With just about three weeks before the start of the playoffs, let's zip around the NBA.
10 things I like and don't like
1. How about those Milwaukee Bucks?
Milwaukee just wrapped a 4-2 West Coast road trip that included stirring wins against the Clippers and Blazers, and transformed them from postseason long shot into current sixth seed. Given the high stakes and Milwaukee's middling status, it ranks as one of the most impressive road swings from any team this season.
Khris Middleton has been sensational since returning from a scary hamstring tear. He's shooting 48 percent from deep, and he forms the connective tissue of Jason Kidd's ultra-pressurized defense. He is a better two-way player than Jabari Parker; it is not surprising that effectively swapping Parker for Middleton has helped the Bucks. (They'd be best with both, especially in the long run.)
He runs a nice pick-and-roll, and he's ruthless posting up switches on the left block. He might be Milwaukee's most reliable crunch-time option. He helped them through a so-so stretch from Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Greg Monroe is hustling on defense, getting his hands on the ball, and pitter-pattering those heavy feet as fast as they'll go. John Henson has wormed his way back into the rotation, and Mirza Teletovic is hitting shots in Michael Beasley's place. Antetokounmpo finished the trip with two star performances. President Malcolm Brogdon cares not for your rookie walls.
There were three or four moments when it felt like the season might slip away from Milwaukee. Hell, Monroe could have checked out after Kidd banished him from the rotation midseason. He stayed engaged. The team righted itself every time. Sweep weekend home games against Atlanta and Chicago, and the Bucks could enter next week as an unlikely fifth seed. Great work, fellas.
2. A Nets institution: 'Who Am I?'
Watching the Nets during the Brooklyn era has not been invigorating. The good teams were boring, and the bad teams have been hopelessly bad. Can you imagine the torture of broadcasting every single game, and trying to be serious about it?
"Telestrate that Andrea Bargnani pick-and-pop for us, Czar. Wait, why are you drawing 'Help Me' on the screen? Cut! Someone cut to black!"
Brooklyn's broadcast crew, the very best in the league, knows fans can only take so much Spencer Dinwiddie analysis, and they've invented games to pass the time. The centerpiece: "Who Am I?" Producers reveal three clues about a mystery figure in that night's game, starting with a vague descriptor and escalating -- if no one guesses -- to the ultra-specific. The play-by-play guys (Ian Eagle and Ryan Ruocco), analysts (Mike Fratello, Jim Spanarkel, Donny Marshall), and sideline reporter (Sarah Kustok) each shout out guesses as the clues appear on screen. They can guess only once.
The first one to get it right gets a point. They keep standings. They have a trophy.
Kustok was so far ahead, and the analysts so far behind, that YES made the shocking midseason decision to lump her onto the analyst team. Eagle has pointed out repeatedly that chemistry among the analysts has disintegrated ever since. Kustok has bristled at that accusation behind the scenes.
The network recently introduced a one-point bonus question to help the play-by-play guys rally, and by god, Eagle is rallying them. He swept an edge-of-your-seat edition Tuesday night, and loudly taunted Kustok. No one does deadpan faux seriousness like Eagle. No one does much of anything in broadcasting as well as Eagle.
The analysts are clinging to a six-point lead with nine games to go, and sources say Kustok is rattled. A reporter witnessed Kustok, Eagle, and a YES producer having an animated discussion about the new bonus questions in the bowels of Barclays Center before Thursday night's game -- and before Kustok righted herself by nailing both questions.
Don't let the tongue-in-cheek agony and ecstasy fool you: They care. The winning team will brag for a year, and the losers will plot revenge. "Who Am I?" is the best part of every Nets broadcast, and certainly the most anticipated among fans.
3. Hassan Whiteside's touch
Whiteside has been surging at the right time, with Dion Waiters recuperating at the best medical facility on Waiters Island. (FYI: All hospitals on Waiters Island specialize in the repair and rehabilitation of shooting arms. Care is free.)
Whiteside has been pigeonholed as a pick-and-roll dive guy -- a slower and meaner version of DeAndre Jordan -- and that's mostly what he is within Miami's relentless drive-and-kick machine. But he has an uncanny soft touch on flip shots, putbacks, and the occasional midrange jumper. His shots sort of deaden on the rim before dropping.
When defenders plug up Whiteside's path to the hoop, he'll loft one of the longest-distance floaters you'll ever see:
That's a handy break-in-case-of-emergency shot put. Whiteside isn't quite efficient enough in the post to be a regular go-to option, but he has a deeper bag of tricks than you might expect.
4. Nikola Jokic can post up, too
Jokic's Gasolian passing and penchant for leading fast breaks has made him the league's breakout star. Everyone loves a 7-footer who dribbles and slings no-look assists.
What makes Jokic great is that he can dissect defenses with those flashy guard skills, and then beat the hell out of people on the block like an old-school bruiser. That versatility is rare, and valuable. Jokic can punish switches, and abuse power forwards when opponents stick their centers on Mason Plumlee.
He loves to seal deep position early, and he moves other large humans backward with hard shoulder blocks:
He has magic footwork, and a bunch of moves from both blocks: a righty jump hook going middle, reverse pivots, up-and-unders, spinning baseline hooks, turnarounds over both shoulders. Sometimes he'll face up, raise the ball over his head as if he's deciding which move to use, and then just flick a set shot before his defender realizes what's happening -- a move lifted from Marc Gasol's arsenal.
Like, what are you even supposed to do about this?
Jokic is shooting 59 percent on post-ups, sixth best among 94 guys who have finished at least 50 such plays, per Synergy Sports. He's drawing a ton of fouls, too. Denver has scored 114 points per 100 possessions since moving Jokic into the starting lineup in mid-December -- best in the league over that span, and better than any team has ever managed over a full season, per NBA.com.
This is not a fluke. Nikola Jokic, pudgy kid from small-town Serbia who dabbled in harness racing, is a foundational offensive player.
5. Maybe Andre Drummond kinda can't?
The Pistons are reeling, and Drummond's rote post-ups are officially not helping. They feel more and more like wasted possessions -- a team collectively shrugging its shoulders, and dumping the ball to its franchise player because that is what you do with franchise players.
Drummond catches the ball outside the paint along the right baseline, takes a single desultory dribble that goes nowhere, and flings a flat righty hook.
Drummond is shooting just 42 percent on post-ups, 65th among 94 players who have attempted at least 50 such shots, per Synergy Sports. (Trivia: Draymond Green is last, with a 31 percent hit rate, and is quietly having a pretty bad shooting season no one really talks about because he is so incredibly awesome at everything else.)
That's not so bad on its own. But Drummond draws shooting fouls on just 8.4 percent of his post-ups -- 76th among those same 94 players. A heavy-usage post-up brute who doesn't shoot well, pile up free throws, or provide plus playmaking from the block is hurting his team's offense. Drummond has improved as a passer, but he's still learning the geometry of the floor. Opponents don't feel the need to double him, anyway.
The Pistons have to feed Drummond. They want him to anchor their defense, and big men don't go all-out on that end without munching on the other. But they'd prefer Drummond either face up and attack off the bounce, or back down with some oomph, like prime Dwight Howard, so he can turn and dunk.
Both strategies would produce more fouls, and perhaps that is the problem: Drummond is below 40 percent from the line again, and shows no desire to get there.
Detroit's remaining schedule is manageable, and they have key head-to-head games left against Miami and Milwaukee. But they're now one game out of the No. 8 spot in the loss column, with the worst divisional record -- a potentially relevant tiebreaker -- among the four (!) Central Division teams jockeying for the last three Eastern Conference playoff spots. If the Pistons miss out, it will be an interesting summer in Detroit.
6. Noah Vonleh, showing stuff
You hear a version of the refrain from team execs all the time: "The hardest thing to do in the NBA is be patient."
Vonleh is finishing his third season, and second as something of a token starter in Portland. He has looked for large parts of that time like a bust. Charlotte hasn't sweated flipping Vonleh for Nicolas Batum, even as Batum has dropped off during the first year of a mega-deal.
But Vonleh would show flashes: a smooth long jumper, good footwork switching onto point guards.
The flashes have appeared more over the past two weeks, including in three straight double-digit scoring games. That doesn't sound like much, but Vonleh is still just 21. The NBA is hard for young big men who don't get the ball, and have to cycle through a bunch of rapid-fire decisions on every defensive possession.
Vonleh looks more comfortable posting up smaller guys after switches:
That sideways hook doesn't look pretty, but it works. He's getting more confident passing, the area of his game in which he has the furthest to go; Vonleh has just 55 career dimes:
Portland trusted him to guard Antetokounmpo for parts of Tuesday's game, and it's using him more as a backup center. He's rebounding at a career-best rate.
Vonleh is still raw. His jumper is unproven, though the Blazers hope he can eventually hit open 3s. But he looks like he should grow into a useful rotation player.
7. Utah's new court
What a massive upgrade -- from this vanilla look, way too heavy on a green Utah doesn't incorporate much elsewhere ...
... to this jazzier setup that re-emphasizes that deep navy blue, and erases the busy college lane lines.
I was torn at first about the multicolored ball at midcourt. I wanted that "J" note, with a miniature version of that same ball as the note-head, to take center stage. That is a perfect piece of basketball art.
But I've come around. The notes work well in the corners, which had been empty in the plain old design. Limiting yourself to two corner logos, diagonally across from each other, is almost always a better move than overstuffing the court with four of them.
And circular logos just work better at half court. They demarcate the "jump circle," after all.
Even the spaced-out baseline font marks an upgrade over the slanted, shadowed lettering that was exciting when you found it on your household computer during the 1990s.
Overall: huge thumbs up!
8. The Lakers, off balance
The Tankers are dead last in opponent fast-break points, per NBA.com. Only the Kings, mainstays at the bottom of every transition defense category regardless of coach or personnel, allow more transition attempts, per Synergy Sports. Only the Kings and Cavs surrender more points per possession on those transition chances.
One reason why: L.A. pays zero attention to floor balance. When D'Angelo Russell tosses away a turnover, you might see all five Lakers chilling below the foul line:
Five is unusual, but four is not:
This is the basic grunt work of basketball. It is literally about where dudes stand. When four or five of them are that far below the foul line, it almost doesn't matter how fast their first step the other way is. The other team is going to beat them. And the Lakers' collective first step ain't peppy.
Young teams are bad at this. The Lakers will get better. We (rightfully) pay a lot of attention to the more obvious things: Russell's finishing on the pick-and-roll, Jordan Clarkson's defense, and how Julius Randle holds up at center. But ground zero is caring about the simplest stuff.
9. The aggressive Al Horford
Horford blends in by nature. He's good at everything. Depending on what his team needs, he subsumes parts of his game and leans more on others. He enjoys empowering teammates, and believes deeply that doing so over and over, with hard screens and extra passes, can transform a team into something bigger than the sum of its parts.
But sometimes, Horford can overshare. He'll never be a score-first bucket-getter -- that is not his basketball DNA -- but there are ways for Horford to act more aggressively within Boston's swinging system.
That is decisive. Horford knows before he even catches the ball that he's going to hit Serge Ibaka with a pump fake, and zoom all the way to the rim. He doesn't pause to search for cutters, or hesitate after his fake to see if he really has a driving lane. He just goes.
Horford makes the most impact when he dials his game 10 percent in that direction. Case in point: Only 13.9 percent of his shots this season have been long 2s, the lowest share of his career, and a huge drop-off from the last half-dozen seasons. A historically elite midrange shooter has damn near excised that part of his game.
He has turned a lot of those long 2s into 3s, but even so: Horford and the Celtics are overdoing it. A wide-open Horford 18-footer on a pick-and-pop is a snug landing spot for any possession as the shot clock approaches single digits. It's almost a 50 percent proposition, and even a good offense may not scrounge anything better at that point.
Horford has approached the right level of assertiveness over the past month. He has looked bouncy protecting the rim on defense.
10. Willie Cauley-Stein and Kosta Koufos
Hopefully Kosta Koufos' DNP-Over-25-Human-On-A-Bad-Team-In-Late-March on Wednesday marked the end of Sacramento starting him alongside Cauley-Stein. That duo has been terrible all season, and with DeMarcus Cousins gone, they're playing a lot against opposing starters. That will not go well. Cauley-Stein can't rim-run with a traditional center blocking his path.
It's time to have fun. It's time to unleash the Skal Labissiere-Cauley-Stein duo from the jump, for extended run. In a mere 311 minutes, Labissiere has become the most intriguing Kings prospect since baby Boogie. He has some ball skills with both hands, a decent feel for the game, and a soft touch. He can provide just enough spacing for Cauley-Stein's rampaging alley-oops. (Cauley-Stein has also dished some canny inside-out passes over the past few weeks when defenses collapse on him.)
Come on, Dave Joerger! Enough teasing! Give us a reason to watch over the next three weeks!