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Shot Fiction: Serge Ibaka Joins The Stars

Photo from Skiwalker79 via Flickr

ORLANDO Feb. 26 Serge Ibaka crossed the court of the Amway Center in a state of complete and total awareness.

The locker room had never felt so far away. Every sense he had felt heightened, burdened to the max by the power of the venue and the occasion. His ears were burning with the sounds of fans making their way towards the concession stands, mixed with the remnants of the sting from the halftime buzzer. His eyes focused on Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant as they too walked towards the locker room, just a few feet in front of him. In the corner of his left eye he saw an ever jolly Craig Sager – in a horrendous green and purple suit topped off with a red tie – interviewing a sweating Blake Griffin, and above them he saw the shimmering scoreboard lights that read “West – 74, East – 68″. His shoulders felt heavy under the weight of his first ever all-star jersey, and his mouth was completely dry. Every step felt like a miscalculation. He didn’t even know if he belonged.

To be fair, though he was still somewhat of a work in progress, Serge had made major strides this season. The new and improved mid-range jumper he developed in his summer Eurobasket stint would come (34 points, 8 of 11 from 16 to 23 feet against Sacramento) and go (4 points, 2 of 13 from the field against Dallas) as it pleased, and he still had very little non-dunking offensive game without it. But he was the main force behind the league’s second best per-possession defensive squad (those pesky Thibsy Bulls just couldn’t be usurped), leading the league in blocks per game (3.4), approaching double-digit rebounds (9.6), and even showing the courage to yell directions at Kendrick Perkins.

And yet, in the deep West, it didn’t feel to him like he should be an all-star. Ibaka wasn’t named in the original 12 man squad, and with guys like Kevin Love, or break-out third year guards Tyreke Evans and Stephen Curry being held out by their teams’ bad records, Serge didn’t seem like he would be next in line. Even when Kevin Durant, asked about the Thunder’s league-leading 49-8 record going into the all-star break, said that it’s “ridiculous” that the Thunder were only granted two all-star spots, the NBA’s analytical community used the remarks as a chance to pump up the candidacy of James Harden, who was banging home a nightly 18 points per game behind a newly found 40% three point stroke and had 6th man of the year wrapped up by mid-November. But when Zach Randolph announced that he’ll sit out all-star weekend in order to rest his sore hamstring, commissioner David Stern decided that the replacement had to be a third Thunder rep, and had to be a forward. In that case, it had to be Serge.

Coach Scotty Brooks, who was awarded the privilege of managing the exhibition game’s Western rotations, already told Serge not to expect many minutes. “You were a replacement”, Brooks said, “and even though I love you more than anybody on this roster, the fans want the West’s power forward to be Blake. Nobody else”. And boy, did the fans speak out on that one – Griffin virtually broke the ballots as far as all-star fan voting, outranking even Kobe Bryant in the Western Conference. This time, the fans couldn’t even be blamed of any wrong-doing – with Blake’s Clippers holding up at a surprising 32-22 come break time, Griffin was making noise even in MVP discussions. When he decided to skip out on both the Rookie Challenge (“he’s not really a sophomore anyway, so I’m cool with that” said replacement Ed Davis) and the Dunk Contest (Kia remained a sponsor), ensuring that he could only be seen on the big stage, Ibaka’s minutes were the first casualty.

When Serge finally did enter the game, there were only 5 minutes left in the half. Even worse, the game was a complete and total farce. Serge had seen all-star games before, but he never realized how lax they were – never the person to stop running, he started off by making two wide-open fastbreak dunks before he was accused of cherry-picking by players from both sides. He spent the rest of his first half stint running around, setting picks, jumping for blocks on defense. On one of those jumps, he connected viciously – Deron Williams had set up a Dwight Howard alley-oop with a gorgeous pass, only Serge jumped with the herculean big man, his arm meeting the ball a solid 12 feet above the ground, and sending it earthward with a loud smack. Charles Barkley managed a tired yelp from the broadcasting booth; Serge just focused on the next possession. It ended with yet another Kobe Bryant 30 footer rattling in above Paul Pierce’s amused, barely stretched arms.

And so came the buzzer. Serge left the court slowly, trying to figure out if he had a place here, or at least, whether he’ll be given a chance to prove so. When suddenly, a voice came from behind him.

“Yo. I-BLO-CKA.”

The voice drawled, and was full of contempt, as if the speaker was making fun of the nickname that the media had so willingly bestowed upon Serge.

Westbrook and Durant immediately stopped their walks and swiveled toward the voice, as if sensing that a friend was soon to be in need. Serge turned as well, though without the determination that defined the motions of his teammates. In front of him stood the full form of what seemed like a very irritated Dwight Howard.

Seeing an irritated Dwight Howard wasn’t as much of a rarity as it was in previous years. The ever-present joy from previous years had seemingly dissipated in a tenuous Orlando locker room. When the Magic lost their first four games, Howard demanded more shot attempts; when they were 2-8, he asked a reporter why Ryan Anderson wasn’t getting more minutes over Brandon Bass; and when the team stumbled to a 6-15 record in mid-December, despite him maintaining averages of 23 and 12, he had finally requested a trade. The request was granted mere hours before the All-Star tipoff, with the final deal being Howard and Chris Duhon moving to Los Angeles for Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, surprising rookie guard Darius Morris, and a future first round pick. Since the deal was announced so close to the game itself, a combination of logistics and Stern dictated that Dwight would still play for the East.

The All-Star game itself wasn’t going much better for Dwight. Appearing in front of the Amway Center crowd as a home player for the last time, Howard was booed rigorously during introductions, drawing even harsher jeers than LeBron James. He then proceeded to miss two straight wide open dunks to start the game, as well as airball a three pointer that he took at the first quarter buzzer, with an eager Carmelo Anthony egging him on. Ibaka’s block, specifically, had seemed to affect him harshly, though he concealed it well to the untrained eye, wearing his trademark smile and laughing heartily once he and Ibaka had descended from the apexes of their respective jumps. The Amway crowd’s cheers upon witnessing their former idol’s humiliation couldn’t have been helpful, either.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Howard asked Ibaka, agitation still radiating from his brow, “this is the second quarter of the All-Star game. We don’t play defense before the 4th. You tryin’ to make me look bad?”

“I don’t know, Dwight”, Ibaka answered, “I always play defense”.

By this point, not only Durant and Westbrook were looking, but so were Sager and Griffin, their generic interview clearly much less interesting than what was happening well within earshot’s range. Griffin scratched his head, while Sager’s incredulous expression looked almost as unnatural as his clothing.

Howard leaned closer to Ibaka, and said in a deep voice “defense is my thing, not yours, kid.” Seemingly unsatisfied, he added “and let me tell you, you better be playing that defense in May.”

The two men stared each other in the eye when Westbrook’s voice broke into the conversation:

“Or what? You’ll get stopped by Perk again?”

Howard’s head shot quickly towards the point guard. Durant was trying very hard to stifle a smile. The arena felt much quieter than it actually was as Dwight strained his face, clearly unfamiliar with the bully role. He was much better at intimidating his opponent on the court than off it, much more in his element making Stan Van Gundy noises than making threats.

Suddenly, he smiled again.

“Just playin’, Sergie boy”, he exclaimed happily. “Good block, good block. Try to get Bron next time.” He then proceeded to run into the tunnel, perhaps a bit faster than he intended, mumbling something about playing with Pau Gasol in the high post.

Ibaka looked at Westbrook, then at Durant, then Westbrook again. They had the same look in their eyes as they had after their double overtime win in Miami in December: a quick flash of satisfaction, followed by hunger for more. He knew that his own eyes were projecting the exact same picture towards them.

Kevin nodded his head, and Russell extended a fist.

Serge bumped it, and the three headed into the tunnel.

SHOT FICTION: Dwight Howard Plays Charades

We’re a little worried about this lockout. We want basketball. But in case we don’t get basketball, we’re going to give ourselves a season.

The following is a work of fiction and no one was harmed in the writing of this story. These works will be based on how we think the 2011-12 season would play out if the lockout ended and the NBA is able to play all 82 games. Did you get a chance to read the first installment: Ray Allen’s Last Shot? As with that piece of fiction, we hope the lockout will be over soon and this piece of fiction will be the last.

LOS ANGELES Dec. 11 – It was a typical late-autumn Sunday morning in the Westwood area of Los Angeles. To visitors, the air was crisp and cool. To Los Angelenos, it was cold. The early morning mist from the Pacific still hung in the air, but the late-morning sun had started to burn through. It looked as if it were going to be a day worth enjoying. Many would go for a jog or enjoy brunch al fresco with friends. The most sensible people would sit back and let the day unfold, unplanned, before them. The people gathered here at Pauley Pavilion on UCLA’s campus were not sensible people.

We are sportswriters.

We were at Pauley for the Orlando Magic shootaround, which had been moved there because the NBA was staging one of those Clippers-Lakers day-night Sunday doubleheaders at STAPLES Center that try to make people in Los Angeles forget they don’t have an NFL team. The people who care about that sort of thing, that is.

Reporters from Orlando, Los Angeles and a couple of national scribes milled around, chatting and waiting for the Magic to finish going over defensive assignments to cover the Lakers’ new, non-triangle offense. The writers talked with the faint sound of bouncing basketballs, squeaking sneakers and the tornado-siren-like voice of Stan Van Gundy in the background. The audible activity on the court was muffled by a curtain which kept the observers separate from the performers.

Many of the writers hadn’t seen each other in a while. The complimented each other on each others’ recent articles, asked about each others’ families back home, mentioned Marriott points and reviewed Los Angeles restaurants. Having been in Utah and Phoenix, one Orlando writer said he was glad to be in L.A. so he could have his first decent meal of the trip.

“Where’d you go?” one writer asked.

“In-N-Out,” the Magic reporter said with a smile and both men nodded their heads.

Of course, this revelation initiated a discussion about the merits of In-N-Out vs. Five Guys, which had just opened its first franchise in Central Florida earlier this year. The conversation had just started to get good when a Magic PR flack poked his head around the curtain and motioned the media toward the court.

“To be continued …” one national writer said over his shoulder as the media marched in.

On first glance, what they saw was typical post-shootaround disorganization. A few players worked on free throws. End-of-the-bench big men worked on post moves with assistant coaches. Trainers wrapped knees in ice. The most curious sight, though, was Magic center Dwight Howard, sitting courtside with a towel wrapped around his neck and tucked into his long-sleeved shooting shirt. He was pointing at his throat, mouthing the word “No” and shaking his head whe Magic PR asked him a question.

Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, the coaching lifer, stood on the sideline at midcourt, with a bottle of water, half-gone, in his right hand. Van Gundy, whose salt-and-pepper mustache makes him look far more comic and far less glum than his brother, ESPN NBA analyst Jeff, prepared himself for the media crush. He folded his arms across his chest as if he were a disapproving father waiting at the door to greet the boy coming over to take out daddy’s little girl.

Van Gundy played the part perfectly. He harrumphed and scolded his way through his press conference as only he could. SVG knew why everyone in L.A. was rubbernecking his team. It wasn’t the Magic’s 9-10 record. This was the L.A. media’s first chance to ask about Howard, who has a player option at the end of the season. All signs point to Howard opting out of his deal and seeking employment elsewhere. One of those elsewheres could be with the Lakers, the Magic’s opponent that evening. Would the Magic trade Dwight, as the Nuggets did Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks the year before, to the Lakers in order to get something, anything in return for the three-time defending Defensive Player of the Year? It was only December and nearly every article about the Magic wondered whether Howard wasn’t long for Central Florida.

“Look, we haven’t had discussions about trading Dwight,” Van Gundy said, and reiterated many times during the 10-minute session. “We don’t want to trade Dwight. I know everyone would love to have Dwight on their team. But he plays for the Orlando Magic and as long as I’m coach of the Magic, I want Dwight Howard on our side.

“You can’t replace what he does for us. You just can’t. Why do you think everyone wants him on their team? He’s a unique talent in this league.”

Van Gundy wiped a bead of sweat with the back of his sleeve.

“You guys are the ones speculating in every article,” Van Gundy said as he looked down and shook his head. He shifted his weight from his right foot to his left and then back again as if he were playing defense. “‘Where’s he gonna go?’ ‘Who will we get in return.'”

One Los Angeles writer asked Van Gundy if he and Howard had conversations about Howard wanting out of Orlando.

“We … we don’t talk about that kind of stuff,” Van Gundy said. “I know a lot of you L.A. guys would like Dwight to play for the Lakers. He’s great to coach and fun to cover and he’s good for a good sound bite and a laugh, but he’s with us and will be with us hopefully for a long time.

“I know you have jobs to do and that’s the nature of the business these days is the business of basketball. You guys can have fun with that. You can play your games on TV and in the papers and on the blogs, Twitter or whatever.”

Van Gundy paused, then delivered the blow.

“Hell, you have to have something to write about or else you’d actually have to write about basketball.”

That comment stopped everything cold. The Magic beat writers were accustomed to such barbs about their knowledge of the game itself. They shook it off. But a couple of L.A. writers looked stunned as if Van Gundy reached out and smacked them across the face. One even ran his tongue gingerly over his lip as if he was searching for blood.

It was then a Magic media relations person stepped in. He had some news, bad news for the media. He said Howard wouldn’t speak at shootaround or before the game. Howard had, the PR guy offered, laryngitis.

The media looked at Van Gundy as if he needed to give an explanation. Layrngitis? Van Gundy looked back and shrugged his shoulders.

“All right,” Van Gundy sighed. “Anything else, guys?”

No one had anything else for Van Gundy, but Howard hadn’t moved from his spot on the sideline across the court. To his right, sat Magic point guard and friend, Jameer Nelson. On Howard’s left, another member of the Magic PR department. One brave media member started to make his way across the court. The rest of us followed and Nelson, Howard and the PR flack all looked at the mass moving toward them. The media manager’s eyes narrowed as if he were in a showdown on a dusty Western outpost and he was already at 10 paces. He started to rise off his seat, but Howard reached over and gently patted his arm. Howard nodded and Nelson covered his mouth to stifle a laugh.

“Uh, Dwight …” said the pioneer who started the media migration toward the Magic center.

Howard smiled, pointed to the towel around his neck and threw his hands, palms up, in a silent apology. The media guy glared.

We stood silently, uncomfortably in front of them. Then, Howard held up a finger and asked us for a moment. He leaned over and whispered something to Nelson, who shook his head yes.

“If you want to ask questions,” Nelson offered, “Dwight will answer, and I’ll translate.”

So this was a game. One Orlando writer rolled his eyes. One L.A. writer grunted. Were we game? Seems as if one of us was.

“Will you play tonight?”

Howard nodded his head. “Yes,” Nelson cheerfully responded.

“Are you disappointed with how the season has started for you guys?” was the question.

Howard pouted. Nelson said, “He’s sad.”

“Does it make you want to leave Orlando?”

Howard put two hands over his heart and swooned.

“He loves Orlando,” Nelson said. “Plus, he’d hate leaving me. We were rookies together.”

“How are you and Stan getting along?”

Howard gave two thumbs up and smiled. “Great!” Nelson chirped.

“Have you asked for a trade?”

Howard tilted his head and furrowed his brow.

“C’mon, man,” Nelson said in a tone that implied that not only was Howard not going to dignify the answer with a response, but that it was a stupid question.

Howard then held up two fingers. Nelson said, “Two words.” Howard tugged at Nelson’s sleeve and glared, but smiled while he did it.

“Sorry,” Nelson said. “Two questions.”

“If the Magic continues to slide this season, will you ask for a trade?”

Howard scowled and shook his head. He flexed his biceps and then held out his hand like a traffic cop.

“We’re not going to keep losing,” Nelson said as Howard’s proxy. “We’re going to get it together. I’m going to stay strong and stop this nonsense.”

Howard held up one finger and then made the cut sign. It’s lucky that he did. The last questioner seemed emboldened by the finality of the media session. The last question was a doozy.

“Are you worried that if you come to the Lakers, you’ll be compared to Shaquille O’Neal, that you’ll be following in his footsteps and that you could be seen as being in his shadow if you don’t win a title here? Shaq has been highly critical of you in the past.”

Howard’s jaw dropped and his smile faded. Nelson started to speak, but Howard clamped his hand around Nelson’s wrist. He turned and put up both hands as if to say, “I got this.” Howard cleared his throat and spoke his only words of the interview.

“I’m not answering the L.A. question,” Howard mumbled, “but I love Shaq.”

Moments after the Magic suffered a 110-104 loss to the Lakers — Howard had 21 points, 14 boards and five blocked shots — to drop their record to 9-11, the whole Howard pre-game interview (he did not speak postgame) ran on NBA TV. Shaq, who was making a rare Sunday night appearance in the studio, was asked to comment.

“He doesn’t even mumble as good as me,” Shaq mumbled.

SHOT FICTION: Ray Allen’s Last Shot?

We’re a little worried about this lockout. We want basketball. But in case we don’t get basketball, we’re going to give ourselves a season.

The following is a work of fiction and no one was harmed in the writing of this story. These works will be based on how we think the 2011-12 season would play out if the lockout ended and the NBA is able to play all 82 games. Every other week, we will have a fictional work until the lockout is over. This is the first. The heart believes it will be a singular work and the NBA will be back in business soon. The head, sadly, realizes that it may not be the case.

BOSTON, June 1, 2012 — Ray Allen sat at his locker with a thin towel draped over his shoulders and another wrapped tight around his still-slim waist, a waist that hasn’t gained an inch over Allen’s professional career. His feet were in Jordan brand sandals, his toes separated by pieces of foam cut to fit. Allen said he learned the trick early in his career from a vet on his first team, the Milwaukee Bucks. The foam prevented the toes from sliding and smashing into the toecap and helped minimize bruising and torn toenails. Combine that with regular pedicures the he received to prevent ingrown toenails and Allen’s feet — the base from which he made an all-time NBA record of 2,703 three-pointers — looked as if they could carry him for another 16 seasons.

The scoresheet from the Celtics’ epic 99-98 Game 7 overtime loss to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals lay between Allen’s pristine feet. The rest of him looked spent. He had just played 51 of the game’s 53 minutes. If he saw his line, it read like this:

M: 51; FG: 13; FGA 19; 3P: 7; 3PA: 11 FT: 6; FTA: 6 REB: 3; AST: 3; BLK: 0; STL: 1; TO: 3; PTS: 39

The 39 points were the most he scored all season, regular or post. The 51 minutes were easily the most. Allen, a free agent, had no reason to hang his head in what had been his best game of this unusual season.

Yet there it hung and his shoulders sagged. Allen’s elbows rested on his knees and his fingers dangled like branches from a weeping willow. The Celtics locker room was quiet and reporters, who had just been informed that Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce would be the only Celtics to go to the podium, milled about waiting for that precious eye contact from a player, a signal that he was ready to open up or spout cliches.

Most of the reporters had turned away from Allen. They knew that he never spoke to them just after the locker room opened. In fact, it was rare to see Allen there at that time at all. By the time reporters entered after the cooling off period, Allen was gone to treatment, then the showers. If the local scribes did catch a glimpse of him, it was fleeting, like an apparition. When Allen did emerge from the players’ sanctuary, he strode to his locker in a bespoke suit, put a couple things down, usually the book he was reading and a DVD of the Celtics’ next opponent, and then turned around to face the media.

But in the silence that suffocates a space after a devastating defeat, there was what sounded like a sharp sob coming from the direction of Allen’s locker. Then another. Any murmuring between reporters ceased and their heads turned in Allen’s direction. Allen’s shoulders heaved once, then again. He pinched the bridge of his nose with his right hand and made a small circular motion. There was another sharp sound. The seasoned Boston scribes stood in stunned silence. None of them had ever seen this.

If Allen were upset, it would be understandable. It was the worst season of his 16 year, soon-to-be Hall of Fame career. He missed 41 games after the Pacers’ Danny Granger tripped trailing Allen on a screen and rolled into Allen’s right knee in a game on Jan. 6. Allen feverishly worked his way back from arthroscopic surgery. He was ready to return at the end of February, but suffered a setback as doctors had to go back in for a second surgery.

When Allen finally returned against Utah in late March, he came off the bench for the first time in his career. He couldn’t get his timing and his sturdy legs, which propelled him around picks and provided the springboard for the smoothest jumper in NBA history, were now shaky. So was Allen’s confidence.

“I’m working hard to get my rhythm back,” Allen told the Boston Globe in April. “My knee isn’t responding as I hoped it would. Your legs are so important to your shot.”

Throughout his career, Allen’s work ethic had been well chronicled, almost fetishized by the media. They noted how he arrived at the arena at the same time, ate at the same time and went through his pregame routine at the same time every game day. As a military brat, Allen knew routine as discipline and discipline as order. If there was order in his life, Allen knew success, built on a solid foundation of meticulous work, would follow. It did. He won a Big East tournament title at UConn, won a gold medal with Team USA in the 2000 Sydney games, made 10 All-Star appearances for three different franchises and played Jesus in a Spike Lee movie.

Then there was the crowning achievement in his career, the NBA title he helped the Celtics win in 2008. He had come close to the Finals with the Bucks in 2001 and nowhere near them with the Sonics. An alpha dog in Seattle, Allen subjugated his game to blend in with Pierce and Garnett. The result: the C’s 17th NBA title.

But as Allen struggled in his comeback, Yahoo! reported a Celtics source as saying they weren’t going to re-sign Allen, who wanted a two-year extension with the same player option he had when he re-signed for two seasons in 2010. The source noted Allen would be nearly 39 when the extension ended and that it would be in the C’s best interest to seek a younger option at two guard. Combined with the physical ailments, Allen’s world, which he had so diligently worked to put in order, was now out of whack. For the first time in his career, Allen was coming off the bench, a move Celtics coach Doc Rivers said was necessary to limit the guard’s minutes. Allen averaged 12.6 points per game and shot .332 from three-point range, both career lows for a shooter, who, if his jumper could sing, it would sound like Marvin Gaye.

Allen and that melodious jumper re-emerged in the postseason. He averaged 19.4 points in the first round against the franchise for whom he first played, the Bucks. Against Orlando in the second round, he shot a scintillating .435 from three-point range. In the East finals, Allen averaged 24.3 for the first six games running Dwyane Wade, who missed 26 games this year with shoulder problems, through a series of screens designed to bang Wade around.

Then came Game 7 and that overtime and those 39 points, the final three of which gave the C’s an 98-96 lead with 3.4 seconds left in OT. Allen was back. The Celtics were on the precipice of their third Finals appearance in five seasons before Mario Chalmers, the Heat’s fourth option, found himself open for a short-corner three right in front of the C’s bench. Swish.

And now, Allen sat at his locker after what was more than likely his last game as a Boston Celtic and he was … crying? Allen let go of his nose, stood and reached for something in his locker, his back to the reporters. When he turned to head to the showers, Allen instantly noted the sympathetic looks on the reporters’ faces and frowned.

“Hiccups,” Allen said in his flat baritone, his eyes dry and jaw set. “Pinch your nose, hold your breath, close your eyes tight and count to 20. Works every time.”

Now, some reporters looked incredulous.

“You all thought I was crying?” Allen said, neither his expression nor his tone changing. “You know me better than that.”

They did. They knew he’d be back in about 15 minutes, freshly showered, freshly dressed, prepared to answer questions for however long it took to ask them. The reporters would pepper him about the game (“Hell of a game. I thought we had it, we just got caught looking at LeBron and Wade.”), quiz him about his knee (“It’s a little sore, but I’m 37. Everything is sore.”) and query him about his future (“I’d love to be here. Celtics green is the best green I’ve worn in my career. It’s where I won a title. It’s important.”)

With that, Allen paused and pinched his fingers to his nose again. A reporter tried levity.

“Hiccups?”

Allen smirked.

“You could say that,” Allen said. “This whole season has been one.”

He looked over the reporters as if to say, “anything else.” One reporter stepped forward to say good luck and thanks. Allen and the man exchanged pleasantries. Allen then grabbed his book — “Collapse” by Jared Diamond — and his coat. He started to walk out of the locker room with the confidence some mistook for arrogance.

“Yep,” Allen said to no one in particular, “a hiccup. Can’t go out like that.”

With that, Ray Allen, turned, smiled and was gone.