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Best of the rest: Who is the third-best team in the Eastern Conference?

It's not a title any team should be thrilled to have, but someone has to emerge from the pack of the awful Eastern Conference behind Indiana and Miami. We assess the field at the season's halfway point. Plus: a look at Mike Conley's transition playmaking.

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

Yeah, yeah, we know: The Eastern Conference is a joke outside of the Pacers and Heat. Miami could play LeBron James in half of the remaining games and coast to the second seed at worst. That is probably also true of Mike James. Or James Taylor.

Still, there has to be a third-best team in the conference. That team won't be very good, and will likely win 45-50 games at most. It's not a title any team should be proud owning. Such a team exists, though.

And there is some significance to be No. 3 in a conference. It means two rounds of home playoff revenue, which is important for owners. For some teams, it means a lot in terms of perception, especially those teams that are relying on younger players instead of veterans and are looking to improve the franchise's Q rating when attracting free agents. It also allows management to sell the season to fans as a success, which isn't necessarily a good thing.

So, then: What is the third-best team in the Eastern Conference? The candidates:

TORONTO

Thanks in large part to an elite defense, the Raptors have surged since the Rudy Gay trade. Only three teams are defending at a higher level than Toronto since then: Indiana (obviously), Chicago (not a surprise) and Oklahoma City. And Toronto was ahead of the latter two before they fell off in two losses to the Lakers and Bobcats on Sunday and Monday.

Physicality is the name of the game. Toronto is so good at making every cut slightly more difficult than usual, pushing every post-up slightly further out and ensuring that every set is initiated with slightly more pressure than is comfortable. Trying to score on the Raptors is hard work. Consider this missed layup by Kevin Love.


On the surface, it looks like a botched finish by an NBA superstar, but consider what happened before the shot attempt. First, Love had to contend with some bruising banging courtesy of Amir Johnson, who was fronting him on the block.

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That goes on for a few seconds until Love tries to cut up the lane off a Nikola Pekovic screen. Instead of finding daylight, Love finds this:

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Even when Love seems to have a step going to the basket, Johnson slides right with him.

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Love finally sheds Johnson with a pump fake, but by then, he's so out of sorts that he rushes the layup and misses. That's what constant pressure does. The Raptors bump cutters trying to go down the lane. They attack the ball-handler like pitbulls, using Kyle Lowry's tenacity and their big men's mobility. They certainly fight for post position, as the Johnson sequence shows. You have to match their physicality if you want to score on them.

Offensively, they have to be encouraged by DeMar DeRozan's development. In his fifth year, the Raptors' shooting guard is starting to learn how to read help defenders, especially when he comes off the many screens the Raptors run for him. Last year, DeRozan probably would have taken a shot in this situation, but here he pauses for a beat, draws the defense and delivers the perfect bounce pass for Jonas Valanciunas.


Toss in Lowry's strong two-way play, and there's definitely reason to believe the Raptors are the favorites in the race for the third seed.

But there's reason to wonder whether the honeymoon period after the Rudy Gay trade is nearly over. The Raptors' defense has not been itself in the last two games, surrendering easier drives than normal. The smaller Lakers were able to successfully counter Toronto's physicality with speed, and it wouldn't be surprising to see more clubs try going small against the Raptors as the season goes on. Teams are also starting to realize that Lowry much prefers to drop the ball off to Johnson, instead of shooting or driving, when he goes left on the middle pick and roll that has killed teams all year. Notice how Josh McRoberts is already playing the pass here.

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And there's the matter of Valanciunas to consider. The second-year big man has loads of potential, but has really been struggling with his confidence over the past few weeks. Nobody falls for his pump fakes anymore, so he gets caught trying to do too much at once offensively. On the other end, he's slow to react to quicker centers, and Al Jefferson really lit him up in Charlotte on Monday. That's often convinced Dwane Casey to sit Valanciunas in favor of Chuck Hayes or Patrick Patterson, and while that leads to fewer breakdowns, it also takes away much-needed rim protection. Toronto is tough to score on around the basket, and Valanciunas' presence is a big reason for that.

Nevertheless, Toronto has the best point differential of the group. The Raptors are the favorites.

WASHINGTON

On the surface, this should be the third-best team in the conference. The Wizards have the best player on any of these teams in John Wall, who has stepped his game up this year and should be the East's starting point guard at the All-Star game. (He won't be, because of the fan voting, but he has been better than Kyrie Irving and slightly more effective than Lowry.) They have sufficient outside shooting in Bradley Beal, Martell Webster and the suddenly accurate Trevor Ariza. They have good frontcourt play with the underrated (and healthy) Nene and Marcin Gortat. They have a frontcourt reserve in Trevor Booker who was playing excellent ball before turning an ankle Saturday against Detroit.

So why aren't they better? It starts with the team's offense, which remains too dependent on Wall. The fourth-year man is having a breakout season, though his defensive effort in transition occasionally wanes, and he's probably shooting a few more jumpers than necessary. He's starting to master the importance of changing speeds and has caught many players with hesitation moves this year. This is vicious.

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But Wall can't do it alone, and therein lies the problem. Nobody else on the team is a sufficient playmaker, not even Nene, who has excellent passing skills, but is no longer the scoring threat needed to fully activate them. The Wizards have tried to coax more playmaking out of Beal, but that has led to an over-reliance on long two-point jumpers that may or may not be endorsed by the coaching staff. It doesn't help that Beal is often pushed to the baseline on pick and rolls, which normally end in bad shots like this because he has no passing outlets and has not developed the kind of advanced handle needed to cross back over to the middle of the floor.


Beal also has a tendency to pick up his dribble too quickly when trapped, which leads to turnovers. He's only 20, so this kind of inexperience is somewhat to be expected. But he has a long way to go and probably won't get there this season.

There are some potential sets worth exploring more that could yield more off-ball movement that masks the lack of offensive playmakers, such as this Hawk one, from old coach Flip Saunders' playbook, which gets Webster off a couple screens to tilt the defense. And Wall himself is, of course, still a terror in transition.

But the reality is this: When the Wizards are shooting well from the perimeter, they look great, but when they don't, they can't generate anything else. That's only going to become more of a problem as we get deeper into the season.

ATLANTA

The Hawks have hung around since Al Horford's injury, going 6-6 when many had counted them out. They're getting decent production from Pero Antic, who has spaced the floor well, opening up different areas to explore. Meanwhile, Paul Millsap has struggled a bit since Horford's injury, but he's starting to find some chemistry with Antic, learning how to benefit from the space Antic's shooting creates instead of cleaning up after Horford's scraps.

Alas, I wonder if this will last. It's just so hard to replace what Horford brought defensively, for one. Antic is intelligent but slow footed, and Millsap is undersized. The lack of depth on the wing is a major problem here; when DeMarre Carroll sat out the London game on Thursday, the Hawks tried hiding Lou Williams on half a dozen players, all of whom immediately ran to the block to post up when the Nets were given the opportunity. And Jeff Teague really isn't good at containing the ball, though he's improved a tad this year. He gets smushed way too easily on this Mike Conley/Ed Davis pick and roll, putting his help defender in a tough position.

Teague's offensive struggles are concerning too. Since Horford went down, he's posting a 47 percent true shooting percentage while gobbling up nearly 27 percent of his team's possessions, per NBA.com's stats page. Those screens Teague once used to spring himself going to the basket are no longer there, and he's pulling up too quickly or acting too passively when teams go under picks. Having Horford healthy at least gave Teague a good outlet in re-screening situations, but that's no longer there, resulting in possessions like these, where Teague meanders around before wandering into the teeth of Golden State's defense.


The East is too bad for the Hawks to fall out of the mix entirely, but I don't trust their ability to stay in third place.

CHICAGO

Thought the Bulls were done? Me too. But Tom Thibodeau, resourceful as ever, has simply adjusted, shifting many of the departed Luol Deng's plays over to Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler while getting a resurgent Joakim Noah and hugely random contributions from D.J. Augustin and Mike Dunleavy. How does Thibs keep doing this?

Gibson's work in particular is significant. As we noted last week, the Bulls are getting him the ball in the post more, which is saving Chicago's bench. He's developed all the moves down there and is becoming more comfortable finding his teammates when he's double-teamed.

If anything, Gibson is a better post-up player than Carlos Boozer at this point. The former attacks the hoop; the latter settles for jumpers. The former can pick out players when facing a double team; the latter doesn't give it up unless he's on a pick and roll and spots an open shooter. And if Gibson is a better post-up player than Boozer, it certainly means he's better overall, because offense was always Boozer's strong suit.

At some point, all the chess pieces the front office takes from Thibodeau will negate his maniacal coaching effort. But that day does not appear to be today.

BROOKLYN

There was some reason to think that less would be more with the Nets, but not like this. Since losing Brook Lopez for the season, the Nets have changed their style and thrived, winning seven of eight since the calendar flipped to 2014. Much of that is without Deron Williams, who continues to fight through injuries.

Without their stars, the Nets have gone to a quicker, longer, leaner lineup -- "Longball," as The Brooklyn Game properly described it. Kevin Garnett is back at center, a position he's never really preferred, but one where he's much more effective. Shaun Livingston, Alan Anderson, Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce often flank him in a positionless lineup that Brooklyn would be unlikely to roll out if all its big stars were healthy. Andrei Kirilenko is back and wreaking havoc, making timely cuts, passes and defensive rotations to help the Nets win.

The biggest jump has been defensively. Brooklyn was brutal on that end early in the year, which you can chalk up to some combination of old players, an absence of shutdown wings, a slow center trying to play an aggressive style and the odd Jason Kidd/Lawrence Frank dynamic. Now, the Nets have found their defensive identity as a team that contains the ball-handler beautifully and uses the length of its help defenders to essentially zone up on the opposite side. It's classic Thibodeauism.

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That length also allows the Nets to switch without causing a mismatch. Consider this play, for example.


The Hawks are trying to get Williams a shot, but because Pierce and Johnson are about the same size, they're able to switch one pick and roll involving Williams and Elton Brand, then switch back when the Hawks try to re-screen. The end result is a contested long two-pointer off the dribble.

That positional versatility also allows Kidd to get Brooklyn's early offense going, which had long been a goal of his. The Nets don't really run so much as they play three-point line to three-point line while trying to find open space to shoot or attack.  When they don't have an immediate opening, they're encouraged to keep forcing the action until an opening presents itself. Here's an interesting secondary transition sequence, for example.

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You'll notice Pierce sort of running the lane, but he ends up making a UCLA cut of sorts to veer out to the wing. Livingston and Mason Plumlee both recognize this and adjust accordingly, with Livingston pulling his drive short and Plumlee setting a random backscreen on Pierce's man. Then, when Pierce catches the ball, he immediately swings it to an open Mirza Teletovic, who has run straight to the right corner.

Just like that, a corner three was created. It's not a fast break so much as taking advantage of the defense before it gets set.

In the half-court, Joe Johnson has been revived because it's essentially the ISO-Joe offense of the old Hawks. Brooklyn tries to exploit mismatches, and few guards present bigger mismatches than Johnson. With all the shooting the Nets have on the floor, it's hard to double-team, so Johnson has free rein to score or pass out.

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Can it last? Re-integrating Williams will be interesting, and you wonder how long Johnson and Pierce can keep playing like this. The jumpers will also stop falling, and unless Williams feels a little better, Brooklyn lacks anyone who can get to the rim consistently, except for maybe Livingston on a good day.

But with the East in this pathetic state, the Nets are only a couple games away from the third spot. Imagine: After everything that happened, Brooklyn, sans Brook Lopez, could get the No. 3 seed.

In fact, there's my prediction. With the way the Nets are playing well, why can't they surge to third?

(Note: You could also throw Charlotte, Cleveland and Detroit onto this list, but the Bobcats were fading even before Kemba Walker's injury, the Cavaliers still have no idea what their plan is offensively and the Pistons still have no idea what their plan is defensively. And don't even get me started on the Knicks).

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Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

We take a look at one player each week who is either struggling or has displayed strong skill development.

This year's Mike Conley is mostly the same Mike Conley as last year from February on, at least structurally. He's still the league's best caretaker -- that's a compliment, I swear -- conducting an offense rather than attacking until he gets the defense so off-balance that it doesn't see a move or shot coming. His scoring is up, sure, but a lot of that is because he hasn't had Marc Gasol by his side, so he's finishing more of the plays he initiates. I don't think his role in the halfcourt offense has changed as much as others may think.

I do think, though, that Conley has received more freedom to dribble probe in transition. Last year, Conley shepherded a slow Grizzlies attack that struggled to get into sets quickly and rarely got points in transition. This year, under the guidance of new coach Dave Joerger, Conley has been given more freedom to search around for an easy bucket when a defensive rebound is snagged.

The process was uneven initially, as Memphis started running too much and its defense suffered. For a while, the Grizzlies fell back on all this and tried to grind out games like last year. But Conley eventually found his groove just before Gasol returned from injury, and that has continued since.

The Grizzlies especially like to set drag screens for Conley, using Tayshaun Prince, a big man or both. From there, Conley is given freedom to figure out the best way to set up a shot. Here, he goes away from the screens and freezes Brandon Knight with a deadly hesitation move.

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Here, he ultimately has Ed Davis re-screen Derek Fisher and manufactures a shot in the paint off the pick and roll.


These are relatively basic reads, though Conley makes them look complicated because he's so good at changing speeds. The more advanced stuff is happening on this play. It starts with Conley casually rubbing off a Prince screen.

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Many point guards would immediately attack going right, but Conley has always been more patient than most. He gives Luke Ridnour a couple hard dribbles going toward the hoop, but his intention is never to actually get there unless Ridnour ushers the way. Instead, he's trying to set Ridnour up to fail by pushing him to the baseline and then coming back the other way off two screens. Notice where Ridnour is on this play.

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Conley's planted him on his right shoulder, so he can't jump back over the top to cut off Memphis' play design.

As we roll this forward, Conley's patience is again on full display. Prince's screen ends up giving Conley some separation, but in order to do anything about it, Conley must occupy Giannis Antetokounmpo's attention. Prince and Randolph need to clear out the area, and the only way an opening presents itself is if Conley presents the illusion that he's about to do something.

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This is where Conley shines, though. As he yo-yos with the dribble, Prince clears away and there's a split second when Randolph has Ersan Ilyasova on his back. As soon as it happens, Conley throws an immediate right-handed bounce pass right on the money. Randolph is ultimately fouled on the play.

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With some nifty footwork and a little bit of patience, Conley got the Grizzlies a great opportunity as the defense was scrambling to get set. That's the kind of thing we're starting to see more from Conley as he continues to develop and should see even more of going forward. Memphis' half-court offense remains limited even after the trade for Courtney Lee provided much-needed spacing and movement, so the Grizzlies need to lean on Conley's ability to manufacture offense.

LEFTOVERS

10 other observations from the week that was.

  1. Yes, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's offense is still a major work in progress. But if you're wondering why so many are still high on the second-year forward, look no further than this closeout on DeRozan. Few wings have the length, athleticism and smarts to travel as far as MKG did while not going flying on a pump fake.
  2. Terrence Jones has a ton of talent and is firmly establishing himself as a potential star in this league. That said, in the playoffs, teams are going to take advantage of his poor defense, especially in the pick and roll. You cannot stand this upright and expect to contain the great point guards in the NBA.
  3. More SB Nation breakdowns

  4. Indiana's defense gets all the attention, as it should, but its offense is full of surprises. The Pacers keep adding interesting sets to their playbook, like this one that ends with a flare screen to get C.J. Watson a corner three. (They might have stolen that play from the Wizards' playbook.)
  5. Meanwhile, the Hawks sealed their game against the Heat on the same day by running a similar set, except with the roll man (Millsap) catching the ball and finding the corner shooter instead of the ball-handler throwing a skip pass.
  6. It's often sad seeing the Pelicans attempt to run one of Monty Williams' many interesting set plays, only to find that they lack the shooting to pull it off. Things are a lot different when Tyreke Evans is the one popping out from the high post instead of Ryan Anderson.
  7. It looks like you can add the Jazz to the growing list of teams that prefer their big man to stay in the paint when defending pick and rolls. Why it took so long for Ty Corbin to do this, I'll never know.
  8. How's this for a vote of no confidence: The Kings have rolled out a huge lineup of Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Williams, Rudy Gay, Jason Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins at times. It worked decently against Memphis on Friday, but man, what does that say about Marcus Thornton, Ben McLemore and Jimmer Fredette?
  9. You want to get a glimpse into why the Timberwolves constantly lose close games? Watch how Corey Brewer gets caught needlessly gambling for a steal on DeRozan on a critical possession late in Friday's tight loss in Toronto. That's not a smart play at any point in the game, but it's especially silly when you need a stop late. Brewer had DeRozan dead to rights, then bailed him out.
  10. Kevin Durant. No words.
  11. This might be my favorite Durant play of the last few weeks. The Thunder, as they often do, completely fail to get the ball to him where he wants it because Thabo Sefolosha doesn't clear out the side and Kendrick Perkins won't throw the pass. So, instead, Durant scowls at Sefolosha, walks out to the mid-court line, gets a brush screen and gets to the basket anyway. Nobody can stop that guy.

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