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Saturday, November 12, 2005

Quick Takes on the First Week of the 2005-06 NBA Season

I have a message for the rejoicing Clippers fans, the disconsolate Knicks fans and anyone else who is overreacting to the start of the NBA season: "It's early." Nobody has clinched a playoff berth yet and nobody has been eliminated. Every year there are a few legitimate contenders who get off to slow starts due to injuries, scheduling quirks or overconfidence and every year there are a few legitimate pretenders who come roaring out of the gate only to sputter down the stretch.

Larry Brown's New York Knicks have stumbled out of the gate 0-5, which naturally has led to much hand wringing among fans and the media. Last time I checked the NBA season is 82 games; the Chicago Bulls started out 0-9 last year and rallied to not only make the playoffs but to have home court advantage in the first round. As noted in Friday's USA Today, the 76ers lost the first five games that Larry Brown coached in his initial season there and the Pacers started out 1-6 in Brown's first season in Indiana. The Knicks overhauled their roster in the offseason and the players are neither used to playing with each other nor playing "the right way" (as Brown's oft-repeated mantra goes). I still think that the Knicks will win more games than they did last year and sneak into the playoffs as an eighth seed. The Knicks are losing some close games down the stretch now, but their attention to detail and ability to perform in those situations will improve as Brown makes his imprint on the team's collective mentality.

Both of last year's Finalists are off to great starts--the Spurs have picked up right where they left off and the Detroit Pistons pushed their record to a league best 6-0 on Friday night with an 84-81 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, who had an early lead on the jet-lagged Pistons before completely falling apart down the stretch (I think that the Disney commercial in which the Seven Dwarfs are picked ahead of Julius Erving is based on Portland's personnel decisions over the past few years). I picked Detroit to finish fifth in the East, so I suppose I have some explaining to do. It is clear that the Detroit players are very focused on two goals--reclaiming the NBA championship and proving that they can be very successful without departed coach Larry Brown. Since the Pistons have all of the key players from last year's squad--and since those players are displaying great commitment to the aforementioned goals--Detroit has been able to shift into a gear, particularly in the fourth quarter, that other teams don't have. The way that Detroit is playing is very impressive--but their goal is not to win 50 games or a division title or one playoff series; this team has made two straight Finals appearances and anything less than a return to the Finals is a step backwards. That may sound like a harsh standard to set, but when Larry Brown arrived the Pistons had already been a solid playoff team under the coaching of Rick Carlisle. Brown's coaching--and the addition of Rasheed Wallace--put the team over the top.

The key question about Detroit--which will not be answered in the first month or two of the season--is how will this team perform when it faces adversity, such as an injury to a key player or the inevitable two or three game losing streak. Yes, point guard Chauncey Billups said "If it ain't rough, it ain't right" during last year's Finals (which became the title of one of the early 20 Second Timeout entries) but that was with Larry Brown calling the shots. Will Flip Saunders be able to maintain order during tough times? Saunders coached a Minnesota team that made it to the Western Conference Finals one year and failed to make the playoffs--with the same key players--the next season. I still question whether Saunders will be able to lead Detroit on a deep playoff run. If he succeeds I will be the first to give him and the Pistons credit, but a 6-0 start--while commendable--does not address the question of whether the Pistons will be able to overcome challenges the way that they did when Brown coached them during the previous two seasons.

Kobe Bryant, notwithstanding a poor shooting performance on Friday night in an 85-81 loss at Philadelphia, has been sensational and has willed the Lakers into the top eight in the West. There is talk that he is playing better than he did last season but, other than his elevated field goal percentage (due in no small part to a drastic reduction in his three point shot attempts), he is doing the same things that he did in 2004-05 before an ankle injury sidelined him--scoring, rebounding, defending and passing to the open man when he is double teamed. Don't forget that before he got hurt and Rudy Tomjanovich resigned the Lakers were securely among the top eight teams in the West. Phil Jackson has stated that he would like for Kobe to shoot .500 from the field this year; that will probably not happen because Kobe is relied upon to shoot so many shots under duress and with the shot clock running down, but I would not be surprised to see him shoot over .470 for the first time in his career.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:48 AM

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Friday, November 11, 2005

Will the Supersized Big East Become the Greatest Conference Ever?

The Big East Conference has expanded to 16 teams, causing much speculation that it could become the greatest basketball conference ever. This led me to wonder how exactly such a designation can be earned. Does being the greatest conference mean earning the most NCAA Tournament berths in a single season? Does it mean producing the most Final Four teams over a period of time? If the new Big East does become the greatest conference, which conference is it surpassing? These questions formed the basis for an article that I wrote for the November issue of Eastern Basketball, the "younger brother" of Basketball Times. The article is not available online but information about how to obtain a copy of the issue can be found here:

http://basketballtimes.com/eastern.htm

posted by David Friedman @ 12:48 AM

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Sunday, November 06, 2005

Sixers Spoil Indiana's Home Opener

An enthusiastic sellout crowd of 18,345 at Conseco Fieldhouse expected to see Indiana, fresh off of a road victory over the Miami Heat, defeat the winless Phildelphia 76ers in the Pacers' home opener--but the Sixers played with tremendous energy and took advantage of 20 Indiana turnovers to win 111-109. Allen Iverson struggled from the field, shooting 11-29, but he produced 29 points, 12 assists, five rebounds and three steals as the Sixers provided Maurice Cheeks his first win as Sixers coach. Iverson hit the deck a few times after strong drives to the hoop, but shook off the bumps and bruises to become the first player to play all 48 minutes of a regulation game this season. Chris Webber had 25 points and nine rebounds for the Sixers, while Jermaine O'Neal led the Pacers with 23 points and 15 rebounds. Indiana point guard Jamaal Tinsley had 21 points, six assists and three steals before fouling out and Stephen Jackson scored 14 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter as the Pacers made a furious run after trailing by as many as 20 points in the third quarter.

A few nights ago, the Sixers played their home opener before a similarly enthusiastic crowd and dropped a 117-108 decision in overtime to the Milwaukee Bucks. Several Sixers legends--including Hall of Famers Julius Erving and Moses Malone--were present at the game to offer support to their former teammate Cheeks in his debut as the Sixers head coach. During the pre-game media availability session at the Pacers-Sixers game, I asked Coach Cheeks to talk about how special it was to have those players return for the home opener. In light of the loss, Cheeks laughed, "That was probably the only special part of the night." Then, on a more serious note, he added, "That was special. Any time you bring back some players you played with and won a championship with, and had great times with, it's always special. To see them standing over on the side was beautiful. We had a little conversation and had a good time." Cheeks smiled before adding, "I could have used a couple of those guys." Cheeks agreed with me that it is important for teams--and the NBA in general--to continue to do things like that, to keep the legends in the forefront to preserve the history of the game. Cheeks noted, "Most teams bring former players back who had some impact on the league. Younger players see that--although they may not have any recollection of those players--and then it is explained that this guy did this and that guy did that. When we go to certain arenas and see numbers up in the rafters some of these guys are so young that they don't even know (who they are). So to bring them back and let guys see them and know who they are and some of the accomplishments that they achieved is pretty good."

Earlier in that session, Mark Montieth of the Indianapolis Star asked Coach Cheeks about Kyle Korver's shooting slump and Cheeks responded that every NBA player goes through something like that at one point or another. He said that Korver and his teammates must work together to help him get out of it. I followed up by asking if those kind of slumps are the result of a technical flaw in the shooting motion or simply a mental hurdle that the player has to overcome. Cheeks replied, "The game can play mind games on you. When you miss a few, you start thinking about it a little bit more. So the thing that you have to do--and he tried it last night, but unfortunately it didn't happen--is try to get some easier baskets. When you get easier baskets it makes the basket bigger. Kyle is kind of like us--and I think that I said this last night: when he starts making a few shots and we win a couple games, we'll be pretty good." Those words turned out to be very prophetic.

It is always interesting to watch how the players prepare for the game during warmups--not the layup line right before tipoff, but the 45 minute warmup that ends 45 minutes before gametime (players are not necessarily on the court for the whole 45 minute period). On the Sixers' side, Korver shot almost nothing but three pointers while I was watching and he made nearly every one that he took. Perhaps that was a sign of things to come, because he shot 3-5 on three-pointers during the game, finishing with 15 points while tying a career-high with nine assists. Meanwhile, on the Pacers' side, Sarunas Jasikevicius, the 29 year old rookie from Lithuania, worked on a variety of dribble drive moves, starting beyond the three-point line and pulling up for mid-range jumpers. This is an important part of his continuing development, because in the NBA he will have to be able to do more than just hit open three- pointers; when the defense denies that option he must be able to create opportunities for himself (and his teammates) off of the dribble. Assistant coach Chad Forcier told Jasikevicius what to do (for instance, left to right crossover dribble, followed by a pull up jumper off of the backboard) and then defended against him as he worked on the move; it was like watching a choreographer teaching a dancer some new steps. After that, Jasikevicius shot three-pointers from both wings and the top of the key and then sank several free throws. His shooting stroke is very pretty--a quick flick of the wrist, no wasted motion--and very accurate. His inability to keep up defensively or handle the ball against Philly's pressure defense limited him to under nine minutes playing time, but during that brief stint he sank two three-pointers in three attempts.

Jasikevicius was not the only Pacer who struggled with his ballhandling; Ron Artest had eight turnovers and, other than Tinsley, the team had difficulty whenever Philadelphia trapped or pressured ball handlers. If Tinsley has to miss extended playing time due to foul trouble or injury the Pacers could have problems against teams that pressure and trap.

After the game, the Sixers players presented the game ball to Coach Cheeks. In his postgame standup, Cheeks said, "This was a heck of a win for us. Our attention to detail was big. When we play a team like this, we know they are going to make some runs. Kyle was big for us, as was our bench. I thought Steven Hunter was phenomenal. Everyone who stepped on the floor tonight made a huge impact for us."

During his postgame press conference, Indiana Coach Rick Carlisle said, "Give Philly credit for how they came in here. They deserved to win. For three quarters they carried the game. I was glad to see us fight back in the fourth. But it's the same old story; you've got to play four quarters to win. We really picked it up in the fourth but it was too late. We all own this one. From me on down to everyone that played." He singled out poor defense and the high number of turnovers as the two biggest reasons that the Pacers lost.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:50 AM

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