Lowe's 10 things: Speedy CP3, Dennis Smith Jr. and the finally fun Cavs


It’s that time:

1. Chris Paul, getting nuts

My favorite subplot of the season: watching Paul adjust to the pace and freedom of Mike D’Antoni’s offense. You can see his brain working: “OK, I’m dribbling fast. Look at me go! Oh, here’s Clint setting me a screen 35 feet from the hoop. My guy went under! Wait, I’m supposed to shoot, aren’t I? But there are 19 seconds on the shot clock and I haven’t signaled a play or yelled at anyone yet. Should I really shoot? I guess so. WHEE!”

He’s like a sheltered college freshman being dragged to his first frat parties. “The beer is … free? My parents wouldn’t like this. Maybe I’ll try one sip.” Five minutes later, he’s doing keg stands.

His midrange attempts are even way down!

It’s working. Houston has hung neck-and-neck with Golden State by any measure. They are scoring 118 points per 100 possessions with Paul and James Harden on the floor, even though the stars are figuring out how to complement each other. Paul has accepted a secondary role, but he can’t be a bystander. He knows that. He and Harden are working on two-man actions.

Paul has soared without Harden. The Rockets are a ridiculous plus-54 in 70 minutes Paul has gone solo, and they are playing faster in those minutes, per NBA.com. (Houston has sped up after a slow-poke start.) Paul is dribbling and holding the ball less, per tracking data, and whipping it all over the floor. He always knows where Ryan Anderson is.

Anderson lost weight, and is defending preposterously well by his standards — even when switched onto little guys. When Houston wants to amp up the defense, they pull Anderson in favor of wing-heavy lineups with two of the PJ Tucker/Luc Richard Mbah a Moute/Trevor Ariza wrecking crew. Clint Capela smothers pick-and-rolls high on the floor, and Houston switches a ton — in part to confuse the matchups when they rush from defense to offense.

Skeptics want to see Paul and Harden advance to the conference finals. That’s fair, though some forget Harden already has been there (and beyond). Houston’s offense hasn’t been as prolific in the postseason during the Harden era. But the Paul-Harden thing is working, and these guys are a problem.

2. LeBron and the bench, making Cleveland fun again

Sometime during their fourth-quarter comeback in New York, with LeBron undressing Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle Korver draining everything, the Cavaliers became fun again. Deigning to try helps. Cleveland ranks seventh in points allowed per possession since Nov. 10 — a span of 10 games. They aren’t the peak Duncan-era Spurs, but they’re establishing the baseline competency they’ll need to get through the East.

Their weirdo veteran bench — plus LeBron — has driven the change. Cleveland is just plus-54 for the season, but a gargantuan plus-133 when both Dwyane Wade and Kyle Korver are on the floor, per NBA.com. The LeBron/Wade/Korver trio is plus-117 in 174 minutes, obliterating teams on both ends.

The most entertaining Cavs lineup: LeBron, Wade, Korver, JR Smith, and Kevin Love. It is a bizarre variation of one lineup type that has always worked: LeBron surrounded by three shooters and one slasher/cutter/roller (Wade) who knows how to play off of him. (Tristan Thompson, out since Nov. 1, normally fills that spot.) An alternative version with Crowder in Smith’s place has been almost as good, albeit in a tiny sample size.

Traditional centers have zero chance to hang with Love, and he is feasting in the post when teams switch wings onto him.

Since ditching the bricky LeBron-Wade-Derrick Rose lineups, Cleveland has gotten back to burying teams under an avalanche of 3s. They’re up to fourth in attempts per game, and only the Rockets and Nets jacked more in November.

Love is trying on defense, even when Tyronn Lue asks him to attack pick-and-rolls at the 3-point arc — a challenge for any plodder. Korver and Jose Calderon won’t stop anyone one-on-one, but they know where to be; Korver tussles for rebounds and deflections.

These lineups don’t represent the endgame for Cleveland. They won’t defend well enough to hang with Golden State — if we get Cavs-Warriors IV: The Burner Account. The Cavs will search out better two-way balance with groups featuring Crowder, Thompson, and Isaiah Thomas.

But it’s a long season, and it has been fun watching Cleveland work itself out of a fog.

3. The less predictable Pistons

Detroit finished last season 26th in points per possession, with perhaps the league’s most predictable offense. It seemed like they toggled between three choreographed sets: limping Reggie Jackson-Andre Drummond pick-and-rolls; rote post-ups for Drummond; or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope zooming up from the left corner to take a handoff at the elbow.

The Pistons have injected some new randomness, and it has invigorated them. They are smoking teams with Warrior-style “split actions,” usually involving Avery Bradley screening for someone on the wing while Drummond surveys. If Bradley senses his man cheating, he’ll abort the pick and zip to the rim:

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