Philadelphia 76ers rookie Jahlil Okafor talks to Basketball Insiders about his transition to the NBA, how he’s growing alongside his new teammates, what he has learned from veterans like Elton Brand and Carl Landry and what goals he is setting for the second half of the 2015-16 NBA season.
Injuries, Tough Schedule Challenge the HEAT
The Miami HEAT are in the midst of their most difficult stretch of the season.
They had one of the NBA’s easiest schedules in the opening months of the 2015-16 season, with 20 of their first 30 games played at home. They performed well during that span early on, as expected, and were near the top of the Eastern Conference standings for quite some time.
However, it was clear that we would learn a lot about this team in January and February. That’s when their schedule would provide many challenges. Both months featured games against a ton of playoff teams, as well as plenty of road contests. In January alone, their schedule included two long road trips (six games and five games), four back-to-backs and one stretch where they’d be playing 11 of 12 games on the road.
They opened January with three straight wins over talented teams: the Dallas Mavericks, Washington Wizards and Indiana Pacers. But they have struggled since, going 2-7 the rest of the month (with their only wins coming against the struggling Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets). They have dropped six of their last seven games.
Then, their schedule for the month of February is brutal too. They face a number of very talented teams, including four of the top five teams in the Western Conference – the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks. And in February, their away games once again outnumber their home games, which is a problem for a team that is currently 8-11 on the road. Their entire February schedule is listed to the right.
The only thing more challenging than Miami’s schedule is the fact that they’ve been playing without many of their key players recently. Injuries have been piling up for Miami, which has contributed to their poor record in the month of January. It has become a serious concern for the team since so many players are sidelined.
Last night against the Washington Wizards, Miami was without Dwyane Wade (shoulder), Goran Dragic (calf, out for fifth straight game), Beno Udrih (neck, out for third straight game) and Chris Andersen (left knee).
Then, during the second quarter of the game, Hassan Whiteside sustained a non-contact injury and he was forced to leave the game holding his left side. Finally, in the fourth quarter, Luol Deng was poked in his right eye and had to go to the locker room with a towel covering his face.
That means six HEAT players were unavailable in last night’s game. And to get an idea of how important those six players are, they are averaging a combined 58.8 points, 26.1 rebounds and 14.6 assists this season.
At the moment, Miami has just eight healthy players on their roster.
“The toughest part about it is that you always worry about the health of your teammate, first and foremost,” Chris Bosh told reporters. “You always want guys to be as healthy as possible, but when it’s another guy going down, it’s just tough. Two weeks ago, we were going into a West Coast road trip, really trying to prove ourselves with a whole roster and now we’ve got six guys out. It’s just a tough pill to swallow.”
With so many veterans out, the team has relied on young players like Tyler Johnson (23 years old), Justise Winslow (19) and Josh Richardson (22) – all of whom played 35+ minutes last night against the Wizards. Jarnell Stokes (22) also played a handful of minutes, making his debut for the HEAT after joining the team in November as part of the Mario Chalmers trade with the Memphis Grizzlies.
While Bosh acknowledged that this has been extremely hard on the team, he believes this stretch will be very beneficial for the young players since they’re gaining valuable experience.
“We’re constantly just trying to digest what’s going on, take the hit on the chin and then regroup,” Bosh said. “Our young guys are trying [to fill in], but they’re inexperienced and they’re really learning on the fly. I think the best part about it is it’s going to help us in the long run because these guys are getting minutes under stressful situations, and that’s how it’s going to be later on.”
For Miami’s sake, hopefully Whiteside and Deng aren’t seriously injured. Fortunately, it seems Wade will able to return soon, as he tested his shoulder prior to Wednesday’s game and nearly played, but was a late scratch.
Miami needs all of the healthy bodies they can get right now. Head coach Erik Spoelstra has had to make some significant changes to his game plan due to the injuries shortening his rotation.
“Toward the end of the third quarter, guys were running out of gas,” Spoelstra said. “Tyler was absolutely gassed. CB and Amar’e played all the way until about the four-minute mark. I had to get guys out, I couldn’t stagger it the way I normally do. We thought we would be able to hold the floor and we weren’t able to [do it].”
Spoelstra is hoping that the team can continue to make strides despite the injuries and challenging schedule. He admitted that this is a difficult spot for any team to find themselves in.
“You still have opportunities to build habits and that’s what we’re reminding our guys every timeout,” Spoelstra said. “We’ve all been around this league long enough [to know] it happens virtually to every team at some point.
“You just have to weather the storm. This too will pass, hopefully sooner than later, and that’s my mind frame on it.”
With their recent losses, the HEAT have dropped to the seventh seed in the East with a 23-20 record. Despite their struggles, Miami still has the sixth-ranked defense in the NBA, allowing just 100 points per 100 possessions. However, they have left a lot to be desired on the offensive end, scoring just 101.6 points per 100 possessions. Miami’s next game is on Friday on the road against the Toronto Raptors.
New Basketball Insiders Podcast
The latest episode of the Basketball Insiders Podcast is available. This installment features senior NBA writers Moke Hamilton and Ben Dowsett discussing their East and West All-Star selections, the race for the eighth seed in each conference and which players should make the 12-man Olympic roster. Listen below:
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.
PODCAST: Breaking Down The Western Conference Playoff Race
Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte break down the Western Conference playoff race and check in on the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.