September 23, 2018

By Sarah Cilea

The Oklahoma City Thunder and Philadelphia 76ers are two teams in a similar position at this point in the season, albeit with contrasting circumstances, and for differing reasons.  They both hover around .500, give or take a game from the eighth seed in their respective conference.  The Sixers are young and learning to play together.  The Thunder are veteran and learning to play together.

When they met Friday night on ESPN, both teams struggled to throw it in the ocean—each shooting under 45 percent from the field—and committed unforced turnovers.  Added up, it all amounted to the first triple-overtime game of the 2017-2018 season.

If you happened to miss it—I’m sorry—and you’re looking for the condensed version, there were three plays that epitomized the game, and could signal what’s to come for each team’s season.

1) With 45 seconds remaining in the third overtime and the score tied at 117, Russell Westbrook brought the ball up the left side of floor as Joel Embiid, spent and obviously hampered by the stiff back that threatened to rule him out of Friday’s game altogether, slowly jogged up the right side.

The game probably should have ended well before it reached this point.  Embiid’s back and the sheer immovability of Steven Adams had combined to make Philadelphia’s young star look almost human for much of the first three quarters and, with Robert Covington (held out of the previous two games with his own back problems) and JJ Redick on their way to shooting a combined 25 percent on 28 three-point attempts, the Sixers seemed all but sunk.

The Thunder held a 94-83 lead with 5:35 remaining in regulation.  Improbably, the Sixers responded with poise beyond their years, going on an 11-0 run as the Thunder went 0-of-11 from the field to end the fourth quarter.

The home team’s resolve to compete through adversity was reflected late in triple-OT as Westbrook gathered steam to turn the corner for the rim.  It seemed certain no help defense would be there to meet him until Embiid came out of nowhere to reject the shot, tumbling into the crowd as he did so.  Moral victories may not count in the win column but the bounce back ability in such a young team can only bode well for the future in Philadelphia, so long as they build diligently on it.  The Process may be ongoing but the progress is real.

2) Patrick Patterson, forced into the game after Adams was disqualified with his sixth foul (and received the now customary salutation from Embiid), switches off Embiid and comes up with the victory-sealing block on Redick’s three-point attempt in the waning seconds of the third overtime.

While the efficiency may not have been spectacular, Oklahoma City got 75 points from their Big Three.  They can just about bank on something near that number even on poor shooting nights.

If, however, this iteration of the Thunder is ever going to be any more than a collection of disparate stars isolating from one another, they will need to ask for and be able to rely on contributions from guys like Patterson, Josh Huestis, Raymond Felton, Jerami Grant, Alex Abrines, and the perpetually unsung Adams.  For his part, Huestis saw 20 minutes of action Friday night, the most he’s played in nearly five weeks, and acquitted himself nicely.  Felton shot 4-of-5 from three for 14 points and three assists in 19 minutes.

3) Westbrook comes up with the loose ball off the defensive glass just a minute into the third overtime and pushes up the floor.  In the final minutes of regulation Westbrook had missed two ferocious dunk attempts, both part of that 0-for-11 finish for OKC.  Doing the same thing over and over with the expectation of a different result is frequently offered as a definition of insanity.  Other times, it is known as perseverance.  Last year, it was simply called MVP.

For better or worse, that’s Russell Westbrook, barreling down the lane just as determinedly in Minute 59 as Minute One, daring anyone to stop him.  On this particular drive, nothing and no one could—as Dario Saric learned.  The resulting dunk, the aftershocks of which I can only assume were still being felt in West Chester in the wee hours of the morning, gave the Thunder a 115-113 lead.  Though the Sixers would again pull even, the Thunder never trailed after that.

Two teams diverged in a season and I—well, I don’t know where either one goes from here.  But they gave us one hell of a December basketball game.

The Muscle Behind the Rockets’ Morey Math

By Jesse Blanchard

For years, every battle between the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich and Mike D’Antoni felt—at least from the outside looking in—like a referendum on the soul of the NBA.

That Popovich always came out victorious at the height of the Duncan-led Spurs and the Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns era felt like a rebuke of D’Antoni’s freewheeling, three-point happy style.

Today, with the proliferation of the three-pointer as the league’s most dangerous weapon, D’Antoni has been more than vindicated, even in the Houston Rockets’ defeat in last year’s playoffs. In Houston, D’Antoni has been blessed with something he lacked since Robert Sarver took control of the Suns: competent management. With the Rockets, his schemes haven’t just been revitalized, they’ve been empowered.

By Morey Math.

Three-pointers, paint shots, free throws. This is the shot profile painted to game the system; squeezing value from the stone. Against the Spurs this weekend, it looked something like this in a 124-109 victory:

Rockets

In a series between two quality teams, this edge in math is supposed to carry the day for Houston against a Spurs team returned to the dark ages of midrange and post touches. And for a quarter, it made sense, with Houston extracting extra points from possessions.

From this, it’s easily argued, every team should redistribute their shot profiles accordingly. Efficiency, pace-and-space and all that.

But does seeking a quality shot profile lead to a quality offense, or will a quality offense inevitably skew towards a shot profile?

In the playoffs last year, the Spurs read the glowing signs screaming, “WE ONLY SHOOT FROM THESE PLACES,” and tested the Rockets commitment to their philosophy, paying attention to every last detail, from rotations to hand placement, and slowing down Houston just enough to wear it down.

The Rockets have since doubled down on its quest for philosophical purity. They lead the NBA in three-point attempts by more than 10 per game, averaging 43.6. Second is the Brooklyn Nets, at 34.0, running at a blistering pace. Houston is also dead last in attempts anywhere from 5-19 feet.

All of this was on display against the Spurs, getting 18 three-pointers on 50 attempts to just 10-for-26 from deep from San Antonio. It doesn’t matter that James Harden was 2-for-11 or Trevor Ariza 3-for-11 from deep, the volume was simply overwhelming.

The same holds true from the free-throw line, where Harden (14-for-16) outpaced the Spurs by himself (7-for-13).

But none of these numbers should worry Popovich or the Spurs. San Antonio has a history of working these numbers back in their favor.

What should concern the Spurs is the inclusion of Chris Paul, who scored 28 points with eight assists and seven steals. Paul’s attempts from midrange are down to career lows, but he showed off an ability to work over the Spurs’ smaller guards from that range. Where Harden flows downhill quickly, Paul meanders, inviting defenders to step up to meet him and leaving teammates’ open from the fabled Morey zones.

And when paired with Harden, it’s another player who can distort an already scrambling defense, breaking it beyond repair.

Prior to joining the Rockets, it was thought Chris Paul’s meticulous nature would make him a natural fit on the craftsmen-like Spurs. Instead, he’s imbued that craft with D’Antoni and Harden’s flowing style, amplifying Morey’s math.

But this isn’t the magic of Morey zones. Last year, the Rockets lost simply because if you stepped away from any conclusions on how teams should play stylistically, it was obvious the Spurs were the superior team.

With Chris Paul, a revitalized Eric Gordon (14 points, 5-for-9 shooting), and a pair of defensive wings, the equation might have flipped. And not because some gimmick or mathematical formula, but because Harden and Paul are simply better players than almost any team can match. Same as, back in the mid-2000s, the answer was the Spurs had Tim Duncan and Phoenix didn’t.

Finally, Houston has strength in numbers. Just not in the numbers we’ve chosen to emphasize.

Reggie Bullock is Making the Most of his Time with the Pistons

Pistons
Dec 15, 2017; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Detroit Pistons forward Reggie Bullock (25) takes a shot against Indiana Pacers guard Victor Oladipo (4) during the first quarter at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

By Duncan Smith

The Detroit Pistons have had a recurring problem over the last couple seasons. Regardless of who they roll out in the starting lineup, that unit has consistently been ineffective. Even this season, with a largely new cast of characters in the main unit and the returning players being better and healthy than last season, the Piston starting unit of Reggie Jackson, Avery Bradley, Stanley Johnson, Tobias Harris and Andre Drummond had a net rating of -7.4.

Enough became enough this past week as Stan Van Gundy replaced Johnson with Reggie Bullock as the starting three. Bullock came to the Pistons as little more than salary fodder three summers ago when the Phoenix Suns were trying to make space to sign LaMarcus Aldridge. The Suns whiffed on the big man, but Bullock has lingered with the Pistons.

Bullock has shown flashes of being a quality NBA player, but he’s also battled injuries and bad luck throughout his time in Detroit. After being relegated to the end of the rotation much of the first couple months of the season, he was elevated to the starting lineup and seems to be finally ready to make the most of his opportunity.

Bullock fits the bill as a starting 3-and-D wing, which is exactly the role Stan Van Gundy and the Pistons want him to play. While he’s not as strong a defender as Johnson, he’s a more reliable shooter. Bullock is a career 35.5 percent three-point shooter, and he’s hitting 38.8 percent over the three years he’s been with the Pistons.

The Pistons are 3-1 since Bullock was moved into the starting lineup, and in his stint as starter he’s averaging 27 minutes per game, shooting 64.5 percent from the floor and 60 percent from three. While surely those numbers will regress, all the Pistons need him to do on offense is knock down open threes and cut off the ball.

So far this season he’s scoring 1.533 points per possession on unguarded jump shots, and he’s about league average in scoring off cuts at 1.231 points per possession. He also provides spacing for the Pistons’ motion offense and Andre Drummond’s dribble hand offs.

While Johnson’s inability to shoot put them at a tactical disadvantage from a spacing perspective, Bullock is a guy defenders can’t sag off to cheat towards the middle and cut off dribble hand offs and runs to the rim.

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