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Numbers notes: No drive in Russell


VIDEO: Assist of the Night: D’Angelo Russell to Tarik Black

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — Much has been made of rookie D’Angelo Russell‘s playing time with the 11-41 Los Angeles Lakers. Though he ranks sixth among rookies in minutes per game, it seems like the No. 2 pick could have a bigger (or at least a more consistent) role with a team that never had a chance of competing for a playoff spot this season.

But how Russell plays is as interesting a question as how much he plays. According to SportVU, the Lakers have scored 1.35 points per possession when Russell drives, a mark that would compare with those of Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook.

But Russell has only recorded 145 drives, 2.9 per game and 3.9 per 36 minutes. SportVU says that he has turned a pick-and-roll into a drive only 10.3 percent of the time, a rate that ranks 86th among 94 ball-handlers who have come off at least 300 ball screens. Teammate Jordan Clarkson has driven more than twice as often (26.0 percent) when coming off ball screens.

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Emmanuel Mudiay, taken five picks after Russell, is another interesting comparison. The Nuggets’ point guard has been the league’s worst shooter from outside the paint, but he has driven 9.2 times per 36 minutes, almost 2 1/2 times as often as Russell.

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Only 38 percent of the Lakers’ shots have come in the paint, the lowest rate in the league. The shot selections of Kobe Bryant and Lou Williams are more jumper-heavy than that or Russell, but it would help if the rookie attacked the basket more often.

Potent drives

It should be no surprise that three All-Stars top the list of players who produce the most points for their team when they drive. Curry has become one of the league’s best finishers among guards, Westbrook has mixed it up more this season, and Chris Paul is the consummate playmaker.

But there are a couple of non-All-Stars on the list below that have produced for their team when they’ve attacked the basket.

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Felton has come back after a rough first season in Dallas and benefited from the potency of the players around him. He’s part of a Dallas lineup that has scored 115.2 points per 100 possessions, the third highest rate among lineups that have played at least 200 minutes together.

Holiday is another interesting name on the list, especially given how often he has driven. After driving about nine times per 36 minutes in his first two (injury-riddled) seasons in New Orleans, Holiday ranks fifth in drives per 36 among players who have played at least 750 minutes, trailing only Ish Smith (15.6), Jeff Teague (13.9), Reggie Jackson (13.0) and Isaiah Thomas (12.5).

Offensive picking up

If it feels like offense has picked up as the season has gone on, it’s because it has. Since Jan. 1, the league has scored 104.4 points per 100 possessions, up from 102.2 through Dec. 31. Through Thursday, efficiency is right where it was (103.0) at the end of last season.

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This isn’t a surprise. Offensive efficiency typically increases as the season goes on. But it might not keep going up in a straight line, though. Don’t be surprised if you watch some ugly games in late February.

Last season was the first time we had an extended All-Star break, with each team getting at least eight days off between their last game before the All-Star Game and their first game before it. And we saw a big dip in efficiency coming out of the break. After scoring 103.7 points per 100 possessions in the 85 pre-break February games, the league scored just 100.0 in 76 post-break February games, shooting worse and turning the ball over more.

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The league recovered in March and April, but not all the way to the level it was playing offensively before the extended break.

February schedule breakdown


VIDEO: Clutch Plays of January

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — Rather quietly, the Memphis Grizzlies have won seven of their last eight games. And they’ve done it in uncharacteristic fashion, scoring 110.5 points per 100 possessions over the eight games, the league’s seventh best mark over that stretch.

At the start of January, the Grizzlies were tied for sixth place in the Western Conference. They’ve only moved up to fifth, but that’s a key advancement. There are three West teams that are much better than the other 12, and if you finish fourth or fifth, you don’t have to face any of the big three in the first round of the playoffs.

One reason for the Grizzlies’ recent success is the schedule. They’ve played nine of their last 11 games at home and the last seven against teams with losing records.

And the schedule is the reason the Grizzlies’ should remain in that 4-5 quadrant of the West playoff picture. Memphis has the league’s easiest February by a wide margin.

The Grizzlies will spend most of the month (seven games) on the road, but only two of their 11 February games are against teams (Dallas and Toronto) that currently have winning records. They play the Nets, Timberwolves and Suns, and face the 9-41 Lakers twice in a row late in the month. And they could remain a strong offensive team, with just one February game against a top-10 defense (Feb. 21 at Toronto).

Things will get tougher for the Grizzlies in March (when they face the Spurs twice) and April (when they face the Warriors twice). But their February schedule should have them in good position well beyond the All-Star break.

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A few more Western Conference notes from the February schedule…

  • The Warriors and Thunder will meet for the first time on Saturday in Oakland. They’ll also play in Oklahoma City on Feb. 27. Neither game is part of a back-to-back for either team.
  • The Mavs play just two February games (fewest in the West) against bottom-10 defenses. They’re their last two games – vs. Denver and Minnesota – of the month.
  • 28 of the 30 teams play either five (15) or six (13) games between now and the All-Star break. The exceptions are the Warriors, who only play four games in the next 10 days, and the Pelicans, who play seven in the next 11.
  • But the Warriors play just two home games this month and begin their post-break schedule with a seven-game trip that starts with a rough five-games-in-seven-days stretch that takes them from Portland to L.A. to Atlanta to Miami to Orlando.
  • Just a game in the loss column separates the seventh-place Rockets from the eighth-place Blazers, who play each other three times (twice in Portland) in February.
  • The Clippers begin their post-break schedule by hosting the Spurs (Feb. 18) and Warriors (Feb. 20). But those are their only two February games against top-10 offenses.
  • The Warriors, Spurs and Thunder are a combined 71-8 against the other 12 teams in the West. That’s bad news for the Pelicans and Suns, who each have three games against the big three this month.
  • The Suns have have a 2.4-points-per-100-possessions edge over the Lakers for 29th in defensive efficiency, but play their first eight games against top-10 offenses.
  • Sleep Train Arena will be a good place to be for the last six days of the month, when the Kings host the Spurs, Clippers and Thunder.
  • After the Spurs host the Lakers on Feb. 6, they don’t have another home game until March 2. It’s rodeo time.

Like the Grizzlies, the Miami Heat are in the middle of their conference’s playoff picture. But the Heat are in a different boat in regard to the month ahead. They have the league’s toughest February schedule, with six road games, eight games against teams that are .500 or better, and only one game (Tuesday at Houston) against a team that currently ranks in the bottom 10 in either offensive or defensive efficiency.

Miami is just 10-13 against other teams that are currently .500 or better, but is coming off wins over Chicago and Atlanta last week.

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More Eastern Conference notes…

  • The two best teams in the East – the Cavs and Raptors – meet Feb. 26 in Toronto.
  • The Hawks leave the Eastern time zone for only one game (Feb. 10 in Chicago) all month.
  • Starting with Tuesday’s visit to New York, the Celtics go into the break with six games in just nine days, including two road-home back-to-backs.
  • The Nets have played the league’s toughest schedule thus far, but have a relatively easy February. That could affect the Lottery odds of the pick that Boston owns. Brooklyn is two games behind both Minnesota and Phoenix in the win column, so a decent month could drop that pick from the third best odds to the fifth best odds.
  • The Hornets are the only team that plays all of its February games within its conference. Sunday’s win over the Lakers was their last road game of the season against the West. They’re one of two teams (Orlando is the other) that plays seven February games against top-10 defenses.
  • The Bucks will be the second team to wrap up its road schedule against the opposite conference. Their last three games in West arenas are this week.
  • The Magic begin the month with visits to San Antonio and Oklahoma City, followed by a home game against the Clippers. They play five total games against the West’s top four this month, and they don’t play a single February game against a bottom-10 defense.
  • The Hawks and Knicks each play just one February game against top-10 offense, and they both do it on Feb. 22, when Atlanta hosts Golden State and New York hosts Toronto.

Numbers notes: The stagger question


VIDEO: Thunder hang on to top Knicks

ALSO THIS WEEK: Raptors bench stands out in East | When you can beat the Warriors

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Oklahoma City Thunder almost left New York without a win. They lost to the 11-33 Nets in Brooklyn on Sunday and were in trouble against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday.

The Thunder trailed the Knicks by three after the third quarter and, with both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on the bench, the Knicks’ lead went from three points to 11 in the first 2:29 of the fourth.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan took a timeout and got Westbrook back in the game. It wasn’t too late, the Thunder erased the 11-point deficit by the end of regulation, and won in overtime.

But the situation brought to the surface the question about whether the Thunder have to play any minutes with neither Durant nor Westbrook on the floor. The pair average 70 minutes per game between them and Donovan could stagger their playing time so that he never has to play a full bench unit.

He does stagger their minutes a little bit. Westbrook usually gets replaced with 2-3 minutes left in the first quarter and third quarters, while Durant stays on the floor for the remainder of the period. Then Westbrook returns a little earlier in the second and fourth quarters than Durant does. Over the last eight games, the Thunder have averaged about seven minutes per game with one of the two (but not the other) on the floor.

But stretches like they had in New York could be avoided if Westbrook sat earlier in the first and third quarters, returning to start the second and fourth.

Earlier in the season, I looked at the same issue with the Clippers, who don’t have as good a bench as the Thunder do and who don’t really have to answer the question with Blake Griffin out for another 4-6 weeks.

Donovan answered the question after the OT win in New York, and he’s willing to see his bench sink or swim with his two stars off the floor.

“Kevin, I think, for his rhythm, what he likes is playing that whole first quarter,” the coach said Tuesday. “He likes the rhythm of that. He feels like he gets in the flow of the game. So there’s going to be some times those guys are not going to be on the floor. I’ve said this from the beginning of the year, I got confidence in the guys coming off the bench. I got confidence in other guys. Other guys need to step up. And our bench has been playing pretty well.

“If 40 minutes are going to be played with one of those two guys on the court, we got to be able to play for that [other] six or eight minutes.”

Durant and Westbrook will obviously see a minutes increase in the playoffs, but it remains to be seen if Donovan also staggers their playing time more as well in the postseason. In fact, the night after the game in New York, Donovan staggered his stars’ minutes even less. In Minnesota on Wednesday, he had one of the two stars on the floor for just three total minutes. But the Thunder were a plus-2 in the 10 minutes that both were on the bench in another close win against a bad team.

Best bench in the East


VIDEO: The Association: Toronto Raptors

One team that has staggered the minutes of its stars is the Toronto Raptors, who have kept either Kyle Lowry (who sits at the end of the first and third quarters) or DeMar DeRozan (who sits at the start of the second and fourth) on the floor at all (non-garbage) times.

That’s one reason for the Raptors’ success with reserves on the floor, which was the topic of this week’s stats video…


VIDEO: GameTime: Schu’s Advanced Stats – Raptors bench

Against the Knicks on Thursday, the Raptors’ starting lineup was outscored by nine points in 13.4 minutes, but they still won by 10. Through 46 games, their starting lineups are a minus-23 and they’ve been the fourth worst team, getting outscored by 9.3 points per 100 possessions, in the first six minutes of the first quarter. Only the Suns (minus-11.8), Sixers (minus-14.3) and Lakers (minus-21.9) have been worse.

But the Raps are about even in first quarters overall, because they’ve outscored their opponents by 9.2 points per 100 possessions in the last six minutes of the period, when the reserves start taking the floor. A lineup of DeRozan and their top four subs (Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson and Bismack Biyombo) is a plus-14 in 126 minutes this season.

The second quarter, though, is when the Raptors have really been separating themselves. A lineup of Lowry and those same reserves has outscored opponents 279-194 in 127 minutes. Lowry (plus-255) has the best plus-minus on the team, and he’s followed by Patterson (plus-213), Joseph (plus-185) and Ross (plus-164). The Raptors rank second, behind only the San Antonio Spurs, in aggregate bench plus-minus.

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The Raptors have won 10 straight games, with a top-5 offense and a top-5 defense in that time, taking a strong hold on second place in the Eastern Conference. It’s not only the third straight season that they’re heading for the playoffs. It’s also the third straight season that they’ve been at their best with reserves on the floor.

When you can beat the Warriors

The Warriors are kind of the opposite of the Raptors, in that the first six minutes of the second and fourth quarters are when they’re at their worst. In their two meetings, the Raptors outscored the Warriors 53-40 in the first six minutes of the second and fourth quarters.

Like Oklahoma City and Toronto, the champs have two elite players, and they’ve subbed them in and out more like the Thunder than the Raps. Golden State has outscored its opponents by an amazing 25.1 points per 100 possessions in 1,331 minutes with both Stephen Curry and Draymond Green on the floor. And in 361 minutes with one of the two on the floor, they’re a plus-8.1 per 100 possessions.

But in the 536 minutes that both Curry and Green have been off the floor, the Warriors have been outscored by 10.5 points per 100 possessions, a point differential worse than that of the Sixers this season.

Some of that is garbage time. But if you look at just the first three quarters and fourth quarter minutes where the score is within 10 points, the Warriors still have been outscored by 6.9 points per 100 possessions in 308 minutes with neither Curry nor Green on the floor.

The champs have been ridiculously good with their two best players on the floor. No kidding. But the Warriors’ bench hasn’t been able to hold onto leads with Curry and Green off the floor as well as they did last season.

Through Thursday, Curry and Green lead the league on on-off-court NetRtg differential. The Warriors have been an amazing 29.8 points per 100 possessions better with the MVP on the floor than they’ve been with him on the bench. That number is 10 points per 100 possessions higher than that of last season’s leader (Chris Paul, 19.8) and almost 13 points per 100 possessions higher than Curry’s mark last season (17.1).

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Spurs-Warriors, a historically good matchup by the numbers


VIDEO: Brent Barry looks ahead Monday night’s match-up between the Spurs and Warriors.

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — It’s the matchup we’ve been waiting three months for.

The San Antonio Spurs visit the Golden State Warriors on Monday (10:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV), the first meeting between what have been the league’s two best teams by a wide margin.

The Warriors are on pace for the best record in NBA history, while the Spurs are on pace for the best point differential in NBA history. And they’re each on pace to make history on one end of the floor or the other.

It’s hard to argue that this isn’t the biggest regular season matchup we’ve seen in our lifetimes. In fact, it’s the first time in NBA history that two teams with winning percentages better than .850 have played each other this late in the season.

There are several staggering numbers to digest when it comes to these two teams. Here’s a look at some of them.

Historically good offense

The league started counting turnovers in 1977. Since then, the league’s five best offenses, comparing team efficiency to the league average, have been run by Steve Nash. Now Nash’s current team (he’s a consultant for the Warriors) is on pace to eclipse any mark that his teams registered in Dallas or Phoenix.

Through their first 44 games, the Warriors have scored 10.0 points per 100 possessions above the league average, making them the best offense of the last 39 years.

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The Warriors are a below-average team in regard to turnover rate and free throw rate. They rank 10th in offensive rebounding percentage, but their offensive success is almost entirely about how well they’ve shot the ball.

The champs’ effective field goal percentage of 56.0 percent is the highest mark in NBA history. Their 3-point percentage is the second-highest in NBA history, and they also rank in the top five in field goal percentage from both the restricted area and mid-range.

San Antonio isn’t too bad offensively either. In fact, the Spurs have led the league in offensive efficiency since Dec. 1. They lead the league in field goal percentage in the restricted area and are the only team other than the Warriors that has shot better than 40 percent from outside the paint.

Historically good defense

The Spurs are doing on defense what the Warriors are doing on offense. They’ve allowed 9.2 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league average, the best mark since the league started counting turnovers in 1977.

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San Antonio leads the league in opponent effective field goal percentage. They’ve been the best in the league at defending the restricted area and forcing mid-range shots, the least efficient shots on the floor. They also lead the league in defensive rebounding percentage (with the highest mark since the league starting counting offensive and defensive rebounds separately in 1973) and rank third in opponent free throw rate, allowing less than 24 free throws per 100 shots from the field.

The Warriors can play some defense too. They led the league in defensive efficiency last season and rank third this season, ranking in the top 10 in opponent field goal percentage in the paint, from mid-range and from 3-point range. They’ve allowed the fewest corner 3-point attempts.

A league of their own

Put elite offense and elite defense together and you’ll do more than just win games. You’ll rack up a strong point differential as well. And on a per-possession basis, these two teams have the best point differentials of the last 29 years.

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Six of the other eight teams on the list above won the championship.

15 is the magic number

You do not want to fall into a deep hole against the Warriors, who have won the last 91 games that they’ve led by 15 points or more, a streak that goes back to April of 2014. On their way to a championship last season, they went 47-0 in the regular season and 12-0 in the playoffs when leading by at least 15 points. This season, they’re 29-0, though they’ve had a couple of close calls.

Other teams have had longer such streaks, but none of them led by 15 or more in more than half their games during those streaks. The Warriors have led by 15-plus in an amazing 58 percent of their games since the streak started more than 21 months ago.

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The champs still have a long way to go to match the mark set by the Spurs, who have been putting together another run of their own. San Antonio has won the last 58 games it has led by 15 or more points, a streak that goes back to last Jan. 10. And they’ve led by 15-plus in 60 percent of their games over the streak.

This season, the Spurs are 30-0 in games in which they’ve had a lead of at least 15 points. They’ve already set a franchise record with 12 wins by 25 points or more.

Our house

No team in NBA history has ever gone undefeated at home, but both of these teams are about halfway there. The Spurs are 24-0 at the AT&T Center and have won 33 straight regular-season home games, dating back to March 12, 2015.

The Warriors are 20-0 at Oracle Arena this season. If they beat the Spurs on Monday, it will have been a full year since they last lost a regular season home game. And over the course of their 38-game home winning streak, they’ve outscored their opponents by 15.9 points per 100 possessions.

The Warriors have a better road record than the Spurs, but San Antonio has the league’s best road NetRtg, having outscored its opponents by 13.0 points per 100 possessions in their 20 road games.

Numbers like Thompson over Mozgov when Cavaliers play big

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Cleveland Cavaliers’ longest winning streak of the season – eight games from Dec. 28 to Jan. 12 – coincided with a lineup change, Tristan Thompson replacing Timofey Mozgov at center.

The winning streak came to an end in San Antonio last Thursday and Thompson went back the bench for the last three games. Matchups had something to do with it. The Cavs’ last three games have been against big centers (Dwight Howard, Andrew Bogut and Brook Lopez), and Cavs coach David Blatt acknowledged that size is the reason Mozgov has started those three games.

So Thompson could be back in the starting lineup again soon. It probably won’t happen on Thursday, when the Cavs host DeAndre Jordan and the Los Angeles Clippers (8 p.m. ET, TNT), but the Cavs’ numbers suggest that Thompson is the better choice.

The Cavs have played almost 1,000 minutes with LeBron James and Kevin Love at the forward positions, and about an equal number with Mozgov and Thompson at center. And Cleveland has been much better, especially offensively with Thompson at the five.

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Those minutes account for 71 percent of James’ total minutes. He’s also played 78 minutes with Thompson at the four and either Mozgov or Anderson Varejao at the five. He’s played only 8.1 minutes per game of small ball this season.

Interestingly, the Cavs’ numbers have been similar whether James is playing with one big or two.

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Thompson has been the center for most (192) of those one-big minutes, but the Cavs are a minus-26 with a James/Thompson frontline (in part because they’ve used it for more defensive than offensive possessions). They’ve been better (plus-63 in 86 minutes) with a James/Love frontline and three guards/wings, a configuration they could go to more often now that they have their full complement of guards available.

Lineups didn’t matter when the Cavs got smoked by the Warriors on Monday, but Blatt will continue to have interesting choices from game to game and minute to minute.

Gordon injury could mark end of Pelicans’ little-used big five

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The New Orleans’ Pelicans announced Wednesday afternoon that Eric Gordon is out 4-6 weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a fracture in his right ring finger.

The injury is the latest of many for the Pelicans, who have already been without Tyreke Evans for 19 games, Norris Cole for 17, Jrue Holiday for six, Anthony Davis for five, Ryan Anderson for two, and Quincy Pondexter for the whole season.

In his first season in New Orleans, coach Alvin Gentry hasn’t had all his tools at his disposal. But he also hasn’t used his best tools together very often.

Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Anderson and Davis have all been available in 17 games this season. And in those 17 games, that group of five players has been on the floor together for less than 33 minutes.

In those (less than) 33 minutes together, that unit has outscored its opponents by a score of 99-56, with an effective field goal percentage of 61 percent.

One reason that they’ve outscored their opponents by so much is that they’ve been on the floor for a lot more offensive possessions than defensive possessions. Gentry has used his big five mostly in the fourth quarter (22 of the 33 minutes), when his team needs a basket or when the opponent is looking to foul. In their time on the floor, they’ve racked up 61 shots and 33 free throw attempts, while their opponents have totaled just 52 and 10.

And of course, there are defensive concerns with that unit. But it’s so potent offensively that the Pelicans have always outscored their opponents with it.

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Even with his team near the bottom of the Western Conference standings, Gentry never took much of a chance on what is clearly his most talented lineup. Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Anderson and Davis have played more than five minutes together in just two games.

In one of the only games it was given extended run, the lineup turned a four-point deficit into a six-point lead (and, eventually, a five-point win) in Denver on Dec. 20, scoring 19 points in 5:33.

Remember that game-winning alley-oop Davis threw down last week against Charlotte? Davis and Holiday had space to run their pick-and-roll, because there was *shooting at the other three positions to space the floor. But that was only the second offensive possession in the month of January in which Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Anderson and Davis were all on the floor together.

*Yes, even Evans (29-for-76 from 3-point range in just 22 games) can be called a shooter now.

There was hope that extended health would compel Gentry to use his best players together more often. But Gordon’s injury has the big five stuck on plus-43 in 33 minutes, with the possibility of Anderson being traded before Gordon returns.

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


VIDEO: Evaluating the NBA’s top teams

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 (more…)

Jazz primed to surge behind Gobert


VIDEO: Rudy Gobert talks after his first start following his injury

By Ben Leibowitz, Special to NBA.com

Rudy Gobert is back on the court for the Utah Jazz, and for a team with playoff aspirations, his return is a godsend.

After a Grade 2 MCL sprain in Gobert’s left knee sidelined him for 18 games, he made his return on Jan. 7 – a 103-94 loss to the Houston Rockets in which he played 15 minutes. In two games since (both wins), Gobert averaged 9.5 points, 5.0 and 3.5 blocks in 58 total minutes.

All told, the Jazz are 7-13 when “The Stifle Tower” doesn’t play and 10-7 when he does. He’s a huge part of Utah’s identity, particularly on defense.

Utah’s opponents are scoring 106.8 points per 100 possessions this season when Gobert is on the bench. But when he’s patrolling the paint, that mark dips to 103 points per 100 possessions.

Although he doesn’t qualify for the leaderboard due to time missed, Gobert ranks second in the league among all players with 2.6 blocks per game – behind only the Miami Heat’s Hassan Whiteside.

Gobert uses his 7-foot-1 frame, lengthy wingspan and 9-foot-7 standing reach to not only to block shots, but also to alter many high-percentage shots close to the rim. According to NBA.com, Gobert holds opponents to an unfathomably low 37 percent shooting at the rim. That mark is significantly more impressive than those of defensive-minded big men like Andrew Bogut (41.6 percent), Anthony Davis (43.5 percent) and DeAndre Jordan (45.3 percent).

And yet, oddly enough, Gobert has had an even greater influence offense.

Utah scores nearly seven additional points per 100 possessions when Gobert is in the lineup, a striking stat considering his limited offensive skills (virtually all of Gobert’s shot attempts come from within the restricted area).

To be fair, backup Jeff Withey performed admirably in Gobert’s absence. Even in the midst of Gobert’s return, Withey is averaging 8.7 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks through six January games. But Gobert finished fifth in Kia Defensive Player of the Year voting last season despite starting only 37 games. He remains the best defensive option for Utah when healthy.

If that “when healthy” qualifier proves inconsequential the rest of the season, Utah should end its three season-long (and counting) playoff absence.

Following his return, Gobert said, “I jumped higher than I was jumping before the injury. I feel great,” per Jody Genessy of the Deseret News.

After weathering the storm brought on by Gobert’s absence, Utah is in position to get hot heading into the All-Star break.

Note: All stats used in this article are accurate as of Jan. 11, prior to games played.

Ben Leibowitz is a writer for PointAfter, a sports data aggregation and visualization website that’s part of the Graphiq network. Visit PointAfter to get all the information about NBA Players, NBA Historical Teams and dozens of other topics.

DeRozan’s offense gets more efficient


VIDEO: DeMar DeRozan was in the zone against the Wasington Wizards

BROOKLYN — If you’re a fan of how the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs play, DeMar DeRozan might not be your cup of tea.

According to Synergy tracking, DeRozan has isolated almost 100 more times than anyone on the Spurs this season. DeRozan has isolated on almost 18 percent of his possessions, the highest rate of his career. Only 31 percent of his field goals have been assisted, down from 45 percent last season. And according to SportVU, more than 57 percent of his jump shots have been contested, the second highest rate (behind only Kobe Bryant) among players who have taken at least 200 jumpers.

In regard to putting points on the board, DeRozan does a lot of his own work and wouldn’t fit in very well in Golden State or San Antonio. Stephen Curry is a one-on-one player who takes tough shots, right? Well, Curry has been assisted on almost half (47 percent) of his buckets and only 37 percent of his jumpers have been contested.

In his career, DeRozan has shot just 36 percent on isolations, just 34 percent this season, according to Synergy. He’s always been a volume scorer, not an efficient one.

Until this year. True shooting percentage measures scoring efficiency: how well you score in regard to the number of shots from the field you take from the field and the number of trips to the line you make. And for the first time since his rookie season, DeRozan has a true shooting percentage above the league average.

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DeRozan has improved as a shooter this year, mostly because he’s cut down on mid-range shots. Last season, DeRozan took 51.3 percent of his shots from mid-range (between the paint and the 3-point line), the fifth highest rate among players who attempted at least 500 total shots. And he was a below-average mid-range shooter.

He still is. But he’s better and only four players who took at least 500 shots last season and have taken at least 250 shots this year have cut down on their mid-range shots more than DeRozan.

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Only one of the four (DeMarcus Cousins) is a high-usage player like DeRozan, and he’s done it by taking 3.7 3-pointers per game after attempting only eight threes all of last season. DeRozan has made only a slight increase in the percentage of his shots that come from beyond the arc. He’s still not a 3-point shooter. But he’s cut down on mid-range shots by attacking the basket more.

DeRozan ranks second in the league with 11.8 drives per game, up from 7.9 (18th in the league) last season. More than 50 percent of his shots have come from the paint. And while DeRozan has always been one of the best in the league at drawing shooting fouls away from the basket, more drives has resulted in more trips to the line.

If you can get to the line, you can make up for the fact that you don’t shoot very well. And DeRozan is the next closest thing to James Harden in regard to drawing fouls. For the second straight season, Harden leads the league in both free throws made and attempted. This season, DeRozan ranks second.

DeRozan knows the numbers. He’s aware that mid-range shots are the worst on the floor and that the most efficient way to score is at the line. But his improvement this season is about more than that.

“I enjoy the contact,” he said after the Raptors’ win in Brooklyn on Wednesday. “It’s fun to me. I like doing it. James Harden is one of my good friends and we always joke about that in the summertime, who can shoot the most free throws. Something like that is a little challenge that’s beneficial for the team. And I just carry that over.”

DeRozan’s game may not be aesthetically pleasing, but you can say now that it’s effective.

January schedule breakdown


VIDEO: Top 10 Clutch Shots of 2015

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The New Orleans Pelicans aren’t done yet.

The Pelicans have been the league’s most disappointing team this season. New coach Alvin Gentry and his staff were supposed to bring improvement on both offense (where Gentry had a great reputation) and defense (where New Orleans had ranked in the bottom 10 each of the last three seasons).

But the Pelicans have regressed on both ends of the floor this season. They’ve been 2.9 points per 100 possessions worse on offense and 3.2 points per 100 possessions worse on defense than they were last season. The Milwaukee Bucks have suffered a bigger drop-off in NetRtg (point differential per 100 possessions), but their regression has been entirely on defense.

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New Orleans has sat in 14th place in the Western Conference for most of the season. And if this were last season (or any of the five seasons before that), we’d be writing the Pelicans off at this point.

But through the first two months of the season, only six West teams are above .500 and the bottom half of the playoff picture is wide open. So, despite their 10-22 record, the Pelicans are just 4 1/2 games out of eighth place.

And January could be the time for New Orleans to make its move. The Pelicans have played the league’s toughest schedule through Dec. 31, but are getting some relief this month. They have the league’s easiest schedule in January, with nine of their 14 games at home and seven of the 14 against teams playing the second night of a back-to-back.

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A few more Western Conference notes from the January schedule …

  • The Spurs and Warriors meet for the first time on Jan. 25 and neither team will be on the second night of a back-to-back. Cancel all plans.
  • The Mavs play five games in seven days from Jan. 12-18, with four of those games against top-five defenses.
  • The Nuggets‘ longest homestand of the season is eight games long, from Jan. 10-25. All eight opponents are currently over .500.
  • The Warriors play five games in seven nights from Jan. 8-14. And the matchup against the Spurs ends a stretch where they play five straight games against top-10 defenses.
  • The Rockets have two stretches of five games in seven days, one from Jan. 12-18 and another from Jan. 24-30.
  • The Clippers traveled to the East coast twice in December and will be back in late January, with a five-game-in-seven-nights trip where four of the five opponents are at least four games over .500.
  • The Grizzlies don’t play a single back-to-back this month. They also have the fewest games (in the entire league) against top-10 offenses (two – tied with Boston) and the fewest games against top-10 defenses (two tied with three other teams).
  • The Suns play only 14 games, but have a stretch where they play six of seven games (from Jan. 6-21) against top-10 defenses.
  • On Jan. 20, the Blazers begin a stretch where they play 12 of 14 games at home.
  • The Kings play five games in seven nights from Jan. 20-26.
  • The Jazz play five games in seven nights from Jan. 4-10.

Like the Pelicans, the Brooklyn Nets sit in 14th place and have played the toughest schedule in the conference. Unlike the Pelicans, the Nets are going to have to wait until February before their schedule eases up a bit.

No team has more games in January against opponents that are currently over .500. No team has more January games against top-10 offenses and only one team (Washington) has more January games against top-10 defenses. The Nets have a couple of quality wins over the last couple of weeks, but haven’t won many games they’re supposed to win and probably won’t be making any headway in the standings anytime soon.

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More Eastern Conference notes…

  • The Home/Road numbers don’t add up for the Magic and Raptors, because they play in London on Jan. 14, which technically counts as a home game for Orlando.
  • The Hawks have a seven-day stretch from Jan. 15-21 where they play five games and go from Milwaukee to Atlanta to Portland to Sacramento.
  • The Celtics play six games in nine days, including a four-in-five stretch, from Jan. 10-23.
  • The Bulls have a four-games-in-five-nights stretch from Jan. 11-15.
  • The Cavs‘ longest road trip of the season is a six-game excursion from Jan. 6-15, but only two of the six opponents (Dallas and San Antonio) have winning records.
  • Come Jan. 8, the Heat will start paying for having such a home-heavy schedule thus far. Between Jan. 8 and Feb. 5, they’ll play 14 of their 16 games on the road.
  • The Bucks have a four-games-in-five nights stretch, two home-road back-to-backs, from Jan. 12-16. Between Dec. 26 and Feb. 9, they’re not home for more than one game at a time.
  • It’s a big month for the Magic, with 13 of their 14 games within the conference. Seven of those 13 are against the other teams currently seeded 2-10.
  • Like the Magic, the Raptors play 13 of their 14 games within the Eastern Conference. But that includes six games against the five East teams that are under .500.
  • The Wizards play a league-high nine games against top-10 defenses, plus two more against the 11th-ranked Magic defense. Their first six games of 2016 are against the top 11 teams in DefRtg.