NBA Shootaround: Villain BallScott Halleran/Getty Images
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.
Inside the Actors Studio
Chris Ryan: There are likely hundreds of possible permutations of Western Conference playoff matchups, and it seems like every night, we collectively scream into the fabric of our timelines: “PLEASE GIVE ME A SEVEN-GAME SERIES OF THIS.” Warriors-Thunder, Grizzlies-Blazers, Spurs-Mavs. Last night, I prayed for Clippers-Rockets. Because I want to watch Bane fight the Joker.
The Rockets beat the Clippers (for the first time in almost two years) (!!!) because Houston’s second unit was ridiculous down the stretch — Corey Brewer scored 13 of his total 20 points in the fourth quarter — and L.A.’s second unit is a symphony of nepotism and necrophilia. When Chris Paul was on the bench, the Clippers were outscored by nine points, went 6-of-20 from the field, and managed zero assists, according to the lords over at ESPN Stats & Info. This was not a particularly nuanced game — the Clippers are short one star, and when they sit Paul they suffer — but it was really entertaining.
When Paul and James Harden faced off at the end of the game, it was like seeing Val Kilmer share the screen with Marlon Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau. It was like watching an infinite loop of Al Pacino screaming “WE CLAW WITH OUR FINGERNAILS” in Any Given Sunday.
These are two of the NBA’s greatest hams. They exploit every rule and draw every call. They react to hip checks like lead pipes to the thighs. They never pass on a chance to snap their head and recoil at the faintest upper-body contact. And … you know what? I give up. Bring it on.
I have rolled my eyes at Harden and Paul all year — but last night was too good. One of the best offensive players in the league being checked by one of the best defenders. They might ruin the flow of games and drag their opponents down to their level. But when they squared off toward the end of the game on Wednesday, some kind of reversal of polarities happened — it was like reading a comic book with no good guys.
My Gift to You
The Grizzlies Are Built for This
Andrew Sharp: This is a strange entry to write after a double-digit loss to the Kings. Here are the Cliffs Notes to the actual game: Rudy Gay went off for one of those weird Rudy Gay games where nobody can stop him (28 points, six assists) … Boogie and Z-Bo nearly gave us Pacific Rim 2 during a Grizz comeback in the third quarter … the Grizzlies took the lead and then went ice cold in the fourth quarter (two points in the first five minutes), finally losing a forgettable game in February.
But still. You can see it with the Grizzlies.
They came back from down 13 to beat the Blazers on the road earlier in the week. Then they went to L.A. and took down Chris Paul and a feisty Clippers team in a game that was back-and-forth all second half. And when they came back from a double-digit hole against the Kings in the third, I couldn’t help thinking about the bigger picture.
We talk a lot about randomness with comebacks and winning close games in the NBA, but winning those games is also something like an art. And all great art requires the right tools. The Grizzlies have the tools.
Mike Conley is the perfect combination of steady-all-game and explosive-right-when-you-need-him. Marc Gasol’s threat of shooting or shoveling it underneath to Z-Bo makes him a superb option in the half-court offense when things get tight. Same with Z-Bo post-ups when they need an easy bucket. Jeff Green is a fourth option who helps on both ends, and Courtney Lee gives them a shooter to kick to. Tony Allen is the ultimate pest to accost superstars. Then they have Kosta Koufos confounding people off the bench and Nick Calathes flying all over the floor like the most obnoxious pickup player imaginable. And they all play better defense than almost every other team in the league.
These players won’t dominate everyone, but they form a roster built to grind away at strengths and beat you into submission once things are even. They get teams into foul trouble, they suck the life out of offenses, they exploit smaller matchups, and they can get easy buckets when it’s close. Everyone knows the playoffs in the West will be a war, and wars get ugly. This is the team that’s built to win ugly, and they do it better than anyone. That’s the case for the Grizzlies as Western Conference contenders.
Of course, the counterpoint is that sometimes the offense goes cold, and if that happens while another team’s star loses his mind, they’re screwed. It happened in the fourth quarter Wednesday. But it hasn’t happened very often this year. If you’re betting on the Grizzlies being that fourth-quarter team? Good luck with that. I’m pretty sure I saw everything I needed in the third.
Watch the Woman Behind the Bench
Show Me the Data
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Jason Concepcion: In an age when our ability to separate individual strands of basketball data increases, seemingly by leaps every season, while at the same time the critiques of said advancements — often made by former players — can sound like a spirited defense of slapping schoolbooks out of the hands of super-virgins, it’s heartening to observe that many analytics revelations actually reinforce simple common sense.
Free throws, layups, and 3s are the most efficient forms of offense because, respectively, no one is guarding the shooter, layups happen right at the rim, and three is a larger number than two. Kirk Goldsberry’s recent peek into the hidden world of defense reveals, among other things, that players shoot less well when guarded by good defenders.
Differences of basketball opinion are often differences of perspective. Take reigning rookie of the year Michael Carter-Williams, for example. Philly GM Sam Hinkie deemed MCW to be not a part of his team’s future, so he traded him to the Bucks. Hinkie’s perspective is that of a team builder, and he has to work the angles and the odds. Superstar players are best acquired through the draft; nonstars are replaceable. Hinkie took stock of MCW’s abysmal shooting and iffy decision-making and cashed him in for another roll of the dice. Hinkie’s finance-world-based devotion to process is especially potent in sports because there’s no moral hazard. Each season can be used like a tenement building to be torched for the insurance money, so long as the fans and his bosses don’t complain about the smoke.
During the second quarter of Wednesday’s Bucks-Sixers game, Carter-Williams, with Zaza Pachulia riding backup, encouraged Giannis Antetokounmpo — certainly the best player he’s ever played with — to move the ball after the forward dribbled a possession to death. After halftime, Bucks color analyst Sidney Moncrief broke down a clip of MCW getting shots up in practice, and declared that, with some tweaks and repetition, the kid was bound to improve. Later on, the Bucks television crew put up a graphic noting the similarities between Carter-Williams’s numbers and his coach Jason Kidd’s stats at similar points in their respective careers.
Kidd played MCW only 18 minutes; he was 3-of-5, with seven points, eight assists, and only one turnover. The Bucks stomped Philly. A tiny sample size, it’s true, but you could say the same of Carter-Williams’s Sixers tenure.
Video by Jason Gallagher
San Antonio, We Have a Problem
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Brett Koremenos: The narrative about the Spurs has finally come full circle. After their championship in 2007, every season was supposed to be the end of San Antonio’s incredible run. Their stars were too old, they employed too many castoffs, and they lacked talent. But somehow, as the team’s star trio continued to lose ground to Father Time, the Spurs kept winning.
After they blew away preseason expectations and ended up two games short of the Finals in 2012, the Spurs’ narrative flipped back again. At that point, you were a fool to count them out. It didn’t matter how old they got, or how average they looked on paper. Pop and Tim Duncan would go back to the lab and concoct some formula from the scraps of Boris Diaw’s pregame buffet, keeping the great San Antonio machine chugging along deep into June.
After getting dropped — hard — by Portland, 111-95, San Antonio has now lost four games in a row. Duncan is still doing the old-man Duncan thing pretty damn well, but the rest of the team is slipping. Tony Parker ranks 88th among point guards per ESPN’s catchall stat, real plus/minus. Patty Mills, last year’s super-sub, had a solid shift against Portland but is still shooting only 39.8 percent from the field as he shakes off the rust from offseason shoulder surgery. Diaw, destroyer of the Heat, was 2-of-11 from the field last night and looks worn out after a two-year stretch that saw him play in two NBA Finals and lead France to a deep run in the FIBA Basketball World Cup. Even Kawhi Leonard, hailed as the team’s next cornerstone, has been barely making a dent as of late — the team is outscoring opponents by -3.0 points per 48 minutes over the past five games when he plays, and that doesn’t include his minus-13 performance from Wednesday.
I am not going to be the guy to write the obit, but it sure looks like the beautiful basketball machine in San Antonio is billowing smoke. If this is the end, I hope you enjoyed the ride while it lasted. I know I did.
The Only Banana
Gallagher: Before the Rondo trade, Dallas had that Rick Carlisle flow offense on lock — putting up legendary numbers that made it one of the most fun teams to watch. The Mavs were such a good time. They weren’t going to win anything, sure, but neither was Guardians of the Galaxy, and everybody loved that shit.
Fast-forward to February, and the Mavs just aren’t that fun anymore. The offense doesn’t flow like it used to, the injury bug is camping out, and that bench has the power to make me sad, like a child with no friends. This is a team that is praying to the almighty father that Charlie Villanueva doesn’t get injured. Think about that, then erase it from your memory forever.
The worst part of post-trade Dallas is that Rondo is obviously not fitting into this offense. His insistence on holding the ball while rarely ever attacking is throwing a massive wrench in Carlisle’s game plan. Another wrench? Rondo screaming at his head coach, resulting in conduct detrimental to the team.
While this website is on the subject of Second Bananas, let’s talk about Mavs hierarchy for a sec.
Despite all the issues, Mad Rick has Dallas playing well enough to stay competitive in the toughest West imaginable. Right now, the Mavs are just 1.5 games back from the 3-seed, with a defense that has improved tremendously. Rick is having another incredible coaching season, but genius only gets you so far. Dallas is riding a fine line between good and great right now, and the tipping point in either direction is Rondo. If he can’t take advantage of this perfect situation, in which a team’s success is largely determined by his ability to play above-average ball, I don’t see anyone giving him that max contract he’s chasing — not even the Lakers.
Let’s Check In on the Wizards
Sharp: Everything is fine. We just need better effort. Everything is fine. We just need better effort. Everything is fine. We just need better effort. Everything is fin— [Gets dragged beneath the bus that Randy Wittman’s been throwing his players under for the past month.]
Play of the Year (of the Week)
Amos Barshad: With respect to the ever-incendiary Steph Curry and reports out of the Dallas–Fort Worth area of paranormal activity vis-à-vis the unlikely reappearances of the ghosts of RJ and STAT, the latest installment of The Play of the Year (of the Week) must go to the bearded one. As an on-the-record ankle truther, it is my honor-bound duty to just quickly point out that if Rubio wouldn’t have misread the situation — watch him look over his shoulder and think Adreian Payne is coming over to hedge — things wouldn’t have ended quite that badly. But yes: That was just the first in a string of events that left the Spaniard on the floor doing his best impersonation of a heap of useless, spare Ikea parts. To speak of the shattering of ankles would be appropriate here, then, although I personally prefer CBS Sports’s Matt Moore’s wording: “James Harden breaks Ricky Rubio.”
The New Adventures of Old Bill Walker
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Danny Chau: Henry Walker, né Bill Walker, did something incredible last night in the Miami Heat’s 93-90 overtime win against the Orlando Magic.
OK, yeah, he made a 3 with 22 seconds left in the game to cut the Magic lead to two. Cool. That’s not what I’m talking about. Ugh, all right, seconds later, he hit the game-tying 3-pointer to send the game to overtime. Sure, whatever. Lots of basketball players do that every year. It’s not that special.
No, look: Last night, Walker (who changed his name because he got sick of people calling him Billy) accomplished something the league has never seen. In the past 30 seasons, there have been 18 players who have attempted at least 11 3-pointers in their second game of the season. A few of the names: Ray Allen, Stephen Curry, Manu Ginobili.
Yet Walker stands alone. He is the only player in NBA history insane enough to take 11 3s in his second game on a 10-day contract.
Let that marinate. Walker took 13 shots last night; 11 of them were from behind the arc. He missed many of them. If you were Walker, playing for your survival in the NBA, you’d probably think to stop after the fourth-straight miss, right? Fifth, tops? Walker missed his first seven attempts from 3, and he was still insatiable. But maturity played a factor in the name change (Henry is Walker’s middle name), and growing up means weathering the storm. It means taking what life gives you. What did Erik Spoelstra and the Heat give him? Two opportunities with less than 30 seconds remaining in an extremely close game. Again, for a player who missed seven straight 3s in his second NBA game since 2012!
“He kept on shooting, and that’s what you like. He has fearlessness about him,” Spoelstra said after the game. There is absolutely no way he would have said that had those last two 3s not gone in. But they did, and so Walker deserves to be commended. It’s been two games and I’m already down to preorder his forthcoming memoir, How to Win Over Your Bosses in Under 10 Days.
Filed Under: NBA, NBA Shootaround, Chris Paul, James Harden, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs, Tim Duncan, Brett Koremenos, Andrew Sharp, Danny Chau, Miami Heat, Jason Concepcion, Michael Carter-Williams, Milwaukee Bucks