Birdman an unlikely difference-maker for Miami in more ways than one
The Sixth Man (cont.)
MIAMI -- The Mohawk had been lacquered and spiked while Chris "Birdman'' Andersen was making his large yet minimalist impact on Game 1 of the Eastern finals Wednesday night. On Thursday after practice, he and his hair were more relaxed. The hair lay tousled along the top of his head like a strip of highway median. His tattooed skin was like cheerful pop-art wallpaper. A paper cup of coffee sat cradled in his left hand.
"That's just my style, man,'' said Andersen of the way he looks. "It has nothing to do with me being on the court. It's just my style.''
The Heat were holding a 1-0 lead going into Game 2 Friday because Andersen contributed an extraordinary 16 points, five rebounds and three blocks in 18 minutes to their 103-102 win in overtime. He went 7-for-7 from the field to break Alonzo Mourning's franchise record for shots (6-for-6) without a miss in a postseason game. "Without his effort we don't win this game,'' said LeBron James, whose triple-double and layup at the buzzer enabled Miami to make good on Andersen's contributions.
The numbers say that the 6-foot-10 Andersen is every bit as unique as he looks. After the Heat signed him to a 10-day contract on Jan. 20, they won 39 of the 42 regular-season games in which he played -- the highest winning percentage in league history for a player who played in at least 40 games over one season. His 82.9 percent shooting in the playoffs (29-for-35) is currently an NBA record for anyone attempting as many shots in one postseason.
Miami is 9-1 with him in the playoffs, and there was no exaggerating his impact here Wednesday. The bigger Pacers were punishing Miami around the basket as David West, Roy Hibbert and Tyler Hansbrough combined for 55 points. Andersen came in off the bench as the counter-puncher. He hovered along the baseline waiting for his smaller teammates to drive the paint and find him for afterthought dunks and awkward lay-ins. One day later Andersen was still thinking about the cheers he set off with his plays around the basket.
"The hair on the back of your neck stand up,'' he said.
They were also standing up on top of your head, said a reporter from the crowd gathered around him.
"No, they didn't stand up,'' said Andersen. "I put those up.''
Andersen had been released by the Nuggets last summer. His career had amounted to a colorful palate of style, energy and crises. He graduated from a small high school in Iola, Texas, played one year at Blinn College, a Texas JC, and his NBA career had been interrupted by a two-year ban for league drugs violations in 2006 and then a county investigation last year in Denver for possible Internet crimes involving a minor. (Andersen said he was deceived and then extorted by a woman claiming to be of legal age.)
He had undergone surgery to "clean up'' his arthritic knee and had not been watching NBA games during his rehab. Therefore he wasn't fully aware of Miami's need for someone like him. "I didn't watch any basketball,'' he said. "Just the fact that if I watched it, I pushed myself a little too fast to get my knee back.''
They were especially vulnerable to taller rebounding opponents like these Pacers, which is why Miami coach Erik Spoelstra had been asking the team to sign Andersen for some time. He would rebound and protect the rim without demanding the ball. "He's big‑time for our team -- his athleticism, his motor,'' said James. "He comes out and he gives it all. He fits right in.''
It's amazing to think that a 34-year-old whose career was endangered is now making a crucial difference to the defending champions. "Energy -- that's been Birdman his entire career,'' said Shane Battier. "For as talented as we are, we wouldn't say we're the highest‑energy team. A little more laid back; we're intense, but we're not high energy. Birdman, when he came in here, he changed the whole dynamic with his fervor for life and his energy. Specifically against the Pacers, he's just flying all around. Against a team that wants to slow you down and flatten you out and make you lethargic, he's the best man to do it.''
Andersen hadn't been in Miami long when the Heat put together their Harlem Shake video. Birdman looked at the camera and flapped like his nickname. "I just went with that because I couldn't find a costume,'' he said.
The warning to not judge a book by its cover works in reverse with Andersen. Could he ever be as provocative as he appears to be? "The Birdman is larger than life,'' said Battier. "What you see on the court is how he is in real life. Probably not as flamboyant and dynamic, but he's one of a kind. I never had a teammate like him. But he's a great teammate, and he's meant a lot to this team.''
Andersen's ability to negate Indiana's advantages upfront means that the Pacers are going to need more from their backcourt of George Hill and Lance Stephenson, who underperformed in Game 1. "I think you're selling Miami's frontline a little short, no pun intended,'' said Indiana coach Frank Vogel. "Chris Andersen is playing as well as any center in the league when he comes in. [Udonis] Haslem is one of the all‑time hustle players. [Chris] Bosh is a sure‑fire Hall of Famer. I don't think it's a crazy mismatch in the frontcourt.''
It isn't now, and that doesn't figure to change because Andersen's approach won't change. He isn't going to keep going 7-for-7. But he isn't going to stop challenging shots or attacking the boards, especially now that he is weeks away from what would be his first championship.
"It really didn't take long for me to flip that switch,'' he said of his understanding for what could be achieved with this team. The flip has been switched. Can the Pacers flip it back off?
• Coach K stays put. Jerry Colangelo was going to continue running USA Basketball for another Olympics, and for the sake of continuity he wanted to keep the winning formula going. So it makes sense that they've kept that winning formula intact. At the same time, this is a killer decision for Gregg Popovich, who more than anyone else deserved to coach his country's team, and now is not going to get the chance.
All the same, the return of Mike Krzyzewski helps improve the chances of a third Olympics for LeBron James, who will be 31 in 2016. So long as James is involved, the winning tradition should continue. After the next Olympics, look for the entire program to turn over.
• New Dwight Howard rumors! There is going to be a lot of speculation about Howard's upcoming decision as a free agent in July. The two questions that involve the Lakers appear to be whether (1) Howard likes being coached by Mike D'Antoni, and (2) Howard has an issue with deferring to Kobe Bryant. On question No. 1, Howard has used up much of his credibility when it comes to his relationships with coaches. For No. 2, he should be deferring to Bryant or anyone else who has shown superior achievement and leadership skills -- which, by the way, is what Howard did throughout this season.
• Clippers let go of Vinny Del Negro. I understand they're trying to make Chris Paul happy. I also understand they believe they can do better than re-signing Del Negro. Furthermore, I understand that in 32 years of Donald Sterling's ownership, the Clippers have enjoyed four winning seasons. As I understand it, that amounts to one winning season for every seven non-winning seasons. The winningest of those seasons was this past season, and after winning 56 games the first thing they decided was to replace the coach. That last part is beyond my understanding.
• Phil Jackson stays away. The Bill Russell of championship coaches won't be involved in the resuscitation of the Seattle Sonics now that the Kings aren't moving to Seattle. While promoting his newest book, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, he has insisted that he doesn't want to coach again and that he isn't enthusiastic about returning to the NBA unless the circumstances are precisely to his liking, which is how it should be. He also rated Michael Jordan as superior in many ways to Kobe Bryant, which was going to come as no surprise to anyone who read Jackson's previous book, in which he ripped Bryant.
• Cavaliers win lottery. They quickly let the rest of the league know they'll be interested in offers for the No. 1 pick. It was Cleveland's second lottery win in three years, but there figures to be no Kyrie Irving forthcoming this time. If it's true that there is no star available in this draft, then they may be able to leverage the pick as well as their abundant cap space to acquire an established player.
• Bobcats to become Hornets. That's all very nice. But if they want to make some real money, the headline needs to read: "Hornets become winners.''
"Bryan's going to have to occasionally take a deep breath and understand now that a GM is going to have a direct report and final say-so on all basketball decisions."
-- Tim Leiweke on Bryan Colangelo's new role with the Raptors.
The incoming CEO said this on his way to moving out Bryan Colangelo as team president of the Raptors. Colangelo will be replaced in the next 30 days by a new GM, with Denver free agent (and reigning NBA Executive of the Year) Masai Ujiri among the contenders.
The interesting part of the statement is this idea of "final say" for GMs. I don't believe there is a basketball executive in the NBA who has final say on basketball decisions anymore. Final say belongs to the team owner and his people, who must be (for good reason) convinced before crucial decisions are executed. Not even Gregg Popovich has final say: He and R.C. Buford work with owner Peter Holt to decide what is reasonable within their budget, where they're headed as an organization and how they can make the most of their resources. No one works in a vacuum anymore -- and that truth will apply to the next Raptors GM who must report to, and convince, Leiweke of all of his basketball decisions.
"I wasn't a big fan of Conley early in his career, but he's getting better every single year. He's shooting the ball better, he's a better defender -- though he hasn't been that good in this series; obviously he's struggling with Parker. Still, he's more of a leader, he's quick with the ball, and while he's not a great finisher, he has that little runner that he's developed.
"The problem with his finishing is that he's really small. Parker is not huge either, but he's bigger and stronger than Conley. You're not going to see Conley lead the league in points in the paint the way Parker can.
"This is a huge matchup in the series, and I do think it got into Conley's head that Parker kicked his butt.
"I absolutely think that the Grizzlies are a lot better than I ever thought they would be after they traded Rudy Gay in February. But that being said, I still think that they miss him. Conley, I think, is a little frantic and he's having a hard time getting Zach the ball. Everybody tries to front Zach, and usually Memphis is able to run a great high-low with Marc Gasol in the high post. But in this series Tim Duncan is so long that he's been able to fall off him and still get his hand up, and it's making Gasol look out of sorts -- which is unusual, because you're used to seeing him look so comfortable in those situations.
"Anyway, if Rudy Gay was still on the team, they'd be able to swing it to him as the only guy on the perimeter who could create his own shot.
"But then you also have to say that maybe they wouldn't have been as good of a team in other situations, and maybe they don't beat Oklahoma City if Rudy Gay is there. Who knows? The problem right now is that they just do not have that other guy. Apart from Zach in the post, they have nobody to get his own shot or get somebody else on the team a shot -- and they miss that. So you see the Spurs pack it in off Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince, which lets them help on Conley.
"Parker didn't have a great game in Game 2, but then you look and see that he had 18 assists -- which is amazing, because he's such a scorer now. He's such a great medium-range shooter, and he was always a great finisher around the rim and so fast getting up the court, like a one-man fast break. He's at the top of his game and he's been there for two years now.
"It's not like Parker is dominating the ball. He's not like J.R. Smith dribbling the ball 25 times until he gets to the end of the shot-clock; you see J.R. or Carmelo Anthony taking a lot of bad shots, and they make them sometimes because they're just so good. But you don't see Parker taking bad shots, because if he draws the defense then he's going to drop it off for someone else who is open.
"I still don't think this series is over. Duncan is showing his age and it's a long series, even though he's in good shape and lost weight in order to play longer. Memphis showed good resilience in the other series. But right now it's hard to not pick San Antonio, obviously.''
Here's the game: Coming out of a timeout with 10 seconds left, you can put any five players on the floor from the current conference finalists. Here are the five I would choose, and the advantage they provide in tight games shows why Miami and San Antonio should be considered favorites to meet in the NBA Finals.
F -- LeBron James, Heat: Has become the league's most feared and versatile weapon.
G -- Dwyane Wade, Heat: At his best attacking the basket.
G -- Ray Allen, Heat: The greatest three-point threat of all time.
G -- Manu Ginobili, Spurs: Always aggressive from the arc or when driving.
G -- Tony Parker, Spurs: Finishes around the basket better than any small guard in the NBA.