The past couple of weeks have seen some contenders unravel themselves (looking at you, Houston Rockets, losers of 3 straight) while others have seemingly bolstered themselves with key late-season pickups.
The Los Angeles Lakers—with their additions of Markieff Morris and Dion Waiters—and L.A. Clippers (via Marcus Morris, Reggie Jackson and Joakim Noah) all certainly qualify.
And then there are those sleeper teams that have started to solidify their identities late in the season, including the Dallas Mavericks (winners of 6 of their last 10) and Miami Heat (5-1 over their last 6 games).
While a lot has been written about how the Mavericks have found their identity behind forward Kristaps Porzingis and guard Luka Doncic, I’d like to first shine the spotlight this week on how the Heat are getting it done.
As always, this is a breezy look through the top NBA storylines of the moment, and you can always catch up on the previous round of goodies here:
WHAT MAKES MIAMI’S DEFENSE SO EFFECTIVE?
Last week began for the Heat with a rugged and physical 105-89 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in Miami.
For those of you who missed last week’s column (above), I focused on what teams could do to slow down forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Heat did just that, holding Giannis to a season-low 13 points on 6-18 shooting from the floor.
Center Bam Adebayo led the effort by being physical, denying Antetokounpo’s entry into the paint and cutting off passing lanes.
A much-improved and versatile Bam has always played a fierce and aggressive brand of basketball (see this great feature by Zach Lowe for ESPN.com tilted ‘Bam Adebayo is the fiercest, best NBA player you don’t know’). But to understand what has keyed the Heat’s success this season is to understand the Heat’s defensive scheme, its impacts on opponents and the undeniable influence guard Jimmy Butler has had on his teammates this season.
To illustrate, per Advanced NBA.com stats, the Heat hold opponents to just 35.2 percent shooting in the 10-14 ft range (first in the NBA), 37.3 percent shooting in the 15-19 ft range (third) and 35.5 percent in the 20-24 ft range (sixth).
To top this off, the team uses a combination of a man-to-man (via tall, physical match-ups) and 2-3 zone defense to trap opponents, barely allowing them into the paint. The Heat are giving up just 27.7 shot attempts around the basket (second in the NBA) and 8.3 attempts in the 5-9 ft range (sixth).
Defensive stalwarts 6’9” Adebayo and 6’7” Butler lead the charge by closing out on shooters and then quickly running back into the paint or in front of screens to help teammates. In fact, Adebayo’s length and quickness allows him to cover the distance between the 3-point line and the paint in less than two steps!
Jay Williams did a great job of breaking this down in the January segment for ESPN above. He also highlighted the team’s collective effort and high defensive IQ.
If the Heat can sustain this effort going into the playoffs, I believe they have a legitimate shot at shutting down Eastern Conference behemoths like the Toronto Raptors and Bucks to make the Finals this year.
DO THE CLIPPERS HAVE THE MOST COMPLETE ROSTER IN THE LEAGUE?
Speaking of teams who have a shot at winning it all this year, few have been better than the Los Angeles Clippers with their recent play.
Winners of six straight (all against playoff teams) before their 112-103 loss to the Lakers on March 8, the Clippers have done it in style, shooting the ball at a scorching 49.7 percent from the field and outscoring opponents by an average of 17.0 points per game during that time.
The Clippers now have what could be the league’s most complete roster, representing size at each spot (7’0” center Ivica Zubac, 6’8” wing Paul George and 6’3” point guard Reggie Jackson) offense-defense versatility (forwards Kahwi Leonard, Montrezl Harrell, Marcus Morris Sr.) and quickness (guards Patrick Beverly, Lou Williams and Landry Shamet). The addition of energetic defensive big Joakim Noah can only help further, even if he’s simply joining an already deep frontcourt reserve of JaMychal Green and Patrick Patterson.
This versatility allows the Clippers to play up to big teams and down to small teams. Heck, it even allows them to play small and quick against the bigger slower teams and bully the smaller teams with their size: See L.A.’s 120-105 drubbing of the Houston Rockets on March 5 as an example.
Zach Lowe of ESPN lauded this quality when he called them a ‘chameleon team’ and continues to hold them as a favorite to win the title this year. I agree, and can’t be more excited about my theoretical Heat – Clippers matchup!
For a more detailed analysis of the Clips and what’s behind their recent success, check out this feature by TBW’s Kelly Scaletta:
IS THERE MORE TO THE MAVS THAN THE KP-DONCIC PAIRING?
I covered the Dallas Mavericks in last week’s column when I called them out on their lack of defense.
Credit has to be given where it is due, however. Over their last ten games, the Mavs have stepped up and are holding opponents to 44.5 percent shooting (up from season’s 45.2) and 31.9 percent shooting from deep (up from 34.3).
But I’d also like to give a shout out to guards Tim Hardaway Jr. and Seth Curry, who are both rising to the challenge with their recent play.
Hardaway has long lived under the weight of expectations after signing a $71 million contract at the beginning of the 2017-18 campaign with the New York Knicks. He has seamlessly switched between playing in and out of the starting lineup as per need, all the while giving the Mavs a scoring punch whenever either Porzingis or Doncic are out.
He is averaging a solid 21.6 points per game at a 41.3 percent clip from deep whilst logging in 36.6 minutes per game over the last five contests. Hardaway is also credited as being a vocal leader and ‘culture guy’ on the roster.
Seth Curry has lived in the shadow of superstar brother and Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry. Yet, he’s also become a respected shooter in recent years who has earned a role on some pretty good teams. He has been vital in spacing the floor during his return to the Mavs. Over his last 10 games, Curry is averaging 18.7 points per game on a scorching 60.9 percent field goal clip (55.7 percent from the 3-point line).
And it gets even better when you look at his unreal play over the last five games: 21.4 points per game at 65.6 percent field goal clip and 62.5 percent from deep.
That type of punch coming in addition to Luka and Porzingis? The Mavs are certainly lethal on one side of the court.
The defensive end remains a real work-in-progress, but Dallas could be a dangerous first-round opponent to many…
SMALL BALL ISN’T SUSTAINABLE DID YOU SAY?
For weeks following the trade deadline, league pundits, including our very own editor-in-chief Joel Cordes, wondered aloud whether the new Houston Rockets small ball style was sustainable.
(You can hear Joel dish on the Rockets and more on last week’s ‘Basketball by Association’ podcast):
Embarrassingly, the Rockets only added fuel to the chatter, laying an egg over their latest three-game stretch (two against bottom-dwelling teams) that seems to have exposed some very real flaws.
There was their lone visit to Madison Square Garden on February 24 when they got bullied by the Knicks for a 125-123 loss. The Rockets were outrebounded 65-34 and outscored by 64-36 in the paint. Then came the shooting woes when the Clippers pranced into town on March 5. The Rockets went 7-42 from 3-point range and struggled to get into any kind of rhythm. They surrendered a 120-105 defeat on national TV.
Finally, two nights later on March 7, the Rockets dropped a road game, 108-99 to the lowly Charlotte Hornets. In a unique twist, the Hornets rattled off 20 straight points to start the game and instantly put the Rockets into a deficit they could never quite climb out of. Playing without backcourt mate Russell Westbrook, James Harden recorded a triple-double (30 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds) but also turned the ball over 10 times.
Hooray for a quadruple-double?
With all the downsides of playing small ball suddenly shining through, coach Mike D’Antoni may want to consider a more hybrid style to re-balance his team. Who knows, 7’0” veteran big Tyson Chandler may finally see some action!
WHAT ARE THE NETS THINKING?
What were the Brooklyn Nets thinking when they let go of head coach Kenny Atkinson earlier this week?
As per sources close to the team, this was a decision that may have been quietly brewing for some time.
Having been instrumental in patiently building the team’s current culture, Atkinson reportedly wanted to continue investing in the team’s young core, especially around guards Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert. Marks, on the other hand, had perhaps begun to explore the idea of trading away the dynamic duo in hopes of finding key veteran talent and building around superstars guard, Kyrie Irving and forward, Kevin Durant.
For an informed take on who the Nets could hire as their next head coach, check out this feature by Adam Spinella:
What can’t be ignored, is how well the team has played without their two superstars: They hold a 29-34 record, good for seventh in the East.
Dinwiddie, LeVert and center Jarrett Allen (among others) are all having breakout seasons, and it is disappointing to see the team virtually ignore the fact with their actions. Agreed, that the Nets likely always had it in their plans to win big with their superstar duo, but who said internal growth couldn’t be part of that foundation?
At the very least, we still have the rest of the regular season and at least one round of the playoffs to continue enjoying the play of this young trio.
Sid is a TBW staff writer who was born and raised in India. His fandom is a testament to the ever-widening reach of the NBA. Always rooting for the underdog player and/or team, Sid has lived through many exhilarating ups and frustrating downs as a New York Knicks fan for nearly two decades.