How to succeed at basketball without really trying

Larry Drew has discovered the secret to basketball supremacy. After years of watching, playing and coaching the only sport more infuriating at the carnival than at the rec center, he has found how to render the game’s biggest stars—the men who’ve played for championships, won awards, and been lauded for their humor in Youtube videos—infantile-level helpless. Let them have their way.

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In the 2009-10 NBA playoffs, the Hawks and Magic met in the second round. The Hawks were sent back to Atlanta after the most horrific beatdown allowed to last 192 minutes. The meltdown divided the fans from the team, the coach from the team, and a lot of money from the owners that then went to Joe Johnson to continue this run of success that is only a shielding curtain for Rick Sund’s plan for the swift decay crumble evaporation of basketball in Atlanta.

A year later, this time after both were passed up by Bulls, Heat and Celtics the two teams played in the 4-5 matchup, the middle series that should be the closest—the numbers are right beside each other, there’s hardly any difference at all. But the feeling of most analysts, fans and Magic point guards was that the Magic would again breeze through in fine form to face the Bulls.

But Coach Drew learned from watching the defensive-minded, Bob Knight-tutored Mike Woodson fail to contain the Magic’s BIG man Dwight Howard. He honed it in the regular season in which Atlanta won 3 of 4 over Orlando. He learned supplication from watching his Hawks team.

In the two Magic wins, Dwight averaged 20.5 ppg and 9.5 rpg.[1] He shot 62.5% from the field and 71% from the line. In the four Magic losses: 30.3 ppg, 15.8 rpg, 63% fg and 66% ft.

Howard is so powerful down low that no defender can do any real damage over the course of a series to lower those averages.[2] The only part of his game you can hope to control is how many shots he takes from the field and the free throw line. The Hawks decided to let him take as many as he wanted from wherever he wanted, while putting him on the free throw line as often as possible.[3]

The major bet placed by the Hawks players and coaches was that Howard’s free throw percentage would hold steady at his regular season averages and the Hawks defenders could limit his makes, thus maximizing the power of their fouls. If Howard were able to make 78% of his free throws as he did in the Game 2 win, or cause the Hawks to waste fouls by getting and-one opportunities, the Hawks would have lost the series.[4]

But playing the averages is kind of point of a 7-game series. It saps the game of the excitement and can’t miss television that March Madness sates, but it is much more effective at crowning a champion who earned it.[5] And it allows for strategy teased out by smart basketball minds or experiments run by the desperate and maybe demented to lead.

Larry Drew’s strategy is a strategy borne of desperation. Straight-up basketball, man-to-man, doubling down on the post was not going to lead the Hawks to the second round. But Larry Drew got them there.

Now how many shots do we need to give Derrick Rose?


[1] It must be noted that the Magic win averages are skewed by Howard only playing 29 minutes in the Magic’s 101-76 win in Game 5.

[2] He shot 59.3% from the field during the ‘10-‘11 regular season and increased his 59.6% ft almost 10 points during the playoff series.

[3] They also limited his potential for a broader impact on the game. While his rebound averages went up—due in part to Atlanta’s disinterest in the offensive glass—Howard averaged almost a full assist (1.4 v. .5), block (2.4 v. 1.8) and steal (1.4 v. .7) less per game in the playoffs. They limited his assists by single-covering him and on offense, the Hawks’ often infuriating reliance on jumpers may have kept him from gathering the momentum he feels from his blocks. He also averaged nearly 2 turnovers more per game in the playoffs, a testament to the job done by the Hawks’ bigs.

[4] The Hawks were outscored in the series thanks to the 25-point loss in Game 5. They also survived every game they won except for Game 1, getting their final 3 wins by 10 points. Game 3 was saved by Jamal Crawford’s banked 26-foot heave and the Magic missed 3 shots that would have tied the game in the last two wins.

[5] Like King Arthur vs. Kate Middleton. Who should lead England?

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