A rematch of the compelling Western Conference Finals resulted in a weak showing from the defending champions, as the Golden State Warriors scored a season-low 86 points in a resounding loss to the Houston Rockets on Thursday night. The sluggish scoring snapped a 12-game streak of at least 110 points, the Warriors' longest such streak since 1989 -- or one year after Stephen Curry was born.
Golden State's starters didn't hit any of their nine attempts from beyond the arc. The last time the Warriors starting lineup failed to make a 3-pointer in a game was March 15, 2013 versus the Bulls. Pulling away from their perimeter-driven game, the Warriors drove the ball 34 times on Thursday, their second-highest total this season. They have lost three of their five games when driving the ball as many as 30 times this season.
The Rockets have now allowed fewer than 100 points in six of their past seven games after having allowed 115.6 PPG in the first seven games of the season. Houston has improved their paint defense dramatically; in October, they gave up a league-high 59.3 points per game in the paint, while this month they are allowing 40.9 points per game in the paint, the third fewest in the NBA.
A quietly key part of the Rockets' revival has been the play of James Ennis III, who is competently fulfilling the ballyhooed Trevor Ariza role. During the past two games, Ennis is thriving with 17.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG and 2.0 3PG on clean shooting rates. Comparing Ariza's 2017-18 effort to his replacement, we find Ariza averaged 11.7 PPG, 1.5 SPG and 2.5 3PG on 36.8 percent from 3-point range in 34 MPG last season for Houston. Relying on per-36 rates to approximate Ennis's value in this context, he's producing 12.5 PPG, 1.4 SPG and 2.3 3PG on 39.5 percent 3-point shooting.
Available in 99.9 percent of ESPN leagues (I'm a proud member of that 0.1 percent), Ennis is beginning to surge as the "3 and D" wing Houston needed to facilitate this impressive turnaround.
With an eye on meaningful fantasy performances and relevant statistical trends, let's delve into the night that was in the NBA.
Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets: 18 points (8-13 FG), 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals, 2 blocks, 1 TO
Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors: 10 points (5-16 FG), 3 rebounds, 2 blocks, 3 TO
Derrick White, San Antonio Spurs: 0 points (0-5 FG), 2 rebounds, 1 assist
The Hawks endured their worst loss since January of 2004 in a drubbing at the hands of Denver. The key fantasy story from this contest is found on the Nuggets -- with coach Mike Malone seemingly tired of the team's inconsistent defensive play, Jamal Murray was pulled from the starting lineup shortly before tip so that Monte Morris could take his place. Murray checked into the game six minutes into the contest, yet played only 23 minutes overall, his fewest since resting in an early-season blowout win over Sacramento. Morris has become an interesting flier in deeper leagues as he assumes some of the rewarding usage void created by an injured Will Barton. Murray, meanwhile, should be considered a strong buy-low candidate, as his demotion appears short-term with the team reliant on his playmaking.
Worth mentioning after last night's season-high 25-point performance, Juan Hernangomez has averaged 33.3 MPG the past three outings, all starts. While we've all waited for his brother Willy Hernangomez's breakout, Juan's role could fluctuate too much for the fantasy fun to materialize, especially if Mason Plumlee and Trey Lyles earn meaningful minutes in the games ahead.
Trae Young produced his seventh game with at least five turnovers in the loss to Denver, leading all rookies. Then again, Young would also become just the third rookie to average 16 PPG and 8.0 APG in league history if he can sustain this blend, joining only Damon Stoudamire and Oscar Robertson's respective rookie efforts.
The end of Carmelo Anthony's stint with the Rockets is official. Anthony is averaging career lows in points per game (13.4), assists per game (0.5) and minutes per game (29.4). Anthony has come off the bench eight times this season after never doing so in the first 1,054 games of his career. The Rockets improved by 12.1 points per 100 possessions with Carmelo off the floor, the largest difference among 10 Rockets to play at least 100 minutes this season. It will be interesting to see which team takes a shot on the veteran scorer. I'd advise fantasy investors in all formats to cut bait and instead turn to the likes of Ennis for some help on the wing.
Injuries of note
Hawks forward Taurean Prince was held out of last night's game because of Achilles tendon soreness.
Analytics advantage for Friday
The Utah Jazz somehow sit 18th in defensive rating, just behind the Sacramento Kings, after having the stingiest rating in the league last season. The Philadelphia 76ers, meanwhile, are found at 12th in defensive rating this season, a stark departure from ranking third overall last season.
Splits can be quite noisy this early in the season, but it's interesting to note the Jazz have the league's sixth-best defensive rating in the league on the road this season and the worst defensive rating at home. The Sixers, for their part, have the league's fifth-best defense while at home this season. This all aligns to suggest that we could see a compelling defensive-minded matchup unfold in South Philly, especially if these respective home/splits bear out.
Stacking in this game doesn't appear ideal, given the impressive defensive splits, but it's still going to be riveting theater to see Joel Embiid, tied with LeBron James for second in the NBA in scoring, face Rudy Gobert, last season's Defensive Player of the Year winner.
Top players to watch tonight
The Raptors visit the Celtics in a potential Eastern Conference Finals preview on Friday at 7 ET on ESPN. LeBron's departure to the Western Conference has cleared the way for a non-LeBron team to represent the East in the NBA Finals for the first time since 2009-10 (Celtics). Boston and Toronto are currently the co-favorites to win the East, per the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.
Kyrie Irving got off to a slow start this season, but over his past seven games, he is averaging 26.4 points on 53.6 percent shooting, while hitting half of his attempts from deep.
In 11 games this season, Kawhi Leonard is putting up very similar numbers to his last full season in San Antonio, when he finished third in MVP voting. Leonard, on a team that currently claims the best record in the NBA, has a 76.6 career winning percentage, the best individual winning percentage in NBA history among those who have played in at least 400 games.