Lowe: Ten things I like and don’t like, including the mental game of the NBA champs


Let’s go on break with 10 NBA things:

1. The mental dexterity of the defending champion Toronto Raptors

Toronto’s 15-game winning streak is over, but man, is this team a joy. The Raptors bring a combination of toughness, intelligence, and confidence that is really hard to find.

Some of that was within them before they went all the way last season. But maybe winning a title cements it inside you, makes it permanent — part of your bloodstream. You know what it takes — how hard it is, how dialed in you have to be every second of every possession — and that you and everyone with your shared experience can summon that. Imagine how powerful that knowledge is? Even guys who played no role on last season’s team — Chris Boucher, Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Matt Thomas — seem imbued with it.

They fly around on defense with a perfectly calibrated controlled frenzy — long and roaring fast, but never out of control. They make reads on the fly, and rarely screw up:

What Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby pull there — a jump switch in the left corner — looks easy, but it’s not. Toronto can make four or five reads like that in a 10-second span without screwing up — a rare thing.

Nick Nurse knows how smart his team is, and tests his players with complex defenses: zones, box-and-ones, triangle-and-twos. For short stretches, he randomizes matchups in ways that would appear unfavorable to Toronto: Anunoby jostles with a center — Domantas Sabonis and Karl-Anthony Towns recently — while one Toronto big roams elsewhere. Sometimes, it backfires. But sometimes, it confuses the offense or lures it into inefficient one-on-one battles.

On offense, Toronto rushes the ball up with something like glee. In the half court, they are all cuts and extra passes and instant decisions:

It appears as if no one cares about individual numbers. Siakam and Kyle Lowry are both scoring more, but they know they need to fill the void left by Kawhi Leonard.

Toronto isn’t the most talented team in the East. The Raptors might be getting a little lucky with opponents missing 3s; they allow the most 3s of any team, somewhat by design. They won’t have the best player in any series against Milwaukee or Philadelphia, and maybe not against Miami or Boston. But they have a will and a belief that makes them dangerous.

2. It’s time for Minnesota’s tentpole duo to bring it on defense

Great offense can take you far. You can have fun, win 50 games, get on TV. But without a good defense, you are never going anywhere serious.

Towns and D’Angelo Russell have each other. Now it’s time for them to get serious about the grimier aspects of basketball.

Russell has too often been a traffic cone and magnet for screens. It will never be easy for him to defend point guards. He’s not the most explosive dude. But he can give better effort — snap into a defensive stance, get skinny around screens.

Towns has been all over the map. He has had extended stretches of average defense, fits of legitimate effectiveness, and long fallow periods. He can appear strangely leaden considering how he glides on offense. His effort and timing come and go. He can still get overeager chasing blocks, exposing the glass.

In some seasons — this one included — he has been a drag on Minnesota’s transition defense. In others, he has been fine.

He has been a beat late rotating to the rim a lot this season:

He ranks last among centers in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus, and 484th out of 490 players.

Then again, opponents have hit only 52% in the restricted area with Towns nearby, per NBA.com — a stingy number. Opponents are getting to the rim and the foul line less often with Towns on the floor. Minnesota’s defense has been way worse with Towns mostly because opponents have hit 41% of their 3s, and 32.7% when he rests. How much of that is on Towns? How much is luck?

Overall, Towns has been a below-average defender. But there is a decent one in here — not a great one, but good enough to (eventually) go deep into the postseason. It’s time to see that player.

3. The beauty of a simple place switch

This is one of the simplest ways to inject unpredictability into your offense:

All Russell and Juancho Hernangomez do is switch places while the defense is transfixed by Towns on the other side. That confuses Siakam and Thomas, who both assume they are responsible for the low man.

Any team can do this on dozens of possessions every game.

Some of the promise of the Russell-Towns pairing lies in plays like this. Russell has always been a sly off-ball mover, bobbing behind flares screens and popping up for open 3s. The Lakers under Luke Walton directed Russell into a sort of hybrid role heavy on such actions.

Towns is dangerous enough running the offense — a triple threat from 25 feet out — that Minnesota can design chunks of its system around those elements. It provides both variety and floor balance, with Towns — their biggest defender — in prime position to rush back on defense. It nudges Russell away from too many long 2s.

4. All-Star snub rage without context

Snub rage — and maybe all NBA discourse — hit its nadir when Eric Goodwin, the agent for Matisse Thybulle, released a statement lamenting that “ASSistant coaches” had blown it by not selecting Thybulle to the Poulan Weed Eater Rising Stars Challenge Presented by Sprite and Brought To You By Taco Bell and Kia The Official Car Of The NBA.

I don’t disagree! Thybulle might be the best rookie wing defender I’ve ever seen. I would love to watch him wreck this dunk-fest.

James Jones, the Suns’ GM, issued a one-line statement reacting to Devin Booker‘s (since rectified!) snubbing: “I have played with and against multiple All-Stars in this league and Devin Booker is undoubtedly an NBA All-Star.” Case closed!

(I had Booker on my All-Star team.)

Mark Bartelstein, power agent, released a thorough statement outlining why Bradley Beal — his client — should make the All-Star team. Fine! Totally fair! Beal is worthy.

But if you are a respected part of the NBA — as all these people are — and you put out a Snub Statement, you should indicate which All-Star must be removed to make way for your client/player. Like, there aren’t infinite spaces. There are 12. Not 13. Not 15. Twelve. The snubbed backers present their arguments as if they are no-brainers and everyone disagreeing with them is a moron.

They are advocating for clients. I get that. They have gone through the same thought exercise all voters have, and they know — despite their public posture — that these are not easy choices, even if they think their conclusion is right. If you are going to criticize the choices of others in a public forum, you should present the dilemma as what it is — a choice where someone has to lose.

Also: It’s easier to say this as a non-player, and I might be in the minority even in media, but I don’t feel any huge pull to expand All-Star rosters to 15. I kinda like that we end up with painful choices — that making the All-Star team is damn near as hard as earning All-NBA. Could we settle on 13 — the active roster limit?

5. T.J. Warren, bringing it

Motivation is an incredible thing. The Pacers are good; the Suns, Warren’s old team, were not. There are stakes now.

The Pacers have a set-in-stone culture of grinding defense, personified by Nate McMillan — one of the greatest guard defenders ever — and Dan Burke, their longtime defensive wizard. If you don’t grind, you don’t play.

And so Warren has transformed from an indifferent defender into an attentive one. He didn’t make these urgent, physical, sacrifice-your-body-to-win rotations much in Phoenix:

He’s averaging 3.3 deflections per 36 minutes, one of the top 40 marks among rotation players — up from 2.4 a year ago.

He has been rugged and agile bodying guys up one-on-one. His ability to guard multiple positions has been oxygen for Indiana’s smaller lineups. McMillan often has Warren guard the most threatening scorer — wing or power forward — allowing Indiana to hide Doug McDermott and use Justin Holiday on other assignments.

The Pacers’ defense has been solid with Warren on the floor. He rates well by ESPN’s advanced plus-minus statistic. He still doesn’t rebound enough, and rebounding remains a huge problem for the Pacers when Sabonis rests; the Pacers snare only 68.8% of opposing misses without their new All-Star, a mark that would rank last among teams by a mile.

But Warren is doing his job, and that is all anyone asked.

6. The blossoming all-around game of Josh Hart

Zion Williamson is even better than advertised. His mind moves as fast as his body, and that is scary. He is already a good passer and cutter. New Orleans is a team-best plus-74 in 274 minutes with Williamson on the floor. Ridiculous.

But don’t forget about the support players helping power New Orleans’ 6-3 surge into San Antonio/Portland territory (way) behind Memphis for the No. 8 spot in the West. In particular: Hart is averaging 10 points and seven boards over his past 20 games, shooting well from deep, guarding almost every position, and flashing new passing acumen.

Hart is averaging three dimes per game in February. That might not sound like much, but it’s a decent number considering Hart is a spot-up guy surrounded by drive-and-kick threats. He has been more decisive blowing by defenders rushing to close out on him, and smarter anticipating how defenses rotate.

More often now, Hart will throw the pass one link further down the chain than the defense expects. That is the difference between a contested shot and an open one.

Every team needs someone like Hart.

7. Nemanja Bjelica, filling gaps

The Kings are a mess. The Kings are always a mess. We have always been at war with Eastasia.

One bright spot: the play of Bjelica, Sacramento’s overlooked free-agent coup, on fire from deep (45% on 3s!) and filling time at center amid Sacto’s usual litany of injuries.

The Kings have outscored opponents by almost 10 points per 100 possessions with Bjelica as a small-ball center, mostly on the back of an offense scoring at a rate that would lead all teams, per Cleaning The Glass. Most opposing centers can’t stick with Bjelica on pick-and-pops. When slow-footed bigs close out on him in a panic, Bjelica dusts them:

He’s a crafty finisher and passer, dishing assists at a career-best rate.

Bjelica-at-center lineups might not hold up over the long haul. They sometimes struggle on the glass. In the playoffs — imagining an alternate reality in which Sacramento participates in them again — good teams with the right personnel would downsize along with the Kings, and outgun them.

But it has worked in the regular season. The Kings needed something to fill the void after injuries to Marvin Bagley III and Richaun Holmes — who had been killing it as their starter — and whatever the hell happened with Dewayne Dedmon. Credit Bjelica for stepping up.

8. Avery Bradley, cutting menace

Bradley was perhaps the least sexy choice as the Lakers’ fifth starter, but he has meshed well on both ends. He’s hitting 3s — 37% — prerequisite No. 1 for any perimeter guy playing alongside LeBron. Bradley has always been best as an on-ball defender, and faces too much of a size advantage against starter-level wings; having him hound point guards is a perfect use of his skill set.

Bradley’s best contribution to L.A.’s starting five might be his cutting. LeBron finds him on two or three backdoor cuts every game. But more than that, Bradley uses his cuts to create looks for teammates:

Lonzo Ball ditches Bradley to double Anthony Davis. That leaves JJ Redick guarding two players on the right wing: Bradley and Danny Green. Redick stands between them. Bradley sees that, and cuts. That is a scoring cut, sure; if Redick doesn’t move, Bradley darts free to the rim.

But Redick is a smart defender. He’s going to react. Bradley knows that — knows his cut will drag Redick two steps farther from Green, generating an open triple.

Bradley will cut at weird times, and into traffic — shifts the defense might not expect:

That is a wonderful bit of improvisation. You generally shouldn’t clutter the paint like that. But the Lakers’ spacing is already out of whack, with Green crowding Bradley in the left corner, and Bradley understands a baseline sneak might bend the defense — and poof, another open corner 3 for Green.

LeBron can make up for a lot of messy spacing, anyway.

9. Terry Rozier‘s missing playmaking

Devonte’ Graham‘s emergence has been a godsend for the Charlotte Hornets, and also thrown into stark relief the limitations of Rozier’s game. Rozier is simply not the engine of a good NBA offense. That’s OK! Lots of good players aren’t.

Graham’s development into a snazzy playmaker has transformed Rozier into more of an secondary ballhandling wing, and he’s doing well in that role: 18 points per game, and a career-best 38.5% from deep — including a scorching 46.6% on catch-and-shoot 3s, sixth among rotation players jacking at least two per game.

He’s a solid defender across multiple positions.

That is just not what Charlotte paid Rozier almost $19 million per season to do. The Hornets have to ask themselves now whether the Graham-Rozier backcourt is their long-term foundation. Graham is a liability on defense, and Rozier — while decent and feisty as all hell — is still only 6-1 guarding wings. Charlotte has allowed 112 points per 100 possessions with both on the floor, equivalent to the league’s 25th-ranked defense.

Its offense has cratered when Rozier plays without Graham: 94.7 points per 100 possessions, nine points worse than Golden State’s 30th-ranked offense.

Rozier doesn’t download the floor fast enough. Passing windows close before he can exploit them. He pauses mid-dribble when zipping another bounce or two would unlock a profitable passing lane. He takes some puzzling shots with lots of time left to probe:

He doesn’t operate like someone with confidence in his vision and his ability to thread passes. I bet there are some passes Rozier sees on time, and could make on time, if he risked it.

Again: There is nothing really wrong with this. There are a few dozen players in the world with above-average NBA point guard vision. But the Hornets face some tough questions.

10. Deandre Ayton has one Jokic pass

It will always be tempting to define Ayton by what he is not, which is to say Luka Doncic. He has elements of a brutish, old-school center — a player type going out of style unless said player brings All-Defensive-level play on that end.

Ayton does not bring that, and probably never will. But he has made major strides since his first couple of months in the league, when he wobbled around like a giraffe trying to extricate itself from mud. Opponents are shooting 55% at the rim with Ayton nearby, a solid number, and a huge improvement from last season’s unsightly figure — 65%. There are fewer fatal blips of awkward footwork.

Ayton on offense doesn’t fit any of the neat prototypes for the modern center. He doesn’t shoot 3s. He is not an elite passer. He doesn’t rim-run on the pick-and-roll as much as he should, though he is doing so more lately. His pet move appears to be a fading turnaround, which is a bad shot and a big reason Ayton gets to the line at a rate that is frankly unacceptable for someone so large — and who snatches so many offensive rebounds. (Ayton’s hands are incredible.)

Maybe Ayton isn’t meant to fit any of those templates. Maybe he can fulfill his potential — become an All-Star — by getting B-level good at all of them, and shape-shifting between them as matchups dictate.

Case in point: He’s a good passer already, and not just from a standstill at the elbows. This one caught my attention:

That is a patented Nikola Jokic pass — a pick-and-roll turned into a give-and-go. It hides in plain sight for screen-setters, but most don’t see it or have the confidence to try it. That Ayton does is a great sign.

He is one of the half-dozen or so players I’m most excited to track over these last 25-plus games.

By the way: The Ricky Rubio-Devin Booker-Kelly Oubre Jr.-Mikal Bridges-Ayton lineup is plus-56 in 180 minutes, and pouring in points — another thing to monitor.

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