Wednesday, May 30, 2012

You're Welcome, Oklahoma City

My dad used to regale us with Dodgers anecdotes.  He had a lot of them as he was a diehard fan who went to their games quite regularly.  Bleacher seats cost fifty cents back in those days and the game of baseball was much different than it is today.  Of course, Pops was a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers, whom have resided in the greater Los Angeles area since I've been alive.  Many teams have moved over the years but not too many have done so recently.  In the last 26 years only three NBA teams have defected to a new city.  Since '02, only two; the Charlotte Hornets and the Seattle Supersonics.  While I enjoyed watching the Hornets battle the Spurs in the '08 Semifinals as much as the next guy, let's not kid ourselves.  The Hornets aren't any better off in New Orleans than they were in Charlotte.  The team is still owned by the NBA as they can't find anyone willing to buy them.  They were forced to trade Chris Paul to a bigger market team and attendance is spotty at best.

The franchise formerly known as the Sonics are an entirely different story.

To say that Oklahomans have embraced their new team does not do their loyalty justice.  I can say without hesitation that these are the best fans in the NBA.  For the last few years, attendance has been down, even for some of the storied franchises residing in big cities.  This is not the case with the Thunder.  They are currently tied with the Celtics and Knicks for attendance percentage.  These fans are something else at home.  They do not sit until the Thunder score.  I remember watching a game where it took almost 3 minutes for them to make that first bucket.  Not one person sat until the ball went through the net.  No arena get louder than the Ford Center and during the Playoffs, everybody in that building wears their blue OKC T-shirts.  This kind of intensity is rarely seen in today's NBA.

As a sports fan, I have witnessed my share of dramatic moments.  One that I will never forget was Game 6 of the 2010 Western Conference Semi Finals.  The Lakers were looking to close out the upstart Thunder on the road.  After a late OKC rally, the Lakers were trailing by one with 6 seconds left.  Kobe had the ball at the top of the key, drove right, and shot a heavily contested fadeaway that rattled in and out.  Pau Gasol was right under the basket and tipped the ball back in with a half a second remaining.  After a timeout, the Thunder inbounded the ball and Westbrook missed the potentially game winning 3-Pointer.  A devastated Kevin Durant and Jeff Green hit the floor in agony.  There was a lot of drama in that crazy finish but what stays with me was what happened after the buzzer sounded.  Every fan at the Ford Center got up and gave their team a 3 minute long standing ovation.  It was as if the entire city was telling them,

"It's alright.  You played your hearts out and there is no shame in losing tonight.  You had an amazing season that exceeded all of our expectations.  Thank you."

Thinking about that moment still gets this cynical New Yorker a bit misty eyed.  I have never seen fans react that way after a loss.  Let's face it.  These days, most fans are spoiled.  They expect their teams to win every game and their star players to stay forever, even if it means getting paid less money or forfeiting any real chance of winning a championship.  Seeing fans boo their team or underperforming player has become commonplace.  The Thunder fans are an entirely different breed.  I would be willing to bet that we will never see Kevin Durant booed at home, no matter how poorly he is playing.  Perhaps some of these big city fans could learn a thing or two from these humble Midwesterners.

Alas, sometimes bad things happen to good fans.  The unfortunate reality is that owners occasionally move their team, regardless of how much the community loves and supports them.  It is a shame that the good fans of Seattle lost their beloved Supersonics.  The fact that the team has blossomed in their new home is probably little consolation to them but I have enjoyed watching this development.  During the latest CBA negotiations, journalists and bitter owners told us that small market teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder will never have the resources to compete with big market teams like the Knicks, the Bulls, the Lakers, or the Mavericks.

This postseason, the Thunder beat the Mavs and Lakers and have gone deeper in the Playoffs than the Knicks or Bulls.

Just sayin'.

GM Sam Presti has taught us that with a little luck and a lot of shrewd personnel moves, a team in any market can become competitive.  Wilt Chamberlain said, "Nobody roots for Goliath."  He may be right.  Seeing the Thunder get their revenge on the Lakers last week had me out of my seat cheering.  Just like everybody at the Ford Center.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Tony Parker is a Hall of Famer

The year was 2001.  The San Antonio Spurs were taking on the Seattle Supersonics in Seattle and I was watching the game from the relative comfort of my first apartment.  Before tipoff, the commentators were discussing the generic keys to victory for both teams.  Of course, the point guard matchup came up.  The Spurs' rookie from France (the youngest player to ever start for the Spurs) would be guarded by "The Glove" Gary Payton, whom had made the NBA's All-Defensive team nine times.  The talking heads bantered back and forth and chuckled while making inane comments like,

"This will be a rude awakening for the young kid from France."

"It's gonna be a long day at the office for Tony Parker."

After a missed jumper by the Sonics, Parker got the ball and took off.  Payton nearly tripped over his own feet trying to keep up.  The kid seemingly made it from one end of the court to the other in less than 2 seconds, with Payton far behind him.  On the next possession, the young kid from France got the ball at the 3-Point line. "The Glove" was in front of him in that famously low defensive stance.  Parker dribbled hard with his left, then crossed over right and flew past him for another layup.

I'll never forget that crossover.  At that time guys like Allen Iverson, Steve Francis, and Jason Williams were turning the crossover dribble into an art form.  They were masters of using their great handles, low center of gravity, head fakes, and quick first steps to get by their defenders.  This was something completely different.  There was no trickery.  No great ball handling.  Just pure speed.  Parker was standing upright and blew by the best perimeter defender in the NBA. He was the fastest guy I had ever seen and watching him play was like watching Usain Bolt run.

The kid was a blur.

Tony Parker's game has grown and developed throughout his illustrious 11 year career.  Shot blockers and charge takers set their sites on him so he developed the "tear drop floater" which has become his signature move.  Slower defenders would sag off him once he got within 20 feet of the rim so he developed a consistent outside shot.  Parker is still as fast as ever and makes a living attacking the rim.  He regularly ranks in the top 5 in points in the paint, a distinction normally reserved for giants like Shaquille O'Neal or Dwight Howard.  In 2005, Parker finished the season shooting over 54% from the field.  That was the first time since 1975 that a point guard had ranked in the top 3 in field goal percentage.  Tony Parker plays the game without fear and seeing him get knocked to the floor has become so commonplace that we take for granted how tough he is.  He ranks 3rd among active players for free throws attempted per 48 minutes in the Playoffs.

Tony Parker has been instrumental in the 3 championships he has won with the Spurs but for whatever reason, his greatness is not recognized by most fans outside of Texas.  Perhaps it's because he came into the league when it wasn't cool to be French.  Perhaps it's because he plays with the Spurs.  Perhaps it's because he made People's list of the "100 Most Beautiful People".  Perhaps it's because he was married to Eva Longoria and still felt the need to sleep with Brent Barry's wife.  Some people cannot root for a player that they are jealous of.  Others have a tough time divorcing a player's greatness on the court with their behavior off of it.

I don't have either hang up. In my opinion, great athletes don't have to be guys that you would want to drink a beer with or have date your kid sister.  An athlete's greatness is measured by what they accomplish in their given profession.  Tony Parker has accomplished a great deal.  He is a 4 time All-Star who has scored over 13,000 points and played in over 140 Playoff games.  He is currently the Spurs' all-time assist leader in both the Playoffs and the regular season.  Parker is 2nd only to Tim Duncan in Spurs all-time Playoff scoring and could surpass the future Hall of Famer one day.

Another great, yet equally unpopular champion famously said,

"To be the man, you gotta beat the man.  Whoooooooooo!"

I think that Ric Flair is on to something.

Throughout Parker's career, he has performed well against the best point guards the league has to offer.  He has outdueled guys like Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups, Stephon Marbury and Derek Fisher.  When asked what the key would be to defeating the Spurs in '05, Phil Jackson said that the Lakers would have to keep Tony Parker out of the paint to win the series.  They couldn't and as a result didn't.  Tony Parker absolutely dominated Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2007 Finals and became the first European-born player to win the Finals MVP.

Tony Parker has shown no signs of slowing down, literally or figuratively.  This season has been his finest as a pro.  He is clearly the best player on what is arguably the best team in the Western Conference.  Last night, he outplayed Chris Paul, whom many consider to be the best point guard in the world.  Parker should go on to have many more years of playing at a high level.  I hope that when all is said and done, people will appreciate just how special he was and put that young kid from France in the Hall of Fame.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

And my wolf grew by four.

Saturday night, the Lakers were facing elimination.  They were in this situation largely due to the fact that in Game 6, the twin towers Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol ironically came up small against an undersized Nuggets front line whom they were supposed to dominate.  Guards Razor Ramon and Steve Blake were handily outplayed by New York castaway Ty Lawson and a 36 year old Andre Miller.  Kobe, on the other hand, played with all of the guts he didn't puke up that morning while his teammates appeared lackadaisical and indifferent.  Things looked bleak for the Lakers and many wondered how Kobe would respond.

In Game 7, Kobe responded by passing the ball.  He regularly threw it to Bynum and Gasol in the post.  When they got doubled and threw it back to him, he would let them re-post and passed it right back.  Steve Blake and Metta Woldpeace missed numerous wide open shots that night but in the 4th quarter of a tightly contested elimination game, Bryant didn't hesitate to give them the ball when they were open.  Bryant trusted his teammates.  Bryant trusted that new guy in the suit who has 5 less championship rings than he does.  It worked.  Worldpeace and Blake combined to hit nine 3-Pointers.  Gasol and Bynum combined to score 39 points.

Make no mistake, Kobe still has the ability to take over a game.  The 16 year veteran missed the scoring title by a tenth of a point this season.  In Game 5, he almost single-handedly put the Nuggets away with his 4 minute 12 point barrage.  Far be it for me to claim to know what was going through the gifted basketball mind of Kobe Bryant, but the Lakers won the game and it was truly a team effort.  Whether or not it was by design, one would assume that the role players on this team will have much more confidence going into the next round and possibly beyond.

This is a different approach than Kobe has taken in the past.   When facing the Pistons in '04, Kobe kept shooting the ball ineffectively even though Shaq was having great success in the low block.  The Lakers lost that series.  In '06 Kobe petulantly took only one shot in the 2nd half of Game 7 versus the Suns, even though he was scoring at will against their perimeter defenders.  They lost that series as well.  On Saturday we saw a mature, determined, intelligent basketball player letting the game come to him.  He commanded double teams and made the right pass.  When the double teams didn't come quickly enough, he took the shot.

Now this squad will face a very talented, very hungry, well rested Thunder team who has already beaten them two out of three times in the regular season.  The Lakers' only chance of pulling off an upset lies in their ability to play as a team.  When the Lakers are moving the ball and shooting with confidence, they are dangerous.  When they let the ball stagnate and their role players become scared to shoot, they are predictable and easy to defend.  Which Lakers team will show up in this series?  When the Thunder make runs (and they will) can the Lakers stick with their game plan?  When guys miss a few consecutive shots (which will happen), will Kobe keep giving them the ball?  Nobody with any sense has ever questioned Kobe's individual greatness.  Many have questioned his ability to raise his teammates' level of play.  Some of that comes from effectively distributing the ball on the court.  Some of that comes from being a motivational presence in the locker room and in the huddle.  Kobe and the Lakers will face quite a test in this series.  Let's see how they respond.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sizing up the Spurs

In every major sport with a postseason tournament, much is made of "getting hot at the right time".  Conventional wisdom says that to win in the postseason, a team needs to be firing on all cylinders.  If that is in fact the case, the San Antonio Spurs should be sitting pretty.  They won 21 of their final 23 regular season games while resting players and avoiding injuries.  Any concerns of being rusty or out of sync once the Playoffs began were quickly laid to rest.  They swept the Utah Jazz by an average margin of 16 points in what more closely resembled a layup drill than a Playoff series.   Hot may not be a strong enough adjective to describe just how well they are playing right now.  Perhaps sizzling would be more accurate.

This is, of course, no accident.  The Spurs are a well coached, deep team that does many things well.  They have the unusual distinction of leading the league in both Field Goal percentage and 3-Pt Field Goal percentage.  Defending a team that consistently drains 3's while getting dozens of easy layups is no easy task.  The dynamic duo of guards Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli may be the best 1-2 punch in the business.  While a bit long in the tooth, Tim Duncan is still a great player who is healthy in May for the first time in years.  Gary Neal, Dejuan Blair, Kawhi Leonard, Matt Bonner, Danny Green, Stephen Jackson, and Tiago Splitter are all solid players who know their role and rarely play outside of themselves.  Poppovich preaches ball movement and collectively these guys pass the rock better than any team I have ever seen.

Could this team win it all?  Absolutely.  Do I think that they will?  Not necessarily.  The Spurs are not without their weaknesses.  Basketball is all about matchups and San Antonio does not match up well with some teams in the Western Conference.  Here are some of the weaknesses that could prove to be their undoing;

Suspect Interior Defense
This comes down to size.  Right now the Spurs have two 7 footers on their roster; Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter.  Duncan is still a serviceable defender but not the dominant force he was 10 years ago.  Tiago Splitter is still young and gets into foul trouble early and often when defending quality big men.  Matt Bonner is tall (listed as 6'10") but a non-factor defensively due to his lack of strength and quickness.  Heavy D (Dejuan Blair) gives a ton of effort but is a very undersized center at 6'7".  Teams with quality low post players like the Grizzlies or Lakers could pose problems for San Antonio.

Difficulty Facing Good Shot Blocking
The Spurs shoot a lot of jump shots but their dribble penetration is what gets them going.  The Spurs guards getting into the paint is what creates spacing for their outside shooters. Teams that can keep Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli out of the paint tend to give this team trouble.  The Lakers, Grizzlies, and Thunder have great shot blockers who could make life difficult for this Spurs' offense.  

Difficulty Facing Efficient Offenses
San Antonio likes to get out and run in transition.  They also like to shoot a lot of 3-Pointers.  The way to stop a fast breaking team is to make shots.  The way to stop a 3-Point shooting team is to make shots while using up the shot clock.  When you control the clock while scoring, you take away both fast break baskets and possessions.  3-Point shooting teams like the Spurs need a lot of possessions to be effective.  Teams with efficient offenses like the Lakers, Grizzlies, or Clippers could disrupt the Spurs' offensive rhythm.

San Antonio matches up pretty well with the remaining teams in the East (Miami, Boston, Indiana, and Philly) but getting out of the West will not be easy.  The Lakers, Clippers, Thunder and Grizzlies all pose different matchup problems for them and the road to the Finals will be a difficult one for this very talented team.  A fifth championship for Duncan and Poppovich would add to their already impressive Hall of Fame resume.  A fourth championship most likely guarantees (deservedly so, in my humble opinion) first ballot status to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli.  The Spurs' next series will start Tuesday and the real test begins.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Injury Bug is Buggin' Me

We have all heard the tired old axiom that "injuries are part of the game". On any given night, any team can lose any player. One could argue that injuries help create parity and make things interesting. I would not argue that. This year, several key injuries have robbed us of some potentially entertaining postseason matchups. Enough has already been written and said about Chicago losing Derrick Rose and New York losing Amare Stoudemire. Here are some other untimely injuries that really disappointed me.

Hawks losing Al Horford 
In '08 the Hawks and Celtics treated us to an unforgettable 1st round series. It went 7 games as neither team could win on the road. This year could have been another great matchup but for the injury to Al Horford. The tandem of Al Horford and Josh Smith gave Boston trouble. The Celtics are still tough to score on once their defense gets set and teams that run the fast break effectively pose problems for them. When the Hawks have two 7 footers who run like gazelles on the floor at the same time, they are a much more dangerous team. This current series has been watchable but a far cry from the barn burner we saw in '08.

Magic losing Dwight Howard 
What has been overshadowed by the trade demands, trade deadline change of heart, Stan Van Gundy drama, and poorly timed injuries was just how special a season Dwight Howard was having. Howard has always possessed the ability to take over a game defensively. This year his offensive skills were finally catching up to his formidable defensive presence. Dwight was having a monster season and took over games against quality teams. 972 miles north, Indiana's big man was also having a special season. Third year center Roy Hibbert was posting career highs in every major category and showing flashes of dominance. While Roy Hibbert is not yet playing at Dwight Howard's level, I very much wanted to see the two of them battle in the low post for an entire series.

Knicks losing Jeremy Lin 
Admittedly, the Linsanity phenomenon had begun to lose its luster before his knee injury. The team's identity had changed once Carmelo Anthony was added to the starting lineup and Mike Woodson took over for D'Antoni. While I never bought into the hype that Jeremy Lin was an elite point guard, I was impressed with how he was able to adjust from game to game. The guy has a remarkable basketball IQ and I believe that he could have become a solid contributor to this Knicks' team if given more playing time. Even at full strength, these Knicks had little chance of beating the Heat but I was interested to see how Lin would perform in his first postseason series.