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Brook Lopez Is Still Alive, We Think

Larry Nance Jr. serves up a facial for the ages, the Rockets trap the Kings in a hailstorm of 3s, and the Sixers have a sobering moment of realization

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

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

The Brooklyn Nets As Equipment for Living

Jason Concepcion: How do you respond to disappointment? How do you come back from loss? From repeated losses that unfurl like endless weeping storm clouds over years? How do you do it? How do you put yourself back together after Larry Nance Jr. explodes out of the black paint of your home court, like an orca breaching the water, and dunks you into becoming his son? How do you respond to your teammates, your compadres, your brothers in white-and-black arms, when they catch the Holy Ghost at the sight of the baptismal and nearly leap to their feet to speak in tongues? Your name is Larry Nance Jr. Jr. now and you have to explain this to your loved ones and go to the DMV and get your license changed and everything. Your twin brother, Robin, just became an only child.

What do you do now?

You keep plugging. After Nance fed him baby food, Brook Lopez straightened out his uniform, went back to the scene of the crime, and put in work. Subbed in for Luis Scola with seven minutes left in the final frame and the Nets up one, 93–92, Lopez pulled down an offensive rebound and scored three layups in a minute and a half. The Lakers, vacillating between lukewarm (yeah, I did it) and ice cold, would score five more points for the remainder of the game. The Nets won 107–97. This is what Brooklyn has been doing all season: shaking off haymakers and heading, thanklessly, to work. Winning is just a bonus; the Nets are 7–17 and will be shoveling coal in the league’s basement for the foreseeable future and some of the unseeable future, too.

But they’ll keep plugging. Nets general manager and Popovich acolyte Sean Marks eschewed the flashy and expensive for the sensible. He hired Kenny Atkinson, a longtime assistant in the service to Mike D’Antoni and Mike Budenholzer, as head coach. He, in turn, installed the basic components of a modern NBA offense. The Nets play at the fastest pace in the league, take the second-most 3-point attempts, and attack the paint like it hurt their feelings, all per NBA.com. The Nets may not be much to look at now, and they might finish with the league’s worst record, but they’re putting in honest work.

Supersize “Meh”

Ben Detrick: After spending four lottery picks on giants in various states of injury and foreign obligation, the Sixers still haven’t suited up the whole quartet on the same night. They’re perilously close, though (it should happen Friday against the Lakers), and coach Brett Brown has begun tinkering with “twin tower” lineups out of both necessity and the same morbid curiosity that makes teens in horror flicks crack open basement trapdoors with claw marks on them.

On Wednesday, Philly paired Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor against the Raptors, fittingly one of the few teams that still starts two prehistoric big men. The Embiid-Okafor duo had previously spent a total of 15 minutes on the floor together, and Wednesday night’s 123–114 loss will do little to assuage concerns about the functionality of dual-center cohorts.

The plan was to put Embiid, a 7-foot-2 goliath who has demonstrated unique long-range shooting, at power forward, which conceivably would give Okafor breathing room to operate in the paint. Embiid is a joy to watch for numerous reasons, and his ability to pump-fake from behind the line, stride into the lane, and find open teammates while on the move is legitimately jaw-dropping. Early results were positive, as the Sixers paced the scorching Raptors 12–12 over a five-minute span with both centers on the floor.

But as the game wore on, issues became obvious. At times, the big men looked like two people trying to squeeze through a subway turnstile, inadvertently posting up next to each other or shrugging side-by-side at the elbow. With Okafor hogging the paint, Embiid took only six shots in 27 minutes, far below his typical gunner usage. On the other side of the ball, Embiid, who is among the league’s most stifling rim protectors and relentless cock blockers, was relegated to lurking in the short corner near the Raptors’ Pascal Siakam. Meanwhile, Okafor, who moves as if he was wading through waist-high porridge, was bullied in the paint by Jonas Valanciunas (17 points, four offensive rebounds) and had his noggin caved in by a mean-spirited DeMar DeRozan dunk.

Spoiler: The Embiid-Okafor pairing won’t work. Fortunately, another combo pack of Philly bigs might be a better match. Unlike Okafor, Nerlens Noel has the mobility to guard forwards, which would allow Embiid to brutally repel shots at the rim. Noel can’t stretch the floor, but his gazelle-like speed in transition and lob-catching abilities could provide the fluidity that Okafor’s coagulating post play doesn’t. Tune in Friday for the next installment of “The Sixers Return to the ’90s!”

Old Grizz, New Trick

Kevin O’Connor: Since November 28, when Mike Conley was sidelined for at least six weeks by a transverse process fracture in his vertebrae, the Grizzlies are 7–2 with the NBA’s best defensive rating (98.6). They’ve had two big home wins against the Warriors and Blazers, and on Wednesday, they beat the Cavaliers 93–85. The Cavs, of course, were resting their Big Three, but that’s not our focus. Marc Gasol is.

In addition to spearheading the league’s best defense, Gasol has suddenly expanded his throwback offense to fit into the modern NBA with a shot that extends beyond the 3-point line. Against the Cavs, Gasol scored 17 points and hit all three of his triples. It’s the fifth time this year he’s hit at least three 3s after never finishing an entire season with more than three makes total.

Gasol has already attempted more 3s (90) this year than in his previous eight years in the NBA combined (66). Incredibly, it’s the first season of Gasol’s nine-year career in which he’s attempting more shots from behind the arc than from the restricted area, a remarkable shift from a player who had long been a staple of the interior. The chart above details his level of stylistic consistency during his prime: After attempting roughly half of his buckets near the hoop over his first two seasons, Gasol quickly added a midrange skill set. Then, for a while, his game remained static — until now.

Gasol isn’t just attempting more 3s for the sake of taking them, either. He’s splashing them with 45.6 percent accuracy, which is second among all bigs, behind only Channing Frye. As The Ringer’s Danny Chau wrote last week, “You wonder how it could be that this is the first year he’s ever made a serious attempt at shooting from beyond 16 feet.” At 31 years old and coming off a major foot injury, Gasol added a new dimension to his game that could extend his career. That’s what the greats do — they never stop improving.

Sloppy Eater

Haley O’Shaughnessy: By the end of Hornets-Wizards, I had a strange craving for Arby’s cherry turnover (a melty treat that’s worth every cent at $1.19). I’ll blame it on John Wall, who feasted on Charlotte’s mistakes, scoring six points off errors.

The Hornets came into the game with the league’s lowest turnover percentage. Enter the Wizards, who force turnovers at the highest rate in the league, and Wall, who is third in the NBA in steals per game with 2.3. Led by Wall’s remarkable quickness, Washington finished with 20 fast-break points to the Hornets’ five. The Wizards pushed the pace in transition, hassled on defense, and outrebounded the fifth-best rebounding team in the league 41–33. In the third quarter, Wall tipped the ball away from Nicolas Batum, tying Greg Ballard (762) for most career steals in Washington franchise history. Two minutes later, he reached around Marco Belinelli as the wing drove from the corner, shoveled the ball to Marcin Gortat, and became the team’s all-time leader. Wall finished with 25 points, 10 assists, and seven steals. The Hornets finished with 18 turnovers, their highest total all season.

Washington won 109–106, but nearly threw the game away when Belinelli picked off the star point guard, who was trapped in the corner. Wall’s affection for turnovers apparently goes both ways; he finished with eight of his own.

What’s In a Position?

Danny Chau: If you need a recent example of the NBA’s ever-growing culture of adaptability, you could do worse than point to Wednesday night’s surprisingly fun Clippers-Magic bout. The starters at the 3 spot were Austin Rivers and Aaron Gordon, two of the more unlikely small forwards you could imagine, for completely different reasons. Rivers, a player who entered the league as a squirrelly 6-foot-4 combo guard, filled in for an injured Luc Richard Mbah a Moute; Gordon, a 6-foot-9 physical marvel that most futurists would have pigeonholed as a 4–5 hybrid, has almost exclusively spent time as a perimeter player. As fate would have it, they were also the stars of the show, and a reflection of not only positional fluidity, but of the new shot topography that is entrenched in the NBA’s modern style.

Gordon scored a career-high 33 points on 13-of-21 shooting (including 4-of-8 from behind the arc), and Rivers, in a rare start, rained hellfire down on Orlando, going 7-for-10 from deep. How modern were their performances? The two combined for 33 shots; each player attempted only one from midrange (Rivers made his, Gordon didn’t).

Against all odds, Rivers — whose jump-shot form and isolation-heavy tendencies can be likened to a middle schooler’s reenactment of Kobe Bryant’s greatest hits — has transformed into a very good spot-up shooter. Before last night, Rivers was shooting an exceptional 40 percent on 40 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts; after hitting five of his six catch-and-shoot jumpers from behind the arc last night, that percentage is up to a staggering 45.7 percent. Rivers’s steady growth as a role player under the watchful eye of his father is heartening, and almost makes up for his panglossian attempts at juking his defender off the dribble every single game.

Gordon, on the other hand, hasn’t had as much luck from the outside. Even with last night’s 4-for-8 performance from 3, he’s shooting only 32.1 percent from beyond the arc, which not only cramps the Magic’s already-negative space, but hamstrings his own ability to create off the dribble. Last night’s scoring explosion was just a glimpse at what Gordon could be capable of on a regular basis if teams were forced to respect his jumper. Gordon’s shooting 42.1 percent from 3 in his past five games, so there’s hope yet. In any case, a more confident Gordon means more plays like this:

An Old-Fashioned Victory

Carl Brooks Jr.: The Heat may have come away with a 95–89 victory over the Pacers on Wednesday night, but they didn’t make it easy on themselves. Miami had an unbearably sloppy start, with a first quarter that saw the team turn the ball over 10 times. It would’ve been a first quarter straight out of hell if it weren’t for Hassan Whiteside, who for a stretch was Miami’s saving grace. Whiteside got to cooking early, scoring 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting in the first quarter. The rest of the team shot 26.7 percent from the floor in the first 12 minutes.

Whiteside would finish the night with 26 points and 22 rebounds — the fourth 20–20 game of his career. He looked like DeAndre Jordan 2.0, catching alley-oops from Goran Dragic and Tyler Johnson and towering over his opponents on the inside. It seemed like Miami’s most reliable mode of offense all night was dumping the ball into the post and letting its money man get busy. Emerging Pacers star Myles Turner was matched up with Whiteside for most of the game, and was overwhelmed by Whiteside’s ability to rebound out of his area. Whiteside was in the vicinity for 13 offensive rebounds, and managed to pull down six of them. The Heat dominated the Pacers on the boards as a whole, outrebounding the Pacers 58–38 by the final whistle.

Playing for a Heat team that is looking for an identity, Whiteside has proved that he can be the post-Wade face of the organization. In a first quarter that showcased Miami Heat basketball at its ugliest, Whiteside was there to keep the game from slipping away early, giving the rest of the team enough time to come back to its senses. In a time when some have clamored about the lack of true centers in the NBA, Whiteside earned a win for his squad the old-fashioned way.

You Had One Job

Micah Peters: The Rockets put up an NBA-record 50 3-point attempts and made 21 of them in their first outing against the Kings this season. The Kings-iest thing about that November performance is that after the Rockets jumped out to a 38–19 lead on the back of eight 3-pointers in the first frame, Sacramento outscored them in each of the next three quarters. So going into Wednesday night’s game (which Boogie Cousins sat out for rest, which I guess is a thing that happens in December), the plan was simple and easy to remember: At the very least, don’t let the Rockets reach any 3-pointer-related league bests.

Simple and easy to remember, but apparently impossible to execute: The Rockets hit a dozen 3s through the first two quarters on a season-best 63 percent shooting from the badlands. They went back to the locker room with a cushy 64–43 lead at the half. It didn’t get much better from there, as the Rockets finished the game with 22 3-pointers in total. Still, it didn’t feel like a blowout until, you know, it did, when Houston led 110–73 with eight full minutes left in the game.

Though it seemed like the Kings were playing a decent game in the paint, the sky is still blue, water is still wet, and three points is still more than two. Eric Gordon, who’s second only to Steph Curry in 3-point hit rate this season, was on. Trevor Ariza was on, too, as was Kyle Wiltjer and Ryan Anderson — it was death by a thousand laser pointers.

The good news is that the Rockets’ 22 3-pointers were still two short of setting a new NBA regular-season record. So, all in all, things could’ve been worse for Sacramento.

Rockets 132, Kings 98.

“Empty Stats”

Jon Leuer’s 31 Minutes of Fame

Jonathan Tjarks: In the Pistons locker room after their 95–85 win over the Mavericks, the two biggest media scrums belonged to Reggie Jackson and Jon Leuer. Leuer is as anonymous of a five-year veteran as there is in the NBA, but he was the star of the night by virtue of being one of the only players on either team who could buy a basket. The NBA’s 82-game schedule is dark and full of terrors, and a mid-December game between two teams with a combined record of 20–32 is the perfect chance for a player like Leuer to get some rare shine.

A 6-foot-10 pure shooter, Leuer is an archetypal stretch-4, a type of player that has slowly been pushed out of the league over the last few years. With more teams playing 3s as small-ball power forwards, especially on second units, there are fewer spots on rosters for guys with his skill set. The matchup with the Mavs highlighted that, as Leuer had to chase around Harrison Barnes and Justin Anderson, two smaller and faster wings, for most of the night.

Leuer got the better of the mismatch on Wednesday, though, finishing with a season-high 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting, and posted a game-high plus-26 in 31 minutes. He shot over the top of Barnes and Anderson as if they weren’t even there, and whenever the Mavs ran him off the 3-point line, he calmly dribbled to the open spots on the floor and resumed knocking down shots.

There was nothing remotely exciting about his performance, but it featured the type of shotmaking that an offensively limited team like the Pistons desperately needs. It was the kind of performance that could keep Leuer in the NBA for a long time to come. Five years from now, Jon Leuer could be one of the most anonymous 10-year veterans in the league.

Living Like an Old Geezer

Katie Baker: Before the Spurs played the Celtics on Wednesday night, San Antonio reporter Jabari Young tweeted that he had walked out of the locker room just in time to overhear Pau Gasol crooning some Rae Sremmurd lyrics — specifically, “that girl is a real crowd-pleaser.” If that was some sort of The Secret wishful thinking pump-up tactic, it worked.

A few days after playing one-on-one with “coach of whatever he feels like” Tim Duncan, Gasol finished with a double-double of 17 points and 13 rebounds in the Spurs’ 108–101 win over Boston, and also added two steals and six assists. After the game, asked about his musical stylings, he demurred: “It’s just a line.” His own stat line deserved no such deprecation.

It was a good night for old dudes: In addition to Gasol, Tony Parker chipped in 16 points and Manu Ginobili added 12. But they all fell in line behind 25-year-old Kawhi Leonard, who finished the night with 26 points to lead all scorers. And at least two of those points were distinctly Jordanesque. It was as if he wanted to prove to his aging-but-still-got-it teammates how much he respects his badass elders.