West: 3 playoff players to watch

March 13, 2013

Editor’s Note: Yesterday, we gave you 3 Eastern Conference players worth keeping an eye on in the stretch run and postseason. Today, we give you the logical sequel.

Player No. 1: Klay Thompson

Thompson’s marksmanship suits the Warriors’ style of play so well. Sure, he’s far from an elite defender, even far from an average one, but when he’s on, Golden State’s tough to beat. A 16.7-points-per-game guy this year, Thompson’s dropped 20 or more in 22 games this season, in which Golden State’s 15-7.

Golden State’s an intriguing 1st-round out, if only for the fear their shooters, namely Stephen Curry and Thompson, will catch fire. Mark Jackson’s team is tops in the NBA in 3-point percentage, at 39.7%, and Curry, 439, and Thompson, 430, are 2nd and 3rd in the league, respectively, in 3-point attempts; Curry, 198, and Thompson, 170, are 1st and 3rd, respectively, in makes.

In games this year when Thompson converts at least 4 3-pointers, the Warriors are 14-5, with wins over Indiana, Miami, Los Angeles (Clippers) and New York. Thompson plays close to 36 minutes a night for the sole purpose of spacing the floor for Curry and David Lee, and if Golden State has any hopes of making a series with a San Antonio, Oklahoma City or Los Angeles, though still unlikely, Thompson needs to get hot.

Player No. 2: Thomas Robinson

When Houston (essentially) dealt Patrick Patterson to Sacramento for Robinson, the No. 5 overall draft selection 9 months ago, pundits argued Houston was taking an immediate step back in favor of long-term gain. Patterson, the undersized, 6’9″ power forward who could smoothly stretch Houston’s up-tempo attack to the corners — he’s a 37.4% 3-point shooter on the season — was a perfect fit to run alongside James Harden, Jeremy Lin & Co.

Enter Thomas Robinson, who’s still working himself into Houston’s rotation, averaging 14 minutes a game in 6 appearances since the trade. Robinson was not seeing much more time in Sacramento, where some young players are cast to the end of Keith Smart’s bench (exhibit A: Jimmer Fredette), but, per 36 minutes, was still averaging double-double figures, 11 points and 10.6 rebounds.

The looks will only get easier with the attention Harden, one of the league’s most effective drivers, commands; Robinson’s field goal percentage, albeit in a sample size of only 6 games, has climbed more than 14 points, to 56.3, in Houston (over Sacramento). And the Rockets are going to rely more on Robinson as he further entrenches himself in the system, since, at the deadline, the team flipped another power forward, Marcus Morris, to Phoenix, leaving Greg Smith and Donatas Motiejunas as the only other contributor bigs.

Player No. 3: Austin Daye

Acquired as a secondary piece in the Rudy Gay deal, Daye is already one of Memphis’ most potent 3-point threats. He’s one of 2 Grizzlies to shoot at least 40% from 3, Quincy Pondexter the other, and he’s already chucking up 2.1 attempts from distance per game, in 10.8 minutes, so it’s pretty clear what head coach Lionel Hollins is asking of him.

Memphis, the league’s worst 3-point shooting team at only 4.7 makes per game, also shipped Wayne Ellington, previously their top 3-baller, to Cleveland in a cap-saving move in January. (Memphis also attempts the fewest 3’s, at 13.7 per 48 minutes, again just ahead of Chicago.)

Daye’s putting up some of the most efficient numbers of his career in his brief time thus far in Memphis; per 36 minutes, he’s averaging a career-high 17.1 points. The Grizzlies very much rely on their frontcourt-heavy, defense-first starting 5, with combo guard Jerryd Bayless, 7.2 points per game, providing the main (yet limited) punch off the bench.

As the playoffs wear on, though, Memphis is going to need shots, and Daye’s unique size, a 6’11” stretch 4 who’s more natural playing the 3, and athleticism could pose problems for defenses. He’s scored double-digit points 3 times since Feb. 8, and the Grizzlies are 3-0 in games he makes at least 2 3-balls. (Oh, and Daye, a restricted free agent this summer due a fairly steep $4.2 million qualifying offer, has the added incentive of playing for his NBA career.)

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

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Dribbles: Thunder play ‘dirty,’ Heat win again & Lakers hit .500

March 5, 2013

Editor’s note: Now that Armchair 3’s 30 in 30 series has run its course, I promise more regularly updated NBA news, notes and analysis.

Are the Thunder ‘dirty’?

Serge Ibaka’s, um, swipe at Blake Griffin’s groin area is the topic of much conversation in NBA circles today following Oklahoma City’s 108-104 win in Los Angeles yesterday. Personally, I’m not sure how Ibaka’s not ejected for this shot, for which he only received a flagrant 1, albeit a near-crucial one — headed into that possession, L.A., who had not lead all game long, trailed 99-93, but turned in a 7-point possession to a 1-point advantage, thanks to a Barnes 3, a Griffin free throw and then a Jamal Crawford 3.

But what does this say about the Thunder? Oklahoma City’s 2nd in the NBA in technical fouls this year, at 74, trailing only, you guessed it, the Los Angeles Clippers’ 78. Kevin Durant’s 12 is second to Kobe Bryant, 14, among all players, and Kendrick Perkins is tied for 3rd with 11. Russell Westbrook, 9, and Ibaka, 5, also crack the top 36. Perkins, 2 flagrants and 1 ejection, and Ibaka, 2 flagrants, make OKC one of 3 teams, alongside the Clippers and Knicks, to have 2 guys with at least 2 flagrant fouls. (Durant also pitches in with 1 flagrant and 1 ejection.)

I’ve got to say, OKC has a swagger about them this year, beginning with Perk and Russ, on down through Durant, Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha. That bodes well for their playoff chances, even if it means Ibaka faces a suspension for his Griffin cheap shot.

Heat win 14th straight

The Heat trailed by 14 at the half, against a team that has beat them twice already this year (by 20 points each time), but still managed to come up with a 99-93 win at Madison Square Garden on Sunday to push their winning streak to 14. That streak, which started Super Bowl Sunday in Toronto, has seen Miami dispatch 7 likely playoff teams, plus the Lakers, by an average of nearly 11 points per, headed into tonight’s game in Minnesota.

The key, of course, is LeBron James. In February, the hands-down MVP averaged 29.7 points, 7.8 assists and 7.5 rebounds on 64.1% shooting. He also shot 80.9% from the foul line and 43.2% from 3, two of his perceived weakness throughout his career. Oops.

Lakers hit .500 mark for first time this year

After a 99-98 win over the playoff-bound Atlanta Hawks on Sunday night, the Lakers, 30-30, are .500 for the 1st time since Dec. 28, when they were 15-15. Head coach Mike D’Antoni & Co. are obviously hoping L.A. does not reel off 6 consecutive losses, like they did after Dec. 28.

L.A.’s 2.5 games out of the No. 7/8 seed, currently co-occupied by the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets; the Lakers are 1-2 against each of these teams so far this season and will see James Harden’s Rockets once more, in the finale April 17 at Staples. Beginning tomorrow night in OKC, the Lakers have 11 games to play against likely playoff teams, Houston included; 12 of those 22 games are on the road, but one’s at the friendly confines of Staples against the co-inhabitant Clippers.

The Lakers’ way in may be Utah, which plays 13 of its remaining 23 games against likely playoff teams, starting tonight in Milwaukee; 8 of those 13 are on the road, where Utah’s 10-19, the worst away-from-home mark of any of the current 16 playoff teams. At this point, L.A., a squad Metta World Peace suggested less than 6 months ago could beat the 95-96 Chicago Bulls’ mark and win 73 games, is undoubtedly clawing for its playoff life.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


30 in 30: HOUSTON ROCKETS

February 13, 2013

This blog was born in an L.A. apartment complex around the same time as the James Harden deal, and I spent my first substantive post (substantive being loosely defined) heaping praise, albeit cautiously, on Rockets GM Daryl Morey for finding his team’s first franchise guy in the post-Yao Ming era. A few days later, Harden inked a 5-year, $80 million extension with Houston, and boy he has not disappointed.

In his first game as a member of the Rockets, Harden tallied 37 points, 12 assists and 6 rebounds. On the year, he’s averaging 26.1 points, 5.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds in his first full year as an NBA starter. He’s 5th in the NBA in scoring, trailing only Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, all future Hall of Famers, and 9th in PER, with the only 2-guard rated higher being Dwayne Wade, another future Hall of Famer. Harden is the primary option on the league’s 2nd-ranked scoring offense, totaling 106.1 points a night, and, according to some Stats LLC data compiled by Grantland’s Zach Lowe (the best NBA writer out there, BTW), Harden’s 5th in total drives per game, with Houston scoring an unprecedented 1.51 points per those possessions.

RELATED: 30 IN 30 — GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

OK, Harden, an All Star reserve, has been unconscious, but what about his supporting cast? Well, the 2nd-ranked Rockets’ player in PER, among those to play in at least 45 games, is second-year PF Greg Smith, who’s averaging 5.5 points, 4 rebounds and 13.9 minutes in 49 appearances; his PER is 17.7. The rest of Houston’s starters’ efficiency ratings hover around the league’s 15.0 average — 15.7 for Patrick Patterson, 15.0 for Omer Asik, 14.8 for Jeremy Lin and 14.7 for Chandler Parsons.

Before the Oklahoma City trade, Houston made noise this summer with two decent-name free agent signings in Lin and Asik. Both were restricted free agents whom Morey offered back-loaded contracts, making it even more difficult for New York and Chicago, respectively, to match; both are due $5 million this year, $5.25 in 2013-14 and then $14.9 in 2014-15. Houston is thus one of the rare teams that has more contractual dollars on the books in two years than presently.

RELATED: 30 IN 30 — DETROIT PISTONS

Asik, formerly Chicago’s No. 4 big, has not disappointed in his first full year as a starter; the Turkish 7-footer is averaging a double-double — 10.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in 30 minutes — every night he steps on the floor. Asik is hardly a post threat offensively, though only in his 3rd NBA season, but he leads an otherwise 29th-ranked scoring defense in blocks, 1.2 per game, and anchors the league’s 11th-rated rebounding unit in spite of a frontcourt mate, Patterson, who averages less than 5 rebounds a game.

Lin has shown flashes this year, like in his 28-point, 9-assist performance against Golden State a week ago Tuesday, but is widely considered as having a poor season. Despite more minutes, his assist numbers are below last year’s averages for the Knicks, though he leads the team, barely over Harden, at 6.1 dimes per game. I still wonder if Lin and Harden can gel together, given both are poor defenders and, on the other end, need the ball to operate. Either way, Lin’s turnovers — 2.9 per game — are also a concern, as Houston’s 16.3 turnovers per game lead the league, or are worst in the league, depending on your perspective. But Houston’s fast-paced style, one reason why Lin’s low assist totals are troubling, also produces the league’s 6th-best field goal percentage and 9th-best 3-point mark.

RELATED: 30 IN 30 — DENVER NUGGETS

Headed into Tuesday’s games, Houston held a 2-game advantage on 9th-seeded Portland and a 3.5-game advantage on the lurking 10th-seeded L.A. Lakers, even as the Rockets are only 11-19 against Western Conference opponents. Houston is a threat to put up a lot of points, with capable 3-point shooters in Harden (35%), Parsons (36%), Carlos Delfino (39%), Marcus Morris (39%) and Toney Douglas (38%). The only team to make (and attempt) more 3’s per game than Houston is New York; Houston’s 23 3-pointers a week ago against Golden State tied an NBA record.

Kevin McHale’s club boasts 6 double-figure scorers, and I’m not sure there’s any scorer, outside of Durant and Bryant, that strikes more fear into defenses eyes than Harden, at least in the Western Conference. Should Houston, which still has 13 games against likely playoff opponents after Tuesday’s trip to Golden State, hold off the Lakers, who I think are the Rockets’ most threatening challengers for that No. 8 seed, they’re likely to draw San Antonio or Oklahoma City in the first round — Houston is a combined 0-5 against those teams this season, with loss margins of 30, 22, 22, 8 and 6.

RELATED: 30 IN 30 — DALLAS MAVERICKS

If Houston earns a postseason bid, it has to be considered an accomplishment, especially since the Rockets only have $39 million on the books for next year and are rumored to be in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes, should he decide to leave Los Angeles. The only player on Houston’s roster over the age of 26 is Delfino, who has a $3 million team option for next season, and Morey has 2 top-18 picks from this year, Royce White (still yet to play in the NBA) and Terrence Jones, to develop.

The last time Houston made the playoffs was 2009 and the last time they advanced to the Western Conference Finals was 1997. The latter is far from likely this year, but with another piece or two, mainly a solid No. 2 to pair with Harden, and a few years to grow, expect Houston to be right there in the mix with Oklahoma City.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

FULL COVERAGE: ARMCHAIR 3’S 30 IN 30 SERIES


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