Exploring somewhat-sane proposals for the 346-team NCAA Tournament

Like a bolt of lightning in the dead late-summer air came this tweet across my timeline:

Content! Beautiful content. The ACC has achieved what the most daydream-prone among us have hoped for: pure, uncontrollable chaos. Nothing about a 346-team NCAA Tournament (11 of Division I’s 357 programs are ineligible for this year’s Tournament for various reasons) is normal at all, and all it can bring is something wild. Imagine the takes if 1 seed Villanova loses to 346 seed Mississippi Valley State in the shocker of a lifetime!

Of course, that exact scenario takes numerous leaps of logic to achieve. A straight 346-team tournament isn’t possible without either a laundry list of byes or play-in rounds. Everyone knows the NCAA Tournament loves money, and such a massive loss to a star team would be a monetary dent in terms of viewership and advertising dollars, both of which the NCAA needs in droves (apparently!) after the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament. That’s why I’d offer The Will Warren Somewhat Sane Solution. It is not the Everyone’s Easy Solution That Just Adds a Couple Extra Games.

(Quick aside: you can just turn the Field of 64 into the Field of 256 by having one play-in round for teams seeded 167 through 346, protecting the top 166. It’s not a bad idea, but forcing the top teams to win eight straight games instead of six both seems a little nuts and seems like it could massively overwhelm host cities. We’re assuming no/limited crowds for the purpose of this experiment, and having even 16 teams podded up in one city probably means at least a couple of hotels at full capacity. I went to school for English, not Hotel Management, so maybe this is actually fine, but who knows.)

Here is the Official guide to a plan I cooked up yesterday afternoon, along with questions I still have to answer:

1. A ladder system that protects the top 32 teams.

In order to ensure that proper respect is paid to teams that have a lot of success during the conference-only regular season (another assumption that I’m running with), I’ve instituted a system that gives the 32 best* teams a free run to the Field of 64. It’s how it would work in a normal season, so it seems fair to keep this part. What this means is that 32 teams out of the remaining 314 will have to play their way into the Field of 64 by way of our 1-to-346 seeded ladder system.

What’s a ladder system? Think of it the way they run it in the Korean Baseball League.

  • The fifth-seeded team plays the fourth-seeded team.
  • The winner plays the third-seeded team.
  • That winner plays the second seed…
  • And finally, that winner gets to play the first seed.

It’s a testament to how well you can sustain your success if you make it all the way up the ladder, and it rewards those who’ve had full-season success as opposed to those who get hot for a few games. How does our ladder system work?

2. Six play-in rounds, spread out over 10-14 days at neutral sites, that slowly whittle the field from 346 to 64 teams.

Bear with me here. This is pretty nuts, I’ll admit, but so’s the idea of a 346-team college basketball tournament in a sport ripe with variance. Anything can happen in any one game, which is why we’re introducing this ladder system as opposed to the 166-team protection. This enables full-season success to matter, while allowing a team to run their way from the bottom to the big time if they’re hot. It attempts to simulate Conference Championship Week in some form, though with more rounds than any individual conference championship.

Here’s how it works. Teams are reseeded by round; i.e., if the #334 team wins in the first round but no team below them wins, they will play the #212 seed in the second, and so on.

  • Teams seeded 257-346 (90 teams total) will play each other from top to bottom – 257 vs. 346, 258 vs. 345, 259 vs. 344, etc. – in order to eliminate 45 teams. This leaves us with 301 teams after one round.
  • Teams seeded 212-256 (45 teams) will play the first round winners to eliminate another 45 teams, giving us 256 teams after two rounds.
  • Now, we could go right into a 256-team field and stop here. If we don’t, we have a third play-in round that gets the field to 192 teams by way of teams seeded 129-211 playing the second-round winners.
  • For the fourth round, teams seeded 65-128 will play the third-round winners, pushing the field to 128 teams.
  • The fifth round features the teams seeded 33-64 and the fourth-round winners for a total of 48 games being played, eliminating 48 teams to get to 80.
  • Now – finally – our final play-in round allows for teams seeded 49-80 to play each other for the right to be in the field of 64.

This is very much silly, but it also works. Teams are forced to climb their way up the ladder system to earn their spot in the NCAA Tournament in a system that somewhat simulates conference tournaments with much less structure and more chaos. You like chaos, right?

3. Alternately, the same plan, but with four play-in rounds and a 128-team field.

This allows for a shorter time period and is less complicated. Again, teams are reseeded after reach relevant round; if #340 beats #263 but no other team below them wins, they would play #212 in the next round.

  • Teams seeded 257-346 (90 teams total) will play each other from top to bottom – 257 vs. 346, 258 vs. 345, 259 vs. 344, etc. – in order to eliminate 45 teams. This leaves us with 301 teams after one round.
  • Teams seeded 212-256 (45 teams) will play the first round winners to eliminate another 45 teams, giving us 256 teams after two rounds.
  • A third play-in round that gets the field to 192 teams by way of teams seeded 129-211 playing the second-round winners.
  • For the fourth round, teams seeded 65-128 will play the third-round winners, pushing the field to 128 teams.
  • The Tournament is then seeded where 1 plays 128, 2 plays 127, and so on, with aims at ensuring region vs. region play.

Question: What about automatic qualifiers from non-Big Six conferences? We’ll have to work that out. Ostensibly, we could turn the Top 32 into the 32 conference champions/standings leaders at season’s end and it would work out just as well. Then, the final 32 spots are made up of the 32 teams that survive our ladder/play-in system. However…doesn’t it feel kind of weird to have a field where, say, 272nd-ranked-in-KenPom North Carolina Central is guaranteed a spot but 3rd-ranked Baylor isn’t? To be determined, folks. Though if you’re the third-best team in college basketball, you should be able to win against whoever you draw no matter what.

Question: How do we ensure smaller, lower-seeded schools can actually play each other? There’s a clear issue here, and I’m not totally sure how to resolve it under this format. For instance, what if Albany (in New York) draws Florida A&M (very much not in New York) in the first round? That’s a lot of travel costs we’d have to work out, and it likely isn’t worth it for Florida A&M. The best thing we can do is have one city be the host to as many games as possible, similar to the actual Field of 64. Perhaps for this specific example, the two teams could play in Washington D.C. at a neutral site. Someone smarter than me probably has an idea on how to do pods for this, and obviously, the 256-team field is much easier to work out. But it’s also not nearly as protective of those who’ve earned the right to be there.

Question: How long would both plans take? For the six play-in round structure, I think it could be accomplished over the course of 10-14 days – AKA, how long conference championship “week” usually takes – at multiple neutral court sites. We’d have to stuff 314 teams in no more than four cities, but I’d say it’s at least somewhat doable. For the four-round structure, we could realistically accomplish this in anywhere from 6-10 days. Again, this stuffs a lot of teams in no more than four bubble cities, but it also cuts the number of play-in teams from 314 to 218. However, it creates much more variance.

Question: Maybe a 96-team field? Sure! The in-between plan, which the NCAA almost implemented ten years ago. Just take the four-round plan listed above and add a fifth-round between teams seeded 65-128.

Bubble Ball: A review of all eight NBA Playoffs series, four games in

Good news: we’re over halfway to the second round. Every series has completed exactly four games, with three series already ending in sweeps just like that. Wave goodbye to Brooklyn, Indiana, and Philadelphia, as temporarily, we’re down to 13 teams. We’ve still got to delete five more from the field, but we’ll get there soon enough. For now, let’s discuss these series one-by-one.

Eastern Conference

(1) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (8) Orlando Magic; Milwaukee leads, 3-1

Milwaukee: Four games in and Milwaukee still doesn’t look quite like the Bucks we watched all season long. Offensively, they’ve started to look pretty solid; the efficiency numbers are just fine, but the level of shots they’re getting is tied for #1 across all playoff teams. 77.27% of their shots have either been at the rim or from three, and they’ve shot better from three (39.13%) than you probably would’ve expected. And yet: they’re committing more turnovers per 100 possessions than any other team in the playoffs. It’s not like they’re playing the Lakers defense already; this is the Magic, a team that did force the tenth-highest turnover rate but ranks third amongst the remaining East teams in defensive turnover rate.

An alarming amount of Milwaukee mistakes have come as unforced errors; their live-ball turnover rate is just fourth-worst in the playoffs, but they’ve committed way more dead-ball turnovers than any other team. Lots of ill-advised travels, several bad passes, and more have made this series closer than it should be. All that said, they’re up 3-1 against a team that doesn’t have the roster to hang with them. Game 5 is of moderate interest, as Milwaukee should be able to close Orlando out easily if they begin to limit silly mistakes.

Representative GIF:

Orlando: Oddly enough, if you looked just at the shot distribution stats, you’d think Milwaukee would easily be demolishing the Magic. Orlando has taken just 16.3% of their shots at the rim, an alarmingly low rate for a team with Nikola Vucevic on it. They have taken – and hit – a ton of long mid-range twos, which is not really a way to beat Milwaukee. Instead, they’re taking what the Bucks give them from the three-point line, to the tune of 45.4% of all field goal attempts coming from beyond the arc. Sometimes it works out (19-for-39 in Game 3, 18-for-45 in Game 4) and keeps them in games; sometimes, it simply does not (7-for-33 in Game 2).

They’ve shown that, if you have shooters, you can force this Milwaukee defense to look worse than it is. That said, look at those Game 3 and 4 numbers. Combined, Orlando shot 44% from three across two games and only lost the turnover battle by four. They lost both games by a combined 29 points. What more are they able to do?

Representative GIF:

(2) Toronto Raptors vs. (7) Brooklyn Nets; Toronto wins, 4-0

Toronto: Outside of Game 2 and some spare moments in the other three games, very rarely a series where the Raptors had to exert much energy or felt in much danger. They could’ve ran through this series on 80% effort and still likely swept their opponent, given how undermanned Brooklyn was. And yet: isn’t it at least a little impressive that in three of the four games, Toronto thoroughly dispensed with their opponent well above what was expected of them? I initially dismissed Game 1 as a small outlier dependent on three-point shooting, but Toronto went out and scored 150 points in the sweep-clinching Game 4 victory. The Shot Quality metric from pbpstats.com suggests that Toronto was pretty lucky on the whole – an expected eFG% of 51% versus an actual eFG% of 59.2% – but at this point, who are we to distrust anything this team does?

They’ve already overcome the loss of Kawhi Leonard to be the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. They have the NBA’s Coach of the Year. They’ve got a deep roster that rarely, if ever, takes a minute off from playing their hardest. Maybe they got a little lucky to win by as much as they did in this series, but I’m not sure it really matters; as I said, even an 80% effort probably produces the same result. Two special notes: firstly, the main lineup of Siakam/FVV/Anunoby/Lowry/Gasol went for 1.251 points per possession in this series; secondly, they really need Kyle Lowry’s injury he sustained in Game 4 to heal ASAP.

Representative GIF:

Brooklyn: Well, what else could you have really expected? They ran out a team that was essentially half of a G-League roster, fought for a full 48 minutes in one game, and didn’t have the firepower to hang in the other three. It was what it was. The good news is that Brooklyn got some good performances from various players throughout the series, and I’d say they have a lot more to look forward to next season with a full-strength roster. Barring alterations, FiveThirtyEight ranks the full-strength Nets as roughly the sixth-best roster in the East, and given that the Sixers and Heat both rank ahead of them, it’s fair to consider them a top-half East team next year. For now, they get a lot of time to rest up and watch some of the more fun Caris LeVert highlights as a passer.

Representative GIF:

(3) Boston Celtics vs. (6) Philadelphia 76ers; Boston wins, 4-0

Boston: What a series. Objectively, this was always going to be theirs to lose, and given how greatly Philadelphia struggled in the regular season just to do anything interesting at all, a Boston in five games outcome would’ve been a fair guess. But for the Celtics to sweep the Sixers – even this particularly frustrating Sixers squad – is notable indeed. If this was something where Boston simply had four straight games of good luck and won all four in a series where it should’ve been 3-1 or even 2-2, it would be different. In all honesty, that wasn’t the case.

When the Sixers’ main five were on the floor (Richardson, Milton, Horford, Harris, Embiid), the Celtics scored 126 points in 103 possessions. No team had a lower Shot Quality in the first round than Philly, because Boston couldn’t stop forcing them into all kinds of bad mid-range twos and ugly attempts from all over. Now, the Celtics themselves rarely got great shots, as they were the second-worst Shot Quality offense in the first round. However, it may not matter much if they’re going to play the defense they’ve been playing thus far.

Representative GIF:

Philadelphia: What more can be said about this expensive failure? Generally, people get fired for failing this miserably, and as is the norm in basketball, it will probably be blamed on the head coach as opposed to the front office. However, think about this: Philly’s offense possesses two legitimately good three-point shooters in Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton. Both rank out as C-grade perimeter defenders, per BBallIndex.com – not exactly what you’d like from three-and-D guys. Now, look at the rest of the roster. The next-best starter-level player from downtown is Tobias Harris, a 78th-percentile shooter. He’s a D-plus perimeter defender. The best perimeter defenders – Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle – are bad shooters, with Thybulle being a large negative on offense. Can you see where this went wrong, even before you get to Al Horford’s contract?

Representative GIF:

(4) Indiana Pacers vs. (5) Miami Heat; Miami wins, 4-0

Indiana: Sadness. This year began with, in theory, a full-strength roster heading into the playoffs that could win a series or two and force people to treat the Pacers as a more serious franchise going forward. Their six(!) best players are all 28 or younger, and all six are under contract through at least the 2020-21 season. This was to be the beginning of a potentially monumental two-season Pacer run, and the oddsmakers showed them some quality respect in the offseason, giving them the fourth-highest title odds in the East. They ended up the 4 seed as expected, but without Domantas Sabonis, they’re leaving this postseason without a single win and ending it in undeniably disappointing fashion.

It’s sad to see it happen like this for Indiana, a team that plays hard nightly and did so for most of the season even without Victor Oladipo, but the fact of the matter is pretty simple: their offense was never good enough to justify a playoff run. Only Philadelphia and Boston possessed worse shot quality during their four-game playoff runs, and only three teams were less efficient offensively. Obviously, it doesn’t help that Indiana gave up about 115 points per 100 possessions to Miami, but the Heat have Duncan Robinson and the Pacers don’t. Until Indiana finds better, more consistent shooters, their offensive ceiling is heavily limited.

Representative GIF:

Miami: Joy! Let’s revisit those preseason odds. When the season started approximately 25 years ago, the Heat had the seventh-highest title odds in the East and were considered on par with the Brooklyn Nets in terms of win totals. (Congrats to the analytics nerds – all of us – for correctly saying the Nets would be a sub-.500 team. We did it.) Now, they just swept the 4 seed in their conference and are heading into a matchup with the Bucks where it feels like they’ve got the momentum. Momentum is a fleeting thing, obviously, and I don’t know that it really exists.

That being said, this Miami team feels more trustworthy by the game. We all expected Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo to look good, of course, but who would’ve guessed that the story would be Goran Dragic? He averaged nearly 23 points a game against Indiana, shot 41.4% from three, and generated more offense than any other player on the roster. I think we all could’ve seen this coming if it were still 2014, but it’s 2020 and he’s long past his prime…or so we thought. I’m loving the Dragon’s renaissance, and he could be a major key in Miami potentially dumping Milwaukee out of the playoffs early.

Representative GIF:

Western Conference

(1) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (8) Portland Trail Blazers; Los Angeles leads, 3-1

Lakers: Throughout the seeding games and Game 1 of this series, the issue of Can the Lakers Hit Open Shots was becoming a serious topic. When you go 5-for-32 from downtown in any game, many are going to react to it in a certain way. Los Angeles was pretty consistently at the league average, sometimes above, in hitting wide-open shot attempts this season. They went 2-for-16 on wide-open threes in the first game, something that was very unlikely to repeat. Guess what? Since then, on the bevy of wide-open attempts Portland’s Swiss cheese defense allows every game, the Lakers are 22-for-55 on three-point attempts where there’s no defender within six feet. Even funnier, to my eyes, is the fact they’ve gotten 17 two-point attempts that were wide-open, the second-most by any team in the playoffs. (In first, surprisingly: the Orlando Magic, with 21.)

As soon as Los Angeles began to take advantage of all of the opportunities Portland was going to give them, the series was going to end. Had they hit their threes in Game 1, this would’ve thankfully ended last night with Portland getting wrecked by 20 points in a game that wasn’t that close. If there’s any benefit to all of this, it’s that we do get to enjoy seeing Carmelo Anthony and Gary Trent, Jr. attempt to guard LeBron James one more time.

Representative GIF:

Portland: Well, it was probably always going to end this way. Portland made a lot of bad roster construction decisions last offseason, essentially trading their two best defenders for Hassan Whiteside, Carmelo Anthony, and several mediocre wings. (When Gary Trent, Jr. is the best available wing defender you have, you have a bad roster.) Dame Time dragged them into this series in the first place, but the clock has been broken for several games now. @Tim_NBA on Twitter has been doing a fantastic job of exploring how Los Angeles has completely changed their pick-and-roll coverage from the regular season, running almost no soft hedge/drop coverage at all and instead forcing Lillard to be guarded by 1.5 defenders at all times.

From both a Lillard perspective and a Portland perspective, it’s worked almost flawlessly. Lillard has just (I know, just) 97 points through four games, a far cry from when he scored 154 in the final three regular season games. He’s shot just 13-for-31 on twos, has committed 14 turnovers, and no one on the remainder of the Blazers roster has helped pick up the slack. With Lillard unfortunately picking up what looked like a scary injury in Game 4, Portland could be embarking on their final game with almost no consistent scoring option to speak of. Yes, I know C.J. McCollum would still be out there; so what?

Representative GIF:

(2) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks; series tied, 2-2

Clippers: Well, here we are: the Clippers are embroiled in what’s looking like a seven-game battle with a Dallas team that had the third-highest net rating in the West but had issues closing out games late. Los Angeles probably feels confident that they can win two of three, but they’ve had some serious defensive issues thus far. We all expected the Clippers to turn it on defensively, and in some aspects, they have. Per PBPStats.com’s Shot Quality metric, Dallas has been held to the fifth-worst expected value on their shot attempts. That’s good, and to be sure, the Clippers have been a tad unlucky in this series: no Patrick Beverley for games 2-4 has hurt, and Dallas outshooting their expected eFG% by a full 8% is unsustainable. (Over the course of their regular season, no team overshot or undershot their expected eFG% by more than 4%. Regression comes for everyone.)

That said, the Clippers simply aren’t making it easy on themselves. Everyone knew the ball would be going to Luka for the final shot of Game 4. So why in the world would you guard him with Reggie Freaking Jackson of all players? Didn’t you just spend the last 13 months telling everyone about how Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were the defensive keys to a title? Where were they when the game was on the line? Luka went a perfect 5-for-5 against Jackson when he was in the game, and though that wouldn’t be sustainable over multiple games, it was important then and important now. When Kawhi matched up on Luka, he held him to 2-for-6 from the field and forced two turnovers. Kawhi switched off of Luka for the final possession, which is pretty strange in its own right and also can’t happen again.

Representative GIF:

Dallas: LUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUKA!!!!! I mean, what more is there to say? On a day without Porzingis, and two days after he sustained a rough-looking injury, Luka merely came out and dropped his second-consecutive triple double, closing it with the signature moment of the 2020 Playoffs thus far. You can call him a superstar now. This is not the time for those of us who correctly said Doncic was easily the best player in the 2018 Draft to take a victory lap; we have 15 more years to do that. For now, focus on how wonderful and fun his game is. Everything about him brings joy, and honestly, everything about the structure of this Mavs offense brings joy. I still don’t think they’re going to win this series, but I think the West should be terrified of Dallas in another year or two.

Representative GIF:

(3) Denver Nuggets vs. (6) Utah Jazz; Utah leads, 3-1

Denver: Season’s probably over, which is a shame. Denver was never as good as they should’ve been this year, as it took Nikola Jokic a month or two to play into basketball shape and the rest of the team a while to figure it out. But they kept finding ways to win, they were fun, and they still remain an unusual and fascinating roster. I don’t know if they could’ve controlled two of their starters being out for the entirety of the playoffs, but at the same time, Utah’s missed Bojan Bogdanovic, their #2 scorer, and has been perfectly fine.

If Gary Harris and Will Barton were available, I think it’s undeniable that they wouldn’t look as lost defensively. I don’t think Donovan Mitchell would have dropped two 50-point games within the same series, though I do think it’s been nice watching Jamal Murray play the way a lot of people have wanted him to play for some time. I also think that the Jazz are well overdue for shooting regression, as they’re beating their expected shot value by a Playoffs-high 10.6%. They’ll have a stinker of a game at some point. Will it be too late for Denver?

Representative GIF:

Utah: Donovan Mitchell, the Series. What a rise it’s been for Mitchell, who’s been fairly inconsistent ever since his amazing rookie year. Think of it this way: Mitchell has six single-digit scoring outings over the last two seasons while also having five 40+ point games. He takes a lot of shots you wouldn’t want most players to take, but he’s hitting pretty much all of them in this series. Denver doesn’t have an active player that can guard Mitchell, and any time he’s been matched up on Torrey Craig or Michael Porter, Jr., it’s been a disaster for the Nuggets. Surprisingly, this Jazz roster is just a game away from the second round, which is where they hoped to be all along. Funny how things work out, even if the shooting is due to regress hard pretty soon.

Representative GIF:

(4) Houston Rockets vs. (5) Oklahoma City Thunder; series tied, 2-2

Houston: Suddenly, the narrative of this series has shifted away from Houston in a fashion I’m sure they didn’t hope for. Russell Westbrook has now missed all four games, and after two games of looking fine without him, Oklahoma City’s offense has started to take advantage of the pockets of Houston’s defense that can’t hang with them. Without Westbrook this season, the Rockets were far worse at forcing turnovers, and Houston’s lost the two games where they haven’t won the turnover battle in this series. They even had a stretch in Game 4 where they hit seven threes in a row and Oklahoma City still won.

After all of this, the pressure is now back on the Houston supporting cast. Harden was fantastic again in Game 4, going for 32 points on 25 shots and grabbing 15 assists…but he also didn’t get to the foul line nearly as often as usual, and no one around him was able to get a stop when the game was on the line. The last time I wrote one of these, I said that you should pretty much never lose a game where you make 20+ threes, and Houston went on to lose a game where they made 23 of them. That’s bad. Either Houston’s got to find a way to slow down Chris Paul and…Dennis Schroder, or an early exit is back on the menu.

Representative GIF:

Oklahoma City: Look who’s back! Not only was Chris Paul excellent over the last two games, they’ve gotten a pair of shockingly great performances from one Dennis Schroder. Schroder has never been an analytics-friendly player, as they’ve correctly pegged him as a mediocre defender and moderately-efficient scorer. However, Oklahoma City finally found a way to make the most of him this season: he serves as a pretty solid sixth man for the Thunder, and by asking him to take more shots from the outside, they’ve turned him into a surprisingly effective shooter. (It also helps that in his seventh season, he’s finally turned into an above-average finisher at the rim.)

The key to the rest of this series is probably Schroder. You know what you’re getting from Paul every night, and for the most part, you know what you’re going to get from Steven Adams, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Lu Dort. You don’t always know which Schroder is going to show up. Is it the Schroder who shot 8-for-24 over the first two games and scored just 19 points against six turnovers, or is it the Schroder that went for 59 points in Games 3 and 4? The outcome of the series may well depend on it.

Representative GIF:

Bubble Ball: A review of all eight NBA Playoffs series, two games in

No intro needed here; it’s the NBA Playoffs. Instead of a normal game-a-day review, I decided to take a broad look at all eight series currently going, with a GIF representing each team. Let’s begin.

Eastern Conference

(1) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (8) Orlando Magic; series tied, 1-1

Milwaukee: No one thought they would get rocked in Game 1, but pretty much everyone expected them to respond appropriately in Game 2. The Bucks finally looked like the Bucks everyone watched from October to February…in some fashions. For reasons unknown, Khris Middleton – AKA, one of the most efficient shooters in the NBA – has had an absolute disaster of a series. He’s 5-for-20 from the field, 2-for-10 from three, and has turned it over way more than he did at any point pre-pandemic. You’d imagine he’ll find his way out of this, but the Bucks need him to do so as quickly as possible.

Giannis has gone for 59 points and 37 rebounds through two games, and often it feels like it’s just Giannis on the court. Part of this is because the Bucks are happy to run HB Dive and HB Slam with Basketball Jerome Bettis on their side, but part of it is also that no one is helping Giannis consistently. Through two games, the second-best Buck has been Eric Bledsoe, and not exactly by way of standing out. He’s averaging 14 & 6, which is fine, but not at all what you’d want the second banana of a title contender to be posting. Milwaukee looked way more attentive on defense in Game 2; now, we have to monitor how long it’ll take for them to figure out the offensive details clearly plaguing them. It’s probably not a good thing for them to have the same main problem as their 8-seed opponent, though they should be fine in this series.

Representative GIF:

Orlando: Two totally different games: looked unbeatable in Game 1, looked sweep-able in Game 2. Game 1 was strange for both teams, in that Orlando looked like the much more excited and focused roster, not at all how it went in the regular season. They keep saying that the Bubble will produce strange results that maybe otherwise wouldn’t have come about. Game 1 was an easy one to chalk up to that. In a normal world, you’d imagine that a Milwaukee slow start gets turned around at some point simply because it’s a true road game. Fans don’t affect the game nearly as much as some sportswriters want them to, but they do have an effect, and it would’ve helped the Bucks.

For Orlando, the series essentially has boiled down to this through two games: how far can Nikola Vucevic drag this roster, and will anyone step up to help him? In both games, Vucevic has been fabulous, posting 35 & 14 in Game 1 followed by 32 & 10 in Game 2. Those are Giannis-like numbers, and he’s having a heck of a series so far. That said, he needs help. In Game 1, Orlando got five double-digit point efforts from non-Vooch players, including some serious surprises in James Ennis and Gary Clark. The Magic also had an unusually great day from downtown while Milwaukee had an unusually bad one. Game 2 flipped the script: Vooch was great, as mentioned, but no one else scored more than 12 points. Also, the Magic were an awful 7-for-33 from three and took an absurd amount of bad mid-range twos. The only reason the game was within 15 points was Orlando benefitting from several questionable foul calls on the Bucks throughout the game. Until Orlando can replicate the Game 1 effort again, they’re in trouble.

Representative GIF:

(2) Toronto Raptors vs. (7) Brooklyn Nets; Raptors lead, 2-0

Toronto: All the nice things about Brooklyn that were said do ignore that the Raptors probably should’ve won Game 2 by double digits. The Raptors had back-to-back outlier shooting performances, but Game 1’s was the positive side (22-for-44 from three) while Game 2’s was a negative (9-for-35). Odds are that, as always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle for Toronto. Fred VanVleet isn’t going to shoot 8-for-10 every night from three, just like he won’t always shoot 3-for-11. The Raps can thank Norman Powell completely taking over the paint for getting them over the top in Game 2; he went a perfect 8-for-8 in the paint while going 3-for-9 from everywhere else. On the whole, the Raps figured out fairly early they weren’t going to be making a lot of threes and still did a good job of getting to the rim. This is a very adaptive team that knows how to win games, and even if they aren’t always pretty, that has to count for something in a league where both 1 seeds lost their first game.

Representative GIF:

Brooklyn: As hard as they’re trying and as admirable a mission as they’re undergoing, they simply don’t have the firepower. In Game 1, they couldn’t buy a three for large stretches of the game, and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot was the only player that seemed to be able to score consistently. The issue lies with the fact they’ve got a bunch of role players in roles they aren’t meant to be in. Jarrett Allen is a good player, but he’s just a roll & cut big that protects the rim well defensively; the team can’t run through him. Caris LeVert would be a perfect sixth man on a better team. Joe Harris is best as a catch-and-shoot option. And so on! It’s far from a perfect roster…and yet, had they not pushed out a horrendous seven-minute offensive stretch to open the fourth quarter in Game 2, this series very well could be tied at 1.

The Nets keep throwing everything they have available at Toronto, forcing one of the worst Raptors offensive games of the year in Game 2. Their defense allowed a lot of attempts at the rim, but they also demanded Toronto shoot over them to very little success. Toronto won that game in spite of their awful three-point shooting, which included a 3-for-14 run in the second half. Where it was TLC that kept Brooklyn in it offensively in Game 1, it was a good performance by Garrett Temple in Game 2 that almost got them there: 21 points, 5-11 on 3s. They continue to play ultra hard every night, even if it doesn’t look pretty. If they could find a way to combine TLC’s Game 1 with Temple’s Game 2, they’d steal a game before this series ends.

Representative GIF:

(3) Boston Celtics vs. (6) Philadelphia 76ers; Celtics lead, 2-0

Boston: They’ve offered no real surprises, maybe beyond how little they’ve let Philadelphia get into the series. All three of Tatum/Brown/Walker have been pretty fantastic, though the Gordon Hayward injury news is very unfortunate. The most impressive thing, clearly, should be how strong they’ve been in forcing Philly to take a ton of bad mid-range shots. In particular, an astounding 41 Philadelphia shot attempts in Game 2 came from the mid-range, and even if they hit 17 of them, it proved that Boston’s defensive structure is not allowing Philly to get to the rim or get the shots they really need to be getting. If they play this well the rest of the way, they should be properly recognized as a championship contender.

Representative GIF:

Philadelphia: Looks like garbage, thanks. The only standout player for this overpaid, infuriating squad is Joel Embiid; everyone else looks various shades of uninterested, overwhelmed, or both. While Embiid has taken his fair share of possessions off out of frustration, he’s done his part in attempting to force Philadelphia into this series: 60 points, 26 rebounds, and, when he’s wanted to go there, some great paint work. Embiid is 7-for-10 at the rim, and to be fair, he’s shot 11-for-20 on mid-range attempts. Unfortunately for Embiid, Philadelphia is required to place four other players on the floor, and none of them have seriously attempted to provide him with the help he needs. Josh Richardson is Philly’s second leading scorer at 18 a game, but look at the other guys: Tobias Harris is 10-for-30 from the field. Shake Milton is 10-for-15, but is getting roasted on defense with ease. Alec Burks is 7-for-23. Al Horford has taken ten – TEN – shot attempts. No one else is worth mentioning.

When Embiid forces his way out of Philadelphia in one of the next two offseasons, no one should be surprised or upset with him. He has earned a shot somewhere else, and he deserves a team with either a competent owner, a competent general manager, or preferably both. Any player talented enough to average 30/13 against this legitimately excellent Boston team deserves better. The Sixers will not be winning this series; the only question remaining is if they get swept or if they have enough dignity to pull it together and get one win.

Representative GIF:

(4) Indiana Pacers vs. (5) Miami Heat; Heat lead, 2-0

Indiana: Unfortunately, a pretty short discussion to have: they simply don’t have enough firepower. Had the Pacers had Sabonis available, I really do think this would be a much different series. They probably would’ve split these first two games, and they would’ve had a much easier time scoring offensively. With Sabonis on the court this season (2,159 minutes), the Pacers scored about 112.4 points per 100 possessions. Not beautiful, obviously, but enough to push them into a top ten offensive rating. In the 1,365 minutes they played without Sabonis, they were much worse: 107.9 points per 100, or the 25th-best offense in the league.

So far in this series, they’re posting just 106.4 per 100, and a large part of it stems from their inability to get good shots against this Miami defense. Only 30.6% of the Pacers field goal attempts have come at the rim, while they’ve shot 20-for-51 from a midrange game that’s starting to abandon them. They have five players averaging double figures through two games, but it doesn’t mean much when the opponent has a player that can easily go 7-for-8 from three as well as a better player than your best player. Indiana might have something for the Heat next year, but it’s not going to happen in 2020.

Representative GIF:

Miami: I really didn’t expect this roster to turn out as well as it has, but they’re pretty vicious when they want to be. Obviously, you knew Jimmy Butler was going to continue to be a fantastic player, and he’s been so, scoring 46 points through two games. However, did you expect Goran Dragic to be out here scoring 44 points? Or Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro to be the team’s third and fourth-best scoring options? Or for the Heat to overcome a relatively quiet series from Bam Adebayo by way of nearly everyone else playing above their means?

This is a fun roster that’s beating the Pacers for several reasons, but a simple, easy one is that they simply get better shots. Miami is no stranger to the mid-range shot, but they’ve gotten a lot of great looks from three in this series because Indiana’s roster can’t cover lineups that have five shooting options. In particular, the two main lineups that feature Adebayo/Dragic/Butler (plus two of Herro, Robinson, Iguodala, or Crowder) are a shocking +28 in 39 minutes of play. When any one of those three is off the court, Indiana’s been able to hang around, beating the Heat by seven points in the other 49 minutes. Until they find a way to deal with those main three, though, this series is done.

Representative GIF:

Western Conference

(1) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (8) Portland Trail Blazers; series tied, 1-1

Los Angeles: Pretty simple equation to break down, actually: they missed a bunch of shots they normally make in Game 1, then went out and made all of them in Game 2. We call those adjustments! In all seriousness, outside of the first quarter of Game 1, the Lakers have almost entirely shut down the Blazers. In that first quarter, which essentially decided the outcome of the game once the Lakers couldn’t hit threes, the Blazers dumped 36 points on 27 possessions (1.333 PPP); over the following seven quarters, Portland’s sitting at 152 points on 171 possessions (0.889 PPP), maybe their worst two-game stretch of offense of the entire season.

What the Lakers are doing is actually pretty fascinating: they’re generally fine with letting Portland get to the rim, but in Game 2 in particular, they closed hard on potential threes and forced the Blazers into tougher twos, which they hit almost none of. Basically, two games in, Los Angeles has completely neutralized the strongest thing the Blazers have going for them. On the offensive side, they’re getting absurdly good shot quality. Through three quarters in Game 2 – i.e., before garbage time – the Lakers’ Shot Quality metric on PBPStats tied the highest they’d had in any game this year. As @Tim_NBA said on Twitter, a lot of the Lakers’ attempts looked like practice shots at the gym. If they’re going to get those looks, this series is over.

Representative GIF:

Portland: Here are some basic truths we all knew about Portland heading into this series: they have one of the two best scorers on the planet. They have a strange collection of talent that makes sense together offensively. They play a brand of defense that matadors would be offended by. So far, the first and the third have come true in separate games; the second has yet to make a serious appearance. Dame was not very good in Game 2, but neither was anyone else; his 34 points lifted a Portland offense having a bad night in Game 1 over the top. Portland gave up an absurd amount of wide-open threes in Game 1 that didn’t go in, along with getting lucky on several Laker misses at the rim.

The second issue is a clear one that has no easy resolution. The second-best Blazer through two games is probably Jusuf Nurkic, who has provided just 25 points on the offensive end and is 3-for-12 from the field when not at the rim. Carmelo Anthony, who plays 47 minutes of bad basketball only to show up for the final minute of some games, is 4-for-17 and has five turnovers. Hassan Whiteside barely looks interested on defense. Gary Trent’s gone cold from the field. C.J. McCollum: 14-for-36, 4-for-13, six turnovers. Unless Dame gets some help, the Blazers do not have enough to make this a real series, barring another Laker disaster from downtown.

Representative GIF:

(2) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks; series tied, 1-1

Los Angeles: In some ways, this has been a perfectly fine defensive series for them. Dallas has been forced into a lot of mid-range looks they don’t normally want, the Clippers are winning the battle on both the boards and on turnovers, and fouls have been fairly even. But when you’re playing a team that has the ability to shoot way over what’s expected, you’ve got to match it on your own end, and the Clippers largely haven’t thus far. Kawhi has been as awesome as anyone would’ve hoped: 64 points, 22 rebounds. Lou Williams has 37 off the bench, Marcus Morris, 33. Everyone else has been varying shades of disappointing. Paul George is an embarrassing 14-for-39 this series, including a brutal 6-for-21 from three. Reggie Jackson, God only knows why, has played 43 minutes and is shooting 1-for-8 on twos. Ivica Zubac needs more minutes, but he hasn’t been the defensive stopper Los Angeles normally gets and has needed.

On the whole, the Clippers have a few kinks they’ve got to work out, but I imagine that they still feel fairly confident they can get out of this series and onto the second round. Kawhi looks like Playoff Kawhi, and when Patrick Beverley is back, they’ll be able to have the perimeter defense they need to slow Dallas down from downtown. Offensively, they need to find a way to up the quality of shots they’re getting. Dallas doesn’t have a very good defense, but the Clippers have settled for a lot of less-optimal shorter mid-range looks and haven’t gotten to the rim at the level I personally would’ve expected. Just 27.9% of Clipper shots have come at the rim so far, 3.5% below their regular season rate. On the flip side, they’ve taken considerably more threes than usual and haven’t hit them as well as you’d expect, going 17-for-56 on non-corner threes. Kawhi and PG are a combined 8-for-30 on these looks, and I know they’re better than that.

Representative GIF:

Dallas: The argument that Dallas could be up 2-0 in this series right now does hold some merit. Obviously, they were up by five points in Game 1 before Porzingis was unfairly ejected, and they dominated all of Game 2 when he was in. That being said, a 1-1 series is probably fair. The Clippers forced a lot of Dallas misses in the second half of Game 1 that likely wouldn’t have changed much had Porzingis been in; no ejection would’ve changed the outcome of Game 2. The funny thing about this series thus far is that Dallas really hasn’t gotten a ton of great shots. Per PBPStats, their Shot Quality measurement has been right at 50% in both games, and they actually got considerably more combined rim/three-point attempts in Game 1.

In Game 2, though, they lit it up on longer mid-range shots (8-for-13 on 14+ foot attempts) and took way more advantage of the threes they got, going 13-for-29 after a 15-for-43 performance in Game 1. Luka continues to be at the wheel of this series. He’s hitting more threes than expected, and I think that’ll fall, but more important is that he’s using the gravity he draws to find tons of open shooters. Obviously, the Game 2 bench performances were awesome, but Dallas can’t expect that every night. What they can expect is for Luka to force his way to the rim and, if he demands a double team, pass out of it for an open shot. It’s a simple gravity game, and time will tell how well it works. Perhaps we all shouldn’t have collectively underrated the team with the third-best margin of victory in the West this season?

Representative GIF:

(3) Denver Nuggets vs. (6) Utah Jazz; series tied, 1-1

Denver: The Nuggets possess the second-best offense so far, with three players dropping 20+ points per game and the team as a whole shooting over 50% from downtown. (35-for-68, to be exact.) This has been a wild series that’s suddenly turned into the most entertaining series in the bubble. Nikola Jokic is doing his normal stuff, going for 57 points and 21 rebounds, but it’s been Jamal Murray’s emergence that has lifted Denver. Murray’s 34 points in Game 1 and complete dominance of the fourth quarter and overtime got Denver over the top on a night where they had no one to stop Donovan Mitchell.

If the Nuggets had Will Barton or especially Gary Harris available, their defense would look far less hopeless than it has so far. Harris is the team’s best perimeter defender and almost certainly the guy they’d choose to stick on Mitchell. The Nuggets still haven’t picked a firm return date for him, but they seem to think he’ll be back before the end of this series. Whether it’s for the best for his personal development may have to be tossed aside; if he can’t come back by Game 4, it may already be too late.

Representative GIF:

Utah: Feels like they have to be pretty happy with the way things are, no? You got an all-timer of a performance from Donovan Mitchell in the Game 1 overtime loss followed by a team-wide demolition of Denver in Game 2. Amazingly, through two games, Utah is the best-shooting team in the field of 16…followed by the Nuggets in second place by a hair. I think both teams will regress, of course. Utah’s shot quality is about the same as it was in the regular season, but the difference is pretty easy to spot: the Jazz are taking and making a ton of non-corner threes.

Through just two games, Utah is 26-for-67 on these three-point attempts, with Mitchell and Joe Ingles combining to go an absurd 18-for-39. (The rest of the Jazz, just for clarity, are 8-for-28.) Mitchell’s 87 points through two games almost undersells just how insanely good he’s been in the bubble; it might very well be the best two-game stretch of his entire career. Couple that with an unusually efficient Jordan Clarkson and Rudy Gobert scoring more than usual and you’ve got the best offense in the playoffs thus far.

Representative GIF:

(4) Houston Rockets vs. (5) Oklahoma City Thunder; Rockets lead, 2-0

Houston: How about that? A team with no Westbrook, largely underrated in terms of their potential, comes out and beats the trendy Thunder by double-digits in both games. Most remarkably to me, the Rockets survived a 42-minute dud from James Harden in Game 2 by having several really good performances surrounding him. The key to this team all along has been its supporting cast: when Harden creates open shots for them, will they hit them? Two games in, the answer is starting to look pretty positive. The non-Harden Rockets are 31-for-84 from three (36.9%), about 2.7% ahead of where they were in the regular season. Couple that with Houston playing really tough, consistent defense and forcing several bad Thunder turnovers.

Suddenly, you’ve got a team that has one of the five best players in basketball, a supporting cast capable of hitting 15+ threes in one game, and a defense willing to do what it takes to be one of the ten best in the sport. Sounds fairly dangerous, no?

Representative GIF:

Oklahoma City: What was supposed to be a coming-out party for this overachieving roster has turned into a two-game disaster, and it might get even worse with Russell Westbrook’s impending return. The shorthanded and, well, short Rockets have thoroughly owned Oklahoma City through two games, leaving the Thunder no room to breathe on either side of the court. While we knew Oklahoma City likes to take a bunch of analytically-unfriendly shots, they also hit a lot of them and make them worth their time. Obviously, any roster with Chris Paul is going to be that way. So it comes as more than a bit of a surprise that the best mid-range shooting team in the regular season has been one of the worst in these playoffs. Oklahoma City is 9-for-25 on short mid-range attempts, third-worst in the field of 16. On Paul’s beloved longer mid-range attempts, the Thunder have only gotten off 20 through two games, below what I would’ve expected. Couple this with a sudden emphasis on taking more threes – aside from Gallinari and Schroder, not this roster’s strong suit – and it looks like a roster that’s lost sight of what it’s supposed to be.

On the other end of the court, most thought that Houston would get more than their fair share of open threes, but Oklahoma City would own the boards. This really hasn’t been the case. The Thunder own a small edge in OREB% thus far, but in Game 2, Houston got an astounding ten offensive rebounds off of missed threes. On their OREBs in total, Houston got 14 extra points in a game decided by 13. Unless OKC shoots more efficiently from mid-range or takes a greater ownership of the boards, their lights are dimming quickly.

Representative GIF:

Restart Reviews: Thunder/Rockets, Game 1

August 18: Houston Rockets 123, Oklahoma City Thunder 108; Houston leads, 1-0

Theoretically, this was the perfect game for Oklahoma City to win. The Thunder were missing Lu Dort, their best perimeter defender, but the Rockets were missing Russell Westbrook. Considering it’s Lu Dort vs. Russell Freaking Westbrook, you would think Houston lost that trade. It sounds obvious, but Oklahoma City needed to run up the score in the first 2-3 games before Westbrook returns.

As you can guess from the score above, they did not.

It’s a pretty simple game to evaluate: for whatever reason, Houston came out hyper-attentive on defense and happily willing to make the extra pass. It’s the most fun they’ve looked as a full roster since the 2018 Western Conference Finals. They stayed strong on defense for most of the game, which is great, but critically, they hit a ton of wide-open threes. That hasn’t happened often, as we discussed last week when they played the Pacers and lost.

If you hit 20 threes in a game, you should win, full stop. Houston did, and it was never in doubt after the first few minutes or so.

First, we should talk about the defense, the side of the ball that has most often evaded these Rockets. Oklahoma City’s offense is not all that special, but they’re capable of hitting a bunch of mid-range shots and have the capability to hit plenty of other shots, too. They never had that chance against Houston until it was too late. Houston forced a ton of bad long mid-range shots and made the shorter mid-range looks tougher than usual. Pretty much everyone on the OKC roster struggled to hit these looks they adore so much, as we’ll explore later.

Houston went full-throttle until it was safe to let off the gas, i.e. the fourth quarter. It was funny to see them do this, because the most full-throttle member of the roster was on the bench in a Yeezy Brand-esque tee cheering his team on. Russell Westbrook makes this defense better, especially in the playoffs, where his energy is boundless and he uses all that’s left of his athleticism to keep his guy in front of him. But: it might be time to have a discussion about Houston’s offense while Westbrook is on the bench.

With Westbrook on the court this season, the Rockets have scored 112.34 points per 100 possessions in his 2,049 minutes – a pretty solid rate, one that would rank 10th-best in the league across a full season. In all minutes without Westbrook, though, the Rockets are nearly three full points better: 115.25 per 100 in 1,427 non-RW minutes, or the second-best offense in basketball behind Dallas. If you limit this exclusively to games Westbrook played in, which eliminates 15 games from our sample, the Rockets scored 120.77 points per 100 possessions – easily the best rate in basketball. Lastly, there is this:

  • Rockets offense, both Harden and Westbrook on: 112.17 points per 100 possessions (#11 offense), 1,434 minutes
  • Harden on, Westbrook off: 119.79 per 100 (#1 offense), 1,082 minutes
  • Westbrook on, Harden off: 112.72 per 100 (#7 offense), 615 minutes
  • Neither on: 104.9 per 100 (#30 offense), 393 minutes

This is not a “gotcha!” thing or even anti-Russell Westbrook content; I think RW is one of the more uniquely fascinating basketball players of my lifetime. But if the Rockets are going to do this without Westbrook on the court, it’s at least something to consider.

Anyway, the game itself didn’t end up being about Russell Westbrook. It was about James Harden’s continued greatness, about this weird Rockets supporting cast, and about what happens when Houston finally does the little things right.

Harden, as usual, was marvelous: 37 points on 22 shots, 6-for-13 from three, and buckets from all over the court.

He is simply such a purely great scorer that even defenses as tough as OKC’s have a heck of a time slowing him down at all. Harden was in total control from start to finish in what I’d call one of his more unique box score lines: 11 rebounds and just three assists. However, he still had another great passing show where he was responsible for three secondary assists, or what we’d more commonly call the hockey assist. He continues to be so, so good at picking up points no matter where he is:

Sometimes, we miss the forest for the trees both in life and in sports. I feel like we’ve somehow come around to underrating James Harden’s greatness. He’s a top-three regular season basketball player that remains top-five in the playoffs, a yearly MVP candidate that never wavers. Understandably, his game isn’t for everyone, and there’s plenty of times where I get exhausted watching him isolate for 22 seconds of the shot clock. But it can’t erase that a good chunk of those possessions somehow end in threes that Harden makes look a lot easier than they are.

This game’s spotlight was shared by a few members of the Rockets supporting cast. This weird bunch of players fits together only because they were forced to. Houston’s full-on insistence on small ball has made them the worst rebounding team in the league, and even in a blowout, they still surrendered several offensive rebounds to the Thunder:

But does it really matter when you finally make the uncontested threes fans have been asking them to make for the entire season?

The non-Harden Rockets, from a box score perspective, made 14 of their 39 three-point attempts (35.9%). Admittedly, that number doesn’t look all that impressive, but think about it this way: they made enough threes to force OKC to consistently cover them, which opened up the rest of the court for easy buckets like this one.

Thanks to the efforts of guys like P.J. Tucker (3-for-8), Ben McLemore (4-for-7), and Jeff Green (3-for-7), the Rockets finally started punishing their opponents somewhat for leaving them so open from three. Because of that, it opened up drives to the rim that OKC wasn’t able to stop consistently. The Rockets went 17-for-22 at the rim, one of their most efficient efforts of the season and tied for their fourth-best output against a playoff team. It wasn’t all Harden, either: Jeff Green went 3-for-3, Eric Gordon 4-for-7, Danuel House 3-for-4. When the Rockets have nights like this, you finally understand why so many (AKA, the guy writing this post) believed they could get the 1 seed in the West last summer.

For Oklahoma City, this is obviously a very disappointing result. Thunder fans had every right to anticipate a victory, especially with no Westbrook and especially with how frustrating the Rockets viewing experience can be. They knew they’d have a defined edge on the boards, and across the full season, it was the Thunder who possessed the better offensive turnover rate. Theoretically, you could survive a less-than-ideal shooting day if you won those two things.

As mentioned earlier, the Thunder won the boards, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Chris Paul, in particular, had a couple of really uncharacteristic turnovers that seemed to sum up the whole night:

To add to that, the league’s best mid-range shooting offense suddenly couldn’t buy a bucket from their favorite spot. Oklahoma City shot 7-for-21 from mid-range, including a horrific 3-for-13 output on shorter mid-range twos (5-14 feet, roughly). This was driven largely by Houston’s defense, who made a bunch of these mid-range misses very tough:

And generally made it hard for OKC to convert the type of shots they loved converting over the course of the last ten months:

Obviously, if the Thunder are going to have this poor of a night from their most-beneficial spot on the court, this series is going to be a lot shorter than most expected. FiveThirtyEight gives Houston roughly a 34% chance of sweeping OKC; while I think that’s pretty aggressive (personally, I’d have that more in the 20% range), it should be alarming to anyone hoping the Thunder wins this series, especially when Westbrook is out. If they can’t hit these shots now, I don’t think it’s going to be easier at all when RW returns to the court. Better wake up before it’s too late.

Restart Reviews: Mavericks/Clippers, Game 1

August 18, 2020: Los Angeles Clippers 118, Dallas Mavericks 110; Clippers lead, 1-0

If you only watched the first four minutes of this game, you would be in no way surprised by the score you see above. The Clippers came roaring out of the gate en route to an 18-2 lead, frustrating Luka Doncic into several turnovers and making him look extremely overwhelmed:

If you only watched the next 20 or so minutes of this game, you would be somewhat shocked by the above outcome. The Mavericks responded to that atrocious start (and a brief Luka injury scare) by going on a 48-18 run of their run, leading by as many as 14, and taking over the pace of the game for a long stretch of time. At half, the Mavs led 69-66, and Luka was driving the offense in a manner that appropriately freaked out any Clippers fan watching:

Halftime came, and this vaunted Clipper defense was allowing 1.278 PPP to a plucky, super-fun Mavericks offense. Luka and Kristaps Porzingis had 33 of Dallas’s 69 points, the team made 12 threes in the first half, and everything was running on all cylinders. The second half started slowly, with neither team doing much, until…well, this:

The idea of this earning a technical for either side in a non-bubble context would be fairly laughable; it was simply a few shoves, with neither side being that much more aggressive than the other, and the run of play up to this point was fairly well-controlled. A fight was not threatening to break out. And yet: the officials gave Porzingis his second technical of the game, the first coming after arguing what was a genuinely embarrassing missed call by a referee.

I’ll rant on this once, and then I’ll leave it be until a more outrageous case comes along: the NBA needs to get their officiating in line instantly. It wouldn’t matter if Porzingis were a top-four player in this game or if he was the 12th man on the bench for Dallas; it’s insane that he got a technical for either offense. Because there are no fans to mask the noise, and because officials appear to be profoundly thin-skinned in the bubble, Porzingis was kicked out, and Dallas was outscored by 13 points the rest of the way. Now, KP was not exactly firing on all cylinders in this one; he did get 14 points on nine shots, but the Clippers were also exploiting him fairly often on defense. That being said, everyone can agree that a Mavericks team with Porzingis is clearly better than one without. I don’t know that the outcome here would be different, but I don’t think the Clippers would’ve controlled the second half – especially the third quarter – nearly as easily. Good on Dallas for almost surviving. (Side note: the foul disparity did favor the Mavericks, FWIW.)

Moving on. Let’s talk about Luka:

The kid scored 42 points on 28 shot equivalents, grabbed seven rebounds, and dished out nine assists. When he was in the game, the Clippers couldn’t slow him down much at all. Luka went 6-for-8 from the rim and 5-for-7 on his beloved short mid-range looks; any real stop of Luka routinely ended in a foul call and a trip to the free throw line.

To the extent that he has a shooting weakness of any kind, it’s probably still his threes, where he’s a career 32% shooter and went 2-for-6 in this game. But I want to make a suggestion: what if his percentage is low precisely because he draws all of the attention when Dallas is on offense? The number of wide-open Luka threes is very minimal when spread out over a full season, and the only other guard you can safely say takes more difficult shots is James Harden. So, hear me out: Luka’s three-point percentage is only concerning if you leave out the context of the type of shots he largely takes.

What a dude. Unfortunately for Luka, he alone couldn’t win this for Dallas. Remember the 12 threes stat listed above? Well, Dallas blew every three they had available in the first half, as they went 3-for-22 from deep in the second. This is both an encouraging loss and a very painful one for Dallas. They forced the Clippers into a lot of mid-range twos, protected the rim reasonably well, and got a lot of wide-open looks from downtown.

And yet: they still lost, because the Clippers hit all those mid-range shots and demolished the Mavericks on the boards. Also, Luka’s 11 turnovers (worth noting that five of them came in that rough first quarter) certainly didn’t help things. Dallas’s worst enemy on offense in this one was themselves, but the Clippers displayed a level of defensive effort they didn’t put out all that often in the regular season. It’s going to be a tough series for Dallas to squeak out wins, even with home court advantage effectively nuked.

The Clippers got out of this potentially hairy situation the way pretty much everyone imagined they would: aggressive defense that forced buckets of turnovers, a great game on the offensive boards, and the fact Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are on the same team. Even when you give up all those threes in the first half, only trailing by three shows that you’re working hard in other areas of the game. That’s why we’re opening with a special shoutout to Marcus Morris:

Morris had one of his most useful offensive games yet for the Clippers: 19 points on 13 shots, including several that kept the Clippers offense running in the first half when they desperately needed it. However, his impact was most felt on the defensive end in this one. Morris’s work within LAC’s system created four turnovers, and it was the most active he’s looked on this end of the court since he was a Piston.

If Morris plays this hard defensively every night, he adds value even when he’s not shooting well, and it gives the Clippers a much more meaningful piece to use throughout the playoffs. I think we’ve all been patiently waiting for them to go full-effort for a while, and when they needed it tonight, guys like Morris showed that effort.

Of course, none of you were surprised when Kawhi Leonard went hard on the defensive end, especially in the second half.

Kawhi’s second half carried the Clippers to the finish line: 14 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, and a pair of steals. Paul George was good in this one, too (28 points), but Kawhi remains the driver of the offense, the defense, and the franchise. It was Kawhi who couldn’t miss from mid-range in this one:

And it was Kawhi who had the ball in his hands late in this game, determining the Clippers’ fate. They’ll be comfortable with that the rest of the way, and they have to be comfortable knowing that the gravity Kawhi draws in one-on-one play can spring open any number of open shooters.

Lastly, the X-factor for these Clippers remains Ivica Zubac. It feels rote to continue harping on this point, but somehow, he remains a remarkably effective player that knows how to do like three things and does those three things incredibly well. Zubac picked up five offensive rebounds in this one and was a terror on the boards that Dallas couldn’t handle:

Likewise, it was Zubac who blocked a pair of Dallas shots (two of the Clippers’ three blocks in the game) and scored ten points in his 22 minutes. Offensively, he still ain’t much beyond a roll-and-cut big man, but he performs this role so effectively that it essentially eliminates other concerns about his game. Can Zubac shoot a three? Of course not. But he knows where to be offensively at all times, and he knows that he has a role to play. That alone provides real, useful long-term value, and his ability to consistently affect shots at the rim on the other end is going to get him a Timofey Mozgov contract.

Restart Reviews: Blazers/Nets

August 13: Portland Trail Blazers 134, Brooklyn Nets 133

When I said this last night:

I meant it, because Lord knows I have made my fair share of ulcer-inducing picks. (No, I definitely never took 2014 Duke to the Final Four, then watched in horror from a Pizza Hut as they lost to Mercer. Never happened!) With little crowd noise and how tired we all were (if you’re silly like I am and live on Eastern Time), it felt so similar to the March Madness feeling we all desperately missed.

Think about it: on one side, you had a strongly-favored team that’s far from perfect, yet everyone understood was going to win this game. They’re simply too exciting not to. On the other, there was this team that few expected to get beyond 1-2 wins in the bubble because of how thin their roster was and is. And yet, they ended up playing hard every single night for a coach who wants this job more than possibly anyone else in America. And it was taking place on TNT late on a Thursday night with Kevin Harlan calling the game. Change the colors up a bit and you could’ve called it Oregon/UC Irvine.

As the game unfolded, the favorite held steady for most of the first 30 minutes, but simply couldn’t pull off multiple stops on defense in a row. Considering they possess far and away the worst defense in the bubble, this wasn’t a surprise. The underdog couldn’t miss for most of the game because they kept getting wiiiiiiiiiide open looks. Like, you aren’t supposed to get as open at the rim as you are from three, and yet they did, pretty frequently. Suddenly, the favorite stopped hitting, and the underdog didn’t stop. For a while, it really did look like we were about to witness August Madness.

But: Damian Lillard.

In what continues to be one of the most remarkable individual performances in recent history, this man used all 42 of his points and 12 of his assists to drag his team back into the game and later, over their opponent. Had he lacked one point or even one assist, who’s to say Portland wins? Starting in the second half, Brooklyn unveiled a defense meant to get the ball out of his hands as soon as he touched the half-court line. It was a relatively simple strategy of rushing Dame with a double team – an incredibly unusual move once you advance past college ball. It’s not exactly a box-and-one, but it’s close enough to a modified version that you could claim we got a box-and-one in the NBA Freaking Playoffs two years in a row.

Only the best demand such a defense. As much slander as he gets online, Stephen Curry is the only other shooter in recent memory to require this defense in the NBA, and his was just for the final five minutes of a game. The Nets did this to Damian Lillard for a quarter-and-a-half. That’s how hot he is right now. The funniest part of all: it still didn’t stop him from getting 12 huge points in the fourth quarter and 25 in the second half on the whole.

I want to make my official declaration: until the Portland Trail Blazers completely overhaul their defense (or fix various roster holes), they won’t escape the first round. Really, I can’t see how one would consider them a serious threat to pick off more than a game or two from the Lakers. Portland’s defense is so embarrassingly bad, so putrid, so offensive, that starting about midway through the second quarter I was legitimately shocked when Brooklyn didn’t score on them.

The Nets went to the paint over and over, and Portland had nothing to slow it down at all. Jusuf Nurkic does not appear to be up to game speed defensively yet; as such, they have no real rim protector out there to start the game, unless you’re willing to deal with Hassan Whiteside. Brooklyn went 17-for-25 at the rim:

And 15-for-27 on short mid-range twos, many of them within 10 feet of the basket. Whenever Brooklyn stuffed Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen in ball screen sets, the Nets could not be stopped, no matter how many players the Portland Trail Blazers threw out there. I want to hammer in just how bad of a look this is for a Portland team that’s been fawned over by many for two weeks. Here are the players the Brooklyn Nets used for this game, alongside their Offensive Estimated Plus-Minus rating from dunksandthrees.com:

  • Jarrett Allen (+1.3)
  • Joe Harris (+1.2)
  • Jeremiah Martin (+0.5, played nine minutes)
  • Caris LeVert (+0.2)
  • Everyone else -1.1 or lower

Essentially, the Nets had about 2.5 good offensive players that they played with any frequency in this game. (LeVert’s rating is low because, outside of this game, he’s been very inefficient.) It wasn’t like they really did have Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving available for this game; the highest-rated offensive guard is a guy that looks like he’d corner you at an event to talk about 1990s indie rock. And yet: they could not be stopped, ever.

Brooklyn simply kept getting open against this defense, to the tune of 1.304 points per possession, cementing Portland’s status as both the most-efficient offense and the least-efficient defense in the bubble. For the most part, the core for the Blazers is the same core that snuck into last year’s Western Conference Finals. Dame, CJ, Nurkic, Collins, etc. are still on this roster. I know Nurkic and Collins missed most of the regular season, but still: why, exactly, is this defense as embarrassing as it is? In my most recent post on this roster, I noted that very few gave the credit last offseason to how much their defense would decline without Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu to take the load on defense. The best remaining defender on this roster is Gary Trent, Jr., and LeVert made him look silly in the fourth quarter:

And yet: Damian Lillard.

Sometimes, you can have a player so good and so elite that it covers up a million flaws. That’s Dame right now. When the ball wasn’t in Dame’s hands in the second half, Portland struggled often to hit wide-open looks, and more than a few of these misses came from guys you’d expect to hit such looks:

But when it became Dame Time, you knew who was going to be controlling this game, no matter what it took:

What a story. What a game. If you pretend that there are no games on today’s schedule, it’ll feel better; let the final memory of the regular season be this game. I’ll see you all Saturday.

Restart Reviews: Pacers/Rockets

August 12: Indiana Pacers 108, Houston Rockets 104

On a pretty boring day for basketball – alternately, a pretty average one for the last few pre-playoff days – this was the most interesting game with the most at stake. The Pacers could’ve finished anywhere from the 4 to the 6 seed in the East; the Rockets, meanwhile, could go anywhere from the 3 to the 5 in the West. Despite that, we still couldn’t get a full-strength game out of both of these teams. Indiana sat Malcolm Brogdon and First-Team All-Bubble T.J. Warren; Houston sat Russell Westbrook. It was close to full-strength, but also not.

And yet: it was still fairly entertaining. Houston started out on fire, jumped to a 23-9 lead, and promptly never hit another three again. Indiana led by as many as 14 in the fourth quarter before a late, dangerous Rockets comeback nearly forced an overtime the undermanned Pacers probably did not want. So: Indiana won, locked up a 4/5 matchup with Miami, gets to avoid Boston (though will not avoid Milwaukee in the second round), and did it all while giving two of their three best players the day off. Nice!

Houston’s loss will be a bit tougher to rationalize, especially because they got a fantastic performance from James Harden. As much as Harden gets blamed for a variety of Houston’s problems, this one couldn’t be pushed on him:

Harden was an absolute force everywhere on the court, scoring 45 points on 21 shots. He also posted 17 rebounds (16 of them defensive!), nine assists, and three steals. Harden was the one and only reason Houston came anywhere close to a win in a game where they were otherwise dominated. As seen above, he had a great game from three (7-for-14) and couldn’t be stopped from two, either (6-for-7).

When Harden has games like this, it’s hard to see why the Rockets could lose. My only complaint, if I had one, would be that he didn’t shoot enough or use enough possessions…and then I looked to see he had a 38% Usage Rate, nearly enough for two players in one.

Unfortunately, Harden is but one player. With Westbrook, the Rockets may have won this game, but it wouldn’t have fixed what was a total, complete failure by the rest of the roster offensively. Indiana was held under a point per possession and didn’t get a ton of great looks, so it wasn’t a defensive issue. Aside from Robert Covington being somewhat of an exception, the Rockets looked pretty dreadful. All non-Harden Pocket Rockets went 9-for-41 from three:

They picked up just six offensive rebounds to Indiana’s 12 and Myles Turner’s seven. (More on that later). They had six more turnovers, and Eric Gordon in particular had a brutal first outing back:

It wasn’t just Gordon, though he did go 1-for-9 from three. Houston, as a whole, missed an insane amount of uncontested looks. NBA’s Player Tracking metrics aren’t perfect, but they provide a useful starting point for data collection. Per their data, Houston took 61 uncontested/open/wide-open attempts in this game. They made just 22 of them:

And it certainly wasn’t because of Harden, who made eight of his 13. So: the non-Harden Rockets went 14-for-48 on open shots. (If you’re curious, no, 2020 Russell Westbrook probably wouldn’t improve that.) Houston’s greatest foe, as has been the case for a while now, continues to be themselves.

On Indiana’s side of things, it’s hard to take a ton from this one, simply because they didn’t play their full lineup. That said, they had five different double-digit scorers, all of whom got there by different means. For instance, Victor Oladipo did get to 16 points…on the back of a 7-for-26 shooting performance.

On the other hand, Doug McDermott continues to prove his status as Indiana’s most important bench piece. Who knows why he chose today to have his best game in the bubble, but he also scored 16 points…on 6-for-7 shooting and a perfect 3-for-3 outing from downtown.

The real winner in this one is Myles Turner, a player that didn’t have a great season but had a great game when it counted. His prowess on the offensive boards in this one likely pushed Indiana over the top to the win:

Turner had seven offensive rebounds, or one more than every Houston Rocket had combined. It’s very funny to see this, because if you’ve watched Myles Turner play, offensive rebounding is far from his strong suit. Among centers, his OREB% hovering around 5% ranked in the tenth percentile this season and in the 13th percentile last year, per dunksandthrees.com. Part of this is due to sharing a court with Domantas Sabonis, Indiana’s All-Star forward that is simply a better player, but it’s a weakness that dates back to his days with Rick Barnes at Texas. Turner’s never been very good at rebounding, and had Sabonis been available, taller teams may have simply played him off the floor at times.

The good news for Turner, of course, is that there is no Sabonis. It is all Myles, all the time, and games like this show that he’s capable of overcoming long-held issues that have slowed his development:

He’s a player that’s hard to not root for.

Lastly, as we’ve mentioned, Harden dropped 45 points, but the rest of the Rockets put up just 59 points on 65 shots. They missed a lot of open shots, to be sure, but Houston was made a bit more skittish in this one than usual because of the Pacers’ active hands on defense. The rebounds are one thing, but forcing 20 turnovers is another.

This all combined to lead to one of Houston’s worst shot volume games of the entire season. Indiana shot a little bit worse than Houston and made seven fewer free throws, but they got roughly 11 more shot equivalents than the Rockets did in a four-point game. The fact the Pacers are able to consistently play hard and do the little things that lead to wins make me wonder if I’ve personally underrated their postseason chances a bit. I can’t really foresee this team escaping their second-round date with Milwaukee, and that’s if they get through a likely coin-flip series against Miami. But: any team that plays this hard this often is worth your attention and time.

Restart Reviews: Blazers/Mavericks

August 11: Portland Trail Blazers 134, Dallas Mavericks 131

I mean, is this the best sport in the world or is it not? Because I can’t see an argument for anything else after that.

Per Inpredictable.com, one of my favorite sites, this currently ranks as just the sixth-most exciting game of the bubble and its third-highest level of tension. Neither team led the game by more than ten, and in the fourth quarter, the gap either way never exceeded six points. The game was within two possessions for the entirety of its most tense quarter, and within one possession for all of the final five minutes. It is everything you could possibly want from a basketball game that meant a lot to both teams.

It obviously means more to Portland, who just wants to be in the playoffs. A loss here meant that the Phoenix Suns would leapfrog them in the standings, and considering teams are happily lining up to get the Suns in (Grizzlies fans, don’t tweet these things), this was a do-or-die fixture. Phoenix can’t win a tie-breaker with Memphis, but they don’t play the same number of games as Portland. Any loss could be a season-ender, which would be wild for a team that started the playoffs three games ahead of Phoenix and went 5-3.

Dallas, with a win, would’ve jumped to just half-a-game back of 6 seed Utah with one more to play. Not that this is exactly a shocking take, mind you, but literally every team in the NBA would rather play Denver in the first round instead of the Clippers. Fairly simple brain logic.

Anyway, the game. As seen above, it was one of the most exciting and tense games played all season. Neither team is good at all on defense (we’ll get to this, promise), so it predictably meant an offensive explosion. You got 265 points, including a combined 97 from each team’s top scorer. It was a fantastic basketball game filled with fun moments. However, years from now, only one thing will be remembered: Damian Lillard, and his 61-point show.

In one of the best individual performances of the season, Dame single-handedly dragged a Portland roster completely uninterested in defending Dallas for large portions of the game to the finish line. The team around him combined to score 73 points on the other 68 possessions; had Dame himself scored at that rate, the Blazers would’ve lost by 17 points. However, Dame Time is a real thing, and his effect on this team’s postseason fortunes cannot possibly be understated. It was a night-long highlight reel for Dame, capped with that above insane three-pointer. Dallas had no one that could stop him from getting to the rim:

Had no one that could cover him from three:

And even when he wasn’t shooting, they had no one that could stop passes like these because of all the attention he draws:

Make no mistake: Damian Lillard is the Portland Trail Blazers. There is no other player capable of carrying this team, or even somewhat assisting them to the finish line. Not Jusuf Nurkic, who had a rough go of it offensively. Not C.J. McCollum, who shot 2-for-14 and was completely lost on defense. Not Hassan Whiteside. Not Gary Trent, Jr., their, uh, “best” perimeter defender, who had a couple of steals but also missed five of six threes. Not even Carmelo Anthony (26 points), the only other player on the team to top 11 points, who shows up once every 25 possessions or so on defense.

None of those guys are enough, and that goes back to Portland’s offseason roster construction. The Blazers’ front office let Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu go. Both players were fairly frustrating offensive cases, to be certain, but they also happened to be Portland’s two best defenders. They were the only players on the roster that could hang with opponents on the perimeter. As much as I like Jusuf Nurkic, he’s too slow and clumsy outside of the paint to be that replacement. Same for Zach Collins. Carmelo, as nice as the nostalgia hits can be, is not a player you’re counting on to get a stop. When Mario Hezonja grades out as one of your best team defenders, you’re in serious trouble. That’s how Portland came into the bubble 3.5 games back of the 8 seed.

Even in the bubble, their defense has been recklessly embarrassing. Dallas scored 1.248 points per possession in this one, and on the whole, Portland has allowed almost 1.2 PPP in their seven bubble games. They’ve played the second-worst defense of anyone in the bubble, and Denver’s lower rating is at least partially because they still haven’t played a game with their normal starting lineup. Whenever I hear “Portland is going to be a serious threat to the Lakers!”, my first reaction is to laugh, because no defense this bad is taking anything from a championship contender.

And yet: Dame.

Damian Lillard is dragging this bloated, old, overpaid roster to the playoffs. The fact it took all 61 of his points to get Portland to win a game by three should be alarming, not encouraging. This roster is Dame, and Dame is Portland. We are the chaos, and defense is meaningless when you have a player that can score 112 points in two games. No one can stop this man right now; not even Instagram.

This is why, despite knowing the series would go five games at most, I really do want a Blazers/Lakers first-round matchup. Lillard has every right to take 30+ shots, maybe even 40+, in each game. There is no other way these bloated Blazers can pick one off of Los Angeles. It will take heroic efforts from Dame every single night, and that is what we best describe as “must-watch television.” The Dame Show can’t stop now, because you don’t stop the show in the middle of your greatest hits.

Flipping the switch to talk Dallas: the Mavericks were eliminated from the 6 seed last night. They will be the 7, play the Clippers, and it will be what it be. What’s funny, though, is that despite giving up 61 points to one player, I thought the Mavs looked fairly solid. They had a great offensive night marked by three 24+ point performances. They got all sorts of good shots. They generally contained most non-Melo/Dame players on the Blazers. They forced McCollum into a 2-for-14 shooting performance. It wasn’t all bad! They had a lot of good! And yet: Dame.

Anyway, the story here with a Mavericks win would’ve correctly been about Kristaps Porzingis’ rise in the bubble.

It’s not like he faced even a mediocre defense, but who cares? A 7’3″, 240-pound forward should not be allowed to shoot 7-for-9 from three. It should not be comprehensible. However, Kristaps’ mere existence in this form is beyond comprehension. We are not supposed to have guys like this; the “Unicorn” title, mostly overused, is apt in this specific moment. Thank God that he got out of New York, and thank God we get to see him pair up with Luka and this super-fun Mavs offense.

There were two other good-to-very-good outings: Luka, of course, and Tim Hardaway, Jr. Luka got to 25 despite a few bad pull-ups from downtown along the way. Simply put, he just isn’t all that elite at threes yet. That’ll come in the next Luka Patch. He remains elite at scoring at the rim, though, which is an asset that sets him ahead of nearly every other guard out there.

Less expected was the Tim Hardaway, Jr. 24-point night. In the bubble, Dallas has seemed to get one surprising performance from a non-Luka/KP cast member in each important game. It’s been Trey Burke, Dorian Finney-Smith, Boban, and now it’s Hardaway’s turn. It shouldn’t be all that surprising, as this was his best season yet (40% from three), but he hasn’t had a game like this in the bubble where he was as important to the game as Luka/KP.

If he’s able to have a game like this in the playoffs, it won’t matter how weak the Dallas defense is. If all three of these guys are on, it really will take a heroic individual effort from their opponent to stop them.

Lastly, aside from Dame, you can blame turnovers for this loss. Dallas committed 17 to Portland’s 8, which is strange as Portland’s defense is not one to force many turnovers. Gary Trent, Jr. had active hands as usual, but it was plays like this from Melo that helped put Portland over the top:

What a game. If only we had six more of these to go.

Restart Reviews: Thunder/Suns

Welcome to a new series on Stats By Will titled Restart Reviews, where I’ll be discussing games from the previous day or two and going in-depth on its result. This week, to celebrate the final few days of the regular season restart, I’ll be putting up a new post every day dissecting a game from the previous night. This is the first of the single-game posts. I hope you enjoy.

August 10: Phoenix Suns 128, Oklahoma City Thunder 101

For about 15 minutes, it looked like a golden opportunity was going to slip from their grasp, not the first time it’s happened to Phoenix in their pained franchise history. The Thunder decided to rest three of their starters as well as multiple key players off of the bench, and guys named “Devon Hall” and “Deonte Burton” were getting serious run for Oklahoma City throughout the game. Chris Paul only took nine shots. And yet: at the end of the first quarter, it was 37-23, Thunder. The Suns had every reason to win this game and needed it way more than the Thunder did; sometimes, basketball doesn’t work that way.

Well, until it does. The Suns outscored the Thunder 105-64 over the final four quarters, a shockingly large margin even for a game like this one. The story you, I, and many, many others cannot get enough of keeps rolling for another day. Until the Phoenix Suns actually lose a game, would you believe anyone who tells you they’re going to?

Yet again, the Suns won in the bubble. Yet again, they looked even better than expected making it happen. Yes, this was against an Oklahoma City roster that the Thunder clearly didn’t put much care into. (Yes, I know they’re saying “rest,” sure. What they’re really saying is “we do not want to play the Lakers in the second round,” and who can blame them?) If you’re a Suns fan, how could you care? You’ve gone through so much pain, so many missed opportunities, so few great memories since 2010 that you’ve probably earned a few easier nights like this one.

Guys like Devin Booker, though…they make easy things look even easier. This shot is still rattling through my mind every few minutes as I type.

I mean, of course this guy would hit his longest three of the season in this game, the game that Phoenix absolutely had to have to stay in contention for what would be a stunner of a playoff appearance. With just two games left in Orlando until the end of the regular season, Phoenix has roared from six games back of the eight seed all the way to a half-game back from making the play-in tournament. Basketball isn’t a one-man sport, but this Suns run wouldn’t be possible without the one-man show Devin Booker has provided fans and opponents every night.

In the bubble, Booker is averaging 30.3 points per game, six assists, and a 58.4% hit rate from two. (He’s only been a 33.3% three-point shooter, but, well, it hasn’t mattered much.) He’s single-handedly won the Suns two games: the Clippers buzzer-beater win and the Miami game where he posted 35 points. Prior to the bubble, I would’ve easily ranked him third in the Young School of Guards behind Luka (obviously) and Trae (less obviously). I think I still would, but this guy is dragging his hilariously-constructed roster of misfits, castoffs, and former projects within half a game of a playoff bid. I love Trae Young, but he hasn’t done that yet.

Anyway, the Suns did have players other than Devin Booker take the floor in this one. They had so many good performances from guys who aren’t often reliable. Dario Saric got a surprise start thanks to DeAndre Ayton’s COVID testing mishap and took full advantage, going for 16 and 9 and getting three OREBs against a smaller-than-usual OKC:

Cameron Johnson has played his best basketball of the year at the perfect time. I don’t know if he’s quite there yet defensively, but I also know it hasn’t mattered much at all in the bubble because he’s turned into a fantastic shooter. He knocked down four of his eight three-point attempts in this game and is shooting 40% from downtown, both on the season and in the bubble. That alone provides real value:

Other dudes had good games. Mikal Bridges went 5-for-8 from three; Ricky Rubio had nine assists; Cam Payne continues to stun, posting a 14/6/5 statline with three steals; even DeAndre Ayton showed up late but still got 10 points. That said, one outing really stood out to me, because I feel as if I’ve been rooting for this guy to succeed for so long. Jevon Carter only posted eight points, but even that was great: he went a perfect 3-for-3 from the field, including making both of his threes.

But it wasn’t his offense that I felt like talking about. At West Virginia, Carter deservedly earned a reputation as a bulldog player that would follow his opponent all 94 feet, frustrating them from end-to-end. He helped turn West Virginia’s defense into one of the most thrilling, frightening pieces of art in modern college basketball. It was more surprising when Carter and company didn’t force turnovers than when they did. He’s never been all that great of an offensive player, though, so he struggled mightily to latch on with the Grizzlies last year. It didn’t work out, and he got swapped along with Kyle Korver last July – which really does feel like it was 17 years ago – for Josh Jackson and De’Anthony Melton.

All Carter has done in Year One with the Suns is turn himself into perhaps the team’s scariest pound-for-pound defender, aside from maybe Mikal Bridges. Carter is ruthless when given an opportunity, and he got 37 minutes of opportunity in this one. It’s really, really hard to not love watching him play basketball.

This block, in particular, caught me off guard a little bit and made me smile.

Like Cameron Johnson, Carter is another Sun playing the best basketball of his season (possibly his career) at the perfect time. When he plays like this, he operates as a near-ideal role player to have on a playoff team: the relentless defender that doesn’t care how uncomfortable he makes you. Two years in, it’s probably safe to say he’s unlikely to ever provide a ton of value offensively, but who cares when you have defense like this? He’s a restricted free agent this summer; within reason, the Suns should make every attempt to match any offer sheet that comes his way. I mean, watch this:

And tell me you wouldn’t overpay a bit to keep this guy on your team.

One-paragraph summation of the Thunder night, now that we’re at the bottom of the inverted pyramid:

There is nothing of real importance to take from this one for Oklahoma City. They lost by more than anticipated, sure, but they also gave several guys minutes they wouldn’t get on a normal night. The only performance I or anyone should really care to note is Darius Bazley, who had 22 & 10 and gave a small look into what he might become one day. He did a great job getting to the rim and scoring with fair frequency:

And also had a couple threes:

Bazley has been awful for the most part this season; dunksandthrees.com gives him an Estimated Plus-Minus of -4.6, which ranks 435th out of 465 qualified players. Prior to yesterday, he had been almost a total zero offensively on the year, completely nuking any value his at-least-average defense would provide. Bazley has played 22+ minutes every night in the bubble, but only in this game and Sunday’s against Washington has he given a glimpse of any real value offensively. If nothing else, Oklahoma City can walk away from this one happy that their first-round investment is showing some real promise at the most important time of the season.

Restart Reviews: Bucks/Mavericks; Rockets/Kings

Welcome to a new series on Stats By Will titled Restart Reviews, where I’ll be discussing games from the previous day or two and going in-depth on its result. This week, to celebrate the final few days of the regular season restart, I’ll be putting up a new post every day dissecting a game from the previous night. This is the last of the multi-game posts for now. I hope you enjoy.

August 8: Dallas Mavericks 136, Milwaukee Bucks 132 (OT)

This is the first time any of these games have felt somewhat normal. As would have likely been the case in a non-pandemic world back in late March/early April, both teams are either pretty much locked into their seeding or totally locked in regardless of the outcome of this game. Nothing was really at stake, beyond both hoping to put on a good show. Thankfully, they did, and it was the showier team coming out on top.

I want to start with the Bucks, because this result probably means a tad less to them than it does to Dallas. No loss is totally meaningless, but considering Milwaukee has their postseason destiny locked in, they didn’t need a win here. That said, they could’ve used something better than what they got, especially on a night where Brook Lopez was blistering the nets from downtown:

Lopez, Giannis, and Khris Middleton combined for an astounding 89 points on 65 shots, one of the trio’s best games of the entire season. The Mavericks had very little hope of stopping any of the three, and Kristaps Porzingis was pretty much the only player to slow down Giannis and Lopez for any serious amount of time.

It didn’t really matter much, because the bench was just about no help at all offensively in this one. The Bucks experimented with a lot of different lineups to pass the time, and no one lineup cracked even seven minutes together in a 53-minute game. It gave four different bench players the opportunity to grab 20+ minutes of action, and only Pat Connaughton (8 points on 7 shots) really came out looking okay:

All told, these four players picked up 22 points in 95 minutes of action, which is…not enough.

To Milwaukee’s credit, they did a great job limiting Porzingis on offense, as he picked up 26 points on roughly 27 shot equivalents. They forced him into several tough mid-range misses that he hasn’t normally taken in the bubble. In general, Milwaukee did their usual thing in forcing a good amount of short mid-range attempts as opposed to shots at the rim. Milwaukee outshot Dallas by about six percent and had nine more free throw attempts, but it still wasn’t enough to beat the Mavs. That’s because Milwaukee had a surprisingly bad night on the boards, surrendering five offensive rebounds to Dorian Finney-Smith alone:

Luka’s passing will be discussed momentarily and was worthy of great respect, but the Mavericks don’t win this game if Dorian Finney-Smith doesn’t hit so many open shots. This was the DFS game: 6-for-12 on threes, 4-for-6 at the rim, and those five important offensive rebounds. The Mavericks’ only points on those rebounds were Luka’s two points above, but it was still super important to get second chances. Finney-Smith kept getting amazing shots because of Luka:

All you can ask Finney-Smith to do is for him to take advantage of these opportunities, and he did. Tim Hardaway, Jr. couldn’t, Trey Burke couldn’t, and Seth Curry couldn’t. Without Finney-Smith, this would simply be yet another Bucks win.

Obviously, though, this was all reliant on Luka putting together a passing masterwork. It’s obviously nice that Luka scored 36 points of his own on roughly 29 shot equivalents, but…well, you’re not really surprised by that, are you? It’s kind of commonplace for him at this point. As usual, he did a great job pushing the pace where needed, and he helped Dallas take advantage of transition possessions that ended up being a separating factor.

But that’s not the story anyone is here to read about. No, it’s his passing, which continues to evolve in hilarious and exciting ways. Luka passed guys into wide-open threes:

He found Porzingis some wide-open shots on a night where he didn’t get many:

And, most of all, he did this, a thing that I already know James Harden does but we are not here to talk about James Harden until 500 words from now:

Luka kept passing guys open. He did this in half-court, in transition, at the rim, in the corner, above the break, in mid-range, everywhere. It happened all game long against the best defense in the NBA, and he often made a super-talented roster look foolish. The most amazing thing Luka does and has done is have games like this, where we don’t really care that a point guard had 36 points and 14 rebounds. No, we’re here to talk about how amazing a passer he is.

At this point, it’s hard to say that any point guard in the NBA is definitely better at passing; genuinely, I think it might only be LeBron. There are no better rebounding point guards, as he surpassed Russell Westbrook this season. James Harden is the only definitively better scorer; you could put Doncic on a level with Trae Young and Damian Lillard and basically call it interchangeable. By any real measure, Luka has become one of the ten best players in the NBA at 21 years old, and he hasn’t figured out defense yet. If he ever becomes even a league-average defender…well, the sky might be the limit.

August 9: Houston Rockets 129, Sacramento Kings 112

I feel a little bit of regret in even writing about this game, because one team’s season officially ended before this game even began. With Portland’s defeat of Philadelphia earlier in the evening, the Kings (along with the profoundly disappointing New Orleans Pelicans) were officially eliminated from the playoffs. That game ended a little before halftime, and whether the players knew it or not, it certainly looked like the Kings knew their season was over in the third quarter, where they got outscored 32-15.

The Kings’ bubble successes go like this: beat the Pelicans in an offensive explosion; took the Mavericks to overtime. This is yet another lost, disappointing year for the Kings, a team with zero playoff bids since 2006 and no real consistent movement towards a bid that’ll break said streak. This game was sort of its own seasonal microcosm. Throughout the season, the Kings would sometimes manage to string a couple of wins in a row, but they pretty much never put a complete game together. Something would be off most games, whether it was the offense or the defense. In this one, the Kings were at least acceptable on defense until the fourth quarter, but the offense missed a ton of threes and couldn’t hit much of anything in the midrange:

Couple this with 18 turnovers – 16 coming in the first three quarters – and you understand why they barely cracked a point per possession despite going 18-for-23 at the rim pre-garbage time.

If you want some small positives before we explore these weird Rockets, here they are. De’Aaron Fox is still a fabulous player to watch, especially when he finds different ways to get to the rim. I love watching him change speeds, and I wish he was on a better team.

Likewise, Buddy Hield is still a terrible defender, but he hits a lot of threes and would be a very fun offensive player to have on your team.

This ends the Kings section, and hopefully any discussion of this moribund franchise until midway through the 2020-21 season.

These Pocket Rockets continue to be an oddly entrancing watch. This was a good win to pick up standings-wise, as it moves Houston a full game up on Oklahoma City for the 5 seed and 1.5 games up on Utah for the 6. They’re out of playing Denver in the first round, but it places them in a second-round battle with the Lakers, a team they went 2-1 against this season. I don’t think they can beat the Lakers in a series, but I absolutely think they’re the most challenging possible matchup of the 3-6 seeds.

This is because, on any given night, they can shoot their way to a victory. No team in the West comes close to the amount of wide-open threes, both corner and above-the-break, that Houston produces. On the season, only the Bucks produced more wide-open threes; in the bubble, Houston has produced three more wide-open (meaning no defender within six feet) threes than any other franchise in Orlando. It is all about consistently hitting open shots like P.J. Tucker’s here, which they didn’t do a great job of last night:

If they ever find a way to somewhat consistently hit these – and, overall, become a better three-point shooting team – their ceiling elevates and they become a lot scarier. They’re producing 25 threes per game with no defender within six feet in the bubble. How could that uncertainty not terrify you if you’re the opponent?

Likewise, Houston seems to be slowly figuring things out a little bit on defense. They still gave up a lot of points at the rim, but they’re starting to force more mid-range attempts and contested threes than they did pre-pandemic, and I’ve noticed they’ve been getting better at forcing unwanted errors like this one:

If Houston really does figure defense out somewhat – even elevating themselves to, like, the tenth-best defense in the league – that also makes them a much more serious contender for a deep run. We’ll see if they ever get it nailed down.

I had to save the most important thing for last here: the Austin Rivers 41-point game.

Rivers had the game of his life on a night where Russell Westbrook wasn’t available, probably for load management purposes. Rivers dropped an amazing 41 points in 33 minutes of action, going 14-for-20 from the field (6-for-11 from three, 8-for-9 at the rim). He couldn’t be stopped! While he did grab 18 points in the fourth quarter against a very uninterested Sacramento team, it still counts as the best game of his career. He needed this, and I’m thinking Houston did, too.