It's time for our weekly look around the NBA.
10 things I like and don't like
1. The genius of Marc Gasol
This freaking guy. During another improbable Grizz comeback against Portland last week, Gasol caught the ball at least 5 feet behind the 3-point arc while trailing a possession and realized no one was guarding him. He looked around, shrugged -- literally, the dude shrugged in the middle of a game -- and just jacked a 30-footer. Cash money.
Memphis is 7-2 since Mike Conley busted his back. That is insane. The Grizzlies larded up on sad sacks like Philly, Orlando, and the Lakers, and we all kind of assumed the bottom would fall out against better competition. Then they rallied against Portland, and spanked the yappy Warriors. (Seriously: Golden State mean-mugged its way through a road win against an injury-riddled Utah team subsisting on Joe Ingles 3-pointers. Maybe just take the W and chill?)
This is the best story of the first 25 games, and it would not be happening without Gasol. During Conley's absence, Memphis has blitzed teams by almost 15 points per 100 possessions with Gasol on the floor -- and wilted into a D-League outfit when he sits, per NBA.com. His calculating, careful game holds up well in crunch time, and the Grizzlies, for what feels like the seventh straight season, are squeezing out wins in almost every close game.
It has been fascinating to watch a natural sharer get a little bit selfish because his ravaged team needs it. Gasol is shouldering the heaviest scoring burden of his career, setting up shop on the left block and waiting to see if opponents double him. If they don't, he'll bulldoze into the lane for a short hook. Sit on that move, and he'll turn over his right shoulder, fade away along the baseline, and draw rain with perhaps the most telegenic post move in the league (at least while Dirk Nowitzki's one-footed special is on ice).
Gasol is venturing a little out of his comfort zone as a shoot-first alpha dog, and he's thriving. He remains a brilliant passer; he's on pace for one of the highest assist rates ever from a big man. Gasol should be in the conversation for a No. 4 or No. 5 spot on MVP ballots.
Players know. Talk to rivals about Gasol, and they'll tell you he's even better than you realize.
2. Patrick Beverley, secondary playmaker
The scorching Rockets are 13-2 since Beverley returned from injury, and their in-your-jersey irritant is playing perhaps the best all-around ball of his career. Beverley is averaging 5.6 dimes per 36 minutes, his best mark in years, and that number vaults all the way up to 8.7 -- top-flight point guard territory - when he's on the floor without James Harden, per NBA.com.
The Beverley-Eric Gordon backcourt has stabilized bench units that flailed without Harden during the first three weeks of the season. The turnaround is severe enough to give you whiplash. Since Beverley's return, Houston has outscored opponents by 14 points per 100 possessions with Harden on the bench -- a huge margin. (Please do not be dumb and turn that number, or this snippet, into some indictment of Harden. He is probably the front-runner for MVP.)
Beverley is running a keen pick-and-roll, and he's not reverting to stand-still wallflower mode when he shares the floor with Harden. A lot of Mike D'Antoni's favorite trigger sequences feature Beverley in an active role, and when Harden swings him the ball, Beverley zips right into a drive-and-kick that keeps the machine chugging:
He's also shooting 40 percent from deep, and annoying the hell out of opposing point guards.
3. Fake streaks
Imagine my surprise during Sunday's Warriors-Wolves game -- one day after Memphis grit-and-grinded all over Golden State -- to hear via the (awesome) Minnesota broadcast crew that the Warriors hadn't lost two straight games since April of 2015.
Hmm. I swear I remember the Warriors suffering some sort of meme-inspiring losing streak last season. Maybe in June? Against the same team over and over, due to some scheduling quirk?
Placing a statistical divide between the playoffs and regular-season makes sense in some instances -- especially with team-level stats. The postseason is a different game, with better competition, so there is some apples-to-oranges in comparing team stats -- like offensive efficiency -- across the two.
But for streaks and simple counting stats, do we really need to build a wall? The Warriors suffered two losing streaks in the playoffs. To erase them in discussing a potential regular-season streak seems labored. Does LeBron have 27,382 career points -- his regular-season total? Or is it 32,954 -- his total points, including playoffs?
It should be the latter. Yes, this gives LeBron an advantage in career counting stats over scoring studs who didn't venture as deep in the playoffs as often. But isn't that the point of keeping track? Let's reward the guys who did the most under the brightest lights.
4. The aimlessness of Denver ... maybe over?
The Nuggets looked like a team that could win 38 or 39 games -- stacked with enough depth to weather Emmanuel Mudiay's growing pains. They are 10-16, and appeared before Thursday's rotation shakeup to be on the verge of chaos.
Mudiay's growing pains have been painful. The Jusuf Nurkic-Nikola Jokic partnership predictably sputtered, but the resolution should not have been bringing Jokic off the bench and struggling to find him 25 minutes. That amounted to overthinking it. Jokic might be your best player; play him a lot!
Mike Malone mercifully pivoted Thursday night, starting Jokic in a smallish look with Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari on the front line -- a trio that has been wildly successful in 100-plus minutes so far this season. Maybe this will spark a turnaround. The franchise needs it, now.
Gallinari is having a down season one year after Denver passed up chance after chance to flip him for a healthy return. Kenneth Faried, trade bait for years now, was out of the rotation before reassuming his (suboptimal) role Thursday as an undersized center. Darrell Arthur started for a while. He's good, but not that good. Sometimes Juancho Hernangomez plays. Sometimes he doesn't.
There is just a haze about the Nuggets. It's unclear what they are trying to be stylistically, or how they might arrive there. In fairness, it's hard to be much of anything relying on a 20-year-old point guard shooting 35 percent with an alarming turnover rate. Let's hope the lineup change -- or the trade deadline -- brings some clarity.
5. Benches stifling themselves when a teammate gets posterized
These are the best moments -- when our mask of learned politeness falls away to reveal our base and cruel nature. Did you see the Brooklyn bench when Larry Nance Jr. ended Brook Lopez right in front of them on Wednesday night? The sitting Nets knew it was not appropriate to celebrate the violence Nance had just laid upon their broken teammate. For a brief, glorious half-second, they just couldn't help it.
They all gasped. Some leaned back in their chairs, either in astonishment or perhaps out of some primal instinct to run away from the carnage. Others perched forward and bent their knees, as if they were about to rise in acknowledgement. And then, bam: They remembered. They had to be civilized. They resumed their normal seated positions and stifled grins. A few even briefly held on to each other, to keep balanced. I'm pretty sure Trevor Booker grabbed Randy Foye, so that Foye would not stand up.
Seriously: Whenever someone gets dunked on hard, watch the reaction of the victim's bench. It is often the best part.
6. McBuckets, going lefty
Doug McDermott clearly spent time working on his left hand, and getting comfortable shooting with it has unlocked a new level of craftiness in tight spaces along the baseline:
He's not afraid to launch lefty floaters off the dribble if the defense overplays his right hand.
With McDermott back from a concussion, Chicago can surround Dwyane Wade on hybrid bench units with one cinder-block screener -- Cristiano Felicio -- and three shooters in McDermott, Nikola Mirotic, and Isaiah Canaan. (The last two might be more aptly described as theoretical shooters, but just go with it.)
Chicago has also closed some games without a traditional point guard, and all three of McDermott, Wade, and Jimmy Butler on the floor alongside two big men. That's worth exploring more, even when all Chicago's point guards are available.
7. Dwane Casey, throwing caution to the wind
Toronto is setting records on offense, and Casey has been a little more adventurous this season rolling out lineups geared toward that end. He started Patrick Patterson at power forward over Pascal Siakam in the second half of Toronto's win Wednesday over the Sixers, daring Philly to have Joel Embiid (slotted alongside Jahlil Okafor) chase Patterson around the perimeter. He didn't seem to care if Embiid pancaked Patterson on the other end.
He's downsized a bit more in the last week-plus to find time for Norman Powell, who deserves more minutes than Toronto has for him. He's even gone super-small, with Patterson at center, a bit more readily after getting gun-shy going that route against Cleveland. (We'll see if this persists when Lucas Nogueira gets back.)
The group of Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan-DeMarre Carroll-Patterson-Jonas Valanciunas has already logged 84 minutes after Casey used it just 16 minutes total last season, per NBA.com. Injuries to Carroll and Valanciunas short-circuited that lineup last season, but Casey seemed reluctant to bust it out even when all five guys were available.
He's letting it ride this season, and it is destroying people. The Raptors have outscored opponents by almost 30 points per 100 possessions in those minutes, and they're killing it on both ends of the floor. Watch out.
8. C.J. Miles, handsy
During the Aborted Pacers Small-Ball Experiment of 2015, Miles spent a lot of time jostling with power forwards so that Paul George could smother elite wing scorers. Some bigs overwhelmed Miles on the block; there is only so much a guy can do when he's giving up 50 pounds.
But Miles is a fighter with quick hands, and he developed a knack for stabbing underneath a big fella's arm to poke the ball away between dribbles:
The Pacers have been going small more often over the last two weeks in trying to find a rotation that works longer than one half. Their defense has also looked a lot cleaner with Monta Ellis injured. Nate McMillan faces some interesting decisions in getting the Pacers back on course.
(PS: What Anthony Davis did to the Pacers in the 4th quarter last night was obscene. It was cruel.)
(PPS: Quinn Buckner, the Pacers' analyst, was absolutely right that Davis was traveling almost every time he caught the ball and hopped/skipped/jumped into a drive. This is getting embarrassing for the NBA, and I hope the most outspoken coaches keep throttling the league about it.)
9. The grunt work of Cody Zeller
Meet Cody Zeller: perfectly acceptable starting center and fifth option on a good team. On some nights, you barely notice him; Zeller doesn't get to do much with the ball, and Charlotte's notion of turning him into a jump-shooter died when Zeller shifted from power forward to rim-rolling center last season.
But the guy has his fingerprints all over most Charlotte baskets. He's a nasty screen-setter, and he loves that part of the job. He's fast covering short distances, which means he can set one screen for Kemba Walker, scurry back around, and set one or two more in the span of just a few seconds.
He runs the floor like a madman, torture for opposing plodders who just want to take one damn possession off to catch their breath. He's hyperactive, and he never stops. It's not fun to play against him.
He's also learned the kinds of shots he'll get in Charlotte's offense, and worked to master them -- including an in-between floater, a tricky shot for big men:
Zeller is never going to be a star, or close to it. He's a so-so rebounder for his position, and he doesn't deter anyone from attacking the rim. But he works his butt off, and he's almost always in the right position on both ends. He is the kind of worker bee who just helps you win games.
10. Kawhi Leonard, emerging from the pile
Maybe my favorite part of every Spurs game: when a rebound drops within equidistant reach of everyone in a crowd that includes Leonard, or when he's part of a scrum of dudes piling up on the floor in pursuit of a loose ball. There is absolutely no suspense about what will happen next, and the predictability is glorious.
Leonard is going to get the ball. It will look effortless. Everyone else will be jumping with all their might, wriggling around on the ground, grimacing and yelling. Leonard just sticks a giant mitt into the fray, gets the ball, and leaves the scene. It's like when Heathcliff the cat got into a brawl, everything turned into a screaming cloud of dust, and Heathcliff would just walk out of the cloud unscathed as everyone continued fighting.