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My Third Quarter NBA Awards
And the winner is...
Note: Stats as of Thursday afternoon
Once again, it’s time to dole out awards to all the best parts, players, coaches, and teams of the quarter! Except Sixth Man, because frankly, that award is stupid.
The Michael Myers award for guy who just keeps coming back to life: Isaiah Thomas
This man cannot be killed! Thomas is currently on his third 10-day contract this season, each with a different team. He’s also had stints in the G-League and for Team USA during World Cup qualifying this winter.
Fans and players have always loved IT for his tiny stature, prolific scoring, and sad story. The King of the Fourth had a heroic playoff run in 2017 after his sister passed away, but he aggravated a devastating hip injury (which he played through for as long as he could).
Just a few short months later, he was traded to the Cavs (for Kyrie!) and was bounced out of the league entirely a couple of years later, a far cry from the maximum contract he was potentially in line to receive prior to the injury.
But Thomas never stopped grinding. He’s popped up in pro-ams and G-League games for years with absurd scoring totals, and he even signed on with a few teams in the NBA for short stints.
Here’s hoping that he finally claims a permanent roster spot and regains his place in the league.
Phenomenon of the Quarter: Poeltl
You have likely heard of Wordle, the simple word-guessing game whose score charts have taken over your social media feeds. Welcome to Poeltl (yes, it rhymes with Wordle, if you’re unsure). Given eight guesses, you have to zero in on the player of the day by triangulating his team, height, position, and other criteria from your previous guesses. It’s easier to try than explain, so check it out! A word of warning, though: it can be quite difficult, especially when it’s an obscure reserve.
Team of the Quarter: Boston
A deadline trade for Derrick White further weaponized an already fearsome defense. The Celtics have been miles better than anyone on that end this quarter. They have clawed their way back to relevancy with a 15-5 run in their last 20 games.
Scoring on their closing lineup of Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, Jason Tatum, and Robert Williams is like squeezing lime juice out of lemons: it simply can’t be done.
All five are intelligent, fast, and long. Coach Ime Udoka has ostensible center Williams guarding the worst shooter on the floor each night (not necessarily the opposing center) so that he can simply park himself in the paint and play help defense, and the results have been devastating.
Watch him ignore Aaron Gordon in the corner, knowing he’s a poor shooter, to soft double-team Nikola Jokic before zooming to the rim to block the dunk attempt:
That’s a high-IQ, quick-reflex play that shows the problems this Celtics defense causes opposing offenses. Williams has always had immense feel for the game, as seen in his excellent passing. He’s finally reined in his foul-prone ways enough that he can show his feel on defense, too.
Offensively, the C’s have improved to league-average. Average might not sound good for a team that’s quickly developing championship aspirations again, but Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown are each capable of going off for fifty in any given game. Their defense will keep them in every contest, and average-ish offense just might be good enough for them to make serious playoff noise.
Rookie of the Quarter: Josh Giddey
Despite Evan Mobley, Cade Cunningham, Scottie Barnes, and others still impressing, Giddey takes it.
The lusciously-locked Australian has averaged 14 points, nine rebounds, and six assists this quarter on reasonable 45% shooting from the field. He can’t shoot from deep yet, but he’s still taking about four long balls per game, which is a good sign for the future. Right before the All-Star break, he became the youngest player ever to have a triple-double… then he had two more!
But Giddey’s here because he’s dropping some freshly-minted dimes:
His height (6’8”, and that might be underselling it) and strength give him access to angles that almost nobody else can see.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that he’s already the second-flashiest passer in the league behind Nikola Jokic (who is unparalleled in that regard). He never makes the easy pass when the sexy one will do instead, but on an OKC team that’s not playing for anything, why not?
Giddey looks like OKC’s point forward of the future.
Coach of the Quarter: Monty Williams
Monty, coach of the Phoenix Suns, is criminally underrated by everyone outside of Arizona, including me. The Suns went 17-3 in their last 20 games and have such a massive lead for the one-seed that losing Chris Paul for the remainder of the regular season is unlikely to jeopardize it.
It’s hard to point to one specific thing that Monty does well when he does everything well.
Most coaching is invisible to the public eye, yet coaches are judged by what little people can see. So here’s what we know.
The Suns are the best clutch team in the NBA. Their young talent has gotten better each season. Despite contract drama, Deandre Ayton has bought into his role on the team and doesn’t complain about being a third or fourth option. A mid-season investigation into reports of racism, sexism, and other “-isms” from club owner Rob Sarver never became an on-court distraction.
The defense is superb. The offense is unstoppable. The chemistry is tangible.
We only glimpse a hazy backscattering of what a coach like Monty does for the team, but what’s visible is beautiful — starlight reflected on a still lake’s surface.
The Suns were excellent last year and had a strong playoff performance that ended in disappointment. They’ve been even better this year. Monty might get snubbed at the year’s end, so I wanted to take this moment to acknowledge his incredible work.
Most Improved Player of the Quarter: Luka Doncic
Early in the season, I posted some stats that suggested Doncic was out-of-shape in a segment I called “Players I Was Wrong About.” Well, Doncic heard me, and maybe I won’t be wrong about him after all!
This quarter, Luka is averaging an absurd 32/10/9 on 46/39/72 percent shooting splits, an almost across-the-board improvement from the first half of the season. More importantly, the Mavs are 14-6 in their last 20 games.
This Luka may have gotten himself back into the MVP conversation, and although he’s unlikely to crack the top three, he’s starting to actualize the best version of himself: hitting stepbacks, getting teammates open looks, and playing surprisingly intense defense.
If all it took was a little public pressure to get Luka in shape, I fully expect Cuban to start texting Luka some haters’ tweets every day this offseason. For this year, he’s a proven playoff performer who is peaking at the right time. I have questions about Dallas’ supporting cast, but I am very confident that no team in the league wants to deal with Luka when he looks this good.
Defensive Player of the Quarter: Bam Adebayo
The swirling conversation around Bam’s offense (is he doing enough? Or too much? Or the wrong things?) and his significant injury woes have caused people to forget: there is no one in the league better at guarding 1-5 than Bam Adebayo:
I’m sorry for embedding my own tweet in here, but just look at this insanity:
He just guarded both parts of the pick and roll! The list of guys who can do that is Bam, Giannis Antetokounmpo… and that’s it. Even Giannis can struggle with quicker point guards, but Bam just uses his incredible balance and footwork to stay with them step-for-step.
The Heat, a team filled with top defenders and excellent schemes, give up a massive eight points per 100 possessions more when Bam’s off the floor than when he’s on, the biggest difference by Miami rotation players by far. Advanced metrics have him as a top-five defender in the league.
Bam has likely missed too many games to merit consideration for the year-end award, but talent-wise, he’s as good as Draymond Green or Rudy Gobert. If he’s able to play the whole next season at this level, Adebayo may very well bring home the real trophy.
MVP of the Quarter: Embiid
The race for MVP is as wide-open as it’s ever been. Embiid, Giannis, and Jokic are the consensus top-three in some order.
However, Embiid had a quarter to remember. He averaged 34 points, 12 rebounds, and almost five assists - while playing just 33 minutes per game! His defense isn’t quite as All-World-caliber as it’s been in the past, but it hasn’t hurt the on-court product. The 76ers are a surprising 14-6 in their last twenty games and are somehow just two games out of first place in the conference.
You might’ve heard, but Embiid finally got the help he’s been waiting for. James Harden is officially a Philadelphian, and they’re already making sweet music together. Embiid attempted an astonishing 27 free throws against the hapless Knicks, many off of killer Harden passes, and the 76ers have feasted at the line (against middling competition).
This next week will prove a tough test for Philly. They are dancing with Cleveland, Miami, Chicago, and Brooklyn in their next four games. Embiid’s performance in this stretch could go a long way towards determining both his MVP viability and the team’s championship hopes.