Tiger’s comeback tougher than Ali’s

It’s sink or swim time for draft prospects

Monday night diary

The Bird-Magic documentary made me think of something. OK, technically, I didn’t think of it — my friend Hirschy did. I’m hijacking his point. Just humor me and pretend I thought of it. Anyway, Bird and Magic, two of the best players ever, played something like 85 percent of their primes on local TV. Only people in Boston and Los Angeles saw those games. There was no League Pass, no broadband package, no NBA TV, no TNT/ABC/ESPN megapackage. Every Bird-Magic national TV appearance was a treat.

“Imagine how unbelievable that would have been to stay home every night watching Bird and Magic,” Hirschy told me. (Er, I told Hirschy.) “Bird coming on early, Magic coming on late. I never would have left the house. Now we have it with LeBron. Appointment TV.”

We take this stuff for granted. And it’s not just the chance to see LeBron and Kobe whenever we want. It’s nights like Monday: Atlanta going to Milwaukee to play the upstart Bucks at the same time the young bucks (the Zombie Sonics) host the old lions (San Antonio). Sounds like the perfect night for a random running diary! Let’s tackle the fourth quarters of both games.

Hawks 74, Bucks 67

12:00 remaining, fourth quarter: We see a shot of Squad 6 (Andrew Bogut’s hand-selected section of crazed Bucks fans) leaping up and down to get the crowd fired up. It’s not going to take much. The Bucks have won 14 of their past 16, including back-to-back road wins this past weekend in Sacramento (double overtime) and Denver (where nobody wins on the second night of a back-to-back). They’re 38-30. 38-30! The Milwaukee Bucks!

(Note: Before the season, I picked the Bucks to go 19-63 … and if I knew they would get only 18 games out of Michael Redd before he blew out his knee, I would have gone lower. Amazing.)


11:27: John Salmons drains a 3. The sneakiest deadline move last month, he’s averaging 19.8 points per game, 45 percent field goal shooting, 87 percent free throw shooting and 37.9 minutes per game after the Bucks swiped him from Chicago in one of those, “Here, take him, we need to clear cap space for the 15 percent chance we might get LeBron” trades. He might have been having an off season, but only 11 months ago, Salmons averaged 45 minutes a game in the epic Bulls-Celtics playoff series (including a yeoman’s 60-minute effort in Game 6). Smart deal. You always want to take a chance on someone who’s done it before, especially at a dirt-cheap price (just $5.8 million for 2010-11) and if you have no chance of signing marquee free agents anyway.

10:02: Luke Ridnour drains a 3. Atlanta responds by clearing out so Joe Johnson can abuse him one-on-one. Five-foot leaner. Money. Poor Ridnour. His career has answered the question, “What would it be like if you or I tried to guard NBA players?”

9:44: Ridnour darts down the lane for a layup. Always liked him!

9:30: Johnson posts up Salmons for two, followed by Carlos Delfino (21 points) draining a 3. Bucks GM John Hammond has made three great moves in the past year: the Salmons trade, gambling on Brandon Jennings at No. 10 in the NBA draft and signing Delfino for nothing this past summer. (Not only does Delfino fill up the stat sheet, play both swing spots and give you solid D, but he also has a giant tattoo of a lizard on his left shoulder that looks cool in HD. There’s a lot to like.) Meanwhile, Joe Dumars ran the Pistons into the ground in the 18 months after Hammond bolted Detroit for Milwaukee. Were the two events related? Hmmmmmm.

8:48: After another easy Johnson bucket, Jerry Stackhouse answers with a 20-footer. (Waiting for you to stop staring at the screen in disbelief.) That’s right, Jerry Stackhouse! You’re damned right that’s what I just typed! And you know what else? Teammate Kurt Thomas just high-fived him! The 2010 Bucks are like the island in “Lost” — you never know who will show up next or who might be brought back from the dead.

8:40: Just as the crowd is really getting into it, Dick Bavetta ruins the momentum by calling a dubious block on Delfino. Glad he’s here. Timeout on the floor, Hawks up two.

(During the timeout, in the montage of images in Fox Sports Wisconsin’s promo to get fans fired up for its channel, Jennings and Prince Fielder make the most appearances (three). More importantly, it worked in a clip of the Brewers’ sausage race. That slayed me. Only Milwaukee would work food into inspiring local sports promos.)

8:29: Johnson gets another easy runner coming out of the timeout; Salmons answers by beating him off the dribble for a layup. Possible duel brewing?

7:42: Salmons drains a 20-footer coming off a pick. Tie game. Did I mention that he’s wearing Brad Pitt’s scraggly beard right now? That’s followed by Stackhouse taking a charge from Josh Smith, then Salmons beating Smith off the dribble for a layup … and the foul! That was a professional basketball move. For the life of me, I can’t imagine what went wrong for Salmons in Chicago — the guy can get to any spot he wants. Weird. Let’s just blame Vinny Del Negro and move on.

7:17: Johnson responds with a runner in traffic. Salmons responds to the response with a fadeaway. He has 28 for the game and 21 for the half. Playoff basketball! Bucks by three. Crowd alive. Fear the deer. I’ll explain later.

6:39: And … that’s why Jamal Crawford has been traded twice. He just jacked up a bad 20-footer with 12 seconds left on the shot clock even though Johnson has flames coming out of his head like an “NBA Jam” character. I like Crawford and thought he was a shrewd summer pickup for the Hawks, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll win playoff games or shoot them out of the playoffs. Or maybe both.

6:20: Salmons and Johnson exchange misses. Timeout, Bucks. Not to sound like Hubie Brown, but that’s a great timeout by Scott Skiles. Up three, big possession coming up … let’s get a rest and a good shot. He’s superb. Does he wear out his teams eventually? Of course. But for those first two years, nobody’s better. If I were Skiles, I would do the Larry Brown routine and just switch cities every two years. He’d win 10 coach of the year awards this way.

5:50: The Bucks throw the ball away. So much for the savvy timeout. Fortunately, The Artist Formerly Known As Mike Bibby bricks an open 3. He’s running on fumes of his fumes. Ridnour answers with a jumper. Bucks by five.

(Random note: This week, Atlanta raised its VIP season-ticket prices by as much as 50 percent for next season. With Johnson fleeing town this summer, it’s hard to say whether this was the dumbest move of 2010 or just one of the top five. We still have nine months to go. Right now, it’s No. 1. At the very least, it will win the Hawks an ESPY for Best Way to Antagonize Your Long-Suffering Fans.)

4:48: Smith abuses Stackhouse with a lefty hook down low. (The Hawks lead the league in “Couldn’t that guy post up anytime he wants?” guys.) After Salmons blows a spinning layup, Smith does the same move on Stack. Like an instant replay. After rebounding another Bucks miss, Smith rebounds a missed 3 and gets fouled. And that’s why we love Josh Smith. He can take over games for 90 seconds at a time.

Andrew Bogut

3:31: Bogut returns, Thomas sits. Interesting footnote: No Jennings this quarter. After the rookie missed 6 of 7 shots in 17 minutes, Skiles decided he had seen enough. Tough night for the Jennings for rookie of the year campaign.

2:42: After a Smith free throw and a Bucks miss, Johnson creates a wide-open 20-footer for Smith … brick. Still a tie game. Milwaukee posts up Bogut, who … WHOA! Behind-the-back pass to Delfino for a dunk that came right out of the ’77 Blazers highlight reel! I really enjoyed that one. Gotta say, Bogut turned into a better player than I expected. Borderline All-Star, great teammate and a perfect small-market guy. He won me over for life with Squad 6. Hard not to root for him after that.

2:04: Johnson answers with an 18-footer. So easy. Tie game. The Knicks fans are gonna love watching him and Carlos Boozer next season.

(Cut to every Knicks fan pausing for a second, then screaming, “Hey! That’s not funny! Don’t even joke about that, Simmons! I WILL PUNCH YOU IN THE FACE!”)

1:38: Bogut backs down Al Horford, spins for an easy layup … and Smith comes over weakside and blocks it into the 35th row. Way to keep it in play, Josh. Timeout on the floor.

1:38: Coming back from the commercial, we see Milwaukee fans holding “FEAR THE DEER” signs. That started about a week ago when an ESPN announcer screamed it during a highlight. The rest was history. And you know what? I’m into it. You can’t have an improbable turnaround without a dopey slogan to go with it.

1:20: Johnson (27 points) nails a pretty step-back, foul-line jumper with Delfino draped all over him. Hawks by two. Salmons answers by going left on Smith, taking him to the rim and getting fouled. He sinks both freebies — another sneaky part of the Salmons package. (He’s averaging 85 percent from the free throw line these past two years.) We’re tied at 95.

0:47: Johnson finally misses a 20-footer (great D by Luc Mbah a Moute.) Timeout, Bucks. By the way, the Bucks organization does a nice job of letting the fans supply the noise without supplying them with crutches like “DE-FENSE” chants or blaring music. Old-school basketball crowd. Good enough that I want to attend a Bucks home playoff game. It would be like going into the Hot Tub Time Machine. What year is this?

0:32: Ridnour misses an open 15-footer; Bogut stretches over two Hawks to tap the rebound back out. Fresh shot clock. (Channeling Tommy Heinsohn.) Give Bogut a Tommy Point!

0:21: Really dumb foul by Johnson trying to deny Salmons the ball 30 feet from the hoop. Salmons drains the free throws. Thanks for the two free points, Joe. That play was enough to raise both of Mike Woodson’s recently regrown eyebrows.

0:21: Crunch time: Bogut, Delfino, Mbah a Moute, Ridnour and Salmons for Milwaukee; Johnson, Bibby, Smith, Horford and Crawford for Atlanta. We’re firmly entrenched in Jamal Crawford “I’m Not Afraid to Take This Even Though I’m Ice-Cold” Zone.

0:05: Johnson works Mbah a Moute down the right side of the floor, gets to about eight feet away, gets a solid look (a baby jump hook) … no good! Ridnour grabs the rebound. FEAR THE DEER!

0:05: Ridnour makes the first and misses the second. Crawford gets the ball, crosses half court (FYI: He’s made these before), pulls up from about 28 feet (actual quote from Milwaukee’s TV guy: “No, please no!”) and … no good! Milwaukee wins 98-95.

Salmons is now 15-2 with the Milwaukee Bucks. If there’s a stranger stat this NBA season, I haven’t found it. So why is this working? For the usual reasons that teams consistently ignore: They have one scorer and one rebounder (that’s all you need to be decent); they have good chemistry; everyone knows his roles and minutes; nobody is complaining about playing time; and their coach has won everyone’s respect. It’s really that simple. And by the way, I would not want to play Milwaukee in Round 1. You’re damned right I fear the deer.

As for our other game …

Spurs 81, Zombies 76

12:00 remaining, fourth quarter: Allow me to set the stage. I watch a ton of Zombies basketball because of Kevin Durant (my favorite non-Celtic), enough that I’m starting to feel guilty about refusing to call them by their name out of respect for the people of Seattle. A few weeks ago, they played the Spurs in San Antonio in what quickly evolved into an old guard-new guard battle. The Spurs pulled out all their cagey/savvy/sneaky veteran tricks and stole the game down the stretch. Great learning experience for the Zombies. Or so I thought. Because we’re about to see whether they learned anything.

Kevin Durant

11:37: Off a Manu Ginobili miss, Durant (37 points already!) goes coast-to-coast for a layup. He’s a starter on the “That Guy’s Moving a Lot Faster Than You Realize” team. The captain, obviously, is LeBron: the only guy in the league who actually makes the court shrink in size when he’s going full speed.

11:21: Matt Bonner for three … bang. I’m embarrassed to say that we have the exact same jump shot. Or, maybe he should be embarrassed. One of us should be embarrassed.

11:02: Durant misses a 3. Rebound, DeJuan Blair. On the other end: basket in traffic, DeJuan Blair. Spurs by eight. I don’t care, I’d still take Christian Eyenga over him.

11:02: That was a joke.

10:17: Jeff Green sinks one in Bonner’s mug. How ’bout Sam Presti snaring two of the best four rookies in that 2007 draft? I’d rank Durant first, Horford second, Joakim Noah third and Green fourth.

(Note: I’d give you a top 12, but then we’d have to discuss Greg Oden … and Rip City is already on edge enough thanks to the firing of assistant GM Tom Penn and the subsequent “Kevin Pritchard might be next” rumors. Which is really what separates Portland from any other basketball city: NOBODY ELSE would care this much about an assistant GM getting fired unless he got canned because he was plowing into his assistant on a Xerox machine or something. In Portland, this saga is being analyzed like President Obama’s health care package. There is no other NBA city like it. And I mean that as a compliment.)

9:50: Ginobili snakes into the middle, gets swallowed up by Serge Ibaka and whips the ball out of bounds. I love Serge: He’s a mortal lock to start at center for the Bill Simmons All-Stars this year (for random guys I like who haven’t hit the big-time yet). Reminds me of a young … Theo Ratliff? Somebody. I can’t decide. Love those long runner/leaper centers.

9:05: Russell Westbrook runs a serviceable high screen with Green, who finishes it by making an 8-footer. That play is called, “Take a Breather on This One, KD, We’ll Shoot It.” Zombies down by four. Timeout, Spurs.

9:05: Coming out of the timeout, we see Kyle Weaver (just came back from a three-month layoff after shoulder surgery) shaking his head on the bench after getting pulled. Sitting next to him, a yawning Kevin Ollie plops a hand on Weaver’s shoulder and pats him a couple of times. Just another “here’s an example of how much these guys like one another” Zombies moment. I’d love to see them in a Chemistry Contest. If one Zombie got married, I think he’d have the other 11 guys as ushers.

8:48: Tim Duncan bowls over Green (no call!) for a kickout to Bonner, Bonner misses, Ginobili chases down the rebound, George Hill (playing superbly in Tony Parker’s absence) gets a wide-open 3 … swish. That one hurts. Spurs by seven. The refs make up for it by whistling Hill for a touch foul on Durant (two free throws) as Gregg Popovich (dressed like Sean Connery as always) complains on the sideline. Fun sequence.

Tim Duncan & Serge Ibaka

7:58: Duncan just posted up Ibaka three straight times on two different possessions: missed twice, had the ball poked away once. You don’t challenge the Serge! (He’s officially a playoffs X factor.) Westbrook hits a 20-footer on the other end. Spurs by three.

6:47: Hill travels as the crowd gets loud. (Really good crowds in Oklahoma City for the most part. You gotta hand it to them.) Durant takes advantage on the other end with a twisting 20-footer over Hill for points 40 and 41. Of all the things that make him special as a scorer, it’s his decision-making that stands out for me — he knows what he wants to do right away, never hesitates and just does it. The defense never has time to prepare for him; he’s already going. Spurs by one.

5:57: Duncan hits Richard Jefferson on a cut for a three-point play. Which raises the question, “Richard Jefferson was out there?”

5:33: Teardrop runner for Eric “They Stole Me Because Utah Was Afraid to Pay the Luxury Tax” Maynor gets quickly answered by another runner from Hill (a career-high 27). That’s followed by Green missing a drive, then Duncan committing an offensive foul on a rebound and making the Tim Duncan Bulging Eyes “How Could You Call That?” Face. It’s like seeing an old friend at this point. Sloppy game down the stretch. Can’t tell whether it’s good defense or bad offense.

4:25: Durant misses a 20-footer. The Spurs are unabashedly double-teaming him now — this time, they defended him with Jefferson and Duncan lurking behind him like a safety providing deep help. (He’ll be receiving a steady diet of that in the playoffs.) That’s followed by a Spurs turnover, a Zombies turnover and then Jefferson getting a fast-break layup. Timeout. I gotta be honest: We need to see OKC win a few of these physical/sloppy slugfests before we can take it seriously as anything more than a Round 1 patsy.

3:39: Westbrook plows into the paint for a reverse layup. Spurs by four. He makes four plays every game that make you say, “That guy could have played any sport he wanted.”

2:50: After the Zombies get a stop, Westbrook takes a bad 20-footer with a hand in his face. Brick. He also makes four plays every game that make you say, “Man, I’m not sure he’s a point guard.”

2:25: Manu misses a layup in traffic, quickly followed by Durant keeping it all the way and draining a stop-and-pop 12-footer. Spurs by two, crowd alive … and Serge draws a charge from Jefferson! Right as I’m typing the words “Coming-out party for Serge!” he botches an easy pass from Durant for a turnover. Damn.

Quick tangent: Ric Bucher and I argued for two weeks about whether Presti did the right thing by not trading for Marcus Camby in February. The positives: He kept a young team together, allowed Serge to get his reps (such as in a game like this), kept his chemistry intact and didn’t give up anything. The negatives: a game like right now. Again, I’m a huge Ibaka fan and think he has a ton of potential. But this is a 50-win team with a chance to steal a playoff round. Isn’t that great for the progress of the Durant-Westbrook-Green nucleus? Don’t you want those guys to get those reps? I would have gone for it. But it’s hard to argue against Presti, who basically threw a no-hitter these past three years with one exception: The increasingly polarizing James Harden over Tyreke Evans, Ricky Rubio or Stephen Curry draft pick.

(Follow-up note: The more I watch Curry, I wonder whether he should have been the play there. Can you Imagine him with Westbrook, Durant, Ibaka and Green? Good golly. It’s also tough to say that someone made the right move when he could offer Harden for Curry or Evans and both Sacramento and Golden State would quickly hang up. And yet … chemistrywise, and stylewise, it still might have been the right pick. Let’s give it a year. At the very least, Harden’s beard has been phenomenal.)

1:28: Manu and Westbrook exchange misses. And then … Duncan versus Serge: The Rematch! This time, Serge pokes the ball away twice and forces a hurried Duncan air ball for a shot-clock violation. Are you kidding me? This is either Serge’s breakout party or the end of Duncan’s career. Maybe both. Timeout, OKC.

0:45: Nice play for Durant, who curls off a screen to loft a jumper over Duncan. He has only 45 points. Tie game.

(Crucial note: The secret best TV night of the season will be April 14, Game 82, when Durant tries to become the youngest scoring champ ever in a home game against Memphis. LeBron will play at the same time, but the Cavs will have clinched home-court advantage by then, so LeBron probably will take a breather that night. So Durant will go into that night knowing exactly how many points he needs to earn the title. Thirty-three? Thirty-eight? Forty-three? Forty-nine? And the Zombies might be playing for a sixth or seventh seed to boot. Wild horses couldn’t drag me away from the TV that night.)

0:32: Ginobili draws a foul from Serge that got called two seconds after it happened. The ref was apparently hypnotized by Manu’s renegade bald spot and forgot to blow the whistle. Whatever. Manu drains both freebies. Spurs by two.

0:32: Unforced errors — the death of a young team. Westbrook just stepped on the sideline trying to throw an inbounds pass. This is why you can’t pick the Zombies in Round 1. They just aren’t ready yet. These things take time. Hell, even Scotty Brooks’ suit choices aren’t ready yet. Today he looks as if he came right from a car insurance convention.

Thabo Sefolosha

0:08: I know, I know. … I’ve been Serge-bonkers in this column. But he just made his best play yet: a swooping, Westbrook-like block of what seemed to be an easy Duncan layup (off a perfectly executed pick-and-roll with Ginobili) to save the game. Zombies ball, timeout. Incredible play. By the way, Duncan was blanked in the fourth. No points. He might be nearing the De Niro/Pacino “88 Minutes” phase of his career. I sure hope not.

0:03: Can’t say I liked this do-or-die play: Thabo Sefolosha (ice-cold, took one shot all game) inbounds to Durant, who draws the double-team and kicks it back to Sefolosha … who fires up a wide-open 3 that rims out. Huh???? Rebound, Ginobili. I think that play was diagrammed by Mike Dunleavy. Is he in the building? MY GOD, I THINK HE’S IN THE BUILDING! SHOOT HIM! SHOOT HIM ON SIGHT!

0:00: Manu misses the first one, makes the second, then Westbrook air-balls a half-court shot. Ballgame. Spurs 99, Zombies 96. A predictable result: One team might be long in the tooth but knows how to win; the other team is still getting those winning reps. Eventually, there will be a day when the Zombies (A) don’t step on the baseline during big inbounds passes and (B) will realize that their best player should always shoot the biggest shot of the game unless he’s being assaulted by a two-by-four. They’ll get there.

Either way, I can’t believe I spent a night enjoying competitive playoff basketball in Wisconsin and Oklahoma. The wonders never cease.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times best-seller, “The Book of Basketball.” For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy’s World. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.

Filed Under: Bill Simmons, Kevin Durant, Milwaukee Bucks, People, Simmons, Teams

Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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