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NBA Shootaround: MVPorzingis!

Kristaps shines, Westbrook soars, and Vince Carter turns back the hands of time, again

AP Images
AP Images

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

King of the Court: Kristaps Porzingis

Danny Chau: Time, it moves so fast. About a year and a half ago, I wrote about Kristaps Porzingis, the International Man of Mystery Du Jour of the 2015 NBA draft. I countered all of the gross generalities that come with being a highly rated European prospect and offered a few comparisons: Serge Ibaka, or maybe a cross between Kevin Love and Tyson Chandler. They were pie-in-the-sky prognostications at the time; I distinctly remember blushing at the time of publication, worried that I might’ve been too bullish. After his performance Wednesday night, I can safely say I was way off point on my comps. Kristaps isn’t Serge Ibaka. He’s fucking Zeus.

Porzingis scored 35 points on 22 shot attempts last night in the Knicks’ 105–102 win over the Pistons. Twenty-five of those points came in the first 24 minutes of play. Picking a favorite moment from his explosive first half is like picking a favorite child — extremely easy.

It’s this play:

It’s this face:

At 7-foot-3 and 240 pounds, he’s running harder and faster than all five Pistons on a fast break; he’s shooting fadeaways in any manner you can imagine; he’s getting steals by jumping in the air with his limbs splayed out, taking the ball coast to coast for layups; he’s slinking the ball from right to left on crossovers out behind the arc, going down into the post and ball-faking into a spin pivot, at which point he’s lofting up easy hooks down the middle over completely discombobulated defenders. He turned 21 three months ago.

The Knicks aren’t very good, but that’s beside the point. Kristaps has given New York a legitimate reason for Knicks fans to devolve into a bunch of drooling, delirious idiots. Even watching via TV broadcast, Madison Square Garden’s echo chamber feels like a tangible wave. There was a ridiculous, orgiastic crescendo any time he had the ball in his hands in the second half. It was just a lot of fun. New York is having fun experiencing the growth of its new Chosen Son, and Porzingis is having fun living up to the hype. Worry about Phil and everything else some other time, because right now, we’re letting those MVP chants loose.

How Great Is Our Russ?

Who Gives a Damn About Drake Night?

Katie Baker: Here are two things I learned tonight about the Toronto Raptors: (1) Not only do they hold something called Drake Night, but they hold one every year, and last night’s contest against the Golden State Warriors was their third annual; and (2) they assign Drake Night’s guest of honor the finest seats in the house — right next to an urban cowboy with turquoise sneaks, a tucked-in, slim-fit jersey, and a gleaming belt buckle. It seemed like everyone got along great and had similar interests.

Drake wore a black T-shirt with a drawing of ESPN analyst Doris Burke’s face and the words “Woman Crush Everyday.” I’m actually starting to feel a little bit anxious for the poor woman: She told New York magazine’s Rembert Browne back in June that Drake had once turned to her during a Raptors game and shaped his hands like a heart in her general direction. She wasn’t working this ESPN broadcast, but that didn’t stop Drake from calling her a “stunning woman” in a courtside interview and adding that she should come to his house for dinner — alone. Have some chill for once, bud!

The former Degrassi star’s attempts to engage Kevin Durant in trash talk throughout the game were similarly thirsty. Durant responded with 30 points, which included a first-quarter buzzer-beating 3-pointer and a dunk off a backdoor cut; Steph Curry contributed what the announcing team determined was “a quiet” 35. (Shhhh.) But while the Warriors powered their way to a 19-point lead early in the second half, Raptors fans still had a few reasons to get loud. Nineteen third-quarter points from DeMar DeRozan (he would finish with 34 — his ninth game out of 11 with at least 30 points) helped Toronto narrow the deficit and earned DeRozan MVP chants. A dunk from rookie Pascal Siakam prompted Hubie Brown to exclaim: “I love this guy!”

The Raptors couldn’t overcome Golden State, though, and lost, 127–121. After the game, Drake walked by a Durant interview and made his presence known; Durant glared him down. Durant was asked what their interactions were like. “I don’t give a damn about no damn Drake Night,” he said, and walked off the court.

The Wizards of “Aww …”

Micah Peters: I feel for John Wall.

Prior to Wednesday night, the Sixers might have been the only outfit keeping the Wizards from being the worst in the league. And on Wednesday night, the Wizards gave that Joel Embiid–less Sixers team its second win of the season. Now, 10 games in, the Eastern Conference hierarchy isn’t fully formed by any stretch, but with Bradley Beal already injured again, and with a Wizards offense that continues to flow with all the grace and ease of Matthew Dellavedova’s jumper, it’s hard to argue their place way down at 13th. After last night, it’s hard to imagine things looking up from here.

For four consecutive minutes in the first quarter, the Wizards couldn’t score a single basket against Dario Saric, Ersan Ilyasova, Hollis Thompson, Nik Stauskas, and T.J. McConnell, which might be one of the least intimidating five-man units you can put on the floor. Ten minutes into the game, Washington was down by 15.

John Wall, as he does, tried like hell. He put up 23 points in the second half, and 13 of those points came in a fourth quarter in which the Wizards outscored the Sixers 26–21. But, leading 103–100 with a little over a minute left to play, the Sixers sidestepped what looked like a crucial Wizards stop, finding Richaun Holmes wide open for a corner 3. That about wrapped up the game, in essence.

In essence, but not in actuality — Wall damn near hacked Saric to pieces on a breakaway with 1.2 seconds left on the clock and was fortunate not to catch a flagrant, or his third (!) ejection in about a week. It was a textbook death-rattle-frustration foul, which you yourself might have committed if you were beset on all sides by crippling, paltry mediocrity.

John Wall finished with 27 points and six assists. The Wizards lost, 109–102. I feel for the guy.

What a Time to Be an NBA Fan

Vince Carter and His Refinement of the Decline

Jonathan Tjarks: The Clippers have been the early juggernaut of the NBA season, thanks in large part to a veteran-led bench crew that has actually been expanding leads instead of sitting on what the starters give them. It looked like their bench would do more of the same against the Grizzlies, until fate, in the form of a 39-year-old Vince Carter, intervened. It was like Vince was balling in a time machine, draining jumper after jumper from all over the floor. He was actually making the Clippers reserves look mortal for a stretch.

Tracy McGrady, Jalen Rose, and Chauncey Billups were working the halftime show for ESPN. Paul Pierce has been buried so far on the Clippers bench this season that the cobwebs are showing. But Vince is still out here fighting the good fight against Father Time. It wasn’t just Wednesday night either. The oldest man in the NBA has almost doubled his scoring average from last season, when he averaged 6.6 points a game on 38.8 percent shooting and looked about done. Carter has a better net rating than Marc Gasol and Mike Conley this season, and he’s in four of the Grizzlies’ most productive two-man pairings.

Vince finished with 12 points, three rebounds, two assists, and one steal on 5-of-10 shooting, but his most impressive play of the night happened off camera. The ESPN crew challenged him to do a 360 in warm-ups, and according to the announcers during the telecast, he actually pulled it off. Get this man back in a dunk contest.

Another Shot at Cleveland History, Dashed

Haley O’Shaughnessy: LeBron James rested against the Pacers on Wednesday, which makes sense, because:

1. He has 47,231 career minutes in the regular season and playoffs. He’s 31. (57 in NBA years, 217 in dog years.)

2. The Cavaliers came to Bankers Life Fieldhouse on the second night of a back-to-back in which James played 38 minutes and was a rebound away from a triple-double in a highly competitive game against the Toronto Raptors.

3. James averaged 35.6 minutes per game in the 2015–16 regular season and 39.1 in the playoffs; in the 97 games he played, James logged less than 30 minutes in only nine of them. Tyronn Lue is understandably trying to give his star more breaks after an exhausting season.

But 10 games in, he’s averaging 37 minutes per game, more than either of his previous two seasons with the Cavaliers. Considering the Cavs’ statement win over the Raptors the night before, and how unimpressive the Pacers have looked so far, it seemed as good a time as ever for LeBron to lounge on the sidelines in a nice suit and fake glasses (10/10, very sharp). But James’s dapper chill session was actually unfortunate timing for the Cavs: With a win, Cleveland would have had its best start in franchise history. Also, without LBJ, Myles Turner wouldn’t be able to do this again:

Cleveland has had its struggles in Indianapolis, where, save an overtime victory in 2016, the team hasn’t won since January 2010, when LeBron was on the team the first time around. So, with home-court advantage against an undermanned team, the Pacers had a really good chance to win, and, more importantly, stop Cleveland from making team history.

And they did! The Pacers shot 50 percent from the field for the game, and won by committee, with five players reaching double figures. Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, despite combining for 51 points, couldn’t pull it off by themselves; there wasn’t another Cavalier that scored more than nine points.

With the 103–93 loss, Cleveland has now lost 12 of its past 13 trips to Indianapolis. The Cavs didn’t break a franchise record, either. But somehow, I don’t think LeBron or the team are too torn up about any of that.

Little Big ’Bound

Kevin O’Connor: The NBA can be weird. Of the players ranked in the top 25 in rebounds per game there are 21 big men (as you would expect), two point forwards (LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo), one Terminator on a mission to destroy everything in his path (Russell Westbrook), and one 6-foot-2 guard who in his career averaged 2.6 rebounds per game entering this season (Avery Bradley).

Bradley is averaging 8.7 a contest, nearly quadrupling his output prior to this season. Over the past six years he’s reached 10 rebounds only twice, and he’s done it in six of 11 games this season, posting a career-high 13 in the Celtics’ 90–83 win over the Mavs on Wednesday. This is like finding Hassan Whiteside on the assist leaderboard: a statistical anomaly that has no business being a reality. Yet, this isn’t random statistical noise. It’s exactly what the Celtics need. “It’s just something the team needs and I’m here to do whatever I can to help our team,” Bradley said after the game.

The Celtics are one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the NBA. None of their bigs have ever been consistent double-figure rebounders, so they’re boxing out with the bigs and having the guards and wings swoop in to secure rebounds. Bradley has taken full advantage by channeling his bouncy athleticism in an area he never has before. It remains to be seen if his big rebounding numbers sustain, but if they stay above eight per game he’ll go down as the all-time single-season leading rebounder for a player 6-foot-2 or shorter.

Until Next Week