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Friday's notebook: Alex Caruso more than just a fan favorite

A look at 5 trends around the league, including Jimmy Butler's struggles in the clutch

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

Happy Friday! We’re more than 70% through the season and the playoffs are just seven weeks away. Here are some things of note as we head into the Week 19 weekend…

1. Caruso magic

Usually, when you browse the plus-minus column in a box score, the numbers for reserves on the same team don’t vary much. The bench guys played most of their minutes together and the team either performed well, poorly, or average in those minutes.

But in the Lakers’ win over the Pelicans on Tuesday, we saw the following from four of L.A.’s six reserves…

  • Kyle Kuzma: -19 in 12:17
  • Rajon Rondo: -17 in 11:31
  • Dwight Howard: +12 in 18:17
  • Alex Caruso: +20 in 17:22

Kuzma and Caruso both came off the bench, but the only time they were on the floor together was the last 46 seconds of the game, when Lakers coach Frank Vogel took out his two All-Stars — LeBron James and Anthony Davis — with his team up 11. Caruso didn’t enter the game until the 8:48 mark of the second quarter.

Single-game plus-minus can help tell the story of the night, but it shouldn’t lead to any conclusions beyond those 48 minutes. Still, the Lakers outscoring their opponents by more than a point per minute with Caruso on the floor isn’t a total anomaly.

Caruso ranks ninth on the Lakers and fifth among Laker guards in minutes per game (18.0), behind Rajon Rondo (20.8). But the best team in the West has been at its best with Caruso on the floor. In his 972 total minutes, the Lakers have outscored their opponents by 12.2 points per 100 possessions, the *third best on-court NetRtg mark among non-Bucks who have averaged at least 15 minutes in 30 games or more.

* Behind those of the Nuggets’ Paul Millsap (+14.0) and the Raptors’ Terence Davis (+12.3).

In 445 minutes with both James and Caruso on the floor, the Lakers have outscored their opponents by 24.7 points per 100 possessions, the best mark among 719 combinations that have played at least 400 minutes together.

Caruso ranks 270th in usage rate (having used just 13.6% of the Lakers possessions while he’s been on the floor) among 319 players who have played at least 500 minutes. His 11.0 points and 3.7 assists per 36 minutes rank 276th and 102nd among that same group of 319 players.

But his impact is felt on the other end of the floor, where the Lakers have allowed less than a point per possession in his 972 minutes. His 2.1 steals and 4.0 deflections per 36 both rank 10th. At a key moment in that win over the Pelicans on Tuesday, Caruso blocked Lonzo Ball at the rim and then stole the ball from his former teammate two possessions later. The Pelicans, who rank fourth offensively since Christmas (114.9 points scored per 100 possessions), scored just 31 points on 42 possessions with Caruso on the floor.

It seems that Vogel hasn’t totally bought into Caruso’s plus-minus magic. The guard has averaged fewer minutes since Jan. 1 (15.4) than he did prior (20.0). No five-man lineup that includes Caruso has played more than 71 total minutes, and the two that have played more than 33 minutes also include Rondo.

But Vogel has, more often than not, had Caruso on the floor with the game on the line. Caruso has played 36.5% of his regulation (non-overtime) minutes in the fourth quarter, a rate which ranks *second among 267 players who have played at least 750 regulation minutes total. Some of that is garbage time, but Caruso ranks fourth on the team in clutch minutes. The Lakers have played 25 games that were within five points in the last five minutes, and he’s been on the floor down the stretch of 18 of those.

* The Pacers’ Doug McDermott is the player who has played the largest percentage of his regulation minutes (38.5%) in the fourth quarter. At the other end of the list, this season’s Carlos Boozer if you will, is the Clippers’ Ivica Zubac, who has played only 5.5% of his regulation minutes in the fourth quarter. The Lakers’ JaVale McGee (9.3%), Danny Green (14.3%) and Avery Bradley (14.7%) are third, seventh and ninth from the bottom.

The Lakers didn’t get the playmaking guard they were seeking in the buyout market. But they may benefit by giving a little more playing time to one they already have on the roster.

Their next opportunity to do so is Saturday, when the Lakers visit the Memphis Grizzlies (8 ET, League Pass). They’ll then play the Pelicans again in the second game of a back-to-back on Sunday (8 ET, ESPN).

2. Creativity in Houston

Whether they’re playing with a center or without one, the Houston Rockets do not have the most complicated offense. The floor is spread and the ball is in James Harden’s hands. The Rockets rank 30th in player movement, with their five players averaging just 10.6 miles traveled per 24 minutes of possession. Over the course of a game, few plays are called.

But watch closely when the Rockets come out of a timeout (or at the start of a period), and you’ll see some creative stuff from coach Mike D’Antoni. According to Synergy tracking, the Rockets lead the league in after-timeout efficiency, having scored 1.06 points per possession out of timeouts.

They rank second offensively overall (114.0 points scored per 100 possessions), and there’s obviously a strong correlation between overall efficiency and after-timeout efficiency. But when you compare the two, the Rockets see the biggest jump in efficiency coming out of timeouts.

Note: Synergy tracks efficiency a little differently in that an offensive rebound starts a new “possession.”

And it’s not because they just give the ball to Harden and let him go to work. Sure, at times, they will run a standard action to let Harden do just that. Here’s the Rockets’ first play of the third quarter against Boston earlier this month, where Harden feigns like he’s not part of the play before darting off a cross-screen from P.J. Tucker. He attacks the close-out of Jaylen Brown and gets Tucker a layup.

Even that play is a non-standard way of getting the ball in the hands of the league’s leading scorer. And D’Antoni has some more tricks up his sleeve to get other guys good shots. There’s some fun (though not that complicated) stuff in his out-of-timeout playbook.

In this space in early December, we looked at “point single weak,” a play the Rockets have run over the last few years to get P.J. Tucker a corner 3. In January, they unveiled a simple “elevator doors” variation for Ben McLemore…

Here are a few more *D’Antoni creations from the last month…

  1. Danuel House Jr. comes up to set a screen for James Harden and, with the attention of both defenders on the league’s leading scorer, House slips to the rim for a dunk. That’s clearly the play all along, because Covington’s focus remains on House.
  2. Russell Westbrook dribbles into an isolation against Anthony Davis, while Thabo Sefolosha sets a back-screen for Covington into a corner 3.
  3. Westbrook curls off a double cross-screen and attacks the basket, while Covington slides down to the weak-side corner.
  4. Austin Rivers curls through the middle of two pin-down screens, and then sets a back-screen for Jeff Green.

* Not all of these are necessarily new this season (the Rivers back-screen is a familiar one) and it’s always possible that any of them have been “borrowed” from other coaches.

Playing without a center presumably allows D’Antoni to be more creative. The Rockets are 9-2 since they last played with a center, ranking third offensively and 10th defensively over that stretch.

Their current five-game winning streak began with a win over the Boston Celtics, who the Rockets will visit on Saturday (8:30 ET, ABC).

3. More ATO Goodies

The Washington Wizards have fallen to 13th in offensive efficiency after ranking in the top five through early January. But they’re second in after-timeout efficiency at 1.02 points per possession, according to Synergy.

The Wizards also have an elevator doors play. And here’s a fun, multi-action set they ran against Memphis earlier this month…

Because it involves the Wizards’ two most dangerous shooters, a Davis Bertans back-screen for Bradley Beal (after the first four passes) looks like the action that will gain the Wizards an advantage somewhere. But Troy Brown isn’t really looking for Beal as he rubs off the screen. Instead, Brown swings the ball back to the right side of the floor, where Beal is running off a pin-down screen from Mo Wagner. Both defenders jump out toward Beal, who finds an open Wagner under the basket with the seventh pass of the possession.

The Atlanta Hawks rank 11th in after-timeout efficiency, but that’s a big difference from where they rank overall offensively (25th). The Hawks generally don’t go out of the box out of timeouts, mostly relying on the pick-and-roll playmaking of Trae Young. He got DeAndre Hunter an open look for a game-tying 3 against the Heat last week by driving past Bam Adebayo’s attempt at a switch.

The Hawks will also give Kevin Huerter some opportunities to make plays, almost always attacking the middle of the floor with the ball in his right hand, out of timeouts.

The Spain pick-and-roll is a play that a lot of teams run, and the Hawks will use it to get Young, Huerter and John Collins all involved in the same action. They got an open 3 for Huerter with it against the Celtics earlier this month…

With Huerter setting a back-screen on Enes Kanter, Jayson Tatum remains in the lane to help on Young’s drive. Huerter then pops out for the open 3.

The Milwaukee Bucks rank third in both overall efficiency and after-timeout efficiency. Early last season, we looked at three different options off a baseline cross-screen set for Giannis Antetokounmpo that they still run. And here was a sideline out of bounds play that worked for them a couple of times in their win in Toronto on Tuesday…

4. Jimmy Butler struggling in the clutch

Jimmy Butler got blocked by three Timberwolves at once on his attempt at a game-winning drive in the final seconds on Wednesday. Two possessions prior to that, Butler missed a short turnaround bank shot for the lead with 30 seconds on the clock.

Butler has now taken 15 shots for the tie or the lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime in his first season with the Heat. He tied the Heat’s game against the Hawks on Dec. 10 with a 3-pointer with 29.8 seconds left in regulation, but he’s missed the other 14 of those shots. With the score within five points in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, Butler is 17-for-54 (31.5%), the worst mark among 20 players with at least 50 clutch field goal attempts.

A year ago, Butler made two (almost identical) game-winning 3s (one, two) in his first two weeks with the Sixers. He finished last season 6-for-8 on shots to tie or take the lead in the final minute of the fourth or OT, with the last of those being the fast break bucket that preceded Kawhi Leonard’s Game 7 buzzer-beater.

He was clutch last season. He’s been very unclutch this season. For his career, Butler is 30-for-85 (35.2%) on shots to tie or take the lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime. That is better than the league average (32.7%) in those situations over the nine seasons he’s been in the league.

Butler’s next chance at a game-winner could come this weekend. The Heat, who have lost seven of their last nine games and are in danger of losing a top-four seed in the East, host the Mavs on Friday (8 ET, League Pass) and the Nets on Saturday (7:30 ET, League Pass). The highlight of their five-game homestand is a matchup with the Bucks on Monday (7:30 ET, NBA TV).

5. The final minute has been Dame Time

Zach LaVine is tied with Butler for the most field goal attempts to tie or take the lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime, and LaVine has made just three of his 15 attempts, tying him for 10th with the most made buckets in that situation.

In the same category as Butler (clutch last season, not clutch this season) is Luka Doncic. The birthday boy was 6-for-11 on shots to tie or take the lead in the final minute last season, but is 0-for-6 this season.

Here are the nine guys with more than three buckets to tie or take the lead in the final minute of the fourth or OT…

4+ baskets to tie or take the lead in final minute of 4th quarter or OT
Player FGM FGA FG% 3PM 3PA 3PT%
Damian Lillard 7 12 58.3% 3 6 50.0%
Nikola Jokic 6 9 66.7% 0 1 0.0%
DeMar DeRozan 6 13 46.2% 0 0
Spencer Dinwiddie 6 13 46.2% 0 4 0.0%
Derrick Rose 6 13 46.2% 0 1 0.0%
Marcus Morris Sr. 5 8 62.5% 3 4 75.0%
Devonte’ Graham 5 10 50.0% 3 6 50.0%
Chris Paul 4 9 44.4% 0 1 0.0%
Buddy Hield 4 11 36.4% 2 7 28.6%
Through Feb. 27, 2020

So Damian Lillard leads the league with seven, and he’d have one more if the referees correctly called goaltending on his drive for the tie in Utah earlier this month.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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