Nine Big Questions for the NBA’s Stretch Run

The end of the NBA season has arrived. With less than 20 games left on most teams’ schedules, the playoff seeds are still up in the air, and deadline acquisition is beginning to settle into the new environment. Now is the perfect time to take stock of what’s at stake ahead of the playoffs. To do this, let’s ask some important questions that will bring some clarity to the erratic and unpredictable regular season.

1. What’s going on with Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies?

There is an ominous aphorism in sports and in life: nothing is guaranteed. A year ago, the Grizzlies had an explosion of good cheer, aiming for what they genuinely saw as the start of a dynasty. Brash and gifted, Memphis was eventually humiliated by a champion who knows just how tough the basketball court really is. But this defeat was more like a lesson learned than a missed opportunity.

Now, in light of Ja Morant’s suspension of at least two games for brandishing a gun live on Instagram, and the subsequent apology in which he announced that he would “take some time to get help and work on learning more effective ways to deal with stress and my overall well-being” — Memphis feels how bumpy the road to greatness can be for even the most supportive NBA. team.

(Adding injury to insult, Brandon Clark’s torn Achilles tendon at the end of the season was announced on Saturday – which is always a devastating injury, but especially for a player whose impact relies on the rebound and athleticism of Clark). current leader of Memphis in 48 minute win rates and true hit percentage.)

Morant was hailed as the next sensation in basketball and the face of an exciting upstart. But now his reputation as a recognized leader and a man wise beyond his years is crumbling. Executives don’t order their employers to leave even for a few days, and they don’t find themselves at the center of multiple investigations by law enforcement and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s office. They also don’t brandish a gun on social media days after a report surfaced that they punched teenager in the head “12-13 times” and threatened a mall security guard.

Before the suspension this weekend, Morant’s agent Jim Tanner reached out to previous weapons report from Athletic, speaking Washington Post“Any firearm-related allegation has been fully investigated and could not be confirmed. This includes the NBA’s investigation last month in which they found no evidence.”

Regarding the report that Morant hit a teenager several times last summer, Tanner said it was “purely self-defense” and that Morant was not charged with a crime despite confessing to police that he hit first.

All of this is troubling on several levels, which should be obvious to anyone reading this article. Morant has a problem and he must solve it. He has plenty of time to refocus his priorities. But none of the events that happened is an isolated case. Morant’s actions are deeply rooted in the history of lawful behavior. The fact that he holds a gun in front of a phone camera, thinking that there will be no consequences, is one of the symptoms of more serious problems, not the cause.

The Grizzlies responded with a punishment that small market franchises very rarely award to a superstar. This is a big deal. And, as minor as it may be, it remains unknown how he, his teammates and his coaches will react. If this behavior continues, better defense won’t be enough to propel Memphis further than they did last season. It’s too early to characterize what happened as a fall, but it’s not too early to think that this fate is within the realm of possibility for Morant and the Grizzlies.

2. Which team will finish first in the East?

If the Milwaukee Bucks learned anything last season, it’s that it’s unwise to give up home court advantage to the Boston Celtics. The Bucks beat their starting lineup in the last game of the 2021–22 season in a loss to the Cavs, allowing Boston to win. 2 seeds and home court in a potential playoff series. Sure enough, the two teams faced off in the second round and the decisive Game 7 was filled with a flurry of Grant Williams 3s in front of a TD Garden frenzy.

Right now, the two are head to head for a conference best record, and the second-place finisher may have to take on Joel Embiid in the second round. No race will have a greater impact on the undisputed champion of the NBA than this one.

3. When will Tai Liu determine the rotation of the Los Angeles Clippers?

The Clippers had one of the best starting lineups in the NBA before signing Russell Westbrook. And in the middle of a season that was defined by their desire for consistency, Tai Liu’s rotation finally took center stage, with Terence Mann starting as point guard, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George recording regular minutes, and Eric Gordon and Mason Plumley sliding. into reasonable roles off the bench. There were a few injuries in a six-game selection, but with Westbrook on the court, they struggled to score, especially when Kawhi and George were with him.

I am the one who thought that this experiment could work, but not without some important caveats. Westbrook shall not start or close games. He shouldn’t play for many minutes with someone who can’t shoot (eg Plumley). Gordon, Norm Powell, Nick Batum and Mann are better than Westbrook and should therefore play more minutes.

The Clippers have only won once since signing Westbrook, mostly because Liu did the complete opposite of that strategy: fired up Westbrook, played him with non-shooters, and let him sort it out at the crucial moment instead of Gordon, Batum, or Mann. .

The Clippers’ first two games with Russ were acceptable overtime losses against very good teams, and Westbrook made sense. He picked up the pace, attacked the basket, screened the ball, tried to defend and showed enough discipline not to overwhelm the Los Angeles offense. There was hope!

But he was counterproductive in a tough loss to the hapless Timberwolves and then brutal in a humiliating loss in San Francisco that really mattered to a team trying to avoid the game.

As someone who still thinks the Clippers can win the title, I sometimes feel like I’m eating dirt and trying to convince everyone around me that it tastes great and has tremendous nutritional value.

This is mainly because I know the playoffs are not the regular season and this Clippers roster was built to withstand the constant need to adjust every series. But this flexibility is useless if you don’t know who you have, how you want to play, or what your personality is.

Even after Westbrook’s effective performance against the Kings on Friday night and a shoulder injury, Westbrook is now a key player for the Clips, and the sooner they do that, the better for them.

4. Will the Phoenix Suns have the best offense in the NBA from now on?

We’ve seen very little Suns offense with Kevin Durant, but right now it looks like an unresolvable dilemma that the defense may never solve (especially if Josh Okogi hits his 3s).

For 49 minutes of them the attacking rating of the new starting five is 129.4. with an aid rate of 67.3 percent. Everyone is shooting. Everyone plays selfless basketball. When the defense shows KD with two (or more) bodies, whether off the post, breaking off the ball screen, or pinning the ball, the ball flies around until it is caught by an open player. When that open person is fucking Devin Booker, it’s poetry.

They haven’t played great defensively yet, but few people want to play Durant or Booker right away, and no one should leave those two open on the perimeter when Chris Paul also has a high pick-and-roll with Deandre Ayton. . For the entire 48 minutes, either KD or Booker must always be on the floor to virtually guarantee an effective review on virtually every half court possession.

The Suns have already made it too easy to score. And with each passed game, they will only get better and better.

5. Will the Raptors regret their conservative trade deadline?

Instead of parting ways with OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr. and/or Pascal Siakam in early February, the Raptors decided to forgo a first round pick to add Jakob Poeltl to the most disappointing team of the season. Their thought process was simple enough: more traditional formations with a traditional center could balance Toronto’s disoriented offense and take a lot of pressure off their smaller groups at the other end.

Poeltl has done its job. In nine games, he averages 15 points, nine boards, two steals and two blocks while shooting with a 76.1% shooting accuracy and a player efficiency rating of 29.2. The Raptors are up 41 when he’s on the court. and minus-57 when sitting. Most importantly, Toronto has gone 6-3 since the deadline and are enjoying their first four-game winning streak of the season. It’s not great, but Predators Very it’s hard to score when Pöltl is in the center, and so many capable flankers feel less pressure on the perimeter.

Crime still usually revolves around the toilet, and spacing issues haven’t gone away. But the clouds clear as Poeltle shares the word with VanVleet. Total in a sample of six games these lineups are worth 121.3 points per 100 possessions. Their pick-and-roll partnership is a breath of fresh air, with Poeltle diving through the paint like a giant exhaust valve. Throw him a ball and something good will happen.

It’s all very sweet, and Toronto might even end up on the proverbial team that no one wants to face in a play-in tournament. Then if they slide to the right…


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