The Outlet 4.01: Scouting Freakazoid and Durant's New Wrinkle

Posted on Thu 23 January 2014 in The Outlet by Aaron McGuire

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Remember how we had that one series, a long time ago, where we'd entreat our writers to scribe short vignettes on the previous night's games? This is that series, only it appears once in a blue moon and often has little to do with the games of the previous night. As always, the vignettes may not always be tactful, tacit, or terse -- they'll always be under a thousand words, though, and generally attempt to work through a question, an observation, or a feeling. Today's short pieces are as follows.

  • CHI at CLE: Gothic Ginobili goes Wojnarowski, Part I (by Aaron McGuire)
  • OKC at SAS: Gothic Ginobili goes Wojnarowski, Part II (by Aaron McGuire)
  • POR at OKC: Durant's New Wrinkle (by Jacob Harmon)

Read on after the jump.

• • •

freakazoid and cosgrove

CHI/CLE: Gothic Ginobili goes Wojnarowski, Part I
Aaron McGuire

When this game began, my intention was to use it as a springboard to talk about all the things Cleveland did wrong. That was the goal, anyway. As most of you know, I do have some allegiances with Cleveland sports, and I figured that a midseason tilt against the blown-to-pieces Bulls as the Cavs chase their playoff spot would be a good game to use as a "what's wrong, what's right, what's awry, what's on rye" type of post. The answers, in short: everything, nothing, most things, ham. That's pretty much all one needs to say. After watching this depressing, depressing game, there wasn't much point in rehashing it, and there isn't much point in belaboring said point. The Cleveland Cavaliers are a bad basketball team that's only still in the picture because the equal-opportunity east has seen fit to keep them there. That's about all there is to it.

But I'm not one to shy away from writing even when there's little to say. My plan today is simple. Going forward, Gothic Ginobili will no longer be only a place to get weird sporadically dropped basketball analysis written by even weirder people. It will no longer be exclusively a place to find stories about Richard Jefferson and Tim Toms Merlin Dunkman (sic). No, we will now also be the finest scoop-finding journalistic love story in the entire industry. Some people look at scoops and say "why?" I look at scoops that never were and ask "why not?" That's our new brand, our new strategy, our new raison d'être. To start us off, I'm going to make all of my sources really happy and maliciously leak random documents I've gotten a hold of in recent months. I'm taking the classic pick-up artist strategy towards scoops -- if I act like a unconscionable prick to every source I have, they'll all come back to give me more scoops and soon I'll be buried in scoops so deep I can't "scoop" my way out.

Anyway, today's leaked document is an internal scouting report from the Cleveland Cavaliers. This one is on a player nobody even realized they were working out, mostly on account of him not actually being a real person. This exclusive report represents the summary of all Cleveland's attempts to work out NBA journeyman Dexter Douglas. You may not recognize this name. This is because he is most often known by his superhero alias, star of the mid-90s superhero cartoon "Freakazoid." Evidently, cartoon characters age differently than normal human beings, as Douglas only aged 4 years from the cancellation of Freakazoid in 1997 to his workout earlier this week with Cleveland. He is currently engaged in a riveting internal debate as to whether he should declare for the NBA draft or continue leading the team for the top team in Division IV basketball, the West Virginia Clown College "Eucalyptus Trees." (Fantastic mascot, guys.) Well, Dexter, let's see if this maliciously leaked scouting report helps you make a decision.


I am a very big fan of gourds.

Whoops, sorry, wrong leak.


10:05 AM -- Dexter "Freakazoid" Douglas has not arrived yet. We scheduled his workout for 9:30 AM, but he DID warn us that he often sleeps in and would have trouble commuting from West Virginia to Cleveland in a single morning, especially since he'd be up late studying for his juggling midterm. So I guess that's fair. Dan is pacing around frantically. When I tried to calm him, he snapped at me, yelling about how we're on the clock for last year's #1 pick and that he wasn't even sure Stern would accept it if we turned our pick in this late. I don't have the heart to tell him.

10:23 AM -- Dexter Douglas is in the building. Somehow, he showed up in his bed, still sleeping -- when we tried to wake him, his hair slapped our hands out of the way. Dan and I agree that this ability shows great promise for his court awareness, although I admit that Dan is more open than I am to the idea of playing basketball games while every single player on the court is asleep.

10:47 AM -- He woke up shortly after my last entry. He was very apologetic -- apparently, he often flashes to random locations when asleep, and he was having a dream about being a Cleveland Cavalier. We decided to start him off on some easy stuff and do some combine tests and measurements. First discovery -- Douglas is 6'10". Sort of a tweener, a la Anthony Randolph. His wingspan is 7'0", which is good as well. The big issue we ran into when doing measurements was that because he's completely flat he doesn't technically have any weight. He can still hold onto things and apply pressure, but he doesn't actually weigh anything. Big knock on his screen setting ability, but since Dan once saw Mo Williams set a good screen, he's convinced Douglas can set good ones. I'm dubious.

11:43 AM -- We decided to start his drills off with a simple shooting test. For this classic Cavaliers scouting test, we cover the floor in "Twister" boards then yell out colors, forcing the prospect to sidestep dribble to that color and keep shooting until he makes the shot. Over the course of 30 minutes or so, this becomes incredibly exhausting, but it gives you a good sense of how the player adapts to shooting off the dribble. Also, Dan likes Twister. A lot. In this case, though, this probably was a poor choice for a drill -- Douglas could NOT stop playing Twister, and kept trying to get shots off WHILE playing Twister, which is a skill that has literally no NBA value whatsoever. He made a few, mind you, mostly when he did this weird move where he headbutted it to get the shot moving then slapped it with his hair for the follow-through Dan was enthralled, again, but I am not feeling great about this session.

12:23 PM -- Just finished a few passing drills. These were inconclusive. Every once in a while Douglas would break out some crazy pass we hadn't seen in this practice gym since LeBron was in wine and gold. Some next-level court vision, that sort of thing. But then he'd intermittently just pass the ball through the ceiling, literally breaking pipes and destroying plaster with the speed of his passes. Once, he actually passed the ball THROUGH the backboard, where it bounced back around and landed softly in the ballboy's lap. Dan was very impressed, but I mean, the ballboy was out of bounds, that would've been a turnover in an actual NBA situation. Come on. Get real.

12:49 PM -- I don't really think Douglas understands what we mean when we say "screen" drill. He keeps changing his clothes into the outfit Nic Cage wore in Face/Off and reenacting one of Cage's Travolta scenes. This is even more confusing than it sounds on paper.

1:52 PM -- We finally decided to simply axe the solo drills and try some one-on-one drills, bringing the team in for some burn with Douglas. I don't really know if this was a success or a failure. In the one-on-one game, Douglas got to show off one of the more interesting parts of his game, a completely unpredictable first step. I mean, seriously. Kyrie is bad at defense, but I'm not entirely sure how anyone is supposed to defend someone who can apparently move vertically as well as horizontally. Unfortunately, this unpredictable first step usually leads to more unpredictable steps thereafter, and I have no idea how Mike can work that into his always-completely-predictable offense. Can he, even? Dunno. Major philosophical question. Will need to consider this deeply. But I also think the refs will probably call a travel if Douglas continues to carry the ball after rising into the air with no feet touching the court. Just a suspicion of mine.

2:32 PM -- After the one-on-one game, we decided to finally simulate a full five-on-five game with Douglas subbing in on our "wine" team for Alonzo Gee. The wine team lost by 45 points, which is actually better than usual, given that the wine team is usually composed of Jarrett Jack, Sergey Karasev, Alonzo Gee, Tyler Zeller, and Anthony Bennett. The practice team designations are drawn at the beginning of the year and never changed, per team policy. Due to this, our "wine" team practice squad loses every practice game by roughly 70 points, which is actually pretty impressive given that we usually play "first team to 70." I keep telling Mike and Dan that this practice team thing completely defeats the purpose of practice teams and probably is completely destroying everyone's confidence, but Dan won't hear it and Mike's too busy chewing tobacco to hear me. (It's really loud. I wish he'd stop.)

2:46 PM -- Oh, wait, I didn't actually talk about Douglas's performance. Well, Douglas was better than Gee, but he also caused more than his fair share of errors. For whatever reason, whenever he received the ball to handle it, he would just dribble in ever-expanding concentric circles until he migrated out of bounds, at which point he would produce a trumpet and do a solo. It was fun, but it also meant he finished a 30 minute practice game with 15 turnovers, which is just insane. He also has an incredibly strange understanding of how dunks and three pointers work. Whenever he caught the ball in the paint, he'd backflip from the paint to the corner beyond the three point arc and whip the ball up in the air. He actually made all his corner threes taken like that, although most of them bounced off something else before going in the basket. Conversely, whenever he got the ball outside the free throw line, he'd jump as high as he could (which, let's be fair, is REALLY HIGH -- big advantage to not weighing anything whatsoever, will have to keep this in mind for future scouting reports) and slam the ball down with abandon. Very entertaining, but your offense can only make up for so much when you turn the ball over once every two minutes in a practice game against one of the worst defensive practice teams ever. He also had a strange understanding of defense, choosing to simply wave his hands in the air and make funny faces in an effort to distract his man. Funny enough, this actually worked on Anderson Varejao, because he thought he was looking in a mirror and started trying to check out his teeth. At that point, Douglas stole the ball and ran for a breakaway dunk, but apparently forgot what he was doing because he simply ran straight past the stanchion and through the wall with the ball. Heh, funny enough, we're actually still waiting for him to come back.

4:32 PM -- Still waiting.

7:55 PM -- Man, I liked that ball.

9:34 PM -- Well, the team is playing tonight's game now, so it's time to cut our losses and stop waiting for Douglas to come back with our ball. Dan and I both agree that Douglas has a lot of potential if he cuts down on the turnovers and learns to stop traveling so much. He has some attitude issues, but I mean... we just dealt with Andrew Bynum, right? I was going to slot him in at 15th on our draft board, but then I let slip that he used to be on a cartoon show, and Dan gave an executive order to slot at first. I knew I shouldn't have told him that...

Dexter Douglas: first pick in the 2014 NBA draft. You heard it here first, folks.

• • •

freakazoid confused

OKC/SAS: Gothic Ginobili goes Wojnarowski, Part II
Aaron McGuire

Oh, but you thought Cleveland would be the only team to face my "leaking important scouting reports" wrath? No. Wrong. Incorrect. The Spurs are a good team that plays like a crummy one when playing other good teams, Kawhi Leonard was injured, and grumbles encase my heart like Han Solo's carbonite face. So I will also leak San Antonio's scouting report of Dexter "Freakazoid" Douglas, as secretly went to work out with the Spurs as well. Aaron McGuire: Your Man With The Important Scoops, forever. The Spurs have a much more succinct, efficient, and organized style of scouting reports -- it was on a printed form sheet not unlike an SAT answer key.

POSITIVES: Quicker than Tony, can literally jump out of a building, can pass with his hair.

NEGATIVES: Wears underwear outside his pants.


The sheet is slightly crumpled, as though it was passed between two people a dozen times. There is a conversation in the margins:

"...That's it? Come on! He's young talent! He'd fit well with Leonard and Splitter!"

"He wears underwear outside his pants."

"Pop, this is a new age in the NBA! You can work with this!"

"He wears underwear outside his pants."

"Pop, Stephen Jackson did that."

"Stephen Jackson got cut."

• • •

kevin durant

POR/OKC: Durant's New Wrinkle
Jacob Harmon

NOTE: This was written before last night's game between OKC and SAS.

Going into the fourth quarter, I honestly can't say I expected the Thunder to win this game in Oklahoma City. I didn't agree with the odds-makers that put the Thunder as a 6.5+ favorite going into it either. I've seen the Blazers (and particularly LaMarcus Aldridge) knock down big shots in flurries on the sporadically porous Thunder defense twice this year, and even midway through the fourth quarter, nothing in particular made me expect the outcome I received.

Maybe I should start trusting Kevin Durant a little bit more. Most people have noticed KD's relentless improvement of his all-around game; they've noticed the tightening of his handle, his increasingly elite court vision. People are even starting to acknowledge his prodigious skill as a defensive player (a dimension that isn't new this year, and went frustratingly overlooked the past two seasons). But the improvement I saw Durant display in the fourth quarter of this game was the most viscerally exciting of them all: the collected poise of "Angry Durant."

It's not the first time I've seen Angry Durant in some incarnation. He racked up a career-high in technicals last season, barking at the referees and opponents alike. And there's the whole "#NotNice" campaign. But this incarnation of Angry Durant was fundamentally different. When he felt the referees missed a call in the fourth quarter, he slammed the scorer's table with all his might. His protest of "That was bull****! ****!" was more than audible on the commentator's microphones. He looked pissed off, rattled, and generally aggravated. After an animated discussion with the concerned referee (during which I anxiously awaited the seemingly imminent second technical), Durant re-entered the game with a visibly steely resolve.

As you may know, he didn't miss again. Opening up the throttle with a furious lay-up and following it up with a barrage of contested 3-point bombs, Durant scored 11 points in a little over 3 minutes. That was the game. This was Angry Durant like I've only seen flashes of, the Durant that responds to frustration with defiant focus, extending the upper limits of his already immense talent. This is a Kevin Durant who, facing adversity in a close game with an elite division rival, responds by grabbing another gear. His crunch-time play in the early days of 2014 has been almost sneering in its dominance.

Every night won't be like this. KD has never been quite this hot, and it's hard to deny he's a better player than he ever has been... but there will be adversity for the Thunder in the coming months, with Westbrook still out for a while. LeBron James is not likely to relinquish the MVP to him lightly, and the narrative which now elevates Durant to such heights will just as quickly tear him down if he goes cold next Thursday in Miami. Which, let's be real -- it isn't out of the question. It never is.

Still, in the uncertainty of Westbrook's absence and the inconsistency of this Thunder team's very young supporting cast, KD has validated everything I've ever thought that he was. His ever-improving game and night-to-night effort has been a ray of sunshine in what initially figured to be a particularly dark winter for Thunder fans in Westbrook's absence. So whatever the outcome is when the summertime comes, I'll enjoy every one of these moments spent in the sun.

Final Score: 97-105, OKC.

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The Outlet 3.19: The Indefatiga-Bulls Flame Out

Posted on Thu 16 May 2013 in The Outlet by Aaron McGuire

outlet logo

Remember how we had that one series, a long time ago, where we'd entreat our writers to scribe short vignettes on the previous night's games? We've consistently discovered there's no way for us to do that every night, but with the capsules done and Aaron back in the saddle as a more active managing editor, we're hoping that we can bring the feature back as a weekly Wednesday post. Sometimes Friday, like today. As always, the vignettes may not always be tactful, tacit, or terse -- they'll always be under a thousand words, though, and generally attempt to work through a question, an observation, or a feeling. Today's short piece is as follows.

  • CHI at MIA: The Indefatiga-Bulls Flame Out (by Aaron McGuire)

Read on after the jump.

• • •

CHI/MIA: The Indefatiga-Bulls Flame Out
Aaron McGuire

With Chicago's unfortunate five-game ouster yesterday evening, three things were made absolute fact.

  • Derrick Rose will officially not be returning this season.
  • The Bulls -- despite winning the first game of the series -- were outscored by 66 points over their 5 game loss.
  • This terrible, god-awful season for Chicago has drawn to a close. The Bulls get a summer to recover.

The first point isn't really that important, even if we've been inundated with coverage to assert that it is. Derrick Rose is taking a little bit longer to come back than the world could've hoped, but it's hard to put together a strong argument that Rose should cow to his fans and media when it comes to his ACL recovery. Oh, sure, I've heard the spiel -- he's been "cleared to play" for months, it's all in his head, he owes it to his team, et cetera. Tom Ziller covered the "cleared to play" angle pretty well already, but I'll relay the cliffs notes -- Chicago's medical staff has a disturbing history of allowing players to see the court with grievous injuries they should've already caught. Rose's personal doctors may be saying something different, and there's scant reason to assume Rose is acting in bad faith here.

It may very well "all be in his head", but you can't just huff and puff and declare that a person should think the way you do. You can't just yell at Rose and have him suddenly stop having the hang-up in his head that's keeping him off the floor. He has to work through the blocks in his own head and find a way to get around it himself. And as for owing it to his team? Rose's contract is in large part insured -- the Bulls had to pay Rose less than $10 million due to the number of games he missed, and the insurance payout may have been the infusion that allowed Reinsdorf to pay the luxury tax. Rose practices with the team, and his teammates all seem to support him. I'm not sure what -- exactly -- he owes the team if he's not quite healthy and he needs a bit more time to get there. Perhaps I'm wrong, and I simply haven't heard the right arguments for why Rose's absence is a big deal. But when you peel back the overzealous reporting and overexposure, I feel that the Rose saga is a journalist-invented mountain designed of a tiny molehill.

What is more interesting -- at least to me -- is the second point. There was a lot of talk after Game 5 about how the Bulls made Chicago proud over the five game series and put up a strong challenge to the Miami Heat. Despite twisting and turning, I have trouble seeing it that way. The inclination to give the Bulls a wealth of credit for their performance this series is rooted in how the Bulls lost -- if there was any way for Chicago to maximize their best efforts and minimize their stinkers, this would be the way to do it. They opened the series with a shocking upset, something that set the basketball world abuzz and made for a week's worth of "Can They Beat The Heat" coverage. They closed the series with a gutty comeback and a brilliant defensive performance, at least for two and a half quarters -- the Bulls outscored Miami 73-45 from 5:24 left in the 1st to 1:05 left in the 3rd. They started strong and they closed strong, which is exactly what you'd want to do if you wanted to rewrite the book on how a series went. Because people forget about the middle. And in this case?

The middle was horrifying.

Really. The Bulls outscored Miami by 4 points over the first and fifth games combined -- Miami outscored the Bulls by 70 points over games 2 through 4. That's an average of 23 points per game. In game 2, Chicago was obliterated by 37 points. At one point, the Bulls gave Miami a 62-20 run. It was gruesome. Worst playoff loss in franchise history by a country mile -- their previous worst was 26 points, in 2007. Then, in Game 3, the Heat played completely terribly for an entire game and the Bulls simply found themselves completely unable to capitalize, losing the game by 10 against a seriously pathetic Miami performance that might not have beaten the Milwaukee Bucks. Then there was game 4, a pitiful performance that ended up being by far the worst offensive performance by a Chicago Bulls team in the NBA playoffs, losing by 23 points in a game where the were outshot from the floor 49% to 25%. The final margin could've been far worse, too, if the Bulls hadn't made a living at the line and forced a score of Miami turnovers.

Which leaves me with my take -- the Bulls started strong and closed strong, but the only way one could really assert that the Bulls had a "good" series against Miami is if they quite literally ignored the middle three games. As injured and snakebit as this Bulls team was, one can't quite ignore how embarrassingly lopsided the middle-matter of the series was, especially game 3. Even against the defending champs. Boozer and Noah dominated and Chicago's defense kept Miami in check for most of the night, with Miami's offense sputtering and their defense barely functioning. It didn't matter, though -- the Bulls lost by ten! Chicago's performances in game one and game five should give their fans hope. But the way the Bulls folded during those three games -- in a series they once led, and a series they had stolen home court advantage in -- was more than a bit depressing, and perhaps a tad embarrassing. It wasn't embarrassing for no reason, of course. The team was spent and ravaged by injuries, with naught but a skeleton crew on deck with their season on the brink. But it was a brutal series and it was a depressing series to watch. And bookending their horrible middle with two strong efforts doesn't erase the fact that the middle happened.

The Bulls are going home. The long national nightmare is over for our worldly Bulls fans, and their players are going to get a chance to recover. The 2013 Bulls had a lot of intriguing highs -- winning a game 7 in Brooklyn, snagging the five seed despite their myriad injuries, staying in the top-6 defenses despite their injuries, winning game 1 in Miami, and validating Thibodeau's system. But don't let the highs erase the lows. This team was incomplete, and they need to change some things going forward. For all of Thibodeau's strategic brilliance, Thibodeau needs to augment his system creativity with rotation creativity to keep his players healthy. The Bulls front office needs to find ways to beef up the team's depth. Derrick Rose needs to get his body in shape and eradicate his mental blocks. And the fans need a bit of time off from the constant drumbeat of injuries and insubstantial information.

Goodbye, Chicago. Here's hoping for a better 2014.

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The Outlet 3.18: Should Karl Go? (and: Oklahoma City's Chances)

Posted on Fri 03 May 2013 in The Outlet by Aaron McGuire

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Remember how we had that one series, a long time ago, where we'd entreat our writers to scribe short vignettes on the previous night's games? We've consistently discovered there's no way for us to do that every night, but with the capsules done and Aaron back in the saddle as a more active managing editor, we're hoping that we can bring the feature back as a weekly Wednesday post. Sometimes Friday, like today. As always, the vignettes may not always be tactful, tacit, or terse -- they'll always be under a thousand words, though, and generally attempt to work through a question, an observation, or a feeling. Today's short pieces are as follows.

  • DEN/GSW: Should Karl Go? (by Aaron McGuire)
  • OKC/HOU: The Thunder Will Beat The Rockets (by Alex Dewey)

Read on after the jump.

• • •

DEN/GSW: Should Karl Go?
Aaron McGuire

Most people slept on it a bit, but Scott Brooks had a really good playoff performance last year. In the first round, he arguably outcoached -- even relative to his team's hilarious talent advantage -- Rick Carlisle as his Thunder swept the Mavericks. He had a bit of a disappointing second round, with L.A. being essentially "in" 3 out of the 5 game of the series despite having a markedly inferior team due partly to Brooks' poor adjustments and generally odd strategies. But then... THEN, things got real. He proceeded to completely outcoach Gregg Popovich over the course of a six game series, making excellent adjustments and memorably forcing San Antonio to take a taste of its own medicine. Ball movement, ball pressure, expert closeouts, et cetera. He got his team to play an entirely different way in the Western Conference Finals. That's coaching, and he aced what essentially amounted to a four game PhD thesis to beat Gregg Popovich into the ground. He was riding a high of good-will heading into the finals, having put together his best string of coaching performances yet.

... only to fall flat on his face and completely irrevocably bungle a winnable finals series. He played Perkins too much. He played Fisher too much. He didn't put Westbrook or Durant in a position to succeed. His offense completely lacked the creativity displayed in the Western Conference Finals and his defense was easily schemed. To an equal and opposite extent to which the first few rounds gave his backers hope, the Finals gave his critics ammunition. "You need a better coach, Sam Presti. You need to stop relying on Scott Brooks to become something he isn't. You need a coach that puts his players in a position to succeed, not a coach that puts his players in a position to fail embarrassingly when the chips are down." Et cetera, et cetera. And the drumbeat of voices calling for a change in command grew ever-louder, and the cavalcade of mockery that fell when Presti resigned Brooks to a new three-year deal was all-encompassing.

This brings me to my actual subject of this particular post -- George Karl, and where his fate should stand in the aftermath of a series that saw a generally-more-talented Denver team lose to the upstart Golden State Warriors. Karl made several high profile mistakes in this series. Like Brooks in the finals, he seemed to be the only man in the room (with the possible additional exception of Andre Miller) who didn't realize that putting the wizened Andre Miller on Stephen Curry made Curry's threes about as easy to convert as layups. Like Brooks, his high-regarded regular season offense stalled in their series loss, although Brooks' offense stalled against one of the better defensive teams in the league, whereas Karl's offense stalled against a permissive unit that not a soul would confuse with a merry Memphis grindhouse throwback. The thing that I keep coming back to, though? With both Karl and Brooks?

Align the timing differently, and both coaches would be praised to high heavens. For instance, imagine if the Spurs had pulled out game five, lost game six, then won a narrow contest in game seven. Imagine of Scott Brooks' season had ended in the Western Conference Finals. Would anyone watching have anything other than positive-regard for the man? His extension wouldn't just be a no brainer, it'd be a must -- this is a man who very nearly outcoached the greatest coach in the game today, after all! If the disappointment against Miami doesn't happen, Brooks is scot-free. And he's free to continue being -- generally -- a so-so to poor coach for a team that does legitimately need a better tactician. All because of a single series.

As for the Nuggets, it's worth noting that they finished just one game out of second place in the West -- if they'd won their matchup against the Spurs in the late season, San Antonio faces the Warriors in the first round and the Nuggets face the Lakers. Given L.A.'s injury issues and general inability to cover a faster team, it's hard to imagine a world where this Denver team doesn't win in 5-6 games -- perhaps they even sweep it. And if the Nuggets swept the first round, every single Karl critic calling for his head gets silenced -- it doesn't much matter what they do in the second round against the SAS/GSW winner, it "proves" Karl's system can succeed in the playoffs.

Net and net? My point is thus. A single series is a__ completely terrible__ barometer for a coach. You have to assess a coach by his entire career, his creativity, and his ability to react to trouble in his roster on a wholescale level. George Karl has shown that he deserves the benefit of the doubt for all these things -- Scott Brooks has shown the opposite. Having obscenely high visions for Brooks after last year's WCF was silly. He isn't that kind of coach, even if Presti wishes he would be. And the people watching know that (especially with his flaws being hammered home in this year's first round.) Conversely, making rash judgments about Karl thanks to one terrible series is absurd. He makes the team better, and a few poor decisions that didn't pan out don't make him useless.

• • •

OKC/HOU: The Thunder Will Beat The Rockets
Alex Dewey

It's ridiculous to suggest the Rockets have a greater-than-50% chance of doing something that literally no one has ever done. There's no way the Rockets have a greater than 50% chance of winning first home at Toyota and then winning a Game 7 on the road. That's insane. And it's not true. It's insulting to the Thunder's great season to suggest that losing 2 games in a row is more probable than winning 1 of the two. It's not true, and it's insulting.

But... is there something a little less insulting? Because Houston's chance of pulling off an upset that would make the world quake with chaos is surely higher than zero. In conditional probability, gamblers and actuaries alike have to adjust our odds constantly to the world-at-large surprising us. It's ridiculous to suggest a team down 0-3 has a really solid chance of winning four in a row, short, say, of the 3-0 team trading LeBron James with the 0-3 team for present-day Muggsy Bogues, who must play every minute at every game, at center, before Game 4. Or the 3-0 team having to play literally 5v4 against the 0-3 team.

That would probably do it.

But there's something a little less absurd about the feat if you condition on what has happened since. Even without the Westbrook injury, which hangs in the air of every attempt to analyze this series.

Let's look at the present moment: the Rockets have won two straight, one at home, one on the road. Just like they have to in order to win the series. So they've done exactly what they will need to do already. They just have to repeat the feat. And, what's more, it looked remotely sustainable. The Thunder crowd couldn't rile up their dispirited team. The Rockets fed off of the crowd both at home and on the road. Omer Asik hit some free throws. Harden has struggled, and the Rockets have actually picked up the slack. The Thunder's offense seems eerily similar to the Lakers' attack against the Spurs in the other bracket of the West; 1-4-5 because it's the only offense they can run. (Granted, the Lakers had worse and fewer shooters, and Durant is a transformational offensive player. They aren't missing their best stopper Thabo Sefolosha, and Derek Fisher is much more valuable than Antawn Jamison in any game that matters at this point, which is pretty strange to type. Kevin Martin needs one excellent game to completely change the texture of this series, and by "completely change the texture of" I mean "win handily")

But the Rockets just look better, for what it's worth. It's not a 50% chance to win both games for the Rockets, but couldn't you make the case that it's pretty close to (or even better than) a coin flip for the Rockets in either game, individually? I think the Rockets are a better team than the Thunder right now, without any sort of irony. James Harden has not been outplaying Kevin Durant in this series, even at Harden's best. KD is playing at a transformational level, at least in the sense that he is almost singlehandedly the Thunder's offense (with an assist by Ibaka), and it's somehow not the worst offense in the history of the league, even though the Rockets are hurting him at the rim and from 3, he's making his bones at the line, and he's not exactly flopping to get there. A couple rip throughs and exaggerations a game don't explain 33.6 points, put it that way.

But Ibaka and Durant against Asik at the rim? So far I'd say (considering their relative importance) Asik has got their number, at least at the rim, at least when the Rockets don't need a secondary rim defender to slide over. Chandler Parsons, a quick and crafty scorer, against the pump-faking Ibaka and the slow-footed Perkins? That's almost unfair. Francisco Garcia has been checking Durant admirably, and not just in the "you tried hard, son." sense. Kevin McHale is having his guys play his and their game, and Scott Brooks and the Thunder look lost in the wake of Westbrook, in terms of offense obviously, in terms of defense subtly, but most of all in terms of energy. Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher may have their skills (and obviously, for all his flaws no one can sleep on Fisher), but neither is deadly or especially menacing in any position on a basketball court. They just get open, and sometimes they hit it. And never having a deadly guard has a subtle price for the Thunder: The Rockets can afford to rest their attention and minds and bodies a bit when they aren't on offense. This allows them to play more frenetically on offense, it allows them to play a much more cerebral style in passing lanes. And it allows Omer Asik to have an extra full step that is all such a brilliant defender needs to get all the space he needs to be a deadly shot-blocker and contester. Asik doesn't need to step up on offense at this point, and neither does Garcia. And so the Rockets can essentially commit all their energy to precisely their best efforts. That's the real price of the matchup -- nobody on the Thunder can play his game, and nobody on the Rockets can fail to play his game.

Here's a thought experiment. Even if the Thunder would probably win 53 games without Westbrook and the Rockets would still win 45? I'm starting to think that the slack that Westbrook took up is potentially as valuable as the buckets that KD picks up, and those 8 games of difference are more a product of talent and experience rather than of sustainable playoff production. Westbrook takes shots with abandon, and yes, it's a frustrating prodigality, but the missing point here is that Westbrook only wastes possessions after creating them with abandon. The Thunder's futile attempts to pick up the slack for Westbrook suddenly makes him seem like the most irreplaceable player in the league, an ironic vindication of the Harden trade. If not a bit depressing for Thunder fans.

To put the most rudimentary numbers to the situation: When teams are evenly matched on a neutral court, it's a 50-50 battle. Say it's 60-40 for the home team, again, when the teams are evenly matched. So call it 24% for the Rockets, round up to 25%. So no, it's not 50% that they win both games. But, gosh, a couple coin flips? Doesn't that sound just about right?

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The Outlet 3.17: A Prelude to Prognostirank (plus: The Games That Mattered)

Posted on Thu 18 April 2013 in The Outlet by Aaron McGuire

outlet logo

Remember how we had that one series, a long time ago, where we'd entreat our writers to scribe short vignettes on the previous night's games? We've consistently discovered there's no way for us to do that every night, but with the capsules done and Aaron back in the saddle as a more active managing editor, we're hoping that we can bring the feature back as a weekly Wednesday post. Sometimes Thursday, like today. As always, the vignettes may not always be tactful, tacit, or terse -- they'll always be under a thousand words, though, and generally attempt to work through a question, an observation, or a feeling. Today's short pieces are as follows.

  • GENERAL: A Prelude to Prognostirank (by Aaron McGuire)
  • GENERAL: The Stephen Jackson Story (by Alex Dewey)

Read on after the jump.

• • •

GENERAL: A Prelude to Prognostirank
Aaron McGuire

As our main playoff preview feature, I'll be bringing back a revised form of one of last season's staples -- Gothic Ginobili's Prognostirank series, where I rate the playoff teams in the order I expect them to be eliminated. Hence, it's a prognostication combined with a ranking. I'm a beautiful butterfly made of slideshows and click bait, folks! This year we're going to include a few extra tidbits, as well; Dewey will be adding minor blurbs on each team as we go along, and I'll be rating not only the series length and winner predictions I considered last year but also the general confidence I have in the prediction, and the number of double digit wins I'd predict for each round. (Note: I will inevitably get each and every one of these playoff predictions wrong. I will laugh at myself about it. You are wholly entitled to do the same.)

Still, that feature never really covers the entire league. So I concocted a half-baked idea. For this final regular-season outlet, I decided I'd do a short version of the Prognostirank series that ranked the final 14 teams in the league, by my assessment of team quality and their chances of an upset if they faced the Heat in the first round. Yes, even the Western teams -- for this exercise, we're saying that the Milwaukee Bucks literally resign from the playoffs tomorrow and are replaced (in order) by every single lottery team in the league. How would they fare? Who would be most likely to upset the Heat? Valid questions, all. Let's start it from the top.

1. DALLAS MAVERICKS (41-41; 13th ranked O | 19th ranked D)

Is this a homer pick? Perhaps. Out of all the lottery teams, I realize that Utah has a better record and can be reasonably argued to be the better team. But let's be frank, here -- the difference between Dallas and Utah isn't enormous, and I'd take Carlisle and Nowitzki over Corbin and Utah's stable any day. Nowitzki can be counted on for 2 or 3 vintage games in any given playoff series -- it's pretty hard to sweep the Mavericks, all things considered, and I'm not sure it would be THAT hard to sweep the Jazz. But alas. Dallas' porous defense and complete lack of offensive coherence would doom them in the end, but a Mavs/Heat grudge-match re-match would be excellent theater and -- for my money -- more competitive than anything the Heat are going to see in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

2. UTAH JAZZ____ (43-39; 10th ranked O | 21st ranked D)

Although I lightly implied that the Jazz would be swept by the Heat above, it certainly isn't a given. Three main reasons for this. First, Paul Millsap has a weird tendency to have impossible performances against the Heat. Seriously. Millsap -- a 27% three point shooter -- has shot 75% on threes against the Heat in his career, mostly in that one unforgettable game. Second, the Jazz actually managed to split their two games against Miami this year, winning their home matchup relatively comfortably in early January. Finally? Four words. Mo Williams revenge game. Enough said.

3. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (31-51; 25th ranked O | 13th ranked D)

Alright. Hear me out. Yes, I may be slightly biased by the fact that the Timberwolves absolutely handled the Spurs in their last two matchups of the season. But the T-Wolves have the most intriguing combination of talent currently slumming around in the lottery, and they've got several legitimate star-level pieces in Rubio and... oh, wait. Love and Pek are both injured. Still. Rubio would cannibalize Chalmers and Cole with his head's up defense, leaving Chase Budinger and J.J. Barea to defend LeBron and Wade. Seems like a perfectly reasonable matchup. Wolves in five.

4. WASHINGTON WIZARDS (29-53; 30th ranked O | 5th ranked D)

This is another "screw the records! THIS FEELS RIGHT!" pick, I'll admit. But there are a few numeric reasons I'd think the 30th ranked offense in the NBA would have a chance to steal a game or two from Miami. First, out of all the defenses staying home, the Wizards are FAR AND AWAY the best one. They're borderline elite, especially since Nene and Wall returned to bolster their rotation. The team only won 29 games for a reason -- they're not very good. But having one elite trait gives you a stepping stone to work from. The other teams don't quite have that.

5. TORONTO RAPTORS (34-48; 13th ranked O | 22nd ranked D)

At this point, I'm starting to lose hope that ANY of these teams would take more than a game. But I'll play along. On the ropes in game #3, down 2-0 and down by 20 points at the half, the Raptors announce that they're waiving their vets mid-game and signing Tas Melas, J.E. Skeets, Trey Kerby, and Leigh Ellis to 10-day contracts. The Basketball Jones crew comes in and absolutely styles on Miami, taking the next two games after they break out the pun gun and literally shoot LeBron James in the shoulder. After upsetting the Heat in game 5, the Heat announce that they're waiving every single player outside their big three and signing TBJ's sworn pick-up court enemies, The Sex Warriors. The so-called "Sexy Heat Warriors" proceed to destroy the Raptors in the final two games of the series, freeing TBJ to get back to the booth and greatly confusing everyone who doesn't listen to the podcast.

6. PORTLAND TRAILBLAZERS (33-49; 15th ranked O | 26th ranked D)

Because it's the playoffs, coach Stotts decides to simply play the Portland starters 48 minutes a game to try and avoid relying on the worst bench in the NBA. This makes Portland a dramatically better team during the first three quarters, going into every fourth quarter of the series with a lead. Unfortunately, the players are all too exhausted to actually keep the lead, and the Blazers collapse in the fourth quarter in each of the series' four games. Sorry, Blazer fans.

7. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS (34-48; 26th ranked O | 15th ranked D)


8. DETROIT PISTONS (29-53; 21st ranked O | 24th ranked D)

Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe take advantage of Miami's terrible big man depth and the Pistons push the Heat to six games. (What's funny about that sentence is the fact that many analysts continue to pound the "Miami has terrible big man depth, teams with good bigs will obliterate Miami" trope into the ground to the point where typing that ridiculous sentence didn't actually seem that far from the norm.)

9. SACRAMENTO KINGS (28-54; 12th ranked O | 29th ranked D)

The Kings would have a significantly higher chance of beating the Heat if they smudged out the names on their jerseys and rebranded themselves "the Kinks." Mainly because they could play Dave Davies' voice over the PA throughout the games and viscerally terrify the Heat. Kind of want to see this happen, all things considered. I love the Kinks.

10. NEW ORLEANS PELICANS (27-55; 16th ranked O | 28th ranked D)

In a bold move, the Hornets decide to change their name and brand right before the series. They win the first two games as the Heat are just terribly confused about the whole thing. They proceed to get destroyed in the next four, but hey, they got three home games!

11. ORLANDO MAGIC (20-62; 26th ranked O | 25th ranked D)

The Magic have actually played Miami oddly close ever since the Heatles got together, and Vucevic has been HUGE for them against the Heat this season. Still feel like they get swept, but it'd be more akin to the 2010 Magic's close sweep of the 2010 Bobcats than their monstrous sweep of the 2010 Hawks. Also: Tobias Harris would go OFF at some point, I guarantee it. (This series would go better for Orlando if they could get J.J. Redick back. J.J., come home!)

12. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (24-58; 20th ranked O | 26th ranked D)

To prepare for the series, the Cleveland Cavaliers hold a pow-wow with Dennis Kucinich, Dennis Kucinich's incredibly smart and attractive wife, and Drew Carey. The trio teaches the Cavs about the true meaning of friendship and togetherness, and teaches Byron Scott that suicide sprints and making everyone throw up repeatedly isn't quite the right way to coach a young team. Bolstered by their pow-wow, the Cavaliers proceed to pull everything together and get everything right... only to get destroyed by an exponentially increasing margin in each game, losing the final game by a score of 256-0. Kyrie scores 0 points with 0 assists and 0 rebounds in the final game, but stays after the game. I bet Cleveland fans will like him again!

13. CHARLOTTE BOBCATS (21-61; 28th ranked O | 30th ranked D)

Desagana Diop has started more NBA Finals games than Dwight Howard. That's all I've got.

14. PHOENIX SUNS (25-57; 29th ranked O | 23rd ranked D)

Michael Beasley revenge series. Dude averages 70 PPG... on 95 shots per game. Unfortunately, they forget they aren't supposed to keep tanking in the playoffs, losing each game by upwards of 30 points. Good show, guys.

• • •

GENERAL: The Games That Mattered
Alex Dewey

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is a fictional tale. It marks the return of "John", Alex Dewey's alternate reality San Antonio ballboy. It is set directly before Game 6 of last year's Western Conference Finals.]

The Spurs would face a 2-3 deficit and perhaps the end of their season tomorrow night. Tim Duncan's legendary career, the legendary Spurs dynasty, all of this was perhaps at its twilight. I felt anxiety and restlessness that night, as I'm sure all the Spurs also felt on some level. All that considered, I wasn't terribly surprised when a couple of players woke me up at midnight to fetch a couple basketballs from the storage locker. After all, I'm just an exhausted equipment lackey sleeping in a run-down motel room. It was my job back in that warm and pleasant June, so I certainly didn't resent it when Tim Duncan and Stephen Jackson came knocking at my door. I grabbed the keys, rubbed my eyes, and silently walked down to the outdoor courts a few hundred feet from the base of the hotel.

"Just gonna shoot some hoops, you guys?" I asked as we entered through the locked fence.

"Yeah, probably. Maybe not." In four words, Tim had managed to assert and cast doubt on the very assertion. I couldn't even get a scare quote from him!

Not so savvy was Stephen Jackson: "Kid, you like the Thunder?"

I responded honestly: "Sure. Just not as much as the Spurs, Stephen."

"So you might not be so interested in this little pick-up game. Alright, kid. Just go back upstairs."

Tim Duncan gave a dry, furious, expressionless stare at his friend's characteristic lack of couth or patience. "Come on, Jack, you just had to be silent for a few seconds. Come on, man. Heh."

"I was discreet, though, Tim! No way he guesses it's Durant and Westbrook from that!" I blinked quickly in befuddlement at Jack's amusing attempt to rectify the situation. S-Jax, that fount of self-awareness, found it pretty funny himself, "Come on, who cares, Tim, heh? It's not like the mop-boys have picnics on the hotel lawn in the middle of the night, heh. He's just one dude," Stephen Jackson was needling Tim Duncan with no regard for human life. I wasn't sure if Tim ever changed his facial expression during the conversation.

As this absurd discussion settled down, my thoughts turned back to the situation before me. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook against Tim and Jack, in a red-eye pick-up game the night before their possibly-decisive playoff game? I couldn't think to do anything, so I stood silent. But even then, I couldn't help but grin in anticipation. Tim noticed and told me: "You can't tell anyone about this game, John. I mean it. No one's violating curfew or their contracts, or anything, but I don't want any of this to reach the public."

"Alright, nothing. Not a word," I said with surprising conviction. After all, my sights had turned to something larger, and I didn't want the story so much as I just wanted to be a part of this game. No one else had to know about it. I took my watch off and started shooting hoops. At halfcourt, Tim and Jack started doing some passing drills that I saw intermittently after I'd get the rebounds from my shots. Gradually, though, the drills became more engrossing than my own shots, and I caught a final rebound and turned to watch from the top of the key.

Having been a mopboy for several years, I'd seen plenty of these kinds of drills, but what I hadn't seen was the level of focus and chemistry Tim and Jack possessed and brought to the table. They were passing from and to every angle that the hand can reach to throw and catch. They were moving with and without the ball, passing off the dribble, passing into the dribble, throwing and gathering hailmarys over their shoulders, and so on.

They would soon lose to the Thunder, of course. Both that night when it didn't matter and the next night when it did. No one on Earth could stop Kevin Durant on either night, much less a couple crafty vets on a pale-lit blue on green court without a hotel or a dozen crafty vets on a Chesapeake court so blue and bright you'd test it with your feet as water if it weren't so eerie and unnatural of hue. This historically dominant team the Spurs, full of every type of doer and thinker in an offense, was unseated by their young, more openly pious and brash brothers in the Thunder. There was nothing to be gained from the loss but the mystic's absurd purchase, a purchase of land that one alone can walk upon and which one cannot confer.

We Spurs fans know it; that team was something else, something special. Plenty of writers and league observers know it too. But for the most part we're the only ones that do, and, as memory fades, all that is left is the experience and the testimony, and finally nothing as we go. And friends come and go, too, and Stephen Jackson got released the other day, and Tim's not too far from the end, despite his dogged insistence on writing his final chapters with a most emphatic ink.

But those final days are always coming, aren't they? And with the benefit of reflection I'm so glad of what I did next, as I watched their mesmerizing passing drill. I told Tim maybe they should try with two at once, and so I sent a bounce pass his way with the ball I'd been shooting. They obliged and, with the extra projectile, the level of focus between the two grew still more intense, the passes got faster, and sometimes the trajectories of the simultaneous passes were so close that the gap could scarcely fit the width of a pin. These were the passes that only the ultimate teammates could pull off, what with their collective proprioception that bordered on telepathy. I reasoned that subtle hints in body language and eye contact must have tipped one off to the other's intentions, but I wondered if the court wasn't too dimly-lit for that. No matter the mechanisms, I know that the world beyond the chain-link cage had faded into black, and all of existence was a converted street-light throwing pale blue light upon a pale green court.

They were friends.

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The Outlet 3.16: Forgettable Jazz (also: The Worst Outlet Ever Written)

Posted on Thu 11 April 2013 in The Outlet by Jacob Harmon

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Remember how we had that one series, a long time ago, where we'd entreat our writers to scribe short vignettes on the previous night's games? We've consistently discovered there's no way for us to do that every night, but with the capsules done and Aaron back in the saddle as a more active managing editor, we're hoping that we can bring the feature back as a weekly Wednesday post. Sometimes Thursday, like today. As always, the vignettes may not always be tactful, tacit, or terse -- they'll always be under a thousand words, though, and generally attempt to work through a question, an observation, or a feeling. Today's short pieces are as follows.

  • UTA vs OKC: The Forgettable Utah Jazz (by Jacob Harmon)
  • POR vs LAL: The Worst Outlet Ever Written (by Alex Dewey)

And yes, this does mean that the next episode of Fallout: Phil Vegas comes Friday. Alas. Read on after the jump.

• • •


UTA vs OKC: The Forgettable Utah Jazz
Jacob Harmon

There’s not much to say, constructively speaking, about the game the Thunder and Jazz played in Salt Lake City on Tuesday night. Despite being a key part of the battle for playoff seeding and first-round matchups for both teams, the affair was surprisingly low on energy and low on excitement. For the Thunder, the prize was gained ground on the San Antonio Spurs for the first 1-seed finish in franchise history. For the Jazz, the prize was gained ground in the battle with the beleaguered Lakers for the 8th seed of the playoffs.

Were I asked which team would “want it more,” I’d be inclined to assume the Jazz. The product on the floor indicated that either choice would’ve been inaccurate. The Utah bigs who dominated the interior in the previous matchup between these teams were a virtual nonfactor, and much of Oklahoma City's execution in the final minutes of the game was comprised of Kevin Durant force-feeding outlet passes to the wing, attempting to finish off a triple-double. (Note: he didn’t). With the exception of a Westbrook steal-and-jam to seal the game in the final moments, there wasn’t much to intuit from this matchup beyond the fact that these two teams simply aren’t very evenly matched. Their records reflect that. It isn’t the kind of win that changed my feel on this Thunder team one way or the other, nor do I expect it did for any Jazz fan and their team’s respective playoff aspirations.

Then again, it may just be that I’m uniquely unqualified to write about Utah, being that I’m perhaps more unfamiliar with them in their current state than I am with any other team in the league. I remember the first time I ever watched the Utah Jazz play. Not specifically, but vaguely -- it was sometime in 1997, in the Finals against the Bulls. Like most kids in the 90s, I was a Michael Jordan fan, which meant I was a quasi-Bulls fan. I couldn’t tell you much about the team beyond Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman being their best guys, but that’s a serviceable amount of knowledge when you’re seven years old. I knew even less about the Jazz; I knew Stockton was the little white guy and Karl Malone was the big guy who reminded me of a football player. That was about it. I hated them both, and by extension their team. In retrospect it seems silly. Hindsight informs us that no one ever really stood a chance of dethroning Jordan. (Ed. Note: Oh, come on -- the Jazz stood a little chance, at least!) But at the time -- to my 7-year-old hoops love -- these guys were absolute villains; the stand-in Monstars in a real life Space Jam.

Obviously, that was then. These days, I don’t think about the Jazz very often. They’re a relatively young team with an average-to-poor coach. Despite being pitched to me as “the next Thunder” by some optimistic Utah residents a year or so ago, the Jazz don’t really look to be on track for the same level of success. It’s a bit telling to me that when you say “Utah Jazz,” my first thoughts are of those Stockton/Malone teams, a talented bunch that were nonetheless thwarted by an immovable object. When I watch the Thunder suffer a bad loss this season (as they did against this Jazz team in the previous matchup), I idly worry whether 15 years down the road I’ll be thinking about the Westbrook/Durant days. "If only we hadn’t run up against LeBron James, we could’ve won it all."

On the other hand, when I see Westbrook intercept an inbound pass and hurtle the length of the court, slamming down a wild dunk in a breathtaking display of athleticism to seal the game? It feels as though he’s attempting to outrun a squad of alien ballers, beating the clock to save Looney Toon Land. And in my heart, I feel very palpable relief. Things will be, and then they won’t, and then they will again; as it was for the Jazz, and as it will be for the Thunder as well.

• • •

POR vs LAL: The Worst Outlet Ever Written
Alex Dewey

The Rose Garden's court has always brought a smile to my face. Fantastic stuff. Part of it's the crowd, part of it's the giant hurricane-eye in the center of the court that frightens and startles and evokes images of a giant floating Ngyr-Korath. That 2010 Portland team was one of my favorites; Andre Miller, Patty Mills, and Marcus Camby spearheading an incredibly likable team that got an amazing boost from the crowd... well, OK, Patty and Camby hardly "spearheaded" the team. But they were there. They were there, and that's all that mattered.

Yes, yes. I'm sure if I could hear some of the things said on the court, it would cease to be a place of wonder and awe in my eyes. Perhaps there would be vile or cultish things said by the fans that surround the court. I'm sure the Rose Garden -- when you enter it and become used to your surroundings -- is just another place. I'm sure that I could find a reason to make it feel inauthentic or wrong or both. I'm sure that I could find a way not to have fun because that's the only way I could distinguish myself from a lot of Blazers fans. That's what writers do. We look at something beautiful and we find the ugliest thing, to focus in on and show how perceptive we are. And it's wrong, and we miss the forest for the trees. You miss a lot when you don't step back and appreciate greatness.

Watching last night's game, I felt that Kobe got (... relatively speaking) cheap call after cheap call. Granted, the cheap calls went with a legitimately amazing and inspiring offensive performance that anyone can amply appreciate. Pau and Dwight looked quite good on offense despite the Lakers as a whole being a defensive free verse poem; not a lot of structure, usually lazy, and completely lacking in capital letters. The Blazers as a whole had a heck of a game, despite a swoon at the worst possible moment. Lillard -- whatever you think of his poise -- is sort of a savant at shooting. (Ed. Note: Lillard is ranked 36th out of 92 guards in the NBA in true shooting percentage. Not sayin', just sayin'.) Lillard reminds me of Kobe or Stephen Curry, in the sense that he can take any shot from any range and it will retrospectively appear to be the only possible way to make it. I'd say Gil but there's some baggage there now. (Ed. Note: Baggage filled with guns.)

It's that feeling, you know? It's that feeling that Lillard is simply a pure shooter. Shot selection and his uncomfortable rim percentage will always keep him from one that oft-puffed list of e_fficient-and-rationals_, not to mention his hilariously poised feel-for-the-game that would probably break a graph in two just by looking at it. The axes would disperse, irrelevant to his evil glare. It's not just that Lillard gets hot, it's that he's fully-formed without a conscience, resting heart rate of 3, an ice-cold heart that can get up to speed pretty quickly, all considering. He gets hot, which is to say he metabolizes entire cities with his poise and takes the heat and makes it into a 30-footer that bursts into flame. (Ed. Note: What does this paragraph mean at all even.)

All that praise for Lillard aside, writing this makes me feel sad. Because all I could think about -- perhaps because I write things -- is that it made me pretty sick to my stomach to note that Portland hosted an MVP chant for Kobe Bryant. Who do you think you are, Portland Lakers fans? Showing up to desecrate the scrappiest possible arena, featuring the scrappiest fans in the league? You know who you are, and you make me sick! -- ... unless you moved there from L.A., in which case I guess I'm alright. But cripes, this isn't Lakers-Clippers! You go to an opposing team's arena as a guest! You don't steal their arena's magic!

This makes me sick. I know sports is all about the upheaval of hallowed traditions while cheesy traditions endure forever, but come on. They swept you guys in 1977. Argument over. And that was a real super-team, a real example of the 5v5 red and white logo abstractly representing basketball, not the studio gangster 8 seed that got carried by its avatar yet again. Actually, you know what? I choose to hope (and to trick myself now into remembering to block out the pain) that the Blazers fans, savvy and worldly, helped out with that chant. Because Kobe is the Lakers' MVP. Truth be told, he's all the team they have, at the end of the day. The Blazers know, and laugh. Nic Batum is quite young, and Kobe is quite old. And some day that seesaw of time will favor them.

It's like alternating Russian dolls of ugliness and beauty and personal fouls.

Sidenote: I'm not going anywhere with this but I thought of a cool promotion for arenas when you have these big games in multi-team markets (or otherwise geographically mixed fanbases, or situations like Heat-Knicks or Lakers-anyone). Okay, so check it: included in the price of your ticket is a wristband. Alright? With me? Keep it going. If you support the home team you buy one color wristband and if you support the road team you buy the other. Then -- check it out -- on the screen they'll have some sort of GPS thing that tells the teleprompter as well as anyone with a smartphone app where the friends and enemies of the team are. I mean, this probably doesn't work for sports where riots happen, I guess. Actually this would proverbially cost more literal lives than it would metaphorically save if you introduced this in Europe for football matches. This would actually kill people. Men and women would die because of my horrible idea, is what I'm getting at. ... But think of the apps you could make!

• • •

Aaron here. I have an inconveniently placed fever... one that I stupidly made worse through my dogged insistence on watching the Spurs get pummeled by Denver last night. Hence the lack of Fallout: Phil Vegas today. I'll try to get a new episode done for Friday. In the meanwhile, please enjoy this Outlet as a peace offering. Thanks friends.

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The Outlet 3.15: the NBA's Bizarre Gems (also: Selective Empathy for Mr. Rose)

Posted on Wed 10 April 2013 in The Outlet by Aaron McGuire

outlet logo

Remember how we had that one series, a long time ago, where we'd entreat our writers to scribe short vignettes on the previous night's games? We've consistently discovered there's no way for us to do that every night, but with the capsules done and Aaron back in the saddle as a more active managing editor, we're hoping that we can bring the feature back as a weekly Wednesday post. Sometimes Thursday, like today. As always, the vignettes may not always be tactful, tacit, or terse -- they'll always be under a thousand words, though, and generally attempt to work through a question, an observation, or a feeling. Today's short pieces are as follows.

  • IND vs CLE: The Bizarre Diamond in the Roughest of Roughs (by Aaron McGuire)
  • GENERAL: Derrick Rose and Selective Empathy (by Adam Koscielak)

Read on after the jump.

• • •

IND vs CLE: The Bizarre Diamond in the Roughest of Roughs
Aaron McGuire

I'm going to make what I believe is a fair assumption. Most of our readers didn't watch last night's game between Cleveland and Indiana. Not an unreasonable stance. There was absolutely nothing on the line last night -- with a loss, the Pacers would've effectively clinched New York's hold on the 2-seed, but chances are reasonably low that Indiana pulls off the seed even with their win. After all, they're 2.5 games back with 4 to play. If they want to get the 2-spot, they'll need to beat New York in the Garden in their one remaining matchup and hope that New York drops two more games in their remaining four (@CHI, @CLE, @CHA, vs ATL) -- for a team that's rolling, that seems exceedingly unlikely. So the game meant little to the home team, other than a virtually guaranteed win.

As for Cleveland, they've reached the point in the season where wins are actively detrimental to the franchise's overall health -- one more win will effectively take Cleveland out of the running for the 4th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, and they've reached the point where they need to lose out if they want to have any chance of tying the tank-happy Suns. All in all, it was a decent recipe for a garden variety blowout. You'd be excused for skipping it. But there's a reason I'm writing about the blasted game at all -- it wasn't any old garden variety blowout. The few people who tuned in were treated to what may have been the single most bizarre game of this NBA season. Really! The final score -- 99-94, Indiana -- doesn't do the night's action justice. Here are just a sample of the absurd runs and confusing peculiarities that those watching got to witness:

  • On the offensive end, Tyler Zeller completely outplayed both David West and Roy Hibbert. Tyler Zeller. Tyler Zeller.

  • In 17:45 span that enclosed both the start of the game and the final quarter, the Pacers outscored the Cavs 55-18.

  • In the remaining 30:15 of last night's game, the Cavs outscored the Pacers 76-44. Not a typo.

  • The Indiana Pacers nearly dropped a game where they shot 31 more free throws than a 24-win team.

  • The Pacers won a game where they were significantly outshot from two point range, three point range, and the free throw line.

It was a strange night.

After the game, that last point slayed me. The Cleveland Cavaliers shot 46% from the floor -- the Indiana Pacers shot 41%. The Cavs shot 30% from three -- the Pacers shot 25%. The Cavs shot 86% from the line -- the Pacers shot 67%. It felt worse than that, too! The Cavs were getting easy baskets for most of the night, and actually found themselves shooting 54% entering the fourth quarter. Against the best defense in the NBA, no less. After the game, the percentages made me curious. How many times a year -- on average -- does a team outshoot their opponent from every box score-tracked area of the floor and still manage to lose the game?

The answer: not many. In the past 20 years, it's only happened 44 times, which amounts to scarcely more than two such games per year. Considering the fact that every year includes 2460 NBA games, that nets out to a 1 in 1100 chance that any given NBA game is going to be a game like that. What's more, the margin is somewhat rare as well -- the Cavs not only lost the game, they lost by two possessions! If you sort the aforementioned list by margin, you'd find that only 6 of those 44 games were won by more than two possessions. Fundamentally, that makes sense -- you aren't going to blow out a team that's comfortably outshooting you from every area of the floor. But it added another amusing layer to a game that was about 100 times more entertaining than all reasonable expectations.

As we stumble and gasp our way to the close of another long season of NBA basketball, it's worth casting an extra eye of appreciation to these unexpected gems of random chance. At some point yesterday I had a short conversation where my friend Angelo said he was going to skip last night's CLE/IND game -- and all remaining games between central division teams -- out of a sincere desire to never see the sort of plodding, grind-it-out basketball that those teams tend to play. And I still think that's a fully reasonable stance. But oftentimes the NBA sees fit to remind us of what makes it fun with these dismal, write-em-off games. And I left the night feeling lucky I got to watch it. Thanks, NBA's late season slump! The obscenely low expectations you engender made a weird game like this the highlight of the NBA's recent schedule.

... Is that a good thing?


• • •

GENERAL: Derrick Rose and Selective Empathy

Adam Koscielak

"Holding on to his knee and down!" That's what Kevin Harlan says, in what would later become the most blatantly overused injury clip in NBA history. As the Chicago Bulls retreat looking to defend their basket against the Philadelphia 76ers, Harlan adds. "He was flying, and he came down wrong on the left foot, whether it was an ankle or a knee, I do not know." Cut to Derrick Rose cringing, as he lies in pain. I can't imagine that pain myself, combined with the realization that this is probably his last game of the very promising playoffs. His teammates surround him. Everyone knows it's not good. Chicago fans instantly fall into a state of depression. Or is it apathy? The rest of the basketball world freezes, feeling the loss of the brightest superstar. Twitter instantly speculates that it's an ACL tear. Others blame Tom Thibodeau for keeping Rose out in de facto garbage time. Some Nike rep blames Adidas for the ACL tears to Rose and Iman Shumpert, as if sneakers could save the ligaments in their knees from rupturing. In the end, however, everyone seemed to empathize with Rose's fate, a rare fan-wide show of solidarity.

Nearly a year later, Derrick Rose is playing basketball, and according to some reports, dominating at it. We can't see it firsthand though, after all, this is just a Chicago Bulls practice. Patience is wearing thin -- this here superstar has been "medically cleared" to compete for the better part of two months now. Iman Shumpert -- who suffered the same injury on the same day -- has been back in action for a while now. But Rose doesn't want to come back. What does that make him? Some compare him to Andrew Bynum, who never seemed to care about playing basketball, preferring to bowl and build computers, others point out the mental discomfort of coming back from any injury as an excuse for Rose's reluctance to come back. Then the screaming matches begin. One side will note Rose's gigantic salary, while the other notes that ACL tears are pretty hard to recover from.

This is where Rose's low-key personality seems to hurt him, really. If this was Kobe Bryant sitting out two months after a clearance to return to action, we'd be sure that something must be really wrong. If it was Andrew Bynum, we'd be sure he's "resting on company time" all over again. Rose? We don't know Rose. We know he's humble, and we know he's a warrior. But we don't know how much pain he can play through. We don't know his comfort levels. Would it be so surprising if we found out that Rose felt he needed an epic return, rather than a half-ready start in a late season snoozefest? Would it be so surprising if we found out that Rose wanted to make sure that he's not only healthy, but ready before he hops on the floor? It seems as though Rose's public persona often makes people assume that he doesn't have an ego. I can only speculate on what his motivations for sitting out are, but nobody becomes a league MVP without an ego.

In the end, whether Rose wants to return as he left, return in the right moment, or needs a few more days, weeks or months to defeat some anxiety connected with returning to the court? He should have the benefit of the doubt. For all I care, he could've decided to skip this season altogether and start anew next year. If Michael Jordan -- the greatest to ever play the game -- can go play minor league baseball for two years, why can't Derrick Rose take a few months off to adjust to life after a devastating injury? Why can we feel for Rose as the injury happens, but not when he might be suffering from the sports version of shell shock?

A topic for all of us to consider – selective empathy.

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The Outlet 3.14: Exceptional Follies and Our March Madness

Posted on Wed 27 March 2013 in The Outlet by Alex Dewey

outlet logo

Remember how we had that one series, a long time ago, where we'd entreat our writers to scribe short vignettes on the previous night's games? We've consistently discovered there's no way for us to do that every night, but with the capsules done and Aaron back in the saddle as a more active managing editor, we're hoping that we can bring the feature back as a weekly Wednesday post. Sometimes Thursday, like today. As always, the vignettes may not always be tactful, tacit, or terse -- they'll always be under a thousand words, though, and generally attempt to work through a question, an observation, or a feeling. Today's short pieces are as follows.

  • LAL vs GSW: Exceptional Follies, Exceptional Fields (by Alex Dewey)
  • GENERAL: Our March Madness (by Adam Koscielak)

Read on after the jump.

• • •

LAL vs GSW: Exceptional Follies, Exceptional Fields
Alex Dewey

If you had to inject truth serum into every editor and reader I've ever had and asked them to honestly describe what it's like to edit or read my work, I bet I'd know what they'd say. (Well, okay, what they'd say after the long, probably unbridgeable part where you explain to them why you're injecting them with truth serum for such an incomprehensibly minor question.) They wouldn't hold back. Incomprehensible, mercurial, technically gifted, slipshod and inconsistent with time and structure, combative at times, original, petty, absurd, fixated, unfocused, enigmatic, self-deprecating, and "attentive-but-somehow-mercurial". [ED. NOTE: Yeah, pretty much.] I know this because in their most unvarnished moments, they compare me to Stephen Jackson or Boris Diaw, usually. That's about the long and short of it. I am so focused on getting something expressed and well-articulated out of my head that I miss whether that thing has any sort of relevance to others.

Fun stuff. Keeping that in mind, let me talk about what the Lakers and Warriors did for me earlier this week.

The Lakers strike me as sort of a medieval morality play, an archetypal comic villain that they've somehow inhabited to teach us the value of youth, of hard work, and of never resting on one's accomplishments. The Lakers are there to teach us that everything will eventually be lost, but all the faster and all the more quickly without the essential and fastidious approach to life that abides others and our endless obligations. When they miss another transition not because of slowness but because they've practiced being slow? When they look every night like the visitors to Denver or Utah on a back-to-back? When Dwight can't figure out how to calibrate his less-than-100% mode to the grind of the regular season? When Metta World Peace decides (humorously, he seems to actively decide, every time) to create his own offense because he suddenly finds himself with the rock, and because, as if oblivious to the massive amount of specialization and scouting that has been done to get him to this place that says "cannot create especially well", despite all the marginal advantages he lacks, and knows he lacks, and knows his opponents know he lacks, he still goes forth and tries to conquer the basket like he's a conquistador...

... Anyway. The moment any of that happens, and the game in the inevitable course of which all of that happens? That moment and that game is validating, it is joyful, and it seems somehow like a ridiculous-but-apt historical marker for a team we'll remember with some pity and laughter ten years down the line. "Were you there when the Lakers weren't even all that bad, just inexplicably and superlatively mediocre, unsustainable considering the quality of their talent but also their historical, partially-institutional ability to attract talent?" our children and young watchers will ask. I will nod, throwing back shots to try and get over the fact that I actually taught my children to speak like that. And, later still, we'll be able to say, "Yes. It was great. It was just the best. Watching Jrue Holiday put the exclamation point on them on Staples Sunday is, in retrospect, the high point of my life."

The Warriors were equally fun in an equally exceptional way. When those with the high-quality interactive visual data -- with the missile technology and all that -- when they get around to creating an immaculate schema for the sport, delineating when you must drive, when you must go for the 2-for-1, when and where and and how often per game you must high-five in order to maximize your teammates' interactivity... When they get this far, in less than 5 years? When Morey lays down these rules as the Second Naismith of prophecy and lore? Whenever that happens, Morey and his quasi-holy rule-makers will have to include some sort of exception for Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry at Oracle. Simply have to. The shot selection and the heat checks that inexplicably go in defy description. In the best games of their lives, when the shots are going in without reason, defensive/facilitator role players will shoot possessed of an uncanny and unbefitting confidence. They seem to shrug at the comic absurdity of their own rarefied spectacle. My favorite example of this is when legendary point guard and non-shooter Andre Miller said "screw it" and went for 3 in his only (or even close to) 50-point game at the age of 35. Of course the three went in, and shrugging, Miller must have known it.

But Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry have created a force field around themselves in which everyone on their team (and sometimes on their opponents!) can feel exactly that confident, all the time. Jarrett Jack, a talented guard, can truly feel like Chris Paul or Jamal Crawford every night. The green light is on always for all parties at the intersection, and the traffic accidents have increased, but it hasn't been anarchy, but a new sort of efficiency and order that is built on the supernatural shot release of Stephen Curry and the interesting talents of Klay Thompson. Call it the Klay-Curry Buckets Exemption: Congratulations, your team barely has to worry about shot selection. As long as you're getting back on defense, may you find buckets from every location.

Of course, even despite all of this, Richard Jefferson still is not allowed to shoot. Not ever.

• • •

GENERAL: Our March MadnessAdam Koscielak

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

"March Madness is the most exciting playoff system in the world."

Chances are, you just stopped me. [ED. NOTE: Yep. Column over. Goodbye, folks.] There's a lot of truth to it. Every team gets a shot, every team can pull off a lucky game. That's why Gonzaga lost while Florida Gulf Coast is soaring. We love underdog stories, and March Madness gives every underdog a real shot -- and even if the real underdogs generally fall short of the championship, their wins always stay in the lore. Me? I dislike college basketball immensely due to 35 second shot clocks, the terrible officiating that makes me appreciate Joey Crawford, and the overall lack of quality talent aside from the few NBA worthy prospects. Despite this, I find myself entranced with brackets and the stories from the alley-ooping FGCU to Marshall Henderson giving us a showing of what I would call "Kobe Unchained." It's fascinating.

Yet, when I think of March, I don't think about college basketball. I don't think about the hope of warmer weather either. After all, this is when the NBA goes into the most intense part of the playoff race. The match-ups are solidified, and sometimes this is where champions are decided. Imagine that in 2011, the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Hornets switch seeding. They were in a tie at the end of the season after all. Perhaps the Spurs never get upset, playing against a balky Chris Paul and a West-less Hornets. If they advance from the first round, would they have continued to the finals and upset Miami using the same playbook Dallas did? Or perhaps last season -- what if we swap the Nuggets and Clippers? After all, they were separated by a mere 2 games. How would the Grizzlies' season look if they weren't upset by the Clippers? You get the point. As much as the regular season seems stale at times -- particularly when we're down to the fourth round of games with a certain team -- I can't help but notice how often the importance of it is downplayed. Eventually, when the novelty of watching rebuilt teams, shocking collapses and stunning breakouts wears off, the people that don't watch the teams engaged in big battles for the lower seeds are left yearning for the excitement of the playoffs. Or so it has been in seasons past. Let me give you an example.

Last season, two teams were fighting for the final playoff spot with three games left in the regular season. On one side, the Utah Jazz, on the other, the Phoenix Suns, in what turned out to be Steve Nash's final season in Phoenix. The Suns needed to win two out of three games to advance. Or win the game against the Jazz, lose the other two and hope that the Jazz lose in Portland. Whatever the case, the Suns first faced the Denver Nuggets. They lost, also losing an important cog in Channing Frye to a dislocated shoulder. And then came the Jazz game, do or die. Marcin Gortat lost his scoring touch that night, from the perspective of time, it would seem that this game would define his Nash-less season as well. Steve Nash tried, but couldn't carry the team. The Utah Jazz clinched their playoff spot. Al Jefferson cried. And nobody really cared outside of the two teams involved and Spurs fans who at least didn't have to deal with the possibility of an insanely motivated Steve Nash.

A year later, the Jazz are once again in a battle for the eight seed with Steve Nash. This time, however, Steve Nash is in purple and gold, alongside Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. Nearly everyone said that this team would be a championship contender. (Except for Aaron who knew what's up.) [ED. NOTE: My sense of spatial logic is shot, so I don't usually know what's up at all. What IS up, really?] Nearly everyone loves or hates them, as well. Whatever happens in that battle, it's going to get very loud. The conventional drama between mid-market teams and their fans is now a full out war between Lakers fans and the rest of the world. It's drama amplified, and it's a great boost to a generally stale part of the NBA season for the casual crowd.

So, let me say this now; Brackets are fun. So are underdogs, and single-elimination tournaments. But the NCAA Tournament is like a good action flick. Compact, filled with fun and a few good quotes... but it's easily forgettable, unless you really like one of the actors in it. The NBA season, on the other hand? That's like a good book, with multiple characters and sub-plots. It has a few boring parts you have to sift through, sure, and it seems like it's longer than Lord of the Rings. But in the end, the gratification for the big-time fans is infinitely larger, as you come to appreciate how every character, every sub-plot in the story can potentially change it's ending. And never is that amazing complexity highlighted more than in the midst of the stretch run, the March Madness of every NBA fan.

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The Outlet 3.13: Streakin' Ain't Easy (also: #TheReturn of Alex Dewey)

Posted on Fri 22 March 2013 in The Outlet by Aaron McGuire

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Remember how we had that one series, a long time ago, where we'd entreat our writers to scribe short vignettes on the previous night's games? We've consistently discovered there's no way for us to do that every night, but with the capsules done and Aaron back in the saddle as a more active managing editor, we're hoping that we can bring the feature back as a weekly Wednesday post. Sometimes Thursday, like today. As always, the vignettes may not always be tactful, tacit, or terse -- they'll always be under a thousand words, though, and generally attempt to work through a question, an observation, or a feeling. Today's short pieces are as follows.

  • DEN vs PHI: Streakin' Ain't Easy (for ESPN by Aaron McGuire)
  • SAS vs GSW: Still Confusing After All These Years (by Alex Dewey)

Read on after the jump.

• • •

Corey Brewer

__OKC vs DEN: Nuggets of Redemption
___Aaron McGuire_

ED. NOTE: Originally posted with the March 21st edition of ESPN's Daily Dime. Reprinted for reader convenience.

Since a Jan. 1 upset of the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center, the Philadelphia 76ers have suffered an 0-14 drought on the road. The luckless lottery hopefuls were coming off of a late-breaking back-to-back (a 29-point thrashing at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers, one must remember) and heading into an arena where the home team had won 15 of its last 15. The Denver Nuggets have averaged 111 points per game during that home streak, a stark contrast to Philadelphia's 88 points per game during their current road losing streak.

All this is to say that the world had a pretty good idea of what to expect in last night's late-night battle between the Nuggets and the Sixers: an annihilation. Oddsmakers tabbed Denver as a 14-point favorite, DESPITE missing Wilson Chandler and Ty Lawson with injuries. The game seemed destined to be a blowout where a clearly superior team runs wild on a down-on-their-luck lottery squad with nothing left to play for. Reasonable logic, although it misses one important fact.

Talent gaps are talent gaps, and oftentimes, no amount of extra heart and hustle is going to make up for that. But the spirit of an NBA underdog manifests itself in a certain curious way when winter turns to spring and lottery position firms up.

Every once in a while, for whatever reason, a lottery team doesn't simply lie on the mat and tap out. It'll show a fire it can't tap into on a regular basis. It'll come out roaring, throw the first punch, and thoroughly eviscerate a team that shouldn't be letting it in the game at all. In this case, it wasn't just "whatever reason." The reason was simple.

NBA teams, tanking or not, love ending streaks. There's nothing quite like cracking the perceived invulnerability of a team on a long winning streak. The press starts talking about their championship pedigree, its players start believing their own hype, game previews become little more than their streaking statistics and lofty praises. Fans start looking ahead and checking wins off on the calendar. "Oh, look, we're playing the three worst teams in our division. We're DEFINITELY getting at least three more wins in the streak."

Expectations. Glory. Complacency. It sets in rather quickly. And it changes the game. Suddenly, it isn't just about a bad team versus a good team. It's about an underdog proving it belongs. It's about a lesser team upending the expectations and throwing conventional wisdom under a bus. It's about the flaws of the contender, not the flaws of the lesser lights. The game becomes more akin to a March Madness upset than a garden variety NBA blowout.

The Nuggets -- due to a furious late burst and a well-timed breakout night for journeyman Corey Brewer -- don't have to suffer the ignominy of losing the streak to a team that they should've beaten. But make no mistake. Win or not, Thursday wasn't their night. As the buzzer sounded to the whoops and hollers of a Denver crowd, a visible sigh of relief passed across Nuggets coach George Karl's face. Nuggets play-by-play announcer Chris Marlowe summed it up best as the players left the court: "Ladies and gentlemen, you just saw the biggest theft since the crown jewels were stolen in the 18th century."

No kidding. Philadelphia spent much of the night lording over the Nuggets, thoroughly outplaying its hosts in an exceedingly strange turnaround. They rebounded better, they scored inside better, they moved the ball better. And they deserve all the credit in the world for it -- they fought the good fight, and they put a tangible fear into the hearts of the better team. They played swarming, trapping defense and kept Denver out of their comfort zone all night long. Heck, they managed to outscore the Nuggets in the paint. That hasn't happened since mid-February!

Philadelphia's valiant effort, even in defeat, reminded everyone watching of one of the world's most sacred truths -- probability isn't inevitability. Simply having a high chance of hitting the flush doesn't mean you will. Someday, a No. 1 seed will fall to a No. 16 seed. The Miami Heat have had to come back from the dead against teams they should've destroyed numerous times over the course of their incredible streak. Truth be told, every team on every great streak does. Adversity doesn't have to come from an obvious place; it can come from the most unexpected pasties on the schedule.

Philadelphia's effort was in vain -- the streak goes on.

But just ask the Nuggets: It sure isn't easy to win 14 straight games.

• • •

SAS vs GSW: Still Confusing After All These YearsAlex Dewey

Hey, guys! I'm here, I'm a seer, but don't get used to it.

Or, alternatively: get used to me posting more!

Or, alternatively: wait, maybe I'll be too busy for that, don't hold me to it!

Whatever. Que sera sera. What will be, will be~. (Ed. Note: Don't drink on a work night, Dewey.) Ahem. Anyway, for the first time in a while I sat down to "watch" the "games." Let me tell you personally, friends: I was happy that the Spurs won against the Warriors. I was astonished by how sprightly Tim Duncan looks. That's a cliche, but that's the point: he seems to keep getting better. No, really! Athletically he's not in the same class as any of the NBA's younger lights, but I was struck with the thought that the way he moved in his brilliant-on-both-ends 4th quarter almost evoked LeBron or Durant offensively.

... OK, Aaron, stop laughing. Yes. That's a stretch, and perhaps a slightly-younger Kevin Garnett is a far better comparison, but I just want to properly illustrate my shock. It was just ridiculously shocking to have Tim "I-sometimes-joke-about-being-a-point-guard" Duncan take the ball at the top of the key on quite a few possessions, even making the odd cut away from the post, not just to clear out space but to manage the geometry of a possession. No, Duncan isn't playing as a small, but Tim somehow reaches even deeper into his seemingly endless bag of veteran tricks.

One of the things that's overplayed when it comes to wily, hyper-skilled vets like Andre Miller and Tim Duncan is the tiresome "Still Characteristic After All These Years" trope. Sure, it's nice to see Duncan hit that 19-footer again. But when I see that, I'm feeling nostalgia for a greater past. That's not joy. Nostalgia's a mild form of depression, isn't that what they say? For joy and mirth, I much prefer the more refreshing strategy employed by the old-man game players: adaptation. By occasionally doing something completely bold and different than they've ever done but after-the-fact analogous to their existing skillset, these players show the bare bones of competitiveness that got them this far. If Andre Miller is Zach Lowe's Professor, then his course is the graduate-level Fundamentals of Fundamentals. It's that one class, you know the drill -- it's a little abstract but it's really cool because the professor has been there before a thousand times but never looks bored because the professor has a love of learning and there is always more to learn and also he's always high on something and sometimes he's roller-skating but that's OK because it's a judgment free zone also he teaches you to write enormous monstrosities of run-on sentences too it's very neat I think.


Yes, the course is an easy A, because you just have to show up and tune in. Still, you only get what you put in when it comes to Andre Miller and Tim Duncan, and you'd best get what you can while they're still there. Until tonight, I'd never seen Tim hop over a defender's arms while receiving the ball on a cut quite like he did in the late first quarter. It wasn't because he was jumping high, but because he was jumping true, with excellent footwork and raising his knees. Before tonight I don't think I'd seen Tim curl around defenders quite like that. I rarely see Tim as quite that active a facilitator, or even (at least these days) as quite that mobile a rim defender. Duncan dominated David Lee and Andrew Bogut defensively and neither seemed to be having anything close to a terrible game. Perhaps this is a case of not having seen the Spurs enough recently or simply of not having seen basketball much, period_._ But it was pretty neat. Duncan tried everything, and some of it actually worked.

Other observations from the caw of the lion-bird: Curry is known as a great, amazing, wow-did-he-just? shooter, but there's something even more gasp-inducing about his inevitable high release shot in traffic. I'd describe it thusly: Matt Bonner can hit threes. Stephen Curry can hit an invisible rim atop the Concorde flying the opposite direction while Curry himself is tuck-and-rolling out of a burning train going over a collapsing bridge. If you meet the Duncan in the lane, you have to kill Tim, and the only way to do that head-on against Duncan's gangly outstretched arms and timing is with floaters having nearly-vertical starting angles. And Curry can do it. He can do a swift hop straight-up and heighten the full-extension floater release at the last split-second in a consistently surprising way.

Curry does all of this marvelous work in a way that suggests consistency and the competitive intelligence to get to the line and to the rim when opponents respect his shot too much and to shoot when they respect his floater too much. I don't know where he rates out among points in the league but, in my ignorance, I still have to note that I rarely see a bad game from Curry; far more often I see an indifferent and stagnant Warriors offense, which he as point guard obviously bears some responsibility for. He's smart and he's got a potentially-historical-level jump shot, but I also get the sense that he doesn't have the speed or handle to really break a good defense. Let's be honest, though: talking about Curry's limitations only happens when we're trying to take a force of nature into a meat grinder and spit out a ranking. We have to have an opinion. My opinion is that you'd have to try in order to dislike watching Stephen Curry play. He got game.

In six, blessed minutes, Richard Jefferson did all the things he'd always been criticized for not doing on the Spurs - for playing tough, physical defense, for crashing the boards, for making the right pass with utter confidence. And in six, blessed minutes, one had to feel compassion. Because none of it worked, even remotely. Despite getting the ball in isolation in the post with a soft double, Jefferson decided to drive baseline. Turnover. Jefferson later made an athletic drive to the hoop, elbowing Manu in the ribs along the way. Charging. Then Manu got a three immediately, and on another occasion Manu embarrassed RJ with a great hand-off right in front of RJ and two other Warriors. In six, blessed minutes, we may have seen the last gasp of Richard Jefferson. I sometimes find RJ funny, conceiving of elaborate narratives that capitalize directly on the humor of Jefferson. And indeed, throughout his short first-half tenure I laughed constantly and riotously. Such fan favorites amuse us greatly. Part of sports and all that. And it occurs to me that those of us with a comedic disposition will remember our old clowns and comedians and their jokes more vividly and movingly than our leaders and heroes and their noble proclamations. Tim Duncan painted one of his latter-day masterpieces last night and I wonder (as I laugh aloud) if I'll remember it more than I'll remember RJ's caricature. His circular, faded "RJ" tattoo now with blocked, school-art-project lettering standing as large as the sun in a riotous, amusing defeat.

• • •

In case it hasn't been exceedingly obvious, Gothic Ginobili has been working on a bit of a skeleton crew lately. Our good man Dewey's started a new job, and BOTH Dewey and myself are in the process of moving. Not sure how many posts per week we'll be putting out in the week ahead, but we'll try to push forward a few more objects for your eager consumption than we have over this last few weeks. We still love you, readers! Even if we're both moving large boxes and disdainfully chugging down sports drinks!

See you next week.

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The Outlet 3.12: Nuggets of Redemption (also: a Tribe Called BLECH)

Posted on Wed 20 March 2013 in The Outlet by Aaron McGuire

outlet logo

Remember how we had that one series, a long time ago, where we'd entreat our writers to scribe short vignettes on the previous night's games? We've consistently discovered there's no way for us to do that every night, but with the capsules done and Aaron back in the saddle as a more active managing editor, we're hoping that we can bring the feature back as a weekly Wednesday post. Sometimes Thursday, like today. As always, the vignettes may not always be tactful, tacit, or terse -- they'll always be under a thousand words, though, and generally attempt to work through a question, an observation, or a feeling. Today's short pieces are as follows.

  • OKC vs DEN: Nuggets of Redemption (for ESPN by Aaron McGuire)
  • SAC vs LAC: A Tribe Called BLECH! (by Aaron McGuire)

Read on after the jump.

• • •

__OKC vs DEN: Nuggets of Redemption
___Aaron McGuire_

ED. NOTE: The following piece first appeared as the main byline in ESPN's Daily Dime from March 20th, 2013. It is reprinted here for reader convenience.

After a late-breaking overtime win the night before, the streaking Denver Nuggets found themselves with less than 21 hours of lead time for a game against the well-rested reigning Western Conference champions. On the road, no less, against a team sporting a home record of 30-4. Most fans and analysts would call that a "schedule loss," a night when a loss of any margin is both expected and acceptable.

Don't tell Denver that.

Tuesday night's comfortable 114-104 comeback win against the Oklahoma City Thunder was an exclamation point to Denver's current 13-game streak, and continues to highlight an incredible turnaround. The Nuggets started the season with a tepid 18-16 record behind a brutal schedule, but as their docket softens, they've quietly transformed into a borderline juggernaut. The Nuggets are a startling 29-6 in their past 35 games.

That hot stretch has carried Denver all the way from a weak hold on the Western Conference's seventh seed to a virtual tie for third, and it has given them an excellent shot at wresting home-court advantage for their first-round matchup. For a team that's currently 30-3 at home and 17-19 on the road, that's not just window dressing -- it's absolutely essential to their hopes of winning a series. That said, Tuesday night was a lot more than just a continuation of an excellent streak or a boon to their playoff hopes. It's easy to overlook, but it's something to bear in mind -- games against Oklahoma City hold a special cachet in Denver.

Consider: It has been less than two years since the Nuggets were bounced from the postseason by the Thunder in 2011. In that series, the Nuggets were looking ahead to the Spurs, a juggernaut they felt they could beat, but they looked too far ahead -- the naught-but-theoretical contenders in Denver were dispatched in a quick five games. Since that series, they've shown occasional flashes of greatness without ever putting it all together.

Tuesday's win was the latest in a season-long series of minor moral victories for Karl and his merry men. With Andre Iguodala's welcome addition helming a swarming perimeter defense and a small jolt to their ambitious transition-based offense, the Nuggets have entered a level of elite play heretofore unseen in the Denver heights. And Oklahoma City provides a brilliant reflection to that end. Prior to this season, the post-Carmelo Anthony Nuggets were a dismal 2-8 against the Thunder. That record includes losses by 13, 15 and 17, with only two exceedingly close wins to counterbalance them.

That was then. This is now.

After a 20-point thrashing in their first meeting, the Nuggets have pulled out three consecutive impressive wins against their former tormentors. They've beaten them twice in Denver and once in Oklahoma City, each time with increasing levels of comfort. This time, they played the most impressive game of their season to date -- Oklahoma City lost the lead in the third quarter and barely challenged down the stretch. Winning a regular-season series against a bitter rival that's dominated you in recent seasons is hardly the same as winning a playoff series, but it's a welcome jolt of confidence all the same.

Their captors vanquished, the question remains: How far can these Nuggets go? It's exceedingly hard to handicap a team such as Denver when you're looking for their playoff performance. It's brutally difficult to assess playoff strategy of a team with a borderline-obsessive focus on at-rim scoring and fast-paced basketball.

When the game slows down and their transition offense sputters, are the Nuggets going to have the half-court game to pull out road wins in the playoffs? Their style of play foments increased volatility; their assists essential, their movement non-negotiable.

Until the playoffs come, nobody knows for certain. But one factoid has to brighten their backers. The Nuggets aren't simply feasting on awful teams this season -- this win puts Karl's boys at 9-4 against the West's top four teams, with 3-1 records against both OKC and the Memphis Grizzlies, 2-1 against the Los Angeles Clippers, and 1-1 against the San Antonio Spurs. The Nuggets of yore were never quite that good against elite teams. And with their defense peaking at the right time, the Nuggets are starting to look like an awfully dangerous spoiler, a more robust edition of their trendy 2011 vintage.

As for their immediate future? With Tuesday's unexpected win in hostile territory, the Nuggets next have three straight games against soft competition to stake out a claim to their own 16-game streak. Then they'll face San Antonio, a statement game against another team trying to exorcise the playoff demons of years past.

They will play, they will compete, and they will wait.

Because the next "schedule loss" is coming.

• • •

a tribe called bench

SAC vs LAC: A Tribe Called BLECH!
Aaron McGuire

There isn't a whole lot to say about last night's Clippers game. Sometimes, you just don't have it. Sometimes, that leads to embarrassing things, sort of like an elite team falling apart completely in the fourth quarter against a Sacramento team that has trouble walking and chewing gum in concert. Sometimes, the NBA simply doesn't make sense, sort of like when a Chris Paul team falls apart in crunch time against Toney Douglas. Sometimes, all these things are true, and there just isn't a lot to say.

Anyone remember the "tribe called bench" moniker early in the year? I'm sure you do. It was a highly publicized nickname given to L.A.'s bench squad, a formidable unit featuring players like Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, and other intriguing characters. The unit was one of L.A.'s mainstays in their 17-game win streak, and one of their biggest strengths. Kevin Arnovitz wrote a great piece early in January reflecting on how their bench unit got work done for Los Angeles. Long story short? Very well. In 230 minutes played, they outscored opponents by a tidy 15.7 points per 100 possessions. They played a risk-seeking defensive gameplan with vicious traps and constant pressure. They were an essential part to the Clippers' identity, and their success helped the Clippers succeed despite an admirable focus on maintaining long resting periods for Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan.

Since Arnovitz posted the paean to L.A.'s Tribe Called Bench, the Tribe's gone missing. Blame injuries, blame Vinny, blame regression to the mean. But they haven't simply been a tiny bit worse. They've been straight-up bad. The unit as outlined (Bledsoe/Crawford/Barnes/Turiaf/Odom) has played just 41 minutes since January 9th, and that's not for no reason. The unit has been outscored by -- not a typo -- 21.9 points per 100 possessions in those 41 minutes, completely reversing the script on the unit's early season dominance. Their risk-seeking defensive strategy of constant pressure and steal attempts was nice as an occasional wrinkle to start the season, but it hasn't stood up very well as the year rolls on.

And neither has their bench as a whole -- the Clippers have dealt with a distressing glut of injuries since their 17 game win streak came to a close, and it's led to their disabled list becoming something of a revolving door. A player gets injured, they go out to rest up. Their replacement plays horribly in the additional minutes, gets injured, has to sit out. The original player -- a tad contrary to their doctor's orders -- comes back early to try and stop the bleeding. They play poorly, because they're injured, and they go back out. Repeat the cycle. Net and net, you end up with a lot of games like last night's horror show -- L.A. can't rely on their bench for more than token contributions, and it's become up to the starters to create and hold big leads, even in the face of monstrous minute obligations and fresh faces on the opposing end of the court. Sacramento's bench scored 62 points on 21-38 shooting. L.A.'s bench scored 38 points, and even that overstates their contributions -- 25 of those were scored by Jamal Crawford, whose role has become continually more essential with starter-in-name-only Chauncey Billups barely able to play 10 minutes a night. The non-Crawford elements of L.A.'s bench scored -- no typo -- 13 points on 5-23 shooting. Hard to play much worse than that, offensively.

If the Clippers can get their full bench unit back together by the playoffs, they could certainly recoup. And even if they don't, lacking bench depth is hardly a death knell in the NBA playoffs -- part of the allure of playoff basketball for a star-studded group like L.A. is the ability for top-heavy teams to cut their rotations and play their stars quite a bit more. Barring further injury, a playoff core with Paul, Griffin, Jordan and Barnes in the mix isn't going to be an easy out for anyone. That doesn't change the sad fact, though -- whether you blame injuries, regression, or opposing teams figuring it out, L.A.'s early-season jolt from A Tribe Called Bench has become one of the NBA's least effective lineups. Given how fun they were to start the year, that's a dreadfully sad outcome for just about everyone watching.

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The Outlet 3.11: Apple Turnovers for a Balky Spring

Posted on Wed 06 March 2013 in The Outlet by Aaron McGuire

outlet logo

Remember how we had that one series, a long time ago, where we'd entreat our writers to scribe short vignettes on the previous night's games? We've consistently discovered there's no way for us to do that every night, but with the capsules done and Aaron back in the saddle as a more active managing editor, we're hoping that we can bring the feature back as a weekly Wednesday post. Sometimes Thursday, like today. As always, the vignettes may not always be tactful, tacit, or terse -- they'll always be under a thousand words, though, and generally attempt to work through a question, an observation, or a feeling. Today's short piece is as follows.

  • OKC vs LAL: Apple Turnovers for a Balky Spring (by Aaron McGuire)

Read on after the jump.

• • •

Gif by Tumblr user "NBACoolDudes."

__OKC vs LAL: Apple Turnovers for a Balky Spring
___Aaron McGuire_

Last night, the Lakers touched down in Oklahoma City in search of their second win this season against a team that's won over 65% of their games. The super-elite, as it were. Against those teams -- OKC, SAS, MIA, LAC, and MEM -- the Lakers were an abysmal 1-11. That's not a particularly good omen for them, considering that they're almost certain to face one of the OKC/SAS/LAC triad in the first round. Another win against the Thunder could help mold the narrative, and show the league that the Lakers are rounding into shape as a threat to be feared, even by the elites.

Or... not. Make that 1-12.

As the Lakers left the court, disappointed and dismayed, I'm left pondering how exceedingly unlikely it is that any of the West's lower-rung teams knock out Oklahoma City. San Antonio and Los Angeles are great, but I can see an outside shot of either falling early, if a few bounces go the wrong way and Houston gets hot. But Oklahoma City? I don't think they're falling early. Second round exit is their minimum, with a finals or a title their most likely scenario. The reason I think this is simple, and last night's game provided a perfect teaching example. For all the good effort that Los Angeles put forth in this game, and as close as they got? There's a sense that the closeness of the margin itself was fool's gold.

Why? The Thunder had two turnovers.

Look at that number again. There's no denying that the Thunder really got up for this game, but two turnovers? That's ridiculous. And it points to one of the aspects about the Thunder that scares me, as a fan of a team vying for the right to knock them off. Believe it or not, the Thunder have one of the worst turnover percentages in the league -- on average, they turn the ball over on about 15% of their possessions. That's 28th worst in the league. And they're a markedly different team when they turn the ball over that much, too; in games where they register 18 or more turnovers, the Thunder are a quite pedestrian 8-8, including 2 of their 4 home losses. But games like last night's contest against the Lakers make me wonder if the Thunder's turnover problem is far less of a problem than anyone realizes.

Last night, it simply seemed like the Thunder had decided they'd stop taking stupid risks and they'd put the onus on the defense to actually force turnovers. LA's terrible defense was hardly up for the challenge. Which is my point. Any team that beats the Thunder is going to need Oklahoma City's weaknesses to become amplified for a short period of time -- it's how any upstart low seed beats a stronger contender. What we saw last night essentially amounted to a bored Thunder team toying with its prey, picking apart the Los Angeles defense for open shots while keeping the Lakers on life support with a steady diet of free throws. They didn't turn the ball over, they didn't get to the line that much themselves, and they STILL obliterated the Lakers!

Sure, the Lakers "only" lost the night by 17 points. Sure, they were close in the fourth. But no lesser team -- not the Lakers, not the Rockets, not the Jazz, not the Warriors, not the Nuggets -- is going to defeat Oklahoma City if they take care of the ball like that. No lesser team is going to defeat Oklahoma City if they need to shoot 16 more free throws (on the road!) just to keep the margin within 20 points. Yes, it was a road game against one of the best teams in the West. The Lakers didn't roll over, they didn't fall apart, and they weren't embarrassing. They can take some solace in that. But on a broader scale? The game seemed more meaningful to me. It was a message from a Thunder team that isn't playing around anymore.

"Go find your upsets elsewhere. We're not going down that easily."

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