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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Shane Battier Talks About Kobe, LeBron--and Chess

Shane Battier was a star at Duke, winning the 2001 NCAA Player of the Year, but in the NBA he has carved out a solid eight year career as one of the league's ultimate "glue" players; like Bruce Bowen, he is an excellent defender whose main offensive role is to provide spacing by draining three pointers. Battier made the 2008 All-Defensive Second Team and he ranks 50th in NBA history in three point field goal percentage (.389). He often shoulders the daunting burden of guarding the top perimeter players in the league and probably makes Kobe Bryant work as hard for his points as any defender in the NBA; last night, Bryant led the Lakers with 33 points, seven rebounds and four assists in a 105-100 victory at Houston but--thanks in no small part to Battier's defense--Bryant had to launch a season-high 32 attempts to score those 33 points. While Bryant made what turned out to be the game-winning shot, that attempt was a deep three pointer with Battier's hand right in his face. After the game, Battier said, "I'll take that shot every day of the week. That's probably the least efficient shot you can give him on any given Kobe possession, a 35-footer with a hand in his face. That speaks to his talent." While some people have prematurely declared the MVP race to be over, no one seems to have noticed that in seven January games the Lakers have gone 6-1 and claimed the best record in the NBA with Bryant averaging 30.6 ppg, 6.1 apg and 4.9 rpg while shooting .500 from the field, .483 from three point range and .847 from the free throw line; in other words, he is playing better than he did when he won the MVP last year.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Battier about how he approaches guarding Bryant and LeBron James and about Battier's interest in chess:

A little over a year ago, I wrote an article about chess and basketball for Chess Life Online; the piece focused on Indiana Coach Jim O'Brien, his interest in chess and his observations about how chess and basketball are similar. I recently discovered that Houston Rockets forward Shane Battier, the 2001 NCAA Player of the Year and one of the top defensive players in the NBA, plays chess.

I tried to speak with him before Cleveland's 99-90 win over his Houston Rockets but there was not time because he had to do some special stretching and treatment after he was done with his pregame shootaround. He promised to talk with me after the game and the affable, articulate Battier was true to his word.

When I approached him in the locker room, his feet were soaking in ice water and ice bags were wrapped around both of his knees. After the interview, I gestured to all of the ice and said, "This is the part that the fans don't see--everything that goes into getting you ready to play and helping you recover afterwards."

He smiled ruefully and said that this was part of the aging process for him (he recently turned 30). I asked how he feels and he explained that he feels "good" but that it is all relative; "good" after playing four games in five nights is not the same as "good" before playing those games. Battier told me that it will take him two days after playing four games in five nights for his body to feel the same way that it did before those games.

Before talking about the recuperative process, Battier told me about his interest in chess and shared some insights about his perspective on guarding LeBron James and Kobe Bryant:

Friedman: "I understand that you are a chess player, that you are really into chess. How did you get started and who taught you to play?"

Battier: "I dabble. I wouldn't say that I'm Garry Kasparov by any means. My brother and I were really competitive growing up and chess was one of the things that we always battled with, starting in the first or second grade. I don't think that anyone taught me; it was one of those things that we figured out and played each other."

Friedman: "I heard that you bring a chess set with you on road trips. Who do you play against, either on your team or around the league?"

Battier: "Mike Dunleavy and I were roommates at Duke and we had a couple chess battles."

Friedman: "Did you know that Pacers Coach Jim O'Brien plays chess?"

Battier: "No, I didn't know that."

Friedman: "His assistant Lester Conner also plays. I did an article about O'Brien for the U.S. Chess Federation. He's really into chess. I don't know if he's the NBA champion in terms of chess but I've been told me he's pretty good."

Battier: "Nice. I didn't know that but he seems like a pretty smart guy."

Friedman: "You mentioned Kasparov. Do you follow at all what is happening in the chess world?"

Battier: "Every now and then you hear about a rising star. The level that the pros are at is beyond laymen like myself. It's pretty amazing to see the way their minds work. It really is an art form once you break it down. It's the best game."

Friedman: "Do you see any similarities between some of the strategies that are used in chess and strategies that are used in basketball?"

Battier: "You have to think ahead. Obviously you can't think a couple possessions ahead but when the ball is on one side of the court as a defender you are thinking about where is the ball going to go to next and where is my man going to go to next. So you are always trying to anticipate what your opponent is going to do, just like in chess."

Friedman: "Coach O'Brien mentioned that in basketball and in chess it is paramount to control the middle. In chess, you try to control the center of the board and work off of that and in basketball as well you want to control the paint offensively and defensively."

Battier: "That's a good analogy. That's true."

Friedman: "When you guard someone like LeBron, what is your mindset coming into the game? What are you trying to force him to do and what options are you trying to take away?"

Battier: "You know that he is going to score his points, so you don't go into the game thinking that you are going to shut him out. He's too good of a player. You try to make him work. You try to make him hit tough shots with a hand in his face. If he takes long two point jumpers while you stood in front of him and you keep him off of the foul line then you live with the result and you move on."

Friedman: "What are the similarities and the differences between how you would guard LeBron and how you would guard Kobe, based on their body types and their skill sets?"

Battier: "There are some similarities. Obviously, you want to keep both of them off of the foul line. You want to take away their easy buckets in transition. You don't want to give them anything that gives them confidence; it's a lot tougher to do than to talk about (laughs). They are such great, phenomenal players that you just try to work, you try to stay in front of them and you try to make them shoot tough jumpers."

Friedman: "I know that LeBron has improved his jump shot but at this stage is there a difference in how you would guard them on the perimeter? Kobe is considered to be a better perimeter shooter, so would you guard him differently if there is a screen/roll?"

Battier: "In transition, you really have to find Kobe (on the perimeter). LeBron has improved his three point shooting but with Kobe you really have to start looking for him once he crosses halfcourt. But with LeBron, you better know where he is when he crosses the other free throw line because if he has a step and he is going full bore he is tough to stop in transition."

Friedman: "So with LeBron you are more worried that he is going to get that head of steam and get in the paint, like the play where T-Mac fouled him and he scored anyway."

Battier: "Yeah, you can't do much about that."

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:24 AM

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