- Monday night at the United Center was a great all around performance from the Bulls, who clawed their way to a 92-89 victory over the San Antonio Spurs. No singular performance had an overwhelming influence on the outcome of this game, with no Bull scoring more than 18 points. But with five players in double figures, a balanced offensive attack did the trick against the NBA’s best defense on a per possession basis.
- The story of the game was the great play off the Chicago bench. All four Bulls to enter the game after the opening tip finished with a positive plus/minus rating, with Joakim Noah and Doug McDermott leading the way at +10 each. This was especially impressive considering the skill of San Antonio’s bench, shouted out Tuesday morning by Zach Lowe as one of the best in the league.
- Noah, in just 23 minutes of action, had himself a throwback performance that makes me wonder if he’s finally trusting himself again on the offensive end. Noah scored eight points on 4/6 shooting. This game marked only the fifth time this season Joakim attempted six or more shots, and the first time he hit more than half of them. All of Noah’s shots were through traffic deep in the paint, a place he has struggled to find his touch lately. Hopefully this performance, coupled with the brief spurt of offense in the win over the Trail Blazers, is a sign of good things to come.
- Noah dished out seven assists Monday night, tying his season high. And according to NBA.com, he was also responsible for three additional secondary assists. While Noah is never going to be a polished scorer in the NBA, the mere willingness to look for his own shot has a tremendous impact on his teammates. When defenses know that Joakim is not even thinking of shooting, his man sags off him, clogging passing and driving lanes for everybody else. But when Joakim shows he’s not afraid to take it to the hoop, the Bulls spacing is much improved. Noah has dished out five or more dimes in five games this season, with each game featuring at least five field goal attempts from the big man.
- The Bulls were severely shorthanded at guard with Aaron Brooks and Kirk Hinrich both nursing injuries that sidelined them Monday. Thankfully, E’Twaun Moore was able to contribute 17 solid minutes behind Derrick Rose. Moore is a chunky defender who smartly uses his body to contain point guards and wings. He lacks the ability to facilitate the offense, but he managed to shoot 3/6 from the field and only turned the ball over once. Why it took injuries to two inferior players for Moore to be dubbed the backup is a mystery, and I hope his role remains in tact even when the Bulls return to full health.
- Doug McDermott’s +10 was very exciting, considering his on/off numbers have been abysmal a month into the season. McDermott did most of his damage during a hot run in the second quarter where he scored ten of his twelve points. Doug was 1/2 from three, and knocked down a couple of tough runners in the lane, a shot he has consistently hit all season. More impressive than the offense was Doug’s solid defensive performance. McDermott did not do his typical “chicken with its head cut off” routine off the ball on defense. Instead, he operated within the scheme and managed to do the small things that were required of him.
- Pau Gasol’s 18 points and 13 rebounds earned him player of the game honors, but his 18 points came on an inefficient 24 shooting possessions. While he wasn’t victimized horribly by guards racing by him to the rim, he was mostly unable to recover to Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge, sacrificing quite a few wide open jump shots. Aldridge was 10/18 from the field and was able to get off open shots seemingly whenever he wanted.
- Derrick Rose had another disappointing game, shooting 5/17 and only getting to the free throw line twice. Several times he was able to get to the basket off the dribble, but lacked the explosion to elevate and cleanly finish his layups. (Rose has not dunked yet this season, according to Basketball Reference). Rose had some success with his mid-range bank shot in this game and will hopefully go to it more and more as the season progresses. It has been his only reliable way of scoring so far.
- I attended Monday’s game in person, and the thing that left the biggest impression on me was Kawhi Leonard. He’s already taken home a Finals MVP and a Defensive Player of the Year trophy, but seeing him up close truly made me a believer. His combination of strength, size and instincts make him very difficult to guard inside of 18 feet. At one point, Leonard was backing down Jimmy Butler on the baseline about ten feet from the hoop. Just when it seemed like he had dribbled himself into a bad spot, Kawhi spun around Butler and soared to the rim off two feet for a dunk, all in one clean motion. The speed at which he elevated from the floor to the hoop seemed non-human. It was like a glitch in a video game where a character transports through space without taking any steps in the middle. When San Antonio’s big three finally call it quits, the organization will be left in good (and gigantic) hands.
- Coming up: the Bulls host the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night.
(D)Roses and Thorns contributors Jake Weiner and Jeff Berest connected to talk about the 76ers recent moves and a whole lot about all the free agency news. Including Danny Green, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap, Greg Monroe, Khris Middleton, Brandon Knight, Wes Matthews, Tyson Chandler, LaMarcus Aldridge and much more. And of course, Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy Jr. may have come up.
The NBA regular season held our attention for the full 82 games this season, as nearly every playoff matchup came down to games that were played on the final day of the regular season.
Before I go on, I would like to bid adieu to the 14 teams that did not qualify for the playoffs. League Pass addicts across America shed a tear when the Phoenix was eliminated from the postseason. This year marks the first time in NBA history that the the Knicks, Celtics and Lakers will all miss the postseason. The poor Timberwolves will go down as the team with the best point differential to ever miss the playoffs.
And with that, let us not speak of any of those teams again for a very long time. There are much more exciting matters at hand.
The first round of the playoffs promise to be excellent in the West and potentially interesting in the East, which is about the best thing a person could ask for. The West is loaded top to bottom and is where this preview begins.
(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (8) Dallas Mavericks
The Spurs have been locked into the top slot the last couple of days and have been resting guys accordingly. Dallas, on the other hand, has been going full throttle down the stretch to edge out Phoenix for the final spot in the postseason. After losing to Memphis on Wednesday night, the Mavericks find themselves in the worst case playoff scenario. Had they held off Memphis Wednesday and held onto the seven seed, Dallas could have potentially hung tight with OKC in round one. That matchup, like all of Dallas’ potential matchups, would have featured a talent imbalance not in Dallas’ favor. But with the Thunder as an opponent, at least the Mavericks could boast a sizable coaching advantage. Instead, coach Carlisle has to gameplan against Greg Popovich who is known for being a gameplanner himself.
The Spurs should easily dispose of Dallas, a team that can score with the best of them but has been very porous on the defensive end. Dallas gives up 105.9 points per 100 possessions, good for 22nd in the league. That’s not going to hold up against the Spurs’ 6th ranked offense in terms of efficiency. San Antonio’s drive and kick system is specifically designed to systematically pick apart a team like Dallas that plays matadors at both guard spots in Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon.
Dirk and company are too skilled an too prideful to just roll over in this series, but don’t have nearly enough fire power to keep up with San Antonio. I expect at least one crazy Nowitzki game winner, but do not expect more than one Dallas victory.
Prediction: San Antonio in 5
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (7) Memphis Grizzlies
A rematch of a round two matchup from a year ago, this version of Thunder-Grizz promises to be a lot different with a healthy Russell Westbrook running point for the Thunder. The Grizzlies won 50 games this year despite enduring a six week stretch without reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol. New coach Dave Joerger took some time to learn how to best use his roster, but has certainly become more comfortable at the reigns. Gasol’s return from a knee injury returned the Grizzlies’ defense to elite levels. Since January 15, the day Gasol rejoined the lineup, only the Bulls have played stingier defense per 100 possessions.
Oklahoma City enters the playoffs with high aspirations. After making the Finals in 2012, the Thunder lost their All-Star point guard to injury in the first round last year. Westbrook, who has re-injured his knee this season, seems to be fully healthy now. Since the calendar turned to March, Westbrook has averaged 23.4/7.2/5.8 a night on a pretty strict minutes limit. That limit will no longer be in place now that the games actually matter and Westbrook is ready to unleash himself on the Grizzlies.
Memphis, as defensively gifted as they are, will not be able to stop Kevin Durant. They probably won’t even be able to contain him. Durant has never been better than he is right now, on the verge of taking home his first MVP trophy. The Grizzlies extended Tony Allen specifically for this type of matchup, but Allen, at just 6’4″, will struggle to bother Durant’s shot. That’s no slight to Tony, as the entirety of the NBA has been unable to do much against Durant this season. KD has been averaging a cool 32 points a night on 50% shooting from the field, 39% from three. Durant has also broadened his game this year, more willing to put the ball on the floor now than in years past. According to SportVU data, Durant is driving the ball nearly six times a game this season, just one fewer than Lebron. On those 5.8 drives per game, Durant is scoring 6.2 points per game, the fourth highest mark in the NBA.
My final note on this series, which will be won decisively by the Thunder, is that Memphis allows the Thunder to play big, something that Scott Brooks loves to do for no reason. Facing a starting lineup of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, the Thunder have an excuse to give Kendrick Perkins run and not have it totally kill them.
Prediction: Thunder in 4
(3) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (6) Golden State Warriors
News of Andrew Bogut’s cracked ribs makes the likelihood of this series being an interesting one very small. The Warriors have the third best defensive rating in the NBA this year despite starting sieves at point guard and power forward. Golden State’s defensive success can be largely attributed to two men: Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut, the latter of which will likely not be healthy in time for round one. Bogut has truly anchored the Warriors defense this season, acting as a final line of defense in the (frequent) event that Steph Curry lets his man by him.
The Clippers have seemingly gone under the radar down the stretch, being pushed aside in the media by the streaking Spurs and the floundering Pacers. But to the careful observer, LA’s Other Team is just as likely as OKC or San Antonio to make it out of the West. Blake Griffin has taken huge strides this season as a defender, post scorer and ball handler. Chris Paul’s shoulder injury ended up being a blessing in disguise as the Flyin’ Lion seemed to really come into his own in Paul’s absence.
It won’t be a cakewalk for the Clips, as Steph Curry and company promise to keep games exciting with their ability to make quick comebacks. No lead is safe against Golden State who is both fourth in three point attempts and percentage. With Bogut and David Lee both nursing injuries, I fully expect Curry to let it fly in the playoffs. Steph already averages 7.9 trey attempts a game, of which he makes 42%, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see that number climb to nine or ten against the Clippers.
The Clippers’ last two postseasons have ended in part because of a lack of offensive creativity. In the playoffs, when teams really have the time to study every little thing a team does, it is more important than ever to have a sophisticated system. With Vinny Del Negro at the helm, offensive sophistication was never a strong suit of the Clippers. But this season, under Doc Rivers, I expect the Clippers to fight off the offensive stalling that has been characteristic of their recent playoff runs. The Warriors will shoot their way to a couple of close wins, but there’s no way Chris Paul doesn’t get his team to the second round.
Prediction: Clippers in 6
(4) Houston Rockets vs. (5) Portland Trail Blazers
The 4v5 matchup out West might be the most purely entertaining series of the entire first round. In Portland and Houston, we find ourselves with two teams that love to score and don’t care much about slowing anyone down. Houston and Portland finish the season ranked 12th and 16th in defensive rating, respectively, making them far and away the poorest overall defensive matchup in round one. The two teams also rank fourth and fifth in offense, with the Rockets scoring 108.6 points/100 possessions and the Blazers scoring 108.3.
The Rockets defensive efficiency with Dwight Howard on the floor is a slightly more acceptable 102.2. That number hangs right at 102.1 when Omer Asik takes the floor. So why the poor overall numbers from the Rockets? Dwight has sat out eleven games this year and Mutant Judge Reinhold has sat out 34 contests due to various injury issues both physical and emotional. With neither rim protector in the game, Houston’s horrendous perimeter defenders routinely get torched. James Harden in particular has shown little to no interest in playing defense this season. But with Asik back in the fold and Dwight well rested and recovered from his recent injury, I expect Houston to show a level of stinginess they were rarely able to achieve during the regular season.
If not for Phoenix, Portland surely would have been the Little Engine That could team, a squad that some pundits picked to get the 7 or 8 seed, but not good enough to make any serious noise. But after getting out to a scorching start, the Blazers spent the majority of the season in the top four in the Western Conference. Portland’s explosive offense has come back to earth a little bit in the second half of the season, especially its clutch performance numbers. But Portland’s success is certainly no fluke, as Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge both submitted All-Star offensive seasons.
They say the long two is dead in the NBA but don’t tell that to Aldridge, the player who by far and away led the league in that type of shot. And while it would be nice for the former Longhorn to learn to shoot from just a few feet back, it is hard to complain with the results he puts up. LMA is currently shooting 48% from between 16-24 feet, in addition to the 57% he shoots at the basket. Aldridge is a tricky matchup for Houston, a team that lacks any sort of traditional power forward who has the size to make life difficult for Aldridge on the block and the speed to chase him around the perimeter. Dwight Howard, for all the rim protection he provides, is no longer the type of player who can completely dominate the entire floor defensively. 2009 Dwight could have made life miserable for Aldridge on the wings. 2014 Dwight will probably live with the inefficient shots.
The question mark for Portland offensively comes from the point guard position, where Damian Lillard will be matched up against the cagey and relentless Patrick Beverly. Beverly famously injured Russell Westbrook in last years playoffs when he lunged for a steal as Westbrook attempted to call timeout. Beverly has developed quite the reputation, and the swagger to go with it, since moving into the starting lineup this year. Tasked with tracking the oppositions’ number one perimeter option, Beverly has dedicated all of his energy to the process, knowing full well that his starting back court mate James Harden can pick up the slack on offense. Beverly, who has recently dealt with knee issues of his own lately, will be key in slowing down Lillard and the Portland attack.
Prediction: Houston in 7 (but really we’re all winners because these games will be in the 120s).
For the true NBA junkie, the only real way to enjoy a regular season is through NBA League Pass. You get every game that’s not on national TV or in your market (although, for some odd reason, we’re blacked out of Memphis Grizzlies and Atlanta Hawks games in Nashville, TN). Aside from watching the top match-ups and following my fantasy team, there’s always a few teams I find myself watching more often than others. This upcoming season, I’m excited for the Portland Trailblazers to be one of those squads.
Portland quietly had one of the best starting lineups in the NBA last year. Damian Lillard, reigning Rookie of the Year, was a delightful surprise, averaging 19.0 PPG, 6.5 APG and 3.1 RPG. Furthermore, Lillard led the entire NBA in minutes played. Just chew on that for a second. Portland’s bench was so bad that their rookie point guard played more minutes than LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Luol Deng, Kevin Durant, AND EVERYONE ELSE. CJ McCollum, this year’s tenth pick, figures to slot in as the third guard and get plenty of looks. Portland likes the idea of two ball-handling combo guards in one backcourt. Wes Matthews has become a deadly shooter and a solid rim rattler. While no one questions Matthews’ toughness, he’s become pretty injury prone and needs to stay on the court. The same goes for Nic Batum, the lanky, über-talented French wing with fists of fury. LaMarcus Aldridge (important cog in the death machine that was my fantasy team) has proven to at least be a consistent 20-9 guy, even if he might have tried to skip town before this off-season’s restocking of the bench.
Last season, JJ Hickson started at center and was captain of the Great Stats Shitty Player All-Stars, averaging a double-double. Portland recognized this, let Hickson walk, and flipped a couple second round picks into Robin Lopez, a legitimate starting center that will improve their back line of defense. The dirty little secret about last year’s Blazers was their horrendous bench. While their starters would keep them in games and often win them, the bench would give leads back all too easily. This summer, building the bench was a focus of GM Neil Olshey and it’s shown. Aside from first round pick CJ McCollum, Portland added former top five pick Thomas Robinson, sharpshooter Dorell Wright and the perpetually overlooked Mo Williams. Now, with a rotation that goes eight or nine deep, Portland looks like a playoff competitor out West. With such talented young players, I can’t wait to watch these guys play. Also, who doesn’t love Rip City? (Besides Zach Randolph).
Sorry, it’s been a while. I hope you haven’t been holding your breath waiting for my next installment of BSH, more commonly known as NBA BullSHit.
I’ll cut the crap and get this party started.
Utah Jazz: Buy
The State of Utah and Stavi do not have much in common. They’ve got mountains. I can’t figure out how to put skis on. They’ve got Mormons. I’m a MOT. The guys have 17 wives. I can’t find one. You get the gist. Regardless of our differences, I view the state’s lone professional sports franchise as a good place to make a basketball investment. The rebuilding process started when they dealt (ticked-off) stud point guard Deron Williams to the (then New Jersey) Nets for Devin Harris, Derrick Favors, and two draft picks (Enes Kanter and Alec Burks).
While Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap have migrated to slightly more fitting areas (demographics), the Jazz are effectively trying to escape NBA purgatory. As an investor, I like this. Since D-Will skipped town, the Jazz have sported a motley crew of point guards. Notables include Jamaal Tinsley, Harris and Mo Williams. In a league dominated by 1s, this list hardly was up to the task. Hopefully, Trey Burke will prove naysayers wrong and be the player Utah needs.
With Big Al and Millsap out of town, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter need to step up and show what they’ve got. 2013-2014 will not be a fun season for Jazz fans. Hopefully, Jazz fans can keep themselves occupied for a couple years. Just go get married a couple of times.
If shit hits the fan, trade for Jimmer and he’ll fill the seats.
Portland Trailblazers: Hold
If you were to ask me a couple years from now where some of my friends might migrate to after college, this Pacific Northwest staple might be my guess. Portland’s a goofy city. And, not goofy like me. They’ve got pot. They’ve got forests. The city plays host to weird TV shows. They’ve got a weird obsession with their MLS team. Yep, Maxy and Bick would love it. A little disturbing that LaMarcus Aldridge suddenly doesn’t.
When there’s smoke, there’s fire somewhere.
What is exactly going on in Portland? Like the people who live there, the Trail Blazers’ roster is just a little bit off. After winning the ROY last season, the jury’s still out on Damian Lillard. If he can improve his shooting and cut down on the turnovers this season, I’d be more inclined to like this squad. (Editor’s note: I think the jury has come and gone on Lillard. He’s a stud.) With wings Nicolas Batum and Wes Matthews, you know what you’re getting. There’s no upside here. As Jake has previously alluded to, the Blazers featured the worst bench in the NBA last season.
While most teams have tried to really make a run or really tank it this off-season, the Blazers reloaded their bench. In a matter of weeks, Portland’s added the services of Robin Lopez, Thomas Robinson (the “innocent” one) and Dorell Wright. For a team that has seen its fair share of injuries, this new found depth should be a welcome asset. It’ll be interesting to see if Portland can strike draft gold in successive years with newcomer C.J. McCollum on board. In 2014-2015, the Blazers’ starting backcourt might feature Weber State and Lehigh alumni. And they say your college means everything…
Anyways, the roster is intriguing. I just want to wait out this whole Aldridge thing and see where the team is in six months.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Buy
While DRaT obviously hails from the Windy City, I’d be willing to bet we get a decent amount of hits from Wolves’ fans. Camp Chi Magic. Because I’m so diplomatic, I’ll gladly endorse the Minnesota Timberwolves’ franchise as a buy right now.
Remember what we said about former Denver Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri leaving town?
Well, David Kahn’s situation was the exact opposite. Ownership fired Kahn and replaced him with Flip Saunders earlier this summer. A long time coming if you ask any of my Minny friends. I’m usually all for MOTs controlling sports franchises. Except for the ones who draft three point guards in the first 18 picks of the 2009 draft. (Side note: Kahn traded the best of them in Ty Lawson to Denver later that night.)
While the roster isn’t the league’s best, they’re hardly the Bobcats. A healthy Kevin Love combined with an improving Ricky Rubio, a steady Kevin Martin and a promising rookie in Shabazz Muhammad is not a bad way to assemble a core. Albeit Andrei Kirilenko is gone and Nik Pekovic is still unsigned, I see the light at the end of the tunnel for the franchise.
After coaching KG in Minneapolis for 11 seasons, Saunders understands the objectives of the franchise. Coupled with Adelman, the two possess tons of basketball acumen.
I’m not necessarily buying the Wolves for the team they’re putting out on the floor. I’m buying them because David Kahn no longer controls who’s being put out on the floor.
The mere idea of a CEO shakeup on Wall Street can make a stock go bonkers. In the case of Minnesota, I saw Kahn’s firing as a signal to load up the truck.
While I apologize for my tardiness in completing this article, I hope you respect my dedication towards my readership. I conducted most of this pieces’ research listening to Marlene and David bicker somewhere between Kalamazoo and Benton Harbor.
- Buy em, Sell em, Hold em with the Stavster: Central Division (Part 1) (drosesandthorns.com)
- Buy em, Sell em, Hold em with the Stavster: Central Division (Part Deux) (drosesandthorns.com)
- Buy em, Sell em, Hold em with the Stavster: Southeast Division (Part 1) (drosesandthorns.wordpress.com)