When it happened live on TV, it was confusing, like nothing happened at all. Isaiah Thomas had the ball, then Paul George had the ball, as if it were the most reasonable thing in the world.
I was writing notes in bed last night and I swore that Thomas had made a small mistake that George took advantage of. I remembered Isaiah putting his dribble out too far and George taking the ball. Watching again this morning, I saw that Thomas was just doing a routine, low risk in-and-out dribble to either to draw the defense away from Marcus Thorton who was running off a sort of lazily set screen by Aaron Gray. My memory was wrong, George wasn’t exploiting anything, he was dominating Thomas with a finesse movement.
At first, you can see that Thomas doesn’t know what happened either. He feels the pressure on the ball, but his legs keep moving forward like he’s still in control of the ball while he turns his head to see George with the ball.
Thomas is short, and I don’t know if that makes this more or less impressive. It’s less impressive because Thomas’s size made it possible for George to reach damn near all the way around him to hawk the ball. But Thomas’s side and wingspan make his dribble so low that anyone getting a clean steal on his live dribble would have to play it completely perfectly, which George did.
The shorter an NBA player is, the more extraordinary his extraordinary quality has to be for him to succeed. Nate Robinson is an insane supernatural freak athlete who probably could have been an irritating presence any sport. Iverson distinguished himself by taking on insane minutes and working like a lunatic in nearly all of those minutes. Thomas isn’t an athlete like those two, but his his jump shot and his handle are fucking immaculate and his mental approach is ironclad. Him getting picked clean at the end of a game isn’t a rational happening. If that had been a foul he would have known it and complained about it. Earlier in the game an uncalled foul irritated him so much that he reacted by dominating George Hill and forcing the Pacers to switch George onto him. But he knows he’s been got this time.
We associate dominance in basketball with extraordinary force. Griffin dunks on Perkins. Mutumbo blocks any number of shots and waves his finger. Shaq backs down some sorry-ass-small-by-Shaq-standards guy and crams on him. Tony Allen skates around the court like a madman, using his strength and pure will to shutdown his unfortunate cover. But skill can be dominant too. Think about Hakeem ruining Robinson’s life with pivoting action or Carmelo’s bevy of rehearsed turnaround mid-rangers from last night’s Knicks game or Paul George’s every so slight leg and arm movement to create a turnover where none presents itself.
It was absolutely perfect that is happened on the road, too. Imagine the same scenario in the Fieldhouse: George gets the pick on Thomas and THE CROWD YELLS AND HOOTS AND CHEERS! It would’ve ruined the purity of the moment, a big fat highlight for the home crowd instead a confusing play that just happens out of no where and is greeted by a few groans but mostly indifference. Even the Kings announcer said “And the Kings turn it over” with a “Well, this again” sigh. A subtly irritated response for a subtly dominant play.