Isaiah Thomas finally made his debut in a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform on Tuesday, and he looked very impressive. His line was strong, considering his limited 19 minutes: 17 points (6-12 FG, 2-4 FT), 3 assists, 3 3-pointers, 2 TO. More than the numbers, Thomas looked good out there on the court. Yes, he seemed a half-step slow and slightly rusty to start, as one would expect after such a long layoff. That said, he took a couple of hard fouls, and was able to get up and play on.
I live-tweeted (@ProfessorDrz) some of my initial impressions of Thomas:
Isaiah Thomas took and missed three good looks from downtown in the first quarter that he'll make once the rust is knocked off. Also had a good drive to the bucket And-1. So far, so good in his season/Cavaliers debut https://t.co/lDESncJMpQ
- Andre Snellings (@ProfessorDrz) January 3, 2018
Now THERE was the @isaiahthomas shooting stroke from downtown. He's getting such good looks at easy shots...he's either going to be extremely prolific, or teams are going to have to defend the @cavs differently which should open things up for @KingJames. Win-win for Cleveland
- Andre Snellings (@ProfessorDrz) January 3, 2018
The latter will be big for both the Cavaliers and fantasy mangers moving forward. Thomas is slotting into the role that Kyrie Irving filled for Cleveland last season, and they have similar strengths and weaknesses. However, while Irving has the size, slick handle and the ability to create/make difficult shots, Thomas is a bit more effective at directly attacking opposing defenses in volume. He has a knack for finding open spaces on the court and knocking down shots or driving to the bucket. He's also a more natural passer than Irving.
Put it all together, when Thomas catches his stride, it should bode well for the scoring efficiency of the entire Cavaliers team.
Last night, Leonard played his most "Kawhi-like" game of the season -- by far -- previewing the type of output he's likely to produce for the rest of the season. The Spurs have been bringing him back very slowly, with a minutes restriction, so this was his first game playing more than 30 minutes. It was telling that both he and LaMarcus Aldridge (29 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block, 1 steal, 1 3-pointer) were able to have strong games on the same night, but the other three starters combined for only 17 points. That's unlikely to happen on a nightly basis. It still stands to reason that Aldridge is the San Antonio player most likely to take a step back as Leonard ascends to the primary role.
The Suns and Hawks had one of the oddest finishes that I've ever seen. The Hawks were up by nine points with less than two minutes to play, then stopped scoring. The Suns came all the way back and took a one-point lead with 12 seconds left, and expanded it to three with six seconds left. Dennis Schroder then dribbled the ball full-court and shot a layup with less than one second on the clock, to "secure" the one point loss. As inexplicable as that ending was, it did give the Hawks three players with 20-plus points: Schroder (20 points, 5 assists, 2 rebounds, 1 steal, 1 3-pointer), Ersan Ilyasova (21 points, 9 rebounds, 3 3-pointers, 1 steal -- available in 82.3 percent of leagues) and Kent Bazemore (20 points, 4 assists, 4 steals, 3 rebounds, 4 3-pointers, 5 TO -- available in 41.3 percent of leagues).
On the Phoenix side, Booker received MVP chants from the crowd, but he had two other teammates who also posted huge games. TJ Warren was an explosive scorer with 31 points (15-21 FG), 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block and a trey. Marquese Chriss (available in 78 percent of leagues) has been the real revelation of late for the Suns, with Tuesday's effort of 17 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 3-pointers, and 2 blocks helping him to a solid five-game average of 12.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.8 3-pointers and 1.8 blocks.
Lou Williams did what he does on Tuesday, with another huge scoring night. However, he may have been upstaged by teammate C.J. Williams (available in 100 percent of leagues), who spot-started for Austin Rivers and turned in 18 points (7-10 FG, 1-2 FT), 3 3-pointers, 2 steals and 2 rebounds in 29 minutes of action.
Porzingis couldn't get his shot to work yet again on Tuesday night, and has now made only 49-of-129 field goal attempts in his last seven games since returning from injury -- a sad 38 percent clip. He's playing normal minutes, so it doesn't seem to be a physical issue, and it should thus straighten out in the near future. Meanwhile, Michael Beasley (available in 75.4 percent of leagues) had another strong night, leading the Knicks with 18 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block and 1 steal in 26 minutes off the bench.
The Charlotte Hornets had eight players in double-digit scoring in their blowout win over the Kings, so no one individual had a huge line. Nicolas Batum (available in 37 percent of leagues) had perhaps the most encouraging line of the night, though, with 21 points (8-12 FG, 2-3 FT), 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 3-pointers and 1 TO in a team-high 31 minutes. After battling injuries all season, he finally seems to be rounding into form.
Labissiere (available in 99 percent of leagues) earned a spot-start as the Kings experimented with their lineup, and exploded for what was overwhelmingly his best game of the season. It was also his first game of the year playing more than 24 minutes. Zach Randolph was also strong (24 points, 10 rebounds, 25 minutes) and largely outplayed Willie Cauley-Stein (8 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 block in 23 minutes off the bench), but Labissiere's performance was the most eye-popping line on a night when the Kings were absolutely drubbed by the Hornets.
Injuries of note
Danny Green has limped through only 19 and 14 minutes of action in his last two games, respectively, with a groin injury. After Tuesday night's game, Coach Gregg Popovic said that the Spurs could shut Green down for a few games to let him heal. While this coincides with Kawhi Leonard ramping back up to full minutes, someone like Kyle Anderson or Bryn Forbes could certainly see extended play if Green sits.
This injury didn't happen on Tuesday, but the Nets announced yesterday that Caris LeVert is dealing with a left groin strain and is doubtful to play on Wednesday. LeVert has been playing very well lately, and his absence -- in conjunction with the questionable availability of DeMarre Carroll (ribs) -- could leave an opening on the Brooklyn wing for Allen Crabbe or Joe Harris.
Another non-Tuesday injury, but Joel Embiid is dealing with a bruised hand and is doubtful to play on Wednesday. This would open up an opportunity for Richaun Holmes to get some run, with Ben Simmons and Dario Saric having to carry the primary load for the Philadelphia 76ers.
Analytics advantage for Wednesday
The Houston Rockets are one of the most prolific offenses in the NBA, and have been for the last two years with James Harden as the offensive engine in Mike D'Antoni's system. Harden is currently out with a hamstring injury, so the role of offensive engine will be taken on by Chris Paul. While Harden is a more gifted scorer, Paul is one of the best distributors of all time. Thus, with Paul running the show, the other Rockets could well see an uptick in production and efficiency.
One place this shows up is in the pick and roll/pop game, a staple of the Houston offense. According to Second Spectrum, when Harden has been the ball-handler in the pick and roll/pop, it has produced 0.979 points per chance through 1668 picks. When Paul runs it, though, it has produced a more efficient 1.130 points per chance in 640 picks.
Further, Paul generates highly-efficient team offense regardless of the pick setter. When Clint Capela has set the pick for Paul, it has produced 1.213 points per chance. With Ryan Anderson, it's 1.010 points per chance. Also see: PJ Tucker (1.067), Trevor Ariza (1.364) and Eric Gordon (1.053). No matter who sets the pick, Paul has been able to produce high-efficiency shots in high volume for his teammates.
This bodes very well for the entire Rockets offense, and makes them all very streamable on Wednesday against the Orlando Magic.
Top players to watch tonight
I'll be watching "LeBron vs Kyrie II" on Wednesday. Yes, LeBron James leads the Cavaliers into Boston for the first time this season to face Kyrie Irving's Boston Celtics. Isaiah Thomas will sit, but James and Irving should both be as motivated as ever.
Above, we noted that having Chris Paul in James Harden's role likely benefits the other Rockets. However, Paul will also be called upon to score more himself, so we will finally get to see what one of the greatest point guards of all-time looks like in the most PG-friendly offense of all time.