Toronto @ Cleveland, 7 pm, NBATV. With Amir Johnson now raining threes in Boston, and Bismack Biyombo doing, well, whatever you call that basketball-like garbage they’re playing in Orlando, this season’s enrollee at the Dwane Casey School for Defensive Bigs is Lucas Noguiera. Unused in Toronto’s first five games, the 24-year-old Brazilian better known as ‘Bebe’ has earned extended minutes since joining the Raptors’ rotation last Sunday — he’s made 15 of his 17 field goal attempts, and averages 3.5 blocks and 2.4 steals per 36 minutes. He flashes better hands than Biyombo, and at seven feet tall and with impossibly long arms, is starting to pick up the timings and rhythms of team defense. On Saturday against the Knicks, he blocked five shots in just 25 minutes, and recognized to help onto Carmelo as soon as Norman Powell moved to the weak side:
Can we talk about how awesome those jerseys were, too? The Raptors went Maple Leaf blue to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Toronto Huskies, who lasted just one season in the Basketball Association of America, the direct precursor to the NBA. In fact, the Huskies’ opened that season with a showdown against these same New York Knickerbockers on November 1, 1946, at Maple Leaf Gardens. In what is widely considered the first NBA game ever played, the Knicks rode 14 points from Leo Gottlieb and 11 from Ossie Schectman to what I can only assume was a riveting 68-66 victory.
Atlanta @ Miami, 7:30 pm. Zach Lowe touched on this last week, but damn, Hassan Whiteside blocked shots are just something else. At 7-foot-1, with a wingspan of 7-7 and a 31.5-inch vertical leap, Whiteside doesn’t just block shots, he inhales them, forcing an instant turnover and preventing even the chance of an offensive rebound opportunity:
I’m sorry, Dante Exum, it’s not your fault. That’s so much more impressive, soul-crushing, and shame-inducing than any spike block that goes into the eighth row. There are MAYBE two or three other people in the world that have Whiteside’s combination of size, length, and hops (your move, Rudy and Giannis), which goes a long way to explaining why he’s second in the NBA in blocks, after leading the league last year in his first full season.
Charlotte @ Minnesota, 8 pm. Happy birthday, Karl-Anthony Towns! The reigning Rookie of the Year turns 21 today, joining fellow Baby Wolves Zach LaVine (discussed here a few days ago) and Andrew Wiggins in reaching legal drinking age. Wiggins, the elder statesman of the bunch — he turns 22 in February — just set his career high in scoring twice in one week, culminating in a 47-point masterpiece against the Lakers. His offensive game was thought to lag behind his ball-stopping skills as the number one overall pick in 2014, but Maple Jordan’s size, skill, and aggressiveness have conspired to build him quite the scoring arsenal already. On Saturday, he hit off the dribble, at the rim, on catch-and-shoot opportunities, in transition, and attacked the paint to the tune of 22 free throw attempts. Using over 30 percent of Minnesota’s possessions this season, he’s tenth in the league in scoring, at 26.3 points per game, and has been in the top seven in free throws in both of his NBA seasons.
Once again, Steve Clifford has a rim protection-deficient Hornets team suffocating opponents on the perimeter and near the top of the defensive leaderboard. Nic Batum is playing much more shooting guard than in years past, where his extra length gives most guards trouble, while small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is wreaking absolute havoc in his return from shoulder surgery. Kidd-Gilchrist is physical, he’s long, he’s athletic, and he’s aggressive as hell. He’s also fifth in the league in defensive rating among players with 30 minutes per game, and has a defensive Box Plus/Minus of 4.0, good for tenth in the league. Charlotte, even with starting center Roy Hibbert still recovering from a knee injury (he blocked five shots in the opener, got hurt early in the Hornets’ second game, and has played 26 minutes since), is sixth in points against, and fourth in defensive rating. Since Clifford was hired in the 2013 offseason, Charlotte has never finished outside of the top ten in points allowed, either per game or per possession.
Chicago @ Portland, 10 pm, NBATV. I’m not willing to put this all on Derrick Rose, but the end of that partnership has certainly done wonders for Jimmy Butler, now the unquestioned top dog in Chicago. With a roster that needs every bit of his shot creation, Butler is using more possessions than ever, while also sporting career-high efficiency: he is, as literally as is possible on a .600 NBA team, doing everything for the Bulls’ seventh-ranked offense. As Dwyane Wade’s shot cools off, Butler has dutifully stepped up — in Chicago’s past three games, he’s averaging 32 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds, and 4 steals per game, on .500/.429/.889 shooting. The three-time-defending All Defense second-teamer is conserving more energy on that end, but Butler has ascended to the level of true superstar.
Greg Oden went on Outside The Lines last week, telling ESPN that his playing career is over, and that he’ll “be remembered as the biggest bust in NBA history.” I think that’s true as far as public perception is concerned, especially as Kevin Durant reaches ever-greater heights, but was curious whether that held up to tighter scrutiny. Since the ABA/NBA merger in 1976, the only retired first pick with fewer career Win Shares than Oden’s 7.3 is Michael Olowokandi, taken atop what was thought to be a weak 1998 draft (Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, and Paul Pierce say what up!). We all know about the injuries, but Oden showed glimpses of being a phenomenal player when healthy: at just 21 and 22 years old, already after his first microfracture surgery, he averaged 15.3 points, 11.9 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per 36 minutes over his 82 games in Portland.
Brooklyn @ LA Lakers, 10:30 pm. Significantly worse than both Olowokandi and Oden, however, is 2013 number one Anthony Bennett, currently languishing on the end of the Nets’ bench and at risk of falling out of the league before his rookie contract even wraps up. Bennett, on his fourth team in four years, received DNPs in four of Brooklyn’s ten contests so far, and played nine minutes total in his previous three games before seeing extended garbage-time minutes in last night’s blowout loss to Staples Center’s red-hued tenants. Undersized and underathletic, Bennett has lost all confidence in his playmaking and finishing around the rim; the career 25.9 percent three-point shooter is now indiscriminately jacking a triple every time he touches the ball because he’s afraid to do anything else with it. It’s a joke for such a bad shooter to attempt ten three-pointers per 36.
Despite Luke Walton deflecting attention away from the officials and trying to downplay the impact of Wiggins’ 22 free throw attempts in the Timberwolves’ 125-99 win Saturday, Lakers players sure noticed.
“Anybody in this league is capable of doing that when you go to the free-throw line that many times,” [D’Angelo] Russell said. “It makes the game easy for you, especially when you can score the ball and see the ball go in a few times. The rim seems like an ocean out there. He had a great game.”
While some of the calls sending Wiggins to the stripe were questionable, particularly late, Russell should not ignore the lesson to learn here: there are ample free points available, every game, if they’re willing to attack the basket and not settle for jumpers. Right now, the Lakers sit in the bottom third of the league in both free throw attempts and free throw rate; as their most frequent shooter, Russell is also the main culprit. Despite pre-draft comparisons to foul-drawing extraordinaire James Harden, one of the major knocks on Russell is his athleticism — his lack of explosiveness keeps him from slicing his way into the paint and creating contact. The 6-foot-5 guard is taking fewer than 13 percent of his shots at the rim this season, and for his career averages just 2.5 free throws a game.