It’s Friday, and time for a pre-holiday serving of 10 Things.
1. The super-switchable Celtics
I try to avoid featuring the same team here in consecutive weeks, but when you win 14 straight and interrupt the Warriors’ demolition of the league, rules go out the window.
I’m not sure even Boston’s coaches and front-office folks realized how huge this team is on the wing until they saw everyone play together in preseason. Jaylen Brown is a 6-foot-7 starting 2-guard with a 7-foot wingspan. That is obscene. When the Celtics have any three of Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris, and Marcus Smart on the floor (and, hell, throw in Semi Ojeleye) with Al Horford at center, they can switch seamlessly across four positions.
Zach Lowe examines the Denver Nuggets, who have high hopes for the playoffs and a brighter future around young star Nikola Jokic.
Zach talks to Utah’s Joe Ingles about his one-in-a-million path, Gordon Hayward leaving, American foibles, Quin Snyder’s midnight texts, Dante Exum hero worship, and more.
Sometimes they switch across all five — or Kyrie Irving forces them to by dying on a pick. But everyone downloads second-to-second changes so quickly, they often yank Irving out of a mismatch in the post with an instant re-switch. It is really hard to do that without exposing a passing lane or an open shot, but Boston plays with such hyper-alertness, they pull it off before opponents can take advantage.
Horford has been staying in front of little guys on switches for years, and he’s jaunting around with a new bounce in his step. (He’s also shooting almost 60 percent on post-ups, per Synergy Sports, and that righty jump hook bailed Boston out several times during Thursday’s thriller against the Warriors.) Brown is a monster on defense already. Tatum isn’t as lithe as Brown or as tenacious as Smart, but he’s trying, and he reads the game at a high level.
It was all on display in their win over Golden State. They switched a ton, and when they didn’t — when they put two on the ball — the guys behind the play took up so much space when they spread their arms, they could almost guard two people at once. Brown and Horford dissuaded several passes just by making themselves big away from the ball. And when they fall behind chasing shooters around picks, they make up ground so fast, they interfere with the shot anyway.
Skeptics imagined rookie-year Tatum as a defensive liability who would indulge in too many Carmelo Anthony-style midrangers. Nope. Tatum has been adequate on defense, and about 70 percent of his shots have come either at the rim or from 3-point range. He is one of those guys who moves really fast along the horizontal plane. He’s a glider. He finishes smoothly in traffic with either hand, and navigates with the confidence of a five-year veteran.
Meanwhile, Markelle Fultz is shooting left-handed, Jimmy Butler isn’t shooting much at all, Jae Crowder looks like he aged five years over the summer, and Irving is playing unselfishly (by his standards). Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens might be warlocks.
One minor concern: Stevens is messing around with lineups that include neither Irving nor Horford. By the numbers, they’ve worked, mostly because of unsustainable defense; Boston’s offense has scored fewer than a point per possession in those minutes, per NBA.com. The equation changes once Gordon Hayward returns next season, but those groups should have a quick hook against good teams when it matters.
2. James Harden, lob artiste
Everyone appreciates Harden’s one-step-ahead passing now, but we tend to think mostly of those cross-court lasers to open corner shooters; only LeBron assisted on more corner 3s last season, per data from ESPN Stats & Information.
But Harden is one of the league’s best and most artful lob passers. He is daring, and he uses his dribble to engineer lobs that even the best point guards can’t generate. This is very much a James Harden lob:
That is not what lobs usually look like — not even Harden’s frequent lobs to Clint Capela. The first pick-and-roll gains Houston no traction. Harden realizes that, toasts Jerryd Bayless with an absolutely mean-spirited, right-handed, though-the-legs crossover, and conjures an advantage out of thin air.
He then zips down the gut, straight toward Capela, before drawing the last help defender and lobbing an alley-oop. Most lobs come at diagonal angles. Think of Chris Paul, now Harden’s teammate, tossing an over-the-shoulder lob across the paint to DeAndre Jordan. This is almost a perfectly straight lob. It looks like a shot.
And this … this is audacious:
That is another pick-and-roll that looks to be going nowhere. Toronto is retreating, and about to breathe a sigh of relief after withstanding Harden’s first jab. Harden knows that. He sees Kyle Lowry cheating away from Eric Gordon in the right corner, but not far enough to interfere with an accurate lob.
And so he tosses it from 35 feet, to a spot only Capela can reach, because why in the hell not? Harden is a genius. He can give the architect of Lob City a run.
3. The Bulls’ offense
Picking on a rebuilding team is unfair, and no fun. The Bulls are bad by design.
But holy god, they are unwatchable. Chicago has scored 92.9 points per 100 possessions, by far the worst mark in the league. The only two worse offenses since 2000, per NBA.com: the tankeriffic Charlotte Bobcats of 2011-12 (barely!), and the 17-win Nuggets of 2002-03 — two of the worst teams ever.
They are flirting with the worst free throw rate in modern league history. They take a ton of 3s, which would be good if anyone outside of Lauri Markkanen and Denzel Valentine could make them. Scientists have discovered the cure for Zipser Fever.
None of their ball handlers put stress on defenses. Opponents duck under every pick against Jerian Grant and Kris Dunn. (Dunn has potential to be special on defense — soon.) They switch everything else, daring Chicago’s punchless guards to dust big men off the dribble. That has made life unduly difficult for the otherwise sublime Markennen.
Markkanen has more off-the-bounce oomph than expected, but any sweet-shooting big man needs playmakers to draw the kind of help that unlocks easy pick-and-pop jumpers. Markkanen will have to work for all of his points until Zach LaVine’s merciful return.
4. The Tao of Slow-Mo
It is always fun when players turn an ingrained physical weakness into a tool. Kyle Anderson is so much slower than typical NBA players, his slowness almost works to his advantage. It throws off the timing of NBA defenders used to mirroring the movements of much faster humans. They arrive to a spot expecting Anderson to be there already, only he’s still on the way. Anderson can then hit them with countermoves when they are off balance and out of position.
Defenders rise to contest his shots before Anderson has gotten off the ground; they are falling by the time he reaches peak height. And when unleashes a real NBA juke — like this in-and-out dribble — they don’t really know how to react:
The only funny subplot of Golden State’s blowout win in San Antonio two weeks ago was Kevin Durant. Have you ever played hearts with someone who doesn’t understand basic strategy, passes all the wrong cards, and does well for a few hands just by screwing up the game? That’s probably how Durant felt guarding Slow-Mo. Anderson doesn’t obey basic NBA wing player physics, and Durant couldn’t adjust.
Anderson is a clever passer, too. On that play above, he goads the weakside help defender — Matthew Dellavedova — toward the shooter in the corner, only to skip right over that pass and sling a backward diagonal to Patty Mills.
Anderson is playing more minutes than ever in Kawhi Leonard’s absence, and shooting at a career-best rate. He may finally be solidifying himself as a rotation guy Gregg Popovich will trust across every playoff matchup.
5. The Pelicans, getting creative
The goofball Pelicans are making this work, and it’s not really even that goofy. It’s mostly scary.
DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis are laying waste to everything around them. Davis is shooting over everyone, draining 3s, and dishing assists at a career-best rate. Cousins obliterates whatever appears between him and the basket. He is the NBA’s Kool-Aid Man, only if the Kool-Aid Man had sidestep dribbles and crossovers to avoid illegal direct hits. His stat line doesn’t even make sense.
This was the idea when Dell Demps flipped a first-round pick, Buddy Hield and Tyreke Evans for Cousins — to the degree there was any idea beyond, “We can get a great player for that price? Let’s do it!” — that Davis and Cousins were so gifted, sporting so much shooting and passing craft, they could work around all the limitations that come with playing two traditional big men in the modern NBA. In effect, that they are not traditional big men at all.
They are supremely skilled players who just happen to be giant. The Pelicans are outscoring opponents by almost nine points per 100 possessions with their two behemoths on the floor — an elite margin. Alvin Gentry and Chris Finch are leveraging every bit of that skill by putting both bigs in weird places, and having them interact in ways defenses just don’t expect from players that size. Like, what in the hell is this?
That starts out as a typical Rick Adelman-style corner set, only 7-footers with silky jump shots don’t typically station themselves in the corners. Davis rockets off Jameer Nelson’s pick, but instead of curling around Cousins for a handoff — the normal course of action — he slams Boogie’s man with another pick. And, poof: a screen-the-screener play at the elbow, an unconventional spot, involving a power forward screening for a center. The Raptors had no idea what hit them. These two are awesome in the most literal sense. They inspire awe.
The supporting cast doesn’t measure up, but Gentry has done well to surround the big fellas with at least two competent 3-point shooters at (almost) all times. That will change with Rajon Rondo joining Dante Cunningham in the starting lineup, and it will be fascinating to see if that group sticks.
Gentry has been smart to experiment with three-guard looks involving the Jrue Holiday-Jameer Nelson-E’Twaun Moore trio, and Darius Miller is working as a small-ball power forward off the bench. If Miller keeps shooting like this, he should play alongside the Big Two more; he has logged just 30 minutes total with them so far, per NBA.com.
The Pellies are getting a ton of shots at the rim, and from the corners. Their expected effective field goal percentage — based on location and the proximity of defenders — ranks third in the league, behind only Memphis and Team Math (Houston), per Second Spectrum. They are playing solid defense.
They look better than most of us anticipated. They look like a team with staying power in the playoff race.
6. The (almost) end of Dirk Nowitzki post-ups
This is normal for a lion in twilight. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.
Nowitzki isn’t posting up much anymore — not even when little guys switch onto him. He has attempted exactly one shot via post-up in each of Dallas’ past four games.
And I just miss it, is all. I miss Dirk finding a point guard on his hip at the nail, turning away from the basket to check the time on the opposite shot clock, and holding office hours. I miss him on the left block, driving his right shoulder into someone’s chest, nudging them toward the hoop, and then stepping back in a snap for a one-legger that drips down the glass.
You still see it every now and then. Nowitzki has set the most ball screens of any Maverick, per Second Spectrum — a function of playing center almost full time, and the banishment of Nerlens Noel — so it’s not as if he is uninvolved in the action. But he is mostly a switch-generator and floor-spacer for Harrison Barnes, Dennis Smith Jr., and the Maverick brigade of Mighty Mite guards.
He doesn’t attempt as many impossible contested shots against smothering defense anymore — probably because he knows he can’t make enough of them. He can’t move on defense, but that has been the case with Big Mummy for years now.
This is what almost-40 looks like, I guess. I’ll cherish the moments when Dirk looks 35 again.
7. Non-shooting fouls on lobs
This is becoming one of my little pet peeves about the NBA:
The referees declared that a non-shooting foul. Ditto for this Ish Smith-Andre Drummond lob:
This is a hard call. League rules technically dictate that a player must have control of the ball before referees can determine any contact merits a shooting foul, says Joe Borgia, the league’s senior vice president of replay and referee operations.
“If foul is prior to him catching it,” Borgia says, “You can’t give him a shooting foul. Some of these calls are more difficult than others.”
There is a slippery slope here, too. You don’t want to start awarding free throws for random shoves that happen before a player might get the ball in position to shoot. But officials err too far toward labeling these aborted alley-oops as non-shooting fouls. These plays — and there are others I could have chosen — are shot attempts, even if the player involved never catches the ball. The jump-and-catch is their shooting motion. They are in good position to finish before someone pushes them, and the passes are on target. Sometimes, the ball is already on their fingertips. More of them merit shooting fouls.
The NBA should also do almost everything it can to discourage defenders from pushing or undercutting airborne players.
Here, watch Collins jump four times in four seconds:
Collins is an animal. In a league where a lot of bigs box out areas instead of people, he is a weapon. He has rebounded 16.5 percent of Atlanta misses while on the floor, tied for fourth among all players — and a mark that would lead the league in some seasons. He single-handedly transforms the Hawks from a team that punts the offensive glass into one of the league’s most voracious offensive rebounding outfits.
When he rounds out his game, Collins is going to be good.
Johnson’s icy shooting has contributed to Miami’s sputtering offense — the Heat rank 24th in points per possession despite a nice shot selection profile — but if you want to know why Johnson is a Miami Heat player, just watch plays like this:
JaVale McGee is eight inches taller than Johnson. Factor in wingspan, and the gap is even bigger. Johnson doesn’t care. Dude is fearless leaping at bigger guys around the rim. That is the vaunted Heat culture in a snapshot: unyielding effort, peak conditioning, and a willingness to sacrifice body for team.
Imagine being Rudy Gobert, nine inches taller than Johnson with the longest recorded wingspan in the history of NBA draft archives, and seeing this little pest come out of nowhere to disrupt an easy putback:
What a delightful irritant.
10. Heaves that go in
This is the best. Carmelo Anthony and Tyler Ulis (at least) have already canned half-court heaves after the buzzer this season, and Anthony is a habitual offender — a protector of his shooting percentages at the expense of giving his team a slightly higher chance at three more points. When after-the-buzzer-heaves go in, it is the basketball gods emerging from on high to shame the selfish: “Oh, you care that much about your precious shooting marks? Here: Enjoy the regret of losing out on three points, and a highlight that would have been replayed endlessly across SportsCenter and social media.”
Do not ruin my schadenfreude by pointing out that the extra half-second late-releasers use to gather momentum and find open space might be the only reason these shots go in — that they’d be bricks if shooters rushed to launch them on time. Let me have this.