Author Archives: Andrew Lynch

LeBron James Makes Game Winners, Criticizing Coaches Look Easy

In theory, the way the Indiana Pacers approached LeBron James’s game winning shot on Wednesday night is defensible. Unfortunately for the Pacers, LeBron himself rarely is.

I’ve long felt the more complacent periods of LeBron’s time on the court come from his obsession with efficiency. Defenses that overload the strongside, such as Chicago and Indiana, do everything in their power to rope off the driving lanes and funnel offense where they want it to go. In doing so, they offer their opponents a window of opportunity on the weakside. That opening can be fleeting, though, particularly with quick rotations and active hands in passing lanes, and these teams are willing to take the chance that hot potato ball movement will lead to an open 3 or a backcut if it means presenting LeBron with a three man front as he drives to the rim. James knows where these weaknesses will happen, and he knows how to effectively exploit those holes before they open, but he becomes reluctant to put his head down and bull his way to the basket, particularly against a physical team against which he may or may not draw a foul on contact. He’ll instead float around the perimeter, surveying tectonic plates that constantly collide and separate, unable and unwilling to dip his toe in the magma. It’s likely the most efficient decision, as a slight break in the mountains gives way to a thunderous pass. The answers are generally easy for him, but they can be extraordinarily hard to come by — especially when Mario Chalmers is in full Wario mode, Joakim Noah is playing out of his skull and Shane Battier refuses to hit a three. And if the defense is on a string and the openings never come, it looks like LeBron is giving up, even though he’s simply doing what he always does: trying to make the best basketball decision he possibly can.

More than anything, that’s why Frank Vogel made a mistake in not having Roy Hibbert on the court for defensive purposes in the waning moments of overtime. His decision to sit Hibbert meant that LeBron’s eyes would get as wide as saucers. Without a rim-protecting deterrent, James knew exactly what he wanted to do, and he was going to do it. When James realized Hibbert was out of the game on Miami’s penultimate possession, before the Paul George free throws, his fixation on effectiveness crashed headlong into his excellence of execution. And after the Heat forced a George Hill switch onto LeBron, the result became a matter of time. James would get to the rim. He would score. If the Pacers were so foolish as to sit Hibbert again, James would again make them pay.

And he did. Suddenly, Vogel was the most overrated coach in the league, in the eyes of the more reactionary wings of basketball fandom. Truly, I believe Vogel made a mistake when he sat Hibbert the first time and was shocked to see him compound it on the final play. A generous person can see what Vogel was thinking, though. Chris Bosh was too much of a threat to take Hibbert out of the play by trolling the midrange, particularly given his effectiveness on long twos. Though Hibbert is a fantastic rim defender, his ability to rotate in time is questionable. The decision to go small allowed Indiana to switch any and all screens, which meant the Heat would catch the ball with minimal room to operate, if they were even able to get open long enough to make the catch.* Most importantly, Paul George is a fantastic defender in his own right.

*Why Tyler Hansbrough was on the floor is anyone’s guess.

There’s a manner to George when he’s matched up with the best, it seems, a certain aloofness in his step that straddles a clear line between his intent and the illusion of your free will. His complacency is merely predestination; he knows where he wants you and how to get you there, like the world’s handsiest bouncer. Equal parts preparation, anticipation and prestidigitation, George is able to settle into his defensive stance and achieve lockdown nirvana because he’s simply that good — and he knows it. On one particularly noteworthy possession, he thoroughly harassed LeBron for the first half of Miami’s offensive set, only to switch onto Dwyane Wade when Wade took control of the offense and prevent him from getting anything close to a quality look. As George frantically streaked about the perimeter, his entire body rendered a smirking challenge to the best players in the world. For much of the night, Indiana executed their defensive theory as well as can be expected against the Heat juggernaut. That success likely gave rise to the theory applied to the highest leverage plays of  the game. It was reasonable for Vogel to believe that George at the point of attack and smaller, quicker backline defenders who could switch screens and more rapidly rotate into help position was the best combination for stopping the Heat on the final possession, when all that really mattered was forcing the Heat into the least likely shot possible (or, preferably, no shot at all).

That LeBron James made the same Paul George look like a scarecrow on the final possession of overtime is the latest proof of his ultimate power. Sam Young might as well have been the Tin Man, caught in creaking footsteps halfway between the desire to challenge LeBron’s layup somehow, someway and the harrowed resignation that James would have his way in the dying moments. When George overcommitted and found himself a half-step out of position, the Pacers were doomed. Against a mere mortal, the otherworldly George likely would have recovered enough to slow the drive to the rim. Young, for some reason spending the first half of the measure staring at Norris Cole’s glorious coif, might have had time to help, given another beat. When your mark is an amalgam of Olympian deity and liquid Terminator, though, recovery is not an option. Mistakes are amplified in concert with the earth-shattering chords of LeBron James, unleashed.

Vogel made a bad decision, all things considered. Hibbert is the linchpin of your defense, and he should be on the floor, particularly in a situation where defending the rim is of utmost importance. On the last possession in particular, the Pacers had the option of cheating Hibbert as far into the paint as they’d like. With 2.2 seconds remaining, the threat of a defensive three second call evaporates. This concedes the Bosh jumper to a large extent, but that’s certainly preferable to an unabated drive to the rim. Even prior to that, though, the choice to sit Hibbert allowed LeBron to perfectly match his concept of the optimal play with his innate abilities. With Hibbert gone, LeBron could take the game completely into his hands, knowing that to do so would be the best basketball decision.

Even gifted with an opportunity to win the game against suboptimal resistance, though, he still had to destroy a defense set to stop him. He made it look easy. It’s what he does.

Photo by waschbear via Flickr

The NBA Draft Lottery And The Paucity Of Hope

For the fourteen teams in tonight’s NBA Draft Lottery, the postseason begins now.

Well, not now now; in a few hours now. But tonight is the closest many of these teams will come to the playoffs for a long, long time.  It’s a bizarre version of a championship bracket, with the worst regular season performances presented with the easiest path to the prize, yet one that far from guarantees ultimate victory. All the macabre preparation and awful decision-making of the past year — or, more appropriately, years — leads to this, the 15 minutes of infamy for a notorious litany of putrid performances. For at least one night, the dregs of the league get to ride the rollercoaster of high stakes variance, their worth as an NBA franchise at the whims of probability. While the Pacers, Heat, Grizzlies, Spurs and their vanquished challengers struggle through the waning hours of a main event poker tournament, the Magic, Bobcats and company stagger to the roulette table and put it all on double zero.

The open secret of rooting for an awful franchise is that the lottery, not the draft, is the real wellspring of hope. If you have a vested interest in a team that’s in position to nab the number one pick, you’re probably equal parts intrigued and terrified by their draft plans. That’s doubly true in a draft like this year’s, which bears the look of a “weak draft,” that harbinger of circular logic that enables a sub-par team to justify its own nauseous nadir. A weak draft will produce incredible players, as 2011 draftee Kawhi Leonard will gladly tell you. It takes a proper organization to find that prospect, help him tap into his own intelligence, work ethic and athletic ability, then turn him loose on a public that had every opportunity to do the same, yet never really had any shot of doing so. Barring the first overall selection, then, a bad team’s fans must tread carefully through a minefield of potential and disappointment, all the while knowing the map that guides them might not be worth the stock on which it’s drafted. Even the treasure of the number one pick offers its own perils, the chance for gold often panning out to little more than pyrite. The actual process of adding new players is one of the few joys for these fans, but it’s not all primroses and tulips.

No, the flowery scent of the future is most pungent on the night of the draft. Before the results come, anything is possible. There are favorites and there are underdogs, but for those bated breath moments between pronouncements of fate, everyone is the same. None of the pitfalls and pratfalls in the road ahead matter, as long as there’s the possibility for a brighter tomorrow. All a team and its fans can do is trust in the process, disconcerting as that may be, and hope that the basketball gods are on their side.

Because that’s what the NBA Draft Lottery is — unabated, unadulterated hope. It’s the potential for potential, faith for faith’s sake. It might be stupid. It’s certainly naive. But for a lot of us, it’s all we have.

Photo by cnewtoncom via Flickr

An Open Letter To Harrison Barnes

Photo by sarsifa via Flickr

Dear Black Falcon,

You’re probably hurting in more ways than you can count right now, but congratulations on what was by all means a rather successful rookie season. Along with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, you led the Golden State Warriors on a remarkable postseason run and captured the imagination of a basketball watching nation.  Now please, for the love of Shammgod, take care of yourself and your head, because brain injuries are absolutely terrifying. And while you might feel okay in the next day or two, you’re not out of the woods. Not by a long shot.

Almost ten years ago, I was punched in the back of the head, right at the base of the skull, four times in rapid succession. Initially, I felt … nothing. There was no pain. There was no loss of consciousness. There wasn’t even a bodily collapse. I simply wanted to restrain myself from retaliating and let the authorities on hand (this happened at a concert venue) take care of the situation. I was dizzy, undoubtedly, but under my own power I made my way outside and sat against a wall, waiting to file a police report.

15 minutes later, the fight-or-flight chemical bath wore off. The previous lack of equilibrium gave way to a railroad spike to the temple. My eyeballs were a pair of drums at a Slipknot show. I stood and, before I managed two steps, vomited everywhere. It happened twice more, and just as suddenly as the pain arrived, it was gone. My friends and I drove home. I declined a trip to the emergency room; at that point, it seemed the whole thing would pass. And for the next four days, that was true. I went to class. I went out and partied. I even went to the rec center and played awful pickup basketball.

On the fifth day, someone in my dorm fortunately found me in a crumpled heap at the bottom of a flight of stairs. I’d blacked out on the landing and fallen. A whirlwind trip to the hospital later, I was diagnosed with having an excess buildup of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in my skull. My brain was so traumatized by the blunt force that it thought it was still under attack, and so reinforced itself the only way it knew how, by generating more of the fluid that usually protects it from harm. Now, however, that same fluid threatened to turn me into a cliche from Scanners. A couple of lumbar punctures later, the excess fluid was drained, and everything was awesome!

…for about three months. Then the pain came back with a vengeance. On good days, I’d wake up in the morning and could actually see when I opened my eyes. Those days were rare, though. More frequently, the world didn’t even start to make sense until I choked down enough painkillers to make Keith Moon blush. Only then did the pain and cloudy, muddled feeling even begin to lessen, replaced with chemical dependency and a paralyzing fear that my brain and body would never function properly again. That gave way to a parade of prescription medications, each designed to alleviate the pain and attempt to stunt the production of CSF.

None of them worked. They helped, but every day was the same thing: unending pain, to the point that you wonder what it’s going to take to ever feel normal again. Finally, the medication gave way to surgery and the installation of a shunt to drain the excess fluid. Which worked! …again, for a few months. Then it was replaced. Twice.

To this day, almost a decade later, I go to bed every night — when the pain is far enough in the background for sleep to be an option, anyway — scared of what the next day will bring. And every night that I can’t sleep, I wonder what I could have done differently to change all this. When I was in Boston recently for this crazy nerd convention, I couldn’t even regulate my body temperature. I’d go from profusely sweating one moment to bone-chilling cold the next. I couldn’t keep a single thing down; I probably had three bites to eat all weekend. After every presentation, I had to make my way to the restroom, ring out a gallon of sweat from my shirt and see if there was anything left in my stomach to launch into the exquisitely tasteful commode. And because you don’t want to seem like a pansy, I told everyone it was a bad case of food poisoning. It’s awful hardly being able to do the task at hand, being able to fulfill the role you were brought aboard to play. It can be just as bad to miss out on the team building and camaraderie afterward, so you force yourself to grin and bear it and do as much as you can. All the while, there’s a jackhammer behind each one of your eyelids.

And that’s the real kicker. No one can see what’s going on inside your head. Hell, half the time you aren’t even sure whether the pain is real or just something you’ve imagined. It almost hurts too badly to be real. So when I saw you take that fall on Thursday night and check back into the game, I was terrified. For me and for you. I have faith in you and your doctors. Just please, please be careful. These things aren’t always what they appear to be at first. And that can really suck down the road. You proved this year, and especially in this series, that you have a fantastic future in the NBA. You’re part of a young team for which the sky is the limit.

The fall you took on Thursday, though, has all the makings of a horror movie inside your mind. And for some reason, the mayor of your brain decided to invite every single damned person in the town to the drive-in for the viewing.

You’ll be all right if they all file out in an orderly fashion once the show is over. I’m just worried they’ll stick around.

15 Footer, 5/16/13: Elimination Breakdown

For the sake of NBA aficionados everywhere, may at least one of the teams behind in their respective series emerge victorious tonight. A four day stretch without basketball seems a plight unbecoming the current level of play. The landscape is not ready to be barren so soon, to lie fallow for any longer than is necessary. Let the fields be sown with all the niceties of Stephen Curry silver platters and Prigioni peppers. Bring us your finest Tim Duncan aged wines and Tony Parker founts of water droplets pure, the spoils of Roy Hibbert’s hunt for anything airborne, too, NBA playoffs!

But not too much of the latter, because the Warriors and Knicks really need a win tonight.

Indiana Pacers at New York Knicks (8:00 PM, TNT)

What is there to do when you’ve trusted the process and not received any positive results?

By all accounts, the Knicks abandoned much of the stagnant heroball that rendered their first round meeting with the Boston Celtics unpalatable. The fear was the Melo and Felton isolations would continue unabated, forced down our collective gullet like a set piece in the movie Se7en. Instead, the Knicks turned to the pick and roll and fostered a decent amount of ball movement in the halfcourt.

For their efforts, they have a 3-1 series deficit and an elimination game at home. They seem at their wits’ end, forced into unsuccessful gambits such as a big lineup that every Knicks observer in the tri-state area knew was doomed from the start. The Knicks are that kid on Legends of the Hidden Temple who couldn’t figure out how to put together the damned Silver Monkey statue and had you screaming at your television in anticipation of years of sports fanaticism. And the Pacers are that statue. They’re also Olmec, host Kirk Fogg, the Temple guardians and probably the production crew.

They’ve played the Knicks to near perfection, accepting the rolling evolution from New York and refusing any progress from the primordial ooze made by the stack of amino acids that is Mike Woodson. Both Paul George and Roy Hibbert now find themselves at least in the conversation of NBA stars, and Lance Stephenson certainly seems born ready for the role of Indiana’s more productive version of J.R. Smith.

The Knicks aren’t to be counted out — not yet, and not at home. They’ll try everything they can to move on to the next chamber in their journey, but a half a medallion and 36 points from Carmelo Anthony might not save them.

San Antonio Spurs at Golden State Warriors (10:30 PM, ESPN)

The Spurs are on the flipside of the process/results coin. They trusted that their process, with enough small modifications to adjust for the opponent, would win out over the long run — that if they could weather the Golden State storm long enough to not be eliminated in a variance-induced tsunami, the Warriors would cool off and enough of San Antonio’s own shots would finally find their way in the basket.

In essence, the Spurs are Danny Green. Green has ample opportunities for open 3s and drives to the rim after closeouts in this series, yet he’s been his typical IcyHot self on most nights. When he and the other floor spacers for San Antonio knock down shots, the Warriors struggle to keep up, often resulting in forced shots on the other end by Jarrett Jack, who somehow continues to make them and earn a payday that stands to infuriate whatever future fanbase has the pleasure of his presence. When Green takes those same shots with the same amount of space and misses, though, Golden State more readily works for decent looks at the other end, especially as the long Green misses often lead to runouts on the other end by the Warriors and easy transition opportunities at the rim and behind the 3-point line.

That variance is more or less out of the Spurs’ hands, especially with the choices the Warriors make on defense. What San Antonio can control is how they matchup on the other end. Coach Gregg Popovich made the tactical decision to switch Kawhi Leonard onto Klay Thompson, giving Green free reign to harass Stephen Curry. San Antonio has conceded looks to Harrison Barnes, guarded by Tony Parker, in so doing, but Green is more than up for the task of limiting Curry. He’s been particularly adept at fighting through off-ball actions designed to free Curry and get him the ball in space and while in motion. As with so many other elite offensive players, much of defense on Curry is prevention of the catch where and when he most prefers.

Yet for all the regression and adaptation, the Warriors have played the Spurs to a near deadlock. San Antonio leads the series 3-2, but with the home crowd rocking at Roaracle tonight, there’s every chance Golden State will give us a Game 7.

Dirk Nowitzki Ready To Share The Wealth With Chris Paul, Dwight Howard

Photo by sean dreilinger via Flickr

Dirk Nowitzki’s intention to take a “significant pay cut” next summer will be part of the Mavericks’ sales pitch in July as they attempt to sign a superstar in free agency.

If the Mavs are able to meet with Chris Paul and/or Dwight Howard, Nowitzki plans to promise them that he’ll be extremely flexible in his next negotiations with owner Mark Cuban, ensuring that Dallas will have ample space under the salary cap to acquire more talent in the summer of 2014.

via Dirk Nowitzki of Dallas Mavericks plans to take huge pay cut – ESPN Dallas.

Dirk Nowitzki certainly understands the value of a rookie contract.

Short of three superstars willing to take a pay cut to play together, there’s nothing as valuable as a rookie who provides All-Star production for a fraction of All-Star cost. And if Nowitzki takes a big enough pay cut — say, to $5 million per year — he’ll essentially be reverting to the contractual larval state. He’s essentially offering either Paul or Howard the opportunity to play with a soon-to-be 35-year old lottery pick who’s been in the league for 15 years and already won a championship.

Of 32 qualified players with a PER over 19.0 last year, only four made less than $6 million. Three of those were franchise cornerstones on their first contract: Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry* and Greg Monroe. And the fourth? Well, the ability to grab a ton of rebounds and finish on shots at the rim goes a long way.

*Curry’s extension kicks in next season, and his salary more than doubles. He’ll still be underpaid.

Once Nowitzki made his way back onto the court from injury, he managed a 19.8 PER for a Mavericks team that struggled to find a consistently viable rotation. Limited though he and the team were, Dirk still had a solid outing in 53 games. It’s doubtful he’ll reach his championship-level plateau, even with an infusion of younger talent, but he’s still one of the finest offensive players in the game, someone who both understands the intricacies of floor spacing in the NBA and manipulates them in ways we still can’t quite measure. Combined with a court marshal like Paul or a defensive stalwart like a healthy Howard, the Mavericks would be serious title contenders again in the twilight of Nowitzki’s career.

That combination of production and minimal salary cap implications is a preciously rare commodity. While I’d argue that one of those veterans would be better served joining forces with one of the young guns on a meteoric path, it’s no secret that Chris Paul wants to win now, and Dwight Howard is in desperate need of an image overhaul at this point. There would certainly be worse means to either end than joining forces with Dirk and Mark Cuban in Dallas, with a blank slate and a blank check.

15 Footer, 5/14/13: The Knicks Are That Restaurant Everyone Hates But Won’t Stop Patronizing

Day 25 of the NBA Playoffs is upon us. Or Day 24, if you don’t include the one off day we had so far. I prefer to go by the calendar, though, semantics aside.

And Day 25 makes me think it’s Playoff Christmas. To the presents!

New York Knicks at Indiana Pacers (7:00 PM, TNT)

According to the general manager of the restaurant, everything Chez Woodson is excellent. All the chefs, sous-chefs and line workers are on the same page, even if the “baby-faced” dishwasher looks suspiciously like one of the oldest guys in the kitchen. There is no discord in the back of the house.

Which makes the disarray at the front of the house all the more strange. Sure, the Pacers aren’t the most polite guests. They’re more likely to overturn the tables and use them to set screens on the waiters than they are to wait in line patiently for the food to be brought to them. And Shammgod help you if two bussers form what even remotely resembles a double team in the eyes of Paul George; they will be split with indiscriminate fury and a taste for Bananas Foster. For all the chaos created by the customers, though, the Knicks do themselves no favors when their offense devolves into an incessant smorgasbord of isolation and frustration. This franchise should thrive on efficiency and movement, the ability to satisfy large swaths of the clientele with spectacular flambé and an occasional off-the-rack dash of J.R. Smith.

Instead, three customers sit at the lone remaining upright table. They meticulously pore over the menu, often oblivious to the pandemonium that surrounds them. One wants filet mignon. The second eyes the dessert section. And the last simply wonders why the restaurant isn’t a club.Yet there’s only the one menu; they have to share it, begrudgingly as they might. And in those moments of clarity, when their hands are free and their eyes wander, they see the 7-foot chef screaming for them to put on their work uniforms and help put out the fire in the kitchen. All the while, that same chef burns the entrée as he tries to fight off an 86-inch tall intruder who barged in through the back door and flexed his culinary supremacy.

The restaurant isn’t lost yet, but the people outside have noticed the smoke billowing from the back. Oh, and their favorite waiter? His leg is falling off.

It might be time to double check the insurance on the place. You know, just to be safe.

Golden State Warriors at San Antonio Spurs (9:30 PM, TNT)

Speaking of limb limitations, the Golden State Warriors are back in action! Somehow, with David Lee’s hip technically its own person right now and Stephen Curry’s ankle decision to call in sick and leave a papier-mâché replica in its place, the Warriors are tied 2-2 with the Spurs. They might even be the favorites to win the series, or at least even money. The huge swings and wild variance of this series dissuade me from predictions or even trying to view the game through any one prism before it starts; this series deserves more than that. It’s best enjoyed in the moment, lived from possession to possession, Kawhi Leonard corner 3 to Jarrett jack pull up jumper from the free throw line.

With that said, I would like to go on the record at this time with an official declaration of how horribly wrong I was about coach Mark Jackson. I thought his hire was peculiar at best, but he’s done a fantastic job, in my eyes. There’s so much about coaching that we don’t see, of course, so it’s always difficult to infer process from results. But Jackson’s players certainly seem to buy into what he’s selling on the bench; hell, I do through the uncanny valley of my television. His trust in his players this postseason, manifested in his willingness to stick with players in foul trouble, is commendable. Too often coaches effectively foul out their own players by sending them to the bench. It backfired on some level in Game 4, but I trust the process, and it’s paid dividends so far.

Well done, coach Jackson. And on the behalf of the basketball viewing public, thank you for unleashing the Splash Bros.

Kevin Durant Is Not Clutch

Photo by mandalynn via Flickr

Since the Oklahoma City Thunder lost the heart of their offense, Russell Westbrook, to an injured knee, many pundits and stat geeks have begged coach Scott Brooks to experiment with a small-ball lineup. Monday night’s overtime loss to the Memphis Grizzlies made one thing clear: as long as the Thunder depend on Kevin Durant to carry them to the Finals, they’ll always play small. Because no matter how tall he might be, Durant continues to come up short in the biggest moments.

You like numbers? Well, here are some numbers for you:

0. That’s the number of titles Kevin Durant will have after the Grizzlies are done proving he’s overrated.

1. That’s Memphis’s magic number. It’s also, conveniently enough, what Durant proved he’s not. A number one option.

2. The number of rounds that Oklahoma City will fall short of last year’s playoff run.

At least last year the Thunder had the excuse of losing to the battle-hardened Miami Heat, a proven band of warriors capable of victory. Those Heat are champions, and rubbing elbows against Miami in the Finals is as close as Durant will get to knowing what it feels like to be a winner. To be a champion requires determination and ferocity that Kevin Durant simply has not shown to this point in his career. Sure, he tried to act the part during the regular season. He had his commercials, and he mean-mugged for the referees and drew technical fouls. We were supposed to take that as an indication that, after a lost year in 2012, Durant had unlocked the inner fount of tranquil rage that separates the men from the boys in the National Basketball Association. But we know better now; the playoffs are where the truth comes to roost, and KD sure is clucking.

The evidence was already there before tonight. His field goal percentage in the playoffs (you see that, numbers nerds? I’m doing your thing and bringing stats into the argument!) is down about three points from the regular season. I think he’s shooting worse on free throws, too, if I remember correctly when I looked at the box score. Durant simply hasn’t come through when the games really count. He’s a fantastic scorer during the regular season; if you need to waste a night in Oklahoma City because your car broke down while escaping Tulsa, he’ll entertain the hell out of you. To attach your hopes and dreams, not to mention title aspirations, to the backpack strapped to his meager frame is to invite disappointment, however.

The Thunder, under the ever-steady hand of coach Brooks, have done everything in their power to provide an environment for Kevin Durant to shed this “choker” label and prove that he’s the undisputed alpha dog. They traded away James Harden, one of their three best players and their insurance against injury to the main star of this whole show, Russell Westbrook. They accepted minimal short-term return; Kevin Martin is basically a rental who, much like his same-name brethren, has no proven chops as a winner. Brooks continues to shell out as many minutes to his veteran stalwarts, Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher, as possible without alienating the younger, mercurial members of the team. His deft hand with this team and ability to perfectly manage minutes shows he’s a coach’s coach, the perfect leader of men, even with the albatross of Nick Collison a constant threat to foul out and put his team in the penalty. And even the basketball gods themselves deigned to cooperate with this grand experiment in the psyche of Number 35, the Clayman. When they removed Westbrook from our hearts and lives for the remainder of the postseason, they exposed Durant for the teeball little leaguer he is, in constant need of his point guard to set him up perfectly.

When that tee’s taken away, then Durant sulks. His body language when the Thunder fall behind brings to mind Eeyore and his perpetual rain cloud. Only if the Thunder are winning and if Westbrook is leading the charge does Durant ever have any pep in his step. Without Westbrook, nothing in the Nashian depths of Brooks’s mind can bring Durant out of his funk. Brooks will draw up countless plays where the other four Thunder players merely stand around and give KO’d (clever, right?) plenty of room to operate against the three Memphis defenders bearing down on him. When Durant refuses to seize the opportunity to become a real winner, Brooks knows to get the ball into the hands of Derek Fisher for a timely three. And if even a Fisher heroball possession fails to break the skid, then coach always has the ultimate weapon, his favorite play: the Kendrick Perkins isolation, 20 feet from the rim.

Perhaps that is the greatest tragedy in the mortal sin of Kevin Durant’s play. He is surrounded by proven winners, men who have won multiple titles and single-handedly led teams to the Promised Land whilst riding the purest white steeds who breathed the most acrid hellfire. Fisher has such little time left to impart his knowledge to the league’s youth. His grandiosity and sheer elegance on the stage will be missed, and Durant’s insistence on wasting the finest moments of fading twilight is disrespectful to Fisher, to Oklahoma City and to the very legacy of Dr. James Naismith, who must be spinning in his grave. Perkins, too, might not be long for the Thunder, as word is he might be amnestied after this year. Given the sky-high value of a defender and teammate like Perkins, it seems likely to be simply a generous gesture by Oklahoma City to free him from the shackles of Durant’s late-game collapses and pursue one more title.

It has taken too long to realize that Kevin Durant simply does not pass the eye test when it comes to clutch, but the time has come. After missed free throws in the waning moments and a failure to conquer overtime, the truth is clear. Kevin Durant simply doesn’t have what it takes to win the big one. He can score in bunches, but he’s no LeBron James.

Now that, my friends, is one clutch player.

How The Warriors Turned The Spurs Upside-Down

Photo by oskay via Flickr

I’ve always been a big fan of doomsday theories; it’s probably part of being a Suns fan. One of my favorites, which popped up during the failed bid by the Mayans to win the 2012 End of the World championship, is the idea that the Earth’s magnetic field might suddenly and dramatically reverse its polarities. In an instant (or a minute, or a day, as there’s usually no timetable associated with this catastrophe, other than it being, you know, sudden), all of our fancy electronic gadgetry that depends on a predictable electromagnetic field would be useless — save classic iPods and original XBox controllers, bludgeoning tools when the time comes to fight your neighbor for the last bag of apocalypse rations from Whole Foods.

It is, unfortunately, nonsense. Earth’s magnetic field does shift, and at times what is now north was magnetic south. Those changes are gradual, though, and no real threat to humanity. I know this because science says so, and science gave us the Magic School Bus, which cannot tell a lie. But watching the Golden State Warriors in the 2013 playoffs, and Wednesday night in particular, really makes it seem that the world is upside down.

One of the bedrocks of modern NBA defense is forcing teams into taking midrange jumpers. Long twos are the worst shot in the game, as they incorporate all the risk of increased distance from the basket without any of the upside of a three-pointer. The San Antonio Spurs were one of the earliest adopters of this defensive strategy, and their tendency to allow teams to shoot from the midrange continued through this season. Only the Pacers “allowed” more shots from what NBA.com/stats defines as the midrange than the Spurs in the regular season. San Antonio’s opponents took 20.5% of their field goal attempts from the ring of zones just inside the three point line.

spurs shot distribution

Furthermore, the Spurs were in the bottom 10 in opponent corner 3s allowed, limiting the damage from one of the most efficient zones on the court. Generally, San Antonio tries to employ optimal defensive techniques as we currently understand them, and to good effect; they finished 3rd in defensive efficiency in 2012-13.

And the Warriors are just fine with that. During the course of the regular season, 22.9% of their shots were those same long twos. They shot exactly league average from the slots (the areas diagonally extended from the elbow), but shot 2.4% better from the top of the key, 3.2% better from the left baseline and 4.5% better from the right.

warriorsshotchart

If we limit the sample to lineups that included Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, which better simulates the tighter rotations of the playoffs, that number of long twos drops slightly, to 21.3%. Those lost attempts aren’t moving inward, though; instead, the Warriors with Curry and Thompson on the floor took an even larger share of above the break threes, and they hit them much more accurately.

In the playoffs, Golden State has been a bit more judicious in the midrange, regardless of what your bleeding eyeballs are currently screaming to your brain about Jarrett Jack heroball. Only 18% of their field goal attempts have been midrange jumpers, as the percentage of 3s from every area of the court has skyrocketed. Still, the Warriors take a lot of long twos, more than you’d normally like an offense to take. But they’ve flown in the face of that conventional wisdom during the playoffs. It’s not just that they’re hitting at an acceptable rate in those areas; so far this postseason, long twos represent some of the best value generated for the Warriors. LOOK AT THE SHOT CHART. LOOK AT IT.

warriorsplayoffshotchart

Even if you chase Thompson or Curry (not to mention Draymond Green or Harrison Barnes) off of the three point line, they’re just as likely to throttle you from 18 feet. True, they’ve also thrived from the areas of the court that make stat nerds weep tears of efficient joy, blitzing both the Nuggets and Spurs from deep and finishing well — particularly for the Warriors — at the rim. But even some of Golden State’s higher efficiency shots are semi-questionable, especially their reliance on above-the-break three pointers. League average on those 3s this year was 35.1%, compared to 37.9% from the corners. The Warriors shot 39.2% on non-corner 3s — better than all but 12 teams shot from the corner — but they were straight magma on those shorter corner 3s, shooting 45.9%. They didn’t take maximum advantage of that accuracy, though, as they were 21st in the league in corner 3s attempted, despite playing at the fourth fastest pace.

On Wednesday night in particular, Klay Thompson went thermonuclear from the right wing, an evergreen Lost Woods from which San Antonio could not extricate themselves. The Spurs were forced to adjust their base defensive principles, having Tim Duncan show more aggressively on side pick and rolls in an attempt to either force the ball out of Thompson’s hands or, at the very least, get a hand in his face when he inevitably pulled up, yet Thompson kept finding his spot and launching from deep. Tony Parker went under screens and over screens when matched up with Thompson, yet little was effective against Particle Man. But the Warriors were 3-for-12 on all other 3s, and San Antonio protected the rim beautifully. If it weren’t for the polarity-shifting midrange game of Golden State, San Antonio may very well have pulled out this game despite the aerial bombardment from Thompson:

warriorsgame2shotchart

It seems the Warriors have found a market inefficiency that they plan on exploiting as long as they can. The San Antonio Spurs want to force opponents to take long twos. They’ll accept wing 3s over corner 3s. And the Golden State Warriors are more than happy to take those jumpers — and hitt them at a ridiculous rate. It might not be sustainable, but it’s certainly entertaining. And if Golden State can ride midrange jumpers to the Western Conference Finals, we might have to take Mark Jackson’s word that he has the best shooting backcourt in NBA history.

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

Phoenix Suns Reportedly Interested In Grant Hill As GM, Because Of Course

Well, sure. Of course the Phoenix Suns want Grant Hill to be their general manager. It’s the Phoenix Suns in a nutshell — an absolutely insane idea that seems like it could work out. Oh, and it also flies in the face of their recent history. That’s a perfect recipe for a Sarver sandwich.

This really isn’t even about whether or not Hill would be a good GM. He seems like a really smart guy. I mean, he went to Duke. That’s an outstanding school, according to people who went to Duke. He’s been in a lot of different locker rooms and played numerous roles in the league, from future savior to superstar Sprite sipper, injury-hobbled recovery project to ultimate glue guy and chemist. If he can evaluate talent better than Lance Blanks did, then it’s a positive hire — and given that his competition is the same man who gave Michael Beasley a three-year deal, Hill’s working with quite the margin of error. He’d obviously have quite a bit of on-the-job training to do, but it’s not completely crazy to think that Hill could succeed as a general manager, if not necessarily in the near future.

But the odds are that Hill, if hired, would never get the opportunity to offer a contract to anyone, anyway. While the Suns parted ways with Blanks, it’s entirely unclear how much decision making power Blanks had in the first place, all Beasley jokes aside. Blanks was largely seen as “an extension” of Phoenix team president Lon Babby. Babby remains with the team; in fact, as mentioned in that article, he recently received an extension and seems well-liked by owner Robert Sarver. Furthermore, as a former player agent, Babby is seen by Suns ownership to have a valuable skill as a negotiator and salary cap manager. In their eyes, he knows the asset management side of things. Hill’s job, then, would seem to strictly be player evaluation; head scout, if you will. And if that’s the case, why the fanfare to bring him on board with the title of general manager?

A cynic, which encompasses 98% of Phoenix fandom at this point, would say it’s because the Suns have little to look forward to in the future. The roster is rather barren of talent, with apologies to the hardworking players. The Suns sit just outside of those precious top 3 lottery spots in a draft that’s widely considered more variable than recent years; it hardly matters, though, given that we’re talking about the Suns, who invariably figure out a way to screw up the draft. The playoffs seem a decade away, and the coaching situation is up in the air; when Blanks was fired for hiring Lindsey Hunter, Hunter’s days obviously became numbered. Again, since we’re dealing with Phoenix, though, Hunter hasn’t officially been terminated. They’ll get to that when they feel like it.

Given the bleak future, it makes sense for the Suns to point to their past. Hiring Hill as general manager is the perfect nostalgia placebo to convince a disillusioned franchise that everything’s going to be okay because the past was, you know, not that bad! We almost went to the NBA Finals, guys! Remember?! Grant Hill was there, and now he’s back!

Unfortunately, Phoenix already took its history and deleted it faster than a college freshman whose mom asked to use his laptop during Parents’ Weekend. That Lindsey Hunter coaching hire? Yeah, it was an absolute circus, and it came at the expense of two perfectly qualified candidates. Elston Turner is recognized as one of the best defensive assistants in the league; I shudder thinking about just how bad the Suns defense was without him, after he and Dan Majerle both quit over the hiring of Hunter.

And therein lies the complete reversal of course this interest in Hill represents for Phoenix: they had the potential for nostalgia, and they threw it away. If the front office was going to pass over Turner for a coach with zero head coaching experience, they should have gone with Majerle. He at least had served time as an assistant coach, and he’d be that Ghost of Phoenix Past distracting the fans from their ghastly future, a quality the Suns front office now seems so keen to find.

There’s every chance this rumor is just a rumor, and that Hill will never see another introductory press conference in Phoenix. But if he does, and his association with Phoenix’s past is mentioned as a reason for his hire, it will ring resoundingly hypocritical. These Suns have already shown that nostalgia is simply a convenience.

15 FOOTER, 5/2/13: Four Teams Enter, Everyone On The Bulls Gets Injured

Day 13 of the NBA Playoffs: FOUR TEAMS ENTER.

AS MANY AS FOUR TEAMS REMAIN STANDING AFTERWARD, BUT POSSIBLY ONLY TWO. Or one, depending on your take on the current state of the Chicago Bulls.

Let the battle for supremacy (or stayed eliminations) begin.

38% of the Chicago Bulls at Brooklyn Nets (8:00 PM, TNT)

Derrick Rose is officially ruled out, meaning the day-to-day ends today but resumes the next day, which is tomorrow, when Derrick Rose will be day-to-day, unlike today. Got it?

Captain Kirk Hinrich is “likely out,” as he’s suffering from a bruised left calf. Taj Gibson and Luol Deng are both ill and remain gametime decisions. According to my sources who have literally never been right, the frontcourt pairing is still reeling after sharing the same contaminated drinking fountain in a public park during their off day, where they were forced to consistently “ice” a local Brooklyn 8-and-up Boys and Girls Club team’s attempts at side pick and roll by a now completely voiceless Tom Thibodeau. Sources indicate Thibs communicated in a frantic flurry of white boards, Sri Lankan miming and approximately 36 consecutive minutes of refusing to breathe.

At this point, the Bulls are less a basketball team and more an interpretive dance explaining the finer points of the latter half of a Royal Rumble. Everyone is bruised, battered and ready to be deep-fried. Jobbers and superstars alike have been tossed over the top rope. Nate Robinson thinks whomever jumps off the top of the turnbuckle the most times without helping to eliminate anyone wins. Yet in the middle of the chaos, playing on one foot like some sort of post-surgery Sid Vicious, stands Joakim Noah. So long as he protects the paint from marauding Brook Lopezes, the Bulls stand a chance. Noah can likely fight Lopez to a draw. If Brooklyn is to take out the big man and his Jimmy Butler-sized friends, they’ll need all the “average” sized guys to swarm and topple the Giant.

Rogue Soviet agents masquerading as Denver Nuggets vs. The Unassailable Golden State Warriors (10:30 PM, TNT)

Completely fictional account of Mark Jackson’s morning routine when looking in the mirror. Again, this is COMPLETELY FICTIONAL DON’T GET MAD AT ME MARK DOESN’T REALLY DO THIS.

“Mama, there goes that toothpaste.”

He really can’t help himself; though it’s uncouth to laugh at one’s own pleasantries, Mark Jackson always shakes his head and laughs after his morning brushing. As he rinses the lateral lines of enamel protection from his sink basin, though, the smile fades. It’s business time. It’s Mirror Speech time.

“Listen, Mark. There’s only one opportunity to have a first impression on the second try, and you, my friend, have a long line of Jacksonian dignity to uphold.”

“Samuel L. Both Reggies, old and new, bless the Thunder. Old Hickory. All of the musical ones, NOT JUST TITO. These are the people for whom you go to work everyday and do the best job that you can. This isn’t about Mark — this is about standing up for team Jackson, those people you put that birth certificate on your dashboard for everyday of your life.”

“But today is a different day. You are not LaToya, not today, no sir! You are a leader of men. You are Phil Jackson, King of the Rings. Nigh is the time for declarations of shenanigans and media manipulations. Like Phil, you most foster the seeds of discontent among your opponent. Sow discord, and you will reap victory.”

“The facts do not matter; when you have the best shooting backcourt in recorded history, there must be a larger issue. Tell them that the Nuggets are dirty. Tell them that Kenneth Faried intended to destroy the purity of basketball, fragile as it is bound up in Curry’s ankle like the galaxy on Orion’s belt. Love that movie. Wish I had me a neuralyzer. Some of those cool gadgets where they could listen in on people, too. And man, I’d never push that red button.”

“…wait. Cool spy gadgets. Spies. Flies on the wall. Eagles fly. Andre Iguodala sounds like ‘Eagle Dollar.’ Dollars are used for bribes. THAT’S IT.”

With a resounding crash, the mirror shatters. Reality is broken; we are through the reflection, and perception is us.

“I’ll tell them I have inside information. IT’S EXACTLY WHAT PHIL WOULD DO. It’s brilliant, like that job in Inside Man. That’s another good movie. Bet they wish the police had the 411 in that movie like I do. Damned dirty Nuggets.”