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The Five Most Interesting Players and Teams of the NBA’s Third Quarter

Handing out awards to the best players and teams—and to one not-so-good team—in the league’s second-to-last leg

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Every NBA team crossed the 60-game mark this week, meaning we’re about 75 percent of the way through the 2018-19 regular season. So, as we did when we reached the first-quarter mark at the end of November and the halfway point back in mid-January, let’s celebrate our arrival at a manageable fraction by handing out some awards!

Something to clarify before we get going: These awards are based purely on performance over the third quarter of the season, the period between the middle of January and the end of February, rather than on the entirety of the season to date. In some cases, that’ll result in different winners than you might expect.

In others, though, it won’t. To wit:

Team of the Quarter: Milwaukee Bucks

The team with the NBA’s best record, best defense, best net rating, and best total point differential over the course of the full season also finished at or near the top of the charts in each of those categories during Q3. Sometimes it’s OK to repeat yourself when what you’re saying is the truth.

The Bucks have steamrolled the league virtually unimpeded since announcing their presence with authority at Oracle Arena in early November. That continued as we settled into 2019, as Milwaukee racked up a 16-2 mark over the past six weeks. Two-thirds of their games during that stretch came on the road, and it didn’t matter; their only loss outside Wisconsin came at the hands of a flame-wreathed Paul George, and their lone home defeat came on the second night of a road/home back-to-back with Giannis Antetokounmpo getting the evening off. The Bucks had two Important Games in this span—at Toronto, vs. Boston—and won both.

Antetokounmpo kept building his Most Valuable Player case, averaging nearly 30-13-6 over the past 18 games while guarding everybody and showing terrifying signs of sewing up the lone hole in his game (37 percent from 3-point land on three attempts per game). Khris Middleton remained the Greek Freak’s perfect running buddy, while Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon quietly continued to be the East’s best backcourt. Brook Lopez kept bombing away from deep, and Nikola Mirotic didn’t waste much time in joining him; Mirotic, a trade-deadline pickup, is 13-for-29 from distance in his first four games as a Buck and looking as good as expected in Milwaukee’s scheme.

The Bucks are still clamping down at the front of the rim; only the Nets allowed a lower share of opponents’ shots there during Q3, according to Cleaning the Glass, and nobody held opponents to a lower field goal percentage. And when they have the ball, they live there (no. 1 with a bullet in at-rim frequency), thanks to all the space created by Mike Budenholzer’s system and Antetokounmpo’s unmatched ability to get to the cup and convert once he arrives. They are a team built to win, and win big, in the NBA as it exists in 2019. I can’t wait to see what they look like when the Eastern Conference cage match gets started.

Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets, Toronto Raptors, Portland Trail Blazers

Player of the Quarter: Paul George, Thunder

I would not fight you in a public square if you wanted to cast your imaginary quarterly ballot for Antetokounmpo. Or for James Harden, who scored fewer than 30 points only once in his 17 appearances during the season’s third quarter, averaging a tidy 39.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per contest in that span. But while Giannis has been the NBA’s best player since the start of the season, and while Harden re-emerged as the league’s premier scoring force a few weeks before Christmas, it was George who most forcefully elbowed his way into the spotlight over these six weeks, entering the MVP conversation by playing at a level he’d never before reached.

George averaged 33.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 2.4 steals in a league-high 39 minutes per game while serving as the top offensive option on a Thunder attack that ranked fifth in the league in offensive efficiency in this period. Only two players made more 3-pointers in that span, and only three knocked them down at a higher clip. Only Harden scored more points in “clutch” situations during that time than George; the Thunder wing showcased both the panic he can induce in defenses and how comfortable he’s feeling in his game last week when he carved up a tough Utah defense to beat the Jazz in double overtime:

He did all that while typically defending the opponent’s top wing scorer, helping limit the likes of Harden, Middleton, Jayson Tatum, and Josh Richardson in recent games. Oklahoma City’s defense has dropped off on the whole of late, ranking 17th in points allowed per possession during this stretch, but the bulk of the damage has come in George’s brief breathers. With him on the court since mid-January, the Thunder have conceded just 105.9 points per 100 possessions, which would’ve been the third-best mark in the league in Q3. Russell Westbrook will always be the face of the Thunder franchise, but George has become Oklahoma City’s most important player—and, for at least one amazing month, the league’s best player.

ARTVIMB: Antetokounmpo, Harden, Damian Lillard, Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokic

Rookie of the Quarter: Trae Young, Hawks

Call it voter fatigue or recency bias if you want, but as fantastic as Luka Doncic has remained in Dallas—23.1 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 7.5 assists per game in Q3, with more triple-doubles than any player other than Russell Westbrook and Nikola Jokic—I’ve had more fun watching Young start to make big-league defenses look like the Big 12 outfits he bamboozled at Oklahoma. With every sleight-of-hand setup and advanced read, Young’s making those who doubted him after a rough close to his college career and a shaky summer league look like total dopes.

Young has been dynamite for the past six weeks, averaging 22.3 points, 8.9 assists, and 3.8 rebounds in 32.9 minutes per game while shooting 39.1 percent from 3-point range on 7.1 attempts a night. (Including quite a few deep ones.) He has assisted on 40.5 percent of his teammates’ baskets during this stretch, the fifth-best mark in the league.

The Hawks still aren’t good, per se—they’re 7-11 in their past 18 games—but they’re a hell of a lot better than they were earlier this season. A lot of that stems directly from the leap Young has taken as their offensive focal point, and how much that’s helped elevate the work of the teammates around him. Since mid-January, Atlanta’s scoring a scorching 114 points-per-100 with Young on the court, and a microscopic 99 points-per-100 when he sits—by far the largest differential of any Hawks rotation regular.

Granted, he gives nearly all of that ground back on the defensive end, but that was always going to be the rub with such a slight point guard. While the Hawks’ chances of becoming a championship contender could depend on how effectively Young can survive offenses hunting him down, what matters most to their rebuild in the here and now is whether he can team with rising sophomore John Collins and fellow rookie Kevin Huerter to become the core of a sustainably explosive offense. The answer ...

… is starting to look like an emphatic yes.

ARTVIMB: Doncic, Marvin Bagley, Deandre Ayton, Landry Shamet, Mitchell Robinson

Defensive Player of the Quarter: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

This award is, to some extent, given in recognition of how tremendous the Bucks have been at preventing points overall, leading the league in points allowed per possession over the past six weeks. Other individual defenders have excellent cases; we considered George’s argument earlier, for one example. For another: While the 76ers tied for eighth in defensive efficiency in Q3, they were significantly stingier with Joel Embiid in the middle, going from an elite defensive rating when he played to a bottom-10-caliber mark when he sat.

Slithery lockdown artists like George and Kawhi Leonard can amplify their ever-present impact by suffocating opposing scorers in obvious ways. Titanic rim protectors like Embiid and Rudy Gobert can transform their control over the paint from subtext into text with a single loud block. But it can be harder to quantify the effect of a player whose role can change from night to night, opponent to opponent, and possession to possession—the sort of role that Antetokounmpo tends to play in Milwaukee’s defense. A havoc-wreaking help defender like Giannis can strike fear in the hearts of opposing offenses that never know quite where they’re coming from, or when they’re coming, but always have to worry that if they take one extra dribble or make one errant pass, they’re going to be watching a fast break going the other way.

Antetokounmpo was one of only four players in Q3 with at least 20 blocks and 20 steals, joining Andre Drummond, Myles Turner, and Draymond Green; he hauled in more defensive rebounds than any of them, and did it while handling a much wider variety of positional assignments. He held his direct matchups to just 38.3 percent shooting during that span, to boot, and the Bucks’ already league-leading defense was 2.5 points-per-100 stingier with him on the court than when he was off it. Suffocating opponents has been a group effort for the Bucks all season long. But, much as it is on the offensive end, that effort depends quite heavily on Giannis.

ARTVIMB: George, Turner, Embiid, Gobert, P.J. Tucker

Most Improved Player of the Quarter: D’Angelo Russell, Nets

Russell’s roll started well before mid-January, but he’s kicked it up yet another notch of late. Over his past 18 games, the just-turned-23-year-old has averaged 25.4 points (tied for 13th in the league in that span) and 7.6 assists (tied for 11th) in 32 minutes per game, while shooting 38.2 percent from 3-point range on a hefty 9.2 attempts per night. Only four players have used a higher share of their teams’ offensive possessions than Russell has in Q3; he has a higher assist rate than all of them.

Even so, I thought hard about going with Pascal Siakam here. The Raptors forward has been on a tear of his own, averaging 19 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game during that same stretch. Siakam also drilled 43.6 percent of his long balls during that period on 3.2 attempts per game, a high enough rate at a high enough volume to force defenders to respect him on the perimeter, which makes his slashing game even more dangerous. And perhaps most important: Siakam has handled the kind of increased offensive role that inspires visions of future stardom while remaining one of Toronto’s best and most versatile defenders. The Raptors allowed 4.9 fewer points-per-100 with Siakam on the floor in Q3. Russell’s defensive numbers, um, run the other way.

What led me back toward Russell, ultimately, was the context of his production. While Siakam plays on a stacked Toronto team alongside Leonard and Kyle Lowry, Russell has had to be the clear no. 1 option on a Brooklyn squad that has missed Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie for extended periods. He has thrived in the role lately, especially in the clutch. Only Harden and George have scored more points in close-and-late situations than Russell since mid-January, and he’s been a freaking marksman in piling them up, shooting 17-for-28 from the floor (60.7 percent). In 38 “clutch” minutes during this six-week run, the Nets have outscored opponents by 39 points with Russell at the controls; that’s the best mark in the NBA.

Even in the lower reaches of the Eastern Conference, a team short on bankable creators that’s fighting for its first playoff berth in four seasons doesn’t have much margin for error. The Nets have needed Russell to be a star to stay in position. He has delivered.

ARTVIMB: Siakam, Lauri Markkanen, Brandon Ingram, Andre Drummond

Others

Reserve of the Quarter: Montrezl Harrell, Clippers

I would’ve felt just fine giving this to Lou Williams again, given that he’s continued to carry the scoring and playmaking load (22.7 points and 6.5 assists per game in Q3, both tops among bench players) for the Clippers, who traded away their best player at February’s deadline yet still hold a two-game edge over the Kings for the West’s final playoff spot. Instead, though, we’ll tip our caps to the other half of Doc Rivers’s most frequently used tandem.

Harrell plays like Chev Chelios after a jolt, forever screening and diving, soaring and slamming, rotating and swatting. He’s relentless, skilled, and efficient, averaging 16.7 points on 63 percent shooting with 5.9 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1.3 blocks in 28 minutes per game in the season’s third quarter. Williams creates a ton of Harrell’s offense with his gift for manipulating defenses, but Harrell’s unique menace turns all those clean looks into something a little nastier. Lou Will gives the Clippers the smooth scoring they’ll need to make the playoffs. Harrell gives them the snarl they’ll need to make some noise once they get there.

ARTVIMB: Williams, Andre Iguodala, Monte Morris, Jaylen Brown, Luol Deng (shockingly effective after being taken out of mothballs in Minnesota!), Jake Layman, Kevon Looney

The Yooooo! Award for Most Pleasant Surprise of the Quarter: Indiana Pacers

I expected Indiana to hang tough after Victor Oladipo’s season-ending injury, but by “hang tough,” I meant “play hard, lose some tough games, slip down to the fifth seed, and bow out valiantly in the first round of the playoffs.” I did not think the Pacers would still be third in the East, with a half-game lead on the Sixers and a 3.5-game lead on the fifth-place Celtics, with 19 games to go. And yet, here they are.

The Pacers have done it with defense, allowing the league’s third-fewest points per 100 possessions in Q3, led by DPOY candidate Myles Turner. Bojan Bogdanovic has been fantastic stepping in for Oladipo as Indy’s top scorer, averaging a shade under 20 points per game on 50/38/83 shooting splits. Damn near everybody in a Pacer uniform, from Turner to Thaddeus Young to buyout-market acquisition Wesley Matthews, is shooting the hell out of the ball from 3-point range.

Even without Oladipo, the Pacers have remained the team that president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard built for coach Nate McMillan’s style: They play physical, share the ball, limit turnovers, and make opponents’ lives hard. They may well drop down a seed or two before the playoffs, but if they do, it’ll be because the Sixers and Celtics earned their way up the ladder. The Pacers aren’t giving away anything.

ARTVIMB: Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic

The Yiiiiikes! Award for Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter: Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers’ third quarter had everything: damaging injuries, extremely public trade rumors, charges of bad-faith negotiating, an attempted roster overhaul that netted only Reggie Bullock (nice!) and Mike Muscala (we’ll see!), grousing about rotations, punchless offense, porous defense, underperforming veterans, questions about young players’ commitment and capacity, and a whole mess of losses. Not exactly the rocket ride back to sovereign status the Lakers anticipated when LeBron James signed on the dotted line.

The Lakers, now one game under .500 and three games back of eighth in the West, can absolutely still make the playoffs; having LeBron on your roster affords you the benefit of the doubt until you’re mathematically eliminated. But the way they’ve handled their business on and off the court over the past month and a half made accomplishing even that fairly modest goal much more difficult, and has raised major questions about just how successful this new era in Laker basketball might wind up being.

ARTVIMB: Boston Celtics