Restart Reviews: Mavericks/Clippers, Game 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving on. Let’s talk about Luka:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restart Reviews: Blazers/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: 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.