The 2020-21 NBA regular season wraps up on May 16 and the play-in tournament starts a couple of days later, so we're in the thick of the stretch run. This means it's a good time to take a look around the league -- what follows is a check-in of sorts, a mix of big-picture storylines and small observations, tilted toward teams that have a chance to still be playing in two weeks.
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1. We've barely seen the Eastern Conference death lineups
When the Milwaukee Bucks traded for P.J. Tucker, they unlocked new lineup possibilities. He could play smallball 5, help them switch and close games when necessary. If there was one look that seemed most promising, it was a five-man unit featuring Jrue Holiday, Donte DiVincenzo, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Tucker. That group was on the court at the end of the Bucks' wins against the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday and Tuesday, but it has only appeared in four games for a total of eight minutes, as pointed out by Nekias Duncan on the latest episode of Basketball News' "The Dunker Spot" podcast. This is strange, as is the fact that Tucker has rarely played center in Milwaukee. Of the 275 minutes he's logged for the Bucks, 225 of them (i.e. 81.8 percent) have come next to either Brook Lopez or Bobby Portis.
That the Bucks have barely used what might be their most important lineup does not distinguish them from their fellow Eastern Conference contenders. You're probably aware that the Nets' Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving have played just 186 minutes together, but you might not know that only one combination featuring the Big Three appeared in each of the seven games in which the trio was healthy. Maybe that unit (Irving, Harden, Joe Harris, Durant and Jeff Green) will end up being Brooklyn's go-to in tight situations -- it has a plus-17.4 net rating in 76 minutes -- but there are cases to be made for Nicolas Claxton, Bruce Brown, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Landry Shamet, depending on what the coaching staff is looking for. The Durant-Harden-Irving triumvirate has not played a single minute with Claxton, Griffin or Shamet.
The Tucker situation is similar to what's happened with George Hill and the Philadelphia 76ers, as both trade-deadline acquisitions haven't been available as much as their teams would have hoped. Hill has played 167 minutes in nine games as a Sixer, and the potential closing lineup that we nerds on the internet were so excited about (Ben Simmons, Hill, Danny Green, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid) has yet to make its debut. This hasn't dampened my enthusiasm about the fit, but I would like to at least see Hill and Simmons get some more reps together -- they've shared the court for a total of 11 minutes.
2. Thibodeau is making his mark on … offense?
The case for Tom Thibodeau winning Coach of the Year is usually presented in a fairly straightforward way: The New York Knicks have been shockingly competent all season, overcoming their offensive limitations by getting far more stops than anybody anticipated. He can't get all the credit for Julius Randle's improvement or R.J. Barrett's development, but there might not be another coach on the planet who could have coaxed the fourth-best defense in the entire league out of this personnel.
This is a solid argument. But here's another way to make the case: He has the Knicks overachieving on offense. After timeouts, they've scored 118.2 points per 100 possessions, the second-best mark in the league, per PBPstats.com, and they've been almost as good in other dead-ball scenarios. Players and fellow coaches have long raved about Thibodeau's attention to detail, but this is tangible evidence that he is affecting games with his play-calling.
In a pace-and-space league, nobody is slower than New York and nobody takes fewer above-the-break 3s. When other teams would push the ball and give the players freedom, Thibodeau screams set plays from the sideline. This old-school style comes with obvious disadvantages, but the flip side is that the Knicks desperately needed structure. They've been slightly better after makes then after misses, per PBPstats.com, and their turnover rate has gradually declined over the course of the season. In the 17 games since the beginning of April, New York has scored 117.5 points per 100 possessions, the second-best offense in the NBA. Only three teams have taken corner 3s more frequently in that span, according to Cleaning The Glass.
3. There are different ways to protect the rim -- just ask the Warriors
The Golden State Warriors have the league's third-best defense since April 10, the day of James Wiseman's season-ending injury. This is partially because they've done a good job on the interior without their largest player, a 20-year-old who has a tendency to bite on pump fakes and has lots to learn.
Rim protection isn't all about size and heft. With Wiseman on the court, Warriors opponents took 33.8 percent of their shots at the rim and made 65.7 percent of those shots, both of which are above league average, per CTG. Those numbers are both more than three percentage points worse for Golden State with Wiseman on the bench. And with Draymond Green at center, the Warriors have been almost as stingy as Milwaukee on the inside -- opponents are taking just 28.5 percent of their shots at the rim and making 62.5 percent of them.
The Warriors are much more versatile with Green, Kevon Looney, Juan Toscano-Anderson and Eric Paschall as their bigs. Defending the paint starts with limiting dribble penetration, and it is impossible without solid pick-and-roll defense and crisp weakside rotations. All things being equal, it helps to have a massive physical presence around the basket, but that is not the most crucial thing.
4. A troubling trend
Memphis Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas had a 34-point, 22-rebound game on April 11; Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had a 13-point, 23-rebound game on April 16 and Atlanta Hawks center Clint Capela had a 25-point, 24-rebound game on April 18. What do these performances have in common? They all came against the Indiana Pacers, who have been getting annihilated on the glass. Last Tuesday, the Portland Trail Blazers grabbed offensive rebounds on 46.2 percent of their misses before garbage time in a blowout victory against the Pacers, per CTG. On the season, Indiana has been the worst defensive rebounding team in the NBA.
Some of this is because the Pacers have been ravaged by injuries. They've had to play small lineups with Myles Turner and Goga Bitadze sidelined, and Domantas Sabonis can't box out everybody. Even when Turner and Sabonis were sharing the court, though, they were only average on the defensive glass, and their approach to defense -- extremely aggressive against pick-and-rolls, a variety of zone defenses -- leaves them vulnerable in this area. You can make up for this if you're flying around the court, creating chaos and forcing tons of turnovers, but the trade-off is much more acceptable if you're merely an unremarkable rebounding team rather than an awful one.
5. The other Los Angeles logjam
All I'm going to say about the Los Angeles Lakers' center situation is that Andre Drummond is taking a preposterous amount of awkward floaters -- 36 percent of his field goal attempts in a Lakers uniform have been from the short midrange area, per CTG -- and no one needs to see that. Now that Patrick Beverley is healthy, though, the Clippers have a three-headed monster of their own. Rajon Rondo has fit in well so far, and there's a case to be made that Reggie Jackson, who arrived in Los Angeles last season after accepting a buyout in Detroit and re-signed on a minimum contract, should keep the starting job.
Jackson has totally reinvented himself. While he can still be fairly characterized as a pick-and-roll point guard, he no longer needs the ball in his hands to help his team. Jackson has made 46.8 percent (!) of his catch-and-shoot 3s this season, per NBA.com, and, for the first time in his career, more than half of his made field goals have been assisted, per CTG. In 2015-16, when he was at the top of his game with the Pistons, he shot 36.2 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s (on less than half the volume) and 14 percent of his made field goals were assisted.
When healthy, Beverley is by far the best defender of the bunch. Rondo brings a different kind of juice to the offense with his passing, and the Clippers wouldn't have traded two second-round picks for him if they didn't think he could duplicate last season's playoff magic. The good news is that it's inherently easier to manage a glut of point guards than a glut of centers because you can play more than one of them at the same time. I'm not sure, however, how much Tyronn Lue will want to do that in the postseason.
6. Actually, buyout guys are awesome
The interesting thing about Dedmon's Miami Heat tenure is that he's played 133 minutes and is 0 for 3 from 3-point range. A couple of years removed from his glorious 2018-19 season, in which he shot 38 percent from deep with the Hawks, Dedmon is going back to his roots as a finisher, rebounder and rim protector. So far, it is working: Miami has a plus-17.8 net rating in his 145 minutes.
Birch has gone the other way with the Toronto Raptors. He's taking more 3s, making a decent percentage of them and doing whatever he can to show that he's not just an energy/hustle guy. He had a 20-point, nine-rebound, four-assist game in Denver last Thursday, including two 3s, and followed it up with 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in Utah a couple of days later. Look at the touch on these in-between shots over Gobert:
7. Don't call Bane a 3-and-D guy
I would like you direct your attention, once again, to Desmond Bane the passer and floater artist:
This dude is also shooting 46.6 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s. He went 30th in the draft. Thirtieth!
By the way, the biggest opponent the ninth-place Grizzlies and 10th-place San Antonio Spurs have faced in the second half of the season has been the schedule, and it's not letting up. Both have eight games remaining, and it looks particularly rough for the Spurs: at Jazz, at Kings, at Blazers (B2B), vs. Bucks, at Nets, at Knicks (B2B), vs. Suns, vs. Suns (B2B).
For more details on the complicated playoff (and play-in) picture, consult Brad Botkin's rundown, updated daily.
8. A dynamic bench duo in Denver
Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. are not the only Nuggets responsible for Denver's continued success without Jamal Murray. Since Murray tore his ACL on April 12, reserve big men Paul Millsap and JaMychal Green have manned the frontcourt for 108 minutes. In that time, the Nuggets have scored 124.8 points per 100 possessions and allowed 88.5 per 100, which probably shouldn't be possible. This is small-sample stuff, but on Saturday against the Los Angeles Clippers the game completely changed when they checked in.
The 36-year-old Millsap has had a spring in his step lately, and Green has been everything the Nuggets wanted out of him. Both of them are playing around 20 minutes a night, and when they're together they're interchangeable. There might be certain situations in which Michael Malone calls on JaVale McGee in the playoffs, but I expect Millsap and Green to be on the court for most of the non-Jokic minutes.
9. It's not quite 7SOL, but …
You probably don't think of the Phoenix Suns as an incredibly fast team. They're 26th in pace, and, well, Chris Paul is their point guard. No team, however, has been more efficient after getting a stop, and if you happen to miss at the rim against them, you're essentially cooked, per PBPStats.com. Whenever I watch them, the ball seems to find its way to Mikal Bridges behind the arc in transition. He's not shy:
10. These vets won't win Sixth Man of the Year, but …
Danilo Gallinari and Derrick Rose, whose Hawks and Knicks would meet in the first round if the season ended today, are filling it up off the bench. In the 23 games he's played since March 3, the second game of the Nate McMillan era, Gallinari has per-36-minute averages of 21.4 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.0 assists on 0.461/0.449/0.934 shooting splits, with a 21.4 percent usage rate and a 64.7 percent true shooting percentage. Rose has had the more consistent season, but he's been on another level for the last 15 games, with per-36-minute averages of 22.0 points, 3.6 rebounds and 5.2 assists on 0.528/0.421/0.892 shooting splits, with a 24.3 percent usage rate and a 60.4 percent true shooting percentage.
It's not an accident that New York's bench quietly has the second-best aggregate net rating in the NBA (and has been annihilating teams since the beginning of April) -- the Knicks have outscored opponents by 13.5 points per 100 possessions with Rose on the court this season. Atlanta's bench, meanwhile, has outscored opponents by 6.4 per 100 with Gallinari on the court since McMillan took over.