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Saturday, May 06, 2006

San Antonio Versus Dallas Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#1 San Antonio (63-19) vs. #4 Dallas (60-22)

Dallas can win if…the Mavericks sustain a high level of play defensively, Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard outplay Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili and Dallas limits Tony Parker's dribble penetration.

San Antonio will win because…San Antonio is just thismuch better than Dallas; Nowitzki has had a better regular season than Duncan, but Duncan has much more playoff and big game experience; Howard is a very good and versatile swingman, but Ginobili always seems to find a way to make the key play offensively or defensively; Jason Terry has had a splendid season, but he will have trouble containing Parker's dribble drives.

Other things to consider: Dallas Coach Avery Johnson won a championship while playing for Gregg Popovich's Spurs and has quickly emerged as one of the NBA's best coaches. Dallas is a team on the rise and is certainly capable of beating the Spurs. It is important to remember that these teams are seeded one and four in the West only because of the NBA's quirky playoff system. The Spurs and Mavericks had the two best records in the West and trailed only Detroit (64 wins) for the best record in the NBA. The teams are so closely matched that one injury could tip the balance, a factor which would seem to favor Dallas since San Antonio has so many players who are banged up--but in the end I expect that San Antonio's championship experience (and home court advantage) will be the difference.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:10 AM

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Detroit Versus Cleveland Preview

Eastern Conference Second Round

#1 Detroit (64-18) vs. #4 Cleveland (50-32)

Cleveland can win if… LeBron James continues to be extraordinary, Larry Hughes outplays Rip Hamilton, Anderson Varejao matches Antonio McDyess' production and Zydrunas Ilgauskas teams with Drew Gooden to prevent the Wallaces from dominating the paint at both ends of the court. Hey, nobody said it would be easy...

Detroit will win because…the Pistons are too talented, too experienced and too focused to lose to a playoff neophyte like the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Other things to consider: Cleveland has not yet learned to value every possession of every game. Championship level basketball requires 48 minutes of sustained concentration. The Cavaliers still go through stretches of play marked by sloppy offensive execution or defensive breakdowns. James' talent enabled the Cavaliers to overcome such lapses against the Washington Wizards--who also made their share of miscues--but such mistakes are death against a team like Detroit. This series will be a valuable learning experience for James and the Cavaliers. When I spoke with Cavaliers assistant coach Hank Egan early in the season he told me that it takes about a year and a half to completely install a defensive system and to get a team comfortable running it. The Pistons' key players have been together for several seasons, won a championship in 2004 and made the Finals in 2005 and there is no shortcut for the Cavaliers to acquire that kind of "corporate knowledge" (as Egan calls it) other than playing in a series like this.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:56 AM

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The Lakers and Suns Will Conclude the First Round in Rousing Fashion Tonight

Cleveland and San Antonio advanced to the second round with series clinching victories on Friday night, meaning that the first round of the playoffs will conclude on Saturday night with game seven of the Lakers-Suns series. Before the playoffs began, some analysts suggested that this could be one of the most competitive first rounds ever and that several upsets were possible. The reality is that--as I predicted in the playoff preview that I posted here--the team with the better regular season record has won every series thus far (the Nuggets were a higher seed than the Clippers but won fewer games and did not have home court advantage). The only upset that I thought was realistically possible was the Lakers beating the Suns and that series is the only one that has gone the full seven games. Sacramento made a little more noise than I expected versus San Antonio but did not come close to taking the series the distance; the Kings got blown out in games one and six and if they had not won game three at the buzzer they probably would have been swept. Still, give Ron Artest and Bonzi Wells credit for providing a spark for the Kings, who needed a late season surge to even qualify for the playoffs. Indiana gave New Jersey a tougher time than I expected but Memphis, Denver and Milwaukee went out quickly. Chicago hung tough for a while and provided a blueprint for the Nets to use to eliminate Miami (not that New Jersey did not already know how to do so--the Nets took three of four regular season games versus the Heat).

Perhaps the best two words in sports are "game seven," so NBA fans will experience a real treat before the second round commences on Sunday afternoon. The Lakers have already shown that they are capable of beating Phoenix, but winning a seventh game on the road is a very tall order in the NBA. Expect a close game--Kobe Bryant will not allow the Lakers to be blown out the way Houston was in game seven last year after the Rockets squandered a 2-0 lead against Dallas. I picked the Lakers to win the series but I have also said all along that if it went seven I liked Phoenix' chances; I guess that means that whatever happens on Saturday I will be partially right and partially wrong.

My next two posts will break down the second round pairings that were finalized on Friday: Detroit-Cleveland and San Antonio-Dallas. The L.A. Clippers will play the winner of the Lakers-Suns series, so that preview will be posted here on Sunday. Links to all of my 2006 playoff previews will also be posted on the right hand side of 20 Second Timeout, so if you missed an earlier one or simply want to reread what I predicted it is very easy to find those posts.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:20 AM

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Friday, May 05, 2006

Stand and Deliver: Kobe and the Lakers Face Elimination After Squandering a 3-1 Lead

Kobe Bryant and the seventh seeded Los Angeles Lakers were one defensive rebound away from knocking off the second seeded Phoenix Suns in game six of their series on Thursday night--but the Suns scrapped for that rebound near the end of the fourth quarter and Tim Thomas hit a three pointer to send the game to overtime. Phoenix prevailed 126-118 to send the series back to Phoenix for a seventh game. Steve Nash led the Suns with 32 points and 13 assists, while Kobe Bryant poured in a playoff career high 50 points. He also had eight rebounds, five assists, three steals--and seven turnovers. Bryant shot 20-35 from the field and 5-6 from the free throw line and made several spectacular shots down the stretch; anyone who says that he shot too much and cost his team the game either did not watch the game or did not understand what happened. The Lakers still utilized their plan of going inside against the smaller Suns and Lamar Odom (22 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists, 8-14 shooting from the field) and Kwame Brown (17 points, nine rebounds, 8-9 shooting from the field) both did a lot of damage. Phoenix scrambled around a lot on defense and clogged up the middle more than in previous games, which in turn opened things up for Bryant on the perimeter.

There are many subplots leading up to Saturday night's game seven, including: the return of Phoenix' Raja Bell, who was suspended for game six after a cheap shot clothesline of Bryant in game five; Phoenix attempting to complete a comeback from a 3-1 deficit; the Lakers trying to win a game seven on the road. Who faces the most pressure, the higher seeded team that has been pushed to a seventh game or the lower seeded team that must win on the road to avoid blowing a 3-1 lead? Clearly, there is tremendous pressure on both teams, so the real question is which team is going to be more affected by the pressure. I think that the Lakers are more susceptible to feeling the pressure because they are a young team that is not accustomed to this situation and because the game will be played in Phoenix. Pounding the ball inside and using Bryant almost as a decoy was a clever strategy early in the series, but I believe that for the Lakers to win they will need for him to score at least 45 points while shooting around 50% (or better) from the field. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that by having such a performance in game six Bryant put his team in a position to win; the breakdown that cost them the game happened on defense, not because of anything that Bryant did offensively.

Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown and Luke Walton are not going to be the primary factors in a game seven road victory. They can--and must--make supporting contributions but Saturday night must be the Kobe Bryant show. He must take Phoenix' crowd out of the game with a big first quarter, which will give his young teammates confidence, and then he must have the energy to sustain a high performance level throughout the game. I picked the Lakers to win the series but also noted that it is tougher to win road games as a series progresses. I still feel that way; game six was the Lakers' best chance to win and advance and I give the Lakers about a 33% chance to win game seven. They have a puncher's chance because they have the game's best player, but it will require an almost flawless game and "flawless" is not something that these Lakers attain very frequently. In the fourth quarter and overtime of game six Bryant hit many amazing shots, but the Lakers fell behind because of fumbled rebounds, dropped passes and missed shots by other players. In my playoff preview, I wrote: "The biggest problem for L.A. is their propensity this season to mess up close games at the end with mental errors or soft play. If the Lakers lose it will be because of a poorly thrown inbounds pass, a lob to Kwame Brown that should be a dunk but becomes a turnover or a mental lapse on defense that allows a cutter to score an easy basket." The offensive rebound that led to Tim Thomas' three pointer is the play of the series right now and is just the type of miscue described in the previous paragraph. Not only did L.A. fail to get this rebound, Kwame Brown closed out horribly against Thomas, allowing Thomas to fake and still shoot the three pointer. Brown should have run at him at an angle that forced Thomas to dribble inside of the three point line. Barring a game seven for the ages by the Lakers, L.A. will have all summer to lament a tremendous upset that literally slipped through their grasp.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:12 AM

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Miami Versus New Jersey Preview

Eastern Conference Second Round

#2 Miami (52-30) vs. #3 New Jersey (49-33)

Miami can win if… Dwyane Wade outperforms Vince Carter, Shaquille O'Neal stays out of foul trouble long enough to average 25-plus points and 10-plus rebounds and either Antoine Walker, Jason Williams or James Posey is a viable third scoring option.

New Jersey will win because…their perimeter players will attack Miami in the paint, create high percentage shots and get O'Neal in foul trouble. In round one, Chicago showed the blueprint to beat Miami but just did not have the horses to complete the job.

Other things to consider: New Jersey is a talented team that is loaded with playoff veterans; Miami is also loaded with playoff veterans, but several of them are well past their prime. The Nets beat Miami 3-1 in the regular season. Miami has had trouble all year long defending high scoring wing players, including Vince Carter, who lit up the Heat on several occasions. Make no mistake about it, though, this series will be tough. The Heat have the home court advantage and will not go down without a fight but New Jersey will ultimately prevail.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:42 AM

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Anthony Johnson Scores 40, but the Nets Eliminate the Pacers

The New Jersey Nets survived Anthony Johnson's playoff career high 40 points to beat the Indiana Pacers 96-90 and won their first round series four games to two. New Jersey countered with a balanced attack spearheaded by Richard Jefferson (30 points, six rebounds, four assists), Vince Carter (24 points, seven assists and five rebounds) and Jason Kidd (eight points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists). Johnson received very little help. The Pacers' bench players produced no points and former All-Star Jermaine O'Neal scored 21 points but only had six rebounds and no blocked shots. The only other Pacer to reach double figures in points was Danny Granger (13). O'Neal had no assists in the game but a very special one beforehand: he donated 500 tickets for game six to military personnnel stationed at Camp Atterbury and United States Marine Corps Reserves at Fort Benjamin Harrison.

The Nets will face Miami, who defeated Chicago 113-96 to win that series four games to two, in the second round. After the game, I asked several Pacers and Nets what they thought of the Nets' chances in that matchup. Here are their replies:

Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle: "They're a very well built team because they can play fast, slow or medium. They're very smart and they're very skilled. Krstic gives them a young big man who can do great things both inside and outside. His outside game, quite frankly, was one of the big differences in this series. We knew that but their athleticism led to a lot of open shots for him. He just continued to bury them. You have to take your hat off to him. I think they're a threat to any team in the Eastern Conference, I really do--and very well coached, by the way."

Anthony Johnson: "Those guys have three top notch perimeter players--J (Kidd) didn't shoot the ball well in this series, but I know he'll get it together. In the second half he made two big threes, which I didn't expect because he hadn't been shooting the ball well. So they have those three guys and Krstic has definitely come into his own as far as being a go-to guy making big shots and making clutch plays. They have four legitimate guys who can give you 20-plus points. I feel that they are for real but as for (winning) the Eastern Conference, Detroit is a tough ball club. They are in our division, so we see those guys a lot. I have to give the edge to Detroit."

Jason Kidd: "I think that the big thing for us against Miami is to be able to play our game and look back at the four games that we played (in the regular season) to see what was successful for us and then also find out what was successful for them so that we can try to make them do something different. We understand that Shaquille and Dwyane Wade will be big factors but (we must) make them do something that they are not comfortable doing. For us it is just execute our game plan, penetrate and knock down open shots."

Vince Carter: "To piggyback off of that, I just think that we must stick together and continue to execute and just fight until the end. This team has gone through a lot of things--good and bad--and I think that we've figured it out. We trust each other. I think that as the series go on and the games get tougher and tougher, just trusting each other and trusting what we do hopefully is good enough."

Jermaine O'Neal: "I think that they're pretty good. I think that Miami won tonight and I think that they are going to have a lot of problems defending isolations; you can see that they struggled against Chicago defending pick and rolls. I know Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter will just isolate those guys and see what they can do and also Krstic is a very good pick and pop guy, so Shaq will have his hands full in that aspect."

I expect New Jersey to defeat Miami in a hard fought series; I will explain my reasoning in a future post.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:45 AM

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Thursday, May 04, 2006

Cavaliers and Wizards Work Overtime to Produce an Instant Classic

If you missed game five of the Cavaliers-Wizards series on Wednesday night, don't worry--it's probably already being shown on ESPN Classic. Cleveland won 121-120 in overtime after LeBron James scored a layup with less than a second left. James had a franchise playoff record 45 points, shooting 14-23 from the field and 17-18 from the free throw line. He also had seven rebounds, six assists and two steals. Washington's Gilbert Arenas finished with 44 points, five rebounds and four assists. Arenas has equaled or surpassed his previous game's scoring total each time in this series, putting up 26, 30, 34, 34 and 44 points in the five games (33.6 ppg), while James is on pace to score more in his first playoff series than everyone in NBA history except Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with 32, 26, 41, 38 and 45 points (36.4 ppg).

So far, James has a triple double, two 40 point games--including a record 41 points in his first road playoff game--and two game winning shots. I still say that he shoots too many "Oh no--good shot" shots, but the amazing thing is that he makes most of them; you almost wonder if maybe the off-balance, fadeaway jumper is not a bad shot for him--but when you see him miss that kind of shot at the end of regulation and then score on a power move to the hoop to win the game in overtime you realize that when he stops settling for the fadeaway he may become completely unguardable. At one point when LeBron launched an off balance fadeaway I remarked to Mike Conley, who covers the Cavs for Cleveland.com, "That's a bad shot." The words were barely out of my mouth when the ball hit nothing but net. "I guess that's why we're up here watching and he's playing," I added, shaking my head.

Arenas and Antawn Jamison each had 20 points in the first half, but the Cavs led 52-51 behind James' 23 points and Larry Hughes' 11 points. The score was 63-62 Wizards when James was whistled for his fourth foul at the 6:53 mark in the third period. He sat out the remainder of the period, but Flip Murray scored 10 points on 4-5 shooting from the field in James' absence and the Cavaliers led 85-81 when James returned at the start of the fourth period. The third member of the Wizards' "Big Three," Caron Butler, was missing in action at the offensive end for the first three quarters (5 points, 2-9 shooting) but led the Wizards with 11 fourth quarter points as Washington came back from down 107-100 with 1:18 left in regulation to send the game to overtime. Butler had two baskets, an offensive rebound and a steal in the last 36.6 seconds of regulation.

One of the followers of Conley's webcast dubbed the extra session "Snow-vertime" after Eric Snow scored the Cavs' first six points in overtime. The Cavs led by as many as four, but Washington kept chipping away and when Arenas sank two free throws with 3.6 seconds remaining the Cavs seemed to be on the threshold of a devastating loss. After the game, James candidly admitted that losing at home after blowing a seven point lead with less than two minutes to go would have "sunk our ship."

Coach Mike Brown called a 20 second timeout and drew up a play in which all of his shooters would be lifted above the free throw line, giving James good passing angles if a double team came. James came off of a screen, Larry Hughes hit him with a great inbounds pass and, as James put it in his postgame comments, he "tightroped" the baseline and scored the winning basket. James quipped that if he wore a bigger shoe he would have stepped out of bounds but that he wears a size 16 so he was just able to make it through.

Jamison ended up with 32 points, Butler scored 20 points with 11 rebounds and five assists, Hughes had 24 points and Snow contributed 18 points on 8-12 field goal shooting.

I predicted this kind of drama in a recent article (Virtuoso Artists Kobe and LeBron Make the Playoffs a Joy to Watch ), writing, "Before the playoffs began I suggested that this series would return to Cleveland knotted at two, that James would have a tremendous Game 5 to lead Cleveland to victory and that the Cavs would close out the series in six in Washington."

After the game, Coach Brown said simply, "That was a hell of a ball game. It was unbelievable. It was tremendous to be a part of."

When Wizards' Coach Eddie Jordan spoke a few minutes later, someone asked if he is able to detach himself from the disappointment of losing the game to appreciate how special an event this was for NBA fans. He replied, "Right now, I'm not a fan. I'm a coach and it hurts to lose." Jordan expressed confidence that the Wizards would bounce back to win game six.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:50 AM

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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Team Green Wins the First Rare Caliber All-Star Challenge

Sidney Green's team won the Rare Caliber All-Star Challenge, held at Hofstra Arena this weekend, with a 97-94 victory over Robert Pack's team in the championship game. Nevada's Mo Charlo led the winners with 26 points and 13 rebounds. Bobby Dixon, a 5-10, 160 pound guard from Troy, had 26 points in a losing cause. Dixon averaged 24.3 ppg and 4.7 apg in three tournament games and was selected as the MVP. He also had seven steals and made 19 of his 34 three point shots (.559). He led the Challenge in scoring and three pointers made and was near the top in assists and three point shooting percentage. Dixon was joined on the All-Tournament Team by Charlo (19 ppg, 9.7 rpg), Tulane's Quincy Davis (22 ppg, 8 rpg), Temple's Antywane Robinson (21 ppg, 7 rpg) and South Alabama's Mario Jointer (20.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg).

Fairleigh Dickinson's Chad Timberlake won the Slam Dunk Contest, with Marcus Morrison of Middle Tennessee State coming in second and Jamaal Brown (Cal-State Fullerton) and Waki Williams (Memphis) tying for third.

The event offered an opportunity for about five dozen college seniors to showcase their talents to pro scouts; it was also a chance for several retired NBA players to get some hands-on coaching experience. The National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA) partnered with RC Sports Charities to put together the Challenge. The NBRPA provided a signed Dr. J basketball and signed jerseys from Bill Bradley, Willis Reed, and Isiah Thomas for use in a charity raffle. All proceeds from the raffle and the event itself go for MPowering Kids, a non-profit afterschool program for underprivileged children.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:08 PM

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Denver and Memphis Are the First Playoff Teams to "Go Fishing"

TNT's Kenny Smith likes to say that teams that have been eliminated from the playoffs have gone fishing. The first 2006 playoff squads to accompany Smith in digitally altered vacation photos are Denver and Memphis. The L.A. Clippers easily dispatched the Nuggets in five games and the Dallas Mavericks accomplished the only first round sweep this year, defeating the Grizzlies in four straight. Dallas-Memphis was a matchup between the fourth and fifth seeds but, as I noted in my playoff preview, Dallas won 60 games and is not an ordinary fourth seed; the Mavericks dropped to that position because of the NBA's wacky playoff format. L.A.-Denver was a six-three pairing but sixth seeded L.A. had the better record and thus enjoyed home court advantage--thanks again to the NBA's wacky playoff format, which granted Denver the third seed in recognition of winning the Northwest Division title despite the Nuggets' pedestrian 44-38 record, one game worse than the seventh seeded L.A. Lakers. Speaking of the Lakers, they are one win away from eliminating the second seeded Phoenix Suns.

The thing that has surprised me the most so far is Sacramento beating the Spurs twice. San Antonio had game three all but sewn up before a turnover allowed the Kings to win at the buzzer. If the Spurs had won that game they probably take the series in a sweep. That just shows how fragile competition is--you can be dominating one minute and in a fight for your life the next. The Spurs will still win the series, but now they will have to work for it, while Dallas rests up for the next round. I thought that Miami would beat Chicago in five but I realized that they are vulnerable to dribble penetration; that's one reason why I picked New Jersey to oust them in round two. Miami will regroup just enough to get by the Bulls but a talented Nets team will fully expose the Heat's flaws. New Jersey has had some shaky moments versus the Pacers but I expect the Nets to win the next two games and close out the series. Cleveland and Washington are exactly where I expected them to be: tied 2-2. Look for Cleveland to win close contests in games five and six. I am not surprised that Milwaukee beat Detroit once, although the margin of victory was a little eye opening. The Bucks avoided a sweep by splitting their home games and figure to join Denver and Memphis after their next game. Miami is clearly vulnerable and Detroit is more vulnerable than people think; it will just take a team that is more talented than Chicago or Milwaukee to prove this. Don't sleep on the New Jersey Nets.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:08 AM

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Monday, May 01, 2006

Virtuoso Artists Kobe and LeBron Make the Playoffs a Joy to Watch

The NBA playoffs will culminate in June with the Finals, most likely featuring a rematch between San Antonio and Detroit (don't sleep on New Jersey, as I mentioned in my playoff preview, but that's a subject for another day). The Finals are a celebration of two finely tuned quintets playing in perfect harmony. In the first round we are seeing two virtuoso soloists perform wondrous feats.

Neither Kobe Bryant nor LeBron James figure to be playing basketball in June when the NBA title is decided. Most likely, Detroit and San Antonio will be the two teams left standing at that time; the first round of the playoffs is just a warm-up for them. There is a reason that, given a choice of games to broadcast in the opening weekend of the NBA playoffs, ABC kicked off its coverage on Saturday April 22 with LeBron—I mean Cleveland—versus Washington and then featured Kobe—I mean the Lakers—versus Phoenix on Sunday April 23.

There are interesting storylines in each playoff series, but everyone—from diehard fans to casual observers—wants to see how LeBron James plays in his first postseason series and how Kobe Bryant does in his first playoff series without Shaquille O’Neal. With every step now James is entering new territory—his first playoff game, his first “second” playoff game (i.e., his first game involving the kind of adjustments that can only be made in the postseason when you face the same team over a one to two week stretch) and his first road playoff game. Soon he will participate in his first elimination game.

James’ first playoff game was nothing short of breathtaking—in a 97-86 win he completely controlled the game to such an extent that it is easy to overlook that he forced some shots, shooting only 12-27 from the field. The eye tends to not dwell on shooting percentage when there are other gaudy numbers to peruse, such as 32-11-11-48, his points, rebounds, assists and minutes. He is the second youngest player to have a postseason triple double and just the third player to have one in his first playoff game.

James had a bit of a setback in game two, producing 26 points and nine rebounds but only two assists in an 89-84 loss. When James wryly noted that he narrowly missed another triple double—he had 10 turnovers—it was clear that neither his confidence nor his sense of humor had been shaken. Washington’s newfound grip on home court advantage did not last long because James scored 41 points in game three, the most an NBA player has ever scored in his first road playoff contest, breaking the mark of 40 points held by David Thompson and Kelly Tripucka. He shot 16-28 from the field and had five rebounds and three assists. The low assist total is deceptive because he made some great passes that were followed by missed shots—a problem that has afflicted Bryant throughout the year. ESPN commentator Steve Jones noted the obvious—to get an assist the recipient of the pass must make the shot. James made a brilliant pass to Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who hit a short shot to tie the game at 67. The ball whizzed by the ear of Wizards’ center Brendan Haywood like it had been shot out of a cannon yet arrived so softly in Ilgauskas’ hands that it seemed like the pass was laser guided. After Gilbert Arenas’ spectacular three point play gave the Wizards a 96-95 lead with only 23 seconds to go, James bulldozed to the hoop and muscled in the game winning basket with less than six seconds left.

Other than Wizards’ fans it is hard to imagine that anyone is disappointed by James’ first three playoff games. What will he do in his second road playoff game? Before the playoffs began I suggested (at 20 Second Timeout) that this series would return to Cleveland knotted at two, that James would have a tremendous game five to lead Cleveland to victory and that the Cavs would close out the series in six in Washington. That still sounds about right; Washington’s “Big Three” figures to have a great performance in game four and the Cavaliers do not seem quite ready to take this series by the throat with two consecutive road wins.

Kobe Bryant’s scoring feats this year are only matched by Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan. We all know the numbers—81 points in a game, outscoring Dallas 62-61 for three quarters, averaging 35.4 ppg (eighth best ever) while having 27 games of 40-plus points, including six games of 50-plus points. Critics have sniped that anyone could score 81 against Toronto but that begs the question of why no one in the six decade history of the NBA has scored more points in a game except for Chamberlain. Purists cringed at how many times Bryant shot the ball but anyone who watched the team play realized that if Bryant did not do this then the Lakers had no chance to win. His teammates were simply not equipped to pick up the scoring slack. When the Lakers visited Cleveland for a March 19 game against the Cavaliers, Phil Jackson told me that Bryant’s field goal attempts and scoring would decline as soon as the rest of the team mastered the triangle. This is happening just in the nick of time—against Phoenix in the first round of the playoffs.

Jackson’s game plan against the Suns is to attack Phoenix inside for most of the game while using Bryant as a facilitator and then to have Bryant “finish” the game at the end, either by scoring or by drawing double teams and passing to open shooters. After three games the Lakers are up 2-1. Bryant is averaging 22.7 ppg in the series but has increased his assists to 5.7 apg from 4.5 apg in the regular season. All five Lakers starters have scored at least 10 points in two games after doing so only three times in 82 games in the regular season. Bryant’s willingness to execute Jackson’s game plan makes those who have questioned Bryant’s desire to win look very foolish. Also, Jackson has done a fantastic coaching job, not only coming up with the right approach to take against Phoenix but developing his players’ skills over the course of the season so that the team is peaking at the right time. Jackson and his staff have helped guys like Kwame Brown and Smush Parker play far better than anyone could have reasonably expected. Even Lamar Odom, always a talented player, has played better down the stretch and in the playoffs than he has previously played during his career.

When Bryant passed the ball to the other Lakers early in the year—or when he was resting on the bench—the results were not good because his teammates were tentative and ineffective. Bryant’s prodigious scoring carried this team to the postseason. Now, after a season of Jackson’s coaching, the other players are ready to step up and Bryant is proving that what he has said all along is true—his primary concern is winning games, not padding his statistics.

After a close loss in game one, Bryant scored 29 points (12-24 from the field), had a game-high 10 rebounds and had five assists in L.A.’s 99-93 win in game two, swiping home court advantage from the second seeded Suns. Since the NBA expanded the playoffs to 16 teams in 1983-84, the seventh seeded teams are 53-130 (.290) in games versus the second seeded teams and have won only four of 44 series (.091). The Lakers are a long way from winning the series but what they have already accomplished thus far is quite a testament to Jackson’s coaching and Bryant’s abilities. To this point we are not getting the scoring show that we expected from Bryant in the postseason but we are watching something that is even more impressive and meaningful—the best player on the court controlling the game and leading his team to victory against a deeper, favored opponent that is coached by last year’s Coach of the Year and has last year’s (and probably this year’s) winner of the MVP award, Steve Nash.

Bryant had 17 points, seven assists, five rebounds and four steals in L.A.’s 99-92 game three win. Parker led the Lakers with 18 points. Bryant passed the ball beautifully throughout the game, threading the needle on several occasions and delivering sweet behind the back dishes that often led to Phoenix Suns’ fouls against the cutting recipients. A lot of these passes did not become assists because the shots were not converted, but these are winning plays because they led to free throws for the Lakers and foul trouble for the Suns.

The later rounds of the playoffs will offer ample opportunities to appreciate the beauty of two finely tuned five piece orchestras playing in perfect harmony—but right now is the time to savor the stylings of two splendid soloists. Whether they are shooting or passing, it doesn’t get any better for a basketball fan than to watch Bryant and James in action. If we’re lucky, sometime soon the ensembles surrounding them will improve enough so that their encores will reverberate into June.

Postscript: On Sunday afternoon Kobe Bryant added another chapter to his storied career by hitting the game tying shot in regulation and the game winning shot in overtime as the Lakers took a commanding 3-1 lead over the favored Phoenix Suns. Bryant scored 24 points on 9-14 shooting from the field and also had eight assists and four rebounds. This year's MVP race is reminding me more and more of the 1995 duel between eventual winner David Robinson and 1994 MVP Hakeem Olajuwon, who finished fifth in 1995 balloting. Robinson received the MVP before a playoff game versus Olajuwon and Olajuwon absolutely torched him in the game and the series. I'll never forget watching the postgame press conference on TV, Olajuwon and teammate Clyde Drexler giggling like little kids when a reporter asked if Olajuwon deserved the award. "What do you think?" Drexler replied. It has been reported that Steve Nash will win the MVP again this year. Will he receive the award at home before the Suns' next game versus the Lakers? That could be an interesting scene. If the NBA doesn't present it to him then they might have to give it to him in TNT's studios while he poses for one of Kenny Smith's "fishing trips," because very few teams come back from 3-1 deficits and no one has ever done it against a Phil Jackson coached team.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:30 AM

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