NBA Shootaround: CATS!

So much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is back to help you keep track of it all. You’ll find takes on moments you might’ve missed from the previous night, along with ones you will remember forever.

I Want to Be Down

Chris Ryan: I don’t know whether it was Kemba Walker running little Steve Nash pick-and-rolls, like this one with (the surprisingly with-it) Cody Zeller …

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But at some point last night, as the Bobcats held off a listless Pacers team (who were on the second night of a back-to-back), I felt something incredibly weird.

I felt jealousy.

I am a Sixers fan, and this season I’ve been forced to contemplate what it is I want out of a basketball team. I’ve been trying to talk myself into the “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything” way of thinking, dreaming of a day next season when I’m watching Noah Vonleh, Andrew Wiggins, Nerlens Noel, and Michael Carter-Williams light up the night. I’ve been sitting on the floor, as Sam Hinkie pours lye on my hand, assuming that he knows best, that through pain, I will gain.

And that could still be the case.

But honestly, sometimes I think I’d rather have Al Jefferson, Luke Ridnour, and Gary Neal.

For the Sixers, the Thunder are the dream, but the Bobcats are the likelihood. Charlotte has surrounded some lottery picks with a few veterans, and have a really good coach. Is the ceiling the 6- or 5-seed? Sure. In a year or two, if the Bobcats add some more pieces and MKG finds an offensive game, could they get into the top half of the conference? Why not. They aren’t that good, and they aren’t going to scare Indy in the playoffs. But you know what they’re doing? They’re participating. That’s what’s hard about tanking — if you cheer for a team that’s doing it, you get taken out of the league, entirely. You just feel like you’re missing out on an entire season. I’ve cheered for mediocre teams like Charlotte before. At least you feel like you’re part of something.

The difference here is Jefferson. Charlotte gave him $41 million over three years this past offseason. The consensus was that this was a waste of Michael Jordan’s money and Al Jefferson’s talent. He belonged somewhere better, and the Bobcats should be thinking bigger.

Maybe. But try telling the guys on the Charlotte bench, who were doing their best Bazemore/Sacre imitations while Jefferson blacked the hell out.

Last night, Jefferson was the best player in the gym. Better than Hibbert (whom he trashed), better than Lance, better than George. He scored 34 points and he’s averaging 26 and (almost) 10 in his last 10 games, and like Joakim Noah, his sheer presence keeps the Bobcats in almost every game they play. Look at their results; Charlotte hasn’t been blown out since November. Jefferson is one of the most valuable players in the league. He’s proven his worth by elevating a dysfunctional franchise into the realm of respectability. I know the goal shouldn’t be Big Al. It should be to find the next Kevin Durant. And I shouldn’t want Charlotte, I should want Oklahoma City. But last night, Big Al and Charlotte looked pretty good.

Rethinking the Paul George Progression

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Andrew Sharp: For a while now, it’s been popular to call Paul George the most underrated superstar in the league. And for a while it was true. He plays both ends of the floor, his scoring improved by leaps and bounds last year, and he was arguably the best offensive player on a Pacers team that was a legit contender.

Some people assumed the progression would continue after last year’s playoffs. The scoring would improve, the defense would be just as relentless, and we’d be talking about an MVP candidate. He was Indiana’s best offensive superstar in the arms race with Miami.

All of which is to say … after 18 months as everyone’s favorite underrated superstar, Paul George might be a little overrated. In 30 games since January 1, he’s shot above 50 percent just seven times. His shooting percentage has gone down every month this season, from 47 percent in November to 40 percent in February. Watching George right now means watching him settle for bad jumpers 23 feet from the rim and struggle to create off the dribble, leaving you to generally wonder how exactly people consider him a top-five player in the NBA.

This isn’t even about that nightmare Bobcats game last night. I didn’t watch that game, but I saw him against the Warriors on Tuesday. He’s still valuable on defense and in transition, and he’s part of a Pacers lineup that’s clearly doing OK this year. But in general, George needs to be a go-to option in the half-court if he’s going to be the MVP-type player we’ve all imagined, and especially if the Pacers are going to win a title. And it hasn’t happened yet.

He’s not a good enough shooter to settle for jumpers as often as he does, and he’s not even in the top 15 in free throw attempts. These are problems that’ll become a lot more important in a close playoff series in which George is Indiana’s best option in a half-court offense.

He’s still one of the best young players in the NBA, and if you had a draft of everyone 23 and younger, only King Unibrow would go higher. He’ll figure it out. But while everyone expected to see him take the next step and turn into a full-fledged MVP candidate and first-team All-NBA guy this year, maybe this is what the real progression looks like. Maybe this is the step between out-of-nowhere All-Star and inescapable superstar, during which he struggles a little bit and realizes how much better he’s gotta get.

For now: Paul George is too good to be underrated anymore, but he’s not quite one of the best players in the league. And for the Pacers in the playoffs, that might not be good enough.

Glue Guy

Dear Dwight

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netw3rk: Dwight,

So, what do you think of the place now? I know, I know, you were back one time before, but you were in a different uniform then. What happened in Los Angeles, anyway? No, I understand you don’t want to talk about it. It’s just that everyone made such a big deal about you going there and then next thing you know suddenly you were in Houston. Well, you always were an enigma. OK, OK, I’m sorry. Listen, it’s good to see you, what did you think of the tribute video I made you? By the way, don’t make a big thing about the video, I made one for Zaza, J.J. Redick, even made one for Pelicans assistant Randy Ayers. Yeah, you hold more Magic team records than those guys, but, still, it’s just a thing I do for ex-players and coaches. Even you.

Can you believe how things have changed? Feels like an age since you forced your way out of here. You know, most people thought we got killed in that deal, and I bet you thought that, too. I’m not going to say we’re anywhere near done renovating, but Vucevic and Afflalo are nice pieces. Harkless, well, he’s coming along, I guess. Considering what happened with Iguodala in Denver, Bynum in Philly, and you in L.A., well, I’d say we did OK for ourselves. And don’t forget the picks! Denver’s or New York’s this summer, plus our own. Say we get a hit or two in this summer’s draft, plus the parts we have now, and, hey, you never know. I mean, I’m not exactly crushed about losing to your Rockets tonight. Oh, and you gotta see our rookie, Oladipo. He couldn’t play tonight, but look at this video the league made for him. The future looks pretty good, all things considered.

Anyway, enough about me, how’s things in Houston? How’s the back? It’s been acting up lately, huh? Did you hurt it trying to carry the Lakers? OK, OK, that was mean, I’m sorry. But seriously, you look good in red. The inside-out thing has really been coming together, your attempts have gone up almost every month, and now your post offense is really a seamless part of the way you guys like to score. I wasn’t sure it was going to work early on, but it really has: top-five offense (108 OffRtg), and the no. 9 defense (102.2 DefRtg). Pretty good.

Anyway, it was good seeing you. (Jerk.)

Signed,
Stuff the Dragon

I AM A GOD

Energy Brothers

Brett Koremenos: Up 28-26, the Sacramento Kings trotted out a second-quarter lineup of Quincy Acy, Reggie Evans, Derrick Williams, Ray McCallum, and Orlando Johnson. That quintet was a serious underdog to do much of anything useful. Even against the Bucks. I prepared myself for the worst, and cursed my basketball addiction for being too strong to allow me to change the channel.

But then the weirdest thing happened over the next four minutes — I found myself incredibly entertained.

Sometimes it’s so easy to get so enamored of certain players’ specific skills that you forget the appeal of guys who just play hard. And when it comes to a front line of Evans and Acy, very few are outworking them.

Evans has been around the league awhile, so his shtick is pretty well known. He works his ass off on the glass, makes liberal use of his fouls, and generally has a persona of a dude you don’t want to mess with. Just ask Chris Kaman. Since Acy hasn’t played a meaningful minute for a team that anyone has paid attention to, the skinny on his game is pretty similar with one key difference — the dude tries to straight up murder rims whenever he dunks.

Here’s his 187 from last night:

According to NBA.com, the lineup spearheaded by these two maniacs was apparently only plus-1 in their four minutes together. It sure as hell felt like a lot more. If you would have asked me during halftime for that number I would have probably guessed somewhere between plus-500 and whatever mathematical digit represents breaking Milwaukee’s collective spirit.

The 2013-14 Sacramento Kings Shot Chart

Sacramento Kings Shot Chart

Faried-Oop

Jason Gallagher: Eliminating performance-enhancing drugs; the implementation of the 4-pointer; eradicating incentives for tanking. These are pressing issues the league must address in order to enhance this beautiful game we love so dearly. Oh and one other thing …

GIVE THIS GUY AN ASSIST OR REBOUND OR SOMETHING.

How does Kenneth Faried only get two points for that? An obvious action occurred (whether it’s an assist or rebound) that allowed for the points to count, otherwise it’s called a travel, which negates the bucket. The in-game alley-oop dunk/layup to yourself off the backboard is one of the most exciting plays in basketball. It’s sexy. It’s unpredictable. It’s Claire Underwood. It’s also the most high-risk/low-reward thing a player can do. Let’s fix this problem now for the good of the league.

Great Moments in League Pass Alert

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Kirk Goldsberry: At first glance, last night may not look like the best night in League Pass history, but for those of us obsessed with the little things, it was gorgeous. My favorite two moments featured relatively minor players performing captivating impersonations of superstars.

Let’s start in Brooklyn, where Andray Blatche did a spot-on Eurostep that would make James Harden and/or Manu Ginobili shed a tear. Who knew?

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Nets play-by-play guy Ian Eagle summed it up perfectly: “That’s not one that you can draw up — that’s just ability that was passed from the heavens.”

Then we had Iman Shumpert trying to do one of those crazy Blake Griffin throw-dunks in Minnesota. The results weren’t quite as successful:

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It’s always dangerous to try to posterize somebody; you better make sure you have the tools for the job.

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In Shump’s defense, he got fouled!

Distortion to Static

Steve McPherson: At last weekend’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Stan Van Gundy cracked that Synergy’s data suggesting the Knicks run isos 17 percent of the time is ridiculous. He insisted it’s more like 50 percent.

In their 118-106 win over the Timberwolves last night, though, they ran a beautiful little play, and actually ran it twice, providing a handy demonstration of how open shots are nice, but plays that distort the defense are even better.

Here are the two possessions set back-to-back, with about 4:19 and 1:20 left in the first half, respectively:

It’s all just a setup to get Ray Felton the ball behind a double screen set by Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler. Once Felton gets around the screens, Anthony pops out to the 3-point line and Chandler dives to the hoop. The first time, it results in a Felton-to-Chandler alley-oop. The second, a foul is called on Kevin Love, trying to harass Felton as he penetrates.

Let’s watch it again. This time, in super slo-mo:

The breakdown in the first instance of the play happens when Love slides over to stop Felton’s penetration. Corey Brewer has to stay home on Anthony, and the rest of the Wolves defense is set up on the opposite side of the floor. Easy bucket.

The second time through, you can see the Wolves try to compensate for where they fell short the first time, with Love sliding to deter Felton but also staying with Chandler, while Brewer drops to impede Chandler as well. The foul was called on Love, but even if it hadn’t been, Anthony is wide open at the arc on the left wing, an area from which he shoots 47.5 percent.

This is a play that forces the Wolves to second-guess themselves. If they try to defend as individuals, the Knicks will punish them. It’s demoralizing.

Rookie Fashion Show

Sharp: OK, so Kelly Olynyk is doing his best to mix things up.

But Tim Hardaway Jr. is WINNING.

The Thirst Is Real

Dreams Never End

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Jared Dubin: It’s all over.

At a certain point, watching Hawks-Blazers became a chore, and it was something I continued doing only to see if it would actually end, which it did. Kyle Korver’s (all-time best) streak of 127 consecutive games with at least one made 3-pointer came to an end in a blowout loss to the Portland Trail Blazers last night. Here are some fun facts about the incredible streak:

  • Korver’s 127-game streak ran from November 4, 2012, to March 2, 2014.

  • The Hawks went 66-61 during the streak (.520 winning percentage).

  • The previous record holder was Dana Barros, whose streak spanned 89 games from December 23, 1994, to January 10, 1996.

  • Korver made 337 3-point shots during the streak.

    • Magic Johnson made 325 3-point shots in his entire career.

    • In the three seasons before the beginning of the streak, Korver himself made only 297 3-pointers.

  • Korver shot 46.9 percent from 3 throughout his run.

    • Steve Kerr holds the all-time record for 3-point percentage among players with at least 700 3-point attempts at 45.4 percent. (Korver attempted 718 3s during the streak.)

  • Korver attempted only 335 2-point shots during the streak.

  • Korver’s single-game high in 3s over this period was eight, which he accomplished against Boston on January 25, 2013, and Sacramento on December 18, 2013.

  • Korver went perfect from 3 twice during the streak, nailing 5-of-5 against the Kings on November 16, 2012, and 6-of-6 against the Lakers on November 3, 2013.

  • Korver made only one 3 in just 31 of the 127 games, meaning he made multiple 3s in 75.6 percent of his games throughout the streak.

  • The current leader in consecutive games with at least one made 3-pointer is Stephen Curry, with 50.

This Is Real Life

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Danny Chau: Joakim Noah had his second triple-double (10 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists) in three games last night against the Pistons. That’s just how things are now. Noah is staking his claim as the greatest Bull of this era. Finding a player who is a perfect avatar for a coach’s philosophy is almost a once-in-a-generation occurrence. Tom Thibodeau and Noah are the new Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan.

Noah is one of the best creators in the game at any position, and he’s given the green light to push the ball up the floor when he sees fit. That doesn’t mean he looks good doing it — his feet, mangled from playing through numerous foot ailments, cover ground in such an awkward, deliberate manner; his gait makes it look like he’s pushing into the frontcourt just to get the feeling back in his feet. Even in his best moments, his body almost projects his injury history for you on the screen. He’ll show you more than what you expected, while reminding you of everything that has held him back. There is no player more Thibodean.

These Rose-less Bulls have overachieved, but in a way that doesn’t feel quite the same as those Rick Adelman–led Rockets in the late aughts. It almost felt like a strange coincidence that those Houston teams were able to do so much with so little, whereas these Bulls seem hardwired for it, because Thibs is never not overclocking the processing unit.

Thibs and Pop don’t roll out the same game plan, and just looking at the first column of a box score will tell you that. But they both have full command of their squad, and their players have fully committed to their vision. Pop’s system, tried and true, has taken cornerstones, misfits, and scrubs, and peeled them all back to reach the essential core of a basketball player. As much as the Spurs look the part of a cold, undying machine, there is something warm and heartening about them. The game is almost too synergistic when they get in rhythm — like there is a unifying soul to be found in every player, a truth that only a select few can tap into. Thibs, in a short amount of time as a head coach, has become one of the few. But instead of peeling back layers like a botanist thumbing through petals, Thibs has pulverized his players into cement mix to reach that soul. When you add water (or in this case, Noah) and allow time for the mass to solidify, you get a rock-solid team that isn’t afraid of pain, time, or anything else, really. Pain over time is how they were brought to this stage. And it’s why, in spite of everything, they are back as potential disrupters to the postseason status quo out East.

Wizards Against the World

Sharp: Three quick notes on Washington professional basketball.

1. Trevor Booker = CEREAL KILLER.

2. Andre Miller, Drew Gooden, and Al Harrington are all playing in the NBA in 2014, on the same team, and it’s wonderful. I would watch the shit out of a Last Vegas remake with Grandpa Dre leading his guys on one last wild weekend at NBA summer league. (Also: Now that Dre’s playing well, this story about his offseason diet becomes so much better.)

3. Winners of seven of eight, two games out of the 4-seed, the Hammer is hammering, and John Wall averaged 21 and 9 in February. Denzel knows.

Brooklyn Owes the Charmer

Corban Goble: Though there’s been many attempts to trump up the interborough rivalry by the Brooklyn Nets — and to some extent, the Knicks — the experience of a weekday game at the Barclays Center is still a different universe from the always-kinda-hype Garden. Wednesday night, with the nicked-up Memphis Grizzlies in town, saw a particularly lethargic crowd speckled into large patches of empty black seats. Good tickets were available for $10-$15 on StubHub. The “BROOK-LYN” chant was so meek and muffled that my friend Jordan mistook it for “THORN-TON” after Marcus capped a flurry of scoring. The Nets, who stormed ahead 21-2 to begin the game, stymied a late Grizzlies run to become a winning team for the first time this season. Brooklyn is a game back of fifth in the East and within arm’s length of a top-four seed. You wouldn’t have known it for a second.

As a person who has schlepped to MetLife Stadium and beyond from Brooklyn for events, I can’t overstate the value of being able to stand in your living room five minutes after an NBA basketball game. But the Brooklyn Nets have taught us that no great victory of marketing or iconic color scheme or celebrity alignment is enough to build a serious fan base overnight. And, it must be said: The Garden has its systematic advantages that allow for more night-in, night-out electricity. Its celeb row is more prestigious (Barclays’s Wednesday-night celeb cam pulled in tight on Lolo Jones. Nothing says “Wednesday-Night Barclays Center Celeb Row” like “Non-Medal Winter Olympian”). Basically everybody, or anybody who works in midtown Manhattan, is going to be near MSG just by showing up to the office; relative to the vertical commercial acreage of midtown, Atlantic Yards is a white-collar wasteland. It’s anecdotal, but every other week I see an Instagram photo from a friend getting trashed at the Garden on a client’s expense account. It wouldn’t seem like the Barclays Center caters to that crowd, though I’m sure it wants to.

“It can be hard to remember what all the fuss was about,” wrote Jon Caramanica in his Times review of Vampire Weekend’s recent tour stop at the Barclays Center, commenting on the once-controversial arena’s quiet assimilation into the neighborhood. On game nights, I’m sure the Nets are relieved that there’s no fuss outside of the Barclays Center’s walls. I’m sure they’d like some more fuss inside of them.

Filed Under: NBA, Kemba Walker, Charlotte Bobcats, Andrew Sharp, Chris Ryan, Brett Koremenos, Steve McPherson, Corban Goble, Jared Dubin, Detroit Pistons, Danny Chau, Chicago Bulls, Joakim Noah, Al Jefferson, New York Knicks, Minnesota Timberwolves

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