With All-Star Weekend now in the rearview mirror, the NBA is about to enter the stretch run, a six-week sprint for the postseason (or draft lottery). Before we fire the starter’s pistol for the final 20-ish games of the regular season, though, let’s not breeze past the fact that we’ve put 60-ish games in the books … which means it’s time once again to celebrate our arrival at a manageable fraction by taking stock, recognizing the best of the best of what we’ve just watched, and handing out some imaginary hardware.
Before we get underway, a point of clarification: These aren’t predictions of who will win the big individual and collective awards after the season, but rather tips of the cap based purely on performance during the third quarter, the period since our last check-in on January 20.
Focusing on who rose, fell, delighted, and disappointed during this last little bit, rather than over the course of the entire season, better captures the NBA’s state of affairs as we hit the homestretch. And as we wind toward the finish line, one team has a Secretariat-ass lead over the pack (which is a good thing, because it might need it):
Team of the Quarter: Phoenix Suns
Phoenix has lost just once since our last check-in. (And Devin Booker’s still sick about that one.) That defeat established a clear formula for upending the Suns:
- Have Trae Young
- Have him score 43 points in an absolutely pristine heater
- Make 20 3-pointers as a team
- Make sure Phoenix makes only nine
If you can do all that, then sure, you can be in business against the best team in basketball. Any other set of circumstances, though? You just might be shit out of luck, because the Suns are carving through the league like a goddamn scythe.
As has been the case since the bubble, the Suns continue to brutalize with balance: They were the only team in the league in Q3 to rank in the top five in both offensive efficiency (120.3 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass, no. 1 with a bullet) and defensive efficiency (109.5 points-per-100, fifth). They finished at the rim and scorched the nets from midrange better than anybody else in the league. They turned the ball over less often than anybody else, too. Nobody did a better job of preventing opponents from shooting at the rim; only the suffocating Celtics forced midrange shots as often.
Despite going cold on above-the-break 3s, Mikal Bridges’s offensive efficiency has actually ticked up—17.3 points per game on .667 true shooting—because he’s shot 89 percent at the rim and 71 percent on floaters over the past month. Booker continues to ramp up his scoring, averaging 27.7 points per game in Q3 while also continuing to work his ass off on defense and take the playmaking reins when necessary.
Unfortunately for Phoenix, it will be necessary for a while. We learned just before the All-Star Game tipped off that Chris Paul—who has been mind-bogglingly good, averaging 17.9 points, 12.7 assists vs. just 2.7 turnovers, and 5.0 rebounds per game on 52/35/85 shooting splits in Q3—has a broken right thumb, and the Suns say they plan to reevaluate him in six to eight weeks. If Paul’s able to return at the front end of that timeline, he’d miss about 20 games. If the healing process takes any longer than that, though, the Suns will likely be without Paul for at least part of the opening round of the playoffs, and be forced to attempt to re-integrate him on the fly in the heat of a championship chase. On the bright side, as Booker noted Sunday, at least CP3’s legs will be fresh as a daisy when he’s cleared to return to his spot in the lineup that has been one of the best big-minutes units in the league.
When Phoenix hasn’t had its preferred starting five of late, with Deandre Ayton or Jae Crowder missing time, it’s just gone to the bench, plugged in a replacement—the essential Cameron Johnson at the 4, veteran bigs JaVale McGee or Bismack Biyombo at the 5—and continued steamrolling fools. And when other reserve options, like backup guards Cameron Payne and Landry Shamet, struggle with injuries or inconsistency, well, now head coach Monty Williams can reach for Torrey Craig (a member of last year’s Finals team re-acquired from Indiana for out-of-the-plans young big Jalen Smith) and Aaron Holiday (extracted from D.C. for nothing more than sweet, sweet cash) in search of the lift he’s seeking. It remains to be seen how Williams will fill Paul’s spot in the lineup, especially with Payne still sidelined by a wrist injury. Will he plug in Holiday or Elfrid Payton to handle the ball, or just dispense with the idea of a like-for-like replacement and shift Booker over to the point, with Johnson, Craig, or another wing sliding into a larger lineup?
A 6.5-game lead over second-place Golden State in the standings and a friendly post-All-Star schedule featuring 13 games against sub-.500 opponents will give Williams some room to experiment, and should help mitigate the damage of losing Paul; Phoenix is still the overwhelming favorite to end up with the West’s best record, the no. 1 seed, and home-court advantage throughout the postseason. The hope is that the rest of the roster remains healthy in Paul’s absence, and he’s able to come back rested and ready to rock in Round 1. If that happens, we know exactly what the full-strength Suns are: somewhere between good and great at just about every aspect of NBA basketball as it’s played in 2022. They’re smart, strong, and utterly unflappable; they’re indomitable in crunch time, and, much like the no-top-five-superstar 2014 Spurs to which they bear more than a passing resemblance, fueled by the motivation to finish the job they fell two wins shy of completing last summer.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: The Celtics (who we’ll touch on more in just a bit); the Grizzlies (who had the NBA’s no. 2 offense and no. 8 defense in Q3 and who have a real shot at finishing second in the West); the Warriors (who’ve hung tough but could really use a healthy Draymond Green “at some point” to fortify their flagging defense); the Raptors (who’ve won 11 of 15 in an effort to leap out of the East’s play-in mix, and who are now just 2.5 games out of home-court advantage in Round 1).
Player of the Quarter: DeMar DeRozan, Bulls
Chicago was supposed to fall off.
Sure, the Bulls had been awesome through the first half of the season, soaring to the top of the East. But all those injuries—Lonzo Ball’s torn meniscus, the wounded wrists of Patrick Williams and Alex Caruso, Derrick Jones Jr.’s broken finger, the suddenly worrisome left knee of All-Star Zach LaVine—would catch up with them, especially as the vicissitudes of the schedule sent them on the road for six of nine games in late January and early February. Even another All-Star playing at the peak of his powers can’t make up for all that, right?
Well, that depends how high the peak is. Because this …
… is a towering peak.
Despite all those absences, the Bulls stayed afloat in Q3—10-6, with a top-five offense—and stayed neck and neck with the Heat for the top spot in the East heading into the All-Star break. They did so due not solely, but in extremely large part, to DeRozan: a dagger-throwing firestorm who averaged a league-high 34.5 points per game in Q3 to go with 5.9 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game. If that sounds wild, that’s because it is; it’s the kind of production that only Elgin Baylor, James Harden, Wilt Chamberlain, and Michael Jordan have ever put up over a full season.
Without LaVine to help shoulder the scoring load, and without Ball and Caruso to share playmaking responsibilities, DeRozan has carved away every ounce of fat from his game. Even as his offensive burden has increased, his scoring efficiency has skyrocketed. Among 270 players to play at least 10 games in Q3, DeRozan ranked second in points per touch behind only Gary Trent Jr., who (a) averages 25 fewer touches per game than DeRozan and (b) made 37 more 3-pointers in that span than DeRozan attempted.
DeRozan used 33.5 percent of Chicago’s possessions in Q3, and posted a scorching .664 true shooting percentage. Those are Unanimous MVP Steph–type numbers—produced, again, almost entirely without the benefit of the 3-point shot. That’s bonkers, and it’s the result of peerless shot-making; no player in the NBA has been on DeRozan’s level as a pure bucket-getter of late. During this 15-game stretch, just under 71 percent of his shot attempts came against “tight” or “very tight” coverage, according to NBA Advanced Stats’ shot tracking; he shot 58.8 percent on them, and an eye-popping 60.6 percent overall on attempts inside the arc.
Thank you for setting a great example and playing the game with supreme skill @DeMar_DeRozan— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) February 17, 2022
It’s a level of locked-in that players spend their careers chasing—the sort of extended stay in the zone that most can only dream about. It has kept the Bulls’ remarkable resurgence rolling, propelling Billy Donovan and Co. toward the franchise’s first playoff appearance since Jimmy Butler left town and, potentially, its best record since Derrick Rose’s knee injury. It has stamped DeRozan as not only an All-Star starter, but a bona fide MVP candidate—a stratospheric new height for the 13-year veteran.
Tom Ziller’s not wrong when he suggests that the DeRozan we’re seeing in Chicago isn’t drastically different from the player he was in Toronto or San Antonio: a patient, precise creator perpetually seeking interior space; an apparent antique still making money on midrange pull-ups in an era of perimeter expansion; a more willing facilitator and savvier manipulator of defenses than many observers gave him credit for. The difference, really, is in degree: Yes, the 32-year-old is doing everything he’s done before, but he’s never done it this often, this well, this completely. DeMar DeRozan is who he’s been, but he’s also better than he’s ever been, and because of it, the Bulls sure as hell don’t seem like they will be falling off any time soon.
ARTVIMB: Joel Embiid (Q2’s winner might’ve been even better in Q3—more points per game than minutes played!—to push the Sixers within 2.5 games of the top spot in the East, with some hirsute reinforcements on the way); Giannis Antetokounmpo (neck and neck with Embiid’s production, shooting 60 percent from the floor, and looking increasingly comfortable on those pull-ups in a way that will give opposing coaches new nightmares); Luka Doncic (just shy of a 33-point triple-double average while shooting 41 percent from deep in Q3, scored 199 points in his final five games before the All-Star break, moving back into the MVP race himself); Nikola Jokic (26-13-9 on 57/38/85 shooting, winning games with blocks and dimes as well as buckets, and keeping the Nuggets in the fight without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.—though he may not have to for much longer?); CP3 and Booker; Jayson Tatum (27-8-5 for the East’s top team in Q3); Ja Morant (33-6-7 for the still-marauding Grizz); Trae Young (don’t look now, but Atlanta’s climbing in the play-in race); Karl-Anthony Towns (25-11-5 on 53/41/85 shooting for a playoff-bound Minnesota team that had the NBA’s no. 3 offense in Q3); Pascal Siakam (never better on both ends, and keeping the Raptors surging).
Rookie of the Quarter: Josh Giddey, Thunder
I very nearly went with Ayo Dosunmu, who has been phenomenal since stepping into the starting lineup in Chicago. He’s provided precisely what the Bulls have needed with Ball and Caruso injured: complementary playmaking and a steady hand alongside DeRozan (6.6 assists per game and a sparkling 3.81-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in Q3), combined with stout defense across the perimeter positions and semi-regular detonations at the rim.
Lord forgive me, though: I just can’t get enough of watching this young dude in Oklahoma City sling passes all the hell over the place.
Giddey has stepped into a larger role in the Thunder offense since his backcourt partner, ascendant star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, went down with a sprained right ankle. He’s flourished, averaging 16.2 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 7.5 assists in 33.0 minutes per game in his last 10 contests prior to the All-Star break, including three consecutive triple-doubles, headlined by a career-high 28 points, 11 boards, and 12 dimes in an overtime victory at Madison Square Garden.
Only nine players produced more points via assist in Q3 than Giddey, according to PBPstats.com’s tracking—eight All-Stars and Tyrese Haliburton. Watch the tape on some of those deliveries, and you might find yourself wondering whether you’re watching a 10-year vet rather than a teenager with a little more than half a season under his belt:
The Aussie’s size (6-foot-8, 205 pounds), court vision, and instinctive pace combine to give him the tools to create good looks all over the floor. It also helps him contribute on the glass—he led all rookies in defensive rebounds per game in Q3—and serve as a disruptive cog on the defensive end. Quiet as it’s kept, Oklahoma City had the NBA’s no. 2 defense in Q3, with Giddey leading the team in minutes and plugging up passing lanes to end possessions.
As a table-setter, it’s not just that Giddey can see the skip pass to an open shooter in the corner. It’s that, at this early stage in his career, he can already pass an otherwise covered shooter open—using his eyes to manipulate defenders, deceiving them into thinking he’s trying to hit the roll man in the middle of the paint, forcing them to sink in to help, creating the opportunity. It’s also that he can throw a bullet to that dude with either hand, from just about anywhere in the half court, off of a live dribble, which is not something many players, let alone rookies, can do.
Giddey’s crafty in the pick-and-roll, able to angle his way past a defender and use his size to keep his man on his hip as he enters the paint. He’s got uncommon patience for a 19-year-old, the willingness to wait that extra beat, just long enough to create a tight window in the lane for a drop-off pass, or to force a helper to commit before kicking it out. He also seems to have a good feel for how and where his teammates like the ball; whether it’s a bounce pass in traffic, a hit-ahead in transition, a cross-court fastball, a drop-down from the post, or a lob off a screen, the ball more often than not arrives on time and on target, right on the hands.
He’s got a ways to go as a threat to generate his own offense, particularly as a jump shooter—he’s hitting just 23.2 percent of his 3-pointers—but an uptick at the foul line (80 percent in Q3) offers hope that his stroke will come around with more reps and work on strengthening his shooting base. Even with his jumper still very much a work in progress, though, Giddey’s steady improvement in finishing at the rim (54 percent in Q1, 56 percent in Q2, 65 percent in Q3) and from “floater range” between the restricted area and foul line (42 percent in Q1, 43 percent in Q2, 49 percent in Q3) suggests an ability to be, at worst, a solid interior scorer off the bounce capable of providing complementary offense alongside Gilgeous-Alexander in what could be a fearsome and very fun young playmaking duo in the years to come.
ARTVIMB: Ayo; Franz Wagner (16.4 points on 53/44/91 shooting splits to go with 3.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game in Q3, a true keeper in Orlando); Cade Cunningham (the jumper and interior finishing still need work, but the playmaking and all-around polish are special); Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes (still big-role starters on playoff teams, and still the favorites to finish 1-2 in Rookie of the Year voting come season’s end); Cam Thomas (a bright spot amid the upheaval in Brooklyn, averaging 14.7 points in 23.8 minutes per game in Q3 and earning his stripes at MSG); Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado (a second-round pick and an undrafted free agent, respectively, who’ve both earned spots in the rotation for a Pelicans team fighting for a play-in berth); Ziaire Williams (a ready-made 3-and-D starter on the third-seeded Grizz); Jonathan Kuminga (pressed into a larger role due to injuries and flourishing, averaging 15.3 points on 60.3 percent shooting in February).
Reserve of the Quarter: Bogdan Bogdanovic, Hawks
After a disappointing six-week stretch that saw them sink to 12th in the East, the Hawks have started to turn things around, going 9-5 with a top-10 point differential in Q3 to move into a tie for ninth with the Hornets. You can point to a few reasons for the resurgence: the ongoing excellence of Trae Young, the departure of Cam Reddish decongesting the rotation, the returns of De’Andre Hunter and Onyeka Okongwu fortifying a leaky defense, etc.
One big one, though? Bogdanovic rediscovering his rhythm after spending most of December and January dealing with ankle, COVID, and knee issues. He’s providing the sort of complementary playmaking that Atlanta has been desperately missing:
With Hunter back on the wing and Kevin Huerter a snug fit next to Young in the starting backcourt, Bogdanovic slid into the second unit when he returned from his most recent absence. Moving into a more primary role with the reserve corps has given Bogdanovic a bit more leeway with the ball; his touches per game, time of possession, seconds per touch, and dribbles per touch were all higher in Q3 than they were in the first half of the season. He has thrived in that role, averaging 16.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 4.0 assists in 28.8 minutes per game off the pine in Q3 while shooting 47.6 percent from the field, 41.6 percent from 3-point range on 7.4 attempts a night, and 89.5 percent from the free throw line.
Bogdanovic can threaten defenses as both a pick-and-roll playmaker capable of feeding targets and a spot-up shooter able to knock down looks created by others. That versatility and production has helped keep the Hawks offense humming, even when Trae takes a seat: Atlanta outscored opponents by a whopping 16.2 points-per-100 in Q3 when Bogdanovic played without Young.
The Hawks are still a long way from reaching the rarefied air they entered during their run to the 2021 Eastern Conference finals. But with Trae at the controls of an explosive starting lineup, and Bogdanovic and Okongwu teaming up to make the second unit just as dangerous, Atlanta’s shaping up to be the kind of team that no higher seed will be eager to face come the play-in—or, if things break right, the playoffs.
ARTVIMB: Okongwu; Kevin Love (our Q2 winner, who just keeps stroking 3s and ripping down boards for the surging Cavs); Cam Johnson (just metronome-steady as the 3-and-D combo forward Monty Williams can plug in anywhere at any time); the Brandon Clarke–De’Anthony Melton–Tyus Jones trio in Memphis; Luke Kennard (12-4-3 on .688 true shooting in Q3, a huge reason the Clippers have continued to stay afloat without their two superstars); Jordan Poole (bumped by Klay Thompson’s return into duty as a score-first second-unit point guard, which is probably his best role on a team with title aspirations); Grant Williams, Chris Boucher, and P.J. Washington (three different styles of stretch big men each making major two-way contributions to Eastern playoff squads); the whole Wolves second unit—Malik Beasley, Naz Reid, Taurean Prince, Jaylen Nowell, Jordan McLaughlin—that’s been dynamite in keeping Minnesota playoff-bound.
Defensive Player of the Quarter: Robert Williams III, Celtics
Way back in the long ago of June 2018, my former Ringer colleagues Haley O’Shaughnessy and Paolo Uggetti identified Williams as both a winner and a loser of the 2018 NBA draft. The glass-half-empty view: Had he declared in 2017 rather than returning to Texas A&M for a sophomore season when he got lost in the shuffle behind collegiate stars Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, and Jaren Jackson Jr., he might have been a lottery pick rather than falling all the way to no. 27. The sunnier side of the street: Landing with a Boston team coming off back-to-back Eastern Conference finals would put him in prime position to develop his skills and find a productive role at the pro level.
“If Williams ever reaches his full potential,” they wrote, “he’ll be the athletic big the Celtics have been looking for.”
Well, four seasons later, it’s safe to say that Williams has become precisely what Boston’s brain trust was hoping for—a lob-demolishing, rim-protecting, quick-twitch interior menace capable of anchoring an elite defense:
Boston surged up the defensive rankings in Q3, allowing a microscopic 99.2 points-per-100 outside of garbage time, according to Cleaning the Glass. That was the league’s stingiest defense in that span, and to a ludicrous degree; the gap between the Celtics and second-place Thunder was larger than the gap between OKC and no. 22 San Antonio.
There’s plenty of credit to go around for that: to head coach Ime Udoka for persevering through a rocky start and getting his players to buy in to what he was asking them do to; to star wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown for weathering yet another “split them up?” storm and recommitting to the task at hand; to Marcus Smart for continuing to serve as one of the NBA’s most fearsome and versatile point-of-attack defenders. At the heart of it all, though, has been Williams—a 6-foot-9, 237-pound “DO NOT ENTER” sign emboldening his perimeter-defending teammates to play tighter and tougher on their men and rudely rejecting the advances of any opponents who do manage to make their way to the basket.
Only Jakob Poeltl contested more shots per game in Q3 than Williams, who had more combined blocks and steals in that span (45) than he did combined fouls and turnovers (42). Opponents shot just 42.3 percent against Williams at the rim in Q3, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking, the stingiest mark of any player to defend at least 25 up-close attempts. He was a monster away from the rim, too, holding his assignments to an anemic 36.4 percent shooting overall in Q3, nearly 11 points below their season average—the largest differential in the league among 254 players who made at least 10 appearances in the quarter.
The quickness with which Williams covers ground, combined with his 7-foot-6 wingspan, means he’s almost never out of a play. His ability to impact defensive possessions in a number of ways—as a drop defender playing cat-and-mouse in the pick-and-roll, as a last-line-of-defense rim protector, as a nimble switch defender, and as the sort of lurking nightmare who convinces drivers to keep dribbling in search of a better look, lest he spike their shit into orbit—fuels what has become an absolute meat-grinder of a defense in Boston.
ARTVIMB: Bam Adebayo (healthy again and back to guarding 1 through 5 for a Heat defense that ranked third in Q3 defensive efficiency); Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen (providing the best rim protection in the NBA); Mikal Bridges (continuing to burnish his reputation as the league’s best perimeter defender); Jaren Jackson Jr. (Memphis’s D dipped a bit from Q2, when he was our winner, but he still remained the versatile shot-snuffing key of a top-10 defense); Embiid (the cornerstone of a Sixers defense that ranked fourth in effective field goal percentage allowed in Q3); Giannis (the Bucks allowed 8.1 fewer points-per-100 with Antetokounmpo on the floor in Q3); Poeltl (tied for second in blocks per game, with the Spurs defending at a top-10 level with him in the middle); Mitchell Robinson (more than three combined blocks/steals per game in Q3, with the Knicks clamping down at a top-five clip in his minutes—a rare bright spot in a dark time at MSG).
Most Improved Player of the Quarter: Wendell Carter Jr., Magic
Twelve players averaged more than 15 points, 10 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game in Q3. It’s a list populated mostly by MVP candidates (Embiid, Luka, Giannis, Jokic) and All-Stars (Karl-Anthony Towns, Julius Randle, Nikola Vucevic, Bam Adebayo, Domantas Sabonis); it also features a couple more names (Jusuf Nurkic, Christian Wood) who have shown the capacity to play at an All-Star level in the past, if not the ability to do so consistently.
And then, there’s Carter—the former lottery pick whose Chicago career produced more fizzle than flash under four head coaches in an injury-and-pandemic-curtailed three-season stretch. The Bulls bundled him up in the deal for Vucevic, and he’s been playing like one of the more productive young big men in the league.
Carter averaged 16.4 points, 10 rebounds, and 2.8 assists in 29.4 minutes per game for the Magic in Q3, shooting 54.8 percent from the floor and showcasing an advancing all-around game. He’s attacking the rim—on the offensive glass, with his back to the basket in the post, facing up and driving on slower-footed defenders from the perimeter, rolling to the rim off a screen, you name it—and shooting 74.2 percent in the restricted area in Q3. He’s in a great rhythm with his floater; he lets it fly with both hands with confidence, shooting 55 percent on non-restricted-area paint tries.
He’s developing chemistry with Orlando’s perimeter playmakers—Cole Anthony, rookies Franz Wagner, and Jalen Suggs—and is working in both the high pick-and-roll and dribble-handoff actions from the elbows, where he can either dive to the rim, pop back out for a jumper, or hold the ball and look to pick out cutters. (“He’s probably one of the best screeners I ever played with,” Anthony recently told reporters, “in terms of physicality, the speed of getting to the screen.”) While he knocked down only 28.9 percent of his 3-point tries in Q3, he’s stepping into them without hesitation. And even though he’s not a huge threat from the perimeter Carter has still managed to find some success with an exaggerated Jonas Valanciunas–ass pump fake that he pulls out to get onrushing defenders off-balance before driving past them to the lane.
Carter is more than holding his own on the other end, too, continuing his top-10 work on the glass this season. Opponents shot just 51.5 percent against Carter at the rim in Q3, tied for the sixth-lowest mark among players to defend at least 50 attempts at the basket; Orlando allowed 7.1 fewer points-per-100 with him on the court than off it, defending at a top-10 rate in his minutes. He’s produced at the 4 alongside Mo Bamba in two-big looks, and he’s produced as the lone center on the court in quicker Magic lineups.
He’s just … produced. It’s sort of reminiscent of the jump Deandre Ayton made after returning from his 25-game suspension in his second season and before exploding in Phoenix’s run to the Finals—a big man with the size, skill, and malleability to do a little bit of everything developing enough patience and craft to be able to do all of it at a pretty-to-very high level. And on a per-minute and per-possession basis, that pre-leap version of Ayton and today’s version of Carter look pretty similar.
It’s all adding up to make Carter look like something of a steal on the four-year, $50 million contract extension he signed just before the season. And that’s particularly because the Magic front-loaded it, meaning Carter will make a tick under $11 million at age 26 in 2025-26, which will look like tip money if he keeps this up. So much about Orlando’s future remains shrouded in mystery—what Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac will look like when they get healthy, how they’ll fit in alongside Wagner, Anthony, and Suggs on the perimeter, whether any of the Magic’s many young talents have the potential to turn into superstars—but Carter’s two-way growth suggests he might be the sort of stable base the franchise needs in place to be able to suss out the answers to all those questions.
ARTVIMB: Gary Trent Jr. (we all knew he was good, but not quite “averaging 23 a game and shooting 45 percent from deep on nearly 10 launches a night while also playing awesome defense” good); Vucevic (not overall, but within the context of this season—he went from averaging 14-11-4 on .481 true shooting in Q1 to 18-11-3 on .515 TS% in Q2 to an All-Star-level-recapturing 22-13-4 on .604 TS% in Q3); Jarred Vanderbilt (flirting with a double-double on 63 percent shooting while serving as the glue-guy defensive chaos agent of the playoff-bound Wolves); Siakam (you might think it’s nuts to pick a guy who’s already made an All-NBA team, but this version of Pascal—averaging 24-9-6 on .602 TS% in Q3 while starting at center, playing point in second units, and balling out across five positions on D—looks significantly better to me).
Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter: The End of the Nets As We (Never Really) Knew Them
I know, I know, I know. We’ve talked it all to death: the staggeringly abrupt end of the Big Three era, the megatrade with Philly, the potential for Ben Simmons in Brooklyn. We’ve picked every last ounce of meat off the bone. I come not to belabor those points, but rather to pour one out for the wonder we barely ever actually saw.
Three-hundred sixty-four combined minutes across two regular seasons and one postseason, during which Brooklyn outscored its opposition by 113 points. An incandescent offensive rating of 129.1 points per 100 possessions, which is basically the statistical equivalent of the Rapture. Thirteen wins in 16 games—only six of them in the playoffs.
That’s it. That’s all we’ll ever get of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving playing basketball together. The numbers will just sit there on the page, two brilliant paragraphs of what was supposed to be the great American novel. Although I suppose a lot of those end with the best-laid plans in tatters, too.
That’s the thing that’s most tragic about it: It worked. The concept actually bore out in practice. Harden sacrificed shots and dramatically slashed his usage rate. Irving threw Harden the keys to the offense, shifted to the 2, and focused on pushing the pace in transition, cutting, and becoming a mercilessly efficient finisher. Durant helped conceal the blemishes on the defensive end, doubled down on defensive rebounding, and hunted space, trusting that he’d walk into 30 points without much trouble, same as he always had.
They’d each get chances to take a solo in the flow of the game; when it mattered, they’d always be able to find a mismatch somewhere. And they did, and it made for some pretty fantastic basketball. Not necessarily “the Beautiful Game” Spurs or the heights of the Steph-Draymond-Klay Warriors, but still: an incredible collection of skills that fit together to devastating effect. And hey, maybe they would have gotten there—maybe, with the benefit of time, health, and repetitions, they’d have reached that sort of harmonic convergence, the place where everything comes together to create something even greater than the sum of their Hall of Fame parts.
But we know how that turned out. They didn’t get there. They didn’t come together. They didn’t wind up creating much of anything, let alone anything great, and by the end—with Durant rehabbing a sprained knee, Kyrie unavailable for home games because of his decision not to get vaccinated, and Harden in the process of putting on his parachute to leap out of the team plane over Philadelphia—their attempt at a basketball revolution ended with a whimper and 11 consecutive losses. What a shame. What a waste.
ARTVIMB: The Knicks (it’s not easy to completely erase vibes as righteous as the ones they created in less than a year, but the once-again joyless Tom Thibodeau and Co. have managed to do so with aplomb); the Lakers (not just losing, but utterly landlocked by the Russell Westbrook trade, continuing to get drilled in LeBron-AD-Russ minutes, and now seemingly closer to the end of the LeBron-in-L.A. era than its beginning); the conclusion of the Kristaps Porzingis experiment in Dallas (which ended not with a bang, but with Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans); the infinite sadness of Zion Williamson’s absence (we’ve now reached the point that he might need another surgery, apparently hasn’t checked in with New Orleans’s brand-new star guard, and is no longer even being promoted in the Pelicans’ season-ticket package renewal letters).
Most Pleasant Surprise of the Quarter: The Celtics Figuring It Out
Boston was just a .500 team with a bottom-10 offense entering Q3, but you kind of got the feeling that a roster with this much two-way talent wouldn’t keep scuffling forever. Well, when things changed, they changed quickly:
Smart came back, Tatum got hot, Timelord cranked it up another notch, Brown kept rolling, and all of a sudden, the Celtics were smacking teams to the tune of an 11-3 record (with just one loss by more than four points) and a league-best net rating nearly 10 points-per-100 higher than the next best team. Boston doubled down at the trade deadline, too, swinging a deal with the Spurs to add Derrick White, a hard-nosed and versatile combo guard who can defend multiple positions and make plays off the dribble—in other words, a hand-in-glove fit for the style that coach turned team president Brad Stevens and Udoka want to be able to run out in the playoffs. (Bringing back no-nonsense big man Daniel Theis to replace Enes Freedom alongside Williams, Al Horford, and Grant Williams in the frontcourt rotation ought to help, too.)
As my Ringer colleague Zach Kram recently noted, the Celtics still have the look of a team that’s a playmaker and a shooter short of being a true title contender; they will, once again, be dependent on trick-or-treat marksmen to knock down enough shots to hang with the higher-octane offenses they could face in a brutal Eastern playoff bracket. If they do make enough, though, and if Tatum—who is tied with Steph for the third-most 50-point games in the past three seasons—can go toe-to-toe with opponents’ top guns, then the Celtics should prove to be a hellacious opponent come springtime … and one of as many as eight teams in the East that could enter the playoffs harboring legitimate Finals hopes.
ARTVIMB: The Ben Simmons trade actually happening after
nine decades six months of drama; the Thunder having the no. 2 defense in Q3 thanks to discipline, length, and athleticism; Giannis shooting 47 percent from midrange and 41 percent on above-the-break 3s, which, God help us all; Klay Thompson continuing to look as good as he has on offense after nearly two years on the shelf; the Blazers going on a little bit of a run after seemingly dismantling their team at the trade deadline; the possibility that Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. might be back with the Nuggets before the end of the season.