THE SECOND THE basketball slips into Lonzo Ball‘s hands, he’s got one target in mind.
It’s March 1 and the New Orleans Pelicans are down by six to the Utah Jazz early in the third quarter. After a Mike Conley 3, Pelicans wing Brandon Ingram takes the inbounds pass and shovels it on to Ball, who immediately swivels — and scans. Ball immediately spots a 6-foot-7, 284-pound 20-year-old streaking down the sideline, outrunning three Jazz defenders who see the play coming but can do nothing to stop it.
With one flick of the wrist, Ball sets everything in motion from the opposing free throw line, launching a 65-foot dart toward his bullseye. From the left side of the lane, Zion Williamson leaps toward the rim, catches the nearly floor-length pass and softly lays it in.
The play is months in the making. Years, really. Building up that chemistry takes time. It started the moment Williamson and Ball first played in a pickup game at the Pelicans’ practice facility in 2019. In the years following, the duo has emerged as one of the most devastating and explosive in basketball.
“Literally, the moment he caught it,” Williamson says, “I knew he was throwing it. When he released that pass, I knew it was on the money.”
From start to finish, the best alley-oops barely last a second. But basketball’s most exciting play is far more intricate than simply a lob and dunk. It requires trust between teammates, built over years — involving nonverbal tics, intentionally terrible passes, audacious finishes.
It requires time, strategy and, from time to time, even chants for tropical fruit.
FOR SOME PLAYERS, it’s a look. For others, it’s a nod. Others, a subtle point. Every great alley-oop starts with a conundrum: How does one player let his teammate know he’s about to go flying through the air to the rim without making it obvious to the defense?
Yes. Pineapple. For most of Howard’s career, he relied on a series of nonverbal looks — developed over time with his Orlando Magic teammates Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson — that led to him to sprint and launch toward the basket. But playing on his sixth team in nine seasons provides no such time to develop the nonverbals. So he resorts to fruit.
“Pineapple! Pineapple!” he says. “Something crazy to throw the defense off.”
For Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, it was dessert: ice cream.
“‘Ice cream’ would be if you’re a guard and you’re in front of me — then I say, ‘Ice cream.’ That means when you get close to the backboard, throw it anywhere,” O’Neal says.
Not everyone is so sneaky. Teammates used to tease Jazz center Rudy Gobert because he would egregiously point in the air, believing he was open for the lob.
“You feel like you have the opportunity to catch the alley-oop, you get excited,” Gobert says. “So you point up.”
Utah guard Donovan Mitchell, who has thrown 65 lobs to Gobert over the past four years, helped put an end to all that excessive pointing. Through practice and film sessions, he has developed a feel for when Gobert should and will launch his 7-foot-1 frame at the basket. Now, Gobert can keep his fingers from giving up the ruse and count on Mitchell delivering.
There are few better at this hidden art of spotting a good lob opening than Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, who, per Second Spectrum data, trails only Draymond Green in efficiency on alley-oop assist opportunities.
“As a passer, I’m always looking at the second line of defense in a half-court situation,” James says. “There’s always a bottom guy or someone that’s ready to try and help on the lob. I want to put my offensive player in a position where all he has to do is go up and go get it.”
If anyone has as much institutional knowledge on the alley-oop as James, it would be his longtime friend and Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul, who has thrown the second-most alley-oops in NBA history since the league began tracking the stat in 1996. Get Paul started and he can give a full-on lecture on the delicate intricacies of a perfect alley-oop setup.
“The screen, the right angle, you got shooters on the wing,” Paul says. “It’s all about setting angles off the screen and reading the low man … “
Then Paul pauses.
“To tell you the truth, I’m probably making it sound easier than it actually is.”
LaMelo Ball lobs to Miles Bridges from distance and the duo connects for an alley-oop layup.
NO ONE HAS assisted on more alley-oops in the NBA over the past five seasons than James Harden, whose 475 lob assists are more than double that of second-place Trae Young (235) and third-place Russell Westbrook (233).
Part of what has made Harden’s lob so unstoppable is it looks just like his floater, something he perfected with his former teammate Clint Capela and is working on with new Brooklyn Nets vertical threats DeAndre Jordan and Nicolas Claxton.
“Being a 3-point threat and able to get to the basket and draw attention, I learned how to just place the ball and communicate with my teammates,” Harden says. “When I drive, this is what you need to be ready for.”
For Gobert, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Harden’s ability to deliver that pass on the drive makes him nearly unstoppable.
“When you know that a guy is not a great passer or he’s unable to find good angles, it’s way easier to guard,” Gobert says. “[Harden] was able to, as soon as I was over helping, throw the lob over the top. Clint was always at the right spot.”
Minnesota Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio, for his part, says he keeps track of which teammates like to jump off one leg or two, left side or right side, high or low lobs, clean finishes or acrobatics. Howard, though, likes to keep it simple, making the target as clear as possible for his lob throwers.
“I tell them to hit Jerry West or the flag and I’ll go get it,” he says, referring to the stickers placed on the bottom corners of every NBA backboard.
But some situations don’t allow for a perfect setup. When Harden drives, he’s scanning for long defenders in a position to jump up and disrupt his dimes. Those obstacles can derail what would be otherwise perfect deliveries — though James argues that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“The worst passes are some of the best alley-oop finishes,” he says. “It challenges the guy who is receiving it to actually contort his body or jump a little higher than he wanted to, stretch out his wingspan and actually come down with it and be able to finish either with the left hand or the right hand.”
Lonzo Ball aims for the same spots Howard loves, though pinpoint delivery is not always his goal.
“If I see it in the game, I just throw it and hope for the best, honestly,” Ball says.
Hoping for the best might be something that runs in the family. According to brother LaMelo, he doesn’t aim at all.
“Nah, I just throw it,” he says. “I let God take the wheel, for real.”
Trae Young launches the ball to the hoop with his left hand, and John Collins finishes the play with a two-handed dunk.
IT’S FEB. 21 AND the Atlanta Hawks have a comfortable fourth-quarter lead on the Denver Nuggets. Trae Young casually dribbles up the floor, crossing the ball over to his left hand as he passes the half-court line. He walks the ball toward the left sideline, with Nuggets star Jamal Murray tracking his every move.
Young is searching — waiting — for his favorite target, John Collins, to make his move. He’s been doing so since he first paired up with Collins some three years ago at the 2018 Utah Summer League. By the time the duo got to the Vegas Summer League a few weeks later, Young knew their connection was stone cold.
Collins, a springy 6-9 forward with a penchant for finishing any lob thrown in his orbit, is also scanning back for Young. They make eye contact and share a knowing nod. Collins fakes toward the perimeter, then cuts backdoor. He’s wide open.
Young coolly flips a lob to the front of the rim. Collins takes three steps and launches, catching the ball and then slamming it home, adding a pirouette off the hoop for good measure.
“I just made it up in my mind I was not coming down with the basketball and going back up,” Collins says. “I was finishing that one.”
For everything that goes into getting a basketball from one ground-bound player to another soaring his way to the hoop, the finish is the most important part of the process.
“It’s more like 20-80; 20 on the pass and 80 on the guy who really has to jump and throw it down,” Rubio says.
For Mike Conley, having someone to throw an alley-oop to was a new experience.
“It was getting used to the idea of throwing a lob to any big, because God bless Marc Gasol, but he’s not jumping above the rim for many lobs.” Conley says. “Now, my reads have changed from the floater to an alley-oop for Rudy [Gobert] and learning where his catch radius is.”
The appeal of the alley-oop goes way beyond its efficiency. Sure, there are few better ways to score than teeing up a teammate to drop the ball directly into the basket. But there’s a compounding effect too.
“It’s a little demoralizing,” Gobert says. “You end up getting dunked on, and at the same time it gives them energy to see it.”
That’s why these plays are so memorable for the duo executing them. Collins can’t help but remember an NCAA tournament game from four years ago against Kansas State when he broke a zone set up to keep him out of the post.
“The defender jumped early and I stayed on the opposite block and my point guard lobbed it over to me,” Collins says. “And as the defender saw that he was cheating and tried to jump back, he got bodied.
“I dunked all over him. That was cool.”
Eric Bledsoe tosses it up in transition to Zion Williamson, who rocks the rim with a one-handed dunk.
When asked to recount his favorite alley-oop ever, Williamson pauses. He needs some time to think.
“That’s tough,” he says. He pauses again, rifling through a catalog years long.
Then it hits him.
He continues, getting more animated by each passing detail.
“I was running on the right wing. It’s a close game, NCAA tournament play, so it’s very intense. I remember Tre just kind of saw me.
“He just threw it up. He put it up there. I had to go get it off one foot. I remember I caught it, the arena just went crazy. In my mind, I’m running back on defense thinking, ‘Man, this is NCAA basketball. This is March Madness.’ It was crazy.”
The anticipation for those otherworldly jams could not have been higher coming into Williamson’s rookie year. When he arrived at those first pickup games with Ball, Zion already had a plan.
“My thing was like, ‘All right, before I say anything, let me see if he’s gonna throw these lobs or if I post up full court if he’ll throw it,'” he says.
“I was doing that, and every time he does that thing where he flicks it up the court, and he’d do it every time.”
That’s how one of the NBA’s best new alley-oop duos was born — and even a preseason meniscus tear couldn’t slow them down.
“We didn’t miss a beat,” Williamson says. “I was like, ‘Just put it up there — I got you.”
That was all Ball needed to hear.
“Once you have trust with someone you know is gonna catch it,” Lonzo Ball says, “you can pretty much throw it wherever.”
ESPN’s Marc Raimondi contributed to this story.
Michael Malone says Nuggets need to be ‘the more physical team,’ laments ‘soft mentality’ in Game 1 loss to Suns
Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone felt a bad kind of déjà vu as he watched his team fade during the second half of Monday night’s 122-105 loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal series.
After seeing his team get blown out by the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series, Malone lamented what he felt was his team’s “soft mentality” while watching the Nuggets — who led 58-57 at halftime — get outscored 65-47 in the final 24 minutes.
“This game to me was eerily similar to Game 1 against Portland,” Malone said after Monday night’s game. “I think we had way too many breakdowns tonight from a coverage standpoint. I think seven of their 13 3s tonight were from the corners and a lot of that was missed assignments, not communicating. We gave up eight and-1s tonight, I think [we] had a soft mentality. You can’t give up eight and-1s in a playoff game. If you’re going to foul somebody, foul them, and not let them get the and-1.”
It was an assessment that several of his players agreed with.
“Soft, that’s a good way to put it,” Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon said. “Scared, that’s another way to play it. You could choose between them two words, either ‘soft’ or ‘scared,’ that’s what it felt like we were playing like. And then we was just breaking down. We were breaking down defensively, offensively we weren’t getting into what we needed to get into. We were letting them dictate our offense a little too much. Really just a lot of breakdowns.”
While Nuggets forward JaMychal Green also used the “soft” label, MVP favorite Nikola Jokic pushed back on the notion, believing that his team just needs to do a better job of dealing with Phoenix’s runs heading into Game 2 on Wednesday night.
“I don’t think so [that] we played soft,” Jokic said. “We have to do a better job, of course, handling the runs. I think in one moment they were on a 16-0 run … when things aren’t going our way we just need to be more decisive, I think. We need to know what we are doing as a group.”
Malone softened his initial assessment later in his postgame news conference with reporters, saying many in his group were “playing hard” and “competing,” but it was more of a frustration in the mentality the Nuggets had in allowing the Suns to impose their will on the game in a variety of areas.
“When we beat Portland in four games, we were the aggressor,” Malone said. “We were the more physical team, and that has to be the case. We’re undermanned. There’s a reason no one’s giving us a chance to win this series. We have to bring our best version of ourselves — tonight we didn’t get that from a lot and we’ll need it come Wednesday night.”
One of the reasons Malone still feels confident is because young forward Michael Porter Jr. is expected to play in Game 2, despite being limited in the second half because of a back issue suffered at the end of the first half.
Malone said he limited Porter’s minutes in the second half because he could tell the back issue was bothering Porter, and wanted to try and keep him fresh for what he hopes will be a long series. Even what appears to be a small setback is something to keep an eye on given Porter’s history of back issues.
“I’m always concerned when I see a guy obviously having a wrap on his back,” Malone said. “I didn’t think in that second half Michael was moving the way that I’m used to seeing him move. But I just spoke to him, I think he just tweaked it a little bit. He’ll get some treatment tonight, all day [Tuesday], and I fully expect Michael to be ready to go come Wednesday.”
Aided by improving shoulder, Chris Paul takes over in 4th quarter to close out Phoenix Suns’ Game 1 win over Denver Nuggets
There are many things Chris Paul is good at, but one of his most crucial skills is sensing a moment. It’s never about how he starts; it’s how he finishes.
And in Game 1 of Phoenix’s Western Conference semifinal series against the Denver Nuggets, Paul began slowly, hitting just two of his eight shots through three quarters. But as the Suns grabbed hold of Game 1, so did Paul, going 6-6 in the fourth quarter as Phoenix cruised to a 122-105 win over Denver.
“It’s in his hands, man,” Suns center Deandre Ayton said. “He’s made us comfortable … just knowing that he’s got it.”
Paul’s command of the game was on full display, with him methodically asserting himself early in the fourth quarter, scoring 10 consecutive points for the Suns as they widened their lead. He finished with 21 points, 11 assists and 6 rebounds in 36 minutes, and while his grip on the fourth separated Phoenix, the team showcased its impressive balance and depth throughout.
All five starters finished in double figures, scoring at least 14 points. The Suns are the first team since the 2013 Golden State Warriors (Game 2 in round one) with four 20-point scorers on 55% shooting from the floor in a playoff game.
“That’s what I’ve said all season long: We have a team,” Paul said. “If you try to take one of us out or whatnot, we make the right play. Who you gonna leave open? Mikal [Bridges] is cash. Jae [Crowder] is cash. Cam [Johnson], I could keep going on and on and that’s the benefits of having a team.”
For Paul, better health was part of his fourth-quarter output, as he is now two weeks past his initial shoulder injury sustained in Game 1 against the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s something he’s still dealing with, but as if Paul doesn’t already get better the longer the game goes on, his shoulder also does.
“It definitely loosens up,” Paul said. “One thing about it is you don’t get no practice time. The only way you get a chance to see how it is is during the game. It was good. It was fun to get out there and be involved. That last series was, that was tough. I’m glad to be back helping the team.”
Paul scored or assisted on 20 of the Suns’ final 34 points. It’s his ninth career playoff game with 20 points, 10 assists and one or fewer turnovers, passing LeBron James for the most in the league with that line since turnovers were first tracked in 1977-78.
“He just made plays,” Devin Booker said. “Not only his scoring ability but getting everybody else involved. That’s been the story of the season for us, following him in that regard.”
The Suns don’t necessarily have a template to lean on Paul late in games the way the Oklahoma City Thunder did when Paul led the league in clutch-time scoring a season ago. They have the scoring of Booker and the well-rounded depth sprinkled throughout. But Paul is assertive when he needs to be, playing a cerebral game and picking his moments to take over.
“His ability to read the game, clock management, shot-making. He’s done it for a long time,” coach Monty Williams said. “Right now he’s probably critiquing himself and picking at some things he could do a lot better. He makes a lot of our stuff look better because he’s been in these situations before and understands the moment.”
At 36 years old, Paul is the oldest player in NBA history with 20 points, 10 assists and 5 rebounds in a playoff game. Only four other players have put up that statline at age 35 or older: James (six times), Elgin Baylor, John Stockton and Dennis Johnson.
“Man, it’s a different game for him these days from when I was watching him play,” Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon said. “He was a lot more explosive back in the day, getting to the cup. He’s always been really smart and he just keeps getting smarter. He’s a maestro out there orchestrating them. He really has uplifted that whole Phoenix team. Just how he talks, how he communicates with them out on the floor, you can tell that he just gives the entire team confidence.”
NBA playoffs 2021 – Brooklyn Nets are putting Milwaukee Bucks in uncomfortable spot
When Steve Nash was hired to coach the Brooklyn Nets super-team entry last year, it was both shocking and controversial.
Judgement on the hire is still a ways off, but Nash’s first postseason on the sideline has been impressive. Nash has run circles early around two-time NBA Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer in what was supposed to be a highly competitive playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Brooklyn is ahead 2-0 after a 125-86 spanking in Monday’s Game 2.
The first two games have been at home and Nash has talent on his side — Kevin Durant‘s 32 points on 18 shots would make any coach look good. But Nash is managing and motivating his team expertly, especially in the wake of losing James Harden indefinitely with a hamstring injury, an advantage the Bucks wasted.
Even when he had Harden in the mix, Nash explained how important shot numbers were against the Bucks. In the three regular-season meetings between the teams, Milwaukee got up 37 more shots. Even with an offense as impressive as the Nets have, that’s not a survivable margin.
That shot disparity existed because the Nets turned the ball over 19 more times than the Bucks and allowed Milwaukee to have 10 more offensive rebounds in those games. So coming into this series, Nash emphasized ball security and awareness on the defensive glass.
Two games in, it’s the Nets who have taken seven more shots and committed 14 fewer turnovers. After the Bucks clobbered Brooklyn 20-4 in second-chance points in Game 1, the Nets flipped that vital number in Game 2, 15-11.
Brooklyn also executed the textbook defensive plan on Giannis Antetokounmpo, backing off to entice him to take outside shots and baiting him into charges when he came into the lane. The Nets aren’t getting the charges, but the contact seems to be making Antetokounmpo more cautious — he’s just 2-of-10 at the foul line in the series.
As a result, Antetokounmpo attempted just 15 shots and scored just 18 points in Game 2, a major win for the Nets.
But perhaps more important than any strategy, Nash had his team focused and ready to play in Game 2 without Harden, just as he did after Harden exited in the first minute of Game 1, when Nash implored the players not to feel sorry for themselves. Brooklyn overwhelmed Milwaukee in a lopsided first quarter Monday night.
Several Nets players, including Durant, mentioned the level of detail in the game plan after the victory.
“Our guys were prepared and hungry,” Nash said. “Guys are just locked in and aware of the game plan and can take care of details.”
Blake Griffin gets the pass and elevates on the baseline to hammer down a dunk in the face of Giannis Antetokounmpo with authority.
The same has not been the case for Milwaukee. Budenholzer has been scrutinized for the Bucks’ struggles to get out of the second round the past two years and more criticism is surely coming if there isn’t a rally.
Throughout the season, Budenholzer employed some varied defensive strategies aimed at preparing for the playoffs, something he hadn’t done in the past. One of them was switching on pick-and-rolls, which he typically doesn’t favor.
Budenholzer avoided it in his scheme in Game 2. Worried about how the Nets might attack big man Brook Lopez in screen-roll actions, Budenholzer had the Bucks play zone in the first quarter. The Nets handled that with Durant, Kyrie Irving and Joe Harris nailing shots over the top of the zone.
After scoring a playoff team record 72 points in the paint against Brooklyn’s soft interior in Game 1, Milwaukee’s attack was stuck on the outside in Game 2. The Bucks, regressing to isolation basketball on the perimeter, devoid of passing and driving-and-kicking, attempted 21 fewer shots in the paint and scored 20 fewer points.
Defensively the Bucks also were lethargic. It showed in a glaring trend as they went more than 36 minutes of game time without committing a shooting foul — an indication of how non-physical their defense played in such a vital game. The Nets took their first free throws outside of the first quarter when Bucks third-stringer Mamadi Diakite committed a flagrant foul in frustration during garbage time.
“The schemes and the coverage, it matters, but they’re taking advantage of opportunities and they’re playing well,” Budenholzer said. “We’ve all seen it 1,000 times, we’ve got to protect our homecourt like they’ve protected theirs. If you’ve been in the league a long time you’ve seen this before.”
The league has actually seen it 322 times; that’s how often a team has fallen behind 2-0 in seven-game series. Only 22 times have those teams come back to win. Over the last five years, there’s been a number of 3-1 comebacks in the NBA but the truth is those comebacks are only slightly more rare (15 times in 251 series) than winning four of the next five. The Clippers just accomplished this against the Dallas Mavericks in the previous round.
And to say that the Nets “did what they’re supposed to do” is a little too simplistic.
As with every series, there are many things contributing to the rising tide. It’s not just Durant and Irving scoring and Nash hitting all the right buttons. The Nets are getting strong play from role players as well — Brooklyn’s bench is up 62-43 on Milwaukee through two games.
But Budenholzer is going to have to start winning some categories on his rookie counterpart or things could quickly get uncomfortable for him.
“In the locker room, there’s a lot of great leadership,” Budenholzer said. “The guys will respond appropriately.”
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