Two late great Warriors wins in a row, what a wonderful feeling after these long weeks of teeth-grinding misery. And this one against a former Western Conference powerhouse, a team that the Warriors are going to be competing with for that 8 seed, if Monta Ellis’ prediction comes true. I say former because Brandan Roy’s bone on bone career is currently in doubt, and trade rumors are swirling around Andre Miller.
I’m going to get to this great Warriors win. But first, in honor of Christmas — which is my favorite holiday on a spiritual level, and now also on an NBA basketball level as well, thanks to the decidedly unspiritual David Stern — and also in honor of Don Nelson, whose style of basketball was greatly honored today — I’m going to gift-wrap you some bonus coverage.
Something very special happened today, something that must have Joe Lacob and the Director of Basketball Operations scratching their heads in befuddlement. Their cherished Celtics Model got crushed. In all five games that were played.
And it was a lot more significant than just these five games. Because today a loud Liberty Bell was rung. A thunderous cannonshot of revolt was fired. A resounding, reverberating signal was sent around the NBA that is going shake to the establishment of the league to its core.
On this Christmas day it became clear that a new order is ascendant in the NBA. An unconventional, perpetually out-of-favor, yet surpassingly beautiful style of basketball emerged out of the mists of the past — like the very ghost of the Havlicek-Cowens Celtics, or the Showtime Lakers, or RunTMC, or the Nash-Nowitzki Mavs, or the Nash-Stoudemire Suns, or We Believe — and once again asserted its dominance on the hardwood.
And a new World Champion was all but crowned.
I’ve got news for the number-crunching, walk-it-up-and-dump-it-in-the-low-post-loving Owner-GM of the Golden State Warriors.
Something wicked this way comes.
BOSTON CELTICS 78 ORLANDO MAGIC 86
In just the second and third games since they overhauled their roster with two blockbuster trades, the struggling Orlando Magic busted the San Antonio Spurs’ 10-game winning streak 123-101, and the Boston Celtics’ 14-game winning streak 86-78.
The biggest reason for these resurgent victories did not have to do with the additions of Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson (for Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter). Those players, who will eventually be very good for the Magic, are currently lost in the Magic system, and having their minutes and roles restricted.
The biggest reason has to do with the player that was overlooked in these trades. The player who has suffered through one and a half miserable seasons playing for the over-matched Toronto coach Jay Triano, who had no idea how to use him, and for the over-matched GM in Phoenix, who had no clue that he was a terrible fit alongside the ball-dominant Steve Nash.
When they picked up Turkoglu and Arenas, the Magic overnight went from having two score-first combo guards and zero point guards, to having three score-first combo guards, and one point-forward. Coach Stan van Gundy frequently runs the Magic offense through Turkoglu, because he is a fantastic play-maker and distributor. He is especially terrific at getting the ball to Dwight Howard in the paint, something Jameer Nelson and J.J. Redick (and Arenas) are miserable at. Turkoglu was the most important piece the Magic were missing after they let him go in free-agency. And he has stepped seamlessly back into his old role, putting up two terrific games in a row, much to the shock of the national media.
The second biggest reason behind Orlando’s resurgence is that they have transformed themselves overnight from a grind-it-out halfcourt basketball team that emphasized defense into a running team that will emphasize offense. They are now pushing the tempo, to match their personnel. Before the Spurs game, van Gundy left a note for Arenas on his chair in the locker room. It said, “Go out there and play your game. Just push the ball.” And that’s what Arenas did, to the tune of 14 points and 9 assists off the bench.
The Orlando Magic are now a Nellieball team.
You might find that a strange thing to say about a team with Dwight Howard in the middle. But it’s true. Don Nelson’s best teams have alway featured shot-blocking defensive anchors at the 5. Of course, he never had a monster like Dwight Howard. But he did have Bob Lanier, who wasn’t too shabby.
Now take a look at the rest of the roster. Brandon Bass got the bulk of the minutes at the 4 against the huge Celtics. Bass is an athletic, sweet-shooting, undersized power forward in the mold of Jeff Green and Anthony Tolliver. He doesn’t shoot the three yet, but his jumper is good out to 20 feet. It was good enough to draw Kevin Garnett out of the middle, which allowed Bass to drive right around him. Bass put up 21 points and 9 boards going against Garnett and Shaq. I think van Gundy might feel he found something there.
But when Bass is off the floor, the Magic go to Turkoglu, a true small-ball player, at the four. And in certain matchups, as against the Spurs, Turkoglu may even get the bulk of his minutes there. Which would move Jason Richardson to the three.
As for the rest of the team, well, they shoot the three. Man, do they shoot the three. Turkoglu, JRich, JJ Redick, Nelson, Arenas, Quentin Richardson off the bench — lights out. And let’s not forget their backup center now that Lurch, errr… Gortat, is gone: 6-10′ Ryan Anderson, 36% from three.
And they run. Man, do they run. Even Dwight Howard is going to run. And that is truly scary.
I’m still not sure if the Magic will be good enough to beat the Celtics this year. It’s too hard to handicap right now, as they probably would have lost this game if Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins had played. But the Magic are going to get a whole lot better too between now and the end of the season.
They’ve got a puncher’s chance now against the Celtics. The same kind of chance that Run TMC had against the David Robinson Spurs and the Stockton and Malone Jazz — and the Nash-Nowitzki Mavs had against the Duncan Spurs — and We Believe had against the number one seed in the NBA.
MIAMI HEAT 96 LOS ANGELES LAKERS 80
As the great Ralph Lawlor would say: “Oh me Oh my…”
World-class athletes running and finishing on the break. Pushing the tempo. Looking for early offense. Looking for the quick three.
In the half-court, a sweet-shooting power forward built like a gazelle, spreading the floor, beating his man to the hoop. An ancient center who stands 20 feet out, draining jumpers. A point-forward averaging 7 assists a game. Two offensive geniuses freed to create by means of simple high picks, surrounded by deadly three point shooters stretching the defense. Never once a low-block post-up.
Is that Nellieball? You bet your ass it is.
Some sound-bytes from the game:
“Our speed, USE IT. We just have to keep being active with our speed.” — Erik Spoelstra in the Heat huddle.
“That’s not set offense, that’s getting a rebound and pushing the ball down the throat of the defense.” — Mark Jackson on the Heat offense.
“Don’t try to walk it up, that’s when they were a bad team. Put pressure on the defense by pushing it down their throat. You have the best players in the world, force the issue offensively.” — more Mark Jackson on the Heat.
“They’re just running one screen-roll back to another screen-roll.” — Phil Jackson, in his mid-game interview, his voice laced with contempt.
“Look at how they’re swarming!” — Jeff van Gundy, describing all the problems that Jackson’s post-up triangle offense created for the Heat defense.
“Our big guys did a great job on Gasol, Bynum, and even Odom. We didn’t have to help much.” — Dwayne Wade post-game, describing all the problems that Jackson’s post-up triangle offense created for the Heat defense.
Let me pose a few questions to my readers. If Don Nelson were coaching Kobe Bryant and a front-line of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, on a roster that included Shannon Brown, Steve Blake and Matt Barnes, would he walk the ball up the court? If he had the most offensively-gifted off-guard of his generation, and the most offensively versatile 7-footer of his generation at his disposal, would Don Nelson mire the off-guard in a passing offense, and insist on posting up the 7-footer in the paint against behemoths that outweigh him? If Don Nelson had one of the best pick and roll combinations in the history of the game at his disposal, would he refuse to run pick and roll?
Well Phil Jackson is not Don Nelson, and he never will be. Phil Jackson will never allow the Lakers to be a running team, he will never free Kobe Bryant to create with simple high picks (except when losing in the fourth quarter), and he will never run pick and roll with Kobe and Pau Gasol (except when Gasol is growing sick of being frozen out). Because if he did that, he would no longer be Big Chief Triangle. He would just be the guy who lucked into Jordan and Pippen, and Shaq and Kobe, and Kobe and Gasol.
That’s the reason Phil Jackson lost to the Celtics with the best team in the 2008 Finals, and that’s the reason why he’s going to lose to the Heat with the best team in the 2011 Finals.
On the very first day of last season, I predicted that Lebron’s last Cleveland Cavaliers season was dead on arrival, and that the Boston Celtics would come out of the East. But the defeat that the Cavs suffered on their home court on that day was nothing, nothing, compared to the soul-crushing, eye-glazing massacre that the Lakers suffered in Staples against the Heat today.
I’m a little late this season, because it’s taken this long for the newly assembled Miami Heat to face the Lakers. But after watching this game, I am now completely confident that if the Heat come out of the East, the Lakers will not three-peat. There is no way the Lakers can beat this Nellieball Heat team.
Not with Phil Jackson as coach.
Portland Trailblazers 102 Golden State Warriors 109
I tried to keep this recap short and sweet, to keep my faithful readers’ eyes from glazing over like the Lakers’ in the fourth quarter, but on this glorious night of this glorious day, I just couldn’t do it. So with apologies for my effusiveness, let’s begin, with the hero of the game.
Keith Smart: I’ve been awfully hard on Keith Smart this season. But after watching this game, I’m ready to admit that I may not have been doing him justice. It’s possible that he really does know exactly what he should be doing with this great Nellieball roster. It’s possible that he just wanted to test out a few wrinkles. It’s possible that he lost confidence in the team’s capabilities when first Lee and then Curry got injured, and he turned around and saw he had no replacements on his Lacob-designed bench. It’s possible that he suffered some game-management growing pains.
And it’s very, very possible, quite probable in fact, that this rookie coach with a one year contract and his career on the line has been walking a political tight-rope, trying to balance his team’s needs with the needs of his incompetent, meddlesome Owner-GM. It’s possible he had to demonstrate to Lacob that Andris Biedrins is not a low-post center. It’s possible he had to demonstrate to Lacob that David Lee is not a low-post power forward. It’s possible he had to demonstrate that Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry are phenomenal creators when given a simple high pick, but mediocre when mired in a passing offense. It’s possible he had to demonstrate that the Warriors are far better running the ball than walking it. To demonstrate that the Warriors are not, in fact, the Boston Celtics.
We’re going to find out soon whether this game was just a mirage caused by the absence of Andris Biedrins, but Keith Smart got everything right tonight. Everything. The Warriors pushed the ball throughout the game. The pick and roll was unleashed. Monta Ellis was unleashed, and allowed to carry the load. Vlad Rad got 17 minutes at the four, alongside David Lee at center, including the exhilarating four crunch-time minutes in which the Warriors seized the Blazers by the throat.
And David Lee was obviously instructed to play LaMarcus Aldridge soft in the first half and stay out of foul trouble. Lee didn’t pick up a single foul in the first half, and Aldridge romped to start the game. But that all changed at the start of the third quarter. Lee bodied Aldridge all the way out of the key on the Blazers’ first possession, and that set the tone for the second half. Lee and Udoh wound up holding Aldridge to 15 points on 7-21 shooting, playing him straight up.
A dastardly trap worthy of Don Nelson.
Monta Ellis: He’s now an obvious superstar, a finisher, a team leader, a distributor, a dangerous defender, a closer with an instinct for the big play at the right time on both offense and defense. No play in this game was bigger than his steal and fast-break finish in crunch time.
Will David Stern let this superstar play in the all-star game?
Stephen Curry: If he had his legs and his shot, this game would have been a blow-out. But look at those 11 assists against 2 turnovers. If Smart gets the Warriors offense right, my prediction that Curry’s assist numbers this year will astound the pundits will prove correct.
David Lee: The jump shot blew up. The pick and roll blew up. David Lee is about to blow up, in the greatest offense he’s ever played in.
And the passing. That open-court touch pass back to Monta at 9:25 2nd Q? Better than a sip of Lagavulin.
He played some pretty good defense, too, for the second game in a row. As predicted by absolutely nobody. By nobody, that is, but one lonely, obscure blowhard with a blog.
Lou Amundson: I’m about to say some nice things about Lou, for a change. But first I need to talk to Joe Lacob about something.
Hey Joe, what was Lou’s Lacob Quotient (rebounds/min) for this game? And what was his Lacob Quotient on the defensive boards? (Unless your computer can handle infinite numbers, it’s bursting into flames right now.)
The nice things: Lou is extremely quick, as he demonstrated on a great dive cut, and a couple of nice isolation face-ups and drives around Marcus Camby. (Hey Coach Smart, how about using Biedrins the same way?)
I’ll also say this about Lou Amundson: He tries very, very hard.
DWright: I’ve been pretty hard on DWright this season too, and like Keith Smart, it’s possible I’ve treated him a little unjustly. Watching this game, it struck me that DW’s forte on defense is as a help defender. He has a lot of responsibilities given Curry and Ellis’ occasional difficulties, which sometimes force him to neglect his own man. He’s also great at reading the passing lanes and coming up with steals. And in this game, for once, he also helped out big time on the boards.
But once again, DW’s strong defensive effort came in a game in which he had his offense rolling. I’d like to see him give a similar effort in the games in which he can’t hit a thing.
And the Warriors need even more from him. They need a stopper.
Vlad Rad: Who had the best +/- on the Warriors in this game? The incomparable Monta Ellis? Nope, it was Vlad Rad, at +11. And that was no accident. Lee at 5 and Vlad at 4 is currently the Warriors’ best lineup.
But that may be about to change, due to…
The Nightmare: LaMarcus Aldridge’s offensive troubles began in the 2nd Q, when Ekpe Udoh picked him up. Udoh shut him down man-to-man. A rookie in his what, fourth game, against an all-star. Just shut him down. Aldridge’s shots against Udoh, when they weren’t blocked outright, missed badly. Udoh’s arms are extraordinarily long, he moves his feet extraordinarily well, and his anticipation is extraordinary.
Udoh is going to be an extraordinary player. A defensive star. There is no doubt in my mind now. Three blocks in 16 minutes. He did struggle on the boards, as I believe Frank predicted, but I think that had a lot to do with him being drawn out of position as a help defender. And also a little something to do with the great Marcus Camby.
Udoh is also, I think, going to be an extraordinary offensive player. It’s a bit of a stretch to see right now, as a lot of the time he appears lost in the offense. But we saw two great moves against big-time defenders tonight, a spinning feather-soft jump hook with the shot clock expiring, and a short turn-around jumper, also off the dribble.
But what’s really going to make Udoh extraordinary on offense is the same thing that makes David Lee extraordinary. Intelligence. Vision. Passing.
This already intriguing Warriors season has now taken on an intriguing subplot.
Thank you, Don Nelson.
Jim Barnett: When, with a two point lead and 2:30 left in the game, the Warriors pushed the ball after a rebound, and Monta Ellis drove the lane and passed out to a wide-open Reggie Williams, who buried the early-offense three, the great Jim Barnett let it rip:
“That’s what you do! You play to win!”
I love you, Jim Barnett.
On Basketball and Computers: The Warriors lost the rebounding battle to the Blazers by 53-32, yet won the game by 7. The Knicks lost the rebounding battle to the Bulls 48-44, yet won the game by 8. The Thunder somehow managed to outrebound the Nuggets by 1, but put the game away down the stretch with an undersized frontline of Serge Ibaka and Jeff Green against Nene and Kmart.
How in the world could this happen?
Kirk Lacob’s computer is smoking. The hard drive is grinding. The Windows operating system has frozen. It can’t find the answer, and never will.
But we already know the answer, don’t we?