NEW YORK -- There might have been a playoff preview at Barclays Center on Wednesday. The Toronto Raptors, who will almost certainly finish second in the East, visited the Brooklyn Nets, who occupy the seventh spot for now.
If they end up first-round opponents, the game was promising in terms of entertainment value. There was something of a duel between Most Improved Player candidates Pascal Siakam (28 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, 11-for-21 shooting) and D'Angelo Russell (27 points, seven rebounds, six assists, 11-for-25 shooting). Serge Ibaka sprung off the Raptors' bench and hit all five of his 3-point attempts. The Nets fell behind by double-digits early, but refused to roll over.
Conventional wisdom dictates that games like this are ideal for getting a taste of what the postseason will be like. Brooklyn is fighting desperately to secure a spot. Toronto has less urgency, but all playoff teams want to be firing on all cylinders heading into the games that really matter ... don't they?
Not according to Raptors coach Nick Nurse.
"I know there's a common theme of saying, 'Oh, how are we playing going into the playoffs?'" Nurse said. "I just don't really buy that very much."
If you're a fan of the Utah Jazz, who have feasted on a soft schedule for the last month, you might be inclined to disagree with Nurse. If you're a fan of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have slipped in the standings, you might want to give him a hug. It seems silly, though, to put too much weight on the part of the season in which players are routinely shut down and just about everybody would rather be competing in the playoffs or on vacation.
"It's a crazy time of the year, man," Nurse said. "The results are all over the place and I don't think you want to get too wrapped up in 'em now."
Nurse extended his premise outside the NBA: The Iowa State Cyclones "looked awesome" when they won the Big 12 Tournament, but "that was a week too early." Before meeting in the Super Bowl, the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots didn't look that great down the stretch of the regular season, either. For the last few weeks, Nurse has "tried to not make the results the focus," he said, instead honing in on lineup combinations and polishing things up.
If we are to believe playoff cliches about rising to the occasion, handling the pressure and finding an extra gear, we must also accept that mid-April brings a fundamental shift. If there truly is no way to duplicate the stakes of a seven-game series, if the postseason is where names are made, flaws are magnified and character is tested, then ramping up beforehand is a farce.
"I really just think that everything changes when it becomes the playoffs," Nurse said. "And when that ball goes up and where it is and who's available and the breaks you get and how tough you are and how you bounce back is probably more important than really rolling at the end of the regular season into the playoffs."
Try finding a player who will tell you he doesn't feel the heightened tension of playoff competition. Fred VanVleet cannot wait to get back there. As a rookie, he played only garbage-time minutes in the playoffs until Game 4 of the second round, with Toronto already down 3-0 to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Last season, a shoulder injury kept him out for most of the first round and, when the Raptors were swept by the Cavs again, he was not even close to healthy.
"Being out there with one arm, trying to figure it out, not being my best self is something that I think about a lot," VanVleet told CBS Sports. "Hopefully this is like my chance for redemption, to go out there and show that, the same player that I've been throughout the regular season, I can do that in the playoffs."
According to VanVleet, the morning of a playoff game feels different than the morning of a regular-season game. The preparation is more intense. You're more focused. The stakes and what he called "the finality of it" make every game special.
"It's just the mental aspect of it," VanVleet said. "The rims get a little tighter. Each shot means more. It's what makes the last five minutes of a tie game exciting."
Before Ed Davis played his first postseason game, his veteran teammates with the Memphis Grizzlies told him the typical stuff: Stay calm. Lock in. Be ready. No words, however, could stop him from feeling anxious and nervous. They were playing the Los Angeles Clippers, their rivals, and, six years later, he still finds it hard to describe the intensity of the atmosphere.
Davis has earned a reputation as a mentor and model teammate. This particular experience is much better felt than talked about, though, so he does not plan on telling the younger Brooklyn Nets much on the subject.
"It's hard 'cause everyone handles their emotions differently, with anxiety and things like that," Davis told CBS Sports. "Everybody's just so different. Some people, it don't faze them. Some people, it rocks their world."
It is normal to be a little more wound up when the games mean more. When players and coaches say that every possession matters, they are being literal.
"One possession can just change the whole series, let alone a game," Davis said. "So you want to be on the good end of those swings."
Norman Powell still hears about his series-changing, season-saving play. It was the 2016 playoffs and he was a rookie, thrown into the fire against the Indiana Pacers, asked to guard Paul George. In Game 5, Toronto trailed by 13 late in the third quarter, in danger of falling behind 3-2. The Raptors made a run, though, and trailed by two when Powell stole a pass intended for George. The crowd erupted as he sprinted down the court and just about blew the roof off when he hammered in a one-handed dunk.
"The intensity, the energy from the crowd at the arena, just the instant change of when it's time for the playoffs, you feel it," Powell told CBS Sports. "That's what I remember most."
Thanks to conversations with Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson, Powell knew that the seats would be filled by the time the Raptors started warming up. They told him fans would be going crazy outside the arena, too. The magic of his big moment, though, was the momentum swing. It was visceral, and impossible to replicate.
Marc Gasol's selective hearing
Marc Gasol has played in the NBA for a decade, and he swears he has never -- not once in his 792 games or 59 playoff games -- experienced one of the most elemental aspects of basketball.
"I've never heard any trash talk," Gasol told me.
I was skeptical. Gasol is a famously expressive and emotional on the court. He is one of the smartest players in the league. I figured he might engage in some verbal warfare from time to time. Even if I was to accept that he never talks trash himself, the idea that he has never heard it seemed ludicrous, not only because I'd never heard anyone make a similar claim, but because he is a big man who played in the era against Kevin Garnett.
Gasol didn't waver when I mentioned Garnett. He is aware that players do a lot of talking, and he knows which ones have a reputation for it. When he's playing, though, none of the chatter registers.
"My ear, or my mind, doesn't really process those things, I guess," Gasol said. "Like, I don't know. I might be deaf to it."
Perhaps this is just a reflection of how Gasol's brain works on the court. He is the type of player who sees plays develop on both ends faster than others. He is a master of reading what the other team is doing and communicating instructions to his teammates. To do this requires extreme focus, so it makes sense that he would ignore the insignificant stuff. Gasol made it clear, though, that he is not trying to tune anything out. He did not choose his trash-talk-free existence.
"I feel bad about it because it would be so much fun," Gasol said.
Harrell's block party
If Montrezl Harrell isn't one of your favorite players to watch, I don't know what your deal is. Every time he comes off the bench, he does so with the intention of destroying everything around him. "I'm an instigator," Harrell told Ben Golliver of the Washington Post in January. "I want everything the other team can give me, and I get in people's heads." Harrell is half of the most captivating bench duo in recent memory, and he is the kind of shot-blocker who wants to intimidate the opponent as much as he wants to get a stop.
Harrell averages 1.4 blocks, which doesn't sound that impressive until you remember that he is 6-foot-8 and plays 26.3 minutes a game. The moment before he goes for a swat, you can see him sort of charge up before he unfurls his 7-4 wingspan. I'm not sure that Doc Rivers loves it when he opts for a staredown rather than immediately running the other way, but I don't care:
Harrell makes up for that by having a knack for immediately recovering the ball after blocking the hell out of somebody:
And, if he gets beaten off the dribble, he can get himself back in the picture quickly:
A reminder: The Los Angeles Clippers signed Harrell for two years and $12 million last summer. Unbelievable.
Checking in on … DeMar DeRozan
DeMar DeRozan is once again a divisive figure, even though he has been on fire since the All-Star break and is averaging career highs of 6.2 assists and 6.1 rebounds to go with his 21.6 points in his first season with the San Antonio Spurs. As was the case for much of his tenure in Toronto, DeRozan's doubters can point to his on/off numbers: San Antonio has been slightly better on offense and significantly better on defense with DeRozan on the bench.
More specifically, San Antonio's 3-point attempts, assists and (surprisingly) free throw attempts increase significantly with DeRozan on the bench, as does its offensive rebounding rate. It also plays way faster, but the same is true without LaMarcus Aldridge. (When only one of the two is on the court, the Spurs have actually been pretty fast.) To DeRozan's credit, he has looked comfortable in the offensive system the entire time. San Antonio helped him do that, though, by tilting it in his direction. Essentially, DeRozan has played his way, with just two major changes from recent years: improved passing and an almost complete aversion to 3-point shooting.
The lack of 3s was notable back in the preseason, but now the numbers are striking. DeRozan has gone 0-for-4 from 3-point range in the 2019 calendar year after shooting 7-for-41 in the first half of the season. On Tuesday against the Hawks, a broken play left him completely wide open beyond the 3-point line and he didn't even consider launching it:
DeRozan has taken the same amount of 3s as Jarrett Allen and fewer than former teammate Jonas Valanciunas. This is a stark contrast to last season, in which DeRozan averaged a career-high 3.6 3s and said he was done with trying to prove people wrong. If expanding his range would help his team win -- and a contingent of Raptors executives and coaches told him that it would -- then he wanted to do it, even if it wasn't natural. I am curious to see if DeRozan gives it another go at some point, but it's clearly not a priority anymore.
This has affected his efficiency in the way you might expect. His true shooting percentage has declined despite him shooting 48 percent from the field (his highest mark since his rookie season) and a career-high 69 percent at the rim. The Spurs have had him run fewer pick-and-rolls this year and increased his isolations and post-ups, and, per Synergy Sports, his overall points-per-possession mark has dipped … until you factor in his passes.
All the way back in October, Popovich called DeRozan the best passer on the team. His ability in that area was not new -- he made a bigger jump in assist rate last season -- but it's the best argument for him fitting San Antonio's style. If you include his passes, he has created 1.095 points per possession in isolation, which ranks in the 88th percentile, and 1.021 points per possession in pick-and-roll, which ranks in the 84th percentile. Last season, he was in the 70th percentile in isolation and 72nd percentile in pick-and-roll.
This is all to say that, as ever, DeRozan is complicated. I'd still love to see him become a better defender and a confident 3-point shooter, but if you judge him by only his on/off numbers, you are not seeing the whole picture. I'm curious to see him in the playoffs in this new environment.
HMMMM: Curry's world has opened up
Stephen Curry, the best shooter who has ever lived, just . Curry told The Athletic's Marcus Thompson that he has a degenerative condition called Keratoconus and that he had gotten used to squinting in order to correct blurry or distorted vision. Thompson asked him if, like most people who start wearing glasses or contacts, he feels like he has new eyes.
"It's exactly that," Curry said. "It's like the whole world has opened up."
I am only slightly exaggerating when I say this is the most shocking story of the season. Of all the players in the NBA, this is the one who, until recently, had trouble seeing? You've probably noticed him squinting, but, if you're like me, you didn't think anything of it.
That he only fixed the issue after a shooting slump suggests his absurd accuracy had been masking it. I wonder if his numbers would look even more outrageous if he had given contacts a try a few years ago.
In Curry's last five games, he has averaged 26.6 points on 48.3 percent shooting while attempting 11.8 3s a night and making 54.2 percent of them. Unlike the rest of the planet, Curry can do that without it being a big story -- Thompson only had reason to ask him about it because he had been cold (by his standards) for a few weeks after the All-Star break. The idea that a whole world has opened up for Curry makes me laugh. I didn't think he had much room for improvement, but here we are.
10 more stray thoughts: This week's most chilling statistic, from The Athletic's Britt Robson: "No team has ever allowed more treys in a 20-game stretch than the Wolves right now, and it is on over 41 percent shooting." … You've probably read a million stories about the length of the schedule -- and you might have watched Kevin Arnovitz's talk from Sloan -- but it really cannot be stressed enough: It is irresponsibly long … I wrote about Channing Frye last month, but, the man truly outdid himself in his interview with Joe Vardon of The Athletic … The look Bradley Beal gave this heckling fan is my favorite thing from this Wizards season … Speaking of the Wizards, their next GM has such a strange challenge -- they can tank next season, but it's hard to go full Process when you know you're paying John Wall $46.9 million in 2022 ... Evan Turner is suddenly a triple-double machine … The best part about Stephen Curry wearing Andris Biedrins' jersey on Biedrins' birthday is Biedrins' response … The second best part is that it got the attention of bunch of former Warriors, including Stephen Jackson, Baron Davis and Jarrett Jack, who called Biedrins one of his best teammates ever in the comment section of Curry's Instagram video (Note: Jack has had NBA 176 teammates, per RealGM) … I can't believe Jonas Valanciunas' season ended right after his 34-20-5 game … Look at Bonzie Colson's game log for a surprise.
All statistics accurate as of games played on April 2.