Baseline to Baseline: February 24th

Photo credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
  1. Jusuf Nurkic using his eyes

Most regarded Portland as the winners of the trade that sent Mason Plumlee to Denver in exchange for Nurkic and a 1st round pick. Doubters (like myself) were so not quick to label the trade as a coup. The embattled Nurkic had been relegated to the pine after Nikola Jokic began throwing up stat lines resembling Bill Walton circa 1977, and Plumlee has been a nifty playmaking force that understands how to finagle through the open space.

Due to the whirling nature of Portland’s guards, a heady center that knows how to sort through the chaos will be able to find openings when the defense is stretched to its breaking point. The early returns have been promising thus far for Nurkic:

(Bigs that palm the ball with their meaty paws prior to engaging for a screen hold a special place in my heart.)

Orlando elects to swarm Damian Lillard after the screen has been set, providing an outlet for Nurkic to float to daylight. Lillard hits him just over the outstretched hands of Nikola Vucevic, forcing Aaron Gordon and D.J. Augustine to converge towards the basket. Shabazz Napier almost botches the spacing with this sequence by not planting himself firmly in the corner, but he also gets the psuedo-assist for the fingerpoint towards Maurice Harkless. I guess we’ll call it even.

Nurkic throws a strike, and hits Harkless in stride for a three that basically iced the game for Portland. These kinds of plays are paramount for any big that wants to shine in the Blazers’ system, and it will be interesting to see over time if Plumlee really is that good of a passer or if he was merely a product of Portland’s spacing.

2. Ish Smith with the wiggle dart

I am still trying to figure out how Detroit was able to summon enough gusto to come all the back last night. Stan Van Gundy was in prime arm flailing mode, and his disgust was palpable through the TV screen.

The Pistons have been up and down all season, but one of their continual bright spots has been the play of Smith. Managing the duration of his impact has been tricky ever since the return of Reggie Jackson, but I think SVG is finally saying “eff it” and rolling with Smith during crunch time. Detroit simply packs more oomph when he is on the floor.

Defenders have to account for Smith’s lightning quick first step and ability to blow into the lane without missing a beat. His shot can come and go, but when it is at least garners an ounce of respect, it can leave oppositions tied up.

Poor Marvin Williams was just trying to rotate back to his man, but the swiftness of Smith’s dribble gives the illusion of a nasty crossover. Kemba Walker — five feet into the lane — surrenders the jumper, and the rest of the Charlotte defense freezes as Smith rises. Sensing Williams’ confusion, Tobias Harris streaks towards the rim, and Smith hits him with the dime before the Hornets even know what them.

Smith is one the more enjoyable players to watch because of plays like this — he will pass up on his own shot for a better one if the situation presents itself.

3. Boogie with no Boogie

Much of the focus for the Pelicans’ new towering tandem has been on their fit on the offensive end.

Will they be able to coexist? Will there be enough space in the paint for each of them to operate?

Although those are fair questions, I don’t share the same skepticism that others might. Both bigs are versatile and can space the floor, and Anthony Davis especially is not someone who holds the ball a ton. Each have the capability of making sharp decisions quickly, and will keep the train moving for the most part.

As we saw last night, some of the bigger issues will lie in how the Pelicans will fare on the defensive end. Teams with the requisite weapons should spread New Orleans out like all hell to drag Davis out of the paint and force Cousins to guard lead ball handlers over and over again. Not only is Cousins not consistently quick enough to do so, but this action will drain the energy that fuels his offense.

This example may not be the most fair to Boogie — James Harden is really freaking good at maneuvering his way to the basket. But the premise is still the same: pound the Pelicans with pick-and-rolls that pull Davis away as a help threat, place the burden on Boogie, and see what happens. (This is why people shouted for Davis to play five on a consistent basis. His ability to switch and stifle pick-and-rolls is unique for his gangly stature.)

Houston is the matchup from hell for how the remade Pelicans want to play. The Rockets’ blitz of three-pointers and peak Oregon-level spread all but nullifies any advantage New Orleans boasts with their behemoths:

There is undoubtedly greener pastures ahead. Boogie’s defense isn’t terrible when he is engaged, and he even got Harden back later in the quarter:

Transitions take time.

4. TURN UP THE TRILL

Willie “Trill” Cauley-Stein was finally fully unlocked last night, and the result was something that would make my NBA 2k MyPlayer jealous:

I’m not entirely sure what to make of what that just was, but all I know is that I would like to see some more of it. Cauley-Stein oozes with a coveted skill set for a center in today’s NBA: Long enough to combat shots at the rim, quick enough to hang with guards, and bouncy enough to pose a threat as a rim-runner. Whatever that controlled fury of dribbling was is an added bonus.

Sacramento already turbo-charged their pace minus Cousins last night, and it should only gain steam going forward. Defensive possessions like this one spearheaded Cauley-Stein should create easy buckets going the other way.

Those baskets add up over the course of a game, and if Cauley-Stein leverages his upper echelon speed over other centers, there is a lot of transition finishes in his future.

Cousins is a remarkable talent that the Kings are surely going to miss, but it is also a fun change to see a team ban together and play as a cohesive unit rather than orbiting their basketball existence around one man. Bill Simmons’ Ewing Theory radar is already raging.