Lowe: Ten things I like and don’t like, including Kyrie-Horford wizardry
Time for our weekly run around the league …
1. Andre Drummond, blooming
This is the Drummond we’ve been dying to see. He has taken just 12 shots out of post-ups in 11 games, per Synergy Sports. Drummond tried 277 last season, mostly clunky jump hooks that rarely resulted in free throws.
Drummond has abandoned the post to focus on what he does best: setting screens, catching lobs from a revived Reggie Jackson, and snaring above-the-rim rebounds before anyone else can hope to reach them. When Drummond wants to go on his own, he’s facing the basket and driving — something Stan Van Gundy was prodding him to try last season.
Van Gundy is even running a lot of the offense through Drummond above the elbows. Tobias Harris and Drummond have developed a refined two-man game; Harris has never been better.
On defense, Drummond is venturing further out of the paint to smother pick-and-rolls around the 3-point arc. He has the wheels to corral little guys out there, but he has resisted it in the past. He’s also more discerning about ignoring decoy action — “fluff” in NBA parlance — and zeroing in on the real threat. Watch him keep half an eye on his man, John Henson, while waiting to pounce on Tony Snell‘s backdoor cut:
The Pistons are playing with a new alertness and ferocity. They are flying around on defense, denying passing lanes and screaming out help assignments. Jackson is pushing the pace more often, and everyone is cutting at full speed. It’s like they watched Avery Bradley in practice and realized, “Oh, that’s how you cut with purpose.” Anthony Tolliver has brought an indispensable brew of shooting, defense, and surprising off-the-bounce verve as a bench guy who often plays crunch time.
Drummond is at 64 percent from the line even after Wednesday’s 0-of-7 stinker. If he sustains as a serviceable free throw shooter, it will be one of the best stories in the league — a franchise-changing one for the Pistons.
2. The Kyrie-Horford mind-meld, and the rip-roaring Celtics
In two months, Horford and Irving have established a level of wink-wink mind-meld other tandems can’t approach after five years together. Their give-and-go game is already one of the prettiest in the league. Forty of Irving’s 100 baskets have come via assists this season; Horford has supplied the dime on 17 of them, more than double any other teammate, per NBA.com. Irving has been the passer on 25 of Horford’s 44 assisted buckets.
They don’t even need the ball to make magic:
The guard in Irving’s spot there would typically fly around Horford’s pick and continue into a handoff from Daniel Theis. Irving sees Dennis Schroder duck under Horford’s pick, and senses a chance to moonwalk into a catch-and-shoot triple instead. Horford reads that, and flips his screen around to give Irving daylight. Splash.
Boston has scored a mammoth 1.5 points per possession on any trip featuring a handoff between Irving and Horford, per data from Second Spectrum. Among 168 duos who ran at least 50 such plays last season, only one — Maurice Harkless handing to Damian Lillard, which happened just 57 times — produced a higher figure.
When Horford feels his defender itching to trap Irving, he’ll fake the handoff and bolt to the rim — the NBA’s version of a play-action scramble:
I’m not sure Horford has played with this kind of constant aggression in his career. It’s as if Irving has injected him with some swagger. Horford is driving full-speed when defenders rush to close out on his jumper, dunking on people, and zipping touch passes the moment the ball hits his fingertips. Is Al Horford — placid, unselfish Al Horford — showing off just a little?
Skeptics worried Boston chose glamour over grit in sending Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder out to make way for Irving and Gordon Hayward. Nope. They lead the league in points allowed per possession, and they are fourth in defensive rebounding. Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Horford, Aron Baynes, Daniel Theis and Semi Ojeleye provide plenty of grit, and Marcus Morris will assume a larger role soon.
The guards are gang rebounding fiends. Ojeleye has quick feet on defense. Theis is a banger who can shoot a little and pass. Baynes is a walking cement wall. Brown can defend almost every position, and everyone is talking to each other on switches. Jayson Tatum plays like a five-year veteran.
Brown and Tatum are shooting well enough from deep — 44 percent combined — that Smart can roam the interior when they all play together. The lineup of Irving, Smart, Brown, Tatum and Horford is off to a nice start, and could become Boston’s go-to crunch-time group — this season’s “IT and D.” Imagine when Hayward is available next season to replace one of the wings? Look out.
3. Damian Lillard, slinging fire
Lillard’s assist numbers haven’t budged much, but the quality of his passes has reached a new level. He is slinging crazy diagonals like this — and with both hands! — more often than he did even a year ago:
Ridiculous. That is some peak Rajon Rondo-level angling. The timing of his pitty-pat pocket passes to Jusuf Nurkic is exquisite. They flow so naturally from the typical rhythm of his dribble that you almost don’t see them coming; they kind of look like dribbles, until you realize Nurkic has the ball on his way to a rumbling layup.
Portland will need a lot from Lillard during Al-Farouq Aminu‘s absence. Aminu is a crucial glue guy on defense — and even on offense when he’s canning enough 3s.
4. Pascal Siakam, now with more dribbling
Injuries helped Siakam butt his way back into Toronto’s rotation, and he has made the most of his chance, bringing his usual frenetic energy and some added craft. Siakam wasn’t doing stuff like this last season:
This is partly a product of Toronto’s liberalized offense. They are tossing about 20 more passes per game than last season, assisting on more of their baskets, and relying a little less on their stars to create. Everyone else gets to stretch themselves.
The Raps have outscored opponents by about nine points per 100 possessions with Siakam on the floor, per NBA.com. He has meshed nicely with both their backup centers, and even with some starter-heavy units. The jury is still out on ultra-big lineups featuring OG Anunoby, Siakam and one of the Lucas Nogueira/Jakob Poeltl duo, but they have performed well so far. Anunoby can play.
5. When boo-bird targets turn the tables
You don’t hear a lot of people booing Robert Covington and Chandler Parsons these days, or questioning Horford’s max contract. A segment of Philly fans turned on Covington during a shooting slump last season, even though he was providing rock-solid defense across four positions on a contract so larcenous, it spawned its own nickname: The Hinkie Special.
Covington is shooting 50 percent from deep, and he has been even better on defense this season; he trails only Paul George, Thaddeus Young, and Kelly Oubre in deflections per game after leading the league last season, per NBA.com. Covington is eligible for a raise and extension on Nov. 15. Expect it to be done within days.
Parsons is on fire from deep as the small-ball power forward on bench units that are wrecking the league. He’s moving surprisingly well. Fingers crossed.
Horford does almost everything for Boston. He’ll never average 25 per game, and if you believe only guys who can get buckets one-on-one over and over are worthy of max deals, then you will never believe Horford is worthy of one. But his all-around play and behind-the-scenes leadership are converting skeptics.
6. The sheer amount of Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell happening in Utah
It was charming for a while — the shaggy passing savant embracing his selfish side, and the fearless rookie jitterbugging into step-back 3s and artful floaters. It has started to come apart.
Ricky Rubio is down to 39 percent overall, and 30 percent from deep on a career high (by a mile) in shot attempts. He has mastered some nice back-and-forth pick-and-roll dance steps with Rudy Gobert, but Rubio jacking about 12.5 per shots game while dishing only six dimes is an alarm bell.
Mitchell’s numbers are just as bad: 34 percent from the floor, 31.7 on 3s. And, man, is he letting it fly. Mitchell is launching 19.6 shots for per 36 minutes. Only 13 rotation players cracked the 19 barrier last season: Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Isaiah Thomas, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Damian Lillard, DeMar DeRozan, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade (do you, Dwyane!) and Zach Randolph (guh).
That is not a group for Mitchell. At some point, you need to pass. The volume from Rubio and Mitchell is unsustainable.
This shot distribution is less about these guys, and more about Utah’s construction. Losing both George Hill and Gordon Hayward robbed them of two off-the-bounce engines who could also space the floor as dangerous 3-point shooters when someone else took the controls. Rodney Hood has siphoned a little of the load, but not enough to make a dent — and not as much as the Jazz likely anticipated.
The other three starters — Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert — are about maxed out in terms of how much offense they can create without help. The ginormous, old-school Favors-Gobert duo is struggling for the first time; Utah’s starting lineup has been among the worst heavy-minute groups in the league so far. There is very little space to maneuver when Rubio is on the floor with two traditional big men.
The Jazz are down to 27th in points per possession. Squeezing points from this roster will be the biggest challenge of Quin Snyder’s NBA career. It is really hard to make the playoffs with a bottom-five offense.
7. They’re not booing. They’re saying KUUUUUUZ
My favorite thing about the Lakers’ real rookie sensation: Kyle Kuzma‘s shoot-pass-or-drive decisiveness when the ball swings his way. Secondary players cannot afford to hesitate, even for a second or two, when they get the ball against a scrambling defense. It strangles possessions. It gives the defense a chance to reset itself.
Kuzma varies his tactics depending on matchups. If he has a bigger, slower guy on him, Kuzma catches and goes without a real pump fake:
He has soft touch with both hands, and a deep bag of wackadoo hooks and runners. Against wings who can match his speed, Kuzma will unleash a mean fake, and whoosh away if they take the bait:
Some adversity is coming, and it may have started last night in a blowout loss against the Wizards. Kuzma is squishy on defense, and he’s shooting only 30 percent from deep. It just feels like he has been more accurate. He’ll have to make more for that pump-fake to remain convincing.
8. Washington’s bench (kinda)
The decision to stagger star players instead of maximizing the minutes they play together isn’t as easy as we make it out to be — at least for teams with exactly two distinct stars. Depending on roster and opponent, it might make sense on some nights to survive extended minutes with a punchless bench mob — to try to play to a draw — and milk 30-plus double-star minutes.
Washington probably faces the most pressing version of this night-to-night dilemma. Their main starting lineup is plus-72 in 144 minutes, per NBA.com/Stats. All other lineups are minus-38 in 389 minutes. It’s Groundhog Day in D.C.: The bench isn’t quite carrying its weight, and the Wiz are talking junk before crapping the bed against too many bad teams.
The return of Markieff Morris should help, but it pushes Kelly Oubre Jr. — shooting a preposterous 44 percent from deep — into an alpha reserve role for which he is ill-suited. The Oubre version of Washington’s bench mob — Tim Frazier, Jodie Meeks, Oubre, Mike Scott, and Ian Mahinmi — has been a mess on both ends. These five just sort of go through their paces for 20 seconds, cutting and screening and gaining no north-south traction, before someone heaves a shot.
Scott Brooks has tried Otto Porter in the lone starter role alongside four bench players, but that’s a tough ask for him, too. (He is playing so well this season, he might be ready for it.) I’ve pitched the idea before of moving Morris to the bench; he served as Washington’s holdover starter for much of last season, and he can generate offense on the block. That move has downsides. If Morris doesn’t buy in, it’s a no-go. It would also create a logjam of backup bigs.
The real solution against top competition will be to stagger John Wall and Bradley Beal so that one is always on the floor, and I suspect Brooks will do this in the postseason — unless the bench gives him a reason to chance it.
9. Golden State, entering Destructo Mode
Uh oh. They woke up. The Warriors are 5-0 since a blasé home loss to Detroit. They have outscored those five opponents — four strong playoff candidates and the even-better Spurs — by almost 22 points per game. They are doing that thing again where they come out in the third quarter and absolutely blow the doors off of people. They have blitzed those five teams by 12 points per game alone in the third quarter, per NBA.com.
They are scoring 116.2 points per 100 possessions — on pace to bust their own record as the greatest offensive team in NBA history. The chasm between that figure and the No. 2 mark — Houston, at 109.3 — is the same as the gap between the Rockets and Philadelphia’s 20th-ranked offense. They have cracked the top 10 in points allowed per possession, and they will rise further. Steve Kerr’s apoplectic reactions to uncalled travels are in postseason form.
They have assisted on 70 percent of their buckets, tops in the league. They have barely even begun to incorporate Nick Young and Omri Casspi. They don’t even really have to. They are getting quality minutes from all of their centers, and when their centers score, you can warm up the bus. David West is shooting 68 percent! Kevon Looney looks more comfortable moving around on defense. They even allow Zaza Pachulia to flip up a few goofy scoop shots every night, just so he keeps setting screens and boxing dudes out.
I sat just above the baseline in Denver on Saturday night when the Warriors, up five at halftime, put up 27 points in the first 6 minutes. 30 seconds of the third quarter. They whipped the ball around so fast, I could barely track it. One 3-pointer bled into another. The Nuggets had no clue what hit them. They had no idea what to do. It is jarring, and frankly almost uncomfortable, to see a good team in the world’s best basketball league rendered helpless. They had no recourse.
Stephen Curry is still below 40 percent from deep, but he looks like a man fully in command of the game. He’s playing with an icy calm, happy to take what the defense gives — even if it means launching a few long 2s, or driving into contact.
Their early-season scuffles gave us all some hope for suspense. They are extinguishing it right now.
10. Basketballs in photos
The yearbook-style media day photos are corny enough — the ones in which players, wearing their official jerseys, all put their hands on a basketball that is there for no reason and grin like lunatics. Sometimes they even pretend they are fighting over the ball, and make mean faces at each other! Fun!
But why in the hell is cocktail chic Dwane Casey randomly holding a basketball?
“Why yes, I did bring a basketball to the bar. Is that weird? Can I coat check it? Why are you walking away from me like Homer Simpson backing through the hedge?”
It’s so absurd, this almost counts as a “like.” But the placement of basketballs in official team photos has gone too far.
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