TrueHoop: J.J. Barea
Special to ESPN.com
But sometimes this rhythm is disrupted. Sometimes a game ruptures our expectations, startles us out of our patterns of habit. Sometimes the everyday turns transcendent.
On March 23, 2012, the Minnesota Timberwolves slouched into Oklahoma City to play the Thunder. Both teams were wobbly with fatigue, the result of the grueling, lockout-compressed schedule. The Thunder were cruising to the top seed in the Western Conference while the Wolves were shredded by injuries -- Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Michael Beasley were all on the shelf -- and mired in another wrecked season.
We thought we knew what was coming. Kevin Love would grab some rebounds. Kevin Durant would score a bunch of points. The Thunder would roll the Wolves in routine fashion and we would all say goodnight, see you again tomorrow. The season would grind on.
Instead, what we got was a minor classic, a wildly exciting two-overtime 149-140 Thunder victory. Love scored 51 points. Durant went for 40 and 17 rebounds. Russell Westbrook dropped a career-high 45. J.J. Barea notched his first triple-double. The game had manic offense, frayed D, impossible plays, incredible performances, desperate comebacks. Westbrook and Barea relentlessly shredded defenders. KD and Love traded buzzer-beating 3-pointers like new-school editions of 'Nique and Larry.
“It was a crazy game, it was crazy,” Durant says. “We almost gave up 200 points that game!”
“It was mayhem,” Love says. “It was just nuts.”
By the end, despite the humble circumstances, the game somehow felt consequential. “I replay it in my mind a lot,” Durant says. “It was one of those games that you’re going to think down the line and be proud that you were a part of.”
The game wasn’t played at near-perfection levels like last season’s NBA Finals; it was much weirder and woollier, filled with absurd bounces and fatigue-addled mistakes. But it shared with those Finals a sense of crazy, righteous desperation. And those very imperfections made it feel more beautifully unhinged and thrilling, as if the fundamental facts of everyday life -- the blemishes and mistakes, the banalities and small absurdities -- had become transfigured. The game had no impact on the standings and didn’t so much as blemish the playoff picture. By our normal calculus it meant almost nothing. And yet it felt as if something truly meaningful were at stake.
“The crowd gets into it and gets energized,” says Love when asked to describe the game’s energy. “In something like that it’s fight-or-flight. You really have to pick up your intensity to a whole new level. You know the other team’s really going at you and giving us their toughest blows and you’re trying to put that sledgehammer on them too.”
So what was the moment that transported this game to that new level? Was it Barea -- displaying all of the desperation, skill and absurd bravado that make him the maddening, fascinating player that he is -- converting an offensive rebound and diving layup to tie the game at 113-113 with 27.3 seconds remaining and cap the Wolves’ late comeback?
Was it Durant’s answer on the ensuing possession, the gorgeous crossover and step-back 3 that had Anthony Tolliver skittering on his heels? Or Love’s cold-blooded, heavily defended, buzzer-beating, game-tying reply seconds later, his seventh 3 of the game? (“He said ‘In your face,’” said Westbrook, who was guarding Love on that shot. “He kept pointing like ‘In your face, in your face.’”)
Was it KD’s corner 3 at the end of the first overtime that tied the game at 129-129 and capped a five-point, 46-second comeback? Or his in-out dribble and deep-leaning baseline fadeaway that put the game away in the second overtime?
Or maybe it was one of those strange plays that give a game like this its rough texture and life? Like, in the second overtime with the Wolves trailing by three, when Tolliver gathered an offensive board, found himself wide open at the doorstep of the basket, poised to cut the lead to one … and blew the layup. Almost instantaneously, Westbrook was streaking in the other direction for an electric coast-to-coast finish that put OKC up by five. It was a devastating -- and devastatingly quick -- swing that stunned the Wolves and sent the crowd into a frenzy.
So which was it?
Says Durant: “Really, when Kevin Love hit that shot to take it into overtime. After that it was like, man, whatever comes through this game, I’m not surprised.”
Says Love: “We were down by like 10, and people watching might have thought it was over. But then we made a run back at them at the end and started inching our way back. And when I hit that shot on Russell to head it into the first overtime, I thought, ‘this is a wild game.’”
But by the time Love hit that shot, the game’s intensity had already escalated; the Wolves had already capped their improbable comeback with Barea’s offensive rebound and drive to the rim. Love himself acknowledges that his shot was not just remarkable in and of itself, but as the culmination of an unfolding process.
Even more telling is Barea’s answer. When asked which moment defined the game’s new intensity, he did not hesitate: “Oh, when we hit a shot to win the game and they tied it to go to overtime.”
Which sounds perfectly reasonable, except that what he describes never actually occurred.
Without a doubt, the individual moments are memorable in and of themselves. But they carry special significance in our minds because of the context of intensity and thrill from which they emerged. Ray Allen’s Game 6 buzzer-beater is already legendary not simply because it was a great shot at a hugely important time, but also because it signaled the incredible competitive fervor of the entire series. Love’s 3 is memorable not just because he nailed a deep, heavily contested shot as time expired, but because it embodied and distilled everything that came before and after: the incredible shots and feverish rebounding battles; the appalling turnovers, the blown layups.
Some spectacular plays -- a Blake Griffin dunk, a Kyrie Irving crossover -- come out of nowhere. But most truly great moments feel impoverished as disembodied highlights. They are culminations; when we watch them we realize that something incredible has already begun to happen. They are instances of a phenomenon already in progress, of a game already overflowing.
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C.J. Watson's big game against Minnesota included a memorable flop against J.J. Barea.
It's rare for a flopper to confess. But that's just what C.J. Watson did Wednesday night following the Nets win over Minnesota.
With the game in the balance in the fourth quarter, Watson showed renowned flopper J.J. Barea how it's done. It was indeed a maneuver we've seen from Barea, who is a master at using his lack of size to get under a dribbling player then hit the deck on any contact.
In this instance, Watson bodied up to Barea, practically jumping into him, and when the 5-10 point guard used his off arm to get space, Watson flew backward (Video).
Barea was so incensed by the call that he earned a delay of game when he almost literally took his ball and went home.
In a postgame interview, Watson discussed his flop (via The Brooklyn Game): "He's a flopping guy, so I just tried to give him a dose of his own medicine."
Watson added: "It worked tonight. I hope I don't get fined though."
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesRick Carlisle: The pragmatist
Name: Rick Carlisle
Birthdate: October 27, 1959
Is he an emotional leader or a tactician?
A tactician. Carlisle inspires his team and staff with his deep knowledge of the game, not an emotional appeal. They know he’s passionate about winning and losing, but that’s conveyed through his intelligence and command, not huddle histrionics or heartfelt one-on-ones with players or coaches. Those who’ve worked with him, as well as colleagues around the league, marvel at Carlisle’s ability to manage the last five minutes of a basketball game.
Is he intense or a go along-get along type?
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the NBA who would characterize Carlisle as lighthearted. He’s very intense, but he also knows how to corral that sharpness and doesn’t coach angry.
Does he rely on systems, or does he coach ad hoc to his personnel?
Give Carlisle the pieces, and he’ll find something that works. In Detroit and Indiana, Carlisle’s teams were defined by their defense and were all about controlling the possession on offense. He succeeded with both Stackhouse-Atkins and Billups-Hamilton backcourts in Detroit, all four guards decidedly different in styles and strengths. In Indiana, Jermaine O’Neal got the ball on the left block, and Reggie Miller curled off single-singles, stacks and staggered screens. In Dallas, Carlisle went away from play-calling in favor of something that relied on more general principles -- and the instincts of Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki to put those principles into action. To the extent that there’s a commonality over the course of Carlisle's career, it’s “Find the right shot at the right time for the right guy.”
Does he share decision-making with star players, or is he the Decider?
Carlisle is the Decider, but he’s exceptionally good at giving his key players the sense that they own a piece of the enterprise. He takes in a lot of information -- from assistants, star players, owners, numbers guys and trainers -- and that knowledge will often guide his decisions. For instance, things weren’t so rosy in fall 2008 when the Mavericks came out of the gate 2-7. Kidd didn’t want every set being commandeered from the sideline and was pining for more freedom. Carlisle went into the lab with his staff, came up with the "push" offense, which gave Kidd the flexibility he needed, but still generated the right shot at the right time for the right guy. That often amounted to an early jump shot for Nowitzki in a prime spot.
Does he prefer the explosive scorer or the lockdown defender?
Carlisle has always appreciated who’s helping his team on the defensive end of the floor and feels confident he can find good shots for just about anyone -- even a defensive specialist like DeShawn Stevenson. In Indiana, Carlisle found plenty of minutes for Fred Jones, and in Dallas there has almost always been a Corey Brewer, James Singleton or Quinton Ross within close reach if needed for defensive duty. All that said, neither Corliss Williamson nor Jason Terry ever had to worry about losing minutes under Carlisle, who can recognize a well-tuned microwave when he sees one.
Does he prefer a set rotation, or is he more likely to use his personnel situationally?
Carlisle has no problem mixing things up when he identifies an opportunity. When his Pacers team needed to unclog the half court against the Pistons in a grueling conference final in 2004, Carlisle had Austin Croshere make his first start in two seasons to help the spacing. When his Mavericks team needed someone to attack the Heat’s defense off the dribble in the 2011 Finals, Carlisle inserted J.J. Barea into the starting lineup for the final three games of the series en route to an NBA championship. Throughout his tenure in Dallas, if a player has cracked the code in a regular-season game -- say Brandon Bass in a pick-and-roll with Barea -- Carlisle will gladly leave him out there to exploit an opponent’s defensive vulnerability.
Will he trust young players in big spots, or is he more inclined to use his veterans?
Again, Carlisle isn’t prone to personal bias. He wants the guy out there who can help him the most. The situation will dictate the personnel, regardless of a factor like age. In Indiana, the core apart from 38-year-old Reggie Miller was very young, and nobody used more possessions for him during his last season in Detroit than 24-year-old Rip Hamilton. Yet Dallas has largely been a veteran’s shop under Carlisle.
Are there any unique strategies that he particularly likes?
Carlisle might never fashion a trend in the NBA, but he’ll take a current one and perfect it.
The push offense isn’t so much an offensive system as it is solution to a problem. The 2008-09 Mavericks roster featured few players who could break a defense down with penetration and nobody who could be classified as a low-post threat. What Dallas had in spades were one- and two-dribble jump shooters and guys with astronomical basketball I.Q.s and other discernible skills like picking, diving and cutting. So Carlisle, with the aid of then-assistant coach Terry Stotts, devised a strategy to empower the team to find early high-percentage looks against an imbalanced defense.
As a general tactic, this wasn’t new -- several teams had abandoned structure for freedom, Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix squads the best example. But unlike D’Antoni, Carlisle didn’t have a prober like Steve Nash, nor was his group in Dallas as speedy or stretchy. The Mavs couldn’t run and shoot with abandon, but Kidd could orchestrate an aggressive offense that knew how to sniff out those clean, early looks. That often meant getting wings and big men behind plays into random pick-and-rolls, or pinning Nowitzki’s man early, or hitting Terry on the secondary break for a trailing jumper, or finding Josh Howard (later Shawn Marion) underneath a defense that’s collapsed after an early drag screen.
Given his conventional playbook at his previous stops, this shift to a more free-flowing offense seemed like a departure for Carlisle. But in time, we learned that Carlisle didn’t coach a deliberate, half-court game in Detroit and Indiana because he had a predisposition for it. He drew it up that way because his rosters necessitated more structure. When the circumstances in Dallas revealed themselves and he realized Kidd wasn’t Jamaal Tinsley or Anthony Johnson, Carlisle deftly adjusted to the talent around him and created something special.
Defensively, the Mavericks adopted an inventive zone defense strategy devised by Dwane Casey. They were the rare team that was able to effectively zone up after misses, and would actually employ both zone and man-to-man schemes within a single possession.
What were his characteristics as a player?
A plodding but an intensely hard-working shooting guard who was always prepared and stayed in impeccable shape. Curiously, he tallied only 3.5 rebounds per 36 minutes for a total rebounding rate of 5.4 percent -- one of the lowest in history for a guard his size. By all accounts, this wasn’t for a lack of effort, but a lack of hops.
Which coaches did he play for?
Carlisle played for Pine Tree State lifer Skip Chappelle at the University of Maine before transferring to the University of Virginia, where Terry Holland was the head coach. During his three years with the Boston Celtics, Carlisle came off the bench for K.C. Jones. Rick Pitino had Carlisle for a single season in New York. Carlisle finished his career as a player with New Jersey for Bill Fitch, who eventually offered him his first job on an NBA staff.
What is his coaching pedigree?
After being waived by the Nets, Carlisle got his start breaking down film under Fitch. In 1994, Carlisle joined P.J. Carlesimo's staff in Portland, where he worked alongside the legendary Dick Harter, the man responsible for the Bad Boy Pistons’ “Jordan Rules” defensive strategy. Harter had a tremendous influence on Carlisle, who ultimately adopted many of Harter’s principles in Detroit and Indiana -- strong base defense without much switching, few double-teams, help and rotations only when necessary and, above all, physicality. In 1997, Carlisle joined the coaching staff of former teammate Larry Bird in Indiana. Again Carlisle found himself on staff with defensive guru Harter. When Bird left the sideline in 2000, Carlisle was passed over for Isiah Thomas, but was tapped by the Pistons for his first head coaching gig. After two seasons in Detroit, Carlisle moved on to Indiana for four seasons before landing in Dallas in 2008 after a one-year sabbatical.
If basketball didn't exist, what might he be doing?
Working as a clinical psychologist.
- Rob Mahoney is getting pretty fancy with the dancing orbs and motion graphs to illustrate Scott Skiles' early-season experimentation with the Bucks' rotation.
- All 18 of the Knicks' 3-pointers from Thursday night.
- As Jeremy Conlin of HoopSpeak observes, you have a better chance of spotting a snowflake in Houston than a Rockets' long 2-point jumper.
- Detroit forward Tayshaun Prince was awfully close to leaving Detroit in the offseason. Over the season's first six weeks, he looks a lot like his old self. Patrick Hayes of The Detroit Free Press and PistonPowered: "I don’t know of many people who enjoyed watching Prince as the focal point of the Pistons offense the last few seasons. I also don’t know of many fans — myself included — who thought he’d willingly just go back to being more of a complementary player in the offense, but that has exactly what has happened. For better or worse, he’s allowed Brandon Knight and Greg Monroe sink or swim (and man, have they sunk at times) as the primary offensive options."
- Wizards owner Ted Leonsis insists the team will not rush John Wall back from injury: "We will be conservative with his well-being. We are in this for the long haul with John and only have his best interest in mind in overcoming this injury. We have brought in world class specialists in this field who John feels very comfortable with, as do we as a franchise. When John is pain free and the doctors say he is cleared to practice, then he will be on the floor."
- The Orlando Magic don't have a lot of firepower, but it's amazing what you can do with a nice go-to set in your back pocket. The Magic run a cool play with a lot wrinkles and strong second-side actions with smart reads to find Baby Davis an attempt at close range, often against a mismatch.
- Offensive rebounds, turnovers, getting to the line and effective field-goal percentage -- the four factors. Indiana Pacers: Learn it, live it.
- How to use semi-advanced stats to get the most protein for your buck at some of the nation's leading fast food establishments.
- Steve McPherson of A Wolf Among Wolves on J.J. Barea: "If there’s one thing Barea is as a player, it’s self-actualized. He does the aforementioned things well for and by himself, but the problem comes when we look at how his decision making affects the team as a whole."
- Not sure how I'd react if I went to a yoga session and was partnered up with Hawks big man Ivan Johnson for handstands. (Hat Tip: HawksHoop via Bret LaGree)
- Serge Ibaka fiction.
- Zach Harper and D.J. Foster talk a little Clippers basketball at CBSSports.com's NBA podcast. Harper will tolerate no critiques of Jamal Crawford on his air.
- As a kid, were you a fan of the "Choose Your Own Adventure" book series? If so, visit Bright Side of the Sun for Jim Coughenour's maze of counterfactuals surrounding the Suns of recent seasons.
David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images
J.J. Barea kept flopping against the Kings until it paid off.
Three weeks after receiving a warning from the NBA for flopping, J.J. Barea earned #FlopOfTheNight honors (Video) for his acting work against the Isaiah Thomas of Sacramento Kings. The battle of diminutive point guard turned heated in the fourth quarter when Thomas yelled at Barea to stop flopping after Barea flew backwards as Thomas elevated for a pull up jump shot.
The officials didn't bite, and the Timberwolves guard actually walked over to the refs during a timeout to plead his case. Thomas followed close behind, eager to hear what Barea had to say.
Just a couple minutes later, Thomas again drove towards the rim and this time, when Barea bucked backwards as though Thomas had given him a brutal stiff arm, the officials gave Barea the call.
The play looked awfully similar to the flop that earned Barea his warning back on November 6th, which also featured a driving player (Jimmer Fredette) using his forearm to ward off Barea.
Generously listed at six feet tall, when Barea plays defense it's natural for contact that would land in the mid section of a taller player to hit Barea around the shoulders, thus producing the kind of impact that often draws an offensive foul call. However Thomas is listed at 5-9 and his forearm appears to land below Barea's ribs.
If the NBA deems this instance a violation of the its anti-flopping rules, Barea will be the second player this year to be fined $5,000, after Reggie Evans of the Brooklyn Nets.
When you see an egregious flop that deserves proper recognition, send us a link to the video so we can consider it for Flop of the Night. Here's how to make your submission:
Rubio is not the quickest player, but his length and size helped cover a lot of ground. Without Rubio -- who ranks third in the league in steals per game (2.22) -- the Timberwolves have had to rely more on smaller guards like J.J. Barea (6-0) and Luke Ridnour (6-2), both of whom rank in the bottom 40 percent in points per play allowed.
The Timberwolves are fine offensively without Rubio. In fact, they've scored two more points per 100 possessions with Rubio off the floor. Defensively they've allowed seven more points per 100 possessions without him and are allowing 11 more points per game.
Minnesota’s opponents have scored 100 or more points in nine of the last 15 games after scoring at least 100 in 17 of 41 games that Rubio played.
But how are opponents scoring so much more lately?
Without Rubio on the court this season, Minnesota’s opponents are scoring 22 percent more fast-break points, 11 percent more second-chance points and 4 percent more points in the paint.
However, with Rubio not on the court at all anymore, those numbers have been amplified even more over the last 15 games. Minnesota’s opponents are scoring 30 percent more fast-break points, 14 percent more second-chance points and 14 percent more points in the paint.
Some of those increased easy baskets -- fast breaks, second-chance points, points in the paint -- can be attributed to Nikola Pekovic missing eight of the last 15 games with an ankle injury. But more of it can be attributed to Rubio's injury; the Timberwolves have had trouble stopping opposing guards from penetrating and dishing.
Over the last 15 games, opposing guards have an assist-to-turnover ratio better than three-to-one. In the 15 games before Rubio’s injury, that ratio was less than two-to-one.
On March 12, the Phoenix Suns guards combined for 74 points, 16 assists and two turnovers. On April 2 against the Sacramento Kings, Isaiah Thomas had 17 points, five assists and no turnovers.
In Wednesday’s loss to the Golden State Warriors, guard Charles Jenkins had 19 points, seven assists and two turnovers as Golden State erased a 20-point deficit with 58 second-half points.
Not having Rubio also impacts the Timberwolves on the boards. He averaged 4.2 rebounds per game, which ranks 10th among guards.
The Timberwolves were strong playoff contenders before Rubio’s injury. Now, they're in last place in the Northwest Division, five games out of the playoffs with 10 games left to play.
In an epic double-overtime matchup with the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday, the two each surpassed the 40-point mark.
This was the second time this season that both scored at least 40 points in the same NBA game. The Elias Sports Bureau noted that no pair of teammates had done that previously in NBA history.
Timberwolves forward Kevin Love and guard J.J. Barea formed their own statistically special tandem. Love broke Kevin Garnett’s single-game record for points in a game with 51 and Barea recorded his first career triple-double, the NBA’s first by a player born in Latin America.
Only one other time in NBA history has a team had one player score 50 points and another record a triple-double in a losing effort. Elias uncovered that Wilt Chamberlain supplied the scoring and Guy Rodgers had the triple-double for the 1962-63 Warriors.
The Thunder have now won 11 straight games against the Timberwolves.
Heat turn it up on defense
The Miami Heat allowed a season-low 73 points against the Pistons. They held Detroit to only 52 points in half court, 29 fewer than in their previous meeting on Jan. 25.
The Heat had some early offensive success inside. Miami scored 34 points in the paint in the first half, matching its most in a first half for the season.
Dwyane Wade finished with a game-high 24 points and was 7-for-10 from inside 10 feet for the game.
Honorable Mention: Feats of the Night
Steve Nash had his 10th game this season with at least 15 assists for the Phoenix Suns on Friday. Rajon Rondo had his fourth such game. Nash and Rondo rank 1-2 in the NBA in 15-assist games in 2011-12.
Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith (30 points, 12 rebounds) joined Love, Durant and LeBron James as the only players in the NBA this season with consecutive games with at least 30 points and 10 rebounds.
Plus/Minus Note of the Night
Phoenix Suns center Channing Frye was a plus-15 in a 113-111 win over the Indiana Pacers. No one else on the Suns was better than a plus-5.
Frye was 5-for-7 from the field in the win. He was 5-for-17 and a minus-15 in his two games prior to this one.
The best moment of the album comes during an interlude, when fans start shouting out the titles of songs from her oeuvre they want to hear, as Mitchell strums her guitar. This goes on for a bit, then finally a dude shouts, "Play whatever you want!" to which Mitchell replies, "Alriiiiiight!"
She then tells the audience:
That's one thing that's always been a difference between, like, the performing arts, and being a painter, you know? A painter does a painting, and he paints it, and that's it, you know. He has the joy of creating it, it hangs on a wall, and somebody buys it, and maybe somebody buys it again, or maybe nobody buys it and it sits up in a loft somewhere until he dies. But he never, you know, nobody ever, nobody ever said to Van Gogh, "Paint 'A Starry Night' again, man!" you know? He painted it and that was it.
Conventions are funny things because we don't consider their absurdity until we really think about them. People yell out requests at musicians but not painters, just as sports fans hound a foul shooter, but not a golfer. Mitchell would never rip her fans, but it's clear from her wry response during the performance that she'd like to roll through her set list without constant chirping from the audience on how they might do things differently. [Mitchell is also a painter, which might inform her thinking.]
Devin Kharpertian of Nets Are Scorching recently took a friend of his who's a classical musician and not much of a basketball fan to a Nets game. As much fun as it is going to games with friends who follow sports, sitting alongside someone who wants to understand all the rituals we take for granted can be fun because requires us to explain these traditions -- things like the players chalking up their hands before the tip, or why a center won't let a shot after the whistle go through the net even though it won't count either way and, as Kharpertian explains, why we scream like crazy and wave our arms when an opposing player steps to the foul line:
Without taking a stance, I rapped off some platitudes -- it’s about getting in the guy’s head, scaring him, making him think about his decision. My friend, a performance artist by design, contended that white noise doesn’t beget performance anxiety -- pure silence does, especially for the solo artist. When a performer’s on stage alone, the raucous cheers and applause soothe the nerves. I couldn’t disagree -- I know the feeling.
Barea nailed both free throws. After a quick Nets dunk, they were forced to foul again. This time they sent Luke Ridnour to the line, who received identical treatment as Barea: screams, yells, taunts, distractions galore. Like Barea, Ridnour hit both free throws. Ten seconds later, the Timberwolves won the game.
At this point, watching a crowd desperately attempt to make a difference, the only words that came to me were the same eight that can kill sports, the eight Bill Simmons often cites: because that’s the way we’ve always done it. We always scream at the opponent when they (and the game) are on the line. We blast voices, wave arms, smash together plastic blow-up toys, exploit our emotions in any effort to throw off the performer. It’s our way of feeling involved in what’s going on, our little droplet in an ocean of distraction.
But considering the circumstances, does it really work? Noise creates a cushion, one that a player can fall back into. The anxiety of performance loses meaning when all you hear is a sea of nothing in particular. It’s a soft background noise. It’s easy to presume that, as one individual in the crowd, your voice is heard and jarring. It certainly feels that way. But when faced with a crowd, 20,000 disjointed voices all sound alike -- and together, they sound like one overlapping breeze.
Golfers and tennis players, who play individual sports, are exempt from this treatment. Does the quiet that washes over a tee or a court enhance that athlete's drive or serve? In a similar vein, would an empty arena raise the collective free throw percentage of foul shooters?
We just don't know, but Kharpertian would love to find out:
My challenge, to whatever base can mobilize and feels like listening to me: at the apex of a contest, with the game hanging in the balance at the free throw line, just stare at the shooter. Don’t say a word. Not a whisper in the arena. Just 40,000 eyes piercing the soul of one man, now wildly aware that everyone is staring at him -- and no one is speaking. Throw him off by throwing off expectation altogether. I understand that it’s hard to put together, but with the pull of an understanding arena, it’s not that hard.
As a result, several teams have gotten out to great starts defensively. Two of them were on display Monday Night.
The Chicago Bulls and Philadelphia 76ers set a new standard for defending their homecourt with their victories over the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers.
It’s a bit of an obscure record, but a notable mark nonetheless, one provided by the Elias Sports Bureau. In the NBA’s shot clock era (since 1954), this year’s Bulls (206) and 76ers (221) have allowed the fewest points in their first three home games.
The previous mark was set by the 2003-04 Spurs, who allowed 229 points in their first three home games.
After beating the Pistons 92-68, the Bulls have now held two of their three opponents at home to below 70 points. They held the Grizzlies to 64 points on New Year’s Day.
Also via Elias, the Bulls are now 13-0 against the Pistons over the last four calendar years, the best record for any NBA team against a particular opponent over that span.
The 76ers continue along in surprising fashion. Through eight games, they are holding opponents to just under 90 points per 100 possessions, which represents an early dramatic improvement from last season, in which they allowed 102.5 points per 100. Philadelphia’s +14.7 point differential is the best in the NBA.
Chandler getting into flow for Knicks
Chandler had a pair of alley-oops among his seven baskets. He’s had four alley-oops in his last two games after netting five in his first seven games.
Plus-Minus Note of the Night
The Minnesota Timberwolves got far better production from their bench than their starters. All five Timberwolves reserves finished with a positive plus-minus, but each of their starters had a -11 plus-minus or worse in a 97-87 loss to the Toronto Raptors.
Most impressive was J.J. Barea. The Timberwolves outscored the Raptors by 21 points when Barea played and they were outscored by 31 when he was off the floor.
Rookie Ricky Rubio finished a +1 in 30 minutes. He is now a +49 through the Timberwolves first nine games.
Among active players, only Shaquille O’Neal (12), Kobe Bryant (11) and LeBron James (nine) have more career 40-point playoff games.
Nowitzki set an NBA record by going 24-for-24 from the free throw line, the most free throws made in a single game without a miss -- regular season or postseason.
He drew fouls from seven different Thunder defenders, including all five of Serge Ibaka’s. Dirk went 7-for-9 when guarded by Ibaka, including 6-for-8 on post-up plays.
Combining field goal attempts and free throw attempts, the ball left Dirk Nowitzki's hand 39 times tonight; 36 of those times it went in the hoop.
Nowitzki attempted just 15 shots, the second-fewest field goal attempts in a 40-point playoff game in NBA history.
Only Terry Porter, back in 1992 for the Portland Trail Blazers, needed fewer attempts (41 points on 14 attempts) to reach the 40-point plateau. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Nowitzki's field-goal percentage of 80.0 (12-15) is tied for the highest ever in a conference finals game (minimum 15 FGA).
Nowitzki's Game 1 effort certainly outshone that of his superstar counterpart, but it shouldn't take away from what Kevin Durant accomplished Tuesday.
Durant managed his third 40-point game of this postseason, and pushed his career scoring average in series openers to 34.5 points per game, the highest among active players (minimum three games played).
The combined efforts of Nowitzki and Durant were a rarity. Tuesday marked just the third time that opposing players each scored at least 40 points in Game 1 of a playoff series. The last time it happened was the 2001 NBA Finals, when Allen Iverson scored 48 points for the Philadelphia 76ers in an overtime win against O'Neal (44 points) and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Durant had to work hard for his points Tuesday, receiving the bulk of his passes behind the three-point line. He scored just one more point in that situation than when he got the ball inside the three-point line, despite having twice as many opportunities.
He was most efficient when he cut out the middle man and brought the ball up court himself (3-4 FG, 6-6 FT, 13 points).
J.J. Barea recorded his second career 20-point playoff game (his second in as many games) to help the Mavericks get their first conference finals win since 2006 when they made the NBA Finals. They've won Game 1 of each of their three playoff series this postseason. Since losing Game 4 of the first round to the Portland Trail Blazers, they've won seven straight.
Nowitzki is one of four players to average those numbers for his postseason career. The other three -- Hakeem Olajuwon, Elgin Baylor, Bob Pettit -- are in the Hall of Fame. He's been a part of a Mavericks team that has made 11 straight postseasons, all 50-win seasons, as well.
So how should the Thunder attack such a daunting task that the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers this postseason couldn't handle?
1. Defend him out to the 3-point line
Nowitzki shot 50.2 percent during the regular season from the field outside the paint. That was the highest percentage in the league among players whose majority of shots came outside the paint and had at least 500 field-goal attempts outside the paint.
Nowitzki shot 49.2 percent in the regular season from 10 feet and beyond. That was the third-highest percentage in the NBA (Al Horford, Elton Brand).
He also doesn’t mind taking mid-range two-pointers on the baseline outside the paint. The Thunder didn’t get the message in the regular season as Nowitzki hit 57 percent of his shots against them in that spot.
2. Double-team when the shooters are off the court
The vast majority of double teams on Nowitzki result in passes to spot-up shooters. Often, these passes result in 3-pointers. As the Lakers found out in Game 4, the Mavericks don’t shy away from an open 3-pointer. During the regular season, 27.4 percent of the Mavericks field goal attempts were 3-pointers, the third-highest percentage in the NBA.
However, who do you leave open? Using “effective field goal percentage”, a metric adjusted for three-pointers, the Mavericks have four players who had a higher effective field goal percentage on spot-up shots than the league average of 48.3 percent.
3. Keep him off the free-throw line
Nowitzki is the only 7-footer to rank in the top 100 in NBA history in both free throw percentage (14th) and three-point percentage (86th). He has the highest free throw percentage (87.7 percent) and highest three-point field goal percentage (38.1) in NBA history for a seven-footer.
During the regular season, Nowitzki got to the free-throw line 19 times in two games against the Thunder, missing just once.
Gary A. Vasquez/US Presswire
Jason Kidd and the Mavericks have Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in a must-win situation.
As for the Lakers, they’re 2-16 when down 2-0 in a best-of-seven series. Only three teams in NBA history have lost the first two games at home and come back to win a best-of-seven series, most recently done by the 2005 Mavericks. The last NBA champion to be swept was the Heat. Miami won the title in 2006, then got swept by the Bulls in 2007.
After an explosion of dunks in the first round against the New Orleans Hornets, Kobe Bryant has no dunks -- or layups -- in the first two games against the Mavericks. Whether it's his ankle or the Dallas' defense, Bryant has drawn only three shooting fouls, two of which occurred within 10 feet of the basket.
But Bryant’s history has shown that when he is facing an uphill climb, he’s going to try to shoot his way out of it.
He’s trailed 2-0 in a best-of-seven series seven times previously. In the ensuing Game 3s, Bryant averaged more than 27 field-goal attempts compared to an average of 20.2 overall.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson has stared at 2-0 deficits before, but success hasn’t always followed.
The Hall-of-Fame coach has a 2-5 series record when his teams have fallen behind 2-0 in a best-of-seven.
On defense, the Lakers have not had an answer for Dirk Nowitzki. He’s made 9-of-16 shots when guarded by Pau Gasol and 8-of-16 when Lamar Odom’s been on him.
The defensive problems Nowitzki has caused the Lakers will only seem to worsen with the absence of Ron Artest, who was suspended for Game 3 for his late-game flagrant foul on J.J. Barea.
Artest was used sparingly as a defender on Nowitzki in the first two games of the series, defending him for a total of five plays this postseason.
But on each of those plays, Nowitzki posted-up Artest, going 2-for-3 from the field, drawing a foul and committing a turnover with Artest on his back.
One thing to keep an eye on is if the Mavericks bench will continue to outplay the Lakers bench. The Mavericks are averaging 35.0 bench points per game in this series, the most among any team in the conference semifinals. The Lakers reserves, meanwhile, have averaged just 18.5 points in two games.
Unlike Game 1, when they coughed up a big lead, Wednesday the Lakers were caught playing catch-up.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only three teams have come back to win a seven-game series after losing the first two games at home (2005 Mavericks, 1994 Houston Rockets, 1969 Lakers).
A key to the series so far has been the Lakers lack of scoring from close-range.
Andrew Bynum didn't get many opportunities in Game 1, and Game 2 wasn't much different. Bynum was on the floor for 78 possessions and had a touch on just 15 of them (19.2 percent), despite shooting 8-of-11 and scoring 18 points. In the second half, Bynum totaled just three touches on 33 offensive possessions, excluding offensive rebounds.
Gasol, on the other hand, might be losing touches for not going inside more. The Lakers shot 6-of-16 (37.5 percent) and averaged 0.72 points per play when Gasol had a touch outside the paint. When Gasol had a touch inside the paint, the Lakers shot 7-of-10 (70.0 percent) and averaged 1.31 points per play. Fewer than half of Gasol's touches came inside the paint.
Kobe Bryant also struggled to penetrate the Mavericks defense. Against the New Orleans Hornets this postseason, Bryant averaged seven field goal attempts within 10 feet of the basket and shot 58.1 percent on those attempts. In two games against the Mavericks, Bryant has shot just seven times within 10 feet, going 2-of-7 (28.6 percent) on those shots.
Instead the Lakers put up 20 three-point attempts, but made only two as they missed their first 15. In the past 20 seasons, no team has attempted 20 three-pointers and shot as low as a percentage as the Lakers did Wednesday (10 percent).
The Mavericks' depth has also been a big difference maker this series as their bench has outscored the Lakers' bench 70-37 through two games. On Wednesday, J.J. Barea scored 12 points to match the entire Lakers' bench by himself.
Both the Celtics-Bulls and Spurs-Mavericks series are positively schizophrenic. Dahntay Jones is making a name for himself as Denver's Paul-stopper. And NBA fans should sentimentalize hand-checking at their own peril.
Graydon Gordian of 48 Minutes of Hell: "The formula that produced tonight's blowout loss against the Mavericks seems simple enough. The Mavericks came out with a level of defensive intensity they had yet to show this series. The Spurs were out of sync offensively from the outset and continued to miss open looks for a full 4 quarters ... even if each game makes sense in and of itself, this series has yet to develop a rhythm. The power dynamics of the individual match-ups fluctuate wildly from game to game. Players who seem unstoppable one night are decidedly mortal the next. Although the details are quite different, the tone of this series reminds me of last season's schizophrenic Western Conference Semifinals between the Spurs and the Hornets: The only game that was close in the closing minutes was Game Seven. I would not at all be surprised if this series ended in a similar manner."
Rob Mahoney of The Two Man Game: "If you'd like a face for the Mavs' exemplary defense, I'll give you three: Jason Kidd, Josh Howard, and Erick Dampier. Tony Parker was obviously in the Mavs' crosshairs, and they successfully held TP to 14 points on 5-14 shooting with 3 turnovers. If that surprised you, then brace yourself: that defense on Parker was keyed primarily by Jason Kidd. Kidd hardly guarded Parker exclusively, but he provided the groundwork and a point of reference for J.J. [Barea] and Parker's other defenders. He hustled to get into position, tried his damnedest to slow Parker even half a step, and used timing and hustle to irritate Tony into turnovers or misses ... the defense's accomplishments were even more pronounced because of shot-blocking from the weak side. Enter Howard and Dampier ... Howard played the passing lanes and forced his share of turnovers, but cemented the Mavs' defensive game plan by coming out of nowhere for huge blocks. Dampier followed suit, protecting the rim from Parker and [Tim] Duncan ... without fatally injuring anybody. Parker wasn't knocked flat on his back, but he might as well have been."
Matt McHale of By the Horns: "Chicago suffered a meltdown so complete that at one point I started to wonder whether the United Center had been converted into a giant microwave. These couldn't be the same Bulls that almost swept the first two games in Boston, could they? Seriously, I was ready to storm the locker room and check for Body Snatcher pods. I mean, newly minted Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose (9 points, 4-for-14, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 7 turnovers) wasn't just thoroughly outclassed by Boston's Rajon Rondo (20 points, 8-for-15, 11 boards, 6 assists, 5 steals), he was even outplayed by Stephon Marbury (13 points, 4-for-10, 3 rebounds, 5 assists, zero turnovers). Welcome to the Twilight Zone, folks."
THE FINAL WORD
Celtics Hub: It's the offensive efficiency, stupid.
Hoopinion: A smart take on the great hand-checking debate.
Roundball Mining Company: Dahntay Jones -- game-changer.
Beyond Bowie: What to wear, what to wear?!
(Photos by Glenn James, Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)
The most intense opening weekend in NBA postseason history produced a full circuit of coming out parties, a slew up road upsets, a novel's worth of intriguing storylines, and enough anxiety to power Amway Arena:
Timothy Varner of 48 Minutes of Hell: "The key to this series is slowing the attack of Dallas' backcourt. My conviction on this point rose to new levels on Saturday. [J.J.] Barea's strong play sounded one alarm, and Tim Duncan's legs sounded another. Tim Duncan's statline looks fine and all, notching 27 points and 9 boards. But he looked a step slow to me, which we should expect from a man nursing injury ... If Tim Duncan is not able to rotate and protect with his usual First Team All-NBA defense, the Spurs are in trouble. The little guys need to help their all-world big by clamping down on the perimeter. And Gregg Popovich needs to give Tim Duncan support by swallowing his vet-first prerogatives and playing George Hill."
Matt McHale of By the Horns: "The kid was unflappable. He never looked panicked or even worried. When he was interviewed at halftime (with the Bulls holding a surprising 9-point lead) and after the game (after Chicago's even more surprising victory), he wasn't even breathing hard. It was amazing. [Derrick] Rose hit some shots that were just redonkulous. Long jumpers with the shot clock winding down, driving layups in the heart of the Celtic defense (including one in which he got fouled right before lofting it up one-handed on the baseline from slightly behind the backboard). In some ways, it was nearly as fantastic as Michael Jordan's legendary 63-point performance against the C's back in 1986…or maybe more fantastic, since Rose's effort resulted in an overtime win instead of a double-overtime loss."
Jeremy Wagner of Roundball Mining Company: "The Nuggets know how important this series is for the franchise and to start the game they played like they felt the pressure ... Denver was certainly the hungrier team and they showed it. Whenever two teams play each other for a week or two they develop some bad blood and you get some shoving matches, harsh words and intense glares. Tonight's game felt like game four from that standpoint ... defensively and on the boards [the Nuggets] made sure they accomplished what they wanted, whether holding their ground or clearing space. They were not bumping into other players away from the ball just to be physical, they were playing basketball physically."
THE FINAL WORD
Piston Powered: Anyone and everyone who writes about the Pistons discuss the state of the team.
Hoopinion: How the Hawks' defense came together at the right time.
Orlando Magic Daily: The Magic's to-do list for Game Two.
Raptors Republic: In-depth evaluation of Toronto head coach Jay Triano.
(Photos by Ronald Martinez, Brian Babineau, Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)