We went wild and included 11 things this week.
1. The fightin' Celtics -- and one looming problem
With about 6 minutes, 45 seconds left in the Boston Celtics' stirring win over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday -- the injury-ravaged Celtics' third win in eight days over a superior-on-paper Western Conference team -- the Jazz ran an unusual out-of-timeout play designed to spring Donovan Mitchell from the corner while help defenders gawked at decoy action.
Guerschon Yabusele -- Dancin' Bear, seldom-used backup -- sniffed out the play, ignored the planted distraction, jetted down from the foul line, and damn near stuffed Mitchell at the rim. Yabusele fouled Mitchell, but come on: That he was even in the neighborhood is emblematic of how hard and smart Boston has played without half its rotation -- including (in that game) its three best players.
Boston is a nightmare to score on when it bookends lineups with Terry Rozier and Al Horford. Rozier has blossomed in Kyrie Irving's place, launching clutch off-the-bounce 3-pointers with Curry-level swagger. He is a ravenous rebounder. Brad Stevens has played Rozier and Shane Larkin together with some success.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have expanded their playmaking in Irving's absence without sacrificing much efficiency. Boston is huge, and in your jersey, and it executes on both ends with minimal mistakes. You have to earn everything.
And yet as fun as this run has been, it masks an underlying danger: the Gordon Hayward-less Celtics still endure long dry spells without Irving, and they cannot accomplish anything at the basket. Only 32 percent of their shots have come within the restricted area, the fifth-lowest share in the league, and that number dips toward dead-last territory when Irving hits the bench, per Cleaning The Glass. (More of their attempts drift into the midrange.) Only Portland has a worse shooting percentage at the rim.
The Celtics don't scrounge extra points; they snare free throws and offensive rebounds at below average rates. Without Irving (and Marcus Smart's underrated playmaking), they profile as a team that would have trouble scoring against a dialed-in playoff defense. (Their most likely first-round opponent -- the Miami Heat -- suffers from the same issue, with better shot distribution and an offense that seems to surge every spring.)
But this streak has been great, rambunctious fun, and it has provided a last-minute boost to Stevens' Coach of the Year case.
2. LeBron, to the opposite corner
No one can defend the Cleveland Cavaliers when they slot four shooters around LeBron. Cleveland's offense in that alignment is fun in its sheer power, but buckets come so easily, we don't get to see apex chessmaster LeBron. He requires more of a challenge.
Enter a non-shooting center -- Tristan Thompson, Larry Nance Jr. or Ante Zizic. When LeBron holds the ball on the wing in fearsome prelude, the defender guarding that guy will slough away to barricade LeBron's path to the rim. That is when LeBron goes to work.
That first rotation leaves the Cavs center open. A third defender will slide off another Cavs player -- usually a shooter in the corner -- to disrupt any alley-oop from James to Thompson. LeBron isn't really concerned with the first two defenders in his way. His target -- his victim -- is that third guy. If LeBron baits him into taking an extra step toward Cleveland's center, it's over; LeBron is slingshotting the ball to a shooter before the defense can register what is happening:
Sometimes, he'll fake that pass, trick the defense into retreating to outside shooters, and loft a lob to his center. Some of his most artful work in the 2016 NBA Finals, the crowning moment of LeBron's career, involved threading a few such lobs between Golden State defenders paralyzed with indecision.
If the defense smothers both options, that means they probably haven't sent the proper help toward LeBron. He will register that, shift into attack mode, and draw the requisite rotations with a few hard dribbles:
LeBron is the best generator of corner 3s in basketball history. That is the product of his all-seeing size, his coming of age amid the 3-point revolution, and most of all, his rare genius. At 33, in his 15th season, that genius remains in full bloom. Don't argue about it. Just enjoy it.
3. The on-again, off-again marginalization of Tony Snell
Snell's confidence wavers. On bad nights, he passes up open 3s and dribbles with a timidity that undercuts the purpose of dribbling. He has used only 10.6 percent of the Milwaukee Bucks' possessions, and it is really hard for an ambulatory perimeter player to record a number so low. It's unclear if he realizes he is allowed to get rebounds and attempt free throws.
But the impulse from two coaches -- Jason Kidd and now Joe Prunty -- to bench Snell, and then slice his minutes, is a little troubling. Kidd replaced Snell in the starting lineup with Malcolm Brogdon. Last week, Prunty swapped him out in favor of Jason freaking Terry before reinserting Snell Thursday, and Snell has played 13 or fewer minutes in three of Milwaukee's last five games.
The engaged version of Snell is a perfect starter next to Giannis Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton. He defends across three positions, and he's shooting 41 percent from deep -- unclogging the lane for Antetokounmpo's rampages. He doesn't need the ball.
That same profile carries much less value on bench units in need of more off-the-dribble juice -- even with Jabari Parker healthy. Terry is ancient. Brogdon is a fine shooter and canny screen-setter for Antetokounmpo, but a lot of his skills overlap with those of Milwaukee's big three.
Prunty is the interim coach of a No. 8 seed. He doesn't have time for Snell's fragility.
But marginalizing Snell is unhealthy in both the short and long term. The best version of this Milwaukee team, and probably next season's, features Snell as a 3-and-D fifth starter. Both sides need to work harder to find that player.
4. Emmanuel Mudiay, out of sorts
Mudiay finally perked up in his past two games, but holy hell has the Mudiay era with the New York Knicks been a tough watch.
Years of bonking shots around the rim have reduced Mudiay to a certain skittishness navigating the pick-and-roll. He has developed a bad habit of gaining an advantage, turning the corner, and giving the advantage right back:
From the moment Mudiay traps Goran Dragic on his hip, the worst possible outcome other than Mudiay throwing the ball away is Mudiay sliding back for a midrange brick.
In Mudiay's defense, this sort of surrender isn't uncommon among young point guards. Kyrie Irving did it a lot in his first two seasons -- perhaps out of arrogance rather than uncertainty -- and D'Angelo Russell is struggling with it now. But Mudiay has to regain confidence in his finishing skills, and build out from there.
Mudiay has been mostly awful in the NBA -- a tank commander of the highest rank. But there is an interesting player in here somewhere. He shot well on catch-and-shoot 3s last season. He's big and fast enough to get where he wants to go, and his vision is ahead of his judgment. He's shooting 68 percent at the rim as a Knick -- blowing away his (ugly) career numbers. Everyone in Denver praises his resiliency. He just turned 22.
He is playing amid a makeshift, tanking team. Provide some stability, and he could grow into something.
5. Cognitive jersey dissonance
Traditionalists have to accept that Nike and the NBA have destroyed the custom of home teams wearing white. It's over.
I don't mind. Most dark jerseys are more interesting. Would you be mad if the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls wore green and red, respectively, every game? When neither team wears white, the color-against-color look usually pops.
One downside: There is a weird cognitive dissonance when two teams with similar color schemes face each other, and the road team wears white. It caused a glitch in my brain on Tuesday when Chicago wore white with red trim in Houston -- where the Rockets once wore white with red trim. The team in white would do something dumb, the crowd would cheer, and some sector of my subconscious went haywire.
I am not alone in this, right? Please tell me I'm not alone.
6. Listless Vooch
Ground-bound plodders can be neutral defenders if they are smart, and play hard all the time. Nikola Vucevic approached neutrality last season. It didn't carry over. Vucevic has defended with a strange listlessness. Help rotations don't happen, or come with such reluctant sloth that they offer no resistance against the endless opponent layup line.
Enemy shooters have hit 66 percent of their shots at the rim with Vucevic nearby, seventh-worst among 64 rotation centers, per NBA.com. He lurches into passing lanes on the pick-and-roll instead of sliding his feet and maintaining balance. Too often, he lurches himself right out of the play. The Orlando Magic are bleeding points when opponents rope Vucevic into the pick-and-roll, per Second Spectrum tracking data.
It's as if six years of losing under four coaches -- and the deterioration of his shooting percentage -- has sapped his spirit. That is a very human thing. Most players hit spells when losing, a poisonous locker-room, or some off-court issue infects their play.
Vucevic is better than this. Hopefully he reminds us next season.
7. Drivin' Joe Harris
Harris might be the league's happiest player development success story. Two years ago, Cleveland dumped him onto Orlando to open a roster spot. Orlando waived him, and he signed with the Nets.
Last season, they gave Harris the Kyle Korver playbook and a green light. He proved he could knock down catch-and-shoot 3s, and defend with a ruggedness that surprised opponents who assumed he was a pushover.
Defenses blitz Harris now, and he has leveraged that into a dangerous driving game. He doesn't even need a pump fake, and he knows it:
Harris drives about 8.5 times per 100 possessions, up from about six last season, and he finishes inside with the right measures of aggression and patience. If help swarms, he knows where the next pass should go. The Nets have scored almost 1.25 points per possession after a Harris drive, one of the three-dozen best marks among 300-plus high-volume drivers, per Second Spectrum.
Harris' pick-and-roll numbers are even better. Brooklyn averages 1.14 points per possession when Harris shoots out of a pick-and-roll, or passes to a teammate who lets fly right away. That ranks first among all ball-handlers -- FIRST! -- who have used at least 75 screens, per Second Spectrum. He has doubled the number of his pull-up 3s from last season.
Harris is not some James Harden-style puppet master piercing defenses from a standstill. The Nets often give him a head start by having him zip up from the baseline, catch the ball up top, and zoom toward a waiting screen. Even so: The numbers are outrageous, and suggest an evolving player.
Harris is a worker, and the Nets are turning themselves into one of the league's best player development labs. Harris is about to sign a fat contract.
8. Dragan Bender, dipping his toe into doing things
Smart feet and good feel are nice, but to be a productive NBA player, you actually have to, like, do stuff. Bender has spent too much of his brief NBA career not doing stuff. In early March, he became the first player since 2012 to log 36 minutes in a game and attempt one or zero shots and zero free throws.
Bender is 20. He missed almost half his rookie season. Perhaps any expectations are unfair. But at some point, the No. 4 pick in the draft -- even a 20-year-old -- has to try things. Good news: Bender is flashing a friskier handoff game -- complete with delightful play-action-fake keepers:
(Yeah, he missed. Baby steps. At least you realized Bender was on the floor.)
The fully formed version of Bender -- the one that will play for a competitive NBA team in the early 2020s -- will look something like this: a big-man fulcrum who can shoot, drive, and pass, and run the offense for snippets. He's even doing the thing where he fakes a handoff, pitches the ball to another teammate along the 3-point arc, and runs right into a pick for that player:
That is a classic Marc Gasol/Nikola Jokic/Boris Diaw move. Since early February, Bender has set almost 26 ball screens per 100 possessions, up from 18 before then, per Second Spectrum tracking data. That is partly the result of Tyson Chandler's disappearance (has anyone seen Tyson Chandler; is he in a hair salon?) but it is a legitimate version of the "player development" teams trumpet when they mothball veterans and try to lose.
The Phoenix Suns still need to decide what position Bender plays, and what sort of frontcourt partner he requires (the Bender-Marquese Chriss tandem has been a disaster) but these flashes are encouraging.
9. Justin Jackson, floating
Unless the Sacramento Kings get The Guy in this draft -- and they've hurt their chances with a few recent loss-wins -- they will need someone among the De'Aaron Fox/Buddy Hield/Willie Cauley-Stein/Bogdan Bogdanovic/Skal Labissiere group to really pop over the next three or four years. They are each on vaguely encouraging trajectories, but it's a long way from adding up to anything meaningful.
It's easy to forget about Justin Jackson. He's 23, without the same hoppy athleticism as some of those guys. He fell out of the rotation for stretches after opening the season as a starter.
But over the past two months, he has emerged as worth watching, and that alone is a win for the Kings. He's 17-of-45 from deep in March, keeping alive the possibility that he might grow into an average 3-point shooter. He moves well on defense, and tries hard.
He's also got a nifty floater -- a key weapon for guys who can't power through behemoths at the rim:
That's awkward, but it works for Jackson. He has taken a ton of floater-range shots, and made 44 percent of them, per Cleaning The Glass -- a tidy mark. You can't build an offense around 44 percent 2-pointers, but it's a nice break-in-case-of-shot-clock-emergency tool.
10. Montrezl Harrell in tight confines
Harrell has a knack for twirling and slithering through cramped quarters, and flicking the ball up before shot-blockers get off the ground. He is shooting 53 percent on post-ups, one of the best marks in the league. His baseline spin-o-rama is deadly:
Further out, Harrell likes to flash open around the foul line, catch on the move, and loft quick-hitting floaters and runners with a silky touch. He doesn't need much space to flit, and that has allowed Doc Rivers to experiment with Harrell alongside his centers -- DeAndre Jordan, Willie Reed (before the LA Clippers traded him) and now Dancin' Boban Marjanovic. Those duos are plus-1 in more than 300 minutes combined -- not much, but good enough for an injury-riddled team to steal time.
The Clips have a better overall scoring margin with Harrell on the floor, and he's shooting 64 percent. His activity is infectious. Not bad for a Chris Paul throw-in.
11. Brandon Paul, jumping on the Slip 'N Slide
I don't know that I've ever seen a double-dive. Kara Lawson, killing it in her first season as Washington's lead TV analyst, said the same thing on the broadcast. Points for creativity!