With the balance of power in the NBA Finals tilting on every move Thursday night, Jason Kidd made the type of winning play that has defined his career. But the play he made, the three-point shot that Jason sank, also epitomized how far his career has come.
When Jason entered the league out of the University of California, shooting wasn't his game. It was only after Jason became a veteran in the league, and noticed the tide turning, that he decided to make an effort to refine his stroke.
Jason's decision to refine his shot has been a boost for he and the Mavericks (Getty Images).
So, late in his six-and-a-half year stay in New Jersey, J-Kidd turned to Nets shooting coach Bob Thate for help. Jason's goal was to become a threat from beyond the arc, not necessarily so that he could score more, but instead so that defenses would have to guard him on the perimeter rather than anticipate a pass.
"If I wanted to continue to keep playing, I had to make shots from behind that line," he said. "And so we started working extremely hard on the three-point shot and just shooting in general. But when I was in Jersey, we sat down and talked about it."
Thate was already working with four Nets players, mostly big men, at the time and routinely told Jason that he wanted to help him become a better shooter. They began working together late in the 2005-2006 season and J-Kidd was so pleased with the early returns that he convinced Thate to stay on with the Nets, writes John Schuhmann of NBA.com:
Thate was ready to end his stint with the Nets after they were eliminated in the conference semifinals that year, but Kidd told Thate that he wanted to keep working with him. So Thate returned to New Jersey the following fall, and when [Nenad] Krstic blew out his knee in December of 2006, he convinced Kidd to work with him every day.
The restructuring of Kidd's shot began with extending his shooting arm. Thate uses the term "lock it up," borrowed from the movie Wedding Crashers, to remind Kidd that his elbow must be straight when he finishes his shot, and even had T.J. telling his father "Lock it up, Dad" when Thate wasn't around.
It wasn't in any way an easy process for either Jason or his coach, but J-Kidd remained determined to work.
"It took a long, long time, because the (bad habits) were so engrained in him," Thate told the Toronto Star. "He really, really got it in 2007."
The key was making sure that Jason would follow through and finish his shots. It was something that was foreign to him previously, mostly because he never needed to shoot.
"When I did shoot early in my career, it was more of a flick or a snatch where I didn't follow through," Jason said. "And when you see these guys like Dirk and Ray Allen, Mike Miller, these guys who shoot the ball (well), they all follow through. LeBron is shooting the ball extremely well. These guys all hold their hand up there (after the release). I didn't have that concept down early in my career."
In 2007-2008, a season in which he was traded mid-year to the Mavericks, Jason's three-point percentage ballooned to 38 percent. Prior to that season, he had not shot better than 36 percent from deep since his third year in the league and the 37 percent he shot that year was a career-high.
He finished the 2008 season shooting a torrid 46.1 percent from three-point land in 29 games with the Mavericks. In his first full season in Dallas, J-Kidd shot over 40 percent from three (40.6) for the first time in his career. Last season he shot 42.5 percent from beyond the arc, 11th in the NBA.
Thanks in large part to the adjustments, J-Kidd now ranks third in NBA history in regular season three-pointers made with 1,795. Jason credits Thate for helping him prolong his career, essentialy putting No. 2 into position to have another shot at a championship.
"I think he plays a big reason why I'm still playing," Jason told NBA.com.
This season, Jason's regular season three-point percentage dropped, so late in the year he went to teammate Dirk Nowitzki and asked for help. Nowitzki taught him what Jason refers to as "The Nowitzki V," a way to grip the ball as he shot.
"I worked on pointing my fingers [on the follow-through] and on getting the ball up,'' No. 2 said. "Dirk talked to me about that, and he seems to have done pretty well with it, so I just thought I would try it.''
In direct correlation to the adjustment, Jason dropped six three-pointers on the Trail Blazers in the first game of the playoffs. 20 games into the postseason, he has the most triples made by any player in these playoffs with 41. He's shooting 40 percent from three (10-of-25) in the Finals, including his most recent trey, the dagger that finished the Heat in Game 5 on Thursday night. After Game 5, Jason talked about the changes in his game.
"You're never too young or too old to always improve your game," he said. "For me at 38, I've always felt that I had to improve my shooting if I want to be on the floor and help my teammates out. As I've gotten older, it's just about timing, and not so much scoring 20 points or having 15 assists or 10 rebounds. It's just being at the right place at the right time, and feeling that your teammates believe in you."
THE REASON TO BELIEVE
There's a reason that Jason's teammates believe in him as they do. It's because he's come up big in these situations, under pressure circumstances, before.
In fact, as M. Haubs of ESPN TrueHoop blog The Painted Area notes, J-Kidd was one of the most clutch players in the entire league this season.
According to 82games.com, Kidd led the league in plus/minus in clutch situations (defined as "4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points") in 2010-11 with +119, and ranked fourth in 2009-10 with +87 (note that LeBron James ranked first).
One stat in particular which stands out has been Kidd's three-point shooting in the clutch, at 45% over the last two seasons, as compared to 38% overall.
Kidd has certainly been a key factor in the several stirring comebacks the Mavs have pulled off in the 2011 Playoffs, and a spin of theNBA.com StatsCube shows that the Mavs have outscored their opponents by a staggering +71.1 points per 100 possessions with Jason Kidd on the floor in clutch situations.
But Haubs maintains that Jason's clutch gene has to do with more than just his shooting. It's timely defense. It's reading coverages and making the correct pass. It's being a leader of men:
"Many of his clutch plays have been subtle and/or defensive ones (he's averaging 3.6 steals per minutes in playoff clutch situations), such as a deflection of a LeBron pass which ruined a Miami possession with the score 99-97 last night.
There was a strip of Udonis Haslem following a UD offensive rebound in the massive Game 2 comeback which led to a turnover and fast-break hoop to tie the game at 90-90. In Game 4 mega-comeback vs. Oklahoma City, there was a hustle steal after Russell Westbrook appeared to have him beat.
In what I consider one of the most important games of this whole run - Game 1 vs. the Lakers - Kidd harassed Kobe Bryant with aggressive defense, helping force two turnovers (and then knocking down the last two FTs) in the final minute, turning a 94-92 L.A. lead with 40 seconds left into a 97-94 Dallas win.
Kidd also forced Kobe into tough shots down the stretch of Game 3, helping turn defeat into victory there as well. As lopsided as that series seems in memory after the Game 4 blowout, it easily could have been a 2-2 series if not for superior clutch play by Dallas in Games 1 and 3."
As teammate Shawn Marion told The Sporting News, there are plenty of reasons to believe that Jason won't just be in the right place at the right time when the Mavs need him most, he'll put himself there.
"Absolutely. He is still getting it done out there, he still knows how to make the right plays. He might be almost 50 years old," Marion joked, "but we know he can get the job done."
The Mavericks enter Game 6 tonight needing to get the job done just one more time to secure the first NBA championship in franchise history.
But Jason won't let his mind wander onto what could be his first NBA championship, the culmination of a 17-year journey that has very much taken his career full circle, if the Mavs get it done on Sunday.
He knows there is still work to be done.
"I haven't thought about it. I'm just staying in the moment and understanding we have to find a way to win come Sunday," he said after Game 5. "Everything else will fall into place if we can find a way to win. When you come into this league, you feel that you can always win a championship.
"You just don't understand when you're young just the competition and the level that you have to play with and play as a team."
Jason thinks that winning on Sunday will start with the Dallas defense, which he thought allowed too many points early in Game 5. That, in-turn, forced the Mavs to rely on red-hot shooting that might not always be there.
"Well, I think we have to play better defense," he said. "They shot over 50%, and we got to limit them to one tough shot. So big thing for us is to make them take tough shots and rebound the ball and get out and run.
"We're trying to execute our game plan and see if we have the most points come Sunday. We're not looking to knock no one out. We're here to play team basketball and continue to do what we've been doing the last two games."
Jason said there's no reason to belabor the point, the Mavs know what a win on Sunday means, but they also know they'll end up with nothing if they don't execute:
"It's just another game. You can't put more on it than just playing basketball," he said. "We know we're going to have our hands full, one to win a championship, and two, to win on the road is even harder. We know they're going to come out with their best tomorrow night. And we have to be prepared for that."
Game 6 tips off at 7 p.m. CT on Sunday and can be seen nationwide on ABC.