolls, man.”

Johnson and Valanciunas are both two of the NBA’s better pick-and-roll screeners, and they’re taking advantage of playing with Lowry and Vasquez. Johnson, a ninth-year pro, said he’s never played so much with two point guards simultaneously.

“Not quite like this, when you have two guards on the floor that are threats,” Johnson said. “It’s just so dangerous. When you swing the ball, I can go set a pick-and-roll with Vasquez. If you swing it, I can go set a pick-and-roll with Kyle and attack. And then you’ve got shooters. It’s kind of a good weapon.”

Having two point guards who can throw entry passes also helps Valanciunas’ post-up game. Lowry and Vasquez can throw the ball around the perimeter, quickly changing entry-pass angles that become difficult to defend.

“They see the floor,” Valanciunas said. “It’s easy for me to be under the basket, represent myself.”

And that’s just in the halfcourt.

Lowry and Vasquez significantly push the pace, generating many more fastbreak points than the Raptors usually get. (Johnson said he’s always looking to screen for the point guards when they play together, even in transition or after a play breaks down.)

With two guards capable of breaking down defenses and forcing opponents to rotate, the Raptors also offensively rebound better. And defensively rebound better, too – which is where this gets tricky.

The Lowry-Vasquez combination impacts Toronto more defensively than offensively, but Raptors coach Dwane Casey and his players say the scheme doesn’t change when the point guards play together.

Vasquez, who’s 6-foot-6 but slow for his position, defends shooting guards better than he does point guards. So, that helps.

And Lowry can pester to opposing shooting guards, who might not be used to such a ballhawk guarding them. The Raptors do force more turnovers with Lowry-Vasquez lineups.

But the more significant difference* is how much better Toronto defends the mid-range and corner 3s when Lowry and Vasquez play together.

*The Raptors also get to the free-throw line and send their opponent to the free-throw line much more often when Lowry and Vasquez share the court. But 42 percent of their minutes together come in the fourth quarter and overtime, when foul rates increase anyway. Lowry and DeRozan have nothing to do with teams intentionally fouling because they’re trailing late. And if you’re wondering, intentional fouls don’t tell the whole story of the Lowry-Vasquez offensive boost, because lineups with that backcourt score better in the first half than the second.

Here’s the effect Lowry-Vasquez lineups have on opponents’ shooting. The slide with more shot attempts is overall, and the slide with fewer shot attempts is when Lowry and Vasquez share the court:

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What changes? Touch to discern a tactile difference, but maybe the Raptors just better contest jumpers when they’re getting on the fastbreak more and scoring more efficiently on the other end. Energy can be contagious.

As can quality play. Lowry shrugs off the notion that he and Vasquez have solved any major issues the Raptors face in other lineups.

“It’s easy to play with another point guard,” Lowry said. “G is an unbelievable playmaker. He knows the game, knows how to play.”

Lowry could be speaking for himself there, which is exactly why this pairing works so well.

How did Paul George score 70 points in 44 minutes? “I got new shoulders”

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Paul George is back.

Not that he really went all that far away, the man did finish third in MVP voting last season, but he faded at the end of that campaign due to shoulder pain, which led to both shoulders being operated on during the offseason. That delayed his entry into the 2019-20 NBA season by a few weeks.

He has come back looking smooth: He scored 37 points in 20 minutes against Atlanta, the most points scored in fewer than 21 minutes played in NBA history. PG13 has scored 70 points in 44 minutes across the two games with an 80.9 true shooting percentage, hitting 56.3 percent from three, and he scored the most points in a Clippers home debut (37).

How is he doing it?

“I got new shoulder. I can’t say nothing else to that, I got new shoulders. And they haven’t been this healthy in a long time.”

George has looked fluid on the court, playing great defense and clearly just having fun out there.

The Clippers have yet to play George and Kawhi Leonard at the same time because pain in Leonard’s knee has kept him in street clothes the past two games.

The Clippers have George on a minutes limit right now and are letting Leonard have all the time off he wants (George will ultimately get some load management nights, too). While that’s led to pushback from some fans — and LeBron James, trying to score some PR points on the other team in town — the Clippers shrug it off. They don’t have their sites set on November wins, they are targeting April, May, and they hope June.

George already looks in peak playoff form.

Watch James Harden scores 49 points, lead Rockets past Timberwolves

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Undermanned and playing for the second consecutive night, the Houston Rockets still had plenty of reason to be confident.

“I would think it would give you confidence,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “You’re playing with a bazooka out there.”

A bazooka named James Harden.

Harden unloaded Saturday night, scoring 49 points on a whopping 41 shots from the field to lead the short-handed Rockets to their seventh straight victory, 125-105 over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

With Russell Westbrook resting and several key contributors injured, the Rockets needed Harden to shoulder an even bigger scoring load than usual. The 41 attempts are the most in his career, and the most in the NBA this season, surpassing the 37 Golden State’s D'Angelo Russell took in an overtime loss Nov. 8 in the same building in Minnesota.

“It was a collective effort,” Harden said. “We’ve got six, seven guys out. So it could have been an easy game, where we just chalked it up and got ready for next game. We wanted to come here and win this game, and we showed it.”

Harden made 16 of the 41 shots, going 8 for 22 from 3-point range. He was 9 of 11 on free throws.

“He scored (49) on 41 shots,” Timberwolves forward Robert Covington said. “That’s what we want. But it’s just the other guys hurt us. We followed the game plan with him.”

Ben McLemore scored 20 points. Undrafted rookie Chris Clemons scored a career-high 19 off the bench for the Rockets, who broke open the game with a 9-0 run in the fourth quarter. Austin Rivers also scored 19 points.

 

Paul George’s 37 in home debut lead Clippers past Hawks 150-101 (VIDEO)

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Paul George scored 37 points in his Clippers home debut, Lou Williams added 25, and Los Angeles led all the way in routing the Atlanta Hawks 150-101 on Saturday night.

The anticipated first game with George and Kawhi Leonard in the lineup together didn’t happen when Leonard sat out with a left knee contusion.

But the Clippers didn’t need both of their new superstars on a night when George tied his career high with six 3-pointers and made all 11 of his free throws in the team’s biggest blowout of the young season.

George was clearly having fun in the fourth when he stole the ball, dribbled down and tossed it off the glass, setting up Montrezl Harrell for a two-handed dunk that ignited the crowd and pushed the Clippers’ lead to 36 points.

George sat down for good with 9:58 remaining in the game, having done all his damage playing 20 minutes.

Two nights after scoring 33 in his debut at New Orleans, George had it going from the start. He scored 15 of the Clippers’ first 22 points in a six-minute span. They led by 17 and shot 59 percent in the opening quarter.

George is the first player in franchise history to score 30-plus points in his first two games with the team.

The Hawks scored 11 straight points to close within four early in the second quarter, the closest they would come the rest of the game. The Clippers answered with an 18-6 run, fueled by George’s nine points, to go back up by 17 again.

George had 25 points at halftime when the Clippers led 74-62, shooting 52% and making all 16 of their free throws.

Leonard also sat out on Thursday when George made his Clippers debut in a loss to the Pelicans.

George missed the season’s first 11 games while completing rehab from offseason shoulder surgery.

“I would love them to play every game and be out there,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said before the game. “We knew early on this would be a tough go.”

Trae Young had 20 points for the Hawks, who dropped their second in a row. They trailed by 52 points in the fourth.

The Clippers dominated in nearly every category, with their bench outscoring the Hawks’ reserves 81-35. Los Angeles made 17 3-pointers and hit 33 of 35 free throws.

 

Gregg Popovich gets ejected, Tim Duncan takes over coaching, Spurs still fall to Trail Blazers

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Tim Duncan was back in charge in San Antonio and the Spurs were flourishing under his leadership again.

Duncan was directing players on defensive assignments, encouraging them and providing needed leadership. But in the end, he couldn’t provide the same late-game heroics from the bench that he long did on the court.

CJ McCollum scored 32 points and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Spurs 121-116 on Saturday night to spoil Duncan’s first shot at coaching following Gregg Popovich’s ejection.

Duncan took over just 13 games into his first season as an assistant coach. Popovich was ejected after walking onto the court to berate official Jason Goldenberg over a non-call. Popovich calmly walked off the court following his first ejection of the season (you can see it in the video above).

On Twitter, this led to a debate as people tried to figure out who took over as coach. Assistant Coach Becky Hammon ran one time out, but it was Duncan — the assistant coach assigned to scout Portland on the staff — who was the main man. Duncan, Hammon and Will Hardy coached by committee, but it was Duncan calling the plays and screaming out instruction.

“It was cool,” Spurs guard Bryn Forbes said. “It didn’t really feel like a huge difference. I think he did a good job. He took control. He helped lead us to a big lead.”

Popovich was asked if he considered having Becky Hammon take over to make history as the first woman to lead an NBA team.

“I’m not here to make history,” Popovich said.

LaMarcus Aldridge had 30 points and 13 rebounds but the Spurs lost their fifth straight and fell to 5-8.

Damian Lillard added 22 points and Hassan Whiteside had 21 points for Portland (5-8), which rallied from a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter to snap a four-game skid in San Antonio.

“We’ve blown leads before, so we kind of know what to expect,” McCollum said. “Once you do it, you’ve got to stay grounded, focus on the little stuff.”

Before the game, Popovich said coaching could only go so far and it was up to each player to take responsibility for his own mistakes and performance during this losing streak. Popovich put that responsibility squarely on the Spurs when he was ejected early in the third quarter.

McCollum had 23 of his points in the first half.

Bryn Forbes added 17 points and DeRozan and Rudy Gay added 16 apiece.