Lowe: Too many kickouts in Boston, Zion’s pick-and-roll defense and … oh my, Joel Embiid

This week, we highlight Joel Embiid and perhaps the greatest scoring season in NBA history, Zion Williamson’s messy pick-and-roll defense, silver linings for Jaren Jackson Jr. and Memphis and dramatic shrugs at MSG.

 

1. When will it be Joel Embiid’s year?

“Random.”

That’s the word assistant coaches from two teams who recently faced the Philadelphia 76ers chose in the wake of Embiid’s 70-point masterpiece to explain how Embiid has somehow improved after averaging 33 points per game last season and winning Most Valuable Player.

Even last season, there were nights when Embiid felt at least semi-containable. Well-timed double-teams with smart rotations behind them could confuse him; Embiid averaged 4.2 assists and 3.4 turnovers. Now he’s dishing six dimes with no uptick in turnovers.

The James Harden-Embiid two-man game was a slow dance with lots of prelude; defenses could load up on it. A few teams — notably the Boston Celtics, Embiid’s playoff nemesis — began guarding it by staying attached to Embiid, conceding Harden a driving lane, and sending late help from elsewhere. They would not expose the passing lane from Harden to Embiid. They wanted to erase Embiid’s midrange jumper at almost any cost. (By coincidence, a few of the Denver Nuggets’ recent opponents have defended the Jamal Murray-Nikola Jokic two-man game in a similar style.)

Embiid began his migration from the post to the foul line area under Doc Rivers, the former Sixers coach hired this week to replace Adrian Griffin with the Milwaukee Bucks. But when Philadelphia fired Rivers, Embiid expressed a desire for the offense to become more unpredictable — more random.

Nick Nurse, Philly’s new coach, is the right tinkerer for that task. Tyrese Maxey seized lead ballhandling duties in the wake of Harden’s unhappy departure. That is a stylistic sea change. Maxey is a blur, even in the half court — less concerned than Harden with arranging the chess pieces before bolting into action. He doesn’t hold the ball as much. He’s happy tossing it to Embiid at the elbow, sprinting — and I mean sprinting — toward him for a handoff, and seeing how the defense reacts.

With more reps, Maxey has gotten better at leading Embiid into those 14-foot jumpers Harden so often fed him.

He brings a different pitter-pat rhythm to Embiid’s post touches:

Embiid and Maxey exchange four passes in four seconds. The first entry draws a double-team that forces Jokic to rotate onto Maxey. The second exchange allows Maxey to exploit that mismatch. (How gorgeous is an old-school re-post?)

The net result is that a giant human has somehow become ungraspable. Embiid moves around more. Plays happen faster, in quicker succession. It sounds hyperbolic to say this about a role player, but Nicolas Batum’s entry passing has been a new accelerant:

Maxey zooms into staggered screens from Batum and Embiid with 20 on the shot clock. Embiid rolls hard. Batum stays put. Batum’s presence there is not an accident. He is Maxey’s release valve: bend the defense, catapult Embiid, kick it to Batum with the superior angle.

This is a designed play with the same general idea — Batum as release valve:

Random. Unpredictable.

Embiid is halfway through what might be the greatest scoring season — by some measures — in basketball history. Embiid is averaging 36 points in 34 minutes. Wilt Chamberlain averaging 50.4 points in 48.5 minutes in 1961-62 is the only time any player has averaged at least one point per minute, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Embiid is averaging 1.05 points per minute — above Chamberlain’s rate that season.

He is shooting 53% on long 2s. He lords over the game from the elbow. Embiid has almost become an amalgam of Dirk Nowitzki, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal — elite jump-shooting, balletic footwork, the raw power to foul out your entire front line. The answers to him are dwindling.

Embiid has never been able to sustain his regular-season production into the playoffs. Ill-timed injuries have hurt, but in some seasons, the gap has been way too large. He has had some awful elimination games — including a no-show in Game 7 against Boston in last season’s second round.

The Celtics remain favorites in the East. The Sixers are light on ballhandling beyond Maxey and Embiid, and have three first-round picks to trade ahead of this deadline. They are also sitting on max cap space for this summer, well aware Paul George has not yet signed an extension with the LA Clippers.

The Sixers could have their cake and eat it too by acquiring one or two good rotation players on either smaller salaries or expiring deals — upgrading their current team without compromising cap space. If that proves the best option — something like the theoretical combination of Bruce Brown and DeMar DeRozan, both potential rentals — then so be it. (That said, trade machine addicts are too cavalier about tossing Tobias Harris into fake deals. You can nitpick Harris’ game and his salary, but he’s a good player with the skills Philly needs around its stars. Like any team built around a small guard — Maxey — the Sixers have to be wary about trading for another slight defender in the backcourt.)

2. When the Boston Celtics kick it out by default

Boston leads the league in 3-point attempts. They are No. 3 in points per possession. Their formula is working. I must concede my obsession with their shots at the basket may be a little unhealthy.

And yet, I cannot — nay, will not! — relent. Can we please have 5% more of this — just 5%, not a revolution!

That Derrick White-Jayson Tatum two-man game — maybe Boston’s best play — gets White a runway. He spots Aaron Wiggins cheating inside. The kickout to Jaylen Brown is there.

But White makes the radical decision to just keep going. A drive-and-kick offense doesn’t have to get to the “kick” part every single time. The rim is still king.

This pass is maybe the opposite of that shot:

Dillon Brooks is a snarling brick wall, but White has the angle. Take it! Even if you miss, you might get fouled! Shots at the rim produce more offensive rebounds!

Context is everything, of course. White kicks to Tatum, wide open from the corner. That’s a good shot, period. Sometimes you miss at the basket, and those misses turn into fast breaks for the other team. Some help defenders are bigger and better than others. But Boston too often (for my taste anyway) defaults to “kick.”

This shot is an interesting litmus test:

I suspect Boston’s coaches were thrilled White let it fly after Murray ducked that pick. The Celtics want White operating with zero hesitation or doubt. I kinda wanted him to pass to Al Horford. (In fairness, Horford is in ideal position for an offensive rebound.)

Boston has fallen to 27th in the portion of its shots that come at the basket — and 30th over the last five weeks.

Maybe none of this matters. Boston is the league’s best team. The spacing and head coach Joe Mazzulla’s broader offensive system are almost perfect; when Boston is rolling and balanced — as they were in obliterating Miami Thursday night — they feel unbeatable. But every team goes through cold streaks on 3s. If one comes at the wrong time, it can undo an entire season, unless you have a more stable plank of offense to fall back upon.

Since their humiliation in the in-season tournament semifinals, the Pelicans are 14-7 — rising to eighth in both points scored and allowed per possession. They have shaken some of their crunch-time yips.

That defensive ranking is impressive considering the Pelicans start only one above-average defender — though it helps that said player (Herbert Jones) seems able to teleport and extend his arms from sideline to sideline. The Pelicans might be getting a bit lucky — opponents have hit just 34.9% on 3s, third-lowest in the league — but their fundamentals are solid across the board.

They have allowed 112.2 points per 100 possessions with Williamson the floor — equivalent to their overall number. Advanced metrics have always been kinder than the eye test to Williamson’s defense. To wit: The Pels are allowing only 0.88 points per possession directly out of pick-and-rolls when Williamson guards the screener — the 26th-stingiest mark among 240 guys who have defended at least 100 such plays, per Second Spectrum.

That’s worth monitoring, because offenses are targeting Williamson more — and figure to double down if New Orleans makes the playoffs. Things can get ugly when Williamson hedges out on ball handlers. He sometimes picks the wrong side of the screen:

His timing is a mess. Williamson lunges out too late to cut off ball handlers …

… or lingers too long:

Dragging Williamson from screen to screen tests his stamina. He sometimes loiters on the perimeter to steady himself — leaving New Orleans defending 4-on-5 behind him. (That’s another reason his defensive rebounding numbers are so bad.)

Bigs usually favor this style of pick-and-roll defense when both the ball handler and screener can shoot 3s. Could New Orleans have Williamson play more conservatively against combos that don’t present that threat? Could he slide under that pick for Ja Morant?

The problem is Williamson is a sitting duck — flat-footed prey for blow-bys — when he drops back.

Williamson is doing something right on defense. He’s huge and fast, and reads the game pretty well. The Pelicans boast a top-10 defense for the second-straight season. But the further you advance, the more predatory opponents get.

It was easy to take Carter for granted when the Orlando Magic went 13-7 without him earlier in the season as Carter recovered from injury. Orlando was the feel-good story of the league, its two-headed center of Goga Bitadze and Moritz Wagner the feel-good story-within-the-story.

Carter returned on Dec. 20, scored in single digits in seven of eight games, and then missed five games with knee tendinitis. Executives from other teams wondered if they might be able to steal Carter on the cheap. (How good would he look on the Thunder?)

In six games since returning (again), Carter has reminded Orlando — if Magic brass needed any such reminder — why they should hold onto him unless they get a bonkers offer. In those games, Carter is averaging 17.4 points and 7.4 rebounds on 64% shooting — including 7-of-14 on 3s — and reasserting himself as their most versatile two-way center. Carter is a ceiling-raiser.

Carter’s jump-shooting has always been something of a siren song; he has hit 33% career on 3s and about 38% on long 2s. Carter is still just 24. If he improves his shooting — if this lasts — he becomes a different player.

Carter can control his physicality, and he has been meaner since his return. He’s jostling for offensive rebounds, sealing off the lane for drivers, mashing smaller players in the post and blowing by slower guys on pump-and-go drives. He has done that in fits and starts in prior seasons before receding into his finesse jump-shooter alter ego.

Carter has been cagey defending the pick-and-roll — baiting ball handlers into lob passes, and then leaping backward to deflect them. He is fast enough to switch.

Carter has two years and $22.7 million left on his contract — a bargain when he plays at this level.

I was among the worriers when the Phoenix Suns swapped Deandre Ayton for Nurkic as part of the Lillard trade. Nurkic has proved us all wrong (so far). He has been steady on both ends, and an even more effective passing hub than the Suns probably envisioned. Ayton mostly is languishing with the Portland Trail Blazers — alternatively injured and half-productive, still a stranger to the foul line.

The Suns touted Nurkic’s passing on the move out of the pick-and-roll, but his contribution as a co-quarterback has broadened into something more all-encompassing. He is running hand-offs, picking out cutters and whipping outlets in transition:

That’s a Draymond Green-style play, and there is no higher compliment. Nurkic’s pitch to Kevin Durant — those two have great chemistry — slingshots Durant backdoor, drawing Anthony Davis away from Nurkic. Durant pings it back to Nurkic, who knows exactly what to do next. With Davis deep in the paint, there is no one on the other side of that hand-off to bother Devin Booker.

There is a delightful casualness to some of Nurkic’s passes:

Nurkic almost looks disinterested — strolling forward, standing upright. He flicks that pass with the nonchalance of someone tossing a tennis ball to his dog while talking on his cell phone.

You don’t want to shift too much passing to Nurkic at the expense of the Big 3, but he’s producing. Oh, the Suns also snagged Grayson Allen — currently hitting 49% on 3s — by butting into the Lillard deal.

The Suns are 12-3 in their last 15 games, mauling opponents by almost 20 points per 100 possessions when Durant, Booker and Bradley Beal share the floor. They are up to fifth in the West — setting the stage for a potential titanic first-round showdown against one of the conference’s top-four.

Merrill entered the Cleveland Cavaliers game in Orlando Monday with 6:00 to go in the first quarter and the Cavs inbounding under Orlando’s basket. Two seconds later — with 5:58 on the clock — Merrill was rising to nail a corner 3 off that inbounds pass. Dude is coming in hot.

Merrill has hit 43% from deep on 13 attempts per 36 minutes. That attempt rate would rank No. 2 all-time among players to log at least 500 minutes — behind only one Stephen Curry season. That is insane volume for a guy who had barely played 100 minutes over the previous two seasons.

It will be a tight squeeze, but coach J.B. Bickerstaff has to work to find minutes for Merrill even when Darius Garland and Evan Mobley return. Merrill is too useful a weapon, and has the trust of Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell searches Merrill out. The two have developed nifty chemistry in guard-guard pick-and-rolls.

Any like-sized pick-and-roll should be an easy switch, but that’s harder than it sounds in this case. Guards aren’t used to defending screeners in the pick-and-roll. The Cavs don’t run this often enough for defenses to anticipate it. Merrill can flare out in any direction and reorient his body toward the rim in a snap. (His off-ball movement is drawing the kind of panicked attention that gets teammates open.) Teams hide weaker defenders on Merrill — guys they don’t want to switch onto Mitchell.

The Cavs are 13-4 since Dec. 16, with the No. 6 offense and No. 1 defense in that stretch — all without Garland and Mobley. They are 26-16, within spitting distance of both the Sixers and Bucks in the race for a top-3 seed and the right to avoid Boston in round two.

Their recent schedule has been soft, but the Cavs have handled business. Almost 45% of their attempts in those 17 games have been 3s — No. 1 by a lot. Their assist rate is up. Mitchell is the alpha, but he’s sharing it — in part because everyone around him is moving at top speed. Max Strus has been flying around all season, making more plays with the ball. Georges Niang is doing the same, just more slowly. (Sorry, Georges.) Jarrett Allen is playing the best ball of his career.

Skeptics proclaimed injuries to Garland and Mobley would torpedo the Cavs — and perhaps shove them into some uncomfortable conversations with Mitchell about his future. Instead the Cavaliers fought and adapted — landing on the style they talked about playing before the season.

The Cavs need Mobley and Garland to make any real noise. This Mitchell-plus-shooting model (with Allen as a voracious rim-runner) is a neat ready-made template, but you need a certain raw talent quotient to win playoff series. Cleveland has to find some middle ground between how they played before this stretch and how they are playing now.

Mobley’s return will depress their 3-point volume and cramp their spacing. Garland has not shot enough 3s. It won’t be easy striking the right balance, but all the key stakeholders have watched this stretch and witnessed some proof of concept.

The first step may be staggering minutes even more strictly between Mobley and Allen — and maybe Mitchell and Garland. In an ideal world, you’d like your four best players to share the floor as much as possible. Maybe the Cavs can get there one day — if Mobley builds his perimeter game. But you can’t always play the long game.

It can seem a waste of time watching an injury-ravaged team, but you learn useful things when players are thrust into expanded roles.

The Memphis Grizzlies are missing their three best ball handlers and two of their three top big men. They are playing lineups that may never see the light of day again.

But they have discovered Vince Williams Jr. is a solid two-way player with Memphian trash-talking bravado. David Roddy is finding himself. GG Jackson is something — a tall shooter with some juice diving to the rim on pick-and-rolls. Memphis is 5-4 since Morant’s season ended, and a very impressive 13-12 overall on the road.

Jaren Jackson Jr. is the de facto No. 1 option with Morant and Desmond Bane injured, and he’s starting to look more at ease in that role.

Jaren Jackson’s one-on-one scoring game is stilted — jagged, hunched-over power dribbles plowing toward awkward floaters. But he looks a little smoother. He has more than doubled his number of isolation plays per 100 possessions, and he’s averaging 1.17 points on them — 46th among 218 players who have run at least 20 isos, per Second Spectrum.

He’s throwing passes that weren’t in his bag before this season:

Jaren Jackson spots GG Jackson II slicing to the rim, and immediately downloads that the right pass is not to the cutter — but rather to the guy one layer behind that cutter. He slings it early, before the defense can react.

Jaren Jackson has dished five or more assists in just six career games; four have come this month.

These reps will make Jaren Jackson a better snap decision-maker — pass, shoot, drive? — in an offense centered around Morant next season. It will also help the Grizzlies stay afloat when Morant rests.

Even after destroying the Nuggets Thursday, the Knicks are minus-3 in 66 minutes with their new-look bench quartet of Miles McBride, Quentin Grimes, Josh Hart and Precious Achiuwa on the floor. (Tom Thibodeau has been trying OG Anunoby as the lone starter on reserve-heavy units.)

Everything is clunky and station-to-station. McBride is a solid backup — he’s shooting 46.6% on 3s — but he’s a little overmatched orchestrating an entire NBA offense right now. There have been stints in which just bringing the ball up is an adventure. No one else in that group is really qualified to run the show. Watch the four New York players off the ball on trips when McBride (or whoever has it) struggles to get the Knicks into anything. A couple have not been able to hide their frustration. There has been some dramatic shrugging and shoulder-sagging.

That’s a telltale sign that something has to change. Maybe that change is this group gelling with time. More likely for now, it’s Thibodeau staggering Brunson and Randle so that one is almost always on the floor. Beyond that, expect the Knicks to search the trade and buyout markets for another ball handler.

The Knicks look *awesome* with Anunoby. They are plus-100 in 211 minutes with Brunson, Randle, Anunoby, and the scorching Donte DiVincenzo on the floor. They are only two games back of Philly for the No. 3 spot, which would give them a chance — provided they win a first-round series, no given in the reloaded East — to avoid Boston until the conference finals. New York would be underdogs in round two against either Milwaukee or the Sixers in this scenario, they are good enough to upset either. And if the seeds stick where they are now, the Cavs better brace themselves for a rematch with the team who bludgeoned them into surrender last season.

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