It’s All-Star Selection Week. While my colleagues argue about who got snubbed, who should’ve been left off, and how things unfolded in the super-secret-because-we-don’t-want-to-hurt-millionaires-feelings (SSBWDWTHMF) draft, I’ll continue my weekly look at which games you need to watch. Quick reminder of our rating scale below.
The OG Anunoby Rating Scale of Excitability
1 = One emotionless OG: little to no effect on the Raptors, but it’s better than nothing.
2 = One emotionless OG looking in a mirror: little effect on the Raptors, but it should be a good one.
3 = OG raising his eyebrows (Is he excited? Shocked? Laughing??): good match-up not including the Raptors; or not-as-exciting-but-at-least-it’s-the-Raptors.
4 = OG smirk: must-watch, whether or not it affects the Raptors.
5 = OG smiling: drop everything and watch this game.
January 22: Miami at Houston
As a fellow leftie, it’s always intriguing when I see a matchup of lefties on the schedule. An argument can be made that James Harden (duh) and Goran Dragic (wait, what?) have been the best lefties in the NBA this season. John Wall and Ben Simmons are more ambidextrous than left-handed, Mike Conley and Isaiah Thomas have been injured, and DeAndre Jordan has experienced dips in every category except rebounds (which probably speaks more to Chris Paul’s impact). Dragic leads the Heat in points, assists, and usage %, for a Heat team that’s in a dogfight with Cleveland for the 3-seed.
Meanwhile, Harden has followed up his MVP-worthy season, with an even better MVP-worthy season. He leads the NBA in points, PER, usage %, Offensive Win Shares, BPM, Win Shares, and Win Shares per 48. The Rockets are arguably the second-best team in the league, and are the only team to beat the Warriors twice this season.
January 23: Cleveland at San Antonio
The Cavs are going to turn around their season, right? We’ve seen this charade before, haven’t we? Cleveland suffers through a tough stretch in January. The team appears to be falling apart, both on the court and in the locker room. Rumours swirl about in-fighting, players-only meetings, and possible trade targets. Then, all of a sudden, the proverbial switch gets flipped, team defense picks up, Lebron plays hero, and Cleveland makes another Finals trip. Not so fast, Hot Rod Williams.
The Cavs have the worst Defensive Rating for the month of January, giving up point totals of 118, 127 (twice), 133, and 148(!) — all in regulation, mind you — in the first nine games of 2018. Their normally potent offense has dipped to 23rd in Offensive Rating in January, which doesn’t bode well in this matchup with the 2nd-ranked defense in San Antonio. The Spurs have only lost two of the last 15 regular season meetings with the Cavs (one of those losses an overtime thriller where Kyrie Irving dropped a career-high 57 points). Even without Kawhi Leonard, this should be a cakewalk for San Antonio.
January 24: Minnesota at Portland
Minnesota has become the surprisingly dangerous team we all thought they’d be last season. All it took was a second season of Thibodeau’s tutelage and the addition one of his personal faves, Jimmy Butler. The Timberwolves have improved defensively since last season, but the biggest surprise has been their offense. With an ORtg of 113.1, Minnesota has the NBA’s 3rd-ranked offense. The T-Wolves have won the first two meetings with the Blazers this season, and have their sights set on catching the Spurs for the 3-seed.
Portland is a very average team that doesn’t generate much excitement. A quick scan through the team’s splits reveal similar home/road records (barely above .500), similar month records (3 games over .500 for November, balanced with 3 games under .500 for December), and even similar day records (each day of the week is within 1 game of .500). They have the league’s highest-scoring backcourt in CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard — All-Star caliber guards that may not end up on the All-Star team. While fairly average, and possibly snubbed, Portland continues trucking along, battling for a playoff spot and currently in a logjam with the Thunder, Pelicans, Clippers, and Nuggets.
January 25: Minnesota at Golden State
Everything I wrote in the previous game preview? Forget it! As outstanding as Minnesota’s 113.1 Offensive Rating appears, Golden State’s amassed a 115.1 rating. How good is that? Last season’s Warriors had a league record 115.6 Offensive Rating. T-Wolves as a surprisingly dangerous team? Fat chance! They’re not surprising a Golden State team that’s won 18 of the last 21 meetings between the two.
Adding intrigue to this (possible) playoff preview is the announcement of the All-Star lineups. While the remaining All-Star reserves and SSBWDWTHMF draft take place on Tuesday, the lineup announcements should send ripples through this matchup. Steph Curry and Kevin Durant are already starters. There can be as many as four more reserves coming out of these two teams — Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Jimmy Butler. Imagine KAT finding out he’s teammates with a guy who may or may not accidentally kick his nuts during the second quarter!
January 26: Utah at Toronto
Ready for me to throw away any shred of credibility? OG Anunoby is having as good a rookie season as Donovan Mitchell. There I said it. Boy, that felt good to get off my chest. Both quickly earned the trust of their respective coaches and have been starters since November. Mitchell’s role in Utah is much more demanding, as he was first filling the gaping hole in scoring that Hayward vacated. Shortly after taking a starting role, Mitchell’s usage rose even more after Rudy Gobert went on the injured list. He’s playing remarkably, considering the circumstances, amassing 19.3 points, 1.5 steals, and at least one highlight reel dunk in each game.
Anunoby is also being asked to do a lot. Dwane Casey is grooming him to be everything that DeMarre Carroll was supposed to be — the ultimate 3-and-D wing. He recently had to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant, all within an 8-day stretch. At first glance, Mitchell’s numbers dwarf Anunoby’s by a considerable margin. However, since Donovan is playing over 10 more minutes than OG, let’s take a look at their Per 36 Minutes / Per 100 Possessions stats.
Mitchell still holds a sizable lead in points and assists. Anunoby, however, has better numbers in terms of True Shooting %, Win Shares Per 48, Defensive Box Plus Minus, Total Rebound %, Turnover %, and Offensive Rating. In fact, OG is the only player in the Top-10 in Offensive Rating who is not a Rocket or Warrior. This is the part where I remind you that Mitchell is “leading” a team that is currently out of the playoff picture — closer to the league’s worst record than they are to the 7-seed in the West. Anunoby is the glue guy that takes the hardest defensive assignment every night, is responsible for draining the occasional corner-three after Lowry or DeRozan drives and kicks... all for a Toronto team that’s battling for the 1-seed. (Speaking of DeRozan, here’s your obligatory Utah-Toronto highlight)
January 27: Boston at Golden State
Is this a preview of what’s to come in June? Allow me to direct your eyes back to the address bar and re-read the first word after www. In all seriousness though, one of these teams isn’t making the Finals — but that’s a different article, and lots can happen over the next five months. In fact, look what’s already happened in the first three months. If I told you before the season that Boston would lose four of their top six defenders by Defensive Win Shares (Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson, Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk), yet they’d have the #1 defense at the mid-point of the season, you’d probably tell me to stop sniffing glue. Losing all of those integral pieces were done, in part, to make room for their big free-agent signing, Gordon Hayward. Remember him? What I’m trying to say is this is Brad Stevens’ world, and we’re just living in it.
The 1-seeds from each conference met earlier this season in Boston. It had the atmosphere, star calibre, and defensive struggle of a playoff game, yet it was only mid-November. The Celtics came out on top after rallying from a 17-point second-half deficit. Both teams were as healthy then as they are now, so you really couldn’t make any excuses for either side. A Warriors fan would argue that they almost won despite horrendous shooting from their All-Star backcourt (Curry and Klay combined for 8-of-32 shooting). A Celtics fan would argue it could’ve been a larger victory (Kyrie shot 4-of-16, abandoned the protective eye mask during the rally, and has never shot as poorly since). A fan of any other team would not argue about anything — this is an amazing matchup and we’ll have our popcorn ready for round two.
January 28: Philadelphia at Oklahoma City
Can you tell I have a thing for inter-conference matchups? Five of the seven games of the week are of the ilk. Seeing a specific opponent only twice a year makes for interesting theatre. In this case, Oklahomans are treated to their only visit from Rookie of the Year favourite, Ben Simmons, and the dream-shaking, Rihanna-denying, Twitter-slaying, All-Star Starter, Joel Embiid. These two teams gave us an early Christmas gift last month, treating us all to a triple-overtime thriller, won by OKC, 119-117. Russell Westbrook (27/17/15) led the way, while Embiid (34/8/6) and Simmons (12/11/9) didn’t disappoint the home crowd. Philly-OKC is a matchup with all kinds of plotlines.
Mr. Triple Double vs. The Next Mr. Triple Double (Simmons is averaging 16 pts, 8 boards, and 7 dimes. Lebron didn’t hit those benchmarks in the same season until his 10th season. Westbrook didn’t until his 9th.)
East 6-seed vs. West 6-seed
#1 Net Rating in January (Philly) vs. #3 Net Rating in January (OKC)
Trust the Process vs. Trust the Russ-cess (I just made that up; writing does not pay my bills.)
Embiid vs. Westbrook