Right up until the Spurs-Warriors fourth quarter on Sunday, this was the weekend that dreams died hard. We came into Friday night expecting the unexpected, and instead came away with grim reminders that talent, coaching and defense will always restore order.
The Heat rudely grabbed homecourt advantage back from the upstart Bulls, and the Spurs did the same from the Warriors in such a clinical old-pro manner that we wondered why we even considered the possibility of an upset in the first place. On Saturday, the Grizzlies and Pacers cruelly ground the two best scorers in the league to dust and revealed the stubborn shortcomings of their rival coaches. It was all so depressing.
Then, Sunday happened. Stephen Curry got hot again and Harrison Barnes forgot he was a rookie. (26 shots?) Jarrett Jack, who alternates between savior and goat so often that he invented a new sub-genre of player (the Jack), made enough mind-blowing plays to remain a cult hero. The Warriors, as they often have this postseason, gave us reason to believe again.
The Warriors-Spurs epic was the only redeeming event of the weekend. Between the Bulls trying to channel the 80s Pistons and the sludge ball that dominated Saturday’s games, this had been 48 hours of major buzzkill until the Warriors and Spurs played Game 4.
There have been adjustments and adjustments to the adjustments and a decent amount of Sure, what the hell gambits that have actually paid off, leaving any and all analysis largely irrelevant. If the Spurs can make shots, they’ll win. If Curry goes off, the Warriors might pull off the impossible.
Each game has been its own mini-novel with plot twists, character development, spectacular falls and stunning redemptions. We get at least two more games, and certainly one more at the madhouse that is Oracle. Considering how the weekend started, that’s enough to sustain us through the rest of the second round.
A PROBLEM OF CONVENTION
It’s not Scott Brooks' fault that Serge Ibaka looks at 15-footers the way high school kids look at calculus, nor is it Mike Woodson’s failing that J.R. Smith did what J.R. Smith does. But coaches have to adjust in the playoffs, and rather that come up with a new gameplan or work in an unconventional lineup, Brooks and Woodson displayed their worst sideline attributes.
The Grizzlies stymied Kevin Durant, and yes, 25 points and 11 rebounds counts as a subpar game for KD in this series. They surrounded him with so much defensive attention that his best second-half look came on a pull-up three in transition. By the end, he looked exhausted, beaten and badly in need of something beyond an isolation set to get him free.
What the Grizzlies left open were mid-range jumpers, and Ibaka and Kevin Martin clanged shot after shot. They received some measure of hope in the form of young point guard Reggie Jackson, but his inexperience showed up at exactly the wrong time.
Memphis is far more entertaining as an idea than in practice. From the boisterous in-arena atmosphere to Marc Gasol shouting out Whoop That Trick on Twitter, the Grizzlies have become the people’s choice this postseason. That doesn’t make it any easier to watch them methodically chew up opponents while waiting for someone -- anyone -- on their side to make a mid-range jumper.
The Pacers are like the Grizzlies East, built on no-frills defense and the occasional inspired performance by either Paul George or Roy Hibbert. They invited Carmelo Anthony to try and beat them himself and Melo was more than happy to comply, shooting 6-for-16. The Knicks spacing was a mess, and it wasn’t the 35 percent shooting that was the worst part of their game. It was the measly 11 three-point attempts.
Smart Knick observers were screaming for Woodson to go small, but he banished Chris Copeland after a handful of shaky minutes against the Celtics and preferred to ride with his veterans. They got him this far, but Jason Kidd remains on non-speaking terms with his jumper and Tyson Chandler doesn’t look right.
Neither series is over. Both Memphis and Indiana lack the offensive firepower to definitively put teams away, and the Game 4s figure to be more of the same. A shot here or a shot there could swing both back in the other direction. Still if New York and OKC are going to take this all the way, both teams will need more than their superstars to take them home. They need their coaches to break with convention and try a new approach.
TOM THIBODEAU’S CYNICAL STRATEGY
The Bulls’ heart cannot be questioned, and neither can their defense, which is and always will be aggressive and physical. It’s not a surprise that without three of their top players, Tom Thibodeau’s team has decided to follow the blueprint of so many underdogs before them, which is to try and beat Miami into submission. And just like their predecessors, it will only take them so far.
While it’s refreshing that the Bulls have so much old-school disdain for LeBron James and the Heat, they veered dangerously over the line between toughness and cheap shots in Game 3. It was brutalist basketball, meant to frustrate and enrage the Heat. Yet it was the Bulls who lost their collective head, from Joakim Noah’s ill-advised technical foul to Nazr Mohammed’s bear-hug and shove on LeBron.
It’s true that the NBA was a rougher place when Mohammed entered the league in 1998, just as it would have been for someone who came into the league in 1988 when the Pistons were using intimidation and cheap shots as a strategy. In 1977, Maurice Lucas was on the cover of Sports Illustrated under the tagline "The Enforcers," and in the 60s, hard fouls were met with a harder punch to the mouth.
If a backup center like Mohammed existed in any of these eras and delivered a two-handed shove to the best player in the league, he wouldn’t have lasted long. Someone would have either knocked him out or he’d be thrown out. The latter approach works just fine.
Thibs has tried to make LeBron the subject by complaining about the superstar treatment he receives, which is ironic considering where he’s coaching. In another time and place, Phil Jackson decried those kind of roughhouse tactics, but in the end, talent will always win, and it’s hard to see the Bulls having enough of it.
THIS YEAR’S FLOP
Like most things with good intentions, the league’s effort to reduce fouls on the way to the basket has had unintended consequences.
First, there’s the effort by the defender to get ahead of the play before bringing the action to a halt. This is backwards. Basketball thrives on open-court creativity and the clear-path foul has become a scourge. Second, the endless replays have become a needless drain on games that are already way too long.
There’s a very reasonable answer to the second question. All playoff games have alternative refs on stand-by in case someone gets hurt. Why not simply deputize them to be replay officials so they can help out their brothers in stripes and get on with it already.
As to the first, there is no good response. Players have become trained to stop the other team from scoring by any means necessary. Two shots and the ball should have been enough of a deterrent, but it’s hasn’t worked. The clear path is this year’s flop and it’s a bad look all the way around.
THE SMART KIDS ARE GETTING THE JOBS
When Minnesota hired Flip Saunders to run their basketball operation, it was an old-school move. Saunders had worked for the Wolves both in the front office and on the sidelines and has a strong relationship with owner Glen Taylor. But he is one of a dying breed.
Saunders has a strong basketball resume, but he’s light on front office experience. He did serve under Kevin McHale for a time in the mid 90s, but that was several collective bargaining agreements ago. Saunders may prove to be the right hire for a franchise that needs some stability, but he’ll need to surround himself with a strong staff to get up to speed on scouting and the cap.
As it is, his most important jobs are keeping coach Rick Adelman and reconnecting Kevin Love with the franchise after an injury-plagued, star-crossed season. Minnesota isn’t looking for a transformation so much as a correction.
This past week, two other franchises made hires more in keeping with the times. Phoenix hired Ryan McDonough, a 33-year-old who has already spent a decade working his way up from the video room to assistant GM with the Celtics under Danny Ainge. New Philadelphia GM Sam Hinkie had a different path, joining Darryl Morey in Houston after working at Bain Capital and becoming something of a cult figure in the world of analytics and cap management.
It would be a mistake to simply label McDonough a scout and Hinkie a quant, because both have proven to be shrewd evaluators of talent and sharp minds fully in tune with the modern NBA. Both are bringing the full modern GM package to the equation, and the Suns and 76ers can expect to see total overhauls that won’t end with the rosters.
The next smart kid to get a chance should be Oklahoma City’s Troy Weaver, but there are others out there putting in their time and waiting for a chance.
STAN AND DWIGHT, REDUX?
Yes, yes and yes. Throughout the interminable Dwight Howard saga, it became clear that he and coach Stan Van Gundy would need some time apart. Given some space to cool off, both would recognize that they needed each other in the future.
Howard got to experience life away from SVG’s tough love and found the experience wanting. Van Gundy has to understand that a third coaching tour would be infinitely more productive with a great player like Howard by his side.
The idea that they could rejoin forces in a place like Atlanta is beyond perfect. It would allow Howard to reclaim his career in his hometown and Van Gundy a second chance to make it work with his star in a market that wouldn’t be so harsh on their tempestuous relationship.
Hawks GM Danny Ferry has carefully positioned the franchise to make a huge play for Howard this summer, but he has to sell something beyond a homecoming. Consider a Hawks roster with a re-signed Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver along with Howard and Al Horford, and we’re getting somewhere. Add in Van Gundy and that has to be intriguing to Howard.
This exists as merely an idea right now, and already there has been pushback in the local press, but what an idea it would be. Stan and Dwight, together again. Please make it happen.