Because this is the first time you will be seeing this: This is Wikihoops Weekly. A segment where we’ll provide you a short recap of the past week’s events in basketball and a preview of what you might expect in the coming 7 days. At the end, for the biggest basketball geeks, one extra section that goes into more detail about a given topic. My name is Martim and everything about where to reach me you can find on my profile. Don’t be afraid to send a message with feedback, ideas or if you just wanna talk hoops. With that out of the way, let’s begin!
Recap: Orlando’s new main attraction had us all standing still
No game had more eyes on it than the new chapter in the Lakers vs Clippers series. The Clippers offense is overstressed without Lou and Harrell but the way Anthony Davis - 34 points and 8 boards - is still an unsolvable problem does not have an easy fix in sight. The Clippers used their ultra-switch ready lineup with JaMychal Green and Marcus Morris at the 4 and 5 but those players will not contain “the Brow” in the paint or box him out. Kuzma has become a much more capable defender and using him as an easy point of attack seems to be also out of the table (something the Clippers cannot say about Lou Williams). There is no need to panic as of yet, but a lot of strategic thinking need to be made with urgency.
I will give a lot more focus to the Memphis-Blazers game later so let us turn to another overtime showdown in the Mavericks vs Rockets headliner. Dallas will be wondering how they allowed this game to slip away, ahead by 7 points with 45 seconds remaining. James Harden might have had the most successful unintentional free throw miss, resulting in Covington’s offensive rebound, but the fears about a Dallas team that was one of the worst clutch team of the league see renewed strength, just before the post-season.
Traded-as-a-negative-by-the-Suns TJ Warren had a career high 53 points as Indiana beat the Sixers, who can no longer play at home for the rest of the season. The most troubling sign is the familiar sight of Embiid with a crazy +21 in his 34 minutes while the team still manages to lose. The stagger seemed the best way to improve Horford’s performance but is appears the struggles continue for the former All-Star.
Outside of the court, the Knicks hired Tom Thibodeau as the new head coach. Discussing this fit feels frivolous because it won’t really matter until the front office restructures this team into one that actually makes sense for anyone to coach. This offseason, when it arrives, will prove if the process has really changed or if this is just a new coat of paint in an otherwise broken franchise.
Preview: The West is (mostly) up for grabs
It’s hard to recommend only a few games with so many of them per day and how Playoffs matchups are still dependent on them. Things will change on a daily basis but looking at the calendar, a few already stand out.
August 3rd will see Zion desperate to play more than 15 minutes as the New Orleans Pelicans face a Memphis team put on red alert by the Trail Blazers and Spurs. The fight for the West’s 8th place will be the main storyline of these seeding games. And since neither team is known for rim protection (in fact, the Pelicans allow a bigger percentage of shots at the rim than any other team in the bubble), you can expect a lot of action from the two most exciting rookies around.
On Thursday, August 6th, the Mavericks face the Clippers in what might be the preview of a first round series, so lessons from that game carry an extra weight. Even with two certain 2020 All-NBA players in Luka Doncic and Kawhi Leonard, the way the bigs will match up is the most interesting strategic wrinkle. We already touched on the Clipper’s lack of a defensive big but Maverick Kristpas Porzingis isn’t your prototypical big man - you don’t earn the label of “unicorn” by being anything other than an outlier. But maybe another chapter between the small-ball Rockets and the giant Lakers will be more appealing to some tastes.
In Focus: Memphis Grizzlies vs Portland Trail Blazers (07/31)
A game with real stakes, for the Grizzlies are fighting for their playoff spot, the only one in contention in the West, and the now-healthy Blazers have no margin for error with the Pelicans and their easy schedule standing between them and that disputed 8th seed.
Ja Morant is enough of an athlete to blow by any defender but the Blazers did a fantastic job containing the rookie. Terry Stotts likes having a classic big man protecting the rim, keeping the lane clogged up, but the more disrupting aspect was a strong discipline in getting back in transition and forming a wall meant to stop Morant’s drives. The Grizzlies are 6th in the league Pick and Rolls finished by the roll man but that was not noticeable at all if you were watching this contest.
On the Blazers side, their backcourt was getting to the rim at will. This is exacerbated by mistakes in Memphis’ defense – Jaren Jackson in particular stood out in a few possessions.
Whiteside comes in mid-quarter for a terrible showing. 3 fouls, allows 1 offensive rebound and gets called for defensive 3 seconds. It hasn’t been his worst year but, for all the shots he blocks, this way of giving back to the offense is to be expected of him.
Portland did seem without answers to how Memphis’ frontcourt can shoot from the outside (especially Jaren Jackson with his near 40% outside shooting, freed up by Morant’s screening in this case, who finished the quarter with 3 makes from deep). Nurkic isn’t able to defend as effectively so far from the basket, Carmelo can’t keep up with a quick pop out to the line and Collins would be the best option but it would require staying out of foul trouble.
The game for most of the first half continued to have little to no flow with constant whistles. Memphis was the biggest victim with a lot of quick possessions ending with ill-advised shots. I have no idea why Josh Jackson has the ball in his hands like a primary creator.
In the second half, pressure picked up on Memphis’ side. Strong double-teams in the paint and some speed in transition. Lillard creates a defensive breakdown in this previous clip with a complete lack of effort. The Grizzlies newfound aggression on defense and rebounds changed the tempo of the game and the Blazers lead shrank to a one possession game after 13 up.
Brooks and JV, both important pieces so far in this game, picked up their 4th fouls with 9 minutes to go on the third. Forced with the Nurkic matchup again, Triple-J absolutely caught fire. Even on defense: He would start doing a wonderful job hedging into the double, and here Nurkic just kinda hangs around and Lillard is forced to back up into a backcourt violation.
The increase in stops allowed for a ton more of Memphis transition game, where they are much more comfortable (top 5 team in transition possessions per game, while the Blazers are dead last in those rankings!), and the third became a one team spectacle. Portland had 5 turnovers in a 3-minute span. 26-4 scoring run.
I enjoyed the ways they got Morant more space in the second half. Screens are less telegraphed with bigs only coming up just before they set the screen and Memphis is now spreading out instead of having someone near the dunker spot. In this case, the Portland bigs come meet Jaren and Toliver, with both apparently preparing for a screen, resulting up with an empty paint. Collins goes up towards Jackson for some reason I can’t understand and you don’t have to invite Morant twice.
As crunch time approaches, Nurkic goes on a run. First to the line for a couple of points, scores over Jaren the following possession and the exclamation point is this fantastic swerve, faking the handoff and leaving JJJ to eat his dust with a spin.
And Carmelo Anthony with a huge pair of clutch 3s: one from a broken play but in the second Lillard gets Brooks behind him too easily, draws the help, hits CJ and now Melton has to commit on the close out. Then the simple pass to an open 3 in the exact same position as the first. The Blazers backcourt carried this home stretch but the game remains tied at the end of regulation.
The battle to stop Morant PnR game continued into overtime. CJ warns Lillard to cover both Brooks and Melton and is there to be an extra body deterring the drive, before recovering to his spot. On the other side of the court, Melton should have stunted but committed and left Gary Trent open in the corner. Note on how, once again with too much ease, Brooks is unable to stay in front of Dame. This was the sequence for which Memphis never came back from.
The Blazers were close to a full choke when Lillard turned over the ball, Melo got stuck 1v1 against Morant and gets cooked and, when he tried to inbound, he gave the ball away. In a blink of an eye it went from a sealed game to a 3-point lead. Lillard settles them down with this incredible finish in traffic.
Blazers took full control of OT until they almost screwed it up. It was a brilliant call not to overreact to Nurkic fouling out of the game and playing a ton of Whiteside. He had to be taken out for the final 30 seconds after returning to the game for a single minute. The Grizzlies missed Tyus Jones - The usually lively Grizzlies bench was nowhere to be seen. The most mobile unit with Jackson at the 5 is offensively impressive but the Blazers can get to the rim at will. The fight for the 8th seed is now a lot more interesting.
Watching Valanciunas and Nurkic fighting for rebounds is like two gladiators fighting for survival. And it’s that type of matchups, with other physical bigs, that only JV can provide in his team. They are also a much worse defensive rebounding team without him – 98th percentile in on/off effect on offensive rebounding this year according to Cleaning the Glass.
Is there a big with a nicer floater than BC?. Morant’s chemistry with him opened up a lot of better chances for the guard to finish at the rim in the second half.
(A full version of this analysis can be found here)