Even though I live ten minutes away from the Springfield, Massachusetts’ MassMutual Center, the home of the Springfield Armor, I’d only been to one game. That one game was opening night, and the quality of play I saw – at least from the Springfield side — was borderline 7th-grade CYO. I decided I would boycott the rest of Springfield’s games…
Until the Boston Celtics sent J.R. Giddens down to the Maine Red Claws just in time for their game in Springfield. Then, I rounded up a couple of my buddies, pleading them to come with me to the game. It took a lot of convincing and a fair amount of bribing, but I finally encouraged two of my friends to come along to the game.
We walked up to the box office to buy tickets to the game but, before we could, a group of three people came over to us. They had three extra tickets to the game, and wanted to give them to us. Springfield Armor basketball; where they literally GIVE YOU tickets to the game. So the tickets were free, and the seats were great. (Damn where our tickets said we were sitting; we copped a squat a few rows behind the home team’s bench. We’ll just say it wasn’t exactly a sell-out.)
The convincing had taken so long that we missed the entire first quarter; when we sat down Giddens had scored only 3 points but the Claws had a couple-point lead. My buddies were skeptical about the D-League experience and, after my one and only prior trip to a game, so was I.
But we didn’t know it would be a great time.
I don’t know if Giddens was asserting himself before we got there, but he was aggressive early and often as soon as we arrived. I didn’t know he had many off-the-dribble moves, and I had no idea he was a good passer. But there he was, shaking and baking, driving and dishing, as I thought to myself, This is the same guy who passed up wide open jumpers during his one chance to start an NBA game. It’s amazing what a little confidence can do. I know the D-League’s lesser competition has a lot to do with his more aggressive play; but so does Giddens’ confidence level. Knowing damn well that he was the most talented player on the court clearly liberated J.R., and he was opening up his game to include aspects I haven’t even seen flashes off over the past season and a half.
One one play, he did a crossover to one side, a behind-the-back dribble the other way, drove by his lost defender to draw the help defense, and threw a laser pass to a wide-open teammate in the corner. After his teammate canned the jumper, Giddens looked at the Springfield bench and pulled at his jersey a little bit, as if to say, “Guys, you can’t stop me.” You know, the “look at me, I’m an NBA talent” jersey pull.
The game was tied 51-51 at halftime, and Giddens still had only 3 points. (I think, don’t quote me on that.) But he was making plays using facets of his game I really didn’t know existed. He was being aggressive and making plays for all his teammates. He might not have been scoring, but he was doing a damn good job of making it easier for everybody else to score. If you looked at the box score, you wouldn’t have thought Giddens had much of an impact on the half. But I was there. And he did.
Meanwhile, my friends and I were having a great time. D-League basketball in and of itself isn’t terrific. The quality of play isn’t always great. It can get sloppy, and players aren’t all outstanding talents. Even the atmosphere can be bleak; with a crowd of only a few hundred people, it can get a little quiet.
But the experience is unique. The crowd is so silent that you can actually shout to the players on the floor… and they can hear you. My friend shouted to the tall, white, bald ref that he looked like Zydrunas Ilgauskas… and the ref looked our way and chuckled. My other buddy screamed to T.J. Cummings that he’d meet him at the Mardi Gras — our local strip club — and Cummings laughed hysterically and pointed at us. I told Dee Brown, the Armor’s coach, that I know he could see during his blind, dunk-contest winning dunk… and Dee was so focused on the game he couldn’t even give me a response. Rats.
But we weren’t there just to interact with the players. We were actually there to watch a basketball game. In the second half, Giddens stopped being a playmaker and became a scorer. An early jumper got him on track, and all of a sudden Giddens was utilizing a one-dribble pullup reminiscent of Paul Pierce. He’d dribble hard to his right, stop on a dime, and swish a jumper in an Armor player’s face.
The Giddens who couldn’t pull the trigger on a wide open jumper in Boston was now feeling it. He hit shots he had no business taking. In people’s faces. He could easily get his shot off, and it was going down. He finished with 23 points, shooting 9-14 from the floor and 4-5 from three-point range. The man was hot. And he contributed 6 assists to boot.
Alas, there are reasons he’s in the D-League. The Celtics don’t need J.R. to hit jumpers in people’s faces. If he even shot one, Doc might give him the yank. They need J.R. to utilize his athleticism to be a finisher, to hit open shots, and to defend. And J.R. didn’t show a great ability to move without the ball. Despite his elite athleticism, everything he got was on the perimeter, off the dribble. Pretty much the extent of his moving without the ball was to demand the rock at the three-point line. He hit plenty of shots, but they weren’t shots he’d be taking with Boston.
Right now, Giddens is a talented player lacking the polish to be a real NBA contributor. If he ever puts in the work to establish himself as a Bruce Bowen-type defender/shooter, he could make himself a nice role in this league. But he’s never going to be a star, and the next step in his development is to truly realize that and to hone in on doing the things he does best. On contributing in specific areas to help the team.
So use your athleticism better, J.R. Move without the basketball to get easy buckets, garbage buckets. Become a junk man. And keep working on that jumper. It looks like it could become a weapon.
You looked good, but I want to see you do it on a different level. I want to see you succeed with the Celtics, not the Red Claws. There are changes you’ll have to make to your game, but you can do it. I saw your potential; now you just have to put it together.
I went into the game with low expectations, but was very pleasantly surprised. The Red Claws lost, but I didn’t care about that one bit. I saw Giddens’ potential, and I saw a good game in a fun environment.
Life was good.