Appointment Viewing: Beneath Flash and Flair, a Meeting of Understated Bigs
Any game between teams as talented and effective as the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder would make for must-see TV, but we interrupt your regularly scheduled look at the big stars and big stories of a game of this magnitude for a look at the little things.
Or, more specifically, the big men for both teams who excel in accounting for and providing those little things.
Oklahoma City's Nick Collison and Miami's Udonis Haslem milk incredible value out of the game's margins, and manage to make an altogether tremendous impact without need for touches, shots, or a share of the spotlight. They merely exist in an infinite loop of strong screens, floor burns, and intelligent hustle, fitting their unquestionable effort with a healthy savvy.
Haslem is having a down offensive year, but he still shows a pretty impressive understanding of how to best navigate screening situations. Most naturally, Haslem is a pick-and-pop player. He hits defenders with a squared wall before floating to the free throw line extended, waiting anxiously for the chance to hit a jumper from one of his favorite spots on the floor.
It's as much a matter of taste as one of pragmatism; Haslem not only moves to this zone because he can without deterrence, but because as a relatively undersized big with unspectacular potential to finish at the rim, dropping in jumpers is the wiser move.
That said, Haslem is incredibly adept at identifying the potential for a good, old-fashioned pick-and-roll, and doesn't hesitate to dive toward the rim after freeing up LeBron James or Dwyane Wade if the opportunity presents itself.
Haslem is certainly fearless, but his willingness to attack the rim in these situations is less indicative of his temperament than his ability to quickly assess the interior vulnerabilities of an opposing defense. It doesn't always end well, and the pop-roll dynamic is far from an even split. But, Haslem does as well as any player of his size in choosing when it's appropriate to flare out to the elbow or roll straight to the rim—a comprehension of role and function that helps build on his offensive utility.
Collison does much of the same, but is impressive on a completely different level for the instantaneous chemistry he forms with virtually any teammate. As was the case when he began running silky smooth pick-and-roll sequences with James Harden almost overnight, Collison is the rare big who holds almost universal compatibility despite a fairly limited skill set. He's neither a knockdown shooter nor a particularly adept finisher, and yet through screens, spacing (it's not just for three-point shooters), passing, and rebounding, he manages to do plenty of good in the highly unique Thunder offense.
With Collison, it's nothing terribly specific. He just makes his teammates incredibly comfortable by setting them up without getting in their way, and maintaining his own position without cluttering up the paint. It's a feat unfortunately more difficult than it sounds, and in an offensive system as loose as Oklahoma City's, it's even more so.
Yet both Haslem and Collison bring the most value on the defensive end, where each provides a variety of functions for their respective teams.
Haslem is functionally a big, but he approaches his defensive hedges with the quickness and balance of an agile wing. The second an opponent steps around a screen, Haslem is there, prepared to swarm and trap, and testing the full limits of what the league's hand-checking rules will allow. Few players manage to be so sneaky with their selective and strategic hand checks, but Haslem sees and exploits the defensive currency in controlling an opponent's movement by way of the slightly illegal.
Collison, too, shares in the embracement of the rulebook's edge by employing a brand of defense that's somehow incredibly active without being demonstratively so. Haslem's flurry of movement—within a system of players who blitz similarly—makes it easy to identify his efforts on D, but Collison's defensive activity is far less imposing. He deters, plays angles, and takes full advantage of any and all contact allowed, just as the best defenders typically do, but manages to do so in a way that's neither as tenacious nor as frenetic as one might expect.
The effort is virtually always there with Collison, but he embodies an almost invisible hustle; he's so comfortable within his zone of stifling defense, that if you're not paying specific attention to his play, he could go altogether unnoticed.
Creating legitimate impact as an NBA role player requires a very precise command of the game as a whole—a command that both Haslem and Collison seem to possess as second nature. Neither of these role player extraordinaires may be the engine that powers their team's success, but they both manage to play rather crucial parts in the guidance of course.
Haslem and Collison have made careers out of those slightest of movements. Each strong pick and quick rotation may not register on the grand scale of a triumphant season or even a prime-time game, but they bring about the steady navigation of a given possession, and in total, bring the Heat and Thunder the slightest bit closer to a competitive premium.
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