The NBA Corner: Thunderous Statement

By Pierzy - Posted on 28 March 2012

LeBron & Durant







Sunday night was billed as a possible NBA Finals preview when the Miami Heat traveled to Oklahoma City to take on the Thunder. If this game was indeed indicative of what we will see in June, we may see our first Finals sweep since the Lebron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers were routed by the San Antonio Spurs in 2007. OKC steamrolled Miami, 103 – 87, in a game that was even more lopsided than the final score indicated. James is widely considered the best all-around player in the world (he has averaged 27/7/7 for his entire career), but he struggled to post 17 points, 3 boards, and 7 dimes on 8-of-18 from the field in that game. Kevin Durant actually made a case for LeBron’s status, not only defending James and making him work for everything, but also posting 28 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists, and 2 steals. Durant put on the kind of transcendent performance that lifts teams to championships and while this was still only a regular season game in March, it showed the Thunder’s capabilities, as well as some of Miami’s flaws: “None of this is to say Miami can’t win it all. It is to say that the Heat are in many ways the same team they were last season: exceptional, dangerous, united, likely to bring out the best in their opponents, and, from time to time, susceptible to playing more like a team ordained to greatness than one hungry to earn it every single day.” The following night, the Heat lost to the Indiana Pacers by 15 points. It was the first time since the arrival of LeBron and Chris Bosh that Miami has lost consecutive games by fifteen or more. I don’t think the Heat are taking a title run for granted – last year proved that they can’t – but I do think they fall asleep at the wheel sometimes and if it happens in June, they could once again be watching the opposing team bask in the confetti.


Statistically, what is the worst shot to take? The answer may surprise you: it’s the 13 foot angled bank shot, the same shot that Tim Duncan employed on his way to four rings and a reputation as the best power forward of all time. It’s the ultimate in-between shot, stuck in purgatory between guards shooting 3’s and dominant big men on the block using drop steps and jump hooks. It’s a highly specialized shot attempt and Chris Bosh (53%) has taken Duncan’s place as the most efficient shooter from that spot on the floor. Everyone else should refrain from taking that shot.


I know I write about the Los Angeles Lakers almost every week, but it’s impossible to ignore the NBA’s best soap opera. On Sunday night, while most eyes were on Heat-Thunder (or Mad Men), something pretty amazing happened in the Staples Center: Kobe Bryant was benched in the fourth quarter. “The sold-out Staples Center crowd chanted Kobe Bryant's name. This time, however, the chants had nothing to do with Bryant hitting a game-winner, performing a spectacular play or recognizing him as the league MVP while at the free-throw line.

It had everything to do with the 18,997 fans wanting Coach Mike Brown to play him late in the fourth quarter of the Lakers' eventual 102-96 loss Sunday to the Memphis Grizzlies. Yet, there Bryant sat on the bench with 5:45 remaining in the game, shortly after the Lakers' star punched the bench in frustration during a timeout and then leaving the Lakers' huddle while coaches were diagramming a play.” While both Bryant (“If you guys are looking for a story, I'm not going to contribute to it”) and Brown (“I just decided to make a sub”) downplayed the benching, this is a major story. While he may be unhappy with the direction of the front office, Bryant still has far more clout in L.A. than Brown and if he decides that he doesn’t want to be coached by Brown, then he won’t be coached by Brown. There have been glimpses of Kobe’s unhappiness with his coach throughout the season and, considering that Brown was replacing Phil Jackson, some friction was to be expected. A benching is different. Brown said that he treats Bryant the same as everyone else: “I treat him the same as everybody most of the time.” That’s a huge mistake. Time and again, we’ve seen coaches try to exert their will over a player, only to find themselves on the unemployment line. It’s also a major reason why so few college coaches succeed when they make the jump to the Association. Is that the way it should be? Perhaps not, but that’s the reality. The Staples Center isn’t filled every night because of Brown’s X’s and O’s. He’s had trouble incorporating new addition Ramon Sessions into the offense and the team has gone 3 – 3 since making moves at the trading deadline. Again, this isn’t a surprise. It’s been proven many times that Brown can’t really coach and deciding to send a message by benching the most decorated player in the sport is not the smart play. Originally, I believed that Brown would be fired before the season was over. Although that now appears unlikely, there’s no guarantee that he will return again next season. If there’s a Kobe-Brown power struggle, expect to see Mike Brown in the broadcast booth sooner rather than later. 

The situation escalated last night when Brown benched Andrew Bynum for taking an ill-advised three-pointer early in the third quarter of L.A.'s win over the Golden State Warriors. Deadspin put it a bit more bluntlyBynum was in rare don't-give-a-fuck form last night, playing defense like it was optional and generally being a goof.” This couldn't have anything to do with his dislike of the coach, could it? Bynum was obviously pissed about being benched: Bynum did not join his teammates in huddles during several timeouts in the fourt quarter, instead staying in his seat toward the end of the bench by himself.” When asked if he learned his lesson, Bynum made it clear he had not: I'm going to take another [three-pointer] and I'm going to take some more, so I just hope it's not the same result.” This is huge. A player was benched for doing something the coach didn't want him to do and, when speaking to the media, the player explains how he's going to do it again. This leaves Brown in a tough spot - he can either continue to bench Bynum when he does something like this, thereby standing his ground and proving a point even if it costs his team, or he can overlook it, which would then make it seem as if the coach is undermining himself. Neither one is a good option. It's clear that Brown is losing control of the team and the more he tries to exert his power, the more the players are going to rebel. 

This, of course, gave Kobe an opportunity to side with Brown or Bynum. Guess which one he chose: In some ways, the edginess and chippiness of [Bynum] makes it very easy for me to relate to him because I had some of that when I was young. It's easy for me to see where he's coming from.” Bryant went on to say that Brown and his staff are not used to dealing with players of Drew's ambition, before referencing his own experiences with Shaquille O'Neal and Phil Jackson. Kobe finished by saying, nothing really rattles me.” To me, this is Kobe drawing comparisons between Brown and Jackson and implying that Brown can't handle the roster. Uh-oh.


Getting back to the Thunder, their superstar duo is quickly becoming one of the most potent in NBA history. On Friday night, in a 149 – 140 double-overtime win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Kevin Durant scored 40 points and Russell Westbrook poured in 45, marking the first time that a pair of teammates each scored 40-plus points in the same game twice in a career. No duo – not McHale & Bird, not West & Chamberlain, not even Jordan & Pippen – had ever done it twice throughout their time together. Durant and Westbrook have done it twice this season. I, along with virtually everyone else with an internet connection, have slammed Westbrook for his unwillingness to pass, but if he and KD can coexist and continue to shatter records, Oklahoma City will be in great shape for years to come.


On the other side, Kevin Love threw up a 51 and 14 performance (including 7 three pointers) in the loss to the Thunder. It was a franchise record for points in a game, overtaking Kevin Garnett's previous record of 47. Two nights later, he submitted a 30 and 21 effort in a 117 – 100 win over the Denver Nuggets. It was the seventh time in his short career he's put up at least 30 & 20. The T-Wolves have played forty-eight games thus far this season and Love has had double doubles in 42 of those games. That’s just silly. Even if Ricky Rubio hadn’t gone down with an injury, Minnesota doesn’t yet have the firepower to compete with the elite teams, but they’re not that far away. Regardless of the rest of the team, you can count on Love to give you double figures in points and rebounds. He’s one of the most consistent players in the game.


The Nuggets lost to Love & company on Sunday night, but there’s reason for optimism in Denver and it goes by the name of Javale McGee. Maybe McGee just needed a change of scenery. In his first game with the Nuggets, McGee scored 15 points and grabbed 7 rebounds, including a dunk off a missed free throw with five seconds remaining to give the Nuggets a one point win over the Detroit Pistons. McGee became famous for being a knucklehead in Washington, but if George Karl can harness his ridiculous athleticism, he could still turn his career around. Other coaches have gotten much more publicity over the past two years, but what Karl has accomplished in Denver has been nearly miraculous. In a players’ league that is dominated by famous superstars, Karl has the no-name Nuggets three games over .500, good enough for 2nd place in the Northwest Division. Karl finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting last year and he deserves even more credit for what he’s managed to accomplish this season. If the Nuggets can add another piece or two, they could be scary good…but that’s a big if.


Jules Winnfield is one of my favorite film characters of all time, so watching Samuel L. Jackson introduce the Los Angeles Clippers-New Orleans Hornets lineups in character was pretty terrific. It wasn’t Will Ferrell, but it was still far better than having someone from The Hunger Games do it.


Two weeks ago, I wrote about career-ending injuries in the NBA, specifically the sad tale of T.J. Ford. On Friday night, it looked as if a similarly worrisome case was transpiring when Mickael Pietrus fell hard while driving the lane against the Philadelphia 76ers. It looked bad. Upon first glance, I thought he had landed on his tailbone like Ford had. However, upon viewing the replay, I saw that he was horizontal to the ground and had no way to brace himself, so that when he fell, his head bounced off the floor. While Pietrus did suffer a concussion, it could have been so much worse and his agent says that his client is a “lucky man.” They say football is a game of inches, but basketball is too and Pietrus was an inch or two from permanent damage. Scary.


Finally, many of us complain that our athletes never say anything interesting or controversial and that they’re far too worried about endorsements to take a stand on social issues. The era of Muhammad Ali ultimately gave way to the era of Michael Jordan. The athletes became wealthy and beloved, but they also became less politically involved. Is the trend about to reverse? The other day, LeBron tweeted a photo of the entire Miami Heat team in hoodies to show support for slain teenager Trayvon Martin.

What does this mean? Maybe nothing. Or maybe something: “Maybe we’ll look back on LeBron as a vilified public figure that stood for what he believed in and stuck it to the man. Maybe we won’t. Whatever the case, I sincerely hope that the Miami Heat hoodie picture is one step out of the shadow of the Michael Jordan ‘Era of Silence’ and into a new one where athletes again start using their clout and pull to make noise and take a stand where it matters.” It is obvious that this new generation of NBA superstars (LeBron, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, etc.) want to be adored, but if they’re going to be hated and vilified regardless of what they say, why not speak up for issues that they feel are important? What good is a pulpit if it goes unused? They’re going to hate you no matter what you do, so stop trying to make them love you. Make them respect you instead.

Pierzy writes a weekly NBA column during the season, as well as columns revolving around other sports, hip-hop, movies, TV shows, food, beer, marriage, (impending) fatherhood, and a variety of other topics. You can follow him on Twitter here.