Ten things time:
1. Mike Conley, pro's pro, and the fightin' Grizz
The ragtag Memphis Grizzlies are 7-7 in their past 14 games, with wins over Oklahoma City, Houston, Orlando, Utah and Portland. That is more competitive than they have any right to be, considering even the players and coaches must have a hard time remembering who is on the team.
Jonas Valanciunas is beasting; he's averaging 20 and 10 on 55 percent shooting in Memphis, and he's fourth in the league in total post-ups in that stretch, per Second Spectrum. Fans already love him.
In the center of it all is Conley, averaging 23 points and seven dimes since the Grizz traded Marc Gasol -- and tried to trade Conley. He is doing his thing: bobbing and weaving behind screens until the defense loses track of him, slithering in for righty floaters, grinding on defense, and launching audacious step-back 3-pointers because the Grizz can't always produce anything better.
Dude just does his job. That doesn't sound like much, but you would understand some crankiness and loafing. All his old stalwarts are gone. The Grizzlies are bad. They tried to trade him to a better team -- he probably didn't mind -- and failed.
The Grizz will probably try to deal him again this summer, but there are worse outcomes than keeping Conley around to ease the pain of a rebuild and mentor Jaren Jackson Jr. That would preclude a full-on tank job, and the Grizz could use another top-five pick -- especially since they owe one to Boston in the next three drafts. (Boston gets the Grizzlies' pick this year if it falls outside the top eight, and it is going to be close.)
Memphis is a net-neutral team with Conley on the floor and a disaster when he sits. They are tied in the loss column with Washington and not far behind the 35-39 Hornets -- who play in a worse conference. If Bradley Beal and Kemba Walker are candidates for third-team All-NBA, shouldn't Conley -- by far the best defender among them -- at least earn a mention? Numbers beyond points per game suggest he should.
2. Just say "no" to divisions
The following head-to-head matchups could, or will, end up 2-2: Brooklyn-Miami, Detroit-Miami, and Charlotte-Brooklyn. In all cases, the next tiebreaker would be ... wait for it ... whether either team involved won its division.
You would be forgiven for forgetting divisions exist. The NBA's official standings page defaults to 1-15 conference rankings. Teams are embarrassed to hang division championship banners. But something called the Southeast Division indeed exists, and every team in it is below .500. Someone will win by de-fault, the two sweetest words in the English language, and that team will derive a tiebreaker advantage.
That advantage will not give one Southeast team a playoff berth in place of Detroit or Brooklyn. Five teams are fighting for three spots, and three of them are from the Southeast; therefore, the Southeast winner would qualify for the playoffs regardless. But it could come into play for seeding, and there is a future scenario -- unlikely but possible -- in which division-winner criteria determines a playoff spot.
Vaporize all division-related tiebreakers, and the next criterion is conference record. Just use that.
Better yet: Scrap divisions. They serve no purpose. They help limit travel, since division rivals play one another the maximum four times apiece, but the league could build that into the schedule. The Magic, Hornets, Heat, Wizards and Hawks could face one another four times every season -- the same number of times they face six other Eastern Conference teams -- without residing in some contrived division.
The league since 2006 has gradually reduced the importance of divisions. It's time for one last step.
3. The quality of Nikola Vucevic's passes
The surging Orlando Magic, 17-8 in their past 25 games, still have a solid chance to make the playoffs even after their win streak came to an end Thursday night in Detroit.
They have the league's best defense since late January -- a softish schedule has helped -- and Evan Fournier has found his footing on offense. Steve Clifford has been more careful about keeping one of Fournier, Nikola Vucevic and D.J. Augustin on the floor.
But Vucevic remains Orlando's failsafe. When nothing is working, he generates a decent look from the post, or by picking-and-popping beyond the range of most behemoth centers.
He has improved his passing every season to the point that he now stands as one of the league's sweetest-dishing big men outside Denver. When navigating double-teams, Vucevic has become cagier about making the pass one player away from what the defense might expect:
Lance Thomas abandons Jonathan Isaac in the corner to swarm Vucevic, leaving one Knick -- Damyean Dotson -- to patrol both Isaac and Fournier. Dotson's first step is naturally from his own man -- Fournier -- down to Isaac. The Knicks expect Vucevic to go there; that pass would trigger the most organic set of rotations.
Vucevic reads that, and throws a diagonal bullet to Fournier that wrong-foots Dotson for a split second. Dotson scrambles to recover, and Fournier touches an easy pass to Isaac. No one is there. Boom.
Vucevic makes similar quick-hitting reads out of the pick-and-roll:
Vucevic is averaging four dimes, and rarely turns the ball over. Orlando can't score consistently without him.
4. The versatility of Blake Griffin
There are five no-brainer All-NBA forwards: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George, Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. That leaves one spot. Griffin should be the favorite. Outside the L.A. limelight, he has completed his transformation into one of the league's most well-rounded big men without losing his bully-ball essence.
Griffin is shooting 36 percent -- about league average -- on seven 3s per game. Two seasons ago, when he officially started dabbling, Griffin jacked just 113 total 3s -- mostly wide-open catch-and-shoot looks. Now, he's launching step-backs and rocketing off pindowns like some muscle-bound Kyle Korver:
He is the only traditional big man running at least 15 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions, and those plays have been bountiful for Detroit. The Pistons have scored 1.05 points per possession when Griffin shoots out of a pick-and-roll, or passes to a teammate who fires right away -- 23rd best among 219 guys who have run at least 100 such plays, per Second Spectrum.
The Griffin-Andre Drummond two-man game might be Detroit's staple play. Griffin orchestrates with the patience of a veteran point guard. Even when the opponent has a set plan -- switch, or have Drummond's guy lunge out just a hair -- Griffin lingers long enough in that tricky intermediate area, faking and twisting between dribbles, that he often baits antsy defenders into hopping out of scheme:
He has developed a delightful partnership with Wayne Ellington on handoffs. Griffin is a master at play-action faking, and then darting to the rim when both defenders chase Ellington:
And yet: He is still eighth in post-ups per 100 possessions, per Second Spectrum. Detroit scores well on those trips, too.
Griffin has found a way to cede more of the paint to Drummond than he could for DeAndre Jordan, and somehow stay true to his roots as a bruiser. That is a hard balance to strike.
The Clippers have a higher long-term upside after trading Griffin and Tobias Harris in consecutive seasons, though they are under pressure to sign a stud free agent in one of the next two summers. Don't let that blind you to how wonderfully Griffin has played in Detroit.
5. Gary Harris is a hero, and the basketball gods see it
In 2016, The Guardian asked Gary Harris to name his favorite American. He chose himself. "I love myself," Harris said. Last season on the Lowe Post podcast, I semi-jokingly asked Harris if he might consider another answer. He doubled down!
You can say whatever you want when you commit heroic acts of defense like this:
The end-a-fast-break clothesline -- a tragic non-basketball play that needs go away -- has become so commonplace, ball handlers almost expect it. They ease up as defenders approach with arms spread wide. Defenders who refuse to stoop to such gimmickry can leverage those expectations and snare steals.
Harris pulls that in the first clip, pouncing on Kevin Knox, who seems totally unaware that Harris is lurking.
The NBA has moved to eliminate clotheslines in the G League by labeling them "transition take fouls" and levying a harsh penalty: The victimized team gets to pick any player to shoot one free throw, and retains possession.
Adopting that in the parent league isn't exactly the No. 1 item on the board of governors agenda. They have to deal with matters of real ethical and financial import. But codifying this in the NBA should be the easiest thing on that agenda. It should take two minutes -- a quick voice vote. Who would be opposed?
6. Jim Boylen, the latest coach shouter
We have a long tradition in this space of highlighting coaches who try to distract rival shooters. Vinny Del Negro was a foot-stomping pioneer. Dwane Casey preferred a clap-and-scream. A bunch of other coaches do this. Some are subtler, or try to disguise their hammy ploy by pointing at the ground near the shooter's feet -- as if they are yelling for the defensive player to hurry toward that spot, when they are really yelling to unnerve the shooter.
We have a new entrant after eagle-eyed viewers -- including Stephen Noh of The Athletic -- spotted Jim Boylen, Chicago's feisty and very sweaty coach, screaming at Jeff Green and Bobby Portis as they lined up for sideline 3s. He even appeared to shout Green's first name -- "JEFF!" -- a rather clever and mean innovation.
The stance here remains the same: This is corny and undignified. But coaches won't stop, and it is no great crime against the basketball gods. It's not, like, abhorrent. It should, however, come with a corollary: If a coach pulls this even once in a game, any opposing player who cans a 3 near that coach's sideline gets to taunt the bench in any way short of physical contact without recrimination.
7. Damyean Dotson is a random Knick you might enjoy
Half of late March NBA games are unwatchable. The tankers -- and there is still an incentive to tank in the middle of the lottery -- shut down any decent player with a hangnail. Absurdist lineups appear. Hey, why are Ray Spalding and Richaun Holmes playing together? Whoa! A twin towers DeAndre Jordan-Mitchell Robinson look that is sure to work!
The Bulls are so depleted, they played Robin Lopez and Cristiano Felicio together Wednesday -- and actually had Felicio spot up for 3s! You might be shocked to learn that the Blazers did not guard him out there. Washington dusted off Wesley Johnson as a giant shooting guard who can't shoot!
The only way for neutral fans to stomach tanky games is to project how players might translate onto good teams.
One Knick who should interest you in that sense is Dotson. He's shooting 37 percent from deep, and has been a feisty -- if a bit addled -- defender across both wing positions. He does not venture out of his lane on offense, and that lane has widened to include more than standstill catch-and-shoot bombs. He can fly off pindowns, and snap into his shooting motion. He is more decisive attacking off the catch, and blowing by flat-footed defenders who don't expect Dotson to jet forward with such immediacy:
He's not a high-volume pick-and-roll guy, but he has flashed some off-the-bounce spice:
Jukes like that suggest Dotson could develop into a Joe Harris type who flies off pindowns, catches on the move, and knifes into the lane as a sort of catch-and-go playmaker. He has to improve both his shooting and passing to get there, but good teams should keep tabs.
New York snared the second-round pick they used on Dotson in their 2016 trade for Derrick Rose. He's on a bargain non-guaranteed deal for next season, and becomes a restricted free agent after that. New York under Phil Jackson did a lot wrong, but it put a higher value on second-rounder fliers. It paid off in Dotson.
8. When fealty to your identity goes wrong
Oklahoma City is Boston West in terms of inconsistency, only the Thunder seem to get along and believe in science. When they slumped starting around Christmas, their defense -- best in the league to that point -- dipped toward average. Offense has been the culprit during this 7-12 stretch that has them clawing to avoid the No. 8 seed; only the Knicks have scored fewer points per possession in that span.
One thing has been nagging me about their ultra-aggressive defense dating to last season: Should they soften their scheme more often when they face pick-and-roll combinations that don't merit traps? Like, you don't need to bum-rush the dreaded Jevon Carter-Ivan Rabb two-man game, and unlock a corner triple for Justin Holiday:
The numbers don't suggest a problem. Oklahoma City gives up just 0.92 points per possession when it blitzes a pick-and-roll, one of the stingiest marks in the league, per Second Spectrum. The Thunder are not bleeding 3s; only 32 percent of enemy shots have come from deep, the 11th-lowest such share, per Cleaning The Glass.
All coaches mull the merits of adjusting game-to-game against sticking to one identity, and mastering it. The Thunder know who they are. They are built to play a certain way, and they are good at it. They are even better when they have fresh legs, and they looked tired in that Memphis game. There are no back-to-backs in the playoffs.
They did adjust some against Utah in last season's first round, switching more. But they mostly corralled Ricky Rubio high on the floor instead of ducking picks, staying attached to shooters, and daring Rubio to beat them with jumpers.
Also: Only seven teams give up more corner 3s as a portion of shot attempts, and only two a larger share of shots in the restricted area -- suggesting there might be some cost to sending two to the ball so often. They also foul a lot.
This is something to watch depending on postseason matchups.
9. Devin Booker's post game
As I've said many times before, including last week, I am a Booker optimist. He is not a losing player. He is a stud on offense, and he's going to be a star once the Suns put a real team around him. His 3-point shooting -- 33 percent this season, 35 percent for his career -- will come up on a roster that allows for more judicious shot selection.
(One shot Booker might want to drill: the step-back 3. He's big enough, with a quick and smooth release, to make it a weapon. He has made only 11 all season, 39th in the league, per Second Spectrum.)
An underrated Booker thing: He can burrow for old-school one-on-one buckets when the game slows.
That is straight-up mean -- physical, with classic footwork. Phoenix has scored 1.1 points per possession when Booker shoots out of the post, or passes to a teammate who lets fly -- 17th among 108 guys who have recorded at least 50 post-ups, per Second Spectrum.
Booker's post efficiency might not sustain at higher volume, but it's never going to be a massive part of his game. That he can do it, and do it well, is a bonus.
And, yes, his defense is bad. But guys carrying huge scoring loads on terrible teams -- teams that build losing rosters on purpose, as the Suns have for much of Booker's career -- don't often feel motivated to lock in on defense. Collective malaise and incompetence drags everyone down. Booker has the timing and footwork to be an average-ish defender. Bet on him being better when the Suns are.
Minnesota unveiled this hashtag-slash-slogan last season. It is not bad.
Unfortunately, the Raptors ruined directional slogans for everyone else by hitting it out of the park with "We The North," debuted between profane Masai Ujiri utterances during the 2014 playoffs.
You just can't use a "north" slogan after that. I understand that taglines can be years in the works -- I'm not sure that was the case with Minnesota -- and it sucks to scrap years of effort when another team beats you to release with something better.
But Toronto owns "north" in perpetuity. Sorry.