This article is a guest post from Michael Pina, creator of the all-everything NBA blog Shaky Ankles. His work has been featured on Hardwood Paroxysm and linked to The Point Forward, Ball Don’t Lie and True Hoop. Follow him on Twitter @ShakyAnkles.
On the New York Times’ Off the Dribble blog today, Rob Mahoney eloquently explained why depth is so important in the NBA playoffs. The triple-overtime Game 4 between Oklahoma City and Memphis showed this. The younger, fresher Thunder prevailed that night and blew out the Grizzlies in Game 5 as players like Zach Randolph, who played 56 minutes on Tuesday, looked a step slow.
And it’s not just fatigue. In a league of stars who sometimes cancel each other out, it is how the bench performs that can be the deciding factor, as Mahoney notes.
The Hawks have struggled in part because Marvin Williams, the eighth man in the rotation, hasn’t been able to provide quality minutes. The Bulls, on the other hand, played Omer Asik, Taj Gibson, and Ronnie Brewer together for the entire fourth quarter in Game 5, during which those reserves (along with Derrick Rose and Luol Deng) outscored the Hawks by 11 in a game the Bulls won by 12.
Along these lines, one of the most critical factors in every team’s in-game consistency is how it performs when its floor general heads to the bench. In a sport that’s played up above, high in the blue, the shortest guys are becoming increasingly vital. They dictate tempo — making basketball’s big men look like statues as they scurry around the court — control the pace and judge the flow. So in the playoffs, it’s the back-up point guards who’re responsible for either building on his team’s advantageous play or turning the ship around and surging a comeback.
Neither is an easy task — both are unglamorous — but these guys are the last backups standing. For the most part, they may not be as talented or physically capable of breaking down defenses as their team’s starter, but they have a commendable mindset not everybody is born with. Nobody wants to be a reserve piece (especially Big Baby). The position is allergic to endorsements, creates little national exposure and reeks of uncomfortable inferiority. But right now, at this time of year, whoever’s able to give his team the most quality minutes will end up with newfound respect, elevating themselves from blanketed aid to crucial puzzle piece.
Here is a breakdown of all the back-up point guards left in this year’s postseason.
Jamal Crawford isn’t your prototypical point guard and back-up floor general isn’t his role. But due to Hinrich’s injury, he’s had more responsibility thrown on his lap. I won’t get into too much detail with Crawford because you’re probably well familiar with his resume and basketball makeup, but he’s Atlanta’s second best scorer and, apologies to Barea, the most capable backcourt bench player when it comes to creating his own opportunities. He likes to shoot a whole bunch, and when Teague’s on the bench the team’s solid cohesion melts. Still he is without a doubt the most talented player of the group — but also the least capable at running the point guard position. It just isn’t in his DNA.
Apart from Dirk Nowitzki’s overall annihilation of Pau Gasol, an argument can be made that JJ Barea’s dominance of Steve Blake, and the Lakers as a team, was the key difference maker in the series. He penetrated at will, made the pick and roll look like a series of unanswerable questions from a quantum theory exam, and in the end, was the unfortunate victim of an Andrew Bynum forearm.
In a recent SI feature, Bynum was depicted as a person who loves solving mechanical problems from the inside out: Fixing computers, watches, and clocks by taking them apart and then rebuilding the parts from scratch. For four games the troublesome irritant that is Barea was unsolvable, so the Lakers center resorted to resolving things like a frustrated five-year-old, breaking the Mavericks energy source and walking away.
Both J.J. Barea and Blake both played this season alongside two guys who’ll go down as top 20 all-time players, but Barea was the only one who acted like he’s worthy. He makes the smart decision, doesn’t play scared, and when the moment presents itself he beats it to a bloody pulp.
Barea is tiny—listed at a most charitable six feet—yet attempts most of his shots at the rim., like a less athletic, Puerto Rican Allen Iverson. Watching the unbelievable aspects of his game remind me of an outrageous sequence in a daring action movie. When he drives to the hoop holding neither fear nor hesitation, eyes go wide and thumbs immediately rewind their DVR.
Earlier this season in a game against Boston, Kevin Garnett got into a small skirmish with Barea. There was brief shoving before the two were separated, and after the game Celtics captain Paul Pierce said it wasn’t anything to overreact about; both guys were their team’s inspirational spark plugs. Pierce’s decision to compare Garnett (one of the greatest players of all time) with a Northeastern graduate who averages 20 minutes a game was an attestation to how much respect Barea has around the league. Defensively he’s so in-your-face feisty that opposing guards have no choice but to back him down in the post and take advantage of the sizeable advantage. This is usually combated with an egregious flop, forcing the referee to blow a whistle. Just like that, Barea has the ball back in his hands.
A player best known for making a national championship saving three, Chalmers was likely given a single instruction after the Heat signed LeBron James and Chris Bosh: Work on your shot. Playing alongside a decision maker of James’ ability, Chalmers’ role isn’t that of a normal backup point guard. He doesn’t bring the ball up the floor or initiate the team’s offense, instead hovering around the three-point line and finding open space to catch and release.
In the Heat’s Game 3 loss, Chalmers had perhaps his finest statistical performance, going 7-9 from the floor (including 2-4 from deep) for 17 points. In the series clinching Game 6 win over Philadelphia, he attempted a season-high 12 long balls, making six of them and finishing with 20 points (another high for the year).
As a peripheral member of the most talked about team in basketball, Chalmers comes across as a figurative little sibling who yaps behind a chain fence of older, tougher brothers who’ve been around the block. When Chalmer’s shot isn’t falling he’s useless. When it is, Miami’s very difficult to beat.
When I was a student at the University of Delaware, the basketball team was an atrocious sight to see. Nobody cared how they did, knew when/where games were played, or could identify a single coach or player if they were standing behind them in a dining hall; the buzz they created hummed softer than a flickering mosquito zapper. Attention to the team was minimal…unless, of course, VCU’s Eric Maynor was in town.
Apart from the games that I covered for both the school and local paper, the only Fighting Blue Hen basketball games I took in were those memorable Maynor performances. He was the Colonial Athletic Association’s Chris Paul, dicing up opponents, throwing smooth yet innovative passes to teammates who weren’t ready to catch them, and launching his head coach into a higher paying job. Maynor was a sight to see in person, and ever since, I’ve respected and admired the way he runs a basketball team.
After being VCU’s go-to offensive option in college, he’s adjusted in the NBA, taking smart shots within the offense’s flow, rarely making the unnecessary highlight worthy pass, and accepting a role that offers just 15 minutes of action a night. In light of Westbrook’s increasing volatility, those minutes could, and probably should, increase since Maynor is the essentially the Cool Hand Luke yin to Russell Westbrook’s hot tempered, mercurial yang.
Before we get into Greivis, here’s a hypothetical, somewhat timely, relatable question for you: If you’re Memphis GM Chris Wallace, would you trade Vasquez and Marc Gasol to the Lakers for big brother Pau? Because that’s what that one-sided destructive deal from 2007 has become. Just curious.
On the court, Vasquez is an unafraid rookie who offers a change-of-pace scorer’s mentality whose audaciousness borders on stupidity when compared to Mike Conley’s sometime tentative approach to the position. As Kevin McHale repeats each time he calls a Memphis Grizzlies game, this is both good and bad news for Lionel Hollins. On one hand it’s nice to have a young, athletic player show a willingness to score baskets and create off the dribble, but on the other hand it must be excruciating to watch him play the game at such an unrestrained level in such important spots. Bad decision after bad decision will lower a player’s confidence, and while the big guys down low are Memphis’ clear strength and advantage, Vasquez’s contributions are imperative if the Grizzlies want to advance. (As was put on display during the triple overtime loss.)
So far in this postseason, Vasquez’s points, rebounds, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and assists per 36 minutes have been better than Conley’s. As mentioned earlier he’s 6’6”, which allows him to see the floor a little better than your average point guard. It’s up to Vasquez to take the information his eyes are transmitting to his brain and make the right choice. Memphis might depend on it.
By taking the league’s MVP out of the game each time he enters, Watson’s backup role is probably the hardest, and most internally confusing of any in the league. His job is to run the offense, make smart passes, keep his man in front of him, ease the tempo, and, more often than not, hold Chicago’s lead.
But sometimes Watson’s mind gets nostalgic, going back to his days as the D-League’s Derrick Rose when he held gross averages of 26, 5, and 5. Watson comes into each game after watching the real Rose writhe through complex defenses with an ease that would draw the envy of every point guard in the world. There’s no doubt Watson has moments where he asks himself, why not him? Why can’t he do it? And so he scampers away from his role, veers out of his lane, and flails in a desperate attempt to prove himself as a relative Derrick Rose equal. Who wouldn’t? And thanks to Carlos Boozer’s expected disappearing act, Chicago’s relying on Rose even more than they did in the regular season. The result is less time for Watson and less opportunity on the national stage.
When Watson was on the court during the regular season, he would look over towards the bench and through the corner of his eye notice Rose at the scorer’s table. His response a majority of the time would be to take a bad shot—a three-pointer with 18 seconds left on the shot clock or a head-down bull rush to the basket without initiating the offense—knowing he was about to get the hook. Watson’s career has been a constant wave of doubt.
His entrance into the league was a 22-day visit in Charlotte followed by a prompt dismissal. He then clung onto the Golden State Warriors for dear life with two 10-day contracts, playing well enough to stay on board. In his last four games Watson’s played 33 minutes of basketball. As far as normal rotation players go, Watson’s the Whitey Bulger of these playoffs; unseen, a man who’s vanished.