- Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN Staff Writer
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A few thank-you notes for gifts bestowed on Christmas Day:
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.