It's time for our weekly tour of the league -- on the penultimate Friday of the regular season.
10 things I like and don't like
1. Dario Saric, holding tea time
LaMarcus Aldridge once nicknamed Boris Diaw "tea time" to honor Diaw's slow, casual approach to scoring down low. He'd get the ball at the top of the arc, take one dribble in, spin around to face the other side of the floor just to check out the view, ram his ass into his defender a few times, twirl back the other way, contemplate the works of Pablo Neruda, pump fake, dribble two more times, plan his next safari, and then remember to flick the ball in.
It can be hard explaining how Dario Saric gets work done around the basket. He's not super-quick. He doesn't jump high. He can't overpower every opposing power forward, though he can abuse a few -- plus most wings who switch onto him. And then it dawned on me: Saric holds his own version of tea time.
Since he's Croatian, perhaps we should call it rakija time. (Note to potential tourists: Be wary imbibing rakija of unknown origin, especially if an elderly person is selling it in used Sprite bottles.)
Saric is quicker and more athletic than present-day Diaw, and more at ease facing up for a normal pick-and-roll. But the methodology is the same. Saric is crafty, patient, and kinda mean, with a deep bag of subtle tricks to bust out in tight spaces. He releases the ball early, from weird angles, on little over-the-shoulder shots that are airborne before defenders can jump. He has good touch with both hands. Like Diaw, he's a canny passer.
Saric is shooting 60 percent in the restricted and 43 percent from the awkward floater range -- solid numbers considering he's a rookie carrying a huge burden on a bad team. I can't wait to see how Saric looks when Philly gets healthy, and adds a couple veterans.
2. James Harden, with a runway
There is no good answer for Harden running a pick-and-roll with three shooters around him. Opponents pick the least bad answer and pray.
Trap Harden, and he'll see it coming a mile away. He might split the trap, and bulldoze toward the rim. He could slip a pass to Clint Capela rolling into the paint, or swing one to an open shooter whose man creeps inside to bump Capela.
Switch, and Harden will back up, lick his chops, and roast the poor big man guarding him. If Harden thinks that big man might be able to hang, he could order a second pick-and-roll, generate another switch, and feast on an even worse mismatch. Lay back, and he's drilling a triple in your grill.
Teams with plodding big men sometimes prefer to have them wait and corral Harden in the paint. It's a way of defending the pick-and-roll 2-on-2, so that the other three defenders stick to Houston's 3-point gunners: "If you're going to beat us, you're doing it on 2-point shots."
And that sets up one of my favorite games-within-the-game: Harden with a long runway, and a backpedaling big man in his crosshairs.
Anthony Davis's goal is to force Harden into a contested floater. But Davis is already below the foul line by the time Harden slithers around Montrezl Harrell's pick. Harden has 10 or 12 feet of open water before encountering Davis. That is too much territory -- too much space for Harden to gather momentum, too much time for him to plot.
Can you imagine how unsettling it is to be in Davis' spot? Harden is coming at you, monitoring your balance, choosing the deadliest among dozens of moves reserved for this specific situation. Davis will win some of those battles, but a lot of them will end with layups, free throws, and broken spirits.
It's easy to suggest Davis venture out to barricade Harden before he can knife into the paint. But doing that risks Harrell scampering in unattended, requiring more help away from Houston's shooting brigade.
Switching is probably the best answer if you have bigs with at least a semi-realistic chance at keeping Harden in front of them. If not, every link in the chain has to be perfect. Harden's man has to stay on his hip, so the guy guarding the screener can recover earlier -- sparing third and fourth defenders from taxing help assignments. Every inch of open airspace matters. Good luck!
3. The Hornets, without both their mainstays
Depending on what Frank Kaminsky's 3-pointer feels like doing on a particular night, the Hornets' bench has largely been a sinkhole. Ramon Sessions was awful on both ends before getting hurt, and his replacements haven't fixed anything. Marco Belinelli hasn't made enough of his ridiculous leg-kicky 3s -- he's hit 36 percent, about league average -- to move the needle. Jeremy Lamb is in Antoine Walker territory from deep, and hasn't earned consistent trust from the coaching staff. Miles Plumlee has played 82 minutes in Charlotte.
In that context, it's not surprising the Hornets collapse when Nicolas Batum and Kemba Walker are on the bench together. Opponents have outscored Charlotte by 116 points in 691 such minutes, equivalent to a minus-8 margin over a full game, per the tracking site NBAwowy. That's bad enough that Steve Clifford should consider keeping one of them on the floor at all times. (He does this in some games.)
The push-pull of staggering star minutes has long been fascinating in Charlotte, in Oklahoma City (mostly during the Westbrook-Durant era) and with the Clippers. I'm not sure there is a definitive answer; the team-by-team variability is huge.
The Hornets are at their best with both Walker and Batum on the floor. It stands to reason that Clifford should maximize the number of minutes they play together. But that depends on a bunch of follow-up questions: How good, or bad, are a team's five-man bench mobs? How good, really, are those Walker-Batum minutes? How does Charlotte manage when just one of them is on the floor?
Depending on how the math works out, going with full-on bench mobs -- and minimizing any staggering -- can be the right answer. I don't think the math works that way for this Charlotte team, though.
4. A cool Clipper wrinkle
Doc Rivers told me almost two years ago that the Clippers were in danger of growing stale. Roster continuity is generally a good thing, but it has to come with incremental tweaks -- to style and player rotation -- that keep teams fresh. Opponents get too cozy when they feel like they know what's coming on both ends of the floor.
To some degree, the Clippers, Hornets, and Blazers have all suffered from this downside of pristine stability. Portland players told me in November that opponents seemed more prepared for their cuts and flare screens. They weren't catching anyone off guard anymore.
That is what makes this Clips play-atop-a-play so exciting:
That starts off looking like perhaps the most common out-of-timeout special of the Rivers era: DeAndre Jordan runs to set a high screen for Chris Paul, only to U-turn and zip down into an off-ball pick for JJ Redick. That play has been astonishingly effective in springing Redick for open 3s, even this season, when it is presumably toward the front of any opponent scouting report.
But the Clips know they need to evolve. Redick feints toward Jordan, as if the usual thing is coming, only to veer toward a monster double-pick waiting on the other side of the floor. That is some tasty, tasty playcalling.
5. Atlanta's road uniforms
It has been a bad month for the Hawks. They lost five straight games as Paul Millsap nursed a knee injury, jeopardizing what had looked like the inevitable Atlanta middling playoff seed. Dennis Schroder committed eight or more turnovers three times in a week! He hasn't progressed as quickly as the Hawks hoped when they signed him to a big-money extension before the season.
Paydays loom for Millsap and Tim Hardaway Jr. Shell out for both, and the Hawks risk trapping themselves in mediocrity.
At least they look nice when they play on the road. Their black roadies aren't the league's best -- Orlando's standard away jerseys and Houston's new alternate uniforms beat them -- but they have the most verve. The bright red and yellowish "volt" green leap off the black background. Stashing the classic "Pac-Man" logo on the bottom right of the shorts is a gorgeous touch. The slight triangular color gradations shaded into the black, meant to evoke bird feathers, represent a successful stylistic bet totally unique (at least in the NBA) to the Hawks.
The bold, almost searing red alternates are even better. Using the abbreviated "ATL" across the front separates them from the other jerseys in the Hawks kit, and nods to a common shorthand for the city's full name. I even like the tilted, stylized A. The feather-style shading creates something like a glimmer effect.
A lot of critics, including the revered Paul Lukas, panned these uniforms as loud and borderline fluorescent when the Hawks unveiled them. I kind of felt the same way at the time.
They've grown on me. They stand out, and they pop off the TV screen. Thumbs up.
6. Jason Smith, shooting 3s
Whether Smith should play power forward at all is a fair question. In certain matchups, it won't work. The Wizards have the roster flexibility to excise that lineup type from their rotation if they need to.
But as long as Smith is playing there alongside a traditional paint-bound center, he might as well try to shoot 3s. Scott Brooks has given Smith the green light, and it is working better than anyone -- including Brooks or Smith -- could have expected.
Smith is 30-of-60 from deep. He had hit 34 3s combined over eight prior seasons. He's shooting just as well on longer above-the-break triples as on shorter corner 3s.
Defenses are even starting to worry a bit about Smith's range, and that has unlocked an almost shockingly aggressive off-the-bounce game:
That is a double-take special. You have to replay it to make sure it was Jason Smith, and not, I dunno, Zach LaVine.
Again: We'll see if this lasts. The Wiz have slaughtered opponents with the Smith-Ian Mahinmi combo, but Smith's partnership with Marcin Gortat has floundered (Gortat has floundered for most of the past six weeks). Smith struggles to defend stretchier power forwards.
But Smith has done his part to make these groups playable on offense.
7. Off-the-butt inbound self-assists
This never gets old.
Should we mention that Rajon Rondo has played shockingly well for Chicago amid what passes as a playoff race in the Eastern Conference -- and that he's even shooting 50 percent from deep in March? Or does that violate the unanimous NBA fan agreement, struck earlier this month, that we've all had our fill of this lifeless, weirdo mishmash of team? (Note: I'm pretty sure Chicago fans drafted those accords. I can't recall a fan base so sick of a team in playoff contention.)
Regardless, the off-the-ass inbounds self-assist is of one of the great desperation high-IQ plays in sports. It doubles as a resourceful, MacGyver-level escape, and a blooper. My wife is not a basketball fan, but I engage her by showing her bloopers and highlight dunks. This one always draws a good laugh. The other blooper mainstay that does the job: When players accidentally pass to referees or coaches.
8. Yogi Ferrell as J.J. Barea
Yogi Mania has died down, and Ferrell probably projects as a nice backup point guard. That's a fine endgame for everyone involved.
But he instantly picked up on the benefits of a pick-and-roll partnership with Dirk Nowitzki, and the unique cadences of that two-man dance:
That exact sort of back-and-forth got J.J. Barea paid. We're almost two decades into Nowitzki forcing defenses to abandon their usual pick-and-roll coverages. Gortat, guarding Nowitzki there, prefers sitting back in the paint. You can't do that against Dirk, unless you're cool surrendering a wide-open 18-footer to the greatest shooting big man ever.
So Gortat does what most guys in that position have done for all these years: lunge at Ferrell for a half-second to buy John Wall time, and keep contact with Nowitzki. Defenders can negotiate that once without screwing up. Nowitzki knows that. He flips the screen around as Ferrell changes directions to give it another go.
It's really hard to navigate through four bodies moving back-and-forth within a tiny radius. Mistakes happen. Guys run into each other, or lose track of their man. Cagey drivers find open lanes, and the Mavs proceed from there.
Not everyone can step into the Dirk Dance and nail it an expert level. It takes feel, and an opportunistic change-of-pace explosion. Ferrell has it.
Let's all say no to this proposed nickname for Portland's sweet-shooting backcourt. These guys deserve a sobriquet; Damian Lillard is an assassin, on fire since the All-Star break in carrying Portland to the No. 8 spot, and CJ McCollum is the league's silkiest pull-up shooter. But we can do better than something that sounds like a milkshake you get at McDonald's.
10. Referee restraint in transition
They are blights the NBA must eradicate: the wraparound, clothesline-style intentional fouls players use to stop fast breaks just as something exciting might happen. They don't draw harsh clear-path penalties, because defenders only use this lame cop-out when they know plenty of players from both teams are behind them. Referees sometimes whistle them even when the defender whiffs, because the attempted tackle is so obvious.
These fouls are a plague on the sport. They are not basketball plays. The fix is easy: Either broaden the clear-path rules to include them, or levy the same penalties reserved now for intentional away-from-the-play fouls.
In the meantime, some referees keep the action going -- and shame defenses -- by ignoring clothesline attempts that either miss, or make so little contact that they don't disrupt the dribbler's momentum. These referees are heroes. This has the same effect as allowing play to continue when the shot-clock buzzer sounds after a near 24-second violation: The team with the ball has earned a benefit, and it should be able to reap the rewards in transition.
Keep turning a selective blind eye to white-flag fouls!