RetroBall: Rockets-Lakers ’07 and the night Yao stood too tall for Kobe

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Since billionaire owners and millionaire players are bitterly divided over how much money they’ll be splitting over the coming years and have locked us out of actual basketball to talk about, PBT will be regaling you this summer on the weekends with RetroBall. Using the advanced powers of the internet and NBATV, we’ll bring you interesting stories from years gone by. If nothing else, it will provide us an opportunity to make fun of fashion and culture from the past, which is always a giggle.

This week we bring you a reflection on the Ming Dynasty. With the announcement of Yao Ming’s retirement a little over a week ago, and with the fanfare substantially muted on account of the league being unable (unwilling) to discuss the players and give Yao his due, we wanted to pay tribute. I elected to go with an overtime classic against the Lakers, a 107-104 Overtime win for the Rockets where Yao dropped 39 points (on 18 shots), 11 rebounds, and 4 blocks.

Oh, and the fact that Kobe Bryant dropped 53 points (on 44 shots!) wasn’t a bad incentive either.

2006-2007 was an interesting year for both men. Yao was returning from one of his many injuries; he only played 48 games that season. But in the games he played in, he averaged 25 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, with 2 assists and 2 blocks. He posted his career high in PER of 26.5. It was during the McGrady-Yao era, but before they made upgrades to make a run in 2007-2008, and 2008-2009. And still, the Rockets won 52 games, securing the five seed. If it hadn’t been for those pesky Utah Jazz, they would have got away with it, too. But then, that’s the legacy of the mid-00’s Rockets. “If it hadn’t been for…”

Meanwhile, this is the era of the Lakers team Lakers fans turn to as proof of Kobe Bryant’s greatness and the reminder of how things weren’t always as halcyon as they are now. It is the Smush Parker era. The Kwame Brown era. The Luke Walton Is Starting, For God’s Sake Era. The Lakers would somehow drag themselves to the playoffs, and face the Phoenix Suns who they nearly toppled the year before. Yeah, not so much. But in the middle of that, there’s Kobe Bryant during the best pure offensive stretch of his career.

On March 30th, 2007, in the midst of their playoff pushes, the two teams met in Los Angeles. What follows are my observations from watching the game.

  • And we’re off, with Joel Meyers and Snapper Jones, marking his third straight appearance in RetroBall broadcasts. The man’s everywhere. Your starting lineups. For the Lakers, Smush Parker (giggle), Kobe Bryant, Luke Walton (guffaw), Lamar Odom, and Kwame Brown (chuckle). For the Rockets, Rafer Alston, Shane Battier, Tracy McGrady, Chuck Hayes, and Yao Ming.
  • First Lakers possession is a Smush Parker double-clutch airball. And we’re off!
  • What’s striking about the two teams isn’t the offense, but the defense. The Lakers’ help defense is an abject nightmare. Whether that’s personnel (what everyone wants to pin it on), or the level of interest Phil Jackson had in coaching this group is unclear. Either way, the problem isn’t a Raptors-like laziness, but instead over-commitment as the double is too reactive, too eager, which leads to a boatload of buckets from Houston on easy dump off passes for layups. Houston on the other hand, coached by Jeff Van Gundy, is smart with where it sends guys. When they over-commit, it’s strategic, a tactical decision to not let X player beat you, but instead to allow Y. This is in large part why Kwame Brown winds up with 15 points in this game.
  • Side note: Kwame was pretty terrible in this time frame, as he has been for the majority of his career, but the work he’s done with Charlotte was overlooked this season, and his effort here today shows signs of it. He’s got the willpower, and the athleticism, just not the head on his shoulders. On the list of guys who let down the Lakers in this loss, Kwame’s actually not on the list. He arguably had a better game than Lamar Odom.
  • Bryant immediately realizes it’s going to be yet another one of “those games” and goes to work. McGrady plays pretty decent defense on the left wing, forcing him right, which is where Battier is coming for help. Bryant pulls up at the elbow just as Battier commits to contesting the shot. Nails it. Yikes.
  • A few minutes later, Bryant inbounds, then uses the posted Odom to screen his man, goes back underneath it, catches and squares up. This is the first of many instances where you wonder what in God’s name Kirk Snyder (who inexplicably guards Bryant for a vast section of the first half) is doing as he backs off to contain the drive, giving Kobe Bryant a pull-up J. Boom.
  • You know what’s cute? How much Tracy McGrady (30 points on 24 shots, 29 percent) wants to get into a shooting match with Bryant. It’s pretty apparent that Tracy thinks this is going to be Nique vs. Bird. Yao Ming is shaking his head like a bobblehead. Miraculously, he is not injured trying to shove his foot up McGrady’s backside.
  • McGrady does get aggressive for a bucket as he blows past Bryant like he’s standing still. Kobe yells for help from Odom, but Odom’s late on his rotation (this will be a theme), and McGrady lays it in at the rim, a reminder of how much ups McGrady had at this point. Kobe gives Odom the glare you may have seen from such films as “the 2008 Finals” and “the Dallas Mavericks disaster.”
  • This would be a good point to note that Luke Walton started for this team. Actually started. Luke Walton, starting forward for the Los Angeles Lakers. THE Los Angeles Lakers started Luke Walton. Yeah, Mitch Kupchak is and always has been a genius. That’s right.
  • Perfect example of the good and bad of Kwame. The Rockets run underneath screens twice and back, and in the ensuing chaos, Brown leaves his man, Yao Ming, the 7-6 All-Star, to chase Shane Battier rolling away from the basket, and away from the ball to short range. Easy entry pass, Yao capitalizes. D’oh.
  • Kwame’s actual man defense on Yao starts out pretty well. He guards his “sweet spot shot,” as Snapper puts it, extremely well, closing off the middle of the lane, and jumping off his baseline foot to contest the baby face-up jumper. He also goes over the top to deny an entry pass. By the end of the first half, however, Yao’s gets his feel for Brown and starts to adjust his spacing to draw fouls.  Which he does to the tune of five fouls on Brown and 21 free throws total. As a metaphor for Yao’s game, he doesn’t dominate Brown or fill up the highlight reel. It’s a war of attrition, and Yao’s size and touch is simply too much for the Lakers to overcome. But we’ll get there.
  • We’re back to the bad part of Kwame. After denying that entry pass, on the next possession, he gambles by rushing the ball handler (John Lucas), and momentarily forces the steal. Brown immediately sprints out to get out in transition for a bucket. Unfortunately, the Rockets retain possession, Lucas swings to Battier on the wing, Odom jumps out to contest the open three, which means guess who’s open underneath the basket with only Kobe Bryant nearby? Yeah, the 7-6 guy again. Two more for Yao.
  • Even in 2007, Luke Walton is trying to cherry pick.
  • Bryant scores eight of the Lakers’ first 10 points. None of them are layups. I’ve seen the guy make thousands of these shots and it still leaves your jaw hanging to watch him work offensively. The patience, the deliberate nature, the fingersnap-quick attack. It’s a dazzling display… which of course leaves Kobe with an even quicker finger trigger than normal.
  • Considering that Bryant winds up shooting 44 times in this game (44 times!), you’d think it had to be his highest FGA game of his career. Nope. Tied for fourth highest. He shot an equal or higher number of times five times in his career. Cue Kevin Harlan. “With no regard for human efficiency!”
  • It was about time for the good Lamar Odom side to show up. Odom dribbles all the way to the baseline, forcing Yao to commit, leaving Kwame. A nice over the top dump-off to Odom over his man gives Kwame a layup through the back side of Yao. Kwame Brown, scoring machine.
  • You can talk a lot about Kwame Brown’s failures. But it’s important that we document the following:
  • Immediately following this, Yao posts in the center of the lane, establishes  position, receives the ball and draws a foul on Kwame. This happens on two of Brown’s five fouls; Yao immediately targets Brown after he scores. As if to say “Okay, that’s nice, but no, seriously, I’m much better than you.”
  • Really, when you think about it, Smush Parker missed PUJIT (Pull-Up Jumpers In Transition) 3s are the best PUJIT 3s.
  • The trick with Yao was to get him into a position where the rebound was predicated by covering distance, not position and timing. His frame couldn’t support him pogo-ing, which means if you skyrocketed up like Odom does several times, you can snatch offensive rebounds.
  • No wonder Laker fans think Shane Battier is overrated defensively. Luke Walton scored on him once. That’s enough for most people.
  • Watching the defensive effort of McGrady in this game compared to each season after is stunning. The effort level really is pretty high, even if it’s not nearly intelligent enough. If only he’d listened to Battier some.
  • Weird to see the success Kwame has in getting Yao out of the lane and facing him up, then taking him off the dribble. Makes you wonder what would have happened if Brown had landed somewhere that had him lose weight and become a stretch F/C.
  • I understand hating Rafer Alston is very popular, and that my reticence about the deal that sent Alston for Kyle Lowry looks monumentally stupid, but Alston has a spectacular play in the second quarter. Off the steal, Rafer takes a mid-court pick, and gets Luke Walton on skates, goes “Skip to My Lou” on him, then no-look passes to a cutting Yao for a slam. If you’re the Lakers, my question is this. How do you not hear the 7-6 Chinese guy coming? That phrase “heard footsteps?” It was invented for situations just like this.
  • And Juwan Howard is here! Juwan Howard is the Steve Buscemi of the NBA. He just pops up everywhere you look in little bit parts.
  • When Kwame completely bobbles a wide-open, great look from Walton, I think “Oh, he Joel Anthony’d it.” Then I realize, based on the space-time continuum, in reality, Joel Anthony “Kwame Brown’d it.”
  • Kobe has 16 with 10:24 to go in the half. As crazy as 16 points in 13:36 is, he winds up scoring 37 more in the final 39:24.
  • Having Bryant out there every single play has to exhaust the defense. The Rockets relax for a second, on a simple swing pass to Bryant who faces up baseline. Before they can realize they need to bring help, Bryant is jogging back on defense after canning the jumper.
  • Here’s a name for you. IT’S SHAMMOND WILLIAMS TIME! Williams immediately turns the ball over on a lazy half-court pass to Kobe. The former Tar Heel winds up making $7 million in his six seasons in the NBA. This is why we can’t have nice things.
  • Sasha Vucacic effectively runs the pick-and-pop with Ronny Turiaf. Maybe I should ease back on complimenting the Rockets’ defense.
  • Kwame loudly, and angrily claps at the official after a play. It’s pretty disrespectful when you watch. It would be a tech now, but no one will remember that as they complain about the tech rules.
  • Yao’s patience is really key. So many post players need to get into their move immediately after the catch. But Yao’s hands are so good, he’s able to be patient. That and the fact that he’s seven-feet-six-inches helps, too. He’s drawing fouls on nearly every touch in the third, but Tracy McGrady keeps shooting.
  • In case you were wondering why the Rockets later made a big move for Ron Artest, Kirk Snyder just tried defending Kobe Bryant again.
  • Want to know what it was like trying to score on Yao when he had you locked in on the rotation and actually jumped? Take a look at this runner attempt from Kobe Bryant. Not pictured: Kobe Bryant.
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  • Bryant loops off a screen to the left baseline, Yao closes to his right. Bryant double clutches in air to get a feel for where Yao’s hands are, then slips the ball under Yao’s arms and in for a bucket. Incredible.
  • No wonder Laker fans hated this team. They blew so many layups. They keep getting open looks off the cut and a good pass, and no one outside of Bryant can finish.
  • Yao has no assists in this game, mostly on account of his team’s dreadful shooting. The Rockets shoot 38 percent in the game despite Yao shooting 61 percent. *Cough* Tracy McGrady! *Cough.* Yao’s hands are so soft for a guy like that. That’s really what’s missing, maybe, from the current crop of centers. There are no legit 7-footers, but there’s also no one with those kind of hands. He’s able to put the right positioning on every pass one-handed.
  • Yao starts to get the baby hook going, and the Rockets lead starts to balloon.
  • Joel Meyers on a missed Smush Parker 3-pointer. “You couldn’t ask for a better look.” Unless it wasn’t Smush Parker taking it, I assume he means.
  • Kobe Bryant is in hero mode, and just launching whatever he can. He’s going one-on-tow, one-on-three. Just throwing it up there.  His shot’s gone and the lead is ten in the fourth.
  • The lead is up to twelve with 4:20 to go when things go bonkers.
  • Bryant hits a 35-foot three in that sweet spot he likes on the right wing just near the baseline, then nails a floater. Kwame blocks Yao’s turnaround, then Kobe gets too excited and shoots another 35-foot contested three which misses, but Odom rebounds. Back to Bryant who slips baseline to draw the foul. Seven points straight for Bryant.
  • Kwame gambles and rips the ball away from Yao, pushes ahead to Bryant who hits a runner over Yao. Nine points.
  • Bryant hits a PUJIT 3 for his twelfth straight and the lead is only three.
  • On the next possession, McGrady misses, Kobe again goes hero mode from the same long spot, air-balls, and Ronny Turiaf catches it and slips it in. One point game.
  • Lots of traded free throws, and after Bryant badly misses another contested 35-40 foot 3, the Lakers force a turnover. On the inbounds, the Rockets Hack-A-Kwame to send him to the line. He misses the first.
  • Then all hell breaks loose. Kwame goes to the line for the second, down three, and…
  • As a matter of fact, Joel, I do believe it, because it is Kobe Bryant. T-Mac misses and we go to overtime.
  • Meyers starts off the overtime by saying “Someone else is going to have to score, Kobe can’t do it by himself.” Bryant immediately makes a pull-up jumper. Snapper: “Well, maybe he can!”
  • Bryant with another dagger, a step-inside the three-point line. It’s slipping away from the Rockets and the Staples crowd is alive since it has a chance at winning.
  • When the Rockets needed it most, Yao hits a baby-hook with Kwame right in his grill, it barely breezes the net.
  • Luke Walton misses a jumper, because really, that’s the guy you want shooting in this situation, then Kwame is slow to rotate again, and Odom has to foul Yao, who miraculously only makes one of two, one of his four misses on the day.
  • Bryant nails another pull-up elbow jumper, what feels like his fiftieth of the day, to score his 53 points. Surely, surely that’s enough, right?
  • Don’t call me Shirley. Because it’s long in Chinese. (Note: I have no idea about its actual length in Chinese.)
  • McGrady draws a really suspicious foul on Bryant. He loops around a screen, Bryant bumps him trying to cut him off, McGrady takes a one-hop 3-pointer attempt, they call continuation. Three free throws, McGrady makes two of three, and it’s a one point game. Kobe time, right?
  • Bryant drives baseline, takes on three defenders, three very good defenders at once and hoists up a desperation shot that misses badly. Lakers facepalm then scream at you for laughing at it.
  • McGrady misses a jumper (shocker), Juwan Howard (guess who!) rebounds over Odom and Kwame, and drops it to Yao (over Odom’s head) and…
  • Kobe called for traveling?! Yes, that actually happened.
  • Free throws, down three, Bryant with a chance to tie the game… and he launches a 40-foot-contested-three with five seconds left on the clock. No good. Rockets win. But Chalupas!
  • Yao is so consistent in this game, Bryant so maddeningly conscience-less and at the same time brilliant, it stands as a time capsule for their careers. There was a time when Yao’s absolute control lead him to be one of the game’s greats before things that were beyond his control ruined it, and a time when Bryant’s unquestioned leadership was as much a double-edged sword as it is now. It’s a shame we never got to see the two really battle for a full playoff series. But then, that’s the story of Yao.

Damian Lillard, Jusuf Nurkic make plays late to lift Blazers past Nets

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NEW YORK (AP) — Jusuf Nurkic apologized to Damian Lillard as they strolled back to their locker room, upset he had missed two free throws with less the three seconds left, giving the Brooklyn Nets a chance to either tie or win it at the buzzer.

All Lillard could care about was Nurkic’s heads-up play a couple of seconds earlier that eventually served as the game-winner.

Lillard scored 34, Nurkic added 29 and 15 rebounds, including eight in the fourth quarter, and the Portland Trail Blazers rallied from a six-point deficit late in the fourth quarter to edge the Nets 127-125 on Friday.

“After the game he was telling me, `Man, my bad I missed the free throws, I did this and I this that’,” Lillard recalled. “I stopped in the hallway, I said, `I don’t care about none of that, the most important thing is you made the biggest play of the game’.”

Portland trailed 121-115 with 2:20 left after former Trail Blazers’ guard Allen Crabbe floater. The Trail Blazers then scored the next eight points, capped by Shabbaz Nappier’s three-point play with 55 seconds left. Brooklyn’s Spencer Dinwiddie then evened it 123 with a putback layup after missing his own 15-foot pullup shot.

Lillard then freed himself off Dinwiddie’s tight defense as Nurkic set a pick at the 3-point arc, diving to the basket as the Portland point guard served him the ball. DeMarre Carroll then slid in to help on the coverage, blocking Nurkic right under the basket. Caris LeVert briefly had control of the ball before the Trail Blazers’ center snatched it away and put it through, drawing a foul and capping a three-point play with 27 seconds left to put his team ahead for good, 126-123.

“I learned never quit,” said Nurkic, who had eight rebounds and two of his four blocks in the final period. “There’s no lost possession. I see an opportunity to steal the ball and try to make a play. It (went) in.”

Despite Lillard’s words of encouragement, he was still beating himself for making 5 of 10 free throws.

“I know I am a way better free throw (shooter) than I am showing,” said Nurkic.

CJ McCollum chipped in 26 for the Trail Blazers, who found themselves down by 11 in the first quarter in a post-Thanksgiving noon tip.

The Trail Blazers’ defense held the Nets 0 for 5 from the field during their key fourth quarter 8-0 run, two days after a disappointing 20-point loss at Philadelphia.

“We made some good defensive stops in the last minute and a half and were able to convert in the other direction,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said.

Dinwiddie had 23 for the Nets, who have lost three straight games – the previous two to the defending champions, Golden State Warriors, and Cleveland Cavaliers.

After cutting Portland’s lead to 126-125 with 15.7 seconds, he had a chance to put the Nets ahead but missed a 3-pointer with 4:8 seconds left.

“I felt like it was a good look,” Dinwiddie said. “It bounced around the rim a couple of times but didn’t go in.”

Brooklyn had six other players score in double-figures, including Rondae-Hollis Jefferson had 17. Sean Kilpatrick added 14 and Joe Harris scored 14.

 

Should Cavaliers be interested in DeAndre Jordan? At what price?

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In a season ravaged by injuries, the Clippers are stumbling and — especially if the stumbles continue — they will be left with a couple of hard questions. One is the future of Doc Rivers.

The other is the future DeAndre Jordan. He has a player option for next season and almost certainly becomes a free agent. While new Clipper president Lawrence Frank has said he wants Jordan to be a “Clipper for life,” other teams are calling Frank to see if Jordan is available. If the Clippers think they may not be able to re-sign him this summer, they have to consider their options. Including a trade.

Should the Cavaliers be one of those teams calling the Clippers? Joe Varden of the Cleveland Plain Dealer had this answer to that question.

DeAndre Jordan’s numbers are down this season. He’s averaging 10.4 points and shooting .664 from the field (he only shoots twos). Even his blocks — 1.2 per game — are down from the 1.7 he averaged a year ago. Also, Jordan, 29, has a $24.1 million player’s option in his contract for next season. So, he could essentially be a rental. That said, you’re right, he’d thrive playing alongside LeBron James and Isaiah ThomasTristan Thompson was great against the Warriors in the Finals two seasons ago, and struggled mightily last year. A league source believes this move, Jordan for Thompson, is one the Cavs would consider. How the Brooklyn pick figured in remains to be seen (Cleveland also has its own No. 1 pick), but if the Cavs felt Jordan was the only piece missing for them to take down the Warriors they’d have to consider this.

First, Jordan’s numbers are down this season because Austin Rivers is feeding him the ball off pick-and-rolls, not Chris Paul. That’s a huge talent drop off. Jordan and Paul played well off each other, a decrease in counting stats was to be expected.

Second, it’s fair to ask if Jordan actually puts the Cavaliers on the level of the Warriors? I don’t see it, and if the Cavaliers don’t think he puts them on that tier, they should be careful about what they offer.

Finally, Jordan would be a rental, although the Cavaliers might be able to re-sign him if the price was right and LeBron stays.

What I’ve heard around the league is that the Brooklyn pick is off the table right now, that Cleveland may be willing to move their own first rounder (likely in the mid-20s). The bottom line on the scenario above, Jordan is an upgrade on both ends of the court over Tristan Thompson, even when Thompson is healthy. If the Cavaliers are all-in for a title this season, they have to seriously consider it.

Would a  Thompson and Cavaliers pick get the deal done? Thompson has two-years, $36 million on his contract after this season, the Cavaliers might like to have the flexibility of Jordan’s expiring deal over TT (despite Thompson’s close ties to LeBron). However, would the Clippers take on that extra salary for just a late first rounder? Not likely. They will demand the Brooklyn pick at first. The question is will the Clippers come around to what the Cavaliers offer? Or will Cleveland decide that this season is more important than future protections and throw the Brooklyn pick in?

Other teams — Washington and Milwaukee are rumored among them — are calling the Clippers, too.

The first question is, will the Clippers want to trade DJ at all, or are they going to stand pat and try to re-sign him. The ball is in Lawrence Frank’s court right now.

 

Kyrie Irving: ‘I see you. I see everyone. More than just your physical presence, I see your energy. I feel it. I know it’

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Kyrie Irving has done good lately.

Not just during Celtics games. He gave his jersey and shoes to military members in the crowd, and he recently shared a Thanksgiving dinner with Boston families.

Irving also addressed the event.

Irving, via Nicole Yang of Boston.com:

“I see you,” he said. “I see everyone. More than just your physical presence, I see your energy. I feel it. I know it.”

“I think that the most important thing that I strive to live by is extremely by truth and by consistently giving others the truth, without any judgement, without constraints, without anything extra except the understanding that I see you,” he said. “I have family members who come from knowing energy, and it was passed along to me.”

I can’t get enough of all this stuff.

Report: Derrick Rose away from Cavaliers, evaluating his future in basketball

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When Derrick Rose went AWOL from the Knicks last season for what he called a family issue, rumors swirled that he was contemplating retirement. Rose denied it, but those whispers are reemerging.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Rose has been out with what seemed like a relative minor, for him at least, ankle injury. The 29-year-old could stick in the league for a while thanks to his reputation and ability to attack the rim to create shots for himself. But the guard is a shell of peak form after years of more serious injuries. This isn’t the career anyone expected for him when he was named the youngest MVP ever in 2011.

Before the season, Rose was talking about getting a raise on his next contract. He seemed happy to join a contender and have LeBron James in his corner.

But something is amiss. Hopefully, Rose can find contentment – whether that’s continuing his NBA career or walking away.