Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

Tag Archives: Kevin Durant

A Most Transformative 90 Days in NBA History; alternately 90 Days that Shook the (NBA) World

We were all so much more innocent back on April 13th, 2016. A historic NBA season was coming to a close with dual games competing for the main stage of national TV hoop audiences: In one corner, the final game of Kobe Bryant’s illustrious 20-year-career. In the other, Kobe’s antithesis, the record-setting, fun-loving, three-point-chucking Warriors of Golden State questing for their record-setting 73rd win. That sweet night back in spring may have been the end of the 2015-16 NBA regular season, but it was just the beginning of a 90-day stretch that has laid waste to forward and backward views of the NBA and culminated on July 11th with Tim Duncan’s retirement acting as an appropriate bookend to what Kobe started back in April.

It’s not a knock on Golden State that Kobe stole the show on that Wednesday night. The Warriors hosted a short-handed Memphis team they’d already whooped up on three times. The Grizz were without Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, etc. The game was a formality, a 48-minute procession that lead to crowning the Warriors as the greatest regular season team of all time. It was anti-climactic, but not without massive historical significance.

If Golden State embodied audacity in their pursuit of 73 wins, Kobe’s been radiating his own stubborn brand of nerve dating back to the first references to him in the history books as a competitive savant of sorts playing against grown men in Italy. That brashness is why people tuned in, hoping to get one last memory from Kobe – either something to solidify their notion of his greatness, reaffirm that he’s a ball hogging diva, or just say goodbye to an icon. In his most polarizing approach, he delivered to everyone.

In 25 years of watching basketball, Bryant’s final game with 60 points on 50 shots and 21 three point attempts; with his 37-year-old body gasping for air, visibly fatigued, committed to squeezing in as many shots as possible will always sit near the top of my memories. It was by turns hilarious and awe inspiring, predictable and incomprehensible. I don’t imagine I’ll ever see a player drop 60 in his last game, deliver what felt like a pre-planned speech, and un-ironically wrap it up with, “Mamba out,” but that’s what happened and it should’ve been a reminder to us all that this game, in all its beautiful bouncing and human fragility, is unpredictable.

90 days that shook the world

A few weeks the collective NBA world had shifted focus to the Western Conference Finals. Some people expected Oklahoma City to beat Golden State and maybe the events of May 24th aligned with their thoughts, but I think most of us were surprised to see OKC run the Warriors off the floor in game four: 118-94 to go up 3-1. OKC was faster, stronger, longer, more confident, tougher, better. Something like 10 teams had come back from 3-1 deficits, but OKC had just won back-to-back games by a combined 52 points.

If Kobe’s last game is a shiny performance that demands a place in memory, Klay Thompson’s game six against OKC was probably more impressive given the context. Down eight heading into the fourth, a historic season on the line in a hostile environment, the future of rival Kevin Durant at stake, and Klay comes out gunning with three threes and all nine of GSW’s points to open the period. He would end up scoring 19 in the quarter, 41 for the game. These weren’t just spot up threes or blown defensive assignments, but hair trigger releases against great defense and bombs from 30 feet.

Despite Klay’s classic game, it’s fair to look back at the game six and the subsequent GSW win in game seven as critical dominoes in the Durant sweepstakes. It’s not likely anyone will ever know what KD would’ve decided had OKC won the west, but they didn’t and before game summary stories had been filed, the KD exodus rumors were already trickling out.

About a week-and-a-half after GSW had given Durant an up-close look at what he was missing out on, they took their own 3-1 lead over the Cavs in the Finals.

I don’t know if it’s the omnipresence of connected media and the Twittersphere or the sheer improbability of it all that etched it in my mind so clearly, but the Cavs comeback feels like something that’s been drilled into my memories: the Draymo suspension, Bron/Kryie going batshit crazy in game five, Bron going HAM in game six, and the unceasing rising tension of the 89-89 tie punctured and punctuated by a cascade of hugely historic moments: the block, Kevin Love’s defense on Steph, Kyrie’s shot, Bron trying to jackhammer home the final nail in GSW’s coffin by dunking on Draymo but getting fouled and maybe, possibly hurting his wrist. It’s all there, so clear and incredible, so historic and memorable, but so so foreboding as evidenced by GSW’s owner Joe Lacob’s, “All I can say is I will be very aggressive (in the off-season)” post-game comment.

When Cleveland was down 3-1 after having been trounced in game five at home, a comeback felt so out of reach and improbable. The odds were less than GSW’s comeback over OKC. After all, we’d seen the Warriors break teams and were just a couple weeks removed from Klay and Steph’s bombs away act finishing off OKC. Trading Kevin Love was inevitable, and at times Kyrie looked like a great individual talent that just didn’t comprehend the level of effort required at this level. Obituaries were drafted, LeBron’s window slammed shut, Warrior pressers were jokey events offset by obligatory “the series isn’t over” statements. A comeback wasn’t possible until it was and a month later my mind is still blown by it.

Of all these moments, maybe the most seismic was Durant’s July 4th announcement on the Player’s Tribune that he’d be joining Golden State – joining Steph, Klay, Draymo, Iggy. But what, but how? The stories and the analyses flowed out: if OKC beats GSW then he doesn’t leave, if GSW beats the Cavs then he can’t go. It’s what-if conjecture that can’t be solved any better than generational NBA debates.

In our reality, it happened the way it did and now the 6’11”, jump shooting, all-position defending, long-limbed 27-year-old from DC is joining one of the greatest teams of all-time. All the pieces had to fall just right to even allow it and when I write allow, I mean the cap, OKC losing, GSW losing, the conditions being created that made it rational and acceptable to Durant to leave OKC and join its greatest rival. Amid all this great on-court achievement and drama, the possibility that Durant brings to GSW is what makes it the greatest plot twist of all. Who’s the real Keyser Soze here?

So if Durant-to-the-Warriors is the climactic event, it’s Duncan low-key retirement on July 11th that acts as a coda for this dramatic 90 days that shook the NBA. The turnover is radical; from Kobe going out like a roman candle to Duncan fading into the cold quiet darkness of Spurs space. Two all-timers who played with their franchises for the entirety of their careers retiring against the backdrop of one of the most historic Finals and Finals performances, and all while Durant trades in the blue and orange of the Thunder for the blue and gold of the Bay.

How did we get here and where do we go? Our familiar faces are changing places or leaving us altogether. I don’t have a clue what this new NBA looks like, with the exception of a divisive CBA negotiation next summer. It feels like we’re coming out of an exhausting whirlwind, and entering what? I never could’ve expected a 90-day span like what happened from April 13th to July 11th and I don’t know what I expect the ramifications to be. But where I originally tuned in for a game played between lines drawn on a 94×50 hardwood court, I stick around as much now for the drama that unfolds off the court; in its history and operations, in the shaping of histories and futures by actors who are owners, front office officers, coaches, and self-determining players.

Kevin Durant & the Extinction Level Event

I woke on the morning of July 4th, 2016 fumbling for my phone, looking for Kevin Durant updates. Instead my mom had accidentally butt dialed me and I went back to sleep. It was 7:39 AM PST. I dozed off and assume I checked the phone a couple more times without updates until 8:48 AM when in my holiday morning grogginess, I squinted at the Woj tweets:

8:39 AM: @WojVerticalNBA: Kevin Durant will sign with Golden State, he writes on the Players Tribune

8:42 AM: @WojVerticalNBA: Process w/Durant and Golden State players has been ongoing for months. They sold him on winning multiple titles together, easing Cu…

I had planned on going back to bed and enjoying the rare Monday off, but this was the Woj Bomb of Woj Bombs: Peak level Kevin Durant at 27-years-old, whose only modern statistical peer is LeBron James, is joining the 73-win Golden State Warriors.

07-05-16 - KD ELE

It’s not enough to write it or see it on paper or text with your NBA junkie buddies about it; though that last part is significantly helpful for processing those morning feelings that somehow cause 35-year-old men to pause and think and feel – or if Twitter’s your bag, just tweet through it.

My own preferences were no doubt a source of my conflicted feelings. I loathe this collection of Golden State Warriors. Steph’s mouth guard-chewing half-swagger, Draymo’s muscle flexing and nut striking, Steve Kerr’s “aw shucks” demeanor, their legion of bandwagon fans – you’ve read or heard it all before, it’s nothing new. A large part of my fandom is wrapped up in villainy and sometime during the 2014-15 season these Warriors firmly took a torch that’s most recently been held by the 04-07 Pistons, 07-11 Celtics, and loosely and limply by the 12-14 Spurs. On the other side, I’ve always been a Durant fan dating back to his days in Austin and the 10-15 times I saw him as a rookie in his one season in Seattle.

These 2015-16 playoffs with their history-altering unpredictabilities and hopelessnesses that turned into triumphs were a bonding agent I didn’t even need. The Warriors and all their 73-win glory with their national media hype man in Mike Breen were roundly slugged in the mouth, against the ropes, bloodied and swaggerless down 3-1 to OKC. Hope was palpable; we were given something we could feel. And in game five, there was Durant high fiving teammates, optimistic about a closeout game six in OKC. And there were the turnovers and Klay Thompson’s all-timer game and that hope fizzling, ungraspable. That game six which has the look and feel of a pivotal moment in NBA history and is a game I’ll always remember like game seven of the 2000 Western Conference Finals or game six of the 2013 NBA Finals; but the ramifications of this Saturday night in May something altogether unique in terms of basketball butterfly effects. Finally there was what felt like inevitability in the game seven defeat.

Throughout the playoffs, KD futures rose and fell stock market style: OKC wins and there’s no way he can leave the team now. OKC loses and he’s got to explore the open market; can’t win with Russ playing like this.

At the end of it though, when the wins and losses were stacked up, even in defeat it felt like these Thunder players had broken through. They’d figured out how to beat the bombers from Oakland and it was a matter of execution more than anything else. Hell, it was Billy Donovan’s first year as head coach and Steven Adams was a revelation. After nine long years, it looked like the 10th would be Durant’s.

The morning after OKC’s loss, I remember seeing stories about KD’s pending free agency and scoffing at the idea that he would leave the team with whom he’d just been to war. In my hopeful naiveté I interpreted the stories as clickbait guaranteed to stir conversation and generate more ad impressions. The concept of a departure was alien.

I don’t care to recap the daily play-by-play of Durant’s free agency visits except to say that with each passing hour (which felt like drawn out days punctuated by Twitter and text updates) what once felt like an inevitable return to OKC for a 1+1 deal seemed to ebb away like OKC’s 3-1 lead. With the exception of maybe an upgraded Boston with Al Horford, the other three teams (Clips, Spurs, Heat) were far behind the incumbent OKC. Golden State was the only team that offered some sort of up-level and it was the type of level-up that some think shouldn’t be available and only became available due to this once-in-a-lifetime spike in the salary cap and a perfect storm of events that opened up the possibility for four of the top-15-to-20 players in the league to join forces in their physical primes.

On the afternoon of Sunday the 3rd, I took the news that he would make an announcement by Monday as a sign that the decision had already been made. There was supposedly a second meeting with OKC and the closer call with GSW Exec/NBA logo Jerry West and the news on Sunday night that it was a two-horse race between GSW and OKC and then it was just the wait for what felt like a simple formality of an announcement.

I never preferred Durant stay with OKC. I didn’t care one way or the other. The drama of the meetings and the possibility of NBA shakeups are hugely entertaining, future-altering decisions. Lives change, jobs are won and lost, legacies defined by decisions like these. Durant’s destination only mattered to me as long it wasn’t Golden State. For the villain to be the winningest team in regular season history and then to somehow get better and get better by snatching up their primary rival and all the while to be a supporter of that rival? In all its possibility, it wasn’t comprehensible in the sense that I didn’t want to comprehend it even though the image of a Curry-Klay-Iggy-Durant-Draymo lineup leaves me with some kind of confused attraction. How do you guard that lineup? It’s not unfair, but it is unguardable. The entire plot reads like a WWE script, but without the obvious literal chair in the back.

Here in Seattle and across the basketball-sphere, some folks are celebrating OKC owner Clay Bennett’s loss today as a “how’s it feel to lose something you love?” Screw Clay Bennett. But more than Bennett being the thief in the night, the system of professional sports with its exploitative model that strong-arms cities and states for publicly funded arenas, the former Sonics owners led by Howard Schultz, and of course then-Commissioner David Stern were all complicit in this jacking. My personal experience separates the pro sport monolith (with its own unique dramas) from the game and front office operations. As soothing as vengeance can be, the day-to-day of weight of a 24-7 talk track world infatuated with the Warriors is the greater of two evils. I prefer a world where Bennett gets his comeuppance and the Warriors get theirs as well. But in this reality, Golden State’s now delivered consecutive back-to-back soul crushing blows to the former Sonics franchise.

The remainder of this piece of is a personal log of sorts whereby I offer up a basic analysis and open-ended questions of what this all means:

  • What are the CBA ramifications? The owners and players association will be embarking on new negotiations and one can only imagine that more than a few owners are going point to KD’s departure from small market to large market as a chief reason for finding more ways for incumbent teams to keep their stars. Does this mean changes to the max structure? The league wants parity but as long as stars have a cap on their earning potential and freedom of movement, they’ll continue to join forces in order to win. Hard caps and max adjustments have been tossed around as solutions, but personally the removal a player max is the radical and balanced equalizer. I won’t hold my breath though as the NBA’s bulging middle class is a majority and stands to lose the most in a no max scenario.
  • Before the draft, as the details of what GSW would have to do sign KD came out, it seemed like an overreaction for the Warriros to dump two starters and at least one key reserve for just one player. They won 73 games and were one of the most dominant and popular teams I’ve ever seen at a time when the league is reaching broader audiences all over the world. But it always came back to Durant’s talent. Certain players are worth moving mountains for and 7-foot 27-year-olds who average 27-points, 7-rebounds, and nearly 4-assists in over 600 games in their first nine seasons are worth it. The only other guys who have done this through their first nine seasons are LeBron, Kareem, Rick Barry, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Wilt, and Elgin Baylor. Kevin Durant is that kind of dude. But, it’s not without risk. Bogut’s gone, replaced by Zaza Pachulia. Golden State will sign other ring chasers and fill out a roster the same way we’ve seen the Spurs, Cavs, Celtics, and Heat do successfully. It’s a model that can and does work. Areas that still give me pause about this GSW team are in the paint and on the boards. It wasn’t just OKC’s ability to switch with length or the Cavs utilization of Tristan Thompson on defense that allowed those teams to find success against GSW. It was a relentlessness on the boards that battered and wore them down. That won’t change much if they start Draymo or Zaza at center. The potential for the greatest scoring team of all-time that happens to project as an excellent defensive team is the obvious counter-argument.
  • Golden State was battered and without Bogut for much of the Finals. All those shots Harrison Barnes missed in a series that went seven games and culminated with a five-point difference? Got to think Durant easily covers that type of gap.
  • When LeBron went to Miami there was consternation and hand-wringing over whose team it would be — Bron’s or Wade’s? I don’t anticipate the same type of concern, but GSW has a clear alpha dog leader in Draymo. Curry is its more mild-mannered best player, but Draymo is their heart and soul. How does Durant, another alpha dog, plug into this existing hierarchy? As always, winning cures all and my gut tells me everything will be copacetic.
  • Probably the most impressive and awful part of this signing is the aforementioned complete destruction of OKC as a Western Conference contender. It’s not like Anthony Davis left a crappy Pelicans team or Damian Lillard left a decent Blazers team. The best fucking player on the Warriors’ most dangerous West opponent just joined them. In one fell swoop, KD turned Golden State into an All-Star team while eliminating their top rival. Anything can happen in sports when fragile, imperfect humans are involved, but assuming a modicum of health, these Warriors have just the Spurs and maybe the Clippers as potential West challengers. The Clippers are running back the same squad from last year but without Cole Aldrich while the Spurs appear to be replacing Tim Duncan with Pau Gasol and potentially losing Boris Diaw. On paper, OKC was the challenger. Now? On paper at least, all roads lead to Oakland.

This move wraps up what feels like one of the craziest 2-3 month stretches the NBA’s ever experienced. I can only imagine the shockwaves falling on fans in OKC and the Bay Area right now. Hurt and anger, elation and renewal – and it’s only July. Depending on perspective, is the worst/best behind us or is it yet to come? Is this the burial or the resurrection? Summer is here, the pieces are settling into place, we have three months to rest up and mentally prepare. If pro sports exist to give many of us an escape from daily stressors and the absurdity of existence, then the NBA and Kevin Durant have delivered in spades.

Sunday to Monday Thoughts on Basketball #3

Week #3 and the NCAA Tournament is still going wacky and wild. We know for sure now that Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, Tyler Ennis, Zach LaVine (UCLA), and Kyle Anderson (UCLA) will all be joining the greatest pro basketball league in the known universe and we know they need to bulk up like most 18 and 19-year-olds who wish to duke it out with grown ass men like Blake Griffin and LeBron James. But the pros are still pro-ing it up, so enough with the talkin and let’s get on with the fightin!

  • On Saturday night, the league worst 26-game Philadelphia losing streak went by the wayside as they handed the hapless Pistons a Philadelphia thrashing. Elton John must’ve been proud because as we all know so well, Saturday night’s alright for fighting and something something Philadelphia freedom. Well, the Sixers have unshackled themselves of something though I’m uncertain of what or how long. As coach Brett Brown reminded us after the game: “Our judgment day isn’t today, and it won’t be tomorrow. We are on a three-to-five year plan.” There was something of a comical spectacle to this losing streak, but now that it’s over, it’s just a pathetic blight.
  • Despite Philadelphia’s handcrafted sculpture constructed of the finest feces and the shiniest garbage, the Bucks of Milwaukee still languish behind in the standings winning just 19% of their games. The Bucks are a franchise lost at sea on planet made of water with GM John Hammond peering through the wrong end of a telescope desperately hoping for sight of land. Zaza’s cooking in the galley and Larry Sanders is trying to organize a mutiny, but in the end no one really cares so they eat and sail. There’s no message, no bottle and besides, no one but the sharks to read it. Anyways, while that clump of 26 losses caught all of our attentions with its concentration, the Bucks are still the most destitute with no semblance of a future plan. This is what suckitude looks like and the only positive I can take away is the fans voting with their wallets and shunning these terrifically crusty franchises:
Rank out of 30 Py-wins Win% Margin Victory Simple Rating ORtg DRtg Off. eFG% Def. eFG% Attendance
Milwaukee rank 29 30 29 29 26 30 26 29 29
Philadelphia rank 30 29 30 30 30 25 29 30 27

 

    • Enough with pointing judgmental fingers. The writers and poets have poured enough digital ink in the name of Kevin Durant like he’s an advanced analytics good guy god-guy accepted by most. Royce Young shows us just how great this young scorer is:

Does it matter that his opponents were the lowly Jazz and lowlier Kings (or does it matter that perhaps the Jazz are the lowlier?)? If we want to qualify and contextualize it sure, but 60 points in 58 minutes while shooting 75% from the field is admirable regardless of the opposition. So unless you’re a bitter Sonics fan or prone to spiteful hating of anyone better than you, join me in a shared appreciation of Durant. After all, he may be the only thing keeping us all together.

 

  • The buddy flick is its own sub-genre, but a sub-genre of the buddy flick is the interracial buddy flick where we’ve got a black guy and a white teaming up to win our affections, going on a rollicking rip-roarious adventure that leaves awkward white guy high-fiving and smooth black guy handshaking which of course encapsulates racial differences. Yes, there’s a lot of stereotypes and generalizations to the interracial buddy flick and because we’re nothing if not the obviousness of our skin colors, I’m clamoring for the evolution of the Goran Dragic/Eric Bledsoe relationship. Based on large sample size and statistical lift above the average, both Dragic and Bledsoe appear in the Suns’ best five-man combination. But it’s likely that’s not enough to sate the appetite because the cultural (Dragic the Slovenian-born 27-year-old and Bledsoe the 24-year-old Birmingham native) and racial dissimilarities are too powerful for a mind like mine that’s been saturated by Hollywood tales of buddies overcoming racial and cultural differences to achieve mutually beneficial goals. I’m talking Crockett & Tubbs (Miami Vice), Sidney Dean and Billy Hoyle (White Men Can’t Jump), and Murtaugh & Riggs (Lethal Weapon). For a further, more serious reading on the topic of the interracial buddy flick, check out Melvin Donaldson’s book Masculinity in the Interracial Buddy Film and a corresponding list that someone has created on Amazon.

  • A few more blurbs:
    • Arnett Moultrie (Philly second-year player who’s been unable to crack this miserable rotation) was suspended five games for violating the league’s drug policy. Five games is the penalty for a third positive test for the herbs. Still waiting to see if and how the league updates its drug policies to reflect the progressive decriminalization and legalization in Washington and Colorado.
    • Chris Kaman’s on a playing time roller coaster in Los Angeles and Mike D’Antoni’s the mad hatter who won’t let Kaman off … no matter how much the giant expresses his nausea at the twisted never ending ride. Kaman played six minutes on Friday followed by a 28 and 17 performance on Sunday which was followed by strange comments from Mustachioed Mike about “It’s tough because Robert Sacre plays.” Ok, sure. I’ll be over here with my PCP trying to make sense of it all.
    • As prognosticated here last week, the Kings did not re-sign Royce White.
    • Don’t look now, but Amare Stoudemire’s scored in double digits in 14 straight games with three double doubles. In that time, the Knicks are 9-5 and in 9th place, just a game behind the free-falling Tom Petty and the Atlanta Hawks. Not to get all weird and headline grabby, but what if we ended up with a Knicks-Pacers first round?
    • Speaking of the Pacers, their post All-Star break swoon continues as a victory over the Heat was sandwiched on one side by a pair of double digit losses to Memphis and Chicago and on the other side with double digit defeats to the Wizards and Cavs. Their post All-Star splits are real shitty. I wouldn’t start using that $120 Paul George jersey to clean up baby slobber, but maybe take a breath, build a little shrine dedicated to Chuck Person, Vern Fleming, and LaSalle Thompson and dabble in some of those medibles your buddy gave you.
    • Patrick Beverly was out with a meniscus tear, but now it sounds like he won’t require surgery and will return this season. Can’t say I’m surprised given his guttery griminess. I could see him having an ear hanging off the side of his head from a freak run-in with David West and Beverly going all Ronnie Lott, demanding that the trainer cut it off. Digressions aside, I hope this doesn’t have a lasting impact. I’m not a Beverly fan, but I’d encourage all players sacrifice one today for a thousand tomorrows.
  • Finally, the Spurs are on that, “And we won’t stop, cause we can’t stop” like Diddy. This past week saw wins over Philly (22pts), Denver (5pts), Denver again (31pts), and New Orleans (16pts). As if a 17-game win streak wasn’t enough to make a statement, San Antonio’s leading scorers ran the gamut from the recently acquired and still malnourished Austin Daye to all-timer Tim Duncan to Italian Stallion Marco Belinelli (2x). The Spurs genuinely don’t seem to care what happens in that 48 minutes as long as they walk out with the victory. This week the schedule makers are throwing some major obstacles in their way: at Indiana tonight, Golden State on Wednesday, at OKC on Thursday and at home Sunday against the Grizzlies. If I’m still writing about this streak next Monday, then we should all be very afraid … well, that’s probably excessive, but let’s just agree they’ve got their work cut out for themselves this week. (Side idea, Popovich seems like he’d throw a game just to keep his group grounded. After all, I’m guessing he has little use for frivolous distractions that come along with a 17-game win streak.)

Day One: Agony & Ecstasy Already?

It didn’t take long for the big red balloon of optimism to pop over the city of Chicago and rain down tears in the shapes of dripping red-hued question marks. All the finger pointing in the world (at Thibodeau, at the shortened season, at Derrick’s delicate 2012 body) won’t put Derrick’s ACL back together again, so let’s march on for a quick review of Saturday’s agonies and ecstasies:

Philly at Chicago, game one: The Bulls were their controlled, dominant selves with Rip Hamilton flashing and dashing off baseline screens and running Philly defenders ragged like it was 2004 all over again. If the Bulls, sans Rose, can somehow continue to score close to 100 points, this series won’t last long. They know how to behave with C.J. Watson at the helm and will continue to execute Thibodeau’s air tight game plans, but can Doug Collins’s squad find a way to step up their defense and put points on the board against a stubborn Bulls team? I don’t know, but I’m guessing Lavoy Allen is not the answer.

Random fact: Chicago was 22-0 when scoring 100 points or more this season.

New York at Miami, game one: 100 to 67? So much for the hype machine, Melo vs. Bron, Amar’e vs. Bosh, Shumpert vs. Wade (?) and New York’s three-point bombing bench. This was supposed to be the matchup we were all slobbering over, but instead game one had that dreamlike falling feeling, but we never woke up; or at least the Knicks didn’t wake up. Since no one really knows who the Knicks are (Knicks included), it’s impossible to imagine what we’ll get in the next three to six games, but my buddy Bug made a great, although mostly unrelated, point: Miami with Tyson Chandler instead of Chris Bosh would be a nightmare.

Random fact: Miami finished the regular season 18-0 when shooting over 50% as a team. Translation: LeBron and Dwyane: Don’t give into temptation, avoid the three.

Tragic ending: To Iman Shumpert’s season. Like Rose an hour or so before, the rookie who’d been somewhat prematurely anointed as one of the league’s top perimeter defenders (already?) tore his ACL as well.

Orlando at Indiana, game one: Here’s another one I caught on the highlight reel. The stories of this game: Danny Granger wet the bed, Roy Hibbert blocked nine shots (life’s a lot simpler when you get Big Baby instead of Dwight Howard) and Stan Van Gundy continues to build support in the ongoing Dwight vs. Stan feud.

Random fact: The Magic is 10-1 all-time when winning game one of a series.

Dallas at OKC, game one: The legend of Kevin Durant continues to grow. He got a true shooter’s bounce to win the game for OKC and send the bench and hometown fans in euphoria. Even though some of the names and faces have changed and James Harden’s beard takes up a little more mass, it felt like carryover from last year’s Western Conference Finals—minus Dirk being perpetually en fuego.

Rejected!: OKC led the league in blocks per game and their 8.2bpg is the fifth most per-game total in league history. They tallied eleven blocks on Saturday.

Sunday’s games added more piss and vinegar to the mix (we see you, Rajon). I’ll be back here tomorrow with another recap. And in the meantime, leave us all to ponder if anyone plays with a Marc Gasolian zeal for the game. It’s like he took all that energy his brother has channeled into primordial roars and re-directed it to positivity and an acknowledgement that he’s paid to play basketball for a living.

Let’s Progress…Together – Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder used to be in Seattle and I live in Seattle, so it seems like a good place to start previewing teams. And if you read my posts during the playoffs last season, you know I had a mostly-healthy fascination with the Thunder and the inexplicable decision making of their sparkplug point guard, Russell Westbrook.

Six months later and I still see Russell as the lynchpin of this organization’s development. They’re one of the few (possibly only) teams that return their entire roster from last year—a team that won its division and made it to the Western Conference finals. Oh, and four of the top seven in their rotation are under 24-years-old. If you’re an Oklahoma City fan, you have every reason to be frothing at the mouth when you think about the potential of this team.

But it goes back to Westbrook. I watched OKC play throughout last season and have heard/read their fans saying that no one should be surprised with Russell’s playoff performance; that’s just Russell being Russell. And to an extent, I agree. His decision making, or lack thereof, has driven Americans batshit crazy since he entered the league in 2008 (he’s started 229 of 246 games in his young career). It’s easy to dismiss his mistakes as a consequence of being a developing youngster learning through failure (the old Jordan way) and all we can do is hope that’s the case. On the surface, Russell may have been as Iverson-esque as he’s been for the duration of his career, but he just did it less efficiently while increasing his volume:

Westbrook Stats Regular season Playoffs Change
Field-goal   attempts/game 16.95 20.18 +19%
3pt Field   Goal attempts/game 1.26 2.82 +125%
Usage Rate 31.6% 34% +2.4%
Field-goal   Percentage 44.2% 39.4% -4.8%
PER   (performance efficiency rating) 23.6 19.6 -4
eFG%   (effective field goal %) 45.4% 41.4% -4%
TS% (true   shooting %) 53.8% 49.9% -3.9%
Turnovers/game 3.9 4.6 +17.6%

The regular season-to-playoff drop-offs are disturbing and indisputable. Russell’s shot/pass selection was always suspect, but it got worse when it mattered the most. With creative geniuses, we accept the mistakes alongside the eye popping, text-message inspiring tip dunks, but for the 2011 playoffs, we saw both from Russell, just far too many of the turnover/missed shot variety.

This year will be a telling one in the Thunder’s evolving catalog. While the rest of the league’s stars spin off to form super-friend mini all-star clusters, Oklahoma City’s faced with the opposite conundrum: Too many youngsters desperate for individual acceptance; aka too many cooks in the kitchen. In the 80s, this group would’ve stayed together for a decade and won a couple titles at the least. And if Westbrook and Durant were on separate teams, they might be banging down doors to play alongside each other. As it stands though, these guys seem like a break-up waiting to happen. Kevin Durant plus Russell Westbrook plus Serge Ibaka plus James Hardenit’s great to watch, but based on math alone, it doesn’t feel sustainable. Whether our imagined Westbrook versus Durant rivalry come to fruition or Harden’s beard decides to take him to more fertile hardwoods or the salary cap decides Sam Presti just can’t afford Ibaka; something’s got to give. Even The Beatles broke up once.

On their darkest days, they remain one of the three best teams in the west. Give them a healthy Kendrick Perkins and 66 games to gel and anything less than a conference finals appearance is a letdown. But a little growth and a little “get by with a little help from my friends”, and they’re a contender. Given their youth and what the average 24-year-old is doing at this age, the awesome expectations for this team could be their demise or the sentiment that drives them to unified success.

Ghosts on Video

We’re well past the point of finding out about basketball feats of greatness or folly via word of mouth. If it happened on a court, no matter how grainy or shaky, someone’s recording it and posting it on Youtube.

Unless it’s a Powerade commercial, video’s indisputable and sheds sunlight on performances where eye-witness accounts either fall short or overexaggerate. And fortunately, there’s great video evidence of Kevin Durant‘s 66-point performance at the Rucker League last night–a mid-summer reminder of why we keep watching this game.

From the New York Post’s Joseph Staszewski

Kevin Durant’s performance created an evening for the ages at Rucker Park. The Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star shook off a slow start and poured in an astounding 66 points to lead DC Power to a 99-93 win over the Sean Bell All-Stars in front of a standing-room only crowd at the Entertainers Basketball Classic on Monday night at streetball’s most famous park. Durant, who led the NBA in scoring last season, connected on 9-of-11 3-pointers, including five straight from well beyond NBA range, early in the fourth quarter. The 6-foot-9 forward was mobbed on the court by fans standing along the sidelines after a fifth straight trey.“I always wanted to play in Rucker Park all my life,” Durant said in a postgame interview with park emcee Hannibal.

 True to the culture, there are reams of video clips from this performance; including a variety of angles, points of view, various video lengths, etc. The video below captures the temperature from the ground floor:

It’s one thing to read Staszewski’s account, but the video goes a step further and communicates the raw emotion and energy on the court and in the crowd; as well as communicating Durant’s frightening height advantage over his opponents.

I think we all prefer to at least have the option to see what’s really happening instead of reading or hearing about it second-hand from a friend who’s prone to embellishment. In the process of using video to document every notable event, we lose some of the mystique and fairytale elements that draw us to sports. A perfect example is the often-discussed, but (conveniently) never-seen scrimmage among the members of the 1992 USA Dream Team. Magic vs. Michael, accompanied by the greatest supporting casts in the history of the basketball playing world. Anyone who saw this scrimmage or even heard about it believes it was one of the greatest basketball games ever played, but only a handful of eyeballs were privileged to witness it. There’s a divine and mythical quality to it that verifiable performances like Durant’s 66 at Rucker or LeBron’s 4th quarter evisceration of the Pistons in the 2007 playoffs are lacking.

This isn’t the death of storytelling or personal experience and I’m not an advocate of personal interpretation over truth. It’s sad that we’re running out of these unseen moments, but our need to see and share every event is overwhelming and I’m far from one to impede obvious progress in favor of nostalgia. The dark flipside to this is the infamous, uncatchable Twitter hacker and the trend of athlete junk floating around the internets, but that’s another sad story for another slow day.

And Like That, He’s Gone

I was an angry basketball fan last night when OKC shat the bed once again in the fourth quarter. I was texting out blames to Russell, Kevin, Maynor and especially Scotty Brooks. It was inevitable and Dallas somehow knew it with all their experience and come-from-behind poise and it grated me; grated the skin right off into a nasty little pile on my coffee table.

On that note, I decided to say goodbye to the Thunder for the 2011 season:

Russell Westbrook: You were the most intriguing player in the playoffs this year and in terms of basketball culture, you’ve made the leap. We all knew who you were and anyone who watched OKC knew what you were about, but by the end of the whole thing, I just wanted to give you a hug and tell you it’ll all be alright:

Kevin Durant: Was there a sadder scene than Durant at the game four post-game press conference? All gangly arms, legs; shoulders hunched forward and infinite sadness painted on his 22-year-old face with that damn backpack on asking, “What could I do?” We love you Kevin because it hurt so bad:

James Harden: Has Harden always been this good or is it a product of off-the-radar, covert development? Was OKC just playing possum for next year when they unleash this guy? Seeing him play point opposite Westbrook and Durant on the wings was watching living, breathing basketball genius—and then Scott Brooks snatched it away from us:

Nick Collison: I watched Collison play a few years in Seattle before the departure and was always impressed with his defense. He did the best job any single human could do against Zbo and Dirk and did it all by his damn Iowan self. This man is underappreciated.

Serge Ibaka: Don’t be scared, Serge. It’s all over now.

Kendrick Perkins: We all stood up and applauded the great Sam Presti after he made this trade; then the playoffs happened and we realized he was still hurt. Perkins was about as effective as a grocery cart with a brain would’ve been (as opposed to a grocery cart without a brain?) and was exposed by John Hollinger as being the biggest detriment to OKC’s success against Dallas. We know you weren’t healthy, but still, it was ugly.

Eric Maynor: You walked into my life as a warm, soft beacon on the horizon; something to cling to in a time of chaos and tumult. Then you betrayed me when you tried to slay Dirk on one play.

 Scotty Brooks: Jeeeeee-sus. I used to be a Scott Brooks fan and maybe there’s still a place in my heart where he can redeem himself, but when OKC calls a timeout and I immediately text people “Bad Shot Alert!”, it’s a fucking problem. And any arguments about Brooks being just a second-year coach or coaching a simple game because his team is so young are ignoring the obvious: Brooks was out of his league. Maybe it’s time to hit up Phil Jackson for some of that peyote:

The Cult of Trust

The title of this post is about the wonderful collective Lionel Hollins has created in Memphis. But it’s not just about Memphis because, more than ever, I’m unable to stay away from the cyclonic Russell Westbrook and, less intriguingly, the OKC Thunder.

Even in defeat, the Grizzlies put on a presentation to make basketball purists smile. Even though Zbo and Marc Gasol combined for nearly 50% of Memphis’s total 123 points, the team was selflessly expressive. For their stats, effort and abilities, the Memphis bigs get the their names in lights, but Shane Battier’s harassing defense, Mike Conley’s huge three to send the game into OT and Greivis Vasquez’s shot-put style deep three to put the game into a third OT proved anyone in a Grizz uniform (Haddadi?) can carry the flame of the moment. How a cast of NBA orphans that includes Zbo, Tony Allen, OJ Mayo, Sam Young, Mike Conley, etc. arrived at this style and accepted it is a feel-good story, NBA style.

Whether it was osmosis or never-ending note taking, recalling coaching strategies and tactics from memory or utilizing a network of NBA champion coaches, Memphis coach Lionel Hollins learned a few things from his time in the NBA: How to lead and coach. In one of the three overtimes, TNT cut away to the Grizzlies bench where Hollins was sitting quietly, nodding in approval while Shane Battier rattled off motivational encouragements worthy of Krzyzewski. In the world of basketball idealism, Coach K and Dr. Jack nodded along with Hollins—game recognize. That everyone else was buying in to Battier’s earnest words evidenced the cult of trust Hollins has created in a short time in Memphis.

Tracing Hollins’s basketball roots through the years, you can see the current Grizzlies predecessors in Dr. Jack Ramsay’s Blazer squads and it’s not a stretch to believe Hollins learned a few things from Chuck Daly in the few months he played for Daly in Detroit. Daly’s and Ramsay’s squads were inclusive, moving the ball and riding hot hands from night to night. Everyone contributed and was expected to. Coupling Hollins’s lineage with his up-front communication style (he was at the helm when Memphis let Iverson know he wouldn’t be treated different from any other player) and you have a coach who’s going to give everyone a chance (Haddadi, again) and not take any guff from his players.

The template for Marc G?

The cult of trust instills guys like Mike Conley and Greivis Vasquez with the confidence needed to bang home clutch threes when everyone’s expecting them to wilt in the bright, shining, face of the basketball-prince, Kevin Durant. It creates opportunities for Tony Allen to be reborn and OJ Mayo and Shane Battier to be welcomed back home not just with open arms, but with open roles on a winning basketball team.

Beyond all the good times in Memphis, down at the seedy end of the court, something strange and fun continues to happen: the all-to-public maturation of the relationship between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Whether it’s been mandated by Sam Presti up on high or if it’s just natural for Kevin Durant and Scott Brooks to do so, there’s an element of protectionism that surrounds Russell Westbrook. When Russell-related questions pop up in Durant’s interviews, he takes the high road and talks about his point guard warm, earthy tones. Keep saying the right things, Kevin, but we saw you getting exasperated the last two games. In the post-game presser, Scotty Brooks took the same sweet route when talking about Russell. Everything was peachy and kind and why not? The guy put up 40 including several on drives that could maybe be duplicated by Derrick Rose or Monta Ellis. And, most importantly for the Oklahomans, they left town with a series-equalizing victory.

Not everyone’s sucking lollipops and eating cotton candy though. How can they be when their point guard’s field goal attempts per game jump up almost 30% from the regular season to the post season? And how about his field goal percentage dropping from 44% to 40%? The same trends show up in his advanced stats. Russell’s Edge continues to be a twisted riddle. It seems appropriate and logical to compare him to Derrick Rose, but the bolder Russell becomes, the more I see him riding a fine, narrow, dangerous edge—Evel Knievel style. I don’t mean that just to add humor to his tales, but because the comparison is accurate and legitimate. Russell’s aware of the dangers of his freelancing (alienating Durant and/or putting OKC in a position to get knocked out of the playoffs), but it doesn’t slow down his improvisational drives or macho pull-up jumpers. The combination of ultra-confidence and the need to prove he can be Durant has crash and burn written all over it. Yet young Russell continues down that same path with fury and venom (anyone else notice that road rage element to his game?).

Lost in the ongoing Westbrook-Durant drama are the Oaklean efforts of Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed. Every play in the paint and rebound up for grabs is being contested by desperate players on both sides. These small efforts on every play are making a good series great. I can’t not mention the bearded playmaking genius of James Harden. What secrets does his beard hold? I haven’t been this surprised about a player’s playmaking abilities since JR Smith diced up the Lakers in a losing series in 2009.

In the sense that styles make fights, basketball isn’t any different from boxing. OKC and Memphis are a perfect matchup and proved it on Monday night. The feel-good-Grizzlies with their labor party lineup (Comrade Gasol?) aren’t walking the path of righteousness any more than OKC with Westbrook trying to tip the superstar seesaw closer to his side. The contrasting styles and storylines, hungry fan bases and 63-minute instant classics are encompassing a wide range of this league’s great potential. Who knew we’d reach this potential somewhere between Oklahoma City and Memphis?

Number-Ology

The beautiful truths below don’t change the fact that OKC is down 1-2. It’s easy to point the accusatory finger at Russell, but the blown lead in game three was a team effort.

Deconstructing Russell

When I initially decided to say something about Russell Westbrook, it was mostly critical because I was mad and had been sending emails and text messages about Russell pulling up for contested jumpers in crunch time of close games. It happened most noticeably in game four against Denver when the OKC point put up thirty shots and missed 18. OKC ended up winning the series 4-1 so it wasn’t a nasty strike on Westbrook’s young résumé; just another example of his frustrating tendencies. And that’s why I sent all those angry texts and emails: Because three years into the league, playing opposite the league’s top scorer in Kevin Durant, Russell still felt the need to gun from the point spot.

I say “still” because I’ve been watching OKC closely since they left Seattle and what used to be a cute little hiccup in his first two seasons has developed into something stranger and more difficult to define. First and second year point guards aren’t supposed to be polished. They make mistakes like throwing errant passes, pushing the break too fast and charging over veteran defenders. They shoot poorly from the field and do the wrong things at the wrong time. Basketball heads nod and agree that they’ll get it at some point. If they don’t get it, they’ll eventually be replaced by someone who does. Now in his third year as a player who’s already won a gold medal at the 2010 World Basketball Championships, already named to the all-star team, is already considered elite at his position; we expect him to improve this singular part of his game.  

Frustration leads to speculation, so I wondered what was motivating Russell to chuck up contested threes in close games when Kevin Durant was standing 15 feet away. Is he pulling a G-Money move to Durant’s Nino Brown? We all know how that turned out. Trying to prove to someone, anyone, that he could do the Durant? Is he trying to force his way out of the long shadow cast by Durant’s arms, legs and point-per-game average? Maybe it has nothing to do with Durant. Is he inept? Does he genuinely think it makes sense to pull up from 23 feet with Ty Lawson’s hand in his face when OKC is down 5 in Denver with under a minute left? Is he true a point guard?

Or is my frustration misplaced?

On any given day, Russell Westbrook is the third best point guard on the planet and on his bad days he’s still probably not much worse than fifth best. In terms of convention, he doesn’t fit the description. He doesn’t pass like his head is a giant eyeball seeing everything. He doesn’t lead like a general or a quarterback. He’s far from a calming presence on the floor (he’s led the league in total turnovers in two of his three seasons). He’s closer to a live wire whipping from baseline to baseline, bricking jumpers and collecting his own rebounds before defenders can even consider the boxout process. He’s never missed a game in three years which isn’t surprising even though he attacks offensive rebounds with bad intentions . By any statistical measure, he’s improved each year he’s been in the league.

Yet my text messages and emails are still met with mostly agreement. We agree: Russell Westbrook takes some dumbass shots at seriously inopportune times. We are a consensus, but through all my Russell Westbrook considerations, I can’t help but feel he might be onto something. The point guard he most resembles is Derrick Rose. Both PGs defy the position’s tradition by actively looking for their shots, but the difference is Rose doesn’t have Kevin Durant riding shotgun. He doesn’t have anything that even resembles Durant and as a result, every day in the United Center is Derrick Rose Day.

Which brings me to a place I didn’t think I didn’t think I’d arrive: Westbrook’s destiny and ceiling might be Derrick Rose’s 2010-11 season: MVP, best record in the league, all-star starter. He has the athleticism, a similar on-court mentality and damn near the exact same stats. If he truly believes he can do what Rose can do (he’s seen it up close at the World Championships), then he has a responsibility to himself to pursue it—potentially independent of Kevin Durant. Of course this goes against the grain of the selfless point guard who makes teammates better, but what’s an archetype to Russell Westbrook?

After all this, I’m no closer to understanding Russell Westbrook. I get it that he’s not a traditional point guard and I should adjust my expectations to him, not him adjusting his game to the expectations of his position. But until he’s got his own team or Durant’s sitting on the bench with six fouls or a boot on his foot, please Russell, do the right thing…whatever that is.

%d bloggers like this: