• It’s a great time to be a fan of the NBA. Teams are beginning to tank, players are starting to rest and playoff seeds are at stake. Let’s take a look at my Starting Five, which are the most interesting story lines around the NBA in this week’s edition of the Z Report:

    WARRIORS RODEO STOPS IN SAN ANTONIO

    The crowd was energetic and the players looked hyped. The Spurs were close to becoming the only team in NBA history to go undefeated at home. However, last time the Warriors matched up against the Spurs, they mauled them. This time Golden State could feel the pressure mounting up as they pursued the NBA record for highest win percentage in the regular season. 73 or more wins was within reach and legacies were at stake. It was a playoff atmosphere — it was a championship atmosphere.

    From the opening tip, both teams executed well defensively. San Antonio switched on picks throughout the game in an effort to alleviate open shots off screens. This is partially why Boris Diaw started and played significant minutes for Tim Duncan. The switches made it tough for the Warriors to find the small creases that they need to get good looks at the basket.

     

     

    The Spurs did not use Kawhi Leonard as the primary defender on Stephen Curry. Instead, Kawhi guarded Draymond Green for most of the game.

    Offensively, San Antonio had one plan from the beginning– slow the tempo of the game and get the ball inside against the small-ball Warriors (Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes and Green). Gregg Popovich’s strategy worked as the Spurs were able to slow down the Warriors pace from 102.15 on the season to 90.16 in this contest.

     

     

     

     

    LaMarcus Aldridge was the main beneficiary of the Warriors lineup decision, scoring 26 points with 18 points coming against the Warriors small unit at an average distance of 8.2 feet from the basket. He was obliterating Harrison Barnes and Green on the low block during the entire game.

    The Warriors defensive game plan worked well on the Spurs backcourt. Steve Kerr elected to drape Klay Thompson on Tony Parker from the beginning of the game and as a result, Parker was only 2-for-8 from the field with six points.

    However, on offense, it felt like Golden State was rushing their shots in order to compensate for the slower tempo of the game. The team was 10-for-24 on field goal attempts within 15-24 seconds left on the shot clock. This is a common occurrence for this Warriors team, but on a day where the shots aren’t falling, Kerr needed to adjust and figure out a way to get easier looks. There were numerous times when Curry had opportunities to drive on Diaw, Aldridge or Duncan when the Spurs switched on picks. Steph continued to settle for the long ball on a day where he was 1-for-12 from downtown. He was 3-for-5 with one pass that led to a score (it was not considered an assist on the stat sheet) on seven drives to the basket. The defense bended when Steph drove to the hoop.

     

     

    There was also a point where Steph was out of the game and Klay became the focal point of the offense. However, the Warriors elected to try to post him up and have him back down the smaller defenders that San Antonio implored on him. This also looked like a mistake — Klay did not make a shot on post-up fade away attempts in this outing.

    Even with this, the Warriors remained in the game. However, it felt like Kerr kept Curry on the bench too long with the game winding down. Steph did not enter the fourth quarter until there was 5:58 left in the game when the Spurs took a 75-71 lead off of a Diaw layup.

    With a couple of Curry’s rushed threes and missed opportunities, the Spurs found themselves in control of the game as Kawhi headed to the line to put the team up six with less than 30 seconds to go. The crowd knew the game was over and chanted, “M-V-P, M-V-P, M-V-P” as Leonard hit a free throw to seal the game.

    It was over. The Spurs remained undefeated at home while the Warriors could only afford two more losses to hold the title for best regular season record of all-time.

    The Warriors have two more chances to revenge their Saturday night loss. Something tells me that having Andrew Bogut down low and Steph Curry avenging his worst shooting performance since 2014 will tilt the scales in Golden State’s favor.

     

    DIRK DELIVERS FOR DALLAS

    Sunday was the biggest game of the Mavericks season up to this point. The crowd was loud even though the fans know that their beloved team is stuck in mediocrity. A team that wishes to compete for championships cannot rely on a 37-year old to shoulder the load night-in and night-out. However, for one night or one game, the possibilities are endless.

    In a day where the Mavericks and their fans felt that they were playing in a must-win home game, Dirk Nowitzki mustered up the strength to put together a 40-point performance in an overtime win against the sixth-place Blazers. For one day, it seemed like none of the miles he has logged mattered. His awkward one-legged fadeaway and deep ball were intact.

    From the eight-minute mark of the first quarter when Dirk hit a shot in which he spun to his right and fell away to create space from Gerald Henderson, you knew today could be a special day:

     

     

    Repeatedly, Dirk came up big for Dallas down the stretch of this close game. At one point, it was tough to remember the last field goal attempt that he missed. The crowd roared as their king saved them from falling out of the last playoff spot. The most memorable moments came with two minutes left in overtime when the game was still within reach for the Blazers. The Mavericks ran their classic pick and roll with Nowitzki as the screener at the top of the three-point arc as they have for the past decade. Dirk stayed home as Deron Williams took both defenders towards the basket. Williams dished a nice pass to Dirk at the top of the arc and what was a five-point lead became an eight-point lead:

     

     

    If matching his age in points wasn’t enough, Dirk put the final nail in the coffin by hitting a trey to reach 40 points. His dramatic pause after releasing the ball made it that much sweeter. You can tell that he has the respect and loyalty from the announcers, his organization, and the fans.

     

     

    HOW ABOUT 40?! Dirk’s performance made him the fourth player in NBA history to score 40 or more points at the age of 37 and above, joining Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Karl Malone. It was one for the ages and kept the Mavericks one game above the Jazz for the time being.

     

    WIZARDS FOUND MAGIC SPELL

    You know that moment when things finally start to fall in place and you wonder what took you so long to realize it? I think the Wizards are beginning to catch on to which lineup causes the biggest headache for opponents. The new starting five containing John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat is a force to be reckoned with.

    The Wizards are undefeated in their last five games including games against the eighth place Bulls, the ninth place Pistons and the fourth place Hawks. The similarity in all five of these games has been the starting lineup. Since Bradley Beal’s recovery from a pelvis injury, the Wizards have been able to put the same players out on the floor to start the game. Washington only deployed this starting unit six times the entire season (one of which Beal exited in the middle of the contest), but based on the facts, they should continue to do so moving forward.

    Since the beginning of the five-game winning streak, this lineup is the most effective unit in the NBA. They have an average plus-minus of +15.5 in four out of their last five games (Beal missed a game last week) and are firing on all cylinders.

    So, what is making this unit work? Spacing. The Wizards are using Wall, Beal, Porter and Morris on the perimeter and use Gortat to screen in an attempt to get teammates open. From there, Wall or Beal have space to drive to the basket since there aren’t defenders clogging the lane. Teams can either collapse, stay back and play off or play tight and hope that the defender can sticks with his man.

    Here, the Hawks switch on the pick from Gortat. Al Horford (Gortat’s man), decided to drift backwards in an attempt to make Beal pull-up from the free throw line. Everyone else stayed on their man.

     

     

    The Hawks decided to do something similar on Wall, except Jeff Teague stayed with Wall and went under the pick, which allowed Wall to shoot the uncontested free throw line jumper.

     

     

    The Wizards are still 1.5 games out of the playoffs but they look to continue the hot streak and finally have a healthy roster moving forward. I don’t think that they will catch the Bulls or Pistons, but I would love to see this team and their newfound confidence in the playoffs.

    Side Note: Gortat screens are quickly to becoming one of my favorite things in the NBA right now.

     

    CELTICS SMALL BALL

    The Celtics are one of the better League Pass teams to watch. Whether you like coaching, effort, up tempo offense or awkward lineups, Boston has you covered. Coach Brad Stevens is not afraid of forcing other teams to match up with his lineups and likes to try new things every couple of games.

    On Sunday, Stevens deployed a unit with Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger in the fourth quarter. That’s right, Turner was playing Power Forward. The unique part of this lineup is that there are four guys that can bring the ball up the court. If you watched the game against the Sixers, the Celtics took this to heart. Thomas, Bradley, Smart and Turner were all given a chance to push the ball up the court and run the offense. Sullinger’s main role was to set screens to get the other four players open.

    When Thomas drove to the basket, the whole Sixers team collapsed, leaving Smart and Bradley open at the 3-point line. Smart nailed the trey.

     

     

    Don’t be fooled by Thomas’ height, he is one of the top slashers in today’s game, averaging 11.7 drives per game (second in the NBA).

    They can also pull off nifty double screens with two wide-bodied guys in Smart and Sullinger to setup a driving lane or, in this case, a pull-up three for Thomas.

     

     

    This lineup was actually Boston’s second best on Sunday, and is +11 on the year in 18 minutes together. It will be interesting to see if Stevens uses this unit more often once the Celtics reach the playoffs. I also hope to see another variation of this lineup with Jae Crowder operating the five spot.

     

    ALERT YOUR NEIGHBORS, IT’S A BIYOMBO BLOCK PARTY

    Did anyone anticipate the week that Bismack Biyombo had? In five games and four starts, Bed, Bath & Biyombo collected 18 blocks while the Raptors went 4-1 as Jonas Valanciunas nursed a hand injury sustained against the Bulls. However, the block party did not spur from finally getting starts. Biyombo has had two or more blocks in a game for eight consecutive games, which is a franchise record.

    Not only did he block shots, but he cleaned up the boards as well. The Windex Man finished the week with 66 rebounds in five games, including one in which he broke the team record for most rebounds in a game with 25. Hats off to the big man for making some noise and bringing some tough defense to this frontcourt. It will be interesting to see what Dwane Casey decides to do upon Valanciunas’ return from injury. In the meantime, don’t get in this man’s way:

     

     

Fantasy News

  • Joel Embiid
    C, Philadelphia Sixers

    In a video, Joel Embiid announced that he lost about 25 pounds over the summer.

    Embiid is one of the best fantasy players around but has struggled at times with conditioning. The Sixers will gladly accept any improvements from last season's averages of 27.5 points and 13.6 rebounds.

    Source: NBC Sports

  • TJ Warren
    SF, Indiana Pacers

    According to Pacers beat writer Scott Agness, Pacers forward T.J. Warren has no injury worries heading into the season.

    Warren has missed 56 games during the last two seasons, but he hopes to stay healthy for all of 2019-20. Warren is likely to start for the Pacers and could hold top-100 value if he can stay on the court.

    Source: Scott Agness on Twitter

  • Damian Lillard
    PG, Portland Trail Blazers

    Damian Lillard expects to play for Team USA during next year's Summer Olympics.

    Lillard skipped this year's World Cup but is planning to play in Tokyo. He should be a late first-round or early second-round fantasy pick this year.

    Source: news.com.au

  • Stephen Curry
    PG, Golden State Warriors

    Warriors guard Stephen Curry expects to play at next year's Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

    Curry will have a busy year ahead of him. Still, it's no surprise that many potential members of Team USA skipped this year's FIBA World Cup in favor of an Olympics appearance. Curry will be a popular early first-round pick in fantasy drafts.

    Source: ESPN

  • Isaiah Thomas
    PG, Washington Wizards

    Wizards guard Isaiah Thomas will be sidelined for 6-8 weeks after undergoing surgery on his left thumb.

    This is rough news for the Wizards, who already have John Wall on the shelf. Thomas was a candidate to start at point guard, but instead he'll have to recover from yet another injury. Thomas averaged 8.1 points and 1.9 assists in limited action for the Nuggets last campaign.

    Source: Washington Wizards on Twitter

  • Carmelo Anthony
    PF, Free Agent

    According to Ian Begley, several Nets players are pushing for the team to sign Carmelo Anthony but it's unknown whether the front office will go forward.

    Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have already been reported as being among Anthony's supporters. Still, Melo could end up with a team other than the Nets or nowhere at all in the NBA. He averaged 13.4 points and 5.4 rebounds before the Rockets parted ways with him last November.

    Source: Ian Begley on SNY

  • Justin Anderson
    SF, Washington Wizards

    The Wizards signed forward Justin Anderson.

    The Wizards could use depth, but Anderson's deal is non-guaranteed and he is unlikely to make a major fantasy impact. He averaged 3.7 points last season in limited action for the Hawks.

    Source: Fred Katz on Twitter

  • Isaiah Taylor
    PG, Toronto Raptors

    The Raptors have signed guard Isaiah Taylor, according to Adrian Wojnarowski.

    It's a partially guaranteed deal for Taylor, who missed last season due to injury. The Celtics, Nuggets, and Suns had also shown interest. Taylor averaged 6.6 points and 1.3 assists in 2017-18 with the Hawks. He's unlikely to put up big numbers with the Raptors.

    Source: Adrian Wojnarowski on Twitter

  • Darius Miller
    SF, New Orleans Pelicans

    The Pelicans have applied for a disabled player exception worth $3.625 million, after losing forward Darius Miller for the season with an Achilles injury.

    Miller became a reliable perimeter threat for the Pelicans last year averaging career-highs in points (8.2) and assists (2.5) in 69 games. He then signed a two-year deal worth $14 million early in the summer. Without Miller, the Pelicans will likely give more minutes to Kenrich Williams and Nicolo Melli.

    Source: Shams Charania on Twitter

  • Lonzo Ball
    PG, New Orleans Pelicans

    According to Andrew Lopez, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram have been full participants in voluntary team workouts.

    It's great news for the two former number two picks as they enter their age-22 seasons with a fresh start. Neither Ball nor Ingram has played in 60 games in either of the past two seasons due to injuries. Ingram has never cracked the top 110/170 (8-cat/9-cat), but he could easily beat that in New Orleans with a quick tempo and new role. Ball had a top 60/85 finish in his rookie season, so there's definitely upside here. Lonzo does have a very wide range of possible outcomes, so draft him only if you're feeling risky.

    Source: Andrew Lopez on Twitter