People Keep Asking Me If I’m Back
Jason Concepcion: Grizzlies-Pistons was a matchup between two teams, both on three-game losing streaks, both of whom had recently been excoriated by their coaches.
After a 113–82 curb-stomping under the hooves of the Bulls on Monday, Stan Van Gundy diagnosed the Pistons’ issues as stemming from, simply, a lack of trying, and vowed to shake up his faltering starting lineup. “That’s where it starts: Run up and down the floor. Get down in a stance and play hard. That’s where it all starts, and that’s where it always starts.”
On Tuesday, the Grizzlies were up 17 on the Celtics in the third quarter. Then Isaiah Thomas proceeded to slice Memphis into bite-size cubes of salted bear meat on his way to a career-high 44 points — 36 after the half — which he amassed on 16 shots. The Grizzlies would lose in overtime.
After the game, coach David Fizdale called out his veterans for the meekness with which they approached the second half. “No one wants to step up and lead this group yet during this tough time,” Fizdale said. “I’m going to keep demanding it and see who’s going to rise to the challenge.” Fizdale is no blowhard. For him, essentially the new guy, to question the pride of the entrenched veteran core of his team, was certainly a calculated step, taken in all seriousness. I mean, this is Grit ’n’ Grind we’re talking about. Tony Allen. Mike Conley. Z-Bo. Big Marc Gasol. These are the dudes you’re calling out?
Gasol, when asked, didn’t comment on his coach’s stinging critique. Instead, he made a face that looked like when John Wick discovers his puppy has been murdered.
And that’s how it came to pass that Marc Gasol, on the road, on the second night of a back-to-back, went through the Pistons like an action hero with a grudge.
Gasol gave the Pistons buckets in more flavors than a dim sum cart. With his back to the basket, footwork as meticulous as a tap dancer’s, he manipulated Andre Drummond around the post like he was a backpack. Drop step, hook shot. On the left block against Jon Leuer: Jab, pump fake, bully past the helpless reserve, layup. Turnarounds. Face-up jumpers. He scored points 15, 16, and 17 by conning Leuer (poor, poor Jon Leuer; his day started with a car accident and ended with getting roasted alive by Marc Gasol) into a foul 30 feet from the basket with 1.4 seconds left in the half. Gasol, laughing, walked to the line and asked Leuer, a former teammate, “What are you doing?” He was killing them so bad, he actually felt bad about it.
Marc’s line: 38 points, 14-of-17 from the floor, five rebounds, four assists, two blocks. Grizzlies win 98–86.
The Limits of Small Ball
Jonathan Tjarks: With Dwight Howard out with a back injury, the Hawks have taken small ball to its logical extreme in their past two games, starting 6-foot-8 Paul Millsap at center and 6-foot-7 wing Thabo Sefolosha at power forward. Coach Mike Budenholzer’s experiment worked on Monday in a 110–108 win over the Thunder, a game that saw Atlanta play only one guy over 6-foot-8 (Mike Muscala) for a grand total of 11 minutes. But it ran into a brick wall on Wednesday against the Wolves’ Twin Towers frontcourt of Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng.
There were matchup problems from the start. Rather than putting Kyle Korver on Andrew Wiggins or Zach LaVine, the Hawks tried to hide him on Dieng. They were comfortable with Dieng posting Korver, but Atlanta had no answer when the Wolves used Dieng in pick-and-rolls. Not only was Korver unaccustomed to guarding the ball handler coming off a screen, he wasn’t long or athletic enough to prevent Ricky Rubio from dropping passes right into the hands of his big men. When they put Towns in the pick-and-roll, Korver was the designated helper in Atlanta’s defense, and there was nothing he could do to stop Towns once he got the ball in the paint. Minnesota’s two sentinels up front combined for eight points in the first four minutes, and the Hawks were forced to take a timeout down 12–2.
After the timeout, Budenholzer waived the white flag on his über-small lineup, putting Muscala in the game, and the Hawks played the Wolves even the rest of the night. However, the final score was 92–84, which was exactly the eight points they gifted Towns and Dieng at the start of the game. A long-standing complaint about the NBA is that nothing important happens until the final two minutes of the game, but sometimes outcomes are decided in the opening few.
Quiet on the Set!
A Rivalry in the Making?
Katie Baker: It’s been a big couple of days in the young life of Kyrie Irving. On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen made the convincing case that Irving’s 3-pointer in Game 7 of this past year’s NBA Finals was the biggest shot of all time. That night, Irving scored 28 points in the Cavaliers’ overtime win against the Milwaukee Bucks. Then on Wednesday, the 24-year-old Irving and his good friends at Nike unveiled a preview of his latest sneaker, the Kyrie 3, which features what look like little heat maps on the soles but that are actually “traction pods” to “enhance traction for hard cuts.” And a few hours later, there Irving was — enhanced-tractioning all over the Milwaukee Bucks.
Irving finished with 31 points and a career-high 13 assists as the Cavaliers won, 113–102 (after finding out that J.R. Smith will be out for at least a month with a fractured thumb). He passed behind the back to Iman Shumpert for a 3 out on the wing; he dished out to LeBron James for another long-range shot. According to the broadcast team, five of his first seven assists resulted in 3-pointers. He did some Globetrotter ish and Euro-stepped lively through basically the entire Bucks five (I’m willing to explore giving Rashad Vaughn a pass), dragging his leg like a diver on a springboard and making a big splash.
The Cavaliers and Bucks have the makings of a fun rivalry: LeBron and Kyrie versus Giannis and Jabari; Malcolm Brogdon versus the world; Richard Jefferson versus Jason Terry. After the Cavs’ 11-point victory, the point differential across the three games these two teams have played this season is exactly zero. We could use a seven-game series here.
I hate to support Twitter’s weird NBA team hashtags, but there’s something so fitting about the Cavs-Bucks ones: #DefendTheLand versus #OwnTheFuture. The Bucks showed constant flashes of what’s to come: 21-year-old Jabari Parker had 27 points that included a two-handed dunk in transition. Giannis Antetokounmpo, that unicorn, finished the night with 28. At one point, a Matthew Dellavedova steal led to a Terry behind-the-back pass that led to a Antetokounmpo dunk. Dellavedova, the former Cavalier, was given his NBA championship ring before the game, and was mobbed by his former Cavs teammates. Unfortunately, the warm welcome ended there: After that, the poor guy had to guard Kyrie Irving.
Danny Chau: Eric Gordon is living his best life right now. This is what it looks like when your coach has complete faith in you, and you have no reason to argue against his will. The Rockets reserve guard shot 13 3-pointers coming off the bench, hitting seven of them in Houston’s 125–111 win over the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday. He has taken 145 3-pointers in the last 15 games, more than anyone else in the league, and he’s done it in fewer minutes than any other player in the top 10 — and he’s shooting them at an unfathomable 49 percent clip.
Gordon has become an overlay of every player Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni has ever artificially inflated to perimeter god status. He is Steve Novak times Quentin Richardson; he is Leandro Barbosa to the power of J.R. Smith. Over 70 percent of Gordon’s 145 3s in his last 15 games have been taken within two seconds of him touching the ball; about a quarter of those 145 attempts were taken with no fewer than 18 seconds on the shot clock. The man is on the verge of completely losing consciousness, if he hasn’t already. I can’t wait to see how far Gordon and D’Antoni push this come playoff time.
An Honest Attempt at Not Gushing Over Russell Westbrook
Kevin O’Connor: Russell Westbrook was dancing and singing after draining a no-scope-headshot 3 over Anthony Davis’s outstretched limb Wednesday night:
With 42 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists, Westbrook notched his 23rd double-double (which ties for the league lead), his fourth game with at least 40 points (also tied for the league lead), and … yadda, yadda, yadda. You know the deal. It was just another night of Westbrook’s Ridiculous Revenge Tour, another live stream of Westbrook in Westworld, another MVP-level performance by Mr. This Triple-Double Thing Is Kinda Getting on My Nerves.
So let’s take Russ’s advice and talk about the other guys.
Thunder rookie Alex Abrines played his best game of the season, dropping 18 points (including five of his 11 3-point attempts) in 30 minutes in OKC’s 121–110 win over the Pelicans. One of those 3s came on this play, in which he hustled through the elevator doors:
The Thunder rank 27th in 3-point percentage, so an influx of Abrines minutes could really boost their anemic spacing if he can manage to contribute consistently. That might be false hope, though. Even during his scorching-hot fourth-quarter shooting performance, Abrines looked a bit like a defensive sieve. How sustainable are performances like this when the Thunder face teams that aren’t the Pelicans? By that I mean, teams with multiple wing scorers that can actually put the basketball through the hoop? Abrines has a real chance to be an important playoff piece for OKC, but the Thunder need him to elevate his defense for him to work most effectively. Otherwise, actual, functioning offenses will have fresh meat to feast on with Abrines on the floor.
The thrill of watching Abrines flourish is less about Abrines himself, and more about the skill set he brings to the table. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if Billy Donovan and that supervillain hairline of his could manage to pull off some kind of sorcery like transferring Abrines’s shooting ability into the mind, soul, and body of Andre Roberson.
It’d be worth it. Roberson would be the ultimate role player if he could shoot with just about everything else you’d look for. Against the Pelicans, the Thunder were a plus-nine with Roberson on the floor, which is typical. This season they’re plus-7.8 points per 100 possessions better when Roberson is on the floor compared to when he’s off, the second-best total of the Thunder’s primary rotation players, behind only Westbrook. That’s because, against the Pelicans on Wednesday, Roberson did what he always does. He hounded on defense, snatched seven rebounds, and slashed his way to the rim.
Alas. Donovan could play a TV politician on the side, but he’s no evil mastermind capable of sorcery. The closest thing we have for that is Russell Westbrook. But luckily, last night, for once, it was about the other guys.
The Royal Bench
Chau: A blown layup by Gordon Hayward, who had DeMarcus Cousins right where he wanted him on an isolation play with five seconds left in the game, sealed the deal. The Jazz would lose to the Kings, 94–93, in a game that they had led by as much as 20. The Kings have become comeback artists. I can’t believe it, either. With two straight victories coming back from double-digit deficits in as many days, Sacramento, of all teams, is a game a game outside of the eighth seed in the West as things stand today. Cousins was bound for a comedown after his 55-point exhibition — a full physical, mental, and spiritual embodiment of his essence as a player. And, yeah, he wasn’t quite on his game with Rudy Gobert defending him, shooting a putrid 5-for-18 from the field, with only his frequent trips to the free throw line (10-for-13) padding his scoring total. This game wasn’t about Cousins, and it didn’t need to be — not when Sacramento’s bench had the kind of night they did.
For the second night in a row, Kings coach Dave Joerger closed out a tightly contested game with a lineup that put Boogie at the center among a cadre of reserves. In the last two games, the lineup of Ty Lawson, Garrett Temple, Arron Afflalo, Anthony Tolliver, and Cousins has been exceptional, especially rotating on defense; in 25 minutes, that five-man lineup has outscored opponents by a rate of 26.7 points per 100 possessions. The Kings essentially play four- or five-out basketball with that lineup, giving Boogie ample room to create from the arc down into the paint. While the four reserves as a whole aren’t shooting all that well from 3 on the year, they combined to shoot 7-for-13 from 3 last night, and their uncharacteristically good shooting from deep ended up being the difference in a game decided by the slimmest of margins. The Kings have won four of their last six. I’m not so sure it’s time to believe just yet, but these last two wins are about as good as it’s gotten for Sacramento in a long time.
The Blazers were losing to the Mavericks, 62–38 at the half. Trailing by 24 after 24 minutes to the worst team in the league should be enough for any social media coordinator to fall into a pit of existential dread. That’s exactly what happened.
Portland mounted a furious comeback, but still wound up losing, 96–95 despite Dallas’ numerous efforts to throw the game away. Somehow, despite more than their fair share of demoralizing losses this year, the Blazers still find themselves in the eighth seed for now.
An earlier version of this piece misstated Russell Westbrook’s rebound total from Wednesday night’s game. Westbrook had 10 rebounds, not nine.