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Saturday, May 13, 2006

Nets and Clippers Squander Golden Opportunities

The New Jersey Nets and Los Angeles Clippers returned home after splitting the first two games versus the Miami Heat and Phoenix Suns respectively. In Friday's game three, New Jersey led Miami 81-80 with 4:36 remaining, but committed numerous careless turnovers and fouls that enabled the Heat to close the game on a 23-11 run for a 103-92 win. Vince Carter scored 43 points--a Nets' NBA single game playoff scoring record--Jason Kidd had 10 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds and Richard Jefferson scored 17 points but the other Nets combined for only 22 points on 9-26 field goal shooting (.346). The Nets were without the services of key veteran reserve forward-center Cliff Robinson, who was suspended by the NBA for five games for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Dwyane Wade had 30 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and six turnovers for Miami, while Shaquille O'Neal finished with 19 points and nine rebounds. Antoine Walker made an important contribution with 16 points, including 4-9 shooting on three pointers. As I mentioned in an earlier post, if New Jersey did in fact relax in game two because of winning game one in Miami--and that certainly seemed to be the case--that was a big mistake because Miami is very capable of winning on the road. Now New Jersey faces a must win game at home on Sunday, followed by the prospect of having to win again in Miami in order to advance. The Nets have shown in game one and for most of game three that they have perimeter weapons that can cause great difficulty for Miami as well as the tenacity to offer resistance to Shaq in the paint but they need to come with a strong effort and full concentration for the whole 48 minutes on Sunday.

The Clippers led Phoenix 85-82 with less than three minutes to go, but wound up losing 94-91. Shawn Marion scored 32 points and grabbed 19 rebounds for the Suns, while two-time MVP Steve Nash had a quiet game with 12 points and 10 assists--but he did score the Suns' final basket on a step back jump shot with less than four seconds remaining. Vladimir Radmanovic made his first five three pointers but missed a three pointer as time expired. Elton Brand had 20 points, nine rebounds and eight assists for the Clippers but only shot 7-17 from the field. Those are good numbers, but the Suns can live with that kind of production from Brand. As long as their defenders are active and their double-teams are aggressive the Suns can beat the Clippers. Phoenix only scored 94 points on .372 field goal shooting and still won; I doubt that the Suns will shoot that poorly again in this series. This game was played at the Clippers' preferred pace but L.A. lost anyway. San Cassell had a very quiet game, producing a triple single--6 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists on 2-10 field goal shooting; he and the Clippers will have to come up with a much better effort to avoid going to Phoenix down 3-1.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:54 AM

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Friday, May 12, 2006

Hubie Brown Interview Published at HoopsHype

Hall of Famer Hubie Brown led the Kentucky Colonels to the 1975 ABA title and twice won NBA Coach of the Year honors. He is a world renowned clinician and widely considered to be the best basketball analyst on television. I recently had a chance to speak with Brown about how he started in broadcasting and his memories of coaching Artis Gilmore and coaching against Julius Erving. He is passionate about the game of basketball and determined to help the public understand the beauty and the intricacies of the game. Here is a link to my interview with him:

Hubie Brown: "Dr. J could turn your building against you"

posted by David Friedman @ 4:49 PM

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Thoughts on the Second Round So Far--and Kobe's Game Seven Performance Revisited

Detroit leads Cleveland 2-0, but the San Antonio-Dallas, Phoenix-L.A. Clippers and Miami-New Jersey series are each tied 1-1. What have the first two games shown about these teams?

It is no mystery that Detroit is clearly a superior team to Cleveland. It will be very surprising if the Cavaliers win more than one game--but I think that it is important that Cleveland wins a game and avoids being swept. Sometimes when teams realize that they have no chance to win a series they take the "easy" way out and get swept, rather than win a home game and then take a final road trip for a loss before beginning their summer vacation. It is important for the development of this Cavaliers team that they win at least one game in Cleveland and force the Pistons to close out the series in Detroit. We know that the Cavs are outgunned and the Cavs surely know it as well but if you are trying to put together a championship caliber team then you want to push yourself constantly and never take the "easy" way. If Detroit can come into Cleveland and win two nail biting games that are decided on the last possession, then the Cavs can simply tip their hats and try to improve their roster for next season--but the Cavs should not allow Detroit to march into Cleveland and blow them out.

San Antonio narrowly won the first game versus Dallas and got waxed in game two. Dallas clearly is in the better position at the moment since the Mavs play the next two games at home. The funny thing about the playoffs, though, is that momentum changes from one game to the next. The Spurs are a veteran laden team that is defending a title and they are more than capable of winning a game (or two) in Dallas. I still expect San Antonio to win this series.

The Suns beat the Clippers 130-123 in game one despite Elton Brand scoring 40 points on 18-22 shooting. I have to admit that after watching that game I thought that Phoenix would have an even easier time than I had thought before the series started; scoring a lot of points is normal for Phoenix, something that the Suns can do game after game, but shooting 18-22 in a playoff game is a tremendous feat that is unlikely to be duplicated--and Brand's team lost anyway. I figured that in game two the Suns would play the same way, Brand might "slump" to 14-22 or something like that and Phoenix would be up 2-0. Instead, Brand, Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley each scored 20-plus points and the Clippers routed the Suns 122-97. Phoenix has to play with a very high energy level to combat the Clippers' superiority in size; they have to scramble around on defense, force turnovers, control the defensive glass and push the ball up the court. Those are the things that they did when their backs were against the wall versus the L.A. Lakers in round one and those are the things that will ultimately win this series for them.

New Jersey thumped Miami in game one, grabbing away home court advantage, and then looked very lethargic in a game two loss. As TNT's Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley noted, it is human nature to get complacent in game two after obtaining home court advantage in game one, but that type of thinking makes me cringe because good playoff teams can win on the road. Miami could very well get a split in New Jersey, forcing the Nets to win another game in Miami. If that happens, the Nets will face a must win in game five. Game sevens on the road in the NBA are death--just ask the L.A. Lakers.

Speaking of the Lakers, it has been suggested that Michael Jordan would never have played the way that Kobe Bryant did in the second half of game seven versus Phoenix. Chicago Tribune columnist Sam Smith, who wrote the book The Jordan Rules, periodically answers readers' questions about the NBA and recently discussed this very issue:

A lot has been written and said regarding Kobe's three-shot performance in Game 7 of the Phoenix series. Kobe and Phil Jackson claim that they wanted to win the right way, employing the pass-first mentality that won them three games earlier in the series. While Kobe's tendencies to sabotage have been well documented, I think it's unlikely that Kobe would actively sabotage things at such a key juncture in his career, having come so far this year. What are your thoughts? --A. Arain, Lombard, Ill.

This is what I think happened and it is Jordanesque. I don't buy that sabotage thing. Bryant had 23 by halftime and was on the way to 50 and the Lakers were in trouble, down 15 and going nowhere. So knowing Phil Jackson, he told Bryant the first four games they went inside and distributed the scoring and got up 3-1, that was their only chance. Kobe has been buying in and did so early in the series. So he does in Game 7 and the plan doesn't work and they're down 30 and can't guard the mop kids. It's over, so Kobe packs it in. If he shoots crazy now they lose and he's blamed for being selfish. So he shuts it down. Jordan did something similar in the 1989 conference finals against the Pistons. The Bulls were losing and the Pistons were double and triple-teaming Jordan, so Doug Collins told Jordan to move the ball and not shoot so much. OK, you think those guys can win! Jordan took eight shots in 46 minutes. Michael Jordan could get eight shots off on anyone getting off the bus. The Bulls couldn't recover and Jordan just stopped shooting. It was Game 5 of a six-game series loss. But Kobe is a villain and lightning rod too, so much of the blame goes to him. I don't think he was deserving of so much criticism.


One more Kobe note: Kobe received 22 first place votes in the MVP balloting, second only to Steve Nash, but only finished fourth overall because more than 20 voters left him completely off of their ballots. I was glad to hear Barkley, a frequent critic of Kobe's, say that those people should lose their voting privileges. Approximately one sixth of the voters picked Kobe as the MVP of the league and approximately one sixth of the voters did not even place him in the top five. I don't have a big problem with Nash winning but anyone who left Kobe completely off of the ballot either does not understand basketball or is motivated by factors other than what happens on the court.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:24 AM

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Monday, May 08, 2006

To Shoot or Not to Shoot?

NBA superstars constantly face the question "To shoot or not to shoot?" Their teams depend on them to shoulder a significant scoring load and to make difficult shots under pressure--but they also need them to create open opportunities for their teammates. Let's look at two recent examples of superstars grappling with the question "To shoot or not to shoot?" On Saturday night, Kobe Bryant's L.A. Lakers faced the daunting task of winning a game seven in Phoenix. The Lakers' game plan for most of the series was to pound the ball inside but right from the start of game seven it became apparent that the plan was not working: neither Lamar Odom nor Kwame Brown could make a shot. Bryant did not shoot much in the first quarter but in the second quarter he asserted himself offensively, scoring 18 points, and that turned out to be the only quarter of the game that the Lakers outscored Phoenix (30-28). He scored 23 points on 8-13 field goal shooting in the first half but the Lakers trailed by 15 because their defense was atrocious and nobody besides Bryant could score.

When the second half began, the Lakers again tried to establish their inside game but were never able to do so. Bryant's only point of the quarter came on a free throw after a technical foul and the Lakers trailed by 25 going into the fourth quarter, making that period academic for the purposes of this discussion. During the game and then afterwards, TNT's Charles Barkley first criticized Bryant for shooting too much in the first half and then blasted him for not shooting enough in the second half. On Sunday morning, the ensemble cast of ESPN's Sports Reporters weighed in with their disapproval of Bryant's play as well. The whole scenario is very comical. Critics have spent this whole season--and much of Bryant's career--labelling Bryant a selfish gunner who cares more about scoring than winning, despite the fact that Bryant was the primary playmaker on three championship teams. Bryant did not shoot a lot for long stretches of the first four games of the series against Phoenix. Why should nefarious motives be ascribed to him not shooting during the third quarter of game seven, particularly since he was constantly double-teamed? The same guys who are blasting him now would have blasted him even more severely if he had attempted shots with two defenders on him. Mike Lupica made the comment that two defenders couldn't stop Bryant from hitting the game winner in game four, intimating that Bryant must have been pouting to not attempt more shots against double-teams in game seven. Of course Bryant can shoot--and connect--against double-teams. That is one of the things that makes him special and one of the major reasons that the Lakers even made the playoffs--but against Phoenix, Coach Phil Jackson made establishing an inside game the Lakers' top priority. Bryant went along and the strategy worked, to a point. But, as TNT's Kenny Smith astutely observed, guys who are not accustomed to being big time scorers are unlikely to be able to produce high point totals for the duration of a seven game series.

Bryant's production in the fourth quarter of game seven is a moot point, because the game was long out of reach by then; people who are making a big deal of him only attempting three shots in the entire second half are ignoring the fact that the Lakers had no realistic chance to win the game in the fourth quarter, whether Bryant sat for the whole quarter (like LeBron James did on Sunday--see below) or jacked up 15 shots in 12 minutes--even down the stretch of the third it was apparent that only a complete Phoenix collapse could save the Lakers. What happened in game seven is that Bryant played the same way that he played in the Lakers' wins but his teammates failed to take advantage of numerous opportunities to score against one-on-one (or one-on-none) coverage while two defenders shadowed Bryant's every move; how exactly is this Bryant's fault?

On Sunday in the first game of the San Antonio-Dallas series, the Spurs' Tim Duncan put up first half scoring numbers very similar to Bryant's from the night before (20 points on 8-14 shooting). The other Spurs looked sluggish on offense in the first half but they played good enough defense to only trail by six at halftime. Duncan scored only one point from the 5:57 mark of the second quarter until the 1:32 mark of the third quarter. Duncan's slam dunk at that time cut the Mavericks' lead to two and the Spurs eventually won, 87-85. Duncan made several key baskets down the stretch of the game.

No one would suggest that Duncan was pouting when he hardly scored for a quarter and a half, but the biggest difference between Bryant and Duncan in these two examples is not what each one did but the amount of help that each one received from his teammates. Bryant and Duncan are two special players who each do whatever it takes to help their teams win. What other great NBA player has ever had his decision making process as closely scrutinized as Kobe Bryant's is, his every shot attempt (or lack of a shot attempt) placed under a microscope?

In Sunday afternoon's other game, Detroit wiped out Cleveland 113-86. LeBron James had 22 points but he did not score in the fourth quarter--let's start an investigation (just kidding; James did not see a second of playing time in the final period because the game was so far out of reach).

Detroit is a much better team than Cleveland but they are not 27 points better. Last year Detroit lost three game twos but recovered to win the series on two occasions and extended the Spurs to seven games in the NBA Finals before losing. Expect game two of this series to be much closer than game one and don't be shocked if Cleveland pulls off the upset. The Cavaliers will win a game this series before Detroit finishes them off and I think that it will either be game two or game three.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:42 AM

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Sunday, May 07, 2006

Phoenix Versus Los Angeles Clippers Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#2 Phoenix (54-28) vs. #6 Los Angeles Clippers (47-35)

Los Angeles can win if…Elton Brand and Chris Kaman dominate the paint, Sam Cassell wears down Steve Nash by having a good offensive series and Corey Maggette averages 20-plus ppg.

Phoenix will win because because…of their tremendous offensive firepower. The Suns are loaded with great shooters and great penetrators and the Clippers will neither be able to slow down Phoenix' offense nor win in a shootout by matching their point production.

Other things to consider: Don't be fooled into believing that the Clippers can simply copy Phil Jackson's game plan of pounding the ball inside and win the series that way. It is true that the Clippers' duo of Brand and Kaman is much better than the Odom-Brown combination that Jackson used, but the Clippers do not have a Kobe Bryant to draw double teams. Phoenix will be able to double team in the post and use their athleticism to scramble around on defense. Cassell is a great clutch player but is not the kind of threat that Bryant is and the Suns can guard him one-on-one without worrying that he might drop 50 points on them.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:02 AM

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Suns Outrun and Outgun Lakers in Game Seven

Apparently, the L.A. Lakers do not agree with me that "game seven" are two of the best words in sports because--other than Kobe Bryant--none of them showed up on Saturday night for game seven versus Phoenix, losing 121-90. Bryant tried to get his teammates involved early, but they reverted to their early season ways of not being able to catch or shoot the basketball. The Lakers trailed 32-15 after the first quarter, with Bryant shooting 2-4 from the field and scoring five points. In the second quarter Bryant became more aggressive offensively, scoring 18 points on 6-9 shooting, and the Lakers trimmed the lead to nine before a late Suns' burst pushed the margin to 60-45 at halftime. During TNT's halftime report, Charles Barkley criticized Bryant for shooting too much, which seemed odd since none of the other Lakers could hit the broad side of the barn with their attempts. Without Bryant's 23 points on 8-13 shooting the Lakers would have been down by 30. Does that sound strange considering how close the previous games were, even the ones in which Bryant shot less than usual? Well, maybe Bryant heard Barkley's remarks, because he attempted only three shots in the second half and scored his lone point on a free throw after a technical foul and the results were not pretty for the Lakers. For those of you scoring at home, in the second quarter--when Bryant "shot too much" and scored 18 points--the Lakers outscored the Suns 30-28. In the other three quarters the Suns outscored the Lakers 93-60. This is nothing new; this season the Lakers had a much better winning percentage in his 40-plus point games than in other contests.

Leandro Barbosa led the Suns with 26 points on 10-12 shooting, burning beyond recognition any and all Lakers who guarded him. Boris Diaw had 21 points, nine assists and six rebounds, while Steve Nash--who reportedly will receive his second MVP award on Sunday--contributed 13 points, nine assists and six rebounds despite reaggravating a sprained ankle.

The combination of Bryant hardly shooting in the second half and only having one assist in the game will provide much fodder for his numerous critics, who can now fire at will from all directions. In the coming days you can expect to hear that he shot too much in the first half, did not shoot enough in the second half, is selfish because he only had one assist and tried to prove a point by not shooting in the second half. Did I leave anything out? What is sorely needed here is some perspective, both about this Lakers team and about Bryant. First, the Lakers are one of the youngest teams in the league, have shown flashes of what they are capable of doing and as the seventh seeded team just extended the second seeded Phoenix Suns to seven games. Even in the games in which Bryant shot less than usual he had a big impact, because the Suns could not double-team in the post because of the powerful offensive threat that Bryant represents. His presence enabled the Lakers' post players to go one-on-one down low. Bryant did the same things in game seven that he did in the games that the Lakers won, but Lamar Odom shot 5-14 from the field and Kwame Brown shot 2-10 from the field. Both players missed numerous point blank attempts. Still, the Lakers made a lot of progress this year and have a bright future in front of them. Second, Bryant is the best player in the NBA and without him this team would not have won 20 games. Phoenix double teamed him throughout game seven, yet when he wanted to score he scored and when he wanted to distribute he penetrated, attacked the double-team and passed to the open man. I've heard a lot of Bryant's critics say that his game has stifled Lamar Odom's. Well, Odom got the ball at the top of the key and in the post and only faced one-on-one coverage on most occasions because the defense zeroed in on Bryant. Phil Jackson did everything he could to give Odom a chance to do his thing offensively and Odom simply did not deliver the goods in game seven. The Lakers not named Bryant shot 24-75 from the field.

After the game, Barkley blamed Bryant for shooting too much in game six and in the first half of game seven and then criticized him for supposedly trying to prove a point by not shooting in the second half and hanging his teammates out to dry. Kenny Smith responded by correctly noting the unique and peculiar position that Bryant is in: his team needs his scoring, but when he shoots a lot he is criticized and when he doesn't shoot a lot he is criticized. Barkley brought up the deal that shipped Shaquille O'Neal to the Miami Heat, noting that O'Neal's Heat advanced to the second round, while Bryant's Lakers have been eliminated. Can we have some context, please? The Heat are a second seeded team that lost their composure on numerous occasions and took six games to oust a Chicago Bulls team that barely made it to the playoffs; Bryant's Lakers are the only team in this year's playoffs to force a higher seeded team to play a seventh game. Let's see O'Neal and the Heat win a title--or even make it to the NBA Finals--before we revive the misguided notion that L.A. made a mistake not extending O'Neal's contract for maximum years at maximum dollars. If the Lakers and Heat were publicly traded commodities, the Lakers' stock would be going up and the Heat's stock would be plummeting.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:05 AM

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