While You Weren't Watching: Lillard, Griffin round out NBA's heady plays
The NBA regular season operates at a frenzied pace, with one game and storyline bleeding into the next. Periodically, we’ll slow things down in While You Weren't Watching—a spotlight on the little moments in the NBA slate that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle. This week we focus on heady play, those little moments of savvy and creativity that help players to make the most out of a tricky situation.
• Contortion. This kind of play should never have worked, and I suppose technically—given that Elfrid Payton was whistled out of bounds just prior to his shot—it didn’t. Still, that Payton was able to twist out a double-pump-and-under while evading the reach of Karl-Anthony Towns defies logic. Payton went outside the bounds of what was realistic to pull off a poised, impressive play—one that, if I’m not mistaken, he began to execute without even looking at the basket at all.
• A speed trap. Corey Brewer sometimes moves too fast for his own good, but on this possession he uses a moment of quiet slowness to lull his defender off balance. Watch how quickly Brewer transitions from “walking the dog” to dead sprint. Jonas Jerebko never stood a chance.
• Clearance. Watching guards in the post can be even more entertaining than watching bigs, if only because those who don’t spend as much time guarding the block are more gullible on fakes and feints. Here, Wesley Matthews does something much more subtle: Just after making the catch (around the 0:04 mark of the below clip), he uses his non-pivot foot to sweep through and clear a little bit of space against an encroaching Lance Stephenson. That room was all he needed to protect the ball, find his angle, and nail a fadeaway jumper.
• Expectation, leveraged. What sells this play is the fact that 1) Damian Lillard calls for the ball after moving to the corner, and 2) everyone on the court expects him to go retrieve it from Mason Plumlee. Lillard uses that to his advantage to play Emmanuel Mudiay, who decided to deny Lillard rather than keep between him and the basket, on a backdoor cut.
• Awareness. Rookie Lamar Patterson has thus far been the mystery guest of the Hawks’ piecemeal small forward rotation, unexpectedly supplanting Tim Hardaway Jr. in the rotation. His willingness to pass is a core reason why. On this sequence, Patterson takes to that tendency in a sophisticated way by driving into the teeth of the defense and leading Paul Millsap with a drop-off dish in traffic.
• The oldest trick in the book. Andre Miller has a way of making his opponents—even those who are otherwise smart and sensible—do dumb things. In this case, he dupes Paul George into abandoning his defensive position and committing a foul just by pointing and calling out for a decoy screen that he has no interest in using.
• Presence. This crazy shot by Blake Griffin was sunk because he knew there would be roughly a second remaining by the time he received this swing pass and thus thought to jump to receive (and shoot) it. Impressive though his balance and coordination may be, it’s Griffin’s clear-eyed understanding of the situation that netted the Clippers three bonus points.
• Deceit. Something as simple as a faked dribble hand-off can be devastating to a defense, as it throws the entire structure of the coverage out of whack in an effort to preempt. Here, Raymond Felton is found guilty; by playing Sixers guard T.J. McConnell for the hand-off at the three-point line, he puts Dirk Nowitzki in a bad spot and ultimately creates the need to foul Nerlens Noel.
• Discipline beyond his years. Of all the great things that Karl-Anthony Towns is doing defensively despite his NBA inexperience, I’ve been especially impressed by how well he stays down on shot fakes. Then, when he does jump, Towns has the kind of quick bounce to give himself a chance to recover. It takes Pacers big man Jordan Hill three separate fakes to shed Towns even a little bit on this post-up. It wasn’t enough.
• Denial by position. J.R. Smith is a rather improbable candidate to make a list of heady plays, but on this sequence he games out Alec Burks’s move perfectly. By setting himself up just beyond Burks as the catch is made, Smith leaves his opponent no room to step and no time to dribble. A travel, all of Smith’s doing, results.