No Rest For The West – March 6

Welcome back for the second installment of Down on the Block’s Western Conference playoff race tracker. Not much has changed since yesterday, with just three teams in action (all of whom won). So here’s a quick primer for tonight’s full slate of action. First, the latest standings:

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The seeds remain the same after the Spurs, Jazz and red-hot Blazers notched W’s Monday night. Things have just grown ever tighter. I expect some upheaval after tonight’s matchups, however. Peep it…

Tonight’s relevant games: Continue reading

No Rest For The West – March 5 Edition

The NBA’s Western Conference is coming down to a two-team race for the top seed and a bloodbath in constant flux for the remaining six playoff spots. As of today, eight teams have eyes on those six spots, with just four games separating #3 (Portland) from #10 (Utah) with about 20 games left on the calendar. Remarkably, seeds #4-8 are within a game and a half of each other.

A bad week can send a team tumbling down the standings and into jeopardy of falling out of it completely. Minnesota, on a slide since Jimmy Butler‘s injury, and San Antonio, battling injuries to Kawhi Leonard and others, know this firsthand. Of course the opposite is true as well. Portland and New Orleans have shot up the standings with six-game and eight-game winning streaks, respectively. All ten of these teams boast a positive point differential on the season, contrasted with just six such teams in the Eastern Conference.

Continue reading

Blakebuster Trade Rapid Reax

Woj just reported that the Blake Griffin era is over in Clipperland. Blake will be traded to the Pistons for a veritable haul: Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovich and a 1st & 2nd round pick.

I can see the logic for both sides on this deal. Detroit is currently tumbling in the standings after a nice start to the season and have struggled all year to get butts in seats in their new downtown arena. Blake gives them a household name to put on the marquee and – when healthy – game-changing production and playmaking. The Clippers have been a curiosity since losing Chris Paul, intriguing on paper heading into the year, but predictably stifled by injuries to Griffin, Danilo Gallinari, Patrick Beverley and others. Bradley fortifies their perimeter defense and gives them a replacement for Lou Williams if the latter ends up being traded before the deadline. Harris gives them the stalwart wing creator they’ve craved for years, something Gallinari couldn’t become. In the Doc-as-GM years, the Clips did a terrible job at replenishing the roster through the draft, so an extra first rounder is a nice cherry on top of this deal.

Assuming there are no other major trades for these teams (big assumption for the Clips), here are the crunch-time lineups I see going forward:

Clippers

Pistons

 

I’m most interested in how Blake and Drummond work together. Though not nearly the defender Jordan is, Drummond is much better offensively. He and Blake can become the top PF/C scoring combo in the league, especially after Boogie’s injury (sigh). The Pistons shooting guard spot is a morass, which leads me to believe they may not be done trading. They likely didn’t have enough assets to get the Clips to include Lou Will in this deal, but a player like that would answer a lot of the questions that remain in the Motor City.

Playoff implications – The Pistons are currently three games back of Philly for the 8-seed. This move almost certainly comes with the expectation from ownership and Stan Van Gundy that Blake will vault them back to the playoffs. It will be fascinating to see it play out. Finally some intrigue at the back end of the East.

The Clippers saw their playoff odds get measurably better over the weekend with Boogie’s injury (smdh) and they respond by trading their best player. An 8-seed is clearly not nearly as imperative for LAC as it is for Detroit. That said, they have no one really coming up behind them in the standings so any Pelicans or Nuggets free fall can leave the door open for Doc and Co.

I think the Pistons have a better shot than their fellow 9-seed at making it to the postseason this year. Especially if Blake and Andre find some chemistry.

 

Trade season starts early!

All Star Draft: Funhouse Mirror Edition

So the NBA All Star rosters have been announced and now we wait for King James and Steph to pick their teams. Everybody on the Internet is doing a Mock Draft and I can’t resist joining the herd. One little wrinkle, though. Since the NBA seems to be sticking to its guns on not televising the inaugural All Star draft, a missed opportunity that I’m confident they’ll rectify in years to come, the potential exists for some real head scratchers. With less accountability in play, James and Curry have the freedom to get weird. The picks below would create absolute havoc in the NBA world should they come to fruition. Let’s get to it. But first, from ESPN.com, here are the ground rules:

STARTERS

LeBron #1 – First of all, a bummer that LBJ can’t select any of his super friends in this spot. That’s because Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony have had the GOAT lockdown defender, Father Time, on their heels lately, while Chris Paul missed too much time due to injury to make it. So that leaves his newest frenemy as the WTF number one overall pick. That’s right, Kyrie and LBJ reunited and it feels so…awkward. Methinks James misses his old running mate every time he’s on the bench watching Isaiah Thomas or Derrick Rose try to run the Cavs offense. Plus, Kyrie seems much happier in Boston. So in a petty move, LeBron gets to take the ball out of his old teammate’s hand once more. [Logical world – Kevin Durant]

Steph #1 – Anthony Davis. Ever the shrewd operator, Curry and his Warriors buddies begin the courtship of AD as the next super cog in their unstoppable Death Star. You might think this pick would piss off KD, but rest assured, it’s all part of the larger plan. “Light years ahead” and all that. [Logical world – James Harden]

LeBron #2 – ABR, Always Be Recruiting. The second Pelican comes off the board as LeBron shows some love to Boogie, in a Hail Mary attempt to get the mercurial big man to demand a trade deadline deal to the Cavs. LeBron’s squad is sinking fast and he’s never played with a truly dominant center. I doubt the Brooklyn pick, Kevin Love and whatever else is enough to get Boogie right now, but GM LeBron is grasping at straws. Might as well try to feed the big man’s ego while you’ve got the chance. Hell, he can even tell Demarcus he picked him No. 1. [Logical world – Giannis]

Steph #2 – Giannis. Curry’s claim that he might pick all guards was a total smokescreen. Give him all the near 7-footers he can get (mostly for offensive rebounding purposes) and hence, a monopoly on his team’s 3-point attempts. [Logical world – AD]

LeBron #3 – Durant. He is sure to be the heir to the throne, so James will force Durant to address him as “Captain” all weekend. Plus he will be drawn to KD’s defensive prowess, given the Cavs’ sieve-like D. Not that any defense will be played in the ASG, but bear with me. [Logical world – Cousins]

Steph #3 – Steph goes for more height and all the memes with Joel Embiid. I have a feeling these two will have a lot of fun together. [Logical world – Embiid]

LeBron #4 – James Harden. Steph’s gamble on size leaves a gift on Team LeBron’s doorstep. With this pick, a well-rounded starting five is in place for the King to work with. [Logical world – DeRozan]

Steph #4 – DeRozan by default. A great year for DeMar, but he’s clearly the lowest starter on this totem pole. His slashing combined with a newfound proficiency for the 3-ball could make for an intriguing backcourt pairing with Curry, though. [Logical world – Kyrie]

RESERVES

Steph #5 – Call it Stephen and the Unicorns, as Kristaps Porzingis comes off the board, joining the towering freakishness of Giannis and Embiid. Man, this would be fun. [Logical world – Russ]

LeBron #5 – Draymond Green. A charitable LeBron forgives all nut punches and bolsters his team’s defense. He now has two Warriors to Steph’s zero. Eyebrows are raising in the Bay. [Logical world – Jimmy Buckets]

Steph #6 – Curry goes for another freak in Russell Westbrook. The catch is Russ only gets to play when Steph is off the floor. [Logical world – Draymond]

LeBron #6 – Klay Thompson. And LeBron’s troll job is complete as he ends up with all of Steph’s teammates. Effectively he tells Steph, “You look pretty good with these guys. Just wait til you watch me work.” [Logical world – Towns]

Steph #7 – A now-worried Steph realizing he has to face Klay and, more disconcerting, Draymond, quintuples down on unicorns. He’s taking Karl-Anthony Towns, and hoping his Dubs teammates forgive his “go big” strategy. [Logical world – Klay]

LeBron #7 – More defense. He snubs Kevin Love and his fake-cough for Jimmy Butler. Now with Jimmy, Klay, Dray and KD, he can once again feel what it’s like to be formidable on both ends of the court. Best believe he’ll be subtweeting the Cavs in the lead up to All Star weekend because of this. [Logical world – Beal]

Steph #8 – Kevin Love. This is an attempt to get back at LeBron by picking his teammate, but it falls flat, since LeBron is already working on trading Love for Boogie. Foiled again, at least Steph has added some more shooting. [Logical world – Porzingis]

LeBron #8 – Needing another point guard, Bron takes Kyle Lowry, the best defender remaining at the position. More subtweeting, specifically directed at Isaiah, ensues. [Logical world – Aldridge]

Steph #9 – Bradley Beal gives Team Unicorn some more needed shooting. This one isn’t all that weird, petty or funny. Just a solid pick. [Logical world – Dame Lillard]

LeBron #9 – Victor Oladipo. Another defender and a chance to snub conference rival John Wall. Win-win for Bron-Bron. [Logical world – Love]

Steph # 10 – Steph looks at Dame long and hard, but says “gimme more size!” and takes Lillard’s former Blazers teammate LaMarcus Aldridge. [Logical world – Oladipo]

LeBron #10 – With a deadeye shooter like Lillard available and another chance to snub Wall, Lebron says “Yes sir.” Team LeBron will win the pregame rap battle. [Logical world – Wall]

Steph #11 – John Wall comes off the board, finally. [Logical world – Kyle Lowry]

LeBron #11 – And Al Horford is Mr. Irrelevant in this version of events. But another elite defender for Team James. [Logical world – Horford]

Funhouse Mirror/Weird/Twitter Explodes Teams:

LeBron – Kyrie – Boogie – KD – Harden – Draymond – Klay – Butler – Lowry – Oladipo – Lillard – Horford

Scouting report: Well-rounded, can play a lot of D and boasts LeBron, KD and Harden. Vegas has Team LeBron opening at -7.

Steph – Brow – Giannis – Embiid – DeRozan – Russ – Porzingis – KAT – Love – Beal – Aldridge – Wall

Scouting report: A truly weird team but frightening in its potential. A big lineup of KP, Embiid, Giannis and Davis with Russ running point? How about a Curry-DeRozan-KAT-AD-Giannis spread offense? These guys are underdogs, but would you bet against them?

Logical/More Likely Teams:

LeBron – KD – Giannis – Boogie – DeRozan – Butler – KAT – Beal – Lillard – Aldridge – Love – Wall

Steph – Harden – AD – Embiid – Kyrie – Russ – Draymond – Klay – Porzingis – Oladipo – Lowry – Horford

We’ll check back in once the real picks are made. May weirdness carry the day over boring logic.

What’d I miss?

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“It’s been a long time, I shouldn’ta left you, without some real Trill shit to go left to.” – Bun B

August 2016. Man.

Much has happened in my life and in the world at large since that month. Almost too much. But you know what hasn’t happened? A Down on the Block blog post from yours truly. That’s right, your boy is emerging from a 17-month hibernation.

So what happened? Where did I go? I struggle to answer that myself. I have a ton of ready-made excuses for you, if that helps. Landed a dream job, the worst person in America became President, worked the Super Bowl on behalf of StubHub, lost said dream job thanks to budget cuts (Capitalism!), had my first child, moved back to Austin, writer’s block, laziness, daddy duties. You name it, I can use it as an excuse.

But as any writer knows, this shit takes practice and diligence. Not only have I neglected to work out my long-form writing muscles, but my time spent writing professionally for social media sapped my confidence a bit. Can I still write more than 140 characters coherently? We shall see. Right now, I’m shaking off the rust like a wet dog with an iron collar.

But this is supposed to be about basketball, right? Enough with the autobiography. While I haven’t been jotting down my thoughts about the NBA recently I’m not falling off all the way. I’m still watching plenty of games, and even attending a few. Namely, Cavs-Wizards in D.C. and Warriors-Rockets in H-Town. Quick aside: I heard Bill Simmons claim on his podcast that Houston is a “top-3 worst home crowd.” I’m calling bullshit on that. Every Rockets game I’ve been to has been raucous. Step your game up, Simmons.

Anyway, how to approach my first NBA post of the 2017-18 season? Let’s keep the vibes positive with this one. As we hit the halfway mark of the season, here are the teams, players and coaches who’ve pleasantly surprised me.

Lauri Markkanen – The plus side of my dereliction of blogging duty? That my worst takes haven’t been recorded for posterity. I guess I’m outing myself now, though. But so what? My Bulls have found the 7-foot quick trigger shooter of the future, improbably salvaging the Jimmy Butler trade. While I’m still dubious that trading Jimmy was the right move, Markkanen’s rise (fastest rookie to 100 3-pointers ever – WHAT?) makes it easier to stomach.

Fred Hoiberg – The Mayor has not been treated well in this space in the past. I was 100 percent sure that Bulls brass made a colossal mistake with their hand-picked hire after the Thibs era, up until as recently as two months ago. Now? I’m more like 25 percent hopeful that Hoiberg has figured it out, now that the last of the Thibs roster is out of the way. He deserves some credit for Markkanen’s rise and Kris Dunn’s solid play, as well as his handling of the Bobby Portis – Niko Mirotic rift.

Giannis, 30ish per game scorer – Like everyone, I knew the Greek Freak was coming to take over the league. I just didn’t see him trailing only James Harden in points per game THIS SEASON, without having a real 3-point shot yet. He’s been one of the league’s best defenders to boot. Bucket list player to see live, for sure.

Lou Williams, 30ish per game scorer – Wow. Lou is averaging 23 a game for the year, but a whopping 31.2 over his last 13. Chris Paul called him the Clips’ go-to scorer in some phenomenal petty shade thrown at Blake Griffin. Didn’t see this coming in Sweet Lou’s 13th season.

Victor Oladipo and the Indiana Pacers – I would’ve told you in September that the Pacers were headed for their first ever real tanking season. Silly me, the Pacers don’t tank! Oladipo, a former No. 2 overall pick, is finally shining (24.3 ppg) and making the Hoosier State forget about Paul George. His Pacers are 6th in the East and Kevin Pritchard looks like a genius. Domantas Sabonis looks good too at 12 and 8 per game.

DeMar DeRozan – 36 percent on 3.2 treys a game?! I had given up on DeRozan’s potential as a deep threat. Now he’s got the Raptors rolling to a 29-13 start and dropping 25 a game with efficiency. The top of the East is, dare I say, fun? What a world.

Gerald Green – Do it for H-Town! The NBA vagabond has found a home in his hometown, and in Mike D’Antoni’s system. I witnessed him bury six 3-pointers against the Warriors, including one off the backboard. The crowd progressively lost their shit with each triple until it was almost deafening. I guess Simmons wasn’t watching that night.

Honorable Mentions – Donovan Mitchell/Trey Lyles/Doc Rivers/Jimmy Butler’s MVP case/Ben Simmons thriving on offense without actually shooting/Spencer Dinwiddie (CU Buff!)/Andre Drummond/the 25-18 Miami Heat/that time Orlando started out 8-4/Celtics dominating without Gordon Hayward.

It’s good to be back!

 

 

USA-Serbia Could Be a Classic

Team USA is a 15-point favorite in this afternoon’s Gold Medal game against Serbia, which seems high. The Americans eked out a 94-91 win over Serbia in the Group stage as Nikola Jokic carved up the USA for 25 points off the bench. Also consider that Team USA hasn’t won a game by more than 10 since a 113-69 dismantling of undermatched Venezuela.

Here are a few more reasons why Team USA can’t take Serbia lightly today:

  • Serbia is a complete team. As good as Spain has been for so long, they had glaring holes in this tournament. The USA took advantage of the weak Spanish post defense and were able to keep Spain’s guards in check. Serbia has depth, versatility, size, multiple scorers and showed surprising defense toughness against Australia.
  • Twin towers – the gargantuan Miroslav Raduljica, tattoos and all, reminds me of a Hell’s Angel. Or maybe two Hell’s Angel’s, one standing on the other’s shoulders. His massive presence impacts the game on both ends. But he possesses a surprising finesse game around the rim. It will be a much tougher matchup for DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus Cousins. Meanwhile Jokic, though he hasn’t been in the starting lineup, can score inside and out and is one of the better passers in the tournament.
  • Six-foot-five point guard Milos Teodosic is an offensive wizard. His no-look over-the-head pass in the first game against the US was legendary.

Teodosic and Raduljica each scored 18 in that thee-point loss to the Americans. Both Kyle Lowry and Kyrie Irving have a tough assignment, trying to prevent “ANOTHER GAME FOR MILOS!”

  • Continuity counts. The group Team USA assembled is really just seven games and a couple exhibitions deep. Most of the Serbian team has played together for years, through Eurobasket and FIBA competitions. They know where their teammates are going to be on the court and their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Bojan Bogdanovic is another guy who can get buckets and plays with no fear. When these games get tight and constant whistles are killing the flow, it’s important to have multiple guys that can score in a pinch. Team USA obviously has that luxury. But in a low-key way so does Serbia, with Bogdanovic, Teodosic, Raduljica, Jokic and even Stefan Markovic. Bogdanovic came up huge in Serbia’s tight quarterfinal win against Serbia but was fairly quiet against Australia. Keep an eye on him.
  • Did you see how badly they waxed the Boomers, the former darlings of this tournament? Serbia blew the Aussies out from the word ‘go’, and played stifling defense to choke the scoring punch out of Delly, Patty and the boys. They’re hot, they’re fearless and have nothing to lose, already guaranteed their first Olympic basketball medal as an independent country.

I’m still going to take the USA in this one, but I do think it has a chance to be a classic. Serbia is a great story and their team is extremely likable and fun, and they won’t be scared. Team USA just better come ready to play from the opening tip.

Prediction – USA 94, Serbia 88

Suddenly Steady USA Poised for Gold Medal Game with Serbia

What a difference the threat of elimination makes. Team USA put together its second straight solid defensive effort, moving to 7-0 in the Rio Olympics and rolling to the Gold Medal game with an 82-76 win over Spain.

The United States led the whole way, thanks in large part to DeAndre Jordan imposing his will down low on the under matched Spanish bigs while Klay Thompson sniped from the outside. It was a rematch of the last two Gold Medal games, albeit with both sides a bit watered down. Without Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, Spain had no answers for Jordan down low. Meanwhile, much of the last USA team to beat Spain stayed home this year.

But, alas, it was a similarly tough-fought and close match to the previous two Olympic meetings between the two countries. This one had a decidedly more defensive slant. Each time it looked like the US might blow the doors off, Spain had an answer to keep it close or fouls brought the game to a halt. There were technical fouls galore and plenty of the common kind as well, noticeably hampering the flow of the game. Though Team USA jumped out to a 72-57 lead early in the fourth quarter, Spain would close the game on a 19-10 run to pull within single digits at the final buzzer.

I talked about Spain’s dilemma in the low post in my lead-up to the game yesterday, though I posited that it would be DeMarcus Cousins that exploited it. Cousins played OK, though fouls again limited him. The refs are in Boogie’s head, if you can go out on a limb and believe that. Jordan, meanwhile, posted nine points (many on alley-oop dunks), 16 rebounds and four blocks. He was an absolute beast.

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Credit: Getty Images

Thompson paced Team USA with 22 points (17 in the nip and tuck first half), including several clutch corner threes that halted Spanish runs. There’ nothing quite like a cold-blooded three from Klay to kill momentum. Ask the Thunder.

On Spain’s side, the old reliable Pau Gasol had 23 points and eight rebounds in another valiant effort to dethrone Team USA. As crafty and efficient as Pau is on the offensive end, he’s never been a true defensive stopper. Now at age 36, there was no chance he’d keep Jordan off the boards or from rolling to the hoop.

Team USA moves on to the Gold Medal game tomorrow against Serbia, who surprised most when they pummeled Australia 87-61 in the other semifinal. I’m a huge fan of Serbia’s squad and will have more thoughts on that matchup prior to tip off. Congrats to Serbia,    making it to the Gold Medal game in just their 10th year as an independent country.

Notes: 

  • The win over Spain was Team USA’s 75th straight victory.
  • Harrison Barnes and DeMar DeRozan picked up DNP’s, while Draymond Green played just under two minutes. The unofficial dick-pic suspension continues.
  • Jimmy Butler was held scoreless while Paul George managed just six points. I mentioned yesterday the big opportunity for one or more of the top three USA wings to go off. Only Klay did.
  • Kyrie Irving (+7) had the second-highest plus/minus behind Jordan (+11), scoring 13 points with two assists.
  • Carmelo Anthony has never been known for his defense. But his vicious block on Ricky Rubio’s layup attempt in the second half was a thing to behold. Olympic Melo remains the best Melo.