Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Old College Try

It’s not often that you prepare for the upcoming NBA season by watching an old college game between Oklahoma and Davidson.

But with Blake Griffin and Stephen Curry now plying their trade on West Coast NBA teams with limited nationally televised games, it’s hard to think of them beyond names in a box score or brief images in an Internet video. So a refresher course was in order, even if it was a early season college matchup that the Sooners won, 82-78, in the NIT Tip Off tournament on Nov. 18, 2008, in Norman, Okla.

Griffin missed all of last season for the Los Angeles Clippers after breaking his kneecap in the preseason. By most accounts, the top overall draft pick in 2009 has regained all of his quickness, leaping ability and his non-stop motor.
Those first-rate qualities are the first things that jump out at the viewer in the game against Davidson. Griffin tapped an awkward jump ball, then sprinted ahead of everyone to corral the ball and lay it in with great fluidity.

It also didn’t take long for Curry to justify all those vague descriptions that are pressed upon him: savvy, basketball IQ, court awareness. Curry’s first basket came on a cut across the court, and he fielded a pass with his back to the basket. Curry knew exactly where he was in relation to the hoop (and where his defender was), so he caught the ball and flicked it perfectly off the glass. You’re left with the impression that Curry had done this countless times before.

A basketball fanatic could be wholly satisfied just watching Curry move without the ball for 40 minutes. Oklahoma defenders were overplaying him to deny him the ball. That just left open the possibility for Curry to make precise backdoor cuts and get some higher percentage shots near the basket. With the ball, Curry also made advantageous use of screens. His first three-pointer came as he curled around a pick, then duped the overanxious defender with a pump fake before calmly drilling the shot. Again, it’s like Curry could do this 10 minutes after rolling out of bed on a Tuesday morning.

Griffin took only four shots in the first half, but it’s not like he was missing in action. He went hard to the glass on every play, getting 11 rebounds by halftime. You hesitate to invoke Dennis Rodman, but Griffin would get boards with such intensity and guile and then sprint down the court with such alacrity that the comparisons to the Worm wouldn’t be baseless.

Griffin’s offense came alive in the second half, when he scored 21 of his 25 points. College defenders didn’t have enough quickness to stay in front of him. Commentator Fran Fraschilla kept noting that Griffin would be an outstanding pick-and-pop guy in the NBA with his great hands and quick feet. Griffin’s intensity never lagged either, and he finished with 21 rebounds.
There were lots of questions by pro scouts about whether Curry could thrive in the NBA with longer defenders. He certainly answered those concerns during his rookie year with the Golden State Warriors, especially later in the season as Curry began to sort the league out.

A glimpse at Curry’s ability to score against NBA-level athletes came in the final minute, when he found himself matched up with Griffin on the perimeter. Curry dribbled right at Griffin, then got enough separation on a step-back to get off a high-arching three-pointer that got Davidson within three points.

Griffin would eventually pull down an offensive rebound with 26 seconds left to seal Oklahoma’s victory. Curry had 44 points, made all the more amazing because he missed five minutes in the first half with foul trouble and his outside jumper wasn’t on the mark (he shot 12 for 29). It’s going to be tremendous watching both players’ skills translate to NBA success in the coming years. Maybe it’s time to get NBA League Pass for those West Coast games.

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