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.