Comparing Warriors-Thunder to Lakers-Kings

I watched last nights’ Warriors game at a nice, but not absurdly so, sports bar with two friends, one of whom is actually from Oklahoma City. She’s not a sports fan but got into the Thunder when they upset the Spurs in the 2012 conference finals, and has initial memories of Scott Brooks giving too many minutes to Kendrick Perkins.
The sports bar had more Warriors fans than Thunder fans, and almost half the TV screens were a Tommy Lasorda instructional video for pre-adolescent baseball players. It was a cloudy early evening in downtown Los Angeles. The bar had several framed pictures of the old Los Angeles County library.

At first the game seemed like a Thunder coronation as they were up 41-28 with three minutes to go. The whole game changed for the seemingly simple reason that Klay Thompson and eventually Steph Curry started making a historic number of threes, and Andre Iguadola played great.

So much of sports is mental, I think. The vast improvements in NBA analysis of the past few years can better explain what is happening but the question of why it’s happening partly returns to the trite reason of mental fortitude.

It’s hard to tell when players are nervous, but clearly most players play better when their team is ahead or has the momentum. Curry and Draymond Green seemed to be spending most of this series trying to recapture the confidence they had in the regular season, and, largely because Thompson kept hitting so many incredible shots, they eventually did. And at that point the pendulum swung and the Thunder lost their confidence.

The energy of the series reminds me of probably the great playoff series ever, though one marred in controversy: the 2002 Kings-Lakers series, which the Kings should have won anyway because of the game 6 officiating travesty. Nonetheless, the parallel is that like the Warriors the Lakers were the champs and heavily favored to repeat. And like the Thunder, the Kings were not just winning games against the Lakers but clearly proving to be the far superior team.

Like game 3 of the Warriors-Thunder, in game 3 of the Kings-Lakers the Kings imposed their will and controlled the game. They were too inventive and sophisticated for the Lakers with their ball movement and deep rotation, getting flourishes of great play from the likes of Bobby Jackson and Scot Pollard. The Lakers, meanwhile, had shown all their cards: dump it in to Shaq, have Kobe somewhat inefficiently and over-aggressively drive the ball and jack mid-range jumpers, and have Derek Fisher and his ilk launch threes while Phil Jackson sits on the sideline with his arms crossed and a half-smirk. At the end of game 3, the Kings had I believe a 20-point-lead and Chris Webber had this breakaway dunk that recalled his pre-timeout swagger at Michigan.

The Lakers seemed positively cooked after the start of game 4. Mike Bibby was hitting shot after shot and destroying Fisher and the Lakers other inferior point guards. They were up by like 20 at the end of the first quarter. Slowly, though, the Lakers just started making shots. And they made enough shots to rattle the Kings into remembering — oh they’re the champs, and they’re expected to win. The Lakers, of course, won game 4 because they had a ton of luck and Robert Horry’s heartbreaking buzzer three-pointer. But they won Games 4 and 7 in large part because the Kings seemed to stop believing they were the best team. They just weren’t mentally strong enough to overcome the breaks that went the Lakers way.

I think the Thunder are a mentally stronger group than the Kings, who had to rely on Bibby — a very good player but not a star — to shoot the biggest shots because Webber and (an admittedly injured) Peja Stojakovic were too scared. I would actually predict the Thunder win game 7, because the Warriors did not do that much differently in game 6 except they made all these threes. But the outcome seems largely dependent on whether they believe they can win the game.

Basketball in 2016

A combination of little else tangible in my life and the fact that I am actually really getting into this season and watching a fair amount of basketball after early apathy has brought me back to the Shawn Kemp Redemption.

Like the prolific child bearer this site is named after, I will try to be fertile in my posts, writing hopefully each day about the lay of the land in the NBA.

Here are some questions this site will attempt to answer in the coming days, weeks, months:

1. What happened to Andrew Bynum?

2. Can anyone disprove that the Golden State Warriors are the most aesthetically pleasing team ever?

3. Who will finish 3rd in the NBA’s Eastern Conference?

4. What have I learned from attending several Los Angeles Clipper games?

5. Is the league moving away from tattoos?

6. Besides Rudy Gay, who are the players we now self-satisfyingly know are actually not good at basketball due to advances in quantitative evaluations?

7. Can Scott Skiles save Brandon Jennings?

8. Why were the Atlanta Hawks so much better last year than this year?

9. Why is Portland so much better than we thought?

10. Who is the coach of the Phoenix Suns?

Please join me on this journey.

Children aren’t appropriate

The Riley Curry “controversy,” in which beautiful Steph Curry’s beautiful 2-year-old daughter enters the podium with him at the obligatory post-game press conference of game 1 of the Warriors more or less beautiful win over the Rockets did expose the lightweight nature of basketball writing and, thus, offend the egos of basketball writers.
Imagine trying to ask questions to a city attorney or elected official at a press conference and they were holding up a 2-year-old and giggling every time the 2 year-old giggled or did something cute
Or just imagine needing to ask somebody a series of serious questions like I, don’t know, your boss or a certified financial planner like [Isaacjon] and they basically made you feel like a silly distraction because they were playing with their 2-year-old.

But for all the good analysis writing about basketball in Grantland and Deadspin and surely other websites and newspapers, there’s a definite lack of intelligent questions at such press conferences, to the point where the parading of children onto the stage seems like a deserved punishment for decades of ineptitude.

In Chicago, I often attended Rahm Emanuel and related local govt. official press conferences and while the answers were not always illuminating, a bunch of the questions demonstrated both a ton of knowledge about what they were asking about and the journalistic skill of distilling that knowledge into a pointed, single question.

To give one example, there was a city of Chicago ordinance passed about a year ago regulating petroleum coke on the far Southeast Side. Emanuel trumpeted this as a big win for the city’s environmental program, but neighborhood organizations opposed the deal as inadequate. So a reporter asked a question to the effect of, “Why couldn’t you get the pollution reduction these groups wanted, and does that suggest your ordinance isn’t strong enough to reduce the health hazard from petcoke?”

So Emanuel could be a dick and not really address the person’s question and just generally talk about his ordinance and environmental agenda (which, I think, in this case he did) or he could say something relatively more candid like, “Well, my city environmental officer said x, y and z about it” or “the local alderman has been working with the community groups – we did all we could to address their concerns” or maybe even directly answer the question, “Look, neighborhood groups are always going to say something is not enough. It’s their whole publicity strategy. The air is bad in this neighborhood but it will be less bad now and there will be a reduced chance of respiratory illness.”

The point is that the question of Emanuel forced him to deliver an on-the-record response. It provides a resource for everyone – from citizens of Calumet in Chicago, to environmental reporters across the country, to the mayor’s political opponents- of what he publicly said about this important health issue when directly asked about it. At the very least, it is a real part of a journalist’s job: it answers an obvious question readers would have in the story this reporter is producing/writing.

But there seems nothing serious or real about these post-game NBA playoff press conferences. I’ve watched these on and off over the years – and seen a share in the last couple of weeks after particularly exciting games like the Rockets game 6 win over the Clippers. The questions never meet even the basic goal of non-sports journalism: To get a public figure to say something on the record – however canned and unrevealing – about a topic of import or interest (since there’s admittedly nothing “important” about who wins most basketball games, the goal seems, then, to get something on the record of interest to basketball fans.)

To use the Rockets-Clippers example, that was one of the most exciting games I’ve watched in my 26 years watching basketball games. The Clippers were up by 19 points near the end of the third quarter in a game that, if they won, would have brought the franchise – the most cursed in basketball history – to the conference finals for the first time ever. Everything was going right for the Clippers and everything was going wrong for the Rockets – it was repeat of the other two Clipper home games in the series where an early close game quickly turned into a total one-sided blowout by the Clippers. The game seemed basically over – the TV announcers waxed poetic about the history of the Cllipers franchise, naming members of the 1970s Buffalo Braves.

Then everything started going right for the Rockets and everything started going wrong for the Clippers, and it was so dramatic and unexpected that it took a while to grasp what was happening. Players for the Rockets that had been playing poorly like the much-maligned Josh Smith were suddenly forces. Great players for the Clippers like Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were suddenly passive and tense and ineffective.

The Rockets ended up winning by 12 points. It was adrenaline-pumping just watching this game. As I fan I wanted to consume even more of it and so I watched the post-game press conference.

there were obvious questions to ask, for the Clippers coach and players
– Why did you lose control of the game?
– You were killing the Rockets with screens that simply let one of your guards drive to the rim because Jason Terry is 104-years-old and was never a sound defender to begin with and keeps losing his man on the pick-and-roll. Why did you go away from that?
– What were you thinking when they got close? What were you thinking when they took the lead?
– How will you possibly mentally recover for Game 7?
– Were you thinking about the cursed history of the franchise at all when this was happening?

So there were basically two types of questions of interest – xs and os questions relevant to the growing legion of basketball wonks about in-game adjustments and strategies. And the kind of emotional psyche questions that might humanize the performers in this competition.

These questions were sort of asked at the press conference, but not directly. There was just a lot of, “Talk about what was happening at the start of the 4th quarter” – questions where the reporter is afraid to confront his subject. It might not sound that different from, “What were you feeling when they cut the lead from 19 to 6 and Josh Smith of all people hit two three-pointers?” But it is, because “talk about” questions are the sign the reporter is just going through the motions and afraid of offending his interview subject who, perhaps not coincidentally, is physically much larger and financially and socially much more powerful than he (and occasionally she) is.

The normal press conference question is not a question, but a proverbial two ships passing at night situation in which the reporter nervously summarizes a certain moment in the game, or in certain unintentionally comedic moments summarizes a whole series of plays, and then the coach or player responds by effectively re-summarizing the already poor summation of the reporter and then adding platitudes about the opposition’s competitive spirit

Reporter: Coach, you made a run there in the 4th….Smith hit a couple of three-pointers and then Johnson made a transition basket…The momentum seemed to shift…Then they called a timeout and seemed to get back into their game…Williams made a couple of players for them….Talk about that part of the game (trails off)

Coach: Well, they’re a real competitive team and Coach Smith, he’s a real competitor. And we were just trying to get back in the game – do what we did to get this far. And unfortunately, after the timeout, they made some shots, but, you know, that’s how this works. It’s a real dog fight in the playoffs.

By asking such indirect questions, that are hardly questions and soft shoeing the whole process, basically by being so evidently unprepared and uncertain of themselves, the reporters allow the coach and players to slip into clichés.

Brian Windhorst, the very good reporter who has made the Riley Curry “controversy” a quasi-internet sensation by pointing out the unprofessional nature of all basketball players who bring their kids to the podium, would certainly contest this characterization of the reporters.

But that’s what I’ve seen even good and nationally recognized reporters like Windhorst are tepid in front of the famous people they write about.

Windhorst, for example, makes good points about how LeBron James – while Cleveland is kicking butt right now – is initiating too many bull-headed isolation plays and occasionally it can really cost the Cavs, like when Atlanta made a late run at the end of the 4th quarter of game 1.

But does Windhorst have the clarity and courage to respectfully ask James about this at the post-game presser, something like, “There are several isolation plays for you in the 4th quarter that ended ball movement for your team and didn’t result in baskets. Do you think in future games there should be less isolation plays for yourself given what happened in the 4th?”

I mostly haven’t seen it from him. It’s a challenging and stressful job I imagine, to have to cull something additional for a story from what every fan has already seen on TV, but these press conferences veered into non-journalism territory well before this years’ children calvicade.

Sagar-McGrady: The Frost-Nixon Of Our Time

Tracy McGrady is one of my favorite basketball players ever and every several months or so I watch the above clip when he scores 13 points in 33 seconds. For reasons I’ve never fully been able to articulate, there is something extraordinarily poignant about the end of game interview with Craig Sagar. I actually, seriously, just cried watching it again just now. Continue reading Sagar-McGrady: The Frost-Nixon Of Our Time

Part 1 of Three-Part NBA Preview – Balls Out!

Part 1 of my NBA Preview.

Since the basketball season ended, here are relevant things I’ve done to prepare myself for this:
1. purchased “Lindy’s sports pro basketball 2014-15” at a bookstore in Los Angeles’s Silver Lake neighborhood that specializes in gay porn
2. Got through half of Grantland writer Zach Lowe’s “33 crazy predictions”. “Crazy” is defined pretty generously in this column, as an aside. Lowe predicts such insanity as the Minnesota Timberwolves possibly trading one of their reserve veteran swing men during the season to make more playing time for Andrew Wiggins. It would be like if I wrote a column “33 crazy predictions for my next year in Los Angeles” and included such predictions as “will make some effort to play tennis” “might visit San Diego” “could create online dating profile, but infrequently try to use it”

Anyway, I am ill informed. Do not gamble based on my “predictions” as such. These are just thoughts about the 30 nifty basketball teams we have in the NBA right now. In reverse order to dramatically build up suspense.

30. Philadelphia 76ers

Philly is being too clever. The problem is young players playing on a team that doesn’t care about whether they win games. This breeds bad habits, the wrong attitude, etc. It’s not good. I feel like Michael Carter-Williams has already been fucked around with by this organization.

Also, there seem like numerous practical considerations Philly is not taking into account. Like their two most theoretically valuable actual players are Joel Emblid and Nerlens Noel, a center and a power forward. And the big prize of the next draft is Duke center Jahil Okafor. So: If they “suck-seed” at getting the #1 overall pick, that means, what? They trade the pick? They trade Emblid who probably has weird trade value because he won’t play this year? They trade Noel and make a “twin towers” formation? They just keep “stockpiling assets” with total disregard for whether the players might actual fit together in a real-life basketball game?
They will be spinning their wheels as a franchise for a while.

29. Orlando

Every year people go to law school because they are smart, motivated and have a plan to make a fulfilling, sustainable vocational pathway out of law school. But also I suspect some people just go to law school because they have no idea what else to do and even though they are borrowing thousands of dollars and spending their lives toiling away in front of large, poorly-written books, they are at least doing something with your lives.

It’s something easy and clear to tell yourself, your family, your friends, new people you meet: What am I doing with my life? Well, I’m going to law school.

There is also a subset of the population that have children for this reason.

And there’s a group of NBA franchises that re-build along similar philosophies. I think Orlando is one of them.

Like getting into a prestigious law school or having a physically attractive child, Orlando gave a glossy sheen to the whole process by improbably “winning” the Dwight Howard trade. That they actually came out the, relatively, best from that whole affair has made people cautious about thinking critical thoughts about their rebuilding.

I’m critical because I just don’t see where it’s going. What is the breaking point where they actually are expected to win games? They went 23-59 last year in an historically bad eastern conference and then dumped their most productive player, Aaron Afflalo, in the off-season to the Denver Nuggets, one of those sucka teams where the management actually cares about winning games.

The one thing going in Orlando’s favor is that their five young “assets” —
Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, Nicola Vucevic and Tobias Harris — all could actually play on the floor together. But I feel like Orlando will dick around give Channing Frye a bunch of existentially meaningless minutes, even play Ben Gordon and Luke Ridnour, and not try to give their young five a chance to gel as a unit.

I just feel this team derives a certain depressing comfort being enveloped in the rebuilding process. But I really don’t know what I’m talking about and this team could semi-surprise. So this is the first of many predictive hedges, but ultimately my intuition is that Orlando will be sucky and forgettable.

28. Utah Jazz

What is the greatest experience I’ve ever had watching a televised basketball game? Maybe it’s a classic, brilliantly played, taut college basketball tournament thriller from the early 90s like when Duke shocked UNLV in the 1991 final four, or Duke beat Kentucky on Christian Laettner’s overtime buzzer beater the next year.

Maybe it’s watching an NBA team I was really pulling for capturing a tremendous upset win in the NBA playoffs, like when Houston beat Orlando in Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals or when Detroit beat the Lakers in Game 1 of the 2004 NBA FInals.

Maybe it’s a game I attach special sentiment to like watching the three overtime NBA Finals game between the Bulls and Suns in 1993 with my Dad at my Grandma’s house in Vero Beach, Florida. Or the next year’s family vacation when I was in an Elkhart, Indiana hotel room when Indiana Pacer Reggie Miller scored 25 points in the 4th quarter to beat the Knicks, and grabbed his nuts while pointing toward Spike Lee. I fondly remember watching the local news that night.

Anyway, there are a lot of great candidates for my greatest basketball watching experience ever.

But there is only one nominee for the worst basketball game I’ve ever watched: last season’s regular contest between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz, announced on WGN by Stacey King and Neil Funk.

The game happened on a Monday night in early December. I watched it in a 55 degree apartment in Chicago. We were not aware at the time that Chicago was about to undergo its coldest winter in history spurring me to leave the Windy City.

We were aware, though, that the Bulls had just gone from NBA title contender to a frustrating, grinding team because three days before Derrick Rose got injured again.

It was a funereal like atmosphere, to say the least. I’ve actually felt happier at some funereal processions than watching this game. The crowd booed Carlos Boozer, a former Jazz man that signed with the Bulls, and Boozer responded with his typical, faux-I’m-fired-up bullshit. Kirk Hinrich was centrally involved.

The Jazz won in overtime, continuing the NBA’s streak of at least one team winning every single game in league history. I pretty much hated everyone and everything after I saw this game.

Anyway, there is one thing I like about the Jazz and one thing I don’t like:

The thing I like is that Tyrone Corbin is no longer their coach. Maybe Zach Lowe’s best piece of writing ever is carefully destroying Corbin as one of the worst coaches ever. Quinn Snyder has to be better.

The thing I don’t like is that for the past three years they have drafted point guards – Alec Burks, Trey Burke and now Dante Exum, the black Luc Longley (Exum, of course, has nothing in common with Longley other than their common Australian heritage. But I amuse myself by calling someone the “Black Luc Longley.”)

I guess Burks can play shooting guard, but it just seems like kind of a jumble.

I mean, like Orlando, Utah, in theory has a line-up full of young talent: Burks, Burke, the lavishly paid Gordan Hayward, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter (the Turkish Luc Longley). So they could just play them all together and see what develops, but I almost feel like that would just expose the team as not doing that great of a job stockpiling talent to produce a winner. Favors and Kanter seem particularly underwhelming.

27. Sacramento Kings

They have the worst back court in the league on paper and they play in the Western Conference. It’s fun to talk about Boogie Cousins, but I feel the prior sentence suffices as an exhaustive preseason analysis of this year’s Sacramento Kings.

26. Milwaukee Bucks

As someone who admittedly didn’t see many Bucks games last year, I don’t totally understand the Giannas Antetokounmpo buzz. If G.A. is really that good, I guess I’m underrating Milwaukee.

But this looks like a bad team on paper, and I have no idea how Jason Kidd will be as a Bucks coach. I don’t see Jabari Parker as a player that can single-handedly make a bad team not bad.

Also, I think this team will leave Milwaukee and that’s going to color stuff the next couple of years. Finally, I think this team has stuck with their forest green uniforms for too long.

25. Boston Celtics

Barf. Rajon Rondo is good, Marcus Smart is probably good, and Avery Bradley plays good defense. But they all play the same position! And those are the three most appealing players on the team.

They’re going to start men named Marcus Thronton, Tyler Zeller, and Jared Sullinger, according to this basketball preview issue I’m flipping though. Brandon Bass and Kely Olynyk round out the front court “rotation.”

Boston is ranked ahead of better-on-paper teams like Orlando, because Brad Stevens is a notably good coach, they are a better-run organization, and, consequently, will get something significant from Rondo and Jeff Green, either from their contributions as players or trade pieces.

24. Indiana

Unless Roy Hibbert converts to Islam or something and rediscovers his career, they’re going to tank.

The Larry Bird-era Pacers seem really cursed. They were fucking 40-12 at one point last year! Their swoon here is akin to their post-Malice at the Palace swoon. The Paul George injury was horrible, of course, but this team headed a free fall already. I mean, not re-signing Lance Stephonson is a pretty strong indication of the realization that things weren’t working.

23. L.a. Lakers

I don’t know. Everything about this team screams they’re going to be awful, including Coach Byron Scott. They are expecting big minutes from Carlos Boozer.

That said, they have Kobe Bryant and there’s a chance Bryant will keep them competitive. He was leading the league in scoring in 2012-13. My only sure-fire prediction is that it will be easier for me to get Lakers tickets than Clippers tickets.

22. Phoenix Suns

Here’s my first wild and crazy prediction. Phoenix, a young team last year that finished 48-34 in the exceedingly difficult Western Conference will finish about 35-47 this year in the still exceedingly difficult Western Conference.

Here is my defense for such an irresponsible prediction –

1. Phoenix was supposed HORRIBLE last year. Their Vegas over/under for wins was 18! I think you can plausible deduce from that, while to a large extent, we really, really underestimated this team, to a partial extent they really over achieved. Goran Dragic and Gerald Green particularly played so much better than they have ever played before that it seems hard for those players to replicate that level of individual success and hard for the team to replicate their overall success

2. They went overboard in not re-signing Channing Frye and then spending that money on Isiah Thomas. Even the Detroit Pistons great three-guard rotation of short basketball men featured Joe Dumars, a legendarily great defender of shooting guards. The Suns three-guard rotation of Dragic, Eric Bledsoe (also signed to a HUGE contract this summer) and Thomas are three point guards. Even by the NBA’s current trend of basing your scoring around your point guard, this is wildly excessive.

How will this work defensively? With floor spacing? I think the Thomas signing is the sign of a team too enamored with its own surprising success.

21. New York Knicks

Wait a second, why is this team not supposed to totally suck? Because they hired Phil Jackson in some kind of advisory role? Because Coach Derek Fisher will implement the vaunted triangle offense, an offense that has admittedly had historic successes on teams with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen (Get in your space, Carmelo!)

I mean with the major exception of having Carmelo Anthony they don’t look that much better than the Celtics on paper. They’re going to rely on big minutes from the likes of Jose Calderon, Andrea Bargnani and Tim Hardaway, Jr. I’d say Iman Shumpert is probably their 2nd best player.

By trading Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton for Calderon, they are probably a less talented team than last year’s team that missed the playoffs.

This is going to sound semi-insulting, but it isn’t- Carmelo is basically the Dominique Wilkins of this generation. Which means that he’s a hall-of-fame player who can carry a team that is otherwise limited offensively. But also means that he’s not necessarily good enough to carry a team – like last year, during his contract season.

Because they’re the New York Knicks, there seems like a vague feeling that the team deserves the benefit of the doubt that they will be relevant. But this team just doesn’t have much potential to do damage, and, I think, will just simply be bad.

TOMORROW OR LATER TONIGHT: PART 2!