PBT’s RetroBall: Pistons-Bulls ’89 and Jordan’s good bad day

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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.

We begin our RetroBall series by accident. Yesterday I was asked by someone on Twitter if Jordan had ever fouled out as a member of the Chicago Bulls. A reasonable question, considering the insane amount of leeway Jordan got as a Bull when he became, you know, MJ. I dutifully looked it up on play index, curious in my own right, and found it had happened six times in his career. It never happened after the Bulls won their first championship in ’91. But when I looked at the list, I found myself fixating on his lowest point-total game.

On January 31st, 1989, the Bulls hosted the eventual champion Pistons in Chicago. The Pistons dominated the Bulls that season in both the regular and postseason, eventually losing in the Eastern Conference Finals to Isiah and the Bad Boys (4-2). But this January game was interesting in that it was such an example of Jordan being Jordan. He shot 24 times, hitting only seven shots for a 29% field goal percentage. He scored just 21 points, in a season he averaged 32.5. He fouled out of the game. Yet he also had a triple-double, with 12 rebounds and 10 assists. So he had this terrible game… and yet still scored 21 points with 12 rebounds, 10 assists, 2 steals and a block…. but he also had five turnovers. He accounted for 37.4% of all possessions for the Bulls, factoring FGA, FTA, and turnovers. What a bizarre game.

Thanks to the very helpful Vincent Goodwill of the Detroit News, I got my hands on a YouTube copy. Since I was six at the time, and living in rural Arkansas, I shockingly did not receive the TBS broadcast of the game. So I decided to sit down and watch it. What follows are my observations thereof. (Please bear in mind that seeing as how I was six and wouldn’t become interested in the league for another six years, my observations of both teams at this time are incomplete at best, shoddy at worst. Think of it as something to keep in mind before we make incomplete judgment on today’s players.)

  • It’s striking how despite the fact that 37% of the offense in this game goes through Jordan, he primarily plays off-ball for the majority of the first-half. He’s not even scowling at it, really. Though when he does receive the ball, the moves are all instantaneous. They manage to be simultaneously without hesitation and spontaneous. No one pounced quicker on any opportunity than Jordan. You see the same thing from Kobe Bryant, but his ability to adjust isn’t as flawless.
  • The Pistons’ help defense is borderline insane on Jordan in this game. Thrice his defender plays hard to the screen before the pick comes, and the low help defender (twice it’s Laimbeer) comes up from the block to guard it just in case. This means the entire left side is open which means that the second Jordan bursts left, he’s got nothing but baseline. It results in seven points for Jordan total.
  • Isiah Thomas starts off remarkably shaky in this game. He keeps trying to find the elbow-jumper, but it clatters out on him multiple times. He’s picking up turnovers left and right (he’ll wind up with seven over the course of 51 minutes, accounting for a lower percentage than four other players. Most of his first-half turnovers are the result of bad passes from teammates.
  • Being reminded of just how brutal these Bad Boys were on defense, I want to issue an apology to the 2005 Detroit Pistons, the 2007 San Antonio Spurs, the 2010 Boston Celtics, and 2011 Chicago Bulls for ever complaining about how ugly their games are. They might as well be run-and-gunners in comparison. You know how everyone above the age of 35 talks about how much more physical these games were? They’re right. The question of “Was he making a play on the ball?” is pretty laughable here. Twice the Pistons merely hammer Jordan, going so far as completing their turn after contract and just slamming their sides into him. Once they actually trap his ankles between two trips on a drive. It’s jarring. And it works. Jordan’s jumper never does get wet, and the help defense coming to the elbow smothers him. Particularly, Vinnie Johnson plays extremely admirable work in the stead of Joe Dumars who missed nearly a month from January to February. Johnson not only provides excellent offense, but works to get up in Jordan’s grill, even forcing an airball off a fadeaway. This despite giving up over four inches to Jordan.
  • Speaking of Johnson, his game here reminds me a lot of Marcus Thornton. I’m rebuked on Twitter for it, but Johnson is a smaller two-guard who loves pull-up no-conscience jumpers and has the same kind of frame. Thornton is taller, shoots a lower percentage, and isn’t as good at assists at this point in his career, but the numbers are similar otherwise, as are their comparative styles.
  • So this happened:
  • source:
  • Beautiful, isn’t it?
  • Also, this: source:
  • Okay, maybe not so beautiful.
  • Horace Grant is unbelievable in this game. He winds up with sixteen points on 7-11 shooting, and 18 rebounds along with 2 assists, a steal and a block. Twice he simply waits for the defense to all turn towards Jordan on the perimeter and catching the lob. It makes you feel sorry for Derrick Rose who has no such option.
  • If Jordan has a good bad day, Laimbeer has a bad good day. He’s forced too far out by the Bulls’ motion on and off-ball, and when he does recover, twice on Scottie Pippen, his teammates foul. But in cleaning up, he’s impeccable. If the defense breaks down for a half-second and Laimbeer catches, it’s over. The Bulls have no one who can attack him at the rim. Or near it, as that’s where Laimbeer shoots from.
  • Scottie Pippen is long. I understand this is not news, but bear in mind this is early on, before the Bulls’ gained all that veteran weight. At this point he’s like a bunch of brooms stuck together with a giant eraser on top. Pippen’s in his second season here, and the aggressiveness is mind-boggling. You can tell Pippen hasn’t fully embraced sidekick status. He’s near-suicidal in attacking the Pistons. Off the steal he’s taking two steps to get into the paint then exploding forward. But just as his youth gives him the advantage of explosion, it hurts him with the officials. He makes it to the line just four times.
  • Fascinating subplot: Rodman off the bench takes over on defending Jordan. Because Rodman is just in his third year (though 27), or maybe just because he’s guarding Jordan, he’s taking to the cleaners by Jordan and the officials. Twice in the third quarter Jordan clears out with his left at a Byron Russell level, and gets away with it clean.
  • Doug Collins hopes you enjoy this old tune, “In the Air Tonight.”
  • Adrian Dantley shoots 3-13 and has 20 points. He gets to the line 18 times (eight more than Jordan!) and the calls are legit. He works over pretty much anyone the Bulls throw at him. He’s the biggest reason Pippen winds up with four fouls just minutes into the third. In fifteen days, he’ll be traded to the Dallas Mavericks for Mark Aguirre.
  • The third quarter is eerily reminiscent of watching the Celtics defend Derrick Rose. The Pistons gear three guys at Jordan, who decides if they’re going to attack his jumper that hard, he’s just going to kill them with assists. He drives past the first defender, spins past the second and dishes to whoever is open or cutting. Grant, Sam Vincent, Sellers, everybody gets some.
  • Speaking of Sellers, one of the biggest busts winds up having a pretty decent game. He attacks the offensive glass, finishes where he needs to and doesn’t look completely lost. He also has zero defensive rebounds, but since the Pistons only wind up with 12 for 26% it’s not a nightmare.
  • Also nice side note. I see on Basketball-Reference that he’s listed as No.6. But in this game he’s wearing No.2. So I go back to find out what the deal is and I find this: Sellers blames his struggles as a Bull on wearing No.2… because it’s cursed. You can laugh at that all you want. Guess what number Eddy Curry wore for the Bulls?
  • James Edwards looks like he belongs on a Tyler Perry special.
  • Rick Mahorn’s ‘Stache should have its own business cards.
  • Basically in the third quarter, Rick Mahorn and Bill Cartwright have an episode that is bizarre to any modern NBA fan. Mahorn elbows Cartright in the chest on a box out (that’s a tech now), then Cartwright off and shoves Mahorn (that’s an ejection now), then Mahorn goes back at Cartwright (that’s another ejection), then Cartwright shoves him again (re-ejection?), then the Bulls hold Mahorn back. Try and imagine if Carlos Boozer and Ronnie Brewer held back Kevin Garnett from Joakim Noah and how that would go over. So basically, players in this era simultaneously disliked each other more than they do now, and yet treated each other with more respect and didn’t act as much like children.
  • Offensive rebounds aplenty for Chicago, mostly because they’re sending nine guys at Jordan (yes, nine).
  • Count me among those that remembered Rodman as having absolutely zero offense. Watch this game and you’ll feel differently.
  • The league average for 3PA per game this year was 18. In ’89, the Bulls averaged 6.5 per game, which was 13th in the league, and would be bottom three today. The Pistons attempted 4.9 per game, which was 18th in the league in ’89, and would be downright bizarre now. In this game? Both teams combined shot 14, with 8 of those coming from Chicago’s Craig Hodges. This was an overtime game.
  • You know those games where the veteran squad gets behind because the home team is playing with energy and exuberance, but the veteran squad just hangs around and hangs around? That. Lots of that.
  • Thomas has several buckets by slicing right, creating contact, double-clutching and going glass. Dwyane Wade stuff.
  • In the fourth, Jordan goes after the offensive glass, getting putbacks. How? I have no clue. He just does. One of those MJ things.
  • Dave Corzine is mesmerizing in this game. Not only for the hair, and for being Dave Corzine, but he blocks Laimbeer at the elbow at one point, starting a fast break.
  • Rodman does everything conceivable to try and keep Jordan in front of them, then tries to sell a pretty bad shoulder bump by Jordan on a baseline drive, again, no call, and Jordan slips left baseline for a righty layup. I will say that in modern NBA, that righty layup gets blocked into oblivion against the glass by whatever token athletic help defender the opponent has on the floor.
  • Here’s one for all you Knicks fans:
  • source:  Isiah pretty much starts going Derrick Rose again, relentlessly attacking the rim and going to the line every time as the game closes in on five minutes to go. Chicago’s got a sense of “how are we not up ten?”
  • There’s a segment with less than four minutes to go featuring Snapper Jones’ mother on a cooking show. That’s called “seizing the drama of the moment.”
  • Jordan did just miss some in this game. It’s like what would happen if that insane ability to hit everything he threw up abandoned him for a night. No wonder he hated Detroit so much.
  • Dennis Rodman hits a turnaround. Skip Caray says “If he learns to do that consistently, he’s going to be some player.” ROFL.
  • With 37 seconds left, Rodman finally gets the offensive foul call on Jordan barreling through the lane… and Jordan fouls out!
  • Jones says this is the first time Jordan’s fouled out this season. So Jordan goes out with less than forty seconds left with the Bulls down two.
  • Sellers fouls. Dantley… misses the first free throw? What the?
  • So nineteen seconds left, Bulls with the ball, down two. So obviously you work to get Jordan the… oh. Huh. I have no clue what Doug Collins is supposed to do here, but if this was 2011, the answer is obviously “lose, so they can get draft Jan Vesely.”
  • Well, that’s just insane. Pippen inbounds, it’s broken up, right back to Pippen, who drives, and throws up a runner and is fouled. Goes to the line, hits two with sixteen seconds left. Wow, that’s a confusing sequence for Detroit right there.
  • Vinnie Johnson posts up Pippen, gets the corner, gets to the rim… and just off the front lip. Drama! Overtime! Only on TBS!
  • If you need a laugh sometime, just watch Dennis Rodman and Bill Laimbeer run up the floor next to each other. “High knees, everyone! High knees!”
  • And the Piston who takes over is… Rodman? Rodman collects an offensive board and puts it back in. His eighth point since the third. And he’s getting offensive rebounds. No wonder Chicago wanted him so badly later. The Pistons are now hammering the Bulls on the glass with Sellers off the floor. Yes I’m serious.
  • Rodman comes weakside and blocks a buzzer-beater layup attempt from Hodges. Unbelievable play. And he didn’t do anything insane, or cocaine. Impressive.
  • Bill Cartwright cuts Isiah’s eye on a rebound, Laimbeer has to restrain him. Bill Cartwright vs. The Pistons!
  • Laimbeer, 18-footer. Dagger.
  • The Pistons grind them into oblivion and win, 104-98. They’ll go on to beat the Bulls in the ECF and win the title.

Despite rough start, Celtics’ Jaylen Brown is convinced he’s an NBA starter

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Last April and May, Jaylen Brown was a breakout starter on a Boston team that made the Eastern Conference Finals, where he dropped 30 points one night and averaged 18 points a game, getting 14.8 shot attempts per game, and he had the ball in his hands a lot in the postseason. He had a playoff PER of 16, above the league average.

This regular season Brown and the Celtics have not been the same. With the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward Brown’s role shrunk, he’s playing five fewer minutes a game, his scoring is down to 12.5 points per game, he’s shooting less than 30 percent from three (when he was close to 40 percent a year ago), his PER is down to 11.1 (well below the league average), and the Celtics’ offense is 8.2 points per 100 possessions worse when he is on the court. Brown has been pushed back to a bench role, with Marcus Smart starting.

Mostly, Brown is just frustrated.

Brown opened up about that to Jackie MacMullan of ESPN.

Opposing teams have privately used words such as “disjointed” and “detached” to describe him… The question “What’s wrong with Jaylen Brown?” became a leaguewide referendum.

“It’s probably been the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with so far in my career,” Brown says. “Just coming from a position where you had so much responsibility, and now that responsibility is lessened. Expectations have been raised, but your responsibility goes down, so it’s hard to reach those expectations when you aren’t being asked to do as much.

“It’s been a challenge. It’s going to continue to be a challenge. It’s all about your mindset, so that’s what I’m focusing on.”

Brown said he remains convinced he’s a starter in this league, and on this team, and will prove it.

What Brown is going through is part of what had Boston off to a rough 10-10 start this season — guys were struggling to adjust to new roles. It wasn’t just plug and play with Irving and Hayward like many assumed it would be. And it wasn’t only Brown, Terry Rozier reportedly has been frustrated with his reduced role, while Hayward’s larger role had to be scaled back because he was not physically ready.

Brown’s drop off just seemed the steepest.

The Celtics’ locker room leaders — Irving and Smart — are trying to reach Brown with some tough love, trying to push him and “demand greatness,” but with limited success. Brown continues to struggle, and is doing so in the summer before the Celtics can offer him a new contract (more likely he will be headed to restricted free agency in a couple of years).

Much like the Celtics, it’s not an easy fix for Brown (although Boston has started to find a groove, winning six in a row through the soft part of the schedule). His adjustment is mental as much as physical, he feels he earned the right last season to have more responsibility, not less. That sacrifice is the challenge of playing on a contending team, where everyone needs to take steps for the good of the team that are not always in their best interests. Brown and Boston have been slow to come around on that.

But Brown is trying. And he still believes in himself.

“So here’s my reality: I’m an NBA player on the Boston Celtics, a team that has a chance to compete for the NBA championship. Nothing else really matters.”

PBT Podcast: Zion Williamson and the rest, an early NBA Draft breakdown

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Zion Williamson is a force of nature, an athletic freak that has become must-watch television and silenced the doubters about his game.

Before the season, scouts questioned his shot and fit, but his play for Duke so far has moved him past teammate R.J. Barrett on everybody’s draft board into the consensus No. 1 pick. The shine has really come off Barrett early this season for a guy averaging 24 points a game, Cam Reddish may be the second Blue Devil taken in next June’s draft.

Rob Dauster of NBC Sports joins me to talk Duke’s trio of superstars, plus other names to watch in this coming draft, such as Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura, Oregon’s 7’2″ Bol Bol (maybe the most divisive player in the draft), Kevin Porter out of USC and many others.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Gregg Popovich passes Pat Riley, now fourth on the all-time coaching wins list

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Gregg Popovich is one of the greatest coaches in NBA history.

His resume can stack up next to anyone’s: the sustained excellence of 20 seasons of 50+ wins which has given him a .686 win percentage, the five NBA titles, and maybe most impressive of all is small-market San Antonio into an NBA franchise that was feared on the court and modeled off it.

And, of course, there are all the wins — 1,211 of them to be exact after the Spurs knocked off the struggling Suns Tuesday night.

That win moved Popovich past Pat Riley into fourth on the all-time coaching wins list.

Popovich needs just 10 more wins to tie Utah legend Jerry Sloan for third on the list, something that will happen well before the All-Star break.

Will he coach long enough to catch Don Nelson or Lenny Wilkins at the top of the coaching-wins leaderboard (it would take more than 100 additional wins)? Only Popovich knows that, although the speculation around the NBA is probably not (many expect him to retire after the 2019-20 season, although nobody knows for sure).

Whatever happens, Popovich’s place on the all-time wins list just adds to a Hall of Fame legacy.

Three Things to Know: If the Clippers were trying to impress Kawhi Leonard it went poorly

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LOS ANGELES — Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. Today we come straight from Staples Center.

1) If the Clippers were trying to impress Kawhi Leonard Tuesday, it went poorly. When the discussion turns to speculation about where Kawhi Leonard could be playing next season, the Los Angeles Clippers are high on the list. He grew up in Southern California and wants to return there, sources say he doesn’t want to play with LeBron on the Lakers, and the Clippers have been surprisingly impressive this season but are a team without a true superstar that is looking to add one (or two, the Clippers reportedly want to add both Leonard and Kevin Durant).

Not that the notoriously media-shy Leonard cares about the speculation.

“I don’t buy into reading media, don’t have no social media, so just focus on what’s in front of me,” Leonard said before his Raptors took on the Clippers Tuesday night without him (due to a tweaked hip). “At that time it’s either my family or playing basketball.”

If the Clippers — or any team — is going to impress and entice Leonard, it’s not going to be with a well-crafted marketing plan to grow his brand (the people advising Leonard on the other hand…). Leonard presents the image of being focused only on what happens on the court.

That’s where the Clippers fell short Tuesday.

Actually, “fell short” is putting it kindly. The Clippers got thumped by 24 on their home court, their worst loss of the season. Playing without its superstar, Toronto looked like a team much closer to the NBA’s elite in terms of talent and execution than Los Angeles. The Raptors won 123-99 in a game that was not in doubt from early in the third quarter on.

“I think we just played bad,” Clippers’ guard Tyrone Wallace said, summing it up well. “We just had a rough night, we didn’t play well defensively.”

That was the starkest contrast: While the Clippers looked like a dazed team on the second night of a back-to-back (and without Lou Williams, who will miss a couple of weeks with a tweaked hamstring), the Raptors’ defenders were on a string — they switched, they rotated, they even threw in a zone for a few plays and the Clippers could not adapt fast enough.

Toronto turned the stops into shots in transition and the Clippers were not getting back or handling their scrambling defense well. Serge Ibaka feasted on the Clippers with 25 points.

However, the best news for the Raptors was the “return” of the real Kyle Lowry, who had 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting to break out of his slump (he had shot 8-of-42 over his previous five games).

Whatever Leonard decides to do this summer — stay in Toronto, come to Los Angeles, or choose from the 28 other teams that will be knocking on his door — the decision will not be based on the outcome of one December game. However, if the Clippers were trying to show off an impressive young core Leonard could join and elevate, this was not the effort that they needed.

Toronto, on the other hand, looked exactly like a team with an impressive young core. One Leonard is already elevating to the top of the East.

2) The good Rockets show up — especially the bench players — and Houston knocks off Portland. About once every week or so I watch a Rockets game and think, “they can get it together and turn this around.” Not turn around to the level they expected entering the season — they are not going to be a threat to the Warriors with this current roster — but there are nights they look like a playoff team and better than their sub-.500 record.

Tuesday was one of those nights, mostly thanks to hot play off the bench. Houston’s second unit outscored Portland’s 37-13, and they were the group that blew the game open at the end of the third and into the fourth. Danuel House and Gerald Green combined for 25 points, shooing 4-of-7 from three and 64.3 percent overall, and they had nine rebounds. Houston was +22 when they were on the court together.

James Harden had 29 points (which Chris Paul continued to struggle, with 11 points on 12 shots).

While the Rockets looked better, Portland struggled. There was too much isolation, not enough ball movement, and Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum took 53 percent of the team’s shots. The Trail Blazers were predictable, and that made the struggling Rockets defense look good.

I’ve seen too many good games followed by bad ones from Houston to suggest the Rockets have turned the corner, so let’s just say the good Rockets showed up for one night. We’ll see who shows up Thursday night against the Lakers.

3) Gregg Popovich passes Pat Riley, moves into fourth on the all-time coaching wins list. When it is all said and done, Gregg Popovich will go down as one of the best coaches in NBA history. The sustained excellence, the five rings, turning small-market San Antonio into an NBA franchise to be feared on the court and modeled off it, all will be part of his legacy.

So will all the wins he’s racked up — 1,211 of them after the Spurs win over the struggling Suns Tuesday night. That moved Popovich past Pat Riley into fourth on the all-time coaching wins list.

Popovich is just 10 wins shy of tying Jerry Sloan for third, something that will happen in the coming months. I don’t know if he’s going to coach long enough to catch Don Nelson or Lenny Wilkins at the top of that leaderboard (it would take more than 100 additional wins), but Popovich’s win total just adds to his legacy and place in history.