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Giannis Is the Story of the Season

The Greek Freak takes his show to the Mecca, C.J. McCollum continues his run as a solo artist, and the Bulls modernize for a night

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Unicorn on Broadway

Jason Concepcion: For that particularly hardy breed of NBA fan whose relationship to the sport is akin to Tyrone Biggums’s love affair with crack, Bucks-Knicks at the Garden was a bit of a let down. It was an occasion to absentmindedly scratch one’s ashy neck and wonder what might have been.

Kristaps Porzingis’s sore Achilles [crosses self, bathes in holy water, lights candles to the saints, ritually slaughters a goat, stares out over the slate-grey city in contemplation of eternal truths revealed in the flight patterns of migrating birds] kept him in dandy, gigantine street clothes for a third straight game. This meant that Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose rise from just-happy-to-be-here–Nigerian Greek–smoothie-sipping naif to ass-busting Cthulhu of Doom was recently given the Lee Jenkins treatment, would have to do his unicorn act alone. Sorry, fam — the spot’s all out of mythical beast battles; try the Cloisters all the way uptown.

What was on hand at the corner of 34th Street and 8th Avenue was a choppy affair, containing very little organized defense or offense, and Antetokounmpo running rampant. It was stupid and entertaining, indicative of two teams, each with budding superstars, headed in different directions.

It says something about the mood around the Knicks that even with Carmelo Anthony going for 30 points (10-of-23 from the floor), 11 rebounds, and seven assists, and Derrick Rose pulling off a preinjuries two-handed dunk, it was computer-generated Lithuanian Mindaugas “Cheese” Kuzminskas that the Garden warmly cheered by name.

Kuz went for 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting, each basket greeted by summer rain of “Kuuuuuuuuuuuuz” from the crowd. (I’m setting the line for Kuzminskas home white jerseys at this year’s Governors Ball at 15.5.)

But this game was about Giannis. The 2016–17 season is, in part, about Giannis. Watching him bound the full length of a basketball court in five strides, melt his defenders’ brain stems with a Eurostep, then go up for the dunk off one foot, is a natural wonder of the world to be cherished. With about six minutes gone in the fourth quarter, Giannis gamboled across space and time then dunked on Carmelo Anthony from somewhere out in New York Harbor. This is something Giannis does with regularity.

In the fourth quarter, Giannis beat the Knicks like a kick drum at a Metallica concert, going for 12 points, including the game-winning step-back over the overmatched Lance Thomas. The Bucks won 105–104, and Giannis ended the night with a total of 27 points, 13 rebounds, four assists, a steal, and three blocks.

Giannis, Jabari Parker (15 points, four rebounds, three assists), and Malcolm Brogdon (12 points, eight assists) are like Bucks GM John Hammond’s version of a home run, a double, and a clutch single.

C.J. McCollum’s Solo Ride

Kevin O’Connor: With Damian Lillard sidelined, the Blazers lost 125–117 to the Warriors on Wednesday, but the effort by C.J. McCollum was a highlight of the night. McCollum was ferocious scoring in the first half and, for the game, scored 35 points to go with nine rebounds and five assists.

It’s the little things like this that make McCollum who he is: First, he crosses over to blow by Kevin Durant. But because Durant’s pterodactyl arms make him a threat to block the shot from behind, McCollum slows his drive. This keeps Durant on his back, allowing McCollum to stretch for a clean layup.

McCollum later hoodwinks Stephen Curry, too. Curry’s defense might look bad here, but you can’t blame him for looking to contest the shot: McCollum is shooting 40.3 percent on pull-up 3s this season, per SportVU. McCollum attempted a career-high 31 shots with a 38.7 usage percentage on the night, and it wasn’t until the Warriors started more aggressively defending him that he was neutralized. The increased defensive attention put a damper on McCollum’s performance in the second half, but that’s what’ll tend to happen when he’s not playing with his dynamic backcourt partner.

The real story here isn’t the game itself, but that it offered a glimpse into a world where McCollum is the man. McCollum has played 11 games without Lillard, and in those games, he’s averaging 28.4 points, 5.6 assists, and 4.9 rebounds on a 55.3 effective field goal percentage, via StatMuse.com. To put those numbers into perspective, only 21 players all time have ever posted averages of 28 points, five assists, and four rebounds in a season (via Basketball-Reference) — and only five of them have done so with an effective field goal percentage of 54 or higher: Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, LeBron James, Durant, and Curry. McCollum wasn’t at his most efficient on Wednesday against the Dubs, but his overall performance with Lillard out has been tremendous.

Even with Lillard suited up this season, McCollum has put up big numbers — 22 points, 3.6 assists, and 3.6 rebounds per game — but the difference is significant enough to make you wonder just what he is truly capable of if he were in a role that featured him as the no. 1 scorer and playmaker.

New Ways of Sorcery

The Bulls Had a Cheat Day

Micahel Baumann: The Bulls are constructed in a way that makes it seem like their front office hates pace-and-space head coach Fred Hoiberg. Short as Chicago is on point guards and wings who can shoot even a little, Hoiberg’s men entered Wednesday night’s game against Cleveland dead last in the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage (.307) and 3-pointers as a percentage of total field goals attempts (.230). But against the Cavs, the Bulls looked like a modern NBA team, taking more than a third of their field goals from outside the arc, and making almost half of those.

The Bulls shot the lights out through three quarters, taking a 16-point lead into the last minute and a half of the third, thanks in large part to Doug McDermott.

Turns out that the “McBuckets” nickname doesn’t come from the Doug McDermott’s 3150 Burger at Omaha Tap House — so named for the 3,150 points McDermott scored across town at Creighton during his college years. “Basketball star Doug McDermott built us this burger and we can’t get enough of it!” boasts the Tap House menu. “Cheddar cheese, peanut butter, jelly, and bacon make Doug’s great burger.”

Cheddar cheese. Peanut butter. Jelly. Bacon. You see why I thought “McBuckets” was the thing you McPuked in after eating cheese and jelly in the same mouthful. But that’s not the case — turns out it’s because McDermott’s capable of going off for 15 points on 6-of-6 shooting in a half.

It almost came apart in the fourth. With Kevin Love (food poisoning) and Kyrie Irving (hamstring) already out, LeBron James — who had missed shootaround due to illness — tried to wrest the mantle of “flu game” away from the second-best NBA player to make his name wearing no. 23 in a Great Lakes port city. The Cavs got within a point halfway through the fourth quarter, but Jimmy Butler scored 11 points in the last 6:13 to help Chicago put the game away 106–94.

King of the Hump

Danny Chau: The new year hasn’t been kind to the Memphis Grizzlies. Two days in L.A., two losses, and two huge performances gift-wrapped to two former punchlines. Just one night after getting throttled by the Lakers in a 116–102 loss spearheaded by human meme Nick Young’s bacchanalia from behind the arc, the Grizzlies coughed up a 13-point lead and lost to the Austin Rivers–led Clippers 115–106.

It’s awfully easy to make jokes at the expense of Doc’s son, but he’s put together an excellent campaign in his third season as a Clipper, and his growth — not only as a spot-up shooter, but as a finisher around the rim — has played a significant role. Rivers repeatedly roasted Grizzlies defenders, who once again looked like the listless “zombies” that coach David Fizdale saw the night before in their game against the Lakers. Ten of Rivers’s 16 shot attempts last night came from within five feet of the rim, and he converted on 60 percent of them. Now, he’s shooting only 52.9 percent on the year in the restricted area, but considering the fact that there was a point in his career when he was converting contested layups with the same efficacy as DeAndre Jordan’s career free throw percentage, we’re looking at a vast improvement.

Not to get too self-reflexive, but this is the second Shootaround that features an Austin Rivers season high in points scored (the first being his 25-point outing against the Orlando Magic back in December). Dude loves Wednesdays: he’s averaged 22.2 points over the past five hump days he’s played this season — how’s that for a completely arbitrary stat?

Michael Carter-Williams Improves His Field Goal Percentage

The question is, will Sam Hinkie highlight this in Medium?

The Aaron Gordon Experiment: Still Inconclusive

Jonathan Tjarks: The scouting report on Aaron Gordon is pretty simple: Play off him and let him shoot. When Thabo Sefolosha lost track of him on a back screen early in the first quarter of Wednesday’s 111–92 Hawks win over the Magic, Gordon wound up wide open in the corner with no one within 10 feet of him. When he got the ball, Thabo instinctively began to close out, before remembering who he was guarding, stopping in place, and staring at him. A few minutes later, Gordon popped to the 3-point line after setting a screen and no one followed him. As he launched the shot, you could hear one of the Hawks players yelling, “That’s off.”

Gordon wound up making both shots, and he finished the game 2-for-4 from the 3-point line. He’s still not a consistent outside shooter, but he’s no longer a reluctant one under coach Frank Vogel. He has nearly doubled his number of 3-point attempts per game, going from 1.8 last season to 3.3 this season, and his percentages have been gradually inching upward in his three years in Orlando, from 27.1 percent to 29.6 percent to 32.5 percent this season. His form looks better; there’s less of a hitch in his release and he’s establishing better balance in the air.

The biggest hurdle Gordon will have to overcome is not his own lack of confidence in his jumper, it’s his opponent’s. As long as they don’t respect his 3-point shot, it almost doesn’t matter how many he’s making because he’s clogging up the lane for the rest of his teammates. The Magic don’t have a lot of outside shooting to begin with, and they need Gordon to drag his man out of the paint, especially if he’s going to play as a small forward.

Of all of Orlando’s recent lottery picks, Gordon is the only permanent fixture in the Magic starting lineup. Victor Oladipo is gone, Mario Hezonja can’t even get in the rotation, and Elfrid Payton made his first start in over a month on Wednesday. If there’s any semblance of hope in the Magic’s long-term plan, it starts with Gordon developing into an elite two-way player. He’s making progress, but it won’t mean anything until the scouting report on him starts to change.

Russell Westbrook Really Loves Even Numbers

Haley O’Shaughnessy: Curry monarchs Dell and Sonya both attended the Oklahoma City game in Charlotte: The former was announcing; the latter, according to the broadcast, just couldn’t resist seeing Kemba Walker and Russell Westbrook face off.

It wasn’t quite the one-on-one duel she probably expected, but Sonya picked a good time to watch her home team win. Walker led his Hornets to a 123–112 win and continued his remarkable streak of consecutive free throws made, going 9-for-9 last night, bringing his count to 43 straight makes since December 10. Free throws proved to be the difference in the game: The Hornets made 40 of their leaguewide season-high 49 free throws, which more than doubled the Thunder’s amount of attempts (23).

But the real contest was another round of a match we’ve been seeing all season: Westbrook vs. Westbrook. He forced bad 3s in the fourth quarter and badly missed on reckless drives in the first, the ball seemingly flinging out of his grasp on multiple occasions. Westbrook finished shooting 32.3 percent from the field and 16.7 percent from behind the arc. Yet worst of all came in the form of an assist gone wrong:

Westbrook was promptly T’d up. (Props to Enes Kanter for shielding his protest after the fact.) Intentional or not, jumping and throwing his arms up in objection just isn’t very smart when you’re fortunate enough to have had two techs from previous games rescinded only hours earlier. His nine technical fouls (dropped from 11) heading into the game still led the league, and now, he’s made it an even 10. Maybe it seems picky to single out what he did wrong after finishing with 33 points in 34 minutes and two assists away from yet another triple-double, but the technical fouls are becoming a serious issue; he’s just too valuable to the team. Six more techs means a game suspension, something a team whose offense runs completely through a single man can’t risk. Some things, Russ, you don’t want to lead the league in.

Here’s to a Speedy Recovery, Justise

Mind the Gap

Katie Baker: Tyler Johnson scored 23 points for the injury-ridden Miami Heat in their 107–102 win over the Sacramento Kings, but his biggest play of the night may have been on the far end of the court. With just under a minute to play and the game tied at 102 after a scrappy Kings rally brought them back from a 19-point deficit, Garrett Temple stole the ball on a Miami possession.

“FOR THE LEAD …!” yelled Kings announcer Grant Napear as a streaking Darren Collison took off toward the hoop. But there was to be no easy layup or demonstrative jam, and the expectant Kings fans did not get to go ape. Instead, Collison was denied by a guy with a $50 million contract and multiple missing teeth.

According to ESPN the Magazine, Johnson reacted to a bidding war between the Heat and the Brooklyn Nets for his services this summer — negotiations that culminated in him signing a contract with Miami worth $50 million — by barfing. It was a far cry from the start of his career: undrafted, waived, hanging on by a thread to the Miami Heat via a series of 10-game contracts. He’s now in his third season for the Heat and averaging 13.9 points. Against Sacramento, he finished with 23 points, six rebounds, two assists, a steal, and two blocks, including the one that may have been most responsible for winning the game.

Of course, you could argue that Johnson’s subsequent play was just as good. He drove to the free throw line through traffic, hurled up an awkward, off-balance, low-angle shot that looked like, I don’t know, someone trying to make a desperation pass in water polo before drowning? The ball neatly went in, and Johnson pulled out his mouth guard and grinned, gap-toothed and wide.

“A hockey smile,” the broadcasters said. (Incidentally, there’s actually an NHL player down in Florida who is also named Tyler Johnson.) Johnson netted the subsequent free throw and would sink two more from the line before the game was through. And so the man who once lost his lunch showed that he can win in the clutch.