(NEW YORK – May 7, 2013) – Pittsburgh Penguins’ star Sidney Crosby continues to amaze by coming back from injury better than when he left, writes Michael Rosenberg in this week’s Sports Illustrated. Since returning from a 13 game absence with a broken jaw, Crosby, who makes his fifth appearance on the SI cover, has scored two goals and assisted on three more, including the game-winner in Sunday’s come-from-behind overtime win over the Islanders.
Despite missing 25% of the lockout shortened season, Crosby still finished third in the NHL with 56 points. Rosenberg finds that Crosby, still just 25 years old, uses his time off from injury to study the strengths and weaknesses of himself, his teammates and the rest of the league. “If this is how you succeed at work, we should all call in sick,” says Rosenberg (Page 38).
After missing 11 months with a concussion in 2011 and another nine months in 2012 due to the NHL lockout, Rosenberg writes that Crosby returned each time with an increased level of passion and improved stats (his points per game average has risen after each break). “I’ve always loved hockey, but I realized how much I really do love it,” says Crosby about his time away from the game. (Page 40)
Crosby’s work ethic while off the ice has turned him into the best all-around player in the NHL, according to Rosenberg. His teammates agree. “How complete he is, that is what separates him,” says teammate Matt Niskanen. “That and his drive. Lots of guys work hard, but he works harder. Lots of guys can skate fast, and lots of guys can stickhandle really well. He can do both at the same time and at a very high level.” (PAGE 38)
However, to many hockey fans—especially American ones, Crosby is unworthy of his seat atop the NHL best player throne once occupied by Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Crosby hears the boos and worse in every road arena. Rosenberg concludes that “Crosby is playing at such a high level now that his game should have the same effect on critics that LeBron James’s peaking game did the last two years, forcing them to applaud against their will.” (PAGE 42)
Give Steph Curry An Inch and He Might Take Golden State A Mile
This week’s SI also features a look by senior writer Chris Ballard at the top complementary shooters in this year’s NBA playoffs who give elite scorers room to operate and one star—Stephen Curry—who doesn’t need anyone’s help to find room to get off a shot. The regional cover is Curry’s first appearance on an SI cover.
During the Warriors six-game first-round victory over the Nuggets, Ballard says that Curry “appeared to be engaged in one very long, extremely thorough heat check.” (Page 52)
Ballard writes that Curry is a different breed who not only creates his own space, “but he also thrives in the absence of it.”
Along with some nudging from his sharp shooting father Dell and coach Mark Jackson, Curry has adapted to defenders playing him tight by shooting more quickly and from more difficult angels. This approach has led to Curry scoring 59.1% of his buckets unassisted this season. For comparison’s sake, Kevin Durant, another space creating shooter, was assisted on over half of his shots.
“It’s ridiculous the types of shots he makes in games,” says Jarrett Jack, the Warriors’ sixth man. “And each he hits one, it only helps the rest of us.” (Page 53)
Ballard also profiles the floor spacers who open up the lane for their team’s primary scorers and simply wait for their moment to come. Ballard says “The NBA has been a shooter’s league for a while now, but never as much as it is today: a record 39.9 threes were launched per game this season.” (PAGE 50)
Miami Heat forward Mike Miller played the role of a floor spacer in last year’s clinching game 5 of the NBA finals. Says Ballard, “His job: Stretch the Thunder’s defense so it couldn’t collapse on James and Wade as they attacked the basket.” Miller made 7 of 8 threes, and the heat won the championship.
Ballard highlights other floor spacers in the playoffs, such as New York forward Steve Novak, San Antonio guard Danny Green and Thunder guard Derek Fisher. Heat coach Eric Spolestra even runs a primary offense in which the entire team sets up on the perimeter to create space for James and Wade to drive. Sharp shooters like Ray Allen and Shane Battier have even left Miller and other three point specialists James Jones and Rashard Lewis primarily on the bench thus far in the playoffs.
“They haven’t had to use Miller and Jones and Lewis yet,” says an NBA scout. “But I guarantee you, through 16 wins those guys will come in and make a difference. Even if it’s one for one series, or one game. That’s why they’re there.” (PAGE 53)