On Joakim Noah & His Overdue ‘Publicity’

The man knows not the meaning of restraint.

It was long overdue. A feature on the Bulls’ physical center. Perhaps a piece on his “no stone unturned” mentality? Or on his penchant for making key plays when his team needs them (his block on LeBron comes to mind)?

But alas, it was neither. Instead, it was a flurry of opinions — measured responses, spiteful lambasts and everything in between — from journalists worldwide on Joakim Noah’s   inflammatory retort to a fan’s provocation. I will not speak as if I have an enlightened perspective, because I do not. But from what I’ve read, it seems more likely that Noah’s word choice was involuntary due to the comment’s reactionary nature than a remark that spoke of a deep-seated prejudice.

I don’t think Noah is homophobic,  but he is no saint either. Regardless of intent (or lack thereof), in no way should he be absolved for his abhorrent remarks. He deserves to be punished, and rightfully so. But the flippancy of his outburst merely confirmed what everyone had surmised: such unhealthy, homophobic taunts are more deeply ingrained in the language of an all-male sports environment than once thought.

Retroactively, it was the timing of his retort rendered it all the more egregious. It was sandwiched between NBA commercials addressing the very topic of homophobia and came on the back of not only Kobe Bryant’s now infamous anti-gay slur at an official, but also Phoenix GM Rick Welts’ open confession to the media. Nonetheless,  however offending his remark may have been, recognize that Noah is also a victim of inopportune circumstance.

(As a side note: check out Kevin Arnovitz’s interview with a distraught Noah. Amidst such media scrutiny, coupled with the fact that the man facing him was an openly gay journalist who seemed pretty displeased, Noah sounded truly overwhelmed and didn’t know how and whether to defend his actions.)

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Joakim Noah: Hustle and Grit Personified

This is called wanting it more.

I’ve expressed my view on the NBA’s latest homophobic outburst and now I’d like to go back to talking hoops.

What do you think of when you think of Joakim Noah? Gritty. Physical. Combative. Heck, he’d probably go toe to toe with King Leonidas and come out the victor. He’s a fighter, a warrior, and the heart of the Chicago Bulls.

He parades a robust and hefty frame, an underrated basketball IQ and an exotic set of curls that belie his American heritage. He can’t shoot, is limited offensively, but rebounds and defends at an elite level — a archetypal center in today’s evolving basketball landscape. He is talented, there is no doubt, but his rudimentary exploits on offense is matched — and often superseded — by his more gifted peers (Bynum, Gasol (Marc), Horford). They can generate points through a drop-step or an elementary pick-and-pop; Noah can’t, and isn’t a scorer, he’s a different animal. He’s a scavenger who revels in putback opportunities and feeding off teammates’ scraps; in that respect, he is peerless. He knows his limits, and puts himself in situations that maximises his production and curtails his shortcomings.

 

  • Knowing his role on offense

Noah is a pretty smart guy. He knows he’s dead weight beyond 15 feet, and is only a legitimate threat from close range. He doesn’t try to explore his boundaries, but instead roots himself in the fundamentals and plays within himself. If he ever ventures beyond his comfort zone, it is to avail himself as a target for his point guard.

On pick-and-rolls, it is not uncommon for opponents to trap Rose, and when that happens is where Noah becomes an asset to his team. You’ll often see him flash to the top of the key, arms flailing wildly to catch Rose’s attention. It may seem an extension of his frenzied demeanour, but do not mistake Noah’s effort for a waste of energy. When exceptionally lanky defenders — such as LeBron and Bosh — converge on Rose, his vision diminishes rapidly. The slightest visual cue Noah provides can signal Rose of his presence, allowing him to release a pass that, if delayed for a split-second, could have resulted in a deflection or turnover.

Once he receives the ball, Noah’s above-average handle and underrated passing ability enables him to unlock the Heat’s defense. The key here is Noah’s self-awareness and team-first mentality: he has an open lane but he recognizes that slight penetration and a dump pass down low to Boozer (or a kick out to Deng in the corner) represents higher percentage options than if he were to take it to the cup himself. And he enjoys setting up his teammates this way. But don’t take my word for it, Brett Koremenos of Hoopspeak (absolutely brilliant blog by the way) offers up some insightful analysis on this issue. Sebastien Pruiti of NBA Playbook has also given Noah credit for his heads-up play.

 

  • ‘D’s up like no other

But everyone knows Noah’s true value is on the glass and on defense. He always boxes out his man, secures every rebound within his reach and treats every defensive possession as a pre-draft workout. His peerless effort and indefatigable nature has often pushed writers to their last resort: using the phrase “he was everywhere on the court” to encompass Noah’s omnipresence on defense. He knows not of the term restraint and it is that very lack of restraint that is signature of Noah’s play.

People rave about Tom Thibodeau’s impact on Chicago Bulls defense (and I’m one of them too). He brought his brand of “strong side overload” defense to Chicago, and ratcheted up the intensity twice over. But lost in translation was the system’s intrinsic need for a vocal and effusive big man as its anchor.

In this scheme, Joakim Noah isn’t ‘the straw that stirs the drink’; he is the cup that holds the liquid inside. He holds everyone accountable, and keeps his teammates on the same page. The guy hedges and recovers on pick-and-rolls, provides weak-side help when neccessary (which is pretty often since Boozer plays heavy minutes) and anchors the paint at all times. His mere presence on the court gives his team assurance that any slip-up will not be detrimental, as he will always be there to erase their mistakes. But they know for every individual error, they can expect to hear an earful from their de facto defensive coordinator.

 

  • Never gives up. Ever.

A sequence in Game 4 of the Bulls-Heat series reminded me of Noah’s indescribable ‘Noah-ness’. On a Miami inbounds play — with the game all but lost — Noah flew down the court to foul LeBron James, who, in moments prior, had sprinted down the Heat’s end to receive the inbounds pass. The rest of Noah’s teammates knew it was over. Deep down, Noah himself probably knew that too. But he fouled James anyway.

I could hurl a bunch of jargon words — resolute, unflinching, indomitable — hailing Noah’s spirit and determination. But no matter how I phrase it and however poetic it may be, it will always fail to do Noah justice. He’s the type of player whose efforts transcend the box score, and the assets — both tangible and intangible — that he brings to the table on a nightly basis can only be truly comprehended when one actually watches him play.

 

  • A throwback to the past

In the modern NBA landscape, a throwback gem like Noah is music to the purists’ ears. Many a franchise have been made to suffer for their conundrums at the ’5′ spot. In Toronto, Raptors fans’ have had to endure multiple seasons with a ‘soft’ stretch four masquerading as a center (Andrea Bargnani). In Texas, a perennial contender had to rely on a 6-7 big man to man the ’5′ spot (Dejuan Blair). Before the Danny Ainge brainfart, Oklahoma City entrusted rim-protecting duties to a stereotypical european paperweight (Nenad Krstic). And back in Motown, the Pistons are still counting on a over-the-hill center (whose afro has finally usurped defense as most prominent feature) to get them through the season (Ben Wallace).

Only a handful of teams in the league have defensively-proficient starting ’5′s. They are, in no particular order: Dwight Howard of the Magic, Al Horford of the Hawks, Andrew Bogut of the Bucks, Tyson Chandler of the Mavericks, Andrew Bynum of the Lakers, Marc Gasol of the Grizzlies, Joakim Noah of the Bulls. Of those I mentioned, four of them are superior defensively (Bynum, Howard, Bogut, Chandler) and other two of them are slightly below Noah’s standard. But of the four, only Howard isn’t prone to injury.

Sans Howard (who’s a freak that plays on a whole different plane), Noah is arguably the most complete, versatile, and reliable defender amongst the rest.

Though he still fouls too much and his temperament can occasionally let him down, Noah is a rare commodity that all teams covet. Every team that matters has a superstar, or three. But not every team has a Joakim Noah; and you can bet your last dollar any team would love a Joakim Noah.

Anti-gay slurs aside, I think it’s time we give Joakim Noah his due.

Posted in 2011 Playoffs, Chicago Bulls, Joakim Noah, Old School, Player Analysis | Leave a comment

Of Boundless Potential & Newfangled Futility

Before you go any further, I suggest you grab a pair of heat-vision goggles (Sorry, no more heat-related puns for me) and familiarise yourself with Miami’s fully realised crunch-time lineup before hitting the jump.

Ready? Let’s go.

A Glimpse Of A Post-Apocalyptic World:

It kind of looks something like this.

Okay, I admit, that was just a headline to capture your attention. But could we expect anything less moving forward? With a year under their belt, players fully recuperating from their present maladies and the possibility of a further strengthened roster (I’m getting breathless here), won’t we be expecting the Heat to be — gasp! — an even better team? What with the Heat’s dream five stepping onto the court for the first time all season — with no semblance of familiarity to fall back on — and blending their unique skill-sets seamlessly? In doing so, they have all but rendered the traditional positional constructs an anachronism.

Sure, they are not short on flaws, of which the pervading media never fails to latch onto. The criticisms are endless: They are too top heavy. They don’t have a bench. Their superstar wings entail overlapping redundancy; their point guard rotation resembles two mutually exclusive entities: a battle-tested shooter who can be exploited defensively by Eric Snow and an overzealous youngster whose play is best described as mercurial. Their center-by-committee is a euphemism spewed by their coach to mask the scrap-heap nature of their big man. They still indulge in ill-advised stretches of isolation play (or as Phil Jackson likes to call it, an “overshooting situation”) but they are laspses that speak to their superstars’ proclivity to ‘carry the team’ rather than an intrinsic imbalance in the team’s make-up.

That’s what makes Miami such a fascinating team to analyze. They are a work-in-progress. They are a bottomless pit of potential. They lack size to compete amongst the elite, yet they possess a whirlwind of frenzied limbs that fluster opponents to no end. They win the right way, with unrelenting defense. But they represent everything that’s wrong in this generation — too chummy with one another, lacking in the competitive edge. They are an enigma.

LeBron was wrong, his team isn’t like the ‘Heatles’, far from it. There’s no one term that can aptly describe them, because they are the precedent.  They polarize fans and writers alike to ridiculous extremes and incite fervent opinions from even the most casual of observers. Any writer who tries to justify any one narrative as the best fit is an exercise in analytical futility. But there’s one thing they can all agree on: Miami has made the NBA exciting again.

Posted in 2011 Playoffs, Front Office, Miami Heat, Miscellanous, Off-Season, Team Analysis | Leave a comment

Falling Dominoes: Haslem’s Resurgence a Warm-Up to Miller’s Main Act

The guy they've been waiting for all season.

He nodded rhythmically to the roar of the crowd, mouth-guard in flux as per usual, acknowledging the significance of the shot he just made.

Moments prior, he had rubbed off a pindown screen, caught the rock in stride, gathered his balance, and fired away with no hesitation. With the ball in flight, he back-pedalled into a defensive stance. Pupils unmoving, staring at the hoop with utter conviction. This one was going in. Swish.

If there were ever any lingering doubts in his mind, they’ve all but vanished. Mike Miller — the Mike Miller who hits timely shots, makes heady plays and gives his team that added dimension — is back.

In similiar vein to fellow teammate Udonis Haslem’s emergence in Game 2, Tuesday night was truly Miller’s post-season coming-out party.

In what could possibly be viewed as a sure-sign of his confidence level on the night, Miller took — and made — his first shot on his first touch of the game. But this was only the prologue; his final act would have to wait. Miller seemed sprightly from the get-go, but as LeBron and Wade continued to dominate possessions, his contributions was limited to a steady diet of fundamental box-outs, board work, and camping out on the wings on offense. For Heat fans, it was the same old song and dance; they nodded approvingly, if unenthusiastically, at his efforts, as they knew he offered so much more. But this was the Mike Miller they’ve been accustomed to seeing — an accomplished all-rounder turned garbage man and afterthought on offense.

From his first made field goal to the start of the fourth quarter, he was marginalised and disengaged on offense, relegated to spot up opportunities bereft of any rhythm or flow. But in that very fourth quarter, much like a dormant volcano unexpectedly erupting to remind residents of its presence, Mike Miller poured forth a timely flurry of buckets that was as spectacular as it was staggering.

It began with a shot much like his first. LeBron James streaking down the floor in search of an easy score; he spotted his buddy trailing the play and fired one of his patented cross-court passes that landed perfectly into Miller’s shooting pocket. Rhythm was once again established, and this time Miller would make full use of it.

Of off a Bosh handoff, Miller drove hard right and executed a silky behind-the-back dribble to create space for an emphatic pull-up jumper, leading to a Bulls timeout. That bucket put the Heat up by one. More importantly, a broken (literally) man was regaining — no, exuding — confidence once more.

Several possessions later, Miller was the ‘release valve’ of a broken set. The Bulls smothered Miami’s primary and secondary options, forcing the Heat into a couple of perimeter passes. As the ball was swung to Miller, he displayed swift decisiveness and a deft touch as he attacked the open lane before lofting the ball over the outstretched fingertips of Carlos Boozer.

The Heat never needed Miller to be a scoring option. Though Miller is an exceptional shooter, they did not pursue him so aggressively for that reason. In him they saw a multi-faceted player who could contribute in myriad ways and lift the team in crucial moments. When the offense was stagnant, Miller could step in and make a shot, or penetrate and create for a teammate. When Miami’s lack of size and height put them at a disadvantage, Miller, through true grit and hustle, could secure key rebounds. And when the Heat needed someone to be the difference, Miller could be that guy.

He could do all those things; to the coaching staff and the entire locker room, it was just a matter of when. They were all waiting — the fans, the journalists, the coaching staff and Pat Riley — for their other big free agent to arrive. They didn’t ask for concussions, broken thumbs and middling displays; but as Game 4 drew to a close, the Heat fans were dutifully reminded of the old cliché: it’s better late than never.

Posted in 2011 Playoffs, Miami Heat, Mike Miller, Player Analysis | Leave a comment

Tim Duncan: Expressive, Animated, Uninhibited

This is Tim Duncan, also affectionately referred to as the Tim Duncan Robot. A stoic man of rare outbursts of expression, a game as fundamental as James Naismith intended and athleticism and basketball mechanics resembling that of a robot; behold the half man, half robot known as Tim Duncan. (Not my words, but words of a guy who was actually selling this poster.)

Do I hear blasphemy? Shouldn’t he be — what’s the word — stoic? Watch this clip and tell me otherwise. This. Is. Way. Too. Funny.

On that note, a couple of links for your light-hearted fancy:

  • Gino20 of Pounding The Rock acknowledging LZ Granderson’s piece on Duncan. Kudos to his unbridled attack on the Lakers/Heat/Celtics-love fest ESPN. Whoops!
  • I’m going through the archives (or, a simple google search) here, discovering Eric Neel’s take on Tim Duncan –- and there’s that word again – the stoic.
  • Is it me, or am I just in denial mode here? Once again, reminiscing the past glories of the beautiful and never boring Duncan.
  • Arguably the most egregious link of them all. And it’s a Facebook group at that.
  • Timmy goes Hollywood (!). Timmeh!
  • Chronicling Bob Horry’s mental torture under the hands of 21. Click on the link and everything will make sense.
  • The Onion. The Onion. The Onion. No one does it better than The Onion. I probably can’t look at an onion with a straight face ever again. Great. If you ever hear hysterical laughter at your local grocers’, I apologize. It’s probably me.

And if you’re still wondering, yes, this post is entirely for my own personal amusement.

Posted in Fun, Miscellanous, Player Analysis, Tim Duncan | Leave a comment

Playoff Preview: Miami vs Chicago

The new MVP stance: With arms akimbo.

The new MVP stance: With arms akimbo.

As the basketball world shakes off the abrupt and unforeseen truncated playoff runs of the league’s old guard (Boston, Los Angeles, San Antonio), we are simultaneously presented with a mouthwatering clash for the ages. The face-off between the dastardly Miami Heat and the humble,well-liked Chicago Bulls is representative of the rapid ascension of youth (and relative inexperience) into the NBA’s elite. It is also a microcosm of the — swift and staggering, but ultimately unsurprising — paradigm shift in power from the incumbent veteran stewardship to the unheralded promise of potential. To borrow a well-worned cliché: the changing of the guard.

Much like how the torch of tennis immortality was (then unknowingly) passed from Sampras to Federer in that enthralling five-set clash at Wimbledon, the same has happened in today’s NBA landscape. However, that is not to say the veteran-laden squads of the Celtics, Lakers and Spurs — winners of the past four NBA championships — are over the hill or incapable of mounting another challenge next year, because I believe they can. But today (and this article) belongs to the young and the restless.

Yahoo! Sports’ fantastic Ball Don’t Lie crew brilliantly laid down the groundwork for what is sure to be a highly entertaining affair. Same praise goes out to the omnipresent Zach Lowe of The Point Forward, who breaks down the series meticulously with astute observations of individual matchups and statistical breakdowns from the teams’ regular season head-to-head.

(As a side note: Isn’t it incredible how Zach Lowe consistently churns out beautifully crafted pieces and seems to almost never skip a beat? Henry Abbott called him the Blake Griffin of NBA bloggers but I beg to differ. He’s more of a Kevin Love: consistently wonderful production at a pace that exceeds his peers. The certainty of obtaining a few nuggets of wisdom in each article as akin to the quasi-inevitability of a Kevin Love double-double. Also, he somehow really reminds me of a clockwork orange.)

A couple of takeaways: Most believe the series is hyper-competitive and could go either way. There is a general consensus that Chicago’s dominant defence can stifle the likes of Wade and James. Finally, the greatest — and arguably the most pivotal — enigma of the series is this: How is Miami going to stop Derrick Rose?

Dissecting The Indecipherable:

Look how far we’ve come in a year. In a series that features LeBron James and Dwayne Wade, the one player widely regarded as the most unstoppable is one Derrick Rose. The man has really grown leaps and bounds this season, even if his efficiency and shot selection (too many threes) still leaves something to be desired. How the Heat are going to approach guarding Derrick Rose is a question that should be followed by another: Who is going to be Rose’s primary defender?

Along with the first bullet above, here are the four talking points of the Eastern Conference Finals.

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  • Who is going to be Rose’s primary defender?

Although Dwayne Wade plays the ’2′ for Miami, it would not be far-fetched to think that he’d be their de facto ’1′ guard on defence. Mike Bibby’s defensive contributions to the Heat is similar to Brian Scalabrine’s entire season’s worth of production for the Bulls — it is practically non-existent. In fact, he has been downright horrific on offense as well, posting an ungodly 1.1 PER throughout the post season. The worst part is that he is still their starting point guard. If Bibby is to start (and chances are, he will), look for Spoelstra to call Wade’s number for this defensive assignment, especially if Bibby is obliterated from the get-go.

However, after watching Spoelstra tweak and adjust his lineups to suit matchups, I would not be surprised if he went with Chalmers to start. But he is probably too comfortable with his bench rotation to risk messing up their chemistry.

All roads lead to Wade being Rose’s primary defender, especially in crunch time when the ball is almost always in the hands of the MVP.

  •  What defensive adjustments, if any, are Spoelstra going to make?

The Wade-James-Bosh triumvirate annihilated their respective counterparts in the second round. But their offensive exploits aren’t the reason why the Celtics couldn’t muster up points in crucial periods; it was their vaunted defense.

With regard to Derrick Rose, the Heat’s handling of the pick-and-roll will probably be the most scrutinized aspect of their defense. The Anthony-Bosh big man tandem is arguably the best in the business of hedging and recovering. But in Rose you have the best point guard at attacking off the initial hedge and causing all sorts of havoc.

Will Spoelstra ask Rose’s defender to go under the screen and bait him into shooting jumpers? That is most teams’ default tactic against a lethal ballhandling slasher with a less-than-dependable jump shot. But D-Rose is a respectable midrange shooter, and ideally you’d want to concede space but still be able to semi-contest his jumper. Factor in Rose’s otherworldly quickness and any advantage gained from ‘sagging off’ may be futile. Hence, it is very likely Spoelstra may put the bigger 6’4″ Wade on Rose as Wade’s wingspan and lateral quickness renders him the best option to contain Rose.

If Spoelstra elects to chase Rose over screens, however, then a premium will be placed on the other four guys to step in and form a ‘wall’ to limit Rose’s penetration. On side pick-and-rolls, Spoelstra may also opt to aggressively trap Rose and force him to give up the rock. If he concedes and gives it up along the perimeter, great. But if he finds the open big man, or worse, splits the trap, then Miami will be in dire straits.

How the Heat’s big men communicate on who’s to pick up Rose and the rolling/popping big will be absolutely crucial. As Anthony Macri has outlined here, Rose has been experimenting with a ‘probing’ dribble, where he actively surveys the entire court instead of driving to the cup recklessly. Though the results have not been eye-popping, Miami will do good to pay extra attention to the Bulls’ active big men and the always-cutting Deng.

Also, if Carlos Boozer’s last game represents a return to form rather than a one-game aberration, Miami will have another potential dilemma to deal with.

  • Sans Derrick Rose, will Bulls’ offense be enough?

The Chicago Bulls’ offense is Derrick Rose; Derrick Rose is the Chicago Bulls’ offense. He shoots, passes, handles the ball, breaks down defenses, makes plays and inspires awe all by himself (or with the help of a simple screen). No one individual from either team has quite the responsibility that the MVP has for his team. But, in Miami, he faces his toughest test and on the rare occasion(s) that he were to fail, who’s going to keep the offense afloat?

Boozer has been struggling with a turf toe, but for the Bulls to win, he has to shoot better and provide his team with a post presence they sorely lack when he’s not aggressive.

The Bulls’ defensive rating plummets with Korver on the court, but the offensive boost he provides — due to lethal shooting and hence, better spacing — offsets his defensive shortcomings. Though his abysmal defensive reputation is debatable, his only valid contribution will undoubtedly be on the offensive end. He has to make shots off curls, spot-ups and drive-and-kicks by his teammates. It wouldn’t hurt if Wade leaves him open in the corner either. Korver came up big against the Hawks, and his timely shooting will be essential to the Bulls’ late-game lineups.

Chicago is a poor shooting team (and they are slightly worse in the playoffs); that is a well-known fact. They’re going to shoot and miss quite often, which plays to their greatest strength: offensive rebounding. Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson and Omer Asik (I just love this guy. His name, height, build, game. Everything.) are big, strong bodies who don’t just rely on their physical assets. They actively contest every missed shot, jostle for better position and display exemplary effort in rebounding their teammates’ (and their own) misses. Their efforts are evident as they lead the league in offensive rebounding this post-season. If they can bully Miami’s smaller ‘bigs’ with their imposing size, their offense would have a greater margin for error.

(As a side note: There’s a chicken-and-egg thing going on with Chicago’s offensive rebounding. Are they a great team at getting second chances in spite of their poor shooting, or is their poor shooting presenting them with more available opportunities per possession and hence inflating their rebounding prowess? Considering the massive size and ability of the Bulls’ frontline, I’d like to think the former is more true.)

Deng is the Bulls’ most underrated and overlooked player (I very nearly forgot to mention him here). But make no mistake, he is their go-to scorer behind Rose. As all five guys will be keeping an eye on Rose’s every move, Deng has to exploit the smallest of lapses in concentration to lose his marker and cut into open space for easy opportunities. LeBron is also known to have trouble with quick, savvy small forwards — Batum, Wallace, Deng — who know how to move off the ball. Thus Deng will have to step up and pile on the points to relieve some pressure off his point guard. I’d peg him to average around 17 points per game for a successful series.

Korver, Boozer, Deng and the entire Bulls frontline contributions will be crucial portion of their offense, especially when the ball is out of Rose’s hands. Whether they will pick up the slack is entirely up to them.

  • What to make of Miami’s wonky lineups?

Over at the Heat Index, Kevin Arnovitz opines that Miami’s best lineup comprises of the trio along with Joel Anthony and James Jones. He explains the kinks of this lineup as follows:

 With this group on the floor, the Heat don’t have to compromise very much. They’re able to maximize Jones and Anthony while limiting these role players’ liabilities, thanks in large part to James and Wade.

By pairing Anthony with Jones, the Heat’s best floor spacer, Spoelstra is able to compensate for the defense’s inattention to Anthony. Since Boston, like Chicago, likes to crowd the strong side and bring a third body (often Anthony’s man) into the potential path of the attacker, whether it’s James or Wade.

He backs it up with an astounding statistic that shows this lineup outscoring their opposition by 30 points per 100 possessions. The lack of a point guard is also not an issue here as majority of the sets run with this lineup requires the other perimeter player to stand and wait for kick-outs. Seriously, go check it out.

I’ve nothing much to add to this, as the logic is sound and statistics assuring. I’d just like to point out that not only is this lineup unconventional, but Erik Spoelstra’s constant experimentation in the playoffs is an exception to the rule.

Most coaches establish a firm 8-9 man playoff rotation that they would rarely mess with, lest disrupting chemistry and the like. Unless their hand is forced — Phil with the Artest suspension, Doc with Shaq’s ultimately pointless return, Pop because RJ flat-out sucked — coaches seldom change their rotation, let alone their starting lineups. And when they do so, it reeks of desperation and is often a precursor to elimination.

But the Heat are uniquely and miraculously special (wink, wink Lost fans). The oft-discussed positional revolution is no more salient than in the Heat’s center-and-point-guard-deficient  lineups. The versatility of their three superstars allows Coach Spo to continually tweak lineups and rotations to achieve the perfect balance of offense and defense. “Old-school” coaches like Popovich and Sloan would balk at the prospect of such frequent revisions; even new coaches would be wary. But none have the luxury Spoelstra has, and that freedom simply demands sustained experimentation. Perhaps now, Spoelstra has found his most lethal combination (for this year, at least).

Prediction:

A cagey affair. Both defenses stifle the opposition’s offenses. Wade and LeBron collectively outplay Rose. Brian Scalabrine makes a cameo (kidding!). Heat expose Bulls’ greatest flaw: over-reliance on Derrick Rose. Heat win in seven.

Posted in 2011 Playoffs, Chicago Bulls, Coaching, Miami Heat, Miscellanous, Offensive Philosophy, Old School, Player Analysis | Leave a comment

Heat Win, Another Dynasty (Soon To Be) Vanquished

On this night, LeBron's jumper was pure gold.

The Miami Heat took a convincing 3-1 lead in their best of seven series with the Boston Celtics. They did so by beating Boston on their beloved parquet floor, an achievement in and of itself, but as I’ve mentioned before, the warning signs were in plain sight.

When the ‘Big Three’ of the Heat combined beautifully on the game-clinching play, Pat Riley’s vision has never been more palpable. When LeBron James and Dwayne Wade worked in tandem — displaying all the synergy they’ve acquired –- to exploit mismatches and induce hitherto unseen cracks in Boston’s excellent pick-and-roll defense scheme, the blog world was in ecstasy. That’s what they’re supposed to do. It is their moral obligation to explore the endless potential of their partnership.

But when the Heat inevitably win this series, it will not be solely due to the dynamic duo. It will be a myriad of factors. Boston’s age – and I’m beating the same drum here – has been showing all series long. Rajon Rondo isn’t the Rajon Rondo that terrified the Heat in the regular season (and how could he be, dislocated left elbow and all). And of course, every rational Celtics fan’s favourite lament: Danny Ainge screwed up, big time.

Those are all valid points, but everyone seems to be forgetting a core ingredient in Miami’s post-season success: Coach Spoelstra. Erik Spoelstra deserves a lot of credit here. Here is a man, who, throughout the course of the season, was a) publicly maligned by the nation’s writers whenever the Heat suffered inexplicable losing streaks, b) had his credentials incessantly scrutinized to a fault, c) whose job security was always in question no matter the on-court results, d) whose substitution patterns was called out by his own players, and e) endured arguably the most debated player-coach ‘shoulder-check’ in sports history.

(Listing these out and refraining from adding 14523 more points made me realize how ridiculous the media coverage on the Heat really is. And yet, I’m falling right in line with them. I’d be damned if there really is a lockout.)

What I’m trying to get here is that Spoelstra deserves more credit than he’s been given. Many a time, he’s the media’s easy scapegoat, and his level-headedness and unwavering optimism in the face of relentless critique has often fallen by the wayside. He could have folded, compromised his principles and gave in the pressure, but he didn’t. He could have called out LeBron and Chris Bosh for questioning his superiority (and thereby straining their relationship), but he didn’t. He could have chosen the easy way out, handing over the reins to Pat when they were a paltry 9-8, but he didn’t. He has been a consummate professional, abiding by his ‘defense-first’ rhetoric and never once succumbing to the media. And now, it is paying dividends in the Heat’s playoff run.

The Heat are blossoming right before our eyes: The stingy defense that characterized the Boston Celtics have become a staple in Miami’s success (although they differ in fundamental methodology). The offense that was once discombobulated and uneven is now the perfect amalgamation of the Big Three’s talents. Chris Bosh is playing superb defense; Joel Anthony’s all-court hustle is bleeding into now-trademark Heat ‘skirmishes’;  and LeBron has embraced the off-ball game and is fully utilizing his otherworldly frame as a monster screener.

With so much going for them right now, Miami seems to be prime favourites for the Larry O’Brien trophy. And while the players deserve credit for sticking to the game plan and executing beautifully, Coach Spoelstra has emerged as an excellent tactician, orchestrating the Heat symphony with great poise and maturity. They say Rajon Rondo is “the straw that stirs the drink” for the Celtics. I say Erik Spoelstra is the quintessential “glue guy”, melding the edgy new age of analytics with solid, fundamental coaching principles.

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Before this post digressed into an outlet for my unsolicited basketball man-crush on Erik Spoelstra, I actually meant to write a sensible breakdown of Game 4’s key plays. So without further ado, here are my convoluted, irrational thoughts on Miami’s victory.


Bullets From The Breakdown:

D-Wade’s Hop-Step Dribble  –

[MIA 52 BOS 55]

Different players have different styles. Likewise, each individual has their own brand of slashing that is unique to themselves. Paul Pierce has ‘herky-jerky’ hesitation dribble. Derrick Rose ‘bounces’ towards the rim. Russell Westbrook just explodes. Dwayne Wade likes to employ a little hop-step dribble before rising for the layup.

  • He is often twisting and turning past defenders and changing directions multiple times so that little mini dribble helps Wade maintain a little balance before he goes up for the layup. Wade is arguably the best in the league at using this hop-step which is as much a stylistic preference as it is a way to throw off defenders’ timings.
  • Instead of the usual gather and one-two step routine, the hop-step presents defenders with a few more complications. For one, it forces the defender to be extra cautious as Wade can choose to either explode immediately after the hop-step, or he can give a little up-fake to bait a defender into contesting. It’s a nifty little move, and Wade is its best exponent.

Joel Anthony’s Improved Finishing –

[MIA 65 BOS 73]

  • Tom Haberstroh recently explored Joel Anthony’s dedicated effort to improve his offensive game –- catching, turning and finishing strong. Those efforts appear to have come to fruition in this series as he has displayed uncommon efficiency in finishing  from close range and off offensive boards. None was more impressive than when he found himself open at the rim (which is a very common occurrence), caught LeBron’s interior pass confidently and rose to finish over Jermaine O’Neal.
  • As O’Neal approached from his left, he shielded the ball, absorbed contact and finished with his strong hand away from the contest. It was basic fundamental finishing, something he could not have done early in the season.

Good ‘D’, Better ‘O’ –

[MIA 77 BOS 76]

  • Pierce receives the ball at the right corner with the shot clock winding down. He creates space with his ‘rocker’ step, but LeBron is right in his mug as he launches a 21-foot fadeaway that hits nothing but net.
  • The basketball cliché is best epitomized in this sequence, as LeBron played absolutely perfect chest-to-chest defense knowing that Pierce had no time to drive and get a shot off.

D-Wade Overhelping, Again –

[MIA 81 BOS 81]

  • Wade overhelps on a Pierce drive when the lane is already protected by both Bosh and Chalmers. Yet again, he absent-mindedly leaves his man open in the corner and Delonte West makes him pay. Again. You’d think Wade -– after admitting his mistake to the media no less – would have learnt his lesson by now, but apparently bad habits die hard.

LeBron James, Clutch Extraordinaire –

[MIA 81 BOS 84]

“The rumors of my demise (in the clutch) have been greatly exaggerated.” – LeBron James

  • Okay, LeBron may not have actually said that, but he had every right to bark back at those (read: everyone) who questioned his shot making in pressure situations after making what might have been his biggest shot of the entire season.
  • Fresh off a Ray Allen dagger, LeBron –- right in front of Boston’s bench, mind you -– answered right back with one of his own. Catching the rock on the right wing and with little time or space to work with, LeBron did his best Paul Pierce impression as he rocked Pierce back before pulling up for three. Time stood still for a moment as players, coaches and fans trailed the shot’s high arc, and then hearts ruptured and lungs collapsed. Turning point. Crowd silenced. LeBron freaking James.
  • On a side note: Glen ‘Big Baby’ Davis has been subpar the entire series. He admitted to being lost on court and spoke of “finding Glen” before he could contribute on court. Well, I think Glen Davis “found” himself as he screamed and yelled frantically (as his limbs flailed in directions and speeds unbeknownst to man), trying to throw LeBron of his shot. He would make a great cheerleader.
Posted in 2011 Playoffs, Boston Celtics, Bullets From The Breakdown, Coaching, Front Office, Miami Heat, Offensive Philosophy, Old School, Player Analysis | Leave a comment

Playoff Musings: Thoughts On Miami & Boston

Better than Jack Nicholson's courtside seats.

The Celtics-Heat series is the marquee matchup of the conference semi-finals. It is old school versus new age; methodical precision versus outrageous athleticism; good versus evil (okay, maybe not quite). Still, there are many, many fascinating threads and subplots that will develop during the course of this bloodbath.

Can LeBron overcome his past playoff failures against Boston? Will the Celtics’ poise and execution be too much for the Heat? Will the Miami’s bench finally show up and contribute? On the topic of contributions, will Shaq even fit his jersey, let alone see minutes on the court? Or will we being seeing more of his garish vest-suits? And on the topic of suits, can Craig Sager top his ludicrous past ensembles? (Sorry, I had to.)

But if you look really closely, the Heat and Celtics are similar in so many aspects it’s astounding. Both have minimum wage veterans seeking their first ring, use suffocating defence as their calling card and possess a ‘Big Three’ formed almost exclusively through free agency (in which Miami’s seem to be on a similar first season path as the 2007-2008 Celtics). Oh, and both teams play(ed) hard. (We miss you ‘Sheed, we really do.)

The Story So Far

The first two games have come and gone and one thing is certain: Miami’s speed — on pick-n-roll defence, paint protection and off turnovers — is giving Boston hell. Miami’s offense has been humming, with either massive scoring output by its ‘Big Three’ (80 points in Game 2) or solid contributions from its bench (James Jones with 25 in Game 1).

But it is their stifling ‘D’, built to exploit every advantage of its athleticism, which has made the difference in the series so far. They have stolen Boston’s identity, and flummoxed them the same way Boston did to others in past post-seasons. Boston is reeling. They’re throwing their patented jab-right hook combos but Miami’s taking the body blows and delivering timely haymakers of their own. For once in a very long time, their hardened exterior is incapable of masking the unmistakable look in their eyes: the one of legitimate fear.

But of course, in one fell swoop, a convincing win at home will brush these burning issues aside. The Heat merely held home-court. We will come through like we always do. After all, we beat them thrice in the regular season.

Except, these aren’t those unsure, stumbling Heat anymore. This is a confident team with clearly defined roles, a marvellous coach and two very, very hungry superstars. Oh, and history is most definitely not on their side. I believe it may be more prudent for the Celtics to cast away memories of their past successes and focus on what lies ahead: how exactly are they going to stop the Miami Heat?

__________________________________________________________________________

Notes and Observations

Game 1:

Exploiting Individual Matchups -

It is clear Doc Rivers is trying to exploit the Bibby-Rondo matchup. Bibby has a reputation of being a sieve on defence, and the numbers support this. He is slow, old and over the hill, basically everything Rondo is not.

  • This strategy was an evident from the get-go, with Rondo given the liberty to abandon the offense and iso against Bibby. Naturally, you’d expect Bibby to get immortalized (not in a good way), by Rondo right? Wrong. What!? Isn’t Bibby’s defence synonymous with Jared Jeffries offense? Or, if I’m being mean, Andray Blatche’s intestinal fortitude?
  • Well, Bibby displayed perplexing agility, and for the most part kept pace with Rondo. He also used his superior upper body strength to great effect, bumping Rondo off driving lanes several times. He even (gasp!) blocked Rondo on one occasion. But the Celtics — and the Heat, if they’re sane — will chalk this one up as an exception to the norm. It was nothing if not catching lighting in a bottle. Expect them to continue to attack this avenue.

Shooting After The Whistle -

He does it several times a game, and his distance from the hoop does not deter him. But when will Paul Pierce EVER realise that he is not going to get that call? I’m referring to the one where Pierce is dribbling around the perimeter — with no intent of shooting at all — and gets hacked. He proceeds to flail his arms, and hurl the ball at the general direction of the hoop.

He did it twice in this game, both to no avail. It’s painfully obvious that the referees are NOT going to call that “in the act of shooting”; otherwise we’d be seeing a barrage of questionable three shot fouls and opening a new can of worms.

You hear me, Paul? There’s something called the rip-through move, which is legit and actually noticed by the officials. YouTube Kevin Durant. You should try that sometime.

The Numbers Game -

(All numbers courtesy of Hoopdata.com)

  • Ray Allen had an incredible True Shooting Percentage (TS %) at 90.1. That is totally unreal.
  • Rondo’s TS%, at 36.8, was incredibly bad. But he had a team-leading 13.5 rebound rate and assisted on six of his team’s 3-point makes. This guy just contributes in so many ways.

Game 2:

The Stars Are Out -

Everyone brought their ‘A’ game and the match featured spectacular signature moves by the game’s best players.

  • D-Wade’s pump-fake to hesitation dribble was a fantastic precursor to his patented euro-step that brought the house down. In unrelated news, Kevin Garnett has attained YouTube infamy only this time, it is not for his cussing and swearing.
  • Rondo’s behind-the-back ball fake is so exaggerated, but everyone falls for it anyway. I never liked Rondo, due to his “dirty” on-court antics, but there’s no denying this man is one of the most creative finishers around the basket.

The Numbers Game -

(All numbers courtesy of Hoopdata.com)

  • Kevin Garnett is an elite midrange jump shooter. He’s probably better than anyone not named Dirk Nowitzki. But taking 9 jumpers from 16-23 feet — and making 2 of them — is way too many, even for a shooter of his calibre. He may not be as lethal as he once was, but KG needs to be pounding the rock down low, where his tremendous length and high shot release is best utilized.
  • The award for statistical aberration of the night goes to … Big Z! In 11 ineffective minutes, Illgauskas had a mind-boggling usage rate of 29%. The only equivalent would be if Antoine Walker came out of retirement, played 48 minutes without attempting a single three, and refrained from chomping down a cheeseburger before, during and after the game.
  • Interesting wrinkle in LeBron James’ offense: 5 assisted baskets and 0 TOs. We all know LeBron is a turnover machine, although less so in these playoffs, and generates his own offense. Thus I think the large proportion of assisted buckets are testament to James’ increased trust and comfort in coach Spoelstra’s offensive system. He’s working off the ball a lot more, setting picks and screens and being rewarded for it. None more so than when he made a backdoor cut for the alley-oop of an inbounds play.

Play Of The Game -

It happened with 6:40 in the 2nd quarter, with the score line BOS 33 MIA 34.

To me, this was the most outstanding defensive sequence of the night. The play-by-play:

  1. JO sets a pindown screen for Ray Allen. Anthony aggressively jumps out on Ray, triggering the pocket pass to an open O’Neal. Bosh rotates over instantly, preventing an easy lay-in.
  1. O’Neal kicks it out to pierce at the arc but Chalmers is quick to close him down. LeBron, wary of the drive, takes position behind Chalmers.
  1. Pierce goes past LeBron anyway but Bosh, yet again, rotates over perfectly with his hands up. Pierce kicks it to Rondo on his right, who drives into the lane but forced to put up floater as Bosh is right there once again to deter any more penetration.
  1. At this point, Pierce, JO, KG are all ball watching and forced out of their ‘spots’.
  1. The only breakdown is when Joel Anthony forgets to box-out O’Neal, who gets the offensive rebound but misses put back as Bosh is — and this is getting old — once again in perfect position to contest his shot.
  1. To put his final stamp on this possession, Bosh corrals the defensive board.

This was exhilarating, non-stop action. The Celtics were in complete disarray after Miami defended their initial set play, its triggers and counter-triggers.  The Heat defenders were truly “on a string“, making seamless rotation after seamless rotation, closing down shooters effortlessly and collapsing on drives in a way that presented the Celtics with no viable options beyond a blind kick-out. It was classic Boston Celtics defence.

Full credit goes to Bosh, who made use of his quickness and agility to wall off the paint on every Boston drive.

Jeff Van Gundy Watch

I love Jeff Van Gundy. He is full of zany one-liners, preposterous proclamations, and almost seems to teach Marc Jackson a new word on every broadcast. Here’s his best line of the night.

“You can’t go up against Mike Bibby, he’s a block shot machine!”

The best part? Jeff Van Gundy may be on to something, and people are taking notice.

Posted in 2011 Playoffs, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Miscellanous, New York Knicks, Old School, Player Analysis, Washington Wizards | Leave a comment

Because There’s No One Better

So unassuming, he declined to take the photo alone.

I’m a basketball nut. I love reading anything -– books, articles, commentary – about the sport. But you already knew that.

What you didn’t know was how I got into it in the first place. Yes, Michael Jordon was amazing. The Bulls-Jazz playoff series in which Jordan hit “The Shot” was my first full immersive hoops experience. And as the years went by, my love for the sport continued to grow.

I loved Rasheed Wallace and the ‘Jailblazers’ era. C-Webb and Vlade Divac floored me with the beautiful passing game. LeBron James made me excited about basketball at a time where it seemed headed for the doldrums. And when I couldn’t latch onto a team or player, there was always the big market Celtics and Lakers to root against. But, above all, there was only one man that kept me glued like no other. One man that made my love for the sport manifest into an incessant fixation. One man that inspired me.

That man is Tim Duncan.

I could write 100,000 words expressing my love and admiration for the guy, but now is not that time. His team is clinging on to shattered hopes; I’m clinging on to them. I don’t ever want to let go, not for the world. If I had a choice to save lives from a burning wreckage or cling on to their fading glory, I would still cling on to them. Sad, but true.

I’ll watch them fade into painful irrelevance, because I have no choice. Because this is my team. Because there’s nothing else I’d rather do. They’ve been with me in my childhood, youth and formative years; and they’ll stay with me till the wheels come off.

They are my life, heart and soul. He is my life, heart and soul.

__________________________________________________________________________________

I chanced upon an ESPN (!) article that was actually about appreciating Tim Duncan. No, it wasn’t about how the Spurs dynasty was ending, or how Tim Duncan was never going to get his fifth ring. It was a good, if sentimental, piece about the underappreciated excellence of the Greatest Power Forward Of All Time.

LZ Granderson’s kind words were uplifting at a time where there is only doom and gloom for the Spurs Nation. But the fact that an article like this is being published on a site like ESPN just seems to confirm the inevitable: The Spurs are dead. Tim Duncan is not going to get one for the thumb.

It was a eulogy before the eulogy.

And yet, I found this gem about Mr. Fundamental, in the comments section no less.

We always say there will never be a Player X, but there truly will never be another Tim Duncan. As the game becomes even more athletic and drifts further out to the wing, as highlights become even more popular, I can’t imagine another player coming along who does it like the Big Fundamental did it.

That, coming from a Lakers fan. Of course, you’d question that perhaps he gave such a glowing assessment only because he’s, if anything, relieved that the Spurs won’t be a major threat to his team anymore. You’d question whether he would be as generous with his words if his Lakers were on the brink of elimination and not the other way around. Lastly, for every respectful netizen, you’d point to the thousands of other spiteful trolls who would continue to lambast this “boring old man” before and after him.

But, on this day, I’d rather not.

Posted in 2011 Playoffs, Hall Of Fame, Los Angeles Lakers, Old School, San Antonio Spurs, Tim Duncan | 4 Comments

Spurs Defy Logic, Mainstream Media

The Spurs live to fight another day. The Tim Duncan era is not dead — yet.

Neal Wit' It!: The shot that ripped the space-time continuum.

Quick-Hit Analysis and Thoughts:

1.     The Towson Triple

  • The shot that everyone is talking about — Gary Neal’s desperation/clutch triple to force overtime. Smart call by Popovich, supreme confidence by Neal and a collective exhale by the entire Spurs Nation. Remarkably, when taken into context, the shot could be classified as either pivotal or inconsequential.

2.     Big Picture

  • Does Gary Neal’s miracle shot have any impact on the series as a whole? Will it galvanise the fallen Spurs, jolt them from dormancy and inspire a legitimate Spurs response (let alone a game 7)? Or will it be a single game reprieve; a moment which unrelenting die-hards cling onto but will ultimately be for naught? Game 6. Fed Ex Forum. Let there be 48 minutes of hell.

3.     The Unsung Hero 

  • Just how big was Antonio McDyess’s hustle leading up to Ginobili’s miracle fallaway? Monumental. It was a broken play from the start and Dice brought out his trampoline, tipping the ball multiple times beyond the hands of 2 Grizzlies. Granted, he gathered the loose ball and very nearly threw it away, but his effort and hustle was exemplary.
  • Dice really battled down low with Randolph out there and never gave up an inch. Bravo, Antonio, bravo. If he doesn’t eventually win a ring, no one can accuse the 36 year-old vet of not trying.

4.     The Dearth of Role Players

  • Richard Jefferson continues to be the bane of Spurs fans’ existance. A measley 6 points in 33 insipid minutes and a bevy of missed treys.
  • Matt Bonner’s annual disappearing act goes on, infuriating the collective and befuddling Coach Pop. We have never looked more vulnerable than when he is on the court. Pop has never looked more foolish.

5.     The ‘Silver (and Black) Lining’

  • Brazilian enigma Splitter goes perfect from the field with a couple of crowd-lifting and-1s. Pity Pop still doesn’t reward his effort. Unlike Matt, Tiago’s size has actual impact on the offensive glass and he’s not a sieve on defense. Oh, and he doesn’t seem scared shitless as well.

Last Word:

The Spurs have been exposed, badly. Zero interior presence, aging Duncan and a dissipating defense that can’t get stops that they used to. But we knew that already. What we didn’t know is that the team’s elite 3 point-oriented attack was the sole stilt that propped up the team’s stature as an elite contender. A mirage; fool’s gold; it all means the same.

Sadly, the end of an era is nearing. I feel cheated, let down and dismayed. This isn’t fitting; our Spurs deserve a better swansong. But, whilst we wait for that moment to come, there is always the immediacy of ephemeral esctacy.

Thank you, Gary Neal.

Posted in 2011 Playoffs, Buzzer Beaters, Offensive Philosophy, Player Analysis, San Antonio Spurs | Leave a comment

The Playoffs: Where Chris Paul Happens

No, Red Bull doesn't give you wings. Chris Paul does.

There he was in plain sight, doing what he’s been doing his entire career: playing basketball, the only way he knows how. He executed pick-n-rolls to perfection, dished dimes that demonstrated unbound court vision and masterfully dictated the tempo of a game which could yet prove crucial in this enthralling, albeit surprising first-round series. He overcame the behemoths of blue and gold time and again, nailing floaters, sinking contested jumpers and skying for rebounds, proving once again that desire is the greatest equalizer for the undersized and the overmatched.

On the back of a historic Game 4 performance that resulted in a victory over the gargantuan Lakers, Chris Paul was asked to assess his own performance. In his own words, he was “just being me (himself)”. It was an honest answer to a point-blank question. But it utterly downplays the herculean effort that Paul gave on court and begets, amongst others, this one question: how did we ever forget about this diminutive dynamo?

As Rob Mahoney has brilliantly discussed, basketball fans should be in the mood of appreciating instead of ceaseless comparing. However, I feel compelled to make several comparisons, all in an attempt to comprehend the underappreciated greatness of one Chris Paul.

The Purists’ Dream:

This happened. Alot.

In the spring of 2008, a transcendent point guard transformed a middling team into a legitimate playoff contender. That year, the Hornets took a crucial 3-2 series lead over the San Antonio Spurs before succumbing to their veteran savvy and one masterstroke adjustment: Assigning the task of containing Chris Paul to defensive stopper Bruce Bowen. Yes, as with most superstars you do not stop them, you can merely contain them. But as CP3 goes, so do the Hornets. Paul was hounded, stifled and his influence ultimately waned as the Hornets fell in seven games.

Why did I bring this up? Because that was the year Chris Paul attained nationwide recognition, contended for MVP and became the media’s new darling. Between then and now, Paul has been consistently great (both by observation and in the numbers), but his throwback style has been overshadowed by his flashier and more athletic counterparts. The uber-athletic Derrick Rose, he of twisting layups and explosive leaping ability. Likewise, Russell “I cannot stand still” Westbrook dazzling the world with his reckless forays, hyperkinetic efforts and general all-round (over)exuberance. And those are just two of the many out there.

In an era where score-first points are aplenty — Rose, Westbrook, Parker, Williams (He was a primary scoring option this season) — Chris Paul is truly a gift to the purists. For all his speed and guile, he plays a methodical game of milliseconds. His ability to make the right decision under duress is unparalleled, and this ability is exceptionally profound when he works the two man game.

Coming of a screen, he knows exactly when to hit the big man on a roll, when to kick to the big man ‘popping’ and when to penetrate. As I like to say, some players run pick-n-roll sets or plays; Chris Paul is a pick-n-roll play.

He is not as explosive as Rose but he has a deadly, deadly change of pace, one which still bewilders elite rim-protectors now and again. When the team switches on the play, he won’t hesitate to call an audible and “go to work” (read: embarrass) against his glacial-footed opponents. Ball handlers — point guards, point forwards and anything in between — execute the pick-n-roll. CP3 executes the Pick-n-Paul (Yes, I just coined that term).

But Chris Paul is much more than a pick-n-roll practitioner; he is one of the league’s best two-way players. In Game 1 — I didn’t manage to catch game 4 in its entirety but I surmise that it ended pretty much the same way game 1 did: CP3 flipped the proverbial switch/ went into “eff-you” mode/ became a God Amongst Men — he put on a dizzying display that would even triumph the Mardi Gras in the Big Easy.

(First of all, let me get this off my chest. It shouldn’t ever take a ridiculous one-handed laser-guided pass from the top of the key for the world to take notice of Chris Paul. We, as hoops fans, are far better than that. That being said, it was a moment that was met with agape jaws and stunned silence. I feel better now, moving on.)

There was a sequence in the 4th quarter of Game 1 in which CP3 utterly dominated every single possession. Here’s my mini-breakdown:

- 7:00 left in the 4th

Coming off a pick-n-paul (shameless plug no. 1), Paul sees Fisher fight over the screen and, knowing full well that Fisher is hustling back to stay in front of him, decides to put the brakes on immediately. Fisher crashes into his behind and is subsequently pinned down, unable to recover. Right there and then, a foul could have been called.

A crafty move, but no dice. Unperturbed, Paul maintains his dribble, and at the moment he spots Bynum flat-footed, lofts a delicate floater that falls for the deuce.

-  Mid 4th Quarter, Baseline inbound of a made bucket

Vintage Chris Paul. It may or may not have any tangible impact to the possession’s outcome, but letting the ball roll to the halfway line when under no ball pressure has been a trademark of his play.

I’m willing to bet that over the course of the season, those extra few seconds prevented several shot clock violations for the Hornets. Not a major factor by any means, but it highlights Chris Paul’s willingness to obtain, nay, seize any possible advantage.

-  NO 7 point lead, 4:25 in the 4th

Two man game with Aaron Gray. Gasol switches on Paul (bad, bad mistake), then tries to position between the roll man and Paul but he is a step too far back. Paul nails a step-back and the Hornets go up 7.

Marc Jackson utters his obligatory “Mama, There Goes That Man!” as they cut to commercials. (There’s a clause in his ESPN contract somewhere that gives him a bonus every time he uses that catchphrase.)

- NO 94, LAL 90, under 4 minutes to go

Fisher reaches in and challenges Paul to a pass. Paul sells the foul (flop?) And Lakers are in the penalty. CP3 is as brilliant as anyone in drawing these types of ticky-tacky fouls. It may not have a massive impact in this context, but imagine if it a one possession game with under a minute to go.

- The very next possession

Odom with the ball near the centre circle. He’s trying to get his teammates into a play, and here’s when Paul takes a swipe at the ball. He very nearly steals it, and his activity forces Lamar to give up the rock, disrupting the Laker offense in that possession.

So, to recap: A crafty floater, a clutch jumper, a near-steal and plenty of trademark CP3 desire and will sprinkled in between.  This man is great, and he shouldn’t need to put up such singular efforts for us to pay attention.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions:

Monty: You see that man over there? That's Jarrett Jack, our closer.

Fast-forward to Game 4, and here’s some level-headed analysis from Truehoop’s Henry Abbott on Paul’s game-clinching pass to Jarrett Jack.

“Why shoot with three people on me if one guy is open?” Paul explained at the All-Star break, when asked about his approach to crunch time. “If I’m open, I’ll shoot it, and if I’m not, I’ll pass it.”

Of course, it doesn’t always end so well. Imagine if Jack had missed, which could well have happened. Paul would have been chastised as passive. Williams would have been criticized for letting a bit player decide the series. Manhood would have been doubted all the way around (just like when LeBron James kicked the ball a wide open Donyell Marshall with the game on the line in Game 1 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals).

Firstly, my initial reaction to Paul’s quote was this: People are fickle. Basketball is fickle. What turned out to be a brilliant clutch play could have very easily been an opportunity to vilify Paul for putting the game in the hands of Jarrett freaking Jack. (Note: In a league where close games mostly devolve into superstar H-O-R-S-E fests, CP3 goes against the rule just by his “hit-the-open-man” mantra alone.)

And almost immediately, my mind raced to the moment LeBron James dished to Donyell Marshall on a decisive possession a couple of years ago. I find it quite intriguing that the subconscious benchmark for a player shirking from the spotlight is that LeBron James play.

Nonetheless, the basketball gods shone on Chris Paul and once again, the 21st century Isaiah Thomas has made his presence felt in the playoffs. Make no mistake; his game 4 stat line of 27-15-13 is a historic achievement. As I’ve broken down above, his impact is clearly felt on both ends on the court.

From the old-school observation standpoint, he was everywhere you know I truly mean everything I say about Paul’s performance since this is the first time I’ve italicized and bolded a word for emphasis. His gaudy numbers, if anything, fails to justify his all-encompassing performance. But look deeper into the numbers and you’ll only be more impressed — 27 points on 14 shots, a perfect 11-11 from the charity stripe and a PER that’ll make John Hollinger blush. Oh, and he corralled the same number of rebounds as the two-headed Bynum/Gasol monster.

Chris Paul deserves our love, recognition and adulation. Granted, he can’t take your breath away in a way Rose, LeBron or Griffin can; his cerebral yet intuitive game is still an abstruse concept to most viewers; and he plays on the ground where his fellow superstars take flight. But as he proved against the Laker faithful, desire and heart are the greatest equalizers to all the talent in the world. And that, to me, is something worth rooting for.

Posted in Chicago Bulls, Commentators, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Miscellanous, New Jersey Nets, New Orleans Hornets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Old School, Player Analysis, San Antonio Spurs | Leave a comment