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Thursday, March 23, 2006

Down the Stretch They Come...

ESPN broadcast an interesting doubleheader tonight: Miami at Detroit followed by San Antonio at Denver. The first game likely provided an Eastern Conference Finals preview and the second game showcased the defending NBA champions against a tough Western Conference playoff contender. The Heat led the Pistons 43-35 at the half before succumbing to Detroit's suffocating defense and losing 82-73; Miami made only four field goals in the fourth quarter--two Antoine Walker three pointers and two Shaquille O'Neal putbacks. Miami lost Alonzo Mourning early in the game to a right calf injury, which not only hurt their chances in this game but could be very damaging going forward if he will be functioning at less than 100% for an extended period.

Detroit completely stifled Miami's half court offense in the final stanza. Miami only shot 37.8% from the field for the game and Detroit actually shot an even lower percentage, 34.9%, but Detroit forced 16 turnovers while only committing five; that disparity led to extra possessions for the Pistons, who had nine more field goal attempts and nine more free throw attempts than the Heat. The main positive for the Heat is that Shaquille O'Neal seems to be rounding into shape. The Diesel shot 12-21 from the field and had 27 points and 10 rebounds. The rest of the Heat shot 16-53. Dwyane Wade shot 3-15 and managed only 13 points, although he did have nine assists. Chauncey Billups led Detroit with 24 points despite shooting 5-16 from the field. Billups also had 10 assists and five rebounds. During the Pistons' desultory first half I reflected on how much the Pistons have fallen off since their quick start to the season and that Flip Saunders was brought in to win these kinds of games and take the Pistons back to the NBA Finals. The Pistons showed their championship mettle by pulling this one out despite not playing their best game but Saunders must still prove that he can lead the team to postseason success at a level comparable to what Larry Brown's Pistons achieved. As Miami wilted in the second half I thought about Shaq's idea of working himself into shape just in time for the playoffs. The problem is that this has already cost the Heat the chance for home court advantage versus the Pistons; if these teams meet in the playoffs and the series goes the distance, the deciding game will be played in Detroit. O'Neal got off to a slow start this year because of a severely sprained ankle. Injuries are part of the game and can happen to anyone, but they are more likely to occur to players who are (1) older and (2) not in peak condition. That is why Jerry Buss and the Lakers chose not to re-sign O'Neal to a long term deal, opting instead to build a team around Kobe Bryant; Bryant and the Lakers will likely make it to the playoffs in the tough Western Conference despite having one of the youngest rosters in the league and their future looks bright.

In the second game, Denver jumped all over the Spurs, taking a 55-41 halftime lead. In the first half, most of the Spurs looked like sleepwalking zombies. The Spurs trailed by as much as 18 before rallying to take the lead in the third quarter. After that the game turned into a back and forth affair for a stretch before Denver eventually pulled away to win 104-92. Carmelo Anthony led the Nuggets with 32 points, while Manu Ginobili had 26 points for the Spurs. Tim Duncan bounced back from a poor first half to finish with 22 points. Denver pounded San Antonio 58-27 on the glass, paced by Marcus Camby's 21 rebounds.

What does this game tell us about the postseason prospects for these teams? This was the second of back to back contests for the Spurs and they have a poor record in such games this season--which is bad news for their future playoff opponents because there are no back to backs in the playoffs, meaning Tim Duncan and crew will be rested and ready in the playoffs. As for Denver, Anthony is having an All-Star caliber season and Camby, Kenyon Martin and Ruben Patterson make it tough for opposing offenses to score. The Nuggets are a solid team but not quite good enough to defeat the Spurs, Mavericks or Suns in a seven game series.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:43 AM

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Monday, March 20, 2006

Murray "Flips" the Script in a Big Win for the Cavs

The storyline for a frustrating Cleveland Cavaliers' loss seemed to be written: Kobe Bryant had a sensational first half in Sunday's nationally televised game, scoring 24 points and handing out five assists as the L.A. Lakers never trailed en route to a 63-49 halftime lead. Bryant concluded the half with a buzzer beating three pointer from deep in the corner on the left baseline. Lamar Odom chipped in with 13 points, seven assists and four rebounds and Smush Parker contributed 13 points and four assists. LeBron James and Zydrunas Ilgauskas each had 18 points for the Cavs but the rest of the team shot 5-16 from the field and scored only 13 points.

Recently acquired guard Ronald "Flip" Murray flipped the script in the second half and wrote a different ending for the Cavaliers. Murray had 19 second half points--including 14 in the fourth quarter, equaling the Lakers' output in the period--as the Cavs came back from an 18 point deficit to win 96-95 in front of an enthusiastic sellout crowd of 20,562 at Quicken Loans Arena. Murray provided the final margin by making one of two free throws after a Bryant foul with 3.4 seconds left. Bryant, who missed a desperation three point attempt at the final buzzer after a botched inbounds play, finished with 38 points, six rebounds, five assists, three steals and a blocked shot, but it was Murray who stole the show--literally; Murray stole the ball twice in a 27 second stretch of the fourth quarter and scored two driving layups. After the second steal, Bryant was whistled for a technical foul and Ilgauskas sank the ensuing free throw attempt. This flurry cut the lead to one and then the Cavs took their first lead on an Ilgauskas tip in at the 3:13 mark. The Cavs had trailed the entire game until that point but never fell behind again. Murray finished with 21 points and eight rebounds. Ilgauskas ended up with 25 points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots and James had 29 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and seven turnovers. Odom had a strong game--25 points, nine assists, eight rebounds, three steals--but missed a shot with 8.9 seconds left that could have put the Lakers ahead.

After the game, James singled out Eric Snow's second half defense on Bryant as a key factor in the win: "Kobe Bryant is an excellent player--in my mind, the best player in our game. E. Snow did an excellent job of putting a hand in his face every time he went up to shoot." He claimed to not pay attention to the pregame hype about him playing against Bryant: "I don't get caught up in it. It's all about the team for me and winning the ballgame; that's special for me--that's all I care about."

Meanwhile, Jackson explained what went wrong on the Lakers' final inbounds play. Right after the game, Bryant clearly and demonstrably indicated to Luke Walton, who inbounded the ball to him, that Walton should have called a timeout because the play was not working as designed. Jackson agreed that Walton should have called a timeout. Asked why Walton did not do so, Jackson said, "I think that he got drawn into the play and that was a decision that he did not make (correctly)." Jackson was less than pleased about several questionable calls by the officials, commenting, "Obviously, we can make a point about that," but he quickly added, "The game was really in our own hands for 45 or 46 minutes. It was really a basic collapse defensively by our team in the fourth quarter and we never recovered."

A somber Bryant summed things up simply at his locker: "We didn't match their intensity. We didn't do a good job contesting shots." Bryant disagreed with the foul call that led to Murray's winning free throw, saying that his strip of the ball from Murray was "as clean as it could get--it was very clean, extremely clean." Previously Bryant had said that the Lakers would learn from the mistakes they made when losing games. Someone asked him if he was concerned because the Lakers are losing games by making the same mistakes repeatedly (a botched inbounds play cost the Lakers in their previous game) and Bryant smiled wanly: "Maybe we're just slower learners. But we'll learn."

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Notes From Courtside:

During Phil Jackson's pregame standup I asked the Lakers Coach to compare Kobe Bryant's 2005-06 season with Michael Jordan's 1987-88 campaign, when Jackson was an assistant coach on Doug Collins' staff. Bryant has a chance to be the first player to average 35-plus ppg since Jordan scored exactly 35.0 ppg for the Chicago Bulls that year. Jackson replied, "I think that a lot of it (Jordan's scoring output) was by need, by necessity. Also the year that he averaged 35-plus he was MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and all that other stuff--a pretty phenomenal year. His team won 50 games that year. I think that this (Kobe Bryant's performance) is a comparable year. It's not the same--nothing is." I asked Jackson if Bryant's scoring totals are also "by necessity" and Jackson said, "Somewhat. I think that early in the year, obviously, while the team got adjusted to playing with each other under the system we work that it was really a necessity for him to carry a load. At this point in the year we've got a lot of guys contributing along with him, so I think that we've kind of gotten away from the one man scoring thing. But he still has outbursts, he still has big nights. I don't anticipate that he is going to end up scoring 35 points a game but the average that he carries is going to be remarkable, whatever that number is."

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Stu Lantz has worked as a television commentator for Lakers games for 19 years, following broadcasting assignments with CBS, the Clippers and San Diego State University. Lantz enjoyed his best NBA season with the San Diego Rockets in 1970-71, averaging 20.6 ppg and 5.0 rpg, and he finished his playing career with the Lakers in 1976. I spoke with Lantz before the game, sharing with him my recent articles about Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson's 40-point games (Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson: More top 40 hits than anyone on the Billboard charts) and Austin Carr's remarkable NCAA Tournament scoring records (Carr's records stand test of time), fitting topics to consider with Kobe facing off against LeBron and March Madness in high gear. Lantz agreed that Kobe's scoring records provide an excellent opportunity to educate younger fans not only about his greatness but also about the accomplishments of legendary players such as Wilt Chamberlain. We are all witnessing what Kobe is able to do, which provides some context for the otherworldly numbers that Chamberlain put up in the 1960s.

Lantz does not believe that Kobe's 81 point game should be compared to Wilt's record 100 point game, saying that a more valid comparison is with Wilt's second best game--78 points in a triple overtime game. Based on points per minute, Lantz gives Kobe the edge on that one. I said to Lantz that the way I look at it is that Wilt's records--the 100 point game, averaging more than 48 minutes per game for a season, averaging 50 points a game, etc.--look like things achieved by someone from Mt. Olympus, not a mere mortal, and that Bryant holds the non-Wilt, mortal scoring record. Lantz seemed amenable to that approach. He added that when he does telecasts and Jason Kidd's triple double records come up that he reminds viewers that Oscar Robertson averaged a triple double for a season--another example of how a current player's achievements can serve as a teaching point for young (and not so young) fans about the great players from the past.

As an example of how conditions have changed over the years, Lantz said that he recently found an old travel schedule from his playing days involving five road games in six nights, with the team flying commercial aircraft to all the games. When some current Laker players complained about their schedule he showed them what players went through during his career and they were incredulous. I remarked that I think that the Detroit Pistons were the first team to buy their own plane, named Roundball One, during the "Bad Boys" era (circa 1989) and Lantz thought that sounded right. He added that he believes that then-Lakers Coach Pat Riley was the first one to charter a plane for road games, starting the year after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retired. Lantz remarked that he felt bad for Kareem, because the added room on the charter could have really made things easier for Kareem in his last season, enabling him to stretch out his aching limbs and joints instead of folding himself like a sardine into a regular plane.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:35 AM

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