20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Rasheed's Play Speaks Volumes as the Pistons Force a Game Seven Showdown with the Cavaliers

LeBron James is about to confront another new challenge in his young playoff career: playing a game seven on the road against the two-time defending Eastern Conference champions. The Detroit Pistons beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 84-82 before a sellout crowd of 20,562 at Quicken Loans Arena on Friday night. The Cleveland faithful were loud and raucous for most of the game but quieted to stunned silence at the final buzzer. James led both teams with 32 points and 11 rebounds while adding five assists, but he also had seven turnovers and shot 8-20 from the field. Rasheed Wallace's words have overshadowed his play for most of the series but he came up with a big performance in game six, scoring 24 points on 9-17 shooting from the field, including 4-8 marksmanship on three pointers.

The Pistons looked shaky early in the game, committing three turnovers in the first 4:34 of the first quarter. They trailed 13-6 at that point and Cleveland seemed poised to take a double digit lead. Instead, the Cavaliers only scored six points in the next 7:26, enabling Detroit to take a 20-19 lead by the end of the period. A lot of attention will no doubt be paid to the last minute of the game--and the Cavaliers certainly had opportunities at that time as well--but in a very real sense the game was lost in the first quarter. Both teams felt pressure--Detroit faced elimination, while Cleveland wanted to avoid playing a game seven on the road--but if Cleveland had taken a big early lead then the pressure would have tilted squarely against Detroit for the remainder of the game. Instead, the contest stayed close the rest of the way, favoring the Pistons because they have much more experience dealing with closely contested elimination games.

The first half box score vividly illustrates the opportunity that Cleveland squandered. The Cavaliers attempted 10 more shots than the Pistons in the first half, largely because of a 7-1 edge in offensive rebounds, but Cleveland nullified this advantage by shooting only .400 from the field compared to the Pistons' .500. James shot only 2-8 and Flip Murray made only 1-9, so Cleveland trailed 38-37 instead of being up by several points. Detroit reserve forward Antonio McDyess shot 3-5 in the first half, scoring seven points in only 6:42 of playing time.

The Cavaliers unraveled in the fourth quarter, attempting only eight field goals compared to 21 for the Pistons. Cleveland did have a 16-10 edge in free throw attempts, largely because of James (10-12 from the line in the period). The Cavaliers had five turnovers in the period compared to only one for Detroit. James had four of the turnovers, some of them coming when he drove into traffic and was forced into a spin move by the first defender, enabling a second defender to strip him of the ball. Detroit was justly accused of being tight during the past three games. Were the Cavs tight in the fourth quarter? Rasheed Wallace said, "I don't think they were playing really tight or nothing but I know that the only cat that wanted to shoot was LeBron, so you take it for what it's worth." Wallace added that he did not feel that the win vindicated his earlier "guaran-Sheed" because he's been making predictions since high school: "Can't be right with them all the time but that's just the confidence level I have with myself and my teammates."

Detroit had an astounding eight offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter, including three in the final minute when the Pistons were clinging to a one possession lead. Chauncey Billups recovered from a horrible first half (2 points, 1 assist, 2 turnovers, 0-3 field goal shooting) to score 10 points on 2-3 field goal shooting and 6-7 free throw shooting in the fourth quarter; he also had two steals, one assist and no turnovers in the final stanza.

Cleveland sports fans will agonize over the events that transpired in the final minute of play, particularly if Detroit wins game seven. In addition to giving up so many offensive rebounds the Cavaliers also employed some questionable clock management. James rebounded a missed free throw by Billups with 8.8 seconds left and the Cavaliers trailing 84-81. Cleveland had one timeout left, but James drove down court, got double-teamed and was fouled before he could pass the ball to an open three point shooter. By that time only 1.4 seconds remained, so James made the first free throw and intentionally missed the second, hoping for a tying tip-in at the buzzer--which almost happened.

In the postgame media availability, the Cavaliers did not have their story straight about what happened. Coach Mike Brown said that since Cleveland only had one timeout left that he had instructed the team during the previous timeout that if they got a rebound they should push the ball, get a quick score and immediately foul. Then, they could use the timeout to advance the ball after the free throws, giving themselves the last possession of the game. That sounds good in theory, but it would seem to make more sense to call the timeout and set up a play for a tying shot, rather than risking dribbling out the clock without getting off a good shot, which is basically what happened. Also, when James spoke (after Coach Brown had left), he admitted that he had not realized that Cleveland still had a timeout left. Again, as I mentioned above, it is more true to say that the game was lost in the first quarter (or even the first half) than to say it hinged on the last minute, but the last minute was hardly a shining moment for Cleveland.

Of course, whether the game was lost early or lost late there is nothing that can be done about it now. James usually seems to know what to do on the court and what to say off of it and he put the whole game in perspective as well as anyone possibly could: "It's over and done with. It's time for game seven now."

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Notes from Courtside:

Cleveland shooting guard Larry Hughes, who had missed the previous three games while mourning the death of his 20 year old brother Justin, caught a 9 A.M. flight from St. Louis to Cleveland and dressed for the game. He did not play, as both he and Coach Brown felt that it would be better to get him back in the swing of things gradually and for Hughes to have at least one practice under his belt before returning to action. It is not certain if he will play in Sunday's game seven. Hughes met briefly with the media before the game. A couple days ago he had two tears tattooed underneath his left eye. Hughes explained that he has a lot of tattoos and that he uses them to express the emotions that he is feeling.

Veteran Chicago Tribune basketball columnist Sam Smith was covering the Suns-Clippers series before the Cavaliers won three straight games. He was not thrilled about trading L.A./Phoenix weather for Cleveland weather. While we waited for LeBron James to emerge from the locker room for his pregame media availability, I joked that it was all James' fault and that Smith should say something to him about it. Smith laughed but replied that he placed more of the blame on the Pistons for playing down to their competition.

During Thursday night's ESPN NBA telecast, Scottie Pippen declared that LeBron James is a better player at the age of 21 than Michael Jordan was at the same age--pretty heady praise coming from a member of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players list who won six championships playing alongside Jordan. Before Friday's game, I asked James what he thought of Pippen's statement. James answered, "I just go out and play. I can't start comparing myself to the greatest basketball player ever--what he was doing at 21 and what I'm doing at 21. I don't get into that, but that's a great compliment."

posted by David Friedman @ 4:36 AM

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Friday, May 19, 2006

"You Gotta Love It": Clippers Force a Seventh Game Versus the Suns

The Phoenix Suns will need to win a seventh game for the second series in a row in order to advance to the Western Conference Finals. The L.A. Clippers defeated the Suns 118-106 on Thursday night in the Staples Center. Elton Brand led the Clippers with 30 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots but, as Phoenix Coach Mike D'Antoni pointed out in his postgame remarks, what killed the Suns were the numbers put up by Corey Maggette (25 points, eight rebounds, 7-8 field goal shooting, 9-9 free throw shooting) and Quinton Ross (career high 18 points on 9-14 field goal shooting). Shawn Marion had another strong game for the Suns (34 points, nine rebounds, six steals), Leandro Barbosa came off the bench to score 25 points and Steve Nash had 17 points and 11 assists.

Sam Cassell contributed 15 points and eight assists and is thrilled to have the opportunity to play in a seventh game. "You gotta love it," he repeatedly told ESPN's Mark Jones after the game, adding that the Clippers have figured out how to beat Phoenix and are confident about their chances to win the seventh game. We'll see about that because, as I've mentioned here more than once, game sevens on the road in the NBA are usually death.

Steve Nash has struggled in the past few games. His shooting has been off target and he has had difficulties on defense as well. ESPN's Scottie Pippen declared after game six that Nash has been exposed for not being worthy of his two MVP awards. I would not have voted for Nash for MVP last year or this year but I am reluctant to place too much emphasis on these recent games, either. Nash is legitimately an All-NBA caliber player and such players have a tendency to bounce back strongly after subpar performances. Don't forget that Tim Duncan struggled in the middle of last year's Finals and received a lot of criticism before coming through in game seven and winning his third Finals MVP. It is important to not write the final analysis of a series before the series is over. This reminds me of the classic Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe showdown in the 1980 Wimbledon. McEnroe won a thrilling fourth set tiebreaker 18-16 but Borg recovered from that setback to play an almost flawless fifth set and win the match. Years later Borg was interviewed about that match and the epic tiebreaker; he calmly noted that the fifth set--the one that actually decided the match--was the real story, not the fourth set tiebreaker. Game seven, which will decide the Suns-Clippers series, is the real story and only after that game is over can we fairly evaluate the performance of Nash--or any other player--in this series.

I picked the Suns to win this series and I still believe that they will prevail in game seven. The Lakers battled the Suns for six games but could not find the wherewithal to even be competitive in game seven. Brand and Cassell will not allow the Clippers to melt down in game seven like the Lakers did but the Suns will resume running and gunning when they return to Phoenix and they will win an exciting, high scoring and close game seven.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:25 AM

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Staying Alive: Spurs Squeak by Mavs, Avoid Elimination

The San Antonio Spurs dodged two bullets--a jumper by Jason Terry and a tip attempt at the buzzer by Dirk Nowitzki--to beat the Dallas Mavericks 98-97 in game five of their series. Dallas still leads 3-2 and can eliminate the Spurs by winning game six in Dallas. The Spurs are trying to join the handful of NBA teams that have come back from 3-1 deficits to win a playoff series. It has not been done since...the first round this year, when Phoenix beat the L.A. Lakers. Like Phoenix, San Antonio has the advantage of playing two of the last three games of the series at home. The Spurs lost two close games in Dallas, so the defending champions have to feel confident about their chances to force a game seven in San Antonio.

Tim Duncan had it stuck on automatic, as Jim Durham would say--he made his first 12 field goal attempts and finished with 36 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots. Nowitzki had 31 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. Duncan does not seem to be bothered at all by the nagging foot injury that slowed him down for most of the season. The scary thing for San Antonio is that despite Duncan's tremendous performances in this series they have lost three games. A big problem for the Spurs in this year's playoffs has been their uncharacteristically poor execution of inbounds plays late in close games. They lost one game to the Sacramento Kings and two games to the Dallas Mavericks largely because of turnovers in such situations, which is very odd for a veteran, well coached team that has won three titles in seven years. Another concern for the Spurs is the tremendous difficulty that they are having with containing the Mavericks' dribble penetration. Still, I would not bet against the Spurs finding a way to win in Dallas and then closing out the series in San Antonio.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:57 AM

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"Everything Turns on a Trifle"

According to a report in USA Today, Kobe Bryant has said that he has no interest in being a TV analyst after he retires. That's too bad, because he gave a very polished performance on Wednesday night as a guest on TNT's studio show. He frequently mentioned lessons that he has learned about the game from Tex Winter, who he called "Yoda." That nickname should be familiar to 20 Second Timeout readers who saw the interview that I conducted with Bryant during the media availability at the 2005 All-Star Weekend, which can be found here:

http://hoopshype.com/interviews/kobe_friedman.htm

At that time, Bryant said, "If it weren't for Tex, I wouldn't look at the game or interpret the game the way that I do. The way that he teaches the game is different than any other coach that I've ever been around. He looks at the game in a different way. He actually teaches momentums--how to build momentums and how to break momentums. He looks at the total concept of the game and then plays it like chess. It's amazing to sit there and learn. When he teaches you something, you go out on the court and you apply that knowledge and it actually works. You start looking at him like he's Yoda."

On Wednesday, Bryant spoke admiringly about how LeBron James and Manu Ginobili made momentum changing plays for the Cavs and Spurs respectively. He said that Winter's mantra is "everything turns on a trifle"--a loose ball, a rebound, a hustle play can change the momentum of a game. TNT jokingly changed the name of one of the studio segments from "Kenny's Pictures" to "Kobe's Pictures" (I have a feeling someone will make a wisecrack about Kobe trying to take center stage but it was clearly all in good fun) and Bryant talked about one of Ginobili's amazing dribble drive scores; Bryant said that Ginobili, Leandro Barbosa and Boris Diaw all do the same maneuver when they drive to the hoop--they put the ball in front of them to the middle, instead of to one side, so they can execute a spin move in either direction instantly. Bryant approvingly noted that this move is very difficult to stop.

In a later segment, Bryant and Kenny Smith went to the studio's basketball court to break down Bryant's thinking in late game situations when he has a chance to hit a game winning shot. Smith asked Bryant how he gets open since everyone knows that the ball is going to him. Bryant placed his left forearm on Smith's left arm to nudge him aside and then swung his left leg in front of him, creating a passing angle to receive the ball. Bryant said that if he has a smaller defender (like Smith) on him then he knows that he can go wherever he wants to go on the court and simply elevate to get an open look. A key advantage that he has, Bryant added, is that he knows how much time is left and the defender does not. Bryant does a countdown in his head, while the defender has no time to look at the clock and must focus on him. This means that when Bryant picks up his dribble, the defender assumes that Bryant is going to immediately shoot but Bryant may in fact have left himself enough time to pump fake to either draw a foul or create a better shot. Oddly, Bryant missed his first attempt against Smith, who had shed his dress shoes for some LeBron Nikes. They went through the sequence again and Bryant missed a second time, prompting Charles Barkley to ask if anyone had a Snickers bar (because they might be there a while). The third time through, Bryant pump faked and "drew a foul."

It has been previously reported that next year Bryant is changing his number from 8 to 24. Ernie Johnson asked Bryant to explain the change and Bryant indicated that he wants to turn over a new leaf for the second half of his career. He also made reference to 24/7, suggesting a 24 hour a day, seven day a week devotion to the game. Of course, that is hardly a change from what he has been doing for years.

A Jim Huber essay about Kevin Garnett, who will turn 30 soon, prompted Bryant to mention how time goes by in the blink of an eye; he can't believe that he has already been in the league for 10 years. Bryant said that when he first came into the league he just focused on working on his game but that with maturity he has learned the importance of savoring every moment and enjoying the camaraderie with his teammates. Smith asked him to address the "barbershop" question about his game versus Michael Jordan's game. Bryant responded that what he does for the Lakers and what Jordan did for the Chicago Bulls are two different things; Bryant said that he handles the ball more and that Jordan attacked more from the foul line down. He concluded that the main similarities are their competitiveness and the fact that they play hard at both ends of the floor.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:23 AM

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"They're Not the Big, Bad Wolf and We're Not the Three Little Pigs": LeBron James and the Cavaliers Stun Detroit in Game Five

LeBron James made the above storybook reference moments after his Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Detroit Pistons 86-84 at the Palace of Auburn Hills to take a shocking 3-2 lead in their second round series. James had 32 points, five rebounds and five assists, while Tayshaun Prince led the Pistons with 21 points while also adding eight rebounds and two blocked shots. Detroit, which won an NBA-best 64 regular season games, has lost three straight to the Cavaliers and now must win two in a row to avoid being eliminated from the playoffs. James' quote is a fitting way to describe Cleveland's rise off of the mat after losing the first two games at the Palace and summarizes the single most important factor in this series: James has never for one moment believed that Detroit should beat Cleveland--and since James is the best player on either team, his confidence has created a positive mindset among his teammates and has obviously put some doubt in the minds of the Pistons.

Detroit, a veteran team that won a championship two years ago and lost a tough seven game NBA Finals last season, has looked tight, tense and scared. The Pistons are turning the ball over, getting technical fouls and not making shots that they normally make. TNT's Kenny Smith observed a key difference between this Pistons team and the Pistons teams from the past few years: the current Pistons "think they can beat you offensively and take shots that they would not have taken" previously. All year long we have been hearing about how replacing Larry Brown with Flip Saunders as head coach liberated the Pistons and freed them up offensively--but now, in the most crucial games of the season, Detroit hardly looks free offensively, nor are the Pistons making the big defensive stops down the stretch that were their trademark when Brown coached the team. Charles Barkley said it best when he pointed out that the pressure is squarely on one person when the series returns to Cleveland on Friday: Flip Saunders. Larry Brown had a rough season in New York but that does not in any way diminish what he accomplished with the Pistons. Detroit certainly can still win this series--the Pistons have shown that they can win big road games and that they can come back from a deficit in a series--but nothing about Cleveland's wins has looked fluky. These have been knock down, drag out games, the type of games that are supposed to be Detroit's calling card, and yet the Cavaliers have prevailed three straight times. Rasheed Wallace, the key addition who put Detroit over the top two years ago, sprained his ankle in game four and has not looked the same since then. Detroit's combination of bluster and feigning nonchalance about the Cavs' chances looks more and more like whistling past a graveyard hoping things turn out all right.

It took Michael Jordan several tries to win a playoff series and then several more tries to beat the "Bad Boys" Pistons. Can LeBron James take a team to the Eastern Conference Finals--or beyond--in his first playoff season? One thing's for sure: he has no doubt that he can and he has convinced all of his teammates to believe as well. I'll never forget standing in the horde of media that interviewed James before his first playoff game versus Washington. His answers were a little bit more clipped than usual and he frankly admitted that he could not wait for us to go away and for the game to start. James had butterflies but in a good way--he was looking forward to facing this challenge. That is the way that he has approached each playoff game. Perhaps the most impressive thing about what he has done is that he is not surprised at his accomplishments but yet he also does not come across as arrogant. He keeps saying that Detroit is a "great team and we are becoming a good team" but it is clear that his respect for Detroit does not in any way diminish his belief that the Cavs can beat the Pistons.

The Pistons have spent most of this series running their mouths and acting like the Cavs are just a speed bump on the way to the Eastern Conference Finals--yet their nervous play during the past few games belies the indifference that they have attempted to project regarding Cleveland's chances. Now Detroit faces the very real possibility of elimination. If they were tight before--and Saunders has admitted that they were--how will they perform in game six? Detroit is used to players and teams who crumble when the Pistons turn up the pressure; the Pistons are like the neighborhood bully who relies on intimidation. LeBron James has looked them straight in the eye and delivered the message that he is just as big as they are and not scared at all. Detroit has four All-Stars but the Cavs have by far the best player on the court--and both teams know it.

One final thought: will everyone who voted for Chauncey Billups for MVP please turn in your ballots and give someone else a chance to vote? I've said it all year: I love Chauncey Billups' game and his willingness to take big shots; he's an All-Star and this year he played at an All-NBA level--but he is not even the best player on his own team (Ben Wallace and Rip Hamilton are just as important, if not more so), so how can he be the MVP of the NBA?

posted by David Friedman @ 12:53 AM

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Kobe Bryant and Charles Barkley Air Out Their Differences

Our long national nightmare is over. TNT's Charles Barkley blasted Kobe Bryant for being "selfish" for only shooting three times in game seven versus Phoenix and received numerous heated text messages from Bryant in response. Tonight, Bryant made a guest appearance on TNT's studio show and offered his rebuttal of Barkley's comments. He explained that in game four, which his L.A. Lakers eventually won, he also took few second half shots, sticking with the game plan of pounding the ball inside to L.A.'s post players. Bryant said that to beat Phoenix you have to get stops and that the other Lakers become more energized on defense when they are touching the ball on offense; Bryant added that he had previously put up big scoring numbers against the Suns but that this never demoralized Phoenix because the Suns would just answer back by scoring. Bryant said that some teams can be demoralized by him scoring a lot of points (hello, Toronto) but that Phoenix is not one of them.

Barkley took the blame for publicly mentioning Bryant's private text messages to him, but said that he wanted to make it clear that he has nothing personal against Bryant and that he is willing to listen to responses to his comments. Barkley did not retract his original statement and suggested that at some point a superstar must say that the game plan is not working and he must take over. Bryant insisted that the game plan was good enough to win three games and that if he had tried to score a lot of points that it would not have helped the Lakers win the game.

The exchange between Barkley and Bryant was amicable but I would have liked to hear Barkley retract the "selfish" label that he slapped on Bryant because both Bryant and Lakers Coach Phil Jackson have clearly explained exactly what happened. Wasn't it Barkley who kept insisting throughout the series that the Lakers could not beat Phoenix with Bryant scoring 40-plus points? Then he criticized Bryant for doing exactly what he had been saying Bryant should do.

The sad thing is that for many casual fans the idea that "Kobe is selfish" because of his game seven performance is going to become conventional wisdom, just like many people still insist that Kobe "drove off Shaq" even though Jerry Buss, Mitch Kupchak and Phil Jackson have all acknowledged that this was not the case. Shaq wanted max dollars for max years, the Lakers offered max dollars for a shorter term and traded him to Miami, the only team that was willing to give Shaq max dollars for max years. We'll see if that decision buys the Heat an NBA title or not.

posted by David Friedman @ 11:56 PM

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Heat Advance, Suns Win Thriller

The New Jersey Nets received great production from their "Big Three" but that was not enough to stave off elimination by the Miami Heat in game five of their series on Tuesday night. Richard Jefferson had his best game of the series (33 points, seven rebounds, five assists), Vince Carter matched Jefferson's numbers (33 points, seven rebounds, five assists) and Jason Kidd not only put up good numbers (20 points, eight assists, six rebounds, four steals) but his defense played a big role in forcing Dwyane Wade into 7-19 field goal shooting and seven turnovers. All New Jersey needed was to get some contributions from Nenad Krstic but he had one point, two rebounds and five fouls. Antoine Walker had 23 points, seven rebounds and four assists for the Heat, Wade finished with 21 points, six rebounds and six assists and Shaquille O'Neal had 17 points and three rebounds in Miami's 106-105 win. The Heat now advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they will face the winner of the Cleveland-Detroit series. New Jersey squandered a real opportunity in this series by not attacking the basket relentlessly; when the Nets drove to the hoop--in game one and for stretches of game five--they presented a lot of problems for the Heat but New Jersey settled for too many jump shots and executed horribly down the stretch throughout the series, committing numerous careless turnovers.

In Tuesday's other game, the Phoenix Suns took a 3-2 lead over the L.A. Clippers with a heart stopping 125-118 double overtime win. With the Dallas-San Antonio game going to overtime on Monday night and then this marathon affair the next day, basketball fans on the East Coast are now easily identifiable by dark circles around their eyes and frequent yawning spells during the day--but those who stayed up to see the conclusions of both games definitely saw some amazing plays.

You could write a book about the twists and turns that happened down the stretch in the Suns-Clippers game. Sam Cassell, normally reliable in the clutch, had a great game--32 points and five assists, including 10 straight points to help cut a 19 point Suns' lead to six--but he was whistled for an eight second violation with 31 seconds remaining in regulation and the score tied. Later, the Suns' Tim Thomas launched a full court desperation heave when Phoenix could have called a timeout and advanced the ball to halfcourt just before the end of regulation. Steve Nash looked like Edward Scissorhands at the end of the first overtime, committing two turnovers that could have cost Phoenix the game. Neither team scored in the first 1:10 of the second overtime until Shawn Marion's two free throws broke the ice. Marion had six points in the second extra session, capping off a monster game (36 points, 20 rebounds) and leading the Suns to victory. Thomas had 25 points, Raja Bell had 22 points and four steals and Nash contributed 17 points, 13 assists and seven rebounds. Elton Brand had 33 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and five blocked shots for the Clippers. This series has been very hard fought and competitive but we are seeing that, as I expected, it is easier for Phoenix to swarm and be active defensively without having to double team Kobe Bryant. The Clippers' big men are no doubt better than the Lakers' big men but Phoenix can play the Clippers' perimeter players one on one and send waves of defenders to defend the basket. Brand is putting up excellent numbers, but the Suns are one game away from advancing to the Western Conference Finals.

posted by David Friedman @ 11:16 PM

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

This "Guaran-Sheed" was Bogus

In a gritty, hard fought game that lacked artistry but had plenty of dramatic moments, Cleveland defeated Detroit 74-72 to even their second round playoff series at 2-2. Cleveland set a franchise record for fewest points allowed in a playoff game. LeBron James again led the way for the Cavaliers, playing all 48 minutes and producing 22 points, nine assists, eight rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots--but he also had eight turnovers while shooting just 8-23 from the field and 5-10 from the free throw line. James topped both teams with seven points and three assists in the fourth quarter as Cleveland outscored Detroit 21-13 but he also had two turnovers and only shot 2-9 from the field and 3-6 from the free throw line in the final stanza. James is averaging 30.9 ppg, 8.1 rpg and 6.4 apg in his first 10 playoff games; the only player in NBA history to average at least 30-8-6 during a playoff season is Oscar Robertson, who averaged 31.8 ppg, 13.0 rpg and 9.0 apg in 12 games in the 1962-63 postseason.

Anderson Varejao supported James with 10 points, six rebounds and tons of energy; he also took a charge against Chauncey Billups with 29.6 seconds left in the game and the Cavaliers clinging to a 73-72 lead. Rip Hamilton led Detroit with 30 points. Detroit's Rasheed Wallace "guaran-Sheed" victory immediately after Detroit's game three loss and again after practice on Sunday but all that is certain now is that this series--which at first looked like a walkover for the two-time defending Eastern Conference champions--will last at least six games. Wallace came up lame literally and figuratively--he had just seven points on 3-13 shooting from the field and he sprained his right ankle with 9:22 to go in the second quarter. Wallace left the game briefly before returning to action but he was clearly hampered by the injury and Detroit Coach Flip Saunders pulled him from the game for good with over four minutes left in the fourth quarter; in his postgame remarks, Saunders lamented that a healthy Wallace could have been a viable offensive option down the stretch but that in his current physical condition he was unable to fill that role.

So far, James and the Cavaliers have responded well to each new challenge that they have faced--first playoff game, first road playoff game, first series win, first time facing a playoff tested team, two games (and counting) played without the grieving Larry Hughes, whose 20 year old brother died. After the game, James noted that the pressure is on Detroit now to win game five at home, because no one expected the Cavs to extend the series this far. Indeed, the Pistons face several questions now: Can Flip Saunders lead this team as far in the playoffs as Larry Brown did? Will Rasheed Wallace be healthy enough to contribute in game five? Why has Detroit suddenly looked so flat for two games after dominating the first two games? Supposedly Detroit was relaxed and overconfident in game three, but great teams should not have two performances the likes of which the Pistons just had. Logically, the Pistons still have to be favored to win this series because they have two of the last three games at home and are a battle tested team--but there are some cracks showing around the edges of this team and if they mess around and lose game five they could be in serious trouble.

The Cavaliers had 19 turnovers which led to 16 Detroit points and only shot .426 from the field but won anyway because they held Detroit to .333 field goal shooting. After the game, James said, "On the defensive end we got it done...It's not about the offense. It's strictly about the defense." He added, "You have to be mentally focused, especially against a great team like this." James claimed to disregard what critics--including Charles Barkley--say about him and his team but then he rattled off a list of specific aspects of his game that have been critiqued and that he has worked hard to improve: defense, shooting, hitting game winning shots. He certainly seems to be very aware of what is said and written about him--and, like all great players, very eager to prove his critics wrong.

Cleveland Coach Mike Brown's motto remains, "One day, one game at a time." He said that the key for his team is consistency, that the Cavaliers spent a lot of the season riding waves up and down but in the playoffs their defensive effort is becoming more consistent.

Saunders is frustrated that his team is not making shots or closing out games, two areas that have been strengths for Detroit throughout the year. He candidly admitted that his team was tight, saying, "We've played more not to lose than to win," although he later tried to back away from that statement by saying that his team is not tight; anyone who watched the game believed him the first time. Saunders concluded, "We're in a dogfight right now."

Before game three, I asked Saunders how Detroit would avoid a letdown after two easy wins and with Hughes being out indefinitely. He replied, "That's what we're going to find out." Saunders can't like what he found out in two games in Cleveland.

***********************
Notes from Courtside:

Prior to the game, Campy Russell and Sedric Toney conducted a Jr. NBA Basketball Clinic at Quicken Loans Arena for over 40 students from the Cleveland area. After the clinic, Russell, Toney and Hall of Famer John Havlicek answered questions from the participants in the same area where the media interviews coaches and players for national TV after the playoff games. One youngster asked the players which current player or players they would most enjoy having as a teammate. Russell chose LeBron James because "he understands the game, is unselfish and is willing to share the ball." Toney selected Jason Kidd because he cares only about winning, not his personal statistics, and James because "although he is only 21 he understands what it takes to win." Havlicek chose Jason Kidd and Steve Nash, "because they move the ball and push it. I never wanted to handle the ball. I wanted to catch the ball and either shoot it or get rid of it." Havlicek singled out a third player for praise: "The guy who I think is maybe the best player in the league because of his attitude and his personality and his demeanor to be a winner is Tim Duncan."

After a 15 minute question and answer session, Havlicek, Russell and Toney autographed t-shirts for each participant and answered some more questions one-on-one. Before the young players left, Russell offered the group a final piece of advice: work on your off hand, because being able to dribble, pass and shoot with either hand is very important.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:14 AM

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Monday, May 15, 2006

Nets Going Down in Flames Versus the Heat

The Miami Heat defeated the New Jersey Nets 102-92 to take a commanding 3-1 lead in their second round series. Yes, the Suns came back from 3-1 down to oust the Lakers but the Suns played two of the last three games at home and were facing a young, seventh seeded team; the Nets must now win two games on the road against a higher seeded team that is loaded with playoff veterans. I picked the Nets to win this series, so I have some 'splaining to do, as the saying goes (if the Nets win three straight, just disregard this post...).

I thought that the Nets could attack Miami in the paint with dribble penetration by Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson, creating easy scoring opportunities and getting Shaquille O'Neal in foul trouble. That is a pretty good description of how New Jersey built a huge lead against Miami early in game one. I think that the series changed when Richard Jefferson sprained his ankle very early in the third quarter of that game. At that time, New Jersey led 67-50 and Jefferson already had 20 points on 7-11 field goal shooting and 4-5 free throw shooting. He also had four rebounds and five assists. He accomplished this in 22:50 of court time--less than a half. So he was potentially on his way to a 40 point game and a triple double--he might not have gotten it if New Jersey continued to blow out Miami and he sat out the fourth quarter or if Miami changed its defense to focus on him, but he was having a marvelous game. Jefferson has played in each of the games since then, but a cursory look at his statistics shows that he is a different player than he was in that game, the first round or the regular season. He has only attempted five free throws in the last three games; Jefferson averaged 8 free throw attempts a game in the first round versus Indiana and 7.4 FTA/g in the regular season. Jefferson has only 10 rebounds in games two through four--again, he had four in basically one half of game one. He has only ten assists in the last three games. Jefferson is still shooting a good percentage from the field--better than 50% in each game--and has scored 16, 17 and 17 points in the last three games, but all of the numbers point to a simple fact--he has not been as aggressive attacking the basket since the injury. The Nets led by 17 when he got hurt, briefly pushed the lead up when he left the game, and then held off a furious Miami rally to win game one 100-88. Since that time the Nets have been playing most of the series from behind. Cliff Robinson's suspension for violating the NBA's substance abuse policy depleted an already thin Nets bench and could hardly have helped the morale of the team.

I don't want to sound like I am making excuses for the Nets or for my prediction. Point blank, the Heat are playing harder and smarter than the Nets and my prediction seems likely to be proven wrong. The Nets still do have Jefferson's services even if he is somewhat limited and they could surmount his condition and the absence of Robinson by playing more intelligently--namely, cut down on the unforced turnovers, stop shooting so many threes and drive to the basket. This would create higher percentage shots for the Nets and foul trouble for the Heat. When Vince Carter drives he can get right to the front of the rim; he needs to eschew all but the most open three point shots, put his head down and drive to the hoop. He must accept the body contact and make the free throws. If he does this, Jason Kidd continues to play well and Nenad Krstic shoots like he did in game four, the Nets could still salvage this series. New Jersey has sufficient talent to come back and win this series but after watching the last three games I wonder if the Nets have the proper mindset and enough healthy bodies. The Nets literally threw game three away with their sloppy ball handling and they had numerous opportunities to win game four but seemed to trip over themselves at every key moment. Now they have no margin of error. The first five minutes of game five will be interesting--are the Nets mentally prepared to play three grueling battles to win this series or will they take the easy way out and submit to the Heat's will in Miami?

posted by David Friedman @ 1:35 AM

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Sunday, May 14, 2006

Put Away the Brooms, Detroit

LeBron James had the second triple double of his brief playoff career (21 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to an 86-77 victory over the Detroit Pistons in game three of their playoff series. The fourth straight sellout crowd for a playoff game at Quicken Loans Arena cheered wildly as James and Anderson Varejao (16 points on 6-7 shooting from the field) propelled the Cavs to the win despite the absence of starting shooting guard Larry Hughes, who is away from the team to attend the funeral of his brother. Rip Hamilton had 22 points and five assists for Detroit and Chauncey Billups scored 20 points with five assists.

The third game of a playoff series is often an important "swing" game. If one team goes up 3-0 then the series is over--no NBA team has ever come back from that deficit--but if the series stands at 2-1 after the third game then the series is as mathematically close as it could be at that point. It doesn't matter if the teams alternated victories or if one team took two games in a row. So a team that is up 2-0 has an opportunity to put a stranglehold on the series, while a team that is down by that margin knows that it is in a do-or-die situation. Ultimately, James and the Cavs responded well to this pressure, although it hardly seemed that way for a good portion of the game. The Pistons came out flat, making only 5 of their first 14 shots of the game, but the Cavs did not take advantage of this opportunity, only leading 14-13 at that point. Detroit's shooting improved greatly in the second quarter and the Pistons took a 42-36 halftime lead. James shot 2-7 from the field in the first half and had four points, seven assists and five rebounds at intermission.

The Pistons took their biggest lead of the game, 54-44, at the 5:48 mark in the third quarter. The Cavaliers' hopes were on life support by that time, but they closed the quarter strongly with two field goals by Zydrunas Ilgauskas and a three pointer by Flip Murray to trail 56-53 heading into the fourth quarter. The final period is when elite players show their stuff and James put on a clinic, pouring in 15 points on 6-8 shooting and dishing off three assists, as the Cavaliers outscored Detroit 33-21. James had shot just 3-10 from the field in the first three quarters but he truly saved his best for last.

After the game, James rejected the idea that he consciously spent the first three quarters of the game getting his teammates involved before actively taking over in the fourth quarter: "I don't plan what I'm going to do before the game. I just react to the game. If I'm doubled, I give the ball up. That's been my motto all year and it's been my motto all my life since I've been playing basketball. But I saw some creases that I could attack in the fourth quarter to give ourselves a chance to win the ballgame."

James was especially proud that Cleveland held Detroit to 28 field goals and a .394 field goal percentage; those were the two statistics that he felt were the keys to victory. He understood the importance of this game; in his comments to the assembled media both before and after the game he stressed that there was no way that Cleveland could fall behind 3-0 and expect to win the series. Perhaps that is obvious, but it is significant that he is thinking, talking and acting like the outcome of the series is not a foregone conclusion. Most skeptics--myself included--still expect Detroit to ultimately prevail, but James is not thinking that way. Noting how tough it was for the Cavs to get one win, a reporter asked James to talk about how daunting a task it would be for the Cavs to beat Detroit three more times to eliminate the Pistons. James responded, "Well, they have to beat us two more times. We have to beat them three more times. You don't look at it like that. You just take it game by game, minute by minute, second by second; if you looked at it like that, you'd get swept every time. The Pistons are a great team. We're becoming a good team. Monday's game is going to be very key. We can't ride on waves and be on cloud nine about game three. It's over and done with, the series is 2-1 and it's a new ball game."

A key adjustment that both James and Cavaliers' Coach Mike Brown mentioned was using Varejao with James in pick and roll plays. Varejao is very active and James noted that if the first pick doesn't work then Varejao still rolls all the way to the basket and then comes back and sets another pick from a different angle. Brown brought this up as well; this play led to several easy baskets for Varejao on assists from James.

This was a good win for Cleveland but game four will be even tougher. Detroit will come out fired up to atone for their mistakes in game three. If Detroit was overconfident or relaxed in game three, they will be focused and determined in game four. How will Cleveland respond to that kind of pressure? Do the Cavaliers have the mental and emotional wherewithal to send the series back to Detroit tied 2-2? This is an interesting stage in the development of James and his team. I expect that James will continue to play well but that Detroit will have a close win in game four.

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Notes from Courtside:

During his pregame standup, I asked Detroit Coach Flip Saunders how the Pistons would avoid having a letdown considering that they are up 2-0 and that Hughes would not be in the lineup. Saunders answered succinctly, "That's what we're going to find out." He seemed confident that Detroit would not in fact have a letdown. During warmups, Ben Wallace was launching three pointers, including several from well behind the arc, making a few but mostly chipping paint off of the rim (to borrow a phrase from Fred Carter) and Rasheed Wallace took some left handed three pointers (which he regularly shoots--and makes--in practice). The Pistons certainly seemed loose and carefree before the game.

Rip Hamilton took a more serious approach, receiving feeds from Assistant Coach Ron Harper and alternately shooting from the left wing and then the left baseline, areas that he curls to off of screens in game situations. He also shot several times from the free throw line extended on both sides.

So did Detroit come in too complacently and lose a game that they could have won? Perhaps, but Cleveland also deserves credit for fighting tooth and nail throughout the game. Despite committing more turnovers than usual and not shooting particularly well, the Pistons did build a 10 point second half lead. Many teams would have given up and lost by 25, but the Cavs hung in there. That is a mark of a team that is starting to understand what it takes to win in the playoffs against strong opponents.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:29 AM

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