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Jokic's Nuggets outduels Curry's Warriors in battle of tall vs small
DENVER DRAWS FIRST BLOOD IN THE BATTLE OF THE LAST TWO NBA CHAMPIONS.
I have some thoughts about basketball. Let’s begin this rant following Golden State’s 108-105 defeat to the defending champion Denver Nuggets.
The hoop is 10 feet off the ground. The taller the players, the easier it is for them to place the ball the over the rim for points. And if those players are strong AND tall? Now they can muscle into the scoring areas they need to dump the ball into the basket.
For example, I have an athletic 6-foot-4 build and nary a week goes by without some random stranger seeing me in line at the coffee shop and cheerfully uttering something to the effect of, “Hey, you play basketball huh?”. I have fun responding, normally something like “Yes, and I would have gone pro if not for the accident…” with a wistful, thousand-yard stare into the great beyond that sends them wondering what trauma kept me from a lucrative career in the world of hoop stardom.
Hilarious! All that underscores a basic stereotype ingrained in our psyches that tall = good for basketball.
But in my relatively short span of time watching Golden State Warriors basketball (legendary giants like Wilt Chamberlain and Nate Thurmond are decades before my time), there’s been an inherent gamble associated with this franchise that in some ways runs counter to basic basketball theory.
Play small, play fast, and run the bigs off the court by any means necessary. Genius Warriors coach Don Nelson’s infatuation with this strategy developed some of the most entertaining basketball the Bay (and the world) has ever seen.
Nelson became the winningest coach in NBA history and never won a championship. There were definitely times that the Warriors were so crushed around the rim that it was disheartening. I’ll never forget Carlos Boozer dominating those We Believe Warriors (I thought Boozer was going to be the greatest power forward of all time after he ran roughshod over the Dubs).
Coach Nelson’s thoughts on Nellie Ball are interesting:
What's your reaction when you hear people talking about Nellie Ball? How would you define it?
I suppose it means small ball, fast and exciting, point forward, players playing out of position ... all those kinds of things. It's kind of funny to me when people talk about stuff like that. I don't necessarily think it's accurate. You only play Nellie Ball when you don't have a very good team, or when you have a bunch of good small players and not many good big players. When you have bad teams, you've got to be creative to win games you're not supposed to win.
I was innovative when I had to be, but I wasn't innovative when I didn't have to be. When I had good teams and big teams, I didn't play small ball. When I was in Milwaukee and we had Bob Lanier, we went inside. What I did really was evaluate the team and play the way that I thought we had to play to be the most competitive. If I had a big center, I wouldn't have played so fast. I would have waited for Lanier to get down [the court] like I did in Milwaukee. Those teams were defensive-oriented and those were my best teams, too, by the way.
Nelson drafted Stephen Curry, perhaps the greatest point guard ever, and definitely the most dangerous small ball weapon of all-time bahahah. Here’s the coach chatting about how Curry fell into his hands:
Nelson, who coached the Warriors for 11 seasons, laughed when he reminisced on how he was able to land Steph, and detailed what he remembered about the young kid coming out of Davidson College.
"I was marveling at his skill from shooting and passing and ballhandling," Nelson said. "I just thought he was a star. I never dreamed we were going to be able to get him. Minnesota had to draft like three point guards ahead of us -- unbelievable. None of them could hold his jock."
HE WAS RIGHT. Two MVPs, four rings later, and all the shooting recoreds later, Curry is probably the face of the NBA. But the Dubs still have been trying to figure out how to meld the powers of playing small and fast with adding giants who can fit into the system and go to battle against the fellow titans of the game.
That’s a major reason they picked the 7-footer James Wiseman at #2 overall in 2020. Currently Wiseman is getting DNP’ed in Detroit, but I could see the vision. It’s rare to find a classic big guy who can not only play in today’s era, but dominate. The Warriors ran into one of them last night, a guy Nelson pointed to a couple years ago as a real problem:
“What it’s done is eliminate the real big player that couldn’t play, who only had size. You know seven footers that were kind’ve backups, those guys are pretty much out of the league now. To play center you’ve got to have some athleticism. You’ve got to be able to dunk the ball around the basket, catch lobs, screen and roll and dive and that kind of stuff.
So those guys are more popular now than maybe the more dominant, slow guys. The only exception to that would be Denver. They’ve got one of the greatest players (Nikola Jokic) of all time playing one of those positions that I never thought would survive, but he’s so skilled with his passing skills and ability to score inside that he’s an exception to that rule.
NIKOLA JOKIC, YOU SAY? The reigning NBA Finals MVP and two-time MVP in his own right. He balled out last night in the absence of Draymond Green, tallying 35 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals.
Final score: Nuggets 108, Warriors 105. Let’s run this back on Christmas, Denver. MVP to MVP. Champion to Champion. Small to big.