NBA Shootaround: The Flying Lion!

So much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is back to help you keep track of it all. You’ll find takes on moments you might’ve missed from the previous night, along with those you will remember forever.

#TheClippersWillWinTheWest

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Chris Ryan: I don’t know if I’ve fully come over to Sharp’s way of thinking on this. And believe me, every day I come into the office, there’s more Cliff Paul memorabilia cluttering up his cubicle. I might put him on Hoarders soon. But last night’s Clippers win over the Warriors was a really convincing piece of résumé-building for Doc’s squad.

This is such a different team from the one last season. It still doesn’t have a really convincing backup to DeAndre, but the depth of the team is absolutely nuts. The Big Baby, Hedo, and Granger signings felt a little unimaginative at the time, but you can see that at least Davis and Granger already grasp Doc’s defense. And it’s obvious what an upgrade they are over Ryan Hollins, Jared Dudley, and Byron Mullens.

If the Clippers want to rock with the Spurs and the Thunder (to say nothing of the Rockets, Warriors, Blazers, Grizzlies … GOD, THE WEST IS SO GOOD), they’re going to need depth, they’re going to need guys who understand Doc’s D, and they’re going to need to mix and match lineups to cope with the talent they’ll be facing night after night.

Or maybe they don’t need to do any of that. Because the Los Angeles Clippers have Blake Griffin.

The Flying Lion

Steve McPherson: There’s been plenty of discussion recently of what constitutes a good or bad nickname, but let’s clear away some revisionist history about them first. We have this notion that good nicknames just arise, autochthonously, from the chests of the great players, gifted like the word of God. But that’s wrong. Good nicknames are the result of observation, thoughtful consideration, drafting, and redrafting. They look spontaneous, but are in reality things built from pieces, just like any other thing.

This is why “The Flying Lion” is such a damn brilliant nickname for Blake Griffin. (Suggestions for this nickname have been floating around for a while, but this call from last night’s Warriors-Clippers game is the first time I’ve heard it deployed in a broadcast.)

First of all, it plays on his name in an excellent way. A good nickname (or pun, for that matter) should kind of vibrate. You should be able to flip it in your mind and see it two ways, like a wire-frame drawing of a cube. So “King James” works both as a regal moniker and also as an allusion to the Bible, assigning a quasi-religious or messianic status to LeBron. Whatever your feeling about it, “The Slim Reaper” functions on multiple levels for Durant. It gives you a warm brain buzz.

As a mythical creature that’s part lion, part eagle, and all awesome, the griffin is a natural place to begin playing with Blake’s name. It is — quite literally — a flying lion, albeit with an eagle’s head. (My favorite version comes from one of my favorite kids’ books, The Pinkish, Purplish, Bluish Egg by Bill Peet.) That Griffin’s dunking style fits so well with the idea of an airborne lion — not so much graceful as supernaturally aerial and muscular — doubles down on the moniker’s quality, and then the cherry on top is that IT RHYMES.

Whether a nickname gains widespread traction is not really up to its quality. CP3, Iggy, KD, K-Mart — none of them are particularly inspired, which maybe makes their implementation almost too easy. It’s easy to settle for compact, halfhearted shorthand. I implore you: Embrace “The Flying Lion.”

The Gift

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Danny Chau: You’ve probably seen last night’s Danny Granger before. Maybe as early as 2005, when he was brought to the Pacers just as everything had fallen apart. Or maybe as recently as Monday night against the Suns, when, for a half, he gave Los Angeles its first glimpse of his old self, scoring 11 points in as many minutes. That Danny Granger came out to play again against the Warriors, when he erupted for 14 points on 6-for-7 shooting in the first two quarters. Spotting up, scoring off the dribble, bearing fruit off broken plays — it was all happening for Granger. For a half, it was amazing.

The hot hand is real, except when it’s not, maybe. All I know is, on Monday night, after he drained four of his five shots before halftime, I was ready for more. As the Clippers ran out of the tunnel for shootaround, my eyes darted to Granger, then promptly sank. He had two seven-pound, party-size bags of ice strapped to his knees. Old Danny Granger came back for a bit, but old Danny Granger was paying the price.

In the second half, Granger air-balled a jumper and committed a dumb continuation foul on Harrison Barnes. His finest contribution of the half was missing a 3-pointer so perfectly that it created an ideal platform for one of the best follow dunks I’ve ever seen. In the last two games, Granger has shot 10-of-12 in the first halves and 2-of-10 in the second. It’s a stark contrast, but one Clippers fans won’t mind much. There are fates much worse than being a peripheral one-half wonder on a team quickly gaining steam as a contender.

Granger’s nickname is “The Gift,” apparently because of how he fell all the way to the Pacers at 17 in the 2005 draft. In L.A., with expectations for Granger modest at best, it takes on a new meaning. No one is waiting by the door for a nightly delivery, but it’s pretty damn sweet when one arrives.

A Lifetime of Dirk Nowitzki

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Jason Gallagher: I think it’s fair to say my judgment was a little skewed when I was 13 years old. For starters, my go-to outfit was a pair of JNCO Mammoths, a black “No Fear” shirt, and an embarrassingly large orange puffy vest. Also, there was no convincing me there had ever been a better comedic performance than that of DJ Qualls’s in The New Guy. Instead of focusing on any schoolwork, I spent most of my time either drawing Taz cartoons or asking girls on AIM if they’d ever heard of Papa Roach. Needless to say, 13 was not my finest hour.

There was one thing I got right, though. When I was 13, my favorite player in the NBA was Dirk Nowitzki. His game as unique and peculiar as I thought I was. I remember my dad taking me to watch Dirk play in blue and green at the old Reunion Arena because — quote — “it was cheaper than going to the movies.” There was nobody cooler to me than that young 7-foot rainmaker from Wurzberg.

Now here I sit, 27 years old, with a wife to my left and a baby on my lap — watching Dirk continue to splash firebombs on the basketball world with performances like he put on last night. The guy had 31 points in 33 minutes on 86 percent shooting AND passed John Havlicek to become the 12th leading scorer in the history of the league. I’ve spent the majority of my adult life watching Dirk, so it was nothing new to see, but it didn’t make it any less of an absolute joy to experience. Yeah, that was one decision I’d gladly thank my 13-year-old self for making.

Spencer’s Gifts

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Brett Koremenos: I always thought it was just a matter of time before Kyrie Irving challenged Chris Paul for the title of best point guard on the planet. I’ve always firmly believed that, had the Cavs’ underwhelming front office surrounded Irving with the proper personnel — like, say, a productive big man who can stretch the floor — Cleveland would actually turn into a good basketball team.

Instead of a sweet-shooting frontcourt partner and complementary players on the wings, former Cavs GM Chris Grant surrounded Irving with Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson. The result was a pile of losses that eventually stunted Irving’s immense potential. The Stephon Marbury comparisons I would have laughed off as crazy talk just a season ago didn’t seem that far-fetched recently.

Then the Spencer Hawes trade happened and lifted my spirits. For the first time in his career, Irving was playing with a big man capable of knocking down shots. This was exciting stuff.

I began to wonder if such a move could actually allow them to sneak into the postseason, despite remembering that Zach Lowe wrote that Cleveland needed to go something like 50-1 for the rest of the year to do so. But who wouldn’t want to root for Kyrie to finally be in the playoffs?! Besides Hawks fans!? Sadly, even with the win against the Suns last night, the Cavs are just 3-7 with a minus-4.1 point differential since Hawes came into the fold. Not exactly the inspiring transformation, or 50-1 record, I had been banking on.

But during the opening 12 minutes of yesterday’s game, Cleveland played like the team I had secretly hoped they would become. Watching Irving operate with space, live, was awesome. Everything he does is so much cooler when there aren’t four very large human beings loitering in the lane. Thanks largely to the presence of Hawes — who had 17 first-quarter points — the Cavs spread the floor and moved the ball moved, and Irving did really sweet Irving things, like this:

I went to that game last night with the mind-set that I was finally going to quit Kyrie and the Cavs. I figured that seeing them be, y’know, the Cavs in person would finally crush my endless optimism. At least for the rest of this year. But when I left the arena, I couldn’t help but pull up the Eastern Conference standings on my phone.

Cats!

netw3rk: Three things that rarely get mentioned in the same breath: Bobcats, Wizards, and playoff implications. The Wiz came into last night’s home tussle versus Charlotte chasing the Bulls for the fifth seed, with the Bobcats sniffing at their heels. Potential first-round matchup? [KG voice.] Anything is possibleeeeeee!

One thing that doesn’t get mentioned nearly enough: Al Jefferson. Since being All-Star snubbed, certified That Dude Big Al Jefferson has been in Man on Fire, guard-your-grill revenge mode: 26 points (up from 20.1 before the All-Star break), a shade under 10 boards, 55.3 percent from the floor (up from 49 percent), an OffRtg of 107.1 (up from 101), and a DefRtg of 100.7 (an improvement of almost two points per 100 possessions). Al’s 22.8 PER is 11th in the league, he’s seventh in defensive rebound percentage (28), and, since January 1, he’s using basically one-third of his team’s possessions. The Cats are 8-4 over that stretch.

Jefferson’s pre-Bobcats rep was that of a gifted post scorer/defensive nonentity. Head coach Steve Clifford deserves serious props for crafting an Indiana-lite (same great scheme; much less talent) defensive system that manages to hide Big Al’s lack of foot speed, paltry rim protection, and seeming aversion to just plain being close to his man, and molding the Bobcats into the seventh-best defensive team in the league by DefRtg. Al Jefferson — AL JEFFERSON — is 11th in the association in defensive win shares between Tim Duncan and Blake Griffin!!!

Last night was another stop in Big Al’s post-All-Star revenge tour. Twenty-six points on 13-of-20, with 10 rebounds. Al basically ordered seven steaks from room service to be delivered to the left block, where he proceeded to tuck a napkin into the collar of his jersey and Viking feast at the expense of the Nene-less Wiz.

Bobcats 98, Wizards 85, and even the Wizards home crowd was feeling the Cats. #BIGSLOWCAT

The Midrange Maestro

Kirk Goldsberry: LaMarcus Aldridge has attempted more midrange jump shots than anyone else in the NBA this season — and it’s not close. However, none of his midrange shots from the campaign will be as amazing as this gem from last night:

What started as a forgettable face-up for Aldridge near the left elbow quickly morphed into a Three Stooges routine that ended with him penned in to the baseline area with nowhere to go. It was then that Aldridge launched a desperate rainbow over the backboard that somehow found the net. Unfortunately, later in the game he hurt his back after a scary fall; get well soon, L.A.

A Match Made in Heaven

Jared Dubin: Listen, I’m still in “I won’t believe Phil Jackson is going to the Knicks until I’m watching a live press conference on MSG, and maybe not even then” mode, but a quasi confirmation from J.R. Smith seems like it’s as ironclad as this kind of thing is gonna get.

So now I’m just trying to imagine the 1973 version of Phil Jackson, high as a kite on peyote, pondering a strange future in which an NBA player uses the Internet on his cell phone to send a tweet about being excited to “work” with Phil, who’s about to be paid $15 million a year to be the philosopher-in-chief of the team for which he, Phil, is currently (in ’73) playing. I feel like it’s a guarantee that Phil had at least one drug-induced trip that involved every single one of those events.

The Truth (Still) Hurts

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Sharp: First of all, that jersey would be much cooler if it said “The Truth” on it, instead of just “Truth.”

Second … whenever Paul Pierce retires, I’ll remember his first year in the NBA, when he was battling Vince Carter and Jason Williams for Rookie of the Year. Those early teams with Antoine, that playoff comeback against the Nets. I’ll remember when things went bad and he sat out half the season, and then when things got good, and he rejuvenated his career and turned into a Hall of Famer. I’m not a Celtics fan at all, but that’s one of the coolest things I’ve watched happen as an NBA fan.

Some of those memories are 10 and 15 years old, but still pretty much indelible. On the other hand, 10 or 15 years from now, we’ll look back on this Nets season with Pierce and be baffled it even happened.

If ’98 Pierce was Reasonable Doubt, 2003 Pierce was Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, and 2008 Pierce was The Blueprint, then this season’s like that Samsung Jay Z album, the one that only gets more depressing the more you think about it.

Pierce has been up and down all year long, but Wednesday against the Heat, he was back to being a murderer. Seventeen points in the third quarter alone, 5-of-7 from 3, 29 points for the game. He did it with the same herky-jerky old-man game he’s had for a decade, and it was all pretty great, even if this season hasn’t been.

But Wednesday, Pierce was so good we all got to just stop thinking and watch him do his thing against the best team in the league. Meanwhile, the Nets are now 23-9 since the All-Star break, they’re 3-0 against the Heat, and they won’t be fun to face in the playoffs. Somehow, Pierce will be a big part of that even after all these years and all the reasons to doubt him. That’s the one thing that’s fun about half-assed albums from legends. Even when they don’t have it anymore, they still have a few moments that remind you why you always loved them.

Filed Under: NBA, NBA Shootaround, Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers, Chris Paul, Danny Granger, Doc Rivers, Chris Ryan, Brooklyn Nets, Paul Pierce, Andrew Sharp, Danny Chau, Steve McPherson, Jared Dubin, New York Knicks, Phil Jackson, netw3rk, Al Jefferson, Kirk Goldsberry, Brett Koremenos, Kyrie Irving

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