Let's Play Two (Overtimes)
Amazingly, this past week featured two double overtime games. Even more amazingly, three of the Western Conference's premiere teams were involved in these games. The Clippers lost in Brooklyn on Tuesday and the Rockets defeated the Warriors in Oracle on Thursday night. With the exception of Brooklyn (all due respect), the stories of these teams in the ten extra minutes deserve individual attention.
Los Angeles Clippers - if the Clippers weren't trying to give away this game they could have fooled me. Turnovers, missed free throws, a missed dunk, and a Doc Rivers freak out ejection were not enough to vanquish the Clippers in the regulation or the first overtime period. Without Jeremy Lin, the Nets leaned on Sean Kilpatrick to erase a 15 point fourth quarter deficit, but sputtered a bit in the overtime periods, missing a handful of free throws and open shots themselves. Ultimately, the game was decided by the guards. On this night, the larger Nets' guards bested Chris Paul, driving past him for the lead-taking and game-clinching layups. With a history of poor performances in close games, the Clippers couldn't be encouraged with this effort, even withstanding Blake Griffin's rest absence.
Golden State Warriors - thanks to so many blowouts, we hardly get to see the Warriors play in a close game. As it turns out, they can be dragged into the same end game malaise that plagues most teams. The end of this game is a tale of two overtimes. In the first overtime, the Warriors scored effectively and creatively, utilizing a play drawn up by Coach Steve Kerr and their random cutting game to confuse a vulnerable Rockets defense. However, not coincedentily related to Steph Curry fouling out, the second overtime featured a heavy dose of isolation and missed shots. Kevin Durant, perhaps channeling his former thunderous self, embraced every opportunity to take contested shots in isolation, nevermind cutting teammates. The Warriors did force the Rockets into quite a few terrible shots and grabbed many key rebounds, but this close game gives us a peak into the soul of this team and their vulnerability is ever-so slightly apparent.
Houston Rockets - sheer will and huge playmaking won this game for Houston because it certianly wasn't their execution. Consistently fooled by Warriors screening actions - routinely leaving cutters and rebounders unchecked - Houston can thank spectacular individual defense in isolation for saving this game. Offensively, the Rockets focused so heavily on creating mismatches and involving Curry in ball-screens that they often set themselves up for disaster by shaving the shot clock to the end before initiating any substantive movement. However, when they got the mismatches for James Harden, he capitalized - for himself and others. Eric Gordon stepped up and hit two huge shots in each overtime and Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell each grabbed key offensive rebounds. The Rockets rely heavily upon great individual playmaking to compete, particularly from Harden, but they have the talent to do so and that should scare the rest of the conference.
The individual accolades are piling up now a month into the season with one unfortunate ommision - the reserves. Star players, coaches, and rookies all get their due, but the bench is forgotten. A career benchman myself, I owe it to my kinsmen to rectify this terrible tragedy. Therefore, the man who contributed the most to his team over the course of the week will be honored with the 6th Man of the Week Award as a means to praise all those who venture bravely off the pine.
It just so happens that there is a tremendous amount of talent held out of NBA starting lineups, but in accordance with my own rules there can only be one honoree and his name is Greg Monroe. For those who may not be following the Milwuakee Bucks closely, it may come as a surprise that their highest paid player, their prized free agent signing has been relegated to the bench. In fact, just last week it appeared Monroe might be on his way out of the rotation entirely after receiving a DNP-CD against Miami. However, this week, Monroe displayed the type of all-around offensive play that fetched his large price tag just a year ago. Playing twenty minutes a game, Monroe scored nine points on 58 percent shooting, grabbed three offensive rebounds, and dished out two assists on average in four games this week. More importantly, his plus-minus numbers reveal an involvement in the success Milwaukee has had in collecting three consecutive wins, including a destruciton of Cleveland. With so much uncertainty surrounding his future with Milwuakee and his place in the league, I wanted to praise Monroe for embracing his role and making positive contributions for at least one week.
Trading a Quarter for a Dollar
Nearly a quarter of the way into the season, I wanted to remind worried or overzealous fanbases that things change rapidly in this league and the pace set through twenty games is unlikely to continue. If we take the winning percentage of a team through its first twenty games and extrapolate it out to a full 82 game season and then compare it to the actual end of season win total, we can get a sense for just how closely they are aligned. As it turns out, over the past two seasons, only nine of the sixty team seasons have set a pace through 20 games that matched their end of season win total within a one win margin. Comparitavely, there were 14 team seasons that were off by over 10 wins - most notably the 2015 Detroit Pistons who were on pace for just over 12 wins through 20 games, but finished with 32 wins. This is a matter of further research, but keep in mind that the season is still young and plenty will happen and change. Hope is not lost and no spot is safe for most teams at this point.
Once upon a time, I sat either in front of a television or with a podcast playing in my earbuds and heard Jeff Van Gundy recall a bit of wisdom his brother Stan Van Gundy shared with him - at the end of the game, it's a one play league. By this he meant that when the game is on the line, teams often go to the most basic forms of offense (high pick and roll, isolation, post-up) over and over again - much to the chagrin of the media. However, an interesting trend has emerged in that the league is converging towards each team running the same exact play. Okay, maybe not quite, but by my count early this season, seven teams are running the same sideline out of bounds play after timeouts at the very end of games. Let's take a look.
The play is basically just a triangle of screens. Each of these teams has a slightly different starting alignment but the money action is the same. A wing player sets a backscreen for another wing player (usually a shooter) and then immediately receives a screen from a big man angled towards the ball side corner. That same big man then goes and sets a screen for the other wing player, the shooter, towards the top of the key. I've covered many of the options available in this play using the seven teams running this play in the video below. In the first clip, Charlotte hits Kemba Walker in the corner off the angled screen. The Lakers hit the same option in the next clip, although you may notice how they have a unique starting alignment. The third clip shows how the big man can pop back to the ball after setting the angle screen as Myles Turner does for Indiana. Denver executes all the way through to the shooter at the top of the key for a big Jamal Murray three-pointer. Staying true to the theory, Stan Van Gundy is one of the practioners of this play in Detroit. The next clip shows Kentavious Caldwell-Pope getting a good look from three. Boston runs the play versus switching defense and puts Avery Bradley in a potential mismatch versus Anthony Davis - unfortunately the mismatch is not in Boston's favor in this instance. The final team that runs the play is Dallas, freeing Harrison Barnes for a rhythm three-pointer with two late defenders running at him. I like this play and I'm looking forward to watching its evolution as teams start picking up on it/ adopting it until everyone is running it as Coach Van Gundy prophesized.