Will it be T.J. Ford, whose comeback from spinal surgery has made the Bucks a dangerous team that can run with anyone ....
Combine Allen Iverson's speed with Steve Nash's brain and you have T.J. Ford, a heart-stopper in more ways than one. Milwaukee Bucks opponents aren't merely terrified of the intrepid 5'10", 165-pound point guard, they are terrified for him every time he launches his wee self into the mosh pit of the lane. "Are you O.K.?" Heat point guard Jason Williams asked earlier this month after Miami center Alonzo Mourning had decked Ford with an elbow to his nose. If Williams's concern seemed unusual--whose face hasn't been altered by a Zo elbow?--it was only because he was aware of Ford's extensive history of not getting back up off the floor. Says Golden State Warriors guard Derek Fisher, "I've had two right-foot injuries, and each time I know how protective I've been of my injured area. So I would think that [with his injury history] T.J. would be a little skeptical about going to the basket or trying to finish plays around the rim. But he has no fear." ¬∂ How can that be? It has been only 21 months since paramedics wheeled Ford off the court on a stretcher after a seemingly harmless collision with Minnesota Timberwolves forward Mark Madsen left him momentarily paralyzed. For the fourth time since high school Ford had lost the feeling in his arms and legs, and as he prepared to undergo spinal surgery that May, the 21-year-old rookie wondered if he would play again. Now Ford is not only back on the court, but he has also gone from endangered to highly dangerous. In the season's first three weeks he won an Eastern Conference Player of the Week award, fueled two improbable fourth-quarter comebacks and gave the previously moribund Bucks a sizzle much like the one Steve Nash brought to the Phoenix Suns a year ago. After finishing 30-52 in 2004-05, Milwaukee was off to a 5-3 start at week's end--and all of their wins had come against teams with winning records--while averaging 99.4 points, the fifth-highest in the league. Ford was averaging 13.6 points and 9.3 assists, second to Nash's 11.2. "He's impossible to defend because he's so quick," Portland Trail Blazers general manager John Nash says. "He creates havoc."
Ford's speed can be as lethal a weapon as Shaq's size and Kobe Bryant's athleticism. Unlike Iverson, however, who mostly creates opportunities for himself, Ford's first instinct is to set up his teammates. And like Steve Nash, Ford benefits from having a wide array of offensive options. Big men Jamaal Magloire and Andrew Bogut are effective interior scorers, while Michael Redd and Bobby Simmons are deadly from the wing. Because it's virtually impossible for a single defender to guard Ford off the drive, sharpshooters--most notably Redd, who's averaging 25.4 points--are getting abundant open looks. On the fast break he is even more devastating, brilliantly exploiting Milwaukee's balanced lineup of athletes and long-range bombers; through Sunday, the Bucks were averaging 15.1 points on the fast break, up from 10.3 points last season.
Ford wasted no time this season showing that he had recovered fully. On opening night in Philadelphia he had a near triple double (16 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds) in the Bucks' 117-108 overtime victory. Trailing by three in the final seconds of regulation, Ford zipped past Iverson, then dribbled outside to bait the defense before finding Redd, who hit an open three to cap a six-point comeback in the final 1:07. "He's definitely a game-changer," says Heat coach Stan Van Gundy. "Two years ago, when we were very quick on the front line, we were able to contain most people on pick-and-rolls. He and Iverson were the only two guys we couldn't rein in, so it doesn't surprise me that people are having trouble reining him in now."
A three-inch scar runs along the back of Ford's neck. "I know what it feels like to almost play my last game," he says. "No one knows how long we're going to live. You live every day to the best of your ability and enjoy your life because once it's over, it's over."
Although Ford is back to full speed, questions about his health won't go away. He suffers from spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal that can put pressure on the nerve and spinal cord, and cause tingling and numbness in the arms and legs. Milwaukee general manager Larry Harris says the team was aware of Ford's condition when it drafted him No. 8 in 2003 and knew of three episodes in which Ford had suffered a loss of feelings in his extremities. The third of these incidents took place in April 2003, after Ford had led Texas to the Final Four. He was driving to the basket during a pickup game at the campus rec center when he tripped headfirst into the thigh of teammate Royal Ivey and fell to the ground. "I can't move!" Ford cried, lying flat on his back.
"He kept saying he couldn't feel his legs, his fingers, anything," says Ivey, now a backup guard for the Atlanta Hawks. "He was scared."
Ford regained the feeling he had lost within 20 minutes; within a month he was playing again. His recovery from the collision in February 2004 with the 6'9", 236-pound Madsen, in the 55th game of a promising rookie season, was far slower. That May, Ford underwent surgery to fuse two vertebrae in his neck, where the narrowing of his spinal column was the most severe. The operation stabilized that particularly vulnerable area, and Ford and the Bucks have been told by their medical advisers that he is at no greater risk of paralysis than any other player. "I told him, 'You got blessed,'" says former NBA point guard and coach John Lucas, a family friend who spent four months last summer in Houston training Ford. "Because of his injury, he got time to improve his basketball skills and see life from a different perspective--to see that he can live with or without basketball. He wound up light years ahead of where he would have been otherwise."
With guidance from Lucas, Ford learned to run more upright--"He was rounding his shoulders to protect his back," Lucas says--and to look before he leaps into the paint. "I used to jump into anybody; I didn't care how I did it," says Ford. "Now I know how to protect myself before I fall, and when I fall. I'm still going to jump into people, but I may not jump as high as I used to, and I always make sure I'm not off-balance." Lucas also made Ford shoot more than 50,000 jumpers and countless runners eight to 10 feet from the basket. "I call that the 'Steve Nash drill,'" Lucas says.
Ford's fearlessness this season has been most apparent at crunch time, when the Bucks have been uncharacteristically potent. Through Sunday, Milwaukee was 3-0 in games decided by five points or fewer, including a 90-87 win at Golden State on Nov. 16, which ended the Bucks' streak of 17 straight road losses against Western Conference teams. It was equally evident four nights earlier, when Milwaukee recovered from a 13-point deficit in the final 3:39 to beat the Pacers 103-102. After guard Mo Williams drained a game-winning three at the buzzer, Ford flung himself into the celebratory pile. "Everybody started jumping on T.J.," says Hornets guard Speedy Claxton, who was watching on TV. "I was thinking, Oh, my God, why are they doing that? But I guess he's forgotten about [his injury] now, which is great."
While Ford appreciates the concern for his health expressed around the league, he insists that he no longer worries about his future. "It isn't going to take me 15 years to realize that I'm blessed," he says. "I feel like I'm a lot older than I am."
The Ford Factor
Using eFG% (field goal percentage in which threes are weighted 50% more than other shots), points per 100 possessions and free throws per 48 minutes, Ford has had an enormously positive impact on the Bucks this season.
... or will it be Baron Davis, whose swagger has turned the perenially lottery-bound Warriors into a chic playoff pick?
It is mid-November, and strange things are afoot in the Bay Area. Gusting winds from the east have brought record highs--79° in San Francisco on this day--and people are stumbling around as though in a daze, amazed by their good fortune. Across the bay in Oakland, Warriors fans arriving for that night's game against the Milwaukee Bucks are in much the same state, dazed by another unlikely, but warmly received, phenomenon. Long one of the NBA's favorite pi√±atas, Golden State is off to its best start since 1994-95 and has won 19 of its last 28 games dating back to last season. ¬∂ The man most responsible for this revival stands at half-court, scowling, chomping on a wad of gum and shouting directions at a teammate. Stocky and thick-legged at 6'3" and 223 pounds, Baron Davis looks more like a fullback than a point guard, but once the game gets underway, there he is, hurtling up the left side of the court and drawing a halo of defenders before whirling under the basket and, under the arch of a defender's armpit, setting up Warriors center Adonal Foyle for an easy layup. At this, the full house of fans, among them 4,100 new season-ticket holders--the biggest jump in franchise history--stand and get as crazy as Northern Californians can get, for they know that any point guard who can make the stone-handed Foyle a scoring option is to be treasured. In his mezzanine-level suite, Warriors G.M. Chris Mullin, the man who traded for Davis, smiles. "The thing about Baron," Mullin says, nodding toward the court, "he makes a lot of [ordinary] guys look like good players."
Before Davis came to town last February in a lopsided deadline deal with the Hornets (for, uh, Speedy Claxton and Dale Davis), Golden State was a humdrum backing band in search of a dynamic lead singer, the News without its Huey Lewis. Davis pulled on his Warriors jersey and instantly sparked a remarkable transformation. The Warriors are not only winning (6-5 at week's end) but they are also getting some respect around the league. "[Davis] definitely changes this team," says Chicago Bulls center Tyson Chandler. "He gives them a different heart, a different attitude." Portland Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan agrees, saying, "He can take over and dominate a game." It may seem hyperbolic to give one player credit for a team's turnaround--but Bucks coach and former Golden State assistant Terry Stotts does just that. "It's hard not to attribute everything to Baron," Stotts says. "I equate it to what Jason Kidd did in New Jersey and what Steve Nash did in Phoenix. That type of player can raise a team immeasurably."
Davis has given the Warriors three things they lacked: someone who can create shots for teammates, a scorer who draws double teams and a leader with a big old helping of chutzpah. This last contribution was perhaps the most significant one. Remember, this is a franchise that has gone 11 seasons without making the postseason, the longest drought in the league. When Davis showed up and immediately announced, volubly and repeatedly, that this dry spell was over, his message was greeted skeptically in some quarters. But Davis, who was raised in L.A. and counts Denzel Washington and Diddy among his friends, has the charisma of a Hollywood icon, and his teammates believe they can do whatever he says they can do. "He has the kind of personality that enforces his will on the people around him," says Foyle. "He brings out the confidence in you."
These new Warriors display what assistant Keith Smart calls "a controlled cockiness," which begins with Davis. "We didn't have a guy like that," says forward Troy Murphy. "We're all quiet guys, but Baron took over right away." Davis constantly talks to teammates--before games, on the court during games and even in timeouts--cajoling, supporting and, if necessary, castigating. During the preseason, Davis asked to scrimmage with the white team, the reserves, to give them a boost. He's the one who made the rookies sing their fight songs at a preseason team dinner, who gets on Murphy about rebounding more and, in Murphy's words, "makes me accountable, which most guys don't have the nerve to do."
He is, at all times, the center of attention for the Warriors. Second-year coach Mike Montgomery--who had long since given up on the idea of a collegiate-style, motion offense--tailored an up-tempo offense to Davis's strengths when he arrived. This allows Davis, whom Smart classifies as "a probing guard," to attack with his dribble, either off a set play or in transition. Once defenders come toward him he can find the open man, whether it's a cutter or a spot-up shooter. Each Warrior benefits differently: Murphy gets open three-point looks from the top of the key because Davis drags Murphy's defender with him on the pick-and-roll; Mike Dunleavy receives weak-side kickouts; high-flying shooting guard Jason Richardson has someone to reliably feed him on the break, and even Foyle is rewarded with the occasional easy basket underneath.
Davis sums up his approach simply: "Give my teammates confidence and make sure they like playing with me." It's an ethos that he learned at age five, when a coach named Bobby Watson took him under his wing in South Central Los Angeles, and that he applied through two seasons at UCLA and five more with the Hornets. "I can tell by body language who wants a shot and who's going to make it and who's going to take a bad shot," says Davis. When Richardson is feeling it, for example, he has "a certain bounce, like a slow trot," while Murphy has "a look of hunger, almost anger" when he has it going. The 26-year-old Davis also displays an intuitive feel for the game, something Smart demonstrates by pulling up a series of video clips on his laptop one day after practice. "He manipulates our plays depending on what he sees," explains Smart, showing a half-court set in which Davis subtly waves off Foyle, who was coming out to set a high screen. "In this case the defense is telling you to wait, so he tells Adonal to go away. You can't teach that."
If Davis is so good for the Warriors' offense, why hasn't the Warriors' offense been all that good? After averaging 105.4 points on 44.3% shooting after Davis's arrival last season (compared with 95.2 points and 42.4% before the trade), Golden State was averaging 94.1 points and shooting 41.4% through Sunday's games. Part of this falls on the team's marksmen--Dunleavy has been mired in a lengthy slump, and while the Warriors attempt a lot of threes, they don't often make them (31.7%). Also, Montgomery wants the team to run, but Davis has been hampered by a left hamstring injury since the season opener. Still, at week's end he was third in the NBA with 8.8 assists per game and, despite having trouble finishing because of his hamstring, was averaging 16.1 points. "If he's hurt now," says Stotts, "I'd hate to see him when he's healthy."
With Davis limited, the Warriors have focused on their half-court attack this season while developing an effective defense anchored by Foyle, the quick-handed Davis (2.30 steals per game) and 6'6" sixth man Mickael Peitrus, who can be deployed, Bruce Bowen--style, to blanket opposing scorers. But with Davis's history of injuries--he's missed an average of 28 games over the last three seasons--his availability is always a concern.
Even if he isn't at full strength, Davis may be enough to get these young Warriors into the playoffs. One should never underestimate the power of confidence and teamwork, nor the impact of a strong beginning. Indian summers never last long, but their benefits can linger deep into winter.
The Davis Effect
Like Milwaukee with Ford, the Warriors are a much more prolific offensive team with Davis on the floor. Here is a breakdown of his impact on Golden State's scoring from the start of last season through last weekend.
Net Pts./100 Pos.
Net Pts./100 Pos.
Photographs by John W. McDonough
After missing 21 months with a career-threatening spinal injury, Ford has been a blur with the ball while racking up 9.6 assists per game.
Photographs by John W. McDonough
¬† RESURRECTION MAN
Davis says the Warriors locker room was dead when he arrived last February, but he has breathed life into the team, on the court and off.
Photographs by John W. McDonough