Recap: There Is No Such Thing as Too Much Great Basketball
The Nuggets and Jazz delighted us with a double overtime on Saturday. In spite of Donovan Mitchell’s 35 points, Utah doubled the turnovers (22 to 11) leading to the triumph of a Nuggets team that shot only 9-37 from downtown. With only 2 points at halftime, Jokic would dominate the rest of the game and Malone’s adjustments, dropping the big further on Pick and Roll coverage, solidified the defense. We also witnessed the breakout of Michael Porter Jr., finishing the week with nearly 30 points per game with 46.7% shooting from deep. MPJ’s shown incredible versatility as a scorer and his instincts for cutting and finding open spots are remarkable for his level of experience. He often uses his size to seal smaller opponents or shoot over them as well as swoop in for a ton of rebounds on both ends.
On Saturday, the Mavericks scored the last seven points of regulation against the Bucks to force overtime and Luka Doncic had maybe the best game of his young NBA career. The future-but-really-already superstar started the week with a 40/11/8 performance, had a 30/20/12 in a victory against the Kings and ended the Bucks game with a stat-line of 36/14/19… Again, this was one week. His hesitation drible, how maintains control and bids his time while surrounded inside or how he flicks the perfect pass in a fraction of a second. All this is basketball as an art form and by the time the defender has time to react the layup is already happening. The Bucks half-court offense in close games remains lackluster.
When Phoenix faced the Clippers, Devin Booker provided an unforgettable exclamation point in a turn-around jumper to beat the buzzer. Nothing short of the most iconic moment of this bubble.
T.J. Warren started with 3 games in which he averaged 39.7 points with 65/61/92 splits and, while Mikal Bridges and the Suns gave him trouble, he bounced back against the Lakers with 39 points in 22 field goal attempts. Overall, he’s been a scoring machine and has a true shooting of 71.4% in the bubble games. Let the theories that T.J. Warren sold his soul begin.
In more tragic news: Jonathan Isaac, who recently returned from a knee injury and was on a minutes restriction, went down in a no-contact play and we now know he’s ruptured his ACL and is likely to miss the entire 2020-21 season. Also, Ben Simmons has undergone surgery to his knee and is probably out for the rest of Philadelphia’s season. A huge blow to the Sixers who are already struggling with lack of shot creation.
Preview: Seeding Games come to an End
Monday, August 10, will start the week off strong with a lineup of games. And it begins with the Phoenix Suns putting their perfect record to the test against the best crunch time performers of the season in the Thunder. Most of the Suns’ games have been relatively tight affairs with 2 victories by a couple of points and Chris Paul has routinely crushed teams that allow the game to remain close for too long.
Assuming the Mavericks, virtually locked into the 7th seed, won’t rest anyone, it is hard to imagine that the game against the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday (08/11) won’t be a ton of fun. Doncic and Lillard face off at a stage where the Blazers will surely still need every win they can manage. The same caveat is in place for when the Mavericks meet the Phoenix Suns on Thursday, August 13. I anticipate with extreme amounts of glee the prospect of Mikal Bridges paired up with Luka.
It seems highly likely that a play-in tournament takes place in the West during the weekend. This will surely be mandatory viewing, calling back to the classic Nuggets vs Timberwolves game from the last day of the 2017-18 regular season. The standings are still deeply in flux but, as of now, we are heading towards the Memphis Grizzlies defending their spot against the Portland Trial Blazers, and it’s hard not to pick the team that isn’t without key pieces and a lot more proven players, one of which is a top 5 MVP contender at the peak of his powers.
In Focus: The Fight for the Playoffs
!Spoiler Warning! A lot of results of the past week involving these teams are spoiled here
Portland Trail Blazers
No team has been in more exciting games over the past 7 days and FiveThirtyEight has them as heavy favourites to clear the proverbial finish line, with a 75% chance to make the Playoffs. Damian Lillard is the best point guard of the current season. He exploded against the Nuggets for 45 points and 12 assists with 11 3s and finished the week with 51 points against in a win over the 76ers though Paul George was able to run away with a win on Saturday. The terror Dame evokes in his opponents has reached such an extent that Gary Trent Jr., who’s been shooting over 60% from 3, routinely gets shots so open it seems like the defenders are social distancing, all because forcing the ball out of the All-start’s hands is the priority.
The most compelling Portland-related topic for me is the defense they deployed against the Houston Rockets. The Nuggets doubling Harden before he crossing half court last year started a trend of all type of gimmick defences to stop the former MVP for going for 50 points with 6 setback threes and 25 free throws. Portland now adds their own variation with a zone that I have seen described as a Diamond-and-1, but positions could look more like a Box-and-1 or, in some cases where, even a Triangle-and-2. Whatever the display, the concept is the same: Harden’s matchup picks him up before he crosses half court and shades him into his non-dominant right hand, bring the defender who is at the top or at the right block to trap Harden and force him to give up the ball. After that happens, even if your rotations and ability to defend in a scramble mostly keeps the Rockets from taking advantage of a 4-on-3 situation, this is liable to generate a lot of open 3s. The Blazers are banking in the inconsistent shooting of players like Covington and especially PJ Tucker, who is always paired with the big that is meant to help at the rim. In this instance it worked well enough and James Harden scored “only” 23 points with average efficiency and only 7 trips to the line. This was combined with Nurkic eating up the Rockets on the offensive glass and Portland left with an 8-point victory. One of the more pressing strategic questions of this post-season is what kind of defense Houston will be faced with.
Memphis’ catastrophic 0-4 start to the bubble was followed by the news that Jaren Jackson Jr., who outside of being a key part of the ore is the only knockdown shooter in that starting lineup, is going to miss the rest of the season with a meniscus tear. The loss against the Pelicans highlighted the value of Ja Morant’s shot becoming more reliable, with Jrue Holiday swallowing him 1v1 but allowing the rookie all the space he could wish for at the top of the key. Morant seemed flustered, shooting 1-10 in mostly wide open threes, and with the exception of the final quarter, the Grizzlies created better looks while he was out and they abandoned the heliocentric tactics for more ball movement, screening actions and cuts. A win against OKC kept them afloat in the defense of their playoff berth but FiveThirtyEight only has them with a 17% chance to do so successfully.
San Antonio Spurs
Is DeRozan capable of playing the 4 regularly? I don’t know but this team sure is a lot more fun when he goes to the front court. DeRozan himself sealed the game and had no doubt Brooks - who sure loves to foul out of games and has been consistently attacked on defense - was going to bite on his pump fake. The San Antonio highlight of the week was a monstrous 43-point quarter agains the Sixers, mostly just out of jump shots because Embiid wasn’t letting anyone get near the rim. The Spurs still have a 3% chance to capture the final Playoff spot, according to FiveThirtyEight.
New Orleans Pelicans
A 2-3 record in the bubble, including a tough loss to the Kings, will leave them on the outside looking in to the post-season despite the advantage of an easier calendar of games. That same game against the Grizzlies provided an accurate profile on the current play of Zion Williamson. Even in small minutes, Zion seemed gassed as the second half came around, not being able to run up and down the court, which aligned with his already sub-par defense was a very damaging stretch for his team. And yet, his relentlessness and the way he can fight his way inside was also fundamental in the team taking over the last minutes: 3 possessions that he saved when Ingram was being shut down by Clarke and JJJ. However, Brandon would also continue his remarkable season with a couple of tough makes that sealed the contest.
I’m sorry Kings fans, not a lot to say. Good win against the Pelicans.
I never thought I’d see the day but the Suns are the biggest surprise since the restart. I already spotlighted a bit the victory against the Clippers, with Monty Williams’ squad collecting 5 wins in an undefeated bubble run and that core has proven there are quality foundations to build upon: Devin Booker continues to evolve and is a versatile scorer who is now able to do advanced passing reads. Ayton is now an ok defender, incredible progress after a nearly disastrous first year in that regard, while retaining all his other qualities, Bridges will be in contention for All-defensive teams starting next year and Cam Johnson’s shooting and cutting have a place in any roster.
They might not yet make the playoffs due to entering this race so far behind the rest of the group (FiveThirtyEight gives them a 6% chance), but an identity is forming and this development seems sustainable. Monty installed a system predicated on quick decisions - a player must pass or shoot within half a second - and the Suns have jumped all the way to leading the league in assists after being 20th last season. The “Bright Future Suns” might not be (just) a meme anymore.