That’s Pretty Interesting: Chris Paul’s resurgence for Rockets is the most important thing happening in the NBA

Chris Paul could hardly make a shot on Tuesday. He missed floaters, he missed midrange jumpers and he missed 3-pointers. Of his 10 field-goal attempts, he missed nine, and some were the sort of shots he can make in his sleep. Paul did not, however, have a bad game. He had 10 assists, six rebounds and two steals to go with his meager five points. Paul controlled the game when the Houston Rockets‘ second unit went on runs at the beginning of the second and fourth quarters — the first time, they broke the game open; the second time, they held the Raptors off. 

Houston’s 107-95 win was its sixth in a row. It is now 28-11 since its 11-14 start, tied for third in the Western Conference with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers. The Rockets have their mojo again, and Toronto coach Nick Nurse told reporters he could see them making the NBA Finals. Some of their success can be attributed to the fact that they finally have a full complement of healthy, NBA-caliber players at their disposal. Much of it, though, is because Paul has found his form.

Before his rough shooting night at Scotiabank Arena, Paul had averaged 18.7 points, 10 assists and 6.2 rebounds with a 62.6 percent true shooting percentage in the six games after the All-Star break. This wasn’t just a hot shooting stretch, though — lately, Paul has been getting to his spots as easily as he did last season, rather than laboring the way he often did earlier this season. There is a pep in Paul’s step, as evidenced by how excited he gets when he forces a big man to switch onto him. Look at what he did to DeMarcus Cousins during his 23-point, 17-assist, tour de force without James Harden:

There have been all sorts of classic CP3 moments on the Rockets’ recent run. Against Miami, he calmly hit his patented midrange jumper in crunch time:

In Boston, he split a pick-and-roll the sneakiest way possible, confusing the Celtics as he set up Eric Gordon for a wide-open 3:

And in Los Angeles, he hit a sidestep 3 over JaVale McGee‘s long, outstretched arms, the type of shot that you don’t take unless you’re feeling good about your game:

Playing like this, Paul allows Rockets to dream. Maybe those of us who thought they were the second-best team in the West before the season started weren’t crazy. Maybe, after the failed Carmelo Anthony experiment, the series of injuries and the scrap-heap signings, they are still the biggest threat to the Golden State Warriors. We know that Harden and Paul can manufacture points against them. We know that, when Houston executes its switching scheme well, it can take them out of their flow. 

The argument against the Rockets being a real contender is that their defense isn’t what it was 10 months ago. Their performances in Toronto and Boston were encouraging, but they rank 25th in defensive rating on the season. They know that won’t cut it in the playoffs. Reasonable people can disagree about how much upside they have on that end, but it wouldn’t even be worth talking about if not for Paul, who turns 34 in May, playing like a superstar again. Mere months ago, it was not uncommon to see him described as “washed.” No one is saying that anymore.

“No team has got a point guard like that in the world,” Houston wing Gerald Green said Tuesday, via the Houston Chronicle‘s Jonathan Feigen. “We’re lucky to have him. I’m lucky to play with him. Any time I’m on the floor with him, it’s a different vibe. I know what time it is. I know what to expect. I know what is coming. I know when the ball is coming.”

It feels a little obvious to spend this many words saying that the Rockets are more dangerous when they have two all-world players instead of one. What makes them special, though, is that, while some find their style off-putting, it is undeniably elegant in its simplicity. On just about every offensive possession, they want to spread the floor so that Harden, Paul or Eric Gordon can create. This version of Paul is necessary in order for this to work for 48 minutes and relieve some of the pressure on Harden. 

Had Paul lost a step, Houston would be just another decent playoff team. His resurgence suggests it can be much more than that. If he keeps this up, and the Rockets reestablish themselves on defense, this should be seen as the most important development in the league. 

Tatum doing superstar stuff

Gordon Hayward is understandably getting lots of love in Boston after his near-perfect 30-point outburst in the Celtics’ win against the Warriors on Tuesday and his game-winning shot against the Kings the next night. This feels like a big deal — they are much harder to handle when Hayward plays well — but Jayson Tatum deserves some attention, too. Tatum led Boston with 24 points in Kyrie Irving‘s absence on Wednesday, and Hayward might not have been in a position to be the hero in Sacramento if Tatum hadn’t made this clutch shot:

This is why every draft expert described Tatum as “smooth.” Spinning into a one-legged fadeaway over two defenders should be a horrible idea. It takes incredible balance and body control to merely attempt that shot without being rushed. Tatum made it and, somehow, it looked natural. Only the very best scorers in the league do that kind of thing regularly. 

Even if you’re not generally a fan of the midrange game, you have to appreciate Tatum’s ability to make something out of nothing. His upside rests on the fact that he can he space the floor and guard multiple positions, plus he has a big bag of tricks. Look at this leaner after he gets Stephen Curry in the air:

Neither of these plays, however, made me yell at the TV the way his chasedown block on Kevin Durant did. I can’t believe he just grabbed the ball like that:

Watching Tatum, it’s hard not to wonder what he could be doing if he was the undisputed No. 1 option on his team. It’s also hard not to think about the fact that he could be a member of the New Orleans Pelicans in a few months. 

I get that Boston has to put him on the table if it wants to acquire Anthony Davis after the season, and I can’t seriously argue that this would be a bad move. If I were a Celtics fan, though, I’d feel conflicted. When your favorite team drafts somebody with this much talent, you don’t want to watch him turn into a star elsewhere. 

The mixtape: LAURI! 

If you haven’t heard “LAURI” by Victor Nordis, the Finnish rap song about Lauri Markkanen, I am here to fix that. I can’t say that I improved on the original music video, but I can say that I have tried to illustrate Markkanen’s improvement with a mixtape, using the only song appropriate for something like this:

There aren’t a bunch of spot-up 3s, pick-and-pops or simple face-up jumpers in the video, as everybody knows he can do that stuff. The fun part about Markannen’s breakout is that he has shown that he can score from anywhere. He pushes the ball in transition and makes wing-like plays off the dribble. Markannen hasn’t been all that efficient this week, but he has made so much progress over the past few months. 

Checking in on … Kyle Lowry

With the exception of an underwhelming performance against Houston, Kyle Lowry has been awesome for the Raptors lately. His shooting and assertiveness have been inconsistent this season, though, and his All-Star selection was somewhat controversial — with his per-game numbers down, the argument for his inclusion was that his advanced stats remained excellent and he made his teammates better. 

In Lowry’s case, it is worth looking at precisely how much of an effect he has on his teammates. He has a reputation as a smart player who knows how to run an offense, but did you know that he increases Toronto’s effective field goal percentage by 4.7 percent and its 3-point percentage by 5.9 percent when he’s on the court? These marks put him in the 96th and 97th percentile of all players, per Cleaning The Glass. 

Another way to look at it: Here is how the Raptors’ role players have shot with and without Lowry on the court:

FG% with Lowry

3PT% with Lowry

FG% without Lowry

3PT% without Lowry

Danny Green

0.451

0.458

0.430

0.361

Serge Ibaka

0.533

0.269

0.491

0.275

O.G. Anunoby

0.504

0.409

0.408

0.305

Fred VanVleet

0.463

0.438

0.375

0.333

Norman Powell

0.568

0.575

0.414

0.244

I guess what I’m saying is that, while Kawhi Leonard is clearly the best player in Toronto, Lowry is still the engine of the team. 

Hmmmm: Green says Cousins shouldn’t be blamed for Warriors’ defense

The Warriors are just 16th in defensive rating this season, and they’ve had some stinkers lately, including their 128-95 loss to the Boston Celtics on Tuesday. Opposing teams have targeted DeMarcus Cousins in pick-and-rolls, and Golden State has been reluctant to switch him onto smaller players, leading to some concern about how he fits on that end. On Wednesday, Draymond Green stuck up for his teammate, arguing that the big man shouldn’t be the scapegoat. 

“So many people are looking at the starting lineup and saying ‘Oh, DeMarcus in there, the defense is worse,'” Green said, via The Athletic’s Anthony Slater. “But our defense has been horseshit no matter who is in there.”

Three things:

1. What a magnificent way to put it. Green remains one of the league’s best quotes.

2. He is not wrong: The Warriors have given up 108.6 points per 100 possessions with Cousins on the court and 108.9 points per 100 possessions without him on the court. It is not fair to blame Cousins for all of their problems, as this is a broader issue that is mostly about their level of urgency in the regular season. I’d be stunned if Golden State didn’t play much more intense, disciplined defense when it really matters.

3. I can’t just let Cousins off the hook. I don’t expect him to be a dominant rim protector, nor do I expect him to fly all over the court and keep speedy guards out of the paint. At his best, though, Cousins is capable of taking charges, getting deflections, moving his feet quickly and contesting shots without fouling. It would be disingenuous to pretend that teams won’t try to exploit his weaknesses in the postseason, and it would be silly to pretend that his defense is a total non-issue. 


10 more stray thoughts: I kind of wish the Lakers didn’t have to play basketball games anymore … I feel bad for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who is completely out of the Hornets‘ rotation … For now, it’s best to keep expectations for Isaiah Thomas pretty low … It’s still unclear what is fair to expect of Caris LeVert … The Rockets have proven that assists aren’t the best measure of the health of an offense, but, in the case of the Knicks, it’s pretty accurate … I’m not sure what to make of all this winning the Pistons are doing … There is too much Player’s Only … I wonder what the Heat‘s season would have looked like if Goran Dragic had been healthy the whole time … No way it happens, but Jimmy Butler‘s comments about Jim Boylen made me think about how hilarious it would be if he went back to Chicago in free agency … Everybody’s going to be saying “watch out for the Jazz!” soon.

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