Blair Miller > HIGH POSTS
Our leading (and only) basketball writer gives his, um, blunted, unconventional – and occasionally obsessively detailed – take on recent happenings in the hoops world.
The Strong(er) Survive, Isolating From Success, And More
Ballers! I’m ready for entry passes, posting high, and about to riff off the NBA. I did another roundtable podcast at Raptors Republic with Phdsteve, Mike Gennaro and Greg Mason. We discussed recent playoff series, and other matters. Since then, a few series have ended and the landscape has changed considerably. I’ll try to give my take on this and more…or less. Just read.
You can check out the podcast here.
One overall theme this week: The NBA Playoffs have taken a Delorian and gone back in time to the days of the 1980s, when success was largely dependent upon size and toughness – especially in the paint. For me, the most compelling storyline(s) in this postseason has been how two lower seeds have been taking it to their opponents largely on the strength of big, physical post players who lay down the law at either end of the court. Indiana’s Roy Hibbert has been a crucial factor in his team’s gaining the upper hand against New York, and Memphis’ Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph set the tone defensively and offensively as the Grizz showed the defending Western Conference Champion Thunder the way to fishing season.
Take that, small ball. And it has taken it, right in the hoo-ha. The teams lacking in strong post presence have either been knocked out, or are on the ropes. Andrew Bogut has been a godsend for the Warriors (see below), but foul trouble and the experience of the Spurs could save the day in that series. Meanwhile, Tyson Chandler can’t hold it down on his own for the Knicks against beefier bangers for the Pacers – especially since he’s become streakier on defense than he’s been for years, disappearing for stretches at a time. Beefier bangers…Mmmm – makes me think of Spud from Trainspotting. Seeing the brown British dish in that unforgettable movie scene was preceded by the affable heroin addict doing what New York, Oklahoma City and Chicago have been doing as of late: Shitting the bed.
So let’s spark it up and look at some of the other NBA stories in recent days.
Maple Jordan Is Taking His Talents To Lawrence.
So Canadian phenom (still sounds weird) Andrew Wiggins emerged from a very low-key recruiting process to sign with Kansas. Wiggins, from Thornhill, a Suburb of Toronto, Canada, is widely viewed as the best high school prospect since LeBron James. His last name is appropriate thus far in his fledgling career, since I start to feel wiggier than Cheech & Chong watching this highlight reel of the kid.
I don’t like the 19-and older NBA draft rule. I think it prolongs the opportunity for a fledgling asset to get injured and makes a mockery of college education. But this year’s example of the guy we’d like to see go straight into the NBA is, not coincidentally, the most frustrating since Kevin Durant had to humour David Stern & Co. by going to Texas. (I think Wiggin’s game resembles KD’s more than LBJ’s.) If Wiggins can satisfy the base requirement for a young star – which equates to translating skills to the next level – he’ll prop up the Jayhawks for a school year of Communications, Lubchenko-style and be the apple in the eye of every shitty NBA franchise until next year’s lottery.
Eight Ain’t Enough (When It Isn’t Dick Van Patten Leading Them, Anyway).
Punch Oklahoma City’s ticket to the fishing pond, after an 88-84 loss to Memphis.
For those who aren’t so sure about claims of roster issues on the Thunder, consider that in a win-or-go-home loss Scott Brooks played just eight players. OKC general manager Sam Presti may have placed too much reliance on the James Harden trade and as such failed to build a robust roster needed to win a championship.
Following a disastrous injury to Russell Westbrook, the Thunder’s lack of depth has placed Kevin Durant in a crucible of pressure. For a time, KD was up to the task.
After a breathtaking run of scoring in these playoffs since Westbrook’s injury, Oklahoma’s star finally showed signs of burnout from carrying his team on offense more than any one player should be asked to. After all, this is a guy who played his tenth straight playoff game in which he logged 42 minutes or more to end his season.
Obviously the defense of Memphis deserves some credit as well. In a series-changing Game 4, Durant attempted 27 field goals, but took just 3 trips to the free throw line. This is the guy who finished third in the NBA during the regular season in FTs attempted per game, at 9.3. The Grizzlies’ physical and hefty defense kept Durant out of the lane and though he is an adept perimeter shooter, it’s harder for a player like him to thrive on jumpers when he can’t penetrate to keep the defense honest.
There are also those two missed free throws by Durant at the end of Game 3 that may have betrayed an overextended All-Pro. But Game 4 was the illustration of a camel with straws heaped upon his spine. Durant shot just 23.8% from the field – his worst shooting performance of the season. He looked physically – not emotionally – despondent during his postgame press conference.
It Didn’t Help When Serge Went All Sergio.
Last weekend’s PGA Players Championship reminded golf fans that Sergio Garcia is extremely talented at his sport – and just as talented at struggling in the spotlight. Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka hasn’t disappeared in the clutch enough yet to deserve direct comparison to Garcia, but his bricklaying for most of the series against Memphis placed even more pressure on Durant than there should have been. Yes, Ibaka improved to shoot a combined 14-for-30 (46.7%) from the field in the last two losses against the Grizz, but that came after a woeful 12-for-39 (30.8%) stretch in the first three games that began with him squeezing out a 1-for-10 log in Game 1 to set the tone.
Yet another underrated issue with the makeup of this Thunder team is that after their big two (Durant and the injured Westbrook…and even when Harden was around) the defensive specialist Ibaka might be their next-best offensive option. That’s like asking Dale or Anthony Davis from the old Pacers days to pick up scoring slack. In other words, it might work at times but it should seldom have to. Kevin Martin has been exposed for the predictable “scorer” he’s been for years now. (When you go 49-for-129 or 37.9% from the field in eleven postseason games when your team needs you the most, “scorer” is a charitable moniker. I never understood where Presti thought offense would come from when the best scorer he got out of the Harden deal was Martin.)
Ibaka is a very good young player, but it’s a serious mistake to build a roster that has him as the best non-penetrating scorer on a 60-win team. The Memphis series proved this.
Requiem For A Durantulous Scene.
Given the last few High Posts, it might be starting to seem like I’m an OKC hater. Not at all. I obviously have some concerns with the roster. There are just too many bad and/or overrated players on the Thunder, but Durant is one of my favourite players and an unbelievably good baller. After all, this is a guy who completed the vaunted and rare 50/40/90 season. (FG%/3PT%/FT%) It seems sadly fitting that his worst shooting night of the 2012-13 season came in his final game – a 5-for-21 (23.8%) outing from the field – after taxing himself to the max, with ten straight playoff games of 42 minutes or more played (dating back to Game 2 of the Rockets series). KD isn’t “the nicest kid in the NBA” anymore; he’s a lethal offensive player capable of carrying an above-average team to the finals, as he did last season. Unfortunately, without Westbrook this might not be that sort of team. That’s not Durant’s fault, and his exceptional season that is part of an ongoing ascendance deserves due credit.
But, hey – enough about the losers. How about Memphis making it to the franchise’s first ever conference final?
The Western Conference Finals Are Pulling a Paul Simon.
That’s right – the West is going to Graceland: Memphis, Tennessee. It’s the Grizzlies’ first trip to the Western Finals in their 18-year history.
On a personal note, I have fond memories of the Grizz, but from way back when they were in Vancouver. A close childhood friend of mine and I flew there during the 1996-97 season to visit another friend who was at Simon Fraser on a basketball scholarship. We got really good tickets to a game against the T’Wolves when Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury were still there. I remember seeing KG throw down a putback slam off of his own missed jumper. Days before the game, the two of us travellers met a fellow Ontarian (Port Elgin, if I recall) who was running public tours of the Grizzlies’ stadium at the time, GM Place. She ended up getting us access to the Grizz practice a few days before said game. She took us down to the court prior to practice, and we were allowed to walk around, handle a few official NBA balls (much more textured/grippy than anything found in stores) and smell the roses until we heard some dribbling, and a voice, “Um, I’m gonna start shooting…” It was Anthony Peeler. Needless to say, we let him shoot, and relocated to the stands to watch practice. I’m a Michigan University fan to the grave, but I’m also fond of Syracuse, so I particularly remember Lawrence Moten slogging through stretches and shootaround in his high socks with the demeanor of a high school player. (He wasn’t alone.)
Since the franchise’s inception, the Grizzlies have averaged a paltry 31 wins per year. But this season they won a team-record 56 wins, and are entering uncharted territory on the strength of…strength. While everyone began hand-wringing after the Rudy Gay trade, head coach Lionel Hollins and his players stoically stayed with their existing hard-nosed defensive and post-oriented identity and with some increased contributions from key players thugged their way past the divaesque Clippers and the defending Western champs, the Thunder.
On the note of increased contributions, Mike Conley continued to justify the contract his employers gave him in 2010 (see my comments in the last blog entry), and as I mentioned in the Raptors Republic podcast, Tony Allen substantially elevated his game between around and below the free throw line on both ends of the court. But the real closer was Zebow.
Gregg Popovich Has Probably Already Gone Through A Case Of Chateau De Briante Thinking About Zach Randolph.
Defensive Player Of The Year Marc Gasol is the heart of the Grizz, on both sides of the floor. His D is obviously solid, and recently his O is best defined by clutch jumpers and deft passes reminiscent of the Kings back in the Chris Webber-Vlade Divac days. But it was Zach Randolph who put the Thunder to bed. In the two biggest games of his team’s Round 1 series against Los Angeles – Game 3 when Memphis was down 2-0 and Game 5 to take the upper hand for good over the Clippers – he went for a combined 52 points and 22 rebounds. (Further proving LA forward Blake Griffin to be the Vince Carter of power forwards: Huge ups, weak heart – and a bitchy demeanor to boot.) Zebow also loomed larger in a huge Game 4 win against Oklahoma City to take a 3-1 lead in that series, and effectively put the Thunder to bed.
Spurs-Grizzlies should hopefully be a very intriguing series, since the opponents play different styles. San Antonio showed they can still ratchet up the defense when necessary (see below), but they haven’t faced a post presence like the one Memphis presents, with Randolph and Gasol. Tim Duncan has looked great this postseason, but even if he is able to handle one of those two bangers, the Spurs are dreadfully ill equipped to guard both. The thought of Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw or Matt Bonner guarding Gasol or Zebow can’t be making Spurs head coach Popovich very happy. The penetration of Tony Parker will be as crucial as ever, since the Grizz D is very capable of staying with the other perimeter threats Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Gary Neal. In the end, San Antonio will have to force Memphis to play a more up-tempo style if they are going to have a chance to win the series. The problem is that Los Angeles and Oklahoma City both tried to do that already – and failed. Parker gives the Spurs a better chance to do this than the Grizzlies’ previous opponents but I don’t think it’ll be enough, setting up a Memphis-Miami championship.
Chicago Ran Out Of Wind, And Picked A Bad Team To Try To Intimidate.
And so the street fight that was Bulls-Heat came to a close. By my standards, Chicago head coach Tom Thibodeau deserved Coach Of The Year. His stature as one of the top defensive minds in the game is well proven, but being able to coax offensive production from that team in the absence of Derrick Rose is even more impressive, especially when one factors in all of the other games missed by Bulls players due to injury throughout the season. There’s no doubt that Thibodeau has huge onions, but to turn the diminutive Nate Robinson into a primary scorer takes ones the size of a house. It worked – for a time. But in the end the absence of Luol Deng due to illness was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Speaking of breaking down, I take issue with the approach Thibodeau’s team took in terms of trying to bully the Heat. I know that Chicago’s identity is to play physical and rough people up, and this IS the playoffs, but it looked like the players had been given the mandate to try and get into the Heat players’ heads…. I can’t imagine why any opponent would want to get into LeBron James’ head. It must be something like James’ old Chamber Of Fear commercial, or Jennifer Lopez going into Vincent D’Onofrio’s head in The Cell. Scary, scary place to be, and winning in there is unlikely.
It Didn’t Help When Boozer Went All Ibaka.
Much like Serge for the Thunder (see above), Carlos Boozer seriously failed to seize the moment when his injury-depleted team needed him most. Sure, Boozer had six double-doubles in this postseason, but like Ibaka, two games’ worth of good shooting as the season came to an end couldn’t compensate for the rest of his games being so shitty. He hit just three field goals each during three of Chicago’s five games against Miami, going just 9-for-34 (26.5%) from the field during those contests. The Rose-less Bulls really had to have some big offensive games from Boozer, but instead he cemented his status as a maddeningly weak-willed athlete.
Miami Flexes Muscle, But Needs To Beef Up.
One big development during the Heat’s series win over the Bulls is the health of Dwayne Wade. He finished with a respectable 18 points (on 53.8 percent shooting) in Game 5, but averaged just 12.6 points per game in the series. The game most indicative of the state of Wade’s ailing knee might have been Game 4, when he managed just six points while going 3-for-10 from the field. He appeared to land hard on that knee after taking a fallaway jumper in the third quarter, but was able to return to the game after getting re-taped.
Wade’s health was an issue during last year’s playoffs as well, but it wasn’t as serious as it appears to be this time around. Miami is really going to need him to show up against Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals. Paul George’ll likely guard him, and the Heat could be in serious trouble if he can’t deliver enough scoring.
And the Chicago Brass Made The Derek Rose Situation More Thorny Than Needed.
I have a hard time understanding why the team announced that their superstar had been cleared to play by doctors weeks ago. Whether their former MVP is mindfucked about his knee or not, his front office had to have known that Rose wasn’t ready to play in his own mind, and making his health public only put further pressure on what might be a fragile state of mind. Keep that news in-house until he’s ready to practice at full speed.
The Pacers might pace the Eastern Finals – if…
Indiana looks great right now. Lance Stephenson’s 25-point, 10-rebound performance to seal out the Knicks series had the feel of a squad that is ripe with players ready to step up and fill any void in order to win games. Roy Hibbert averaged a double-double for the series and occupied former Defensive Player Of The Year Tyson Chandler enough that the Knicks’ best defender couldn’t help out on rotations as quickly as usual. Hibbert will need to raise his scoring a bit against Miami – and likely rebound even more – but that’s not that much to ask given how well the center has been playing of late.
Say what you will about the Knicks as the 2-seed, but the Pacers are the only team in the East that can take it to the Heat on a physical level. Miami is in for the biggest challenge they’ve had in the last two playoffs. The biggest question right now is whether or not Indy’s point guard George Hill will be ready to play in Game 1. Hill suffered a concussion after colliding with Chandler in Game 4 versus New York, and reportedly spent the whole pregame for Game 5 in a bathroom in the locker room alone, with the lights out. He tried to play in Game 6, but his 2-10 performance doesn’t even do justice to how out of sorts he looked. That might cut it against the Knicks, but the Pacers need all hands on deck to take it to the defending champs.
This Week/Season’s TFQ “Du’h” Moment in the NBA.
Ever notice how Knicks head coach Mike Woodson talks to all of his players with an even expression – except for Carmelo Anthony, at whom he usually seems to be saying, “D’uh, what do you even need to hear? We pump you the rock, and you either jack it or feed someone else later.” Makes me wonder about ’Melo’s mental acumen.
Maybe He Just Doesn’t Like Game Of Thrones. (There Are Dumber Tattoos.)
I’ve always liked Kenyon Martin’s explosiveness.
(Ugh – I have a hard time with that adjective in sports. I can’t help but jokingly picture an athlete disintegrating into limbs and other raw meat whenever they are “explosive”.)
Even dating back to his college days at Cincinnati he’s been pseudo-cathartic in the way he swoops in for a block, dunk or rebound and rejoices in it, screaming at the sky with his fists spread low and wide like he’s one of those jackasses from 300.
At any rate, while he did this during Game 5 against the Pacers, I noticed that the greasy-ass tattoo of a lipstick-kiss mark he got on his neck years ago has now been altered into what looks like a crown made of shit. Well, at least it looks like there’s plumes of smoke rising from the crown. Love lost? Make of it what you will. In some sick intuitive way, I’m willing to bet K-Mart never expected the original engraving to last too long.
Nothing New, Just Tim Duncan’s Eighth Conference Final.
The most consistent winner of the last several eras averaged a double-double for the Spurs and as usual his contribution went beyond the stat line. Ho-hum.
San Antonio is hilarious. Tony Parker was 1-11 at the end of the third quarter of Game 6, and yet the Spurs still led 66-59. He hit two clutch three pointers in the fourth to help seal the series for the Spurs, to boot. Warriors sharpshooters Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson each had good looks at shots from downtown during similar moments, but both rimmed out. It’s a fitting finish for both teams – the San Antonio players doing whatever it takes to claw upwards, and the Golden State ones making a great go of it, but falling ever so short. This series was entertainingly closer than expected, but in the end San Antonio was able to readjust to the demands of the moment and figure out ways to close out on Golden State’s perimeter shooters better than they had against anyone during these playoffs. Case in point: After his superlative eight three-pointers made during Game 2, Thompson was able to drain just five shots from downtown throughout the final 4 games of the series.
I still cringe at the sight of Parker playing perimeter defense while going at full throttle every offensive possession, but head coach Gregg Popovich does a decent job of hiding Parker’s deficiencies on the defensive end. He does so by funneling the ball toward Duncan, who despite showing his age at times on offense looks much younger holding down his teams’ D. Obviously San Antonio got away from their defensive identity for a while during the series, but order was restored in the end, when the Golden State players who were getting good looks at the basket were the ones that Duncan & Co. preferred. The Spurs make you reverse the ball and opt out of entry passes as well as any team in the league. That trademark will be in high demand against the Grizzlies during the next round, but I don’t see it coming to fruition enough for San An to advance to Duncan’s fifth NBA finals (see above).
A Pat On The Ass For Assball And The Warriors.
Two teams adept at both half court and transition offense tussled for five fun games, but in the end the better team truly prevailed. That’s not to say that Assball’s (Mark Jackson) Warriors squad didn’t play admirably. In fact, one possible testament to an impressive former player-as-coach is being able to instill a style antithetical to the way one played during their career. It’s safe to say that Golden State’s reliance on athletic play and sharp shooting would have been over the head of the back-down champ.
If you like Assball, you can get one here.
It’s tough to predict the future with a team as young as the Warriors but this is a team built for it. They became the first team since the 1990 Blazers to play four rookies in the second round of the postseason. What I really like about that group is that two of them – Draymond Green (Michigan State) and Harrison Barnes (North Carolina) came into the pros with physical upside and hardened experience playing for demoing pro-style programs. Green has been surprisingly rangy and light-footed, while Barnes has shown an instinct for knowing when to assert himself within the flow of a game that was all but missing from his college career.
Of course, it all revolves around Stephen Curry. I still can’t handle how fast he gets his shot off. It’s like he rewinds back two fractions of a frame just as the ball is about to enter his passing pocket. The ball appears to be redirected towards the bottom of the net, as opposed to traditionally shot. Unfortunately, he goes over on his ankles far too much for a 25 year-old. The last two times he tweaked a wheel during recent playoff games, he was just trying to stop quickly after receiving a pass. Let’s hope those now-weakened ligaments/joints don’t impede one of the more promising careers in the NBA.
Isolating From Success.
During the last Raptors Republic podcast, we touched on the matter of the isolation offense, an article on it written by Zach Lowe of Grantland, and the potential of the Raptors adopting it as an offensive scheme.
The isolation offense still has its justifiable uses, namely when riding a hot hand, and/or at crucial times in a game when one deems it best to rely on the talents of one’s best offensive player. That being said, I stand by my point that a reliance upon isolations as a go-to offense all but eliminates ball movement and stagnates offense. By definition, isolations rely principally upon one player. (Or two, as was often the case back in the Jeff Van Gundy-coached Knicks days, when New York was so reliant upon the style that fans were subjected to constant strong side isolations with Chris Childs and Larry Johnson playing a somnambulant in-and-out, two-man offense.)
While it makes sense on some levels to prioritize your best player on offense, the problem with this is that the isolation is only as good as the player running it, and everybody has stretches of games when they aren’t in sync with the demands of the moment – or whole games as such, for that matter.
The bottom line? I tend to assume that coaches who favor the isolation as a go-to offense are defensive-minded coaches who can’t coach offense well enough to school his players to run something more nuanced like the standard pick-and-roll (which is more complicated to execute than most give it credit for). Van Gundy, Mike Brown in Cleveland and possibly Toronto’s Dwayne Casey seem to fit that mold. If the Raptors choose to run that sort of offense – presumably through Rudy Gay – they do so at their own risk, especially if Andrea Bargnani is the power forward expected to clear out of the lane and then crash the boards, as Mike Gennaro pointed out during the podcast.
At This Rate, NFL Training Camps Will Start Before The NBA Season Ends.
One last thought: Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals isn’t until Wednesday??? (NBA Commissioner) David Stern, you are dragging out the NBA playoffs more and more each season. There have been far too many consecutive nights without games, with long stretches for teams. No team should have to wait a full week to play a game, as Miami will be doing – especially if the other series doesn’t even go to seven games. It’s unlikely that this scheduling strategy will change once Stern steps down from his job next year, but it sucks.