We’re finally entering the homestretch of the 2018-2019 NBA season. Every team in the league has either five or six games left in their season. With such little time left, the playoff picture is almost all but formed.
The top eight teams in the Western Conference have all clinched playoff berths. What remains to be seen is who goes where. Basically, there’s a two-team battle for every odd-number seed in the conference. For the first seed, we have Golden State and Denver. For the third seed, we have Houston and Portland – Prayers up for Jusuf Nurkic. For the fifth seed, we have Utah and the Clippers. For the seventh seed, we have San Antonio and Oklahoma City.
Who finishes where could very strongly impact how the playoffs turn out in the West. In the east, there’s more uncertainty. Only five teams have clinched a spot – Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, Boston, Indiana – while there are a game and a half difference between four teams for the last three spots – Detroit, Brooklyn, Miami, Orlando.
So much can happen between now and when the regular season concludes. Among all the possibilities, there is only one matchup that is pretty much set in stone, and that is the first-round matchup between the Boston Celtics and the Indiana Pacers.
Unless Philadelphia has the collapse of all collapses and/or Detroit has the uprise of all uprises, the Celtics and the Pacers will face off in the playoffs for the first time since 2005. Since their matchup looks more and more inevitable by the day, it’s worth examining just how these two teams got to where they are.
When the season started, Boston was viewed as a potential juggernaut having come off a Cinderella run in the playoffs who was getting their two stars back healthy. Having done what they had done last season, the Celtics were considered the favorite to represent the east in the finals.
Indiana was not put in the same category as Boston, but it wasn’t too far behind its rival. Coming off a remarkable that absolutely nobody saw coming, Indiana was seen as a team that, though not perceived as a contender, was on the rise and would be a tough team for anyone to play on any given night.
Amazingly, both teams currently sport the same record at 45-32. Compared to their respective expectations at the beginning of the season, both have disappointed because of unforeseen circumstances.
It’s unfair to associate the Pacers’ season with the word “disappointing” because they’ve done what they could. The only reason why – from a technical standpoint – they have disappointed is because of Victor Oladipo’s ill-fated season-ending knee injury, which will most likely prevent them from topping last season’s win total of 48.
Putting their expectations early on aside, what Indiana has done despite losing its undisputed leader in ‘Dipo. The Pacers have gone 14-17 since their all-star went down (That includes the very game he sustained his injury against Toronto) and have had the 23rd-highest offensive rating (108.7) and 9th-highest defensive rating (108.3).
A net rating of +0.4 is average at best, but in the wake of losing the teams sole All-Star, you can’t ask for much more than that. What’s more, is that the team is still sticking to its togetherness in that time.
Bojan Bogdanovic has taken the reins as the team’s leading scorer, averaging 21.5 points on 51/43/79 shooting splits. Myles Turner has made some strides in both his shot-blocking and three-point shooting, averaging 2.6 blocks a game and shooting 35.6 percent from three on 3.6 attempts a game. Darren Collison has picked up some of the scoring slack – 14.6 points a game – and Wes Matthews has fit in about as well as you could expect.
March did not treat Indy well, as they went 4-10 – including losing seven of its last eight games – but the ship hasn’t sunk. Because of that, for the second consecutive season, the Pacers’ are one of the NBA’s most likable teams. The same cannot be said for their likely playoff rival.
For the Celtics, calling their season “disappointing” is putting it lightly. Boston still has plenty of depth, currently has the sixth-best net rating, and yet it still hasn’t gotten past its demons.
The team’s had its excuses. Gordon Hayward’s recovery has taken longer than expected. Al Horford dealt with a knee injury early on in the season. Jaylen Brown was borderline unplayable early on. Jayson Tatum’s shot selection was iffy. The list goes on.
A fair amount of those issues have been mitigated for the most part. Hayward is playing much better in rhythm. The Celtics are taking proper precautions with Horford. Brown has been playing excellent basketball since being moved to the bench. Tatum has been taking more good shots than bad.
Somehow, the Celtics just can’t get over the hump and still find ways to hit a new low. After the trade deadline, the team built a 28-point lead on the Clippers at home and wound up losing by 11. Just last week, the team had an 18-point lead on the Hornets in Charlotte with seven minutes to go and wound up losing by seven.
The Celtics still have quality wins against their top competition in the conference, and not too long ago, they handed Golden State one the franchise’s worst losses in recent memory. All of this points to Boston clearly having the talent to be great, but its mental weakness keeps the team from reaching its potential.
Remember how the Pacers had a net rating of +0.4 when Oladipo went down. In that same span, the Celtics, who were mostly healthy outside of Aron Baynes, have a net rating of +1.2. Baynes’ absence is nothing to sneeze at, but when compared to the loss Oladipo, the Celtics should not only slightly better than the Pacers in that regard.
Because of that, the tables have turned for the Celtics. After being one of the league’s most enjoyable underdogs over the last four seasons, the Celtics have become one of the NBA’s least likable teams.
That’s what makes Boston’s matchup with Indiana so riveting. The Pacers are a team that is completely devoid of talent whose mental strength and chemistry help them play to the best of their abilities. The Celtics are a team that is overabundant in talent whose mental weakness and lack of chemistry prevents them from playing to the best of their abilities. Seeing them face off should be a sight to behold.
If their similar records despite polar opposite seasons aren’t enough evidence of that, watch the last 2:50 of the most recent game between the two of them.
When the series is over between them, it’s either going to be the story of an underdog rising up to defy the odds, or it’s going to be the story of an underachiever finally getting over its mental hurdles to become the team it’s wanted to be.
NBA Daily: 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft – 4/23/19
The annual Portsmouth Invitational is in the books, and the bulk of the early entry candidates have declared for the 2019 NBA Draft. Steve Kyler takes another look at all 60-picks in his latest NBA Mock Draft.
The NBA Draft process is in full swing with teams gearing up for workouts and the annual NBA Draft Combine.
Last week, draftable seniors took the floor at the annual Portsmouth Invitational, and while the quality of the players that take part in Portsmouth has diminished over the years, that did not stop NBA executives from piling in and start working the back channels of the draft process, with fellow executives and agents.
Amusingly, some teams have already started to promise Summer League spots to obvious players that will go undrafted, and even have started to gauge interest on fringe draft guys in being a second-round pick and agreeing to a two-way deal.
While it’s way too early in the process to buy into interest from one team or another, it is interesting to hear how aggressive teams are being this early in the process to stake out guys they have interest in after the draft.
There were a few notables from Portsmouth worth watching in the work out process, including Nebraska’s James Palmer Jr. and Campbell’s Chris Clemons, who tied as the tournament’s leading scorers at 18.3 points per game. UNC Wilmington’s Devontae Cacok was the tournament leading rebounder at 10.3 per game.
FSU’s Christ Koumadje measured in as the tallest player at Portsmouth with an official measure of 7 feet, 4.25 inches, and a standing reach of 9 feet, 9.5 inches. He also notched the second highest field goal percentage at 76.5 percent on 13 of 17 shooting.
There are a few dates to keep in mind as the draft process ramps into full speed.
The NBA deadline to declare for the 2019 NBA Draft is 11:59 p.m. on April 29. Players must submit in writing to be a part of the draft.
The NBA Draft lottery, which will determine the top four selections of the 2019 NBA Draft, will be held in Chicago on May 14, just as the annual Draft Combine kicks off.
Players seeking to leave the door open to return to college must declare their intentions to withdraw from the draft by May 29.
The last date to withdraw from the draft by NBA is 5 p.m. on June 10. This is usually not college level players, this date is typically international players that opt out of the draft.
The 2019 NBA Draft is set for June 20th.
Here is this week’s 60-pick Mock Draft:
Here are the first-round picks that are owed and how those picks landed where they are.
The Atlanta Hawks were to receive the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first-round pick as a result of the Kyle Korver trade in 2017, which is top-10 protected. But based on the final standings, that pick will not be conveyed.
The Boston Celtics were to receive the Memphis Grizzlies first-round pick as a result of the three-team Jeff Green trade in 2015; the pick is top-eight protected and, based on the final standings, that pick will not be conveyed.
The Atlanta Hawks are to receive the Dallas Mavericks first-round pick as a result of the Luka Dončić – Trae Young swap on draft night in 2018. The pick is top-five protected and, based on the final standings, that pick will be conveyed.
The Boston Celtics are to receive the more favorable of either the Sacramento Kings or Philadelphia 76ers first-round picks as part of the Markelle Fultz pre-draft trade in 2017. Based on the final standings, that pick will be conveyed; the Kings pick is the more favorable and would convey to Boston.
The Boston Celtics are to receive the LA Clippers first-round pick as a result of the Deyonta Davis draft day trade with Memphis in 2016. The Grizzlies got the pick in their Jeff Green/Lance Stephenson deal at the deadline in 2016. The pick is lottery protected and, based on the final standings, that pick will be conveyed.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are to receive the Houston Rockets first-round pick as a result of the three-team deadline deal that sent out Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss.
The Brooklyn Nets are to receive the Denver Nuggets first-round pick as a result of the Kenneth Faried – Darrell Arthur trade in July 2018. The pick is top-12 protected and, based on the final standings, that pick will be conveyed.
The San Antonio Spurs are to receive the Toronto Raptors first-round pick as a result of the Kawhi Leonard – DeMar DeRozan trade in July 2018. The pick is top-20 protected and, based on the final standings, that pick will be conveyed.
The Phoenix Suns are to receive the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as a result of the Eric Bledsoe trade in 2017. The pick has top 3 and 17-30 protections, designed to yield a lottery-level pick to Phoenix. Based on the final standings this pick would not convey. Given that the debt is not settled this year, the Bucks pick in 2020 would be top-7 protected.
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NBA Daily: James Harden’s All-Around Deadly Game
Spencer Davies debunks the myths surrounding James Harden’s skill set by using a breakdown of the Houston Rockets’ first-round series vs. the Utah Jazz as evidence.
“Lazy! Ballhog! Choker!”
The basketball social media universe is unforgiving for a number of players in the NBA. By scanning the timelines of many users in this world, you’ll see all kinds of arguments and debates—seriously or jokingly—rooted in recency bias due to the 24/7 news cycle rate at which news happens in 2019. A good chunk of these are referred to as “hot takes,” a.k.a. baseless claims meant to get a rise out of people reacting in real time.
Now, the issue with those viewpoints is that once something is proclaimed, it is set in stone. Some fans won’t bother to watch or listen when a player improves or adapts to whatever area was once a struggle. Above all else, they shudder to see success because it means they’re wrong. And who can be wrong about something in today’s world? Oh no, the horror.
In turn, that realization evolves into an actual hatred of a player’s game (and in some cases personal, unfortunately), causing a domino effect throughout and gaining traction to spread that disdain.
The target most seem to go after? None other than the NBA’s reigning MVP, Houston Rockets superstar James Harden.
Let’s get this out of the way first—yes, Harden embellishes. He does it more often than anybody in the league, probably. He’s also been given leeway on stepbacks regarding the gathers he takes. Just because that’s true, however, does not mean that every foul committed against him isn’t one, nor is every movement he makes a travel.
With the officiating the NBA has, you have to be mindful that a more demonstrative sell job is going to get you a call. Plus, if it works to your benefit and keeps working, why stop? Nobody wants to hear that, but if you look anywhere around this game you’ll recognize that plenty of players are doing the same exact thing.
That said, in the first-round series with the Utah Jazz, Harden hasn’t even been getting the number of foul calls we’re used to seeing him get anyway. If it weren’t for Game 3, he’d have been to the free throw line just eight times with only 12 personal fouls drawn. While it’s only a small sample size, to this point, his free throw rate is the lowest it’s been since last postseason.
Sure, he worked his way to the charity stripe twice as much Saturday, but that’s because his shots were not falling, meaning he had to take matters into his own hands to attack more frequently—especially with the Jazz forcing him right and going behind him defensively every possession.
Which brings us to the next point: Harden is an exceptional passer. Due to his isolation-heavy game, the common misconception is that Beard is a selfish player. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Since he’s put up less-than-ideal scoring numbers when he’s put it on the floor against Utah, Harden has found another way to positively impact the game with his distribution. His 6.7 assists per game off drives is far and away the highest average among the rest of the league in playoff time.
The main beneficiaries of these dimes have been two guys—Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker. If you want to know why Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni constantly raves over Harden’s playmaking ability, there’s your reason (threes and layups!)
In forcing defenses to collapse when he takes it to the hole, it more often than not leaves that pair open. When Harden comes in, Capela clears out just long enough to create space for a quick baseline cut and easy high handoff for two points.
Capela converts on 75 percent of the passes he receives from Harden, who’s averaged four assists per game to the big man this series. This has been one of the most deadly combinations for years, and the duo’s chemistry has only gotten stronger with more time together.
If defenses try to take away the alley-oop and crowd Harden at the point of attack, he’ll send it to his guys in the short corner almost every time. During this series, that man has been Tucker. All five of his three-point makes have come off a Harden assist. Sometimes others will occupy the spot as well and just wait for that kick out.
Harden’s also been able to locate the elbows pretty well, citing Eric Gordon and Gerald Green’s combined five three-balls as an example of that. If an overall career-best 48.6 assist percentage to start the postseason doesn’t turn people off to the “ballhog” narrative, nothing will.
It’d be remiss of this writer to not mention Harden’s work on the defensive end, too. Matched up against Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio—the players he’s guarded most—he’s held those players in check.
He isn’t assigned to the best offensive weapons on the team—Mitchell has had his way against him—but Harden has limited Ingles to six points on 49 possessions and Rubio to eight points on 41 possessions, respectively. The whiff in transition with Royce O’Neale going right around him for an easy dunk looks terrible, but it’s nothing but a blip on the radar regarding the whole picture.
Cherry picking certain highlights and statistics is a common practice of the hot take culture to fit their perspective, so they’ll use that to their advantage in arguments. Don’t let it distract you from the fact that Harden is, without a shadow of a doubt, turning himself into one of the most cerebral players in the NBA.
Consider that this small stretch of elite basketball has come against a top defensive team in the league. Harden finds ways to dissect. There’s always the threat of a stepback three—over eight contested attempts per game in which he’s knocked down 38.5 percent of—going down. If he chooses to deliberately slow the pace down in the halfcourt, there’s a good chance he’ll zoom right by you to open up those previously mentioned options.
Going 0-for-15 to start Game 3 was historically poor, but Harden racked up seven assists and six steals during the struggles. He still proceeded to score a game-high 14 points in the fourth quarter and knock down the most critical three of the night to lead Houston to a clutch win on the road.
In the end, it’s not how you start. It’s how you finish.
Some of Harden’s detractors will still blind themselves of the truly special performances that are actually happening. At that point, it’d be better to admit you don’t like the guy rather than to invent reasons why he’s “overrated” on the floor.
While everyone has their opinion on Harden, D’Antoni has his own.
“That’s the best offensive player I’ve ever seen,” the Rockets head coach said last March. “It’s impossible to guard him. It’s impossible.”
D’Antoni’s been around this league for a long time.
Perhaps we shouldn’t take the opinion of a person that’s coached Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony lightly.
NBA Daily: How Toronto Is Getting Past Its Playoff Demons
Even if they’re not facing the toughest opponent, multiple factors have helped the Raptors get over their playoff woes and dominate a playoff series, writes Matt John.
Being up 3-1 is usually child’s play for a No. 2 seed. For Toronto, it means so much more.
Since the Raptors’ rise to prominence in 2013, this is how every single playoff series for them has turned out.
2014: Lost to the fourth-seeded Nets team in seven games
2015: Lost to the fifth-seeded Wizards in four games
2016: Beat the seventh-seeded Pacers in seven games, beat the third-seeded HEAT in seven games, lost to the first-seeded Cavaliers in six games
2017: Beat the seventh-seeded Bucks in seven games, lost to the third-seeded Cavaliers in four games
2018: Beat the eighth-seeded Wizards in six games, lost to the fourth-seeded Cavaliers in four games
For the past half-decade, Toronto would either struggle to beat an opponent or get flat out embarrassed by it. In so doing, the franchise has developed a reputation for not being able to step up its game when the postseason comes around.
When the Magic stole Game 1 from the Raptors last week, fears of history of repeating itself surfaced. In the past, the Raptors have not responded well to obstacles. They may have been able to defeat an inferior opponent who showed some fight, but when the Raptors got over the hump, they made it harder on themselves than it had to be.
In the three games following Game 1, Toronto has bested Orlando three consecutive times, and they’ve done so relatively easily. The Raptors have beaten the Magic by an average of 18.67 points per game.
Beating the Magic, a team that hadn’t sniffed the playoffs in six years with a roster full of playoff virgins, is not what should be catching people’s eye. It’s that after several years of promising that things change for the better only to fail every time, Toronto has finally put its money where its mouth is.
Trading DeMar DeRozan – who had very well-documented struggles in the postseason – for Kawhi Leonard – the two-time Defensive Player of the Year and 2014 NBA Finals MVP – probably had something to do with that, but that was expected and more importantly, it hasn’t been just that.
Toronto’s success so far in the playoffs has not stemmed from Kawhi being a one-man show. In fact, there are multiple reasons as to how the Raptors have been able to make their playoff struggles a thing of the past.
The Continuing Rise of Pascal Siakam
There doesn’t need to be much explained about the third-year player because you’ve probably heard all about him. The New Mexico State alum has risen above the ranks to become one of the finer young players in the league and is one of the frontrunners for Most Improved Player. The refinement in his all-around game vaulted him to perhaps the second best player in Toronto.
The only question in hand was whether Siakam could keep up his impressive play in the postseason. This wasn’t out of lack of trust in him. It was because Toronto’s previous All-Stars like DeRozan and Kyle Lowry (more on him later) showed time and time again that they could not be trusted in a playoff series.
Pascal has put all those worries to bed. At least for the time being. Siakam has been nothing short of dominant in the four games that he’s gone up against Orlando, averaging 22.3 points on 53.8 percent shooting from the field as well as nine rebounds and 2.8 assists per game.
The highlight of his performance was his Game 3 stat line in which Siakam put up 30 points on 65/75/100 splits as well as 11 rebounds and four assists. Compared to DeRozan and Lowry, who sometimes had good playoff performances but just not consistently good performances. Pascal Siakam’s dependability should make the Raptors feel good about their chances as the postseason continues.
As it stands now, he has shown he is not afraid of the moment. Only time will tell if it stays that way for him.
Marc Gasol’s Presence
If trading for Kawhi was the evidence that Toronto wasn’t messing around with its window of opportunity, then trading for Gasol was the evidence that it would do everything in its power to reach its ceiling.
The Raptors pounced on the rare opportunity to acquire the former Defensive Player of the Year for pennies on the dollar, and Gasol’s acquisition has paid off big time since his arrival. Gasol not only provides them with a rim protector down low. He also brings a pretty advanced playoff pedigree.
Adding defense wasn’t necessarily a must for Toronto at the deadline, but an upgrade was definitely welcome. It didn’t take long for Gasol to take the starting center position from Serge Ibaka, and when he did, it got results.
The Raptors had the fifth-lowest defensive rating overall this season, allowing 106.8 points per 100 possessions. Gasol definitely made his own mark on the defense, as the Raptors actually had the third-lowest defensive rating – allowing 105.7 points per 100 possessions – after they had acquired him.
This postseason, Gasol’s impact on the floor couldn’t be more valuable. Coming into the series, Gasol’s task was to stop Orlando’s main source of offense, Nikola Vucevic. Vooch had his best season as a pro, averaging 21/12 on 52/36/79 splits, which earned him an All-Star nod.
Since the series started, Gasol has made life miserable for Nik, as Vucevic as averaged 12.5 points and 8.5 rebounds on 37/27/78 splits. According to NBA.com, Vucevic’s offensive rating is 98 when Gasol is on the court and 118 when he is off the court. Overall, both Vooch’s and the Magic’s net rating when he and Gasol share the court together is -19.8.
The Magic were plus-17 offensively with Vucevic on the court during the regular season, so if he’s not scoring, they are in trouble. Gasol has clearly made a ton of trouble for Orlando alone because of how he’s neutralized Vucevic.
If Gasol can stop one of the league’s most offensively talented bigs in Vucevic, that has to make the Raptors feel good about how he does against the center on their next most likely opponent, the Philadelphia 76ers.
Lessening Kyle Lowry’s Role
Outside of that abominable performance he had in Game 1, Lowry hasn’t been that bad since the playoffs began. Lowry’s averaging 14.3 points on 48/40/78 splits in Games 2 through 4. Those aren’t world-beater type numbers, but they are solid for a starting point guard.
That doesn’t change that Lowry’s numbers have declined in this year’s playoffs. Even though he’s averaging the same number of minutes he usually does, Lowry is averaging the lowest field goal attempts he’s ever had in the playoffs on average (9.5) as well as his lowest usage rate at 17.2 percent.
This is because the Raptors have relied more heavily on Kawhi and Pascal to shoulder the scoring load, which has done wonders for them offensively. Lowry is not a bad offensive option by any means. Leonard and Siakam have just proven to better at the moment.
Strangely enough, by decreasing his role offensively on the team, it somehow made him more effective overall as a player. Toronto is somehow a plus-50.7 when Lowry is on the floor, as the team has been dominant on both ends of the floor when he’s playing. Because his role isn’t as substantial as it had been in previous seasons, Lowry may just be playing in a role that was better suited for him. Some players do better when there isn’t nearly as much pressure on them.
Again, we expected that Toronto would do better after the personnel moves they made this summer. What we didn’t expect were these other subplots that made them more dynamic and much more of a threat in the postseason.
The road ahead only gets tougher for the Raptors, but if they can keep this up, then they might be the ones representing the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals – which could be enough success to make a pitch for re-signing Kawhi Leonard this summer.