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Friday, April 28, 2006

Jermaine O’Neal Sets the Pace as Indiana Defeats New Jersey 107-95

On Thursday the NBA fined Indiana Pacers forward Jermaine O’Neal $15,000 for his comments about the officiating in game two of the first round series between Indiana and the New Jersey Nets—but New Jersey paid the price that evening when a revitalized O’Neal tied his playoff career high with 37 points, shooting 12-15 from the field, grabbing 15 rebounds and blocking four shots in a 107-95 Pacers victory. In the first two games of the series combined O’Neal only had 27 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots but Indiana still managed to steal home court advantage from the favored Nets with a split.

Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson led the Nets with 25 points each in game three. Carter got off to a blistering start, scoring 21 points on 8-11 shooting in the first half, but he missed each of his 10 second half field goal attempts. New Jersey led 55-51 at halftime after shooting 20-37 from the field (.541), but shot only 9-38 (.237) from the field in the second half. Jason Kidd was the only other New Jersey player to score in double figures, finishing with 14 points, six rebounds and six assists. Indiana point guard Anthony Johnson outshined him with a playoff career high 25 points, adding eight assists and five rebounds while committing no turnovers in close to 40 minutes of action. In his postgame remarks, Indiana Coach Rick Carlisle said, "A.J. is playing with great awareness and great savvy." Carlisle also singled out the efforts of Peja Stojakovic, who scored 10 points despite being hampered by a knee injury, and Scot Pollard, who provided a physical presence and grabbed four rebounds in limited minutes.

O'Neal's breakout game, perhaps his best postseason performance ever, resulted from extensive film study. O'Neal told the assembled media after the game that he watched game one and game two in their entirety twice each--and rewound several plays multiple times--in an effort to discern how he could be more effective in game three. He said that he thought that it was very important that he figure out what to do for the rest of the series instead of just being frustrated by the way that the games were officiated. O'Neal added that he believes that some of the tactics that the Nets used in the first two games are against the rules but, even so, the film study showed that he could employ countermoves to nullify what the Nets were doing. He explained that the main thing he discovered was that he needed to be more active and to keep moving; the Nets were playing him "top side" and by moving around O'Neal could get good position, pin the defender against his body and receive the ball where he could do damage. O'Neal noted that he plans to look at film of game three first thing Friday morning because he wants to anticipate what adjustments the Nets might make to their defensive strategies. It will be interesting to see the next move in the chess match between O'Neal and the Nets' defense.

Before the series, many analysts did not give the Pacers much of a chance, a fact that Carlisle pointed out in his postgame comments. Kevin Loughery picked the Nets to win in a sweep and I was tempted to do so before conceding that the resilient Pacers would probably win one game. I thought that the Nets were peaking at the right time and I am surprised by how much trouble they are having against the Pacers. I still believe that the Nets have the tools to potentially challenge Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals but right now they are in a serious dogfight just to get out of the first round. The Pacers are both resilient and schizophrenic; you never know quite what to expect from them. They can follow big road wins with home losses or play tough against elite teams only to lose to lottery teams. The recipe for a New Jersey win is very clear--tough defense and solid rebounding followed by pushing the ball up the court aggressively and attacking the basket. The Nets did that in game two and in the first half of game three and they must do it three times in the next four games to avoid elimination.


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Notes From Courtside:

One of the best things about covering a Pacers game is the opportunity to touch base with some of the players and coaches from the team's ABA days. Bobby "Slick" Leonard coached the Pacers to three ABA championships and also coached the Pacers in the NBA after the 1976 NBA-ABA merger. He has been a Pacers radio analyst for many years and is the author of the famous "Boom baby!" call that followed so many Reggie Miller three pointers. I asked Slick what he thinks of the comparison of LeBron James with George McGinnis, his star power forward who shared ABA MVP honors with Julius Erving in 1974-75. Slick agreed that there is some validity to the comparison; the two players are similarly sized (6-8, 240+) and combine power with the ability to handle the ball with finesse. Slick said that McGinnis was a better rebounder than James is.

I asked Slick for his take on the tight MVP race this year and he gave a slight edge to Dirk Nowitzki. He also likes LeBron James and agreed that Kobe Bryant must be considered as well. Since he did not mention Nash initially, I asked for his take on the Phoenix point guard who won last year's MVP and is expected to receive the award again this year. Slick said that Nash is a very good player who fits in perfectly with Phoenix' system but that he is not as good a player as guys like Nowitzki, James and Bryant. Slick added that he does not place a great deal of value on the regular season MVP. "The real MVP is the Finals MVP," he declared, adding that the best player on the championship team is the one who should be considered the best player in the game. I pointed out that by this standard some of the MVP candidates could be eliminated very soon because their teams might not make it out of the first round. "That's right," he agreed, nodding his head for emphasis.

Darnell Hillman contributed rebounding, shot blocking and some spectacular slam dunks as a forward-center for the Pacers and played an important role on Indiana's 1973 ABA championship team. Hillman played alongside McGinnis on an imposing frontline that included center Mel Daniels, a two-time ABA regular season MVP (the talented--and extremely underrated--Roger Brown--swung between the frontcourt and the backcourt on those teams). Hillman told me that the McGinnis-James comparison makes sense but that McGinnis went one-on-one less than James does. Hillman said that the Pacers had a strict philosophy that any player who drew a double team should immediately give the ball up to a teammate for a better shot and that McGinnis excelled at this; James shoots too many fadeaway shots--particularly behind the three point line--for Hillman's taste. I said that LeBron shoots a lot of "Oh no--good shot" shots--shots where a coach might be tempted to say "Oh no" except for the fact that LeBron makes enough of them to still shoot a good percentage. Hillman liked that phrase and added that if anyone other than LeBron took those kinds of shots the coach would most certainly say "Oh no" no matter what. He added that he likes LeBron's game overall and believes that eventually LeBron will shoot fewer of those shots and pass the ball more often in those situations. LeBron is known as an unselfish player--and Hillman said that he believes that to be true--but even during his remarkable triple double in a game one win versus Washington he shot 12-27 from the field, followed by a 7-25 shooting performance in the game two loss.

I asked Hillman if he saw Brendan Haywood's hard foul against LeBron and if he agreed that this play was a key moment in the game. Hillman did not see that particular play but he told me that he does not like the "hard foul" mentality. Of course, such fouls were even more prevalent during his playing days, when the fine for fighting was only $25 and altercations were commonplace. Hillman has no problem if someone makes a good, hard play on the ball but a lot of fouls go over the line and could potentially jeopardize someone's career. He said that when he received such a foul during his playing days he would immediately confront the perpetrator. Hillman does not like the so-called "Hack a Shaq" tactic and the amount of punishment that Shaquille O'Neal takes in general, adding that O'Neal has been uniquely gifted with size and strength and that if opponents cannot guard him legally then that is too bad for them.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:43 AM

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64 College Seniors Strut Their Stuff in the Rare Caliber All-Star Challenge

The Rare Caliber All-Star Challenge, which is being held at Hofstra University Arena in Hempstead, New York from April 27 to April 29, assembles 64 of college basketball’s best seniors to showcase their talents for pro scouts. The players will be split up into squads that will be coached by retired NBA players Len Elmore, Tim Hardaway, Ed Pinckney, Robert Reid, Chris Morris, Talvin Skinner, Reggie Williams, Robert Pack, Willie Burton, Rod Strickland, Sidney Green and Jim Davis. Four games will be played each day at 12 pm, 2 pm, 6 pm and 8 pm. Tickets are priced at $10 for general admission and $15 for assigned seating. One ticket is good for all four games and all proceeds will to go MPowering Kids, a Long Island-based non-profit organization that provides after-school programs for underprivileged children in grades four through twelve. Tickets can be purchased at www.rarecaliber.com, by phone at 516-463-TIXX or in person at the Arena ticket office.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:30 AM

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

"Playoff Basketball is War and Hell"

The Washington Wizards fell behind 23-8 by the 3:13 mark in the first period of game two of their first round playoff series versus the Cleveland Cavaliers--but just when it seemed that the Cavaliers were on their way to a 2-0 series lead the momentum of the game turned around, perhaps sparked by Brendan Haywood's hard foul on LeBron James with 3:47 remaining in the first quarter. James made both of his free throws and on the Cavs' next possession Drew Gooden converted an offensive rebound to put the Cavs ahead by 15 but the Wizards then went on an 18-0 run. James was 2-4 from the field and already had 10 points at the time of Haywood's foul but he only shot 5-21 the rest of the way. The Wizards' 89-84 victory at Quicken Loans Arena gave them home court advantage in the series, which shifts to Washington for the next two games. Neither team played particularly well on offense, but Washington did get strong efforts from each member of its "Big Three": Gilbert Arenas had 30 points, six rebounds and six assists, Caron Butler had 21 points and nine rebounds and Antawn Jamison had 21 points and seven rebounds.

James finished with 26 points, but shot only 7-25 from the field and 11-15 from the free throw line. He had nine rebounds but only two assists. James provided a moment of self-deprecating levity in this postgame remarks, noting that he was one rebound shy of another triple double--if you counted his 10 turnovers. James also had three blocked shots and two steals. The only Cavalier who played well was Drew Gooden, who shot 11-12 from the field, tying Larry Nance's franchise record for field goal percentage in a playoff game (.917). Gooden had a playoff career-high 24 points and 16 rebounds. The Cavaliers' bench players, so key in the game one victory, shot 2-11 from the field and managed only five points in game two. Part of the reason for this and for James' reduced assist totals is that Washington eschewed double teaming James, staying at home on the other Cavaliers and forcing James to either shoot jumpers or accept the hard fouls that came when he drove to the basket. James missed several point blank shots that he would normally convert, including an uncontested dunk. Washington's strategy figures to look a lot less brilliant if James simply shoots his customary percentage on these shots in game three.

Perhaps wanting to deflect any possible attention from the league office, Wizards' players and coaches denied that their game plan specifically targeted James for extra physical contact. Coach Eddie Jordan stressed that he was proud of his team for playing a physical game in general, explaining, "Playoff basketball is war and hell. We go to war and give them hell." He added, "We stayed organized and disciplined," a marked contrast from game one. Forward Caron Butler thought that the Cavs celebrated a little too much after the first game, noting, "A series doesn't start until you lose at home."

Cavaliers' Coach Mike Brown opened his postgame comments by saying that it was a "heck of a game," that it was "physical from the very beginning" and that he felt that his team was "hesitant to attack" Washington's defense. Brown reemphasized what he said before game one: to beat the Wizards, the Cavaliers must control Washington's transition offense, keep the Wizards off of the offensive boards and limit their turnovers. He described Cleveland's effort as "decent" in the first two areas but said that the game was lost largely because of 17 turnovers that led to 26 Washington points.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that the pressure is on Cleveland now because Washington has home court advantage but I disagree. The pressure is still on Washington, because the Wizards have to win two games in a row at some point to win the series. That is the "hidden" part of home court advantage, particularly in a series between fairly evenly matched teams. The Cavaliers will probably win one of the next two games in Washington and if the teams continue to alternate wins, game seven will be in Cleveland and history shows that it is much more difficult to win game seven on the road than it is to win earlier road games in a series. I predicted that this series would return to Cleveland for game five tied 2-2 and I still expect that to happen. Game five will then be very interesting, because it will be LeBron James' first opportunity to push the Wizards to the brink of elimination or else face elimination himself.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:28 AM

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

King James Reigns Supreme in his Playoff Debut

LeBron James posted the first postseason triple double in Cleveland Cavaliers history (32 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists) while leading the Cavs to a 97-86 victory over the Washington Wizards in game one of their Eastern Conference First Round series. James' advertising slogan is "We are all witnesses" and an energized sellout crowd of 20,562 at Quicken Loans Arena witnessed a masterful performance by James, who at 21 years, 113 days old became the second youngest player in NBA playoff history to post a triple double, trailing only Magic Johnson, who accomplished the feat at 20 years, 238 days old on April 8, 1980 in a 119-110 overtime victory over the Phoenix Suns. Both players did this in their very first playoff game, although Magic was a rookie and LeBron has just completed his third season.

You have to see James in person to fully appreciate his unique combination of size, power, speed and finesse. James is listed at 6-8, 240 pounds and is probably heavier than his listed weight. Future Hall of Fame forward Karl Malone was listed at 6-9, 256 pounds. James has the chiseled build of a power forward, but he plays small forward and has the ball handling responsibilities of a point guard. When James drives to the hoop, opposing players bounce off of him as if he were surrounded by a force field. As if that capability alone would not be devastating, LeBron's speed in the open court is nothing short of breathtaking. On one play in Saturday's game, LeBron raced ahead of the pack and raised his hand to call for a lob pass. The pass was delivered off target and LeBron was not able to complete the dunk, but he used his speed to beat everyone else to the ball and then powered up for a layup as if the defense was not even there.

You don't want to make too much of one game, but this win does in fact have great significance on two fronts. From the Cavaliers' perspective, a game one victory is important because since 1983-84 NBA teams have a 271-59 record (.821) in playoff series after winning the first game. We can all remember playoff series in which a team lost the first game and came back to win--last year this very same Wizards franchise lost the first two games in the first round and then won four straight versus Chicago to advance to the second round--but those are unusual cases. Cleveland should not be overconfident by any means but history is on the Cavaliers' side. From a larger perspective, LeBron's level of play in this game is reminiscent of Michael Jordan's 63 point game versus the Boston Celtics in the 1986 playoffs. There are obvious differences--that was not Jordan's first playoff game and Jordan faced much stronger opposition--but that game was Jordan's coming out party. He had already established himself as a very good NBA player, but the 63 point game showed that he could become unguardable at times. The next year he averaged a career high 37.1 ppg and five years later he won his first NBA title. Lebron barely scored half as much as Jordan did in the 1986 game but his performance was every bit as commanding. When scoring was needed, he provided it; when rebounding was needed, he got the ball; when the Wizards sent waves of defenders at him, he deftly spoon-fed his teammates for dunks or wide open jump shots. He completely controlled the game, frustrating and seeming to demoralize the Wizards. The question remaining to be answered is whether or not LeBron can play at such an epochal level every night. The Wizards tried every imaginable individual defender and numerous double-team combinations and LeBron picked the defense apart as if little children were guarding him. It reminded me of what Del Harris--at the time the Houston Rockets' Coach--said years ago after Julius Erving torched Houston for 44 points: "We couldn't have stopped him with a hockey stick."

Donyell Marshall supported LeBron with 19 points and seven rebounds. Larry Hughes had an awful shooting game (1-9 from the field) but he was one of the defenders who harassed star Wizards' guard Gilbert Arenas into a 7-20 shooting night. Arenas finished with 26 points, six rebounds and three assists. Eric Snow made the Wizards pay for leaving him to double team LeBron by making 5-7 from the field and scoring 14 points.

In his pregame standup, Cavs' Coach Mike Brown mentioned that he called one of his mentors--San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich--the previous evening to get some advice before his first playoff game as an NBA head coach. Brown declined to be specific about what Popovich said but stated that the general idea is to keep an even keel and not add to any pressure that the players may already feel.

Brown also singled out three things that his team needed to do to win:

1) Limit their turnovers
2) Don't get beaten for easy scores in the transition game
3) Keep the Wizards' big men off of the offensive glass

In his remarks to the media after the game, Coach Brown expressed satisfaction that the Cavaliers were successful at all three of these things, but cautioned that this was only a "good first step in a long process."

On the other hand, in his postgame statement Wizards' Coach Eddie Jordan could barely conceal his disgust with his team's performance. Asked whether LeBron's triple double or Snow's shooting hurt the Wizards more, Jordan responded, "What hurt me more? My team not playing the way they're supposed to play. That hurt me more than anything and it hurt us. It's a problem right now that we have got to correct. Our team didn't have the body language, didn't have the unselfish play. We were undisciplined, we lost our focus and, again, I want to first give credit to the Cavaliers: certainly, they played playoff basketball and we did not."

This game has no direct bearing on the MVP race, because all of the official ballots have already been submitted--but LeBron has clearly thrown down a gauntlet and made his case for being the best player in the game. Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, two other leading MVP candidates, square off against each other at 3 p.m. on Sunday when the Lakers visit the Suns. You know that they watched LeBron's performance and it will be interesting to see how they respond. Both players are too smart to try to deviate from what makes them and their teams successful, but within that context they will make their own cases to be the game's best player. Then, on Tuesday night, LeBron will try for an encore to his stunning playoff debut. Basketball fans are in for a real treat in the coming days, weeks--and years.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:44 AM

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