Damian Lillard went nuts on Monday night leading his Portland Trail Blazers to a 129-124 overtime win over the Golden State Warriors.
Lillard was great from long range and made all his free throws while scoring a franchise record 61 points in the ballgame. This marked Lillard’s second career 60-point game (his first came in November against Brooklyn).
Lillard joins Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, James Harden and Elgin Baylor as the only players in NBA history with more than one 60-point game.
That’s some exclusive company.
Lillard was 17/37 from the field, 11/20 on threes, and went 16/16 from the line. He entered the game sixth in the league with 27.1 points per game this season.
Luka Doncic is 20 years old. Watch him play basketball, however, and he looks more like a player who has spent 20 years in the NBA. Before he can even legally drink in the U.S., Doncic has wedged himself near the top of league leaderboards in points (30.6) and assists (9.6) per game, ranking third and second, respectively. For his latest feat, Doncic took down LeBron James — the only player ahead of Doncic when it comes to dropping dimes — and his Lakers on Sunday in Los Angeles, 114-100.
Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that Doncic — who scored 27 points, dished out 10 assists and grabbed nine boards against L.A. — continued his incredible early season run against James. That’s because LeBron was the last player to have the monster impact Doncic is having just a year out of his teens. If you’re trying to figure how this young Slovenian star is pulling this off, here’s a key number: 3,441. That’s the minutes Doncic played professionally before he even stepped on an NBA floor.
When he was just 16, Doncic began his career with Real Madrid, a team in Spain that competes in two of the best competitions outside the NBA — the ACB, Spain’s top domestic league, and Euroleague, the intercontinental competition that pits Europe’s best clubs against each other. For three years, Doncic honed his game against former NBA players and top international stars, a vast improvement in competition faced by players who spend just a lone season in the NCAA.
That experience is exemplified by Doncic’s passing. He plays chess, with some flair, whereas most NBA players play checkers. Doncic whips passes to the weakside corner, lob balls into space where only his teammates can catch, or uses his eyes to bait defenders away from the true target about to receive his pass.
While we often think of assists as a lone category, what Doncic is really doing is creating points without shooting the ball himself — 24.6 points per game, according to NBA.com’s tracking data. During his last season in Spain, Doncic averaged a whopping 1.275 points per possession on passes out of pick-and-rolls, per Synergy Sports. That mark was the best in Spain and fifth best in any league outside of the NBA. So it shouldn’t really be a surprise that Doncic has carved up the NBA with his ball movement.
What is a little surprising is how Doncic has scored. Scroll through Twitter during his rookie year last season and you’ll find plenty of highlights featuring Doncic using some crafty dribble and footwork combination before launching a step-back jumper. This ability to create space before launching a shot helps Doncic balance his elite passing. And this season, the Mavericks’ forward is attempting more “open” shots per game than any other player besides the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard. (“Open” is the term NBA.com uses to define shots where a defender is four to six feet away.)
Open shots don’t necessarily mean that there isn’t a high degree of difficulty either. Because Doncic incorporates so many step-backs — NBA.com has him at 102 since he entered the league — it sort of masks where he’s at as a shooter. Doncic was considered a good but not great outside shooter before he entered the NBA. The one flaw in his game is that he shoots 33 percent from beyond the arc, so it’s scary to think where Doncic will be should he improve in that area.
If you are looking for an area where Doncic has already improved, it’s his commitment to attacking the basket. He averages 18.3 drives per game this season, according to NBA.com data, up from 14.7 during his rookie season. This mindset of going downhill more has helped Doncic up his free throw rate from .409 last season to .484 this season. In raw numbers, that means Doncic is averaging just a shade under three more free throws per game.
Getting to the free throw line is really where a lot of the NBA’s offensive stars have separated themselves from other players. In his first season in the NBA, Doncic was in the middle of the pack at getting to the line. This season, the only players ahead of the Mavericks’ star are Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Houston’s James Harden — pretty good company as far as offensive powerhouses go.
This evolution to Doncic’s game is one that would have been hard to see coming. For all the benefits of honing his craft in Europe, the spacing is quite different there. The international line is shorter and there are no rules, like the NBA’s defensive three seconds, to keep hulking big men from planting themselves in front of the basket. Doncic has clearly figured that in the NBA’s new spacing craze, he’s going to encounter far less resistance heading to the rim than he ever could have imagined while playing overseas.
This combination of passing, shooting and driving have added up to Doncic propelling Dallas to the top of the NBA’s offensive hierarchy. The Mavericks are first in the league at 116.1 points per 100 possessions. The return to health of Kristaps Porzingis, as well as some other new additions, has boosted Dallas’ attack, but make no mistake, the key to it all is Doncic.
In the 648 minutes Doncic played entering Sunday night’s game, the Mavericks posted an amazing 117.1 points per 100 possessions. When the Slovenian star sits, that number “plummeted” to a still-solid 110.1 points per 100.
Although Doncic and Dallas are not excelling on defense, the team clearly is improving. With Sunday night’s win over the first-place Lakers (17-3), the Mavericks are tied for fourth in the Western Conference. For those looking for a better indicator of the team’s performance, Dallas also boasts the conference’s second-best point differential, trailing only the Lakers.
It’s a good bet that James is going to be looking over his shoulder the rest of the season to see how Doncic and Dallas perform. And when he does glance back, the player who took the NBA by storm en route to one of the best careers in league history might be looking at a player a lot like his old self.
The NFL is the biggest and most-watched professional sports organization in North America each October and November. Nothing the NBA does will ever alter that reality. With that said, basketball diehards could legitimately claim the Association has been responsible for the better and more entertaining storylines between the two leagues since the start of the 2019-20 campaign.
Stephen Curry is out indefinitely after suffering a broken hand in late October, and the Golden State Warriors plummeted to the basement of the Western Conference standings. LeBron James once again looks like the best overall player on the planet. The Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t a complete disaster as of mid-November. Seemingly everybody has a take on load management and what it means for the NBA now and in the future.
Association experts, observers and fans promised the most open and competitive season of the decade, and the league didn’t disappoint as Halloween decorations made way for Christmas lights and holiday music. Granted, not every player off to a hot start this fall will be in meaningful basketball games come April. Some even may be moved before the trade deadline. But at least a few are early contenders for honors such as Most Improved Player and Most Valuable Player, and a certain 24-year-old may finally be in the infancy of a long-awaited breakout year.
Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young tallying five steals during a Nov. 8 loss to the Sacramento Kings was an aberration. To put it nicely, the 21-year-old remains a liability on defense and often appears disinterested with that aspect of playing. Young also made history, per Hawks PR, by becoming the first player to ever notch at least 38 points, nine assists and seven boards across his team’s opening two regular-season contests. He drained 14-of-28 three-point attempts in four October games, and he’s shooting over 46 percent from the field. With John Collins suspended for 25 games, Young is tasked with carrying Atlanta’s offensive burden more than at any previous point of his 90-game career.
Nobody who has followed Kyrie Irving’s career was shocked by the report from ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan that claimed Irving lapsed “into a funk” and was responsible for an episode that left “everyone scratching their heads as to what precipitated it” during the Brooklyn Nets’ preseason trip to China. Irving likely will always be enigmatic off the court to those outside of his inner circle, but even his detractors located in Boston and Cleveland can’t ignore his scoring over the season’s first 10 games. Irving posted 29.7 PPG, roughly seven points better than his career average, over his first stretch of contests in Brooklyn colors. As Kristian Winfield of the New York Daily News wrote, Irving set a franchise record by accumulating 222 points through Brooklyn’s first seven games. The one-time champion who grew up in New Jersey says he’s happy living and playing in the Big Apple. Time will tell.
Basketball, like life, is often unfair. For the first time since Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward suffered a gruesome and horrific leg injury minutes into the 2017-18 season debut, the 29-year-old showed glimpses he had located his previous All-Star form. Hayward averaged 18.9 PPG and career-bests in REB (7.1) and field-goal percentage (55.5) over eight appearances. On Nov. 5, Hayward torched the Cleveland Cavaliers for 39 points while going 17-of-20 from the field. He was back. Then he suffered a broken hand on Nov. 9. That latest setback will sideline him for at least six weeks, according to Jimmy Golen of the Associated Press.
Tristan Thompson and the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers didn’t get the memo the team is tanking. Thompson finished Cleveland’s 10th game of the season third on the team in scoring, and he averaged career highs in PPG (16.5), REB (11.4) and BLK (1.4) over those outings. He’s even making threes for the first time in his pro career! The 28-year-old is out of contract following the campaign, and the rebuilding Cavs have little reason to consider paying him beyond that deal. Thus, Thompson is auditioning for would-be contenders between now and Dec. 15 when offseason signees become trade-available. New Cleveland head coach John Beilein deserves praise for guiding a lackluster roster to a 4-6 start. The franchise nevertheless cannot exist in a state of denial. Thompson is currently worth more on the market than in the Cavs lineup.
The Washington Wizards lost six of their first eight games en route to what is practically guaranteed to be a woeful season but center Thomas Bryant was one bright spot. The former Los Angeles Lakers castoff hit the 20-point mark in three of those eight outings, and he converted at least 60 percent of his attempts in three straight games from Nov. 4 through Nov. 8. Bryant began Nov. 13 averaging 2.3 BLK, 11.3 defensive rebounds and 14.8 total rebounds per 100 team possessions. If he can get back to his 33.3 percent three-point shooting from a season ago (he was at 26.1 percent after eight games), he can evolve into more than just a stat compiler for an awful team.
During the 2019 FIFA World Cup , Boston Celtics salary cap casualty and Phoenix Suns center Aron Baynes shot 52.4 percent (11-21) from beyond the arc while averaging 11.4 PPG and 5.5 REB. The 32-year-old carried that form over to the start of the NBA season. In 10 games, nine starts, Baynes averaged career-highs in PPG (16.2), REB (5.8), AST (3.1), BLK (0.9), three-point percentage (50.0), field goal percentage (59.0) and MIN (24.3). Guard Devin Booker is making those around him better en route to taking a necessary career leap, but Baynes is playing well enough to potentially keep Deandre Ayton a spectator once the 21-year-old serves his 25-game ban.
Can the Detroit Pistons win with Andre Drummond? The same question many within the basketball community asked on Oct. 1 hovers over the club in the middle of November. The 26-year-old center is good for 20 points and 20 rebounds whenever the mood strikes him. As of Nov. 13, nobody had scored more two-point field goals (reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo had played in two fewer games heading into that evening), and Drummond led the Association in offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, total boards, and total rebound percentage. As Michael Pina of SB Nation explained, however, Drummond’s inconsistent efforts and obvious offensive limitations coupled with the fact the Pistons don’t have enough horses to make anything resembling a deep postseason run raise concerns about Drummond’s future. He can either test free agency next summer or exercise a player option worth over $28.7 million for 2020-21. As cruel as it is to suggest, the Pistons may require a top-tier team to lose a starter at Drummond’s position to move the big man before the trade deadline. Both player and club could benefit from such a transaction.
Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins was a punchline for much of his side’s season opener vs. the Brooklyn Nets, even though he made a couple of clutch shots during the overtime period. Few are laughing at the 24-year-old after 10 games. Wiggins is averaging career marks in PPG (25.5), AST (3.3), BLK (1.1) and field goal percentage (47.3), and as Danny Cunningham of SKOR North wrote, he also has drastically improved his shot selection, and the six-year pro is attacking the rim unlike at previous times during his underwhelming “empty points” periods. Can this version of Wiggins last through the harsh winter months? Will he put forth more than half-efforts on defense minus the occasional solid outing? If “yes” is the answer to both questions, Wiggins will contend for Most Improved Player honors.
Houston Rockets guard James Harden heard your offseason jokes about his inability and unwillingness to share the ball with Russell Westbrook. Per Justin Kubatko of Statmuse and Basketball-Reference, the one-time regular-season MVP is only the third player in league history to average at least 37 PPG through the opening 10 games of a campaign. (Harden was at 37.3 at the start of Nov. 13.) The 30-year-old also scored the most points across 10 contests (373) than any player since Rick Barry tallied 381 points in the fall of 1966. Most frightening for opposing defenses is that several signs point to Harden heating up rather than peaking ahead of Thanksgiving. He shot under 13 percent from three-point land in three of his first five games before returning to form from long distance over the subsequent four outings. From Nov. 4 through Nov. 11, Harden averaged 40.25 PPG in four games.
Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James turns 35 years old in December, but one wouldn’t know that by watching him this fall. USA Today, Alex Kennedy of Hoops Hype, Nemanja Vukasinovic of Fadeaway World and Forbes’ Tommy Beer all mentioned James as an MVP candidate in early November, and the King averaged 24.0 PPG, 11.0 AST, 8.2 REB and 1.1 STL in his first 10 games. He shot 47.1 percent from the field over that period. James isn’t a fan of load management. “If I’m hurt, I don’t play. If not, I’m playing,” he told ESPN earlier this month. Lakers coach Frank Vogel should approach the situation differently. Los Angeles is built to win a title next spring. Limiting James’ involvement in relatively meaningless games this winter is vital to achieving that goal.
Last season, the Toronto Raptors featured Kawhi Leonard in 60 regular-season contests. Leonard entered the playoffs fresh, and he was the Association’s top two-way player throughout the postseason. The Lakers require James’ best beginning next April, not in January.
In today’s social media-driven NBA, MVP candidates don’t just need the numbers, they need an accompanying narrative to take home the MVP award. Just ask James Harden.
Three seasons ago, Harden finished second to Russell Westbrook in the MVP vote despite averaging 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds and leading the Rockets to 55 regular-season wins. Westbrook edged Harden because he had the best narrative: Westbrook was the first player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson and the superstar who stayed in OKC even after Harden and Kevin Durant had left.
The next season, however, Harden beat LeBron James for the award, despite having inferior statistics, because he had the better narrative: It’s about time we recognize Harden’s greatness and reward him because he probably should have won last season.
Last season, Harden finished second to Giannis Antetokounmpo because people had crowned Giannis as the best two-way force in the league and the next face of the NBA. As Harden so aptly put it in a GQ interview, “[I had] a 32-game 30-point streak, eight 50-point games, two 60-point games… and all the talk was about [Giannis]? There’s no way. You can’t pout or be mad, and the kid had an unbelievable season, so did his team. But the things I was putting up were legendary. You going to look back in 10, 15 years from now and be like, is that really true? Did that really happen?”
Narratives matter in the MVP race. So, as a primer for this season’s MVP race, here are the top-10 MVP contenders and their accompanying narrative (in italics) entering the season (in alphabetical order):
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
Based on the past two seasons, it’s clear Giannis is on a LeBron James-Kevin Durant kind of career trajectory. That being the case, we should expect Antetokounmpo to ascend even higher in this, his seventh season, in the middle of his athletic prime. Giannis’ MVP narrative will be one of dominance, a season where he erases any doubt as to whether he’s the best player in the world. Look for him to improve his game in some obvious way this season -– the most obvious hole in his game is his jump shot (26 percent from three-point land last season) -– but he could also double-down on his already one-of-a-kind post game or become a better playmaker.
Steph Curry, Warriors
Steph has a chance to remind everyone that he’s still the toughest player to game plan for in the league … and maybe ever. He’s back to being the unquestioned best player on his team and the player who won back-to-back MVP awards before taking a step back to make way for Kevin Durant.
After having the second-highest usage percentage in the NBA during his record-setting 2015-16 MVP season, Curry finished the next three Durant seasons at 11th, 10th and 13th. With no Durant and no Klay Thompson for most of this season, Curry’s usage rate should easily jump back into the top-five again. Thus, his stats will almost certainly mirror his stats from that 2015-16 MVP season, when he averaged 30.1 points, 6.7 assists and 5.4 rebounds and made an NBA-record 402 three-pointers. If the Warriors are near the top of the West, and Curry leads the league in scoring and flirts with breaking his own three-point record, he’ll be right in the mix for MVP.
Like Shaquille O’Neal before him, AD is hitting his prime and poised for a Hall of Fame leap as the two-way centerpiece and next great big man for the Los Angeles Lakers .
If he plays anything like he did during the second half of the 2017-18 season, when he averaged 31 points, 12.1 rebounds, 3.4 blocks and 2.1 steals over the last 27 games of the season, he’ll probably be a frontrunner for his first MVP award. And if he is playing like that, you can bet your bottom dollar that LeBron and Klutch Sports start campaigning for AD to take home the MVP award. In fact, you don’t even have to read between the lines from the Lakers’ media day to see that James is already doing that.
Joel Embiid, 76ers
Embiid’s narrative began shortly after Kawhi Leonard’s fourth bounce fell through the basket in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The world saw Embiid crying as he left the court, exhausted from a grueling seven-game series. If Embiid plays his way into the MVP conversation, it will mean he spent the offseason getting into the best shape of his life, vowing that he’d never lose another playoff series due to fatigue. He’ll have realized that few people on this Earth have been blessed with his size and athletic prowess, and he decided it’d be a travesty if he didn’t maximize those God-given gifts. It’s time to do what Shaq and Wilt and all the other historic NBA centers did before him: dominate.
With Jimmy Butler taking his talents to South Beach, Embiid will have ample opportunities to show off his newfound conditioning as the closer for the Sixers.
James Harden, Rockets
The Beard knows first-hand how a narrative can swing an MVP vote. He believes he got robbed of the award last season. He has a point. And that means that Harden’s narrative this season will be one of revenge against the voters who wronged him out of capping off a historic season with no MVP trophy. Revenge against the people who think he isn’t the best player in the league. Revenge against the people who don’t think he can lead the Rockets to a title.
An MVP season for Harden might not include the same massive scoring as last season (36.1 points per game) now that his high-usage buddy Russell Westbrook is in H-Town. But if his isolations and pick-and-rolls remain two of the most highly efficient plays in basketball and his assist numbers go back to what they were in previous seasons (10.0 per game from 2016-17 to 2017-18), Harden will have another crack at MVP.
LeBron James, Lakers
This is the most obvious narrative: LeBron’s “Forgot About Dre” season. LeBron is coming off of a miserable first season with the Lakers in which he suffered his first major injury and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2005-06. However, missing the playoffs means that he finally got an extended rest after eight straight trips to the NBA Finals.
He’s also undoubtedly been listening to the media mock his team the past 12 months and declare that he’s no longer the Best Player on the Planet. It’s all set up perfectly for LeBron to come out and have a G.O.A.T. kind of season to remind the basketball world that he’s still the King.
An MVP season for LeBron won’t be his typical 27-7-7 season –- voters are too bored of that. Instead, look for him to average double-digit assists now that the Lakers have Davis, but a dearth at point guard.
Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
The Joker’s narrative is mostly tied to his team’s success. If the Nuggets, who should have some of the best chemistry in the league, are the best team in the Western Conference and flirt with winning 60 games, Jokic will get plenty of MVP votes and his narrative will sound something like this: Jokic is doing it all alone as the lone superstar in a conference loaded with superstar tandems. He flashed his true potential as a franchise centerpiece in last season’s playoffs, averaging 25.1 points, 13 rebounds and 8.4 assists. That performance has carried over into the 2019-20 season as he has Denver at the top of the league earlier than anyone would have imagined.
Kawhi Leonard, Clippers
After last season’s playoff run and subsequent free-agency power flex, Kawhi is the Alpha Dog of the NBA, and he isn’t ready to relinquish that title just yet. In fact, as a little more of Kawhi’s personality has come to the forefront, it has become apparent that he relishes destroying opponents the same way MJ and Kobe did, albeit in a less expressive way.
With Paul George out at the beginning of the season, the Clippers will need Playoff-Kawhi (30.5 points and 9.1 rebounds on 49-38-88 shooting splits) to keep them near the top of the Western Conference until George returns, which should force Kawhi to get rolling a lot earlier than last season’s load-managed season.
Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers
Lillard’s MVP narrative is similar to Jokic’s in that it’ll be tied to the Blazers’ record this season. Most analysts seem to think that the Blazers will finish closer to .500 than the 53 wins the team had a season ago. Thus, if Lillard leads Portland to another top-three finish in the West, and with his typical Curry-lite numbers (25.8 points, 6.9 assists, 4.6 rebounds with 44-37-91 shooting splits last season), and none of the other candidates on this list are having other-worldly seasons, Lillard could start to garner some late season MVP buzz.
He’s the best leader in the league, the superstar who chose to stay when most would have demanded a trade –- he’s as important to his team as any player in the NBA. Isn’t that everything you can ask for from an MVP candidate?
“There are 82-game players, then there are 16-game players” ~ Draymond Green
The 2018-19 NBA regular season featured a two-man MVP race for the ages as Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Houston’s James Harden did things we’d never seen done on a basketball court. Antetokounmpo, the one-of-a-kind, 6-foot-11 point-center, dominated the paint like Shaquille O’Neal in his prime, dished out six assists per game and played Defensive Player of the Year-caliber defense. Harden, with his step-back three-pointer, averaged 36.1 points and essentially broke basketball by maximizing his shot efficiency and advancing the three-point revolution to a point that probably made Steph Curry jealous. If you asked an unbiased person to watch every game from this season (aka “Pulling a Tom Thibodeau”), that person would undoubtedly tell you that either Giannis or Harden was the best player in the league.
But if you ask that same person to pull a Tom Thibodeau for the playoffs, his answer would be much different -– it’d be Golden State’s Kevin Durant or Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard. In fact, if you asked this person to keep ranking players, he’d pick Denver’s Nikola Jokic and Portland’s Damian Lillard before he’d even consider Giannis or Harden. How do players who battled all season for the “Best Player on the Planet” status suddenly look like they might not even be top-five players in the NBA? By the same token, are Durant and Leonard the actual “Best Player on the Planet” candidates? Let’s see if the numbers back up what our eyes tell us.
Why doesn’t Giannis Antetokounmpo look as dominant in the playoffs?
A quick glance at Giannis’ playoff averages this season compared to last season indicates he’s reverted to last year’s postseason’s form (25.7 ppg., 57% FG). Is that really what’s happening here? Not at all -– he averaged 10 more minutes per game last spring. Giannis is a much better player than he was last postseason, but scouting is making his teammates less efficient players, and, by virtue of their struggles, he also has become less efficient. (Side note: Mike Budenholzer better start playing Giannis more than 29.8 minutes per game and trim his rotation -– this isn’t youth basketball, Bud!)
Interestingly enough, Giannis’ per-36 minute stats these playoffs compared to the regular season are almost identical, except for his assists. He’s averaging around 30 points, 13 rebounds and a steal and block or two each game. He averaged 6.5 assists per-36 minutes in the regular season and is down to 4.0 assists per-36 minutes in the playoffs.
Herein lies the first reason why Giannis looks different. With Celtics coach Brad Stevens employing a “wall” transition defense with Al Horford and help defenders stunting Antetokounmpo’s drives across the foul line, preventing him from having a runway to the basket, Giannis is forced to kick the ball out to open teammates for three-pointers. In the regular season, those open teammates were the likes of Malcolm Brogdon (43 percent on threes) and Tony Snell (40 percent). Because Brogdon and Snell are battling injuries, those open teammates in the playoffs are the likes of Pat Connaughton (28 percent) and Ersan Ilyasova (25 percent).
With his teammates missing open threes, the defense stays packed in on Giannis’ drives and he is unable to get as many easy buckets, which is the second reason for Giannis’ playoff drop-off. Check out these numbers:
Besides his three-point percentage (which mirrors his second-half regular-season percentage), Giannis’ percentages are down across the board. The 13-percent drop on field goals inside eight feet is particularly eye-opening and indicative of defensive schemes built around shutting down his drives. One more revealing stat: Giannis is attempting almost five fewer shots per game within five feet of the basket in the playoffs than he did in the regular season. Pretty staggering considering he lived in the paint all season, averaging over 11 shots within five feet.
In sum, Giannis isn’t playing much differently –- the opponents are just forcing his teammates to make open threes. Since his teammates aren’t making as many open threes, the defense is clogging the lane even more than usual, which is not allowing Giannis to take and make as many shots near the basket. Giannis will eventually figure it out — the great ones always do — but it might not happen this postseason
Why isn’t James Harden a cheat code anymore?
Finding the difference between regular-season Harden vs. playoff Harden this season is a little easier than doing the same for Giannis. Harden’s playing the same minutes, averaging the same rebounds, assists, steals and blocks per game, and shooting approximately the same number of shots per game with the same kind of distribution. But he’s just not making shots or getting to the line as frequently as he did during the regular season. His scoring is down from 36 to 29 points per game and his shooting splits (FG-3FG-FT) are down from 44-37-88 to 38-34-88. He’s being forced into taking two fewer shots at the rim and two more shots -– typically floaters –- between five and nine feet from the basket (of which he’s only making 19 percent in the playoffs). Not allowing him the same driving lanes he’s accustomed to is a tribute to his opponents’ defensive schemes. But what about the slips in shooting percentages?
Well, this is nothing new for Harden in the playoffs. In the regular season the past five years, Harden has shot about 44 percent from the field and 36 percent from three every season. In the playoffs over that same stretch, those averages drop to 41 percent from the field and 32 percent from three. Every. Single. Spring. We know Harden takes his conditioning seriously, so why the same drop-off in the playoffs ever year? It’s some combination of fatigue from Houston’s willingness to let Harden carry an insane load all regular season and over-reliance on him to take and create open shots against teams that spend weeks scouting him for his every tendency each spring. In essence, the Rockets are betting that Harden is good enough and has the endurance to get them 50-plus wins in the regular season, and then 16 more wins in the postseason even though they know his efficiency is going to drop off. It almost worked last season. It still might work this season, but it’s not looking great right now. (The Rockets trail the Warriors 2-0 in the Western Conference semifinals.)
Another interesting stat to keep an eye on in the playoffs is Harden’s free throw attempts per game, which have dropped from 11 in the regular season to 8.6 in the postseason. This may not seem like much, but two or three more points per game and we’re not having this discussion. Interestingly, the drop-off in free throws probably has a lot to do with referees having more time to “scout” and not fall for Harden’s foul-baiting ways.
Moses Malone Jr. filed an amendment to a civil lawsuit Monday, seeking damages from James Harden for allegedly orchestrating a beating last summer in retaliation for a Facebook post that offended the Houston Rockets star, Malone’s attorney, George Farah, said.
Malone, the son of NBA legend Moses Malone, was beaten and robbed of jewelry by four armed men on June 25 outside V Live Houston, an after-hours strip club. Four men were arrested in connection with the assault, including Darian Blount, a security guard at the now-closed club, and charged with aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon.
Harden was not charged or accused of wrongdoing in the case.
A Facebook post published by Malone on June 24 criticized Harden for charging $249 for his basketball camp, which Malone said shut out inner-city children. Farah, who represents Malone, said the Facebook post was referenced during the beating and robbery.
“All the stories that we’ve heard from all the witnesses were pretty consistent that James Harden was pretty upset about the Facebook post that was posted the night before the attack,” Farah told ESPN on Tuesday morning. “There were text messages between Moses and some of James Harden’s friends. … We have a good trail of evidence that leads to James Harden’s involvement to this.”
Farah said he is in the process of subpoenaing 10 witnesses who were at the club that night and can testify to Harden’s involvement. Farah said Malone and Harden were both regular clients at the club.
Attorney Rusty Hardin, who represents Harden, did not immediately reply to an email requesting comment.
The original lawsuit, filed in September, seeks damages against V Live Houston for injury and loss of property.
I don’t know who is going to win the NBA MVP award this season.
Both Houston’s James Harden and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook had truly historic seasons and are incredibly worthy of the award. Frankly, it’s difficult to pick one or the other.
What I do know is that their supporters — though that might be too light of a word — have been hellbent in politicking for their candidates over the last few months, and there’s been an unmistakable trend among those camps.
The Westbrook supporters point to the box score and the point guard’s incredible triple-double average, something that hasn’t been done in 50 years. Case closed.
The Harden supporters go to the advanced analytics, a few of which, if combined correctly, say that the Rockets’ talisman has posted the single most productive year in NBA history. How could you vote against that?
One of these arguments will win out amongst MVP voters, whose ballots are due at the end of the week, and it could irrevocably change how we discuss the NBA.
So much about these top two candidates is similar: They both played for teams that weren’t expected to be as good as they were, with supporting casts that require them, the point guards, to create almost everything. They both played an aggressive dribble-drive style and sparingly played meaningful defense. Both had game-winning shots against the Nuggets (poor Denver) this year. Both play a brand of basketball that lacks joy.
The way most separate the two players is, again, through contrasting schools of thought.
Westbrook is the old-school, box-score candidate. His visceral style of play comes across in his scoresheet-filling ways. For those who believe a 10th rebound is exponentially more important than the 9th, Westbrook — who did it all and then some for the Thunder this year — is your guy.
Again, he averaged a triple double — case closed, bro.
Thirty miles northwest of Oracle Arena, on 411 acres of secluded woodlands in the San Geronimo Valley, the crowds sit in silence. They file into a two-story cedar building, place shoes in cubbyholes, pour cups of hot tea. They plop down on the octagonal oak floor in the Great Hall, using pillows as seat cushions, and gaze out floor-to-ceiling windows at turkeys roaming the grasslands, hawks circling the redwoods. Three instructors stand on a low platform, flanked by twin Buddha statues, and explain the first rule of a retreat to Spirit Rock: No talking. Not over lunch in the meadow, not on strolls across the hillside, and certainly not during meditation sessions in the Great Hall.
For Sam Presti, the general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder, extreme displays of self-discipline are not a problem. Three years ago a Thunder doctor warned Presti about the effects of carbohydrates, and he has not consumed so much as a crouton since. Two years ago Presti’s wife delivered their first child, and he vowed to write the boy a letter from every road trip. Approximately 70 notes and postcards already fill a safe deposit box in an Oklahoma City bank. During the organization’s annual cardiac stress test, players typically hop off the treadmill after eight or nine punishing minutes, when the administrator can take a clear ultrasound of their pumping heart. Presti stays on the belt for up to 14 minutes, speed and incline spiking every 30 seconds, his barrel chest heaving and burning. He wants the administrator to take the clearest ultrasound.
He stretches himself, which is why he strode into Spirit Rock alongside 160 strangers on the morning of Sept. 3, his only companion a sack lunch from a nearby natural foods store in West Marin. Presti meditates, but he is no Phil Jackson, and the Labor Day weekend retreat spanned 18 silent hours over three days. The schedule sounded daunting enough, before taking into account the setting. Presti is among the most prominent NBA GMs—marked by the clear-framed specs, the crisply parted hair, the omnipresent Blackberry (he keeps several backups in case the company goes out of business)—but he still passes largely unnoticed outside of OKC. He could have chosen a mindfulness center anywhere. Yet when the time came to clear his head and draw his breath he traveled all the way to the Bay Area, across the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge from Oakland, where he was predictably surrounded by Warriors T-shirts. As he glimpsed the bright yellow in the Great Hall, he laughed, though obviously not out loud.
Constant oohs, ahhs and hardwood disbelief, with mid-March inside a packed, buzzing Toyota Center truly starting to feel like the NBA in its late-April playoff roar.
So when some overzealous fan (admirer? stalker?) ran onto Harden’s court Sunday night — while the Rockets were literally in the middle of a nationally televised showdown against King James’ Cavaliers — the message was clear.
The real show was here.
The league’s defending champs versus the should-be MVP. The Mike D’Antoni Show and potential Western Conference Finals contenders against the team that somehow came back from 3-1 vs. Golden State in last season’s NBA Finals and finally brought a championship to Cleveland.
The third-best team in the NBA won again. If you somehow had any doubt whether these Rockets were for real, Sunday ends it. They are. And they’re not going away.
It was 117-112 Daryl Morey’s creation. James “Triple-Double” Harden (38 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds) was once again clearly the best player on the floor. Pat Beverley was a nasty, relentless force. Nene outfought the Cavaliers when the Rockets needed him most.
D’Antoni’s team (46-21) asserted its will and completely changed the game, erasing a 14-point third-quarter deficit and ultimately wearing down the 2016 world champs.
“For us this is a big win, in the sense of, you know, the champions. We haven’t had one in a while,” he said. “We beat Golden State, we beat San Antonio. But that was earlier. And we haven’t had one, so this is good.”
Good? How about getting closer to great — and the fact that D’Antoni’s Rockets are one of only three teams to knock off the Warriors, Spurs and Cavs in 2016-17.
Two long years ago, Toyota Center was the place to be. Harden became The Beard. The Rockets reached the conference finals and could have gone up 2-0 on the road against the eventual world-champ Warriors.
Whatever distance once existed between Russell Westbrook and James Harden in the NBA’s MVP race now appears negligible. Harden has put up unprecedented numbers that rival Westbrook’s gaudy stats, and his Houston Rockets came into Tuesday seven games ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder and just one game behind the San Antonio Spurs for the No. 2 spot in the West standings. Harden is doing as much to help his team win as any player in the league, and he could be developing the most durable MVP narrative around because of it.
Harden added to that body of work with another historic performance in Tuesday night’s game against the Charlotte Hornets. By following Sunday’s huge night against the Toronto Raptors with 40 points (11-of-24 FG, 7-of-14 3FG, 11-of-14 FT), 15 rebounds, and 10 assists, Harden became just the fourth player in NBA history to put up 40-point triple-doubles in consecutive games.
Four players in NBA history with consecutive 40-pt triple doubles: Harden, Westbrook, Jordan & Maravich. One has been MVP. Might soon be 2
— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) January 11, 2017
Yet Harden’s Tuesday was not notable only for his stats. He also came through when it mattered most for Houston. Up 108-90 after a Corey Brewer three-pointer with 8:04 remaining in regulation, the Rockets coughed up the lead during a 21-2 run that ended with a Frank Kaminsky three-pointer with just 2:27 on the clock.
That lead-erasing run coincided with Harden’s return to the court, but he made up for it by owning crunch time. He put up six of Houston’s eight points in the final two minutes and provided a steadying hand offensively to finish off the 121-114 win.