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NBA Shootaround: Major League

Ha ha, there was basketball on Wednesday night

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

Kings of the Court

Chris Ryan: We take the King of the Court award very seriously at The Ringer. We’ve been doing it for four whole days, and it’s something we think is a core part of our business. When you’re picking the best player of any given NBA night, you’re writing history. It’s important to watch the games, look at the numbers, and really understand the NBA as a night-to-night organism. It’s not about the narrative, it’s not about the “he said, he said.” It’s about making the extra pass, taking the charge, Dr. James Naismith, and practicing jump shots in a cornfield. It’s about basketball. Just basketball.

Now, let’s crown J.R. Smith for taking his shirt off at a World Series game.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Congratulations to the Chicago Cubs and their supporters, etc. And, yes, well played, Snapgod:

But the Cavs were the Kings of the Court last night. On a Wednesday when the NBA decidedly took a backseat to the National Pastime©, it’s only right to give this hallowed recognition to the NBA’s best ambassadors: a hulkamaniac LeBron James and a shirtless J.R. Smith. It’s been 108 years (minus 107 years and seven-plus months) since J.R. went topless. The curse is over. Long live the curse.

The Deaf, Dumb, and Blind New York Knicks

Jason Concepcion: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man plays point guard.

The Knicks, with their helter-skelter collection of new players, have shown no ability to score or defend. They’re blind, deaf, and until they deign to run pick-and-pops for their best shooter, Kristaps Porzingis, they are dumb. The Rockets of Mike D’Antoni and James Harden, meanwhile, don’t defend but fill buckets like a heavy rain.

Houston came to Madison Square Garden with a 109.7 offensive rating; an elite number in any era. New York’s offensive rating was a putrescent 96.8, which would have been second from the bottom last season. If your team scores that poorly, it had better be able to defend. Here’s the Knicks’ best defensive stop against the Rockets:

Sam Dekker needs to go into witness protection now. This stain will never wash away. Aside from Sam’s inner ear and feet rising in rebellion against his central nervous system, Rockets players moved and scored as they pleased. Harden, of course, was at the center of everything in the Rockets’ 118–99 win on Wednesday.

Through four games, Harden was nurturing a 35 percent usage rate with a 28 percent assist ratio, averaging 32 points, 11.8 assists, and 7.4 rebounds. If those numbers are indicative of the rest of his campaign, Harden will be the first player to go 30–11–7 since Oscar Robertson in 1965–66. So that’s good.

At MSG, Harden floated over the court. Each stabbing dribble and shoulder shimmy built anticipation toward the inevitable crescendo of the ball finding the basket, in myriad ways — bouncing it to a cutter for an easy 2; delivering it gently, like the stork, into the waiting hands of an open shooter; swiveling to the rim for a basket of his own; pulling up from deep. He finished the game with 30 points, 15 assists, and six rebounds. By the end of the game, the Garden was chanting “We want Harden” and “Melo sucks.” That’s unfair; everyone sucked.

But I didn’t see that because I had long since switched to Game 7.

For One Night Only, Amir Johnson Was Dirk

Kevin O’Connor: The spirit of Dirk Nowitzki has possessed Amir Johnson. Entering Wednesday night’s contest with the Bulls, Johnson had only 58 3-pointers in his 668-game career. He ended it with 62. Johnson hit a career-high four 3-pointers (on four attempts) and scored 23 points, leading the Celtics to a 107–100 win over the Bulls. “This was not on the scouting report,” Dwyane Wade said after the game. “We don’t mean disrespect to the guy, but that’s the shots that you want. Tonight it was the shot that he wanted. And he got ’em.” Johnson usually serves as the Celtics’ rim-running big, but with Al Horford out of the lineup he took on the floor-spacing role.

It’s not just the career highs that made Johnson’s night so unusual, it’s the aesthetics of his performance. When he gathers his shot, it’s like he’s loading a 16th-century musket or using Windows 95. Johnson is the sloth of shooters. You don’t usually see guys shooting like that going 4-for-4 from behind the arc, and we might not see Johnson do it again for the rest of his career.

The Jazz, Climbing Out From the Abyss

Danny Chau: As a default setting, the Utah Jazz are wired to drag games into hell. They played at the slowest pace in the league last season, and held teams under 90 points nearly as many times (28) as they allowed teams to score over 100 (32). Stifling defense was a way of biding time — for their young and emerging talent to blossom, for the front office to enlist reinforcements. The Jazz had shown promise for years now, and finally, this season’s iteration has the proper makeup for an actual postseason run. You wouldn’t have known it in the first quarter of Wednesday’s Mavericks-Jazz game. The first 12 minutes was some of the goriest basketball of the early season; both teams combined to shoot 28.5 percent from the field and had a 15–14 score to show for it. The Jazz may have been riding the wave of beating San Antonio the night before by double digits for the first time since 2009, but come on.

Things got better, because you really, really can’t get any worse than that. George Hill, Rodney Hood, and Joe Johnson all had their moments lighting up the Mavericks defense from behind the arc; Dante Exum got into the mix, too! The Jazz scored 82 points in the final three quarters, eventually winning 97–81 by shooting the basketball at a professionally acceptable rate. Suddenly, it’s clear that this team is far removed from those years on the ground floor when hoping Gordon Hayward doesn’t turn the ball over on a hero-ball dribble drive was the only real expectation from the offense. This team has scorers, and it’s still without its best player, Hayward, and Alec Burks, one of the more creative reserves in the league.

The Jazz’s defense will keep them competitive against anyone: Over the last four games, they have held opponents to an average of just over 87 points per game. More promising: Utah will be at full strength sooner rather than later, and I’m excited to see what that means for the offense. Because while this team has serious potential, it won’t have any kind of mainstream breakthrough if it keeps playing 15-point quarters.

The New Guy

Haley O’Shaughnessy: After two years of “The Process” being injured, Brett Brown isn’t playing around with recovery time. Three Dream Shake–y performances into the season, the Sixers opted to leave Joel Embiid, their ROY hopeful, at home to rest. Taking his place was Jahlil Okafor, who, also returning from an injury, had sat out the previous game.

Okafor expected his minutes to be beefed up against Charlotte, and he saw the matchup as an opportunity for his “rhythm [to] come back.” Except in his first spell on the court (nine minutes), he accrued three fouls, limiting his playing time for reasons other than his injury-prone knee.

What happened next was undeniably Sixersesque: With 3:11 to go in the half, Ersan Ilyasova, whom you may know from Oklahoma City, Orlando, Detroit, or Milwaukee — all rosters he’s been on in the last three years — checked in for Okafor. Philly acquired him from the Thunder on Tuesday because of his shooting (he finished last season with an effective field goal percentage of 49.6), as well as his ability to help space the floor. Barely 24 hours after his trade, playing for a new coach, with new faces and new rotations, the 6-foot-10 forward looked like the most efficient offensive player in a blue jersey. Playing just 23 minutes in the team’s 109–93 loss to the Hornets, he finished the game tied for a team-high 14 points, adding three rebounds and two assists. It was a good start for him in Philly, but now the Sixers have to deal with the fact that he was one of the team’s most productive players — and what that says about how the team operates without Embiid.

Pay Alex Len?

Jonathan Tjarks: Alex Len is alive. The Suns got their first victory of the season with a dramatic, 118–115 overtime win over the Blazers on Wednesday, but the most exciting Suns story line to come out of the game might have been the play of their fourth-year center. Len became a forgotten man almost as soon as he was drafted fifth overall back in 2013. He was injured for most of his rookie season, started to come on as a sophomore, and then stalled when the Suns signed Tyson Chandler before his third season.

A few days ago, Len had to watch three other centers drafted after him — Gorgui Dieng, Steven Adams, and Rudy Gobert — sign extensions worth a combined $266 million. The silence on his potential new deal was deafening. In his second game since the extension deadline, he showed he could play a little as well, finishing with 18 points, six rebounds, and three blocks in 21 minutes. He bullied fellow reserve center Meyers Leonard, scoring in the post, in the pick-and-roll, and on the offensive glass. He even stepped out and knocked down a midrange jumper, and went 6-for-6 from the free throw line. He used his length to lock down the lane, and the Suns even had him extending out and guarding the pick-and-roll at times. He couldn’t stay with either Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum — how many young 7-footers can? — but he did look pretty mobile out on the perimeter.

The Suns are in a tough spot with Len. They still have Chandler on the books for two more years, on a contract that will be almost impossible to trade, and they have two young big men just drafted in the lottery — Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss — pushing for playing time behind him. But Chandler represents a possible parallel (and source of optimism) for Len’s development. The 16-year veteran exemplifies the perils of giving up on a young center so early in his career. Phoenix isn’t going anywhere this season, so it is going to have to find out what it has in Len before he hits restricted free agency. He’s still just 23 years old. Drafting is about the only thing the Suns have done well under GM Ryan McDonough. It’s too soon to give up on one of his top-five picks.

See You Soon