Tim Duncan doesn’t make a lot of mistakes around the basket. In the first half of Sunday’s Game 1 between the Spurs and the Lakers, we were treated to the complete array of Duncan post moves. We think of the post as the place on the court where strength prevails, but Duncan is an example of how timing, balance, and execution are essential.
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.
So much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is here to help you keep track of it all. You'll find takes on moments you might've missed from the previous night, along with ones you will remember forever.
Sleeping With the Lights On
netw3rk: The Boston Celtics exist in the minds of Eastern Conference playoff teams as something akin to the bogeyman. Even the Miami Heat — who certainly don't fear the Celtics — reach a pitch of intensity in their play against Boston, and a level of exaltation in their victories over them, that betrays a depth of hatred for the leprechauns unmatched by that for any other team.
When you put the bogeyman on his back, you stand over him and you do a dance. Every Eastern Conference team has a litany of Celtics grievances just waiting to be uncorked: the moving screens, the trash talk, the suffocating and gratingly physical defense that dared refs to blow the whistle every 10 seconds. And, yes, the winning. Because the KG-era Celtics didn’t just win; they stormed your arena, tore your relics out of their holy places, and gleefully salted your fields. That’s why, despite no longer being a truly elite team, the Celtics still have a sort of cultural hegemony over the Eastern Conference. The hatred they engender is the ultimate sign of respect.
As with everything related to Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, there is the tendency to make a giant deal out of every game-to-game adjustment Bryant makes. Kobe finished with 11 assists last night, reigniting the debate over whether the Lakers are “better” when he’s in “facilitator” mode, or even whether Bryant consciously toggles between “facilitator” and “scorer” as a way to draw attention to himself and all he’s doing to WILL HIS TEAM to the finish line.
The reality is sometimes simpler: Kobe passed the ball so much and ran the offense against Dallas in a borderline make-or-break game because Steve Nash wasn’t playing, Steve Blake can’t really run a team, and not even Mike D’Antoni trusts Chris Duhon to sop up reserve minutes at this point. Kobe is a wonderful passer, and always has been. He’s such a fascinating player in part because so much of his passing ability stems from his almost unique selfishness as a scorer. A large portion of his typical assists come from post-ups and wing isolations in which Kobe holds the ball for SO DAMN LONG — sometimes as many as 10 consecutive seconds — that defenses almost feel like they must send an extra defender at him at some point. And when that happens, with the shot clock dwindling, Kobe is an expert at reading multiple layers of help defense and dishing to the Lakers’ very best option — the cutter, the player who comes open behind the cutter, or some other spot-up guy.
The Thunder are still two and a half games behind the Spurs in the standings, but they're favorites to make the Finals again, regardless of whether Tony Parker’s injury allows them to slide into the no. 1 spot — where there’s about a 50-50 chance they’d meet the Lakers in the first round. Oklahoma City deserves the favorite’s perch in part because it appears it has figured out some very basic things that work against key opponents, including San Antonio and the Lakers.
That was very clear in last night’s semi-blowout, when the Thunder attacked Dwight Howard as if it were May 2012 and they were facing Andrew Bynum’s Lakers again. In that series, the Thunder understood Bynum would be loath to step anywhere above the foul line, and so they used actions specifically designed to exploit that tendency to lay back. Kevin Durant could rain all the wide-open 17-footers he wanted off pick-and-rolls and catch-and-shoot curl plays, until Bynum grumpily decided he absolutely had to venture out an extra step or two. He wasn’t comfortable doing that, and the Lakers in general had no answer for the Thunder’s offense in a five-game series that, despite three close games in the middle, felt like a fair assessment of the gap between the teams, given that the other two games were gigantic Oklahoma City blowouts.
Join your Shootaround crew for some fake trades, pipe dreams, and beautiful, dark, twisted, deadline day fantasies.
The Book of Revelation
Golden State Warriors get: Devin Harris (Hawks), Earl Clark (Lakers), DeMarcus Cousins (Kings), Aaron Brooks (Kings) Los Angeles Lakers get: Josh Smith (Hawks), Andris Biedrins (Warriors) Atlanta Hawks get: Pau Gasol (Lakers), Tyreke Evans (Kings) Sacramento Kings get: David Lee (Warriors), Klay Thompson (Warriors)
The worst-case scenario is that this is the annihilation of many teams at once — but at least it will be entertaining! The Lakers reunite Dwight Howard with his old pal Smith, who gets reunited with his own Cliff Paul; Biedrins slides in at the end of the bench. The Hawks build around Al Horford, Gasol, and Evans, who gets a little more institutional structure — for him, this is one of those “change of scenery” reboots. The Kings lose two streaky young stars but acquire solid cornerstones for the future, whatever that concept means to them. The Warriors get a couple experienced guards who, on any given night, might offer a passable impression of a fourth-quarter triggerman. They also get the budding Clark and Cousins, a combustible talent who could really benefit from a God-fearing coach. Ivan Johnson gets thrown in just to give the Warriors an edge in weirdness. Consider it an homage to 2006-07, when the Warriors traded a third of their team away in January and went on one of the most thrilling playoff runs ever. — Hua Hsu
In case you were busy settling up with Alamo Rent A Car after just driving, man, went horribly awry, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday.
The Los Angeles Lakers' troubled season continued, as forward Pau Gasol has been ruled out for at least six weeks after tearing his plantar fascia. Back in the Lakers' locker room, a frustrated Mike D'Antoni was confused by the diagnosis. "Oh, first Dwight is in and out of the lineup with undiagnosable shoulder pain, and now Pau tears a damn ribbon, and he won't play?" said D'Antoni, whose native tongue is Italian. "No, coach," interjected Lakers point guard Steve Nash, "I'm pretty sure fascia in English refers to the frieze of a building. Or like, the space around a column? His home must have suffered some cosmetic exterior damage, and that can be a real pain to deal with." D'Antoni countered, "Well, that's no reason to miss six weeks; with the amount he's paid, that's one week out tops." Metta World Peace then chimed in: "I don't mean to be a bother, but fascia can also mean 'bandage' in Latin. Perhaps we should give the Spaniard the benefit of the doubt and assume that he ripped a bandage, and then got one of those antibiotic-resistant infections." A dark hooded figure then emerged from the corner of the room, and bellowed, "Stai zitto!" A hush fell over the room until World Peace asked, "What's that mean, Kobe?" Bryant, deflated, responded, "It means 'shut up,' Ron. In Italian. Man, why'd you have to ruin my badass entrance. Whatever. All that matters is that Pau is feeling pain. Do we know whether or not he's feeling pain?" At this point Gasol himself got up from the trainer's table and said, "Uh, guys, I'm right here, and it's just a foot injury. I should be back in March." But his rational explanation came too late, as Kobe had already decided he was owed pain.
In case you were out just driving, man, just hitting the open road, here's what you missed in sports Tuesday.
The Houston Rockets tied the NBA record for 3-pointers but were denied the record outright after a flurry of ejections marred the end of their 140-109 win over the Golden State Warriors. Houston point guard Jeremy Lin, who led the way for the Rockets with 28 points and nine assists, said after the game, "It was total Linsanity out there, huh?" before pausing dramatically for effect. "I mean, I've seen some things in my day, but that was totally Linsane." Lin then paused again, before admitting, "Guys, I have a lot of T-shirts to move, so if you could remind people of Linsanity, that would be really great. My cousin is all like, 'Get these boxes out of my garage,' and I'm like, 'Whatever, Tom. You said I could leave them in there as long as I needed,' and he's all like, 'Yeah, but I thought they'd be gone in a week,' and I was all like, 'Yeah, me, too.'"
Let’s not mince words here — the Lakers are boring. Sure, they’re a flaming train wreck from which we can’t avert our eyes, but their actual on-court product (and even some of the drama off it) is far from enjoyable, in the traditional sense. If you stripped away the star power and franchise mystique, all you’d be left with is a basketball team that’s losing far more than it wins, and there’s not much fun about that. (Again, in the traditional sense.)
But given there isn’t any way to not talk about the Lakers, I went to the ESPN Trade Machine (at least in part) and tried to figure out a deal that, in an alternate reality, would make the team more palatable. The trade I came up with is both realistic (based on some real rumors I’ve heard/read and players’ fair market value in mind) and totally effing bananas (five-team, 15-player trades and unicorns tend have a lot in common). I’d still like to think at least some parts dabble in the vicinity of the plausible.
In the end, I came up with a Lakers team (as well as a Cleveland one) that I would actually enjoy watching on a nightly basis. Of course, it’s built along the lines of my own personal views — fit over star power and great offense over any type of defense — but I think it would make the struggling L.A. team, as well as a couple of the others involved, more interesting.
Either way, there’s enough in there to get people yelling at each other (or at me), which is easily the best part of fake trades anyway. So here ya go:
It’s been nearly five years since the Memphis Grizzlies sent Pau Gasol to the L.A. Lakers in what was one of the more vilified deals in NBA history. In exchange for an All-Star big man who helped the Lakers secure two titles, the Grizzlies received luminary talents Kwame Brown and Javaris Crittenton, aging veteran Aaron McKie, and the draft rights to Marc Gasol, Pau’s promising, but pudgy, younger brother.
As hard as it is to believe now, Crittenton, picked 19th in 2007, was the more highly rated prospect at the time. Drafted 47th overall by the Lakers that same year, Marc was almost viewed as a throw-in to the deal, but despite being a relative afterthought, the unheralded Gasol has emerged as one of the league’s best centers, and a trade once considered lopsided now seems markedly more balanced.
This summer, another mega-trade landed a star big man in Los Angeles while leaving his old team with compensation that seemed rather ordinary. Initially, it looked as if, other than a handful of draft picks (three firsts and two seconds), the Orlando Magic would have little to show in exchange for Dwight Howard. But among the mildly overpaid veterans (Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington) and assorted flotsam (Josh McRoberts and Christian Eyenga), the Magic received Nikola Vucevic, an unheralded first-round pick fresh off a solid, but uninspiring, rookie season. Much like Gasol did for Memphis, Vucevic is emerging as an unexpected force who might eventually alter how we view a franchise-changing trade.
In case you were out waiting for your turn to sing “Manic Monday” at your local karaoke bar, here's what you missed in sports on Monday.
Alabama hammered Notre Dame, 42-14, in the BCS championship to secure their third college football championship in the past four years. It was reported that the amount of self-satisfied nodding by middle-aged men wearing crimson polo shirts tucked into khaki shorts skyrocketed to dangerous levels by the end of the first quarter. Observers feared that Alabama's exploits could lead to a superstorm of smugness in SEC country, but, fortunately, the thrashing Alabama delivered was so severe, the insufferable nodding quickly gave way to stoic close-lipped grinning, and potential disaster was averted as the Tide cruised to victory.
Despite their BCS Championship loss, Notre Dame fans had something to cheer about, as their men's basketball team topped Cincinnati, 66-60. "We're all just so happy to get a huge Big East win," said smiling Notre Dame sophomore Alison Whitner as her facial muscles started to twitch. "Sure, that football game wasn't the best, but my classmates and I are all totally satisfied getting one out of two. Football? Basketball? All the same to us here at Notre Dame. All the same to us All All " Whitner then fell deathly silent as a trickle of blood rolled down from her right nostril.
The Boston Celtics, led by a vintage performance from Paul Pierce, won a hard-fought battle with the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, 102-96. After the game, All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony, who committed a technical foul in the fourth quarter in an altercation with Kevin Garnett, reportedly continued harassing Garnett in the bowels of the arena. Garnett, for his part, denied the altercation occurred, as he was embarrassed that he fell for the oldest trick in the book: the misdirection. See, while Anthony had Garnett distracted outside the locker room, former Celtic Rasheed Wallace, cannily disguised in his old uniform, snuck into the Boston locker room and stole Garnett's prized stuffed elephant, Trunky. Expect the situation to escalate the next time these two teams meet.
The word “indefinite” has become the go-to recovery-time descriptor for NBA teams understandably wary of providing a specific timeline, and it is a very scary word. But it can mean almost literally anything; fans went bonkers when the Kings slapped DeMarcus Cousins with an “indefinite” suspension last month, speculating it might last weeks, but management ended it after one game. (Keith Smart tacked on another game amid some internal controversy, but that’s a different story.)
Sports talk radio never changes. Kevin from Saugus is Leo from Bensonhurst is Robbie from Schaumburg is Carl on a cell phone on the 280 outside Daly City, and although each of those guys complains in a regional style about regional players, they all share a similar tone — the annoyed arch in the vowels when they pronounce a terrible quarterback's name, the self-righteous lilt whenever they talk about a linebacker who has been recently arrested. Here in Los Angeles, sports talk radio is really just Lakers talk radio. The Kings can win the Stanley Cup, the Clippers can win 17 straight games, UCLA can recruit the top high school player in the nation, but as long as Kobe Bryant is doing something at Staples Center, every Dan from Santa Monica, Jun from Cerritos, and Miguel from West Covina will call in to sing his praises. It's a weird, profoundly Southern Californian inversion of the usual sports talk radio formula — Dan, Jun, and Miguel might be the same guys as Kevin, Leo, and Robbie, they might still be nasty and paranoid, but they are nasty and paranoid about the greatness of Kobe Bryant.
This season, the unctuous positivity of Lakers fans has been stretched thin. November talk about 70 wins and a surefire championship quickly devolved into "It doesn't matter that we went 0-8 in the preseason because PRESEASON GAMES DON'T COUNT WHEN IT'S WINNING TIME," which, in turn, devolved into "The Princeton offense sucks. Mike Brown sucks, but Kobe rules!" This lasted for about a week until Mike Brown was actually fired, leading to a 4-1 stretch under interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff. For about 10 days here, the talk upticked to "We might not win the 1-seed, but we'll still win the championship and that's all anyone cares about here in championship town." But once Mike D'Antoni took over and the Lakers started losing again, even the most positive callers began to question the team's chemistry and makeup. After the Lakers lost to Cleveland last month, Armageddon seemed nigh. Nobody would come out and say that these Lakers couldn't beat anyone in the playoffs (except THIS GUY — sorry, I am right so infrequently that I sometimes feel the need to take a victory lap), but the talk about blowing up this current product and starting afresh with anyone but Pau Gasol had begun in earnest.
On the November 7, 2012, episode of Pardon the Interruption, Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon interviewed Dork Elvis, a.k.a. Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey. During the interview, Kornheiser asked Morey the following questions: “Is there a specific statistic, Daryl, that you look for in a player that counts for more than any other statistic out there? Is there one thing that you might see that appeals personally to you?”
Morey hesitated, Kornheiser pressed, then Morey suggested that he loves guards who get to the rim: “We really like guys who can attack the hoop. Our point guard, Jeremy Lin, is a great example; so is James Harden. Point guards who are a little more traditional, a little more safe, and stay within their lane, I don’t think they impact winning as much as people think. I like having multiple attack guards and playing with pace.”
Good things happen when guards “attack” the basket. Aside from the obvious — layups and dunks — less apparent results like offensive rebounds, defensive fouls, free throws, and assists are also more likely to occur when attacking guards get near the hoop.