In the first few weeks of the Premier League season, Swansea City looked in line for a top-half of the table finish. Gary Monk’s side was playing glorious football, Bafétimbi Gomis was scoring for fun and Jonjo Shelvey was running games in the midfield. In Swansea City’s early season match at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea, Shevley dominated the midfield against all-world talents in Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas, helping the Swans secure a 2-2 draw against the defending champs.
Three months later, the only thing about that scene that doesn’t seem surprising is that Chelsea were outclassed at home. Since then, things have fallen apart for Swansea, who went from competing for a Europa League spot to the relegation zone rather quickly. Monk is gone and now so is Shelvey, who was shipped off to Newcastle for a modest $17 million transfer fee.
Shelvey was a very good player for the Swans, but the end of his time at the Liberty Stadium seemed to be coming to an end when Monk was sacked. He always seemed to be out of favor with interim manager Alan Curtis, and disciplinary and injury-related issues made for good excuses for Shelvey to be kept out of the lineup even when he was fully fit.
Shelvey has traversed a fare amount of Premier League territory for someone who is 23. He was an Arsenal and West Ham youth product before playing his first professional football for Charlton Athletic. Liverpool signed him in 2010 but mostly kept him on the bench for three seasons, making Shelvey’s stay at Anfield a rather uneventful one. Swansea came calling in 2013 and his tenure in south Wales seemed to be going well.
He signed a contract extension in July to keep him at the club until 2019 and he was a big part of the team’s flying start this season, but by the end of his Swansea stint he was complaining about critical fans and rarely featuring even in league cup matches.
Now Shelvey finds himself at a new club, one where the fans will adore him and where he will be afforded ample opportunities to see that his massive amount of potential is finally realized. Shelvey has the look of a repugnant ball winner, and though he has a penchant for rowdy and often unnecessary antics, he does possess a peculiar creative sense that is going to bolster Newcastle’s attacking prowess.
He is an organizing presence the likes of which Newcastle have been sorely lacking this season. Georginio Wijnaldum, who arrived at St. James’ Park from PSV in the summer for $22 million, brought a spark and a strong will to score goals, but even players as good as Wijnaldum, who is now operating as the Magpies No. 10, have their productivity capped without a reliable quality of service.
Enter Shelvey, an impossibly youthful and stabilizing presence who can pick a pass any where on the field from his perch in the middle of the park. When he gets on the ball, defenders all over the pitch must be aware of their surroundings, because his range of vision extends beyond the touchlines. In his debut for Newcastle, Shelvey picked apart his boyhood club, completing 91.7 percent of his team-high 60 passes while getting 71 touches, just one off of the team high.
Shelvey didn’t have any official box score stats, but he did make both of Newcastle’s goals with stunning passes. Ayoze Perez’s opener came at the end of a move where Shelvey switched play to the flanks, then stepped into the hole to link up with Wijnaldum, who slid the ball over the Perez for the goal.
Ten minutes later, Shelvey found himself on the ball 10 yards behind midfield without a defender in his zip code. With so much space in front of him, Shelvey picked out an unthinkable pass and delivered the ball with impeccable precision to Daryl Janmaat, whose first touch helped put him in position to cross the ball to Wijnaldum for the match-clinching goal.
With Janmaat flying forward and making runs down the touchline, Shelvey was active and ardent in giving his centerbacks an outlet by dropping near the backline. When play moved forward, so did he, and he became an oft-available reference point in the middle of the field. Newcastle boss Steve McClaren likened Shelvey to the offensive organizer in American football, aptly describing his play against West Ham as quarterback like.
Paired with a disruptive force like Jack Colback, who will do a lot of the dirty work in chasing down the ball while helping keep the backline in tune, Shelvey has the freedom to control the game in the midfield. Newcastle will benefit from Shelvey’s incisive passing and his democratic distribution. He won’t change the way Newcastle play, but he will dictate the Magpies ability to execute their style.
It is not very difficult, nor is it especially flattering, to be considered a “breath of fresh air” on a team with a 1-30 record. But for Ish Smith, any welcoming admiration is received with open arms.
Smith is everybody’s favorite peripatetic. His resume is built on 10-day contracts, D-League assignments and end-of-the-bench roles. Only once in his six-year career has he spent an entire season with one team. He’s been waived six times and traded five times. In a 10-month span, Smith was traded to the Pelicans and waived on the same day, signed by the 76ers, signed and waived by the Wizards, claimed by the Pelicans and traded to the 76ers.
Philadelphia’s recent acquisition of Smith is the most promising move for Smith in terms of sticking around for longer than a couple of months. Whereas those other trades included Smith as an inconsequential and purely financial asset, the Sixers gave up two second-round picks to get Smith. It was a bit of an odd move for a team so focused on building from the draft to give up two high second rounders (Philly’s own and one from Denver), but new chairman Jerry Colangelo wanted to bring in a player with experience with his first act in charge of the team and Smith certainly has that.
The Sixers were not exactly phlegmatic before Smith’s arrival; they are a spirited young team that plays hard for Brett Brown that happens to produce depressingly bad results. Smith has given this team a bit of direction and corrected a bit of the chaos. The Sixers have won three of their nine games since his arrival and were within 10 points against the Cavs, Lakers and Jazz. Smith had a career-high 28 points on 55 percent shooting against the Raptors and he compiled double-digit assists against the Cavs, Wolves, Clippers and Jazz.
Even before he was traded to the Sixers, Smith was playing well. The Pelicans started the season without Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, so Smith filled in and averaged 30 minutes a game for the first month of the season. He was scoring 12 points per game and was close to the league lead in assists with an average of eight a night. When Holiday and Evans returned, Smith was banished to the back of the rotation. Although New Orleans got a very nice haul for an end of the bench guy on a one-year deal, Philadelphia was happy to get Smith back into action.
Smith has a spartan skillset and most of his success can be attributed to his speed. He drives as much as Russell Westbrook (10.6 times a game) and averages 1.4 assists on drives per game, the second most in the league behind Rajon Rondo. Smith’s divisive pick-and-roll game, as well as the hiring of pick-and-roll guru Mike D’Antoni, has helped both of Philadelphia’s young big men become more efficient players. Rookie Jahlil Okafor is shooting 60 percent when sharing the floor with Smith, a good 12 percent increase over his season average (47.8 percent), and Nerlens Noel is shooting 68 percent (compared to 50.5 percent for the season).
Smith has shown flashes of being a useful bit player at almost all of his stops, but third-string point guards on minimum deals don’t have much of a shelf life. As a result, Smith has a more colorful costume closet than the late David Bowie. But in Philadelphia, where the goal is to create a semblance of structure whilst maintaining a strong lottery presence, Smith fits perfectly as the 76ers’ engine. With a speedy player like Smith who can break down defense and open up gaps for the bigs to attack in the paint, Okafor and Noel are getting some genuine pick-and-roll reps, making the acquisition of Smith a developmental supplement if anything else.
The Eastern Conference playoff picture is a bit like the Republican Primary race: A bunch of uninspiring candidates clumped together chasing a runaway tyrant.
Although LeBron James and the Cavs are not quite as unlikable as Donald Trump, James’ unrelenting control of the conference has probably outlived its term in the minds of his eastern foes.
The problem with calling for at least a one-year intercession during LeBron’s reign in the East is the lack of a worthy challenger. The second-seeded Bulls are just four games ahead of the eighth-seeded Celtics and only six games ahead of 12th-seeded Wizards. Just about the only two teams that can be confidently ruled out of the postseason picture are the Brooklyn Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers.
It was an odd feeling, watching Mike D’Antoni return to his old stomping ground, sitting on the bench for the first time in his new role as an assistant coach for the hapless 76ers. He had returned to Phoenix as a visitor before, during his forgettable tenures with the Knicks and Lakers, but this was different.
It was different because, had D’Antoni waited a bit longer to give his old buddy Jerry Colangelo the thumbs up on the idea of easing his way back into coaching in a mostly pressure-less position alongside Brett Brown, perhaps he would have seen an ad for his old job in the coaching classifieds.
Then again, after last night, D’Antoni’s seat on the Philly bench probably feels pretty cozy.
Just when it seemed like it could not get any worse for the Phoenix Suns this season, they lose at home in rather convincing fashion to a team that now boasts a 2-30 record. Suns’ star Eric Bledsoe went down with a knee injury early in the second quarter, but the Suns were already down 12 by the time that happened, leaving them fresh out of any reasonable excuses, as if there is such a thing when you lose to a team whose win percentage resembles the price of discounted items at a dollar store.
Without question, a large share of the blame for Phoenix’s underwhelming 12-20 start falls on head coach Jeff Hornacek, whom the Suns decided not to extend beyond the final year of his contract (this season).
There is a terrifying senselessness to the way the Suns play, an underlying feeling that shouldn’t fit with a team believed to be on the rise in the Western Conference. There are some admirable derivatives, to be sure, like their commitment to a pace-and-space offense and a roster composed of players who, at least hypothetically, fit the system perfectly. But this team is so careless, so reckless and so uninspired, and Hornacek has done a poor job of finding the right lineup combinations to maximize his team’s performance on both ends of the court (Phoenix ranks 20th in offensive and defensive efficiency). Worst of all, the Suns seem to wilt in tense situations, and they play without passion.
Hornacek has not had an easy go of things during his time in charge of the Suns. The franchise’s identity has shifted time and time again. Supposed front office wonderkid Ryan McDonough, who was a Danny Ainge pupil in Boston before taking the Suns’ job in 2013, has failed to help Hornacek develop a stable and cohesive locker room.
Since Hornacek was hired in 2013, the Suns have tried out three different iterations of the two-point guard setup. It started with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe in 2013-14, evolved to Dragic and Bledsoe with Isaiah Thomas coming off the bench in 2014-15 and turned into just Bledsoe and Brandon Knight after a pair of deadline day deals last season that sent Dragic to Miami and Thomas to Boston.
Considering the modest-to-nonexistent hauls Phoenix got for Dragic and Thomas, the fact that it shipped the Lakers’ protected 2015 first-round pick, perhaps the most valuable asset the team had behind Bledsoe, for Knight put the team all-in with its latest backcourt duo.
Although the Suns have struggled this season, the Bledsoe/Knight experiment has not been a disaster. Both players have performed better with each other on the court and they are each having career years. Bledsoe and Knight are both averaging a career-high 20 points per game; the Thunder and Blazers are the only other two teams with two players to accomplish such a feat. Bledsoe is shooting 37 percent from 3-point range, which would be the best mark of his career when factoring in volume, and Knight is shooting well enough from deep for the Suns to rank 2nd in basketball behind the Warriors in 3-point accuracy.
So why are the Suns struggling if their latest point guard pair seems to be working out?
It didn’t help that the Suns attached themselves to the most volatile set of twins in the NBA in recent years. It is almost as if Markieff Morris is afraid of the monsters in his closet and only felt save when brother was around. While Marcus has done quite well acclimating to life in Detroit, Markieff has spent most of this season sulking, playing poorly and, most recently, throwing towels at his head coach.
Morris is a player who seemed to have the perfect skillset to operate as a power forward in the Suns’ spread offense. He can space the floor around central pick-and-rolls and he was the team’s best one-on-one shot creator. If opponents went small to match the Suns pace-and-space style, Morris was an effective counter thanks to his solid postup game; he can blow by bigger defenders and punisher smaller ones. He should be thriving as the secondary scorer for the Suns once Bledsoe and Knight have probed the defense, much in the way his brother has done in Detroit when Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond pick-and-rolls yield nothing.
It should be noted that Morris had good reason to be upset with Phoenix’s management, not necessarily because the team traded his brother, but because it traded his brother in attempt to open up cap space for a player who would replace him in the starting lineup. I actually think moving to a sixth man role wouldn’t have been the worst idea for Morris, but he clearly intended to remain the starter and the Suns were caught in an awkward position once Marcus was gone and their prized free agent was looking at real estate in San Antonio.
Still though, Morris is a very talented player who has sabotaged his trade value with his trivial behavior this season. Now the Suns are left with very few ways remedy the situation, including and likely limited to: selling Morris for pennies on the dollar and/or firing Hornacek.
Things looked so bright for the Suns during the offseason when they were a surprise entrant in the LaMarcus Aldridge sweepstakes. Even though the Spurs ended up signing Aldridge, the fact that Phoenix was the No. 2 option was a big deal for a Suns franchise that had been searching for a star. And although the Suns did not sign Aldridge, they did get Tyson Chandler, a veteran pick-and-roll finisher who was meant to mentor the likes of Bledsoe and Knight.
And yet, here the Suns are, on the brink of another franchise facelift. Their Kentucky backcourt might be able to work together, but it doesn’t seem like this is the best environment in terms of teammates and coach for them to succeed.
Is it time to sell? If Phoenix’s only goal is to push for a playoff spot this season, then no; the ironic nature of the West this season sees the Suns just 2 games back of the Jazz for the 8th seed at the moment, and perhaps a few months is too small a sample to write off this Suns group as a contender for the 8th seed.
But if Phoenix has higher ambitions than that going forward, then it is time for a new head coach and a freshly revamped roster.
I still remember the first time I went to watch Kobe Bryant play. It was 2009 and my Aunt Becky had bought me two tickets to watch the Lakers play the Spurs. My mom and I drove up to the game from my hometown of Corpus Christi (about a two-hour journey up I-35 to San Antonio) and arrived 30 minutes before the doors opened so we could get in line to get in as soon as possible.
Growing up in South Texas, I was a part of a family full of Spurs fans. Because they were on local TV all of the time, they were the only NBA team I was intensely familiar with growing up, but the only fond childhood memories of them that I have involve Ginobili, a player whose game always resonated with me. The first NBA game I ever went to was between the Spurs and Charlotte Bobcats. Ginobili didn’t play that day, but I remember him being shown on the big screen and then yelling down at him from our modest seats, to which he responded by turning and offering a wave.
Other than Manu, the mid-2000’s Spurs were not exactly awe-inspiring, not when Nazr Mohammed and Antonio McDyess were prominently involved. One day, my family was watching a postseason game between the Spurs and Lakers in the living room at my Aunt Ruth and Uncle Billy’s house. I can’t remember if I knew anything about Kobe back then, but I do know that I rebelled against everyone in the room that day after being one over by Bryant’s style and flash. When I celebrated one of Bryant’s big fourth quarter baskets, I almost got kicked out of the house.
Given that the Spurs had not captured my imagination, it wasn’t heard for Bryant to snatch my fandom. Soon I was like millions of other kids across the country who had gravitated to Bryant from thousands of miles away. So getting to see Kobe up close and personal was as good as it got for me in a sporting context.
Sadly, when we got to the door to have our tickets scanned, an unfortunate error came to light. Apparently, Ticketmaster had a policy that restricts people who don’t have a billing address in the state of Texas from purchasing tickets to Spurs games (and similar policies for teams in other states). My Aunt Becky lives in Pennsylvania, so our tickets were cancelled a day after she bought them, and despite the fact that we had already printed them, we were never notified that the tickets were no good. “Orders by residents outside of this area will be cancelled without notice,” the hidden policy stated.
I should note that the Spurs were nice enough to try to remedy the situation by offering my mom and I tickets to another big game against the defending champion Boston Celtics. While I was obviously not the biggest Celtics supporter given my Lakers fandom, I did enjoy getting to watching Duncan and Garnett go up against each other, and watching the way Ray Allen worked off the ball in person, as well as how Rondo ran the game, offered up a new perspective on their games.
The Spurs customer service group allowed us to stay in the arena, so long as we purchased standing room only tickets, but because we spent a good hour arguing with the customer service department, all of the prime spots in the FanZone were taken. We stayed anyways, hoping an empty seat or two would present itself, but nothing materialized. The AT&T Center has curtains covering the entrances to every section, so I could not even pop my head in to watch the game from the upper deck. Every time I did, an usher shooed me away. I went section-to-section hoping for a kind-hearted usher would let me poke my head through the curtains, just to get a glimpse at Kobe. I never found that usher; instead, one told me that he would call security to come remove me – a 14-year-old – from the building if I didn’t back away from the seating areas. So I did. I went and found a chair in the lobby area and sat there, listening the cheers and jeers of the crowd from afar.
Never again did I want to be stuck behind the curtain.
That was the impetus behind me pursuing sportswriting as something more than a hobby. By that time, I had already started writing on my own blog, which has evolved into this site today, but I wasn’t sure of any the specifics related to writing about sports as a career. Being kept outside of the arena on that night made me dream about watching and writing about games for a living more and more, it made me strive to be someone who would not have to bother with showing a ticket to get passed those curtains.
The second time I went to see Kobe play was in March 2010. There was no credit card fiasco that time; well, unless you count my family splurging to get me a single seat seven rows off the court just to the side of the basket. I’m sure they wished that ticket had been cancelled, too.
Bryant didn’t put on the kind of dominant performance that he usually reserves for his meetings with the Spurs that night, but he was 11-of-16 from the floor for 24 points with six assists and four rebounds, and he was vintage Kobe down the stretch. He roasted George Hill in the midpost in the first half and then did the same to Manu Ginobili, Keith Bogans, Richard Jefferson and Roger Mason Jr. in the second; in retrospect, it was the kind of game that made the Kawhi Leonard trade, which would come a year later, seem like a necessity if the Spurs were going to win in the postseason against the likes of Bryant, Durant and LeBron.
Bryant had some fantastic moments in the second half, including some one-on-one baptisms of Ginobili and two huge 3-pointers to give the Lakers the lead in the fourth. His first was a 30-foot pullup from a stand still position with Mason Jr. on his hip. He rose and fired without a conscious and the ripple of the net sent the Kobe fans in the building to go into a frenzy. And then with just under three minutes left, Gasol found Bryant in the left corner, where he buried a wide-open 3-pointer to put the Lakers up 11 after trailing by seven at the half.
That was the last basketball game I remember going to as a fan. In January 2012, I started writing NBA columns for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, and within a few months I was covering the Spurs, Mavericks and Rockets as a credentialed media member. That summer, I also covered Team USA Basketball’s preseason camps and showcases in Las Vegas, New York and Washington, which was the first time I had met and interviewed Kobe in a professional capacity. Someone snapped a photo of me in a scrum with Bryant, and everybody always says I look like the happiest person on the planet in that photo. They’re probably right.
It will soon be four years since I started writing for the Caller-Times. During that time I’ve covered two NBA Finals, four Spurs postseason runs and more than 100 games in total. Perhaps the downfall of Bryant and the Lakers coinciding with it helped, but I certainly do not feel ties to the Lakers like I did before. I once punched a hole in my door when the Lakers lost Game 3 of the 2009 Finals, but I’m not sure it’s possible for me to be that emotionally invested in a single team any more. My fandom, in that sense, has been stripped.
In fact, I root for the Spurs to succeed more so than the Lakers, simply because if the Spurs are good that means I get to cover a more compelling team, and if they are winning then I’ll have a better shot at covering postseason games. That logic seems unthinkable for someone who almost got kicked out of his uncle’s living room for cheering against the Spurs, but I compare it to Stockholm Syndrome. Covering the Spurs upclose and personal makes it impossible not to respect that way they do things, and the way they played in their run to back-to-back Finals forced me to improve as a writer. It was like being on the art beat during Picasso’s reign; if the basketball was that beautiful, I felt my words had to live up to it. It was the same feeling I got when I wrote about Kobe.
Although my support for the Lakers has dwindled in the quest of becoming an objective journalist, one thing I could never shake was my infatuation with Kobe. He was the reason I liked basketball. He was the reason I wrote about it. He is the reason I’m a Sports Media in college. He is the reason I’m covering the NBA.
So on Friday night, I showed up at the AT&T Center for what might be the last time I attend an NBA game as a fan. I wore a black Kobe shirsey, matching the Lakers Hollywood Nights uniform. It was a different feeling watching that game than all of the ones I’ve seen since I started covering the Spurs. I wasn’t worried about Pop’s rotations, the Spurs’ pick-and-roll coverages or the kinds of sets they were running for LaMarcus Aldridge. I was only worried about Kobe. From the moment he came on the floor in warmups, I watched his every move.
I still didn’t find myself clapping or cheering – I sense that part of me has been buried, or at least reserved for when I tear someone apart on FIFA. But I smiled every time he brought the ball up the floor or rose up to shoot.
Kobe started the year chucking at the same rate he has his entire career, only with the success rate of an 8-year-old playing on 10-foot rims for the first time. He has seemingly reigned that in since making his announcement, choosing to be much more selective with his shots and generally allowing the offense to flow a bit more (although, when Ray McCallum was switched onto him Friday, Bryant demanded the ball like a bully demands your change in the lunch line).
When Kobe voluntarily kept himself out of the game in the fourth quarter against Minnesota last week, I knew Bryant’s mindset was changing. Here was Kobe, a man who lusted for end-of-game shots like no other player, requesting that he remain a spectator during crunch time. That, as much as anything, was a sign Bryant is not what he used to be, and I’m sure it resonated with him the same way it did with me. He has gone from fighting the disease of age foolishly to finding a more efficient, and perhaps more rewarding, niche.
Bryant had a vintage first quarter against the Spurs, scoring nine points on 4-of-5 shooting, mixing in longrange hits and midrange pullups, but he was just 1-of-7 for the remainder of the game. Watching him in person, it is obvious why Bryant has been so eager to shoot in the opening quarter. It seems like Kobe only has 12 good minutes in his legs each night, so if he is going to one of those classic scoring spurts, it is likely going to happen soon after the tip. Bryant did not have any lift on his jumper in the second half, and when the Spurs got up double digits in the fourth quarter, I saw Kobe motion to Byron Scott, signaling it was time for his night to end.
It was uplifting to see Bryant can still have a positive impact at the NBA level, and if he was fine with lowering his career scoring average and going through the round-the-clock treatment he has to deal with to recover from games, you could envision this version of Bryant playing another year or two for 20 minutes or so a night. But let’s be honest: He doesn’t want to be that guy, and I don’t want him to be that guy either. In fact, I was pretty upset that Bryant wasn’t in gunner mode against the Spurs. I, nor the swaths of “Laker” fans in Kobe jerseys, didn’t come to watch Lou Williams and D’Angelo Russell. I came to watch Kobe, and even if he shot 3-of-20, the slightest chance that he might get on a roll for a few possessions was more appealing than watching Robert Sacre airball a hookshot while Kobe stood in the corner.
That said, watching Kobe put up those ghastly 3-of-15 or 4-of-20 shooting performances early in the year was kind of like visiting a relative on their deathbed, clouding your memory of them with pictures of them at their worst. Bryant seems more at peace with his impending departure now, and as a result he is easing his way into the afterlife with his dignity intact.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock on Friday, the large collection of Kobe fans seated near the visiting tunnel started a Kobe chant.
It was then that I finally realized that my favorite athlete would soon be gone, and that the countless basketball masterpieces he provided, those sources of infinite joy, pride and comfort that outlined my childhood, were slowly fading away. I spent years obsessing over his each and every game, staying up late on school nights for those L.A. tip times and jolting to the library at lunch to watch the same YouTube clips day after day. But as prolonged as his stay atop the NBA mountain top seemed as he wraps up his 20th season in the league, I look back and wonder how it all went by so fast.
“KO-BE! KO-BE! KO-BE!”
I had a tear in my eye.
I watched Bryant as he greeted Gregg Popovich at midcourt, sharing a hug and a laugh. And finally, I watched as Kobe walked toward the tunnel, his hand going between his chest and the air as he acknowledged the heartfelt response of the crowd. He moved briskly, his head bowed, humbled by another platoon of his supporters firmly entrenched behind enemy lines.
He thanked the crowd once again and kept walking.
And in the blink of an eye, he was gone into the darkness, forever lost behind the curtains.
When the Detroit Pistons traded for Reggie Jackson in February, nobody thought they were uniting two players who would soon combine to form one of the league’s most lethal pick-and-roll combinations. At the time, Jackson was a somewhat maligned talent, someone who appeared to force his way out of Oklahoma City. Andre Drummond was held in higher esteem, but even after Detroit shed itself of Josh Smith, he was still sharing the frontcourt with a fellow low-post behemoth in Greg Monroe.
Fast forward nine months and Jackson and Drummond are running the show for one of the league’s most surprising upstarts: The 5-1 Detroit Pistons. With Monroe sopping up post touches in Milwaukee, Stan Van Gundy’s Pistons are now free to play the spread pick-and-roll game SVG popularized during his tenure with the Orlando Magic, and Detroit is off to the franchise’s best start since 2007-2008.
The Memphis Grizzlies are a bit like your non-major course work in college. You pay a fair amount of attention to them and hope they will do well, but at the end of the day, when the assignments in classes that actually matter begin to pile up, your focus shifts to the more fulfilling subjects.
Everybody likes the Grizzlies. Some may be turned off by their glacial pace or their gladiator-themed offense in an era of fast-paced assaults in transition and from beyond the arc, but everyone respects what the Grizzlies have done while operating against the grain. They’ve pushed superstar-laden teams such as the Thunder and the Clippers in the playoffs, they had the lead on the Warriors after three games in the second round last season and they even managed to grind their way to the conference finals in 2013.
The Clippers nearly did the impossible. They nearly became the first team in what seems like forever to spot Golden State a 17-point, come back and live to talk about it. Nearly.
Instead, despite getting a 10-point lead of its own with five minutes to play, the Clippers fell short of the Warriors once again. It was the same old story for Golden State: Remove all of the constraints of traditional basketball – ie. a big man – and play free flowing basketball with offensive threats all over the flow. The Clippers are supposed to have one of the most capable frontlines in the league when it comes to countering Golden State’s futuristic lineup, but they were shut down on Wednesday night.
Draymond Green flew around the floor and made plays, and his teammates followed suit. Even when Andre Iguodala wound up switched on Blake Griffin, who is on a tear to start the season, Griffin couldn’t muster much when trying to back him down. As we saw when the chips were down last postseason, Golden State’s trump card changed the game, with its stops fueling its offense, and particularly Curry, who fired in threes from across the bay like it was nothing.
This game had a weird flow to it. Curry was taken out of the game after just three minutes due to foul trouble and didn’t return until the start of the second quarter. In the second half, the same thing happened to Paul, who picked up his fourth foul with eight minutes left in the third and sat almost an entire quarter until he returned. Even still, both teams managed to play tremendous offensive games, especially given the defensive prowess of its opposition.
Griffin was spectacular for most of the game, but his inability to muster a good look when the Warriors had smaller defenders on him down the stretch was worrisome. In a postseason matchup between these two teams, that would be a frequent occurrence, and if Green is going to switch onto Paul, then Griffin has to make Golden State pay. Curry (31 points, 5 boards, 7 threes) and Paul (24 points, 9 assists, 3 steals) were both fantastic, as always seems to be the case in one of the league’s most exhilarating point guard matchups. The same cannot be said for whatever Jamal Crawford was doing last night.
Despite the loss, I think this might be an early-season confidence boost for the Clippers. They got down big in the league’s toughest road environment, fought back with their reserves and got themselves in a position to win. Execute better, and smarter, when the Warriors hand you a size advantage and get out to Curry quicker on his pull-ups and perhaps this result is different. No other team has challenged the Warriors to this point and despite the somewhat deflating loss, I thought this was a good showing for Los Angeles overall.
In the blink of an eye, the Spurs were down 19-2. Then they went on a 21-3 run and took a 23-22 lead at the end of the first quarter. While it was a particularly impressive comeback in the moment, in hindsight it was illustrative of a larger issue that has troubled the Spurs through five games: The starting unit is far from a finished product.
The Spurs starting lineup, while elite defensively (96.1 defensive rating), is only scoring 91.2 points per 100 possessions in their 78 minutes together this season. But once Pop makes his first waves of substitutions – usually Manu Ginobili for Danny Green, Patty Mills for Tony Parker and Boris Diaw for Tim Duncan – the Spurs look like one of the best teams in basketball. The group of Mills, Manu, Kawhi, Diaw and Aldridge is scoring 106.5 points per 100 possessions while only allowing 88 points per 100 possessions on the other end.
Aldridge and Diaw have been the Spurs’ best big man pairing both statistically and aesthetically. Aldridge has shown better prowess as a rim protector than I thought he would, so when Diaw checks in for Duncan and provides his unique blend of passing, cutting and spacing, the Spurs get back to the beautiful game that they showcased in the 2014 Finals. With Duncan and Aldridge, things are more cramped, possessions develop slower and Aldridge really isn’t getting that many touches, which is surprising only because the slower pace seems to be a way to introduce Aldridge’s post-game into the Spurs’ vernacular.
San Antonio looked good for most of this game after the first quarter, but once the starters returned in the final five minutes, the offense went in the tank and its turnovers fueled the Wizards’ transition attack. The Wizards, who were playing small with Jared Dudley at the four, were always going to trouble San Antonio’s twin towers lineup in transition, and the Spurs’ turnovers only made matters worse. Tony Parker nearly saved San Antonio with his game-tying three in the final seconds, but Bradley Beal returned the favor after the Spurs messed up a switch on a high screen designed to free Beal. Beal shook a hurried Aldridge, who was rushing to cover for Leonard, and buried the winner.
In May, I wrote about John Wall’s path to stardom, and he was unbelievable in this game. Shooting 6-of-16 isn’t great, but he orchestrated everything for Washington in this game, dishing out 13 assists with only one turnover while gobbling up four steal that got the Wizards on the break. His ability to read a defense continues to impress, and he caused several breakdowns by the Spurs in this game.
Meanwhile, I may end up writing a similar piece about the growth of Bradley Beal. Beal looks like a legitimate offensive superstar right now, and he’s a good defender as well. Beal scored 25 points on 50% shooting, grabbed give boards, dished out four assists and collected three steals against the Spurs, and he’s averaging 25 points with 48/46/75 shooting splits to start the season. It looks like Washington’s two budding stars are finally coming into their own. And if this team lands a certain local kid in the summer, the East might have a new king.
The Magic are the most entertaining, if not best, 1-4 team I can remember seeing in recent years. Their four losses have been by a combined 14 points (or six points less than the standard Rockets loss this season), two of which came in over time, and they’ve played the Wizards, Thunder, Bulls, Pelicans and Rockets. 1-4 against five playoff teams may be a solid indication that the Magic still have a ways to go before they are legitimate playoff team, but they’ve been right there in every game and Scott Skiles has done a nice job revamping this team on the fly.
Perhaps the Magic would have prevailed in this one had Nikola Vucevic not gone out with an injury in the second quarter. But Aaron Gordon came off the bench and gave the Magic 32 really good minutes. He scored 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting while grabbing eight rebounds and playing really good one-on-one defense when matched up with James Harden on a couple of occasions. Evan Fournier was also quite good for the Magic, posting a 29-6-4 line while spending most of the game attacking Harden on the offensive end.
Harden had another awful shooting game – you know you’re shooting poorly when a 2-of-11 performance from three actually improves your 3-point percentage for the season – but in typical Harden fashion, he got to the line 17 times and helped seal the victory in the closing moments. Interestingly, Gordon’s emergence led to just 21 minutes for Tobias Harris, who played well for the most part. He had 16 points and five boards but didn’t see any time in the crucial moments of the game, save for the final possession. Harris seems like the kind of guy who you want to play as much as possible against the smallball Rockets, but I guess it will take some time for Harris to earn Skiles’ trust after their falling out in Milwaukee when they were both Bucks.
The Thunder had this game in the bag. They lead by six with two minutes to go, but the Raptors were the most aggressive team down the stretch. They scored eight points from the free throw line and their two crunchtime field goal came inside the paint while Westbrook and Durant couldn’t manage to put home any of their close-range attempts.
This game must have taken place in a parallel universe, because the Thunder, who own time shares at the free throw line, had only 14 free throw attempts while DeMar DeRozan had 15 by himself. As a team, the Raptors had 39 free throw attempts, which helped make up for the fact that Oklahoma city shot 48% from the field in this game. DeRozan put his head down and went at Andre Roberson and Serge Ibaka all game long, and I thought Jonas Valanciunas, off to a fine start this season, got the better of Steven Adams and Ibaka as well.
Russell Westbrook came out of the gates on fire – as a passer. He dished out 16 assists on the night, but he was off from the field, and Kevin Durant’s 27 points on 10-of-18 shooting wasn’t enough for the Thunder to overcome their excessive fouling and 19 turnovers. Oklahoma City is last in the league in turnovers per game at 20.2, more than two more than Philadelphia, who take as good of care of the ball as I do of my pencils. It’s early, but Billy Donovan still has some work to do with his team’s discipline on both ends.
For more of my coverage of this game, visit the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. For my Spurs’ season preview, click here.
DION WAITERS STEALS THE SHOW
Dion Waiters is far from the first player who comes to mind when you think about Oklahoma City’s end-of-game options.
But Waiters stepped up in the final minutes against the Thunder’s 112-106 opening night victory against San Antonio, knocking down two jumpshots over Spurs’ guard Tony Parker to give OKC the lead.
With Kevin Durant struggling in his matchup with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Kawhi Leonard, and with San Antonio putting defensive ace Danny Green on Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City went to Waiters, who had a size mismatch on Parker.
“A lot of point guards like to guard our (shooting guard),” Westbrook said. “I think it’s my job to be able to find the mismatch. Dion did a good job of knocking down some big shots.”
Waiters’ first shot was a pull-up jumper late in the clock with 2:11 to play, which tied the game at 103. On the next possession, the Thunder ran a mid-post isolation for Waiters, who faced up Parker and drilled a stepback jumper to put OKC ahead by two.
“(I) got a chance to do what I do,” Waiters said. “We went to the mismatch and I made big shots.”
JUMPMAN, JUMPMAN, JUMPMAN
Hip-hop is the music genre of choice in most NBA lockerrooms.
However, anyone who hasn’t been in the San Antonio Spurs’ lockerroom might assume coach Gregg Popovich has Bethoven’s 5th Symphony playing on an endless loop instead of Rich Homie Quan’s latest single.
In reality, the Spurs are rarely jamming out to anything before games, but that didn’t stop Spurs’ guard Manu Ginobili from learning his name was a lyric in Drake’s hit new song “Jumpman.”
“It’s kind of hard not to be find out about those things nowadays,” Ginobili said.
Ironically, Oklahoma City’s entrance music on Wednesday night was “Jumpman.”
“I hit that Ginobili with my left hand up like woo,” Drake says in the first verse of the song, which is a collaboration with fellow rapper Future.
Although Ginobili, who hails from Argentina and likely has a musical taste more in line with his coach, didn’t seem overly impressed by the mention, one of his younger teammates, guard Ray McCallum, celebrated the achievement for him.
“It’s funny that you say that,” McCallum said, “because he hasn’t mentioned one word about it.
“The rest of us know about it. If that was me, I would embrace it, but that kind of stuff is not really important to him. You wouldn’t know he was on one of the hotest verses out there unless you brought it up to him.”
On Friday, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was named the coach of Team USA for 2017-2020. When asked if Thunder star Kevin Durant is a player he’d like to coach with the national team, Popovich responded in a way only he can.
“I don’t know if he is good enough,” Popovich said.
When asked if he was pleased with the way LaMarcus Aldridge has fit in with the Spurs offense, Pop offered up another sarcastic reply.
“Sure, I am,” Popovich said. “And if I wasn’t I wouldn’t say that. I would just lie to you. So, silly question.”
After the game, Thunder coach Billy Donovan said it was special to go up against Popovich in his NBA debut, detailing how Popovich had welcomed him to be around the Spurs last year so he could pick the collective brain of San Antonio’s coaching staff.
This was surprising to hear, for three hours earlier, Popovich had a one-word response when asked if he had ever spoken to Donovan about anything basketball related or otherwise.