The Inbounds: Steve Nash, the Lakers, and the lawlessness of the point guard wilderness

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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.

“How does Steve Nash help them stop Russell Westbrook or Tony Parker?’

That’s the standard reaction from skeptics to the Lakers’ addition of Steve Nash. Sure, Nash can dish at an obscenely high rate even as 40 comes screaming at him like a bald eagle ready to pounce on him with a good ol’ American mid-life crisis on his Canadian head. Sure, he can still shoot at an efficiency that makes the assembly line look like two dudes with hammers whacking away at sheet metal. But Nash has never been a good defender. People with full understanding know that it’s in large part because he has a degenerative back condition that forces him to lay down every time he goes to the bench and that the fact he’s able to move laterally at all is a miracle. But it doesn’t change anything. Nash isn’t going to make the Lakers’ point guard defense, which was shredded against OKC in the Western Conference Finals and in the regular season against San Antonio. 

Here’s the problem with that line of reasoning.

We’ve reached critical mass with point guard offensive talent in the NBA. Versus every other position in the league, point guard is no longer determined by “who can you line up to beat the other guy across the lineup sheet from you” and has gone simply to “who’s the guy that can do the most damage for your side?”

Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Rajon Rondo, Kyrie Irving, Ricky Rubio, Kyle Lowry, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Steve Nash.

Then there’s Ty Lawson, Brandon Jennings, Jameer Nelson, Jrue Holiday, Darren Collison, Jeff Teague, John Wall, Mike Conley, Stephen Curry, Isaiah Thomas.

That’s a murderer’s row for defenses. Those guys can slice, dice, torch, saute, roast, blend, poach, chew up and spit out any defense out there on any given night. Very few of them can be defended with one player, it necessitates a team effort. And almost none of them can defend well enough on their own.  Westbrook and Parker often play to standstills across their season series, based on their inability to contain one or the other. Chris Paul will slide by any defender, manipulate any switch, but put him on an island, and you’d better have help behind him. This has less to do with the quality of these players as defenders, and more with the elite level of offense that is produced by this caliber of point guard, and the sheer number of such guards they face night in and night out.

(Note: Not all these players struggle to defend. Clearly Rajon Rondo is a crackdown, lockout, shut-em-out defender, but by and large, the trend skews towards turnstyle.)

Consider how often you’r seeing small forwards shift to cover point guards. LeBron James on Rajon Rondo. Andre Iguodala on Derrick Rose. Carmelo Anthony on Deron Williams. It’s trying to contain the elite perimeter speed with size and length, and even then, you have to have great help defense. That’s the real hallmark of a great defense in this league. The Bulls’ defense isn’t elite because Derrick Rose is able to shadow, harass, and bottle up anyone who tries to create outside-in, it’s based on their ability to bring a second and third and fourth guy to swipe, challenge, and deter once they get past Rose. And Rose has become a passable defender! What of the teams like the Lakers with Nash? The truth remains that with players like Westbrook, it’s partially challenging them at multiple opportunities, partially goading them into the shots you want them to take (that they can still hit), and living with it. But that’s not something you can stomach if you’re one of the few teams bringing a knife to a heavy artillery fight.

That may make the Knicks’ situation with Jeremy Lin as fascinating as anything. Lin’s defense was surely questionable. But over and over again last season, he found ways to make plays on his own. When Lin has the advantage, great. When he doesn’t, all he has to do is be what I refer to as a “painkiller.” He just has to take away enough of the sting from what the point guard is doing on offense by providing his own numbing euphoria with timely buckets and big shots. Do that, and you can survive the onslaught if the rest of the team steps up.

With the Lakers, they have the capacity to be an elite defensive team. They showed it at times. But they were so discombobulated for such long stretches that you could tell they lost their way on both ends. With Nash, the offense will be great. Not fine. Not better. Great. He solves nearly every issue they have, specifically. And he’ll get torched.  The Lakers will once again have a hard time finding ways to slow down or deter opposing point guards. Nash will do almost none of that.

But look around you. We’re in a point guard looting-and-plundering paradise. Point guards are the Allied Powers, cleaning out the Eagle’s Nest. If it’s not bolted down, they’re taking it. The Lakers have to win all the other battles, and that’s a bigger trick for Mike Brown and company. But they can live with Nash letting his man get past him. He’s going to get past his guy enough, make the right pass enough, hit the big shot enough.

This is a league where point guard play is the Wild West. It’s not about law and order, or structure. It’s just about who’s got the fastest gun and the most bullets. And Steve Nash?

He’ll make you famous.

Celtics top Cavaliers in Game 5, setting up Game 7 in Boston?

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LeBron James and a couple Cavaliers teammates left the court well before the Celtics dribbled out their 96-83 Game 5 win Wednesday.

The Cavs are already moving on.

Game 6 will be Friday in Cleveland, and the Cavaliers – down 3-2 in the Eastern Conference finals – must win to avoid elimination. The way Boston has played on the road, it’s even easy to look ahead to Game 7, which is scheduled for Sunday in Boston.

Still, the Celtics bought themselves leeway with their decisive win in Boston tonight. They led by double digits the final 20 minutes, breaking the Cavs’ momentum after two straight wins in Cleveland.

“It’s tough going on the road, playing against somebody else in their house with their crowd,” said Jayson Tatum, who had 24 points, seven rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks tonight. “So, we were just comfortable. We came back home and defended home-court like we have all playoffs.”

Boston is now 10-0 at home this postseason – but just 1-6 away. Fueled in part by that historic split, no game in this series has been close. All five have been decided by at least nine points, and the average margin of victory – 18 – is in the 97th percentile for largest ever in a 3-2 best-of-seven series.

So, just as two big Celtics wins in Games 1 and 2 didn’t deter the Cavaliers, this one likely won’t, either. The Cavs should be heavily favorited in Game 6.

Beyond, if it gets that far? That’s a much bigger tossup.

Teams up 3-2 in a best-of-seven series have won 85% of the time. But Boston is missing a key reason it secured home-court advantage, including a chance to break the 2-2 at home rather than on the road – Kyrie Irving. And LeBron James is downright scary in a Game 7, even on the road.

The Celtics at least took care of business tonight, showing a far greater sense of urgency than Cleveland. Brad Stevens changed his starting lineup, inserting Aron Baynes for Marcus Morris, and tightened his rotation to just seven players until garbage time. Boston ran the floor much harder than the Cavs, decisively outrebounded them and beat them to loose balls. Even in altercations, the Celtics had a man advantage.

LeBron (26 points, 10 rebounds five assists and six turnovers) never made his presence felt in the way usually necessary for the Cavaliers to win. Cleveland’s four other starters combined to score just 24 points, two fewer than LeBron did himself.

After Boston seized control early, the Cavaliers made few adjustments in strategy or effort – as if they’re saving those for later.

LeBron James says we don’t know full story of his upbringing, but he’ll reveal it after retirement

AP Photo/Ron Schwane
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LeBron James was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in high school – as a junior.

He has been in the spotlight ever since, somehow living up to the outsized expectations set while he was a teenager. His story has been told and retold – how he and his mom moved around Akron as she struggled to provide for him, how his athletic ability lifted himself and those around him.

But are we missing key details?

Upon passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for most shots made in the playoffs, LeBron reflected on his journey.

LeBron:

To know where I come from, you guys know a little bit of the story. But you guys don’t know the full story about where I come from and the struggle that I had. You guys know about the single-parent struggle, and y’all done heard that story. But there’s a lot more to it, which I’ll talk about when I’m done playing ball.

But to know where I come from, small city 35 miles south of here, and to hear I’m in the same category or talked about and jumping these greats in the playoffs — it’s like I was a kid and I watched the playoffs so much and I was like, I would love to be a part of that, that moment, that atmosphere. I think it’s pretty cool. You hear the scoring, the field goals made, and for a kid that really doesn’t care much about scoring.

Like with LeBron’s secret motivation a couple years ago, I’m totally intrigued. When LeBron decides to share, I’ll be all ears.

Larry Nance Jr., Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier exchange shoves after whistle (video)

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Marcus Morris fouled Larry Nance Jr. in Celtics-Cavaliers Game 5 tonight. Nance didn’t like that, got up and shoved Morris. Morris and Terry Rozier didn’t like that, and both shoved Morris.

All three received a technical foul, which seems fair.

Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala questionable for Game 5

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Andre Iguodala missed the Warriors’ Game 4 loss to the Rockets with a leg injury.

It’s not certain he – or Klay Thompson, who played through a knee injury suffered in Game 4 – will be available for Game 5 tomorrow.

NBC Sports Bay Area:

Klay Thompson, who suffered a left knee strain during the first half of Game 4, is listed as questionable, the team announced Wednesday afternoon.

Iguodala missed Game 4 with a left lateral leg contusion and is questionable for Game 5.

Anthony Slater of The Athletic:

Warriors coach Steve Kerr on Iguodala:

He’s feeling a little better today, and he’s out on the floor. Not doing a whole lot, but making progress.

Kerr on Thompson:

Klay is moving around really well. I think Klay is going to be fine.

That sounds better than “questionable” for Thompson.

The Warriors need one, maybe both, of those two on the court. Golden State’s depth, especially on the wing, is looking shaky.

In Game 4, Golden State outscored Houston by 20 in the 31 minutes Stephen Curry, Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green played together. In the in the 17 minutes they played without even one of those stars, the Warriors got outscored by 23. Nick Young, who received more playing time when Thompson left the court area due to his injury, looked particularly overwhelmed.

James Harden‘s defense is a huge bellwether in this series. The Warriors spend a lot of focus trying to exploit him, and if that fails, the shot clock gets low before they move into another action. If Thompson is even just slowed, that’d make it easier for Harden to keep up.