Atlanta @ Washington, 7 pm. Hey, I’m going to this one! John Wall struggled mightily in Atlanta during Washington’s opener, bricking eight midrange jumpers and attempting only two shots at the rim in a 15-point loss. Hindsight tells us that may say more about the Hawks’ long, switchy, havoc-wreaking defense than it does about Wall, who has spent the past two games looking more like himself. Though the Wizards fell to both Memphis and Toronto, Wall averaged 27.5 points and 12 assists, hitting more than half of his shots. In Wednesday’s loss to the Raptors, the now-26-year-old got to the rim at will, making 13 shots within the restricted area.
While Wall has settled in at his true level once again, Paul Millsap just keeps getting better, and while I hate these kinds of arguments, it’s damn near impossible to say he’s not the most underrated player in the league. Formerly a non-shooter, he’s hit more than 70 threes in each of the last three seasons. This season, he’s been entrusted to anchor several second-unit lineups that are absolutely demolishing opponents; he’s ticked both his usage and assist rate over 25 percent, career highs in each, to shoulder a bigger load with the reserves. The Hawks’ most potent five-man combo has been Malcolm Delaney-Tim Hardaway, Jr.-Thabo Sefolosha-Millsap-Mike Muscala, who have outscored their competition by 20 in just 19 minutes together. Seeing action in all four games, they’ve hit 65 percent from the floor, 75 percent from deep, and have assisted on 16 of their 22 field goals. And it all starts with Millsap, now the unquestioned best player in Atlanta.
Miami @ Toronto, 7:30 pm. The Heat have sandwiched twin 108-96 wins over Orlando and Sacramento around close losses to the Hornets and Spurs, both presumptive playoff teams. Hassan Whiteside is annihilating fools at the rim on either end, and has upped his offensive responsibility while keeping his shot-making and defense at elite levels. After an offseason spent facing more questions about his maturity and ability to keep focus after signing a max contract, Whiteside leads the league in rebounding, blocks, and sits third in field goal percentage — a year after finishing third, first, and third, respectively, in those categories. Taking 16.5 shots per 36 minutes (four more than his previous career high), with fewer than half coming at the rim for the first time since his Miami rebirth, he’s hitting the rest of his close-range (3-9 feet) shots at an all-time high, and making better than 60 percent from the field yet again.
With Russell Westbrook’s shooting struggles last night, DeMar DeRozan is your new NBA scoring leader! Fresh off of Wednesday’s 40-point barrage to defeat Washington, the two-time All-Star became just the fourth player in the past 30 years to kick off a season with four straight 30-point games (yes, that sentence had lots of confusing and parallel numbers — get over it), joining Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Durant. Already a master of the midrange, DeRozan has taken his in-between game to sizzling — and, granted, unsustainable — heights. 58 of his shot attempts have come between 10 feet and the three-point line, and he’s draining them at a mind-boggling 58.6 percent clip.
Charlotte @ Brooklyn, 7:30 pm. The Hornets have won three of their first four games by defending, defending, and defending. They’ve allowed the second-fewest points per game in the league, and sit fifth in pace-adjusted defense. With an undersized frontcourt that attacks with speed and versatility rather than size and verticality, Charlotte has given up just 50.4 percent shooting inside six feet — the second-lowest mark in the league, and more than ten percentage points lower than what their opponents traditionally average on identical shots. Built around the ox-strong, switchy, explosive, intelligent, and every-other-hyperbolic-adjective-imaginable Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the Hornets sit third in the league in shots contested, challenging more than 70 opponent shots per game.
Though Jeremy Lin will sit out tonight’s showdown against his former team — he’s schedule to miss at least two weeks with a strained hamstring — Brook Lopez is now a long-range specialist, so there’s no need for Brooklyn to fret. Entering the season, the seven-foot post-up maven had knocked down just a trio of three-pointers in his career. In the first half Wednesday against Detroit, Lopez stroked four triples, and finished the game with eight attempts from deep.
New York @ Chicago, 8 pm, ESPN. The Bulls are not only treading water when staggering the minutes between Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade, but are thriving when the two wings, with seemingly-redundant skill sets and roles in the Chicago offense, share the court. Lineups featuring both Butler and Wade have obliterated teams by 21 points in their 73 minutes on the court together, with Fred Hoiberg’s preferred starting five (these two, plus Rajon Rondo, Taj Gibson, and Robin Lopez) plus-15 in 52 minutes. Early concerns about spacing may have been prudent though, as despite a third-in-the-league 40.9 percent mark from three, the team has hit just 28 percent when Rondo, Wade and Butler join forces.
Through four games, New York sits in the bottom seven in field goal percentage against, have allowed the third-highest three-point percentage in the league, and are hemorrhaging 112.1 points per 100 possessions. After a 118-99 home loss to Houston, in which the the Rockets shot 47.2 percent earned second chances on over 41 percent of their misses, Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose lamented the Knicks’ lack of defensive energy and awareness compared to their Tom Thibodeau-era Bulls teams. With Phil Jackson’s strong hand in choosing both the coach and the system, guard Courtney Lee wondered yesterday whether the practice-time focus on Jackson’s preferred triangle offense is hampering the team at the other end, not giving them enough reps against common, non-triangle looks that the rest of the league runs.
LA Clippers @ Memphis, 8 pm. Tony Allen came off the bench in his season debut Tuesday, and by the next night, coach David Fizdale re-inserted the shooting guard into Memphis’ starting lineup. In the three games Allen missed with a swollen knee, Memphis shot 44 percent from three on upwards of 26 attempts per game; unsurprisingly, the team has hit just eight of their 51 triples in the two games that the veteran bricklayer has seen the court. Even though Andrew Harrison didn’t play particularly well in Allen’s stead, the mere threat of him doing SOMETHING offensively forced teams to respect him more than they do Allen. He’s shooting 20 percent from the field, 40 percent from the line, and his only three-point attempt so far this year went like this:
Opponents literally do not guard him. Once Steve Kerr solved Memphis’ bully-ball conundrum by planting Andrew Bogut in the paint, only to take the briefest of steps towards Allen every 2.98 seconds, the rest of the league had the blueprint. At one time, he could keep an offense moving with his heady passing and cutting, but age and injury have eroded even those skills; he’s asking his teammates to play 4-on-5 every time down the floor. Sometime soon, Fizdale is going to have to decide that Allen’s defense, which slipped according to many comprehensive metrics despite his All-Defense recognition, just isn’t worth the scoring hit.
Phoenix @ New Orleans, 8 pm. Falling to 0-5 Tuesday night, New Orleans put forth their most putrid effort of the season, scoring just 83 points in an overtime loss to the Grizzlies. Outside of a big second quarter, spurred on by a weird Langston Galloway-Buddy Hield-Lance Stephenson-Terrence Jones-Omer Asik lineup, the Pelicans were at least consistent in their futility. They scored 13 points in the first quarter, 11 (?!?!) in the third, won the run-n-gun final quarter 16-9 to take it to overtime, then put just two points on the board in the first 4:27 of the extra frame, allowing Memphis to pull away.
Discussed at length on Tuesday, TJ Warren continues to thrive as Phoenix’s go-to scorer. Climbing into the win column with a 118-115 last-second victory over the Trail Blazers, Warren scored a game-high 27 points, hitting half of his career-high 22 shots as well. Young Alex Len had his best game of the season too, knocking down 6-of-10 from the field and all six of his free throws for 18 points. Lead guard Eric Bledsoe, healthy again after a knee injury limited him to just 31 games in what was shaping up to be a career year last season, poured in 20 of his own, including the game’s most important bucket, at the overtime buzzer:
Portland @ Dallas, 8:30 pm. I’m not sure if anyone has heard from him since Tuesday, but someone should probably check and make sure Evan Turner is still alive, after Brandon Knight did this to him in the aforementioned Suns game:
Now 30 and a year and a half removed from his devastating Achilles tear, Wes Matthews is leading the league in minutes, racking up more than 38 a game for a Dallas team DESPERATE for an infusion of youth and depth. Rick Carlisle runs five players out on the court for more than 30 minutes a game; those five average 31.2 years old, with Harrison Barnes the only rotation player still in his twenties. Facing a hefty bit of offensive and defensive responsibility to go with his declining explosiveness and agility, Matthews has been forced out to the perimeter even more than in his Portland days. Entering tonight’s showdown with his former teammates, the Texas native is leading the league in shots of 20-plus and 25-plus feet, hitting just under 24 percent of his tries from beyond 20.
San Antonio @ Utah, 9 pm. In these teams’ first meeting of the season, Tuesday night in San Antonio, Utah caught fire from the opening tip, winning 106-91 to hand the Spurs their lone defeat. After Rodney Hood missed from deep on their first possession of the game, the Jazz hit their next seven threes, scoring 38 in the opening quarter. The Spurs, led by Kawhi Leonard’s 30 points, clawed their way back, but Utah put the game out of reach with another shooting barrage late - Hood, George Hill, Trey Lyles, and Joes Johnson and Ingles all hit threes in the fourth quarter to pull away.
Gregg Popovich will sit Danny Green and Tony Parker tonight, the latter needing mental rest and recuperation as much as he needs time to heal his sore right knee. Declining fairly precipitously since the 2012-13 season, the now-34-year-old point guard is averaging just 5.5 points per game and hitting only 33 percent from the floor. Parker just can’t get to the hoop anymore, and though he finished among the giants on the paint-scoring leaderboards in his prime, 2016-17 Parker has only taken 12.5 percent of his field goals at the rim. Instead, he’s resorted to tossing up pull-up jumpers from outside the lane, never his specialty - or worse, standing at the top of the key and watching the offense go to work without him.
Golden State @ LA Lakers, 10:30 pm, ESPN. One of the huge subplots entering last night’s Westbrook-Durant showdown was the disappearance of Golden State’s perimeter shooting. Klay Thompson had made just three of his first 28 attempts, and aside from Stephen Curry, the entire rest of the Warriors roster was shooting 17-of-78 from downtown, connecting on just 21.8 percent. Thompson buried four of his eight triples, Durant went 7-of-11 from behind the arc, and Golden State rained in 120 or more points for the third time in five games.
The polar opposite of Steve Kerr’s tight, easily-understood rotation will sit across the scorer’s table from him tonight. Due to injury, inconsistency, and, well, old dudes being old dudes, Luke Walton has 13 freaking players averaging more than ten minutes per game. Theoretical star D’Angelo Russell is just 20, but his shooting comes in streaks and his playmaking often doesn’t come at all. He’d look sharper with a better cadre of teammates, but early returns on Russell appear mixed, at best.