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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Shootout at the Q: King James Versus J Rich

LeBron James and Jason Richardson staged their version of "Shootout at the OK Corral" on Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena as Richardson's Golden State Warriors defeated James' Cleveland Cavaliers 99-91. The problem for the Cavs is that Richardson brought a whole posse to the shootout, while James' teammates looked like the gang that couldn't shoot straight, connecting on only 23 of 66 from the field (.348). Richardson (31 points, eight rebounds, one assist) received a lot of support from Derek Fisher (6-7 from the field, 18 points) and Andris Bierins (5-5 from the field, 11 points). James was terrific (33 points, six assists, five rebounds, two blocked shots, 10-17 from the field, 8-8 from the free throw line) and Eric Snow was solid (6-8 from the field, 12 points), but the rest of the Cavs' starters (Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden and Sasha Pavlovic) shot 6-28 from the field and scored only 17 points. The Cavs no doubt miss the all-around play of Larry Hughes, who is out with a broken finger, and the recent announcement that he will not return to action as soon as expected does not bode well for Cleveland--but Golden State is a sub-.500 team that was missing starting forward Troy Murphy and lost starting point guard Baron Davis less than 11 minutes into the game when he sprained his ankle going for a rebound. This was simply a game that the Cavs should have won--and losses like this prevented the Cavs from making the playoffs in each of LeBron's first seasons. The Cavs are 18-7 at home but only 5-5 versus losing teams.

James cut straight to the point in his postgame comments, saying, "I don't think that mentally we were there tonight. We need to find a way to not have games like this in order to be a great team." He tried to soften that harsh (and accurate) statement by expressing faith in his teammates: "I'm never disappointed in my team."

Cavs' Coach Mike Brown probably disagrees with that sentiment. Before he even took any questions from the assembled media he declared, "Offensively they executed better and longer than we did. We played defense--we tried to play defense--for 10 to 15 seconds at the most on each possession...eventually they got what they wanted. At the other end of the floor, offensively for us, we didn't execute at all, especially late in the ball game; I'm disappointed in our execution. We just came down, tried to throw the ball to Z, but we didn't space the floor the right way. We didn't do anything prior to getting him the ball, didn't set any screens. We held (the ball) for a long time without cutting or moving the defense...Having said that, the team that deserved to win the ball game tonight won it. You have to give everybody in that locker room down the hall credit because they kicked our behinds." Listening to Coach Brown, you could hear and feel the influence of San Antonio Spurs Coach Popovich in his blunt, straightforward assessment of the game and his acknowledgement of the fine play of the opposing team. When he kept mentioning execution I thought of the old line by John McKay when he was coaching the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Asked about his team's execution, he quipped that he was in favor of it.

Seen and Heard
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I spoke with Warriors' assistant coach Mario Elie prior to the game. All-Star Weekend kicks off in just a few days in Houston and Elie can't wait: "I'm looking forward to All-Star Weekend when they will be honoring our team (the '94 & '95 Rockets' championship teams will be feted at Sunday's Legends Brunch). We'll have Frankie Beverly. My wife and kids will be there with me. It's going to be a nice event."

Coach Elie is a real student of the history of the game and wishes that today's players knew more about the previous generations of players who paved the way for them to make so much money now.

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I joked with Coach Elie that he will be forever young because ESPN Classic and NBA TV are always replaying his "Kiss of Death" shot against Phoenix in the '95 playoffs. Another Warriors assistant coach, John MacLeod, also was part of such a moment when he was head coach of the upstart Phoenix Suns, who took the Boston Celtics to triple overtime before losing game five of the 1976 NBA Finals, a contest that many still call "The Greatest Game Ever Played."

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LeBron James' ever growing repertoire now includes a step back three point shot. Larry Bird used to free himself when a defender played him closely by taking a jab step and then stepping back behind the three point line to launch a rainbow jumper; James' move is similar to Bird's, except it looks like James is doing it in fast forward. As Hubie Brown is fond of saying about Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady, distance is not a factor with these guys.

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As part of a pre-game shooting contest with some of his teammates, Richardson hit a high arcing shot from out of bounds next to the left baseline. The shot went over the backboard from behind and dropped in, reminscent of another shot that Bird hit, albeit from closer range and during an actual game--Bird's behind the backboard shot made all the highlight reels in the mid-'80s, but if you look closely you will see the official waving it off, because any shot that goes over the backboard is out of bounds, even if the shooter remained inbounds. Coach Elie just shook his head when Richardson's shot dropped through. I have always admired Michael Jordan for using the pregame warmups to work on shots that he actually would use during the game. Coach Elie agreed that that is important, but hastened to add that this particular shot is a pregame ritual for Richardson after he has completed his regular warmup. Athletes are creatures of habit and ritual and there is nothing wrong with having a little fun after taking care of business. Richardson shot a solid 12-26 during the game and made three of his six three pointers, but he did miss four of his eight free throws.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:44 AM

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