Before the season began, how many of you thought that Aaron Gray's status for a playoff game would be a noteworthy ESPN headline that you wouldn't have to go sifting through their website to find? Sure enough, it currently sits in plain sight on ESPN's NBA homepage, which in itself is a huge testament to the game that Gray played on Sunday afternoon against the Lakers. Though his season high of 12 points certainly played a major part in calling his game a success, it was the little things that helped the Hornets to a game one victory in Los Angeles. If the Big Gray Monster (BGM) is able to do make a similar impact on future games while staying out of foul trouble, the Hornets will be able to counter the Lakers' size much more effectively than anyone could have predicted, and will therefore make this series a much more winnable one for New Orleans.
So, what were these "little things" that made Gray so much more effective on Sunday? One has to be his improved endurance, exemplified by consistently running the floor. Another is the discipline he utilized to stay out of foul trouble with Okafor glued to the bench for that very reason. Important as these may be, I have listed my three most essential keys to the Big Gray Monster's game 1 performance below.
1. Knack for establishing deep position inside. Rohan touched on this point in his game recap on Sunday night, and it is one that cannot possibly be understated. It would be easy to give all the credit for Gray's offensive production to the Hornets' point guards; Chris Paul brilliantly assisted four of BGM's five made shots, and Jack assisted the other. However, there was much more to his 12-point night than excellent point guard play. Aside from the absurd 16-foot baseline jumper he nailed, Gray may not have seen any of those passes come in from Paul or Jack without excellent positioning. Aaron was consistently able to plant himself deep within the paint, allowing him to basically just catch the ball and dunk it every time the ball came his way. The only way this is possible is through relentless effort and strength, so Gray deserves a ton of credit for creating those opportunities for himself so frequently.
2. Ability to finish looks. Countless times this season, we have seen Gray receive the ball near the rim and go up with it weakly, resulting in either a missed shot or a miss and a foul (followed by free throws that he often misses). Because of his poor free throw percentage, it is even more important for BGM to be able to finish around the rim. At long last, Gray came through in this regard, ironically doing so against one of the toughest teams in the paint in the entire league. Though frequently contested, BGM never backed down from the challenge; only once did a foul stop him from scoring, making each of his 5 official attempts which included two "and-ones" (both of which he converted). Excellent determination from Aaron throughout the game to make sure he made every shot count.
3. Strong post defense. The fact that Gray's game is praise-worthy despite only collecting one rebound (normally his best skill) is a tribute to just how well he played in almost every other area, especially defensively. This may sound strange, but it seemed to me like Gray finally started to use his size to his advantage on defense, not just his strength. One play in particular sticks out in my mind in this regard. Matched up one-on-one against Pau Gasol, the Lakers' all-star forward faced up against Gray from a little outside the low block. Gray played a little bit off of him, forcing Gasol to either A) back him down or B) take a jump shot/pass the ball. Gray effectively used his size and width to destroy any hopes of maneuvering around him, while still standing close enough to contest a shot with his 7 foot height and long arms. Gasol ended up deciding that Gray's strength was too much to handle, settling for a jumper that missed fairly badly. If the BGM can keep playing this kind of defense and show the ability and discipline to stand his ground, not only will he be more effective, but he'll also increase the likelihood that he stays out of foul trouble. Gray's defense on Sunday was almost as important as his offense, and the Hornets will need every bit of it in the coming games to keep the Lakers' big men off-balance.
Hopefully, this has been an appropriate shout-out to Aaron Gray, because after Sunday, the man certainly deserves it. Hornets fans everywhere are keeping their fingers crossed that the swelling in his ankle goes down enough to enable him to play on Wednesday night. No matter how many more games we see the Big Gray Monster play this season, he has already made a bigger impact on this series than any of us could have hoped, becoming a key contributor to a Hornets road playoff victory. Thanks for stepping up, Mr. Gray.