• Amir Johnson has very subtly (and quite unexpectedly) become the Raptors' best two-way player this season, and the only high-functioning piece that consistently makes sense amid Toronto's disarray. That's an incredible accomplishment for a player thought to be overpaid at the time of his now-reasonable contract's signing, and a boon for a franchise otherwise loaded with redundant players on lucrative deals. Eric Koreen of the National Post shines some light on Johnson's development:
[Johnson] has slowly taken a bigger part of the offence, developing a dependable right-handed hook, while improving his turnover percentage this season compared to last. His jumper has become a reasonable threat. Over the past three years, he ranks 13th in the league, averaging 3.6 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes. He has shaved his foul rate down to 4.8 per 36 minutes.
But his biggest value is perpetually difficult to measure.
“You have to be willing to leave your guy knowing that sometimes another guy might forget his assignment and your guy might end up scoring,” Raptors centre Aaron Gray said of team defence. “That happens a lot, and you go, ‘OK, I’m going to stop helping other guys because they’re not helping me and it makes me look bad.’ With Amir, he knows how to play the game the right way. He doesn’t care who gets the credit. He’s going to make the right play every time. He’s going to try to do the right thing and continue to hope people have his back like he has ours.”
Be sure to head over to read Koreen's piece in full for lots of great perspective on Johnson's growth, along with some additional overflow quotes from all the principles involved that are well worth your time.
• An awesome look at the friendship of Stephen Jackson and Matt Bonner, which is as improbable as it is delightful.
• Also: Bonner may be on to something with his jokey block catchphrase.
• This has been a weird season for the Sixers, made weirder by some of Doug Collins' rotations and tactical decisions. Among those odd calls: a general disregard of sharpshooter Dorell Wright, who seemingly could be of some help on a team with such a cramped offense.
• I very much enjoyed Michael Pina's meditation on the aging -- and dwindling -- Gerald Wallace for The Classical. An excerpt:
Knowing that Wallace was due for a decline and understanding how that decline might look -- and how suddenly it could happen -- is not at all the same thing. In an era in which players all across the league have been able to sharpen different tools to account for a natural decline in physical ability, nearly all of Wallace's abilities seem to have deserted him at once. It's a collapse so complete that it defies analysis; even Wallace himself seems baffled by it.
After a career that began with three mostly lost years in Sacramento, pile-driving garbage-time dunks and generally learning on the job after just one year at Alabama, Wallace made a quick ascent -- he became a fantasy basketball beast, and a vital player on playoff teams in Charlotte and Portland. He was, during the Nets' miserable last year in Jersey, the team's best and most admirably engaged player. It's not that Wallace isn't getting the third act he deserves, although he isn't. It's that the third act seems barely to be happening at all.
• The Spurs are in need of a little something extra with Tony Parker limited and Manu Ginobili out of the lineup, but as J. Gomez explains for Pounding the Rock, Danny Green may have too specialized a skill set on both ends of the court to help in the broad strokes that San Antonio requires.
• A look at the statistical production of Kobe Bryant through a few age-related filters.
• Fantastic stuff here from Zach Lowe on the chess match between the league's most innovative defenses -- geared to wall off the paint and crowd the strong side of the floor -- and adaptable offenses.
The Knicks’ defensive rating over the last 12 games is 103.7, which would rank 17th for the season. That mark is virtually identical to their rating during the 20-21 stretch and just slightly worse than their rating during the 18-5 start.
So this is about scoring, and specifically Smith and Anthony, who have fueled the run with career-best streaks of their own.
Smith has averaged 23.8 points -- 10 above his career average -- while shooting .492 from the field. For the first time in a maddening nine-year career, Smith is showing some discipline in his game, driving to the basket more often and taking fewer 30-foot jumpers and crazy fadeaways (but also, hitting the ones he is taking). His true shooting percentage (which accounts for 2-pointers, 3-pointers and free throws) is 60.2 during the streak, which would rank him in the league’s top 25.
Smith’s hot hand carried the Knicks in the early part of the streak, and saved them on Anthony’s bad nights. While still recovering from his knee troubles, Anthony shot 61 for 147 (.415) over a six-game stretch. But the struggles were glossed over by the wins and forgotten after Anthony rattled off three straight games of 40-plus points (while shooting .642).
• Over at Magic Basketball, Jacob Frankel dug up and dug into a set that Jacque Vaughn had been running for Arron Afflalo -- a play filled with movement and diversions that afforded Afflalo plenty of space to curl into an open jumper. • On a semi-related note: Evan Dunlap of Orlando Pinstriped Post mounted a defense, in a sense, against the notion that Afflalo is overpaid.