TrueHoop: Willie Green
To the Boston Celtics’ defense: Poor Brooklyn, which looked like a passenger on a long-haul flight trapped in a middle seat between two offensive tackles. The Nets, who couldn’t generate anything in the second quarter, came out of the tunnel after intermission and whiffed on possession after possession.
They tried running Deron Williams off screens or isolating Joe Johnson while spreading the floor, but more often than not the Celtics’ defense plugged space, confined Gerald Wallace to the sideline, or trapped Brook Lopez against the baseline, or met a driving Williams with three defenders. After that, the Nets were left with nothing more than table scraps for a Christmas feast -- Williams, Wallace or Andray Blatche open in the far corner, with no feasible means of getting them the ball even if those were desirable options.
The most encouraging thing for Boston? Everyone got in on the act, including rookie Jared Sullinger and Jeff Green, who has never previously been regarded as a reliable cover.
To Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard: Seeing two bigs run a pick-and-roll in today’s NBA is like spotting a dog walking on its hind legs, and watching Gasol and Howard team up was one of the cooler sights of Christmas 2012.
The Lakers ran it at the nail, smack-dab in the middle of the floor. Howard put a body on Tyson Chandler, who was guarding Gasol, then bounced off Chandler for a sharp dive to the hoop. Kurt Thomas, previously Howard’s man, picked up Gasol as he dribbled right. Chandler and Thomas are some of the savviest defenders in the game, but the die was cast before they could sniff out that Howard was already at the rim. As a result, we got to witness Gasol pass out of the pick-and-roll, with Howard finishing underneath the Knicks’ defense.
The NBA needs more 4-5 pick-and-rolls -- and not just those featuring newfangled 4s (e.g., James-Bosh, Anthony-Chandler, Smith-Horford). You need a power forward with a handle, but he doesn’t have to be Chris Paul, either. Here’s looking at you, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
To Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant: A couple of years ago when he was filling in as the interim head coach in Denver for a recovering George Karl, Adrian Dantley was asked why the Nuggets’ pick-and-roll defense was struggling. He responded incredulously, saying there was no such thing as “good” pick-and-roll defense, that even the best protection against an NBA ball screen was nothing more than damage control because two professional basketball players in that action were virtually unstoppable.
That’s certainly the case when those two guys are Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, who worked in tandem on a number of occasions on Christmas to positive effect. The Heat trapped Westbrook when Durant rolled (calling on a rotating defender to pick up Durant, a tactic that didn’t work), while LeBron James fought through a perimeter screen when Durant popped to the perimeter. That strategy didn’t pay dividends either, as even James couldn’t recover quickly enough to corral Durant once Durant caught the pass, then zipped to the hole.
Durant might never embrace the idea of being the “4” on the greaseboard, but there are ways to tease a small forward into fulfilling the function of a big guy -- and this is one.
To Mario Chalmers: For attacking on the break; for identifying when the Thunder’s interior defense is shading toward LeBron off the ball and, in effect, issuing an engraved invitation for Chalmers to drive to the hole; for rushing in transition to the corner spot where an advance pass can find him for an open 3-pointer; for learning that it’s not enough to charge off a down screen to collect the ball -- you also have to rub your man off the screener to get the space you need to catch and shoot; for instantly recognizing when Westbrook falls asleep and Dwyane Wade is all alone underneath the basket.
To Jeremy Lin and James Harden: I still like the idea of staggering their minutes and ensuring at least one half of Beard-sanity is in the Houston backcourt at all times, but if Tuesday’s performance against a sturdy Chicago defense is any indication, this can work.
As long as transition remains priority No. 1 in Houston, Lin and Harden are born running mates. And in the half court, we also saw how placing counterweights on can stretch the floor and leverage even the most disciplined defense, which can’t possibly apply pressure against a ball screen, zone up the backside and account for a crafty guard off the ball on the move.
To Andre Miller: Basketball Reference gives Miller a 1.4 percent chance of making the Hall of Fame, and that sounds about right, but long after the taciturn, unsociable point guard retires into obscurity, big men who played with him will marvel at Miller’s ability to find shots for them at the rack.
It’s impossible to watch Miller without a rewind button on the remote because a mortal being simply can’t see what he did until after the ball falls through the net. In the first quarter on Tuesday, how did Miller find Kosta Koufas at the rim with three defenders in the ball’s flight path? Fans like to toast Miller’s “old man game,” but even though he looks the part of the rec center geezer, he’s got the vision of a young 'un.
Before the game, George Karl was asked how he handled his bench rotations. Karl smiled and replied that he basically left that to Miller. One glimpse at how Miller puppeteers the Nuggets’ second unit, feeds the entire crew and controls pace, and you’re ready to follow Karl's lead and let Dre draft your fantasy team.
To Willie Green: For this.
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Los Angeles Clippers are riding a 14-game winning streak and moving fast.
LOS ANGELES -- Players will tell you that the coolest thing about a hot streak is the inertia. It’s a total ride. As pro athletes, they’re contractually obligated to play down the importance of The Streak as a numeric event. They’ll say The Streak doesn’t mean anything in the larger scheme of a season, but they’ll also acknowledge that living inside The Streak feels different.
After the Clippers’ 11th straight win last Wednesday, Paul described The Streak as inhabiting a world in which the food tastes better, the music sounds better and you sleep more restfully. To Paul’s point, riding The Streak is a transporting experience.
“It does feel like we’re moving somewhere,” Jamal Crawford said.
“It’s good for us,” Matt Barnes said. “We just want to continue to move in the right direction.”
The Streak is like being zipped on a high-speed bullet train, gliding across a landscape at exhilarating speeds from a place you’ve been to a place you want to go. The Clippers have been eager to make such a trip -- from the league’s upper-middle class to the ranks of the elite.
After an 8-6 start that included some real thuds, the Clippers have now traveled to the top of the NBA standings after notching their league-high 14th consecutive win Tuesday, a 112-100 thumping of the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center. With Oklahoma City’s loss at Miami earlier in the day, the Clippers now boast the NBA’s best record at 22-6.
“It’s a mindset of coming out from the beginning and jumping on them defensively, bringing that intensity,” Blake Griffin said. “When we’re at our best, our starters have a great first quarter, then our bench comes in and elevates that. Then our starters come back in and it’s just a tag team.”
Want the crib notes for what has occurred over these past 14 games for the Clippers? Take a peek at the second-quarter play-by-play Tuesday night for a composite. The Clippers scored on 20 of their 27 possessions in the period, including their last 11 trips down the floor.
“I didn’t even realize that,” Griffin said.
“I did not know that,” Paul said simultaneously. “I would’ve never known that unless you said that. That’s crazy.”
Over the first three minutes of that crazy second quarter, the Clippers’ second team, one of the league’s most efficient units (plus-20.4 points per 100 possessions), forced three Denver turnovers and ended another possession with a block. When Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan assumed their starting roles to close the quarter, the Clippers’ trapeze act began.
Paul leapt in the air, twirled, then threw a pass across his body to a trailing Barnes, who finished with a slam. Then Griffin pointed in the air with his index finger, the universal signal in Clipper Nación for “feed me at the rim.” Barnes obliged with a pretty lob from just inside midcourt. Then Paul and Griffin teamed up for a balletic pick-and-roll, off which Paul set up Griffin with a pinpoint bounce pass. Griffin scooped it up, skied through the lane and jammed it home. Then the Clippers closed the half when, with only 6.3 seconds left on the clock, they pushed the ball upcourt, where Crawford saw Jordan flash the universal signal. Lob and jam.
“They’re probably the biggest and most athletic team -- combination of size and athleticism -- in basketball,” Nuggets coach George Karl said prior to the game. “They love to dunk. We like to dunk, but they might love to dunk.”
It hasn’t been all pyrotechnics for the Clippers over the course of The Streak. A team that had its fair share of mental lapses last season is playing an intelligent brand of basketball.
Take a routine possession in the third quarter with the Clippers on a secondary break. The ball found its way to Caron Butler, who had an open 3-pointer, but the veteran saw teammate Willie Green in the right corner all alone. So Butler gladly passed up a 37.8 percent shot (his mark on 3-pointers above the break) for a 48.3 percent one (Green’s accuracy on corner-3s).
“We talked about it in the huddle,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. “Caron made a really good, unselfish play and that’s winning basketball, making that extra play.”
After the game, Paul and Griffin characteristically downplayed the streak. Paul alluded to the 22-game winning streak of the 2007-08 Houston Rockets, a team that ultimately bowed out in the first round of the postseason after Yao Ming suffered an injury. Paul also cited his New Orleans Hornets team from that same season.
“We went 56-26,” Paul said. “I’ll never forget that season. I felt like we should’ve won the championship that season, and I remember right before the playoffs started, our team met and we said, ‘We are an unbelievable team. We can’t see [another] team beating us four out of seven games.’”
Those Hornets ultimately bowed out in the conference semifinals in a hard-fought and gut-wrenching seven-game series to San Antonio.
“That was my third year in the league and I was like, ‘I’ll be in this position every year. I’ll have a chance to win every year,’” Paul said. “But no, you’re not on teams like that every year. Trades happen. Injuries happen. That’s why you have to savor these moments and not let them just blow away. So I’m thankful and grateful to be on a team like I am this year.”
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Eric Bledsoe: Out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
Watching Eric Bledsoe warm up on the Staples Center floor an hour before tipoff is an underwhelming experience. Bledsoe isn’t phoning it in or disengaged as he’s fed pass after pass to launch shot after shot from midrange. It’s just that the exercise is so repetitive and orderly, he might as well be icing a hundred cupcakes.
The full effect of Bledsoe can be experienced only when the clock’s running, because Bledsoe is fueled by live basketball -- the super-animated stuff we see in the NBA. Most players expend energy when they’re asked to chase people around and sprint the floor and collide with enormous bodies and leap every five seconds for one reason or another and occasionally land awkwardly on thick wood or men holding large cameras, but not Bledsoe. He actually gets stronger, faster and more lethal as he chews up the court at warp speed.
As a result of this peculiar immunity, Bledsoe has become the NBA’s newest cult hero, the kind of player who causes viewers to talk at their LCDs and to insist that non-fans in the house come into the room to witness this pure testimony to basketball.
Bledsoe didn’t come into the league with much fanfare. He was the other guard on Kentucky’s young, talented 2009-10 squad led by John Wall, the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft, and faced a familiar rap -- not pointy enough to succeed at the 1, but without the shot or size to play the 2. Off the floor, Bledsoe had little of Wall’s charisma and what’s called “makeup” in draftspeak.
On draft night, Bledsoe was plucked at No. 18, just behind Luke Babbitt and Kevin Seraphin. Clippers management, preparing for life after Baron Davis, ranked Bledsoe in their top 10, and dealt a protected future first-round pick to Oklahoma City for Bledsoe’s rights. That pick was conveyed to Boston last June and became Fab Melo at No. 22.
Bledsoe was raw during his first season, and injured for a good portion of his second. When he saw floor time, Bledsoe was a frenetic blur and his ball hawking showed up in the Clippers’ numbers, where a below-average defensive team was 8.5 points stingier per 100 possessions with Bledsoe on the court.
For many, the introduction to Bledsoe came during the Clippers’ first-round playoff series with Memphis last spring. Stuff like this is routine for Bledsoe now, but the Memphis series was the first time most NBA fans saw a 6-foot-1 guard block a 6-foot-10 big man at the rim. Bledsoe also tortured Mike Conley, who posted a plus-48 with Bledsoe on the bench, but a minus-34 when Bledsoe was on the court over the seven games.
There are few better ways to obtain cult status than to be denied rightful playing time. The #Free hashtag begins to surface before a player’s name, as it did in that series for Bledsoe, who played seven and six minutes respectively in the Clippers’ Game 2 and Game 5 losses. With Randy Foye struggling on both ends and Bledsoe’s influence obvious, what started out as a clarion call became a full-fledged campaign for Bledsoe among fans as well as management, which fed the coaching staff the numbers.
Seven months later, Bledsoe has a devoted, even fanatical following. He’s the rare NBA player who is a darling to both statheads who value data and basketball mystics who live for the improbable. The overlap between “daredevilish” and “efficient” in the NBA Venn Diagram is a small space, but Bledsoe resides there -- and his niche appeal is becoming something much larger.
Teammates nicknamed Bledsoe "Mini LeBron" and Chris Paul’s father calls him "Little Hercules," though the best prototype for Bledsoe might be Dwyane Wade, a relentless, slashing attacker who leverages his strength to exploit his quickness, and vice versa.
Like Wade, Bledsoe takes a ton of chances on both ends of the floor, but has both the instincts and athleticism to offset that risk. Gamble in the passing lane, but come up empty? No worries, because Bledsoe can recover, even if it means absorbing a bump or three in traffic as he races to catch up with his man at the rack. If Bledsoe’s bet is successful -- and nobody in the NBA has had more success this season -- then it pays out.
Fans love risk-takers because risk produces uncertainty, and uncertainty produces suspense and suspense is why we tune in to games, follow a good drama series and tolerate electoral politics.
But NBA coaches aren’t fans. They’re men who want to know what they’re going to get from a ballplayer, and they’re slow to trust someone whose game precipitates unpredictability. If a coach has conventional sensibilities about the NBA game, then he probably wants his perimeter players to be able to stretch the floor with the threat of a long-range shot.
Bledsoe offers Vinny Del Negro -- or any coach he plays for -- none of that comfort. As part of a backcourt already populated by Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford, Chauncey Billups (when healthy) and Willie Green (when Billups isn’t), Bledsoe is averaging only 18.6 minutes per game, despite excelling in whatever metric you want to look at -- basic per minutes stats, Player Efficiency Rating (PER), plus-minus, offensive and defensive rating per 100 possessions, win shares per 48 minutes, etc.
Del Negro has a lot of mouths to feed on the league’s deepest roster, and it’s not as if the current rotation isn’t working. The Clippers enter Tuesday night’s game at Chicago at 14-6, and rarely field a lineup that's given up more points than it has allowed this season. Increasingly over the past week, the starters have played as an intact unit, as have the reserves, including Bledsoe. There’s a certain symmetry to the substitution patterns, which is probably helpful in a locker room where individual expectations with regard to minutes have to be tempered.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and a .700 winning percentage tends to solidify patterns, not upend them. The Clippers are going to win a lot of games this season whether Bledsoe plays 14, 18, 24 or 30 minutes. Del Negro isn’t looking for excuses to take minutes away from a veteran and hand them to Bledsoe. But if Del Negro wants a reason, sliding some of Green’s minutes to Bledsoe would undoubtedly improve the Clippers’ woeful rebounding numbers. Bledsoe ranks second to only Kyle Lowry in rebounding rate among point guards (and would actually place in the top 5 among regulars at the shooting guard position, where you can find Green in the bottom quarter).
Maybe one day, an uncertain situation will call for an unknown quantity. In the meantime, Bledsoe presides as the NBA’s most exciting novelty act. The scarcity of his court time lends even more appeal to his pursuit of thievery, mid-air suspension, driving jams and the chaos that invariably triggers those outbursts of spontaneity -- moments more conducive to risk than control.
- Zach Lowe of Celtics Hub explains how you assemble a strong 21st century defense. The recipe for success? Focus on the two areas in the half-court where opponents put up the highest effective field goal percentage: The 3-point line and the immediate basket area.
- Kurt Helin of Forum Blue & Gold explores what's eating Andrew Bynum.
- Capologist Larry Coon at the New York Times' Off the Dribble blog says that if Eddy Curry is willing to leave some money on the table, he's imminently buyout-able. The sticky point? Curry's player option.
- A pessimistic Jeremy Schmidt of Bucksketball sizes up the state of the Milwaukee Bucks as we head into 2010. Among Bucksketball's revelations: Contrary to popular belief, there's no evidence to suggest Scott Skiles hates rookies.
- The Painted Area presents its All-Underachiever Team for the decade.
- Sports Media Watch lists its five biggest NBA stories of the decade. At first blush, the list that seems a bit dated in current context, though it's easy to forget how much both the game and the league's persona has evolved over the past ten years.
- Rob Mahoney of Two Man Game enumerates all the reasons why Dallas' road win over Denver last night was extremely satisfying. Not only did the Mavs overcome Dirk Nowtizki's off night, but the Dallas defense brutalized one of the most potent offenses in the game. More than anything, though, when you watch Dallas you see a team of grown-ups that knows how to execute its stuff on both ends of the floor.
- Geoff Lepper of 48 Minutes.net wonders if Stephen Curry can learn to be a better defender.
- John Krolik of Cavs the Blog elaborates on how LeBron James deployed his emerging post game against an undersized Rockets team.
- Rahat Huq sounds the alarm on Trevor Ariza: "I just don’t understand what is going on with Ariza. I don’t want to just criticize; I want badly to just understand the rationale behind what is taking place. I just can’t think of any logical explanation as to why this player is being allowed to frequently attempt feats which he has absolutely no hope of achieving. It’s become mind boggling at this point. I have said many times that I am all for experimentation and player development. But these have to be within certain limits of realism. You play David Andersen despite his defensive troubles because he will improve. You live with Jermaine Taylor getting blocked at the rim because he will learn from it and adjust his shot. These are areas where players improve from in-game experience. Trevor Ariza cannot compensate for his complete and total lack of skill and body control with in-game experience. It just won’t happen. Letting him take in-game reps at creating off the dribble is completely counterproductive – he just can’t do it. Maybe he’ll improve over the summer, but affording him such a leash during the season is simply hurting this team."
- More great visuals from Kyle Weidie of Truth About It illustrating the Wizards' woes.
- Knicks highlights and lowlights from the decade, courtesy of Knickerblogger. Needless to say, the latter outweighs the former.
- Philadunkia poses that age-old conundrum for underachieving teams whose seasons appear over: At what point do you throw your rookie point guard into the deep end to see if he can swim rather than stick with your unexceptional, but proven veteran? Jrue Holiday and Willie Green are the respective players in questions.
- Cringe-worthy montage of various Sacramento Kings performing in-studio covers. (Hat Tip: Cowbell Kingdom)
Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
- Charlie Bell: Master Apprentice.
- Eric Snow, Kirk Hinrich, and Tim Duncan are some of the names on Kelly Dwyer's list of the top 10 defenders of the decade. Dwyer on Duncan: "He covered huge bits of floor while his guards recovered after the "screen" part of the screen-and-roll, blocked shots on the ball (he's been especially adept at giving a small guard a small step to drive with his strong hand, then recovering quickly enough to swat the shot with his left hand), and secured rebound after rebound. And he never fouled. Never sent teams to the line for cheap points. That's so huge."
- To follow up on the earlier MSG/Pennsylvania Station post, here's a July 2007 column from George Vecsey of the New York Times mourning the loss of Pennsylvania Station. Vecsey is no fan of the current Garden and he expresses skepticism that the Dolan regime will ever right the architectural wrongs of the area. There is a strong push for a new station, and New York politicians have been clamoring to secure some stimulus money to help finance a project.
- 10 smart questions for the Wizards from Sujoy Paul of Truth About It. We can say this about Washington: There isn't a team out there headed into the season with a more interesting set of variables in the equation.
- Speaking of the Wizards, Mike Prada of Bullets Forever does a nice job examining the evolution of Flip Saunders. Prada credits Marc Spears for compelling him to take a closer look.
- And while we're at it, Dave Berri asks if the Wizards are one of the league's 10 best teams.
- From Tim Povtak at Fanhouse, Courtney Lee continues to work through the grief cycle: Lee: "I just hope they'll be happy for me when I grow into the player that they wish they had. I'd like them to one day say 'I wish we would have kept him.'"
- Philadunkia would rather not see Willie Green assume the 2-guard spot for the Sixers, and culls the annals of Sixer history to find more suitable alternatives.
- The Answer presents a host of questions for the Grizzlies. Chip Crain of 3 Shades of Blue tackles them in depth.
- A good collaborative effort over at Peachtree Hoops by the bloggers who know Jamal Crawford the best. Crawford is an inscrutable talent, and the committee does its best to quantify his contributions on the court.
- Bethlehem Shoals of FreeDarko has been taking in some WNBA games this summer. He's high on Lindsay Whalen, and believes a little more edginess in the women's game could enhance its appeal.
The Mavs look like they'll avoid the dreaded 8-hole in the West, but the Pistons succumb to the Bulls and will have a weekend date in Cleveland. Meanwhile, the Sixers and Hornets have tough decisions to make about a couple of struggling shooters.
Rob Mahoney of Two Man Game: "What a game, what a game, what a game. In recent weeks, we've seen the 'Race for 8′ transform into a 'Race to Avoid 8′, and, by definition, a race to avoid the Lakers. The Utah Jazz, who sit just one full game behind the Mavs, were nursing a huge lead against the Clippers, and with two minutes and thirty seconds remaining, the Mavs were down five points to the Timberwolves. Heavy stuff. But from that point on, the Mavs committed few mistakes. They got exactly the offensive looks they wanted, and capitalized on most of them. They locked down defensively, and ceded a single basket due to unfortunate circumstance alone. Two and a half minutes, a 9-2 run, and nearly flawless execution. In the biggest moments of this game and possibly of the season, the Mavs did not disappoint. Shot after shot, stop after stop, all culminating in a defensive stop by Dirk [Nowitzki]/Erick Dampier and a huge go-ahead bucket by Jason Terry with 0.2 seconds remaining."
Ryan Schwan of Hornets247: "There is much made about the idea that Peja [Stojakovic] isn't having plays run for him, that he's being mis-used, that he should be sent in motion. So I kept track of plays where Peja was moving his feet, clearly having had a play called for him. There were twelve in the game. One, [Chris] Paul saw an opening and short-circuited the play, diving to the basket and scoring. Twice Peja got free off a single pick as [Shane] Battier got momentarily lost, and got two nice open shots. Three times, Peja ran off a set of three staggered picks, resulting in a nice open shot, a hurried deep three, and Paul being unable to get the pass to him because he was covered too well. Six times, he ran off a pair of picks and couldn't get open at all. For those of you keeping score, that's 12 plays for three open shots and an opening for Paul. If that's the return, I'm not sure it's worth the investment. And if the investment continues to be made, he needs to do better than 0-4 shooting (1-7 for the game, including shots off plays that weren't designed for him as a primary option)."
Dan Feldman of Piston Powered: "With a 91-88 loss to Chicago, Detroit will have the eighth seed and a first-round matchup with Cleveland ... [I]t's a shame that's Detroit's fate. In their biggest game of the season, the Pistons played the best they have in a while. Detroit and Chicago were evenly matched. They fought from start to finish, dove all over the court, played physical - and most importantly, played well. The game looked like a four-five matchup in the first round.
The Bulls are playing their best basketball of the season. They've won five in a row, nine of 11 and 12 of 15. And the Pistons are still 8-5 when Richard Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace both play and Allen Iverson doesn't. That clip would give the Pistons 50 wins over the course of a full season and put them comfortably in fourth place in the East. To make matters more impressive, eight of those games were against playoff teams (including two wins over Orlando and one over Boston). And most of those games were on the road."
(Photos by Glenn James, Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
Canadian Gregory Dole lives in Brazil, and describes himself as a "freelance writer, English as a second language teacher, basketball coach, basketball scout, and world traveller." That's a career that, not too long ago, took him deep into the life of a certain Brazilian Blur (and, to a lesser extent, William Wesley).
In the spring and summer of 2003, before and after the NBA draft, Dole was Leandro Barbosa's translator. In the hopes of landing a book deal, Dole is sharing tales of his time with Barbosa. The first, second, and third parts were published in recent days. There are plenty more to come. When we left them, Dole and Barbosa have endured some disappointing pre-draft workouts, and are on their way to lunch at Chris Mullin's house.
As we wait for lunch to be served, I sit on a couch in [Chris] Mullin's living room and talk hockey with the man himself.
"You want a beer?" he asks.
I'd heard he was an alcoholic at one point in his life. I am not sure what to say. I say nothing. He says nothing.
My team, the Ottawa Senators, is playing against the New Jersey Devils in the playoffs. Being a New York guy, Mullin naturally roots for the Devils. For someone who became a basketball fan in the 80s, the entire situation is incredibly bizarre and surreal. Mullin is a nice guy, but he is pretty normal. It dawns on me that idolizing athletes is moronic, no offense to Chris.
Mullin offers me a beer again. This time he says he is just joking.
Sometime later, in walks Mike Dunleavy jr. and Jiri Welsch. Welsch is a big hockey fan, favoring the Senators as well, because the team features some of Welsch's Czech comrades. Junior favours switching the channel to the basketball game. I begin to protest, as this is Game 7, but then I figure, these guys are basketball players, after all.
In any event, the Senators end up losing. I expected as much. Mullin jokingly offers beers again. What is up with that? I feel like saying I would love a nice, cold, frothy beer.
Lunch is served. We watch some basketball and then hitch a ride back to the hotel with Junior. For a guy who is constantly berated by the media and fans in the Bay Area, I am impressed by Junior's self-confidence.
We spend the rest of the time checking out San Francisco on foot. We head into an internet café and I do an email interview with nbadraft.net for Leandrinho. All is well. We are ready for the next workout in Seattle.
Arriving in Seattle, Dwane Casey picks us up at the airport. He is so nice that it is hard to believe he is being serious, but I think he is.
Leandrinho has it in his mind that he needs to step up his game some more. The stage is set. After we check into the hotel, I see Kirk Hinrich, star of the University of Kansas, walking the hallways. Suprisingly, Leandrinho knows of him, having recently watched him lose to Syracuse in the NCAA championship. He was impressed by Hinrich but hardly intimidated. Leandrinho isn't really impressed by college basketball. The workout also includes Chris Thomas from Notre Dame and Troy Bell from Boston College. We all meet for dinner with the staff of the SuperSonics the night before the workout, and then I find myself having to do more psychological tests. It's a difficult one. It's in English, and even I don't understand it.
Long story short, Leandrinho kills everyone in the workouts. It's a damn massacre. Under the watchful eye of the chairman of Starbucks and managing owner of the SuperSonics, Leandrinho hits every shot. Beats every defender to the rim for easy layups. Makes highlight reel passes to cutters for open layups in the game of two on two. It is a show.
He embarrasses Hinrich so much that Hinrich blows his cool. At one point, Leandro crosses Hinrich over and the Kansas star lands on his backside. He has lost his concentration. The rest of his workout is a wash.
After the show, in walks Sue Bird. Wow. Long live the WNBA. Leandrinho is more taken by the blonde who is with her, Lauren from Australia. Brazilians love blondes. I think I can state that as a generalization that goes across the board.
And then the pivotal moment occurs. As Leandrinho cools down following the workout, the Sonics trainer walks in and asks him to go back out on the court and run a sprint test. Without thinking, Leandrinho heads back out to the court.
I'm not happy. "He has just cooled down. Do you think it is necessary to run now?" I say to the trainer. "Oh it will be really quick. He's okay to run," responds the trainer. "Well I think he better stretch out again. He shouldn't take chances with getting injured," I say.
I turn to Leandrinho and say, "you should stretch out again, just to make sure that you are loose."
"No I am okay, I can go," says the Brazilian.
Leandrinho goes out and strains his hip flexor. Many agility tests later with the team doctor, and we are sitting in the reception area waiting to go back to the hotel. Leandrinho has a pack of ice on his hip. Nate McMillan walks by and idly jokes, "I hope you don't get to work out for any other club! You played great today. I hope you fall to us."
As it turns out, Leandrinho became a point of contention for the Sonics. Some on the staff wanted him, others didn't. To draft him or not to draft him. In the end, I am told they went with the local kid Luke Ridnour, for what I am told were marketing reasons.
In fairness, when asked by a journalist about the draft, the Sonics' Dave Pendergraft went as far as to say, "the one player we were afraid not to draft was Leandro Barbosa. He could become something special in this league."
I later crossed paths with Dwayne Casey when he was with the Timberwolves and he confirmed the story, saying that it was a heated debate among the Sonics staff on the day of the draft. Casey was an instant fan of Leandrinho's, and says that he fought hard to convince his colleagues to draft the Brazilian. As I spoke with Casey, you could tell that he still remembered the moment vividly.
Seattle's misstep was Phoenix's gain, as we can all attest to now. Not that Luke Ridnour is chopped liver. He is a good basketball player, plain and simple. However, I would make the argument, as others have as well, that there really is no telling how much Leandrinho will grow as a basketball player. And therein lies the difference between two athletes. In taking the risk on Leandrinho, the Suns went for broke. All-Star or D-leaguer. The penthouse or the outhouse.
Soon after Seattle, we are at our "home base," the Cleveland Athletic Club in Cleveland, Ohio. Leandrinho has an injured hip flexor. The doctors have told us that he has to rest and stop playing for an undetermined length of time. Not good. We spend every day going for treatment on his hip. In the meantime, Leandrinho's brother is on the phone to Brazil, getting advice from his mother on home remedies for curing Leandrinho's strained hip flexor.
The story takes a Brazilian twist at this point. After a long phone call with Dona Ivete, Arturo starts with a laundry list of requests. "We are going to need to go to a cemetery. We have to pray to the dead for help in overcoming this obstacle," says Arturo. I say nothing.
Later on, at the cemetery, I hesitate in getting o
ut of the car, preferring to let Leandrinho and his brother venture in on their own to pray. But my absence is soon recognized and I am called over to pray as well.
Much praying later, my little group is re-inspired to get back to the NBA pre-draft battle. Over the following days, the combination of medical treatment and all the prayers of the souls of the dead from a cemetery in Cleveland help Leandrinho overcome his sore hip. Looking at the calendar, the next possible workout that Leandrinho can participate in is with the Detroit Pistons. And so we make our way to Detroit.
As I scan the Pistons dressing room, in walks Willie Green. For the love of God, I think. Not this guy again. Green is not a good matchup in a game of one on one or two on two. The kid is tough as nails, as blue-collar as American kids can be. He is the definition of athlete. And he is knocking down jump-shots non-stop.
Bad timing for the Brazilian. Another butt-kicking later, I am hoping that Leandrinho quickly forgets this episode and moves on from it. Green did not miss a shot from behind the arc for the entire workout. I don't know the scouting report on him, but I doubt he would have gone to the University of Detroit if he always shot the ball like Larry Bird. With all due respect to Detroit.
Perhaps the most interesting moment of the day comes from listening to the old man who works for the Pistons club. He tells me he is some 90 years old. Has been in basketball forever. When I ask about the then European sensation, Darko Milicic, his response is priceless: "I don't care who he played against in Europe. Let's see if he can play with black kids."
We later meet with Pistons President Joe Dumars. He is one of the coolest guys in the basketball world -- a former NBA star who has long since left the past behind. The sort of person who, if you did not know much about the NBA, would never bring up that he used to be big star.
Dumars is a fan of Leandrinho, saying "I have watched you play. I really like your game. You are going to do well in this league." Simple words of wisdom. After the workout, we head to lunch with the Pistons staff. Top to bottom, the Pistons crew is classy.
As we leave the lunch area to get into our limo to the airport, the Pistons' resident old man throws out another chestnut. "Willie, I hope to see you back here with the Pistons. Won't happen, but it should and it's a damn shame. You keep playing son."
History has proven the old man to be right. The lightly-regarded Green has since carved out a nice NBA career for himself.
Around this time, I come across a news clipping where a journalist quotes Dwyane Wade as saying that he whipped Leandrinho in the Golden State workout. I can't believe what I am reading. I re-read it just to make sure and start to get furious. Wade may have bested my Brazilian friend at times, but Wade wasn't even on the same level in terms of pure basketball skill. Leandrinho could dribble and shoot better than Wade ever could, and that was on display for everyone in Golden State.
I make a mental note to confront Wade when I next see him, which will be soon.
(Photo: Getty Images)