Category Archives: NBA

Wrap-artee: The Gut Test

The two big stories this weekend boil down to a debate on aggression. When is aggressive too aggressive? When is deferral not aggressive enough?

On Saturday night, the Utah Jazz snapped Miami’s winning streak thanks to two dumb fouls and two missed free throws by Dwyane Wade, but the postgame chatter questioned the mettle of Miami’s other star. The Deseret News coverage ran under the title “LeBron James passes on chance to win game”. Never mind his 8-9 fourth quarter shooting, or his 35 points, or the level of difficulty on some of those big makes down the stretch, said basically everyone. Let’s focus on LeBron’s decision with the Heat trailing by one point to pass to a wide open Udonis Haslem for the final shot of the game. Let’s compare this to his bizarre and horrible skip pass with the All-Star game on the line.

With this weekend also came the news of the New Orleans Saints’ bounty program, which paid players for big hits and injured opposition, casualties including Kurt Warner and Brett Favre. Oh, the humanity! How could they? The NFL is just a bunch of neanderthals who don’t care about player safety!

Taking a step back from the emotions of both LeBron’s latest fourth quarter foible and the Saints hardly acting like their namesake, questions come to mind. Didn’t LeBron make the correct basketball play? Could his pass have been a vote of confidence for a struggling player who the team needs in order to succeed in the postseason? Moving on to New Orleans, the players, who, it should be noted, also received bonuses for interceptions, forced fumbles, and sacks, received extra money for big hits, and the league is about to bring the hammer down? Aren’t those players employed partly due to their ability to dole out said big hits? Shouldn’t we drop the high and mighty routine and understand that Gregg Williams gave bonuses for the plays that roust the casual fan from his seat?

Given time to clear my head from the Skip Bayless’s of the world, neither LeBron’s pass nor the Saints bounty program sit well. They just don’t pass the gut test. A world-class competitor like LeBron should relish any opportunity he has to prove his skeptics wrong. His immense talents have allowed him to coast, to believe he can forego the typical learning process of developing through failure and still enjoy ultimate success. Attempting to live blemish-free will only hurt him in the long run.

The same can be said for the NFL. Bud Light can tell you to designate a driver and the NFL can fine players for big hits and enact stricter concussion assessment protocol, but you’re still delivering an innately dangerous product. The bounty program only brought the emotions embedded in football’s core to the forefront, which is why the NFL will suspend, fine, and otherwise do its best to wave a giant, parental finger at the whole shebang.

Perhaps LeBron’s pass and the Saints bounties bring to light the fatal flaws of Mr. James and the NFL, respectively. Perhaps that is why they don’t pass the gut test.

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Wrap-artee: Tuesday, February 28 (A Leap Day Miracle?)

Last night in Dallas, the New Jersey Nets beat the defending champs. The Nets, who were 10.5 point dogs, are 11-25 on the year, good for the sixth-worst record in the entire NBA. In their last ten games, the future Brooklyn Ballers have won only three contests. But oh, those three games.

On Saturday, February 18, the Nets kicked off a back-to-back-to-back stretch by snapping an eight-game losing streak with a 97-85 wire-to-wire win over the listless (and Rose-less) Chicago Bulls. After a loss to Milwaukee at home, they topped the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, 100-92. Against their Tri-State rivals, the Nets grabbed the lead in the second quarter and never trailed the rest of the way, building their advantage up to 18 points in the third period. And then last night, the Nets beat the Mavs 93-92, thanks in large part to Brook Lopez, who scored 38 points in his third game back since returning from injury. The Mavs only held the lead for a 1:21 stretch at the end of the third.

Three games, three dominating road wins over three of the hottest teams in the league.

The Indiana Hoosiers are 23-7 this year, with a 10-7 mark in Big 10 play. Three of their losses came to bottom-five teams in the conference, and they have dropped three ugly double-digit decisions against the conference’s top three teams, Michigan St., Ohio St., and Michigan. But the Hoosiers have also accomplished a feat never before achieved in school history – they have beaten three national top-five teams in a season, adding last night’s demolition of #5 Michigan St to their wins over #1 Kentucky and #2 Ohio St.

Three games, three victories over the nation’s elite.

Now the NBA is a different animal, and catching a team on the right night in the regular season means a whole lot more than in college hoops. Bad teams beat good teams and it’s rarely anything to bat an eyelash over – heck, the Wizards beat the Thunder this year. But the Wizards won that game at home, and the Nets got their three big wins in fairly dominating fashion on the road.

For the Hoosiers, their win over Michigan St. reverses a semi-swoon of uninspiring play and reinserts their name into the conversation of intriguing March teams.

Are the Nets and Hoosiers just some sort of Leap Day William barter, trading the tears of disappointing losses for the candy of impressive wins? Or is there something substantive here?

I’m not willing to endorse either of them yet, but keep these teams on your watch list. The Nets probably won’t overcome the huge whole they’ve put themselves in and enter the playoff race, but with a healthy Brook Lopez, an increasingly impressive Kris Humphries, an improving MarShon Brooks, and one of the best point guards in the game, this might be the start of a .500 or better second half – even without Dwight.

Those Hoosiers, on the other hand, have had a special energy all year. They’ll land in the 4- or 5-slot and emerge as a prime candidate to either fall in the first round (technically, the second round, stupid NCAA), or take out a 1-seed in the Sweet 16. They’ve proven fully capable of both.

Consistency may be valuable, but moments of extreme success can do a lot to overcome those bad memories. Didn’t Aldous Huxley once say “The only completely consistent people are dead”? Maybe trading your tears for some candy isn’t a bad deal after all.

Wrap-artee: Sunday, February 26

Actual conversation with a new basketball fan (NBF) during the first quarter of the NBA All-Star game:

NBF: So what’s the point of the All-Star game? To see who’s the best?

Trevi: Not really. The guys try and they have pride, but it’s more about entertainment and not getting hurt (*sorry Kobe*).

NBF: Wow, they aren’t playing defense at all. Why do people even bother watching this?

Trevi: Because there are cool dunks, ya know, a few highlights. And at the end, the big stars come out to prove who’s best.

NBF: But it doesn’t mean anything, right?

Trevi: Well, not really. The guys want a championship more than anything obviously. But winning an All-Star MVP is a nice notch on the belt. A good thing to throw on the old career tombstone.

During a commercial, we switched to the Oscars, and I realized that, with a few clever omissions, the conversation we just had could’ve described the biggest night in movies as well. My difficulty to explain the allure of the All-Star game translated to the big award show. Why do we tune in en masse?

We watch it mostly not to miss anything – “Of course I saw Wade break Kobe’s nose!”/”Of course I saw Angelina Jolie’s leg!” We have to slog through subpar entertainment and some sloppiness just to catch those few “ohmigod” moments and witness the last ten minutes when the superstars duke it out for the trophy.

I guess Pete Weber best summed up the sentiment that reigned this past Sunday evening. Pete won the PBA U.S. Open and capped off the dramatic win with a hearty celebration. Among some fist pumps and hand punches and bird flips, he screamed, “THAT IS RIGHT I DID IT!…WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? I AM!!! DAMMIT RIGHT!!!”

Kevin Durant, Meryl Streep, and Jean Dujardin had a bit more tact, but if you wade through the B.S. and tuned in to their internal monologue, they probably said just about the same thing.

When Talent Meets Opportunity

Two men have exceeded the loftiest expectations of even their biggest supporters, leaving the rest of us to split our time between creating puns and conjuring up black swan theories.

As Miami University’s head coach, Frank Haith amassed a 129-101 record, with a 43-69 mark in ACC play. He made the NCAA tournament once. When Missouri had to replace Mike Anderson, they eventually settled for Haith after their public flirtation with Matt Painter ended in rejection. Haith wasn’t an established program builder like Painter, nor was he a rising star like VCU’s Shaka Smart. Hiring Haith was the NBA equivalent of naming a Flip Saunders-type your skipper – a suitable yet unexciting also-ran. You don’t expect him to set the world on fire, but you also know he’ll bring a suitable level of expertise and professionalism to the job.

Meanwhile in New York, the Knicks desperately needed a point guard while they waited to see just how un-washed up part-time lumberjack Baron Davis would be once he returned from injury. Toney Douglas and a beat up Melo didn’t cut it as pick-and-roll ball handlers, Iman Shumpert is better suited for an off-ball slasher role, and Mike Bibby can’t do much more than look like Kermit the Frog on the bench. Enter Jeremy Lin, who almost had to exit when the Bulls cut veteran Mike James. Boy would that have been a mistake.

Lin hasn’t stopped #Linning (and spawning horrible hashtags) and Haith has Mizzou primed for a one seed despite having only one player taller than 6’8″. How does this happen?

Let’s be clear – there’s a reason the Warriors and the Rockets cut Lin and there’s a reason nobody offered him a scholarship. Racial prejudices definitely had something to do with it, but schools and NBA scouts aren’t going to overlook a once-in-a-generation point guard due to some preconceived notions about Asian-Americans.

There’s also a reason Haith didn’t turn Miami into a winter version of the gridiron “The U”. Haith is definitely an excellent motivator and basketball coach – he’s proved as much this year – but he’s also definitely not in that top-of-the-top tier of college coaches.

Haith found a group of talented, experienced players willing to buy into his message of selflessness and his style of play. Lin found a coach who runs a system that has turned mediocre point guards like Chris Duhon and Ray Felton into fantasy basketball monsters.

Recently, the “Wages of Wins” blog ran a post supposedly debunking the myth that D’Antoni’s system is generous towards point guards. They cite Nash’s ability to maintain his numbers even after D’Antoni took the Seven Seconds or Less system to New York and the system’s inability to boost Douglas, Bibby, or Shumpert’s numbers.

And this, in a way, proves my point. Of course D’Antoni can’t turn just any NBA ballhandler into a 17 and 8 point guard, but seeing what he did with Felton and Duhon, and what’s become of them since leaving his watch, proves just how accommodating his system can be for the right player. Nash is a unique and outrageous talent – of course subsequent Suns coaches would cater their system to his unique abilities, thus maintaining his lofty numbers.

Lin couldn’t be doing what he was doing if he wasn’t damn good at basketball – a player significantly better than Douglas or Bibby, although probably not at the level of a Steve Nash. The guy is clearly an NBA player, and an NBA contributor at that. He just needed his shot. Were the Warriors and Rockets inept not to give it to him? Of course not. Lin appears to be the type of player who can make great plays on a consistent basis when a coach runs a bajilion pick-and-rolls with him a la D’Antoni, but as your run of the mill NBA backup point guard not put in a multitude of scoring situations, the Warriors and Rockets probably saw a good but not great option who didn’t have that one outrageous skill that set him apart.

Your Kobe’s and your Calipari’s are going to succeed regardless of situation. They just have too much going for them. Disregarding this top 1% of the top 1%, players and coaches alike need that perfect blend of talent and opportunity to truly reach their potential. It may or may not be fleeting, only time will tell, but Haith and Lin both are proving they have what it takes when the moment is right.

Thibs’ Valentine

Dearest Basketball,

Today I reaffirm my love for you my sweet, my all, my everything. Wherever I go, you go with me. When I sleep, you haunt my dreams. I spend each waking hour dedicating my life to pleasing you.

Others may pursue you or claim to have you won you over, but I know they don’t feel for you the way I do. They have their hobbies – their golf and their blackjack and their summer homes. My summer home is a gym and a film room, my hobby is you, sweet basketball.

Mi amor, mi amor basquetbol. Don’t try and fool me with your questioning dimples, I know you speak Spanish. How else could you explain the sleepless nights I’ve spent scouting Pau Gasol?

I wish I could give you the world tonight, but we’ll have to settle for a date with the Sacramento Kings. It’s better than nothing; oh, imagine the horror if we had to spend this night apart? Torn from each other by the cruel fate of schedules? This summer, when others tried to separate us and I thought we might not spend this year together, I nearly died! Thinking of a cold winter without your leathery touch keeping me warm, oh, sweet basketball, the thought alone causes me to shiver.

Take my vow, lovely basketball, that I won’t rest until I perfect myself. In perfecting myself, I will perfect you, the game that occupies my thoughts as the sweet squeaks of sneakers rock me to sleep. We will always have each other, even when I’m old and gray. Because they can take away my team and break my clipboard in half, but they can never touch my heart, which is forever dimpled, laced, and signed by the commissioner David Stern.

Yours forever,

Tom Thibodeau