Thursday 22 February 2018 / 06:00 PM

THE BOX OUT: NBA WEEK 14

Bouncing around the league and checking in on the stories, trends and lessons from the past week of NBA action.

The league’s newest rivalry

Count on Chris Paul to fire things up.

We’ve been in need of another spiteful rivalry since the KD-Russ feud calmed down and the Warriors basically transcended any competition by beating the spirit out of anyone who upset them.

So forget Warriors-Clippers, because the CP3-fuelled bad blood between LA and Houston is the best new feud to hit the association this season. And this one’s legit.

The game was terrific — and quietly the Clippers have re-emerged in the West playoff picture, the victory over the Rockets their 11th from their last 14 outings — but the most immediate takeaway was the wild stories to come from the Staples Center locker room post-game.

Tales range from Rockets recruit Paul using a secret tunnel to sneak Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green (whose involvement, considering he has no apparent stakes in the rivalry and has been on the Rockets team for less than a month, may be the most enjoyable part) into the Clippers’ locker-room to confront Blake Griffin and Austin Rivers, to Clint Capela unknowingly being used as a trojan horse-type distraction whilst he stood out in the hallway confused.

The players involved make it even more fun: Chris Paul is eternally pissed off, PJ Tucker has David West-level presence (and altercation-breakup confidence) packed neatly into a 6’5 fame, whilst Harden and Ariza’s involvement, two usually placid characters, adds another dimension of intrigue. On the other-side there’s the leagues least likeable player in Austin Rivers (who managed to get involved despite being on one foot), ‘Angry’ Blake Griffin who remains one of the five most exciting players to watch whether he’s enraged or engaged, and Patrick Beverly, professional irritant.

Thankfully, we won’t have to wait long with the already highly anticipated next instalment coming February 28th. The potential of a 2 v 7 playoff matchup is mouth-watering. Fingers crossed.

LA Speedway

Similar to last season, the Lakers’ encouraging start proved to be nothing but flashes of potential, a timely run of 12 losses from 13 games recalibrating their lottery prospects and getting the tanking back on track, now sitting only two wins above the league’s worst record at 15-29.

One interesting statistic of note: the Lakers surprisingly lead the NBA in points in the paint, putting up an average 53.0 a game. What’s significant about that figure is that if LA can maintain this pace for the rest of the season, that mark would rank third-highest since the turn of the millennium. The Lakers are far from a deadly offence, and don’t have any elite penetrators, finishers or post players jacking up this number, so just how are they getting it done?

For one thing, the Lakers play fast. Like, really fast. Pace is always a great equaliser for less-talented teams, and with a roster full of young, springy athletes, leveraging that makes the most of whatever small advantages they can get. The Lakers have pushed that logic to the maximum, currently leading the league in pace of play.

And it does even some things out: even though their defence doesn’t generate turnovers, they rank second in fast-break points, busting out of the gate on every miss and even some makes; they don’t have any dominant offensive rebounders, but put up the fifth-most second-chance points in the league, free rebounds picked up by pushing the ball at every opportunity. Credit where it’s due, they’ve leveraged a useable tactic and swung it in their favour.

But there’s no substitute for talent, and every ying has a yang: Lakers opponents average the second-highest second-chance points and points in the paint in the league, whilst conceding the most amount of buckets off turnovers in the NBA. Playing fast may nullify some advantages, but as the numbers illustrate, push it too far and you quickly lose control.

Welcome to the club

The 20-10 club, compiled of players who average over 20 points and 10 rebounds, used to be the threshold for your grizzly big man — the Zach Randolphs and Al Jeffersons of the NBA. But as those slow-footed post-grinders continue to be phased out in the era of spaced out, increasingly position-less basketball, the statistic has changed with it.

Here’s a list of players who hit those marks 10 years ago: Zach Randolph, Carlos Boozer, Dwight Howard, pre-shooting Chris Bosh and Tim Duncan. They were the flag-bearers for the big men of their generation, perfectly exemplifying the ideal mould for their positions at that time.

In the age of ‘unicorns’ — the bigs who can do everything — it’s fascinating to see how accurately the same stat filters out the field and highlights the elite.

Current players averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Joel Embiid and Karl Anthony-Towns. This group is Exhibit A when it comes to desirable skills for a modern-day big, and maybe highlights just how hard it is to put up those type of numbers.

Numbers game

Russell Westbrook, currently putting up 24.8 points, 9.9 assists and 9.7 rebounds, is somehow again on the cusp of averaging a triple-double.

After the circus that followed his MVP win and subsequent debate on how the case wasn’t merited by simple, inconsequential counting stats, it’s interesting to see that no one (and importantly no one from the ‘Russ for MVP camp’) seems to be celebrating his efforts nearly as much, almost entirely because he’s dropped 0.1 assists and 0.3 rebounds below some superficial benchmarks. Watch the conversation start back up should he find his way back over double figures.

Mind you, he’s on a far better team and playing more controlled, team-orientated basketball – by Westbrook’s standards anyway. All we’re asking for is some consistency here.

Keeping length at length

After some slippery form, the Bucks have stabilised and now that they have again crossed the .500 mark should continue to solidify their position higher up the standings.

But such a talented roster shouldn’t have faced some of their struggles in the first place. Part of the reason for their inconsistencies has been coach Jason Kidd’s insistence on the hyper-aggressive scheme that is unrelenting in both pressuring the ball and the occupying the passing lanes.

It makes sense in theory: the tactic puts the Bucks’ never-ending length on full display, and in line-ups where they comfortably switch four (and sometimes all five) positions on the floor, can make penetrating and moving the ball very painful for unsuspecting offences. The flipside: it causes absolute chaos, and such aggression usually leads to an unnecessarily panicked scramble on most possessions should someone miss a rotation or the offence get past the initial blitz.

Overall, it isn’t working. Despite being in the top 10 in steals, blocks and turnovers forced, the Bucks rank an abysmal 24th on defence, which more importantly puts them second-last of all playoff teams (only the Cleveland matadors trail them), further evidence that things aren’t going to plan.

A roster comprised of such good defence players doesn’t need to resort to gimmicks or untoward tactics to succeed, and in fact it is most likely restricting the effectiveness of each individual player. Length is the most desirable tool in fighting shooting, and whilst they are effective in deterring teams from taking them (Bucks opponents average the fifth-least 3pt-shots per game), they conceded the fourth-highest percentage on threes in the league. It means that whilst their scheme deters the initial action, once teams are able to navigate past the sea of arms and flying bodies, they usually get a clean look at the basket.

If the Bucks are priming for a deep playoff run, Kidd needs to find a better balance between the overzealous, blitzing scheme and a more traditional defensive look or it will bring them undone.

Lauri Markksmen

Bulls rookie sharpshooter Lauri Markkanen became the quickest to hit 100 three-pointers in the NBA, taking only 41 games to reach the milestone.

It’s a nice slice of history for the Finnish tyro, who many wrote off before he’d even debuted. With confidence in his shot continuing to grow and the fluidity in his off-ball movement and catch-and-shoot more akin to a shooting guard than power forward, don’t be surprised if he continues to hit at this rate.

That said, at the rate the NBA is trending in that direction, I give this record five years at maximum before it gets smashed to pieces.

Technically the best

The Warriors lead the league with 36 technical fouls and seven ejections, and it raises the question:
is it a well-earned championship swagger or arrogance bordering on entitlement?

What it isn’t is even remotely surprising. Look over the roster: KD is a noted whiner, Curry is prone to throw a mouth guard or two, and Draymond is, well, Draymond. Even Steve Kerr gets in on the action, and is the master at what we’ll call the tactical technical (intentionally getting T’d up to fire his team up).

And to be straight, steering into the skid is the best move for them. They lost their loveable innocence and turned heel when they added Durant, and their snappiness and aggression adds to their overbearing, unbeatable presence.

The discontent from opposing teams with their actions is slightly confusing. If anything can bring down the juggernaut team right now it will have to start from within, and their own short tempers is the most immediate threat to their otherwise humming machine. It’s their most apparent weakness, and whilst not getting caught in the trap of targeting it, teams should have no problems seeing them get riled up at no-calls and the like.

Truthfully, as long as they can thump any team on the planet into the ground in three quarters. they can carry on however they like. Don’t like it? Beat them.

Highlights of the week

KD goes right at LeBron in transition, daring him to step up to the challenge. LBJ (wisely) shows him to the hoop:

Aaron Afflalo begging for a suspension:

Russ doing Russ, as only Russ can…

Donnavon Mitchell continuing to mount his case for the dunk contest:

And Kris Dunn probably ruling himself out after dislocating some teeth on this one:

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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