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The Celtics Are Calling From Inside the House

Isaiah Thomas drops 31 against Cleveland, Bojan Bogdanovic livens up the Wizards bench, Jahlil Okafor “plays” “defense,” and Kawhi Leonard finds a reason to smile

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

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

The Race for the East Just Got Tighter

Katie Baker: “Not to be cocky,” Isaiah Thomas told The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor in January, “but I feel like I’m the best player in the world.”

To be the best you have to beat the best, and in a thrilling game marked by 24 lead changes, a LeBron James triple-double, and a star-studded TD Garden crowd, Thomas and the Celtics did just that, outlasting the Cleveland Cavaliers 103–99. Thomas finished with a team-high 31 points — making it the 25th straight game in which he’s led Boston in scoring. (The 5-foot-9 guard was also credited for a somewhat controversial block on 6-foot-9 Cleveland forward Tristan Thompson.)

While Thomas hit only one field goal during the back-and-forth, playoffesque fourth quarter, it was perhaps the one that mattered most. His 3 with 49 seconds to play was shot from well behind the arc and gave Boston the lead.

Kyrie Irving’s under-up-and-in maneuver — “like a ballet dancer,” ESPN’s Doug Collins said — tied the game at 99. But Thomas hit a pair of free throws on the other end of the court to take the lead again, and the Cavaliers’ frenzied next possession ended with a miss by Cleveland’s newest addition, Deron Williams.

For the Cavaliers, the game’s best moment wasn’t when James threw an assist to Kyle Korver to complete a triple-double, James’s seventh of the season. It was when, somehow, the components of his ankle managed to remain intact and in place after the kind of nasty-looking slip that can end seasons or careers. Instead, the game turned into what many hope is a preview of the sort of postseason series that can make a career. (The requisite rancor is already brewing.)

Over All-Star Weekend, Thomas spoke with Sports Illustrated’s Andrew Sharp about his past, present, and future, and this time he was slightly cagier in his response. Asked what it would take to beat the Cavs, he said: “Everything we got. We know it. It goes through them.” And asked again who the best player in the world is? “I can’t tell you my real answer,” he said. “I’m gonna go with LeBron. LeBron is definitely the most complete player in the world. And then there’s me.”

When You’re Behind on the Book Club Reading

Derrick Williams Has a Home in Cleveland

The Cavs are fine-tuning their roster for the playoffs, and Derrick Williams is reportedly the latest vet to earn a slot. Williams joined the Cavs on the first of two 10-day contracts in early February, and has since averaged more than 10 points and three rebounds per game off the bench. On Wednesday night in Boston, he tallied 13 points, three rebounds, and a block in the Cavaliers’ loss to the Celtics.

Let’s just hope they don’t get his paperwork mixed up with the other D-Will.

Kawhi Leonard, Micromanager

Danny Chau: If there’s one thing that Kawhi Leonard might be better at than any other player in the league, it’s taking advantage of the micromoments that separate him and his opponent. He generates subtext, sweet nothings, alternative facts. Leonard’s game-winning turnaround fadeaway over all-world defender Paul George was a beauty — so long as you didn’t think it was a travel. Watch the play above. He gets George down into the paint with a few bumps, then tosses out his first decoy, cupping the ball pointing left as he gathers his dribble. Next, his left shoulder lowers into George. Kawhi’s body continues to motion left, and George’s mind follows. George bites, gets caught in the air, and Leonard spins right for a relatively uncontested shot to win the game. It wasn’t flashy, but it showed a mastery of playing in the post that few players, regardless of size, have.

There is obvious athleticism, and there is latent athleticism. There’s Russell Westbrook, and then there’s James Harden. If Harden’s extraordinary trait is how he decelerates at a world-class level, Leonard’s is identifying a ball’s trajectory and tracking it quicker than anyone else; it’s how he reacts in tight spaces. On multiple plays in Wednesday night’s last-second 100–99 win over the Pacers, Leonard turned his own blunders into points in a matter of seconds.

On one play, Kawhi seemed to have recognized that he threw a bad pass before the defender realized he was about to be in possession of the ball. As soon as the ball landed in a Pacer’s clutches, it was poked away by Kawhi, who then soared over several defenders for an and-1 basket. On another, Leonard tracked his missed runner in the lane before there was even an audience in the vicinity for a rebound. It’s funny: In real time, Kawhi’s athleticism is apparent in its fluidity and coordination, but as the Spurs broadcast replayed those two possessions in slow motion, Leonard moved and reacted so much quicker than anyone else on the court. We obviously know how great Kawhi is, but some of the degrees to which his greatness manifests are still barely perceptible to the viewer. Westbrook plays so fast, the rest of the court seems to slow down; Leonard thinks so fast, the game seems to slow down around him.

Anyway, here’s a freebie. The way you make Kawhi laugh is by comparing him to Jordan.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Wizards Have a Bench

Jonathan Tjarks: Before Bojan Bogdanovic was traded to the Wizards at the deadline, few NBA fans knew the difference between the third-year player from Croatia and Bogdan Bogdanovic, a first-round pick of the Suns from Serbia who is still playing overseas. That’s what happens when you spend your entire career playing for the Nets, a team where national media attention goes to die. Bojan was a beast at the Olympics in Rio, where he averaged 25 points per game and was the best player on a team that featured former lottery picks Dario Saric and Mario Hezonja. But it was hard to know how much that dominance would translate if he was playing on an NBA contender instead of one of the worst teams in the league.

Through his first four games in Washington, it has translated fine. He had 15 points on 10 shots against the Jazz, 16 points on 12 shots against the Warriors, and took it to another level on Wednesday, tallying 27 points on 12 shots in the Wizards’ 105–96 win over the Raptors. It was a gunner’s dream stat-line: two rebounds, zero assists, zero steals, and zero blocks. Bogdanovic came to Washington to jack up shots and chew bubblegum, but he left all of his gum behind in Brooklyn.

Bojan plays like a shooting guard — running around screens, moving without the ball, catching and firing without hesitation — and at 6-foot-8 and 225 pounds, he has the size of a power forward. Washington slid him around to different spots in the lineup on Wednesday, using him as a shooting guard in an all-bench lineup and as a small-ball power forward with most of the starters. Don’t mistake his offensive flexibility for defensive versatility, though. Bojan isn’t going to play much defense no matter the position he plays. The Wizards just need to find a spot where he won’t hurt them on that end of the floor.

In what has to be a welcome change of pace for Washington fans, the team’s all-bench lineup blew open the game in the second quarter, extending the lead to 23 points. That was thanks primarily to Bogdanovic, who had 13 points on five shots in the frame, all of them assisted. At plus-16, he led the game in plus-minus, something rarely accomplished by Wizards reserves earlier in the season.

The Wizards absolutely had to have this game to maintain their playoff positioning, and with Otto Porter Jr. scoring zero points and John Wall recording just 12, they needed Bogdanovic to pick up the slack. For as much as high draft picks are valued, the pick the Wizards sent to the Nets is currently projected to be low- to mid-20s. And if the guy the Nets pick at that slot becomes as good as Bogdanovic is now, they would have to consider that a win. Bogdanovic will be an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, but if he keeps playing this well, he will have earned whatever he gets on his next contract.

Mining for Dimes

Dispatches From the Upside-Down

Jason Concepcion: Late in the fourth quarter of Knicks-Magic on Wednesday, with New York up by double digits, 6-foot-2 point guard and former Stanford University standout Chasson Randle made his Knicks debut. The crowd rose and chanted his name: “Randle, Randle, Randle.” A stirring scene! Especially considering the game was in Orlando. It is a special, special kind of person who roots for a bad team. Who wears its haunted, tortured colors into a hostile arena. Who chants the name of a fringe talent, as though he were Daniel emerging from the lion’s den. With the Knicks, up is down, and black is white.

Kristaps Porzingis started at center in his first game back from an ankle injury, and he finished with 20 points and nine boards. Lance Thomas, New York’s reliably unreliable and oft-injured 3-and-D wing, stiffened the usually lank defense. Derrick Rose delivered a surprisingly controlled performance. Despite rumblings of a triangle offense revanche, not much triangle was played. Perhaps coincidentally, five Knicks scored in double figures and the team waltzed to a much-needed 101–90 victory. Good times! Except, really, it would be better, long-term, for the Knicks to tank. Winning is losing; success is failure. This is the cognitive whiplash of a Knicks fan.

Supporting a good team is easy. That’s just a lifestyle choice. It’s something you do with your free time that makes total sense, and takes your mind away from thoughts of the steadily decomposing bodily vessel it’s attached to. Rooting for a good team is rational behavior. Supporting a bad team is different. It’s a pathology. It’s a conscious act of self-flagellation, like eating a Carolina reaper pepper. Cheering for a team that’s been bad for years is something else altogether. It’s the sports version of Stockholm syndrome: a relationship based on pain that endures because it’s all you know, because it’s all your people have known, and because the pain lets you know that you’re still, stubbornly, alive.

I want the Knicks to win. I want the Knicks to lose. I want Kristaps Porzingis to play the 5, but that improves the team’s chance of winning, so I also don’t want that. I want Derrick Rose to play well, but not well enough to get re-signed. I want Carmelo to be happy. I hate his game. I want the Knicks to get a good point guard. The triangle offense de-emphasizes the point guard. Phil Jackson won 11 titles with the triangle. The triangle is bad. Up is down. Black is white. Knicks win.

The Wolves Embrace the Thibs Model

The Three Little Bigs

Haley O’Shaughnessy: The Pistons and Pelicans played on Wednesday, but for all intents and non-small-ball purposes, it was a Throwback Thursday. Three of the league’s best big men — Andre Drummond, DeMarcus Cousins, and Anthony Davis — were all supposed to be on one court. The basketball fans from my dad’s generation were somewhere swooning.

But thanks to last Sunday’s game against OKC, that matchup never happened. New Orleans was just three games into the Boogie experience when Cousins was T’d up for flinging his arm at Steven Adams. It was his 18th technical foul of the season, a league-leading feat that cost him the game against Detroit. His first suspension in a New Orleans jersey came before his second week as a Pelican, before he’d played 90 minutes as a Pelican, and before his first win as a Pelican.

So against the Pistons, the home team relapsed into its style of play B.B. (before Boogie). Alvin Gentry remained a master of change, using his 22nd different starting lineup of the season (the fourth most in the NBA). Jrue Holiday snapped his recent production dip and finished with 22 points and a game-high plus-25 plus-minus. Anthony Davis continued his streak of channeling all life frustrations into scoring against Detroit, recording 33 points and 14 rebounds. It wasn’t the career-high 59 he put up against the Pistons last season, but the Brow did pass 7,000 career points in the third quarter, becoming the eighth-youngest in history to do so.

Even with all this, it wasn’t until Andre Drummond was kicked out in the third that New Orleans secured a stronghold on the lead.

The ejection call was unusual and slow: No warning or technical was presented as a precursor, and it took a video review before he was booted. (I’d like to think the refs were doing their part to stop any further abuse to the charity stripe — Drummond went 1-for-10 at the line, and the entire Pistons team was 3-for-17, the lowest percentage in a game in league history for teams taking at least 10 attempts. Ever!) With no Drummond and no DeMarcus (who still hasn’t been on the court for a victory as a Pelican), Davis was the only premiere big man left standing by the end of New Orleans’s 109–86 win. Call it the NBA’s rendition of a classic: The Three Little Bigs.

Defense Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Rodger Sherman: It’s not that Jahlil Okafor wasn’t trying on this defensive possession. That happens with NBA players all the time. It’s that he had several opportunities to at least appear like he was trying, and didn’t even put in a modicum of effort to fake it.

Here is what this clip of Okafor reminded me of:

  • A man briefly convinced he has the ability to vaporize objects with lasers shot from his eyes attempting to test out his nonexistent power
  • A three-week-old basset hound that’s trying to play, but isn’t strong enough to support its body weight with its legs yet
  • A fan who won a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch an NBA game from the court, but wasn’t allowed to touch any of the players
  • A toddler playing monkey in the middle with his older siblings that’s slowly becoming disheartened as he realizes he’ll never win
  • One of the ents from Lord of the Rings
  • A wizard in an invisibility cloak whose presence could be detected only if somebody made physical contact with him
  • Vincent D’Onofrio’s character in Men in Black after being suddenly asked to play basketball
  • Three children standing on each other’s shoulders inside a basketball uniform, aware that if somebody bumps into them they will fall over, potentially injuring the top child
  • Me in a rec league game

Last week, I wondered what faux pas Okafor had committed to become so unpopular with Sixers fans. But here it is in one clip. He often doesn’t seem to care, which is a bad trait for a talented young player.

125–98, Miami.

Dante Exum Island Is Not for Sale, but You’re Welcome to Join Us

Chau: That island Adidas is trying to give away is actually Exum Island, currently occupied by myself and a bunch of Jazz obsessives. All we do is complain about how Dante doesn’t get any foul calls. Good luck to all the contestants!

The Rockets Are Playing Themselves

Michael Baumann: This is well-covered territory, but it bears repeating: Prior to tonight, only 10 times in NBA history had a team attempted 50 3-pointers in a game. All of those performances happened this season, and eight came courtesy of the Houston Rockets.

Watching the Rockets is a weird experience nowadays, because I don’t find myself rooting for them to win or lose anymore — I’m rooting for them to take as many 3-pointers as possible. I want 50 3-point attempts every time out. I want them to take a run at their own record of 61 — and then I want them to break the new record in their next game.

That makes for some unusual partisan interests.

I want the Rockets to shoot well enough that they keep taking jumpers, but not so well that they gain a giant lead and it becomes impolite to continue heaving 14 bombs a quarter. The third-quarter Patrick Beverley flurry that led to Doc Rivers reaching for his bucket of timeouts was bad. The fourth-quarter defensive meltdown that gave the Clippers hope after previously trailing by 30 was like putting on a new pair of socks.

When Lou Williams and Eric Gordon come in, that’s ideal; Gordon’s an exceptional spot-up shooter, while Williams is like an undergraduate at a bar with a fake ID — he thinks every shot is a good idea. I want Ryan Anderson to feel confident enough to shoot on sight, but not so confident he starts driving to the basket. Nene is bad for this model; he sucks up offensive rebounds and always puts them back. Clint Capela is sometimes good, when he crashes the offensive glass and kicks the ball back out. But sometimes he shoots. Don’t shoot, Clint. You weren’t born to shoot, Clint. You were born to sing.

The Clippers were never the opponent in Wednesday’s 122–103 Rockets win — the opponent was 50 3-point attempts, and Houston took it down to the wire. Trevor Ariza knocked no. 50 off the back of the iron with 1:35 on the clock as I sat on my couch counting along — “48 … 49 … 50” — like Dragline from Cool Hand Luke.

My boy says he can shoot 50 3s, he can shoot 50 3s.