The October trade that sent James Harden from Oklahoma to Texas has been dissected a thousand times by a thousand people. However, the trade is particularly relevant again today; 87 games later, Harden is leading his Rockets squad to a potential upset over his former team. Sure, the Westbrook injury changed the series — and the entire Western Conference playoffs, for that matter — but an upset in this series would still be a huge moment for Harden and the Rockets.
While it’s obvious that Harden has made the Rockets a better basketball team, it’s also important to recall that eight months ago we had little idea how Harden would react to his new environment. After a few years in OKC, we knew he could be Ginobili, but it was unclear whether he could be Parker or Duncan. Though it was apparent that Harden would be the primary scorer for his new team and his volume would surge, it was anybody’s guess as to how he’d perform.
Well, the volume surged, and he’s performed extremely well. He took 17 shots a game this season after only attempting 10 per game last year. He’s also proven that he is a superstar-level player who deserves a max contract, and he’s got one of the more interesting and unique games in the league.
The Thunder offense has been tough to watch since Russell Westbrook’s injury, mostly because it’s less an “offense” than a series of predictable, slow-moving sets designed to maximize the talent of two individual superstars. Take one of those superstars away, and those same predictable, slow-moving sets aren’t as powerful.
This isn’t Miami or San Antonio, where there is a system of constant movement, screening, and side-to-side action that functions in the same general way, creating the same efficient shot types, regardless of which parts you plug into it. And so the Oklahoma City offense without Westbrook has become drudgery for Kevin Durant. He’s isolating much more, which means the team is isolating much more — on nearly 22 percent of its offensive possessions in three games without Westbrook, up from about 14.5 percent in the regular season, per Synergy Sports. They’re getting fewer shots out of the pick-and-roll or via transition, two Westbrook specialties, and Durant is not exaggerating by much when he suggests Houston is quadruple-teaming him.
Chris Ryan: I think it was Pete Carril who said the the playoffs don't really start until one guy taunts another guy about a separate guy sleeping with his wife. Well, Jordan Crawford, I guess that makes you the starting gun.
You heard it over and over again over the last two nights of games: playoff basketball. Somebody gets tagged coming down the lane? Playoff basketball. Francisco Garcia checking Kevin Durant for about 90 feet with his hand around his hip? Playoff basketball. Hitmen? Playoff basketball. Open-play, timeout-call retaliations? Playoff basketball. Some bench scrub telling one of the 10 best players in the world that another one of the 10 best players in the world did something that rhymes with "plucked your fife"? Playoff. Basketball.
In case you were busy having an adorable cat on your chest and being unable to move, or breathe, or — hey, this cat's trying to kill me! — here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday:
We're headed back to Boston after the Celtics held on for a 92-86 win over the New York Knicks, forcing a Game 6 in their first-round playoff matchup. Kevin Garnett fueled the Celtics with a vintage 16-point, 18-rebound performance. "Man, that takes me back," Garnett said wistfully after his double-double. "Remember when I was crushing it up in Minnesota. Just me and Terrell Brandon. So young, so naive. Maybe I could get that TV show about my posse off the ground now. Do you think the breakthrough success of Entourage makes it more or less likely? I mean, it was gonna be The Monkees meets The Beverly Hillbillies. I guess it could be reality. That's basically what Carmelo's wife has going on. Nah, TV is a young man's game. I was just born too young."
Despite the absence of Sidney Crosby, the Penguins took care of business by thrashing the New York Islanders 5-0 in Pittsburgh. "Oh man, that'll teach us to come on the mainland," Islanders captain Mark Streit said after the loss. "It's weird here. First of all, not everyone takes boats to get places. Also weird, the lack of nautically themed dining establishments. I'm starving for some fried calamari down by a marina; I can't find that in Pittsburgh at all. Total nightmare. They told me, 'Go to a river.' I told them to go up a river, with dumb advice like that. A butt river. Man, I'm hungry."
The NBA playoffs are in full swing, and as the amazing continues to happen, the Grantland crew wants to help you buff up on some of the lesser-known faces who are populating basketball's second season.
Who Is He? Patrick Beverley.
Where Is He From? Arkansas.
Years Played: Rookie.
What’s His Salary? $298,092.
His Game in 25 Words or Fewer: Athletic point guard who can get to (and finish) at the rim, as well as shoot from 3. A willing and effective on-ball defender.
Chris Ryan: At various points last night, during Grantland Live's live-tweet coverage of the Rockets-Thunder game, Chandler Parsons was compared to Brad Pitt's character in True Romance and someone out of a Whit Stillman movie, was described as trade bait for Dwight Howard, and had his possible Los Angeles real estate preferences scrutinized (Manhattan Beach, Beverly Hills). Funny thing happened on the way to making fun of Chandler Parsons: Dude saved the series for Houston.
Rarely have so many non-involved NBA people watched a playoff game out of sheer curiosity as was the case Saturday night, when the NBA world tuned in to see how the Thunder would function without Russell Westbrook. Things went well in many basic senses. Oklahoma City won, Kevin Durant didn’t pass out from a Luol Deng–ian minutes requirement, and the Thunder’s offense, no. 2 in the league in points per possession during the regular season, checked in with a scoring mark that would've tied San Antonio for seventh-best overall, per NBA.com.
And yet the verdict from those curious onlookers was almost unanimous: The Thunder might be in even deeper trouble than we thought. Oklahoma City has never had an offensive system in the way the Spurs or Heat do — a structure in which each possession features a series of movements, countermovements, built-in options, and side-to-side actions the teams run through until the most desirable shot becomes available. The Thunder instead have a series of pet plays designed to produce certain end outcomes — a Serge Ibaka midrange jumper, an open Kevin Durant shot, a driving lane for Westbrook, or a favorable isolation for one of the perimeter stars. There aren’t really third, fourth, and fifth counters; if the first or second actions don’t produce a clean look, the players mostly stand still and watch Durant or Westbrook go to work.
The first thought is one of genuine sadness, just as it has been with Derrick Rose, Danilo Gallinari, David Lee, Andrew Bynum, Rajon Rondo, Danny Granger, Kobe Bryant, and every other important player on a playoff team who has suffered a season-ending injury over the last calendar year. This is a truly unprecedented run of star injuries. But with apologies to those players, plus Baron Davis, Iman Shumpert, and so many others, the sadness here is a little bit deeper in a big-picture sense.
My personal fear about the NBA this season, and about these NBA playoffs, was that they constituted an overlong non-drama with a predictable ending. The Heat are 35-1 in the last 36 games in which LeBron James has played. That is very nearly half an NBA season, with one loss. To review: NBA rules dictate that one team must defeat another team four times in seven games in order to eliminate said team and advance to the next round. Four losses, seven games. Miami is 35-1 in the last 36 games featuring the world’s best player. The math it is not good.
In case you were busy being the guy who started icing bros again, much to the chagrin of everyone who knows you, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday.
James Harden and the Houston Rockets gave the Thunder their best shot, overcoming a 15-point, fourth-quarter deficit, but Oklahoma City held on late to win, 105-102, to take a 2-0 series lead. When asked how he and his team would recover from the defeat, Harden said, "Oh, we won't. It's over." When asked if he was serious, Harden replied, "Have you seen Kevin Durant play basketball? I mean, playing with him, you know he's good, but playing against him? No, no, this is done." When asked again if he was serious, Harden replied, "Yes, I'm dead serious. We might not even go back to Houston. We're just going to pack it in." When asked again if he was serious, Harden shook his head. Then he nodded. Then he shook his head again. Then he shrugged.
Tony Parker had 28 points to lead the San Antonio Spurs over the Los Angeles Lakers, 102-91. "We are ahead by two games," Parker, a noted French person, said after the game, twitching visibly. "But I do not care an iota. The degree to which I care is so infinitesimal as to be not a thing at all, as my very existence has been laid bare by a new team policy banning smoking during the postseason. What is it to make policy anyway? To say, 'I know a thing and you must behave thusly.' How much false arrogance must live in the mind of a man who believes he knows a thing? When the mind is mere electricity that wants wants it wants a smoke so bad, I just want one drag, just one, just please one drag. Oh, I am no more than a dog!" Parker then let out a cry of lamentation before closing his eyes and willing a Gauloises into existence between his fingers. He then added with a wink, "One cannot know of policies if one cannot know, yes?"
This concludes our look at the sets and actions integral to each NBA playoff team's success. Read about the Knicks, Celtics, Heat, and Bucks here; read about the Nuggets, Clippers, Grizzlies, Warriors here.
Brooklyn Nets: Deron Williams and the UCLA cut
Brook Lopez has emerged as a force to be reckoned with on the block this season, but it’s still Williams who makes this team go. Thanks to improved health, the Nets star guard has been on a tear lately and has transformed the Nets from first-round fodder to an intriguing wild card in the Eastern Conference playoffs. To slow Williams down in the coming weeks, opponents will have to defend an action dating all the way back to the days of John Wooden — the UCLA cut.
The UCLA cut is a simple, straightforward movement that involves the ball handler throwing an entry pass to the wing before making a vertical cut off a big man waiting at the elbow. Though it seems relatively simple, this can be incredibly tough to defend on the NBA level because of the sheer talent of a player like Williams. The Brooklyn guard is adept at taking advantage of any defender who doesn’t display solid technique while navigating the screen.
We asked some of our writers to tell us what they're expecting from the upcoming NBA playoffs.
Jay Caspian Kang: Miami will go 16-3 in the playoffs, and one of the losses will come to the Bucks. They'll also lose a game to the Knicks and the last one to the Thunder in the Finals. They're the first team since the first Ubuntu Celtics that's going to legitimately intimidate their opponents. The Nets vs. Bulls first-round series will be unwatchable. In the Western Conference, I think we'll see more than 10 different games in which a player scores more than 40 points. Steph Curry, Tony Parker, James Harden, Durant, and Westbrook will all turn in memorable performances. Oh, and this Western Conference playoffs, as a whole, will trend on Twitter every single night. Just so many great matchups and players there. Every series in the Western Conference will go at least six games, but all the top seeds will advance.
Less than 10 minutes before tipoff, the real weight of last night’s game at Staples Center, the type of weight given to fighting for playoff life and extending a season that seemed over a dozen times, was gone. As the Lakers and Rockets warmed up on the court, the video board showed the final seconds of the Grizzlies’ win over Utah, and with them came a cheer from those who’d already made it to their seats. After all this, the Lakers were going to the playoffs.
Whatever relief there was (and as Mike D’Antoni noted afterward, there was plenty) was short-lived. The playoffs were one thing, but this was also a Lakers team that had a lot to gain from stealing the 7-seed away from Houston. It’d be their fifth consecutive win, and their second against a playoff team without Kobe Bryant. It would also mean a weekend flight to San Antonio instead of Oklahoma City — likely the difference between a remote chance at winning a series and a remote chance at winning a game.
Much of the first quarter featured the Lakers’ same old issues. By running their offense through Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard, there were plenty of open shots for the likes of Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks. When those shots weren’t going in, long rebounds led to quick run-outs, and the Lakers showed off the type of horrid transition defense they’ve made into a trademark all season. Chandler Parsons finished two layups in three possessions at one point in the first quarter, and by halftime, the Rockets were on pace for 100, and the Lakers trailed by six after shooting 33 percent from the field.
If the Lakers had something to hang their hat on from the first 24 minutes, it was that the defensive energy in the half court that has built during the past few games was there again. If it wasn’t a James Harden isolation or a basket on the run, Houston wasn't getting the shots it wanted, and late in the second half, that would make all the difference. A Harden 3 made the lead 11 with four minutes left in the third, but that’s as high as it would ever get. In 21 more minutes of game time, the Rockets would score just 29 more points, and as much as it had to do with Harden going cold, it also had to do with Howard looking like the player his teammates imagined he would be.
In case you were busy letting yourself go after realizing that a late push for a role in Pain & Gain was a fool's errand, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday:
In a battle of red-hot Eastern Conference foes, Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks outdueled John Wall and the Washington Wizards, 120-99, securing their first division title since 1994. The Knicks drilled 20 3-pointers in the win, their 13th in a row. This game came one day after Knicks legend Bernard King was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame. Meanwhile, the Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade announced that he's likely out of action until the playoffs begin. Additionally, the weather in New York was perfect, with sunshine and highs in the low 80s. Am I blaming this run of Knicks good fortune on global warming? No. But am I blaming global warming on the Knicks' unprecedented run? Maybe.
The Los Angeles Lakers beat the New Orleans Hornets, 104-96, to move back into the no. 8 spot in the Western Conference playoff race. Kobe Bryant was sensational in the win, scoring 23 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter. "You know what they say about Kobe; he's a closer," said Lakers center Dwight Howard after the game. "Well, that's what Kobe says about Kobe when he refuses to let me have any coffee in the clubhouse."
To read the Essos (Eastern) Conference translator, click here.
Steve McPherson: As darkness sweeps the land, a lone figure works by dim light, trying to write one of those intros where it seems like he’s talking about Game of Thrones but then he’s really talking about basketball. Like one of those promos for a Transformers movie during the playoffs where LeBron James turns into a Porsche SUV and Russell Westbrook turns into a ball-dominating MINI Cooper? That kind of thing.
Back to the dramatic intro.
This solitary figure labors furiously through the night, but he needs help. He needs your help. And by "your," I mean netw3rk’s help. Which is you. And he’s me.
Never mind. Listen, we know how this works: HBO’s Game of Thrones is returning for a third season of T&A and D&D on Sunday, March 31, and the NBA playoffs kick off a few weeks later. Both should be reaching fever pitch in early June. Each revolves around a singular symbol of power: the Iron Throne or the Larry O’Brien Trophy. As soon as either is won, that possession makes the possessor a target, and each prize exerts an overwhelming gravitational force that organizes and distorts their respective worlds.
A survey of the players and teams making moves in last night's NBA action.
1. March Madness
Usually, this is the time of the NBA season that I associate with tanking and resting stars. But for a variety of reasons, I feel like the league has a little bit of madness this month. Whether it's teams jockeying for playoff position (pretty much the entire Western Conference), teams trying to keep streaks alive (Denver, Miami), or teams just trying to prove that the entire season wasn't a waste of time (Washington, D.C.), there's a lot passionate play going on right now. It's bleeding over into the crowd, too. The Toyota Center was kind of rocking for the Spurs-Rockets matinee yesterday. And the basketball … oh, my god, the basketball.
All those caught passes; all that ball movement; all those sets starting and finishing within a mere 24 seconds (sometimes even less!); defensive rotations, floor spacing that looked like a Risk board, post-moves; glass cleaning; and everyone could go left or right (with the exception of Jeremy Lin). I know, I know. If I don't like college hoops, I don't have to watch. This is America; this is a place where Stephen Jackson can have a rap career, and I'm free to change the channel at pretty much any point I want. But seriously, after watching dudes falling on the court like they had banana-peel sneaker soles, defenders slipping underneath ball handlers to draw cowardly charges, seeing dudes build monuments to blind gods with all the bricks they were putting up, bounce their dribbles off their feet, and have their coaches call three timeouts in 70 seconds only to draw up a 30-foot Hail Mary shot in the final possession … well, it sure was nice to watch some professionals.