Paul Pierce’s move to power forward adds twist to his career, Brooklyn Nets’ season

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BOSTON – On Paul Pierce’s first defensive possession as the Brooklyn Nets’ full-time starting power forward, Serge Ibaka backed him down on the block. Pierce bodied Ibaka, keeping him out of the paint, and Ibaka threw the ball away.

On the Oklahoma City Thunder’s next possession, Ibaka posted up Pierce again. Pierce hardly yielded an inch as Ibaka settled for a turnaround jumper. Airball.

“He’s always telling us how he can lock everybody up that tries to post him up,” Nets center Mason Plumlee said with a laugh. “He’s done that, pretty much.”

Pierce – the NBA’s shortest and maybe most surprising – starting power forward certainly doesn’t lack the confidence to excel in his new position.

Nor the ability defend post-ups.

He’s held opponents to 35.3 percent shooting and forced a turnover on 25.9 percent of post-up plays finished against him, according to MySynergySports. Overall, he’s allowed .64 points per post-up – 16th best in the entire NBA.

A small forward his entire career, Pierce was always crafty and strong enough to handle players his size. But his ability to routinely defend the post-ups of bigger players, often through sheer physicality, has been impressive.

In every other way, though, Pierce hardly looks the part of a power forward – beginning with his 6-foot-7 frame, shortest among the NBA’s 30 starters at the position. Even in era of small ball, Pierce at power forward adds a little wonkiness on both sides of the court.

But wonkiness seems to be exactly what Pierce, who’s reinventing himself at age 36, and the Nets need.

Brooklyn started the season 10-21, but once Brook Lopez suffered a season-ending foot injury, Jason Kidd turned to small ball and turned his team’s fortunes. Since the change, conveniently timed with the flip of the calendar from 2013 to 2014, the Nets have gone 20-9.

Of teams’ most-used lineups, the Nets’ – Deron Williams, Shaun Livingston, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett – has been the NBA’s second best with a net rating +15.9 (offensive rating: 103.9/defensive rating: 88.1).

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But Brooklyn’s most-used lineup has played fewer minutes (122 all season) than any other team’s most-used, so sample-size caveats apply.

Still, with with Garnett out injured and Plumlee replacing him as a starter, that lineup has been even better (116.8/86.1/+30.7). Though in just 59 minutes sample-size issues are even more relevant, it seems as long as the Nets go small, they can’t help but stumble into a productive lineup.

For Pierce, whose career appeared to be wilting just a few months ago, the results have been nearly as dramatic.

The slippage began to show during the Celtics’ first-round loss to the Knicks last season. In that series, Pierce posted negative win shares, shooting 37 percent from the field and 27 percent on 3s and turning the ball over more than five times per game.

His first couple months with Brooklyn didn’t go much better, as he posted a PER of 13.6 in 2013. That would have been first below-average PER of Pierce’s career. At 36 and on an expiring contract, he appeared nearing retirement.

By moving to power forward, though, Pierce has increased his season PER to 16.1. That would still be a career low, but it’s solidly above average and ranks fifth on a playoff team.

Careers have been extended – or ended – on less.

Despite all his progress as a quirky small-ball four, the position carries dangers. Whenever Brooklyn’s center gets pulled away from the basket, to defend a pick-and-roll or otherwise, Pierce is often left as the last line of defense near the basket.

In the third quarter of Pierce’s re-return to Boston on Friday, Celtics center-of-the-moment Kris Humphries drove past Plumlee on the perimeter. Pierce slide over and took a charge – and a Humphries elbow deep into his right shoulder.

Pierce immediately went to the bench and sat, grabbing his shoulder and wincing.

Even when Pierce succeeds as a backline defender – a difficult assignment for him – he exposes an area of his body that has bothered him for years.

“Whenever I get hit in that shoulder, just I guess the constant years of banging – especially now that I’m playing the four,” Pierce said.

But Pierce – unlike his partner in crime, Garnett, who openly hates shifting to center – seems to be in no hurry to change the small-ball lineups that feature him at power forward.

“That’s our style. It’s no secret. We’re a small team,” Pierce said. “We don’t rebound well. We force turnovers. We shoot 3s.”

Pierce certainly does his part to contribute to those trends.

  • His total-rebounding percentage (10.0) ranks in the bottom five of starting power forwards. Only Shane Battier, Wesley Johnson, Josh McRoberts and Thaddeus Young are lower.
  • Pierce’s steal rate (2.0) is his highest since 2004-05. He excels at jumping in front of passes to power forwards whom other bigs typically couldn’t get around quickly enough.
  • Pierce has taken 39.7 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, easily a career high. Because he’s tangling for defensive rebounds more and isn’t as exactly as quick as he once was, Pierce, shooting 35.2 percent from beyond the arc, is one of NBA’s more dangerous trailers.

Can Pierce keep this up? Has becoming a power forward saved his career?

“It’s not about being a four,” Kidd said. “He’s a basketball player. So, he’s out there taking advantage of maybe a bigger guy. But his basketball IQ is extremely high, so he knows how to play no matter what position he’s in.”

Marcus Smart posts heartfelt tribute to mother, who died Sunday

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Marcus Smart delivered one of my favorite quotes after the Celtics beat the Rockets last season:

Smart — when asked if he prides himself in being “a pain in the ass” — chuckled.

“I guess you could say that,” Smart said. “My mom might say that. But nah, I play defense with passion, and defense wins games, and that was proven tonight.”

A deep love is the subtext behind that quip. Smart put it on display again – unfortunately after the death of Camellia Smart, who had been battling cancer.

Smart:

Smart plays with such heart, passion and toughness. If his mother were his role model, he honors her every time he takes the court.

Jimmy Butler says his meeting with Thibodeau, Timberwolves is Tuesday (today)

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There are a lot of questions surrounding Jimmy Butler‘s meeting with Tom Thibodeau and the Minnesota Timberwolves brass: Can the Butler/Karl-Anthony Towns relationship be repaired? Is Thibodeau the guy who could repair it, or is he entrenched on one side of that battle? Will the situation be resolved enough for Towns to sign the max extension to his rookie contract that has been sitting on the table since July? Will Butler asked to be moved?

That meeting had been reported to be Monday, but Butler said on Twitter it’s Tuesday, and did so in a snide way.

Who cares if the reporting (by Jon Krawczynski and Shams Charania of The Vertical) on the day was one off if the substance of the meeting is the same? It’s not some massive error that throws the entire reporting into question. This feels like a high school history teacher testing about the date for the battle of Gettysburg and not why it was a turning point in the Civil War — the substance is what matters more.

Butler doesn’t deny or get into the substance of the meeting, which is what matters.

What comes out of that meeting will have a significant impact on the Timberwolves one way or another this season. Minnesota won 47 games last season and made the playoffs for the first time since 2004, but it’s hard to see how they take a step forward if the locker room remains this fractured (and in a very deep West they need to take a step forward to make the playoffs again this season).

USA rolls past Panama in World Cup qualifying, 78-48

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PANAMA CITY (AP) — U.S. coach Jeff Van Gundy came into the start of this second round of qualifying for the FIBA Basketball World Cup cautioning his players that they would face enormous challenges.

They clearly heeded his words, and the Americans are now closing in on a trip to China next year.

Reggie Hearn scored 12 points, Dwayne Bacon added 10 and the U.S. easily got past Panama 78-48 in a qualifying game Monday night. The Americans have won both of their second-round qualifying games so far, winning them by a combined 87 points.

“It’s just an honor to be able to go to another country and wear this jersey,” said U.S. forward Henry Ellenson of the Detroit Pistons. “It’s just something really special and I love doing it. I was so excited to get the invite. This was a blast and a hell of an experience.”

The U.S. outrebounded Panama 50-34, held the hosts to 31 percent shooting and trailed for only 67 seconds in the early moments. Van Gundy went to his bench early and often, rotating players throughout in part because of a steamy feel inside the arena named for Panama’s boxing legend Roberto Duran.

“I think our greatest strength is our depth,” Van Gundy said. “Again, we’ve pretty much done this throughout. We play 10 or 11 guys, anywhere from 10 or 11 minutes up to the low 20s. We try to take advantage of our depth. Tonight, the crowd was good, but it was warm in there.”

And now, Nov. 29 – the next day of qualifying games in the Americas Region – sets up as enormous.

The U.S. and Argentina are tied atop Group E with 7-1 records and will play that day with outright control of first place in the group standings up for grabs. Uruguay and Puerto Rico will meet that same day, each entering with 5-3 records, meaning the loser there will be three games behind the U.S.-Argentina winner with three games left in qualifying.

The top three teams in Group E are guaranteed spots at the World Cup, which starts in China on Aug. 31.

After the way they played Monday, it seems like only a staggering collapse would keep the Americans from qualifying.

The U.S. used a 16-0 run – needing only about two minutes – in the fourth quarter to turn what was a relatively one-sided game into an even bigger rout. Chasson Randle, Hearn and Travis Trice all made 3-pointers to get that spurt going, and Ben Moore‘s layup with 6:30 left gave the Americans a 73-40 lead.

“It feels great. It moves us that much closer to qualifying,” Hearn said. “It moves us that much closer to the U.S. getting to the World Cup and getting the whole thing.”

The U.S. got an ideal start in a hostile arena, running out to a 16-3 lead as Panama opened 1 for 11 from the field.

The Americans were in control throughout, though there was a brief stretch late in the first half where the U.S. grip on things seemed to slip ever so slightly. Panama got within 31-23 with 2:04 left in the half on a jumper by Tony Bishop Jr. before Hearn and White combined to score the final five points before the break and send the Americans into intermission with a 13-point lead.

When the second half started, the U.S. resumed pulling away. Frank Mason, Dakari Johnson and Bacon scored the first six points of the third quarter, and the Americans’ lead was quickly pushed out to 42-23.

 

Report: Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins to take front office job with Clippers

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Selfishly, this makes me sad because I’m not going to get to read more of his work now.

Lee Jenkins is more than just one of the best NBA writers out there, he is one of the best sports journalists out there. A fantastic reporter with a great eye, Jenkins is an artist of a storyteller. He’s the guy other NBA writers are in awe of. He’s the man who co-authored LeBron James“I’m Coming Home” about his return to Cleveland, and more great in-depth stories than there is room to mention here.

And he’s about to leave Sports Illustrated for the Los Angeles Clippers, a true WojBomb from Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Jenkins commented to Sports Illustrated.

“Sports Illustrated called on my 30th birthday, the greatest gift of my professional life,” Jenkins says. “I was one of those kids who grew up running to the mailbox on Thursday afternoons. SI taught me to read, and then, to write. With dream jobs, reality often disappoints, but everything about SI only exceeded my imagination. I’ve worked alongside my idols, Tim Layden, Tom Verducci and S.L. Price, and with my friends, Michael Rosenberg, Chris Ballard and Greg Bishop. There is no honor in this business like sharing a page with them.

“SI remains the ultimate platform for sportswriting and I would not leave for another media outlet. But I was offered an extraordinary opportunity to work in the front office of an NBA team and see the league I cover from a different angle. I’ve been privileged to tell a lot of triumphant basketball stories over the past decade. With Steve Ballmer and Jerry West, Lawrence Frank and Michael Winger, Doc Rivers and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, I’m going to try to help build one.”

I’m not sure exactly how they will define Jenkins’ role with the Clippers, but I have no doubt he will do it well. Plus, inter-office emails for the Clippers are about to take a ridiculous leap in quality.