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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Will the Triangle Offense Make an Appearance in the All-Star Game?

All-Star practices typically involve a media availability session followed by the two teams separately running some basic NBA sets, having some shooting contests and calling it a wrap--and today's practices were no exception for the most part, but one interesting wrinkle was that the West team practiced some dead ball situations in which they plan to employ elements of the Triangle Offense. West Coach Phil Jackson--who has used the Triangle as his primary half court offensive set while winning nine championships with the Bulls and Lakers--has coached in three previous All-Star Games (1992, 1992, 2000) but I don't recall his All-Star squads utilizing the Triangle in those games.

Unfortunately, since the media availability session took place before the practices, I did not have the opportunity ask Coach Jackson about this. Instead, I asked him what memory stands out most from his previous trips to the All-Star Game. He thought for a moment and then replied with a whimsical smile and a twinkle in his eye, "MJ pulling the (warmup) pants off of one of the players when he was being introduced is probably the best memory." Then, turning more serious, Jackson continued, "Magic coming back in an All-Star Game in '92 after being retired for a year, kind of a sendoff party for Magic even though he came back in what, '94 or '95? (1996) That was a gracious moment for Magic and the NBA. I was coaching the other team in that game and we lay down in front of him (in the closing moments, when Magic went "one on one" with Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan) and he had a big game."

The Detroit Pistons have not performed well after trading Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson and Antonio McDyess, their leading rebounder who re-signed with the Pistons a month after the trade. With Yao Ming, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant attracting the biggest media hordes, Iverson--the 2001 MVP who also won All-Star MVPs in 2001 and 2005--only had a few journalists around him. I asked him for his take on why the Pistons have been struggling. "It is just team chemistry. We've just struggled all around and we have to turn it around. That's just the way it is. All we can do is stay positive and keep fighting." I asked Iverson if he thinks that there is enough time left in the season to develop better chemistry and he said, "I definitely believe that. If I didn't, there wouldn't be a need for me to even lace my sneakers up. I might as well hang them up if I didn't feel that way. I see a lot of positive things happening. We just have to get better in every aspect of the game and I think that we will. We just have to keep fighting."

Turning to a more pleasant subject, I asked Iverson his favorite memory of the All-Star Game as a fan and his favorite memory of the All-Star Game as a player. "My favorite as a player," Iverson replied, "is probably just the first time I made it (2000). As a fan, I would say probably the dunk contest when Vince (Carter) won it (also in 2000)."

Iverson has logged 41.6 mpg in his 13 season career, the fourth highest average in NBA history and a remarkable statistic for a player who is generously listed at 6-0, 165. I asked him how he has managed not only to last so long but to do so while playing such an attacking style that involves bouncing into players who are much bigger. He answered, "I just take care of myself and I have had great training staffs in Philadelphia, Denver and in Detroit. I think those guys take care of me and prepare me to go to war night in and night out." I asked Iverson if his training routine has evolved in any way as he has gotten older but he said that he has been doing the same things since his rookie season, relying on "rest and that's it. I don't do a whole lot of weight lifting or anything like that. I just play basketball. I work hard at what I do."

Prior to this season, I said that Danny Granger is one of the most underrated players in the NBA. Granger's game has really blossomed even more this season and he received a much deserved selection to the All-Star Game. After talking with Iverson, I saw Granger sitting all alone (except for Pacers' p.r. staffer Krissy Myers) just to the left of the three Boston All-Stars holding court for a large media mob. I spoke with Granger briefly just before the media availability ended and the East practice began. He told me that the biggest piece of advice that he has received from veteran All-Stars is not to shoot a jumper for his first shot, because it probably will be an airball; he also confided that there is some money riding on whether or not his first shot will be an airball, so I joked that he should make sure that his first shot is a steal and a breakaway dunk but that if he misses the dunk he might owe even more money. He laughed and agreed. I asked him his favorite All-Star memory and he said that it was watching Jordan and Bird on TV as a kid. I wondered if he ever imagined at that time that he would eventually be an All-Star and he said that becoming an All-Star first became a realistic goal in his mind within the past couple years. He added that a lot of his improvement this year has been the result of working on his outside shot and his ability to use screens; Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen are two players who he has modeled himself after. Granger added that Bryant has the most complete skill set of any NBA player but said that LeBron James is the most physically dominant.

The East All-Stars practiced first. Rookie All-Star Coach Mike Brown put his charges through the paces of several basic NBA sets: floppy, shake, punch (which is a post up action out of floppy) and rub (which is a middle screen/roll). Most NBA teams run the same basic half court sets but they use slightly different terminology/hand signals, so Coach Brown was just making sure that everyone will be on the same page on Sunday. Also, coaches like to establish some kind of offensive continuity actions for the half court game or otherwise the players may be too tempted to just freelance. There is a delicate balance that must be struck between enabling the All-Stars to showcase their talents yet preventing the game from degenerating into a series of one on one battles.

After the East squad finished honing those basic half court sets, Coach Brown split the players up to have some shooting games. Coach Brown tapped Dwight Howard and LeBron James--the two youngest East All-Stars (and isn't that a scary thought for other teams in the league?)--as captains. As the youngest player, James got the first pick and he chose Ray Allen. Howard took Joe Johnson next. James' squad eventually consisted of Allen, Granger, Iverson, Mo Williams and Kevin Garnett, while Howard had Johnson, Devin Harris, Rashard Lewis, Paul Pierce and Dwyane Wade. The shooting games consisted of a best out of five contest. In the first round, the players shot from the baseline behind the college three point line and then in the next round they moved to the wing. Each team won two rounds, so the tiebreaker round utilized top of the key shots and James' team prevailed. Coach Brown involved the crowd by asking them to cheer for whichever team they preferred (support was fairly evenly split).

All-Star practices traditionally conclude with half court shots. Joe Johnson was the only player who made one, though assistant coach Lloyd Pierce sank one, too. This was the second year that the NBA brought in a representative from the Guinness Book of World Records to certify some World Record attempts. This is a little cheesy, though, because the attempts are generally made in categories that did not exist before, so whatever happens will automatically be a record. Devin Harris created a new world record for fastest dribbler from baseline to baseline--3.93 seconds. Although calling this a world record is odd since no one else has been officially timed doing it, that is a fast time. Howard of all people tried to make the longest shot ever attempted while sitting down, but he could not sink his half court attempts so no record was set/created.

The West players came back for the practice later then scheduled and I'm not sure if the fans were thrilled by watching something that more closely resembled an actual practice as opposed to having the players do shooting games but I found it interesting to observe firsthand how Jackson teaches the game. He split the players into four groups of three based on position groupings from bigs (Yao Ming, Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol in this case) to forwards/wings to point guards. Then the players ran a series of line drills (baseline to baseline), first just running up and down the court in a straight line without basketballs, then running simple weaves, then dribbling down court and eventually dribbling down court followed by taking jumpers. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal were in lines right next to each other and were partnered up every time; they laughed and joked like long lost friends, with Bryant playfully "fouling" O'Neal on the elbow when O'Neal shot a jumper.

After the line drills, Jackson put the five starters on the court and had them run a five man fast break with proper lane assignments (two wings running wide, two "lane runners" and a center trailing the play). After doing that once, the next time down Jackson had the starters transition into a half court set, as if the defensive team had stopped the fast break.

Then the West worked on dead ball sets and this is where Jackson introduced some basic Triangle sets and cuts. While the West will use a standard NBA "fist" (screen/roll) set at times, they also will use a "guard to guard lag," one of the standard initiating passes in the Triangle Offense. After that pass, they can run a basic Triangle set. Jackson said that when Chauncey Billups cuts through on the baseline he can stop on the block and post up if he is being defended by a smaller guard and Jackson reminded the team that Bryant will often avail himself of that option when he is positioned on the baseline, so the players should see if that entry pass to the post is open.

Only after all of that business was taken care of did the West participate in the Guinness project. This time, O'Neal took three warmup free throws (making two) before being blindfolded and attempting to tie the record for most blindfolded free throws made in one minute; I think that choosing O'Neal to do this is Jackson's way of kind of tweaking this whole World Records concept. O'Neal made three free throws while blindfolded (insert your own punchline here about a blind squirrel finding a nut and/or about how that is better than O'Neal's usual percentage). Billups also made a (more serious) attempt at setting the record and, despite scattering some of his misses pretty wildly, he managed to make five and tie the old mark.

The practice session concluded with O'Neal making a one handed shot from half court; a few other players tried to match him but could not do so, with two hands or one.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:43 AM

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At Sunday, February 15, 2009 9:32:00 PM, Blogger The Dude Abides said...

Great stuff, David. There's a certain Boston-loving, ESPN writer who believes that every time Bryant laughs or makes a joke, it's strictly done to improve his public image. Nice to see another example that disproves his theory.

 

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