Eye on the Classics: Where the Fox Knows Many Things...

Posted on Fri 25 November 2011 in Eye on the Classics by Alex Dewey

"The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

--Isaiah Berlin, quoting Archilochus

Ray Allen is the ultimate hedgehog and Steve Nash is the ultimate fox, in Berlin's famous dichotomy of historical geniuses. This placement of Allen and Nash is true, but difficult to write about, largely because the argument is so straightforward if you understand both players (and also because Berlin's dichotomy is - as Berlin knew - flawed at its core). We're rolling with it, though, so as to uncover the mystery of chessboxing; that is, the essence of these two athletic geniuses. Nash is the fox and Ray is the hedgehog. Game on.

Anyway, in 2006, Nash and Allen both led their Suns and Sonics to a high-scoring, double-overtime classic. A dual for the ages. It's the kind of game that would've had highlights running on SportsCenter for weeks. That is, if it hadn't happened on the exact same night Kobe dropped 81 on the defenseless Raptors. Some based uploader (MrMagic2worthy) uploaded the whole thing to Youtube, and yes, it's more than 2 hours long, but I have to say: this is a must-see. Click the jump for the videos, and a whole wheelbarrow of words.

• • •

THE INTRO (or: a toast to Nash)

I sing the bodies electric. Watching this hypnotic 20-minute shooting drill by Nash, you're struck by how consistent and accurate the Canadian point really is as a shooter, even knowing his stats and having watched his jumper in games. Nash's shots are - at least in his lower body - variations on a hopping theme: His pull-ups and jumpers use his toes and calves more; he kicks his right leg out more on fadeaways to draw fouls and create space; he lifts his knee much higher on layups. And the shots in the drill invariably form one indivisible motion of his upper-body. It's an integrity and an economy of motion that virtually guarantees he'll get within inches of the center of the basket. With athletes that possess body control like Nash, it's no wonder airballs are so rare in the NBA. And every step Nash takes in this drill outside of shooting is exactly the same: An uncannily efficient flat-footed step with a bit of a knee-jerk that can go any direction at any point mid-step. It's all so fundamentally sound, and looking at it, my first thought was to compare it to Ray Allen, one of the great shooters of his generation and of all time.

I say this all not just to praise Nash. No, his 20-minute drill shows us - in its absence - what's so odd about Nash's "core" as a player in actual games: Nash has "fundamentals" the same way Deep Blue has skills to move a knight around the board: Perfectly and trivially. When he sets up for a shot and goes through the motions correctly, he will hit that shot. He will hit that open man, he will hit that lane. 99%. And yet for all his fundamentals, we don't think of them when we're watching him. He plays with the perfect fundamentals of Basketball's Deep Blue, but I'll be damned if he doesn't play a fun, deceptive, brilliant game of chessboxing. What we think of as the "fundamentals" are so far buried beneath the baroque complexity of Nash's basketball prowess that it doesn't make much sense to appeal to them. In the case of Nash, it all starts with his motion: That simple flat-footed stride - that seems merely efficient and repeatable in the drill - becomes something totally new in games: That same stride becomes a psychophysical masterpiece of economy, the chessboxer's twisting, contorting lower axis. When he has to react to game situations, Nash moves like a weird propeller motor atop another propeller motor, connected by a universal joint at the waist. He moves in three dimensions with two independent motors, all without losing his dribble. His mechanics let him suddenly move any direction and approach that direction from any angle. Structural integrity seems to give way totally to malleability and degrees of freedom.

And that's just his motion. Nash uses his unique motor - on seemingly every offensive possession - to do something psychophysically crazy that no one quite understands, in order to push past the most wily of defenses. These neat pull-ups we see in the drill become abrupt, creative fallaways over Tim Duncan closeouts. These neat "dribble-stop-fadeaway" sequences that Nash drills become long, impossible-to-articulate-fully sequences that can last .1 or 23.9 seconds (averaging about 7 seconds, heh.) in games and might end with him passing to the wing 48 feet away out of a trap on the baseline. Defenses are designed - in the broadest sense - to make offenses imperfect as much as possible. But Nash has none of that. Even on the most deliberate and obvious of pick and rolls, Nash seems always to have an extra option or three in the back of his head, and even the most straightforward of his options have an extra flash of difficulty to them. His offense can't help but be remarkably efficient and fun to watch. Sure, the SSOL Suns (and the Finley-Dirk-Nash Mavs) were both loaded on offense, but as we've seen in the slow unraveling of the Suns franchise, Nash can take mediocre and D-league players to 40 wins, and a decent second option to 55 wins. He is quite simply a candidate for GOAT offensive point guard. Has any player so consistently made all of his teammates (from the D-Leaguers to the HOF) look so much better on offense? Bad offenses seem to be short a player against the most pedestrian of defenses. Great offenses seem to be short a player against the best defenses.

In both cases, that short player that they're missing is Steve Nash.

THE GAME (or: the Hedgehog beasts it)

In this particular game, Nash was typically brilliant, putting up a 28-8-16 line on 20 shots. His passes - as is his wont - made the very good Raja Bell and Leandro Barbosa both look like... well, Ray Allen. Add to this that he was the primary ballhandler and only suffered five turnovers in a game where the pace was frantic, and you have yourself the average everyday night in the toolbox of a legend. And don't dally around it: the pace was as frantic as you'll see in the modern era, with both teams combining for 212 shots, 52 free throws, and 32 turnovers. The Suns went 18-38 from 3-point land and you have to think (correctly) that most of these shots came on an assist or a hockey assist from Nash. And yet, for that many passes, most of them no-look to a rotating man on the perimeter, Nash botched maybe two of them. He botched perhaps two transition plays, too. And he got the ball stolen from him once. For most players and games 5 TO is a mediocre percentage, but it's kind of incredible in context with the pace and the degree to which the offense ran through Nash.

Unfortunately for Nash, this fifth turnover came a few seconds before the end of the first overtime with the game tied, where a singularly amazing Luke Ridnour went around the great dribbler and forced Nash to turn it over out of bounds 40 feet from the basket, giving the Sonics one last chance (a failed Rashard Lewis shot) and sending the game to double-overtime. Now, let's be clear -- this post is about Ray-Ray and Nash, and I don't want to get too distracted. And Ridnour himself is an average (okay, a bit below average) starting PG, but his fast-paced style appears to lend itself to these kinds of insanely fast, efficient games. Take this observation as a cherished aside: take a look at these games in which both teams scored 50 FG on better than 50% shooting. Of the nine such games since this one, 3 involved Nash (duh) and 2 involved Ridnour. Luke Ridnour's ceiling is apparently to make a game unforgettable, and he did a great job in this game, honestly matching the HOFer drive for drive. A decent ceiling for a career roleplayer, I'd say.

Of course, matching Steve Nash cowlick for cowlick, drive for drive, in the Seven Seconds or Less era would hardly be enough to send the game into overtime, much less double-OT. You need a transcendent talent to do that. Enter Ray "He Got Game" Allen. Kinematically, Jesus Shuttlesworth is the complete inverse of Nash: Allen simply possesses (and applies consistently in games) a degree of structural integrity unmatched by any NBA player I have ever seen. Allen brings the Nash drill to the game, every game. Every single move Ray makes is from his whole body in one atomic, complex motion. It's like the game is his drill.

Ubiquitous in mastering physical skills is the idea of letting the object be an extension of your body. But how much control do we really have over our body? Ray Allen more or less gives us the upper bound, it's fair to say. For something to be more an extension of Ray's body than the ball during his jumper (or a golf club during his swing), it would have to more or less fuse surgically with him and then spend 38 more years learning the ins and outs. His three-point jumper is about as pure and beautiful as any individual action in sports, and you get the sense that - unguarded - Ray could hit a shot from every location on the halfcourt with at least 60% accuracy, blindfolded. And unlike (say) Tim Hardaway or Stephon Marbury (two of his lesser shooting contemporaries that could god-mode a half-courter now and again), Ray's 40-footers don't seem like swag highlight plays but the result of rational, obsessive calculation. As one of the most obsessive player in the league (he literally has OCD, as Aaron will get further into in his upcoming player capsule), his form and decision-making are fairly immaculate. Ray is a bit slower now, but in his prime he was a true triple threat, a complete, efficient SG with speed and decent defense. As it stands right now, he's merely the greatest shooter in the history of the league.

Anyway, Ray Allen made 32 of his 42 points in the last 19+ minutes to end this game. Okay, so read that again, please, because I don't have them time to garner redundant enthusiasm for an obviously insane fact. (Okay, there have been quarters with players scoring 33 points, and Charles Barkley scored 27 in one quarter in a game I reviewed. But these are historical level performances, and Ray's performance belongs with them.). Sure, his second half started slow, but so did his decisive match against Denzel Washington. Ray Allen's run started with a three-pointer on the wing, moving from there outward in a spiral to two borderline-deadball afterthoughts from 30 feet at the sidelines (only one of which counted!). Then he moved to a swag step-back 3 at the top of the key at the end of regulation, and finally - in a dagger seconds before the end of the second OT - Ray made a 32-foot shot whose trajectory you could place a steep barn under. It was one of those great games that Ray's obsession and kinesthetics are tailor-made to create.

THE CLOSE (or: the misallocation of genius)

Of course, Ray's approach has its drawbacks: while Ray's individual offensive skills may rival Nash's, I nevertheless doubt that his obsession and perfect structural integrity lend themselves well to the unending sequence of fakes and endless imperfect options that form what we call "running an offense". Even if he had the ability to make the passes (which in many cases he couldn't), I can't picture Ray Allen putting on a nightly assist clinic. Sure, Ray can fake you out with a pump, with a deceptive run off a screen, with a delayed release, with a ball-fake, with a devious cut without the ball, and so on. But I don't think Ray Allen has the mental processes (nor the vision) to have Nash's Offensive Conversations. That is, to be able to say in real time: "Now I've beat my man and I need to fake kicking it out to the left to draw out a defender so I have room here on the left so that I can start my layup motion and then get the help-side defender to bite so I can bring the ball down for a bounce pass down the baseline for an easy three on the right corner," and so on. Everyone misses shots, everyone bobbles passes, no matter how perfect. Ray owns his mistakes on offense, but you have to think that if he owned his team's mistakes, he'd have stressed himself out of the league. It's just not who he is.

Asking Ray Allen's individual brilliance to run an offense would be like asking Paul McCartney to score his songs for full orchestra - kind of a misallocation for a genius. Similarly, asking Nash to focus only on shooting and driving would be like asking Stravinsky to write pop songs. Square hole, round peg. The round peg belongs to Nash, for better or worse. For what Nash has is deception and complex orchestration at his core - a deep understanding of the shifting logic of a possession and of how to play the dozens of roles available to him on every possession. And what Ray has is the tunesmith's gift: He can take a short spot-up situation and make an atomic, beautiful, fitting response. In Steve Nash and Ray Allen you not only have two completely inverse body types - you have two completely different (but equally brilliant) approaches to offense. And, for one game, a magical night that leaves you wondering what kind of offensive insanity would've resulted if these two giants had ever chanced to play together.

Regardless. Great, worthy game. Worth your time, at the very least.

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Eye on the Classics: Throw A Slam Dunk, Barkley

Posted on Fri 18 November 2011 in Eye on the Classics by Alex Dewey

Vince Bucci/Getty ImagesAfter scoring the Suns' first 12 points, he ran by
Warrior Coach Don Nelson and asked him: "You gonna double me?"

Whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first call promising.

Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise

A lot of people remember Michael Jordan dropping 63 on the Boston Celtics in 1986, setting a playoff record that stands today. There are a lot of reasons that Jordan's feat was so impressive: the '86 Celtics are a GOAT-candidate team, featuring several players in the Hall of Fame (Dennis Johnson, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and goddamn late-period Bill Walton). Many of these HOFers were all-world defenders, too. Furthermore, the Celtics that year lost one game at home all season, including the playoffs. The other Bulls didn't have enough offense that season to prevent the Celtics from really focusing completely on Jordan. And yet Jordan almost singlehandedly took the Bulls to the throats of the great Celtics at their Boston Garden, actually sending them to double-overtime. Jordan - or God in disguise, if Bird's famous postgame comment is to be taken literally - played about as well as it's possible to play. But that may not actually be the best playoff scoring performance in the modern record. What do I mean? Check it out after the jump.

It would be unbelievably vindictive and petty - not to mention intellectually dishonest - to say that Jordan was "cheating" in his 1986 masterpiece solely because he had 10 extra minutes, considering all of this. And (if anything) context only serves to enhance the greatness of Jordan's performance. On the other hand, consider the following humorous fact, and tell me that it's not worth it to be petty and vindictive: the luckless Charles Barkley could have shattered Jordan's record in a playoff game against the offensively brilliant and defensively hapless 1994 Warriors if Barkley had had those extra 10 minutes. That's right, Charles Barkley - known today mostly for his hilarious foibles and his equally many hilarious redeeming qualities - was actually a ballplayer back in the day. It's hard to believe, but it's true: Charles Barkley actually played professional basketball for many years before becoming a television analyst. In 1993 Barkley was actually the Most Valuable Player, and he made it to the Finals with the Phoenix Suns! Imagine that! Well, you don't have to imagine. It's all true and it won't stop being true if you don't imagine it.

Barkley went 23-31 for 56 points, which possibly understates his degree of dominance. See, not only did he go 11-11 in the first quarter (3 of them were relatively uncharacteristic 3s) with 2-2 free throw shooting to give him 27 first quarter points, but he immediately followed that perfect first quarter up with 2-5 shooting with 3 (baller, but not especially difficult) offensive rebounds. That's right, he rebounded the first 3 of his 8 misses for field goals. Shooting 71% and... Let's just recap: Charles Barkley - on the first 14 possessions that ended with him taking a shot - literally converted those 14 possessions into 31 points. The next time down the court (on a fast break) Barkley got an assist for a three-point play. In real time this happened. I cannot process this information fully. Things seem further away, somehow, and nothing is real. I feel like Charles is becoming one of my old Lovecraftian horrors... oh my... the snake, I see the slithering snake approach... I see life through the eyes of a basketball. All is clear.


You know what. Let's... let's just back up. In fact, let's start up.

• • •

Vince Bucci/Getty Images
The organizing concept of this piece is simply turrible, Alex.

Whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first call promising.

Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise

Charles Barkley - known for his dominating career as a power forward for the Sixers, Suns, and Rockets - had a wonderful game back in 1994 that I'd like to share with you. It's kind of funny, but Charles Barkley almost challenged Michael Jordan's 63-point playoff record against the '86 Celtics. I found a Youtube video after the jump, and I hope you will enjoy as much as I have! Sorry if this piece is a bit short, but... well, it's funny: I just plumb fell asleep at the computer and in the morning my original Barkley post was gone! I can't remember what all I was talking about, but I did have some weird dreams (The Light! The Terrible Light!). Anyway, Barkley was a great player. Now, it's kind of unfair to speculate about "who could have had rings if it weren't for Jordan", largely because Jordan exercised the causal equivalent of a supernova and a black hole combined on the NBA, drawing in and destroying (or at least changing) everything in his path. But Barkley - for a solid stretch in the 90s (including this game) - had a strong argument for second-best player in the entire league. And while his MVP might not be completely justifiable, in the long run, I can definitely live with Jordan getting 5 MVPs and Barkley, Hakeem, and David Robinson each getting one.

The Warriors - coached by defensively inept Don Nelson* lost despite fantastic offensive performances from Chris Mullin, Latrell Sprewell, and Chris Webber. Webber in the biggest game of his rookie season nearly got a triple-double (16-8-13-1-3 as a power forward and as the only defender long and competent enough to have any chance of stopping Barkley). Latrell Sprewell - despite his reputation as a choker (sorry!) - showed why he was actually one of the best second/third scoring options you could have on your team for a long time. Such a sweet shot, but overshadowed by Barkley and Mullin, who "never hit the rim" (as Doug Collins put it) with his own excellent shooting performance. Great shooting all around, really, especially for such a fast-paced game. Dan Majerle had a great night for the Suns, and Kevin Johnson was making simple, effective scoring opportunities for his offense.

*Seriously, dude gave up 53 to Tim Duncan (admittedly at Duncan's statisical peak as a scorer). Uh...when their second best offensive players are Dan Majerle/Kevin Johnson or 36yo David Robinson/rook Tony Parker, you double-up and live with the results, Nellie. Jeez!

Fun game, lot of points, bad defense, Charles Barkley breaking my mind into pieces with the radiance of the sun, and a cameo by the Little General, Avery Johnson. I enjoyed the game.

Other notes:
Apparently Barkley said (seriously) he would retire - a la Jordan in 1993 - after these 1994 playoffs. In retrospect the prospect sounds a bit silly, but it probably worked as a great motivational tool. We talk about what would have happened if Jordan had stayed in the league for Hakeem's runs, but what would've happened if Barkley had taken those next six years in the booth? Earth-shattering commentary, obviously.

Yes, the title references the Biblical paraphrase/Philip K. Dick novella "[Through] A Scanner, Darkly". Yes, this is also a basketball piece about Charles Barkley. _ I'm glad you asked._

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Eye on the Classics: The Most Ferocious Cat (3OT, 2007)

Posted on Sat 05 November 2011 in Eye on the Classics by Alex Dewey

I've always thought of the Bobcats as the most ridiculous and arbitrary team in the entire league. Their logo haunts my mind - I just picture a kid trying to draw a ferocious cat but after the outline realizes he has only two depressingly drab crayons to shade it with. And all of this haunting happens before we even touch how funny the word "Bobcats" really is. It's especially awkward to enunciate quickly. It was a team destined for tongue-twisters and hilarious sentences like "Welcome to the Bobcats' sports network" or "In short, despite Kobe Bryant scoring 58 points, coach Bernie Bickerstaff's Bobcats beat Kobe's scrub Lakers in triple overtime, thanks to D by Crash and caroms by Emeka Okafor." Strangely, that last sentence is an accurate summary of the game we're going to be covering today. Weird.

• • •


The Bobcats joined the league in the summer of 2004. The Bobcats didn't have much to be proud of their first two seasons: They won just 44 total games (.268) and suffered countless hilarious buzzer-beaters. But in their third season they went hard*, with a core of Raymond Felton, Gerald Wallace, and Emeka Okafor, all good players. And on December 29, 2006 - in Charlotte's Time Warner Cable Arena (est. 2004), the Bobcats took down Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in triple overtime, despite Bryant's incredible 58-point night (on an insane 45 fg attempts) and despite Luke Walton's six 360 dunks (okay, only four). In a couple of seasons seemingly filled with one ridiculously swag performance after the other, Kobe Bryant - his powers at their zenith and his teammates' at their collective nadir - produced another great one. But locking arms and weathering a storm they could not stop, the Bobcats finally won when Kob-Icarus flew too high and fouled enough times to disqualify himself according to the rules of flightsketball, and the Bobcats won by 9.

*The Bobcats actually fought to a quite-solid 33 wins in 2006-2007, actually splitting their season series with each of the eventual conference finalists (Cavs, Jazz, Spurs, Pistons).


Yes, title, thanks for the clarification. Let's be clear: it was just a regular season game: the first half (beyond the Crash-Kobe duel) was actually exceedingly dull. But something about Gerald Wallace and Kobe fighting for every inch of space brought the best out of every Bobcat. Felton, Wallace, and Okafor all were showstoppers in this game, seriously. Matt Carroll even had a solid shooting game with a swag 27-8 on 16 shots off the bench. But it was the trio of stars that did most of the work: Felton made the kinds of great point guard decisions that leave a defense guessing constantly. Wallace was in his franchise-player, do-everything-on-both-sides mode. Wallace had so much intelligence and tenacity as a defender that he bears almost no fault at all for Kobe's performance, and in fact, Wallace made a number of crucial defensive stops on Bryant twice at the end of regulation. And then there was Emeka Okafor, doing everything a center should as an inside presence.

But this was Kobe's game, a masterwork singular to anyone but Kobe in the lean years. 58 points on 45 shots, getting to the line only 12 times. What's more, far from being a shooting exposition or a "no-center fiasco" for the Bobcats, Kobe earned his points in so many different ways, having (by my count) 32 distinct moves in the game: 1 for each field goal (23!), 4 more moves that led to free throws and 5 more moves that didn't quite stay down in the finish. Everything, everything, everything: Ball handling, fadeaways, threes, dribble penetration (often leading to those galloping slow-motion dimes to the perimeter), dribbling around the perimeter, layups, pump fakes, spin moves, transition passing, finishes of every variety, and everything you'd expect from positions one through three, if you get me. It's strange to say (as it often is with these incredible games) but Kobe easily could have had 10 more points and 5 more assists (58-5-4 was his line) if he had more competent teammates and a couple more bounces had gone his way. He got a league average 4-11 from 3, and most of the 3's were pretty decent, you know? Could have been 7-11 without much extra luck. And while his 81 point game is on another level entirely, it's not a huge leap from a luckier version of this game and a less competent defense to 81 points. Same skillset, a little bit more luck, and he drops 70 in this game easily. Gerald Wallace and Emeka Okafor are both decent defenders (Crash, for my money, is all-world) and Crash was guarding him man-to-man for most of the game (Bickerstaff inexplicably avoided this matchup for a few stretches, and Kobe punished him). Switch them out for the scrappy, likable Raptors Matt Bonner (he...would front against little indie musicians in charity games), Chris Bosh (horrible man D, decent help), and Morris Peterson (Crash he is not), and you might've given him the extra momentum for 81 points. He may be a volume shooter and selfish, Kobe is remarkably efficient and versatile. And everything he did in this game fit within the flow of the offense and the game. Kobe's teammates literally could barely do a thing when he left the court, and it wasn't (as it often seemed in 2010 playoffs) because he froze out rhythm guys. Kobe was the offense, and he was quite a good offense.

(March 26, 2008 - Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images North America)


The title is wrong. Emeka Okafor got 22-25 with 4 blocks. Extremely impressive, one of his better games, but it's Emeka Okafor. So I will inevitably forget it. Instead, I'd like to say something about Raymond Felton. Ray plays impressively in this game, getting 15 solid dimes and a not-so-bad 22 points on 24 shots. With no end of clutch, Ray finds Emeka Okafor on pick and rolls again and again in the OT sessions after Crash fouls out. Throughout the game, Felton finds Wallace on alley-oops and waits for cross-court passes and off-ball cuts to and from Wallace. Basically if you had to pair any point guard with Gerald Wallace, you could do worse than Ray. The Blazers obviously thought the same thing, trading for both in 2011. It's fitting that the point guard Felton was traded to Rip City for - the asymptotically aging veteran Andre Miller - is probably the model ceiling as a player for Felton: Always look to penetrate, be able to kick out, use two-man plays (like P&R and give-and-go) that give you a lot of alternate passing/reset options, have passable midrange shooting, a couple decent moves in the post, get to the line, and get about 8-9 assists per game. 16-5-9 on 47% is an Andre Miller season and Felton is just a bit short of that at 26 years old, but he could plausibly make one more leap in his career. Granted, there are some things he can't change: Felton doesn't quite have Miller's size for the high alley-oops and post-ups that make Dre such a valuable starter at 35. And Andre Miller is legitimately one of the more attentive basketball minds of his generation. But Felton can shoot the trey at something like league average (.340-.400 for a season seems reasonable), while Miller is one of the worst guards from distance in the league (right at the Mendoza line). No, Felton isn't quite as efficient, doesn't get the same amazing assist totals, and doesn't rebound quite as well as Miller. Felton's sort of an "85% mirror" to Andre Miller. Literally about 85% in height, craftiness, most every relevant statistical category, and salary in an ideal meritocracy, and he could get to 90% if he followed Miller's example. But he's good, and he's made all his teams better.

Felton was a solid point guard in this game. But Crash - like Kobe - did everything for his team. Sure, Wallace isn't the transcendent offensive player Kobe is, but he's one of the most competent, complete players in all facets of the game. In his prime? Star quality. Name a basketball skill that you'd want from a versatile wing or an undersized power forward, and Crash has something to offer (besides outside shooting). Punishing post moves (back or front to the basket), great star passes out of double teams (finding open perimeter and midrange shooters throughout the halfcourt), great movement off the ball, leaping ability, blocks, steals, running the floor, any role in transition, rebounding, and surreally good perimeter defense. He...can complete alley-oops with abandon. Crash is clutch as hell in general and in this game, even getting stops on Kobe not once but TWICE at the end of regulation and getting the game-tying 3-point play right beforehand.* He really is a franchise player and one of the best two-way players in the game. And you know what? He does it all, and like the best franchise players (though, sure, he's not an MVP), Crash raises the level of play and effort of anyone that sees him. Pippen, LeBron, or Iguodala are his best comparables. Tough, slightly oversized wings (Crash is the largest of the four) that have a unique athleticism that allows them to dominate on both ends.

*Unfortunately, our helpful youtube uploader mamba9381 neglects to show Crash's D that made this a game for the ages. I'll try to fix this in the near future with some extra highlights.


Kobe and Crash had so many competitive staredowns in this game, and it was justified: Crash mitigated Kobe as much as anyone could and dominated Kobe on offense - but "mitigating" Kobe still meant he got 58 points. I'm reminded of a quote from a Celtic (Kevin McHale, maybe?) during the 80s: His takeaway from the Lakers-Celts rivalry was that the Celtics were a great team, so when they played very well, they would almost always win. When they played great, they were basically unstoppable. But against the Lakers, the Celtics could play _great and still come up short. _ That's the place Kobe and Crash were in for this game, where Nash and Duncan were in for their careers, where all the great rivalries in sports live. Now, both Kobe and Crash are a bit older now and don't have many great years left, but we have this game, a meaningless regular-season game in their primes that became transcendent art and entertainment and competition. It's fitting that both of them fouled out in the overtime sessions. Of course they took a bow.

THREE-MONTH-LATER EDIT: Someone found this post by searching google for "The Most Ferocious Cat."

I loved it so much, I changed the title of the post to reflect it. Thanks, person.

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"Opening" Night: UTA v HOU (1995)

Posted on Wed 02 November 2011 in Eye on the Classics by Aaron McGuire

In celebration of our personal opening night, we're going to try the good try to make up for the NBA's lack of one. We're going to make it up to you by posting three full classics of NBA matchups of the teams that WOULD have been playing on opening night, if the season's schedule hadn't been scrapped. Here's game #3: a reprisal of a rivalry so old that few fans remember it existed.

This matchup is the Hakeem Rockets versus the Stockton-Malone Jazz, this time for all the marbles. And there were a lot of marbles: Yes, their only 90s titles came from the Spurs and the Rockets. But the Western Conference also included two of the greatest Finals runner-ups in the history of the game in the 1997 and 1998 Jazz, two teams featuring all-time centers, some great Portland teams, the Barkley Suns, and some amazing Sonics teams. In short: quite a few marbles, even if Jordan kept them from winning the rings to show for the marbles they had in abundance. This metaphor is getting confusing. Let's watch some hoops. This post is formatted like a retroactive liveblog. Simmons-style.*

*We have nothing else in common with Bill Simmons...Well, except all these footnotes.

• • •

Click here for the full game in 12 parts on Youtube, courtesy of patvilhauer.

This retro-liveblog begins at the half, because this is somewhat hard to coordinate, and it's our first time doing this. We're also very wordy. A four-quarter liveblog would most likely be all too long to be read by anyone. As is, it's a bit much. But hopefully you can find something out of it anyway. Read on!

THIRD QUARTER (Time is in time remaining)

12:00 - Coming out of the half, the Jazz came in with a magical lead -- they got a three off Jeff Hornacek making a great play to get off the shot with less than 0.7 seconds left, and in fact left the game on a 10-0 run. It's pretty incredible watching the Jazz at full speed. And then, immediately coming off the half? Hakeem seems to get injured. That's not good. No, my green-texted friend, it is not. That's Alex, by the way. It's not easy being green, but somebody has to do it.

7:32 - Turns out Hakeem's injury was only a funny bone thing. We got the diagnosis from Utah's designated "funny bone guru." I love the Delta Center. Hornacek the last few minutes makes me think that any player in the history of the league could've put up 200 assists per game in John Stockton's place. He's making some fucking insane shots. Yeah. Also, Jeff Hornacek looks like Data. Antoine Carr looks like Geordi Laforge with his visor. I guess Sloan looks like... Patrick Stewart, yeah... But who would Worf be? <Six paragraphs omitted> Yeah...we don't have to add this all to the live-blog, I think.

3:09 - The Big Men are starting to take over, even more than they already have been. Most of the offense is going through Hakeem or Malone either as starters or as finishers. In a memorable sequence, Hakeem made a beautiful full-court outlet to Kenny Smith, who was stripped right under the basket and recovered by Malone for a 20-second T. Malone has been showing his knack for cross-court passes through double-teams and his impeccable patience and timing that allows him to draw infuriating fouls in the midrange. As Drexler's sweet shot fades (the curse of the rhythm shooter), Hakeem is continuing to demonstrate his mastery of the midrange jumper that - along with his amazing footwork, defense, and passing abilities - made him so dominant for this stretch. Both Malone and Hakeem are getting to the line a good deal - announcer points out Dream's elbow as a possible factor in Hakeem's passivity. At one point Olajuwon missed a rebound and the Jazz eventually got 1-2 Malone FTs on the second chance. On the next possession (where we are now). _Malone just set up Hornacek on a beautiful cut for a dunk. The Jazz are opening a solid 8-point lead almost literally on the differential between Malone and Hakeem in this period._

1:51 - So, Utah is actually beginning to take a huge lead at this point -- Rockets haven't made a field goal in almost four minutes, and the Jazz are getting whatever they want. Things are looking rather grim here for the defending champs. No threes are going down. So the Rockets finally wake up and feed Hakeem, who beats up Antoine Carr with a great fake and spin, but his basket is ruled out as a foul. Didn't matter much, as the Rockets beat their slide with some free throws. Ballin'. The Jazz offense follows with a BRUTAL possession, but like many Jazz possessions in the 90s, it didn't matter in the least, as Karl Malone makes a brilliant rainbow J and renders the preceding offensive incompetence completely irrelevant. I read somewhere that Hakeem would often begin his drop step in midair, so he could get an extra spin on opponents. Watch the move right here for an example of that -- the basket is waved off, but he manages to dropstep in midair while catching it, and spins without traveling. This is amazing. Prime Hakeem is seriously unfair, when he's on.

0:00 - Okay, dude, this is absurd. Apparently the Rockets have gotten only two points from their bench at this point of the game. Literally three quarters in with only a deuce from the bench? That's... wow. Unfathomable. I mean, I've watched this game, and I have no idea how that happened. Partly it's because Rudy didn't go strong to the bench. And partly it's because, I mean, shit -- their bench is horrible and is completely shrinking from this game. Thoughts, my greenly feathered friend? None. I'm still stuck on Hakeem's move at about 40 seconds where he caught the ball in the middle of four defenders and still made the bucket. That's a Shaq/Duncan move. That's insane. Yeah, uh, as you said before -- literally unfair. Still. The Rockets bench has two points, Hakeem and Drexler have combined for 50 in three quarters. The Jazz have 71 to the Rockets' 64. And I honestly have no idea how the Rockets are going to go about trying to win this game. Yet. The Jazz are pretty thoroughly outclassing them, though they aren't up as much as they should be.


10:27 - Oh. That's how. Drexler just made a few clutch free throws, then after a similarly awful offensive possession for the one I mentioned earlier from Malone, the Rockets just chuck it to Hakeem. Who proceeds to brutalize two defenders and make an incredibly tricky over-strong bank shot that had to be aimed perfectly or it wouldn't have had a shot at going in at all. Hits nothing but net. Life is easier when you have one of the greatest centers of all time on your team, it appears. Rockets now only down five. There's an exit strategy possible, now. They just need to pretend there are only two players on the floor on the offensive end.

9:44 - Malone has 16 ft attempts. He's not a bad free throw shooter, but I'm starting to think hack a Shaq should be Malone's namesake. Because it seems like the Rockets simply give up on all attempts at letting Malone beat them from the field at some point. Also, a Miller Draft Genuine Playoff Moment. This is so surreal.. I... I don't even know what to say about that. You have to see it to understand. I don't get why this was shown. I don't get why I'm alive. I simply do not understand. Nor do I. Antoine Carr is inexplicably beasting right now. _Make that Geordi Laforge, Ensign. _That was fucking terrible. Noted. (Alex: I'll just leave this here)

8:03 - Can you even call timeout in midair anymore? I don't think so, but even if you can, who the hell would do that anymore? Manu has to be the only one, I'd think.

6:22 - Totally unrelated, unnecessary aside -- Mario Elie was hilarious on the 1999 Spurs - The Spurs consisted of all these intellectuals and enigmatic cast-offs, and Mario Elie called them out midseason, saying, "I never get my daps from them. We never chest-bump. I've never been on a team that chest-bumps so little.," which is only a mild paraphrase. Anyway, since he's on the Rockets and he's not named Hakeem, he's... a 3-point dagger shooter that can swing the ball around the perimeter well. Yeah. This whole Rockets team style is reminiscent of the 2009 Orlando Magic, just with a better array of chuckers and a better staple player. Don't forget, though, Elie was money in the playoffs back in 94.

5:18 - Hornacek is the Icarus of the impossible. He goes way too close to impossibility and burns in mid-airball._I don't know what that means, but I'm pretty sure I agree with you. 82-75 Jazz, currently. Hakeem misses two huge free throws. Big problems for the Rockets -- they have time to get back into the game, but they need to stop giving up Hornacek threes and... oh god... are they playing the Rocky music??? Oh my god, I think I'm in love with the Delta Center. Someone help me. I refuse. Still. Both teams have turned to a penetration and kick-out game. Of course, when your frontcourts feature Karl Malone or Hakeem Olajuwon, that's not so much of a change as you might think. You know, because they can both penetrate and hit midrange shots. Kind of physical freaks, really._

3:50 - I'm 90% sure that the Jazz arena is simply 100% devoted to erasing beautiful Olajuwon shots. He's made at least 5 shots this game that were somewhat unremarkably removed from the record by the refs, replaced with free throws he has quite a bit more trouble with. Still. Very annoying. Hakeem makes some pressure shots regardless, followed by Drexler going nuts and getting full-court. This is pretty fucking awesome. Also, Hakeem puts in so much more than is recorded in the box score. It's too bad so much of it is disqualified by fouls marginally assessed before the fact.

2:31 - Benoit has had the last 4 shots for the Jazz. In a related story, the Jazz have put virtually nothing on the board in those offensive possessions, and are sitting on a 3 minute scoring drought. Hm. I wonder if there's some connection between the Jazz not getting the ball to any of their good offensive players and their offense suddenly vanishing. How strange. Drexler makes a clutch free throw, then misses one. The Jazz are up one. They are playing "Surfin' U.S.A." on their PA system. The Delta Center is my new true love. Sorry Kathryn. Surfin' U.S.A. being the infamous Beach Boys rip-off of Choke Berry. The Jazz are choking, is what I'm trying to convey here.

1:51 - Stockton takes an awful shot -- he's been absolutely brutal this game. Rockets suddenly have the lead, and suddenly, Hakeem makes a tough fadeaway to put the Rockets up 3. With how the Jazz are scoring, that may be insurmountable. Yuk yuk yuk. Just as I say that, Malone finally gets the ball in a position to score and does so over Hakeem's great defense. Game isn't quite over yet.


0:42 - Hakeem is just dominating every possession for the Rockets. Malone hit a clutch turnaround over Hakeem, but technically I don't think you can call it clutch if you choked to make it necessary. Still, it was a nice shot. Almost as good as one of the last 5 Hakeem possessions. Robert Horry tackled John Stockton on the next possession. Wait. I mean Hornacek. Yeah. That was Hornacek. I realize he looks like a tall, old, disturbing Stockton... but a man's gotta have his standards, dogg.

0:15 - Suddenly, Rockets up 4. Then... a Malone three? What the fuck kind of a crunch time play was this? I don't mind the Stockton-Malone Jazz, but dear god. They played like champions up until the 7 minute mark of the fourth. Suddenly, they became a completely incompetent broken team that couldn't do a damn thing. This is just absurd. They draw a foul and make both shots -- but now there's only 15 seconds left. The exact same thing happened with the Mavericks over the Jazz in 2001. Absolute choke. I mean, yes, they're facing legendary offensive players in both cases. But come on, their offense completely falls apart. It's not like their offense should be affected either way by clutch. They do pick and rolls and penetrations, both with a lot of options. Sloan had them practice their offensive positioning thousands of times. He is legendary for that. Did he plant a time bomb in Karl Malone? Does he secretly hate Karl Malone?

0:09 - Okay. Game over. Jazz have 87, Rockets have 92. Realize that the number was 82-75 less than 6 minutes ago. The Rockets closed the game with 17 points, the Jazz 5. That's pretty, uh, awful. And I don't like piling on from our last points, but the time bomb thing is exactly what comes to mind. Stockton is great at running an offense, and Sloan is a great coach, but Malone and Stockton simply seem to fall apart at the end of games -- WHY, though? I have no idea. I don't even have a reasonable theory.

0:06 - As if to mock me, the Jazz make a miracle three to make things interesting.

0:00 - ... and promptly lose the game. Goodnight, sweet Jazz. Lost by 3, in the end. Fought a good fight, too. Apparently, Barkley believes that the Suns can't beat the Rockets in a seven-game series. I guess he's not even a role model....for compulsive gamblers! Ah ha ha ha....(the Suns of course lost to the Rockets, who won the title that year). (Alex: I'm such a zany humorist).

Conclusion (Alex):

No one can question the physical toughness of John Stockton and Karl Malone. For the much better part of two decades they had arguably the best conditioning in the league. They played despite Stockton's occasional horrible injuries (he sprained his ankle in the first quarter of this very game and later fell down from a slight screen). He played spot minutes with the Dream Team despite a broken leg. Malone endured the slings and arrows of the post for twenty years. Yet in this, possibly their most important game to date (Malone in the first half calls it "the most important game for the franchise") they played high-caliber, if-not-brilliant-then-brilliantly-effective basketball that was creative on individual and collective levels. And then, seven minutes before they were to take on the '95 Suns for their trouble, Stockton and Malone - for all their brilliance and conditioning - collapsed like balsa wood in ugly offense that shined a light on mediocre defense. There is no obvious explanation for this - and they've done this before with leads: completely choked offensively against superior offenses right at the end of the game. It's just kind of strange, I guess: The only reason we question their mental toughness specifically is because their physical toughness is so axiomatic.

For the Rockets, not much more need be said: Hakeem's dominance in this series on both ends would blossom even further in a staggering march through the West and then against the Magic as Houston held the throne for one more year. Thanks for reading and watching along on the opening day that wasn't - but was still just as time-consuming and interesting for those of us here at the Gothic Ginobili.

Postscript: Here's a similar nostalgic take from The Dream Shake back in March.

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"Opening" Night: LAL vs SEA (1980)

Posted on Wed 02 November 2011 in Eye on the Classics by Aaron McGuire

In celebration of our opening night, we're going to try the good try to make up for the NBA's lack of one. We're going to try and make it up to you by posting three full classics of NBA matchups of the teams that WOULD have been playing on opening night, if the season's schedule hadn't been scrapped. Here's game #2: the chill zombies of Seattle vs a star-studded Lakers team.

When I noticed that OKC was playing on the opening night that was not to be, I had a short debate with Alex as to whether we should restrict our search for games in the last few years where the franchise was actually in OKC (and games from when the Hornets were in OKC) or just open ourselves up to Seattle in hopes of using some actual classic games. It didn't take all that long for us to decide we'd extend our search. After all, what kind of a classic is a 2010 playoff game, really? Nonetheless. The game we have for you may not actually feature OKC, but it's still a pretty great one -- it has a still-rookie Magic, a still-spry Kareem, a still-ballin Dennis Johnson, and a still-underrated Gus Johnson. It also was the clinching game of the eastern conference finals, with Kareem doing what Kareem did in clinching situations.

Click the jump to watch the full game on Youtube (credit to lakeptic), with my "expert" commentary.

• • •

Click here for the full playlist with all 12 parts of this game.

When the game begins, the first anachronism lies in the announcing team -- namely, that it includes Bill Russell. And don't get me wrong. This is a great game. For the basketball, yes, but most of all for the fact that Bill Russell is part of the announcing team. I mean. Really. I can't overstate this. You have Bill Russell, doing color for a clinching game in the old LA forum. Really. Is he good? Not really, in the usual sense of the word. Though he's entertaining, witty, and soft-spoken -- not necessarily what you'd usually expect out of a color guy, but for some reason, it works. I don't think it'd work for any other commentator, but for Bill Russell? It just works. Hearing him compare every other Kareem play to something he did is pretty hilarious, too, and overall it's a worthy try as a big-game commentator. I wouldn't watch an old game just to watch, say, Kevin Harlan (a tried and true murderer (not really)) commentate, but I can't say I would be opposed to watching an old game simply to watch Bill Russell commentate it. He brings something to the games most color guys don't in this day and age. And that's worth something.

It's also worth something to stare longingly at his tendency to give the Lakers literally zero credit for anything they succeed at doing on the court -- the game begins, on this note, with Russell essentially predicting that the Lakers will lose the series if they lose tonight's game, despite holding a 3-1 series lead, because "Seattle can't be beat at home" (Russ: Seattle had already lost two games at home in THIS SERIES) and "anyone can win a game seven" (Russ: YOU NEVER LOST A GAME SEVEN IN YOUR LIFE YOU ARE THE SINGLE LEAST LIKELY PERSON TO SAY THAT). It's kind of hilarious. Also hilarious is the awkward attempts the other announcers make at talking with him -- he clearly is not comfortable with them and dislikes them. A lot.

So, actual basketball time.

You know the showtime Lakers. But the Sonics? Who are they? For lack of a better word, they're an incredibly scrappy team. The team you see here are the defending NBA champions despite having only one HoF player in an aging Dennis Johnson, and few particularly generation-defining players beyond him. They hawk the passing lanes quite well, and they take full advantage of Magic's occasional over-passing. They're GREAT at penetrating, and their offensive sets use every player on the floor -- the difference in styles between these Lakers and these Sonics is huge. Whereas the Sonics play a five man offense where you don't know who's going to be scoring (though Gus Johnson is a strong "the world is falling apart and we need a basket" option, for this game only), the Lakers essentially give Magic and Kareem the ball on every possession and give them the levity do something with it -- the other players on the floor are, for this year, little more than agents to catch passes, take shots, and establish pivots.

On that subject: Kareem is amazing in this game. Absolutely splendid. His fight on the boards, his offense, his shot blocking -- it's great. He had 3 blocks in the first 7 minutes, seriously. It's hard to find fault with Kareem's game, too much. He dominates on offense, runs the Lakers' offense, and runs up the floor like a gazelle. He had some great weakside blocks, some great pocket passes, and multiple "only Kareem could do that" type shots. But given the way I composed this paragraph so far, there's a caveat. And it's rather big. It's his defense. Honestly, it isn't nearly as good as I was expecting. Despite his legendary blocking ability, the Sonics were getting virtually anything they wanted inside. As it turns out, if Kareem doesn't block your shot, he doesn't even try to contest it. He's a great shot blocker, so that's still a relatively valuable contribution, but his general intangibles on defense are honestly pretty poor. He uses his size poorly on defense, and gets caught sleeping on defense way, way too often.

And LA's other defenders? All pretty poor. Seattle took advantage of LA's poor interior defense all night long, first by faking out Kareem and then by taking advantage of a two-cut strategy -- one Seattle player would cut into the lane, the LA bigs would all collapse on them, then while they were out of position because they were ball-watching, another guard would cut in, recieve the ball, and either get an open shot for himself or one of his teammates. It seemed like almost every play of the first half featured some variation on this whenever the Sonics were having any trouble getting an open shot -- even Bill Russell commented on it, as well he should. The problem? The Lakers were infinitely more talented than the Sonics, and cut their (reasonably good) defensive schemes to shreds on the other end simply with Magic and Kareem (easily the best player on the 1980 team, no offense to Magic) outworking and outhustling every Sonics defender. There are some benefits to having two all-time players on your team. Even though their defense was, again, pretty poor.

Perhaps the best play to demonstrate the Lakers' general malaise on the defensive end is this gem -- here, Magic throws an absolutely spot-on fully guarded cross court pass to Kareem, resulting in a surprisingly not wide-open (but open enough) jam for Kareem. Instead of rushing back on D, or cutting off the pass, Kareem throws his arms up and entices the crowd to cheer louder. The Sonics take advantage of Kareem ignoring them to throw an unguarded cross halfcourt pass, which is immediately flung to a cutting Sonic. This tends to summarize the defensive style of the Showtime Lakers pre-Worthy -- borderline GOAT play on offense, distracted and disinterested defense as they struggle to do basic defensive tasks like "pay any attention at all." Or "apply a modicum of focus to preventing the cutter from entering the lane." Or "full court anything."

But really? This team had Magic entering his prime, Kareem still in his, and a borderline decent supporting cast. What the hell else was going to happen this game? The Sonics were a good team. DJ is a hall of fame player. But while they were a good defensive team, no defensive-oriented team short of "all-time great team starring Moses Malone or Hakeem Olajuwon" was going to deny Magic and Kareem when they were both in prime playoff form. The only way you were going to beat the Showtime Lakers was by having players who could outscore Kareem and Magic and shutting down the Lakers' tertiary pieces. The second wasn't hard to do. The first? Come on, now.

Long story short? Alex got the brew, I got the chronic depression. Also, the Lakers beat the SuperSonics.

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"Opening" Night: CHI vs DAL (1996)

Posted on Wed 02 November 2011 in Eye on the Classics by Alex Dewey

_In celebration of our opening night, we're trying to make up for the NBA's current lack of a scheduled opening night. We're going to try and make it up to you by posting three full NBA matchups of the teams that WOULD have been playing on opening night, if the season's schedule hadn't been scrapped. Here's game #1: the defending champion Mavs face off against the ECF Bulls, 90s style. Except in 1996, with the Bulls the champs and the Mavs, well, pretty far away from any sort of conference finals. They've got Jason Kidd, though! _

Here's the box score. Click the jump for the highlight videos.

Pity Jason Kidd and the Dallas Mavericks. Sure, their stirring, amazing championship this year may have finally vindicated the careers of Rick Carlisle, Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Mark Cuban, and Kidd himself. But no amount of titles could ever wash off the taint of the team's performance in the 1990s. The Dallas Mavericks never broke .500 in a season starting in the decade. Their win totals - ordered by increasing levels of atrocity - were 40, 36, 28, 26, 24, 22, 20, 19, 13, 11 from 1990-91 to 1999-00.* The Mavericks were 15 years old in 1996 (and had even had quite a few good runs with Mark Aguirre), but seemed like the oldest expansion franchise in the league at this point - a total joke, filled with one superstar destined to leave soon (Jason Kidd) and two 17th-team All-NBA players (Jim Jackson, Jamal Mashburn [who actually suffered a season-ending injury about 18 games into 1996]). Can you even imagine rooting for the Mavs right in the middle of that awful decade? I can't, in all honesty.

*As a math major I have to note that they have every even number between 20 and 28 wins, inclusive, like they were playing a drinking game of mediocrity. The Mavs were 239-549 (.303) for the decade, a .303 winning percentage, which comes out to about a 25-win season, on average. Damn.

But to their credit, the Mavericks filled legendary Reunion Arena with dedicated supporters for their awful team. For the early regular season game we'll be covering, no fewer than five world-class athletes showed up. All - as I understand it - are top 10 all-time at their positions: Roger Staubach (former Cowboys QB), Michael Johnson (sprinter), Michael Irvin (wide reciever), Emmitt Smith (running back), and Deion Sanders (cornerback).* And even the Fucking Mayor of Dallas. Wow! All of them showed up to root their home team on (if they don't win, it's a shame!). The likes of Deion Sanders saw the high-flying trio of young Mavs' stars: sophomore PG star Jason Kidd, Jim Jackson at his absolute peak, and the always-sizzling Jamal Mashburn. Or, as they called themselves, Triple J (sounds like a radio station)!

*Missing were Nolan Ryan, Future Dirk Nowitzki, Tom Landry, and Holger Geschwinder.

It was obvious just from watching that Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson and the rest of the 1996 Chicago Bulls had a heck of a time mentally coping with the powerful support (ecstatic at times) for the good old 1996 Dallas Mavericks in the legendary Reunion Arena. And Triple J didn't disappoint, combining for an amazing 64 points on just 64 shots!

Part 1:

Being serious: For Dallas, Jason Kidd put up a rather incredible (and characteristic) 25-15-11-6 (8 offensive rebounds, Jesus.) on a kind of bad 22 shots, but like, look at that statline, seriously. He's a point guard! Like, he got 7 defensive rebounds, in addition to 8 offensive rebounds! Only 3 turnovers as the only Maverick with a really good handle! He did everything in this game, and it was possibly more impressive to watch than the statline suggests. Time after time, the Bulls perimeter defense would cover Kidd's passing target well, so he'd reset and find a better shot, then he'd rebound it if the shot didn't go in. He even shot the trey pretty well (2-6, but...well, you'll see). Every single possession Kidd would motor around on offense and defense, and do it efficiently. Say what you will about his apparent character (the less said, the better), but I can understand why he topped the polls of "smartest player in the league". Absolute tour de force. Jamal Mashburn was never an efficient player in his long career (his peak seemed to be a decent, starter-quality 22-6-6 on 42% and some floor spacing), but in this game he was a fun player to watch, with a lot of agility, apparent effort, and leaping ability. Monster Mash seemed like kind of a chucker in this game, honestly, but I mean, on the 1996 Mavericks? Unless he was always passing up a shot for Jason Kidd to reset or something, Mash probably should have just taken the shot every time. When Mashburn had the ball and a reasonable chance at the hoop, he was practically obligated to shoot. And he seemed like a living matchup problem at the 3, even if he wasn't especially skilled. Mash had a few swag drop-steps in the post, and definitely was a competent wide receiver for Jason Kidd when Kidd made an Ender's Game, five-steps-ahead-of-anyone-else sort of alley-oop.

The surprise of this game is that Dallas demolished Chicago on the boards in this game 66-50, winning 32-12 on offensive caroms (Dallas had 4 players in double-figure rebounds, and two more with 5). The Mavericks, in addition to having a dominating presence on the boards, also showed surprising acumen at passing when the legendary Bulls defense actually closed in on them in the second half. The Mavs didn't play great ball (considering their team, how could they, really?), but thanks to Kidd and their team rebounding, they really put themselves in a position to win with what they had. To be fair to the Bulls, they weren't near full strength: Dennis Rodman suffered a monthlong injury that lasted most of November (one of many weird facts about the 72-win Bulls). Rodman just got inducted into the HOF a couple months ago, and he absolutely deserved the honor: The Bulls' frontcourt was Rodman as a historically great rebounding and defensive force. As laughable as the claim is that Rodman was the most important player on the '96-98 Bulls (though he is a unique and truly great player), the way the roster was structured, he may have been the most irreplaceable Bulls player.

You see, the way the Bulls were constructed, losing Rodman meant losing 90% of his contributions. This isn't like when fans of all 30 teams today moan occasionally about wanting an agile seven footer that can defend and rebound (it seems so easy to get one!). No, Rodman was precisely what the Bulls were missing, qualitatively and quantitatively. Look at the numbers: Rodman got 14.9 rpg in 1996. Their next best rebounders that season were...Jordan and Pippen at about 6 apiece. Then came their starting center Luc Longley at 5 rpg, even though Rodman was playing far better defense than Longley: In addition to his infamous rep as an enforcer, Rodman won the DPOY (twice!), had unimaginably solid conditioning (he was 37 when the Bulls won in 1998), and the same gifts that made him a great rebounder (tenacity, endurance, predictive vision, lateral quickness, unpredictable blunt motions like hops) were also perfect for man and help defense. Furthermore, next to Longley, Rodman was only marginally less efficient at offense (same efficiency stats basically, but Longley got about twice as many touches). In about 6 more mpg, Rodman got about 3 times as many rebounds as Longley. Without Rodman they didn't have anyone that could consistently dominate on the glass (though both Pippen and Jordan were occasional double-double/triple-double threats, of course). Similarly on defense, while they had three great wing defenders in Pippen, Jordan, and Ron Harper*, Rodman was their only great inside presence. Longley, the infamous Croatian "prospect" Toni Kukoc, Jason Caffey, Bill Wennington? Yeah, all role players in the final tally. The Bulls without Rodman were a missing team. They weren't a 72-win team.

*The Bulls set the best half-court traps in all of basketball.

Part 2:

And yet, the Bulls without Rodman were not a bad team. They were a great team, in fact: Michael Jordan was hitting his final peak as an athlete, built around still-great driving ability, mental toughness, and an unguardable fadeaway (and generally, an amazing one-on-one arsenal and a much-improved jumper) that I am required by law as a blogger to tie into Kobe Bryant somehow. It's a cliche, but Jordan was honestly the brilliant assassin that his legendary personality dictated and that his athletic gifts often belied. Strange to say, but if anyone was truly athletically amazing in the Dallas game, it was Scottie Pippen (or Jason Kidd). What's really weird is that MJ's scoring was still very high and efficient in 1996 (30.4 per on .495 FG% and .427 3P%) but the points were often so easily gotten and difficult to defend that even if you were watching him, you could miss his insane scoring numbers. You could never mistake his level of production watching him in a 1991 45 point performance or his "God" game in 1986. But - similar to Tim Duncan's production throughout his career - late Jordan would often put in 7 in each of the first three quarters and 10 in the fourth and end up with 31 on 20 shots before you knew what was happening, no homecourt advantage or superstar calls needed. I mean, of course there were a few "how in God's name did he do that?" moments that only Jordan could have pulled off (can't wait to get this video up, seriously), but even so, Jordan scored more than 35 points, and it's a total shocker to hear. He somehow drops 17 in the second quarter, only 4 of which are conspicuous.

Unlike Jason Kidd, Pippen didn't quite get a triple-double in this game. However, his game was possibly more impressive and well-rounded. It was a great performance. Pippen got a 26-12-7 with 1 steal and 5 blocks, with just 3 turnovers. He also got the 26 points on 19 shots (not super-efficient, but better than Kidd). Now, Pippen didn't quite have the "_only good player" responsibility that Jason Kidd had, but on the other hand, Pippen also wasn't the statistical beneficiary of being the only good player on his team. When your team is filled with inefficient shooters and you get 11 assists, that's pretty impressive, but Kidd also got 8 offensive rebounds partially because his team didn't _expect to hit 50% of their shots ("We're not a 50% team," Mavs coach Dick Motta said at halftime, "But we're not a 35% team, either."). And as impressive as 6 steals is, Pippen got 1 steal and 5 blocks (none of them cheap perimeter swats), as a small forward.* Insane. Against an inferior Mavs wing defense (at best, they had an undersized Jason Kidd on Jordan), Jordan got a lot of unassisted baskets - and yet Pippen managed to find 7 assists. At one point in the first half, the Mavs were swarming Pippen: They had taken Michael as a given and were moving on to Scottie in a futile attempt to mitigate him.

*Small observation: A lot of blocks seem to happen when the offensive player makes a really formulaic counter-move switching from side to side in the paint. This is one reason I love when little guards use the "Eurostep," the "Dream Shake," and ball fakes in the paint. It's hilarious when it works (like when big linebackers make interceptions) and it's forced by the competitive structure of the game: The defensive player has established himself as good enough to block the standard layup, and the standard counter-moves like hand switches and turns.

And, oh man, so much of this game was brilliant transition offense and defense - as if Kidd, Pippen, and Jordan collectively signed a contract to make this game as fun and competitively possible in which they (and Ron Harper, guest star of Kenan & Kel this one time) were the only great players. You really have to see some of these plays. I'll try to get my highlight reel up, but this really is a vintage Jordan-Pippen-Kidd game - and you have to wonder how many people even saw it besides Kelly Dwyer and the Mayor of Dallas.

Maybe it wasn't so bad to be a fan of the Mavs after all.

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12/24/1984: King drops 60, and the myths of MSG.

Posted on Wed 26 October 2011 in Eye on the Classics by Aaron McGuire

As a regular lockout feature, we will be highlighting old masters through a series of classic NBA games in our Eye on the Classics series. For our first featured game, I'll be taking a look at Bernard King's classic 60 point bomb in Madison Square Garden during one of the few successful seasons in a long and rarely noted career.

As a statistician, I'm always one of the strongest proponents of the idea that the average fan vastly overrates the importance of a volume scorer on a contending team. Rebounding, passing, and lockdown defense are all roughly as important as volume scoring -- in a vacuum. But even the most curmugeonly among us (Berri exempted) can't deny the sheer joy a basketball fan can find in a virtuoso scoring performance. Players who end a game having scored over half their team's points in an altogether dominating fashion are, at the moment they take their leave of the court, the most important thing a basketball player can be. They're the franchise. At least for a game. They vindicate their decision to regularly dominate the ball, again, at least for a single game. And they captivate us. They get our attention, no matter how negative we are about their skills.

In short, scoring may not be the single most important thing a player can do on the court. But it is, without question, the most electrifying. And Bernard King, bless his soul, exemplifies it. This game in particular. Like all record-setting or challenging performances, this one didn't really start with any particular fanfare. A lot like Kobe's 81. King misses his first several shots and actually fades badly in the second half, enough so that the Nets win the game despite his outburst and despite the Knicks being one of the four best teams in the league that season. But the failures are important for our purposes -- his misses allow watchers of this game the levity to properly examine King's offensive game, as well as differences in the general offensive strategy in the 80s compared to today.

The first observation I had when I watched the full game is that King's offensive game would fit just fine in the modern NBA. He can finish with both hands smoothly, and would still be one of the best in the league at that today. His shot is wet as a newly beached seal. And, perhaps most importantly, he draws free throws like an absolute boss. In an era with less whistle-heavy refs, no less. The announcer says he's the most physical offensive player in the leauge in the 80s. I don't really have any players off the top of my head that would refute that opinion. One comparison I think is at least somewhat apt is that King is the Melo of his era. Pretty easy to see where it comes from. First, obviously, both are Knicks and both are borderline franchise guys. Their offensive games are somewhat similar -- both extremely physical in the post, but with a smooth enough midrange shot (both long and short) that both are a serious threat from any spot on the court inside the three point line. Even the best defenders can't really do much against either of them. Play them close? They'll outmuscle you and get to the hole. Lay off? Silky midrange stepback in your grill. It's tough. The best way is to force them to ballhog and turn it over.

Not particularly difficult to do, if one's honest. But still.

Where King separates himself from Melo is in the fact that he basically takes everything Melo does and does it a bit better. Where Melo puts no effort in on the defensive end, King puts a bit of effort in -- he isn't a great defender (just watch his decisionmaking in the second half if you don't believe me, it's atrocious), but you can't really say he's really lacking in effort on that end if he puts in even a modicum of effort in such a lights out offensive performance. He's a marginally better passer, and beyond that, has a markedly better sense on how to get his teammates into the game than Melo does. King's general quality as a player at his peak shows in how different his peak playoff record is from Melo's current grind. In Melo's prime, he was the best player on a talent-rich Pistons-esque Nuggets team that went to a WCF after beating a straight up bad Mavs team and a wildly mediocre and broken Hornets team, only to get subsequently crushed by the Lakers. Who were, quite frankly, barely even trying until the finals.

King, though? Just look at this game. The Knicks team featured here ended up pushing the would-be champion Celtics to 7 games in the second round after upsetting Isiah's Pistons in the first round. Both of those are all-time great teams, with the Pistons a year away from becoming a serious title contender -- the argument could easily be made that King's Knicks were the 2nd or 3rd best team in the league in 1985. Very hard to make that argument about any of Melo's teams, and despite that, Melo had far more talent. Bernard King's teams were all extremely bare in the cupboard when it came to supporting casts around his scoring, whether in defense or tertiary scorers. The great tragedy of his career is how, like many mid-80s stars, it got derailed by injury. A devastating ACL injury, as a matter of fact, that made him miss almost 3 seasons and sapped him of the majority of his explosiveness. While King came back from the injury and eventually was a productive player again (making him the first major pro athlete to return to his sport from an ACL tear -- a big triumph for medicine) he was still never quite the same. Which is a shame. In an era filled with high scoring wingmen (see: Adrian Dantley, Mark Aguirre) King was one of the better ones. And his injury was a ridiculous shame.

One last thing I'd like to mention. While you can get a sense of King's scoring from the video above that highlights all of his scored points, you don't really get a sense of what a game in Madison Square Garden was like in the 80s. And I think that's worth looking at, if you ever see an 80s Knicks game on TV. Madison Square Garden is essentially the most famous arena in the country -- so called mecca of basketball and all that. And I think it's worth asking... why, exactly? Why not the Forum? Why not the Boston Garden? Why, exactly, is MSG so special? It isn't the Knicks, honestly. They've been an irrelevant team more often than a contender over the last 30-40 years. The Forum and the Garden are both more historically relevant. This game gives a bit of insight into why MSG is so revered. The 80s crowd that MSG draws is nothing like any other regular season 80s game I've seen. The crowd is into it and rocking. But I find it sort of funny that despite how nice it is compared to other 80s games, the crowd honestly pales in comparison to the crowds that are drawn by big games nowadays. There's a tendency to exalt the past as some incredible time when every game was rocking and people "really" followed the NBA, unlike today's contrived arenas and poor crowds.

But honestly, a big game at any arena across the country would give you a similar atmosphere to the 80s MSG now, which is less a mark of how poor the 80s MSG was (it wasn't) and more a mark of how far the NBA has come in improving the crowds and the customer experience. MSG deserves its place in NBA lore, don't get me wrong -- as I said, this game is probably the most rockin' of any game I've seen from the mid 80s, and being one of the better arenas in terms of crowd coverage over the course of NBA history is undoubtedly worth something. But with the Knicks franchise being somewhat irrelevant over the course of most post-1975 basketball history and the majority of MSG's lore coming from boxing, college hoops, and New York's incredible streetball culture I don't think it's particularly accurate or reasonable to call it the mecca of basketball persay. New York? Sure, maybe. But MSG itself? It's an institution in and of itself, above basketball or any particular sport. The arena has its own mythos quite separate from the NBA -- it would be nice if TV announcers started recognizing it instead of going with the intellectually lazy conflation of New York's basketball culture with MSG's singular mythos and the almost entirely unrelated New York Knicks.

That's my two cents, anyway. It was a fun game. I really hope King makes the Hall of Fame sometime soon.

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