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Wednesday, January 6, 2010
O.J. Mayo, fan-friendly avenger

By Henry Abbott

Brandon Roy
Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images
Brandon Roy stood with the ball through crunch time. Thanks to O.J. Mayo:, that boring tactic failed.

Four million seconds. That's about how much time the ball is in play in an NBA season. Except for injuries, and the occasional poor decision, pretty much every one of those seconds is fun to watch, as far as I'm concerned. But does that mean every one of those seconds is created equal?

Oh, good gravy, no.

Those few seconds at the end of a close game, say, the final 120 of them when the score is within three or four points ... that's the good stuff. And it's a tiny percentage of those four million.

I can't wait until there's a way to program my Tivo to just drop whatever it's doing to switch channels to record all of those whenever they happen. There is nothing more important on TV.

Until that science exists, it takes a lot more than just League Pass to see all the NBA's crunch times. I was once conducting a phone interview, late in the evening, with a front office executive. As we spoke, he had a game playing on his TV. But then there was somebody yelling off in the distance. It was loud and insistent, kind of worrying almost. "What?" he hollered back. This time even I could make it out clearly over the phone: "DALLAS GAME" screamed a woman's voice, off in the distance.

He flicked to the channel where the Dallas game was showing, and sure enough it was the closing moments of a delightfully tight game.

"Now that," he said, "is a good NBA wife."

These are the times of the game when you not only get to see the best offensive players do what they're best at, but you also get to see players play the toughest and smartest defense they know how to play. You don't need me to explain how important and fun those moments are to watch.

Although, there's an oddity about those precious few seconds. In a typical game, for a good chunk of that precious time, nobody does anything.

Take last night's Memphis win in Portland.  The Blazers were holding a slim lead through most of the final two minutes. They wanted the clock to run and the game to end, so they were in no hurry to move quickly. So, here we are in the sweet spot of a long season and what did we see? More than anything, Brandon Roy (or, for a moment, Jerryd Bayless) simply holding the ball. Standing still.

Check the video. From 1:55 to 1:41, 1:35 to 1:19, :47 to :41 and 30.5 to 21.6 seconds left there was literally nothing happening. We fans wade through four million seconds to get to these 120 or so, and then we waste 42.9 seconds of the final two minutes standing still? I get the strategy, but it's not working for me as a fan. (Do you have any idea how many amazing plays could have occurred in that time? Derek Fisher could have sunk more than 100 of his famous shots.)

I don't know that the NBA could do much to fix it. Some ideas include a five-second closely guarded rule like high school, or how about a shorter shot clock, say 14 seconds, in the last two minutes? It's gimmicky, but it has the potential to nearly double the number of exciting plays in the NBA every night. This is also exactly the kind of boring play that led to the creation of the shot clock in the first place. And, as a bonus, more late game possessions would be a gift to the trailing team -- and who doesn't like a good comeback?

NBA coaches like Nate McMillan are risk averse, and understandably so. The idea is that when your star is being guarded by just one guy far from the hoop, he'll just about never turn the ball over.

But, if you think like I do, say a little cheer for O.J. Mayo, who was a bona fide stud at both ends of the floor in crunch time last night. Not only did he maintain perfect poise scoring on the break and on the free throw line, but he also rejected the status quo. He simply did not accept that Roy, holding the ball, would not cough it up. Mayo got low and springy, and made himself into the best kind of pest. He had been doing that throughout the final minutes. With just under 22 seconds left, and the game tied, it paid off. Roy was (what else) standing still when Mayo flashed out an arm and poked the ball high into the air. In the ensuing scramble, Roy fended off Mayo and was called for a foul.

Although the game was hardly over then, that proved to be the key moment. Roy masterfully created all kinds of scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates down the stretch, but Juwan Howard, Jerryd Bayless, and Roy himself all went cold, and Memphis rolled to the win.

It was a victory for O.J. Mayo. It was a victory for the Grizzlies. And it was a victory for playing basketball in crunch time, instead of standing around.