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NBA Daily: Stars Under The Most Pressure

With the playoffs set to begin today, Matt John takes a look at some of the marquee players who will be under the most scrutiny during the 2020 postseason.

Matt John

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Do you know what was so much fun about the games we saw leading up to the Play-In Tournament? They had a playoff-like atmosphere to them. Anytime Portland, Memphis, Phoenix, or San Antonio tipped, you really felt their desperation in every second they played. The pressure grew on them with each passing game. If those regular-season games felt like the postseason, imagine what the actual postseason is going to feel like!

It’s not going to shake anyone’s world by saying that making the playoffs brings pressure amped up to 100 – and no one is exempt from it either. There’s plenty of pressure on LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, but they’ve been through this already, so it’s nothing new to them. Giannis Antetokounmpo is under similar pressure and he isn’t as familiar as his fellow competitors, but he’s only 25 and just started playing for an actual winning team last year. Really, the pressure is more on Milwaukee as a team knowing the Greek Freak’s contract situation that will be coming up less than a year from now.

The degree of pressure varies too. For example, there won’t be nearly as much for some of our newcomers, like Luka Doncic. There will definitely be more on him as his career progresses, but no one is going to hold it over him if Dallas gets easily ousted in the first round this year. He and the Mavericks have proven all they needed to. They are way ahead of schedule, and this is just the first step in what should be an awesome new era of basketball. Better yet, who better to give them a taste of life with the big boys than playoff veterans like Kawhi Leonard and Doc Rivers?

But the following players are ones who have been around the block before; they have monkeys on their back. If they are able to shake them off, that could change their legacy for the better, but it’s going to be quite a challenge for them to do so.

James Harden

Houston has captured that rare status of being one of the most doubted teams in spite of the talent they possess yet has a roster construction so unique that no one can wholeheartedly write them off. We knew it was primarily on Harden’s shoulders to prove that the small-ball full-time strategy can work, but sadly, he’s now facing a tough foe led by a former star teammate with revenge heavily on his mind. To make it worse, he has to do it without his All-Star teammate.

But it’s a good chance to prove he’s improved his playoff chops. Having been an MVP candidate for five of the last six years, Harden doesn’t exactly have the best playoff reputation to his name. Over the last three years, he blew that series against San Antonio without Kawhi Leonard, choked away 3-2 lead against Golden State, then failed to capitalize when the Warriors lost Kevin Durant the year following,

Now Harden has to take on the biggest workload he’s had in three years with his former MVP teammate down. If there’s a time for him to prove that he can step up his game with higher stakes, now is the time to do it.

Joel Embiid

Even with all the issues that have plagued a once-promising Sixers season, Philly miraculously got the matchup they’ve wanted all season. It’s not been the most graceful season – but at least they got the best of their division rival this season, winning their series against the Boston Celtics 3-1, and now they get to face them on a neutral court. Ben Simmons’ injury alone will make them overmatched against the Celtics. That’s why this is perfect for Joel Embiid.

With this being his third go in the playoffs, this is Embiid’s chance to prove that he is the superstar. No one is denying Embiid’s talent as a player, but he still has yet to dominate a playoff series. He’s dominated individual games, but over a series against a strong opponent? Not quite. Simmons’ absence is an all-around downgrade, but we’re going to see what he looks like as the unquestioned alpha of this team.

This time, Embiid won’t have to go up against Al Horford, Aron Baynes, Marc Gasol, or Ed Davis. Instead, the best line of defense Embiid will go up against is Daniel Theis, Enes Kanter and Robert Williams III. Situations like these are when all-timers prove they are everything they were expected to be. The chips are down. The enemy has a weakness. If Embiid is the superstar we’ve talked him up to be, he has to take every advantage he can in this Boston series.

Whether they come up victorious or not, this has to be Embiid’s best series to prove he really is a franchise center. Bar none.

Kemba Walker

The pressure really is on Boston’s top four players, but there is something that puts Walker in the spotlight compared to his teammates – playoff success. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were within minutes of making the NBA Finals two years ago. Gordon Hayward ended Lob City the year before that. Walker has been in the NBA for about a decade and, before this season, he’s made the playoffs twice.

The Double J’s progress has made Boston a sexy pick to make the finals, but what will put the Celtics in the conversation with the top contenders in the league is a playoff-ready Kemba, which is not a given.

The last time Walker made the playoffs was 2016 and his production as the leader was all over the place. One night he was putting up 34 points, the next he was putting up 14 – but the fact that Kemba failed to show up for the biggest game of the season was not a good look.

There’s no need to mention his balky knee. He’s looked fine thus far, so there should be nothing holding the point guard back from giving Boston his all. We could very well see the All-NBA Walker when the playoffs come, but we may also see the one that couldn’t get out of the starting block in much weaker Eastern Conference from 2016.

Paul George

George may very well have the best playoff resume out of everyone on this shortlist – yet, he hasn’t been out of the first round since 2014. In that time, he’s broken his leg, separated his shoulder, watched his All-Star caliber teammates see their careers vanish at the drop of a dime, etc. Some of his playoff failures over the last six years are on him, but not all of it.

Now, he’s on the best team he’s been on since the 2013-14 Indiana Pacers. This season, Paul George has been about as good as Paul George could be. His numbers are substantially down from when he was making a legitimate MVP bid last season, but the pressure will be on him to bring the Clippers their first championship. But there’s a little extra spice to it too.

Kawhi Leonard left a picture-perfect situation up north to play for his hometown, believing that George would be right there by his side to form one of the better 1-2 punches in all of the NBA. We know Leonard will be at his best come playoff time, but he couldn’t do it alone in Toronto and he certainly won’t be able to do it alone in Los Angeles. The pressure isn’t on George only to help L.A. win. He also has to prove that Leonard made the right decision.

Beyond that, there are plenty of others that’ll face the music this week as well. With the Jazz competing with Philadelphia for the most dysfunctional playoff team of the year, and in the wake of losing their best shooter for the season, Donovan Mitchell’s the undisputed carrier of fates in Utah.

Anthony Davis will face the most pressure he’s ever had throughout his entire career. Teams are going to dare him to beat them while they do everything to blanket LeBron – that can be explained in more detail right here.

Jimmy Butler will be going through George-like pressure when Miami makes its playoff run. He could have stayed with the 76ers and been their go-to guy on a championship-caliber team, but instead, he elected to be the man on his own team.

A lot is going to unfold from now until October. When everything does, we’re going to see exactly what these guys are all made of. They better make the best of it, because next season, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving are all coming back into the picture.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA

NBA Standout Player Watch – Jan. 26

Basketball Insiders releases its first standout player watch of the year for the Eastern Conference. Tristan Tucker highlights some of the players that have shown out but are still vastly underrated.

Tristan Tucker

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This season, the All-Star game will not be played, though players will still be able to receive the honor and go down in the record books all the same. While players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and many more are surefire All-Stars, Basketball Insiders wants to give credit to some of the players that are being overlooked around the league.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at Basketball Insiders’ first edition of its standout player watch from the Eastern Conference, in no particular order.

Jerami Grant

When the Detroit Pistons signed Grant, someone that averages 9.8 points across his career, to a three year, $60 million deal in the offseason, everyone around the NBA raised their eyebrows. It was then reported that the Denver Nuggets offered the same deal to try and keep Grant, but he took on a role that would see him be the feature offensive piece in Detroit.

That move has completely paid off and Grant is having a year that almost no one, other than himself, could have expected. The 6-foot-8 forward is averaging 24.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and .9 steals per game, all career highs.

Grant is also having his most efficient season beyond the arc, shooting 38.2 percent from deep on 6.9 attempts per game, a fairly high number.

The Pistons are bad, there’s no way to sugarcoat that, but Grant alongside other pleasant surprises in Josh Jackson, Wayne Ellington and Saddiq Bey have made the team enjoyable to watch. Grant is playing like a legitimate superstar and should be named to the All-Star team this year, in whatever form that may take.

Zach LaVine

Over the last three seasons, LaVine has continued to improve and this season is no different. Despite averaging 23.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists on 45.3 percent shooting from the floor and 37.4 percent from deep across his Chicago Bulls career, LaVine has yet to make an All-Star team.

Perhaps that will all change this season, as LaVine is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists and blocks, plus close to a 50/40/90 split. The Bulls are decent this season, currently at 7-9, but for LaVine to be an All-Star lock, they’ll likely need to be in playoff position at the time of All-Star selections.

Jaylen Brown

Brown appeared on Basketball Insiders’ week one MVP ladder, and that was no mistake. There’s a reason Brown was never included in any potential James Harden trade chatter, no matter how much the Houston Rockets may have wanted him – and that’s because he’s the real deal.

This season, Brown is the seventh-leading scorer in the league and is putting up an astounding 27.3 points, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals, shooting 43 percent from deep on nearly seven attempts per game.

The Boston Celtics haven’t been at full strength for much of the season, without Jayson Tatum as he deals with a case of COVID-19, but Brown has his franchise among the frontrunners in the Eastern Conference nonetheless.

Julius Randle

Randle had a season to forget last year after signing with the New York Knicks on a three-year, $62 million contract in the summer of 2019, as he took a dip in scoring and efficiency across the board from his breakout season the year before with the New Orleans Pelicans.

Something changed in the 6-foot-8 power forward over the offseason, as he is having a career year with the Knicks and has the team firmly in the playoff picture with an 8-10 record. The main difference in Randle’s game has been his shift in playstyle, transitioning to a playmaking big instead of someone that’s primarily an undersized low post threat.

Randle is averaging career highs in multiple statistical categories, up to 22.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game.

Nikola Vucevic

Vucevic is criminally underrated year after year and this season is more of the same. One of the only reasons the Orlando Magic is able to remain competitive in the face of huge injuries to key players like Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu is the play of Vucevic.

Vucevic has been giving it his all this season, putting up a career-high in points per game with 23.2 and has put in the work necessary to improve his long-range game. He’s shooting 42.6 percent from three on 6.4 attempts per game, by far and away the best deep shooting performance of his career.

While Vucevic has been named to an All-Star team before, his name is rarely mentioned when discussing the best bigs in the league, a narrative that he’s doing his all to change.

Domantas Sabonis/Malcolm Brogdon/Myles Turner

So many players have been playing stellar ball for the Indiana Pacers that it was impossible to narrow this selection down to just one.

Sabonis has downright played his way into the MVP conversation, notching a double-double in every single game he’s appeared in this season. Sabonis was an All-Star last year, and his play has continued to improve as he’s averaging 20.9 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game.

Brogdon has also played his way into the MVP race, having been included in Basketball Reference’s ladder in the first month alongside Sabonis. It’s not hard to see why as he’s averaging what is by far a career-high 21.9 points with 7.1 assists on 39.5 percent shooting from deep on 7.1 attempts per game. Brogdon has also improved his on-ball defense, averaging 1.6 steals per game, a career-high.

Meanwhile, Turner may just be the most overlooked of them all, as he’s the heart and soul of this Indiana defense. Turner should be firmly in the lead for the Defensive Player of the Year award, as he’s holding opponents to shoot below league average and has averaged a whopping 4.1 blocks per game.

Honorable mentions: De’Andre Hunter, Gordon Hayward

It was hard to narrow this list down in the first place, with so many notable performances coming out of the Eastern Conference on a nightly basis. OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher are showing out for the Toronto Raptors and are helping that team back into the playoff picture, Shake Milton looks like one of the best guards in the conference while Tobias Harris is revitalizing his career under Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach Doc Rivers.

However, our honorable mentions this week are De’Andre Hunter and Gordon Hayward, both of whom are playing at a near All-Star level.

Hunter made the jump into a lead wing for the Atlanta Hawks after a promising first season and is up to 17.4 points per game, upping his efficiency across the board and fresh off a 33-point performance versus the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Charlotte Hornets’ signing of Hayward to a huge deal was widely panned across the league but the Hornets were always going to have to empty their pockets to get a player of his caliber. Hayward is averaging 24.1 points per game and is eerily close to a 50/40/90 shooting split. Hayward, alongside teammate Terry Rozier, have the Hornets in contention for a playoff spot, with both players playing at extremely high levels.

With so many outstanding players in the league, this list will be sure to change on a weekly basis. Be sure to check back at Basketball Insiders to see which players continue to shine!

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NBA

What We Learned: Eastern Conference Week 4

What did we learn about the Eastern Conference this week? Jonathon Gryniewicz takes a look in the most recent edition of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.

Jonathon Gryniewicz

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It’s not even a month into the NBA season, but the 2020-21 Eastern Conference has already looked super competitive, with 14 teams within six games of each other. There’s bound to be some separation in the coming weeks, don’t expect any team to go down easy.

But which have paced the East? Who’s flopped? Let’s take a look.

The New Look Brooklyn Nets

The Brooklyn Nets big three of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the newly acquired James Harden recently played their first game together against the Cleveland Cavaliers.  The back-and-forth game ended in a double-overtime, 147-135 Nets loss. The three of them had plenty of time on the court together and divvied up the scoring; Durant scored 38 points on 25 shots in 50 minutes; Irving 37 points on 28 shots in 37 minutes; and Harden 21 points on 14 shots in 51 minutes.

But, outside of the box score, what did we learn about this team from their first performance?

You never want to jump to conclusions, but it’s easy to see that their offense could be dominant. When those three were on the court together, Harden served as the de facto point guard while Irving and Durant took their turns in isolation situations. Of course, in such an iso-based offense, there wasn’t much player movement beyond the trio, but they are so good at taking their own man off the dribble they can always get a good shot. What should make them even harder to guard is the fact that they’re all prolific three-point shooters; two can space at the three point line, while the other can use that extra space to either score themselves or collapse the defense and kick it outside.

Of course, there’s some work to be done. Harden and Irving combined for nine of the team’s 16 turnovers, while each of the three took their fair share of shots maybe just a bit too early in the shot clock. Defensively, Brooklyn is a major work-in-progress. Their closing lineup of Harden, Durant, Irving, Jeff Green and Joe Harris would appear to be solid but doesn’t offer much in terms of switchability and consistent rim protection. Beyond that, there isn’t much to be excited about.

Depth could also be an issue. They recently added Norvel Pelle to compete with two-way rookie Reggie Perry for backup center minutes. The team may have to look into an addition on the wing, too; while they currently roster Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, the three are young and, so far this season, have proven inconsistent at best. A veteran that could provide some bench stability should be the priority.

Kendrick Nunn is Emerging for the Miami HEAT

In recent days, Kendrick Nunn has played his best basketball in nearly a year.

The 2020 Rookie of the Year runner-up, Nunn struggled in the Orlando Bubble last season as he saw a continually diminished role in Miami’s run to the NBA Finals. He started this season on a similar note, as he averaged only 5.5 points and played in just six of the HEAT’s first 12 games.

But, with Jimmy Butler and other key players dealing with injury, Nunn has seen a resurgence. In Miami’s last six games, not only has he played heavy minutes, but Nunn has flourished to the tune of 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He’s also shot 37.8 percent from three and 50 percent from the floor.

Of course, there’s the question of the competition. Nunn’s success has come against the Nets aforementioned suspect defense, as well as the Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors, two teams that have struggled mightily to start the year. Still, the spark he’s shown should help him maintain a role going forward, even after Butler and the rest return to the court.

If he can maintain hold down a role, or at least a bit of that spark, Nunn could prove a massive boon for Miami, whose offense has been pretty mediocre in the early going.

The Indiana Pacers Injury Woes 

Under new head coach Nate Bjorkgren, the Pacers’ 2020-21 season has seen a terrific start. Through 12 games, Indiana is  8-4 and have played a fun, up-tempo brand of basketball.

That said, they’ve had to deal with a lot on the injury front. After they netted Caris LeVert in the four-team blockbuster that sent Harden to Brooklyn, a mass was found on one of LeVert’s kidneys and he has since been ruled out indefinitely.

Myles Turner, meanwhile, just returned from a two-game absence due to an avulsion fracture in his right hand. In his absence, the Pacers’ defense just didn’t look the same, giving up 129 and 124 points to the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks, respectively. The team started the season without Jeremy Lamb and has since lost T.J. Warren to a foot injury that is expected to hold him out for most of the season as well.

No team can lose two starters and expect to continue playing at the same level. If they can’t get healthy, expect it to play a major role in their standing and playoff position at the end of the season.

It will be interesting to watch the East over the next month to see which teams can separate themselves. Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.

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NBA

Miami’s Struggles About More than One Player

Drew Maresca assesses the Miami HEAT’s early-season struggles and their statistical slide from the 2019-20 campaign.

Drew Maresca

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The Miami HEAT appeared to successfully turn the corner on a quick rebuild, having advanced to the bubble’s 2020 NBA Finals. It looked as though Miami took a short cut even, rebounding from the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era incredibly quickly. Ultimately, they did so through smart drafting – including the selections of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro – plus, a little luck, like the signing of Jimmy Butler and smartly sticking with Duncan Robinson.

But despite the fact that they should have improved from last season, the tide may have turned again in South Beach.

Through 15 games, the HEAT are an underwhelming 6-9 with losses in each of their last two games. Miami is also scoring fewer points per game than last season – 109.3 versus 112  – while giving up more – 113.1 against 109.1.

Miami has played the 14th-toughest schedule in the NBA, and there are some embarrassing and noteworthy loses thus far. They lost by a resounding 47 points to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, with extra harsh defeats of 20 points to the lowly Detroit Pistons and the mediocre Toronto Raptors.

What’s to blame for Miami’s woes? Unfortunately for the HEAT, it’s a number of things.

First of all, they need more from a few of their stars – and it starts at the very top. Jimmy Butler was Miami’s leading scorer in 2019-20, posting 19.9 points per game. But this season, Butler is scoring just 15.8 points per game on a sub-par 44.2 percent shooting. While Butler shot poorly from three-point range last season, too (24.4 percent), he hasn’t connected on a single three-pointer yet in 2020-21. This, coming from a guy who shot 34.7 percent from deep in 2018-19 and 35 percent in 2017-18.

But it’s not just his lack of scoring that’s hurting. Butler is also collecting fewer assists and rebounds as well. He’s averaging only 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, down from 6.7 ad 6.0 last season.

However, Butler’s main struggle this season has nothing to do with any statistic or slump. Butler has missed seven straight games due to COVID-19 protocols. Although to go-scorer wasn’t playing particularly well prior to isolating from the team – scoring in single digits twice – the HEAT are always in better shape if their leader takes the floor with them.

It’s not just Butler either. Tyler Herro also needs to regain his bubble form, at least as far as shooting is concerned. After connecting on 38.9 percent on 5.4 three-point attempts in 2019-20, he’s sinking only 30.2 percent of his 5.3 three-point attempts per game this season.

While Herro is scoring more – 17.2 points per game this season – and doing so more efficiently, he’s doesn’t pose the same threat from deep this season. So while he’s sure to pick it up sooner than later, he must do so to put more pressure on opposing defense.

It’s fair to assume Herro will solve his long-distance shooting woes, but the fact that he’s also struggling from the free throw line is concerning because it speaks more to his form. Herro is still well above the league average, connecting on 76.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, but he shot a scorching 87 percent on free throw attempts last season.

So what’s behind the slump? More importantly, which Herro can the HEAT count on for the remainder of 2020-21? As much as Herro is on track to grow into an incredible player, Miami needs his efficiency to return to last season’s form if they expect to compete. But like Butler, a major part of Herro’s struggles are off the court.

Herro is currently dealing with an injury, having missed the last five games with neck spasms. Coach Erik Spoelstra noted that giving the injured Herro so many minutes before his big layoff likely exacerbated his injuries.

“There’s no telling for sure if this is why Tyler missed these games,” Spoelstra told the South Florida SunSentinel. “But it definitely didn’t help that he had to play and play that many minutes. We didn’t have anybody else at that point. If he didn’t play, then we would have had seven.”

But the HEAT’s struggles are about more than any one player – and that’s a big part of what makes Miami, Miami.

Still, their team stats are equally puzzling, like that the Miami HEAT currently ranks 20th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating. In 2019-20, they were 7th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Obviously, something isn’t translating from last year, but what is it that’s missing?

Firstly, the HEAT are only the 18th best three-point shooting in terms of percentage. Last season, Miami was 2nd by shooting 37.9 percent. Herro returning to his old self should help quite a bit, and Butler making at least a few threes should improve spacing, too.

But it’s not just three-point shooting as the HEAT ranked last in field goal attempts last season, tallying just 84.4 attempts per game. And while they’re last again this season, they’ve managed to average even fewer attempts per game (81.7) despite maintaining nearly all of their roster.

The HEAT are also last in offensive rebounding, which translates to fewer field goal attempts and fewer points. And while Miami was 29th in offensive rebounds last season, they’re corralling 2.1 fewer rebounds this season (6.4) than in  2019-20 (8.5). What’s more, Miami is now last in total rebounds with only 40.9 per game. A number that also represents a fairly significant change as the HEAT were 17th a season ago with 44.4 per game – whew!

Lastly, Miami is turning the ball over more often than nearly any other team – sorry, Chicago – in 2020-21. During the prior campaign, the HEAT were barely middle of the pack, turning the ball over 14.9 times per game, a mark that left them 18th-best in the league. This season, they’re 29th and turning the ball over 17.7 times per game – dead last in terms of turnovers per 100 possessions.

It’s not all bad news for the HEAT, though. Bam Adebayo looks great so far, posting 20.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Second-year stud Kendrick Nunn is averaging 21.5 points on 56 percent shooting through the past four games; while Duncan Robinson is still a flame thrower, shooting 44.4 percent on 8.4 three-point attempts per game.

The HEAT’s upside is still considerable, but it’s easy to wonder if they captured magic in a bottle last season.

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