Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker had it going Friday night in a way most NBA players can’t.
He was outscoring the league’s points leader, DeMar DeRozan, leading the Hornets back from a 16-point deficit against the Toronto Raptors. Toronto coach Dwane Casey got desperate, so he did something he hates having to do.
Double-team Walker on every pick-and-roll.
“We had to do something. He still got 40,” Casey after the Raptors prevailed 113-111.
“He was running loose. He is one of the toughest guys to guard in the league one-on-one. The way they were shooting the three, we didn’t want to open up the paint that much until we really necessarily had to. There came a point when a necessity came about and we had to double-team him.”
Walker finished with 40 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, the first time in Charlotte NBA history a player did all that in the same game. He is on a run of seven consecutive games of 20 or more points.
The days of the "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons beating up ballhandlers is over. And that makes players like Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker so dangerous.
And yet Walker hasn’t been selected for an All-Star Game and might not this season. That’s how spectacular the point guard position is in the Eastern Conference.
The Hornets play a big game Sunday in Cleveland against the defending-champion Cavaliers. They are 6-2, the Cavs 7-1. Cavaliers forward LeBron James is the best player in that game, but there will be a fascinating matchup at point guard between Walker and former Duke star Kyrie Irving.
This is the Golden Age of point guards in the Eastern Conference and the NBA in general.
I asked Hornets coach Steve Clifford about that before Friday’s game. He named off a half-dozen or so points and said he’s seen nothing quite like it, as far as that positon dominating the game.
The underpinnings of this? Obviously the talent, but also the way the game has evolved. Rule changes have made freed up dribble-drives, making a creative, nimble point guard potentially the biggest weapon on the court.
You can no longer hand-check a ball-handler. Former Charlotte Bobcats coach Larry Brown called that the second-biggest rule change in NBA history, behind only the 24-second shot clock.
Brown used to say if Michael Jordan played in an era when you couldn’t hand-check the ballhandler, he would have averaged 50 points. Perhaps so. While Jordan wasn’t a point guard, this shift in what is allowed on defense has certainly changed the game.
Basketball is now more like soccer, in that defense must now be played more with the feet than the hands. The days of the "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons beating up ballhandlers is over. And that makes players like Irving and Walker so dangerous.
The East’s elite guards
A look at the elite point guards in the East, and what makes each one special:
Kyrie Irving,. Cavaliers, 24.5 ppg, 4.3 assists per game: He emerged from the shadow of James last season to have a huge run in the playoffs. Casey says the thing Irving does best is finish strong at the rim, taking heavy contact without it disrupting his shot. That means an opposing defender taking a hard foul is more likely to result in a three-point play than an averted layup.
Kemba Walker, Hornets, 25.9 ppg, 5.6 apg: He might have been an All-Star last season if the Hornets had a winning record when the coaches picked seven reserves last February. Walker’s improved 3-point shooting (46.6 percent) means opponents can no longer afford to go under screens, leaving him open along the perimeter. Casey and Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder say Walker’s best attribute is the ability to stop suddenly from full speed, ditching defenders for wide open mid-range jump shots.
Kyle Lowry, Raptors, 17.5 ppg, 6.9 apg: He is more of a classic/conventional point guard, setting up teammates and keeping the Raptors organized. And yet he can score at a high clip when the situation justifies, as demonstrated by his eight fourth-quarter points in Friday’s close-out of the Hornets. He’s somewhat turnover-prone, averaging 3.4 giveaways per game.
Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics, 26.1 ppg, 6.9 apg: The trade from the Phoenix Suns to the Celtics turned Thomas loose, with coach Brad Stevens empowering him to create offense with a variety of creative pick-and-roll sets. Of these four, Thomas might benefit the most from the no-hand check rule. He’s small, but his change-of-direction is exceptional. So if you can’t bump him off his dribble, he’s exceptional at getting to the rim or drawing a double-team to find open spot-up shooters.