Let's roll with this week's 10 things, including Paul George's slithering attacks, the Tom Thibodeau effect and the most boring moment of the 2021 season.
1. The Paul George vengeance tour (regular season) is happening. Plus: Rajon Rondo!
Watch him enough, and you learn small ways to distinguish solid Paul George from peak George -- the guy who went toe-to-toe with LeBron on the league's biggest stages early in his career, and the version the LA Clippers will need to get where they want to go. The latter is marked by an extra dose of confidence that manifests as on-ball aggression and general opportunistic verve.
Here he is blitzing the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday without teammate Kawhi Leonard (VIDEO).
The drive is nice, but what really reveals peak George is that little fake toward Nicolas Batum in the corner -- as if George might approach for a hand-off. George's man -- Justin Holiday -- bites, and George spins away. Holiday has to sprint out, and George uses Holiday's momentum against him. That is a fully engaged star conjuring an advantage from thin air, and capitalizing.
Drives are the other indicator. George is a very good midrange shooter, but he can be prone to passivity and over-settling -- including in some of his worst playoff games. Every star has bad shooting games, but George has had too many really bad clunkers -- games in which he bricks jumpers and doesn't compensate with free throws.
That's why these slithering attacks are encouraging (VIDEO).
George is averaging 18.3 drives per 100 possessions -- by far a career high, per Second Spectrum. (His previous season high: 14.1). That hasn't resulted in more free throws or shots at the rim, but it's healthy for an LA offense that is almost entirely dependent on jump-shooting.
Also healthy so far: Rajon Rondo! I was a relative optimist about how the Lou Williams-Rondo swap might work out for the Clips, but I did not expect LA would be plus-71 over Rondo's first 103 minutes. Sometimes you don't realize how many available passes aren't being made until you acquire someone who can make them.
Rondo is faster than Williams from Point A to Point B. He takes whatever driving angle the defense gives him, and makes something from it.
The Clips are pushing the pace with Rondo on the floor, and perhaps no contender is in more need of some extra transition oomph.
2. The Knicks' defense sustained
On paper, the Knicks' defense has hints of fool's gold. The Knicks give up tons of 3s and shots at the rim. If you estimated based only on shot location, the Knicks would rank 29th in opponent effective field goal percentage, per Cleaning The Glass. They foul a lot. They are average at rebounding and forcing turnovers. Mitchell Robinson, their most fearsome rim protector, has missed half the season.
I predicted the Knicks would slide from the top three in points allowed per possession and finish somewhere closer to No. 10.
With 16 games left, they still rank third. Only the Utah Jazz have allowed a lower effective field goal percentage. Head coach Tom Thibodeau can apparently defeat math and geometry by sheer force of will (and by shouting).
Even if the Knicks are punching a little above their weight, it appears to be only a little -- and they are doing it with effort in the sweet spot between precise and maniacal. That is most visible along the perimeter, where New York's (mostly) sturdy wings are flying around with hyper-alert synchronicity.
Watch RJ Barrett and Julius Randle on the right wing (VIDEO).
Barrett clogs the middle and then runs Svi Mykhailiuk off the arc. Randle reads that, and slides off Saddiq Bey in the corner to wall off Mykhailiuk's drive. Without missing a beat, Barrett toggles to Bey.
The Knicks make this kind of jump-style switching and rotating look routine. Here's Barrett and Randle pulling the same trick after helping corral a pick-and-roll (VIDEO).
Randle ventures further into the paint -- his job as low man. Barrett splits the difference between two Oklahoma City Thunder shooters. Both rotate back with the flight of the ball. Barrett has received a ton of (justified) adulation for his improved 3-point stroke, but he is building out every part of his game -- including rugged, attentive defense.
New York opponents have hit a league-low 33% from deep, and that's not all luck. The Knicks are dissuading some easier looks. They close out with a leaping, reaching ferocity that is almost alarming.
Even the bevy of shots New York allows in the restricted area is at least somewhat by design; the Knicks trust Robinson, Nerlens Noel, and Taj Gibson -- plus well-timed help -- to disrupt those attempts. New York opponents have hit only 60% in the restricted area -- second lowest in the league.
The first step in any franchise reboot -- in any dormant big-market team's attempt to appeal to stars -- is to reach some level of base competitiveness. The fastest way to do that is to play defense -- every damned night.
3. Two guards going opposite directions in New Orleans
Eric Bledsoe has done his best on offense for a team that doesn't need his head-down driving skill set -- and in fact needs a point guard with almost the opposite of Bledsoe's skill set. He's shooting 35% from deep, pushing in transition, and playing hard-nosed defense.
On some nights, he makes due in tight confines with floaters and leaners. And for all the hand-wringing over the spacing issues of the New Orleans Pelicans' starting five, that group has poured in 118 points per 100 possessions -- a tick above the league's best overall offenses.
But Bledsoe just doesn't seem useful. He's an unguarded afterthought in the half court. Bledsoe is finishing 18% of New Orleans' possessions, his lowest figure in a decade. Big picture, that's fine; the Pelicans may not need a high-usage point guard taking shots from Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, and even Lonzo Ball. They need another player type in that spot, but it's not Bledsoe. (Ironically, George Hill -- whom New Orleans also acquired in the Jrue Holiday deal, but then shipped to Oklahoma City for Steven Adams -- is the right general prototype.)
Bledsoe is hitting just 47% on 2s and earning three free throws per 36 minutes -- both around career lows.
On the flippity flip, Kira Lewis Jr. is getting interesting. He's a spunky defender with a knack for skittering around picks, and challenging shots from behind. He has good footwork, and relishes getting into players (VIDEO).
He's not ready for major solo point guard duty, but few rookies are. The Pelicans have walloped opponents by 12 points per 100 possessions with the Lewis-Nickeil Alexander-Walker duo sharing the controls; Alexander-Walker was surging before a recent injury.
Lewis has looked comfortable attacking off the catch, and making snap reads -- the situations he will find himself in playing off New Orleans' stars (VIDEO).
Lewis shooting 34% from deep on decent volume is a good early sign. The Pelicans have a negative point differential overall, but they're plus-3.2 points per 100 possessions with Lewis on the floor -- evidence he's at least holding his own already.