We're in the final month. Let's go.
1. The unsung brilliance of Kyrie Irving
With Irving out resting his knee, let's take a minute to appreciate his splendid first season with the Boston Celtics. We tend to focus on the brilliance of Irving's dribbling exhibitions -- the crossovers and step-backs that flow together in a liquid dance. They are magic. There is some basketball IQ in them, too -- Irving thinking two moves ahead, using the first hard dribble to set up the final blow.
But Irving's overall basketball IQ has always been a bit underrated, probably because it hasn't translated into enough playmaking for others. It showed in his screening ballet with LeBron James in Cleveland -- the way Irving disguised the direction of his picks until the very last second, and rolled downhill (semi-illegally) into the chest of LeBron's defender, dragging the defense into the very switch it feared.
Another recent example:
Irving calls over Marcus Morris knowing the Rockets will switch. (Houston's switching has flummoxed teams all season, and they seem to be doing even more lately.) Even a clean switch leaves a split-second window between the moment one defender leaves and the next arrives. Irving is playing for that window.
He dribbles once, but he doesn't intend to go anywhere. It is a super-quick, low dribble designed to activate his shooting motion while James Harden is still several feet away -- to rise up before Harden can close out.
Let's hope Irving gets back healthy so Boston can make an honest playoff run.
2. Denver without all three of Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray
Denver is minus-74 in almost 400 minutes Barton has played without that crew this season, per NBA.com. The Nuggets' offense has scored only 100 points per 100 possessions in that time -- more than a point below Phoenix's league-worst overall number.
Millsap wouldn't solve the intractable issue these lineups face: lack of shooting. The current favored version -- Devin Harris, Barton, Chandler, Trey Lyles and Mason Plumlee -- has been a disaster in limited minutes, and likely cost the Nuggets a borderline must-win against the Lakers on Tuesday with two separate awful stints. (That group played only five minutes in Denver's win Thursday over Detroit. Progress!)
That group has some off-the-dribble juice; they just don't have anywhere to dribble. Things get sludgy. Everyone dribbles into bodies, pitches it to the next guy, and watches him dribble into more bodies. They gain no north-south traction. Then someone flings up a floater.
It shouldn't be that hard to bring someone back in early to boost the collective shooting and playmaking. Gary Harris is the best candidate. Mike Malone used Jokic in this role Thursday, and that worked fine, too.
3. Aaron Gordon's search for balance
What a strange season for Gordon. He started off on fire, tailed off a bit (as expected), suffered some injuries, and then just kinda kept tailing off. He's down to 44 percent overall, and 34.8 percent from deep -- a tick below league average.
More than that, it still doesn't feel like the Orlando Magic know how to use him -- or that Gordon knows what he wants to be. That knowledge void is kind of a problem, since Gordon is up for a big new contract this summer.
Gordon has attempted just 40 shots out of the pick-and-roll all season, per NBA.com. That's already as many as he tried last season, but it's still low considering his versatility as a screen-setter who can pop for 3-pointers, dive for dunks, and pass on the move. Gordon has set only 12.9 ball screens per 100 possessions, a number on par with Sam Dekker, Marcus Morris and Rudy Gay -- and way below even medium-volume screen-setters -- according to Second Spectrum tracking data.
He likes to play the part of ball-dominant superstar, but he's not good enough -- yet. Gordon has worked as the ball-handler in about the same (low) number of pick-and-rolls as last season, per tracking data. When he drives, he has a little of Julius Randle's muscly bull-rushing:
But he often dances his way into barfy shots like this:
Gordon is shooting an ugly 36 percent on isolations, and he isn't using them to create drive-and-kick opportunities; his assist rate has barely budged. Add it up, and the Magic are scoring 0.68 points per possession out of Gordon isolations, a mark that ranks 146th among 154 guys who have recorded at least 50 such plays, per Second Spectrum.
Gordon has always been most effective when he channels his inner Draymond Green: defend like hell across every position, set screens, pop 3s, and spray passes when defenses collapse on his rim runs. He doesn't seem to have much interest in being that player.
Then again, the Magic have not provided him with an environment to grow into that kind of player. Before Elfrid Payton was traded to Phoenix, Gordon spent a ton of floor time with Payton, and defenders duck way under picks for Payton -- meaning they can stay home on everyone else, including Gordon. Orlando's centers supercede Gordon in the screen-setting hierarchy, and one of them -- Bismack Biyombo -- clogs Gordon's natural habitat. They famously shoehorned Gordon onto the wing after somehow thinking it was a good idea to splurge on both Biyombo and Serge Ibaka -- with Nikola Vucevic already around.
Have the Magic ever grasped a coherent identity -- even for just a half-dozen games -- since the Dwight Howard trade?
4. Jerami Grant, utility man
A year ago, there was much fretting about whether Grant could approach competency from 3-point range. The Oklahoma City Thunder have gone the other way. Grant's 3-point rate is way down, and 56 percent of his shots have come within the restricted area -- by far a career high.
Oklahoma City has turned Grant from a wannabe wing into a screen-setting backup center. He is setting 34 picks per 100 possessions this season, more than quadruple his rate from 2016-17, per Second Spectrum tracking data. He has a knack for contorting his body through tight spaces, and coaxing in shots from odd, tilting release points:
He draws a ton of contract. Grant is flying elbows and flailing limbs, and his body moves in a staccato that throws defenders out of rhythm. On pick-and-roll plays when he is the screen setter and either finishes with a shot, draws a foul or makes a turnover, Grant is getting to the line 29.4 percent of the time -- the largest share in the league. He's shooting 62.5 percent out of that action, an elite mark.
When Grant sets picks, Patrick Patterson, his most frequent big man partner, spots up along the arc. When the Thunder shift Patterson into pick-and-pop mode, Grant lurks along the baseline for drop-off passes and violent put-back dunks.
He can switch across all five positions, and fit in lots of different lineups. He filled in for Steven Adams at center in a super-small lineup down the stretch Tuesday against Atlanta, and has spent time in Andre Roberson's starting slot in an ultra-big group.
Grant is an important part of a Thunder bench that has held up surprisingly well at times given the, umm, talent involved. Oklahoma City is net-neutral -- literally, tied -- in 353 minutes they have played without any of Westbrook, Anthony and George, per NBA.com. (Note to Billy Donovan: This remains a bad idea.) George serves as the lone starter propping up Westbrook-less second units, and since Jan. 1, those lineups with Grant and George have outscored opponents by about a point per 100 possessions -- a huge victory, given how bad the Thunder had been without Westbrook.
Grant was one of the few guys who made sense for a contract extension before the season, but the two sides don't appear to have gotten close. Grant will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. He is playing well at the right time.
5. Trey Burke, thirsty for 2s
Kudos to Trey Burke for making some changes and reclaiming his place in the league. It feels a little icky to nitpick his shot profile.
But, my god, does this dude love long 2-pointers. Almost half his shots have come from the extended midrange, a share that lands Burke in the 99th percentile among all point guards, per Cleaning The Glass. He has hit 55 percent of them so far -- well beyond typical Dirk Nowitzki/Chris Paul territory. Burke has been solid from the midrange in the past -- around 41 percent for his career -- but this season's number is unsustainable.
Burke has been thirsty since the New York Knicks called him up from the G-League. He's launching 18.5 shots per 36 minutes. That would rank 19th among all rotation players, tied with LeBron James. The guys ahead of him are either stars, wannabe stars on terrible teams, or Marreese Speights.
Maybe it doesn't matter. The Knicks without Kristaps Porzingis are awful. Someone has to shoot. It might as well be Burke (or Michael Beasley). There is value in a backup point guard who can generate decent looks almost on his own for bench units bereft of shot creators. Someone has to pass, too, and Burke is dishing 7.7 dimes per 36 minutes.
But Burke's game is a little out of balance. He has earned a shot as backup -- the Knicks have him on a nonguaranteed deal next season -- and with that done, Burke doesn't have to monopolize the offense. Maybe give Frank Ntilikina a few more turns? Try more pull-up 3s, grind on defense, venture farther into the lane.
PS: Good job by the Knicks locking up Troy Williams through next season. He's long and athletic, with some record of hitting corner 3s, and he just turned 23. Worth a look.
6. Generic G League names
Speaking of the Westchester Knicks: How disappointing is it that New York held a fan contest to name its (then) D-League team, and "Knicks" won? I bet the franchise was secretly happy.
I blame the Spurs and Warriors for the wave of minor-league teams taking on the same nicknames as their parent clubs. When the Spurs rechristened the Austin Toros as the Spurs -- and the Warriors debuted the Santa Cruz Warriors -- the Lindsey Naegles of the sports business world cheered the "branding synergy." Both of those words are terrible, by the way. Used together, they induce involuntary vomiting.
To hell with branding synergy. To hell with the Lakeland Magic, Windy City Bulls (the "Windy City" part is cool), Long Island Nets, Knicks, Warriors and Spurs. The jury is out on Raptors 905.
The G League is for adventure. The Wizards took flak when they announced their G League team would be called the Capital City Go-Go in a nod to local music heritage. I am here for the Capital City Go-Go. I like the name, and beyond that, I like the Wizards taking a big swing.
Does anyone -- any single living person -- regret naming Memphis' G League team the Hustle? I'll even settle for punny names derived from the parent club -- the Grand Rapids Drive (Pistons), Delaware 87ers (guess), Wisconsin Herd (Bucks), etc.
Keep the G League crazy!
7. The spacing in San Antonio
Until feasting on a Magic team playing some of the stankiest, tankiest lineups (shouts to Shelvin Mack for getting some time as a first option!) you will ever see -- and starting small, with Kyle Anderson at power forward -- the Spurs' offense had been cratering. They're down to 18th in points per possession even after an important win over New Orleans on Thursday, and they just cannot crack open any space when both Dejounte Murray and Slow-Mo are on the floor.
Those guys are old basketball souls who use ancient tricks to compensate for bricky shooting. Murray skulks along the baseline for dump-offs and offensive rebounds. Anderson meanders around guys who close out on him, and flips in-between shots with a soft touch.
But craft isn't always enough. Neither can shoot from deep, and that cramps LaMarcus Aldridge's office space on the block:
Without Kawhi Leonard, the math of San Antonio's midrange-heavy shot selection works against them. Their shot profile hasn't budged from last season. With Leonard playing like an MVP in 2016-17, they outperformed their expected field-goal percentage -- based on shot location, shooters, and defender proximity -- by the fifth-largest margin in the league, per Second Spectrum. This season, they are shooting almost exactly as expected, and it isn't good enough -- especially since they don't gobble up free throws or offensive rebounds at a high rate. (Also: Why doesn't Danny Green play a little more?)
The Spurs built this team to play a certain style, and without their foundational talent, they can't play it well enough to win at a high level.
8. Taurean Prince, sidesteppin'
It seems simple, but this is the kind of skill-within-a-skill that player development coaches drill every day -- a learned movement some players don't feel comfortable using in games until it is so ingrained, they can do it without thinking:
Prince has that sidestep 3 down. It is always fascinating to watch how wings who come to the Atlanta Hawks with holes in their games fill those holes. Atlanta prides itself on turning one- or two-dimensional wings into Swiss Army knives who can shoot, pass and dribble -- and choose the correct one of those instantly every time they get the ball. Those are the hardest kinds of players to find. Teams that gather the most survive into May and June.
Prince is Atlanta's most important current test case, and it has been refreshing to see him perk up over the past three weeks. He has scored at least 15 points in seven of Atlanta's past nine games, a stretch that has included a 25-point game and a 38-point outburst. He's shooting 50 percent from deep in February, and he's up to 39 percent for the season on a high volume.
He fell into some troughs in December and January. Mike Budenholzer even benched him for a couple of extended in-game stretches. Prince's defense is hit-or-miss, and his decision-making with the ball can go haywire.
But zoom out, and he's getting better. The Hawks have a ton riding on his future.
9. In-game shot-miming
Keep an eye on Domantas Sabonis near the rim at the end of this clip:
What is he doing? Is he frustrated he didn't get the ball, and showing that frustration by mimicking the layup he would have attempted? Is he just jumping because jumping is fun?
Now check out Rajon Rondo in the right corner -- in crunch time!
Yeah, I don't think he expected to get the ball.
Watch enough NBA games, and they all blend together. Possessions follow the same patterns. Thanks the basketball gods for weird, out-of-the-ordinary foibles like this.
By the way: Rondo has been about as good as the New Orleans Pelicans could have hoped. They've hit their apex without him -- and with Jrue Holiday manning point guard in lineups that bring more defense and shooting. (How has the Holiday-E'Twaun Moore-Darius Miller-Nikola Mirotic-Anthony Davis five played only 31 minutes?) That doesn't mean Rondo has been useless on a thin team starved for NBA-quality players.
He remains a canny passer, and Alvin Gentry has mitigated Rondo's shaky shooting by using him as a screen-setter away from the ball. And about that shooting: Rondo has hit 35 percent from deep after canning 37 percent in each of the past two seasons. That's not great, considering how open opponents leave him. He still sabotages spacing, and that hurts the offense in ways that are harder to quantify.
But a 35 percent hit rate on wide-open 3s is fine. You can sustain a good offense that way.
10. Fast breaks without dribbling
In this stupid, polarized climate of haters and dubious "well, actually" takes, there is one thing we can all agree on: Fast breaks without dribbles are awesome.