Category Archives: SUPER-OVERREACTIONIZER

NBA Finals Game 1 Sets New Playoff Low For Personal Fouls

If Thursday night’s Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat was the cleanest game you can remember in a long time, well, you’re not wrong. The Spurs and Heat combined for 24 personal fouls, a new record for fewest total personal fouls in a playoff game. The old record of 25 just turned 20 years old last month, though it came in a game that featured roughly half a dozen more possessions than Game 1. In fact, that particular game between the Cavs and Nets saw only .09 made free throws per field goal attempt, whereas the Spurs and Heat drew an astronomical (by comparison) .17 free throws per field goal attempt. The record for combined personal fouls in a regular season game is still safe at 21.

It’s little wonder the Spurs would be involved in setting this record; they had the third lowest defensive FT/FGA ratio during the regular season. Miami, on the other hand, was just about league average. Yet for all those generalities and trends, the specifics of Game 1 made for fertile ground for free-flowing basketball. These two teams pride themselves on crisp rotation and movement on both ends of the floor; when they execute the process as well as both teams did Thursday night, fouling almost becomes impossible. After all, there’s no need to foul if one is already in position. And when either of these offenses performs at their peak, there’s no time or room for the defense to grasp at straws. The ball stays in place for half a second before moving on to the open man, swung about like a game of hot potato played by heavily caffeinated jugglers. It’s rather difficult to foul a ghost, especially when you bit on his pump fake.

There’s little predictive value to this performance; Game 2 could just as easily be a statistical outlier in the other direction, a boggy mess through which we all must trudge. For at least one night, though, the Spurs and Heat showed just how beautiful this game can be when it’s left to its own devices. So the next time someone tells you that the playoffs are their best when there are no easy baskets and everyone is the ultimate tough guy, politely smile and nod. Let them have their rugged, manly playoff basketball. Give me the rhythm and the boogie that only a fast and loose high-stakes contest like this can provide.

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Mike Budenholzer’s Great Expectations

The Atlanta Hawks hired Mike Budenholzer as their next head coach Tuesday, agreeing to a multiyear contract with the longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant.

Budenholzer, 43, has been an assistant with the Spurs for the past 17 years and been with the organization under coach Gregg Popovich for 19 years overall. He has a long-term relationship with Hawks general manager Danny Ferry, who played for Budenholzer and worked with him as an executive with the Spurs.

via Mike Budenholzer hired as Atlanta Hawks’ new head coach – ESPN.

Let it never be said the NBA is a league lacking in trends. In hiring San Antonio Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer, the Atlanta Hawks join the Phoenix Suns and Charlotte Bobcats in a group of analytically inclined front offices that made the decision to field first time head coaches. Yet if one were to go full Sesame Street on the addition of Budenholzer, Jeff Hornacek and Steve Clifford to the bench for their respective franchises, it’s the most recent hire that most definitely not belong. Where Atlanta’s new head honcho is not like the others boils down to expectations.

That’s not to imply that Phoenix and Charlotte are bereft of expectations for Hornacek and Clifford, but simply an acknowledgement of how limited those expectations will be. We know so little about either as a coach, and their new employers have so little with which to work. That unfamiliarity, coupled with well-earned pessimism, lends itself to a kind of detached hope. It’s not the coach, so much, as the idea of another chance to break a cycle that has no apparent end in this or any other world. Neither franchise has much going for it other than blinding ineptitude, failure ostentatiously adorning their uniforms more garishly than any future advertising patch ever could. It is that superhuman ability to be awful that offers an awkward spark of hope, like an abandoned hiker’s bated breath as the air catches her last bit of lit tinder beneath a bed of kindling. The overhead branches of the draft and lottery will provide shelter from the storm and a ready supply of young, skilled players on undervalued contracts, ready to toss themselves on the flame of a fledgling franchise if it means a chance to join the stars. What comes of those wisps of potential energy, though, is in the hands of the one who crafts the flame.

For Hornacek and Clifford, then, the goal will be simple. Develop the young players that the inevitability of gravity brings your way. Get them to play hard and to play “the right way.” Make the product on the floor as entertaining as possible to distract the consumer from just how bad the product might be. If the fire that gets you through the night starts to burn down your lean-to, put it out before it engulfs the entire forest. Other than that, nothing is expected, not even your enduring survival. Eventually, the heat will fade; every moment it lasts is a bonus.

We know, Budenholzer, though, at least as well as anyone within the clandestine fortress of Castle Spurs can be known. More precisely, we know what we expect him to be capable of, regardless of the pieces with which he’ll be able to work. He is a product of a system so focused on the process that it can’t help but produce results. Budenholzer’s 19-year tenure in various faculties inside the Spurs organization makes him almost disgustingly familiar with that system, and combining forces with fellow former-Spur Danny Ferry, Atlanta’s GM, seems destined to bring a new era of prosperity to the Hawks. And Atlanta is ready for that elevation in stature — not immediately, but sooner certainly than either Charlotte or Phoenix. They have a cornerstone in Al Horford, admirable financial flexibility once Josh Smith exercises his constitutional right to annoy another fanbase with his shot selection, and now a spectacular one-two combo in the front office and on the bench.

The only roadblock, of course, is everything. Atlanta will still need to put actual basketball-playing pieces around Horford, and they’ll have to compete against a priori juggernauts like the Heat and Thunder as well as any other meteoric franchises vying for rank and privilege. Even the most sound process is subject to the deafening winds of change and chance, as a San Antonio Spurs team lucky enough to secure Tim Duncan’s services would gladly attest. Forces beyond the control of Budenholzer and Ferry will conspire to cut short the golden threads their basketball lives have woven. They are of sound mind and spirit to take on such a task, but sometimes the universe punishes even the most pure of intentions. It takes time to install a culture, especially in a society without a Tim Duncan, or a David Robinson to show the way and bridge the gap from old to new. If the weight of expectations becomes too great, though, then the new chieftains of The Way may not have the opportunity to pave new roads.

Whether or not Budenholzer is successful in Atlanta, the expectation is that he will be. He might be a first time head coach, but his reputation is loftier than a large swath of his more tenured brethren. He’ll bring with him every opportunity for the Hawks to contend for titles, and nothing less will suffice. For Bobcats and Suns fans, we’re reduced to hoping the new guy can move us a half-step closer toward that championship melody. Either way, all any of these teams can do is trust in the process and expect it work out for the best.

Though it might be best not to expect at all.

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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

An Open Letter To Harrison Barnes

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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.

Kevin Durant Is Not Clutch

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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

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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.

When The Candle Went Out For Boston

Photo by lilcrabbygal via Flickr

Photo by lilcrabbygal via Flickr

Be it a flaw in the human condition or a knowing nod to the value of beauty, it hurts a little more than normal when we lose the elite. Loss brings its traveling companion, remorse, but the removal of a star from our universe lends itself to anguished gnashing of teeth and dejected despondency. Sadly, on Sunday, we found out that Rajon Rondo’s knee went supernova.

Torn right ACL. Season done. No more “National TV Rondo,” with the aces-over-kings probability of a triple-double. No more Rondo/Avery Bradley backcourt, a frenzied blur of razor-sharp elbows and interminable persistence that we only recently got back into our lives. No more KG-on-Rondo half-hug, half-noogie, all-”big brother/little brother” love. No more passing up easy layups to get an assist and twitter going apoplectic. No more “Rondo is a better pure point guard than Chris Paul” debates.

To call Rondo a star undersells his value to this team and this fanbase. He’s really the last candle for a home experiencing rolling blackouts. Sure, the lights come back on every once in a while and you beat the Miami Heat. When you look at the standings and see how fragile your grasp on a playoff berth is, though, it starts to get pretty damned dark. And as great as Kevin Garnett continues to be, as spectacular in moments as Paul Pierce is, everyone scurries to Rondo when the lights go out. He’s the future of this team, but more importantly, he’s the present. Or he was.

The only solace I can offer fans is that the true beauty of a candle is in the snuffing. The flame is nice; it leaps and dances as it wishes, casting light to the darkest corners and providing warmth and comfort. But the flame cannot aspire to the heights of the smoke that lingers once the light flickers out. The fire was bound to the candle, its dreams restricted by its source. The smoke does as it pleases, dependent only on the breeze. Most of all, the smoke reminds us of the flame after it’s gone. To snuff the candle is to give life to its memory.

Boston will undoubtedly honor its flame. If ever a team were going to rally around a fallen comrade, it’s certainly these Celtics.* KG will double down on his involvement on both ends of the court, possibly asexually reproducing 4 identical versions of himself in a new process that future biologists will recognize as “rage-based immediate reproductive adaptation.” Pierce will continue his descent into old age, while still somehow hitting key shots that I know are pure coincidence but still seem to have tiny leprechauns dancing on the rim as they go in. Captain Barbosa will score 20 points in a couple of games; in a couple others, he’ll probably go 1-for-11. Jared Sullinger will salivate at the sight of every missed basket — in fact, Doc will actually have to remind Sully at some point that he can’t get a rebound on the first miss of two free throw attempts. Jason Terry will become the team airplane while still participating in card games on long flights. And regardless of everything that happens, both good and bad, it’ll all remind us of Rondo. Every missed assist, every failed alley oop, every KG stanchion-headbutt. It’s all just smoke from a flame cut short by an angry basketball god with an oversized snuffer.

*And that’s coming from someone who usually thinks those kind of chemistry-based intangibles are overstated to some extent. Any team with Kevin Garnett and Doc Rivers heavily involved is a general exception to that rule, mostly because I’d basically do whatever KG told me to do if he were yelling at me.

There’s still that smoke, though. It’s going to be beautiful.

The Michael Beasley Experience

 

Photo by ygartua via Flickr

It’s apparent when he takes the court, even if he doesn’t make it easy to find. Amid the punchline passes and lefty layups left listing off the rim, there’s often an instant in which he licks his chops and sees what is unmistakably his world, where the pick and rolls are blue-flavored and the double teams are as easy to split as the last two strands of string cheese.  When the spot-up jumpers sound cotton candy sweet and his opponents’ intentions smell like a diminished fifth, it’s easy to see why he was a second overall pick.* He’s Jimi Hendrix rendered protagonist of a Lewis Carroll narrative, fighting the Queen of Hearts in a 3-on-3 tournament sans teammates.

Michael Beasley has a gift.

And I hate him for it.

Beasley must be experienced to truly be appreciated, like an extraordinarily bad wine that happens to have one particularly amazing flavor note. And, much like said wine, that experience is rather easy to hate, regardless of what good one may find. Those who have the greatest appreciation for him are also those with the most disdain. It’s one thing to be a Clippers fan and laugh about the fact that Beasley has a -.061 WS/48 this season; it’s quite another to be a Suns fan who watches Phoenix get outscored by 17 points in the 15 minutes Beasley played Monday night. When that kind of thing happens to a team you root for, it makes your teeth itch and your television screen implode, and somehow your remote control is the event horizon.*

*By the way, if my insurance company asks, it was a total infrared blackhole caused by Michael Beasley interacting with repeated attempts to change the channel to something much less hate-inducing. That’s a real, scientific thing, and this stands as documentation.

It’s not just being bad, though, that has made Beasley loathsome. After all, there are lots of bad players on the Suns; they’re a bad team. I don’t really have strong feelings one way or another about the struggles of Sebastian Telfair or Wesley Johnson. What makes me brandish my torch and shriek the name of Beasley like he’s some post-modern Frankenstein is the same thing that makes a front office view him as a potential savior. It’s that stupid, stupid gift of his, where he’s spectacular at basketball in ways that only a handful of human being who have ever existed can be, but only for 13 seconds per 36 minutes. It’s that hope manifested as the albatross of a contract Beasley signed this offseason: 3 years, $18 million. One year at $4 or $5 million — hell, even at the current rate of $6 million — would have been acceptable. I probably would have even enjoyed the goofy, headbanded rollercoaster ride if I knew the motion sickness would only last 82 games. But if you’re only barely paying attention, or if you want to only concentrate on the potential (and it’s as bountiful as tulips in the Netherlands circa 1636) or if you have a gaping hole to fill because your Canadian heart got its head filled with Hollywood dreams, that gift can and will fool you. That hint of something better will make 3 years and $18 million seem like it makes sense. And if you give Michael Beasley $18 million dollars over 3 years, you’re going to feel it every time he dribbles the ball off his foot while attempting a free throw or does something similarly bizarre.*

*I don’t blame Beasley for taking the money in the slightest. I strongly believe that every single person should take as much money as they can possibly get when offered the opportunity. With that said, TWO HUNDRED AND TWENTY-SIX MORE GAMES OF THIS IS TORTURE. THREE YEARS IS AN ETERNITY.

In a couple years, when the expiration of his contract nears, Beasley will probably grow on me. The hate will fade; the light at the end of the tunnel won’t be quite so far. He’ll seem less like a grown man playing on a Fisher-Price xylophone and more like an irreverent jazz musician whose compositions make sense when you only concentrate on the first note of each measure.

And maybe he’ll have come around by then, putting together all of the skills he obviously has to become the player he sometimes appears to be. If he can improve his decision making with the ball, slow down and let his actions catch up to his vision, improve his shot selection, be more disciplined in man defense, stop ball watching, learn to at least sell the possibility that he’s going to set a screen, then he’ll be a really good player.

Sounds like it’s worth a shot, right? I mean, what’s the worst that can happen?

Photo via nba.com/Stats

SUPER-OVERREACTIONIZER: Narrative Don’t Lie

Rasheed Wallace is Legend.

I consider myself a stats guy, but I honestly couldn’t tell you a single statistical fact about Sheed that doesn’t have to do with the litany of technical fouls, ejections and various other acts of benign malevolence that make up the Sheedysey. Sheed is basketball player wrought as epic Greek hero, made of flesh and brandishing bronze  while representing shadows on the cave wall.  His is not to win or lose but to be, to Sheed, for the sake of some long-gone sense of honor and propriety. Of course the ball don’t lie; if it did, the universe wouldn’t be kind enough to grant us this beautiful creature of truth and justice, no matter how twisted.

His ejection from today’s Suns-Knicks matinee in EIGHTY-FIVE seconds — the fastest ejection of his storied career — seemed self-indulgent, and it certainly was, because Sheed’s self is worth indulging. When he feels affronted, the world knows; and he storms into battle with all the fury of an unbridled warhorse breathing hellfire and leaving quaking terror in its wake. This Odysseus-Sheed knows honor as the Greeks knew it, as a zero-sum game. To garner accolades at the expense of Sheed is to take away from his honor; one cannot gain without pillaging the legend. To defend that legend, Sheed will fall on his sword, at the expense of self and team — because to self-immolate in such spectacular fashion serves the epic. Sheed’s honor is worth dying for, in the basketball sense, because dying for honor means more honor to die for.

Maybe the explanation is simpler than that. Maybe he just wanted to get off the court after a night of partying with JR Smith. And maybe, as I’m sure some will argue, he didn’t deserve a second technical foul for his little outburst.  But he did get ejected for yelling, “Ball don’t lie!”, and he did it in meteoric fashion, so the legend of Rasheed Wallace grows. Both teams played hard, man. The Knicks got the win. Sheed gave the Suns an opportunity at some free points and got himself the rest of the day off to go spend with Circe. It’s the kind of thing they write some pretty neat stories about.