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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Rockets Cool Off Heat, 96-71

Dwyane Wade picked up where he left off in the 2006 NBA Finals, but the rest of the Miami Heat looked lethargic in a 96-71 preseason loss to the Houston Rockets. The game was televised by ESPN and played before a sparse Miami crowd; apparently, there are other things to do in South Beach besides going to a preseason NBA game--who knew? Wade finished with a game-high 26 points in 32 minutes on 11-17 field goal shooting but the rest of the Heat shot only 16-47 (.340) from the field; no other Heat player managed to even reach double figures--Shaquille O'Neal had nine points (in 22 minutes) as he shot just 3-8 from both the field and the free throw line. Tracy McGrady led the Rockets with 19 points in 31 minutes, but he shot only 6-18 from the field, 1-6 on three pointers and 6-11 from the free throw line. He had no trouble creating open shots for himself and his floor game looked good (five assists, four rebounds), but for whatever reason he was not making shots that he normally hits--his patented elbow jumper and pullup three pointers from the wing. Yao Ming had 14 points, 13 rebounds and three blocked shots in 32 minutes.

Neither team shot particularly well from the field (.444 for Houston, .422 for Miami) but Houston made nine three pointers and 23 free throws compared to four and 13 respectively for Miami. The Heat actually were ahead 21-20 after the first quarter, but Houston took a small lead early in the second quarter and never looked back. Houston had a 42-36 halftime lead despite Wade's 18 points on 7-11 field goal shooting. The Rockets really poured it on in the third quarter, pushing the margin to 63-45 when the Heat went through a stretch in which they missed 12 of their 15 field goal attempts. Of course, as I mentioned in my previous post, the preseason means different things to different teams, a point that ESPN's Tim Legler brought up during the halftime show. Miami is the reigning NBA champion and has made no major personnel moves; the Heat just want to stay healthy, get their players in shape and prepare for the long 82 game grind of the regular season. The Rockets, on the other hand, have made a lot of changes and did not make the playoffs last year, so it is important that they develop on court chemistry before the season begins. About the only second half drama, such as it was, came at the 2:07 mark in the third quarter when Miami's Alonzo Mourning was ejected after receiving his second technical foul; he got his first one much earlier in the game for arguing a call and the one that led to his automatic ejection was issued when he punched the ball into the crowd in frustration after Houston scored to take a 67-48 lead.

While the game was basically a snoozer, there was an interesting second quarter exchange between ESPN commentators John Saunders and Jon Barry--a broadcasting rookie who just retired from the NBA--about O'Neal's well documented struggles at the free throw line. Barry did not discuss how O'Neal rebuffed his father's offer to help him shoot free throws more accurately and actually sympathized with the Diesel, saying that viewers at home should grab a softball and try to shoot free throws with it to get an idea of what it is like to shoot free throws when you are as big as Shaq. Saunders mentioned that Wilt Chamberlain shot poorly from the free throw line; it should be added that Chamberlain's rival Bill Russell also shot a low percentage, although for some reason that is not brought up nearly as often as Chamberlain's numbers are (Chamberlain shot .511, Russell shot .561 and O'Neal has shot .528 for his career). OK, so it seems like there is a pattern here of dominant big men who win championships despite not shooting well from the free throw line--but then Barry, who was a teammate of O'Neal's for one year, added that O'Neal routinely made 17 or 18 of 20 from the free throw line during practice. Barry went on to say that O'Neal might feel self conscious at the free throw line during games (something that some observers also felt applied to Chamberlain). Now we have a mystery on our hands, but I don't think we need Sherlock Holmes to solve it--even Inspector Gadget can figure out that if O'Neal consistently makes most of his free throws during practice (the same thing was also said of Chamberlain) then the size of his hands has nothing to do with him missing them during games; Inspector Gadget might even say "Go, go Gadget arms," grab an NBA Register and note that Russell was basically the same size as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, that Dirk Nowitzki is a 7-footer who shoots free throws well and that Yao Ming's 7-5 stature has not stopped him from shooting .812 from the free throw line during his NBA career. The simple truth is that O'Neal, like Chamberlain and Russell, has been able to be successful despite being a poor free throw shooter. I doubt that any of these three "made them when they count" (as Shaq alleges that he does) at a greater rate than they made them during the rest of the game and, in any case, if you make them early then maybe the game isn't close enough for them to "count" in the end.

One thing that is very interesting about O'Neal's free throw problems is that they seem to be regarded by most people as comic relief as opposed to a flaw in his game. The reason I mention this is that O'Neal is the only dominant big man in NBA history I can think of who is genuinely beloved by fans and the media--maybe Mikan was also, but that's going back many, many years. Russell's public image has undergone quite a makeover in recent years as he has assumed an elder statesman role, but he once said that he owed the fans nothing and he didn't even show up for either his jersey retirement or his induction in the Hall of Fame (Russell had some very understandable negative feelings regarding racism in Boston and the country in general, but it is safe to say that he was hardly a beloved figure--even in the city where he won 11 championships--during his career). Chamberlain said "Nobody loves Goliath" and was often the target of criticism from fans and the media. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was widely considered to be aloof and unapproachable. O'Neal is the only dominant, multiple-championship winning big man who seems to be a widely beloved figure (I would argue that Tim Duncan is respected but not beloved, much like Pete Sampras). I'm not sure why this is or what it means, but it is interesting, because fans generally gravitate toward the perceived underdog, not a player who is literally larger than life. O'Neal is so well-liked that he not only gets a pass for his bad free throw shooting but no issue is made of the disrespectful way that he dismissed Rick Barry's offer to help him (discussed in the 20SecondTimeout post cited above). If Allen Iverson shot .500 from the free throw line and rebuffed Rick Barry's advice by saying that Barry's resume is essentially worthless, would the media and fans just ignore that? What if the player in question were Kobe Bryant?

Longtime 20SecondTimeout readers know that I generally focus my attention on what happens between the lines and not on off court issues--so why am I comparing Shaq's popularity to that of other dominant big men? Simple--in my estimation, his popularity is unique among the members of this exclusive group and it affects the way that his game/skills are evaluated and discussed. Russell, Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar all received a lot of unwarranted and unfair criticism in their day but that is no reason to swing the pendulum so far in the other direction that we just ignore or dismiss a legimitate shortcoming in O'Neal's game.

Would I want Shaquille O'Neal as my franchise center despite his bad free throw shooting? Of course I would, just as I would have wanted a young Chamberlain or Russell; the advantages of having a dominant big man far outweigh the disadvantage of that big man being a bad free throw shooter--but that doesn't mean that failure at a basic fundamental of the game should be laughed off or that we should make lame excuses for O'Neal's free throw shooting or just treat it like a big joke.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:05 AM

12 comments

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12 Comments:

At Thursday, October 26, 2006 8:05:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

Very Interesting point about great big men being vilified. I was actually thinking about this the other day.

I really do not think that guys like Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar were appreciated for their skills and accomplishments as much as they should have been. Fans and media expect big guys to be able to win every time, and even when they do win, the fans and media are always ready to dismiss it because "after all, he's so much bigger/taller than everyone else".

In fact, I think Chamberlain and Jabbar are two of the most overlooked players in history. That may sound funny, but I think it's true. When people think of Wilt, they think "50 ppg, 100 point game" and overlook his great defense, rebounding, willingness to sacrifice his game (ironically, this didn't stop people from labeling him as selfish), and winning. Chamberlain was the centerpiece of two of the most dominant teams ever, and his teams were ALWAYS contenders, even when they didn't go all the way. If not for an absurd amount of bad luck and instability surrounding the teams he played on (lots of different coaches, etc.) he probably would have won a lot more championships than he did.

As for Kareem, people always think "All Time scoring leader, played till he was 70". The lasting image of Kareem for most modern fans are his twilight years where Magic Johnson was the best player on the Lakers. This causes many people to overlook just how dominant a player he was in the 70s, when he did practically everything at the highest levels.

I actually think Shaq got lots of
criticism during his early years with the Lakers due to the team's playoff failures (going out in sweeps, etc.). I think Shaq has managed to escape going down as the bad guy like Wilt and Kareem and Russell in no small part because the Shaq/Kobe feud has left Kobe as the bad guy and Shaq as the good guy. I don't want to argue about who was more at fault between Shaq or Kobe or anything, but I think the beef (ironically) has helped Shaq's image with most fans.

As for Russell, I probably would have been rather bitter myself if my team was winning 11 championships in 13 years but could never sell out the Boston Garden.

 
At Thursday, October 26, 2006 9:13:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shaq is so concerned with his image, it is beneath him to shoot free throws underhanded like Rick Barry. Would fans and fellow players laugh at Shaq for shooting free throws underhanded? I don't think so!

Just imagine how many games were lost due to his poor free throw shooting.

Justin Richard

 
At Thursday, October 26, 2006 3:29:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Justin:

I agree that fans would not laugh at any free throw technique that works. Anyway, even if they did, what is more important--looking "cool" or winning games?

 
At Thursday, October 26, 2006 4:36:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

Wayne Embry, who drafted Kareem, had a nice way of summarizing Kareem's great skills: he said that if Kareem had been 6-0 instead of 7-2 he still would have been an NBA player. Kareem won a couple scoring titles, a rebounding title and six MVPs (a record). I agree that he is, in many ways, underrated. Likewise with Wilt, whose numbers are so great that they look ficitional--for instance, he once had a 20-20-20 game! In general, his teams had far less talent than Russell's and yet most years Russell's Celtics only narrowly beat Chamberlain's teams.

You are right that Shaq received some criticism in the years prior to when he won three championships with the Lakers and I think that you are on to something when you suggest that the Shaq/Kobe feud boosted Shaq's image in the minds of the general public.

I just read the book "The Rivalry," which made the interesting point that the Boston Garden was designed with hockey in mind and that there were only perhaps 7000 good (i.e., with an unobstructed view) seats in the house for basketball. Supposedly, that is one reason why the Boston Garden sold out more for hockey than for hoops in the 1960s. I'm not sure if I completely buy that.

I hope that I made it clear that I don't fault Russell for how he felt; my point is that he was not viewed as a beloved figure until very recently.

 
At Thursday, October 26, 2006 5:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wilt is always being let off the hook for playing on teams with "far less talent" than Russells.

But then how do you explain 1966, 1968 and 1969 when Wilt's teams had considerably more talent but still lost?

Wilt was a choker and loser who cared only about stats. Even Jack Ramsay called him "stat collector". A good example of Wilt's loser ways can be found in Charley Rosen's book on the 1971-72 Lakers. Wilt got his 5th foul in the 3rd quarter of Game 7 of the 1969 Finals with the Lakers up big. He was taken out of the game and when asked to go back in during the 4th, he claimed a knee injury, wanting to protect his record of never having fouled out. The Laker coach was infuriated, and when the Celtics were on the verge of taking the lead and Wilt asked to come back in, he refused. The Lakers lost on Don Nelson's last second shot, and the rest is history.

 
At Thursday, October 26, 2006 8:15:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

The Celtics often had so many future Hall of Famers that they brought one or two off of the bench. Coaching is also part of the "talent" equation and Auerbach was superior to most of the coaches that Chamberlain had; Alex Hannum is the only coach to beat the Russell Celtics in the playoffs and he did it twice, once with Pettit as his star and once with Wilt.

In 1966, Billy Cunningham was a rookie. As explained in the book "The Rivalry," the Celtics made a concerted effort to pressure him and frustrate him, hoping that the Sixers would bench him. Billy C shot .161 in the playoffs versus Boston and only averaged 5.3 ppg after averaging 14.3 ppg in the regular season. Shutting Billy C down is a combination of having great personnel and a coach who put together the right game plan. Chamberlain averaged 28 ppg and 30.2 rpg in that year's playoffs--if that is "stat collecting," I'm sure that a lot of coaches wouldn't mind it.

In 1968, the 76ers did have a very strong team. They were the defending champions and they took a 3-1 lead over Boston. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. cast a pall over that series and divided the Sixers team, according to "The Rivalry." The Celtics gathered together as a group and voted about whether or not they wanted to play, while the Sixers did not do that until the last second and then were split into different camps over what they should do--again, this reflects on leadership and organization. On the court, particularly in game seven, Chamberlain's supporting cast shot an abysmal percentage. Could Wilt have shot more? Should he have shot more? Perhaps, but one man cannot beat a team by himself.

Chamberlain suffered a legitimate injury in game seven in 1969 and I can't believe that anyone would question that in reference to a player who once averaged 48.5 mpg for a season and who worked extremely hard to come back from a serious knee injury in 1970 (an effort that has been overshadowed in most media accounts by Willis Reed taking the court in game seven of the Finals, a game that just a few months earlier many would have thought that Chamberlain would not have been able to play in at all). When Chamberlain's knee felt better after a few minutes on the bench, he asked to go back in the game but Butch Van Breda Kolff, who had feuded with Wilt all year, wanted to prove that the team could win without him--so he left Wilt on the bench even though Wilt asked repeatedly to go back in the game. Wilt's streak of not fouling out had absolutely nothing to do with any of this; anyway, that is a regular season streak and would not be affected by a playoff game.

Wilt was the centerpiece on two of the most dominant teams ever, the '67 Sixers and the '72 Lakers, each of whom set records for regualar season wins and won championships. The '72 Lakers won 33 straight games, a record that will likely never be equalled. As I mentioned before, Wilt's teams lost a lot of close series and close games to Celtics teams that clearly had a lot more firepower (and better coaching). To call Wilt a choker is simply not correct.

 
At Thursday, October 26, 2006 9:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not the first and only guy who has labeled Wilt a "stat collector". Coaching genius Jack Ramsay, who saw Wilt play on a day to day basis gave him that label.

You ignored the fact that from 1967-1969, Russell didn't enjoy Auerbach as his coach. Russell WAS the coach.

As far as questioning Wilt's injury in the 1969 finals, Bill Russell himself had some very unflattering things to say about it, saying that only a broken leg or broken back were good enough excuses to leave such an important game.

Was Billy Cunningham that important as a rookie that his poor play explained the 76ers' 5-game collapse in 1966? Didn't they also have Wilt, Hal Greer, Chet Walker, Luke Jackson, and Wally Jones? That gave them 3 prolific scorers, compared to only 2 (Havlicek, Jones) for the Celtics. Who else did the Celtics have? Larry Siegfried? Tom Sanders? Don Nelson? All role players.

 
At Friday, October 27, 2006 1:44:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I'm well aware that Jack Ramsay, who was Wilt's General Manager with the 76ers, called Wilt a "stats collector"--he used that exact phrase when I interviewed him for my "Classic Confrontation" article about Wilt versus Shaq; there is a link to that article on the main page of 20 Second Timeout. One quote, even from someone as knowledgeable as Dr. Jack, is not a definitive statement about Wilt's career. Also, calling Wilt a choker, which you did, is different than calling him a "stats collector." If you are objective, you realize that most great players are "stats collectors" to a certain extent. Jordan won 10 scoring titles--that was not an accident.

I didn't ignore when Auerbach's coaching tenure ended. Auerbach coached the team in 1966 and made the decision about shutting down Billy C. My statement about Hannum is that he is the only coach to defeat RUSSELL's Celtics in the playoffs. Chamberlain never beat an Auerbach coached team in the playoffs and ended up 1-2 against the Russell coached Celtics.

Auerbach apparently felt that shutting down Billy C in the 1966 playoffs was important, since that was the centerpiece of his game plan. If you hold a guy to 9 ppg below his average and .161 (!) shooting, I think that will have a significant impact on the team's chances to win. Billy C played a pretty big role in the Sixers' title run the next year, when he had some more experience under his belt, and was injured and unable to play in the 1968 series versus the Celtics (something that I should have mentioned in my previous comment).

Russell's comments came much later, when he spoke at a small college and did not realize that his remarks were going to be reported. That led to a two decade rift with Chamberlain and Russell later acknowledged that his statement was wrong and hurtful. Others have pointed out that Russell was very deferential in his comments about Wilt when they were both active and may have only felt safe saying such a thing when he knew that he would never again face him on the court. In any case, Russell was not on the Lakers' bench and had no way to know what was really going on. Those who were there--and reporters who overheard what transpired--have reported the truth.

Basketball is not just about how many prolific scorers that you have--otherwise, Phoenix would have already won an NBA title. Elgin Baylor said that no one guarded him tougher than Satch Sanders (there is a link to my article about Sanders on the main page here).

Also, on the subject of choking, it is interesting how this label is subjectively applied. Is Magic a choker? He dribbled out the clock in an NBA Finals game with the score tied. Is Jerry West a choker? He never won a title until he had Wilt as a teammate. Is Oscar Robertson a choker? He never won a title until he was paired with Kareem. It takes a strong team playing well to win a title. Wilt, who you call a "choker," won exactly one title less than Larry Bird.

 
At Friday, October 27, 2006 4:20:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm going to go off on a tangent based on your views towards Shaq. I totally agree with you on the notion that Shaq, although a horrible free throw shooter and a somewhat egotistical jerk, will never be vilified by anyone affiliated with the media (ie ESPN, SLAM, etc) and is glorified instead.

I definitely enjoy watching Shaq play because he has tremendous quickness for a man of his size, but yet I can't help but feel disgusted when I hear the likes of Stephen A Smith, Tony Meijia, Stuart Scott, and other countless sportwriting goons, talk about how lovable a character he is when he goes out there and acts egotistical and has a very defensive personality. For example, remember when he would call the Sac Kings, the Queens? Remember when he would never call Kobe by his name, and refuse to even shake his hand? Do you remember his somewhat racial slurs when describing his first matchup against Yao Ming? And yet he is not vilified for his actions, but still glorified as the biggest teddy bear on the planet. And also, when the NBA issues its "good guy of the year" award he is always in the running for 1st or 2nd place. Give me a break. There's a huge double standard in the NBA on dealing with Mr. Shaquille O'Neal, Diesel, Superman, the Great Aristotle, or whatever moniker he thinks of next.

All I have to say is that ESPN and the rest of the media must be scared of this man because of his physical presence on and off the court. Do you ever see a highlight of Shaq being dunked on? Do you ever see a statiscal comparison between him and the Yao Ming of last season? No, you do not. What I do see on ESPN though are commentators claiming that Shaq is still the most dominant force in the league by discrediting Yao Ming's 2005 achievements by hiding them under a multitude of highlights of "dunks on Yao Ming" and Stuart Scott still saying that Yao is soft.

Shaq, I love you as a player, not as an individual, and I'm sorry to say that from a fan's point of view, you are no longer the best center in the league.

 
At Friday, October 27, 2006 6:11:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

It is completely unfair to call Wilt a "choker".

First of all, I don't think Jack Ramsay is the most objective guy when it comes to Wilt. After all, Ramsay was largely responsible for trading Chamberlain in 1968, feeling he was overpaid, and Ramsay had also feuded with Alex Hannum and ran him out of Philly. He is probably as responsible as anyone for breaking up the great 76er team.

I've read Charley Rosen's book, and quite frankly, it's trash. Rosen appears to have some personal grudge against Wilt, going as far as to tell outright lies. The Lakers trailed heavily in that Game 7 and Wilt did not leave the game in the 3rd quarter, but with 5 minutes left in the 4th quarter. There is film of this game, and you can see Chamberlain sustain his injury. Wilt also played with serious injuries many times in the playoffs, so Russell's rants hold no weight.

Wilt played for 7 different coaches in his career, and went through 8 different coaching changes (Hannum coached Wilt in two separate stints). It is quite difficult to maintain team excellence when your coach keeps changing (or your franchise moves, like the Warriors did) and your role keeps changing. Many of those coaches (Schayes, Van Breda Kolff) have been observed by coaching records and opinions to be sub-par.

Still, here is how close Wilt's teams came and some of the bad luck that they had:

1960: Warriors lose to Celtics in 6 games. They lose two games while Wilt plays while recovering from an injury to his hand (which was sustained during an altercation where the Celtics tried to rough him up)

1962: Warriors lose in Game 7 to Celtics by 2 points. Wilt scores Philly's final 7 points. There was a controversy surrounding a goal-tending call on Wilt as well as accurate time-keeping at the end of the game.

1965: 76ers lose in Game 7 to Celtics by 1 point. Wilt scores 8 of Philly's final 10 points. 76ers have chance at end, but "Havlicek steals it".

1968: Billy Cunningham was out for the series, and Chamberlain and Jackson played with injuries. As was noted before, the MLK assassination took place the day before Game 1 which Philly lost to Boston (Note that all 76er starters were black while only two of the Celtics starters were black--it's not a stretch to say Philadelphia may have been affected a little more). Wilt was criticized for taking only two shots in the second half of Game 7 (which they lost by 4 points). What many people overlook is that, oddly, the ball came into Wilt only 7 times during that half, wheras Wilt would have gotten the ball about 30 times during a typical half.

1969: The Lakers had very bad chemistry and never found a way to work Wilt into their game plan effectively. The Lakers lose in Game 7 by 2 points as Wilt sits in the bench at the end.

1970: The referres put away their whistles as New York steals Game 5. In Game 7, every player in the Knicks is red hot.

1971: Jerry West was out for the playoffs.

 
At Friday, October 27, 2006 2:34:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

You bring up some excellent points about Shaq. Isn't it amazing how quickly the situation with his remarks about Yao Ming was forgotten? If someone else were involved, that could literally have become an international incident.

 
At Friday, October 27, 2006 2:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

Thank you for providing an excellent summary of Wilt's travails versus the Celtics. It is amazing how a few different bounces of the ball could have changed basketball history very dramatically. I should also add that a lot of credit has to be given to the Celtics for maintaining a high standard of excellence for so many years. It is difficult to repeat as champions but they won 8 straight and 11 out of 13. A lot of their victories were close, but just the fact that they put themselves in position to win so many titles is a tribute to their dedication and focus. Many championship teams fall apart after one title.

 

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