Let's Do This Again Sometime
Mikey Hates It
I have a distinct memory of, in a pickup game at my rural college, getting viciously schooled by a skinny, quiet 12-year-old local kid who probably (and quite rightly) knew he would find easy pickings among us hungover, pizza-fed undergrads. With his gangly frame and summer camp good looks, the Pacers’ Mikey Dunleavy has always reminded me of that kid, with a touch of the pampered east coast Brahmin thrown in for good measure (and taller, and better at basketball). So I felt personally vindicated when Sebastian Telfair shook Dunleavy with one of the filthiest crossovers I’ve ever seen. Bassie set him up with two between-the-leg dribbles followed by a little hesitation/shake with his head and right shoulder. When Telfair then explosively crossed ball over to his left, Dunleavy performed an amazing little partially reclined, one-legged wobble and could only catch a glimpse over his shoulder as Telfair finished at the rim with a pretty left-handed scoop.
Punch Me in The Mouth, Please
Telfair played all night as if redemption (possibly of my wheezy, slow-footed 21-year-old self, or possibly of his struggling team—who can really say?) was on his mind. On the face of things, the Wolves seemed to have little shot of stealing a victory from the hot Pacers. They were coming off of a string of dispiriting losses, they were down to only ten players due to injury and illness, and they had been called possibly the worst team ever by a local paper (not this paper, I assure you). And to top it off, Indiana opened the game with a scorching 20-4 run, mixing easy transition layups with threes by Dunleavy and Troy Murphy. But Telfair turned in probably his best game as a pro in leading the Wolves to a frankly unbelievable come-from-behind 131-118 victory. The Pacers’ strategy was to challenge Telfair outside with traps and shows but he continually beat this pressure with a dazzling array of moves. One media source called his ballhandling “playground”, but that description does an injustice to the poise and efficiency with which he probed the defense. All evening, Telfair challenged the Pacers with his aggressive penetration; when Indiana chose to stay at home on Minnesota’s shooters, he finished confidently at the rim and when they adjusted and began to challenge his drives, Bassie calmly dished the ball to now-wide open teammates like the hot-shooting Antoine Walker. When it was over, Telfair had 27 points (on 11-18), 11 assists and only one turnover. (His only shortcoming is his disturbing habit of tucking his jersey into his compression shorts, even as his uniform shorts hang at mid-crack.) Oh, and he played all 48 minutes. That, friends, is a nasty game.
Afterwards, Wolves coach Randy Wittman emerged from the locker room sporting a warm, fatherly glow. “I couldn’t be more proud of these kids,” proud, he said with moist eyes, of their enormous “heart and determination.” In his next breath, Wittman addressed the media’s recent musings: “These kids, they have feelings too.” I have to say, the way he praised and defended his players was pretty moving. And Wittman was right to be proud. After that disastrous first quarter, the Wolves showed that spectacular, seemingly contradictory convergence of guts and effortless grace that can bloom without warning in the NBA, even in the most seemingly mundane game. On one telling defensive possession, the Pacers’ star Jermaine O’Neal caught a lob pass in the low post and spun to the baseline past the fronting Antoine Walker. The Wolves Al Jefferson was late to help but leapt to contest O’Neal’s shot anyway. O’Neal, sensing that Jefferson had committed himself, pump faked and attempted a scoop shot at the front of the rim. Jefferson then somehow, in midair, managed to extend his very long arm behind him and block O’Neal’s shot. (Jefferson had a tremendous game, by the way. After receiving stitches on a bloody lip, he returned to dominate the third quarter and finish with 29 points and 13 rebounds in 33 minutes. The Pacers had done a good job preventing him from getting good position in the low post and he responded by facing up and attacking the basket with abandon. His combination of spins, hooks and long-armed dunks was pretty inspiring).
On another play, O’Neal (who the Wolves held to eight points, largely because of swarming defensive plays like these) tried to dunk a putback at the front of the rim when the Wolves’ Craig Smith rose behind him and—I have no idea how he managed to get this high in the air—angrily swatted the ball straight down with his forearm. Immediately upon landing, Smith broke into a full sprint and finished with a layup at the other end. The crowd, which nearly came to boos in the first quarter, couldn’t believe how much fun they were having. I beg you not to listen to the snarks who take one look at the Wolves record and write them off as a joke. This is much easier to appreciate in person, but in the incredibly competitive NBA winning and losing depends on almost imperceptibly nuanced differences in execution and decision-making. It’s true that the painfully young, injury riddled Wolves have yet to pick up most of those nuances, but they are capable of playing dynamic, highly, highly skilled basketball for very long stretches of the game.
The Boy With The Thorn In His Side
Sober self-awareness is not thought to be one of the hallmarks of youth and the Wolves’ 21-year-old Gerald Green regularly makes the reasons why rather obvious. As you probably know, Green was last year’s slam-dunk champion—thanks to moves his younger brother devised while playing as Green at NBA Live—and last night showed the outrageous explosiveness that made that victory possible. To borrow a phrase from Truehoop’s Henry Abbott that he used in describing a different player, if there’s a problem that can be solved by jumping, Gerald Green can solve it. Green’s problem is that he seems completely incapable of not physically expressing every emotion that passes through his mind/body. When he is hitting shots (and by that I mean, when he hits a shot), he takes on an aspect of almost caricatured swagger, as if the phrase nothing will every go wrong again, anywhere, ever is continuously running through his mind. But should he make even the smallest mistake, Green’s body slumps and his face screws into a mask of frustration. Cheering him up seems to be a major responsibility of his teammates and coaches. In other words, it is very much an open question whether he has the mental makeup to be a professional athlete for whom failure is an everyday occurrence. Indeed, last night—despite hitting some big threes and skying for several rebounds—when Green committed a single foul he looked despondent. When I asked him about how he felt, he dismissively assured me that his less than three years of limited playing time and zero playoff games had duly seasoned him. “I seen everything,” said the (again) 21-year-old veteran. Everything. There’s something really endearing about that, right?