The other day, I found myself writing, as one does, about Ersan Ilyasova. He is an elite charge-taker. What this means is that he’s elite at anticipating and positioning. He’s also probably a little quicker than someone his size has any right to be. These skills add up to make Ilyasova a really good team defender.

Recently, Zach Lowe had Zach LaVine on his podcast, and the conversation inevitably turned to defense. LaVine is a gifted athlete, but he does not (yet?) possess any of the attributes I listed above in describing Ersan Ilyasova. LaVine is actually a little less quick than you’d think he’d be, at least on the defensive end. He’s usually a step behind the action. He’s often in the wrong spot. Lowe asked LaVine if this is the kind of thing that a player can fix by just working harder, and LaVine talked about needing to trust his teammates more. The truth, I’m guessing, is that he isn’t sure.

Present day NBA basketball requires an incredible amount of strategy and communication on defense. Offenses are skilled at running their opponents through endless screens and ball-reversals, and defenders need to be able to switch assignments seamlessly while pulling one another out of bad matchups. Watch a good defense, and you’ll notice nearly constant talking and processing. Go play a pickup game sometime and you’ll immediately realize how exhausting this shit is. It wears you out.

Teams are so ready for switches and strategic ploys that they often let offenses dictate unfavorable terms. A team like the Rockets is so fundamentally ready to defend against mismatches that they often seem to invite them, baiting opposing big men into post-ups and out of more effective offensive sets. James Harden—ostensibly a guard—defends so many post-ups that he’s actually started to get more credit for his defense, even though his weaknesses on defense were the exact thing that caused the Rockets to defend the way they do.

Still, there must be a place for good, old-fashioned, on-ball defense, right? Last night, the Celtics totally flummoxed the Bucks in the 2nd half, turning a 19-point 1st half deficit into a big win. At the heart of this effort, beyond some hot shooting, was the defense of Semi Ojeleye, who over and over again simply stayed in front of Giannis Antetokounmpo. There was no real mystery to it. Just quick feet and good instincts. Semi seemed to be perfectly squared up on Giannis on every possession.

Those little moments bloomed into a big deal. Late in the game, the Bucks were frustrated. Their vaunted ball movement and their fast-paced drive-and-kick game were stuck in mud. Khris Middleton kept them in it with some incredible shot-making, but eventually that stuff ran out of steam.

How does one assess the value of a player like Semi Ojeleye, who, as Brian Scalabrine put it during the C’s telecast last night, has probably spent as much time thinking about guarding Giannis as anyone in the league (see: 2018 NBA Playoffs, Round 1)? I’m not sure, but I’m glad he’s on the team I root for. Sometimes, you just need guys who can stay in front of the great ones, because defense, finally, is just about being there a little early, profoundly in the way.

Kyrie Irving: It Begins

Paramecium multimicronucleatum, a ciliate protist.

On Sunday evening, the Nets lost 134–133 in overtime on the road in Memphis. The Memphis Grizzlies, as you might be aware, are a team full of promising young players. They aren’t good yet, so this is a tough loss for a Nets team that has designs on the playoffs. Perhaps Kyrie had some thoughts after the game! Let’s check in.

Let’s take a deeper look at a few of these quotes.

It will become more cerebral out there on the floor.

What will become “more cerebral,” exactly? I think it’s fair to assume he is saying that the Nets, over the course of the coming weeks, will transcend the newness and unfamiliarity of their roster and begin to find mutual coherence in ways that are organic and initially unpredictable.

Welcome to the big stage, you know?

The subtext here is just glorious. Why is this the big stage? What stage were they playing on before? In what possible way could a meaningless, early-season road game against the Grizzlies be “the big stage”? The answer, of course, is that Kyrie Irving (and sure, yes, Kevin Durant too) is on this team now. His teammates can’t be used to the scrutiny that comes with playing with Kyrie Irving. Kyrie though? Kyrie is used to the big stage. He knows what it is like, you see.

Guys that don’t normally make plays—they were making plays tonight.

This one is so subtle you could almost miss it. See, what he’s saying is that guys on the opposing team were playing better than they normally play. Why might that be? It’s because his Nets teammates don’t have the experience, the fight, the je ne sais quoi, to step up when it really matters. Like, for example, on the big stage. Which, you know, is an October game against what is likely to be the worst team in the Western Conference this season.

I don’t know how many games you’ve watched over your lifetime. I know you’ve watched it a long time, but when you have the physicality and you have the mind, up here, from head up, you know your spots and you can play off instincts and your teammates can trust where you’re gonna be.

Listen, I don’t know when basketball was invented. I think it was around 2.7 billion years ago, when the first eukaryotic cells evolved: cells with nuclei and organelles working, for the first time, in harmony in and of themselves, in profound and gorgeous communication. That’s when I started watching. I don’t know about you. Physicality is actually mental. And the mind is actually physical. It’s right there, from the head up. I’m not sure I can explain it to you.

I’m covering J.A. J.A.’s like, “Thank you for having my back.” Of course! I’m supposed to!

Jarrett Allen absolutely did not fucking say, “Thank you for having my back” to Kyrie Irving. Nope. Find me evidence that he said this.

Welcome to the big stage, Young Nets!

Passing Is Everything

I can’t remember where I saw this line of reasoning first, but it goes like this: the difference between being Seth Curry and being Steph Curry is all the stuff beyond shooting. In fact, while Seth has made 44.1 percent of his 3s over the course of his career, Steph is at 43.7. Meanwhile, Seth has worked his ass off to become a good rotation guy, and Steph is a legend.

The point here is that if you can’t dribble and pass well enough, it doesn’t matter how good you are at shooting the ball. This goes for all the parts of playing basketball. Teams draft hyper-athletic players—think Jerami Grant, who was a monster last night in the Nuggets’ win over the Suns—in the hopes of teaching those players the mundane stuff that will allow them to harness their athleticism. The reverse happens, too, of course—think of the Celtics’ experiments with Glen Davis and Jared Sullinger over the past decade or so.

Anyway, when the Celtics drafted Jaylen Brown 3rd overall in 2016, the idea was that he was a project. An athletic wing, smart as hell, capable of learning how to be great. In various ways, he’s been both more and less than that, but through three years, while he’d had great moments and exceeded expectations here and there, his feel seemed to be lacking.

I’m being vague, because it’s hard to describe specifics. I think it comes down to passing. If you’re Jaylen Brown, and you have enough ball-handling and shooting and strength to get to your spots on the floor, the only thing left to prevent you from being great is your ability to see the floor. It tends to be the last piece to develop. Even in his destruction of the league in last season’s playoffs, it was clear there was room for Kawhi Leonard to improve his passing. This season, through two games, it feels like Kawhi is seeing it all. Everything has slowed down.

When players get great at seeing the floor and passing, they are able to exert outsized influence over the game as it is happening. Think late-career Jason Kidd, moving around the top of the key and slinging lasers all over the place. It was like he was operating the game from a distant control center. He was basically washed up as an athlete, but if you are great enough at thinking the game, and capable of leveraging your mind by moving the ball around through the pass, you can help a team win games.

Part of it is patience. You need to let the game develop. Jaylen used to go to the basket like a dart; he was a straight-line driver; he was without syncopation; there was no nuance to it. That’s one way of doing it, and if you’re lucky enough to have great teammates, you’ll usually get the ball with half a step on your defender, so your straight-line driving is an asset. To be great, you need to be able to manufacture your own leverage. Jaylen could always get to his spots, but now it seems like he’s in control when he gets there. He knows his options. Defenders are reacting to him—not vice versa.

So, yeah, part of it is patience, but part of it is vision. Passing is the great connector. Anyone who has ever learned a rudimentary press-break knows that dribbling is death. Passing is how you get to the good shit: run outs on fast breaks, wide open 3s, easy buckets. Great passing is the tactic for which there can be no accounting, because nobody can possibly move that fast. Passing takes a small advantage and explodes it into a huge one.

As a Celtics fan, I was optimistic heading into this season, but my biggest concern was that Jaylen (and Jayson Tatum, too) has been slow to develop as a passer. How far can you go as a team if your best players don’t see the floor better than the average replacement-level schmuck? I don’t want to overstate this; Jaylen just had four assists last night. Still, it feels like something fundamental has changed. On a fast-break in the 4th, with the C’s down one, Jaylen whipped a long bounce pass to Gordon Hayward for a lay-up that made a weird, “ohhhhh” sound come out of my mouth.

Jaylen is in control out there. He sees the game happening, and he has some control over how it happens. I’ve been a huge fan of Jaylen’s since before the Celtics drafted him, but for the first time, I think he might be truly special.

Lou & Trez

There’s a whole essay to write about what is going on with the Lakers, and the profound insanity of playing LeBron and AD at the 3 and the 4 instead of the 4 and the 5. I’m interested in why the players insist on it. I’m interested in why the coaches are willing to let it happen. On its face, it makes no sense whatsoever, and it’s going to cost them games like the one it cost them last night against the Clippers. Psychologically, it’s interesting to me, but I’m not going to write about it, because I’m going to write about Lou & Trez.

The idea of the 6th Man is, at this point, a timeless basketball archetype. John Havlicek, Bobby Jones, Kevin McHale, Bill Walton, Ricky Pierce, Detlef Schrempf, Cliff Robinson, Ben Gordon, Manu Ginobili, Jamal Crawford, Lou Williams: these players constitute a lineage of singular bucket-getters and rhythm-alterers who sacrificed the dumb glory of starting for the true glory of kicking ass.

What feels unique about Lou & Trez is kinda simple: there are two of them; they are together. Also, they play, like, the whole fucking game. These dudes played 37 and 38 minutes last night—most of anyone on either team, just slightly more than LeBron and AD. Basically, once they checked in, they didn’t come out.

Lou & Trez are a rich combination of stylistic strangeness and harmony. Lou is a technician, all staccato jabs and slices. He’s a genius at taking what you give him. You drop back, he pulls up. You lurch forward, he knifes by you. He’s a master at the extra dribble; he’s a master at the wrong foot. Trez is a goddamned bulldozer, but he’s light on his feet. He’s relentless, but he’s got touch. He’s the kind of player about whom you find yourself pontificating, “Ah, yes, you see: energy is a skill.” Together, they make screens sing. To Lou Williams, a defender is just a traffic cone in a river, and he is the water itself. To Montrezl Harrell, a defender is a statue of sand in a storm.

The Clippers! What a great team! They get to be so many things. They’ve got the standard issue basketball team: Patrick Beverley, Landry Shamet or Mo Harkless depending on how you want to play, Kawhi, PG, Ivica Zubac or JaMychal Green. Patrick Patterson and Rodney McGruder filling in gaps. Mfiondu Kabengele and Jerome Robinson waiting in the wings. You can do really competent, regular basketball shit with those guys. Fuck: that team might be a title contender already. How wonderful to also have Lou & Trez, a joyous cyclone of smarts and fun, an offensive system in and of itself.

Often, when we talk about great players, we talk about how they make their teammates better. Last night, I started thinking of Lou & Trez as their own kind of great player unit. Together, they create a hub that lets everyone else just play basketball. Alongside them, Green gets open 3s, Harkless sneaks and cuts, Shamet comes off screens shooting or attacking closeouts. It just works, and in a moment in basketball in which we seem to be veering towards various forms of stylistic hegemony, it’s nice to see this kind of searing, enlightened madness rising off the bench for the Clips.

Alone Out There: On Russ & Harden

A few years ago, I wrote roughly 1500 words about a regular season game between the Thunder and the Pacers from late in the 2014-15 season. In that game, Russell Westbrook scored 54 points on 43 shots and the Thunder lost by 12. As a result, they ended up just missing the playoffs. That season, Durant had been injured and only played 27 games. For the rest of the season, Russ went nuts. The game swirled around him like a cyclone. Or maybe it was a black hole. Watching him was exhilarating but also alarming. After the late-season loss to the Pacers, I wrote of Russ, “It felt like he was all alone out there. It felt like the other people on the court were ghosts. Russ seemed to be part of a drama no one else could see. The basketball game started to disappear.”

Watching the Rockets this year, at times, felt like a version of the same thing. It is not hard to argue that, over the long history of the NBA, the recent iterations of Russell Westbrook and James Harden have carried a bigger offensive load than any other players ever have. It is fair to wonder whether it is possible for these two particular players to coexist on a basketball team. Certainly, each has picked up some bad habits over the years since they last played together: resting up on the defensive end, failing to engage off the ball, making questionable decisions in key moments, etc. It is fair to think this experiment is destined for failure.

One of the many paradoxes of basketball is that of all the team sports, basketball is the one in which individual players have the most influence over winning, and yet, at the same time, the fluid nature of the game means that combinations of players succeed or fail in often surprising ways. Talent tends to win out, but only if that talent is able to cohere beneficially. Russell Westbrook is not traditionally an easy fit. Russell Westbrook is a meteorite screaming through the sky, and you don’t generally ask a meteorite to adjust to what the rest of the heavenly spheres are up to. A meteorite just keeps screaming. The sky is almost irrelevant.

And yet, in the face of all logic, having sat with the news of Russ-to-the-Rockets for a little while now, I’m feeling strangely optimistic. As I often do in times of profound confusion, I looked up some stats. Back in 2011-12, Russ & Harden played 1231 regular season minutes together over 62 games, and the Thunder had a net rating (point differential per 100 possessions) of 11.3. In the playoffs, they shared the court for 458 minutes over 20 games and the net rating went up to 14.7. 11.3 is elite; 14.7 is scorched earth. In both cases Russ + Harden was OKC’s best 2-man combo on the offensive end. 

Obviously, I am aware that these statistics are basically ancient runes at this point. Those were different players, and that was a different league. Harden made 113 of 292 3s that season, and 86% of those were assisted. This past season, Harden made 378 (!) of 1028 (!!) 3s, and just 16% of those were assisted (!!!!!!!!!!). Meanwhile, Russ made us think about triple-doubles so much over the past few seasons that he drained the concept of mystique entirely. The point is, we’ve all been through a lot since the 2012 Finals. We’re irrevocably changed. 

Basically, what we’ve got is a bunch of statistical evidence that Russ and Harden might be the two least malleable players in the NBA, so singularly who they are that it feels impossible to imagine them otherwise. They may be past their primes. They likely are. And yet, many years ago, together, they were more together than their individual selves. The thing about basketball—the thing for which there is just no accounting—is that in basketball, context is everything. It’s why individual players are so important. A great player can make other players greater. Russ and Harden have spent years crafting games somewhat antithetical to this idea, but now they are together again. What will that look like? What will it mean?

Around 335 million years ago, the tectonic churning under the massive plates of the Earth’s crust formed of the continents a supercontinent. Around 175 million years ago, those plates drifted apart. Evidence suggests that the forming and breaking apart of supercontinents has been cyclical throughout the geological history of Earth. One might think of time itself as a this sort of endless drift, great forces coming together and breaking apart, a kind of planetary breathing. 

Two great forces of basketball have collided now in Houston, and years from now, our ancestors will read the fossilized evidence of what that was like. They will wonder if we saw it coming, but if they look at their own lives, they’ll know we had no idea.