A highly motivated George continued his torrid start to the season by making 8 of 14 shots and scoring 26 points to lead the Clippers to a 138-100 rout of the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center on Friday night.
“I’m coming back with vengeance,” George said of his mindset entering this season after he and the Clippers blew a 3-1 series lead in the second round to Denver last postseason. “I didn’t like, not so much of the noise and everything around [the way last season ended], but just the fact that people saw weakness.
“And I had to address that. I had to answer that. That fueled me. That put me in a place where I wanted to come back and be myself again.”
George told teammates entering the season that he was going to return to the form that helped him finish third in MVP voting during the 2018-19 season while in Oklahoma City.
“P is playing at a high level right now,” Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. said. “Which we all knew that he would. I feel as though he’s having an MVP season. And he told us that before the year started, that he was gonna come with it.”
George is shooting career highs of 50.3% from the field, 51.5% from 3-point range and 91.8% from the free throw line. He made 4 of 8 3-pointers against the Kings. George has made four or more 3s in 10 out of his 12 games this season.
George said he told teammates he was going to return to his MVP form this season because he had no other choice.
“After the tough year last year, it was the only way I could respond,” George said. “I immediately went straight to a dark place of where I just, I had nothing but to get better. That was the only thing on my mind and the only thing was to get better.
“Almost two years removed from having my shoulders operated on. … So I am just in a healthier mind state, I am in a healthier place.”
Last season, George struggled as he was coming off two shoulder surgeries following the 2018-19 season. During the NBA restart in the bubble, George suffered through the worst shooting slump he had experienced in the playoffs, going 10-for-47 combined in Games 2, 3 and 4, including missing 21 of 25 attempts from behind the 3-point line, in the first round against Dallas.
George admitted he had experienced bouts with depression and anxiety while in the bubble in Orlando, Florida, as he was unable to be with his family and loved ones. Then the Clippers collapsed in the second round to the Nuggets.
While George and Kawhi Leonard combined to shoot just 10-for-38 and score a combined total of 24 points in their Game 7 loss, George was the one who took a ton of heat from critics. His corner 3-point attempt that hit the side of the backboard in the fourth quarter symbolized the Clippers’ meltdown.
George not only was roasted on social media, but he even heard trash talking this season from opponents such as Phoenix’s Chris Paul and Devin Booker during a game on Jan. 3 when George and the two Suns guards exchanged words. George said he heard “a lot of chirping and people just living in the past.”
George has opted to let his game do his talking, averaging 25.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.3 steals to go with his career-best shooting percentages.
“He was able to work out this summer,” Leonard said. “Last summer he was limited, probably only could shoot 10 shots a day or so with his shoulder surgeries. He’s coming out with determination and he’s focused.”
“I can’t predict the future,” Leonard added on whether he saw this coming when the two worked out in the offseason. “But all I could say is he put his mind into his work, and when I did go work out with him, a lot of his stuff was like kind of game-simulated, working on the passes, reads, and it just translated over pretty much.”
Raptors president Masai Ujiri wants to ‘fight’ for wrongly accused after post-Finals incident — ‘I lost a moment. People have lost their lives’
Although he lost the chance to celebrate winning the 2019 NBA championship because a law enforcement officer wrongly prevented him from stepping on the court, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri said what he thinks about is the many other minorities who find themselves losing far more after incidents with police.
“As much as we say ‘Yeah, this happened to me,’ there’s worse that’s happened to other people, right?” Ujiri said during an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” that aired Wednesday morning. “I lost a moment. People have lost their lives.”
It was Ujiri’s first television interview since the lawsuit against him by Alameda County Sheriff’s deputy Alan Strickland was dropped earlier this month.
“I say it as humbly as I can: the privilege of the job I have is to fight for this,” Ujiri said. “They are wrongly accused, there is no body cams, nobody sees what happens, and they are incarcerated or they are accused or they are charged. We have to fight for them.”
As Ujiri was trying to take the court after Toronto beat the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals at Oakland’s Oracle Arena, he was accosted by Strickland, only to eventually be pulled onto the court by Raptors star Kyle Lowry.
“We don’t just go buy championships in Wal-Mart or something,” Ujiri said. “It’s something you’re trying so hard to do, and you’re trying to figure out, ‘How do I go and celebrate with my guys?’ And now you get this confrontation, and it confuses you, you know? And, honestly, I was confused. I was taken aback, and I didn’t know how to react.”
Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern initially claimed Ujiri should be charged with battery of a police officer, but the department eventually declined to press charges.
Strickland then sued Ujiri last February, claiming Ujiri hit him in the face and hands with both fists and that Strickland suffered “physical, mental, emotional, and economic injuries,” including lost wages, lost opportunity for financial gain and future earning capacity.
Footage from Strickland’s body cam was then released in August while Ujiri and the Raptors were in the NBA’s bubble in Orlando, Florida. The footage did not show Ujiri punching Strickland — instead, it showed Ujiri being shoved twice while trying to step onto the court. Ujiri then countersued, saying Strickland had fabricated his version of events.
Both suits were dropped earlier this month.
Despite knowing he did nothing wrong, Ujiri said that he couldn’t sleep for three days in the wake of seeing the body cam footage for the first time. He also admitted that, over time, he began to question whether his version of events was the the right one.
“I called my wife, I called my family, and I couldn’t sleep for three or four days in the bubble,” Ujiri said of his reaction upon seeing the body cam footage. “Because seeing that tape … yes, you are vindicated, yes, this is the right story. [But] people said, ‘You punched a police man, you hit his jaw, you broke his jaw.’ There’s all kinds of things [being said], and you begin to doubt yourself as time goes on. You begin to actually wonder what really happened.”
Ujiri, who has helped countless children in Africa as part of his “Giants of Africa” program, said that as he moves forward, he hopes that people begin to realize that they need to treat everyone they meet with the same level of respect.
“I want people to really think about humanity and who we are as human beings,” Ujiri said. “It is really, really important we treat each other well.”
Are the Utah Jazz a real threat to the Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers?
ONE MONTH INTO the NBA season, Steve Kerr had seen enough to make a rather grand declaration about the Utah Jazz.
The Jazz had just dismissed Kerr’s Golden State Warriors, leading by 36 points after three quarters and cruising to a 127-108 victory on Jan. 23. It was Utah’s eighth straight win, and questions began percolating about whether the Jazz were actually good enough to be included in conversations about the league’s title contenders.
“They’re trying to win a championship right now, and I think they’re capable of doing so,” Kerr said. “They’re where we were three, four years ago.”
More than a month later, the Jazz are still rolling. They’ve won 21 of the past 23 games — 19 by double digits — entering Wednesday’s meeting with the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers (10 p.m. ET on ESPN). Utah has the NBA’s best record at 25-6 and is the lone team in the league to rank in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
But are the Jazz a real threat to beat one (or both) of the L.A. teams in the playoffs? Kerr’s answer was quite affirmative, if not representative of a consensus opinion around the league, and he wasn’t the only coach to compare the Jazz to a recent championship squad.
Brad Stevens, just before his Boston Celtics lost by 14 in Utah on Feb. 9, said the Jazz were the “closest team to the ’14 Spurs” that he has seen in regard to smarts and unselfishness manifesting in brilliant ball movement.
Those Spurs had three surefire Hall of Famers with extensive championship experience in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, not to mention a budding superstar in Kawhi Leonard. One of the primary reasons skepticism about the Jazz persists among rival scouts and executives is because they lack proven star power that the Lakers, LA Clippers and Eastern Conference favorite Brooklyn Nets feature.
Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell and center Rudy Gobert, who are harmonious and happy after ironing out chemistry issues prior to the bubble and signing lucrative, long-term contract extensions before training camp, unquestionably form one of the NBA’s best duos. Mitchell is a dynamic scorer and developing playmaker who has demonstrated he can rise to the occasion on the playoff stage, while Gobert is recognized as the NBA’s most dominant defensive presence and is a critical cog of the Utah offense as a screener, roller, finisher and rebounder.
But Utah’s star pairing isn’t perceived by league insiders to be on the same level as LeBron James and Anthony Davis, as Leonard and Paul George or as Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. In the NBA, star power wins playoff series — with some exceptions.
“You kind of go back to the old Detroit team that won it,” a longtime Western Conference scout said, referring to the 2003-04 Pistons, whose lone All-Star that season was Ben Wallace, a defensively dominant big man and Detroit’s sixth-leading scorer. “They just had a lot of really good players.
“I thought Utah needed another star, but I’ve changed on that.”
IT ISN’T UNPRECEDENTED for the Gobert/Mitchell-era Jazz to dominate for significant stretches of the regular season. It happens on at least an annual basis.
Utah won 21 of 23 in a 2018 run that lasted from late January to mid-March. The Jazz had an 11-2 stretch in January 2019 and a 12-1 run a couple of months later. And Utah went 19-2 from mid-December until late January last season. But those editions of the Jazz combined to win only one playoff series.
These Jazz play with a certain sort of energizing joy — “It just looks like fun,” reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo remarked after his Milwaukee Bucks lost to the Jazz by double digits for the second time this season — but they frequently issue postgame reminders that they haven’t accomplished anything worth celebrating yet.
“We don’t want to be the best team in February; we want to be the best team in July,” Mitchell said after that Feb. 12 victory over the Bucks, when Antetokounmpo referred to the Jazz as the “best team in the West.”
There are some apparent differences between this season’s Jazz and the Utah teams from the previous few campaigns, the results of the front office’s work to address the team’s flaws.
The Jazz recognized that they were far too reliant on Mitchell to generate offense after Utah’s ugly showing in the first round of the 2018 playoffs, a five-game dismissal at the hands of the Houston Rockets in which the Jazz shot 40% from the floor and 26.3% from 3-point range.
Utah made adding playmaking and shooting their top offseason priority, trading for point guard Mike Conley and forward Bojan Bogdanovic, then dealt for Jordan Clarkson midseason to add a desperately needed scoring threat off the bench.
“You kind of go back to the old Detroit team that won it. They just had a lot of really good players. I thought Utah needed another star, but I’ve changed on that.”
Western Conference scout
There were some extenuating circumstances in the Jazz blowing a 3-1 lead to be bounced by the Denver Nuggets in last season’s playoffs, primarily Bogdanovic’s absence due to surgery on his shooting wrist. But the Jazz came out of the bubble knowing that they needed to figure out how not to sink when Gobert sat; Utah was plus-319 in the All-NBA big man’s minutes last season, including the playoffs, and outscored by 117 when he rested.
Utah addressed that issue by bringing back Derrick Favors, Gobert’s longtime frontcourt partner who was traded to create the salary-cap space to sign Bogdanovic the previous summer. Favors came back to Salt Lake City with the understanding he would not return to his role as the starting power forward, instead being utilized almost solely as the backup center.
Just like that, the Jazz had a rock-solid, eight-man rotation, composed completely of players who have been productive as starters, have consistent, defined roles and buy into the style Utah wants to play. Coach Quin Snyder can now count on always playing lineups that feature multiple playmakers, four 3-point threats and a center who serves as a defensive anchor and roll man.
Two seasons ago, the Jazz were a decent 3-point shooting team that was elite defensively. That was flipped last season. These Jazz are now among the best at both — and have embraced the 3 like never before, leading the NBA in treys attempted (42.5 per game) and made (16.8, on pace for a league record).
“Wow, they spread you out,” a West scout said. “They can drive it, shoot it and have a lob threat. They’re really tough to defend now.”
All but one of Utah’s top eight players are locked up with long-term deals after new team owner Ryan Smith approved new contracts totaling at least $420 million to keep Clarkson, Mitchell and Gobert in Jazz uniforms for years to come. The exception: Conley, whose increased comfort level in his second season in Utah is commonly cited as a critical factor in the Jazz’s success this season.
Conley struggled to make the transition after spending the first dozen years of his career with the Memphis Grizzlies. This season, Conley entered All-Star balloting as a third candidate for the Jazz alongside Gobert and Mitchell, in large part because he ranks second in the NBA in raw plus-minus (plus-280), trailing only his teammate Gobert (plus-298).
“Mike Conley is much different,” a West scout said of the 33-year-old point guard who is averaging 16.4 points and 5.6 assists per game with the best effective field goal percentage (.559) of his career. “He knows their system and knows their personnel, and he’s shooting the ball great.”
But the Jazz kept winning even without Conley, going 6-0 while he nursed tightness in his right hamstring, with Joe Ingles stepping into the starting lineup.
That stretch included wins over teams that at the time had the top two records in the Eastern Conference, with Clarkson averaging 32.5 points on 60.5% shooting in the victories over the Bucks and the Philadelphia 76ers, further enhancing his status as a Sixth Man of the Year contender.
THE JAZZ STRUCK an upbeat tone after Friday’s 116-112 loss to the host Clippers, the lone blemish on Utah’s February record.
“I think this is a bump in the road and a good one, in my opinion,” Mitchell said, citing the experience of competing in clutch situations, a rarity considering that an eight-point victory at the Indiana Pacers was the closest game during the nine-game winning streak that got snapped that night.
The Jazz were pleased that they met the Clippers at full strength, as George and Leonard also came back from injuries, and were invigorated by what they considered playoff-type intensity, wanting to get an accurate measuring stick.
“It was a great opportunity for us to just keep getting better,” Gobert said.
However, the result reinforced the belief around the league that the Jazz remain underdogs against the loaded L.A. teams despite Utah’s spot atop the West standings.
Those who doubt the Jazz’s ability to beat L.A. — either the Clippers or Lakers — typically cite defensive concerns first. Royce O’Neale usually guards the opponent’s best scorer, from shooting guards to power forwards.
“Who guards the other guy, is the problem,” a West scout said, referring to two-superstar opponents that could stand in the Jazz’s way in the playoffs.
It’s a problem the Jazz would prefer not to have to deal with until the Western Conference finals. That’s a reason holding on to the West’s best record is important. It would likely mean the L.A. teams would meet each other in the second round, so the Jazz wouldn’t have to beat both the Lakers and the Clippers to get out of the West.
“I think they’re the third-best team in the West,” an Eastern Conference executive whose team has lost to the Jazz recently said. “I think they might have the best record in the regular season, but I do not think they should be favored over either L.A. team. In fact, I would heavily favor the L.A. teams, but I like the Jazz a lot.
“They’ve done what they should do, which is put themselves in position where they can pull off an upset with a little luck.”
The NBA’s savvy moves and the ‘innovators’ that push the limits of the rulebook
ONE OF TRAE YOUNG‘S favorite moves is simple. He gets the ball, calls for a screen and turns the corner, putting his defender on his hip as the help comes over to corral the drive. Once he feels his defender behind, he brake-checks, pulling up into a quick shot.
A little old thing called Newton’s first law of motion kicks in: A body in motion remains in motion unless acted upon by a force, i.e. the defender runs helplessly into Young’s back.
The whistle blows. The foul is called. Two free throws are given.
Young hit the Brooklyn Nets with the move on Dec. 30. Nets head coach Steve Nash was not a fan.
“That’s not basketball!” Nash yelled at the officials.
Nash’s criticism went viral, and Young and the Hawks defended the star guard’s tactic while others debated and discussed its fairness.
“I learned a lot about drawing fouls from [Nash],” Young told reporters in early January. “If he says it’s not basketball, he must’ve been saying it about himself because he’s done it a couple of times throughout his career and was so successful.”
Trae Young continually gets to the free throw line against the Nets by stopping short and causing a defender to run into him.
For his part, Nash said he was just sticking up for his team and trying to gain an edge with the refs. It was a heat-of-competition comment, but he has no real issue with Young’s play. Players have constantly been searching for advantages within the game: inventing and reinventing different ways to bend the rules.
“Other guys have pet moves that are there to deceive or to fool not just the defense, but the referees,” Nash said. “That’s where the game continues to evolve.”
Moves like Young’s stop-short jumper are crafted, refined and mastered through years of innovation. And like a cartoon rowboat, the league plugs one hole only to find another.
The prevailing feeling around the league: If you’re not pushing the boundaries, you’re not trying.
MONTY MCCUTCHEN HAD never seen such trickery.
Gordon, a right-handed shooter, brought his left hand toward the ball as if he was preparing to gather, rise and take a jumper. But right before the ball hit his left hand, Gordon put the ball back down on the floor as his defender went flying. It was a pump-fake without the pump. (Today, players like Stephen Curry and Kemba Walker have mastered the move, too.)
“I almost blew the whistle,” said McCutchen, a 24-year veteran referee who now works as the NBA’s vice president of referee development and training. “I went up to Ben during the game and said, ‘You almost not only fooled [the defender] but you almost fooled me.’
“He goes, ‘I know, I’ve been working on that move.'”
McCutchen is well aware of the schemes players pull. It was routine before games that players would approach him to pitch a sneaky move they’d been workshopping in the lab and ask whether it was legal.
Referees watch tape. They know what kind of offenses teams run, if they play on the low block or spread the floor. They also pick up on players’ tricks. But there’s balance involved in not predisposing oneself to player tendencies. “You can’t let that knowledge turn into anticipation [that] leads to a quick decision,” McCutchen said.
“They’re not annoying. If you watch enough games every night, you know what to expect. There’s a skill to that. That stuff James [Harden] does where he puts the ball out, that’s a skill. DeMar DeRozan is great at it. That’s a skill.”
Suns guard Chris Paul
Like every front office and coach, referees are well aware of the surging impact of analytics. Efficiency drives the game, and that means plenty of corner 3s, shots at the rim, and, of course, free throws. In the same way coaches design offenses to create the most efficient shots, players try to find ways to the stripe.
If deceiving an official is the best path, so be it.
“There’s all these concepts that are very clinical in the rulebook,” McCutchen said. “Our teams and our players then push that limit of what the rulebook says, until we as the league say we like or don’t like how our game is right now.”
Plays like Young’s brake-check jumper have created a lot of conversation within the league. But there are so many clever maneuvers players use. Some are so subtle to the point of being nearly unnoticeable, like Kyle Lowry setting up to take a charge and gently pulling the offensive player into him to make it look like he got plowed over.
McCutchen has a polite name for these players: innovators. He won’t name names, though NBA fans know who the prime culprits and the strategies they deploy.
“Innovators, such as some of the players you may be imagining,” McCutchen said, “are always going to test the rules.”
A good example: The rulebook is clear about two steps after a gather. But what it doesn’t say is that the steps have to be forward, backward or sideways. Players like James Harden, Jayson Tatum and others have, ahem, innovated to take that step-back to extremes.
McCutchen recalled Boston Celtics great Paul Pierce splitting double teams, jumping from one foot to the same foot, then taking a second step with his other foot. At the time, it technically wasn’t a travel. The league’s competition committee amended the rule: no hopping.
“Referees and the league are always going to be a half-step or step behind our teams and players,” McCutchen said. “Because their job is to find the advantage. That’s how you win, is finding little advantages that over 48 minutes add up to seven points or three points or one point.”
Separating players from their reputations is part of the referee’s job. It might seem that there could be some prejudice for the players that routinely make officials look bad, or lower their grade for getting more calls wrong. But officiating those players is a challenge to embrace.
“That’s the challenge of a referee that you let the outside noise of status run to the side, and you don’t worry about the status, you worry about the actual rule,” McCutchen said. “You start to take on the mentality that it’s about the concept.”
“Now,” McCutchen said with a grin, “some players are better than others at maximizing the concept.”
CHRIS PAUL IS a true basketball genius. He plays in the game in a perpetual state of bullet time, with plays going by in slow motion. Details and intricacies are seamlessly picked up on the fly.
And Paul, who has served as players’ union president since 2013, isn’t bashful about talking about the rules of the game — even bending them. If he sees a defender hanging his leg out, Paul will run into contact and force a whistle.
A cousin to Young’s brake-check pull-up is Paul’s stop-short, where a ball handler will feel a defender on their back, typically in the backcourt, 50 or more feet from the basket, and slam on the brakes to let an unassuming defender run over them for a foul. To some, that’s simply known as “the Chris Paul.”
Once an opposing team puts the Phoenix Suns in the bonus, there isn’t a more dangerous player on the floor.
Another favorite of Paul’s is the rip-through, a tactic seemingly popularized by Kevin Durant in 2009. It’s simple: Your defender is on you with an arm outstretched. You swing the ball in a counterclockwise motion (if you’re right-handed) into the defender’s unassuming arms, catching contact as you begin something resembling a shooting motion.
Chris Paul uses his patented ‘rip-through move’ to draw a foul.
As a young player, Durant struggled with defenders crowding him and needed something to counter their aggressiveness. He was taught the move by teammate Desmond Mason.
“Desmond warned me that guys were going to get up into me on defense,” Durant said in 2010. “I saw him do it a few times and I kind of stole it from him.”
Coaches and opposing players constantly complained about it before, during and after games. Durant didn’t care. It was free points any time a defender had a mental lapse.
“They’ve said it’s a legal play, so I’m going to keep doing it until they tell me I can’t,” Durant said after a game in March 2011. “That’s when I’ll stop.”
Now, players like Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid are picking up the move from watching Durant. But it’s a technique that goes back decades, used by Kobe Bryant in the NBA Finals in 2008 and Tim Duncan before that. Like Young’s pull-up, Paul said he remembers Chauncey Billups doing the rip-through some 20 years ago.
Until 2011, this was a shooting foul, but the league legislated against it, turning it into a foul on the floor. Like he said he’d do, Durant stopped using it nearly as much. (He did hit the Washington Wizards with it in January in a critical spot late in the game.)
Paul, though, as he does, found a gray area to continue to expose the rule: just wait until his team is in the bonus. It’s still a foul, just not a shooting foul. So late in quarters, Paul will deploy the rip-through and get two free throws. You can see the exasperation on the faces of defenders the moment Paul gets them.
“Like, ‘Damn, why does this dude do this stupid s—?'” Suns forward Abdel Nader said when asked what goes through his mind when opponents pull off a successful rip-through. “Other than that, you’ve gotta keep playing, move on.”
In surveying players around the league, the rip-through was by far the most popular answer for biggest pet peeve move.
“That’s what great scorer’s do though, they know the rules and know how the refs call it and they get fouls drawn,” Oklahoma City Thunder forward Mike Muscala said. “It doesn’t seem like a natural basketball play.”
Paul said he hears assistant coaches screaming at defenders to be ready for it, to get their hands back. Milwaukee Bucks guard Donte DiVincenzo was a recent victim, and as coaches yelled at him to be aware, DiVicenzo said, “What?”
“By the time he heard it,” Paul said, “it was too late.”
If there’s a player that seeks those advantages within the rules of the game McCutchen talked about, it’s The Point God.
“They’re not annoying. If you watch enough games every night, you know what to expect. There’s a skill to that,” Paul countered. “That stuff James [Harden] does where he puts the ball out, that’s a skill. DeMar DeRozan is great at it. That’s a skill.”
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE to say who invented the pump fake. Basketball footage as far back as the 1950s will show players pump-faking defenders and driving past them. They use all sorts of dekes and counters and hesitations.
But one innovation started teetering into clever/annoying territory — the pump-and-jump. You pump-fake your defender to get them to leave their feet, then use their groundless situation against them to jump into them for a foul call. Pierce was good at it. Dwyane Wade mastered it. Walt Frazier did it as far back as 1973.
The pump-and-jump is one of the eye-rolliest plays in the game, but to an official, it’s more straightforward than it appears. It’s the more subtle ones, like an offensive player throwing their head back to draw attention to contact, or a big man disguising a moving screen as roll to the basket, or a big man giving a slight nudge to clear space.
“It’s called the Black Tornado,” Shaquille O’Neal said of his savvy veteran and very legal move. “Bump, spin, bump, get you off balance and then dunk in your face. Just to let you know that you ain’t strong enough and you ain’t ready.”
The league gathers feedback every season on player moves and tactics. The competition committee looks at them and will sometimes legislate changes. Because at the core, the league wants to make sure the game stays beautiful, can flow and not get driven down by gray-area maneuvers. Still: It’s almost impossible for the league to stay ahead of the players.
There are plays like Reggie Miller‘s scissorkick, where he’d cleverly leave one leg hanging out on a jumper for a defender to potentially clip. It was irritating, and in 2012, seven years after Miller retired the league implemented, you guessed it, “The Reggie Miller Rule,” that made it an offensive foul to leave a leg out.
By next season, we might be talking about “The Trae Young Rule.” But until the league legislates it out of the game, it’s fair play. And it’s up to the players to discover counters.
There are extreme measures, like in 2018 when LeBron James picked Paul up about 40 feet from the bucket.
LeBron was shading Paul on his right hip, as Paul dragged the ball around near the floor. LeBron, who does his homework, knew Paul was in position to deploy the rip-through. So LeBron put his hands behind his back.
Patty Mills guarded Harden for basically an entire playoff series this way. Because there’s not much you can do to counter these clever plays. A foul is a foul and the referee has to call it. Some are embellished, like when Harden or Paul, or any player takes a bit of awkward-looking contact and falls to the floor, forcing a whistle.
Harden is an offensive craftsman and has perfected the art of drawing fouls. He’ll do little things, like calling for a screen and waiting for the on-ball defender to glance over his shoulder to see where the screen is coming from and then drag his arms into the defender’s outstretched arms.
Is it cheap? Most players and coaches say definitely. Is it a foul? Also yes.
“Whatever my matchup is, whoever I’m playing against, I look at their tendencies, what’s their bread and butter. I counter it and I learn from it,” Ayton said. “That’s something I’m good at is watching my matchup and knowing what he loves to do. …
“We want you to make a mistake. I’ll defend you until you make one.”
The other thing to try, Ayton said: Get in front of it. Talk to the ref before the game and tell them to be on the lookout for these cheeky plays.
“In the post, I’ll tell the refs, when I know it’s a center that likes to bang, like Jokic, I’ll tell the ref, ‘Hey, just watch my hands,'” Ayton said. “Showing my hands when I’m taking contact, so don’t call a foul. Just reminding the ref, ‘Yo, we bangin’ but my hands aren’t in there, I’m straight up.'”
With every savvy play, there are two perspectives. If it’s in your favor, it’s a good thing. If not, it’s cheap.
That’s how Nash felt about Young’s savvy move in the heat of the moment. And, like former Thunder center Steven Adams said last season when asked about Paul’s favorite:
“Oh, it’s great. [When] he’s on my team.”
ESPN’s Marc Raimondi contributed to this story.
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