Last 10 things of the season, so let’s blow it out:
1. Klay Thompson is the NBA’s ultimate stabilizer
Sixty points on 11 dribbles. Tom Haberstroh unearthed that incredible stat from Thompson’s December 2016 avalanche against Indiana. The number took on a life of its own, and almost came to define Thompson — the luxury of his existence as a catch-and-shoot specialist bobbing around Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and one of the greatest playmaking big men ever in Draymond Green.
Thompson is a shooter first, but he has quietly built out his offensive game a little more every season. He’s more confident pushing the ball, and reading layers of cascading players to anticipate who might spring open:
That play starts with Thompson uprooting Clint Capela, a much larger human, with a textbook boxout. Never forget: Thompson is tough as hell. He defends elite point guards so Curry doesn’t have to. He will switch onto anyone. Power forwards have a tough time moving him in the post. He plays hard, he plays hurt, he plays through exhaustion. He never chafes publicly about his role.
He has long been a genius cutter and screener, and he’s comfortable now attacking scrambled defenses off the dribble — and threading slick interior passes:
Golden State loses something ineffable without Thompson. There are games in which he somehow feels like their most important player. It is not a stretch to say he played nearly as central a role as Curry in establishing Golden State’s culture.
2. James Harden‘s floater — and the threat of it
Welp, there are officially no holes in Harden’s offensive game:
Harden is shooting 46 percent from floater range, by far the best mark of his career, per Cleaning The Glass. He has also taken many more of them; the NBA has logged Harden attempting 213 floaters this season, up from 91 last season.
By making the step-back 3-pointer efficient, Harden has essentially broken basketball. There is no way to guard him, beyond having an army of quick, tall and smart players who can bother that shot without fouling, or falling too far behind on drives. (The Warriors might be the only team with enough such players.)
Teams have settled on the Bucks/Spurs strategy of climbing atop Harden’s left shoulder and inviting him to drive almost all the way to the rim. No player — not even Stephen Curry, who revolutionized basketball before Harden revolutionized it again — has ever been given such open runways into the most profitable territory on the floor. The hope, of course, is to stop Harden before he is in layup range, barricade the lob to Capela, and coax a floater.
This is how the Spurs contained Harden in the 2017 Western Conference semifinals, a humiliation that has proven an inflection point for Harden’s development. If teams were going to guard him this way, Harden needed a reliable floater — even if he would always strive for something better.
Defenses respect it now, and Harden is leveraging that respect into kickout passes:
Harden looks like he’s gathering the ball for a teardrop. The defenders seem to expect it; they almost freeze in anticipation. In that moment, Harden shifts the ball in his hand, and whips it to Daniel House.
Harden’s style can grow tiresome. But watching how each opponent crafts its own Harden-specific strategy, and how Harden methodically dissects it, is one of the NBA’s great theater pieces — a night-to-night chess match that gets juicier in the playoffs.
3. A RoLo Renaissance
The one bright spot of the Bulls starting a glorified G League team over the past month: They have no better option than to throw the ball to Lopez in the post, and let him pivot opposing centers in circles.
It’s kind of working. The Bulls have averaged 1.1 points since the trade deadline when Lopez shoots from the block, or dishes to a teammate who finishes the possession, per Second Spectrum. That is comfortably above average, and legit impressive considering the surrounding, umm, talent.
Lopez is tossing in patented floor-scraping ice cream scoop shots, where he palms the ball almost at knee level, extends his arm, and flips a weirdo hook over his head.
When he enters pivot mode, it sometimes looks as if he’s the only player standing on a very slow-moving turntable:
Lopez is one of the league’s beloved teammates. He revels in grunt work. He stayed upbeat even as fellow Bulls contemplated a full-scale mutiny, and good players around him kept disappearing. It has been nice to see him show off his scoring ability.
4. When the contemplative guys stop being contemplative
It is almost jarring, and a little charming, when they decide to let loose and go for it:
Gasol knows Brook Lopez is lumbering toward him, and will have trouble reversing momentum. He doesn’t pause to pump fake, or scan for passes. He just nods at the rim and goes.
This is their version of giving into temptation. They are like wary teenagers daring to see what it feels like go 60 in a 30-mph zone. (Don’t do this, teenagers.) You almost worry they are going to get addicted to the thrill, and lose something fundamental about themselves.
Horford flashed more of this explosive bravado last season. Both are more dangerous when they dial the pass-or-score calculus just a hair more toward “score.”
They stand as postseason bellwethers. Boston and Toronto need the peak versions of both to get where they want to go.
Both can jostle with Joel Embiid, and stretch him out on the other end. Horford can at least make Giannis Antetokounmpo work for it. Gasol has injected more connectivity and calm into Toronto’s offense. The Raptors have the look of a team gelling at the right moment.
5. The plateauing of Josh Richardson and Hassan Whiteside
As the Heat hover in the race for one of the last three Eastern Conference playoff spots — a race in which everyone seems to lose unless they play a tank team — they have to be disappointed in the play of two would-be franchise pillars.
Whiteside hasn’t really been that in a while. Miami re-signed him to a max deal in the orgiastic summer of 2016 because they were backed into a corner. Fit between player and team has always been fraught. Now, Whiteside is a high-profile backup. The flip side of that transition is happy: Bam Adebayo is a legit starter — hoppy, fast, a smart passer with growing confidence in his elbow jumper.
Whiteside has had some monster games off the bench, including against Boston on Wednesday. He puts up numbers. A lot of his advanced defensive metrics are better than ever.
But he can’t shake bad habits. He still chases no-chance-in-hell blocks, leaving the defensive glass naked:
He can be baited into overplaying his hand early in defending the pick-and-roll:
Richardson’s shooting numbers ticked down before his injury Wednesday: 41 percent overall, 36 percent from deep. The burden of first-option semi-stardom proved a little much. He looks more at home toggling between that role and rocketing off pindowns while Justise Winslow runs point.
And that’s fine! Winslow is enjoying a career season. Richardson is a really good two-way player. But he’ll turn 26 before next season, and didn’t make the sort of progression Miami envisioned when he became a sticking point in trade talks for an All-Star.
The next five days in Miami, Detroit, Brooklyn, Orlando and (kinda) Charlotte are gonna be fascinating.
6. The twisting goodness of Paul Millsap
Denver’s starting five has been stout — plus-9.4 points per 100 possessions in almost 400 minutes — even though Will Barton and Gary Harris haven’t quite gotten going for any sustained period. (The Nuggets need them to click into place, like, now.)
Millsap has faded into the background since shifting West. He won’t make All-Star teams anymore. He has missed significant chunks of two seasons. He has finished only 19.6 percent of Denver’s possessions with a shot, drawn foul or turnover — his lowest usage rate in almost a decade. He is, basically, a role player.
But he’s a damned good one. He remains a heady defender — nimble in space, unmovable in the post, snatching steals with his magnetized meat hooks. Defenses have gotten more brazen ignoring Millsap to muck up Nikola Jokic‘s passing lanes, but Millsap makes them pay. He’s an underrated cutter, and he’s quietly shooting 36 percent from deep — and posting his best true-shooting mark since 2011.
He’s also something of a low-to-the-ground acrobat, with an arsenal of strange twisting finishes and reverse spins that flummox defenders:
Look at this pass!
Millsap is one of the league’s ultimate gap-fillers — on both ends. He senses what the Nuggets need, and does it. He seizes more of the offense if things bog down. He can create something from nothing in crunch time. He always appears in the right place, at the right time, on defense.
The Nuggets have a $30 million team option on Millsap for next season. Denver is rising, with limited means of replacing Millsap if they let him walk. I’d bet on the two sides working something out.
7. Fearless Frank Jackson
Jackson’s late-season surge has been one of those random enjoyable tanking season things. He averaged 15.5 points per game in March on 48 percent shooting, including 38 percent from deep.
It is hard to tell if such out-of-the-blue pushes in March and April mean anything. Half the teams aren’t trying.
I have no idea what Jackson is on a good team. He hasn’t spent much time as the Pellies’ lead playmaker, or shown the passing chops for that job. He’s undersized guarding most starting wings; his defense has been scattershot. He has hit only 31 percent from deep, and doesn’t get to the line much.
But he attacks the rim with a certain head-down fearlessness that could serve him well as a hybrid bench gunner:
He has a handy floater, too.
Jackson is worth watching — including in Summer League, where he should get to experiment with a larger ball-handling role.
8. Mmm, Bacon
Charlotte pulled something unusual in never officially surrendering in the playoff chase while still shifting minutes to Miles Bridges and Dwayne Bacon at the expense of Jeremy Lamb (a free agent) and Nicolas Batum. (Prediction: Batum is not in Charlotte next season. I would peg a Batum departure as even more likely if Kemba Walker re-signs.)
Bacon is shooting 47 percent on 3s, and has looked more in command handling the ball. He has a fondness for the elbows, and a whiff of Joe Johnson’s leaning midrange style:
To advance beyond 3-and-D specialist — and his defense is uneven — Bacon needs to pry open better stuff. He doesn’t get to the rim or the line enough. He has the assist rate of a catch-and-finish center. But he has shown something in this stretch — including in three straight 20-plus scoring games in late March.
Bridges is going to be good — a multi-positional Swiss Army knife. Bacon is at least a rotation guy. The Hornets have to let Malik Monk play through mistakes, or trade him. After missing on heaps of picks, Charlotte needs the Bridges/Bacon/Monk trio to pop.
9. Blah playmaking from high-volume post-up guys
If you are going to post up a lot in 2019, you have to be a good passer. It’s nonnegotiable against sophisticated help defenses that take away the easiest shots and most obvious kickout passes.
Gordon’s adventures in post work always seem to end in fading bank shots:
The Magic have scored just 0.89 points per possession when Gordon shoots out of the post, or passes to a teammate who shoots right away — 95th out of 109 guys who have recorded at least 50 post-ups, per Second Spectrum. He does not dish dimes, or draw a lot of shooting fouls from the block.
Valanciunas has made real strides as a passer in space on the pick-and-roll, and as a handoff hub. Playmaking with his back to the basket has come more slowly. Valanciunas misses cutters, or sees them too late:
He makes the pass the defense expects — the one they can live with — and not the one that hurts.
Barnes’ development might be most important among these three. The Kings have a huge, franchise-altering decision to make on him — this summer or next, depending on what Barnes does with his player option. He loves to work one-on-one, and there is a place for that — especially if it comes after a Fox-Barnes pick-and-roll triggers a switch.
Barnes is better than critics think at using his size as a weapon. A full 17 percent of Barnes’ post-ups have resulted in shooting fouls, fourth-highest in that same 109-player sample — behind only Joel Embiid, Alex Len (who has had an under-the-radar kinda interesting season in Atlanta) and Danilo Gallinari, per Second Spectrum.
But Barnes is deliberate to a fault, and often a beat late spotting cutters and shooters:
Sacramento orbits post-ups with Golden State style cutting and screening, but Barnes can gum that up by putting his head down just as one cutter pops open — and sometimes even bounding into that teammate’s path:
10. Aaron Gordon, you scamp!
Check out Gordon on the right block as Terrence Ross misses this free throw:
Yes! The NBA needs more trickery. Some team should develop a variation of the infamous “barking dog” play. If you saved something like that for a high-leverage moment, there is at least a 50 percent chance it would work, right?
I am already on record as a fan of fake timeouts: a ball-handler slow-dribbles up the sideline, dejected look on his face, as if his coach is going to stop play — only to suddenly snap into a hard-charging drive just as the defense relaxes.
Gordon didn’t get this rebound, but the basketball gods appreciated his creativity and guided the ball back to Orlando.
11. Eric Bledsoe in chaos
The Bucks replaced non-shooting centers with Brook Lopez mostly to open the floor for their only remaining non-shooter: Antetokounmpo. But the extra space has helped everyone. Bledsoe, healthy and bouncing with an angry verve, has become one of the league’s most dangerous one-on-one scorers in semi-transition with the paint clear:
He is roasting dudes several times per game. Isolation became a dirty word, but it can be the best method of attack if all four potential help defenders have to stick to shooters. (Antetokounmpo almost counts as a shooter when he doesn’t have the ball; defenses aren’t going to ignore the MVP co-favorite.) Why call up a screener — and bring an extra defender to clutter driving lanes?
Bledsoe is shooting 72 percent in the restricted area. Mini-LeBron is finishing like Real LeBron. The Bucks have scored 1.14 points per possession when Bledsoe shoots out of a drive, or kicks to a teammate who launches right away — seventh-highest among 164 players who have recorded at least 200 drives, per Second Spectrum. (Antetokounmpo is No. 1, at 1.17 points.)
Bledsoe doesn’t score in Milwaukee like he did as the No. 1 guy in Phoenix, but this has been the best all-around season of his career. He should have made the All-Star team, and deserves major consideration for an All-Defense spot.
12. Josh Okogie, bully cutter
If Okogie can hit some baseline percentage of open 3s, he’s going to be a useful rotation player for a long time. He has the makings of a Marcus Smart-style wing defender — strong enough to guard up a position or two, but agile enough to evade screens and chase water bugs. That’s rare.
He also cuts with unusual ferocity on offense:
We don’t think of cuts as physical plays, but they can be. Jimmy Butler, longtime Timberwolf, draws fouls on cuts before he even catches the ball.
Okogie’s victim here is D.J. Augustin, and that’s instructive. Some opponents hide their weakest or smallest defenders on Okogie, and he will need to develop ways of exploiting his size advantage. This is one.
13. The heady game of Bryn Forbes
Forbes shouldn’t start next season with the return of Dejounte Murray, but he has proven himself a canny hybrid guard — more than a shooter. (He is that, though: 42 percent from deep on five attempts per game.)
Forbes is decisive blowing by defenders rushing to close out on him, and has a knack for tricky interior passes:
Forbes finds LaMarcus Aldridge even when the big fella isn’t obviously open, and like a good quarterback, throws the ball to where only Aldridge can reach it.
He is one step ahead spotting subtle opportunities to attack, and exploits them before the defense realizes what’s happening:
Tasty! Forbes sees his defender — Tyus Jones — slide over to take away the pass to DeMar DeRozan, leaving a void in the other direction. Problem: He has picked up his dribble. Solution: Use Aldridge for a slingshot give-and-go.
14. Good luck solving the mystery of Oklahoma City and Boston
The Thunder, mired in a hellish six-week scoring slump, feel dangerously thin again. Markieff Morris has done nothing, on either end. Billy Donovan’s trust in Nerlens Noel wavers. Abdel Nader is down to 33 percent from deep. Terrance Ferguson has reached double figures in three of his past 19 games. Dennis Schroder, also at 33 percent from deep, might be the league’s most feast-or-famine player. Patrick Patterson, Hamidou Diallo and Deonte Burton are mostly bench-bound. No one can shoot. There is an alarming amount of Raymond Felton happening.
It has become hard for Oklahoma City to win when any of their best players underperform.
Meanwhile, just when you are ready to wash your hands of Boston: The Aron Baynes/Al Horford duo has started destroying teams again; Horford has been near his apex for weeks, minus back-to-backs; Gordon Hayward is finding his legs. The Celtics’ collective swagger returns when they play well, and that swagger helps them in the postseason.
Will it sustain through adversity? We will see soon. The playoffs begin in eight days.