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.

Restart Reviews: Clippers/Mavericks; Celtics/Raptors

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. The goal is to post these three times a week, with this week’s edition(s) likely featuring multiple games in each. There will be GIFs, stats, and all of the general moods and feelings you likely expect by clicking on this site. I hope you enjoy.

August 6: Los Angeles Clippers 126, Dallas Mavericks 111

If you like exciting, offense-first basketball, this would’ve been a good game for you. Neither team budged for a while, and when the Mavs came rushing back in the fourth quarter to briefly tie the game, it looked like we were headed for an exciting finish. Unfortunately, only one of these teams possesses the ability to turn their defensive switch on when a game gets tight, and it sure ain’t Dallas. The Clippers went on a 25-10 not-quite-a-run to close this one out, as Dallas simply didn’t have any hope of slowing down the Clippers offense over the final seven minutes of this game. Part of this was due to faulty rebounding:

And part of it was due to the Clippers simply making the right shots at the right time.

All in all, this result is more meaningful to a team with its seeding still somewhat up in the air rather than the Mavericks, who have been locked into the 7 seed for some time now. The Clippers seem to want to fend off Denver for the 2 seed, which makes sense if they’re going to be able to decimate the Dallas defense in this fashion. The Clippers scored 1.313 points per possession, one of their ten best efforts of the season, and they did it without having some sort of crazy Lou Williams bench explosion or any one standout offensive performance. It was a team effort, and pretty much everyone had success against this Mavs D. Okay, well, one guy in particular should be singled out: Ivica Zubac, who completely roasted these Mavs on the boards:

Zubac had six of the Clippers’ nine offensive rebounds and 15 overall, and there wasn’t a soul on the Mavericks who could consistently keep him off of the boards. For a while now, I’ve been driving the “Zubac is Actually Good” train, but this was easily his best offensive performance of the year and one that I didn’t really see coming. Zubac went a perfect 10-for-10 from the field, scoring 21 points with relative ease. Any time an opponent goes 9-for-9 against you at the rim, it’s a bad sign, but it was especially bad that Zubac made it look as easy as it did. He didn’t even have a good defensive game! He just owned the Dallas frontcourt from start to finish on the offensive side, especially in rebounding, and it was more than enough to make up for any defensive misgivings.

It came in the midst of a night where the Clippers couldn’t miss from much of anywhere on the floor. Not that they were severely pressured by Dallas to do so, but the Clippers took a lot of shots you wouldn’t consider analytics-friendly – lots of 10-19 footers off the dribble, shots that you would wisely ask most players not to take. The benefit for the Clippers here is having two great players that can hit a lot of said shots, and others that step up when they’re needed. Ultimately, if you have Kawhi Leonard on the roster, you will never be truly upset with him for taking shots like this one:

Plus, the team was hitting everything else in sight – 19-for-27 at the rim, 14-for-31 from three. Why not take the shots your players like taking?

Once Montrezl Harrell and Patrick Beverley return, the Clippers will finally be at full strength in Orlando, and then there is only one question to resolve: how long can Doc Rivers keep Paul George and Kawhi Leonard on the floor together in games that matter? They got 34 minutes together in this one and outscored the Mavericks by 21 points. In the 14 minutes where one or both were on the bench, the Clippers were outscored by six and gave up 1.258 points per possession. It’s simply a different team when they aren’t sharing the court, and they’ll have to limit that time starting in a few days.

The Mavericks are mostly using these eight games for target practice, as they offer a terrific offense and what is frequently a mortifying defense. If they have any hope at all of seeing the second round, they simply cannot be as awful as they were in this game on defense. That said, they’re a really fun watch regardless of defensive success, and watching Kristaps Porzingis blossom in the bubble has been a true joy:

Porzingis led all scorers with 30 points on 19 shots (3-for-7 from three), tossed in nine rebounds for good measure, and drove the Mavericks’ offense. When Porzingis was in the game, the Mavs scored 96 points on 77 possessions; in the rare time he was able to rest on the bench, Dallas got 15 points from 18 possessions. I figured that if anyone would have these splits for Dallas, it would be Luka Doncic, who was solid as usual in this one, but it’s been Porzingis that’s the pleasant surprise in Orlando. It’s hard not to take serious joy from watching the two play off of each other:

Another key in this one, aside from defense, was actually an offensive problem: Dallas didn’t get nearly enough looks at the rim, whether through cuts or drives, and didn’t hit enough threes to make up for it. The Mavericks got just 18 attempts at the rim, tied for their eighth-lowest number this season, and took 48 threes. That Dallas takes a lot of threes is nothing new, but it’s alarming that three of their 15 worst games in terms of attempts at the rim this season have come against Los Angeles. The Clippers are really, really good at shutting off the paint for the Mavs and forcing Dallas to shoot over the top of them. Sometimes this works out for Dallas:

And sometimes it doesn’t, as evidenced by Trey Burke going 0-for-7 from downtown:

Had the Mavs shot a little better from downtown, the final margin may have been closer, but until Dallas can break the Clippers open at the rim, they’re either going to have to find more stops or hit more threes, neither of which is exactly easy to do.

August 7: Boston Celtics 122, Toronto Raptors 100

This game was mostly over by halftime and 100% over late in the third quarter, so I have no real notes on the final 10 minutes or so of this game. The Raptors didn’t lead once, trailed by as many as 40, and generally had such a hilariously bad night that I think Nick Nurse should simply forget this game ever happened. In all seriousness, what are the chances of the Raptors playing this bad again? The Celtics got better shots, Toronto’s starters couldn’t hit anything at all, and it was a pretty mortifying night for any Toronto fan hoping for a statement win. It wasn’t even like the Celtics had a dominant outing by any one starter – they were simply dominant as a team and every starter minus Gordon Hayward looked pretty great.

The Celts didn’t necessarily have some sort of wild shooting night from downtown – 13-for-35 from three pre-garbage time – but they were hyper-efficient on twos and shot well enough on threes that it didn’t matter. If forced to name a starter, Jaylen Brown probably had the most impressive night:

But it wasn’t about the starters on this night as much as it was about three important, impressive bench outings from Brad Wanamaker, Semi Ojeleye, and Robert Williams III. All three have proved frustrating offensively throughout the season, and the first two in particular seem to be consistent sources of annoyance for the more online faction of Celtics fans. (They have an odd fascination with Williams III that I really appreciate, though.) Wanamaker has altered his shot selection in the bubble, driving to the rim more. It hadn’t worked out for him very well, but in this game, he couldn’t be stopped:

Ojeleye was probably the worst member of the Celtics rotation this year, and a lot of fans appear to want him gone. This is entirely fair, as, yes, he was awful for most of the season. However, some amount of bench potential does seem to be there:

Lastly, the Timelord. Robert Williams III is most known for his defense, where he picked up blocks and steals at a ridiculous rate in limited minutes this season. It continues to be a little weird to me that Brad Stevens doesn’t give him more time on the court, but that may simply be the price he pays for being unlucky enough to back up Daniel Theis, one of the most underrated players in basketball. (For what it’s worth, Enes Kanter is better than Boston fans give him credit for.) When Williams gets on the floor, it’s becoming must-watch television:

The guy got ten points and four rebounds in barely 11 minutes of action and held his opponents to 2-for-7 from the field against him. I badly wish he played more, because he’s a small-sample superstar. He’s with the team for at least two more seasons; hopefully, he’ll break into the lineup more often.

There were only a couple truly useful points from this game, and one of them was the defensive strategies for both teams being so similar. Both Boston and Toronto aimed to lock up the rim, forcing their opponent to shoot over the top of them. For Boston, this meant being fine with a lot of 6-10 foot attempts from the Raptors as well as non-corner threes; for Toronto, this was more about forcing Boston out to the three-point line, a place where they’re above-average but not necessarily elite. Boston’s plan worked out perfectly, while Toronto’s…did not. Prior to garbage time, the Raptors had just 15 attempts at the rim, significantly below what they’d normally have through three quarters. Now, to be fair, Toronto hit 10 of their 21 short mid-range attempts, per Cleaning the Glass:

In this sense, they survived. But in another, they failed miserably. Toronto took 21 of their 26 threes from the wing or the top of the key, and they hit…well, buddy, they hit two of ’em. Two whole threes. Two.

Seeing as Toronto has been one of the five best three-point shooting teams for most of this season, you can write this off easily as an aberration on the offensive end. It was simply a brutal, brutal night where they couldn’t hit open shots at all. However, the other end of this is probably something worth keeping an eye on: per PBPStats.com, two of Toronto’s nine lowest outputs at the rim this season came against the Celtics, as well as two of their four highest short mid-range frequencies. The December 28th Celtics/Raptors game, which seems like it was 15 years ago at this point, seems particularly instructive for how this game can swing both ways. Toronto won that game easily, 113-97, but Boston had one of its worst shooting nights of the season because Toronto did a much better job of forcing tougher threes.

About those threes: remember when I discussed in the restart preview Toronto’s odd proclivity for allowing opponents to take as many corner threes as they’d like? You saw last night how much of an area of exploitation this can be for the right opponent. Boston did hit just 13 of 35 threes pre-garbage time, but only five of those came above the break. The Celtics shot 8-for-12 on corner threes because Toronto is prone to conceding a lot of these looks:

The Celts weren’t good at all on above-the-break threes – 5-for-23 – so it makes no sense as to why Toronto allows these shots. They’re still the most efficient three-point shot in basketball, and it’s an odd dare by Nick Nurse. I completely understand any “you’ll have to shoot over us” philosophy, but it’s why I prefer the Bucks’ style on this front. Milwaukee ranks below the league average in percentage of corner threes to above-the-break threes despite allowing the third-highest opponent three-point attempt rate in basketball. Budenholzer forces his opponents to take less-efficient threes on the whole, and I’m afraid it could be the source of Toronto’s exit whenever it does happen.

Restart Reviews: Thunder/Lakers; Pacers/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. The goal is to post these three times a week, with this week’s edition(s) likely featuring multiple games in each. There will be GIFs, stats, and all of the general moods and feelings you likely expect by clicking on this site. I hope you enjoy.

August 5: Oklahoma City Thunder 105, Los Angeles Lakers 86

In some fashion, both of the games I’m writing about meant way more to one team than the other. In this game, it was far more pronounced. The Lakers have nothing left to play for pre-playoffs; they’ve locked up the 1 seed in the Western Conference, and given that there’s no real home-court advantage in the bubble in terms of having a better record than the Bucks, their regular season is essentially over. It’s a great position to be in for Los Angeles, especially now that they’ve got just three games to play. The Thunder, however, had a lot more on the line – namely, trying to work to find their best possible first-round matchup (the Rockets) and their best possible second-round matchup (the Nuggets, but more likely the Clippers). They needed to show more than the Lakers did, and the incredible work of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on defense did it for them:

SGA posted three steals, a block, and held his opponents to just 4-of-12 from the field, only allowing nine points. It still stuns me to look back at the 2018 NBA Draft and remember that Kevin Knox, his Kentucky teammate, went two picks ahead of him. As you all know, I preview and watch every single University of Tennessee basketball game and have only missed watching a few games over the last three seasons. I wouldn’t dare miss a Kentucky/Tennessee game, and, as someone hoping to show some amount of basketball expertise, I watch a lot of Kentucky’s games, too. You would have had to show some serious willful ignorance to believe anything other than the facts, which happily spelled out for you that SGA was a much better defender, a more efficient offensive player, and a more versatile prospect than Kevin Knox. When was the last time you saw Knox do this against any opponent of decency?

This is why the Knicks will never be good. SGA’s the real deal, and we get to lock in and watch him play basketball for the next 15 years. What a life.

The weird thing about this one: OKC had a pretty awful shooting night. They made just 5 of 24 threes, one of their worst shooting nights from downtown this season…but it didn’t matter, because they converted 18 of 27 attempts at the rim:

And 11 of 28 from the midrange:

The threes aren’t as big of a deal when you’re posting those numbers. As we’ll go over shortly, the Lakers shot even worse, so OKC sort of got away with this one.

An area of potential downfall for the Thunder continues to be their very poor rebounding. They rank dead last in the NBA in OREB% and 20th in DREB%, which is not a great sign for a team that’s hoping to go beyond the first round. Generally, you can avoid this with the right matchups, which is why I think a lot of people are rooting for a Thunder/Rockets first-round battle. The Rockets are similarly weak rebounders; it’s just not their game, especially with their main Pocket Rockets lineup. The issue here is that the best team in the conference – the one they just played! – is also an elite rebounding squad, which limits how far they can go. I’m just saying that when Alex Caruso, not at all known as an offensive board crasher, gets multiple OREBs on you…

It’s a problem.

For the Lakers, there’s nothing all that important to take away here. As noted up top, they were on autopilot for most of this game, and neither LeBron nor Anthony Davis exerted serious effort on defense. It looked like any random Cavs late regular season loss from 2014 to 2018, where LeBron is conserving his body for what’s coming next. He did have a few nice offensive plays, but on the whole, this was clearly a night off for him mentally, which is fine.

The only real takeaway to me was how solid and reliable Dion Waiters was, and it’s not as if anyone would associate either of those terms with Dion normally. Waiters may have been the second-best Laker in this one. He had a mediocre shooting night, but he didn’t turn it over once and held up fairly well on defense. Amazingly, as silly as I thought the signing looked when it happened, he looks like a proper 7th/8th man for a championship favorite.

Lastly, you could pretty easily boil this game down to the Lakers having a once-in-a-season horror show from downtown. The Lakers shot 5-of-37 from three, their second-worst three-point outing of the season, and posted an eFG% 3.4% lower than any other they’ve put up this season. (I will note that it’s somewhat alarming three of their five/four of their seven worst shooting performances this season have come in the bubble. Worth keeping an eye on in the first round, certainly.)

Oklahoma City contested a fair chunk of these, but the Lakers simply couldn’t make an open shot. Stats.NBA.com pegs them as 3 of 15 on three-point attempts where no defender was within six feet, which is about 2.5-3 makes below what you’d normally expect. Likewise, they were just 2 of 14 on threes where there was a defender within 4-6 feet – about 3 below their standards. That’s not likely to happen again, you’d imagine.

August 6: Phoenix Suns 114, Indiana Pacers 99

Similarly to our game above, this game was more meaningful for one team than it was for the other. However, the split wasn’t that wide, and both had real things to be playing for. The Pacers, with a win, would’ve been in a tie for the 4 seed with the Heat and would’ve critically distanced themselves by 1.5 games over the 6 seed 76ers. (I maintain that it’s probably better to fall to the 6 and draw the Celtics/Raptors than it would be to be the 4/5 and play the Bucks in the second round.) The Suns, meanwhile, have been the stunner of the bubble: they entered this game 3-0 in Orlando after being pegged with a bubble win total of 2.5 by Vegas. A win here would make them a serious playoff contender for the first time in ages.

In one of the most satisfying outcomes in recent NBA history, the Suns pulled off the biggest win the franchise has had since 2010, and it happened in genuinely shocking fashion. The Suns trailed 75-72 late in the third quarter, and Devin Booker had to go to the bench with four fouls. If the Suns were going to stay in this game, it would be behind a bench lineup with all of three minutes of experience playing together this season: Frank Kaminsky, Jevon Carter, Cameron Johnson (the lone starter), Dario Saric, and Cameron Payne. Out of nowhere, like a magical lightning bolt from Phoenix’s 115-degree heaven, came a 21-0 run that will be talked about for years if the Suns can grab the 9 seed:

When it was all over, the Suns led 93-75 in the fourth quarter and never looked back. Sure, they got good outings from Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton, as one would’ve hoped, but you never would’ve guessed that all of this would come because of Cameron Payne. Payne is on his fourth NBA team in five seasons, never able to latch on with any team for long at all. He bombed out of two awful squads in 2018-19 – the Bulls and the Cavaliers – and he only signed with the Suns as a mid-summer bench player because the Suns needed active bodies for what was thought to be a mostly pointless Orlando appearance. Barely eight months ago, Payne was playing for the Shanxi Loongs in China. On Thursday, with millions watching, he saved the Suns’ season in spectacular fashion:

Payne simply couldn’t be stopped. He had 15 points on 6-9 shooting (3-5 threes) and led the Suns’ backups to this victory. In a bubble filled with surprising performances thus far, this was the least rational and most purely enjoyable. With TJ Warren, Fred VanVleet, and Michael Porter, Jr.’s monstrous games, you could at least show that they’ve got histories of varying sorts of scoring plenty of points. Payne doesn’t have that. He’s never been a particularly good shooter or a good driver of the offense. And yet: on Thursday, there he was, dragging a Phoenix roster he wasn’t a part of pre-pandemic to a massive, massive win.

Aside from Payne, the big key here was how badly the Suns outworked the Pacers on the boards. The Suns won the offensive rebounding battle 12-5, and Dario Saric was demolishing the Pacers off of the bench to the tune of four OREBs:

It’s not a massive surprise, as the Pacers are one of the weakest rebounding teams in the league, but it’s not as if the Suns are particularly great at it. In fact, they ranked as a below-average offensive rebounding team this season. Didn’t matter: they dominated the boards in this one. Phoenix only got nine points off of their 12 OREBs, but five huge points came in the fourth quarter, including this Booker three that came from an Ayton OREB:

Two other keys: shot selection and play in transition. Phoenix took better shots on the whole, as they had 12 corner threes to the Pacers’ six, four more attempts at the rim, and four fewer long twos. That doesn’t look like much, but when you do that and get second opportunities, it adds up fast. The Pacers essentially would’ve had to heavily outshoot Phoenix on these tougher shots, and they didn’t. They scored well at the rim and made 10 of their 27 threes, but it didn’t make up for the poor shot selection.

There wasn’t much work in transition at all in this game; Cleaning the Glass estimates that the Pacers had just nine transition possessions and the Suns ten. However, you have to look at what each team did with said possessions: the Pacers scored just eight points on theirs. The Suns: seventeen.

These aren’t the Seven Seconds or Less Suns by any means, but when they play fast and loose, they’re a really, really fun watch. It’s not necessarily Devin Booker’s game to work that way – he’d rather do his stuff in half-court – but it does make them even more enjoyable as a viewing experience. It would be fair to call these Suns the surprise of the bubble, and the fact they’re the last undefeated team in the bubble when they entered with the lowest expectations of anyone not named the Wizards is simply wonderful. I sincerely hope they make the playoffs.

For the Pacers, this isn’t a terrible loss, but it’s a frustrating one that both showed their limitations and now places them in a battle for the 5 seed that they might prefer to lose. As mentioned above, they got demolished on the boards, and their shot selection simply wasn’t very good. 10 of 27 from three is solid, of course, but you’ve got to do better than 15 of 27 (55.6%) at the rim against a league-average rim defense. Also, I know it’s the Pacers’ game, but shooting 9 of 26 on mid-range attempts is just an offensive killer:

This, too, was against a middling defense. The Pacers simply seemed to resort to old, bad habits on several possessions, and you could make the case that it’s why they lost this game. It just wasn’t an impressive offensive showing in any fashion. However, this game was key for showing how important Malcolm Brogdon is to the Pacers’ offensive puzzle. 25 points on 16 shots and 4 of 7 from downtown is a great showing for a guy who’s had a rough year on shots that weren’t mid-range looks:

He took the best shots of any starter and, for long stretches, kept the Pacers in the game offensively. On the other side of the ball, it was Myles Turner who kept this game running for Indiana. He had a fine all-around performance: 17 points, eight rebounds, three blocks, and a steal, along with allowing opponents to go just 8 for 18 against him. The Suns had success at the rim no matter what, but it was notable that they went 7 of 9 at the rim when Turner was on the bench.

Two last things: this game was useful for seeing how badly the Pacers need TJ Warren to be an every-night presence. It took him forever to get his first points in this game and he never really got going, putting up 16 points on 20 shots + two free throws. He had a heck of a time figuring out how to finish at the rim:

And couldn’t hit anything from downtown. It wasn’t his night, and a Pacers team missing their best player in Sabonis really needs Warren to limit these nights as much as possible. The margin for error for a playoff run is very thin, and nights like this one push it over the edge. It helped that Warren was solid enough on defense, but it wasn’t nearly enough to make up for his bad offensive outing.

Likewise, this game showed how badly the Pacers need Doug McDermott, of all people. McDermott was a late scratch for this game. As the Pacers’ second-best bench player, he does provide a lot of good offensive minutes that help limit how much his porous defense affects his value. Without McDermott, there was no real offensive firepower to speak of from the bench, and as such, the bench had an atrocious game. The Pacers simply cannot play Goga Bitadze any serious minutes in a playoff game; he is a disaster on offense, and he had an unusually bad night on defense. The Pacers do have about nine playable guys in their rotation, but if they encounter serious foul trouble or more injuries, they’ll have to extend that rotation to play a Bitadze or Edmond Sumner or T.J. Leaf, none of which are any good. Without Sabonis and Jeremy Lamb, the ceiling on this Pacers team is already limited; now, all they can do is hope to see the second round.

Restart Reviews: Raptors/Heat; Nuggets/Thunder; Rockets/Blazers

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. The goal is to post these three times a week, with this week’s edition(s) likely featuring multiple games in each. There will be GIFs, stats, and all of the general moods and feelings you likely expect by clicking on this site. I hope you enjoy.

To skip ahead to a different game, click below:

August 3: Toronto Raptors 107, Miami Heat 103

The Eastern Conference has been considered a one-team race for most of the last…seven? months, and it’s not difficult to see why. The Milwaukee Bucks crushed competition for most of the season, had easily the best margin of victory in the league, and will be the East’s #1 seed when the playoffs start. (An embarrassing loss to a putrid Brooklyn team yesterday will not change this.) However, there seems to be growing momentum to declare this a two-team race for the Finals, and I’d like to sign on to the Toronto Raptors having a serious chance to pull off the repeat.

Off the back of a hilarious and insane 36-point Fred VanVleet performance, the Raptors survived a game where they didn’t get many shots up and allowed several wide-open threes in the fourth quarter to the Heat. It wasn’t easy, but it’s just the latest statement by this incredibly fun Toronto team: they’re a legitimate title contender, and not just a dark-horse one. For this particular statement, they had a great day from downtown and owned the game defensively.

The story of this one will be VanVleet’s wild 36-point performance, though this was aided by 13 free throws. VanVleet has essentially always been a good value and a pretty consistent player, but he’s never had quite this level of a scoring performance. He did good work on defense, making it a memorable and great two-way performance for the beloved Wichita State product.

On the whole, this was kind of a strange offensive game for the Raptors. They did several things they don’t usually do, like commit a bunch of silly turnovers:

They had an awful game inside the perimeter, making just 10 of 23 attempts at the rim:

But: they took advantage of their few transition opportunities, and the non-VanVleet players shot 9-for-20 from three. It was a great day from downtown, and any time you can push the pace in an effective manner like the Raptors did, it’s a good day. This was also a quietly very good Pascal Siakam outing. Siakam scored 10 of his 22 in the first and wasn’t the driver of the offense in the second half, but he hit four of his seven threes:

And he also did a great job defensively when called upon. Stats.NBA.com notes that he held his Miami opponents to just 2-for-9 from the field on two-pointers, a very good rate.

For the Heat, this is a tough loss to take for a myriad of reasons. They took a lot of threes they’d normally love to take, but simply didn’t hit them. They had the advantage of a really good rim protection game, holding Toronto to just 10-of-23, but gave up 32 threes – many of them unguarded – in return. Lastly, and most damaging, they are no longer a likely contender for the 3 seed. This probably locks Miami into the 4-6 range, and at this point, it would be hard to blame them for hoping to fall to 6 simply so they can go two rounds without having to play the Bucks.

However, if Miami even wants to get to a second or third round, they’ve simply got to get much more from Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn on a nightly basis. Robinson may sit as the best value in basketball at just $1.4 million and is a phenomenal shooter, but when he’s off like he was in this game, he doesn’t offer much more to keep him on the court:

Likewise, pretty good rookie Kendrick Nunn went 0-for-7 from the field and committed four fouls, which kept him glued to the bench. If Nunn, a 35.8% three-point shooter on the season (the league average is 35.7%), can’t hit these, teams like the Bucks and Raptors will rightfully take their chances in sagging off from him on the perimeter.

Nunn even posted a steal and two blocks in his 16 minutes, but it still wasn’t enough to get him on the court for more than a minute in the final quarter. (Robinson didn’t play at all, giving up his time entirely to Tyler Herro.) Those two performances didn’t single-handedly lose it for the Heat, but they helped sink the boat. It’s a shame, because the Heat may have wasted one of the few vintage Goran Dragic performances the guy has left in him.

Dragic scratched and clawed his way to an amazing 25-point outing, going 5-for-5 at the rim and being a supercharger for the Miami offense that felt so moribund for the first 30 minutes of this game. With Dragic on the court, the Heat outscored the Raptors by 13 points in his 15 second-half minutes; without him, they were outscored by 13 in his 9 minutes on the bench. Every single second he played mattered, and he flashed some of his old defensive skills, too. It was like watching 2013-15 Dragic again, remembering all of the joy he’s still able to provide when on fire.

Likewise, it was an even more rare Great Outing for Kelly Olynyk:

Olynyk made four of his 11 three-point attempts and helped keep the offense moving, especially in the otherwise-ugly first half where he was the Heat’s leading scorer. Olynyk won’t get more than 18-20 minutes a night in most playoff games, but it’s nights like these why he gets that many minutes to begin with.

Two final notes:

1. On the individual front, Jimmy Butler had a phenomenal defensive game. He wasn’t much for the other side of the ball, but any time you force opponents to shoot 0-for-8 against you and pick up two steals and two blocks, you’re doing something right. It’s not in this GIF, but he was also the only player to slow VanVleet down for any meaningful amount of time.

2. Miami had an alright defensive game, but they’ve got to be much more consistent in terms of contesting outside shots. When they contested hard, the Raptors’ offense struggled mightily, converting just 5-of-22 attempts. When they left the Raps more open, it was kind of ugly: 24-for-45 from the field, including 7-for-11 for Siakam and 7-for-12 for VanVleet, mostly on threes. Their playoff ceiling depends on being a tad bit better on this end of the floor.

NEXT PAGE: Nuggets/Thunder

Restart Reviews: Magic/Nets; 76ers/Pacers; Spurs/Grizzlies

Welcome to a new series on Stats By Will titled Restart Reviews, where I’ll be discussing a game from the previous day or two and going in-depth on its result. The goal is to post these three times a week, with next week’s edition(s) likely featuring multiple games in each. There will be GIFs, stats, and all of the general moods and feelings you likely expect by clicking on this site. I hope you enjoy.

July 31: Orlando Magic 128, Brooklyn Nets 118

Friday’s fixture is the least exciting of these three games. The Orlando Magictook control of this game midway through the second quarter, pushed their lead to as many as 30, and coasted as the Nets (read: Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot) hit a bunch of shots after the outcome was decided. However, the first half of this game – in particular, the wildly fun first quarter – was pretty great stuff! For about 15 minutes, this game was an offensive show between the surprisingly white-hot Magic:

And the Brooklyn Nets:

In the first quarter, the Nets posted an astounding 1.5 points per possession; the Magic, 1.39. The Nets were hitting everything in sight, and the combo of Caris LeVert (17 pts, 7 assists) and Jarrett Allen (14 points) had things rolling. The Nets’ main lineup stayed fairly strong, posting a 1.217 PPP on 23 possessions in the game and coming out at just -4 in about 11 minutes of action.

Nothing perfect, obviously, but when the rest of your team is very much a work in progress, you take what you can get. The Nets’ offense looked better than I think anyone would’ve anticipated, getting a lot of good looks and hitting a decent amount of them. On a normal defensive night, their offensive outing may have been enough to deliver a win. The issue: every single defensive lineup Brooklyn tried got smoked by an out-of-nowhere white-hot Orlando offense.

The Nets let the Magic convert 16 of 19 attempts at the rim, and very few of them felt seriously challenged. With no DeAndre Jordan or Taurean Waller-Prince and Jarrett Allen only getting 26 minutes, the Nets spent a large portion of this game without any serious rim protection solutions on the court. Allen is a solid defensive player, but he’s the only true center the Nets have on the active roster. When he hits the bench, it’s very, very easy to score on this team in the paint.

Along with that, they had pretty much no answer for the Magic’s ball-screen game. The Magic run various sets with Nikola Vucevic as the roll man and any of Evan Fournier/Markelle Fultz/D.J. Augustin running off of his picks. They’re typically moderately successful when running them – nothing spectacular – but the Nets couldn’t stop any of it at all in this one, no matter whether it was Fournier stepping back for a wide-open three:

Or Vucevic rolling off of the action for an easy two:

The Nets’ only fix for this, at least temporarily, is either to hope that Jarrett Allen can play 35+ minutes in important games or that there’s some sort of small-ball lineup that could work for long enough to give Allen some form of rest. Allen is not the most nimble player, but he’s pretty good at forcing opponents to pull up before the rim and offers a good amount of skills on both sides of the ball.

The Nets could do this with a couple weird lineups: LeVert and Joe Harris both have to be out there, as does Garrett Temple. If he’s hitting shots, you can play Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. Then, pick whoever you dislike least among Rodions Kurucs and Dzanan Musa. A lineup with four of those plus Tyler Johnson went for 21 points in 16 possessions in this game! Either way, the Nets are likely to get dismissed from the first round of the playoffs very quickly, and any scenario where they draw the Bucks makes it very hard to envision them winning even one game.

On the other hand, the Magic have looked oddly excellent through two wins against the Nets and the Kings. I don’t think anyone thinks this team can win a playoff series, but this small sample size aids me in remembering why I thought they’d be a potential 5-6 seed in preseason. When the Magic hit shots the way they did in this one, the offense makes more sense. Any Steve Clifford-coached team is a fairly reliable choice to play above their means defensively and make life a little harder on opponents, but the Magic offense had been a brutal watch this season. It’s possible they’ve blown two amazing performances in games that aren’t the playoffs, but hey, better late than never. I don’t think the shooting here is sustainable, but getting to the paint as often as they did, along with their low turnovers, are. If they find a way to sustain this offensive run, this is a team capable of pushing a 2 seed to a six-game series.

August 1: Indiana Pacers 127, Philadelphia 76ers 121

A game that probably ranked third on my personal radar ended up being the best on Saturday. For all 48 minutes, Sixers/Pacers was close and furious, a battle between a known star and a wildly hot role player en route to a game far higher scoring than anyone had the right to anticipate. Like, think about it this way: if someone told you Myles Turner and Victor Oladipo would only play 50 minutes and combine for 30 points, would you have expected the Pacers to have any chance at all in this game?

Enter T.J. Warren.

Warren had the game of a lifetime, scoring 53 points on 29 shots and hitting shots from everywhere on the court. It was one of the most shocking, unreal performances I’ve seen in years. Warren scored on every single defender the 76ers tried, and God forgive them for probably having him third on the list of potential Pacer threats. No Sabonis, no Brogdon, no problem; Warren was roasting Ben Freaking Simmons every single time the two were matched up to the tune of a 9-for-10 shooting performance against him. (Versus everyone else: a still-fantastic 11-for-19.)

No other Indiana player really stood out, though Aaron Holiday had some really good plays, including this nice pass to Warren (who else?) for a layup:

There’s not as much that you can take from this game for the Pacers, other than the phenomenal Warren outing. Victor Oladipo was mostly a decoy in this one, though he did get 14 shots up; Myles Turner only played 20 minutes; Sabonis and Brogdon were unavailable. JaKarr Sampson and T.J. Leaf combined for 28 minutes of playing time, which should not happen in any non-blowout playoff game. You can’t take much from the shooting outing, really; it was mostly Warren-driven, and the non-Warren three-point attempts had a 5-for-22 success rate.

There was simply much more at risk and at stake for the 76ers. This Philadelphia team, from July 2019 to now, has always had the level of talent necessary to make a deep run in the playoffs. They have one of the five best rosters in the league, the second-best roster in the Eastern Conference, and, had they figured things out from October to March, be in a fairly comfortable position right now. Nothing at all is comfortable for this team. Joel Embiid had an amazing performance, with 41 points and 21 rebounds:

But it didn’t matter, because the team around him is a chemistry experiment gone wrong. Embiid roasted Shake Milton in-game during Milton’s first-ever start for a defensive lapse and it predictably went very well:

The 76ers gave up 127 points in 103 possessions and gave up 53 points to a player who’d never scored more than 40 in a game before. T.J. Warren is a good player, but he’s no star, and any time you give up 50+ to a non-star, you’ve got a real problem. This team has never looked together at any point, and now, they’re staring down being the 6 seed in a conference they hoped to be co-favorites in at the start of the season. The disparity between the On-Paper Philadelphia 76ers and the In-Game Philadelphia 76ers is as stark as any I can personally recall.

In this game in particular, the Sixers owned the boards, got an amazing 90 combined points from Embiid, Simmons, and Tobias Harris, and it was all meaningless because they lost the turnover battle by 11:

When you do stuff like this, it’s not gonna be a fun time.

That said, there were some small positives to take away. The Embiid performance was fantastic, and it’s always great to get offensive outings like the Sixers got from Harris and Simmons. (Simmons may seem like a strange inclusion here, given that he scored 19 on 14 shots, but he also picked up four offensive boards and had four assists. It was a good night for him on one end of the floor.) The main two lineups the Sixers ran out featuring Josh Richardson/Embiid/Harris/Simmons went for 53 points in 44 possessions (1.204 PPP) and got a ton of good looks.

Shake Milton’s much-hyped inclusion into the starting lineup went…okay. Milton didn’t do anything in terms of scoring, but he did create more offensive space for the Sixers, and it showed:

That said, he’s probably the worst defender on Philadelphia’s roster, and any time he was in, Indiana looked to target him with various options. Milton’s opponents shot 7-for-10 against him to the tune of 18 points, which is why he only played 19 minutes and didn’t see the court a ton in the fourth quarter. Until he picks up his defensive game to match what he can provide offensively, there’s not going to be an ideal solution available for this team.

Unless the new Big Three of Embiid/Harris/Simmons can consistently Be There every night, there is no possible deep run for this team. They have somehow aged Al Horford five years in one, have no serious bench depth to be proud of, and seem to be running the same offensive sets they’ve ran the entire Brett Brown era. (I finally understand Philadelphia fans’ frustration with him.) When Embiid was on the court in this one, the Sixers were +21 in his 34 minutes; you’d think this would be an easy win. They were -27 in 14 minutes when Embiid was benched. That sort of disparity should never happen to a serious contender. This isn’t a serious contender, unless we’re talking “serious contender to win one playoff series.”

August 2: San Antonio Spurs 108, Memphis Grizzlies 106

Most of the way through, the Spurs controlled this one, and it felt like they were consistently on their way to a 5-8 point win. Then, the Grizzlies got hot at the right time, and suddenly, after this amazing Jaren Jackson Jr. heave of a three, it was 106-106.

Regrettably for the Grizzlies, though, they couldn’t push this to overtime. DeMar DeRozan drew a foul from Dillon Brooks, hit both free throws, and Jackson missed a three at the buzzer to end this one. San Antonio is somehow 2-0 and Memphis 0-2 in the bubble, and now, it’s San Antonio that’s in the seat for the 9 seed. A team that most had written off pre-Orlando may yet extend its eternity-long postseason streak another year; in the strangest year of all, continuity reigns supreme.

For Memphis, this is the loss that isn’t a big deal but probably should feel like it. It’s pretty likely, barring a Pelicans run, that Memphis will end up playing one of San Antonio or Portland in the Western Conference play-in tournament. For them to have lost to both teams in the first two games of their bubble experience is fairly troubling. In both games, the opponent mostly controlled the run of play, though Memphis did hold multiple-possession leads in the third and fourth quarter of the Portland game. The Portland game was a better offensive outing; the San Antonio game better for defense. Neither was enough to get them over the hump, and now, the Grizzlies have to find a few wins against a really tough schedule: the Pellies, Jazz, Thunder, Raptors, Celtics, and Bucks all remain. A 2-4 run among those six is the most likely outcome, and a 2-6 start in the bubble could possibly lose them the 8 seed.

Anyway, Ja Morant was positively fantastic in this game.

Morant was the best player on the court, nearly nabbing a triple-double with 25 points, 9 rebounds, and 9 assists. The only person who slowed Ja down in this one were the players missing shots from his passes. A top-level Morant performance will be absolutely necessary in any Grizz play-in game, as will be high-end outings from Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke (who was kind of bad in this one).

Memphis shot just 7-of-30 from three in this one; even one additional make would’ve won it for them. I wouldn’t be as worried at the percentage here as I would be worried that they didn’t take a high percentage of them in the first place. JJJ, who had 15 attempts against Portland, only had three deep shots in this game prior to the final 15 seconds. The team’s leading presence from three was Grayson Allen of all people, who had a rare good performance:

They can’t rely on that to happen often. JJJ needs to be more aggressive from downtown, as he’s probably the team’s best three-point shooter. Another area where he, and the Grizzlies as a whole, have got to be better: the boards.

I mean, it’s brutal. The Grizzlies got worked on the boards in this one, allowing 12 OREBs to barely picking up three themselves. Jackson, Jr. is not a good rebounder, and it’s not his game, but the team as a whole badly needs to find a solution here before their season ends earlier than they’d like it to. It’s not as if the Spurs are even a great rebounding team, but they had possessions like this one today that had to be infuriating for Memphis lovers:

Far from ideal, certainly.

For the Spurs, this is a weird win they’ll take. They didn’t shoot well and they lost the turnover battle, but as detailed above, they got far more second-chance opportunities and got 15 more free throws despite significantly fewer close-range attempts. (Grizzlies fans could have an issue here, but I’d have to run a rewatch to make sure.) However, they simply can’t take as many long-range twos as they took in this one. San Antonio took an astounding 23 long two-point attempts, hitting only nine of them. They hit 12 of 29 three-point attempts. Why not take a few more threes instead? It’ll help them overcome nights where they aren’t doing quite as well on the boards or in free throw disparity.

Also, I was pretty intrigued by how well San Antonio stuffed a lot of what Memphis wanted to do in this game. Memphis had to take 26 short-range twos, AKA shots that aren’t layups or dunks but also aren’t 15+ footers. These aren’t terrible shots, but I was impressed that the Spurs forced Memphis to take far more of these than they probably wanted. They hit 15, so that’s tough for the Spurs…but then again, San Antonio contested a lot of Memphis three-point attempts and held them to a 7-of-30 outing. It worked out fine in the end.

Restart Reviews: Jazz/Pelicans, July 30

Welcome to a new series on Stats By Will titled Restart Reviews, where I’ll be discussing a game from the previous day or two and going in-depth on its result. The goal is to post these three times a week, with next week’s edition(s) likely featuring multiple games in each. There will be GIFs, stats, and all of the general moods and feelings you likely expect by clicking on this site. I hope you enjoy.

With six seconds left in last night’s game between the Jazz and the Pelicans, there was only one question on everyone’s mind watching: where is Zion Williamson? The young, special forward from Duke played 15 minutes, scoring 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting, and any time he was on the court, the New Orleans offense looked significantly better than when he was off. In Zion’s game time, he scored 13 of the Pelicans’ 30 points, and it was difficult to slow him down at any point.

But: New Orleans left him off the floor for the most important play of the game, Brandon Ingram (23 points) missed a step-back three, and New Orleans lost a badly-needed game, 106-104. This one felt especially painful, because New Orleans led by as many as 16 and controlled the flow of the game for most of the first 3.5 quarters. Considering how efficient Zion was, and how New Orleans is at their best when he plays, it didn’t make a ton of sense to leave him out for the finish, minutes restriction or not. After the game, Alvin Gentry said they played him as much as the medical staff allowed, which is a fine and acceptable answer. At the same time, I would imagine Alvin Gentry wants a job in 2021. Zion could’ve played six more seconds.

The Jazz struggled to slow down Zion, obviously, but the two-headed monster of Brandon Ingram and Jrue Holiday both scored plenty, too:

The issue here is that neither was particular efficient. Holiday was a tad better, getting to 20 points on 9-of-18 shooting, but he also committed six turnovers against a Jazz defense that isn’t exactly aggressive on the perimeter. Ingram, meanwhile, got to 23 points on the back of seven free throws and a middling 7-of-20 outing. Ingram never seemed to find his consistent stroke either from the perimeter (2-of-8) of from mid-range (3-of-9); the Jazz tried to force him away from the rim, and it mostly worked. The most surprising outing in this game Pelicans-wise was a fantastic offensive outing by J.J. Redick (21 points):

Redick flashed his typical deep-shooting skills in this one, especially in transition, but he was solid in mid-range, too. With three guys scoring 20+ points and Zion performing excellently in limited time, it did feel like the Pelicans were going to steal this one. Enter Lonzo Ball, who had one of his worst games since his rookie season:

It was kind of a strange night: Lonzo got several good shots, including a couple of wide-open threes, that just didn’t go down. If it had just been that, you could shrug it off and move on…but Lonzo was also atrocious at the rim. Ball missed four layup attempts in this one, clearly influenced by Utah’s stout rim protection with Rudy Gobert, who we’ll talk about shortly. Shooters shoot, obviously, but considering Ball missed both of his free throw attempts in this one, it might have been a night for him to lay back.

For the Jazz, it was their own sort of strange night, too. When I wrote my NBA Restart preview last week, I mentioned that the Jazz had serious issues with outshooting other teams, but failing to win because they lose the shot volume game frequently. Utah doesn’t force many turnovers, has turnover issues themselves, and has quietly not been a great rebounding team offensively. They’ve been very reliant this year on hitting threes to get them over the top on bad shot volume nights, and when they go 8-of-34 from deep as they did in this one, you’re probably right to expect a loss. Add on that Utah actually did lose the shot volume game (-5.5 shot equivalents) and it’s a miracle they won.

Well, they did! The reason is fairly simple, and also not, but let’s start with the most obvious factor: free throws. The Jazz got ten more attempts than New Orleans despite having roughly the same amount of rim/short-range attempts. You could argue that New Orleans got a couple fewer calls than they should have, and I’d hear it out, but it felt as if Utah was simply more aggressive for large stretches of the game:

That, along with some fantastic half-court defense, earned Utah the victory. New Orleans demolished Utah’s weak transition defense in this one, outscoring the Jazz 27-10 in transition. On a normal night, that probably would’ve been enough to get them over the hump, even if they’d just been below-average on offense. The issue: the Jazz crushed their half-court offense, and won the half-court battle 96-77. That’s a big deal, and it helped Utah pull this one off, in large part thanks to a fantastic fourth-quarter effort by Donovan Mitchell:

Mitchell was electric down the stretch, and it’s the most in-control he’s felt of an important game in some time. Everything ran through him, and with Bojan Bogdanovic being out the rest of the way, this seems like the obvious way most late-game Jazz possessions will go. It’ll be Mitchell taking the shot or attempting to create a wide-open one for someone else that he trusts. It’s more than a little funny we’re treating a third-year player as the wise old leader that knows best, but, well, here we are.

Mitchell wasn’t very good in the first three quarters of this game, though, and someone needed to pick up the scoring slack. Surprisingly, it was Jordan Clarkson catching fire off the bench, especially in the third quarter:

Clarkson got 23 points on 17 shots and may have been Utah’s third-best player in this one. Joe Ingles had a pretty middling game, committing five turnovers; Royce O’Neale rebounded well but had a rough night from three; Mike Conley scored 20 but struggled frequently on defense. It was up to Clarkson to deliver, and he did. Notably, Clarkson played as many minutes as the starters with 32; for a large portion of this game, the Jazz ran with a six-man rotation, and the only guys to get serious second-half playing time were Tony Bradley and Georges Niang, both out of necessity. We’ll have to monitor that going forward.

The last reason the Jazz won this game, and a very key one: Rudy Gobert.

Some of this won’t show up in the stats, and some will, but it was Gobert who consistently saved Utah’s bacon throughout this game. Not only did he have a 10-point effort in the fourth quarter, he was Utah’s best rebounder defensively (unsurprisingly!) and came up with three blocks and a whole bunch of altered shots. If you’d like his impact spelled out, think of it this way: Utah, playing against a team without a true rim protector (Jaxson Hayes comes closest, but is too young and raw), converted 21 of 28 attempts at the rim. New Orleans, playing against Rudy Gobert for 34 minutes, converted 15 of 30. Breaking it down further, New Orleans converted 6 of 8 attempts at the rim during Gobert’s absence; they were just 9 of 22 when he played.

Other various pieces of discussion:

  • Neither team had fantastic shot selection, but it did feel as if Utah got the upper hand. 62 of their 84 field goal attempts were at the rim or from three; 61 of New Orleans’ 94 were. That said, New Orleans did hit 6 of their 15 long-range twos. If I were the Pelicans, I’d try to get a bit closer on those, and to be honest, there’s no reason J.J. Redick should be taking them when he could just take threes instead. (Brandon Ingram takes a lot of these, but he’s been pretty good at nailing them.)
  • Of real interest to me was that New Orleans did a bit better than anticipated on the boards, especially when Jaxson Hayes was in the game. Hayes picked up a crazy 5 OREBs in just 19 minutes of action and crushed the Utah frontcourt during his time out there. If Hayes can develop more of an offensive game to go with this particular skillset, he’ll have a long career, as he’s already become an above-average defender.

  • There’s something interesting to how badly New Orleans demolished Utah by in transition. The Jazz had one of the worst transition defenses in the NBA before the pandemic hit, ranking 27th in PPP allowed. The Pelicans aren’t a particularly efficient offense, but they got a lot of open looks against a Jazz D that struggled to properly get back. (Note the Redick three posted above.) I don’t know that the Pellies can do this against the Clippers in their next game, but they’ll have similar opportunities to push the pace to great success against Washington, San Antonio, and maybe Memphis.
  • Per stats.nba.com, the Pelicans’ pace when Zion was in the game was barely 90 possessions per 48 minutes…which is extremely slow for an offense that should be speeding things up whenever Zion is playing.
  • The Baby Death Lineup the Pelicans had struggled in this one, getting outscored 24-13 in 16 possessions due to missing some easy short-range looks and the Jazz targeting this lineup at the rim. The Jazz also hit 4 of 6 threes against it, which is difficult to repeat, but does highlight that this lineup isn’t infallible. That said, still easily the best thing the Pelicans have going.

The NBA is back. What’s the most interesting thing about each team?

After what feels like years in the wilderness, basketball is returning. It is coming up from the ground…belting out of every speaker…on every television, basketball is coming back. Okay, that’s a bit far, I’ll admit, but as a writer that mostly writes about basketball and its statistics, these last four months without it have been a bit tiring. I’ve missed my good friend, and I’m glad they’re back in town.

Below, there’s a ton of words about the NBA restart. The headline sums it up: what’s the most interesting thing about each team? This is not what’s the best player on each team, but rather: what’s the most interesting, unique, weird thing about each team? It helps if it’s statistically-based, which just about everything here is. I’ve included GIFs for each entry, all 22 of them, and I plan on writing deeper about all 22 teams at various points of the restart. For now, consider this a primer to a whole lot of content coming forward soon. Thanks for hanging with me, friends.

On this page are the 1-4 seeds as they stand in the Eastern Conference. To skip ahead, you can click below:

Eastern Conference

1. Milwaukee Bucks (53-12): Khris Middleton’s midrange game

While most of the attention deservedly goes to the best player in the NBA, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the second-best player on the Bucks has been one of the league’s 15 best players for a couple of years now. Khris Middleton plays a distinct second banana to the star Giannis, but the Bucks wouldn’t be the Bucks without him. This is maybe Middleton’s finest outing yet: a 21.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG season where he’s shooting 54.7% from two and 41.8% from three. Add that onto his well-deserved reputation as a stout defender, and you can understand the hype for a player who’d be the best player on over half the teams in the league.

What helps Middleton stand out? The fact that, at age 28, he’s quietly become a premier mid-range shooter in a league that’s moved away from the mid-range as a whole. Middleton is shooting an astounding 52.3% on mid-range attempts this season, second only to Chris Paul among players with at least three mid-range attempts per game. (The top five: Paul, Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, C.J. McCollum, and D’Angelo Russell.) Like Paul, what stands out about Middleton is his capability of making them in nearly any situation. He’s made 31 of 52 fadeaway two-point attempts:

20 of 42 step-backs:

And 59 of 99 pull-up twos, many of them coming out of pick-and-roll sets like this one:

While Giannis is likely a guarantee to post 30 and 10 most nights in the bubble, the Bucks’ fortunes will swing based on how well Middleton can provide a reliable second option to Giannis. In losses this season, Middleton has made just 34.7% of his mid-range attempts and has posted 47.1% 2PT/37.1% 3PT shooting splits, versus 56.5% 2PT/43.7% 3PT in wins. For the Bucks to fulfill their work over the first five months of this season, it’s on Middleton to be the same top 15 player he’s been for two years now.

2. Toronto Raptors (46-18): How many corner threes can a team allow?

The Toronto Raptors have been one of the most pleasant surprises of the season. After Kawhi Leonard’s departure in free agency for Los Angeles, they had to try and make their roster still work in a somewhat-diminished Eastern Conference. At the beginning of the season, the East was largely thought to be a two-team race between Milwaukee and Philadelphia, with Boston and Toronto fighting it out for third/fourth. Milwaukee, Boston, and Toronto have held up their end of the bargain; Philadelphia hasn’t. It’s been because of Toronto’s great defense, ranking second-best by Defensive Rating because they force lots of turnovers and have done a great job making life difficult for opponents at the rim.

That said, they’ve got a really baffling thing going on with their three-point defense. No team has forced a lower opposing three-point percentage than Toronto, but no team has allowed a higher percentage of corner three-point attempts. At least with Milwaukee’s large amount of threes allowed, 80.3% of them have been from the wings or the point – less statistically advantageous shots on the whole. No team has come close to the Raps in terms of corner threes allowed; the distance from Toronto’s 30.9% of all three-point attempts to second-place Houston (25.6%) is nearly the same as the distance from Houston to 16th-place Orlando (20.2%).

This hasn’t borne itself out in terms of a win/loss split as much; opponents make 33.3% of their threes in Toronto’s wins versus 34.9% in losses. Still, there’s a huge opportunity available for good-shooting opponents. In particular, the Raps are 0-2 against current 4 seed Miami, who got tons of open looks in both games against Toronto:

I don’t see this affecting Toronto much in the first round, but the second – where the Raps could draw any of Boston (12th in 3PT%), Miami (1st), Indiana (13th), or Philadelphia (14th) – could be the first time a problem presents itself.

3. Boston Celtics (43-21): Robert Williams and his stocks

As a loose Weird Celtics Twitter follower – shoutout to the Riffs Man – I have become quite familiar with one Robert Williams, AKA Time Lord. Williams has been a bit player for the Celtics for a couple of years now, a guy who probably would’ve had a better career had he been born in 1987 and not 1997. (6’8″, 237 pound centers that can’t shoot past ten feet…well, they simply don’t fit the 2020 model.) Williams is fairly efficient the 10-15 minutes a game he sees the floor, but he commits six fouls per 100 possessions, makes a ton of avoidable mistakes, and can never stay on for very long.

It is with all those qualifiers that I have to note he’s the single most fascinating swing player on this roster to me. When Williams gets in the game, he’s been a defensive dynamo: 3 steals and 4.2 blocks per 100 possessions, a +4.4 Defensive Box-Plus Minus, the best steal rate for any frontcourt player in the league, and the third-best block rate among players getting 10+ minutes per game. It is really, really hard to find big guys that can do this:

And this:

Before the pandemic hit, Williams was getting anywhere from 10 to 16 minutes a game, and in his final four games, he committed six fouls in 54 minutes played. Far from ideal. BUT: he also blocked seven shots, got three steals, and frequently made plays that made you wonder why he doesn’t play more often.

Of all the players I could pick to be interested in, the Celtics’ 10th/11th man is certainly an odd choice. But he’s a really bizarre odd choice, isn’t he?

4. Miami Heat (41-24): Can Duncan Robinson’s threes make up for Duncan Robinson’s defense?

If you’ve known me for any length of time, you probably know that I lend my fan support to a pair of college basketball programs: Tennessee and Michigan. I graduated from Tennessee so that’s an obvious pick, but I also like Michigan because my dad went there and, to be honest, they were more interesting for most of my youth. Anyway, that’s a long way of saying that I watched probably 80% of Duncan Robinson’s games during his time at Michigan. He was a fantastic shooter, especially in spot-up situations, and was a very good bench player for the Wolverines. At no point during Duncan Robinson’s time at Michigan did I think he’d have any future in the NBA, much less a future as an NBA starter on one of the league’s best teams.

Well, here we are! Robinson started in 60 of Miami’s first 65 games, gets more minutes per game than everyone not named Bam Adebayo or Jimmy Butler, and has somehow became the most lethal spot-up shooter in the entire freaking league.

Robinson hits 44.8% of his threes on 8.4 attempts per game, which is crazy high. Only James Harden and Buddy Hield have made more threes this season, and Robinson’s attempted considerably fewer threes than both players. It’s unreal how great of a shooter he is, especially when every opponent knows he’s Miami’s main threat from downtown:

Robinson really does have a future in the NBA, regardless of if he can play on both sides of the ball. A slight issue with his immediate future: he isn’t a positive force yet on defense. Robinson’s -0.9 Defensive EPM ranks in the 30th percentile of the league, and Heat opponents have worked to get him in negative situations. Evan Fournier blows by Robinson pretty easily for a reverse layup here:

Robinson isn’t outrageously bad on defense, but opponents shoot 6.1% better than their normal average against him from two. He’s done a solid enough job sticking with guys on the perimeter, but it’ll be on Erik Spoelstra and the Heat to keep him out of matchups where he’s at an athletic disadvantage.