Welcome to the NBA Shootaround, the Ringer staff’s weekly run through the league, told in riffs and GIFs.
Ender Wiggins Emerges
Haley O’Shaughnessy: When Andrew Wiggins missed the final shot against Miami on Monday — the Wolves’ fourth straight loss — he handled the possession exactly like a guy who did not want the ball in his hands late.
Things were different on Wednesday, when the Wolves played the Raptors, his hometown team. Wiggins has been tagged with labels like “passive” and “quiet” his entire career, but a blaze of aggression always seems to light under him when he plays teams he’s been associated with in the past. Against Cleveland, for example, who traded him as part of the Kevin Love acquisition, only Michael Jordan has a higher career points-per-game average.
In the Timberwolves’ 112–109 win, Ender Wiggins took the court, finishing with 31 points and a highlight that transformed a 7-footer into Li’l Sebastian at the petting zoo.
During his three years in the league, Wiggins has never, ever shown that type of disrespect. His on-court persona is that of Dylan, the guy who picks up the check at dinner after everyone agreed to split it evenly. Dylan doesn’t remind everyone else to Venmo him. Dylan laughed at your joke! Dylan seems nice, not like a guy who would consider agitating the 265 pounds that make up Jonas Valanciunas. Yet it was not even Wiggins’s most outstanding play of the night. That belonged to the assist he thrust to Tyus Jones, who hit a 3 to seal the lead with 19 seconds left.
When you’re surrounded by nonshooters, it almost makes more sense to take drives into traffic head-on than dish the ball out. That’s Wiggins’s default setting, and it’s not as successful as he or the team would hope. With Lance Stephenson and Shabazz Muhammad having heat-check evenings, the lack of kickouts was disappointing. But Wiggins would come to his senses: He finished the game with six assists (tied for a season high) and the dime that would eventually win it all.
That Escalated Quickly
Chris Almeida: If an NBA regular-season game is exciting to an impartial observer, it is usually for one of three reasons:
- At least one of the league’s elite teams is playing
- A star player has an irregular scoring night
When I tuned into Suns-Grizzlies, I knew that reason no. 1 would not be in play, and it became clear relatively quickly that reason no. 2 would also be off the table. The game wasn’t an embarrassing blowout, but Memphis established itself early and held Phoenix at an arm’s length en route to a 110–91 victory. Scoring responsibility was well-distributed; Mike Conley had a game-high 23 points and 10 players across both teams, including four off the bench, scored in double figures.
Marc Gasol hit a 3, which, despite appearing visually wrong, is his new reality. I first noticed this hobby when he crushed Washington down the stretch in his third game of the season, hitting three 3s in a four-minute span. At the time, I thought the game was a freak outlier, but whatever Gasol was doing that night has carried on for the entire year. This season, Gasol has made 76 of his 188 attempts (40.4 percent) from deep, making him one of the 25 most accurate 3-point shooters among players with at least 150 attempts. Over the first eight seasons of his career, Gasol was 12-of-66 (!) from behind the arc.
But a single awkward-looking 3 isn’t enough to carry a game. Luckily, there were shenanigans about halfway through the second quarter when Chandler Parsons found himself with an easy wing jumper. Leandro Barbosa, getting into position late, got set as Parsons elevated and then, still too late to contest the shot, punched Parsons in the groin.
The punch didn’t appear to be a part of a normal defensive effort, but the game continued without much chippiness after Barbosa was assessed a flagrant 1. That is, until the final 1:10 in the game when Devin Booker fouled Troy Daniels on a four-point-play opportunity in garbage time and all hell broke loose:
On most nights, this would have been the best example of unnecessary NBA violence, but this was an exceptional evening for shenanigans.
The Legend of Charles Oakley Continues
Do You Feel Like I Do?
Kevin O’Connor: Entering February, Kyle Korver was shooting an un-Korver-like 39.6 percent from 3 in 11 games with the Cavaliers. Since then, he’s more than made up for it by hitting 18 of his 29 3s while averaging 18.3 points. In the Cavaliers’ 132–117 win over the Pacers on Wednesday, Korver passed Jason Kidd for seventh on the all-time made-3-pointers list, hitting eight en route to 29 points on 10-of-12 shooting overall.
“I felt good when I woke up this morning,” Korver said postgame. “I got a little extra treatment yesterday. I was like, ‘Ooh, I feel kinda good!’” Korver channeled his inner Peter Frampton in the interview, and for good reason. Korver had one of the most brilliant shooting performances of the season. He hit contested 3s over defenders. He nailed his open jumpers. He even hit a few shots off the dribble. Put on Frampton Comes Alive! and watch Korver come alive:
This performance is a reminder of why the Cavaliers got Korver in the first place. Korver is going to get more open 3s than ever before. It’s really just a matter of him making his attempts. “Nothing gets a shooter open like more shooters,” Korver said. “LeBron and Kyrie help a lot, too, obviously, so it’s kind of a pick-your-poison thing.” That’s exactly the problem for defenses. Anytime LeBron James or Kyrie Irving penetrate, Korver’s defender must make an impossible choice: help off Korver, giving him space to shoot; or stay home, giving an elite scorer more space inside.
When the action slows down in the playoffs and it turns into a half-court game, Korver will receive more open looks than ever before. King James still wants a playmaker to help the Cavaliers get to the NBA Finals, but Korver is the piece who could actually help them win a series.
Another Day at the Rodeo
Jason Concepcion: The universe moves in infinitely interlocking cycles. The Earth circles the sun. Days become weeks, weeks stretch into months, months beget seasons, and the years roll on and on. We can mark these cycles by the sunrises and sunsets. The ebb and flow of the ocean tides. By the appearance of the delicate green buds dotting once bare branches. The Spurs mark the spiraling transit of time by the sight and accompanying smell of livestock, the drumbeat of trampling hooves, and crunch and crack of cowboys getting their brain pans crushed. Yes, ladies and gents and children of all ages, it’s February. Which, for Gregg Popovich’s squad, means it’s time, once again, for the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo to take over the AT&T Center. It’s time for the rodeo road trip.
Wednesday night, the Spurs played the Sixers in Philadelphia. It was the second game of the yearly trip — the first being a desultory nut-stomping in Memphis — and a surprisingly tight affair, despite the 111–103 final score. The loss to the Grizzlies could, in part, be ascribed to the absence of Kawhi Leonard, who missed the game due to a sore quadriceps. In Philly, Leonard was fully functional and ready to rip.
The Sixers, meanwhile, were without Joel Embiid for the sixth straight game. The presence of Jo Process alone is enough for Pennsylvania cat lovers to hoist their beloved felines skyward. The Sixers boast a suffocatingly belligerent 99.1 defensive rating with Embiid on the court. That would be the league’s best defense if sustained over an entire season. With Embiid off the court, that rating is a very Sixers-ish 109.1.
The Spurs, meanwhile, are the Spurs. Pop could coach a toaster strudel, a wok, two baseball mitts, and a spoon to 50 wins and a top-five defensive rating.
Kawhi in, Embiid out. The game should’ve been a silver-and-black blowout. Not the case. Leonard had a burly 32 points, his 16th 30-point game of the season, and played his traditional “choke me, daddy” level defense. But, as a team, Pop’s dudes kept letting loose the reins, allowing the Sixers purchase in the game. They played like they knew they would win. Which they eventually did, 111–103. But it wasn’t until Danny Green’s corner 3, off a Tony Parker hammer pass, with 2:12 left in the game that the Spurs finally put the game out of reach. Happy trails, San Antonio.
Are the Wizards Deep Enough to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse?
Danny Chau: Standing at the free throw line, in hopes of finally putting the nail in the coffin on a terribly inconvenient game against the worst team in the NBA, John Wall cracked a smile. The score was 113–110; he had just missed a free throw. There were only two seconds left in overtime, but they clung onto him for dear life. Seconds earlier, Wall was thrown an awful inbounds pass out of a timeout that sailed far into the backcourt. He stumbled out of bounds after being chased by a rabid Bojan Bogdanovic. The entire sequence was drunk.
The Wizards would win, of course (114–110 — Wall made his second free throw attempt), but when a team steps into Brooklyn to play the Nets, the result shouldn’t be a question. The Nets have won only one game since Boxing Day and have lost 27 of their past 30 games. But it is truly a testament to how shallow the Wizards’ roster is that they were played to a near draw by a talent-deficient team simply because the other team had 11 players to play, and played all of them. If the Wizards are serious about a postseason surge, they might want to consider a trade at the deadline to bring in at least one more reliable player off the bench, because their recent trail of good fortune won’t last if their oh-so-reliable starters see their limbs fall off by the postseason. The trio of Wall, Bradley Beal, and Marcin Gortat all played more than 40 minutes on Wednesday night; the Nets, on the other hand, didn’t have a single player log more than 34 minutes or less than 16.
It was a sound strategy from Nets coach Kenny Atkinson — Brooklyn was well aware of Washington’s near-complete lack of a competent bench, which was exacerbated by Markieff Morris’s recent calf injury. The Nets wouldn’t be able to win out on talent, but they could continue to cycle through their lineups to make sure all five players were fresher than the five Wizards on the court. Did it work? No, because the Nets’ roster really is that dire. But when you’re a team with absolutely nothing to play for, you invent ways to preoccupy yourselves.
Miami’s Mystery Man
Katie Baker: Rodney McGruder has played basketball in Hungary. He has been on teams called the Maine Red Claws and the Sioux Falls Skyforce. His résumé makes him sound like a hockey player, which is fitting: He throws his body around like he’s wearing pads. “Rodney’s as tough as they come,” Josh Richardson said before the start of this season, when McGruder was battling for the final Miami Heat roster spot. Now McGruder leads the team in loose balls recovered. In a 115–113 win against the Timberwolves on Monday, he finished with 15 points, five rebounds, four assists, and a steal. And on Wednesday night, in a 106–88 Miami Heat win over the Milwaukee Bucks, he scored 10 points, half of them on back-to-back possessions.
After the game, Hassan Whiteside, who led all scorers with 23 points, was effusive about McGruder. “He’s hungry,” he said. “He’s from that jungle — that D-League, man.”
It was the 12th straight win for the Heat, who are still below .500 despite the run. Still, they’ve put forth an impressive performance of late, considering the lack of traditional star power on their roster. And as they’ve done so, their player-development system — which includes McGruder’s old team, the D-League’s Skyforce — has been drawing praise, both locally and beyond.
For the Bucks, the loss was compounded by a that-doesn’t-look-good knee injury to Jabari Parker that was unsettlingly reminiscent of the torn ACL he suffered in December 2014 that sidelined him for nearly a year. It was hard not to expect the worst, although Parker reportedly seemed chill in a conversation with teammate John Henson after the game.
Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 22 points in the loss, and it probably would have been a lot more without McGruder’s pesky defense. The Greek Freak has about half a foot on McGruder, but this was no mismatch. “He’s one of the smaller guys on the court,” Whiteside said after the game, “coming up here playing against Giannis, an All-Star starter. But he don’t care about that. He don’t care about none of that.”
The Pelicans May Never Find Their Wings
Micah Peters: You know, it was almost the New Orleans “Krewe” or the New Orleans “Brass.” Those were two names Tom Benson swished around and ultimately spat out before landing on “the Pelicans” for the start of the 2014 season. This was because Utah — where there’s doubtless jazz clubs and such, but no Preservation Jazz Hall — didn’t want to come up off the “Jazz” name on account of them having had it since the franchise moved there from New Orleans in 1979.
Another fun fact is that going into Wednesday night’s game against the Jazz — the last before a four-game road swing — the Pelicans, for their many shortcomings, had the league’s eighth-ranked defense. That didn’t last long. The Jazz beat them by 33 points. Joe Johnson, who’s played for every team in the league and is 1,000 years old, came off the bench for 27. My feelings are hurt.
The Pelicans shot 61.5 percent from the field through the first two quarters and took a nine-point deficit into the locker room. After the half, Anthony Davis, who was clamped down tightly by Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors for the entire game, went 2-of-7 for eight points, all of which were scored in the third quarter. Meanwhile, the Jazz had 28 in the same period. My feelings are doubly hurt.
The Jazz have had to do a fair amount of rebuilding in recent years. But this year, things have finally clicked the way the team had always hoped it would. It’s a wonder anyone scores any points in the paint against them, they have both Gobert and Favors for the time being, and they have a 99.99 percent chance of making the playoffs. The Pelicans are never not rebuilding, they have Terrence Jones, a folding chair with a name on it that says “Omer Asik,” and potentially Jahlil Okafor, who’s only occasionally interested in basketball. They have less than a 1 percent chance of making the playoffs. My feelings are triply hurt.
The Long Game
Michael Baumann: When Warriors-Bulls comes up on the schedule, and the Warriors are coming off a loss and the Bulls don’t have Jimmy Butler or Dwyane Wade, any conclusion other than a Warriors win would be shocking — the only question is how.
This wasn’t one of those games where the Warriors run out to a 40-point first quarter and win 135–80 (they won 123–92). Golden State got up by 10 points fairly early, then stuck the car in fourth gear and stayed there. Pat McCaw and James Michael McAdoo got first-half minutes. For 34-plus minutes, the Warriors’ lead was never less than eight nor more than 20. Watching this game was like watching a snake eat a deer.
While it’s impressive that a snake can eat a deer, once the python gets its jaws around its prey and swallows, it’s not exactly an action-packed process. Your mind starts to wander to fleeting topics like, “Hey, Rajon Rondo showed flashes of competence in the first half,” and “The red in the Warriors’ Chinese New Year uniforms really goes well with their standard blue-and-yellow color scheme” as the clock winds down.
But while it never really felt like the Bulls had a chance, neither did it feel like the game was over. A lead in the low teens is never really safe against any NBA team. Even when the Warriors stretched the lead to 20 coming out of halftime, the Bulls punched right back with a 7–0 run that took only 74 seconds. With Zaza Pachulia and David West out, JaVale McGee was Golden State’s only viable big (though with Draymond Green and Kevin Durant in the fold, “big” is a fluid term), and the Bulls had some success down low. Robin Lopez and Taj Gibson combined for 19 rebounds (seven of them by Lopez on the offensive glass) and enough hair for one normal person. With seven minutes left in the third quarter, McGee went ass-over-tea-kettle while fouling Lopez, landed on his hip, and left the game — and the Bulls still couldn’t capitalize.
When was this game over? Right at the beginning, when the snake got its jaws on the deer. Everything else was just a matter of sitting back and letting peristalsis do its thing.
It’s Time for Some Ewing Theory?
Riley McAtee: On paper, the Kings should have gotten absolutely walloped by the Celtics.
Sacramento came into the game missing DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay, Omri Casspi, and Garrett Temple. Then in the second quarter, Ty Lawson strained his hamstring and was unable to return to the game.
The Boogie absence speaks for itself. His presence in the post (and, increasingly, from behind the 3-point arc) gives the offense its identity. But the other four guys are no slouches; even with Gay missing over 20 games, those five together have combined to score nearly 55 percent of the Kings’ points this season.
There was also one other factor that should have played into the Kings’ demise: Isaiah Thomas. This was Thomas’s first game back in Sacramento in a Celtics uniform (the two teams played in Mexico City last season). Two years to the day after putting up 26 points on 17 shots during his last return to Sacramento as a member of the Suns, he put up 26 on 16 in this outing. The Celtics jumped to a nine-point lead in the first quarter. Everything was going as expected.
And then, the blowout happened. But it was the hobbled Kings, not the second-place Celtics, running away. After a first quarter in which the ball stuck and the offense looked absolutely listless, Sacramento found a groove and tied the game by halftime. The Kings kept finding open looks and kept nailing them, hitting on 50 percent of their field goals, and 40 percent of their 3s. Darren Collison, the man the team signed as it passed on re-signing Isaiah Thomas two and a half years ago, put up 26, while bench guys like Matt Barnes, Ben McLemore, and Willie Cauley-Stein all contributed meaningful performances.
Oh, and Cauley-Stein also did this:
That was the hammer. It gave the Kings 94 in a game where their opponent would score only 92.
Make no mistake, this win isn’t an example of the Ewing Theory in action — Sacramento scores just 98.3 points per 100 possessions without Cousins on the floor, a huge drop from the 108.1 offensive rating the Kings have with him on it. Their net rating sinks by nearly six points when he steps off the court. All anyone has to do is watch the first quarter of this one to see how the team normally plays without Boogie. This was an anomaly — a quirk that ended the Celtics’ seven-game win streak. But the Kings, now 2.5 games out of the West’s final playoff spot, will take it.