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Just look at that face — would you take this guy seriously? 

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As I reached into the fridge for some water this morning, the Celtics vs. Warriors ticket from this past March 1st game slipped from behind my fridge magnet, fluttered about for a second before unceremoniously crashing to the floor. “Shit”, I muttered as Pierce laid Flat Stanley splayed on a bed of dust. My roommate overheard me. “Don’t worry”, she said, “Paul Pierce always finds a way to get back up.” For someone who’s come to love Paul Pierce only through recent osmosis, I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

While I was quick to give her credit for the characterization, the truth is, it doesn’t take very long for anyone to glean that about Pierce once you get past his chubby-ballerina’s-grace exterior. Wyc knew it the moment he saw Pierce’s bloody teeth pop out of his mouth and slide at his feet while he was sitting courtside at Bloodsport’s underground Kumite in 2002. But that wasn’t enough to stop Paul. Nothing is when you believe you’re wearing a cloak of invincibility.

****

On Thursday, Pierce, KG and Terry are going to be front and center in what promises to be a glitzy, over-the-top press conference at Barclays Center, a hop, skip and a jump stop away from my apartment. I am dreading that day like the obsequious kid who jams his fingers in his ears, “la la la la la la I CAN’T HEAR YOU”-ing his way through something he refuses to hear. While that might seem excessively melodramatic, many of my Where Were You When … moments have had something to do with the Boston Celtics over the past two decades. I remember coming back home with my dad, frantically tuning our illegal satellite dish to whatever regional sports network the Celtics used to play on in 1998 and being shocked at seeing a thumbnail of Paul Pierce sitting above the news anchor’s left shoulder. “No wayyyyyy”, we both exclaimed. “At #10??? We must have given up ‘Toine, 7 first round picks and promised to re-sign ML Carr to nab him”. He’d fallen right into our lap. 

*****

In Middlesex, the heroine, Calliope, looks back on her childhood, remembering the various chapters of her life by the Cadillac make her father was driving at the time — the futuristic Fleetwood, the Eldorado, the sedan DeVille, or the “Florida Special”. Instead of Cadillacs, my life markers were the rotating cast of characters who donned green on opening night every year (of which there were many during the P*tino reign of squeals & terror). Outside of my regally goofy cat, Wonka, basketball was and always will be the single safe ground that my family can stomp on all at once without someone being immediately flung off the mat. Over the last 16 years, players have come and gone, I’ve graduated, moved, started anew on various points of the map; the one thing that had never changed was the immutability of Paul Pierce, the Celtic. That and my mom’s trademark lipstick shade.

Unlike Celtics fans who find themselves hundreds of miles away from Pierce’s new home, the physical distance that separates me from the arena where Pierce will soon be producing feats of seeming magic — the first few of which will surprise Brooklynites unaccustomed to his clunky effectiveness — should, in principle, provide some sort of solace. It’s still more bitter than it is sweet, but I imagine those proportions will continue shifting towards the saccharine side of the scale.

Will Nets fans be savvy enough to appreciate the tension in every Paul Pierce-led possession, simultaneously on the cusp of an unseemly turnover while flirting with an incredible degree of difficulty grotesque hoop and bodily harm? He might just be the original Schrodinger’s Cat of the NBA — someone  whose core identity somehow embodies mutually exclusive states of being. And that, is true beauty of Paul Pierce. He came into the league overlooked and undervalued, barking out names of players that had been picked before him after draining jumpers to remind teams of their folly. And it took a magical 2008 championship series where he outshone Kobe Bryant on the offensive end and made good on what he’d been telling the media all along about his cumbersome defense to get people to fleetingly agree with him.

*****

Restless and full of angst earlier in his career, Paul Pierce seems completely at peace with himself now. He exudes a certain serenity, and allows himself to be photographed in frog costumes and buried in sand. But don’t let appearances fool you: while he may have accomplished what he’d set out to do both in life and basketball, none of that will ever compromise the competitive edge or erode his unwavering faith in his ability to ice a game. Just when you’ve counted him out, he’ll slip into that worn out cloak and frustrate beat writers by forcing them to scrap and re-write that night’s game story.

But it’s that raspy voice, those mischievous eyes and gawd-awful oversize outfits (that I’m surprised never drew the ire of both his wife and front office fascists) that I’m going to miss the most. I’m not sure there’s a way to spin Udonis Haslem’s once condemnation of Pierce as a studio gangster into something of an affectionate term, but that’s what I’m going to try to do; as unintimidating as the posturing and scowling has always been, nothing has ever been more authentic than the bordering-on-delusional confidence in Pierce’s game. Except for maybe exhibit A and B below. 

Such are the United States of Paul Pierce: an endearing collection of ill-fitting pieces. 

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Recently ambushed by TMZ, Pierce told a reporter he had another ten years in him, which drew incredulous laughter as the statement was dismissed as paparazzi fodder. It most likely was, but I wouldn’t be so sure. Remember that sleight of hand trick? For someone who enjoys embracing contradictions, I see no reason why he shouldn’t continue sneering at convention and expectation. 

My mom had to pick another lipstick shade after they discontinued the one she’d been buying for decades. It was hard at first, but she survived. I’m going to have to do the same and settle for that walk around corner to Barclays Center in my Celtics #34 jersey and hope that Wyc Grousbeck makes good on that promise of seeing Pierce retire as a Celtic. In 9 years time.

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A worthy post scriptum: Has there ever been a professional athlete who ever cathartically and publicly (almost embarrassingly) sobbed the way Pierce did as he was finally admitted into the pantheon of Celtics greats? I doubt Kobe would ever go along with wearing a Boston Celtics t-shirt under his warm ups, but I would argue that there will never, ever, ever be another Paul Pierce in Boston.

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What is this basketball hiding underneath its leathery facade?
Not much, other than mechanical sensors that are hard at work capturing 6,000 data points a second. Bluetooth enabled technology measure components of your game like dribble consistency/speed/force (+ a number of variables that affect your shooting skills) and display the results in an app. It’ll run you up $200, but it might also upgrade your fledgling rec league skills. 
It’s sports & tech at their harmonious, devoid of frivolities, physical-world-enhancing functional best. 
Check out the 94Fifty Bluetooth Basketball in action here with the gladiator-like Skylar Diggins: 

Source: Uncrate

What is this basketball hiding underneath its leathery facade?

Not much, other than mechanical sensors that are hard at work capturing 6,000 data points a second. Bluetooth enabled technology measure components of your game like dribble consistency/speed/force (+ a number of variables that affect your shooting skills) and display the results in an app. It’ll run you up $200, but it might also upgrade your fledgling rec league skills. 

It’s sports & tech at their harmonious, devoid of frivolities, physical-world-enhancing functional best. 

Check out the 94Fifty Bluetooth Basketball in action here with the gladiator-like Skylar Diggins: 

Source: Uncrate


Posted by Romy

Woj had the inverse reaction to that of the twittersphere following Jordan’s soul crushing cram on Brandon Knight: 

For this, he’s a punch line now. He’s a joke. For everyone celebrating Jordan’s fantastic lob dunk over a guard some 8 inches shorter and 80 pounds lighter, they’ve made Knight an object of ridicule. A widely followed parody account of comedian Kevin Hart tweeted that Jordan had been brought up on “charges of rape & aggravated assault against Brandon Knight,” and tombstones declaring Knight dead were popping up on the Internet.

Consider now, that just the opposite matador approach to defense was publicly shamed — and deservedly so — in an auditorium full of nodding stats rats and front office executives alike at the MIT conference last weekend. Presenting: David Lee’s Interior Defense, “aka” the Golden Gate. 

Unfortunately for the current and future state of the NBA, the talk wasn’t picked up by some of the biggest networks in the world, and I doubt it was trending on twitter. It’s going to take years before the nascent Kirk Goldsberry Ripple Effect starts leaking out of the classroom (and the occasional front office) and eventually makes its way to the courts and high school gyms with more than a faint whisper. As Woj sagely said: 

The message is clear to players everywhere, on every level: Run away. Hide. Don’t try to take the charge. Don’t try to disrupt the play. There’s no reward. This is how backward the basketball culture has become, how twisted the value system.

Welcome to the NBA, where the price of getting out of the camera’s burning frame is better than putting your body on the line, no matter how physically outmatched and brave the mere act may be. While I don’t think it’s healthy to get too overly moralistic too often about these matters, the subsequent flood of “Knight didn’t even make the right defensive plaaa-aaay” decoy whine-arguments are worth the rebuttals alone. 


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Kevin Garnett, foaming at the mouth while surveying the action in the paint. Or, stuck in an uncomfortable ventriloquist dummy Cujo-stare. 

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Poste by Romy 

KG continued his milestone one-upping ways in the Celtics gory drudge-fest against the Pacers, a win that was as much keyed by Garnett’s defense as it was by his ability to scan every player’s minute movement on the court and thread the defense with two pin-point accurate passes to Bradley and Green in the last 40 seconds of the game.  

Something about Wednesday night’s last second go-ahead basket got me thinking about the anatomy of an offensive play: Pierce’s sticky back pick was the one that initially freed up Jeff Green on his curling dash to the basket, but there was more to that KG pass than what met the eye:

I saw Jeff Green open at the basket, and then I saw help come across the baseline. I thought I had a little bit extra on it, but he was open off the initial [move]. I just had to make sure he took the corner and I hit him with the pass. The first time I did it in the first quarter, I noticed, obviously Hibbert is a very long guy. … I noted to myself to wait until Jeff turned the corner and the guy’s hands go down. Second time, I just did that. I pump-faked and his hands went up, I saw his adjustment … and threw it right over the top of his hands to Jeff. Jeff made a tough, difficult layup for the game.

And what about Jeff Green making the catch, gathering himself and laying it in on the other side? For all of the debates about qualitative vs. quantitative measurement, basketball remains as much craftsmanship as it is artistry. 

Now, much ink has been spilled over stats geekery and the difficulty in ascertaining and properly weighting the impact of any one player’s defense and how it correlates to a team’s ability to keep opponents starved for baskets. Brendan recently wrote about the fresh insight we can extract from a new set of interior defense analytics — using SportVu data as a complement to more traditional metrics. 

But are the evaluation models that spit out numbers quantifying offensive impact really that much more developed than those available on defense? 

A CASE FOR A MULTI-TOUCH ATTRIBUTION ASSIST MODEL IN THE NBA

Click here to go to CelticsHub for the rest of the story….


Posted by Ali

This past week I had the good luck (and good planning) of being able to attend two Knicks games at MSG in 3 days: Sunday Feb. 24th against the 76ers and Wednesday Feb. 27th against the Warriors. Same home team, completely different experiences. 

PART II KNICKS VS GOLDEN STATE

There are a bunch of guys that I work with who are longtime suffering Knicks fans. Most of them have followed the Knicks since before I was born. We had been talking for years about going to a game, but no one ever made the move to organize it. So after a drunken Christmas party night, I told them I would. I picked Golden State because they were hot at the time (and because they were the cheapest tickets for a Tier 2 opponent). I also really liked David Lee when he was a Knick and loved Stephen Curry when he played at Davidson. Plus, Bogut, STAT and Shump were all supposed to be back by then … there were a lot of pluses going for this game.

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Again, sorry for the terrible picture quality!

Our tickets were better than I thought. We were in the 2nd balcony, but closer to the front; far, but not that far that the players looked like pixelated Atari characters. The first quarter started out well for the Knicks. With no David Lee (suspension) or Andrew Bogut (back spasms) to clog the paint, Chandler was able to dominant the middle with thunderous alley-oops and put-backs, not to mention his 13 rebounds in the first quarter alone! You know it’s not a fluke when the record you just set eclipses, you guessed it, your old record. Carmelo was hitting and/or getting fouled on his baseline drives, Shumpert was getting steals, the team was looking good … and then Stephen Curry happened. 

It started with an innocuous jumper. We know he has that in him; that’s his game. But then it continued with a barrage of 3s, pull up jumpers, and floaters. Literally anything he wanted, he got. Was it ridiculous to believe that we could do something to stop him?

One of the Knicks biggest problems on defense is their inability to contain fast guards. John Wall, Jrue Holiday, Stephen Curry, etc. This list could go on forever, and I feel like most of the responsibility is on Felton. I know he works hard, but he rarely gets through a screen and doesn’t do enough to stop whomever he’s guarding from getting a step ahead of him (I also think that he could stand to lose an extra 15 pounds; the dude is still chubby). This was never more obvious than Wednesday night. Curry literally looked like he spent every play debating the best way to embarrass Felton — Pull up 3 point jumper on a fast break? Yes please. Maybe I’ll dribble this time and break his ankles. Or I’ll just run him through a screen. Fun!

By halftime, whatever double digit lead the Knicks had built in the first quarter was gone. It was now 58-55 Knicks, and Stephen Curry had 33 of those 55 Warriors points. I sat there with my co-workers discussing the absurdity of this game and how amazing it was to see Curry have this kind of night … on the wrong end of a back-to-back nonetheless! If the Knicks came out and didn’t make adjustments and couldn’t contain Curry in the second half, he was on his way to scoring 60+ points. Which is exactly what almost happened.

As the third quarter started, the fans were beginning to get restless. My one co-worker, with an amazingly deep voice, would hold the longest lowest boo every time a Warriors player stepped to the free throw (it was pretty spectacular). The people behind me kept grumbling about why we weren’t double teaming Curry, and the few GS fans in our section were wooping every time Curry touched the ball. I’ve heard about the collective energy of a stadium being overwhelming and have seen it on TV, but I’ve never experienced it in person until this game. At this point, Curry could have been shooting from anywhere on the court with however many men you wanted guarding him and the ball would still have a 50% chance of going in. Everyone knew it and everyone was bracing for the Knicks to fold under this great performance. 

And this is where I talk about JR Smith. I know he’s a little crazy and emotional, but this is the type of game the Knicks want out of him every night … and why I sorta, kinda love him and am glad the Knicks were able to keep him at a bargain. Yes, he makes terrible decisions. A lot. This game though, he curtailed some of his more irresponsible shot selections (a little) and did a great job of spotting up for kick outs on the 3 point line and pushing ahead on the fast break. He matched almost every big shot Curry made in the second half with his own even bigger shot and the crowd was loving it. I was loving it. I am not normally a loud and proud fan - I’m more of a silent and stoic fist-pumping sort of fan - but you better believe every time JR hit a shot I was up in my seat screaming along with everyone else. 

As the game wound down to the final couple of minutes, and Steph Curry had accumulated a ridiculous 54 points (on 18-28, 11-13 on 3s!), Raymond Felton finally stepped up and made two huge defensive plays. HUGE. The first was a blocked shot on Curry. After spending the whole game watching Curry’s butt wiggle by him time and again, Felton finally managed to stay just close enough to attack his shot and get a clean block that resulted in a JR Smith fadeaway jumper (one of those “bad decisions if he misses, but a great decisions if it goes in”). Two plays later, Felton does his best Prigioni impression and steals the ball from a sloppy Warriors inbound pass.

As the crowded erupted with cheers and chants, I finally understood what it was like to be a fan. As high up as we were, I could see everyone in the stadium reacting to what we just witnessed simultaneously. This was one of the greatest offensive performances by any player and we all felt it as it was happening. It wasn’t even until the closing interviews did most people realize that Tyson Chandler also had a career night with a monster 28 rebounds. If we could rush the floor, I’m sure all 20k fans would have, just to say they touched greatness. But who are we kidding, we had already witnessed it. It was the greatest sports experience I have ever felt and it didn’t matter where I was sitting. I was there and I’ll be able to tell my kids about it one day. I was (and am) a fan. Forever.

P.S. The Knicks are 3-0 when I’m at the Garden … just saying … while the Nets are 0-2 in my presence. Someone, something had spoken. And I decided to swing by the merch shop to celebrate the occasion. 


Posted by Ali

This past week I had the good luck (and good planning) of being able to attend two Knicks games at MSG in 3 days: Sunday Feb. 24th against the 76ers and Wednesday Feb. 27th against the Warriors. Same home team, completely different experiences. 

PART I: KNICKS VS 76ers

Back in January, I had bought 200 level tickets to the Knicks vs Warriors game, with the hope that both teams would still be playing at a high level after their torrid starts, and that we’d have a good match up of Dark Horse Title Contenders. The 76ers game ticket on the other hand, was a product of good fortune and good connections. I had gotten an Entry Level Suite ticket and while I didn’t know exactly what that entailed, I knew it’d have to be awesome. 

As I walked to MSG on Sunday, my friend who had gotten me the ticket, directed me to 4 Penn Plaza on 31st between 7th and 8th. This was not your normal 7th Ave entrance with all the hustle and bustle of Knicks fans. No, I had to squeeze between a grid of steel barriers and walk under an enclosed scaffold-laden tunnel. Alone. After what seemed like forever (but really was like a minute) I came upon glass doors and security guards. There was a ticket waiting for me and damn was it fancy.

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On my way up to the 5th floor, Glen Grunwald, General Manager of the Knicks, joined me in the elevator. And no, I did not know exactly who he was when he got in the elevator (yay for Google!), but I did know he was important. And huge. Dude is big. As we rode up, an employee asked Grunwald if he was going to check on the team. Grunwald replied, “No, I’m seeing the team doctors. Our newest member sprained his ankle during practice this morning. Great way for him to start right?!” It was loaded with sarcasm. Kenyon Martin sprained his ankle?! Already?! I was so excited to be privy to that news that I almost missed running into Justin Tuck who was being shuttled through the back hallway to his seats. Seriously, could this get any better? I hadn’t even watched a single minute of basketball and I was already smitten with all MSG had to offer me. 

As I entered our suite, I was a little confused. It was an enclosed room with a buffet of food, an open bar, and two 45 inch tv screens, but no live basketball. Was I suppose to be watching the game on the tv?

How foolish I was. After getting a drink my friend took me out to our seats. Whoa.

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I apologize for the terrible quality - but see the guy up front with the blank and orange jersey, that’s Spike Lee!

Pictures (specifically ones I take on the iPhone… dammit) do not do justice to how great these seats were: right behind celebrity row, close enough to see the players’ faces clearly without squinting but just far enough to watch the game unfold as a whole. This is why people spend hundreds of dollars (in 1979 dollars, do the math)on floor level tickets. I get it. I really, really get it. 

As the teams were announced and the players centered around half court for the opening tip, I couldn’t help but think how no one looked physically larger than life. I was hoping Andrew, Bynum and Andrew Bynum would be there on the sidelines because I had heard his physical presence looms above everyone, but alas all 3 were missing. The game itself also didn’t feel any faster being that close. In fact, I felt like I’d have a good chance of beating at least one of the guys down the court on a couple of runs. Felton, it’d probably be Felton.

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Me being this close to the court was a distraction for the 76ers; Evan Turner wouldn’t stop looking at me!

The teams traded baskets back and forth for the first quarter and it wasn’t until the second quarter (coincidentally after my friend had to leave our seats to attend to something - apparently this happens often to her at Knicks games), did the Knicks finally go on a little run. Carmelo led the attack, but it was STAT who dominated the court.

The Live Melo Experience is not physically impressive. He’s quick and decisive with a beautifully quick release, so I get why people like him but he just doesn’t do it for me. I also didn’t feel he played particularly well that night - too much one-on-one isos, not enough defense, etc. - I mean, it wasn’t until I looked up at the scoreboard did I even realize he was the leading scorer on our team!

STAT however, looked great in person (offensively, that is — he’s even more terrible in person defensively). He got to the rim so easily and so dominantly, that I could feel the building shake every time he went for a dunk (that could also have been the crowd). I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count all the times he got blocked by lesser talent last year as he lumbered about on the court without his normal lift. This year however, he looks like the all-star he use to be his first year in NY, but without the wear and tear of being the “leading man”. He’s working a little harder on defense and while he’s still sub-par, he’s at least moving his feet. 

As the game entered the 4th quarter, the 76ers were doing everything to hang in there. Jrue Holiday was consistently leaving Felton in the dust, Evan Turner was taking advantage of a weak wing defense, and the 76ers were just making the Knicks look a step slow. Then Chandler showed why he is the reigning defensive player of the year. With a single digit lead, he helped - HARD - on a screen his man set for Jrue Holiday. I have mixed feelings about this type of help because it sometimes leaves Chandler’s man wide open for an easy layup. This is especially true when whoever he’s helping doesn’t catch up fast enough to close the passing lane Chandler has left open by leaving his man and no one else helps to recover for him. On this play though, it worked perfectly. With Chandler bearing down on Holiday and Felton harrassing him in the corner, the two forced a back court violation in the worst kind of way. That stop was the game. 

The final score was 99-93, closer than the game actually was. My friend (as well as most of the crowd) was ready to leave with 8 sec left and the 6pt lead, but I had watched enough games to know that anything could happen. I wanted to see those final seconds count down even though I knew the outcome was probably a Knicks win. When the buzzer sounded we clapped and cheered politely and then walked our way out.  

The game itself was not super memorable, but everything that came with it - the seats, the celebrities, the juicy dirt - was memorable. I don’t know if I’ll ever get an opportunity to be that close again and to live the game in that way, but it was by far the best basketball experience in my entire life… until Wednesday against Golden State.


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Posted by Romy

The below is part of an article I wrote for CelticsHub.

For a while there, the Celtics were doing their best impersonation of the serially severed worm that wriggles on, refusing to die.  But for all their valiance, the Barbosa injury might just have been the final dispiriting blow. Having just plucked Jordan Crawford from the Wizards in exchange for a gum ball — a player whose own double helix falls into the same broad archetype bucket as the Brazilian Blur’s (“SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION”) — it remains to be seen if the Celtics can summon the same chemistry that made them, well, splendidly and effectively “confusing”, in Doc Rivers’ words, this season … and beyond?

***

Over the last baker’s dozen games we have been witnesses to perhaps the strangest metamorphosis that has transmuted the pedestrian Celtics and turbo charged its anemic roster — current, and third round of lineup rejiggering and understandable period of acclimation notwithstanding — resulting in a surge that coincided with none other than the apocalyptic demise of its superstar.

Is this just a classic case of a speculative bubble, caveat emptor, or should we buy into its underlying motifs?   

The Counterintuitiveness of Rajon Rondo

There’s been a lot of talk lately about systems: the ones that work, the ones that don’t and the ingredients that act in concert to create a successful one. Chris Paul is such a rare specialist that his absence creates a black hole that none of the Paul-less Clippers are able to reconstitute with any permutation of the remaining pieces. Just like your office’s ancient secretary who hoards information, Paul rarely cedes control, but the Clippers are better for it. So what’s the difference between a Chris Paul system and a Rajon Rondo system?

Rajon Rondo is guilty of dribbling a lot this year, but that by itself should not be a point of contention; Nash often dances his way along the baseline tightrope, comes out on the other side, expands a few more bounces, all the while scanning the floor and luring defenders into his orbit until they find themselves in a compromised position. Same with Chris Paul who seeks to make the defense vulnerable by attracting a crowd and spotting the player who has been freed up by the strain placed on the defense.

Unfortunately, there are risks in seeking such advantages. The principle difference between the Chris Paul System and the Rajon Rondo System is that Rondo is often shackled by cerebral deadlocks; an inflexibility marked by a quasi-obsession with identifying and compulsively pursuing mismatches or perceived advantages — like a computer whose algorithm refuses to take into account ambient feedback data and forces one and one answer only based on its superior processing capabilities alone. Sadly, ignoring secondary and tertiary options amounts to a program being stuck in an infinite “IF” statement, unable to ever move on to the queued “ELSE” statements as the shot clock loses patience.

How many times have we witnessed a dazed Rondo, pounding the ball into the floor at the top of the key, just waiting for a play (e.g. a double screen to free up a three point shooter) to develop the way he’s conceived of it in his mind only to finally surrender the ball — with nothing giving — to KG with a defender draped on him 18 feet away from the rim and just a tick left on the clock? That’s not to say that Rondo doesn’t frequently leave a slew of stunned defenders and onlookers in his wake. He does, but too often, the marvel gives way to sticky stagnation.

Innate talents atrophy unless they are properly recognized, honed, and deployed within a system. I have no doubt that there’s a beautifully lush and complex orchestra playing in Rondo’s head, only on more than one occasion over the course of a game, those harmonizations remain trapped in Rondo’s mental space and his orchestra, confused, can’t follow the direction intimated by his brilliant baton.

The Lesson: It Doesn’t Always Have To Be So Complicated

With no clear-cut superstar left on the team and two Hall Of Famers lubricating the offense, we’ve seen a brisker pace, better ball movement and an equal opportunity offense that makes use of the full width of the court. Paired with an occasional pestering full-court press, the system begins to resemble Malcolm Gladwell’s prescriptions of unconventional means through which David can beat Goliath.  

Running with the theme of unorthodox strategies, Rivers has had the team executing a thinned out playbook so slight it could be mistaken for a Jehovah Witness pamphlet. This is not by design, of course, but it has to have been a revelation for Rivers, who as the ultimate architect of the offense, has to shoulder much of the blame for the “brilliant PG at the helm/lifeless naphthalene-reeking offense” paradox.

Whether or not the decentralized proletariat model could have been sustainable given the current personnel was never really the question. There’s no real precedent for this type of depleted team configuration (Linsanity? The Rockets’ 2008 22-game winning streak? The plots don’t quite match up but the team ethos and the togetherness that adversity bred, do) and no one realistically expected these Celtics to threaten the powers reigning atop the East come May anyway. There’s a reason why I keep on slipping into the “imagine how good this team could have been if Rondo wasn’t injured” brain fart, only to realize that the injury was the impetus for the team’s newfound success in the first place: Rondo’s been Carmelo’d [1], but as the (November) Knicks showed us, an improved system can carry with it a world of undiscovered riches.

Gaining Something By …. Losing Half Your Team?

What the lack of natural order gave way to was a set of modulating parts, all shifting together to compensate in areas where the Celtics were newly lacking — Whether it meant Pierce averaging more than 9 rebounds a game or KG getting reacquainted with the post, returning him to a more multifaceted and prominent play-making role. And that, can be informative for how the Celtics approach life after Pierce and KG.

Because this fleeting Cinderella story contradicts everything we know about how a basketball team functions; That the NBA is a superstar-driven league and how clearly delineated roles are crucial to the success of a team; That layers of ruse and offensive decoys are the easiest ways of outsmarting your opponent. But success is not always a function of the degree of complexity inherent to the schemes you load into your playbook. Quite to the contrary, in fact: You can almost liken the dumbing down of the Celtics’ offense to the way Tony Dungy made his fame in the NFL, making a case for extending and perfecting core elements of this accidental offense even once Rondo returns to the lineup. Take this passage from “The Power of Habit”:

Dungy has opted for the opposite approach [of complication and obfuscation] because, in theory, he doesn’t need misdirection. He simply needs his team to be faster than everyone else. In football, milliseconds matter. So instead of teaching his players hundreds of formations, he has taught them only a handful, that they practice over and over until the behaviors are automatic. When his strategy works, his players can move with a speed that is impossible to overcome.

Now consider Chip Kelly, the architect of the Oregon Ducks’ “Blur Offense” as described by Chuck Klosterman in “Speed Chess”:

The premise is that a simple offense snapping the ball every 15 seconds is more effective than a complicated offense running at regular speed, because an accelerated tempo manufactures its own momentum. It’s the reason so many of the Ducks’ opponents seem to tire and collapse.

Players don’t get paid for being effective cogs in a routinized and mechanized process, and fans don’t pay the big bucks to see an assembly line either, but this mastery-over-complexity philosophy can yield even more beautiful play. It’s why “pure talent isn’t necessarily as entertaining as doing more with less.”

As Trotsky once warned us, ideas themselves are never inherently nefarious, which is why the promise of communism can only be soiled by humans. So far, Paul Pierce has resisted the temptation to revert to his old “hero ball” ways, and the Celtics have thrived.

The Celtics didn’t bring their metal detector to the beach but they have definitely uncovered something. It remains to be seen whether or not Rondo can riff off of the new script when he comes back to a team that may have very little in common with the one he left.

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[1] Carmelo’d, definition: passive verb; injured player once believed to be the team’s superstar, now vilified and perceived as being the team’s root problem.


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Posted by Romy

Above: Courtney Lee, smiling, as always.

You can’t help but notice that Courtney Lee is one of the genuinely good guys in the NBA. He’s polite, soft-mannered and well spoken. In other words, he’s an NBA agent’s wet dream — the kind of dream that’s allowed to go on uninterrupted without any surprise calls from the slammer.

When Ainge engineered the sign-and-trade that brought Lee to Boston, I quickly scoured the web eager to unearth any under-the-radar facts that would confirm (to me, eager fan) Lee’s soon-to-be runaway success in Boston*. Instead, the most revealing thing I found was an interview of a younger Lee boasting his “strong character” to an interviewer. Which is strange enough to hear from a player himself — agents are usually the ones spinning this stuff in overdrive to quell wary GMs — but even more conspicuous because it came in response to a question about what Lee brings to the table three years into his NBA career. Not athleticism, defense, or effort, but a strong character. Interesting.

Even if Lee was just feeding us vapid tidbits with a knowing wink, his choice of manufactured content — even in today’s self-aware NBA was somewhat peculiar.

***

You see, “nice” has become something of a dirty word in our society; a qualifier that we hesitate to use, and reserve for those uncomfortable situations when honesty is not an option and instead, you find yourself grasping at stumpy, slippery straws for a substantive descriptor.

An example:

Friend, with pleading eyes: “Well, what did you think of Robert?”.

You, desperate: “Oh, you know… he’s really, … niiiiiice”.

That, in a seemingly harmless monosyllabic word, represents a social death knell. For the usage of “nice” (which leaves behind it more a trail of cowardice than any kind of a punctuation mark) reveals a serious deficiency of any memorable or salient quality in someone. Because “nice” is just a placeholder, you see.

In MTV reality dating TV show parlance, it’s synonymous with sending a contestant back to the bus with a booming “NEXT!”.

Things are only exacerbated in the NBA’s predatory world. Making it in the NBA usually hinges on a confluence of factors including talent, an unrelenting work ethic, a tough psychological makeup and a healthy dose of luck. How many more-nice-than-anything-else guys can you think of that withstood the inevitable ups and downs that accompany most NBA careers? Grant Hill, Steve Nash**, Tim Duncan? Whether or not character traits loosely correlate to holes in a player’s game is not a disprovable hypothesis, but the fact remains that nice guys generally don’t rise to the top in a sink-or-swim league.

***

What is the opposite of nice, anyways? In the NBA ecosystem, I would argue it’s stubborn aggressiveness. Aggression is by definition an “act intended to increase your relative social dominance”, which requires you to at least contextually suspend your niceness in the parallel moral world that NBA athletes inhabit. We can also glean some insights into high intensity players from behavioral studies:

Studies of testosterone levels of male athletes before and after a competition revealed that testosterone levels rise shortly before their matches, as if in anticipation of the competition, and are dependent on the outcome of the event: testosterone levels of winners are high relative to those of losers.

Perhaps more than a blanket assessment about what someone’s Niceness Quotient indicates, success in the NBA depends on your ability to compartmentalize your behavior. I thought it was telling in Scalabrine’s November BS Report when Scal refuted Simmons’ assertion about KG’s rule of terror. Despite the Epic (and messy) Myth of KG, Scal scoffed at the idea that KG is that rare Culture Changer because he instills fear in his subjects, say, like the way God’s children are afraid to fornicate out of wedlock lest God target them with lethal voltage lightning.

Consider this: 62 minutes before a game, a docile and friendly KG is howling while watching Family Guy and shooting the shit with everyone in his vicinity. But at the 60 minute mark, everything changes. KG gets in the zone. No one dares approach him. What’s fascinating here, and that Scal points to, is the fact that KG has to work himself into the zone. It’s a deliberate and conscious act. A switching of personas.

And here’s the thing: It’s not as easy as you think. Take it from Jeff Green, a recovering nice guy, emphasizing in his interview with Jackie MacMullan how nature has a way of undoing others’ prescripts:

You can’t teach someone to be more aggressive. You’ve got to make up your mind you’re going to do it … Everyone tells me, ‘Be this way.’ So I’ve got that in my mind, but then the game starts and sometimes I revert back to what got me to the pros in the first place.

Are certain people wired differently than others or bound by biology? Maybe will is not the only thing keeping certain players from stepping into the booth and undergoing that transformation.

***

For whatever reason, Courtney Lee, well into his fifth season in the NBA, is still somewhat of an unknown quantity. This is hard to manage in a league replete with scouts and obscure million dollar algorithms that tease out the capable from the run-of-the-mill. I’ve seen a lot of confusion in the media about his defensive skills — some have touted him a defensive stalwart while others label him a defensive liability. John Hollinger had a similarly inconclusive assessment:

So we’re left with a conundrum. On past performance, Boston overpaid. But given his skill set, he offers the promise of a high-50s TS% and above-average defense — a player like that would be hugely valuable.

Promise, again, is not usually attributed to a 5th year player in a league where the spotlight shines brighter than in the scorching desert. Lee is that gifted but shy student who correctly answers questions when asked (TS% of 54.7) but doesn’t volunteer them.

Don’t get me wrong. Lee is a nice player and February has been his best and most consistent stretch as a Celtic. But the NBA is not for the faint of heart; There’s a reason why JR Smith can go 2-15 and 0-5 from the 3pt line before calmly drilling a heart-perforating three against the Celtics with a minute to go in the game (and maybe that reason is tied to similar trigger-happy instincts that lead to not-so-pretty-things off the court). Or why Jamal Crawford can be a complete non-factor for an entire game, then suck the life out of an arena with an absurdly high degree of difficulty floater. Conversely, that can also explain why a highly effective regular season player can inexplicably turn into a “hot potato” peon and disappear in the playoffs — where defensive rotations are that much crisper and closeouts come a fraction of a second sooner than you might be used to.

Allow me to borrow from the repository of nasty Republican idioms to draw a line in the sand between NBA players: in the zero-sum NBA, if you are not a Maker, if you don’t snatch the opportunity out of the ether regardless of whether it’s been handed to you or not, your fate will be that of the runt of the roster: Meek, hungry and unable to fend off your stronger litter-mates. And make no mistake about it: we’re talking about a mentality, and a mentality doesn’t waiver, irrespective of your role.

***

There’s a quiet little theory I’d been mulling over about the Celtics’ woes this year. I don’t think it’s because KG and Pierce are a year older, or because Ray Allen left town, or even because Doc Rivers can be as adept at establishing rotations as a retired b-grade juggler with glaucoma. I believe it’s because the Celtics’ trademark grit — the very fabric of the Celtics’ teams that have managed to remain threatening in the spring, regardless of what happened in the fall and winter — has been seriously compromised by a bunch of nice guys. The kind who show themselves when a play is called for them and otherwise stand in that lonely corner and only afterwards wonder why their usage rate has plummeted. The kind who cool the sting of a bad performance or disappointing loss under the shower right in time for their smiley post game interviews. Shrugging off hardship is necessary but not if it happens before allowing it to build a few layers of calluses that are requisite to succeed in a league where success rarely comes easy.

You’ve noticed the way Durant carries himself this year; He smiles less, he oozes scary quiet confidence and he’s been dunking on everyone, their mom and pet goats. Those changes are direct outgrowths from those same calluses.

Luckily, this has started to change. And the Celtics’ League of Fine Gentlemen seem to be shedding their, well, niceness. Together. There’s a reason, after all, why “No More Mr. Nice Guy” is an overused plot trajectory for sitcom episodes; it’s an arc we’re all familiar with, when the sheepish protagonist is fed up with being that guy that’s always shat on and decides it’s time for a change.

Being nice-more-than-anything-else is a great thing, it really is. Just leave it and your fanny pack behind in a locker before you board the rollercoaster. Don’t worry, it’ll be waiting for you when you get back.

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* I was determined for it not to take much.

** Let’s disregard for a minute that he left his wife and twins for a socialite half his age, THEN used his abandoned girls as a pretext for jumping in bed with the enemy (“but L.A. is close to home….”). Or, more a Care Bears-level infraction, that Tim Duncan was caught brandishing a plush AK-47 in the face of a plush Joey Crawford at Halloween.


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Posted by Romy

That was a Doc Rivers quote from early January before Rondo didn’t crumble in a heap but still somehow managed to tear his ACL in reference to The Avery Bradley Effect.

Expect to see more fruits of this philosophy as a kind of positive unintended consequence of Rondo’s season-ending injury.  

#LifeWithoutRondo


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Posted by Romy

“In some ways he was like Michael Jackson.” Well then. If that hook doesn’t compel you to tune into an otherwise minimally anticipated matchup between two, sad, unfortunate teams — the likes of which are as likely to get the nod for the NBA Fan Night contest as is a fecesbath between the Wizards and Suns — then I don’t know what would.

On Changing Your Thesis in the 6th Year of Your PhD 

The game’s allure, at least for me, was directly tied to my deep discontent with the rickety Celtics (and the fact that RaptorsTV is sort of the default white noise channel in my household). Aberrant records aside, there’s a big difference in the level of faith you can reasonably put in a team whose once clear plan is simply faltering as opposed to in a team where the mounting evidence points to an obvious lack of a plan, or, in this case, a rash course reversal.

There was once discernible intention behind each piece Ainge carefully added and coldly discarded (right down to the bone-headed decision to let Tony Allen go fresh on the heels of his defensive magnus opus in the Finals against Kobe Bryant*). But when a GM bifurcates from the supposed grand design he’s invested the last few years in as his guiding principle, you’re left with nothing but disparate pieces that neither work nor can be combined in any cohesive, team amplifying way. 

I’m a patient gal, but it’s January goddammit and my summer enthusiasm is starting to coagulate; how can I continue to sit there with Mike Brown open-mouthed acquiescence when two seasons after trading Perkins, prioritizing signing a minivan-full of guards over retaining the rim-protecting Stiemsma and finally, shifting KG to center and claiming that move as the catalyst for the team’s improbably deep playoff run, Doc Rivers can look straight at the media without flinching and say: “We want to stay as big as possible”. 

Stupendous, but may I ask with what personnel and what we are to make of last year’s success deploying the exact opposite strategy?

Which leads us to the DeMarcus Cousins sweepstakes: an investment you could liken to snatching up illiquid toxic assets. I decided it was time to play the hypothetical “What Would You Give Up For DeMarcus” game.

***

As I burrowed my expanding holiday derriere into my family sofa, my parents and I braced ourselves for the full DeMarcus Cousins Experience. Billed as a redemption tale featuring a sour man-child prone to Rainmaker-decibel tantrums — the likes of which have worn on just about everyone in Sleep Train except the concessions stand lady, the game featured an almost irresistible opportunity for Cousins to further confuse his critics. To say that this was an invitation to invade a fort usually left unguarded — now sporting an “OPEN, PLEASE TRESPASS” sign at its deserted entrance — is understating the glaring size deficiency the two dapper European bench amigos (Valanciunas and Bargnani) presented in their pristinely hand-tailored suits.

Cousins took that obvious advantage, put it in his pocket and parlayed it into effortless-bordering-on-cruel domination. So effortless looking, in fact, that it was almost off-putting*. Even sloppy possessions marked by ill-advised drives and over-ambitious dribble maneuvers through dense crowds somehow improbably added to his gaudy bucket count. And oh the lovely variety! On one possession, Cousins drove left and found himself stranded deep along the baseline with seemingly nowhere to go. Just as I let out a dismissive sigh, he casually pulled his momentum in the other direction, nimbly adjusted and made a sweet little right-handed hook that looked anything but lucky. The result? A blowout and three mouths agape.

***

There exists a type of player so gifted that his stats always manage to sneak up on you while scrutinizing a stale box score — call them the Boiling Frogs of the Sports World. Their play is characterized by a cool quality, their game, predicated by an instinct and feel so apparent it squelches flaws that usually limit what most other players are able to achieve on the court. They stand apart from their peers by the simple fact that the ball seems magnetically rigged to achieve a specific course as if by some weird mysterious quantum spin when in their possession. And on any given night when that’s not the case, Cousin’s output still flirts with a drawly 20 & 10 line that oddly matches his slurry speech. On this night, it read: 31 points, 20 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals in a mere 32 minutes of playing time.

In the same way Tracy Austin drove David Faster Wallace mad with her inability to externalize her genius and express it in a manner insightful to her adoring and inquiring fans, so too Cousins baffles onlookers with his seeming disrespect of a game we love. Whether just or not, adulating onlookers seem to think it only fair — in the player-spectator exchange — that the owners of such exquisite raw resources extract every last iota of blissful talent we weren’t as lucky to be endowed with.

What exacerbates these expectations is that no one works to be tall; it’s not unfathomable to think that someone like Cousins, once accused of being a “waste of space”, then quickly corralled by the AAU powers that be — always roaming the ‘Bama hallways in search of the next football star — would draw feelings of invidiousness. Let’s face it, being around DeMarcus in historic little ol’ Mobile Alabama must have been as much fun as flailing aimlessly about as the monkey in the middle who gets toyed around with by bigger more imposingly brutish bullies. It’s just not fair.

And there’s always been the issue of That Face. In French, we use the expression ”Il a une face a bucher dedans” to describe mugs like Patrick Roy’s that you can’t stand to look at for more than a few seconds before being overcome with a visceral desire to use them as a punching bag. That Face has not served DeMarcus well.

After watching videos and reading interviews with Cousin’s mom, you almost get the feeling that her precognitive sense and readiness to engage in a pecking war at a moment’s notice to keep circling, ethically depraved AAU “meat market” dealers at bay have impregnated Cousins with a deep mistrust of others, starting with the people who dared him to fail early on.

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So: Menacing Boogieman or affable monster? In case you’re still slinging cognitive webs to make sense of the opening quote, those are the words LeFlore basketball high school coach Otis Hughley chose to describe Cousin’s conflicted past. Perhaps there’s more childlike qualities and resentment from having his youth curtailed than just the man-child label Cousins has sought to shed along with that last stubborn sticky layer of baby fat that’s tagged along for his NBA ride.

*** 

Talent is only a fraction of the equation. The biggest quandary as far as my sentimental heart is concerned — an emotional condition aggravated by the deep attachment I feel towards young guys like Sullinger and Bradley — is parting ways with budding talent that not only shows an aptitude for the ball but also possesses that rare maturity and grit gene. I remember being irrationally restrained in my celebrations around the time of the KG trade because of a nagging tinge associated with the departure of Big Al. We always cling to what we have. 

Only time will tell what will become of Cousins: Dispatched from the league in two years or thriving as the best center in the NBA for the next decade as a bigger, nastier and immovable version of Pau Gasol. Despite the daunting distance between his best and worst case scenarios, I had warmed up to Cousins, his enormous talent and accompanying burden. Unfortunately for me and my equally unfortunate Celtics, it seems as though the Kings organization, dysfunctional and starved as it stands, has also judged Cousins’ talents worth the frequent headaches they induce…

Until a brash suitor rides into town with an offer so ridiculous that the Maloof brothers have no choice other than to entertain it, that is. At this tenuous moment in time for both the Kings franchise and DeMarcus Cousins, you could qualify that as a double entendre. 

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* motivated by the Cap Clearing Scavenger Hunt of 2012 with Dallas as the frontrunner before Cuban chose Shark Tank over Deron Williams

* as dictated by the Law of Diminishing Entertainment Returns