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Beware the Blazers and Mavericks and Heat

The Ides of March gives life to teams chasing playoff spots (and Skal Labissière), while a few firmly playoff-bound squads lose their footing. Pull it together, San Antonio.

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

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

The Tanking Lakers Are Just Like John Travolta Pre–‘Pulp Fiction’

Jason Concepcion: A game between the Rockets and the Lakers is that rare species of sporting contest in which both teams can come away happy. The Rockets want to win; the Lakers desperately need to lose. Unsurprisingly, that’s just what happened — a 139–100 Houston beatdown that featured Luke Walton’s Lakers willingly laying down in the casket and scooping dirt onto their own chests. Hey, do what you gotta do.

The Lakers, and new executives Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, are just now beginning to wrestle with the lingering effects of years of mismanagement. The team famously owes its 2017 draft pick, if it falls outside of the top three, to the Philadelphia Sixers, the final death rattle of the poisonous Steve Nash trade. Additionally, should that pick convey, the Lakers would then be obliged to send their 2019 first-rounder to Orlando, the last lingering whoopee-cushion sigh emanating from the Dwight Howard deal. L.A. has a handful of young players, some promising, none clear-cut stars. Those picks could change the weatherbeaten trajectory of this once-proud franchise overnight.

The Rockets, meanwhile, cheerfully walked away from last season’s 41–41 car crash like Anton Chigurh. Tuesday night, they clinched a playoff spot when the Portland NurkicManiacs lost to the Pelicans. Houston is sitting solidly in the 3-seed. James Harden, unchained from shackles of Dwight Howard’s whining for post touches and empowered by Mike D’Antoni, is putting in an MVP-level season. He had 18 points, 12 rebounds, and 13 assists, his 17th triple-double of the season.

The most exciting thing about the Lakers is the shamelessness of their tanking. They’re like pre–Pulp Fiction John Travolta just hoping to land Look Who’s Talking Four. These are desperate times. Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng represent some $130 million in dead presidents and dead roster space. Magic’s first, and utterly rational move, was to send Lou Williams, the team’s best player, to Houston. Luke Walton unceremoniously yanked D’Angelo Russell from the starting lineup couple of games back for David Nwaba, who you just had to Google.

At least they have Julius Randle. Give me 15 dudes like him and I could overthrow a small nation. Late in the first half, like a Street Fighter character going for a combo score, Randle elbowed the unsuspecting grills of Ryan Anderson (bloodied lip), James Harden (bemused beard), and Clint Capela (sore jaw) in one John Wick–like sequence. A minute later he went upside Montrezl Harrell’s dome. Randle had 30 points and eight rebounds through three quarters and the gap narrowed ominously to single digits. So Walton subbed him out with three minutes left in the third. The lead quickly ballooned to 18 and the tank rolled on.

Jimmy Butler Played the Grizzlies Dressed As an IRL Celtics Photoshop

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Danny Chau: Watching the Grizzlies and Bulls, two teams that have spent all season vacillating between being giant-killers and being on the verge of collapse, was like watching two satellites passing by each other after getting knocked off their respective orbits. Except nowhere near that poetic. With their 98–91 loss on Wednesday, the Bulls have dropped six of their last seven games; even with their win, the Grizzlies have won only four of the 10 since the All-Star break.

The malaise has hit Jimmy Butler hard; his last 11 games have been uninspired, and his field goal percentage has fallen off a cliff. Chicago was wearing its St. Patty’s Day uniforms and the symbolism of seeing Butler in green was lost on no one. Butler was basically wearing an IRL Celtics photoshop, and with a 4-for-16 shooting night, played like there was an additional “TRADE ME” sign taped to the back of his jersey. His body language was profane, and I swear he gave Nikola Mirotic some death glares in the second half for lacking basic court awareness — which, fair. But, hey, the green unis also meant we got to see vintage Rajon Rondo!

The Grizzlies looked poised to pull away with a commanding win at several stages of the game, but the team completely fell apart whenever Mike Conley went to the bench. The team has not found a suitable backup for its $153 million man, and poor Andrew Harrison was burned alive by Rondo every second he was on the floor. Of course, the team didn’t plan for it to be this way, it’s just its best secondary or tertiary playmaker was supposed to be Chandler Parsons, who managed only 34 very bad games, and is now out for the season with a meniscus tear after signing a contract in July worth nearly $95 million.

With so much still at stake this season (the MVP race, and the final playoff spots in both conferences completely up in the air), it appears we’ll be spared the usual NBA doldrums that accompany March Madness. But for traditionalists who need to immerse themselves in familiar rhythms and patterns of bad late-season basketball, Grizzlies-Bulls was perfect. It was practically the Super Bowl of “Things Didn’t Go As We’d Planned.”

Whoops

Juliet Litman: Rarely do the Spurs make careless errors. What they lack in talent, they make up in ball movement and militaristic consistency. Danny Green even had to get eye surgery to fall in line. Thus it was jarring to watch San Antonio fall to the surging Blazers on Wednesday, 110–106. In the last minute, the Spurs failed to foul and allowed Terry Stotts to call a timeout. They let C.J. McCollum run four seconds off the clock before sending him to the line; Manu Ginobili botched an inbound pass, and then most ignominious of all, he missed a free throw he intended to make and made one he intended to miss. A comedy of errors, really. Except if staying in the 2-spot means the Spurs evade this feisty Portland team in Round 1, maybe a close loss is worth it.

I Do Like Jazz, and It’s Because of You!

(Summit Entertainment)
(Summit Entertainment)

Chris Ryan: To paraphrase Paul Newman from The Color of Money, basketball excellence is not about excellent basketball. A team can do the right things, play the right way, have the right roster, have a good coach, and get better and better over the course of the season, but it can still feel peripheral to the larger NBA discourse. Call it Hawksitis or just chalk it up to the lack of true parity in the league. Being good is not enough. At the end of the day, only so many squads matter, and it takes a lot to break into that club.

The Jazz are about to see what that club door can hold. While so many teams seem to be struggling across the finish line, Utah is only getting stronger. On Wednesday, the Jazz cruised past the Pistons in Detroit, 97–83, in a game the Pistons needed way more than the Jazz did. Gordon Hayward had a calm 25-point night, George Hill added 17, and Rudy Gobert continued filming his show, Maybe I’m the Best Center in the League, while pulling stuff like this out of his locker:

The Jazz are third in defensive rating and 12th in offensive rating. The ball is zipping around on offense, they can go small (Quin Snyder started a very cool Gobert-and-shooters lineup) or big (Boris Diaw and Rudy Gobert frontcourt pour la vie), and are getting peripheral contributions from guys at the beginning (Dante Exum) and end (Joe Johnson) of their careers. I guess we can do the whole “who gets the bucket when defenses ratchet up and the pressure is on” thing … but I think we know the answer now!

Hold my hand. Look in my eye. Watch the games from Wednesday night. Think about teams going up, and teams coming down, and listen to my words: The Jazz are going to beat the Clippers in the first round. They’re tired of waiting.

The Ewing Theory Can Create the Unlikeliest of Heroes

The Sacramento Kings beat the Phoenix Suns 107–101. Skal Labissière finished with a career-high 32 points — his previous career-best was 15–scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter. Plus, he chipped in 11 rebounds and two steals. Boogie who?

James Johnson’s Black Belt Comes in Handy Against DeMarcus Cousins

Chau: You might not see a more lurid display of individual defense than the series of moves James Johnson laid on DeMarcus Cousins with less than four minutes remaining in the Heat’s 120–112 victory over the Pelicans on Wednesday. It was full of violence and grace, of preemption and rapid recovery. Alongside Hassan Whiteside, who corralled Anthony Davis from behind the 3-point line all the way down to the right baseline, Johnson choreographed a brilliant defensive freestyle.

His motions were eerily fluid, though part of the reason why the play above stands out as exceptional is because they aren’t necessarily motions native to basketball. Johnson throws himself into a carousel spin to get in front of Cousins like he’s setting up a spinning back fist. If you weren’t aware, Johnson is a second-degree black belt in karate and an accomplished undefeated mixed martial artist. He put it all on display Wednesday night.

“I know how fast I can get to a position, and sometimes it might look like they might have an open lane, but I know I can get there in two steps, three steps,” Johnson told me in 2014. “That’s just a lot of bobbing and weaving on my end. In martial arts, you have to do a lot of countering. You have to be somewhere one time and not be there the next. That determines whether you’re going to get knocked out or you’re going to win the fight.”

With 1:35 remaining in the fourth, Johnson was fouled by Cousins on a drive to the rim, but not before landing one last blow to Boogie for the game. Johnson was assessed a technical (via the Draymond Rule) for kneeing Cousins in the ribs. Cousins would head to the locker room shortly after because even though Boogie is one of the biggest players in the league, a knee from James Johnson is no ordinary knee. The dude has a 20–0 kickboxing record; he has a 35-inch vertical leap — that’s a crazy amount of force to absorb. Here’s hoping no ribs were shattered.

Johnson was a game-high plus-14 in under 25 minutes, largely because of the rapid bursts of all-around productivity (he finished with 10 points, two 3s, four rebounds, and four assists) that has kept him an intoxicating but tempestuous player his entire career. He hasn’t always played nice with coaches, and his commitment on both ends of the floor can waver at times, but when he’s locked in, there are few defenders as versatile or aesthetically pleasing to watch play. Plus, every once in a while, he casually tosses out the reminder that he can physically dismantle any player in the league if he wanted to.

Beware the Ides of March, for Paul George Wants to Make All-NBA

The Celtics Do Not Care That Ricky Rubio Is Leading a Revival

Haley O’Shaughnessy: Five days ago, everyone’s favorite team of 15 guards and Al Horford fell to Denver on the same night that everyone’s favorite team of 15-year-olds (kidding, KAT!) beat Golden State. Both teams’ narratives were interrupted. Despite the Wolves making a playoff push thanks to Ricky Rubio — real words written in 2017, I assure you, any wary time travelers — Wednesday night put all story lines neatly, and for the Wolves, sadly, back on track.

Boston’s 117–104 win over Minny pushed the Celtics to two games behind Cleveland in the race for the Eastern Conference’s top spot. Next, the Celtics face a power nap (the Nets) and a spa day (the Sixers) before suiting up against the Wizards. Two days ago, Minnesota (in very Minnesota Nice fashion) conveniently beat Washington, keeping the Wiz (who lost again on Wednesday) a game and a half behind the Celtics. It’s close! Still, I think Washington’s chances of besting Boston in the end are about as good as the boring, non-love-interest character in a scary movie’s chances of surviving to the credits. Boston is forging ahead.

Horford’s line looked complete before the fourth quarter began; he had 18 points, seven rebounds, six assists, and one block through three. Marcus Smart’s defense made whomever he was guarding — even 6-foot-8 Andrew Wiggins, who has four inches on Smart — look like he was in hour four of getting a full night’s sleep. Isaiah Thomas dribbled his way between every lanky Minnesota forward on the way to 27 points and moving into seventh on the TD Garden all-time-scoring list. (Who’s sixth? Avery Bradley.)

With the Mavericks and Blazers winning Wednesday night, Minnesota’s chances at scraping its way to the 8-seed fall even further.

There Is No Joy in Clipperland

We feel your pain, Blake. You didn’t seem to have much fun playing, and we did not have much fun watching.

The Mavs Won’t Make the Playoffs, but They’ll Always Have Brussanity

Katie Baker: For 15 years now, since he was in his early 20s, an Argentinian scout named Lisandro Miranda has worked with Donnie Nelson and the Dallas Mavericks, filing dispatches and player reports like the ones about a string-bean-y 6-foot-8 countryman named Nicolas Brussino. A small forward and solid shooter who made the Mavericks’ final cuts this year, Brussino turned in a performance on Wednesday night that helped Dallas pull the plug on a surging Washington Wizards team, 112–107.

The Wizards, back home after winning four of five games on a Western Conference road trip, led for three quarters against Dallas and saw balanced contributions from the starting five. (Both Otto Porter Jr. and Marcin Gortat finished with 10 rebounds; Bradley Beal had 24 points.) They survived a scare in the first half when John Wall came down awkwardly on an ankle and agonized on the ground.

No sooner did the broadcasters deem his return indefinite than he was back on the court, finishing with 26 points, 11 assists, three steals, and a rough late-game sequence that included a loopy, errant stolen pass followed by an airball. In the fourth quarter the Mavericks, led by Dirk Nowitzki and Seth Curry, hit seven 3-pointers to the Wizards’ three and took over the game.

Two of the biggest ones came in a 30-second span with just under six minutes to play. First Nowitzki swung the ball over to an open Brussino deep in the left corner for a 92–87 lead and a lanky-ass celebration. Shortly after that, Brussino caught a rebound, drove into the paint, kicked the ball out to Yogi Ferrell, got it back, and sank a 3 from well beyond the arc.

Despite a pileup of missed Mavericks free throws that gave the Wizards a late chance to tie the game, Dallas hung on to win. At 10th place in the Western Conference, the Mavs have an improbably long shot at the playoffs at this point — ESPN’s Basketball Power Index assigns them a better chance at at a top-three pick than of making the postseason — but they’ll always have BRUSSANITY.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas as sixth and seventh on Boston’s all-time-scoring list. The rankings refer to scoring in TD Garden.