First Team

First Team: Harden’s O shines above all

In this five-part series, I’ll take a look at the best games from last season’s All-NBA first team. The metric I’ve used to figure out the best games is more art than formula, using “production under pressure” as the heuristic for selection. For example, volume scoring in a close game against a stout team on the road gets more weight than volume scoring against the Bucks at home in a blowout. Big games matter. Big clutch games matter more.

At 25, James Harden is on track to become a perennial All-NBA contender for years to come.

At 25, James Harden is on track to become a perennial All-NBA contender for years to come.

Let’s get the elephant out of the way: James Harden is not a defensive specialist. His inattention to that end of the floor is common knowledge at this point. Long before a compilation of Harden’s defensive fails made its Internet rounds, Rockets fans were routine witnesses to his off-the-ball watching, feet-in-the-mud, swipe-around defense.

Like fellow perimeter non-defensive specialist Steve Nash (All-NBA first team from 2005-07), Harden plays with an innate feel for the game that warrants overlooking some blown coverages. The court vision is there. He is a deft passer. He uses his body and low center of gravity to find his way to the iron. Once he gets there, he is strong enough to finish through contact or earn a trip to the line, where he is near automatic.

For this reason alone, The Beard will be able to generate offense for a long time in the NBA. He is still young enough to make himself a stout deterrent. He plucked 1.6 steals per game last season, good for 17th in the league. He has quick, bear hands and a nose for the ball.

But that day may never come. Until then, his predictable yet unstoppable Euro-steps, old-man game and frequent scoring sprees should hold us over.

December 25, 2013 — Too Much For The Spurs

The Line: 28 points on 11-for-16 shooting, 16 in 4th quarter

The Quote:Coming into the game I wanted to keep (teammates) involved and keep them going and try to get mine at the end. It played out well.” – Harden


VIDEO: Harden lights it up on Christmas Day

Harden is not a quiet scorer. He can get hot in a hurry and before you know it, he has a 15-point quarter. After building an 18-point lead early, the Rockets saw the Spurs claw back in it a little over a couple minutes into the fourth quarter. That’s when The Beard got busy.

He scored on the next four Houston possessions. His 3 with about five minutes left capped off 11 straight points and gave the Rockets a double-digit lead that would carry them to the end.

This was the second of four times last season the Rockets sent the future champs home in disappointment.

January 3, 2014 – Nail Biter With The Knicks

The Line: 37 points on 10-for-19 shooting, 12-for-12 at the line

The Quote: “It wasn’t the prettiest win, but at the end of the night a win is all that matters.” – Harden


VIDEO: Harden’s huge game holds off ‘Melo and the Knicks

Harden didn’t think the win had aesthetic value, but his game was artistic. From the onset, he controlled matters for Houston, connecting on a bevy of step backs, pull-up shots and hard dribble drives. Frustrated Knicks defenders were unable to defend him without fouling or getting buried with a bucket.

With two and a half minutes left in the game, he sized up Carmelo Anthony and dropped him off on a pretty step-back jumper for his last deuce.

March 9, 2014 – Dousing The Blazers In H-Town

The Line: 41 points, 10 rebounds, 7 3s, 6 steals, 6 assists

The Quote:He is a freak. He is ridiculous. He is unbelievable.” – Chandler Parsons on Harden


VIDEO: Harden powers Houston’s comeback against Portland

Down 13 points to the Blazers at home in the fourth, Jimmy Beard went into overdrive. He cranked out four 3-pointers in the final frame, including one from the left corner to send the game into overtime. Time after time, he bailed the Rockets out with his isolation magic and led Houston to one of the season’s best comeback victories.

April 4, 2014 – Bashing The Thunder

The Line: 39 points, 17-for-20 from the line, 9 rebounds, 7 assists

The Quote: “We were in ‘whatever it takes to win’ mode. We got it done.” – Harden


VIDEO: Harden schools the Thunder to clinch a playoff berth

Mr. Harden doesn’t seem to lack for motivation in games against his ex-teammates. He had the aggression going early and often. When he wasn’t getting to the stripe, he was exercising accuracy from deep (4-for-8). When he wasn’t bombing from the land of trey, he was dishing to waiting teammates.

Eight of his 13 fourth-quarter points came at the line. The Thunder were foul-happy, yielding 37 attempts. Harden tallied more than half of that amount. Amazingly, Harden was able to coax fouls at will from a team he spent his first three years with. Fittingly, the win clinched another playoff berth.

April 12, 2014 – Snatching Victory From Jaws Of Pelicans

The Line: 33 points, 14 in 4th quarter, 13 assists

The Quote:We needed this win more than anything.” – Harden


VIDEO: Harden scores 14 in the fourth to lift Houston

For the third time this season, the Rockets were behind late to the Pelicans. For the third time this season, they overcame. Harden put on a show in the period with his usual trinity: 3s, penetrations, free throws. But that almost wasn’t enough.

Down 104-96 with 2:48 remaining, The Beard dished two dimes and scored another six to help Houston end the game on a 15-0 blitz to put away the Pels. This win stopped a skid and helped them maintain their hold on the fourth playoff spot in the West.

First Team: Jo enters into new heights

In this five-part series, I’ll take a look at the best games from last season’s All-NBA first team. The metric I’ve used to figure out the best games is more art than formula, using “production under pressure” as the heuristic for selection. For example, volume scoring in a close game against a stout team on the road gets more weight than volume scoring against the Bucks at home in a blowout. Big games matter. Big clutch games matter more.

Joakim Noah catapulted himself into an upper echelon leader and star for the Bulls.

Joakim Noah has catapulted himself into an upper echelon leader and All-Star for the Bulls.

Last season, Joakim Noah blew through his “ceiling” as an energy role player to transform himself into a bona fide star.

He earned his second All-Star berth and All-NBA Defensive first team selection. He cracked the All-NBA first team and added a Defensive Player of the Year to his mantle.

Be not mistaken, the Chicago Bulls are Noah’s team. Derrick Rose is the franchise player, the dynamic sound of the band, but Noah is the drum major, firebrand, marshaling leader on the court. I mean, who else on the Bulls pulls this off?

Noah is also their best passer. He had 45 games last season with five or more assists. He set numerous Bulls assists records last season and became the first center to lead his team in assists since David Robinson in 1994.

Noah is a throwback player, the embodiment of coach Tom Thibodeau’s “multiple-effort mentality.” He is long enough to bother anybody’s shot at the rim and nimble enough to annoy a guard on a switch. Deflections, tips,  rotations, dives to the floor, he has it in spades.

With the arrival of the milder Pau Gasol — another unselfish, high I.Q. guy — he’ll have another like-minded post player facilitating, giving the Bulls their most complete team since the Jordan era ended.

December 13, 2013 — Down To The Wire

The Line: 21 points on 10-for-15 shooting, 18 rebounds (9 offensive), 5 assists, 3 blocks

The Quote: Defensively, he’s been terrific from the start of the season but offensively, you can see his timing is back.” – Bulls coach Thibodeau


VIDEO: Joakim Noah runs wild against the Bucks in a wild victory

Coming into the contest, Noah had been battling thigh pains. He missed a matchup against the Bucks four days prior in a Bulls loss in Chicago. Retribution was on his mind heading into the rematch.

The fourth quarter was his playground, as he tallied 10 points and seven boards. More specifically, he was a nightmare for John Henson and the Milwaukee frontline. To cap off his night, he thwarted O.J. Mayo’s game-winning shot attempt at the buzzer. (more…)

First Team: ‘Bron still after one award

In this five-part series, I’ll take a look at the best games from last season’s All-NBA first team. The metric I’ve used to figure out the best games is more art than formula, using “production under pressure” as the heuristic for selection. For example, volume scoring in a close game against a stout team on the road gets more weight than volume scoring against the Bucks at home in a blowout. Big games matter. Big clutch games matter more.

Despite being hailed as a stellar defender, LeBron has yet to nab a coveted Defensive Player of the Year award.

Despite being hailed as a stellar defender, LeBron James has yet to nab a coveted Defensive Player of the Year nod.

Many will remember the 2013-14 season for what LeBron James didn’t accomplish.

No third straight MVP. No third straight championship. No Defensive Player of the Year award. No … well, that’s about it. When you’ve turned the NBA upside down over the past 11 years, your list of failures is short.

Last season, ‘Bron scored 27 points per game on 57 percent from the field. What gives for the outlandish accuracy? He has mastered the drive. He can certainly shoot it, but his dominance is due to his pronounced ability to control the area closest to the rim. It’s the same strategy his transcendent high-flying predecessors — Elgin Baylor, Julius Erving, Michael Jordan — adopted.

The other side of the ball holds his lingering individual motivation. James has made no secret about his desire to capture the top defensive award. After famously shedding serious weight this offseason, he promises to be quicker and more agile and disruptive than ever.

A Defensive Player of the Year award may come to Cleveland, although the franchise would gladly accept a championship first.

Here are his top games last season:

November 15, 2013 — Torching The Old Nemesis

The Line: 39 points on 14-for-18 shooting

The Quote:If I get 37 shots in a game, I’m going to put up 60. Easy.” — James


VIDEO: LeBron James runs wild on the Mavericks for 39 points

Earlier in the week, Rudy Gay set an NBA record with 37 field goal attempts. On this night, LeBron shot about half that number for 10 more points.

Drifting jumpers, quick dribble-drives, long 2s … in short, James had the full repertoire working. The Mavs elected to follow the Spurs’ 2013 Finals strategy of not double teaming, but contesting every perimeter shot he took. In other words, Shawn Marion, Jae Crowder and Monta Ellis were on their own.

A one-legged Dirkian fadeaway by James with a little over two minutes left gave the Heat the cushion needed to put Dallas away. (more…)

First Team: CP3, Doc make strides in L.A.

In this five-part series, I’ll take a look at the best games from last season’s All-NBA first team. The metric I’ve used to figure out the best games is more art than formula, using “production under pressure” as the heuristic for selection. For example, volume scoring in a close game against a stout team on the road gets more weight than volume scoring against the Bucks at home in a blowout. Big games matter. Big clutch games matter more.

Chris Paul turned in a third straight All-NBA first team bid with the Clippers.

Chris Paul turned in a third straight All-NBA first team bid with the Clippers.

Chris Paul always has the ball on a string. He can dish with either hand, making any bounce pass through tight holes — and lobs to Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan — possible from any angle. His pull-up jumper is lethal, and you have to get a hand up on him when he’s 23 feet out.

On the other side, he hounds. He flops. He annoys. He barks. His hands are active. In Game 4 of the 2014 Western Conference semis, he alternated between guarding Russell Westbrook (First Team-worthy) and Kevin Durant (a fellow First Teamer) as his team completed a rally back from 22.

But then came the yang of the last 49 seconds of Game 5. A turnover, a foul on a four-point play and another turnover from Paul gave the Thunder the game. They would close out the series in Game 6. It was the type of loss that encapsulates Paul: The smart, methodical, ball-on-a-string point guard can be too smart, too methodical and too ball dominant at the worst moments.

He is still a cut above the rest, continuing to redefine the Clippers’ brand to newbies who have no clue about their inept past. At 29, he is an historically great hardwood bandit (2.41 spg ranks fourth all time) and passer (9.91 apg also third all-time). There are deeper playoff successes and a MVP award to be had, but with a capable motivator in coach Doc Rivers in his ear, his point guard supremacy threatens to remain for the foreseeable future.

Here are his top games last season:

October 31, 2013 – Dawn Of A Season-Long Rivalry

The Line: 42 points, 15 assists, 6 steals, 6 turnovers

The Quote:Man, I had six turnovers. That’s ridiculous. That means there was six times I didn’t give us an opportunity to score. I’m big on turnovers. I hate turnovers.” — Paul


VIDEO: Chris Paul carves up the Warriors in a Halloween matchup

Tiny Archibald should have been proud. Two nights after being handled by the Lakers in the season opener, Cliff Paul’s brother dealt out the complete package. He was sinking free-throw line jumpers, baseline turnaround jumpers. He had his way with a pre-Team USA Klay Thompson, including a bullying score on a post-up. He even got in a sneaky dunk in Jermaine O’Neal’s mug.

Then there were those three consecutive alley oops with Blake, as well as the verbal jabs and scowls at the Warriors bench. This was CP3’s point god night, only if god coughed up the pill six times. (more…)

First Team: KD evokes MJ in MVP season

In this five-part series, I’ll take a look at the best games from last season’s All-NBA first team. The metric I’ve used to figure out the best games is more art than formula, using “production under pressure” as the heuristic for selection. For example, volume scoring in a close game against a stout team on the road gets more weight than volume scoring against the Bucks at home in a blowout. Big games matter. Big clutch games matter more.

Kevin Durant took his otherworldly scoring abilities to another level in his 2013-14 MVP campaign.

Kevin Durant took his otherworldly scoring abilities to another level in his 2013-14 MVP campaign.

There’s a sense Kevin Durant still hasn’t peeked at his peak. His length is unfair. His angel-hair pasta build is a rebellion against the MUSCLEWATCH movement that dominates the NBA. Myth has him closer to being 7-foot than his listed 6-foot-9. All of this leads to a virtually unblockable shot (don’t tell James Johnson!) that allows him to get a clean look whenever he wants.

The results:

1) NBA MVP
2) Five All-NBA first teams
3) Four scoring titles
4) All-Star MVP
5) Olympic gold medal
6) A host of honors too long to list here

Yet Durant is far from a finished product. There’s that untapped post game that Charles Barkley keeps hammering about. Can he win seven more scoring titles to surpass MJ? Could Durant, who turns 26 next week, snatch the top scoring spot from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar by the time it’s all said and done?

Last season, he dropped at least 25 points in 41 straight games to top His Airness’ modern-day record (only Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain have more). The night his streak was “broken,” he scored 23 points on 8-for-13 shooting in 31 minutes, then went on to rip off another eight straight at the 25-point level. He hit that mark in 63 out of his final 65 games.

In addition to scoring and playing more minutes than anybody else, he dealt a career-high 5.5 dimes per contest. He even tied for the league lead in technical fouls (16). The only thing Durant was missing last season was a nickname that stuck.

Here are his top games last season:

Jan.17, 2014 — Striking Down The Warriors

The Line: 54 points on 19-for-28 shooting

The Quote:He’s a special talent, a superstar basketball player, an all-time great.” — Warriors head coach Mark Jackson


VIDEO: Kevin Durant carves Warriors up for career-high 54 points

As he did for most of the season, Durant was playing without Russell Westbrook this night, giving him carte blanche with the rock. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green did what they could, but the easy truth about basketball is this: Great offense trumps great defense every time. On this night, Durant put it all together for a career night.

Jan. 21, 2014 — Extinguishing The Blazers

The Line: 46 points on 17-for-25 shooting, 6 3s

The Quote: “The way he was playing, he probably could have scored on Jesus.” – Trail Blazers guard Mo Williams


VIDEO: Durant goes for 46 points in lighting up the Blazers

The eighth night of The Streak was Fan Night on NBA TV. KD had his 25 by the end of the third quarter, but his team nursed a two-point lead going into the fourth. Without Westbrook and a tough Portland team promising to make matters difficult, his plate was full.

So Durant ate. First off a deadly mid-range game, then with a 3-point light show at the end, including a coup de grace over Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews.

Jan. 27, 2014 — Just Another Night

The Line: 41 points on 15-for-25 shooting, 3 blocks

The Quote: “He’s going to be an MVP candidate until he decides to retire.” – Thunder head coach Scott Brooks


VIDEO: Kevin Durant clips Hawks with game-winner to cap 41-point night

With no Westbrook again, Durant donned the hero cape. On the defining play of the game, the double team came from the left. Durant started right. Three hard dribbles later, with three Hawks in the vicinity, he confirmed another moment in a season full of them. Another game winner, another vicious January performance. Just another night, his 10th straight reaching 30 points.

Durant used January to make volume efficiency his M.O. For the month, he put up 36 points on 55 percent shooting, 44 percent beyond the arc. That. Is. Insane.

Feb. 13, 2014 — Rally On The Road

The Line: 43 points on 14-for-33 shooting, 19 in fourth quarter, 7 assists

The Quote: “He is one of the best I have seen in terms of really just playing through anything and everything.” – Thunder guard Derek Fisher


VIDEO: Kevin Durant ends first half with 43-point performance in L.A.

Durant’s final game before the All-Star break didn’t start auspiciously. He clanked his first eight treyballs and his team fought uphill all game. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Thunder were down 13 to a Lakers team that had lost its previous six home games.

But ‘Mr. Unreliable’ took over, almost outscoring the Lakers by himself (19 to 21). He topped the 40-point mark for the eighth time, matching the previous season’s high set by Carmelo Anthony and Kobe. No better way to end the best first half of his career.

March 21, 2014 — Making Fossils Out Of Raptors

The Line: 51 points (38 in second half and two OTs), 12 rebounds, 7 assists

The Quote: “It looked good when it left my hands and God guided that thing in the basket. That was the craziest game I’ve ever been a part of.” — Durant


VIDEO:
Kevin Durant finishes off Raptors in 2OT with game-winner, 51 points

What does a man have to do to get a double team? No matter how many times Amir Johnson stood on an island guarding the best scorer in the league, help never came. But you know what? It probably wouldn’t have mattered. Forces of nature are inevitable.

Down eight points with 49 seconds left, the Thunder ended the game on a 9-0 run. Who was responsible for those final points? Do you even have to ask?