Numbers notes: Small Celtics, LeBron’s jumper, Spurs bench and more


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HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — Usually, we think of small ball (playing one traditional big and moving a small forward to power forward) as an offensive strategy. It doesn’t only give you an extra guy who can shoot from the outside, but that, in turn, creates extra space for ball-handlers to drive or screeners to roll to the rim.

But on Tuesday, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens went small to start the second half in New York, replacing Kelly Olynyk with Marcus Smart, who teamed with Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Amir Johnson (the lone big). And afterward, Stevens said the change was for defensive purposes.

“I thought in the first half, we didn’t have any pressure on the ball,” Stevens said. “And that’s why we went smaller and quicker in the second.”

The Celtics did play better after the change, but the improvement came on offense. That lineup that started the second half outscored the Knicks 27-23 in less than 10 minutes of action (over the first and second halves) on Tuesday.

The next night, though, the same lineup had the desired effect against the Indiana Pacers. In eight minutes on Wednesday, the Celtics outscored the Pacers 26-10 in a little over eight minutes. That included a 17-4 run over the final 5:08, where they turned four steals into four layups and turned a four-point deficit into a nine-point win.

Pacers coach Frank Vogel somewhat foreshadowed that whole sequence, as ESPN.com’s Chris Forsberg wrote

Before Wednesday’s tilt, Indiana coach Frank Vogel noted that Boston’s three-guard lineup of Crowder, Smart, and Bradley was full of “pitbulls.” Added Vogel: “The defensive pressure that their guards bring to the table is unparalleled in this NBA season. They have great defensive guards. It’s a big reason for their season.”

That Thomas-Bradley-Smart-Crowder-Johnson lineup played a few minutes in the Celtics’ first game of the season, but had been on the floor together for just a few possessions between then and Tuesday. The Celtics have a plethora of serviceable bigs on their roster and have played about 75 percent of their minutes with two of them on the floor.

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Those numbers follow the conventional wisdom that small equals better offense. But that small-ball lineup with Crowder at the four may be something that Stevens turns to more often when he wants to crank up the defense.

Tracking LeBron from outside

You probably saw the story where a particular stat about LeBron James‘ outside shooting found its way to the four-time MVP and motivated him to put some more work in.

“I actually saw [it] on my Instagram feed that I was the worst-shooting player in the NBA,” James said. “I actually saw that when I woke up from a nap. I remember exactly when that was. Denver. Right before the Denver game, so I answered the call.”

He was 3-of-5 from 3-point range on Sunday and hit multiple midrange shots. He’s shooting 43 percent from deep since that game in Denver. When asked if graphics like that bother him, James said, “It doesn’t bother me. It puts me back in the gym.”

James immediately started shooting better that night in Denver. And though he was just 3-for-9 from outside the paint in San Antonio on Thursday, the post-wake-up-call numbers still look much better.

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James’ jumper has seen gradual improvement over the course of his career, but still comes and goes and will always be under the microscope in the postseason, when opposing defenses are more likely to play him soft on the perimeter.


VIDEO: The Starters on LeBron’s recent shooting upswing

Cavs through the quarters

We have a new numbers segment on GameTime, and the first one looked at how the Cavs get better as the game goes along …


VIDEO: GameTime: Schu’s Advanced Stats

And of course, after we put that together, the Cavs had a big first period (32-20) against the Spurs and lost each of the other three quarters. They still rank as the league’s best fourth-quarter team, though.

Here are the updated numbers through Thursday …

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This is the third straight season where James’ usage rate is highest and his assist rate is lowest in the fourth quarter. As the night goes on, he’s more likely to have the ball and more likely to call his own number in the offense.

Still the best

The Cavs scored 12 points in the first 3:05 against the Spurs’ starting lineup on Thursday. And in the third quarter, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich was quick to replace Danny Green with Jonathan Simmons.

The Spurs’ starting lineup is as talented as ever and has been relatively healthy through 41 games. But it ranks just eighth in NetRtg among 22 lineups that have played at least 200 minutes, behind lineups of the 12-28 Wolves and 20-19 Magic.

Yet, overall, the Spurs have a NetRtg of plus-14.7, better than any team has been through 41 games in the last 20 years (including the ’95-96 Bulls team that went 72-10).

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And the reason is that their bench has been so good. While the Spurs’ starting lineup has outscored its opponents by only 6.3 points per 100 possessions, San Antonio is a plus-17.3 per 100 possessions with two or fewer starters on the floor.

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The Spurs had to part ways with four rotation guys — Aron Baynes, Marco Belinelli, Cory Joseph and Tiago Splitter — in order to sign LaMarcus Aldridge last summer. And they still have the best bench in the league.

Clutch is fleeting

James Harden from 3-point range to tie or take the lead in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime…
2014-15: 7-for-12
2015-16: 1-for-12

Here are the players who have shot best in those situations this season, with no real surprise at the top of the list…

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