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Friday, June 17, 2005

"Deee-troit Bas-ket-ball!"

The title of this post refers to the chant that Detroit Pistons' P.A. announcer Mason leads whenever the Pistons make a defensive stop. If you watched Detroit's 102-71 win over San Antonio in game four of the NBA Finals you heard this chant even more often than ABC ran promos for "Empire" and "The Fantastic Four." If there was any doubt after game three, there should be none now: Detroit is not going away without a fight. Talk of a sweep disappeared two nights ago and now we are guaranteed that the Finals will go at least six games.

I frequently quote something that Danny Ainge said during one of the Celtics-Lakers Finals in the 1980s--"This is not the Tour de France." What Ainge meant is that you don't start the next game down 31; the next game starts 0-0 and may have a different ebb and flow. Just like it was important for Detroit to not overreact to losing the first two games, it is important for the Spurs to not panic after losing the last two games. After all, the Spurs still have homecourt advantage. That being said, while panic is not needed (and not helpful in any case), poise and crisper execution are essential for San Antonio because the Spurs almost have to win game five if they intend to win the series. Detroit has been basically untouchable in two situations during recent postseasons: game six of any playoff series and games in which the Pistons can eliminate an opponent. If the Spurs lose game five they will be looking right down the barrel of a game six in which Detroit can close them out. Also, while the Spurs should have confidence in their homecourt advantage, they should not just blithely assume that they can lose three straight in Detroit and then win two in San Antonio. Three straight losses will exact a psychological toll on the Spurs and provide a psychological boost to the Pistons. If the Spurs face elimination in game six it is hard to believe that they will play as freely and loosely as they did in games one and two. Keep in mind that just last year the Spurs lost four straight games after taking a 2-0 lead versus the Lakers in the Western Conference Semifinals. The Spurs are certainly aware of this--there was much talk before game three about how they would use what they learned from that experience to avoid a similar fate in this series.

Detroit is in full "James Bond" mode now--after falling into an 0-2 hole that is usually fatal in the NBA Finals, the Pistons have roared back to tie the series. This sets the stage for a very dramatic game five. Which team will take command and push the other to the brink of elimination? If you've seen a James Bond movie--or read any of my playoff preview articles--you know what I think is going to happen on Sunday.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:54 AM


Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The Zen Master Returns

Phil Jackson's return to the L.A. Lakers after a one year hiatus adds an interesting twist to the whole Shaq-Kobe-Phil drama that has fascinated basketball fans for several years. The generally accepted "spin" is that Kobe Bryant exiled Shaquille O'Neal and Phil Jackson because he wanted to "prove" that he could win a championship without them. The problem with this version of events is that it conveniently ignores some well documented facts: Jackson explains very clearly in his book that he, not Kobe, went to Lakers' management during the '04 season and said that the Lakers should choose between him and Kobe; the Lakers (specifically, owner Jerry Buss) were not willing to pay Shaq the $80 million contract extension that he wanted after the '05 season (Pat Riley of the Miami Heat has promised to do this and it will be interesting to see what happens considering Shaq's questionable health); despite the well documented clashes that often happened between Shaq, Kobe and Phil, the team won three titles and made it to the '04 Finals, clearly demonstrating that this troika functioned well as co-workers no matter how dysfunctional their non-work relationships with each other were.

Now that Jackson will again be coaching Kobe and the Lakers, it is much less plausible to suggest that Kobe "exiled" Jackson in the first place. Even when Jackson was coaching the Bulls he often spoke of the need to take a hiatus to rejuvenate himself; it is increasingly clear that he decided on his own to leave. On the other hand, he would not come back to the Lakers unless he believes that a Kobe Bryant-led team has a good chance to be successful. Jackson had his choice of coaching jobs around the NBA and by electing to take the Lakers' job it is obvious that he does not feel as negatively about Bryant as a player, teammate and leader as many in the media and general public do.

It has been said that the only blemish on Jackson's coaching resume is that he has never built a championship team, that he has taken over contending teams and pushed them over the top (not much of a knock when you think about it, but after you win nine championships and helm the team with the best regular season record in history--the 1996 Chicago Bulls, who went 72-10-- and then coach a different team to the best postseason record in history--the 2000-01 Lakers, who went 15-1 in the playoffs-- your critics really are reduced to grasping at straws...). No one would argue that the current Lakers are a championship contending squad. What will the critics say about Jackson--and Kobe--if the Lakers win a title in the next 2-3 years?

posted by David Friedman @ 9:04 PM


Now we have a series!

Just when pundits and basketball fans alike despaired that the NBA Finals would be about as competitive as Mike Tyson is these days, the Detroit Pistons rediscovered their trademark suffocating defense in a 96-79 game three win over the San Antonio Spurs. As I mentioned in my 2005 NBA Finals Preview, there is a James Bond-like quality to this Detroit Pistons team--they place themselves in seemingly hopeless situations only to emerge triumphant at the end, much like Agent 007. Against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals the Pistons fell behind 3-2 before routing the Heat in game six and becoming the first team in 23 years to win an Eastern Conference Finals game seven on the road. The Pistons also recovered from a 3-2 deficit against the two-time defending Eastern Conference Champion New Jersey Nets in the 2004 Eastern Conference Semifinals. If Detroit can sustain game three's energy level this series could go from 2-0 San Antonio to 3-2 Detroit very quickly!

posted by David Friedman @ 4:32 AM