Monthly Archives: April 2013

15-Footer, 4/30/13: HAIKUS FOR TUES(day)

Golden State Warriors vs Denver Nuggets 8 PM TNT

Steph Curry Stephen

Curry Steph Curry Stephen

Curry Steph Curry

 

He is en fuego

Karl sticks Miller

On him. Big mistake

 

Denver returns home

Down three games to one. Will Dubs

Deliver knockout?

 

Memphis Grizzlies vs Los Angeles Clippers 10:30 PM TNT

 

Marc Gasol getting

More aggressive on offense

Is good for Memphis

 

CP3 being

The Point God is good for Clips

And for us at home

 

What’s not good for us?

Blake Griffin’s incessant need to dribble between the legs then pull up for a mid-range jumper that will inevitably clang off the rim. YOU’RE SHOOTING 33% from MID-RANGE AND 51% AT THE RIM. GO STRONG TO THE HOLE BLAKE.

I broke haiku rules.

 

Statistic support

For story provided by

NBA.com

The Evolution Of Brook Lopez

For all of his offensive prowess and growth on the defensive end, Lopez’s reputation this season was always going to depend on what happened in 2010-11. While two years is an eternity when measured 48 minutes at a time, it wasn’t that long ago that Brook Lopez was a 7-foot punchline:

“What’s 84 inches tall, sounds like Andre the Giant and rebounds like Vizzini from the Princess Bride?”

Little in the first chapters of his career hinted toward the precipitous plunge to come. Lopez entered the league in 2008 and started 75 games for a then-New Jersey Nets team that would see zero improvement in the win column over its previous season. Where the Nets did see progress with their new franchise center was on the offensive end; New Jersey went from 25th in the league in offensive rating in 2007-08 to 16th in Lopez’s rookie season. And his rebounding was solid, as well — he grabbed 9.6 boards per 36 minutes, though he played only 30 per game.

The decline in Lopez’s rebounding numbers began in 2009-10, but some of that can be attributed to the confusion of playing for three different coaches over the course of a lost season. As different strategists employed new defensive systems, Lopez looked more and more lost on that end of the court. As a result, his defensive rebounding numbers took the biggest hit; it’s difficult to clean up a mess when you’re not sure where you are, after all.* Still, his numbers weren’t awful, and an increase in playing time meant 8.6 rebounds per game. On the offensive end, Lopez continued to develop into the player we see today: a high efficiency monster in the post who draws just enough trips to the free throw line to offset some of the lower probability shots in his repertoire. His 6.2 free throws attempts per game (at a rate north of 80%) helped lead to the highest True Shooting percentage of his career to date, and he posted a PER of 20.1 in just his second season. His defense was still limited, stymied by a lack of system and his own flatfooted flash dancing through molasses. It was easy to imagine the Nets righting the ship, especially with the offseason addition of Derrick Favors and the hiring of Avery Johnson, and to see Brook Lopez at the helm.

*The 2009-10 season also saw the introduction of Kris Humphries to Brook Lopez’s sphere of influence. Suffice to say Hump’s presence on the court was to Brook’s rebounding as the Opium Wars were to Chinese financial independence in the 19th century.

Save the absence of Favors and Johnson, a relocation to Brooklyn and a new owner, that’s exactly what happened for the Nets. But before they could reach this point, the view of Brook Lopez had to reach rock bottom. It started in June of 2010, when Lopez made it known that he’d battled mononucleosis over the offseason, starting in early May. He said then that he felt fine; by the end of July, however, it was clear at Team USA scrimmages that he was still struggling to get himself into shape, if not fighting the aftereffects of the illness itself. New reports came out shortly before the start of the 2010-11 season that Lopez was indeed healthy, and Nets fans can’t be blamed if they were cautiously optimistic for a new future led by a massive frontline and a rising star in the coaching ranks.

Yet for some reason, Lopez was not himself that year. He played in all 82 games, just as he had in his previous two seasons, and he continued his ascent on offense, garnering nearly three more field goal attempts per 36 minutes than he had the year prior. In his 35 minutes per game, he scored 20.4 points, but his minutes were in fact down, if ever so slightly. But it seemed as if he were conserving energy to some extent. His defense took a step backward, but the most notorious and noteworthy decline came in his ability to grab the damned ball when somebody missed a shot.

Blame the mono. Blame Kris Humphries. Blame Lopez playing too far from the hoop. Blame his lack of rebounding skills.

Regardless of context, he totaled six rebounds per game. Per the consensus at the time, such behavior from such a tall man was a mortal sin. Brook Lopez was damned to the tribe of Yabuts. For all of his positives and Avery Johnson’s trust in running the late-game offense through Lopez — a growing anomaly in a league shifting away from back to the basket centers — his critics had a ready-made response.

“Yeah, but he can’t rebound. I need my 7-footer to rebound.”

The end of the lockout was filled with a million little moments of redemption. Brook Lopez and the Nets were no different than the other 999,999. This time, there could be no questions. Lopez was healthy; the mono was well in his past. He’d had plenty of time to work on his game, of course, in the extended hell of summer (and fall) of 2010. And most importantly, the Nets had acquired what every big man needs: an elite point guard. Deron Williams came aboard toward the end of Lopez’s carom catastrophe year, but his own injury limited his time on court with his new teammates. The 55-game slate offered a new laboratory in which to experiment with all the pick and roll chemistry a team could ask for.

Sadly, every experimental lab needs a Wayne Knight-esque saboteur, and Lopez’s right foot was more than willing to fill the role. Two separate injuries would limit him to five games last season. Any chance to shed his reputation as a “soft” big man who couldn’t rebound if his twin brother’s life depended on it was lost to the whims of broken bones.

Finally, though, the pieces have come together. At first glance, Lopez’s rebounding numbers aren’t significantly different between this year and 2010-11; he’s only averaging 6.9 boards per game this year, compared to the six for which he was formerly vilified. His minutes are down this season, though, which obviously suppresses his per game numbers. More descriptively, he’s grabbing a larger percentage of available rebounds than he has in any season since 2009-10. He’s not back to the limited sample size of his rookie year, when he looked like a glass-eater, but his rebounding on a per possession basis is back to an acceptable level. The stigma attached to his game faded as his vigor on the boards renewed. And that small improvement means we can focus on the important things, like just how dominant Lopez has become on the offensive end and his vast improvement in defending the pick and roll. Much is different between this season and last for Brooklyn, but literally the biggest change is the presence of Lopez in the middle. A team that ranked 23rd and 28th, respectively, last season in offensive and defensive rating is this year a top-10 offense (8th) and a mediocre defensive team. Given where this team was last season, that’s an enormous improvement.

And that improvement begat the first postseason trip of Lopez’s career. So far, he’s delivered in every way imaginable. He’s protected the rim in a way I’m not sure anyone expected. His pick and roll defense has been more than satisfactory against a Chicago team whose offense is under consideration as the new international standard definition of absolute zero. His game is the perfect antidote to this trapping Bulls defense, and he’s feasting on the offensive glass against the small Chicago frontline. He’s grabbing almost 13% of available offensive rebounds when he’s on the court this series, generating extraordinarily valuable second possessions against one of the best defenses in the league. And he’s getting to the free throw line at a higher rate than he ever has in his career. Watching his battles with Joakim Noah is easily the most entertaining part of a series struggling for intrigue, Nate Robinson included. And more often than not, Lopez is winning that battle or, at worst, fighting Noah to a draw. It’s the only way that Brooklyn is still in this series.

This has been a year driven by injuries of all sorts. Yet in that dark cloud, Brook Lopez is a shining silver lining.* His health had derailed a previously stellar career and caused him to be a joke among NBA fans. Now that he’s healthy and ready to play, though, he’s the one delivering the setup and the punchline. The Nets are down 3-2 to the Chicago Bulls in their first round series. Their continued existence in this postseason tournament seems circumstantial. If they do manage to bounce back and move on, though, it’ll be on the back of their franchise center. He’s finally ready to be that guy. No laughing.

*I said silver lining, Brook. Not Silver Surfer.

Statistical support for this piece provided by NBA.com/stats

Commonly Absurd

On Sunday night the Heat completed a four-game, first round sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks. The outcome was never really in doubt for any of those games and LeBron was able to lead the Heat through with a series of solid, understated performances. Of course, by solid and understated I mean 24.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game, shooting 62.5% from the field and playing elite defense. Of all the things LeBron has done this season, making the absurd seem common may be the most impressive.

Consistency is a challenge in the NBA, for any player of any skill level. Competition, situation, travel, health, luck; there are innumerable moving variables between a player and regular, repeatable success. Over the last 82 games LeBron stepped over each of those variables, multiple times. This was one of the most dominant regular seasons in recent memory, but by the time the playoffs rolled around that storyline was completely lost in the stew of Kobe’s achilles tendon, Derrick Rose’s knee, the grinding playoff race at the bottom of the Western Conference and the fact that LeBron made excellence so . . . expected.

I love graphs and I wanted to tackle a visual representation of LeBron’s transition from usually great to always great. I started with his statistics from every regular season game he’s played in his entire career. For each game I calculated the number of possessions he used and his scoring efficiency, measured by points per possession. Below is a Google Motion chart that shows all of those numbers. Press the play button and the graph will scroll through each game in his career marking exactly where it falls on each axis. Each dot is colored by the calendar year in which it fell. I would also recommend clicking to highlight the first circle before pressing play, so that all the marks show up cumulatively. Adjusting the play speed, which is right next to the play button, may also save your eyes from some undue strain.

(Note: If you can’t see the graph, refresh the page, occasionally the iframes are a pain. -Ed. Emeritus.)

Ideally, I would be able to separate these games by season instead of just year, but Google Motion is bound by the chronology of our calendar. What you should see though is the marks gradually begin to appear closer and closer together, clustering around the high efficiency end of the spectrum. The marks from 2013 are in red and represent the apex of LeBron’s dependable domination. What I’m attempting to illustrate in my own absurdly extravagant way is how consistent LeBron’s excellence has become this season.

Graphs can be fun, but we also have statistical tools to measure consistency, one of which is variance. Looking at an average incorporates all data points, smoothing out both the highs and lows, and rocketing across the middle ground. Variance (calculated by squaring the standard deviation) is a measure of how much a data set has bounced back and forth between those highs and lows. I took the same numbers from above, every regular season game LeBron has ever played, and split his average possessions per game and points per possession into two categories – this season, and everything else. I also calculated the variance for each, and the percentage change this season from his previous career.

Screen shot 2013-04-30 at 12.40.27 PM

LeBron is using fewer possessions per game this season, 14% less to be exact. But that per game possession average has become about 40% more stable. He’s increased his offensive efficiency by 14% over his previous career average and that number has also stabilized considerably, showing 14% less variation. The leap in LeBron’s average efficiency has been absolutely incredible this season. But what these numbers tell us is that it has not just leapt but has been much more consistent at that higher level.

Those percentage changes might not seem huge but the story they tell undoubtedly is. A million and one words have been written about the way LeBron has transformed his game and pushed his production to absurd levels but the absurdity is not just in the level, it’s in the regularity. Stopping LeBron has always been a non-starter, but teams used to be able to count on an occasional off-night, a once-in-a-blue-moon bad performance. But those collected variables, the enemies of consistency, have been vanquished and it appears that the Heat’s opponents can no longer count on variance as an element of success.

Statistical support for this story from NBA.com and LeBron’s unique blend of strength and speed

Let’s Continue Forward

foxrosser | Flickr

My dad is gay.

I’m not telling you because it matters, I’m telling you because it doesn’t.  My parents told us in 2006.  I was barely sixteen and in the embryonic stages of developing the belief system by which I now staunchly abide.

“Your mother and I are getting a divorce and the reason is because I’m gay.”

The downward spiral of our relationship began long before then.  Family therapy, long talks and time in general mean the specific details that precipitated it aren’t worth repeating these days, especially in a public forum like this.  But trust that the means behind the fracture of our kinship were warranted.  It’s of chief importance that is understood, as is the fact that today we’re closer than we’ve been in over a decade.

__

Jason Collins is gay.

He told us because it matters.  Not to he, his family or those closest to him for the simple reasons most assume, but because the public sea change that’s been coming for years is at its highest tide.  Major professional sports needed an active player to be the face behind equality, and Collins took the opportunity.

“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center.  I’m black.  And I’m gay.”

Collins is a free agent.  The classic NBA journeyman, he’s played for six teams in 12 seasons, used most recently as a big body to defend prolific opposing centers with six hard fouls at his disposal.  Before his wonderful, courageous announcement, there was no guarantee Collins would find a job in the league next season; that’s of pertinent recognition going forward, no matter where his basketball road leads from here.

__

Several months later and at the height of our friction, my dad branded me homophobic.  I was passionately admonishing him for various forms of malfeasance, explaining my life was better lived without him.  He said it calmly; I still don’t believe he meant it.

“I didn’t mean to be gay.  I’m sorry it upsets you so much.”

There are several moments gleaned from our relationship’s darkest times that I’ll never forget.  This one sticks out more than some others, not for its narcissism but for its implication.

I don’t remember my exact reaction because it was stream of consciousness.  I was younger and dumber back then, but still not immature or naive enough to let the very fabric of his being break us.  What did so temporarily was much more than that, actual choices as opposed to the bigoted trope his words suggested.  This was just a different iteration of the same tired defense tactic and I let him know it, reaching decibels outwardly and striking chords within me I didn’t heretofore realize existed.

I got up and left.  We didn’t speak for months.

__

Collins’ basketball career may be over.  I hope it’s not – sports needs a warrior like this on the real court, too.  But if it is, we’ll all surely jump to conclusions in impassioned defense of this movement’s  pioneer.

“We saw this coming.  If he didn’t come out he’d have a job.  I’m not surprised front offices didn’t back up their initial encouragement.  Shame on the players – public and private support are clearly two different things.  The sports world still isn’t ready.”

And in that case, all of it might be true.  There’s still enough stagnancy with regard to the broader issue that the fate of California’s Proposition 8 hangs in the balance.  That Collins is the first openly gay professional athlete is more evidence of that sad fact; there are mountains of it.

But the flood of positivity flowing from league circles means the NBA, at least, deserves the benefit of doubt.  Not only has the league office stood in strong support of Collins as we all knew it would, player voices big and small have offered a collective tidal wave of positivity, too.

They say that the ‘NBA Cares’ – its shared response to the real Collins is of the most telling signs yet.  And if the unfortunate occurs and he’s left on the league’s fringes next fall, it’s our duty to have enough similar care to not jump at bigoted suppositions.  Collins is about moving forward, after all, and opines of discrimination – no matter how well-intended, or in my personal case, with motive different altogether – only steer conversation the opposite direction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lion Face Lemon Face: Now With More Offensive Firepower Than the Pacers!

Whether you missed the games last night or are simply looking to relive their glory, you’ve come to the right place. This is Lion Face/Lemon Face– a retrospective of the previous night’s NBA action that is (hopefully) presented in an entertaining manner. What is a Lion Face or Lemon Face. Soar through the paint and dunk on the other team’s tallest player? Yeah, you sir get a Lion Face. Dribble the ball off of your foot out of bounds as the final buzzer sounds? You get a Lemon Face. See a player doing something strange on the bench? Could be a Lion Face or could be a Lemon Face– it all depends.

Now, let’s get to LF/LF-ing!

Lion Face: Carlos Delfino

Am I really leading this off with Carlos Delfino? Yes, yes I am. While KD may not be nice, Carlos Delfino is less-nice here, getting the steal and throwing it down despite Durant’s best attempt to swat it away.

Lemon Face: Ibaka, Thunder Collapse On-Court for No Reason

Credit: @cjzero/Twitter

Credit: @cjzero/Twitter

Possible theories as to why this happened: 1) Sniper in the tower; 2) Earthquake; 3) Omer Asik’d and destroyed.

Lion Face: Nate Robinson

Via The Brooklyn Game/YouTube

This is more than Nate’s 20 points, 1 rebound, and 8 assist performance last night. Yeah, his team lost, but here Nate crosses Deron Williams over at that free line before rising up against CJ Watson and laying it in under Watson’s out-stretched arm as he draws the foul.  After all, you can’t have a million dollar move and a ten-cent finish.

Lemon Face: The Pacers Offense in Games Three and Four

Ever since going up 2-0 on the Hawks last Wednesday they’ve suddenly lost the ability to score effectively. Their True Shooting Percentages of .381 (Field) and .304 (Three) were better in Game 4 than Game 3 (.272/.160), but the Pacers have still scored more than 30 points in a quarter just once in the last week. In fact, in five of the their last eight quarters — or their last two games — they’ve scored twenty points or fewer and have failed to score more than thirty since the second quarter of Game 2. What makes this even more strange is that they were reasonably efficient at home in the first two games of the series, but then disintegrate as soon as they reach Atlanta and allow the Hawks to even the series at two games apiece. At least the Pacers will get to return home for Game 5.

Lion Face: Good Shooters Shoot Good…I Mean “Well”. 

We’ve all marveled at Steph Curry’s performance so far in these playoffs, and rightfully so, but have you checked out the playoff leaders in True Shooting Percentage? You should. Check out these rankings:

1) Lebron James — 67.9%

2) Steph Curry — 66.0%

3) Kevin Durant — 62.4%

What does this mean? Well, it could mean one of a few things. The first thing that may come to mind is that Curry has performed at efficiency levels that have put him up there, statistically, with arguably the two best players in the game. Secondly, we may now be desensitized when either LeBron and Durant post figures in the 60′s, so we don’t talk about them as much because we’ve become accustomed to their excellence. Finally, Durant’s might be most impressive considering he takes an average of six threes per game.

Wait, no. Durant’s isn’t most impressive at all. Steph Curry has been absolutely absurd.

He’s taken 9.5 threes per game, while converting 47.3% of them, or just under five per game. The only other player that can come a little close to that is Ray Allen down in Miami. Presently, Allen takes seven threes per game and has converted on 46.4% of them, but he’s still shooting one percent lower than Curry even though Steph shoots 2.5 more threes per game. This probably isn’t sustainable for Curry, as well as a small sample, but he has been unbelievably lights out so far. Curry will regress some — probably not a ton, though — but what he’s doing now shouldn’t be appreciated any less because of that. Oh, and Curry hasn’t even missed a damn free throw in four games thus far.

Lemon Face: The Thunder’s Wardrobe

Source: Unknown

Source: Unknown

Maybe there’s something I don’t understand about fashion that Kevin Durant, Hasheem Thabeet and even Russell Westbrook seemingly do. Okay, there’s a lot I don’t get about fashion, which is why I’m a basketball blogger. I may not know anything about fashion, but KD, you never button the top button. Or do you now? Again, I don’t know and maybe the rules have changed. This is a Lemon Face if for no other reason than that being the type of face I made when i saw this picture.

Lion Face: This may not have to do with the playoffs or any of the games last night, but the Kings appear to be staying in Sacramento which is pretty neat and worthy of a Lion Face, in my humble opinion.

Lemon Face: Derek Fisher Plays Well in Loss, Scott Brooks Swoons (Probably). 

Ugh. I hate when stuff like this happens. Every single Thunder game we bemoan the sight of Derek Fisher on the floor, which is now a little more necessary with the absence of Westbrook. However, it’s one thing when he plays and another when he actually produces just often enough to make Brooks thinks that Fisher is still worthy of playing thirty minutes per game. I don’t hate when Fisher plays well; I just hate that it only encourages Brooks. Fisher posted 12 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist and a plus 8 (wut?), in addition to shooting 4-5 from three in the loss.

 

 

The Will and the Right of Jason Collins

In case you haven’t heard, Jason Collins revealed to the world that he’s gay. Out of all the quotes, quips, and thoughts inspired by his revelation, one in particular by Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson served as the genesis of my own extended thoughts:

“I will say this. We live in a country allows you to be whoever you want to be. As a Christian man, I serve a God that gives you free will to be who you want to be. As a Christian man, I have beliefs of what’s right and what’s wrong.”

When it comes to God’s will, I subscribe to Abraham Lincoln’s poetic Second Inaugural Address where he supposed that “the Almighty has His own purposes” and doesn’t set out to answer anyone’s prayers in particular. But I’ll assume for right now, that Jackson is right and God gives all of us free will to be who we want to be.

However, what is undeniable here is that we do not live in a country that allows everyone to be who they want to be.  Of course, this is a human problem, not an American problem. Just sticking to this country, though, a senator from Indiana once stood upon the floor of Congress and declared:

“It is not true in fact; it is not true in law; it is not true physically, mentally, or morally that all men are created equal… I hold it to be a self-evident lie.”

Such sentiment didn’t arise overnight to infect Senator John Pettit’s brain on February 20, 1854. Such sentiment hasn’t been wholly vaccinated 160 years later. Society is still littered with John Pettits, although mercifully there are fewer than there used to be. Still, it’s that kind of avarice that defended slavery, upheld segregation, trampled upon women, and currently belittles gays.

Mark Jackson himself alluded to such scurrilous treatment when asked how gay players would be received in the locker room:

“…there’s a reason why in these situation these players are at the end (of their career) or done. So obviously that answers itself. Right, wrong or indifferent, it is something that’s new to people.”

Being indifferent on an issue of human dignity may be possible, but it’s certainly not justifiable. Yes, hostility may have reduced homosexuality to the margins of male professional sports but it was indifference that kept it there.

Jason Collins declaring he’s gay dwindles the amount of real estate indifference can stand on. Ambivalent acceptance of gay athletes must give way to wholehearted embracing so that they can be who they want to be.

Yes, God may give us that will, but only as an embracing society can we ensure that everyone ultimately has that right.

15 FOOTER, 4/29/13: Losing is not an option

Before we get to previewing tonight’s games, you really need to take a few minutes and read the incredible, powerful Sports Illustrated piece on Jason Collins becoming the first openly gay player in any of the “Big Four” men’s professional sports leagues. Today was undoubtedly a watershed moment in sports, and I would be remiss in my duty to cover the latest news going on in the NBA without linking to the article at hand. Now, on to the games tonight…

Chicago at Brooklyn (7:00 PM, TNT)

Interesting decision by the NBA as this will be the first ever day-night doubleheader in NBA history as these teams are expected to finish up Game 4 around 6:30 PM and then go right into Game 5 at 8:00 P…oh wait, I’m now being told that Saturday’s marathon actually did finish with the Bulls riding Nate Robinson to a stunning 142-134 3OT victory. It is a good thing that the Bulls were able to prevail in Game 4 because any time you have people comparing Nate Robinson’s performance to the infamous Sleepy Floyd Game in the 1987 Western Conference Semifinals, you pretty much cannot afford to waste that performance. We almost did not get to see most of the greatness, however. A blown dunk by C.J. Watson that would have put Brooklyn up 16 to play with 3:16 left in the game could have provided the dagger for Brooklyn and rendered Robinson’s performance irrelevant, but like the 3:16 verse in the Book of John states, instead it gave the Bulls everlasting life in a game that seemingly took forever. As we head into Game 5, the stakes are simple. For the Nets, it’s win or go home. For the Bulls, it’s win and head to Miami. I still think Brooklyn has one last gasp in them though.

Prediction: Brooklyn 96-91

Indiana at Atlanta (7:30 PM, NBA TV)

Surely the Law of Averages dictates that at least one of the games in this series will be relatively close, right? After the Pacers crushed the Hawks by 17 and 15 points in the confines of Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the momentum shifted when the series headed back to Atlanta where Indiana only mustered a Celtics-esque 69 points in 21 point loss to the Hawks. George Hill and Lance Stephenson have to quickly block out and forget about whatever they were doing on Saturday night as they combined to go 2-15 from the field. Meanwhile, Al Horford was in Beast Mode as he busted out with a tidy little 26-16 performance. This is as close to a must win game as the Hawks could possibly face because there is no way they are taking three straight from Indiana if they lose tonight. Unfortunately for them, I see Hill and Stephenson’s performances as more of an aberration than a harbinger of things to come. Plus, I picked Indiana to win this series in five games, and I’m sticking by that.

Prediction: Indiana 98-88

Oklahoma City at Houston (9:30 PM, TNT)

As a basketball community, it is no secret that we are frequently driven by narratives. Whether it’s Tracy McGrady’s inability to get out of the first round, the Lakers problems that began in training camp and lasted through the end of the season, or a myriad of other talking points, we love looking at the same story through the context of different lenses and making it our own. Of course, one of the most popular narratives that we see over and over again is whether or not a team is secretly better without its best player in the lineup. Call it the Ewing Theory if you want, but just this year, we’ve seen it rear its head with Derrick Rose and the Bulls, Rajon Rondo and the Celtics, and now Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. Let’s stop this right now; no, the Thunder, despite getting 41 points from Kevin Durant in Game 3, are not better off without Russell Westbrook. No, Westbrook was not holding Durant back in any way, shape, or form. Instead, what we saw in Game 3 was Durant putting a team that needed him on his shoulders and leading them to victory, even if he needed a little luck along the way. I mean, seriously, he broke eight laws of physics on this shot alone:

GIF via SBNation

So no, it’s not that Westbrook was getting in the way of KD; it’s just that the Durantula is really freaking good. And a majority of the time, the team with the best player on the floor wins the series. Houston, you have a problem, and his name is Kevin Durant.

Prediction: Oklahoma City 103-99

Maybe We’ll Be OK

It’s 2013, or so the calendar tells us. Yet when we read news of North Korea’s supposedly impending nuclear attack, the turtle-paced recovery of the economy, the continued legislation of love, or even racially segregated proms, it feels like we’re either stuck in the 1940’s or thrust forward to the end of days. The negative always seems to outweigh the positive.  Our faith in humanity slowly diminishes. It’s always darkest before the dawn, but it’s been dark for so long we wonder if dawn is really a thing of myth.  

Then there are days, moments, even, that let the light of dawn peek through, showing us we’re perhaps not as doomed as we’ve been told. Moments like today.

Jason Collins, in a piece published in Sports Illustrated, announced he was gay, becoming the first active male professional athlete in a major sport in the United States to do so.  A thorough string of qualifiers, to be sure, but ones that enhance, rather than diminish, the magnitude of Collins’ announcement. No, announcement isn’t the right word. Collins and his agent didn’t organize a press conference wherein he read from a statement then took questions from the media. He wrote a frank, honest, and beautiful article, describing his struggle with hiding his true self for so long and his decision to no longer do so. To do such a thing, in such a prominent publication, transcends bravery or courage.

For basketball, and sports overall, this announcement was a long time coming. Other athletes who came out, such as John Amaechi, Robbie Rogers, even as far back as Martina Navratilova helped paved the road for Collins. So too did straight athletes like Brendon Ayanbandejo and Chris Kluwe, outspoken proponents of both gay marriage and acceptance of homosexuals in professional sports. Collins now becomes the first active athlete to come out, and becomes perhaps the biggest fissure in the wall of intolerance in sports.

Further piercing that shroud of despair was the groundswell of support from Collins’ peers following the publication of Collins’ article. Statements from Doc Rivers, David Stern, or even Bill Clinton were encouraging, of course, but their support was never in question, nor was it the most important. The reaction of players, former and current, would be a telling sign as to whether Collins’ world was and is ready for such an announcement. And, in one of those too-rare moments, our faith in humanity was restored just a bit.

Some, such as Kobe Bryant and Baron Davis, praised Collins for his bravery.

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 10.52.33 AM

Others, like Kevin Durant, though not effusive in his praise, nonetheless supported Collins, citing the brotherhood of basketball and (at least to Durant) the acceptance that comes with the inclusion in said brotherhood.

“Nobody has any right to judge. He’s his own man. Makes his own decisions. As NBA players, it’s like a big group of guys, kind of like a brotherhood. I know I support him. Like I said, I don’t really know him, so whatever decision he makes is something he really thought was good for him. Nothing nobody else can about him. As long as he’s happy, it’s cool.”

 

Overall, the majority of player’s reactions showed that the world of sports is slowly starting to catch up to society. Maybe it will be some time before another player, a more prominent player comes out, but at least Collins has laid the groundwork for that day.

Unfortunately, though predictably, the day was not without hatred. Intolerance, ignorance and animosity all reared their heads after the story was published. And yet, despite the pure hideousness of these comments, they are, in a way, a necessity.

Screenwriter Stewart Stern, in a letter to James Dean’s parents after the actor’s death, wrote, “Ecstasy is only recognizable when one has experienced pain. Beauty only exists when set against ugliness. Peace is not appreciated without war ahead of it. How we wish that life could support only the good. But it vanishes when its opposite no longer exists as a setting.”

Life cannot exist without Death, and Love cannot exist without Hate. That does not mean, however, that the two are equal. So while the ignorant filth will continue to comment, tweet and spew venomous hatred, they are closer to being drowned out than ever before. And though they do still cause us to shake our heads and bemoan the stupidity of some, those hateful words have value, in that they allow us to better appreciate those of love and support.

 

Until We Meet Again

If you are like me and were born in the late-80′s, you know you missed out on a Golden Age of basketball. For me, I know that missing out on the Magic-Bird era is my biggest lamentation as a basketball fan. What’s worse than knowing you were born too late for such a great rivalry is having to deal with people who are in their late-twenties and older and their, “Oh, you should have been there for those old Lakers-Celtics battles, those were something…” comments like we don’t already know that we didn’t get to see an important time in NBA history. Fortunately, those people who were alive, or at least old enough to remember that time, have written books or made documentaries about that time. Plus, those of us twenty-five and under still have YouTube, and that’s better than nothing.

Growing up, we saw Lakers teams that ranged from good to great. Yet, while Kobe and Shaq were lighting the league on fire in the late-90′s and early-00′s, the Celtics never really held up their end of the deal. Even when they had Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce they had just three seasons with a record over .500 from the ’94 season until ’07, paling in comparison to the Lakers’ three championships. At the time it seemed that us late-80′s babies would have to settle for old campfire tales and YouTube clips of old game footage to get our Lakers-Celtics fix.

Then the night of the 2007 Draft happened and changed everything. The first domino fell when Danny Ainge flipped Jeff Green, Wally Szczerbiak, and Delonte West to Seattle for Ray Allen. With Allen now in tow, Kevin Garnett consented one month later to a trade from the only team he had ever known to join Pierce and Allen in Boston, and now we finally had a Celtics team that was capable of standing with some of the great Celtics teams of the past.

And, man, was that Celtics team great, winning eighteen of their first twenty and thirty of their first thirty-five. The most impressive part may have been their ability to strike the perfect balance between being a fun team to watch and an elite defensive team. We will all also remember that as the year we all learned what “Ubuntu” meant. But, something was missing. After all, every hero needs their foil, and the only natural one we could think of for these Celtics was dealing with their own domestic issues. If you recall, Kobe was unhappy enough with the Lakers before the season where he only nixed a deal to the Bulls because he thought that there wouldn’t be enough left for him to work with. Still, the Lakers weren’t bad, but they were certainly a step away from the Celtics’ level. They too needed that extra piece. So,  Chris Wallace deals them Pau Gasol for what, at the time, was nickels on the dollar and suddenly we had a potential for a new generation of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry. I mean a real rivalry; not Antoine Walker versus Eddie Jones.

Suddenly, we had a legitimate old-time rivalry complete with bad blood between the fans and great players throughout both teams. If all that wasn’t enough all of those great players were working towards the same goal that could change our very perception of them, and that goal was of course was a championship. Kobe was looking for it to shed his sidekick label, KG and Pierce to prove that were capable of bringing a team to such heights, and Allen to verify that he was just more than a world-class shooter. Now, if only we could get them in a Finals things would be perfect.

Then we did actually get them in a Finals together and it was about everything we thought it would be. For five of the series six games we saw some very competitive ball, including the Paul Pierce wheelchair game. While the series clinching sixth game ended in blowout fashion, it gave us the “ANYTHING IS POSSIBLEEEEE” moment from KG and set the stage for a sequel like the end of a movie with the Lakers remaining on the bench to watch the Celtics’ celebration.

Now, this finally felt like our very own version of those old rivalries we had heard so much about. We had moments, future Hall of Famers, and now we had our Finals face-off. We now knew what exactly a Celtics-Lakers Finals matchup entailed and how both teams had seemingly played up to that very moment. This was special.

However, having just one meeting like this would have felt like a mini version of the rivalry, and that wasn’t going to satisfy anybody, especially Kobe Bryant. In fact,  if it weren’t for KG’s knee in ’09, we would have gotten that matchup sooner. What’s more is that Kobe winning a ring in ’09 doesn’t change anything about the rivalry. No, with Lakers-Celtics the narrative you have to be able to do it against the other team, which he had failed to do yet, and Kobe is so hyper-competitive anyway that he remembers everything from watching the Celtics celebrate in front of him to the kid in 4th grade who cut in front of him in the lunch line. And when we did get the rematch in 2010, we got seven games and Kobe was finally able to do it against the franchise’s long-time rival.

We knew that this rivalry in its current state just couldn’t last given the age of the key parts involved. It’s inevitable, and it happens to everyone eventually. Even before, Larry Bird’s and Kevin McHale’s bodies gave out on them, and Magic had his early retirement that helped derail the Lakers. Now, the Celtics lost key players due to trades or free agency and failed to replace their role players as they had before while also contending with injuries to key players. The Lakers have had more than their share of injuries and were never able to replace Phil Jackson’s guidance on the bench. Not that this is intended to be a eulogy, but this was fun while it lasted and it probably last about twice as long as it was supposed to.

This time things just feel different. This isn’t just the end of the season for these teams, but likely the end of an era as big changes could be likely for both teams. There is no guarantee that KG and Pierce will be there when Rajon Rondo returns from injury anymore than Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, and Pau Gasol will be awaiting Kobe upon his eventual return. We know that the future starts now for the Lakers having been unceremoniously swept out of the first round by the Spurs and there may be no quick-fix for their problems this time.

As for the Celtics, they delayed that reality for at least one more game. Against the Knicks on Sunday, they rallied behind the home crowd and Pierce and KG were going to seemingly will the C’s to victory one more time like they had done before, this time with the help of Jason Terry. Honestly, had this incarnation of the Celtics gone down without getting one punch in, it would have felt strange. Everything about their win on Sunday felt like a once-great team showing that flash just one more time with the twenty point comeback at home in overtime, that also featured critical contributions from their role players. And if that’s all she wrote for this team, I can deal with that; it’s been one Hell of a run.

Today is Monday, April 29th, marking  seventy months and a day since Danny Ainge pulled the trigger on the Ray Allen trade that kickstarted what I will always remember as my version of Lakers-Celtics. Of course I’ll remember Boston’s Big 3, but watching Rondo develop into their point guard will stick with me, too. As for the Lakers, I’ll remember Kobe standing victoriously over the announcer’s table, Pau Gasol, and even Ron Artest Metta World Peace draining important corner 3′s. Truly, Lakers-Celtics is a once-in-a-generation rivalry every generation should get to experience, regardless of rooting interest.

For now, the NBA will likely move on without these teams. But here is what else I noticed about history: when the 80′s Lakers and Celtics eventually fell apart they gave way to Isaiah’s Bad Boy Pistons, and eventually, the dynasties of Michael Jordan’s Bulls. Now we are seeing the start of something great from LeBron James and the Heat, a Thunder team we probably haven’t seen the best of, and plenty of other entertaining teams with a lot to offer. So, while the curtain may be closing on this version of  Lakers-Celtics, we know that a new version will return again several years down the road with new stars, storylines and moments for a new generation of basketball fans to experience. Until then, we know we’ll have plenty to keep us entertained.

Really, this isn’t goodbye as much as it is “see you later.”

Fringe Events- The First Annual Fringe Awards

Hello and welcome to first annual Fringe Awards! I’m your host, Brian’s self perception, which in this case, looks and acts an awful lot like Sam Rockwell as Chuck Barris.

*Awkwardly adjusts tie*

*Dances*

The purpose of these soon to be illustrious awards is manifold. First, to bring wholesale recognition to some of the guys I’ve been writing about the past few months. Second, to wrap up said writing in the face of the infinitely more important Playoffs, which are now fully underway. Third, to lighten the mood a bit after [insert point guard]‘s recent devastating injury. Fourth, and finally, to mock the seemingly arbitrary definitions by which the NBA and surrounding media seem to use to dole out their coveted awards.

The criteria for each award is simple: the player in question must NOT be a draft pick of the team he is currently playing for, unless he has been out of the NBA in the interim. The player can be a starter, but generally wasn’t a key guy coming into this season. He forced his way into a role, and since has become a mainstay in his team’s rotation. He doesn’t have to be an unknown, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. D-Leaguers get bonus points simply for having gone through what the committee likes to refer to as “proper channels.”

 

Most Valuable Fringe-r

First up on our ballot is…Fringe MVP!

Well this certainly was a heated category, full of familiar faces and established stars. There’s the rugged combo guard, the hyper athletic forward, the fearless sharpshooter, and the guy from the Knicks who likes to shoot.

Without further adieu, our winner, and first annual MVFer is…the guy from the Knicks who likes to shoot! Chris Copeland! Surely this is a major upset! At 29 years old, Chris is a bit of a neophyte on this Knicks squad, ranking as the 2nd youngest rookie and 114th youngest player on the team as a whole. Coming into this season, he was an afterthought in the minds of most fans, a Summer League invite who took advantage of an old team with a shallow forward rotation. Posting per 36 averages of 20.3 points and 5.0 rebounds, Copeland shot the proverbial lights out of Madison Square Garden (and boy did that upset Spike Lee!), finishing the regular season shooting .479 from the field, .421 from deep, .759 from the line. His efficiency numbers are even better than that, with a .583 TS% to go along with .557 eFG% and a 110 Offensive Rating.

Listed at six foot nine and 235 pounds, Copeland functioned primarily as a backup/emergency plan for Carmelo Anthony, until late season injury woes forced him into a frontcourt role. Defensively, he struggled, but he rebounded well, with 5 of his 11 5+ rebound games coming after March 1st. No one can be sure what the future holds for Chris Copeland, but his 2012-13 season is testimony to the determination that is so typical of these fringe-level guys.

 

Fringe Worker of the Year

This award goes to the guy who worked the hardest, on the court and off, to make his way into the NBA. I wanted to make this a defensive award, but so many of these guys are bad defenders, and defense is arguably the hardest thing to quantify in today’s NBA, that I just decided to make it a “hard work and effort” sort of award. If this were a real award, certain national writers would literally fight to the death to award it to their favorite tryhards. That being said, this is an incredibly difficult award to give out, since essentially all of these guys have plied their trade overseas and in the D-League for years. They’ve scrounged and sacrificed everything in pursuit of the singular, shared dream. To make it in the NBA. At the end of the paragraph, only one of them can get this award, and that someone is P.J. Tucker of the Phoenix Suns. Tucker, originally a 2nd round pick of the Raptors in 2006, flamed out of the NBA relatively quickly, and spent the next six years trying to make it back. He finally did, making the Suns out of camp this season, and on one of the worst teams in the NBA, gave everything he had every night, sometimes guarding power forwards, sometimes guarding point guards. He hasn’t been particularly good, but he’s done everything asked of him and never stopped playing his heart out, for a team that finished last in the Western conference, even.

Tucker’s per 36 numbers are pretty pedestrian, at 9.5 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 2.1 assists, on .473 shooting (.314 three point shooting, .525 TS%). He’s another guy who might not be in the NBA next season, or ever again, but no one can say he didn’t get his effort’s worth.

 

Fringe Rookie of the Year

In all fairness, this award should go to Chris Copeland, who is one of the best players in this crop and also a rookie, but it just feels weird calling a 29 year old “rookie of the year.” With that in mind, my attention is split between two disparate point guards: the explosive  Patrick Beverley, and the clever Brian Roberts. At risk of alienating certain Brian Roberts fans I know, I have to give this to Patrick Beverley of the Houston Rockets. Beverley’s not the most popular player in the NBA right now, especially among Oklahoma City fans, he’s made the most of his opportunity with Houston. He posted 36 minute averages of 11.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.9 steals, and 1.1 blocks on .418 shooting from the field (.375 from deep, .829 from the line). These scoring numbers aren’t particularly impressive on their own, but combined with his .551 TS%, his low usage rate (15.4%), and his tenacious defense, he’s one of the more effective backup guards in the NBA over the past few months. His surge allowed the Rockets to be rid of the woeful Toney Douglas and spell Jeremy Lin for extended periods, culminating in Beverley making his first career playoff start in Game 2 against OKC, a game which he led in rebounds with 12. At a little over six feet tall. You might hate Patrick Beverley, but you can’t get rid of him.

 

All-Fringe Team

 

First Team

C    Jason Smith- New Orleans. 7-0, 240. (17.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.8 blocks Per 36)

C  Greg Smith- Houston. 6-10, 250. (13.7 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.3 blocks Per 36)

SF Chris Copeland- New York. 6-9, 235. (20.3 points, 5.0 rebounds Per 36)

PG Patrick Beverley- Houston. 6-1, 180. (11.5 points, 5.9 assists, 5.5 rebounds Per 36)

PG Brian Roberts- New Orleans. 6-1, 180. (11.5 points, 6.0 assists, 2.6 rebounds Per 36)

Second Team

C   Chris Johnson- Minnesota. 6-11, 210. (14.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.5 blocks Per 36)

SF  DeMarre Carroll- Utah. 6-8, 210. (12.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists Per 36)

SF  Mickael Gelabale- Minnesota. 6-7, 215. (10.1 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists Per 36)

SG  James Anderson- Houston. 6-6, 215. (13.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.9 assists Per 36)

SG  Alan Anderson- Toronto. 6-6, 220. (16.7 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists Per 36)

Third Team

C Greg Stiemsma- Minnesota. 6-11, 250. (9.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.7 blocks Per 36)

PF  Jeff Adrien- Charlotte. 6-7, 245. (10.6 points, 9.9 rebounds Per 36)

SF  P.J. Tucker- Phoenix. 6-5, 225. (9.5 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists Per 36)

SG  Garrett Temple- Washington. 6-6, 190. (8.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists Per 36)

PG  A.J. Price- Washington. 6-2, 180. (12.4 points, 5.8 assists, 3.2 rebounds Per 36)

Author’s Note: Please don’t take this seriously, because it’s meant to be a joke. I respect and like these players, probably more than anyone, but this is not meant to be any sort of judgement on their validity as NBA rotation players. If this offends you, I suggest you only watch nationally televised games and only talk about LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.