Restart Reviews: Blazers/Nets

August 13: Portland Trail Blazers 134, Brooklyn Nets 133

When I said this last night:

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

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

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

But: Damian Lillard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet: Damian Lillard.

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

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

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

Restart Reviews: 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.