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The Cavaliers Are Just Waiting for the Postseason

It’s the home stretch — and some teams look ready for the real fun to begin

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

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

The Cavs Don’t Need to Try Yet

Jason Concepcion: Altitude is a cruel mistress. She’ll make you short of breath, steal your legs, make your heart hammer at your ribcage like a trapped animal. But, if you live with her, there is no better ally. Especially if you’re a basketball team that can make the twine moan. Since the All-Star break, the Denver Nuggets have been the second-best offensive team in the league with an offensive rating of 114.8. That’s less than two points per 100 possessions fewer than the D’Antoni-juiced Houston Rockets. The Nuggets have emerging and dynamic young guard Jamal Murray (12.9 points, 38.8 percent from 3 in March in just 23.6 minutes per game); a full-on deadly-ass sniper in Gary Harris (14.7 points per game, 42.4 percent from 3); rock-steady veterans Jameer “not washed yet” Nelson, Wilson Chandler, and Danilo Gallinari (the latter of whom was out injured); and, of course, the philosophical love child of Magic Johnson and Vlade Divac: Nikola Jokic. The Young Nugs may be under most people’s radars, but they can no joke get you high. Teams overlook them at their peril.

(P.S.: Shouts to my dude Emmanuel Mudiay, whose unfortunate collection of DNP-CDs has coincided with the Nuggets becoming an elite offensive team. I wanted the Knicks to draft you. Luckily, no one listens to me.)

Cue the Cleveland Cavaliers. Your world champion Cavaliers have been the second-worst defensive team (112.6) in the league since the All-Star break, right above the Los Angeles Lakers, who are tanking harder than Brad Pitt in Fury. In other words, the Cavaliers are FUNCTIONALLY the worst defensive team in the league over that time, since they are (supposedly) actually trying. Part of that is constant roster churn; all season the Cavs have been dealing with new players coming in, players getting hurt, and formerly injured players working their way back. The other part of that is there are a lot of minus defenders playing important roles on the team. And the other other part of that is a kind of midseason ennui. It’s all about the postseason for this squad, and that manifests as not giving that much of a shit about defense in the regular season.

Unfortunately for Cleveland, time is linear, and the regular season is still in force. The Cavs showed little respect for the Nuggets’ airy attack Wednesday night, and they paid the price. Denver put it on the Cavs early and never let up. The high-low passing attack of Jokic and Mason “Not If But When” Plumlee cut the Cavaliers’ interior defense to ribbons again and again and again to the tune of 70 (!!!) points in the paint. The Joker went for 16 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists. He slow-roasted Kevin Love in the first half, then flambéed LeBron in the second. Harris went for 21 on 57 percent shooting. Thrill Barton put up 20 points; Plumlee, 12; Wilson Chandler, 18; Jamal Murray, 15. It was a feeding frenzy.

Nuggets 126, Cavaliers 113.

Come at the King and You … Oh … Well … That’s an Option, I Guess

Tower Offense

Danny Chau: Rudy Gobert is inconceivably large. I stood next to him during his rookie season in 2013 as he slumped in a chair, and it was like I was standing next to a full-size reenactment of the Lincoln Memorial. He is as much a physical anomaly as any player in the NBA: the longest wingspan in the league with a strong base, and for a player of his length, a relatively low center of gravity. And those feet — I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried for the integrity of his feet every time he ran down a lob or took the ball all the way to the rim on an inbounds steal, but he’s a giant who sprints on clouds. Those feet, maybe more so than his alien wingspan, are what makes him a transcendent defensive player; it’s what makes him, despite his inability to reliably space the floor with a jump shot, a wholly modern player.

Gobert set multiple career highs in the Jazz’s 108–101 comeback win against the Knicks: 35 points (on 13-of-14 shooting) and 11 offensive rebounds. He had only two defensive boards in a game in which Utah had a plus-10 rebounding advantage. The Knicks at times were more concerned about Gobert’s whereabouts on the glass than they were of the ball’s. On an off night for Gordon Hayward, Gobert picked up the slack on both ends of the court. Jazz fans will tell you there is no other option for Defensive Player of the Year; literally anyone else will say he’s in an extremely close three-man race. But Wednesday felt like an entirely different conversation — his performance had MVP vibes.

Boston’s Three-Headed Monster

Katie Baker: The Boston Celtics were a three-headed monster against the Indiana Pacers, though maybe not the three you might think. OK, Isaiah Thomas was obviously one of them, with his slippery moves and his calm 3s and his ability to breathe new life into seemingly dead, broken plays. With the clock ticking down on the first half and the Boston Celtics leading the Indiana Pacers by four, for example, he was stopped by several Pacers at the 3-point line, then side-arm hurled the ball to Avery Bradley for a buzzer-beating 3. It was like an NFL running back trying a rugby throw to get out of a jam.

But with apologies to Bradley, who finished with 18 points, and Jae Crowder and Al Horford, both of whom added 15, none of them were part of the team’s true holy trinity, which was revealed during a chaotic, beautiful late-third-quarter sequence among Thomas, Kelly Olynyk, and Tyler Zeller. As he had earlier, Thomas lowered his head and tried to plow through a few guys, but it did not draw a whistle. So instead, he basically did a bridal bouquet toss into the hands of the appropriately coiffed Olynyk, who dribbled once along the baseline and hit Zeller for a layup and a foul.

Zeller missed the free throw, because nothing in life is perfect, but in just 10 minutes of play (which is, to be fair, a lot for him) he finished with six points, three rebounds, two assists, and a block. And he was part of this gorgeously lanky-ass give-and-go with Crowder, which earned an exquisitely Massholish “NOBODY RUNS THE FLOO-AH HAHDAH!!!!!!” from Celtics commentator Tom Heinsohn.

As for Olynyk, he finished with 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting, added four assists (including a sweet water polo move) and eight rebounds, and was an important presence off the bench to prevent the Pacers, who were led by 37 from Paul George, from clawing back. The Celtics won, 109–100.

“I think sometimes Kelly sells himself short on all the great things he does,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens after the game. (As if that didn’t sound sorority-email enough, he ended his remarks with “… we need him to do that for us to be the best version of ourselves.”) He’s right: The playoffs are fast approaching, and the playoffs are a time when flourishing sorta-randos can be the difference between an early-round exit and an inexplicable run.

What Is Happening Here?

Cleveland Isn’t the Only Team Waiting for the Playoffs

Chau: Yes, the case for rest in the NBA is tired, but games like Hawks-Wizards, the 71st for both teams this season, are Exhibit A for why we probably don’t need 82-game seasons. Both teams have found themselves addled by late-season malaise, each coming into the bout losing four of their past five. There were 23 combined turnovers in the first half alone; a majority of the shots taken in the game were short-armed; both John Wall and Kelly Oubre threw up air balls in front of the home crowd. The game didn’t have immediate stakes, but the Wizards are still eyeing a no. 2 seed, and the Hawks are only three and a half games up from the no. 9 spot. And yet, for the most part, neither team could be bothered Wednesday night.

The Wizards pulled off the 104–100 victory, but given the circumstances, it was a game that played right into the talons of the Hawks. As much as Atlanta has changed cosmetically in the past year, its defense is still as stout as ever; the Hawks kept a glacial tempo and completely denied Washington any fast-break opportunities in the first half. It was a game that made you wish the Hawks had a prime Dwight Howard — he would’ve dominated this one. Lost in the Hawks’ mediocrity, and just the general glaze that the team seems to inspire, Howard is actually having the best rebounding season of his career, posting a career high in total rebounding percentage. He can single-handedly solidify a team’s presence on the glass, but that’s more or less all he can be depended on to do at this point; you can’t build an offense around him, nor can he anchor the middle like he once did. It still felt like the Hawks’ game to lose, though. They held a slight lead — and thus, control — for much of the game. Perspective can skew with a pace this slow; even a two-possession game can seem insurmountable.

In most universes, the Hawks get the win. But not in this one. More likely than not this season, a no. 4 defense isn’t stopping a top-10 offense. Atlanta’s listless passes caught up to it, and eventually those turnovers became John Wall–led fast breaks, which is to say: perfect transition basketball. The Hawks were hoping the game would stay shabby the whole way through. They haven’t shown an extra gear all season, while the Wizards have. That was the difference.

John Wall Isn’t Just a Player, He’s a Fan

Chris Ryan: Low-key one of my favorite things in the NBA is guys celebrating something they were only tangentially a part of. Above is John Wall throwing two arms up (touchdown) for Bradley Beal’s 3-pointer-in-progress. Wall was in a very good mood Wednesday night.

For the Thunder, 2s Are the New 3s

Haley O’Shaughnessy: Look, I’ve done the math. I’ve seen the chalkboards filled top to bottom in an M.I.T. classroom, the ones that took Will Hunting hours to solve. I’ve sent the tests to Oakland and they’ve all been confirmed — though it came attached with this … haunting file — but still, confirmed. So, yes! Finally, in Year 71 of our National Basketball Association’s existence, and 37 years since the rule change, I’m comfortable saying it: A 3-point shot is worth more than a 2-point shot.

Everyone else did the math, too — more 3-pointers than ever are being taken, and have been for a while — but Oklahoma City resists it so much that it’s a deleted scene from Russell Westbrook’s new “Don’t Do They, Do You” commercial. And whether it’s due to OKC’s talent (can’t shoot 3s) or Wednesday’s opponent, the Sixers (just … can’t), the Thunder went on to beat Philly 122–97, scoring 76 points in the paint with only four 3-pointers made.

Here’s a little OKC math: Over half (58 percent) of the Thunder’s shots are 2-pointers, and they make 70.6 percent of those. Westbrook, who on Wednesday became the only person ever to record a triple-double with a perfect field goal percentage (6-for-6), snagged that decoration without a single attempt from behind the arc. It’s easy to say Russ leads his team in scoring, but it’s just as easy to say Russ leads the NBA: His 31.2 points per game tops all, and the Thunder’s scoring-depleted surrounding cast doesn’t have another guy in the rankings until Victor Oladipo, at 52nd. He’s not a threat from deep, and the three next-highest scorers are Enes Kanter, Steven Adams, and Taj Gibson. Even with the addition of Doug McDermott, who dropped just one of the four 3s on the night, the team is built to climb on Russ’s back and score vicariously, or with his help. Russ had 14 of the team’s 26 dimes on Wednesday, and he — and only he — assisted on each of the four of the 3-pointers.

Look, I like outliers. I even read that one book! But at the 6-seed, and facing a potential first-round matchup with the Rockets, well, it’s the math again, and it’s not checking out for OKC.

Mad Disrespect to Jason Thompson

Controlled Chaos

Paolo Uggetti: Forget Kentucky, Gonzaga or UCLA. Forget Jim Nantz’s ties, Cinderella stories, and especially, forget about your busted bracket. The month of March belongs to the Bucks.

Heading into Golden 1 Center on Wednesday night, Milwaukee owned the NBA’s best record in the month, rising to the 7-seed in the East by winning nine of 12 games since February bid us adieu. Sacramento was the latest checkpoint for a nearly unstoppable train, which on this particular night was conducted by Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Greek Freak had one of his most complete games of the season, tallying 32 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, two steals, and a block in 40 minutes without committing a single turnover. It was his 16th 30-plus-point game this season. Last season, he had only two of those games.

As Vivek Ranadive sat courtside and watched, Giannis turned his arena into a house of horrors, dismantling every defender the Kings threw at him, one by one.

On the first possession of the game, Skal Labissiere, who has shown flashes since DeMarcus Cousins’s departure, was saddled with the task of guarding Giannis. The Freak drove right at the former Kentucky forward and drew an immediate foul. Giannis drove past Labissiere on the next possession only to be fouled again. This time, Kings big man and fellow John Calipari disciple Willie Cauley-Stein tried to help the rookie on the Bucks All-Star’s drive to the hoop. Neither could contain him.

In the second quarter, the Kings dispatched Ben McLemore to try to slow Giannis. The 6-foot-11 point forward promptly spun McLemore all the way back to Lawrence, Kansas, with a swift move, and finished the ensuing dunk with the ferocity of a guy who realized Sacramento had drafted this guy ahead of him.

The Kings hung around thanks to 21 points from Vivek’s muse, Buddy Hield, and double-digit point totals from six players. But Labissiere couldn’t recover from his first-quarter Greek awakening and scored only eight points — his lowest total in the past five games — as the Bucks won, 116–98.

The Bucks were simply too much. Jason Terry, Spencer Hawes, and Mirza Teletovic all appeared allergic to the area inside the arc, but with good reason. After starting 1-of-7 from deep, the trio downed eight of the team’s 16 3s off the bench to complement Giannis’s unicorn-like performance.

In a month when madness is the currency, the Freak is fittingly leading the way.