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NBA Shootaround: Creature Comforts

Klay Thompson is back, the Magic continue their growing pains, and James Harden’s stat bombs are here to stay.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Welcome to the NBA Shootaround, The Ringer staff’s weekly run through the league, told in riffs and GIFs.

Klay Has Risen

Jonathan Tjarks: Harrison Barnes never had a chance for a revenge game in his return to Oracle. Playing on the second night of a back-to-back and with several players nursing injuries, the Mavs went to battle against the Warriors without Dirk Nowitkzi, J.J. Barea, Wesley Matthews, Deron Williams, and Andrew Bogut on Wednesday. Klay Thompson made it quick; the game was over by the end of the first quarter after Klay erupted for 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting, four of the makes coming from 3.

Thompson came into the game averaging 17 points on 41.2 percent shooting, well off his numbers from last season, and shooting an abysmal 20.8 percent from 3. It’s been a strange start: Thompson should have had the easiest transition of any of the Warriors stars. He doesn’t need the ball in his hands for very long, and his game is predicated on cutting off the ball, running off screens, spotting up for 3s, attacking closeouts, and taking quick shots over smaller guards. He could fit on every team in the league, regardless of the personnel around him.

It was only a matter of time before he got going, and the Mavs got the full experience in a two-minute, 15-second span when Thompson knocked down four 3s in a row. He got one out of a scramble for a loose ball, another in transition, and two more from miscommunications between Mavs defenders when he was coming off screens. Rick Carlisle called two timeouts to try to stem the bleeding, but he might as well have waved a white towel. The fight was over.

If Steph and KD are the steady jabs that wear you down over a full 12 rounds, Klay is the overhand punch that can end it at any time. Things can get out of hand in a hurry when one guy can score that many points that quickly, all within the flow of the offense. There were 40 minutes left to play, but this game, a 116–95 Warriors victory, ended by TKO at the four-minute mark of the first quarter.

Thibod’eau de Toilette

Jason Concepcion: That thick funk pouring into your nostrils — freshly turned earth, leather, Men’s Wearhouse, Old Spice, wintergreen Life Savers, car freshener, and something that’s probably Red Bull but also could be Diet Coke — is new-coach smell.

Ten teams shuffled into the season with brand-new skippers at the helm. Six of them — the Magic, Wizards, Knicks, Grizzlies, Pacers, and Kings — are currently ranked in the bottom 10 in net rating. New coaches invariably bring new concepts, which, it turns out, take time for teams to absorb (See: Triangle Offense, The). If a team also happens to have a lot of new players, the process can be excruciating. Case in point: Frank Vogel’s Orlando Magic.

Vogel envisions the Magic as an eventual elite defensive team in the mold of his bruising Indiana Pacers teams. To that end, this summer, Orlando bolstered its core of promising but sushi-raw naifs with some veteran steel in the form of Serge Ibaka (acquired in the Victor Oladipo trade), D.J. Augustin (four years, $29 million), Bismack Biyombo (four years, $72 million), and Jeff Green (one year, $15 million). This was the plan: Serge would provide needed rim protection and floor spacing; D.J. would provide steady backup minutes for Elfrid Payton; Bismack would be the first big off the bench; and Jeff Green would add Orlando to the list of cities that he has disappointed.

In practice, the results are … well, the Magic just really need more practice. Good defensive teams defend in depth, taking away their opponent’s first, second, and third options with smart schemes designed to stifle pick-and-rolls backed by smartly executed rotations. The Magic may get there at some point. Certainly, they have the personnel to be a decent defensive team, at the very least.

But they aren’t. Only 10 teams, per, contest fewer shots. Only two teams give up more made shots inside five feet. Orlando’s paltry 8.8 deflections per game is the worst mark in the league. The next-worst team is the Sixers with 11 deflections per game. No team on the list trails their next-highest neighbor by more than one deflection except Orlando.

And, yet, the Magic came into their game against the Timberwolves (perfumed by the new-coach smell of Tom Thibodeau) with a record of 3–4, while Minnesota, with roughly league-average offensive and defensive numbers, had but one win in six games.

This game was over in the first quarter. Andrew Wiggins, playing deputized minutes as a primary ball handler with Ricky Rubio out and Kris Dunn not quite ready, scourged the Magic for 14 points in the first frame. Frank Vogel burned three timeouts in the first nine minutes of the game, and basically looked so mad he wanted to cry. Hey, I’ve been there. And recently.

Timberwolves 123, Magic 107.

Deep Numbers

Haley O’Shaughnessy: Thank God for early-season basketball, where we can have fun with erratic and often unpredictable numbers without consequence. The Raptors traveled to Oklahoma City as the worst 3-point shooting team in the league, sinking only 26 percent of their attempts. The Thunder entered the game as top-tier perimeter stoppers, holding opponents to a league-low 28.4 percent on attempts behind the arc — in OKC’s first seven games, teams who played against the Thunder shot 4.3 percentage points lower from 3 than their season average. On Wednesday night, Toronto was probably going to have to find another way to score.

But probabilities, as we’ve learned of late, can’t account for everything. Sometimes, teams just catch fire. The Raptors went 11-for-26 from beyond the arc at Chesapeake Energy Arena, notching 33 points from what has been a dead zone for them all season against a very good Oklahoma City defense. (For context, it took Toronto the first three games of the season to make 11 3-pointers.)

The Raptors pulled out the 112–102 victory, though the Thunder nearly surged back at the beginning of the final frame with timely 3s of their own. Victor Oladipo hit one midway through the fourth quarter to bring OKC within six. Dipo, who makes less than two 3s a game, finished shooting 5-for-9 from 3. It didn’t matter, though. With just over three minutes remaining, Kyle Lowry — who’s struggled to find his shot this year, making only 28.2 percent from behind the arc — sealed the game with (what else?) a beautiful dagger from deep.

How Good Are the Hawks?

The Red Sea Has Parted for James Harden

Kevin O’Connor: After eight games, James Harden now leads the league in assists by a wide margin with 104, with 15 coming in the Rockets’ 101–99 win over the Spurs in San Antonio. Former teammate Russell Westbrook, who has also played in eight games, comes in second with 76.

Clint Capela was a perfect 5-for-5 on passes received from Harden against the Spurs on Wednesday, and on the season The Beard has assisted on 22 of Capela’s 37 total field goals. Houston should start calling itself Lob City South after plays like this:

Chris Paul connected with DeAndre Jordan on 2.1 makes (mostly lob dunks) per game last season; Harden and Capela are actually exceeding that rate so far this year with 2.8 makes per game (data derived from SportVU). The Rockets have made such frequent use of the Harden-to-Capela alley-oop that defenses are guarding against the mere threat of it. If Capela rumbles down the lane while Harden drives, sometimes the defender protects against the lob instead of Harden, like LaMarcus Aldridge does here:

Capela is essentially parting the Red Sea for Harden by diving to the rim. Harden is already one of the best in the league at methodically getting to the rim but his path this season could be even simpler with the threat of Capela. Enhanced by Mike D’Antoni’s offense, Harden is off to a ferocious start with averages of 30.6 points, 13 assists, and 7.8 rebounds per game, and it doesn’t appear he’ll slow down anytime soon.

John Wall Is Fed Up

Mere hours after paying a $25,000 fine on Wednesday for the ejectable offense of bumping an official during Monday’s loss to the Rockets, Wall was ejected again for laying hands on Marcus Smart’s neck area late in the fourth quarter of the Wizards’ 118–93 victory over the Celtics. At this point, it might be easier to list the things in this world that Wall isn’t angry at.

Behold, the Magic of Steve Clifford

Danny Chau: After a 104–98 win over the Utah Jazz, the Charlotte Hornets are now 6–1 on the season, tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers for the best record out East. It’d be hard to point out anything the team is exceptional at so far in the season, outside of winning games that they’re supposed to win. The Hornets are still very much a by-committee squad — the Hornets had six players in double figures (and Nicolas Batum scored nine points) with three of them coming off the bench. The team has no identifiable franchise player, and you could make the argument that the face of the franchise is the most unrecognizable person sitting on its bench. While Charlotte hasn’t made much noise in the postseason, the job that head coach Steve Clifford has done is nothing short of remarkable.

Every year, he has players who have no business working out within his system foisted upon him, and he finds new ways for them to overachieve. The Charlotte Hornets currently have the third-best net rating in the league, and have allowed just 95.4 points per 100 possessions in seven games. Give Clifford the reins to any player 6-foot-11 and taller, no matter where they are on the athletic spectrum, and he’ll find a way to make that player a plus defender. The team also just doesn’t make mistakes. Since Clifford took over the head-coaching job in 2013–14, Charlotte has had the lowest turnover percentage in the NBA every single year, like clockwork. The Hornets are no. 1 so far this year, and it’s a quirk that’s becoming one of the league’s more interesting records.

The Hornets have had one of the weakest schedules of the early season, with only one of their games prior to Wednesday night against a team with a record above .500. Their win against the Jazz was the first of five games that should offer a much clearer image of how good they actually are. In the span of a week, they will face the Raptors, the Cavs, and the Hawks, their presumptive competition among the Eastern Conference elite. I can’t predict how they’ll fare, but I can assure you the games will be competitive.