Pacers coach Frank Vogel must have known the first question he’d hear from the media assembled at MSG for Knicks-Pacers Game 5 would concern concussed point guard George Hill.
How would the Pacers replace their best ballhandler and distributor?
He was ready with a response.
D.J. Augstin would start in Hill’s place, but replacing him would be a group effort, a group that included rarely used rookie Ben Hansbrough. Not only would Hansbrough be the backup point, but Vogel said “We could still play Ben and D.J. together. Ben is not just looked at as a backup for D.J.. If you play Lance Stephenson as the backup one, you need to replace your wing minutes because Lance is going to play less at wing. Your options go to Orlando Johnson, Gerald Green, Sam Young in extended minutes. We could even use Ben and a smaller guard to counter their two point guard attack.”
Did you hear that?!
Ben Hansbrough was going to get real minutes, not this garbage time stuff.
Flash back two years, and Ben is the reigning Big East Player of the Year. After his stellar senior campaign in South Bend, the Notre Dame point guard seemed like a lock to make the league, and stay on as a backup combo guard with real range. I shamelessly, relentlessly promoted this possibility on Twitter.
That future never came to be. Instead, Hansbrough went to play in Germany for Bayern Munich. Ben couldn’t get on the court, and there was speculation he couldn’t get on with his coach at Bayern, and was released midway through the season. As Eurobasket put it:
Sometimes even when there seems to be a positive trend in the play with a player, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is blooming like a beautiful moon flower blooming in moonlight.
So true. Ben hopped over to Slovenia and Krka Novo Mesto, but didn’t even last a month before leaving for personal reasons.
All that didn’t matter as Hansbrough warmed up before Game 5. The rest of the Pacers had long left the court, but Hansbrough’s lingered to find the zone. As he worked through a series of ball screen moves against invisible defense, you could see him conjuring Tyson Chandler’s outstretched arms as he lofted running hooks off the backboard and softly through the net.
Hansbrough stepped back behind phantom screens, setting his feet before releasing a pure jumper. “This kind of thing could actually give the Knicks some trouble,” I thought to myself.
At the end of Game 5, Hansbrough walked off the court at Madison Square Garden without so much as breaking a sweat or squeaking a sneaker. He never played. The expectation and earnest intensity that had filled the otherwise empty half court during his warmup was all in vain. Had Vogel purposefully fed the media some misinformation?
When I went to the Pacers locker room to ask him if had believed he would play, Hansbrough was already dressed and gone.
Three hours earlier, just before terminating his warmup, Hansbrough called for the assistant coach working with him to feed him for one last jumper. Hansbrough caught, and with mechanical precision, snapped off one last swish.
The ball rolled back to him and he spiked it with his fist. Hansbrough jogged back to the lockerroom, ready for a moment that never came.
At some point in late 2011, at least in the hoopnerd echo-chamber of Twitter, it became taboo to criticize Russell Westbrook for, well, being Russell Westbrook. #LetWestbrookBeWestbrook, cried fans and analysts (and fanalysts) caught in the thrall of his overwhelming athleticism and passion.
There were some logical problems with this sentiment that were obvious even to the people who protected Westbrook’s right to let his freak flag fly. While Westbrook is an incredible player, a top 5 talent by #NBARank’s standards and the high-scoring point guard of the best team in the West, he still did and does some knuckleheaded things. You know, because he’s 23. At the risk of strawmanning the people I’m accusing of formulating the anti-Westbrook strawman, it seemed like ANY critique of Westbrook’s approach became an affront to Westbrook’s character and importance to his team.
Of course you can be great and still have serious flaws. Haven’t you seen any of the Prestige Network TV Dramas? That’s what makes not just watching but following the NBA great. We get to see players struggle to overcome deficiencies, we’re allowed to witness the result of elite professionals toiling for hundreds of unseen hours at the game’s minutia. Sometimes their early failures are more interesting than their early successes.
Westbrook needs to get better, and he no doubt knows and believes this. As this 5-game loss to Memphis revealed, so does Kevin Durant.
Think about how good LeBron James was when he was Durant’s age (24), and on the cusp of his first MVP. Back in 2008, James was already the best player in the NBA, but he needed to be even better — much better, you could argue — to achieve what he and many others (or at least I) wanted him to. Where critics went off the rails was in conflating on court performance with the deep inner workings of his soul. It’s always tempting to read a players’ style as a referendum on personality, and sometimes it’s even productive and interesting to do so, but the difference between basketball skill and integral personality traits is that it’s a whole lot easier to change and improve one’s skill on the court. LeBron learned to post up, therefore he no longer is afraid of the dark, for instance, does not make a lick of sense. Look back further: does anyone really think Michael Jordan was always making great decisions off the court while he was unstoppable on it?
And such is the danger in analyzing Westbrook’s play as a point guard, the most common vein of Westbrook criticism. He’s the “floor general,” a metaphor that carries all kinds of moralistic undertones. Not passing enough or not organizing the offense are easy skills to translate into every day life: That guy took a pullup on a 3-on-1, so he probably also would cut me off in traffic. What a dick.
That mode of thinking is stupid and dangerous, but wanting Westbrook to make the right decision on that 3-on-1, or recognizing that Kevin Durant, far as he’s come already, still has a ways to go as a playmaker, is perfectly reasonable. The bar is high, but having a high bar is what makes watching Kevin Durant special, and far more enjoyable than watching Rudy Gay. That, and just being really damn good.
This isn’t to say losing to Memphis was all KD’s fault, or even that he could have done much to alter the outcome. Scott Brooks bares some blame, as do his Thunder teammates who missed open shots, and as does Sam Presti, who, I think, should have chosen Harden over Ibaka. Hell, even with all that they had a legitimate shot at being up 3-2 if a few bounces go their way.
(Side note: I know Harden is a wing and Durant and Westbrook are too, but YOU try thinking of a defense that can load up against a perimeter attack like that. That team scores 115 points per game. Give me a couple dudes to stand in front of the rim on defense and we’re set.)
And like LeBron James, Durant and Westbrook are smart people who work really hard. This, in basketball and pretty much everywhere else, is a damn good combination. Worked for once-maligned (and one year older than Durant) Mike Conley, that’s for sure.
But steadfast faith that the young Thunder players will get better does not preclude any criticism in the moment, or in general. Pretty much every player in the NBA needs to be better at something or many things, but only a handful will ever push as hard as Durant and Westbrook to max out their ability. Recognizing (without moralizing) how these guys can still get better is recognizing they belong to the most elite echelon of NBA athletes. It’s a tribute, and the domain of reasonable, intelligent conversation.
They are young and great but not infallible, even if they do play with a pure heart. And thank goodness, it would make the next five years rather boring.
With five minutes left in Game 3, Stephen Curry took a pass from Jarrett Jack and twisted his ankle trying to make a cut. Stumbling around with the ball, Curry fumbled it back in Jack’s direction. With Curry obviously hobbling and two defenders trapping him, Jarrett Jack made the smart basketball play and called a timeout.
Of course he didn’t!
Jarrett Jack passed the damn ball back to a barely-ambulatory Curry. Just another day watching Jarrett Jack, a man who almost makes me hate watching basketball.
If I’ve learned anything from playing sports that is applicable to analyzing them, it is the importance of a coherent system. Playing within a disciplined system—where everybody knows and performs their role—is about the only way to beat a better opponent. Conversely, it only takes one player neglecting their role for a talented team to stumble.
After watching this season, I’m convinced Jarrett Jack is either bucking the system in Golden State, or the team has decided the rules do not apply to him.
The Warriors got off to a great start this season despite not having coalesced around an offensive identity. This wasn’t wholly unexpected, as the offseason was a time of great upheaval. Of the Warriors top ten players in minutes played last season, only two of them—David Lee and Klay Thompson—were contributors this year. Dorell Wright, Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh were traded away, and Nate Robinson and Dominic McGuire left as free agents. Andris Biedrins and Charles Jenkins saw their roles marginalized, and Brandon Rush tore his ACL in the second game of the season.
During this exploratory period, with uncertainty always hovering nearby, Jarrett Jack was a welcome addition. Would Stephen Curry’s surgically-repaired ankle withstand the rigors of the regular season? Could his slight stature still generate enough good looks? Was his true position point guard, or should he play more off ball? In October these questions had yet to be answered, and Jack was a snug safety blanket in case the answers were “no, no, off ball”. He managed to near-singlehandedly win a couple of games by employing Jarrett Jack God Mode, a style of play I’ll return to in a bit.
Thirty games into the season however, the Warriors discovered their identity: using the paralyzing threat of three pointers to open up the entire court. Unique among NBA teams, their offense worked best the threat of the off-the-dribble three pointer was ever present. The Warriors were able to consistently pressure their opponents because Stephen Curry averaed 38 minutes a game, because he thrived as a traditional point guard, and because he is able to generate better looks for his teammates than almost any other point guard in the league.
With such a young team, Warriors players developed their games to fit in. Curry and Thompson ruthlessly hunted three pointers, launching the first and the third most in the league. David Lee operated in the spacious zone created by these threats, and learned to hit his teammates for corner threes. Harrison Barnes worked on his handle and post up game to compliment Curry and Thompson, but mostly kept the ball moving around the perimeter to better shooters. Carl Landry feasted against second units, buying Curry and Thompson precious rest with an effective array of post-ups and jumpers. Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli presented just enough of an offensive threat to keep their defenders occupied, and understood that they were not to take shots unless wide open.
And then there was Jarrett Jack.
With Jarrett Jack handling the ball—and if he was in the game he was handling the ball—the system the Warriors ran was the Jarrett Jack System. If he was hitting contested shots it was called Jarrett Jack God Mode; if he wasn’t it was Jarrett Jack God Complex Mode. Most of the time it was hard to tell the difference (h/t Ethan Strauss).
Jack’s game is predicated on a heavy, possession-slaughtering amount of dribbling. Jack dribbles, and dribbles, and dribbles and dribbles. It doesn’t matter that the Warriors became a prolific 3-point shooting team because Jarrett Jack is a prolific dribbler, and the rock begins every possession in his hands. Hell, it wouldn’t matter what kind of team the Warriors were because Jarrett Jack can only run one system.
After Jack pounds the ball for what might as well be a basketball eternity, he gathers a full head of steam and barrels towards the hoop. He effectively pinballs his way down the lane, but only because he gives as much thought to his next move as a pinball does to its.
Jack frequently shoots the pull up jumper, to the point that in some circles he has garnered the nickname 20/20 because he dribbles the ball for 20 seconds before pulling up for a 20 foot jumper. His other move is to drive all the way to the hoop, only deciding what to do once surrounded by defenders. Sometimes he stops on a dime, bewildered, and is stripped of the ball. Sometimes he triggers traumatic flashbacks to the Monta Ellis era, looking around for a teammate only after he has gathered his dribbled and jumped in the air. Sometimes he shoots. Only the attempted layup has a chance at success.
If Jack were simply running the second unit while Stephen Curry caught a breather, or if he had tempered his game when Curry’s superstar talent became apparent, his play would be more acceptable. But Jack played the fourth most minutes on the team and closes out most fourth quarters with Curry and Thompson, yet he consistently marginalizes their role in favor of enfranchising himself.
As my friend Rasheed likes to say, Jarrett Jack has no chill. Ask a few Warriors fans what they think the signature Jarrett Jack boneheaded play is and you’ll be shocked at the varied answers they give. For me it is when he attempts a fast break layup over multiple defenders despite having a teammate wide open in the corner. For my brother it is when he decides to pull out of a fast break to dribble the ball for awhile and kill the numeric advantage. For some its how he manages to screws up a perfectly obvious 2-for-1 opportunity. For still others it is when he attempts to crossover, razzle dazzle his defender and dribbles the ball off of his foot. These are only the offensive lowlights of course, ignoring the boneheaded defensive plays he seems to pile up with regularity.
To reduce my abject displeasure at watching Jarrett Jack play to a single factor, of course it comes down to his relationship with Stephen Curry. Curry is a top fifteen NBA player and a top five offensive player, yet the only one that doesn’t act that way on the court is Jack. Curry’s range is so limitless that it isn’t clear that there is a bad spot on the floor for him to shoot it from, yet the Warriors regularly experience fourth quarter stretches with Jack at the helm where Curry spends many consecutive possessions rotting away in the corner. Some of this responsibility lies with Mark Jackson’s play calling, but it isn’t necessary to have a sophisticated play to understand that the ball should work it’s way into the best player’s hands at some point on nearly every possession.
The Warriors system became even more important in the playoffs once David Lee tore his hip flexor. As the above graph demonstrates, during their playoff run the Warriors are shooting—and making—more three-pointers than they did in the regular season. With the floor stretched by a non-traditional “power forward”, stalking the three-point line has become even more integral to the Warriors success. Yet, there is Jarrett Jack, running Jarrett Jack God Complex Mode by doling out a solitary assist in 34 minutes of game 3, and running Jarrett Jack God Mode by raining midrange jumpers and being the only Warrior to show up in game 5.
The Jarrett Jack supporters (who not coincidentally are usually the same people that assert that Stephen Curry is merely good) are out in full force after consecutive standout shooting performances from Jack. “We wouldn’t have won game 4 without Jarrett Jack” is a refrain I saw quite frequently, ignoring the three quarters of awful offense and the four quarters of awful defense Jack played. The poor defense is constant; the only variation in his game is whether the mid-range jumper is falling or not.
The last two games rookie Harrison Barnes has frequently been the best Warriors on the court, evolving into the focal point of the offense with Curry in an injury-diminished state. With their system faltering, the Warriors are leaning more heavily on players who weren’t ready for such responsibilities at the beginning of the season. Four rookies and a second year player, and even stalwarts Lee and Curry, demonstrably improved over the course of the season. As prognosticators have learned, this Warriors team is substantially different from the one that began the season.
Jarrett Jack is the only one that doesn’t seem to notice.
Last weekend I, along with thousands of other Penn grads, traveled down from New York to Philadelphia for Alumni Weekend and my five year reunion. It was a weekend of excess and revelry — we took a damn party bus to get there, for chrissakes — but it was also, through the Yuengling and nostalgia, a time for reflection. Seeing campus under the bright spring sun unleashed a flood of memories and brought back that sacred notion of being in a place where everyone is just learning. That’s the job!
And in this respect, there was also some heartache. The one thing I regret most from my time in college is that I didn’t take as many classes as possible, didn’t explore as much as I could have, showed up high to my experimental poetry class and never even learned to read. OK, so that last part is slight exaggeration, but I look back at what I considered hard work then, compared to what I now understand is the steady grind of adult labor, part of me wishes I could slap that N64 controller out of my hand (Super Smash Bros. will wait!).
But for all my drunken ruefulness at seeing the buildings in which I didn’t always give my all — or more accurately, didn’t know what “my all” was — I understood that my regret was also a sign of some maturity. In those five years I had grown in my capacity to work, to focus on the future and execute in the moment. This maturity, more than intelligence or even pure experience, can often be what separates a 27 year old from a 22 year old. It’s also what separates mature basketball teams from those who, even when talented enough to make a deep run into the playoffs, are still a ways from the force they can eventually become. The four remaining series in the playoffs have brought this lesson into laser focus.
Genius level hoops
If you are intentional and purposeful in your life, it’s hard to not see much of what you do with the critical eye of the scientist. These inputs yield these results, adjust, iterate, adjust, iterate. No team embodies this process like the Miami Heat.
Watching them shred the vaunted Chicago Bulls defense, the same one that has often flummoxed them since LeBron James and Chris Bosh arrived in Miami, even with Dwyane Wade at half speed, has been startling. They approach each position as a sort of experiment. They know the answer — an open shot — but exactly how they’ll stripping away the layers of Chicago’s defense is a function of their own actions. Dribble baseline and see this shift, then make this read, and so forth, until the thing unravels.
They can play with such precision even against Chicago because they’ve spent three regular seasons developing the spacing, timing and chemistry (along with individual skill development from James and Bosh) to approach any problem.
Couper Moorhead details these developments in his excellent story on Heat.com. Here’s a particularly telling excerpt featuring assistant coach David Fizdale:
We tried to fit LeBron into a system instead of building a system around LeBron. We got burned doing it. We got all the way to the Finals with it. We could have won that Finals if certain things go certain ways, but are we trying to make sure that we have the best player on the court every night? And if we’re trying to have the best player on the court every night in LeBron, then we’ve got to build our system around him. So we had to go back to the drawing board and really reevaluate the way we attack teams.
What we try to do is just give LeBron a lot of outlets … So instead of hiding behind the defense with our big, we try to get him to the middle of the floor like you’re attacking a trap or a halfcourt press. We get a big in the middle, get a guard in front of the ball, in the slot and in the corner and we just try to move it and get him in rotation as much as we can. But it’s easier said than done. A lot of times you’re not going to get a lot of great stuff on them on standstill strong-side stuff. You’ve got to get it moving.
It takes discipline too, and you’ve got to really be focused on the attack because you can get baited into just playing on the strong side against these guys and between them, Indiana and Memphis, those teams are awesome at guarding that kind of set.
There’s no question that Miami’s sheer talent is good enough to get to the Finals, and probably even win a title. But a willingness to scrap the obvious plan, to dig deeper and investigate their own capabilities is why they’ve hardly missed a step with Wade hurt. The Heat system and the team identity rely on James, not Wade. Maximizing the team’s effectiveness meant pushing the former franchise player and Finals MVP to the periphery to better suit the way James can play with guys like Bosh, Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers.
Like me, James probably wishes he could go back and tell the player smashing his head against the Celtics wall what he knows now about personal and professional improvement, about what it takes. But no one, not even James, is allowed to just get it (Note: somehow Tim Duncan escaped this rule).
The “it” in “get it” takes failure, focus, adjustments, iterations.
Ready for the big time?
A ready contrast to the careful sculpting in Miami is Oklahoma City’s system of overwhelming production. Seven months ago, coach Scott Brooks had James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant — three fantastic talents each capable and efficient when creating one-on-one. In the second round of the playoffs, he’s down to one Caesar from that triumvirate. And in part because his best players are so young, and in part because the Thunder are in the same stage as the Heat in 2011, his team was not prepared to adjust.
OKC’s system, in the loose sense of the word, was designed to give Durant and Westbrook free reign to impose their prodigious talent. And there’s no replacing Westbrook or comparing the impact of losing him even to the Heat completely losing Wade. But there’s also no comparing the two team’s preparedness and ability to adjust to different opponents and challenges.
Looking back, it’s easy to wonder why Reggie Jackson didn’t play 25 minutes in a single game until the last week of the season. He’s going to be a nightmare to handle alongside Westbrook next season when the Thunder go to two point guard lineups. Or why the Thunder don’t have a high comfort level with Durant at the four the way the Heat, on both ends, know exactly how to adjust to LeBron fronting the post and the opposition’s big covering one of the Heat’s smaller shooters.
The Thunder already had something that worked, and worked better than anything any other team except one did in the regular season. But winning all those games wasn’t the only goal of the regular season. The idea is to peak at the postseason, to use those 82 games to experiment and grow. That’s really the only upside of an 82 game season from a team’s perspective. Although it’s too long, stresses players’ bodies to the point of injury and necessitates a ton of meaningless games, by taking a scientific approach to each game, it’s possible to infuse them with meaning.
There’s no questioning Scott Brooks’ intentions, or that the Thunder players aren’t willing to do what it takes to reach their potential, Westbrook’s injury has exposed them to adversity that they would not (and likely could not) force upon themselves during the regular season.
Like the Heat in 2011-12 summer, the true test of Brooks coaching will be whether things change next season.
Too smart for their own good
For more than a decade, the San Antonio Spurs have been the model of this mature, scientific approach to the regular season. They rest their players and stress their bench players in long minutes of tight games so that they preserve their health and gain experience that can serve them down the road.
In fact, there’s an argument that the Spurs are too good at the regular season, and that their proficiency during those 82 games, and the near-perfect systemization of their offense and defense, leaves little room for growth during the playoffs. In each of the last three playoffs, they’ve been ambushed by a young team that suddenly figured something out that had eluded it for much of the regular season.
In 2011, Memphis lost Rudy Gay and sprouted a voracious defense and efficient Z-Bo. A year later, the Thunder suddenly started passing the ball like they hadn’t all year. Their assists skyrocketed and the spacing and precision of their offense, seemingly out of nowhere, reached new heights. This year, the Golden State Warriors lost David Lee and began handing those power forward minutes to Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green while at the same time finding Andrew Bogut as healthy as he’s been all year. This unlocked the true power for their long, versatile wings on defense orbiting Bogut’s steady presence, and Bogut’s passing, combined Stephen and the Currys has been a mighty offense.
What are the old and practiced Spurs supposed to do? Popovich would never go a full season without testing out small ball lineups for long periods, or imposing a more effective spacing arrangement in the Spurs’ offense. They’ve already figured it out, it’s almost not fair that other teams have so much more potential for immediate improvement.
Time to grow up already
The Knicks are one of the oldest teams in the NBA. In theory, they would play like the 2011 Mavericks, masking a few flaws with creative, savvy defense and destroying their opponents with ball movement, shooting, and a devastating individual player. In reality, they’ve routinely broken their identity throughout the playoffs, leading Tyson Chandler to say the following:
I watched the tape myself and there are open looks. We have to be willing passers. You have to sacrifice yourself sometimes for the betterment of the team and for the betterment of your teammates. So when you drive in the paint and you draw, you kick it. I think we need to do a better job of allowing the game to dictate who takes the shots and not the individuals.
What he’s describing is key players deviating from a system that has, when followed, been incredibly effective for six months of basketball. What he’s describing is an immature team. The whole point of having a team loaded with is to have players who can follow the gameplan, who have developed the mental dexterity to make adjustments on the fly.
That’s not who or where these Knicks are. Meanwhile the Pacers, for all their mishaps on offensive, know exactly what they’re doing on every possession on defense. They have a system that everyone trusts, and that is expertly designed to prevent three pointers and layups. It’s championship level good, and championship level consistent. And it’s why it’s harder and harder to see the Knicks winning three out of the next four games.
I’m just hoping that five years of growth from graduation have left me like the Thunder — still plenty of potential — and not the Knicks.
The Warriors have dominated 75 percent of both games, so that’s a pretty big reason to be nervous about the Spurs’ prospects going into two home games for the Dubs are Roaracle. And if you knew nothing about these teams before the series (and I admit this is, generally, a stupid way to think about it), after two games there’s no way you would think San Antonio is the better team, or that the Spurs have more talented players. As currently constituted, the Warriors’ armada of playmakers, athletic wings that gang rebound and a couple of massive rim protecting, rebounding centers, may just make them the better team.
Here are two big reasons why:
1. Draymond Green is awesome. As much as the Spurs have struggled to contain the Warriors high-scoring backcourt, more nerve-wracking is how the Spurs’ motion offense has so regularly failed to produce quality looks. The Warriors can switch most everything, and the Spurs’ offense regularly devolves into either Tony Parker or Tim Duncan in isolation.
Rookie Draymond Green seeing heavy minutes gives the Warriors so many big, interchangeable wings that the Spurs have not been able to create the long closeouts that fuel the offense. Green’s a great communicator, a warrior on the glass and, if he’s making shots (which he didn’t this season but is in the playoffs), the Warriors almost literally can’t play him too much.
Even if Green’s shooting tails off some, his work switching onto Tony Parker and other guards and just his general demeanor of intensity and discipline has helped remake the Warriors’ defense. The Spurs don’t have a power forward who can consistently take him into the post and bully him, so Draymond is free to muck up driving lanes, switch aggressively and doesn’t get overpowered on the glass.
The Spurs really only have one and a half player capable of attacking a mismatch, that’s Parker and half-Duncan, and the Warriors will live with whatever those two do on their own. With Green available to do some work on Parker, rather than slower guys like Carl Landry and David Lee, the other Warriors defenders have an easier time staying home on shooters.
What about Manu, you say? READ ON!
2. Manu must get hot, and play more. This is an issue because, well, he’s old.
Despite the previous section, Tony Parker is still doing his thing offensively and gamely battling guys like Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson on defense. But Ginobili is quietly having the worst playoffs of his career when it comes to scoring efficiency. This is a big deal because the Spurs wings just can’t get anything going off the dribble — and in truth, San Antonio’s offense isn’t really designed for guys like Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard to do much more than attack in straight line drives off of closeouts. Though Duncan is capable in the post, that’s not a reliable route to the type of hyperefficient offense the Spurs typically create.
In the past, the playmaking void has been filled by Manu, and he did drop 11 assists in 36 minutes of Game 1. But with no overtimes, he only played 28 minutes in Game 2, again shot poorly and only had 4 assists. There were some missed shots from his teammates, but more generally the Spurs are dying to get a second attacking player on the court for longer stretches. If he could, I bet Popovich would play Manu and Parker 35-plus minutes each, but Manu has only played 35 minutes four times all season. Is it realistic to think he can all of the sudden carry that kind of burden for an entire series?
He may need to, because the Spurs desperately need a second creator off the dribble. The likes of Gary Neal, Danny Green and Corey Joseph just aren’t cutting it against this rangy, young and energetic Warriors defense.
Reasons for the Spurs to hope
If Splitter is coming back, he might be able to dominate the paint against the likes of Green and Landry. And if he does that, the Spurs can turn the paint into a meat grinder, pound the offensive glass, work through the post and slow the pace of the game down. They’ve struggled with the Warriors’ team pace in transition, and big time play from Splitter could really help.
Or go the other way! Run, run, run and play small and fast! Shoot them treys! Might take away some of the speed advantages for the Warriors, too.
They can always just hit a bunch of 3′s. Simplistic, yes, but the Spurs have left money on the table with some open looks. No team makes all their open shots, but the Spurs have the personnel to win a couple with some lights out shooting.
Foul trouble for Bogut. The Aussie has done a nice job staying on the court, where his size, passing and communication on defense are crucial to the Warriors. The Spurs have gone to Duncan one-on-one against him and he hasn’t bit on those reaching fouls Duncan is so good at drawing, but they need to keep going after him.
Other reasons for optimism (and I’m sure there are)? Leave it in the comments!
This was the strangest subplot of Game 1: The Spurs did so much better after an ailing Tim Duncan trudged off the court. Latter career Timmy hedges less above the three-point line on pick and roll defense than ever before. Against many teams, this isn’t an issue. Against the Warriors, this can be a giant problem. Most players can’t efficiently uncork three-pointers off the dribble, but with Stephen Curry, the bounce of his dribble evokes the cocking of a shotgun. If Tim Duncan keeps sinking back towards the paint when Curry’s defender gets screened, the Warriors will have plenty of open above-the-break 3s for their star.
Ethan’s cautiously searching for reasons to be optimistic, and this is a good place to start. I’ve got some spare thoughts to add:
Duncan left the game with the ol’ flu-like symptoms, so it’s possible he’ll look more spry in Game 2. But even if Duncan is moving better, the Spurs don’t typically blitz pick-and-rolls, and that seems to be the only consistent way to limit Curry. The Nuggets had success with that coverage, but then again their power forwards were hyper-athletic guys like Wilson Chandler. If Duncan does come out beyond the 3-point line, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to corral Curry and stay out of foul trouble.
The Spurs had Boris Diaw switch onto Curry when he was involved in ballscreens. It’s amazing that the same guy who ate his way from playing guard to playing center and nearly ate his way out of the league is now the special weapon for a team in desperate need of a big man who can move his feet against a point guard. C’est les Spurs.
We’ve seen the Spurs, and Duncan in particular, overmatched by a guard who can shoot off the dribble before. In 2010, Steve Nash (with a big assist from/to Amar’e Stoudemire) killed the Spurs on middle pick-and-rolls with Duncan defending. Nash was a great 3-point shooter, but not nearly as prolific from deep as Curry. Nash liked to work his way near to the elbow, where he could slip a pocket pass to Stoudemire to kick to a shooter. But Curry is hunting that 3-pointer at historic rates, and shoots them almost as well as Nash makes midrange jumpers … which are worth just 2 points.
Kawhi Leonard is one long dude, can he do enough to bother Curry the way OKC’s Thabo Sefolosha harried Tony Parker in last year’s Western Conference Finals? If there’s one surefire adjustment Pop will make, it’s to have Leonard spend more time on Curry than he did in Game 1. Curry admitted that Leonard’s size made it trickier to shoot over the top, though he also suggested that he could drive past him at will. Given Curry’s accuracy from deep, I’m sure Popovich would prefer Leonard usher him into the paint where the Spurs big men are expert at challenging shots at the last minute, rather than let him pop back and fire away.
The Spurs have let point guards like Nash and Chris Paul score big in the past rather than let them carve up the defense with assists. But because Curry makes so many 3′s, I doubt we’ll see a repeat of that exact strategy. Rather, they’ll probably make some adjustments to how Leonard defends Curry (which will pit Parker against bigger Warriors) and use Diaw aggressively when they can. Duncan? He’ll likely remain in retreat mode, hovering below the 3-point line and taking away lanes to the rim.
As Strauss implies, there are no easy solutions for the Spurs here. You simply cannot defend Curry in the pick-and-roll using only Curry’s defender, yet that was precisely the effect of Duncan’s lethargic defense. Curry will drive, but he’s working for a pocket of space behind the 3-pointline, a zone Duncan rarely has to worry about. Game 2 will be a lesson in how much of the Spurs’ base defensive style Popovich believes he has to tweak in order to limit Curry just enough to yield an advantage for the defense as a whole.
With J.R. Smith out of the lineup against Boston in Game 4, the Knicks leaned heavily on isolation play from Carmelo Anthony. His jumper was not able to bear the load. Melo fought his way to the line, but only shot 8-21 combined on isolations and post ups. When we include turnovers, that’s just 16 points from 25 possessions!
But when we count the 19 (!) free throws and 16 makes he earned off of iso and post up plays (this counts a foul on offensive board that came off of an isolation), he actually scored 28 points off of approximately 33 possessions, or a very respectable .848 points per possession, a rate that is actually not far off his season average Synergy.
The problem is that such a disproportionate amount of the Knicks offense came on these plays. Carmelo performs relatively well in isolations and the post, but his individual production in those scenarios still falls well short of the Knicks team output for the season, which is closer to 1.086 points per possession (per NBA.com/stats).
The Celtics are expert at defending great individual scorers, and have rotated a few defenders on Anthony to apply maximum ball pressure and hopefully force him into jumpshots. Anthony has smartly countered by returning the physicality and fighting his way to the free throw line.
But there’s another way around the Celtics defense, and that’s with the pick-and-roll. Jeff Green, Paul Pierce and especially Brandon Bass are comparatively ill-equipped the navigate the intricacies of pick-and-roll defense, and Carmelo Anthony, as it so happens, is the best pick-and-roll scorer in the NBA.
That’s right, according to Synergy, no one scores more than Melo’s 1.12 PPP on these sets.
In the series with Boston, Melo has taken nine shots out of pick-and-rolls and scored eight times. And whereas he’s coughed the ball up nine times in post ups or isolations, he’s yet to turn it over as a pick-and-roll ball handler.
As his season-long mark shows, this is no fluke. The dude is just a really tough cover when he’s dribbling at a bigger defender. Here’s what I wrote about Anthony for Off The Dribble back in December:
On high screen-and-rolls in particular, which almost always involve Tyson Chandler as the screener, Anthony is an absolute nightmare.
Just like the Heat like to let James receive the screen beyond the 3-point line to give him a head of steam with which to attack the screener’s defender, Anthony is at his best when the play starts far away from the rim. Centers don’t like to come out there, which means Anthony, after he’s run his defender off of the Chandler screen, often arrives at the free throw line with a one-on-one opportunity against the other team’s least agile defender.
Here’s where that tight dribble control comes to bear. Anthony’s hesitation and in-and-out dribbles freeze the defender just long enough for him to create a driving angle, and the same skills that make Anthony a great post player make him next to impossible to stop once he gets his shoulder past the help defender.
You won’t see Anthony punctuate his drives with high-flying dunks, but that’s partly because he loves to go up off of two feet, which reduces the height of his leap but fully leverages his tremendous strength. Even against a 7-footer, Anthony can create space to bank the ball in off the glass.
And because he’s so powerful, even if he misses he almost always takes the defender out of contention for the rebound. The majority of Anthony’s missed shots at the rim off of pick-and-rolls have stayed in the Knicks’ possession — including a few follow dunks from Tyson Chandler.
J.R. Smith’s return should reduce the amount of possessions that Anthony finishes, but it’s a little puzzling that the Knicks won’t commit to just wearing out the Celtics with Anthony in the pick-and-roll. Earlier in the season I speculated that perhaps Anthony just doesn’t feel that comfortable in the pick-and-roll, but at this point it’s time to go with what’s really working, especially if it’s been working all season.
New York: Steph Curry’s body is possessed by the holy basketball spirit.
Some people mark the beginning of ancient Rome’s decline with the assassination of charismatic generalissimo Julius Caesar. But Caesar’s death is just a handy catchall for 100 years of internal strife and civil war that precipitated the downfall of the day’s greatest empire. I’ve been listening to historian Dan Carlin’s Hardcore Historypodcasts on the subject (highly recommended — get your Genghis Khan knowledge up!), and there are more than a few theories about how everything fell apart.
One is that the financial system became too byzantine and complex; another that Rome’s government relied on outmoded political conventions designed to govern cities not empires. Others blame the accumulation of vast wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people. There’s still another theory that the young of Rome were made cynical by the ignoble power struggles that bloodied the floors of the Forum and, occasionally, turned the Tiber red. Rome and The Republic could not endure without the Myth of Rome.
I bring this up because, listening to Carlin wrap up at the end of nearly 10 hours of material, it was hard not connect these fatal syndromes of empire with events and trends in current day America — the financial system in need of regulation and overhaul, the political stalemate that retards all reform processes, the privatization of military defense. You’ve probably heard statistics indicating that the American middle class is not exactly swelling with optimism. It’s not swelling at all; it’s shrinking as money finds its way to fewer and fewer super-wealthy people, often with the aid of an incomprehensibly opaque financial and political systems.
People get salty and cynical in the face of conditions that do not inspire optimism for future generations, yet alone their own. Twitter is a sort of megaphone for cynicism, and the internet as a whole does a pretty great job of letting you know what sucks. Even LeBron James, the greatest player since Jordan, is loudly criticized for being too good — see, it makes the game boring.
But I’ve yet to encounter a cynic calloused enough to reject the miracle that is Steph Curry’s jump shot. His game is optimism incarnate — just listen to Andrew Bogut: “Any time he dribbles the ball over half court, he’s in range. If we can get him open anywhere in the half court, I’m setting the screen cuz’ he’s shooting the ball.“
If Curry were a presidential candidate, his slogan would be Range You Can Believe In.
Other than phenomenal hand-eye coordination, Curry wasn’t blessed have outstanding physical gifts to begin with, and doesn’t even appear capable of dunking on his poor ankles. Those joints appear to be constructed mostly of plaster, and that fragility further imbues every high finger roll and 30-foot pull up dagger with a certain preciousness that is rare in any time, but especially so in an age of instant nostalgia and free, endless reproduction of media and art.
Not to go all Andy Rooney here, but even the Hot Hand has been disproven. Those moments when it seems anything is possible and the guy who’s just hit a couple shots will never miss? Not only will he miss, he’ll probably miss a bunch and hurt his team.
It seems Curry is exempt from “hotness” in the traditional sense: his range and release ruin the scientific notions about what makes for a good shot. As one person tweeted last night, Curry doesn’t get the Hot Hand, he gets the Holy Hand. He’s like an alien from another dimension in which drilling fadeaway threes after whipping the ball behind your back is common practice. You earthlings are so strange, on my planet we believe all shots are good.
Hunter Thompson describes the zeitgeist of the acid movement in the Bay Area where Curry now plays thusly: “You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.”
This is also how, in a smaller, slightly less drug-addled way, it must be to watch Curry these last two nights at Oracle Arena. When he’s going, he becomes the child who pulls the sword from the stone, the hero who steals the Gorgon’s head. Curry plays with what seems like absolute freedom to shoot at any moment — a license he had to grant himself, rather than one he earned from head coach Mark Jackson. This season has been personal experiment for Curry to push the bounds of possibility. Happily for the everyone — other teams’ fans included — he has come to realize that sometimes a 30-footer in traffic is a high percentage play.
The way he is shooting is nothing short of mythic by basketball standards, and it inspires a rare and pure wonderment.
Who knows how long this kind of thing can last. It seems out of step with the history of the world to expect a full and long career of such spectacular brilliance. So get near a TV next time he plays. The cynic in me wants to chalk it all up to distraction theater, but there are precious few moments when something a small and meaningless as Curry’s perfect shooting form can make you feel a little better about the future of the republic.
I’m about to make the case for something I might not entirely believe. I say that because if I had my way, your 2013 Most Improved Player would be Larry Sanders. I could run down the reasons for this (in short: improved his per 36 rebounding from 9.0 to 12.5, reduced his per 36 fouls from 7.4 to 4.3—the difference between staying on the floor and being ejected—and raised his PER by more than 5 points while playing more than three times as many minutes), but you can find that statistical argument elsewhere. Instead what I’m going to do is defend Paul George.
Here is the move and then the countermove that has happened in the statistical argument about George’s worthiness for the award. The league’s press release stated that George went from career averages of 10.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.3 steals per game to career highs of 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.8 steals per game this season. And then those who measure things with more advanced analytics pointed out that both his field goal percentage and his effective field goal percentage actually went down this season, and that while his defensive rating improved by 3 points from 100 to 97, his offensive rating dropped from 108 to 104. Overall, his per game statistical improvements don’t look as resoundingly impressive when converted into per 36 numbers, and it’s for a fairly simple reason: he played a lot more this year.
His total minutes played went from 1,958 last year to 2,972—a more than 150 percent increase—and his minutes per game went from 29.7 to 37.6. The translation for a lot of diehard statheads? He didn’t get better: he was just on the court more, doing the same things.
And here’s where I have a problem with that argument and where I may have changed my tune a bit since last season, when I ridiculed the idea of Ryan Anderson winning MIP over Nikola Pekovic: It’s no easy thing to take what you can do well in short bursts and turn it into something you can do more or less constantly. In some ways, it’s the very definition of improvement.
In so many areas of life, what separates true success from failure isn’t special talent, it’s the simple act of applying yourself again and again to a task in order to get better. I’m a teacher, and I’ve seen students write a fantastic personal essay, then turn around and dog it on an informative essay. I’m also a musician, and I’ve worked with musicians who are focused and brilliant for the big gigs, but who phone it in for their weekly shows. And as a writer, I’ve known writers who have done fantastic work and then never been able to follow it up, simply because they stopped the straightforward work of putting in the time.
I’ve also been each of those people, and I suspect you have, too. It’s much easier to apply yourself in short bursts, to do what’s needed when the need is greatest. Per 36 numbers in basketball can be great for helping to project what a player could be capable of if given a greater role, but they’re not a guarantee.
Looking at numbers arranged so tidily on a grid can make it easy to forget that those numbers are piled up in minute upon minute of action, built up over a season that many agree is too long and grueling. A sprinter might improve by getting off the block faster, but a long-distance runner has to apply consistent and repeatable processes over the entire length of the race. And there’s little doubt that the NBA season is more marathon than dash.
Almost any endeavor requires a certain amount of talent, a certain facility with performing the tasks required. We tend to think of improvement as getting better at each individual part of that process, but developing the ability to be very good over and over again, night in and night out, is its own kind of improvement, and worthy of recognition.
What did you think? Did you enjoy it? Did you even laugh a bit?
To a normal person, there is almost literally nothing interesting about this video. Sure, there is the occasional slack-jawed, blank expression that suggests Woodson is just zoning out, or trying to remember whether he turned over the laundry, rather than managing an exceptionally complex process in front of 20,000 fans.
But by and large this is pretty unremarkable stuff. To a normal person.
However, if you happen to be a Knicks fan, or just a basketball nerd, this reel suddenly becomes endlessly entertaining. If you find yourself chuckling, good for you — you somehow get it about Mike Woodson, the most unlikely lovable character in the NBA.
From both a tactical and personal sense, Woodson was something of a cipher when he took his place on the Knicks sideline. Sure, we knew of Iso-Joe and the switch-heavy defensive system that Atlanta employed in order to take advantage of a starting lineup that included four quick players between 6-8 and 6-9.
But it was all so blah. Woodson wasn’t a maverick, riding into town to shake up a corrupt and struggling frontier outpost. He was the weathered deputy suddenly promoted to sheriff after the office’s previous occupant had skipped town.
Even the preseason profile from Will Lietch suggests Woodson’s best quality is that he is an utterly vanilla person “They want the predictable, they want the projectable … they want, frankly, the old.“
Everyone expected Woodson would deliver on this uninspiring mandate.
The players are old, and Woodson’s ideas on coaching aren’t exactly revolutionary. Often when he speaks at pregame pressers, it’s as though he is an old computer that can spit out 12 different clichés. No matter what you ask, it’s getting piped down one of those tracks. Usually, the answers revert to: 1) veterans are awesome 2) we have to rebound and defend.
But the play of the Knicks leads many, including myself, to suspect that Woodson’s public demeanor is a clever disguise for one of the most interesting coaching jobs in recent memory.
The triple high screen that caught everyone’s eye early in the season is just one example of how this supposedly hyper-conventional coach helps the Knicks keep it weird. The best is when Jason Kidd “runs” it, and swings out wide as his three screeners break into their routes like football receivers from a “bunch” formation. Kidd becomes the cunning old quarterback who’s duped the defense with a play fake and now rumbles out of the pocket, looking to pick out receivers on a crossing rout.
The Knicks defense has been up and down — more often down since the opening month of the season — but still Woodson has relied on a system that demands smart, wily players to work. Witness Jason Kidd just running around doubling whomever he wants instead of guarding Tony Allen in the half court, or J.R. Smith making a hard switch late in the shot clock to stymie the opponents set action. Yes, J.R. Smith has made solid decisions on defense.
It’s hard to know exactly what caused Smith to become a more serious and practical player over the course of this season. The same goes for Carmelo’s improved mental game. Naturally, most observers suspect Woodson has had something to do with these developments, in his own cagey way.
He has managed to both ask more of Melo and Smith than before, while also tailoring the Knicks style to suit their instincts. He has encouraged a free-flowing, 3-happy small-ball system that also keeps turnovers way down and disciplines the pace of the game.
Perhaps it’s the fun style of play, the experimental coaching that has changed the way we think of Woodson as a dude. Perhaps it is just oncourt success that has given life to a strange cult of personality around what appears to be only hints of any personality at all.
After all, no team surpassed expectations like the Knicks. Woodson’s crew won nine more games than predicted in ESPN’s summer forecast, tied with Golden State for the largest positive margin. So there’s plenty to be happy about, and maybe that’s why people are lovingly creating video compilations of Woodson’s blank stare — the same look that, when he was coaching in Atlanta, lead some to wonder if he was that bright of a coach.
But his success in New York, Woodson is now 72-36 in the regular season since taking over last season, even invites a reframing of his Atlanta years. The offense may not have been nearly as nuanced and interesting, but the same funky defensive switch that Zach Lowe lauded on Grantland was something Woodson came up with in 2011 in Atlanta. The end of a story always alters our perception of the preceding events.
It might just be that, under the intense media scrutiny that comes with being the Knicks (or Lakers) coach, we are getting to know Woodson in a way we never could in Atlanta. It’s hard to give tons of attention from a far to a coach of a team that few even in the team’s home city cares about.
We now have the stunning revelation Woodson’s players find him hilarious, and everyone wants in on the joke.
However it’s foolish to expect that Woodson’s shine won’t disappear if the Knicks, with their old and expensive players, falter in the future. Like every coach except a precious few, Woodson has his faults and will one leave not on someone else’s terms, justly or not. When that day comes, I hope Knicks fans remember who Woodson was in 2012-13, the season in which it became endearing for a coach to stare at the court, mouth agape.