Mysteriously, for most of this game Sacramento played very little of the double and triple teaming zones that the rest of the league has been been employing against Monta Ellis. And for most of this game, Monta made them pay the price with ruthless efficiency. Driving the ball again and again, Monta scored on 15 of 29 attempts and got himself to the line for 8-8 free throws, on his way to 39 points.
But when winning time came, crunch time — the time when Monta Ellis has so far this season so frequently failed to find the right move, the right play, the right decision or the right shot — the Kings set their trap for the Warriors’ star. At 1:00 to play, with Monta isolated at the top of the key against the Kings’ 6-9 rookie, Omri Casspi (the result of a beautiful play call by Don Nelson), the Kings responded by forming a zone in the paint. Casspi guarded Monta, and three Kings guarded the paint, including Anthony Morrow’s man, Tyreke Evans. At 0:55, Monta crossed-over Casspi and began his drive to the right side of the lane. Anthony Morrow’s side. Three Kings converged on Monta, to seal him off from the basket. At the perfect moment, with Tyreke Evans fully committed and unable to recover, Monta turned right shoulder and fired a pass back to Morrow alone at the three point line. A perfect pass, that hit Morrow right on the hands.
I have been all around the block in my opinion of Monta Ellis so far this season. In the preseason, I hopefully predicted that if he could return to full health, he could lead this team to unexpected results. But when the season started I was beset with disappointment. Disappointment in his athleticism and elevation, which were clearly diminished. Disappointment with his attitude, that had many doubting whether he wanted to remain a Warrior. And disappointment with how he approached the game, with his selfish freezing out of his teammates, particularly Stephen Curry.
That’s all gone now. Almost immediately upon the departure of Stephen Jackson, Monta threw off his poor attitude and assumed the mantle of leadership of this Warriors’ team. And bit by bit his dominant athleticism began to return, and his missing jumper with it. (We’ve since learned from his mouth and Don Nelson’s that he was out of shape to begin the season.) He began to take over games, on both ends of the court. It became obvious to all that he was once again a star.
But something was still lacking in Monta’s game. He was still playing selfishly, trying to do too much on the offensive end. He stubbornly looked off his teammates, and tried to beat double and triple teams by himself, which lead to an avalanche of turnovers. And numerous, bitterly disappointing crunch-time failures. It was then that we learned something extremely important about Monta Ellis. We learned that he has something special, something that not all stars in the NBA have. An enormous will to win. A will to win that outweighs his selfish needs.
This will to win has led him to grow rapidly as a player in the last few weeks. He has begun to see the need to involve his teammates. To trust them. He has allowed Stephen Curry to emerge as a point guard, and expand his role in the offense. And along with Curry, he has begun to run the Warriors’ plays himself, and see and find his open teammates. In fact, he has started to become what some think he has fought long and hard with Don Nelson against becoming. A point guard. A playmaker. A leader.
As was demonstrated convincingly by this beautiful crunch-time play, this preconceived, perfectly executed, drive-and-dish to Anthony Morrow.
It took Michael Jordan many long years, and many Phil Jackson pleas, before he was willing to make this play. Before he became willing to give up the heroic last second shot, and break the triple-team with passes to Paxon and Kerr. Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade struggle with this decision to this day. Allen Iverson was never willing to make it.
This is what Monta said after the win against the TWolves:
“That’s what we’ve been lacking this season, the fourth quarter, closing games. We’ve got to continue to run our plays….”
Signs are beginning to emerge that the lightbulb has gone on for Monta. That he gets it. That he has what Bill Simmons in his wonderful Book of Basketball calls The Secret: The willingness to do whatever it takes to win. The willingness to sacrifice. Leadership.
Monta Ellis is all of 24 years old. He’s a player just beginning to grow. And the team around him is just beginning to grow with him. There will be bad games going forward. Moments of doubt, times of lost faith. But what my joyful eyes are telling me right now has me daring to dream. Daring to dream that just maybe the Warriors might have found something that they have not had in 32 long years. Not since the day Rick Barry played his last game in Warriors blue and gold.
A superstar. Monta Ellis, superstar.