By Chris Pennant (@kwandarykitten)
For me, the purest form of basketball has always been at its basest level, played where no one is getting paid, the water fountain might or might not work and the only real objective is to stay on the court.
You know the places I’m talking about. The local Y. The church gym. The playground.
For me, the most hallowed court is at 63rd Street Beach, just across Lake Shore Drive from the old beach house. Play usually starts around 11 am on a nice day and runs until 7 pm or until the functions start, whichever comes first. Cherry picking is allowed but frowned upon, you play by twos and threes (anything else is uncivilized), and you can count on an argument in the midst of the game, which basically functions as a halftime/smoke break. For me, this is the best feeling basketball can offer.
The 2019 NBA Playoffs is the highest level of hoops going right now. Not only because the NBA is the best pro league in the world, but for once there is some actual discussion as to which team will make the Finals.
LeBron James is absent for the first time in over ten seasons, the Warriors lost 25 games in the regular season, the Western Conference has not shortage of hungry ballplayers, and the Raptors are a top contender in the East…which means they will most likely disappoint their fans again.
It’s easy to say what team is the best in the Association once the Finals are done, but to figure out which five guys could run fives at 63rd Street all day long? That takes deep thought. Temptations abound: the beach, Jackson Park Driving Range or golf course, the attractive people coming and going through the parking lot, the constant beckoning scent of indo. With all those distractions, finding five players who will commit to the victory of holding the court for an entire day might just be the most dedicated hoopers in the world.
First, let’s go through the guys in the postseason who most fit your typical pickup basketball stereotypes. (Stats are courtesy of Basketball Reference.)
The Big Man Who’s Soft Around the Basket: LaMarcus Aldridge
Most of LaMarcus Aldridge’s reputation for coming up small in the postseason is unfair. He’s never averaged less than 19 points or six boards in nine playoff campaigns, and played his best ball last year at age 32, according to advanced metrics.
However, the Nuggets have forced him into midrange jumpers so far in the series, and his play has suffered. He’s taken more than half of his 39 shots between 10 feet from the basket and the arc, and is shooting only 33 percent in that area (from 10 feet and closer, Aldridge is a 52% shooter so far.) For the Spurs to win the series against Denver, Aldridge will have to assert himself closer to the basket.
The “Shooter” Who Can’t Shoot: Jamal Murray
Before his 8-of-9 fourth quarter explosion against San Antonio, Murray was having a rough intro to the postseason. He missed 16 of 24 shots in a Game 1 loss and was working on a donut in Game 2 before catching fire late. Then, he tallied only six points in a decisive Game 3 loss. Worse still, he got played into a hole in this most competitive first round series by his counterpart Derrick White, who posted a career-high 36 points in his playoff breakthrough.
The Nuggets might be the two-seed, but their inexperience has shown so far. Murray’s play will be the key to them either moving on or heading home.
The Oldhead Who Yells at Everyone to Play More Defense: Draymond Green
There’s no further explanation needed, right?
Oldheads Who Don’t Say a Thing, but Break Everyone Off: Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston
There’s some irony that the “oldheads” on this list play on the same team. Iggy has been slowly declining after 14 years, but being in Golden State has allowed him to just fill in holes where needed, and as a result, he’s remained a quality contributor, averaging a 106.2 defensive rating in the past four playoff seasons and median points per 100 possessions of 110.9 over 2018 and 19.
Livingston, who simultaneously fills as Golden State’s second-unit midrange post threat, ball distributor and perimeter defender, could also fit this title.
And now…The 2019 Playground Playoffs Team
It doesn’t matter if you’re on asphalt or hardwood, deep range is unstoppable. In fact, the midcourt stripe at 63rd Street Beach might be about 30 feet away from the basket, which is an easy shot for Steph. His shooting percentages were down a bit this year, but on the playground, all that matters is getting buckets, fast breaks and looking good. The Human Torch can do all three of those things. Only thing we’d have to worry about is him having enough sunscreen or getting distracted by the driving range.
(In the first of my asides, yes, I recognize the amazing long-range accuracy of Damian Lillard in his series against Oklahoma City. If I wrote this piece a week later, he’d likely feature much more prominently.)
Ordinarily, there would be a ton of choices for this spot. I was going to put Kevin Durant down, because it’s his natural position, he and Steph have spent two seasons together so they have chemistry and because a mobile 7-foot shooting guard is too much of a luxury to pass up. Then, I remembered how KD is probably leaving the Bay after this season and thought he’d probably start beefing with the other guys about halfway through the day.
James Harden was close, but we all know people don’t play that traveling shit on the blacktop; he’d be fighting all day. That’s why CJ is the best here. A deadly shooter with a great penetration game as well as a willing passer (4.2 APG this season, McCollum was under-recruited in high school, so he’ll give a damn the whole day. Hardly a chance of CJ losing focus.
In the fantastic documentary “Once Brothers,” which details the close and ultimately fractured relationship between former teammates Vlade Divac and the late Drazen Petrovic, there is a fantastic quote about Petrovic from his former teammate Dino Radja: “There is no money that can push me to play better, but if you challenge me, I’m going to kill you.”
That is Giannis in a nutshell. In 2016-17, he won the Most Improved Player award, averaging 23-9-5 in 36 minutes per game. This year, he played three fewer minutes per contest, yet posted a 27-12-6 stat line. For the first time in the last 12 years, neither LeBron nor Westbrook is the most frightening person filling the lane on a fast break.
The Hellenic Freak is a mix of Julius Erving and a tactical nuclear strike (Dr. J also had trouble shooting from further than 15 feet). The only potential problem is distraction – he’s only , but I bet if I told Giannis, “Win every single game today from 10 am until the lights go out and you don’t even have to use the BJ button,” we wouldn’t be losing once. Not one time!
Two fast facts about Steven Adams: the New Zealand native is the youngest of 18 children and his oldest sister Valerie is a World and Olympic champion shot putter who stands 6’4” and weighs about 260 pounds. For reference, Adams is eight inches taller and weighs the exact same. Here’s a photo of the two of them.
When asked five years ago about his inherent toughness as an NBA center, Adams answered, “Have you seen my sister? Look her up, bro.”
He doesn’t shoot from distance, isn’t the fastest man on any pro court and isn’t a great free throw shooter. None of these things matter on the playground, especially the last one. Adams can catch alley-oops all day long and his accent, tattoos and facial hair would scare the mess out of any dude trying to talk trash to him, whether they were from out South or West. Just give him a short break to play Smite at midday and we’re good.
Every so often, a dude shows up on the court who looks like he wondered there by accident. Jokic certainly has the frame on a ballplayer, but give him the Billy Hoyle treatment, complete with some sport goggles, and he would be busting dudes’ asses all day. It would be perfect for hustling.
Jokic’s vision (37% assist rate) and unorthodox but reliable jump shot (43.3% in the midrange) make him an ideal focal point of the Nuggets’ high-post oriented offense. He hasn’t lost too much so far in the playoffs, but if Murray continues his anemic play, Jokic might be counted on for more.
(Brook Lopez would have been a second choice here, but there’s a very good chance he might chase an ice cream truck or buy tickets to Six Flags instead.)
Chris Pennant covers the Chicago Bulls and basketball in general for WARR