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Golden State Warriors

Back In The Spotlight

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For the first time in three seasons, Chris Paul overshadowed Stephen Curry. Ever since Curry broke out on the national stage in 2013, Paul has become a bit of an afterthought, replaced as the league’s preeminent point guard while the Warriors quickly supplanted the Clippers as the most exhilarating team in California.

Monday night, however, Paul stole the spotlight back. And it could not have been for a worse reason.

Just more than 24 hours after Curry slipped on a wet spot near midcourt at the Toyota Center and suffered a mild MCL sprain, Paul’s innocuous reach on Gerald Henderson produced even more disastrous results, for he fractured the third metacarpal in his right hand. While Curry’s initial two-week timetable leaves room for optimism, Paul is expected to be out for the remainder of the postseason, giving the Clippers little reason to hope.

And, as the Clippers luck would have it, Paul isn’t only causality they will have to deal with in this series. In Game 4, Blake Griffin aggravated the quad injury that kept him out for a large part of the season, and the team has announced he is done for the year. The cherry on top is J.J. Redick, whose bruised heel is limiting his effectiveness on the heels of the best season of his career. By the end of Game 4, the lineup the Clippers had on the floor looked like one Doc Rivers deployed in the dying days of the season when the seeds were set, and that is going to be how the Clippers look to finish this series.

This was a cruel turn for one of America’s sincerely cursed sports franchises. When the Clippers took the floor in Portland on Monday night, their oft-criticized core had never been in a better position to make the conference finals. The most optimistic timetable for Curry had him returning for Game 4 in the second round at the earliest, and Los Angeles was in a good position to take a 3-1 lead against the Blazers, a team it had dominated for two of the first three games of the series.

By the start of the fourth quarter, that narrative had been completely reversed. Suddenly, the Warriors seemed to escape the possibility of facing the Clippers, a team that consistently pushes them (in large part thanks to Paul’s fight), without Curry and instead a more favorable matchup against the Blazers had become more likely.

This was also an unbelievably traumatic twist for Paul. Paul is one of this generation’s most brilliant and accomplished players, but circumstances and happenings out of his control have robbed him of a legitimate title chance seemingly every season. He had had a fantastic regular season, perhaps his best since his first with the Clippers, navigating choppy waters without Griffin for most of the season and carrying the team to another 50-win season, no small feat for Clipper land. Most importantly, Paul was healthy for most of the year and might have played all 82 for the second straight season were it not for precautionary DNPs and the Clippers resting guys down the stretch. Another of Paul’s prime seasons going to waste because such an unlucky injury in the postseason feels so unjust.

Now that the Blazers have found an offensive rhythm and with the Clippers down their two best players, the pendulum has swung violently in Portland’s favor for the remainder of this series, and Los Angeles shutting down Griffin could easily be interpreted as the white flag on this season. So within two days we went from having two blockbuster, potentially all-time great, second round matchups – Oklahoma City vs San Antonio and Los Angeles vs Golden State – to one great series and another tarnished by injuries.

The pressure has certainly shifted to the Thunder and Spurs, two teams that couldn’t have envisioned this good a shot at the Finals just two days ago. Assuming the Blazers are able to defeat the Clippers, which they should be favored to do at this point, they will face the Warriors without the league MVP, but Golden State will be happier to see the Blazers than the healthy Clippers, for the Warriors have a much better chance to stall against Portland, making Curry’s return while the series is still being decided a possibility. Either way, if Portland can beat the wounded Warriors or if Golden State scraps by the Blazers with Curry barely rounding into form, the Thunder or Spurs will smell blood in the water in the conference finals.

Meanwhile, Paul and the Clippers will likely be at home watching the conference finals yet again, wondering what might have been. In back-to-back seasons the Clippers were a fourth quarter away from their first conference finals birth – first against the Thunder in 2014, then the Rockets last season – only to choke away those opportunities. Maybe they wouldn’t have gotten nearly as close this year, but in many ways a second round victory against the (healthy) defending champions would have been a validation of this Clippers’ core.

But now, because of the unforgiving and untimely nature of injuries, the Clippers won’t have that chance. And who knows how much time Paul has left in the spotlight.

A Paradigm Shifted

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Rarely are sports more confounding than when Steph Curry plays. Golden State’s wunderkind has a way of turning masterful displays of athletic grace into something as bewildering as calculus or neural science. That’s what his performances are, after all: Riveting studies in the mathematic and cerebral requisites for such ambitious and cutting-edge athletic pursuits, but he does train a lot on a trampoline.

On Saturday, we witnessed the peak of Curry’s personal discovery, the ultimate realization of the power of an earnest mind and enthusiastic soul. His performance against the Thunder, rescuing his team from what seemed a sure defeat at the hands of an eager opponent in one of the few arenas that can turn the “Oracle Effect” against the Warriors, was as demonstrative and elegant as artistic expression gets in the sporting realm.

This game was nearly an odd dramatic turn for the defending champs, what with the third best player on a 52-5 team going on a profanity-laced tirade that required a police inquisition during halftime. On top of that, Curry had has own personal drama to overcome after he exited the game with an injury to his once-troublesome left ankle during the third quarter. Curry returned in the third quarter and proceeded to hit 7 3-pointers during the final three periods of the game. The Warriors were down 11 with five minutes left in the fourth before Curry rattled off two 3s to help the Warriors force overtime, where he added three more 3s, including the breathtaking winner with 0.6 seconds left in the game.

Curry’s final shot might be the most memorable highlight in what has been a season full of peaks for the reigning MVP. On the fateful possession, Curry leisurely trotted up the floor, perfectly aligning his shot and and the clock in his head. When the ball left his hands, the whole arena knew that they weren’t witnessing some desperation heave; this was the shot Curry wanted to take. He sought out a 38-footer and drained it. This was no fluke. This was the latest in a series of expansions of his range, of his potential, of his control of the sport.

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Still On Top

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Shadow

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Here’s a fun game: Name as many top 30 scorers from the 2007-08 NBA season as you can.

There were quite a few present-day superstars (LeBron, Kobe, Carmelo, Paul, Dirk, Durant, Howard and Bosh), a couple of former superstars that have since aged into role players (Vince Carter, Amare Stoudemire and Richard Jefferson),  some retired all-stars (Allen Iverson, Michael Redd and Tracy McGrady), a number of career scorers (Kevin Martin, Carlos Boozer, Al Jefferson, Antawn Jamison and Jason Richardson), and one guy in particular whose place on the list would make you say “Really?” based on his production in the 2014-15 season.

That guy is Andre Iguodala.

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Who’s To Blame?

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If the reports are true, Stan Van Gundy will be the next head coach of the Detroit Pistons. And their next president of basketball operations, too.

Over the past few years, there seems to have been an influx in the amount of head coaching candidates that want a tighter grip on personnel decisions to go along with their usual lockerroom leadership duties. It’s understandable, to an extent, since a disconnect between a front office executive and a head coach can have disastrous results. Coaches know what players fit their system the best and without a doubt they already have an evident amount of say on personnel decisions when it comes to deciding if that player suits their style or if they’ll fit into the culture of the lockerroom.

But front office guys often have their own points of view, and even their own agendas. A GM on the hotseat can make hasty decisions that saddle a coach with deadweight players and an undesirable capsheet, thus leading to the eventual ousting of the coach, too. It’s a situation that Van Gundy wanted to avoid when he started fielding job offers earlier this month, likely because his downfall in Orlando unfolded in a similar manner.

Trying desperately to build a winning team around Dwight Howard before he had a chance to leave in free agency led then Magic general manager Otis Smith to trade for Gilbert Arenas, who hasn’t had a relevant basketball moment since, and to sign Glen Davis and Jason Richardson to sizable mid-level deals. When it came time for Howard to make his decision, after changing his mind a few dozen times, he recognized the situation around him was less than desirable, and Van Gundy and Smith got the boot soon after.

I get why Van Gundy, or any other high profile coach, would want to protect themselves from that kind of a situation. But what I find interesting is that, rather than just trying to find a good general manager to pair themselves with, these coaching candidates have gone a step further, demanding full control and final say on all basketball operations while the GM handles the day-to-day responsibilities. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly egregious; it’s not like Scotty Brooks is the one asking for control over personnel decisions. But I’m not quite sure what got us to this point. Where along the road did the best coaches in the league want to usurp all of the basketball-related power within their organizations?

The easy answer is that it began with Phil Jackson during his time with the Lakers. I know there are some more historic examples, but ever since front offices have expanded to house several executives, including one person specifically chosen to have final say on the shaping of the roster, Jackson is the best example of a coach that didn’t want anything to be above his pay grade.

There were three pretty obvious reasons why Phil wanted to extend his jurisdiction past the sidelines: 1) He had already six titles in Chicago under an overbearing owner, 2) His triangle offense was as unique as any system in the league and required specific kinds of players to make things click, and 3) He was dating the daughter of legendary Laker owner Jerry Buss, which I’m sure made him feel like a part owner in some respects. Dr. Buss bit the bullet and ceded control to Jackson during his second tenure with the team, but Jimmy Buss wouldn’t give Jackson the power he wanted when the team reached out to him about returning for a third time and instead opted for Mike D’Antoni.

Jackson’s situation with the Lakers was a unique one because of how successful was and because he had a serious romantic relationship with one of the owners, so perhaps the best example of this distorted hierarchy involves another coach that finds himself on the Mount Rushmore of NBA coaches: Gregg Popovich.

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Spurs GM R.C. Buford hands Gregg Popovich his latest Coach of the Year Award.

While Pop’s schematics are top notch, his greatest skill as a coach has been cultivating a culture in the lockerroom that manifests itself on the floor. Being that selflessness and sacrifice are two major points of emphasis for the Air Force graduate, letting him decide what kind of players were brought into the organization seems incredibly logical, especially because he’s demonstrated the ability to extract efficient production out of guys that may not be all that talented. R.C. Buford is one of the best general managers in the league, but it’s clear that Popovich’s presence has always been a bit of an asterisk when it came to evaluating his performance. Until this year, that is, when Buford finally earned the Executive of the Year Award, fittingly in the same year that Pop took home his third Coach of the Year Award.

Jackson and Popovich are two of the best coaches ever and for their opinions to carry more weight with their respective organizations, organizations that they won multiple championships with, makes a lot of sense. The question is whether or not that has set the table for other high profile, yet not remotely as successful, coaches to make expanded front office roles a requirement to hire them.

We saw it this summer with Doc Rivers, who was only willing to leave the Celtics if he was given a prominent front office position, and he’s now the vice president of basketball operations as well as the Clippers’ head coach. Rivers had built himself quite a culture in Boston, but I don’t think he’s got any proprietary schematics or a specific blueprint for his kind of player that would make expanded control a necessity.

The early returns on his front office career are less than stellar. His first move in LA was trading away budding superstar Eric Bledsoe in exchange for J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley. Though Redick has been stellar for Doc’s offense when he’s been healthy, Dudley hasn’t been a key contributor for a good while now, and despite all of the buzz the moves got when they went down, the Clippers’ mid-season acquisitions — Hedo Turkoglu, Glen Davis and Danny Granger — haven’t been all that impactful.

Van Gundy is the latest head coach to make power a priority during his job search. What’s maddening about Van Gundy’s itinerary is that it likely prevented what would have been the best possible basketball marriage on the market. Van Gundy’s talks with the Golden State Warriors reportedly broke down because the team wasn’t willing to let him preside over current General Manager Bob Myers, who has done a fine job assembling a roster that could have won 55-60 games under Van Gundy’s guidance.

It makes sense that Van Gundy would make more control a stipulation during his conversations since the Pistons were willing to go all out and over him the top basketball related position, but for it to be a deal breaker for Van Gundy, so much so that he passed up an opportunity to coach a team that has all of the ingredients that his Magic teams had when he took them to the Finals in 2009 with even more subsidiary talent (and Steph freaking Curry) just so that he’d have more say so in Detroit, which is by far a tougher situation to succeed in, is puzzling.

Aside from Pop, Van Gundy and Rivers are two of the top five coaches in basketball along with Tom Thibodeau, Rick Carlisle and Erick Spoelstra, so for them to feel entitled to a salient voice on all important decisions is reasonable. But have we really reached a point where all established coaches are going to demand that they get to wear both hats – the one that gives them the power to command what happens on the floor and the one that lets them decide which players he can put on that floor – even though it’s not a universal fit?

It’s not quite letting the inmates run the asylum, but not all guards are cracked up to be wardens, either.

It’s Going Down!

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NBA: Playoffs-Brooklyn Nets at Toronto Raptors

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The scene was set for a historic afternoon of Raptors basketball, with the city of Toronto showing up in huge numbers to support their team in its first post-season appearance since the Vince Carter era. The Air Canada Centre was filled to the brim and another 10,000 raucous fans waited outside the arena watching the game on a big screen. There was a palpable energy in the building from the tip and you could tell that everybody in the stands was waiting for that one moment that would allow them to blow the roof off of the building.

But that moment never came. The closest the Raptors came to giving their home crowd a reason to to go crazy was when Greivis Vasquez nailed a three to give the Raptors the lead with five minutes to go. The lead wouldn’t last for long, though, as Joe Johnson answered immediately on the other end. And that’s when Brooklyn’s wily ole vets, who had struggled just like most of the team throughout the afternoon, helped seal the game for the Nets with some tremendous crunchtime shot making that remind us that, though their glory days are past, they are still two bad dudes.

Kevin Garnett got things started with a turnaround jumper from the post, and then Paul Pierce, Boston’s closer for so many years, took control. Pierce nailed a three off one of Brooklyn’s most effective actions, a 1/2 screen-and-roll with Williams on the left side of the floor, which forced Toronto’s weakside defenders to slide into the paint for just a second, allowing for Pierce to slide up to the right wing, with Garnett setting a brilliant backscreen on Pierce’s man to get him free. Then Pierce rescued a poor Nets possession by driving into the lane late in the shot clock for a lay-up, though it’s hard to say he didn’t travel. And finally, with Toronto managing just two points over the last three minutes of game action, Pierce drilled a fallaway mid-range jumper off an inbounds pass to put the game away for good.

This was an extremely tough game for the Raptors to lose. Not only did they give up homecourt advantage in this game, but they lost in the most disheartening way possible. The Nets were putrid offensively, not because they ran bad sets, but because they’d get good looks and miss them. They shot 4-of-24 from three in this game and prior to Pierce’s dagger late in the game they had missed 19 three-point attempts in a row. Brooklyn wasn’t a great offensive team this season, but most of their line-ups with Pierce as the smallball four scored at a pretty good rate, so this kind of offensive outing is not something you’d expect from them again going forward.

Meanwhile, the Nets defense was completely locked in all game. They had the Raptors scouted well and their scheme neutered almost all of Toronto’s actions. Their combined length on the perimeter deterred drives and disrupted passes, forcing the Raptors into 17 turnovers while holding them to 39% shooting. The Nets showed on almost all pick-and-rolls, taking away any space for Kyle Lowry to launch from deep while rotating quickly on the outside. Just about the only consistent success that the Raptors had offensively in this one was with Jonas Valanciunas in pick-and-rolls as he was able to make a couple of clean catches on the way to the basket for some good looks.

Other than that, though, the Raptor offense was stagnant and bogged down. Despite playing some line-ups with three shooters spacing the floor around their pick-and-roll, Toronto was still unable to find space because of Brooklyn’s tremendous defensive effort. And, perhaps most importantly, Shaun Livingston submitted a sublime individual defensive effort on DeMar DeRozan, forcing DeRozan into one of his worst shooting games of the season (3-of-13 from the field, 0-of-4 from deep) and stifling a lot of the sets that the Raptors are used to flowing into to get DeRozan the ball in good spots. Take this play for instance, where Livingston and Pierce prevent DeRozan from getting any momentum off a pick-and-roll with Amir Johnson while Livingston recovers, sticks right on the hip of DeRozan and forces him into a bad shot.

Plays where DeRozan was able to get free from Livingston in this game were few and far between, and when Livingston sat with foul trouble, Joe Johnson did an admirable job defending DeRozan. Dwane Casey will have to find ways to get DeRozan the ball in space and with momentum going towards the rim to get him going in this series, because the Nets’ pick-and-roll coverages prevent him from turning the corner off a screen, and he’s been unable to get by his man in one-on-one situations. That’s easier said than done, though, and it’s entirely possible than the potential laden DeRozan simply needs another off-season to develop the kind of one-on-one maneuvers necessary to beat the tight defense he’s going to see in the post-season over the next decade.

The Raptors were OK themselves defensively, but the numbers would have looked much worse had the Nets made even half of the many good looks from deep that they got in this game. Toronto has to be much smarter with their double teams for the rest of the series, whether that means coming earlier, changing up where the help comes from throughout the game or simply trying to let Lowry, DeRozan or Ross defend in the post one-on-one, because Johnson feasted on their second and third rotations in this game when they came to double him in the post.

This was an extremely disheartening loss for the Raptors. The fans were pumped to have the post-season back in their city and the Nets played very poorly offensively for the majority of this game, opening the door for the Raptors to start the series off on a good note. But the Raptors just couldn’t capitalize. Brooklyn’s strong, smart defensive effort kept them from every establishing rhythm and Pierce’s late-game heroics fossilized them for good.

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It’s difficult to tell if the Warriors are going to make this a series or if the atrocious officiating, which hurt both sides in this game, muddied things up so much that there’s nothing to take away from this one other than that Mark Jackson really had his troops ready to play. Blake Griffin played 19 minutes in this game because of foul trouble, Andre Iguodala fouled out in the fourth quarter after picking up four in the first half, Chris Paul had to spend more time than usual on the bench because of a few ticky tack calls and David Lee had an early hook because of some quick whistles. Rarely did both teams have their best units on the floor – and, of course, Golden State never will because of the injury to Andrew Bogut – and during the rare stints when Griffin and Iguodala were able to be on the floor, they were tentative because of how poorly the officials were calling the game.

It’s possible that Blake’s early exit threw everything out of whack for the Clippers, who have come to rely on him more than ever this season, and it’s certainly true that the Warriors can more easily find a replacement for Iguodala than the Clippers can for Griffin. If foul trouble doesn’t play a major role in game two, then the Clippers may win handily against a Warrior team that is missing its defensive centerpiece.

But then again, the Warriors showed something in this game that is almost assuredly going to continue to cause problems for Los Angeles no matter who is on the floor for them: Mark Jackson is willing to go small again, and the Warriors play extremely well on both ends of the floor when Draymond Green is inserted at the power forward spot. The Warriors were insane defensively when Green was on the floor, limiting the Clippers to 78.5 points per 100 possessions during his 22 minutes. Even Harrison Barnes was great when he was asked to play power forward, and he had the play of the game in the fourth quarter when he blocked Chris Paul’s lay-up attempt in transition with two minutes to go before getting back on the other end and drilling a three that put Golden State up by two.

What’s even more troubling for the Clippers is that the Warriors destroyed their defense even when it was Lee and Jermaine O’Neal sharing the floor, as Lee’s expert passing in the paint helped lead to numerous defensive breakdowns of the Clippers. In the first half DeAndre Jordan was doing an adequate job protecting the rim, racking up five blocked shots, but in the second half he was nowhere to be found, sucked in often by dribble penetration with nobody else on the backline there to help the helper. Again, it’s tough to evaluate the Clippers’ overall performance because of how little Blake played, and putting Glen Davis on the floor for any length of time will lead to some defensive issues, but the Clippers had no rim protection in the second half and they got slaughtered on the boards, allowing 15 offensive rebounds for the game.

Blake is obviously one way for Doc Rivers to counter Golden State’s smallball attack as he can get him on the block and have him attack Green downlow, but another flaw emerged in this game for the Clippers, and it’s one that could wind up being fatal for the Clippers if they don’t adjust: They can’t guard Stephen Curry on high pick-and-rolls.

Curry is an offense all unto himself. A simple screen-and-roll with him up top can result in countless breakdowns for the opposition, whether it’s someone slipping up and giving an inch of space to launch a three or the backline rotations not being quick enough to recover for the big man that had to come up to prevent Curry from stepping into a shot. The Clippers chose to trap Curry on his high screen-and-rolls, and with Lee being such a great passer and decision maker on the move, the Warriors were comfortable using the pick-and-roll as an invitation to bring a Clipper big away from the rim. Curry would wait until the perfect time to hit Lee on the roll, allowing for Jordan or Griffin or Davis to come out far enough to make it difficult for them to scurry back into the paint. The result was driving lanes for Lee, who was able to get a few buckets at the rim and find shooters on the weakside as the Clippers were forced to breakdown to protect the paint.

Take a look at a sampling of Golden State’s tremendous ball movement against the trap in this one. And remember, all of this happens because the Clippers are frightened by the idea of Curry coming off one of those picks and launching a three-point attempt.

Los Angeles will have to change things up going into game two. All season long they’ve had Jordan and Griffin become comfortable sagging back on pick-and-rolls on their ICE coverage, but in this one they decided to come out and be aggressive to keep Curry from beating them. Well, even though it’s a dramatic shift in philosophy, having their bigs play a little further back and forcing Curry to beat them without getting others involved may be an optimal strategy, or at least one worth trying after their original plan was torched in game one.

The Clippers should be fine on the other end. Paul was brilliant in this game despite his late free throw misses and six turnovers and J.J. Redick was on fire from deep. If they can get Jamal Crawford’s game out of the gutter and a full performance from Blake, they have to like their chances going forward. That said, the Warriors took the fight to them in this game and Curry showed that even when he’s not lighting up the scoreboard himself, he can still have a dramatic impact on the outcome.

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Before this series, it seemed radical to suggest that the #1 seeded Pacers may have to take the player that they’ve built their entire, incredibly successful, defensive scheme around off the floor because of how he matched up with the 8th seeded Hawks, who finished the season six games under .500, but you can’t argue with it after game one. Whether it was by directly involving him in a pick-and-roll or having him hang around the perimeter to guard a spot-up shooter, the Hawks exploited their schematic advantage time and time again, running pick-and-pops with the floor spaced with shooters, putting the Pacers at odds with their principles.

Indiana wants to clog the paint and keep ball handlers out of the middle of the floor, but against the Hawks starting five, there is no weak link to sag off of to help pack the paint, and the usually statuesque Hibbert is required to leave his comfort zone to guard Atlanta’s stretch bigs. At first, the Pacers stuck to their gameplan and let the Hawks bigs get some open looks on pick-and-pops, but as the game wore on and they started drifting further and further out to guard the shooters, Jeff Teague began ripping apart their interior defense, routinely blowing by George Hill, who had no help on the backline thanks to Atlanta’s floor spacing bigs.

Just look at how much space there is behind the initial defender and how beautifully Teague goes about getting by his man to get into the wide open lane.

Teague was excellent, putting up 28 points and five assists, and the Hawks also got a huge game out of Paul Millsap. When the pick-and-roll game stalls for Altanta, Millsap is the one player that the Hawks can count on to get something going on his own, and he wound up with 25 points and eight boards for Altanta, in addition to hitting a pair of threes. And though Kyle Korver had an off night by his standards, the Hawks got him some really clean looks off some pretty pindown and curl screen plays, and they’re likely to be there again in game two. Picking up the slack for Korver was DeMarre Carroll, who played a hell of a game, scoring 12 points, pulling down 10 boards (five offensive), hitting a couple of threes and playing some really good defense on Paul George.

The worst part about this game for the Pacers wasn’t necessarily that they lost, it’s that they got down by 20 at one point in the fourth quarter and the team started slumping its collective shoulders like we saw many times during their tumultuous stretch to close out the regular season. Coming into the game the team preached about having a clean slate in the post-season, but they showed the same signs of losing faith in each other when things got tough in this one.

And let’s be honest here, Indiana’s struggles don’t have everything to do with attitude. It plays a part, but the real issue here is that the Pacers just can’t score the basketball efficiently, and despite solid games from George and Lance Stephenson in this one, there’s just nothing else there aside from the occasional C.J. Watson outburst. George Hill is better suited for a utility role like the one he filled for the Spurs, not as the creator for an offense that doesn’t have any space, David West struggled with foul trouble and never got going, Luis Scola was 0-of-6 from the field and Hibbert has always been an average offensive player at best unless he’s got a colossal size advantage.

Indiana’s offensive ineptitude finally caught up to them when their defense slipped even the slightest bit, and against a team like Atlanta that further minimizes the impact of Indiana’s usually stellar defensive scheme, the Pacers are in big trouble now that they’ve surrendered homecourt advantage, something I’m sure can only damage what was already a deteriorating team psyche.

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You have to credit the Grizzlies for fighting their way back into a game that they trailed by 25 in during the first half. Memphis didn’t even make a shot outside of the paint for the first 23 minutes and 59 seconds of this game, finally getting a three to go at the halftime buzzer. The came out strong in the third against a Thunder team that clearly thought they had closed the coffin on them in the first half, putting together a 31-13 run that made it a game going into the fourth quarter. The Grizzlies even cut Oklahoma City’s lead to two in the fourth when Mike Miller hit a three with 8:45 to go in regulation, but that shot was just about all the Grizzlies had left in the tank. They wouldn’t score another field goal over the next three mintues of game time, allowing the Thunder to go on a 13-1 run that put the game out of reach for good.

Most of the credit for Memphis strong third quarter effort has to go to Tony Allen. He held Durant to 5-of-14 shooting, allowing just 13 points compared to the 20 points Durant dropped on his teammates on 73% shooting. His activity off the ball often prevented Durant from even getting a touch, a familiar sight after seeing Allen do this to Durant twice over the past two post-seasons, and he created turnovers that led to easy buckets for the Grizzlies on the break, which was huge for a team that struggled to create good looks in the halfcourt all game long

Even though Memphis made up some ground in this one, it still feels like the gap in talent between these two teams is too large. The Grizzlies just have no space offensively, and it’s just something have to accept because Allen, who, despite a decent shooting outing in this game, remains an impotent outside threat, is their only defender that can slow down Durant. I’m sure Conley will rebound after his poor shooting performance in this one, but the Thunder also have the length and athleticism to throw at Conley all game long and there help defenders can be aggressive in digging down on him when he drives, too. If there’s any hope for the Grizzlies in this series, they’ll need Allen to replicate those same results each and every night and hope that Conley and Marc Gasol can work enough magic in the two man game to create any kind of rhythm for their offense.

But right now, I wouldn’t bet on that happening.

A Second Chance

in NBA by
USATSI_7582961_154512334_lowres

At the end of the third quarter of last night’s game between the Dallas Mavericks and Golden State Warriors, the Mavs held one of their usual TV timeout competitions. This particular contest is sponsored by a luxury appliance store called StarPower that has three locations in and around the Dallas area and gives a random fan a chance to win four different prizes. The grand prize last night was a 70″ television, but it required the contestant to make a halfcourt shot to win it.

After missing about 10 attempts from the three-point line before moving back to halfcourt, it didn’t seem like the contestant had much of a chance to get the television. But as soon as he let go of the ball, you could tell that it had the trajectory necessary to go in. The ball hit off the top of the box on the backboard and bounced right towards the net. With a little more touch, that ball might of rolled in off the front rim, but instead it made a loud thump and spilled out.

The crowd oohed and aahed about how close he was to winning and the Mavs players threw their towels up in disbelief, but the contest wasn’t quite over. Thanks to some prodding by the Mavs’ emcee, the CEO of the company, Steven Pidgeon, granted the contestant a second shot in the spirit of Thanksgiving. I’m sure you can guess what happened next: the fan lined up his shot, took a running start and launched the ball from center court. Nothing but net.

Luckily for Monta Ellis, Pidgeon wasn’t the only one in the American Airlines Center last night that believes in second chances.

***

Three years ago, if Monta Ellis had four points entering the fourth quarter, you could bet your life savings that he’d find a way to double digits by the end of the game no matter how many shots it took. Only 13 times in Ellis’ career has he failed to score in double digits when he’s played at least 32 minutes, and it only happened five times when he was a Warrior. Back in those days, Ellis put up impressive scoring numbers, but as we’ve come to know more about offensive efficiency and the value of certain shots, we can look back at those numbers and view them as empty stats.

Sure, he scored a lot, but he was a volume shooter that relied heavily on his ability to tough mid-range shots, which is the worst shot in basketball when it comes to expected value, and while he has always shown promise as a passer, his role was to be a scorer, and he rarely met a shot he didn’t like.

The Warriors were among the first to realize this, and as Stephen Curry began to emerge as a star, they decided to part ways with Monta. They traded Ellis to the Milwaukee Bucks in March of 2012 in exchange for Andrew Bogut. The trade has worked out really well for the Warriors, who have thrived on both ends of the floor with a healthy Bogut on the floor. Golden State even did a good job replacing Ellis’ scoring production at the two guard with Klay Thompson, who doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective and complements Curry extremely well.

Ellis had a rougher go of things. He was paired with Brandon Jennings, perhaps the only other player in the league who likes shots as much as Ellis, in the Bucks backcourt, and although the Laverne and Shirley campaign was fun, that duo was never going to succeed. As things failed to unfold as Milwaukee had hoped, Ellis was happy to be armed with the ability to opt out of his contract and eye free agency during the off-season.

The market for Ellis was an interesting one. He was somewhat of a secondary target as most of the teams with ample cap space awaited a decision for Dwight Howard and a lot of teams shied away because of the niche he had carved out as a shot-first player. Once Howard chose Houston, the Kings, Hawks and Mavericks started to pursue Ellis. According to some reports, Milwaukee even jumped in and offered Ellis a lucrative four year contract, but after weighing all of his options, Ellis felt like Dallas’ three-year, $25 million offer was the best deal for him.

***

This seemed like a paradoxical marriage at first. Under Mark Cuban’s progressive leadership, the Mavs have been among the forerunners in the advanced statistics movement in the NBA, and those cutting edge numbers have always sliced holes in Ellis’ game like a knife into your Thanksgiving turkey. His Player Efficiency Rating had never risen above 18.9, his teams regularly performed better defensively with him on the bench, his true shooting percentage was middling at best due to his shot selection and he was using over a quarter of his team’s possessions while performing at an average level offensively.

If Dallas made all of their decisions based on stats, they wouldn’t have made a call to Ellis’ agent, much less an offer. But the Mavs have always shown that they will take a chance on a troubled or toilsome player if they see the talent. Last season is a great example of Dallas signing a couple of players who had yet to find their way in the league in Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo. Rick Carlisle is easily one of the best handful of coaches in the league and an incalculable upgrade over Ellis’ former coaches, and Cuban has faith in his ability to turn players’ careers around. There’s no doubt that Ellis has the most potential out of all of the reclamation projects that the Mavs have taken on and their expectations for Monta were high from day one.

“Each team is different,” Carlisle said before last night’s game, expounding that Ellis has had to adapt to different scenarios throughout his career. “He’s picked up somethings over the years. We’re a different team (than Golden State or Milwaukee) and he’s obviously very important to us.”

Dallas has become an attractive destination for many free agents because of the different mentality and ambiance that Carlisle has helped establish within the organization. There’s a feeling amongst  players that Carlisle is very good at adapting to their strengths while still getting them to fit into his famed “flow” system.

The beauty of Carlisle’s scheme is within its simplicity. It’s more of a philosophy than a system. Carlisle runs a number of creative set plays, but Dallas’ fluidity on offense is a product of the team-first attitude that he lives by. Dallas moves the ball as well as any team in the league when they are rolling and they shared the ball all the way to a title in 2011.

Go back and watch that playoff run and you’ll see that a lot of the Mavs’ offense came from basic actions like a Dirk Nowitzki post-up or pick-and-roll, with the extra or skip pass picking apart the defense. When you have skilled offensive players that demand a lot of attention, you can create a deadly offense simply by letting the ball flow in and out of their hands.

“In our flow game, one of the intricacies is to get the ball to the best players at the right time,” Carlisle explains.

Ellis provides a dynamic that the Mavericks have not had a lot of during Carlisle’s tenure: the ability to breakdown a defense off the dribble. The only real glimpse we saw of this was J.J. Barea’s performance during that Finals run, and you saw the effect his ability to turn the corner on pick-and-rolls had on Miami and the Lakers.

Ellis is obviously a much more athletic player than Barea in addition to having an all-around skillset, so there was no reason to believe that Ellis couldn’t have a career year under a coach that would be able to curtail his inefficient looks a bit. Ellis is currently taking about one fewer mid-range shot per game this season compared to last year and he’s making them at a much higher clip.

Ellis is also taking fewer threes and is taking the majority of his shots from inside the paint. In addition to Carlisle making it a point to get Ellis better looks and sharing the backcourt with a true point guard like Jose Calderon for the first time in his career, playing with Dirk Nowitzki has also opened up the floor for Ellis. Teams are afraid to have their bigs help too much on pick-and-rolls out of fear that Dirk will burn them on the pop, so Ellis has more to space to operate when he turns the corner than he could have ever dreamed of.

The advanced numbers back up the theory that Dirk has played a large role in getting Ellis more efficient looks. The two have played 376 minutes together this season (4th most used combo on the team) and the Mavs score 110.8 points per 100 possessions when they share the floor (Miami leads the league in offensive rating at 110.6 points per 100 possessions). While the defense is a bit spotty during those minutes, Dallas does have a very strong net rating of +7.8 points per 100 possessions, and when Dirk is on the floor, only 16.5% of Ellis’ points come on mid-range attempts compared to 28.6% when Dirk is off the floor.

When Ellis is in full attack mode, the Mavericks are at their best, and so far this season nobody has been better at getting to the rim and creating great looks for himself and his teammates. According to NBA.com/Stats’ player tracking data (data through 11/27), Ellis leads the league in total drives to the rim this season at 170, total points scored on drives at 129, drives per game at 11.3, points per game on drives at 8.6 and he’s second in the amount of points per game that his team scores off of his drives at 13.9 points per game (Ty Lawson is first).

“Playing within the system,” Ellis said when I asked him what the biggest difference is for him as a player since his time with the Warriors. “There’s a lot of guys on this team that can shoot the ball, and I’m just doing what coach asks me to do. Really just picking my spots and attacking and making plays.”

There have been times in the past when fans have called for Ellis to tone down his game, but with the Mavericks, a team that is coached far too well to let him revert to his old habits, that assertive mindset that defines Ellis has been a more than welcome addition to a team that lacked the kind of playmaking ability that he brings to the table.

***

“Momma said there would be nights like this,” Ellis said when he was asked of his poor shooting performance last night.

Ellis was just 2-of-16 against his former team, scoring just four points on the night. In the past, seeing that kind of line next to Ellis’ name would signify an abysmal performance in which he did nothing but hurt the team. But last night was different, and a sign of the growth he’s shown so far this season.

For just the second time in his career, Ellis scored fewer than 10 points while dishing out 10 or more assists, countering every miss of his own with a great pass to set up a teammate, including a critical dumpoff pass to Samuel Dalembert for a dunk in the final minute and a half of the game. And while he could have easily moped around on defense while he waited his shot to start falling like he has been known to do, Ellis responded to the challenge defensively, giving maximum effort on that end of the floor against bigger wings like Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes, whom the Warriors love to post-up when they get a mismatch. Ellis’ work defensively made sure that wasn’t the case last night.

“Defensively, it was one of (Monta’s) better defensive games,” Carlisle said. “He was frustrated during the game but it did not affect him on the defensive end and it did not affect his playmaking. He’s playing hurt (back stiffness), he’s having a rough shooting night, and yet he was still a major factor making winning plays. It’s huge for us.”

Due to the development of some disturbing tendencies during his dubious stays in Golden State and Milwaukee, Ellis was written off by a lot of people around the league. Many doubted his ability to ever contribute to a contender or to make a difference for a playoff team and willingly passed at the chance to add him to their team this off-season.

Mark Cuban and the Mavs weren’t amongst those that saw Ellis as a lost cause. They saw the potential of a star in Ellis and entrusted Carlisle with the responsibility of extracting the best out of him. The early returns from this partnership are extremely positive for both parties and Ellis, who was drafted out of high school, is a younger nine-year vet at 28 years old. So as he enters into his prime years, Ellis has finally found himself a basketball home that allows him to maximize his skillset, and now all that is left is for Ellis to continue to prove all those who doubted him wrong.

Green Light

in NBA by
draymondgreen

As a rookie, playing in an NBA playoff game can be extremely nerve-racking. It’s very rare for a kid fresh out of college to be prepared for the pressure that comes with performing under a microscope, and the magnitude of the moment often overwhelms young players.  When that playoff game is in a hostile environment, just going through the lay-up line can make you nervous.

So, imagine you’re Draymond Green. As of 7:10PM central time, your head coach Mark Jackson has stated that he’ll stick with rookie Festus Ezeli as his starting power forward in game two, working under the assumption that Tiago Splitter or Boris Diaw would be starting in the same spot for San Antonio. But as the teams take the floor an hour later for warm-ups, Gregg Popovich finally shows his hand and now Matt Bonner starting at power forward was the news buzzing around the arena.

When Jackson got wind of this, he sent someone out onto the floor to tell Green, who was working up a sweat on simulated drives to the rim after passing on a pre-game stretching session due to some tired legs, that he’d be getting the first playoff start of his career and just his second start of the entire season.

Now, it’s not as if Green was buried on the bench next to Andris Biedrins or anything – he exceeded starter’s minutes in game one with 38 minutes of court time – but the designation of starter is still one that carries a lot of weight, particularly in a road playoff game. Getting off to a good start can set to the tone for the game and, especially in the case of the Warriors in game two, give a team an emotional lift if they are have any doubt about their competitiveness. Even if it was just a token start and even if Green was going to play the same amount of minutes regardless, being on the floor when the ball is thrown into the air is a huge deal to a second round pick.

The decision to start Green was a tactical one designed to neutralize the threat of a Tony Parker/Matt Bonner pick-and-pop comprising the Warriors’ defense. Golden State’s precision in the half-court on the defensive end is the main reason they were up in game one, and it order to preserve optimal chemistry on that side of the ball, Jackson sticks his most versatile perimeter defender on Bonner.

Golden State executes one of two coverages any time Bonner comes up to set a screen for Parker; either Green is going stick to Bonner’s body, giving him no space to receive the pass, much less get a shot off (also known as the “Dirk” coverage) or the Warriors will switch the action, putting Klay Thompson on Bonner and Green on Parker.

Now, you can count on one hand how many players in the league would be able to switch a 1/4 pick-and-pop involving someone as good in one-on-one situations as Parker (LeBron, Taj Gibson, Josh Smith, and Serge Ibaka), but the Warriors shifted Green onto Parker with no qualms whatsoever. Why, you ask?

Because Green had done everything in his power to earn the trust and respect of his coaches and peers. And, because it worked.

***

When Draymond Green got to Golden State, he was not informed by Mark Jackson that his primary role with the ball club would be as a defensive specialist. The Warriors didn’t draft him because they saw something specific on film that they thought would fit into their defensive scheme. Golden State took Green because they saw the same qualities – the high basketball IQ, the all-around offensive game, the advanced playmaking for his size – everyone else did, only they decided they couldn’t pass on him with the 35th pick in the draft. At that point in the draft, a “positionless” player is more than worth it if they have talent (as it turns out, being positionless has actually been extremely beneficial for Green and the Warriors).

Green’s rookie season was a very unique one to say the least. Throughout the entire year he battled knee tendinitis that hampered his ability to get into a rhythm with his jumpshot. When you see that a second round pick shot 33% from the field and 21% from three in his rookie season, it’d be logical to assume that all of those numbers came on one end or the other of a blowout.

That wasn’t the case for Green, though. For someone that couldn’t buy a basket to save his life, the 6’7″ tweener forward found himself as a rotation piece for the Warriors, playing 13 minutes a night in 79 games in his rookie campaign. This is far from a common occurrence in the NBA – most coaches would stick a rookie struggling so mightily with his shot on the bench and keep him there until he was forced to play him again.

But that’s where the beauty of Mark Jackson comes in. After spending just a few days around him, it’s abundantly clear that no coach believes in his players more staunchly than Jackson. Though overly ballyhooed, Jackson’s religious beliefs clearly factor into his career as a coach; he’s a man with unwavering faith in his players.

That’s how a rookie who that scored just .678 points per possession this season according to Synergy Sports Technology (second worst mark in the NBA of players with at least 300 possessions) never fell out of the rotation for the Warriors. Jackson kept relying on Green, and Green kept giving him reasons to put him on the floor. Even though he wasn’t finding his way offensively, Green earned his playing time by developing into a very reliable defensive player.

“No,” Green said when I asked him if he was told to expect a defensive role with the Warriors. “You just find your niche. I knew I was struggling with my shot and didn’t have my legs all the way under me. But you gotta find something that you can do to stay on the floor, and you can always play defense. That’s what I was doing, and I’m going to continue to defend. At the end of the day, defense wins game.”

Green wasn’t billed as a stalwart defender coming out of Michigan State; many doubted what position he would guard at the NBA level and he was a bit hefty in college, leading to questions about his lateral quickness in a league that gets faster by the day. But Green has worked diligently on reducing his mass – undergoing what I would call the Marc Gasol transformation – and is now sleek with toned bulk. And as far as questioning his defense instincts, shame on those who doubted a disciple of Tom Izzo’s defense-first program.

“Coach Izzo helped my defense a lot,” Green said of his former college coach. “In high school, my coach taught a pressing defense, so it was all about getting steals and trapping. When I got to college, Coach Izzo used to say ‘You’ve gotta defend! You’ve gotta defend!’ and stayed on me about moving my feet so I’d be able to guard guards. Because if I was going to make it in this league, I’d have to be able to guard guards.”

Guarding guards, or perimeter players, was Green’s specialty this season. While Thompson is likely Golden State’s best perimeter defender, Green is a close second, and over the course a long season, you’d like to save a guy like Thompson from the physical punishment of guarding star players. Green was happy to step up to the challenge, though, and he checked everybody from Kevin Durant to Carmelo Anthony to LeBron James. And, per Synergy, he was effective in that capacity, holding his man to just 29% shooting in isolation this season.

“It’s all about heart,” Green said about facing off against the league’s best scorers. “When you’re facing those guys, you just do your best to contain them.”

Green understands the nuances of the game and how important they are in order to win games in the NBA. His determination to win the small battles for his team never wavered even as he was in the midst of an extremely disheartening and season long shooting slump. Green never slumped his shoulders or pouted about the basketball gods being unkind, he simply continued to compete as hard as he could in order to give his team a jolt.

“I’ve always been the kind of guy that will do whatever it takes to win and to do whatever I can to make an impact,” Green said when I asked him about his game-winning shot against Miami earlier in the season.

“It’s not all about scoring, it’s not all about getting assists. Sometimes it’s just about doing the little things that don’t show up on the statsheet. I always try to be the guy that’s going to do those little things. Those little things will keep you on the floor, whether or not you are struggling with your shot or struggling with this or that.”

It’s impressive to hear such a young player willingly preach about the importance of subtle victories in a possession, and it makes easy to see why Jackson never lost faith in Green. And what has Jackson gotten in return for believing in a player that was so inefficient at half of the game all season?

An improbable and inspiring stretch of playoff basketball that has the Warriors in a position to make it to the Conference Finals.

***

It started in game two of the Denver series when Green knocked down a spot-up three. The impulsive reaction of basketball nerds was one of disbelief as one of the league’s worst marksmen had just defied the odds in a big game. And then he made another three in game three, and two more in game four and then two more in game six.

By the end of the first round, Green had gone from an offensive non-entity that was hurting team spacing because his man would willingly leave him to clog the paint or crowd Curry or Thompson to someone with a natural comfort in big moments. With the knee soreness all but gone, Green was punishing defenses for ignoring him and thus making himself an extremely valuable rotation player for Golden State; the defense was always there, but now that he was hitting shots, the reasons to keep him on the floor far outweighed the reasons to keep him off.

Green’s run this post-season is a product of his incessant and diligent work to regain his shooting form all season long. Not for a moment did he let this shooting slump deter his work ethic or impair his confidence. Green never doubted his ability to come through for his team. Watching from afar, seeing the countless hours of overtime this second round pick put in, Jackson was at peace with Green shooting the ball without hesitation because he saw Draymond lay the groundwork for success.

As Jackson’s theory goes: If you are constantly working on a part of your game on your own time, then he’s confident in you taking those shots in a game.

All Green needed was to see the ball go into the rim for him to go on a run, and as the Nuggets continued to leave him open, he continued to make them pay.

“Huge,” Green said about the confidence boost be received as his shots began to fall against the Nuggets. “Huge. I worked on it everyday, night in and night out, before practice and after practice. Coming back in at night and shooting the basketball to get my legs back under me. It took awhile, but it’s paying off at the right time.”

If anything, Green seems to have a great sense of the moment. From his timely game-winning lay-in in the final second against the Heat earlier in the year to his post-season explosion, Green has found a way to deliver at the most opportune times, and last night was no different.

***

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at San Antonio SpursAfter playing every second up to that point, Mark Jackson decided to try and get Klay Thompson a couple of minutes of rest at the eight minute mark of the fourth quarter, subbing in Green in his place. Immediately following Thompson’s trip to the bench, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker hit right elbow jumpers to cut the Warrior lead to six with just under seven minutes remaining. After stringing together a couple of baskets, the San Antonio crowd was on the verge of bedlam and the sense in the building was that the veteran Spurs were about to pull off another miracle comeback.

Desperately needing a basket to stave off San Antonio’s run, the Warriors put the ball in Jarrett Jack’s hands. He took the ball from a few feet above the key and attacked Gary Neal off the dribble, getting just enough of a step on him to force Matt Bonner to slide into the paint from the left wing.

Bonner was playing the percentages here and likely following the Spurs gameplan: cut off dribble penetration and force a 21% three-point shooter to make a shot. But unlike Bonner, a dead-on three-point shooter in the regular season that has struggled to produce in the post-season over the past few years, Draymond Green went through a pitiful regular season for that one moment in time.

Green caught the ball, wound up his release and calmly launched the three as Bonner flew at him to close out. Swish.

There was still plenty of time left in the game, but that shot by Green completely swung the momentum of the game for a possession, and winning those subtle possessions are what the playoffs, and Green, are all about.

***

Green is now 9-of-18 from three in the post-season after making just 14 triples in 79 regular season games. And seemingly everyone of those threes has come at a big moment; as defenses over compensate to prevent the Warriors’ stars from making shots, they leave Green open by choice, and he’s burning them at an extremely impressive 50% clip.

“Of course it motivates me, but it doesn’t bother me,” Green said about being left open. “I’ll take the open shots whether I’m shooting the ball great or not. Teams are never going to key on me; they’re gonna key on Steph, Klay, Jack. So the open shot is still going to be there, it’s just a matter of me stepping up and continuing to knock them down.”

Stepping up is one of the many ways we can define what Green has done this post-season. Even if it’s a small sample size, the development of Green’s outside shot in the playoffs has had a massive impact on the Warriors as a team. Even one or two threes a game from Green makes him worthwhile offensively, and that means Jackson can put in one of his best and most versatile defensive players without sacrificing spacing or scoring.

After the game, Green joked about coming into the game for Thompson as an offensive substitution specifically so he could hit that three.

“Well, Coach (Jackson) subbed me in the game for one minute,” Green said. “He told me ‘Hey, I need this big three out of you. I’m gonna take Klay out and put you in the game for the three because you’re my knockdown shooter!'”

Green had a big smile on his face as he said that, clearly soaking in everything he could about the crucial win on the road of the two seed in the Western Conference that he started and just helped clinch.

And, for a player that worked his tail off for six months both in and out of the public eye in order to be successful, it was hard not to smile back in appreciation of what diligence and desire can help someone accomplish.

The Warriors Aren’t Dead Yet

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When David Lee went down with a hip injury in game one, the Warriors were facing six point deficit with about 11 minutes left in the game. In the league’s most hostile arena and without one of their key offensive cogs, the Warriors were staring at an uphill battle to take home what had appeared to be a very winnable game up until the moment that Lee went down riving in pain.

To my surprise, the Nuggets were never able to land a knockout punch on the Warriors, and Golden State was able to hang around. When Stephen Curry drilled a three with 14 seconds left to tie the game, I thought for sure the game was going to overtime. But then the Warriors had another horrible break go against them: Andre Miller weaved his way around Draymond Green, who graded out as one of the best one-on-one defenders in the league this year, and banked home the game-winning shot with no time remaining, capping off a surreal 28 point night (18 in the fourth) for someone that scored more than 20 points just three times this season.

Losing to the Nuggets under those circumstances has to be a killer, mostly because there was a real shot for the Warriors to win a game against a team that never loses at home, only a 37-year old point guard that has never been a great shooter was knocking down everything he looked at. Assuming Denver’s other players would step up in game two and factoring in the loss of Lee, stealing one of the first two games of the series, which is generally considered to be a must for a true underdog to have a shot, seemed extremely unlikely.

But the Warriors didn’t let that belief slip into their minds; Mark Jackson’s best attribute as a coach is his ability to galvanize his team, and he had his men believing that their season wasn’t close to the brink just yet. Equally important to Golden State’s collective belief in themselves is the adjustment that Jackson made to his starting line-up in order to replace Lee. In game one, Jackson called upon Carl Landry to replace Lee for the majority of the fourth quarter, but rather than sticking with him as the new starting power forward, Jackson got with the times and went small, inserting Jarrett Jack into the starting line-up, sliding Klay Thompson down to small forward and Harrison Barnes into the unfamiliar role of stretch four big.

Golden State’s starting line-up of Jack, Curry, Thompson, Barnes and Andrew Bogut played 20 minutes last night while no other Warrior line-up was on the floor for more than five minutes. That starting unit was ridiculously effective for the Warriors, scoring 122.1 points per 100 possessions while holding the Nuggets to just 83.9 points per 100 possessions (small sample size alert, but that’s a net rating of +38.2 points per 100 possessions). Collectively the group shot 62% from the field and 55% from three and they more than held their own on the board because of the presence of Bogut and the superb effort of Barnes.

Barnes was tremendous for the Warriors last night, providing additional spacing to their offense, competing defensively, making an impact on the boards, knocking down some open shots and even providing the Warriors with some one-on-one offense. The Warriors put Barnes in the Kobe or Carmelo areas on the floor on the wing and asked him to attack the defense at an angle. Whether he was matched up against a smaller player because a switched pick-and-roll or was simply facing off against a Denver big man because the Warriors were playing small, Barnes gave the Warriors a few very important buckets out of isolation sets.

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Here’s an example of the Warriors giving the ball to Barnes on the deep wing and clearing out for him to work. He’s got Anthony Randolph on him here, so he uses his speed advantage on the big man to get by him. He uses a jab step, drawing Randolph a bit closer to him, and drives with his left hand towards the basket.

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Barnes gets a great deal of separation from Randolph as he begins his drive, and with Carl Landry screening off Kenneth Faried from helping, Barnes has an open path to the rim. That said, Randolph is an incredible athlete himself, and he actually recovers pretty well on this drive and gets in good position to block Barnes’ shot attempt, but the rookie forward was having none of it, switching up his dunk in mid-air to uncork one of the nastiest reverse jams you’ll ever see.

This slam came in a big spot. Corey Brewer had just a hit a three to bring Denver back within 10 and the Nuggets looked to be putting something together. But every time they made progress last night, the Warriors had an answer.

It is important to note that Barnes’ emergence as a stellar small ball four and the team’s success without Lee doesn’t mean that Lee isn’t a valuable part of this team. Though he may be the worst defensive player in the league, he’s one of the most dynamic bigs in the NBA, and his ability to do just about everything from the elbows makes Golden State’s offense flow at an elite level. In this particular case, though, with the Nuggets starting traditional small forward Wilson Chandler at the four and possessing enough length and athleticism to deter Lee’s effectiveness, Barnes is a better option. The Nuggets ignored Barnes as a spot-up shooter in game one, but he may have earned a bit of their respect in this one, and if the Nuggets start paying any attention to him, that opens up more space for the Warriors’ other offensive weapons to operate.

And when you get guys like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson space, they are going to make you pay big time. I love watching the Warriors play because their playbook is full of some off-ball goodies that they use to free up Curry and Thompson for open jumpers. Take a look at this set that the Warriors used late in the third quarter last night.

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Golden State is going to make Denver’s defense work with this simultaneous action at both elbows. On one side, they’ll cross screen for Curry, and on the other there is a pindown screen for Draymond Green.

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But instead of using the pindown, Green simply shifts down to the block, followed by Landry, who will set a staggered screen for Curry to come off and catch the ball for a three-pointer in the corner.

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The staggered screen works, as both Corey Brewer and Andre Iguodala are in the paint and not in a position to get to Curry. Anthony Randolph has to be stepping out here and putting a hand in the passing lane, but he doesn’t appear to be aware that the best shooter on the planet is about to be wide open from three. Randolph eventually reacts, but it’s too late to prevent the red hot Curry from getting a clean look at the rim.

Thompson did not seem to be the beneficiary of many open looks off set plays last night, which makes his 8-of-11 shooting performance (5-of-6 from three) even more impressive. Thompson was able to have such a good game without getting open off Golden State’s sets because he’s one of the most intuitive players in the league and he is always working to find the open spot on the floor. Whether he’s running to the line in transition, getting himself open off an offensive rebound or simply reading the help defense and sliding to the open spot, Thompson is always sneakily finding ways to get open.

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Here the Warriors are running some of their standard simultaneous action with Curry on one side and Thompson on the other. The result of this play is going to be a Jack drive, but where the play is made is when Thompson cuts across the baseline to get to the left corner.

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Jack times his drive perfectly (he may not have been doing this on purpose, but I’d like to think so). As Thompson runs across the paint his man, Brewer, sees the Jack drive and decides not to stay with Thompson but to instead stay in the paint to provide help on the drive. Jack sees all of the help defenders in the paint for the Nuggets and adjusts his shot mid-air, swinging the ball out to Thompson for a wide open three. This shot was huge, too, as the Nuggets had just gotten the lead down to single digits.

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Here we have Thompson reading the help defense. Brewer is taught to have a foot in the paint to contest this Curry drive. If Thompson were to stand still, Brewer could do a pretty good job getting in Curry’s passing lane and recovering to Thompson if Curry decided to pass. But Thompson realizes this and will fade to the corner, something Curry knows because it’s exactly what he’d do.

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That’s too easy for Thompson.

***

With the amount of offensive firepower that the Warriors have on the perimeter – not to mention a very solid playmaker in Jack that can also hit open shots and a big man in Bogut that can facilitate from the post or elbow and make an impact downlow – you can’t count out this Golden State team even if they’ve lost one of their better players. The Nuggets are a putrid outside shooting team (and we’ve seen the Warriors go zone more than a few times in the first two games), so the Warriors are going to have a chance in every game if Curry and Thompson simply have average days.

The injury to Lee may have put a damper on the Warriors getting any further than the second round, but against an equally banged up Nuggets team that needed a miracle night from Andre Miller to break even at home in this series, they have a shot.

Playoff Roundup: Day 1

in NBA by
andremiller

For my recap of the Boston-New York game, click here.

Nuggets 97, Warriors 95

– The story of the game and the story of the day was Andre Miller. The the 37-year old veteran one-upped his future nursing home buddy Jason Kidd, who had a couple of big fourth quarter steals against the Celtics, by completely taking over the game in the fourth quarter and willing in the Nuggets to victory while everybody else on the team struggled offensively. Miller used every move in his arsenal to put points on the board for the Nuggets, and when it came time to win the game, with the score tied at 95 with 15 seconds left, George Karl called on his 13 year vet to make the game-winning play, and Miller delivered.

Denver’s set-up on the final play of the game. (Image via NBA/ESPN)

– The Nuggets looked to be going to one of their most reliable plays: a pick-and-fade with Wilson Chandler at the top of the key. You could see Chandler looking over at the bench at around the eight second mark, likely asking the coaches whether or not he should start moving towards the middle of the court then. But Harrison Barnes held Chandler up a bit, which forced Miller to go into isolation mode. Instead of panicking or settling for a jumper against a defensive player that held his man to sub-30% shooting on isolations this season, Miller carefully weaved his way around Draymond Green for the game-winning lay-up with 1.2 seconds left. An underrated part of this shot was the defense that Denver played about 20 second earlier. They shut down a play Golden State was running to get either Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson an open look and forced Jarrett Jack to pick up his dribble at the same time. With both Curry and Thompson covered and Jack with no live dribble, he was forced to call the Warriors final timeout, which sealed their fate after Miller made the lay-up.

– Miller finished with 28 points, five assists and three rebounds while shooting 11-of-16 from the field. It didn’t seem to matter what Miller did when he had the ball because he was so good at making his shots any time he got a clean look at the rim. There were those classic old-man game post-ups – even one against 6’8″ small forward Harrison Barnes, whom Miller promptly backed all the way down to the paint and schooled with an up-and-under move – there were pick-and-rolls that gave Miller open looks from the mid-range and there was that crucial drive at the end of regulation that capped off a brilliant playoff performance from one of the game’s most under-appreciated players.

– The Warriors have to feel awful about losing that game. With Kenneth Faried out, this was a game that they desperately needed to steal in order to have a shot in this series, and they even held the lead for the majority of the game. They can look forward to Stephen Curry shaking off the jitters of his first post-season game to come back better in game two, but something tells me that the Nuggets aren’t going to be flirting with another home defeat after yesterday. As if losing a playoff game because of a game-winning isolation lay-up to a 37-year old wasn’t enough, losing David Lee was just insult to injury.

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Brooklyn Nets 106, Chicago Bulls 89

– Deron Williams’ return to form has been a major storyline over the second half of the season and Williams looked like his elite level self in Brooklyn’s first ever playoff game. Williams was hitting his outside shot, beating his man off the dribble and creating for others any time he had the chance. If Williams is going to consistently play at this level again, then the Nets take a step up as a team. I’m not sure if that puts them on the same level as the Knicks as serious contenders against the Heat, but they are certainly not going to be an easy out.

Deron Williams blows by his man and gets a clear lane to the rim. (Image via NBA/ESPN)

– This was one of my favorite plays of the night. Here Williams is able to isolate against Marco Belinelli and beat him off the dribble,which forces Nazr Mohammed to rotate over to stop his drive.

Carlos Boozer is not exactly helping the helper. (Image via NBA/ESPN)

As Mohammed slides over, Brook Lopez cuts at the perfect time to receive a beautiful dropoff pass from Williams for an easy flush.

– Speaking of Lopez, the chemistry that he and Williams showed in this game was tremendous, and Lopez was pretty good by himself at creating offense on the block. It helped that Joakim Noah was limited and unable to defense Lopez like he normally would, but you really have to credit Lopez for growing his game and becoming the most complete offensive player in the league on the block (outside of Tim Duncan, of course). When Williams and Lopez can operate an effective two-man game and the Nets can get points from Lopez on the block, they are a great offensive team, and if they can step up their defense at the right moments, they are dangerous.

– The Bulls’ organization should be ashamed for having Joakim Noah on the floor in the second half of this game. To have him start the game to see if he could go is one thing, and once he went out after a six minute run and didn’t return, I assumed he was done for the day. Instead, he returned to start the second half in a 20-point game and seemed to have further injured himself on the first play – and he still came back in for five more minutes! It’s unfathomable why the Bulls would allow one of their franchise centerpieces to risk serious injury, particularly when you are down 20 points.

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