Dancing With Noah

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Category Archives: Utah Jazz

Steph Curry as a springboard into the Mind of Karl Malone

Almost 25 years ago to the day, a perturbed Karl Malone nursing hurt feelings and a bruised ego stepped onto the Salt Palace court as the Jazz hosted the Milwaukee Bucks. What ensued was something akin to a pissed off Andre the Giant going off script at a Royal Rumble and tossing all comers out of the ring so quick that the pay-per-view ends two hours early and no one is quite certain what just happened. The game itself was a bloodbath and Malone scored a career-high 61 points on 21-26 shooting while snatching 18 rebounds in just 33 minutes of game play.

The only reason I found this game was thanks to modern-day efficiency king Stephen Curry’s precision in Washington D.C. less than a week ago when he scored 51 in 36 minutes in a road victory over the Wizards while shooting 19-28 from the field and 11-16 from deep. It was peak Curry and peak Warriors in that the reigning MVP needed just 36 minutes to fill it up. In the nationally televised game, he opened the bidding with a 25-point first quarter on 7-8 from three and playing all 12 minutes. In what (as of this writing) Sacramento Kings Coach George Karl refers to as a “California cool” style, Golden State relaxed, turned the ball 15 times through the following three quarters and was outscored over that same period. But the game was close enough that Curry put up his second most shot attempts of the season, tied his most three-point attempts, and exceeded his average minutes/game.

Wizards point guard John Wall described the performance:

It’s like Kobe (Bryant) when he had 81. He couldn’t miss. You keep defending the best way you can. We challenged some shots. He didn’t have too many open looks. He just made them.

Scoring 51 in 36 or less has been accomplished just 12 times since the 1983-84 season with Curry now owning the two most recent occasions. The only other player to appear on the list more than once is Kobe Bryant at four times. What’s unique and I guess predictable is that in all 12 games, the team with the +51-point scorer won. The big scorers are hyper efficient from the field (except Tracy McGrady in 2003) and get to the at least 10 times (except Curry last week who made it to the line just three times).

For me, the most memorable on this list was Kobe’s 62 points on Dallas during his Chamberlain-esque scoring binge of 2005-06 when he had single handedly outscored Dallas through three quarters (62-61). (As a side note, ESPN’s Baxter Holmes reported then-Dallas Assistant Coach Del Harris was the primary motivator for Kobe’s 62-point outburst as Harris had been Kobe’s coach as a rookie and he still held a desire for revenge for Harris “driving him crazy” as a rookie. The unlucky coincidence (for Harris at least) is that Harris was present as the Bucks head coach the night Malone scored his 61. To my knowledge, Del Harris was in no way affiliated with the Wizards during Curry’s performance.)

02-08-16 - mailman stats

The anatomy of 51 in 36 is one thing whereas motivation is something altogether different and in some cases less discernible.

After his single-handed destruction of Washington, Curry described what we most frequently refer to as the zone. There was no other apparent motivation, no driving force, just “some of the shots that you’re like ‘Oh that’s off,’ they end up going in. It’s a fun feeling, and you want to ride that until you can’t anymore.”

But for other players, the motivations are clearer for various reasons:

02-08-16 - Points x PPS

(Note: For a thorough reading on athletes and vengeance, Bill Simmons’ Vengeance Scale from ~2004 (?) still holds up pretty well with an exceptionally robust rating scale.)

But no one on this list can reach the grating disrespect the Mailman felt back in 1990 after the results of the All-Star Game fan vote (hat-tip to Danny Hazan for putting me onto this storyline). It was January 26th, 1990 when Malone, the defending ASG MVP, found out the fans had selected the Lakers’ A.C. Green to start the game. Green edged him out by all of 1,226 votes – less than 1% of the total votes Malone received. At the time, the Mailman was an MVP candidate putting up 30.5ppg on 58% with nearly 11 rebounds and three assists/game. His lividity was so great that Kurt Kragthorpe of The Deseret News wrote: “Before the game, Karl Malone called the NBA office to complain about the voting results and told teammates he would boycott the All-Star Game.”

Teammate John Stockton and the aforementioned fan-selected starter Green were less confounded, both offering more contextual responses. Stockton said,

I don’t know that being selected this way (by fan vote) is any better than being selected the other way (by coaches). It’s tough to be thrilled about a selection process when an absolute shoo-in doesn’t make it. That amazes me.

And Green:

I’m surprised to be on the team. I never knew my position in the balloting, and it’s really out of the players’ control who the fans vote for. Neither one of us did any campaigning. On paper, you’d think (Malone) would be on the team. I mean, he does it night in, night out. That’s what you have to do to be an All-Star.

But on a first glance that didn’t matter to Malone. And so the following day on the 27th of January, he came out with bad intentions, powered forth by the conviction that he had been wronged in the most egregious fashion. He scorched and burned the Bucks big men in the paint and around the rim. All of his points have been wrapped nicely into a single 12-minute Youtube post (below) and a couple things are powerfully evident: of his 21 made field goals, just two came outside the paint and the topic of the All-Star snubbery was hot all night evidenced by the condensed clips where the announcers mention it three separate times including references to “that message was sent airmail, special delivery!”

The way this drama unfolded is fascinating in the sense that Malone was enraged by the fan vote which is something we’ve come to accept 25 years later as a completely uninformed popularity contest. Stockton and Green seemed to grasp that from different perspectives and maybe it’s all the Yao voting or some of the oddities we’ve seen over the years have reinforced the notion that it’s all about popularity, but clearly players in 1990 understood that. And on some level Malone did too, which I’ll explore, but the announcers repeatedly stating that he was “sending a message to voters” is revealing of the most MJ manner of allowing a slight (however significant) to become an all-consuming obsession and that obsession isn’t just accepted by the community, it becomes a rallying point.

Malone’s approach to this game – constant post-ups on the right block, relentlessness on the offensive glass (he had nine offensive boards), and tearing up the court like a demonic man-tank on amphetamines – are indicative of a sustained fixation. All that anger not just harnessed by Malone, but reinforced by who? Reinforced by the local media, teammates, coaches? In The Deseret News the day after the 61-point game, there was a paragraph and anecdote from Stockton that provides some of the insight into the kind of mind that propelled Malone forward:

So who said Malone was overrated this time? In Charlotte last month, teammate John Stockton planted a fake story that the Hornets’ Armon Gilliam had downgraded Malone in a TV interview and the Mailman went out and scored 52. Stockton claimed innocence Saturday, smiling and saying, “Who knows what can lurk in his mind?”

Reviewing the story from the Gilliam game in December of 1989, it sounds like Stockton definitely planted the seed that got Malone going and speaks to the power of security and insecurity, respect and disrespect, succeeding and failure, and fiction versus reality in addition to Stockton’s ability to know which buttons to push and how hard to push them. For the Mailman, just the suggestion that Armon Gilliam or some fans misunderstood his proper place as one of, if not the preeminent power forward in the NBA simultaneously sent him off the rails and pushed him to new heights.

On the one hand, being overlooked by the fan vote feels insignificant. Malone was so obviously at the peak of the game that it seems like it shouldn’t have mattered. The other angle to take is that having achieved so much already (ASG MVP, All-NBA first team, playoffs, top power forward status) and being accepted by his peers, the only audience left to convert was the fans. Where Jordan had his Nike contract and Magic his smile and Larry the faithful of the Boston Garden, Malone was still – at least based on the voting – an unknown. What more did he need to do? What more could he do? Losing out to a clearly lesser player in Green had to be discouragingly Sisyphean and unfair. It had to hurt.

Within this intrusive exploration into the mind of Karl Malone is a glimpse into how that mind works which is what I find so intriguing. If we look at the drama of early 1990 linearly, there’s a nice a smooth narrative arc: the release of the ASG voting which shakes Malone and results in him going as far as reportedly calling the league office. Then there’s the response, the attempt to “send a message to the voters” as if they were a singular mind, as if the vote was indicative of his standing relative to Green’s even though Malone at his most rational had to know how little it implied. The 61 points was intentionally symbolic, but most likely sent to an audience the majority of whom weren’t even listening and the people who were listening already knew Malone’s standing. Even before the eruption, his tone was somewhat more revealing:

  • “The first couple of days, it hurts, but after a while you have to take a little time and think about things.”
  • From the AP via Seattle Times: `When you get put into the situation that I’m in, it’s hard. You get hurt. Everyone has a sense of pride, but I’ve had time to think about it and I think I will go if I’m asked.’

They’re both variations of the same quote and the same theme of having his pride and feelings hurt. Most of us can relate to being stung – whether it’s being disrespected, not being appreciated, being rejected – and responding first with anger expressed through lashing out – or calling the NBA’s front office and saying we’re not going to participate in the ASG. But what we do next is where people’s individual processes vary. Sometimes when I’m angry, I have an immediate outlet and it’s rarely competitive sports. Maybe I dive into work or writing or I’m unfairly being a jackass to my wife. But whether I channel that anger with or without intention, it doesn’t result in anything resembling 61-point games. Other times I’m able to easily identify that what I’m feeling isn’t even anger, but hurt or sadness and I can skip the anger-manifested-as-fill-in-the-blank step and resolve the damn thing in the immediate.

02-08-16 - steph to malone

Where it would seem our species can walk fine lines is in how much these real or imagined slights grow and fester. For the pro basketball community, Michael Jordan is the standard bearer who leveraged slights and insults as well as any basketball player in history. For anyone who saw Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech, there was a sad bitterness at how MJ articulated his motivations dating back his high school years (sorry Leroy Smith) and carrying through his entire career. I don’t have any desire or intent to judge MJ’s vindictiveness or the benefits or risks of using that mentality as a value principle for succeeding in life other than to observe that it looks fucking exhausting.

What followed Malone’s seeming acceptance and resolution was no less interesting. On January 31st he was chosen as a reserve for the ASG, but awkwardly stated: “Maybe somebody would say, ‘He doesn’t really want to go.’ After all the attention, I don’t think it would have been a big disappointment not to be selected by the coaches.”

He still wasn’t comfortable with having missed out on the fan vote (again, by a ridiculously narrow margin) and it’s not crazy to at least ask if that frustration factored into his comments on February 6th when he said he would retire in five years – after the 1994-95 season when he’d still be 31.

I won’t go deep on the retirement comment other than to say the timing raises an eyebrow if nothing else. The last piece of this particular Malone-driven drama is what actually ended up happening at the All-Star Game in Miami. Malone didn’t end up playing and cited an injury as the reason. This would be one of two games Malone missed between 1989 and 1997 including regular season, playoffs and ASGs. I have no issue with players sitting out the mid-season games, but sitting this game coupled with the retirement talk are at least anecdotal evidence that this enormous chip that helped him achieve so much (like an insane 61-point game) had the power to impede progress.

These two weeks in the winter of 1990 serve as a dramatic microcosm of Malone’s psyche. Always well-respected, but long labeled a choker, Malone was truly a great player, but a great player who on occasion struggled with the mental aspects of the game. In this way, he’s infinitely relatable. Who among us hasn’t struggled with some mental hurdle that seems pre-loaded into our psyches? And who hasn’t accomplished some thing by some inborn flame which is as old as our individual history? Malone in greatness and bitterness is still just a man – who happens to be 6’9”, 270lbs capable of scoring 61 points and grabbing 18 rebounds in 33 minutes of a pro basketball game.

 

Day Three: What these Hands hath Wrought

Alright, today’s post is a consolidation of madnesses from Sunday and Monday; and make no mistake it has been mad; at least someone’s mad. We’ve witnessed referee’s being loosely assaulted, Caron Butler breaking his hand, an impossible 27-point comeback and Amar’s Stoudemire punching out a pane of glass and in the process shredding his hand. If you’re not getting kicked out of games or getting hurt, you’re not doing your part.

Utah at San Antonio, game one, Spurs won 106-91, lead 1-0: Tony Parker did that Tony Parker thing he does where he uses speed and timing to invade the opposition’s defense at will. That the Spurs now play to his strengths instead of Duncan’s is impressive and a credit to all parties involved. The Jazz took one of four games against the Spurs in the regular season and will be fortunate to do better in the playoffs.

Random fact: Gordon Hayward attempted a career-high twelve free throws in game one and hit all twelve.

Denver at Lakers, game one, Lakers won 103-88, lead 1-0: Andrew Bynum is big, tall, long, talented, occasionally immature and more. To the Nuggets, he was the boogeyman in the paint, a giant protecting his lair. Ten blocks in the playoffs? Tied Hakeem Olajuwon and Mark Eaton for most blocks in playoff game history? Yep, that’s Andy. While Dwight’s temporarily crippled by a herniated disc, Bynum looks like an invincible force doing battle with children.

Random fact*: Devin Ebanks is actually Trevor Ariza.

Boston at Atlanta, game one, Hawks won 83-74, lead 1-0: It was yet another battle in years’ worth of battles for these two franchises. The Hawks overcame a historically dismal shooting performance from Joe Johnson (see random fact below) to control this game and hang on for the win. The story that ruled the day was Rajon Rondo’s little chest bump into the ref. The timing and reaction were both overboard and could result in Boston dropping into a 0-2 hole. With Ray Allen’s health in question, the momentum Boston had built in March and April is vanishing in acts of immaturity and inevitability.

Random fact: Joe Johnson joined three other players in playoff history in three-point shooting ignominy with his 0-9 performance. His fellow culprits: John Starks, Rashard Lewis and Derrick Rose.

Clippers at Memphis, game one, Clippers won 99-98, lead 1-0: Watching this game was like watching a movie where you expect one thing to happen, but then the director/writer throws a knuckleball that leaves you disoriented and questioning the events of the previous two hours. Did it add up? Was it believable? Did I enjoy being befuddled or did the director just play a joke on me? There wasn’t a script to Sunday night’s game unless the big director in the sky is a Nick Young fan. What happens from here is anyone’s guess, but I can confidently say the Memphis Collective (players, coaches, fans, employees) looked helplessly nauseous in that fourth quarter.

Random fact(s): Reggie Evans’s 13 rebounds in 21 minutes put him in rare company with five other prolific playoff rebounders who’ve grabbed at least 13 boards in 21 minutes or less: Danny Schayes (14 in 21), Kurt Rambis (14 in 21), Scot Pollard (14 in 21), Jeff Foster (13 in 21), Maurice Lucas (14 in 19).

New York at Miami, game two, Heat won 104-94, lead 2-0: Once again, anger steals the headlines. Amar’e Stoudemire didn’t take too well to the Knicks’ second straight loss in Miami and took it out on a pane of glass covering a fire extinguisher. David Aldridge proceeded to take the event far too seriously, treating it more like Stoudemire had severed his femoral artery and was at risk of bleeding out instead of addressing it for the loss of control that it was. All this really does it take away the focus from what was another strong Miami performance and further reinforced the fact that the Knicks are simply overmatched the way blind Chinese dissidents are powerless against their government … oh, wait.

Random fact: Miami Heat nicknames: Mike Miller is “Slim,” Juwan Howard is “Nooky,” James Jones is “Jhoops” (which is actually pronounced “Joops” as the “h” is silent)

Orlando at Indiana, game two, Pacers won 93-78, tied 1-1: This game is being relegated to the NBA TV slot which essentially makes it the least interesting series in the playoffs. Ratings considerations aside, Monday night’s game was the familiar storyline of a tale of two halves. After falling behind by two at the half and being firmly bullied, the Pacers responded appropriately with a 30-13 third quarter. I wish things were different, but I struggle to find intrigue in this series.

Random fact: The Pacers are 33-2 on the season when leading after three quarters.

Dallas at OKC, game two, OKC won 102-99, up 2-0: Combined score after two games 201 – 197. The Mavs have had their chances, but unlike last season when they couldn’t miss in crunch time, Dirk and Jason Terry have come up short two games in a row and are dangerously close to seeing their title defense end early. Being pushed to the brink is nothing new for this Dallas crew, but in small spaces of their group consciousness, questions are being asked. Notable observations:

  • I’m not a Brendan Haywood fan, but the more I see him, the more I feel Shaq was justified in referring to him as “Brenda.”
  • Does Billy Hunter watch NBA games and if so, does he openly cheer against Derek Fisher? If the answer to either of those questions is yes, last night had to be particularly bitter for him.

Random fact: Miniscule sample size for sure, but through two playoff games, Kevin Durant is shooting 34% from the field compared to 52% for Russell Westbrook.

And that concludes three days of playoff basketball. We’ve had anger, controversy, pain and loss. Negativity is the overwhelming theme and I look forward to exploring the more affirmative aspects of these games in the coming days.

 

 

Guess Al’s Strange

Sometimes we go through hiatuses and require a divine intervention, an intoxicating muse or maybe just a bizarre stat to snap us out of our doldrums.

So it was tonight when I was looking at the box score from the Mavs-Jazz game which ended in triple overtime with the Jazz getting a huge 123-121 win. Six players played over 50 minutes, the teams combined for 62 free throw attempts, five players scored over 20, Al Jefferson had 28 points and 26 rebounds, Dirk put up 40. The game was stuffed with numbers of all kinds, but what stood out the most was a pair of zeros side-by-side, attention grabbing emptiness: In 54 minutes and 4 seconds of play, Al Jefferson attempted zero free throws.

This is a man who grabbed five offensive rebounds and took nine shots in the paint. He spent time most contentious area of the court, but didn’t get to the line once. In all fairness, no one fouled out this. It wasn’t a foul fest or a game won or lost in the trenches. In terms of free throws attempted, the 62 combined free throw attempts were just a few more than the league’s FTA average per minute.

But the 0-0 in 54 minutes made me wonder who, if anyone had ever endured this kind of FTA allergy. And so I took a look at basketball-reference’s player game finder (dating back to 1985-86) and came up with the following, not-so-coveted list:

Player Team Season Minutes Career FTA/G
B.J. Armstrong Chi 1992-93

58

1.9

Alvin Williams Tor 2000-01

57

1.8

Dennis Rodman SAS 1993-94

56

2

Jim Jackson Hou 2003-04

54

3

Bimbo Coles Mia 1993-94

54

1.8

Charles Oakley NYK 1997-98

54

2.7

Al Jefferson Uta 2011-12

54

3

Let Your Heroes go in Peace – the Utah Jazz

For as long as I’ve been following the NBA, the Utah Jazz have been identifiable by the presence of players and a single coach who’ve cultivated a respectable workmanlike ethos. From their ancient leathery coach, Jerry Sloan, the approach flowed toward the blue collar duo of Stockton and Malone and was seamlessly transitioned to a modern-day version in Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. The Jazz we knew are no more.

The new Jazz are a mishmash of good, but not great players. Their fans go to sleep at night whispering soft prayers to the basketball gods, “Please let this be the year of The Al Jefferson. And maybe if you could see to it that Derrick Favors can become a starter and Enes Kanter can be the real deal; well, it’d kinda cool. ” Regardless of how the basketball gods respond to those requests, big Al’s support system is still young, shallow and somewhat unreliable. That description might sound more applicable to a group of teenagers, but it fits the new Jazz too. Al’s flanked by delicate Devin Harris (averages missing 14 games per year) and Paul Millsap. After that it starts getting lean. It doesn’t look like Andrei Kirilenko is going to re-sign which leaves Gordon Hayward (a tribute to classical Jazz roots), CJ Miles and Raja Bell to fight for the last two starting spots.

This isn’t a squad to inspire fear in the hearts of competitors. Unless Kanter and Favors are able to replicate some Ralph Sampson/Akeem Olajuwon mid-80s type performances, these guys should fall short of the playoffs again. With a group of good players, but no anchor, no Deron or Karl, it’s going to be a challenging climb into the top-eight in the conference. Looking at their opponents last year, they were able to compete with non-playoff teams and Eastern Conference foes, but consistently struggled against inter-conference playoff teams:

 

 Opponent Games Wins Losses Win%
Vs West Conf Playoff teams

31

10

21

32.3%

Vs Non West Playoff teams

21

11

10

52.4%

Vs East Conf Playoff teams

16

8

8

50.0%

Vs Non East Playoff teams

14

10

4

71.4%

 

If Jefferson makes the leap to an elite post player (very possible given his skill-set and the lack of quality bigs in the league) and Favors/Kanter/Hayward make significant improvements, the Jazz could leapfrog Denver or New Orleans for one of the last playoff spots; aka lambs to the Mavs/Lakers/Thunder slaughter. It’s not a contending team, but the Jazz have just enough talent to compete for the playoffs and just enough youth to keep fans intrigued by a promising, but undefined future. It’s OK to let go; Karl, John, Deron, Jerry and especially Al insist on it.

 

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