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Friday, June 14, 2019

A Historical Perspective on Great Single Season Playoff Performances

Kawhi Leonard's 2019 NBA Finals MVP award capped off a tremendous playoff run. Leonard averaged 28.5 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 4.2 apg and 1.8 spg with shooting splits of .434/.357.906 while leading Toronto to a 4-2 Finals victory over the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors. Leonard was even more dominant overall during the 2019 postseason, averaging 30.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 3.9 apg and 1.7 spg with shooting splits of .490/.379/.884.

During the 2019 playoffs, many media outlets noted Leonard's 30-plus ppg average and also the large number of 30 point games that he posted, comparing his output to players such as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. While it is not unusual to compare players' scoring averages, prior to this year I cannot recall so much emphasis being placed on total number of 30 point games during the playoffs; I remember an emphasis being placed in years past on 40 point games and 50 point games, particularly as Jordan and Bryant accomplished feats that had not been matched since the days of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, but I do not remember anyone explicitly tracking 30 point games to the extent that it was mentioned with regard to Leonard in 2019. A 30 point playoff game is not particularly rare, and even a non-All-Star caliber player can have one, but it is much less likely for a non-All-Star caliber player to score 40 or more points in a playoff game. However, because Leonard's 30 point games have been mentioned so often it is important to place his numbers in historical context.

We can begin with scoring average. Where does 30.5 ppg rank among single-season playoff performances? The answer is 83rd on the ABA-NBA list. If you insist on denying nine years of important basketball history and only focusing on the NBA, Leonard's 2019 playoff scoring average ranks 73rd. That is very good; the NBA has been around for over 70 years, so on average only about one player per year scores at least 30 ppg during the postseason.

Elite single season playoff scoring begins at the 35 ppg level, a mark that has been reached just 17 times in ABA-NBA playoff history. Michael Jordan leads the way with both the highest single season playoff scoring average (43.7 ppg in 1986) and the most 35 ppg playoff seasons (five). Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain accomplished the feat twice each, while Jerry West, Spencer Haywood, Bob McAdoo, Hakeem Olajuwon, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook each did it once.

This is the first time that Leonard averaged at least 30 ppg during the playoffs. Jordan holds the record with 12 such playoff runs; the only time he did not average 30 ppg in his 13 playoff appearances is when he scored 29.3 ppg as a rookie. The only other players in ABA-NBA history who have averaged at least 30 ppg in the playoffs more than once are Jerry West (seven times), LeBron James (six times), Kobe Bryant (five times), Elgin Baylor (four times), Wilt Chamberlain (four times), Rick Barry (four times), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (four times), Allen Iverson (four times), Tracy McGrady (four times), George Gervin (three times), Shaquille O'Neal (three times), George Mikan (two times), Oscar Robertson (two times), Julius Erving (two times), Bob McAdoo (two times), Hakeem Olajuwon (two times), Reggie Miller (two times), Kevin Durant (two times) and Anthony Davis (two times).

Therefore, it is safe to say that--while Leonard's 2019 playoff scoring is excellent--there are many great players who have matched or exceeded Leonard's numbers on multiple occasions. It is true that some of those 30 ppg performances happened during playoff runs that were much shorter than Leonard's and/or during playoff runs that did not culminate in championships, but of the players listed above Jordan (six times), Mikan (two times), O'Neal (two times), Abdul-Jabbar (one time), Erving (one time), Olajuwon (one time), Bryant (one time) and James (one time) averaged 30 ppg during playoff runs that ended in a championship.

What about total number of 30 point playoff games during one postseason? Leonard scored at least 30 points in 14 of his 24 playoff games in 2019, including two 40 point games (45, 41). Only Jordan (16 out of 22 in 1992, 14 out of 21 in 1998), Olajuwon (16 out of 22 in 1995), Bryant (15 out of 23 in 2009, 14 out of 23 in 2010) and James (14 out of 18 in 2017) have had 14 or more 30 point games in one postseason. Jordan (both times), Bryant (both times) and Olajuwon also won championships and Finals MVPs in those seasons.

The NBA playoffs have expanded over the years both in terms of the number of series and also in terms of the length of series, so players from more recent times tend to play more playoff games per year than players did in earlier times. Is it more impressive to have the stamina to put up 30 points in 14 out of 24 playoff games, or is it more impressive to be dominant enough to put up 30 points in 12 out of 13 playoff games (Elgin Baylor, 1962), or 11 out of 13 playoff games (Julius Erving, 1976 ABA champion and ABA Playoff MVP) or 11 out of 15 playoff games (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1980 NBA champion)? That is a subjective question but I find those performances of Baylor, Erving and Abdul-Jabbar to be more impressive than Leonard's performance; unless one makes the unlikely assumption that those players would not have had any more 30 point games had the postseason been expanded in those years, it is reasonable to project that had they played 24 playoff games they would have had more than 14 games during which they scored at least 30 points.

The repeated emphasis on Leonard's total number of 30 point games without any mention of previous players other than Jordan, Bryant and James strongly suggests that media members are unaware of basketball history and/or choose to ignore anything that happened much before Jordan entered the NBA in 1984.

After I posted my Pantheon series and then supplemented it with an article discussing the Greatest Player of All-Time credentials of each Pantheon member, some people reacted with surprise and skepticism at the notion that players such as Elgin Baylor or Oscar Robertson have legitimate Greatest Player of All-Time resumes (I have never selected one player as the greatest, but I have consistently said that those two players are in a select group of players whose names should be mentioned whenever such a discussion is held). It is apparent that many people who are under the age of 50 and/or have not thoroughly researched basketball history have no idea about the numbers these players put up and, even more significantly, the diverse skill sets they possessed and the impact they had when they took the court.

Playoff impact consists of much more than just stringing together a lot of 30 point games, but looking at the history of the players who have done so most frequently is a good proxy for the larger conversation that should be had about the lack of appreciation for players whose careers ended before 1990 or so. What follows below is not a comprehensive list of every player who had a large number of 30 point playoff games and it does not reference every 30 point playoff game that a particular player had.

The pre-shot clock era was so different even from the era that immediately followed that I am just not sure how to compare George Mikan and the best players from the 1940s and early 1950s to great basketball players from subsequent eras; those pioneer players deserve recognition and respect but I am just not sure how to quantify their greatness. So, although it is noted above that Mikan had a couple dominant playoff runs during which he averaged more than 30 ppg (1949, 1950), our focus in terms of playoff campaigns that featured a large number of 30 point performances begins with Bob Pettit, who was the NBA's career regular season scoring leader for a couple years after he passed Dolph Schayes and before he was passed by Wilt Chamberlain.

Pettit's most famous and significant 30 point playoff game is his 50 point outburst versus Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics in game seven of the 1958 NBA Finals. Pettit and his St. Louis Hawks won the NBA title that year, the only time a team other than the Celtics won a championship between 1957 and 1966. Pettit "only" had four 30 point games out of 11 playoff games in 1958 but he had his two highest scoring performances of that postseason (33, then 50) in St. Louis' game six and game seven Finals wins. He scored at least 30 points in seven out of 10 playoff games in 1957, six of 12 in 1961 (including two games with at least 40 points) and nine out of 11 in 1963 (including his first five playoff games that year).

Elgin Baylor is on the short list of most dominant playoff scorers in pro basketball history. He was the first player who made 30 point playoff games seem routine and automatic. He scored at least 30 points in seven out of 13 playoff games in 1959, six out of nine in 1960 (including three games with at least 40 points), 10 out of 12 in 1961 (including five games with at least 40 points), 12 out of 13 in 1962 (including three games with at least 40 points, topped off by the single game playoff record 61 points that stood until Jordan scored 63 points in a 1986 playoff game), 10 out of 13 in 1963 (including one game with at least 40 points) and five out of 14 in 1966 (including two games with at least 40 points). Baylor started having knee problems in the early to mid 1960s, he suffered a serious knee injury in 1965 and he played the second part of his career at a fraction of his previous physical capabilities, but he still earned three of his 10 All-NBA First Team selections after wrecking his knee. No playoff performer has had a sustained five year run of consistent 30 point performances like the one that Baylor had from 1959-63. Baylor's Lakers made it to eight NBA Finals during his career (he only played in seven Finals, missing the 1965 Finals due to his knee injury) but he never led the Lakers to a championship; he retired after nine games in the 1971-72 season due to his knee problems and that turned out to be the year that the Lakers won their first title as an L.A. based team.

Wilt Chamberlain was not as dominant a scorer in the playoffs as he was in the regular season, but he put up impressive playoff numbers as well. As a rookie in 1960, he scored at least 30 points in four out of nine playoff games (including three games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points). He scored at least 30 points in all three of his 1961 playoff games, nine out of 12 in 1962 (including four games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points), nine out of 12 in 1964 (including two games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points), eight out of 11 in 1965 and four out of 15 in 1967, when he won the first of his two NBA championships.

Jerry West's name is all over the regular season and playoff record books. He scored at least 30 points in seven out of 13 playoff games in 1962 (including three games with at least 40 points), five out of 13 in 1963 (including one game with at least 40 points), 12 out of 14 in 1966 (including three games with at least 40 points), nine out of 15 in 1968 (including one game with at least 40 points), eight out of 18 in 1969 (including three games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points) and 12 out of 18 in 1970. West's Lakers went 1-8 in the NBA Finals and he did not average 30 ppg during the 1972 playoff run that culminated in his first and only title.

Oscar Robertson scored at least 30 points in six out of 12 playoff games in 1963 (including two games with at least 40 points) and seven out of 10 in 1964. He won his only title in 1971, by which time he was no longer scoring 30 points on a regular basis--but his passes helped his teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (see below) have many 30 point outings.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Rick Barry put up huge scoring numbers in first the NBA, then the ABA, and then the NBA again, despite being forced to sit out one season before he could jump from the NBA to the ABA. Barry scored at least 30 points in 11 out of 15 playoff games in 1967 (including five games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points), seven out of seven in 1970 (including four games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points), five out of six in 1971 (including two games with at least 40 points), nine out of 18 in 1972 (including three games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points), eight out of 17 while leading Golden State to the 1975 NBA title and four out of 10 in 1977 (including two games with at least 40 points).

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored at least 30 points in nine out of 10 playoff games in 1970 (including each of the first nine games of that playoff run). He scored at least 30 points in five out of 14 playoff games during Milwaukee's 1971 championship drive, five out of 11 in 1972, 11 out of 16 in 1974, eight out of 11 in 1977 (including five games with at least 40 points), 11 out of 15 in 1980 and six out of 15 in 1983. Abdul-Jabbar was cruising toward the 1980 Finals MVP before he sprained his ankle in the Lakers' game five win. He stayed in L.A. while the team traveled to Philadelphia for what seemed to be a likely game six loss; Abdul-Jabbar hoped to be ready to play in game seven at home--but rookie Magic Johnson had 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in a game six win, and so--according to some reports--since he was present and Abdul-Jabbar was not, Johnson received the Finals MVP even though Abdul-Jabbar arguably had the more dominant series overall. Abdul-Jabbar played on championship teams in 1971, 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987 and 1988, winning Finals MVPs in 1971 and 1985.

Julius Erving scored at least 30 points in seven out of his 11 playoff games as a rookie in 1972, including one game with at least 50 points (an ABA single-game playoff record 53 points on 21-28 field goal shooting, tying the mark set by Roger Brown). He led the New York Nets to the 1974 ABA championship and won the Playoff MVP while scoring at least 30 points in four out of his 14 playoff games (including one game with at least 40 points) and then in 1976 he had one of the most dominant playoff runs ever: Erving averaged 34.7 ppg in the playoffs while scoring at least 30 points in 11 out of his 13 playoff games (including three games with at least 40 points). In the NBA, Erving's scoring exploits were more subdued, but he did score at least 30 points in seven out of his 19 playoff games in 1977 (including one game with at least 40 points) and he was a key contributor to Philadelphia's record-setting 12-1 playoff run in 1983 that resulted in his third championship/first NBA title.

Michael Jordan is in a category by himself in terms of consistently scoring 30 points in playoff competition; Baylor had the most dominant five year run, but Jordan started racking up 30 point playoff games as a rookie in 1985 and he was still regularly scoring 30 points in playoff competition in 1998, his last year with the Chicago Bulls. Here are the highlights of Jordan's 30 point playoff games:

1985: At least 30 points in two out of four playoff games

1986: 2/3 (two games with at least 40, one with a playoff single game record 63)

1987: 3/3 (one with at least 40)

1988: 6/10 (three with at least 40, two with at least 50)

1989: 13/17 (seven with at least 40, one with at least 50)

1990: 12/16 (six with at least 40)

1991: 8/17 (one with at least 40)

1992: 16/22 (four with at least 40, one with at least 50)

1993: 13/19 (six with at least 40, two with at least 50)

1995: 5/10 (two with at least 40)

1996: 7/18 (three with at least 40)

1997: 8/19 (one with at least 50)

1998: 14/21 (two with at least 40)

Jordan won six championships and six Finals MVPs. His combination of high level individual scoring with team success may never be matched.

Hakeem Olajuwon scored at least 30 points in nine out of 23 playoff games in 1994 and 16 out of 22 in 1995. He led the Houston Rockets to the championship in both years, winning Finals MVP each time.

Shaquille O'Neal did not have as many playoff runs with a significant number of 30 point games as one might think. He scored at least 30 points in nine out of 13 playoff games in 1998, 13 out of 23 in 2000 (including five games with at least 40 points), seven out of 16 in 2001 (including three games with at least 40 points), eight out of 19 in 2002 (including two games with at least 40 points) and three out of 12 in 2003. He had exactly one 30 point playoff game after leaving the Lakers in 2004. O'Neal won three championships and three Finals MVPs from 2000-02 and he won a fourth title in 2006.

Kobe Bryant scored at least 30 points in six out of 16 playoff games in 2001 (including two games with at least 40 points), seven out of 19 in 2002, nine out of 12 in 2003, 12 out of 21 in 2008 (including one game with at least 40 points), 15 out of 23 in 2009 (including four games with at least 40 points), 14 out of 23 in 2010 (including one game with at least 40 points) and seven out of 12 in 2012 (including two games with at least 40 points). Bryant won three championships alongside O'Neal from 2000-2002 and then won two more titles (plus two Finals MVPs) in 2009 and 2010.

LeBron James is a great passer but he is not a "pass first" player; he is one of the most gifted and prolific scorers in pro basketball history. He scored at least 30 points in eight out of 13 playoff games in 2006 (including two games with at least 40 points), six out of 20 in 2007 (including one game with at least 40 points), seven out of 13 in 2008 (including one game with at least 40 points), nine out of 14 in 2009 (including four games with at least 40 points), five out of 10 in 2010 (including one game with at least 40 points), 13 out of 23 in 2012 (including two games with at least 40 points), 11 out of 20 in 2015 (including three games with at least 40 points), 14 out of 28 in 2017 (including two games with at least 40 points) and 12 out of 22 in 2018 (including eight games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points). James led Miami to championships in 2012 and 2013 and he led Cleveland to a championship in 2016. He won the Finals MVP each time his team captured a title.

Kevin Durant scored at least 30 points in seven out of 17 playoff games in 2011 (including three games with at least 40 points), nine out of 20 in 2012, five out of 11 in 2013 (including one game with at least 40 points), 11 out of 19 in 2014 (including one game with at least 40 points), six out of 18 in 2016 (including two games with at least 40 points), seven out of 21 in 2018 (including one game with at least 40 points) and seven out of 12 in 2019 (including three games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points). Of course, Durant injured his calf midway through Golden State's 2019 playoff run and then he ruptured his Achilles after scoring 11 points in 12 minutes during his comeback game; otherwise, his 2019 numbers would have been even gaudier than they are. Durant has appeared in four Finals (including his 2019 cameo), winning championships and Finals MVPs in 2017 and 2018.

Russell Westbrook scored at least 30 points in five out of 17 playoff games in 2011 (including one game with at least 40 points), six out of 19 in 2014 (including one game with at least 40 points), six out of 18 in 2016, four out of five in 2017 (including two games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points) and two out of six in 2018 (including two 40 point games). He made his only Finals appearance in 2012, alongside Durant.

Stephen Curry scored at least 30 points in nine out of 21 playoff games in 2015 (including two games with at least 40 points), six out of 18 in 2016 (including one game with at least 40 points), seven out of 17 in 2017 (including one game with at least 40 points), three out of 18 in 2018 and 10 out of 22 in 2019 (including one game with at least 40 points). Curry has won two titles (2017, 2018) while appearing in five straight Finals (2015-19).

Where does Kawhi Leonard's 2019 playoff scoring and collection of 30 point performances rank on the all-time list? His scoring average does not enable him to enter that elite group of players who averaged at least 35 ppg during a playoff season. His total number of 30 point games is near the top of the charts, but he benefits in that regard from the opportunity to play in more series and more games. The percentage of his total playoff games in which he scored at least 30 points does not match the best percentages posted by Pettit, Baylor, Chamberlain, West, Robertson, Barry, Abdul-Jabbar, Erving, Jordan, Olajuwon, O'Neal, Bryant, James, Durant, Westbrook or Curry--but many of the players who beat Leonard by percentage did so in seasons during which they did not win a championship and a Finals MVP.

Leonard's combination of sustained high level scoring with excellent two-way play culminating in a team championship and recognition as the Finals MVP puts him in elite company as a single season playoff performer. Leonard, Abdul-Jabbar and James are the only players who have won a Finals MVP with two different teams. Leonard has not sustained a high level of playoff excellence as long as most of the players listed above but if he stays healthy he can match or surpass many of his great predecessors.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:38 PM

1 comments

Raptors Overcome Valiant Warriors, Win First NBA Title

By the time a playoff series reaches game six, the outcome is determined at least as much by will as by any other factor. The Golden State Warriors displayed tremendous will and grit on many occasions as they reached the NBA Finals five straight times and won three titles--and, in game six of the 2019 NBA Finals, the Toronto Raptors proved that they also have tremendous will and grit. Toronto beat Golden State 114-110 to eliminate the Warriors, close down Oracle Arena and claim the first title in franchise history. Kawhi Leonard was an easy and obvious choice for Finals MVP after averaging  28.5 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 4.2 apg and 2.0 spg against the two-time defending champions. During the 2019 playoffs, Leonard averaged 30.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 3.9 apg and 1.6 spg with shooting splits of .490/.379/.884.

By the end of the Finals, the Warriors were playing an "anyone but Kawhi" defense, and Leonard found a way to not only still be productive individually but also to open up opportunities for his teammates, who stepped up big time. You might say that Leonard exercised a certain "gravity" over this series; that would be a good way to explain his impact on Golden State's defense, and his ability to create space for his teammates. Leonard's shooting splits in the Finals were .434/.357.906, but greatness is not only about numbers; it is about impact, and Leonard impacted the Finals like the true superstar that he is. As Paul Pierce noted, Leonard is the dynasty killer: he shut down the Miami Heat after the Heat won back to back titles, and now he shut down the Warriors after they won back to back titles. You could crack a joke that no one in San Antonio will laugh at, and say that Leonard shut down the Spurs' dynasty, too; badmouthing Leonard and making Leonard feel unappreciated has not turned out to be the greatest decision of the Popovich era.

One hot take after the Raptors blew a six point lead with less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter was that the Raptors would not be able to overcome such a wound to their collective psyches--but the only people who think that way are people who do not understand that each NBA playoff game is a distinct entity; emotion rarely carries over from one game to the next, but matchup advantages do carry over. With Kevin Durant sidelined for all but 12 minutes of this series, the Raptors demonstrated throughout this series that they had several matchup advantages that they could exploit, and, not surprisingly, that proved to be the case in game six as well. The Raptors quickly dismissed the notion that there would be any game five hangover in game six. Kyle Lowry scored 15 first quarter points as Toronto opened the game with an 11-2 run and still led 33-32 at the end of the first stanza.

The only way that the Warriors sans Durant could even slow down Leonard a little was to send two defenders at him very aggressively and take their chances that another Raptor would not make them pay--but the Raptors have an All-Star point guard in Lowry, a tough and clutch backup point guard in Fred VanVleet, a former All-Star center in Marc Gasol, a young player who looks like a rising star in Pascal Siakam and other players who are more than capable of making contributions. The "anyone but Kawhi" defense is not going to work against a team that is this talented and this well-coached. In game six, Lowry finished with 26 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds while shooting 9-16 from the field. Siakam added 26 points and 10 rebounds while playing a game-high 46 minutes. VanVleet scored 22 points on 6-14 field goal shooting, including 5-11 from three point range. Gasol missed all five of his field goal attempts and scored just three points but he played good defense while also adding nine rebounds and four assists.

The game was close throughout, and the Warriors led 85-80 when Klay Thompson injured his knee and was not able to return to action the rest of the way. The Warriors were still up 88-86 at the end of the third quarter and they still were ahead with less than five minutes to go in regulation. Stephen Curry, the Warriors' two-time regular season MVP who has yet to win a Finals MVP, scored just four points in the decisive fourth quarter. He missed an open three pointer with eight seconds to go that could have extended the series to a seventh game; Curry is now 0-8 during his playoff career on go-ahead field goal attempts in the final 20 seconds of a playoff game. I am not sure that a statistic like that is particularly meaningful but--for someone who is touted not just as a great player but as potentially a top 10 or top 15 player of all-time--it is significant that he has played in five NBA Finals and never clearly been the best player on the court in any of those series. I cannot think of an all-time great who made that many Finals and always took a back seat to one or more players.

In game six, it could be plausibly argued that Curry was the third most effective point guard: he finished with 21 points on 6-17 field goal shooting while passing for seven assists and committing three turnovers, which does not compare favorably with the numbers posted by Lowry or VanVleet. When a series starts with commentators floating the (ludicrous) notion that the Warriors might be better off without Durant because they have Curry and that series ends with Curry struggling to outplay Lowry and VanVleet, that is not a good line on the "I am a top 15 player of all-time" resume. Curry, like most players of his size, can be worn down over the course of a game, a season or a series. He is a great player, but he is not Kobe Bryant or LeBron James or Kevin Durant--or Kawhi Leonard.

Thompson was Golden State's best player during game six. He finished with 30 points while shooting 8-12 from the field (including 4-6 from three point range) and 10-10 from the free throw line. Former All-Star/former Finals MVP Andre Iguodala added 22 points on 9-15 field goal shooting, and Draymond Green had 11 points, 19 rebounds and 13 assists, though he also committed eight turnovers and engaged in multiple outbursts that could have--and should have--resulted in a technical foul that would have triggered an automatic suspension for game seven (if there had been a game seven). One got the sense that these referees were not going to call a technical foul on Green no matter what he did unless he reverted to his former ways of hitting or kicking opponents below the belt. Green knew that he had a license to be a whining, complaining jerk and he took full advantage of it--but at a cost to his team, as several of his extended rants took place at the expense of getting back on defense, which is a problem in an elimination game decided by just four points.

There has been a lot of talk about the injuries that the Warriors suffered during the 2019 playoffs but let's remember that the Warriors' dynasty was built more than a little bit on the bodies of All-Stars who were stricken with injuries and not able to play against Golden State--including Leonard himself in the 2017 Western Conference Finals. The injuries also exposed the reality that the Warriors have an embarrassment of riches. After Kevin Durant went down, the Warriors still had a two-time regular season MVP, four current or former All-Stars (one of whom has won a Finals MVP), a former Lottery pick who comes off of the bench and other talented, if not yet decorated, players. The Warriors' ability to remain competitive is not mysterious or magical or the result of "gravity"; this team is a legitimate championship contender even without its best player, which is why the Warriors were a dynasty during the two playoff runs that their best player dominated.

On a personal level, I feel great sympathy and empathy for Durant (who may miss all of next season after suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon) and for Thompson (who reportedly suffered a torn ACL). I also respect the way that DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Iguodala and Kevon Looney played through injuries--but, on a team level, I don't feel any more or less sympathy for the Warriors than I did for all of the injury-depleted teams that they beat in the playoffs during the past five years. Injuries are an unfortunate part of the game.

It is also a bit odd that so much is said about the Warriors' injuries but little is made of the obvious fact that Leonard has been hobbled for quite some time and that VanVleet played the last two games of this series minus at least one tooth after an inadvertent Shaun Livingston elbow performed involuntary reconstruction (or deconstruction) of Van Vleet's face. I am sure that other Raptors are banged up as well. Granted, no Raptor suffered an injury as serious as Durant's injury (or Thompson's injury if the early reports about his ACL are accurate), but the Raptors did not talk about injuries, did not make excuses and rarely complained about foul calls. They just hooped, and kept hooping, until the knocked off the champs. Golden State suffered a lot of injuries, and some very serious injuries, but the media coverage would make you think that every other team is blessed with perfect health.

The Raptors are a refreshing champion in an odd time in NBA history. The Raptors have no Lottery picks and they did not tank. Can you imagine if one of the executives who the media often praises to the sky had been running Toronto? The Raptors would most likely not be champions now with a different President/GM. Masai Ujiri cannot be praised enough for how boldly and how shrewdly he put this team together. He figured out that the Raptors were good but not good enough; in the new NBA that often means tearing everything down and tanking but instead Ujiri just added the right pieces, including a big, physical center (Marc Gasol) in an era when small ball supposedly is king. Yes, Ujiri was fortunate that Leonard became available but don't forget how down everyone was on Leonard a year ago; Ujiri ignored the noise coming out of San Antonio about Leonard, and he did not concern himself with whether or not Leonard may re-sign with the team this summer. Ujiri also hired a coach, Nick Nurse, who many people had never heard of but whose career Ujiri had been following for years.

The Raptors are a worthy champion, and I hope that they receive the praise and acclaim that they deserve before the media turns its focus to free agency, the draft, the implications of the Durant and Thompson injuries and whatever other topics media members think are more important than acknowledging greatness.

I don't know what is going to happen in free agency this summer and, frankly, on the night that the NBA title is decided I really don't care. There will be more than enough time to think about that, and to discuss whatever happens. What matters tonight is that Kawhi Leonard led a tough-minded Toronto team to a championship, thereby elevating his place in basketball history and also making sure that this Raptors squad will always be remembered.

Let's hope that all of the injured players make speedy and complete recoveries, and that the 2019-20 NBA season turns out to be a great one.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:46 AM

16 comments

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Did the Warriors Recklessly or Negligently Risk Kevin Durant's Health?

The confirmation that Kevin Durant suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon tear is awful news that will inspire months--if not years--of hot takes. I don't do hot takes, so if you are looking for one then just keep moving and it will not be hard to find dozens of them.

Durant's injury raises some interesting medical and legal questions that are well worth discussing. Most people who have commented or will comment on this situation do not have the requisite background and training to speak intelligently about medical and/or legal issues. I am not presenting myself as an expert in either area but I am able to at least speak intelligently on both subjects.

Years ago, I worked as an American Council on Exercise (ACE) certified personal trainer and, since 2016, I have been an actively licensed attorney. Therefore, I have some qualifications to comment on both the medical and legal aspects of this situation, though I must emphasize that (1) I am not currently a certified personal trainer (because I elected to pursue a different career and thus did not keep my certification active), (2) I am not a medical doctor, (3) I have never seen Kevin Durant's medical records and (4) nothing in this article should be construed as medical advice or legal advice; I am just providing food for thought based on what is publicly known about Durant's injury and based on what I learned in the process of becoming a certified personal trainer and what I learned in the process of becoming a actively licensed attorney.

Bob Myers, Golden State's President of Basketball Operations, began his surreal press conference after game five by tearfully saying that no one should be blamed for Durant's injury but because he expects that in today's world someone will be blamed he places the blame on himself. When I listened to those words my first thought was that I was not sure if this was a basketball executive trying to figure out how to protect his employer from being sued, a sensitive human being who was at a loss for what to say or someone who was so distraught that he had not coherently written out his statement before he stepped in front of the microphone. One thing is for sure: Bob Myers does not get to decide who will be blamed, either in the subjective court of public opinion, or in a court of law if this matter ends up there.

Before we go too far down the path of looking at this situation through the lens of the law, let's look at the medical angle. What is publicly known is that on May 8, 2019 in game five of the Western Conference semifinals Kevin Durant suffered a right calf injury. That injury was severe enough to not only keep him out of game action for over a month but also to prevent him from doing on court activities until shortly before game five of the NBA Finals. According to published reports, Durant had not even participated in one full practice with the team until Sunday June 9, the day before game five. Golden State Coach Steve Kerr publicly stated that it was possible that Durant could return to action with no minutes restrictions upon completing just one full practice. Kerr and Myers have both insisted that Durant would not have played in game five if there were an increased risk of Durant suffering a serious injury.

Put bluntly, from a sports medicine standpoint that makes no sense. Four weeks of inactivity is going to affect the conditioning, strength and injury-susceptibility of a healthy professional athlete, let alone an athlete who is recovering from an injury. A tight, weakened and/or not completely healed calf muscle will change an athlete's gait and balance, putting additional pressure on other muscles and on connective tissues. Again, I will emphasize that (1) I am not a doctor and (2) I have not seen Kevin Durant's medical records--but, just applying a basic understanding of how the body functions and the specific, additional stresses placed upon a professional athlete's body, it is difficult to believe that Durant was not facing a heightened risk of injury by playing in game five. To suggest otherwise defies not only common sense but basic exercise physiology. Do Myers and Kerr expect us to believe that missing a month of practices, games and the regular conditioning routines has no effect on an athlete's strength, balance, flexibility and susceptibility to injury? That strains credulity even without considering what damage may have been apparent on an MRI and/or from a thorough, competent examination of Durant's injured calf.

So, the next question would be how much of an additional risk did Durant face and was it reckless or negligent to expose him to that risk? Let's be very careful and precise with terminology. From a legal standpoint, there is a certain amount of risk that is expected and tolerable; the mere act of playing a professional sport entails a heightened risk of physical injury compared to, say, sitting at a desk and typing on a computer. The act of playing a professional sport after sitting out for a month and then having just one practice before returning to full contact, full speed competition entails an additional risk--but it could still be true that no one is to "blame," to use Myers' term or, to use the legal terminology, no one is liable. It is possible that the additional risk was within generally accepted bounds for a professional athlete in superior condition.

Legal liability in such circumstances depends on an analysis of duty, breach of duty, causation and damages (some other factors might have to be considered as well but for simplicity's sake we will not do an examination of cause-in-fact, proximate cause and other concepts that are not clear-cut even to practicing attorneys). A full understanding of how legal liability is determined requires taking a torts class in law school but I will explain the aforementioned concepts as simply as possible and discuss how they relate to this specific situation.

As Durant's employer, the Golden State Warriors have a duty to not recklessly or negligently expose him to a risk of injury in the workplace. An obvious example of reckless or negligent conduct would be forcing the players to play on a basketball court that is slippery because it has condensation on it from a hockey game played in that arena the night before; that is why leagues and teams are justifiably cautious in such situations and have delayed or even canceled games if they cannot make sure that the playing conditions are safe.

Here, the question is what specific duty the Warriors in general--and the basketball operations staff and medical team in particular--owed to Durant. One duty that the Warriors owed to Durant is to provide competent medical diagnosis and evaluation. Was Durant's initial injury diagnosed correctly? Was the risk of further injury (1) calculated reasonably within the bounds of generally accepted medical practices and (2) was this risk clearly explained to Durant before he played? These are questions of fact and law that cannot be coherently answered in a 30 second soundbite.

Once it is determined what duty of care the Warriors owed to Durant, the next legal question would be whether or not the Warriors breached that duty. For example, hypothetically speaking, if standard accepted medical practice is that a person with a calf injury like Durant's should not engage in strenuous physical activity for six weeks but Durant played in an NBA Finals game before that time frame elapsed then one could argue that the duty of care was breached. The actual medical and legal analysis of that question would be a lot more in depth than just a one sentence statement, and it would likely require expert witness testimony.

You may be wondering about the writers/commentators who suggested that Durant could have come back sooner. If he returned to action in part because of their statements, are they to blame--at least in part--for his injury? Legally, the answer is clear-cut: No, they are not liable because writers/commentators have no duty of care regarding Durant's medical condition. It is not their job to know whether or not Durant could/should play and they are not responsible for what happened when Durant played. Now, from an ethical and moral standpoint was it sleazy to publicly question the heart and/or motivations of an athlete whose work ethic and dedication have never been in doubt? I would say that it was very sleazy. In general, unless a media member knows from personal observation and/or has reliable information from multiple sources that an athlete is not truly injured, it is a good practice to not tarnish the player's character and reputation. On the other hand, if a player says that his elbow is injured but you see him shooting one handed, half court shots with that arm during pregame warmups, it is legitimate to write what you observed and let readers form their own judgments (if you have followed the NBA playoffs closely for at least a decade, you know exactly what I am talking about).

Returning to the analysis of the Warriors' potential liability, if it would be determined that the Warriors breached their duty of care for Durant, then the next question would be if that breach of duty caused the damages. It is possible for a person or group of persons to breach a duty of care and yet not be liable for damages because it cannot be shown that the breach caused any damages. Again, this is a question of fact and of law. An obvious example of a breach of duty that did not cause the damages would be if Durant had played on an injured calf when he should not have played on it and then suffered a broken nose as a result of an errant elbow; the breach of duty regarding the treatment of his calf did not cause the broken nose. It is worth mentioning that a court would not likely accept the argument that the player would not have suffered a broken nose at all if he had not played when he should not have played; the court would likely hold that a broken nose from an errant elbow is a risk that is inherent in playing basketball, and that playing basketball on an injured calf did not make it more likely that the player would be elbowed in the nose.

If the duty of care is established, a breach of duty is demonstrated and it is shown that the breach of duty caused the damages then the next question would be to determine the amount of the damages. Here, damages could include medical costs, pain and suffering and, if Durant does not return to full health, a loss of potential future earnings.

Nothing in this article is meant to suggest that the Warriors did anything wrong medically, that they are liable legally or that Durant should or will pursue legal action against the team and/or the medical staff. It just seems to me that it makes more sense to calmly examine the situation within the relevant medical and legal framework as opposed to engaging in wild speculation or making big declarations that are not grounded in medical science and/or law. It will be interesting to read Michael McCann's take on this (if Sports Illustrated's resident legal expert chooses to write about it) but I expect that most commentary about Durant's injury is going to generate a lot more heat than light.

I wish Durant a speedy and full recovery. I hope that he received and continues to receive the best possible medical care--but, if he did not, our legal system provides an opportunity to pursue damages and remedies.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:36 AM

12 comments

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Durant Provides Spark Before Getting Injured Again, Warriors Hang on to Beat Raptors, 106-105

The king is not dead--at least not yet. The two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors took a double digit lead in game five, survived Kevin Durant's re-injury and staged a last minute comeback to defeat Toronto, 106-105. The series returns to Oakland for game six and the Warriors still have an opportunity to become the first NBA team since the 2000-02 Shaquille O'Neal/Kobe Bryant-led L.A. Lakers to win three straight titles.

However, this night will very possibly be remembered not for a classic Finals game with a dramatic ending but rather for the moment that might have changed the landscape for the entire NBA--because all signs are pointing toward Durant's injury not being merely an aggravation of his original calf issue but a serious injury that could sideline Durant far beyond just the 2019 NBA Finals. Golden State General Manager Bob Myers' stunning, teary-eyed post-game press conference--during which he described Durant's injury as an "Achilles injury" and implored the assembled media to "blame" him for the decision to have Durant play--strongly suggests that the Warriors fear that Durant has suffered an Achilles tendon tear, which would have huge implications not only for this series but also for the entire league. Rather than providing what was expected to just be an update about Durant's condition, Myers went into great detail about how the entire medical staff, through a "collaborative" effort, cleared Durant to play and that no one is to blame for what happened but that since someone is always blamed in today's world that he--Myers--will accept that blame. Myers did not provide any details beyond confirming that Durant suffered an Achilles injury and will have an MRI on Tuesday but why would Durant leave on crutches with the game in progress and why would Myers be so emotional if this were just a re-injury?

Once Durant's exact condition is confirmed, there will be plenty of time to analyze the decision to let him play and to break down the league-wide implications of that decision but for now we will return our focus to game five and to this series.

In his 12 minutes of action, Durant scored 11 points on 3-5 field goal shooting (including 3-3 from three point range) and posted the best plus/minus number (+6) for Golden State; three of the other four Golden State starters had negative plus/minus numbers, with only Andre Iguodala (+3) in positive territory. We got a glimpse of the reality about these two teams; with Kevin Durant, the Warriors are clearly the superior team but without Durant the matchup is in Toronto's favor, though the Warriors can still generate enough spurts to pull out a win.

Stephen Curry scored a game-high 31 points on 10-23 field goal shooting (including 5-14 from three point range), while also grabbing eight rebounds and dishing seven assists. Klay Thompson scored 26 points on 9-21 field goal shooting (including 7-13 from three point range) and, with just under a minute left in the fourth quarter, he calmly drained the three point shot that turned out to be the game-winner. DeMarcus Cousins--pushed out of the starting lineup with Durant's return--stayed ready, and after Durant went down he contributed 14 points and six rebounds in 20 minutes. The Warriors do not win this game without his scoring and inside presence.

The Raptors blew a golden opportunity to clinch a championship and if they do not win this series they will surely rue their awful three point shooting (8-32). Kawhi Leonard had an up and down game by his high standards. He finished with 26 points, 12 rebounds and six assists but he also had five turnovers and shot just 9-24 from the field. His personal 10-0 run during the fourth quarter seemed to put him on the verge of clinching his second Finals MVP but the Warriors answered with a 9-0 run and the outcome shifts the focus back to the long stretches during this game when Leonard did not impose his will, which is uncharacteristic for him during this series specifically and during this postseason in general. Still, his presence always had a significant impact and it is telling that on the final possession of the game the Warriors played what could best be called an "anyone but Kawhi" defense: they trapped Kawhi in the middle of the court and showed that, with elimination on the line in a game that they only led by one point, they were willing to live with a wide open shot by anyone else on the court. "Anyone else" turned out to be five-time All-Star Kyle Lowry, whose last second shot from the left corner was not even close.

Lowry finished with 18 points and six assists, while Marc Gasol had 17 points and eight rebounds. Serge Ibaka scored 15 points and collected six rebounds in just 17 minutes.

The start of the game had a different feel from the previous four games, as the insertion of Durant into the starting lineup had an obvious effect on both teams. Durant hit his first two shots--both from beyond the three point arc--to give the Warriors an 11-6 lead. Golden State was up 34-28 by the end of the first quarter. Curry, freed from the responsibility of being his team's best player and the focus of the Toronto defense, scored 14 points on 5-6 field goal shooting, while Durant looked as sharp as ever with 11 points on 3-4 field goal shooting.

Golden State led 39-34 at the 9:46 mark in the second quarter when Durant was helped off of the court and taken straight to the locker room. He suffered the injury with minimal or no contact; he was trying to drive by Ibaka when his lower right leg just gave out, much like it did when he had the original calf injury--but it was evident from his reaction and the reaction of his teammates that this time was different.

Cousins took Durant's place in the lineup and he had an immediate impact. Just like it is stupid to suggest that the Warriors are better without Durant, it is also stupid to suggest that the Warriors are better without Cousins, a four-time All-Star. Cousins is recovering from two serious injuries, so clearly he is not 100% physically and he is not in prime cardiovascular condition yet but he scores, rebounds, passes and knows how to use his size effectively. The Warriors initially extended their lead to double digits after Durant left the game, and if you tilted your head just right you could hear the keyboards of the "stat gurus" clattering as they furiously typed their "Golden State is better without Durant--but Cousins is still a scrub" stories--and then, in the second half, reality struck back hard. Golden State led 62-56 at halftime but the Warriors were outscored 49-44 in the second half, a glimpse of what the rest of this series will probably look like.

A lot of interesting things happened in the second half that will be swept away in light of Durant's injury and the frantic closing minutes but it is worth mentioning a few of these occurrences. Draymond Green picked up his sixth technical foul of the playoffs, which not only could have cost the Warriors this game--and the series--but also means that if he gets one more technical foul he will be suspended for a game. You may recall that a suspension for excessive technical fouls was one factor in Cleveland's comeback versus Golden State in the 2016 Finals. Fred VanVleet was awful in the first half--which is not surprising considering the inadvertent elbow to the face from Shaun Livingston that he suffered last game, a blow that drew blood and knocked at least one tooth loose--but he drained three three pointers in the second half and would have been one of this game's heroes if Toronto had held on to win. The Raptors need timely contributions from VanVleet in order to close out Golden State.

Draymond Green took a second stab at being the goat when he committed a backcourt violation in the last minute of the game. Toronto took advantage of this opportunity with a Lowry layup that trimmed Golden State's lead to 106-105. Then, Cousins committed an offensive foul on Golden State's next possession, giving the Raptors a chance to win on the game's final possession. For some odd reason, the Raptors did not seem to anticipate or prepare for the "anyone but Kawhi" defense. Leonard made the correct basketball play by swinging the ball, resulting in Lowry's baseline attempt that went awry, but if the Raptors had executed better and had better spacing then Leonard would have perhaps had a chance to create a shot for himself.

The Warriors escaped to live for at least one more game and the Raptors have to put this one behind them quickly so that they can embrace the great opportunity they will have in game six to win a championship.

It must be said that some of the media coverage leading up to game five was bizarre. Michael Shapiro of Sports Illustrated declared that Kawhi Leonard has a chance to join Hakeem Olajuwon and LeBron James on the exclusive list of players who have averaged 30 ppg and 9 rpg during a playoff run. Ignoring for a moment that the 30-9 combination of numbers seems a bit contrived, it is sad that many of those who cover pro basketball know so little about anything that happened in the sport before the mid-1990s. Even without an editor and a fact-checker, anyone who has a basic knowledge of pro basketball history knows Shapiro's statement is false. Off the top of my head, I immediately thought of Bob Pettit, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Bob McAdoo and Shaquille O'Neal. Again, the 30-9 combination is a bit odd--why not 31 and 8 or 29 and 11 if we are not going to use round numbers like 30-10?--but Olajuwon, James and Leonard are far from the only players who combined elite scoring with near-double figure rebounding during the playoffs. For the record, Pettit had one 31-15 playoff season, Chamberlain began his playoff career with four straight postseasons of at least 33-23, Elgin Baylor had four straight playoffs averaging at least 32-13, Abdul-Jabbar had four postseasons with at least 31-12 and Erving averaged 33-20 as a rookie and then 34-12 four postseasons later during one of the most dominant playoff performances in pro basketball history. McAdoo had two playoff runs of at least 31-13, McGinnis had one 32-15 playoff run and O'Neal had three 30-10 playoff runs. No wonder commentators think that everything that is happening now (other than Russell Westbrook's triple double seasons; those have to be minimized at all costs for some inexplicable reason) is the greatest thing ever; they do not have the vaguest concept about what transpired in previous eras.

Leonard has had a great 2019 playoff run but his playoff run is not in a scoring/rebounding category that includes only Olajuwon and James.

Shapiro's nonsense was just a warmup before reading an article by Greg Cote of the Miami Herald. Cote declared that if Durant does not lead Golden State to a comeback from a 3-1 deficit then this proves that he is not indispensable, or, as the headline put it, Durant "must now rescue Golden State to save his legacy." It is true that writers do not necessarily write the headlines but in this instance the article's theme was as stupid as the headline. Let's get this straight: if Durant did not come back from more than a month off due to a serious injury and then lead the Warriors to a historic Finals comeback from a 3-1 deficit against a team that enjoys home court advantage then his "legacy" is ruined? So, two championships, two Finals MVPs and an 8-1 (now, 9-1) record in the NBA Finals with Durant compared to one championship and an 8-9 record in the NBA Finals without Durant does not at least suggest--if not prove--that Durant is "indispensable"? Get out of here with that nonsense. It is amazing that people are actually paid to write things that make no sense and have no factual basis.

Durant risked his health to come back, he may suffer for it the rest of his career and if the Warriors win this championship they would not have been able to do it without the boost that he provided--but he still has something to prove, some part of his legacy that needs protecting? That may be the worst basketball "analysis" that I have read since Kobe Bryant was in his prime and media members were dueling with themselves to see who could display the least understanding of his impact and value.

So, what is going to happen next? Michael Shapiro and Greg Cote probably are confident that they can predict this with certainty, but anyone who claims to know what will happen next is a fool. It is obviously demoralizing for the Raptors to blow a six point lead when they were less than three minutes away from clinching the franchise's first championship, but it is also demoralizing for the Warriors to rush their best player back into action and lose him to a possibly serious injury.

Without Durant on the court, the Raptors led Golden State 3-1 and since Durant is surely out for the rest of the series it is clear that the Raptors enjoy a distinct advantage. Will they close out the series in California, or at home in game seven? That is hard to say but the Raptors have shown the ability throughout the playoffs to shrug off tough losses and bounce back--and the Warriors have not shown the ability to win consistently in the Finals without Durant. The objective evidence points toward an eventual Toronto victory but there are good reasons that I picked Golden State before the series without knowing when/if Durant would return; the Warriors are a veteran-laden legitimate championship contender even without Durant and, although they cannot dominate elite competition without him, they can hold their own and have a puncher's chance at the end. It will definitely be interesting to see how this turns out.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:34 AM

9 comments

Saturday, June 08, 2019

Kawhi Not? Leonard Leads Way as Raptors are One Win Away From Dethroning Warriors

Kawhi Leonard dominated in all phases of the game as his Toronto Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors 105-92 to take a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. Only one team has ever blown a 3-1 Finals lead--the Warriors, in 2016 versus LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers. Leonard finished with a game-high 36 points, a game-high 12 rebounds and a game-high four steals while shooting 11-22 from the field (including 5-9 from three point range) and 9-9 from the free throw line. He also had no turnovers in a team-high 41 minutes of action. Leonard is well on his way to claiming his second Finals MVP in the past six seasons. Serge Ibaka contributed 20 points off of the bench in just 22 minutes, Pascal Siakam added 19 points and Kyle Lowry had a significant impact that is not captured by his pedestrian box score numbers (10 points, team-high seven assists).

The most important name in the Golden State box score is the name that did not appear: Kevin Durant. Have you seen any articles in the past few days about "gravity" and about how much better the Warriors are without Durant? The silence on that front is deafening, and refreshing. The playoffs do a wonderful job of myth-busting. Not only can everyone see the truth now about Durant versus Curry but every year in the playoffs we get to examine--and refute--the notion that James Harden is a "foundational player." There are major cracks in the "foundation" when Harden falls apart every postseason without fail and when he cannot lead his team to a series victory against a Warriors team sans Durant who--in case you did not realize it--is clearly Golden State's best player.

Klay Thompson and Kevon Looney both returned from the injuries that caused them to miss Toronto's game three win and they both made significant contributions--a team-high 28 points on 11-18 field goal shooting for Thompson, 10 points and six rebounds off of the bench for Looney--but, as is often the case in the NBA, these games are decided by which team's best player has the most impact. With Durant sidelined, Curry is the Warriors' best player, and he finished with 27 points and six assists while shooting 9-22 from the field (including 2-9 from three point range). Curry did not have a terrible game but he did not have a good game by his standards, and he certainly did not play as well as Leonard did. It should not be surprising that Curry is wearing down as the series progresses. Size matters in the NBA and that is a major reason that guys like Curry and Steve Nash simply are not as good or as valuable as Finals MVPs such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant--and Kawhi Leonard.

Draymond Green narrowly missed posting a triple double (10 points, 12 assists, nine rebounds) but he also had the second-worst plus/minus number on the team (-13) and he often let his temper get the best of him; he was whistled for four fouls and one technical foul but on several occasions he chirped loudly enough to earn a second technical foul and automatic ejection. While Lowry's impact was more than the sum of his boxscore numbers during this game, it could fairly be said that Green's impact was less than the sum of his boxscore numbers during this game.

Much is said about Golden State's championship DNA and grit--deservedly so--but take note that in this key road game the Raptors bounced back to win after trailing by double figures in the first half. The Raptors started out the game shooting 3-13 from the field and in the first quarter Raptors not named Leonard shot 1-13 from the field; fortunately for Toronto, the Raptor named Leonard scored 14 first quarter points on 5-8 field goal shooting, so the Warriors only led 23-17 after the first stanza.

Toronto shot 15-44 (.351) from the field in the first half but only trailed 46-42 at halftime. During the famous "Rope a Dope" heavyweight boxing match between champion George Foreman and challenger Muhammad Ali, Foreman hit Ali with everything that he had for several rounds before Ali looked at him and asked, "That all you got, George?" Foreman later recalled that this was the moment he realized, "This ain't what I thought it was." The Warriors had their "This ain't what I thought it was" moment in the third quarter, starting with Leonard drilling back to back three pointers to give Toronto a 48-46 lead. The teams traded the lead for a little while but Leonard had set the tone for what turned out to be a 37-21 Toronto third quarter explosion, paced by Leonard's 17 points on 5-7 field goal shooting.

The Raptors led 82-72 with 9:35 left in the fourth quarter after Shaun Livingston hit two free throws. Livingston clocked Fred Van Vleet with an inadvertent elbow on the play, opening a nasty gash underneath Van Vleet's right eye and knocking out multiple teeth. Van Vleet has been a major spark plug for the Raptors. If there was ever a time for Curry to take over and the Warriors to make a series-saving run, that was it--but, instead, Ibaka answered with a three point play on the next possession, Thompson missed a long three pointer and Leonard drilled a "That's all, folks" three pointer to put the Raptors up 88-72. The Warriors never got closer than eight points the rest of the way and when they were down 10 with about two and a half minutes to go Curry uncorked an airball that punctuated the final sentence in the Durant-Curry "debate" that made about as much sense as "debating"whether or not the Earth is flat.

The series is not over until one team wins four games, so now is not the time to place this series in historical context, but two diverse sets of thought come to mind:

1) The last time that we saw a healthy Kawhi Leonard playing for the San Antonio Spurs, they were pounding the Golden State Warriors--with Kevin Durant--before a dirty Zaza Pachulia play took Leonard out of the series. There is a lot of talk about Gregg Popovich and the "Spurs way" but ever since Leonard got hurt and then left San Antonio the Spurs have not been anything special while the Raptors are on the verge of winning the franchise's first title. The common denominator in dominating the Warriors for the Spurs and then the Raptors is Leonard. Alienating and then trading Leonard is not adding much to Popovich's legacy.

2) After hearing so much about "gravity" and about Golden State's regular season record without Durant here are some numbers to consider in the next few days before game five: Curry has no Finals MVPs in his first four Finals appearances, he has a 1-6 record in his last seven Finals games without Durant and in his last full Finals without Durant the Warriors became the only team in NBA history to squander a 3-1 lead. "Gravity," indeed.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:53 AM

17 comments

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Leonard Leads Balanced Attack As Raptors Subdue Warriors to Take 2-1 Lead

Kawhi Leonard scored 30 points, grabbed seven rebounds and dished for six assists while leading Toronto to a 123-109 victory over Golden State in game three of the NBA Finals. The Raptors reclaimed the home court advantage that they lost in game two and they are now two wins away from dethroning the two-time defending champions. All five Toronto starters scored in double figures: Kyle Lowry finally showed up in the Finals (23 points, nine assists), Pascal Siakam had a nice all-around game (18 points, nine rebounds, six assists), Danny Green is no longer missing (18 points, 6-10 shooting from three point range) and Marc Gasol provided physical presence at both ends of the court (17 points, seven rebounds, four assists).

Stephen Curry scored a playoff career-high 47 points while also contributing eight rebounds and seven assists but only two other Warriors reached double figures in scoring: Draymond Green (17 points, seven rebounds, four assists) and Andre Iguodala (11 points, six rebounds, three assists). Kevin Durant remains out of action due to his calf injury and Klay Thompson was a late scratch after hurting his hamstring in game two. The Warriors also felt the absence of Kevon Looney, the center who has been ruled out for the rest of the series after injuring his shoulder.

DeMarcus Cousins, who had a strong performance in game two, looked like he was plodding through quicksand while wearing a 50 pound backpack: he scored four points on 1-7 field goal shooting in just 19 minutes. One of the biggest challenges when coming back from an injury after a long absence is to not only reclaim one's former excellence--we saw more than a glimpse of that in game two--but to maintain that level consistently with a body that is not yet 100% conditioned for extended NBA minutes. Cousins can and will still be a factor in this series but he is a wildcard factor, not a day in, day out factor like he was capable of being before he got hurt.

Curry scored 17 points in the first quarter en route to 25 points in the first half and then he scored 22 points in the second half. He is a great player who had a magnificent game but, that being said, we know that if Kobe Bryant or Russell Westbrook had scored 47 points on 14-31 field goal shooting while only one other teammate attempted more than 10 shots from the field then there would have been endless talk about Bryant or Westbrook shooting too much, not being efficient and not trusting their teammates. That talk would have been nonsense under any circumstances, and particularly with two All-Stars out of the lineup, so no one should nitpick at the margins of Curry's boxscore numbers. Just remember that the media does not apply the same standards to all players.

Speaking of double standards, the NBA must decide what is a foul on long jump shots and then the league must consistently enforce whatever it decides. Now, chaos reigns supreme.  James Harden flops all over the place and is rewarded. Other players are knocked down and nothing is called. Also, Thompson's injury happened when he was blatantly flopping to try to fool the referees into calling a foul; if the league established standards for shooting fouls and consistently followed those standards then there would be no incentive for Harden, Thompson and others to contort their bodies after shooting the ball as if they are suffering from some kind of serious neurological condition.

The headline in some game stories may relate to Stephen Curry's scoring or the absence of Golden State's injured players but no one should diminish what the Raptors have accomplished thus far or the possibility that the Raptors will indeed win the title; after all, Golden State's current run of excellence began in the 2015 Finals when they defeated a Cleveland team that was missing two All-Star caliber players, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love--two players who, not incidentally, were healthy in 2016 and who each played a major role in Cleveland's Finals victory versus the Warriors, the last time that Golden State lost a playoff series.

Injuries are part of the game, unfortunately, and, in any case, based on what we have been hearing about "gravity" for the past month one might have been forgiven for thinking that Stephen Curry could walk on water while creating enough space to carry any four players to victory. There have been a lot of "gravity" statistics bandied about and a lot of numbers cited pertaining to the Warriors' record with Curry and without Durant, so try this number on for size: the Warriors are 1-5 in their last six NBA Finals games without Durant. In case the tales of gravitational pull warped your memory, you will recall that the Warriors are 8-1 in their NBA Finals games with Durant, during which time they won two titles and he won two Finals MVPs.

Toronto quickly jumped out to a 17-7 lead in game three and the Raptors extended that to 28-16 late in the first quarter. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy correctly noted that the early story was "not about (Golden State) being depleted" but rather about "good offense beating bad defense." The Raptors are a championship caliber team and they would be a contending team in just about any season in recent NBA history, and they deserve credit for that, credit that should not be minimized by endless paeans to Curry or constant lamenting about the Warriors' injuries. One of the reasons that few teams have ever had a five year run like the Warriors' current five year run is that few teams have ever enjoyed as much relative health as the Warriors have--and the Warriors have also been the beneficiary of injuries to not just Irving and Love but also to Kawhi Leonard, whose San Antonio Spurs were beating the brakes off of the Warriors in game one of the 2017 Western Conference Finals before Zaza Pachulia took Leonard out with a series-ending cheap shot. So, if you are going to say that the Warriors would have won the 2019 title but for the Durant and Thompson injuries then you also must entertain the notion that the Warriors may not have won the 2015 and 2017 titles had the injury gods not favored them in those years.

Leonard is a throwback superstar in all of the right ways. He has Julius Erving's big hands and gentlemanly demeanor combined with Scottie Pippen's suffocating defense and a free throw/three point shooting touch that neither Erving nor Pippen consistently demonstrated. That is not to say that Leonard is greater than either player--such comparisons generate more heat than light and are not the point of this article--but rather that he is a joy to watch for a basketball purist. Leonard makes the right play, he leads his team quietly but effectively and he does not show up the other team or the referees. At the 6:28 mark of the first half, he was whistled for a charge even though Draymond Green was backpedaling and clearly had at least one foot in the restricted area. Leonard did not yell or complain; he just headed back up court to play defense. I don't know why the San Antonio Spurs chose to publicly trash Leonard and poison their relationship with him but that looks like the biggest mistake by far of the Gregg Popovich era. Leonard is a great player at both ends of the court and if he stays healthy he will remain one of the league's best players for years to come.

ESPN's Jalen Rose often says that the "Third Quarter Warriors" are the NBA's 31st team but Leonard kept the "Third Quarter Warriors" in check in game three, scoring 15 points in the third stanza as the Raptors outscored the Warriors 36-31 to pad their lead and, although the Warriors kept battling, essentially clinch the win.    

In the next 24-48 hours all of the smoke and mirrors about Durant's current condition will disappear. If there is any way that Durant can play in this series, he will be on the court in game four on Friday. If he does not play on Friday, I would be surprised to see him on the court before next season. I will be very surprised if Thompson does not play in game four and I think that there is a better than 50% chance that Durant plays as well. I suspect that the Warriors thought that they had a puncher's chance to win game three without both players and that they also thought that even if they lost then they could win three of the next four games if both players are available the rest of the way--or, Durant may have actually suffered a season-ending injury that the Warriors will not disclose until the season ends, which could be sooner than the Warriors and the bards of  "gravity" ever suspected.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:23 AM

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Monday, June 03, 2019

Gritty Golden State Beats Toronto 109-104 in Game Two of the NBA Finals

Winning a championship is not always about things being orderly, aesthetically pleasing and smooth; sometimes, winning a championship is about things being chaotic, grimy and rough--and that was game two in a nutshell for the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors, who survived a 12 point first half deficit to beat the Toronto Raptors 109-104, even the NBA Finals at 1-1, and claim home court advantage as the series shifts from Canada to California for the next two games.

Klay Thompson led Golden State with 25 points on 10-17 field goal shooting despite playing just 32 minutes; he suffered a hamstring injury late in the third quarter and did not play the rest of the game. The injury apparently happened when he did the splits during his follow through on a long jump shot, in an attempt to fool the referees into calling a foul. The referees did not fall for Thompson's stunt, Thompson landed awkwardly and he favored his left hamstring for the next few possessions before asking out of the game. I do not wish injury on any player, but I despise the way so many players try to cheat the game as opposed to just making plays. Thompson is one of the greatest shooters of all-time; he should concentrate on shooting the ball, not trying to trick the referees. If Thompson had done his normal follow through he almost certainly would not have been injured. Let's hope he recovers quickly--and learns his lesson.

Stephen Curry scored 23 points, dished four assists and had just one turnover but he only shot 6-17 from the field, including 3-10 from the three point line. It was odd to listen to ABC's broadcasting crew bend over backwards to make excuses for Curry, claiming early in the game that an undefined "something" was not right with Curry. There is an old quip among chess players about never beating a healthy opponent, and that seems to be the standard that is applied to Curry; if he is beaten, outplayed or anything less than the greatest thing since sliced bread the only possible explanation is that he is injured, sick or possibly near death. I love Curry's game--and I have never heard him make excuses--but the media coverage that he gets is very biased in his favor. Russell Westbrook played in the first round of the playoffs this season with multiple injuries that subsequently required surgery but no allowances were made in his favor while he played, or after he had those surgeries.

Golden State's best all-around player was Draymond Green, who was all over the court as the point of the spear defensively while also contributing 17 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.

DeMarcus Cousins, who Coach Steve Kerr moved into the starting lineup in just his second game back after missing most of the playoffs due to injury, had a significant impact with 11 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Cousins' ability to grab a defensive rebound and then push the ball up the court was a major factor during the game-deciding third quarter run. Cousins' comeback from injury is impressive and his performance puts to shame anyone who suggested that the Warriors do not need him or that putting him in the lineup would cause more harm than good. It should be self-evident that inserting an All-Star caliber center into the lineup is a good thing, but then again there are many so-called experts who are convinced that Golden State is better off without Kevin Durant, so one should not assume that anything is self-evident!

Andre Iguodala has turned into this generation's Robert Horry; his eight points, eight rebounds and six assists do not jump out of the boxscore but he made numerous key plays, culminating in the three point shot that clinched Golden State's victory with seven seconds remaining.

Kawhi Leonard led the Raptors with game-high totals in points (34) and rebounds (14) but he shot just 8-20 from the field and committed five turnovers. Despite the low shooting percentage and high turnovers, Leonard did enough as his team's best player for Toronto to win, but his supporting cast let him down.

While no one could have reasonably expected Pascal Siakam to match his game one performance of 32 points on 14-17 field goal shooting, the Raptors need more from him than 12 points on 5-18 field goal shooting. Siakam had a very good floor game (eight rebounds, five assists, no turnovers), but a team's second option must shoot better than Siakam did.

Fred VanVleet scored 17 points but his 7-17 field goal shooting--including 2-8 from three point range--is also not quite good enough. Marc Gasol (six points on 2-7 field goal shooting) was awful, and Kyle Lowry (13 points on 4-11 field goal shooting before fouling out) was not much better. Lowry's advocates claim that he does positive things that do not show up in the boxscore but, while that is true to some extent, he does not take enough charges and make enough savvy plays to compensate for his poor shooting, his excessive fouling and his poor decision making--which culminated in collecting his sixth foul on a reach in 90 feet away from the basket he was defending. The fifth Toronto starter, Danny Green, is appearing on milk cartons throughout Canada; if you see him, please let him know that the NBA Finals are taking place now, his team is participating, and any assistance that he can provide would be much appreciated. 

During the first quarter, the teams traded body blows. Thompson scored the Warriors' first nine points as they jumped out to a 9-7 lead but the Raptors were up 27-26 by the end of that stanza.

Curry missed his first six shots from the field, but then he made his next four attempts. The Raptors led 47-35 after Kawhi Leonard converted a three point play with 5:16 remaining in the first half. Up to that point, the Warriors' defense looked shaky, they were shooting less than .400 from the field and it seemed like they were heading into an 0-2 hole--but the Warriors closed the first half by outscoring the Raptors 19-12, including a 9-3 run in the last two minutes. The boxing cliche states that you have to knock out the champion, and the Raptors had just missed a golden opportunity to deliver a knockout punch. The Warriors blitzed the Raptors 18-0 to start the third quarter and never trailed the rest of the way. That 18-0 run is the longest such run in a Finals game since at least the ABA/NBA merger in 1976.

At halftime, Paul Pierce pointed out that for Golden State to win Curry must have the edge against VanVleet but in the first half those two players were basically a wash. There still are at least three games and possibly as many as five games left in this series, but the NBA Finals once again are heading in a direction away from Curry being the MVP. During his previous four Finals appearances, he has rarely been the best player on the court for any extended period of time--unlike Durant, who was dominant in his two Finals appearances with the Warriors, winning the Finals MVP both times--and that is noteworthy considering how much praise Curry receives and how favorably he is compared with some of the greatest players of all-time. While it is probably true that no Pantheon-level player was the best player in every ABA or NBA Finals in which he played, it must be noted that, other than Oscar Robertson--whose two NBA Finals appearances came late in his career, alongside a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar--every Pantheon-level player was the best player in at least one ABA or NBA Finals. Curry's inability to be the best player on the sport's biggest stage is a factor that must be considered when comparing him to the best of the best; yes, he is a Top 50 player, but talk of him being the best point guard ever and/or one of the top 10 or 15 players of all-time is more than a little premature.

Redirecting our focus from historical context to the game at hand, much attention is given to plays that occur in the final two minutes or so of close games--and those plays may very well be significant--but the outcome of an NBA game is often determined by plays that take place much earlier; if you squander multiple possessions prior to the closing moments, you greatly magnify the likelihood that you will be trailing late in the game, which then puts a lot of pressure on you to be perfect or lucky--or both--in order to prevail. If the Raptors had been less careless with their second quarter lead and/or if they had been more focused at the start of the third quarter, then they would not have had to rely on last second plays to try to survive.

That being said, both teams committed some potentially fatal gaffes in the final moments. With 1:08 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Warriors led 106-98; I don't have one of those "win probability" spreadsheets handy but I would be willing to bet that a team leading by eight points with that amount of time left has a 99% chance of winning. Then, Cousins fouled Leonard on a drive to the hoop--and Curry threw the ball high in the air, drawing an automatic technical foul. Curry's foolish loss of focus could have proven costly--but since the Warriors won and the media loves Curry, do not expect to hear much about that play outside of this recap. Leonard made all three free throws, cutting the margin to 106-101.

Draymond Green then committed a turnover and the Raptors snared two offensive rebounds before Danny Green--he's alive!--made a three pointer with 26.9 seconds left. The Warriors only led 106-104 and with so little differential between shot clock and game clock the Raptors clearly needed to (1) foul quickly to extend the game and (2) avoid fouling Curry. The Raptors whiffed on opportunities to foul Draymond Green and Shaun Livingston before the ball found its way to a wide open Iguodala behind the three point line. Iguodala does many things well on a consistent basis, but outside shooting is not one of those things. The percentage play for the Warriors was to bleed as much clock as possible and then either force the Raptors to foul Curry or else launch a field goal attempt just before the shot clock expired, hoping either for a make or a scramble during which time ran out.

Instead, Iguodala took the shot and drained it with 7.0 seconds remaining. It was a bad, or at least questionable, shot and if he had missed it then the Raptors could have secured the defensive rebound, called timeout, advanced the ball and had a great opportunity to go for the tie or even the win. Iguodala's shot was not a good shot--much like Damian Lillard's long heave that eliminated Oklahoma City was not a good shot--but it was a gutsy, confident shot and by making it he sealed the win. Kudos to Iguodala for making the shot but shame on the Raptors for squandering so many early opportunities that they put themselves in a predicament such that they could be beaten by a bad, low percentage shot.

What have we learned about these teams collectively, and some of these players individually, after two NBA Finals games?

1) It is evident that Golden State is not better without Kevin Durant; the Warriors have transformed from a well-oiled machine to a jalopy that is leaking oil but is still able to barely cross the finish line ahead of everyone else. With Durant, the Warriors are one of the greatest teams of all-time; without Durant, they are a solid championship contender that has to grind out wins against other solid championship contenders (Portland was more pretender than contender, but Toronto is the real deal).

2) Kawhi Leonard is a beast but the amount of support that he receives from game to game varies widely and dictates how successful Toronto will be.

3) Stephen Curry is a great player but he is not a dominant NBA Finals performer in the mold of the Pantheon players.

4) Pascal Siakam may very well be a future All-Star but the Raptors will not win this series unless he plays like an All-Star more often than not for the remainder of this series.

5) We keep hearing that Golden State has no depth, but every time someone on that squad gets hurt the Warriors are able to put a former All-Star and/or former Lottery pick into the rotation. When DeMarcus Cousins is healthy he is a proven 25-10 player but the Warriors are so deep they survived for more than a month without him before pushing the "Break in case of emergency" button and starting him in game two of the Finals.

6) It is foolish to overreact to the vicissitudes of one game. Unless Durant comes back and is healthy enough to be his usual dominant self, these teams are pretty evenly matched and this figures to be a long series. Golden State has the edge in terms of championship experience and mental toughness, while Toronto has the best individual player (Kawhi Leonard). We will still likely see at least one more road win--and many more hot takes--before the 2019 champion is crowned.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:08 AM

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Friday, May 31, 2019

Raptors Control Game One, Defeat Warriors 118-109

The Toronto Raptors sucked the "gravity" out of the Golden State Warriors and took a 1-0 lead in the NBA Finals with a 118-109 win. Prior to this series, there has been a lot of talk about Stephen Curry being better than Kevin Durant because of the "gravity" that Curry creates with his shooting skills and relentless movement without the ball--but in game one, Curry's Warriors trailed for most of the game, scored just 49 first half points and shot just .436 from the field.

Pascal Siakam scored a game-high 32 points for the Raptors, shooting a blistering 14-17 from the field. Siakam shot 6-6 from the field during the third quarter, part of a stretch during which he made 11 consecutive field goals without a miss--the longest such streak during the NBA Finals in 20 years. He also had eight rebounds and five assists. Kawhi Leonard had a poor shooting night from the field (5-14) but his huge fingerprints were all over this game as he scored 23 points, grabbed eight rebounds, dished five assists and tied for game-high honors with a +11 plus/minus number during a game-high 43 minutes. If anyone displayed "gravity" and an impact that went beyond field goals made then it was Leonard, not Curry; the Warriors focused a lot of defensive attention on Leonard, and Leonard's teammates took advantage of the opportunities that this created. It was also nice to see no "load management" for Leonard during this game!

Marc Gasol scored 20 points, had seven rebounds and played a major role defensively by pressuring Curry whenever the Warriors forced a switch. Kyle Lowry shot poorly from the field (seven points on 2-9 field goal shooting) but he led the Raptors with nine assists, he had six rebounds and he tied for game-high honors with a +11 plus/minus number that reflects his intangible contributions. Yes, Lowry must shoot better if the Raptors are going to continue to be successful but he had a better game than his shooting numbers suggest. Fred VanVleet scored 15 points off of the bench and tied Leonard and Lowry with a +11 plus/minus number. The Raptors shot .506 from the field in addition to slowing down the Warriors' vaunted offense.

Meanwhile, Curry scored a game-high 34 points but his -9 plus/minus number was worse than the plus/minus number of every player other than Klay Thompson, who had a -10 plus/minus number despite scoring 21 points on 8-17 field goal shooting. Curry scored 13 first half points on 3-10 field goal shooting while amassing a -12 plus/minus number that was caused not only by his poor shooting but also the way that the Raptors targeted his defense.

It should not be surprising that Toronto's ability to throw multiple larger players at Curry--including bigs who can stay with Curry on switches, in addition to long-armed defenders at the point of attack--wore Curry down. This is a classic example of why Curry is not as good or valuable of a player as Kevin Durant is. Durant can shoot or pass over almost any trapping defense, but Curry is too small to do that. ABC's Mark Jackson put it well and succinctly: "Hopefully, this stops the chatter that this is a better basketball team without Kevin Durant." His co-analyst Jeff Van Gundy referred to the "absurdity of the discussion involving Kevin Durant." Those who either blindly love Curry and/or blindly hate Durant will not be swayed by any evidence but those who watch basketball objectively understand what they are seeing. It is possible for a clear-thinking person to simultaneously (1) think that Durant's move to Golden State from a contending Oklahoma City team was soft, (2) appreciate how great Durant has played since joining the Warriors and (3) believe that Curry is a great and special player who nevertheless is not as good or as valuable as Durant is.

Draymond Green had a triple double, but 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists on 2-9 field goal shooting is not quite the level of overall impact that the Warriors expect and need from him. 

DeMarcus Cousins returned to the Warriors' lineup after missing 14 games due to a torn left quadriceps, scoring three points and passing for two assists in eight minutes. If Cousins' conditioning will permit him to play more minutes, he could be an important factor in this series, especially if Durant is not able to come back; Cousins can score on the block, he is a good passer and he provides some much-needed size in the paint. Cousins is a former All-Star, and the notion that Golden State is better without him or does not need him is almost as absurd as the nonsense about Curry being better than Durant.

All of that being said, one game does not make or break a series. While it is true that game one winners overwhelmingly tend to win NBA playoff series, if there is any team that can overcome a 1-0 deficit it is the two-time defending champion Warriors. Durant made this team into a nearly unbeatable dynasty but even without Durant and with a limited Cousins the Warriors are still a legitimate championship contender; they could very well win game two on the road and then take two games at home to grab control of the series. The Warriors are capable of winning the championship, but without Durant the path to a title is arduous and does not have much margin for error.

Game two will provide answers to some questions that will foretell the outcome of the series--specifically, are the Warriors a bit rusty after having an extended layoff, or are they just not quite good enough without Durant? If the Warriors were just rusty, then they will win game two and change the dynamic of this series by taking home court advantage. One thing that is evident is that Masai Ujiri has built a tough, defensive-minded Toronto team. He not only acquired Leonard after the San Antonio Spurs misdiagnosed Leonard's injury and then breached Leonard's trust by badmouthing him, but Ujiri surrounded Leonard with smart, tough two-way players. The Raptors are the "anti-Rockets"; the Rockets are full of bluster and "analytics" and flawed strategies that they refuse to adjust even when they miss 27 straight three pointers, while the Raptors are well-constructed, they keep their mouths shut (no whining, no complaining, no flopping) and they play a smart, tough brand of basketball that is well-suited to playoff competition.

So, am I changing my prediction of a Golden State series victory? No. That prediction may turn out to be incorrect, but I do not change my picks after every game, and I do not issue "hot takes." When I do a series preview I do not just predict the outcome but I explain what each team needs to do to win. The Raptors followed their recipe for success--two-way Leonard impact, supported by contributions from multiple members of the supporting cast--while the Warriors did not display their usual focus and composure. Without Durant, the Warriors are good enough to win but their margin for error is greatly diminished. We saw all of those features in game one. Game two may have a different outcome but as long as Durant is out we can expect a competitive series that will likely last for six or seven games; if Durant returns and is anywhere close to his typical form then the series shifts dramatically and decisively in Golden State's favor.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:08 AM

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Sunday, May 26, 2019

Golden State Versus Toronto Preview

NBA Finals

Golden State (57-25) vs. Toronto (58-24)

Season series: Toronto, 2-0

Toronto can win if…Kawhi Leonard continues to play the best basketball of his career and if he receives adequate support from key players such as Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry. The Raptors will also have to showcase some version of the suffocating defense that shut down Milwaukee during the last four games of the Eastern Conference Finals; obviously, the defense that Toronto will use versus Golden State will not involve a 3-2 zone that dares Golden State's best player to shoot: that worked against Giannis Antetokounmpo but it will not work against the Warriors featuring Stephen Curry and it surely will not work against the Warriors if/when the injured Kevin Durant returns to action.

Prior to this season, Leonard's trophy case included the 2014 Finals MVP, two Defensive Player of the Year awards (2015, 2016), two All-NBA First Team selections and four All-Defensive Team selections (three times on the First Team, one time on the Second Team); this season, despite the "load management" that caused him to miss 22 games and--justifiably--cost him some votes, Leonard made the All-NBA Second Team and the All-Defensive Second Team.

None of those accomplishments foreshadowed what he is doing in the 2019 playoffs. Leonard is averaging a playoff career-high 31.2 ppg with shooting splits of .507/.388/.875. His rebounding (8.8 rpg) and assists (3.8 apg) are both above his career norms and close to his career-highs. Leonard led the underdog Raptors back from a 2-0 deficit against the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks to a 4-2 Eastern Conference Finals win that lifted the Raptors to the franchise's first NBA Finals appearance.

Antetokounmpo deserves the 2019 regular season MVP but Leonard outplayed him in this series both individually and, more importantly, in terms of doing whatever needed to be done to elevate his team; watching Leonard in this series was like watching the "anti-James Harden": no flopping, no whining, no histrionics, no choking in big moments, no excuse-making, and the ability to adjust one's game to the requirements of the moment. Harden and his Houston Rockets take pride in following the same flawed game plan even when it is not working, but Leonard and the Raptors adjusted as the series progressed and, by games five and six, seemed to be one step ahead of the Bucks.

Superficially, the way that Leonard has taken his game to another level might seem to justify the "load management" concept but I am still philosophically opposed to "load management" because an NBA team should be constructed to win as many regular season games as possible to thereby obtain the best playoff seeding possible, ensuring home court advantage plus the most direct path to a championship. Winning the championship is the ultimate goal/prize, but I cringe when Kawhi Leonard says that the 82 regular season games are just practice. If Leonard and the Raptors view the regular season as practice and are going to treat it as such then the league should adjust ticket prices, TV revenues and sponsorships accordingly. Leonard is indisputably a great player but if he is going to spend the rest of his prime voluntarily missing at least 20 games per season then that should effect his historical ranking, regardless of how well or poorly the Raptors do in those games, and even regardless of whether or not the Raptors win the 2019 title. It is not right to treat the regular season like an extended training camp.

It is important to note that during those rare moments that Leonard rested during the Eastern Conference Finals, the Raptors did not collapse. Pascal Siakam has emerged as an All-Star caliber second option, and Kyle Lowry seems comfortable as the third option. Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet were not great all of the time but they made key contributions at critical moments, which is the necessary level of production for the roles that they play. Leonard will do his thing versus the Warriors but that will only be enough if all of those other guys step up as well. 

Circling back to Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, get ready for the "hot takes" as commentators overreact to one playoff series. This season, over the course of 82 games, Antetokounmpo clearly established himself as the NBA's best player and he lifted the Bucks to legitimate contender status. The Bucks were a few possessions away from taking a 3-0 lead against Toronto, which would have all but assured a trip to the NBA Finals. Does Antetokounmpo need to improve his shooting--particularly from the free throw line--and do the Bucks need to come up with a better way to face a 3-2 zone? Yes and yes. Was he somehow "exposed" as not truly great and do the Bucks have significant weaknesses? No and no. Antetokounmpo did not choke, he did not shrink from the moment and his two-way game will likely dominate the league for years to come; he is a superstar at the start of his journey who will learn a lot from his first--and almost certainly not last--Conference Finals appearance.

Golden State will win because…the Warriors have a championship mentality and focus unmatched by any team in recent NBA history. No matter who gets hurt, or how big of a deficit this team faces, they stay calm, they stay committed to the game plan and they find a way to win. The Warriors look like a team of destiny. They have the same glint in their eyes that previous dynasty teams did. During their five year run they have sometimes won by domination and sometimes won by determination but--other than blowing the 3-1 Finals lead in 2016--they have always won.

Kevin Durant carried the Warriors through the first round of the playoffs and the first four-plus games versus the Houston Rockets, much the same way he carried the Warriors to back to back titles in 2017 and 2018. After Durant suffered a calf injury late in game five against Houston, Stephen Curry emerged from a shooting slump to reprise the level of play that he showcased during his back to back MVP regular seasons, a level that he had never reached before in the playoffs. Curry averaged 36.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg and 7.3 apg as the Warriors swept the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals.

Klay Thompson had a subpar shooting series but he still averaged 21.5 ppg against Portland, while also playing his typically stellar defense. Draymond Green may have been the series MVP (though such an award is not officially given out), averaging 16.5 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 8.8 apg, 2.8 bpg and 2.3 spg. Some will argue that Curry's "gravity" provides openings that enable Green to thrive but, if anything, Portland was guilty of leaving Curry open too often, as opposed to sending so many defenders to Curry that other players were left open; anyway, even if Curry deserves some credit for Green's offensive production, Green not only played at a high level on that end of the court but he also anchored a suffocating defense--and Curry was a target on defense, not a player providing added value.

The Warriors were a championship-winning and championship-contending team before acquiring Durant, so no one should be surprised that they won a series without him, and no one should be surprised if the Warriors win a second series without him. Durant's value consists of transforming the Warriors from a perennial contender into an all-time dynasty, and also providing a much larger margin of error.

The Warriors' margin for error is smaller without Durant. They are rightly favored in this series, but they are also beatable.

Other things to consider: The Warriors are the first NBA team to advance to five straight NBA Finals since Bill Russell's Boston Celtics made it to 10 straight NBA Finals from 1957-66, winning nine titles; by the way, nine titles in 10 years is unlikely to ever be approached again, let alone surpassed: if the Warriors beat the Raptors this year they will not even be halfway toward matching Russell's Celtics! Nevertheless, if the Warriors win the 2019 title they will be the first NBA team to capture four championships in a five year span since Russell's Celtics.

Toronto enjoys home court advantage and superior overall health but nevertheless the intangibles favor Golden State; the Warriors do not look like a team that will collapse after fighting so hard to get back to the NBA Finals: they are not the 2004 Lakers, who were worn down after making it to four NBA Finals during a five year span and who were also beset by internal feuding. The Warriors have had some internal feuding this season but they never really looked like a team divided against itself and they certainly do not look that way now.

Leonard will not likely say so publicly, but this is a revenge series for him personally; his San Antonio Spurs were dominating game one of the 2017 Western Conference Finals versus the Warriors when Zaza Pachulia slid under Leonard as Leonard landed after taking a jump shot; Pachulia’s dirty play ended Leonard's season and the Warriors not only came back to win that game but they swept the Spurs en route to capturing the first of the two titles of the Kevin Durant era. Think of how many things might be different for Leonard, the Spurs, the Warriors, the Raptors--and the entire league, for that matter--without that cheap shot! Leonard has historically given the Warriors the business and that figures to continue in this series; what remains to be seen is if his Toronto supporting cast can carry the same load that the Spurs did for Leonard during the 2014 championship run and during the 2017 playoff run that Pachulia ended abruptly.

Leonard is not going to choke and, unless he is taken out by injury, he will play at a Finals MVP level during this series. He will match Curry shot for shot while also providing a lot more impact defensively than Curry does. The championship will be decided by Green and Thompson versus Siakam and Lowry (not necessarily that they will play each other head to head, but in terms of their respective production levels), as well as bench versus bench. Curry is blessed with the best and deepest championship supporting cast in recent memory, and that will carry the day in this series.

If Durant returns and is able to play several games at a high level, this series could end up looking like a coronation before whatever comes next for the Warriors; if Durant does not play or if he is not his normal self, then this will be a competitive series in which the Warriors will grind their way to victory. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:36 PM

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