Welcome to The Big Three, where each Friday we reconvene to take a snapshot of three happenings from the previous week in NBA basketball.
This week we’ll cover the importance of footwork and positioning on defense, a new 3-on-3 league for retired NBA players that could take off, and an aptly-named Play of the Week from the Oklahoma City Thunder. Let’s get started!
- Happy Feet
There are few things more important than footwork for an elite perimeter defender in the NBA. How you position yourself and how you move in harmony with the guy you’re trying to stop is just as important as how high you can jump or how long your arms are, and the very best defenders are the guys who combine strengths in both areas.
Wesley Matthews hasn’t been the same player in all aspects of the game since an Achilles tear back in 2015, but no injury could take away his smarts or ability to leverage the physical skills he does still have. He showed it on Tuesday night with a big play to seal a one-point Dallas win, one that will look familiar if you’ve watched many NBA highlights this week:
Beyond the obvious here – he shut down All-Star Damian Lillard, one of the game’s premier scorers, with a win on the line – let’s look at what made Matthews’ play so special here.
First off, notice that throughout the entire play, Matthews is making a concerted effort to keep Lillard away from the middle of the floor. This is a common defensive tactic in the NBA, whether it’s defending the pick-and-roll or in other situations – the middle of the floor is where the most dangerous offensive plays are often conceived. There’s more room to see the floor and pass from better angles, and you’re obviously in a more direct line to the rim.
In our first still, note that Matthews is stunted toward the middle of the floor, even all the way out at halfcourt. No matter what, even if Lillard has a bit of room to open up some space on the sideline, Matthews isn’t letting him get to the middle:
Lillard tries again, and Matthews rebuffs him again.
Finally, Lillard does take the bait and go to his right, or the sideline. Ed Davis also comes up to set a pick as he’s doing so, and his man, Dwight Powell, comes up to help contain.
This is where we see another benefit of Matthews’ push to keep Lillard out of the middle of the floor. Davis isn’t a shooter at all, and this allows Powell to hang off him and help contain Lillard within an “Ice” scheme – a pick-and-roll defense meant to keep the ball-handler to the sideline while his defender (Matthews in this case) stays between him and the roll man. In this situation, Dallas is happily allowing Lillard to throw the bail-out pass to Davis if he chooses. The Mavs Ice Davis’ pick to perfection:
Lillard is out of options now, and the clock is running low. He tries one more time to get to the middle, but with both Matthews and Powell now containing him, that’s not going to happen.
Finally, Lillard is forced to launch a long triple – and even here, Matthews uses perfect positioning to get his hand right in Dame’s grill without ever putting himself at risk of fouling.
As you watch the clip again, note the speed with which Matthews moves his feet and re-positions himself to keep that “no middle” philosophy strong. It’s this kind of savvy and exact knowledge of a team’s defensive scheme that can separate good defenders from great ones.
- 3-on-3 Madness?
Ever wish you could see some of your favorite retired NBA players hoop just a little bit more? Ever wish it would be in a fun format like 3-on-3 instead of the usual NBA game? Best yet, ever wish you’d have both these things plus more helpings of Ice Cube than you could have ever possibly imagined in this conversation?
It’s your lucky day, it seems. The rap mogul is heavily involved in a new start-up 3-on-3 tour, which will feature retired NBA players and run during the summer.
Guys like Kenyon Martin, Stephen Jackson, Jermaine O’Neal, Rashard Lewis and Chauncey Billups have already committed, and a major NBPA official (Roger Mason Jr.) is already jumping ship to join the new venture.
The league will be called the BIG3. We’re still waiting on more details, but this could be a new summer sensation for basketball-starved NBA fans.
- Play of the Week
This week’s highlighted play is another we’ll use to show off a fun NBA set that many teams use – some better than others, of course. It’s got a fun name, too: Elevator Doors.
We’re talking the kind of elevators that have two doors closing from the outside in to the middle, not those silly ones that just use one door. Who needs those elevators, anyway? Not NBA teams.
Elevator door is a very simple set, for the most part. Let’s see if you can spot it for rising Thunder youngster Alex Abrines the other night:
Did you catch it? That’s okay if not. Let’s look at the first still, where we see OKC’s two big men on the floor, Enes Kanter and Joffrey Lauvergne, positioned a few feet apart up near the top of the key. Abrines is in the paint, working to break free of his man.
(Happy Holidays, everyone!)
In the next instant, both Thunder big men step down to the foul line, and get a little closer together. Abrines breaks free and runs up toward them.
As Abrines is sliding between Kanter and Lauvergne, notice how they close together almost like – wait for it – elevator doors. The goal is for their teammate, Abrines, to slither through right as the metaphorical doors are closing, so that his defender will consequently slam into the doors and have nowhere to go.
The Thunder time this one to perfection, and the doors are shut the moment Abrines gets through. His man, E’Twaun Moore, slams right into Kanter and Lauvergne.
Terrence Jones (#9 in red) is late reacting here, and his contest only starts from too far away as Abrines is going up. This sort of contest isn’t bothering too many NBA shooters, even if his hand does get in Abrines’ face briefly right as the shot is leaving his hands.
Elevator doors isn’t that complex a set, and a prepared defense can usually stop it – especially if one or both big men closing the doors aren’t necessarily immediate threats with the ball. But it’s a fantastic set that many coaches pull out every once in a while as a surprise; if you aren’t expecting it, it looks very different from a lot of normal NBA sets and can really turn a defense around. It can never be a staple of an offense necessarily, but it’s a smart set to bust out every now and then.
NBA Daily: Quincy Pondexter Has Grown With New Orleans
Quincy Pondexter did two stints with New Orleans four years apart, both of which changed his life forever.
By the time the New Orleans Hornets traded for the draft rights to Quincy Pondexter in the summer of 2010, the city was just starting to see some real progress in the reconstruction efforts that followed the half decade after Hurricane Katrina.
In February of that year, the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl, a victory that the city badly needed, and Pondexter found himself dropped into the sports culture of the league’s most unique city.
Now with the Chicago Bulls, Pondexter would only play in New Orleans for his rookie year before getting dealt to Memphis and signing a multi-year extension, but in late 2014 he was traded back to New Orleans, who had rechristened themselves the Pelicans by that point. He couldn’t believe how much had changed in just four short years.
“You stopped seeing the spray paint on the houses, and the prices start going up on real estate. It was definitely a lot different coming back,” Pondexter told Basketball Insiders. “I remember I had a house there, when I first got there as a rookie, and it was very, very cheap. But when I came back, I had a place probably twice as small for almost double the price. The city had just grown and developed a lot more, especially the downtown areas where you could start seeing buildings being built. You’d start to see the city come back to form, come back to life, and I really, really got to enjoy it my second time.”
That sort of progress was slow to come by 2010, however. Despite five years having passed since the initial devastation of Katrina, New Orleans was finding slow progress toward physical and emotional healing. The team had just moved back to the city full-time a couple of seasons prior after having played a good number of games in Oklahoma City during Louisiana’s recovery, but Pondexter remembers the Hornets giving the people of the city something to root for, too.
“The Saints, when you win a championship, when you’ve been there for years, of course you’re going to be the favorite, but, when the Hornets were part of that, too,” he said. “When you win games, and I had the chance to go to the playoffs with two different stints with them, I think it’s embracing how much the city comes together once you make an achievement like that, and whether you’re at the grocery store, gas station, whatever, people are always going to talk to you about the game of basketball. They don’t talk to you like a fan in New Orleans; they talk to you like a family member. It was really cool to be in a city like that.”
He also admitted that it was exciting to play even a small role in helping New Orleans continue to heal.
“It was a unique experience because the city was rebuilding, and being able to be a part of helping put it back together, it was really special,” he said. “We had an unbelievable star in Chris Paul, and you just don’t realize how much people lean on sports to get through tough times. We bridged that gap, and it was a real unique community to help refurbish the city of New Orleans.”
Coming back four years later, Pondexter had grown up a lot, and while a lot of his next few years with the Pelicans would be plagued by a torrent of medical problems ranging from knee issues to a staph infection, he did get to spend a lot more time in the city after having been there for only a year as a rookie in 2010-2011. That’s when he really fell in love with New Orleans.
“The culture, the melting pot culture, the rich history, it’s so much different from anywhere else in the country,” he said. “I grew up in Fresno, California, went to school at the University of Washington, and New Orleans is just something unique, and I could always say I learned so much from a city like that, about our country, about life, about so many things. About music, about food, about everything in that city, you just really learn so much. It’s a city where you get to put your hair down, and just enjoy being alive.”
Time passes quickly in any NBA career, but playing two times for one team several years apart can’t help but give a person some perspective, which is what it has done for Quincy Pondexter.
“You grow up, you learn the game of basketball, you learn a lot about yourself, and you see what you want in life more,” he said. “I think that was a really big pivotal moment in my life, one I’ll never ever forget.”
The NBA’s Teams Should Fear How Good Spurs Will Be When Kawhi Leonard Returns
Even without Kawhi, the Spurs have been dominant. Imagine how good they’ll be when he returns.
Even a blind man couldn’t help but to see the irony.
On Friday night, the young-legged Boston Celtics were done in by an Argentinean geezer.
Manu Ginobili sunk the Celts in the closest thing to a early-season “must see” game as there is, connecting on a three-pointer that gave the Spurs a 105-102 lead with five seconds remaining in the game.
For the Spurs, in the grand scheme of things, the win itself doesn’t mean much, but it sure has to make you wonder how much better the team will be once Kawhi Leonard returns from injury this week.
Despite not having him since Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals last May, the Spurs have begun the season by going 19-8. That Gregg Popovich’s team enters play on December 10 as the third-ranked team in the Western Conference isn’t much of a surprise. That they’ve done it without their top gun in Leonard, though, is.
“Whoever is not there, is not there,” Popovich said before the Spurs took on the Celtics on Friday night.
“We don’t worry about him [Leonard] or think about it too much. We’ve got to take care of as much as the business as we can, just like Boston is doing,” he said.
So, of course, the Spurs went out and did exactly that.
What makes the team truly scary is their thriving without arguably the top two-way player in the game.
Aside from being a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard was named to the All-NBA First Team in 2016 and 2017. He’s raised his scoring average in each of his first six seasons, including a 25.5 point per game average over the course of last season.
Leonard also finished second in MVP voting to Stephen Curry in 2016 and third last year to Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
Despite his quiet nature, Leonard has become a transcendent superstar. Even without him, the Spurs enter play on December 10 with one of the league’s top defenses. They rank second in the NBA in points allowed (97.6) and third in points allowed per 100 possessions (103.5). The metrics aren’t nearly as good on the offensive side of the ball, but Leonard will help there—tremendously, at that.
With Popovich running the show, the possibilities are endless. His ability to connect with players of different personalities in unmatched. He’s humble enough to second-guess himself and take criticism from those around him, but enough of a taskmaster to extract the full potential from every talent that he gets his hands on.
Of the other top teams in the league—the Celtics, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors—precisely none of them would be capable of winning two-thirds of their games without their top gun, much less without two of the team’s most important rotation players. Tony Parker, mind you, has played in just six of the Spurs’ first 27 games. The aforementioned Ginobili has missed five games, as well.
On Friday night, when Irving got off a clean look that would have answered Ginobili’s three and sent the game to overtime, everyone in the arena held their breath. When it rimmed out, the Celtics’ four-game win streak ended, and the team tasted defeat for just the third time in their past 25 games. It was the first time they’d lost to the Western Conference opponent all season, and it wasn’t for a lack of competition, mind you.
The Celtics had previously beaten the Spurs in Boston on October 30, won at the Thunder on November 3 and topped the defending champion Warriors on November 16.
So yes, they’re real—even without Leonard.
After the Celtics topped the Warriors in Boston, Stephen Curry made one of his more arrogant remarks, commenting that he was looking forward to experiencing the weather in Boston in June.
Word of advice to Curry: be more concerned with the spring in San Antonio.
Sure, it may have only been a partial game, but the Spurs badly outplayed the Warriors with Leonard in the lineup for the 24 minutes he played in Game 1 of last season’s Western Conference Finals. At the point where Leonard was forced to exit, the Spurs had built a 23-point lead on the Warriors. Obviously, this became a footnote since the Dubs erased the deficit and won the next three games in the series, but that short-lived dominance of the Warriors is something that the Spurs can hang their hat on, and it’s something that the rest of the NBA’s viewing public needs to be reminded of, even as the Rockets have surprisingly risen to the top of the Western Conference.
Make no mistake, James Harden, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, in some order, are the league’s Most Valuable Players to this point. But the MVP Award is a regular season one—Leonard, Popovich and the Spurs are more concerned with being the last men standing come June.
“[W]hen he gets there, he gets there,” Popovich said of Leonard and his impending return to the lineup.
“In the meantime, a lot of the guys are getting time,” he said.
“We’re playing a lot of different people, a lot of different combinations. Some nights it doesn’t work out really well. Other nights, it looks really good. But I think down the stretch it will help us.”
* * * * * *
When LaMarcus Aldridge walked into Popovich’s office before the season began, neither of the two probably knew what to expect. It was a poorly kept secret that Aldridge had grown somewhat unhappy with his role in San Antonio, and when a superstar-caliber player is unhappy, it’s difficult for itself to not manifest itself in his performance.
It was well-known that the Spurs had considered trading Aldridge over the summer—as the league saw an unprecedented amount of movement among the game’s elite class of players, as any front office would do, the Spurs looked for opportunities to keep up.
So when Aldridge and Popovich met behind closed doors, it came as a bit of a surprise that Aldridge emerged reinvigorated and the franchise decided to double down on their bet that the forward could be a part of their championship puzzle. When it was announced that the duo had agreed on a three-year, $72 million extension for Aldridge, many thought the move to be foolish on the part of the Spurs.
As usual, though, they are the ones laughing now.
Through 27 games without Leonard, the Spurs have gotten 22.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game from the star forward. As Aldridge has come to resemble the player he was on the Portland Trail Blazers, it’s because he and Popovich figured out how he can excel playing for the coach, while Popovich has altered his team’s offensive attack to allow Aldridge more elbow and low-post scoring opportunities.
If you know anything about Popovich, the way he’s traditionally coached his teams has been less about one individual player and more about incorporating the skills and talents of his rotation pieces. Part of what has enabled that to work has been his teaching that no one player is bigger than the team. So when Leonard returns from injury, rest assured that the Spurs won’t simply go back to being the team they were before he went down. Believe it or not, while Leonard will be entrusted with being the team’s primary ball handler and play maker, it’s going to be incumbent on him to figure out how to fit back into the team that the Spurs have become since he last took the floor with them.
That’s what makes them a dangerous, dangerous team.
* * * * * *
Entering play on December 10, most NBA teams have played about 25 games. We finally have sample sizes big enough to make determinations about what we’ve seen—both in terms of individual players and teams.
And we know, for sure, that even without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs are capable of being the third best team in the Western Conference and the fifth-best team in the NBA.
Now, sit back and think about that, and then imagine just how good they’ll be when he returns to the lineup.
Josh Jackson Isn’t Surprised By The NBA’s Learning Curve
While most rookies are taken back by the NBA’s game speed, Josh Jackson saw it coming.
In a league that is usually full of surprises, Josh Jackson hasn’t seen anything he didn’t expect so far in the NBA.
The fourth overall pick in last June’s draft, considered one of the centerpieces in the Phoenix Suns’ rebuild, Jackson has been ready for the twists and turns thrown his way during the first month and change of his rookie season.
Most rookies and first-year players harp on how the speed of the game is so drastically different in the Association. Especially for prospects that spend just a year in the college ranks, adjusting to playing at a faster pace against grown men presents a bit of a learning curve.
For Jackson though, that hasn’t been the case at all.
“It’s been going pretty good,” Jackson told Basketball Insiders about his rookie season. “Nothing that I didn’t expect. The game is actually a lot slower than I thought it would be coming in from college. You can really tell it’s a thinking game, just read and react. The smarter players are the best players. You just gotta think the game a little bit more.”
Coming out of the University of Kansas, Jackson was considered one of the top prospects in his class. As a Jayhawk, he showed a deft ability to find his way to the basket and possessed physical traits that projected he could be a solid defensive wing at the next level.
Despite being ready for the next level, Jackson hasn’t been perfect on the court. Few rookies ever are. In the small forward’s defense, the Suns’ struggles as a team certainly don’t help his case any either.
Through his first 27 games though, Jackson has registered 32 steals, and has been responsible for guarding a multitude of the league’s best players. In the ever-evolving NBA, defensive matchups are rarely just “small forward on small forward” — sometimes it’s much more complex than that.
In his early goings, Jackson’s been put in that position more than few times. Again, no surprise to him, though.
“When we played the Clippers I had to guard Blake Griffin,” Jackson said. “It was pretty tough. He’s real strong. He’s really improving on his game from this year to last year, I think. It just shows that guys are always in the gym and always working hard, trying to get better.
“I saw it coming,” Jackson said about his assignment. “The game’s definitely changing. Guys like myself are starting to starting to play the four. The NBA is starting to lean towards small-ball. I already knew coming in I was gonna have to guard a bunch of different positions.”
From guarding Griffin, a 6-foot-10 power forward, to guarding the likes of John Wall, a 6-foot-5 speedy point guard, to Ben Simmons, who is a 6-foot-10 weird mix of the two players just mentioned, Jackson’s done it all.
Coupled with the struggles of his team, and the rookie bumps that Jackson’s taken, his team’s record and statistics may not directly represent the defensive versatility and potential Jackon has displayed in the early part of this season. To him, it doesn’t matter how good the individual can be on that end of the court.
“Defense is always a team effort,” Jackson said. “You can have the best defender in the world on the worst defensive team, and you know, they wouldn’t be a good defensive team. Just trying to keep that energy up, just trying to be that guy who’s pressuring the ball, running off of steals. Stuff like that.”
With his defensive potential serving as a hallmark reason Jackson was drafted so high, his offensive game can be given somewhat of a buffer period to be developed. Having no trouble getting to the rim in college, Jackson did struggle, however, when it came to shooting jump shots. A particular hitch in his shooting motion handicapped Jackson from showing true signs of growth while at Kansas.
After a slight retooling of his mechanics, Jackson’s form is looking a lot smoother than it did just a year ago, even if the results haven’t translated just yet. Jackson is posting a true shooting percentage of 45.1 and is below 30 percent from beyond the arc. With tweaked form, at this point, it’s about getting reps for Jackson.
“I don’t really focus on it that much, I just go and shoot,” Jackson said. “It’s all about repetition and muscle memory. So, more shots, the better you’ll be at shooting.”
Being a Kansas product, Jackson joins a big fraternity of Jayhawks in the NBA, some of whom are star-level talents. While he was in Philadelphia on Monday night for the Suns’ matchup with the Sixers, Jackson got a chance to catch up with an old friend, Joel Embiid.
Embiid and Jackson are good friends, and spent time working out while Jackson was still in college. Known for his Twitter fingers and sharp tongue, Embiid has taken a different role with Jackson as the 20-year-old wing player takes on his rookie season.
“Not that big of a trash-talker to me, more of a teacher I think,” Jackson said of his relationship with Embiid. “He’s been a great guy. Just trying to tell me what to look out for in the league, struggles that he had in his rookie season, just trying to keep my head, and knowing that I need to get better.”
Along with Embiid, Andrew Wiggins and other past Kansas players have reached out to Jackson since he was drafted and offered their advice and support. The NBA season is a long road, and bumpy one at times for a rookie, no matter how gifted they are.
The word of advice from Kansas players to Jackson is mostly to just keep his head up no matter what, and focus on being a better player every day.
So far in his rookie season, Jackson is off to a good start in that regard.