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Friday, June 24, 2005

The Big Fundamental Comes Through in the Clutch

Tim Duncan, nicknamed "The Big Fundamental" by Shaquille O'Neal, joined an elite group--Michael Jordan (six), Magic Johnson (three) and O'Neal (three)-- by capturing his third NBA Finals MVP award after the Spurs defeated the Detroit Pistons 81-74 (the Finals MVP was first handed out in 1969, otherwise 11-time champion Bill Russell and recently deceased five-time champion George Mikan would undoubtedly be on this list as well). Duncan scored 25 points and grabbed 11 rebounds and was particularly dominant in the second half, producing 17 of the Spurs' 43 second half points. Detroit had a 48-39 lead midway through the third quarter but struggled mightily to make shots after that point and the Spurs outscored the Pistons 42-23 the rest of the way. Detroit point guard Chauncey Billups, who probably would have won the Finals MVP if the Pistons repeated as champions, had a quiet game, shooting 3-8 from the field and finishing with only 13 points. Manu Ginobili had an outstanding game--23 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and several key plays down the stretch--but the focal point of the game--and series--without question was Duncan. He actually struggled from the field, shooting only 10-27, and he had a team-high 5 turnovers but none of that will be remembered, nor will any criticisms of his play that were uttered in the past two weeks. Winning wipes all of that away, because when people look back at this series and his career what will stand out is that his team won and he produced when it mattered most. Who remembers that before Johnny Most famously declared "Havlicek stole the ball!" Bill Russell--the greatest winner in the history of North American team sports--threw an inbounds pass off of a guide wire behind the backboard, a turnover that could have cost Boston the series? Boston won that game and went on to win the championship and Russell's gaffe is a footnote instead of a headline; the same will be true of Duncan's missed free throws and any other real or imagined shortcomings in his play during this series.

With three championships, three Finals MVPs, two regular season MVPs and eight All-NBA First Team selections in his first eight seasons, Tim Duncan has built a resume that matches up with the greatest players of all-time and he has a strong claim to being the greatest power forward in the history of the game.

Congratulations to Tim Duncan and the Spurs for a gritty game seven effort--and to the Pistons for an impressive, inspired title defense that came up just a few baskets short of success.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:10 AM

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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

"If it ain't rough, it ain't right"

The title of this post is Detroit guard Chauncey Billups' explanation of the Pistons' team motto in a postgame interview after the Pistons' 95-86 game six win against the San Antonio Spurs. Billups, whose numerous clutch performances have earned him the nickname "Mr. Big Shot," sank five three pointers and scored 21 points with six rebounds and six assists. The 2004 Finals MVP played 39 minutes without committing a turnover and in the last four games of the series Billups has 27 assists and only three turnovers. On Thursday the Pistons will try to make NBA history by becoming the first team to win games six and seven of the NBA Finals on the road after trailing 3-2. The Pistons have come back from 3-2 deficits twice in the last two postseasons in earlier rounds, winning one game at home and one on the road each time since those series employed the 2-2-1-1-1 format. Detroit is attempting to become the first team to win a game seven on the road since...Detroit beat Miami on June 6 to win the Eastern Conference Finals; it is safe to assume that the Pistons will not be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the situation. As for the Spurs, none of their "Big Three"--Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker--have played in a game seven; they did not distinguish themselves down the stretch of game six, when only Detroit was facing elimination, so how they respond in game seven will be very interesting.

Detroit made eight three pointers in game six after making only eight three pointers in the previous five games. Another team motto could easily be the one that Pittsburgh Steelers' Coach Chuck Noll used when his team won four Super Bowls in six years: "Whatever it takes." It is easy to find Detroit weaknesses on paper--no superstar of the magnitude of Tim Duncan, thin bench, not a great three point shooting team--but the Pistons consistently find a way to win elimination games. This is very reminscent of the 1998 Chicago Bulls team that seemed more vulnerable than previous Chicago teams but did whatever had to be done to win when the playoffs rolled around--if they weren't making shots, they crashed the boards and got offensive rebounds. Detroit spent the first five games of this series shooting blanks from the perimeter but in an elimination game the Pistons drained threes with confidence.

In theory, the Spurs still have the advantage since game seven will be contested on their court but keep this in mind before tuning into the game on Thursday: instead of focusing on San Antonio's great home record this season and the record of home teams in game seven over the years, look at what has happened as this series has developed--after the first two games Detroit has won three of four, with the loss coming on a last second shot, and the Pistons have proven that they can consistently score 90+ points against the Spurs' vaunted defense.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:17 AM

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Monday, June 20, 2005

Tales From the Big Shot Rob Archive

In the previous post I indicated that Chris Webber had derided a Robert Horry game winning three pointer versus the Sacramento Kings as a "lucky shot." He actually had a more nuanced view of what happened, saying that it was a "lucky play" in that the ball was tipped straight to Horry but that it was not a "lucky shot" because Horry has hit big shots many times before. Vlade Divac was less complimentary, however; here is a passage from David Leon Moore's 5/27/02 USA Today article about game four of that year's Western Conference Finals:

"The Kings discussed luck's role in their collapse.

'It was a lucky play,' Webber said. 'The coach didn't draw it up. It wasn't the second or third option. It was lucky play.'

'Horry's shot, that wasn't luck. That was a big shot, and that's a big-time player.'

Divac, a former Laker who had 23 points, saw it a little differently.

'It was just a lucky shot, that's all,' he said. 'You don't need to have skill in that kind of situation. You just throw it. If it goes in, it goes in.'

Whoa, said Horry.

Lucky shot?

'A lucky shot is one of those guys who has no form,' he said. 'If you look at this shot, it was straight form. Vlade shouldn't have tipped it out there. It wasn't no luck shot. I've been doing that all my career. He should know. He better read a paper or something.'

That will be easy now. Horry will be in all the papers Monday."

As for Rasheed Wallace leaving Horry open at the end of Tuesday's game, the first few lines of the same Moore column are very appropriate:

"As the Los Angeles Lakers inbounded the ball at the end, two points down with a chance to tie or win a game they seemed to have been blown out of in the first half, one of the guys along press row whispered, 'I wouldn't leave Robert Horry right now if my momma told me to.'

Smart fellow."

posted by David Friedman @ 10:11 PM

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Big Shot Rob Strikes Again

San Antonio's 96-95 overtime victory versus Detroit in game five of the NBA Finals is, as the cliche goes, an "instant classic." Robert Horry, a clutch performer who owns five NBA championship rings but a non-factor thus far in the NBA Finals, scored 21 of the Spurs' last 35 points down the stretch. Horry put the final exclamation point on his heroics by nailing the game-winning three point shot with 5.8 seconds left in the extra period. He was open because of a horrible mistake committed by Pistons forward Rasheed Wallace; with the Pistons leading 95-93 and less than 10 seconds on the clock, Horry inbounded the ball to Manu Ginobili, who caught the ball deep in the corner on the left baseline. With a two point lead all the Pistons had to do was not foul and not give up a three and the worst thing that could happen was that the Spurs make a two point shot to send the game to a second overtime. Instead, Wallace double-teamed Ginobili, leaving Horry--who had already made 4 of his 5 three point attempts--wide open. Ginobili passed the ball to Horry, who calmly sank the shot. Detroit Coach Larry Brown tried to take the blame for the fiasco, saying that there was a miscommunication and that ultimately if the players don't understand what to do it is his fault, but basic basketball common sense argues against what Rasheed did in several ways: (1) Don't give up a wide open three point shot when you are ahead by two; (2) the player throwing the inbound pass is very dangerous and is frequently the recipient of an immediate return pass; (3) make players do things that they are not comfortable doing and don't let them do what they do best--in Robert Horry's case, this means at all costs do not let him shoot a stand still, wide open three pointer with the game on the line. When Horry hit a similar shot to beat the Sacramento Kings a few years back, Kings forward Chris Webber said that it was a "lucky" shot and Horry asked if the Kings read the newspaper because he's been making those shots for years. Speaking of Chris Webber, who famously called a timeout in the NCAA Championship game when his Michigan Wolverines had no timeouts left, Rasheed tried to call a timeout with the score tied 89-89 at the end of regulation despite the fact that the Pistons had no timeouts left; fortunately for Rasheed, the clock expired before he signaled for the timeout or the Spurs would have had a chance to win the game by making a technical free throw.

Spurs' Coach Gregg Popovich made an interesting defensive adjustment down the stretch, putting Bruce Bowen on Chauncey Billups and Tony Parker on Rip Hamilton. Bowen used his size and strength to harass Billups--who led all scorers with 34 points--into a couple critical misses and Parker defended very well against Rip's game winning attempt at the end of overtime. Popovich chose the perfect time to make this move--if he had done it earlier in the game, the Pistons probably would have found a way to exploit one of these unusual matchups but by waiting until the end of the game to spring this on Detroit the Spurs seemed to catch the Pistons by surprise. On the last couple half court sets the Pistons seemed uncertain if they wanted to post up Rip against Parker or go in a different direction.

With the Spurs heading home up 3-2 we will have to listen to another 48 hours or so of everyone writing off the Detroit Pistons. I've said that the Pistons seem to thrive on adverse situations much like James Bond does, but after game five I thought of a different cinematic comparison. When Han Solo is freed from the carbonite in Return of the Jedi he is temporarily blind and asks what the situation is. Told that things are "same as usual," he replies, "That bad, huh?" Of course, Luke Skywalker proceeds to rout Jabba the Hutt's forces and the good guys emerge unscathed. Detroit has been in similar predicaments before, coming back from 3-2 deficits to beat Miami in this year's Eastern Finals and the two-time defending Eastern Conference Champion New Jersey Nets in last year's playoffs. I would be remiss if I did not note that in both of those series Detroit prevailed by winning one home game and one road game but due to the 2-3-2 format of the Finals the Pistons will have to win two games on the road and they have not won in San Antonio in several years. The first task, though, is to win game six, and the Pistons have been remarkably successful in the sixth game of playoff series for the past several years. If the Pistons remain true to form and prevail in game six then the championship will come down to one game. I realize that the stats and the history are all in the Spurs' favor now, but after all that the Pistons have accomplished during their recent playoff runs I refuse to count them out just yet. Expect another classic, tightly contested game on Tuesday and don't be surprised if these two outstanding teams are playing a game seven on Thursday.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:19 AM

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