Checking in on Pacers-Cavs before Game 5

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With the series past the halfway point and tied 2-2, it’s a good time to look at what’s happened and where it might lead heading into Wednesday’s pivotal Game 5.

  • 175-136. That’s the amount the Pacers have been outscored in the first half in Games 2, 3 and 4. In contrast, the Pacers have outscored the Cavaliers 153-119 in the second halves. Slow starts have hurt the Pacers in this series. While there has been a lot of talk about the Pacers “fight” or how they “never stop,” it glosses over the position the Pacers are in. With just an average start in Games 2 and 4 we are talking about a Pacers sweep and guessing where LeBron heads in free agency.

  • After a huge Game 1, Victor Oladipo hasn’t shot the ball well. Since Game 1, he has hit an abysmal 35.8 percent from the field, and that is propped up by his 9-of-18 performance in Game 2. Without that 50 percent game, it plummets to 28.5 percent. His three-point shooting is an even worse 25 percent (6-of-24) after his 6-of-9 performance in Game 1. It’s gotten so bad that in Game 4 the Cavaliers were barely guarding Oladipo from deep. He hit a respectable 37.5 percent (3-of-8) in that game, but the Cleveland will take that over Oladipo driving to the rim or kicking the ball to Bojan Bogdanovic.

  • Some of Oladipo’s struggles can be traced to the Cavaliers’ defense. They are aggressively doubling Oladipo whenever he touches the ball on the perimeter. Oladipo has struggled to find the open man or dribble and split the double team. His turnovers are up to 4.5 a game (up from 2.9 in the regular season).

  • Oladipo isn’t the only Pacer struggling with his shot; Darren Collison hasn’t had a great postseason. After leading the NBA in three-point percentage (on three attempts per game), Collison is 4-of-15 (26.7 percent) in the playoffs. Many of those have been open looks off kickouts, including several in the corner. In two close losses those missed opportunities are even more painful.

  • Bojan Bogdanovic has been fantastic so far in the series on both sides of the ball. Bogey has been given the job of guarding LeBron and so far, he has exceeded expectations. He has done a solid job keeping LeBron in front of him and his size and strength has kept him from being overmatched when James posts up. No one can shut down James, but Bogdanovic has done well enough that the Pacers can stay with Cavs’ shooters.

  • The Pacers have chosen to guard LeBron 1-on-1 on almost every possession. So far it has worked better than expected: James has shot under his season average of 54.2 percent in two games (both Pacers wins) and is shooting 28.6 percent from deep. Trusting Stephenson, Bogdanovic and Young to handle LeBron has let the rest of the team attach themselves to Cleveland’s shooters. Kevin Love, the team’s second leading scorer, is only averaging 12 points in this series, and only Love and Kyle Korver are shooting above league average from three.

  • While the Pacers’ are justifiably afraid of giving open jump shots to Cleveland’s shooters, they do need to send help sooner when LeBron gets a mismatch. On several positions LeBron has used the pick and roll to get matched up with either Myles Turner or Domantas Sabonis. Indiana’s resistance to send help has given LeBron the opportunity to isolate against the slower defender.

  • Myles Turner has stepped up on the offensive end. He is besting his regular season production in points, three-point shooting and field goal percentage. It’s good to see him consistently scoring and impacting the game after an inconsistent regular season.

  • It might be time to think about giving Lance Stephenson fewer minutes. Stephenson brings energy and aggression off the bench but it’s value has been questionable. He is still prone to wild drives, careless turnovers and dumb fouls. Lance has only had a positive plus/minus in one game so far this series and while his defense may annoy LeBron it hasn’t been extremely effective.

  • Thaddeus Young’s numbers aren’t jumping off the page, but his contributions are huge. He has been the primary defender on Kevin Love in addition to holding his own when switched onto LeBron. His 3.3 offensive rebounds per game usually turn into an easy put back and he continues to prowl passing lanes, forcing steals and deflecting passes. He has been a fantastic glue guy, filling in wherever the team needs him.
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Four key questions for the Indiana Pacers in the first round

It’s playoff time, and surprisingly the Indiana Pacers are still playing. Even the most diehard Pacers fan wouldn’t have predicted anything better than fighting for the eighth seed. Instead, the team snagged the fifth seed, and came within a few games home court advantage in the first round. Their reward for this surprising season: a first round series against LeBron James and the reigning conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers. While the Pacers dominated the season series 3-1, those games came before the Cavaliers revamped their team at the trade deadline. Along with “Playoff LeBron,” this series should be a lot different than the regular season. With that in mind, here are the four biggest questions going into round one.

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Who guards LeBron James?

The first step in beating the Cavaliers is defending LeBron. Everything they do on offense runs through LeBron, which is evident as he leads the team in scoring and assists. The simplest answer is Thaddeus Young. Young is second on the team in both defensive win shares and defensive box plus/minus according to Basketball-Reference. On top of that, at 6’8” and 221 pounds, he is the best equipped physically to handle the load.

Putting Young on LeBron creates problems elsewhere, specifically with Kevin Love. If Young guards LeBron, a center will have to guard Love. Love’s three-point shooting creates matchup problems for Indiana. Myles Turner will struggle to protect the rim if he’s chasing Love around the three-point line and Domantas Sabonis will have a hard time keeping up as the Cavaliers run Love through screens to get him open.

Unfortunately for the Pacers, none of their other wings are up to the task full time. Bojan Bogdanovic is a negative on defense and isn’t athletic enough to keep up with James. Glenn Robinson III has the physical tools to do the job but hasn’t proven himself consistently as an above average defender during his three years in the NBA. Victor Oladipo can handle the job for stretches but, between his offensive burden and the size he gives up, it isn’t something he can do for an entire game. Lance Stephenson may be the best option but his lack of three-point range and penchant for turnovers, wild shots and other mistakes make it hard to give him extended minutes.

Even with the challenge of matching up with LeBron, the Pacers had some positives to take away from their season series. According to Cleaning the Glass, the team was second in turnover percentage and fourth in defending the three-point line. This was evident against James as he averaged 6.75 turnovers and shot only 19 percent from deep against the Pacers, both worse than his season averages. You can’t shut down LeBron, but if the Pacers can make him work for his points, disrupt his ability to set up teammates and contest him from deep it may be enough to grab a win.

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Who gets the minutes at center?

This season was supposed to be Myles Turner’s coming out party. Instead, inconsistent play and nagging injuries have plagued him all year. Meanwhile, after an inconsistent rookie season, Sabonis has found his role. In fact, it isn’t a stretch to say that Sabonis has been better this season.

Per 36 Minutes

FG%

3PT%

FT%

REB

BLK

STL

AST

PTS

Turner

.479

.357

.777

8.2

2.3

0.7

1.7

16.2

Sabonis

.514

.351

.750

8.1

0.6

0.8

3.0

17.1

Outside of rim protection, Sabonis is either even with or ahead of Turner. Three-point shooting is the only other area where Turner may be clearly better, since he attempts two more per game than Sabonis. The lineup data backs this up. The starting lineup, featuring Collison, Oladipo, Bogdanovic, Young and Turner, is a solid plus 3.9 per 100 possessions. Swap Sabonis for Turner and that number jumps to plus 10.5, which is above even the league leading Houston Rockets.

This all begs the question: should Sabonis be starting over Turner? I’d pump the brakes on that thought for a moment. It’s true that the numbers make a strong case for Sabonis but there are some external factors to consider. The lineup featuring Turner has seen 1381 possessions, almost double the 741 seen by the starters plus Sabonis. Additionally, most of Turners possessions have been against opposing starters. Finally, Turner provides rim protection and league average three-point shooting, a rare combination for a center. The rim protection is especially important against LeBron James, one of the league’s best finishers at the rim. Turner’s athleticism and quickness also make him better equipped to chase Kevin Love around the three-point arc.

While I wouldn’t advocate benching Turner right away, coach Nate McMillan needs to carry a short leash. If Turner isn’t performing at a high level from game one, McMillan has to be prepared to turn to Sabonis early, possibly even inserting him into the starting lineup.

Can the Pacers survive when Oladipo rests?

The Pacers are a completely different team when Victor Oladipo hits the bench. With Oladipo on the court, Indiana sports a plus 6.7-point differential per 100 possessions. When he sits, that figure drops to a minus 7.8, a 14.5-point difference. Essentially, the Pacers are the fourth best team in the NBA when Oladipo plays and the second worst when he sits. It follows the narrative of the Pacers’ season, which has seen the team go down big early, often while Oladipo sits, only to eventually claw back as he remains in the game.

If the Pacers want to win this series they have to at least play Cleveland to a draw in the few minutes Oladipo rests each game. The problem is that the team doesn’t have many tested lineups that are positives without Oladipo. The other four starters without Oladipo are a ridiculously bad minus 13.7 over 185 possessions this season. In fact, out of the five lineups without Oladipo that have seen at least 90 possessions, only two of them are positive.

The one X-factor is midseason acquisition Trevor Booker. Although its’s only been over 224 possessions, lineups featuring Booker at power forward and Sabonis at center (without Oladipo) have a plus 2.1 differential. Those lineups aren’t ideal for today’s game, they take a ton of midrange jumpers and allow opponents to shoot a barrage of threes. However, on offense they are in the seventy-third percentile from midrange and the ninety-third on corner threes. They are also in the ninety-seventh percentile defending the deep ball. While their shot charts may not look pretty, they make the shots they take and force their opponents to miss. For the Pacers to avoid giving up leads while Oladipo sits, they may need to lean into these lineups more often.

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Which Victor Oladipo shows up?

Let me preface this by saying that Oladipo has been great this season. He (along with Sabonis) has completely flipped the script on the Paul George trade and is the main reason the Pacers are in this position. In addition to his first All-Star appearance, he is the runaway favorite for Most Improved Player and a likely All-NBA pick as well.

That being said, Oladipo has regressed a bit as the season went on. Since February, Oladipo has shot 45.8 percent from the field and a ghastly 32.8 percent from three. These are down from 48.8 percent and 39.1 percent from October through January. To put that into perspective, early in the season Oladipo had shooting splits comparable to Kyrie Irving, since then he has been more like Reggie Jackson. To make matters worse, Oladipo’s three-point percentage has gone down even though he is taking one fewer three-pointer per game (6.19 attempts over the first four months compared to 5.11 now).

A slight regression from deep was expected; he was a career 34.6 percent three-point shooter coming into this season. However, over the last few months, Oladipo fell below his career average, including an ugly 23.4 percent in February.

If Oladipo’s shot doesn’t come around, he can still impact the game with his playmaking. Oladipo sports a respectable 21.2 assist percentage and his passes generally create good shots. According to NBA.com, Myles Turner shoots 40.4 percent from deep off of an Oladipo pass. Darren Collison shoots 40.9 percent off an Oladipo assist and Bogdanovic shoots 37.4 percent. As a whole, the other four starters shoot 39.3 percent from three: higher than Golden State’s league leading 39.1 percent as a team. If Oladipo looks to pass he can find a good shot.

Ultimately, this series will likely come down to how well Oladipo plays. If he scores efficiently and plays his trademark defense the Pacers will have a shot. If he can’t get it going offensively, the Pacers are likely going home early.

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Five years later, we may finally get LeBron vs. Durant Round 2

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On June 12, 2012, the basketball world settled in for round one of what everyone assumed would be the start of a legendary duel. LeBron James led the Miami Heat against young Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder. The future looked certain. LeBron and Durant would spend the next decade sparring for titles as Oklahoma City and Miami sported the best basketball teams in the world. Five years later and we may finally get the Durant vs. LeBron rematch, however the circumstances are far from what we imagined.

LeBron James has never truly had a rival. There has never been one player that he consistently battled with, on the biggest stages, with championships on the line. He never had a Bird to his Magic or a Wilt to his Russell. LeBron himself has said on multiple occasions that he doesn’t have a rival.

“I don't think we have a rival in our game today,” said James in January when asked if the Warriors were his rival.

“I've thought about it. There is no real rivalries. It's the truth. No rivalries,” he said in 2013.

“I would say that I don't really have an individual rivalry,” he said in a different 2013 interview.

Paul George likely got closest. Even then, his Pacers were undone by infighting, injuries and the league’s seismic shift to small ball before that rivalry could spread its wings. George continues to battle and push LeBron in both the regular season and playoffs, but the massive stakes – like a trip to the NBA Finals – aren’t on the line. Does it count as a rivalry when one team barely made the playoffs?

Without another player to compare him against, the fans and media have had to create foes for him. His rivals became entire teams, such as the “Big Three” Celtics, the Spurs or the Warriors. If that didn’t work, such as when Miami lost to Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals, his rival became conceptual: LeBron vs. “the clutch.” We even made him rivals with his teammates; remember all the talk about whether the Heat were Lebron or Dwyane Wade’s team? Since another player didn’t step up to fill the void, we tried to force LeBron to have a rival.

Kevin Durant was supposed to be that rival. Rewind back to the spotlight of the 2012 NBA Finals and the media was more than happy to remind you of it.

The two stars could become today's Larry Bird and Magic Johnson,” reads an article in The Atlantic.

“Durant is going to come back in 2013 with one player and one goal in mind, and that's getting the better of LeBron and winning a ring next year,” says a Bleacher Report article just after the 2012 Finals ended.

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The stage was set for the Larry O’Brien Trophy to go through one of these guys for the foreseeable future. The Heat were coming off their second of what would become four straight NBA Finals appearances. On the other side, a young Thunder team defeated the defending champion Dallas Mavericks, the Los Angeles Lakers (winners of the title just two years prior) and the Tim Duncan-led Spurs. The script couldn’t have been written any better, with the young Thunder defeating the “old guard” of the Western Conference and announcing their arrival as an elite team. Sadly, while LeBron kept up his half of the bargain with six straight Finals appearances, the Thunder immediately began dismantling the team.

The first dominoes fell during the 2012 offseason. James Harden and Oklahoma City couldn’t come to terms on a contract extension. The Thunder’s rationale was simple: as a small market team, they couldn’t pay the luxury tax, a penalty for teams that spend more than the NBA’s soft salary cap. If Harden wouldn’t sign for a reasonable number, then trading him avoids losing a player of his caliber for nothing. In hindsight, the Thunder likely could have avoided most, if not all, of the luxury tax payments had they kept Harden. Instead, Harden was shipped to the Houston Rockets and became one of the league’s best players.

Even after trading Harden, Oklahoma City was still in a good place. In the two seasons after trading him away, the team racked up 119 regular season wins while finishing first and second in the Western Conference. The team couldn’t get over the hump in the playoffs however, being upset by the Grizzlies in 2013 and then losing to the eventual champion Spurs in 2014. Injuries to Kevin Durant robbed the team of contending during the 2014-15 season. To top it off, a new juggernaut was rising in Golden State, presenting yet another obstacle for a return trip to the Finals.

Even after all of that, last season showcased what a healthy Thunder team could do. The team finished third in the Western Conference and made their fourth Conference Finals appearance in six seasons. They had the 73-win Warriors on the ropes with a 3-1 series lead. What followed would have been the biggest collapse in modern NBA history if the Warriors didn’t give up their own 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. Another opportunity squandered. Durant joined the Warriors a month later, leaving Thunder fans to wonder what could have been.

Five years after their first Finals meeting, a rematch seems inevitable. The Cavaliers and Warriors are a combined 16-0 in the playoffs. Cleveland is a combined 5-2 against its possible Conference Finals opponents in Washington and Boston. Golden State is a combined 4-3 against the Rockets and Spurs, however one of those losses came on a night when Golden State didn’t play any of their four All-Stars. If they meet with a title on the line it will be a match up five years in the making. The jerseys have changed, but during those moments when Druant and LeBron match up we will all be left wondering what this rivalry could have been.

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Three key roster questions for the Indiana Pacers

The Indiana Pacers were the first team eliminated from the NBA playoffs after another close loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The loss starts a key offseason for the team. With Paul George’s future in doubt and serious questions about the roster, the team needs faces some major questions going forward. With that in mind it’s time to look at some of three key roster questions starting with the elephant in the room.

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1. Where will Paul George be playing next year?

It’s clear this hasn’t been George’s happiest season. He said so himself earlier in the year and most recently was calling out teammates after the team’s playoff losses. It was even reported that he said the players flat out disliked one another.

On top of that, former teammates have now said George openly spoke about his desire to play for the Lakers. This all leaves Indiana in a rough spot. George can (and will) opt-out of his contract after next season to enter unrestricted free agency. Losing a star for nothing hurts, and unlike Oklahoma City, the Pacers don’t have another top 20 player on the roster to help alleviate some of the pain. At the same time, the team’s roster was built to win now and isn’t ready to rebuild if they trade him.

The picture will become a lot clearer after the All-NBA teams are announced. If he makes an All-NBA team he is eligible for the Designated Player Extension as part of the new CBA. The extension can only be offered by Indiana and would be longer and more lucrative than anyone else could offer. If he is eligible for the extension, the Pacers could offer him over $70 million more than another team. Unfortunately for George and the Pacers, the competition for the six forward spots is fierce. In the end, his team’s relative lack of success could leave him the odd man out

If he doesn’t make the All-NBA team the Pacers would have to at least consider trading him. The only problem is that his desire to play for the Lakers means the Pacers are negotiating from a position of weakness. Why would a team like Boston open the vault to trade for a guy that may only be a rental? The Lakers also have little incentive to surrender assets when they can feel confident in their ability to sign him outright in free agency.

Ultimately, it seems likely that barring a commitment to re-sign with a team like the Celtics, George will remain in Indiana, at least until the trade deadline next season.

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2. What happens with Monta Ellis?

This season’s starting lineup was built like a fantasy basketball team, filled with a lot of guys who are used to having the ball in their hands or being the first or second options on their team. The starting lineup of Monta Ellis, Jeff Teague, George, Thaddeus Young and Myles Turner sported a net rating of -.2. Swapping out Ellis for C.J. Miles or Glenn Robinson III brings that up to a 7.7 and 7.8 respectively, which would have been second in the NBA over the course of a full season.

The problems are obvious on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Larry Bird has been pushing to rebuild the Pacers as a pace-and-space team. The problem is with the space part. Of the starting lineup, only George and Young were above average from behind the three-point line. Young also can’t be expected to replicate his performance. This is the first season in his 9-year career he has shot above average from deep. Offensively, Ellis and Teague weren’t good enough shooters to be effective without the ball. This meant opponents help clog the paint against their drives.

On defense, Ellis continues to be well below average. Two years ago, the Pacers handled this by having George Hill routinely guard larger players. Hill had the size and length to cover bigger wing players, leaving Ellis able to hide. Teague doesn’t have the size to guard up a position. As LeBron showed every time the Pacers switched a LeBron-Irving pick-and-roll, Teague can be punished by bigger players inside.

The simplest answer would be to move Ellis to the bench and start Miles or Robinson III. However, that creates another problem as Ellis and Lance Stephenson would have the same issue with bench units on offense.

The best option for the Pacers would be to trade Ellis, and his $11 million contract. Finding a trade partner isn’t going to be easy however. Ellis averaged under 10 points and five assists a game this year, his lowest since his rookie year. There isn’t a market for undersized shooting guards who can’t defend at a high level or knock down three-point shots. To get the deal done, the Pacers will likely have to sweeten the pot with a draft pick or two. Unless Bird can convince the Kings that Ellis is valuable it’s highly unlikely anybody parts with real assets to get him.

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3. What will the Pacers do with C.J. Miles?

Miles is likely in line for a raise. He shot a career high 41.3 percent from deep this season on 5.4 attempts per game. He also showed a willingness and ability over the last two years to move up and defend power forwards. Those guys get paid. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Miles get a contract in the neighborhood of $6-8 million annually.

The biggest concern with Miles is that his career shooting average is 36.1 percent, which isn’t much better than league average. The previous two years, on a similar number of attempts, he shot 36.7 and 34.5 percent. Miles provides little on offense outside of shooting. If he isn’t hitting at an elite rate from deep, committing $20-24 million over the next three or four years isn’t a great proposition.

The Pacers could choose to let him walk and give Glenn Robinson III a bigger role. Robinson III is about the same size as Miles and has the athleticism to provide the same defensive versatility. He also shot a great 39.2 percent from deep this season, albeit on only 1.8 attempts per game. He is also still on a rookie deal, making him a cost-effective option.

Giving Robinson III a larger role isn’t without risks. His shooting may not hold up under an increased workload or when teams begin to focus more on defending him. Even if Indiana lets Miles leave they may still look for some help. The forward spot has a lot of options available in the Pacers price range but, like Miles, they all have some concerns. Guys like Patrick Patterson, Ersan Ilyasova, Jonas Jerebko and James Johnson are all going to hit the market. Depending on the type of deal Miles wants, if may be in the Pacers best interests to move on.

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3 reasons the Golden State Warriors will win the NBA Championship

Before the season started it seemed like we were destined for Cavs-Warriors III. While the Cavaliers haven’t looked like a contender recently, the Warriors have rolled. Golden State has easily locked up the number one overall seed and home court all the way through the Finals. It may not be shocking, and the NBA rarely is during the playoffs, but Golden State will win the NBA Finals and these three factors are a big reason why.

1. They can weather the storm

In late February Kevin Durant went down with a knee injury. At the time, Durant was the Warriors leading scorer at 25.7 point per game (he has since been overtaken by Stephen Curry). Durant missed a little over a month at a crucial moment in the playoff race. If you went to any team still fighting for playoff seeding and told them they would lose their leading scorer for a month it would incite panic.

Instead, the Warriors have thrived, going 20-5 while Durant was out between Feb. 28 and April 5. The Warriors weren’t just beating cupcakes during that time either. Without Durant, they have two wins over Houston, a win over San Antonio and wins over several other playoff caliber teams. Overall without Durant they have gone 8-4 against playoff teams, assuming Chicago makes it in the East.

When the Warriors signed Durant in the offseason it was coming off a collapse in the NBA Finals. A lot of that collapse was attributed to Curry’s nagging injury along with Draymond Green’s suspension. The Durant signing was insurance. Over the course of a tight seven game series even one bad quarter can spell doom. If one of their All-Stars gets hurt, has a bad game or gets shut down they have enough firepower to push on. So far, the Warriors have shown they can withstand losing one of their stars.

2. They have the best player

In the playoffs games can often be decided by a small number of possessions. It’s during those moments that it helps to have a guy that can get buckets, especially late in the shot clock. Durant gives the Warriors exactly that. On top of that he has become a defensive force this season.

Caught up in Russell Westbrook and James Harden’s historic seasons, it’s easy to forget that Durant has put up MVP worthy numbers himself. Per 36 minutes Durant is averaging 26.9 points, 8.9 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. Those numbers are similar to LeBron’s averages during his 2012 and 2013 MVP campaigns, with Durant trading some assists for blocks. The point is that Durant is the best player on the best team and any other year that would have him near the top of the MVP balloting.

It’s not just traditional stats that show how good Durant is. Based on stats from Basketball Reference, with Durant off the court the Warriors have a net rating of 7.9. That would still be good for best in the league but the jump with Durant is mind boggling. When Durant is on the floor the Warriors net rating is 15.1, which is almost double that of the number two Spurs. Simply put, the Warriors can feel confident they have the best player in almost every matchup.

3. They are the best team

Golden State rounds this all out by being the best team by any metric. If you want to just look at raw numbers, Golden State has the league’s best record, currently at 66-15, and the best point differential with 11.59. If you want to dip into more advanced stats, the Warriors lead the league in offensive rating and are second in defensive rating based on Basketball Reference numbers. They are the only team in the top five in both categories. Lastly, the Warriors net rating is 11.45 while the second-place Spurs sport a 7.58. For comparison, the Spurs are closer to the sixth-place Raptors than they are the Warriors.

No matter how you cut it, it’s hard to find a place where Golden State will be at a disadvantage in the playoffs. They have more All-Stars, the best player and the best team plus home court advantage. Barring injury they should be the clear favorite. Even then, it may still take a Herculean effort to knock them off.

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Revisiting Mass Effect: Part 6

Welcome back! If you're new to the series then check out the previous entries: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

Kylie Shepard has finally pieced together all the clues in her hunt for Saren and Sovereign. However instead of racing after Sovereign, Shepard has been called back to the Citadel on the Council’s orders. With grudging acceptance Shepard obeys the command.

Grounded

Why should we let our Spectre do her job?
Why should we let our Spectre do her job?

When Shepard arrives at the Citadel she learns that she can’t leave. The Council, with the support of Earth’s ambassador Udina, has grounded her. While the Council does believe Saren is a threat they still don’t trust Shepard’s visions of the Reapers. The Council doesn’t want to risk a possible diplomatic incident – or worse – by allowing a Citadel ship to enter the Terminus Systems. Shepard is angry, but her warning falls on deaf ears.

Thankfully, Captain Anderson has a plan to get Shepard off the Citadel. He meets Shepard at the nightclub Flux to present his plan. He can either sneak into C-Sec and override the order or he can “hack” Udina’s computer and rescind the lockdown. Shepard, fearing an armed C-Sec response, suggests that he use Udina’s terminal. It’s in the next scene that we learn that Captain Anderson doesn’t know what hacking is. His “hack” of Udina’s computer is to walk up to the ambassador while he is logged in, punch him in the face and then use his computer. The whole thing comes off as a “grandpa doesn’t understand computers” moment and endeared Anderson to me a bit more. The captain succeeds and Shepard jets away from the Citadel.

This choice is one of the prime examples of the game’s – and ultimately series’ – lack of consequences for several of the choices. Both Shepard and Anderson express some concern about the possible outcome for Anderson if he goes through with his plan. Treason is brought up during the conversation. However, other than a different cut scene, there aren’t any consequences I saw (or that I remember from my numerous other playthroughs). This trickles down through the series as minor decisions have no consequence or only receive a quick email callback in later games. In the context of the series, and especially the ending of Mass Effect 3, this moment epitomizes a lot of those feelings. Shepard has the illusion of choice but the outcome is the same regardless of the decision.

The chase is on

After a brief detour Shepard and the Normandy are back on track.
After a brief detour Shepard and the Normandy are back on track.

With the Normandy free again, Shepard wastes no time venturing through the Mu Relay. Ilos is unlike any of the other major planets seen so far. While it has Prothean ruins, with some similarity to Feros, it has lush plant life and feels more alive than any of the other locales. Of course, our old friends the Geth are here and it isn’t long before Shepard is having another firefight in ancient alien ruins.

After battling through waves of Geth, Shepard eventually opens the way forward. As she is chasing after Saren she is stopped by an forcefield and meets Vigil, a Prothean virtual intelligence. Vigil informs Shepard that the facility on Ilos was the Prothean’s last ditch effort to stop the Reaper invasion. The Protheans, much like current society, based themselves out of the Citadel which gave the Reapers easy access to their government and leaders. The Protheans discovered the Keepers, the Citadel’s enigmatic caretakers, were responsible for signaling the Reapers. The Ilos research team developed a way to sever the Keepers’ ties to the Reapers and this time no signal was sent. The Conduit that Saren has been chasing is actually a mass relay on Ilos that links to the Citadel. Without the Keeper signal, it is Sovereign’s only hope of regaining control and signaling his brethren.

With the major info dump out of the way Shepard goes on an action packed Mako chase. This is the best Mako sequence in the game as its tightly paced and doesn’t overstay its welcome unlike some of the others. The sequence ends with a race to the mass relay, with the Mako crash landing right in front of the Citadel tower.

The final confrontation

Remember, don't look down.
Remember, don't look down.

As Shepard arrives at the Citadel, Saren has already made his way to the Council Chambers and taken control of the station. Sovereign also moves into position atop the tower and closes the arms, separating the Reaper from the Citadel fleet. When Shepard’s elevator is stopped halfway up the tower she isn’t deterred. Instead she blows the elevator open, jumps out and begins climbing the tower on foot. This is the best set piece in the game. You can see Sovereign in the distance and you climb the tower and the Geth throw everything they have at you, resulting in some of the toughest encounters in the game.

Reaching the top, she finds Saren and they chat. Shepard finally convinces Saren he is a pawn and the Reapers have no intention of honoring the agreement he made with Sovereign. Saren makes one final sacrifice, taking his own life to stop Sovereign from gaining control of the Citadel and opening the door for the Reaper invasion. Sovereign had other plans, and shows that even after death the Reapers still controlled Saren. Using his cybernetic augments, Sovereign reanimates Saren’s body and has him battle Shepard.

In what would later become a Mass Effect tradition, the final boss is anticlimactic. After the reveal on Virmire that Sovereign is a Reaper, and in turn the big bad, the desire is to battle him. Obviously, there are some issues with scale. How do you make a battle feel compelling between a tiny person and giant sentient spaceship after all? Even with those issues it still feels like a bit of a cop out, especially when defeating Cyber-Saren inexplicably causes Sovereign to become vulnerable. It doesn’t help that the final battle is simple and doesn’t offer any meaningful challenge.

Shaping the galaxy

You don't look well Saren.
You don't look well Saren.

You should probably get that checked out.After defeating Cyber-Saren Shepard opens the Citadel arms again, coinciding with the arrival of the Alliance feat. It is at this moment that she is faced with the game’s and most important choice. The Destiny Ascension, the flagship of the Citadel fleet, is carrying the Council and under heavy fire. The Alliance fleet could save the ship but it would have to divert resources away from the battle with Sovereign to do so. It isn’t explained why Shepard is making the call instead of Alliance command, but they leave the decision to her.

This decision has always seemed like a no-brainer to me and I’ve always been troubled by how its portrayed. The Renegade option is focusing on Sovereign. In my (and Kylie’s) mind that is the only choice. There is no data on the Reapers beyond what Shepard has seen in a vision or just learned on Ilos. No one knows how much force it will take to defeat this thing, and in fact for much of the battle the fleet wasn’t even able to damage it because of its immensely powerful shields. The Council doesn’t matter if there isn’t a galaxy for them to govern. On top of that, the government can’t be so fragile that the death of the Council causes it to collapse. There are certain to be detailed succession plans in the event something happens. Losing all three Council members at once would certainly be tougher than losing one but there must be some contingency in place.

For Kylie Shepard, the choice was easy. If Sovereign calls in the rest of the Reapers none of this matters. She advises the fleet to focus everything on taking out the Reaper. The Council is lost but the fleet prevails and Sovereign is destroyed, although not without the wreckage causing severe damage to the Citadel. With the Council dead humanity is ready to step into the void and lead a new Council. Shepard is then given the final choice of the game, deciding between Udina and Anderson for humanity’s Council representative.

Things are about to get rough for you Sovereign.
Things are about to get rough for you Sovereign.

This was a more difficult decision than I expected it be. In the past, I have never really thought about this decision. Instead it’s always been a Paragon/Renegade choice, with Anderson representing the Paragon option. Kylie Shepard needed to think about it. While she doesn’t particularly like Udina he has been successful in his post. Humanity has continued to gain more power and responsibility during his time as ambassador. He is also a politician, rather than an idealist, and would be able to better navigate that side of the job than Anderson. Anderson’s biggest claims are that he has a strong moral center and is a respected military leader. You can trust that he will always try to do the right thing and his military experience will be valuable. With a war against the Reapers looming it would be helpful to have a decorated military mind leading the Council.

In the end, Kylie’s background pushed Anderson over the top. She was a space born kid, growing up on military vessels and joining the Alliance as soon as she was old enough. She has been in the military chain of command her whole life and respects it. While she doesn’t favor military rule, I think she values Anderson’s leadership and the black and white nature of military command over Udina’s grey areas. After dealing with the political ramifications of her actions Shepard can finally go back to what she does best, hunting Reapers.

Epilogue

The first chapter in Kylie Shepard’s story has come to a close. It was an eye-opening experience both in-game and out. Writing these pieces has forced me to look at Mass Effect with a closer eye. It led me to realize the game I love is rough in a lot of ways. I can better understand the criticisms of the game having experienced a lot of them first hand. This playthrough also allowed the game to surprise me again. I was pleasantly surprised both by the number of things I remembered (some even line for line) as well as the things I forgot. The game, even after all the time I have put into it over the years, still managed to elicit emotional responses throughout.

I’m not sure what the future holds for Kylie Shepard. Perhaps she will continue her journey to save the galaxy but I also wouldn’t be surprised if this is her only adventure. Either way she has helped me view one of my favorite games in a completely new light.

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Save a Switch, Kill the 3DS

When Nintendo finally unveiled the Nintendo Switch, it put an end to one of the worst kept secrets in gaming. The home/portable console hybrid had been rumored ever since Nintendo first began cryptically talking about their next console, at the time codenamed NX. The consensus after the reveal was that if they were aligning their console and handheld development resources into one platform Nintendo could do some amazing things.

With so much excitement about a unified Nintendo platform it was rather disconcerting to see Nintendo President Tatsumi Kimishima declare that the Nintendo 3DS line wasn’t going anywhere in an interview with Bloomberg last October.

“Thanks to our software, the 3DS hardware is still growing. So that business still has momentum. And certainly rather than being cannibalized by the Switch, we think the 3DS can continue in its own form,” said Kimishima when directly asked if the 3DS was being discontinued. This isn’t the first-time Nintendo has defended multiple hardware platforms. The Nintendo DS was originally pitched as their “third pillar” and not a GBA replacement. While there is certainly some sound logic in keeping the 3DS, ultimately Nintendo is better off ending the 3DS line and moving forward with the Switch as their only platform.

Super Mario 3D Land is one of the hundreds of excellent 3DS games available.
Super Mario 3D Land is one of the hundreds of excellent 3DS games available.

The games may stop but the 3DS will live on

The most common counterargument is that Nintendo doesn’t want to negatively impact 3DS sales by publicly announcing the system is dead. That argument makes sense for the Wii U, a console with a thin library, but doesn’t hold as much weight with the 3DS. Even if Nintendo doesn’t make another 3DS game it doesn’t diminish the console’s value because of the already robust and excellent library available.

The 3DS library is one of the most diverse libraries available on any platform. Everything from side-scrolling platformers to fighting games to epic role-playing games have a home on the console. On top of the 3DS library the handheld also has access to the excellent DS library as well. In fact, I would argue that there hasn’t been a better time to own a 3DS. That library will always be there; you can always find something to play regardless of the new release schedule.

By leveraging that library Nintendo can continue to manufacture and sell 3DS systems without spending any additional money on development. Sony adopted a similar strategy with the PlayStation 2. They continued to manufacture and sell consoles, the PS2 remained in production until 2013, even after the 2006 launch of the PlayStation 3. Nintendo could take another page out of Sony’s playbook and court indie developers much like Sony did with the PlayStation Vita. Sony confirmed in 2015 that it had ended Vita development but the console lived on thanks to a steady supply of independent games. The bottom line is that there is precedent for a console to live on even if there isn’t first-party development.

The Wii U had fantastic games like Bayonetta 2 but couldn't keep them coming.
The Wii U had fantastic games like Bayonetta 2 but couldn't keep them coming.

Keep the games coming

While the Wii U was a commercial failure it still had its share of critically acclaimed games. Bayonetta 2, Super Mario Maker, Mario Kart 8, and Splatoon are just a few of the highly-regarded games available on the console. The problem was that Nintendo struggled to maintain a steady stream of releases.

It would be naïve to assume that third-party developers are finally going to get onboard with this console. The Wii U started out in a similar place; ports of the previous generation’s big games early in the lifecycle. Of course, the poor sales of the console didn’t inspire confidence but those sales can in part be blamed on Nintendo’s release schedule. After the system’s November 2012 launch Nintendo didn’t release another first-party game until June 2013’s Game & Wario, a seven-month gap, and that was a minigame collection. It wouldn’t see as a core game until Pikmin 3 in August 2013, nearly a year after the console’s launch.

The lack of steady releases made the console a wait-and-see proposition instead of a must buy. It was hard to justify buying a console for a couple of games and once the third-parties jumped ship Nintendo was never able to make up for the lack of releases.

In theory, moving all 3DS development over to the Switch alleviates that problem. The 3DS has largely abandoned the touch screen as a primary control method and the Switch tablet has a touch screen in the rare case a game requires it. Most games wouldn’t need to be modified much from a gameplay and controls perspective to be playable on the Nintendo Switch. Even if the third-party support dries up, which wouldn’t be a surprise, Nintendo could still maintain a healthy console with six to eight first-party games a year; roughly equal to their current combined output for the Wii U and 3DS.

Picross 3D: Round 2 shows what a perfect mobile game can be.
Picross 3D: Round 2 shows what a perfect mobile game can be.

Give us a reason to Switch

So far, most games shown for the Switch have been traditional home console games. Right now, Nintendo is selling the Switch on the promise that you can take your game with you anywhere. The trailers show people playing expansive games such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild at home and then seamlessly taking it on the go. While that is impressive it also does little to justify the portability, especially when the game’s performance may suffer as a result.

Portable games are different from console games in their design and scope. The best ones provide a fun gameplay loop in small chunks, such as last year’s excellent Picross 3D: Round 2 for the 3DS. While the 3DS has a large library of role-playing games and other genres that lend themselves to longer play sessions it also features a large library of games meant to be played in short bursts.

The ideal situation would be two distinct groups of Switch games; portable focused experiences and more traditional console fare. Both game types would still take advantage of the system’s core feature – play your portable game on the TV or console game on the go – but there would be experiences tailor made for each playstyle. The battery life of the Switch seems problematic but in a world where you are only playing an hour or so during your commute, 3 hours is more than enough time. On top of that, Nintendo has shown they love accessories so it isn’t out of the question for them to release an extended battery for the tablet.

Nintendo has a chance to do something special with the Switch by creating a unified platform for all their games. As Nintendo has shown time and time again, their development teams are arguably the best in the world and this is their chance to leverage that in an unprecedented way. Having one device to experience every one of those games isn’t just a dream; it’s a necessity if Nintendo wants to give people a reason to buy the Switch.

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Revisiting Mass Effect: Part 5

If you need to catch up on the earlier parts catch them here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Shepard has completed her missions on Feros, Noveria and Therum. Each time she has been one step behind Saren but that is all about to change. Her mission is about to lead her to that fated confrontation as well as the most challenging decision she has made so far.

Hold the line

At this point Shepard has another lead from the council, a Salarian intel team has been observing Saren’s secret research base on Virmire. After fighting through the Geth, Shepard reaches the Salarian camp and learns from the Salarian team leader, Captain Kirrahe, that Saren has been working on a cure for the genophage, the genetic mutation that has caused the Krogan race to become sterile. Captain Kirrahe’s plan is to infiltrate the base and detonate a nuclear bomb, destroying the facility and the cure to prevent Saren from raising an army of Krogan. Shepard’s Krogan squad member Wrex is not pleased with this idea and Kirrahe asks that you speak to him to ensure he won’t be a problem on the mission.

Love isn't always on time!
Love isn't always on time!

This presents the first choice on Virmire that has wide repercussions on the entire series. Shepard must either convince Wrex of her plan or ultimately take him down. Shepard convinced Wrex that Saren would only use the Krogan and his cure is not the one Wrex wants. At first glance this choice seems relatively simple, you either have the skill points in Charm/Intimidate to convince Wrex or you don’t. Looking at the actual possibilities paints a much more detailed picture. BioWare developed several paths this brief conversation can take, including being able to convince Wrex without using the Charm/Intimidate skill or having another squad member kill him without your orders. One common complaint about this game – and the series as a whole – is that ultimately every choice comes down to whether you have enough points to pick the “right” dialogue option. It’s refreshing to see that there are multiple paths through the encounter that don’t require Charm/Intimidate, even if the outcome still ends up with Wrex either alive or dead.

After calming Wrex down Shepard discussed the plan. The Salarians would launch a decoy attack so that Shepard could infiltrate the base and set off the bomb. One of Shepard’s teammates would accompany the Salarians to offer fire support. Knowing his men may not make it back Kirrahe delivered a stirring speech to boost morale. He reminded his men of all the trying times in Salarian history the Salarians always “hold the line.” The speech is extremely memorable and even though he has a very small part in the first game this was one of the moments I most look forward to every playthough. After that the mission commenced.

The first sequence of the mission was just getting to the base. Along the way, Shepard can assist the Salarian team by disabling Geth drones and/or communications. Eventually, this culminates in a decision to set off an alarm on the other side of the base. This would make Shepard’s task easier but increase the resistance the other team faces.

Leading up to this point Captain Kirrahe explains to Shepard that his troops aren’t prepared for a full-frontal assault like this and they will likely struggle to survive. You must weigh the importance of your mission with helping the other team. However, my character was leveled and geared enough that I had no issue with additional enemies. The tension should be from deciding whether I can handle additional enemies if I don’t raise the alarm. Instead there was no weight to the decision and no reason not to help the other team out. It’s another instance where the narrative tries to add gravity to your choices but the gameplay renders it inconsequential.

Meet the Reaper

Talking to a sentient extinction machine is just a normal day for Shepard.
Talking to a sentient extinction machine is just a normal day for Shepard.

After fighting through the base Shepard eventually finds Saren’s private lab. Inside she finds an intact Prothean beacon which fills in the missing part of the message but more important she speaks to Sovereign. The game finally reveals that Sovereign is not a Reaper ship but an actual Reaper. This conversation is one of the best moments in the entire Mass Effect series. Shepard tries to reason with and understand Sovereign but the Reaper isn’t having it. Instead Sovereign makes it clear that Shepard could never hope to understand the Reapers or why they must carry out the galactic extinction. If the Mass Effect series can be summed up as Commander Shepard’s battle against the Reapers, this is the moment where the game shifts the conflict that direction; it’s no longer just Shepard hunting Saren. There is no choice and it’s mostly an info dump about the Reapers but it is done in such a way that doesn’t feel boring. Sovereign comes off as menacing, but not necessarily evil, and Shepard has more questions than answers after their encounter.

After leaving Saren’s lab and fighting through a few more Geth, Shepard plants the bomb. At this point the game presents the final choice on Virmire. Both Ashley and Kaidan need assistance and Shepard can’t be in two places at once. If Shepard helps one the other will die. There were a lot of ways to look at roleplaying this decision but ultimately for Kylie Shepard it had to be done based on each soldier’s importance to the Alliance. Kaidan is a human biotic, which is very rare, and he outranks Ashley. Ashley is a soldier and while she is good at her job losing Kaidan is a bigger blow than losing her. It sounds robotic and dispassionate to look at two human beings as statistics but I felt that was in character for Kylie Shepard. She couldn’t make this decision if she was thinking emotionally, there would be no right answer for her and it would paralyze her and possibly lose them both. Instead she had to separate herself from the situation and make the logical decision. This meant that Shepard raced to assist Kaidan.

Shepard is about to wipe that smile off your face... at least I think it's a smile.
Shepard is about to wipe that smile off your face... at least I think it's a smile.

It was at this point that Saren reveals himself to Shepard. Shepard has a chance to speak to Saren and the revelations from Sovereign shed additional light on Saren’s plan. Saren discovered the Reapers and their plan and bargained with Sovereign to spare those who allied with him. Shepard is quick to point out that being indoctrinated by the Reapers isn’t a way to live but at this point Saren is too far gone and she has no choice but to fight. This is the first boss battle where you engage the enemy rather than fighting their proxies. While it isn’t particularly memorable there is a certain catharsis that comes from finally having a showdown with Saren after all this time.

The end is near

The battle doesn’t last long before Saren retreats and Shepard and his crew, minus Ashley, race to escape the blast radius. After barely escaping the crew meets for their debriefing although the mood is more somber. At this point, with a full understanding of the beacon, Liara is finally able to pinpoint the location of the conduit: the planet Ilos which lies beyond the Mu Relay. As Shepard and her team prepare to head to Ilos Shepard receives a message to return to the Citadel.

At this point, Shepard has reached the last leg of her journey. Virmire continues to be the standout mission from the game’s middle third; a fantastic balance of interesting characters, compelling choices and exciting set piece moments. With that behind us, Shepard is finally ready to hit what I remember as the most exciting part of the game and our adventure together will soon come to a close.

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Revisiting Mass Effect: Part 4

If you need to catch up on the earlier parts catch them here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

After stopping Matriarch Benezia and freeing the Rachni on Noveria. Kylie Shepard continues her race to stop Saren and the Reapers. Following another lead, Shepard heads to Feros to investigate unusual Geth activity.

The odd colony

The Mako always handles so well!
The Mako always handles so well!

When Shepard arrives on Feros she is told she must meet with Fai Dan, leader of the Zhu’s Hope colony. As Shepard explores the colony it’s apparent very quickly that things are not well. The colonists are low on food, power and water. On top of that, the colonists all seem focused on their tasks to the point that they will not speak to Shepard about anything else. Even Fai Dan won’t give Shepard any more information beyond the troubles of the colony. Fai Dan asks that Shepard help destroy a Geth transmitter in the tunnels under the colony so that the Geth cannot coordinate their attacks.

Shepard easily dispatches the Geth in the tunnels and retrieves supplies to help the other colonists. While in the tunnels she encounters a colonist who seems to have gone insane and isolated himself. He tells her that he is fighting “it” and that it hurts when he doesn’t listen to the voice in his head. When Shepard asks Fai Dan about the man he refuses to speak on it.

With more pressing matters to attend to Shepard leaves the colony and heads towards ExoGeni headquarters, the location of the main Geth invasion. After meeting some of the evacuated employees, Shepard enters the facility to repel the Geth. Along the way, she discovers that the researchers at ExoGeni discovered an ancient plant-like creature known as the Thorian. The Thorian uses spores to control other creatures and ExoGeni was using the colonists as an experiment in their quest to capture the creatures power.

The Thorian is the prettiest ancient plant-like lifeform Shepard has encountered.
The Thorian is the prettiest ancient plant-like lifeform Shepard has encountered.

With this information, Shepard races toward the colony. On the way, she is given special gas grenades by the ExoGeni team. The colonists will attack her to protect the Thorian and the gas grenades can subdue them nonlethally, however the player is left to decide whether to use them. This presents an interesting moment because there is nothing to suggest Shepard would kill innocents given a viable alternative yet the game doesn’t acknowledge this. The Paragon/Renegade system isn’t a good vs. evil choice. Shepard is always going to be the hero. The difference is how Shepard goes about getting results, for a Renegade the ends justify the means and no cost is too high. In this case Shepard is giving a very clear option to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties but can choose not to use it. Kylie Shepard used the gas grenades but this moment still seems off putting based on the way they characterize Shepard everywhere else.

The battle with the Thorian is just as anti-climactic as the battle with Benezia. Waves of “Thorian Creepers” (reskinned Geth husks) and an Asari attack Shepard as she works to destroy the creature’s neural nodes. Eventually Shepard prevails and one of Matriarch Benezia’s followers is released from Thorian control. She tells Shepard that Saren used the Thorian to gain the Cipher needed to understand the Prothean beacon and passes this information on to him although the vision is still not clear.

With Feros completed Shepard races towards Virmire and her next lead. The Feros mission continues a trend that I didn’t remember from my original playthroughs, specifically that this middle section of the game wasn’t particularly memorable. There is a lot of gameplay to be found but it all blends together with very little to make it stand out the same way the first 10 hours and the last 10 hours do. I do remember really enjoying Virmire and am excited to see how it holds up. Kylie Shepard’s quest is winding down but I am excited to revisit the end of Mass Effect.

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Overwatch is casual and that's OK

Overwatch is unlike most other competitive shooters when it comes to scoreboards and stats. It doesn’t have a global scoreboard you can pull up at the press of a button and it doesn’t surface common shooter stats such as kill-death ratio for the whole game to see. Instead it focuses on surfacing positive numbers. Focusing on the positives sets the game apart from other shooters and makes it a more welcoming game.

For most competitive online shooters player score is tied heavily, if not completely, to their kill-death ratio. When that information is surfaced for everyone to see it gives other players an easy target. Toxic communities are nothing new in multiplayer games but most often players see this harassment when they play poorly. Rather than trying to help players get better, and improving the game’s player base overall, new and learning players are attacked. Overwatch helps curb some of this by limiting the statistics it shows to all players.

It's nice to see your positive impact, even in a loss.
It's nice to see your positive impact, even in a loss.

Overwatch is also much more welcoming that other competitive games. Trying to learn any competitive game can be daunting, especially because most are quick to only highlight what you are doing wrong. Overwatch takes some of that sting away by showing things you are doing well from the beginning. It makes you eager to continue playing rather than frustrated. That drive pushes players to continue playing and improving rather than pushing them out. It also helps to focus on the fun parts of the experience. Even in a loss I can have a good time playing because the game doesn’t make it a point to dwell on negatives. At its core the game is focused on fun, and everything from its art style to design are built to support that.

There is some concern that for Overwatch to become a high-level competitive game this information must be surfaced. The argument is that for players to truly understand where they need to improve or why they lost they need to see the negative stats. I would argue that there are already plenty of games just like that to choose from. Overwatch has been deliberately designed to be something different. Those design choices have filled a hole. The shooter genre has been sorely lacking in a game that let people of all skill levels have fun.

Overwatch has the depth to be a rewarding competitive game but it’s also welcoming enough for anyone to pick up and enjoy. That is something worth preserving in a genre overcrowded with hyper-competitive games. It provides feedback to players in a way that keeps the game enjoyable and compels them to continue playing. That laid-back feeling, where having a good time is more important than the competition, is the reason I will continue to come back to Overwatch long after I have left other multiplayer shooters.

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