January 19, 2019

By Jesse Blanchard

For most of the second half, the Charlotte Hornets managed to hold the New York Knicks’ Kristaps Porzingis in check after a 19-point, first-half explosion; limiting the Knicks’ big man to just two points through most of the third and fourth quarters.

At one point, Dwight Howard simply started holding him.

As Porzingis worked his way through a fake screen situation to find a spot in the post, Howard bumped him off path and nearly off his feet. A few seconds later, on a Knicks’ inbounds play under the Hornets’ basket with Charlotte leading 111-106, Howard got caught trailing Porzingis—worried about his shooting ability—off a curl, giving up inside position towards the rim. Frustrated, Howard put one hand into Porzingis’ back and shoved the lanky 7-foot-3 center to the ground with no call from the referees as Doug McDermott hit a three-pointer.

On the other side of the court, while both fought for position under the rim, Howard buried his elbow into Porzingis’ back, sending him sprawling to the floor with a hard foul.

Watching the battle off the ball, there were moments of pure brutality. And, in a way, the stakes couldn’t have been higher for an early November game between two teams battling to break into the bottom tier of the Eastern Conference Playoff picture.

You see, more than the Knicks and Hornets, this was a battle of past and future. That awkward, tension-filled moment in evolution when a once-dominant species comes face-to-face with its replacement.

Imagine being a Neanderthal meeting Homo Sapiens, or a dinosaur catching a glimpse of an asteroid streaking across the sky, only with a full understanding of the moment.

Howard, who only a few years ago was the prototypical modern center—combining explosive, above-the-rim athleticism, agility and elite rim protection—flexed every muscle he had.

He threw opponents around like rag dolls, corralling offensive rebounds for put-back layups. In transition, he beat defenders down the court for easy dunks. And in pick-and-roll, he used his broad shoulders to dislodge defenders, footwork to create position and lingering explosive ability to finish high lob passes.

Dwight Howard finished with 21 points on an efficient 9-for-11 shooting performance, while also contributing nine rebounds.

And while his star has long since dimmed, on this night, the future was not about his own diminished capabilities, but by the promise his predecessor wields.

Frustration would be understandable. It’s one thing to see your own bow out to a new world where point guards thrive and the league shrinks to keep up. It’s quite another to watch the newest model of your position step in and replace you.

In his first two seasons, Porzingis was a unique threat off the ball with his combination of size and shooting. His presence in any screen action distorts defenses, surrendering either a driving lane for guards, a rolling lane for himself, or open three-pointers on any given possession.

Against the Hornets, he leveraged this early to drain an open three-pointer and track down a lob pass for a thundering dunk.

It’s not that classical big men skills have gone extinct, it’s that finding space and time to deploy them amid a decade of rule and personnel changes have made it difficult to deploy them. Porzingis marries just enough footwork, physicality and dexterity with ball skills to not only keep up with today’s NBA, but to own it completely.

When he takes a dribble to either side, his length and shooting ability force an opponent to react, because challenging his shot late is no challenge at all. With an understanding of that, Porzingis has added a crossover to counter.

At his size, if he gets his outside foot past an opponent’s inside shoulder, all hope is lost. Two giant steps are all he needs to get to the rim and, in the rare occasion an opponent can get back into the picture, Porzingis’ size allows for an easy shot over the top of the defense.

After peppering the Hornets with points from all over the floor, Charlotte began face guarding the Knicks’ franchise player.

But the more fervently Howard fought, the more apparent the inevitable became. Porzingis drained both free throws following that elbow to the back to tie the game at 111.

Then, working with rookie Frank Ntilikina, Porzingis made like he was going for a hard dive to the rim before stepping back to the three-point line, creating just enough space for a catch-and-shoot dagger over Howard’s outstretched arms. Arms that once terrorized the league and grasped Defensive Player of the Year trophies.

After the Hornets scored against to get back within one at 113-114, Porzingis caught the ball on the pick and pop again. This time, he faked a pass to the left wing, taking the closeout defender off his feet, then veered to his right, as if to engage in another dribble handoff, before quickly squaring his shoulders to the rim for two giant steps and a scoop layup for the 118-113 win.

Dwight Howard and the Charlotte Hornets fought valiantly. At times, even brutally. But time can only be held off for so long and, through the early parts of the season, it appears the future is right around the corner.

The Nuggets Need More Than A Unicorn From Nikola Jokic

Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

Sitting at 37 points late in the fourth quarter, the Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic stood firmly along the baseline near the left block.

Planted on his left leg, Jokic felt Tyler Zeller’s weight exerting force on his back and quickly spun towards the baseline, sending Zeller staggering forward a step, leaning on a ghost as the Nuggets’ center broke free towards the rim for a layup.

A minute later, Jokic caught the ball on that same spot, taking one dribble to his right, feeling the contact and spinning to his left for a fadeaway, one-legged flip shot to give him a career-high 41 points for the evening.

Wins over the Brooklyn Nets still mean very little at this juncture of its rebuild, but the final two shots from Jokic do carry some significant weight.

And at 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds, Jokic certainly has some weight to throw around. Still, he’s unique for a superstar of his size in how he uses it. Jokic’s large frame flows to his spots more than rumbles. He has force in holding his ground, but doesn’t always add momentum behind it.

For most of his 41 points, Jokic settled into open spots on the court, using his high release and soft touch to drain open jumpers or flip shots, with 62.5 percent of his made field goals coming via assists and converting on a blistering 74.2 true shooting percentage. Efficiency, however, has never been a problem for Nikola Jokic.

The more encouraging number, for the night, was a 34.9 percent usage rate.

Jokic’s efficiency and passing blew the minds of analytically inclined writers and fans last year. A usage rate in the low 20s, however, left those who value volume and production wanting more. First rate efficiency on second star usage combined with great team offensive numbers (due in no small part to elite passing) and a mediocre record blurred the line between first and second option.

The Denver Nuggets currently sit 6-5, good for sixth in the Western Conference. The elite offense from the second half of last season isn’t quite firing on all cylinders yet, currently at 107.2 points per 100 possessions (14th per Basketball-Reference). A dreadful defense has improved to 16th.

Both those numbers figure to regress to the mean some, though improved personnel (Paul Millsap) should keep the defensive side from bottoming out.

Offensively, teams are a little more prepared for Denver, whose struggles are part small sample size noise and partially due to better scouting reports. That doesn’t dampen the Nuggets projections, it simply means, beyond the vast skill and understanding Jokic has, he’ll have to start playing with more force.

Currently, Jokic’s efficiency from all three levels of the court and passing warp defenses, but the Nuggets lack a point guard who can push opponents beyond the brink.

Jokic is Denver’s greatest playmaker and for the most part, his size and shooting are enough to activate that passing skill. But the next step for he and the Nuggets, and one difference between Denver’s offense and, say, the 2014 San Antonio Spurs (beyond years of continuity), is force.

Boris Diaw shared similar passing ability and less shooting, but given the right matchups, he could absolutely bend the defense towards him and break it with his passing on nights he aggressively attacked that matchup. Given his size and skill, Jokic has a much wider field to exert his will against.

His career night came a game after putting together just six shot attempts against the Golden State Warriors. And while no one should expect him to go Kobe with shots, adding a few more to his 12.8 attempts per game, or redistributing a few more from assisted on to self-generated, would give Denver more punch.

Only 22 years old, Jokic’s size, passing and shooting make him as unique as any unicorn in the NBA. Sometimes—as he showed in closing out the Nets—it would be great to see a little more rhinoceros.

Giannis Antetokounmpo Stretches Beyond The Limits

Giannis Antetokounmpo

From the opening tip of the Milwaukee Bucks games against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Giannis Antetokounmpo was special.

Bringing the ball off the court, Antetokounmpo calmly spun off the first defender to try and impede his progress and waited for a screen. Taking a hard dribble to his left, Giannis hesitated, pulling J.R. Smith out of his defensive stance, then with two long steps, moved past him for a dunk.

A few possessions later, Antetokounmpo leapt from one side of the rim, extending his arm to block Jae Crowder’s layup attempt on the other.

Picking up the ball, Giannis took his dribble the length of the court in three dribbles, laying it in after a brief bobble.

The Milwaukee Bucks’ unicorn is, perhaps, the most supernatural of them all. He doesn’t explode past the defense so much as he stretches beyond it. If a defender can stay in front of him long enough to get into his body, he’s already failed, being too close to disturb the long arms that simply bend beyond them.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the one unicorn who hasn’t added quality shooting to a ridiculously long frame. Early in his career, when the Bucks first experimented with him as a part-time point guard, the thought was the addition of an NBA shooting stroke would be what catapulted Giannis to stardom.

Instead, Antetokounmpo merged his slashing skills with some classic big man footwork, moving the defense with his dribble, creating contact to jar his defender, then spinning around all obstacles with expert finishing around the rim on a variety of hooks, scoop layups and flip shots.

Antetokounmpo scored 40 points on 16-for-21 shooting (76.2 percent), scoring all his points in the paint or from the free-throw line in a loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Giannis can’t be stopped, but he can be forced into mistakes when forced to play in a crowd or work from a standstill. Milwaukee also struggles to defend, giving up 112.2 points per 100 possessions, which is 29th according to Basketball-Reference.

But help is on the way with the acquisition of Eric Bledsoe, which should unlock more of Antetokounmpo’s immense potential by shifting the unicorn, occasionally, into a more traditional role for a man of Giannis’ size.

A secondary playmaker capable of working as a primary creator should help Giannis add some responsibilities traditionally held by traditional power forwards, working the two-man game or cutting along the baseline from the dunker’s position.

Antetokounmpo has the unique ability to create plays no one has ever seen before. He’ll continue his ascent towards being the NBA’s best player by mastering the ones we already have.

Kevin Love, The Forgotten Unicorn

Kevin Love, Cavaliers

Lost amidst the performances of Kristaps Porzingis, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo was a man whose own unique game has been lost to time and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Not too long ago, Kevin Love was, perhaps, one of the most unique offensive weapons in the game. Imagine Jokic-like efficiency and passing with a little more volume and methods of deployment.

His time in Cleveland could hardly be called a failure. Not after the Cavaliers made three NBA Finals appearances and won one NBA Championships. But alongside LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, Love’s production and role have grown less extraordinary.

At times, he’s been relegated to a standard issue stretch four with a high basketball IQ, spacing the floor but without the same defensive benefits a team might get from playing a large wing at that spot.

Against the Bucks, Love showed flashes of what made him so unique, scoring 32 points and grabbing 16 rebounds.

Love’s strengths weren’t that he was an elite knockdown shooter or post player or passer. It’s that he could string all of these things together, flowing from one action to the next while also working as one of the league’s best rebounders.

Tuesday night was a return to using Love as a multi-purpose weapon. With John Henson defending him, he worked the two-man game with LeBron James, slipping screens and using Henson’s inability to track him to catch the ball in the middle of the court for open flip shots.

He used his shooting as a threat to create switches or inside position on off-ball screens, sealing defenders for quick posts or hitting turnaround jumpers. Not content to stand at the perimeter, Love bullied his way inside, using his body and wits to carve out position for eight offensive rebounds.

Love was once the ultimate oddball weapon. For a night, it was great to see the former unicorn regain his old magic.



Jesse Blanchard

Jesse Blanchard is the author of Dynasty: the San Antonio Spurs Timeless 2013-2014 Championship, author/illustrator of the unpublished #LetBonnerShoot, A Dr. Seuss Story, and former contributor for 48 Minutes of Hell, Project Spurs, and ESPNsa.com. Boris Diaw is his pickup game spirit animal.

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