SET TO AUTOPILOT
I thought the Rockets/Nuggets game had the chance to be wonky with Houston cruising into a four-seed and Denver trying to outrun opponents. Right on cue the Rockets left their defense at the door and the Nuggets ran away with this one, so no starter played more than James Harden’s 26 minutes. Harden had a scary moment that eventually was ruled a shin injury, and he returned to the game to finish with 10 points on 1-of-9 shooting (8-of-8 FTs), four rebounds, six assists and one steal. Nobody appeared to be overly concerned about the injury after the game, though the potential for rest looms as the Rockets have a 1.5 game lead and a tiebreaker over the Blazers with just four games to play.
As I mentioned in the past, look for the Rockets to get Dwight Howard just enough action to knock off the rust, and Patrick Beverley’s knee could go all the way down to the wire but a game or two of action would also make sense. The box score was surprisingly not a disaster in the blowout loss, with Jeremy Lin going for 18 and six with four threes, and Omer Asik posting 12 points and 12 boards but no steals or blocks. Terrence Jones backed up his big night with 11 points, two steals, one block, one three and four boards, showing no signs of the leg cramps for Tuesday. He should be in lineups as long as he’s active, as should Lin and Asik if Beverley and Howard remain out.
FOYE ON FIRE
Randy Foye will be a common factor on winning fantasy squads this year, as he has stepped into the void created by injuries to Ty Lawson, Nate Robinson, and Wilson Chandler in impressive fashion. Last night he saved his best for the last week of the playoffs, scoring 30 points on 10-of-17 shooting with six threes, five boards, 15 assists and two steals. In the end he’ll cruise into a top-60 fantasy season or better, and that’s going to give him consideration for fantasy pickup of the year.
Aaron Brooks scored 13 points on 5-of-15 shooting with five rebounds, seven assists, two steals, one block and one three, and though he has turned the ball over 4.7 times per game over the last three contests he’s still rolling. He has played at a top 30-55 level (8/9 cat) over the last two weeks and it’s possible the fun lasts all the way until the end as the Nuggets aren’t racing to get anybody back. If you want to add Evan Fournier (14 points, three treys, 27 minutes) to your list of players to consider for scoring and 3-point shooting it makes a lot of sense, too. Denver management has been high on him and would love to get him going to finish the year.
Timofey Mozgov knocked knees with Donatas Motiejunas last night but stayed in the game to finish with 22 points, six rebounds and two blocks. After toying with me for most of the year he’s finally making good on his ability to rise through the ranks, returning solid mid-round value over the last six games with averages of 15.8 points, 6.0 boards and 2.0 combined steals and blocks per contest. Kenneth Faried went for 23 and nine as these two have locked down the frontcourt, though Mozgov’s owners will want to keep an ear to the ground about the knee knock. Nobody mentioned it after the game but it’s silly season, yada, yada.
TWO IS BETTER THAN ONE
The Kings surprised me last night almost as much as the Blazers did, coming one successful step-back jumper from Ray McCallum away from an upset in Portland. McCallum missed a good look after shaking defensively deficient Damian Lillard, but left with a nice consolation prize as he turned in the quietest big line of the night. Ray Mac scored 23 points on 7-of-15 shooting (4-of-4 3PTs, 5-of-5 FTs) with four rebounds, eight assists and three steals in another whopping 43 minutes, as he continues to play at a top-75 level for owners down the stretch.
The good news if you’re a Kings fan is that Ray Mac has already shown enough to be considered a legit rotation player next season. The intangibles are all there and he has shown impressive burst to the hoop with the ability to finish. His shot is where the bad news starts, as he has hit just 37.9 percent from the field and 65.5 percent from the line over the last 16 games (31.9 mpg). The silver lining there is that he has hit 37.5 percent of his 3-pointers in March and April for a total of 0.86 per game. It’s predictably not a lot of volume but when he gets his feet set he can connect.
The problem is when he faces teams that are interested in defending, a rare occurrence during his run as starter, as they force him to convert under more pressure and that is not yet his strong suit. On one hand, efficiency will always be a function of teammates and to that end McCallum isn’t getting much help beyond beast mode DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay, when the latter plays.
On the other hand, teams aren’t yet game planning for McCallum's strengths and garbage-time environments have skewed his numbers. The Ray Mac hype is certainly in full effect in Sacramento, which only helps in negotiations with restricted free agent Isaiah Thomas, who will get a solid offer from somebody this offseason.
In a perfect world for the team they will keep both players. Low-hanging comparisons to Mike Bibby and Bobby Jackson could run rampant! What one does doesn’t necessarily detract from the other, and both combo guards protect against any perceived downside of the other. What they pay the duo will still be a discount to secure one of the most important positions on the court, at least for the short-term while these guys continue to prove themselves at higher and higher levels.
As for Ray Mac keeper questions that keep rolling in, he needs Isaiah to exit stage left to tap into what will likely be a mid-round upside at best. He simply doesn’t have enough peripheral stats to climb the charts at a relatively normal usage rate. On the other side of that, Thomas has proven that he can be an early round producer in a 27-plus minute role, so only fade him a little bit if the Ray Mac attack has concerned you.
Travis Outlaw was a sneaky play of mine after Tuesday’s mini-explosion, and he couldn’t get going with five points on 2-of-8 shooting, four rebounds and three assists in 29 minutes with Gay (back) out. He still profiles to be a big part of the Kings’ offense down the stretch, but whether or not he shows consistency for owners is another question. Ben McLemore hit 6-of-13 shots for 16 points with one three and not much else, which doesn’t do much for owners looking to score some threes from a guy that can’t be counted on for much else.
Cousins scored 30 points on 14-of-29 shooting with 12 rebounds and three steals. I know the concerns about his attitude aren’t going to magically go away in the short-term, but I’ve seen enough to know that he will be the best big man in the game next season. Whether the basketball world will be ready to acknowledge that is another story. But if you cover up the name on the jersey, he’s doing that right now while keeping demerits to a bare minimum.
Be afraid, NBA, be very afraid.
GOTTA WIN THE EASY ONES
The Blazers have struggled with their defense this season but last night’s game against the Kings was particularly troublesome, and 18 turnovers nearly cost them a much-needed win. With a 1.5-2.0 game cushion on both sides of them in the West standings and just three games to play, this becomes a situation that could quickly lead to rest. LaMarcus Aldridge’s (22 points, eight boards, two steals, one block) owners can just cross their fingers and hope for the best. Damian Lillard struggled defensively but had his way with the Kings’ perimeter defense and slow rotating bigs, scoring 19 points on 6-of-11 shooting with three treys, five boards, 10 assists and five turnovers. Wesley Matthews made easy work of Ben McLemore and finished with 19 points on 7-of-12 shooting, Nicolas Batum was quiet with 11 points, six assists and a three, and Robin Lopez went for 13 and nine in the win.
If the Blazers try to defend the pick-and-roll the way they did last night they will get torched by any four-man that can hit an elbow jumper. Both Aldridge and Lopez knew that Lillard would stick to screens like flypaper, so they would over-help and that left DeMarcus Cousins and Jason Thompson wide open all night. That makes Terrence Jones the X-factor if the Blazers end up playing the Rockets, but if they slide and the Warriors catch them they’ll be looking at Blake Griffin in the first round.
Ergo, it’s no time to let up if you’re Portland.
THE BOOK ON DURANT
The Thunder took a squad just getting back to health into Staples Center and left with a win that essentially locks them into the No. 2 spot. Russell Westbrook is on my Mount Rushmore of players to watch and it’s not really close. He scored 30 points on 12-of-24 shooting with 11 rebounds, six assists and two steals while dominating the highlight reel. The fact that he has had three knee surgeries is incredible. As beat writer Darnell Mayberry first dubbed him, he is Wolverine.
Kevin Durant was coaxed into 8-of-26 shooting for 27 points, three rebounds, four assists and two steals, and the tape should be used as instructions for how to get the game’s No. 1 offensive player to beat himself. Matt Barnes and Reggie Bullock couldn’t contend with his height, but they were able to beat him to the spot most of the time, leaving Durant room for a contested pull-up jumper that he can bury enough to keep shooting it. If he makes those looks you tip your cap to him and hope to win the game somewhere else, but in the end you gave Durant an opening for him to beat himself, which he did last night over and over again.
Thabo Sefolosha logged 24 minutes and that meant Reggie Jackson’s minutes took a hit (24), and Jackson finished with nine points, three rebounds, two assists, two threes and one block. Those numbers aren’t killing you but he needs more minutes, and hopefully the Thunder’s all-but-settled seeding will help him stay on the floor. Sefolosha, Caron Butler, Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher combined to play 80-plus minutes and together they produced 17 points with nine rebounds, four assists, one steal and two blocks. Jeremy Lamb did not play. The Thunder are going to ride or die with this look in one of the more interesting three-year old storylines heading into the playoffs.
The Clippers are built to make a championship run, but their once-lauded wing group is officially a problem heading into postseason play. Chris Paul (25 points, five boards, eight assists, two steals, three treys) is obviously locked in, Blake Griffin (30 points, 12 boards, 8-of-11 FTs) is getting MVP consideration, and DeAndre Jordan (10 points, 12 rebounds, one steal, three blocks) is an NBA Jam character come to life. Matt Barnes (seven points, seven boards, three assists, two blocks, one three, 29 minutes) and Darren Collison (12 points, three rebounds, three assists, one trey, 29 minutes) have held down the fort for both the Clippers and their owners, but the Clips’ lack of firepower was apparent against the athletic, gambling defense of OKC.
J.J. Redick would ideally see a few weeks of time to knock off the rust, but he’s on a crash course right now and last night he hit just 1-of-7 shots (all threes) for four points, three rebounds, eight assists and one steal in 27 minutes. As a release valve for double-teams on Griffin and Paul he’ll get the job done moving the ball, but teams aren’t respecting his offense just yet and that is making the Clippers a little easier to defend. What they’re really lacking is Jamal Crawford (calf), and my sense is that he’ll get at least a game or two to get back into the flow – but even that’s not guaranteed right now. Doc Rivers talked about resting guys sparingly and he’s clearly about not losing the rhythm, and with just three more games to play I’d guess that we see the band back together very soon. I’d have a hard time going away from Barnes and Collison in a 12-team league until we know the Clippers are playing with a full deck.
Good luck folks.