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The Big 3: Record Offense, Crazy Embiid, Play of Week

Ben Dowsett looks at record-setting offenses, Joel Embiid’s awesomeness and a smart Play of the Week.

Ben Dowsett

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Welcome to this week’s edition of The Big Three, where we re-convene each Friday to take a snapshot of three plays, trends or stats we’ve seen in the league over the past week.

Today’s Big Three will feature some notes on the league’s record-setting offense(s), a look at rookie Joel Embiid’s ludicrous per-possession statistics, and a fun Play of the Week from the Jazz that demonstrates the value of passing big men and the ability to leverage defensive expectations against them. Let’s get started! As always, all statistics will be from prior to Friday night’s games.

  1. All the Way Up

It shouldn’t surprise you one bit that there’s a legendary offense in the NBA this season. In fact, it shouldn’t even surprise you that as of this writing, it’s the most dominant offense in the history of the league on a per-possession basis.

Okay, maybe this part will surprise you: It’s not the Warriors.

In fairness, that’s a bit of a disingenuous statement. If the season ended today, the Warriors would indeed have posted a better offense than any team in any prior season before this year. But they’d still be second to the Raptors.

That’s right, Toronto is both the top offense in the league and, to this point, the best the NBA has ever seen. Per basketball-reference.com, the Raps and Dubs would rank first and second on the all-time list if they kept up this rate.

It isn’t all that shocking to see the Warriors on this list given their roster, but this has to qualify as a huge surprise in Toronto’s case. We knew the Raptors were a very good offense – they’ve been in the league’s top 10 the last three seasons, and the top five the last two. But they’ve never come anywhere all that close to this level, and with mostly similar personnel returning this year, this was really hard to see coming.

There isn’t one single big reason for the jump, but rather a few small-to-medium ones. The Raptors were already great at taking care of the ball, but they’ve shaved nearly two turnovers per-100-possessions this year and sit decimals away from the league low in giveaways. They also were quite good shooting the three-ball last year, but once again they’ve been even better – 37 percent has jumped up to an even 40 percent, and they’re shooting about one more per game.

They’re nibbling around the margins to trim the fat in a few other areas, too. They’ve gone from a bottom-10 transition scoring team to a top-10 group overnight, adding a few extra points a game the easy way. They’re grabbing a few extra second-chance buckets here and there, a nice surprise with Bismack Biyombo no longer in town, and are generating more points following turnovers than any other team in the league.

The Raptors still have some of the fewest assisted baskets in the league, a sign many like to point to as a concern for an offense, but it hasn’t mattered one bit. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have been just as good as ever, and role players are stepping up.

More than anyone, coach Dwane Casey deserves major credit – he’s taken his share of criticism over the years, especially in the playoffs from this pen, but it’s clear few bench bosses in the league reach their group and get more out of them consistently than Casey in Toronto. He’s got this offense humming on continuity and what’s clearly a perfect system for their skill sets, and they’ve been historically good so far.

  1. Trust the Awesomeness

Joel Embiid literally nicknamed himself “Trust the Process” earlier this year, and it might not even crack his top-five most entertaining qualities on the season so far. Embiid is running away with the Rookie of the Year race even on a minutes limit for most of the year, and doing it while providing nightly highlights and flashes of his ridiculous potential.

High up on JoJo’s entertainment list are some of his statistical outputs. That aforementioned minutes limit has probably kept him a little fresher, meaning it’s unlikely he’d keep these figures up over the course of a 30-plus minute load nightly, but Embiid’s per-100-possession stats are simply stupid: 36.9 points, 15.7 rebounds, 5.2 blocks and a legitimately awe-inspiring 7.7 (seven-point-seven) turnovers.

Embiid would be the only rookie ever to play at least 100 minutes and average these kinds of figures – shoot, he’d be the only rookie ever to play at least 10 minutes on the season and still post these numbers. You have to significantly lower his point and turnover output to find any other comparables, but once you do, the list is pretty impressive: David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Blake Griffin and Arvydas Sabonis are the only other guys who have even come close to matching Embiid’s output during their first season in the league.

The 76ers have mostly been a mess outside Embiid’s ridiculous nightly performances, but he’s singlehandedly keeping them watchable at this point.

  1. Play of the Week

Our Play of the Week this time around comes to us via Salt Lake City – or perhaps via France, if you look at it the right way.

The Jazz under Quin Snyder have been moderately maligned at times for a slow-paced, sometimes bland offense – even at points this season, where they’re a borderline top-five per-possession offense in the league. And make no mistake, there are times where the Jazz play a very deliberate and sometimes repetitive style of offense under Snyder. Of course, in his first year with real talent at every position, the results are beginning to speak for themselves.

In some cases, that reputation is yielding some positive results. A few new personnel additions like George Hill, Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson have allowed Snyder to open up his playbook a bit, and in particular to leverage the expectations he knows his style is sometimes creating in defenses.

On this play against Oklahoma City from Wednesday night, Snyder is leveraging Diaw’s fantastic passing from the four-spot – maybe the best in the entire league (if we count LeBron James as a small forward). It’s something the Jazz have done all year and even more often lately, and it’s easy to see why: Diaw takes a joy in passing most guys his size just don’t.

The bit of leverage we mentioned, however, really isn’t of Diaw’s doing at all. It’s a clever play call from Snyder, and a good bit of recognition from the other two guys involved in the play. Let’s take a look.

The Jazz start the set on the right wing, swinging the ball to Rodney Hood and looking to set up Diaw in post position on the block:

Hood gets the ball in to Diaw, and the Jazz go to work. Notice that even as the pass is just arriving to Diaw in the post, Rudy Gobert and Gordon Hayward (center of the screen) are setting up for some off-ball action.

This is where the little bit of trickery comes in. Look at the above still image again – this is a snapshot opponents see 30 or 40 times a game from Utah, and in almost every case, Hayward (or Hood, or Hill) is about to use a Gobert down screen to fly up to the top of the key. Standard stuff.

Except that’s not what they’re doing here. Within less than a second, Hayward has flipped the script – he’s the one setting the screen on Gobert’s man, Enes Kanter, rather than the other way around. Meanwhile, Gobert is rumbling toward the hoop, already aware of something the Thunder still haven’t noticed.

Kanter is stopped dead in his tracks. Never the most hyper-aware defender in the first place, he’s been completely fooled here, and he’s still at the foul line as Gobert is dunking the ball. Kyle Singler notices what’s happening at the last second and makes a valiant effort to contest, but at that point it’s useless. He’s going up for a lob against a seven-footer with the longest recorded wingspan in league history, and there’s only one way that’s ending.

There’s nothing all that complex here, but the play is a great illustration of how the Jazz’s deliberate style (or other teams with similar ones) can lull some defenses to sleep. This set is snuffed out in a couple moments if everyone in a Thunder uniform is fully engaged, but it’s already tough to do that for every second of an intense NBA game – and it inherently becomes tougher when your brain is conditioned to expect the same thing over and over again.

It’s not even the first time the Jazz have run the set to perfection in the past week, in fact. They got an even cleaner dunk for Gobert against the Kings on Saturday using the exact same play, just inverted to the other side of the floor:

It’s the little details that can make the difference in this league, and the Jazz have been well on top of them this year. Snyder has flown below the radar, but may receive some Coach of the Year buzz before long if the Jazz continue to perform at a top-five per-possession rate in the league despite missing multiple starters most of the year.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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NBA PM: Patrick Beverley Set the Tone for Clippers in Season Opener

Patrick Beverley set the tone for the L.A. Clippers with his aggressive defense in their season opener.

Jesse Blancarte

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“The LA Clippers are going to the Western Conference Finals. Guaranteed.”

That bold statement was made by Charles Barkley during TNT’s coverage of last night’s matchup between the Lakers and Clippers.

While Barkley may have had his hot take canon primed and in mid-season form, that should not overshadow the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers put together a strong showing in their first regular season game since the departure of Chris Paul.

Blake Griffin logged 29 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals and knocked down three of his six three-point attempts. Griffin was aggressive and showed no hesitation on his jumper, which seemed to open up lanes for him to drive to the basket (where he is most effective). DeAndre Jordan was fantastic as well, contributing 14 points, 24 rebounds, one assist and one steal.

While the Clippers lost some significant contributors from last season, including J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute and Jamal Crawford, the team had some returning and new players show that they are capable of filling the void.

Milos Teodosic was just 2-9 from the field, but knocked down two three-pointers and looked comfortable and effective running the team’s offense. Danilo Gallinarni shot just 3-13 from the field but looked healthy and spry, displaying the kind of mobility that is necessary to play the small forward position. His ability to act as a secondary playmaker wasn’t on full display, but there were moments where it was apparent that he could be a big help in generating open looks for his teammates. Lou Williams also looked good in his Clippers debut, scoring in a variety of ways off the bench and contributing six assists as well. Wesley Johnson continues to look confident and aggressive, a continuation from his preseason performances, and is starting to knock down the open shots his teammates are creating for him (which has been a problem for him in the past).

While the Clippers looked solid in their opening act without Paul, it should be noted that the Lakers are a young team overall and their defense has been a major problem for the last few seasons. While the Lakers have added some promising young talent over the offseason, like most young teams, they are going to struggle to slow down veteran teams with potent offenses. It would be a mistake to think the Clippers can replicate this sort of offensive performance every night, especially against the better defensive teams in the league. However, perhaps the most promising part of the Clippers’ season debut was the fact that they seemed to feed off of and embrace the gritty demeanor and style of play that Patrick Beverley brings to the court each and every night.

Last night’s game was the NBA debut for rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, who many predict will develop into a star player. Unfortunately for Ball, his opening night matchup came against Beverley, who earned a spot on the 2017 All-Defensive First Team. Beverley repeatedly guarded Ball past half court, pushed him around and did everything he could to throw him off of his game. He held Ball to three points, nine rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes of action.

Beverley, like every NBA player, has heard the hype and noise surrounding Ball and his future in the league (most of it from his outspoken father, LaVar).

“I just had to set the tone,” Beverley said. “I told him after the game that due to all the riffraff his dad brings, that he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. I let him know that after the game. What a better way to start than spending 94 feet guarding him tonight — welcome the young guy to the NBA.”

Beverley is one of the more aggressive defenders in the NBA and is known for trying to get under the skin of his opponents, so Lonzo may not face this level of intensity in every game. But based on Beverley’s comments, it’s clear that he expects other players around the league to defend Lonzo aggressively as well.

Snoop Dogg, the rapper and passionate Lakers fan, summed up the issue for Ball arguably better than anyone else has so far.

“His father put him in the lion’s den with pork chop drawers on,” said Snoop.

For his part, Lonzo complimented Beverley on his aggressive defense.

“[Beverley] plays hard. He knows his job. He does it very well,” said Ball. “He gets under people’s skin and plays defense and does what he can to help his team win.”

Beverley set the tone for the Clippers, who looked crisp and confident throughout the game. Griffin’s three-point shot looks like it could finally be a reliable part of his offensive arsenal. Jordan was very active on the glass, pulling down 24 rebounds (possibly inspired in part by his commitment to donate $100 per rebound this season to help the effort to rebuild his hometown of Houston after the damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey). The rest of the supporting cast played with the sort of cohesion and confidence that takes at least a few weeks into the season to develop. Again, the Clippers’ performance could have stemmed primarily from the Lakers’ shaky defense, but it was encouraging to see the team play with such force and confidence in the absence of Paul.

The Western Conference is extremely talented and deep, so it’s unlikely that the Clippers will make it to the Western Conference Finals as Barkley predicted. However, challenging for a spot in the playoffs and perhaps even doing some damage once there seems to be in the realm of possibility. This is especially the case considering how much of an impact Beverley had Thursday night, both defensively and in setting the tone for the rest of his new teammates.

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