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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.

Green Light

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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.

klay3

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.

Steph Curry Lost A Game, Monta Ellis Won One

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NBA: Golden State Warriors at New York Knicks

Stephen Curry was the personification of flammable last night. Everything that left his hands quickly burned up on its way to the rim, like a comet shooting through the Earth’s atmosphere. It was as if Curry was a lighter and the ball a sphere lathered with gasoline, causing immediate ignition upon touching his hands, almost like he was permanently stuck in NBA Jam mode.

With David Lee missing last night’s Knicks-Warriors game due to suspension, Curry was asked to provide even more of a spark than is usually asked of him, so he did his best to become a human match. Every time that leather Spalding ball left Curry’s fingertips, creating the slightest bit of friction, I envisioned him scrapping the phosphorus head of a match against the emery on the side of the box. It didn’t take long for the nylon nets of Madison Square Garden to become engulfed in the flames that Curry’s picture perfect jumpshots were concocting.

Curry completed the most impressive game of the NBA season last night, one of the best games in the history of the most storied arena (Madison Square Garden) in the league and perhaps the greatest shooting performance of all-time. He played all 48 minutes, dropped 54 points, dished out seven assists, grabbed six rebounds and compiled three steals, all while shooting 18-of-28 from the field (64%) and an incomprehensible 11-of-13 from three (85%), setting a franchise record for makes from behind the arc. Curry’s night started off as a continuation of his incredible performance against the Pacers the night before – 38 points on 14-of-20 shooting from the field (70%) and 7-of-10 shooting from deep (70%) – and developed into one of the most magical displays of basketball brilliance that I have ever seen.

Curry’s place amongst the elite point guards in the league is a very interesting topic of debate during such a point guard rich day and age in the NBA and will certainly gain steam after something like last night. There’s a legitimate case to be made that Curry will wind up being the greatest three-point shooter of all-time – he’s shooting 46% from deep on seven attempts per game on the season and 45% from three on five shots a game for his career – and his silky smooth shot often overshadows the rest of his offensive game, which is also very good. And though his advanced defensive numbers are poor, Mark Jackson constantly reiterates that Curry has done what is asked of him defensively, and the eye test somewhat agrees that Curry has done well in Golden State’s revamped pick-and-roll defensive scheme.

As of right now, Curry ranks fifth in the NBA amongst point guards in PER at 20.75. The four above him are Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving, four all-NBA caliber performers. If we go back to last season, Curry was sixth in the league in PER (21.23) amongst point guards, with Derrick Rose bumping Curry from the top five. I’d also acknowledge the potential for Deron Williams and Rajon Rondo to be in the top five conversation at some point in the future, so I’d be comfortable saying that Curry is definitely a top eight point guard in basketball, with the potential to crack the top five if his ankles ever mature like his game has.

The thing that makes Curry unique in my mind is that he blurs the line between point guard and off guard better than any of the other top point guards. Does Westbrook occasionally play off the ball? Sure, but teams would much prefer it to him attacking the rim. Ditto for Parker. With Curry, you have to pick your poison.

Curry can be an ultra aggressive ball-handler with the starting unit at tipoff and by the end of the game easily morph into the role of a super shooting guard when Jarret Jack is playing point. Curry is equally adept at running a pick-and-roll as he is at coming off of a screen and getting of a quick shot, which is an underrated skill for a point guard, particularly for one that plays with a secondary ball handler as good as Jack.

Here is the list of guards that have dropped 54 points or more on at least 64% shooting in the history of the NBA: Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson and Curry. The number of players in league history to shoot at least 80% from three in a game on 13 or more attempts is even shorter: Curry. There is an infinite amount of criteria that you can add to the query and the results are always the same: Curry had one of the rarest nights in league history last night. And describing it in historical context doesn’t even do the performance justice.

Outside of Irving and Kevin Durant, I’m not sure there is another point guard in the league capable of putting on a shooting clinic like the one Curry had last night. Watching Curry go from hot shooting night to profound display of talent was enchanting; his ear-to-ear smile, which grew with every make, enhancing the viewing experience while his version of Mark Jackson’s famous shimmy shake only slightly scarring what was an otherwise clinquant performance.

And oh yeah – I knew I was forgetting something – Stephen Curry’s Warriors lost to the Knicks, 109-105.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Houston Rockets
I’m sure Monta Ellis has a zombie tattoo somewhere on his body. (US Presswire)

The best way I can describe what it is like watching Monta Ellis play is to compare to watching an episode of The Walking Dead; I watch to see the next ingenious and aesthetically appealing move he’s got up his sleeve (yes, I am a fan of zombie slaying), but, ultimately, I know that even his best offensive contributions matter little in the grand scheme of things given his reluctance to defensive fundamentals and faulty shot selection (can we get a decent plot, please?). What Monta gives you in innovation, he takes back due to his lack of traditional skills and habits.

If Ellis would do something as simple as crouching down in a defensive stance on a frequent basis, he’d be an easier player to appreciate, but there is always something to mar his greatest work, whether it is on the next possession or the next night. But alas, Ellis is largely the same player he was a few years ago, wowing you with his tremendously packaged set of scoring and passing skills on some nights, while forcing you to change the channel out of anger twice as often.

Ellis put together a perfect combination of what makes him fun and what makes him horrid last night against the Rockets. As has been the case since J.J. Redick was brought in at the trade deadline, Ellis spent the majority of last night’s game playing both guard positions. When Brandon Jennings was in the game, he was the off guard, and when Redick subbed in for Jennings, Ellis ran point. Ellis did a tremendous job of getting his teammates involved last night, racking up 13 assists in a variety of ways. He got players open on straight dribble drives, ran Milwaukee’s offensive sets well, got guys good looks in transition and generally made great reads when he was looking at the game through the prism of a passer.

Of course, it’s hard for Ellis to keep his Chris Paul shades on for 48 minutes a night. There were still forced mid-range jumpers, some awkward shots at the rim and six three-point attempts despite the fact that he is shooting 24% from three. For the game, Ellis shot 5-of-17 (29%) from outside of the paint and 38% overall. Monta’s incessant heaving from 16-23 feet was once slightly defensible due to his league average field goal percentage from that distance. But now even that has gone by the wayside: Ellis is shooting a career low 32% on mid-range jumpers, and yet hes still taking 5.2 such shots a game.

Ellis was also a terror defensively, for both teams. Ellis was all over the place on the defensive end for the second straight night, racking up six steals for his second game in a row. And then there was Ellis leaving James Harden to double Jeremy Lin on a 1/2 pick-and-roll, freeing Harden for a wide open three, and Ellis wondering into the paint as a post player fiddled around, jumbling his team’s rotation and costing the Bucks three points. He giveth, and he taketh away.

This game showed you every aspect of Monta Ellis, which essentially boils down to a bunch of moments that make you say “Wow” in applause and disdain. As a fan of entertaining basketball, I enjoy watching Monta play in a vacuum; his brazen attitude is so out of place, especially when compared to new teammate J.J. Redick, that I find it oddly refreshing, and his ability to play so many minutes on a consistent basis is flat out impressive. But when analyzing the game, it’s impossible to see Ellis as anything more than a net negative and a player that hurts his team more than he helps it. We could hold out hope for that to change, but if that’s your stance, I can tell you that your future is full of frustration and clanked 20-footers.

***

After the Bucks secured a pair of clutch offensive rebounds, Brandon Jennings stood 30 feet from the basket, waving for his teammates to clearout of the lane. With 18 seconds left in a tie game, Jennings, who was on the bench for the majority of crunchtime, was preparing for a hero ball shot and a game-winning highlight to put on his resume. With 12 seconds left, Larry Sanders comes up from the weakside as if he’s going to run a pick-and-roll with Jennings; Jennings waves him off. A couple seconds later, Sanders starts towards Jennings again; Jennings waves him off once more. At this point, we know the shot is going up. Jennings is either going to win the game or send it to overtime.

Jennings stares Jeremy Lin in the eyes as the clock ticks down to single digits, stuttering his dribble to size-up Lin and the clock, conjuring up his post-game celebration in his head. But then, the unexpected happened: Lin plays sound positional defense and Jennings, who never made a strong move to get free, is stuck 21 feet from the basket with no live dribble and a man baring down on him.

But there is hope. With 2.1 seconds left, out of the corner of his eye, Jennings spots Ellis sweeping across the floor towards the top of the key. With such little time left on the clock, Ellis may receive the ball with no time left to fire a shot, but Jennings is better off not ending the game with the ball in his hands after violently declining any attempt at an actual play with the time winding down. He makes the pass to Ellis.

It’s an inaccurate toss that forces Ellis to catch the ball across his body, but he pulls it down with 1.2 seconds left on the shot clock, leaving no time to set up a normal shot.

But what’s a normal shot to Monta Ellis?

Ellis grabs the ball, swiftly squares his shoulder, leaps off one leg and fires a 28-foot three over the outstretched arms of Chandler Parsons.

The ball circles the rim, comes completely out, bounces off the back iron and falls in.

Monta Ellis’ Bucks won 110-107.

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