Moore: The Mystery Rockets, Dynamite Pacers & Emerging MPJ in the NBA Bubble

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Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images. Pictured: Michael Porter Jr. #1 and Jerami Grant #9 of the Denver Nuggets

Here’s a look around the NBA through the first week of the restart in Orlando …

The Confounding Houston Rockets

A miracle comeback vs. the Mavericks.

A shocking upset of the Bucks where they led most of the game.

A disappointing loss to the Blazers.

If there is one trend that’s becoming clear with the Rockets, it’s that they are the variance squad. This isn’t shocking given their 3-point rate. But this profile also shows how dangerous … and tenuous … their approach is.

A key example of how it changes is the Portland game. Portland was a bottom-10 defense all year and is third worst in the restart play. Yet, Houston put up just 100 points per 100 possessions on the Blazers. Some of this was pretty evidently emotional letdown, but that in itself is a sign of where the Rockets are at.

They don’t get up for all the games. They’re inherently inconsistent.

The Blazers’ mechanism was to put two-on-ball against James Harden in a diamond defense:

That’s a pretty good strategy that worked well for opponents early season vs. Houston. But eventually, the transformation was for Russell Westbrook to take advantage of that since it left him in space with defenders trying to cover two opponents. That allowed him to drive aggressively, which is what he’s best at.

Westbrook showed early that he could get to the rim whenever he wanted under those circumstances:

And then … he just … didn’t:

That’s an open look, and Westbrook is a much better spot-up shooter than off the dribble. But there were plenty of times when he was able to get a big on him and instead settled for a mid-range jumper.

Some of this gets directly into Westbrook’s mindset: he has a personal vendetta against Damian Lillard and the Blazers. He had it before last season’s playoff loss and it’s worse now. And when Westbrook makes it personal, instead of going to the rim with abandon, he tries to prove he’s as lethal of a shooter.

Spoiler: he’s not.

The Rockets’ position is so fragile. If they get run down from playing small ball against big teams, they’ll lose. If Westbrook doesn’t commit to attacking consistently, they’ll lose. If their shooters are knocking down 3’s, they’ll win.

It’s this constant razor-thin line for them between falling apart or being serious title contenders. We saw this in the regular season when they beat the Lakers after the trade to go small ball, and then later completely fell apart.

Restart play hasn’t added value to Houston +750 to win the Western Conference. It has gained value on Houston in certain spots, but you need to be certain you’re going to get their best, and smartest, approach.

Denver Nuggets Against the Wall

Things could not have gone worse for Denver in Orlando up until Monday afternoon.

When the Nuggets first arrived for bubble play, they had seven guys. Seven. Nikola Jokic’s slightly-delayed arrival made it eight.

The first time the Nuggets were able to play five-on-five basketball since March 11 was in their first scrimmage game July 22.

The consequence of this pulled them in two directions. The veterans who were in the bubble at the start (Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee, Will Barton and youngster Jamal Murray) had more of a workload because there was literally no one else to practice or play in the scrimmages.

Then the late arrivals had to try and get back up to conditioning speed with a shorter ramp-up time.

As a result, the Nuggets have been without Murray, Gary Harris (late arrival) and Will Barton (early arrival) for the first three restart games.

And yet, they hung with the Heat, leading at half, and then beat the Thunder and Spurs.

The Nuggets have been best when they are facing adversity and at their worst when they are in an advantageous position. They lost to the Cavaliers, Hawks and Pelicans at home this season. They beat the Jazz and Bucks on a road back-to-back with just seven active players.

Now, they lost to the Heat short-handed, and fell apart and failed to cover. But their upside is considerable when underdogs, and limited when favorites.

Two of the biggest revelations have come in the form of their youngsters. Michael Porter Jr. (MPJ) is a three-level scorer with long-term star potential. He posted 37 points and 12 boards vs. the Thunder and followed it up with 30 points and 15 boards vs. the Spurs.

Bol Bol has returned to sparse minutes in the actual restart games after lighting up the scrimmages. But his potential as a 7’2″ 3-point shooter with impossibly long arms still increases what they are capable of.

Denver is having to scrap and claw right now. That’s good in the short-term, it increases effort. It has long-term drawbacks, however. The playoffs are long, and oftentimes it’s a battle of attrition for who is healthier.

Being injured now doesn’t mean they won’t be later. It just means that they are likely undervalued in the market with these players out and will be overvalued upon their return and in the futures market.

The lone caveat is that if MPJ is really instantly making the leap to superstar, it drastically changes everything.

Heart (and Head) of a Champion

I’m just blindly betting the Raptors against the spread at this point. I took them on an adjusted line from -5.5 to -9.5 at plus-money vs. the Magic Wednesday and after some late stress, covered the alternate line.

Toronto is banking on old adage, “never underestimate the heart of a champion” to get it through, even if that champion’s best player now plays on another team.

In restart play, its offense continues to be middling. But its defense is so good and so versatile that it remains undefeated a week into play.

Much of the Raptors’ defensive wizardry is credited to Nick Nurse, and certainly Nurse’s willingness to think outside the box and ascribe whatever scheme best counters the offense is a testament to his prowess, as is the ability to coach the players to execute all these different variations on scheme.

But so much of what separates the Raptors is execution defensively, both in effort and technique. They run shooters off the line hard (even as they allow a huge number of 3s per game), they swipe effectively on drives. There are multiple efforts multiple times on the possession.

Watch the way they manipulate space here. Kyle Lowry showing hard to run the shooter off and force him to mid-range where he then has to kick it again. The final closeout running Davis off to force him into an uncomfortable shot.

There’s so much trust in the backline that perimeter defenders run off shooters with abandon.

That all starts because Marc Gasol is such a great rim protector without being a block threat that he prevents all manner of attempts.

Lowry drawing charges and swiping on help defense. Siakam interrupting post-ups with strength and swipes without fouling. It’s all part of the formula that leads Toronto to the best defense in the league, at least as far as playoff variables are concerned.

Raptors opponents have the highest expected effective field goal percentage in the league in the restart, per Cleaning the Glass. They’re expected to allow 54.5% eFG shooting. Instead, they have allowed 46.2%, the second-best effective field goal shooting allowed.

In related news, unders in Raptors games are 3-0 in the restart.

The Wizarding Woes of D.C.

I’m going to be blunt here: the Wizards should not be there. I was fine with the Wizards being invited to the bubble for whatever financial reasons they slid in, before the opt-outs.

But without Davis Bertans and Bradley Beal, there’s just nothing left of the team that was both a fun watch and a fun bet in the regular season.

There is a very strong possibility that the Wizards don’t even get within four games of the barely-an-NBA-team Nets for the play-in. That’s a pretty abject disaster. The bubble has held well for the time being, but having an extra 35-person traveling party was an unnecessary risk.

The next time we have a global pandemic and have to come up with a fair competitive system on short notice for play inside a closed campus, they really should get a clear sense of who is opting in and out before confirming the number of teams.

Pace(shot)makers

Indiana is undefeated through three games, lead by TJ Warren who leads all players in scoring so far in the restart.

His ability to score at all three levels is apparent. Warren was good in the regular season for the Pacers, great even, but nothing like what he’s done down in Orlando.

Much of the Pacers’ improved offense has come by virtue of Domantas Sabonis’ injury. When he went down, I thought the Pacers’ offense would grind to dirt with a low 3-point rate without their best passing man. But instead, Myles Turner looks revitalized at center, and without a true power forward for Nate McMillan to deploy, all of the units are using three guards with a wing forward who can shoot.

The Pacers’ 3-point rate isn’t really up considerably, but they are shooting a slightly higher rate of 3s and attacking the rim more and more.

Warren has soaked up the attention, but Aaron Holiday has played brilliantly alongside Turner, and Victor Oladipo is rounding into shape. Don’t put this team’s chances of advancing past the first round to bed just yet.

Bubble Trends

The obvious and outstanding trend has been how whistle-happy the officials have been. Foul rate is up to 25% from 20.5% in the regular season. But on top of it, scoring has been up at the rim.

There have been real issues containing perimeter containment with so many good teams in restart play.

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