We are the NBA’s referee problem

Short story short: LeBron James fouled Kevin Durant on a high leverage possession, and nothing was whistled. The end.

Obviously, the refs should have made the call, but “should have” is a far distance from, “It’s a crime that they didn’t!” A lot of people reacted with the latter pose, which, on a positive note, reflects the amount of passion fans invest into this thrilling game. It’s also a little silly.

The refs are a convenient target, and I’m not averse to pointing out a flop that tricks the credulous whistle,  or the makeup call that makes a game look farcical. I just can’t get with our Twitter culture of shouting conflicting demands at these officials. People either want a correctly called game, or one that fits some mysterious, holy basketball code. I’m beginning to suspect that these demands are retroactive, and based mostly on whatever emotion the demand-maker feels after an important call.

When Kevin Garnett was correctly whistled for an illegal screen against Philadelphia, many were outraged because it was a late game situation.

You can’t call that so late! Swallow your whistles! Let em’ play! Players should decide the game! Not refs!

Later in the playoffs, during the thrilling Heat-Celtics series, Rajon Rondo took a slap to the head from Dwyane Wade. To my memory, very few tweeters noticed this in real time. But, quite a few folks thought it was an outrage after the 5th replay or so.

I believe the call was missed because the slap happened a few feet away from Rondo’s shot release, after the shot left Rajon’s hands. Sorry, there’s no conspiracy theory here, just an explanation for how a mistake might occur. I find it interesting that a somewhat similar play is infamous because the whistle was blown.

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Rajon Rondo: The overrated, justly appreciated new Kobe Bryant

In 2005 and 2006, I watched Kobe Bryant play basketball, but not because I thought he was the world’s best player. Even back then, I believed LeBron’s well rounded attack to be superior. But that’s fodder for an argument and not necessarily why anyone should turn on a television. While we like to debate which players are the most effective at creating wins (this is the tacit meaning of “best,” no?), there is a distance between that conversation and why we’re drawn to basketball.

So, without caring much about Kobe as a win-generating force, my college self loved the Kobe show for what it was. What it was, back then, was a man flinging deep three pointers from angles only known by creepy chiropractors. Bryant had invented a new, thrilling, selfish, hilarious way to play the sport we thought we knew.

The awed internal monologue gasped, “Wait, you can shoot contested fadeaway three pointers with no legal repercussions? Wait, you can shoot uncontested fadeaway three pointers were no legal repercussions?” On a nightly basis, Gunner Kobe took on basketball convention and usually won. That he was pulling this off while being near LeBron in efficiency was perhaps a greater accomplishment than being the most efficient. James was approaching excellence logically; Bryant was brilliantly playing like an idiot.

Winning basketball is often concocted by its most aesthetically pleasing practitioners. We take pleasure in a person’s ability to problem solve on the court, and solving problems leads to victories. But it’s not a perfect correlation, as some effective players languish, unloved in our collective imaginations. Tim Duncan is an obvious choice here. Few were better at being better while making the masses shrug. And sometimes, effective players capture our imaginations and run with them to an extreme degree.

Which brings

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Enough about LeBron and his fouls

LeBron James and his lack of fouling has (again) become a talking point, mostly thanks to a much-bemoaned Dwyane Wade no call on Rajon Rondo (Well that, and Miami’s 47 free throws to Boston’s 29 FTs). This is quite similar to how LeBron gets blamed for not taking a buzzer beater that Wade misses. If Dwyane catches a cold, LeBron gets the flu–while also getting ridiculed for starting the bubonic plague of AAU-me-first-passivity-shrinkingism.

The “He doesn’t get called for fouls! superstar non call!” trope has resonance because it riles up those who feel that LeBron James was presumptuously marketed to them, that his is a false reign, propped up by NBA puppet masters. This is a deranged, paranoid way to think. So of course, it’s quite a popular sentiment.

I’ve read a bit about how James only had three (Three!) fouls in the Indiana series. The charge is spat as though it’s a self evident uncovering of malfeasance, as though the mere existence of this data is something on the level of basketball’s Pentagon Papers.

Show me some visual evidence and then we can discuss whether David Stern’s pointing the real JFK murder weapon at his refs and demanding they follow Maverick Carter’s orders. Show me something compelling, because LeBron James averages a mere 1.5 fouls in the regular season. Against Indiana, he averaged .5 fouls in the small sample size of six games. One foul fewer per game isn’t exactly a dramatic shift from what you’ll see on League Pass in January.

Six games against the Pacers would have projected to yield James roughly nine fouls. That he notched only three isn’t exactly setting my hair ablaze, considering the paucity of minutes. Remember, LBJ had a combined nine fouls over just two consecutive playoff games versus the Knicks.

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What if the Sixers were the Knicks?

The reviews are in and the critics are out on this compelling, seven game Sixers-Celtics series. Even the hardcore basketball lovers I follow on Twitter are panning it with the vigor. What gives? Why can’t you appreciate say…this:

There are reasons for the rejection. First off, it’s a defensive struggle. I personally enjoy a battle of two pythons, strangling each other till their scales pop off like confetti. Other people prefer points. I get that. We are all points-drunk Philistines at some level. My head goes, “Whoa, Kevin Garnett hedges so beautifully on pick and rolls,” but my heart goes, “WHY ISN’T THE NET GOING SHIMMY SHIMMY!!?”

Secondly, despite being underrated, the Sixers probably shouldn’t be here. Collins’ team is only capable of making the Finals through a strange set of circumstances that would ultimately demean the championship in the eyes of many. Fans might rightly wonder why they watch the regular season if the Philadelphia 76ers make it to title round.  The Boston factor is a curious one, here and in other series. Fans seem to crave Heat-Celtics, but no Celtic game before that. It’s as though Miami magically makes the Celtics interesting, all because LeBron James failed memorably against them as a Cavalier.

Back to this Sixers-Celtics scrap n’ claw. I think the criticism of it is unfair. It is not sloppy and it is not bad basketball. It’s defense-oriented play from the two best defensive teams left in the playoffs. Also, offense has lagged throughout the postseason, so I don’t even think it’s fair to critique this as some uniquely offense bereft eyesore. Sixers-Celtics is marginally more defensive than say, that celebrated Grizzlies-Clippers tour de force from the first round.

But you know which playoff offense was truly awful? The New York Knicks, when they went five

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NBA Playoffs: Adjustments for ATL-BOS, LAL-DEN

Notes on Tuesday night’s games. For my thoughts on how Chicago should play without Derrick Rose, click here.

Atlanta Hawks (1-0) vs. Boston Celtics (0-1)

The Celtics find themselves perilously close to facing a 2-0 deficit thanks to the suspension of Rajon Rondo and uncertain health of Ray Allen. The big question facing Boston is where they will find offense in the absence of two of their best creators. The answer honest to that question is simple; they won’t. Going into Game 2 the C’s main focus should be on slowing the pace, limiting possessions and doing their best to keep the game in the 70s.

Larry Drew, meanwhile, should be making any minor tweak he can to his scheme and lineups to do the exact opposite. To ensure a two game lead before heading to Boston, Drew must implore his troops to continue playing up-tempo and forcing a short-handed Celtics team to score with them. Jason Collins justified his minutes (and his mixtape) with his traditionally sublime post defense on Kevin Garnett, but Atlanta may want to go smaller with Josh Smith at the 5 in an attempt to make this game as much of a track meet as possible.

When Atlanta is in the halfcourt, they should use far more pick-and-rolls and much less isolation. Boston had quite a bit of difficultly keeping Jeff Teague out of the paint and Smith has been a terror as a dive man on the pick-and-roll. The Hawks should really only seek isolations when Smith has the chance to attack Brandon Bass or Greg Stiemsma in the mid-post.

The offensive explosion the Hawks had in the first half was mostly a mirage produced by Smith and a host of others making long, 2-point jumpers. To compound matters, Drew also seemed content to

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Rajon Rondo suspended one game

After bumping official Marc Davis, Rajon Rondo pled clusminess, “I deserved the first tech and, as I was walking, I thought [Davis] stopped, my momentum carried me into him — I even think I tripped on his foot. I didn’t intentionally chest bump him. But that’s what it appears to be.”

Watch the tape and decide for yourself. Remember, this is one of the most nimble point guards in the NBA.

You can see he trips a bit on Davis’s foot, but the bump is clearly intentional.

And when the NBA went to the rulebook to hand down a punishment, it’s no surprise they decided on a one game suspension for the Celtics point guard. Here’s what the rulebook says: “Any player or coach guilty of intentional physical contact with an official shall automatically be suspended without pay for one game.”

So ya, that’s a one game suspension. Let the Keyon Dooling era begin!

Perhaps if he had showed up to Game 1 like this, the league would have been more forgiving…

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Rondo posts up, keeps it weird

The 15-14 Celtics are struggling to manufacture points, scoring just in 80 last night’s loss to the Bulls. Indeed Boston’s place in the bottom third of NBA offenses may help explain why Rajon Rondo, despite scoring efficiently and dishing out more assists each game than anyone besides Steve Nash, was left off the All-Star team.

Rondo’s statistical profile has always been Stockton-esque–classic point guard. But he’s relied on thrillingly unorthodox methods to reach those totals. So maybe it shouldn’t shock us that the Celtics are now putting their six-foot point guard in the low post in order to kick-start their anemic offense.

It’s a sneaky way to help Rondo get closer to the basket and minimize the way his unreliable jumper negatively affects the team’s spacing. And while Rondo has a smallish frame, he actually has a nice array of post moves. His excellent core strength and footwork allows him to hold off or spin by defenders, and his long arms and huge hands help him find angles for the same clever flip shots and baby hooks he uses to finish over taller defenders on his drives.

Rondo is scoring at a high rate in limited opportunities on the left block, but in Chicago the primary benefit of his post ups was easy buckets for his Celtic teammates. In the second quarter, Rondo pushed Bulls backup John Lucas III under the rim, forced a double team and found Kevin Garnett wide open on the weakside for a jumper. Rondo was punishing Lucas so thoroughly that Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was forced to sub in the beefier Mike James, who is playing on a 10-day contract and is basically learning the Bulls’ complicated systems on the fly.

In the fourth quarter, with James leaning on him, the Celtics again

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Technique of the Week: The floater

Parker gives Barea a taste of his own medicine

Technique of the Week is a HoopSpeak feature that highlights the technical nuances that makes great players special and role players meaningful

Technique: The Floater

Why it’s important:

The NBAis full of quick, diminutive players that excel at knifing past their man to slice open the soft underbelly of the defense and slip inside it like it’s a tauntaun on the ice planet Hoth. But that ability is only useful if the penetrating player can do something productive before the defense collapses, passing angles close, and a roving Wampa devours him, or at least his shot. That’s where the floater comes in, the consummate in-between-shot that keeps big guys off balance and allows the little men of the NBA to thrive.

Unless a guard has the uncanny explosiveness of a Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook, consistently finishing plays around the rim by challenging shot blockers straight on is not a wise move. Many players who are effective attacking players at lower competition levels struggle to score against the superior athletes they encounter in the NBA. The small players that become potent offensive threats almost all have mastered the art of scoring from odd angles and distances.

For players like Steve Nash, Chris Paul and Tony Parker, the floater is an indispensable weapon against the second line of defense that punishes opposing big men who don’t want to leave their defensive assignment (beware the drop-off assist!) until the last possible moment or are simply slow to react. As J.J. Barea proved in the playoffs, this delicate technique can be devastating when wielded by the right player.

How they do it:

Like just about everything on the basketball court, footwork is crucial to this tricky maneuver. Players like Paul often use

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Boston Basketball Death

The Celtics are dying. The Spurs are dead. Right now, Andrew Bynum might agree: Never trust anyone over 30.

The Celtics fascinate in a way they couldn’t mere months ago. Back then, they rendered competence rote. Garnett, Pierce, Allen, and Rondo played so beautifully together that it just seemed reflexive, and the novelty of such synchronicity wore off. I took it for granted because subconsciously, I assumed it would last forever. Recent events are to blame. Though Boston was spectacular early in the season, the ancient Spurs were even more impressive. Kobe Bryant’s numbers served as a continued rebuttal to time’s designs on the body. The only drop off in Steve Nash’s game was the occasional pocket pass, dropped off to a dunking Grant Hill.

It seemed back then, that age didn’t exist, due to new training techniques, diets, supplements, possibly even untraceable PEDs. An unknown something was propping up this 90’s generation, at times I wondered if God would descend to let us in on the joke. It felt as though old timers had constructed an impenetrable wall between themselves and emerging talent, with increasing numbers of challengers crashing up against the barrier–in perpetuity. I could imagine a 32 year-old Derrick Rose, shaking his head, stymied once more by the middle-aged Boston Celtics in the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals.

It is often said about aging: “It happens little by little and then all at once.” I tend to view age as an encroaching fog that slowly approaches from all sides–until suddenly, it swallows you up. For Boston, the fog-swallow certainly feels sudden. Or, as Dan LeBatard brilliantly put it: “If what we have seen so far is real, if the Heat is indeed fast-forwarding the aging of the Celtics and putting an expiration date on their time…”

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As stakes rise, so does Rondo

Despite a 3-1 record against Miami during the regular season, it never really felt like the Boston Celtics had the Heat’s number. In each of the first three games (all Celtic wins) the margin of victory decreased, before Miami cruised to a 23-point win in the final meeting of the regular season on April 10th. Interestingly enough, the Celtics diminishing success coincided with a decrease in the team’s assist totals as well as the assist totals of Rajon Rondo.

When considering that the point guard accounted for 57% of the Celtics assists in these games – well above his season average of 39.6% – we can see that Boston’s ball movement tends to go as Rondo goes. Just consider the first two meetings of the season when Rondo was in the midst of a historic stretch to open the season. He handed out 33 assists as the Celtics won both contests by a total of 13 points. Furthermore, history seems to indicate that the fourth-year point guard is the key when it comes to beating teams like the Miami Heat, who match up so well defensively with the likes of Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. While these players create matchup problems against most teams, the athleticism of Lebron James and Dwyane Wade leaves Miami well-equipped to cover Boston’s wings, leaving more of the onus on Rondo.

The 2010 playoffs are a perfect case study in this theory, as the Celtics faced the Heat and Cavaliers in back-to-back series and the increased reliance on Rondo was evident. During the 2010 regular season, Rondo’s usage rate was just 15%, somewhat low for someone considered an elite point guard, but descriptive of his distributive role in the Celtics offense. In these two series his usage jumped to 20%, and beyond that,

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