So much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is here 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.
They Threw Us in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top
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Jason Concepcion: Years from now, when the memories from the 2014-15 season are mere shadows in the fog, the children of a revitalized city of Detroit will gaze upon the bronze statue of Stan Van Gundy waiving Josh Smith1 and know: That was the moment everything turned around.
The statue will be cast bronze and it will depict Van Gundy, sipping a Diet Coke, pointing sternly toward the southwest while Smith walks away in that direction. It will be right next to Joe Louis’s fist in Hart Plaza.
Every December 22, Detroit’s citizens will gather for a three-day festival, at the end of which a wooden model of Smith will be ritually cast out, and a huge tapestry representing his contract will be torn into five pieces. The people of Detroit will do these things because, while removing a surly 6-foot-9, high-usage ocean of bricks from a basketball team should naturally improve the performance of said team, the extent to which the Pistons have improved post-Smith is magical.
The Pistons are 7-0 in the post-Smith era. Of those first five wins, four were against teams in the bottom half of the league defensively (Cavaliers, Magic, Knicks, Kings), and the other was the Pacers, who are the fourth-worst offensive team in the league. Impressive, yeah, because Detroit had five total wins before that and looked, at any time, capable of losing a basketball game to a rain-sodden brown paper bag on the sidewalk.
Then they beat the Spurs by one point. Sitting world champs and all that. Van Gundy bellowed “WE JUST FORM A FUCKING WALL HERE” like some portly Leonidas with a whiteboard, as Greg Monroe nodded vigorously. Our own Andrew Sharp declared the Pistons the new Linsanity.
On Wednesday, the Pistons defeated the Mavericks. They did so with an easy-on-the-eyes fluidity that was, frankly, shocking. This is like one of those ugly duckling makeover movies, except the duckling turns into a universally idealized archetype for beauty instead of just being, like, Audrey Hepburn all along but now in nicer gowns. Sure, the Mavs are, for the season, an average-to-just-below-average defensive team. But with Rajon Rondo, over their last 10 games before last night, the Mavs had a Defensive Rating of 99, which would be good for a top-five mark in the league.
The Pistons pulled away in the fourth and just beat them the fuck down. Monroe had a burly 27 points on 11-of-16 shooting and 18 rebounds. Freaking D.J. Augustin went for 26 including 17 coffin nails in the fourth quarter alone.
Form a Fucking Wall!
The Future Seems Nice
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Danny Chau: While watching Andrew Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad play together in 2015, I often end up drifting, thinking about what my reaction would’ve been in 2012 — perhaps the height of their hype — to hearing that the two would soon join forces. Jesus Camp tears, probably. Well, we’re in the future. In 2015, they play on a team tied with the Sixers for the second-worst record in the NBA.
Despite that, their reps are on the upswing, as they repair whatever it is that soured in college.
Muhammad is already one of the more fascinating players in the game — a wing whose best self invokes Elton Brand more than it does James Harden. As for Wiggins? Well, since Muhammad became a full-time starter in mid-December, Wiggins has averaged 18 points, five rebounds, and two assists a game. He’s shooting 48 percent from the floor and 42 percent from 3. No, the team hasn’t won in that stretch. So what? He’s 19 and will be until the end of February. He’s stepping up as the go-to guy that skeptics claimed he wasn’t capable of being. Last night against the Suns, in one of their best shots at a win in almost exactly a month, Wiggins nearly delivered.
Down five with less than a minute left in the game, it took only six seconds for Wiggins to take the ball from one end of the floor to the other, execute a perfect spin move on a hapless Alex Len — the same kind of violent dervish that made him a phenom in high school — and score.
Wiggins had a good look at a game-winning 3-pointer. The shot had a near-perfect trajectory, convincing enough for Zach LaVine to preemptively throw his hands up in the air in celebration before the ball even completed its arc. It was just off, but even then, LaVine’s readied celebratory smile took an extra beat or two to fade. Yeah, the Wolves have lost 13 straight, but this was a really fun game — fun enough to allow the thrill of competition to stave off the mortal stink of losing for a little while longer.
Brick by Brick
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Chris Ryan: Yes, rub your hands together, my dude. Warm them up. It’s going to be a long winter. Dion Waiters played his first game for the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday. Before the contest against the Kings, which ended … poorly for the Thunder, Waiters’s new teammates talked of showing him the love that was apparently withheld in Cleveland. “We’re gonna make him feel wanted. I don’t think he felt that the last couple years,” Kevin Durant said. And in a bizarre way, I guess that’s what the Thunder did.
When Waiters checked in, the Thunder were already down 34-18 in the second quarter. As Boogie Cousins put up a 23-point, 15-board night, and Darren Collison melted faces with a 24-point backdraft, the Thunder’s stars got into the kind of masonry and poor shot selection that likely made Waiters feel right at home. Russell Westbrook and Durant were a combined 11-for-39 from the field. Along with Monday’s Golden State ass-kicking, this was the first time the Thunder lost back-to-back games when both Russ and Kevin played. The team shot 32.6 percent against Sacramento, and it was an especially brick-tastic 32.6 percent, full of pump-fake-step-up-long-2-pointer combos that made the Sleep Train sound like an Off-Off Broadway production of Stomp.
Waiters went 1-for-9 in 22 minutes of playing time. At one point, in the third quarter, he stood in the right corner, waving for the ball. He pumped his marker up in the air, passed up an open 3, shimmy-shook, and took a contested 13-footer that he missed.
At least he wasn’t shy.
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Kirk Goldsberry: Did you know you can change how an entire sentence reads just by screwing up the punctuation mark! Well, that can happen in basketball too? Check this out? Last night, Charlie Villanueva punctuated a beautiful Mavericks’ ball movement sequence with this airborne turd.
C Is for Effort
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Jason Gallagher: What a strange NBA world we live in. One minute Cavs-Rockets is a marquee matchup between two title favorites, and the next … it’s a desperate battle between J.R. Smith and Josh Smith.
Maybe “desperate” is too strong for Houston. It’s doing just fine trying to shake off the silly notion that Josh Smith might be an actual plague. That’s cupcakes compared to the complete identity crisis that is the Cleveland Cavaliers. They’ve got issues from offense to defense to the bench to the center position to David Blatt to Kevin Love to LeBron the player to LeBron the coach … and the list goes on and on until it lands squarely at the feet of J.R.
There is some good news, though. I saw something from Cleveland that it hasn’t shown all year: effort.
Earlier this season, the Cavs looked uninterested — like they’ve already been there 100 times before. But last night was completely different. They were trying SO HARD. Like, so hard. Kyrie Irving played about as well as he could, putting up 38 points while vintage Love added 17 points and 16 rebounds. This team was going all out — Mike Miller was chasing loose balls, Tristan Thompson was grabbing offensive boards, and EVERYONE was sprinting back on defense, like a REAL basketball team!
The best was Blatt, who was outwardly coaching like his life depended on it. Out of a commercial break, ESPN ran a quick Blatt segment and showed several moments that night of Blatt screaming so passionately from the sideline. It was pretty incredible. There’s a lot more to coaching than just screaming, but if there wasn’t, Blatt would be the greatest coach of all time.
The point is, the effort was there last night. If that continues, the Cavs will be fine, especially with the kind of talent they have in a conference that suffered a big blow by losing Dion Waiters. THINK ABOUT THAT.
All Hail Zen Sixers
Andrew Sharp: I knew what I was getting into with the Wizards and Knicks. On the way there, I realized I couldn’t name more than a single starter from New York (Jose Calderon?). Then I showed up and realized, holy shit, COLE ALDRICH STARTS FOR THIS TEAM? Then the entire night of Knicks basketball felt exactly like the GIF above. It’s the only highlight needed for last night, and probably the rest of the season.
It’s a new era of Knicks basketball.
It’s so much better than what the Knicks usually do. For almost my entire life, the Knicks have been the team that goes for the quick fix. The team has fixed broken bones with Band-Aids ever since Scott Layden, then with Isiah Thomas, and right on through to trading away all of their assets for Carmelo Anthony. The New York solution is to spend a ton of money and forfeit long-term assets for short-term help. They’ve been doing this since Bill Clinton was in office.
There’s a balance between scorched-earth tanking for several years (HINKIE) and running the same failed play over and over again to land in the middle. At some point, when the blueprint makes no sense and you’ve already reworked the plans several times, you just have to light a match to all of it. Let Cole Aldrich cook.
It’s smart for a team that’s never smart. The Zen Sixers will have a lottery pick that’s actually useful, and this summer they’ll have money to throw at anyone from Jimmy Butler to Reggie Jackson to Tobias Harris. Free agency will be a whole other test for Phil Jackson, but at least it gives himself a chance to really succeed at all. Let the New York Times go nuts with its highbrow mockery and send its Knicks writer all over the country. After last night’s unwatchable game with the Wiz turned into only a 10-point loss, the Times headline hissed, “A Small Sign of Progress?” It really is, though.
Goldsberry: The Hawks are for real, you guys. They have lost just twice since Thanksgiving. The Hawks. Last night, Kyle Korver put the nail in the coffin of the Memphis Grizzlies with this dagger 3. Watch Korver’s benchmates as he catches the ball; it’s as if they know what’s coming. I’m no body language expert or anything, but that seems to be the behavior of a really happy group of fellas.
It’s Goin’ Down, I’m Yelling Tinnnnnnderrrr
HAD A SEPTEMBER BABY. THOUGHT WE’D NAME HIM KYYYYYYYLE.
Best Play of the Year (of the Week)
Amos Barshad: Basketball’s always been a game of dramatic nuance; one missed defensive rotation can change lives, nay, bloodlines. It’s a good thing, then, that in recent years, basketball analysis has elevated itself to heretofore unseen heights. Nowadays, not a split second of import goes by without its full significance publicly measured and weighed. But sometimes, something happens that requires the exact opposite of rational thought — a play so good that you’re inspired to swipe your plate of nachos clattering to the floor of your ex-wife’s condo while screaming, “Holy crap, that was the best goddamned thing I’ve ever seen.” This is the Best Play of the Year (of the Week), and it’s a binary system: You either are or aren’t the Best Play of the Year (of the Week). If we were being rational, perhaps we’d take the time to point you to the not-so-long-ago glories of the New Money Man, Gordon Hayward. But there can only be one. Congratulations, Steph. That was the best goddamned thing I’ve ever seen.
True Detective, Season NBA
Gallagher: Are we sure Nic Pizzolatto didn’t write the 2014-15 NBA season? Because I HAVE NO IDEA HOW THIS THING IS GOING TO END
This has True Detective written all over it. The further I go down this NBA rabbit hole of picking favorites, the more confused I get. I’m up all night scouring r/NBA, looking for clues. I’m even watching games twice, trying to find anything. Hell, Zach Lowe has a theory that the 10-seed in the West is the actual favorite. It sounds crazy, but WHAT IF?!
Let’s look at the facts:
• Pizzolatto threw us off the scent by making the “favorites” way too obvious at the start of the season. We had it all figured out with the Thunder/Cavs/Spurs. Case closed, right? WRONG. I DON’T KNOW WHO THESE TEAMS ARE ANYMORE. Are they actual contenders or just charismatic spiritual leaders (RUSS)? It’s all just a ploy to throw us off the scent.
• Midseason twists, via trades, have me dumbfounded. Just when I thought I knew these NBA teams … BOOM. The Mavs have Rondo and no bench?! Josh Smith gets cut, and is now on the Rockets? A THREE-TEAM TRADE BETWEEN THE CAVS/THUNDER/KNICKS IN EARLY JANUARY?? WHAT THE SHIT, NIC?!
• Who do I trust? The Blazers, Bulls, Warriors, Rockets, Raptors, Wizards, Mavs, Grizzlies — these teams have emerged as potential “favorites” at the top and yet the more I get to know these squads the less I trust them. Honestly, does anyone trust them? They’re so unproven. Plus all of their flaws are emerging as the season wears on. For all we know James Harden’s beard is a front for his spaghetti face.