The NBA has been back officially for almost a week now, giving us just enough time to make some observations as clubs make their end-of-season pushes before the playoffs begin.
Some of the early returns are surprising, while others are ones we should have seen coming. Here’s a quick breakdown from both categories.
WE SHOULD HAVE KNOWN THIS MIGHT HAPPEN: The Suns balling out again
If you rewind to late October and early November, in the first week and a half of the season, you might remember the Suns briefly being the talk of the league.
They had started the campaign 5-2. Each of the losses — against respectable competition in the Nuggets and Jazz — was by 1 point. It included victories over the Clippers, Warriors and Sixers. Some skepticism was warranted, but there were aspects of that run that felt legitimate, even as No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton was forced to sit during an early season suspension.1
So after another hot start — Devin Booker hit a buzzer-beater over the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on Tuesday to push the Suns to 3-0 since the restart — there may be something to Phoenix’s ability to get out of the blocks well.
We already knew what Booker could do. But the team’s performance on defense has been impressive in some ways, too. The Suns are among the top-five clubs in defending the rim early on, while also forcing 17 percent of their opponent’s possessions to end with a midrange jumper, the third-highest mark in the league since the restart. Neither is too shabby, considering how porous some other, more experienced clubs have been.
It’s unclear whether the Suns will be able to maintain their encouraging run on that end. And it would be tough to keep up their offensive efficiency while ranking third-worst in fouls drawn per game since the restart. (The teams that are worse, the Kings and Wizards, are a combined 0-6.)
Still, with the hobbled Grizzlies in a freefall, Phoenix is in a good spot to make a charge at the eighth and ninth spots out West for a play-in game. And regardless of what happens, the team should be excited about building on the glimpses it’s shown throughout this bizarre season.
NO ONE SAW THIS COMING: T.J. Warren’s supernova
The NBA restart feels like a brand new season in many ways, with more days off from the suspension of play in March to the first game in the bubble than from the end of the NBA Finals last year to the October start of the regular season. So it stands to reason that the players who have historically jumped out to hotter-than-usual starts might have more success in Orlando.
Pacers swingman T.J. Warren isn’t on that list. His splits show he’s shot the ball poorly to start seasons, with October being his worst month throughout his career.
But this ain’t October. And Warren has led the NBA in scoring, averaging almost 40 points per game after dropping 53, 34 and then 32 points in his first three contests back, and he has led the Pacers to a 3-0 mark. Warren’s wild scoring run tied Jermaine O’Neal’s Indiana record for most points over a three-game span.
Aside from the absurdity of some of the shots, his efficiency stands out as even more ridiculous. Through the three contests, he’s knocked down 65 percent of his looks and almost 61 percent of his threes. He has one turnover in those three games. His production has made up for the loss of Domantas Sabonis, who’s missing the restart, and it takes pressure off guard Victor Oladipo, who’s still settling in.
NO ONE SAW THIS COMING: Guys being this rusty on defense
And while Warren has been particularly unstoppable, offenses leaguewide have more or less had their way in the bubble, too. That’s a bit surprising, depending on how much you accept conventional wisdom: that defenses tend to have an advantage early on as offensive players shake off rust and get back into rhythm.
Expecting that would have been more than fair, especially given that defenders — who shout all game long to communicate sudden switches, screens and coverages — are now playing in an atmosphere where they should be able to hear each other without several thousand screaming fans interrupting them.
Yet that hasn’t exactly been the case. Instead, interruptions have been the norm — usually because of fouls. Entering Wednesday’s games, refs have whistled 50 fouls a game, up from 41.2 per contest prior to the restart. The sloppiness on D can be found just about everywhere. Jump-shooters are getting to the line almost 75 percent more frequently than they did earlier in the season, according to Second Spectrum. Blow-by drives, where a player dribbles past a defender with ease, are also up slightly. So are uncontested corner 3-point tries, which have become more plentiful as teams scramble to stop penetrators at the last second.
Some teams, like Toronto, look great on defense to this point. Others, like the Sixers and Celtics, have been brutal at times. Offensive efficiency and true shooting percentage numbers are up some so far,2 which could be a function of the extra free throws — or simply dropping some of the league’s weakest teams from the bubble format. Either way, it seems likely that things will smooth out some, especially once the playoffs begin.
WE SHOULD HAVE KNOWN THIS MIGHT HAPPEN: Dallas struggling to close the deal
Statistically, the Mavericks aren’t merely the NBA’s best offense this season — they’re quietly one of the best offenses in the history of the sport.
That reality likely gets overlooked for a couple reasons. For starters, while Dallas was a sexy pick to compete for a playoff spot before the season, the club is still working its way onto people’s radar screens. And much of that has to do with the Mavs being led by a pair of young players, in second-year stud Luka Dončić and All-Star Kristaps Porziņģis, who made his return from a torn ACL to begin the campaign.
When it comes down to it, the growing pains of those two — specifically at the end of close games — might also have something to do with why Dallas isn’t seen as the offensive juggernaut it is.
In fairness to Dončić and Porziņģis, the Mavericks did shape up some in their come-from-behind victory on Tuesday to knock off the Kings in overtime. But prior to that comeback, the Mavs had blown their first two games in the bubble — including a 7-point lead in the last minute of regulation against the Rockets — after holding double-digit leads in each. In fact, their 13 losses in games they once held double-digit leads in are tied for the most in the NBA, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group.
We touched on some of this in November, when the numbers were already beginning to show some late-game turbulence; the Mavs’ offense had a tendency to fall off a cliff when pressure increased. While they rank No. 1 in offense by a wide margin generally, they fall all the way to 28th in the clutch. The biggest factor there: Dončić and Porziņģis, who take most attempts in key moments, rank 54th and 56th in effective field-goal rate out of the 57 players who’ve launched 40 shots in the clutch.
Both guys are guilty at times of forcing shots when things slow down, which bogs down an offense that otherwise moves the ball very well in other stages of its games. Interestingly, Dallas looks almost certain to finish as the No. 7 seed in the West. That would give the Mavs a first-round meeting with the Clippers, who arguably have the league’s best two-way closing lineup — and know how to score when it counts.
“We’re a young team,” said Dončić, who had a huge 34-20-12 triple-double in the Tuesday win over the Kings but finished the loss against Houston 1-for-7 for 2 points over the last 10 minutes.
They’ll have to grow up fast to make some noise in the postseason. Otherwise, it could make for a quick trip back home.
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