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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Thoughts on the Second Round So Far--and Kobe's Game Seven Performance Revisited

Detroit leads Cleveland 2-0, but the San Antonio-Dallas, Phoenix-L.A. Clippers and Miami-New Jersey series are each tied 1-1. What have the first two games shown about these teams?

It is no mystery that Detroit is clearly a superior team to Cleveland. It will be very surprising if the Cavaliers win more than one game--but I think that it is important that Cleveland wins a game and avoids being swept. Sometimes when teams realize that they have no chance to win a series they take the "easy" way out and get swept, rather than win a home game and then take a final road trip for a loss before beginning their summer vacation. It is important for the development of this Cavaliers team that they win at least one game in Cleveland and force the Pistons to close out the series in Detroit. We know that the Cavs are outgunned and the Cavs surely know it as well but if you are trying to put together a championship caliber team then you want to push yourself constantly and never take the "easy" way. If Detroit can come into Cleveland and win two nail biting games that are decided on the last possession, then the Cavs can simply tip their hats and try to improve their roster for next season--but the Cavs should not allow Detroit to march into Cleveland and blow them out.

San Antonio narrowly won the first game versus Dallas and got waxed in game two. Dallas clearly is in the better position at the moment since the Mavs play the next two games at home. The funny thing about the playoffs, though, is that momentum changes from one game to the next. The Spurs are a veteran laden team that is defending a title and they are more than capable of winning a game (or two) in Dallas. I still expect San Antonio to win this series.

The Suns beat the Clippers 130-123 in game one despite Elton Brand scoring 40 points on 18-22 shooting. I have to admit that after watching that game I thought that Phoenix would have an even easier time than I had thought before the series started; scoring a lot of points is normal for Phoenix, something that the Suns can do game after game, but shooting 18-22 in a playoff game is a tremendous feat that is unlikely to be duplicated--and Brand's team lost anyway. I figured that in game two the Suns would play the same way, Brand might "slump" to 14-22 or something like that and Phoenix would be up 2-0. Instead, Brand, Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley each scored 20-plus points and the Clippers routed the Suns 122-97. Phoenix has to play with a very high energy level to combat the Clippers' superiority in size; they have to scramble around on defense, force turnovers, control the defensive glass and push the ball up the court. Those are the things that they did when their backs were against the wall versus the L.A. Lakers in round one and those are the things that will ultimately win this series for them.

New Jersey thumped Miami in game one, grabbing away home court advantage, and then looked very lethargic in a game two loss. As TNT's Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley noted, it is human nature to get complacent in game two after obtaining home court advantage in game one, but that type of thinking makes me cringe because good playoff teams can win on the road. Miami could very well get a split in New Jersey, forcing the Nets to win another game in Miami. If that happens, the Nets will face a must win in game five. Game sevens on the road in the NBA are death--just ask the L.A. Lakers.

Speaking of the Lakers, it has been suggested that Michael Jordan would never have played the way that Kobe Bryant did in the second half of game seven versus Phoenix. Chicago Tribune columnist Sam Smith, who wrote the book The Jordan Rules, periodically answers readers' questions about the NBA and recently discussed this very issue:

A lot has been written and said regarding Kobe's three-shot performance in Game 7 of the Phoenix series. Kobe and Phil Jackson claim that they wanted to win the right way, employing the pass-first mentality that won them three games earlier in the series. While Kobe's tendencies to sabotage have been well documented, I think it's unlikely that Kobe would actively sabotage things at such a key juncture in his career, having come so far this year. What are your thoughts? --A. Arain, Lombard, Ill.

This is what I think happened and it is Jordanesque. I don't buy that sabotage thing. Bryant had 23 by halftime and was on the way to 50 and the Lakers were in trouble, down 15 and going nowhere. So knowing Phil Jackson, he told Bryant the first four games they went inside and distributed the scoring and got up 3-1, that was their only chance. Kobe has been buying in and did so early in the series. So he does in Game 7 and the plan doesn't work and they're down 30 and can't guard the mop kids. It's over, so Kobe packs it in. If he shoots crazy now they lose and he's blamed for being selfish. So he shuts it down. Jordan did something similar in the 1989 conference finals against the Pistons. The Bulls were losing and the Pistons were double and triple-teaming Jordan, so Doug Collins told Jordan to move the ball and not shoot so much. OK, you think those guys can win! Jordan took eight shots in 46 minutes. Michael Jordan could get eight shots off on anyone getting off the bus. The Bulls couldn't recover and Jordan just stopped shooting. It was Game 5 of a six-game series loss. But Kobe is a villain and lightning rod too, so much of the blame goes to him. I don't think he was deserving of so much criticism.

One more Kobe note: Kobe received 22 first place votes in the MVP balloting, second only to Steve Nash, but only finished fourth overall because more than 20 voters left him completely off of their ballots. I was glad to hear Barkley, a frequent critic of Kobe's, say that those people should lose their voting privileges. Approximately one sixth of the voters picked Kobe as the MVP of the league and approximately one sixth of the voters did not even place him in the top five. I don't have a big problem with Nash winning but anyone who left Kobe completely off of the ballot either does not understand basketball or is motivated by factors other than what happens on the court.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:24 AM


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At Thursday, May 11, 2006 9:30:00 AM, Blogger illest said...

Please every sportswriter, radio show host, tv show host, blogger, and whoever is affiliated with the sports industry........please stop putting Bryant in the same sentence with Jordan. And I joked earlier but you really love Bryant. Who do you think is better? Do you think Jordan would have done that in a seventh game? That was a game five and in that game they only lost by nine points.

The MVP situation is a joke. He definitely shouldnt have been fourth. Nash is wonderful player but he benefits greatly from this system. The debate of Nash and him winning two MVPs is similar to when Kurt Warner won 2 MVPs.

And did you hear what Coach Dunleavy said about Nash? He said Nash is better than Isiah on Colin Cowherd's show last Friday?

Now Dunleavy's from Brooklyn and Brooklynites say some crazy things. But thats beyond crazy.

And the Spurs better be very careful.

At Thursday, May 11, 2006 2:49:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan had the better overall career--more championships, more MVPs, etc.--but Bryant is still an active player, so we don't know what his complete resume will look like at the end. Kobe has three rings at a younger age than Jordan did but of course Kobe also had the opportunity to play with Shaq. I have never written or said that Kobe is better than MJ or even that he is as good. I think that he is the closest active player to Jordan in terms of scoring ability, work ethic and will to win. Mark Heisler of the L.A. Times told me that he thinks that Kobe is actually more driven than Jordan was in terms of practicing and working out, which is actually pretty scary if you think about it.

I personally would have liked to see Kobe shoot more than he did, but I never got the impression that he quit or was trying to prove some point. He was sticking with the game plan, as he did throughout the series--get the other guys involved and then get his points down the stretch if the game is close. He took over a little in the first half just to keep the Lakers in striking distance but he and Jackson realized that Kobe could not beat all five Suns by himself. The other guys had to contribute something offensively and defensively.

No analogy is going to be 100% comparable. Jordan was never in exactly the same situation that Kobe was; Smith's point is that in a similar situation, being coached by the same coach, Jordan elected to take a lot fewer shots than he was capable of taking. All these people who say that Jordan would have done this or wouldn't have done that made no attempt to actually see if Jordan was ever in a remotely similar situation. Smith covered Jordan for many years and has been covering the NBA throughout Kobe's career, so he is certainly qualified to compare their performances in these two situations. I didn't take his remarks to mean that he is suggesting that Kobe is as good as Jordan; Smith is simply saying the same thing that I said immediately after the game: Kobe is receiving way too much criticism for what happened in game seven.

I don't know what losing by nine has to do with anything; does that make it OK that Jordan did not shoot or does that make it worse because if he did then the Bulls might have won? Again, the only thing that was different in game seven for the Lakers is that the other guys did not step up. Kobe did what he had been doing throughout the series.

I did not hear that Dunleavy said that Nash is better than Isiah; it sounds like a comment one makes in the middle of a playoff series to avoid giving bulletin board material to the Suns.

I agree that the Spurs better be careful. There is no doubt that Dallas is capable of beating them, but I still expect San Antonio to prevail.

At Thursday, May 11, 2006 10:46:00 PM, Blogger illest said...

Isiah's name didnt come up so I dont know why he mentioned it.

Heisler's comment about Bryant working out and practicing Im not sure about. Unless he was around Jordan how would he know.

True Smith covered Jordan so his comments are more credible. Im just tired of hearing the comparisons. Bryant is definitely the closest since the Jordan comparison era has started.

Like how Nowitzki and Morrison are the next Larry Bird. I understand comparisons are for people to talk about, but its still absurd.

For example, I know you read what Dennis Hans said about Nocioni being the next DeBusschere. People just need to relax.

I know you didnt say Bryant was better. You just have a lot of complementary things to say about him, which he deserves.

At Friday, May 12, 2006 12:28:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nowitzki and Morrison are just the most recent in a long line of players who have been (wrongly) compared to Bird. We know the obvious reason why these comparisons are made--skin color. Nowitzki's shooting is somewhat like Bird's but he is taller and more athletic yet gets fewer rebounds, assists and steals. He also has obviously not had the same impact in terms of winning championships; in his defense, he has not had frontline mates like McHale, Parish, Maxwell, etc.

The Morrison comparison is completely ridiculous. He's the next Wally Szczerbiak at best. It's interesting how as the years pass that the main thing that people seem to be remembering about Bird is his shooting. What sets him apart from Nowitzki, Morrison and so many others is his overall feel for the game--his ability to rebound, pass, get steals despite not being a great one-on-one defender, etc. Of the guys who have been given the "next Bird" tag (I don't think that any of them asked for it, by the way--it's been given to them and is more of a burden than anything else)--I'm thinking of Ferry, Laettner, Nowitzki and Morrison--Nowitzki is the only guy who is even close. He is a bona fide All-NBA player who has finished third in MVP voting the last two years. But when you consider that Bird won three MVPs and was All-NBA First Team his first nine seasons you realize that Dirk's not really that close to Bird.

At Friday, May 12, 2006 8:50:00 AM, Blogger illest said...

Thats another thing that I hate about comparisons: the race issue. They always compare white to white and black to black. What a shame. I know they didnt ask for the comparison. Its very ridiculous.

They say Hinrich is like John Stockton or Hornacek. Why cant he be Kevin Johnson?

I agree people seem to only remember Bird as a shooter. Its amazing how short peoples memories are. They need to read your chapter in Basketball in America.

At Saturday, May 13, 2006 4:01:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Glad to hear that you read and enjoyed Basketball in America. It may sound like a cliche, but writing that chapter was truly a labor of love. The seventies was a great period for basketball, even though the sport received some negative coverage at the time.

At Saturday, May 13, 2006 10:20:00 PM, Blogger illest said...

Not to gas you up but your chapter was my favorite. Well the negative coverage was mostly a race issue and the brutality of the sport. Many fights. I was watching (as Im sure you saw) that Remdemption: the story of Kermit Washington. They showed a clip of Kent Benson (dont know why he was 1st pick of the draft) getting hit by Jabbar. That was definitely the 70s.

Remember how good Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson were. They are the most underrated guards ever. Just had to throw that in there.

The 70s were a wonderful time in the NBA, very black, and a time that I wished I was more a part of. People forget how many great players white or black that played in the 70s. I was born in 76 but was taught a lot about the 70s from my father.

Plus reading Rockin Steady, The Pro Game and many other books have helped. The NBA is something that Ive loved since I was born and no matter how watered down it gets I love it. Your blog is a wonderful thing.

At Sunday, May 14, 2006 5:51:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Gus Williams and DJ are two great choices as underrated guards. When I spoke with Slick Leonard (who played in the NBA and coached in the NBA and ABA), he told me that Sam Jones is the most underrated NBA guard of all-time and that James Silas is the most underrated ABA guard of all-time. I eventually did articles about both players. You can find links to the Silas articles (multiple part series) here; the Sam Jones article was in Basketball Digest.

Williams and DJ would be excellent article subjects as well. Determining who is "most" underrated is subjective, but both of those guys are certainly underrated.

At Sunday, May 14, 2006 1:21:00 PM, Blogger illest said...

I read the Silas article and Jones article. Very entertaining


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