Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tangled Up In Blue

The basketball programs at North Carolina and Kansas share a lot of history. Legendary Tar Heels coach Dean Smith played for the Jayhawks under Phog Allen. Larry Brown was a scrappy point guard at UNC, then led Kansas to a national title as coach in 1988. There were memorable NCAA tournament games between the teams in 1957, 1991 and 1993.

Then there’s the matter of Roy Williams and Matt Doherty. They are inextricably linked in hoops history. As a Smith assistant, Williams recruited Doherty to become a key role player for the Tar Heels in the early 1980s. Williams succeeded Brown as Kansas coach and hired Doherty as an assistant from 1993-’99. After turning down the chance to be UNC’s coach upon Bill Guthridge’s retirement in 2000, Williams trumpeted for Doherty to get the job.

Doherty’s saga at UNC is well-trod territory: AP coach of the year for 2000-’01 and then a disastrous 8-20 season in 2001-’02. But Doherty seemed to be righting the ship in 2002-’03, bringing in a stellar recruiting class highlighted by Rashad McCants, Sean May and Raymond Felton.

One of Doherty’s final memorable moments at UNC came on Nov. 27, 2002, when the young Tar Heels shocked Williams’ second-ranked Jayhawks, 67-56, in the semifinals of the Preseason NIT at Madison Square Garden. It is the only time the coaches have squared off against each other.

It’s a little mind-bending to watch the game with the benefit of hindsight, knowing that Williams would be on the UNC sideline the next season. Especially since Doherty out-coached his mentor in this game. The Tar Heels exploited the Jayhawks’ overplaying defense, with Doherty spreading his players high, almost to the three-point line. That left plenty of room for backdoor cuts and no backside help defensively from Kansas. McCants was the primary beneficiary of the strategy, getting 12 points on 6-for-8 shooting in the first half as UNC raced out to a surprising 38-29 lead.

Doherty didn’t have the look of an embattled coach. The Tar Heels were clearly still buying what Doherty was selling. The coach’s enthusiasm hadn’t dampened, he charged right into a scrum of players to share in the celebration after McCants dove on the floor for a loose ball and called a timeout.

The Tar Heels also were stellar on defense, shutting down Kansas stars Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison. UNC forced 21 turnovers, surprising because Doherty’s tenure with the Tar Heels — as anyone who watched Adam Boone or Brian Morrison run the point could attest — was marred by the team’s own sloppy play. UNC dominated the second half, pushing the lead to 21 points. McCants finished with 25 points and Jawad Williams added 15. Melvin Scott had five steals off the bench.

It was plain to see the Tar Heels had superior talent. But the season deteriorated in short order. May was lost for the season in December after hurting his foot in a shocking loss to Iona. Doherty’s trademark enthusiasm began to grate on his young stars, who started tuning the coach out while playing out the string of a 19-16 season that ended in the NIT.

Doherty was forced out and Williams became the obvious replacement, even as he was leading Kansas to the NCAA championship game against Syracuse. Williams no doubt struggled with the decision, but it’s easy to see Ol’ Roy thinking back to this game and imagining coaching May, McCants and Felton. There was a greater upside than the players Kansas had returning, including Aaron Miles and Wayne Simien.

Of course, Williams took the job and tidied up the situation, leading the players that Doherty recruited to a national championship in 2005, further entwining their legacies.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Slam Dance

One image towers above all others from the 1983 NCAA tournament: North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano sprinting around the court looking to embrace all comers after the Wolfpack’s last-second victory over Houston in the championship game.

For sure, it’s an iconic moment in the tournament’s history. It’s also unfortunate that lost in its shadow is a key game in the development of college basketball: Houston’s 94-81 victory over Louisville in the semifinals.

It was supposed to be the de facto title game, with the two top-ranked teams in the country (the Cougars were No. 1). It also promised to be a wild affair, with both squads favoring a breakneck pace.

The hype was a crucial aspect to this game, and the marketing of the matchup would help build the booming brand of today’s “March Madness.” First, you had to sell the characters and slap a catchy nickname on them. This was Houston’s “Phi Slamma Jamma” vs. Louisville’s “The Doctors of Dunk.” The Cougars wholeheartedly bought into their image, even wearing “Phi Slamma Jamma” shooting shirts on the bench. These teams were the direct antecedent to the “Flying Illini” of Illinois in the late 1980s or the “Fab Five” of Michigan in the early ’90s. The NBA benefited directly from this, with stars like Houston’s Clyde Drexler and the then-Akeem Olajuwon and Louisville’s Rodney McCray already known quantities by the time they arrived in the league.

The strategy worked to perfection, the crowd at “The Pit” in Albuquerque was raucous from the tip. The players fed off the energy and, remarkably, the game lived up to the hype. It helped set the aesthetic that became popular in college basketball in the coming years: not much strategy, just putting great athletes into a simple system based on speed and letting them go. Houston and Louisville pushed the pace to the extreme in the high altitude of New Mexico, and players were sucking down oxygen on the bench.

Then there were the dunks, the biggest selling point of the game. Few plays in sports offer fans the visceral mixture of style and power as the dunk. In the game-changing 21-1 run by the Cougars in the second half, Houston had three straight dunks. Two of the slams were legendary, the first being Benny Anders’ one-handed cram over Charles Jones. Then Drexler brought the house down with his soaring, one-hand-into-two-hands glide from a seemingly impossible takeoff spot. It was nothing short of one of the best in-game dunks ever.

The game also was going global. The legend of Olajuwon has been cemented: former soccer player grew to seven feet, ended up in Houston as a project, then became one of the greatest centers of all time. This was the season that Olajuwon put everything together, and the results were stunning. He could block a shot, run the floor with the guards and then finish on the other end. That skill set helped send coaches scurrying to all corners of the globe to find their own pet projects.

It’s hard to believe that a team with the young Drexler and Olajuwon would lose to N.C. State in the championship game. Maybe they bought into the hype and thought they could cruise past the Wolfpack. Maybe they were just bone-tired after all the end-to-end action against Louisville. Regardless, when N.C. State’s Lorenzo Charles beat the buzzer with his dunk for the 54-52 upset of Houston, it sent Valvano on his celebratory jaunt and relegated Louisville-Houston to being an underappreciated footnote.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

So Crazy That It Works

Lost amid all the jollity and outré theater of Ron Artest’s post-Finals interviews were some real insights into how the most enigmatic of basketball players views himself. Artest effusively thanked his psychiatrist for helping him remain calm in tense moments, times when he thought that he sometimes checked out in the past.

It was a rare bit of honesty for a professional athlete. But the truth of the matter is that Artest has a history of acquitting himself well in the clutch, going back to one of his first moments on the national stage: a 92-88 overtime loss to Duke at Madison Square Garden during Artest’s sophomore season at St. John’s.

Los Angeles Lakers fans might collectively hold their breath when Artest receives the ball in the triangle offense, but back then Artest was St. John’s offensive fulcrum. The week before the game against Duke, Artest posted just the second triple-double in the storied history of the school. He led the Red Storm in points and assists and was second in rebounding.

But defense has always been Artest’s calling card, and he got to display his versatility against the Blue Devils. Artest muscled up former AAU teammate Elton Brand in the post, and guarded Shane Battier and Chris Carrawell on the perimeter. Unfortunately, Battier also is a flinty defender and coaxed Artest into a few charges that put the St. John’s star into foul trouble.

Artest missed over eight minutes of the second half, but thanks to Bootsy Thortnon lighting up the second-ranked Blue Devils (he finished with 40 points), the Red Storm was still in the mix by the time Artest returned for the final five minutes of regulation.

You take the good with the bad with Artest, it’s always been that way with him. In this game, he forced a terrible shot that was swatted by Brand, but Artest immediately atoned for it by poking the ball away from Carrawell for a wide-open layup that cut Duke’s lead to 73-70.

The final two minutes were a clinic in clutch play. Artest gave St. John’s a 76-75 lead with a three-point play with 1:40 remaining. An impressive steal on an inbounds play with 40 seconds left was unfortunately followed by a missed shot. After Duke regained the lead at 79-76, Artest bodied up Brand and then stole an inbounds pass. Seemingly all in one motion, Artest made the steal and then bumped into Brand to draw a foul while forcing up a three-pointer. Artest made two of the three free throws, and St. John’s trailed, 79-78. After Duke sank two free throws, Artest called for the ball and then calmly drained the tying three-pointer with 1.1 seconds left.

In overtime, luck didn’t go Artest’s way. Down 89-88 in the final minute, he knocked the ball away from Battier, but it bounced right to Corey Maggette. Artest was forced to foul, his fifth personal. Duke held on to win, but Artest had made a name for himself.

He turned pro after the season, and Artest’s basketball exploits have been shadowed by a greatest hits of bizarre antics (the brawl with the Pistons, applying for a job at Circuit City, drinking Hennessey at halftime, asking for time off from the Pacers to promote his CD). So people seemed shocked when Artest carried the Lakers in Game 7, but he always has had that type of performance in him.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Professional Service

Rick Pitino is a college coach of the highest order. His credentials speak for themselves. Pitino’s NBA track record, however, is not so easy to define. His last tour of duty — 248 games with the Boston Celtics from 1997-2001 — was a disastrous stretch that ended with a 102-146 record, no playoffs and the enduring soundbite of a weary Pitino explaining to a rabid fan base that “Larry Bird isn’t walking through that door.”

That last bit is great fodder for the argument that Pitino was out of his depth on the professional level. His tenure with the Celtics also obscured the relative success Pitino enjoyed with the New York Knicks in 1987-’88 and 1988-’89. A close reading of a random game during Pitino’s stint with the Knicks highlights his strengths and weaknesses as a pro coach.

The Knicks’ 120-116 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Jan. 22, 1989, proved to be a great yardstick to measure an NBA coach — a game in the doldrums of the season, in the midst of a brutal seven-game road trip and against a playoff-caliber opponent.

The first thing that pops off the screen is Pitino’s manic energy. He was then firmly entrenched in the wunderkind stage of his career, a 36-year-old workaholic who had, the season before, led the Knicks to a 14-game improvement in his first year at the helm. Pitino paced the sideline, well-turned-out in his Italian suit, and his voice was easily picked up by the television crew above the uncommonly silent crowd at Portland’s Memorial Coliseum. It is a different temperament than most NBA coaches, the common perception being that a coach needs to emotionally pace himself to make it through the grind of an NBA season.

College coaches are often slaves to their systems. This can cause problems when transitioning to the pro game because the talents are so much greater and diverse that drastic adjustments are needed from game to game. Pitino’s style is based on pressure defense and a guard-dominated offense.

Pressure defense is so hard to implement in the NBA, mostly because of the sheer talent of the players. That’s not to say that it won’t catch some teams off guard, like the Blazers on this night. Portland had 13 turnovers in the first half and 11 in the third quarter. But a professional coach also will find some holes in the pressure. Pitino was matching wits with Portland’s Mike Schuler, not in the class of a Red Auerbach but a serviceable NBA coach. (Schuler would be fired a month after this game and replaced by assistant Rick Adelman.)

Schuler’s counterforce against the defense was simple — send Clyde Drexler on a fly pattern down the sideline for a long pass over the top of the defense. Drexler was in full “Gylde” mode then, and the results were spectacular. He had 26 points in the first half and nine of his 10 baskets came on fast breaks. Drexler enjoyed one of his finest games as a pro, 48 points on 20-for-28 shooting including 18 layups or dunks.

Pitino’s offensive strategies also seemed counterintuitive. He had Patrick Ewing just entering his prime, but the all-star center got only six shots in the first half. The Knicks were content with Mark Jackson and Trent Tucker dominating the ball on the perimeter. It was no coincidence that Ewing’s scoring average jumped from 22.7 to 28.6 when Stu Jackson replaced Pitino the next season.

Pitino has always been masterful about getting the most out of guys on the bottom end of his rotation. He is, after all, the best-selling author of “Success is a Choice.” The motivational tactics and knack for choosing the right personnel won this game for Pitino. After getting into a 17-point hole in the third period, Pitino brought in Rod Strickland, Gerald Wilkens and the newly signed Pete Myers for Jackson, Tucker and Johnny Newman. That lineup fed into Pitino’s fast-paced attack and cut the margin to 90-88 heading into the fourth quarter.

The Knicks finally got the ball to Ewing in the fourth quarter and held on for the victory. Pitino acted as if they had clinched the Eastern Conference championship, hugging each player as they headed toward the locker room. Pitino’s enthusiasm certainly breathed new life into a moribund franchise, making consecutive playoffs under his stewardship. But after the season Pitino took the job at Kentucky, back in the college ranks where his style is a safer bet.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Divergent Paths

It is still disconcerting to see Adam Morrison mired on the Los Angeles Lakers’ bench, often taking in the action in street clothes. With an expiring contract, there is a strong chance that Morrison won’t be in the league next season. That’s a long way to fall for one of the top college basketball players of the past decade.

Morrison’s greatest game at Gonzaga came when he dropped 43 points in a 109-106 triple-overtime victory against Michigan State at the Maui Invitational on Nov. 22, 2005. Besides being one of the best college games in recent memory, it is instructive to watch the game and contrast Morrison with Shannon Brown, the ultra-athletic wing player for the Spartans whose professional career has taken a decidedly different trajectory.

The biggest adjustment for college stars upon entering the NBA, save for a few cases, is that they no longer will be the focal point of an offense. Gonzaga had some talented players, but they clearly deferred to Morrison. That was evident in the opening minutes against Michigan State, when Morrison found space for his first three-pointer of the game after running his defender around a double screen. Morrison hit another three-pointer a few minutes later when teammates passed up open shots to feed him in the corner. The Bulldogs always found ways to get Morrison the ball, even having him bring the ball up the court when Brown made a concerted effort to deny the passing lanes to the Gonzaga star.

Brown’s defense slowed Morrison after a hot start. Morrison had 11 early points and coaxed Michigan State’s Maurice Ager into foul trouble. Brown got the call from coach Tom Izzo to guard Morrison. This would be the type of defender Morrison would face in the NBA — Brown stands only 6 feet 4 inches but has rangy arms and world-class athletic ability. Morrison wasn’t quite sure how to attack Brown, the first instinct being to take the smaller player (Morrison is 6-8) in the post. But Morrison wasn’t comfortable on the blocks, often fading away on his jumpers around the basket.

One of those misses near the end of the first half sparked a sequence by Brown that displayed his tantalizing skill set. When a short turnaround by Morrison caromed off the rim, Brown sprinted down court, filling the lane on a fast break that ended with a soaring one-handed dunk. Brown hit a three-pointer on the Spartans’ next possession, then found Drew Neitzel with a nifty pass on a back-door play. Both Morrison and Brown finished 6 of 10 from the field in the first half.

Brown was plagued by cramps for the remainder of the game and would score only three more points. Morrison also took advantage of a slower Brown, hitting long jumpers and the kind of crafty runners that sparked inevitable comparisons to Larry Bird. Morrison was much more confident with the ball at Gonzaga, and didn’t shy away from big moments. That’s a marked difference from whenever Morrison sees playing time with the Lakers, often looking lost or passive in the triangle offense.

Morrison’s numbers in this game dwarf Brown’s, but it was clear Brown would have a bright future at the next level. Michael Jordan and the Charlotte Bobcats saw enough potential in Morrison to make him the third overall pick in the 2006 draft. Brown went 25th that year to the Cleveland Cavaliers and eventually joined Morrison in Charlotte in 2008.

Morrison had the inevitable up-and-down rookie season and drew heavy criticism for being slow on defense. His career was forever altered when he blew out his knee in an exhibition game and missed his entire second year. When he returned, Morrison was a touch slower, which doomed him against NBA defenders. Those tough runners he hit in college weren’t going to work against the likes of Kevin Garnett. The Bobcats sent Morrison and Brown to the Lakers for Vladimir Radmanovic in February 2009.

With Los Angeles, Brown has found a home for his freakish athleticism. He plays solid minutes for one of the NBA’s elite teams and has treated fans to jaw-dropping slams (except in this year’s dunk contest).

Morrison, meanwhile, is a constant fixture on the Lakers’ bench. Because of his previous exploits, it’s hard for some fans to give up the ghost. Maybe he just needs the right coach with the right system. More than likely, Morrison will be another sublime college player whose game couldn’t translate to the NBA.

Friday, June 11, 2010

International Relations

When Jerry Krause drafted Toni Kukoc with the second pick in the second round of the 1990 NBA draft (29th overall), the Chicago Bulls general manager thought he had pulled off his greatest coup. After all, Kukoc was widely acknowledged as the best player in Europe with guard skills packaged in a power forward’s frame.

But Krause’s torrid infatuation with Kukoc also served to foment dissension against team management by the Bulls’ greatest stars, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Jordan disliked Krause’s groveling over an unproven player. Pippen was furious with contract figures being bandied about in hopes of luring Kukoc across the pond. Pippen was undoubtedly one of the top 10 players in the NBA at the time, but he was being paid like an average journeyman, and was stuck with an underwhelming long-term deal.

So when Kukoc’s Croatia team was placed in the same group as the U.S. at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, it provided some extra motivation for Dream Team members Jordan and Pippen. Croatia was the second-best team that summer, with Kukoc, Drazen Petrovic, Dino Radja and Stojko Vrankovic. But the U.S. wasn’t going to lose, the scores weren’t even going to be close, so any edge to get up for a game would be exploited.

The Americans and Croatians first squared off during group play. Chuck Daly put Pippen in the starting lineup and tasked him with guarding Kukoc. Pippen had made his first NBA all-defensive team that season, but you might be hard-pressed to find a game that season where he guarded someone harder than he did Kukoc.

Pippen was even more infuriated defensively after Kukoc got a rebound and a nifty assist to give Croatia a 4-2 lead. Pippen hardly left Kukoc’s hip after that, and was inordinately physical. Kukoc was visibly frustrated, constantly slapping Pippen’s hands away.

Jordan was locked in defensively as well. He stole a Kukoc pass, leading to a breakaway dunk and a 9-6 lead for the Americans. After Kukoc got by Magic Johnson on a drive, Jordan was there to swat the shot attempt that turned into a Pippen dunk and a 42-18 advantage.

The constant harassment had broken Kukoc’s will. He missed his first four shots of the game, getting his only basket on an uncontested layup right before the halftime buzzer that was made possible by Arijan Komazec’s penetration. Kukoc seemed to shut down, offering no signs of competitiveness. That lack of fire was contrasted by Petrovic, who met the challenge of facing the Dream Team head-on. He scored 11 straight points in the first half to keep the score to a somewhat respectable 54-37 at the break.

Kukoc had a little more breathing room in the second half, being guarded mostly by Chris Mullin and Clyde Drexler. Here, without the stultifying length of Pippen, is where one saw why Krause held Kukoc in such high esteem. With his height advantage at 6 feet 11 inches, Kukoc could see over his defenders on the perimeter. He had a well-honed anticipatory sense about where his teammates were going to be. He had only five assists in the game, but several of his nicest passes were met with blown layups or fouls by the U.S. Pippen’s initial defense also left Kukoc a little gun shy, and the Croatian star finished 2 for 11 from the field in the Americans’ 103-70 victory.

After the game, Pippen was scathing in his view of Kukoc. Pippen said Kukoc didn’t have the mentality to make it through the 82-game grind of a regular season. Karl Malone and Charles Barkley echoed those sentiments. Jordan took a more diplomatic approach, saying Kukoc’s skills would be better highlighted when playing with teammates of a higher caliber.

Kukoc gained a measure of revenge in the gold-medal game. He had 16 points, nine assists and five rebounds in the 117-85 romp by the U.S. Kukoc was infinitely more aggressive in going after Pippen, hitting several three-pointers over the long arms of one of the world’s top defenders (Kukoc was 3 for 4 beyond the arc in the game).

Kukoc finally made it to the Bulls after the 1992-’93 season, just in time for Jordan’s first retirement. Kukoc and Pippen coexisted uneasily before Jordan’s return prompted the second three-peat. But Kukoc never seemed comfortable in his own skin with the Bulls, probably because of the rude introduction by Jordan and Pippen at the Olympics.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Knight Court

With all of his bluster and his dictatorial persona, it’s sometimes easy to forget how much Bob Knight knows about basketball. That’s why it was striking, when reading about Damon Bailey, to spot this quote from Knight after Indiana’s 96-84 victory over top-ranked Kentucky on Dec. 4, 1994:

“That was about as excited as I’ve been about basketball in a long time. The way we started, I almost became a fan because we were playing so hard.”

Those are heady words coming from The General. This is, after all, the guy who won a championship as a player with Ohio State in 1960 and three NCAA titles as a coach (including the last undefeated team, in 1975-’76), led the U.S. to a gold medal in 1984 and was a confidant of Pete Newell. This Hoosiers’ performance begged to be broken down.

The most striking aspect about the six-minute stretch that got Knight all excited is that, to the naked eye, it seemed so mundane. There were no monster dunks, no blazing feats of athleticism, no jaw-dropping assists. There were even some sloppy moments in the 9-2 run by Indiana to start the game.

Coaches often say they don’t care about mistakes as long as players are executing correctly and with the requisite amount of effort. That usually sounds like drivel, especially coming from an exacting coach like Knight.

But that cliché was true for the scrappy Hoosiers, who were looking to bounce back from a lackadaisical effort in a season-opening home loss to Butler. They needed to be on their game against Rick Pitino and his vaunted full-court pressure.

In the introductory segments, Knight laid bare the essentials of his motion offense. The Hoosiers didn’t run any scripted plays, they just read and reacted to what the defenses was giving. The key against the Wildcats’ tough defense would be the play of Indiana’s guards, foremost among them Bailey. An Indiana schoolboy legend, this was Bailey’s senior season after an up-and-down college career.

Bailey was tough, strong and smart with the ball, and those skills would serve the Hoosiers well in this game. He continually broke Kentucky’s pressure with his dribble, inviting the double team, then dribbling around the outside of it. Indiana’s only turnover in the first five minutes came when Bailey had his pocket picked after getting by the pressure and crossing half-court.

All of that was pleasing to Knight, as was the Hoosier’s intensity on defense. Knight’s rugged man-to-man system forced Kentucky into four turnovers on its first five possessions. The Wildcats’ only points in the first six minutes came on two free throws, while they missed the four shots that they managed to squeeze off.

With that level of defensive enthusiasm, Knight could live with mistakes like Bailey’s turnover or the missed reverse layups by freshman Steve Hart. Knight even commended Todd Lindeman after the center got a foul, because the big man was being aggressive going after an offensive rebound.

After that Knight-pleasing 9-2 run, thing settled down. Kentucky, as expected from the nation’s top team, rallied for a 35-29 lead. Then Bailey took over; this game was probably the high-water mark of his career. The interesting thing about Bailey is that he did not conform to the sweet-shooting classic archetype of Hoosier State folk heroes. In fact, flat-topped teammate Brian Evans probably fit that particular mold better.

Bailey was just gritty, and he knew how to score. He made frequent trips to the free-throw line and scored 23 points in the first half for a 55-44 lead at the break. He finished with 29 in the victory and also played cheek-by-jowl defense on Kentucky star Tony Delk (5-of-17 shooting).

When Bailey got a brief respite right before halftime, Knight gave him a playful slap on the head and then spoke a few words into the guard’s ear. CBS broadcaster Billy Packer informed the viewing public that Knight had mouthed the words “I’m proud of you.” The famed taskmaster was probably still on a basketball high from those first five minutes.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Divine Providence

A byproduct of the NCAA tournament is teams that capture the popular imagination for a few games or a couple of weeks, then are lost to history after bowing out. The Providence Friars fall squarely into this camp for their performance in 1997.

The squad had something for everyone to like, starting with head coach Pete Gillen, a benevolent quipster with the ruddy complexion of an Irish barkeep. The Friars’ top scorer was Austin Croshere, a lantern-jawed white forward whose game was an amalgamation of three-point shooting and classic back-to-the-basket fare. Fans of players who do the donkeywork under the basket had the underappreciated big man Ruben Garces. There was Coney Island native Jamel Thomas for some street flavor and former JUCO player of the year Derrick Brown for the classic up-from-your-bootstraps storyline.

Then there was God. He came to Providence as Shammgod Wells, an ankle-fracturing point guard from Harlem who stole the spotlight with his wicked ball-handling at the star-studded 1995 McDonald’s All-American Game. In college he changed his name to God Shammgod, much to the appreciation of pun-loving sportswriters and broadcasters. Stories of his dribbling wizardry are legion in college basketball.

The Friars entered the tournament as a 10th-seed and opened with an 81-59 victory over Marquette. Croshere poured in 39 points, the high for the tournament, including 15-for-15 shooting from the free-throw line. It was Providence’s first victory in the tournament since the school had Rick Pitino on the sideline and a scrappy kid named Billy Donovan running the point. The Friars also beat fellow upstart Tennessee-Chattanooga, 71-65, in the third round. But Providence’s best performances came in its 98-87 victory over Duke in the second round and its 96-92 loss in overtime to eventual champion Arizona in the Elite Eight.

The dominant personalities on Providence were the three players with professional prospects: Croshere, Thomas and Shammgod. But against second-seeded Duke, Brown was the guiding force with 33 points and 10 rebounds. The Friars needed Brown, especially his 17 points in the first half, because Croshere was saddled with foul trouble and Shammgod got off to a turnover-filled start against the Blue Devils’ pressure defense. There was nothing aesthetically pleasing about Brown’s game. He just worked and willed his way to points, fitting for the New Yorker who took the circuitous route of two junior colleges out West to make it back to the East Coast.

Shammgod finally got it going in the second half. He had the classic game for a New York City point guard: flashy handle, a nose for getting in the lane to dish and an absolutely broken jumper. Theories abound about this phenomenon, with unforgiving NYC blacktop rims and cramped indoor gyms often cited as reasons for the city’s point guards’ inabilities to shoot. Shammgod’s dribble-and-drive attack, along with fellow lightning-quick guard Corey Wright, sparked the deciding 11-1 run in the second half. Shammgod had nine assists after halftime, and the diminutive guard capped off the victory with two stylish dunks in the final minute. Croshere managed 21 points despite his limited minutes.

Shammgod needed to have a game of the first order against Arizona, which boasted a backcourt with Mike Bibby, Miles Simon, Jason Terry and Michael Dickerson. Shammgod answered the call with 23 points, including some on long jumpers. Croshere was in foul trouble again, so Garces took over more than his share of inside duties and had a career night with 16 points and 19 rebounds.

The two streetballers from New York, Shammgod and Thomas, led the rally from a 10-point deficit against the Wildcats with under four minutes remaining in regulation. Thomas, a formidable talent somehow overlooked on this team with the flashy Shammgod and the emotional Brown, tied the game on a three-pointer with 15 seconds left. Thomas finished with 23 points. Providence forced a steal, but jumpers by Shammgod and Wright fell short before regulation ended.

The Friars ran out of steam in overtime. Brown fouled out, joining Croshere on the sideline, and the Wildcats coolly sank their free throws to salt away the victory.

Providence’s flash of greatness ended. Croshere, Brown and Garces were seniors. Croshere played in the NBA for 12 seasons with varying success and large paychecks. Thomas didn’t get drafted despite leading the Big East in scoring as a senior in the 1998-’99 season. He managed to see action in 12 NBA games, but became somewhat of a star in Europe. He resurfaced Stateside as younger half-brother Sebastian Telfair became a hot recruit in 2004, and Thomas had a prominent role in the 2004 documentary about Telfair, “Through The Fire.” Shammgod left two years of eligibility on the table and turned pro after Providence’s tournament run. He was a second-round pick by Washington and saw action in only 20 games of his only NBA season. But that divine name and ball-handling prowess ensure Shammgod of eternal cult status. Just like this Providence team.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Changing Season

The modern era of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry can be traced, as with most aspects of today’s NBA, to the arrival of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1979-’80 season. But a more accurate carbon-dating of the league’s most famous billing will show that the rivalry didn’t really begin in earnest until 1984, when the teams met in the NBA Finals for the first time with Bird and Johnson.

Also overlooked in the Lakers-Celtics battles of the 1980s were the regular-season games, which were as well played and almost as wrought with tension as their playoff battles. The teams met for the first time in the 1983-’84 season on Feb. 8 at the Boston Garden.

The Lakers’ 111-109 victory was their first at the Garden in two years. The game also stood as an indicator of what was to come later that season in the watershed Finals between the teams. First and foremost for the Lakers was knowing that they could win in Boston, a fact that they would duplicate with a 115-109 victory in Game 1 at the Garden a few months later. (Los Angeles also won the other regular-season clash that season, 116-108, at the Forum on Feb. 24.)

There was also evidence in that first regular-season game of why the Celtics would win the Finals in an epic seven-game series.

The Lakers’ leadership dynamic was in a strange place that season. Johnson was coming into his own as a professional point guard (17.6 points and 13.1 assists per game), but the team still deferred to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That was evident in the first matchup of the season, with Abdul-Jabbar getting the ball down the stretch. With a strong fourth quarter, Abdul-Jabbar finished with 27 points and, at 37 years old, became the NBA’s all-time field-goal leader by passing Wilt Chamberlain’s mark. Abdul-Jabbar started the Finals hot with 31 points and eight rebounds in the Game 1 victory despite a migraine. However, the Lakers’ center faded as the series stretched to seven games, often shown sucking down oxygen on the sideline. The only contest in the Finals in which Johnson had complete control of the reins was the Lakers’ 137-104 blowout in Game 3 in which Magic had 21 assists and spurred the tempo to the tune of 51 fast-break opportunities. That game would portend the sea change in Lakers’ floor direction in the coming seasons.

Boston’s wagon was clearly hitched to Bird’s star. He started the teams’ first meeting by making his first five shots and finished with 29 points. But after attacking the Lakers’ Michael Cooper at the beginning of the game, Bird started settling for outside jumpers. Those long shots began falling short late in the going. It was clear that the Celtics would only go as far as Bird could take them. To that end, Bird earned his first NBA Finals MVP that season.

The supporting casts also would prove important. The Lakers’ Jamaal Wilkes was a key figure in the first regular-season victory, scoring in bunches and getting 25 points with one of the most unorthodox shooting releases in basketball history. Wilkes wouldn’t factor much in the playoffs, however, because of an intestinal ailment. Also getting hot in the first matchup was Kevin McHale, the Celtics’ sixth-man extraordinaire who scored 14 points in the second quarter. McHale was Boston’s X-factor in the Finals, turning the series with his aggressive play (including his infamous clothesline of Kurt Rambis in Game 4). The Celtics’ Gerald Henderson also gained some confidence against the Lakers in the first battle. He scored 16 points, five points above his average at that point in the season. In the Finals, Henderson etched himself into Celtics lore by making the game-tying layup in the closing seconds of regulation in Game 2, propelling Boston to an overtime victory.

The Lakers were doomed in the 1984 NBA Finals by mental mistakes. Johnson bungled clock management in the closing seconds of Game 2, calling a timeout that allowed Boston to set up its defense. The Celtics took advantage, with Henderson picking off an ill-advised James Worthy pass and getting his famous layup. Johnson then misjudged how much time was left and the Lakers didn’t get a shot off at the end of regulation. Johnson also missed key free throws in Boston’s Game 4 victory.

These fundamental breakdowns were foreshadowed in the first game between the teams that season. With the Lakers clinging to a 111-109 lead and whipping the ball around to run out the final seconds, Wilkes inexplicably tried a contested layup with four seconds left. The Celtics’ Cedric Maxwell blocked the shot and corralled the ball, but the officials somehow didn’t grant the timeout that the Boston players were signaling. The Lakers survived that game, but such mistakes always prove haunting in the playoffs.

Bird summed up the rivalry’s epochal season this way: “The Lakers, I felt, showed their true colors. I always thought they were soft, and they were that season.”