Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Youth Movement

I was at a cafe staring out a window on Saturday morning and decided to flip through the sports page, and saw on the third page a couple of paragraphs on Friday's Thunder-Clippers matchup. The game involved huge performances from Eric Gordon, Kevin Durant, and Al Thornton. That seemed like enough of a reason to call up that game on League Pass and give it a watch, so I did, with a notebook. I took notes on Kevin Durant and Eric Gordon only (I feel like Thornton's game is more or less known at this point). Here are some of my observations. Before I begin, I would just like to point out that Nenad Krstic is able to touch his tongue to his nose:

Anyways, Eric Gordon scored 41 points on a remarkable 12-19 shooting, along with 4 assists. He played both with the ball (mostly in pick and roll situations) and off the ball, as he and Ricky Davis (!!) shared primary ballhandling duties when the Clips' 5th (?) string point guard, Mardy Collins, went down with a strained calf. I've written before about Gordon's relentlessness when he drives to the basket, and his ability to absorb contact there, and he did a lot of that in this game too, taking 14 free throws for the game. He also had a particularly pretty drive in transition in the first quarter, using a hesitation crossover dribble to get past Kyle Weaver to the basket and finish with a layup. But in addition to his outstanding work with the ball (and the superb decision-making that went into that), his work off the ball was really strong -- especially in the third quarter. Throughout that quarter, Gordon worked off baseline screens and curled up to the wings for 2 point jump shots, 3-pointers, and drives to the basket. As with his ability to score in the paint, Gordon used his body really well to create space for his jumper, and showed off an ability to quickly catch-and-shoot that should serve as a nice complement to his ability to score off the dribble. Gordon looks even less like a rookie than O.J. Mayo does.

In all, Gordon had an extremely efficient second half in terms of scoring -- he shot 8-12 for 25 points in the half.

As a sidenote: Ricky Davis played a solid game while filling in as point guard. He's only 29 years old, which is pretty grown up in basketball-years but is still young in real-life years. Looking at his career thus far, it's easy to point at unfulfilled potential as a result of a lack of maturity. Recently, though, he's been looking a lot more mature as a basketball player. Considering how old 29 really is (or isn't) in real life, it shouldn't really be surprising to see him growing, and yet, because sports is so skewed, it does seem surprising. I don't want to delve too far into this at the moment, but consider every 20-something you know. Doesn't it seem impressive how early in their lives most NBA players are able to figure things out -- enough so that Ricky Davis, who took until his late-20's, seems like an anomaly?

Kevin Durant scored in a variety of ways, but the running theme of his performance was a refusal to settle. He missed his first couple of jumpers, and after that seemed determined to get to the rim, or at least to his most efficient shooting locations, for the rest of the night. I've seen him in other games settle for wherever the defense is pushing him out to, unable or unwilling to establish position, and he's a good enough shooter to make that work, since he really can hit from anywhere on the court. But in this game, he was constantly attacking and not settling, and he was rewarded with 26 free throw attempts (he made 24). 

The most awe-inspiring moments Durant had were in transition. He is so much faster with the ball than anyone should reasonably expect, and on this night he used that ability often, particularly in the early going. He fought for rebounds at the defensive end more than usual, and ended up with 13 defensive rebounds (15 total). A number of these rebounds turned into fast-break points as Durant flew 94 feet down the court without any Clipper able to get in front of him before he got to the rim. In the first quarter alone, Durant got 4 defensive rebounds and every single one of them resulted in a one-man fast-break, producing 8 easy points on 2-2 from the field and 4-4 from the free throw line, all of the points coming in 6 seconds or less after the rebound. It would be nice to see Durant get a lot of rebounds consistently, to help him get out in transition.

Watching these two players provided a sort of interesting contrast, too. Eric Gordon seems to work extremely hard for every shot he gets, while, at least from my vantage point, there is an ease to Durant's scoring. This isn't a judgment one way or the other, just an observation. I enjoyed watching Gordon get those shots -- he worked hard but the hard work always paid off in extremely high percentage looks. 

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