BY DAVID THORPE
Things were getting a little itchy for the Lakers. After a Russell Westbrook 3, the third quarter was winding down, and so, it seemed, might be the Lakers’ title chances. They trailed in the series (0-1) and the game (92-88).
That’s when LeBron started pouring every last ounce of energy he had into changing everything.
First, he used a ball screen to get Westbrook guarding him, then LeBron blew right by Westbrook and into the teeth of the Rockets defense. In your 17th season of NBA play, you only get so many of these. Jeff Green hard-pinched, LeBron slipped by, veering left. Eric Gordon might have slid over to take a charge, but at the speed he was moving it seemed almost fatal. Instead, he stood and watched as LeBron scored—with force—his first bucket of the quarter.
There would be more.
To start the fourth, LeBron did the exact same thing: He sought out Westbrook, then zoomed right past him. When Jeff Green met him at the rim, LeBron jumped—apparently to lay the ball in over Green—then dipped the ball below Green’s contesting hand and dunked it hard through the rim. The kind of dunk rarely seen in games, it tied the score and had to make every Laker feel fantastic.
With a little under 10 minutes left in the game, LeBron scooped up an Eric Gordon turnover, tossed it ahead to Alex Caruso, and swung wide to make a highlight. Caruso tossed a pass that at first looked too high, but LeBron shed a decade, skied as high as he needed, and dunked it with authority to put the Lakers up 98-94.
The Rockets called timeout.
The Lakers changed defenses all game to keep James Harden from getting comfortable. Out of the timeout, they played a 1-2-2 zone, which meant LeBron was on the left flank as Houston looked to attack late in the possession. LeBron was being back screened, in a play designed to spring Danuel House, Jr. room for a 3. Westbrook drove down the middle and then veered slightly to his left, while LeBron raced to the front of the rim to try to time up a blocked shot while avoiding a foul. On the ESPN broadcast, Jeff Van Gundy said the ball traveled farther than any blocked shot he had ever seen.
With 9:21 left, LeBron scooped up the rebound of a missed House layup, flew up the court, and found Caruso with a slick pass for a layup and a 100-94 lead.
On defense shortly afterward, LeBron was starting to look gassed, but made a great play anyway—stripping Westbrook of the ball as he headed for the rim. He raced the other way, and the Lakers looked poised for another bucket, until Robert Covington fouled LeBron. With 8:17 left in the fourth quarter, LeBron barely paused before heading straight to the bench for a couple of minutes’ rest, looking totally out of breath.
It was a reminder how the world's best players can string together great plays. LeBron’s few magical minutes turned the game on its head. He gave the Lakers a six-point lead, and, it turned out, a tied series. The Rockets never got closer than three points the rest of the way.
30 teams missed on these players
Right now, NBA scouts and executives are searching overseas gyms and digital video databases for the next Giannis, LeBron, Luka, or Kawhi. But if watching the playoffs has taught us anything, it’s that those same people will all miss several players who will be on the floor, making plays in big moments. The Thunder’s Luguentz Dort has been the revelation of the playoffs, but he’s far from the only one. Every team in the NBA could also have key playoff contributors Robert Covington, P.J. Tucker, Duncan Robinson, Fred VanVleet, Joe Ingles, Daniel Theis, JaMychal Green, Seth Curry, Wesley Matthews, Danuel House Jr., Royce O’Neale, Maxi Kleber, and Gary Clark.
How are teams missing so many of the players they need? I have an idea. In 2004, a general manager told me his people looked for role players who were “longer than normal, great athletes, with elite skill and a high IQ.” It was all I could do not to laugh while saying “good luck with that!”
If history is any indicator, the better move is to find players who don’t fit the mold—but, with careful long-term development—can play. Right now there are hundreds of guys who the NBA sees as too flawed to draft in the first round. But many of them will address those flaws and end up starting for a playoff team sooner or later. The organization that uncovers those guys, and the franchise that unlocks that potential, will have a giant edge.
Billy Donovan and Chris Paul, the face of the Thunder franchise, took a model approach with Dort. They didn’t just focus on what Dort could do for the team—they also focused on what they could do for Dort. All over the league in these playoffs, teams are refusing to guard non-shooters. It makes defense far easier to play five on four. Dort is one of many players who might hurt his team by not commanding attention. Going into Game 7 against the Rockets, Dort had made just 7 of 38 3s. Then he missed his first 3, following a turnover and a blocked dunk. Had Donovan pulled him from the game at that point, nobody would have questioned him. But, instead, Donovan kept him in the game, and Paul kept passing him the ball. The Thunder lost the game, but Dort outscored James Harden in a critical playoff game, and set a record by being an undrafted player who scored 30 points in a playoff game. Paul said they had been telling Dort they wanted him to keep shooting “‘til the wheels fall off.” After the series ended, Paul announced: “Dort is going to be in this league for a long time.”
This is what we call royal jelly, the equivalent of a dad telling his son how proud he is of the man he has become. It hits young players in their core. The Thunder are making Dort a better player by inspiring him. He knows they believe in him, that faith is a precious commodity in the NBA.
Remember, all 30 teams passed on Dort twice on draft night.
It’s not as common as you might think for a coach to truly inspire a player.
There has been some puzzling over the Nets’ decision to hire Steve Nash, a rookie coach. What we know is that Nash has spent quality time with the Nets’ star Kevin Durant. I would bet anything that Durant pushed for Nash’s hire because somewhere along the line, Nash really helped him with some technique, some inspiration, something that really delivered results. It’s profound.
If NBA coaches are collectively guilty of any one mistake, it’s that they often tell a player to do something without teaching him how to do it. I once had a current NBA head coach tell me what he liked about a player of mine was that “I don’t have to coach him, I just have to play him.” Playing time is incredibly powerful, but only part of what a coach might offer. It’s possible Nash helped him with creating better scoring plans in a game or playoff series or attacking certain defenders better, or even provided ideas as to where and when Durant should get to his favorite spots on a court based on who their opponents are. What Nash did for KD in Golden State evidently made KD feel like he’d be at his best playing for him.
Experienced talents like Durant already know ALMOST everything about their own game. Very few people know things about basketball that Durant doesn’t already know. But Nash is a two-time MVP, with a certain confidence, poise, and trust. Even the greatest players appreciate lessons that help them grow.
For the next Dort, the inspiration need not come from a former Hall of Fame player. Faith is. Just as Donovan, Paul, and the Thunder franchise helped Dort believe he could make shots, so too can franchises help imperfect prospects improve the weaknesses that keep them from the NBA.
The Heat’s Duncan Robinson has better catch-and-shoot efficiency than Klay Thompson. He’s an essential part of the Heat. But once upon a time he was considered too weak a defender to help a team win. He has always been seen as flawed. After high school he played for Division III Williams College, before finally making it to Michigan as a 23-year-old senior.
The Heat didn’t “just play” Robinson, they sent him to their G-League franchise in Sioux City and coached up his defense. Their goal was not to turn him into a defensive beast, just get him good enough to keep on the court. The Heat are built around Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler—they’re both tremendous, but far better with shooters around them. Now at age 26, Robinson is more than ready to play the role: He tied Damian Lillard for third in most 3s made this season, and was fourth in percentage (44.6). He has started every playoff game this year.
I could go on all day: Kawhi Leonard would not have been anything like as effective as a Raptor without the undrafted Fred VanVleet. The Rockets look like contenders today, and not only because of James Harden. Undrafted Robert Covington, and second-round pick P.J. Tucker (who spent five years in Europe) have been entrusted to patrol the paint against bigger opponents. In a real way, they breathed spirit into those two guys the same way Paul and Donovan did for Dort. Even to veterans like Tucker and Covington, that takes on a special meaning.
Find amazing shooters with some other flaw, whether that’s handle, defense, or build.
Ignore height entirely. (Toughness and IQ can make up for a lot. Short necked, slightly heavy-set (VanVleet), or super-skinny shooters have to be guarded in NBA playoff games. Tall guys who look the part for their position but can’t shoot do not.)
Coach them up and believe in them.
Kevin Durant doesn’t need much from Steve Nash to excel. If he’s healthy, he will be good enough to be part of a great team. The question is whether or not the Nets can get the most out of players like Jarrett Allen and Chris Chioza, who scouts often ignore.
MVP of the second round so far: Jimmy Butler
Butler dominated the regular season’s best team, the Bucks. for the first three games of the series. As a finisher, as a defender, and as a leader—he has been everywhere, with swagger. Coach Eric Spoelstra, early in game one, told his team, “they are a good team but we are too!” Butler makes his Heat teammates feel it.
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