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Monday, April 29, 2019

Traveling, Flopping, and Whining: Why it is Painful to Watch the Houston Rockets

The good news is that in two weeks or less, we will not have to see the Houston Rockets traveling, flopping and whining again until next fall. The bad news is that we are going to see a lot of the Houston Rockets traveling, flopping and whining for another three to six more games.

This season, James Harden set scoring records made a mockery of the NBA rulebook and all of those foul chickens are coming home to roost in what should be a great series--Golden State versus Houston for the right to advance to the Western Conference Finals--but is instead devolving into bizarre commentary, not to mention incessant complaining, about the officiating.

In game one, Golden State beat Houston 104-100. It was a typical Golden State-Houston playoff game: Kevin Durant was by far the best player on the court, James Harden scored 35 points despite shooting terribly from the field (9-28) and the Rockets fired a large number of three pointers without much success (14-47, .298). Get used to those things, because it is going to be rinse, wash and repeat for the next several games, with perhaps a couple Houston wins thrown into the mix if/when the Rockets get hot from three point range.

We were "treated" to Harden repeatedly traveling, flopping and whining. He also committed several offensive fouls, most of which were not called. His teammate Chris Paul did not travel to the best of my knowledge but he more than made up for that with his flopping, whining and (mostly uncalled) fouling.

Let's start with the fact that Harden's signature move, the step back three point shot, is often a travel according to the rule book. A player who picks up his dribble must shoot or pass before completing a 1, 2 step. In other words, if I pick up my dribble at the three point line, I can take a step back with one foot but I must shoot or pass before my second foot hits the ground. Otherwise, I have taken a two foot hop that is illegal (and impossible to guard, which explains the dramatic increase in Harden's scoring average this season).

Harden typically combines his traveling with flopping; after he shoots his step back three pointer, he falls to the ground a large percentage of the time. I have attempted many three pointers during my basketball career and more than a few (legal) step back three pointers (think of Dell Curry's signature move, not Harden's illegal move). I can count on the fingers of two hands the times that I fell down after those shots, and on each of those occasions I was hit with a certain degree of force, usually by a bigger player. There is no way that Harden is being fouled as often as he pretends to be fouled; he is either flopping or he should undergo immediate neurological testing to determine what kind of vertigo/balance disorder is afflicting a person who otherwise appears to be a healthy 6-5, 220 pound elite athlete.

After Harden travels and flops, he then whines. To get the full picture of the hypocrisy involved, it is important to note that when he drives to the hoop he wraps his off hand/arm around the defender and pulls the defender toward him to make it appear like he is being fouled or if the defender is in front of him he uses his off hand/arm as a battering ram to "create space"--and, on defense, Harden invariably uses one or two hands to the hip or midsection to not so subtly knock his man off balance. Handchecking is illegal for perimeter defenders in the modern NBA but Harden does it all the time and is rarely called for it. In fact, handchecking on the perimeter is practiced by all Houston defenders, with Harden, Paul, Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker being particularly adept at it. Kevin Durant is the player who rightfully could have complained throughout game one, as he was repeatedly the victim of non-calls on his shot attempts.

Supposedly, the big story from today's game is that Harden and Paul should have been granted many more free throws than they were because of defenders not giving them space to land after they shot (the so-called "Kawhi Leonard rule," enacted after Zaza Pachulia ended Leonard's playoff run in 2017 by stepping under his foot in game one of the Western Conference Finals). There is no question that it is a dirty play for a defender to slide his foot into a jump shooter's landing space--but if you look at the so-called disputed plays, that is not what happened in most of them (one or two were borderline, but it is understandable that the referees are tired of Harden and Paul repeatedly trying to fool them).

A normal shooting motion is to jump straight in the air, release the ball and land approximately in the same area from which you jumped; if you shoot a fadeaway, of course you might land behind where you jumped, and it is possible that if you shoot a running shot you might land in front of where you shot. It is not a normal shooting motion to kick out one or both legs, place your body in a twisted or horizontal position and entangle yourself with the defender's body--but that is what Harden and Paul regularly do. A defender has a right to jump straight up and contest a shot. What Pachulia did that was dirty was he ran toward Leonard, stopped on the ground and then stuck his foot out right where it was obvious that Leonard--who shot with a normal shooting motion--would inevitably land. That most assuredly did not occur on any of the so-called disputed plays in game one. Perhaps in one instance Klay Thompson closed out a little too far and initiated marginal contact but Harden also flopped on the play, making it difficult to see in a split second what exactly had caused Harden to fall.

Paul made several bad plays that potentially cost his team the game; he argued about a foul call while Golden State scored an uncontested fastbreak hoop, he received two technical fouls that cost his team points and he spent more time trying to draw fouls/argue about fouls than he did focusing on playing well. Paul incessantly pushes, grabs and holds on defense but then whines about phantom fouls that he alleges were committed against him on offense. He used to be a scrappy player but now he is a small, older player who has lost a step and has to use his hands on defense to make up for the foot speed he has lost; he is the NBA version of the old guys I could not stand to have guarding me when I was a skinny teenager playing rec league ball/pick up ball: old guys did not want to chase me all over the court, so they would grab, hold and push to get me off balance.

After the game, Harden whined that he just wants things called fairly and then he can "live with the result." Harden's sense of entitlement is breathtaking; he is rarely called for offensive fouls, he gets away with traveling on his signature move, he leads the league in free throw attempts every season (and he had 14 in this game) and he gets away with illegal handchecking on defense but he is convinced that he is the aggrieved party!

Thanks to all of those free throw attempts, Harden had an "efficient" game by "stat guru" standards--but he missed 19 shots and committed four turnovers, which adds up to 23 empty possessions. A team typically has about 100 possessions per game, so Harden wasted nearly a fourth of those. This style of play is gimmicky, is highly unlikely to ever result in a championship and is not fun to watch. As Charles Barkley has described Houston's offense, it is basically Harden doing "dribble, dribble, dribble" and then shooting or passing at the last moment. Harden is a showboat, a ballhog and a serial rules violator but until the NBA cracks down on his rules violations he is not going to change.

Maybe today's game was a step in the right direction but I fear that there is going to be so much criticism of the officiating that the officials will not have the guts to call things correctly the rest of the way. It was disappointing to hear the ABC/ESPN broadcast team buy into all of Houston's nonsense. Harden and Paul have been traveling, flopping and whining all season long. Kudos to the officiating crew for putting an end to this garbage, and I hope that the rest of the series is officiated the same way, if not better (the officials still missed several Harden offensive fouls and defensive handchecks).

Kudos also to Golden State, which did not give in to Houston's foolishness by playing gimmicky defenses against Harden such as defenders putting their hands behind their back or standing behind him to deter the step back shot. Harden spent most of this season making a mockery of the rule book and I hope that this playoff series will set thing right.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:47 AM

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Sunday, April 28, 2019

Denver Versus Portland Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#2 Denver (54-28) vs. #3 Portland (53-29)

Season series: Denver, 3-1

Portland can win if…Damian Lillard and C. J. McCollum dominate Denver's backcourt, while Portland's frontcourt at least slows down Nikola Jokic; the Nuggets went 3-0 versus the Trail Blazers this season in the games that Jokic played.

Portland did well to win a first round series as the favorite after suffering an embarrassing first round sweep last year but the Nuggets are a much better team than the Oklahoma City Thunder. Portland survived the absence of Jusuf Nurkic in the first round but now that Enes Kanter's status is questionable due to a shoulder injury the Trail Blazers could really suffer in terms of frontcourt size and depth.

If Kanter cannot deliver effective minutes, this could be a short series. On the other hand, all four head to head games between these teams were decided by less than 10 points, so it is possible that Portland Coach Terry Stotts will cobble together a way to extend the series even if Kanter is out or ineffective.

Denver will win because…the Nuggets are more talented, deeper and enjoy homecourt advantage. If Portland were at full strength--with a healthy Nurkic and Kanter--this series could potentially have gone the distance. Now, the main obstacle for the Nuggets is their lack of playoff experience, which leads to inconsistent performances from one game to the next. The Nuggets looked like they were hanging on for dear life as the San Antonio Spurs made a big second half comeback in game seven but perhaps surviving that experience will accelerate the Nuggets' growth as a contender.

Jokic had a fantastic series versus the Spurs, averaging 23.1 ppg, 12.1 rpg and 9.1 apg with shooting splits of .488/.333/.875. He had a triple double in game one (10 points, 14 rebounds, 14 assists) and a triple double in game seven (21 points, 15 rebounds, 10 assists) but there was a world of difference between those two triple doubles. In game one, Jokic had just nine field goal attempts and that is not enough aggression for a team's best player; in game seven, Jokic had 26 field goal attempts, fully accepting the responsibility that a team's best player must shoulder in order to advance in the playoffs.

Some players worry too much about "advanced basketball statistics" and efficiency; efficiency is important but not at the expense of aggressiveness, because when a great player is aggressive that breaks down the opposing team's defense even if that player does not shoot a high percentage in a particular game. Field goal attempts are not the only measure of aggressiveness but they are one good indicator. Aggressiveness should not be confused with taking bad shots or shots out of the context of the team's game plan; aggressiveness means taking the shots that a great player is expected to take based on the team's offense, as opposed to excessively deferring to less talented teammates.

Jamal Murray also had an excellent series (19.0 ppg, 4.1 apg, 2.7 rpg, .451/.343/.792). Lillard is a better player than Murray but Murray is not going to back down from the challenge and he is not going to be dominated; Lillard will probably have the better individual statistics during the series but this matchup will be competitive.

The Nuggets are a young team but they are also a well-constructed and well-coached team.

Other things to consider: If you believe the hype after Portland advanced, Lillard has now surpassed Russell Westbrook among the league's elite guards. Westbrook's career and some of the fallacies that media members commit while evaluating players are addressed in a separate article. This article will focus on Lillard, plus how Denver and Portland match up with each other.

Lillard averaged 33.0 ppg, 6.0 apg and 4.4 rpg in the first round, with .461/.481/.846 shooting splits. He ended the series in dramatic fashion with a game-winning shot from well beyond the three point line. There has been a lot of discussion about whether or not that was a good shot but this is simple: when a team gets the ball with more than 10 seconds left in a tie game and ends up shooting the ball from nearly 40 feet, that is not a good shot and it is certainly not an optimal shot, unless one is saying that the coaching staff and players are so inept that they cannot run a play to generate a high percentage shot in that time frame against that particular team.

Much has been made about Lillard practicing that shot and having shot a good percentage on a small sample size of those shots; does that mean if a player practices half court shots and shoots a high percentage on a small number of them then he should deliberately aim to shoot a half court shot with a playoff game on the line? Get out of here. Lillard demonstrated a lot of confidence and a lot a skill and he deserves credit for his play throughout the series--more so than for just hitting one shot--but by no means was that a good shot or an optimal shot in that situation.

Regarding Lillard's overall play and his status in the league, this is Lillard's seventh season, sixth playoff appearance and third second round appearance. He has yet to advance past the second round. Stephen Curry has as many championships as Lillard has second round appearances, and Westbrook has more Western Conference Finals appearances (four) than Lillard has second round appearances. So, Lillard's resume in terms of team playoff success is a bit thin and that has to be considered before getting too excited about a sample size of five playoff games.

Granted, Lillard has little control over who his teammates are, and both Curry and Westbrook have, for at least part of their careers, been surrounded by better supporting casts than Lillard (though that has not been true for Westbrook for several years). Let's look at Lillard's individual career playoff numbers: boosted by his great first round--which represents one eighth of a playoff career that has only included 40 total games--Lillard's career playoff averages are 25.0 ppg, 5.7 apg and 4.5 rpg with .408/.364/.883 shooting splits. Of course after between four and seven second round games versus Denver those numbers may look a lot different--for better or worse.

Lillard has averaged at least 25 ppg in each of the past four regular seasons and he has averaged at least 25 ppg in three of the past four postseasons (albeit with field goal percentages below .370 in two of those four campaigns).

Should Lillard be in the conversation when the best point guards in the NBA are discussed? Yes. That conversation includes Curry, Westbrook, Harden* (the asterisk is because when Harden's game is analyzed one has to consider not only his consistent postseason choking but also the way that he is blatantly permitted to travel and to commit uncalled offensive fouls) and Kyrie Irving in addition to Lillard. Each of those players has individual strengths and weaknesses and each player's career has particular contextual factors that must be correctly analyzed/considered when ranking him alongside his peers. One first round series victory is certainly a piece of evidence to consider but it does not immediately or automatically change the rankings, despite the vocal overreactions of media members.

If Murray comes close to matching Lillard's individual numbers in this series and Denver wins, does that immediately elevate Murray to elite status? Of course not, though it would be a piece of evidence to consider.

The other guard matchup in this series, C.J. McCollum versus Gary Harris, will also be interesting. Harris missed 25 regular season games and averaged just 12.9 ppg on .424 field goal shooting when he played but he scored 14.7 ppg on .487 field goal shooting versus the Spurs. McCollum averaged 24.4 ppg on . 455 field goal shooting versus the Thunder. McCollum has a larger role for his team, which will likely result in him posting bigger numbers, but Harris is not going to back down and if the final series scoring averages are something like 21-17 in McCollum's favor as opposed to 24-15 then that is a victory for the Nuggets.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:19 PM

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