A survey of the players and teams making moves in last night's playoff games.
1. Zach Randolph
Zach is back! Fourteen career playoff double-doubles! Lost his headband a couple of times! Clearly the beneficiary of a night spent in a hyperbaric chamber where you pump in 8ball & MJG mixtapes instead of oxygen! Steve Nash should try that. Right, Steve Nash?
A survey of the players and teams making moves in last night's playoff games.
1. Paul George
Danny Chau: Sure, it wasn’t a triple-double, but Paul George — with his 27 points on 11-for-21 shooting — was no slouch. After a dismal shooting performance in Game 1, George made a commitment to getting easy points around the basket, and he was unstoppable from 15 feet in. It was a night that inspired confidence in George's already bright future. When he has games like these, when it all comes so effortlessly, it’s hard not to dream of a time when these outings from George become the norm.
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.
After a crazy night of NBA injuries, wild finishes, and resounding wins, a smorgasbord of random thoughts that don’t merit their own posts:
• The Lakers’ defense has been a disaster over the last 20 games whenever Dwight Howard sits, mostly because the Lakers have zero reliable big men beyond Howard, with both Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill injured. An Earl Clark-Antawn Jamison-Metta World Peace front line offers some interesting athleticism, but very little in the way of size or rim protection. It cannot survive against good offenses over extended minutes.
But now we might get to see the opposite challenge: Can the Lakers’ offense survive without its own crutch in Kobe Bryant, dealing with a severe ankle sprain suffered when Dahntay Jones stepped underneath him in defending a potential game-tying shot? (Note: Can you imagine if the Lakers rallied to win that game, with the Hawks missing a couple of late free throws and Kobe nailing a instant killer 3 on an out-of-bounds play to keep L.A. alive with about 20 seconds left? The Lakers were due for a close loss after semi-miraculous wins over the Hornets and Raptors in the last week, but they damn near pulled off another one.)
In case you were busy celebrating National Croissant Day by gorging yourself on refrigerated crescent rolls to spite the French, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday.
Brooklyn Nets forward Reggie Evans raised some eyebrows before his team's game against the Miami Heat by saying he was "unimpressed" with Miami forward LeBron James. "He's no different than Joe Johnson or Andray Blatche," said Evans, who suffers from a rare illness where he mixes up names and faces within professional organizations. Evans went on to say, "I saw that white kid play at Florida, and he's a good shooter, but people talk about him like he's the best in the world, when obviously their real superstar is small forward Joel Anthony. That guy's a triple-double threat every night, like the reincarnation of Byron Scott and Toni Kukoc in a single body. Where's the Joel Anthony MVP talk? That's what I, Mikhail Prokhorov, want to know." The Heat went on to blow out the Nets, 105-85, in Brooklyn, as Evans missed every last one of his defensive assignments.
It’s bad for your health to care about All-Star selections. The selection process is flawed in minor ways, and with only 12 spots, deserving players will be left home every year. Still: All-Star selections matter, perhaps more than they should, when it comes time to assess a player’s place in NBA history. Rajon Rondo just made his fourth All-Star team. Here is the total list of point guards who have made at least that many All-Star appearances since the league adopted the 3-point shot: Magic Johnson (12), Isiah Thomas (12), John Stockton (10), Jason Kidd (10), Gary Payton (9), Steve Nash (8), Chris Paul (6), Chauncey Billups (5), Tim Hardaway (5), Tony Parker (5), Maurice Cheeks (4), and Mark Price (4).
So with four All-Star selections, Rondo has now zoomed passed most of the “very good” point guard crop of the past 30 years, and is a couple of appearances away from jumping into the “certain Hall of Famer” group. As Rondo ages and folks debate his Hall of Fame credentials, his number of All-Star appearances will come up as evidence of his Springfield worthiness.
When I gave last night’s Thunder-Nuggets game one of my coveted DVR slots, I knew I was probably recording a schedule loss. Denver was on the second night of a back-to-back, having traveled from Denver to OKC after an overtime win over Portland. Oklahoma City was coming off a rest day, and Serge Ibaka was back in the lineup after missing two games with a chest contusion.
Still: Games between these teams have massive entertainment potential, and there is some chippiness dating to an underrated first-round series — a five-game OKC win — in 2011.
Oklahoma City indeed blew away Denver with terrifying ease — transition buckets, enough offensive rebounds to push George Karl into using his two-center lineup, a festival of Russell Westbrook jumpers, and Kevin Durant being mean for a bit before doing some distributing. Durant is mean every night, but Westbrook’s shooting has been a bit of a wild card. His shooting numbers are slowly trending the right way after a horrid start, but he’s still at about 35 percent on mid-range shots after hitting about 41 percent last season, per NBA.com. The Thunder are so good at this point, on both ends of the floor, that on nights Westbrook makes even half his jumpers, the other team may as well forfeit.
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.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday.
Mason Plumlee had 21 points and 15 boards to lead no. 1 Duke to a 76-54 win over Elon on the same day that the nation's no. 2 high school recruit, Jabari Parker, committed to the Blue Devils. Parker is a Mormon, and sources report that his choice has given Mitt Romney a sliver of hope that someone else might take over the "Mormon Devil" nickname. Unfortunately, because Parker is a 6-foot-8 post player, it has already been confirmed that his nickname will be "The Hook of Mormon."
How many adjustments does a team need to make before you just throw up your hands and call it broken? If you read any of the papers in Los Angeles or listen to any sports talk radio or scan through the dozens of purple-and-gold blogs, you’d believe there must be some master solution that will make all the Lakers' disparate parts cohere into some unstoppable basketball force. Once Dwight learns to play with Pau, everything will be fine. Or once Nash learns to play alongside Kobe, the team will stop looking slow and confused on offense. Or once the bench players find their roles, the second unit will look like something more than five random dudes who happen to be standing on a basketball court together.
Up until last week, the dominant excuse/adjustment was something called the “Princeton offense,” which, due to its Ivy League origins and all the requisite unathletic associations, never sat well with the locals who had grown up with Showtime and Shaq. (As a side note, the Princeton offense was mostly a branding problem — if Mike Brown had just called it “the system” and not said a word about New Jersey’s capital of secret societies and lax bros, every sound bite about Princeton and the Lakers would never have existed. They still might have lost a ton of games under Brown, but he at least wouldn’t have been the guy who — gasp! — tried to get Kobe Bryant to play within something as uncool as the Princeton offense.)
Now that Mike Brown and Princeton have bowed out of the Lakers excuse show, the adjustment story has shifted over to Mike D’Antoni and his own system and what will happen when Steve Nash comes back from his injury. That particular story line won’t even get started until Nash comes back sometime next month, which will then set off its own little barrage of separate adjustment stories. And ad infinitum till the Lakers either win or, more likely, do not win the NBA championship.
Mike D’Antoni’s best teams were in Phoenix during the mid '00s. Those great Suns teams were led by Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire, and their play was characterized by up-tempo pace, brilliant floor spacing, and great shooting. They were youthful, fast, and really fun to watch, leading the NBA in scoring for three consecutive seasons, peaking in 2006-07 when they scored 110.2 points per game.
Now D’Antoni finds himself under the purple-and-gold glare of Southern California. Yesterday at his introductory press conference, D’Antoni implied he was in favor of bringing that Phoenix pace to Los Angeles, and even went so far as to invoke the glorious Showtime-era Lakers team: “We would love to be able to play Showtime-type basketball." Who wouldn’t love to be able to do that? That team was also youthful, fast, fun, and dominant.
The problem is D’Antoni inherits a Lakers squad that averages only 96.5 points per game and is rarely described as either youthful or fast. The maestro of pace is inheriting a graying orchestra that is currently 28th in the league in fast break points, 29th in bench points, and 30th in turnovers. These are the Slowtime Lakers.
New Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni brings with him the famed spread pick-and-roll system that in the mid-2000s rejuvenated not only the Suns franchise, but the entire league. With its emphasis on spacing and ball movement out of pick-and-rolls, the scheme is a perfect foil to the aggressive, strongside-blitzing defenses that are commonplace in today’s NBA.
It remains to be seen, though, how well it fits the Lakers roster. Here are the biggest changes and concerns facing the team as they adjust to their new head coach.
An hour before the tip-off, Dwight Howard stood at the free-throw line and yoked up his burden. Three straight shots clanged off the back of the rim. Howard turned to the assistant coach who was standing beside him and raised his eyebrows. The coach raised his right arm and lightly touched his forehead with the back of his wrist. “Like this,” he said, pointing to his elbow. Dwight shrugged. Two more shots went long. On the far side of the court, Steve Nash drilled 18-footer after 18-footer. After hitting about 10 in a row, Nash began kicking his feet out as he shot, doing his best Reggie Miller impression. Howard missed three more, turned again to the coach and held his hands out by his hips, a muted gesture of frustration. It’s always comical to watch a great athlete struggle at something that can be mastered by a 15-year-old. When the great athlete looks like Dwight Howard, the effect is magnified. I know it’s mean, but it’s pretty damn funny when someone so goddamn beautiful misses free throw after free throw after free throw.
Two months wasn’t enough. Even with 72 days to picture these Lakers, there was no way to be ready for what came over the speakers Sunday at Staples Center. Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, and Dwight Howard are in one place, and last night they were there for the first time. The excitement started midweek when it was announced that Howard’s debut might come against Sacramento, and it came to a climax just before the Lakers took the floor. When the first few bars of Van Halen's "Right Now" kicked in, and the JumboTron flashed to the Staples Center hallway, the shot was fixed on Howard. People came out of their seats, and with a smile and a shove, Gasol pushed Howard forward to lead the Lakers onto the floor. Howard obliged, and as he jogged out onto the court, he did so alone. His teammates hanging back seemed part gag, part nod to the moment, but like he did often in the 15 or so minutes before tip-off, Howard smiled.
• Jarrett Jack got a bit of publicity when he tweeted earlier in the week that the league warned him about flopping in a preseason game as part of its new anti-flop crackdown. But he’s far from the only one. A league source tells Grantland the NBA flop czars have already warned “about 10” players for preseason floppage, though the league won’t publicly release their names. (That will change once the season starts and the shaming begins.) But it’s clear already the league is taking this seriously, and an aggressive early push wouldn’t be a surprise.