Through titles and dark moments, Chris Bosh changed the NBA

Through titles and dark moments, Chris Bosh changed the NBA

Chris Bosh wanted to pick Kevin Garnett’s brain. 

It was the 2010 All-Star Game in Bosh’s hometown of Dallas. The East All-Star locker room was quiet and the superstars were lacing up. Garnett, the 33-year-old All-Star starter and NBA champion with the Boston Celtics, wasn’t in the heat of battle, spitting obscenities at Bosh. For the moment, Garnett and Bosh were anointed allies in the pregame locker room, a most-sacred place in sport.

“At the time, I wasn’t a threat,” Bosh tells me during an hour-long conversation, “so we could talk.”

This was the time and place, Bosh thought. Older veterans had turned down Bosh’s inquiries before -- “I won’t tell you who” -- but in that Dallas locker room, Garnett seemed open to talk, not smack, but life.

So Bosh went for it.

How did you know it was time to leave Minnesota?

Bosh knew the question might make him seem small and vulnerable, like he didn’t have all the answers. This was his fifth All-Star Game and the loud, dreadlocked big man was averaging 24.4 points and 11.4 rebounds for the Toronto Raptors. Didn’t he have it all figured out? Truth is, he didn’t. His mind was a mess. Free agency was coming up and he didn’t know what to do. 

The Raptors had one winning season in Bosh’s seven years. Garnett had won a title in his first year with Boston only 20 months prior and two of Bosh’s peers from the 2003 draft class -- LeBron James and Dwyane Wade -- had already reached the NBA Finals. Bosh felt isolated in Toronto and hungry for more, something bigger. 

“Everytime I come here [to All-Star], I am always looking at two or three guys from the top team in the East, or the top two or three teams in the East,” Bosh recalls. “Around that time, there was always this buzz and excitement, like, ‘Are you guys going to win it? Who’s gonna win it?’ And me … it was just like … I’m just here.”

Didn’t KG feel that in Minny? 

Garnett did not blast him for asking. Instead, he offered some sage advice that, months later, would seal the deal for Bosh to go to Miami.

“You want to play with people who can take pressure off you, that way you don’t have to worry about other things,” Bosh remembers Garnett telling him. “You can just play basketball.”

Bosh didn’t decide to leave Toronto right then and there. But the conversation with Garnett gave him strength in knowing that other stars too had felt this weight, this stress, this anxiety. He wasn’t alone.

Ahead of his jersey retirement ceremony with the Miami Heat on Tuesday, March 26, Bosh is sitting in the garage of his Miami home, reminiscing and thinking about how Miami’s Big Three -- he, James and Wade -- helped launch the era of player empowerment, where stars switching teams in free agency is commonplace. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard have all engineered exits in recent years, making it known they’d like to take their talents -- and their careers -- elsewhere.

“It’s huge,” Bosh says of the trio’s pioneering role. “A lot of people don’t like it, that’s the funniest part.”

Don’t like what?

“An athlete with brains.”

When we talk about Bosh’s place in NBA history, this is where it should begin: Humanizing the star.

* * *

Everything changed after Bosh and James joined Wade in Miami.

NBA players controlling their own destiny in free agency was and is a worthy endeavor. But when they take matters into their own hands to pursue a championship, the scrutiny you’ll face will be magnified beyond anything you’ve experienced before.

As one third of one of the most famous trios in the history of professional sports, Bosh for the first time found himself in the fishbowl, surrounded by a storm of criticism and high expectations.

On ESPN, he was nicknamed “Bosh Spice” by Skip Bayless, a misogynistic barb that Bosh would later confront Bayless about on “First Take.” The Big Three were often called the Big Two-and-a-half. And when Bosh, in a

moment of candidness, said that Heat players wanted to “chill” on off days while coach Erik Spoelstra wanted to work, it became a national scandal. That particular controversy became the third installment in Bleacher Report’s running series headlined “Everybody Hates Chris.”

And all of that was before Bosh sobbed on national television.

It happened in the moments directly following Game 6 of the 2011 NBA Finals. As the Dallas Mavericks celebrated the franchise’s first NBA title on Miami’s homecourt, the Heat retreated to lick their wounds following a turbulent first season together. An exhausted Bosh was held up on the walk to the locker room by teammates Erick Dampier and Wade. Then, overcome by emotion, Bosh collapsed to the red carpet, sunken on his elbows and knees, and cried.

The intensely personal moment was broadcast to the millions watching. Bosh knew it would haunt him, but it was too late.

“I looked up and saw the camera right there,” Bosh remembers. “And I was like, awww, they’re going to kill me.”

Bosh changed again after that Finals defeat, after that moment of despair was shared around the world. The double standard for the pro athlete was laid bare to him. Sports are supposed to mean something to pro athletes, but not enough that it makes you weep. Do everything you can to win a championship, but only if it’s on management’s terms, not your own. Be authentic, but only if it fits neatly within the carved-out narrative.

“That’s one of the things I had to learn, was to just be myself,” Bosh says. “Just going through that process, just really seeing the different levels and different flavors of people’s reactions and their opinions. It gave me confidence just to say, ‘Alright, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I’m just going to be myself. And that’s great enough.’ It’s about what you do on the court and it’s not about pleasing everybody.”

It’s a hard lesson to learn. Even now, Bosh says he wishes he had just kept his emotions in check for just for a few more steps until he let it all out in the privacy of the locker room. Instead, his emotion became something of a punchline.

No matter how hard he tried to block out the noise on social media and on TV, Bosh admits, that in his darkest moments he would slink back and listen to it all. In Game 1 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Indiana Pacers, Bosh limped off the floor with an abductor muscle strain, sidelining him indefinitely in the middle of their redemption tour. The injury forced him to stay home when the team went on the road to Indiana. 

Bosh watched the series unravel just like the rest of the basketball world.

“We go in and we lose Game 3 in Indiana and I’m just watching,” Bosh says. “I’m supposed to be ready to play in two and a half weeks. I can’t walk. We go down 2-1 on the road. Oh, D-Wade was awful that game. We just had a stinker.”

During Game 3, cameras caught Wade and Spoelstra having to be separated on the sidelines during a heated exchange. Lance Stephenson infamously gave a choke sign to LeBron after the Heat star missed a technical free throw. The Heatles were crashing and Bosh felt helpless. In the throes of his funk, he flipped on ESPN and watched what they said about him and the Heat. It drove him deeper into despair, so much so that he just about wanted to quit. Until his wife, Adrienne, pulled him out of it.

“My mistake was listening to the TV,” Bosh says. “I was listening and it just got in here [pointing to his head] and I pretty much gave up. I pretty much gave up and my wife was like nuh-uh-uhh.”

In the regular season, he and his wife had watched DVDs of NBA Classics that told the story of champions overcoming adversity. Bosh told his wife to pay attention because there would be times of adversity. 

Don’t get too down, Adrienne. 

And of course, the tables turned in the playoffs. Adrienne delivered the pep talk, telling Chris, hey, the lows are part of the journey.
 
“I’m like, ‘Ah I did say that?’,” Bosh recalls telling her. “I guess I’m gonna have to pull myself together.”

Bosh and the Heat turned adversity into an opportunity. Rather than start two traditional bigs against Indiana’s formidable frontcourt of David West and Roy Hibbert, Spoelstra decided to go small and start Shane Battier at the power forward position. The switch was something Spoelstra had thought about doing in the series anyway, but Bosh’s injury forced his hand. With Battier and James alternating as the power forward, the Heat won the next three games to earn a spot in the East Finals.

The opponent? Garnett and the Boston Celtics. After three weeks of arduous rehab and emotional turmoil, Bosh returned to the lineup in Game 5, coming off the bench for just 14 minutes. The Heat lost, going down 3-2 in the series, as Garnett scored 26 points to Bosh’s nine. And it seemed like as good a time as any to give up.

Instead, with Bosh manning the center spot -- a position he never envisioned he’d play on a winning team -- the Heat went on to win six of the next seven games en route to a 2012 Finals win over Oklahoma City. After losing that Game 5 against Boston, Bosh averaged 14.1 points and 8.7 rebounds with a plus-48 in the plus-minus column.

Bosh’s presence changed everything. In Game 7 of the conference finals against Garnett, Bosh made 3-of-4 3-pointers, totaling 19 points and eight rebounds. In the Finals, Bosh sliding over to the five next to Shane Battier and James was a game-changer. Bosh discovered his 3-point shot and a new position. The NBA would never be the same.

* * * 

Bosh’s career went on to reach towering heights. The Heat defended their 2012 championship by winning 27 straight games during the 2012-13 regular season and later took down the San Antonio Spurs in one of the most memorable Finals in NBA history. Bosh was at the center of it all, grabbing perhaps the biggest rebound in franchise history and blocking the Spurs’ final attempt. No one was calling him Bosh Spice anymore.

But a rocky three-peat quest in 2013-14 ended all those good vibes. James left in the summer of 2014 after the Spurs took their revenge. Bosh re-upped with a five-year, $118 million max contract but hit the dark place once again. In 2015, doctors found a blood clot in Bosh’s lungs that ended his season at the All-Star break. A year later, blood clots returned, this time in his calf, ending his season prematurely once again. A year ago, Bosh was still trying desperately to return to an NBA that now appeared tailor-made in his image.

But after hearing so many no’s from doctors and spending days without teams returning phone calls, Bosh decided to hang it up for good in recent months. On his terms.

“You know, you have to deal with that stuff,” Bosh says. “Just a bunch of thoughts, a bunch of dark stuff, just comes in and pops in and then ‘Yo, where’s this coming from?’ You deal with it.”

It’s tough for Bosh not to think about what might have been. As pace-and-space (a term coined by Spoelstra) and the 3-point shot gained in popularity, and importance, more and more big men have followed the blueprint Bosh helped pioneer in Miami. By the end of his time in Miami, Bosh was averaging 4.2 3-point attempts per game, seventh most among big men. Now, 18 big men shoot that many in 2018-19, underscored by Bucks center Brook Lopez attempting more than six 3-pointers a night for the East’s best team.

“That was one of the things I used to really have trouble with last year watching the game,” Bosh says. “I had to bounce back from that. I was in a really dark place, trying to rebound from that, to be honest with you.”

It’s understandable. If Bosh’s blood clots hadn’t forced him out of the league, he could’ve entered this summer as a free agent, alongside the likes of Durant, Irving, Leonard and Butler -- the same players he unknowingly helped all those years ago. It’s a fact that has haunted him to this day.

It still hurts, but Bosh isn’t afraid to talk about that now. This is about being himself.

“I’m happy for the guys,” Bosh says. “I’m happy to look back and even if people don’t know, to say, hey, you know what, I had a little bit to do with changing the league.”

Bosh changed the game off the court, too. I ask him, does Durant leave OKC if Bosh and the Big Three don’t choose to team up in 2010?

“No,” Bosh says now. “That put pressure on him.” 

Earlier in March, Durant told NBC Sports Bay Area’s Kerith Burke that basketball “will never fulfill me.” It’s a sentiment that Bosh agrees with. Bosh thought he’d be fulfilled when he became an All-Star. That wasn’t enough. A championship? Not enough. Two championships? Still not fulfilled. 

“There’s more [to life],” Bosh says. “If you’re fulfilled, then pretty much just give up on life and die after that, right? If you’re fulfilled? That’s a great statement that he made. I think it’s telling people as well, this is just my interpretation, but it’s like, ‘Yo, chill’ because everybody puts the onus on that championship. It’s not going to fulfill you. And that’s one of the big secrets about it.”

For Bosh, dark places came after titles, too. You strive to get that high again, like another hit of a drug. But basketball can be cruel. 

“People on the outside looking in might say if you win a championship, it’s all good; it’s not,” Bosh says. “You still have a long life to live. When you win a championship, it just means a bigger X on your back.”

* * * 

Bosh heard commissioner Adam Silver’s comments to The Ringer’s Bill Simmons at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. 

“We are living in a time of anxiety,” Silver said. “I think it’s a direct result of social media. A lot of players are unhappy.”

Bosh last played in 2016, but he’s stunned by how rare it is that young players consult him about navigating the fishbowl. Social media has connected just about every star, but they’re feeling as disconnected as ever.

“Nobody reaches out,” Bosh says. “Guys don’t want knowledge. Nobody has come to me, and said, ‘Hey, man how’d you do that thing?’ It’s cool. I’m not putting pressure on anybody. But me coming up as a player, one of the most important things was to seek knowledge, even if people turn you away. I got turned away, believe it or not.”

That curiosity and thirst for knowledge drove Bosh to seek Garnett’s counsel at the 2010 All-Star game and setting the wheels of multiple championships and a jersey retirement in motion.

“And I do get it, we do live in an age of anxiety,” Bosh says. “But that’s because everybody cares about what everybody thinks. I do not care. As long as it’s positive, I’m not going to be a jerk, but if you don’t have anything good to say, I’m really not going to listen to it.”

Bosh is the first to admit that blocking out the noise and criticism isn’t easy. He used to scroll Twitter and Instagram to seek validation, to hear people talking about him, to make him feel relevant, to make him feel alive. But he doesn’t go there anymore. In down times, he talks to his wife and family instead, his foundation. Social media and 24-7 media became a toxic place, a landmine for which Bosh learned to avoid.
     
“It took a while to get there,” Bosh says. “It’s exciting at first, but then after a while … it’s like what the Lakers are experiencing this year. I’m sure last year they were lovable because nobody really expected things from them. But then you get the expectations and it changes. These same talk shows you’re getting killed all of a sudden. Now you’re getting hate tweets. People on Instagram are leaving nasty comments.”

“But you can’t worry about that. It’s hard not to, but what’s your alternative? The fact that the commissioner was even talking about happiness was crazy. Adam [Silver], just the fact that he even felt compelled to say something about that, which is true. You see guys competing for championships and they’re not happy. It’s not a happy time to be honest with you. A huge part of it is knowing, first, sucking it up, and then knowing that a championship is not going to complete me as a person as an athlete or as a public figure.”

Now, ahead of his jersey retirement, Bosh is at peace with his career. Bosh is eligible to be in the Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2021 along with Garnett, Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant, making it likely the best class ever. According to a Basketball-Reference.com algorithm, Bosh’s Hall of Fame probability stands at 99.5 percent. Without his locker room talk that led to career autonomy and two championships, who knows whether Bosh would’ve reached these heights.

And when the Heat raise his jersey into the rafters on Tuesday, Bosh insists there will be no thought of dark places.

“All highs.”

Watch Haberstroh's full sitdown with Bosh here.

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How Dame Lillard and the rest of the NBA left Russell Westbrook behind

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NBC Sports

How Dame Lillard and the rest of the NBA left Russell Westbrook behind

After every summer workout, Damian Lillard knows what time it is. Exhausted. Legs burning. Soaked in sweat. It’s time for one final drill: An array of 3-point shots so deep that he’s stepping on the halfcourt logo. A source close to Lillard says the Portland star purposely finishes each of his offseason workouts practicing this exact shot when he’s most fatigued. One day, when there’s nothing left in the tank, he’d have it ready.

That day came Tuesday night. Lillard, in his 45th minute on the floor, eliminated the Oklahoma City Thunder with a historic 37-footer over an outstretched Paul George at the buzzer, making him a perfect 5-for-5 in the series on shots at least 30 feet away from the basket. Once upon a time, these shots would get players benched. George himself said after the game, “It was a bad shot.” Not for Lillard. As we’ve chronicled all season in this space, Lillard is comfortable from way out there, making 39 percent of these 30-foot moon shots on the season. It’s gotten to the point where they’re selling “Logo Lillard” tees.

The Thunder tried everything to not let Lillard shoot -- double-teams, traps, a 6-foot-8 Defensive Player of the Year candidate -- but it didn’t work. Lillard was pulling up from just about everywhere inside halfcourt and rendering the Thunder’s defense obsolete. How do you defend that? 

We used to talk this way about Russell Westbrook. But the NBA has evolved so quickly, it left Westbrook behind. For the third straight season, Westbrook shot his way out of the first round of the playoffs, inefficiently and excessively. The Blazers knew Westbrook’s lack of range would eventually get the best of him. Coaches pleaded “Let Russ Shoot,” and Westbrook capitulated. 

The NBA still doesn’t know what to do with guys like Lillard, but they know what to do with Westbrook. More than ever, the NBA is being separated by guys who can shoot and guys who can’t.

Westbrook is a rebel to his core. His Nike catchphrase is “Why not?,” after all. The Mountain Dew pitchman openly says he doesn’t care what people think. He plays like the turbo button is stuck in the on position, and once played with a broken face that left him with a crater in his cheek that could fit a golf ball.

But that rebellious attitude is getting the worst of him. For the third straight postseason, Westbrook’s shooting percentages were in the thirties. Worse, he hasn’t won a road playoff game since Kevin Durant left in 2016. The Blazers were giving him so much space on the perimeter, you could park a car between him and his defender. The Thunder trapped Lillard with multiple defenders on the perimeter, but the Blazers effectively trapped Westbrook with zero defenders. The strategy worked. In this series, Westbrook shot 27.6 percent on mid-range jumpers and 32.4 percent on 3-pointers. 

Normally, Westbrook could counter the Rajon Rondo treatment with sheer athleticism. But it’s fair to question if he has the same bounce he once did. In September, he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee and struggled to regain his rhythm after missing the preseason. It’s the same knee that required three surgeries in a nine-month span earlier in his career. He still averaged a triple-double in 2018-19, but his true-shooting percentage of 50.1 percent marked his lowest figure since 2009-10 and it’s declined in each of the last three seasons. 

League executives and coaches have long wondered how Westbrook, who turns 31 years old in November, and his wrecking-ball game would age without a reliable jumper in today’s NBA. As this series against Portland so clearly underlined, it doesn’t look promising. 

In this series, Westbrook struggled to get to the rack and finish at a high level. He missed over half his layups, making just 48.8 percent of his shots at the rim (league average is about 60 percent). Westbrook finished with zero dunks in the series and his transition efficiency ranked dead-last among players with at least 20 transition plays, per NBA.com tracking. Normally, we could chalk that up to small sample size, but Westbrook ranked last in transition efficiency in the regular season among the 27 players with at least 250 transition plays. This is more than a blip.

Westbrook used to compensate for his low-percentage shots with elite foul-drawing ability, barreling into defenders and routinely drawing a whistle. In the 2017-18 playoffs, Westbrook averaged 14.0 free-throws per game. Last year, that rate fell to 6.7 trips, down to just 5.2 this postseason. 

With analytics emphasized more than ever, points are becoming harder to come by for Westbrook. He’s dunking less, getting to the foul line less and missing more layups than he makes. These are all the markings of a player either in decline or in the wrong era, perhaps both. George’s arrival was supposed to weed out Westbrook’s most inefficient shots and make him more effective. But the opposite has happened: George’s efficient shot has only made Westbrook’s weaknesses more glaring.

* * *

Lillard is not equipped with Westbrook’s turbo-boosters. Listed at 6-foot-3 and less than 200 pounds, Lillard is one of the smaller players in the NBA. Often times in this series, Westbrook gave Lillard the “rock the baby” gesture aimed to belittle Lillard.

"Yeah, you got little kids, you got little babies, put 'em to sleep," Westbrook told ESPN in October. "That's what happens. Little guards, you gotta rock 'em."

Lillard doesn’t overwhelm with his size. In fact, he was equally inefficient at the rim as Westbrook, shooting 47.4 percent on his 38 attempts in the restricted area. But Lillard has a counter. 

The difference is that Lillard has put in long hours behind closed doors and developed a knockdown jumper in case he can’t get to the rim as easily as he used to. In this series, Lillard made 48.1 percent of his 3-pointers and was a mind-numbing 10-of-15 from 28 feet and beyond. It’s something you can’t readily defend, as George found out the hard way. 

Lillard was facing a nearly impossible task there in the closing seconds: Find a good shot against George. These moments are extremely difficult to begin with. Potential go-ahead shots in the final 10 seconds in the last five postseasons have gone in only 26 percent of the time (17-of-64), according to data from Basketball Reference. That was the baseline from which Lillard was working. Out of nowhere, he created a shot he has made nearly 40 percent this season.

That range has made Lillard a lethal player all season. ESPN’s real plus-minus metric, which estimates player on-court impact, tells us that Lillard generated the fifth-most wins in the NBA this season. The Blazers boasted the third most-efficient offense while the Thunder ranked 16th. It’s much easier to build a healthy offense around guys like Lillard. 

Lillard’s long-range jumper serves like David’s slingshot in a game of goliaths. With diminutive ball-handlers like Lillard, Trae Young and Stephen Curry bombing away from deep, it’s easy to see how this might be the future of the NBA. This season, a record-breaking total of 1,008 shots were taken from 30 to 40 feet, up from 860 from last season and nearly double the total of 525 from 2016-17, per Basketball Reference. Now, even Brook Lopez shoots them from way out there.

If they didn’t watch it live, millions of young fans around the world woke up this morning and saw what Lillard did. The breathtaking shot, the stoic wave, the meme-ripe stare into the camera. That’s a transcendent play that has the power to influence a generation. While Westbrook fades yet again, Lillard is embodying what’s next.

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Key to unlocking Ben Simmons? Follow the Giannis model

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NBC Sports

Key to unlocking Ben Simmons? Follow the Giannis model

Ben Simmons looked like a future MVP in Game 2 against the Brooklyn Nets. A blur in transition. A wall on defense. A magician in space. Heck, he looked like Giannis Antetokounmpo out there. Simmons whirled his way to 18 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds in just 30 minutes of action. So why can’t he do that all the time?

It’s a question we have all thought when watching the 22-year-old. The key to unlocking that Simmons isn’t necessarily about him or his mindset. More likely, it’s about who’s around him. The Game 2 supernova is what you get when you surround Simmons with guys who can shoot. 

It’s the Giannis model.

With Tobias Harris and J.J. Redick struggling in Game 1, coach Brett Brown could have moved away from floor-spacers and given T.J. McConnell more minutes to help set up teammates. Instead, Brown doubled down on shooting and dropped McConnell from the rotation, handing Jimmy Butler the backup point guard duties. The result: the Sixers set a franchise record for scoring in a playoff game (145) and tied the NBA record for scoring in any quarter (51 in the third, tying the 1962 Lakers). With spacing prioritized, Simmons thrived.

That gamble is more or less what the Milwaukee Bucks have done this season with Antetokounmpo, who might win MVP without having a reliable 3-point shot, and their stretch five, Brook Lopez. The Bucks have proved you can win the regular season playing that way, with their older, longer version of Simmons. But the larger question lingers: 

Can you build a champion in today’s NBA with a non-shooting superstar?  It’s a riddle the Oklahoma City Thunder are still trying to solve with Russell Westbrook and it will follow both Simmons and Antetokounmpo throughout this year’s playoffs.

* * *

Elon Musk may be the only person with a larger obsession with space than Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. About a month ago, the frontrunner for Coach of the Year award joined The Habershow podcast (subscribe!) and humored me with my half-sarcastic question. 

Is your offense simply to give Giannis the ball and get out of the way?

“I do believe there is something to be said for simplicity,” Budenholzer said with a laugh. “Sometimes, things that are the simplest tend to be the best. I know it’s a little bit of humor, but there is certainly a kernel of truth in that. We wanted to give him as much space [as possible] and get out of the way.”

Budenholzer happily lets his 7-foot center, Lopez, stand 35 feet away from the hoop and launch it. Same goes for forwards Nikola Mirotic and Ersan Ilyasova (a former teammate of Simmons). The Bucks literally took a thousand more 3-pointers than last season -- or 1,110 to be exact. They also won more games than any other team during the regular season.

On Monday, Brown took a page out of Budenholzer’s book and evened the series at one by putting a premium on space. Brown dropping McConnell from the rotation is telling. McConnell is many things; the most tenured Sixer, a talented tablesetter, the team’s “heart and soul” according to Jimmy Butler. But he is not a 3-point shooter.

Because of that weakness, defenses could sag off both McConnell and Simmons in the halfcourt, loading up on precious real estate in the paint. This season, Simmons’ field-goal percentage dropped from 57.8 percent to 50.5 percent with McConnell saddled up next to him, per NBA.com data and the Sixers were minus-72 with the duo playing together. Conversely, when Simmons was on the floor without McConnell, the Sixers outscored opponents by 188 points. There’s a reason Simmons’ most-efficient lineups are when he’s paired with an effective 3-point shooter. Spoiler alert: Markelle Fultz and Simmons did not work.

Neither did the Lakers. 

Prioritizing space is a lesson former Lakers president Magic Johnson didn’t seem to take into account when building around LeBron James. In fact, Johnson went the other way, loading up on non-shooting playmakers -- on purpose. During a July conference call with reporters, Johnson said added ball-handlers like Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson so that James “doesn’t have to make every play.” He later went on an ESPN broadcast during Summer League and explained that he and his staff did their homework and “we saw all the teams in the playoffs that had shooting, they got beat.”

As I detailed on the BIG Number recently, Rondo turned out to be LeBron’s kryptonite. Like McConnell and Simmons in Philly, the healthiest offenses in LakerLand were units that didn’t feature James alongside a ball-dominant non-shooter. Though Rondo had taken more 3s this season, his defender rarely got a hand up, if he guarded Rondo at all. That crippled the LeBron-led Lakers as much as the injury bug. One wonders what the Lakers would look like if they kept Lopez instead of signing Rondo for nearly three times his salary.

Take a look at what’s happening with Oklahoma City, which is 0-8 in road playoff games since Kevin Durant left in 2016. Like James, Simmons and Antetokounmpo, a Westbrook-led offense needs sharpshooters to unclog the paint in a slowed-down playoff setting. Unfortunately for the Thunder, those players are in short supply. Alex Abrines, a solid wing shooter the last three seasons, was waived in February with undisclosed personal issues and Patrick Patterson has had trouble cracking the rotation, often leaving Paul George as their only respected 3-point shooter. 

While Milwaukee exclusively plays 3-point shooters -- Lopez, Mirotic and Ilyasova -- at the center position next to Antetokounmpo, the Thunder have chosen the polar opposite approach with Westbrook. Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel are two paint-dwellers who haven’t even attempted a shot outside 20 feet this season.

Respect is key. By the percentages, OKC’s stretch-four, Jerami Grant, has developed into a pretty strong 3-point shooter with a conversion rate of 39.2 percent this season, but defenses still don’t respect him. According to NBA.com data, a whopping 89 percent of Grant’s 3-pointers this season were termed “wide-open,” which is right up there with Draymond Green’s league-leading 93 percent. In this series, the Blazers have been parking Grant’s defender near Westbrook, George and Adams, choosing to live with the results. Grant, with little gravitational pull to begin with, has missed all eight of his 3-point attempts. 

Without effective spacers, the Thunder are on the verge of their third straight first-round exit. Outside of George, the Thunder are shooting 4-of-39 from deep and Westbrook is shooting 6-of-27 in the halfcourt, with zero of his signature Earth-shaking dunks. It’s no wonder why Philadelphia targeted bigs who can shoot -- Tobias Harris, Mike Scott and Boban Marjanovic -- at the trade deadline.

* * *

Yes, I said Boban Marjanovic, the 7-foot-3 center who can practically dunk without jumping. 

One of the great revelations of the Philadelphia-Brooklyn series is Marjanovic’s jumper. The Nets are ignoring Marjanovic on the perimeter in this series to a comical degree, his defender often standing under the rim while the Serbian tower stands at the top of the key. Marjanovic has made six of his nine jumpers this series, each bucket sending the Wells Fargo Center into a gleeful frenzy. Marjanovic has sneaky range, making nine of his nineteen 19 long 2s this season and four of his 10 3-pointers in the regular season. Bobi can shoot. Respect may soon follow.

Marjanovic’s emergence reminds me of what Aron Baynes did during Boston’s surprising playoff run last season and what Lopez has done over the last couple years. We’re not used to seeing 7-footers launch from deep. Four seasons ago, 7-footers took 1,966 three-pointers, per Basketball Reference data. This season, 7-footers fired up more than twice that amount, taking 4,425 3-pointers as a whole, the most in NBA history. What’s more, those giants made 34.7 percent, a few ticks below Kevin Durant’s 35.3 percent mark. It’s not a gimmick anymore. It’s a weapon.

For Philly, the implications are clear: If Marjanovic can reliably knock down jumpers and pull his defender out of the paint, it’s one less big man that Simmons has to hurdle en route to the rim. 

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It’s obvious that Simmons would be much better with a reliable jumper. There’s still plenty of time. He’s only 22 years old but is already facing criticism as if he’s deep into his career. Magic Johnson didn’t win his first MVP until he was 27. When he started regularly taking 3-pointers in his age-29 season, he won his second MVP and then his third. It’s not hard to see Simmons following a similar path. 

It’s also why Joel Embiid’s 3-point stroke is so intriguing. Embiid is a career 31.5-percent 3-point shooter -- not sharp enough to demand a hard close-out every time he stands back there. He’s the most efficient post-up big man in the game, per Synergy tracking, but pulling his defender out to the 3-point line can have its advantages. In the impressive 130-125 win over the Bucks back in March, Embiid took 13 three-pointers, making four. In that game, all of Simmons’ basket attacks came in transition with either Embiid trailing or on the perimeter. Simmons’ lone jumper in that game came when Embiid was parked under the basket (he missed).

Embiid and Marjanovic may have the potential to be spacers for Simmons, joining the East’s superpowers who are already loading up on stretch 5s. The Raptors snatched up Marc Gasol, who has made over 300 3-pointers in his last three seasons. The Celtics have stretched Baynes to join Al Horford as as a shooting big. The Bucks have Lopez spacing for Antetokounmpo and that formation might seal Antetokounmpo’s MVP. It could also win them a title.

Simmons and Embiid aren’t a perfect fit in the halfcourt. Hardly any star pairings are. But we can see what Lopez has done for Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee and the distinct limitations of the Thunder’s approach around Westbrook. If Embiid or Marjanovic can pull their defender away from Simmons’ path a few more times a game, it may be the difference between a great team and a champion.

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