Tonight’s Best Guard Matchup Is One Of Its Most Unpredictable

On paper, there are better guard matchups tonight in the NBA. Ty Lawson and Andre Miller of Denver against Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili of San Antonio is one. Seen another way, Deron Williams vs. his Brooklyn coach, former point Avery Johnson (yesterday Williams became a critic of the Nets’ offense, in favor of his former Utah offense under Jerry Sloan) is another guard-on-guard matchup. It’s a bit unconventional, but it’s also become a must-watch as the Nets play the Jazz tonight. All worthy choices, and some you might have circled before the season even began. None tonight is as good as the one you never would have guessed.

No, tonight the intrigue is between two franchises otherwise known as mistakes by their respective lakes with can’t-miss guards right now. Toronto and Cleveland are a combined 11-39 and the Raptors won’t even have injured Kyle Lowry available — the most versatile point guard in the NBA. Yet, few matchups will hold my attention like this one. To be sure, this stands out in the moment; it isn’t one that should stand the test of time. And yet, that doesn’t cheapen what could happen given Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters â€” in his first game since Dec. 1 because of an injured ankle — against Jose Calderon and DeMar DeRozan. Like any point-guard matchup, this covers all the angles.

Why you should watch the shooting guards: Offense and more offense. It’s difficult to find a more like-minded pairing of shooting guards than Waiters, the rookie from Syracuse, and DeRozan, in his fourth season. Their games are remarkable for their ability to reach the rim with penetration, even considering both play alongside point guards with advanced abilities to do the same. DeRozan’s 4.4 attempts at the rim per game are fourth-best among shooting guards this season, and followed immediately by Waiters’ 4.3 attempts per game this season, per Hoopdata. There may be more slashing tonight than a B-grade horror film; however, don’t believe just because both SGs arrive there they do it the same way. While DeRozan is better off the ball and gets 52 percent of his buckets at the rim from a teammate, Waiters is a pure one-man show — only seven percent of his closest field goals are assisted. You can begin to make the argument that without an injured Irving, he’s simply overcompensated and taken matters into his own hands. He’d make the point that, hey, this is just what he’s the best at.

“I can shoot, but I’m better attacking and finding open guys and just creating plays,” he said Monday. “I’ve just got to be more aggressive. If I don’t get a call, I’ve got to run back and try to put pressure on the defense and the refs just to make calls. That’s my most important thing, just focus on getting to the rim.”

DeRozan, too, has been blamed during his time in Toronto for his own brand of stubbornness: namely, the long, pull-up jumper he goes to ad nauseum, shooting more there per game (around five attempts the past three seasons) than anywhere else. Of course, neither of these two would have been an NBA lottery pick if they were simply one-trick players, and that’s the last reason why these two should be watched. Each can find a defense’s soft spot to get to the rim because they’re deep-shooting threats each game. DeRozan is shooting the best he ever has from three, and Waiters is just average there at 35 percent — but he’s gone for seven threes in one game already this season.

Why you should watch the point guards: For pure spectacle, Kyrie Irving is producing in two ways. For one, he’ll likely will be wearing his black mask, the same kind he wore while scoring 41 points on the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. The fractured jaw the mask was worn to protect hasn’t healed, which means he could be one of three Cavs in protective facemasks tonight (so you definitely know mask devotee Richard Hamilton will catch the replay of this game). In one way, offering up aesthetics as a reason to watch Irving is perfect in other ways, too: There isn’t a player playing prettier basketball right now. If his 28 and 11 game against the Lakers in his first game back from a finger injury Dec. 11 didn’t show his explosiveness, two of his next three games went for 41 and 26 points.

Calderon? He’s leapt to near the front of the point-guard conversation with his triple-double on Sunday, a game that brought national attention to the very un-Kyrie game he plays. Specifically, 91 percent of his shots come off jumpers, letting DeRozan get to the line off of the slashing, more content to shoot a career-best 44 percent from three this season. Of the four guards in this featured matchup, Calderon is the least talented but most adept at adapting his game to fit his team’s demands. Maybe that’s a backhanded way of saying he can’t force his game on an opponent consistently the way the other three can, but it’s my way of saying he can mold a game to his pace and style just the same. Lowry was and remains the Raptors’ best option at point guard, but Calderon’s body of work expanding his game in Lowry’s stead is one of the more impressive fill-in jobs a guard has done this season.

There are better matchups tonight among NBA guards. Good luck, however, finding one more interesting on so many levels.

What matchup are you watching tonight?

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