Toronto Raptors Andrea Bargnani reacts after hitting a shot during their NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City

The Inbounds: The Pierre-Bargnani Defensive Mirror

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Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy.

Some of you will be aware of this, but for those of you aren’t, let me catch you up real quick. You know how Andrea Bargnani has this reputation as being the very definition of a horrible defender? It’s not entirely a fictional archetype, but it’s also not really so much in love with the truth that the two have announced the relationship on Facebook. Synergy Sports ranked Bargnani in the 88th percentile in post defense on a per-possession basis, and the 56th percentile in isolation defense last season (with a gaudy 95th percentile overall). It wasn’t all Dwane Casey’s wizardry last season (though his work with Bargnani’s defense should not be ignored, but we’ll get there. In 2011, he was 47th percentile in post and 83rd percentile in isolation. 2010? 72nd percentile in the post, 28th in isolation. Bear in mind these numbers are regardless of the number of possessions, so someone that defended in the post once successfully logs in at the top of the chart. So basically, he’s even better than these numbers indicate, relative to his position.

But as so many people that don’t understand nuance, statistics, or empirical information suggest, “numbers don’t tell the whole story.” It’s easy to say that, but what about who he was guarding, etc. Unfortunately, if you have too much time on your hands, as I have over the past four years, you can actually watch the game video and discover that, whoops, often Bargnani was actually defending the better offensive threat due to his raw height. Surprise! Andrea Bargnani is a pretty good man defender. Let your world shake into a new comfort. Even with the problems afforded Synergy and the metrics used in that glorious environment, it’s impossible to deny that Bargnani at least does a decent job of distracting the guy he’s matched up with into missing his shot a lot of the time.

But notice I said “man defender” there and not “defender.” Because the reason Bargnani has so consistently been set aflame by Twitter, bloggers, and your average Raptors fan is because he is, at his heart, an absolutely atrocious help defender. He never crowds the lane on perimeter penetration. He doesn’t nail the weakside block. He fails to rotate the first time, much less the second, and too often is already out of position for a rebound when the ball is in the air. There’s a lot to dislike.

Modern NBA defensive criticism is interesting because it specifically targets centers with fault for failing to cover for the mistakes of their teammates. It sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Why is it Andrea Barganani’s fault that Jose Calderon can’t contain perimeter penetration? Why should Bargnani have to clean up the mess for DeMar DeRozan? No one’s blasting wing defenders for not committing to the double team when Bargnani’s outmatched. This isn’t to suggest Bargnani’s victimized, it’s fair criticism. It’s just worth noting that for a fanbase that tends to lean towards traditional models of personal responsibility, we hold centers culpable for the wellbeing of the entire defensive state. They’re supposed to raise themselves up by the bootstraps and take care of their neighbor, so to speak.

And in another way, it’s hard to fault Bargnani for the thought process. He’s essentially torched because he fails to abandon the man he’s been tasked with keeping from scoring.  Think about that. He’s a bad defender because he carries out his assignment too much (while failing to execute other assignments that, depending on the time, have a greater priority). That, again, seems contradictory to our model of what we hold one another too. But it’s how it is, and when you consider the essential manner each defender is dependent on every other, the criticism rings true.

So what does Bargnani need to do this next season to make the major leap forward he started last season prior to injury? He needs to emulate JaVale McGee. And McGee needs to be like the seven-foot Italian. McGee is a block machine. He’s able to swat nearly any shot out of the air, even hooks from seven footers. He can alter any possession with his athleticism, and has great timing when he manages to channel his boundless energy into a significant play.

He also has defensive ADD. He sees the rabbit and dives after it, despite the electronic collar. He’s always chasing the weakside block. Too often he goes to close on a driving player who has been successfully corralled by a teammate, only to lose his man who sneaks weakside for the dump-off score. He’s chasing the bunny rabbit and loses the buck behind him.

So Bargnani is hammered for not helping his teammates enough, and McGee is hammered because he abandons his responsibility in pursuit of helping those same teammates too often.

But for each, it may mean something different. McGee speaks of wanting to lead the league in blocks. If you have the ability to defend the shot, even if your teammate has it well covered and the player is unlikely to convert, how can you not swat that thing? If you have your guy locked down, why are you worried about what someone else was or was not able to do?

We’ve seen over the past four-to-six years a familiar trend from the past reasserting itself. Older big men are blossoming. It’s really 26-plus when players come into their own. Because nowadays, system defense is what matters, what makes an impact, and that takes time to add to a skillset. Bargnani is 26. McGee is 24. To make the adjustments they need to reach the next level, it means letting go of their own personal concepts of right and wrong defensively, and playing as one cog in a greater system. The singular great defensive player is gone, even Tyson Chandler relies on teammates funneling players to where he can achieve.

If the two hyper-long freak athletes are going to fulfill their potential, they have to recognize the value of what’s on the other side of the mirror. It’s not a skill question, an ability question, or toughness question. It’s just bout understanding the big picture and being able to bridge those gaps in knowledge. If they can, the big men in the league could be in for a jolt. Defense has evolved from checkers to chess, and next season represents a chance for the young players to learn the game they’ve been fumbling through for years.

Hassan Whiteside gets triple-double as Heat hold off Hornets

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) reacts to his team scoring a basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016, in Dallas. The Heat won 93-90. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Associated Press
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside did his part to prevent the Charlotte Hornets from scoring inside.

Mix in a couple of key steals in the final seconds, and the Heat had a nice win on the road.

Whiteside had 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 blocked shots, and Miami beat Charlotte 98-95 on Friday night.

Dwyane Wade scored 22 points and Chris Bosh added 20 points for the Heat, who have won six of seven. Goran Dragic had 12 points, nine assists and eight rebounds.

Whiteside, a native of nearby Gastonia, North Carolina, posted his third triple-double of the season and No. 4 for his career.

“I was at the YMCA around the corner two years ago; now I’m here,” Whiteside said. “When a ball is around my elbow area, I’m going to try and catch it.

“The last three minutes, they were so worried about pump-faking, pump-faking. I told the guys to just stay with the 3-point shooters.”

Marvin Williams scored 27 points for the Hornets, and Nicolas Batum added 21. Kemba Walker had 20 points.

“Whiteside just dominated every aspect of that game,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. “Right now, he’s the premiere rim protector in the league. It changed the game when he came in; they were a totally different team when he was out there.”

The Heat were coming off a close 93-90 win at Dallas on Wednesday. The last time Miami played at Time Warner Cable Arena on Dec. 9, Charlotte won 99-81.

“It’s hard not to notice what they’ve done on this home court,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It seems that every top team in the East that comes in here walks out of here with a double-digit loss.

“It was something that we wanted to collectively do – get a win to put us at .500 on the road, and in a building that we haven’t played well.”

The Hornets led 93-90 with 1:10 remaining, but Wade made a layup and Bosh added a three-point play to make it 95-93 with 23.5 seconds left.

Charlotte had a chance to tie it, but Justise Winslow‘s steal set up a free throw by Luol Deng for a 96-93 advantage with 13.2 seconds left.

Wade then stole the ball from Walker and passed to Deng for a fast-break dunk with 4.3 seconds remaining and the Heat’s biggest lead of the game.

Before Miami’s flurry at the very end, neither team was able to grab much of an advantage. There were 26 lead changes and 12 ties, including 47-47 at halftime.

“We know we have to get stops,” Wade said. “We know we have enough offensive firepower down the stretch to get great looks. Tonight, Hassan was incredible down the stretch with protecting the basket.”

TIP-INS

Heat: Winslow had eight points and 10 rebounds. … Miami finished with 12 blocked shots. … The Heat outscored the Hornets 64-32 in the paint, and also enjoyed an 18-6 edge in second-chance points thanks to eight offensive rebounds.

Hornets: Shot 44.4 percent from the field (36 of 81), and made 10 of 26 3-pointers. … Also shot 13 of 15 from the free-throw line. … Charlotte’s reserves scored just 12 points, while Miami got 29 points from its backups.

 

HONORING `ZO’

Former Hornets star and 15-year NBA veteran Alonzo Mourning, now the vice president of player programs and development for the Heat, was honored by the home team during halftime of Friday’s game.

While he spent only three seasons in Charlotte (1992-1995), Mourning still holds franchise records for career blocks (684) and blocks per game (3.2), and is second in career scoring (21.3 points) and rebounds (10.1 per game).

 

Paul Millsap, Al Horford pace Hawks past Pacers 102-96

Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford dunks against the Indiana Pacers during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday Feb. 5, 2016, in Atlanta. Atlanta won 102-96. (AP Photo/John Amis)
Associated Press
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ATLANTA (AP) — Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer wasn’t terribly concerned that his team gave up 19 offensive rebounds.

Not when Atlanta held on for a third straight win.

“Obviously we’d like to be better, but I think just because you give up a rebound doesn’t mean automatically they’re going to score two points,” he said. “Overall, our defense is a lot of times what’s giving us a chance.”

Paul Millsap scored 24 points, Al Horford added 21 points and the Hawks beat the Indiana Pacers 102-96 on Friday night.

Paul George finished with 31 points for Indiana, which has lost 17 of its last 19 regular-season matchups in Atlanta. Lavoy Allen added 13 points and a game-high 14 rebounds.

The Pacers missed their first six shots of the fourth quarter before C.J. Miles‘ runner cut the lead to 78-74 with 8 minutes remaining.

George’s 3 with 4:49 left gave Indiana its last lead at 86-84. He hit another 3 with 1:02 left, falling back and heaving the ball over his right shoulder for a 35-footer that brought the Pacers within two.

But Jeff Teague‘s jumper and Kent Bazemore‘s two free throws pushed the lead to six with 22 seconds left. Teague had 16 points. Bazemore had 15 points and tied for a game-high eight assists.

Neither team led by more than six until the closing seconds. The lead changed hands 12 times.

It was a particularly frustrating night for Indiana, which out-rebounded the Hawks 53-32 and outscored them on second-chance points.

“Our bigs did a great job of rebounding,” George said. “It’s hard to make plays when they’re getting whacked all day at the rebounding, but it’s another game that we should have had – one that we didn’t do so late in the game and put it away.”

Horford had two consecutive dunks to push Atlanta back in front 73-72 in the last minute of the third. Dennis Schroder hit a 3 to make it a four-point lead early in the fourth.

“I think guys were pretty excited about the dunk(s),” Horford said. “I felt like that defensively fueled us going into the fourth.”

Millsap, at 6-foot-8, and the 6-10 Horford caused problems for Indiana’s big men all night on the perimeter with their passing skills and athleticism. They helped the Hawks outscore Indiana by four points in the paint.

“We did some good things but we didn’t handle their pressure well enough offensively,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “They got some very, very difficult coverages with Horford and Millsap out there spacing the floor we didn’t handle well enough either.”

The Hawks stayed in third place in the Eastern Conference with a 30-22 record. Indiana, at 26-24, fell to eighth place.

TIP-INS

Pacers: Indiana has dropped six of its last eight on the road. … George has scored at least 30 points in 15 of his 50 games. … G Monta Ellis, who averaged 20.5 points in the previous four games, scored 11.

Hawks: Atlanta has won nine of its last 11 at home. … The Hawks improved to 25-3 when scoring at least 100 points. … Led by Schroder’s nine points, the bench scored 20 – 60 less than the reserves combined for in Wednesday’s win at Philadelphia, the team’s highest total since 1987-88.

 

Bulls’ Jimmy Butler leaves game with sprained knee (VIDEO)

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This is not good.

With just more than a minute to go in the second quarter in Denver, Jimmy Butler drove the basket, absorbed some contact, and hit the ground hard. Butler — who seems to bounce back up from everything — stayed down. He hobbled out to take his free throws (the only way he could potentially return to the game) but then left it in a wheelchair. He did not return to the game.

The Bulls announced he has a left knee sprain. This is the same knee where he has been battling tendonitis.

Butler will have an MRI to assess the damage. As of now, there is no timetable for his return, but it seems he will miss at least a few games.

The up-and-down Bulls can’t afford to lose him for an extended stretch.

Celtics’ Avery Bradley’s three at buzzer beats Cavaliers (VIDEO)

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After two Kyrie Irving nailed free throws, the Cavaliers were up 103-99 on Boston with :07 left in the game. They had this.

Then J.R. Smith fouled Evan Turner on a driving lay-up with four seconds left, giving the Celtics the chance at an and-1. Turner missed the free throw, but the rebound bounced off LeBron James out-of-bounds, and Boston was going to get one last shot.

Avery Bradley nailed it from the corner. Celtics win.

Cleveland led this game by 22 at one point; they collapsed. This one is going to sting.