Let's hop around the league for some of the NBA's best, brightest and worst:
10 things I like and don't like
1. A Ricky Renaissance, while it lasted
Well, that was fun. Before leaving Thursday's game with an injury, Ricky Rubio had hit double digits in scoring in five of Minnesota's previous six games while dishing 13 assists per game in that stretch. Rubio was playing with flair again after a moribund few weeks where it appeared he let his shaky shooting -- and perhaps uncertain future in Minnesota -- sap the zest from his game.
Rubio was jacking his midranger, and driving to the rim with a little more authority -- at least by his standards. He flashed some dribbling derring-do, and launched Kevin Love-level outlet passes:
This sounds hokey, but Rubio represents something larger than himself. He was a source of mystery and anticipation, and then of joy when he finally arrived here. He plays with such smiley exuberance. He cares about his teammates. He is happy in their success.
He is historically bad at the most basic and selfish basketball act, but otherworldly brilliant at dozens of tiny selfless things that make his teammates better -- passing a half-second early so that someone has more space to shoot, spotting a cutter on time, or taking an extra dribble into the lane to shift the defense the one last step that makes all the difference.
He is a vessel for our belief in a certain basketball magic: that a connector can lift his team to a higher place by empowering everyone around him -- by effectively spreading joy. Maybe that sharing carries a multiplier effect more powerful than the drag of Rubio's horrid shooting.
Alas, that hasn't really proved true. His shooting constrains Minnesota's offense, especially against good defenses who game plan for him. It is a barrier the Wolves have to fight through and around every night.
But for some stretches, the good parts of Rubio's game overcome that one handicap. We just went through one. Hope you enjoyed it.
2. The Spurs
For once, the crankiest San Antonio fans are right: We aren't talking about the Spurs enough. This was the year San Antonio finally felt a little rickety. Tim Duncan, rim protector for their historically great defense, walked away. The Spurs replaced with him Pau Gasol, slow and ground-bound, lacking Duncan's pinpoint ferocity.
Tony Parker is getting older; could the Spurs maintain their stinginess with Parker and Gasol bookending the defense? They couldn't even count on their vaunted Spursy continuity anymore. San Antonio turned over half its roster after last season. Surely it would take time to find its pass-and-cut harmony!
Nope. Nope, nope, and nope. The Spurs are 33-9, third in points allowed per possession and fourth in offensive efficiency. The bench whips the ball around as if Boris Diaw were still there. Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili have a special mind-meld, and when your two lead ball handlers dish and move like they do, the vibe is infectious. Nobody stands still. Jonathon Simmons has seen it up close for two years now, and both David Lee and Dewayne Dedmon have fit right in on the bench mob -- one expert passer, one above-the-rim finisher type the Spurs haven't had in a while. (Lee may have to start for a bit with Gasol nursing a broken finger.)
The starting five has always been able to slow things down and pound the ball to Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. But now that they're more comfortable with Gasol, they can pivot into a slower, calmer version of that whirring Spursy hyperactivity. Gasol and Aldridge are on fire from midrange, Danny Green has rediscovered his stroke, and Kawhi Leonard ... my god, Kawhi Leonard.
There are better scorers, and more explosive players. But I'm not sure anyone single-handedly turns as many games with 45-second spasms of defense and shooting. He'll pickpocket someone, nail a pull-up 3, create a turnover with a deflection, and then drill a jump hook -- and bam, the Spurs have blown open another game. LeBron has that two-way ability, but he reserves his best stuff for June.
What a team.
3. Thinking one step ahead of 'The Brook Lopez Switch.'
The little switch Portland tries, with Moe Harkless sliding from Batum to Cody Zeller, has become a classic end-of-quarter tactic: When the defense knows a pick-and-roll is coming under a time crunch, they swap a wing onto the screener and take their big man plodder out of the central action. I nicknamed it "The Brook Lopez Switch" a few years ago, when the Nets yanked Lopez out of the pick-and-roll every chance they got.
Walker sees it coming and slings the ball to Batum during that teensy window in which the Blazers are still mid-switch. That gives Batum a head start, and he takes advantage.
4. Jusuf Nurkic, turnover machine
It's not happening right now for the other half of the (mostly) dead Jurkic pairing. With Kenneth Faried rejuvenated, Nurkic is hurting for playing time. Perhaps the main reason: his hideous turnover rate.
The Bosnian Beast has coughed it up on 20 percent of the possessions he has finished with a shot, drawn foul, or turnover -- a gargantuan number for a big man. Only 10 guys 6-foot-10 or taller have ever tossed away so many possessions while hoarding as large a share of offense as Nurkic.
A lot of these gaffes are just careless. Nurkic is huge, and bowls over defenders in the post -- putting him at high risk for charging calls. He has slippery hands. He loves flicking fancy one-handed passes to cutters, but he often misfires or hits their legs.
He also loves hitting people. Sometimes he backs into a post-up with such force, the collision jars the ball loose.
Nurkic should be an efficient player. He's shooting 51 percent, he's a good passer, and he can bulldoze to the rim almost whenever he wants. But coaches won't trust him until he buttons up.
5. Marcus Smart, venturing into the post
In the playoffs, teams bust out matchup-specific strategies they might not bother with in the regular season. They aim to surprise. They go to greater lengths to shut down one weapon, and dare you to find a counter.
One such gambit for which Boston must prepare: teams slotting bigger wings onto Isaiah Thomas, and hiding their point guards on Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, or even Jae Crowder. This doesn't scare Boston, and it shouldn't. Nothing scares Isaiah Thomas. Put Leonard on him, and Thomas still thinks he can rain step-back fire.
Bradley can shoot over some little point guards, and Smart is developing a bruising post-up game -- one he broke out this week, when Atlanta assigned Thabo Sefolosha to Thomas and stashed its point guards on Smart:
Versatility is everything the playoffs. It is adapt-or-die territory. Smart's proficiency on the block gives Brad Stevens another tool.
6. Washington's unheralded big men
Break up the Wiz! Washington is 14-5 since mid-December, and its starting five has emerged as one of the league's best lineups. John Wall and Bradley Beal get most of the credit, and Otto Porter is on everyone's radar as in intriguing 3-and-some-D wing. But don't overlook Washington's big man duo of Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat, doing the dirty work and moving the ball from station to station.
Morris has never played this hard over an extended stretch. He'll never unearth the Draymond Lite skill set that is buried within him somewhere. He doesn't have the fast-twitch fire. He's shooting just 31 percent from deep, he adores toughie isolation shots, and he's just not a zippy pick-and-roll participant.
But he is playing with force. He's shoulder-blocking through guys around the rim, and defending with new energy across multiple positions.
He's battling bigger guys in the post, and looking comfortable switching onto perimeter players -- even unguardable studs like James Harden. He's not even yapping at the refs that much! This version of Morris isn't a star, but he's a nice complementary player. He fits.
Gortat has accepted a subordinate role without slacking on his grunt duties -- rebounding, solid defense, and setting nasty screens at ever-changing angles for Wall and Beal. Gortat is attempting just 8.7 shots and a measly 2.0 free throws in more than 35 minutes per game. Only 26 times in league history has a player logged so much time while getting so few cracks at putting the ball in the hoop.
Almost everyone else on that list was either a defensive specialist or shooting-phobic point guard; Ben Wallace, Shane Battier and Dennis Rodman account for 10 of the 26 qualifying player seasons. Gortat still fancies himself as more than that. He hasn't let being an afterthought impact the rest of his game.
Morris and Gortat will also flash some fun big-to-big passing.
7. The opportunism of JaMychal Green
Green plays hard and smart. He's a hungry offensive rebounder, but he's not crashing the glass willy-nilly, leaving the indefatigable Grizzlies in the lurch going the other way.
But when he senses a chance -- an open corridor to the rim, a size mismatch -- Green revs his motor to its highest gear:
That is smart basketball. Green drills little Ty Lawson with a pick, realizes Lawson is stuck on his back, and darts through a swath of open space for a putback Jam-Jam. The Grizzlies win because they stay within themselves, minimize mistakes, and play hard every damn second. Green has absorbed that ethos.
8. Hand admiration
This is getting out of hand. Every time a player scores with his weak hand, he holds it out in front of him and stares wide-eyed at it as if he has pulled a magic trick even he cannot believe. It doesn't matter if the shot is a ho-hum uncontested layup.
I'm not sure who started this trend, but we need a hard per-player limit on it. Overexposure kills the appeal of anything. If James Harden mimed the "I'm cookin'" gesture after every big shot, we'd roll our eyes.
Players should get like five self-hand-gazes per season, and they should be required to save them for high degree of difficulty shots. Drop in a lefty jump hook in traffic, over some big fella's outstretched arm? Stare at that thing like Bart after the cute neighborhood babysitter spit in his palm. Just don't overdo it.
9. The toughness of Harrison Barnes
It can take years to coax a wing player into sliding up a position, and transforming into a power forward. Ask the Cavs. Even now, in this small-ball era, the shift takes a physical toll. Most guys won't embrace it until they lose a step and can't quite scamper with wing players anymore.
Barnes just shrugged and became a full-time power forward in Dallas. And with the Mavs now starting Dirk Nowitzki at center in a super-small (and super fun!) lineup, Barnes almost always takes the tougher frontcourt assignment -- even if it's a post behemoth like Karl-Anthony Towns.
That isn't fun. It hurts. Barnes played a lot of small-ball power forward in Golden State, and famously guarded Zach Randolph in a playoff series. But doing it full time for six months is a different thing.
We've all praised Barnes for thriving in a high-usage role most people didn't think he could handle. He hasn't gotten enough credit for the sheer toughness of his new assignment on defense. He's taking one for the team.
10. The Taj Gibson rewind
With so little shooting, the Bulls find funkier ways to pry the lane open for Jimmy Butler's hunched-shoulder drives. Taj Gibson sculpts a subtle piece of hoops art with this moonwalk re-screen for Butler:
It almost looks like someone is rewinding a video. Gibson makes that read in the moment, but he does it with such purpose, it's clearly a technique he practices. The goal is simple: With one decoy cut toward the basket, Gibson gets Domantas Sabonis backpedaling -- and ensures Sabonis' momentum is working against him when Gibson veers back for that second screen.
Sabonis falls behind the play, and Butler has a nice pocket to build momentum.
By the way: Chicago is pretty ballsy nudging Fred Hoiberg onto the hot seat. They built a .500-level team with no shooting, and they have a .500-level team with no shooting.
BONUS No. 11: Coaches, get off the damn floor!
I've been railing about this for seven years now. I need some help, people. The rulebook is crystal clear on this: Teams should be assessed a technical whenever a head coach or assistant ventures onto the court beyond prescribed boundaries. Head coaches are allowed to stroll along the sideline toward half court to yell out plays, provided they retreat in a timely fashion. They are not allowed to step five feet onto the court during their meanderings. They are not allowed to randomly be outside the coach's box to scream, clap, flap their wings, or whatever other histrionics they might use to distract opposing players.
Assistants have to stay on the bench, period. They can yelp and clap from their seats when opposing shooters set up shop nearby, but it's sort of embarrassing to watch grown men in expensive suits turn into crazy youth sports parents.
What Sidney Lowe, the Wiz assistant, did Thursday night in the closing moments of Washington's win in New York was blatantly illegal in the moment. He stood on the court right next to a referee who decided to just ignore him. He tricked Courtney Lee into passing up a game-tying triple. That's not even the referee's fault. The NBA long ago decided to punt this rule. Usually, it doesn't matter; Erik Spoelstra does no damage while he ambles up the floor alongside his point guard during a typical half-court possession.
But occasionally you get something like this -- or Jason Kidd (intentionally) slamming into Mike Woodson in crunch time, or Stephen Jackson getting whistled for an unfair technical in the Western Conference finals for daring to yell back at the Thunder coaches and bench players taunting him. The NBA is great at ignoring rules until they come into the play at the end of close games, and then apologizing the next day. This one is simple, and it's on the books already: Get the coaches off the court.