Each week during the season, NBA.com writer John Schuhmann surveys the league to compile stats and notes for his in-depth Power Rankings. Before the next rankings drop on Monday, here are some of the storylines he’s keeping an eye on this weekend.
1. Harden lifting the Sixers’ offense
The Philadelphia 76ers are a solid 9-3 with James Harden in the lineup, though the results have been a bit of a mixed bag. That breaks down to 4-0 against teams currently under .500 and 5-3 against teams that currently have winning records. Five of the nine wins and two of the three defeats were within five points in the last five minutes.
The one loss that wasn’t close was, of course, the game with the biggest spotlight, when Harden shot 3-for-17 (including 0-for-8 in the paint) and registered a minus-30 against his former team (Brooklyn). Harden has shot slightly better in the paint with the Sixers (51.2%) than he did with the Nets this season (47.7%), but that 51.2% would still be his worst mark since his rookie season (down from 55.6% last season).
Even with Harden not shooting particularly well, the Sixers have scored an amazing 17.2 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor (120.7) than they have with him off the floor (103.5) since the All-Star break. Some of that is Harden’s incredible free throw rate*, and some of it is 3-point shooting. Joel Embiid, Danny Green, Tobias Harris and Matisse Thybulle have combined to shoot 52-for-125 (41.6%) from 3-point range with Harden on the floor and just 11-for-52 (21.2%) with him off the floor since the break.
* With the Sixers, Harden has averaged 70.7 free throw attempts per 100 shots from the field (118/167), up from 49.6 per 100 (still super high) with the Nets.
Embiid has the biggest differential — 14-for-33 (42.4%) vs. 2-for-17 (11.8%) — among that group. The Sixers had been staggering the minutes of their two stars (Embiid on the floor to end the first quarter, Harden on to start the second) so that they had one on the floor at all times.
But (maybe because of Embiid’s shooting struggles in those no-Harden minutes) they sat them together against the Lakers on Wednesday, with Harris and Tyrese Maxey on the floor with three reserves at the start of the second and fourth quarters. That can be risky in regard to those minutes when both stars are on the bench, but it also maximizes the minutes when you’re at full strength offensively.
Playing with Embiid, Harden has had to sacrifice some touch time. Though his 8.6 minutes of possession per game is double that of any teammate since the All-Star break, it’s down from 9.4 minutes with Brooklyn.
But Harden has isolated about the same number of times per game with the Sixers (7.5) as he did with the Nets (7.6). And according to Second Spectrum tracking, the Sixers have set 46.7 ball-screens for him per game (1.2 per minute on the floor), compared to 41.0 per game in his time with Brooklyn.
Embiid has set 46% of those ball-screens, including 19 of 38 in the Sixers’ win over the Lakers on Wednesday. And according to Second Spectrum, Embiid has rolled to the basket on 68% of those screens he’s set for Harden, compared to just 37% of screens he’s set for other teammates.
Embiid is a competent shooter from the perimeter, 43.3% from mid-range and 35.8% from 3-point range. But he’s obviously more dangerous when he’s in the paint, especially when he gets detached from his defender.
And that’s the thing about the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll. If Embiid’s defender has to help on Harden’s drive, Embiid is operating against much smaller defenders trying to help from the weak side …
Early in the first quarter on Wednesday, Dwight Howard didn’t quite know whether to stay attached to Embiid or stop Harden’s drive. And he basically did neither …
With Wenyen Gabriel at the five, the Lakers tried blitzing a Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll. Harden quickly got off the ball and Embiid got a layup …
Switching is an option, and it helps to have a big perimeter defender like Stanley Johnson who can switch onto Embiid. But the Lakers certainly weren’t comfortable with Harden isolating against Howard, running a double-team at him …
The Sixers ran a couple of “Spain” pick-and-rolls on Wednesday, with Harris setting a back-screen on Embiid’s defender after the initial ball-screen. But Harden wasn’t able to turn the corner and Embiid didn’t roll quickly enough to gain an advantage …
According to Second Spectrum, the Sixers have scored 1.11 points per chance when Embiid has set a ball-screen for Harden. That ranks seventh among 151 combinations where the screener has set at least 200 screens for the ball-handler. (The defunct Seth Curry-Embiid combination ranks fifth at 1.13.)
The Sixers’ three-game trip wraps up this weekend with two of their three remaining games against top-10 defenses. They stay in L.A. to face the Clippers on Friday (10:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV) and are in Phoenix on Sunday (6 p.m. ET, League Pass).
2. Post-break improvements
In 210 games since the All-Star break, the league has scored 114.1 points per 100 possessions, up from 110.1 before the break. Here are the teams that have seen the biggest jumps:
Biggest jump, points scored per 100 possessions since All-Star break
The Celtics have climbed to No. 1 in the league in defensive efficiency, and they’re climbing on offense too. Jayson Tatum has averaged 32.1 points on 51/44/90 shooting since the break, and the Celtics have scored 16.7 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor (124.4) than they have with him off the floor (107.7) over those 14 games.
The Celtics have played eight of their 14 post-break games against teams that rank in the bottom 10 defensively, but they’ve scored efficiently against the top-10 defenses of the Grizzlies, Warriors and Jazz. They’ve scored at least 130 points per 100 possessions a league-leading nine times this season, and four of those have been the last four games they’ve played. There are 17 teams who haven’t scored at least 130 points per 100 possessions that many times all season.
Games scoring at least 130 points per 100 possessions:
8: Charlotte, Phoenix
7: Dallas, Denver
6: Atlanta, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minnesota
4: Indiana, San Antonio, Toronto
3: Detroit, Golden State, LA Clippers, Miami, Sacramento
2: Brooklyn, L.A. Lakers, Memphis, Portland, Washington
1: Cleveland, Houston, New Orleans, New York, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia
Two of the league’s three most improved teams (in regard to point differential per 100 possessions) since the break will meet on Sunday, when the Wolves visit the Celtics (6 p.m. ET, League Pass).
While the Celtics’ improvement has been mostly about their offense, the Wolves (when you take the league average into account) have been improved on both ends of the floor, ranking third in offensive improvement and sixth in defensive improvement. Of course, with the league averaging seeing a big jump, only three defenses have allowed fewer points per 100 possessions than they did before the break. Here are those three, along with one that’s even and the one that’s seen the smallest jump.
Biggest drop, points allowed per 100 possessions since All-Star break
Four of these five teams are bound for the Lottery (though the Knicks are still mathematically alive). The Magic have always had good defensive personnel, and their starting lineup has been really good defensively most of the season. It’s allowed just 103.2 points per 100 possessions, the seventh-best mark among 32 lineups that have played at least 200 minutes. But prior to the break, the Magic struggled to get stops when they were shorthanded or went to their bench.
They’ve also been on the wrong side of two of the league’s nine 50-point games since the break. And over those three days, the Magic allowed Brooklyn and Detroit to score more than 137 points per 100 possessions. So it’s kind of amazing that they rank as the league’s No. 1 defense since the All-Star break.
The Magic have played two games against the Thunder’s 30th-ranked offense in the last four days. The Suns were also without Devin Booker when they won ugly in Orlando earlier this month. But that was just one of four March games in which the Magic have held their opponent under a point per possession. It’s been a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde last four weeks for the Magic’s defense. But it’s promising that they’ve begun to fulfill their potential on that end of the floor, and we shouldn’t be too surprised if the Magic field a top-10 defense next season.
The Magic have just one game remaining against an offense that ranks in the top 10. They’ll host the 22nd-ranked Kings on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, League Pass).
3. Elite on both ends of the floor
The Suns don’t register as one of the league’s most improved defenses since the break, but they rank second (just behind the Magic) on that end of the floor over the last four weeks. Playing without Chris Paul, they also rank sixth offensively since the break.
That has them still in the top three on both ends of the floor for the entire season. Through Wednesday, Memphis (fifth and seventh) and Utah (first and 10th) are the only other teams that rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
In the 25 previous seasons for which we have play-by-play data, only two teams — the 2014-15 Warriors and ’16-17 Warriors — have finished in the top three on both ends of the floor. (They actually finished in the top two on both ends.) Both of those teams went on to win the NBA championship.
The Suns still have some work to do — particularly on offense — to finish in the top three on both ends of the floor, but top five on both ends seems almost guaranteed. Here’s how the 23 teams that have ranked in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency since ’96-97 have done in the postseason:
Top 5 in both offensive & defensive efficiency, since 1996-97
|Top 3 in both|
|2014-15||Golden State||2||1||Won Finals|
|2016-17||Golden State||1||2||Won Finals|
|Top 4 in both|
|2008-09||Cleveland||4||2||Lost in conf. finals|
|2009-10||Orlando||4||4||Lost in conf. finals|
|2012-13||Oklahoma City||2||4||Lost in conf. semis|
|2015-16||San Antonio||4||1||Lost in conf. semis|
|2018-19||Milwaukee||4||1||Lost in conf. finals|
|2019-20||Boston||4||4||Lost in conf. finals|
|2020-21||Utah||4||3||Lost in conf. semis|
|Top 5 in both|
|1999-00||L.A. Lakers||5||1||Won Finals|
|2001-02||Sacramento||3||5||Lost in conf. finals|
|2005-06||Detroit||4||5||Lost in conf. finals|
|2006-07||Dallas||2||5||Lost in first round|
|2006-07||San Antonio||5||2||Won Finals|
|2007-08||L.A. Lakers||3||5||Lost in Finals|
|2008-09||Boston||5||3||Lost in conf. semis|
|2010-11||Miami||2||5||Lost in Finals|
|2011-12||Chicago||5||1||Lost in first round|
|2013-14||San Antonio||5||4||Won Finals|
|2017-18||Toronto||2||5||Lost in conf. semis|
|2019-20||LA Clippers||2||5||Lost in conf. semis|
Of those 23 teams, seven won the championship, while only two others reached The Finals. There’s been three seasons – 2006-07, 2018-19 and 2019-20 – where two teams ranked in the top five on both ends, with the only playoff meeting between those teams being the 2019 Eastern Conference finals, when the Raptors beat the Bucks.
With both Phoenix and Memphis winning on Wednesday, the Suns still need one more win (or a Grizzlies loss) to clinch the best record in the league and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. They’re in Denver on Thursday (9 p.m. ET, NBA TV). Then they host the new-look Sixers on Sunday (6 p.m. ET, League Pass).
4. Are the Celtics even better than what we’ve seen of late?
The Celtics remain a fascinating study, and not just because they’ve gone from 25-25 (eighth place in the East) to 46-28 through Wednesday.
When they were 25-25, they had the point differential (+2.8 points per game, fourth in the East) of a team that was 30-20. Now, at 46-28 and having won four of their last five games by at least 20 points, they have the point differential (second best in the league) of a team that’s 54-20. That record would have them 6 1/2 games ahead of the first-place Heat.
The bad news is that the Celtics have struggled in close games. They’re just 12-19 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes. The only teams that have been worse are the Pacers, Kings, Knicks and Spurs. Boston ranks in the bottom half of the league in both clutch offense (25th) and clutch defense (18th).
The good news is that the Celtics have the league’s best record (34-9, .791) in games that weren’t within five points in the last five minutes. As noted in this space three months ago, this is the fifth straight season in which they’ve been better in non-clutch games than they’ve been in clutch games. But this is one of the biggest such differentials we’ve ever seen.
The team with the second biggest differential this season is the one (Utah) that the Celtics crushed on Wednesday. Even with that loss, the Jazz are 29-9 in non-clutch games, with a 16-19 mark in clutch games. The anti-Celtics are the Washington Wizards, who are 23-15 in clutch games (though just 5-11 since Jan. 15) and 7-26 in non-clutch games.
In the 26 seasons for which we have had clutch data, only three teams have had a bigger difference between their record in non-clutch games and their record in clutch games than this year’s Celtics.
Biggest difference, non-clutch vs. clutch winning percentage, since 1996-97
Clutch = Game within five points in the last five minutes
Through March 22, 2022
Clutch games matter, but these teams are/were, statistically, better than their record. So how did the previous ones do in the playoffs?
Of the eight teams below that made the playoffs, six (the ones in bold) overachieved, in that they reached a playoff round beyond what their seed would dictate. One (in italics) underachieved, in that it was upset in the postseason. And one (the ’19-20 Mavs) lost in the round it was expected to.
- The 2000-01 Spurs were the No. 1 seed in the West and lost in the conference finals.
- The 2011-12 Sixers were the No. 8 seed in the East and lost in the conference semis (beating the Bulls in the first round after Derrick Rose was injured).
- The 2006-07 Spurs were the No. 3 seed in the West and won the championship.
- The 2010-11 Heat were the No. 2 seed in the East and reached The Finals.
- The 2015-16 Thunder were the No. 3 seed in the West and reached the conference finals (where they had a 3-1 lead on the 73-9 Warriors).
- The 2004-05 Spurs were the No. 2 seed in the West and won the championship.
- The 2019-20 Mavs were the No. 7 seed in the West and lost in the first round.
- The 2020-21 Clippers were the No. 4 seed in the West and reached the conference finals.
- The 2010-11 Rockets didn’t make the playoffs, despite a 43-39 record (and the point differential of a team that was 48-34).
If you dig a little deeper, the numbers are still favorable, but a little less so. Among the 30 teams with the highest differential (.270 or higher) that reached the playoffs, 12 overachieved, six underachieved, and 12 were eliminated in the round that their seed would dictate.
Execution in close games matters, but clutchness (or un-clutchness) can be fleeting, and it’s a make-or-miss league. Even over a full regular season, we’re looking at a somewhat small sample size. The Celtics have played about 300 clutch possessions (about three full games worth) on each end of the floor this season.
And they don’t have to look back far for inspiration. One of those 12 overachievers was last season’s Bucks, who were 13-15 (20th) in clutch games in the regular season. They had the East’s best record (33-11) in games that weren’t within five in the last five, but finished as the 3 seed. They went 7-2 in clutch games in the playoffs, including 3-0 in The Finals against a team (Phoenix) that’s otherwise 58-19 (.753) in clutch games since the start of last season.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.