It's time for our weekly tour of the NBA, with a couple of bonus items this time:
10 (12) things I like and don't like
1. The Heat, my god the Heat
Enough with how this crazy streak is "bad" for Miami -- how the Heat would have been better off tanking for a top-three draft pick. Are we incapable of fun? Are we all NBA technocrats now, all the time?
This is awesome. This is literally the most improbable prolonged winning streak in NBA history. This is why we follow sports: A group of castoffs sitting at 11-30 works, and works, and works, and suddenly lands upon a connective magic that carries them all to a higher plane.
Miami is playing with such force. They engage attack mode for 48 minutes. Goran Dragic, twirling and dishing at an All-NBA level again, is racing the ball up the court on every possession -- after makes, misses, free throws, timeouts, steals, spilled beer incidents, whatever. If that initial push yields nothing, the Heat pivot into a relentless series of drives-and-kicks until a gash opens. No one (well, no one except Dion Waiters) holds the ball for more than a second before driving or passing. No one (well, except Waiters) dribbles in place.
They are like a boxer coming forward every second, throwing precise three-punch combinations at your nose. If you are not ready -- if you're tired, hungover, on the second end of a back-to-back -- they will run your ass off the floor.
Decisiveness can turn marginal bench guys into playmakers. When you don't pause to let the defense reset itself, even Rodney freaking McGruder can knife into the lane and find Hassan Whiteside for lobs. Even Waiters is holding the ball a little less, and slithering to the rim.
It is a measured force. The Heat players mostly stay within their skill sets, and search for the right kinds of shots. A full 32 percent of their 3s have come from the corners, by far the highest such share in the league. They give no quarter on defense.
Yeah, the No. 2 pick would have been nice. Winning this emphatically has value, too. The Heat can proceed confident Waiters has turned a corner, and (more important) that Dragic is an All-Star-level building block. Maybe Hassan Whiteside will develop a new taste for the little, gritty things that drive winning.
The Heat mean something again. They stand for something. Other players around the league notice how hard and smart Erik Spoelstra has this team playing. They respect it. That may not be enough to lure stud free agents under the new collective bargaining agreement, but it helps.
P.S.: Waiters Island is an inclusive community. We welcome immigrants and refugees from the Biyombo Archipelago, Singler Straits, Hezonja Hamlet, Caboclo Cay, and other distressed NBA locales.
2. The pesky hands of Seth Curry
Curry has drilled almost half his 3s since the start of December, and he can keep the Mavs machine running with a functional pick-and-roll when the ball swings his way. Bonus: He's providing much more on defense than Dallas expected.
Curry is never going to be even a league-average defender; he is badly undersized for a wing, and can't compensate with plus athleticism. But he thinks the game really well, and he's always bouncing on his toes, primed for the next swipe.
He anticipates what the offense will do next, and he's usually right. My favorite regular dash of Curry cleverness: He's alarmingly good as the lone defender in two-on-one situations. Those guys are normally highlight-reel victims -- prey with which mean offensive players can toy.
Curry is the rare defender who manipulates the bullies. He'll lunge toward one player as if he's selling out in that direction, but it's just a trick -- a mind game. When the offensive team whips the ball the other way, Curry will already be there to snatch it:
He has a little of Manu Ginobili's calculated gambler in him. Curry doesn't randomly leap into passing lanes or paw at brutes dribbling the ball in the low post. When an opposing big man backs down on the block, Curry waits until the moment that guy puts his head down for that first hard dribble -- and then strikes with a lunging steal.
Curry averages 2.3 deflections per game. Of the 60 players averaging at least that many deflections, only nine accumulate them in fewer minutes. A whole giant pile of guys who play more than Curry don't manage two per game.
3. Signs of life from Willie Cauley-Stein
Starting with a 12-point eruption against the Pistons in late January, Sacto's other big enigma has hit double digits in six of the Kings' last 10 games. That counts as major progress for any Sacramento lottery pick.
Cauley-Stein is finishing lobs with both hands, and he's especially productive alongside Anthony Tolliver; Cauley-Stein gets a lot more shots in that setup than he does sharing a cramped floor with Boogie, and he has been making the most of them. He's even executed a few duck-in finishes over smaller guys after switches, and a couple of frisky spinning face-up drives.
There is still so far to go. It is the wrong kind of suspenseful when Cauley-Stein catches the ball on the block with the shot clock winding down. You never know what will happen, only that it will be scary, and probably ugly, and bring a heightened chance of injury to anyone within a 15-foot radius. It would be nice if he made contact every now and then on a pick.
He still bounces himself off-kilter on defense; he'll scurry away to patrol some decoy action, and then arrive late at a pick-and-roll, so that his momentum is still moving toward half court by the time the opposing ball handler is coming downhill at him. That is a recipe for broken ankles.
But the total package is still tantalizing: a lob-smasher with some touch, and the (theoretical) ability to switch across all five positions on defense. It's nice to see some glimpses.
4. The Knicks
The New York Knicks are a complete embarrassment, and I kind of think we should all just stop talking about them.
5. Unfair Golden State plays
I mean, what are you supposed to do?
This is Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant setting a pindown for Klay Thompson -- two of the greatest shooters ever screening to free another of the greatest shooters ever. (Do not call them the Splash Triplets. That is horrible.) You can't leave Curry or Durant to help on Thompson, but if you don't, Thompson is going to get a wide-open 3.
Wesley Johnson does leave Durant to check Thompson. One fire out! But Raymond Felton and J.J. Redick are so consumed by Curry Paranoia that Durant sneaks in unguarded for a layup. The 2017 Warriors: turning Kevin Durant into your last priority.
That is the challenge of guarding Golden State. You can tell yourself over and over to ignore Draymond Green, Iguodala, their centers, and any other so-so shooter -- that living with open jumpers from those guys is a fine trade-off for sticking to the fire-starters and kinda protecting the rim. Try doing that when you're backpedaling against a pick-and-roll with 20 on the shot clock, and you've barely had time to process where the ball is. Egads.
6. A funky Boston trio
With Jaylen Brown starting and Avery Bradley out, Brad Stevens' rejiggered rotation occasionally lands on lineups featuring Brown, Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko -- a funky small-ball trio that works better than you'd think.
It's rare to find a smallish lineup in which all three wings can credibly defend any position from shooting guard to power forward. All three of these dudes are stout and tough, and they can handle all but the most bruising power forwards in a pinch. Jerebko doesn't quite have the quicks to patrol little speedsters, but he's cagey enough to hang with them for a few seconds as the shot clock ticks down.
Boston is a whopping plus-32 in the 85 minutes these guys have shared the floor, per NBA.com. Brown looks shockingly comfortable as a starter -- a violent slasher with a mean-spirited, butt-first post game to deploy against smaller defenders. He is playing with more control than he showed during a wild first few months. Crowder is quietly shooting almost 42 percent from deep, and Jerebko makes the right play every time.
Stevens will have to stretch to find this group time once Bradley gets back, but it might be worth it.
7. Bradley Beal, chuckin'
Sometimes, good coaching is convincing a player to do a thing he doesn't really want to do -- even if that thing would obviously help his team. Everyone knew Marc Gasol could shoot 3s. He just wasn't stoked about what jacking a few every game would do to his numbers. David Fizdale nudged him, and Gasol is loving it.
Bradley Beal didn't shoot enough 3s before this season. He loves midrange pull-ups, and he'd fret about a slump from deep dragging down his overall shooting percentage.
Scotty Brooks has Beal straight chuckin'. About 42.5 percent of Beal's shots have been 3s, up from 34 percent last season, and Beal is hoisting off-the-bounce step-backers through teensy windows:
The threat of those bombs has opened up Beal's attacking game; Beal is averaging more drives, assists, and free throws this season, and he can assume even more of the pick-and-roll load from John Wall. That's always a fretful balance for Washington. Wall is a better distributor than Beal, and a much worse shooter; defenses sag off of him when Beal controls the ball, constricting the paint. But Wall is launching with gusto when defenses abandon him, and he has hit a perfectly fine 38 percent on wide-open 3s, per SportVU data. Diversity is healthy. That's a good general rule of life!
8. Utah's U-turns
Thank the basketball gods for Alec Burks, the one Jazz Man with the zip and balls-to-the-wall attitude to rush coast-to-coast and challenge defenders waiting at the rim. Utah plays at the league's slowest pace, and only one team -- the calculating Mavs -- gets a lower percentage of its shots via transition, per Synergy.
No team U-turns its way out of more fast-break chances. If the numbers are even, the Utah players running a 2-on-2 or 3-on-3 will make one or two passes, and then politely back the ball out to give the defense a fair chance. If they have an advantage, it might end with a Utah player catching near the rim, peeking over his shoulder at an onrushing defender, and spinning back outside in a panic. They approach contested transition layups as if they are radioactive. Gordon Hayward might lead the league in fast-break anxiety.
Too bad, because Utah is a deadly transition team. They trail only the Warriors in points per possession on transition chances, and rank fourth by that measure on all possessions following steals, per the tracking site InPredictable. Being choosy boosts those numbers; the Jazz are punting so-so fast-break opportunities, and cashing in only on sure things.
They can afford to be a little less picky. Have some fun, people! Keep running, leap for the rim and see what in the hell happens!
9. The flailing of Marco Belinelli
Belinelli is threatening to surpass Russell Westbrook as the league's most notorious arm- and leg-splayer on 3-point attempts. Belinelli isn't the speediest guy, so his defender is often right on his tail when Belinelli curls around a pick, catches the ball, and rises to fire. His answer to tight coverage: Flail all four limbs like a spastic, bearded starfish in hopes of hitting someone and tricking the refs into thinking the victim fouled him.
He's been getting away with it too often lately. It's hard for referees to watch everything in real time. There is real danger in defenders running underneath shooters, and stealing their landing spot; the NBA has to police that. But the benefit of the doubt when there is contact on a jumper has tilted too far toward shooters this season.
10. Calling offensive fouls on the jump-in?
On the flip side: Give me more of this eagle-eyed officiating. Hook it to my veins. You know the deal: Cagey ball handler gets defender on his hip, dribbles into the lane, rises for a midranger, and jumps sideways into the defender's chest. It's a ridiculous, unnatural bit of foul-baitery, and refs buy it way too often.
It feels so, so good when they don't, and whistle the ball handler for an offensive foul. The guy's inevitable phony incredulous reaction -- "HOW COULD YOU POSSIBLY SEE ANYTHING BUT A VALIANT ATTEMPT TO SCORE THERE, SIR?" -- makes it even better. Punish these hucksters.
11. The craft of Isaiah Whitehead
Whitehead is shooting only 38 percent, and he lost his starting job to Spencer Dinwiddie. There is a pretty low and hard ceiling on point guards who can't shoot.
But I can't help it. This guy has a little something -- a feel for how to keep his dribble alive, and coax defenders off-balance with hesitation moves, shoulder fakes, and spins:
He's big -- 6-4, with a 6-9 wingspan -- and powerful enough to shoulder-check opposing point guards underneath the rim and flip the ball in.
The Nets signed Whitehead to a four-year, partially guaranteed deal for just above the league's minimum, so they have time to watch his development. He's worth a longer look.
12. The thirst of Norman Powell
The only good part about DeMar DeRozan's recent absence: watching a very thirsty Norman Powell chase points on layups so acrobatic, you almost thought he was trying them on a dare:
Powell jacked about 15 shots per 36 minutes during the seven recent games DeRozan missed. That's not quite superstar-level volume, but it's a little above Powell's station. Powell is a versatile grinder, and Dwane Casey hasn't found him enough minutes this season. That may lead Powell to play a little nutso -- on both ends -- when he gets a chance.