Tag Archives: basketball

A Warrior’s Path

The Golden State Warriors completed one of the most successful seasons in NBA history, culminating with a Finals victory in six games. No player on the Warriors had any previous Finals experience, but that was hardly apparent based on how well they all competed. They overcame slow starts in the first quarter of multiple games. They made lineup adjustments, putting MVP Andre Iguodala in the starting lineup to rejuvenate an offensive slump and dial up the defense on LeBron James. They withstood occasional stretches of poor shooting and found ways to win close games. They dealt with outside distractions: hearing how Klay Thompson was not shooting well, or how they would not be able to stop LeBron, or how Matthew Dellavedova’s defense was changing the outlook on the series. (Admittedly, he played very well during the Finals, but the idea that he would completely shut down Curry for an entire series was a ridiculous notion from the start). The Warriors did not play like they were just happy to be in the Finals. They played with energy and determination, embodying the “Strength in Numbers” mantra that adorned their apparel. Now they are the NBA champions, and with most of their core roster intact, will likely contend for a few more.

Most importantly, the Warriors were led this season by a point guard who, although rarely espouses his personal accomplishments, finally saw his own basketball journey come to fruition this season. Stephen Curry burst onto the international scene over the past two seasons, building a well-deserved reputation as one of the best young stars in the NBA. He has also been a hit on social media, although his daughter Riley is likely equally responsible for that. By now everyone has heard his long story: the son of Dell Curry who would tag along to the Charlotte Bobcats arena and shoot a few jumpers with his father; the late bloomer who had to retool his entire shooting stroke when he became strong enough to hoist the ball from above his shoulders; the high school star who was passed over by nearly every major college program and found his way to Davidson, where he would lead them to the Elite 8 during his sophomore year in one of the most memorable runs in NCAA tournament history. Despite this, many scouts and fans still doubted whether Curry would be able to make it in the NBA, especially when compared to other supposedly-superior point guards in his draft class. He was drafted after Jonny Flynn and Hasheem Thabeet. The Timberwolves alone took Flynn and another point guard, Ricky Rubio, while Curry was still on the board. That year he finished behind Tyreke Evans in the Rookie of the Year voting. Then, injuries and ankle surgery hindered his early professional career, leading to widespread concern that lingering ankle problems would prevent him from reaching his potential. In his fourth season he began to emerge as one of the league’s premier shooters, but was overlooked during selections for the All-Star Game.

Look up Curry’s story and you will hear everything about his improbable journey, but there is something else nearly as distinctive: his shot. Most shooters release the basketball at the highest point of their jump, but Curry’s shot looks different. As depicted by “Sport Science” on ESPN, Curry releases his jump-shot earlier, while still ascending in the air. This quicker release can create accurate shots amid tight defense, which has set him apart from other NBA stars. Fans are captivated by his pinpoint accuracy from the left corner and his ability to make shots on a fast break. Any game could be one in which he makes ten from behind the arc or hits from half-court (or really anywhere). He frequently attempts shots that would be dismissed for their degree of difficulty, yet he gives every shot a decent chance at going in, and many of them do. In the NBA, we have grown to expect the plethora of playmakers, big dunkers, and defensive stalwarts, all without argument. Yet it is the skill of shooting that appeals to the nostalgia and purity of the game. A brilliant shooting display can ignite a crowd in the mere second the ball swishes through the net. It gives us buzzer-beaters and memorable moments. Many are willing to work to improve every year, but not everyone can become a master of the craft. Every generation there are one or two players who demand our attention, who simply make us want to watch (and replay) every shot. And right now we are watching one of the best of all time.

Stephen Curry was not a top recruit out of high school. He was never considered a number one draft pick. Not everyone thought he would even succeed in the NBA. Now he is a perennial All-Star and the MVP of the league. He is the best 3-point shooter in the game right now, and perhaps the best of all time. He combines skills in dribbling, passing, and shooting that are individually mastered by many players, but rarely displayed by one superstar night after night. At first embracing the underdog role, he has blossomed into one of the classiest and most exciting players in the NBA. He has already accomplished enough to fill a successful career, and yet it seems like he is just getting started. He is the kid that people thought might not even make it; now he is an NBA champion. Stephen Curry’s career, just like his shot, is on the up.  AN

This article was concurrently posted at NoCoastBias.com on June 25, 2014.

“Sports Science” is a TV series owned by ESPN.

A Cavalier Task

There’s a new guy in Cleveland, and he is faced with the tall order of leading a team amid a completely re-tooled lineup and instantly high expectations. And it isn’t Lebron James, the top draft pick, or the sharp-shooting big man. His name is David Blatt.

Thanks to their perennial losing ways, the Cleveland Cavaliers once again landed the top pick in the NBA draft, nabbing precocious talent Andrew Wiggins, a franchise player. Wiggins already represented a marked upgrade in Cleveland, but it was not long before the Cavs would bring home the off-season’s biggest prize. LeBron’s anticipated “Decision 2.0” capped a summer of free-agent highlights that changed the course of the upcoming season. Suddenly the Cavs became instant contenders in the depleted Eastern Conference. Although LeBron’s previous team, the Miami Heat, struggled with point guard play as the weakest part of the team, LeBron now was teamed with one of the game’s best young point guards in Kyrie Irving. A highly anticipated trade sent Wiggins to Minnesota in exchange for the shooting and rebounding combo in Kevin Love. A new team, a new “Big Three.”

David Blatt was hired to a Cavs team that had seen the ups and downs of the past decade. NBA head coach is one of the most competitive jobs in the country, complete with a short leash and constant scrutiny. There is no one single formula for ascending the coaching ranks of pro basketball. Many are former players (some less than two years out of retirement). Others work their way up as assistant coaches. Highly successful college coaches might get a shot too (but not all will take it). For every Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, there are dozens of others who last a year or less, or who are fired after missing the playoffs too many times, or simply cannot win enough games to placate a fan base demanding a championship. This makes a coach’s first year in the NBA extremely important, not just for the sake of future job security, but also for adjusting to the stressful, complicated behemoth of the job that goes far beyond standing in front of the bench 82 times a year. And this makes David Blatt’s case much more intriguing.

Unless you went to Princeton or spent time following the Israeli basketball circuit, you probably did not know much about the former point guard who studied English literature when he wasn’t learning the Princeton offense from coach Pete Carril. Successful in European basketball, his coaching career also led him to a bronze medal with the Russian national team at the 2012 Olympics. But he had yet to coach in America when Dan Gilbert picked him to lead the Cavaliers. He may have had his doubters at first, but the focus was quickly shifted to bigger news (Hint: it involved some guy named James). A team with a completely new lineup had just got a brand new coach. David Blatt has begun his first job in the NBA, and it happens to be coaching a team with a very good shot at making it to the finals. Not many people get a chance to coach in the NBA, and fewer get to inherit a team that will contend for a championships many times in the next few years. Not many people get to coach one of the best players in history, who just happens to be in his prime and more determined then ever to win a championship for his hometown. Blatt also gets one of the league’s best point guards in Kyrie Irving, and a dependable 20/10 big man in Kevin Love, who can also hit 3-pointers. Cleveland also has some young talent in Dion Waiters, Matt Dellavedova, and Tristan Thompson.

Coaching at any level is not always easy; coaching in the NBA is a full-time headache with a chance for redemption when the playoffs roll around. Blatt has the tough task of managing a new lineup and a fan base that has bought into the idea of “NBA champs 2015.” It won’t be easy, given the increased expectations and media scrutiny that will follow LeBron and Co. all season. If Decision 2.0 doesn’t pay off right away, Blatt’s likely to be out the door long before LeBron. A team with all-stars doesn’t always mesh right away, and the Bulls and Spurs certainly are not afraid to stand in their way. When life offers you chance to audition on the big stage, you ride it all the way to the top. Many first-time coaches have to struggle with inexperienced lineups or a take on a team from the bottom of the standings. Blatt is starting with a leg up, and this new Big Three might just take him all the way to the top. Only 5 head coaches in history have won more than 2 NBA championships. Blatt has been a head coach for less than a year, but you can’t already help but like his chances to join that list. As an English major, David Blatt read his share of great stories; he’s a part of pretty big one that’s starting right now.  AN

A perfect collision

Tonight’s women’s basketball national championship game features two teams each vying for a perfect season. With one more win, Notre Dame or Connecticut will cap off a truly remarkable season, not without its challenges on either side. Those challenges, to be fair, were largely internal (injuries or graduation), as both the Irish and Huskies ran the table through their respective regular seasons, conference tournaments, and early rounds of the NCAA tournament. Nearly all of their wins were by double digits, and it didn’t take long for early-season observers to see that this year’s championship was likely going to be a two-horse race. Even matchups with ranked teams could not slow down these two juggernauts. The Irish defeated Penn State, Tennessee, Duke (3 times), Baylor, and Maryland (twice); and the Huskies defeated Stanford (twice), Louisville (3 times), Baylor, Penn State, Duke, and Maryland, all of whom were highly ranked for most of the season. It was clear that the #1 and #2 ranked teams had separated themselves from the pack, and we might as well have assigned them 1a and 1b.

After 76 other games (all wins), Notre Dame and UConn are the last teams standing in each other’s way in the goal of a perfect season. The rivalry between these former Big East powerhouses has intensified over the past few years. And it very well should have. Notre Dame and UConn have been two of the most consistently successful teams of the past decade, each on an impressive streak of consecutive appearances in the Final Four; Notre Dame at 4 and UConn at 7. Over the years, these two teams have traded regular season and postseason wins. With Big East regular season and conference titles on the line, games have been closely contested. A win by one team only fueled the motivation for revenge in the next matchup. They also played against each other in the past 3 Final Fours. The Irish won in 2011 and 2012 to reach the title game, but UConn defeated Notre Dame last season and went on to win the championship. There’s pride and motivation to this rivalry. Each team certainly brings out the best in the other. Both sides boast overflowing talent, multiple All-Americans, and a Hall of Fame coach. Both teams set high goals, and expect contend for championships every year.

But this season is different. In the aftermath of conference realignment, gone are the regular season matchups, and home court advantage. Games between UConn and Notre Dame cannot be used as midseason benchmarks, or give implications for conference titles. After playing against each other 4 times last season, this time they face off once. Each team undefeated. Perfect seasons on the line. Last game of the season. Neutral court. For all the marbles. In the NCAA tournament, upsets are great stories to follow, but this is the finale we want to see: the two best teams playing for the championship. No best-of-seven series; no home-and-home schedule; no rematch next week. Notre Dame and UConn; one game. It really couldn’t end any other way.  AN