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Friday, January 13, 2006

Kobe versus LeBron: The Measure of Greatness

"Who you got?" It's the classic basketball question, whether you are choosing sides on the playground or selecting the greatest players in the NBA. Chamberlain or Russell? Robertson or West? Dr. J or Larry Bird? Magic or Michael? "Who you got?"

When it comes to perimeter players in the NBA, my answer for the past several years has been Kobe Bryant--and Thursday's showdown between Bryant's L.A. Lakers and LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers demonstrated why. If you just look at the numbers, LeBron performed at least as well as Kobe: 28 points, 9 assists, 2 rebounds, 11-22 field goal shooting and 4-9 free throw shooting for James versus 27 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 9-21 field goal shooting and 8-8 free throw shooting for Bryant. But if you watched the game you saw that Kobe made every big play down the stretch. When Bill Russell used to work CBS' NBA telecasts he would always say, "It's not how many you score, it's when you score them." He mentioned that after Dr. J scored 7 points in the last two minutes of game four of the 1983 Finals to secure a sweep for the 76ers.

Kobe got off to a hot start on Thursday versus the Cavs, but after he sprained his right wrist in the second quarter he only made 1 of his next 11 shots from the field. With 3:30 left in the fourth quarter Kobe missed a shot and the Cavaliers extended their lead to 90-87 after Drew Gooden followed up LeBron James' miss. The game was there for the taking--and Kobe took it. After Lamar Odom hit a jumper to trim the lead to one, Kobe stole the ball from LeBron and assisted on Devean George's three pointer to give the Lakers a 92-90 lead. Zydrunas Ilgauskas countered with a jumper to tie the game and Odom made one of two free throws to put the Lakers ahead. Eric Snow knotted the score at 93 with 1:40 to go by also splitting a pair of free throws. Then, with everyone in the building knowing who is going to get the ball, Kobe scored the Lakers' final six points on three long jumpers. Each shot gave the Lakers the lead after the Cavs had tied the game on the previous possession.

Kobe fouled LeBron on a drive with five seconds left and the Lakers up by two. LeBron made the first free throw and Drew Gooden rebounded the second, giving the Cavs one final chance. After a timeout, Kobe guarded LeBron and forced him to miss a fadeaway shot as time expired. As TNT's Steve Kerr said right after James' miss, "In the last couple minutes I think we saw what separates Kobe from LeBron, at least at this point in LeBron's career." How does Kobe do it? Kerr, who of course played with Michael Jordan on three championship teams, said that Kobe is mentally stronger than any player since Jordan. James, who is obviously a fantastic player in his own right, himself commented in a recent interview that Kobe has a "killer instinct" that he does not. I recall Brett Favre's comment when he played with a broken thumb on his throwing hand. He said that it was "Mind over matter--if I don't mind, it don't matter."

Kobe has produced in clutch moments to win division titles, to win playoff games and to win championships. No, he's not Jordan, but he's the closest current player to Jordan and is indistinguishable from Jordan in terms of competitiveness, focus and willpower. As Kobe said simply after the game, "I live for these moments."

posted by David Friedman @ 2:35 AM

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Mea Culpa About Flip Saunders and the Detroit Pistons

I was wrong. Those three words are hard for most people to say--and I am no exception--but I believe in being forthright and direct. Before the season I predicted that the Detroit Pistons would slip in the standings after replacing Larry Brown with Flip Saunders. Instead, the Pistons have the best record in the league and thoroughly demolished the defending champion Spurs in San Antonio 83-68 to sweep the regular season series 2-0. Detroit beat San Antonio 85-70 at the Palace on Christmas Day and neither game was really as close as the final margin--or, as TNT's Charles Barkley said about Thursday's game, "If you make a 10-0 run and you're still down 10, it's not a run, it's a crawl."

San Antonio is clearly not at full strength--Tim Duncan is hobbled by a plantar fascia injury and Manu Ginobili has just recently returned to action after his own injury problems--but that does not in any way detract from the cold blooded precision with which the Pistons operate on offense and defense. At times it looked like they were running drills by themselves with no opponent. I still am very curious to see how well the Pistons will ultimately do during the postseason but I would be remiss to not acknowledge the greatness that they are displaying now. It is truly enjoyable to watch how unselfishly they play. It would be great to see this Pistons team play against the San Antonio team that won last year's Finals.

I still am not buying the idea of Chauncey Billups as MVP: here are the numbers for the Detroit starters against the Spurs--22 pts, 6 rebs, 1 ast; 9 pts, 7 rebs, 14 ast; 27 pts, 10 rebs, 4 ast; 13 pts, 12 rebs, 2 ast; 2 pts, 12 rebs, 2 ast. Which one of those players is the MVP? We have two 20-point scorers, two double-doubles and all five players contributing at least 6 rebounds. The Pistons are winning because of a great collective effort and should send at least three of those players to the All-Star Game; I wouldn't have a problem with all five guys being selected as All-Stars, something that almost certainly will not happen.

While I do not support Billups' MVP candidacy, I think that it is a shame that despite the Pistons' great run over the past several years that Billups and Rip Hamilton have not yet made the All-Star team even once. This reveals a great hypocrisy for which fans, writers and coaches must equally share blame. We all say that we value team over individual and that players should sacrifice their own statistical glory for the good of the team--then we select the All-Star teams based almost solely on individual statistics. Billups, Hamilton and the Spurs' Tony Parker each deserve to join Ben Wallace, Duncan and Ginobili at the 2006 All-Star Game.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:39 AM

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Kobe Goes Where Only Wilt and Elgin Went Before

Kobe Bryant scored 45 points in the L.A. Lakers' 96-90 win over the Indiana Pacers on Monday night, becoming the only player other than Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor to have 45-plus points in four straight games; the feat has not been accomplished since Chamberlain did it in November 1964. The Lakers are 3-1 in those contests and have not lost since Bryant returned from his two game suspension for elbowing Memphis' Mike Miller (Utah defeated the Lakers twice when Kobe was out of the lineup). Bryant has scored 188 points during this four game stretch, the third best four game scoring run in the last 20 years (Michael Jordan had runs of 198 points in '87 and 194 points in '90)--and he is also contributing 8.8 rpg and 4.8 apg while playing 43 mpg. Bryant is averaging 42.4 ppg in his last eight games--starting with his 62 points in three quarters versus Dallas on December 20)--and the Lakers won five of those games. Bryant has taken over the scoring lead from Allen Iverson and his 34.1 ppg is higher than any player has averaged in a season since Jordan put up 35.0 ppg in 1987-88.

Kobe's exploits made me think of Shaquille O'Neal, Wilt Chamberlain--and a great book by William Goldman and Mike Lupica. The first two are obvious choices. The Kobe-Shaq saga attracts media attention like moths are drawn to the flame. The story lines are predictable--Kobe's the bad guy, he drove off Shaq, the Lakers were foolish to get rid of Shaq, etc. Shaq is the modern player who is most frequently compared to Wilt Chamberlain in terms of physical dominance. It is ironic that Kobe is the player who just did something that no one has done since Wilt, while Shaq is suffering through his worst season and seems to be well into the declining phase of his career. His Miami Heat hardly look like a championship contender although, to be fair, there is more than enough time left to turn things around, as Shaq is fond of pointing out--but closing the season with a great final push is a lot easier when you are in your 20s and healthy than when you are in your 30s and constantly injured. All you Kobe bashers out there--are you still sure that it would have been better to keep Shaq at $20 million per year as opposed to rebuilding around Kobe Bryant, a younger superstar who is more committed to staying in shape? It doesn't look like the Lakers are going to hit rock bottom like the post-Jordan-Pippen Bulls did.

Goldman and Lupica wrote Wait Till Next Year, their account of one year (1987) in New York sports. Goldman is an Academy Award-winning screenwriter and passionate sports fan, while Lupica is one of America's most prominent sportswriters. The book alternates between "A fan's notes" (by Goldman) and "The reporter's notebook" (by Lupica). If you haven't read this book, do yourself a favor and track it down in your local library or on eBay. What does any of this have to do with Kobe? One of Goldman's "A fan's notes" was titled "To the Death" and discussed how tough the passage of time can be on even the greatest of athletes--he was not referring to what happens to their skills during their playing days, but their place in history as the decades pass. He cited the example of George Sisler, who put up some monster seasons at first base, but has been eclipsed in our memory banks by the tremendous achievements (and tragic early death) of Lou Gehrig. Goldman suggested one athlete who will not suffer Sisler's fate: Wilt Chamberlain.

Goldman started thinking about this after Larry Bird erupted for 42 points and 20 rebounds in a game during the '87-'88 season; he wryly noted, "That's a week for a Knick forward," before pointing out that in Chamberlain's first six seasons he averaged 40.6 ppg and 24.9 rpg. Goldman wrote of Chamberlain, who still had offers to play in the NBA when he was in his early 50s, "the news finds him. Either when some team wants him to come back and play for them...or whenever a record is talked of." (the ellipses are present in the original text). Goldman continued, "During Michael Jordan's amazing '86-'87, Wilt was always in the papers because Jordan was always scoring the most this's since Wilt Chamberlain or taking the most that's since Wilt Chamberlain. And that ain't gonna change, folks. Not in this century. Take big-scoring games, for example. Michael Jordan hit 60 points, twice last year. In the eighties, only two other men have done it, each once: Bernard King and Larry Bird. Four times this decade. Seven other guys did it once: Fulks (the first), Mikan, Gervin, West, Barry, Maravich and David 'oh-what-a-fall-was-there-' Thompson. Elgin Baylor did it thrice. And Wilt? Well, it's been done 46 times so you subtract. Wilt: 32. The rest of basketball: 14. At the present rate, we will be well into the twenty-first century before the NBA catches up." Goldman's prophecy was quite correct; since he wrote those words, David Robinson (71 points), Tracy McGrady (63), Kobe Bryant (62), Karl Malone (61), Shaquille O'Neal (61), Tom Chambers (60) and Allen Iverson (60) added their names to the list while Jordan racked up two more 60 point games (69, 64)--so the tally is now Wilt 32, rest of basketball 23.

Goldman declared that Wilt's status would only grow with time because his records are so astronomical and concluded "To the Death" with this thought: "The greatest struggle an athlete undergoes is the battle for our memories. It's gradual. It begins before you're aware it's begun and it ends with a terrible fall from grace. Stripped of medals, sent to Siberia...It really is a battle to the death."

That's why every time Kobe has the most "this's" or "that's" since Chamberlain that I think not only of Wilt, but also Shaq--and Wait Till Next Year by William Goldman and Mike Lupica. Kobe's feats repeatedly acquaint a new generation with Wilt's name and 50 years from now I believe that both players will survive Goldman's aptly named struggle "to the death."

posted by David Friedman @ 9:10 PM

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Sunday, January 08, 2006

LeBron James Cancels Milwaukee's Redd Alert

The Cleveland Cavaliers rallied after a sluggish first quarter to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks 96-88 at Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday night. LeBron James finished with 35 points, seven rebounds and six assists, while Michael Redd had 32 points in defeat. Redd helped Milwaukee get off to a quick start with 10 first quarter points and the Bucks led 23-16; James had 10 of the Cavs' points and shot 4-7 from the field, while his teammates misfired at an anemic 3-18 clip.

In the second quarter, Cleveland fan favorite Luke Jackson sparked a Cavs rally with his seven points and two assists, including a sweet bounce pass to James for a two-handed dunk. Milwaukee led 44-40 at the half and the James-Redd shootout was tied at 17 points each; no other player had more than eight points.

James brought the crowd to its feet with two sensational third quarter plays--a soaring spike of Maurice Williams' layup attempt that preserved a slim 54-51 Cavs' lead at the 5:31 mark and a reverse dunk that put the Cavs ahead 64-63 with less than 40 seconds remaining. That play whipped the arena into a frenzy but at the 18.3 second mark you could hear a pin drop as James lay motionless on the court after landing awkwardly on the left side of his body when Bobby Simmons fouled him. James was uninjured, although he did miss both free throws.

Cleveland outscored Milwaukee 32-23 in the final stanza, with James scoring 11 points and adding two assists, accounting for six of the Cavs' 10 field goals. Donyell Marshall supported James with nine points and four rebounds in the period, finishing with 14 and eight.

Drew Gooden had a double-double, 14 points and 17 rebounds, while the Bucks' Andrew Bogut, the number one overall pick in the 2005 draft, had a quiet 10 points and seven rebounds.

*********************
Notes From Courtside:

Damon Jones and his off target shooting--connecting on just 4 of his 26 previous attempts prior to Saturday--was the main topic du jour before the game. Jones has moved into the starting lineup in place of the injured Larry Hughes, who was dressed in civilian clothes and wearing a large cast to protect his surgically repaired broken finger. Coach Mike Brown supported Jones very strongly and even praised his defense, which has received a lot of negative attention. In his pregame standup, Brown declared, "Technically, he is probably one of our better off the ball defenders." He also said that he has no problem with Jones continuing to shoot three pointers, as long as they are open shots. I asked Coach Brown if he has seen any change in Jones' shot from a mechanical standpoint that would explain why he is missing so many shots and Brown replied, "I didn't ask him. I don't dwell on it because he's a veteran. A guy like that, you just hope that he continues to step up and take shots when he's open. We'll continue to work with him and try to get him extra shots. In terms of what could be wrong with his shot, I don't get into that." I followed up by asking if there is a fine line between trying to help Jones find his touch but not placing so much attention on the issue that it makes Jones self conscious about his form and Brown answered, "That's my thought about it."

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Jones showed no signs of emerging from his shooting woes, making only 1 of 6 shots versus the Bucks. The fans at the Q have taken to booing him lustily after each miss, so when Jones finally made a shot and the crowd cheered, Jones put both hands over his ears. Asked after the game if the booing bothers him, Jones answered simply, "I'm human." He added that he feels that the fans should support the team and the players win or lose, good or bad, and that since they've been booing his misses he'd prefer that they don't cheer his makes. That comment is unlikely to endear him to the Cavaliers' faithful, but put yourself in his shoes. If you were trying your best to do a good job, but just having a non-productive day/week, would being booed help you to perform better? The fans pay for their tickets and have every right to boo, but I've always thought that it is counterproductive for home fans to boo players who are putting forth good effort. If a guy is obviously not trying hard or is making stupid plays, fans should by all means express their displeasure. But Jones' role on the Cavs is to shoot open three pointers. His coach puts him on the court specifically to do that and, as Coach Brown noted repeatedly, Jones is a veteran player who has shot a good percentage on three pointers during his career. For whatever reason, Jones is struggling right now, but booing him is unlikely to achieve the desired result. Again, the fans have every right to boo Jones--but if the ultimate goal is to inspire the team to do well, is booing him really going to help? A good deal of the home court advantage stems from the energy and encouragement that the fans provide to the players; right now home games are like road games--or worse--for Jones and that cannot be good for him or the team.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:39 AM

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