TrueHoop: Larry Bird

Winners in Indiana's book?

March, 26, 2014
3/26/14
10:45
AM ET
By Michael Rubino
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Roy HibbertAP Photo/Michael ConroyAfter looking like the best team in basketball, Indy has fallen on hard times. Hoosiers were prepared.
Hoosiers fret. Height of the corn. Length of the sermon. Width of the breaded pork tenderloin. You name it.

But this NBA season, the state pastime has grown into a preoccupation for fans of the Indiana Pacers.

In the beginning, we worried the national media wasn’t paying enough attention to the team’s 16-1 start. By the break, we overthought the All-Star snub of guard Lance Stephenson and gnawed on the notion that, at 40-12 (best in the Eastern Conference), the team hadn’t been on TV much. Then the departure of Danny Granger! The additions of Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum! And -- gasp -- the 11- 8 mark since the break (including a 7-7 beginning to March)! Fans here have been dying for someone to tell them what to think, and need that ordination of the Pacers' greatness or divination of what's gone wrong of late to come down from on high.

Hoosiers fret, but we also pay deference to authority (see Knight, Bob). And both conditions betray our flyover-country baggage packed with inherent self-doubt and a need for affirmation. Do we belong? Are we good enough? What do you think?

Despite the angst, it's worth noting, the team still has the top record in the Eastern Conference -- two games over hated Miami -- and third-best in the Association. Since the state went 0-for-the NCAA tournament, all hopes to prove our basketball superiority hinge on the professional squad.

[+] EnlargeRoy Hibbert
AP Photo/R Brent SmithAfter a 7-7 start to March, are things still looking up for Roy Hibbert and the East-leading Pacers?
In many ways, 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert is the perfect Pacer as the largest -- figuratively and literally -- manifestation of the Hoosier mindset.

It’s little wonder the All-Star center is a fan favorite. Off the court, Hibbert projects as a salt-of-the-earth guy who holds "American Idol"-style auditions to give blue-and-gold crazies a shot to sit in his "Area 55" of Bankers Life Fieldhouse. He’s active in the community and seems to genuinely enjoy being part of the Indianapolis skyline. Hibbert’s a plus on the court, too. He swats shots, grabs rebounds and, over the years, has developed a dangerous little hook. He hustles.

When Big Roy hits the deck -- and this happens maybe once or twice a game -- you can hear the crowd draw its breath. Oh no! He climbs to one knee, gets the other leg underneath him, and then pushes upright. The whole process, it takes a while. He hits the floor harder and takes longer to get up than anyone I can recall, but he's 7-2, so I get it. Almost without exception, he's right back at it after the fall, protecting the rim, doing his thing.

Problem is, Hibbert takes big mental falls, too -- on-court plummets where he disappears for quarters and then strings of games. When the Pacers are going good, Hibbert’s teammates usually find him for early, momentum-building opportunities. But during the swoons, Hibbert becomes forgotten (or allows himself to fade into the background). Perhaps he internalizes too much. Maybe he’s too pensive. Could be a confidence issue. I don’t know. But what I do know is that it takes him a while to get up -- to bounce back. This happened last season, but, by March, Hibbert shook the crisis of confidence and was probably the biggest reason the team took Miami to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. He’s in the midst of another spring swoon, and until he picks himself up, fans will hold their breath and brood.

This type of anxiety doesn’t appear to wash over the fan bases of the NBA's blue-blood franchises. Knicks fans, for example, haven’t lost their delusions of grandeur even though their team is in the midst of another lost season. The mantra in New York isn’t Save us, Phil Jackson! -- it’s Phil Jackson will save us. That’s self-assurance. Misguided, maybe, but it’s certainty nonetheless.

Over the years, this neurosis in Indiana hasn’t been limited to professional basketball or even proficiency in the realm of athletics.

Even though the Peyton Manning-led Colts were the (regular-season) class of the NFL and brought Indianapolis a Super Bowl title in 2007, most fans were loathe to make bold pronouncements about their achievements. When it came to Manning’s place in the pantheon, the collective sentiment here seemed to be: He's great -- right?

A few years later, when Indianapolis hosted the Super Bowl in 2012, that lack of certitude was manifest in the civic sphere. With a big assist from uncharacteristic spring-like weather in early February, the city and its volunteers clearly put together one the most well-run Super Bowls in recent NFL memory, showcasing the vibrancy (and accessibility) of its downtown and the vigor of Indy’s local businesses. Yet, when it was all over, residents couldn’t stop wondering if we’d done OK. Part of that was simply Hoosiers hospitality -- the desire to please -- but it also spoke to a genuine lack of certainty. We looked to the Darren Rovells of the world to tell us what we (hopefully) already knew: We nailed it.

One could argue this is a byproduct of modesty, that Hoosiers don’t like to toot their own horn. But it has more to do with the idea that we’re somewhat uncomfortable playing that instrument in front of a big audience.

From the outside looking in, this may seem odd, especially in the context of basketball, a sport that Hoosiers perfected. But achievement has come in large part thanks to the high school and college game -- the smaller stages, not the grand one. Even the Pacers’ three championships came in the ABA, always a sideshow to the NBA.

From Hibbert to the way we feel about Hoosier Hysteria, none of this is a bad thing. It’s human and real, genuine. It’s part of our identity, and it’s become part of the way others see us.

Doubt and determination are variables in the narrative equation, ones necessary for true triumph. Succeeding against great odds is wonderful, but the victory is sweetest when attained while conquering something within yourself, and this idea is very much a part of the Hoosier sports experience, no matter the team or player.

[+] EnlargeLarry Bird
Ron Hoskins/NBAE/Getty ImagesLarry Bird, the pride of French Lick and the Pacers' president, is an embodiment of the Hoosier mindset.
Pacers president Larry Bird embodies this ideal, and it has always made me think of him as a kind of corncob Christ.

Today and throughout his playing days, Bird built a career on fail-safe skill and a cloak of confidence (he was a proto-s----talker) that hugged him tighter than those old thigh-high Celtics drawers. But even Bird had his moment of wandering in the desert before ascending to greatness, leaving Knight's IU program before his freshman season even began and returning home to French Lick. Whatever happened during that time, I'd bet it laid the foundation for the greatness that was to come: Indiana State, Boston, the Hall of Fame.

One of the all-time great Bird moments came late in his career against, of all teams, the Pacers during the 1991 playoffs where the darkness-dawn thing played out over four quarters. Back then, Bird was ravaged with a bad back. Instead of sitting on the bench, he'd lay on the floor in pain. With Bird prone, it was the perfect opportunity for the Pacers to steal a series and move on to the next round. During the first half of Game 5, Bird landed hard and whacked his head against the Garden's parquet. He was helped off the floor, led through the tunnel and into the locker room. It looked as if he was finished.

He wasn't, of course. Bird returned for the second half and the Celtics won on the strength of one his all-time great lines: 32 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, one concussion.

Pacers fans could use a doubt-determination moment of their own like that one. We're not agnostic -- we're just waiting for a sign.

Michael Rubino is a senior editor at Indianapolis Monthly.

Where do the Spurs rank among dynasties?

May, 28, 2013
5/28/13
1:26
AM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
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Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy.

Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.

Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Sam Jones.

Those are the clubhouse leaders in the “best trios in NBA history” debate.

The formula to enter that debate? Three Hall of Famers, multiple NBA titles and longevity.

Let’s add Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to that conversation.

Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are the first trio on a team other than the Celtics or Lakers to reach the NBA Finals four times together, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have recorded 98 postseason wins together, the second-most in NBA history by a trio, according to Elias. Only Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper (110) have more.

After winning three titles together but not reaching the NBA Finals since 2007, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are the only trio in NBA history to win multiple titles and then experience a drought of at least five seasons before making it back to the Finals.

Duncan won his first title in 1999. When he takes the court in the NBA Finals, his 13-year gap between his first and last Finals appearance will be the longest in NBA history among players that played for the same team when they made those appearances.

Duncan and head coach Gregg Popovich have recorded 129 wins together, the most by a player-coach duo in NBA history.

Parker is at the top of his game
Parker scored a team-high 14 points inside the paint in Game 4 on 7-of-8 shooting. Despite being listed at 6-foot-2, Parker led the Spurs with 40 points inside the paint in the series.

Parker’s 37 points in game 4 are tied for the third-most in a road win to clinch a Conference Finals series in the last 50 years. Only Michael Jordan and Abdul-Jabbar have scored more during that span.

Duncan still has it
Duncan was the primary reason why Zach Randolph had trouble scoring in the Conference Finals. As the primary defender, Duncan held Randolph to 5-of-17 shooting (29 percent) and 0.58 points per play. Randolph averaged one point per play in the first two series this postseason.

If the Spurs win the NBA Finals, Duncan would join John Salley as the only players in history to win a title in three different decades. Salley won with the Pistons in 1989 and 1990, the Bulls in 1996 and the Lakers in 2000.

The book on Rick Carlisle

January, 18, 2013
1/18/13
11:11
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Rick Carlisle
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.

2012 Team USA: Better than Dream Team?

July, 12, 2012
7/12/12
12:59
AM ET
By Ryan Feldman & Gregg Found, ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com
US PresswireWould the current U.S. Olympic team have a chance against the Dream Team?
Kobe Bryant believes the 2012 U.S. Olympic team would beat the 1992 Olympic team. Is he correct?

According to AccuScore, which ran 10,000 computer simulations, the 1992 team would win 53.1 percent of the time and by an average margin of one point per game.

No one will ever know the true answer, but let's take a look at the Next Level analytical facts about the rosters at each point of their careers to help make the case either way.

REBOUNDING AND DEFENSE

Much has been made about the current team’s weak frontcourt. The 1992 team had four players who grabbed at least 15 percent of available rebounds in 1991-92 (Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, David Robinson). The current team has three players at that rebound rate last season (Tyson Chandler, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love).

The 1992 team had two players (Ewing, Robinson) who blocked at least 5 percent of the shot attempts they faced in 1991-92. No 2012 player had a block percentage higher than 3.4 last season (Chandler).

SHOOTING

Four current members had a true shooting percentage (a measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account 2-pointers, 3-pointers and free throws) of at least 60 last season (Chandler, Kevin Durant, James Harden, LeBron James). Chandler (70.8 in 2011-12) led the NBA each of the past two seasons. Only one of the 1992 members had a 60 true shooting percentage (Barkley), although three others fell just short of that threshold in 1991-92 (Malone, Robinson, John Stockton).

PASSING

Five Dream Team members assisted on at least 25 percent of their teammates’ field goals in 1991-92 (Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Stockton), plus Magic Johnson had a 49.3 assist percentage in his most recent NBA season (1990-91). LeBron, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams had a 25 assist percentage or better last season, but none were as high as Stockton (53.7), who was in the midst of leading the league in assist percentage for 10 straight seasons.

AGE, EXPERIENCE AND CHAMPIONSHIPS

The 1992 team was about 2½ years older on average (28.8-26.2). Other than Bird and Magic, every Dream Team member was 30 years old or younger. Every member of the current team is 29 or younger, other than Kobe, who is 33.

But the NBA experience level is about the same. The 1992 team had, on average, 7.3 years of experience per player. This year’s team has 7.1.

As far as NBA titles, give the edge to the 1992 team. Its players had a combined 12 championships as they entered the Olympics -- five by Magic, three by Bird and two each from Jordan and Pippen.

The 2012 version has seven championships among them, carried by Kobe’s five. LeBron and Chandler each have one. The current team has members of each of the past four NBA champions, while the 1992 team had members of the then-past two champions.

PLAYER VALUE/EFFICIENCY

Using average win shares per 48 minutes in their previous NBA seasons, (including Magic’s 1990-91 season and not including Christian Laettner), the 1992 squad’s average is higher by 9 percent (.215-.198). Prefer player efficiency rating to win shares? The Dream Team’s PER was 3 percent higher (23.8-23.0).

IN THEIR PRIME?

Other than Laettner, all 11 Dream Team members are Hall of Famers. And only two could be considered in the twilight of their careers. Bird had just finished his last NBA season, while Magic had retired the previous year, although he made a brief comeback in 1995-96. As for this edition, one could make the case that all but the 33-year-old Kobe on the roster could appear on another Olympic team again.

The 2012 team gets under way with an exhibition game Thursday against the Dominican Republic on ESPN at 9 p.m. ET. Only time will tell whether this team is the modern-day Dream Team.

Is he Jordan or Oscar? Or just LeBron?

June, 20, 2012
6/20/12
2:05
AM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
Archive
Who is LeBron James?

Is he Michael Jordan? Or is he Oscar Robertson?

MICHAEL JORDAN

LeBron had 26 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds in the Miami Heat’s Game 4 victory Tuesday, plateaus Jordan never reached in an NBA Finals game. LeBron is the first player with those numbers in an NBA Finals game since Larry Bird in 1986.

LeBron James
James
LeBron, who is 27 years old, is now one game from his first NBA championship. Jordan didn’t win his first ring until he was 28 years old. LeBron has now been to three NBA Finals series before the time Jordan reached his first.

LeBron has three regular-season MVP awards. When Jordan was LeBron’s age, he had only one MVP.

LeBron is averaging 30.5 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game this postseason. Jordan averaged at least 30 points per game in each of his last 12 postseasons, but he never averaged as many as eight rebounds per game in a postseason.

Jordan had 22 double-digit assist games and 21 double-digit rebound games in his postseason career, but he had just two postseason triple-doubles.

LeBron already has seven career postseason triple-doubles and was a rebound shy of his eighth in Game 4.

Jordan was certainly known for his scoring prowess, but he never scored at least 25 points in 14 straight games in a single postseason. LeBron has done that twice, in 2009 and his current streak. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, nobody else in NBA playoff history has done that even once.

OSCAR ROBERTSON

Only twice previously in NBA history has a player averaged at least 30 points, nine rebounds and five assists per game in a postseason. Robertson did it in 1963 for the Cincinnati Royals, and LeBron did it in 2009 for the Cleveland Cavaliers. If he maintains his averages this postseason, LeBron will add his name to that list once again.

Robertson was known for his triple-doubles. He’s the only player in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire season. But LeBron has the upper hand in the playoffs. Eight career playoff triple-doubles would be one more than Oscar had in his career. And let’s not forget that LeBron has plenty of time to add to that total.

Robertson won one NBA championship in his career, and that wasn’t until he was 32 years old. Like LeBron, Oscar didn’t win a ring with his original team. He was traded from the Royals to the Milwaukee Bucks after spending 10 seasons in Cincinnati and finally won one alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And Oscar finished his career with just one MVP award.

LeBRON JAMES

LeBron is the first player in NBA history with at least 650 points, 200 rebounds and 100 assists in a single postseason.

Now, he’s one win from his first NBA championship.

Perhaps LeBron isn’t MJ or Oscar or anyone else.

Maybe he’s just LeBron James.

Rondo among elite playoff point guards

May, 6, 2012
5/06/12
11:17
PM ET
By Ryan Feldman, ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com

David Butler II/US PresswireRajon Rondo (right) has double-digit assists in each of his last three playoff games.
Rajon Rondo is making it clear how important point guard play is in the NBA playoffs.

Rondo is the first player with at least 20 points and 16 assists with no more than one turnover in a playoff game since Tim Hardaway for the Golden State Warriors in 1991, who had 27 points, 20 assists and one turnover against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals. Rondo, Hardaway and Magic Johnson are the only players to accomplish this feat in the last 25 years.

In the last 25 seasons, a Boston Celtics player has had at least 16 assists in a playoff game eight times. Rondo has seven of those performances (Larry Bird had the other in 1990).

Rondo consistently gets it done in the playoffs. Among players in NBA history with fewer than three turnovers per game, only John Stockton (10.1) averages more assists per game than Rondo (8.6).

With Rondo on the court in the playoffs, the Celtics are 14 points better per 100 possessions than they are when Rondo is off the court.

Their offense is significantly better with Rondo, scoring 21 more points per 100 possessions. They're shooting 10 percentage points higher from the field and 13 percentage points higher on 3-point attempts, and they're averaging nine more assists with 5.5 fewer turnovers per 48 minutes with Rondo on the court.

A popular definition of a great point guard is one who makes his teammates better. There’s no better example of that in the playoffs than Rondo with Kevin Garnett. When Rondo is on the court in this series, Garnett is averaging eight more points per 48 minutes and shooting 25 percent better from the field.

Garnett, Avery Bradley and Brandon Bass are all scoring more, shooting better and have a better plus-minus when Rondo is on the court.

How important is a reliable point guard in the playoffs? Just ask the Bulls, who lost Derrick Rose to a torn ACL and went from an NBA title favorite to a First Round underdog.

Or how about the New York Knicks, who were outscored by a combined 60 points in their first three games against the Miami Heat before barely staying alive in Game 4?

Certainly, injuries to Jeremy Lin and Iman Shumpert have hurt the Knicks at point guard. No team has fewer assists (12.5) or more turnovers (19.5) per game in the playoffs than the Knicks. Their starting point guard, Baron Davis, who exited Game 4 with a dislocated patella, has 13 assists and 13 turnovers in the series. Every single other playoff team has at least one player with more assists per game in the playoffs than Davis, who leads the Knicks.

Still not sure how important strong point guard play is in the playoffs? Over the last three seasons, point guards with at least 12 assists are 19-6 in playoff games.

Magic and Larry Legend on the big stage

April, 6, 2012
4/06/12
12:14
PM ET
Wade By Jared Wade
ESPN.com
Archive
Magic/Bird
Magic/Bird Press
As depicted in a new play, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had their share of awkward moments before a friendship developed.

On one side of the stage is actor Tug Coker playing Larry Bird. On the opposite end is Kevin Daniels in the role of Magic Johnson. Each is talking on a phone with his agent in what begins as one of the more mundane scenes in Eric Simonson’s new Broadway play Magic/Bird.

Larry’s rep tells him that Converse wants to film a commercial for his new signature basketball sneaker, the Weapon. Sounds great, says Larry. Have them send me a script and let's shoot it.

There is one catch: Magic Johnson, Bird is informed, will also be in the commercial.

Cue the record scratch.

On second thought, thanks but no thanks, says Larry.

Magic has a similar conversation with his agent, who tells his client that Converse wants him, at Bird's request, to film the TV spot in his rival's hometown.

"There's no way I'm going to French Lick," says Magic. "I live in Hollywood. This is where they make commercials."

OK then, says his agent. It looks like there won't be any Magic Johnson basketball sneaker after all.

"Wait," says Magic. "Where is French Lick?"

Smash-cut to Indiana.

Bird and Magic stand on opposing sides of a basketball court wearing hoops gear. And Converse Weapons. Their patience is wearing thin. Each complains to his respective handler that the filming is tedious. Magic says he is headed to his trailer and will be back when they need him. As he walks off, Bird calls out. The two rivals speak, having a real conversation for the first time. It starts awkwardly. Then it gets more awkward. Bird has a request.

"My mom was wondering if … you … want come up to the house … to have lunch … with us," says Larry.

Magic is taken aback. Larry explains that his mom will be upset if Magic refuses. "Do me a favor," he asks, adding that he doesn't want to be in his mom's "dog house." Magic, still somewhat puzzled, accepts.

Cue Mrs. Bird absolutely stealing the show.

Georgia Bird explains to Magic that she has been following his career ever since his high school team won the Michigan state title, "something Larry never did," she notes.

"Thanks, mom," says Larry.

"You were my favorite player," she says to Magic.

"Don't forget about Bill Laimbeer," says Larry.

Mrs. Bird and Magic hug.

As they talk, the Lakers point guard interrupts his greatest rival's mom to tell her, "You can call me Earvin."

She does just that while informing her new friend that her son was supposed to have played ball as a Hoosier at the prestigious Indiana University.

"He would have played under Bobby Knight," but instead "got scared or something" and was "back here in three weeks."

Slowly, this warmth and familiarity that Mrs. Bird exudes towards a new friend spills over to her son. After Larry's mom exits to tend the mashed potatoes, the two future Hall of Famers discuss the Birds’ vast acreage in front of the house. Earvin seems envious that Larry has this wide-open expanse where nobody treats him like a legend. Like the Legend.

Magic doesn't have an escape. He loves Hollywood, but you can tell that Earvin is starting to realize that Larry has something of which he can only dream. Larry opens up about his upbringing and how it's nice that he now has his space, something he never had as a child in a family with five siblings. Earvin had nine, he says.

Larry lets his guard down so much that he almost slips up and tells Earvin how he hurt his back while shoveling gravel for a retaining wall he has been building all summer. He pauses, realizing he shouldn't be revealing a new physical weakness to Magic.

"Trade secret?" asks Earvin. “Something like that,” says Larry before later admitting to Earvin that he "wrenched" his back working on the wall.

Why, asks Earvin, is he, Larry Bird, the reigning NBA MVP, out there building a wall rather than employing a contractor? "If I can do it, why hire someone?"

"Because you can afford it"

"Huh," says Larry, who seems to have a yokel-turned-rich epiphany.

Cut to real life.


Who knows if any of these conversations ever happened? But real-life Magic and Legend actually did have lunch with Larry's mom while filming the Weapon commercial in French Lick in 1985. By their own admission, this was the moment when two men who had spent years hating each other, even as they together created March Madness and built the modern NBA, finally realized -- even grudgingly -- their commonalities.

It's fitting, then, that Larry was the one building a wall. As depicted in Magic/Bird, he was the one who showed more vulnerability as the two foes first became friends. In the literal sense, building the wall is what led to his physical demise, as we see later when he struggles through excruciating back pain during routine activities. But that metaphorical wall, that shell that he creates as a cocoon, was something he needed to construct to maintain his edge against the only man he knew could beat him. Larry can’t befriend his rival. He has to act the ornery bastard.

All this begs the question of whether or not a truly great competitor must show animosity to his opponent. The answer probably depends the individual.

Like Bird, Michael Jordan reveled in hate. It helped both thrive, and it seemed to be something they took with them off the court. But Hakeem Olajuwon, the leader of one of the six teams to win an NBA title over an 18-year stretch, always seemed more internally motivated, focusing less on how to beat you and more on flawless execution, knowing that the latter would take care of the win.

In the current era, guys like Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowtizki have had tremendous success. Neither is particularly prone to animosity. Dirk, until he carried the Mavericks to the title last year without an All-Star sidekick, was called soft for years due to this.

Still, commentators -- and even retired NBA legends -- continue to chastise modern players who don’t have enough of a mean streak. Apparently, you can’t be a saint like David Robinson. To win it all, you need to be a hard-case like Karl Malone. Right.

Where does this disconnect come from? Was it an unprecedented run of dynasties by Bird, Magic, Jordan and Isiah Thomas’ Bad Boys that conditioned us to believe that winning requires a certain psychological makeup? These champions all approached the game from a similar mentality. And their near-two-decade reign makes it easy to forget that Bill Walton, Hakeem, Duncan and Dirk have all proved you can reach the pinnacle of success with varying degrees of antagonism.

Besides, even if today’s players want to hate the competition, it’s a lot harder in 2012. They didn’t first get to know one another five years into their NBA career. Most became friends playing AAU or at summer camps before they could compare endorsement deals. So perhaps the only answer for today’s NBA star who wants to maintain the hate -- Chris Paul and Kevin Durant, perhaps -- is to follow Magic’s path.

Magic, as depicted in the play and in real life, found a way to blend competitive scorn into his gregarious nature. For him, there was also a wall, but it wasn’t always up. He balanced his need to be adversarial by constructing two sides to himself. On the court was the superstar Magic, while outside of the public eye he was simply Earvin.

As he suggests in the Magic/Bird, Earvin found it natural to hire a guy to build that wall for him. He hired Magic.

One scene shows how his on/off switch contrasts that single-mindedness of Bird. During their next regular season game following the Converse commercial shoot, Magic, wearing purple and gold, approaches Larry. "What's up, LB?"

Larry has nothing but scorn for him.

"Your man, Michael Cooper, over there," says Larry. "Tell him I'm putting on a show. A Larry Bird show. We're gonna kick your ass."


Jared Wade is the founder of 8 Points, 9 Seconds, the TrueHoop Network's Indiana Pacers blog

Foster ends 13-year run like Bird

March, 26, 2012
3/26/12
6:52
PM ET
Windhorst By Brian Windhorst
ESPN.com
Archive
INDIANAPOLIS – There was a rare event Monday afternoon at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse, one that’s only happened a couple dozen times in NBA history.

Jeff Foster, who played his entire 13-year career with the Indiana Pacers, officially retired. It was a move that was announced last week after he learned that he’d need back surgery.

Only 24 players in NBA history have played their entire career with one team and lasted 13 years. Most of them are in the Hall of Fame. Foster’s current peers in that category -- Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki -- will be going to Springfield.

So was the man who sat next to him as he said farewell at a news conference, Pacers president Larry Bird, who spent 13 years with the Boston Celtics before having his career cut short with back injuries.

“Playing for one organization is great, it’s something he’ll remember for the rest of his life,” Bird said.

“I was able to do the same thing and I feel very honored to be able to do that. I know what he was going through, it’s just tough. But he made the right decision. If he had continued to play he’s going to end up like me and they aren’t going to be able to fix [him].”

Foster will not be a Hall of Famer, he was a rugged 6-foot-11 center out of Texas State who lasted this long because he was a good rebounder and wasn’t afraid to battle inside. Of the 764 games he played, he came off the bench in 419 of them. Over the last three years he was debilitated by back issues and only played in 11 games this year. His best season was in 2004-05 when he averaged nine points and seven rebounds.

The highlight of his career, he said, was his rookie year when he went to the Finals. He played with the two other Pacers who have also played more than 10 years with the team: Reggie Miller and Rik Smits.

“I fought with the decision at the beginning of the year whether to end on last year’s note or come back,” Foster said. “I need to get fixed what’s wrong ... hopefully there are no problems in the long term.”

Pierce heads impressive night of stat feats

February, 8, 2012
2/08/12
2:23
AM ET
By Mark Simon, ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
It wasn’t the best of days as far as shooting the basketball, but it was a milestone effort for Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce.

On a night in which he went 6-for-18 from the field and 2-for-10 from 3-point range, Pierce passed Larry Bird into second place on the Celtics' all-time scoring list in a win over the Charlotte Bobcats. Pierce now has 21,797 career points, trailing only John Havlicek on the team's all-time scoring list.

The best thing Pierce could say about his individual performance was that when he was on the floor, the Celtics outscored the Bobcats by 26 points in his 37 minutes.

That was due partly to his nine assists and eight rebounds, a plateau combination he hit for the second time this season.

Pierce is in a little bit of a shooting funk, but he's made up for it with his ballhandling and his ability to get to the free throw line. He has 34 assists and nine turnovers in his last five games.

Take the Timberwolves Seriously
The Minnesota Timberwolves are emerging as one of the surprise stories in the NBA this season. Recently, the player to emerge with Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio has been center Nikola Pekovic.
Nikola Pekovic
Pekovic
The Timberwolves improved to 13-12 with a win over the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday. It's the first time they've surpassed the .500 mark at least 25 games into a season since 2006-07. No players on that team are on this one.

Rubio, who tied a career high with 14 assists in this win, has gotten most of the headlines, with the Timberwolves now 10-5 when he starts.

But Pekovic, who scored 23 points and had 10 rebounds in 37 minutes in Tuesday’s victory, is averaging 18.5 points and 10.5 rebounds in his last four games, three of which are Timberwolves wins.

Pekovic was able to use his post-up game to his advantage on Tuesday, scoring six of his nine hoops on post-up plays. He entered the day averaging only one post-up basket per 26 minutes this season.

Rubio now has 13 games with at least 10 assists this season. That ties Steve Nash for the most 10-assist games in the NBA this season.

The Timberwolves won despite matching their season low for points in a game, with 86. They were averaging 105.6 points in their previous five games.

Wading Through
Dwyane Wade was 7-for-10 from inside five feet in the Miami Heat’s win Tuesday night, scoring 14 of his game-high 26 points on those shots.

Wade had struggled in his six games since returning from an ankle injury, making 55 percent of his shots inside five feet, averaging four baskets per game. Prior to the injury, he was a 67 percent shooter from in-close.

Statistical Feats of the Night
Three players put up impressive statistical tallies in defeat.

Monta Ellis scored a career-high 48 points for the Golden State Warriors in a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Had he scored two more points, he would have had the 131st game of at least 50 points in franchise history. Of those, 105 were by Wilt Chamberlain.

Ellis’ teammate, David Lee, recorded his second career triple-double (the first came against the Warriors). Lee was the fifth player to record a triple-double this season. The others are Kemba Walker, Rajon Rondo, Kyle Lowry, and Andre Iguodala

Also, Derrick Brown of the Charlotte Bobcats went 10-for-10 from the field in the loss to the Celtics.
Derrick Brown
Brown
That's the most field goals made without a miss in a single game by a Bobcats player in franchise history.

Jake Voskuhl held the previous Bobcats record for most field goals made without a miss in a single game. He was 6-for-6 against the Washington Wizards on April 3, 2007.

The last player in the NBA to go at least 10-for-10 from the field was Pau Gasol on November 21, 2010, when he went 10-for-10 in a win against the Warriors.

Plus-Minus Note of the Night
Udonis Haslem tied a career-high by finishing with a plus-27 in the Miami Heat’s win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

All four Heat reserves finished with a positive plus-minus in a game in which Miami didn’t pull away until the fourth quarter, when it outscored the Cavaliers by 10. Haslem played 11 minutes in the final period. Mike Miller (plus-25) played all 12.

NBA 2K12 keeps giving us what we want

July, 22, 2011
7/22/11
11:29
AM ET
Harper By Zach Harper
ESPN.com
Archive
Back when the NBA video game world was expanding into giving you an actual NBA experience, the limitations of games reached beyond whatever the technology allowed.

While NBA Live 95 was revolutionizing the overall expansion of NBA video games with a 30-degree angle, instant replay and the ability to trade players, it was being hampered with the exclusion of the league’s biggest star. Michael Jordan, among others, would not allow his likeness to be sold with these games. EA Sports cleverly went around these legal issues by inserting “Player 23” onto the Bulls, and wouldn’t you know it that he seemed to have the exact same look and abilities of a certain global icon.

It was something that you could work with and pretend he was actually in the game. But for many young teenagers such as myself, it was ultimately a disappointment when you fired up the Sega Genesis, went to the rosters after first inserting each yearly installment and seeing Player 23 defending you from fully embracing the pixilated NBA experience.

Last year, NBA 2K11 revolutionized the basketball gaming world for seemingly the 11th straight year. They worked out a deal with Jordan and put him on the cover of the game. Not only was he on the cover, he was in the game as his old self. You could play through 10 different moments of his career and each version of MJ was a bit different from the other, in order to simulate the feeling of playing with him in 1986 as opposed to using the 1998 version.

2K Sports gave us what all of the people playing basketball games in the 90s never got to do. We were able to be Jordan.

This year, they’ve announced that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson will be on the covers as well. And even though they’re still being coy with the new features of this year’s installment of the best basketball gaming franchise of all time, a lot of people are hoping they give you the same experience with Magic and Bird that they did in last year’s game and Jordan.

If we’re given the option to play through 10 moments of Magic and Bird’s careers, here are the moments I’m hoping we get to run through.

For Magic’s accomplishments:

- Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals. Running out Magic as center and having him play all over the court throughout his first title-clinching game of his career.

- Game 6 of the 1982 NBA Finals. Record a triple double while playing against the Philadelphia 76ers to win the championship.

- Game 3 of the 1984 NBA Finals. Record at least 21 assists against the Celtics and win the game.

- Game 6 of the 1985 NBA Finals. Close out the Boston Celtics on their home floor to win the NBA title.

- Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals. This is the game with the famous hook shot by Magic to win the game and control the series against the Celtics.

- Game 6 of the 1987 NBA Finals. Close out the Boston Celtics for the second time by getting at least 16 points and 19 assists.

- Game 7 of the 1988 Western Conference Finals. Record at least 24 points, 9 rebounds and 11 assists while securing the win against the Mavericks.

- Game 7 of the 1988 NBA Finals. Close out the Pistons for the repeat by getting at least 19 points and 14 assists.

- 1992 All-Star Game. Get to play in his sendoff game after being allowed to play following his sudden retirement.

For Bird’s accomplishments:

- Game 7 of the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals. After being down 3-1 in the series, the Celtics won two straight games to force Game 7. Close out the Sixers in Game 7 to move onto the Finals.

- Game 6 of the 1981 NBA Finals. Score 26 points and grab 13 rebounds with Bird to close out the Rockets and win his first NBA title.

- Game 7 against the Knicks in the 1984 playoffs. Record 43 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists while closing out Bernard King and the Knicks.

- Game 5 of the 1984 NBA Finals. Score 34 points and grab 17 rebounds to beat the Los Angeles Lakers and take a 3-2 lead in the Finals.

- 1985 regular season game against the Hawks. Score 60 points while watching for the Hawks’ bench players to celebrate in astonishment.

- 1986 regular season game against the Blazers. Score 47 points, record 14 rebounds and dish out 11 assists while they have Bird shooting primarily with his left hand.

- Game 6 of the 1986 NBA Finals. Put up 29 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists to knock off the Houston Rockets.

- Game 7 against the Hawks in the 1988 playoffs. Score at least 34 points to beat the hot shooting Dominique Wilkins.

- Game 5 against the Pacers in the 1991 playoffs. With a hobbled Bird, score 32 points to outduel Chuck Person and the Pacers.

If you’ll notice, I left a spot open for each player by only providing nine games. Hopefully there is a way to include the gold medal game of the Dream Team’s march through the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. They will probably have the rights to most of, if not, all of the players from that team.

That would be a fun way of expanding on the new legacy 2K Sports gave us last year by turning Player 23 into what every basketball game aficionado had been craving for the better part of two decades.

Don Nelson: Almost coached Larry Bird, Tim Duncan

April, 6, 2010
4/06/10
1:22
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
As Don Nelson sits a game away from having the most wins of any coach in NBA history, he tells ESPN's Marc Stein that he doesn't much care if he makes the Hall of Fame or not. And if he has any regrets, it's mostly to do with two jobs he might have had:
There were two opportunities I probably should have made happen. One was when we beat the Celtics in the playoffs in Milwaukee [in 1983]. They were going to make a coaching change. I think Bill Fitch was their coach at the time. After the last game, Red [Auerbach] walked by and asked me, "Would you ever consider coaching the Boston Celtics?"

I said, "Red, it would be a dream come true. But the guy's been so good to me here, I really couldn't leave [Bucks owner] Jim Fitzgerald." But looking back as a career move, that's probably something I should have done at that point. They had a really good championship-caliber team and that would have solved all the problems if I would have done that. K.C. Jones got that job and did a really good job and they won a few championships. Looking back, I was a loyal guy because Jim Fitzgerald was so good to me, so I don't really regret not going. But as a career move I probably should have.

And then the second one was when I was in Golden State and I was having all the [Chris] Webber problems and Gregg Popovich was the GM in San Antonio and wanted to make a change. He called me up and said, "Can you get out of your contract and come here and be my coach?"

As part of unofficial 1980s nostalgia week for the NBA, the League rigged up a conversation between Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and a bunch of reporters.

This was the best part (as transcribed by the NBA):

MAGIC JOHNSON: We didn't sleep for two weeks playing 'em (laughter). We talked about it every day. Actually, Larry probably will feel the same way, during the regular season, that's all we watched. Where are the Celtics? Did they win last night? Basically at the end of the day, Larry, I'm sure you can say this, too, we didn't even celebrate the Western Conference final. That was nothing to us. It was about winning the championship. It was about, where is Boston; looking forward to playing them. That's how our team was, because we always wanted to play the best, and that was the Celtics. Same way here.

LARRY BIRD: I can remember when Ralph Sampson hit that shot in L.A. to beat them with one second on the clock, I know all of us felt down a little bit because we weren't going to be able to play the Lakers again (laughter).

MAGIC JOHNSON: That's funny. We felt the same way when you guys lost against Detroit or whoever (laughter).

LARRY BIRD: I don't remember the losses, I only remember the wins.

MAGIC JOHNSON: You still crazy, LB (laughter).

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