I tend not to like narratives in sports. Most of them begin with a grain of truth before the media bastardizes them, and some were artificially created in a lab in Bristol, CT. It’s fine to try to hook viewers in with a storyline, and certainly every game does tell its own story, but too often the media’s clinging to some mindless narrative – the one they assume will play out – obfuscates what’s actually happening in the game.
Last night’s game played as close to a conventional narrative as any I’ve seen. This was a team against individuals. A spurned lover against a basketball Adonis. Desire against complacency. This was Shakespeare and Chaucer and Homer and whoever else. And for most people around the country, it was good against evil. (And when’s the last time a New York team was the good guys?)
It doesn’t end there. Like so many great stories, the villains are perhaps more compelling than the heroes. The heroes are deeply flawed but may yet become more powerful than ever. The heroes gained ground on the villains with each try before finally making the third time the charm.
No, it wasn’t the NBA Finals, although it was the national game of the week. And sure, the story certainly doesn’t end here. But there are so many storytelling devices at play here, it’s hard to believe this is all really happenings. As far as I’m concerned, the media can beat this game into the ground with any narrative they please. It all fits. Maybe I’m being hyperbolic, and maybe it’s just one game – and in that case, ESPN will have my application on Monday.
P.S.: I hope we’ve long since put to rest the asinine idea that the Heat trio would be bad for basketball. Heroes don’t make themselves – they’re born in times of strife, and they’re revealed by great villains. It’s the villains who create the strife, and by proxy the hero and the story. It’s a great, great time to be an NBA fan.
No rest for the weary. Tonight the Knicks are in Atlanta to take on a Hawks team that just dropped one in Milwaukee by employing Erik Spoelstra’s stand-around offense. This is one of the most important regular season games of the year; if the Knicks are going to make a run at the fifth seed in the East, they will likely need to win both of their remaining games against Atlanta in order to procure the tiebreaker. Although Atlanta currently leads New York by 4.5 games, the peripherals are more encouraging: the Hawks have just a +1.9 point differential and have played the easiest schedule in the league. If the Knicks can grab those two head-to-heads and bring the deficit to 2.5 games, these teams might just go down to the wire.
PG – Mike Bibby: Like Chalmers last night, beware of the spot up three more than any creation. Will initiate PnR and will even set screens on a pick and pop. If Raymond Felton can’t run rings around Bibby, our point guard may be running out of gas.
SG – Joe Johnson: Numbers are a little down due to ghastly three-point shooting, but he’s been shooting it better of late. Showing more impetus to take over games late, even if he ought to defer.
SF – Marvin Williams: Figures to return to the starting lineup over Jason Collins against the Knicks’ smaller lineup, but only managed 13 minutes and didn’t look like he was completely recovered from his back injury.
PF – Josh Smith: Would move to the three if Collins starts. A tough matchup for Wilson Chandler. Perimeter game is now mediocre rather than horrendous.
C – BoB Favorite Al Horford: The Hawks’ best player. When the team starts standing around on offense, he’s the one still out there playing team basketball and righting the ship.
Hawks Injuries: In addition to Williams, every other Atlanta starter is battling some nagging injury. They are all probable for tonight. Williams would be the candidate to be most hampered.
Sore Loser Report: “We missed some shots we expected to make.” – LeBron James. The Knicks shot 36%, got outrebounded and still won the game. Also, LeBron must’ve been the only person “expecting” those horrible shots in the post to go in.
One Matchup to Like: Toney Douglas against Jamal Crawford. As we know, Jamal needs little excuse to remain on the perimeter and take terrible shots. He shouldn’t be able to drive by Douglas, so I’m hopeful both teams’ perimeter bench guys see a lot of each other tonight.
One Matchup to Hate: Horford against Amar’e Stoudemire. Horford is the sort of active, strong big that Amar’e can’t bull-rush. He also has great lower-body strength and will be able to use his leverage to get Amar’e out of position under the boards.
Tip of the Cap: To Horford, as if I haven’t fellashed him enough already. In crunch time Wednesday against Milwaukee, Larry Drew called a clear out for Horford to drive on Andrew Bogut. Horford started into the lane, and Carlos Delfino left Josh Smith to help. A truly unselfish player, Horford kicked out to Smith, who launched a terrible three-pointer with Delfino closing out hard. When the Hawks aren’t playing well, it’s because Smith, Williams, Crawford and Johnson are breaking the offense to launch their own shots at a moment’s notice. Horford never wavers.
Recent Hawks teams have been associated with isolation sets, a lack of ball movement and low-percentage outside shots. This year’s team still lapses back into that mentality – as they did late in Wednesday’s loss to Milwaukee – but Larry Drew has done a nice job of getting this team to move without the ball. The constant screening may give the switch-happy Knicks some trouble, and there are a couple of sets the Hawks like to run that may give the Knicks particular difficulty tonight.
The first is the Horns or A-set, in which Smith and Horford will show at the elbow with the wing players in the corners. Bibby (or often, Crawford or Johnson), bringing the ball up down the middle, can choose one side of the double high screen. This creates a lot of open jumpers on the pop for Horford, who has become an excellent mid-range shooter, and also will ask questions of the Knicks wing defenders, namely whether to help on the ballhandler and possibly leave his man open for a kick out and an open three. Alternatively, the Hawks will fade a big man from the elbow out to the wing and have him screen for one of the wing players on a flex cut to the basket. That’s a play the Knicks run with great success, mostly for Danilo Gallinari – it’s the one where he miraculously gets great position right under the basket.
Like most NBA teams, the Hawks don’t run much continuity out of this set, and when it’s well defended the offense can break down pretty easily. However, as stated above, the Hawks don’t always simply default to an isolation late in the shot clock. Horford and Smith seem to have been coached to set an emergency screen after the offense breaks down, so the Knicks will have to prepare for the side PnR. With all the switching New York does, that could cause problems.
Another set the Hawks like is the double screen from the wing. Note which Hawk brings up the ball and where he tries to bring it up; Bibby does not initiate this set because it’s meant to allow their penetrators, Johnson and Crawford mostly, to get into the paint and create a shot. Bibby will, however, be one of the high screeners, and will probe the three-point line after the screen hoping to find space to spot up. The double screen is another area where the Knicks will have to communicate very quickly to avoid confusion.
Defensively, the Hawks will show some zone defense, particularly at the end of quarters. With Horford, Smith and Zaza Pachulia, the Hawks aren’t really trying to clamp down inside, but the zone does somewhat negate Bibby’s lack of perimeter defense.
Finally, one advantage I think the Knicks hold on Atlanta is their energy. This is a Hawks team that can get discouraged at times, and reverts back to isolation pretty quickly. I would think a little elbow grease from the Knicks could get the Hawks to break down their offense and begin to settle for isolations. We saw last night how dependence on isolation can be the downfall of a superior team (although, without Bosh, they aren’t really superior at all). If the Knicks have energy left on this road back-to-back, they could cause Atlanta some fits, and that tiebreaker may not be too far away.