The Rotation: Basketball has your back

Nov 8, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) dribbles the ball against the Atlanta Hawks in the first quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 8, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) dribbles the ball against the Atlanta Hawks in the first quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports /

The NBA regular season is a freight train that waits for no one. With multiple games nearly every single night, it can be difficult to keep up. As a solution, we humbly offer The Rotation — a daily recap series sharing three big stories from the previous night, one focused on a player, one focused on a single play, one focused on the big picture.

Lillard and McCollum are the NBA’s best backcourt

By Trevor Magnotti (@IllegalScreens)

C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard have done a great job of complimenting each other over the past two seasons. Having two strong guards who can both create off the dribble, finish inside, and shoot the ball both off the catch and off the bounce is a boon for Portland’s offense, and the two have a chemistry that is unmatched among NBA backcourts, arguably even surpassing those dudes that play in Lillard’s hometown.

Last night against the Phoenix Suns, Lillard and McCollum were again instrumental in the Trail Blazers’ 124-121 win. Lillard had 38 points, five rebounds, and three assists to pace the team, with McCollum trailing right behind at 33/6/7. The pair did an excellent job of keeping the Suns at bay, helping Portland jump out to an impressive 42-25 1st quarter lead, and then fighting off a Suns comeback attempt to put them away late.

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Lillard and McCollum did what they have done so many times, only tonight they needed to find an unconventional way to be successful. Lillard started the game fairly quietly, hitting two early shots and then going silent for much of the rest of the half, finishing with a pedestrian (for him) 12 points. Lillard appeared to mostly be struggling with the length of Eric Bledsoe, and wasn’t finding success at attacking a defense shaded towards him. That didn’t matter, though, because C.J. McCollum was on the other side. He was defended by Devin Booker, and hit his first four shots by attacking Booker and rookie Marquese Chriss in the pick-and-roll.

The Suns then tried to switch gears, putting Chriss on McCollum and hiding Booker on Maurice Harkless. The rookie’s length couldn’t compensate for the quickness and agility edge that McCollum has, though, and he continued his reign over the Suns, hitting his first seven shots in total and finishing with 18 points in the quarter. The Blazers exploited the inexperienced Chriss and the cement block-strapped feet of Alex Len in the pick-and-roll, and McCollum was able to get separation and fire up several open outside shots, where he was perfect (5-of-5) from on the night.

The Blazers’ bench let the Suns back into the game, though, thanks in small part to Al-Farouq Aminu leaving the game with a calf strain. A 42-25 lead became a 63-55 lead at half, and with 8:33 left in the fourth quarter, the Blazers were clinging to a 93-91 lead. McCollum wasn’t able to find the same open looks after that first quarter explosion, and the Suns pounced on Portland’s bench with aggressive defense that helped lead to 20 turnovers for the Blazers on the night. But McCollum’s cooling off coincided perfectly with Damian Lillard stepping up once again in the clutch. Twenty-two of Lillard’s 38 points came in the third quarter, and much like McCollum, he made Phoenix’s bigs pay on switches in the pick-and-roll. The Blazers’ let Lillard attack off high screens from Mason Plumlee, which slowed Bledsoe down and also put Lillard in space against one of Chriss, Len, or Dragan Bender. The result was a 5-9 effort in the fourth quarter, with a pair of deep threes that both helped extend Portland leads as Phoenix attempted to come back.

That Lillard and McCollum were able to each take over the game in different phases is what makes them so dangerous as a pairing. Redundancy of skill sets in lineups can be a detriment to overall effectiveness, but for Portland, it works, thanks to the potency of that individual skill set. The ability to be a threat on the drive, the pull-up, and the pass makes one-on-one defense very difficult, and the threat of a player who can do the exact same thing to you elsewhere on the floor stresses a defense like the Suns, who really only have two perimeter defenders of note, one of which (P.J. Tucker) was stuck corralling the athletic Mo Harkless or the dangerous Evan Turner all evening.

This game saw McCollum light things up early and Lillard deliver the closing knockout punch, but roles easily could have been reversed had the Suns defended things differently. That’s the beauty of the Blazers’ backcourt. On any given night, they can blow up your defense, either one at a time, or together, or in tonight’s case, both. How did the game end? Lillard and McCollum trading free throw attempts to ice the game. This is the NBA’s best offensive guard tandem right now.

Cleveland Cavaliers
Nov 8, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) dribbles the ball against the Atlanta Hawks in the first quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports /

Cleveland, we have synergy

By Ian Levy (@HickoryHigh)

The Cleveland Cavaliers are no longer perfect. The Atlanta Hawks, proud owners of the league’s fourth-best defense and third-best point differential, went to Cleveland and won themselves a basketball game. It’s early for these sorts of measures to mean much but the Hawks are considerably ahead of Cleveland by scheduled adjusted margin of victory.

Still, none of that means much to the Cavaliers. A loss is a loss, even at the hands of an old familiar foe. The Cavaliers aren’t playing for the regular season, they’re playing for a bigger prize. Regular season wins help get them closer, but the Cavs aren’t chasing a seed, they’re chasing this:

Two years ago, when LeBron returned to Cleveland to join Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love arrived via trade, it was assumed to be one of the greatest arrangements of offensive firepower in NBA history. A lot has happened in two years but the assumptions about their offensive capabilities were at least as wild as what was bandied about around the Warriors this season (albeit with more defensive questions).

For two years the Cavs have been good, but often stagnant and disjointed. Their offensive talents ground on each other as opposed to elevating each other. Even during last year’s epic Finals performance it was a desperate push, rather than a smooth roll-out. But that title and removing the residual pressure has done wonders for the Cavs. LeBron James has dialed back his scoring but is averaging career highs in total rebound percentage and assist percentage. Kyrie Irving is leading the team in scoring, with a career-high 23.9 points per game. Kevin Love is averaging more points, and with a higher true shooting percentage, than either of the two previous seasons in Cleveland.

The Cavaliers have found their fit.

Marc Gasol
Nov 6, 2016; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) shoots over Portland Trail Blazers forward Meyers Leonard (11) and Portland Trail Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu (8) during the first half at FedExForum. Portland Trail Blazers defeats Memphis Grizzlies 100-94. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports /


By Matt Rutkowski (@MontaWorldPeace)

Last night’s games were fun. If anyone was like me at 8:00 PM EST and wanted a distraction from things that really mattered but were outside of their control, basketball was there. Plus, NBA League Pass is great at providing a distraction within a distraction by giving you the score of the game in the left column about five minutes before you actually get to see it in a largely dysfunctional media player on the right. I’ve always preferred the smaller problems to those ones that make your fists disengage your scalp from your skull while you scream silently. Those ones suck.

But while Basketball Twitter was alight with things largely unrelated to basketball, basketball continued to happen. The basketballing in Cleveland had two of the best teams in the East giving each other a good portion of their best. The first half stayed tight for the most part, and the second half was a game of runs. The Hawks would spread their wings, and then the Cavaliers used their steam-powered wing contractors to narrow the margin. Then wings. Then more steam. Eventually the Hawks prevailed after Kent Bazemore, the man who gave the Hawks their first lead, put their last lead permanently out of reach with a step back jumper from the corner. I’m told in situations like these Bazemore categorically errs on the side of a potential Baze surplus.

The Nets were more fun than they had any right to be. Brook Lopez was three out of seven from deep because apparently that’s a thing he does now. KAT threw down a ferocious dunk and then a few more to be mean. Jeremy Lin looked dapper as hell in his suit. The young, fun team lost to the other team, but they did so in a young, fun fashion.

The margin in Memphis never got over seven points, and never got larger than two for the final 4:47 of the game. That final stretch included a man yelling “WHO ARE YOU?” at Nikola Jokic while he was at the free throw line. That was weird. Weird is distracting. Distracting is good.

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At 11:23 PM, I more or less decided that I had had enough contending with a reality I was having difficulty finding parts of myself in. At this point, CJ McCollum had a 23-5-5 line heading into half. At 11:24, fans at the Laker game were awkwardly submitting to the Kiss Cam. At 11:26, Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins locked arms in a weak pro wrestling grapple and kinda sidestepped together down the court. I’d draw a parallel to how two ends of a divided country may push ahead together in the coming years and months, but it’s late, I don’t want to, and it doesn’t really make sense. More things should.

I need another distraction. Portland versus the Clippers looks promising. Chicago and Atlanta looks good as well. Let’s see what happens.