Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
LeBron James and the reigning champion Lakers are on the cusp of first-round elimination, and it’s not difficult to pinpoint why.
Playing with more weight on his broad shoulders without fellow star Anthony Davis, the 36-year-old hasn’t been able to produce the way he’s used to when he pushes toward the basket against the Suns.
James has hit just 50% of his shots stemming from drives—the worst playoff finishing rate he’s had in five years. And if he’s looked a tad passive at times in this series, that’s because his 46.5% pass rate out of drives this postseason is the highest he’s posted since the NBA began tracking such data back in 2013.
This isn’t to suggest he’s been ineffective, or to suggest James is the reason Los Angeles could be sent packing for vacation Thursday night. Quite the opposite, actually. Even in a series that’s far beneath his own lofty standards, James is averaging 22.2 points and 8.2 assists on 48.9% shooting. The Lakers have outscored Phoenix by 3.3 points per 100 possessions with James on the court.
By contrast, they’ve been blasted by 31 points per 100 possessions in this series when James takes breathers, scoring just 75.4 points per 100 plays in his absence. This is but one area where Davis’s injury absence severely hampers the club. The other way it clearly hinders things: spacing. It’s no secret that Los Angeles enjoys far more of it when Davis can play, and far less of it when using center Andre Drummond.
Any way you slice it, the Lakers have been brutal from outside, hitting just 30.1% of their three-point attempts with James on the floor (not counting James’s attempts), and just 22.0% of their triples when James is off the court. In fact, aside from James (39.5% from three) and backup Marc Gasol (7-for-11, or 63.6% from three), every other Laker with at least two attempts has found himself under 35% this series. Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (who has been playing through injury) have shot a combined 2-for-20 on wide-open threes in this series, according to data from NBA.com. None of these things opens more room for James. And even when he’s gotten to the rim and been fouled, he’s hit just 58.8% of his free throws.
It doesn’t mean the Lakers can’t come back and win the series. But if they’re going to, it likely needs to start with some of the role players knocking down a few shots to give James more to work with.
Speaking of dominant ballhandlers having to do it all themselves—and Los Angeles basketball teams being in deep trouble—how about that Luka Dončić fellow, who has the Clippers on the brink?
On Wednesday, in a LeBron-like performance, Dončić scored 42 points, had eight boards and dished out 14 assists. When the dust settled on Game 5, the third-year superstar had either made or assisted on 31 of the Mavericks’ 37 baskets in their pivotal 105–100 victory in Los Angeles. That 83.8% rate of involvement marks the highest rate for any player in NBA postseason history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Not bad for a 22-year-old, who was coming off a neck strain earlier in the week, and who had only one teammate (Tim Hardaway Jr.) finish in double figures.
He didn’t finish the game the torrid way he began it, with 19 points and five threes in the first period alone. Dončić shot just 1-for-8 in the fourth. But there was probably a reason for that. He played 43 minutes; partly because the Clippers had their way with Dallas—outscoring the Mavs by 10 points—in the five minutes he sat out. By contrast, the Mavericks won Dončić’s minutes by 15 points.
On Tuesday, Damian Lillard had one of the closest things we’ve seen to Michael Jordan’s 63-point game against the Celtics. The Blazers guard notched 55 points in a double overtime loss, singlehandedly keeping Portland in a contest none of his teammates made meaningful contributions to in the late stages.
Yet despite Lillard’s performance for the ages, all I can think about is the play surefire MVP Nikola Jokić made to basically win the game. As I watch it and rewatch it, I see not only the brilliance of the play itself, but also why so many fans are still in the dark about how deserving Jokić truly is of the award.
Let’s break down the beauty of it first. The score is tied at 140, with about 100 seconds left. It begins with him around the right elbow, guarded in single coverage by Enes Kanter. Norm Powell is defending Michael Porter Jr. until Porter clears out to the opposite corner to give Jokić the space to post up.
Jokić already has 38 points on the night, and in this scenario, Portland is more than willing to sell out to make sure he doesn’t beat them by taking advantage of a player who’s not known for his defense. So once Porter leaves the area, the 6' 4" Powell comes over and puts a second face in front of Jokić. But he does so a bit too calmly. Powell is just standing there for one second. Two seconds. Three seconds.
Jokić, displaying the patience of a saint, willingly accepts the double team without so much as dribbling. (His statuesque play, with no dribbling or movement, is among the most fascinating things about him.) The entire time, he’s merely trying to negotiate traffic while looking at the left side of the floor. He sees Lillard stuck in between two players on the wing, in Austin Rivers and Aaron Gordon. Out of the corner of his eye, he also sees Porter in the corner, but knows he’s too tightly covered by Robert Covington to make the skip pass all the way to him, especially while being double-teamed.
So what does Jokić do? He puts the ball in his left hand, while motioning to Gordon with his right, telling him to make a back-door cut through the lane. (He’s still being double-teamed, and as he does this, Powell is coming after the ball, since Jokić seems to be safeguarding it less with the one-handed motion.)
But as Gordon slices into and forces Lillard and Covington to take a step or two in toward the paint to guard against an open layup—just like Jokić the chessmaster wanted—the big man makes them pay for neglecting Porter the slightest bit. Porter was a 49% shooter from the corner this season. And through patience, some air-traffic control and Jokić using his eyes to throw off the defense, he plays Porter open.
Then there’s the actual pass itself, which Jokić lofted like an eephus pitch instead of rifling it to Porter. The cadence of the dish appeared to throw off Covington, who leapt before stumbling to the floor.
It was arguably the best pass of the season by the best passer in the league in the biggest game of the Nuggets’ season. It wasn’t a dunk. It wasn’t one of Jokić’s beautiful, one-legged Sombor Shuffle jumpers. It wasn’t even on one of the premier channels—the Suns were spanking James and the Lakers by almost 30 points on TNT when Jokić made the play.
But it was the sort of unselfish, game-breaking sequence he’s made all year, the kind you can only notice and fully appreciate if and when you watch him play.