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Friday, November 04, 2005

Will Shaq's Injury Tip the East's Balance of Power?

Indiana opened the third straight night of nationally televised doubleheaders with a 105-102 win in Miami. Indiana led by as many as 14 but the Heat had cut the margin to 91-88 with 6:35 left in the fourth quarter when Shaquille O'Neal landed on Ron Artest's foot, sprained his ankle and had to leave the game. Recently retired Pacer legend Reggie Miller made his TNT debut as a game commentator two nights after his first appearance as a TNT studio analyst. Miller maintains that the Pacers have the deepest roster in the league and are capable of winning the NBA championship. The way that the Pacers beat a lead-footed Heat team up and down the court for the first three quarters of the game made those words seem prophetic and made one wonder why Miller did not stick around for one more year to try to win his first NBA title. Then Miami rediscovered that Shaq is in fact on the team and began delivering the ball to him inside. Shaq either scored, drew a foul or passed to an open cutter, the Heat made a run and it seemed that Indiana's earlier efforts might be in vain. Shaq's injury cost us the opportunity to see how these teams would perform down the stretch in a close game with each squad at full strength. Of course, if Shaq has to miss a substantial number of games it could cost Miami a lot more than that. Preliminary X-rays did not find a break, so Shaq is the proverbial "day-to-day."

Jermaine O'Neal led the Pacers with 27 points and Ron Artest contributed 22 points along with his customarily strong defense. Dwyane Wade had 31 points, 10 assists and six rebounds for Miami and his attempt at a tying three pointer at the buzzer went halfway down before rimming out. Shaq had 18 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots. Jason Williams "contributed" 1-8 shooting from the field, scoring three points with two assists. Perhaps someone can explain why he had eight field goal attempts in 26 minutes and Shaq had 12 field goal attempts in 29 minutes. Am I the only person who thinks that when Williams launches a long jumper with 15-plus seconds on the shot clock and Shaq waiting in vain for the ball in the low post that a trap door should immediately open on the court and send Williams straight to the Heat bench?

In TNT's second game, Phoenix ran the Lakers into the ground, 122-112. Kobe Bryant was sensational again, scoring 39 points while grabbing seven rebounds and dishing off five assists. He shot 13-26 from the field and 13-14 from the free throw line. Lamar Odom also had a strong game in defeat--23 points, 16 rebounds, eight assists. New Laker point guard Smush Parker scored 21 points and seems to be a major upgrade over Chucky Atkins. No other Laker scored in double figures but more troubling than that for Coach Phil Jackson is that his team allowed Phoenix to shoot .506 from the field. Shawn Marion led seven Phoenix double-figure scorers with 30 points and 11 rebounds, while Steve Nash had 12 points, 17 assists and six rebounds.

Even without the injured Amare Stoudemire, the Suns are a potent team. I am incredulous that some analysts talk of Phoenix trying to hang around .500 until Stoudemire returns; Phoenix is still one of the better teams in the league and can finish in the top 4-5 in the West with its current roster. The Suns still have league MVP Nash, All-Star Marion and an above average supporting cast. Most teams will find it difficult to keep up with Phoenix' uptempo style. Of course, teams with the ability to slow the pace of the game will cause Phoenix a lot of trouble and the Suns will also suffer even more than most teams when they have to play four games in five nights and are simply too exhausted to push the ball effectively.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:04 AM

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Thursday, November 03, 2005

Kobe Delivers Victory With .6 Seconds Left

NBA Premiere Week continued on Wednesday night with another nationally televised doubleheader, this time on ESPN. In the first game, the two-time defending Eastern Conference champion Detroit Pistons made quick work of the Philadelphia 76ers, prevailing 108-88. Rip Hamilton shredded the Sixers for 37 points; Allen Iverson led Philadelphia with 31 points. The Sixers miss Samuel Dalembert's defense and energy and desperately need to find someone else who can create offense besides Iverson, who had six of his team's 11 assists.

The second ESPN game was much more entertaining and dramatic. The Lakers-Nuggets contest saw 24 lead changes and 18 ties and required overtime to settle matters. The Lakers had the final possession with the score knotted at 97. Kwame Brown received the ball on the left block and missed an awkward looking shot in the paint, but got the offensive rebound. He looked a bit perplexed about what to do next but then Kobe Bryant emerged from the baseline and Brown seemed quite relieved to pass him the ball. Bryant took a couple dribbles, jab stepped toward the lane and then buried a fadeaway jumper with .6 seconds left as several Denver defenders tried in vain to stop him. Voshon Lenard got a clean--but deep--look at a three point shot on the ensuing inbounds play, but his shot clanged harmlessly off the back of the rim and the Lakers won on the road against a team that most observers expect to be one of the leading contenders in the Western Conference. Bryant finished with 33 points, five rebounds, four assists, two blocked shots (including a sensational swat of a Marcus Camby dunk attempt in overtime) and one steal; he scored 15 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, making all seven of his free throws during that span.

There are some parallels between the Lakers' quest this season and the situation that the Chicago Bulls found themselves in after Michael Jordan retired to play basketball. Conventional wisdom said that the Bulls would fall off the map without Jordan, but--thanks to an MVP-caliber season by Scottie Pippen--the Bulls went 55-27 in 1993-94 (only two games worse than the 1992-93 championship team) and lost a tough seven game playoff series to the New York Knicks after a horrible Hue Hollins call in game five that would have made the umpiring in this year's major league baseball playoffs look flawless. In a recent article, Fran Blinebury of the Houston Chronicle points out that Phil Jackson himself has compared this year's Lakers to the Pippen-led Bulls of 1993-94 and 1994-95.

Bryant is 27 years old coming into this season and won three championships as the star sidekick to Shaquille O'Neal; coming into the 1993-94 season Pippen was 28 years old and had won three titles as Michael Jordan's star sidekick. Bryant and Pippen would both surely bristle at the "sidekick" designation and with good reason--being the second best player on three championship teams while earning All-NBA and All-Defensive Team honors means that both played indispensible roles during those title runs. Pippen hungered to earn MVP recognition but finished third in the 1993-94 balloting; Bryant hungers no less to be league MVP and it will be interesting to see not only how well he performs but how he is perceived by the writers and broadcasters who mold public opinion, many of whom bought hook, line and sinker the idea that he broke up the Lakers even though owner Jerry Buss has torpedoed that notion; the return of Phil Jackson to coach Bryant and Jackson's frank admission that Bryant did not chase him off or break up the team should forever lay that idea to rest.

The difference between the Pippen Bulls and the Bryant Lakers, of course, is that--unlike Jordan returning to the Bulls--Shaquille O'Neal will not be coming back to the Lakers and L.A. will not be able to trade Chris Mihm for Ben Wallace, the modern approximation of the deal in which Chicago swapped Will Perdue for Dennis Rodman. Still, this is a season in which Jackson and Bryant can silence a lot of their critics. At least one member of the national media buys into the possibility of the Lakers doing very well this year--on the NBA Shootaround program that preceded the doubleheader, Greg Anthony picked the Lakers as his sleeper team and said that he would not be surprised if L.A. makes it to the conference finals.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:45 AM

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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Opening Night

The NBA's 2005-06 regular season began on Tuesday night with a doubleheader on TNT. The first game matched the 2005 champion San Antonio Spurs against the Denver Nuggets, who went 32-8 down the stretch last season after hiring Coach George Karl. Prior to the game the Spurs raised their 2005 championship banner and handed out championship rings to their front office staff, coaches and players. During my Tuesday afternoon appearance on Eddie King's Betus.com radio show I mentioned that the opening night ring ceremony game can sometimes be difficult for the champions. Players are creatures of habit and the ring ceremony breaks up the normal pre-game routine. Plus, the opposing team sits there and watches the whole production and wants to make a statement about who is really the boss. Sure enough, the Nuggets started the game on fire, taking a 17-8 first quarter lead. The Spurs soon rallied and took the lead but the Nuggets led 72-69 going into the fourth quarter and seemed poised for a big road win. New Spur Michael Finley teamed with point guard Tony Parker to save the day for San Antonio; Finley scored 11 fourth quarter points after tallying only five in the first three quarters, while Parker went 7-7 from the field and posted 15 points in the final stanza. The Spurs won going away, 102-91. Tim Duncan posted the routinely solid all-around numbers that we have come to expect from him: 19 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, four blocks. His Nuggets counterpart Kenyon Martin matched him in points, but managed only two rebounds, three assists and no blocked shots. Carmelo Anthony looked to be the most fit and trim that he has been since he entered the league and he showcased several dazzling moves that frustrated noted defender Bruce Bowen, including crossover dribble drives, baseline spin moves and turnaround jumpers. Nuggets big man Nene went down with a knee injury early in the game and had to be helped off of the court. Hopefully it will only turn out to be a sprained ACL and not a torn one.

TNT's nightcap game extended well into the morning hours, as Dallas and Phoenix battled through two overtimes before the Mavericks emerged with a 111-108 victory. The Suns led by 17 points in the second half, but Dirk Nowitzki unleashed a barrage of late threes and the Mavericks made some key defensive plays, including a strip/steal by Jason Terry near the end of regulation. Nowitzki finished with 28 points and 15 rebounds, while Suns point guard/2005 regular season MVP Steve Nash had 30 points, nine assists and eight rebounds.

The other NBA action on opening night included a 117-108 Milwaukee overtime win over Philadelphia and a shocking 93-67 New Orleans/Oklahoma City victory over the Sacramento Kings. Reggie Miller, making his debut as a TNT studio analyst, said simply, "Sacramento should be shot." That is a bit extreme, but a 2005 playoff team losing to the Hornets probably should be drawn and quartered. The highlights from the Milwaukee game include 30 points and a three pointer to send the game to overtime by Milwaukee's Michael Redd, 16 points, 14 assists and 9 rebounds from point guard T.J. Ford in his return from a serious neck injury and 13 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots from number one draft pick Andrew Bogut. On the other side, Philadelphia was led by Allen Iverson's 35 points and nine assists and Chris Webber's 32 points, 14 rebounds and five assists. The next Sixer had 11 points.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:26 AM

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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Benefit Event in Illinois With Spurs' Coach Popovich

The NBA receives so much attention focused on issues like the newly created dress code and the off-court problems of certain players that a lot of the positive contributions to society of NBA players, coaches and teams are ignored. I recently found out about a benefit event raising money for Bear Necessities Pediatric Cancer Foundation featuring a personal appearance by Spurs' Coach Gregg Popovich. The event will be held at A Taste of Vino, a wine shop in Hinsdale, Illinois, on Sunday November 6th. There will be a wine tasting and a silent auction including items such as jerseys and sneakers signed by Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, a basketball signed by the 2005-06 Spurs and tickets to the November 7th Bulls-Spurs game.

There are only 20 tickets available for this event, priced at $2500 apiece with 100% of the ticket and auction revenue going to Bear Necessities. Four tickets will be sold on Ebay, with bids starting at $500. Those who want to contribute to the charity but cannot attend the event can bid on the auction items at a Taste of Vino in Hinsdale; contact A Taste of Vino proprietor Tanya Hart at atasteofvino@sbcglobal.net

Here is a link with more information about Bear Necessities Pediatric Cancer Foundation and the November 6th event:

http://www.bearnecessities.org/Events/TasteOfVino.html

posted by David Friedman @ 2:27 AM

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