The art of shooting

 

Pure shooters hold a special place in my heart.

Growing up as a basketball fan, and rec player, I loved watching shooters. I, myself, was one. There was nothing more pleasing to me that spending a few hours after school just shooting – free throws, layups, mid-range shots and, of course, 3-pointers.

I craved the peace. Just you, the ball and your thoughts. I craved the routine: Dribble. Breathe. Rise. Shoot. Release. I craved the discipline; my father always preached height, accuracy and distance. Those three things, and you HAD the shot. I will remember that as long as I live, since I was entered in free-throw shooting competitions in elementary school to my days as a college intramural player.

In high school, I would shoot outside, from about 4:30 p.m. to 8, focusing on the craft – how to get open, where to get my shots, where to get the perfect release off, how to set up defenders. My shot was not perfect. My brother says I shot from my chest; it was hardly ever blocked. There was little lift involved. My release was quick and my extension was perfect.

To make a long story short, I admire pure shooters. The dedication, commitment and routine devoted to becoming a special shooter is one that is demanding. So when I was able to watch Ray Allen break Reggie Miller’s all-time 3-point makes record last night, I almost teared up.

The record-breaker could not have been set up any better. Rajon Rondo got the ball on the left side and started a fast break. Allen ran down the right side in transition, as Rondo waved him on to spot up. Allen caught the ball in stride, with no Laker anywhere close, and mounted and shot for 3-pointer No. 2,561.

But it did not come easy. Allen begins his game day arriving to the arena four hours early, shooting all kinds of shots, feeling for his rhythm. He shoots off-balanced, straight ahead, running … every shot he imagines he could get in a game, he shoots. And this is how it is for shooters. This is how it was for Reggie Miller, Steve Kerr, Glen Rice, all of whom would shoot, shoot, shoot, whether it was in damp gyms, under bleak street lights, in snow, in rain. There is no stopping.

It’s why Miller applauded Allen and never once showed discomfort toward his record being broken. He understood what it took to get to that point, and what he loved was that we were talking about shooting, a dying art in a world of Blake Griffins, LeBron James’ and Kevin Durants. Shooting remains the heart of the game, yet so few understand that. Or, they refuse to work at it, willing to train in their JumpSoles instead of shooting at the park, rain or shine.

It’s why I, by no means a complete basketball player, shot whenever and wherever. I loved shooting. I respected it. Shooters do not take their gift for granted. To this day, I pantomime shooting. I cradle a ball and shoot it. It never leaves you.

Rice once said, “Shooting is an art.” And how right he was. Shooters are not born. They are made. Players with spectacular physical gifts were given those at birth. Shooters are made by hours upon hours of work, shooting and wearing out the leather on one too many basketballs.

I remember once, one of my colleagues in college once said he saw me in the gym too much, so he looked up my grades, made sure my priorities weren’t backward. They weren’t. I was a fine student. But any free time was spent in the gym, not trying to dunk or shoot halfcourt shots or work out on weights. But shooting. We all yearn to find a niche, and I felt the only way I belonged a basketball court was because I could shoot. At their ages, Miller, Allen and Rice all felt the same; in an age of ball that is becoming faster, quicker and more athletic with each passing season, they had to find a way to make themselves valuable to still earn a paycheck.

So, they shot. And shot. And shot some more.

Records are made to be broken. But only if you put in the work.

 

 

Reading Game 7: Kobe’s legacy

The Los Angeles Lakers are 2010 NBA World Champs; repeat NBA champs since they did it thrice in a row the last decade.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers admits Boston will look different next season. His future, specifically, is the cloudiest.

It was so aggressively taxing on the emotions, these 2010 NBA Finals.

The greatest, most spectacularly intense rivalry of any sport completed another chapter on Thursday, with the Lakers taking an 83-79 decision over the Celtics in Game 7 in L.A.

Boston now holds a 9-3 advantage all-time against L.A. But this one will sting. The Celtics, in a game so ugly it was beautiful, blew a 13-point third-quarter lead and completely expired down the stretch, when it mattered most.

On a night when Kobe Bryant shot 6-of-24, the Celtics never could gain more than enough ground to avoid a Lakers rally that everyone knew would eventually come.

Though he was named the series’ Most Valuable Player, Bryant was anything but. He forced shots. He turned the ball over too much. Too often, his propensity for trying to win minutes, quarters, games by himself doomed any hope his teammates have of developing a rhythm.

In this Game 7, in fact, it was Pau Gasol and Ron Artest and Derek Fisher who made the monumental plays; the supporting cast Kobe has implied too often that he’s never had actually carried him to his fifth NBA championship. How ironic is that?

He did grab 15 rebounds in Game 7, but there were more than enough to go around. Pau Gasol grabbed 18, Lamar Odom snared seven and Andrew Bynum, on one leg, snatched six.

The common topic of discussion from here until next season will be how this series affects Kobe’s legacy. The answer? It doesn’t. He, simply, will never equate to Magic Johnson, let alone Michael Jordan.

LeBron James is the game’s top player. Kobe is the game’s top champion; it’s top winner. But he has done his winning in a watered down league lacking superior opposition to sincerely pose a threat.

The Celtics are the lone team to have done that. Kobe admitted as much, saying these Finals were the most physical and toughest games he’s ever played. But even these Celtics’ days are numbered. Doc Rivers has hinted at quitting, Rasheed Wallace has hinted at retirement and Ray Allen is a free agent.

Rivers emotionally stated that the Celtics will be a new-look team next year, and he did not say it with the spirit that would suggest it’d be for the better. As much as that should concern Boston, it should legitimately concern Kobe. The Celtics were the one team who consistently could make life difficult for him. With them out of the picture, he could win two or three more championships next year, and that’s not a good thing.

In terms of which teams helped make them and develop them into the champion they finished their careers as, Magic had the Celtics, Sixers and finally the Pistons to fight through. Jordan had the Celtics, Pistons and Knicks.

Kobe’s had the Celtics and the Spurs, to a lesser extent as I’m sure they’re now nothing but a figment of his imagination. Indeed, it’s been a much lighter ride for Bryant than the two other icons that people want to place his name beside.

It doesn’t take away that Kobe had a dramatic impact on the turnout of these Finals. He just didn’t lead the Lakers. When it came down to it, in the fourth quarter of the close games and when the Lakers needed the big plays the most, it was Fisher, Gasol and (gasp!) Artest leading the charge. Not Kobe.

Personally, I think Gasol should have been named MVP. With Bynum struggling, he still kept countless possessions alive and was a source of dominant consistently offensively, save for his putrid Game 5. Gasol kept the Celtics from getting too comfortable in the paint. He altered shots, manned the defensive glass and was a steady source of dependability whenever Kobe or Artest decided to play one-on-one offensively.

Gasol’s superior progress from the 2008 Finals to these Finals was significant, and downright impressive. He’s still nowhere near a “tough” player, but he atleast can give us reason for argument whenever a detractor flat-out labels him “soft.”

It’s a shame these Finals had to end. They brought out the best basketball has to offer, and the fact that a superstar like Kobe can struggle so greatly on the league’s most prominent stage is a testament to how badly each team so desperately wanted to win.

There is no questioning Kobe’s will to win. There is plenty to question, however, of his way of handling which way was the best to get that ultimate victory.

Five rings! Five rings! The joyous cry of all Kobe admirers. And, yes, all respect and credit should be awarded. Five championships in any sport is tough and demands our appreciation.

However, it’s not always about the number of rings. A large part is how you got there, and what you had to persevere through in order to get to that number.

Magic and Mike had it pretty darn hard; Mike, specifically, sunk a lot before he finally learned how to swim. Kobe did not, as he was born into a prominent NBA franchise that got that reputation based upon Magic’s credentials.

So, yes, Kobe Bryant is indeed a premier champion; one of the 10 greatest players to step onto an NBA floor. But he is anything but a Magic or Michael, no matter how much the public, media or he (seeing as he’s completely aware of his place in NBA history and where his name lies with each passing title) wishes.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with such failure.

Reading Game 6

Completely reversing their lethargic play from Game 5, Kobe and the Lakers are headed to a Game 7 showdown against the Celtics.

One game left to determine the winner of what has been yet another epic chapter to the prestigious Celtics-Lakers NBA rivalry.

Los Angeles completely erased all remnants of the disgusting taste from Sunday’s miserable defeat in Boston in Game 5. In Game 6, in fact, the two teams switched roles, with the Lakers the clear aggressor and the Celtics the team backpedaling and fighting from behind most of the night.

On this night, Game 6, it was the Lakers’ bench that stole the show, while it was also their defense and attention to rebounding and limiting Celtics possession that enabled them to live another game.

We surely can’t say we didn’t expect this L.A. showing. Indeed, just the thought of Boston beating the Lakers three straight games is ridiculous, and we knew the Lakers would not fold; no matter how much apathy they seemed willing to display in Game 5.

Now, it’s the Celtics’ turn to respond. But the difference this time is they simply have to get back to playing Celtics basketball (i.e. defending, rebounding and moving the ball offensively), something they have done consistently throughout this series.

The Lakers, meanwhile, have to keep up a style of play (defending, rebounding, smart shot selection, crisp ball movement, balanced play) that has eluded them for most of this series. Simply put, the Lakers team that took the court on Tuesday has shown up far too little this season to be counted upon reliably.

In Game 6, with their season on the line, the Lakers outrebounded the Celtics, 52-39 and held Boston to 33 percent shooting. They earned nine more free throw attempts and were more aggressive in the lane at pursuing the ball, as their 8-4 advantage in blocked shots (an area the Celtics dominated the last few games) attests to.

More importantly, offensively, they were balanced. Knowing full well they can’t win by just Kobe alone, the Lakers also got 17 points from Pau Gasol and 15 points from Ron Artest, aside from Kobe’s 26. Balance for any team, let alone one of the league’s two best, is essential.

I suppose, however, the only thing that really matters is the Lakers only have to do all that for one more game. Los Angeles is a lazy bunch that tends to depend too much on its talent, but that is for naught at this point. It’s Game 7, after all. The land of opportunity; where anything can, and will, happen.

The best event in all of sports, Game 7. And we could not have asked more than for that to take place for sport’s best rivalry.

Which Lakers team will show up? Which Celtics team will make an appearance?

Those are the only two questions that matter right now. And the interesting thing is, nobody in their right mind has an answer.

The Celtics are 4-0 all-time in Game 7s against the Lakers. Kobe Bryant is 3-1 alltime in Game 7s. It’s the first Game 7 for Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who has won the most playoff games of any coach in any sport and has 10 championship rings to boot.

The game of uncertainty, Thursday’s game promises. And to be a great one surely.

Reading Game 5

The Celtics need one more win in order to claim another NBA championship.

The Boston Celtics finally got the monstrous game they needed out of Paul Pierce, in pivotal Game 5 no less. The Los Angeles Lakers finally got the breakout game they had been looking for out of Kobe Bryant.

It’s Pierce’s team that is one win away from a championship.

Bryant scored a game-high 38 points in Sunday’s 92-86 Game 5 defeat in Boston, including a dazzling 19 in the third quarter, but the difference is it was Pierce, who scored 27, who had help from his teammates.

Bryant, who accounted for 44.2 percent of his team’s offense, did not.

For that, Kobe can thank a vicious Boston defense that has made life difficult for the All-World talent. Bryant, seeing that no other teammate would match his intensity on Sunday, fired at will, many the breathtaking, unbelievable shots that often bring to mind the likes of Michael Jordan. He was brilliant, Bryant was, but if the Celtics have proven one thing, it’s that Kobe cannot beat them alone.

He needs help. He needs someone else to help put pressure on defense. That was unavailable on this night, as Pau Gasol was the only other Laker in double figures, scoring 12 on 12 shots.

Pierce, meanwhile, saw Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo (so far my Finals MVP) get 18 apiece, and Ray Allen added 12. That kind of balance, which his team lacked so desperately, had Bryant seething in frustration in the fourth quarter.

Ron Artest is pathetic offensively, and his main (and only?) positive trait, his defense, was nowhere to be found Sunday. Andrew Bynum is clearly ailing and serves little purpose aside from the occasional rebound here and there.

Derek Fisher is up and down, the bench play is nonexistent, and Gasol had his worst game of the playoffs when the Lakers – i.e., Kobe – needed him the most.

This, more and more, is looking like the 2008 series, when Kobe could depend on no one else to aid him offensively. Just as then, this Lakers team is horrific defensively. It is passive and lax and seems to not completely grasp the sense of urgency that a championship series demands; which is mind-boggling considering this is, in large part, the same team that has now made three consecutive trips to the NBA’s premier stage.

The Boston defense has been far superior, especially lately, as the Celtics won the last two games in convincing fashion, making seemingly every big play down the stretch.

L.A. has not moved the ball well, is shooting too many shots under great duress and is too slow and unaware defensively. Doesn’t exactly speak of a championship pedigree, and makes you wonder how poor of a foe Orlando must have been last season to where it could not take advantage of weaknesses the Lakers had even three years ago.

All substance and no style, these Lakers. They’ll “ooooh!” and “ahhhh!” you more than any team in the league, but they won’t get the rebound in traffic, they won’t rotate on defense and they wont assert their will offensively by attacking the rim aggressively and putting pressure on the defense every quarter of every game.

I still think the Celtics will win this thing in seven games; it would befuddle me to no end to see them beat the Lakers in three straight championship games, though I dare not deem that task impossible. But the Lakers just do not have what it takes to win two straight against a team that is making as unprecedented a run as any in NBA history (the Celtics were the No. 4 seed in the East entering the playoffs; only the 1994-95 Houston Rockets were seeded lower -6th – and won a title).

The big question for the Lakers, even after what they learned in the ’08 Finals to Boston and after such a demonstrative Finals win over Orlando last season, is that, should they flame out like they’re looking to do at the moment, where do they go from here?

Kobe is surrounded by great talent; a solid, solid No. 2 man in Gasol, a defensive ace in Artest, an interior presence in Bynum and capable role players in Fisher and Lamar Odom. He has arguably the greatest coach in NBA history manning the sidelines (I still think Red Auerbach is the greatest NBA coach ever). What more can be done?

Either way, changes, surely, will have to take place if Los Angeles goes out on a whimper, for the second time in three years against those dreaded, hated rival Celtics.

But one thing is for sure, because we have seen it at least twice already: If L.A. falls so helplessly, the Lakers can not return next season with this same roster intact. Unless, of course, they want an unhappy camper in Mr. Bryant.

Reading Game 4

Nate Robinson and Glen Davis made all the difference in the Celtics' clutch 96-89 win over the Lakers in Game 4 of the Finals.

I’m going to keep this short, seeing that I’m writing off three hours of sleep after a looooooooooooooong day of work and playing basketball (at two different gyms over a four hour span).

But there’s nothing more that needs to be said of the Celtics’ resilient Game 4 win other than the spectacular play of reserves Nate Robinson (12 points in 16 minutes) and Glen “Big Baby” Davis (18 points, five rebounds – four offensive – in 22 minutes).

The Celtics have been getting up-and-down play from their Big Four, more down than up to be honest, and they needed something more than adrenaline and the home crowd to lift them to victory tonight.

They got just that, with the emotional and fiery Robinson and the aggressive Davis, who continues to amaze me with his effectiveness in the paint against guys who are 4-5 inches taller than him.

This is also forgetting the great defensive play of the obscure Tony Allen on Kobe Bryant in the fourth quarter. When he wasn’t botching easy offensive gimmes, he was attacking Kobe defensively and making him work.

The Celtics won the rebounding battle (41-34) and turnover war (15 for the Lakers to the Celtics’ 12), two huge stats that are playing out to be vital to whoever is the victor on any given night.

This is a series, now tied at 2-2, destined to go seven games (I originally had the Celtics in seven), and it’s a highly competitive and juiced matchup that is a joy to watch. I am not a diehard fan of either team (though I am a great admirer of the Celtics’ tradition and their legacy to the NBA), but I can’t help finding myself fully invested in each contest.

This is a basketball series where you can throw out all the stats, numbers and reputations of each and every player. What it comes down to is who can persevere each night through the direst and most emotional of times; where not only a championship is on the line, but the heart and pride of two significant markets reside solely on the play of their respective clubs.

When was the last time you could say that a Finals was being played with basketball legacy and the pride of the game as its heart and soul? Well, you’d go back as far as 2008, when these same two teams met in another epic series that saw Boston win, 4-2.

I’m still not sure who will come out the winner of this series. I honestly have no clue as to which team holds the upper hand, and anyone who says they do is lying. There is so much anxiety and tension in these games, that it finds fans emotionally in tune with a game … A GAME. And let it be fully understood that that is what sports are all about. Making games bigger than they are. That’s what Celtics-Lakers is.

I’ve almost gotten to the point where it makes little sense to analyze and break down each game. It makes little difference. Not for a series in which Derek Fisher continues to make his claim as one of the greatest Lakers ever. Not for a series when a 6-foot-7 backup forward is the symbol of the underdog, and we cheer him, greatly and nightly.

And, last, not for a series when the two best teams to ever grace a NBA court are so evenly matched, so evenly in sync with what is at stake and what these wins and losses not only means, but represents

Enough with the micromanaging of stats and attitudes and body language and coaching strategy. How about we just enjoy the game of basketball and what it is when it’s played at its most elevated of levels: When the Celtics and Lakers are fighting for the left side of the win-loss column.

The mystique of Rajon Rondo

The Boston Celtics’ hopes of a second title in the last three years largely depends on the play of their fourth-year starting point guard, Rajon Rondo.

Fair? Probably not. But when you’ve been blessed with the physical gifts (i.e. the speed, athleticism and those mind-blowing hands) that Rondo has, it was to come sooner or later.

Rondo’s stats in these playoffs: 20 games, 16.4 ppg, 9.8 apg, 5.6 rpg, 1.95 spg, 46.5 FG%, 40 % 3-point percentage (8-for-20).

It’s been awhile since the Celtics have had a franchise point guard. They certainly have one now.

His official breakout party:

And the play that officially introduced Rondo as a Boston Celtic:

I still think Deron Williams is the best PG in the League. Rondo, however, is 1B.

Educate yourself: http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/playoffs/2010/news/story?page=Rondo-Chapter1

Reading Game 3

The Lakers lead the Celtics 2-1 in the NBA Finals largely because of the outstanding fourth-quarter play of Derek Fisher, right, in Game 2.

No matter how much they try, the refs cannot take away how great of a basketball series these NBA Finals are.

Don’t get me wrong, the officiating is trying its best to steal the show. It’s not the fact that the calls are so one-sided, but there is no consistency, and calls seem to have dictated pivotal moments of each game.

It’s quite maddening and extraordinarily frustrating to not have any ounce of flow to any game, so far, involving the best two teams in the NBA. But it is what it is, and give the Celtics and Lakers credit. They had adjusted accordingly and still given us a series that is sure to be memorable, unlike last year’s disaster.

This is a superb series of basketball, filled with everything you could ask for in a championship matchup: intensity, passion, hatred, more big moments than your and I could have ever dreamed, and so forth and so on.

The Celtics trail the series 2-1 after a crushing 91-84 defeat in which they did everything possible to lose the game. They did not shoot well (43.8 percent), they did not rebound (LA had a 43-35 advantage on the boards) and two of their biggest stars (Paul Pierce and Ray Allen) just did not show up in a contest that was huge, huge, HUGE.

Since the Finals went to a 2-3-2 format, the teams that won Game 3 of a 1-1 series went on to win the championship 10/10 times.

Yeah, pretty big game.

Yet, there was Paul Pierce shooting 5-for-12 and starting 0-for-6 from the field. More shocking was Allen, who after setting the NBA Finals record for 3s in a game, went a blistery 0-8 from deep, 0-13 overall.

And it wasn’t anything the Lakers did defensively. Ray just missed some great, wide open looks. Sunday, those shots fell. Tuesday, they did not.

Basketball humbles the best of us.

While Pierce and Allen were MIA, and the Celtics could not take advantage of Kevin Garnett’s awakening from the dead, the Lakers were the beneficiaries of a Lamar Odom sighting and a fabulous fourth quarter from Derek Fisher, whose timely shots – including a lofty screamer high off the glass as he was clobbered by three Celtics that gave LA a seven-point advantage late, late in the fourth – were crucial, and yet another reminder to the public that it will have to be the role players who likely decide who claims another title.

Fisher scored 16 points, 11 in the final period, as he masked a poor outing from Kobe Bryant (29 points on 10-of-29 shooting) and his team’s inability to get Pau Gasol – the lone Laker who has a clear advantage over his opponent – the ball; Gasol had just 13 points on 11 shot attempts in 38 minutes.

This is what this series has become: A battle of two evenly matched teams who have played as inconsistent as the referees who are officiating their games. One night, LA decides to play defense (like in Game 3). Another, Boston decides to run out in transition, get plenty of open looks and score some easy baskets (like in Game 2).

It’s never the same recipe for each game. This series will be won by which team makes the better adjustments within the game, and so far that team has been the Lakers.

For example, in Game 3, Lakers coach Phil Jackson severely cut Ron Artest’s minutes (23) and played Luke Walton more. Why? Because the offense runs freer. There are fewer disruptions. Simply put, the Lakers are a better offensive team when Walton is on the floor and Artest is not.

Another case in point: The defensive detail was better on Tuesday for the Lakers. Jackson gave his defense room to move, attack and disrupt. Pau Gasol leapt out to block a Ray Allen 3-point attempt. Kobe monitored the rim a bit better, amassing three blocks. In essence, Jackson “unleashed the hounds.”

Boston coach Doc Rivers, on the other hand, stayed with Allen longer than he should have (42 minutes) when he was getting healthy contributions from Nate Robinson and Tony Allen. I know the idea was that Ray would awaken at some point, but this is not the series to let your shooter keep jacking and waste possessions until he gets out of his slump, especially when Robinson and Tony Allen can both get to the rim and create a bit more havoc defensively.

Rivers also needs to go more with Rasheed Wallace than Big Baby Davis. Yes, Big Baby has played great this series, but he is so overpowered defensively that he gives up key rebounds whenever he’s in. Big Baby is also no match whatsoever defensively for Andrew Bynum or Gasol. Wallace has been the much better defender, and that’s key because the Lakers’ defense thrives off their offense, not vice versa as it should be.

It’s an interesting series, no doubt. A fantastic one that I wish the referees would stop staining. But credit the Lakers for doing everything right in regard to adjustments after Game 2’s defeat.

Now let’s see how Boston responds, and if Rivers has something up his sleeve like Jax did.