TrueHoop: Kevin Arnovitz
Not 10 seconds into Jason Collins’ pregame news conference inside Staples Center, it was clear he was distinctly uninterested in answering questions about the historic and cultural import of the night. Collins had spent a good part of the day playing catch-up with the Brooklyn Nets’ coverage schemes and play calls, and the self-portrait he sketched sitting behind the low table inside the visitor’s hockey locker room was of a guy on a 10-day contract, and little more.
Collins made mention of his quality of life since he came out publicly last April -- Life is so much better for me -- but for the better part of 10 minutes, Collins spoke in largely clinical terms about learning the Nets’ playbook and his conditioning. He’s well aware that his game subsists on a diet of sturdy screens, pick-and-roll defense, guarding the post and issuing fouls as necessary. That’s stuff that requires mastery and 12 hours isn’t a lot of time to process.
On the surface, Collins’ reluctance to acknowledge the symbolism of the evening seemed not so much disingenuous as a little distorted. But the thing you have to appreciate is that most well-adjusted gay people rarely think about their sexual identity in the confines of their job. Collins understood from the outset that the best way to service the cause was to play quality minutes as a backup big. He wants to prove that the NBA’s first openly gay player is on the court because he still has something left to contribute.
Collins’ pregame message turned out to be prophetic, because when he took the floor with 10:28 remaining in the second quarter, it was all about the basketball.
It was difficult to handicap going in how the Staples Center would react when Collins checked in. The Lakers crowd is composed of a lot of westside money and show biz pros, among the bluest voting audiences in the NBA. These are image-conscious people and it was easy to imagine that they’d shower a hometown guy who’d broken a barrier with a rousing standing ovation.
But those who wanted a sentimental, politically satisfying Aaron Sorkin screenplay instead got a grainy Frederick Wiseman documentary utterly devoid of drama. There was a smattering of supportive applause and a few standers, but many couldn’t be bothered to look up from their phones.
Collins then went to work and it was vintage unvarnished Collins. Nets coach Jason Kidd wanted a backup center who talked on defense, and that’s what Collins proceeded to do, calling out directions from the back line like a veteran big man. He fouled like crazy -- five in 11 minutes of court time. On the offensive end, he appeared rusty and his timing was off. He missed his only shot and fumbled a pass from Deron Williams while rolling to the bucket.
On the positive side of the ledger, Collins also plastered defenders with screens. After the game, he recounted with a broad smile his favorite moment of the night -- witnessing Lakers point guard Jordan Farmar kvetch to the officials that Collins was setting moving picks. For guys like Collins who perform janitorial duties, this is among the highest compliments.
How did it feel for Collins? It felt like I’ve done this thousands of times before. This doesn’t discount an enormous milestone for one of the last realms of American life where a gay man has to think twice about being himself. But if it seemed prosaic, that’s because it was.
And this is how we make sense of it: The context of Collins’ appearance tonight was a huge deal, even if the event wasn’t.
Collins was going on his 10th month of basketball unemployment. He didn't receive a training camp invite, and as opening night came and went, then the Jan. 10 date when rosters rid themselves of some guaranteed contracts, the reality began to set in that he might not suit up again in the NBA.
The positive response of a handful of superstars and head coaches back in April, which seem like eons ago now, didn't change the fact that the league’s median opinion on Collins’ sexuality was still suspicious. Over the past decade, league executives have innovated many facets of their decision making, but they’re still conservative men at heart in their steadfast desire to maintain their careers. These days, few are really interested in being Walter O’Malley or Branch Rickey.
He met the world, established new friendships in different social communities around the country, and started dating. Barack and Michelle Obama reached out and pretty soon, Collins found himself at the State of the Union. From the White House to grassroots organizations, people were honoring Collins for his courage, and that's about as validating as an experience can get as a human being.
Though watching the league from afar wasn’t without frustration, Collins was loving life. As the service ended and the worshipers filed to the exits, Collins greeted a slew of people. The support was clearly both humbling and energizing. Out on the street, Collins caught up with a few friends. He was off to Washington on Monday as a guest at a state dinner for French President Francois Hollande and needed to run some errands before the trip east.
Collins will now board a plane with the Brooklyn Nets to join their drive toward the 2014 postseason. The opportunity comes 10 months after his last one, but the hiatus also unintentionally provided him time necessary to build confidence as an openly gay man, which should only help ease his transition back into life as a professional basketball player. Because no matter how warm the love, life during those first few months out of the closet can be dizzying. Your personal growth spurt occurs at warp speed, and that’s especially true if you’re an American symbol. Through it all, you build up stamina and a sense of self -- the kind of strength a person needs if he encounters conflict, skepticism or abuse.
Collins’ identity and confidence will come in handy because the spotlight is about to turn even brighter. He’ll be moving to a perfect market for his endeavor, but New York is also a media circus. Those executives who cited the media glare as a legitimate deterrent were misguided, but they weren't incorrect about its existence. Collins’ integration into the league will probably be somewhat disruptive. There will likely be awkward and obtrusive moments for some of his teammates. More and more pro athletes are ready to accept a gay teammate, but not every 24-year-old NBA player has the confidence, vocabulary or cultural sensibility to speak confidently about homosexuality.
Collins’ identity and confidence will come in handy because the spotlight is about to turn even brighter.”
The morning after Joakim Noah yelled, “F--- you, f----t” at a fan in Miami during the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, the Bulls held their media availability at the team’s hotel. The big names on the roster were each surrounded by a scrum, and Noah's epithet was a hot topic. Luol Deng was asked his impression, and the vet nervously tiptoed through his response as if he was navigating a minefield. Here was a young guy who’d seen a lot in life. He’d crossed cultures, defied probabilities, been under the microscope of one of the nation’s highest-profile college programs and spent his career in a top-three media market. But “f----t,” gays in the locker room and homosexuality in general were entirely different matters.
Three years later, the Nets figure to be a lot more comfortable. Paul Pierce is a former teammate of Collins and was his most vocal supporter in the league on April 29, when Collins came out. Kevin Garnett can be unpredictable, but his obsessive devotion to team chemistry will appeal to his better nature. Jason Kidd, yet another former teammate, was a catalyst in the decision to bring the 35-year-old Collins in. With those three men facilitating the assimilation process in Brooklyn, the rest of the roster should fall in line.
It’s been a rough couple of seasons for the Nets, and despite their recent surge in the Eastern Conference standings, they haven’t done much right since Barclays Center opened. But today, they're the league leaders. In the NBA market most vulnerable to media distractions, they dismissed the media distraction canard. Instead, they’re embracing the idea that change doesn't come without disruption, and that tests of character are worth confronting.
Collins has already passed that test, and as commendable as his announcement was last spring, watching him handle the situation with grace, cultivate a life and identity, maintain his conditioning and serve as an ambassador has been affirming.
Now he gets to compete, which is the whole point.
Jason Collins and Michael Sam have taught us that, on gay issues, education matters.
If an NFL team drafts defensive end Michael Sam of the Missouri Tigers, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, he will settle a longstanding gay sports bar debate: Will the first openly gay player in one of the "Big 4" North American professional team sports be an active player who came out, or a draftee who made his identity as a gay man public before entering the league? Sam came out Sunday on “Outside the Lines” and in The New York Times, and most gurus have the first-team All-American projected to go in approximately the fourth round of May's NFL draft.
Without any degree of certainty, I’ve leaned toward “draftee” based on my experiences covering the NBA. An email correspondence last season with a closeted gay NBA player, who remains in the closet, sent me in that direction. Pro sports is a brutally competitive industry where obsession over job security is just another occupational hazard. Once most athletes get a taste of the bigs, they’re not inclined to do something voluntary to put that job in jeopardy.
There’s still a chance that Jason Collins gets a call from a team looking for some frontcourt defense headed into the stretch run and postseason, but with each passing day the probabilities become less favorable. Whether Collins ever suits up for another NBA game doesn’t diminish what he did for the conversation. Teams sat in training rooms and on team planes and talked out the issue of homosexuality. Collins gave NBA players who could grapple with the idea of a professional gay basketball player abstractly a reference point. Collins blazed a trail across all sports.
There are compelling details in the New York Times piece of Sam’s coming out to his teammates last August. Take a look at the Missouri football roster: small-town Texas, the Ozarks, the southern Plains. Though some players on the team needed time to process, Sam and his closest friends on the team say that the process was virtually seamless. He was still Sam, a first-team All-American talent and a vocal leader with a loud voice. And a gay dude.
The younger the person, the less likely he or she is to consider a person’s sexual identity relevant, or to consider it at all, really. When Collins came out, NBA players I’ve spoken to say that age was a reliable predictor of sentiment.
Sam told The New York Times: “Some people actually just couldn’t believe I was actually gay. But I never had a problem with my teammates. Some of my coaches were worried, but there was never an issue.”
With the possibility of a few outlying opinions, the kids were fine despite any apprehension from the elders: 131 players and more than two dozen coaches and administrators managed not to leak the story for nearly six months. That’s not a minor miracle -- it’s proof that Sam’s sexual identity was entirely incidental to the team’s larger ambitions.
This didn’t happen by accident -- education matters. Last spring, the You Can Play Project, which educates amateur programs and professional franchises on how to create an environment where gay athletes are accepted and can flourish, led seminars for teams at Mizzou.
“Mizzou used our model to put together their own diversity discussions, as we frequently encourage schools to do,” said Patrick Burke, co-founder of You Can Play. “They talked to all their athletes about how performance is what matters, and how homophobic language and a negative culture can hinder an athlete's performance. Obviously, Michael took that discussion to heart, and I imagine it helped inspire three of his teammates to appear in the Mizzou ‘You Can Play’ video. Michael’s experience at Mizzou simply emphasizes the effectiveness of starting open conversations, which is our only goal at You Can Play. Ignorance and confusion can be fixed with education, and education is what we do best.”
Progress in this area has been exponential, but not every kid who plays football is going to arrive on a college campus with a fully formed understanding of who gay people are and what they’re about. That’s what college is for, and credit the University of Missouri and Pat Ivey, the school’s associate athletic director for athletic performance, for embracing its mission as an institution of higher learning -- and credit You Can Play for providing the curriculum.
When NBA coaches, executives and agents are asked why Collins didn’t receive a training camp invite last fall or hasn't caught on with a team midseason, they cite the anticipated “distraction,” both in the media and the locker room, coupled with Collins' age. A few execs said that the risk of rankling a superstar or futzing with chemistry wasn’t worth the trouble.
How did Missouri respond to Sam’s announcement to the team that he was gay? By ripping off a 12-2 season, winning the Cotton Bowl and finishing No. 5 in the final Associated Press poll -- one of their two best seasons since 1960. One can safely assume that whatever disruption Sam’s announcement generated in-house, it never made its way onto the field. Those who might have initially been uncomfortable showering next to a gay man or felt that he violated certain religious tenets either got over it, or deferred to the collective goodwill of the team.
“It's a workplace. If you've ever been in a Division I or pro locker room, it's a business place,” Sam told ESPN. “You want to act professional.”
Coming out occupies a central place in the life of gay people, which is why it’s ironic that so many of us are striving to drive it into extinction as a major life event. For his part, Sam will never come out to an NFL locker room, front office or fan base because he’s already done the work. He’ll show up as a complete person to training camp this summer. The media will flock to the story at first, and there will undoubtedly be some initial reservations in the locker room and the stands. But by virtue of arriving at camp as an “openly proud gay man,” as Sam identified himself on “Outside the Lines” on Sunday, there’s nothing to process, certainly not for Sam. He’ll have to wait for a few stragglers to catch up, but other than presiding over the teaching moments -- and there will be plenty of those because 20-something men traffic in all kinds of Category 1 and 2 homophobia -- the entirety of Sam’s work will be work. He’ll either anchor a defensive line or he won’t.
It’s impossible to know how much Michael Sam’s status as an elite player factored into his team’s overwhelming acceptance. An NBA head coach recently told me that the nine months since Jason Collins’ announcement in Sports Illustrated have taught us that the first openly gay active NBA player would need to be an All-Star. To his point, would a backup kicker have found the process of coming out at an SEC football program as painless as Sam did? Doubtful, which means there’s still work to do.
But as much as Sam’s credentials and standing as a team leader greased the wheels, they also meant Sam had something to lose. One can imagine a cynical adviser pleading with Sam to wait until after the NFL draft to avoid any risk. If Sam received such counsel, he clearly ignored it. As a result, he’s guaranteed to be drafted by an organization that will welcome a gay player.
Fortitude will find reward, which is the very mission of sports.
In the spring of 2012, six months after Chris Paul departed for Los Angeles, the Pelicans lucked their way into Anthony Davis. They didn’t have an owner at the time, nor more than 650,000 television households in their market, but they had the No. 1 pick.
Davis has lived up to it thus far. He ranks fifth in the NBA in player efficiency rating (PER) at 26.72, nearly a five-point uptick from last season. He’s an intuitive pick-and-roll player with good hands and good timing. He’s a gazelle in transition and a lethal cutter in the half court. He drains 43 percent of his midrange shots, and few in the NBA gets to the line at a greater rate than Davis, who converts 76.6 percent of his shots when he’s there. So long as he maintains his health, he’s poised to be one of the five most efficient offensive players in the game for the next dozen years.
That’s just the appetizer because defense projects to be Davis’ greatest long-term asset. At 20, he isn’t yet the quickest decision-maker on the floor, but he’s just getting started on a team that can’t keep a healthy lineup together. When it comes to basic pick-and-roll stuff, matching up with a perimeter ball handler off a switch and shot-blocking instincts, he’s already proficient and getting better.
“A.D. is a phenom in a different realm,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams says. “Everyone wants to compare him to Tim [Duncan]. I see him more like LaMarcus [Aldridge], but with a better handle. And what A.D. does that throws you off is he’ll get two steals and five blocks. He does it a different way. He can do more from a [ballhandling] standpoint.”
Davis’ presence alone puts the Pelicans at a sizeable advantage over the overwhelming majority of the league. For at least the next five years, they get the chance to construct something special with Davis, and it doesn’t matter that they play in a tiny television market that’s expressed a longtime indifference toward NBA basketball. Bring them a dynamic top-five superstar and they’ll start following.
“We knew we were going to get Anthony [Davis], so what do we want to do with him?” Pelicans general manager Dell Demps says. “Do we want to keep this veteran group? Or do we want to kind of start over? Or -- and it was the route we chose -- do we want to build through a combination of free agency and the draft?”
Early on in the process, Demps identified a couple of features that were important to him when he went surveying the league for available players.
“We really were targeting guys between the ages of 23 and 25, what we call ‘young veterans.’” Demps says. “We were trying to say, ‘Let’s get a bunch of guys who have already been through the ringer a little bit, had some ups and downs, know the league, but are still young and in their athletic prime.'”
In addition to youth, Demps values certain skill sets. In his vision of an NBA offense, dribble penetration is the most effective way to generate the highest-percentage shots, and he wants perimeter players who can attack defenses off the dribble.
Eric Gordon fit both. After a game of chicken with the Clippers (for whom keeping Eric Bledsoe out of the deal was their prime objective), New Orleans landed Gordon as their consolation prize in the Paul deal. Seven months later, much to Gordon’s chagrin and despite his playing only nine of 66 games in New Orleans, the Pelicans made him their first max player of the post-Paul era.
Right about the same time, Demps nabbed Ryan Anderson, another player in the Pels’ coveted 23-to-25 demographic. Anderson wasn’t a conventional big and, like Davis, power forward is his natural spot, but the Pelicans wanted some stretch alongside their prized draft pick, who is devastating when he has ample space to work.
From the Pelicans’ perspective, things looked promising: A future superstar in Davis, a prototypical modern-day stretch-4 on an affordable contract and a shooting guard with two-way capabilities. Gordon made too much and wasn’t the perkiest guy in the office, but the Pelicans would still have in the neighborhood of $18 million in cap space and a decent first-round pick when Summer 2013 rolled around.
“It all kind of went back to our plan,” Demps says of Holiday, referring to his target demo and ideal skill set. “Jrue was the perfect guy. He’s injured now, but when you look at his injury history before he went down, he’d played 96 percent of his games. Defensive-minded, can guard the other team’s point guard, can score, make plays and can become an elite-level point guard in the NBA. We also wanted to pair someone with Anthony and they could grow together. The two picks -- maybe we could’ve drafted guys like that. But with Jrue, we got that guy and he’s proven and getting better.”
A week later, Operation 23-to-25-Year-Old continued when Demps showed up on the doorstep of Tyreke Evans at midnight on July 1. Evans’ approval ratings as a player waned after winning Rookie of the Year 2010. But even though he’s missed a bundle of games over the past few seasons, he’s been efficient offensively when on the court.
From Demps’ standpoint, Evans was miscast in Sacramento. Rather than think of him as a point guard with the occasional bout of tunnel vision, Demps saw Evans as a scoring wing who passes the ball at a healthy rate and still had some upside. Demps promptly put an offer sheet of four years and $44 million in front of Evans, who soon arrived in New Orleans as part of a three-team deal, with New Orleans’ starting center Robin Lopez headed to Portland.
“That was a tough one,” Demps says about shipping out Lopez to Portland. With Davis, Anderson and Lopez, the Pelicans had a reliable and diverse three-man frontcourt rotation -- the do-it-all power forward, the stretch big and the 7-footer who can protect the rim and doesn’t need the ball. On top of that, Lopez carried a favorable deal: two years and $10.5 million, a bargain for a competent starting big man with a PER of 19.
Demps felt as if it would be easier to find a stopgap center who could give them some defense than land a dynamic scorer like Evans -- and because of cap restraints, the Pelicans couldn’t acquire the latter without casting off the former. Even if you have a charitable view of Evans’ game, it’s a reach to appraise four years and $44 million of Evans as a more valuable asset than two years $10.5 million of Lopez.
Sources around the league say the Pelicans’ intention was to unload Gordon to generate the space to pay Lopez, but no reasonable offers surfaced. The Pelicans deny they’ve ever actively shopped Gordon, but multiple team executives say that Gordon has never vacated the display window since last summer.
“In a perfect world, I’d like to have a monster big who commands attention,” Williams says. “To me, that’s the biggest thing we have to address -- to get somebody like that next to A.D.”
When a team desperately needs a conventional center, chances are there’s a top-shelf power forward in close proximity who’d rather have his jaw wired shut than deal with Marc Gasol, Howard and company every night as a 5 (see Aldridge, LaMarcus; Garnett, Kevin in Minnesota). As a general policy, organizations do everything they can to keep that guy happy.
Demps says that bringing in a bruiser wouldn’t compromise the Davis-Anderson frontcourt pairing, which has destroyed the league offensively (115.4 points per 100 possessions in the 324 minutes they’ve shared the floor and a plus-6.0 differential). He pointed to last season’s rotation as proof.
There’s a popular sentiment around the league that with the max commitment to Gordon, the acquisition of Evans and the drafting of Austin Rivers in 2012 (and to a lesser extent, the trade for the scoring point guard Holiday), Demps has constructed a glorified AAU team of ball dominators. In an era when most NBA offenses are predicated on spacing, what a team really needs are wings who can shoot from distance, something Evans can’t do. And if these wings are playing with a rarified talent like Davis, they need to be expert pick-and-roll practitioners. Neither Evans, Gordon nor even Holiday can list that as a strong suit.
Demps confidently backs his vision, and his arguments aren’t without merit. He points to the lineup data: The Pelicans’ desired closing unit -- Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Anderson, Davis -- dominated the league offensively this season before its members started dropping like flies, scoring an ungodly 123.5 points per 100 possessions. The assist rate for that lineup is over 20 percent, well above the league average. Even when the three ball dominators share the floor, their assist rate is a respectable 16.8, about the league average.
“One of the goals was to make sure we had a team that’s deep and hard to guard,” Demps says. “We wanted to be hard to match up against, and we were before the injuries happened. At times, we were unguardable.”
This isn’t an unfair characterization. The night Holiday fractured his right tibia, the Pelicans were ranked seventh in offensive efficiency. That gangbusters unit gives the Pelicans a slew of options in the half court Have Davis and Anderson run a stagger screen up top for Holiday or Evans. Davis rolls, while Anderson pops -- both lethal in that context. Gordon spaces the floor on the weakside. Holiday can too, if Evans is the ball-handler. And if Holiday mans the point, Evans can be ready and waiting to cut or start the second-side action if he gets the pass. With the collective offensive skill set on the floor, there’s plenty more where this came from.
“I’m so tired of talking about offense,” Williams says. “I don’t care how many offensive guys you have -- from Ryan, to Tyreke to Eric to A.D. to Jrue, the bottom line is you have to defend. ... Our defense is horrible and you just can’t play offensive basketball all the time. All the top teams? Their defense is sound. Our defensive mindset has got to get better.”
While Williams is disgusted with the current state of his 26th-ranked defense, he believes there’s precedent from his first season on the job for vast improvement -- so long as the Pels can keep bodies on the floor. New Orleans has strong bookends with Holiday at the point and Davis up front and it’s difficult to believe that with those two guys accounting for the ball and the rim, the Pelicans can’t have at least a league-average defense.
Our defense is horrible and you just can’t play offensive basketball all the time. All the top teams? Their defense is sound. Our defensive mindset has got to get better.
-- Pelicans coach Monty Williams
New owners often like to redecorate the front office when they buy the place, but Pelicans owner Tom Benson pledged his support for both Demps and Williams. Almost immediately after the completion of the sale, new Pelicans executive vice president Mickey Loomis extended Williams a contract extension. A few months later, one was extended to Demps. Along with the new deals, Demps and Williams were given an imperative -- win sooner than later.
The injuries that have decimated the Pelicans have rendered that nearly impossible. Holiday and Anderson are sidelined indefinitely, as is starting center Jason Smith. The Pelicans now start Brian Roberts and Alexis Ajinca at point guard and center, respectively.
“The injuries make it hard to evaluate our plan on the court,” Demps says. “But we have a young core and we want to keep adding to it.”
The investments in Gordon, Evans and Holiday will make that process difficult. Demps will have the mid-level exception to work with, but little else. Unless it lands in the top five, the Pelicans’ first-round draft pick this season will go to Philadelphia to complete the Holiday deal. In retrospect, the Gordon contract was excessive for a player who looks increasingly like a third option and doesn’t feel comfortable playing at much less than 100 percent. Evans has his attributes, but a deal more akin to Paul Millsap’s two-year $19 million contract in Atlanta would leave the Pelicans less hamstrung when it’s time to pony up for Davis’ max extension.
The errors in planning are easy to enumerate and Demps tacitly admits some of his primary goals are cleaning up his own mistakes. Fortunately for the Pelicans, a single truth lies beneath the spreadsheets:
When you have a budding star like Anthony Davis, you can afford to make mistakes.
Still, if you wander off into the woods, you still need to be able to see the trail. When the Pelicans heal, we’ll have a better gauge of their navigational skills.
• The Los Angeles Clippers don’t subscribe to the idea of moral victories, at least not vocally, but the vibe around the team after the 116-112 loss to Miami Heat was comparatively rosy for a team that lost on its home floor and didn’t have one of the four best records in the Western Conference for the first time in well over a month. The Clippers weren’t happy about the turnovers and the defense, but they’d wanted a tempo game against Miami and they’d accomplished that. They wanted to keep the ball moving against Miami’s pressure in the half court, and they nailed that task as well.
• When Chris Paul suffered an AC separation of his right shoulder, he said emphatically that he didn’t believe in silver linings. Serious injuries derail momentum and disrupt the season -- for player and team. So to honor CP, let’s call what the Clippers are seeing from Blake Griffin over the past month an unintended consequence rather than a silver lining. On Wednesday, 43 points, 15 rebounds and six assists, and as if that’s not a full demonstration of his dominance, consider this: 52 of the Clippers’ 98 possessions ended in a Blake Griffin field goal attempt, a Blake Griffin field goal attempt that resulted in a pair of fouls shots, a Blake Griffin assist or a Blake Griffin turnover.
• LeBron James turned in another “1-through-5” game, guarding every position on the floor for Miami. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when LeBron became an equal opportunity defender with the Heat, but we can look at a Sunday night in January 2011 against the Trail Blazers in Portland. The Heat spent much of the game bogged down in the half court, at which point Erik Spoelstra unleased an early incarnation of Heat small ball. Miami went gangbusters as James found himself covering 7-footer Marcus Camby. Wednesday night, James matched up with DeAndre Jordan and Griffin for stretches and did his usual work on his perimeter counterparts. James loves to roam when his assignment is a secondary or forgotten option of the offense -- and Jordan snuck underneath a couple of times on LeBron -- but the multi-tasking was impressive as always.
• Only LeBron can avenge a technical foul call that clearly irritated him and set him off into a flurry of rage that materialized in … assists and facilitation. On the possession following the tech, LeBron pounded the ball upcourt and was met by Griffin at the 3-point arc. James then performed what might have been a pointed imitation of Griffin’s elaborate between-the-legs, eat-your-heart-out-Anthony Mason shtick. LeBron then orchestrated the prettiest half-court set of the night. In a five-second span, James dished the ball off to Ray Allen, moved into a screen for Allen, caught the pass from Allen while rolling hard to the rim, then stopped short to lob an alley-oop to Chris Andersen. One hockey assist and another basketball assist followed on the subsequent possession as the Heat capped a 6-0 run to build their lead back to 17 points.
• Griffin drew the assignment to guard James to start the game -- and for much of the finish while the Heat were still small. [We discussed the decision] this morning before shootaround,” Griffin said. “It was actually T-Lue, Tyronn Lue. I guarded him a couple of times when we played them in Miami.” Griffin did an adequate job as roadblock, and James spent most of the possessions opposite Griffin setting up Wade on some pretty cuts, and moving the ball to the weakside, which the Clippers routinely vacated or merely forgot about.
• Doc Rivers spoke pregame about the miracle of Allen’s shotmaking. Four hours later, he experienced it firsthand when Allen nailed the dagger as the third option on a play designed as a single-double for Mario Chalmers, with a contingency pick-and-roll with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. When nothing materialized off either action, Wade swung the ball to Allen, whose 3-pointer gave the Heat a five-point lead with less than a minute to go in regulation. “It was a little bit of a broken play,” Spoelstra said. “We had been running a little bit of an action to try to get some different matchups to take advantage of the switches. [The Clippers] switched, and Dwyane [Wade] was able to drive. Because they had switched and handed off so many things, sometimes defensively you lose sight of guys on the weak side, and that’s what happened.”
• Neither the Clippers nor the Heat did much to stop the other in the half court. Miami’s aggressive schemes left them vulnerable to weakside actions, cuts and duck-ins. The Heat were late to rotate when they trapped up top, and when they did, they’d end up with Mario Chalmers crashing on Griffin in the lane -- generally a bad idea for the guy who isn’t Griffin. The Clippers, meanwhile, “lost guys” all night in the words of Rivers. They switched everything for Griffin and the guards appeared confused as their counterparts breezed around screens. It was ugly on both ends defensively.
About a half hour after the game, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was more animated than usual. It was a big win, he explained, because it was important for James to see the team succeed in his absence. It’s not that James isn't trusting of his teammates -- one glimpse at his career assist numbers tells that story -- but it’s common for a superstar to feel as if his team’s fortunes rest on his shoulders, and James certainly falls into the category.
So does Chris Paul. Like James, much of Paul’s game is predicated on trusting teammates -- one glimpse at his career assist numbers tells that story too. And like James, Paul is obsessive about playing. CP is the ultimate control freak, but how in the name of the holy point god is he supposed to exert that control when he’s not dressed for the game? It’s not that he doesn't think the world of his teammates, but when Paul’s body doesn't allow him to take the court, he develops a nervous energy.
“He talks more, if that’s possible,” Doc Rivers said Saturday before the Clippers beat the Jazz. “He was back in the coaches’ section every trip [during the Clippers’ seven-game road swing]. And we’re like, ‘Go back to the front and play cards.’”
Everything's fine, Chris. The team is 11-5 since you went down with a separated AC joint in your right shoulder Jan. 3. Since that night, the Clippers own the most efficient offense in the NBA, scoring a fat 111.7 points per 100 possessions. Blake Griffin is playing out of his mind. Paul’s understudy, Darren Collison, has an effective true shooting percentage of 63 percent as the starter and an offensive rating of 113 points per 100 possessions. The Clips are getting serious offensive production from Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick. A disappointment the first third of the season, Jared Dudley is playing his best basketball as a Clipper and leading the team in net rating during the stint without Paul.
The only regular who has been struggling profoundly over the past month is Matt Barnes, who has been trudging his way back from an eye injury. And if not for a wild, off-balance Randy Foye 3-pointer at the buzzer Monday night in Denver, the Clippers would have logged another feel-good moment with a clutch win on the road in their final possession courtesy of a 3-pointer from Barnes. DeAndre Jordan even hit a couple of big free throws to tie the game inside of two minutes. The Clips nailed the process, but results conspired against them, at least for a night.
One of the things the Clippers brass likes about Rivers’ reign is the relative calm that has permeated Playa Vista. Rivers’ predecessor, Vinny Del Negro, never truly had job security in his three seasons, and gut-wrenching losses were often followed by bouts of hand-wringing. But Rivers, who is also the team’s senior vice president, can’t be bothered to sweat regular-season losses of the quantum variety. He is monitoring the Clippers’ process for defects. Do that well and results will follow.
In this regard, Griffin has been a revelation over the past month, and with Paul out, he now occupies the focal point of the Clippers’ offense. The ball lands in Griffin’s hands earlier and more often, and the choreography rotates around him. His usage rate has skyrocketed over the past month -- 29.8 since Paul left the lineup, up from 26.9 prior to Paul’s injury. Applied to the full season, that number would trail only Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.
Griffin and Rivers had conversations prior to the season about using Griffin out of the pinch post as a playmaker to maximize his triple-threat capabilities. Griffin loved the idea to showcase his passing but also wanted to reserve the right to back down a guy who couldn't match him physically.
He was back in the coaches’ section every trip [during the Clippers’ seven-game road stretch]. And we’re like, ‘Go back to the front and play cards.'”
-- Doc Rivers on an injured Chris Paul
With Paul on the shelf, Griffin’s game looks like a combination of what he and Rivers each imagined. Griffin is now the Clippers’ most potent playmaker and most reliable facilitator. Per ESPN Stats & Info, his assist rate prior to Paul’s injury was 14.5, which is impressive for a big man. Since Jan. 4, it's 22.0 -- a number usually owned by distribution-minded wing players.
But it’s not just Griffin’s assist stats; it’s his command. When Redick buzzes around those multiple screens and curls up from the baseline, it’s Griffin’s play to make -- whether it’s a pass, a handoff or a quick jumper for himself in open space. When the Clippers need to establish an offensive rhythm, it’s Griffin’s responsibility to control the game and time the possession.
It’s not as if Griffin is a reluctant playmaker with Paul on the floor, and he never shies away from working down low. The Paul-Griffin two-man game has been the foundation of an offense that has finished in the top four each of the three seasons the pair has played together. Paul’s re-entry into the force field should require no adjustment other than the realization that there’s more that Griffin can do offensively than previously thought.
The carping from the gallery that Griffin couldn't suffice as a No. 1 option has quieted in recent days, but as much as Griffin has impressed the critics on the set, the most important observer is on the Clippers’ bench. Paul has spent the past month watching Griffin house-sit the offense. The Clippers have learned some illuminating things about themselves and Griffin in Paul’s absence, which should end in the next couple of weeks. His return to the lineup will serve as the ultimate midseason acquisition.
Meanwhile, the Clippers feel like a real contender for the first time since the preseason. If the guys on the court believe it, and the suits upstairs see it, and the fans sense it, then Paul must too. This was the meaning behind Spoelstra’s message in Portland: Superstars need reassurance that the world will remain on its axis without them. The Clippers’ supporting cast has provided that.
If current trends continue, the place will be in as good condition when Paul returns as it was when he left -- and that’s as vital for Paul as it is for anyone.
"Killer Lineup" is a recurring feature that highlights the workings of one of the NBA's most efficient five-man units. Today, we look at the Golden State Warriors' starters.
Lineup: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, David Lee, Andrew Bogut
Minutes Played: 612
Offensive Rating: 113.5 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 97.0 points per 100 possessions
How it works offensively
This is the league’s most prolific five-man unit offensively (among the top 30 in minutes played), but the Warriors’ starting lineup doesn't seem like a natural offensive machine when examined on the surface.
Andre Iguodala hasn't historically stretched the floor, though he’s shooting the 3 at a 42.9 percent clip this season. David Lee will launch out to the arc, but is a 36.7 percent shooter from midrange. And Andrew Bogut has taken fewer than two dozen shots outside the restricted area this season. Meanwhile, both Iguodala and his counterpart on the wing, Klay Thompson, sport a player efficiency rating below the league average. Thompson shoots well from beyond the arc and is a decent finisher, but he misses a lot of midrange shots and isn't inclined to move the ball all that often.
Yet, here’s the Warriors’ primary unit racking up 113.5 points for every 100 possessions.
This is a testimony to a few things. First, to Stephen Curry and Lee, both of whom can manufacture a shot out of table scraps. Has there ever been a shooter with a better nose than Curry for finding space along the arc in transition or getting a shot off against a tight close-out?
Curry is also among the league’s master hiders on the pick-and-roll. He doesn't require a whole lot of room to cross over and then step back into an open spot behind Bogut or Lee, and the bigs do a nice job of putting the down payment on that space with crafty picks and drag screens. The Curry-Lee drag screen is a linchpin of Golden State's offense. It’s both the simplest and most reliable way for the Warriors to get an early look.
Curry almost always prefers firing a 3-pointer to putting the ball on the floor. He doesn't take it to the cup all that often, and isn't especially efficient when he does. He’ll hit Lee on the roll if the path is there, but the bomb still takes precedent, and you can’t fault him for it.
Lee is one of the best catch-and-go big men in the league, and in set situations, the Warriors orchestrate a few different ways to get Lee the ball close to the hoop. There’s a fun high-low in which Bogut flashes high and Lee dives low after setting a side pick for Curry. The ball goes from Curry to Bogut at the foul line, where Bogut instantly hits Lee at the rim.
The ball often ultimately lands in Lee’s hands on the left block late in the clock. He can spin into that lefty hook beautifully, or just bully his way into the paint with some space. He’s also a heady decision-maker who can find shooters and cutters.
Then there’s the playmaking. Counting Lee, there are four guys who move the ball exceptionally well. The fifth, Thompson, isn't someone you want making plays off the dribble (though he’s better than he was a year ago). To capitalize, the Warriors run the Spurs’ classic "motion weak" stuff, wherein the ball pings around the court with Curry on the move and can end up in any number of places off the read -- often Curry up top after curling around a couple of baseline screens, or Lee in the Duncan spot or in a two-man game left side as a second-side action.
Iguodala is a calming force on what can be a frenetic offense. He commandeers many of the sets from the left wing or up top. This is a primary portal of entry into Lee on the left block. All the while, Curry will hold down the weak side, which pretty much hamstrings any defensive rotation because the help can’t come from the strong side (Lee can find Bogut with a blindfold on) and it can’t come from the top (Thompson). Sometimes, Curry will shuttle the ball to Iguodala, then curl around a single-single for the catch. If Curry is denied, Iguodala quickly delivers the ball to Lee in the post. This is another place where Iguodala lubricates the offense, and he's also a master of the advance pass in transition -- and almost guides the leakers to the optimal spot.
When five guys on the floor can execute properly, they can run clever stuff. The Warriors’ playbook works because the unit has smarts. The term “high IQ” is always a little problematic because there’s many different kinds of intelligence on the basketball court. Let’s just call it wherewithal. Either way, you can see the long menu in action on a set called “52”:
Curry dribbles from the wing to the top of the floor past a screen from Bogut, who dives off the screen. Meanwhile, Thompson vacates the left side and runs around a stagger screen along the right side of the lane, then curls to the top of the floor on the far side. So Curry has three very nice options:
- Shoot from the top of the arc.
- Pass off to Thompson, if he gets separation.
- Hit a diving Bogut with an alley-oop.
What’s most impressive when the starters run this kind of set is that most of the options are available. Other teams run the famed “elevator doors,” but few as flawlessly as Bogut and Lee for Curry and Thompson. The corner splits -- with Iguodala cutting back door -- are nifty. This group plays well with pace, because it has two big men who can ignite the break and everyone has confidence in what the unit is doing.
Because Curry and Thompson can screen competently for the bigs, this lineup will frequently draw mismatches. Because it has so many effective pick-and-roll combinations, it can scramble a defense with multiple actions. And because Curry can shoot the lights out and draws the Prussian army, the other four guys on the floor -- all with multiple offensive skills -- get the chance to work in advantageous situations.
That’s how you count to 113.5 in more than 600 minutes together.
Not unlike the offense, the Warriors’ defensive personnel doesn't necessarily look like a standout unit. Iguodala and Bogut are elite defenders at their respective positions, and there’s no doubt a lockdown wing and an interior rim protector who can handle both the pick-and-roll and help responsibilities provide a bedrock foundation for a defense. But Lee, Curry and Thompson have all carried a reputation as sieves at one time or another (in Lee’s case, the past, present and future). Defensive stoppers are indispensable, but it’s challenging for a five-man unit to post a decent defensive rating if there are liabilities all over the floor.
It’s no longer useful to identify a team’s overriding defensive strategy as forcing long 2s because every coach in the league, whether he’s steeped in analytics or an old-timey ball coach, has bought into this as an organizing principle. The Warriors’ starters certainly do. This group gives up shots in the restricted area at well below the league average rate, and opponents are finishing those shots at a below-average clip. This holds true across the board: The starters surrender fewer 3-point attempts and those they do are converted at a lousy rate. Opponents are more likely to take a midrange shot against this group, and fewer than 38 percent of those shots fall.
It starts with Bogut, who is a vigilante, both in temperament and in practice. He commits early to the attacker on the pick-and-roll, but he’s a big defender who seems to devote as much attention on establishing the demarcation line between ball and paint as he is on the guy who’s actually handling the ball.
The schemes usually call for Bogut to fall back into the lane against the pick-and-roll, but he’s not exclusively a drop guy. Bogut will get out on big men, especially those who can shoot, and coach Mark Jackson trusts Bogut with defensive audibles. If he sees an opportunity to disrupt without giving away too much behind him, by all means. Bogut is well aware that he’s the rim protector, but he’s deft at balancing out his responsibilities.
When the action is on the strong side -- and it frequently is because teams don’t want any part of trying to ram the ball inside against a 7-foot Australian underneath -- Bogut is deceptive. He likes to stay in the paint for virtually the entire three seconds allotted, but he’s just as likely to stick close to his man on the weakside baseline then dart into the path of the attacker to meet him vertically. Bogut's the thinking man’s gambler, a center who will account for risk on the weak side and the glass before committing. Yet despite the careful calculation, he rarely seems to be late on help.
The pick-and-roll coverage up top makes things easier for Curry in particular. By playing it “weak” -- influencing the ball handler to his weak hand -- the Warriors turn the task of guarding against the screen into something other than a test of physical strength. It’s no longer about fighting through the pick; it’s about anticipating the action before it happens. Curry may not have raw muscle, but he does have sharp instincts. So with a quick reaction, he can be in a position to reroute the ball handler irrespective of where and how the screen will be set. Credit Curry for catching on quickly and credit the staff for its creative thinking.
Curry has grown into a better defender than he was largely projected to be. He’s not easily tempted to leave his guy up top to lurch at the ball. When guarding a shooter, he’s a disciplined homebody. Bigger guards in the league still love to go at Curry -- posting up at the elbow, power dribbles with the intent of contact, etc. But he knows how Bogut likes to operate and can redirect his attacker, even if he can’t stop him.
Thompson has improved in this capacity, too, though he’s still prone to distraction off the ball. Still, there’s measurable growth there, the kind of improvement that accompanies big guards who realize that their size can bother, especially if they move their feet.
There isn’t a defensive task Iguodala hasn't mastered as a perimeter stopper. We generally see defenders work when they’re matched up in isolation against the big dog. When eyes aren't on Iguodala and he’s chasing a guy around a couple of screens or playing for the angle, the list of offensive options evaporates with the clock.
Nobody denies like Iguodala, and scorers who have Iguodala’s attention can go possessions without seeing the ball. When Iguodala does relent, it’s only after the timing of the offense has been disrupted and the offense has stopped and can’t figure out its next move. The offensive players are no longer synced to the primary action -- thanks to Iguodala, nobody could get the damn ball to the guy who needed it. Iguodala’s size and reach also allow for a switch on any action (high ball screens, curls, pindowns), a luxury the Warriors exploit.
Any discussion of the Warriors’ defense inevitably leads to Lee, often to the point of ridicule. Whether Lee was tired of hoop junkies cutting his defensive lowlights to a laugh track or if this unit started to understand its collective strengths and weaknesses, his performance this season has been markedly better; there are far fewer cringe moments. For the first time since he arrived in Oakland, Lee’s individual defensive rating is lower than the team’s overall number.
While Lee’s deficiencies are very much present, so is the help from Bogut and Iguodala. As a result, it’s increasingly difficult to assemble a blooper reel with Lee as the foil. In this respect, Lee is the embodiment of the starters’ defensive approach: high-quality workarounds for problems that once seemed unsolvable.
NBA players' contracts require them to make a certain number of community appearances on behalf of their teams. They’ll pay visits to hospitals or schools and show up at charity functions or galas. Outside of what they do for their teams, most players will get hit up by nonprofits or organizations who want them to lend their faces, names and free time to the cause. Most of the requests are well-intentioned, but players generally don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do. Nobody will force them to say yes. And if they say no, they still have a laundry list of good works performed on behalf of team and league they can cite.
That’s why the Denver Nuggets’ You Can Play spot featuring Kenneth Faried, Randy Foye and Quincy Miller is meaningful. You Can Play’s mission is to promote an inclusive environment on playing fields and in the locker rooms for gay athletes. You Can Play has forged formal partnerships with NHL, MLS and NCAA teams. A number of pro athletes such as Klay Thompson have participated in YCP videos, but the Nuggets become the first NBA team to have multiple players featured in support of the project.
As agendas go, YCP’s is radically moderate. It wants a world where gay athletes can suit up and play without fear of harassment, physical harm or having their talents passed over because of who they are.
That last item is a big one. Being on the receiving end of an epithet is an indignity, but what really terrifies a competitive gay athlete is not just the threat of physical or verbal abuse, but the prospect of never getting a rightful opportunity to perform and succeed. This discussion isn’t about being nice; it’s about being fair.
Thanks to You Can Play and many others, great progress is being made at the collegiate and high school level, but it’s been a tough season in the NBA. Jason Collins moved the conversation forward when he came out last April. Around the NBA, players have reported that his announcement inspired the most honest conversations to date about homosexuality in basketball. But the aspiration was for something much larger: bringing hypotheticals to real life.
By now, many of us wanted to be talking about how integrating a gay ballplayer into an NBA locker room was made easier, how morale was compromised at first because change is by its very nature disruptive, how that discomfort ultimately receded thanks to strong leadership and an appeal to our better selves. With Collins not on an active NBA roster, we’re not talking about those things. We can debate what role his identity as a gay man plays in that reality, but NBA executives and agents have stated that it’s a factor larger than zero.
That means that there’s work to do -- and the Nuggets, Faried, Foye and Miller are doing it. In the absence of an out gay player in uniform, the onus returns to individual teams and players to lead on the issue. Nothing in the body of the NBA charter or these Nuggets players’ contracts stipulated that they needed to, but they did.
NEW ORLEANS -- The fortunes of an NBA offense fluctuate. Shooters get hot for a week or two, then the cylinder shrinks and the points dry up.
A sound defense, in contrast, is supposed to be slump-proof. There might be nights when the process doesn’t yield the intended results, when a scorer goes ballistic and the opponent’s prayers get answered. But if a team masters the defensive schemes and -- as coaches are fond of saying -- competes, it can’t be kept down for long.
The Golden State Warriors had been such a team since opening night. With the acquisition of Andre Iguodala and the health of Andrew Bogut, the Ws have hung around the top five in defensive efficiency all season.
But over the past week, the Warriors have hemorrhaged defensively. On Wednesday night on their home floor, they gave up 123 points in 103 possessions to Denver. In Oklahoma City, authorities are still investigating the crime scene from Friday night, when Kevin Durant went off for 54 points while the Thunder scored 127 points in 99 possessions.
And in the first half on Saturday night in New Orleans, the beat went on -- 52 points in 44 possessions to a Pelicans team playing without Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Jason Smith. By halftime, it was apparent: The Golden State Warriors were in a defensive slump, a funk every bit as abject as an offense that can’t find the basket.
“It’s the mental aspects of the game,” Iguodala said. “You can be sluggish. You can go through slumps as a team defensively.”
If the Warriors experienced such a slump, they snapped out of it at halftime. After trailing for virtually all of the first half, the Warriors ground the Pelicans into a fine powder in the second, surrendering only 33 points after intermission to cruise to a 97-87 win.
“It’s not a function of inconsistency,” Bogut said. “We just have to buy into our defense and move around like we know we can. The last two or three games for us we’ve just been lackadaisical defensively and have tried to win it offensively. It’s easy to get caught up in that and try to get your numbers, and so on. I think when we commit to being a good defensive team, we win games.”
Durant went unconscious on Friday, so let’s give Golden State a mulligan for that game. But the debacle against the Nuggets and the first half in New Orleans were unsightly. Skeptics who were slow to buy into the notion that the Warriors could ever excel defensively would point to the backcourt personnel and David Lee at power forward as liabilities too pronounced to build an elite defense around.
During this recent defensive slump, that’s precisely what the evidence showed. On Wednesday, Stephen Curry repeatedly got drawn to the ball while guarding the perimeter, while Klay Thompson died on screens as a matter of routine. And in the first half on Saturday, the Pelicans fed Anthony Davis one-on-one against Lee relentlessly.
“We lost the scout,” Iguodala said.
By losing “the scout,” Iguodala meant that the Warriors were forgetting to factor what they knew about their opponents when hunkering down to defend.
“A scout is: This guy likes to go right, so don’t let him get to his right hand,” Iguodala explained. “Ty Lawson got to his right hand a lot that game. [Evan] Fournier got left. [Randy] Foye got right. Wilson Chandler got right a bunch. Once they got their rhythm, they got their rhythm.”
So far as the first half against the Pelicans, the Warriors lost the scout on Davis, who went for 21 of his 31 points before halftime.
“We were a little inconsistent in the first half, and gave Davis quite a bit in the first quarter,” Lee said. “In pick-and-roll, when he was diving down the middle, our weakside [defense] wasn’t pulled over enough.”
After halftime, the Warriors were vocal defensively. Calls came from the backline. Iguodala could be seen directing traffic from the wing. The Warriors realized that with the likes of Greg Stiemsma, Jeff Withey and Alexis Ajinca on the floor -- and to some extent Darius Miller and Brian Roberts -- they could take liberties and flood the strong side of the floor with impunity. They keyed in on Davis and Eric Gordon.
“We made some adjustments at halftime,” Lee said. “More than anything, our effort just picked up all the way around. And I want to give myself some credit for being a great rim protector ... I’m just kidding.”
Cue laugh track -- but amid the festive Warriors locker room after the game, the business of defending the floor became serious again. Golden State found its scout in the Crescent City.
"Killer Lineup" is a recurring feature that highlights the workings of one of the NBA's most efficient five-man units. Today, we look at the Oklahoma City Thunder's starters without Russell Westbrook.
Lineup: Reggie Jackson, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins
Minutes Played: 556
Offensive Rating: 100.9 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 92.0 points per 100 possessions
How it works defensively
Incredibly well when we consider this starting lineup performs 11.2 points better defensively this season with Jackson at the point than the same unit with Westbrook. This prompts the question: How can Jackson, who is no faster or longer than Westbrook and is accountable to the same schemes, possibly be this much of an upgrade?
The riddle is especially confounding after the 2013 postseason debacle. Jackson put up some solid offensive numbers, but the Thunder’s starting unit with Jackson got annihilated against the Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies. The grouping was minus-31.4 per 100 possessions in 10 games and hemorrhaged defensively to the tune of a 116.0 mark.
Reports that a secretly healthy Rajon Rondo has been suiting up for the Thunder in a prosthetic Reggie Jackson suit this season are unfounded. Jackson’s improvement is his own, born out of increased familiarity with his teammates, coverages and expectations.
Jackson is a lower-stake gambler than Westbrook, who perpetually has one eye on the passing lane. While Westbrook rolls the dice, Jackson makes the sure bet. He’s able to squeeze his way above screens like someone trying to dash into an elevator before the doors close. This allows Ibaka to drop and contest after a short show. When the small defender isn’t playing catch-up and the big guy has the ball handler in front of him, it's advantage: defense.
Another theory for the better defensive numbers resides in the notion that Westbrook’s quick shots are more likely to result in run-outs for the opponent. The Jackson Five gives up almost 30 percent fewer fast-break points adjusted to pace. The Westbrook lineup also coughs it up more. Then there’s the defensive glass: This lineup has a better rebounding rate and gives up 30 percent fewer second-chance points. Add up these ancillaries and we start to account for that 11.2-point differential.
The results since Westbrook’s most recent absence confirm the eye test. In the 10 games since Jackson assumed starting duties, not one of his 10 matchups has shot better than 50 percent from the field -- and only one (the man of the hour, Jordan Crawford) shot better than 40 percent.
The schemes don’t differ with Jackson in the lineup. The Thunder have more or less been running the same pick-and-roll coverages for a while -- though Ibaka’s development has enabled him to approach ball screens more situationally. In the parlance of X’s and O’s, the Thunder generally "weak" a high pick-and-roll with the intention of sending the ball handler to his weak hand. Ibaka will still toy with a long show on a high screen, but the hulking Perkins stays put. On side pick-and-rolls, the Thunder push baseline, and Perkins and Ibaka will exert varying levels of pressure on the ball handler.
Durant, Ibaka and, to a lesser extent, Sefolosha give the Thunder uncommon versatility. Durant and Ibaka will switch liberally, and Sefolosha has license to use his instincts as well in tandem with Ibaka, depending on the matchup.
Every coach will tell you he wants to keep his team out of defensive rotations, but some teams treat it as an article of faith, while others regard it more as a general guideline. The Thunder with Westbrook certainly fall into the latter because Westbrook loves to gamble and apply pressure. With Jackson, the Thunder play it more conservatively -- again, more an expression of Westbrook’s temerity than anything Jackson is or isn’t doing.
When the Thunder do get caught in a rotation, Ibaka’s heightened understanding of team defense often saves the day. It’s difficult to overstate Ibaka’s all-around growth on the defensive end. Not long ago, he was a weakside defender more interested in swatting a shot into the fifth row than timing his rotations with precision. In two seasons, his block rate has plummeted from 9.8 to 5.8, and his foul rate has taken a similar dive, but he’s a far better vertical defender than in past seasons.
Amazing to get this far and not address both Sefolosha and Durant. There’s no mystery to Sefolosha. His wingspan puts playmakers in a stranglehold, and he’s still one of the toughest guards in the league to screen.
Durant’s defensive improvement that started in earnest two seasons ago continues its upward trajectory. The light bulb turned on a while back when he realized that while his physical strength is no longer a liability, his length and awareness will always carry him as a defender. Synergy has him ranked third as a pick-and-roll defender among players who’ve guarded more than 50 plays. Against isolation? No. 1, thank you.
Perkins is still wily defensively -- you’ll see him try to jam a screen or buy time for Jackson with all sorts of grabby shenanigans. When Perkins fails, it’s generally a lack of speed that does him in. He doesn’t blow any help situations and the post defense remains steady.
The Jacksonians are due to return to planet earth, but in the Thunder’s ongoing campaign to endow their young backup point guard with confidence, OKC couldn’t ask for better results on the defensive end.
Only marginally better than the Westbrook crew, which has struggled all season, but is still far too reliant on Durant to create shots out of nothing.
Let’s rewind to last spring. The 2013 playoffs against Houston and Memphis were every bit the nightmare for the Jackson-helmed offense as they were for the defense. In 107 minutes, they scored only 84.7 points per 100 possessions. The starters couldn’t establish any pace, plodding at an 85.8 possessions per game. Things are clearly better in Oklahoma City this season for the Jackson-led squad, but the offense still drags for long stretches.
The primary objective in the half court for any Russell-less Thunder unit is to get the ball into the hands of Durant. Achieving this goal is easier if Durant doesn’t spend all his time on the strong side of the court, because the defense can key in on the ball or Durant, but it’s hard to do both. With that in mind, the wide pin-down for Durant on the weak side has been the prototype in the Thunder’s offense, and the Thunder have installed countless wrinkles and reinterpretations.
This is top-grade offense because, whether he’s catching the ball on the move toward the hole or just getting it for an open shot in space, Durant is the most dangerous shot-maker in the league. Under the Jackson administration, the Thunder are still oriented toward this brand of offense. For example, Ibaka will set the down screen for Durant on the right side, off which Durant zips to the perimeter for the catch. Durant can shoot, drive or play a two-man game with Ibaka off the action.
When healthy, Westbrook is a frequent screener for Durant in these situations, and Jackson has assumed that task on many a set. The Thunder will run Sefolosha up from the baseline around a Perkins-Ibaka stack to receive the ball from Jackson. After delivering the pass to Sefolosha, Jackson will cut to the far side to set the screen for Durant. When Westbrook and Durant run this action (any action) together, it’s a matter for the State Guard, but Jackson can make it work.
Most of the well-worn pages in the Thunder playbook are sets designed to get Durant the ball in position to shoot in the half court. OKC relies on the aforementioned pin-downs. They still love good ol’ floppy action, in which a big man sets a low screen off which Durant flashes to the foul line. They like to post Durant up on the weak side, where he either catches the entry pass after the ball is swung or, if the defender is denying that pass, slips out the back door.
All this is great stuff, but it must be balanced with some other flavors, and, right now, Durant is too self-sufficient when playing with this lineup. Historically, the Thunder’s offense has been at its most efficient when Durant (and Westbrook) share the load with the supporting cast. Last weekend, Durant conceded as much, saying that he needed to take fewer shots.
Jackson’s knowledge of the pro game has grown exponentially, and he understands that his job is to make the game easier for Durant, but he’s not yet at the point where he can ignite the offense on the attack in the manner Westbrook does -- and the Thunder need that spark for a fluid offense.
The Thunder derive a good deal of their offense from early midrange jumpers because they can drain them with proficiency. That doesn’t change in Westbrook’s absence. Jackson, Durant, Ibaka and Sefolosha all hit better than 40 percent from midrange. Finding those shots early is more challenging with Jackson than Westbrook because he’s less lethal on the push, but the Thunder starters with Jackson have had success.
We rarely think of Kevin Durant first as an open-court player, but he’s as good at initiating early offense as anyone in the league.”
A drag screen from Ibaka on the secondary break is the mainstay of the Thunder’s early attack, and it does so many things for OKC. Ibaka gives a path to the rim for Jackson, space for Durant, a potential face-up jumper for Ibaka once he pops or a kickout to Sefolosha in the corner against a panicked defense.
The same is true of Durant, who loves to push the ball. We rarely think of Durant first as an open-court player, but he’s as good at initiating early offense as anyone in the league. When he rushes the ball up, he and Ibaka routinely look for optimal conditions to run that quick drag screen against a backpedaling defense. Jackson and Sefolosha will stake out a spot along the arc, and Perkins will roost on the weakside baseline (Durant almost always veers right in this situation).
Pace is so vital for the Thunder’s starters, especially since they’re saddled with Perkins. He can’t run the floor, but his presence in the half court presents a dilemma for the Thunder. Situate him along the baseline on the strong side, and he clogs up the driving lane. Place him away from the action, and his defender accepts it as an invitation to play free safety. This is particularly problematic for Jackson, who relies far more on dribble penetration -- and needs more space to do it -- than Westbrook does.
For all the pressure on Jackson, the foundation of the Thunder’s offense is Durant’s ability to make decisions. It’s not as if he’s failing. During the Thunder’s current stint without Westbrook, Durant is logging an assist rate of 29.6 percent -- there’s one non-point guard in the league who’s better (take a wild guess).
When Durant started to put up big assist numbers last winter, Scott Brooks would say that the idea that Durant wasn’t a willing passer early in his career didn’t accommodate for the reality of a young player. Durant wasn’t a point guard growing up, and for the first 15 years of his basketball life, he didn’t have much need or occasion to pass. Necessity might be the mother of invention, but confidence fathered it.
NEW ORLEANS -- The Houston Rockets use an offensive formula they’ve been cultivating for years under their current regime: 3-pointers and rim shots. Everything in between is for suckers.
The Rockets attempted 35 field goals in the first half of their 103-100 win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday night. Only four of the 35 occurred between eight feet from the basket and the 3-point line. The trend held throughout the game, as more than 80 percent of the Rockets' shots occurred in their sweet spots.
That is, until the final minute of play, when Old Man Midrange reared his head and the Rockets soared back in time. Two possessions yielded two isolation plays for James Harden, the first resulting in a pair of free throws that briefly gave the Rockets a one-point lead, the second an ankle-breaking, step-back jumper that put the Rockets up 102-100.
But heroball this wasn’t. The Rockets didn’t run a 1-4 flat set with Harden pounding the ball into the hardwood until he felt inclined to put it on the floor. And though these shots didn’t originate from the Rockets’ preferred zones, each was cleverly crafted with one goal in mind: Take Harden’s primary defender, Eric Gordon, out of the play and draw a lesser perimeter defender on the switch. The way to accomplish that? A "small-small" pick-and-roll -- one guard picking for the other guard.
"Teams don't know how to guard it," Harden said. "Late in the game, either you’re going to switch it and put a smaller guy on me or they’re going to try to show and get confused. It worked tonight."
The first possession was more elaborate and took longer to materialize. It was a familiar NBA set: The point guard (Jeremy Lin) gets a staggered screen up top -- one screener a shooter (Harden), the other a big man who can roll (Dwight Howard). Harden pops while Howard rolls. The Pelicans defended it beautifully. Brian Roberts was able to fight over the first screen, allowing Gordon to stay home on Harden. When Roberts got hung up on the second screen, Jason Smith bought him some time, then quickly rotated back onto Howard. New Orleans survived the action with everyone in their right place.
That’s when Lin got crafty. He probed, reversed course and circled back out of the lane counterwise, with the sole intention of rubbing Roberts off Harden, thereby forcing Gordon to switch off of Harden and onto Lin.
The ploy worked. A pass from Lin went to Terrence Jones out on the perimeter, then Jones zipped it quickly to Harden. From there, Harden did his thing: one dribble, collision, whistle, two free throws, Rockets by one.
"I feel like it’s really hard to guard," Lin said. "You see, like, OKC [the Oklahoma City Thunder]. They run a 1-3 pick-and-roll, which is really hard to guard just because you’re not used to being in that position where they have to get out and show and do different coverages. They’re usually like sized enough where they’re, like, 'We can switch this.' But that gives us the matchup we want."
The game winner was more basic: Jones, Howard and Chandler Parsons along the baseline, with Harden at the foul line poised to set the 1-2 pick-and-roll for Lin.
Pelicans coach Monty Williams elaborated on the theme in Lin’s comment: It’s easy to say, "Don’t switch," but the consequences can be dire.
"The problem is the guy who’s setting [the screen] can shoot," Williams said. "If you try to hedge it and that guy pops, he’s going to get a shot. We wanted to try to keep Eric [Gordon] on him as much as we could. So we got [Brian Roberts] out of the game and put Austin [Rivers] in to try to give us some more size in case they do it again."
Harden set the screen on Rivers to Lin’s right (go figure) and, sure enough, when Lin turned the corner, there was Gordon waiting for him. Switch accomplished with relative ease.
"We run that play a lot, especially late in the game," Harden said. "We don’t really run it in the beginning of the game. They switched it, and Jeremy threw it back to me."
Harden explained that the element of surprise contributes to the 1-2’s effectiveness. Defenses tighten up in the closing minutes, which is one reason we see more switches late out on the perimeter. Nobody wants to be left out to dry. Switching poses the risk of a mismatch, but at least somebody picks up the ball handler.
Harden held the ball for a moment, thrust a head fake or two, then went right -- to his off hand.
"I was reading what the other four players were doing," Harden said. "They all stayed home. It was mano-a-mano."
Harden took one slick dribble, yanked the ball back as he thrust his arm forward at Rivers. Did it make contact? Hard to say. Harden then lurched back, with all the space in the Bayou to rise and shoot.
"[Harden] made a tough shot on Austin," Williams said. "Austin played him well. Austin thought he got pushed, but in that situation, you got to just play tough. You can’t even ask for the ref to bail you out in that situation. It’s just not going to happen."
With that, the team that’s driven the midrange jumper out of fashion won the game on a 21-footer.
LOS ANGELES -- Novelty acts have expiration dates. Whatever intrigue exists between the Clippers and Lakers in Los Angeles might resurface in the future, but on Friday night at Staples Center, there was little buzz. Like the Magic on Monday and the Celtics on Wednesday, the Lakers were just another in a series of weary teams limping into Staples Center this week to face the Clippers without Chris Paul.
The Clippers’ 123-87 bludgeoning of the Lakers wasn’t without some notable events. With the return of J.J. Redick to the lineup for the first time since Nov. 29, the Clippers' attack resembled the graceful, fluid, top-three offense the team built prior to his injury.
“It was huge,” Blake Griffin said. “It just puts pressure on them. He’s constantly moving. Even if he’s not hitting shots, it’s the movement. You always have to be aware of where he is, so he opens up a lot of things for the rest of us.”
Redick was hitting shots early. The Clippers’ first possession of the game was representative of what the Clippers were running (and succeeding with) the first 17 games of the season: It was a November favorite, a motion set that has Redick run below and Dudley above Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in the midposts. The set has multiple triggers, and after the ball went into Griffin at the elbow, he shuttled a hand-off to Redick, who had never stopped moving since the opening tip. Stop, pop, swish.
“J.J.’s energy to start, he’s one of those guys -- and, again, I didn’t know him, but I always liked him -- but our practices are different when he practices,” Doc Rivers said. “He just plays with that gear and with that intensity. I thought him coming off those screens to start the game really got us going.”
Redick finished with 19 points on 8-for-15 shooting from the field. He owned the game’s first four minutes, draining four of those eight makes before the Lakers called their first in an evening-long series of mercy timeouts on Friday night.
“Today before shootaround, I was talking to J.J. and he was like, ‘Man, I don’t want to come in and play 15 minutes and have, like, one shot and one rebound,'" Griffin said. “So after like four minutes into the game, I looked at him like, ‘Are you happy now?'"
Griffin certainly was on Friday night. He worked the full canvas -- insta-highlight, high-post facilitator, midrange jump shooter (4-for-7 from beyond 15 feet), foul-line ninja (9-for-11 from the stripe) and, more generally, the guy on the floor who ran the show. Griffin’s 33-point, 12-rebound, four-assist, four-steal performance even had Redick apologizing for his diction.
“I'm going to use a cliché,” Redick said. “He’s a man on a mission.”
We’ll invariably hear the usual voices tarring Griffin as ... what is it? One-dimensional? Soft? An unskilled sideshow? But no reasonable observer who took even a slapdash look at his performance over the past week can deny the breadth and depth of Griffin’s game. The vision Griffin and Rivers had at the outset of the season has come to fruition: a player too dynamic for a hulking big man to cover, and too brutish for a stretchy, lanky defender to stop.
Paul’s understudy, Darren Collison, has set out on his own mission. The Clippers’ backup point guard isn’t Paul and, to his credit, doesn’t try to be. Collison’s primary objective with the ball isn’t to distribute, but to find his way to the rim. Collison will have to find Redick, but that’s not a terribly difficult task. It requires some timing, but Collison should be able to hack it. Redick seems optimistic.
“I try to play with a lot of energy, and I try to play with a lot of movement,” Redick said. “If a guy doesn’t find me, he’s going to eventually find me. I’m going to keep moving.”
And so will the Clippers, though they now have four days off before their next game, Dallas at home on Wednesday. Griffin said recovery time is always a nice luxury midseason, while Redick joked sarcastically, “I really need a break.”
For the Lakers, oy. They also have a hiatus -- three days off before they face Cleveland on Tuesday -- but like a pitcher after a terrible outing, they’ll have no recourse but to stew. Mike D’Antoni looks like a coach looking for the side door. General manager Mitch Kupchak could be seen after the game looking like a guy who just got beat up on a witness stand. Pau Gasol resembles someone trying to grit his teeth through an insufferable office meeting.
The Lakers aren’t a franchise that takes solace in draft position. They’re going to have to find their comfort somewhere -- and it doesn’t appear as if it’ll be on the basketball court.
Of course, some of the talk is pure gamesmanship. While dribbling upcourt past the visitors’ bench, Paul has been known to tell an opposing coach that he’s already sniffed out the staff’s game strategy. And nobody works game officials like Paul, who can litigate a call like Clarence Darrow.
He directs almost all the talk at people, which makes sense because it is really just interpersonal communication. That's also what made it a little jarring when Paul yelled not at a person, but at the cosmos when he separated his shoulder in the third quarter of the Los Angeles Clippers’ win at Dallas last Friday. He was mad at the world. Confining him to the sideline when there’s work to be done? Absurd.
With Paul in street clothes, the Clippers have to hold their ground in a conference of juggernauts without their conductor, which means someone has to take over the controls. The team is only three games into Paul’s three-to-five-week stint on the shelf, but the Clippers’ two leading big men, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, appear ready. Combined, they don’t project the vocal intensity of Paul, but what they lack in volume they can make up in expression, verbal or otherwise.
Paul’s greatest asset is his ability to assert control, and over the past couple of games, Griffin has assumed the role. He’s now the guy pressuring the defense, with and without the ball. Even when the Boston Celtics were denying entries to Griffin in the second quarter of a tight game Wednesday night, they were expending a lot of energy and resources doing it. Griffin ultimately found more than 20 quality shots and was the primary playmaker in another 15 or so. The Clippers scored a ton of points on these possessions, and Griffin preoccupied the C’s off the ball.
With Paul out, Griffin becomes the Clippers’ best playmaker, and the offense can’t move the ball without his help. Griffin has always been a capable and willing passer, but over the past week he’s taken on this responsibility as a personal imperative. When perched at the high post, Griffin surveys. He watches the pieces move, identifies where his shooters are and where he can lead them. In the Clippers’ two recent victories, he logged 14 assists in 65 minutes.
During the course of Wednesday’s win over Boston, various Celtics yapped at Griffin. In the second half, he took a charge from Jordan Crawford, which led to the pair getting tangled up. Crawford snarled at him. Griffin smiled wryly, then cooly dismissed him. Crawford played well Wednesday, but Griffin’s message was almost Paulian: Welcome to my game. Enjoy your time here.
While Griffin has taken charge on the offensive end, Jordan been assigned the critical role of back-line director and he’s embraced it. He talks on pick-and-rolls and ranks 12th in points yielded per possession among big men who’ve defended at least 100 such plays. When manning the interior or the weak side, he monitors ball, assignment and space simultaneously. In past seasons he was good for maybe two of the three.
The Clippers’ rim defense still needs work (27th in opponents’ field goal percentage and 26th in field goals surrendered in the restricted area), but the overall scheme is beginning to work; the Clippers have the NBA’s fifth-most efficient defense since Dec. 1.
More than anything, there’s an entirely different aura around him this season. Jordan has always been among the league’s more affable, good-natured guys, yet a little goofy -- totally harmless and often charming, but gravitas it wasn’t. He was sensitive to bad press, even if it was petty. He’d sometimes get down on himself, and former coach Vinny Del Negro did no favors for his confidence.
But people in their mid-20s grow up, and as we enter 2014, Jordan has blossomed. He’s the same likable guy, but you can see hints of that gravitas. He’s a more buttoned-up presence on the court, where his movements are more precise and his voice is louder. Among players averaging greater than 20 minutes per game, Jordan ranks second in total rebounding rate and fifth in block rate. “He’s playing his ass off,” said one general manager recently.
Last season, the Clippers would often open a game by feeding Jordan on the low block. The intent was to coax Jordan into playing defense. But that’s a decidedly non-Riversish tactic.
Coach Doc Rivers told Jordan up front that he’d have no entry in the playbook. The 7-footer would get his share of lobs in transition if he ran the floor and a handful of duck-ins and putbacks, but his number would be called in only rare instances. Jordan’s duty is singular: Anchor the Clippers by becoming one of the five best interior defenders in the NBA. Scoring isn't part of the job description because team basketball is about working each player’s strengths, and Jordan has some impressive ones.
“This strategy is more realistic,” Jordan said after Thursday’s practice. “There’s no sugarcoating or -- I’m not going to say ‘mind games,’ but [Rivers] just tells me what my role is. ... With Doc, my role is defense and that’s how I’m going to be supereffective on the floor.”
Jordan no longer looks over his shoulder to the bench worrying about seeing a hook. In 35 games this season, he’s logged 236 fourth-quarter minutes. He played every game in 2012-13, yet saw only 149 minutes in the fourth quarter -- and didn't see any action in the final frame of 52 games.
“Doc knows how to reach people,” Jordan says. “He’s good. [chuckles]. He’s goooood. And not like a sneaky good. He knows how to relate. He knows how to connect with all of us on a different level. He understands that there are so many personalities. There are egos on every team, and he knows how to control all of that. It’s honesty.”
Jordan describes Rivers as a guy who will call him out -- loudly -- but that will be the extent of the repercussion. Rivers will reiterate the task, tell Jordan he’s capable of crushing it, then give him a pat on the butt.
Rivers hasn’t solved every riddle, not as Clippers coach or as vice president of basketball operations. He’ll admit as much. Asked on Monday if he had a grasp yet on how Paul’s absence would affect the Clippers’ style of play, Rivers confessed, “I don’t know yet, honestly.” He explained that the Clippers’ offense was predicated on finding things only Paul could see.
One can imagine the reaction to Del Negro if he suggested he didn’t have a full sense of how the Clippers would operate offensively without his point guard. Somehow Rivers’ uncertainty inspires confidence, as if his sincerity alone could pull the Clippers through until Paul returns.
The Clippers are likely to lose a couple of games they would’ve won were Paul on the court, but the team seems to have enough confidence and accountability -- and a manageable schedule -- to withstand a slide. J.J. Redick will be back on the court soon, possibly Friday, an addition that will allow the Clippers to reignite the movement in the offense. Paul will still be missed, but it’s no longer quiet in his absence.