Highlights: Thunder vs. Lakers
A week of NBA games are in the books from Orlando and bubble ball continues to go off without a hitch. Yet again on Wednesday, it was reported that the NBA has not had a single positive coronavirus test. Excused absences like Lou Williams have made it through their quarantines and are back on the floor. We’re already heading towards the home stretch when it comes to the seeding-game schedule, as teams like the Lakers and Celtics have already played through half of their slate. So what are the big stories as we move closer and closer to the playoffs? Here’s everything you need to know from Day 7 of the bubble.
Utah Jazz 124, Memphis Grizzlies 115
Philadephia 76ers 107, Washington Wizards 98
Denver Nuggets 132, San Antonio Spurs 126
Oklahoma City Thunder 105, Los Angeles Lakers 86
Toronto Raptors 109, Orlando Magic 99
Boston Celtics 149, Brooklyn Nets 115
Lakers need a new fifth starter
It doesn’t make intuitive sense. Avery Bradley and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are fairly similar players. Bradley is a better on-ball defender, Caldwell-Pope is a better help defender, but broadly, they both fit the 3-and-D archetype. Neither is significantly more talented than the other. Yet for whatever reason, the Lakers are world-beaters with Bradley in their starting lineup and awful with Caldwell-Pope.
Lakers starting lineup with Bradley
+12.6 net rating
Lakers starting lineup with Caldwell-Pope before hiatus
+0.4 net rating
Lakers starting lineup with Caldwell-Pope in bubble
-30.1 net rating
The Lakers spotted the Raptors a 13-point lead on Saturday, and then fell behind 7-0 to the Jazz on Monday. The starters lost the opening salvo by five points on Wednesday night against Oklahoma City. It might be a chemistry issue, it might be a lack of motivation, or it might just be bad shooting, but these samples are significant. This Lakers starting lineup doesn’t work.
So what changes could fix things? There are a couple of possible solutions, but they come with drawbacks. The Lakers could skip the preamble and just do what we know they plan to eventually and remove JaVale McGee for the sake of improving spacing. Anthony Davis is going to play center in most high-leverage playoff moments. He’s done so in crunch time for most of the season. Sticking, say, Kyle Kuzma in McGee’s spot would juice the offense without sacrificing too much in the way of cumulative size. If the Lakers want to match Bradley’s point-of-attack defense, Alex Caruso is their best bet.
The problem with either move is that the Laker bench has been stellar in Orlando. The Caruso-Kuzma-Dion Waiters trio has thrived, and breaking that up after all of the bench struggles they endured before the hiatus is a risk in itself. There is no telling how Caruso, typically a 20-minute player, would scale into starter minutes, and it is unlikely that Kuzma’s hot shooting sustains. The Lakers have to make a move, but there isn’t an obvious one on the board.
Grizzlies are going extinct
The Utah Jazz had the worst offense in the bubble until they ran into the Memphis Grizzlies. The Jazz scored 101.3 points per 100 possessions in their first three bubble games, and then dropped 124 on the Grizzlies. No, opponents aren’t going to make 18 3-pointers every night, but the Grizzlies didn’t exactly help themselves in how they defended those attempts. Losing Jaren Jackson Jr. robbed them of most of their defensive versatility. Their offense, especially late in games, was already hit or miss.
The Grizzlies’ lead for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference is down to only one game after starting at 3.5. Their easy opponents are already in the rearview mirror. Now they have the Thunder, Raptors, Celtics and Bucks in front of them, while teams like the Pelicans and Spurs have relative cakewalks for their schedules. Forget about holding onto No. 8. At this point, it looks like the Grizzlies are going to miss the play-in scenario altogether. The big winner there? The Boston Celtics, who own their first-round pick if it falls between 7-30. It would have been No. 17 had the Grizzlies made the playoffs. Now? The Celtics could be looking at a decent lottery pick.
Michael Porter changes the entire Western Conference equation
The widespread assumption all season has been that the Lakers and Clippers are the Western Conference’s two true contenders and that the Rockets, by virtue of their shooting, were the only significant upset threat. But if Michael Porter Jr. keeps playing this well, we’re going to have to reconsider Denver’s place in the hierarchy.
He scored 30 points on 19 shots only two days after scoring a career-high 37 on Monday. While Denver’s other perimeter players are eventually going to return, Porter has played so well that his long-term place in the starting lineup seems assured. The entire premise of Denver as a great regular-season team but not a playoff threat is based on the idea that Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray aren’t the sort of big, ball-handling perimeter scorers that postseason winners need. Well, Porter is one. It was supposed to take him years to reach this point. But if he keeps this up, Denver’s contention timeline just moved up significantly.
Boston might have found a new weapon
Remember “can’t play Kanter?” Three years ago, Billy Donovan was caught on camera uttering those now infamous words about his center, Enes Kanter, due to his difficulties defending in space in the postseason. Sure enough, Kanter survived in the 2019 postseason playing drop coverage for Portland… until reaching the Western Conference Finals, where Golden State roasted him on the perimeter. Kanter, for all of his strengths, has never been able to defend at a high enough level to survive the postseason crucible.
Yet Boston’s title hopes, to an extent, relied on the 18 or so minutes he gives them per night. They didn’t have another option to fill the minutes Daniel Theis needs to sit. They still might not, but Robert Williams made a very compelling case for himself on Wednesday, scoring 18 points on 7-of-7 shooting. Williams is the sort of athletic rim-runner Boston has lacked, and while he’s hardly Anthony Davis on the perimeter, he acquitted himself fairly well defensively against Brooklyn. Is that a meaningful sample size? No. But Williams is talented and the Celtics have a few more games to experiment. He appears healthy and physically able to contribute. If there’s a chance to avoid Kanter’s ghastly perimeter follies in the playoffs, Boston should consider it.
Raptors could have the NBA’s best defense
Statistically, the Bucks have the NBA’s best defense and it isn’t close. The gap between Milwaukee and No. 2 Toronto in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions is bigger than the gap between Toronto and No. 5 Boston. But the Rockets exploited a real vulnerability in the Milwaukee juggernaut on Sunday. Faced with maybe the greatest rim-protecting team in NBA history on a relative basis, they attempted a regulation record 61 3-pointers. They scored 120 points and won.
The Raptors have no such weakness. They opened their bubble tour by holding Anthony Davis to only two made field goals and the Lakers to only 92 points. They followed that up by holding Miami, the league’s most accurate 3-point shooting team, to only 31 percent from behind the arc. They are holding bubble opponents to only 98 points per game.
The Bucks do the things that they do well better than anybody does anything defensively. But the Raptors do everything at an elite level. All five of their starters would have been All-Defense candidates had they not missed games due to injury. They have the most creative defensive coach on Earth. In the playoffs, where matchups dictate results, the Raptors are essentially devoid of weaknesses. There is nobody to attack, no flaw to exploit. All teams can do is throw up shots and hope that they go in. They may not match the Bucks statistically, but in a playoff setting, that philosophy may take them even further.