Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

Tag Archives: NBA Playoffs

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.

 

 

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.

What’s going on here? What happens next?

Excuse this departure from the team-by-team previews (which may or may not ever be completed) as I recently participated in a highly informal NBA round table. It was a cold Thursday night in Des Moines, Iowa when I rendezvoused at the local Buffalo Wild Wings with Bug, Milton and Rex. The primary reason for going was sixty-cent boneless wings and there were 7-10 different sporting events being shown on the 50” screens that surrounded us, but after dinner and a few beers it was time to break out the napkins, locate a pen and attempt to sloppily break down the then-pending NBA season.

We didn’t start out with any goals in mind and didn’t end up achieving anything, so to that end, it was a success. The distractions were aplenty and mostly of the liquid variety, yet we were able to arrive at a loose consensus of the 16 teams we expect to make the playoffs and the order they’ll finish. We tackled the Eastern Conference first:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The main thing I recall from the Eastern Conference discussion was Milton’s distaste at the Knicks projected fifth seed. He despises D’Antoni’s perceived lack of commitment to defense and it showed in the venom he spewed forth and his insistence that Philly would finish ahead of NYK. Calmer heads prevailed. The other hot topic was Bucks vs. Pacers for the honor to be the sacrificial lambs to Gods of Miami. Grand ideas indeed.

As you can see by the napkin below, the Western Conference analysis deteriorated or evolved (really open to interpretation) in depth, but sacrificed quality with comparisons being drawn between injury-prone players like Devin Harris and Andrew Bynum and the comparative value to their teams. The biggest argument here was between the four and five seeds—Lakers or Mavs; which was really just a debate about who would get home court advantage. Also, Milton refused to attach his name to a Clippers number two and instead preferred the veteran Spurs for that spot.

Reflection Eternal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where to begin on this summer night in June? The NBA’s gone on its annual break and we don’t know if or when it will return. I’ve spent a decent part of the last few days reading through a mix of spiteful venom and corny fourth quarter jokes directed at LeBron James. I spent some more time seeing pictures of Dallas’s post-game celebration in the South Beach Miami clubs. This is our league now: The joys are documented on cell phone cameras and DeShawn Stevenson t-shirts while the lows go underground and are speculated against and attacked.

As I texted my buddy Hamilton earlier, we have the summer (and maybe beyond) for endless speculation and reflection. So I’ll start reflecting now before my memories fade into the abyss of an online archive.

I never, ever thought this Dallas team would win the title. Way, way back in April when we found out the playoff matchups, I saw Dallas vs. Portland and immediately circled it as an upset win for the Blazers. I didn’t do it just because I thought the Mavs were pussy soft—which I did think. I did it because as late as April 6th, the Mavs had gotten caught up in a four-game losing streak; two of those losses coming to the far-from-physical Golden State Warriors and their future first round opponent, Portland. A four-game losing streak is no microcosm of an 82-game season, but that losing streak at that time of year when Dallas was battling for a number-two seed was just one last bit of 2011 confirmation that this team didn’t play defense and couldn’t win when it mattered. The stats told a different story about their defense, but I’ll get to that shortly.

On top of the bad timing and my poorly constructed idea of this Dallas team’s identity, was their opponent: Portland. Despite the bad karma from the Darius Miles situation, these guys came together when Brandon Roy went down. On the increasingly large shoulders of LaMarcus Aldridge, the spiteful wiliness of Andre Miller, the stretchability of Marcus Camby and the late season sneak job addition of Gerald Wallace, the Blazers looked and felt like a team cresting into April. The way the Blazers consistently challenge the Lakers, there was a genuine sense of relief amongst Laker fans when Dallas won the series.

But goddamn, I was wrong and so were any Lakers fans who embraced a Mavs matchup in the second round. Dallas introduced us all to a cold steel resolution, that mettle you can’t buy at the store or even pray for (it wasn’t your time, right, LeBron?). Beneath the flesh of that Portland series, Dallas revealed what turned out to be their leader’s calling card: All-out assault. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it blitzkrieg in a 7-seconds or Less, Phoenix Suns style, but this team was unprejudiced Terminator-style attack. Portland, Los Angeles, OKC and Miami got it the same. After Portland though, it all came together—or maybe it was there all along and I missed it; overlooked, because I had already written it off because it looked like the same group Dallas trotted out every year—Dirk, Terry and Kidd. Dismissed it because if anything, the NBA is predictable and we don’t get late-career titles unless there’s a drastic shakeup. Look at the last thirty years of NBA champs and you won’t see anything that resembles Dirk or Dallas. Veteran teams that won titles did so with a major addition or by becoming new teams (Celtics becoming the Big 3, Lakers adding Gasol, Hakeem needing MJ to retire, the Admiral needing Duncan, the introduction of Magic and Bird, the unification of Shaq and Wade) or they went the wait-my-turn route (MJ, Isiah). (Side note—the only other non-traditional title team was the 2004 Detroit Pistons.) In the playoffs, the Mavs completed a pilgrimage they started way back in 2008 when they hired Rick Carlisle.

I’m not trying to say we should’ve expected this out of Dallas. In three of the last five years, this Mavs team lost in the first round (two times were to lower-seeded teams). When I was in Vegas a couple weeks ago, watching Miami plow through a shell-shocked Bulls team and seeing the Mavs fortifying themselves against a trial and error OKC squad, I kept insisting that you can’t change your identity over the course of a few series’. To some extent, we all are who we are and I was confident that Dallas would show that baby soft face soon enough. All previous evidence of this team and the league as a whole indicated they weren’t a championship team. I don’t think my primary point was wrong: the Mavs playoff team played exactly to their identity. I was wrong about that identity though—drastically wrong. Looking back at the stats over the course of the past season, it starts to make more sense that Dallas had been coming together. They finished 8th in the league in defensive rating (points allowed/hundred possessions) and 9th in opponent’s effective FG%. The improving defense (this was their best defensive rating since the 67-win team of 2006-07 and their best defense under Rick Carlisle) no doubt helped them rip off the following streaks during the regular season: 12 games, 10 games and 8 games. More than half of their wins were part of a streak. This team had stretches of 18-1 and 16-2—with no overlap. Aside from those two streaks where the Mavs combined to go 34-3, their record was 23-22.

They caught another streak in April and went 16-5 in the playoffs. Counting the four-game win streak to end the regular season, they finished 20-5. I was wrongfully defiant all the way to the end, expecting Miami’s cream to rise to the top, but in all ways Dallas was the dictator and forced the game on their terms whether it was in Miami or Dallas.

I mentioned above that Dallas looked the same—Jet, Dirk and Kidd. While their counterparts were given names pre-ordained for the lights—Bron, Wade and Bosh—they weren’t given the pieces Mark Cuban gave the Mavs. It took the whole crew, from Brian Cardinal’s pasty American impression of the Euro-flop to Tyson Chandler’s infectious positive enthusiasm to JJ Barea’s inconceivable drives to DeShawn’s Dirk-bolstered swag. Beyond the “it takes a village” vibe of the Mavs, the main components understood the utilization process. Trust, camaraderie, accountability, morale—all that awkward junko speak that corporations try to force—were embodied by this Dallas team and the result was the attainment of eternity.

Winning an NBA Championship (unless you do it in a strike-shortened season, Pop) is the only way to reach forever in the NBA. It might be some bullshit, but every black and white stat, every subjective award, every label, performance and reputation is up for debate and attack. Someone’s always trying to take a dump on Wilt scoring 100 points or averaging 50 points/game for an entire season. Someone else is disputing MVP awards (incredulously asking how Steve Nash has the same amount of MVPs as Shaq and Kobe) and there are even intelligent people claiming MJ wasn’t the greatest. It’s all fair game and there’s even a loophole to attacking players with rings. Jason Kidd’s ring with Dallas doesn’t carry the same luster as a title with the Nets would’ve carried. But for Dirk, oh the lovable, likable, indisputable grass roots feel-good story of the 2011 playoffs; for Dirk’s place in the history of the league, it’s the ultimate in accomplishments. It’s free from any asterisk, any qualifier, and any but. It’s free from dispute, completely pure and that’s rare in a sport and league where its followers are almost trained to argue and challenge every little thing with zest of religious scholars and interpreters.

Nothing else this season exists in the absolute world that Dirk Nowitzki’s and Dallas’s playoff performance does. They’re all alone as the eternal truth of the 2010-11 season.

 

I Guess Change is Good for Any of Us

There are all kinds of change, but the most lasting and legitimate kind of change comes over time. It comes from things like experience, trial and error, practice, habit, development and often criticism. For all the excitement of this year’s playoffs, two changes stand out:

The first change has been gradual, subtle but frequently targeted for criticism. LeBron James is an easy target and always will be in the same way that MJ was ripped before he won titles and the way Kobe has been attacked before and after winning titles. Losing, the Decision, the Global Icon, the commercials, quitting accusations, rumors of uncoachability, ridiculous free agent demands and mountains of attacks and assaults in print and spoken word—it’s all been thrown at LeBron and no matter what happens in the next few weeks, it will continue to pour down on him. In the process of amassing hate from all corners of the basketball-watching and consuming public, LeBron went through the growing pains apparently required of NBA stars: incremental playoff progress followed by inevitable defeat by the league’s senior gatekeepers. In Cleveland, Bron lost to a veteran Pistons squad, Tim Duncan’s Spurs in a 4-0 Finals sweep, the KG-led Celtics (twice), and somehow to a hot-shooting Orlando Magic squad. After all those playoff losses and criticisms, he’s finally getting after it with the kind of intensity we’ve always associated with Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. In the fourth quarter on Tuesday night, with the game on the line, he put the clamps on Derrick Rose. LeBron was the best player on both sides of the court and was rewarded for his efforts with a 3-1 series lead.

A few years ago LeBron commented, “I don’t think I have an instinct like Kobe, where I just want to kill everybody.” Homicide aside, we saw the comments and took note. Kobe busied himself with back-to-back titles and three straight finals appearances while LeBron continued to get bounced out of the Eastern Conference playoffs. It’d be beyond naiveté to ignore the southern migration and the Wade/Bosh upgrades. Bron is surrounded by the best #2 and 3 options in the league. With those two stars flanking him, he’s managed to improve his overall game. He’s been named to all-defensive teams in the past, but we haven’t seen anything like the lockdown job he put on Rose last night or the dive-for-the-ball intensity he showed in the late fourth. Maybe it’s the support of Wade and Bosh or maybe it’s the relief they provide, but this LeBron is different. He’s playing with an energy usually reserved for the lesser-talented players of the world and he somehow has an endless supply of it. His post-play and post-game celebrations are indicative of someone who’s giving a damn—whether his outburst are aimed at critics, opponents or history doesn’t matter much. Focus and commitment are questions of his northern past.

The other change born of these playoffs: the stoic evolution of Dirk Nowitzki—a few weeks shy of 33 years old. The Larry Bird comparisons are inaccurate, but Dirk’s likely been the MVP of these playoffs. He’s playing chess to the defenders’ checkers. He’s cancelling out the best defenders on every team and doing it with a style that’s foreign to the NBA game in more ways than just being a German import. He’s always been an efficient scorer and in his career the Mavs are 6-1 in playoff games where he scores over 40 points. Like LeBron, Dirk’s has his own basketball bouncing skeletons in the closet. It’s taken a long four years to cleanse himself of the stain laid on him by Stephen Jackson and the Warriors in the 2007 opening round playoff upset, but he’s returned to MVP form and then had the audacity to surpass it with something that appears to be a casual effort which isn’t to say he’s not trying, but that everything is somehow easier. Like James, any questions of Dirk’s toughness or heart have been silenced by his virtuosic performance in these playoffs.  

With LeBron and Dirk, there’s been nothing disingenuous about their change. There’s no re-definition or worshiping false idols. They still carry the parts and pieces we’ve questioned over the years, but they’ve layered on so much more that we have to squint to see the old traces and even then, our eyesight’s still not strong enough.

Return to Canadian Stylings

I watched game three of the Eastern Conference Finals last night from the comforts and smoky hospitality of the Mandalay Bay Sports Book. Most games I watch are from the quiet and familiarity of my apartment and couch. Being surrounded by a hundred or so obnoxious gamblers watching a basketball game was refreshing. I’m usually chided for screaming at the TV, but here I was among the likeminded; united by a mix of basketball and money.

It was in that setting that I took in the gritty play of celebrities in South Beach. At a first thought, it’s not natural to associate defense and battling with the quartet of LeBron, Wade, Bosh and Derrick Rose. You see Bron and Wade specifically with their little cardigans and v-necks in the post-game press conferences, but fortunately fashion tastes don’t preclude on-court efforts. We knew it would be a defensive series so it’s no shock to see the 48-minute grind bleeding into every half court possession and leading to momentum-driving Miami fast breaks that cracked the Bulls backs just like they did Boston’s.

For a game and series that leans closer to the ethos of Joakim Noah, it was a surprise to see Chris Bosh spit in the collective faces of his critics. Noah was frustrated and out of rhythm. He committed fouls (questionable or not), stewed on the bench and failed to provide the right kind of energy that the Bulls expect and need from him. Bosh, by contrast, delivered on fades, jumpers, spins and dunks and while his Gasolian screams after fouls or dunks continue to feel artificial or at least misplaced (the screams are aimed more at the critics than his opponents), he was the Heat’s most productive and consistent player in game three. With Bosh as the go-to, any questions about the mythic tug of war between Bron and Wade are questions that didn’t exist on this Sunday.

Lost in Bosh’s Raptor throwback was the one of the better statistical games we’ve seen from Boozer in these playoffs. He went for 27 and 17, but failed to hit any field goals in a fourth quarter where the Bulls were outscored by eight.

The common theme this season between Bosh and Boozer has been their inabilities to fit in to which I can only imagine must be confusing. They’ve both been criticized for failing to replicate their previous successes which is unfair and rarely possible given the current circumstances. When they both arrived in full on Sunday night, it was Bosh who received the greater support while Boozer was left trying to carry Chicago in a role all-too-familiar to Rose.

For Bosh to make 34 points against the league’s best defense look so easy reconfirms the potential of this Miami team. His identity isn’t the same as it was in Toronto and it never will be again, but games like tonight are reminders of the versatility of his game and the value of a skilled seven footer—even if he is a little on the soft side. Boozer’s productivity opposite of Rose’s struggles last night reinforced a suspicion I have that Boozer and Rose suffer from compatibility issues. The injuries and lack of on-court time between the two (or three if you consider Noah’s injuries earlier this year) are well known, but until Rose and Boozer are able to co-exist as scorers, the Bulls will have trouble scoring enough points to win in this series.

The Heat, with its three elite scorers combined with Bron’s and Wade’s versatility, doesn’t share these same problems. Their problems consist of things like who stole Mike Miller’s basketball soul, how can they get his soul back and how can they keep Jamaal Magloire out of the arena.

Intersections and Roundabouts

It was somewhat painful to miss the OKC-Mavs game last night (game two), but my homey’s getting married, so I was on a flight. The flight had Wi-Fi, but apparently ESPN3.com doesn’t come on a plane too well and it ended up too choppy for my taste. So I missed the Durant smash on Haywood, Russell melting down, Dirk missing a free throw, Harden carrying the OKCs in the fourth and a bunch of other shit that didn’t make the Sportscenter recap I just saw four times in a row.

Oh, then the Eric Maynor thing.

Remember back in December of 2009 when the Jazz made a salary dump and traded Matt Harpring’s contract and Maynor to OKC for someone named Peter Fehse? It was a good deal for OKC at the time and it I’m guessing it made sense for the Jazz too since Deron was monopolizing the point and was officially the face of the franchise for the foreseeable future. Jazz GM Kevin O’Connor on that trade:

“Trading Eric was a difficult decision. But, along with Matt’s contract, it greatly helps reduce our luxury tax responsibility. Fortunately, with Deron and a proven backup in Ronnie Price we feel that we have depth at that position.”

OKC GM Sam Presti had been high on Maynor in the 2009 draft and was willing to take on Harpring’s $6.5 million salary to get Maynor as a backup/insurance policy for Westbrook. After seeing the turn of events last night and seeing more than a few OKC games this year, I wonder if Maynor wasn’t more of a long-term insurance policy. For Presti, it was a low-risk reach for a prospect who’s being paid on the rookie scale for the next three seasons.

For the Salt Lake faithful, they have to be wondering what the fuck just happened. They went from legit Western Conference challengers to lottery team almost overnight. If you look at the 2009-10 team, it’s easy to place the blame for their fall on bad contracts. They had Wes Matthews and Maynor—both gone because Utah didn’t want to or couldn’t pay them (or pay Harpring in Maynor’s case). The Jazz were over the cap in the first place because they gave Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur huge contracts. It was either Boozer or Millsap and the Jazz went with Millsap. They couldn’t keep everyone because they bet the house on a few guys who struggle to start now—Okur and Kirilenko. The weaker-than-expected team they fielded this season led to Jerry Sloan’s abrupt resignation and the equally abrupt ending of the Deron Williams era in SLC. And now a team that had a couple of solid young point guards is being linked to drafting … yep … another young point guard in the 2011 draft.

Maybe they should reach out to OKC and see if Russell Westbrook’s available.

Someone Great and his Silly Dance Partners

Tuesday night’s Western Conference Finals opener was the rolling hills of basketball emotions for me. I watched like the rest of NBA world did while Dirk Nowitzki piled on points, two at a time, possession after possession. It was exquisite and dirty at the same time. When the whistles started rolling in in the third quarter, I flashed back to the summer of 2006 when Dwyane Wade marched through Dallas defenders on the shoulders of refs blowing whistles like heavenly basketball trumpets. It’s an uncomfortable feeling to see someone so great perform like a genius, but feel the need to associate the performance with some kind of qualifier, but here I am.

There are three parties privy to this performance: Dirk (innocent of any wrong doing), the Thunder defenders (guilty of ignorance and the wrong kind of flexibility) and the refs (guilty of something like pathetic officiating). Dirk was on one tonight. It didn’t matter who defended him or how they did it, he was hitting gaggles of jump shots and forced Thunder defenders to foul him 16 times. The fouls were a mix of stupidity on OKC’s part (example: Durant switched to Dirk and picked up back-to-back fouls on the same stupid reach) and tender whistles by the refs. Dirk didn’t need to be bailed out by anyone. He was good enough tonight to earn his own segment on ESPN Classic or 30 for 30 or some German equivalent. But the opposition and the officials insisted on giving him a boost.

 

That’s Dirk’s shot chart from the game tonight and it’s brilliant. 12-15 on contested jumpers and a few drives? I think every OKC player who stepped on the court (except for Maynor and Nate Robinson) took their turn with Dirk and each one was equally ineffective. It was like a Manny Pacquiao fight where the opposition can’t implement their strategy because Dirk/Manny forces you to play/fight his style. What’s not listed in that shot chart is the 24 points Dirk scored on trips to the line. I can’t recall a player shooting this many jumpers and making a living at the line.

OKC tried speed, quickness, strength, wiry guys, athletes, black guys, a white guy, a Swiss guy and a Congolese; but Dirk refused to discriminate and ate them all up. What they refused to do was adapt to the whistles. Yeah, I thought the officiating was soft trash. For the most part, it was consistent though. OKC attacked more (40 points in the paint to 36 by Dallas) and was rewarded with more trips to the line (43 to 36), but they hurt themselves by refusing to adjust to the tick tack calls. The Durant example I used earlier was just one of many where OKC defenders tried different methods, usually physically aggressive, and were whistled for fouls, then did the same thing again. Towards the end of the game Ibaka made an adjustment (keeping a hand in Dirk’s face as opposed to using his body to get in close and inevitably be called for a foul) that was at least semi-effective in the sense that he wasn’t called for fouls and limited Dirk’s efficiency.

A lot of NBA fans still associate the 2006 finals with D. Wade’s mastery and the bump he received from the refs. Depending on what happens in this series and the finals, this will either go down as a singularly great one-game performance or a big shiny star symbolic of and solidifying to Dirk’s place in NBA history. For both players and performances, the one point lost in between the hyperbolic commentaries and cynical asterisks is the ability of both Dirk and Wade to recognize the bend in the rules and exploit the living hell out of it.

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.

%d bloggers like this: