Tag Archives: playoffs

Brevity is the Soul: Danny Green, the Ultimate Fringe Event

Through four games of the 2013 NBA Finals, Danny Green is the Spurs leading scorer. He’s averaging 16.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.3 assists on a blistering .579 shooting from the field, with a stupendous 19-28 shooting from deep (.679). He’s played good, aggressive defense, blocking LeBron James at the rim a few times, and has generally looked every bit the role playing sharpshooter his recent position would advertise.

After graduating from St. Mary’s High School in Manhasset, New York, Green went to North Carolina, where his minutes steadily rose every year, culminating in captain duty for the 2009 NCAA Champion Tar Heels. He left Chapel Hill as the only Tar Heel in history with 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 200 assists, 100 blocks, and 100 steals. Despite being one of three players in NCAA history to win 4 games against a Mike Krzyzewski coached team (Tim Duncan and Rusty LaRue being the other two), Green was not drafted until the 2nd round (46th pick overall) in 2009 Draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

In 20 games for the Cavaliers, Green averaged 2.0 points, 0.9 rebounds, and 0.3 assists on .385 shooting from the field (.273 from deep, .667 from the line) in 5.8 minutes per contest. While in Cleveland, Green was known more for his dancing than his shooting, so it came as no huge surprise when the Cavaliers elected not to bring him back the next season. He signed with the Spurs in November 2010, appearing in two games before being waived and joining the Reno Bighorns of the D-League, his second stint in the D-League after playing in a pair of games with the Erie BayHawks the season before.

After his stint with the Bighorns, in which he averaged 20.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.0 blocks on .451 shooting (.434 from deep and .795 from the line), he was re-signed by the Spurs, playing six more games with the team over the rest of the 2010-11 season. During the NBA Lockout, Green signed in Slovenia, returning to the Spurs after the lockout and successfully winning the starting two guard spot and enjoying by far his best NBA success to that point. He averaged 9.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.3 assists on the season, playing in all 66 games and starting 38 of them. He topped the 20 point mark on four different occasions, led by his 24 point, 7 rebound, 2 assist, 2 steal, 2 block effort against the Nuggets on January 7th, 2012.

With his position in the Spurs rotation secured, Danny Green started all 80 games he appeared in the 2012-13 regular season, posting averages of 10.5 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 1.8 assists on .448/.429/.848 shooting, to go along with a career and a .600 True Shooting, placing him second on the Spurs and right with noted marksmen Martell Webster, Steve Nash, Kevin Martin, Jose Calderon, Kevin Durant, and Kyle Korver as one of the leaders among non big-men. Officially, he finished 13th in the NBA in TS%, which paired with his sky-high .581 eFG%, made him one of the most efficiently deadly shooters in the league. His skillset remains limited, yet within that set, he’s as effective as anyone in the NBA. Like a poor man’s Arron Afflalo, his relative worth is nearly astronomical, providing a high amount of value (for a good team) after signing a 3 year, $11.2 million deal this past offseason. Coming into the playoffs, he had gone from an also-ran to a starting 2 guard whose production for outstripped his previously imagined worth. Things have only gone up from there.

His True Shooting and eFG% in these 2013 NBA Playoffs sit at .641 and .635 (!!!), respectively, as his WS/48 is at a near star level (.184). His conventional stats are just as eye-popping, sporting a .505 three point percentage to go along with 11.2 points in around 30 minutes per game. He’s been a part of two NBA records in the Finals, with his 5/5 performance from deep in Game 2 standing as the most makes without a single miss from deep in the history of the Finals, and his 7/9 performance in Game 3 contributed to a new NBA record 16 made three pointers in a single game. Through 4 games, he has made 19 3 pointers, which puts him on pace to shatter Ray Allen’s record for threes made in both a six(22) and seven (28) game series. If the Spurs were to win this series, a serious argument could be made that Danny Green would be the MVP of the Finals, a mighty feat indeed for someone known for his dancing not three years ago.

The Banality of Duncan and the Necessity of Narrative

After waiting for nearly an hour, the man you have come to see finally makes an appearance. Wearing a lab coat on top of a professional suit and tie combo, he looks every bit the authority figure you were led to believe. You offer your hand. He ignores it, gesturing for you to sit. Nervously, you oblige.

“Before we get started, I need you to understand something,” he begins, without looking up from the chart he has opened in front of you. Pausing to adjust his tie, he closes his chart and calmly stares at you.

“The San Antonio Spurs are boring,” he says, with a matter-of-fact certitude that you feel compelled to agree with. After all, he is an authority figure. He knows what he’s talking about.

“If you write anything about the Spurs, you must address this point. Every time you even think about the Spurs, that has to be what is on your mind.”

Years later, you sit down to watch the Spurs advance to their fifth NBA Finals since 1999 and their first since 2007. Despite shooting three pointers at a rate comparable to Knicks and possessing a team-wide passing game the likes of which a scrappy underdog team in a feel-good basketball movie aspires to, one thought dominates your mind: this team is boring. You’re not even sure if you agree anymore. The Spurs have been so good or so long that the mere thought of them not winning 50 games is as alien to you as basketball before the three pointer. In 1997-98, their first year under Gregg Popovich, the Spurs went 56-26. In all but one season since, they have won at least 50 games, and the one year in which they didn’t was shortened by a lockout, and they won the NBA title.

Since the Spurs started this run of excellence, nearly unprecedented in the history of the sport, Michael Jordan has retired, returned, retired, drafted Kwame Brown, been elected to the Hall of Fame and re-created the Charlotte Hornets. In 1998, Saving Private Ryan was the top film at the box office, while the soundtrack to Titanic was the top-selling album. When that first season under Popovich ended, MTV’s Total Request Live had yet to debutThe fourth and final Lethal Weapon film was released, marking Jet Li’s debut in American cinema. 1998 saw video game releases such as Starcraft, Half-Life, Metal Gear Solid, Grim Fandango, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I said it before, and I’ll repeat it here: this level of continued excellence is essentially unparalleled in the history of this sport. Only Bill Russell’s Celtics can make such a claim, and this Spurs run has already lasted two years longer than Russell’s entire NBA career. One can only imagine how today’s NBA would react to eleven titles in fourteen seasons.

Yet, through all of this, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking, talking, or even looking at the Spurs from an outsider’s perspective is that they are somehow less interesting than the more explosive and dysfunctional super teams we’ve all become accustomed to. Even before Boston’s superteam made “collusion” a four letter word, the Lakers were the more entertaining alternative to the greatness of the Spurs, which makes a certain kind of sense. Watching Shaq and Kobe passive-aggressively dance around one another while Phil Jackson smirks makes for a more entertaining locker room than Tim Duncan calmly befriending his teammates and fostering a culture of respect and professionalism. At a certain point, this narrative (the only narrative the Spurs have ever faced, it seems) becomes so all-encompassing that I have to ask myself if the Spurs are even supposed to be good. Their goal as a franchise seems to be perceived less about succeeding and profiting than it is living up to some abstract notion of entertainment. Are they professionals, or are they entertainers? No matter how proficient, skilled or downright great the on-court product is, it seems the Spurs will always fall victim to what is now an ancient meme in the ever-powerful court of public opinion.

If you think there’s any confusion about this in the organization itself, then you just haven’t been paying attention. Gregg Popovich cares less about your opinion of his team’s watchability than you do about what he had for breakfast this morning. Surely he, and the Spurs by extension, have never had the most…charitable relationship with the media. One has to wonder if there’s a sort of chicken-egg situation going on here. Are the Spurs cold and withdrawn to the media because the media keeps calling them boring, or does the media keep calling them boring because the Spurs are cold and withdrawn? I should probably steer away from using such a catch-all term as “the media,” but it feels appropriate in this instance. The Spurs have generally been equal-opportunity in their disdain for all things newsworthy.

In her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase that is the subtitle of said book, the idea that most evil is committed not by fanatics or sociopaths, but by ordinary people who “accepted the premise of their state and continued with the idea that what they were doing was normal.” This idea was of course brought the forefront by the actions of Nazi Germany during the Third Reich, and the common defense of simply “following orders” used at the Nuremberg Trials and in countless other instances since. I bring this up not to go into any sort of depth on the Holocaust or even to claim that any of this has anything to do with “evil.” I bring this up because the premise of the Banality of Evil gave rise to a series of very interesting and very telling social experiments of the latter half of the 20th century. Among these experiments are Stanley Milgram’s Experiment on Obedience, the Zimbardo Prison Study and Ron Jones’ Third Wave experiment. These were all interesting exercises that said a lot about the nature of authority and pack mentality, but at the risk of drawing further from my topic, I won’t elaborate upon them. Look them up yourself if interested. I simply bring up these references to aid in what has recently become a bit of a theory of mine in reference to the NBA and how we, being enlightened people on the internet (lulz) discuss it.

Much has been made in recent months and years of the prevalence of the dreaded narrative in coverage of our favorite sport. I won’t argue that some of these narratives (specifically the ones that deal with such unmeasurable, fickle, and honestly silly things as “mental toughness” and “clutch”) are tiring to the point of nausea, the idea that even the most ardent sabermetricians among us would prefer basketball to be viewed as the statistical variance study it generally is, without the narrative, we wouldn’t care. Take the first round of this year’s playoffs, for example. Where Knicks/Celtics was interesting to a lot of people (even outside the respective markets), Pacers/Hawks was seen as dull and lifeless. The quality of basketball in those two series was essentially the same: bad. Because the Knicks and Celtics are filled to the brim with such interesting characters and at some semblance of history between the teams, it was seen as a gritty, albeit sloppy series where Pacers/Hawks was merely dull. To take this to a higher level, look at the reaction and discussion of the dearly departed Heat/Bulls series in comparison to, say, the Spurs/Grizzlies Western Conference Finals. Despite ending in fewer games, Spurs/Grizzlies was a much higher quality than Heat/Bulls (that is to say: any quality at all). Because of the Derrick Rose Saga* and the Heart Gristle McLeadership of high-quality basketball stalwart Nate Robinson, Bulls/Heat was seen as one team valiantly fighting inevitability where Spurs/Grizzlies was simply more consistent domination from the unstoppable tide that is the San Antonio Spurs.

*note to self: punch self in face as hard as possible for using this phrase

I don’t mean to sound judgmental, and I certainly don’t mean to say that I myself don’t prefer at least some sort of intrigue in my basketball viewing. All I mean to say is that we’ve become somewhat conditioned, either by the narratives we claim to have no use for or some strange form of peer pressure, to blindly follow the “Spurs are boring” train to the point that it has lost all meaning and has become nothing more than a platitude, a crutch to hold up a dead idea, a grassy hill to die upon for a cause long past dying for. It’s a meaningless phrase, a non-starter that adds nothing to any conversation and only serves to inform everyone around you that you don’t really care for making your own opinions or this whole “thinking” thing. The Spurs still might be boring to you, but that should be because you dislike constants and require a little more combustion in your basketball life. The fact remains that such determination should be made by the on-court product and not by what is now an ancient and mystical ritual by which we indoctrinate our new recruits.

I, for one, welcome our new Spurs-bot overlords.

Those Problematic Pacers

It’s always fun to watch a player develop through the years, and Roy Hibbert is no exception. Players with Hibbert’s physical tools and size will always be tantalizing to teams on the off-chance they actually wind up becoming the player they envision. It’s why teams will draft a “raw” player or overpay for a free agent big man in hopes that he lives up to his pay grade by the end of the contract. Roy Hibbert went from being a bit of a prospect, to starting center, to overpaid. But now he is giving the defending champions just about all they can handle in the Eastern Conference Finals. Now, it seems that there is finally a team that can give the Heat a true fight since the Heat will have to work to overcome their disadvantages, which is something we haven’t said about the LeBron-era Heat.  And if you’re a basketball fan, possibly having the rise of a true foil for the league’s best team for the next few years is a dream come true.

Going into the Pacers series against the Heat, the big question was how Miami would deal with Hibbert in the paint on both ends and be able to rebound against Indiana’s frontcourt in general. In an attempt to minimize Hibbert’s impact on the Heat, they’ve drawn Bosh further from the rim to limit Hibbert’s shot blocking ability and keep him off of the boards. However, the results have so far been mixed as the Heat have managed a 2-2 split through four games, but the Pacers have been playing the Heat tougher than just about any team we can remember and could very well be up 3-1.

Miami is comfortable playing Bosh further from the rim where he can still pose a threat with his midrange game, and we saw the Pacers respect this on LeBron’s Game 1 winning layup in which Sam Young chose not to step up on a driving LeBron James at the risk of giving Bosh an open jumper. However, other than that particular moment, Bosh’s placement away from the basket has done little to enable Miami to offset their mismatches in this series.

Bosh alone is being forced to take more shots from distance in this series than he was in the Heat’s first nine games. Against Milwaukee and Chicago, Bosh attempted 15 threes total, but versus the Pacers he’s been forced to take 12. While he’s still shooting 41.7% on them in the first four games of this series, that number is down from 46.7% in the first nine, and has been forced to take nearly twice as many per game. With Bosh taking 6.75 shots per game from outside of the paint compared to 3.5 inside, this has put more pressure on the other Heat to step up and rebound since Bosh, their best rebounder (besides LeBron), is out of position. Additionally, Hibbert has able to use his long stride, athleticism and length to chase down the rebound by soaring over the Heat frontline.

Hibbert’s presence, coupled with Frank Vogel’s defensive strategy, has forced the Heat into taking 23.25 midrange shots per game on 31.2% shooting this series after they took just 19.5 per game on 42% shooting in their first nine playoff games. The Heat are also shooting a cool 55.5% from in the paint since Hibbert’s shot-blocking presence alters even the simplest of layups into a circus shot. If you’re keeping track at home, the Heat are taking and missing more midrange shots and are still below average finishing on what should be high percentage shots in the paint.

As a whole, the Pacers appear to be rebounding less — 47.3 rpg against the Hawks and Knicks, 44.0 against the Heat — but the Pacers are also leaving fewer rebounds shooting 45.9% from the floor and 37% from three, which are all improvements over their first three games. Not only do the total rebounds enable them to control the tempo of the game and force Miami into playing their game, but it also allows them to get set defensivelly and affect Miami’s ball movement. This is problematic for the Heat since strong ball movement is one of their defining traits and one that allows them to keep the defense from getting set and enables them to swing the ball to the player with the best shot. The Heat were so good at getting assisted field goals in their first nine games (64.8%) that the fact that they’re only getting 50.3% of them assisted is a little startling.

On his own, Hibbert has been a one-man wrecking crew in the paint offensively, shooting 69% and 45.8% from the restricted area this series, up from 60.7% and 40.5% in the previous two. The Heat are going to have to toy with strategies like double-teams and possibly switching LeBron and Bosh to see if they can find a better match. For Miami, it would be wise to first deny Hibbert position, then box him out of open lanes so he can’t crash the glass so easily.

The problem with the Heat’s strategy is that it’s not as effective when deployed as a part of an imbalanced strategy. Miami has been automatically adapting to Hibbert and the Pacers without really making the Pacers adapt to them, and that’s why they haven’t been able to pull away from them like they have just about every other team in the NBA this season. You have to respect Hibbert’s ability, but you also have to be able to assert yourself physically and make him work for everything he gets–just as the Pacers have done with the Heat. Truth be told, having Bosh continuously take so many shots from distance and having his rebounding ability so far from the basket is a dream come true for the Pacers. The Heat need to be able to balance their strategy and find a way to get their rebounders involved again or they will be watching Indiana play the Spurs in the Finals instead of them.

Statistical support for this piece provided by NBA Stats and Basketball-Reference. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Photo Jar

The Regular Season Is Better Than The Playoffs

I am suffering, for the second straight year, from playoffs-induced writer’s block. It seems to be something that grips a fairly large percentage of the Hardwood Paroxysm writers. It got to the point last season that Matt Moore upbraided us on the blog’s daily email thread, saying he couldn’t decide whether he was disappointed that we couldn’t find more to say about all the storylines going on or proud that we generally write about such weirdo backwaters of the NBA that we were flummoxed by the postseason and all the general media attention lavished on it.

I’d like to think it’s the latter. Much as it is for teams, the regular season is a nearly bottomless place for writers, where so many things happen that many fly by unnoticed. If one team has another team’s number on a given night, the tables could just as easily be reversed a month down the line. It’s how the Wolves can lose to the Spurs 104-94 in early February and then turn around and hang 107 on San Antonio while giving up 83 a month later.

But in the playoffs, the character of the games changes dramatically, and not just in intensity. Weird things happen in a seven-game series. Ask the 2007 Dallas Mavericks about it. Their 67-15 season and #1 seed in the West ended with a 4-2 first round defeat at the hands of the 42-40 Warriors. Were they exposed, or just victims of chance?

Or ask a player like Jerome James. After averaging 4.3 points and 3.1 rebounds per game for his whole career, he played 11 postseason games for the Sonics in 2005 where he averaged 12.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. The Knicks promptly signed him to a 6 year, $30 million deal. In 2008 he played five minutes of basketball and made $5.8 million.

Or consider Nate Robinson in this year’s playoffs, where he went from sparkplug to starter. Last year he was on the Warriors. The year before that, he was an add-on in the deal that sent Kendrick Perkins from the Celtics to the Thunder to add size to the team. Chances are they weren’t after Nate. That was his second mid-season trade in a row, having been moved from the Knicks to the Celtics the year before.

But this postseason he averaged 16.3 points and 4.4 assists per game while posting a PER of 15.8 for a Bulls team no one expected much out of without Derrick Rose. Having spent a good twenty minutes in a Chicago Bulls locker room while Nate held court and clowned, I know that in addition to knowing his team was depending on him, he knew his own personal price tag was going up with that tremendous display of grit and determination.

There’s a reason that some people only watch the playoffs. It’s some of the same reason that people say it’s only the last five minutes of a basketball game that matter. Storylines crystallize, outcomes hinge on a few crisp passes or one blown defensive assignment. It can feel for all the world like we’re seeing the real basketball at those moments, the best basketball.

But are we?

This year’s New York Knicks thrived in the regular season on a combination of relentless 3-point shooting (taking a league-leading 2,371 3-point shots and making them at a rate of 37.6%, good for fourth in the league) and small ball principles driven by Carmelo Anthony’s move to the power forward position. But in the playoffs, when the chips were down against the Pacers’ considerable length and defensive acumen, Mike Woodson went away from what had worked so well. He moved Anthony back to the small forward position and filled the paint with traditional bigs. This meant less driving room for J.R. Smith, who regressed to his worst shooting habits, and a sky-high usage rate of 37.7% for Anthony. They bowed out in the second round.

Were the Knicks we saw against the Pacers the true Knicks in some sense? They certainly weren’t the best Knicks, but then again, “true” and “best” don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, much as we wish they would.

Of course, if you’ve been following the leading lights of the daily basketball writing world—people like Zach Lowe at Grantland, Dan Devine and Kelly Dwyer at Ball Don’t Lie, Rob Mahoney and Ben Golliver at Sports Illustrated, Zach Harper and our founding father Matt Moore at CBS’ Eye on Sports, or Henry Abbott and the other great minds at TrueHoop, just to name a few—you already know about the Knicks’ devolution. You already know about Scott Brooks’ failure to adapt or innovate in the wake of Russell Westbrook’s injury. You already know how the Spurs frustrated and stymied Zach Randolph in the opening game of the Western Conference Finals. I mean, jeez: I just found out from Kelly Dwyer how the Memphis Grizzlies have a historically large number of left-handed players.

Trying to pull a good, overlooked angle out of the playoffs is a lot like being a good rebounder who’s 5’10” in a pickup game when a bunch of 6’4” guys show up to play. I know this because that’s exactly the guy I am. Rebounding goes from a matter of effort and determination to simply being physically impossible. As the number of teams gets cut in half, then in half again, then again, as the number of games on any given night goes from six to four to three to two to one, fewer and fewer things slip between the cracks of the hardwood.

But I love the cracks in the hardwood. Baseball diamonds don’t have cracks; football fields don’t have cracks. Whenever I watch those sports, I’m struck by how moments of play are always followed by moments of repose, by time to reset and prepare again. Basketball has those moments as well, but it also has a way of relentlessly piling things on top of each other, of collaging players and playsets and stats and patterns and then leaving it to all of us to pick apart and make sense of.

At least, it does in the regular season. As a fan, I love the playoffs. I love the wanton ridiculousness of them and the epic breakdowns and heroic comebacks and the way a series of games becomes a chess match of adjustments, an illustration of the way humans adapt and learn.

But as a writer, I might just love the regular season more, where the games stretch off into the distance. Where I can tell my wife the season is almost over—just 15 games left—and have her tell me, “That seems like a lot of games.” Where you can excavate meaning from meaninglessness, where some stats are valuable and other aren’t, where some storylines are short and others long. Where some things that seem very important for a few games can end up not being very important at all. Where the last week of the season for a lottery-bound team becomes an existential crisis. When it comes to the playoffs, I miss the inattentiveness, the corpulence, the slog, the torpor of the regular season.

The Conference Finals are upon us. The intensity is ramping up. It’s win or go home and that’s the reason everyone is watching this, the final five minutes of the NBA season. This is, after all, where amazing happens. I guess I just like when amazing plays hard-to-get.

Well, there’s always next year.

If it Bleeds, We Can Kill It: LeBron and the Myth of Physicality

After three games, the Bulls/Heat series is being praised as a throwback to the NBA of the 90s, with the tough, shorthanded, gritty, defense minded, pesky, never-say-die, insert buzzword here Bulls doing everything they can to frustrate the Miami Heat, and more specifically, LeBron James, resulting in a 2-1 lead in the series for the defending champs.

When the Bulls famously broke the Heat’s winning streak in late March, LeBron voiced his displeasure with the physicality that occurred on “non-basketball plays,” such as Kirk Hinrich’s “tackle,” and Taj Gibson’s clubbing foul in the lane. LeBron’s frustration with these fouls eventually boiled over, resulting in him taking a shot at Carlos Boozer in anticipation of a hard screen. While the physicality of the Bulls in that game seemed to get into LeBron’s head, it didn’t have much of an effect on his play, as he finished that game with 32 points, 7 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 3 steals on 11-17 shooting from the field and 4 turnovers. Considering the Bulls won that game, perhaps it had an effect on the rest of the Heat. At the very least, it left them with a growing dislike of the Bulls.

Notably, on that last video, you can hear Jeff Van Gundy profess his love for the “contentiousness” of that Bulls/Heat game, stating that they “have to meet in the playoffs.” Sure enough, JVG and all the other old-school tough guy proponents got their wish, culminating in last night’s Game 3, with “physicality” that bordered on parody. It started with Joakim Noah shoving Chris Andersen after the latter landed on top of Nate Robinson after a foul. On its own, this little shove (which resulted in a technical for Noah, his third in two games), isn’t really worth taking note of. Noah can be a bit of a hot head, and he simply was trying to keep Heat players away from Robinson, whom the Bulls feel has been taking some serious shots thus far. Andersen wasn’t really doing anything on the play, but Noah pushing him wasn’t exactly Kevin McHale clotheslining Kurt Rambis.

Later, in the second quarter, things nearly hit the boiling point, as LeBron and Nazr Mohammed tangled at midcourt. Mohammed, under the guise of going for a steal, tried to wrap LeBron up and LeBron shrugged him off and tossed him to the floor. Mohammed, being the closest thing we have left to Charles Oakley, apparently, took umbrage with this and shoved LeBron in the chest after the whistle. LeBron, sent flying through a combination of a large man pushing him and his own feet mysteriously throwing him backwards, sailed into the paint. The two teams separated like Pro Wrestling stables eyeing one another from outside the ring, and the referees ejected Mohammed, who summarily received a standing ovation from the crowd. The Bulls proceeded to use Mohammed’s inspirational sacrifice in the face of an implacable foe and lose by ten anyway, calling into question the usefulness of “the Shove.”

LeBron is shooting at a higher percentage at the rim in the playoffs than he did in the regular season, and while the Bucks are certainly primarily to blame for that, one has to question what, if anything, Joakim and Nazr’s shoves accomplished. The hard fouls in that late March Bulls/Heat game occurred in the course of play, both stopping what almost certainly would have been easy dunks for the MVP, and letting the Heat know that scoring in the paint requires a physical price to be paid. The shoves from Noah and Mohammed did neither, occurring either under the Bulls basket or in the middle of the court. Perhaps more discouragingly, the Mohammed foul deprived the Bulls of his services, which were certainly in need as Chris Andersen racked up offensive rebounds seemingly at will in the later stags of the game. Is it “physical gritty play” when you shove your opponents after the play, or is it childlike overreaction? What, exactly, does the Mohammed shove stop the Heat from doing? Taking shots after the whistle won’t stop someone from going into the paint, not will it give them reservations about chasing down a loose ball. Instead of Charles Oakley, the Bulls are emulating Bruce Bowen.

On a level beyond on court production, however, these fouls and the reactions to them speak to a much stranger and more perplexing trend: no one seemed to have a problem with them. Twitter, which had not long ago spent the better part of a week rising to defend the noble Steph Curry from the Nuggets’ “blatant attempts” to injure his ankle, seemed to have little problem with the Bulls playing like NFL Blitz, a late 90s arcade game which famously allowed players to pile on their opponents after the whistle, generally for comedic effect. I’m not trying to say that these situations are interchangable, nor am I trying to moralize twitter as a whole. Nothing about this situation is nearly that serious. It’s just a strange turn of events, one that I think speaks to something of a lingering dislike of LeBron James, even on a national level.

Look at the reaction to Nazr Mohammed’s shove as an example. Where, with most any other star player, the focus would have been on the bench player taking an unnecessary shot at a superstar (imagine if it had been, say, Darrell Arthur shoving Kevin Durant), a large amount of the controversy I saw on twitter focused around LeBron flopping (which he certainly did). Granted, a lot of the people I follow are Bulls fans, so my viewpoint is inevitably biased, as Bulls fans still like to consider their team, and by extensions, themselves, as vanguards of the anti-LeBron movement, bravely standing against his tyrannical domination of the sport. That aside, I believe it speaks to what has been the underlying issue with public perception of LeBron James for a long time now. He’s so physically dominant, so incredibly strong and fast, that when he doesn’t succeed, it seems like it’s because he wasn’t trying hard enough, because he was lazy or afraid. Surely, Kobe Bryant never gave anything less than full effort, and Kevin Durant is more of a “finesse” player, so when they get fouled or shoved or hit full force in the chest by a man taller and heavier than they are, it’s the other team trying to bully them into submission. When it happens to LeBron, however, the reaction seems to be dependably negative towards him. It’s as though people think he merely chooses which laws of physics to obey and anyone managing to get the better of him physically is him flopping and wilting under the sort of “big moment” pressure most people treat as the end-all be-all of professional basketball. LeBron doesn’t complain any more than any other superstar (and significantly less than Carmelo Anthony), yet when he does, it’s treated as though he’s Thor complaining about a thunderstorm.

I Need A Hero(ball)

I’m ready to raze the advanced statistics movement — lay waste to its algorithmic ramparts and seize the Holy Land of the Larry O’Brien Trophy in the name of Heroball.

These 2013 playoffs have certainly picked their spots when it comes to bringing us to our feet, but what moments they’ve been. And they’ve largely resulted from Heroball, the oft derided, amorphous shadow cousin of “the right way.” LeBron James’s performance in Game 1 against the Milwaukee Bucks was the paragon of efficiency, whether measured by counting or rate statistics: 27 points on 9-of-11 shooting from the field. An 86.4% effective field goal percentage. 10 rebounds. Assisted on approximately 43% of his teammates’ made baskets when he was on the floor. Each time James handles the ball is a moment to appreciate the inner workings of a mastermind, like being a fly on the wall in da Vinci’s workshop — with HD compound vision.

Yet for all the spectacle of watching James in his effective glory, the most astounding moments are the visceral, not the academic. LeBron’s passing will leave you shaking your head; his decision to take the basketball and turn everything around him into the defensive equivalent of third graders performing as trees in a school play will leave you unleashing tribal screams into the vast darkness of the universe. When LeBron James engages in Heroball, the world stops — for everyone but him. And while its largely because these acts of valor are so incredibly efficient that they have such resonance, the efficiency is tangential to the experience. It’s perfect for analyzing the minutes, but subpar for capturing the moment.

And for all of his improvement as a post player and passer, Carmelo Anthony was still at his most entertaining this weekend when he went into full on Melo-mode, isolating his defender and finding the most ridiculous ways to get shots off and knock them down. Heroball brought Madison Square Garden to its feet and gives lift to the already astronomical stylings of JR Smith; without it, the Knicks are the Atlanta Hawks with fewer playoff series wins in recent history.

The only thing that makes Heroball more fun is when it comes at the end of the game, though — unless you’re a Warriors or Grizzlies fan. Professor Andre Miller and Chris Paul, two of the wiliest players in the league, both worshiped at the altar of legends. Both reduced twitter to a rambling mess of capital letters, exclamation points and various appeals to deities, basketball and general alike. And both rendered advanced statistics absolutely meaningless.

Were there more efficient options? Maybe in a points per possession sense, yes. But in terms of providing us with the very best of what NBA playoffs have to offer?

Let Heroball reign. Its expected value is off the charts. Especially when the very act of Heroball is the most efficient decision on the court, as it was with Chris Paul at the last second last night. Heroball is at its most beautiful when it takes its singular, insular focus, turns it on efficiency, and renders the numbers meaningless.

Chris Paul, in the clutch, is ridiculously efficient. His Heroball will tell you that.

The Price Is Dwight

Look, I get it. No one likes free throws, save a small subset of a masochistic population whose recreation is repetition. Talking about free throws is probably the only thing more boring than watching players shoot them. The best thing that can happen when someone steps to the line, from an entertainment perspective, is an airball; we’re actively rooting for the worst basketball outcome on free throws.

Let’s talk about free throws for a second, though. Because if Dwight Howard could have just been average this year, the Los Angeles Lakers wouldn’t be in this “potentially missing the playoffs” predicament.

Howard’s shooting 49.4% from the stripe this year, which might not seem that much worse than his career average coming into this season of 58.8%. Bad free throw shooting is bad free throw shooting, and I think there’s a tendency to lump together those who shoot under 60% on free throws.* But there’s a huge disparity between those two numbers. 49.4% on two free throws is one-tenth of a point per possession (.988) worse than the Orlando Magic as a team (.989) this year.

*So long as they don’t reach Andris Biedrins-abyss levels of horror.

The Magic are the fourth worst offense in the entire league. Dwight Howard is shooting free throws like the Orlando Magic play offense. I’ll give you a second to grab your air sickness bags, because things are about to get bumpy.

58.8% is still awful shooting on an unguarded, unhurried 15-footer, but it’s also more efficient (1.176 PPP on two attempts) than the 1986-87 Lakers were. You know, the most efficient team in Basketball-Reference’s database. Obviously, Howard’s never going to play a game where he gets to shoot free throws on every possession, unless they give Mark Jackson an unlimited roster — and I’m pretty sure the universe doesn’t give out basketball Contra codes to people other than LeBron James.

I don’t mean to pick on Howard. All of these fine gentlemen should be on notice, in fact; they’re players qualified for the minutes per game leaderboard this year who are shooting worse than 55% on more than 100 free throw attempts:

badfreethrowshooters

Seriously, DeAndre? 39.2%? The Clippers are the fourth best offense in the entire league, but when opponents send Jordan to the line, they’re reducing the efficiency of that Los Angeles possession by over 27%. A DeAndre Jordan trip to the free throw line is 21.5 points per 100 possessions worse than the Wizards. THE WIZARDS.

Here’s the kicker with Dwight, though. Granting everything that’s happened to the Lakers this year and all of the infinite moving parts in this vast, vast situation that we call existence and all that cosmic gobbledygoo, they might be breathing much more easily tonight and tomorrow if Howard had hit 59% of his free throws this year instead of 49%. He’d have scored 71 more points on the season. That increased point differential would give the Lakers an expected win-loss record (after 81 games) of 46-35, instead of their current actual (and expected) record of 44-37. They could be a lock for the playoffs, in the driver’s seat for the 6 seed.

It’s certainly not a lock. It’s better than a 50/50 shot, though — especially from the free throw line.

Statistical support courtesy of NBA.com/stats, unless otherwise noted.

The Spurs Keep Losing/Waiving Bodies

With the start of the playoffs but a week away, the notoriously cautious Spurs have seen their would-be playoff roster go through quite a shake-up over a 12 hour span.

First it was announced that Boris Diaw will miss 3-4 weeks after having surgery to (deep breath) remove a cyst from his lumbar spine. Later, it was announced that the Spurs have requested waivers on mercurial swingman/rapper/entertainer Stephen Jackson, citing concerns that his “strong personality” (putting it lightly) would cause locker room tensions with him struggling to adapt to his diminished role.

Diaw was no longer starting for the team, as Year 3 of The Tiago Splitter Experience has finally seen a full-blown bloom. Popovich hesitated to play Splitter next to Tim Duncan nearly of all last season, with the twin towers combo seeing only 129 minutes. Popovich was clearly more comfortable spacing-wise with the non-shooting Splitter next to a 3 point threat in Matt Bonner – the two shared the court for 702 of Splitter’s 1121 minutes. Duncan, meanwhile, played next to whatever 4th big was in the rotation at the time – initially DeJuan Blair, eventually Diaw.

This season, such qualms seem to have been thrown out the window, with Splitter and Duncan having shared the court for 819 minutes. The Spurs have scorched opponents in those minutes, to the tune of 106 points per possession (right around where they are for the season), but even more impressively, they’ve held opponents to 92.7 – a number that would easily lead the league, and is a full 6 points better than their 3rd best mark. The Duncan-Splitter combo was easily this year’s greatest addition to a squad that somehow keeps improving even though you think their roster is maxed out, an unlocked super-weapon among an arsenal that was nearly complete but still slightly lacking.

Alongside the two, Diaw has settled in as the utility third big. His 38.5% mark from three isn’t as big a boost as it seems, as he rarely shoots, but his vision and passing are helpful cogs in the steamrolling machine that is the Spur offensive system. His loss is huge not because he played a crucial role, but because his 23ish minutes a night were dependable quantity. In replacing them, the Spurs will likely have to choose between two defensively inferior players with glaring offensive flaws in Blair (spacing) and Bonner (a slow release, high accuracy sharpshooter who has struggled to get the same looks in the playoffs over the past few seasons).

The third option is a tricky one, and opponent dependent – and that is playing small, with Kawhi Leonard as a nominal power forward. Such lineups could work against similarly small lineups that the Nuggets (Wilson Chandler at the 4), Thunder (Durant) or Clippers (whenever one of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan is sitting) like to run, although running them against the Grizzlies could be a dangerous endeavor.

The loss of Jackson, however, makes it hard to pull the blanket in that direction without leaving the back-part of the lineup in the cold. Without Jackson, the ideal players for such three-guard lineups would seem be Tony Parker, Danny Green and Manu Ginobili – with the premier two of those three dealing with lingering injury issues. Replacing any one of the three can go downhill in a hurry: Gary Neal was a regular feature in last year’s playoffs, but is a clear downgrade, and beyond him are unknown playoff quantities in Nando De Colo, Patty Mills or Cory Joseph.

All that said, cutting Jack strikes the mind harder than it strikes the hardwood. Much like last season in Milwaukee, or the year before that in Charlotte, Jackson’s play this year hardly matched his cult figure status. At 35, his athleticism has been gone for a few years, now, taking his shot creating abilities with it. He’s hitting 37% of his shots, and 27% of his threes. He has a single digit PER, a sub-48 true shooting percentage, and his assist rate just barely outperforms his turnover rate. Each and every one of these numbers has its flaws, but the full ensemble makes it hard to reach any other conclusion: Jackson is no longer a particularly useful basketball player.

Gregg Popovich (and, by extension, the entire Spurs organization) seems to agree. The drop in Jackson’s minutes hasn’t been dramatic, but it was there – Jack sat comfortably at 19.5 ticks per night, after 23.8 with the Spurs after last year’s trade deadline and 21.4 in last year’s playoffs, and was left out of San Antonio’s top 10 most used lineups. A stat like that should come with the appropriate asterisks – namely, that between injuries and Pop’s merry-go-round, the Spurs don’t exactly have “most used lineups” that go beyond their starters, and Jackson’s case is hurt by the games he sat out.

Nonetheless, much like any other playoff squad, the Spurs’ regular season rotation is much more lenient than its playoff equivalent. Certain players get counted on more, and others remain glued to the bench. Last season, Kawhi Leonard was a rookie, and it often showed defensively; this season, Pop’s trust in him is unwavering. Combine that with Jackson’s own decline, and it was easy to see how a playoff cut in minutes was in the cards. Jackson apparently disapproved of such changes, and was shown the door.

The issue here, as mentioned above, is that the Spurs don’t really have enough extra flesh to allow such voluntary cuts. The squad is deep on paper, but much of that depth is of the sort that the playoffs wash away. Blair, Bonner, Green in last year’s Thunder series – all are players who have seen huge declines in either minutes or production in past postseasons, and not even the most black-and-silver colored glasses could show a world that sees a late emergence from Aron Baynes. These Spurs’ playoffs will hinge on Parker and Ginobili’s health, but even assuming the best, San Antonio could conceivably find itself in a spot where they just don’t have enough bodies to work through the grind.

That’s why the Jackson cut was so surprising. It wasn’t his huge role, or the fallout between him and seemingly the only organization who accepted him. Rather, it was the willingness of an organization known for its emphasis on stability to voluntarily up its own degree of difficulty. With the team limping into the playoffs on questionable legs and records (6-6 in their past 12 games), and two of the West’s premier teams finding seemingly ironclad formulas to handle them in the past two postseasons, the alarm in the Alamo should be real.

Lineup data via NBA.com

Now You Know and Knowing Is Half the Battle

When I was a lad and enamored of cartoons like Voltron and G.I. Joe and Transformers, my TV watching schedule would often conflict with things my mom wanted to get done. She’d be trying to rush me out the door and I’d be protesting that the show wasn’t over, even though a Robeast had already been split asunder.

“But it’s basically over,” she’d say. “Do you really need to see the day-new-ma?”

At least, that’s what it sounded like. What she was talking about, though, was the denouement. It comes from Middle French and literally means “the untying” (from the verb desnouer, “to untie”), and generally refers to the part of any story where things settle down after the climax. It’s the falling action, the part where (at least in Thundercats and M.A.S.K.) the good guys reflect on what they’ve learned, or else express concern about the future plans of Mumm-Ra or V.E.N.O.M. (which I just looked up and is amazingly an acronym for Vicious Evil Network Of Mayhem).

My mom’s position (which was almost certainly right with regard to these advertisements masquerading as entertainment) was that the denouement was vestigial—all the important stuff had already happened. But we have a hard time dealing with narratives that end without falling action. Maybe we need the time to sort everything out. Maybe we just like to know where everything stands.

And that’s one of the problems with narrative in basketball: a shocking lack of denouement.

After all, basketball gives us so many other things we recognize from our favorite stories: drama, tension, conflict, rising action. Although maybe not inherent in the structure of the game, we also like to assign good guys and bad guys. Less obviously, the structure of the season creates a window of time, a sense of chapters and episodes. This comes into high relief in the playoffs.

Each round becomes a multi-tiered story with layers of conflict that play themselves out over the games. Granted, some series never resolve themselves into clear stories. Sweeps, especially with blowout wins, don’t put their hooks in us. But a hard-fought seven-game series sows expectations inside us as it develops. When one team inevitably wins, their story goes on into the next round. The completed series becomes a chapter in a longer story.

But for the losing team, the story ends without denouement. Where is their falling action? You can see it in the flat, dead way an arena reacts when the visiting team wins a Game 7 on the road. You can practically hear all those little internal narratives breaking off, crashing mid-flight. The team that eventually wins the championship gets a trophy presentation at mid-court, gets champagne baths in the locker room, gets a victory parade. But the losing teams along the way get the equivalent of that choose-your-own adventure page that says, “The giant scorpion attacks. Its sting will be fatal.”

You want an even better example of how narratively problematic sports can become? Let’s take a spoiler-free look at the series premiere and the series finale of Friday Night Lights.

Everything about the first episode of Friday Night Lights is gauged towards building anticipation for the big first game of the new football season in Dillon, Texas. It being Texas, high school football is huge and the stakes are high for new coach Eric Taylor. Expectations are huge for quarterback Jason Street and running back phenom Brian “Smash” Williams. By the time the game arrives at the end of the episode, we’re practically sweating with anticipation.

But because this is the first episode and not the last, the football game—while it’s the climax of the episode—is actually just the thing that puts into motion the storylines that will guide the first season. There’s very little denouement to the climactic game in this episode because things aren’t getting wrapped up—they’re just getting started.

The series’ final episode also hinges around a very important game. Even more important, in fact, because it’s the state championship. The anticipation is even more excruciating because it’s been building over the whole season, reaching fever pitch over the last few episodes as the future of football in Dillon hangs in the balance.

And then, just as the game begins, we cut to the aftermath.

You see, Friday Night Lights knew. They knew that the big game provides little in the way of resolution, even as it creates a winner and a loser. The consequences of that win or that loss play out over weeks and months. As the season fades, the tangible results become just one thread of the braided fabric that makes up any player, any fan.

We may not be able to stop seeing basketball games and playoff series as stories, especially as stories about us. But our stories about ourselves—even the players’ stories about themselves—need the kind of resolution that’s rarely provided on the court, rarely found within the action of the game itself. Falling action is important. So yes, mom, I need to see the denouement.

Miami Heat Have Makers Market Cornered

Remember when the Oklahoma City Thunder “flipped the script” on the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals? Now it’s the Miami Heat turning the tables on the Thunder.

It’s all about role players stepping seamlessly into the role required to win. James Harden did exactly what OKC needed in order to down the Spurs and go to the NBA Finals. It doesn’t really matter what else you’ve done so long as you come to play when it matters most. Just ask Shane Battier.

Battier is to the Heat in these Finals what Harden was to the Thunder in the West finals, that role player filling a need when needed most.

In the Finals Battier is averaging what is for him a blistering rate of makes, almost exclusively from range, good for 14.3 points-per-game. He was paged, and answered. The last time Battier averaged that many PPG he was a rookie and the third-leading scorer on an awful Memphis Grizzlies squad.

Odds suggest Harden won’t continue to connect on only 40% of his field goals and 33% of his threes, unless he and coach Scott Brooks fail to properly adjust. And in the same vein how can Battier possibly keep on hitting 73% from the arc?

In the Finals, Miami has forced Harden to attempt roughly a quarter of his shots from 10 to 23 feet, with just 33.3 percent of his attempts coming from beyond the arc. While Harden is converting his shots at lower rates from practically every area of the court, the biggest victory for Miami’s defense has been to reallocate Harden’s attempts from his favorite zones — which, as noted, happen to be the most efficiency-rich areas of the court — to less favorable ones. In essence, they’ve replaced his shots from downtown and the free throw line with inefficient midrange jumpers.

-Neil Paine, ESPN Insider

Harden is an effective 3-point shooter and also very good near the basket. However, he has virtually no midrange game; a vast majority of his shot attempts occur at the rim or beyond the arc, not many occur in between.

-NY Times, shot chart

Most known for the corner three, Battier is hitting from Harden’s preferred spot most often in the Finals, only taking two spot-up threes from corners, making one of the pair. The majority of Battier’s 11 Finals makes have come from the wing on spot-ups, or on leak-outs to the top. Battier hasn’t missed a transition three opportunity yet, going a perfect 3-3. And he’s wide open every one of his 15 three attempts. Apparently Scott Brooks is a gambling man.

 

Via mySynergySports

Battier is currently the leader in the Finals clubhouse for three-point field goal percentage. No one since the data goes back to 1985 has ever hit 70% or better from three in the Finals on at least 15 attempts, although Isiah Thomas came awfully close.

Sure, Brooks can opt to try and chase him off of the line, but that’s at risk of leaving Miami’s three biggest threats roaming around wreaking havoc. And even if Battier does cool off last year’s 3-Point Shootout champ, James Jones, who can heat up in a hurry, will be waiting in the wings to take up any slack.

It’s not how many shots you take, it’s how many shots you make. Thus far, Miami has the makers market cornered, leaving them virtually unbeatable.