Sunday 21 January 2018 / 11:56 AM

THE BOX OUT: NBA WEEK 9

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

Celebrating the Pacers

Nobody, I repeat, nobody, was expecting this. Kevin Pritchard should be able to walk onto the court at any point during the play, hijack the mic and scream, “I TOLD YOU SO” until he feels content, then moonwalk back to his seat while the crowd passionately chants, “MVP!”. It’s hard to remember a more maligned trade’s reality being so far from the expectation.

Victor Oladipo has been a man unleashed, averaging 24.4 points per game and looking like a steal whilst Domantas Sabonis has found new life as a centre and continues to flash a wide range of useful skills that he was never given the chance to display in OKC. That’s a pretty fair haul considering Paul George was on his way out; the trade in hindsight was good, even if they sold late and bought low. Value is value.

Their improbable loss against the Celtics may have been a well-executed tank-job or a mighty collapse, but these things are bound to happen. If the Pacers don’t win another game for the entire season, they’ve still blown all our expectations out of the water.

If they hover around their current standing (17-14, 9th in East), they’ll be considered one of the surprise stories of the season, especially if they manage to sneak into the playoffs. The real move is to run everything through Myles Turner, freefall into the lottery and do this whole thing again next year – but we’ll leave that theory for another day. For now, celebrate Kevin Pritchard, under-appreciated coach Nate McMillan and the resilient Pacers.

The Rockets, coming for you

It’s time to believe in the Houston Rockets, although buying stocks now will cost you as the price surges to an all-time high.

Now owners of the best record in the league at 25-4, the addition of Chris Paul has instantly lifted this team to new plateau. Houston is an astonshing 14-0 with CP3 in the lineup(!), and his personal game has reaped the benefits of their high-powered offence. Career-highs in three-point takes (six a game) and makes (a tidy 42.9%) whilst posting his PER (27.1) since 2008–09 despite his lowest usage rate in four years. He’s transformed their defence from a liability to a top 10, bordering on elite. Paul’s steal and assist percentages, the barometers of his individual game, are both up from last season. The marriage has been flawless to date.

And despite the impressive numbers, none of this is a surprise: going from the Clippers to the Rockets is like trading in a 12-year-old Toyota Corolla (reliable, but you might have some problems) for a Tesla Roadster 2020 (IT DOESN’T MAKE ANY NOISE WHEN IT STARTS!).

The Clippers curse appears to be very real, and they can’t avoid injuries or themselves, stuck in the wheel of mediocrity for the forseeable future. Meanwhile, the Rockets are a seamless blend of shooting and defence that was designed to succeed in the modern NBA. This team is for real.

“There’s only one ball” was the most shortsighted analysis in recent memory. I was right and you were all wrong. The Warriors have a challenger.

Historic Bulls

That sub-heading feels weird, and it’s only half tounge-in-cheek.

It was all going so well! There were scrimmage fights and broken jaws, some delightfully terrible play and only three wins from their first 23 starts.

Where did all the tanking go? The return of Nikola Mirotic has inspired an unanticipated turnaround of historic proportions: after dropping ten games in a row, they flipped the script and became the first team in NBA history to follow up 10 or more consecutive losses with a five-game win streak.

That extended to six with their win over Philadelphia yesterday, meaning that only the Celtics, Cavs, Rockets and Warriors (the four best teams in the league) have recorded equal or longer win streaks this season.

They’ve turned it around by taking advantage of their weaker conference (8-8 against East opponents, 1-11 out West) and depending on the great equalizer in the modern NBA — the three-pointer. In their last five outings they’ve outshot their opponent from deep and topped 40% in their four of the last five.

Just how good are things, you ask? Mirotic and Portis, once practice-court sparring partners, are high-fiving!

LOOK! HAPPY TEAMATES!

And as expected, twitter has gone mad celebrating their new favourite 1-2 punch:

Mirotic is finally becoming the player everyone hoped he would be, and the entire roster has benefited from his presence. If the Bulls keep the whole ‘being a real NBA team’ thing up, they’ll run dangerously close to giving up their hard-earned inside lane to the number one pick.

Patience is a virtue

How many times do we have to see this play out? Three leading scorers joining forces always takes time. There are career-long habits that need to be broken and adjustments that require reps; continuity and comfort is earned, not bought. There will be mistakes and an awkward learning phase, but there is no substitute for patience. Couple that with Billy Donovan’s preference to use the regular season as an 82-game experimental session, and you get ample proof that the Thunder are OK.

Yes, they have some issues that need to be straightened out, but they’re far from the inherently flawed mishmash most make them out to be. Still anchored by an elite defence (ranked second in defensive rating, only a shade behind the Celtics) and possessing plenty of talent, there is very little cause for concern: they’re 15-15, are going to make the playoffs and could comfortably get as high as the fourth seed on their current trajectory, before factoring in the expected improvement.

Everybody calm down.

Concern for Marcus Morris

His recent comments just don’t sit right. It’s never a good sign when players refuse to accept their role, and Morris’ history makes this situation slightly more intricate than it appears on surface level. Sure, it’s fair to believe you can command a bigger role, but putting it out there is another issue.

And whilst Morris may feel he deserves the starting role, the numbers say otherwise: the Celtics line-up that includes Morris with the starters has been outscored by 15.5 points per possession, and is the only line-up that carries a negative point differential. Yikes. Further, their bench can sometimes struggle to generate offence, and Morris has the perfect versatile game to be the focal point of the second-unit.

He may not enjoy coming off the bench, but he has to get used to it.

The Celtics might not feel it yet, but they need Morris on the roster. Jayson Tatum continues to go from strength-to-strength, but the rookie wall hits everyone. Even if it’s a slight, momentary dip, having a quality depth piece like Morris — a solid, dependable two-way player — is invaluable through the grind of the season. Their lack of depth in the big-man department adds extra pressure — watch this space.

Gobert out, again

This one’s a sucker. Gobert has already been robbed of 11 games this season, and appears as though he’s set to miss another month with a knee sprain.

Without their linchpin, the Jazz’s ninth-ranked defence is sure to take a hit, and their offence will surely follow. After getting back above water following their first turbulent period, this is a tough shot to take.

Set to be reevaluated in two weeks, let’s hope the French rejection can get back soon.

Coming soon: Isaiah Thomas

And now for some good injury news.

Won’t this be fun! Now that the Cavaliers have finally found themselves, so this makes for a fascinating next chapter. Reports have emerged claiming Thomas is targeting an early-January return (Jan 3rd @ Celtics, perhaps?), meaning the inclusion of the sidelined All-Star point guard isn’t far around the corner.

There’s plenty to take in here: the Cavs’ improvement on defence (up to 14th from dead last) has been the driving force in their improvement and is definitely not Isaiah’s strong suit, whilst learning to play with LeBron and what that means for Kevin Love thriving as a second scoring option threatens to disrupt their offensive rhythm.

It will be interesting to see whether Tyronn Lue (slang for ‘coach LeBron’) begins to tweak the offence in preparation. Perhaps the most important takeaway is that it will leave them ample time to build some cohesion before the playoffs.

Highlights of the week: Embiid vs Westbrook from the wild triple-OT thriller

First, Embiid’s insane block on Russell Westbrook. I’m not sure anybody has ever recovered like this on Russ:

But of course, Westbrook came right back. To have this level of bounce in the third period of overtime is insane.

Embiid again, this time with the turbo-boost from Saric:

And after the win Russ, sending a warm goodbye. So kind.

But if you’re going back and forth with Embiid, you’ve already lost.

Bonus: Julius Randle dropping the hammer on KD during the crazy Dubs-Lakers. His ferocity in transition is a sight to behold.

And another insane Westbrook jam, because there are never enough:

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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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