Ike offers his reactions to what he saw in the NBA games on Christmas Day, then looks ahead to 2013 in the Association
First off, I’d like to wish everyone (our many thousands of devoted readers) a happy holiday season.
Second, I have to admit that I will only be discussing two of the five NBA games from Christmas Day. That’s right, I only watched two of them — Knicks-Lakers and Thunder-Heat. They were the only two that mattered.
I didn’t care about the others. Sorry. But here’s a quick summary of them. The Celtics beat the Nets in Brooklyn. In an interesting twist (I’m really reaching here) Rajon Rondo led the team in scoring while Paul Pierce led them in assists. Whoa!
The Rockets destroyed the Bulls 120-97 in Chicago. Embarrassing! Especially for a defense-oriented team like the Bulls. But let’s be honest; they’re seriously overachieving right now without Rose. Case in point: Nate Robinson led them in scoring. So let’s give them a pass for their occasional lapses in intensity/focus (and losses). Meanwhile, the Rockets employ the best 2-guard in basketball south of 30. (And he’s soon going to become the best SG in the league, a title he will likely retain for a long time, unless A) Eric Gordon can both come back strong and stay healthy, or B) high schooler Andrew Wiggins, who is more of a 3 right now, takes the league by storm.)
The Clippers beat the Nuggets to extend their winning streak to 14. Absolutely nothing surprising about this. There were many highlights. Again, nothing new here. The Clippers are good. And they have essentially played the entire season without Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill, who, by the way, are starting to worry me. I really like the two of them and I’m starting to think that they’re both done as basketball players. Sad.
In any case, without further ado, let’s move on to the marquee matchups from JC’s birthday.
The Lakers won the game to extend their winning streak to a whopping five games (they lost a day later to the Nuggets). I watched the whole game and — maybe because I openly root against the Lakers, always — I had the impression that the Knicks screwed themselves over in this one. New York built some pretty sizable leads in the third quarter and sort of crapped the bed in the fourth, most notably bricking a lot of gimme layups (I see you Melo and Tyson). To be fair, credit must be given to Kobe for keeping the Lakers within striking distance with an array of difficult shots in the second half, mainly in the third quarter. In the fourth, however, he turned things over to Nash, who impressively controlled the flow on offense and opened things up for himself, Howard, and the Lakers in general. And finally, Howard did his thing on defense, clogging the paint and slowing down New York’s pick-and-roll attack, most notably by apparently having actually read (shocking!) the scouting report on how Tyson Chandler basically scores all of his points on lobs resulting from his rolls to the rim. Obviously, it’s not easy to stop both Chandler and the ballhandler (usually Felton) on those plays, so I’m giving Howard some credit where credit is due.
In any case, the most impressive thing about the Lakers’ ugly-ish win was undoubtedly Nash’s effect on the game. He really does add a new dimension to their team, and even the recently very whiny Gasol, who didn’t score much but had a solid all-around game, seems chipper about it. Nash opens things up with his ballhandling, vision, and pick-and-roll brilliance. He can also shoot the hell out of the ball, which has been inexplicably overlooked over the years. To many friends’ disbelief, I openly think he has better shooting form than Ray Allen. I don’t necessarily think his shot is prettier than Jesus Shuttlesworth’s, but it’s technically closer to the way you’re supposed to shoot. “Textbook,” if you will. (Allen’s shot is actually really hard to emulate because he’s really strong and essentially shoots with just his wrist.) Anyway, I kind of brought that up just to piss people off, but seriously, Nash is among the greatest shooters of all time (statistically as well as aesthetically). But it’ll probably be like the sixth thing people ever say about him when they list his Hall of Fame credentials when he retires. In any case, he made some awesome shots Tuesday, shots (pull-up jumpers, contested fadeaways, runners, threes) that no Laker lead guard since… Jerry West?… has consistently made. (And yes, West was more of a 2-guard, but he led his teams in assists and brought the ball up most of the time for them so whatever.) As touched upon earlier, I respected Kobe for letting Nash run the show in the fourth quarter, and to my horror, the results were very positive for the Lakeshow. Points seemed to come much more easily for them in the last six minutes or so, both before and (especially) after Chandler fouled out. Despite the loss to Denver yesterday, things are already looking up if you’re a Laker fan. As for me, here’s hoping that Kobe starts needlessly chucking again in spite of Nash’s presence.
As for the Knicks, both Felton and Melo got injured, so that’s no good. I know this is me being a dick, but I was a little unsympathetic toward Anthony’s injury. He was standing under the hoop as 7-foot, offensively challenged Marcus Camby came awkwardly barreling into the lane, eventually getting fouled and falling into Melo’s knee. It happened a decent amount of time after the whistle, and honestly, I don’t get why Melo didn’t… move. He was staring up at the basket (with no one behind him) to see if Camby’s shot would go in, but in my experience it’s not that hard to back up out of harm’s way while simultaneously keeping your eye on the rim. I don’t know what that’s about. Was he trying to get semi-hurt, limp around and grimace then come back like a soldier and lead his Knicks to victory in spite of the hyperextension? You don’t need to be all warrior-like and be injured all the time, Melo! I will now stop being a douche and say that these things happen (in a matter of milliseconds, mind you) and that I should stop acting like I’d fare better than Carmelo Anthony on a basketball court.
Now, as for Felton’s pinkie injury, that happened on kind of a random fluke play, and now he’s unfortunately going to be out 4-6 weeks. I’m interested to see how the Knicks deal without him. He is a huge part of their offense, and J.R. Smith and Caveman Kidd are really going to have to step it up on the perimeter. In related news, Smith beat the Suns with a buzzer-beater yesterday, and Kidd threw up a 23, 6, and 8! Let me remind you that he was born during the Civil War. Be impressed.
From a big-picture standpoint, I’m afraid I don’t see the Knicks shooting lights out like they have been thus far for the entire season. They’re a jump-shooting team whose offense revolves around pick-and-roll play. That said, they have one of the best one-on-one pure scorers in the league, Jason Kidd has somehow taught all his teammates how to pass and spread the floor (leading — wouldn’t you know it — to many open shots), the roll man in almost all of those pick-and-roll actions (Chandler) is leading the NBA in FG percentage (so clearly they must be doing something right), Stoudemire (a stretch-4 who recently said he’d be cool with coming off the bench to dominate second units) is coming back soon, and the Spurs (one of my favorite teams) basically also qualify as “a jump-shooting team whose offense revolves around pick-and-roll play,” so who the hell am I to judge the Knicks for that? So maybe the good times will keep on rolling for them, although the effect of Stoudemire’s aforementioned return on the team dynamic does remain to be seen. However, as we saw in the Lakers game, they are sometimes prone to making dumb plays that can bite them in the ass. Always room for improvement, I guess. In New York’s case, that will now have to start with getting everyone healthy again.
In the other marquee Christmas matchup, the home team also prevailed. It was a good game, though I do think that it was marred in many ways by bad basketball and dumb plays. More on this in a bit. But first, let’s talk about those special Christmas uniforms. They were all ugly. All of them. As my mom told me in disgust, they looked like low-quality high school uniforms. You couldn’t tell who was who, you couldn’t read the jersey numbers or team names on them, and they made everyone look like — at best — Nike-sponsored NCAA players in experimental Oregon-style uniforms. That’s not a compliment. Then again, I’m home for the holidays and we don’t have an HD TV here, so maybe I missed out on some Avatar-level NBA awesomeness in HD. (For the record, Avatar is cool visually, but it is a shitty movie.)
OK, back to the actual game. As I was saying earlier, I thought this game was kind of ugly, and here’s why. Call me an idealist or basketball purist or whatever, but during the game I was constantly thrown off by the two teams’ failure to maximize their potential. I feel like they both unnecessarily play ugly basketball, even though they don’t need to. They’re so athletic and talented that it doesn’t usually screw them over against 90% of the teams in the NBA, but against elite teams they continue to play the same way (and lose because of it in the case of OKC on Tuesday). The Thunder played more ugly, crappy basketball than the Heat on Christmas, and that’s why they lost. The Heat made less mistakes and played a little more to their strengths, and ended up victorious.
Speaking of these teams’ strengths, the Thunder did not play to their biggest strength — Kevin Durant — at all. There was a crucial three-minute stretch in the fourth quarter — when they were down anywhere from six to three points — during which Westbrook, Martin, and the rest of the guys displayed an astounding inability to realize that giving the ball to Durant might be a good idea. I’m not even a Thunder fan, but I was screaming at the TV watching Kevin Martin go one-on-two on a fast break and take off from behind the free throw line only to lose the ball out of bounds (shocking how that didn’t work out for him), or Westbrook go all tunnel-vision and try repeatedly to score on the entire Heat team by himself without even looking in Durant’s direction.
KD scored with six minutes left in the fourth, cutting it to two. Over the next two minutes he missed two makeable shots, then basically didn’t touch the ball for three frustrating minutes from the 4:00 minute mark until he got fouled with a minute to go. After shamefully going 1-for-2 (had to be mentioned), Durant happened to get the ball from his teammates after an ugly sequence in which Wade lost the ball, and then, wouldn’t you know it, with 45 seconds left, scored with ease on a dunk to bring OKC within one. On their next possession he scored an absurd jumper over LeBron, bringing the Heat lead down to one yet again. Then after two Allen free throws Durant and Westbrook each missed threes that would have tied it. Anyway, the point is that Durant should touch the damn ball more. He’s unguardable.
Meanwhile, he and his teammates made some terrible defensive mistakes that cost them the game, most notably letting Wade waltz in for a dunk at one point and then leaving Bosh wide open for a crucial dunk with 25 seconds left.
As a result of all this, I feel a little bad for Scott Brooks. He knows his team will generally be successful if he just continues to focus on substitutions, motivate his players, and say really basic “strategic” stuff in timeouts like, “Let’s get some stops on defense!” (By the way, if you haven’t noticed, those “Inside Trax” or whatever they’re called are absolutely useless, yet somehow I enjoy them.) He keeps things simple and trusts that the camaraderie between and talent of his players will do the trick. And most of the time, he’s right. But you get the feeling that sometimes, when he sees his players (read: Westbrook) do stupid shit, he has a longing to actually coach them the next time he has a chance. You know, like yell at them during film sessions for committing awful turnovers or egregiously blowing defensive assignments. But I just don’t see that in him. I think he knows it’d be counterproductive to single guys (Westbrook) out for brain farts. He has a good rapport with his players and he knows that, in the long run, it’ll be good to just let them run amok without any concrete sense of rhyme or reason (as in, offensive structure). (But it bothers overly critical perfectionist douches like me. Much more of that coming your way later, by the way.)
As for the Heat, they had a bunch of aimless possessions that ended with James or Wade firing up bad shots — and in some cases, thankfully making them. Now obviously this kind of thing happens all the time to every team in the league, but the Heat employ three All-Stars and — you’d think — should be able to avoid such bad possessions for the most part. Just like the Thunder, their offense was pretty bad when things got serious in the fourth quarter on Tuesday. Between the 4:30 mark and Bosh’s aforementioned dunk (which was gifted to them by the Thunder) with 25 seconds left, the Heat scored no points with the exception of two James free throws, perpetually allowing the Thunder to hang around. Why was this happening? I have two explanations.
The first is simple. For whatever reason, in the fourth quarter the Heat make like the LBJ Cavs and adopt the stagnant offensive strategy called “Give the Ball to LeBron and Let Him Go One-on-Five.” Even though it often works out for them (because James is just really good), this is stupid. It makes them one-dimensional and takes them away from swinging the ball from side to side, which is what they do in the first three quarters of games and which leads to open 3s for role players, open jumpers for Bosh, and open driving lanes for James and Wade. At the very least, you have to give Spoelstra props for transforming Mike Brown’s old strategy from “LBJ Going One-on-Five From the Top of the Key” to “LBJ Going Kinda Sorta One-on-Five From the Post.” This is what led to Bosh’s dunk inside a minute on Tuesday night. After all these years, James is finally playing in the post like we wanted him to (even though he doesn’t necessarily have polished post moves), and it’s paying its dividends.
My second reason for why the Heat were having trouble scoring against the Thunder Tuesday night has less to do with them specifically and more to do with the general offensive philosophy of the NBA in 2012-13. Everything is about pick-and-roll play now. I get it. But it alarms me to see talented offensive big men just run around on offense setting screens all the damn time. Watch any offensive possession these days and you’ll see elite or once-elite players like Duncan, Garnett, or Bosh setting three or four (mostly ball) screens over the course of one 24-second play. I get it if you’re setting the screens for Parker, Rondo, Pierce, Wade, or James, but my God, why are they also setting ball screens for guys like Mario Chalmers?! If a possession starts to break down, and Wade and James aren’t on the floor, Bosh should not set so many damn screens for the Heat role players. He should plant his ass down in the mid-post or post and call for the damn ball. Chris Bosh is a good player; he was once The Man for the Raptors. I have seen him score from the block. You might not believe me, but he is physically capable of doing it. Maybe I’m too old-fashioned, but it bothers me to see this kind of crap happening. I used to love watching bigs dominate offensively, but it seems that is now a lost art. In today’s NBA, the most ideal big men are out there to set screens, hit jumpers, roll hard for lobs, clog the paint on defense, and rebound. They are pretty much never out there to create their own shots. (By the way, in TD or KG’s cases, they don’t call for the ball much anymore because they’re old and it’s physically exhausting to do it. But did you see what the Spurs did when they were in panic mode last year in Game 6 against the Thunder? They fed Duncan on the block again and again. And they lost, but whatever, the point is that he can still do it when he has to.) In light of that, and I can’t believe I’m doing this, I’d like to thank Kobe Bryant for having a legit-ass post game. It’s kind of like Lonesome George — the last of its species. And when Kobe retires, I fear that post play will be gone forever. OK fine, when Z-Bo retires.
As we head into 2013, let’s allow our minds to drift toward Awards Season, and, more importantly, the playoffs. A quick rundown of my humble opinions regarding award-winners and the postseason, based on the first third of the NBA season:
Most Improved Player of the Year: The MIP thus far, based purely on production, might actually be Jason Kidd, but that’s more of a system thing than it is improvement on his part. The Knicks spread the floor with only one person inside the arc at any one time and get defenses to scramble and blow assignments following their pick-and-roll action, leaving smart players like Kidd more room to operate. And it would be absurd to give a former MVP candidate and All-NBA First-Teamer a Most Improved Player award after his peak, essentially just because in his old age he isn’t sucking as much as we thought he would. That would basically be a celebration of our own very low expectations for him. Not happening. So in terms of actual improvement, I’d probably go with J.J. Redick, Glen Davis, O.J. Mayo, or Eric Bledsoe. Right this second, I’ll take Bledsoe.
Coach of the Year: I’m going with Mike Woodson, who’s responsible for putting the aforementioned Knicks system into place.
Rookie of the Year: Right now, it’s Damian Lillard. If Anthony Davis can stay healthy he could make it a two-man race by the time spring rolls around. Andre Drummond and MKG are lurking. Meanwhile, I hear Austin Rivers is threatening to be out of the league next year. Oof.
Sixth Man of the Year: Jamal Crawford. There are other good candidates — Kevin Martin and Carl Landry (Warriors, baby!) come to mind — but this award typically goes to big-time bench scorers. Crawford is the epitome of a high-scoring bench player.
Defensive Player of the Year: Tough one here. There are a lot of candidates. Because of that very fact, I have a feeling that voters will want to give the award to someone who has never won it before, in which case I could see LeBron winning DPOY for the first time.
Most Valuable Player: Thus far, I say it’s LBJ. But I think the voters are going to play the whole “we’re bored of voting for him” card and vote for Durant, pointing to his considerable all-around improvements as justification. While the changes in Durant’s game have been impressive, I personally don’t think they give him the edge over James, but I’m pretty sure Durant’s going to win it this year.
Western Conference: There are a whopping five teams to watch when it comes to contenders in the West — the Clippers, Spurs, Grizzlies, Lakers (if they can get it together, and they likely will), and Thunder. As proud as I am of the Warriors, they’re not contenders, and neither are the Mavs with Dirk back. I have no idea what the hell is going to happen because all five of those teams have characteristics that are conducive to playoff success. Right now, however, as upset as I am to admit it because of the reasons I described above, I’d have to give my vote to the Thunder as the team most likely to come out of the West.
Eastern Conference: It’s basically down to the Knicks and Heat. The Celtics just aren’t getting their act together, the Hawks are the Hawks, and the Nets just fired Avery Johnson. Anyway, the Knicks have beaten Miami twice this year. But as I said earlier, the Knicks rely for the most part on shooting three-pointers. When their pick-and-roll/fluid ball-rotation attack breaks down, they revert to playing bad isolation basketball centered on Smith’s terrible shot selection and Anthony’s ball-stopping. Meanwhile, the Heat know what it takes to win in the playoffs and have three-point shooters of their own, as well as three dynamic stars who have learned how to complement and play off of each other. When their attack breaks down, they rely entirely on LeBron, who simply offers more in the way of playmaking than either Smith or Melo. Again, this is based only on the first third of the season, and I’m eager to see how Stoudemire changes things, but right now my gut feeling is to say that the Heat will again win the East in 2013, even in spite of Wade’s sad ongoing decline.
One last thing about the Heat: I said in my first NBA post last week that LeBron’s game is ugly. Afterwards I basically did nothing to explain myself, so I will try to do so now, even if it likely will make no sense at all.
Like Nash does for the Lakers (or any team he’s on), LeBron James passes on a certain sense of calm over the Heat. When they’re really grooving and in a rhythm, he’s at the center of everything. When things go south, he fixes them. But as a short and skinny point guard who is a staunch Jordan-lover in spite of MJ’s assholeness, I guess I want the best players in the sports I watch to exhibit the same kind of “perfect” and aesthetically pleasing skill-based, athleticism-enhanced dominance that Jordan did in his prime. But as great as he is — and he is the best player in the world, sorry Durant fans — LBJ’s jump shot is ugly, his post game is ugly, his game is ugly.
(By the way, he’s also less athletic than he used to be. Watch some old highlights from his days as a Cav. It’s like watching a completely different player. Yes, he’s undeniably a better, more well-rounded player now, but as a pure athlete, he was springier, faster, and more fluid back then. Now he’s basically a more coordinated and perimeter-oriented early-90s Karl Malone. Gone are the days of him dunking on people in traffic at all times. And yet I digress.)
Put it this way: unlike Nash, another short and skinny point guard (and yes, I just compared myself to Nash — nice!), James does not have to “do as much” in order to pull something off on a(n NBA) basketball court. In order to create and get a shot off, for example, Nash has to be nearly perfect in his execution of the actions that lead to that shot. The skill involved in any given Nash play results in it looking “perfect.” This is the way Jordan looked when he played, even though he also happened to be ultra-athletic. Perfect footwork, running style, shooting form, everything — a complete mastery of the craft of basketball. And we took it for granted. Now while Nash is certainly an athletic dude, James is so absurdly athletic, big, and strong that it takes less “skill” for him to make plays. This is not to say that he is not skilled or talented — on top of his athletic gifts, he is a very skilled, coordinated, and intelligent basketball player who worked hard to get to where he is now — but he is afforded more room for error due to his physical gifts, allowing him to become the NBA’s most efficient and effective all-around player in spite of his lack of impeccable footwork or shooting form.
Now, back to the Heat. Extending this notion of mine to their team in general, they don’t have to be “impeccable” or maniacally devoted to playing — as Larry Brown used to say — the proverbial, impossible to quantify “right way,” because like James, they don’t need to. They have been, are, and will continue to be a very good and effective basketball team even if they do play ugly. It doesn’t matter. If the Heat stay healthy and can minimize their mistakes as much as possible (like they did on Tuesday), come playoff time they will find success no matter how many unnecessarily bad offensive possessions they have. Although he doesn’t fully stack up against my Jordanesque vision of what the perfect (or best) player should look like, LeBron James is close to it, and he’s the reason why I’m still unwilling to say the Knicks will win the East this spring.