Old hands, not young superstars, defining 2013 NBA playoffs
The Sixth Man (cont.)
The Sixth Man (cont.)
The immediate future isn't promising for the Celtics. They've looked old and unable to compete while plummeting to an 0-2 deficit in their first-round series against the more aggressive Knicks. But experience has also taught the Celtics to not be fooled by first impressions.
"I've always seen myself as a winner," said Boston's 36-year-old sixth man Jason Terry. "Regardless of the situation, whether the team was losing, I continued to work hard."
He was talking about his career as a whole, but those early lessons were relevant as the Celtics suffered through the two worst second halves of their playoff history (25 points in Game 1, 23 in Game 2). Boston has missed the ball handling of Rajon Rondo, whose season-ending knee injury has left the Celtics with no one to penetrate off the dribble or create easy shots for their older players. Among those who are struggling without their point guard is Paul Pierce (35 years old), who was making 16.7 percent of his threes and committing 5.5 turnovers over the two losses, and Kevin Garnett (36), who has been limited to 10 points per game after battling foul trouble and a bad hip in Game 2.
In all, 19 players 35 years or older were active for the opening games of the playoffs. The results have been up and down. Grant Hill (40 years old) didn't play in either of the Clippers' wins against Memphis; Richard Hamilton (35) stayed on the bench throughout Chicago's Game 2 win; and the Nets' Jerry Stackhouse (38) went 1-for-7 in the two games in Brooklyn (though he did a marvelous job of singing the national anthem before Game 1).
While Lakers point guard Steve Nash (39) has been limited by lingering back and hip injuries, Tim Duncan (36) has maintained his All-NBA level for San Antonio and efficient sixth man Manu Ginobili (35) has shown no hangover from the hamstring injury that sidelined him for nine games at the end of the regular season.
The NBA boasts a generation of young superstars in LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony -- all MVP candidates in their 20s. But each one of them is counting on experienced teammates to help guide his team to the NBA Finals. Paul continues to lean on Chauncey Billups (36), who gave the Clippers 14 points in Game 1. The Thunder imported five-time champion Derek Fisher (38), whose playing time has been minimal in their opening series against the hyper-quick Rockets. But there will be a time when Oklahoma City will benefit from Fisher's knack for making the biggest shots.
Ray Allen (37) left Boston in order to sign with Miami in the offseason, and the acquisition is paying off. He provided the Heat with 20 points on 13 shots in their opening win over Milwaukee and followed that up with a plus-26 performance as they seized their inevitable 2-0 series lead.
The Celtics hoped to replace Allen with the free-agent signing of Terry. But Allen has appeared to be more comfortable in Miami than Terry has looked in Boston. The latter was the Celtics' fifth-leading scorer during the regular season with 10.1 points (the lowest figure since his rookie year), though his shooting percentages were consistent with his previous years in Dallas.
"The main thing is being comfortable, knowing where you're going to get your shots at," said Terry. "For me it's taking this long to figure it out, which has been a process. I've welcomed that challenge, because what it's all about at this age -- it's about winning, it's about maximizing your opportunities."
He was sitting alongside the court shortly before the start of the playoffs as he gestured toward the right side of the three-point line. "In Dallas I would get everything off this right side over here," he said. "I could go over there right now with my eyes closed and get my shot off."
The placement of his shots has been more varied in Boston this season. "When you've been doing it for as long as I have, and count on efficiency, you got to know where you're getting those shots because that's what you work on," said Terry. "You want to be able to say, Look, wherever you give it to me, I'm going to make it. It's just going to be higher percentages if you can get it where you want to get it at."
Terry was scoreless (0-for-5) in Game 1. He provided nine points on eight shots in Game 2, but the Celtics -- limited as they've been by the absence of Rondo's playmaking -- are desperate to receive an explosive performance from him. There will be ever more pressure on him and his fellow perimeter shooters to come up big in Game 3 Friday in Boston.
Environment means everything for NBA players as they approach retirement, and the Knicks have been able to create a happier setting for three old-timers. New York's Kenyon Martin (35) has punished the Celtics for refusing to hire him in midseason, pounding them for 10 rebounds and three blocks in 25.5 minutes per game. Point guard Pablo Prigioni (36) recovered from a sprained ankle to generate five assists and no turnovers for the Knicks in Game 2.
In Game 3 Terry will once again be opposed by his former Mavericks' teammate Jason Kidd (40), with whom he won the NBA Finals in 2010. Kidd has come off the bench to give the Knicks timely plays at both ends and production across the board -- 5.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.5 steals and 42.9 percent of his threes in 29 minutes per game. He is a condensed version of the player who was crucial to Dallas in the playoffs two years ago.
"We wanted the ball in Jason Kidd's hands at the end of the day to make the decision," said Terry. "But when he was off the court, it was me, it was J.J. Barea, it was Dirk [Nowitzki]. The ball was just moving, and in playoff basketball it's a formula for success because it makes you unpredictable. We know Carmelo Anthony is going to get the ball over here on the wing, and he's going to iso, and he's going to go one-on-one and try to get it off. You can prepare for that. But what you can't prepare for is the ball starting on the right side, going to the left, then going back to the right, and touching multiple guys' hands. Who gets the shot? We don't know -- but it'd be a high percentage one."
That kind of ball movement will be crucial to the Celtics' receding hopes. Not that they're going to be surrendering quite yet. "Championship pedigree," said Terry. "You look at your leaders on this team, they've all been there, they're all experienced and they're all champions: myself, Paul, KG. Those are the guys coming in here every single day that you either have to compete against or compete with. How do you not have a chance?"
Maybe the elderly trio of Celtics can draw inspiration from the playoff performances of backup point guard Andre Miller (37), who was leading the Nuggets with 23 points on 68 percent shooting from the floor over the first two games in Denver. The Nuggets ceded homecourt advantage to the Warriors in Game 2, but they remained relevant in the series because Miller gave them 18 points in the fourth quarter of Game 1, including the first game-winning shot of his career.
Terry will also be watching the Spurs duo of Duncan and Ginobili, because they've won before and believe they can win again. "When you have that pedigree, you can talk about how old you are," said Terry. "You're older, but it doesn't matter. When you've been through the fire, you know what it takes to strap up in the playoffs, in a seven-game series, and to know you can go into Game 7 and win in the other team's arena. Then you have that edge."
Can Terry and his Celtics reach a Game 7? That in itself would be a remarkable achievement. Then again, one enduring fact of life for the NBA's oldest stars is that you can't talk them out of anything.
• David Lee out for the playoffs. The Warriors' lone All-Star suffered a complete tear of his right hip flexor in Game 1 at Denver -- and yet his team went onto upset the Nuggets in Game 2 without him. The Warriors went small with rookie Harrison Barnes (24 points) replacing Lee at power forward, and they converted a preposterous 64.6 percent on the road, including 56 percent (14-of-25) of their threes. "You talk about Klay Thompson (21 points) and Steph Curry (30)," said coach Mark Jackson. "In my opinion they're the greatest shooting backcourt in the history of the game."
That statement was also preposterous. Don't players have to make shots year after year under the pressure of the playoffs in order to compete with the likes of Larry Bird, Ray Allen, Steve Nash and so on? This was the first playoff win for both Curry and Thompson. But Jackson wasn't trying to convince the rest of us: He was using the postgame microphone to send a message of confidence to his young players in order to convince them that this was no lucky game, and that they can continue to scorch the Nuggets from the perimeter. Jackson has already taken these Warriors further than almost anyone anticipated -- into the playoffs and then to a win without Lee in Denver, where the Nuggets had gone 39-3 this season.
• Phil Jackson speaks. He told the San Francisco Chronicle's Scott Ostler that he's talked with three or four teams about a potential management position where he'd "have the influence in [choosing the] coaching staff and the kind of culture that goes along with it. It goes all the way down to -- not down to, but includes -- trainers and the people who are doing the hands-on work with players, that have to be really embedded with how you put a team together ... It would be a real opportunity to implant the game, a culture that I believe in -- that's the intriguing part."
I don't understand why an NBA owner wouldn't invest in Jackson. He has a winning point of view and he sounds as if he is ambitious enough to make it work. But the owner who invests in Jackson must understand that there will be no halfway approach -- you'll have to be all-in and let Jackson call the shots, while standing by patiently for his approach to take effect over a period of years. The issues are going to be:
1. Jackson, unlike Gregg Popovich, hasn't created a "family" of assistants who have gone onto succeed elsewhere (though Brian Shaw may eventually be a winning head coach somewhere).
2. He always coached, arguably, the most talented player in the league.
3. Can a coach with no management experience become a manager so late in life?
Having said all of that, there is going to be an owner so intrigued by Jackson that he will give the greatest coach of modern times this opportunity he seeks -- as it should be.
• Cavaliers re-hire Mike Brown. They fired him in 2010 after he averaged better than 54 wins in his first five years on the job -- "a mistake," as owner Dan Gilbert now characterizes it. The Heat are now enjoying the benefits of the defense-first approach Brown instilled in a young LeBron James. The Cavs fired Brown because they hoped a new coach might encourage James to re-sign as a free agent in 2010. That move was an act of desperation; this decision to bring Brown back was a sign that the Cavs really are focused on long-term investment. In December, I was insisting that the Cavs should not be dreaming of luring James back to Cleveland. This hiring indicates that they will be setting forth their own agenda. It's a good sign, because Brown is an excellent coach. (But please, Mike, no more of the Princeton offense.)
• Derrick Rose to return in 2013-14? Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said his star point guard was "most likely out" until next season. Rose underwent ACL surgery last year and was hoping to return this season. Questions of his availability have turned into an unfortunate sideshow, creating a bigger story than the Bulls' stubbornness on the court. After being blown out in Game 1, they throttled Deron Williams to win Game 2 in Brooklyn and even the series with the Nets even as center Joakim Noah hobbled with a severe case of plantar fasciitis. Rose sat on the bench with his teammates for the first two games of the series, demonstrating that he was more interested in supporting them than in avoiding scrutiny. The bottom line is this: If a player isn't ready to play, then he isn't ready.
• Charlotte fires coach Mike Dunlap. He was hired to serve as a bridge -- to teach the young Bobcats how to be NBA players even though they lacked the talent to win games. It was always going to end badly. The issue for the Bobcats is that no savior is likely to come their way in this year's draft, so another difficult year may be ahead for whomever they hire to replace Dunlap.
• Suns fire GM Lance Blanks. This was a surprise that was encouraging to the fans in Phoenix after they suffered through 57 losses and a last-place finish in the West. As a franchise the Suns have been seeking an identity in the absence of Jerry Colangelo, who defined them throughout their history. The hiring of a new GM will demonstrate where they are headed.
• Regular-season awards. Paul George ran away with the voting for Most Improved Player. J.R. Smith won his race against Jamal Crawford for Sixth Man; I had it the other way around, but it was a close call. The one award that was surprising was Marc Gasol as the Defensive Player of the Year. It is a difficult ballot to cast because defense is so difficult to measure: Lifers within the NBA insist that a large number of steals and blocks can be misleading, because the pursuit of those stats can often (but not always) encourage defenders to gamble and ultimately cause more harm than good. The scouts I talked to didn't mention Gasol among the leading candidates for the award. I'm not saying that he isn't deserving; Memphis was one of the league's top defensive teams and he served as the vocal linebacker at the back.
I do believe that the advent of more sophisticated stats will help shine a light on defensive play, in much the same way as stats have illuminated defensive excellence in baseball. Someday there may be a universal understanding of how to gauge the defensive player award. But none of this talk should detract from the accomplishment of Gasol, who has made an enormous impact on his team.
An NBA advance scout picks his top five for the MVP award. Here is how he sees it:
"The most valuable player in the league is LeBron," the scout said. "He's not necessarily the most valuable player to his team, because I think he and Dwyane Wade are both important to Miami. I don't think one of them carries the whole thing. If you take LeBron off their team, they can still win in the regular season with Wade and Chris Bosh.
"I think Kobe and 'Melo are the two most important players to their teams who are in the mix for the MVP award. James Harden is another guy who could be the MVP to his team. Take him off the Rockets and they don't win any games.
"I think Durant is very important, but he still shares the load with Russell Westbrook for carrying that group.
"I have Parker fifth because at the level he was playing when he was healthy, he was the difference between them being a playoff team and a championship team.
"The MVP should go to the guy who raises his team to the highest level. It's for the guy who does the most to do it -- the guy who impacts the game the most at both ends of the floor most consistently.
"I don't see how anyone is going to take the MVP away from LeBron over the next few years, unless maybe Carmelo played 80 games next year and the Knicks won 60 games to become a really dominant team throughout the year. Or if Chris Paul's team took off next year and they were dominating the games, maybe he would have a chance at it.
"I don't think I could ever vote for Durant for MVP compared to the other people who are in the league, just because I don't think he's a committed defender who changes the game that much at that end of the floor. He's an improved defender, and he tries to stay in front of people, but I don't think he's ever been that good defensively.
"I don't think 'Melo is a great defender, either, but I also don't think that team is based on defense. When they're making shots is when they're winning games. I also don't think 'Melo is as big a liability on defense as some of the other guys. He's not a stopper, but I don't think he's as big a liability because he has the strength. He'll battle even when he's mismatched with 4 men. He doesn't give up a lot because of the strength. I don't think he gives up lot against LeBron based on size and strength. He's not a great stay-in-front guy, but he has the size and strength and skill to not be taken advantage of.
"With Durant, you can back him down. He's wiry strong, but he's not really strong. You can still take advantage of him."
"Post. Post. Post."
-- Kobe Bryant tweeting during Game 1 of the Lakers-Spurs series.
The Lakers' injured superstar introduced a new dynamic by tweeting live throughout his team's loss Sunday in Game 1 at San Antonio. He insisted that the Lakers weren't feeding the ball enough inside to Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. When Mike D'Antoni heard news of the tweets after the game, he rolled his eyes.
Coaching an NBA team to the championship is the hardest job in pro sports. Only a few coaches have been able to pull it off. The challenge is to create a level of partnership with stars that doesn't exist in football or baseball. No NBA team can go far unless the coach and his leading star are on the same page.
It would benefit both D'Antoni and Bryant to spend quality time together this summer, which is something that couldn't happen during the season based on the circumstances of D'Antoni's unexpected hiring. Not that there is any kind of major rift at play here, but they need to be on the same page. And I'm not talking about the page of Kobe's Twitter account.
This is in honor of Utah's Hall of Fame power forward: Malone was league MVP and made All-NBA 14 times, yet he never had the fortune of playing for a championship team. All of these active stars have been All-NBA once or more but are still seeking their first championship. (I picked the most accomplished players and then ranked them on the depth chart below.) The odds are against them this year, too, as Miami looks stronger than ever.
C -- Dwight Howard, Lakers (6 All-NBA teams)
F -- Carmelo Anthony, Knicks (5)
F -- Kevin Durant, Thunder (3)
G -- Russell Westbrook, Thunder (2)
G -- Chris Paul, Clippers (4)
C -- Al Horford, Hawks (1)
F -- Blake Griffin, Clippers (1)
F -- Grant Hill, Clippers (5)
F -- Tracy McGrady, Spurs (7)
G -- Steve Nash, Lakers (7)
G -- Deron Williams, Nets (2)
G -- Joe Johnson, Nets (1)