TrueHoop: Luis Scola

The all-Olympics team

August, 13, 2012
8/13/12
1:50
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
In North America, international basketball is often regarded as a novelty act -- a sideshow with funny rules, bizarre dimensions and lots of guys who look like rockers. Teams run sprawling offensive schemes that often look like something out of an instructional video. Won't someone just explode off a pick already?!

But the 2012 Olympics, which ended Sunday, proved again that international competition is thriving. For two weeks, a world of players and teams with diverse skills battled for global prestige, and they did it in style. There's a reason that millionaires love playing for their countries. It's an inordinately rewarding way to express your identity as a basketball player in the context of something much larger than yourself.

Here's our all-London team:

First team


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Pau Gasol, Spain
What makes Spain so much fun to watch? It's Gasol's team, something we rarely witness in the NBA. When La Roja suit up, they're led by Gasol in the high post. His vision guides the guards to open spots, and his fluent read of the game creates opportunities.

When the Spanish fell behind big against Russia in the semifinals, Gasol changed course after halftime, getting quick touches before shuttling the ball across the court to his shooters. He posted, passed out, then reposted. This movement was precisely what the Spaniards needed against Russia's tight defense, and that adjustment had to come from Gasol. Jose Calderon hit the big shots, but Gasol facilitated them with his instincts and feel.

In the gold-medal game, Gasol's 24 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists gave Spain a shot at the improbable. For the tournament, Gasol put up an average line of 19.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game.

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LeBron James, United States
For James, who had cemented himself as the most dominant player in the world during his 2011-12 NBA championship run, the gold medal was probably more of a statement than an achievement. He deferred to teammates during the early stages of group play, then again when the celebration started at North Greenwich Arena on Sunday. In between, he was the Americans' safety valve.

His line in London wasn't gaudy -- 13.3 points per game on 60.3 percent shooting from the field, 5.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists -- but when the 3-pointers weren't falling for the red, white and blue and opposing defenses began to gather confidence, Team USA could turn to James. In those instances, he would drive and dish, dive off the weak side where Chris Paul or Deron Williams could hit him on the move, or simply blow by helpless defenders with a single dribble and a burst to the basket, as he did with four fouls in a tight gold-medal game against Spain. All the while, James acted as the team's de facto center when Tyson Chandler was off the floor, defending the biggest guys in the most crucial moments.

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Manu Ginobili, Argentina
Back when he was still known as Emanuel Ginobili to the rest of the world and before he ever suited up in black and silver, Manu led an Argentine national team that handed a mortifying defeat to the Americans in 2002 at the FIBA World Championship in Indianapolis. Two years later, Ginobili dropped 29 points on the Americans in the Olympic semifinal round en route to a gold medal for the Argentines.

As much as the hire of Mike Krzyzewski, those losses to Argentina inspired American NBA stars to renew their commitment to international competition. Argentina didn't medal in London, but a 35-year-old Ginobili continued his mastery of the world stage. In eight games, Ginobili averaged 19.4 points (third among all players), 5.4 rebounds (more than any other guard in Olympic play) and 4.1 assists. He led a tiny, somewhat depleted team that had grown old in the tooth to the brink of the podium. Ginobili is unlikely to suit up in Rio de Janeiro, and world basketball will be poorer for it.

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Kevin Durant, United States
Every team needs a microwave, a guy whose penchant for unconscious shooting in uncanny spurts can single-handedly put an opponent away. Durant was repeatedly that sniper for the Americans over the eight games in London. In both games against Argentina -- first in group play, then in the semifinals -- Durant's barrage of 3-balls in the third quarter put tense, chippy games out of reach. There were no lapses in defenses by the Argentines nor any clever schemes drawn up by the American bench. Durant's combination of remarkable size and a quick trigger was simply incapable of being defended.

Back in Las Vegas after a friendly against the Dominican Republic, Durant flashed a bright smile when asked how much easier those 18 inches or so made the international 3-point shot, and his proficiency in London was all the evidence in the world. Durant went 34-for-65 from beyond the arc in the eight games and averaged 19.5 points per game, second only to Patty Mills.

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Andrei Kirilenko, Russia
There isn't a more effective, intuitive player at cutting off the ball to make a play than Kirilenko. Time and again in London, just when you thought the Russian offense grounded to a halt, there was Kirilenko dashing into the lane for a catch and an easy 2. Kirilenko was equally crafty on the other side of the ball. The Russians repeatedly switched up their defense over the two weeks of competition, and Kirilenko was one of the primary reasons that coach David Blatt's defense was so flexible. Kirilenko was the tournament's best weakside defender.

He ranked third in blocks and steals, sixth in scoring and eighth in rebounding. Although he wasn't accurate from the outside, he still tallied a field goal percentage of 54 percent, a testimony to his shot selection and general smarts. Few projected the Russians to stand on the podium on Sunday night, but Kirilenko's contributions elevated them.


Second team


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Patty Mills, Australia
Mills drilled the shot of the Olympics when he flared to the top of the circle with his team trailing by two to the undefeated Russians. With 1.8 seconds left, Mills caught a pass from Joe Ingles, then launched the shot against two closing defenders. The ball fell through, one of several big shots Mills drilled for the Boomers, a team that probably had less pure talent on the floor than any other that survived group play. Mills was the only Olympian who averaged greater than 20 points per game (21.5) and was the spark Australia needed against more sophisticated schemes and explosive squads.

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Luis Scola, Argentina
Talk about a guy with a tough assignment. Here's 6-foot-8, 32-year-old Scola essentially functioning as Argentina's big man against topflight opponents. Every game, he had to fight for position against defenses keying in on him below the foul line, but he repeatedly won those one-on-one battles. We saw it in the semifinal, when Scola was confronted early by Tyson Chandler one-on-one. Scola shrugged, went middle and elevated with a hook over the 7-footer. When the ball was high, he sneaked behind unsuspecting defenders to set up underneath the basket, where teammates always seemed to find him. Overall, Scola was tremendous, putting up 18 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game.

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Joe Ingles, Australia
A national team without a lot of raw athleticism or transcendent talent crashed the quarterfinals with wiliness and savvy, and the Australian big man brought that consistently for Australia. That game-winning pass to Mills was just a taste of Ingles' heady play. He also routinely checked guys who could've flattened him in just about any other context. When the Boomers threw improvisational double-teams at unsuspecting offenses, Ingles was usually the guy applying pressure, then scampering back to his original assignment. The Aussie forward finished the Olympics with 15 points, 5 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game and was a paragon of consistency.

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Carmelo Anthony, United States
For a while, Anthony was scoring a point per minute for the Americans. He'd check in, set up on the right side, wait for cross-court passes against a loaded defense, then fire away. He went downright insane in the historic 156-73 drubbing of Nigeria during group play, going off for 37 points on 10-for-12 3-point shooting in a mere 14 minutes of court time. That explosion was one of the most unprecedented, self-contained scoring exhibitions we'll ever see in organized basketball. Anthony also produced in two skittish games for the Americans -- the close call against Lithuania and the semifinal versus Argentina.

Huertas
Marcelinho Huertas, Brazil
Are the shooting numbers great? Not really. But the electrifying point guard put a depleted, underperforming group of Brazilian veterans on his back into the quarterfinals. When he got there, Huertas drained a slew of 3-pointers from well behind the line, a barrage that punched the Argentines in the mouth in the first half. Huertas is a master of controlling space and tempo, an old-school point guard with a few new-school tricks. He was the second-leading assist man in London at six dimes per game, behind only Argentina's Pablo Prigioni, and averaged 11.3 points per game for a Brazilian team that outperformed expectations despite getting very little from its big men.

Honorable mentions: Carlos Delfino, Argentina; Kevin Love, United States; Alexey Shved, Russia; Yi Jianlian, China; Joel Freeland, Great Britain; Leandro Barbosa, Brazil; Chris Paul, United States; Nicolas Batum, France; Marc Gasol, Spain; Boris Diaw, France.

Olympic quarterfinals big-game performers

August, 8, 2012
8/08/12
1:03
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Welcome to the knockout phase of the Olympic basketball event.

The NBA game affords teams a two-week chess match in each playoff round, during which a team can slip up, adjust, then eventually figure it out. That's not the case in London, where one stink bomb can send home the most talented teams and individual performers licking their wounds.

On Wednesday, the elimination tournament got under way, with standout performances from some likely -- and unlikely -- competitors.

United States 119, Australia 86

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LeBron James, United States
The line speaks for itself: 11 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists, zero turnovers. But as impressive as the numbers are, the dramatic sequences are the real treat. Just one example from the second half: James chased down Patty Mills in transition, neutralizing the shot as he's done so many times. Chaos reigned for an instant, then James made the open-floor assist to Kevin Love on the ensuing break. Olympic play with elite teammates suits James well. We rarely saw him in isolation on Wednesday. Instead, James kept one eye on the ball and the other fixed on the defense. When a teammate such as Carmelo Anthony got the ball at the elbow, James zipped across the baseline, diverting the defense's attention, creating space for all five Americans.

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Deron Williams, United States
Williams has the speed to attack and the strength to absorb almost any kind of contact. The Nets guard propelled the Americans in the first half, during which they never found a flow but were still able to manufacture a considerable lead. In a larger sense, Williams functioned as a security blanket for Team USA, a player they could rely on to maximize possessions. He scored 18 points, seven of which came at the stripe, and another six materialized after he found real estate to spot up behind the arc.

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Kobe Bryant, United States
Bryant’s visit to London hasn’t come without its trials. Has Coach K been resting him, or does Bryant’s latter-day, back-'em-down game not conform to the rhythms of Team USA? Challenges require adjustments and at some point in the second half, Bryant decided he’d be a 3-point specialist. It was a Whitman’s Sampler of treats -- pull-up jumpers in transition, catch-and-shoot, ball-faking grenades. He finished 6-for-10 from beyond the arc for 20 points -- all of them in the second half.

Ingles
Joe Ingles, Australia
Patty Mills led the Boomers in scoring, but Ingles was their most valuable player with 19 points (6-for-8 from the field) and eight rebounds. The 6-foot-8 forward showed off his one-on-one game and a nice toolshed of skills. He put a scare into the Americans with a step-back 3-pointer to cap Australia’s 11-0 run to start the second half. It's not all stretch, either. Ingles sprints the floor and he makes sneaky back cuts off the ball. At times, he found himself with unenviable task of guarding James and, occasionally, Kevin Durant one-on-one. He dug in, swallowed hard, but never backed away from the assignment.


Argentina 82, Brazil 77

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Manu Ginobili, Argentina
Split, show, go, absorb, contort, finish -- repeat. Ginobili has been applying this formula for years, and Argentina’s 82-77 win over Brazil on Wednesday was merely his latest exhibition. It wasn’t all showmanship for Manu. He willingly mixed it up with the big guys beneath the glass, snagging eight rebounds to accompany his 16 points. Ginobili strategically chose his spots. Seeing that teammates Luis Scola and Carlos Delfino had their shots going early, Ginobili worked off the ball to create even more space for the forwards to find space for those jumpers. Overall, Wednesday was just another savvy performance from a player who has set the standard for international competition.

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Luis Scola, Argentina
Scola had one of the tougher matchups of the quarterfinals in Tiago Splitter, but managed to find just enough space to launch that patented face-up jumper. Scola isn't the quickest guy on the floor, but he was always willing to move along the baseline and to the top of the key to find that spot. When Brazil’s defense forced him into an extended isolation possession in the first half, Scola went to work and ultimately drained a hook over Splitter. Quickness will ignite spurts at this level, but there's no substitute for skills. Scola's team-high 17 points was an apt demonstration of that.

Huertas
Marcelinho Huertas, Brazil
The Brazilian point guard couldn't buy a shot from long range during group play, but he was unconscionable in the first quarter, launching off-balanced bombs off his right foot. That wasn't all. Huertas also demonstrated some textbook pure-point moments. In the open court, Huertas hit Splitter when the big man had the good sense to sprint to the rim in transition. Once Argentina began to body up on him 25 feet from the basket, Huertas evolved into a creator. Splitter returned that earlier favor when Huertas made a smart basket dive down the gut of the lane to catch the ball on the move from his big man. Observing Huertas match up against Pablo Prigioni was like watching a couple of samurais with their swords drawn, waiting for the other to make the first move. Down the stretch, Leandro Barbosa would assume the role of fearless sniper for Brazil, which almost managed to forge an upset but ultimately fell short.

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Andres Nocioni, Argentina
To emphasize how nasty Nocioni was to play against, a veteran NBA starter said that the Argentine's irritating style once had the notoriously mellow Josh Childress ready to fight him. Nocioni's feistiness was critical for Argentina, especially with the Brazilians fighting back in the fourth quarter. Nocioni was his usual, detail-oriented self. As insurance, he followed a teammate's breakaway opportunity, and ultimately got paid with a putback when the layup wouldn't go down. A couple of minutes later, Nocioni had Brazil's Alex Garcia hearing footsteps on the break and, go figure, Brazil failed to convert. On offense, Nocioni never held the ball for long, but always advanced it to a guy with a pretty good look. During an important possession at about the 3-minute mark, Nocioni cleverly deked Guilherme Giovannoni with hesitation to create a driving lane, then muscled up the shot at the rim against Nene. He contested rebounds under both baskets to preserve possessions for his team. The all-purpose pest finished with 12 points (5-for-7 from the field), six rebounds and at least a dozen shoves, bumps and dirty tricks that helped his team.

Carlos Delfino also deserves consideration at this spot. His 14 first-half points paced the Argentinians as Delfino used Ray Allen-like misdirection along the baseline to flare out to the perimeter for clean looks.

Spain 66, France 59
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Pau Gasol, Spain
The Spaniards won this game on the glass and at the stripe. Looking at the former area, the elder Gasol was the key. In only 23 minutes, Gasol gobbled up 11 boards (that’s 19 rebounds per 40 minutes if you’re scoring at home) to go with 14 points.

Although he wasn’t dominant, Gasol made himself a true triple threat. He’s never lacked for passing and shooting, but on Wednesday he wasn’t bashful about putting the ball on the floor or pressuring France in the post. When double-teams arrived, Gasol found shooters like Juan Carlos Navarro for open 3-pointers. But Pau’s most graceful play of the contest came when he delivered a gentle touch pass to his brother Marc, who finished on the move with a layup that gave Spain a five-point lead with 45.3 seconds remaining.
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Boris Diaw, France
France’s offense was supposed to be fueled by Tony Parker’s speed; instead, it was guided by Diaw’s vision. When he operates as a point forward, the French offense hums with elegance. Diaw did some damage from long range, but it was even more affirming to see him bounce a pass in traffic underneath to a young guy like Kevin Seraphin, who needs to establish his confidence. Later, Diaw fired a skip pass to Nicolas Batum that resulted in a badly needed 3-pointer as France's offense was grinding to a standstill. And how about that drive, then up-and-under, switching hands to finish strong with his left? Later in the third quarter, Diaw impressed with a runner through the teeth of the Spanish defense. Diaw finished with game-highs in points (15), assists (5) and 3-pointers (3-of-6), and led his team in rebounds (8). A noble performance in a disappointing loss.
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Marc Gasol, Spain
The younger Gasol put his signature on Spain’s win with his defense. He presided as the gatekeeper of the baseline, constantly shutting down penetration from the corners. He gave up nothing in the post against a French team that couldn’t generate anything inside. Offensively, Gasol did nothing fancy with the ball except what must have been his most satisfying moment: Big bro pinned two French defenders to allow Marc to float out to the top of the arc for a big 3-pointer, a silky-smooth shot that gave Spain a 41-37 lead in the third quarter.

Russia 83, Lithuania 74
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Andrei Kirilenko, Russia
The veteran continues to make his case as the most complete player in London. The stat line suggests as much (19 points, 13 boards, 3 assists, 3 steals and 3 blocks), but Kirilenko's overall impact in Russia's 83-74 win over Lithuania far transcends the numbers. AK is one of the stealthiest big guys around, not only defensively but also in the confines of Russia's offense. His checklist spans from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok.

Not a one-on-one player? Baloney. Did you see that left-handed dribble drive in the second quarter? Too unassertive to thrive in the post? Not a chance, as he repeatedly looked for an advantage on the block. He found teammates from the top of the floor as Russia's high-low facilitator and thrived in the open court as well. Kirilenko initiated so many pretty sequences, but the most impressive came in the second quarter, when he swooped in to collect an offensive rebound off a missed free throw, kicked the ball out for the reset, then, realizing the right block was completely unoccupied, pounced to the open space, where he received a prompt pass for an easy dunk.

Kirilenko’s coup de grace came on a weakside basket cut inside of two minutes. Viktor Khryapa found Kirilenko, who went up strong for the and-1, which ultimately iced the game for Russia. Vintage Kirilenko and a portrait of intuition.
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Timofey Mozgov, Russia
He knew where to be on the court at all times, whether it was following misses with tip-ins or just ducking in from the weak side for easy looks. The big man also can run the floor and converted a big bucket on the break in the third quarter to give the Russians a nine-point lead -- their largest at the time. Mozgov also showed signs of being an effective dive man, working with Alexey Shved on a number of slick slip screens. As size becomes increasingly important during the medal round, Mozgov will come in awfully handy for the Russians if he can display the opportunism he showed Wednesday.
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Darius Songaila, Lithuania
Time and again when they needed a basket, the Lithuanians would go to the Sarunas Jasikevicius pick-and-roll for nourishment. Songaila timed his rolls perfectly and scored 10 big points in the second quarter en route to a 15-point outing. The Russians never really found an answer for Songaila on the move and ended up hacking him repeatedly to prevent those shots at close range. As a result, Songaila made a living at the line, sinking all seven of his attempts at the stripe. On the other side of the ball, Songaila played with his usual level of impunity, rushing the ball and groping for position.
Khryapa

Viktor Khryapa, Russia
Loved the game Khryapa put together on Wednesday. Known primarily as an energy guy with quick defensive feet and a bit of a streak shooter, Khryapa functioned as a primary playmaker offensively for Russia. He was the key assist man (including a deft pass on that climactic Kirilenko traditional 3-point play late), and drained a couple of huge bombs from beyond the arc when the game tightened. Want to see Khryapa in isolation? He showed off his handle and finish in the second quarter when he spun off Martynas Pocius on the right side, then powered his way to the hoop.

The top 10 of Olympics group play

August, 7, 2012
8/07/12
9:41
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Monday was the final round of group play, with eight teams advancing to the knockout phase. There were a fair number of virtuoso performances, spirited underdogs and some individual surprises, but those who have excelled at Olympics past, by and large, added to their international legacies.

Here a

re 10 standouts of the group play (in no particular order):
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Manu Ginobili, Argentina
Possibly the greatest competitor in international play in a generation, Ginobili is likely playing in his final Olympics. He has set the standard for pros who want to leave their imprint on the state of global basketball, and he has suffered no falloff whatsoever in his 2012 Olympic production: 20 points, 6 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 29 minutes per game -- and perfect at the line in 27 attempts. Ginobili has accomplished this despite losing one-third of a step, but the seams are still there, even if the burst isn’t. Ginobili knows the defenders and is still one of the game's best navigators with the ball in his hands.
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Pau Gasol, Spain
He has snatched those 25 or so minutes he spends on the floor for Spain and made them his personal exhibition. It’s difficult to tell if Gasol is being guided by the desire to answer those who question his fortitude November through June, or if he truly feels more comfortable in that Espana jersey. Whatever the case, Gasol has eagerly moved to the post, but has still experienced a ton of success as a face-up jump shooter. He hasn’t been flawless. A couple of brain-freezes late contributed to a loss against Russia, but those blemishes aside, Gasol has been as reliable as anyone in a series of games that hasn’t been a cakewalk for Spain.
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Andrei Kirilenko, Russia
Another guy whose happiness quotient seems to tick up when sporting a national uniform. Kirilenko is still one of the best pressure defenders in the game for a player his size. Offensively, Kirilenko has been able to operate in areas of the game where he’s strongest -- making back cuts, facilitating plays that move the Russians closer to a clean shot, and generally putting himself in a position to score (drawing plenty of fouls along the way). When Kirilenko is engaged and playing with confidence, he’s a joy to watch.
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Carmelo Anthony, United States
Nobody is more potent when the game is easy. During group play, overwhelmed defenders matched up against Anthony are standing opposite him thinking, “Not only do I have to defend this guy’s size, but also his guile, and deceptive quickness, too?” Anthony’s 37 points in 14 minutes against Nigeria was the buzziest event of group play. He was denied the opportunity to tie a bow around his group-stage performance after he took a nasty shot to the groin by Argentine point guard Facundo Campazzo, but still finished the five games as a “198 shooter," when you add up field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage and percentage from beyond the arc.
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Luis Scola, Argentina
If Ginobili is the heart of the Argentine team, then Scola is the nervous system, the organ that allows the body to do its thing. It's nothing we haven't seen before. Luis is popping, skying hooks, diving to the rim and finishing. If he can't find the space he needs, he'll cleverly draw a foul.

Scola's performance against Lithuania, when he went off for 32 points and sprinkled in some pretty basketball plays, stands out as one of the best offensive displays of group play.
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Nicolas Batum, France
The lanky forward has had a big offseason, inking a four-year contract north of $40 million with the Portland Trail Blazers Portland after being the chew toy in a tug-of-war between Portland and the Minnesota Timberwolves. After he sputtered in France's opening loss to Team USA, Batum has emerged as one of the more effective transition wings in the tournament. The defense has been decent, if unexceptional, but Batum has slithered his way to a number of rebounds in traffic. There won't be a more interesting player to watch during the quarterfinals and beyond, because for all that production (16.8 points per game on 60.4 percent shooting), our overall evaluation of Batum will be his capacity to take control of the game on at least one side of the ball.
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LeBron James, United States
James has exerted his will when inspired, even if he's choosing his spots sparingly -- the third quarter against Argentina the latest and most notable example. With Team USA and Argentina separated by a one-point margin at the half, James came out of intermission and put up seven points in three possessions over a minute and a half. The first bucket was a turnaround J after posting Andres Nocioni. James followed with a 3-pointer off an offensive rebound that made its way to him in the left corner. Then, he scooped in a shot at close range after carving out space near the baseline.
Shved

Alexey Shved, Russia
Can we throw out the game against Spain for a second and examine what's working about the 23-year-old's game? And can you imagine a few minutes of Ricky Rubio and Shved as a backcourt tandem? The creativity and quickness with the ball are evident, but we also like Shved's change of speeds, his propensity to see where his teammates are situated on the floor, and how their big bodies can help him find a quick path to the rim. As much as anyone in the field, Shved's ability to control pace will contribute largely to his team's success in the knockout phase.
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Patty Mills, Australia
The Boomers have been a resourceful, ad-hoc team. They engage in guerrilla warfare, running multiple defenders at big scorers and finding useful ways to deploy their big front line. But the constant for Australia has been Patty Mills in open space. Mills has been a little trigger-happy (only 13-for-39 from beyond the arc), but his cold-blooded buzzer-beater at the top of the circle torched the undefeated Russians. Mills’ 20.6 points per game leads all Olympians.
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Joel Freeland, Great Britain
The big Brit has been a gritty irritant on both ends, doing his best Nick Collison imitation. Freeland fights front to low post, and has also shown flashes of a nice left shoulder game. He was a horse down the stretch in the heartbreaker against Spain, and his big frame is deceptively mobile, one reason he has nabbed 10.6 rebounds per 40 minutes.

Honorable mentions: Kevin Durant, United States; Kevin Love, United States; Linas Kleiza, Lithuania; Timofey Mozgov, Russia; Salah Mejri, Tunisia; Carlos Delfino, Argentina; Vitaliy Fridzon, Russia; Anderson Varejao, Brazil; Joe Ingles, Australia; Marcelinho Huertas, Brazil.

Killer lineup: The Rockets' grenade

April, 13, 2012
4/13/12
10:10
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive



Houston Rockets
Goran Dragic | Courtney Lee | Chandler Parsons | Luis Scola | Samuel Dalembert
Minutes Played: 157
Offensive Rating: 112.6 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 96.4 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively
Very well, thank you.

The biggest challenge is finding court time together now that Kyle Lowry has returned to action after suffering a bacterial infection. Now that Lowry is back, this unit hasn't seen any time together over the past couple of games, even though it's largely responsible for Houston's success during Lowry's prolonged absence.

It's important to offer a disclaimer on Lowry. He's a unique talent at the point, an incredibly efficient fireplug who has led the Rockets in adjusted plus-minus over the past two seasons. His presence at the top of the floor has often saved the Rockets' defense from calamity, and the success of any lineup sans Lowry should in no way be regarded as a denigration of his skills.

Goran Dragic is a different sort, a whirling dervish of a point guard whose hunger to pressure the defense is perfectly suited to the Rockets' offensive imperatives.

Dragic is always on the attack, and most of the action in the half court plays off his dribble penetration. Here's where Dragic is so dangerous: Trap him and he's likely to create a 4-on-3 game. And once he gets free off the dribble, he'll instantly identify where the help is coming from. Houston invites or, at the very least, tempts the defenses with high screens from Dalembert. This drags Dalembert's defender up top, usually in the right slot. If, rather than blitzing, teams feel compelled to fight over these screens, Dragic's quickness can leave defenders trailing him, biting his ankles as he zips through the lane.

Once Dragic finds daylight, teams often help off Dalembert, but if that big defender steps up, Dragic will guide Dalembert to the rim with a bounce pass for the easy flush. If the defense leaves Chandler Parsons open, he will lift to a spot on the perimeter, where Dragic will find him with a kickout for an open shot. Parsons isn't a knockdown shooter, at least not yet, but give him a wide open look from beyond the arc, and the Rockets can live with that.

In addition, much of the secondary action off Dragic's initial attack is designed to get Luis Scola open along the baseline for a midrange jumper, often via a two-man game with Courtney Lee, an underrated shooter and creator who doesn't make a lot of mistakes and can do a little bit of everything. Scola will also see his fair share of entry passes off the mid-post right from the outset.

Don't you dare help off Scola along the baseline! Dragic will find him, even in traffic. Much of the offense is focused on setting Scola up just off the right block and putting the defense in a position where it has to make an impossible choice. Dragic will drive right, forcing Scola's man to slide over to collapse on a driving Dragic. When that happens, Scola is left open for an uncontested baseline jumper on the right side, a shot Scola has nearly perfected.

And that's the thing about playing with a speed demon who has a tight handle. You can be an obscure second-rounder, or unathletic, or a not terribly skilled center. In many ways, Scola is the closest thing this lineup has to a complete player. As long as you can read the action and move to a spot on the floor where you know you can do some damage, the offense will profit, because Dragic will make the defense pay.

How it works defensively
Comme ci, comme ša.

Houston runs more of an ad-hoc defense than a systematic one, and for the personnel in this unit, that's not a terrible thing. Coverages on pick-and-rolls, whether they occur up top, at an angle or on the side, tend to be situational. This unit will gamble as a group (e.g., aggressively double bigs from the top side). They trap most side pick-and-rolls, knowing they can entrust Dalembert to provide a strong last line of resistance at the rim if the defenders get split.

Dragic isn't big, but he seems to take high picks personally and will try to fight mightily over every last one. This is a good thing, because Scola needs time to get back into a play, and can afford to wait around all night for his guard to bust through a screen. This defensive unit isn't always ferocious at the point of attack on high ball-screens, but the three guys behind the action know where to be when action is initiated. Each is smart and aware. The wings know when to collapse and when to protect the perimeter and let Dalembert do his thing. As a side note, did you know Dalembert occasionally likes to eat goat before a game when he needs a little boost? Says it gives him strength.

Even though this quintet doesn't have any overwhelming strengths as a unit (aside from Dalembert's shot-blocking), it performs almost every defensive task as a marginally above-average level relative to the rest of the league. They protect the glass and avoid fouling. Opponents shoot well, but not exceptionally. Most shots are contested because the rotations are prompt and this group makes a point to chase shooters off the arc.

Parsons has a lot of versatility as an isolation defender, and any 6-foot-9 forward who can match up against perimeter scorers comes in extremely handy. He uses his lateral movements to wall off the paint against even the most lethal wings in the league, and concerns himself with guarding the space in front of his man as he does bodying up. His height affords him the luxury of rarely falling for a ball fake and, off the ball, he'll lock onto his assignment. The Rockets will often cross-match Parsons and Lee, if the opponent's 2-guard is the most dynamic threat on the floor. This will occasionally leave Lee vulnerable to bigger guys who are hungry to post him up.

In many respects, the defense operates under the same general premise of the offense. Apart from Dalembert, everyone knows his role, which isn't all that explicit. That role is simply to not make mistakes and to be mindful of where the defense might be exposed. If you can't address it one-on-one, make sure you know where Dalembert is stationed.

It doesn't matter if it bends, just so long as it doesn't break.

The 2012 All-Flop Teams

March, 20, 2012
3/20/12
2:49
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Archive
When Shane Battier, the patron baller of HoopIdea, called out former teammate Luis Scola for being one of the most accomplished actors in the league, it got us thinking: Who are the most egregious floppers around?

We asked the TrueHoop Network for help, and the result is our first ever All-Flop Teams.

FIRST TEAM

Chris Paul, PG: Paul quickly emerged as the consensus Most Floppy Player. As this video from Daily Thunder’s Royce Young shows, Paul is truly a fantastic two-way talent. Graydon Gordian elaborates, “I think Royce's video demonstrated two really distinct things Chris Paul does: (a) He stops dead in his tracks, backs up into a player who's behind him and then falls forward, and (b) he maintains possession of the ball and/or makes a pass while going to the ground. He doesn't lose the ball when flopping, which lots of guys do.”

Raja Bell/Manu Ginobili, SG: Controversial decision to include both of them here, but really these two have given so much to the game. Manu with his whiplash-inducing head thrashes as he drives to the basket and Raja Bell with his ability to be thrown backwards by the slightest of contact. Here’s the Raja-Manu mixtape of floppery.

Paul Pierce, SF: Pierce is another two-way player who isn’t afraid to artistically embellish any contact (real or imagined) with a sometimes ludicrous flourish.

Luis Scola, PF: Battier put it best: “The more hair you have, the better. My boy Luis Scola, he’s got that long hair and when it gets sweaty and he starts flopping and flailing, it looks like he’s getting murdered out there.”

Ben Wallace, C: Writes Patrick Hayes of Piston Powered: "Wallace is adept at going for rebounds in heavy traffic, but he also uses that traffic to his advantage. If a shot is missed and he doesn't have a great angle to get to it, he's patented a move where he jumps forward and lurches his body while simultaneously letting out a loud 'OOOPH,' which over the years has pretty regularly convinced officials he was pushed in the back. Often, video evidence suggests otherwise. Wallace's artful flopping on rebound attempts has been just another valuable skill he's brought to the Pistons that doesn't show up in his stats. Oh, and don't ever mention to him that he flops ... he doesn't like that.”

SECOND TEAM

Rajon Rondo, PG: Rondo’s habit of throwing himself into a defender 50 feet from the hoop and firing off a prayer as time expires isn’t why he’s a celebrated flopper. It’s because, as Brendan Jackson of Celtics Hub noted, he’ll fall over as a defense mechanism whenever he gets in trouble with his dribble, especially along the baseline. (Also receiving votes: Tony Parker, Derek Fisher, Deron Williams, Chauncey Billups.)

Jamal Crawford, SG: A unique flopper, as Kevin Arnovitz explains, “There's a reason Jamal Crawford holds the all-time NBA record for 4-point plays. As the sharpshooter elevates and releases his shot, he'll gracefully hinge his hips forward, kick his legs into his defender and often land on his tuchus in the process.” (Also receiving votes: Dwyane Wade, James Harden, Kobe Bryant.)

Corey Maggette, SF: Ethan Sherwood Strauss paints us a picture of a typical Maggette flop: “Two dribbles hoop-ward and he’s already leaning for contact. It’s an offensive foul, or at least it would be were it not for Corey’s sleight of hand. Somehow this ball of muscles flies backward from the 'contact.' It’s a visual trick -- Maggette uses an off arm to redirect his body movement. The ball? That thing’s flying into the stands, chased by the sound waves of Corey’s wounded animal bleat.” (Also receiving votes: Kevin Durant, Vince Carter, Nicolas Batum.)

Dirk Nowitzki, PF: Dirk is a do-it-all flopper. He can flop while driving, shooting, playing defense and rebounding, perhaps the most underrated facet of his flop game. Dirk may never jump higher than when he’s flying away from a rebound after a “nudge” in the back. (Also receiving votes: Blake Griffin, Pau Gasol, Tim Duncan.)

Reggie Evans, C: Evans has a reputation as one of the dirtiest players in the NBA, but don’t try any of that stuff on him. Reggie can induce whistles with the best of them, but only while doing the only things he does well on the court: setting screens, rebounding and exchanging elbows under the rim. (Also receiving votes: Marc Gasol, JaVale McGee.)


One thing you'll notice is that this list contains almost every great player in the league. That's not an accident, part of excelling in the NBA is being able to manipulate officials to benefit your team.

It's not that players are sneaky or devious, they're just pragmatic. The system won't penalize flopping and will sometimes reward it, so what's the downside?

So let's change the system. What kind of penalties for flopping would you like to see, and how would they be implemented?

JOIN THE CONVERSATION

You can give us your ideas and talk with us and other fans in the following places:
And for the truly ambitious: Shoot a short video of yourself explaining your HoopIdea, upload it to YouTube and share the link with us on Twitter or Google+.

Let 'em walk

December, 19, 2011
12/19/11
3:38
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
The unknown factors in the Chris Paul trade saga remain a mystery. Smart people are still asking the right questions, but we still don't know what governed the decision to veto a three-way trade between the Hornets, Lakers and Rockets, then sign off on a package from the Clippers.

We don't know to what extent that first deal was agreed upon by front office principals in New Orleans, Houston and Los Angeles. We don't know whether the subsequent rejection of that trade for "basketball reasons" was just that -- a statement about the contents of the package, or whether the league had ulterior motives like throwing a bone to a segment of owners or listening to the wishes of a potential buyer.

What few have asked is why the Hornets felt the dire need to trade Chris Paul in the first place, a question Mavericks owner Mark Cuban addressed over the weekend in an interview with TMZ:
[W]e went through a long lockout, and one of the things we were trying to gain was that small-market teams could have confidence they could keep their star players ... There would be enough financial incentives for them to stay with the incumbent team. And within two weeks of the new collective bargaining agreement, the smallest-market team, which is owned by the NBA, threw up their hands and said, ‘We can’t keep our star player.’ So it’s not about Chris Paul. It’s more about the fact that the NBA kind of gave up on the CBA before giving it a chance. And to me, that made them kind of hypocritical -- or very hypocritical -- which didn’t sit too well with me...

... We had a lockout. What was the purpose of the lockout? One of the goals of the lockout was to have more parity. With free agency, players are always allowed to choose wherever they want to go, but they have to make a decision. Do they want to stay with their existing teams and make the most money, or leave on their own terms to wherever they want to go with cap room and take less money? My personal belief is 90 percent of the time players are going to take the greater money, which meant that Chris Paul could've, would've -- or any star player could've, would've -- wanted to stay in the smaller market. And you’ve got other teams that are making that conscious decision to stick it out like Orlando is doing. But of all the teams not sticking it out, you would think the team owned by the NBA and run by the commissioner would be the first to stick it out, and they weren’t. And to me, it’s hypocritical, and threw a lot of us under the bus.

Cuban argues that a team owned by the NBA should've been faithful to the spirit of a collective bargaining agreement that makes superstars choose between destination and treasure. Had Chris Paul opted out of the final year of his contract with New Orleans and chosen the Lakers, then so be it. Paul would've had to settle for only $75.8 million over four seasons rather than the $100.2 million over five seasons he could've earned only with the Hornets.

Critics of Cuban's argument would say that an unwillingness to trade Paul could mean the Hornets would be stuck with nothing in return.

But is nothing really so bad?

Wasn't the initial proposal -- which would've netted the Hornets Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Lamar Odom and Goran Dragic -- rejected because it would've made the Hornets too competitive? The Hornets would've been consigned to the NBA's middle class, not competitive enough to win anything meaningful, but not bad enough to secure a future superstar with a high draft pick. While treading water, the Hornets would be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars, even if those contracts are of relatively fair value, which they are.

In contrast, the Clippers delivered a likely Top 10 pick, along with an expiring deal for an All-Star center, a prolific young scorer and a forward prospect. Nevermind that the center won't be around next season, the scorer might not want to stick around and the prospect may or may not amount to anything. In fact, for teams in rebuilding mode, success presents serious problems. As Ethan Sherwood Strauss wrote last week at HoopSpeak, why pay to be competitive if you can tank for less?
Much of the appeal in this Clippers-Hornets trade is derived from how it makes the Hornets immediately, well, bad ... Obviously, Eric Gordon is a key get, but few observers believe he’ll take New Orleans to next year’s playoffs. And that’s the point. The Hornets will receive a high lottery selection to pair with Minnesota’s 2011 draft pick. A gutted team plus lotto hope makes for a more enticing situation than the playoff contention troika of Luis Scola, Lamar Odom, and Kevin Martin.

By shepherding this particular trade through, the commissioner is tacitly–maybe even overtly–singing a grand, bellowing ode to the glories of tanking. And he is quite correct, because ping pong balls determine so much.

This is why Orlando shouldn't worry too much about getting nothing in return for Howard -- and why New Orleans should flip Eric Gordon as soon as possible, lest he help them win 28 games and finish with the No. 9 or 10 pick.

Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri deserves praise for engineering a strong deal when Carmelo Anthony declared he wanted out of Denver, but pull back for a second and consider what the future looks like for the Nuggets. Those nice assets accumulated in Anthony trade should, along with Nene, sentence the Nuggets to respectability. The team will be fun, likeable and utterly irrelevant on May 25, if not sooner. While the dregs of the league scout all the coveted incoming big men at the top of the draft board, Denver will troll the middle ranks of the first round.

It will be years before we can fairly judge whether the Nuggets would've been better off letting Anthony leave "for nothing," but if your goal is June basketball in Denver at the earliest possible moment, Top 5 picks and swaths of cap space for the foreseeable future might be preferable to Danilo Gallinari and a highly-compensated Nene, who is approaching 30. Nuggets fans won't have to cover their eyes, but they can probably forget about seeing tickets with holograms on them anytime soon.

When we learned last week of a Howard trade proposal that had Brook Lopez, Gerald Wallace, Jordan Farmar and a pick to Orlando, the early takeaway was that Orlando was getting the shaft. But the problem for Orlando wasn't that the deal was bad -- it's that it wasn't bad enough! The NBA is governed by a system that reserves its greatest rewards for abject failure, but tells teams striving to put a competitive product on the floor that it's wasting its time.

Think about the Houston Rockets for a second. While they had $40 million of annual salary tied up in two injured superstars, they continued to make wily deals, like offloading Rafer Alston for the Grizzlies' backup point guard, and stealing an Argentinian power forward from the Spurs for Vassilis Spanoulis. Kyle Lowry and Luis Scola have allowed the Rockets to remain competitive on a nightly basis -- and forever relegated to the middle of the first round of the NBA draft, where superstars are a once in a generation occurrence.

What do you do if you're the Rockets or the Hawks and have the talent in place to hang around the 45-win mark for the foreseeable future? Are you deluding yourself in a system with screwy disincentives and maddening inefficiencies? Are you better off conducting a fire sale and putting a sign at the arena gate apologizing for the mess while you remodel?

Mark Cuban is half right-half wrong. If the Hornets and/or the NBA made a mistake by dealing away Chris Paul, it isn't because they betrayed any tacit promise they owed to small-market owners (You want a promise? Get it in the form of a hard cap). It's because they acquired a player who has the potential to win basketball games and cost them lots of money next summer, two things that will work in opposition to getting atop the NBA draft board.

Orlando now finds itself in a similar situation with Howard. The two most desirable outcomes for the Magic are (1) figuring out how to retain Howard for the long term (2) putting themselves in the same position they were when they drafted Howard in 2004 -- 40 games under .500.

Offering him the most years at the most money is the only way to achieve No. 1. "Getting nothing in return for Howard" is the easiest way to get to No. 2.

But trading Howard for productive players is the sure-fire way to thwart both plans.

Monday Bullets

December, 19, 2011
12/19/11
1:25
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Classmates of Kim Jong Il's son, Kim Jong-un, testify that the presumed successor in North Korea wasn't all that interested in politics when he was at school in Switzerland. What really got him going was basketball. "He worshipped basketball players in the NBA. A friend who visited his apartment at #10, Kirchstrasse, Liebefeld, recalls that Kim had a room filled with NBA-memorabilia. 'He proudly showed off photographs of himself standing with Toni Kukoc of the Chicago Bulls and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers. It is unclear where the pictures were taken. On at least one occasion, a car from the North Korean Embassy drove Pak Un to Paris to watch an NBA exhibition game,' the [Washington Post] said. In class, Pak Un was generally shy and awkward with girls, but he became a different person on basketball court, according to his classmates. 'A fiercely competitive player,' said classmate Nikola Kovacevic. 'He was very explosive. He could make things happen. He was the playmaker.'"
  • Michael Pina of Red94 composes a stellar post on the psyche of trade bait. There are those, like Kevin Martin and Chauncey Billups, who take it a little personally. Others, like Lamar Odom, are driven to tears. Then there are Luis Scola, Rajon Rondo and Pau Gasol, who are able to convey detachment -- at least publicly.
  • The Heat have pledged to switch up their offense this season by incorporating more fast-break attacks and putting more of a premium on spacing. Beckley Mason of HoopSpeak exchanges with a reader who explains what "the Invert" offense in lacrosse can teach us about defending the Heat.
  • Charlie Widdoes of ClipperBlog feels the Clippers gave up too much for Chris Paul, and that staying the course with Eric Gordon and the salary flexibility that would've come with Chris Kaman's expiring contract was the right call.
  • Aaron McGuire of Gothic Ginobili on the composition of the reigning champions in Dallas: "So where does that leave you? A short stint with a lineup where Lamar Odom is the primary ballhandler, employing Dirk and Marion as roll men with Delonte and Carter in the wings if the play goes sour? Does the team manage a point-by-committee sort of strategy? And who defends what? Dirk’s defense has gotten better over the years, but at this point Odom is essentially the best defensive talent in the Mavs’ big rotation. Do you cross-match Odom on the opposing center and hope he can draw them out of the paint? Do you keep Dirk at center and live with the terrifying defensive results? I really don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone else does either. And that’s part of what makes this Mavs team so interesting."
  • Kris Humphries chalks up impressive numbers on the Wins Produced metric, prompting Andres Alvarez of Wages of Win to ask why the power forward remains unsigned.
  • When Boris Diaw was growing up in France, his mom -- a former player -- ordered him not to join the throng of kids who'd storm the scorebook immediately after the game to tally their point totals.
  • Watching Al Jefferson's deliberate but effective post game drives Zach Harper to thumbing through periodicals during live play, but Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams are shiny!
  • The amnesty deadline passed and Rashard Lewis is still a Wizard. Lewis is setting up house in Washington, where his daughter has enrolled at nearby Sidwell Friends, where the Obama girls attend school.
  • Who would you rather be -- the Lakers or the Clippers?
  • Kevin Durant's fans will scour North America for his backpack like it's an afikoman.

Positions and systems

August, 20, 2010
8/20/10
12:44
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Austin Burton was on hand at Rucker Park in Harlem last weekend for the World Basketball Festival when Kobe Bryant addressed the media:
Kobe said the influence of international players in the NBA has helped create a “hybrid” culture, where players of all sizes possess skills in all areas and can conceiveably play any position on the floor.

“That’s the one difference I’d like to see us kind of shift to,” Kobe said.

This vision of five basketball players, devoid of traditional positional constraints, passing and cutting and posting and shooting and dribbling with equal aplomb, is near. The concept of players assuming a definite position on the floor and sticking to that role is fading away like one of Kobe’s jumpers, as a new age of hyrbids begin to take over the game.

And while the soon-to-be 32-year-old Bryant is among the closest representations to his own ideal (6-6 shooting guard who led his team in assists and has one of the most effective post-up games in the League), he also could have been describing LeBron James (6-8 with point guard skills), Kevin Durant, or a number of other younger stars.

The future of positional conformity has been an active topic of conversation this summer in certain quarters. As Rob Mahoney of Two Man Game writes, it's a discussion that becomes more relevant when a luminary like Bryant weighs in:
A universe where all ballers can play in perfect harmony, stand as equals, and worry not over the endless criticism regarding their positional performance. That’s the endgame of all of this, and the fact that Kobe sees it too is a positive sign. Positions as we know them aren’t quite dead, but when one of the league’s pillars decrees them unworthy from atop his ring-and-trophy-adorned tower, people would be wise to listen.

Bryant is far from infallible, but he’s one of the sport’s more active scholars. He knows where this game has been and where it’s headed, and he has an intimate look into the eye (or rather, an eye) of the storm, to boot. From Pau Gasol to Derek Fisher, Shannon Brown to Ron Artest, and Lamar Odom to Kobe himself, the Lakers have a lot of versatile talent that evades convention. The entire league has a lot of versatile talent that evades convention, and that’s something both you, I, and Kobe can agree on.

Mahoney's last remark speaks to an issue that hasn't been all that present in the salon:

Blurring the definitions and imperatives of basketball positions can be fully realized only if there are systems ready to accommodate that shift.

There's a reason the Lakers have "a lot of versatile talent that evades convention." It's because the team features an offense that de-emphasizes traditional positions in favor of function. In the triangle offense, Derek Fisher -- the nominal point guard -- acts as a spot-up shooter in the confines of the half court (particularly in corner sets) far more often than he does as a distributor. The wings in the triangle are often the trigger men, and the Lakers can maximize Bryant (their shooting guard) in the post without disrupting the sequential flow of the triangle.

The same holds true in Utah, where the Jazz's two and three man actions require every player on the floor to perform every conceivable offensive function. There's nothing new about the flex -- it's been around for decades -- but its bedrock principles demand that every player be able to screen, pass, shoot and cut. By the time the Jazz finish their "power swing" set, at least two perimeter players have set screens, at least one of the big men has cut from one side of the court to the other, and at least three or four different players have made passes off reads.

Orlando's sets rely on more traditional positional functions, but having a wing that can handle the ball in a screen-and-roll set and Rashard Lewis' long-range game are both crucial to the Magic's offensive success. Rick Adelman's system has traditionally broadened the positional functions of his big men (think Chris Webber). It also requires that every one else work in concert. Once a perimeter player has the ball, Luis Scola's responsibilities are virtually indistinguishable from Shane Battier's -- even if the latter has greater range. Everyone moves and everyone fills.

In short, pro basketball is ripe for a positional revolution -- but like every revolution, those challenging the status quo must be ready to govern once they take control.

Plenty of heroes in Houston vs. Denver

March, 16, 2010
3/16/10
10:50
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive


Holy cow, what a game. Denver's hoping to catch the Lakers for the West's top spot, while the Rockets are in "one game at a time" mode, praying to sneak in as the eighth seed. Everything was high octane.

John Hollinger's Playoff Odds give the Rockets a 4.9 percent chance of making the playoffs, and there were moments of this game where victory seemed about as attainable.

Things appeared a little hopeless for Houston; for instance, when they were down 11 points about three minutes into the fourth quarter and suddenly seemed unable to make a field goal. If you ignore a goaltend, their first real bucket of the fourth quarter came with 8:33 left.

I also felt it might have been Denver's game when the Rockets were up five and Trevor Ariza did a Ron Artest maneuver: Having not done much to help his team for a spell, he decided to "pitch in" by taking an ill-advised shot. With his team down five and less than a minute-and-a-half to go, Ariza clearly felt he had to earn his contract. Instead of running the offense, he nearly turned the ball over, then pulled up for the 3 that Carmelo Anthony invited him to take. He's a 32 percent 3-point shooter, and most players shoot that shot better off the catch or when they're wide open, not on the move and off the dribble. As the ball was airborne, the Nuggets must have felt good. But fortune smiled on the Rockets in this game, as they hope it will in the playoff hunt.

The highlights demonstrate the mastery of high-scorers Aaron Brooks and Carmelo Anthony (although they miss his best play, when he took every inch the defense gave and dunked to tie the game before Houston's game-winner) in this game. But there were other stories. Consider a series of Denver defensive miscues, including one that led to a Luis Scola three-point play in the final minute. And the game's many other heroes:
  • I don't know if there's such a thing as a defensive player getting "in the zone." But if there is, Anthony Carter was there early in the fourth quarter. With the Nuggets up five, Carter stole the ball from Brooks, blocked Scola from behind and poked the ball away from Kevin Martin. Remember, forced turnovers like that are far rarer than made shots -- three shots in quick succession is considered tremendous. Three live-ball turnovers ... that's ridiculous. All the while, Carmelo Anthony kept scoring, and the Nuggets built a lead that it seemed they might never relinquish. Eventually, the Nuggets cooled off, Chauncey Billups returned for Carter and the Rockets snuck back into the game. Carter sat through the meat of the fourth quarter, coming off the bench only to check Brooks on the final play after Billups fouled out. As I watched, I thought to myself: I bet Carter has a good plus/minus in this game, and sure enough, he led the Nuggets at plus-eight.
  • With about 35 seconds left in a game the Rockets led by two, Nene got great position in the lane against Scola. But he missed the shot and there was a scramble for the rebound. Nene was there, but it was mainly Scola and J.R. Smith. Scola, however, left no doubt that he wanted it more than anybody, and came up with the biggest board of the game.
  • Just as the Nuggets had a productive guard on the bench in crunch time, so did the Rockets. The Rockets essentially couldn't score at all for a period. Then Scola broke the ice, and Shane Battier got his first points of the game on two quick, huge 3-pointers. Then the Nuggets adjusted to Battier, and the Rockets looked lost for a moment, until Kyle Lowry went to work. Lowry is as tenacious a player as there is in the NBA, and in addition to hounding Billups on defense, he powered his way to the rim for two straight buckets to reinvigorate the Rocket offense, and keep the Nuggets within shouting distance. Brooks replaced Lowry with about four minutes left and keyed the win, but credit Lowry with making big plays at both ends, while keeping Brooks fresh for crunch time.

Tuesday Bullets

July, 21, 2009
7/21/09
1:46
PM ET

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

Luis Scola has been doing this whole power forward thing for a long time. When it comes to measuring LeBron James' career, maybe 'breaking out' isn't an operative term. And can Dwight Howard be an elite post player with only an average post game? 

Luis ScolaKurt Helin of Forum Blue & Gold: "What was disappointing and frustrating about the game six loss is that the Lakers had their chances. This never felt like game four, in the first half the Lakers simply were not hitting their shots (and not working to get them from good spots on the floor), they were not creating the turnovers that have fueled them all series ... Meanwhile the Rockets made plays. Credit to them. But that is one that just feels like the Lakers could have had ... One thing I keep reading variations of in Lakersland is '[Pau] Gasol/[Lamar] Odom are making [Luis] Scola look good.' No, Scola is good. Very good. He has a gold medal with Argentina as a key player. He was one of the best players in Europe before coming here. He is savvy on the court and is one of those guys who knows how to get his shot off in traffic. He is dogged on rebounds. He demands extra attention, it's just on a team with Yao he often gets overlooked. He shouldn't. And he doesn't need the Lakers to make him look good."

LeBron JamesJohn Krolik of Cavs the Blog: "[LeBron James] broke out when he posted 26/5/9 in his first NBA game as an 18-year old, and went on to win Rookie of The Year. He broke out when he upped his averages by 7 points and 2 rebounds and assists in his sophomore year while raising his FG% by 5 and his 3PT% by 6, and SI proclaimed him the best 19 year old ever. He broke out again when he upped his scoring average by another 4 points, averaged 31.4 points per game as a 21 year old, and won an amazing series with two game-winners and a game-winning hockey assist, then took a vastly superior Pistons team to seven games. Then he beat the Pistons with one of the great performances in playoff teams and took a rag-tag team to the NBA finals. Then he upped his regular season averages across the board again, posted his career-high (to that point) PER, and took the eventual champions to the final minutes of a game 7. But it turns out ... that LeBron really broke out when he improved his free throw shooting and defense and got a supporting crew capable of running an actual offense and spreading the floor. Just because LeBron got better doesn't mean he wasn't already amazing or even the best player in basketball before, and we shouldn't discount previous achievements to try and build up what the guy is doing now."

Dwight HowardZach McCann of Orlando Magic Daily: "[Dwight] Howard in the post is an offensive weapon that is always there in the half-court game. When the offense is struggling, a throw into Howard for a quick jump hook isn't the worst thing in the world. The key is for Howard not to force anything. When he hasn't gotten the ball in a while, it seems like he pushes to get a shot, even if it's not there. We've seen it happen a couple times on ugly hook shots that were either blocked by Perkins or missed the rim all-together. Part of this problem can be solved by making Howard feel like he's part of the offense -- and part of the problem is that Howard's post-moves are still pretty average."

THE FINAL WORD
48 Minutes of Hell: Should the Spurs entertain offers for Manu Ginobili
Piston Powered: Who do you want taking shots?
By the Horns: Take away Matt McHale's eBay account before someone gets hurt.

(Photos by Bill Baptist, Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

Luis Scola
Why is this man clinching his fists and howling? He just gave Houston a 17-1 lead (Ronald Martinez/NBAE via Getty Images)

 
In the Rockets' first round series against Portland, Luis Scola was the primary beneficiary of Nate McMillan's strategy to double-team Yao Ming. With Scola's primary defender, LaMarcus Aldridge, devoting much of his attention to Yao down on the low block, Scola drifted out to 15-20 feet, where he punished the Blazers. Scola averaged 16.2 points in 33.3 minutes over the six games against Portland.

The Lakers have been more attentive to Scola. Over the first three games of the conference semifinal series, they sent Lamar Odom to help on Yao. But their weak side defenders did a better job than Portland's depriving Scola space, while the their ball side defenders cut off angles to Scola. The result was far fewer open jumpers and driving lanes for Scola, who shifted his focus to the glass, where he's done solid work against the Lakers.

Once Yao was lost and Chuck Hayes became the Rockets' starting center, the halcyon days of The Open Luis Scola 18-Foot Jumper figured to be history. The Lakers' center would undoubtedly slough off Hayes and make life tougher for Scola and the Rockets' other scorers.

Scola had unremarkable Games 4 and 5, but Thursday night, he fueled the Rockets' jackrabbit start with a 14-point first quarter: 

  • Lakers Breakdowns [1st Quarter, 10:59; 1st Quarter, 10:30] Some of Scola's success can be attributed to a disoriented Lakers defense. Twice the Lakers' strong-side pressure leaves Scola with nothing but open space around him, and on both possessions, the Lakers pay more attention to Chuck Hayes off the ball than they do to Scola. The first instance results in an open elbow jumper, while the second yields a baseline drive that earns Scola a trip to the line (this was the play where Pau Gasol lectures Andrew Bynum after the whistle). Though both shots come courtesy of a lax Lakers defense, the four points still require Scola to hit from mid-range and make a play for himself. 
  • The Hook [1st Quarter, 9:59; 1st Quarter, 5:33] Scola has a soft touch on his jump hook, both off the pivot and when he's sweeping across the lane from the left block. It's not a particularly good-looking shot, but Scola has made it a centerpiece of his repertoire. He hits the first hook as he backs in from the right side with Bynum's forearm pressed against his upper back. The second is sweet, as Scola deploys a fake spin to buy himself space from Gasol, then elevates for the shot.
  • Elbow Jumper [1st Quarter, 10:59; 1st Quarter, 1:08] The first shot is cross-referenced on "Lakers Breakdowns," and this one is close to falling under that rubric, too. Gasol makes a poor decision to follow Ron Artest -- who is already being trailed closely by Trevor Ariza -- as Artest picks up a handoff at the pinch post from Scola. Artest has his moments in Game 6, but generally plays a less selfish game. When he spins back to the middle on his drive and sees that Gasol has chosen to drop off Scola, Artest immediately shuttles the ball Scola's way. Scola drains the jumper.
  • The "Dream Shake" [1st Quarter 7:05] At least that's what the broadcast team calls it. On the right side of the basket, Odom shades Scola's left shoulder, sending him middle. After his second dribble, Scola spins baseline for his third dribble, before faking back middle, getting Odom to commit. Scola then pivots baseline, steps up and under for a layup, and gives the Rockets a 15-1 lead. Comparing Scola to Hakeem Olajuwon seems unfair. To the extent the parallel exists, it speaks to Scola's footwork, which is incredibly good and makes Scola seem quicker than most of his defenders anticipate. While they're being disarmed, Scola is finding his way to the basket. 
  • The Power Drive [1st Quarter, 6:35] Soft touch, but hard drives. Against Gasol, Scola's back is to the basket off the left block. He waits for Artest to clear, then takes two dribbles with his right while barreling into the lane with his left shoulder. Gasol offers little resistance and almost steps aside for Luke Walton and Odom, neither of whom can deny Scola as he lunges up for a right-handed toss off the glass. And the foul (missed FTA). 

Scola was the pacesetter in Game 6. His absence for the game's final 8:48 gives you an idea of the kind of fourth quarter Carl Landry had for Houston. Landry scored eight points and grabbed seven rebounds, one on a mad scramble which sent him crashing to the floor where he gobbled up the ball and called timeout while sprawled on the hardwood [4th Quarter, 3:56]. Scola will be back in the lineup to start Game 7 on Sunday afternoon at Staples Center, where the Rockets will try to record one of the more improbable series upsets in recent memory. If they beat the Lakers, it'll be because they got lockdown perimeter defense from their wings, post defense and solid screens from their center whose most profound asset is a "low center of gravity," dynamic play from their impish point guard, and the full breadth of Luis Scola's arsenal.

Scola's adaptability has been a constant throughout the Rockets' incredible run. When Portland's double-teams demanded a spot-up shooter, Scola set up at 18 feet. When it was imperative to find Aaron Brooks some daylight, Scola pancaked Derek Fisher (occasionally vice versa) and any other pursuers. When Houston needed a big man to create his own shots down low to have any chance of survival, Scola made it happen.

The Lakers push back ... literally. The Celtics bounce back against a Magic team with no answer for Rajon Rondo. Of all the transgressions that went down at Staples Center Wednesday night, none was more egregious than Von Wafer's. And what do Rasual Butler and Montgomery "Scottie" Scott have in common?

Derek FisherKurt Helin of Forum Blue & Gold: "Let me start by discussing the topic de jour, Derek Fisher decleating Luis Scola. I loved it as a Lakers fan. This team has been blasted as being soft for a year now, and as recently as a couple days ago by an LA Times columnist. But anybody who watched this team this season saw the mentality was different- this team pushed back, they fought, they were tough. They learned the lessons seared into them in the ugly game six in Boston last year. There have been some hard fouls, some pushing back all season long. What Fisher did was a team leader saying 'Don't f$*%&$ with my teammates.' This is a team sticks up for each other and will push back. There are those that will call this overcompensation, others that at the next loss will pull out the soft card again, but frankly those are people who have not really seen how this team has changed. They are people who do not really have a grasp of this team."

Rajon RondoZach McCann of Orlando Magic Daily: "If you're a Magic fan, and you're sweating bullets after Orlando's 18-point loss to the Celtics, let me ask you this. Did you really go into Game 2 with the expectation of a victory? Did you really think that Orlando -- a team that struggled to put away a .500 team in the first round of these same playoffs -- was going to walk into Boston and routinely take not one, but TWO games inside a sold-out Boston arena? ... The biggest worry is Rajon Rondo. We saw glimpses of dominance from Rondo in Game 1, and we got a large helping of it tonight. He was the best player on the floor, finishing with 15 points, 18 assists, and 11 rebounds, and the Magic have proven to have no answer for him. Despite the fact that [Rafer] Alston gives zero respect to Rondo's jumper, Rondo is still able to penetrate the lane at will. His court vision and ability to always get out of a predicament are up there with any veteran point guard in the NBA. He's amazing, and the Magic better find an answer quick."

Kobe BryantBrody Rollins of Rockets Buzz: "Last night Kobe Bryant was spectacular, but after the first thirty minutes of play the Lakers were no closer to victory despite a seemingly perfect performance. For all the criticism leveled against Bryant that he cannot win a championship without Shaquille O'Neal, he proved them wrong in the second half by distributing the ball just as effortlessly as he was draining shots over Shane Battier ... Perhaps no ejection was more deserving than the one Rockets head coach Rick Adelman leveled against Von Wafer early in the 4th quarter. For many, the Rockets playoff hopes evaporated when Tracy McGrady opted for season-ending surgery in February. Instead, what formed in his absence was a group of role players and hustlers defined by the team-first personalities of Artest and Battier. The facts behind his dismissal remain mysterious, but there is little doubt that Wafer's lack of effort on defense and propensity for playing a one-on-one game led to his confrontation with coach Adelman. In a series where the Rockets are clearly outmatched on a level of pure skill, there is no room for players who don't forfeit their egos at the door."

THE FINAL WORD
Celtics Hub: Baby v. Scal, a study in defensive contrasts.
Philadunkia: Trade proposal -- Andre Iguodala for Ben Gordon.
Hornets247: Trekkies take note -- The Hornets hop aboard the starship Enterprise.


(Photos by Harry How, Brian Babineau, Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)

ESPN's Shelley Smith reports from Laker shootaround.

Lamar Odom is likely to start in place of Andrew Bynum. Phil Jackson says "we're thinking about it."

Two sources close to Odom say he will start.

Also Jackson said Luke Walton will be on the active list tonight.

The Lakers had a two-hour shootaround today, the longest of the season. Jackson says "well we got to laughing and joking in film session and just got carried away."

David Thorpe says that if Odom starts, that would mean a few things:

  • Pau Gasol would be guarding Yao Ming. Sounds bad for the Lakers, but Thorpe believes in Gasol, and wrote today about Gasol's ability to bait opponents into making entry passes he can deflect or steal.
  • The normal benefit of Bynum and Gasol together is that one of them would be guarded by a power forward, and presumably have a size advantage. Abandoning the twin towers would be an acknowledgement that Houston forward Luis Scola is enough of tough defender to remove a lot of that benefit.
  • "L.A.," points out Thorpe, "can not go down 0-2. So whatever Phil does is a big sign of what he believes to be his best lineup right now."

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

LOS ANGELES -- During the hour or two prior to tipoff, it's typical for NBA teams to have game tape on the locker room monitor. Most of the time, it's footage of the basic network broadcast with no extras -- but not for the Houston Rockets Monday night. Each clip of video was coded by the name of the play set, and players actually tuned in, something else you don't usually see.

Shane Battier
Shane Battier: Building a wall
(Jeff Gross/NBAE via Getty Images)

Over in the corner, Rockets assistant coach and defensive maven, Elston Turner, worked at the enormous dry erase board, drawing up x's and o's of the Lakers primary sets.

"Spontaneous creativity -- that's what makes them so tough," Turner said of the Lakers, as he marked up the board. "They're so flexible offensively. That kind of flexibility is unique, and you need defensive flexibility to stay with them."

Monday night at Staples Center, Houston employed that defensive flexibility. The Rockets clogged the passing lanes. They successfully pushed the Lakers' big men off their spots. Most of all, Houston's defensive strategy induced an ugly 32-point effort from Kobe Bryant, if such a thing is possible.

"We did a great job with team defense tonight," Rockets forward Shane Battier said. "Every time [Bryant] came off the pick and roll, we had a guy there."

Thanks to the preparation of both the coaching staff and the roster, Houston's defense was able to anticipate the Lakers' offensive action, and prevent Bryant from penetrating into the paint.

Bryant took 26 jumpers Monday night, draining nine. He drove to the basket only seven times, resulting in four field goals, and five free throw attempts. How do you explain that 26:7 ratio for a player as explosive as Bryant? 

"Overall we did a very good job of making a wall," Battier said. "That third guy in the pick-and-roll was there a lot better than in games past."

An illustration of what Battier was talking about:

  • [4th Quarter, 6:04] Derek Fisher leaves the ball at the top of the arc for Bryant, who's being guarded by Battier. Fisher clears out, as Pau Gasol steps up from the pinch post to give Bryant a screen. It's a fairly quick sequence: Battier runs beneath the screen. Meanwhile, as Bryant takes two dribbles to the right of the screen, Yao is four feet in front of him. Should Bryant try taking Yao off the dribble? Only if he's prepared to deal with the "third guy," as Battier referenced above. That would be Luis Scola, who has sagged off Trevor Ariza. Theoretically, Bryant could dish the ball off to Ariza to his left along the arc. Problem is: Battier has taken that angle away, too. As a result of their tight defense, the Rockets have effectively taken both the drive and the kick away from Bryant, leaving him with a contested jump shot -- which is exactly what Houston wants.

"We were trying to keep him from getting to the rim," Rockets head coach Rick Adelman said. "We have a lot of stats that we look at, and it's pretty obvious that when he gets to the rim, it's really difficult for the other team."

If Houston's scheme on Bryant looked familiar, there's a good reason. "It was kind of similar to what we did with Portland with Brandon Roy," Adelman said.

Bryant's five meager free throw attempts -- four of them in the final two minutes when the Lakers were cooked -- pleased the coaching staff. "The thing that was most impressive was that we kept [Bryant] off the free throw line," Turner said after the game.

Though Battier was satisfied with the overall defensive performance, he was also unassuming. "[Bryant] still scored 32 points," Battier said with a chuckle. "There's still room for improvement."

Battier was so earnest, it was hard not to take him at his word, but you also got the sense that Bryant's output -- those 32 points came on 33 possessions -- didn't bother Battier in the least. 

"One thing about Shane I really appreciate is that ... he has a really good understanding that he's not going to shut Kobe down," Adelman said. "He's going to send him to the right spot where he knows he's going to have help, and that's crucial."

Here's what Adelman meant:

  • [2nd Quarter, 0:34] Gasol feeds Bryant just off the mid-left post, isolated against Battier. As Gasol clears out, Battier shades to Bryant's right, leaving Kobe the baseline. After a little pump-fake, Bryant accepts the invitation, puts the ball on the deck and drives baseline. Yao is waiting there for him, and blocks Bryant's layup attempt. Battier can't contain Bryant on every iso, but he can do his best to ensure that, if he gets beat, there's help behind him.

With Battier guarding him, Bryant went 8 for 22 from the field, but Houston also got efficient help from its back line defenders. Yao's presence defending the basket helped, but Luis Scola was another important piece. He spent most of the night on the Lakers' small forward -- a demonstration of the defensive flexibility that Turner alluded to before the game. 

"We were able to play our 4 on their 3 and vice versa," Turner said after the game. "We had Artest guarding Odom. We were able to mix and match, and show some flexibility. That helped our defense."

After the game, there was only trace evidence of the x's and o's on the dry erase board. The banner headings "Rockets Offensive Goals" and "Rockets Defensive Goals," filled with sage advice just hours before, were blank. The Rockets' coaching staff huddled in the visiting coach's office, no doubt charting the course for Wednesday night, when Turner's black marker will once again outline plans for another 48 minutes of trench warfare -- just how the Rockets like it.   

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