Tag Archives: Larry Bird

A Vast Sea of Helplessness

bogenfreund | Flickr

Ed. Note: Evans Clinchy is a Bostonian and active member of the hoops blogosphere. He’s been covering the Celtics for nearly four years, with his writing appearing on CelticsBlog, NESN, and SI (among other places). You can follow him, his thoughts, and his writing on Twitter. He wrote this piece after the Pacers came up short in Monday night’s Game 7 against the Heat.

Quite possibly the most prevalent bit of NBA conventional wisdom, right up there with such nuggets of genius as “You can’t teach height” and “Defense wins championships,” is the idea that there’s nothing worse than being a middling team and falling into an endless loop of first-round playoff exits. Everyone knows the peril of basketball purgatory — if you’re too good to fall into the lottery and too bad to be a serious championship threat, there’s no way out, and you’re doomed to mediocrity forever.

The Indiana Pacers worked for years to disprove this theory. After the Malice at the Palace fomented the downfall of a legitimate contender in 2004, the franchise proceeded to endure eight straight seasons in the middle, never winning fewer than 32 games or more than 44. During that time, not once did they win multiple playoff rounds, and not once did they make a draft pick higher than 10th

It was really, really hard for Indy to break out of that funk. The aforementioned No. 10 draft pick was Paul George in 2010; they traded the No. 15 a year later for George Hill. Add those pieces to a foundation of Danny Granger (remember him?) and Roy Hibbert, then throw in a timely free-agent signing in David West, and you’ve got yourself a finally-better-than-mediocre basketball team.

After nearly a decade, the Pacers had finally built something they could be proud of.

At least it appeared that way. But what happened last night makes you rethink things a little bit.

To the Pacers’ credit, they pushed the Miami Heat to seven games in these Eastern Conference finals, which is something virtually no one expected any team to do this spring. The mighty Heat, winners of 27 consecutive games just a couple months ago, were pushed to the brink of elimination, and that’s something George and Hibbert and the rest of the Pacers can tell their grandchildren someday.

But how depressing is it to think that a seven-game exit was probably the Pacers’ ceiling? That no matter how “interesting” things began to look at certain points over these last two weeks, the chances of Indy actually winning this series in the end were precisely 0.00000 percent all along? That no matter how shrewdly constructed this Pacer team was, no matter how well coached they were, no matter how hard they fought to unseat the Heat as East champs, there was simply no out-talenting the unbelievable talent that is LeBron James?

That’s pretty damn depressing if you ask me. The Pacers worked for years and years to build themselves into something other than a first-round exit team. But ultimately, what’s the difference between a first-round exit and a third-round exit? In a league where rings are everything, a conference finals berth is nothing.

This is where we’re at. This is what LeBron’s relentless LeBronniness has done to the NBA. It’s left the other 29 teams in the league, some of them very good teams relative to the other squads comprised by mere mortals, wondering… what’s the point?

I suppose there’s some pride to be had in playing seven competitive, highly watchable games against the best team in the universe. The Pacers were one fluky 3-point shooting performance away from stealing Miami’s perch atop the East, and that’s saying something. Only it’s kinda not. Watching this series, you had this tingling sense that a Heat victory was a foregone conclusion, even when the Pacers tied it 1-1, then 2-2, then 3-3. LeBron was never really going to lose this one.

Basketball purists trumpeted this series as a potentially legendary one, a picture-perfect matchup of hoops yin and yang. You had the stylistic clash of an athletic, running, gunning supersquad and an old-school defensive team led by an old-school defensive big man. It was a beautiful sentiment. Beautiful, but baloney. This wasn’t a Taoist equilibrium — this was a food chain. The Heat were built to devour the Pacers, and devour them they did.

It’s hard not to feel bad for the Pacers. They’re a likable group of guys, an unassuming team from an unassuming town, they worked hard to reach this point, and they never had a chance.

The irony is that largely, this team was built by Larry Bird, the quintessential competitor, the guy who famously walked into the building for a 3-point shootout and asked the rest of the field, “Which one of you’s coming in second place?”

In the Eastern Conference, it’s the Pacers coming in second. Not only now, but it wouldn’t surprise a soul if they wound up right back here again next year, and the year after, and the year after that.

Indiana spent nine years building a team that was better than mediocre. But in the end, all they reached was a different kind of purgatory.

Thanks, LeBron. Thanks, Miami. As long as you’re around, everyone is mediocre.

Until We Meet Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pacers Poised To Steal The Central Behind Kevin Pritchard

Before Larry Legend walked away on top for the third time in his NBA career — Bird being the only man to have won MVP, Coach of the Year, and Executive of the Year — feeling the franchise was on the right track, he made a couple of solid moves, the first being to remove the interim tag from Frank Vogel’s name tag after Vogel vaulted the Indiana Pacers up in the Eastern Conference standings last season.

Bird then turned the roster reigns over to a man frankly long overdue to once again try and guide a franchise to the next level, Kevin Pritchard, promoting him to GM. Pritchard was the first victim in a recent long general management unemployment line drawn in Portland under the bizarre direction of the eccentric Paul Allen, even after guiding them back to the playoffs from a five-year absence.

Sure, Pritchard laid a couple of eggs like Greg Oden, and landed an eventual lemon in Brandon Roy, but they were well calculated risks going in that few teams would have passed on given circumstances, and even really good GMs drop a few pebbles from time to time. All in all, at a glance, Pritchard has a better overall record than the Chicago Bulls’ Gar Forman, who seems to have a penchant for a little luck and a propensity to fill holes with puzzling  lower-end free agents.

Our buddy Jared Wade took a good look inside some of the early maneuverings from Pritchard, who wasted no time jumping right into his role with the confidence of a man who knows what he wants, what he needs. Ironically, Pritchard had to pony up to one of his old tricks from his former franchise to hang onto Roy Hibbert.

On Portland giving Hibbert a max offer right out the gate: “If you look at the history of the league, usually in the first week of free agency, big guys get the biggest offers and the quickest offers. So we were pretty prepared.”

Pritchard knew he needed more size-wise than the barely serviceable, if admirable, Lou Amundson and Tyler Hansbrough.

On rationale behind acquiring Ian Mahinmi: “When you go against the top teams — specifically in the East — you better have rim defenders. And we needed another rim defender. We felt like when Roy went out of the game, we didn’t have as much size. So we really needed some size.”

-Eight Points, Nine Seconds, Kevin Pritchard Discusses the Pacers’ Offseason

He followed that up by inviting the former Utah Ute, Mountain West Conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, Luke Nevill, to training camp. Even if the Aussie press is unimpressed with the move, damning Nevill to “effectively be the third-fiddle centre,” that means the Pacers have three 7-footers in training camp this fall, four if you count the 6′ 11.75″-in shoes Miles Plumlee, who has a 7’1″ wingspan.

Pritchard has proven his savvy by drawing the ire of Utah Jazz fans repeatedly. While at Portland Pritchard treated the Jazz like his own personal farm system, first front-loading a contract for Paul Millsap the Jazz felt they had to match, limiting Utah’s upcoming options in free agency, then stealing gem in the rough Wesley Matthews the following year, a move many fans still feel was a low note in Jazz history.

Heads up, Gar. If Kevin can’t beat you on the court, he’ll try like hell to beat you off it every off-season.

Wade continues:

On the logic behind trading Darren Collison and Dahntay Jones for Mahinmi prior to signing DJ Augustin and Gerald Green:  ”We had to do that to meet certain restrictions in using our cap space. We did it a little bit differently in that we had a pretty good feeling we were going to get a good point guard in DJ Augustin … We had been in contact with his agent. He was [a restricted free agent] but, just the way it shook out, we had a good feeling that we were going to be able to bring him in. So it looked backwards the way it was reported when in actuality it wasn’t like that.”

My take on that last part: It seems as though this was all one big mega-deal in the mind of the Pacers front office.

While on paper this may feel like something of a lateral move at point guard, Collison has been a bad fit for the Pacers, his numbers steadily declining, with Collison dishing a career low assists last season, at 4.8, and a mere 24.9 AST%, very low for a point. On the other hand, Augustin was poised for a breakout season before nagging, minor injuries were blamed for a prolonged shooting slump. Nevertheless, Augustin managed to continue distributing at a career rate with new highs in assists, 6.4, and AST%, 38.9, a prospect likely to suit both his role and the Pacers’ plan more smoothly, and overall, Augustin in four years has shot .374 from 3 to Collison’s .363 in three years.

Oddly enough, I feel like David West should benefit more from Augustin than he did with Collison, despite former team ties on the New Orleans Hornets. “Hey, look! We don’t need Chris Paul after all!” was fun in 2010 and all, but the snickers were quickly turning to groans in Indiana.

The Pacers’ roster just feels right now. Balanced.

Pritchard on that: “There are all kinds of studies out there in the last four or five years that say one of the most important things is keeping your core together — allowing them to grow, allowing them to learn each other. And we feel like we accomplished that.”

West will again play offensive anchor while Hibbert, George, and Augustin find their NBA footing on the next level, while behind the scenes Pritchard will continue to quietly upgrade and plug holes, fill needs. He was a perfect fit for this franchise. Many others will be sorry they passed on him for so long.

Few may be talking about the Pacers as contenders for the East, perplexing to me on some level after last year — they didn’t get worse — but if you sleep on Kevin Pritchard he’ll sneak right up and steal your thunder.

Stinkface Chronicles: Griffin and the Greats

"Where'd you learn to dunk? Finishing school?" via imaginaryyear.com

With the exception of Kobe Bryant’s three-game 40-point run — his middle finger to Father Time — Ricky Rubio going all “Pistolero” on the NBA and The Jeremy Lin Experience (Have you ever really been experienced?), this truncated NBA season hasn’t provided a the range of exquisite flavors an 82-game season does.

As opposed to the grind of a full season (which I don’t mind because it allows players, teams and story lines to develop), this lockout-truncated season has been more meat grinder. It has been more about what’s missing. First, it was the league itself. Now, it’s the players’ health. By the end, it may be their sanity because squeezing 66 games into just under 130 days is plain crazy.

That’s not to say there haven’t been sublime NBA moments this season. Considering these are The Stinkface Chronicles, you’ll note that I take note of those that have been above the rim. Here are the five I’ve enjoyed most so far.

DeAndre Jordan on Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, Dec. 19, 2011

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9gDMERiw9Vs

This one happened during the preseason in December, which just goes to show you how weird this season has been. But this flush on the Lakers’ formidable frontline not only provided a glimpse into the denizens of Lob City (ironic, though it was a bounce pass off a pick-and-roll) but also harkened back to another preseason perpetration of Staples-on-Staples crime and the first entry in The Stinkface Chronicles. The Clippers’ bench — and Lakers haters — took great glee in this one, though Lakers’ fans could counter that the Clips should have been whistled for a technical foul for having 12 men on the court after Jordan’s flush.

4. Vince Carter on Emeka Okafor, Jan. 7, 2012

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=efxVcT7GpDk

It’s vintage Vince, the greatest in-game dunker in NBA history and it’s beautiful. Also, that’s the fastest Brendan Haywood has moved in quite some time, even with Delonte West riding shotgun.

3. Dwyane Wade on Landry Fields, Jan. 27, 2012

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GEsQm3cxw2A

Wade shows Fields the ball, loops it around Fields’ noggin and then slams said ball on said noggin’. Euro-steppin’.

2. LeBron James on/over John Lucas III, Jan. 29, 2012

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tvjjEtjwKHE

Here’s a little bit of trivia for you: who was the announcer when Vince Carter unleashed “Le Dunk du Morte“? On the US broadcast, it was Mike Breen, who had a similar reaction to Bron’s dunk as Doug Collins’ did to Vince’s. Breen chuckles a little like Santa Claus — “Hohohoho” — as he should because these two dunks were the best gifts any dunk connoisseur could receive. (An aside, when I saw LeBron’s slam, all I could think of was Collins’ “he jumped over his heeeeaaad” commentary.)

1. Blake Griffin on Kendrick Perkins, Jan. 30, 2012

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3w_Vy0lDk_A

I rate this slightly ahead of LeBron’s dunk because Lucas didn’t see it coming while Perkins knew full well what he was getting into. Perkins’ act of engagement (and aiding his rise by graciously providing his chest as a step stool) helped make this the dunk* of the season … thus far. So, we thank you, Kendrick.

As for Griffin’s full-fledged assault on Perkins’ puss, we can’t call it the greatest dunk of all-time. That belongs to Vince in 2000. I’ll also argue it doesn’t belong in the Top 10* on two points: One, it had a precedent, specifically Griffin’s throwdown on Timofey Mozgov in the 2010-11 season; and, two: neither were technically dunks as Griffin threw both into the rim instead of grabbing the rim. While I won’t be too much of a Grinch to give the plays their due, I can’t put either into the greatest of all time because of it. What follows is a list of my favorite all-time dunks in an NBA game. Make it yours, because, really, you can’t go wrong when you reference them.

FAVORITE IN-GAME DUNKS OF ALL-TIME (PRE-2011-12 EDITION)

Amar’e Stoudemire on Michael Olowokandi

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1mbLdZlQC1U&feature=fvst

This dunk is the genesis of The Stinkface Chronicles. We thank thee, Amar’e and you as well, Starbury. Your expression speaks volumes. (For more Amar’e, check out a similar destruction of Anthony Tolliver.)

Dwyane Wade on Kendrick Perkins

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7cYau7gba5Y

Now, this is a dunk on Kendrick Perkins.

John Starks on Michael Jordan*

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCTfxOrX4k8

OK, it technically wasn’t on Jordan, but he was in the picture and I just wanted to remind everyone about that.

Dominique Wilkins on Larry Bird

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ngtWdgOz0o

Bird looks like he was shot out of the sky.

Baron Davis on Andrei Kirilenko

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYpwjB0IzoU

Isn’t it amazing what Baron Davis can do when he’s in shape and interested?

Tom Chambers on Mark Jackson

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7T_Wg5ilo8

This dunk has the Chris Webber seal of approval.

Shawn Kemp on the Knicks

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVm6USjXAzk

While most people will give Kemp props for his destruction of Alton Lister, I prefer this one because of the degree of difficulty. A double-pump reverse on two defenders? Get the hell outta here /NewYorkvoice. (It’s No. 3 in this compilation which includes classics such as Chris Gatling giving the Reignman his props and Kemp putting a knee into Bill Laimbeer’s onions.)

Julius Erving on Michael Cooper

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FCT9QyqhkBU

From the cradle to the crowd rising, like the crest of a wave, as Dr. J skims across the Spectrum floor to Chick Hearn’s call of the cradle (“Way … he rocks the baby to sleep…”) to Michael Cooper going into the fetal position to Beard Dude, everything about this is cool.

Vince Carter on Alonzo Mourning

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DcU66xdeGck

Carter, the greatest in-game dunker in NBA history, (I need to trademark that), has more than his share of show-stoppers, but Carter goes chest-to-chest with Zo, one of the more feared shotblockers in NBA history, and destroys him. I had this saved on my DVR for more than two years. I wish I still had it.

Michael Jordan on Patrick Ewing

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1R015PScpTM

Oh, no, Jordan’s trapped in the corner by two Knicks. Wait, no he isn’t. But, oh no, there’s no way he’s going to the make it to the hoop. Ewing is there to block it … Never mind. A seven-foot obstacle is no impediment. After Jordan stares down Ewing, you can hear Cliff Livingston go, “Wooohoohoo!” as he mock sprints from the scene of the crime. Or, later in the highlight, Walt “Clyde” Frazier noted that Jordan was gyratin’ and vibratin’ and manages to get a Diet Pepsi commercial all in one comment.

This one play may encapsulate Michael Jordan’s gifts better than any play in his career: the improvisation, the athleticism, the competitiveness. Of all the great dunks in Jordan’s career, this one rises above the rest.