Blake Griffin

The “Violence Against Blake Griffin” situation

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He’s asking for it.

OK, stop, that right there. That’s me trying to snag your attention with some sort of bombastic statement. I can assure you my position is more nuanced than this phrase, which by the way, in the context of violence of any sort — on-court, off-court, sexual, non-sexual — should never, ever be used, and that my use of it is only as a way to let you know this is actually a thing that’s going on and not just “oh, Jason Smith gave Blake Griffin a hard foul.”

The NBA is developing a problem for itself, and how it handles it will be a very delicate matter. Because Blake Griffin is asking for it, and that’s what the league wants.

Remember those halcyon days last year when Griffin was just creating highlights, detonating at 10,000 feet like the NBA version of a warhead, and everyone just thought it was awesome? Yeah, hi, welcome to 2012, where due to exposure, the life expectancy of your ubiquitous mass appeal is about 45 seconds. Griffin hasn’t been the same monster this year that he was last year. He’s still got a handful of absolutely absurd throwdowns, but his points, rebounds, and assists are all down per 36 minutes from last year. His efficiency is slightly up, both in field goal percentage and PER, but his free throw shooting is down. And while his free throw rate is down from his rookie year, you can tell that part of the drop in his productivity has to do with the fouls he’s taking.

Last year, it was cute. There were some who gave the hard foul, it got to be more of an issue, the Clippers certainly complained about it, but in reality, it was mostly just adorable that he tried so hard on every play. But this year, the cuteness has worn off. The book is out on Griffin. Hammer him, punish him, make it clear you will not stand for him putting you on NBC SportsTalk as a highlight. And since Griffin is so physical, so athletic, so aggressive, you have to do it fast. So you have fast, plus violence. Or, in the absence of fast, you can have reckless. Observe.

Now, Smith has already apologized for the hit, and knows it was reckless. In reality, this play isn’t indicative of what Griffin is facing on a night-to-night basis. This is an outlier, a sloppy combination of a player giving up on trying to make the play while not giving up on giving contact. This isn’t the type of player Jason Smith is, it was just a bad foul. But this, again, is the book on Blake Griffin. This is how you stop him. And he knows that, which is why he’s also driving fans nuts (and making them want those hard fouls given) by freaking out over every call.

This isn’t anything new for Griffin. He’s typically always had the same attitude. And if it seems familiar, here’s why, and I want to be clear on this so we’re going all bold: Every great player in the history of the NBA has freaked out over getting calls because it gives them an edge. Yes, Jordan. Yes, Kobe. Yes, Duncan. Yes, Malone. Yes, Steve Nash, Derrick Rose, LeBron James and Travis Diener. (OK, Travis didn’t do that, nor was he great.)

It’s part of it. It’s how you react. And it’s a two way street. Those players I mentioned above, the Trav not withstanding, they all take an excessive amount of punishment which the league cannot completely corral. Kobe Bryant gets a ridiculously high number of foul calls in his favor. He also has a ridiculous number of fouls calls missed. If you go through and watch a ton of highlights, you’re going to see guys being more hands-on with Kobe than they were with their dad’s stash of adult magazines when they were 13. And by they I mean you. Bryant takes bumps, scrapes, hits, whacks, thumps, shoves, elbows, and I think one time bites because he has the ball a ton, scores the ball a ton, and his defenders will do anything to stop him.

So Griffin’s reaction is annoying and overdramatic, but it’s not only trying to win to get that advantage, it’s self-preservation. The Clippers and Griffin honestly feel that he’s targeted, and that the abuse he takes is greater than that of the average player. And he’s probably right. And the reason for why that is what gives the league such a headache.

The NBA wants those highlights. It wants Griffin putting a ridiculous poster down on some huge defender to steal the spotlight from baseball on highlight shows across the country on the third night of baseball season. It wants to showcase this dynamic, explosive young powerhouse whose play seems like Thor himself raining thunder down on his enemies. But they do have, despite public sentiment to the opposite, a practice of letting the players police themselves. You’re allowed to target a guy as long as you do it within the bounds of play and you do not violate any of the specific rules set forth. You’ll be punished for such plays, whether it’s a personal, flagrant, or flagrant II foul. But they don’t specifically act to control such measures, because they can’t treat any one player as special. Just because Blake Griffin tries really hard doesn’t mean that they can involve themselves in protecting him from harm any more so than for Chris Paul or Dwight Howard or Sam Young or Drew Gooden. They can only respond to excessive incidents.

The nature of the game means they can only be reactive.

And that’s a trick for them. It’s why you see so many superstar young guys fade into less contact. Dwyane Wade was a contact-loving machine his first three seasons. A barrel full of injuries later and his game is much more predicated on slipping contact than creating it. Griffin’s already trying to diversify his game to be more deadly from range (and failing miserably). We want to see him drive instead of take that mid-range jumper, but the only way he can draw defenders out to create space and therefore not get beaten to a pulp when he drives is to knock down that shot.

Meanwhile the league is going to face this as a continuing issue. Because Griffin’s adjusting, but he’s not relenting. For all the complaints and the way defenses have adjusted to him, you have to give him that. He’s still waiting like a cobra to strike every time down the floor. But eventually the NBA may be put into a position where they have to intercede on the players’ own policing. And that’s going to get bad very quickly.

Addendum: You’re going to hear the phrase “back in the day” or “in the 80’s” a lot in relation to this issue. Please bear in mind two things. One, there’s a reason the game has evolved away from that and it has less to do with cultural values or an NBA image problem and more to do with the players not wanting to operate in an environment where their career can be threatened or their lives can be put in danger. It may make you feel like a man to talk about how tough things you used to not do were, but the reality has changed.

Two, the speed and violence capable at this level greatly exceeds what we knew in the 80’s due to strength and conditioning regimens and that means the dangers are that much higher. No one’s advocating getting rid of the hard foul here, or getting rid of the hard foul on Griffin. The point is simply that Griffin’s particular style means that the odds of injury continue to increase and that means the odds of a fight increase, and that violence at a high velocity, particularly in mid-air (which is why the Smith foul isn’t nearly as bad as others we’ve seen) is going to be problematic without intervention eventually.

Report: Stephen Curry still at 70 percent due to knee injury

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The Oklahoma City Thunder have overwhelmed the Golden State Warriors with their athleticism, their improved defense, and the shot making of stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The Thunder are doing a lot of things right and have lifted themselves up to an elite status.

But the Warriors have not pushed back against this. Not like we expected the defending champions and a 73-win team would. Draymond Green is a shell of himself, a -72 the last couple games the Thunder have gotten in his head and have him second guessing his every decision.

Then there is Stephen Curry, who is 13-of-37 shooting the past two games, 5-of-21 from three, and a -58. He hasn’t carried the Warriors as he did for stretches this season, and it is lingering issues from his knee injury that are partially holding him back, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Curry has been a shell of himself – missing shots, throwing away passes, losing his dribble, and completely unable to prove that there’s Curry-esque agility in that knee. “He’s playing at 70 percent, at best,” a source close to Curry told The Vertical. Curry refuses to make excuses, but privately the Thunder see something – no explosion, no ability to make the bigs switching onto him pay a price. Twenty points on 19 shots Tuesday night bore no resemblance to the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player.

Curry missed a couple of weeks of play with a sprained MCL, but returned last round.

There have been flashes of that old Curry since his return — the monster fourth quarter and overtime against Portland in Game 4, or the third quarter of Game 2 against the Thunder — but what made Curry a back-to-back MVP was a sustained level of excellence, and that has gone away. He just can’t flip the switch and change a game right now the way he could for most of the past couple seasons.

You can tell the Thunder sense it — they are going right at him, attacking Curry’s defense knowing he can’t move well enough to handle their athletes. There is no mercy in the NBA and if teams sense a weakness they will exploit it — the Thunder sense that with Curry.

The way the Thunder are playing, a healthy Curry may not have made a difference, but you can bet the last couple games would not have been the same blowouts.

 

Report: David Fizdale to get second interview in Memphis, meet with owner

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David Fizdale has sat next to Erik Spoelstra in Miami for the past few seasons knowing he’s one of those top assistant coaches who was eventually going to get a shot in the big chair. The only question was where and when.

The answer may be Memphis right now.

Fizdale has a second interview coming with the Grizzlies, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

This would be a good hire for Memphis (although whether he is better than Dave Joerger — the coach the Grizzlies fired when he asked if he could talk to Sacramento about their job — is certainly up for debate).

In Miami, Fizdale had won the trust and respect of a team full of players that had won rings. He was a guy they leaned on and went to. As an example, Fizdale worked hard with LeBron James on developing a post game; he was the guy LeBron trusted.

Fizdale deserves a shot, it sounds like Memphis may be that place.

Five things Thunder did to go from good to brink of reaching NBA Finals

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 16:  Billy Donovan of the Oklahoma City Thunder high fives Serge Ibaka #9 and Kevin Durant #35 during game one of the NBA Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on May 16, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Oklahoma City won 55 games this season — most years that win total would have it entering the playoffs considered a contender. Plus, the Thunder have Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, two top five players in the league. However, with the 73-win Warriors and 67-win Spurs ahead of them, the Thunder felt more like a good but flawed team doomed to an early exit and a summer of speculation.

Now the Thunder are one win away from knocking off both the Spurs and Warriors back-to-back.

What changed? What did we miss? Here are five things the Thunder are doing better now than they did all season, the things that have propelled them within one game of the NBA Finals.

1) Defense. The Thunder were an okay defensive team this season, allowing 103 points per 100 possessions they ranked 12th in the league. That got worse after the All-Star break when the Thunder allowed 105.7 points per 100 possessions, ranked 16th. Over the final month, they would show flashes of how they could play lock down defense, but they could not sustain it.

Now, this is a team that has held the feared Warriors’ offense to 88.9 points per 100 possessions Tuesday, and 98.1 in Game 3. It’s a change thanks to a focused energy and attitude, but also some technical steps as well. For one, they have become fluid at switching on picks — both on and off the ball — and they are communicating when they do. More importantly, they are smart in doing it, knowing when to go under or when to ignore the pick whatsoever. That combined with their athleticism lets them make up ground if they get a step behind, and their length allows them to get into passing lanes to create turnovers, and to challenge shots — the blocks and deflections have gotten in the heads of the Warriors, who have become tentative, second guessing themselves. Mostly the Thunder are playing with a sustained focus and energy on that end of the floor we haven’t seen ever. It has flummoxed the Warriors, who are rushing shots or trying to do things in isolation more than moving the ball.

Mostly the Thunder are playing with a sustained focus and energy on that end of the floor we haven’t seen from them before. It has flummoxed the Warriors, who are rushing shots or trying to do things in isolation more than moving the ball.

“I think you have to build up stamina for that,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of the improved defensive energy and attention. “I think you have to have stamina to concentrate and focus and do what these guys do.”

2) Dion Waiters. Throughout his four NBA seasons, Waiters has never come close to playing as well, as consistently  as he has the past couple weeks. He’s like a different player. Waiters had a PER of 9.4 this season, the kind of number associated with being sent to the D-League. Credit to Donovan and the Thunder coaching staff, something has clicked with Waiters. Too often before he wanted to shoot like he was Russell Westbrook, now he has accepted the third (or fourth) man role on this team. His shot selection has improved, and with that he is knocking down his jumpers. Like the entire team (as noted above), his usually unfocused defense has suddenly become good almost every time down. He has become the third perimeter player the Thunder have needed for years.  With Waiters making plays, and more importantly accepting his role, the Thunder become that much harder to stop. The Warriors have not been able to.

3) Solving the Andre Roberson problem. The Golden State Warriors decided to treat Andre Roberson like they did Tony Allen from Memphis last playoffs — put a big on him (Andrew Bogut or Draymond Green), then have said big ignore him to stay near the basket to protect the rim. If Roberson wanted to shoot from the outside, the Warriors would let the notoriously poor shooter (31.1 percent from three this past season) have all the wide open shots he wanted. Memphis could never figure out how to deal with that and lost three straight to Golden State once this strategy was employed.

Billy Donovan made a great adjustment — he turned Roberson into a power forward/center, then surrounded him with shooters. This allows the active Roberson to set the pick for Westbrook (or whomever), then roll right down the lane to the basket for a dunk.  That and some backdoor cuts had Roberson scoring a career-high 17 points and giving the Thunder the support they need around their big stars in Game 4.

“It’s funny because after Game 2 people were saying to me ‘is this guy even going to play anymore?’” Donovan said. “Andre’s a good basketball player, and I think one of the things that go missing with him is he makes winning plays and he’s a winning player. There are a lot of things he can do, offensive rebounds and slashing to the basket, I have confidence in him shooting the basketball.”

4) They are one team that could play small and run with Golden State. The Warriors small-ball lineup was so feared around the league it earned the nickname The Death Lineup. It killed teams. Nobody could keep up the scoring machine that was the Warriors going small.

Until the Thunder went small in Game 3 and ran right past the death lineup (which was -22 for the game). The Thunder are the one team with the depth of athleticism to go small with the Warriors and hang, but this lineup had been destroyed by the Spurs so it was a risk to roll it out again. It worked this time around — the Thunder become so much faster and guys like Westbrook and Durant are impossible to stop in transition. The real key is despite going small the Thunder defense didn’t suffer —  Serge Ibaka (or Steven Adams), plus guys like Durant have done a fantastic job protecting the rim.

“It’s not about what is or is not going to work, sometimes you just got to put stuff out there based on teams. You’ve got to be willing to take some risks and do that…” Donovan said postgame

“Sometimes you’ve got to evaluate things within the series you’re playing against. So, why were the numbers bad? And was there any way with adjustments could we make those numbers better.”

Turns out, yes there was.

5) Billy Donovan has been fantastic. Donovan went toe-to-toe with Gregg Popovich, and now Steve Kerr, and it is the NBA rookie who is making the right adjustments. Like the small ball lineup, or using Roberson like a center.

More than that, Donovan has gotten buy-in from his players. They trust and are playing the system. The Thunder were never this focused and willing to sacrifice — Durant and Westbrook both fought staggering their minutes in the past, the defense was unfocused, and Waiters did whatever it is Waiters wanted to do. Donovan has solved all those problems, and it all starts with the players buying what Donovan is selling. After a season where he had to learn on the job the hard way — because Monte Williams (the tragic death of this wife) and Maurice Cheeks (injury) were taken off his bench for long stretches — Donovan has figured things out. He’s getting the kind of buy in Scott Brooks never seemed to have.

And with that, Donovan and the Thunder are within a game of the NBA Finals.

Watch Russell Westbrook drop 36 on Golden State in Oklahoma City win

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Once again, Russell Westbrook was the force of nature the Warriors could not solve.

The athletic point guard forced turnovers, threw it down in transition, and drove right past Stephen Curry or  was guarding him. The result was 36 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists — Westbrook’s first triple double of these playoffs.

“He’s got such great force and great will,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said after the Thunder’s Game 4 win. “And he’s really a high IQ basketball player, he sees a lot of things going on out there… As a coach, you have great respect and admiration for a guy who plays the game that hard and gives to our team what he gives.”

He helped give them a win that has the Thunder on the verge of a return to the NBA Finals.