We’re coming down the stretch of the NBA season, when contenders jell ahead of the playoffs and the tankers hit an extra gear that features fake injuries, weird rotations, and guys like Mark Madsen chucking 3-pointers. The league separates into clear-cut tiers, and within them everyone solidifies their own identity.
However, for this brief moment, the league seems disorderly. Much of this is the result of malaise and blips1 of randomness that dot an overlong regular season — we should know better by now than to watch Miami lose three straight tough games and ask whether it is time to panic.
Still: There are some big questions worth pondering as we hit the finishing kick. Here are seven:
1. What’s Up With the 2012 Finals Redux in Oklahoma City?
The Thunder are just 6-6 in their last 12 games, and 3-5 since the return of Russell Westbrook, centerpiece of the screamingest fan “debates” in the NBA. Oklahoma City has appeared for almost the entire season — both with Westbrook and without him — as the presumptive favorite in an increasingly loaded West. But Sunday’s disturbing loss against the turtling Lakers dropped Oklahoma City behind San Antonio, and shrunk its buffer zone against the surging Rockets and Clip Joint.2
Westbrook noise aside, the damage has almost entirely come on defense, where the Thunder’s ultra-aggressive pack-the-paint scheme has backfired amid a hail of wide-open 3-pointers. Oklahoma City has allowed 105.9 points per 100 possessions in that 6-6 stretch, the 14th-worst mark in the league over that span, per NBA.com — and far below the Thunder’s normal top-five standard. Opponents have nailed an even 40 percent of their 3s in those 12 games, and 47 percent from the corners. The numbers are even hairier since Westbrook’s return.
You have to acknowledge the caveats first. Thabo Sefolosha is the team’s best perimeter defender, and he might be out until the playoffs. Westbrook is recovering from three knee surgeries in a year, and he has always been a bit reckless defensively. Kendrick Perkins is effective only in selective matchups, but losing two starters has a general trickle-down effect — new lineups, more minutes for inexperienced players, and zero adjustment period for Caron Butler.
The Thunder have been among the league’s most aggressive pack-the-paint teams since taking a collective step inside midway through the 2012 conference finals against San Antonio. The style has worked for them. They are long and frighteningly athletic, capable of clogging the lane on a drive and scrambling back out to a shooter before the poor guy can release his shot. They have contained San Antonio, the league’s premier ball-movement team, by spooking the Spurs out of jumpers they normally release without an issue.
But playing this way requires precision atop athleticism in two specific ways:
1. Players have to know when they should help inside and when they should stay closer to home.
2. Everyone else has to slide around and rotate in concert to cut off obvious passing lanes and be in position to close out on shooters in a timely fashion.
The Thunder lately are failing, badly, at both jobs. We talk often about how teams space the floor poorly on offense, with poor shooting and players standing next to one another. The Thunder, when they’re bad, space the floor poorly on defense. They send three or even four guys at a post-up player when just one helper will do:
They send both weakside defenders flying into the paint on a pick-and-roll instead of leaving one of them to zone up between shooters:
Here’s another one from Sunday’s debacle:
They have perimeter defenders crash down toward the center of the foul line for no real reason, and those defenders too often compound the problem by gambling in passing lanes or simply losing track of their original guy:
They perhaps switch too casually.3 But there are times when the Thunder switch out of lazy ease rather than land-the-first-punch urgency. Aggressive help is fine if you can coordinate it correctly. The Thunder go through stretches in which they can’t. Multiple defenders converge on the same player in the middle, and when the other team kicks the ball outside, two or even three defenders rush at the same shooter — leaving leaks everywhere else. Three players help on a post-up, all assuming someone else will rotate out to the decent shooter up top:
No one is blameless. Ibaka still abandons stretch power forwards to chase blocks, even when other helpers have the situation covered. Kevin Durant has been sloppy with his help-and-recover decisions of late. Perry Jones’s inexperience shows. Derek Fisher loves to roam about as he pleases. The Thunder have long allowed a larger-than-average number of 3-pointers, and as John Schuhmann of NBA.com wrote last week, data-tracking cameras show a lot of those jumpers this season have been open. (Synergy Sports, for what it’s worth, disagrees, classifying most of the catch-and-shoot chances Oklahoma City allows as well-guarded.) The Thunder just have to be better.
Choosing aggression over conservatism has been good for Oklahoma City’s defense. It is part of its identity, and it generally understands which shooters are threatening and which can be left alone. But it requires attention to detail that has been lacking over the past month — a “headless chicken” factor that recalls images of the 2012 Finals, when Miami scrambled and finally destroyed Oklahoma City’s defense without outside shooting.
2. What Happened to the Pacers?
Indiana is just 7-7 in its last 14 games, and its once impenetrable defense has fallen apart since the All-Star break. That slippage has infected even the Pacers’ vaunted starting lineup, a five-man group normally immune to prolonged slumps.
The Pacers cannot afford any backsliding on defense, because they remain a bad offensive team. They’re just 21st in points per 100 possessions, and they’ve been even worse over the last month. Indiana is still turnover-prone, though not as unwatchably so as last season, and it just can’t get its spacing as clean as it should be. Some of that is endemic. The Pacers play two post-up big men almost all the time, and without an elite off-the-dribble force, they have to create openings by using their guards as cutters and screeners along the baseline and elbow areas — actions that clog the paint.
It doesn’t help that no one respects Evan Turner’s shooting, or that Luis Scola’s midrange jumper has proven unreliable. The Mavericks on Sunday were especially bold in playing off those two:
Roy Hibbert has never been a consistent post-up scorer, and Paul George was bound for a prolonged jump-shooting slump after a hot start. But at least one problem is new: Indiana isn’t a great offensive rebounding team anymore. The Pacers are just 19th in offensive rebounding rate after finishing fourth last season, and Hibbert’s numbers especially have fallen off. The Scola–Tyler Hansbrough trade was going to hurt severely in this one dimension, and Scola hasn’t provided enough oomph on offense to make up for the lost defense and glass-eating.
The Pacers’ crappy offense has long meant they have little margin for error. They need their best defense almost every night against good competition, and they are not bringing it of late. Like the Thunder, teams are shredding them from deep; Indiana’s last 14 opponents have shot a collective 39 percent from 3-point range, and an unthinkable 49 percent from the corners — the very spot Indiana takes special pride in denying. The numbers are even worse if you isolate games after the All-Star break.
Some of this does appear to be the malaise of a slog. Hibbert has not quite been himself in a month, though there has been no dramatic change in opponent shooting percentage on close shots when he is near both the rim and the shooter, per SportVU data provided exclusively to Grantland. He’s playing drives a bit more conservatively, and he has been slow, even by his standards, in making multiple cuts on the same possession.
Their perfectionist transition defense has sprung leaks; nearly 16 percent of opponent possessions have come via transition since early February, up from about 12.5 percent before that, per Synergy Sports. The Pacers haven’t been as diligent in keeping pick-and-rolls on the side of the floor, allowing ball handlers access to the juicy middle:
Acclimating Turner to a much different system has proven difficult — a risk inherent in the Turner–Danny Granger trade. The Pacers prefer to minimize help, but Turner is coming from a more chaotic system, and it has shown in some of his non-Pacery help decisions:
Leaving Jeremy Lin for a meandering bit of “help” on this Omer Asik post-up was particularly egregious:
Turner and his new teammates have also had some communication gaffes — to be expected in such a high-pressure integration process. The Pacers have been disastrously bad defensively with Turner on the floor.4
There are caveats here, too. Injuries to George Hill and C.J. Watson have forced a rejiggering of the rotation, and opponents have gotten unsustainably hot on the midrange shots the Pacers’ system yields. But this team has a proven track record of defensive excellence, and eight of their 17 losses have come in road games on the second half of back-to-backs — schedule-influenced losses that vanish in the playoffs. Indy is 41-9 in all other games.
3. Is a Threat Lurking in the East?
I have considered the Pacers co-favorites within the East all season, but I’ve also mentioned on several B.S. Report episodes that it wouldn’t surprise me if the Pacers found themselves in a 2-2 series in the second round. Every round was a battle for Indiana last season, and lesser teams will have a chance to at least be competitive with the Pacers as long as opponents can count on Indy’s offense for two stink bombs every seven-game series.
Related story: Toronto is 29-15 since the Rudy Gay trade, and it has the fifth-best point differential in the league during that stretch — behind only the Clippers, Thunder, Spurs, and Warriors. Dwane Casey has molded this group into a top-10 defense despite uneven play from Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas. It’s playing the pick-and-roll a bit more conservatively these days, and partly as a result, it’s coaxing more midrange jumpers from opposing offenses and has kicked its multiyear foul addiction.
Patrick Patterson has found his shooting stroke off the bench, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are playing the finest all-around ball of their lives, Terrence Ross is progressing, and the double–point guard look with Lowry and Greivis Vasquez has worked nicely.
The Nets are 22-9 since New Year’s Day, and they’ve continued to flummox opponents with weirdo hybrid lineups that somehow play both big and small at once. Injuries to Kevin Garnett and Andrei Kirilenko are concerning, but this is shaping up as a solid team that will fear no one in the playoffs.
The Wiz have survived Nene’s knee injury during a soft part of their schedule, and their starting lineup with Trevor Booker in Nene’s place hasn’t missed a beat offensively. The story is very different on defense, and the Wiz will need Nene’s two-way excellence if they want to be a real threat in the postseason. But they’ve stabilized, their core eight-man rotation has been quite good, and Professor Andre Miller, PhD, has at least kept Washington’s offense afloat during his revised office hours schedule, per NBA.com.
And the Bulls? They’re the freaking Bulls. They’re a bad offensive team5 that is going to fight like hell, pound the glass, scream a lot, and make you earn it against the league’s stingiest defense outside Indy. No one wants to play these guys. That’s very different from saying Miami or Indiana fear them, or would be an underdog against them. It’s simply to say Chicago will make your life unpleasant for a couple of weeks in a seven-game series, and leave you with some bruises.
The odds of any of these four advancing to the conference finals remain slim, but they’ve played themselves into a more interesting conversation.
4. Who’s Gonna Tank Now?
Oh, baby. As of Tuesday morning, four teams had exactly 22 wins, two had 24 wins, the Sixers had just missed perhaps their best chance of avoiding what might be a 36-game losing streak, and two teams were at least beginning to think about protected first-round picks. This is going to be fun.
When the Pelicans flipped Philly a top-five protected 2014 first-rounder in the Jrue Holiday deal, they imagined sending the Sixers a pick somewhere in the no. 12-15 range. That could still happen, but the Pellies are one slump away from a catastrophic scenario in which they slide down to no. 7 or no. 8, and they have the second-toughest remaining schedule in the league. On the other side, getting into top-five position is probably hopeless without some lottery luck; the Pellies have more wins than every current Eastern Conference lottery team, and they’re four games up on the Lakers-Jazz-Kings poop trifecta in the West.
The two 24-win Eastern Conference teams — Cleveland and Detroit — are still trying to win. The flailing Nuggets, meanwhile, are just one game ahead of New Orleans in the loss column — another team the Pellies could leap over if they play well, theoretically lowering the value of the pick they’ll almost certainly have to send Philly.
This could go in so many different directions, in part because Cleveland and Detroit could soon punt their seasons. Both have been all-in for playoff spots all year, rejecting in public and private any notion they might eventually tank — even though doing so would carry benefits. The Cavs could use another quality young piece, and Detroit would keep the pick it owes Charlotte (thanks, Ben Gordon!) if that pick falls within the top eight.
The Pistons currently have the ninth-worst record in the league. In other words: Detroit has the most protected-pick-related tank potential since the Warriors so brazenly tossed away games two years ago to keep the Harrison Barnes pick. Again: Both these teams are trying to make the playoffs. The Cavaliers traded five combined second-round draft picks6 for Spencer Hawes and Luol Deng. It is astounding that over the last week or so, the Knicks, an unsalvageable basketball landfill, have been more functional than these two teams. They have made the Bobcats look like the ’96 Bulls.
5. Is It Time to Add Two More Title Contenders to the Official List?
It appears so. The Clippers have outscored opponents by 10.0 points per 100 possessions since the calendar flipped to 2014, by far the best mark in the league. They’re up to 10th in points allowed per possession — not amazing, but plenty good enough to contend for the title when paired with perhaps the league’s best offense.
The Clippers still suffer the occasionally fatal hiccup on defense, but they have shown gradual improvement in adopting Doc Rivers’s Thibodeau-style system almost from jump street. DeAndre Jordan still isn’t quite there in terms of timing rotations, Blake Griffin is never going to be more than “above average,” and the team will have some perimeter matchup problems in the postseason if J.J. Redick can’t return healthy. Any opponent with a strong wing player capable of posting up is going to cause problems for a smallish perimeter rotation of Chris Paul, Darren Collison, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, and Jared Dudley. The biggest and toughest post defenders can still neuter some of Griffin’s game on the block.
But Glen Davis fills a huge hole, Griffin has been going supernova for two months, and the Clips are just very tough to stop.
Ditto for Houston, just one spot behind the Clips in the overall defense rankings, and with a similarly blazing offense. Houston appears to have settled on a rotation it likes. Patrick Beverley is entrenched as the lunatic defense-first starter; one of James Harden and Chandler Parsons will always be on the court with bench-heavy units; and Donatas Motiejunas has snatched the backup power forward spot, excising Omri Casspi from the rotation and rendering small ball a little-used change-of-pace tactic. And Omer Asik, trade bait all season, is still a valuable screener and defender who can take on more minutes if Howard gets into foul trouble — as he did Sunday against Portland.
Motiejunas isn’t the floor spacer Daryl Morey dreamed of — he’s hit just 17 3-pointers all season — but he’s passable from the corners, he can work away from the paint, and Houston has played lights-out on both ends when he has shared the floor with Howard, per NBA.com. The coaching staff has gradually added more two-man sets that maximize the Howard-Harden pairing and take advantage of Houston’s dynamic overall ballhandling. The rock moves.
There are still issues here, obviously. Big power forwards can attack Terrence Jones in the post, forcing some cross-matching with Howard. The perimeter defense is unreliable outside of Beverley, sometimes laughably so, and some of the team’s core lineups have struggled badly on defense. Howard is a dynamic threat to score in the post again, something that will be hugely valuable in the playoffs, but he has also been way too turnover-prone on the block. He has coughed it up on 21 percent of his post-ups, per Synergy Sports, the fifth-worst mark among 98 players with at least 50 post-ups this season.7 They’re good for at least 10 embarrassing turnovers every game.
Howard is closer to Orlando Dwight than Pouty Lakers Dwight, and that has been enough to vault Houston into the title picture — right along with Oklahoma City, Miami, Indiana, the Clippers, and, wait … hold … on … let me check my notes here. Oh, yeah!
6. Remember the Spurs?
The fan base with the league’s biggest persecution complex can relax: We all see your team, and it may well finish the season as the overall championship favorites. Part of the reason the Spurs haven’t received as much attention as usual is because they’ve barely been the Spurs. Almost every rotation player has missed significant time because of injury or “a variety of maladies”; the Spurs are one of just four teams without a lineup that has logged at least 200 minutes, and with three or fewer that have even cracked 100 minutes together, per NBA.com.
We just don’t know this iteration of the Spurs Borg, which makes it even more ridiculous they’re atop the West at 46-16. They’ve lost the tiebreaker already with Oklahoma City, they’ve split head-to-head with Miami, and they’re 0-1 against Indiana with one game remaining. Bottom line, the race for the league’s top overall seed is also going to be fun. San Antonio has struggled to score with the Tiago Splitter–Tim Duncan combination, a discouraging setback after Gregg Popovich spent years gradually building a functional offense around the team’s best defensive front-line duo — a process that finally came together last season.8
It can start the process of doing so again now that Splitter is healthy and looking spry. It would help if Duncan could rediscover some consistency in his jump shot, and if one of the deep reserve bigs could stand up and grab the fourth rotation spot behind Boris Diaw.
All the pieces are here. The Spurs might have the deepest wing rotation in the league with Marco Belinelli on board, the irresistible Patty Mills has solidified the backup point guard spot, and the team has plenty of time to coalesce now. Watch out.
7. Who’s Snagging the Final Playoff Spot in the West?
This deserves its own column, because Phoenix, Dallas, Memphis, and Golden State all have the potential to cause major problems in the playoffs if the matchups break right. Like, multiple rounds’ worth of problems. Phoenix has scuffled over the last two weeks, but its next 11 games come against either Eastern Conference teams or Western Conference lottery clubs. (Sorry, Minnesota fans.)
I am preemptively sad about saying a premature good-bye to one of these teams. Can’t Adam Silver invoke some generic “good of the game” clause, trade one of these teams to the Eastern Conference for just one year, and slot them into the no. 8 spot? What if they agreed to give the no. 1 team in the East a 1-0 head start in its first-round series? Couldn’t we at least give the Hawks Goran Dragic and the Phoenix Gorilla? The gorilla could spell Elton Brand after the poor guy had to log 35 minutes a night while Atlanta had only two healthy big men.
In any case, this is the most exciting story line among a pile that will define the final quarter of the season — including some I haven’t even addressed at length yet: the ultimate place of the Blazers in the league’s hierarchy, potential front-office upheaval after the season ends, and Yannick Noah. Buckle up, everyone.
10 Things I Like and Don’t Like
1. Josh Smith’s Shot Selection
The time has come for Detroit to just bench Smith for an entire game, and maybe two, for his egregiously awful shot selection. The Pistons aren’t blameless. They signed Smith knowing they already had two starting big men on the roster, and that Smith was the most mobile and versatile of those three. There is only so much room near the basket; Smith was inevitably going to move away from the hoop, and positioning him there invites his worst habits.
There is no excuse for this: nearly 8.5 combined midrange jumpers and 3-pointers per game, all while Smith shoots a combined 30.4 percent on those shots. He’s on pace for perhaps the worst 3-point shooting season ever.
Plenty of this is on Smith. There are dozens and dozens of possessions where Smith gets the ball near the elbow with 10 or more seconds on the shot clock, looks around, and jacks a horrific jumper. Memo to Detroit, and Smith: Anything else is better than that. Anything. Dribble the ball over to Kyle Singler in the corner, set a pick, and work a dribble handoff. Call for Greg Monroe to scamper up and screen. Kick the ball to a point guard. Throw it at a referee. DO SOMETHING BESIDES SHOOT.
Again: Some of this is on the coaching staff. If Detroit had more continuity built into its offense, those counters would emerge naturally. But the Pistons should straight bench Smith the next time he takes a jump shot with more than 10 seconds left on the shot clock. Get some backbone.
2. Indiana, Tricking People
The Pacers break out this little side out-of-bounds play for George Hill once every few games, and when it works, it’s a beauty:
The Pacers slot a big man at each elbow, clearing the basket area, and they have Luis Scola and Hill position themselves as if Hill is going to curl off a Scola pin-down at the right elbow. There is also lots of talking and pointing, all phony misdirection. Good stuff.
3. Pau Gasol’s Defense
That there are still four teams below the Lakers in the points allowed per possession rankings speaks to the aggressiveness of the league’s tankers and the defensive incompetence of some of the league’s worst teams.
The Lakers are poor on talent, so it’s no surprise they’ve been awful defensively. And Gasol still has the soft touch, post game, and passing brilliance of a key offensive cog. But his defense has slipped so far that it is difficult to watch at times. Some of this is effort-related; Gasol has little incentive to try his hardest on a terrible team, and for a coach with whom he has clashed. But any team signing Gasol to a big-money contract this summer will be betting that effort explains just about everything going on here — the lazy reaching in the lane, the failure to challenge anything at the basket, the lack of jumping ability.
The Lakers have been miles worse on defense with Gasol on the floor, and opponents have hit nearly 55 percent of close shots when Gasol is near both the shooter and the rim — one of the worst marks in the league for a big man, per NBA.com. If it isn’t effort, whatever team buys on Gasol this summer is going to be sorry, unless it can pair him with a top rim protector.
4. “Ill Will”
This is Wilson Chandler’s nickname, and I enjoy it despite the lack of originality. It works in two ways — as a straight descriptor of Chandler, and as a phrase indicating Chandler means enemies “ill will.” And rhyming is always fun!
5. Untucked Jerseys
There is something badass about a player running around with his jersey untucked — like he’s working so hard, and in such a long interrupted stint, that all the enforced niceties of the game fall off around him. He is almost literally “running ragged.” It seems to happen a lot with Chicago players, which is perfect for the glorious and grimy Bulls.
We need the SportVU cameras to measure this: Which players log the most minutes per game with their jerseys untucked?
6. Wearing Neutral Jerseys to Games
I have never understood this. Why are you going to a Pacers-Heat game and wearing, say, a Boston Rondo jersey? What is the point? Just to draw attention from both fan bases in attendance? This is like Homer Simpson watching an NFL game and waving a pennant that just says “Football.” Actually, Homer’s generic pennant is much more clever.
7. The “Los” Jerseys
Let me be the millionth person to wonder why the NBA doesn’t go whole hog on this promotion and use the actual Spanish words for “bulls,” “wizards,” “nets,” and other objects. Why stop at “Los Bulls,” when the more natural alternative is staring you in the face?
And this season, the NBA in some cases limited the “Los” wording to warm-up shooting shirts, which seems to defeat the whole idea. Go all the way.
Update: People are very passionate about this, it turns out. I was aware the jerseys are this way because Spanish-speaking fans call NBA teams by their traditional American names — Bulls, Wizards, etc. I just thought it might be more fun to go the other direction. I meant no offense to anyone.
8. P.J. Tucker One-Handed Rebounds
The traditionalist in me would normally decry the reckless arrogance behind the one-handed cradle rebound. But Tucker is a tough guy who pulls this off with a particularly aggressive flair that seems to fire him up. A steely play if you can do it.
9. The Ersan Ilyasova Pop-Out
Ilyasova is doing what he seems to do every year, which is to say he’s rounding back into peak form long after the Bucks’ season lost all meaning. Ilyasova is a good shooter who screens and cuts in interesting ways, and that opens the door for Milwaukee to do some fun things with him:
That’s fun! Ilyasova sets a pin-down screen for Khris Middleton, which makes it appear as if the play is designed to spring Middleton for a jumper. But Middleton does an immediate U-turn and sets the same pick for Ilyasova.
Ilyasova misses, but we’re talking about the 2013-14 Bucks here. This constitutes a “like.”
10. Brandon Jennings’s Pass Fake
I’ve written a lot of (accurate) and sad things about these Pistons, so here’s a good one: Jennings has one of the league’s best pass fakes:
That’s a real compliment! The fake pass is an underused weapon, and the Pistons have looked like a functional basketball team this season when they’ve gotten out in transition.