TrueHoop: Delonte West
- Classmates of Kim Jong Il's son, Kim Jong-un, testify that the presumed successor in North Korea wasn't all that interested in politics when he was at school in Switzerland. What really got him going was basketball. "He worshipped basketball players in the NBA. A friend who visited his apartment at #10, Kirchstrasse, Liebefeld, recalls that Kim had a room filled with NBA-memorabilia. 'He proudly showed off photographs of himself standing with Toni Kukoc of the Chicago Bulls and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers. It is unclear where the pictures were taken. On at least one occasion, a car from the North Korean Embassy drove Pak Un to Paris to watch an NBA exhibition game,' the [Washington Post] said. In class, Pak Un was generally shy and awkward with girls, but he became a different person on basketball court, according to his classmates. 'A fiercely competitive player,' said classmate Nikola Kovacevic. 'He was very explosive. He could make things happen. He was the playmaker.'"
- Michael Pina of Red94 composes a stellar post on the psyche of trade bait. There are those, like Kevin Martin and Chauncey Billups, who take it a little personally. Others, like Lamar Odom, are driven to tears. Then there are Luis Scola, Rajon Rondo and Pau Gasol, who are able to convey detachment -- at least publicly.
- The Heat have pledged to switch up their offense this season by incorporating more fast-break attacks and putting more of a premium on spacing. Beckley Mason of HoopSpeak exchanges with a reader who explains what "the Invert" offense in lacrosse can teach us about defending the Heat.
- Charlie Widdoes of ClipperBlog feels the Clippers gave up too much for Chris Paul, and that staying the course with Eric Gordon and the salary flexibility that would've come with Chris Kaman's expiring contract was the right call.
- Aaron McGuire of Gothic Ginobili on the composition of the reigning champions in Dallas: "So where does that leave you? A short stint with a lineup where Lamar Odom is the primary ballhandler, employing Dirk and Marion as roll men with Delonte and Carter in the wings if the play goes sour? Does the team manage a point-by-committee sort of strategy? And who defends what? Dirk’s defense has gotten better over the years, but at this point Odom is essentially the best defensive talent in the Mavs’ big rotation. Do you cross-match Odom on the opposing center and hope he can draw them out of the paint? Do you keep Dirk at center and live with the terrifying defensive results? I really don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone else does either. And that’s part of what makes this Mavs team so interesting."
- Kris Humphries chalks up impressive numbers on the Wins Produced metric, prompting Andres Alvarez of Wages of Win to ask why the power forward remains unsigned.
- When Boris Diaw was growing up in France, his mom -- a former player -- ordered him not to join the throng of kids who'd storm the scorebook immediately after the game to tally their point totals.
- Watching Al Jefferson's deliberate but effective post game drives Zach Harper to thumbing through periodicals during live play, but Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams are shiny!
- The amnesty deadline passed and Rashard Lewis is still a Wizard. Lewis is setting up house in Washington, where his daughter has enrolled at nearby Sidwell Friends, where the Obama girls attend school.
- Who would you rather be -- the Lakers or the Clippers?
- Kevin Durant's fans will scour North America for his backpack like it's an afikoman.
- Andrew Bogut had one of those nights that makes you say, "Oh, I can see why this guy was a number one pick.” As Jeremy Schmidt of Bucksketball describes, the uber-competitive Bogut Friday night traded blows with Brad Miller and even yelled at the Spalding.
- In Portland, there's nothing like a little schadenfreude watching a certain superstar struggle. Andrew R. Tonry of Portland Roundball Society: "There's something rather sublime about watching Kobe Bryant struggle. And Friday night, there was a wealth of opportunities. After missing a free throw to the crowd's raucous delight, Bryant wildly pressed Brandon Roy full court only to end up with a frustration foul. A few plays later he bobbled what should've been an easy catch out of bounds. Grown men in the crowd are hugging."
- The absence of Pau Gasol has been devastating to the Lakers over the past week or so. Brian Kamenetzky of Land o' Lakers: "With Pau Gasol on the sidelines, the last three games have shown stronger signs of a Lakers team slipping back into 'Save us Kobe! Mode,' too willing to defer to Bryant."
- Baron Davis says that sporting a beard is one thing, but maintaining it is an entirely different matter: "If you're going to trim your beard yourself, you'll need the right tools."
- As of this morning, the Western Conference has 11 teams over .500, while the Eastern Conference has only six. Steve Perrin of Clips Nation says that the League should retool the playoff brackets:"[A]t some level it's totally illogical NOT to have the best 16 teams playing in the postseason."
- It's fair to classify Cleveland as an elite defensive unit. But they're vulnerable against scoring point guards when Delonte West isn't on the floor, as John Krolik of Cavs the Blog explains.
- When Phoenix went to a zone to slow down a scorching Dwyane Wade, the rest of the Heat capitalized on their opportunities and drained shots.
- How Andrea Bargnani is like those old "Less Filling, Tastes Great!" ads. Zarar Siddiqi of Raptors Republic expands on the newfound intensity the Raps are bringing to the court.
- Matt Moore of Hardwood Paroxysm on the virtues of playing in a small market. For one, teammates are much more likely to hang out with one another away from the gym.
- In the second half in their loss to Washington, the Magic got away from their patented brand of inside-out/pick-and-pop ball. Ben Q. Rock of Orlando Pinstriped Post: "I don't recall Orlando playing this much one-on-one ball since Brian Hill ran isolation plays for Grant Hill in that ill-fated 2007 season."
- Feels strange to say it, but the Memphis Grizzlies are one tough bunch.
- The Hawks have been cratering, but they got off the mat Friday night to beat Boston. Bret LaGree of Hoopinion enumerates the many reasons Atlanta won, but "[w]hichever perspective one gives greatest weight as to the reasons for it, the result itself was unimpeachable."
A year ago, Delonte West sought treatment for a mood disorder. Two weeks ago, he was arrested riding around a three-wheeled motorcycle with guns strapped to three parts of his body. A day ago, he said he was eager to just focus on basketball, yet a few hours ago he was a no-show for practice.
Brian Windhorst of the Plain Dealer talked to Coach Mike Brown, who can't confirm that anyone from the Cavaliers has even talked to Delonte West today:
Brown said team general manager Danny Ferry was handling the issue. He said he wasn't aware if Ferry or anyone else from the team had been in contact with West.
"We have to try as best we can to maintain that bunker mentality and not let outside influences take us off course," Brown said.
On Monday, West downplayed his gun arrest in Maryland two weeks ago. He said he was back on his medicine and back to a routine that centered around basketball. West has battled a mood disorder his whole life and last year talked about his issues publicly after leaving the team during training camp to seek treatment.
"Right now what I want to focus on is this team and playing basketball," West said Monday.
Matchup problems are a two-way street, you know. For Magic fans, this trip up the mountain feels a whole lot different. And it's time for certain GMs to make some tough decisions about their 2010 free agents.
Bill Bridges of Forum Blue & Gold: "The focus of the pre-series review has emphasized that the Magic pose matchup problems for the Lakers. Perhaps. However, I contend that the matchup problems that the Lakers pose for the Magic dwarf the former ... [Trevor] Ariza on [Hedo] Turkoglu? No mismatch there. Then how will [Rashard] Lewis punish [Pau] Gasol? Not by posting him up obviously. By shooting perimeter shots? As Memo knows, Lewis will be surprised at how good Gasol is at defending the perimeter jump shot. He will find that shooting jumpers over the length of Pau's outstretched fingers not quite as easy as shooting over Mo Williams or Delonte West. Lewis' best chance is to take Gasol on the drive. Even here as well the advantage is not so clear cut ... Phil [Jackson] must see Gasol versus Lewis and be licking his pleasingly-smooth chops. Move Gasol around on the block, get him the ball, make strong cuts and what do you have? Single-covered, easy scores by Gasol. Double-covered, layups by cutters, open 3's by Ariza/[Derek] Fisher/Kobe [Bryant], and fouls on [Dwight] Howard defending the basket. This mismatch might become such a problem that I predict that SVG is the first to blink and play a Howard/[Marcin] Gortat front line to counter."
Zach McCann of Orlando Magic Daily: "You could say the local team spirit has returned to the glory of 1995, the last time the Magic reached the NBA Finals. Only this time, it's better. Back then, the city didn't really know what to think. The sudden trip to the NBA Finals was unexpected, exhilarating, and spoiling for the Magic fan base, which really didn't understand how lucky it was. After all, some franchises go decades without reaching the NBA Finals. The Magic franchise was only five years old, and there weren't any lifelong fans who suffered through some bad times ... Current fans of the team -- the ones who've been following the team since the Shaq days -- have suffered through some pretty upsetting times. Shaq's departure, Penny Hardaway's injuries, Grant Hill's injuries, T-Mac's falling out, the 21-win season, Fran Vazquez -- please, somebody stop me ... The Magic weren't just a bad team post-Shaq. They were, at times, a poorly run team that seemed to have little idea on what it took to build a successful team. The players suffered, the team suffered, and the fans suffered. Of course, the current regime doesn't fall under that umbrella. These guys have done an amazing job building this team, and here we are: the NBA Finals. It feels good."
Jeff McMenamin of Philadunkia: "As Eddie Jordan walked up to the Sixers podium in the press room he wasn't a man who was nervous but a man who was calm, collected, and ready to take this young Sixers team to the next level ... Jordan is big on X's and O's and he is a very vocal and charismatic coach, something the Sixers haven't been used to seeing in a long time ... The word which Jordan used a lot during his press conference was 'team.' For a supposed team that tore apart at the end of this season, that is a word that must be a point of focus during the off-season. Players were throwing blame in all the wrong places and the quiet locker room we all thought the Sixers had turned into an army test base. Even team leaders like Andre Iguodala and Andre Miller were firing off rounds. One of the ways in which Eddie Jordan thinks the Sixers will become a 'team' once again is through the use of the Princeton offense."
(Photos by Lisa Blumenfeld, Fernando Medina, Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
The Cavs and Magic each came into the series with a full playbook of good offensive material that worked all season -- which is why they're playing basketball in late May. The difference came down to which team better executed its stuff. Saturday night, it wasn't even close.
Dwight Howard: Turning Defenses Inside Out (John Raoux/NBAE via Getty Images)
As dominant as Howard was -- he chalked up twice as many points as Orlando's second-highest scorer -- the Magic's clincher was a collective effort offensively. What's striking about Orlando is how many different things they execute well offensively -- to say nothing of their top-ranked defense. Orlando gets a lot of praise for its pick-and-roll game, which is spearheaded by Hedo Turkoglu and Dwight Howard. Orlando is special in that everyone in their rotation can perform this part of the offense.
Just look at how Orlando amassed its first double-digit lead:
- [2nd quarter, 7:41] It's not the patented 3-5 Turkoglu/Howard screen-and-roll. Howard isn't even in the game, nor is starting point guard Rafer Alston. Rotund backup point guard Anthony Johnson is at the controls. Rashard Lewis steps out to the top of the floor, and slips a screen to Johnson's right. When Johnson recognizes that Wally Szczerbiak and Daniel Gibson have gotten crossed up on the switch, he shuttles the ball over to Lewis, who has an open driving lane to the hoop. Varejao challenges Lewis underneath, but Lewis puts the ball in his off hand, contorts himself, then lays it in.
There's nothing ingenious about what Orlando does. It's the flexibility of the team's personnel that makes the Magic impossible to defend. Everyone is an interchangeable part in the offense. Each of the six guards and forwards can shoot the three, pass the ball, and put it on the deck. Howard appreciates this, and has gotten very shrewd at letting his teammates make plays for him. He checks in immediately after Lewis' hoop, and converts on the very next possession:
- [2nd quarter, 6:20] Johnson is still at the point. He gets a strong screen up top from Lewis, then penetrates into the paint. Howard, meanwhile hangs out just off the mid-post on the left side. The instant Cleveland's interior defense collapses on Johnson, he pitches the ball off to Howard, who now has a huge amount of space to muscle his way to the rim. Anderson Varejao tries to reestablish his presence underneath, but Howard is too quick. By the time Varejao shifts his attention back to the big man, Howard is already into his drive. His running hook from five feet is soft.
This is the Howardized variation of the drive-and-kick, only with the ball ending up in the hands of the big man near the basket rather than a shooter out on the arc.
Orlando uses its bread and butter to establish control of the game just before halftime, and Howard gets the assist:
- [2nd quarter, 4:55] The Orlando 4-out/1-in: The single most effective offensive scheme we've seen from any team in the postseason. Everyone on the floor and on both benches knows it's coming.
When Howard gets the ball off the left block, the Cavs promptly send a double-team, as Delonte West joins Varejao on the cover. Howard has gotten so good at sizing up the backside of the defensive zone in this situation. He takes a looks at his four shooters spread around the arc. At first glance, there isn't much there. For all of Cleveland's problems this series, they're still one of the best defensive teams in basketball, and they rotate very well early in this set. Orlando realizes that in order to work itself an open shot, someone has to scramble the defense.
That's when Courtney Lee dives hard for the basket from the top of the arc. LeBron James, who has been monitoring the top of the floor, has no choice but to pick up Lee on the cut. When Lee cuts, Lewis fills that open space up top, where Howard finds him for the wide open three-pointer. Lewis drains it. He finishes with 18 points on the night, capping off a solid series.
This is just a sampling. Roll through the game tape, and you can find possessions like these everywhere: Another set run through Howard on the left block that results in a full swing of the ball around the perimeter for an open three-point shot by Alston [2nd quarter, 1:27], a Turkoglu/Gortat screen-and-roll that produces a kickout to a wide open Mickael Pietrus [2nd quarter, 8:04], Howard doing his best Pau Gasol imitation with a pass over his shoulder out of the block to Pietrus on the basket cut [3rd quarter, 0:22].
All season, skeptics questioned whether Orlando played a style of basketball that was conducive to winning a championship -- as if winning is a question of aesthetics. In modern basketball, we've seen fast teams, slow teams, motion offeneses, pick-and-roll outfits all win NBA Championships. No matter what their offensive agendas, these teams had one thing in common: They executed.
Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
Despite Dwight Howard's protests following Orlando's Game 5 loss to Boston in the Eastern Conference semis, there's no correlation between the number of shots Howard takes and the likelihood of an Orlando Magic victory. Even though Howard's claims that he should be seeing more shots weren't rooted in any empirical truth, his misperceptions could potentially be beneficial. Given his muscle and athleticism, the Magic should prosper from the ball being in Howard's hands. If it takes a false impression of reality to motivate him to be a better finisher on set plays, who's going to complain?
Dwight Howard: Happy When Fed (Elsa/NBAE via Getty Images)
Tuesday night, Dwight Howard scores only four points on 1-4 shooting from the field in the second half. Some of that can be chalked up Orlando's reliance on the three-ball, which is itself a response to Cleveland's clogging the middle against Howard. In the final six minutes of regulation, Howard manages only one chance from the field, when he gets a pass deep in the post from Hedo Turkoglu just inside of the 2:00 mark of the fourth quarter. Howard is immediately hacked by Anderson Varejao. Although his presence is helping Orlando's shooters, Howard is essentially an offensive decoy in the second half.
The Magic's pick-and-roll game gets lost at times in their prolific three-point attack, but they start the overtime period with a high Howard/Turkoglu screen-and-roll. As Turkoglu turns the corner to his left, Howard dives through the lane, where all three Cleveland guards collapse on him. Varejao ultimately picks Turkoglu's pocket, which leads to a Cleveland break and a couple of free throws for Boobie Gibson. It's an inauspicious start to overtime for the Magic.
When Orlando brings the ball up the next trip down, it appears as if the Magic aren't going to use Howard in the offense any differently than they did in the second half. Off the initial pick-and-roll, Howard draws Mo Wiliams on the rotation in the paint, but Rafer Alston doesn't look at Howard. By the time he does, Varejao has recovered and replaces Williams as the post defender on Howard, and the mismatch is lost.
As Alston passes the ball off the Turkoglu on the left wing, Howard keeps fighting with Varejao for position on the left block. Sometimes, Howard can get dejected when he's ignored on the initial action. He won't quit working, but there's a difference between setting up in the post and bruising for every last inch inside. On this possession, Howard is doing the latter. Turkoglu recognizes it, and promptly feeds Howard on the left block. Howard does something here he doesn't frequently do -- he trusts his feet. Pounding the ball into the court, Howard backs Varejao in with his left shoulder. He collects the ball confidently, then pivots on his right foot to spin baseline. That's all he needs to get to the rim for the slam. Normally when Howard gets the ball at this spot in this situation, he's hesitant to change direction and we see him try to sweep across the lane and fling a running hook shot at the basket. Not this time.
What happens the next trip down when Alston is again blitzed on the pick-and-roll? He instantly looks for Howard on the dive. Delonte West has a nice defensive game, but he commits a fatal error here by leaving Howard too early. Instead of waiting another second or two for Varejao to recover, West runs out on Turkoglu, which leaves Howard wide open underneath. Perhaps it's reading too much into nothing more than a mental error, but what does West's decision to worry more about Turkoglu than Howard say about Orlando's late-game offense?
Cleveland's had enough. The last two possessions have prompted them to make a defensive adjustment to account for Howard. When the high screen/roll comes this time around, Varejao drops back into the paint. The Magic run a mirror image of the first Howard set, this time from the right side. Pietrus gets the entry pass into Howard. When Varejao gambles by trying to get in front of the pass, that's all the room Howard needs to build the head of steam that will power him to the rim with a left-handed drive. After Howard drops the ball through the hoop, an irate LeBron James whips his right arm in disgust at Varejao and, according to Doug Collins, yells to his teammate, "Foul him!"
That's exactly what Ben Wallace does with 21 seconds to go and the Magic leading by two. The most common reason attributed to Orlando's reluctance to feed Howard down the stretch in close games is his inability to convert at the line. For the fourth consecutive season, Howard drained fewer than 60 percent of his free throw attempts. Howard is 8-14 in Game 4 before he steps up to the line for two of the bigger attempts of his career. Although Howard's three dunks earlier in the period were more momentous, and his tip-in off a Turkoglu miss two possessions earlier gave the Magic a commanding six-point lead with just over a minute remaining, it's these pair of free throws that probably offer Orlando fans the most comfort. Both shots fall through without grazing the rim.
The broad narrative of Game 4 will be about Dwight Howard's arrival as a closer, the night he lorded his physical gifts over everyone on the court when it mattered the most. Will it also be the point on the chronological axis when getting the ball to Dwight Howard started to matter? Maybe, maybe not. That's a trend that should play out for at least a full season before it's declared meaningful, but you think Dwight Howard cares about sample sizes?
Have the Cavs gone from invincibility to must-win crisis mode in a single day? Did the Magic catch lightning in a bottle, or was Wednesday night their definitive statement game? And the Celtics always manage to maintain a spot in the news cycle, even after they're eliminated.
John Krolik of Cavs the Blog: "This one is bad. It's about as bad as a first game gets. We've lost some of our swagger at home. Game 2 almost becomes must-win. In close games, you either get it or you don't. We didn't tonight, and we've lost a 50-50 game. We now have to beat an elite team on the road, something we haven't shown we can do. We wasted an absolutely phenomenal performance from LeBron James. But you should be able to win on the road if you're a championship team, and some things will even out; you can't count on LeBron (or anybody) being that good for the rest of the series, but Mo [Williams] and Delonte [West] should get better and Rashard [Lewis] and Dwight [Howard] should lose some of their fire ... We lost. At home. In a close game. With LeBron rolling. But we're only down a game. And there's still a lot of series left. And my life is, if I can chill for a second and try and get out of my own head for a second, relatively the same as it would be if Delonte had made that shot. It sucks because this team especially, and LeBron, feels like we need validation, a championship on a macro level to bless the team and all its fans faith as worthy and a win tonight for LeBron's performance to be truly great. But the true fans know both things are true regardless, and…God, I just want to win on Friday and for it to happen right now."
Zach McCann of Orlando Magic Daily: "This win wasn't about the Cavaliers not being tested, the crowd being taken out of it or LeBron James running out of gas. All those things are true, yes - but this game was all about the Magic proving they know how to win. Proving they have the mental fortitude, the team cohesion and the resiliency to win under any circumstance ... A week ago, when the Magic allowed the Celtics to rattle off a 13-0 run and steal Game 5 away from Orlando, did you ever think we'd be here? Did you think a team that suffered one of the worst collapses in NBA playoff history would mount an implausible comeback on the road, against the NBA's No. 1 team and No. 1 player, just eight days later? The Magic are legitimate NBA title contenders. That feels good to say. Magic fans have been saying it all season, but did you really believe it until now? Did you really think this team could play at the highest level on the biggest stage under the most pressure, and win? We knew the players had enough talent, yeah -- but was the team capable of it?"
THE FINAL WORD
Nets are Scorching: Video of Brook Lopez at something called the Sun God Festival.
Celtics Hub: Competing views of Doc Rivers' injury disclosures.
Roundball Mining Company: More smart insights on the Nuggets-Lakers series.
(Photos by Gregory Shamus, Elsa/NBAE via Getty Images)
Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
It's getting increasingly difficult to put LeBron James' postseason heroics into historical perspective. His production has made an extremely good offensive team (109.7 points/100 possessions in the regular season), even more ruthless in the postseason (up that to 111.9/100).
The Cavs Defense: Where average defenders become good defenders, and good defenders become great defenders. (Andy Lyons/NBAE via Getty Images)
That's an impressive gain, but only a fraction of the improvement the already sturdy Cavs defense has shown in the playoffs. Cleveland has whittled its 99.4 points/100 possessions defensive rating (3rd best out of 30), down to a minuscule 90.8/100 in its two postseason series. Granted, Atlanta and Detroit weren't exactly offensive juggernauts, but their respective offensive ratings in the regular season of 106.6 and 104.5 suggest that the Cavs are tightening their defensive vise with brutal efficiency.
The Cleveland roster isn't composed of guys you'd immediately classify as defensive stoppers. With a defensive rating in the 104 range (number of points allowed per 100 possessions as an individual defender), Delonte West has been rightfully praised for his defense. West's defensive ratings in the four seasons prior to this one? 107, 107, 108, 108. As a Milwaukee Buck, Mo Williams had a reputation as a horrendous defender (and the numbers to prove it), but for Cleveland this season, he's been downright gritty, and his defensive rating dropped from 114 to 106. Did Williams just miraculously grow defensive fangs? Even Wally Szczerbiak, Ukrainian for "has lost some lateral quickness," is posting career-best numbers in various advanced defensive metrics. Nothing eye-popping, but more than passable.
A few hundred video clips of Cleveland defensive sets -- both from the postseason and from post-All-Star Game matchups against playoff contenders -- begin to tell the story. Mike Brown, a disciple of Gregg Popovich, insists that his defenders play straight-up position defense. The Cavs don't gamble a lot (in team steals, you'll find them in the middle of the pack), don't trap off the screen/roll very often, and though they doubled Joe Johnson quite a bit in the Atlanta series, they prefer man-to-man defense most nights. If a Cleveland defender gets beat on a screen or off the dribble, there's an instant rotation, more often than not by Anderson Varejao. For a guy who gives off a lot of hyperkinetic energy, Varejao moves around the court with great purpose. He's my choice for ROY -- Rotator of the Year.
Since Mo Williams isn't a great individual defender, and does get beat on a regular basis, this part of Cleveland's defensive scheme is all the more impressive. When Williams gets taken out of the play by a hard screen, the rotator will immediately pick up the loose end, by moving to either the ball man or the screener. Williams, meanwhile, recovers quickly and intently. He'll immediately dart over to the guy who the rotator/helper has left open (also known as Roger Mason), preventing a kick out or, at the very least, an open look.
It's here, on the back half of a defensive possession, where Cleveland's defense forces bad shot after bad shot. Mo Williams, like most point guards, is going to get nailed by his share of screens from 250-pound centers. That's a given. Good team defenses compensate a couple of ways: [a] How quickly does the rotator pick up Williams' man (or the big man, if a switch is in order)? [b] How effectively does Williams recover and run out on the open man? Bad defenses get beaten by a failure of [a], but even some decent defensive teams can get burned in the closing seconds of a possession by breaking down on [b].
Not Cleveland. You can go through nearly twenty clips of defensive possessions before witnessing a single blown rotation. Every Cavalier closes out on every shooter, and contests every shot. The Cavs move around the court mindful of every open space, chasing guys off their spots, and walling off anyone with the temerity to drive or cut to the basket.
LeBron's explosiveness is undoubtedly the story of the Cavs' scorched earth playoff run, but their stifling defense is the silent killer. If you shaved off a third of James' offensive output, the Cavs' team defense would still make them the favorite in any series going forward.
Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
I've heard the rap on the Orlando Magic. They're essentially a jump-shooting team. They don't hit the offensive glass, and don't have a go-to guy on the wing who can manufacture points in crunch time. In short, the Magic just don't seem like a championship contender in the eyes of their doubters. How do you gauge what constitutes a contender? As Justice Potter Stewart said of obscenity, you know it when you see it.
Funny thing is, with the possible exception of a home loss to Dallas nine weeks ago in which Jameer Nelson played his last 19 minutes of the season, every time I see the Magic play, they wallop the opposition.
Arguments that their style doesn't conform to the postseason seem remote while watching them dismantle Western Conference powers on the road, or rip off 13 out of 15 games after their point guard and team leader was lost for the season. It's enough to make you ask, "Exactly what style of basketball are we talking about? A style that translates into the league's second most efficient defense and sixth most efficient offense? A style that wins more than 70% of its games on the road?"
Amid the noise, we perused the schedule and found that the Magic had tough back-to-back games over the weekend: A Friday night showdown with Cleveland in Orlando, followed up by a road date against a tough home team in Atlanta, where the Hawks were 29-9 going in.
The results were impressive. The Magic decimated the Cavs, leading by 40 at one juncture in the third quarter. The following night in Atlanta was a bit more of a struggle. Despite the fact that this jump-shooting team missed a slew of open looks, they managed to grind out a win with a heady defensive effort and second-chance points.
Getting beyond the platitudes, here's what we discovered about the most polarizing, least examined team in basketball:
Rafer Alston is getting comfortable with the offense.
When Jameer Nelson went down in early February, conventional wisdom loudly proclaimed that the Magic's quixotic first half dash toward the top of the Eastern Conference was over. The acquisition of Rafer Alston was regarded as a crafty maneuver by Otis Smith, but nothing more than a tourniquet for a fatal wound.
Alston hasn't been able to replicate Nelson's efficiency, but the playground legend has been steady at the point. He's protected the basketball, and has been a quick study in the Orlando offense. In the past month, a noticeable confidence has emerged in his overall game.
Rafer Alston is making himself at home in the Orlando offense.
[Friday vs. CLE, 1st Quarter, 9:20 mark] There's a very simple, but effective sequence in opening minutes against the Cavs where Alston and Rashard Lewis run a screen-roll on the left side against Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao. Lewis cuts over from the weak side, bringing Varejao with him. The Cavs trap Alston, who delivers an easy sideline pass to Lewis. Courtney Lee clears to the weak side, giving Delonte West -- the potential rotator -- pause. Lewis hits the 18 footer. This is nothing fancy, but Alston has started to execute this kind of stuff with the fluency of a point guard who knows his teammates' habits, and their on-court biorhythms.
Later in the half [Friday vs. CLE, 2nd Quarter, 1:40 mark], Alston hurries the ball upcourt to Lewis on the right side, intent to push the tempo. Varejao picks up Lewis before he can unleash that signature slingshot three-point stroke, so Lewis puts the ball on the floor, then sends a baseline bounce pass to Lee on the other side. Orlando has gotten very good at keeping defenses off-kilter with reversals and cross-court passes. There are a lot of guys in gold jerseys with their heads on a swivel. Cleveland recovers nicely, so the ball goes back to Alston up top. On the surface, this seems like a reset, but upon further review, you can see that Alston knows exactly what he wants: That preceding madness yielded two mismatches -- Alston/Szczerbiak and Turkoglu/West. What does Alston do? Easy. He exploits the first mismatch by driving against the slower Szczerbiak (Poor Wally. Does a day go by when someone isn't impugning his quicks?), then delivers a pretty interior touch pass to Turkoglu underneath to capitalize on the second mismatch. An easy two, and the Magic now lead by 17, only a minute and a half before the break.
Alston has always had good instincts, and now he's begun to apply them to what the Magic do on a nightly basis.
Dwight Howard can and will kick it out of the post...and his shooters will make it easy for him.
Maybe it's the perceived simplicity of Orlando's offense that attracts skeptics (feed it into Howard, surround him with three-point shooters...), but when you watch the Magic closely, the nuances of what they do come to the surface, just as the Spurs' system is more impressive upon a closer examination.
[Saturday vs. ATL, 4th Quarter, 8:41 mark] This isn't a textbook set with fluid motion and perfect ball movement, which, in some sense, makes it a better case study. In fact, Howard shares the floor with only one other starter, Courtney Lee, along with three bench players -- Anthony Johnson, J.J. Redick, and Tony Battie. The Magic rotate a couple of pick-and-rolls, the first with Lee and Howard up top on the right side, which doesn't yield much. The second is on the left side with Redick and Battie. Though the Magic don't generate any clean looks here, they've managed to pick up some mismatches against switch-happy Atlanta. Redick sends the ball into Howard in the left post against Josh Smith. Horford, now covering Redick along the arc, moves low to double Howard, which leaves Flip Murray, Joe Johnson, and Maurice Evans to zone up the rest of the floor. Redick darts to the open space to Howard's right, where Howard sends him out a perfect pass out of the post that gets Redick a three-point attempt in rhythm. The Magic go up by nine, their largest lead.
[Saturday vs. ATL, 4th Quarter, 4:30 mark] The prettiest set of this kind comes a little later in the period. The starters are back on the floor for Orlando. The Hawks' bend-don't-break defense is hanging in there, and Lee swings the ball to Turkoglu with :12 on the shot clock. Taking advantage of the action on the far side, Josh Smith waves to Mike Bibby to switch back onto Alston. At :10, Turkoglu dumps it into Howard in the left post against Horford.
A screen shot at this exact moment would display the Orlando Magic in platonic form -- Howard with the ball in the post, his four shooters spread almost symmetrically along the arc. At :08, Lee dives toward the hole. This completely disarms Atlanta. Murray, Lee's man, follows him, but Bibby gets momentarily distracted and shifts his weight and attention toward the cutter, leaving Alston wide open beyond the arc on the right side. Howard takes a step toward the hole and makes his sweeping move as if he's going to elevate for his righty hook. Instead, he kicks the ball out instead to Alston, who drains the three-pointer. Magic by nine with 4:27 to play.
It might sound weird to classify Orlando's offense as a read-and-react system, but that's essentially what's going on here. Howard is the foundation of the offense, and every player on the Magic roster has honed their instincts to respond to what happens down on the block. Redick intuitively fills the spot on the floor where Howard's kickout can most easily find him, but I doubt it was explicitly dra
wn up that way. When Atlanta doesn't send a double-team, Lee makes a basket cut to see if that will free up a shooter on the perimeter -- and it does.
Dwight Howard's presence makes it hard for opponents to run basic offensive sets.
A high screen from a big man initiates a plurality of offense in the NBA, and it's easy to understand why: Big men can create a lot of space for a dribbler. A defense's job is to fil that space before that dribbler can find a shot, and that's where the Magic -- and specifically, Dwight Howard -- are so strong.
Dwight Howard: Lording over the paint for the Magic.
[Friday vs. CLE, 1st Quarter, 5:58 mark] The Cavs want to use Varejao to get Delonte West some space, which is exactly what Varejao provides with a solid screen at the top of the arc. West moves to the left of the screen. A lot of teams might choose to trap here, but Orlando doesn't have to because Dwight Howard is so long and agile that he can account for the space in front of West and monitor Varejao on the roll. West sends the ball over to a rolling Varejao, but Howard is immediately all over Varejao, who loses the handle. Fortunately for Cleveland, Varejao manages to get it back to West for a reset with :14 on the shot clock. Varejao again sets a solid screen for West -- this time a few feet closer in. West uses the space to drive left, and this time the Magic switch the screen, as Howard drops back into the lane to pick up West on the drive. West is unable to make any progress against Howard, and ends up trying to hit LeBron James in the right corner with a pass that deflects out of bounds. The very next trip down, [1st Quarter, 5:18 mark], the Cavs try the West/Varejao screen/roll one more time to even worse results when the Magic switch. Howard backpedals against West, staying between the little guard and the basket on the left side of the lane. When West elevates for a layup, the ball is predictably swatted away by Howard.
Howard's reel for Defensive Player of the Year award will consist of gaudy blocks pelted into the fifth row of Amway Arena, but equally important to Orlando's #2 defense is the flexibility Howard affords the Magic against screen and rolls. Howard seems to always be one swipe away from the ball, whether he's picking up a big man on the roll, staying between the ballhandler or the basket on the set, or, more often than not, patrolling the zone in between. His feet are so quick, his arms so long, and his timing so precise that the only way to generate much offense against the Magic is to keep the ball moving around the perimeter, and just hope for an open seam that doesn't end at #12.
Mike Kurylo of Knickerblogger: "[T]he Knicks should concede the rest of the season and use the remaining 15 games to prepare for next year. One way is to allow Nate Robinson to be the starting point guard (which may have already occurred). Another is to give minutes to Wilcox, Curry (if healthy), Samb, and Nichols in order to better understand how they may help the team...
And in the interim, playing the reserves would increase New York's standings in the June draft. While the only team that they might realistically pass is Indiana ... it's just as important for New York to not allow any of the teams ahead of them to improve their draft day position ... From any perspective the worst scenario would be New York passing all those teams in the standings without making the playoffs. If D'Antoni shifts his main focus from winning individual games to developing the end of his bench, New York would probably avoid such a undesirable fate."
Matt McHale of By the Horns: "Ben Gordon has been the Bulls' leading scorer for the past five seasons. That also happens to be the same number of seasons that Gordon's been in the league. But despite that fact, nobody knows yet whether he's even going to be in Chicago next season … and opinion is pretty firmly divided on whether or not John Paxson should spend any more of the team's precious salary cap space on him. That's too bad. I know BG is streaky and woefully undersized, but he brings it every night, and has been since his rookie campaign."
John Krolik of Cavs the Blog: "Mo appears to have hit some sort of a wall, because every other game it seems like his shot's not there, which suggests tired legs more than it suggests something mental keeping him out of his rhythm. Delonte, on the other hand, is in a major, major funk. He played gritty defense and got to the rim a few times, but his shot is off to the point he just can't buy one from outside the paint and he's not moving the ball right now. There's no option here -- we just have to wait for him to snap out of it, because we don't win in the playoffs without him. He's our Lamar Odom -- he's the difference between good and great for us."
(Photos by David Sherman, Larry W. Smith, Ronald Martinez/NBAE via Getty Images)
Business as usual for the Celtics and Cavs, as both clinch playoff berths. The Spurs fail to take care of business on the defensive end of the floor. Russell Westbrook means business in the ROY race. The TrueHoop Network is open for business:
Zach Lowe of Celtics Hub: "What do you do with a game like this? Do you praise the 72 percent true shooting mark or worry about the 62 percent true shooting mark the Celtics yielded to a mediocrity like the New Jersey Nets? Do you wring your hands over the slower-than-usual rotations and the open threes, or do you smile at yet another Paul Pierce performance you can add to the dozens and dozens he's piled up over 11 seasons (12-of 14 for 31 big points)? Or do you savor the thought of having Rajon Rondo on your team for the next 11 seasons?
There's a third option we'll call the My Dad Option, and that's to laugh at the idea of even caring about a regular-season NBA game -- let alone one in which a lineup of Eddie House, Bill Walker, Mikki Moore, Leon Powe and Stephon Marbury plays the first five minutes of the fourth quarter. For my sanity, I'm going to take that option (not really, of course) and assume that the Celtics will bring the defensive intensity and precision on Friday that were missing until the very end of the game tonight."
John Krolik of Cavs the Blog: "Delonte West absolutely gave the Milwaukee Bucks the howling fantods from the opening tip to the final whistle. He was absolutely everywhere on the court tonight, especially on the defensive end, where his eight steals were actually more impressive than they look on the stat sheet because of how little he was gambling. He was picking passes coming towards his man, stripping guys clean off the dribble, snatching a pass directly out of the air, everywhere. He was all around the ball with his energy, and his toughness had him coming up with it almost every time and pushing the break.
On offense, he was making the plays and working with the ball and making sure everything went smoothly and nobody was settling for contested jumpers, and was even working a very nice two-man game with Andy. The great thing was that he wasn't really even shooting the ball all that well and he still had this much of a positive impact on the game. If you don't love Delonte West, you are a bad man."
Graydon Gordian of 48 Minutes of Hell: "It is infrequent that I criticize Popovich's defensive decisions. Our defensive woes are most often the by-product of lack of effort, poor execution, or just plain inability. But tonight I felt Popovich made multiple tactical errors down the stretch.
The most notable of these errors was his decision to trap players (primarily Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki) who had control of the ball in the space from the top of the arc to the free throw line. Swift ball movement to the wings produced two common outcomes: A second pass to set up the corner three or successful penetration (sometimes by the wingman, sometimes by a third cutter). In some ways this flipped the strength of the Spurs' defense on its head: Our bread and butter is our interior and perimeter defense while we are often soft in the middle. This evening we allowed for easy penetration and open 3-pointers in order to protect against the mid-range jumper."
(Photos by Al Bello, David Liam Kyle, Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)
Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
In an interview with Jason Friedman published yesterday at Rockets.com, Daryl Morey says unequivocally of LeBron James:
Yes, he's the best player in the league – by a good margin, I think. If you had first pick in the all-free agent NBA draft, you'd take LeBron James. I get that question a lot, too, so I figured I'd answer that as well.
He's unbelievable. We have two of the best perimeter defenders in the league and it is going to be extremely difficult for both. They're going to give it their all but, more than anyone, he's a tough guard. There's a reason the [Michael Lewis] article is about Kobe, not LeBron (laughs).
Morey's lighthearted response almost suggests that there isn't enough good data in the world that can construct a coherent strategy for guarding LeBron James. Kobe Bryant? Irrepressible some nights, sure, but still a guy you can prepare for with certain pieces of information that can be assembled into a defensive strategy. If you execute that plan perfectly, you have a chance.
But what about LeBron James?
I put the question to John Krolik of Cavs the Blog on Thursday afternoon. Knowing that the Rockets -- and most specifically Shane Battier -- devise their defensive strategy based on what they've found in the scorer's offensive tendencies, what should we expect to see from Battier and, to the extent that he uses this information, Ron Artest? John responded:
...control where LeBron's getting his catches. What you want him doing is going ISO or Pick-and-Roll 30 feet from the hoop so you can double him up high and have room to rotate back without giving up an easy basket. He's going to hurt you when he does that, but it's not nearly as bad as when he's catching it at the elbow and you're freeing up a good scorer to go double or if you let him catch it on the move, which is when you're just screwed. Cleveland fans are all familiar with something called "LeISO" -- you want as much of that happening as possible.
On the perimeter, try to make him shoot jumpers. It's different with LeBron than it is with Kobe -- LeBron doesn't have set moves or spots he's going to hurt you from on the perimeter. This makes sense in a way because when you shoot 72% at the basket and take 40% of your shots there, it doesn't make sense to be planning out a perimeter game. And don't try to stop penetration, but try to channel his penetration towards where the help is, because his hot zones show how stymied he gets when he meets the second defender. What you want is LeBron out of sync -- he's intensely improvisational and prone to streaks, and when he hits a wall he doesn't have that solid 15-footer or easy move to go back to, and he can end up ineffective that way.
There are data to compliment this scouting report. LeBron's struggles from long-range are no secret: James is a .313 shooter from beyond the arc, and he's not all that potent on two-point jumpers either -- just .379. Where he's lethal is from inside, where he shoots .715. On the drive, well, pick your poison. He's measurably better driving to his right, but still devastating going to the rack any which way.
So how do the Rockets hold LeBron James Thursday night to a mortal 21 points on 7-21 shooting from the field and only six free throw attempts? Is it Shane Battier's savvy preparation and scouting? Ron Artest's defensive aggressiveness?
Let's take a look.
Rick Adelman chooses Artest to be LeBron James' primary defender. Artest's defensive strategy on LeBron is apparent from the outset of the game -- run under any and all perimeter screens, yielding LeBron anything he wants from the outside.
At the 11:25 mark of the first quarter, James gets the ball in the backcourt, 35 feet from the rim. Artest gives him 10 feet of space. Ben Wallace steps out for a pass from LeBron, who then rubs Artest off Wallace to get some space. Rather than struggle over the screen, Artest is more than happy to run under Wallace and give LeBron the jumper from 23 feet. The shot falls through, but somewhere in the building Sam Hinkie is very pleased -- the outcome wasn't great, but the probabilities are in the Rockets' favor. This is the only shot James hits in five first quarter attempts.
Artest uniformly abides by this strategy all night. When the Cavs run the same set (with Wallace and Zydrunas Ilgauskas as the respective screeners) on the right side at the 9:24 and 5:55 marks of the first, again Artest runs underneath, leaving LeBron with a pair of 23-footers, both of which he misses. Even when the screener is Daniel Gibson (2nd quarter, 5:59 mark), whom Artest can plow through at will, James is generously ceded the shot.
Injuries to Kevin Garnett and Amare Stoudemire open up opportunities for Rajon Rondo and Matt Barnes. Delonte West's return opens up the Cleveland offense. David Falk just plain opens up. Open your NBA week at the TrueHoop Network:
Zach Lowe of Celtics Hub: "I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Rondo can shoot jump shots much better than he did earlier this season. He shot about 50 percent on two-point jumpers in the playoffs last year, and he appears to be much more comfortable shooting off the dribble.
I'd like to see Rondo continue to take advantage of his quickness–and the fact that defenders give him space–by taking more of these pull-ups with KG out. He's going to face some better defensive point guards in the next ten games, though none of them are elite.
He'll face a couple of guys who are a little taller (Baron Davis and Chauncey Billups), and a few who are about as quick (Devin Harris, Derrick Rose and T.J. Ford). But none of these guys are world-beaters on defense (at least according to the numbers on 82games and BR).
I also expect to see one or two ill-advised takes to the rim each game in the next two weeks. I can live with that.
But it will be very interesting to see if Rondo continues to test that pull-up jumper. One of the good things about having a key guy injured is that other players get to push themselves and extend their roles on both sides of the court. Who knows? Maybe Rondo will have to take a pull-up jumper with the clock winding down in a playoff game. Might as well start getting ready now."
M. Haubs of The Painted Area: "The Bald Truth covers all of Falk's most famous NBA deals, from the groundbreaking Air Jordan deal with Nike in '84, to Patrick Ewing's rookie contract with the Knicks in '85, to Danny Ferry's controversial move to shun the Clippers for Italy as the no. 2 pick in '89, to $100M contracts for Zo and (very controversially) Juwan Howard in the mid-'90s, all the way up to the Brand squabbles from last summer. There are indeed business lessons to be learned which are offered up at the end of each chapter, but that kind of stuff really seems to be kept to a minimum.
All in all, The Bald Truth looks like an interesting document of the basketball times, with behind-the-scenes tales from one of the game's most powerful figures, involving negotiations and deals for some of basketball's biggest stars, in an era when sports business and marketing were being revolutionized. Many may be put off because it's really just a bunch of stories about outrageous amounts of money being thrown around. We enjoyed the perspective and observations of an insider. Of course, there's *a lot* of David Falk self-aggrandizement over the course of the telling of tales; it's not at all surprising, just something the reader needs to keep in mind."
John Krolik of Cavs the Blog: "This team at full strength is something to behold. Delonte is so vitally important to this team. Of course hitting all five of your threes is a very, very good thing, but Delonte is so much more than a shooter -- it's the way he knows how to get himself set up for those triples, the way he moves the ball from side-to-side, how the ball never stops, everything. Delonte's just great to have back.
When you have three playmakers (and Ben moves the ball, too), and that many shooters and add it to guys who can drive, all of a sudden you have a dynamic offense that can make a play from anywhere on the floor and the defense can't load a side up. That extra playmaker to start plays and shooter to finish them can make all the difference, and Delonte fills both sides of that equation. No deadline acquisition would have been better for this team than Delonte coming back..."
THE FINAL WORD
Celtics Hub: A leading orthophedic surgeon educates Zach Lowe on KG's posterior knee strain.
Valley of the Suns: Matt Barnes is the man on the spot in Phoenix.
Daily Thunder: A two-part look at the Thunder's menu of options at the shooting guard.
(Photos by Nathaniel S. Butler, Garrett Ellwood, Doug Pensinger/NBAE via Getty Images)
There is a game that professional athletes play. Despite the fact that every single human is a human, with a wide array of emotions and vulnerabilities, athletes pretty much are supposed to pretend -- at least when the media is around -- that they have no weaknesses.
(If you could watch 10,000 locker room interviews with athletes, I bet you'd find 20,000 instances of reporters asking questions that could be paraphrased "Is such and such a thing a problem?" Because of the weird rules about how athletes are supposed to relate, I'd bet you'd that in something like 20,000 of those cases, the response was something that could be paraphrased as "no.")
I understand why athletes do that. Small-minded people will pounce on any admission of weakness. But I think it's actually a much stronger person who can stand up there, admit some faults, and take any guff that may come from it.
You just know that after a few beers all kinds of athletes start whining about how hard it is to live up to everybody's expectations. I say: Tell them the truth, and their expectations will adjust. You're not a gladiator -- no one is, really -- so stop giving everyone the impression that you are.
Anyway, it's in that context that I read about Delonte West, and feel very proud that he decided to talk to the media about some long-term mental health issues he has been wrestling with, and that recently took him away from the Cavaliers. From the Associated Press:
"In a sense, you feel like a weaker man because you have to raise your hand and ask for help," West said. "But I found out over the last week that it made me a stronger person. I came back focused, and with the help of some medicine and talking with people on a regular basis, I'm back in good spirits.
"I'm back here 100 percent."
West played 28 minutes in Cleveland's loss to San Antonio on Thursday night. He made only 2-of-12 shots from the field and scored only 7 points, but the former Saint Joseph's guard said it was "the funnest game I've played in years."
"Being on the court felt like being on the playground as a child again," he said. "I had the time of my life last night." ...
"When everything is on the upside, I'm feeling the worst," said West, who thanked his teammates, including LeBron James, for their support while he was away.
"This is the epitome of a family organization," he said. "I want to go to war for these people. I would die for them, I really mean that."
I wish him the best of luck.