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.