Restart Reviews: Clippers/Mavericks; Celtics/Raptors

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

August 6: Los Angeles Clippers 126, Dallas Mavericks 111

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 7: Boston Celtics 122, Toronto Raptors 100

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restart Reviews: 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