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NBA Star Power Index: Lakers remain lost without LeBron James; Jayson Tatum, Damian Lillard finding groove

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Welcome back to NBA Star Power Index: A weekly gauge of the players who are most controlling the buzz around the league. Inclusion on this list isn’t necessarily a good thing. It simply means you’re capturing the NBA world’s attention. This is also not a ranking. The players listed are in no particular order as it pertains to the buzz they’re generating. This column will run every week throughout the regular season. 

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LeBron’s shot to Isaiah Stewart’s face was heard ’round the NBA world on Sunday. It earned him a one-game suspension, which he served in the Lakers’ loss to the Knicks on Tuesday. Here’s the crime:

Precedent suggests the punishment easily could’ve been harsher. Back in 2015, J.R. Smith was suspended two playoff games for a similar strike on Jae Crowder. 

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The Lakers are now just 4-7 without LeBron in the lineup. Even with him they’re barely treading water: 5-3 with three of those wins over the Pistons and Rockets (twice) and a negative point differential, per Cleaning the Glass. The Lakers just don’t have the horses to survive without LeBron, even in the short term. 

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Tatum has had a horrific start to his season, but he’s turning it around of late. Over his last four games, he’s averaging 33.5 points on 50 percent shooting. Boston has won three straight, though let’s keep this in proper perspective: Those wins came over the Lakers (in LeBron’s first game back from injury), Rockets and Thunder. Tatum went 1 of 9 from 3 against Houston, his most recent outing. 

All of which is to say, Tatum and the Celtics, 10-8 on the season and winners of six of their last eight, are far from out of the woods; disturbing trends remain, such as Tatum’s isolation insistence. Entering play on Wednesday, Tatum is averaging 6.2 isolation possessions per game, third most in the league, but he’s shooting just 32 percent on those possessions with a sub-40 effective field goal percentage.

We know Tatum is a one-on-one player by nature. And he’s a great individual scorer, don’t get it twisted. When he’s feeling himself, he borders on indefensible. 

But when those shots are not going in, that’s a lot of dribbling. Marcus Smart has already called out Tatum (and Jaylen Brown) for basically wanting to play on their terms, not being willing passers (Tatum is the biggest threat the Celtics have yet he’s only using that leverage to create 3.5 assists per game). And now there is this quote — albeit anonymous — from an Eastern Conference assistant coach in Tim Bontempts’ recent story on ESPN.com:

“I don’t think [Tatum] cares about winning now, and if he does, it is on his terms. He doesn’t want to score 15 and win. He wants to score 39 and win.”

Stay tuned in Boston. 

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Lillard’s ice-cold start to the season has been well chronicled. Like Tatum, he’s finding his rhythm of late. The Blazers have quietly won five of their last six. Lillard scorched the Sixers for 39 points on Saturday. He’s 10 for his last 21 from 3 and has been heating up for a while now. 

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There’s been a lot of talk about Lillard having to adjust to a different offensive approach under new coach Chauncey Billups, who has stressed more ball movement and (marginally) less reliance on individual creation from Lillard and CJ McCollum. It doesn’t go far in explaining Lillard’s early struggles; he’s still in total control of the offense and he’s getting the same amount of shots. 

But it’s true, he is not dominating the ball quite as much. Pick-and-rolls account for 40 percent of his shots this season, down from 46 percent last season, per Synergy. 

Overall, Lillard’s usage is down from 34.1 last season to 31.6 percent entering play on Wednesday, per CTG. Last season, Lillard, on average, held onto the ball for 6.14 seconds every time he touched it, per NBA.com. This season that number is down to 5.14. Lillard is also taking one fewer dribble per touch this season, which adds up. 

As a team, the Blazers are averaging about 20 more passes per game than last season. That’s translating to six more points per game via assist. Their secondary assists are also up almost one per game — in part a reflection of the backside ball movement out of Lillard and McCollum double-teams. 

Are these subtle shifts making a difference for Portland as an overall offense? It depends on your perspective. The Blazers are scoring five fewer points per game this season, per CTG, but offense is down across the board. Relative to league average production, Portland is actually a point better per 100 on the field this year, per Basketball-Reference.com.

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That might sound like hair-splitting, but like Portland’s defense, which statistically looks about the same as last season (awful), these are strategic shifts intended to diversify their postseason profile. Dallas is doing the same thing with Luka Doncic. Relying on one guy to play hero every night has proven to have a postseason ceiling. The Blazers are trying to break through that a little bit at a time, and Lillard is still finding his (slightly) new way. 

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Don’t look now, but Porzingis is playing the best basketball of his Mavericks career. He’s scored at least 20 points in seven straight games, the longest such streak of his career. Over that stretch, he’s averaging 26 points on 52.8/40.5/94.3 shooting splits. 

On Tuesday night, Porzingis hung 30 points and seven boards on the Clippers. He had thee huge buckets in overtime, all courtesy of attacking, downhill movement; one on a slick drive and finish, another on his own putback after a beautiful cut, and a pull-up jumper. 

There are some slight changes to Porzingis’ role. Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd is posting him up and facilitating offense through him a bit more; he’s assisting on almost 13 percent of Dallas’ buckets, by far a career-high rate. Porzingis remains a perimeter-based player, but when he’s in rhythm, which he is right now, he’s a three-level threat. He scores on offensive boards. He hangs around the rim for Doncic drop-offs. He cuts here and there. You saw it all on Tuesday night. 

This is a visibly livelier, springier, more energetic version of Porzingis. And he’s enjoying himself, probably the most important element of all. Porzingis, in a Luka-centric offense, is one of those players who is easy to spot when he’s bummed out. 

“I’m just feeling free to play my game,” Porzingis said after Dallas’ win over the Clippers. “My teammates are trusting me. My coaches are trusting me and I’m out there just having fun. If you’re not having fun then it’s tough to play and give your all, but I feel like this year we have that kind of environment. We’re just playing hard for each other and having fun out there.”

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Vladar’s reliability a luxury for Flames as Markstrom works on game

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CALGARY — Dan Vladar doesn’t suck at hockey.

Good thing, as it opened the door for the Calgary Flames’ coach to alter his approach to his goalie rotation.

Well known for his penchant for leaning on his No. 1 netminder come hell or high water, Darryl Sutter most certainly heard Jacob Markstrom’s crisis in confidence last week.

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The rough outing that led Markstrom to declare he “sucks at hockey right now,” was enough to make the coach pivot.

He confirmed the decision to give Vladar rare, back-to-back starts was made with an eye on giving Markstrom more time to recalibrate, find his game and build confidence.

“I talked to them guys about it,” said Sutter of Markstrom’s over-the-top self-assessment following his gaffe against Montreal just 13 seconds in.

“It’s the best position we have on our team, that’s for sure.

“That’s just because Marky came out and said that, right?

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“If you look at it the last two weeks, our goals against has gone from 30th to 13th. Keep making progress.”

Is he worried about Markstrom’s comments?

“Not a chance,” said the coach.

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Nor should anyone else be, said Markstrom in a decidedly more upbeat chat with the media Tuesday.

“Short memory — as a goalie in this league you need to have that,” said Markstrom, who said he feels good after spending plenty of time with goalie coach Jason Labarbera the last few days.

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“I think you need to have it or else you’re in the wrong occupation.

“I didn’t do really well in school, but I was really good on the ice.”

Laughs all around — the best medicine at a time when Markstrom’s strong words were concerning to those worried about his mindset.

He says over the years he’s always had the same approach to tough nights.

“The only thing different is how you address it with the media,” said Marksrom, who can always be counted on to satisfy media requests.

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“Over the years sometimes you’re still upset and still angry and frustrated, and that carries over in an interview 15 minutes after the game.

“If you wait an hour and ask me the same question you would get a completely different answer.

“That’s my competitiveness, and that’s what made me who I am today. That’s always going to be there.”

Sounds like a guy who feels ready to get back into some game action.

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How much time Sutter will give Markstrom to settle is anyone’s guess, as no one would be surprised if the veteran returned to the net Wednesday against Minnesota.

However, Vladar’s solid play of late gives Sutter the luxury of waiting until Friday to start Markstrom in Columbus, which would make plenty of sense, given his familiarity with Johnny Gaudreau and the fact the Blue Jackets are one of the league’s worst teams.

That way Vladar can get the tougher assignment against Toronto Saturday.

Vladar won his third start in a row Monday, with an 18-save performance against Arizona that featured a kick-save with 74 seconds left to preserve a one-goal lead.

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His emergence as a reliable backup last season and early this year buys plenty of time for Markstrom to iron out his deficiencies without the pressure of costing his team two points with mistakes he’s working hard to remedy.

Quite a luxury, as these Flames can go only as far as their $6 Million Man can take them.

“His save percentage has gone up almost 10 per cent (and his GAA has gone down almost 10 per cent) over the last two-and-a-half weeks,” said Sutter, of Markstrom’s stop-rate, which sits at .889 – far off his .922 standard last season.

“We need both of them to do that. We’ve got to keep moving.

“If we don’t get on the first page in goals against and save percentage, we won’t make the playoffs.

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“We’re moving that way. That’s the big picture.”

Vladar sits at .914, with a 2.54 GAA, which is almost half a goal better than Markstrom’s 2.97 GAA.

What’s so perfect about the tandem is that the two are good chums, doing well to help one another through this stretch.

The 25-year-old Vladar is doing Markstrom and the team a solid by stepping up at a crucial juncture in the season, as the 12-10-3 Flames struggle to distance themselves from the .500 mark.

In turn, Markstrom has been shown repeatedly on broadcasts helping Vladar from the bench during timeouts with various tips and reminders to breathe while doing his best to share laughs to keep the youngster calm.

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“We push each other every day and he’s been playing unreal,” said Markstrom.

“It’s the same in practice as it is in games, as he is with me when I’m playing. We’re a team and I love Vladdy and the progress he made the last two years is unbelievable. I think he’s going to be a really good goalie in this league for a really long time.

“It’s great for our team, he’s standing on his head right now and I couldn’t be happier every time he makes a save or every time we score a goal.”

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That relationship and attitude have made it easy for Sutter and the coaching staff to take pressure and starts off of Markstrom’s plate, as fans and observers have been clamouring for since last season when Markstrom ultimately faltered against Edmonton following a 63-start campaign, followed by 12 post-season appearances.

“You try to set a schedule, sort of, at the start of the year to make sure Vladdy was getting more minutes this year, based on performance,” said Sutter when asked if he’s changed his tack of late.

“But it’s still very hard to do because of the schedule.

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“It changes every week.

“It changes for me depending on performance, schedule, talking with the coaches, and trying to map something out.

“It’s hard to do.”

Much easier when you have the options he does.

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How Azzi Fudd's injury impacts UConn moving forward

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UConn women’s basketball sophomore Azzi Fudd is expected to miss three to six weeks with an injury. How will the Huskies handle another massive loss?



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The Mets Are Suddenly Losing Their Edge In The NL East

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(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

 

The New York Mets were leading the NL East last season for almost the first six months of the year.

They had a lead as large as 10.5 games in June but squandered it away to the Atlanta Braves.

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But, the Mets are looking to be aggressive in free agency this offseason.

After losing Jacob deGrom to the Texas Rangers, the Mets went out and signed Justin Verlander to a massive two-year deal.

But, the Mets will once again have company at the top of the division race.

The Atlanta Braves have yet to make any big moves, but they still have a young core in place that will make them competitive.

Then the reigning NL champion Philadelphia Phillies acquired one of the best hitters in free agency.

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Shortstop Trea Turner agreed to an 11-year deal with the Phillies, which gives them one of the best lineups in baseball.

You could make the argument that both the Phillies and Braves are better than the Mets on paper.

New York still has Chris Bassitt and Brandon Nimmo as free agents.

If they lose those two, the Mets will be looking at the third-best roster in the NL East.

 

Pitching Questions

The Mets used to rely on their pitching as their clear advantage over the rest of the division.

But, will they have that same advantage in 2023 with Verlander and Scherzer?

Those are the two aces of the Mets rotation, but they are both on the back end of their careers.

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Also, the depth of the Mets’ rotation is no longer existent.

Their 3-5 starters include David Peterson, Carlos Carrasco, and Tylor Megill.

If the Mets do not get the quality starting pitching they are used to, their clear edge in the division is gone.

The post The Mets Are Suddenly Losing Their Edge In The NL East appeared first on The Cold Wire.





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