I wanted to watch the NCAA title game. I really did. And every now and again I clicked over to peek in. But earlier in the evening I settled into a steady diet of Grizzlies at Thunder, and it was nearly impossible to tear away. Two teams I love to watch, because of stuff like this:
- James Harden has a Chris Paul-like quality, which is that things never seem rushed to him, even at 100 miles an hour. He likes nothing more than to zip into the lane at warp speed. But once there, he'll almost never make a mistake out of panic. He'll take his sweet time to recognize the best options (there are many) and then go hard that way. In contrast, those NCAA guards use all that speed to get into the lane, but once there things tend to get a little chaotic. I recently read a book by the big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton, whose survival depends on making good decisions at very high speeds. Part of his training is driving race cars and playing video games, just to hone these skills. That's a big deal, and Harden has that down.
- While we're talking about the ever-improving Harden, who is easily one of my favorite players in the NBA (and if I ran a team, somebody I'd offer a max deal if nothing else to force the potentially-dynastic Thunder into cap hell), allow me to also point out that he may lead the league in calling for the ball. Point guard takes a dribble or two toward halfcourt, and beard-guy is already clapping his hands, ready to initiate his attack somewhere around mid-court -- which is effective for him.
- By scoring at the rim time and again in overtime of a grueling game against Minnesota two weeks ago, Russell Westbrook proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the condensed schedule is not cramping his style. All kinds of players looked gassed in that one, and he was fresh as a daisy, lording his conditioning over the Timberwolves like a weapon. Against the Grizzlies, who played without starting point guard Mike Conley, something similar emerged as Westbrook brought his fourteen-cups-of-coffee approach from the opening tip, going for every potential steal and getting plenty of them. Not easy, but effective. What an athlete. And what a nightmare for whoever he'll face in the playoffs.
- You can, evidently, get a technical for saying "ball don't lie" after a missed free throw. Referees should be trained that phrase is exempt on religious grounds.
- I have been harsh on Gilbert Arenas at various times for his bad defense. And statistics show his defense is still bad -- for example, the Grizzlies give up a whopping 105 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor, even though as a team they give up fewer than 99. However, fair is fair, and it ought to be pointed out that he was scrappy as hell this time around. FACT: He spent a good deal of time single-covering Kevin Durant. (Can somebody please write me an essay about how this happened -- possibly the worst defender in the NBA against possibly the best offensive player, with a position mismatch kicker? I think it might be brilliant, but I'm frightened, confused and delighted by it all around, like a child discovering a real space shuttle in the backyard.) Early in this matchup, Arenas emerged with a gritty steal. A short time later, the nightmare unfolded where Durant had a "mouse in the house," posting the little Arenas on the left side. The shot clock counted down Agent Zero's demise. Durant looked enormous and furious, keeping Arenas pinned with his posterior, establishing acres of open space for his own purposes. Only ... as Durant caught the ball, Arenas "pulled the chair," a mouse squeaking away, using Durant's fury against him. The bigger player staggered into where Arenas had been leaning on him, and both fell off balance as the ball popped free of the startled MVP-candidate's hands. And who should scoop it up, but Arenas, from the floor. Score one for very, very, very highly paid underdogs.
- O.J. Mayo was sold to us as a spoiled star, who got favors at USC and the like. But he has never played like that. He plays hard as hell, at both ends, and is the opposite of a prima donna, despite being the poster child of AAU gone awry.
- The Grizzlies were a force in last year's playoffs thanks to all kinds of qualities (Tony Allen!). But the Spurs lost, mainly, because they couldn't handle the big Grizzlies Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Those scoring bigs, arriving in punishing waves ... it's tough. This season, the team is making a noble effort to add another big scorer to the mix in Marreese Speights, who has an NBA pedigree as a real-deal post scorer with no clue on defense. Things have changed, however. The Thunder had a hard time scoring around the bucket when Speights, the starter for now with the recovering Randolph coming off the bench, was in. He drew a nice early charge, and he generally seemed to be in the right place at the right time, which is a tribute to Lionel Hollins' coaching staff and a big improvement over how things happened earlier in his career. He has not been the same effective go-to scorer he was once was, but he is a better rebounder than ever and his shooting has been improving somewhat as the season has progressed. It wouldn't be out of character for him to torch teams' second-best post defenders (remember, he's starting alongside Marc Gasol) come playoff time. Opposing coaches will have a hell of a time figuring out how to deploy quality bigs and their precious fouls to stop Gasol, Randolph and Speights.