Top Plays Theatre

Top Plays Spotlight: Hardening the ‘D’


VIDEO: James Harden is piling on the blocks during the 2014-15 season

Monday saw James Harden torment the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves for 31 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists and four blocks. The world focused on the triple-double, the fourth of his career, and rightfully so. That last line, the four swats, is also a cause for recognition.

Why? Among NBA guards, Harden has the third-most blocks (46), behind only K.J. McDaniels and Danny Green. There aren’t any clamoring for him to get an All-Defensive team nod (except maybe Clyde Drexler and Daryl Morey), but his effectiveness defending the ball has ratcheted up a notch.

How is he racking up his swats? Smart weak-side help, strong hands, deceptive closeout speed, long arms, timing, timing, timing and strength. The same traits that make him a terror with the ball have emphatically caught DeMarcus Cousins, Zach Randolph (and others) off guard on the other end.

Harden has 26 games to finish off his best season and MVP submission. If he sustains his new-found tendency for rejections (his 46 blocks already are a career high), it will be harder to keep the Maurice Podoloff Trophy off his mantle. Especially with moves like this:


VIDEO: James Harden victimizes Ricky Rubio before sinking the trey

Top Plays Spotlight: Treys up in the A

It’s rare when a heavyweight bout lives up to its billing, but that’s what we got when the NBA’s top teams met in Atlanta on Friday night. With NBA supremacy — at this point — on the line, folks circled this date weeks ago. Beyond the battle for the top record, the game featured five All-Stars on the court. Three of those All-Stars will participate in the Three-Point showdown next week in Madison Square Garden.

But to keep us company for now, they decided to give us a “exhibition” in Philips Arena. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kyle Korver combined for 13 3s (both teams shot 27-for-60 from deep, good for a 45 percent clip) in the Hawks’ 124-116 win.

Neither team will be any less gun-shy in their rematch next month. Now is as good a time as any to circle March 18 on your calendar.


VIDEO: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kyle Korver light it up in Atlanta

Top Plays Spotlight: John the Benevolent


VIDEO: John Wall has exhibited a passion for finding the open man this season

John Wall just keeps getting better.

The 24-year-old guard from Raleigh, N.C. continues to elevate his game, entering the second week of the New Year leading the NBA in assists. He has not only usurped reigning dimes champion Chris Paul, but he has eclipsed his previous high average set last year at 8.8 per game.

Wall is posting 10.3 helpers a night, finding teammates through getting deep in the paint, waiting until the last second to unload to Marcin Gortat or Nene or Kris Humphries on a cut. If that’s not there, then he can dart his eyes toward the wings, where Paul Pierce, Bradley Beal and Rasual Butler are usually waiting with a clear look at the rim.

And if nobody is open, he can always just finish.

Elite athleticism and speed gives him the ability to maneuver in traffic and adjust to contact. Steadily improving court vision allows him to find the open man. His 6-foot-4 frame can absorb more punishment than most. Add his studious approach to the game and we have a guy poised to rank among the best of a Golden Age of NBA point guards for a good minute.

Top Plays Spotlight: Ravenous Hawks

Western Conference supremacy? Tell that to the Atlanta Hawks right now, who have won nine straight games against the West, including a stretch through Houston, Dallas, Portland and L.A. (Clippers).

If there was a mystery as to why they are playing so well over the past six weeks, last night’s performance against the Memphis Grizzlies was illuminating. Jeff Teague balled for 25 points and a late-game closeout performance. Kyle Korver sealed matters with a trey in the final minute.

But it was their defense that shined the most. Simple plain harassment. By the time the final buzzer sounded, “Da Hawks” plucked the Grizzlies 17 times, the most ever in Philips Arena. Putting it into more context, over the past six games, the Hawks have forced 111 turnovers. That’s 18.5 a night. The Philadelphia 76ers cough up the pill a league-worst 19.2 times a night.

Last night, we saw a principled defensive bunch pester its way to another win.


VIDEO: Hawks fly everywhere vs. Memphis, set franchise home record with 17 steals

OKC hosts block party for Houston


VIDEO: OKC get three rejections in one possession against the Rockets

There was a brick fair of enormous magnitude in Oklahoma City on Sunday and it was all in Chesapeake Energy Arena. James Harden missed 12 of 17. Dwight Howard missed 10 of 14 — 19 of 27 if you count free throws. Houston’s stars weren’t the only culprits. In fact, nobody shot 50 percent from the field. Nobody.

The Rockets shot 28.7 percent from the field, undoubtedly helped to that figure by the ridiculous rim protection from the trio of Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. Fourteen blocks combined, they threw six offerings from Howard. Credit the Rockets for continuing to challenge the Thunder, but their intrepidity in the paint was likely necessitated by their abysmal launching from deep (7-for-35 out there).

Despite Houston’s shooting woes, it got the 69-65 win (read that score again slowly) because OKC wasn’t much better (29.4 percent). It was a physical affair, replete with four technical fouls, a Pat Beverley sighting and more trash talk than a little bit. Win or no win, the Thunder, particularly young big man Adams, gave the Rockets a rim party to remember.


VIDEO: OKC swats 15 shots in Sunday’s narrow loss to the Rockets

Jeremy Evans can really, really leap

Whenever Jeremy Evans’ name is mentioned around these parts, it’s because of his deft ability to defy gravity and complete jams no human has a right to complete.

He is tall (6-foot-9), so he’s supposed to be able to dunk, right? Fair point. But Friday night against the Pelicans, he might have outdone himself on a feed from Ian Clark. Regardless of his height, this took a deal of hand-eye coordination, body control and flexibility to pull off.

With all due respect to the Lob Brothers in L.A., Evans might have given us the best alley-oop of the season:


VIDEO: Jeremy Evans reaches way back to complete the oop from Ian Clark

George casually nails absurdly long trey

Anybody in the whole free world with half an NBA eye knows the Pacers are struggling. Those with a whole eye see their superstar Paul George as being in the vanguard of the struggle, as illuminated by Sekou Smith here recently.

So what does Mr. George do to get folks off his back? He launches a 3 from the half-court logo in a one-point game with a little over three minutes to play, that’s what. It wasn’t a buzzer-beater either, although he may have thought it was…


VIDEO: Paul George goes YOLO — or gets desperate — and sinks ridiculous 3

Indiana ended up winning 101-94. Does this shift their season for the better? Who knows. One thing for sure: Uncle Pauly hasn’t lost his confidence.

Stat, Tyson play bully ball in Oakland

Coaches are fond of telling their team that whoever plays with the most physicality will win nine out of 10 times. The Pistons of the late 1980s took that to heart and it led to a dynasty and adulation many years later.

It didn’t work as well for the early to mid-90s New York Knicks, who boasted a trio of imposing bruisers — Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason — but couldn’t get out the East. Throughout the years, plenty of teams followed the rough and tumble blueprint. While it doesn’t always result in a championship, a physical brand of basketball does make things competitive…which is ultimately what we want to see.

Sunday night at ORACLE Arena, the (current) Knicks discovered what a bit of nasty could do. First Tyson Chandler got demonstrative on Jermaine O’Neal, capped off by a searing stare-down:


VIDEO: Tyson Chandler sends Jermaine O’Neal to the ground, then scowls at him

Then a quarter later, Amar’e Stoudemire did exactly what a 6-foot-10 person is supposed to do when a 6-foot-3 person is in his way under the rim:


VIDEO: Amar’e Stoudemire snatches board from Stephen Curry and throws down

Gotta love how Stephen Curry just helped himself to his feet, wiped his mouth off with his jersey and trotted up the court. As fierce as any competitor in the NBA, he dropped a cool 32 points and single-handedly almost led Golden State to a dub. But for another night at least, the bullies captured the flag.

The long-named rookie strikes again

In L.A., Giannis Antetokounmpo recorded another highlight in the land of highlights.

In L.A., Giannis Antetokounmpo recorded another highlight in the land of highlights.

Giannis, Giannis, Giannis. Throughout the Bucks’ seasonal march toward futility, the 19-year-old neophyte from Greece has kept the league us drooling over his youth, coachable mien and propensity for otherworldly hardwood feats.

His chasedown swat and Statue of Liberty yam against the Celtics earlier this season has been firmly ensconced on the Top Plays Theatre. Monday night in the land of the lobs, his springs and hustle decided to grace us again.

Once he got the block, you knew what he was going for. Fortunately, Zaza Pachulia knew what time it was and fed the young buck on cue:


VIDEO: Giannis Antetokounmpo gets busy on both ends

Paul George got five on it

Here at the All Ball lair, we put a heavy spotlight on the offensive exploits of NBA players. Defensive prowess gets love too, mainly in the form of a monstrous block or chicanery.

When the Pacers visited Chicago for their second matchup in three nights Monday, Paul George added another dimension to the Top Plays Theatre. His weapon of choice: long arms, quick feet and insatiable persistence.

In a sequence early in the game, he attempted to pilfer the Bulls’ rock not once, not twice, not thrice, but five times before he emerged successful. To say it’s one of the best defensive efforts of the season is an understatement:


VIDEO: Ever the opportunist, Paul George uses five attempts to get the steal and score